Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Another Lower Mainland natural gem discovered

It's a sin we're all guilty of, I think, knowing about a cool place that's close to where we live, a place we keep intending to visit, but somehow never managing to find the time or inclination to make it there.

I guess "sin" is probably too strong a word. But so often if we do eventually make it to such a place, we often mentally flagellate ourselves for not going there sooner.

I had one of those moments this past weekend.

I'd known about the Maplewood Flats Conservation Area for almost as many years as I've lived in Vancouver (nine and counting). It kept popping up on my radar but I never, ever seemed to make it out there. 

The only reason I went out there this time was because plans to visit another natural area fell through the works due to a series of unforeseen events. But, needing a nature fix, I finally decided we should pay a visit to Maplewood.

Greeted by a heron
Within minutes of jumping out of the car, before even getting to the entrance way to the trails, we spotted a great blue heron, sunning on the rocks in a pond by the parking lot. 

Seeing wildlife that soon into an outing as always a good sign, at least as far as I'm concerned.

Managed by the Wild Bird Trust of B.C., Maplewood Flats is a parcel of land in North Vancouver, about 300 acres in size, bordered on the south and east boundaries by the Burrard Inlet. Access is off the Dollarton Highway (south side), just a few kilometres east of the Second Narrows Bridge.

It only took 20 minutes to drive there, right from our front door to the entrance way, so it's very close. Yet once you walk a few minutes into the area, you'd never know you were so close to a large metropolitan area. Mind you, that's just my first impression, and we didn't explore much of the area's 3 km of trails. We basically headed for the one that took us right out to the eastern shore, on Burrard Inlet.

Then the show began.

An osprey looks for supper...
We'd hardly arrived at the mud flats when we looked up and saw an osprey chasing after a bald eagle.  Apparently, the eagle had flown a little too close to the osprey next (there are at least three along there, built on old pilings formerly used to secure log booms.) 

The volunteer greeter had told us there had been a new baby eagle born there this spring, but this was an adult being harassed by the much smaller osprey. This round went to the osprey.

We just sat and soaked up the sunshine, watched a few kayakers paddled across the inlet in the distance and then out of the sky appeared one-two-three more ospreys.

We watched one of them hover high up in the air, scanning the water for fish, then swoosh! splash! It quickly transitioned from practically motionless to jet-like speed to nail what looked like a flounder or some other kind of fish then flew off with its prize, probably to share with its babies.

Birds do it, bees do it...

Sitting in the shade of a small mountain ash, we listened to the water lapping at the shore, enjoyed the scent of the ocean on our nostrils, enjoyed watching the bees buzz around the flowers that dotted the edge of the woods, just luxuriated in the solitude, the peace, the quiet...

Because we'd had a late start, all too soon, it was time to go. But after hearing stories from other visitors about the otter family and the deer that live in Maplewood, we vowed it would not be long before me made a return journey, so we could - to parrot Jewel Akens - spend some more time enjoying "the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees..."

It certainly will not take us another eight years to get here, as it did our first visit...

Friday, August 3, 2012

There is magic in kids' camps

This time of year - the mid-way point of the two-month summer school break - I almost always find myself reminiscing about summers past, and in particular, going to camp as a kid.

You may be wondering, well, fine - but what does that have to do with travel?

In my case, plenty. 

In fact, it would not be too big a stretch to say going to camp as a kid is one of the key factors that propelled me into a career of travel writing.

Bear in mind, much of the travel I write about involves getting out-of-doors, into nature, seeking adventure - and often doing so by canoe or kayak or occasionally, whitewater raft. There is also often a conservation angle or aspect to it. There is good reason for that...

It really all does go back to that first summer at Camp Richildaca in southern Ontario, where I learned to paddle a canoe on a small pond on the day camp's property.

Richildaca Canoe Pond (Photo by Alexandra Heilbron)
Of such things, careers are made...

I also learned the sport of archery, rode my first horse, went on my first nature hike, cooked my first meal over an open fire and slept in a tent for the first time at Richildaca.

Oh, yeah - I learned to swim there, too - kind of an important skill to develop if you plan on spending a lot of time paddling on lakes, rivers and oceans around the world.

Yes, it would be not to big a stretch to say the two-week periods I spent there over three successive summers made a big impact on who and what I became as an adult. Ditto, the successive two camp periods I spent at the Haliburton Scout Reserve.

Without the love of the outdoors, that desire to hike and paddle and seek adventure in the wilderness, I just might be another old sports writer (I did it for 15 years before turning to travel writing), or, worse still - (shudder!) a history teacher.

Chow time! at Haliburton Scout Reserve
Nothing wrong with history teachers, by the way - I'd probably make a good one - but my interest in elementary school North American colonial history (and its associated adventure) combined with my love of the outdoors really did send me down a path that involved a fairly l-o-n-g detour into the University of New Brunswick's Bachelor of Science Forestry program, the eventual earning of a business degree - and a career in radio and print sports journalism for 15 years. 

My move into journalism really is the result of some encouragement from a first-year friend at UNB, Dan Arsenault, someone I'm still friends with today. He coaxed me into joining CHSR, the campus radio station. I did; eventually I also began writing for the Brunswickan, UNB's student newspaper.

Even going to UNB, the launching pad for my journalism career, was actually another case of Richildaca synchronicity: when I worked as a junior forest ranger in Gogama, Ontario during the summer of 1973, the head foreman recommended UNB as a good place to go for forestry if I didn't want to stay in Ontario.

Paddling on Azure Lake, as a junior forest ranger
The entire time I worked as a sports journalist, I still loved camping, canoeing, getting out-of-doors. Eventually, my sense of adventure took me paddling in Belize (where I encountered my first wild parrots!), and it was not long after that I started down the path of becoming a travel writer.

I don't know that any of that would have gone quite that way if I hadn't gone to Camp Richildaca when I was eight years old, and picked up a canoe paddle for the very first time.

I had no clue then that I was essentially beginning to paddle down a path that would make me one of those fortunate souls who gets to "work" by wandering the world in search of stories to write and photos to take. My inclinations and career have taken me to Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Malaysia, Thailand, Hawaii, the Canary Islands...

Zipping down Thailand's River Kwai in a canoe

Richildaca is gone now, the original owners passed away. New ownership and management have developed a new camp on the same site, the Kettleby Valley Camp, and it continues to offer outdoor experiences for children and young teens, helping them develop new skills and interests, helping them make new memories.

So if you're thinking about sending your kids to camp, and you're not quite sure whether to do it or not, why not just let the kids decide? Let them try it, at least for one summer. If they don't like it, they won't want a repeat.

Even if it does not lead to a career, chances are, they'll build some pretty good memories.

And, really there's no telling where that experience may lead them in life...