Don’t push me! Don’t let me fall either…(this post is not for the faint hearted)

A few weeks ago, we arranged to meet some old friends at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. They have two teenage boys who wanted to ride up and admire the expansive views, at over 8000 feet. So after a very warm morning in the Joshua Tree National Park, we headed to the tramway, looking forward to cooler air and seeing our friends. Being a veteran of many a winter chairlift and gondola, I didn’t give the ride itself much thought – just as well, it turned out. I don’t think I’ll be riding this one again anytime soon…

Did I mention over 8000 feet?
Did I mention over 8000 feet?

It wasn’t a comfortable experience from a space point of view. As a comparison, at Lake Louise the various chairlifts seat between two and six, and the Louise gondolas carry up to six winter padded passengers. Can feel a little crowded with all those layers, but it’s a quick trip, and you’re soon off the chair and hitting the slopes. I can handle it. At Palm Springs, the gondolas are more crowded than a London Underground train at rush hour (that’s more crowded than you’d ever like to experience, and pricier than the Palm Springs tramway – even for a single ticket…) Not too comfortable for me.

It doesn’t help that there is a sign with maximum weight tolerance and maximum number of passengers. I’m sure it was exceeded. It felt like more than eighty passengers. I found myself sitting in the waiting area, trying to average out the mass of bodies. That child and that child combined probably weigh less than the portly gentleman sipping on the gallon of soda, so is that two passengers or three as far as potential cable snapping goes? I know it wouldn’t really be overloaded, right?

That's right! Who'd want to?
That’s right! Good advice. Who’d want to?

We all crammed into the gondola (carriage? conveyance? suspended coffin?), packed tightly, myself about as happy as a sardine in a can. The doors slid shut, I grabbed a handhold, pretending to look nonchalant in front of friends, and the coffin set off. Lurched actually, with a dipping start and collected lift, then slowly spinning and spinning, as we ascended the mountain. Yes! The gondola spins! If you wanted to to hold on, too bad, because the railing you are clinging to is slowly sliding past, and if you don’t let go, you look like you’re propping up a bar, and somewhat worse for wear. Each time the coffin passed under one of the pylons, it dropped alarmingly and caused the entire contraption to wobble and swing from side to side. Cue much laughter and whoops of delight from 99% of the sardines, and ever increasing nausea for OldPlaidCamper.

Big view, lurching stomach
Big view, lurching stomach

I know! OldPlaidCamper, unhappy heading up a mountain? Who’d have thought it? I certainly hadn’t, before we set off. All those other chairlifts and gondola rides on all those other mountains were no kind of preparation for Palm Springs. I tried to take my mind off the drop, the bumps, the screams of delight, (and the sneaky passenger who farted – making a tough to take situation even more difficult – my prime suspect was the portly gentleman…) by letting my thoughts wander.

Treacherous mind. It started thinking about one of my favourite books, “Touching the Void” – which is not one to be considered on such a shaky trip. But that’s how my mind works. Not content with a mountaineering disaster and survival book (a fine read if you enjoy a taut true story), my brain went further AWOL, and conjured up the opening scenes of Sylvester Stallone’s “Cliffhanger” – come on brain, is that really necessary? You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen it – and if you haven’t, why not? Stallone at his most entertaining, other than “First Blood” (I can’t drive over an iron bridge anywhere without saying “don’t push me!”) That teenage boy never grew up. Sad, I know.

Jelly legs (I've been called worse...)
Jelly legs (I’ve been called worse…)

When the tin can reached the top, I staggered out on jelly legs, grateful for the solid ground and clean air. Oh, was that air ever fresh! Over 8000 feet up, and appreciably cooler than the desert floor below. Far, far below. I continued to pretend I’d really enjoyed the ride, and we spent a very pleasant couple of hours exploring a short trail, the amusingly named Grubb’s Notch Trail. I’ve no idea who Grubb may have been, and won’t Google it, in case the truth is less than the various fictions we came up with. Which can’t be repeated here.

Who was Grubb?
Who was Grubb?

The two teenage boys couldn’t be more different. G is very cautious, very much aware of potential dangers in his immediate surroundings. J is completely opposite, positively revelling in risk, very happy to scamper and frolic as close as he can get away with to edges of rocks and mountainsides – maybe to wind up his older brother? (Yes, it is ok to use the word frolic, particularly after surviving the ride up. You’d frolic too, believe me!) Both boys appreciated the location in their own way, another reminder that young people really do connect with their environment when given the opportunity, and the connecting can be thoughtful or exuberant or both. It was lovely to see.

The views are far reaching...
The views are far reaching…

The promised views were absolutely spectacular, the scenery up top a real delight, and the mild temperature, compared to the summer heat of the desert below, a welcome relief. We were all a little reluctant to leave the summit and make the return trip down. As we chatted on the trail, it turned out most of us were somewhat nervous during the ride up. Apparently, G, the older teenage boy, and a bit of a math whizz, had been calculating our chances of survival as we ascended. He’d come up with a plausible formula. He helpfully shared those increasing survival odds on the way down. Not that helpful, actually. Fortunately, I had an image of Sylvester Stallone, dangling from a rope high on a mountain, and wearing those leather short pants at the start of Cliffhanger, to take my mind off things.

Fresh air and cooler temperatures compared to the desert floor
Fresh air and cooler temperatures compared to the desert floor

A splendid adventure, and I’m so happy we made it back down without incident for all sorts of obvious reasons, but mostly because when I do shuffle off, short pants Stallone is not the last ever thought I want to have…

Quite spectacular!
Quite spectacular!

Oh dear. Magnificent wilderness scenery, an astonishingly beautiful place, and I came up with this. Hmm. Anyway, please do feel free to make a comment or share a story – perhaps about your favourite Stallone movie? (I think I’ve set the bar high!) Have you taken the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway? Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

All time favourite wilderness movies (#1 in an occasional series)

This is can be a fun campfire discussion to have – what are your all time favourite movies? Top twenty? Top ten? So hard to decide. But it’s easier if you go for genres and sub-genres…like all time favourite wilderness movies!  Across Albertan foothills to the Rockies (you could film wilderness adventures here…)

A movie that has stuck with me forever is Jeremiah Johnson (dir.Sidney Pollack, Warner Bros.1972) with Robert Redford playing the title role. Set in the mid 1800s, Jeremiah is a war veteran heading away from his past, looking for a quiet life, to be self sufficient, alone, and in his own cabin. No spoilers, but this being a movie, what he wishes for and what happens are two different creatures…

My first viewing I was about 10 years old, and it knocked me out. I’m not sure I was quite mature enough to be watching, but my mother, Ma PlaidCamper, had a bit of a crush on Robert Redford, so I sat quietly when the movie started and hoped she wouldn’t notice I hadn’t gone to bed. She didn’t, and I hadn’t, which means I can thank Hollywood superstar Robert Redford for helping me become the PlaidCamper I am today. (If you’re reading this, thanks Robert). 

                 Pretty and wild – Jeremiah would have liked the Athabasca River, AB

Back to the movie. I’d never seen anything like it before. To my tender eyes, it was tough, bloody, full of action, and Jeremiah wore really great buckskins and had an epic beard. His adventures seemed realistic, and took place in landscapes I didn’t know and thought were impossibly beautiful – not that my 10 year old self would ever have admitted that last part. But the settings – the movie was shot in Utah – and trappings (no pun intended) did appeal to me all those years ago. I lived in a suburb of Reading, a medium sized town just to the west of London UK, so log cabins built beneath snow capped peaks that towered over mighty forests seemed unreachable, exciting, and exotic to that young man. To be fair, living where we did, a small hill, or a field with a few cows often seemed pretty wild.  

Snow capped peaks – Castle Mountain, Bow Valley AB

I was clearly impressionable and susceptible to the myth making wiles of Redford and Pollack, and that seems to me to be no bad thing for a young boy. By today’s standards, some might find the movie to be slow paced. I prefer to think that it unfolds comfortably, giving the story and characters room to breathe. There are wordless sequences like visual tone poems, and scenes full of natural beauty that establish the different moods of the movie.

On the surface, the movie plays as a simple adventure and revenge tale, but it is more complex than that. I appreciate that the depiction of culture clashes and the predominant perspective of the movie may seem outdated or questionable to today’s sensibilities. However, as I sit writing this and think about the movie and the impact it had on a prepubescent PlaidCamper, I can say it planted a few seeds about respecting environments, the value of natural resources, disappearing cultures, and how to better resolve conflict when competing for valuable shared resources. Not that 10 year old me was thinking about any of that as he watched the movie for the very first time. To be honest, I was waiting for the next cool fight. 

  Tall trees and fresh air…

I’m very happy to report that snow capped peaks, log cabins, and mighty forests are still exciting to my aging self many years later. I’ve not worn buckskin – PlaidCamper, remember – but I have grown a couple of decent beards when the mood has taken me, and my inner 10 year old never lets me forget Jeremiah and the sense of wonder his story sparked. Or is that a sense of wander?

Have you seen Jeremiah Johnson? Do you have a favourite wilderness movie recommendation? Please feel free to share! Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

The great state of Oregon – should we keep it a secret? 

If you’ve been reading even just a little of what I post, you’ll know I simply adore North America, particularly for all the enormous outdoor beauty. I’ve travelled through a lot of the continent – by no means all (I should have started those travels a few lifetimes ago. Never mind, I’ll do what I can in the time I have…) – and one state I really enjoy visiting is Oregon. 

  Oregon forests – lush and leafy!

You might be wondering, why write about Oregon now? Well, firstly, it’s because I was reading an excellent couple of posts on Leanne Cole’s WordPress blog. She takes amazing photos, and these recent articles featured coastline near Melbourne, Australia. (LeanneColePhotography). As I was looking at her photographs, in particular of waves crashing on rocks, they reminded me of our visits to the Oregon coast. Then pretty much in the same week Leanne posted her coastal pictures, Mrs PlaidCamper passed me a Globe and Mail article about Oregon. (Globe and Mail). So I dug out a few photos from our trips, and here we are. I know, a fascinatingly dreary look into the mind of a blogging PlaidCamper. Let’s move on!
  Cape Perpetua, Oregon – it is so alive!

Oregon is often overlooked by people who are on the road south to California. There’s nothing wrong with California, it has much to commend it, but really, don’t race through Oregon. Make that part of your journey more of a destination. To rush on to possibly warmer and sunnier climes without taking some time out would be a tremendous pity – as Oregon is beautiful!
  Siuslaw River, Florence, Oregon

There are long, (sometimes) windswept and rugged beaches, with hills and mountains swathed in lush rainforest greenery rising up behind. You’ll discover plenty of coastal towns and villages, full of indoorsy and outdoorsy people, from climbers and kayakers to painters and poets. The book stores, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and sidewalks of these little towns are a delight to explore.
  The old town of Florence, Oregon

Now admittedly, even in summer, the sun doesn’t always shine on the shore, but when it does, my goodness! 
  Fog clearing, sun coming through…

And when it doesn’t, rolling banks of fog, and waves of rain add even more character to locations that are steeped in atmosphere. Wear something water and windproof and all will be well.
DSCF2914It doesn’t have to be sunny to be beautiful at the beach…

  …is the fog clearing or incoming?!

Maybe it’s because the average summer temperature doesn’t really encourage lounging around on the beach, but almost without exception, no matter the time of day, every Oregon beach we’ve visited has been empty of other people. You can hike great stretches and it’s you, the gulls, and (one lucky afternoon) whales breaching just offshore.

 Humid and healthy Cape Perpetua!

So, if you’re looking for space, peace, and a little time out in beautiful locations that are relatively uncrowded, the Oregon coast could be the place for you! (Interior Oregon also has many beautiful places – but that’s for another time, this post has focused on the coast. Don’t tell anyone though, let’s keep it our secret). Just looking at the photos of the humid forests has my Alberta-parched skin rehydrating…

Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment, and keep your guy ropes secure.

A monochrome Field day for PlaidCamper – and a tiny house obsession revealed…

That’s not a mistake! Field should be capitalized – just last week we went to Field BC, located in beautiful Yoho National Park. We had a few days off so headed out to stay in a cabin overlooking the village. Whenever we visit, we know the weather will likely be changeable, particularly in spring, but the setting is always spectacular. One black and white morning, we took a little hike around and about the town.

Towering mountains flank Field on each side, and even on an overcast day, make an impressive sight. So much so, I couldn’t stop taking pictures. (I’d have been in real financial trouble in the predigital days of buying and processing camera film!)

I love how being in mountain landscapes gives me a sense of perspective – our time on the planet is so short compared to geological time – any issues or troubles can seem trivial (or at least not so much a problem) in such vast settings. Our human accomplishments and failed flailings are all put into place. We can make our mark on nature, for good or ill, yet I believe that if they could, mountains would simply look down at us, shrug indifferently at our feeble concerns, and continue to weather the real passage of time long after we’re gone. I think there’s a certain comfort in that…

               The Kicking Horse River flows through the valley.

               Mount Stephen looms over the town, a dizzying 10 495 feet above sea level

             In just a few minutes, the mist would gather (above) and then clear (below)

            In addition to the lovely mountain vistas, there are smaller sights as well. Field has a number of beautiful old buildings, and they tell interesting stories about Field’s past. Below are pictures of a couple of them.

  The photo above is of the Park Superintendent’s house, completed in 1930. It is a delightful Arts and Craft style building – the original intent of the design was to impress upon viewers the importance and dignity of the Park Superintendent. Park officials were trying hard to gain recognition and respect from the hard working miners and railway men who dominated the town’s population in times past. My guess would be that then, as now, the interests of commerce, industry, and Parks conservation and management did not always align.

  The little building pictured above sits at the top of the town with a commanding view over the valley. It used to be the headquarters of Field’s RCMP detachment. The story goes that a prisoner’s cell door wouldn’t actually be locked in the event of a fire burning the building and a prisoner was in the cell. Those were simpler, more trusting times! These days the building provides a home for Park workers. Pretty nice accommodation.

  The final picture above, is also pretty nice accommodation – it’s where we stay when in Field! A lovely little cabin, sleeps two (very) comfortably, with amazing views out of all the windows. 

I am fascinated by tiny cabins and houses – my inner hippie is fully aware that unnecessarily large dwellings are unsustainable in the long term. As a not so closeted treehugger, my hope is that one day, sooner rather than later, we catch onto this and begin to build more modest and appropriate homes. The little cabin above is a delight. The owner tells me it is not quite 600 square feet, but I find it roomy, modern and in no way Spartan on the inside. I’d happily live in something similar full time if such places were more readily available. Maybe I should build one myself…that would be an adventure!

I hope you enjoyed this little black and white tour of Field. Just a tiny taster, barely scratching the surface of the history and beauty of this small community. We always enjoy visiting, secure in the knowledge that time in Field is special, with peace and quiet virtually guaranteed – Field’s population is less than 200 lucky souls sharing a wonderful mountain town. 

Have you visited Field and Yoho National Park? Do you have a favourite mountain destination? Please feel free to share your thoughts. Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Last chance for a winter walk – where did winter go?

Two weeks ago, PlaidCamper was a very happy boy because it snowed overnight in Kananaskis – while he was there! OK, enough of the third person…

Normally, that is not such a noteworthy weather event, but it was probably only the first or second time this winter season that I’ve experienced snow falling while being out in the mountains…maybe I haven’t been out there enough this winter! It has been an unusual six months or more, where the highest snowfall in Calgary was back in September. At school, students were making snowmen a few weeks into the new academic year. It is not entirely unheard of to get snow in any month, being so close to the mountains, but still – snow angels in September? There hasn’t really been that much snow on the ground since then. Continual chinooks over the city and relatively light(ish) snowfall out in the eastern Rockies have made it a different winter than usual. Lots of Calgarians don’t mind the chinooks, but there have been so many this year, and I like winter being just that – winter!

                     

Winter in Kananaskis

So, to be out in Kananaskis and to be hiking through deep(ish) snow, and in ongoing flurries was very pleasant. As the day progressed, the snow eased off, the clouds drifted away and the sun broke through, lighting up the landscape. Skies were the beautiful Alberta blue that I’ve come to love in the winter months. Stands of aspen that were a dramatic and moody black and white against grey skies earlier in the day, became silvery and shimmery when the bright sunlight hit them, the air so crisp and sharp that every spruce needle on each tree stood out clearly. 

                     

Becoming brighter…

It being late winter in the front country of the Rockies, nothing could be taken for granted, and not more than an hour after the skies cleared did the clouds come rolling back in, at first providing a misty cloak for the near distant mountains, and then completely enveloping them. After that, it was back to the more sombre feel of a monochrome winter day. The sparkly and the sullen all in a short while, winter fickle as a teenager.

                     

Back to the mists again – still beautiful!

There has been little snow and unseasonably warm temperatures since that walk, so it feels as if that’s it for winter this year, at least as far as snowshoeing and easier winter hiking goes. There’s still time for skiing and snowboarding up in the heights, but an early spring seems to have arrived in the foothills…unless winter has time for one or two more tantrums – here’s hoping!

Do you look forward to the end of winter? Is it a favourite season? Or is spring your thing? Feel free to share. Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Heading out and returning home – thoughts on belonging (plus a little book review)

These post headings are getting longer than the posts. Apologies on the PlaidCamper meander…

I never know what is best about a trip away from home – is it the planning, the trip itself or returning home? I love the anticipation, and even the thought of a short day out or a weekend trip can raise my spirits during what (sometimes) seems a lengthy work week. (Just to be clear, I enjoy my day job, teaching, but there can be moments when a lesson seems a lifetime, and then a brief thought related to an outdoor adventure puts things in perspective!) Positive longing for the outdoor trips, without wishing away the present, is likely no bad thing. 

If you’ve read even a little of what I’ve posted previously, you know that I’m an almost outdoorsman, with more enthusiasm than expertise, but a willingness to try most things, safe in the knowledge I’m not living the wilderness life full time and I go home at the end of the day, weekend or time away. I’d love to spend more time outdoors, but we have annoying responsibilities like educating students, and feeding a family…not to mention financing the adventures. 

                  

Colorado cabin – I’d happily spend more time here…

The reality is that the return from a trip can, for me, be almost as satisfying as heading out. I suspect it is because there is a marked contrast between the (very pleasant) everyday life I have, and the wonderful contentment of simply being in the mountains, or whatever version of the big outdoors I find myself in. The journey home is a time to reflect on this contrast. (Or maybe I just can’t wait to bore the pants off any audience with tales of my latest exploits?) I often wonder, can I call the mountains home? Our second home? Is home simply a sense of belonging? 

                  

North to the Fairholme Range, AB. Is this home? A sense of home?

The idea of contrast, between belonging somewhere and a sense of longing for somewhere else, is one that William Fiennes explores in his marvellous little book “The Snow Geese”. I had not read this until Mrs PlaidCamper urged me to a few weeks ago, saying she thought it would appeal to me. As ever, she was absolutely right. The book covers so much ground in a genuine and beautifully written way. Reducing it to the most basic description is to undermine exactly how good the book is, but here goes:

Fiennes was recovering from a dangerous illness, one that had left him weak, scared and uncertain about much that he had taken for granted. He spends time recuperating at his parents’ house, a place of security and familiar comfort. Slowly, his strength returns, and with it a growing restlessness. Part of the restlessness stems from watching and reading about migratory birds, some reading specifically about snow geese. As Fiennes thinks and researches more about migration patterns, he begins to feel the need to follow the snow geese on their journey from the southern US up to their northern breeding grounds in Canada. The security of the familiar has started to stifle him, and he questions his sense of identity. To find out who he might now be, Fiennes follows the geese, describing the people and places he visits along the way. 

Reading the paragraph above, I know I have done a terrible disservice to how brilliant the book really is. Trust an old PlaidCamper when I say the book is so much more than the sum of its parts. If you have ever pondered on the nature of home, belonging, and the need to travel to different places – and you have a love of wildlife – then you will enjoy The Snow Geese. It’s a delightful meditation on travel, learning, and the kindness of strangers in strange places. You’ll also incidentally learn so much about migration patterns in birds you might even want to follow in Fiennes’ footsteps. It’s got me thinking about a trip…



In the end, it doesn’t matter how or where you define home. A combination of being with the right people or person at the right time in a particular location, and feeling contentment in all that, can amount to a sense of belonging. Perhaps it isn’t easy to define – I do know that being in the wilderness helps me think about such matters, and that’s a fine way to spend time.

Have you read The Snow Geese? Do you have a travel or outdoor book to recommend? How do you define home? Feel free to share, thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Camp fires – an outdoor essential, and how old PlaidCamper likes to play with matches…

Never play with matches. There, that’s the public health warning, along the lines of “don’t try this at home” etc. Now, if you burn down your cabin, or set fire to your tent, it’s not my fault. Or are you trying this at home? Really? Go further outside!

When I was a little boy, like many, I was fascinated with fire. Not in the pyromaniac sense, although, with three likeminded brothers and knowledge of where the “emergency” matches were stashed, of course we set little fires out in the backyard – don’t all young boys have a need to know how their least favourite toys will burn? We all experimented diligently, desperately trying to hide the singed remains before our parents got home – I’m sure they saw (smelled?) the evidence, but figured that as the house, the fence and our neighbour’s shed were still standing, it was better not to ask. (In case you’re wondering, plastic soldiers and model fighter airplanes were our favoured test subjects – unbelievably, we’d set fire to action figures, launching them on homemade parachutes from bedroom windows out into the garden. How the house or neighbourhood didn’t burn down…just very lucky I guess).

Camping in the UK, we never had fire pits or rings at most campgrounds, so imagine my delight that first trip to Lake Louise. You were allowed a fire, the wood was ready chopped, and, due to evening temperatures, it was almost a necessity, never mind the ritual. Marvellous! And a beer tastes so much better with a campfire. Safety first – I never have a beer until I’ve trimmed and chopped the necessary pieces with my trusty hatchet. I love owning and using a hatchet, it fuels my outdoorsy hunger. I chop even when there’s more than enough kindling. So sad. It’s a fact that views improve, and even lite and flavoured beers taste better after hatchet use:



Matches – remember, don’t play with them. I’ve used matches and fancy slow burning fire lighters to get a blaze going, and very efficient they are too. But somehow, to an almost outdoorsman, that feels like cheating. My outdoor idol and hero, Ray Mears, rarely seems to use matches, except in his extreme survival shows when speed and survival are of the absolute essence. I like when he demonstrates how to prepare the ground and materials before using a fire steel – planning and preparation being essential to success – see a video by Ray Mears here: Light a Fire. He also likes to showcase aboriginal and/or traditional fire starting methods, as with the bow and drill technique seen here: Bow and Drill

I’ve used a Swedish fire steel successfully, after much trial and error – more error, if I’m honest (revisiting with Ray put me right). For tinder, I know many use lint from their home dryers, doused in petroleum jelly and kept in a Baggie. That is great, especially when time and efficiency demand a quick result, but I aim to use what is in the vicinity – it feels more real. Or more Ray. Which is odd when I consider my manufactured tent, clothing and other camping gear. Who am I fooling? 

My goal this summer is to become proficient with a traditional method. (Mrs PlaidCamper may read this before we depart, and I suspect will carry extra matches. There is wish fulfillment practicality, and there is realism and proper practicality). It’s just that I’m an old school Old PlaidCamper when it suits me…but on those days when I’m in a hurry or it is raining? Why, matches, borrowed from Mrs PlaidCamper, of course! I can always burn the evidence…

Do you have a preferred fire starting technique? Or burn your childhood toys? Feel free to share! Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.



A stash that will need chopping…

Little Bear Cabin, MT