wildlife


16
Sep 14

Challenge 8: See the Northern Lights

 

Image Credit:  Jenafor Azure

Image Credit: Jenafor Azure


It finally happened: I’ve been chasing the Aurora Borealis for years. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve dreamed of seeing those lights in the sky. I can vividly recall watching a cartoon about a little bear who skated under the northern lights. I couldn’t have been more than five but I remember thinking, “Woah: that looks amazing. I want to see that for real.’ Well – almost 40 years later I finally have.

See, my typical Northern Lights adventures involves driving for ages in a minibus, far away from any kind of warmth, coffee and civilisation wrapped up in chunky arctic-friendly clothing. Then my personal long, slow journey into disappointment: I freeze and feel my hopes fade away – and then, of course, the long bus journey home again, hoping my fingers won’t succumb to frostbite.

 

Gerald Azure, our incredibly kind and generous host at Blue Sky Mush

Gerald Azure, our incredibly kind and generous host at Blue Sky Mush

But not in Churchill. Manitoba. Oh no! Here at the edge of the edge of the world magical things just seem to happen with ease. That day we’d been dog carting (more of that in another post) at Blue Sky Mush and our hosts Jenafor and Gerald Azure had offered to pick us up and take us to see the lights. We got back at 10p.m., Jenafor was already there “They’re here!” she beamed.

Oh great, I thought – surely that means I’ll miss them again.

But no: a quick 10 minute journey to their place and I hopped out the van and looked up. I cried: I did. I wept like a baby when I saw them dancing in the sky, it took my breath away and filled my heart with pure wonder. It’s everything people say it will be and a little more amazing on top of that. It looks unreal: a green glowing flickering disco across the sky. It looks for all the world as though the sky was sighing in colour. You feel elated and fortunate, just so lucky to be standing there and able to see this natural wonder. I stood on their porch and stared and stared. Whenever I got cold – and I was only wearing a light fleece and a hat for protection!- I’d go inside the wood-fire lit warmth of their yurt.

lights2To celebrate our trip, Jenafor had even made us a cake in the shape of a beluga – and yes, oh – so much to come about those shiny white whales. It may have taken most of my life to get to see them but they were worth the wait: and who knew I’d finally get to see them in the summertime with a slice of cake?

I stayed as a guest of Tourism Manitoba and the Lazy Bear Lodge. Gerald and Jenafor of Blue Sky were kind enough to host us.  But as ever my words are 100% my own.

More info:

Blue Sky Mush [Official Site]

. Travel Manitoba [Official Site]

 


23
Mar 14

Dolphins and Eagles Chase Away Immigration Blues

Dolphins!

Dolphins!

There are dolphins in the sea and eagles in the sky; I whisper that to myself as I walk along the beach, my dog racing ahead of me chasing stones and dive-bombing the sand. On a day like today I need that mantra; I need to see the snow and the mountains and feel them break my heart with their beauty. I need to look out to the sea and believe that whales and dolphins are there – just out of sight. It’s hard being an immigrant. There; I said it. Immigrant – not expat – I don’t want to go ‘home’ I want this to be where I stay and make my life. I’ve fallen in love with Canada and oh, it is a capricious thing to have fallen for.

Today I spent five hours taking exams in reading, writing, listening and speaking… English. I have to pass to prove that I can understand my own language. A $300 piece of red tape to add to the rest. When my lawyer asked if I had taken the test I assumed they were joking but of course, lawyers don’t joke – not even good-humoured ones like mine – I’m glad Wildy are with me on this winding, confused, painful journey through the Canadian immigration system, I’d have become impossibly lost without them.

Image courtesy of Twitter/@Nestah14 https://twitter.com/Nestah14/status/445324444785852416

Image courtesy of Twitter/@Nestah14

But yes, on a day when it feels that the hoops you have to jump through are just too high and too many you need a miracle and that is exactly what happened. Two pods of dolphins swam into the waters of False Creek – just outside my flat – this is, according to experts at the Vancouver Aquarium, very rare indeed.  I watched them swim under the Burrard Bridge, past Granville Island and then head back – again and again. There were so many of us watching them in absolute delight from the beach, just as we thought they’d gone – back they’d swim again. Because it was a grey day,  it was hard to see them but oh! when you did… it felt like magic could really happen. I watched a pod of five swim along, their skin glinting as they dipped in and out of the water. All this – just outside my front door.

Just outside my window

Just outside my window

Later at my desk, I looked up and saw an eagle swooping just beyond my 21st floor window; its wings stretching impossibly wide, circling against a backdrop of the mountains, their snowy tops peeking out from a wispy pashmina of mist. So bring on the endless forms and the crazy exams because there are dolphins in the sea and eagles in the sky.

I shot this rather shaky video – but oh! DOLPHINS!


17
Feb 14

Welcome to the world’s eagle capital

EF5

I’d never imagined myself to be a birdwatching enthusiast before but like so many other things Canada has changed me completely. From my new-found love of leaf-peeping and attempts to develop ice skating skills to my enthusiastic embrace of drinking clamato juice cocktailsthere is apparently no limit to what I won’t adore about Canada. So, now I’m a ‘twitcher’ – why else would I be floating down a river on a bluebird sky day in early February, gazing with delight into the leaf-less trees? My new rationale being that if the world bald eagle capital is just 45 minutes drive away, well – you hop into a car, right?

Jake from Sunwolf gets our craft ready

Jake from Sunwolf gets our craft ready

A little explanation: half-way between Whistler and Vancouver lies Squamish, known as the Outdoor Adventure Capital of North America. You can hike, mountain bike, kayak, whitewater raft – everything. Ten minutes drive from Squamish is Brackendale, and as well as being a huge draw for enthusiastic types in North Face-branded clothing, it’s also where you’ll find the world’s greatest concentration of bald eagles, if you visit between November-February.

I’d visited Sunwolf late last year en route to Whistler and eaten a spectacular breakfast at Fergie’s cafe there. As well as dishing up quality rib-sticker brekkies, Sunwolf’s British owners Jake and Jess also have cosy cabins to rent along the Cheakamus River and host guided whitewater rafting trips and eagle float adventures.

Let the Eagle-Spotting begin

Let the Eagle-Spotting begin

It was a perfect day for a float along the river; after what seemed like endless grey skies and non-stop rain, the soft warm touch of sunshine on skin felt like a long-forgotten magic. And the sun was blazing down that morning. But it was cold on the river, so we suited up in the Sunwolf lounge in waist-high waterproof trousers and bundled up in scarves, mittens and hats.

Hopping into the dinghy without A) falling in or B) embarrassing myself, was surprisingly easy – my kind of outdoor adventure – all I needed to do now was sit back, listen to the soft splash of paddles on water and watch for eagles as Jake told us stories of the river and the Chum salmon which brings the eagles here in their droves. It’s a circle-of-life thing;  beautiful in its complexity and simplicity. Each year the salmon come to spawn in the pristine glacial-fed waters of the Squamish and Cheakamus rivers where they – in turn – were spawned.

It would have been hard to pick a more perfect day

It would have been hard to pick a more perfect day

It’s incredible that these fish who spend their lives out in the ocean return ‘home’ to start new lives – and it’s also where they come to end their life too. After spawning, the salmon die and in turn become a necessary life-giving food to another species. In some parts of the world bears feast on the salmon, but here it’s the eagles who thrive and survive. For a few months, the river is becomes an all-you-can-eat sashimi buffet and the eagles the stretchy pants-wearing regulars.

Waters so pristine you could clearly see the rotting salmon aka eagle-dinner

Waters so pristine you could clearly see the eagle’s dinner

I lost count of the number of eagles that we saw; mostly perched, presumably digesting huge meals, in the branches. Whenever one took flight the awe of seeing their impossibly wide wing span hit me every time. I may not be a fully fledged bird-spotting enthusiast but damn, I’m enthusiastic whenever I see a beautiful wild creature – especially in such jaw-clanging surroundings. Only the prospect of another meal at Fergie’s could cheer me after our trip was over. I really loved it: so peaceful, so much beauty and so many new things to learn along the way.

I travelled as a guest of Sunwolf but as ever my words are 100% my own.  

Also, thank you to BC Ford who loaned me a Ford Focus Titanium for my road trip. I’ve never driven a car that could actually park itself before! Genuinely amazing feature. 

More Info:

Sunwolf - Rafting, Cabins, Whitewater rafting and Eagle river floats – plus – Fergie’s delicious cafe!


15
Jun 13

New life in Stanley Park

The name's Gosling... Ryan Gosling.

The name’s Gosling… Ryan Gosling.

I’ve just come back to Canada after eight days away in the USA, visiting Arizona and Nevada. I woke this morning to misty grey skies and was never so glad to slip into a jumper. Turns out that sweltering, pavement-melting 42 degree heat and I do not get on at all! Just before I left I spent the afternoon cooing at the new life in Vancouver’s famous Stanley park.

Mama Duck helping out with feeding the ducklings

Mama Duck helping out with feeding the ducklings

Adorable fluffy goslings, guarded by hissing over-protective beak-waving Canada Geese, paddling little ducklings, all speckled and wobble-legged; the park is bursting with baby bird-life and I bet that if I pop along to the lyrically-named Lost Lagoon, the swans will have hatched out their cygnets by now too.

Parents in Full Hiss mode

Parents in ‘Full Hiss’ mode

After gleefully photographing my way around the park, I spent ages walking through the riot of flowers that burst from every bush and tree. I’ve said it before: all that rain seems to be worth it if we get this joyful celebration of blossoms as reward.

Is it me or is that little one just asking to be picked up and petted?

Is it me or is that little one just asking to be picked up and petted?

Cycling the seawall that wraps around the park or exploring its leafy centre is apparently the number one tourist attraction here in Vancouver. I can totally believe it; bigger than Central Park, yet feeling intimate with endless spots to enjoy a romantic picnic or a family day out, ringed with sandy beaches and blessed with excellent restaurants and home to my beloved Aquarium – there’s something for every budget –  you can go to Stanley Park without a penny in your pocket and have a great day out or plan an action-packed day of treats. I’m writing this as I watch the pretty seaplanes fly over the park to land with barely a splash at nearby Coal Harbour; the trees are gleaming glossy-green in the sunshine (it’s Vancouver – four seasons of weather in one day!) and although I know the park will be packed with visitors, I can’t see a soul. I’ll check on the swans at the weekend and let you know if there’s any cygnet news…

The park is alive with blossoms

The park is alive with blossoms


21
Mar 13

The Yukon Quest 2013

And so it begins

And so it begins

The Yukon has fascinated me. I’ve waited to write about the Yukon Quest race because I just keep reading more and more about it, losing myself down a rabbit hole of myths, legends and impossible-sounding stories which turn out to be true. This is a race like no other: one thousand miles in bitter sub-zero temperatures following the route of the historic 1890s Klondike Gold Rush route between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon. Just mushers, their teams of sled dogs and the bone-numbing cold and unimaginably vast spaces of the Great White North. On average it takes between 10-20 days to cover the route. Unlike other endurance races, there are only ten checkpoints along the way – some are more than 200 miles apart. The originators of the Quest decided to make it harder than other races, more ‘woodsman-like’ as they wanted it to be a race where ‘survival would be as important as speed.’

I was taking photographs at the start of the race. I lay in snow at the side of the track, I had my Canada Goose parka on; gloves, scarf, snow pants, I was well-wrapped up, but some 45 minutes lying in that snow, slowly feeling the cold bite at my face and fingers, made me look at these mushers with awe. To be that cold; to race through the day and night, frost forming on beards, eyelashes icing up, with no hope of a warm bed at the end – took courage that I couldn’t imagine possessing.

Late sun in Whitehorse - this was about 1030 am

Late sun in Whitehorse – this was about 1030 am

There’s a romance about the race for sure; I shared a lift into town with a couple from Vienna who’d come to Whitehorse to see the lights and had been bitten by the bug, “It’s highly non-technical,” enthused Peter Pollak, “It emphasises self-reliance, there’s no one there to pick you up, you have to take care of your dogs first and then yourself.” His wife, Mary, agreed, “We didn’t know about it before we came, but there’s something addictive about it. We’ve already planned to come back next year to follow the trail.”

Race into the snow

Race into the snow

I’ll come clean – before I came, I couldn’t imagine being interested in this at all. This has “NOT MY THING” all over it in neon letters, but I got excited by the atmosphere and found myself pulled in; I talked to the handlers, petted the excited dogs and chatted to a few of the mushers, like Christina Traverse who saw the Quest on TV and thought, “I want to do that one day”. This was to be her first Quest, but I saw on the site, that she lasted just 41hrs, 44mins before being retired from the race and hospitalised. I remember the trepidation – and excitement – in her eyes and I know she’ll be back again another year.

It takes about 15-30 seconds to put on each bootie.. which could be almost 30 minutes for a 14-dog team

It takes about 15-30 seconds to put on each bootie.. which could be almost 30 minutes for a 14-dog team

Brent Sass, a Quest regular, running his seventh race, came in third. He first got started after he saw a dog team, “I wanted to do that. One dog turned into five, turned into 10, then 25. The first time I did the Quest was scary; all the uncertainties of the trail and the obstacles ahead, you don’t know what you’re going to run into, but I enjoy it all, I thrive when the hard weather comes.”

The love of the mushers for their dogs was clear; the last musher to run spent time kissing, hugging and talking to each of his dogs, who were all excitedly pulling and jumping, desperate to get racing before stepping behind his sled and heading off into a thousand miles of snow and ice.

They adore their dogs

They adore their dogs

I looked at the stats and the times of all the mushers from this year’s race, there’s a section on the site where you can leave messages for them – there must have been thousands. School children who were studying the race who saw the mushers as their heroes (I found this amazing Yukon Quest maths sheet!), fellow dog-lovers, even relatives and friends leaving messages of love and support that had me welling up. I thought about how they must feel – anxious for their loved one but bursting with pride – imagining them far out in the snow with nothing but the sound of bootie-clad paws racing across the ice for company, nothing but 250lbs of packed equipment and provisions on their sled between checkpoints to keep them going. I saw wisps of straw fall as I lay in the snow, I imagined the dogs curled up on it, resting, and the musher, after massaging their feet, changing their booties, feeding and watering them, eventually curling up too, grabbing a few short hours sleep before pushing on again to that finish line.

Ready to go

Ready to go

I travelled as a guest of Yukon Tourism - as ever – my views are 100% my own.


13
Mar 13

Dreams of the Yukon Quest

As I sailed backwards through the air, landing in an undignified heap in a snow drift, I can’t pretend for a second that I felt surprised. I knew I’d fall off my sled. I’d told the others, ‘If someone’s falling off, it’s me!’ And I really wasn’t being self-deprecating.  So yes, there I was, with the snow in my face to prove it.  Wearily, I propped myself up on my elbows and watched my team of four gorgeous huskies disappear at breakneck speed, past our instructor, and off through the trees.

So now what?

Team Get Nikki Off The Sled

Team Get Nikki Off The Sled

It had all started so well; a beautiful drive half an hour from Whitehorse to the Sky High Wilderness Ranch to start our mushing adventure. We ate, family-style, around the table at the old-fashioned wooden ranch house; steaming bowls of chili with sweet juicy berries for afters. Our instructor Jocelyn was a veteran of the Quest. She’d battled her way 1000 miles in the punishing sub-zero cold with sixteen dogs, made it through the other side from Alaska to Whitehorse. All we had to do was a short 20 km with a team of four. A walk in the park in comparison. “Oh, I’m gonna fall off.” I said, as we walked to the dogs.

You hear them way before you see them; whining and yowling, yapping that high-pitched bark of pure excitement  that any dog owner would recognise as the Noise That Spot Makes When He sees The Squeaky Ball. There were some 150 dogs up on the property at Fish Lake. That’s a lot of excited dog noise. Jocelyn showed us the basics of mushing, (put your foot on the brake. No, really. Put your damn foot on the brake) and then how to put harnesses on our teams of four dogs. We took up position behind our sleds, full weight firmly on the brake as Jocelyn attached the dogs to the sled. With a final admonition to take it easy, off we went. I timidly took my heel off the brake a little, the straining huskies jerked forward and I reflexively tightened my grip on the sled handlebar.

This is what a proper musher looks like.

This is what a proper musher looks like.

The dogs left in the yard howled their displeasure as we set off. The sleds hissed across the snow, the scamper of the huskies’ surprisingly dainty paws a pattering counterpoint to their excited panting. I know we went past snowy pines, along a track and on to a frozen lake – imagine! Mushing your own dog sled team across a frozen lake in the Yukon! – but I was so obsessively fixed on my feet that I almost saw nothing those first fifteen minutes. You see you’re balanced on two ‘skis’, with the brake in the centre. Lift your foot off one of the skis and then onto the brake, but then you have to work out which side to lean to balance it all out and, of course, where to put your foot back without falling off. I’m not great with this kind of thing. That’s why I knew I’d fall.

But I was loving it all the same. I had an epiphany around half an hour in, I was getting into the swing of it, if I leaned like that then I could go a little faster… this was easy! This was something I could get good at… this was – and then it hit me – this was the story of a lifetime! This English girl, who moved to Vancouver and then tried dog sledding, turned out to be AMAZING at it and entered the Yukon Quest, the most punishing race on earth. Of course, just as I was basking in the imagined glory of passing the finishing line, we went around a corner, I slammed the brake on too hard, parted company with the sled and well, you know the rest. 

Blinding sun, blazing blue skies and the dogs. Heaven.

Blinding sun, blazing blue skies and the dogs. I get the appeal.

They had to send a snowmobile to find my team. As I made the humiliating climb into Jocelyn’s sled, frantically apologising all the way, she told me to not worry. It happened all the time. So I lay back and enjoyed the view; the stunning scenery, the excitement of the dogs and yes, admired their skill at being able to run and poop at the same time. We should all be so talented.

Realistically, I’m probably not going to enter the Yukon Quest, but I’m definitely going to give mushing another go. We caught up with my naughty crew 20 minutes later and I managed another hour or so without falling off. By the end my feet were painfully cold and my hands trembling from gripping the bar so hard. We’d done just 2% of what the amazing mushers of the Yukon Quest do. I have so much respect for them and their dogs and after just a short time doing it, I can see exactly why they do it.

Thanks to all at Sky High Wilderness Ranch – especially Jocelyn for being so patient and Ian for rescuing my dogs. I travelled as a guest of Tourism Yukon, however, my views are 100% my own.

Find out more: 

Travel Yukon 

 

Get there with Air North


19
Oct 12

The accidental leaf peeper

 

I’ve never seen the charms of “leaf peeping” before. And yes, that is a thing, not a made-up word. Leaf ‘peeping’ is the name given to going to see the autumn leaves when they change colour. ‘Leaves!” I thought to myself, ‘How exciting can looking at leaves be?!” Well, it turns out that I was probably looking at the wrong type of leaf, as I found myself reaching for my camera when I was on a walk last week around my neighbourhood in Kitsilano.

 

Dazzling candy-apple reds, zingy lemon-yellows and pumpkin-orange leaves took my breathe away. I even found some trees where the leaves were mid-change and spent far more time than is usually considered normal just beaming stupidly at the vivid colours.

 

 

Am I going to become a proper ‘peeper’? Go on peeping missions to peep? Um… I’ll get back to you on that. Er, maybe. But I love how gorgeous the leaves are; so incredibly bright, and yes, I’d like to see them reflected on a lake perhaps, or in full flush in a forest. I love the ones I can see here in Vancouver as the sudden shock of a vivid red tree in a street of green leaves is dazzling, but I’m told seeing whole forests aflame with colour is something else.

 

Oh, Canada, what have you done to me. One month here and already I’m slack-jawed with nature worship!

Keep exploring Canada

http://uk-keepexploring.canada.travel/

 

 


30
Sep 12

Vancouver: where the wild things are.

I knew that things were going to be different here in Canada. I knew I’d see things I’d not seen before, eat food I’d not heard of before and that most popular culture references would go merrily sailing over my head. I was, however, unprepared to be confronted with unfamiliar wildlife on my doorstep.

I’ve never seen a real skunk before, so I imagined it would be a little like this. © Warner Brothers

Recently, I took Freddie, my dog, out for his evening stroll around the block and saw something trotting towards us. At first I thought it was a cat and called out to it, then I saw its white ‘bib’ and swaying tail… Skunk! I knew that I should avoid it, I’d already heard dire warnings of the stink of skunk spray, but it was so damn cute! Sigh..  sensibly, Fred and I retreated to the road to watch Mr Skunk serenely trot past. I was completely excited. I couldn’t believe I’d seen something so unusual – to me – right outside my house.

After this, I swore to never leave the house without my camera – so thanks to © John Biehler – who already knew that!

A few nights later, I walked past the rather swanky building at the end of my block which has a swimming pool. I heard something so, on tip-toes, looked through the railings to see what it was. In a scene that was straight out of Disney, three raccoons were frolicking on the cover of the pool in the shallow end. They were playing! Splashing each other with water, and rolling around. It was adorable. I stayed there, silently watching, a huge grin on my face, until Fred became impatient and woofed his annoyance. Busted! The raccoons froze, one stared at me, looking down its pointy nose with those beady eyes behind their ‘bandit mask’ and then scampered off into the bushes.

Lesson learned. Now I am never without my camera to record Vancouver’s amazing wildlife.

Just last weekend I took a drive out to Deep Cove, a beautiful spot; all rolling hills and calm clear water, just 30 minutes away from downtown Vancouver. You can kayak and hike there and they have the most amazing doughnuts at Honey’s.  As I was walking, I heard something singing. A bird? What? I looked up to the soaring green pine and saw it; not a bird, but something that looked like a squirrel. Perplexed, I tweeted to ask advice – and in yet another slice of Disney-come-to-life, it turns out it was a chipmunk.

I’m already quite in love with Vancouver, it’s full of great surprises, but who knew it was going to end up just like a Disney movie?

Pretty sure this will be me in six months time… © Disney

Keep Exploring Canada!

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