Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Getting my mojo back - one rapid at a time

This is a confession, of sorts. But it's also a celebration.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a really cool rafting trip I did on the Youghiogheny River in western Pennsylvania, with Laurel Highlands River Tours.

It was really fun, we had a blast.

But it meant much more than that to me.

You see, for a while now, I've been afraid of whitewater. And not just a little fearful - REALLY fearful.

My fear goes back to a trip I took many years ago on the Zambezi River in Africa. This river forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is also one of the most sought-after trips by those of us who get our jollies "defying death" by paddling through rapids in rafts.

While there are plenty of stats to indicate you're safer whitewater rafting than driving a car, ever since that day on the river, I've been terrified.

The Zambezi was not my first whitewater experience. I enjoyed my first whitewater thrill back in 1986 on the Kicking Horse River near Golden, B.C. There were a few tough class III rapids the days we were on the river  - two successive days running the same stretch, actually - with Mad Rafter River Tours, an Alberta-based company. I found out how much of a pounding you could take in big water by "volunteering" to paddle in the bow of the raft.

Ready to raft the Kicking Horse River (1986).
This river featured icy cold water, glacially fed; you could hear the crackling of the river silt through the bottom of the raft, when you weren't shooting the rapids. So paddling in the front meant you were the first line or wall of defence against the big standing waves that hit the raft when you first slide into them.

It was cold and exhausting, but also exhilarating.

The following year, I rafted on the Thompson and Fraser Rivers; however, shooting Hell's Gate meant we had to be in a motor-powered raft - the hydraulics are just too big and too dangerous for paddle or oar rafts.

It was a great trip. I re-did it about four years later to give the Divine Ms. K a taste of whitewater thrills.

Then came a trip to Africa. And the challenge of the Zambezi.

Rafting companies run about a 25-km stretch below Victoria Falls that includes about 20 or so different rapids, including several Class III, IV and V rapids. There's also a Class VI called "Commercial Suicide" because rafters always portage it. ALWAYS.

I'd seen videos of previous trips on the Zambezi before our day trip, and it looked hairy. I actually did my best to prevent Ms. K from seeing the videos before our trip, as I was afraid she wouldn't want to go. (She confirmed afterward if she had, she probably would have chosen not to go.)

Anyway, we get on the river, we're doing fine, although the adrenaline rushes are coming maybe a bit too frequently...several people from our Sobek raft had gone swimming, but they'd all survived, hadn't been eaten by any crocodiles and we made it to lunch right below Commercial Suicide. After eating, we headed back onto the river and Rapid # 11, a.k.a., "Overland Truck Eater" (it had another name I'll tell you about later).

I remember looking down into the rapid, yelling "Yahoo, Mountain Dew!" - and then I was in the river. In a Class V rapid, essentially a series of boils and whirlpools.

When I initially went overboard, I stayed calm and pointed my feet downstream, as we were trained to do.

When I did not seem to be getting any closer to the surface after several seconds, though, I decided to put my feet to better use, kicking to get to the surface.

Just as I surfaced and started to gulp some air, the river yanked me back underwater. Full of water and now very frightened, I struggled to re-surface. The thought, "Is this how it ends?" did cross my mind briefly.

When I re-surfaced, I prayed I would not be sucked under again. Nyaminyami, the local river god, answered my prayers. Dragging myself up onto shore, I saw the kayaker who was videotaping our trip. The first thing I said was, "Did you get that on tape?" 

His affirmative answer boosted my spirits, a bit. "Good!" I told him. "I would hate to go through that again in order to get evidence to back up my tales of terror!" I was happy I could still joke. 

Into the maw of another Class V Zambezi Rapid.
(I'm second from the right, obliterated by the wave).
I was the only one who went "swimming" in that rapid, which local rafting guides refer to as "Creamy White Buttocks" - because the strong down current often sucks the swim trunks right off anyone who falls in there.

Luckily, mine stayed on, so after making my way downstream to where our raft had eddied out, I climbed back in to rejoin our crew of mixed male and female paddlers devoid of embarrassment, since I didn't have to paddle "au naturel" for the next nine rapids. Whew!

However, climbing back in was one of the toughest things I've ever had to do.

I was terrified. I'd seen others in our group opt to finish the trip in oar rafts, which are much safer than paddle rafts, since all you have to do is hang on to the "chicken line" and ride the rapid in relative safety.

The option did occur to me. But I was more afraid of being afraid - and, to be quite honest, even more afraid of being seen as a "wimp" or a "coward" if I opted for the oar rafts. So I made myself get "back in the saddle" so to speak and finish the trip in a paddle raft.

It was not comfortable, though.

The fear did not end there, either. 

Nine years later, I was preparing for a whitewater rafting trip on a river in Ecuador, a day trip on the Rio Toachi and Rio Blanco. When I'd mentioned to the guides I'd last rafted on the Zambezi, even their eyes got big. "Big water!" were the comments.

Tell me about it.

These South American rivers we were about to raft were (supposedly) nothing like the Zambezi. Still, the fear was there. I chose not to sit at the front ... and I kept waiting for the worst to happen.

It turned out, they really were nothing like the Zambezi. The rapids were all Class III and maybe one Class III/IV. It was just fun!

That was 10 years ago, though. I had not been on any whitewater since then, until I went to Pennsylvania's OhioPyle State Park, earlier this month.

The old fears were still there, waiting at the fringes of my consciousness, sometimes seeping out into my thoughts and feelings. Complicating the situation further was the fact I'd had shoulder surgery for a torn labrum less than a year before, and had not done any really vigourous paddling since then, although I'd rehabbed the heck out of it and got the green light from my physiotherapist.

One of the other people on our trip was nervous - she'd never been whitewater rafting before, so her anxiety was understandable. But I was a "veteran" rafter - I shouldn't be scared.

But I was.

I also never let on. 

We got onto the river, shot our first rapid of the day - which was technically our most difficult, according to our guide - and it really was just fun.

Ditto the rest of the rapids, all Class III and one or two Class IV's.

It was nothing like the Zambezi. I began to realize most rivers are not as dangerous as that river, at least not the ones companies run commercial rafting trips on, although deaths do still occur sometimes. A river is never to be taken lightly.

But I relaxed. I enjoyed it. I had fun.

My mojo was back. Finally.

It was like I had to do a couple of trips to get over the fear of my experience on what is arguably one of the world's toughest commercially runnable rivers, in order to feel free of the fear that had plagued me since that day on the Zambezi.

It was an awesome feeling. I felt a real weight come off my shoulders. 

Some might wonder, "Well, if you're that afraid, why not just skip it?"

But I believe in the essence of a quote attributed sometimes to Mark Twain, other times to Nelson Mandela. 

Essentially, it is this:

 "Courage is not the absence of fear; courage means you don't let the fear dictate what you do, how you live your life."

We face fears every day; we do not always come out on top. However, we always have another opportunity to conquer our fear. Maybe not today; maybe not tomorrow - but it is important to know that we can choose courage, we can choose to not bow down to fear.

Only by overcoming our fears can we really live.

It feels great to be living, again.

Now I can hardly wait to go rafting in Asia and Australia.

Here's some Zambezi action for you (not our trip.)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Travel memoir entertains, leaves us with hope for planet's future

To label Cameron MacDonald's book, The Endangered Species Road Trip, a "travel memoir" does not quite do it justice.

It is that, but it is more, as well.

It contains elements of humour, science, environmentalism and even a pinch of soap opera.

The book is based on the Vancouver professor's summer-long Odyssey around Canada and the United States to try to see 34 different species - plant and animal - that are endangered, or at the very least, threatened.

Depending on where you look, you may find slightly different meanings (some more convoluted than others) about these two similar but different terms.

To put it simply, according to FactMonster.com, "extinct" means the entire species has died out and can never return; "endangered" animals are those in immediate danger of becoming extinct; "threatened" species are likely to become endangered in the future.

The idea for this journey germinated while he was teaching a freshman course in environmental sciences at Langara College. Students kept asking him if the slides of endangered species he was showing were his photos, and he kept saying "no." That prompted him to plan a trip around the two countries to try to see as many species as possible, given time and distance constraints.

A daunting task, when you consider he planned to make the 114-day journey with his wife, a toddler, an infant, and their dog. In a second-hand van. And poor wifi access for much of the trip.

The tale starts out a little bit slow, a little bit ho-hum, but picks up the farther south he goes down the U.S. west coast. His sense of humour starts to seep out and the story begins to become much more alive and personal when he shares his inner feelings, frustrations and doubts about his family relations (we all have difficult family relations), particularly when they stop in his southern Ontario hometown. I can personally relate to some of the angst he describes, having experienced similar emotions regarding my own relations and situations with my parents.

Those are not the only situations I could relate to, either.

At one point, he describes an issue their van has with respect to keeping bugs out. They bought it second-hand for the trip, but it's not designed to sleep in when you're camping in an area that is insanely muggy and hot - and there are mosquitoes galore. They needed fresh air, but didn't want the bugs. So they rigged up some mesh screen with duct tape across the passenger and drive windows, rolled them down and voila! Instant screen door. Of sorts.

The Divine Ms. K and myself did the exact same thing back in 1996 when we drove across Canada in a second-hand van. Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Often a source of duct tape sales, too.

And I get the feeling he was practically channelling me, in the following passage from the book:
"...we stop at the Ojibway Prairie Complex in Windsor, Ontario, to take a quick peek at this unique habitat. However, the park interpreters are rude and lazy - too busy stuffing their faces with coffee and donuts and being miserable to discuss the ecological importance of the park and its locally endangered species. Completely disappointed, we leave without even walking a trail. I quietly fume about those useless assholes all the way to Florida."
Yep. That would be me. Except I might not me so quiet about it...I'd probably be ranting about it out loud, then posting it on Facebook and Twitter.

I could really empathize with MacDonald regarding his fear of grizzly bears in Yellowstone, a fear made worse by the fact his family was with him.

Although they did not see every species on the original list (he saw 27 of the 34), he did not really expect to; animals like Florida panthers and Arizona jaguars  are very difficult to see, and no one really knows if the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists in southern forests, or if it has gone the way of the Carolina parakeet, a now-extinct parrot species.

As a conservation biologist, he has some very interesting views on the whole global-warming issue, views that many probably share, as that issue is not as black-and-white/cut-and-dried as people on both sides of the divisive issue might have us believe.

After completing his journey, he leaves us with a message of hope for the future of our endangered species, a hope he himself feels. His views are quite different from some environmentalists, although they are tempered with reasonable skepticism and a recognition of why things are the way they are in the battle for the environment.

Time will tell if that hope is misplaced. Like the author, I hope it is not - and that his next journey of this nature holds true for him, and for our planet.

Although he did not see any gators while paddling in Florida, 
the author did spy some alligators in Big Cypress National Preserve.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

National Aviary a birders' - and photographers' - dream

"This place really is for the birds," I thought to myself.

And since it's the National Aviary, that's a good thing.

I spent my final full day spent in Pittsburgh during my late May-early June visit there at the aviary. This place had been on my radar for at least eight years, so when I found out I would be going to Pennsylvania, I had to make sure I could spend some time there.

I ended up opening it up and closing it down my first day there, roaming around, taking photos, watching flying shows and just generally indulging my "bird-brain." I spent half of a second-day there in the company of Kurt Hundgen, director of collections; and Robin Weber, director of marketing.

When I first walked through the doors that led into the "Grasslands" area of the facility, I knew I'd come to the right place.

There, sitting on some tree-like perches were a pair of Congo African grey parrots. They were not unlike my own two CAGs, Nikki and Coco; they were grooming and one of them hammed it up for me, even imitating the beeping noise my camera makes while shooting images and video.

Time for some pelican preening!

The aviary is divided into different "eco-regions," and from the Grasslands I went to the Wetlands area, where a feeding demonstration was in progress with a touring school group. The "swamp" was alive with roseate spoonbills, flamingos, kookaburas, pelicans, a few different kinds of ibis and - heard, but not seen - a screaming piha. (It doesn't really "scream," but this South American rainforest bird does make a very distinctive call.) Several smaller birds also flitted about through the vegetation.

Of course, no aviary experience would be complete without a stop at the penguin pool. In this case, the "African" theme continued, as the penguins who live here are South African penguins. And very playful penguins, they are.

The penguins are ready to "test the waters" once again.
Every time I leaned over the short wall to try to take an unobstructed photo of one of the penguins swimming around, the bird would pop his head up out of the water towards me. It made it really hard to focus! I figured he was either expecting food - or really didn't care to be caught on film by what he might have perceived as the "penguin paparazzi" (me).

From there, it was just a short walk through the cafeteria to the Tropical Rainforest area.

Like the Wetlands, there were numerous small birds flying and flitting around in the area. I also saw a feeding take place, as one of the staff members handed out mealworms for people to hold in their hands for the birds to fly down and scoop up.

Like the Grasslands, though, the main attraction for me was a pair of macaws in a large holding area at one end: a green-winged macaw and a hyacinth macaw.

These two species are not normally found in the same habitat, but these two were obviously very bonded. They played and groomed each other affectionately, making for some great shots and video footage.

In talking with Hundgen and Weber, I learned how the aviary holds regular programs focused on teaching people about the pitfalls of living with parrots as pets. Hundgen is working toward ensuring that visitors perceive the parrots here more as wild creatures in a natural environment than as potential pets, something that can only help both wild and captive parrots.
Although not the same species, these macaw are real pals.

The aviary is a member of Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, so it meets the highest standards of care for its inhabitants. It is involved in the Species Survival Plan to help prevent the loss of rare and endangered species as well as the loss of genetic diversity within those species.

Its programs extend far outside its walls. Scientists from the aviary are involved in field research and conservation programs of international scope, including work aimed at restoring the populations of Andean condors, an iconic vulture of South America.

And speaking of vultures...

A trio of vultures were among the free-flying birds featured in the "Talons!" show that required the purchase of advance tickets, as seats usually fill up quickly. They were joined by an owl, crows, a bald eagle, seagulls, and hawks. Combined with a multi-media presentation, the show displays some of the grace and power of these avians while educating spectators about the birds and ongoing conservation issues in the world.

It's a real crowd-pleaser, for little kids ... and big kids, too.

Like all good programs, the aviary is planning future expansion, both in terms of the infrastructure (parts of the building are more than 60 years old) and programs in and outside the facility.

Even without expansion, the aviary is a real gem in the crown of Pittsburgh attractions, and it was so well worth my time and effort to make sure I had a chance to explore it - and given the presence of parrots in the aviary, 
it was - coming on the heels of a day spent paddling - the absolutely perfect way to cap off my 12 days in Pennsylvania.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Shooting the clays, shooting the rapids in Laurel Highlands

The title probably makes this sound kind of like an "earth-water" sort of thing, and I guess it is that. But you wouldn't get mud by mixing water with the types of clays I refer to here.

By "shooting clays," I'm referring to the popular activity of "sporting clays."

I had the opportunity to do both in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands earlier this week, while a guest of the Seven Springs Mountain Resort.

For those unfamiliar with "sporting clays," try to imagine what it would be like if you combined trap/skeet shooting with golf.
Jamie Ross takes aim under the watchful eye of
NSCA instructor Paul Ankney.
Sporting clays involves using a shotgun to shoot clay "birds" (discs) launched from various locations, at various angles.

What makes this a bit different from skeet or trap shooting is the fact that participants move around from station to station on a set course, via a golf cart, and record how many birds they hit each round. The total gives you your score. (You can find a more detailed explanation of skeet-vs.-trap shooting here.)

I've fired a shotgun only a few times in my life, back when I tried a bit of skeet shooting at a buddy's farm when I was still in high school. I've fired a rifle a few times, even gone hunting occasionally, and I've fired pistols on a target range. Most of my shooting experience is actually in archery, as I was a member of the New Totem Archery Club for a few years when I lived in Fort St. John, B.C.

Bows and arrows are much different from shotguns, though.

Our group of four got some quick instruction from Paul Ankney, an NSCA Level II shooting instructor, then off we went.

After finishing the course, I can tell you I'm glad I don't have to hunt for my dinner every day. There might be a few days when I go hungry.

I was surprised I was actually able to hit one. In my only other previous attempt mentioned above, I'd hit the first one then missed everything else. This time, in our first round of six (two birds launched three times), I hit one of them. Then I hit two the next time. However, I was inconsistent, sometimes hitting only one, other times two, but never more than two out of six birds.

While I certainly didn't shame myself, I didn't get a really high score, either. In fact, I hit less than 50 per cent of the targets offered. But it was a really nice day to spend in the outdoors, I enjoyed some good camaraderie and I had a lot of fun trying a new sport.


Guide Brett Lesnick readies our raft.
The following day, I was more in my element, as I was shooting rapids - something I've done many times - in a whitewater rafting excursion in Ohiopyle State Park with Laurel Highlands River Tours.

We would spend about three hours playing among the class III and IV rapids of the Lower Youghiogheny River.

It was the first time I'd faced whitewater since undergoing shoulder surgery for a labral tear last summer. I'd paddled a few hours on flat water, but this would be a more telling test.

The shoulder did fine. And I had a real blast.

Our guide, Brett Lesnick, made some funny quips (as all good rafting guides do) and made sure we had fun, but with a mind to safety first.

We blasted through several rapids, getting very wet - but if you're not getting wet on a rafting trip, you're just trying hard enough.

We didn't spend the entire time paddling through whitewater; we made a side trip off the river to take a short hike to Cucumber Falls, a smaller version of the 20-foot high Ohiopyle Falls that we put-in just below, to start our day.

When we not hiking or running rapids, we learned about the cultural and natural history of the area and spotted several species of birds - including numerous mergansers, a pair of kingfishers, a pie-billed grebe and a turkey vulture that I'm sure would loved to have seen us pile up on some rocks. Sorry Mr. Vulture - you'll have to eat somewhere else!

Cucumber Falls: a side trips along the way.

After we got off the Yough, a hot lunch awaited us in the park, followed by a quick tour of some of the other highlights of the Ohiopyle, and then a final farewell to the river.

The experiences were very different - but either way, land or water, they were both a good day's shooting.