All time favourite wilderness movies (#2 in an occasional series…)

Ah, back to this campfire game. (Actually, I wish I was arguing about movies around a campfire, instead of spending this week moving apartments – such fun…)  Anyway, amongst friends and family, the choice this time has divided opinions. I really like it (it’s on your all time favourite list PlaidCamper – of course you like it), but I don’t know that this is strictly a wilderness movie, it’s perhaps more of an action survival flick, or even an eco-horror parable. I’ve seen it a couple of times, and I think it works at a number of levels. The movie? Oh yeah, (this is like a teaser trailer), the movie is The Grey (dir. Joe Carnahan, 2012). 

 Is something hiding in there?

Never mind all that stuff about it working at a number of levels, The Grey stands out for me because of the winter settings, and a fine performance from Liam Neeson. Much of the movie was shot near Smithers, BC, and, as in any good wilderness movie, the settings and weather behave like additional characters, providing greater drive to the narrative. Liam Neeson is suitably grizzled and gruff, entirely believable as a person who has reached the end of his emotional tether, not angry but exhausted, yet girding himself for a final effort to help his coworkers survive their predicament.

I mentioned above that the story could be read as an eco-horror tale. There was plenty of criticism aimed at the film makers for their depiction of wolves. Having survived a terrifying plane crash in a frozen wilderness, the characters are preyed on by a pack of enormous wolves who pick off survivors one by one in a series of gruesome attacks, hunting the humans as they look for a means of escape and a return to civilization. This is a familiar formula to horror/action movie fans, along the lines of the crew being preyed on in the original Alien movie, or the National Guard soldiers lost in the bayou in Southern Comfort. 

 Very grey…

The wolf depiction is unrealistic, particularly the sheer size of the creatures. Really they are designed to represent all that scares many city dwellers when they think about wilderness – wolves as the other or unknown. The movie makers have exaggerated the wolves to heighten audience fears; they’re not making a realistic documentary style statement about wolves. Treat the movie as humans vs. nature, in the tradition of Jaws or Grizzly (you can’t take that one too seriously!) and others in that vein, and you’ll be suitably entertained. Are the wolves simply nature taking revenge on resource greedy humanity? (The characters are oil riggers heading off for some down time away from the drill site). There are many deaths in the movie, and some are as a result of the environment – not all are down to the wolves – is this nature fighting back?

 Nature always wins…

I’ve always enjoyed stories with wolves, or about the mythology of wolves. As an impressionable teenager, I saw Neil Jordan’s movie The Company of Wolves. He was inspired by Angela Carter’s revisionist version of Little Red Riding Hood in her short story collection The Bloody Chamber: “Beware men whose eyebrows meet!” Mine do, although I don’t howl at the moon (often, unless having dealings with lawyers or mortgage brokers – I know, I know, I should let it go). The same impressionable teenager enjoyed The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, the original Wolfman with Lon Chaney, and reading Silver Bullet by Stephen King. Wild creatures lurking in dark places. I was a sensitive boy. So perhaps there is a very loose thread running from those earlier stories I enjoyed through to The Grey, which may explain why I am drawn to it beyond the wintry settings.

I also think that, for an out and out action and entertainment survival film, The Grey has a surprisingly philosophical thread; what does it mean to die, and is the manner of your death and how you accept it a reflection of your life? Is there a time to fight and a time to concede, and can that be graceful? In between the action and horror, there are moments of stillness, where the characters contemplate their mortality and chances of survival. The relatively thoughtful approach raises the movie above cliche and stereotype. 

 Be graceful

Yes, it’s possibly preposterous, macho, unrealistic, and somewhat formulaic – it’s all there for a fan of action: chases, escapes, tough dialogue, a plane crash, fights and confrontations aplenty, and yet…with the added dimensions of beautiful scenery, Neeson’s excellent performance, and an above average script with some depth, I think this is a little better than the usual fare.

I’ve yet to see a wolf in the wild. I’d dearly love to one day, from a respectful distance and with a better understanding of what they are as magnificent creatures in their proper context – and without my teenage impressions! 

So, there you have it – a fairly recent movie, unlike my previous choice (and I don’t think my mother has a crush on Liam Neeson – I’m not asking her – read the post about Jeremiah Johnson), but it’s in my list of favourites because I keep going back to it.

 Beautiful scenery

Have you seen The Grey? Is it as good as I think it is, or is it just another action movie? And what about the wolf depiction? Is it okay to get that wrong in the interests of telling a story? Do your eyebrows meet in the middle?

Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment or share a story (or movie recommendation), and keep your guy ropes secure.

The Long Beach challenge!

Less of a challenge when you approach it using the PlaidCamper method – although we did double the distance and likely set a new record time… 

 

This beautiful stretch of Pacific coastline is located midway between Ucluelet and Tofino, on the Pacific Rim Highway of Vancouver Island. It’s worth the trek to make the trek.

Worth the trek

From either the Long Beach parking lot, or the Kwisitis visitor centre near Florencia Bay, a willing hiker can walk almost 10km uninterrupted along the Pacific coast. The views up and down the shore are wonderful, and once you have gone further than 20 minutes, you are likely to have the beach almost entirely to yourself. For non human company, there’ll be bald eagles, gulls, ravens, and numerous other shorebirds.

 Keeping an eye on those hikers

Wolves, cougars and black bears are a possibility, as well as potential sightings of whales out in the ocean. We saw the birds, but no mammals. Not too sorry to avoid those encounters, better for all concerned.

Long views
Shore birds! (Marbled Godwits? Not sure…)

On one side you have tussocks of grass and low sand dunes fronting the fringe of rainforest. Huge logs washed up and tossed far onto the shore by the powerful storms that pound the coast later in the year are scattered everywhere. The views change constantly as you walk; the perspective of each bay, in front or behind, the mists and fog drifting in changing the light, concealing then revealing, and then concealing again. In the two days we hiked, the weather was sunny, then misty, then rainy, then sunny again, and often all in the same hour. 

Storm tossed logs

 Misty long views

Underfoot, depending how close you want to walk to the waves crashing ashore, the sand is hard packed and easy to walk on. There are thousands of tiny shells, middling shells and larger shells, all colourful. Pretty rocks and pebbles, shiny and speckled, mottled or plain, and many like little stone eggs, are uncovered as the ocean retreats. Huge lengths of bull kelp glisten in the light, and the occasional jelly fish is strewn across the sand, causing one to jump over and around at the last second as you catch sight of them. 

 Easy walking!

The Long Beach challenge is set up as a time trial for those who wish to try. If we were being timed, we definitely set some kind of record. The number of times we stopped to breathe in all that was surrounding us, the water breaks, the lunch stop perched on a log – yup, certainly a new time record! I can’t imagine wanting to complete the journey as quickly as possible, but that’s because I am OldPlaidCamper, not young PlaidCamper. As far as jogging goes, if you made me, I’d rather jog on Long Beach than do repeated circuits in a city park. 

More shore birds (the most cute least sandpipers? Maybe…)

From our campground near the beach, we were situated about a third of the distance from the Long Beach starting point. So we set off one day heading north to do a there and back again section, and the following day we turned south to go there and back for that section. The Long Beach challenge twice in two days, including lunch picnic stops – not so much of a challenge, it was more like two really delightful days of easy hiking in a wonderful setting. That’s a challenge I’m always up for! (The real challenge was having to leave).

I’m ready for this…

Do you have a favourite hike – or favourite beach? Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment or share a story, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Road trips – love them! (Didn’t always)

When we were four small boys crammed into the back of a Ford Cortina, I didn’t much like road trips. On the plus side, if you live in the UK, distances aren’t far. On the minus side, traffic congestion, especially during peak vacation time, is terrible. It’s always been terrible. It still is. Short distances, but long travel times. Now for some time travel, back to the early 1970s: 

Road trips and vinyl car seats are bad…

Imagine the lovely feeling of clambering into the back of an old Cortina, wearing short trousers and sitting on sun scorched vinyl seats. You are one of four brothers trying to fight without parents noticing. (They knew, but what are you going to do? Not visit friends and relatives? Although, on reflection, friends and relatives might not have been too upset if we hadn’t arrived, all pleasantly sweaty and odorous…) 

Oh dear. Uncomfortable isn’t even close. It was territorial war. Pushing and shoving, fighting for an extra millimetre or two of buttock space. Are we there yet? Silent wrestling, forming alliances, then breaking alliances, leaning extra hard on corners, real or imaginary. How did we not fall out, bursting open back doors and bouncing down the road? Astonishing, and a testament to sturdy 1970s build quality and car construction. Now add the dog who was carsick most of the time. Four little boys and a farting dog? Well, the dog got the blame. No air conditioning and we weren’t always allowed to open the rear windows. Inhumane, but something to do with the drivers behind us complaining about half eaten food items hitting their windshield. Are we there yet? It’s a wonder that any of us made it to adulthood. All credit to our parents, and hats off for their patience. There must have been times when they wanted to…

Somewhere in New Mexico – timeless

Fast forward to the present:

These days, I love road trips! We travel in the summer, our trips are usually in Canada and the US, we use routes that are generally pretty quiet – especially compared to UK roads in summer – and we stay in campgrounds and the occasional hotel/motel. Our time is our own, and we allow for frequent coffee stops, aiming to turn off the highway and venture into unknown (to us) little towns that almost always seem to have an independent coffee shop. Are we there yet? Seems like it.

 Follow that truck!

There is a rhythm to life on the road. An early start, a stop for coffee, a couple more hours, a stop for lunch, a couple more hours, then a campground arrival. Stay a night, stay two, then on we go. Repeat as necessary, and it’s necessary! Don’t much care if we are there yet, the fun is in the trip.

Music on the trip is important. Might be a local country radio station, or it might be a CD or two from our dubious collection. Tastes can vary in the music department. Won’t be me singing, because that’s not fair to fellow travellers. At other times, it’s the windows wound down, the rush of air, and our own thoughts. Non drivers will snooze, there’ll be snatches of conversation, but it’s all pretty laid back, and a far cry from those childhood days of burning bare legs on leatherette seats. Don’t want to be there just yet.

 Somewhere out West – don’t need to be “there” yet!

I appreciate some would find the idea of a road trip the height of tedium and monotony, but I enjoy the trees flashing past, or mountains in the distance, or dusty desert vistas, or the shimmering haze of sweltering blacktop. The exit signs of promising sounding towns – we might need a stop, we might not, and if we miss it, there’s always next time or another town. I don’t think any two roads, or two towns are ever quite alike. I’ve lost count of the shaded bandstands in small parks where we’ve sheltered from the sun and enjoyed a picnic. 

Once you surrender to life on the road, it is contradictory; you are travelling quickly (but well within posted limits), yet life seems to slow down, and there are few hassles. Not even road construction delays. We once drove from Calgary to Berkeley Springs, WV and back, and only got caught in construction delays twice. Amazing!

  Somewhere in WV

School is almost out, and it’s been a very pleasant academic year, but now my mind has turned to the road. Instead of writing report cards, I’ve found myself planning a couple of road trips for this summer (my report card would say I’m easily distracted). Time to unfold and flatten well used road maps, top up the car fluids (and hide Mrs PlaidCamper’s CDs) before we set off – can’t wait!

 Let’s go! Needles, CA

Do you have a favourite road trip? Any rituals for the road? Please feel free to share! Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Paddleboarding! Recommended, and quick to learn…

…especially on almost mirror-flat water, where you can see the bottom! A short post here on our first SUP adventure.

If you’re tempted to try stand up paddleboarding, I honestly can’t think of a better place than on the inlet side of Tofino. Calm waters, stunning scenery, and a patient instructor, Michelle, who was quick to figure out our (un)fitness level very quickly – I was only pretending to take frequent breathers, because I was really taking in the panoramic views. That’s almost true.

We arranged to meet Michelle at 9am. While we waited for the mist to burn off, she was going to run through the basics, make sure I’d put on my wetsuit the right way round, and by then the tidal mud flats would be covered in water deep enough to paddle across. Starting out in water that shallow, I’d come to no harm…

 They didn’t have a wetsuit in a plaid…

It was a beautiful day, barely a breath of wind to ripple the surface. We are both able to snowboard, and I’d assumed, ignorantly as it turned out, that paddleboard balance would be similar. It was completely different! The sideways stance of a snowboarder is not the forward facing stance of a paddleboarder, and it did feel uncomfortable at first. I really wanted to stand sideways. But I also really wanted to not fall off, so soon got used to the new stance.

 Almost clear enough and deep enough! (Was this the rescue boat?)

I found the first twenty minutes quite difficult; in addition to being uncomfortable with the stance, my thighs were quite trembly as I tried to keep the board steady instead of going with the slight roll. Once I realized I was unlikely to tip the board, particularly in such calm conditions, I relaxed, had less wobbly legs, and really began to enjoy myself.

 Mrs PlaidCamper was way ahead of me!

It does feel unusual to be upright so close to the surface of the water, but I felt more free than sitting in a canoe, and far more controlled compared to the couple of times I’ve tried surfing – self propelled on a board rather than thrashing around in the surf. To be fair, surfing and paddleboarding shouldn’t be compared as each has merits, and they are so different. Paddleboarding was easier (for me) to learn!
 That tiny dot? OldPlaidCamper paddling his little heart out!

On the circuit Michelle guided for us, the water was so shallow that the wonderful aquatic plant life was visible just below the surface – and it was beautiful! We were on the water for a couple of hours, paddling passages between and around the little islands dotting the inlet.

 Quite relaxed for a novice (the water was shallow)

If you ever have the opportunity to try paddleboarding – especially on Tofino’s inlet waters – I highly recommend you take it. It is a marvellous way to explore a shoreline – peaceful, pretty relaxed, and yet can still be a workout if you want – you decide!

How did we celebrate enjoying this new adventure later that day? It had to be as follows:
 Tuff session ale, straight from the source!

The photos of us on the paddleboards were taken by our excellent instructor Michelle. Michelle and her partner Alan are wonderful advocates of healthy living and life in Tofino. We rented (and will be returning to) their delightful little waterside cabin located on the inlet. You can find out more here about all they have to offer.
I’ll leave you with the header picture once again – it really is this lovely:

  
Have you tried paddleboarding? Please feel free to share a story or leave a comment. Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Whitewater – what a thrill!

I usually prefer the quieter and more contemplative outdoor pursuits – honestly, there’s really no need for me to sing around the campfire or anything, that’s just cruel and unusual punishment for all the woodland creatures – but when friends suggested a morning of whitewater rafting we couldn’t say no.

  Maligne River, Jasper National Park, AB. Quiet and contemplative…

Rivers have cropped up in much of what we’ve been doing the past few weeks. We recently attended a National Geographic presentation, Chasing Rivers by photographer Pete McBride, where he discussed the importance of the Ganges and Colorado rivers. Using these mighty waterways as case studies, he spoke about how the health of a river is an excellent barometer of our environmental responsibility. The treatment a river gets from the humans relying on it for drinking water, agriculture, industry, or as a leisure resource can be quite astonishing. Rivers are such vital parts of our ecosystems, yet rarely get much attention or thought as we merrily extract millions of gallons to sprinkle our lawns, wash our vehicles or forgetfully leave taps running. Perhaps the best point McBride made was that we all live upstream of someone else. Thought provoking given that many rivers are running dry…

  Athabasca River, AB. We all live upstream or downstream to someone else – makes you think…

As well as the presentation, around the same time, and quite by coincidence, I read Peter Heller’s marvellous book Hell or High Water. Heller accompanied a group of kayakers on their expedition to Tibet, where they attempted the first successful descent of the Tsangpo Gorge through white waters that almost defy description in how dangerously wild they are. 
  Read this, it is an amazing true story!

If you enjoy reading first class writing about faraway places and grand (foolhardy?) adventures, then this is the book for you. I was mesmerized by Heller’s telling of the story. He captures the wonder of the locations as well as all the ego, bravado, bravery and dangerous politics of the expedition. He also provides astonishing background stories and histories of some earlier characters who attempted to uncover/discover the Gorge. It is a joy to read – even the very place names are a form of poetry:

Senchen La, Kondrasong La, Namcha Barwa, Gyala Peri, Sinji-Chogyal, Pemakochung. Just delightful sounding!

All this got me thinking back to last summer and our own little whitewater adventure. It was hardly riding Class V or VI rapids, but perfectly exciting Class III and IV water – more than enough for this novice. To put my nerves and fearlessness into perspective, when I say you couldn’t pay me to go on a rollercoaster, I’m being truthful. As I get older, the fear centre in my brain seems to increase in size. I shudder to recall the tree climbing and zip lining “exploits” of years gone by. What was I thinking?

  This seems exciting enough – snapped on my walk to work last week – is this his commute?! 

So I was just a little apprehensive during the excellent and comprehensive safety talk our guide gave us before launch. It was detailed enough on the whole being thrown out of the raft mid rapids explanation that I was having serious second – and third – thoughts. But you can’t lose face in front of friends and family, and anyway, I appeared to be firmly stuck into the wetsuit. Good look for an old PlaidCamper. The best part was when our guide asked for two volunteers to take the front positions in the raft – allegedly the high responsibility places on board. We were all glancing at each other, shuffling a bit and hoping someone else volunteered. What happened was our fellow passengers all shuffled back a pace, making it look like my friend and I had stepped up. My pulse might have quickened…

 Fun, fun, fun!

It was such fun! Being sat at the front was tremendous. The first hole we plunged into left me feeling exhilarated – no time for nerves, you had to paddle as directed by our guide. I’m smiling now as I recall the sheer excitement of those rapids. I really hadn’t anticipated how thrilling our trip down the river would be. I’d go again tomorrow if friends suggested it (or when the rivers are ready, which is the next week or two). Sign me up!

 Still fun!

The pictures of our little group you see on this post were supplied by the excellent outfitters who ran our expedition. I won’t advertise, but I have left a link to their site below if you are interested.

Anyway, there you have it. Something about how rivers have been on my mind recently, and a recollection of an exciting whitewater adventure from last July. Horseshoe Canyon on the Bow River isn’t the Tsango Po Gorge (thank goodness) but it did provide a great introduction to an exciting outdoor activity. I love being by rivers, and this was a new way to enjoy one. However, I’d have been equally as happy hiking, camping or sitting on the riverbank (and I did get as great a thrill the first time I tried fly fishing – but that’s for telling another day!) I’ll finish with a calming picture, soothing after the adrenaline rush:

 A peaceful stream, Sedona AZ

Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment or share a whitewater adventure, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Click for more information about photographer Pete McBride!

Click to see Peter Heller’s Tsangpo expedition photos!

Click for information about rafting the Horseshoe Canyon!

A new camping season and a new tent challenge – or is it just me?

Don’t you just love the first camping trip of the new season? 

Especially when you are trying out a new tent! Ah, a new tent, carefully shopped for and chosen wisely. Right weight and size? Check. Within budget? Check. Positive reviews? Check. Easy to put up and pack away? Well…let’s just say for me, in the past, this last part has involved a certain amount of blood, sweat, toil and tears. Being a grown man of a particular age, I don’t need to read instructions because I can figure things out with my innate logical reasoning abilities. Just ask Mrs PlaidCamper. She’d tell you about that time in Scotland…  The new tent looks secure from a distance…

The Scotland story? OK. We arrived at a campground just as it was getting dark and starting to rain. PlaidCamper Jr. was not quite ten months old, a happy camper in the making, but not at that precise moment. It might have been Junior’s tears, or my tears (and rather choice language) as I wrestled with a new tent in the increasingly blustery gloom, but rain or no rain, we drew a sizeable Scottish crowd there. By the end I think the Highland bush telegraph was really buzzing, and they were pouring in from the hillsides to watch the hapless Englishman. It was a bit like a scene from Braveheart, but more grisly. They all wanted to help I’m sure, but I think they realized there are times when it is best to leave well alone. Probably not my finest moment. The trip did get better, and Scotland (in the dry) is a beautiful place to be a camper. He watched the tent antics last week, but didn’t help… 

Back to last weekend and our new tent. With many more years of experience – I’m an older and wiser PlaidCamper than I was on our Scottish adventure, and tents are much more user friendly these days – it was shaping up to be a fun first excursion of the new camping season. 

 This one kept a beady eye on us

It’s worth repeating, I’m a grown man of a certain age, I don’t need to read instructions because I can figure things out with my innate logical reasoning abilities. Hmm. Who needs instructions? Where did I put the instructions? Why didn’t I read the instructions? There are times when learning by doing is great. It’s time to admit it: there are also times when a set of instructions should be read carefully before doing. Don’t tell anyone I said that. In the end, the new tent went up beautifully (or more accurately, was beautiful once up), there was less of a crowd than on that Scottish trip – all done before nightfall, and it was neither windy or rainy.  Looks good close up – now get those guy ropes secured!

It was chilly once the sun dropped behind the mountains, but we were prepared and kept warm as follows: 

Blue Buck, Phillips Brewing, Victoria BC

  Kept warm (I did use one match, sorry Ray!)

Another one of my beer geek asides here: Blue Buck is one of my all time favourite beers (although that’s quite a long list), perfect as a campfire accompaniment, even to those who normally prefer lager beers, so go out and find some. And save one for me! I’ve never tried a Phillips beer and not enjoyed it. Wonderful brewery!

Back to the camping. The following morning was lovely, warming up quickly once the sun rose above the mountains. The view from the new tent made everything seem just right with our little corner of the world:

 Mount Rundle, AB

Overall it was a pleasant overnight excursion, with the new tent a great success. This old PlaidCamper is hoping the tent will be a long lasting one, that way I won’t have to worry for a while about following instructions or another public display of campground ineptitude.

Have you experienced new tent frustration? Or is it just me? Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment, and keep your guy ropes secure.

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.