Postcards: Favourite Instagrams of 2016

Postcards: Favourite Instagrams of 2016

In January, I returned back to Vancouver after an amazing family Christmas/New Year's trip to Oahu. I was craving a bit of winter to contrast the Hawaiian sun and surf, and had to go up in the mountains to find it. I feel #blessed to have this as my backyard. 

A typical February in Vancouver. 

In March, the world was hurting from recent terrorist attacks (it still is). I love the beauty and symbolism of cherry blossoms, which seemed to bloom at just the right time. 

Hiking Diamond Head, Oahu

The vista from the top of Diamond Head is impressive. According to signage at this National Natural Landmark site, more than a million visitors summit the volcano each year—for good reason. Its relatively moderate slope, short length, and stunning view make it ideal for both casual and experienced hikers, as long as they can handle...

Postcards: Favourite Instagrams of 2015

Postcards: Favourite Instagrams of 2015

In January, I took a short trip to Kelowna, BC to ski at Big White Ski Resort. Coming from a city where it's more likely to rain than snow (#raincover), it was awesome to have a couple days of snowy trails and sunny skies. 

To celebrate my thirtieth birthday in February...

San Josef Bay, Where We Learned the Downsides of Beach Camping

We had camped out at Nels Bight for two nights without issue. Despite the two light station keepers assuring us that rain was not in the forecast, it did drizzle that night after we had returned to camp. But it was nothing that would keep us in our tents. We sat outside and watched the horizon, where a group of whales were spouting, were treated with a phenomenal sunset.

sunset at Nels Bight

The next day, we hiked our way south to San Josef Bay. This beach is a mere 45 minutes from the trailhead, so it’s often a popular choice for day hikers and families. We had seen people carrying large coolers in the parking lot when we arrived at the park on our first day; this was definitely their destination. But we were surprised that it was so vacant now, a long weekend. We had our pick of the camping spots since there was only one other tent, so walked a few minutes down the beach towards where our map indicated the water source was to find a flat spot.

We argued whether we wanted to be closer to the forest or the water. The forest was cozy, but wouldn’t allow for much sun—plus it would be closer to the animals. The tide was far out now, but we wanted to make sure we would be safe when it came in again. But how far was far enough? Amy and I argued that the tufts of grasses in the sand indicated that it was above the water line; Alicia did not believe us.

“What about the rogue waves?” she asked. Neither Amy nor I knew how to respond.

According to my online research later, not much is known about them, with scientists for a long time not even accepting them as real. But, according to an Economist article from 2009, an oil rig recorded a 25.6 metre wave in the North Sea in 1995, and there was a recorded 29 metre wave off Scotland’s coast in 2000. Scientists could no longer deny that these larger-than-normal waves exist (I’m sure to the relief of all the seamen and sailors who were dismissed during all those years of sea exploration). But, fortunately for my friends and me, they occur in deep water, not on the shore where we were. Unless we were going to get hit by a tsunami, we would be fine.

Amy and I convined Alicia we would be fine. We set our tent up right in the middle of the beach. Luckily for Alicia, it was an uneventful night.

camping at San Josef Bay

While the sea was no longer our feared enemy, the beach was. The next day, the wind picked up and we were treated with a sand storm. I tried to read, resting against a log, but couldn’t concentrate. The wind kept blowing our tent fly and I kept walking over to tack it down again. We had left the outer doors open since it was warm out, but the sand kept sifting through the netting and onto our sleeping bags. Eventually the wind got too strong; I couldn’t read anymore because I had to use a shirt to cover my face to protect it from the sand-bullets.

We had planned this, our last full day, as a lazy one where we got to relax and read, but I could do neither of those things. Finally, we decided to move our tent into the forest.

Beach camping is not always what it’s made out to be. We had conquered our fears of rogue waves, but the wind had conquered us.

Cape Scott can be reached by car. Drive  hours via Highway 19 on Vancouver Island from Nanaimo north to Port Hardy. From there, turn west towards Holberg on Holberg Road; of the 2 hour drive, the last hour or so is a dirt logging road. After passing through the very small town of Holberg, turn right onto San Josef Main/San Joseph Road to reach the park's parking lot. 

Be prepared for extreme weather at any time of year. You can find water sources at campsites, but you must treat the water. Pay attention to tides. There are bears in the park, so you must put hang your food or store it in provided bins.

Get yourself a drink at the Scarlet Ibis Pub in Holberg on your way out to celebrate your hike.

The Isolated Beauty of Cape Scott

We arrived in Cape Scott, located on the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island. Alicia, Amy and I had hoped it was the westernmost point in Canada, but when we got to the lighthouse, we saw an island just off the coast. It’s good we didn’t bring any champagne to celebrate because apparently we weren’t even close. A quick look at a map after we came home showed us that there is a lot more west to go. On some flat maps it may look like this tip of Vancouver Island is the country’s westernmost point, but that’s only because of the distortion of latitude and longitude; on a round globe, the Yukon extends much farther past this point. The Haida Gwaii islands? Farther west. Whitehorse? Even farther west. We were so wrong.

Even if we weren’t as far west as we imagined we were, we still enjoyed the remoteness and beauty of the area. This year has been abnormally dry and hot, even here in the deep rainforest.  The path getting here was described as “muddy” and but we had few problems. It’s a relatively short hike, only 17 kilometres from the trailhead to our camp at Nels Bight, plus another 6.5 kilometres from Nels to the lighthouse at Cape Scott. The trail is not steep, either; it’s a mostly flat surface with stretches of wooden boardwalks over the muddiest sections.

When we arrived, one of the lighthouse keepers came out onto the porch and told us it was about 28 degrees Celsius. The two lighthouse keepers live on the property in a small house located right next to the tower, and the one who was speaking to us stood on his small front porch in just his swimsuit trunks. They’ve been here for 16 years, he told us, and this was the hottest year they’ve ever had. Last winter was warmer than usual, too. There were only three days when it went from zero to -1 and back to zero; usually the water freezes.


We ventured up the lighthouse. It didn’t look, actually, like much of a lighthouse—no, it was more of a light station. Grey and white concrete blocks at the bottom support four metal posts that rise a couple storeys above. Steps steep enough to find themselves somewhere between stairs and ladder link to a red platform, which is a metal grate and open to the ground below. At the centre, surrounded by the red metal platform, is the almighty light, protected by a bank of windows that give it its 360 degree view. Another ladder takes the keepers up higher, but that was beyond where we were allowed to go. While the light station is not directly on the coast (there’s a steep forest-covered slope in the way), a collection of buoys remind you of where you are. If it had been windy, the large wind chime hanging from the platform below the light would have serenaded us. As it was, it stood quietly, patiently, waiting to burst into song.

I inquired about the forecast: was it going to rain? No rain in the forecast, he said. The coast here should be covered in fog by now; instead, the sky looked bright, even from my view at the top of the tower. It was sunny and felt hot if we left the shade.

The second light station keeper came out onto the porch and called out to us: “They caught the two men who had escaped from jail three or four weeks ago!” Alicia doesn’t follow the news and hadn’t heard the story, so we had to give her the backstory. He seemed very eager to tell us—strangers—this news, so we gossiped about how it could have been possible that these men were able to escape from a high security prison and elude the police for so long.

The light station keepers attended to new arrivals: a group of three twenty-something Dutch guys. Their conversation began much like ours had: a hello, some small talk about the weather, a sale of some chips, the invitation to sign the guest book. I wondered if the keepers were tired of having the same conversation for 16 years, if they preferred the isolation, if they felt like hikers like us were invading their lazy Sunday when all he wanted to do was lounge outside in his swimsuit.

Cape Scott’s remote location means that only 5000 people visit this light station a year. If it’s not the threat of muddy trails that intimidates people, it’s the roads. The trailhead is 64 kilometres west of Port Hardy—itself a relatively remote town of only about 4000—and the road in between is a potentially rough dirt road. Signs along the hiking trails indicate that this area has always been isolated—too isolated, in fact, for settlement despite two attempts.

Hansen Meadows, Cape Scott

The first was in 1897. As described in a report written in the early 1900s,  “the Danes built good houses, good roads; they cleared and cultivated their land, and they put cattle on the reclaimed land, and formed a successful colony.” In addition to the troubles with tremendous rainfalls and storms, there wasn’t a good harbor and the government refused to build roads to the Danish settlement, which meant that the settlers had difficulty accessing markets. “So little by little the settlement dwindled until there were only two or three of the old settlers left. The grass was good and the cattle were thriving, but there was no way to ship out the beef.” They gave up. Settlers came in 1910 to try it again, but they encountered the same problems. Almost unbelievably, it wasn’t until 1979 that a highway was finally built to Part Hardy.

Another blog describes Cape Scott as “one of the wildest, windiest, most woebegone locales in the province for human habitation” and suggests that a trip to “Cape Scott is only for those whose mettle has been tested by repeated exposure to the bellows and blast-furnace of nature in the raw.” We got lucky that our visit coincided with an abnormally hot year, making our journey a little easier. 

Cape Scott can be reached by car. Drive  hours via Highway 19 on Vancouver Island from Nanaimo north to Port Hardy. From there, turn west towards Holberg on Holberg Road; of the 2 hour drive, the last hour or so is a dirt logging road. After passing through the very small town of Holberg, turn right onto San Josef Main/San Joseph Road to reach the park's parking lot. 

Be prepared for extreme weather at any time of year. You can find water sources at campsites, but you must treat the water. Pay attention to tides. There are bears in the park, so you must put hang your food or store it in provided bins.

Get yourself a drink at the Scarlet Ibis Pub in Holberg on your way out to celebrate your hike.

A Walk in the Woods: Movie Review

Hiking the Appalachian Trail has long been on my life to-do list. Having read Bill Bryson’s 1998 memoir A Walk in the Woods long ago—it was recommended to me after I read his memoir on Australia, In a Sunburned Country, which I read following their 2000 Summer Olympics—I can’t recall if I had added the hike to my list before or after. Bryson’s (and his hiking buddy Stephen Katz’s) struggles, though, did make me wonder if hiking the AT end-to-end was a realistic goal.

A few years ago, I read Cheryl Strayed’s long hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild (then watched Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal in the movie adaptation), I was once again reminded of A Walk in the Woods. Did I have to stick with the AT for my bucket list, or could I expand my long hike options? I was pleasantly surprised recently to learn that Bryson’s classic also received the Hollywood treatment.

The film is funny—so funny, in fact, I missed several lines of dialogue

In true Bryson style, the film is funny—so funny, in fact, I missed several lines of dialogue because of the long, loud laughter from the theatre crowd. For me, one of the more memorable scenes from the book was the shopping scene in which Bryson learns about the complexities of hiking and camping gear, mostly, I think, because I have felt just like him when confronted with technical specs of gear at MEC. Happily, a brief depiction of that scene made it into the film, with Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman as the knowledgeable salesperson. Other characters were more caricaturized than the book: both Bryson (Robert Redford) and Katz (Nick Nolte) were more loveable; Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), a companion they meet along the way, was even more unlovable. While some of the scene transitions felt choppy, the humour really carried the film.

After the movie ended and the theatre lights came up, I wondered how many in the audience—which was skewed towards the older ages—were inspired to hike the trail. Bryson was in his 40s when he hiked the AT; in the movie, the characters were even older. I don’t have to rush to cross it off just yet. Hiking the AT remains on my to-do list.

A Walk in the Woods will be released 2 September 2015 (USA)/18 September 2015 (UK).

A Walk in the Woods of Taman Negara

Sunburned after my day on the beach in Cherating, I decided a retreat to the forest was in order. Taman Negara, a national park, is one of the oldest rainforests in the world and one of Malaysia's biggest attractions. So, after a taxi ride from Cherating to Kuantan, a bus ride to from Kuantan to Temerloh, a bus ride from Temerloh to Jerantut, a speedy cab ride from town to the dock, an angry cab ride back to town because there was no accommodation available near the dock, a few phone calls to book a tour, and an overnight at a hotel in Jerantut, I was finally en route.

I booked a tour through the hotel I stayed at in Jerantut, and the man who booked the tour for me, Addy, also turned out to be my guide. He and his friend drove me to the park in their card, speeding the whole way. Despite the sharp corners, wild passes, near-miss with a bus, and interesting maneuver where the driver lit a cigarette as he steered with his knees, we made it to the boat in one piece. We met up with the others members of our group: a French family with two children, aged 5 and 8, and an older German man who was also travelling alone.

The tour started with a boat ride down the river, and the view was fantastic. I, unfortunately, didn't learn my lesson in Cherating and added some more colour to my legs. The forest, at the start of our hike, was similar to those in Canada, with ferns, big trunks, and open skies. Four kilometres in, we stopped at a small cave for a meal break. My backpack, although emptied (I left most of my clothes in storage at the hotel), was heavy due to the three litres of water I was carrying, and my shoulders craved a rest. After the break, we continued on our way to the big cave, where we would spend the night.

The landscaped quickly changed; it began to look more like a rainforest. The undergrowth became thicker, the canopy above closed up, and the sun disappeared. I saw "Tarzan vines" that, for me, identify a true rainforest. The hike was difficult. There were lots of downed trees on the path that we had to pass over and under, and our footwork was further complicated by the mud.

The day was supposed to be long but easy, but having two young children in our group made the day even longer, and I certainly didn't find it easy. "This area has many tigers," Addy said when the sun started going down. "We must arrive before dark or..." He didn't finish his sentence. He didn't need to.

We got out our flashlights and soon they became a necessity. It wasn't until 7.30 that we finally arrived the big caveand, boy, was it big! There were several groups already there, but there was plenty of room for all of us. Addy made dinner for us while we relaxed on the mats and talked. After dinner, we went outside to a nearby stream to brush our teeth and "shower"the whole time I was checking for animals with my flashlight. Soon, all the flashlights were turned off and we all settled in for a night of camping in a cave.

I woke up to sunlight streaming through the cave opening. It was one of those scenes that make you think, Wow. This is why I travel. With the sunlight, I got a good look at the cave. It was one big "room" that was about 40 metres tall and could handle about 300 people at a time. There were two openings: the bigger, higher one (near where we slept), which was almost at the ceiling, and a smaller one to the left that served as the main "door." A big rock sat in the middle and divided the room; people used to rock for privacy when it came to changing clothes and using the "toilet" facilities. Someone, somehow, managed to put a Malay flag high up on the cave wall. It smelled of dampness, fire ashes, and moss inside the cave. I loved every minute of it.

During breakfastbread with Malay jam: coconut with eggAddy told me he couldn't sleep because he thought he heard animals. "I thought I heard animals during the night, too," I said. "It sounded like bats to me."

"Not bats," Addy said. "I think tigers."

After talking with the other guides, Addy seemed convinced tigers were out last night. I doubted it, but the idea certainly added some excitement to our upcoming hike through the woods. Since it rained during the night, mud would be more of a problem, plus leeches would be out, and maybe tigers, too.

The day was supposed to be shorter but more difficult than the day before, and the difficulty part was certainly true. The hike was a challenge. The mud was a mess, twigs scratching my legs burned my rosy legs, and there was always something to crawl over or squeeze under. We crossed rivers on fallen logs, and trailblazed our way through thick underbrush. Biting pain on my ankles or spots of blood on my shorts alerted me to that fact that leeches had decided to join me on the hike. It was so much fun. But, with two small children, the day was not short. The little girl, aged 5, had a lot of problems, so her dad carried her as much as he could. We took a lot longermaybe twice as longas we could have without the kids. I didn't mind, though; I liked being in the woods.

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.
— Edgar Abbey

A Day Trip to a Penis Park in Samcheok, Korea

A girlfriend and I decided to escape from city life and our guy problems for a night. We left Saturday in the late afternoon for Samcheok in the east coast of Gangwondo Province, where we could find a cave I read about in one of my guidebooks. Arriving in Samcheok after dark, we ate a ramen/instant spaghetti dinner at a GS25 convenience store, found ourselves a little hotel, and played cards until we fell asleep.

We woke up early Sunday morning to head to Hwanseon Cave. This cave is said to be one of the largest in Asia; something worth checking out. It was a quiet, hour-long bus ride to the cave from Samcheok. Our guidebook noted the "steep" path from the parking lot to the cave entrance -- and it wasn't kidding. We struggled. We tried to ignore the Korean ladies in their cute high heels who were making the hike, too. It took about half an hour of hard climbing, but we made it.

After visiting both Meramec Caverns in Missouri and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico this past summer, I have to say I wasn't as impressed as I might have been. The lighting at Hwanseon wasn't as dramatic as the broadway-style lighting at the American caves. Instead of a "please be silent" policy, as there was in the American caves, we were surrounded by children stomping around on the metal walkway and screaming as loud as they could.

The highlight of the cave for us was the signage. The chosen names for the bridges, walkways, and viewpoints were hilarious. I was paying attention more to the signs than to the views! We were welcomed by the Palace of Dream, Summit of Hope, Valley of Desire, Fountain of Life, Bridge of Love, Valley of Hell, Bridge of Confessions, and Bridge of Galaxy. Our favourite was, of course, the Bridge of Confessions. On this particular bridge, we were greeted by a sign that told us to confess our sins here, after which: "You are now free of sins. You can now live the rest of your life happily." Oh, how nice. If only it were that easy.

On our breezy walk down the steep hill, we noted that we should have come here a few weeks earlier, when the leaves would have been decorating the trees with their colours.

We made it to the parking lot before we realized we didn't know how to leave this place! But, we quickly remembered that we took a city bus here, so there must be a city bus back to Samcheok.

In Seoul, bus schedules are generally written in both Korean and English. Not so, apparently, outside of the city. So, for the first time out of necessity, I read the Korean signs and found the bus that would take us back to the city.

When I first suggested to my friend that we should visit Samcheok and check out the cave there, she said, "Samcheok? Isn't that where the penises are?"

Um, excuse me? "I have no idea, and believe me, if I had read about something like that, I think I would have remembered it!" I said.

But she was right, and we scheduled the "penis park" for our Sunday afternoon. Hey, what else would two single gals see on their weekend away, right?

We hopped on a bus that took us right by the park, and the driver let us off just outside the site. Somehow the driver knew exactly what we were looking for. We paid our entrance fee, received our information page, and started laughing at ourselves.

We weren't the only ones there. There were couples, friends, families with children. Wonderful! A place the whole family can enjoy! The path through the park overlooked a beautiful, rocky coastal scene. But for the most part, we were distracted by the (literally) hundreds of phallic sculptures everywhere. Wood, stone, metal. Big, small. Still, moving.

As the legend goes, a young virgin was engaged to a fisherman. One day, she was stranded on a rock in the sea while he went fishing. Before he returned, she was struck by a wave and drowned. After that, the sea no longer provided the fishing town with the same large catches it had before. The town didn't know why, all of a sudden, fish had left their waters. One day, a fisherman relieved himself facing the ocean. Then, the waters suddenly were full of fish again! So, the fisherman concluded that, of course, the woman who drowned before she was enjoyed by a man was sexually unsatisfied.

So the town immediately set about creating phallic statues in honour of her. There was even a festival until a Christian group stopped it. But the statues remain for all to enjoy.

shrine to the woman who started it all

shrine to the woman who started it all

There is a zodiac calendar, in penis form. Phallic statues by ponds and in forests. Benches of penis design. Penis fence posts. A penis statue that moves up and down on a hill. We took some pictures, of course, but it was the old Korean women who created the most sexual poses. They were getting dirty! We couldn't hold our laughter in.

At the end of it all, there is a museum. We were at first disappointed that the museum referred to the fishing aspect of the small town, but the final exhibit is a representation of sexual art from around the world.

We two satisfied, refreshed females caught the bus back to Samcheok, then slept our way back to the big city.