Running with the bulls…

…in the Monnow valley on the Welsh-English borders. Sounds far more dangerous than it really was, but that’s not to say there wasn’t an element of danger.

We were staying at The Bell in Skenfrith, a lovely old coaching inn about 40 minutes from where we used to live in the UK. When we were there, we used to say wouldn’t it be great to have a night or two and go on hikes in the local countryside? Well, many years later, that’s exactly what we did!

The pub is great, with good food and beer, comfortable rooms, and really friendly staff. After eating a breakfast larger than your normal calories consumed in a week, you have to go for a wander in the surrounding area just to work it off, and work up an appetite for your evening meal. Oh dear…

There are any number of circular hikes that take in old churches, ruined castles, ancient rights of way, and beautiful scenery. Many of the public footpaths cross farmland, with fields full of crops, sheep and cattle. Overhead, red kites circle, riding thermals and calling across green and gold valleys enclosed by high hedgerows and dotted with woods. It is very pleasant country to hike through.

Our particular route wound along the Monnow valley, following the river that marks the boundary between England and Wales. On a warm and humid day, we walked a couple of hours before encountering some other hikers. They were a group of about twenty senior citizens, well equipped with walking poles and old school hiking boots. Almost all greeted us with a cheery “good morning” and almost all issued a warning about a bull in the next field:

“But don’t worry, ‘e didn’t bother us, and ‘e won’t bother you!”

Hmm. Perhaps because you’re in a large group and you descended into his pasture from above the tree line?

We thanked them for the warning, waved farewell, and tramped up the hill and over the crest to the next stile. Oh. Yup, there was a young bull, and he was in front of a small herd of fifteen or so cows. Mrs PC let me go first.

I clambered up onto the stile, stood at the top and looked down at the bull. We shared a moment, eye contact, where I projected that we meant no harm and would cross his field quick-smart and with no harm done. Peace, love and understanding, and I wouldn’t order the steak that evening. He took two paces closer to the stile. Not to be deterred, I stepped down onto his side, exuding confidence. It was a public right of way, after all! He took another pace towards me, then stamped his front hoof and pawed the ground. Exuding fear, I leapt back up onto the stile. He pawed the ground again, and took another step forward. I gave up, and we went the long way around. Ole!

We backtracked to a small church, where we sat and ate our picnic lunch. Of course, the group of senior hikers were also enjoying a stop, and they were most amused that we’d turned back. They were further amused to learn we lived and hiked regularly in Canada:

“So you hike there? Yes? But don’t you have bears? Wolves? Moose? And you were turned around by a bull?!”

Happy to have made their day, we carried on and finished our hike, going the longer way round, and without further bovine stand offs. If I ate meat, I’d have ordered a steak that night…ah, yes, running with the bulls…

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to comment or share a story, and have a wonderful weekend!

West coast wonder!

A short piece this week, written swiftly and in the hope that the sometimes sketchy internet at delightful coffee shops allows for it to get posted.

We went for a wander along the Nuu-chah-nulth trail, and it is a beautiful little hike. On boardwalks winding through rainforest and over sections of bog, this path has it all. Ferns and fronds, magnificent trees, sun and shade, texture and colour, shelter from the rain, no shelter from bugs, and arresting views of the Pacific through gaps in the forest.

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Ferny…

The trail starts its winding route from behind the Kwisitis Visitor Centre and connects to Florencia Bay. Once part of the longer route joining Ucluelet to Tofino, and now named for the grouping of First Nations people who have resided in the area for thousands of years, the path truly is “all along the mountains and sea”(nuu-chah-nulth translated) and worth taking your time to explore.

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…and frondy

The route is about 2.5 km each way, and takes very little time or effort to complete, but you wouldn’t want to rush! This is a path to linger and dawdle along, to stand and gaze, to inhale and exhale and generally unwind on. Take your time – where else are you going to go? – you’re on the edge of the world…

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Texture

Stop at the first little bay, barely 5 minutes from the visitor centre, and you’ll likely have it all to yourself – you might spot seals bobbing in the water, and there is plenty of birdlife feeding on the shore.

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Stop here! (Is there a hint of seal about the driftwood?)
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Insects, yum!

Eventually, as the sound of the surf increases, you’ll find yourself emerging from the forest above Florencia Bay. A popular spot for surfers, this wide bay is another West coast wonder. We were there on a sunny day, but don’t be fooled. Florencia is named after a ship that went down here in 1861. The bay has also been known locally as Wreck Bay, and looking out at the water, with the waves crashing over partly submerged rocks, it is easy to understand the reputation.

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Above Florencia

Summer is a relatively calm time weather wise on and off the water, but wouldn’t it be something to be here in stormier weather? For me, that would be on the shore. That people make their precarious living, and have done so for thousands of years, along this tough coast is hard to comprehend for a land borne individual like me. You can only marvel at and respect what it takes to live here.DSCN6838

Anyway, as promised, a brief post about a short and spectacular hike. Very highly recommended if the opportunity arises. Thanks for reading, please feel free to share a story or comment, and I hope you have a wonderful weekend!DSCN6824

Mountain magic! A spell was karst…

…on a magical trail beneath mountains hiding behind murky mists.

At school, we’ve been working on starting stories, so apologies for the opener. It may not get any better, but rest assured, I’ll stay away from fiction and stick to the facts. PlaidCamper facts, anyway. Perhaps you’re a little concerned about the spelling?

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Lots of rain…

Last weekend was a holiday long weekend, and, as science, statistics and superstition has taught us, that meant lots and lots of rain, starting at 4pm on Friday, then stopping at 8am on Tuesday. So, camping plans were abandoned, and a new hike sought on Sunday, never mind the weather. We wanted to visit the Spray Lakes area south of Canmore, into Kananaskis country, and follow the Karst Spring trail. A trail leading to a geological feature? Let’s go!

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Spring time, and a long weekend – let’s go!

A weather eye out the window just before departure confirmed it was raining, but by the time we exited the parking garage it had started to snow. Hmm, I thought. Still early, and when it warms up, it’ll soon be just rain again. Forty-five minutes later, we were crawling across the prairies and into the foothills in driving snow. I am an almost outdoorsman.

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Seen, shivering, along the trail

We had fun(?) slipping and sliding down the Smith-Dorrien Highway, likely a lovely dusty road in summer, but current conditions had reduced it to a series of water-filled potholes linked by treacherous gravel stretches. Those were the better bits. When we weren’t slipping and sliding, we were bumping and jumping, and not in a good way.

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Smith-Dorrien Highway (later in the day)

Such fun. The snow had become so heavy that we couldn’t see the mountains or the lakes – and this is a narrow valley. We ploughed on, arrived at the trailhead lot, staggered out of the car, reattached loose fillings, and set off on the Karst Spring trail.

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Spring sign

It was probably the lack of any views due to the snow-rain (Snow-rain? Ha, I knew it would improve!) mix still falling, but the first part of the trail isn’t that interesting – scrubland and small trees each side of a wide track. Stick with it though, and after a couple of kilometres the trail rises into denser coniferous forest, and the atmosphere changes. The path narrows, and the humidity increases. There is more standing water on the ground, and the forest floor, boulders and fallen logs are covered with moss. Patches of wild flowers grow here and there, and witch’s beard hangs from branches. Enchanting!

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A sharp left turn descends to Watridge Lake. This lake is popular with anglers looking to catch trout, but no anglers were present. In fact, we saw only six other hikers all day. The first couple we encountered barely fifteen minutes into our hike. They’d been camping overnight, and looked damp, and thoroughly downcast. When we told them they were mere minutes from the parking lot, their faces lit up, and they actually started to run! We were happy to help!

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Past Watridge Lake, the trail becomes magical. You have to cross wetlands on a narrow boardwalk, which lends a sense of achievement when you don’t fall off. The forest was hushed, melting snow a threadbare carpet on the mossy floor, with drips and drops of rain falling softly. As we followed the path, the faint sound of rushing water grew steadily louder.

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Rushing

Another turn or two and we were alongside the most delightful creek! We knew the spring couldn’t be too far, and continued up the pathway as it hugged the cascading creek.Image 7

Photographs don’t do justice to the mossy, emerald treasures we saw as we approached the source of the spring. Hiking boots don’t allow for much of a jig on a muddy, rock and root ridden path, but I swear I did a little dance of joy. Steady, PlaidCamper. Must have been a sprinkle of fairy dust, or maybe an allergic reaction to Fairy Slipper (thanks, Walt) pollen, but this was a special place.Image 9

With time pushing on, and an increased chill in the air, we couldn’t hang around too long. We did promise that we’d return, perhaps in the fall, to uncover the autumnal charms of a truly wonderful trail. Image 16

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Spellbinding…

We’d fallen under the spell of Karst Spring, a magical place deep in the forest, hidden in the shadow of mist-shrouded mountains. (We’ve been working on story closings as well – apologies once more!)

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Karst Spring!

On our drive back home, the cloud cover lifted enough for us to see some of what we’d missed on the journey in. Wild country.Image 4

Thanks for taking the time to read this, it is always appreciated. As ever, please feel free to leave a comment or share a story, and have a wonderful weekend!

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After a cold day, this seemed about right!

A mountain rush

We managed a quick mountain fix last weekend, just enough of a boost to push us on through the next few weeks. It’s almost report card season, and the end of academic year activities are starting to loom. Not the worst position to be in, but a short and steep mountain hike helped recharge and refocus.

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A mountain fix

We had a few hours, so opted to try the Grassi Lakes trail just outside Canmore. This is a relatively easy hike, barely 4km there and back, with wonderful views over the Canmore town site.

DSCN6657The trail is named after Canmore resident Lawrence (Lorenzo) Grassi, an Italian who arrived in Canmore in 1912. He reportedly left his home because he needed to get something to eat! A coal miner in Canmore, he spent his free time building trails and acting as a mountain guide. He was so loved in Canmore, there is a school named after him, as well as a mountain and the lake trail. What a wonderful legacy!

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Thank you, Lorenzo Grassi!

We hiked in bright sunshine and with temperatures nudging the high teens centigrade. Too soon for bugs, it was very pleasant to be out.

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Very pleasant

The trail forks, with the right hand gravel road being the easiest, and most accessible option. Don’t use it unless you have to – the more challenging left fork has the best views over the valley and takes in a waterfall. Go this way! Towards the top of the trail there are a few steep steps, and the steps have a higher reach than average, but if you’re moderately (or almost moderately) fit, there’s no real effort involved – or the real effort is mercifully brief…I was only stopping to take a photograph.

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Rest stop

One or two parts of the trail had spring meltwater flowing across, creating muddy and slippery sections, but proper footwear and a little caution took care of any chance of a fall. I wish I could say all the fellow hikers we encountered had adequate footwear…flip flops? On a mountain trail? Hmm. Perhaps that’s the fashion – I expect the local ER staff are very understanding.

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Be kind to yourself, and wear suitable shoes!

The lakes at the top of the trail are quite beautiful. The clear water is blue-green in certain light, and catches the reflection of the delightful surroundings. The cliff faces above the lakes are popular with climbers, although the jumble of scattered rocks at the bottom made me wonder about how secure the climbers were. It’s a different sort of mountain high, I guess, and not one I have a head for.

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Blue-green reflections

If you have the chance and the time to take a little hike up this trail, I’d recommend it. My suggestion would be to go mid-week or set off early at the weekend, as the slight downside is the number of people who might have the same excellent idea for a brief hike.

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We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the trail and at the top, making the most of the lovely legacy of Lorenzo Grassi. A quick fix of fresh mountain air, beautiful blues and bright greens, and all in the spring sunshine. An easy addiction, and hard habit to break (who’d want to?!)

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Refreshing

When we returned home, we celebrated the day with an appropriate ale:Image Thanks for reading. As always, please feel free to share a story or leave a comment, and have a wonderful weekend!

 

Bicycle chains and bear spray

Now that spring has sprung, bear spray is always a must carry item when out hiking. Safety first! It’s important to be prepared, because once you are in wild country, anything could happen. (But why bicycle chains, PC? Have you joined a ’50s motorcycle gang, switching plaid for leather? Read on if you are interested, but no, this isn’t a tale of ruckus and rumbles…)

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Good place for a short hike

Last weekend, we enjoyed a short hike with friends and family around the outskirts of Canmore. The hike was short for a number of reasons. The biggest reason was the way certain members in the party celebrated our reunion after quite some time being apart. Mrs PC’s twin brother, and his best buddy, hadn’t been out to Alberta before, so they made up for lost time by trying as many local craft beers in one Friday evening as is (in)humanly possible. We didn’t even try to keep up. If you were unable to get hold of a pint of Last Best IPA last week, well, now you know why.

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Plenty of trees

So, a few sore heads slowed down our small band of happy hikers. Other reasons for dallying? The pre-teen, M, was on his bike because “walking with old people is boring” and his mother, S, was on her bike because a season of snowboarding had worn out her knees. M. kept disappearing onto side trails, and his mother would head off, find him, and shepherd him back to the main group. Her other son, teenager A, is an avid photographer, enthusiastic to the point where he has to take a picture of everything. Not necessarily a problem, but there are a lot of trees out there. This might have slowed our progress just a little. A’s father, Mr. S, enjoyed exhorting him to “come on A, keep up, there’s another tree over here!” Didn’t work.

Like me, Mr. S is bear aware, and he carries a canister of bear spray on his belt. You never know…although the chances of an encounter were greatly reduced that day by the heartfelt and voluble pleas of the youngest child wanting to know if we could go home now. No.

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Why go home?

Mr and Mrs S live with their two boys quite close to Canmore Nordic Centre, so hiking and biking trails are almost right outside their door, and just above the town. We wandered along forgiving trails, admiring the views across the Bow Valley, the fresh new leaf growth, and feeling apologetic toward the single elk we did encounter. To be honest, I think the elk was ok, had probably seen and heard worse, and in fact looked rather unimpressed. It allowed A to take a photograph or two, and then sauntered off into deeper woods.

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Unimpressed – and grainy

All was well with the world, the fresh air working its soothing magic on those that needed soothing, the younger boy was beginning to understand no means no, and enjoy being out on his bike in beautiful country. Not that he’d ever admit it. The weather was rather cool, skies were overcast, with more than a hint of rain in the air, but not enough to dampen spirits. Then, near disaster struck! The chain on Mrs S’s bike came off! That wasn’t the disaster though. It was the fact she didn’t want to get her brand new gloves greasy putting the chain back on. Truthfully, they were lovely gloves, and perhaps the grease would not have washed off.

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Soothing

Never afraid to help in an emergency, and because my gloves are a filthy disgrace at the best of times, I turned the bike over, reset the chain, and was about to guide it back on, but it seemed we all had to inspect the work. Fair enough. Mrs PC’s twin bent over the back wheel, his buddy along for the weekend bent over the back wheel, I bent over the back wheel, Mrs PC bent over the back wheel, S bent over the back wheel – it was her bicycle after all – and Mr. S bent over the back wheel. Quite a crowd! A didn’t bend over the back wheel – he was taking photos of all the adults bending over the back wheel. I hope he had a wide lens, and I hope he isn’t on FaceBook.

IMG_20160430_154940Anyway, happy that the work was sound, S bent down slightly further and reached across to turn the pedal. PSSSSHT! Huh? What was that? Too many beers the night before? We looked up at each other, a slight frown on faces as we searched for the guilty party.  Then we all staggered back as we inhaled. Yes, it was that bad. No, not that. S had set off his can of bear spray! Fortunately, the cloud avoided a direct hit on all who were gathered, and apart from some of us feeling a touch asthmatic, the only damage was to the back of S’s jacket and jeans. I’ve never seen people leap like gazelles before, but the explosive jump away was quite something.

It was one of those situations where you had to be there to really see the funny side of such a narrow escape, but can you imagine the headlines? Tourists shoot themselves with bear spray just outside of town. No bears were present.

IMG_20160430_140854We laughed until we cried, mostly with relief, and that’s when the closest to real damage happened – S rubbed away a tear or two and discovered he had bear spray on his hands…

I’m very happy to report S is fine now, after much eye irrigation, and there were no lasting side effects. He does still carry bear spray when hiking, no longer on his belt but in a side pocket of his hiking pants. Mrs S wears old gloves when out cycling.

IMG_20160430_155306 - Version 2So there you have it. No rumbles, perhaps a bit of a ruckus, and we’re all a little more careful about where we hang our bear spray canister. Thanks for reading! Please feel free to comment or share a story, and have a wonderful weekend!

Hills, thrills, and tender tales…

…enough to make an urban hiker happy in a big city!

First off, I have to make a full and frank confession, and a big thank you. We didn’t actually walk to all of the places photographed in this post. One day we were lucky enough to be given a car tour around the various neighbourhoods of San Francisco, with an emphasis on looking in from the edges. A huge thank you to Jet Eliot for this wonderful overview of a fascinating city – a memorable day out!

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Overview!
I have to say, I think you could live for years in SF and never get to grips with all the stories and possibilities it has to offer. It is a mass – and mess – of contradictions, in the best possible way. I’ve been struggling with figuring out how to convey our visit in a short blog post and, to be honest, concluded that I can’t. It’ll have to be several parts posted intermittently over the next while or so, but not week on week. So bear with me (if you’re still here!) and my next confession is that I’ve decided to pretty much use the unedited notes I jotted down there each evening – I do promise I spellchecked most of it. If it is a little incoherent or disconnected, never mind, let’s say that might also be true of parts of SF…

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A hardboiled apartment building (huh?)
All this talk of confessions, promises, and being honest, why, it’s like I’m wishing I could write a hardboiled detective mystery. Well now, we didn’t know before arrival, but it turned out we were staying in the same apartment building Dashiell Hammett lived in for a while.

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You should read this, I tell ya!
Once I found this out, I immediately got hold of a copy of The Maltese Falcon, and it was quite the thrill to be reading and recognizing some of the place names in the book, to be treading those same mean streets, let me tell ya, sister. (Hmm, best leave it to writers of detective fiction…)IMG_20160322_155813

The streets of San Francisco (really, PlaidCamper?) can be tough, like many big cities. Our exchange with a cab driver upon arrival:

Me: Hi there! (Ooh, the air is warm!) San Loretto Apartments, Nob Hill please.

Jamal: That’s near the Tenderloin! Do you know the Tenderloin? Don’t go to the Tenderloin after dark. There are prostitutes, drug dealers, and other criminals. It’s not Canada!

Me: How close is our apartment to the Tenderloin?

Jamal: Not far! Don’t go down the hill towards the Tenderloin. It’s not Canada. I like driving. I once drove to Toronto to visit my sister and her baby. Took me two weeks, there and back, with three days in Toronto. Stay away from the Tenderloin. I deliver cars. I like driving. California, Utah, Wyoming and Montana. Delivered from Africa. This is the Tenderloin! I won’t stop, don’t worry. Maybe you could visit here in the day, but not after dark. See the people?”

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Not Jamal’s taxi – but he would have loved this car. He liked driving.
Not wishing to taint Jamal’s vision of Canada as a crime-free northern Utopia, we agreed the Tenderloin wasn’t like Canada. Anyway, as Jamal slowed down but didn’t stop, we did see the people, and they might have been up to less than good. We didn’t visit later, not even during the day, not even out of curiosity. Perhaps another time. For a detailed description of the Tenderloin, you could read chapter two of Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love. Actually, read all of it, it’s a splendid book, and that chapter makes for a wonderful introduction to the colourful history of the Tenderloin. As Kamiya puts it a “radioactive core of junkies, drunks, transvestites, dealers, thugs, madmen, hustlers, derelicts, prostitutes, and lowlifes”…so, not all bad then.

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A good read!
Each evening after dark, I did enjoy sitting at a small corner table in our rented apartment, wedged in between two windows, taking notes as the sounds of a different city drifted up. We live in a big – for Canada – city, close to the downtown, with an evening soundtrack of sirens, trams, and big city noises. It was the same but different in SF. The apartment block is on an intersection between Sacramento and Leavenworth, so reasonably busy. The sirens were more frequent, the clanking cable cars almost musical, the streets more populated later into the night, and the air warmer, with pedestrians strolling less hurriedly than the brisk, let’s-fight-the-chill-air speed walk we have in Calgary. It was fun to hear the bursts of laughter, and snatches of conversation as passersby came and went.

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Part of the city soundtrack – almost musical
I’ll leave it here for now. As I said near the start, this is the first of a somewhat jumbled series of posts about SF. It’s a beguiling city, and the fun here is in writing and attempting to make some sense of it. More to follow later…DSCF2141

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to make a comment or share a San Francisco story or book recommendation!

 

 

Spirited away

I gave myself a little homework to do this week, researching our destination from last week, Lake Minnewanka. A quick visit to ParksCanada uncovered a few interesting facts about this beautiful lake.

The Stoney Nakoda called it “Minn-Waki” which translates as “lake of the spirits” and our brief time there convinced me this is a pretty apt name. Early Europeans named it “Devil’s Lake” and again, if you can imagine arriving the hard way, or catching a tough spring season, perhaps also a reasonable name. Place names are often given for good reasons…Easy to forget you are in wild territory when the modern conveniences of Banff are mere minutes away by car.

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Wild, challenging, chilly

Archaeological evidence uncovered at Minnewanka suggests human activity here as far back as 10 000 years. It is easy to see why. Mountain environments are challenging, but at Minnewanka, in milder seasons, there would be the everyday means to survive. Timber, fish, animals to hunt, and berries and roots to gather would have enabled earlier, knowledgeable, and hardy people to maintain their existence.

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Minn-Waki

Lake of the spirits. I love that! I’m somewhat ignorant when it comes to beliefs held by First Nations peoples, but have some understanding and no end of respect for the spiritual connection many have with the natural world. Given the unpredictable nature of mountain weather, and the size of the lake – it is over 25km long and 2km wide – sudden changes in the weather, particularly if you’re on the water, would have you considering spirits. Is it really so hard to believe that the natural world is teaching us something, whether in fury or on more benign days? We treat the planet as we do, and perhaps the planet responds in kind. Is that simply my imagination?

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The last of the blue skies that day

The day we visited was a cold one, the wind rushing across the ice and freeze-burning exposed faces. The morning had started fine, with blue skies and sunshine, but soon enough clouds were scudding over and amassing, and it was clear a change was coming. Undeterred (but well wrapped up), we opted to follow the shoreline trail at least as far as Stewart Canyon, where the Cascade River feeds the lake. We set off in high spirits that only soared further as the trailside trees afforded some protection from the wind, and the views delighted with each turn in the trail.

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The path itself was extremely icy, and we slipped and slid along, hugging trees because we like to, and because they helped us prevent a fall over the edge. Even with ice cleats, the going was interesting.

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An interesting trail…(this section above the lake was quite forgiving!)

Blinking away tears – must have been the keen wind – it was wonderful to see witch’s hair (or beard?) hanging in abundance from branches. A positive indicator of clean air,  and I can only hope nature’s witches continue to display spirited green defiance and resilience.

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I’m planning a return to Lake Minnewanka when the weather warms up and the ice has melted. There are a number of backcountry campgrounds reachable by canoe, and I would love to paddle up the lake and share a night or two with the spirits. Parts of the trail and campground locations are closed in high summer because this is the prime time for mama grizzlies and cubs to feed on buffalo berries. (Even though I’ve been living out this way for close to a decade, I can’t describe how much of a kick I get from writing phrases along the lines of mama grizzlies and cubs feeding on buffalo berries – isn’t the world great?!) I don’t need to see the bears, and certainly wouldn’t want to disturb their habitat – knowing they are out and about is enough – but a camping and canoe trip before they move into the area is high on my hope list…

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Downstream Cascade, Stewart Canyon

We only hiked a few minutes more past Stewart Canyon, enough to get partial views of the lake below. By then the day really had shifted from benign to more malign, with the increasingly gusty wind throwing sharp crystals in our chapped but happy faces. We listened, took the hint, retraced our steps and were warmed on the inside by our delightful introduction to this spirited lake.

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Upstream Cascade, Stewart Canyon

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to share a story or leave a comment – it is always appreciated. Have a great weekend! I’m having one of these:

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Yesterday!