Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The magic of rivers transports us across space and time - but can we keep the magic alive?

Ecuador's Rio Shiripuno: one of many magical
rivers I've journeyed upon.
In the book Wind in the Willows, author Kenneth Grahame wrote, "There’s nothing… absolutely nothing… half so much worth doing as simply messing around in boats."

As someone who has been paddling for more than 50 years now, I can't disagree with that.

People often ask me if I prefer river trips to canoe circuits involving a chain of lakes and ponds. They are quite different types of trips, although they both involve water. The former involves starting at one point and finishing at another; the latter, travelling in a circle and returning to your original starting point.

They both have their good points, but the one thing that differentiates a river trip is the fact that it's an exciting journey that potentially sees you never return to where you begin from. That's not always the case, because you may end up shuttling back to your original starting point - but then again, you may not. On circuit trips you can often go either direction, clockwise or counterclockwise. Paddling in either direction can be l-i-t-t-l-e bit harder on a river unless you're on a really slow moving river. Paddling upstream - unless you're a salmon looking to spawn - is a lot of work and not the most pleasant kind of activity to engage in. 
Time to get wet again, on the Zambezi River!
(Photo by Zambezi Video Productions.)

Because of that, there is a magic to rivers, something you feel even if you don't paddle on one. When I was in high school, I used to walk past a river - the Holland River coming out of Fairy Lake in Newmarket - and there was always something about walking past that spot, especially during the spring runoff, that set my imagination to working. There is a timelessness to rivers, which is why they have the power to transport us across space and time. 

Often when you're paddling down a river in a canoe or kayak, you're paddling through history, because thousands of others have probably paddled there, most likely for several centuries. Many times when I canoe - and this is one of the aspects of all canoeing that really appeals to me - I like to imagine I'm a voyageur of old, heading into the wilderness for the Northwest Company, engaged in the fur trade of the late 18th and early 19th centuries across the wilds of Canada. 

My first canoe trips as a youth took me through areas in Ontario that were probably used by the voyageurs, although most of the paddling I did then was on lakes, ponds and very slow rivers.

Rollin' down the river - the Chao Phraya River in Thailand, that is

Since then I've gone on to paddle or travel on many rivers:

Because I have always loved being out in nature, on rivers and streams - and for that matter ponds and lakes - I developed an interest in conservation at a very early age. When I was 12, I decided to study forestry in university, to help conserve our natural resources. I started down that path but got sidetracked by a strong interest in journalism and broadcasting. 
One of the locals paddles a dugout canoe
on Borneo's Kinabatangan River.

However, my concern about the importance of conservation of our rivers is just as strong - if not stronger - than it was all those years ago. We ALL should be concerned. Water from rivers gives us life. Without it, life can be extremely difficult. It not only supplies water to drink but habitat for the fish we eat, as well as other animals that depend on the water and fish that live there to survive. 

That's why it's important to recognize and perhaps even attend a local event or two during World Rivers Day, which this year falls on Sunday, Sept. 27. 

There are several events going on at different venues in British Columbia to celebrate B.C. Rivers Day. For example, the city of Burnaby will host an event at the Burnaby Village Museum; the Fraser River Discovery Centre will host its annual Riverfest event, starting Thursday, Sept. 24 and running through until Saturday the 26th.

There are many other events all over the province, the country and the world, too numerous to list all of them here. But a quick search online should provide you with details about local events. Many involve music, conservation and nature displays, some paddle-oriented activities, and plenty of other stuff for families to enjoy - and learn about how we call can help keep our rivers healthy.

I started off with a quote, and I'll finish with one, by environmentalist and author David Brower.

"We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations."

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Time to pack it up and move on

G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe, hiking fool from head to toe...
Never actually got this pack.
If you spend anytime travelling - even if your biggest adventure involves a trip to a museum -
chances are, you've probably used a backpack of some kind.

Many of us have owned and used many different sizes and styles of backpacks over the years.

If you spend much time in the out of doors, you might be what consider to be a back pack expert.

I wouldn't call myself an expert, I feel a bit uncomfortable accepting that kind of term. I do know what works for me, and I can say what good and bad experiences I've had throughout the decades.

But thinking back to all the backpacks I've used over the years also brings back memories of the trips I've taken with them. And those memories are all pretty fond ones.

I first desired a backpack - or knapsack as we called it then - when I first went to Camp Richildaca near Kettleby, Ontario. We were going on a nature hike, and I wanted a pack to carry my lunch in, along with any other supplies I might need (which really weren't much, since it was only a two or three hour hiking adventure.)

I didn't get one that first summer. But the following summer I did, although not without some grief from my dad.

We'd visited relatives in Detroit for a week before I went to camp that year and spent one day getting a toy for me. My dad knew I wanted a knapsack for camp, and in the toy store, you could get an official "G.I. Joe knapsack and (plastic) entrenching shovel," it was part of the line of life-sized toys that complemented the popular boys' soldier-doll. (PC people like to call it "action figure," but hey, we knew it was a doll. Our answer to girls' Barbie. And he could kick Ken's ass. But I digress).

Anyway, he urged me to get that, but I chose the toy M-1 carbine instead (Hey, why get a knapsack when I can get another gun for my growing arsenal, eh?).

So, when I went to camp, at the end of the first week, I was bugging my dad for a knapsack. Even had one picked out that I liked. It was green, had "Trailblazer" written on the back. But my dad said, "You should have gotten the GI Joe pack!"
My official Boy Scout backpack.

It took a bit of cajoling, but eventually I got my pack. Looking back, it wasn't much, didn't even fasten with buckles, just a tie like a shoelace. But I loved it.

It did me up until the time I was ready to go to scout camp.

Then it was time to move up to a better model. And again I had a bit of a tussle with my dad over this issue. He thought to go to camp it would be much better if I just had some kind of big duffel bag, kind of like a hockey bag for all my clothing and gear.

But my dad was not that much of an outdoorsman; I knew there were going to be overnight canoe trips and overnight backpacking trips at this camp, and a duffel bag was not going to be very good for hauling gear through  the woods on my back, so again I cajoled him and eventually got the pack I wanted.

It was a gray knapsack, an "official" Scouts Canada pack purchased at the local Jack Fraser store (the official supplier of Scouts Canada back then) It did not have any kind of frame with it, it was really more of a larger day pack rather than a multi-day pack, but it had one mean compartment, two side pockets, and a smaller outside pocket on the back ... it was just exactly what I wanted and it worked great on the canoe trip - my very first overnight canoe trip, to Drag Lake in the Haliburton Highlands! - and then on my very first overnight backpacking camping trip as well.

That particular backpack did me for several more years until I hit 18 and was planning my very first "no-adults" overnight canoe trip in Algonquin Park.

Now this was a big thing for me, because every other canoe trip I never been on was supervised by someone older - a scoutmaster, a junior forest ranger foreman - so this was a special rite of passage trip.

Time for a Taymor!
Mine was blue not red, but same style.
I had my eye on a backpacking frame in Canadian Tire where I worked that summer. It was really cool, because it was essentially red with a white flap to cover everything - and it had a red maple leaf in the middle ... essentially it was a giant Canadian flag.

I bought it, and I loved that pack, using that for the next several years. For a few years, I stopped taking overnight camping trips just because I was in university and was often working and didn't have time to plan or carry out such trips.

Eventually I graduated moved out west and when it was time for me to go on a new outdoor adventure, it was time for a new backpack because the "flag-pack" had seen better days, it was 16 years old and hadn't been in any shape to take out west.

So off I went to my neighborhood sporting goods store and got a Taymor pack. My first trip with that was a three-day solo backpacking trip in Jasper National Park, to Jacques Lake.  It did me for several more trips after that, canoeing the Bowron Lake circuit twice, and on some other camping trips. But as with all backpacks, when your travel style changes, often your pack has to change as well.

For my first international trip to Belize - a two-week trip that involved sea-kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, caving, and all kinds of great outdoor stuff - I needed a suitcase. But I also needed some kind of small day pack.

A friend of mine lent me a catalog from Mountain Equipment Co-op, which I'd never heard of at that point in time. But they had something which was perfect: a very rugged cross between a suitcase and a duffel bag but which also had a smaller day pack that fastened to the main bag with straps and became part of the whole unit.

The suitcase itself could be turned into a backpack for longer trips as it had an internal pack frame. The detachable day pack was great, because it could carry food, a change of clothes, a camera, water bottle, and any number of things you might need to access when you're kayaking in the Caribbean or hiking through the Central American jungle.

Still use my MEC pack today, 25 years later.
This one is lasted a long time - in fact, I still use it today for some travel, which means it's pretty darn durable.  Since I bought it 1991,that means I've had it for almost 25 years in it still works. Yeah, here it comes... "They don't make much stuff like that any more."

Once I started doing freelance photography, which involved a lot of hiking in the mountains and other outdoor areas in and around Calgary and southern Alberta, I needed something sturdy and functional in which to carry my camera gear, since I wasn't using just a point-and-shoot any more.

So I bought a LowePro in 2000.

It's still my favourite backpack for carrying camera gear. It's been vary durable, although I have had replaced the zippers on the one I currently use on a couple of occasion . But it's 15 years old, so it doesn't owe me anything.

It's helped me photograph parrots in the Caribbean, orangutans in Malaysia, temples in Thailand and the vista of Machu Picchu in Peru.
Let's see, did I bring my cards?

Everybody who knows me knows I love to paddle and when you're canoeing or kayaking it's always nice to have something to keep you clothing and gear dry.

I used to just pack the frames and backpacks into the canoe, but there was no guarantee, they would stay dry unless we put a tarp over them. And once we started kayaking, well, you can't fit a pack frame into a kayak storage compartment.

So we evolved to dry bags. They're very handy for paddling, even canoeing, if you don't have any long portages, but they are meant more for kayaking than canoeing. Some come with straps and some bags even have an apparatus that turns them into backpacks.

However they do not become the kind of backpacks you would take with you on a camping trip into the mountains.

Guaranteed to keep stuff dry.
I think back fondly to all the backpacks I've used...As we go forward in life, we of course have to make room in our lives by letting go of certain things, we can't keep every single thing (although sometimes I wish we could.)

But I get wistful every now and then when I think back to all those first trips I took - my first nature hike, first overnight canoe trip, first overnight camping trip, first overnight canoe trip planned on my own, and my first international trip. Most of the backpacks I took on most of those trips are long gone.

Some wore out, some were donated ... but they're all so old, they've probably all bitten the dust, I doubt if any of them are even around, never mind in use any more.

Although today's modern day, super light, multi-purpose materials may make lighter and more waterproof and more functional backpacks, there's no taking the place of the memories associated with those old packs.

R.I.P., old backpack friends.

Some tips on choosing a backpack.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Here are my quintessential seasonal trips - what are yours?

Winter, spring, summer, or fall -
when's your favourite season to travel?
A few weeks ago on my regular Wednesday photo survey on my Bear Lair Communications Facebook page, I asked readers what was their favourite season of the year to travel in.

That got me to thinking … Perhaps I should share the quintessential experiences I've enjoyed while traveling in each of the seasons.

Now I should say there are a couple qualifiers in this. First of all, if you forget about traveling, autumn is my favourite season of the year, period. I love the fall colours and everything else about the autumn - but that doesn't mean that I would travel to a destination just have a "seasonal" fall experience - although there are some really nice places to go in North America for that.

And if I had my choice, I would pretty much always spend any cold months travelling to warm, tropical or semi-tropical destinations so I could paddle and watch birds and other wildlife in comfort. But because some of the places I've loved to travel to don't really experience four seasons like we do in North America, I'm going to restrict this particular article to places where you can experience a real distinct season. No trips to Thailand in winter, no sojourns to Antarctica or Australia during our summer.

In other words, it's places I've travelled to in North America. Here we go.

SPRING: Ah, spring...when a young man's heart turns to ... baseball. Well, some young men's hearts. The rest turn to ... birding.
The snow geese have returned!

Spring is the time when hundreds of flocks of migratory birds make their way north from their wintering grounds, to build nests, mate, and raise new birds. There are many places to see the flocks migrating, but one of my favourite places is the Cape Tourmente National Wildlife Area in Quebec, just east of Quebec City.

I had a chance a few years ago to experience the annual snow geese migration, and loved it. It's a great place to spot other birds and wildlife, as well. While you're there, be sure to visit the Ste Anne de Beaupre Basilica, Montmorency Falls, and Canyon Ste Anne.

SUMMER: This is a tough one. There are so many amazing places to go, experiences to enjoy in the summer, all over North America. I guess if pushed to pick one destination above all the others, I'd go with Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. I've visited there many times since the late 1960s, it's still one of my favourite places to go in the entire world.

The park offers something for everyone, from hardcore wilderness lovers to fishing fanatics, from campers to those who prefer to enjoy the outdoors from a cozy lodge. You can canoe, hike, fish, camp, go for scenic flights in a bush plane, tour the park logging museum and visitor centre, go bird- or wildlife-watching, participate in a wolf howl, enjoy some excellent art displays (or even learn to paint like Tom Thomson!). If camping isn't your thing, three excellent lodges service the park: Killarney Lodge, Bartlett Lodge, and Arowhon Pines Lodge.

It's tough to beat a misty morning on Algonquin's Lake of Two Rivers.

FALL: It seems like I'm falling back on Ontario again, but there's a reason for that: If you want to see autumn in all its splendour, Ontario - along with Quebec and the Maritimes - is the place to be.

This is just a very small hint of Ontario's autumn colours.
While autumns on the prairies have their moments, and B.C. falls are often like extended summers, the rich palette of colours created by the oaks, maples, birches, and other deciduous trees of Eastern Canada, the mix of reds and browns and yellows, cannot be rivalled.

I discovered this years ago, when I went on a family Thanksgiving weekend getaway to Deer Lodge in the Haliburton Highlands. At 14, I was really too young to appreciate for very long - I was a teen-ager stuck with adults, and upset I couldn't watch a CFL football game between Ottawa and Montreal - but looking back at some of the slides my dad took reminds me of how gorgeous early October is in the east. Ditto, when you drive through New Brunswick or Nova Scotia in mid-autumn.

Again, Algonquin is a great place to be in autumn; so is Gatineau Park in Canada's national capital region, just over the border into Quebec, outside of Ottawa. I've only been there in winter, but if photos are any indication, it is probably THE place to be, come October. (Just be ready for lots of traffic...)

WINTER: As previously mentioned, given my druthers, I'd ruther go someplace warm in the winter where I can paddle or watch birds and not have to put on five layers of clothing.  However that's not really winter is it?

The trouble is, I'm not a skier, not a snowmobiler, I don't really snowshoe very much (although I've done all three) and it's really hard to paddle a canoe or kayak in the winter. But if you want to have an iconic winter travel experience, you have to try dog sledding.

Mushing through the mountains!
(Photo courtesy of Snowy Owl Sled Dogs)
I've had the opportunity to enjoy it in northern B.C. as well as in K-Country - specifically, the Spray Lakes, in Alberta.  Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours run some wonderful programs in the provincial park that incorporate different elements of winter experiences into their packages.

You can do half day trips, day trips, overnight trips and experience some Aboriginal culture as part of those trips.

There really is nothing quite like the silence of the Rocky Mountains, as as you mush along the trail at high speed, being pulled by a trained dog team... all you hear is the sound of the dogs' feet crisply pattering over the snow and the rush of the wind in your own ears as you glide over the frozen white carpet.

Well, there you have my personal favourites for travel in the various seasons. What are yours?