Thursday, July 25, 2013

Crown of the Continent-- Glacier National Park (part 1)

Slowly making my way out from under the pile of unwritten blog posts!  My goal is not to be more than a year behind.  Last summer, after visiting a lovely lakeside cottage in Québec (and visiting my own family in Pennsylvania), I was able to visit one of the most breathtaking and majestic areas in the continental U.S.: Glacier National Park. The park actually crosses the Canadian border and is known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (also a World Heritage site).  This is only the third national park I have visited (after Yellowstone and Yosemite), and it is well worth your vacation time.  Visit soon, though-- the park's actual glaciers are quickly disappearing due to the advent of global climate change, and are predicted to disappear completely by 2030.

Our visit to Glacier was precipitated by some truly lovely friends of ours, K and M.  Two years before, at a potluck on the balcony outside of my apartment, K and M had met and quickly grown to love each other-- after five months, they were engaged.  Of their many shared interests, their joy in exploring nature led them to plan a wedding at Glacier, inviting their friends and family to experience the park with them.  The day before the wedding, JM and I flew from Pennsylvania to Spokane, Washington.  Though Spokane is 5 hours' drive from GNP, it is one of the closest major airports; to fly into Kalispell, Montana, would have cost an extra $200-300 each!  So we Pricelined a car from the Spokane airport, thinking to drive and enjoy the scenery on our way.  However, when we arrived in Spokane, we found that our luggage had not deigned to follow us.  This presented a slight problem-- all our clothes for the wedding the following day were in our checked bags.  Our flight was late getting into the airport, as well, making it impossible to get to our hotel before the front desk closed.

After some anger and frustration with airline personnel, who insisted that they could not get our bags to Spokane before the next day, let alone to GNP in time for the wedding, we managed to get our car from the rental company.  We had ordered a "special" car, which meant that we paid for a compact car but would receive whatever they had available, potentially getting a great deal.  Indeed, we received a big SUV for the price of a compact!  Thinking ourselves clever, we loaded our things with plenty of room to spare-- only then did we realize that the lower gas mileage of the SUV would actually end up costing us much more in the long run than if we had actually received a compact or economy car.  Sigh.

After a speed stop at TJ Maxx for some clothes and toiletries (including wedding clothes), and a slightly longer stop for dinner, we finally got on the road to GNP at about 6pm (four hours later than we had intended).  The mountain- and forest- speckled drive was quite pleasant, especially around Coeur d'Alene in Idaho.  However, as we crossed state lines, we realized that we had forgotten about the one-hour time difference between Spokane and Glacier, putting our arrival time at midnight instead of 11pm.  Well, we thought-- how much worse could it be?

A lot worse, as it turns out.  Though we made good time and did indeed arrive at our hotel at about midnight, we had a spot of trouble searching for our room.  We looked for ten minutes before JM discovered that the innkeeper had left us instructions on the back of the envelope with our keys; we were in an entirely different building.  Finally, we arrived at the door to our room, only to find that the key didn't turn in the lock.  JM wiggled it carefully; still no luck.  Applying a little more force, he attempted to unlock the door... and the key broke off in the lock.

I won't lie; JM is lucky to be alive.  I almost killed him right there.  We stood for a moment in shock.  Then, before I could explode, he went for the last-ditch effort of knocking on the door to the main office and calling the telephone there, knowing full well that no one would be awake or within earshot.  However, by a stroke of incredible luck, the innkeeper's apartment was next to the main office.  An older woman in a flowery nightdress shambled over to meet us, took one look at the broken key in JM's hand, and said vaguely "ah, yes, it does that sometimes."  She then pulled a pair of pliers and another key from a drawer and handed them to us sleepily.  Still stunned at our good fortune, we tried the second key, which turned smoothly in the lock.  We thanked the innkeeper profusely and stumbled, at long last, into our room with its waiting bed (after what had almost certainly qualified as a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day).


More to come (not terrible or horrible, but beautiful, joyful, and full of grandeur and storybook scenery)-- stay tuned!

 Lake MacDonald, Glacier National Park

 JM, searching for the perfect stone to skip

 Footprints on the beautifully multicolored, pebbly beach

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

La Belle Province

Please have patience as I update this blog with the many adventures I have had over the past year, which span three continents and five countries.  I hope to write about them soon!  Also, I will use only first initials here on out to protect the privacy/online identity/googleability of the persons mentioned.


Last summer I had a chance to visit the beautiful province of Québec, Canada.  My French (and my cooking) improved by leaps and bounds--thanks in no small part to my boyfriend's mom, C.  We spent an idyllic week on Lac Ouareau (wah-ROH), near the village of St-Donat in the Laurentian mountains, about two hours north of Montréal.

As we drove away from the city-slick area around the airport, the surroundings were surprising in their foreignness.  Signs whizzed by on the side of the highway, and I tried to read and comprehend them before they vanished behind us.  Restaurant chains both familiar (Poulet Frite de Kentucky, or PFK) and strange (St. Hubert) were visible in the golden afternoon light.  All the while, a subtle increase in the colors among the wildflowers in the median signalled the approach of a new flavor of serenity.  We arrived in St. Donat via winding country roads that were not dissimilar to the ones that I grew up with in rural Pennsylvania, but with a few unexpected variants... when I asked about the odd metal tent frame that appeared outside almost every house, JM explained to me that it gets so cold here in the winter, people need roofed structures to keep the snow and ice off of their cars so that they can start them in the mornings.  We arrived at their family cabin after less than two hours, but it already seemed to be a lifetime away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

The "cabin" was anything but-- replete with twelve bedrooms scattered over two mirror-image wings, one could almost get lost trying to find the kitchen.  A sunroom and living room overlook a sloping backyard and a thin slice of Lac Ouareau, most of which is blocked from view by a thick line of trees.  The living room in the other wing serves as a game room, and the opposite kitchen has become JM's father's workshop.  The building used to house botany students during summer classes or fieldwork; there are numbers on the doors, and each small bedroom has its own sink.  A pathway through the trees at the edge of the yard leads to a long dock and a gravel beach, on which is perched an orange catamaran sailboat.  Everything is surrounded closely by dense forest, as if the house and yard were simply dropped into a small clearing.  Though other houses surround the lake, isolation is the word of the day.  It is a truly beautiful spot.

My family's idea of "vacation" usually involves a beach and a book (or in my case, a stack of them).  Days are passed quietly, sunbathing and swimming, perhaps walking along the shore.  Not so with JM's family.  Over the course of a week, there was hiking, biking, swimming, boating, tennis, and more; no one could sit still while there was daylight to be had.  My mind-- and my legs-- worked hard trying to keep up.  As the sun set, however, the family finished each whirlwind day in the sunroom with a good meal, a bottle of wine, and conversation that often lasted late into the night by flickering candlelight.  Dinner was followed not infrequently by a game of darts, glass of whiskey in hand.  With good spirits, we bid one another good night and retired to bed, where the pitch darkness and utter silence lulled me to sleep.  Each day held new adventures, but not before the morning ritual of jumping into the chilly lake before breakfast!

My time in St Donat was idyllic, peaceful, and restorative-- all the things you could want a vacation to be! I hope to return this summer for an encore.

(I also got to spend a little time in the suburb of Montréal where JM grew up, though I didn't see the city-- hopefully someday I will see the city itself!)

The cabin in St Donat

"Une suisse" (the colloquial French word for chipmunk-- I wonder how the actual Swiss feel about that?)

On a hike overlooking a network of lakes in the area

Father and son

My birthday began with mimosas on the dock and ended with lobster and chocolate cake :)

La famille

JM's parents, C and C

On a bike ride in a national park near the cabin

My first taste of poutine!

Beautiful Québec

Monday, January 21, 2013

(mis)adventures in backpacking, part two.

The next day dawned full of promise, the rising sun casting its golden rays across the serene alpine meadow.  The cool, fresh air seemed to sing with seductive invitation, beckoning us towards the distant mountains.  A speckled fawn drank cautiously from the river, unaware of our presence.

I'm just kidding.  The next day didn't bring anything but heat and even more mosquitoes than there'd been the previous day.  They were swarming around the tent-- perhaps sensing our body heat, or maybe our fear.  We looked around in horror, and decided that we would try to pack up as quickly as possible and get out of this demonic meadow.  As soon as we left the tent, they were in our eyes, our mouths, our hair, and all over our things.  We grabbed our stuff (including our pitifully hung bear-bag) and hightailed it out of there, slowing for neither breakfast nor a proper packing job.  With paraphernalia stuffed into all corners of our packs, we scrambled out of the meadow and up a steep hill, where we reasoned the mosquitoes would relent at higher altitude.  And relent they did-- but not because of altitude, temperature, or any other factors we'd hoped would keep them at bay.  Though the bugs weren't too bad while we were moving, stopping to rest for more than two minutes brought the swarms back onto our heads (and everything else).  After an hour of hard climbing and vain attempts to escape the tiny terrorists, we ran into another couple of hikers coming from the opposite direction.

"You don't want to go that way," I cautioned them.  "The mosquitoes are just terrible."

"They're terrible everywhere," one said grimly.  "We just came from Gem Lake and we hid in our tent all night."  The other nodded in assent.

...well, shoot.

Gem Lake had been our next destination, where we were hoping to be able to relax and recover (and eat!).  The news carried by our fellow mosquito-sufferers was the last straw.  After a brief discussion (brevity necessitated by the angry swarms that quickly found us), we turned back and moved out the way we came.  It took us about five very unpleasant hours to leave the bugs behind.  The scenery was truly majestic, and I tried to appreciate it-- but all I was thinking about was getting OUT. OF. THERE.  Soon we arrived at Camp Lake again, where the mosquitoes were just barely tolerable.  We cooled our feet and lamented our failed expedition before hiking the last hour back to the car.

As soon as we got to the car, we remembered that we were nearly out of gas.  Wondering whether the universe would see fit to heap more misery upon us, we started the car, praying that we'd be able to make it to the main road.  And make it we did, coasting with the car in neutral for most of the drive.  We filled up and stopped, utterly exhausted, for a late lunch-- our first food of the day.  For a while we toyed with the idea of finding another campsite for the night, since we still had the car for another day.  However, the memory of the incredibly hostile Emigrant Wilderness was still too strong.  Beaten and battered, we finally admitted defeat.

In the end, we salvaged the trip-- we decided to drive west until we hit the coast, and find a place to stay there.  We ended up at a tiny bed and breakfast in Stinson Beach, only about 45 minutes away from Berkeley.  I don't think a hot shower ever felt so good.  We found a local bar and ate fish tacos while the locals and their dogs gossiped on the front porch; eventually we hauled our weary bones into bed.

The following day was the last of our three-day weekend, and instead of spending it hunkered down in a tent or fighting off thousands of bloodthirsty airborne savages, we took a leisurely stroll through Stinson Beach's small downtown and drove up the coast until we found a beach that was warm enough to sit for a while (no easy task-- contrary to popular belief, California's beaches aren't all like Malibu.  In northern CA, beaches are cold, foggy, and windy most of the time).  The sunshine slowly eroded the memory of our backpacking debacle, and we returned to Berkeley in triumph.

It's interesting how we purport to have such respect for nature; we prepare to the point of absurdity for its vagaries in temperature, weather, and geography.  We even take precautions against megafauna like bears and wildcats, as much for their sake as for ours, and we try to avoid damage even to plant life.  However, we often forget to be respectful of Mother Nature's smallest denizens, even though they have the power to make our lives utterly miserable.  I haven't lost my desire to do "real camping;" in fact, oddly enough, I think I'm more excited than before.  However, next time you can be sure I'll bring some mosquito netting.



stay tuned for a story of our next backpacking excursion, which was every bit as wonderful as this trip was horrendous!  I'll try to post about it here (though I have a couple of other stories to tell first).

Stinson Beach aerial view (from the internet)

Dillon Beach (from the internet)