A desert story about the teddy bear cholla (warning: it’s not cute at all…)

What an irresistible idea and name – a teddy bear cactus! There’s quite a patch of these just off the road in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park. If I remember accurately, it is signposted as the Cholla Garden, and lovely word though cholla is, it’s not as catchy as teddy bear. Imagine! A garden of cacti that resemble teddy bears. Wouldn’t that be cute?

Look at these - aren't they irresistible?
Look at these – aren’t they irresistible?

I’m back to school soon, so maybe I could tell the younger students a story, one with a teddy bear cholla cactus? Yes, a story as told by Mr. OldPlaidCamper…Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin:

Not really teddy bears...
Not really teddy bears…

Don’t believe it, kids. Look at this picture of a cholla cactus. Now look at this teddy bear. Do they look anything alike? No. That’s silly. They don’t look like teddy bears. You can’t hug them. Well, you can, but it’ll hurt. Advertising and branding is mainly about peddling a lie, or stretching the truth to breaking point. Why are you crying? Please stop. I’ll be back next week with another story. Please stop crying.

If I’m unlucky, and the principal finds out, maybe I’ll be reprimanded for crushing the imaginations and dreams of young’uns, but – silver lining – I’ll never be asked to teach kindergarten. (To be serious for a moment, I do believe that kindergarten teachers are amazing, and have one of the toughest – and most rewarding – teaching assignments. I would not be able to do it).

A storm is coming!
A storm is coming!

Back to the cacti. We did visit the Cholla Garden one evening a couple of weeks ago. The day had been incredibly hot – even by desert standards – and darkness was falling as we drove through the park. We could see clouds massing, huge and dark; a storm was building. We jumped out of the car to look at the field(?) of cholla cacti. Quite beautiful. Irritatingly, the only mosquito for miles around honed in on me almost immediately. I dealt with it calmly, by leaping about slapping my head and neck, which seemed to work. I think it fell to the floor, weak with laughter. I snapped a few quick pictures, the ones on this post, and jumped back in the car before the storm was upon us. (Alright, before the mosquito recovered).

A field of teddy bears (use your imagination!)
A field of teddy bears (use your imagination!)

The teddy bear cactus really is a beautiful plant; not cute, but beautiful, and to see whole stands of them in the failing desert light was rather wonderful. An almost otherworldly experience. (Just don’t hug them. Those furry little spines are awfully difficult and painful to remove. You’d be like a bear with a sore head. Or arm).

Beautiful
Beautiful

Have you ever wanted to hug a teddy bear cholla? Of course not. That’s silly. Thanks for reading! Please feel free to comment or share a story, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Montana Evening Sky

A brief post this time (thank you, PlaidCamper) following up on those Montana sunsets painted by Charles Russell I mentioned a couple of weeks back.

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One night, there was a storm – very dramatic!

Did I manage to capture a sunset like Charlie? Nope! Not even close, but I sure had fun trying…

We were staying at Little Bear cabin, an old ranger station situated high above Bozeman in the Gallatin Forest. A beautiful location with panoramic views in every direction. I’ll write more about the cabin another time. I know, you can’t wait…

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The views are lovely – you can see a few lights way down in the valley

In almost all the photographs I use in this blog, the only changes I make to the original is an occasional crop (if only you could see the leftovers…oh dear), but I have to be honest and say all the photos in this post have been tweaked and edited. I’ve no idea what I did, but it was entertaining changing the various settings to see what happened. All of which makes me even more appreciative of Charlie Russell’s skills as a painter.

Imagine being skilled enough to paint an evening sky
Imagine being skilled enough to paint an evening sky

As well as the artistic skills, my guess would be you’d have to have one eye open and on the lookout for larger wildlife. There are grizzlies in the area, and we always felt happy to be in the cabin rather than camping.

The big sky was so grand...too large to capture effectively!
The big sky was so grand…too large to capture effectively!

We had a wonderful time sky watching up on the mountain! Time to think, get a sense of perspective, and admire the grandeur of Montana from a mountain top. I’ll leave you with a couple more photos taken from up there:

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Thanks for reading! As ever, please feel free to share a story or a comment, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Route 89 and 89A – north from Flagstaff, AZ to somewhere in Utah

Other than an ocean view, this route pretty much has it all. Mountains, hills, forests, rivers, grasslands, deserts, canyons, plateaus, cliffs, and all in a few hours of driving time. If we’d stopped as often as we wanted to, why we might still be on 89 now. Let’s view it as a swift reconnaissance for future visits…this is a timeless place, and it’ll wait for our return. Here are a few grainy photographs (taken on the move and through a bug splattered windshield) and a few impressions here.

 

It has it all!

 

With all the variety, the weather was changeable – although mostly variations on hot. No complaints though; it’ll be a long winter soon enough above the 49th. The day we travelled, it was pleasantly cool in the early Arizona morning, warmed up across Navajo lands, got rather warm in the open desert, cooled off again on the high plateau, rained on us during and just after our descent, then the heat increased all the way on from there.

 

Blue skies, red cliffs

 

This road is such a colourful route! Sandstone hoodoos and clay soil, cliffs of pink and red strata, coral sands, dark green ponderosa forests, golden hay bales in enormous straw fields, and sluggish muddy rivers at the bottom of deep canyons. The vast skies also played their part in the colour palette. A huge reach from light to deep blue, high trailing wisps of cloud in the upper atmosphere, billowing white puffs gathering over the heights, and ominous heavy greys and hazy purples rushing in from and blotting out distant horizons.

Ominous…

 

Every now and then a few drops would spatter the windshield and you’d look about and up into the blue, wondering where the offending cloud might be. Other times you could see the veils of rain sweeping towards you, almost in touching distance, yet not a drop through the window. There was one mighty downpour that reduced visibility and speed for about five minutes, then bright sunshine soon after. What a joy to be traveling through high country where you can see weather coming – and going.

 

Wonderful setting

 

We had plans, so we couldn’t stop this time and see it all. I had to wrestle with that. Here’s what it sounded like in my head:

Ponderosas! Like them, they’re big.

Mmm, sagebrush.

I wonder what it’s like to be a cliff dweller?

Vermilion. Vermilion. A bit red.

That’s a long way down.

Roadside stalls selling Navajo rugs and jewelry (whisper that to Mrs PlaidCamper – but don’t wake her. Phew, close one!)

Do we have time for Bryce Canyon today? Don’t be silly. Next time.

Is the North Rim higher than the South?

Oh no, we’re in Utah on Sunday – can I get coffee?

Crap! It’s the  I-15 already! Left to Vegas, right to Salt Lake City. There has to be a better way.

No wonder Mrs PlaidCamper has her travel naps…

 

Fresh!

 

Ponderosa pine at 8000 feet smells like, well, ponderosa pine at 8000 feet. Exceptionally good! Deeply refreshing, clean, and as far from those old car air fresheners as can be. Roll down your windows! Sagebrush after the rain is real aromatherapy, and no New Age music, kaftans or essential price tags. The only cost is your time, with a willingness to take the long way round. (I know, gas is expensive, and cars are bad, but don’t be a curmudgeon – I can rain guilt on my own parade later).

It wasn’t open anyway…

 

So if you happen to find yourself in Flagstaff early one morning in summer, and you simply must go for a spin in your lovingly (but not overly) restored vintage pickup, head north on 89, then take 89A towards Vermilion Cliffs. Cross the desert and climb up the winding road to the Kaibab plateau. Carry on into Utah and you could stop off at Bryce Canyon. You won’t be disappointed, and you won’t have enough time to do it all in only a day. But that’s alright; do what we intend to do and make plans for a longer future stay! It’s not going anywhere, and this is a timeless place.

 

Find the time…

 

Who can resist the open road? Have you traveled on 89 and 89A up from Flagstaff? As ever, please feel free to comment or share a story. Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.

 

Just add an old pickup truck – maybe one day

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.

Chlorophyll camping in the rain at Green Point…

Summertime camping in a rainforest on the coast of the Canadian Pacific Northwest sounds exactly what it is – simply delightful – but what this old PlaidCamper really didn’t think about when reserving the campground many months ago, was the rain part of rainforest. Green Point campground, situated beautifully on a steep rise overlooking the Pacific, is also nestled in the fringes of a lush green forest – rainforest! 

It’s a rainforest!  

In recent years, most of our summertime camping has been in the deserts of SW USA, and our spring and fall camping at sites on the eastern side of the Rockies in Alberta. Generally, these locations are dry, often hot, and in the case of the Rockies, only an hour or two from home if heavy rain threatens to wash away the tent. (We did once abandon the campground at Lake Louise in early September, when the promised light rain showers became hours and hours of torrential deluge – small rivers were flowing past the tent, and if the grizzlies are paddling two by two, you know it’s time to go home). 

Don’t go home…

When we were approaching Green Point and the first few drops spattered the windshield, we weren’t too concerned. Our stay in the area had been dry and warm up to that point, and a little drizzle wasn’t going to be a problem…(we should have paid attention to the information at the botanical gardens, something along the lines of “autumn is wet, winter very wet, springtime it rains, and summers aren’t dry.” Annually, Tofino gets over three meters of rain! On some measures, two meters annually qualifies for rainforest, so Clayoquot has a super rainforest!) 

Moisture

We weren’t really that unprepared for camping in the rain, it’s just usually rain is a cue for us to not go camping. So the rain that started as we put up the tent, continued as we rigged up a tarp shelter, and did not stop that afternoon when we hiked along the beach, was outside our usual comfort zone. Still, with the tarp, decent waterproof gear in the backpack and a natty new toque, we managed just fine. Although wet, being summer it was not too cold, especially when hiking. 

Overlooking the Pacific (honest)

The trees collect the mist that drifts over from the beach, and all the moisture slowly drips and drops to the forest floor. Your camping soundtrack of rain pattering on the tarp and tent roof is soothing – and it sounds far wetter than it really is, with the dripping continuing long after any actual rainfall. Stepping out from under the tarp, we were surprised again and again by it not raining – or barely raining – when we thought it was! 

Greenery

All the moisture contributes to the creation of absolutely beautiful forests. The shades of green are numerous, and even the humid air seems to have a greenish tint. The air tastes and smells a verdant green, if that doesn’t sound too strange. Chlorophyll! Moss cloaks and hangs from the trees, and lichens cling to trunks. Small bushes, broad leaved plants and fern fronds crowd the forest floor, which itself is a rich decaying mulch, satisfyingly springy underfoot. Water, water, water, and growth, growth, growth in a delicate and unique ecosystem. 

Delicate and intricate

I’ve had to rethink my general dislike of rain, at least in settings as spectacular as the Clayoquot biosphere. At the information level of thinking, it is easy to understand that rain is important, but experiencing the natural wonder, by camping in a rainforest for a few days, has made me appreciate this precious resource in a far more vivid and tangible way. Knowing something is not the same as experiencing and then knowing it a little better. Funny how I sometimes forget the obvious from the comfort and distance of my modern life. Maybe we should all have a rainforest experience – go so far as to insist it is a mandatory part of a child’s education – then serious and real conservation efforts might be mainstream rather than marginal…Enough of that, school’s out and I’m on vacation.

Did I already say “green”?

It didn’t rain the entire time we were camping, and in fact our final day was a beauty – blue skies and an empty beach to wander along just a few minutes from the tent. 

Overlooking the Pacific!

I probably still wouldn’t go camping locally if the forecast calls for rain, but I would certainly camp in a NW rainforest again! 

Rainforest cooled…

Are you a happy camper in the rain – or would it take a rainforest to entice you?! Thanks for reading, please feel free to comment or share a story, and keep your guy ropes secure.

Time out in Tofino, and realizing Thoreau probably had it right…

This post might seem a little off topic, but bear with me! I’ve been reading Walden and I think that I may, like many people, have been born in the wrong age…

We’ve been downsizing as far as we can recently, not because we are jumping on a particular bandwagon or vogue for small living, (although this is a good idea), but simply because the timing is right. Junior is about ready to forge her own path, heading out to be independent, and we don’t want to be living in a space that was designed to accommodate four or five people comfortably. Our empty nest can be smaller than that! We sold our family house, and we are renting a little apartment until our new little apartment has been built. 

This would be fine (cedar shack in Tofino botanical gardens)

This all seems simple and straightforward enough; a linear sell one, rent one, and then buy one. Couldn’t be easier. All you need is a small mortgage from a bank, a helpful legal person to do the necessary lawyer type things, and a builder. These three can then communicate with each other, working tirelessly and seamlessly on our behalf so we can secure the tiny apartment of our dreams. And they can collect well earned fees from us… 

Kerbside appeal without the kerb

I honestly cannot go into the complications experienced in trying to get these three parties all on the same page. If I had three more lifetimes ahead of me blogging to explain how frustrating the past couple weeks have been, I wouldn’t have enough time. I’d lose the will to live three times over. I’d rather have an operation than buy somewhere to live ever again. 

Maybe we’ll abandon the house, just hit the road instead

Thoreau had it right! I’m going to borrow an axe and start on my own place hewn by my own hands. (I will have to borrow an axe – I do have a little hatchet, but that’s not going to cut it. I’d be lucky to build a doll house or a birdhouse, never mind a tiny house. And I’d need those three lifetimes from above). Now, as an almost outdoorsman, I’d probably chop off my own limbs instead of a tree limb, and the finished article might not look like the finished article. But still, if you’d been in my shoes, you’d understand the attraction, trust me. 

Tofino bird house (with lawyer perched on the roof)

I’m lucky enough to be sitting on a deck, staying in a small cabin overlooking the inlet just outside Tofino. That means I get to calm down. This is a good thing for many obvious reasons. The less obvious reason is the one where you don’t get to hear a news story about some old guy wearing plaid running around downtown Calgary wielding a hatchet and cursing the modern home buying process:

“And the police gently disarmed the apparently harmless, yet clearly confused plaid-clad old man, leading him away from bewildered bystanders and committing him to a secure institution where further tests will be carried out to determine if he is fit to have his little hatchet back. And now the weather.” 

View from the dock – just breathe, PlaidCamper, just breathe…

Just to be clear, and before anyone calls the authorities, I’m not actually going to run amok anywhere wielding any sort of hatchet – that would be silly.

All complaining aside, I do know that with a little perspective, this is simply just another invisible Western problem; I should let it go, and accept it as one of the complicated processes that make up life for the privileged few in the modern world today. An irritating downside to accompany the many upsides? I don’t know. I could stand to live in another age – when life wasn’t easier, that’s for sure, but perhaps simpler? I still say Thoreau had it right… 

Head over the next mountain, just a little further…

Have you ever wanted to build your own little home, be a little more apart from the modern world? Please feel free to share a story or make a comment. Thanks for reading – I feel better now – 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.