Beautiful places and the contradictions of wilderness adventures – plus Chasing Clayoquot (an excellent read!)

I love being out in the wild – but is there a cost? A recent talk and a great book had me thinking about this…

The other day, I was fortunate to be able to attend a National Geographic presentation by David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes entitled “Coral, Fire and Ice”, about many of their recent adventures and assignments as marine photographers (discover more here). The stories they told, and photos and movie clips they shared, were absolutely spellbinding. From seal pups in northern Newfoundland to tiny lantern sharks lurking down in the depths, each tale and accompanying image entirely increased my sense of wonder at the diversity of aquatic life (and highlighted my enormous knowledge gap when it comes to the ocean). 

                An incredible creature – Long Beach, Vancouver Island

Hayes and Doubilet talked with passion and humour about their underwater experiences. Their delight, concern and compassion for this vast and largely undiscovered wilderness cannot be overstated. They were remarkably honest and clear eyed about a potential contradiction in what they do everyday. They have a sense of mission in bringing both beautiful and dark stories to the attention of as many people as possible. They witness how human activity is having a devastating impact on many marine species. In the past two hundred years, human-marine interactions have been increasingly detrimental to the underwater life forms Doubilet and Hayes are seeking to protect. The contradiction is knowing that simply by being in the water, they themselves, as well meaning documentarists, are causing a degree of distress to the very creatures they want to help – they are a disturbance.

My thought is that Doubilet and Hayes needn’t be too concerned about the impact they are having – the benefits outweigh any unintended discomfort or distress they may cause to a small number of sea creatures. We need them to be under the water, capturing amazing images of incredible creatures and educating the widest possible audience about this little known yet threatened wilderness. But it did get me thinking about my own presence in the great outdoors. 

              The great outdoors – Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet, Vancouver Island 

I don’t regard myself as unsympathetic to the plight of the planet – I even believe that my adventures outdoors show a sort of respect and understanding. As a teacher, I always encourage students to research and experience what they wish to know, and I apply the same expectation to myself. So, to appreciate our planet, and my particular current corner of it, requires that I get outside. But I sometimes wonder, as I asked earlier, at what cost? 

I must be having an impact on whatever wildlife resides there – think of the bear that needs to focus on 200 000 berries each day in late summer to get ready for hibernation. A human blundering by can only be disruptive, making it that much tougher to survive. Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive…the bear just thinks, oh, him in the plaid shirt again.

               Pristine sands, a beautiful pattern, Long Beach, Vancouver Island

I’m not a fan of being under the water, but I do enjoy being on it. We recently finalized plans for a trip to Clayoquot Sound this coming summer. It will be a return visit – we enjoyed a few days in and around Tofino last summer, and were so smitten by the landscapes that we couldn’t wait to visit again. 

I’ve been reading David Pitt-Brooke’s excellent book “Chasing Clayoquot”, in which he writes a chapter for each month devoted to an outdoor adventure in the Clayoquot region. He has an amazing grasp of the ecology, history and geology of Vancouver Island. His descriptions evoke the beauty and uniqueness of the Clayoquot biosphere, an incredibly beautiful yet threatened environment. He muses on the impact he has on his immediate surroundings – in one chapter, a short intertidal walk causes him to pause and ponder on how his presence disturbs the place he loves and appreciates. It is a conundrum, to visit and interact in a wilderness, and publicize the beauty of hidden places so that others can share that appreciation, yet avoid upsetting what makes these places so special.

            Sunset on Chestermans Beach, Vancouver Island

Pitt-Brooke makes the point that we only seem to love a species or place once it’s very existence has become threatened. Why can’t we value our natural treasures and resources – all of them essential to our wider ecosystem and overall survival – before they are on the brink of extinction?

There are no easy short term answers to how we manage our relationship with wild places. Still, it does no harm to stop and think about some of the questions, have an awareness of what we are doing – even as we move through these beautiful habitats.

Do you share some of these concerns? Feel free to write a response and share a thought! 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.

Bears – without fear? A reading recommendation and some grainy photos

Bears without fear – that’s a challenging statement – is it possible to live and play in bear country without fear?

I have to be honest, when I arrived in Western Canada, I had a few preconceived (ill conceived?) ideas about bears being large, scary and dangerous. They would be lurking behind every tree, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting – or even suspecting – PlaidCamper, ruining his lovely checked shirt because they couldn’t possibly have anything better to do with their day. 

As a teacher, I did what I tell my students to do when they (and I) don’t know something – look it up! So the first book I read in Canada from the public library was “Bear Attacks” by Stephen Herrero. I was trying to reassure myself that my favourite pursuits of hiking and camping would be unhindered by bears…and a book entitled “Bear Attacks” was how I sought that assurance. Hmm. If you’ve read Herrero’s excellent book, you’ll know it is very informative, well researched, extremely entertaining, and full of case histories that are almost certain to discourage an old PlaidCamper from ever going into the woods. 

Almost, but not quite. I do make lots of noise, travel in a group of four or more, and, most importantly, make sure there is a more overweight and slower member in the party. Preferably someone I don’t know or I might dislike. Not survival of the fittest exactly, just the slightly fitter. Anyway, I’ve had a few very distant encounters with bears – usually from chairlifts and cars – always respecting that the bear has more right to be there uninterrupted than I do to take its picture. Hence the grainy (cell phone) image that is the header to this piece, and the poor quality photo below – why get closer? 



What are those reasons for not getting closer? Is fear one of them? Yup! Arguably, an encounter with a bear, as with many wild animals, could be a cause for fear (and a reading of Bear Attacks can support this argument). Bears are large, will fight to protect themselves, and may be unpredictable. Does this sound rather human? Is respect a better reason? Yup! 

I recently read another wonderful book about bears, “Bears, Without Fear” by Kevin Van Tighem. He suggests many reasons for respecting rather than fearing bears. He uses his own experiences, wide research, and stories from people who have had many and varied bear encounters, to create a compelling argument that the way we view bears has been distorted. This is because many early and subsequent European settlers to North America used these magnificent creatures as a repository for all their wilderness fears. These fears, combined with the place bears have in storytelling and myth making in many cultures, as well as the relatively recent phenomenon of allocating bears cute or clownish traits – Van Tighem cites Yogi Bear and teddy bears – create an unfair yet popular picture that is widely accepted today. The spread of human beings into what was once almost exclusively bear territory has increased the number of bear encounters, generally to the detriment of bears. Taking a lack of knowledge, a fear of the unknown, and a willingness to adopt a human-centric view of a wilderness that has been a habitat to bears for as long as, if not longer, than it has been for humans results in a terribly skewed perception of what bears really are. 

Van Tighem’s book is certainly worth reading, if only to challenge many preconceived ideas about bears. He doesn’t sentimentalize the issues, and he certainly acknowledges the possibility that a bear encounter is not always a safe encounter. He does, however, reframe the context of how we as humans exploiting the wilderness might want to view our relationship with bears, and see them for the wonderful and unthreatening creatures they might actually be if we would only respect rather than fear them. We could also accept that bears existed and exist without actually owning any of the baggage we assign them. Read the final story Van Tighem relates of a bear encounter between a group of excitable children and a grizzly for an example of what really happens in an encounter once the potential for drama and preconceived ideas have been removed from the telling. It is less interesting in the telling, but more accurate – and safer? – for the bear.

This coming spring, summer and fall, old PlaidCamper will be hiking and camping armed with bear spray (as always), but also with a little less fear and rather more respect. (This coming weekend, I might go and see the movie Paddington, secure in the knowledge that as a realistic depiction of bear behaviour, Paddington will likely be on a par with the rampaging grizzly in The Edge).

Do you have any bear stories to share? Thanks for reading, keep your guy ropes secure.

Snowshoeing – get outside (and what a workout)

My first effort on snowshoes was a couple of years ago, and effort was the right word. It looked simple, and friends who were practised in the art said things like “oh, if you can walk, you can snowshoe” and this was perfectly true. Yet what they should really have said, especially to the unwitting first timer, was “oh, if you can walk comfortably wearing very large overshoes that spread your normal gait wider than is comfortable, while taking exaggerated strides, then you can snowshoe”. That would have been more true.

The physics of the shoes do work. Your weight is spread evenly, and you don’t sink far, particularly on firm snow packs. Not that I believed it – and me being a teacher too – silly boy. That first time was such an effort, getting all sweaty, legs burning and my heart pounding, overheating even in -15 temperatures. I remember thinking “are these snowshoes really necessary?” So I took them off and tried walking without. Sinking almost immediately into midthigh snow and trying to walk even a few metres was a lung buster – that unnatural snowshoe gait suddenly seemed very attractive. Old PlaidCamper never felt as old as he did than in those few steps without the snowshoes. My respect for the wit, wisdom and ingenuity of the original snowshoers increased exponentially with each floundering snowshoeless step. Snowshoes! A marvellous invention and a great way to travel! I put them back on, learned very quickly to adopt a good gait, and imagined I was Huron or Algonquin (go here for a brief history of snowshoes: snowshoes.com).

As much as I love them, skiing and snowboarding are sometimes too fast for taking in the natural beauty of wintry mountain valleys. There are times and days when a slower mode is what I’m after. Snowshoes fit the bill. We’ve gone from borrowing pairs, just to “give it a go”, to acquiring our own, such has been our enthusiasm. Real peace, quiet and solitude can be found on a pair of snowshoes. Especially since, after a few outings, my original laboured breathing, hammering heart, and ponderous lurching has diminished to the point where snowshoeing is perfectly simple. Now it’s all about pine scented air and breathtaking scenery:

Bow Valley, AB, Feb 2015

Honestly, take it from me – an old PlaidCamper – if you can walk, you can snowshoe!

Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.