Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Young Man and the River

Rafting on the Kootenay River was an amazing experience and our guide Mitch was a big reason for that.

We didn't start out enamoured of him. There were two guides and Ian was clearly the more seasoned of the two. Friendly and confident, he chatted up the passengers as we rode a rickety school bus down 93 out of Radium and onto Settler’s Road, supervised the unloading of the equipment and handled the safety briefing after we had donned our splash gear, helmets and lifejackets.

 After being told in no uncertain terms about the perilous relationship between our paddle's t-grip and the dental safety of those nearby, we were shown how to properly hold one, then broke into two groups, and those of us on the full-day trip went with Mitch.

There hadn't been much chance for Mitch to make an impression prior to this, because while Ian had engaged us on the ride out, he had clambered on top of the pile of lifejackets at the back of the bus to catch a nap.

After Mitch introduced himself to us, he explained that the teasing he was receiving from the other staff was due to his wrecking the last camera he was given for taking pictures on the river. Despite this carelessness, however, he was still entrusted with a raft carrying 11 souls: a mum and dad from Victoria with their two small children (10 and 7 maybe?), a Swiss couple and their 15 year-old son, and ourselves.

Mitch got us on board and went over the various commands we could expect to hear on the water, explained how it was the job of the front paddlers to set the pace for everyone else, and got serious when he said he would fire anyone from that position if they proved to be ineffective.

Otherwise though, he spoke in the confident slangy patois of the surfer-athlete, despite being from Ontario. He advised us to ‘get stoked’ and described the various rapids we would encounter that day based on not only their established classes which he was very conversant with (I-V being navigable, II-III being the order of the day), but also subjectively on their gnarliness. He was easygoing and funny but clearly knew his business, and was obviously committed to everyone enjoying themselves on the river that day.

Most importantly though, he had a tremendous and earnest appreciation of the river and outdoor life that he was only too willing to share. In fact, his roommate was supposed to be our guide while Mitch was scheduled for a day off. But he was ‘so cranky’ and Mitch had never done the full-day on the Kootenay so he agreed to take over.

The Kootenay was low enough that the raft needed to be dragged across a gravel sandbar before we could actually get out float on, and Mitch got us underway in good order. Once on the river he tested us with various commands: team forward, right side reverse, left side forward. When he shouted for us to hang on, we all grabbed for the centerline that ran the length of the boat, only to have Mitch admonish almost all of us for releasing our grip on our t-handles. Then he paused and said, "Wait, back up; I never showed you guys how to do that. My bad!" We had much better results the second time.

Before too long we were feeling much more confident, and ready for our first bit of whitewater. Mitch exhorted us to "GET HYPE!!", and we did. His transparent affection and exuberance for the river life was infectious. 

The rapids on the Kootenay are fairly mild, so Mitch maneuvered our craft to ensure we hit them sideways, maximizing the amount of splash and cheering afterwards, "Sideways, yeeeeaaahhh!" As we approached the next one, he exalted, "I'm so stoked- who's stoked?"

Again, not California, Ottawa. And not a put-on, either, just a young man very happy with where his life had taken him this particular afternoon.

Lest you think Mitch is nothing but a long-gone hard-charging adrenalin junkie (which, to be fair, he probably is), I should mention that he took as much delight explaining the river topography to us. He pointed out which cliffs were in fact glacial moraines, carved out after the last ice age. He explained how some of the trees on the banks had to grow parallel to the water before curving upwards to get the sun, a phenomenon called phototrophism. 

When we passed a trickle of water running over the rocks, he pointed out how the pale colour beneath it marked it as a mineral spring, meaning it was drinkable.Mitch also seemed to take tremendous delight in explaining exactly why drinking groundwater is a bad idea. "I mean, for all you know, some grizzly has dumped a deer kill 200 metres upstream, and its laying their in the water, its guts all hanging out and stuff..." embellishing the effect with dramatic disemboweling hand movements.

Whatever he was doing, he did in the most irrepressible way possible. When it came time to take a photo of the other boat, he would bellow "PHOTOOOO" at the top of lungs to get their attention. When we reached an eddy and said we could actually swim in this part of the river if we wanted, he demonstrated by standing on the back of the raft and doing a backflip into the Kootenay. When the Swiss lady grabbed the troat of her paddle and stretched the other for him to grab, he shouted "T-grip rescue, YEAH!" before clambering back into the boat.

He reassured everyone by demonstrating how it was impossible to fall out while holding the centerline, contorting himself every which way, half his body suspended over the beautiful cloudy waters of the river (a side-effect of glacial flour, the fine sediment created by the weight of the glacier grinding against sedimentary stone), but remaining dry throughout.

At 45 km, the Kootenay run may be the longest whitewater trip in North America, if not the world. The whitewater wasn't what I would call thrilling, but it was fun, and just the right speed for the girls' first time out. And the float portions were great too, with all the remoteness and tremendous scenery we had been promised. We even spotted a bear on shore, a first for Mitch.

It was during these quieter moments that Mitch would often pause before earnestly advising us to "take it all in", and Lord knows we did our best.

Near the end of the trip we stopped by an amazing waterfall for some pictures, which can't possibly do it justice. Do yourself a favour and take the trip sometime.

Kootenay River Runners runs a great trip, breaking up a six-hour trek with a morning snack and early afternoon lunch (with treats from Invermere Bakery!). Enjoying a cold cut sandwich and Caesar salad so far from civilization makes everything taste just that much better, especially after a morning of cold splashes and often frenzied paddling.

On the day he took us on the river instead of taking his first full day off in four weeks, Mitch only had ten days left in the Kootenays. He planned to visit with his family before returning to school and take the second year of his Outdoor Adventure tourism course at Algonquin College. As part of his studies, he had taken a grueling 80-hour Wilderness First Responder first aid course, since paramedics don't normally come in to remote areas.

Not bad for a kid who isn't even 19 yet!

We really enjoyed our time on the river, and now I want to go back and do the Kicking Horse at some point, maybe when the river is a little deeper, but it was Mitch's impressions and passion for river adventure that made our trip so memorable. His energy and enthusiasm even inspired me to jump into the river before we got to the end of the run.

And if he didn't have my respect before, he certainly had it, along with my gratitude, after hauling my carcass back into the boat all by himself!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Frankentrailer and the Site for Sore Eyes

A few years back, Audrey's uncle Harry told us he'd found a salvageable tent trailer in Lethbridge for under $1000, and her folks were wiling to pick it up for us, sight unseen, and take it back to their place in High River. When we finally got around to seeing it, we discovered that the concept of salvageability is entirely subjective, and worried we might have bitten off more than we could chew.

It was a 1977 Sportcraft, manufactured in Lethbridge Alberta. Inside it was fairly dirty, having sat unused for 15-20 years, but nothing insurmountable, and we were willing to put in the sweat equity to clean and fix the interior if it meant we could spend our future camping trips sleeping up off the ground. The roof had taken a lot of hail damage as well, but we knew there was a sealant that could sort that out.

The fact that it took a twelve-pound sledgehammer to close it though, that was daunting, but still not a deal breaker. The fact that the wiring had a short, which meant intermittent running lights and the possibility that turn signals and brake lights might not be visible to other drivers, that put me on edge a little bit.

We managed to get it over to Audrey's brother Garrett though, who graciously reinforced a bit of the structure and rewired it for us so now everything works. At last we have a trailer that will win no beauty contests but can (theoretically) keep the rain off our heads.

I still find driving with a trailer to be an intimidating experience though. I am terrified I'm going to have a brain fart one day and try to take it through Peter's Drive-In in Red Deer, incurring the wrath of hundreds of drivers as I try to extricate myself. I have to remind myself of the added length at every intersection and with every lane-change, and I still cannot navigate while backing up worth a damn.

This week was our first camping trip since 2014, and our first ever with Frankentrailer, so we set out with a combination of anticipation and apprehension. The drive to Radium takes a little under 7 hours, but I worried about backing into our site the entire way. Imagine my joy then, when we arrived and discovered that our site was actually a pull through, with no backing up required!

Frankentrailer is light enough that the girls and I can muscle it from the street to our patio at the end of summer (although it is not easy by any stretch), so that was how I had planned to get it into position if there were any difficulties. As it was, we took advantage of the lightness to spin the trailer 180 degrees so that our door would face the campsite instead of the road.

In fairly short order, we had a comfy looking little outpost all set up, including the Chillax hammock we'd gotten from Costco months earlier, and which I cannot say enough good things about.

The site itself (E-10 in Redstreak, if you are curious) had a lot going for it: we were right next to the washrooms and showers (too close for Audrey but just fine for the girls and I), and also adjacent to the water we would use for cooking a cleaning. We had a decent amount of trees (critical for hammock deployment) and a lot of level ground to spread out on if we needed too.

It is very close to the village of Radium Hot Springs, but is about 300 metres higher, so you get very little in the way of noise or traffic.Sadly, we couldn't use the firepit due to the campfire ban, and the ground was incredibly dusty, even after an evening of decent rain. Still, a very good campsite, all in all.

Sadly, our proximity to the water also meant that mealtimes would usually see 2-3 wasps buzzing about, but we even those interactions were non-dramatic and inconsequential. We purchased a wasp trap with an intense-sounding warning on the packaging ("No drink wasp!"), but only set it out twice, and captured none, sadly.

Like most federal campgrounds, Redstreak has a few amenities such as an amphitheater and some hiking trails, including one that goes straight down to the famous hot springs themselves. One we took has an elevation gain of about 250m, but does give you a tremendous view of the Columbia Valley, as well as other photo opportunities along the way.

Redstreak is an especially good place to camp if you enjoy wildlife, as we often saw the ubiquitous Big Horn Sheep grazing at various places in and around our loop, as well as a group (flock?) of wild turkeys that meandered through our site early on the morning we left.

The next time you get shut out at Jasper, give some thought to the Redstreak campground at Radium; I'm pretty confident Frankentrailer will return there some day.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Up the Creek, But With a Paddle

We are camping in Radium Hot Springs this week, and my mobile blogability has been severely hampered by the demise of my preferred app, Blogsy. Still, it seems a shame to break my update streak for such a weak reason, so I will try emailing this post in. If you are reading this, I guess it worked…

It started raining a little after breakfast this morning. Normally this is cause for concern or thwarted plans, or perhaps the sudden and horrifying realization that Frankentrailer is not as watertight as we had supposed. Currently though, the extreme fire hazard in the mountains and the nearby Verdant Creek wildfire means it would be churlish to complain. Besides, the extra humidity will go a long way to reducing the smoke from the hundreds of other wildfires in the interior; Radium is still under an air quality advisory that began on Thursday.

We took the opportunity to visit Golden, about an hour north of us where highway 95 meets the Trans Canada. Like most alpine towns, there are a number of art galleries, quirky gift shops and neat bistros, as well as a craft brewery called Whitetooth that just opened 8 months ago, and who have a Nordic Imprial Porter I cannot wait to try.

In terms of interesting structures, there is an intriguing pedestrian bridge built in 2001 which crosses the Kicking Horse River. Made wholly from locally sourced timber, it is an impressive piece of work, even to a non-engineer like myself.

Even more interesting is the world's largest paddle, located south of town. I'm a sucker for these sorts of roadside attractions, and so we made a point of getting a group shot on it. I'm hoping our appreciation for the paddle puts a bit of positive karma into our collective account for when we go rafting on the Kootenay River on Tuesday.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Crash and Learn

Once again, our Toyota has become involved in a vehicular altercation. I'm annoyed as hell, but it could have been so much worse.

Driving home Thursday night on 127 street, my mind was racing over the number of things I had to sort out that evening: first I would be cooking supper for Glory and the two young girls she was babysitting, then I had to prep for the introductory video shoot I was doing for our brand spanking new CEO the next day. I needed to go over the scripts and -

Suddenly a sedan headed the opposite direction moved into the intersection to turn, and only just that moment having seen me, stopped perhaps 4 car lengths away DIRECTLY ahead of me.

I slammed the brakes and jerked the wheel to the right, somehow avoiding sideswiping someone else, but it was far too late. Our front left corners smacked together with the strange thudding crash and tinkle of modern day auto bodies flexing and shattering, and the Corolla caromed off before coming to a halt only a few feet away.

Through no fault of my own, my life had been thrown into disarray, with consequences both immediate (dinner) and far reaching (definitely dealing with police and insurance companies, possibly finding and purchasing another vehicle, one of my most hated activities). I was furious, and now filled with adrenalin.

I shoved open my door only to have it rebound back at me, it's normal range of motion impeded by the now-mangled quarter panel bordering the hinge side. I squirmed out and looked at the damage.

Shaking my head, I walked over to the other driver, still sitting behind the wheel. "Are you okay?" he asked.

I was taken aback; it was a reasonable, even expected question, but I was so anxious about getting things resolved that I hadn't thought of the bodily well-being of either of us.

"Yeah; you all right?" I snapped.

He nodded sheepishly, adding, "I'm sorry."

I should have been mollified, but I was still too angry to function like myself. "Well, that was kind of a f***head move, guy," I growled before pulling out my phone to let Glory know she would be on her own for getting supper ready, but had no worries she could pull something off. It took quite a while to get in contact with her though, due to my fuzzy-head, jittery fingers, and the fact that the car was still running so my call was going through its Bluetooth speaker instead of my handset.

Eventually I reached her, called the police, exchanged all the required info with the other driver, determined my vehicle was driveable and pulled it off to the side of the road. I called the police again and told them not to bother dispatching anyone, but it turned out we would have to go all the way to NE division some 60 blocks away in order to fill out the accident report.

I was desperate to get this sorted out as soon as possible, and the last thing I wanted was for my erstwhile car-jouster to go home and have his neighbour or somebody tell him, "oh, you never want to admit fault in those situations, brah," but I didn't know if my car was up to that big a journey. Leaning into his passenger window, I suggested he follow me to my house and he could drive us both to the police station so we could get the reports filed. He agreed, and I hopped into his marginally less damaged Acura.

On the way to my house, his eagerness to do the right thing finally began to smooth my jangled nerves. I learned his name (I'll call him Leo here), that he had only been in Edmonton a couple of years, and had worked over a decade in Dubai.

We arrived at the house at the same time as Audrey, returning from the spa day I had given her back at Christmas. Like everyone seemed inclined to (and why not?), she asked if we were all right, and when I introduced her to Leo, he shook her hand and again said, "I'm sorry, it was totally my mistake." She nodded and opined philosophically that 'these things do happen.'

Audrey had already arranged with Glory to sort out dinner, so Leo and I headed off to the NE Div. of the Edmonton Police Service, but not before I apologized for cursing at him back at the crash site. On the way, we talked about our families, as I had seen the children's seat in the back of his car. Leo had two young children, but his 5 year-old was currently battling leukemia.

He didn't bring this up as an excuse, or a way to explain what had happened in the intersection, but his frank admission once more gave me pause and the ability to view my situation with a bit more nuanced perspective. If anything might leave a person too preoccupied to pay due care and attention to their vehicular situation, I have to think that a pre-schooler with leukemia would be that situation. In fact, he had been on his way to get some ointment for his son's central line at the time of the crash. Currently though, Leo's son was cancer-free, with a decent chance of staying that way.

This is not what brought me fully into Leo's corner though. No, that came as we finally came into sight of the NE Division building, with POLICE spelled out on its side in big, blue block lettering. He tried to sound casual, but there was genuine apprehension behind his voice when he asked, "So, uh, hey, I'm...(heh) not going to get charged or arrested or anything, am I?"

Think about that for a second. Leo had only been in Canada for 2-3 years at best unless he lived there before his time in Dubai, and had never been in a vehicular accident before. He was not 100% sure if the fact that he was at fault was going to end up with facing criminal charges or perhaps even arrested and put in jail.

But he was still driving us to the police station to face the music.

Completely stunned by this new insight, I did my level best to reassure him. "What?" I sputtered. "No, no no no noooo, you aren't going to get in trouble, man. Why would you? You've done everything right! You and I have shared our information, you are driving me to the police to fill out a report, and we are both behaving like gentlemen. You know, eventually, in my case."

He smiled a bit, so I continued.  "These things just happen sometimes, regardless of our intentions or efforts; hell, that's why they're called accidents! When we are done, we will leave it to our insurance companies to sort out, and in the meantime we will just be grateful no one was hurt."

"Yes, lucky," he agreed.

Thankfully it was not busy in NE Div. that evening, and once our number was called, Leo wasted no time in explaining that the accident was his fault to the constable that took our statements. We went to a table to fill out our reports and he once again made sure to state that it was his mistake that caused the crash. We showed each other what we had written before submitting it to the officer at the desk , then Leo gave me a lift home, apologizing again for all the inconvenience.

"Yeah, this kind of stuff is a monumental pain in the ass, which is why I got so upset," I admitted, "but look, no one was hurt, we didn't need a tow truck, we are both being civil about this, and our insurers are going to do the rest of the heavy lifting."

After we parted ways I considered exactly how lucky I was to have hit Leo and not

  • someone who then drove off (which happened to me over ten years ago)
  • someone without insurance (which happened to a friend of ours)
  • someone determined to avoid fault or blame (I didn't get a witness to our accident).

It was a strange way to meet a beacon of responsibility, and truth be told, I would forego the privilege if it meant not having to jump through all the hoops of an insurance claim and the attendant vehicle repairs (oh please Lord, not a replacement!).

But Leo's willingness to do the right thing, despite not knowing or understanding the possible consequences, with everything he has going on in his life at this point in time will stick with me for a good long while.

So, yeah; it really could have been a lot worse.