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Sunrise at Cape Spear: Bright-eyed and bushy-tailedness be damned

I’m not exactly what you’d call a morning person.

Wait. Who are we kidding? As a lifelong night owl, this pretty much sums me up after waking too early in the wee hours:

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…and that’s on a good day

Growing up, my poor dad was tasked with dragging my grumpy arse out of bed every morning and getting me to the breakfast table before school. No small feat, lemme tell you. Without fail, getting a rise out of me took multiple trips upstairs, taking his life in his hands each time.

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Then there was my sister. All giddy and gay, skipping down the stairs each day, greeting everyone with a cheery “good morning” before tucking into whatever dad had whipped up, served with a steady side of death glares from my end of the table.

Needless to say, I haven’t been witness to many sunrises.

But there are times that being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed is over-rated. Having the chance to watch the day begin at Cape Spear is one of them.

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You see, as the easternmost point in the North America, the sun rises first here. And who doesn’t like being first? There’s a reason Newfoundland has its own time zone, after all. We’re always ahead.

After bumbling around in the dark to get ready, Cape Spear is only about a 15 minute drive from downtown St. John’s, as long as you and the moose steer clear of each other. Although they’re big, they’re also fast — which I am not at this hour — and you never really know when they might pop out of the bushes to make an appearance in front of you on the road. So just try and avoid them. They always win.

Morris The Moose

Arse on dat!

While you many not be the only person who’s had the idea to take in the show from these rugged cliffs, Cape Spear isn’t ever going to feel crowded. Here you can stand with your back to the rest of the continent. The next thing east is Ireland.

CapeSpear from Signal Hill

Looking across to Cape Spear from Signal Hill.

It’s a dramatic and striking span of rugged coast. Lying before two lighthouses, with ocean on three sides, there’s nothing but horizon stretching out in front of you, waves crashing against the shore and more often than not, wind whipping around you. At least in the summer it’s warm. But when Mother Nature’s in a bad mood, you’re gonna feel her wrath out here more than most places.

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Cliffs. Lots of cliffs.

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Love me a lighthouse. This is the original.

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…and this is the newer house with the operating light.

At the right time of year, it’s also a prime location for passing icebergs and playful humpbacks — this is smack in the middle of Mutt and Jeff’s stomping grounds.

As someone who has four sound machine apps on their phone and snoozes every night to the sound of waves, everything about the scene, coupled with the fresh, salty air, is enough to lull me back to sleep, but before long, the show gets underway. Things start to lighten off in the distance, with hues of pink and purple breaking up deep blue that’s carpeted the sky around us.

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The show begins

It’s then that those first trickles of orange light start to paint the sky like brush strokes. As that bounces off the clouds, a glow rises from where the sky meets the sea: the pink star of the show has arrived.

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The massive Oceanex Connaigra for scale.

The light at this hour is unlike anything I’ve experienced. Everything is aglow and awash in warm pastels. It’s a dream scene for an impressionist artist and an incredible sight to behold. For the most part, it’s yours alone. You know this is more than a mental picture that won’t leave you any time soon; it’s been an experience you’ll carry with you.

Beams of sunrise

Love how this little vessel lined up

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Postcard worthy

Needless to say, I’m not thinking about the time. This show is more than worth what it’s cost me in sleep.

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Bushy-haired & bleary-eyed…crooked glasses & all.

Humpback Whale

Snorkeling with the gentlest of giants

Humpback Whale underwater portrait

Not my whale…just a lovely stock shot that closely captures the image in my mind.

I’ve never been a big fan of snorkels.

When I’m diving, I find it’s a bit of a nuisance to have it hanging off my mask. I do own one, but it’s flexible enough to tuck into the pocket of my BCD, ready to haul out for a surface swim if needed, but otherwise, I’m happy to forget it’s there.

I was once warned that a snorkel can quickly become a straw and — no surprise here — I’ve had that happen just about every time I’ve used one. There’s nothing like an unexpected mouthful of seawater to get you sputtering.

But there are times when I can get past all that. And the chance to snorkel with humpbacks is definitely one of them.

We headed out with Ocean Quest in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland last summer to do this, but unfortunately didn’t get to see our large finned friends while we were in the water. Early on we’d come across a group of humpbacks feeding at a capelin buffet, but we left them alone to eat in peace. We also had a young humpback put on a playful show of breaches for us off the side of our boat, but waves and proximity to the rocky shore kept us from getting in for a swim with him.

So, once the humpbacks made their way back to the Rock this year, albeit later than usual, we headed out again.

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Is it just me or is there a wee orca resemblance happening here?

Snorkeling in the North Atlantic is not for the faint of heart. The water is cold and it can be rough. There are swells, there are waves. On this tour, you sit on the side of a zodiac and hold onto a rope to keep you in place as you drop over wave crests and have the bejesus bounced out of you  while the wind whips by. Our guide called it the ‘Newfie roller coaster’ and I happen to think it’s worth the price of admission alone. We hooted and hollered our way across the waves, though a few ‘come-from-aways’ (CFAs) on board didn’t quite share our enthusiasm for it.
At all.

One fine bump sent my sister arse over tea kettle over the side. She was fins up, but managed to hang on to the rope and get a good facewashing in the process. Anyone else, we’d had to have swung around and headed back a ways to pluck them out of the water. But Stimpy’s hard core.

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It kinda looked like this…

It wasn’t long before we saw the distinct humpback spouts off the bow in the distance. These babies can spray up to 13 ft. in the air, so if you scan the horizon, they’re not hard to spot.

Once we got up close to our first whale, the CFAs were a bit discombobulated and in a bit of a whiny snarl trying to find their gear and get it on. They took so long the whale was gone by the time they were ready to go.

We headed off again and soon enough a spout led us to another humpback. This one appeared in the mood to play, so over the side we went.

Now as I mentioned, the water is cold. But as long as you’ve got a wetsuit on, it’s not bad at all, except for that first trickle that makes its way into your suit at the top of the zipper and creeps down your back. Once that’s over, you’re off to the races.

Face down and snorkel up, I started to swim in the whale’s direction.

I’ve always found it a bit disconcerting to look down into open water with no line or bottom to help gauge a frame of reference. That’s obviously not an issue in tropical waters when you have 100 feet of visibility before you. However, anyone who’s given themselves over to the North Atlantic knows all too well that’s not what we’re dealing with here. You have no idea how deep the water is, what might be below or any sense of what’s what other than an endless wall of blue-green.

Just how much ocean do some people need?

All the same, floating on the surface is a quiet and calm place to be.

That is when your fellow snorkelers aren’t swimming into you and pawing across your back. Just how much ocean do some people need?

We soon realized this whale wanted nothing to do with us and had dove, so we headed back to the bateau.

Dear readers, I’m not going to lie, getting back in the boat is hands down the hardest part of this adventure. You’ll be tired from kicking and swimming against the swells, so pulling yourself up over the side of a zodiac, which isn’t easy at the best of times, becomes even more of a challenge.

Let’s just say, it ain’t pretty.

But thanks to my smart ass dad, who asked our guide (thanks, Matt!) to snap a pic of me trying to get back in, we have this little gem.

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And this one.

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No kids, that’s not a beached humpback on the boat.

Just a stellar example of a graceful exit.

That spectacle behind us, we soon caught a glimpse of the distinct back of another humpie cutting through the surface of the water. Unlike me, they are the picture of grace, glistening as they go.

Once the captain said the word, we plunged back into the water.

Over the side again

As one of the first in, I was out ahead, swimming in the whale’s direction. At first I saw nothing beyond the blanket of blue. But as I swam on, I noticed the water’s hue start to lighten and turn turquoise in front of me. A moment later, the end of the whale’s white pectoral fin came into view. I couldn’t believe it. There she was. It took a moment to register what I was seeing and I was in utter awe to be floating next to this incredible creature. I started talking to her through my snorkel. I couldn’t help but tell her how beautiful she was.

She was facing away from me and appeared to be about to swim away, so I gave my fins a few flutters to move in her direction. A second later, she all but turned on a dime and soon we were facing each other. Hovering about 8 ft. in front of me, and about the same distance down (it’s hard to gauge) — she didn’t stir. Nor did I. There was no one else around. I couldn’t believe I had this whale all to myself.

Without a movement on her part, she started to rise up slowly towards the surface. For a moment I thought I was about to have a humpback head under my belly, and I considered trying to move myself back out of her way. But having seen her agility and knowing how self-aware humpbacks are, I stayed put. This gentle giant was only going to get as close as she wanted to.

Stillest of moments

As effortlessly as she rose, she turned, the movement majestic. Her head now to my left and her body perpendicular to mine, I could see every inch of her peaceful presence — the bumpy tubercles on her head, each long groove running along her throat, her wing-like fins, her small dorsal and the many notches on her fluke. It is a picture that will forever be frozen in my mind.

We stayed there for some time with curious eyes, until one slow, effortless stroke of her tail took her back into the blue. Without a sound, it wrapped around her; it was as if she’d never been there.

It was the most serene and surreal moment of my life. I’ve heard others say that once you look into the eyes of a whale, you’re forever changed.

I can’t imagine how you’d come away from it any other way.

 

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The zipper goes in front, right?

 

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Who says whales don’t have legs?

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It’s been almost a year since “I missed it.”

It was a beautiful day in the middle of last July when a group of us decided to head out on the water in search of whales.

The humpbacks had returned to Newfoundland from the Dominican Republic to feed and fatten up at the capelin buffet before heading back south for the winter, and the waters were teeming with them. My social media feeds were full of beautiful whale tail shots and breaches. While the odds were in our favour of seeing some ourselves, I wasn’t about to hold my breath.

I was a whale repellant, after all.

I’d lost count of how many times I’d gone whale watching over the years, only to see none. Actually, that’s a lie. I’d managed to have one humpback encounter. That’s right, one. But he hadn’t come handy; he chose to stay clear of us and spent an hour playing with another tour boat, popping up to look at passengers leaning over the side before swimming underneath the catamaran to do the same on the other side. We had to settle for watching from a distance. Good times.

Now, if friends or family went out in the boat without me? Oh, they’d see more whales than you could count. And it seemed every one had a story of watching whales off Cape Spear. Except, of course, yours truly.

Song sung blue

I’d even heard humpbacks underwater while diving in Hawaii a few years earlier, but hadn’t laid eyes on one. Their voice travels when they sing, so they may not have been as close as they sounded, but even if they were, sharing a tune wasn’t in the cards.

When friends came to Newfoundland from Grand Rapids in 2013 specifically to see whales, I deliberately didn’t go out on the whale watching tour with them.

“You don’t want me on your boat,” I told them.

So that’s where things stood last July as we set out under the bluest of skies from Bay Bulls with O’Briens Boat Tours.

Capt. Joe announced that there was a free Iceberg Beer to be had for whoever spotted the first whale spout. I was already scanning the horizon and soon enough eyed the distinct spray at 11 o’clock.

“There she blows,” I hollered.

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It’s hard to beat beer in a blue bottle made from 25,000 year old iceberg water.

Beer in hand, this trip was already shaping up to be better than most.

We weren’t long out of the harbour when we found ourselves alongside three humpbacks feeding at the surface. I was mesmerized, in awe and moved all at once. These gentle giants were unfazed by us being there. They were mellow and kept coming closer, surfacing next to the boat and swimming under it, their white pectoral fins turning the water a beautiful turquoise as they went.

11 o’clock, 2 o’clock, soon we were surrounded by clusters of feeding humpbacks. There was even a momma and a calf. Leaning over the side of the lower deck, I talked away to them, hoping to have the chance to make eye contact. Joe said they respond to the cheers and singing, so we made noise every time they dove and showed us their beautiful flukes.

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Majestic whale tail

We floated in place a long time and eventually had to carry on with the tour. Most of our finned friends had dove beneath the surface and after a few minutes of waiting for them to reappear, the captain revved the engine as we set out for the bird sanctuary on Gull Island.

And with that, it happened.

Two humpbacks burst from the water and breached over my shoulder while I had my back turned.

My friend Sue Bailey had just switched on her camera to capture some video for a travel story a moment before and I was about to give her some of the live-on-location foolishness that often documents our globetrotting jaunts when the boat erupted. I quickly looked around and caught the two whales on their way down.

“Oh my god. Oh my god. And I missed it,” I cried.

But really, I hadn’t. When we looked at Sue’s video, it was all there. We couldn’t believe it! The camera didn’t playback with sound, so I was worried what kind of f-bombs I might have dropped in the madness of the moment, as the video was being shot for Canadian Press. As it turns out, there were none. Another wonder!

A moment later, a third whale breached.

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Mike Wert’s beauty shot of the third breacher

To say we were giddy with glee would be an understatement.

Back on shore, Sue sent the video off to her editor and before long I had a tweet from a friend telling me the story was on the Globe and Mail’s website. Then another saying it was on Yahoo.ca. The next day it was on Canada AM and then the National. From there it took off. Sue was interviewed by CBC News and VOCM in St. John’s. Our whales were all over local and national television and radio. Online, they were front page on the Huffington Post Canada. Friends around the world messaged me to tell me where they’d seen the video. We even made the CBS Nightly News. This went on for some time. Even this past winter word is the double breach was the topic of conversation in a Dublin pub.

Better than the Banff Squirrel?

One fine chap on Twitter said our #whelfie was an even better photobomb than the Banff Squirrel. Those are big words considering how cute he is.

Now, the whales are making the social media rounds once again. Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism has dubbed this Whale Week and has produced a wonderful video of Joe telling the story of our #whelfie.

It’s one of five beautiful whale tales that’s being shared, as of course is Sue’s viral video.

Who says whales don’t have legs?

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it, but every time someone tags me in a post about it or tweets about it, I have another look and laugh. It just never gets old.

That ‘helllllooooooo’ makes me howl. Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism posted this unedited version with more colourful language that captures the ruckus on board after the breach, with everyone sputtering a mile a minute all at once. Gold.

There’s rarely a dull moment when Sue and I get together, and while we’ve long joked about our spaziness, having it go viral took the cake.

In journalism, there’s an old adage: Report the news. Don’t become the news. We kind of blew that out of the water this time around.

But given that it captured the end of my whale repelling days with the biggest of splashes, I’m okay with that.

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A giddy crew back on dry land

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A bucket list kind of day

Although I’ve often joked about how my life has gone in unexpected directions as a result of bad timing, this week timing was on my side. I bounce around a bit these days, but realized about a month ago I was going to be in Ottawa the same time as Dr. Sylvia Earle. She doesn’t make many appearance in Canada, so I wasn’t about to miss her.

This is a woman I’ve admired for many years. A true living legend, she’s a trailblazer who’s devoted her life to exploring and researching the ocean.

She’s Time Magazine’s first Hero for the Planet, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence and founder of Mission Blue.

Seriously, take a look at her bio. There are enough honours and accomplishments for two or three people.

7,000 hours underwater

Having spent more than 7,000 hours underwater, Dr. Earle’s in a better position than most to talk about the impact we’re having on the ocean. She’s been a witness to it. At 78, she’s been diving for more than 50 years (and still does) and says she’s alarmed by the changes she’s seen beneath the surface in such a short time.

She’s worried by what we’re doing to the very liquid that allows every one of us to breathe. When speaking about the blue heart of the planet, she makes no bones about the urgency in needing to act to help it. But what I love about her is that the message she brings is one of hope. Although technology has helped us do incredible harm at an unprecedented rate, it’s also given us the ability to explore, to measure and to document the damage that’s being done. If we didn’t know, we couldn’t act. But we do, so we should.

“If you like to breathe, now is the time to listen.”

As soon as she said it, I knew I had the lead for my story.

I had the chance to spend more than half an hour interviewing ‘Her Deepness’ on Monday and despite sitting at the table with ocean royalty, managed to keep it professional…until it was time to go. Knowing I’d kick myself if I didn’t snag a photo, she graciously agreed to have one taken.

Force of Nature

Dr. Earle has a calm, serene presence about her. She’s a sweet lady and were her profile not what it is, she could easily be mistaken for your grandmother. But despite the diminutive package it comes in, you know you’re in the company of a force of nature. I confessed I was a longtime admirer as I packed up to leave. Walking out, we chatted about Newfoundland’s cod and how everyone should scuba dive to have a glimpse into this other world.

Or, she said, at least set foot on a water taxi or submarine.

As I stepped on the elevator, she winked and waved.

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Apologies for another sharp & stellar iPhone shot.

Later that night, at an event organized by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, she spoke to a sold-out crowd at the National Gallery. It was wonderful to see a full house; so many people who share a passion for the ocean, despite the fact we were in Ottawa, miles and miles from a coast line. But of course, that’s just her point.

As she wrote in The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One: “Even if you never have the chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, every bite you consume. Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.”

Sitting in the front row as she spoke, so eloquently and passionately about a place I love as well, I couldn’t help but be awed. And moved. And inspired.

It was definitely a bucket list kind of day. Those don’t come around often enough.

***

Dr. Earle’s documentary Mission Blue is on Netflix and worth taking the time to watch.

And if you haven’t seen her award-winning TED talk, I’ve plopped it here for you. It’s 18 minutes well-spent.

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve got high hopes for you, 40

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How cute is this fellow?

I spent the last hours of my 39th year thinking back on the last decade.

And without a doubt, it’s been a great one. My favourite one yet.

Your 30s don’t have a word like ‘fabulous’ attached to them as your 40s do, but they should. I’m just not sure what it should be: If we’re sticking with alliteration, ‘terrific’ lacks a certain something. As does tremendous. And thunderous? Not quite.

Regardless, the last 10 years have been a hell of a ride. I’m a bit sad to leave my 30s behind. Not because I have any problem with moving onto my 40s — though for the record, this feels more like it should be birthday 32 — it’s just that there’s been so many wonderful things that have happened along the way, the bar is high for the coming decade. I’m all about learning new things, making discoveries and collecting experiences — good and bad. On the ‘firsts’ front, my 30s didn’t disappoint. They’ve been filled with them:

  • First newspaper awards…years of paying my journalistic dues finally paid off
  • First dives…the highlight is still a night dive with manta rays
  • First motorcycle…my fine beast, Margie
  • First solo trips…everyone should do this
  • First time owning my own property. And then another…
  • First time as a landlord
  • First time volunteering at a Christmas dinner for the disadvantaged. And then again. Wonderful experience.
  • First repeated appearances on national television…do something every day that scares you, right?
  • First MRI, CT scan and mammogram…a real highlight, amirite ladies?
  • First job loss…which turned out to be an incredibly liberating blessing
  • First furry…who wasn’t a family pet. Ernie has been by my little wingman for nine years…
  • First turtle encounters…helping them across the road
  • First time snowboarding in the Rockies
  • First time at hot yoga…where myself and Stimpy very much failed to ‘respect the silence of the room’
  • First time witnessing a human come into the world
  • First time watching a loved one draw their last breath and leave this world
  • First double whale breach…the most magical of days
  • First go at zip lining…with Roo!
  • First attempt at making pottery…and a damn good one!
  • First mountain climbed…who knew I could drag my ass that high?
  • First photography classes…to learn a smidge of what my fabulous photojournalist colleagues knew about making magic with a camera
  • First time a question I asked of a doctor I was interviewing sparked research that completely shifted thinking on asthma
  • First time online dating…oh the stories!
  • First time being self-employed…I never want a 9-5 job again!
  • First visits to Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Hawaii, New York, Chicago, California…Those that weren’t solo were with my favourite Lovely League ladies. Sheri…we must return to the Emerald Isle.
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Lovely League in Barcelona

 

Of course there are more….not all of which are fit to print :) But in the spirit of holding on to what’s been great in my 30s, I’ve made myself a little fabulist to ring in the first year of my 40s in fitting fashion.

LetterFIt’s brought to you by the letter ‘F’…

  • Freeze my rump off in Iceland & dive between two tectonic plates
  • Dive the famous Blue Hole in Belize
  • Visit Old Faithful
  • Dive with sharks in Fakarava, French Polynesia
  • Become (somewhat) fluent in Spanish – thanks for the book Cathy!
  • Take in an NFL game…just for the experience. I don’t actually like football!
  • Face the fiercest finned friends: great white sharks off Cape Town…from a cage
  • Fly first class on a long haul flight…preferably via a free upgrade
  • Snorkel with the biggest of fishes: a whale shark
  • Drive a very fast car….Formula One, baby!
  • Explore a rainforest
  • Fly in a fighter jet….I’ve sat in a CF-18…solid first step
  • Visit France….the battlefields have been on my to-visit list for some time
  • Visit Finland…if there’s time
  • Watch sea turtles hatch in Fethiye, Turkey
  • Peek into the future with a psychic
  • Find out what it’s like to fly….OUT of a plane…
  • Freewheeling fun in Amsterdam!
  • Floss more…tho let’s be honest, this probably isn’t going to happen
  • Take in a taping of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
  • Finally buckle down and finish the book I’ve mulled writing for years
  • Not drop the ‘effin ball and post to this blog more than once a month

The given here is that there’s also plenty of foolishness with my incredible family and friends. I figure at this point that goes without saying.

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Stuffed fools at Raymond’s

 

 

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With Stimpy at Cape Spear

 

I’ve got high hopes for this decade and I figure if I knock off more than a few of these, it will kick things off on the right foot. This is hardly a comprehensive list – or set in stone – so if you’ve got a good idea that involves the letter ‘F’ in some way, I’m all ears.

And try to keep it somewhat clean, peeps…I know how some of you think!

If you make lists like this, I’d love to hear what’s on yours.

And if there’s something on this one you’re game to help me check off, holler! Stimpy’s already stepped up to sort out the skydiving. God help us….!

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My first travel story

So yesterday here in Ottawa, it was 15C. Yay…no socks!!!

Today? We’ve woken up to more snow on the ground. Boo, socks. Now, I grew up in Labrador and loved winter. You had to. You wouldn’t survive otherwise. But the last few years? That love has waned — except around Christmas. That said, I’ve refrained from taking to Facebook with weather forecasts every time flakes fall from the sky.

But I feel this captures my mood this morning, minus the Uggs:

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At least it’s sunny.

And it doesn’t make this post as off topic as it might have been otherwise.

Last week I set out to find the first travel piece I’d ever written because I knew it had been about 10 years since it had been published. I have the tearsheet somewhere I’m sure…in the Rubbermaids full of 10 years of newspaper clippings…but didn’t know where to begin to find it.

So, it was Jon Willing to the rescue once again. He’s the Ottawa Sun‘s city hall reporter and still has handy dandy access to the online archive. A few search words later and boom, Big Willy had the story in hand…

 

IT’S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE
Nestled among rugged mountains in western Canada, Big 3 resorts offer spectacular skiing, snowboarding and scenery

Monday, March 21, 2005

BY HOLLY LAKE, OTTAWA SUN
BANFF, ALTA.
Section: Travel Page: T28

Everything is postcard — but real.

Those were the words of my guide as we sat about 1,300 feet up the side of Mount Norquay in Banff recently, strapping on snowboards and gazing out at some of the best scenery Mother Nature has to offer.

And it’s no exaggeration. Having spent a week atop her mountains, you realize there are no bad views to be had in the Rockies, only breath to be taken.

That’s to say nothing of the ski and snowboard conditions these huge rugged beauties offer.

While the area saw next to no snowfall throughout February, leaving many locals frustrated with the lack of fresh powder and praying for flakes, you really have to keep it in perspective. That’s easy enough to do when you spend most of the year on hills around Ottawa. Conditions deemed to be merely good in Banff and Lake Louise are great by eastern standards. The locals just don’t know how good they have it.

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Mount Norquay. Photo: SkiBig3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just six minutes from Banff, Mount Norquay rises 1650 feet above the village. Widely considered the area’s best-kept secret, it’s the smallest of the Big 3 resorts between Banff and Lake Louise, but it’s not to be dismissed.

“We’re known for being steep,” says Cory Deith, a guide and snowboard instructor. “And we’re famous for our fast grooming.”

Ninety percent of the mountain is groomed every night and its half-pipe is cut every other night. Home hill of Thomas Grandi, the first Canadian man to win two World Cup giant slalom races, Norquay hosts many races throughout the season. Fast and steep pretty much sums it up. When there is fresh powder, many say Norquay is hard to beat.

That’s not to say it isn’t for beginner and intermediate folk. As an intermediate boarder myself, I fared just fine — with the exception of one sliding, ass-burning incident on what was likely the steepest run I found myself on all week.

Small, intimate

That said, each run is distinct and it’s a mountain you can pretty much have all to yourself.  Small and intimate, the family-owned resort is the only one in the area to offer lift tickets by the hour, which leads to turnover throughout the day. Weekday or weekend, congestion is never a problem.

Nor is the weather, for the most part. Because of where Norquay is nestled, it’s protected from the nastiness and never has to shut down due to wind.

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Molehills no more…

However, it’s been a bizarre winter and the mountain did close for three days earlier this year after its winding access road turned into a skating rink. This season, temperatures have jumped from -30C to 8C in a matter of days.

“It’s definitely been a season of extremes. But we’re faring much better than the folks on the West Coast,” says marketing director Robert Cote, referring to resorts in B.C. where rain has washed away much of the snow on the lower parts of mountains. “We’ve actually fared very well though it all. That’s a testament to the area here. We’ll always have snow.”

And they’re confident it will be good snow, as the hill provides a one-hour money-back grooming guarantee, so great conditions are pretty much a given.

Canada’s best snow…

Just a little further along the Trans Canada Hwy., 15 minutes west of Banff, is Sunshine Village. It’s tucked away and for the most part can’t be seen from the parking lot, but once the resort’s eight-person gondola takes you to the village, you quickly realize this place is aptly named. Comprised of three mountains that circle around, its large sheets of white glisten in the sun. With so many wide, walls of snow, Sunshine Village is stunningly spectacular.

It has earned the rating of “Canada’s Best Snow” from both Ski and Snow Country magazines. Not a surprising feat considering it averages 33 feet a snow a year. That allows for a season that stretches from early November to mid-May.This year’s last run isn’t expected until May 23.

Like Norquay, Sunshine is part of Banff National Park. Unlike Norquay, however, it spans two provinces. While riding the Continental Divide Express chair you pass through B.C. briefly, before being welcomed back to Alberta, as you make their way to the top.

jerrykernen

Jerry Kernen marks his 97th birthday at Sunshine in 2013. Calgary Herald Phot0

 

From there, the view is a sea of snow-blanketed mountains as far as the eye can see. These are the Rockies in all their glory and there’s nothing like being in their midst.

Jerry Kernen, 88, has been coming here since 1962. He was a ski patroller for 10 years and has skied everything in interior B.C. at one time or another, but Sunshine keeps pulling him back.

“This is my favourite. All you have to do is look around and see how pretty it is,” says the retired farmer from Saskatoon. “Sunshine’s got good people. It’s got good snow.”

Kernen comes to Banff to ski Sunshine for six- to eight-day spans several times a year before heading home for a week. His home hill has about 300 feet of vertical.

“That’s kind of tame,” he says. “It’s quite nice, but it doesn’t compare to Sunshine.”

An eccentric character, Kernen is an institution in these parts — he’s known in Lake Louise and Sunshine’s named a run after him. He chats up and humours visitors and locals alike as they share his chair to the top.

Delirium Dive

His habit is to ski every run, every day. That includes the Delirium Dive every year on his birthday. Reopened in 1998, the Dive is in-resort backcountry skiing and it’s definitely not for everyone. Spanning 700 acres and 2,000 vertical feet of chutes, cliffs and steeps, access is limited to expert skiers outfitted with an avalanche transmitter, a shovel and a partner. Kernen’s the oldest skier to go down the run.

“The ski patrol, they always draw straws to see who goes in there with me,” he says with a proud grin.

charmer

Yeah, he’s a charmer. Photo: vueweekly.com

Last September, Delirium Dive was featured in the finale of The Amazing Race. Three teams battled to be the first to reach the Continental Divide by snowshoeing up the slopes near the extreme Dive.

Sunshine is a family-owned resort established in 1928, but $40 million in capital improvements in the last decade have brought it into the big leagues. The largest among them was the super high-speed gondola, which eliminated log lineups at the base in 2002. Sunshine touts it as the fastest gondola in the world with its 13-minute ride from base to village, giving boarders and skiers alike quick access to the longest vertical drop in the Rockies.

Jewel of the Rockies

For Kernen, time in the car is time that could be spent on the slopes. For that reason, he doesn’t make his way a half-hour further west to Lake Louise. But it’s a beautiful drive through the mountains and what’s waiting for you when you arrive is well worth it.

Lake Louise touts itself as the jewel of the Rockies and few would argue with that label. Home to a men and women’s World Cup downhill each year, Louise also boasts 4,200 skiable acres. That’s said to be more than can be skied in a week.

While the resort’s new Grizzly Express gondola opened Feb. 14, it was out of commission the day we arrived. When it’s running, the six-person ride replaces a two-person chair, and takes boarders and skiers up three visually stunning kilometres to the top. Even without the gondola, we had no trouble making it to the top of Louise’s four mountain faces, which let us follow the sun all day long.

sunburst

Oh, Louise

As you follow the paths, there’s no shortage of varied terrain. For those who are just beginning to those who like backcountry skiing, there is plenty for all. Novice, intermediate and advanced runs start down from every chair, and for those who love diamonds, they’re here in the doubles.

As was the case with Norquay and Sunshine, a beginner green run at Louise is the equivalent of an intermediate blue run here. Same goes for their blues — many would be black diamonds here. Having said that, there were times at Louise I made my way down blues that were steeper than many of her diamonds — steep but definitely do-able.

Although new snow was scarce in February and powder was anything but plentiful, good conditions were not. Still, on the message board of one lift was a chalk-scrawled plea: Pray for snow. Mother Nature must have pulled some strings as March has seen those prayers answered.

Happy Stimpy

Happy Stimpy

In 2002, Skiing Magazine voted Louise No. 1 for scenery and it’s not hard to see why. While taking a break part way down a long run — they can span up to 8 km — I sat on a mountain face overlooking the lake and the Chateau Lake Louise.

Beautiful? Without question. But all I could think was how majestically tranquil it was.

This is snowboarding and scenery you can’t help but get hooked on. For those who want a fix, luckily, this is a season you can ride into May.

For more information:
www.skilouise.com
www.banffnorquay.com
www.skibanff.com

DivingIn

Diving In!

DivingIn
Not the St. Lawrence River….

 

I’ve been meaning to start this blog for a long time.

Years.

It’s been a new year’s resolution more than once, been on numerous to-do lists, but yet it never happened. Life, travel…and plenty of writing for magazines, websites and other people’s blogs….it all conspired to keep this beast on the back burner.

One thing I know for sure about myself is that after living my professional life on a deadline, if something doesn’t actually have one, it will inevitably get bumped down the to-do list by things that do.

But here we are…diving in. April Fool’s Day seemed like as good a time as any!

It’s sink or swim time, baby

Which is why it’s probably a good thing I’m buoyant!

I love travel, diving and the ocean, but I know it’s not for everyone. For a lot of people, the ocean is a big blue unknown — and they’re scared of what might be lurking beneath the surface.

Fair enough. I was that person at one time. Jaws did a real number on me as a wee whipper snapper and it was really only once I started diving that I got past that. Actually, it was my first foray into snorkelling that got the proverbial ball rolling. While it wasn’t entirely uneventful — few things are when I’m involved — I survived and walked away determined to give diving a go, barracudas and sunburned bum be damned!

Which is a tale for another day….

WhaleTail

Howdy from a humpie…

 

But I’m so happy to have had that introduction. What I quickly realized as a diver is that there’s a whole other world down there and very little of it is scary. Beautiful and magical are better ways to describe it.

Through stories, I hope this blog can take you there.

Fifty shades of blue

Why? Well, for one, I happen to think there’s no place like it.

But more importantly, we’re not being very kind to the ocean and that’s not only hurting the incredible creatures that call it home, it’s hurting us. Every breath we take is thanks to the ocean. We owe it more than it’s getting from us right now. It’s big, but it’s certainly not immune to the damage humans are doling out.

By telling some of the endless stories big blue has to share, I hope I can play a small part in encouraging people to care about it. After all, as Jacques Cousteau wisely noted,“people protect what they love.”

And goodness knows an ocean can never have too many lovers.

That said, while this is a blog with a heavy blue, ocean-inspired slant, I know very well that incredible experiences happen on dry land too.

I’m all about new experiences so they’ll land here too on occasion.

Bear with me for the first bit. I’m finding it’s much easier to write blogs for other people, so it might take a few posts before I get my sea legs, but by all means, let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading!