A Weekend with Nature: Stories from Sooke

Since I was 19, I’ve had a personal “rule” that I should visit a new country every year. Adhering to this was easy when I lived in Europe, but now I’m living in a country only fractionally smaller in square kilometres than that entire continent, not so much. However I’ve come to appreciate that you don’t have to go abroad to find something new and inspiring. I ask myself which is better – to get a vague idea of several countries, or to truly get to know one?

To celebrate my 25th birthday, I spent a long weekend in Sooke, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Although only 38 kilometres from Victoria where I currently live, it’s not necessarily a place one would consider going to for just a short visit. And yet it’s a place where you are suddenly exposed to swathes of tranquil forests, an abundance of pleasant hikes and a bounty of intriguing wildlife. It’s a place that proves you don’t have to go far to find beauty and adventure.

En route, Chum and I stopped at Walmart in uptown Victoria to buy some bedding. It was a hot day and as I tested the side of my face against five different pillows all with marginal variations in style,  the white-walled, air-conditioned environment of the huge store suddenly made me begin to feel restless. Victoria is a cleaner and quieter city than most, but there are people and cars and buildings nonetheless. Having grown up in the rural countryside, I need shots of rugged nature from time to time to rejuvenate myself. It was time to see more green.

On entering Sooke River Campground we stopped by the reception where a large lady sat in a rocking chair on the deck, peering over her newspaper with a suspicious frown. She resembled one of those GI Jane-types you probably wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. We had booked one of the three rustic cabins…and rustic was a very accurate description. However we seemed to get the better deal as based on the number of Canada geese around, it would have been difficult to find a piece of ground to pitch a tent on that wasn’t speckled with poop. I haven’t been in a campground since 2014 and just being amongst tents and campers got me excited, stirring memories of  childhood holidays and the smell of barbecues and refreshing feel of morning dew on bare feet.

A lovely place for a relaxed evening stroll is Whiffin Spit, just down from Sooke town. The south side looks across the Juan de Fuca Strait towards Washington State and the north faces Sooke Basin. With the latter, it’s just unfortunate that the ugliest hotel you’ve ever seen was built on the water. Its huge white frame stands out in gaudy contrast to the green surroundings. The architect seems to have gone for a European look but a rustic brown would have done nicely.

For breakfast the next morning after a cozy night’s sleep in our cabin, we stopped at The Little Vienna Bakery which had friendly staff and an authentic Austrian decor. We ordered a tasty cinnamon schnecke and a filling breakfast bun to share. The cafe seemed to be a fond favourite with the elderly local population who would sit with their coffee and cakes reading the newspaper.

Then it was north towards the Sooke Potholes, where you can either stick to a gravel path that follows the river or take a wilder route closer to the water’s edge. We chose the latter, clambering over rocks, ducking under branches and darting over gaps in the rock over the water to cross to the other side. While Chum proceeded to free-climb a rock face over the water, I watched a man and his carer tentatively test the clear water in their bathers before I commenced my own climb onwards (above dry land).  Other hikers would peer at us sitting on the other side of the river with expressions of awe, as if thinking, “How did they get there?” I noticed how when crossing over to the other side of the river via gaps in the rock, I would hesitate upon seeing a fast section of the current swooshing below me. Even if I had fallen in, there are many calm pool sections of the river where I, a pretty strong swimmer, would have been able to stop myself going further downstream. I feel like I’ve become more cautious in the past year or so, more likely to reconsider the sensibleness of doing certain physical activities instead of just going for it without worrying so much.

Instead I seem to be developing interests in more static things, such as bird watching. (Is this what happens when you reach a quarter century?!) We observed the routine of a bluish grey bird that would zoom over the water and through the gaps in the rock, only to return to her nest around a minute later to feed her chicks. Then we spotted two birds, with the dad presumably the one perching on a stone in the water as if scanning the area for safety. It brought back childhood memories of when a blackbird once made a nest in my family’s garden wall. Everyday when I got home from school I would eagerly peep through the cracks to see how things were progressing. I remember the devastation and guilt I felt when one day I saw the eggs had been abandoned.

As we left this section of the park and headed southwards, a couple on the side of the road ahead waved us down awkwardly. “Hey! We’re not hitchhiking, it’s just our car’s parked back that way,” the man said, pointing in the direction we’d come from, “and we spotted a bear and her cub on the side of the road.”

“Oh!” Chum and I replied in surprise. How typical that we had been too busy talking about something to notice two bears casually strolling nearby. We invited the couple inside our car and drove them back to the parking area, peering into the bushes in hope that we’d see the animals. No sign.

Nevertheless, it became our de facto duty to warn others of the sighting. When we spotted the men we’d seen earlier bathing in the river walking along the road in the direction of the bear, we wound down our windows and told them to jump in. We would stop oncoming cars to pass on the information, and tell others stood in parking lots. “Oh wow!” “Where were they?” “Were they big?” began a series of questions. It was like being the geek in school who suddenly becomes super popular once he claims to have seen a famous actor in the street. You could say we became quite proud of our services, even though we hadn’t actually seen the bear ourselves. It was easy to imagine a game of Chinese Whispers ensuing, with us by the end having concocted some wild story about how we had to fight off a ginormous bear that pounced on our car and grabbed one of us by the arm, dragging us out of the smashed window…

Further down stream, a gang of four elderly cyclists were taking a dip at the serene beach section. It was lovely to see a range of ages at the potholes, whether it was families with young kids, elderly hiking groups, or even young adults like our friend we spotted showing some visiting pals around.

For lunch we ate in town at Mom’s Cafe, an American-style diner with blue leather booths, black and white tiles and female-only servers. I was torn between the Hawaiian burger and fish and chips, but ended up going for the former. A minute later, a server walked out with a plate of fish and chips and I instantly regretted my decision.

“More water, honey?” I was asked while eating by our server who looked younger than me. I’ve never been one to call a girlfriend “babe”, “hun” or even “lovely”; it just doesn’t feel natural to me, I’ve never felt “qualified” to do it. Minutes later, the same server approached the table in front of us and asked cheerily, “How are you ladies doing here?” only for her face to drop in horror when the mother replied curtly: “This is my son.” Ouch. To the server’s defence, any 8 year old kid with long hair in a ponytail is going to be easily mistaken for a female.

Chum was stuffed after the main, but not me. I’d had my eye on the dessert counter since we arrived, and ordered a slice of the chocolate cream pie. “Two forks?” asked the server, occasionally glancing over warily at the table in front. Chum shrugged a half-hearted response, holding his stomach like a woman in late pregnancy while I sat up excitedly in anticipation. Back came a huge slice of rich chocolatey goodness smothered with whipped cream. Chum conceded defeat after two bites and thereafter watched me in bewilderment with a small hint of both admiration and disgust as I proceeded to clear the plate. I definitely have a second stomach for these things.

When we went up to pay, our server was still in a state over her incident with ponytail-boy’s mum. I told her to keep the change.

Driving along Sooke’s winding coastline is a real treat, offering breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and Washington State’s Olympic Mountain range. It’s beautifully rugged and untouched, and made the plastic, suffocating atmosphere of Walmart feel almost like something imagined. The provincial parks in Sooke are perfectly maintained too; there are pit toilets and useful information boards, but otherwise the nature is undisturbed by commercial projects. We pulled into French Beach Provincial Park and the big lunch finally hit me. I dropped off in the car, mouth open and all. I can never usually nap in the afternoons. Sooke was becoming more and more impressive.

On French Beach I discovered my unknown appreciation for rocks. “There’s… so many, all…so different….so…pretty,” I gasped to myself in awe as I began forming a pile that would later become the source of a stressful decision about which ones to keep and which to leave behind.

We drove on towards China Beach, and on the way pulled over to admire another view. Suddenly something in the water caught my attention. I realized it was a seal, powering through the waves with a slow yet defiant bobbing action that resembled the Loch Ness Monster. It was the longest seal I’d ever seen. It stopped in the shallows and we walked down onto the rocks to get a closer look. The seal had attracted the attention of others, as a man followed suit with his dog by his side, phone out to take a photo. ‘What a cute dog,’ I thought, looking at the golden spaniel fondly. Then it started barking and darted towards the water where the seal bathed. Chum and I looked at each other in alarm.

“Hudson, come back! Hudson!” the dog’s owner started yelling. But the dog ignored him, splashing through the waves with barks of naive curiosity.

“That seal is going to destroy that dog,” Chum remarked matter-of-factly. We could only watch helplessly as the dog rushed towards the seal, its owner shouting madly. Then the dog suddenly looked back at its owner as if having had second thoughts and began to return to shore. We breathed out in relief.

Seconds later, it bounded back towards the water.

“Hudson!” shouted the owner desperately. His friend joined him and threw rocks in the dog’s direction, but he wasn’t interested, persevering through buffeting waves to get close to the seal, which was beginning to kick up a splash in panic. I held my breath and prepared to block my eyes as the dog got within 10 feet of the seal, only to once again retreat. The owners turned back and the dog trotted beside them, grinning at them with his tongue hanging out as if to say, “Chill guys, I was just playing with you.”

The Canadian version of ‘Fenton’ in Richmond Park sprang to mind.

We carried on to China Beach, where most of the park’s signs seemed to warn of recent cougar sightings. Despite the bear sighting that was not sighted by us earlier in the day, I’ve been advised a few times that it’s actually cougars that residents of Vancouver Island have to worry about. (And not just the human kind.) Bears are supposedly more reactive in their aggression, only attacking if they feel severely threatened, whereas cougars will apparently just go for you no matter what, leaping down unexpectedly from trees, pouncing from behind etc. And yet when you’re walking along a pretty trail, it’s surprisingly easy to forget about a blood-thirsty predator lurking in the bushes.

At least, it was that evening on China Beach, which was empty apart from two surfers braving the coastal chill. On the Sunday morning we headed to East Sooke and stopped in Roche Cove to hike to Matheson Lake. The trail starts on the famous Galloping Goose bike trail and then descends into forest. Strange noises began to enter my ears. Was it a bird calling…or something else, something bigger? The crack of a twig would send my head swinging to the side in suspicious alarm. The sounds seemed to increase in loudness and frequency. I heard footsteps, they sounded like an animal…coming closer.

Suddenly a brown spaniel bounded over a little hill towards us. He carried a thick piece of branch in his mouth with his head and tail held high in an expression of stubbornness equivalent to a toddler adamant they are going to drag their cot all the way into their new room instead of moving into a “big girl’s” bed. His owner followed suit, rolling her eyes. We watched fondly as the dog struggled to fit through a narrow gap between two trees, all the while never once considering abandoning his new find.

This trail had many ankle-twisting forks, which led on to an interesting debate about many times I’d have to stop and rest if Chum got injured and needed piggy-backing to the car. Later we drove on to the quieter western edge of the park, where there were several plots of land for sale to build houses on. I observed through green eyes the dreamy views anyone building a house here would have. If only my generation could look forward to affording such a piece of property…

Our final hike was an easy 30-minute stroll from Pike Point to Iron Mine Bay. Sweet birdsong accompanied our final few steps down to the small pebble beach, where dogs we had passed by on the road earlier fetched sticks from the water. Glistening blue water stretched out before us all the way to the snow-capped Olympic peaks. I felt truly blessed to have views like this pretty much on the doorstep of a provincial capital city.

I had been spoiled by the weather in Sooke and came away smitten with the stunning coastline I’d witnessed. I returned home to my apartment in Victoria to learn of the terror attacks in London, and suddenly felt a sense of guilt for having spent a peaceful weekend exploring quiet trails and gorgeous beaches while friends and relatives of mine were potentially getting caught up in the horrific events. London and my old life there felt so far away and yet this news hit really close to home too.

No matter how big and busy your city, having a few days away in quiet, nature-filled surroundings will make you feel rested, recharged and even more appreciative of the variety of life that exists on our planet.

Conquering the Current: The Time I Thought I Might Die in Hawaii

Hanalei Bay, on the oldest Hawaiian island of Kauai, is a beach popular with sun worshippers and surfers alike. A standard holiday destination for residents of Canada’s west coast, I was lucky to visit the beautiful island with my boyfriend’s family for Christmas 2015. The islands of Hawaii have a lot of great hiking to offer, but their ocean access is the obvious main attraction. I’ve never actually learned to surf yet (despite having spent time in coastal Australia and Tofino…oops) but body boarding is just as fun an option. That is, when the current is in one of its calmer moods.

Hanalei Bay, Kauai

As a child I was quite a tomboy, preferring to play with cars over dolls. I would run around outside getting my hands muddy and occasionally get a bit too feisty when play-fighting my brothers using wooden sticks as swords. (One brother just had a baby so at least I know he’s still fertile…) I could be stubborn and would sometimes get grumpy  when my brothers left me out of their adventuring activities on the basis that I was too young or not strong enough to keep up with them. In school I loved beating loudmouthed boys on the athletics track. I’ve grown up not as a feminist who disapproves of chivalry, but as one who is insistent on independently using my (sometimes underestimated) physical strength and fitness when suitably required, instead of automatically requesting male assistance.

This ethos has particularly displayed itself on my travels and my trip to Hawaii was to be no different. However I faced my biggest challenge in both mental and physical strength during my time in its waters. I’m a pretty strong swimmer, but I soon learned that it takes more than technique and fitness to cope with Hawaii’s waves. You have to have real nerve. My boyfriend had explained to me previously that if caught in a riptide, you should just tread water and let the current carry you to a sandbank from where you can make your way back to shore. Trying to fight against the force of the current would only tire you out, the fatigue potentially getting you in trouble later on.

We arrived at the beach one morning with the body boards. On previous days the current had been relatively moderate but I hadn’t had much of a chance to get out in the waves, so I was quick to grab a board from the car before the boys took them all. Then I looked out at the water and noticed that the waves were looking a lot bigger than normal. My stomach went a little funny. But I didn’t want to miss out again and told myself it would be a fun bit of adrenaline-pumping activity. The boys darted into the water and, putting on my brave face, I followed.

Paddling out, I immediately found myself drifting to the left due to the unassumingly strong current. Being more used to these waves, my boyfriend progressed further out quicker than me without calling back to see how well I was keeping up. Hmmph. Normally I appreciate his faith in my physical ability, but whilst I hadn’t asked him to wait for me, I’d hoped he might think to keep an eye on me in this unfamiliar environment! (Lesson learned: always ask, never assume.) Suddenly he was no longer in sight. Instead, my view of him was obstructed by a large wave that only seemed to rise further and further up above the surface. “Hold the phone, I didn’t sign up for this!” a voice in my head exclaimed followed by various expletives.

The size of the waves can leave someone unused to them in a frozen state of disbelief. I could only stare up in awe at this gigantic wave of water rising metres above me, before hurriedly diving down into the water to avoid being completely taken out. I curled myself into a ball as tightly as I could to minimize the impact, but my right arm was still attached to the board. Soon it would be flung backwards as the board was battered away from me by the thrashing strength of the current. I would close my eyes at these moments, as if fearing I’d go blind by the force. I could only tell from the scraping of my knee or thumping of my arm against the ocean floor that I’d been sent tumbling down, sometimes for what felt like an eternity. However keeping my eyes closed proved unhelpful. As I felt myself rise up, I opened my mouth to breathe when I sensed I was breaking the surface, only for a rush of water to engulf my mouth. It was then that the disconcerting prospect of drowning entered my mind. I eventually emerged coughing and spluttering madly, with only seconds to prepare myself for the fast approaching next wave. Feeling increasingly vulnerable, I dove down as far as I could and was pushed further away from where I’d started, looking around in a daze when I broke the surface.

It was now that my boyfriend called back to me from about 30 metres in front, as if having just remembered I was also in the water. (He would later insist that he’d begun to feel very worried about me at this point.) Unable to understand him, I could only raise my hand with a pathetic wave.

A few deep tumbles later and I was beginning to become exhausted in my quest to conquer the ferocious current. The challenge was no longer fun and my pride wasn’t strong enough to to feel like I was wimping out by turning back. Seeing another enormous wave loom up in the distance, I muttered: “Screw this” and turned to head back to shore. But just as I hoisted myself onto the board, I found myself suddenly surging forward, and I was then zooming back to shore, clinging for life to the board as it dashed along the surface like a speedboat.

Upon sliding onto the sand I glanced around in pleasant surprise, partly exhilarated by my thrilling ride, partly bewildered by what had just happened, and partly stunned I was still in one piece. I had managed to catch a wave at the perfect time…without even meaning to. There was nobody else on the beach but I still felt a need to act nonchalant as I left the water feeling sheepish about my undeserved success. I ran back to my boyfriend’s dad with a coolly unconcerned smile that completely disguised the fact that I’d been pooping my pants the entire time in the water. “Awesome wave!” he remarked with a grin. “Oh yeah, thanks! I was lucky,” I replied casually, deciding not to completely admit it hadn’t been at all planned.

In the car on the way home we reflected on the strength of the current, the boys excitedly recalling their victorious battles against huge waves. I remained quiet during their chatter, too busy still wondering how I was in one piece. “Well I think Shannon caught the best wave,” my boyfriend’s dad said pointedly after they’d been going on a little too long. The boys went quiet. I smiled.

The moral of this story? Know your own strength, test your own strength, but feel no shame in conceding defeat!

Bodyboarding the waves during a normal current

Body boarding the waves during a normal current

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It’s not only the waves that can be dangerous in Hawaii. Read about one of its daring hikes in Likes vs Lives: Hiking in “Heavenly” Hawaii

Have you ever been to Hawaii? Perhaps you had the same experience in its waters as me!

 

 

10 Ways to Help Guarantee a Happy Travel Experience

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Australia with my mum. As we set off on our long long flight across the world, I wasn’t sure how much I would get out of such a short trip, apart from the enjoyment of catching up with family friends and relatives. It wasn’t a holiday down under like most people would imagine; there was no time spent sunbathing and not even a dip in the ocean. Unbelievable, I know.

However the short time away proved more valuable than I anticipated because it reinforced some key points one should consider covering to help guarantee a positive travel experience.  You may be destined for one of the most renowned places on the planet, but its great reputation doesn’t promise you’ll have a great time. Whilst you can never guarantee that you will have a perfect travel experience, certain travel methods can minimise the risk of you coming away disappointed.

1. Go just before busy season
For the sake of space and spending habits, consider visiting a destination just before peak season. We were in Australia from early to mid-late October for the start of spring. Mornings were crisp, skies were (mostly) blue and tourist hotspots attracted a bearable number of visitors. Viewing points at the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road were not rammed and, apart from a coach load of Asian tourists, Katoomba in the Blue Mountains was not heaving (albeit quite chilly – definitely bring a warm jumper!) Temperatures averaged 18 degrees in Victoria and reached the low 30s in NSW. Accommodation is also more likely to be available at this time of year and less likely to require reservations.
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dsc_01772Buy a proper map
My mum and I started our road trip with only the small sketched maps in our Lonely Planet guidebook for reference. This uncharacteristic lack of organisation caused quite a bit of stress at times along the way..! We were also surprised by the lack of regional road atlases on sale in petrol stations. Thankfully we were stocked up  for parts of our journey by relatives and tourist information centres.

Some people would say, “Just use GPS – duhh!” But part of the fun of a road trip is choosing your own route instead of being instructed by an annoying voice which may direct you on the fastest, least scenic route. Co-navigating a route around the western USA in 2014 was so much fun, but mainly because I had a proper map…

3. Get away from the popular tourist areas
There is more to Australia than surf and the Sydney Opera House, just like there is more to England than London and more to France than the Eiffel Tower. Part of the reason we didn’t go into Melbourne or Sydney was because of time restrictions, but also because whilst there are many elements of cities that I enjoy, there comes a point when you realise that they all mostly offer the same man-made things with small variations. I wasn’t curious enough to warrant the faff of finding a parking space for a few hours.

Instead, by going inland we witnessed some beautiful rolling Victorian countryside and lush green sheep-dotted pastures, spotted kangaroos in the wild (I admit that a fair few of them were sadly on the side of the road), and stopped by quaint little towns with local-owned cafes that made delicious fresh sandwiches.

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4. Learn from your parents
A road trip with anyone can be intense; you have to adjust to habits of the other and have limited outlets through which to release any stress. So bringing parents into the equation can be a catalyst for World War 3. You’re less likely to hold back on venting your irritation with them, and indeed, my mum and I got on each other’s nerves at times. But one habit I loved watching was the way she interacted with anyone she came across. She asks questions without worrying if she looks silly and I could see a change in the people she spoke to as their expressions transformed from autopilot make-the-customer-happy responses to genuine happy smiles. Unfortunately one person was a bit too charmed by her – I had to sit through a taxi ride in which the Italian-born driver kept telling my mum how young she looked. Vom.

5.  Prepare to be flexible with your plans
We were quite unfortunate in that we were forced to take a few diversions during our trip. The Great Ocean Road was closed between Lorne and Anglesea because of a landslide, so we detoured through bushland. There was still snow on the roads in the Snowy Mountains so, without chains, we couldn’t drive through this national park as hoped in our tiny Nissan Micra rental. We then had to take a 50 km detour en route to friends in Bellingen, north NSW, due to a traffic accident late at night. Annoying as these things are, it’s important to remain optimistic and look for the positives that the unexpected alternative might bring. Being unable to drive through the Snowys, we instead winded our way through Alpine National Park which brought us glimpses of snow-dusted mountains, silver slivers of rivers…and some curious cows.
dsc_0101dsc_01066. Ask locals for advice
Some people have too much pride to accept that they are lost or confused and need the advice of a stranger. Most people in London for example wouldn’t dream of stopping someone on the street to ask them a question unless absolutely desperate. In a day and age where people are excessively reliant on technology, my old-school mum and I opted for the old-school approach of face-to-face interaction when it came to asking for recommendations of the best routes, places to eat and places to sleep. Some people we asked still resorted to technology (indeed, one large lady in a gas station responded to my question by saying, “Just Google it” as if I was stupid) but others were very knowledgeable and had interesting tips.

7. Visit a small town
I think there is a lot to be gained from spending a night or two in a small sleepy town. You get a good feel for what the country is really like away from the tourist traps. A visit to a dear family friend in the country town of Lockhart gave me an insight into a local community. Greens Gunyah museum commemorated the role of the town’s residents in the World Wars. I also learned of an art craft I’d never considered before. Local artist Doris Golder’s incredibly impressive ‘Wool Art’ involves her recreating photos of animals, landscapes and public figures with sheep wool as the sole material. Way better than the Tate.

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Sunset en route to Lockhart

Whilst located on the popular Great Ocean Road, Apollo Bay also had a nice small seaside-town atmosphere. We found a motel late on a Friday night and the owner, Jim, was very sweet in advising us to get something to eat before everywhere closed. We ate pizza at a pub down the road where two gregarious girls threw back beers and mingled with the oldies and their dogs sat out on the deck. The next morning we saw one of the girls behind the only open till in the supermarket. We browsed the small Saturday market and chatted with a friendly stall-holder. You got the feeling that everyone knew everyone in this town, and it was refreshing.
dsc_00918. Every road trip needs a great playlist
Driving gets tedious and tiring, especially when driving Australian distances. You need something to keep you sane, entertained and in the correct lane. Old rock anthems are a great choice, Meatloaf’s “Dead Ringer for Love” being one in particular. And whilst she said nothing at the time, I’m sure my mum really appreciated my attempts to keep her awake by singing heartfelt harmonies to Bon Jovi’s “Bed of Roses”…

9. Don’t judge a book by its cover
These words of wisdom apply in two senses. In the lovely town of Richmond in the Hawkesbury region of New South Wales, a local pamphlet that I picked up after chancing across the library recommended staying in the aesthetically pleasing New Inn Motel. I asked the old man at reception if he had a vacancy and how much it cost. When he told me the rather high total, I politely asked if that was the cheapest room he had. He looked at me like a piece of dirt and grumbled, “I wouldn’t have wasted my time telling you [this price] if there was.” His unnecessary rudeness inspired me to stay elsewhere, even if there was nowhere else and it meant having to sleep in the car.

Opposite the gas station further in town we spotted a motel attached to a liquor store called The Bottle-O Richmond Inn Hotel. “What about here?” my mum suggested. I noticed the motorbikes and pick up trucks parked outside and made a face. “It just looks really laddish and is probably full of drunks,” I said. Mum tutted at my scepticism so I went inside the shop to ask. On reception was a man probably a few years older than me with a shaggy beard and a few tats. He was really friendly and understanding when I asked if he knew of anywhere cheaper, even taking me outside and pointing to a place down the road that might be worth trying. We ended up just deciding to take the available room here because his kind nature had convinced me. We found the room to have the nicest decor of all we’d stayed in, too!

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Lovely little Richmond Park

10. Never underestimate the power of the sun
I’m normally very diligent when it comes to wearing sunscreen, but managing to stay burn-free after a couple of hours of English summer weather can make one dangerously confident in their skin’s level of sensitivity. I completely forgot to apply lotion before spending a couple of hours in the morning sun in Richmond catching up with an old friend. I said goodbye looking like Rudolph having landed in the wrong country. Maybe that’s why the guy outside the train station was looking at me funny…

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People follow different methods of travel and I don’t wish to state that there is only one correct way. But by giving these pointers a go, you will hopefully get more out of your trip…and a lot less stress!

Descent into the Deep: A Daring Four-Wheel Drive in Canyonlands National Park

Most people still choose the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona when looking for breathtaking canyon views. But around 300 miles north in Utah lies another national park that will equally make your jaw drop, without having to be shared with as many tourists. Canyonlands is a mouthwatering mezze of proud mesas, deep canyons, awesome arches, and exciting drives.

There are four districts of Canyonlands National Park: Island of the Sky; The Maze; The Needles; and The Rivers. Separated by the Colorado and Green rivers,  it takes many hours of driving via the highway to get to each section. My boyfriend and I opted for the former for its easy access. About 40 minutes drive from Moab, the 191 north leads you past Arches National Park before you take a left down the 313 onto Grand View Point Road. With possession of an annual national park pass costing $80, our entry to the park was free.

It doesn’t take long after entering the park before the sweeping views from the Island of the Sky mesa take you by surprise. A remarkable vista of sprawling red ravines and flat sandy basins with jagged buttes and plateaus of sandstone rock sketched into the bare desert landscape, it is easy to see why this section of the park received its name. 1000 feet below the cliff edges, a narrow track was pencilled into the dry terrain. We knew little about this park before arrival, but soon discovered that it offers the opportunity for a drive of a lifetime.

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The 100-mile White Rim road begins with the Shafer Trail. No permit is required to drive along this section (however from 2015, those planning to continue along the White Rim road do require one). With our Land Cruiser we met the requirements of a 4WD vehicle to travel the route. It seemed foolish to refuse the chance for such an adventure. Those who get caught out by the rain can expect to pay up to $2000 for a tow. Confident that the puffy clouds above wouldn’t turn nasty, we took a deep breath and set off on an epic journey. (You can catch a short video of it here.)

Daft Punk’s ‘Disc Wars’ was the soundtrack of choice to our descent. Its rumbling first bars built up the tension perfectly as we began navigating the dirt track, careful to avoid potholes but also wary of driving off the edge in the process. The outburst of a higher tune began pertinently as we started a steeper descent towards a string of switchbacks that left me sucking in my stomach for the next 30 minutes as the edges of the steep cliffs repeatedly loomed closer before us.

If you see a car approaching, even if a few minutes drive away, it’s best to perch in the nearest space available rather than face a nerve-racking reverse back along the narrow track. Stay in low gear and use the engine brake rather than relying on the foot pedal. It’s important to keep a cool head – any loss of control and you could be doing a Thelma and Louise!

Finally we reached flat lands and could breathe normally again after our intense descent. All was quiet in our surroundings as we stopped at Gooseneck Overlook to explore the bottom of this dry ocean below the island. Lizards posed in a frozen state of camouflage against the rock painted with natural black bacteria, before darting through tiny cracks which, when peered through on all fours, might sometimes reveal a stomach-churning drop to the base of the canyon far below where rivers of sandstone snaked their way through the valley. Further on towards Musselman Arch,  giant statues of stone with bold faces stood closely together, looking like ruins from an ancient temple of the underworld. With nobody else around, it was the perfect playtime for young adults.

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The hairpin bends were just as hair-raising on the way back up the trail, however we were now more comfortable with the road. Reaching the top of the mesa and looking back down into the canyon where we had come from brought a huge sense of fulfillment. How many people could say they had conquered a road like this?! (Props to Andrew for driving it!)

Further into the park,  Mesa Arch attracts more tourists, becoming more reminiscent of the neighbouring Arches National Park. After our experience of tranquility in the canyon, the noise of clicking cameras and giddy children became a little irritating and so we drove north-east towards Whale Rock. The trail here was marked with piles of stone which gave it a more rustic feel. From the top of the rock you can see Upheaval Dome, an enormous block of rock with jagged peaks that looks very out of place in the canyon. The question on geologists’ minds is, is it simply an excessive sandstone deposit or a meteorite..?

After an adrenaline-pumping afternoon, the remainder of our day was spent basking in the evening calm at the Grand View Point Overlook. Looking out over Monument Basin, the way the canyons were carved into the plateau reminded me of the shape of bronchi from Biology lessons in school. On the other side of the road looking out over the Green River, a gang of hairy Aussie bikers on Harley Davidsons asked, “What’s for tea?” as we cooked sausages. We sat and admired the sunset beaming down on the basin below, the colours changing from intense reds to hot pinks and warm oranges. It was definitely a pinch-worthy moment. I remember seeing the tiny outline of a plane soaring overhead and suddenly feeling a flood of heartbreak because I knew I would have to be on a plane back to England in a few weeks’ time. We watched a spectacular show of shooting stars up above in an indigo sky where the Milky Way was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. Sat safely in serenity, I counted 50 flashes of lightning in the space of two minutes appearing hundreds of miles away to the west.

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Canyonlands is a place that could so easily be missed off someone’s list in favour of the more famed Arches National Park. This is a shame because it is a place quiet enough in popularity to make you feel like a local once having arrived, but crazy enough in auto-touring opportunities to make you feel like a VIP once having left! If you have a 4WD vehicle that you are confident using, definitely make sure to drive the Shafer Trail for an experience that you won’t forget in a hurry. I visited Canyonlands in August 2014, and it remains my favourite national park to date.

Chasing Angels & Discovering the Supernatural in Zion National Park

The noble faces of ancient towering cliffs gaze down with dignity over a desert kingdom of cottonwood trees, sandstone boulders and winding rivers where 12,000 years ago, mammoths and sloths would roam and pioneers would admire a land deemed “too stunning for mere mortals.” This was a destination to behold, a place of refuge for angels and saints who deserved a never-ending life that would invite them into a prestigious realm of supernatural wonders.

Your own eyes will tell you that Zion National Park is an example of the extraordinary, especially when it comes to hiking opportunities. Of the many routes available, there are two which stand out as unique in allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the natural environment and experience its mystical vibes. One takes you deep into a canyon in which you are enclosed by huge sheets of rock; another takes you high up a cliff where you are exposed to the wider world. The first national park to be established in the geological heaven of Utah, Zion is a blessed part of the world for hiking lovers who aren’t afraid of water and heights!

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The Narrows

Zion comes across as one of the more “untouched” national parks and one of the great things about it is its free shuttle bus system which prohibits cars from travelling on the Scenic Drive from spring to autumn, hence preventing congestion and promoting a cleaner environment. Grazing deer blend in against the creamy cliffs as the bus winds its way gently through the canyon, passing sacred natural landmarks such as the Three Patriarchs. Hop off at the final stop of Temple of Sinawava and let the adventure into the Narrows begin!

The easy 1-mile Riverside Walk will lead you to the river’s edge where the wading commences. At first it feels bizarre to be walking through water with shoes on, but you’ll soon get used to the temperature and texture as you make your way further down the gorge. It’s essential to wear sturdy shoes on this walk. Many walkers use sticks to help them navigate over the rocky river floor, but I preferred to test my natural balance, precarious as this was at first. I gradually gained more faith in my feet and was able to traverse the uneven ground without looking down so often. The miracle of walking on water came to mind…although I didn’t quite get that far! Parents would tow their little ones along in blow-up dinghies. I left my muddy hand print on the glistening wet walls decorated by visitors thousands of years after the first settlers made their mark.

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Stains of iron oxide on the canyon walls form varied patterns throughout the route, almost looking like they have been painted by former inhabitants of the land. When you reach the Narrows half a mile into the walk, this is where you really don’t want a flash flood to start! As the canyon walls begin to close in, the air turns colder and echoes grow louder. The atmosphere becomes slightly eerie, as if you are in the presence of ghosts whispering your name as you enter their domain. Perhaps it is their chiselled faces that jut out into your path.

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There are points when you might be waist deep in the water, so it’s advisable not to bring valuables with you on this walk. Do bear in mind however that you may be chilly after leaving the water. Nevertheless make the most of the water on your skin as the park only receives 15 cm of rainfall a year!

Angel’s Landing

This striking monolith gained its title in 1916 after the explorer Frederick Fisher claimed that”only an angel could land on it”.

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Starting from the Grotto shuttle stop on the Scenic Drive, the West Rim Trail up to the monolith is a 2 mile thigh-burning, zig-zagging route that hugs mountains of bronzed sandstone. Lizards dart between cracks in the rock only to become camouflaged against the dried leaves. A plentiful supply of sunscreen and water is essential! After a mile you’ll find shade in Refridgerator Canyon before you have to “squiggle the wiggles” and tackle a series of steep switchbacks. My partner and I foolishly decided it would be a good idea to start running up the first one, without realising how many were left…

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Many gasps for air and gulps of water later, you’ll reach the flat sandy area of Scout Lookout where you’ll see the ridged runway for Angel’s Landing begin ahead of you. Some people won’t even make it onto the trail because they are so fatigued after their sweaty uphill trek. From the start of the trail to the end point is only half a mile, but the path is steep, complex and takes time to maneuver. But for those who get a thrill from challenging routes, it’s great fun!

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At the time we did the hike (in August 2014), six people had died within the last 10 years on this trail. In a way this doesn’t seem like much when you consider the height and width of this monolith combined with the threat of heatstroke causing hikers to keel over. This hike is not for the faint-hearted. At times you will be walking along a very narrow path with a stomach-churning drop of over 1000 feet off the side, the Virgin River looking only a millimetre wide far below. Chains regularly have to be used to ascend steep slabs of rock and there are narrow crevices which you must hoist yourself up through. One of my strongest memories is the sight and smell of sweat-stained shorts as a (rather large) man’s buttocks loomed alarmingly close to my face while he struggled to squeeze through one of the thin gaps in front of me. I would not be offering to give him a push…

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Courtesy is definitely a requirement on this hike, as many times there will be not space for more than one person to pass through a certain part of the route. Those heading back from the end would offer support to approaching hikers with calls of “Not far to go!” We finally reached the summit with stunning views of the valley of Zion sprawled out before our eyes. We, the angels, had landed and it was easily one of my most fulfilling travel moments. Man-made rock piles stand proud near the cliff edge, showcasing the hiker’s achievement to the world in front. It may not have involved the elevation of Everest, but this hike had brought its own unique challenges. Gazing out at the view ahead, you can’t help but feel superhuman after this remarkable feat.

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I saw the large man produce his camera to take a photo as proof of his achievement. Whilst reaching the summit of a hike alone is very rewarding, I was grateful to be able to experience the physical and at times mental challenges of this hike with someone else, and share the subsequent sense of success. I now wish I had offered to take the man’s photo so that he is able to look back in later years at himself against this incredible backdrop and feel a great sense of pride. I did however compensate by asking a German couple if they’d like their photo taken. I particularly loved how much they appreciated me speaking their language.

It would be easy to get slightly complacent about safety on your way back along the ridge, but in your rush to finish the hike after having seen the best bit, it’s important to remain cautious and take your time. On the way back down the West Rim Trail we passed many tourists panting as they hiked up towards the monolith under the sweltering heat of the midday sun. It was definitely a good idea to set off on this hike early, to avoid both the peak sunshine and the greater numbers on the trail. When you’re back on ground level, dive into the Virgin River to cool off. You won’t even care that you’re not wearing swimsuits as your body will be so grateful for the refreshing water! It was here that we chatted with a family on vacation from Minnesota, and I began to understand better why some Americans might be so ignorant about other areas of the world, because they have so many amazing places to discover within their own huge country.

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With the amount of calories that you’ll burn off completing this tough 5-mile hike, you’re bound to feel hungry later. We drove into the village of Springdale to fill up on gas and my partner asked inside for a recommendation for lunch. We were advised to visit a Mexican restaurant around the corner called Oscar’s Cafe…and it was an excellent recommendation. This was an occasion where American food portions no longer seemed outrageous. Served by a friendly waitress, we shared a scrumptious meal of fish tacos, beef burgers and sweet potato fries. Then came dessert. We dived into the mountain of ice cream-smothered chocolate brownie devilishly, only to be distracted by the sound of a young girl on another table exclaiming to her red-faced mother: “They’re gonna get fat!” Andrew conceded defeat after a few mouthfuls, but the pudding-lover in me ploughed on until the end before I sank into a food coma all afternoon, exhausted by this final exertion of my recently acquired superhuman powers.

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If you love the idea of pushing your boundaries to out-of-this-world levels, definitely visit Zion National Park and chase the Angel. If you’ve been to Zion before or have any questions, please comment below!

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More information on the Angel’s Landing trail can be found here.

If walking to the Narrows, be sure to check forecasts for flash flooding beforehand.

Likes vs Lives: Hiking in “Heavenly” Hawaii

I recently read Into the Wild, the journalistic book by Jon Krakauer that discusses the life of Chris McCandless and his motivation to venture alone into the Alaskan interior with minimal supplies. After McCandless’s decomposed body was discovered in September 1992, some people labelled the 24-year-old American as an arrogant fool who should have been better prepared for the harsh conditions he would face; Krakauer attempts to explain the reasons McCandless chose to live off the land with little help. He defends the young man’s intentions but acknowledges his mistakes, stating that ultimately it was ignorance, not arrogance, that led to his death.

Reading this book made me think of people I’ve encountered while travelling who have also been inadequately prepared for their undertakings. I can put my hands up and say that, at the age of 19 on my first solo trip, I was one of them as I wore shorts whilst hiking up Whistler Mountain in the Canadian Rockies with its elevation of 2181 metres. Standing level with the clouds, a mid-40s hiker in appropriate gear asked if I was cold, and I knew even as I indignantly shook my head with shivering knees that I should have been more sensible. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

However it still shocks me when I see people older than me dressed inappropriately for certain activities and weathers, or attempting feats that are clearly far beyond their fitness level. The single biggest eye-opener was on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, when I and some friends hiked to Hanakapiai Falls in the Nā Pali Coast State Park. You may be thinking how this is a location far different to that of Alaska, but a large difference in temperature doesn’t mean this popular holiday destination is any less dangerous. In fact, the 11-mile trail that encompasses the particular hike I did is regarded as being in the top 10 of America’s most dangerous hikes.

The first two miles of the Kalalau trail along the Nā Pali Coast end at a river that flows into the ocean. As roaring waves thrashed against rocks, I was told by friends native to Kauai that this beach is renowned for the number of drownings that occur as visitors innocently go to the water’s edge, only to be smothered by a wave and swept away by the force of an overwhelming current. Across the river, a trail continues on for two further miles into the Hanakapiai Valley of mud, bamboo trees and rocky river crossings until it comes to the  91 metre-high waterfall where signs warn of falling rocks from the high cliff. If one gets in danger here, there is no mobile signal to call for help.

We set off on the trail at 7 a.m to avoid the tourist trap. Even at this time, the path was muddy and slippery. The rocks over the river glistened with slime. I like to think of myself as quite an experienced hiker – distance and elevation aren’t too big a deal for me – but this trail was definitely one of the most challenging ones I’ve done due to the natural elements it contained. (If you’re not convinced of this by the photos, that’s because my camera was tucked securely in my backpack during these tricky moments!)

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Around midday on the way back we reached Hanakapiai river marking two miles left to go. By now the numbers on the trail had vamped up immensely and people were queuing to cross the river. The sights I saw here and on the last two miles were quite unsettling. I watched with my heart in my mouth as people carrying backpacks far too heavy to support their balance gingerly attempted to cross the river on the slippery rocks. I saw elderly people who could barely walk unaided attempting to climb steps smothered in greasy mud that concealed uneven tree roots. I encountered guys and girls warily descending steep paths drizzled with mud and scarred with skid-marks whilst wearing flimsy flip flops and brand new Nike Airs probably unwrapped from under the Christmas tree a few days earlier. Even at the most challenging times, hiking should be enjoyable. Very few of the inappropriately dressed people I saw looked like they were enjoying themselves.

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Travel has become much more accessible thanks to the likes of of travel blogs and social media. Blogs tell us that “anyone can travel”, encouraging people to quit their day jobs for a life on the road. I think it’s excellent that more people are travelling, and it’s something I hope I myself can inspire in people who read my blog. Social media platforms such as Instagram enable travellers to give others instant access to their experiences. There are benefits to this; in particular, it lets friends and family at home know the traveller is safe. Ironically however, this promotion of travel-for-all and availability of instant access could also be creating a cult of irresponsible travel. In a world where ‘likes’ and retweets are perceived to be indicative of popularity and hence success, some people forget to prepare properly and take precaution when it comes to aspects of travel such as hiking.

I will happily be the first to acknowledge that I tend to upload a lot of travel photos onto Facebook and my blog. However this is done days, sometimes weeks after the photo has been taken and not as I am having the experience. This not only allows the traveller to make the most of the moment without staring at a screen, but can prevent them taking risks in the hopes of receiving a quick ‘like’ for their pretty selfie in front of a backdrop illustrating a daring adventure. Getting excited or feeling proud about one’s undertaking can cause an impulse to share the moment with the world, leading to spontaneous irrational choices. Posing with a selfie-stick on a narrow cliff edge in windy weather before a beautiful ocean view? Walking down a slippery and uneven rocky path towards a tranquil lake whilst staring at your phone choosing a flattering filter? Not a smart idea.

Any travel blogger who says they don’t want to impress people with their photos and stories is lying. What I and many travel bloggers can confidently say is that I am not wanting to impress with how I look in a photo, but with the scenery I am looking at. Social media tends to take the attention off the environment and onto how people look in the environment. This is turn puts a pressure on some people (mostly young girls) to look their best. Perceptions of what “looking your best” means on Instagram might not necessarily equate to suitable hiking attire.

Ultimately it’s up to people what they wear when hiking, but they must accept that they are responsible for their own welfare, and their choices will govern how easily and successfully they can do something. In some cases, one’s actions and choices can be selfish if, by putting themselves at risk through lack of preparation, they also put others near them at risk should they be needed to help them. Nobody should feel like they can’t travel, but everybody should know their limits.

In their attempts to promote a destination and perhaps receive a cheque or free perk in return, travel bloggers must be careful not to create unrealistic expectations of what one can do in an area. In glorifying locations as exotic paradises, they must remind readers of the fundamental practicalities of hiking, swimming and other general activities. Before starting a trail, people should have the right footwear; they should check weather forecasts; they should pack sensibly but lightly; they should know details about the trail; and they should be alert and aware of others whilst on the trail. Hawaii may be a heavenly escape of stunning beaches, palm trees, chilled music and luscious cocktails, but it also has the potential to bring hell on one’s trip if they do not prepare properly.

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Tips for this hike can be found on this website

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy reading The Rise of Techno-Travellers

The Chiefly Outdoor Appeal of Squamish

 

Situated between the bustling city of Vancouver and the ski-haven of Whistler on the Sea to Sky Highway is the district of Squamish. Its name is approximate to the language of the First Nation people who were the original inhabitants of the valley since around 5000 years ago. Navy explorer George Vancouver encountered Howe Sound in 1792 during his expedition along the Pacific Coast, but the first European settlers arrived in 1888.

The district of Squamish spreads over various villages – Downtown, Dentville, Valleycliffe, North Yards, Garibaldi Estates. Whilst cafes and pubs will have their locals, I didn’t detect a huge sense of community around town. Perhaps the autumn season had dragged everyone into a slumber state, but it all felt a bit flat. This sense of detachment wasn’t helped by the unease of access to other villages without a car. Cabs cost around $15 or you can take local transit for $1.75 a ride. Without a car, options for getting out to Whistler and Vancouver are limited to coach services from Greyhound or Pacific Coach Lines. A journey to Whistler takes 40 minutes.

Many people live in Squamish and commute to work in Vancouver which is 68km (1 hour) away to avoid the higher rent prices, but housing availability is falling here. Residents are also concerned by the lack of available jobs which is an additional contributor towards forcing people to leave. Squamish previously had a large logging industry which eroded after closure of the pulp mill. My Air BnB host appeared to be one of the luckier residents in financial terms, having a job as an estate agent in town.  There is definitely hope for more investment in public infrastructure to help create more jobs and reduce the gap between high and low wage-earners. The Liberal Party’s promise of $125 in funding towards infrastructure development certainly appealed to voters here, the majority of whom chose Pam Goldsmith-Jones as their MP in the October 2015 federal election.

As a consequence perhaps of the lack  of material industries, tourism is now the main source of income for the local economy. Squamish is considered to be the outdoor recreation capital of Canada. The opportunities for climbing, hiking, mountain biking, triathlon and windsports are aplenty and are celebrated during the summer months through various festivals such as the ‘Test of Metal’ bike race. A music festival is also held in August which featured the likes of Drake in 2015.

There are eight provincial parks in Squamish, one of which is the Stawamus Chief park popular with climbers for its challenging granite rock cliff-faces. One of the largest granite monoliths in the world, hikers can tackle the ~5km return hike up to the three peaks of the Chief, which takes roughly 4 – 5 hours to complete depending on your fitness level and how many peaks you target. The trail leads you on a steep ascent of around 600m elevation gain that involves stairs, ladders and rope/chain-assist sections. It will be worth the aching thighs when you reach the top of the fir tree-dotted dome and are greeted by wonderful views of glistening Howe Sound and surrounding snow-capped peaks.

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Less aesthetically pleasing is the view of the tired-looking town below. It’s almost as if a jumble of characterless box buildings have been squashed hurriedly amidst great scenery, and they look quite out of place surrounded by such mighty natural superiors. (The photo below was one of the more flattering shots!)

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Expect wobbly knees on the way back down the trail and near the bottom, take a detour off to the left towards Shannon Falls Provincial Park for views of the pretty waterfall there.

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Experiences like the Chief hike certainly help point a traveller’s compass in the direction of Squamish. Whilst often overlooked by young tourists in favour of the commercial zeal and party-town feel of Vancouver and Whistler, there is something appealing about the modest urban development of Squamish, as this simply helps emphasise the range of outdoor activities available from the surrounding geographic features. The Squamish landscape has been featured in films such as Free Willy and Happy Gilmore. It’s easy to understand why people choose to live here – for the distance from its loud neighbours and the comparative quietness, and for the access to fresh, scenic outdoor areas and a subsequent healthy lifestyle. It’s therefore easy to understand why rising house prices and decreasing job opportunities are such a concern for residents.

A huge congregation of bald eagles roam Squamish between November and January. If wining and dining is your thing (and you have a designated driver for the evening!) there are also a few varied restaurants to choose from as well as pubs brewing local craft beers. Otherwise, autumn is perhaps not the best time to visit should you want to get a lot of outdoor activity out of Squamish. I look forward to returning one day in the summer when there is more of an energetic buzz around the place and warmer weather for getting out and about.