The Chiefly Outdoor Appeal of Squamish, BC

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.

DSC_0274

DSC_0275

DSC_0282

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!)

DSC_0288

 

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.

DSC_0293

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

An Autumn Weekend in Whistler for the Non-Skier

Host city of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler is a commercialised town that thrives off the stream of tourist activity which mounts in the run-up to winter. It’s similar in its appearance and character to the Rocky Mountain emerald of Banff in Alberta (think Swiss-style chalets and designer shops). Skiing is the main attraction here, but if powder isn’t your thing, don’t panic! There are still plenty of things to do on a long autumn weekend in Whistler without getting on the slopes.

Activities all Around

As an Olympic host city, you can expect premium quality from Whistler when it comes to available activities.

Hiking options are aplenty for all levels. You can join part of the 180km Sea-to-Sky trail which runs between Squamish and D’Arcy. A segment of the 33km section running through Whistler passes three lakes: Alpha, Nita and Alta, all of which have their own parks for eating and leisure. Trails are mainly flat and paved, attracting either those who fancy a slow stroll accompanied by coffee flasks and gossip with a friend, or those wanting an early morning solo powerwalk. Experienced hikers can attempt the more challenging 16km-return Rainbow Trail which starts from Rainbow Park on Alta Lake.

The west side of Alta Lake provides a great view of the mountains, even if they’re not sprinkled with snow. Kayakers and paddle-boarders can often be seen cruising along the water. Lost Lake is a secluded place where tourists escape to from the hustle and bustle of Whistler Village, and youths hang out and play guitar on the beach. It provides a great running loop for burning off the sweet treats that will inevitably find their way into your stomach if you visit Whistler.

DSC_0002

DSC_0009

DSC_0011

For those wanting to move at a faster pace, Whistler is also great for cycling. There are fun gravel routes for off-road biking near Lost Lake. If you stay at UBC Lodge in Whistler Creekside, bikes can be rented for $20 a day.

If you prefer more laid-back sports, Whistler is not shy of golf courses. There is also the swanky Scandinave Spa for those in need of a massage after a long day of hiking. Those tight on pennies don’t have to splash out though ($162 Deep Tissue Package – ouch!); UBC Lodge residents have free access to the hostel’s spa and sauna.

Fill me with Food

There are plenty of eating options available in Whistler Village that cater for various budgets and world tastes.

For a cheap and cheerful breakfast that will fill you up until the late afternoon, I recommend heading to Gone Village Eatery in Village Square where you can have hearty meals for around the $10 mark. Orders are taken and paid for at the counter and there is a washing area for to diners clean up their dishes themselves. This café is also located behind a cool bookstore.

DSC_0018

For lunch, El Furniture’s Warehouse offers a meal for only $4.95. Mainly filled with youths keen to watch ice hockey and NFL on TV, this place serves food that is nothing special (think burgers and mac ’n’ cheese) but it’ll fill you up for a few hours of wandering around. Dups Burritos makes tasty Mexican food priced around the $10 mark. For take-out, the renowned Peaked Pies has savoury and sweet options. Got cash to splash for dinner? Head to restaurants like Caramba! and The Keg Steakhouse for higher-end cuisine.

If visiting Whistler in the fall, it’s likely that at some point you’ll need a hot drink to warm your hands. Good cafes include Pure Bread and Moguls. Both are quite popular and hence pretty small when it comes to seating space, but the $5 cake slices look incredible! Moguls also offers many healthy savoury options.

Craving a sweet treat after an active afternoon? The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory will satisfy your needs. A dazzling display of decorated toffee apples, flavoured fudge, chunky cookies and hand-crafted chocolates awaits you. Naturally the prices in this chocolatier don’t match ‘Save on Foods’ and deciding on one item is difficult, but the chocolate chip cookie topped with dark chocolate, caramel, nuts and raisins is so worth that $7. Just be sure to brush your teeth extra well at bedtime… Another place to check out is Hot Buns Bakery for its famous cinnamon buns and crepes, while Cow’s Whistler sells ice cream and milkshakes made fresh in front of your eyes from a Prince Edward Island recipe.

For home-cooked meals, there are two large grocery stores in Whistler Village: IGA in the marketplace and Whistler Village Grocery Store in Village Square.

With so many more dining options available, it wouldn’t be surprising if you spent most of your money on food during your weekend in Whistler…

Ease of Entertainment

Most shops in Whistler cater for hikers, skiers and snowboarders but there are also fashion and jewellery outlets available including GAP, Pandora and Footlocker. Even if, like myself, you’re not into these things, you can still get some fun out of window-shopping the many stores along the Village Stroll.

Picnics can be eaten on the Medals Pavilion next to the Olympic monument. Here kids run around playing games, glamorous moms in ski-based attire drink smoothies… and the odd couple perform yoga exercises. You can observe the activity from the comfort of one of the big chairs.

DSC_0013

DSC_0017

Worth a visit is the Squamish Cultural Centre just outside Upper Village. This exhibits First Nation crafts including Totem poles and canoe boats, with plenty of photos illustrating the connection of these people to the land. You’ll find out interesting information, such as the tradition that newborns are given one name at birth before receiving their permanent ancestral one at adolescence. One memorable photo depicted two mountain peaks which represent two princesses who begged their husbands not to engage in a war.  Entry to the museum costs $18.

Whistler is quite the party town, featuring many bistros that turn into cocktail and wine bars; public houses offering locally sourced craft beers; and three nightclubs. Promoters will often be on the street with big smiles inviting people to join their weekly bar crawl. The last BC Transit bus departs at 12.59am. Any later than this and you’ll be needing a cab.

Getting There and Around

Buses through town come regularly. A single journey in Whistler costs $2.50 (as opposed to $1.75 in the smaller nearby Squamish). Save yourself from rummaging in your purse for cash by paying $22.50 for 10 tickets at the visitor centre near the main bus stop. The staff here are bilingual and very helpful with recommending activities tailored to your interests. Free shuttles run to the Marketplace from November to April and from the Village to Lost Lake in the summer season.

If you’re not driving, Greyhound and Pacific Coaches are the main transportation services, taking two and a half hours to/from Vancouver. The latter is more expensive, however it does offer pick-up and drop-off at Vancouver airport and selected hotels.

Whistler to some is, like Banff, too touristy, plastic and expensive. Hosting the Olympics inevitably boosted redevelopment of its commercial face. It’s definitely not like the more simplistic rural Canada I fell in love with, and yes, you are bound to encounter the odd rich  foreign skiing-nut. However it’s definitely worth seeing just for the experience and for the natural beauty that surrounds the village. Don’t feel unwelcome because you haven’t brought your skis with you; come along to Whistler for a weekend and treat yourself to a bit of commercial charm.

 

*

Would you like to take this article on the road with you? You can download a GPS version to your iPad or iPhone by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Afternoon Adventures through Arches National Park

Arches National Park is located just outside Moab in Utah, USA. For a state that has such strong religious communities, it seems ironic that it is also home to many national parks that stun visitors with their complex geological formations. Whether a higher power made them or not, the sights in Arches are magnificent enough to make you bow your head in respect. Covering all the areas and 2000 recorded arches in this 76,519 acre park would make an even longer post than my usual ones (‘is that even possible?’ I hear you say) so below are some highlights from the sections I visited during my afternoon in Arches.

A winding uphill entrance leads you into the park, which was originally classed as a National Monument in 1929 before being upgraded to national park status in 1971. In the ‘Windows Section’, Balanced Rock stands out like a defiant fist punching for freedom amidst gloomy clouds. A random collection of fins in the distance is common as you drive on, quickly losing the desire to take photos in favour of just absorbing what you are seeing.

449

478

The Cove of Caves looks like it would have been a suitable ‘home’ area for the humans who occupied this park 10,000 years ago. As you drive on through the park, it’s fascinating to consider how long these fragile looking structures have stood.

595
Arches NP

Driving on further, Delicate Arch is the most photographed in the whole park, as you can see by the dots of people surrounding it. Its name perhaps comes from its rather delicate-looking placement down the side of a slope. The weather wasn’t too cheerful and having to compete with fellow tourists for a photo is never fun, so it was skipped.

Upon arrival in the Devils Garden section in the north of the park, the sun decided to come out. First up was Tunnel arch, with the hole’s shape so seemingly symmetrical that it’s easy to imagine someone coming out at night to sand down its edges.

487

See that tiny green figure to the right underneath Pine Tree arch? That’s not a tree, but me in fact. Try not to step on a cactus or make the ants angry as you tread the sandy paths after it.

493 498

Ant holes, Arches NP505

508 509

The most popular arch in the Devils Garden section is Landscape Arch, which boasts the title of longest recorded arch in the park (if not the world?) with a measurement of 93m across. Its thin frame has formed from three separate occasions since 1991 of sandstone falling away. Who knows how long it will hold together?

519 578

Partition Arch follows shortly after, but thankfully fewer tourists do too, so there’s more space for shameless poses…

546

As you carry on along the fins of the Devils Garden Trailhead, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you’re still on planet Earth. With the park located on the Colorado River, its bewildering landscape has been formed by a continual geological process taking place over millions of years. Beginning as a salt bed caused by an evaporated sea, eroded rock sediments have been carried by a sea current and crushed together to make sandstone, before being layered and re-layered on the salty sea bed. Some layers were thrust up above the surface as salt domes, with a continuous process of erosion breaking off segments of these to give the rocks their distinctive arch-like shape.

 554 568 575

You’ll often stumble across random arches here and there. I’m still not sure of the names of all the ones I saw, such as the one below. But it’s the sights that will ultimately stick in your memory, and not the names.

 570482

The Tower of Babel and the Organ have a domineering presence in the Courthouse Towers section near the entrance and exit of the park, especially on the morning after a stormy night. Their titles perfectly suit their tall, rigid structures.

625

628

Meanwhile, here I am eating breakfast whilst the Three Gossips have a chinwag behind me…
632

The Courthouse Towers Viewpoint looks exactly like its namesake – a row of judges standing up in a high courtroom, summoning the audience’s attention as they deliver their verdict on the tiny green men below them.

638 639

Being imprisoned on this planet wouldn’t be such a bad thing though. There are plenty of areas to run away to, and nooks and crannies to explore. Let yourself get lost in the red maze of arches and enjoy a brief escape from Earth.

*

Here is my latest Huff Post article on my experience of Arches

‘Jammy’ Travel Tales: Yellowstone National Park

There’s something immensely satisfying about the tasty sensation of sweet strawberry jam on toasty-warm buttered bread melting in your mouth. Sugar and carbs are a crime to some people, but even if you look back later with regret,  deep down they make you feel great at the time. This leads me onto the term ‘jammy’. For those who aren’t familiar with this word, ‘jammy’ is another way of saying lucky…in a sneaky way. Things jam together favourably when they perhaps shouldn’t have. It’s something that many people experience, and normally relates to the issue of expense, or rather, an unplanned lack of it! Whether it’s being under-charged for the grocery shopping, or missing a fine from the parking attendant by seconds, a little part of us might feel bad about it, but a big part of us is also likely to feel pretty great about it! My best day of jamminess came in August 2014 when I was in Yellowstone National Park during a road trip.

The first incident involved the showers at Roosevelt Lodge. Eight days into the trip, washing had consisted of swimming in lakes. A sign at Tower Fall campground said that showers would be available at the lodge. Since there was no mention of price, it was naturally assumed (out of poor-student hopes) that usage would be free. Wash bags at the ready, my chum and I parked up and asked a guy in his early twenties where the showers were. “Are you two staying here?” he asked, looking us up and down uncertainly. Perhaps it was obvious it had been eight days. “We were told we could use the showers here,” I found myself saying confidently. It wasn’t a lie; this is what the sign had said. After his unconvinced nod and subsequent directions led us to a plush washroom, I realised that I had got here from unknowingly giving slightly false information. He was thinking I’d meant a member of staff at the lodge had granted permission, not a vague sign. As I enjoyed a long warm shower complete with free soap, shampoo and conditioner, I felt a little guilty knowing that I shouldn’t really be here. Then I spotted a large stack of sanitary towel disposal bags in the toilet cubicle, and all guilty thoughts evaporated into the surrounding mist from the shower as I stuffed a few of them into my bag before walking out fresh, clean and content with my free find (because when you’re on the road living in a car with a boyfriend, maintaining hygiene during that time can be quite difficult…)

Later that day after exploring the Norris Geysers, we drove down to see Old Faithful. This famous geyser erupts on a random time scale that is on average once every 60-90 minutes, and is so popular with tourists that a highway is in operation to facilitate the large flow of traffic. Managing to quickly find a space in the huge car park, we casually strolled over to the viewing area, unsure what to expect having not researched the estimated eruption time. The walk was interrupted by a bathroom stop. Then we finally made it to the viewing area where we were greeted by the sight of a huge crowd of at least 500 people pinned against the fence. Many had perhaps been sat waiting for 50 minutes. Five minutes after our laid-back arrival, the geyser’s big moment arrived as it shot steaming hot water high into the air, reaching an elevation between 30 and 60 metres. You can get an idea of how long the water keeps spurting out for and how big the crowds were here. As we walked away 10 minutes later and passed people with looks of frustrated disappointment on their face upon realising they had just missed the eruption, I again felt a flash of guilt. Considering we had not checked the predictions and took a risky pit-stop on the way, we were extremely lucky to have made perfect timing.

196   205

Next we had to find a place to sleep for the night. All the campgrounds south of Old Faithful were full, so we drove on into the Grand Teton National Park. While we searched hopelessly for campgrounds with space, dusk started creeping in. We procrastinated from our challenge by admiring the sunset over Jackson Lake.

I said I would drive on to Jackson in Wyoming if necessary, but it was still about 4o miles away and both of us were tired from a hot, busy day. Just as our destination-less driving began to turn increasingly stressful, a sign advertising a lodge came into view, tempting our desperate selves to flick the indicator right. But would we paying to sleep in a room at the lodge? Of course not! We were thinking about the prospect of available parking space. We’d slept in a hotel parking lot before, however it had been situated outside a national park. Sleeping here seemed a little too risky. What if our car’s licence plate was checked against guest records? Maybe we would simply be asked to leave, but maybe we would be fined too. We weren’t sure of the rules, and asking would only arouse suspicion.

Alas, after much debating, we agreed to stay and parked up near other cars so that we didn’t stand out more than we already did (being in a dirty 1986 Land Cruiser in the parking lot of a rather fancy lodge),  before closing the curtains and quietly settling down for the night. I didn’t sleep too well, worried about being caught. Butterflies would creep up my stomach when I heard approaching voices or a car door slam next to us. At one point I heard youths laughing outside our car, clearly recognising what we were doing. I silently pleaded that they would leave us in peace.

Our alarm woke us at 6 a.m for a quick getaway. But having survived the night, we were feeling a little more complacent, so we stepped outside to have a look around. The lodge was right on the edge of Jackson Lake. We followed the path down to the water’s edge, boats sitting silently on the serene surface. Moon still beaming brightly, the warm sky cast a soft pink glow over the Tetons painted with streams of snow. Candyfloss and ice cream. The only sound to hear was the faint bobbing of the boats and gentle lap of the water against the shore. There was a cold snap in the air, but something about this sight made me feel cosy inside. After waking up to this view, I was glad that we had taken the risk of sleeping here. Most people would have to pay a minimum of $269/£179 per night for the view at this time of the morning, but we had got it for free. Soon after, we remembered not to risk our chances too much and left the car park with frost on the windows still clearing, feeling both extremely lucky and extremely sneaky.

217

Whilst this was the most jam-packed day of jamminess on the trip, there would be further jammy moments to come, including sleeping in a viewing area inside a national park. Campgrounds were full, and nowhere did we explicitly read or hear that sleeping in cars outside a designated camp area was prohibited. Camping in a tent would of course have been much too extreme, and if the park had contained bears, we wouldn’t have made the decision to sleep there, in case they were able to break into our car for food. We were very careful and respectful towards the environment, leaving no rubbish behind and causing no damage. Our decision was partly influenced by the stormy evening weather and concern about how good our brakes would be descending the wet roads leaving the park. But really there was also the question: “how often am I be able to wake up to a view like this?” It was a once-in-a-lifetime free opportunity. If we hadn’t done it, we’d have definitely lived to regret it. As we left another national park the next day and noticed a ranger taking notes and talking to a sheepish-looking man with a trailer parked in a viewing area (who we had also happened to see settle down in another national park previously), we realised how fortunate we had been to dodge a fine. But the risk had been worth it.

Young and carefree – that’s what the elderly fondly recall being when they were younger. Reading my dad’s memoirs, I’ve been amazed by some of the things he and my mother got away with as young travellers, such as sleeping in a graveyard somewhere in New Zealand, or on someone’s porch steps in the States. Today, such activities would be condemned and they would probably be classed as poor, dangerous vagrants, when in fact they went on to lead successful lives in the medical profession.

Is it wrong to be a jammy traveller?

When you’re young, money is tight. This restriction doesn’t combine too greatly with youthful curiosity, especially since this is realistically the time when you’re in the best shape to explore and take physical risks. Humans have been able to survive and evolve over time by choosing options that enhance their chances of survival without involving significant  physical harm and exertion. Hunters and food-gatherers would happily take berries from a tree in a rival tribe’s territory if their access was not threatened and the food would help prolong their lives. It makes sense that in today’s age of consumerism, the importance of minimising physical harm has adapted into an importance of minimising financial expense. It’s ingrained into our human instinct that we should do anything that makes our life easier and more enjoyable with as little cost involved as possible.

There are certain things I would never do, like not pay the entrance fee to a national park. My moral conscience would be unable to allow that. These parks protect outstanding areas of natural beauty and they should be supported in doing so. Regarding smaller issues though, it is easy to say “I will always abide by the rules”, but when it comes to the moment, you might be surprised by how tempting it is to take an opportunity and run with it. I am of course not encouraging illegal acts, so please don’t rob a bank after reading this. But sometimes being a little jammy leads to the most memorable travel moments. In the corny words of Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson, the best things in life are free!

 

Bear in Mind: Preparing for a Scare in Glacier National Park

‘Failure to prepare means preparation to fail’: that’s something we’re told growing up, whether in school or before competitions. You would think the same motto applied to travel, and in most cases it does. However, the most memorable experiences from travelling do not necessarily arise from preparation, but pure unpredictable chance.

When I started my road trip through the USA, I didn’t consider the possibility of seeing a grizzly bear to be very high. Having not seen one in the Canadian Rockies three years earlier (a black bear from inside a bus doesn’t count), I assumed history would repeat itself, regardless of the breed’s higher population in Montana. Only when my travel buddy and I were walking along the interestingly-named Thunder Knob trail in Washington’s North Cascades one morning,  did the prospect of coming across a bear seem greater. A clanging noise grew louder through the trees and we passed a couple in expert hiking gear walking their dog with a bell attached to its collar. My friend looked down at his outfit and said, “Okay, now I feel unprepared.”

In Glacier National Park in Montana, tourists are briefed to prepare themselves for seeing a bear. On arrival at the park’s entry stations, drivers are handed leaflets explaining what to do in the event that they encounter one. (Interestingly, this leaflet recommended making occasional bursts of noise, rather than a constant sound.) Bears were described as more likely to avoid human contact than pursue it, but that didn’t make a backcountry hike seem any less risky.

We drove on to Bowman Lake, the secluded ‘primitive’ campground (‘primitive’ meaning there were pit toilets and no showers, hence a subsequent cheaper price of $15 per night). From the park’s west entrance to the campground in the north-west, it’s a 32 mile drive which mostly involves dusty gravel roads, switchbacks and plenty of potholes. Some cars turned back, fed up with the slow-driving conditions. At six miles, Polebridge is the closest ‘village’ to the campground for stocking up on supplies. A small female ranger at the entry station greeted us and we asked her for clarification of what to do upon coming face to face with a grizzly. “Oh well…you know… you just want to show the bear that is has plenty of space to pass,” the lady began slowly in a cute high-pitched voice, tucking some hair behind her ear. “Just stand still and be nice and calm, you know – ‘hey bear’,” the lady’s tone piped higher as she mimed a shy tiny wave that stemmed from her wrist. “Let him know you’re not a threat, you know, just relax…and back off slowly.” We nodded at her and I bit my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of this little lady waving up a grizzly saying “hey bear”.

Many more potholes and tight pull-overs later, we were rewarded for our patience by views of Bowman Lake with its scenic mountainous backdrop, before we found a spot in the rustic campground. Accompanying the descriptions of each 12 mile-return hike was a warning about bears. All these warnings, understandable as they were, made me a little nervous. As we set off on a hike along the Lower Quartz Lake trail, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder, occasionally calling out “hey bear!” in a voice that sounded way too wimpy. Blood flowed to the tips of my toes and fingers. I was in flight-mode and instructions saying to stay still and not run away upon meeting a bear did not seem realistically achievable. I certainly wasn’t going to stand there saying hello with a wave…

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

Why was I so worried? This wasn’t like me. Was it because I was with (male) company that I felt a greater excuse to be scared? Or was it because all these warnings increased the expectation of being confronted by a huge animal? It probably didn’t help that my friend, walking behind me, began telling me a story he’d read about a mountain lion leaping from a tree onto a man’s neck in Washington. I laughed sarcastically to suggest I didn’t believe him, all the while glad he was behind so he couldn’t see me scan the trees suspiciously. “I doubt we’ll see one to be honest…” he then said reassuringly, and I felt a little better. “…But if we do and it comes for us, I want you to run away while I distract it.”

I wheeled round and cried for him to stop it, unable to bear the thought (ha). ‘I am never going travelling with a boy again,’ I thought as we carried on up the path, with him now singing a made-up song to a bear in a baritone voice. “Can we turn around now?” I asked a few minutes later. “Are you really that worried?” he asked in surprise. I don’t think I was; I too was starting to believe we wouldn’t see a bear. But the anticipation of doing so was making me skittish, frustrated with the boring trail. “Okay, okay, 10 more ‘hey bears’ and then we’ll head back,” my friend promised. When we got to 10 I turned around and took off running for home, side-stepping tree trunks and skipping roots in the ground. The potential danger had charged me with adrenaline and I felt a mixture of anxiety and excitement as I dashed back along the trail, blood pumping, not looking back. It was a feeling reminiscent of that I’d experienced in BC in 2011. We reached Bowman Lake breathless with fatigue, relief and laughter, and jumped into the glacial lake, fears forgotten in the freezing cold water.

After all the cautions and expectations, we had not seen a grizzly bear. ‘That’s how it always seems to go,’ I thought. Both of us agreed that we probably wouldn’t see one the whole time we were in the park.

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake - the 3rd largest in Glacier National Park

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake – the third largest in Glacier National Park

A day later, we had made our way along the incredible Going-to-the-Sun road and stopped to make sandwiches at the quiet picnic area in St. Mary. As I innocently opened the trunk to find the bread, a French lady nearby started gabbling excitedly to her husband and grabbed a camera. Intrigued, we followed her to the edge of the picnic area where a few other people had gathered, whispering giddily. 20 metres away, a small grizzly strolled casually out of a narrow path and ambled past the picnic benches, oblivious to the humans staring at him in fascination. “He looks pretty young…” my friend remarked pointedly, but still people crept out from the bush to take a closer shot as the bear wandered on absent-mindedly into another pathway. Two couples peeped out from the path the bear came from and called over “Has it gone?” French-couple waved them over. “I’m pretty sure it was a cub,” my friend said louder, but again, his hint wasn’t registered. However, it soon became clear the bear was alone, and people went back to eating their sandwiches, as if nothing had happened. Indeed, it was almost as if it was the thousandth one I’d seen; there was no overwhelming rush of fear or excitement as I had expected, perhaps because I had been bracing myself for this moment for a while, and because the sighting had occurred in a more populous area and with less drama than I had anticipated.

"hey bear"

“hey bear”

A few minutes later, we ourselves walked along the very path the bear had emerged from to sit at the edge of St. Mary Lake. Even though there was a fresh pile of bear dung feet away, decorated oh so prettily with huckleberries, I didn’t feel nervous at all, completely unfazed by the possibility that this bear might return the way it had come. Likewise, the first mile of a hike to Otokomi Lake later that afternoon featured bear droppings every 100 metres or so, but still I felt no fear. Finishing the 10 mile-return trail in one piece, I joked light-heartedly, “Calling out ‘hey bear’ probably wasn’t the most sensible phrase to use.” My anxious anticipation had reduced now that I had actually seen the talk-of-the-town for myself.

Definitely makes the 5-a-day of huckleberries...

With this huckleberry consumption, bears definitely makes one of their 5-a-day…

Our sighting was an experience that many tourists diligently prepare for, researching promising time periods of activity and driving themselves to the most recommended locations before spending hours waiting there, all just to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear. And yet, like forcing oneself to struggle until a math problem is solved or dance routine learned, it seems that trying too hard at sightseeing might even threaten progress. Events happen when you least expect them and are least prepared. It’s easy to get drawn into the hype of potentially seeing a special wild animal in risky circumstances; it’s the expectation created by this hype that can make us more nervous than is perhaps necessary, and subsequently less successful. I feel really lucky to have seen that bear, knowing that many tourists will leave Glacier National Park feeling disappointed about missing out. It almost seems unfair that it happened so easily. Sometimes people simply find themselves in the right place at the right time, and there are no bear necessities when preparing for this type of experience.

Pine Cones & Brown Bears: The Things We Can See From Running

The end of my degree is fast approaching and I’m starting to think about the things that I will (and won’t) miss from university. While in time I may indeed start to miss 9 a.m. seminars, hoarding through countless books and articles late in the library, and filling in footnotes on essays, it will be my time in the university’s running club that I’ll miss most.

Presiding over a sports club has had a greater emotional impact than I expected. Being a ‘figurehead’ inevitably makes one more passionate about the sport they represent, and subsequently keen to encourage others to share this enthusiasm. There has been nothing more fulfilling than seeing people show up to a first session with a pessimistic outlook, only to see them again a few weeks later, finishing the session with a smile and saying, “I’m really glad I made myself do that extra set.” Nobody probably notices the little beam of delight on my face when I hear such comments, or watch someone who originally couldn’t complete the warm up running with a new fluidity. It’s a sight that inspires me for my own running too. I’ve witnessed people do things that they originally insisted they couldn’t, simultaneously surprising myself with how much I enjoy and can cope with being a ‘leader’ of a large group. The experience has highlighted how reciprocal the psychological effects of running with others can be, regardless of age or ability.

But the great thing about encouraging others to run, and being encouraged by them, is that it doesn’t just have to take place in school or university. It can be done anywhere, including when travelling. I’m not sure I would have adapted so comfortably to my role was it not for my help-exchange experiences. It was during an evening run in Canada when I particularly learned how when it comes down to significant circumstances, anybody can take the lead.

My first homestay experience was in British Columbia, where on one evening I was asked by a mother to take her 12 year old son out for a run. Ice hockey season would be starting soon and he needed to get fit. The family lived on a farm near Shuswap Lake, which we would go swimming in with the dogs and horses. I stretched outside, admiring the melting beams of light oozing from the lowering sun onto the placid surface, until the boy appeared reluctantly. We walked down the sandy drive to the road not saying much, my comment on it being a “lovely evening for a run” provoking only a greater look of dread on the boy’s face. I didn’t know the area well at all, nor the boy’s level of fitness. Watching him swing his arms half-heartedly by his rather tubby torso, head down as he scuffed his trainers over the pine cones on the gravel, I figured we would just go for a gentle jog for a couple of miles. Cars barely touched the road that was sandwiched between dark sheets of fir trees.

Shuswap Lake

The sweet smell of pine fragranced the air as we set off. A delicate humming of midges serenaded my ears, soon interrupted by the sound of the boy panting behind me. Eh oh. Was I going too fast? I didn’t think anyone had mentioned asthma..? I told him to think about his breathing – in through the nose, out through the mouth – wary of sounding patronising…but also of causing my host’s son to collapse. When I glanced behind me to make sure he was still alive, a frown of concentration was etched on his face as he inhaled deeply before blowing out, his eyes fixed straight ahead of him determinedly. “Good! That’s much better,” I said encouragingly. He nodded his thanks, eyes still focused ahead. I considered trying to make conversation, only to decide it wouldn’t help with his rhythm. Occasional calls of “Keep it up!” and “You’re doing really well!” received no verbal response. And so I carried on running in front, letting the sound of pine needles crunching under my trainers entertain me instead and distract from any awkwardness.

A few painfully un-conversational minutes later, the road curved uphill slightly to the right. I had no idea where we were going but carried on regardless, staring at the grey tarmac as if it might contain chalk-written signs telling me something funny to say to lighten the mood. Suddenly the boy piped up with breathless gasps: “Okay… we should probably…start talking now… so that…the bears don’t come.” My head jerked up in alarm. Bears? Nobody had mentioned bears! The faint, innocent smell of lemon in the air suddenly became blotched with an overriding aroma of panic. But being the ‘adult’ here, I told myself I had to remain calm. I swallowed and attempted a casual, “Oh, okay,” hoping I didn’t sound too squeaky, before offhandedly suggesting we turn back. “Yeah,” the boy replied earnestly with a greater fluency of speech that seemed to reflect his new-found authority, “and you should probably run behind me now, because although I may not be too great at this long-distance stuff, I can sure run fast when I have to!”

I bit my lip, trying not to laugh as I obediently slowed to let him overtake. His sudden entrance into protective mode was adorable, providing a brief distraction from the startling issue at hand. “Oh I’m sure we’ll be fine, but yeah, good idea,” I said in a confident tone, before immediately casting a fleeting look over my shoulder at the pine trees to the side. “If you see anything, just follow me,” the boy instructed, as I just avoided stepping on his heels after another cautious glance behind me. I asked him about school and his interests, the words ‘bear bear bear’ running through my mind in time with my quickening footsteps. As he explained the rules of ice hockey to me, I tried to decide which would sound better: ‘I’m really sorry, but your son had a cardiac arrest’, or, ‘I’m really sorry, but your son got mauled by a bear’. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

But gradually through maintaining conversation I became more relaxed and the frequency of anxious peeks over my shoulder decreased. While I would continue to encourage him with desperate utterances of “That’s it, pick up those feet!” and “Doing great!”, he would puff “Almost there,” over his sagging shoulders, which would rise again resolutely every time I urged him on.

The sense of urgency caused the boy’s running to pick up immensely. We arrived back at the bottom of the drive exhausted from our mad dash, the boy bending over double puffing away. ‘He must hate me,’ I thought to myself as I wiped the sweat off my brow. But when he stood up straight, spread across his face was a grin of both relief and pride. “It’s true, you can run fast when you have to!” I remarked teasingly, and I held my hand up for a high five. The boy returned it, sealing what became the beginning of a great ‘brother-sister’ relationship for the remainder of my stay. I felt proud of him, knowing that he probably hadn’t run that fast for such a distance before. And I felt proud of myself too. Having never had a younger brother, just trying to persuade an unfit lad to keep running whilst being responsible for his welfare was a new enough experience, before the small matter of bears came up.

Being in a position of responsibility had made me act more calmly than I probably would have if alone, simply because I felt a duty of care to someone; a sense of duty that would have appeared with any child. And at the same time, the young boy had adopted a protective persona that disguised his real fear, feeling that it was his duty to take charge because of knowing the area best, and because of this belief that, as the male, he should look out for the female guest.  A true little gent. Or at least I thought so until it occurred that he’d organised things so that I would be the first to be eaten…

This memory is what always comes to my mind when people ask how I can enjoy running so much. It can do so much for human relations, mainly because of the various contexts in which it can take place. Everyone knows that marathon runners form great friendships because all share a sense of accomplishment, which they have achieved having helped one another get through the process. But this effect of running doesn’t only come from huge distances or competitive settings. In this instance, the boy and I had become closer through a shared sense of fear, with the act of running helping to bring us together through our mutual support and dependence. Someone comparing the before-and-after scenes at the bottom of the drive couldn’t have failed to notice how paradoxical they were, following just 20 minutes of running. I’ve continued to see such sights whilst training with my university team mates.

It only really hit me recently that there probably wasn’t actually any real danger of being chased by a bear – it was perhaps a rumour that the boy’s young, gullible mind had believed. Or maybe he had even made it up so we could head back early, thinking that the girl with bright blonde hair and a funny accent would probably fall for it. But even if that was what happened, I’m glad for it, because of how much the experience helped me get the most out of running while at university. I’ll truly miss walking out of Regents Park with stories and special moments to look back on from the training session, but if I keep running, I know that there will be so many more of these to come.

Travel & New Year’s Resolutions

I’ve been studying in London for almost three years. The more that I’ve gone home or gone travelling in this time, the more I’ve realised how life in London is so rigid. Every day I walk the same route to university, or the library, and every day I see the same scenes: businessmen in suits storming along the pavements, phone pressed to their ear, frowning with impatience as they deliver an order to someone whilst frantically waving their arms at a taxi; women in pencil skirts and high heels gossiping with their co-workers about that lady who works on reception, Starbucks lattes in hand, handbags perched on their lower arms pretentiously. Their lives seem so ordered – everyday they must go through this same routine. Some of my friends aspire to have this lifestyle when they graduate. They want the smart work clothes and the City jobs. But to me it just epitomises stress and restriction – something I don’t want to feel on graduating from university at the age of 22. Yes, it may also involve lots of money, but are these people actually happy? Are they content with the thought that this same daily routine may be their life for the next 30 years or more?

One day, I decided to walk home a different route from the library. It took a little longer than my normal route, but in doing so I discovered different sights and sounds, and that made it worth it. There were fewer people in suits and ties shouting down phones, fewer taxi beeps and red buses, no men outside tube stations trying to hand me leaflets I didn’t want. Instead I walked along quiet cobbled streets past quaint little private wine bars playing music, my route decorated with planted shrubs and couples walking hand in hand. It was a refreshing change. ‘Why be boring and go the normal route as always?’ I thought. The walk reinforced my idea that after university, there is no essential need to follow one path. Instead, one can be spontaneous, find a starting project, and go from there, seeing where it takes them. There are so many options, so why not start exploring them?

A key motive of this mindset of mine comes from my time in Iceland. My night in Selfoss was the last I’d have on my own before staying with a host in Reykjavík for a week. My plan the next day was to head back to Reykjavík and spend the day wondering around before going to meet my host. I could go visit a few of the museums I hadn’t been to, and maybe check my emails for the first time since arriving, in case someone had contacted me about something important. It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

In the morning I woke early to catch my 8.30 bus, dressing in jeans and normal trainers. The sun was out again. It was a shame my plans for the day involved being inside. I sat down on the kerb near the bus stop, leaning my weight on my backpack, and going over what I’d done so far whilst here. It seemed like a lot for four days – national parks, whale-watching, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes. I hadn’t been to all of the key areas, but the list seemed decent enough.

Suddenly a bus arrived around the corner. It was headed to Landmannalaugar, a place I hadn’t seen but had heard lots about. A couple next to me walked over to it with their backpacks. I watched them go, feeling curious. In my jeans pocket was my dog-eared bus passport. I’d paid a lot of money for it, and it hadn’t been completely used up. Landmannalaugar was one of its valid destinations. I sat upright and looked over at the bus again. The driver was stood outside, resting his head against the side in the direction of the sun, eyes closed. I was tempted to go, and there didn’t seem to be any reason not to, especially not financial. ‘But you already decided you’d go back to Reykjavik, and you’re not dressed for hiking,’ a voice in my head said. I slouched down again.

Then I thought about my plans for the day. Did I really want to be in an urban area, when I could be outside in a rural landscape? Was I really bothered if anyone had contacted me? Did I really want to wonder around a museum when I could do this anytime in London? I imagined my dad watching me now, and how boring he’d think I was. So I got on my feet, picked up my backpack and walked over to the bus. As I buckled my seatbelt and the bus got moving in the opposite direction to which I’d originally intended, I felt an almost rebellious sense of excitement.

The journey to Landmannalaugar takes a few hours. Most of that seems to be spent driving over gravel tracks as you get further into mountain terrain. You’ll pass the proud Mt. Hekla at one point. The ‘thud thud bang’ of the bus as it manoeuvres over the rocky surface, jolting you upwards every now and then, makes you feel like you’re making your way over a minefield. It’s amazing that the tyres don’t get punctured. Every so often you’ll think they have when the bus pauses, and for a second you’ll fear that you’re stranded. But fear not – it’s just the bus pulling over for another vehicle, and you’ll see the other driver looking nervous and sucking in their cheeks as if trying to create extra space on the thin tracks. The views will be quite unexciting for a while, as the bus twists it ways slowly around corners and up steep hills. Reading my guidebook to get some inspiration for something to do in my three hours, I soon felt queasy from the constant jolts and turns.

Then just as it feels like your head is forever going to be filled with the sounds of squeaks and rattles, and dusty gravel is all you’ll see for the rest of your life, a wave of soft green rises up into view. On your right you’ll see the idyllic sight of Lake Frostastaðavatn. Its calm face is lined with faint wrinkles and around it, conditioned by the air’s freshness, lie layers of soft brown tones of hair, primped by bounces from its natural character. From here the bus winds its way along twisty paths and splurges through a river crossing to take you to the campsite. People on the bus start collecting their hiking sticks and supplies together, as Landmannalaugar is the starting base for the 55km Laugavegur hiking trail to Pórsmörk.

1233630_10153290779590495_1352224387_n

I got off the bus with no plan, but as I went to fetch my walking boots and another hoody from my backpack, the lack of organisation felt strangely nice. There was a tall mountain in view, and so I made my way there. Bláhnúkur mountain is 940m high, and very dusty. As I started my ascent I felt a bit like the bus, pulling over cautiously to let those coming down pass. It was so windy, but you have to keep looking down at your feet to make sure you don’t slip. I stopped halfway up the mountain, thinking I might go blind if I headed any higher. The views are wonderful. Lava fields lie in front of an patch-worked array of pastel-coloured mountains, tinged with soft greens and browns that run so smoothly like oil on a painting. The scenery here was a big contrast from most other places I’d seen in Iceland, evoking warmth and tenderness rather than cold wildness.

Iceland.jpg

As I stood gazing at the views, amongst rubbing my eyes free of dust, a girl my age came up behind me, and we got chatting. She was French, and this was her first time travelling alone. We ended up spending the remaining hour and a half together, walking over to the hot springs where people bathed lazily, as sheep grazed around them. She was the first person I’d met on the trip who I’d actually like to keep in contact with, not just because I felt I should after spending a few hours with her. And I wouldn’t have met her had I not jumped on that bus.

The day had brought me a new visual perspective to Iceland, allowing me to see a different side to the country, just like taking the different route home from the library allowed me to see a different view of London. The day had signified freedom and impulsiveness, and my trip had been replenished as a result. I knew that had I simply gone on to Reykjavík as originally planned, the day would be nowhere near as interesting and fulfilling.

If people were more spontaneous in life, they’d get so much more out of it. As we approach 2014, my New Year’s Resolution is not really new as such. I just want to keep exploring the unknown and not play safe, but take a new opportunity that arises and see where it takes me.