Canoes, Ray Mears again, and a slow start to paddling by PlaidCamper

With winter appearing to be over, my thoughts turn to spring as lakes slowly thaw and rivers start to flow. Canoes! Patience is required, at least here east of the Rockies, but as we wait, I ask myself, is a canoe the best transport ever? Yes! On northern waterways in particular. (There you are, question answered, and PlaidCamper’s shortest post ever).

Waiting for the waterways to open…

I love canoes. I wasn’t born in Canada, but my home is here, and there is so much about this country that is remarkable, especially for a late developing would be outdoorsman. If I had to make a top ten list of Canadian wonderfulness, canoes are near the top. (Oh no, will PlaidCamper be doing his Top Ten of Canada? Yup, sometime in the future. Man’s gotta blog, and I love lists too).

My first canoe experience took place in the UK, on the River Wye. A lovely river, it flows fairly serenely through beautiful border countryside between England and Wales. At the time, I was lucky enough to be living in Herefordshire, and we often took trips crisscrossing the border country, visiting crumbling castles, peaceful abbeys, pretty priories, and delightful inns and pubs. 

Just as well I’d taken in the countryside views previously, because, at the start of my first canoe voyage, I don’t recall seeing the scenery pass gently by. It was more me spinning the canoe around and around, my buddy in front getting steadily more irate at my inability to steer a steady course down the river. It didn’t help that we were a little flotilla of five, all close friends on a stag weekend, and there was a considerable competitive edge throughout. With each rotation, buddy in the front wasn’t happy watching the rest of the canoes disappear up ahead through the next river bend. (Earlier, I’d already proved to be hopeless at clay pigeon shooting, and let’s say I lacked speed when quad bike racing. Although when it counted, I was a clear leader in one event – sinking pints). Fortunately, we didn’t sink or overturn the canoe whilst performing a wobbly yet well choreographed swapping of places. I adopted a suitably heroic pose at the front, pretended to know what I was doing, my buddy let me paddle every now and again, and he steered us safely downriver to the pick up point. Another pub, if you were wondering.

                

Canoes on Moraine Lake, AB

So, not the best debut ever, but I didn’t let it get in the way, and I am happy about that, because every summer since being in Canada, we take out a canoe whenever we can. Is there a finer way of whiling away a few sunny hours? Spectacular scenery on a calm lake, or along a more challenging journey downriver, taking gentle to more strenuous exercise, and enjoying good company. I saw my first bald eagle from a canoe – what a feeling. I become completely Canadian just clutching a paddle, and I can’t wait for my buddy from above to come visit one summer – show him I can navigate safely and with confidence now!

For me, canoes are such a part of the Canadian identity, seemingly ever present in books, songs, movies and paintings. I can never resist taking a photo, always seeking to capture the essence or spirit of what canoes represent. The shape is beautiful, so elegant and purposeful, an absolute triumph of form and function. 

                

Lac Beauvert, Jasper, AB

Not only do I love canoes, I also love learning about them from Ray Mears. (Ray Mears is a role model for appreciating wilderness. And yup, there will be a future blog about him. He is a marvellous man). For an eloquent and boyishly enthusiastic video essay on the beauty, history, and total practicality of the canoe, I highly recommend watching Ray Mears learning to build and describing his love of birchbark canoes:

Ray Mears Bushcraft – Birchbark Canoes

A lengthy video, worth all the time, and really entertaining. Ray Mears’ bushcraft company Woodlore (RayMears.com) has occasionally offered courses related to birchbark canoes and canoeing. I think that one of these trips or courses really should be on my important things to do list. I hope Mrs PlaidCamper reads this and remembers it next time old PlaidCamper has a birthday. (Yes, I’m that unsubtle). If you’ve watched the video, you’ll be adding it to your own list too. Won’t you?

An evening view from a canoe – Bow River, AB

Have you ever stood in front of the canoes in an outdoor store, saying to your partner “but if we bought one and used it x times, it would be better than renting, in fact it practically pays for itself,”? Or is that just old PlaidCamper, every time he’s in MEC, trying to convince Mrs PlaidCamper it’s a good idea? One day, PlaidCamper, one day…

Be warned, canoes will likely feature over and over in this blog – and why not? Do you have a canoe story, or piece of water or stretch of river you’d like to share? Thank you 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.