A monochrome Field day for PlaidCamper – and a tiny house obsession revealed…

That’s not a mistake! Field should be capitalized – just last week we went to Field BC, located in beautiful Yoho National Park. We had a few days off so headed out to stay in a cabin overlooking the village. Whenever we visit, we know the weather will likely be changeable, particularly in spring, but the setting is always spectacular. One black and white morning, we took a little hike around and about the town.

Towering mountains flank Field on each side, and even on an overcast day, make an impressive sight. So much so, I couldn’t stop taking pictures. (I’d have been in real financial trouble in the predigital days of buying and processing camera film!)

I love how being in mountain landscapes gives me a sense of perspective – our time on the planet is so short compared to geological time – any issues or troubles can seem trivial (or at least not so much a problem) in such vast settings. Our human accomplishments and failed flailings are all put into place. We can make our mark on nature, for good or ill, yet I believe that if they could, mountains would simply look down at us, shrug indifferently at our feeble concerns, and continue to weather the real passage of time long after we’re gone. I think there’s a certain comfort in that…

               The Kicking Horse River flows through the valley.

               Mount Stephen looms over the town, a dizzying 10 495 feet above sea level

             In just a few minutes, the mist would gather (above) and then clear (below)

            In addition to the lovely mountain vistas, there are smaller sights as well. Field has a number of beautiful old buildings, and they tell interesting stories about Field’s past. Below are pictures of a couple of them.

  The photo above is of the Park Superintendent’s house, completed in 1930. It is a delightful Arts and Craft style building – the original intent of the design was to impress upon viewers the importance and dignity of the Park Superintendent. Park officials were trying hard to gain recognition and respect from the hard working miners and railway men who dominated the town’s population in times past. My guess would be that then, as now, the interests of commerce, industry, and Parks conservation and management did not always align.

  The little building pictured above sits at the top of the town with a commanding view over the valley. It used to be the headquarters of Field’s RCMP detachment. The story goes that a prisoner’s cell door wouldn’t actually be locked in the event of a fire burning the building and a prisoner was in the cell. Those were simpler, more trusting times! These days the building provides a home for Park workers. Pretty nice accommodation.

  The final picture above, is also pretty nice accommodation – it’s where we stay when in Field! A lovely little cabin, sleeps two (very) comfortably, with amazing views out of all the windows. 

I am fascinated by tiny cabins and houses – my inner hippie is fully aware that unnecessarily large dwellings are unsustainable in the long term. As a not so closeted treehugger, my hope is that one day, sooner rather than later, we catch onto this and begin to build more modest and appropriate homes. The little cabin above is a delight. The owner tells me it is not quite 600 square feet, but I find it roomy, modern and in no way Spartan on the inside. I’d happily live in something similar full time if such places were more readily available. Maybe I should build one myself…that would be an adventure!

I hope you enjoyed this little black and white tour of Field. Just a tiny taster, barely scratching the surface of the history and beauty of this small community. We always enjoy visiting, secure in the knowledge that time in Field is special, with peace and quiet virtually guaranteed – Field’s population is less than 200 lucky souls sharing a wonderful mountain town. 

Have you visited Field and Yoho National Park? Do you have a favourite mountain destination? Please feel free to share your thoughts. Thanks for reading, 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.

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.

Camp fires – an outdoor essential, and how old PlaidCamper likes to play with matches…

Never play with matches. There, that’s the public health warning, along the lines of “don’t try this at home” etc. Now, if you burn down your cabin, or set fire to your tent, it’s not my fault. Or are you trying this at home? Really? Go further outside!

When I was a little boy, like many, I was fascinated with fire. Not in the pyromaniac sense, although, with three likeminded brothers and knowledge of where the “emergency” matches were stashed, of course we set little fires out in the backyard – don’t all young boys have a need to know how their least favourite toys will burn? We all experimented diligently, desperately trying to hide the singed remains before our parents got home – I’m sure they saw (smelled?) the evidence, but figured that as the house, the fence and our neighbour’s shed were still standing, it was better not to ask. (In case you’re wondering, plastic soldiers and model fighter airplanes were our favoured test subjects – unbelievably, we’d set fire to action figures, launching them on homemade parachutes from bedroom windows out into the garden. How the house or neighbourhood didn’t burn down…just very lucky I guess).

Camping in the UK, we never had fire pits or rings at most campgrounds, so imagine my delight that first trip to Lake Louise. You were allowed a fire, the wood was ready chopped, and, due to evening temperatures, it was almost a necessity, never mind the ritual. Marvellous! And a beer tastes so much better with a campfire. Safety first – I never have a beer until I’ve trimmed and chopped the necessary pieces with my trusty hatchet. I love owning and using a hatchet, it fuels my outdoorsy hunger. I chop even when there’s more than enough kindling. So sad. It’s a fact that views improve, and even lite and flavoured beers taste better after hatchet use:



Matches – remember, don’t play with them. I’ve used matches and fancy slow burning fire lighters to get a blaze going, and very efficient they are too. But somehow, to an almost outdoorsman, that feels like cheating. My outdoor idol and hero, Ray Mears, rarely seems to use matches, except in his extreme survival shows when speed and survival are of the absolute essence. I like when he demonstrates how to prepare the ground and materials before using a fire steel – planning and preparation being essential to success – see a video by Ray Mears here: Light a Fire. He also likes to showcase aboriginal and/or traditional fire starting methods, as with the bow and drill technique seen here: Bow and Drill

I’ve used a Swedish fire steel successfully, after much trial and error – more error, if I’m honest (revisiting with Ray put me right). For tinder, I know many use lint from their home dryers, doused in petroleum jelly and kept in a Baggie. That is great, especially when time and efficiency demand a quick result, but I aim to use what is in the vicinity – it feels more real. Or more Ray. Which is odd when I consider my manufactured tent, clothing and other camping gear. Who am I fooling? 

My goal this summer is to become proficient with a traditional method. (Mrs PlaidCamper may read this before we depart, and I suspect will carry extra matches. There is wish fulfillment practicality, and there is realism and proper practicality). It’s just that I’m an old school Old PlaidCamper when it suits me…but on those days when I’m in a hurry or it is raining? Why, matches, borrowed from Mrs PlaidCamper, of course! I can always burn the evidence…

Do you have a preferred fire starting technique? Or burn your childhood toys? Feel free to share! Thanks for reading, and keep your guy ropes secure.



A stash that will need chopping…

Little Bear Cabin, MT

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.