Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Stage 1 Complete

So, Mount Rushmore is a bit of a con. If you were clued in, you’d stop for sure in one of the wee lay-by/passing places on the way up the road and snap a photo from there, because if you go on up the hill further, you get filtered into a u-bend which reveals (a) no way back to the road and (b) a sign saying that the monument is free, but parking is $11. I’d have turned round there, except see point (a). Nothing for it but to get your parking ticket, which if you can believe it is valid for your vehicle for a year. Well that’s useful. I could go back every day if I wanted. But why would you, even if you were staying ne

ar by? There’s only a mountain to photograph and a kind of museum about how it was made, when you’ve seen it once, that should be enough.

Ah well, tourist photo op number-I-don’t-know-how-many accounted for. Maybe I was just too tired to appreciate it. Having spent 4 nights sleeping fitfully in the car by then, waking up about 6am, and having actually hit the road at 5.30 am that morning and driving for about 12 hours to get to Rushmore, I was a bit run down, I’ll be honest. I then spent that night in a truck stop an hour or two further up the road, and then did the same thing the next day – up before 6am, on the road, drive until about 7pm, slept in a Rest Stop area, up again at 5.30 and drove til about 6pm. All to get across the Dakota plains (which were actually very scenic, just never ending) and into Chicago by Saturday.

It almost worked, too, except I’d forgotten to book ahead for accommodation on a Saturday night, so I was left looking for camp sites that the internet swore were there, but when I arrived they weren’t. Except the first one which was full. So once again, sleeping in the car in a suburban street hoping not to get a ticket! Which I didn’t, and I was up early again and in to Chicago for Sunday morning, and a day of walking about, taking photos and enjoying the sunshine

in the Windy City.

Chicago seemed really nice, actually, and its

somewhere I’d go back to for a

better look, given the chance. The CBD buildings are all skyscrapers but still pretty cool architecture, and there is a good park setup by the lake and heaps of places I could have gone to if I’d had more time. As it was, I just walked about enjoying the Taste of Chicago food fair that was on, and revelling in not being stuck in the car for another 12 hours!

I had my first night’s sleep in a bed in a week on Sunday night, but still had to get up early to get back to Waterloo – only 8 hours driving according to Google Maps, but there was a customs stop too, which could add who knew how much extra time. As it turned out it was pretty quick process – just queuing time in the car really, but I got so focused on being in the correct lane that I missed the turning to the duty free area and therefore my chance to buy cheap single malt for my friends. The customs officer seemed quite smug when I said I had nothing to declare, but was hoping to get some duty free on the way out. She pointed out with a satisfied smirk that I had missed my chance. Worse than parking wardens, I tell you.

Anyway, back to Waterloo successfully, and it was good to catch up with Smitch, who is to be my travel buddy for July when I go out east. I now have until Sunday (its Tuesday to day) to go over plans, rest up and get my back attended to some more. It’s behaving itself but I don’t want to ignore the fact that I have been sitting down far too much lately. Oh, and the distance-ometer so far is 12000km or there abouts, which leaves me with about 3,900 free km on my rental agreement. Which won't be enough, I can tell you now!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Smaaaaaarter than the average American

Just FYI, I added a whole extra photo to the last post, so go take a look before you read on. If you want to of course.

Yah. It rained in Glacier Park. Or at least, it rained all night, and in the morning it looked like it was going to rain again, the reports were
that many of the trails were still snow-blocked, and to get to the hiking trails I was going to have to drive further north, when I needed to be going south, so I decided to flag Glacier National Park. No big loss. I had been hearing good things since I got over here, but I’d never heard of it before arriving, so I didn’t exactly have it on my wish list. Or even have a wish list at all for that matter. But still.

So, south I went, all the way to Yellowstone National Park, home of Yogi and Boo Boo of course, and anther hefty day of driving. I stopped in a roadside camp ground on arrival, just outside the national park, then headed in the next day. This worked ou

t perfectly, as it was mid-summer’s day and President Obama had declared that all National Parks would be free entry. And of course, once you’re in, you’re in, and don’t have to pay the entry fee however long you stay! So, at least 2 nights then. Just the camp site fees to cover, and frankly they are far better than the Canadian Parks fees – only $14 for a night.

Yellowstone is like a big amusement park without any proper rides, and you have to drive everywhere to get to the next interesting thing. They have a road network inside that is pretty much like a digital figure 8, with info buildings at each junction, and each 'segment' of the eight is about 25miles long. Basically, you decide which of the attractions you’d like to visit (waterfalls, geothermal bits and bobs, Old Faithful, of course) and where you’d like to walk etc. As long as you are early enough to the camp sites to get a spot, you are on ea

sy street. I got the last spot in my campground at about 11.30am, so that was lucky. I spent the rest of the day driving and pulling in to see things, much like everyone else. There’s a speed limit of 45mph everywhere, and signs to watch for wildlife, so people displayed mammoth amounts of patience, waiting while folks just stopped in the middle of the road to take photos or watch bison. Or were they buffalo. I think they are the same thing actually…no, hang on…a bison is what you wash your fice in (I heard this on a Saturday morning kids show about 25 years ago and have been just waiting for the perfect time to steal it!)….anyway, they were everywhere.

Of course, you don’t know that when you start out, so the first tiny bison specks in the distance are photographed to the max, in case you don’t see another.

Not long after you’ll find yourself in a walking pace traffic queue because the ranger is escorting one up the road; later you pop in to a parking lot to see a view of a water meadow and get surrounded by them as they wander about the car park getting from grazing area A to grazing area B. Before long you are sick of bison and swear you will never take another photo of one again…unless it does something interesting…like move about….or was that just me?

There were also Elk, many ground squirrels, a mangy old coyote, a few bears (I ticked off yet more Black bears and my first Grizzly on my second day), and views that are really quite spectacular – though not of the grizzly. That was quite a distance away, and even the zoom lens on my camera failed to make more of it than a brown

lump slightly different to the other brown lumps it was mooching about in. That’s how you can tell it’s a bear. Trust me. Heaps of mountains, forests, rivers and thermal stuff too, with geysers and blowholes and colourful springs everywhere. If I were a stirrer, I’d say it’s so much better than New Zealand, as it’s all in one place…but without a coastline….so much more convenient…but I’m no stirrer. To be fair, what Rotorua squeezes into one smallish town, Yellowstone multiplies it and spreads it out to spread out the tourists. The driving could be considered a bit of a nuisance, but it is so picturesque, it’s not a problem. As for the tourists, there are so many of them everywhere, but you only really notice it in the car parks. Of course, if I’d been into some major multi-day hikes, I’d have left everyone behind and got into the back country. I was a total tourist though and stuck to the mainstream bits. Sorry, Rich, I let you down, played the sheep, followed the crowds…elbowed them out the way to get the best photos mind you…

I have one more night here tonight, then I’m off east at full speed. I think I should get to Mount Rushmore tomorrow, but not sure where I’ll stay the night. Not far from there I imagine. Then it’ll be another big day towards Chicago. If I can roll in there on Saturday, I’d be happy. Til then, mind your backs.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Vancouver Island Rocks...and Trees!

Before I forget, just a little aside to the Whistler entry. It amused me greatly when I realised that the English bloke I hung out with that evening was in fact the youthful reincarnation of a Fast Show character. For those in the know, think of the old bloke who used to sit in his arm chair by the fire and ramble on incoherently, with all sorts of random phrases and noises, concluding each monologue with the phrase “But of course, I was very, very drunk!” Now picture that character as a young man and you have my Whistler buddy. Same slightly bulbous nose (he was much younger remember) which seemed

primed and ready to transform into an alcoholics strawberry nose, even sounded like him a bit. I was unable to take anything he had to say seriously after I noticed it, and he did have a lot to say, so I had to resort to hiding my smirks behind swigs of beer and handfuls of chips. Ah well, you probably had to be there. Little thingplease little minds, as they say.

Anyhow, it’s been a while since I last put finger to keypad, so I guess that means either I’ve been busy or lazy. I think mostly the former, enjoying what tiny Tofino had to offer in the way of wildlife trips and diving outings. The wildlife was a tad sporadic, but my deal to swap a Friday morning dive for a Saturday morning dive paid off in a rather unexpected way, the details of which I will keep deliberately sketchy in a bid to avoid jinxing anything. The dive itself, however, was m

y first cold water experience, and it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be. I actually put on the safety sheet I had to fill in that I had “some” cold water diving experience, specifying 14˚C in Wellington, which made the dive master laugh and mock, with comments along the lines of “that’s damn near tropical compared to what we have today!” Not particularly reassuring.

It actually turned out to be 7˚C for both our dives that morning, which is actually more that twice as cold 14˚C, despite what the numbers might suggest. We dressed up warm (figuratively speaking) in a 7mm wetsuit and hood, with an extra 7mm shortie over the top for added core warmth. Still seeming ominous…

We also had 7mm gloves and boots to complete the ensemble, and once in the gear it was hard to tell anyone apart from anyone else, except the dive guides who were wearing drysuits…but I guess as they were looking after my safety, I’d rather they didn’t succumb to hypothermia along with me, if that was to be the direction the day was to take.

The dives themselves were a little murky…actually close to being very murky – visibility only about 6m - but that was due to a combination of excessive melt water running do

wn the rivers bringing extra silt with it and a minimal rise in surface temperature sparking a slightly later than normal algal growth. Nonetheless, there were plenty of fish, many crabs and a positive abundance of giant starfish nearly a metre across and outsized anemones, which were the star attractions. A totally different dive experience, even to the Galapagos, and thoroughly enjoyable in its own way. After the first, 40 minute dive, things were pretty chilly, but with half an hour or so to warm up a bit, we embarked on the second, 30 minute, one. Somewhat mysteriously, this was not as cold as the first one, which was nice. I was told I should come back in winter when the visibility is 20m or so and the water temperature at depth exactly the same, but it is a long way to go for that, so probably not going to happen.

I made an interesting new friend on the dive trip (this is the deliberately hazy part) who I reluctantly had to leave behind as I was off to Ladysmith that afternoon, but future plans were made and what becomes of them remains to be seen. As for Ladysmith, I was to go and stay with the cousin of the father of Mike from North Bay, so having made the plans it would have been awkward to change them at such short notice.

Over I went, and met a very welcoming family who took me in, fed me, entertained me and invited me back (Mum, you should be proud!), but sadly my pencilled in plans for a few days time were cancelled as I found extra ferries – I’ll explain later.

From Ladysmith I went down to Victoria and explored that city for the afternoon, before heading over to Port Renfrew further down the west coast to Tofino. It actually classifies as

rainforest, so the hazy drizzle that met me on my arrival was more expected than the dry day that greeted me after a night sleeping in the car. The tracks round the coast were gorgeous, and the beaches strewn with drift wood and sickeningly picturesque, but sadly I only had the one night to look around. Anymore would have necessitated attacking the west ccast hiking trail, which was a 3-dayer at minimum, so was never really on the card in any case.

Back across the middle of the island I went to Crofton on the East coast and the small local ferry to Salt Spring Island, to stay with my aunt-in-law (i.e. my brother-in-law’s aunt, if you hadn’t worked it out). Salt Spring Island (SSI) used to be a bit of a hippy commune type set up and is still very popular with arty types who like the quiet, community pace of life and produce some amazing works of art, be they sculptures, jewellery or paintings. It’s not a big place but has some great places to eat, some lovely gentle walks and some historic, First Nation monuments, all of which Rosemary and her house mate Bob, did a first rate job of showing me. I felt thoroughly settled by the end of the first bottle of wine I shared with Rosemary on the afternoon I arrived, and it was a shame to leave on the third day. This is where Ladysmith part two fell apart. I hadn’t realised there was a second ferry to the island that went direct to Victoria on Vancouver Island, thereby saving me a 4 hour drive back down from Crofton, where I’d come across from. Much easier, and it sped up my plans to get to the US quite nicely.

With only 10 days left to get back to Toronto, given that I wanted to be back early enough to rest up before heading out east and also to allow time to follow up on those plans I mentioned before, I opted to drive straight from Port Angeles to Seattle on the day I arrived. Customs was easy – half of the US bits were done on the Canadian side before even getting on the ferry, the other half done as I disembarked, and I was off, arriving by about 6pm. The Saturday was spent with a cousin of Rosemary’s that she had only become aware of a couple of years earlier when he was doing some family tree research and found out that their grandmothers had been sisters. For those who don’t know and are interested, Rosemary’s family was from Glasgow, and she had moved to Canada some 30 or 40 years ago. Her new relative was born and raised in Germany, and moved to the States a similar time ago. He was a very friendly chap called Bernd and, despite a very painful back condition he is waiting to have operated on in July, he took me on a tour of a damp and misty Seattle for the day, for which I am very grateful.

And that brings me up to today, which has been a mammoth day of driving, leaving Seattle at about 6.30am and driving about 900km in 12 hours (OK, it was 11, but I lost an hour as I passed a time zone) to arrive on the outskirts of Glacier National Park. If the weather is good tomorrow I will find a day hike, if not I’ll head straight south to Yellowstone National Park and have an extra day there. Watch this space. Its Sunday evening now, and I’m aiming to be back in Waterloo by Tuesday the 28th, so I have 9 days to play with. Chicago is on the cards, and I will pass Mount Rushmore (I may even stop for a photo if they aren’t charging body parts to take a look), but mostly it will be driving. With a bit of luck I may be able to fit in a chiropractic appointment. I really know how to live, huh?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Time to Chill

The Chief, eh? It pretty much lived up to its name. Its a large, abrupt rocky outcrop, with volcanic origins, in the small town of Squamish, about half way between Whistler and Vancouver. There are actually 3 peaks, accesible from a track that splits 3 ways about half way up. They all climb very steeply, and involve re-bar ladders and chain hand rails to help climb/pull your way up various stages of the ascents. the rock itself is about 350m high, so its a fairly substantial scramble. After checking the whereabouts of the trailhead in the information office, I was recommended to give the 2nd peak a bash as it had the best view. This I did, reaching the top in about an hour (1/2 hour faster than the info person suggested, and about an hour quicker than the marker at the bottom), sweated for a bit at the top, and headed down as far as the split in order to go up the first peak as well. Why not? I thought. I'm only here once. I toyed with the idea of doing the 3rd peak as well, but meeting a rather cute local girl at the top and chatting to her seemed more fun, so I invited myself along when she finally headed back down. No harm, no foul as they say.

I carried on to Vancouver and found a rather crowded hostel in the downtown area. I found a pub to watch the 3rd round of the hockey play-offs (the next best thing to the world cup over here) and kept my head down when Vancouver lost 8-1 to American opposition. The next day I went a-walkin' round town, visiting the Musuem of Biodiversity, the Granville Island Market and the Aquarium, by way of large parts of the water front, going mostly by foot but for one long stretch to the museum by bus, and therefore got to see a fair amount of the downtown city. Its a nice place, I think, and located on the doorstep of some amazing mountians and outdoor recreation. Nice.

Wednesday saw me off to the early ferry to Vancouver Island, and involved a little more Satnav horn-locking. The machine was convinced the ferry terminal was a 2 1/2 hour, 34km journey away, and I hoped fervantly that it was wrong, as I'd only allowed an hour to do what I believed to be a 25km journey. Once again, I was right and I arrived with plenty of time. I am losing faith in my guidance system.

Once on Vancouver Island I decided to get an oil change for Flash Harriette, and to get her brakes checked out after the thermal disaster that was narrowly averted. The guy at the garage seemed to think the brakes would do, but conceded that something had got very hot and become bent (hence the shuddering when decelerating from 100km/h or so), but it was going to cost about $450 to fix and wasn't essential, so I left it well enough alone. That's one perk of having a rental I guess - ultimately it's not my problem.., as long as it holds up while I have it. Three hours, one hitch hiker and 2 bears later and I was in Tofino, where I will stay and be a tourist for a few days.

Today I went out early on a nature cruise round the islands of Tofino to see various wild things, and checked off bald eagles, osprey, puffins and sea otters, among others, for the trip. I have a dive planned for Saturday, and will make a decision about going out looking for whales later on. I figure I won't see them as well as I did off Peninsula Valdez, so what's the point? Maybe I'll go fishing instead. Lots of salmon hereabouts, and some halibut too, by all accounts. And hikes, of course. Lots of hikes. It'll be a surprise for us both :-)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Smoke? No Thanks, I'm Trying to Quit...

So, Jasper was nice. Actually it was pretty spectacular with its snowy mountains and steep sided hills and rivers and whatnot. unfortunately I didn't stay as long as I'd thought I would, as I struggled through a planning meeting in reverse (i.e. I worked backwards from being on Salt Spring Island for the 14th June, fitted in everything I wanted to do on Vancouver Island, tracked back to where I was) and discovered that if I wanted to fit it all in, I'd have to leave after the second night. I also found out that all the camp sites I had picked out in Glacier National Park were still closed due to snow, so the best place to stop between Jasper and Whistler was going to be a tiny town called Field, which was about 200km closer to Jasper than I would have liked - nothing personal, it just meant I was going to have a mammoth day to get from there to Whistler. Still, one thing at a tiime.

I drove out to a couple of places local to Jasper and did a couple fo day hikes - real pathetic stuff, really, but several in a day wasn't bad exercise. I was done in by about 5pm thanks to too much driving, bad sleep thanks to snorers in the dorm, and the remnants of the cold which I can't shake, so I took it easy in the evening.

An early start with a couple of hostellers who wanted a lift to the Columbus Ice Field saw the first part of the days drive done in comapny. We stopped at a couple of waterfalls on the way too, which broke the 2 hour journey up. I took a look round the ice centre, but opted out of an hour long trip on to the bottom edge of the glacier due to cost and the fact I could see the glacier out of the centre window, so didn't feel the need to see it closer up. I continued on and stopped a few more times, before getting to Lake Louise, where I went on a 5km hike up the shore line. Again, nothing challenging in it at all, apart from the new shoes I had bought not half an hour earlier and wanted to break in a bit. After that, it was on to Field.

Talk about tiny towns: Field was it! About 3 streets, but many lodges and the tidiest hostel I'd ever stayed at. Couple that to the Truffle Pig - a restaurant that deserved several stars if it didn't already have them - and it turned out to be a top spot. It was in Yoho Natiuonal Park, and the next day I put in 3 shortish hikes, ranging from 3ish to 7ish km in length, for a total of about 15km along and 1.5km of climbing. Much more strenuous, and my shoes rubbed a doozy of a blister on my left foot. Perfect for what I have in store of the trip between Whistler and Vancouver. Bugger. Anyhow, lots of good wildlife, lots of sweating and a feeling of actually enjoying being somewhere for a bit, later and it was another cold beer in the Truffle Pig. Things were looking up.

Today, I have just arrived in Whistler after a mammoth 10hour drive covering about 780km. It was spectacular country, adn half of it was off the main highway - somehting Is hould have been doing more of, but the satnav tends to take me the fastest routes and I don't ahve the maps to argue - apart from this time, when it got in a bother again when I took things into my own hands, and eventually had to re-programme it again to avoid being sent via Vancouver. I had a great time on the winding mountian roads - perhaps too much of a good time, as I found the brakes doiing funny things after a bit. I wondered if I should pull over and see if somethign was wrong (in which case I'd have to stop and try and get help) or just pretend I hadn't noticed and hope I could limp into town and sort it there. I opted for plan A after deciding that if I ignored it and the brakes crapped out altogether, I'd most likely be tipped into a ravine several hundred meters deep. It was a good call. Even to my untrained eye, I couldspot two problems almost immedieatley that I stepped out of the car. The first was the moke pouring out of the front left wheel. The second was the smoke pouring out of the front right wheel. It seems that my enthusiastic (but actually extrememly safe) driving had pushed the brakes past their heat threshold, and they weren't too happy. Still, half an hour later and they had cooled down to the point that the warning light on the dash had gone out again, and I continued on, more sedately this time. the light came on once more on the last part of the down hill, but after that it was level enough to not need the brakes, so they cooled down properlyin the chill mountain air.

So here I sit, in the evening sun, on the balcony of the YHA hostel in Whistler, that not so long ago was built as athlete accommodation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, so you can perhaps imagine the tidy condition of the place. Very nice it is, too.

I shall relax a bit tonight, and hope my raw heel comes a bit righter by tomorrow when I have a trail to hike that sounds very similar to the one I did in Marumbi Park in Brazil, with rocks and ladders and chains to assist in the ascents. Sounds good to me. So, until after then, keep on smiling. I have been.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Rockies and Bullwinkle

Look what I saw the other day! In one of the road side clearings that I had been scrutinising, more to the point,
so that paid off at least. Its a moose, by the way, for the hard of seeing.

So anyway, I worked out the daylight thing...I think... I have decided it must be to do with the time zones I am crossing that I don't realise I am crossing because they creep up on me over two or three days. As I get closer to the new zone, the days are that much longer, and then I cross into the new zone, lose and hour and everything goes back to normal for a few days. Both times so far I have been caught out in my new location, and have wandered around having dinner far too early or wondering why shops are still open when they should have closed by now. Only one more zone to go, and then I start doing it in reverse. Should be interesting.
The driving has become tedious, I'll be honest. I think I am doing too much of it and not having enough time to stop and smell the flowers, so to speak. It doesn't help that I keep underestimating how far I have to go each day. I've notched up about 4000km so far. Not that there have been that many 'flowers' on the plains, it has mostly been just dull, but I have reached the Rockies now so things should become more interesting, for a while at least.

Also, driving cross-country in a car is not nearly as satisfying as on a bike, and I am the first to be surprised to hear myself say that. At least on the bike you feel like you are doing something with your day, but in the car it is just a surprisingly draining slog to get from A to B. It was draining on the bike too, of course, but there was a reason for that. Also, on the bike, there was a wealth of humourous experiences everyday as I struggled to master my machine - and sometimes even succeeded. And if no humourousness presented itself courtesy of the bike, then there were interesting, 'cultural differences' scenarios to entertain me (and, in the telling of them, you, perhaps). On the bike, as well, you are much more out in the open and part of the
landscape in a way that you never are in the tin box environment of a car. I'd always trotted out this line in the past, but I am fully believing it for the first time. Canada is nice and all, but the people are just 'more of the same' as you'd get in NZ, the UK or any other westernised, wealthy country. Nothing to write home about, in other words.

Still, there is always the SatNav. Now, I am not particularly techno-savvy, but even I thought I'd worked out the budget beast I picked up in Toronto, and it has mostly been invaluable, particularly in and out of cities. However, the other day in Winnipeg, we had words. More accurately, I had words, the SatNav remained calm and irritatingly rational - and, for the record,confused!

I'd performed a clever, round the block U-turn (due to a one-way system) to get on the road it was telling me to be on at the start of a day trip to Oakhammer Marsh, and somehow it got confused and put me on a parallel road to the one I was actually on. I thought this was the case, but followed its instructions anyway, and got rapidly lost as it told me to take lefts and rights that weren't there or were called different things to what it was saying. Somewhat surprisingly, I got a bit sweary at it, and it didn't help itself by steadfastly sticking to its story. Eventually, I was forced to pull over, wipe its route memory and re-program it. Cheered me up though, as you can imagine. That sort of thing hardly bothers me at all. if only other aspects of life could be resolved in the same way...

The other day, on my way to Edmonton, I stopped in at the Ukranian Cultural Experience of Canada. Its exactly where I'd expect to find a Ukranian Cultural experience, naturally, so I wasn't surprised either. Lots of traditional farming techniques and cabbage dishes to try. That evening I checked on Ed's progress and saw that he'd been in Uzbekistan. Alright for some. I was excited at the time - right up to the point of writing this, in fact - as I thought he'd been in the Ukraine on the same day I'd been experiencing their culture. But no, Uzbekistan. Not quite as
funny. Nuts.

Got some hikes coming up in the next couple of days, and I should be on Vancouver Island by
Wednesday next week. So many things I want to fit in and the only way is to keep going. I know I can't do it all, but its hard to pass up the stuff
right in front of you for stuff up the road, so I will continue to drive big distances and hope I am not too wiped to make the most of the places I get to. With scenes like this, can you blame me? More later. Time for dinner.