Cycling Portugal: An Opposing Experience

How could riding a bike on one side of an imaginary line differ much from the other? Same continent, similar language, familiar eats. This is where my hopes, expectations, rest as I cycle along the cruisy coast from Vigo towards the Portuguese border.

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Following the coast from Vigo (Spain) to the border. Vigo is the natural starting point for cycling the Portuguese coast.

You hop the ferry at the border, and keep on spinning. It’s tempting to speak Spanish in the gaps of your Portuguese, but you will get a hard, confused look in return. Aside from the language, those initial expectations are realized. Things haven’t really changed.

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First night. Spectacular camp.

But then, they do. The air is clean, but open burning fills sections of roadside with smoke. The water isn’t drinkable by local’s standards. Sharing the road with traffic seems much harder.

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Vibrancy found all around this old port in North Portugal.

I’ve written previously in a long form, journal format, which felt natural when the going was good. Most days held something great to share; a section of beautiful country road, a friendly encounter, an incredible viewpoint to pitch a tent and watch the waves roll in.

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Bike lanes and board walks make up most of the coastal cycling route through North Portugal.

But I can’t showcase this country in the same way. Cycling through Portugal was, at times, very enjoyable. But the sentiments that the country left with me are less than positive. Consecutive days of a soggy, physically drained, and demoralized existence have tinted my view into a darker light.

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Beautiful tiling found exploring Porto at night – A UNESCO world heritage city.

Visiting in an unseasonably rainy/stormy fall was a huge amplifier; sunshine makes good days better or hard days more tolerable, but bad cycling conditions and harsh weather can turns things bleak. Shorter daylight hours mean less time for gear to dry out, too.

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Wrong bike for this route, in this weather.

My unique experiences and weather complications aside – I’m conflicted. When trying to generalize the country, everything and it’s exact opposite seems to hold true. Portugal is a contradiction. People are very rich, and very poor. Some incredibly friendly, others not so much. The roads and infrastructure for biking is incredible in certain regions, and terrible in others. There is long periods of world-class surfing, and stretches of windblown mush.

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Thorny cacti along a beautiful section riding through a natural preserve.

Cycling with traffic sucks, but there isn’t much of it.

In Spain, it’s the law to give a 1.5 metres of passing breadth between your vehicle and the outer cyclist. Vehicles have to slow and wait for a safe opportunity to pass, even while riding double wide.

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Cork trees lining the scenic Algarve route

You shouldn’t expect the same courtesy in Portugal. Time to get your money’s worth out of that bike mirror. Right out of the gate it was obvious that little care or consideration is given to other users of the road.

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Cruising on the seaside thanks to some beautifully constructed boardwalks

But given that most of the route is on dedicated bike path, trail, or secondary roadway, your time spent at risk of drivers is minimized. However, some sections of riding with traffic are mandatory and one must heed caution.

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No traffic here.

The best route, and the worst.

Eurovelo, an associated network of cycling routes in Europe, has established the coastal Portuguese route and provides great, turn-by-turn, detail about the duration and length of riding segments, sightseeing and destinations along the way.

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The safety of a bike lane leaves your attention to the surroundings

In the North, the route magnificently sticks to paved, dedicated bike lane for a majority of the riding, including unique sections of boardwalk riding, connected by a few short and bumpy cobblestone bits. Some days were spent never having to interact with traffic.

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They start you off small

When you hit Peniche, things change greatly. The bike lanes are sparse and poorly implemented. Secondary highways or roads have no shoulder. Some sections, where there is an absence of a safe roadway, it seems as if the route just follows logging roads, some in very poor condition, and some even active.

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For the big stuff that comes later. (Off-route)

Riding on hardpack dirt can be quite enjoyable, but the quality of these roads varies greatly. Smooth, cruisy hardpack es bueno. Rutted, washed out, and thick mud no es bueno.

30 kilometers of teeth chattering not-so-goodness in Dunas de Mira park.

Accommodation

Affordable accommodation outside of the city centers can be difficult to find. Portugal, despite having the lowest minimum wage in all of the European Union, has adjusted it’s pricing to better reflect the budgets of visiting tourists. AirBnB is still the ultimate tool for finding an abode on the fly, but I came to expect that they would cost about 50% more than the going rate in North Spain. There are campsites along the route, however most of them looked super run down and dingy, and a majority of them close after the summer season is over.

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Porto

On a trip of this nature, you’re usually looking for more nature. With large stretches of park and unoccupied shorefront (it’s all slowly eroding!), the free-camping scene is incredible. I used an app called park4night to scout options ahead, but as you cruise along many non established options will present themselves – many of them only suitable for two wheels. It is difficult for us creatures to give up the travel itinerary, but you’ll be greatly rewarded if you stock up on water and supplies and just see where you end up.

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A gem just north of the popular surfing town of Peniche.

Beautiful urban centres; a challenge by bike.

The cities of Porto and Lisbon are must-visit destinations in Portugal, but are not well suited to cyclists. The streets heading into Porto quickly narrow and busy with traffic, and even Eurovelo recommends taking the commuter train to access Lisbon from the west.

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Lisboa

This might not be a huge detail with a small touring rig, but my setup resulted in a pretty embarrassing encounter with a handicap turnstile at the metro station. Compared to riding in cities like Bilbao or Barcelona, Portugal’s city riding was very stressful.

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This thing is kinda heavy

Surfing; World class, or nada.

In my fourteen days of cycling down the coast, I did not catch a wave. The country is at the mercy of whatever the Atlantic offers, and during my time there it was wind, rain, and no good surf. There are exceptional spots near Sintra/Peniche centrally, and Sagres in the south, where multiple orientations of beachfront mean options for different wind and swell directions. The rest of the coast is extremely exposed, so good conditions are left up to chance.

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Twenty surfers compete for the peak in the Algarve

People are well off, and not so much.

Manicured lawns and tin shacks. Maserati’s and clunkers. Golf resorts and roadside garbage dumps. There are stark contrasts everywhere. Some beachfront locations have been built up with brand new condos at one end of the street, with completely neglected structures on the other side.

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Beauty, to some.

It seems that the areas touched by potential tourists have received the majority of any funding. We’ve heard the pitch before – new resort brings jobs, stability, money to a region. But with the strong arm of developers, potential corruption, and poor municipal planning, this scheme leaves communities without the appropriate funds to improve infrastructure for the people who actually live there. You see this impact in both rural and urban areas.

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A fisherman overlooks the bluffs north of Sagres.

Would I go back to Portugal for a bike tour? The North: yes. The South… maybe not. The raw beauty, structured pathways, and culture of the north is definitely enticing. The touristy vibe, poor cycling conditions, and sheer number of golf resorts in the south doesn’t draw me to return.

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Hitching a ferry ride back to Spain

Biking Logistics

  • Public access to water or showers is limited, and it’s drink-ability is questionable. Be prepared to buy and haul bottled water.
  • Free camping is the way to go, but beware of the season.
  • Vehicle theft is common at most parking, and especially surfing areas – you’ll get good at stashing your gear out of sight. I had to politely ask someone to not go into my tent while I was standing thirty feet away.
  • Dining out on the road can be challenging with a siesta from 2:30 to 7:00 at most establishments.
  • Downloadable files for the route can be found on Eurovelo
  • Google Maps Summary:  900 KM/5,100M
  • Recommended number of days is 18 by Eurovelo, not including rest. I think this is reasonable given the type of terrain you will be riding.

Came for the photos? I’ll leave these here…

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How to Not Ride a Bike Through Northern Spain, With a Surfboard

Each day, the sun is further delayed pushing into the eastern sky. With the horizon line high above the beach shore, you won’t feel direct light until around nine. I’m a fan of rising with the sun, but maybe that’s just an excuse for sleeping in through the productive morning hours. But the days of waking at four in the morning to study (and thumb twiddle) before work are long gone. Welcoming change, adapting to a new rhythm or circumstance, sets the tone for what comes next.

Missed part 1? Find it here

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Among the other old stuff, a Dad appears in his natural environment

The journey picks up in Santander (Central-Northern Spain) where my father made a connecting flight on the way home from a work trip. I dance the “floss” in airport arrivals; he pretends to not know me. We explore caves and sample fresh seafood that the region is known for. Observing structures and traditions, those which have withstood so much time. Lesson learned; our time is limited, but trying to force meaningful conversation is no way to have some.

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Talk to the hand, kid… No wait, he’s waving!

Sometimes I look at others’ parental relation and see the green grass; a well cultivated connection, a special bond. A dynamic of ment(or/tee), of dependence and independence, love and compassion – qualities that have changed with time, introduced and removed, maybe more than once. There should be no deluision that relationships aren’t hard and complicated.

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Searching for metaphors among tall pines

If you find yourself passing through, the contemporary art museum, conveniently located next to the ferry dock from Somo (the boat you came in on), is well worth the visit. There’s tapas, and excellent food and wine to be found in the old district. We ordered a rib dish from a recommended restaurant, “Canadis”, from the share plate menu. For twelve euros, this would likely stand as a 2 person entrée for $30-40 back home. In Spain, the quality of food, portions and overall dining experience in general has been excellent.

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Exploring the grounds of Palace Magdalena; a walkable oasis in the middle of the city

Travelling in the area necessitates a visit to the Picos de Europa National Park. We sent off one morning to visit the Rue de Cares (Cares Route), which promotes epic vistas from within a canyon, the sheer rock faces vaulting directly upwards.

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This is 12 kilometres one-way hike with the option to taxi or bus shuttle back to your car for a hefty price. If the 24 kilometres (~450m elevation gain) is a too big a day to make the round trip, I would recommend hiking to the 8-kilometer mark and turning around.

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Blistered and a bit tired, we made it to the 11km marker, but would have been content with returning earlier – at that distance, 6 hours of hiking, with plenty of rest stops and photo ops.

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“Do something cool!”

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We spent our final day together on a coastal tour; exploring the breakwaters of small bayside villages, and walking cobblestone streets in Santillana Del Mar.

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and then finding paradise:

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Just beyond the ridge, San Vincent de la Barquera sits on a tidal lagoon, protected by Playa de Meron, wedged between grassy headlands. Moments after checking into Camping la Rosal, I run into Fabo who has the warmest, welcoming – and dare I say – fabulous smile. The guy was simply radiating happiness, and he wasn’t the only one.

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The Relaxation Ranch – Camping la Rosal

Perfectly positioned, smack dab in the middle of the north coast, just far enough west to receive sizable swells from the Atlantic, but east enough to maintain a comfortable water temperature, the province of Cantabria attracts surfers from all over Europe. The feeling of welcome is abundant, traveler to traveler – though the hint of Scandinavia in my blood might help accelerate the camaraderie.

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I’ll do the dishes tonight. No, my turn!

I set up camp on a shaded plateau next to some vacant camper vans, say goodbye to papa, and head for the water. There are so many people out, but so much coastline and waves to be had. I smile for the next ninety minutes. Spaghetti armed and stiff-cheeked, I return to meet my Dutch neighbours, in whose camping spot I’ve accidentally pitched the tent. Instead of spatting over who’s in who’s spot (I’m 100% in the wrong), we talk about what card game we will play tonight.

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Skip Bo – the game that unites nations. Ester, Joost & Hanneke

It’s hard to keep track of time here. As if the middle ages were absolved – we’re all back behaving like kids. Playing in the waves, on the beach, from morning until supper time, rounding up to warm meal, and sleep that comes easy. If I had to pick and choose one place to spend an entire visit to Spain – San Vincent would be it.

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Playa Oyambre, just around the corner. “Is there something in my teeth?” – Joost

Four (five?) days pass before the idea of cruising west is motioned. I notice the bike rack on Ester’s van, but wait for the invitation of a ride. It comes, I accept. It’s been almost a week off the saddle, what’s another few days? I’m not sure this is even a bike trip anymore.

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Catching a lift

We set out late the following morning. The hour drive from San Vincent to Playa de Vega turns into a most-of-the-day affair.

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Inviting streets

There’s plenty to see on the way there; dramatic cliffbands hosting what was apparently a hot spring? Felt pretty cold to us!

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Where there isn’t pristine beach, it’s a lot of this

Spain’s smallest beach featuring an offshore goat habitat, quaint villages by the numbers.

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Pictured in the back right, goat island has yet to become a thriving tourist hotspot

There are a lot of Germans here. They presume that if you’re white, you know how to speak German. I held eye contact with a gentleman for a good thirty seconds while he spoke at me, nodding along to his harsh syllables, before responding casually in English. They’re kinda like the Americans of Europe. Super powerful, aware of the status.

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Presumptive? Maybe. Certain; they have cool cars!

We turn off the secondary highway and wind towards the coast, following the river that has already negotiated a fair route through the prohibitive landscape.

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Through narrow streets, passing small abodes stacked on rock pillars, we arrive. Playa. De. Vega.

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A long, consistent beach break, with a hotspot peak on the right-hand side. It works on all tides, and with average daily temperatures above 25 degrees for the next few days, it’s going to work just fine for us.

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Water rushing below the red rock headland flanking the beach

The vibe here is comfortable with fresh drinking water and shower just off the beach, and despite no official camping or overnight parking during these “winter months” when we visited, there are plenty of nooks and cranny’s to set up camp. The surrounding property owner, easily identified by his big smile, strolled past most days and paid no mind; we gave him a bottle of wine for not hassling us.

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Mornin’ neighbours!

Time in the water is refreshing, fun, easy surfing. I have my best session to-date here, a fast gunning left with a dozen little accelerating turns along the face. The time in-between is relaxing; stretching, reading, writing, chatting. The pull to wind down is mas fuerte.

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A change in weather motivates packing up, and carrying on. That, and my somewhat forgotten objective of biking around this section of continent, now to be done over a dwindling number of days.

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“How’s the gas mileage on that thing?” – Nobody

I say goodbye to, what feels like, my European family. My wet tent is a heavy load and legs have become unfamiliar with their principal duty.

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Things maintained; things let go

It is long push from Playa de Vega to Verdicio; or feelings so. The side effects of a hurricane rocking the Portuguese coast have made it to this latitude. The unrelenting headwinds, periodic rain, and unfriendly encounters are all taking their toll.

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A tranquil cruise through orchards before entering the big smoke

Crossing the provincial boundary into Asturias feels different from the Spain I’ve seen so far. There are much fewer public water fountains outside of the big city, the houses have large, uninviting concrete walls and steel gates. For sale signs, vacant, deleterious facades. Appliances, mattress stores, bathroom and kitchen fixtures taking the prominence of retail frontage. Attention focused on building ones comfortable nest, depriving it elsewhere.

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Asturians like their cider poured from a great height. Same goes for their water!

The cars seem to pass a little closer. Friendly smiles become a rarity, someone laughs at my spanish when ordering a tortilla and sandwich to go. Is it all that unwelcoming, or could it simply be a swing from absolute comfort with newfound friends, to the lone mode of travel?

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Solo

It’s becoming clear that passing through the city centres can add an unwanted degree of stress. There usually aren’t great options for entering and exiting beside the highway (Bilbao is a great exception to this). Gijon and Aviles have very industrial economies; you will mingle with big, big trucks. If I were to repeat the journey, I would aim to skip certain urban sections via the cheap and accessible rail options that exist en route.

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Google maps, 99% reliable. Out of touch with this recent detour resulting in another hour of challenging cycling in Gijon

Just as the going seems like the going is a bit rough, the the end destination of Verdicio delivers magnificently.

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No showers, shops, or access to water outside of the busy season – but if you come prepared, it’s definitely a spot worth spending a day or two

The wind dies down, but waves don’t materialize in the morning. Onward!

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Beyond the industrial city of Aviles, the cycling is absolutely incredible. The freeway high above spans the entire valley, while the old road cuts through beautiful country, winding up, down and around.

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This overpass turns a fifteen minute drive into a fifteen second one. Efficient, sure. But do you really want to miss this?

Some hills – moderate climbs, get you up high with great panoramic vistas looking over the ocean below. And of course the elevation earns you a thrill of speed as you coast along moss-lined embankments and lush foliage.

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One hour elapses; one car passes

A fellow cyclist and I match pace – Juan (OG ‘Sean’) is following the Camino del Norte route. He’s done a few pilgrimages by foot but, now pushing into his older years with a bum knee, has taken to the bike. We talk in Spanglish, repairing my sentences as we go, but hold a great conversation for about ten kilometers.

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Get it, Juan!

I buy food, wine, and descend a very steep, like, failing-brakes-lead-to-a-disaster steep, road. Always arrive to the beach with wine, and you’ll be sure to make friends.

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Drafting to compensate for wine weight

Playa Otur is tonight’s destination – I meet another lovely Dutch couple there who offer tasty pancakes; the bottle pays immediate dividends.

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Not Otur, but to give you the idea – these little gems are everywhere

We try and surf in the morning, but it’s a sloppy and choppy mess. Big waves with quick closeouts, a bit too exciting. Joost thinks the next bay over will be good given the conditions, and suggests it would be cruel to make me bike up the big hill to get there. I am obliged for the ride.

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Full of pancakes, Joost and Maika provide a lift up the hill dubbed ‘Steepy McSteep’ and on to the next beach

Playa Frexulfre. We arrive to the complete opposite of what we were experiencing at Otur – big, but long period, slow breaking waves. It’s not long before I have my wetsuit back on, and charge down the pine-lined pathway to the beach. From the perspective down low, the faces are huge. Things always look easier from above… lesser so from shore, and become very real once you’re in the water water. I see waves breaking way out back, left shoulders stacking up with no one around. The surfers have concentrated to the right side of the bay for the medium sized swell on the inside. I strategize to be far away from the herd.

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I stretch, finger tips to toes, half lift, and back down. Once in the water I realize the responsible party for the crowding isn’t the party at all – it’s the current. From shore to the back left, it’s a constant struggle. A slight wind chop, and not so slight closeout sets that blanket the entire bay with aerated foam. Eventually, I’m where I want to be.

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Intently positioned can beat being the tallest tree

Minutes go by, ten, maybe more? Everyone seems to be comfortable with being on the opposite side of the bay, and I start to wonder if my judgement is off.

Not a moment later, I see the pulse of the ocean rise in the far distance – lines eclipsing fishing boats far offshore. The first wave breaks a twenty meters out, and I paddle out hard to clear the shoulder. Just as I crest over the first wave, I see that the second is even bigger.

Digging in hard, directing my board down the line. It peaks at the perfect moment. I point the nose to shore, tuck my chin, and give the final three strokes that my arms can muster. Without awareness of the steps involved, I’m suddenly standing. The drop is slow to initiate, but when it goes the speed is immense. My balance is found on the first turn; I draw a slow and long carve. I reach for my turning point, then rotate my torso counter clockwise rapidly to cut back down the face. Repeat. Again, again, and again. The eventually wave walls up; I point it straight and step on the gas, cutting back up and over just before it closes out. My board slows, sinks, as I raise my arms in the air, yelling to the sky.

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After teasing Kai about his three-sizes-too-large wetsuit and the joys of not freezing to death each time you venture into the water, he ran off in the early morning and bought a new one

Crossing the Galician boundary was a simple and relaxing cycle, sticking to coastal and country roads with minimal elevation change.

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Virina & Ilka, two rad driftwood-collecting chicks from Germany.

After thorougly perusing Cathedrals Beach en-route, I rolled towards Foz, and into the comfort of an AirBnB for the evening. Thirty minutes after arrival, the sky began falling – the largest raindrops I’ve seen on the continent. It is great to be sleeping under the stars, but I’m ever thankful for this roof tonight.

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A sampling of Cathedrals Beach – plenty to see beyond the tour bus zone

The morning following my restful AirBnB stay has all my gadgets charged, and gear dry, but my energy levels are nearing the lower limits. Homesickness. The moodiness of the weather. The winds have risen, goodbye to the warm convection of sun on land, replaced with cold Atlantic air.

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A rolling bundle of very wet gear. I wonder if waterproofing with slate rock would be better?

West of Foz is a gentle cruise following the coastal highway, but I soon leave the flatlands behind, straining my neck upwards to see the horizon line. It’s like you’ve never seen a hill before… I vye to make it to Ericera for the night, and push on to make it happen. Soon enough, I’m close, but something’s not adding up. 16 more kilometres and, 650 metres of elevation? We must be cycling up a black diamond run at Lake Louise.

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Blown out, but beautiful. A pine backed forest, nestled down in it’s own separate reality. The gale force winds continue into the morning, removing the chance of a quality, or safe, session out in the water. Back to reality, starting with one big hilly climb out on cold muscles.

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Relief from the sun, and a downward slope

Today’s destination is Doninos. Not to be confused with the tasty pizza chain, Doninos serves up ultra consistent surf due to the right-hand reef, and sheltered configuration of the beach protecting it from anything northerly or from the east.

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But first, we must get there. And for the first time on this trip, I seriously doubt Google’s competency to help with the matter. For the most part, I believe the software works by suggesting actual roadways that a vehicle with cameras has driven on and recognized a) and off highway road with shoulder or b) something with a bike lane.

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Not a road, Google.

In absence of that, it just looks at the satellite image identifies any parting in the trees as a potential route. Goat path? Sure, that’ll work. Some of the detours are welcomed, others make you wonder if the machines have turned on us.

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Thankful for this detour

Doninos is an excellent spot to stake out for a few days. Good facilities, including a bar overlooking main reef. Opting to rest the legs for a day, but try to surf. I come out of the water humbled, spooked from being held down by a big set.

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The ocean doesn’t know how good of a surfer you are

My muscles are tense, joints becoming pained. Each day has felt like an absolute all-out endeavor. Trying to keep up with the caloric output, but can’t seem to manage on snacks alone. I can almost feel the couscous running through my veins. Restaurants are hard to patronize – siestas being a great concept but can you please open up I’m really hungry gracias. Most establishments don’t reopen for dinner until eight or nine o’clock.

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Chill out, man. But I’m pushing it because time is running out. I have plans to meet Manya in Southern Spain in just over two weeks. There’s a lot of distance to cover between here and there; namely a country called Portugal. My mind runs wild on the various permutations of how the upcoming days will be spent, and the terrifying amount of cycling to be done.

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For the days where you want to hide from the world, or just hide from your bike, there’s this.

A quick dip in the ocean, walk along the cliff-side, and a call home to a loved one – things are better. Or maybe nothing has changed. The pause just serves as emotional damage control, a recoup, and a fresh look at things.

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Back on the road, cruising in the westfalia, somewhere between Playa de Vega and San Vincent, I had a moment with myself. It was a realization that this trip has been the greatest of my life, which almost brought me to tears. In that moment, nothing was going as planned. The feelings came from embracing a random series of events, fluid and dynamic as they were.

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Why can we so hard ourselves when we deviate from the plan? Plans should change. Think about it; during the planning stage, you know almost nothing about your destination, it’s environment or culture, with no possible foresight to the opportunities that will present themselves. It would be tragic if plans didn’t change.

There is no accolade should I do this by bike. There is no need for unnecessary suffering, no reasonable gain to be had while edging closer to an injury.

I’m getting a car. I’m going surfing.

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Playa Nemina. A way’s off the biking route.

Galicia opens up when you swap out the human power. The numerous double-digit gradient roads are no longer an obstacle; they are a scenic drive.

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An evening of work behind the bluffs of Playa Traba

The “hurry up” factor quiets in the back of my mind. The stomach grumbling from down below is soothed; I can finally afford to carry a glass jar of peanut butter.

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A, well rested, self portrait

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The O Facho de Donon Overlook

I cut 200 kilometers, and 2,500 meters of elevation gain, off my journey. I’m proud of it. Not for shying away from the challenge, but for putting pride in the back seat, and being open to doing things a different way. A previous version of myself would have rode every last meter at the expense of my body, and the enjoyment of what ultimately is a vacation.

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I drop the car off in Vigo. The last airport, and natural starting/ending place for any bike tour, concluding the trip through Northern Spain, some by bike, with a surfboard.

Unless of course, you’re following along into Portugal…

Trip Details

Bike Route Taken (Approximate)   ~60km omitted by car out of Santander

Car Route Taken (Approximate)

Recommended Segment Duration: 18-24 days, including rest. Or 24 days to… as many as you want if you’re having a nice time. Trying to do it in 12 does not end well.

How to Ride a Bike Through Northern Spain, With a Surfboard.

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Overlooking Zarautz, Basque Country

It is fall, but the weather of Northern Spain wouldn’t like to admit it. Sure, the leaves are in the process of falling and new colours emergent, but the air is rich with warmth, and saline humidity. The sun gradually arcs through the southern sky, casting rays through the less-than-lush trees surrounding my primitive campsite, in which I’m currently sitting on my two-foot wide surfboard sleeve. Without any back support or cushion from the, it just served as a seating area and dining table, and now as an office desk and chair. ‘Spartan’ is a word gaining a little too much popularity in our culture, but so very appropriate in these circumstances

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I’m on tour – this time with a bike, light-ish saddlebags, a surfboard, at a lot of pent up energy from the sedentary month past. Starting in Bilbao, which hosts Spain’s northernmost regional airport, my plan is to follow the coast, counter-clockwise, through Portugal and southern Spain, completing somewhere in France or Italy. This is the first chapter of the journey.

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Why come here? Spanish, Portuguese, Basque, Catalan, French, Italian – I know none of them! It’s been an active goal of mine for some time to pick up a second language, even if only basic comprehension and conversation. After many botched preguntas (questions), much mumbling, and blank-faced sweaty palmed moments with shopkeepers, the goal has become an essential action. The combination of language, culture, food, surfing, and a slightly sore buttocks, cumulates to a dynamic trip that has me excited.

You might also be wondering; surfboard, on a bike? Confusion comes to most who ask about the trip, so not to worry.

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This is a Ho, Stevie! Board rack. It attaches to the seatpost of any bike, tightens with a basic allen tool, and allows you to fold it inwards when not in use. There were a few options out there, but valuable for money and reputation of the vendor sold me. $80 is like on tank of expensive European gas, which gets you to the surf spot a few times. The same amount of money to put a board on your bike… and go as far as your legs will take you? I signed up for the latter.

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Light, ish. Stacked just like the anticipation with any trip preparations.

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Suddenly, you arrive.

After two days of settling in to the foreign lands, sampling Pinxtos (pronounced ‘Pinchos’, which are the basque’ian version of tapas), and appreciating/chuckling at the beauty and obscurity of the artwork at the Guggenheim, I departed Bilbao heading southeast out of the river valley and towards Zarautz. Hopeful to find a used surfboard (Segundo manos tablas de surf) on arrival, and stoked to contrast the heat on the asphalt with the crispness of the Atlantic waters.

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Fixtures outside of the Guggenheim, Bilbao.

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The first few hours of pedaling were an experience. The roads are nice, the people pass wide, but how on earth does one adapt a presta valve to a gas station pump? Twenty minutes later and some duct tape jiggery had me back on route.

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Northern Spain is thought of a hilly, but the national highways which are prefixed with an “N”, (e.g N-634) follow the contours gently and aren’t highly trafficked routes. That being said, it’s not dead flat either. From Bilbao to Zarautz, I clocked about 1,200 metres of gain over 110 KM. Unlike cycling in the Canadian Rockies, where you must cross high mountain passes through a singular 800M+ and multi-hour grind, the most prominent climb on this day lasted about 200 metres, which is much more manageable.

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After cresting the pass out of the Durango mountain valley, I took a short break to admire the path just taken, and reflect on mountain life, and mountain people, back home. An older Spanish gentleman, strutting with his shirt off, was marching down his driveway in my direction. Pedro and I struck up a conversation, which led to a farm tour, apple cider tasting, freshly picked vegetables from the garden, and review of some dining chairs that is father made with phenomenal wood joinery (think no nails or fasteners) over 70 years ago. I’m not sure how the chairs came into the mix, but I think he was excited to have a guest and I was happy to listen.

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Pedro tried to give me more tomatoes, but I explained the weight situation and we settled on five.

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The beaches of Deba; The first look at big blue.

Hours, and many awe-inspiring coastal vistas later, I’d arrived in Zarautz. Completely spent after a nine-hour day of biking in the heat. Unfortunately, the campground in town where I planned to stay was closed. Fortunately, there was another one just a mere fifteen minutes away! Unfortunately, that fifteen minutes of riding was all uphill, 12% grade, sustained. After moments of contemplating a yard sale on the roadside to lighten the load, I gathered my remaining fumes and made it happen.

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The wave machine is on in Zarautz. Time to find a board!

Enter Marc. Marc struck up a conversation when I pulled up next to his site. There was no car present, just his small, olive green tent and a reflective surfboard bag. He’d made the trip out on a night bus from Barcelona (pronounced properly, Bar-tha-lona), followed by a short taxi to the campground from town. He makes this trip pretty often, whenever the forecast for waves looks good, he says. Marc, at 23, runs his own small technology company, able to work from anywhere. Still living frugally and in a minimalist fashion, but Marc is rich in flexibility, and the option to choose where he puts his time. In my eyes, he is a very wealthy man.

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The result of narrow timing between conference call and mid tide

San Sebastian is a hotspot for tourism, with swank hotels, plenty of shopping and pinxto bars as far as the eye can see. We opted to take the train from Zarauth for 2.50 euro, which gets you in to the bustle, and planned on getting out of there once we had our fun.

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Surfing in Zarautz is really good when the waves are on; I stayed until the wind shifted, and then put the wind to my back. Marc and I said our goodbyes – this won’t be the last time he enters the story.

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Going oeste (west). The general plan was to stick to the coastline, avoiding only the most rugged sections of road. Fortunately, there weren’t many.

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Every five to ten kilometers, you’ll roll into something like this.

From Zarauth to Deba, incredible coastal touring, with one big push inland. From there, the road to Lekeitio is a asphalt feat of engineering. it Not a new road, but fluctuates so little in elevation. Most of the valley “dips” are bridged, leaving you high and enjoying a panoramic view of the coastline, with the waves crashing far below.

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Morning light as some spear fishermen get suited

If you keep your eyes open, you’ll notice a few areas suitable for random camping. While it’s nice to have a shower and some basic comforts of a facility, sometimes the solitude and remoteness of being out there on your own can nurture the spirit in a unique way.

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Water. It’s nice, to swim in, to shower, and especially to drink. In my past tours I’ve always struggled with the balancing act of packing water. Carry too much, you’ll burn out from the sheer weight of it, and a very bruised ego when you ride past a fountain while carrying a cumbersome five litres. Carry to little, and you can get very thirsty, very quickly. It’s worth mentioning that Spain seems to have no shortage of public water fountains in every small village or town, usually separated by a maximum of thirty minutes of riding. You don’t need to haul water – I just fill my bottles whenever I’m running low, and bring a collapsible hydration bag to fill when setting up for the night (like THIS).

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The road to Mundaka; more of the same with one beautiful section of inland riding through small villas. Mundaka itself hosts some of the world’s most incredible left-handed breaks, and also a quaint, affordable campground with clean and modern facilities. While the tide and swell conditions weren’t excellent, I still had a few pleasant waves before some evening brainstorming for a new business project.

 

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Winding upwards high above the coastline

Rain. That morning I nearly vaulted out of my bivy bag after few droplets touched  down. What is this!? I was expecting summer conditions, no exceptions, Spain! The momentary droplets ceased, but were definitely foreshadowing for the rain event later that afternoon, which was a spontaneous, zero warning, downpour. By the time I could say “let me take shelter under this branch…”, I’d been soaked, through and through.

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Does this look like it’s something out of Game of Thrones?  Probably because it is! Gaztelugatxeko Doniene, west of Mundaka. Say that three times quick…

 

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Waves painting perpendicular lines to the vertical shale

The sun always seems brighter after the storm passes; it is the exact same, but our appreciation for it changes. Feeling grateful, I cruised through country farmland, enjoying low grade hills and valleys, mooing at cows along the way, on separate and dedicated bike lane for most of the ride to Sopelana.

It’s been over a year since I’ve caught a wave. Twelve months of atrophy to the latent surfing muscles, which seem to be so unique to the activity. Your core can work great holding a plank for minutes on end, but as soon as it’s asked to work in a new way, like arcing the back slightly upward off the surfboard for paddling, it gives out. It takes time to get your head back up, physically and figuratively. Sopelana had great waves, about head height with a fourteen second period, but I felt short in my paddling strength. I watched as the face of many good waves slowly crept beyond my ability to catch them.

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La Playa de Sopelana; stormy evening before clean lines in the morning.

I still have post trauma from cycling through big cities in North America. Usually, you’re entering on a primary or secondary arterial roadway, which might go from two lanes to six in a hurry. Concrete barriers pop-up all around you, traffic gets wild, the shoulder narrows, things can get pretty frightening. If you’ve toured before, you know the feeling. But in Spain, that fear seems to be irrational. Cruising out of Sopelana and through northern Bilbao, you are met with the most incredible inner-city, dedicated bike paths, plus an ultra-cool gondola ride that shaves off an unnecessary ten extra kilometers. Bravo, Bilbao.

Cruising through a city of 350,000+ residents without ever having to contend with an automobile is goood deal!

My father plans to visit me in Santander for a few days as a layover for his business trip. I’ve decided to push my way through a hilly region to Laraedo, specifically a lesser-known surfing beach on the north end called Barria.

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It’s hard to ride past a panaderia without grabbing a baguette or chapatas for snacking later…

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A typical lunch or snack on the road. Jamon (1-2 euro), Brie (2 euro), Aguacade (.50 euro) on fresh bread (1 euro). With the convenience of so many little stores, and the affordability of everything, eating well on the road has never been so easy.

A trend is developing; the campground in Barria closed. Twenty five degree and sunny doesn’t count as Summer to the Spaniards. That’s quite alright though, because I found this instead:

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Keep these gems sparkling! Do not leave trash or any signs of human waste when camping on public property.

This place is a dream. And I’m not the only lucid one, a handful of van lifers are relaxing in the parking lot when I arrive. There’s bathroom facilities, surf showers, and endless miles of beach to walk when the surf isn’t up. The swell has dropped down to a manageable waist height, which has me hooting and hollering throughout the morning. I’m remembering what it is to love surfing, again.

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Exploring nearby caves at low tide.

Three days later, I’m ready to leave Barria and meet Papa in Santander. After a few hours of riding west, there’s a ferry that will take you from Somo directly into downtown, skipping fifteen kilometres of skirting around the city’s peninsula. Somo’s got great waves too, plus a killer donair in the heart of town.

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This is everything I have.

The passion is off the shelf, and the layer of dust removed. The feelings of excitement, the and joy of being in the water again has been fully granted. There’s a groove you can hit on a trip like this, once comfortable with the simplistic routine and enjoying having a bit less. Surfing, attempting a new language, a uncertainly with travel – all become easy, almost natural, when you’re alright with being no good for a little while.

Part 2 coming soon.

Trip Details

Bike Route Taken (Approximate)

Recommended Segment Duration: 8-10 days, including rest.

Perusing Mt. Wooley & Diadem in a Thunder Storm

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It’s summer in the Canadian Rockies. For most, it’s an experience of warm temperatures, long days exploring alpine lakes and scenic vistas, and meeting other happy travelers on extended vacations.

While it would be nice to join the majority on what sounds like a pleasant adventure, I seem to have gotten caught up in a peculiar group of friends, with different ideas of what “fun” is.

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John, talking with his hands.

John suggested we take a stab at two 11,000’ peaks up near the Columbia Icefields during a clearing in his busy schedule, and though I tried to make myself sound busy with important matters to boost my own stature, I eventually relented and admitted that I’m as free as a bird, and we can do whatever he wants.

Mt. Woolley and Mt. Diadem are a unique in the sense that they share the same col, a one-two combo of climbing one, descending the 1000’ back to the col, and then summiting the other. Two tall mountains in one day – the dream of any conceited climber.

The journey began at the 12km pull off, just north of the Columbia Icefields Visitor Centre. Fifty paces, then plunge into thigh-deep, flipping cold glacial waters that is the Sunwapta river. We brought extra shoes to sacrifice to the wet, but John seemed to have forgotten his shirt at home.

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The shallowest, and most glamorous segment

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Crouching people, hidden ciders

Trekking up Woolley Creek for the next 4 hours on the approach to our bivy was scenic and uneventful. The air, the sights, sounds offered by the rushing water were all welcomed – except for the small flock of mosquitoes swarming behind both of us until we reached treeline.

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A handful of bivy sites exist at the upper section of the creek, right before the glacial pond. I think it is safe to say that reservations aren’t required.

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We awoke at 3:30 the following morning. For breakfast; kick ass overnight oats that still managed to be delicious without having a full “night” to soak. We geared up and carried on, with visions of summit fuzzy peaches hitting our tastebuds with a heightened sense of sweet and sour at altitude.

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Que the U2

Thunderstorms have a funny way being somewhere in the forecast, but usually inconsistent in their time of arrival and intensity. Well, hopefully you can read into what happened next.

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A quick change

At first, there was some rain. Then, a lot more rain. Then, the rain came in from the side. At this point, I’m not really sure my $900 gore-tex jacket is really all that waterproof, and just as I think “Well, it can’t get much wo-“, a debilitating crack of lightning struck the peak of Mt. Woolley just a few hundred metres to our west.

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Our pants were less water resistant

DSC07829As we expeditiously made our way down, I couldn’t help but reflect on why we were here in the first place. Was it to summit a mountain, or was it to spend a few days of quality time off the grid, with a balance of solitude and the company of a good friend? Peak optional.

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“We’re going the wrong way!” – John, probably

Back at camp, we retired our wet wares, and enjoyed glints of sunshine obscured by traces of the storm system driving its way east. After a heavy siesta, 9:30 to 3:30, we enjoyed some bocce around the bivy site, making use of various obstacles, pools, and small shrubs to create a sort of high-altitude desolate mini golf. Would definitely play again.

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The rain returned with ferocity. At 3:00 the following morning, it was still going strong with a the calming pitter patter on the nylon fly. With little motivation from either of us to make breakfast and harness-up in the pouring rain, we snoozed on. Sometimes a little push from a friend is good, but I was happy we unspokenly on the same page for this one.

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In many ways this mountaineering trip, which are usually characterized by a shortage of everything by the end – food, sleep, physical stamina, flipped into more into more of a moderate hike with a bunch of unnecessary glacier gear. For me, it serves as a nice reminder: You don’t need to go all out, all the time. We didn’t do anything “epic”, and I still had a blast.

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Venture on!

Sean

Thirty to Three

Life has been good lately and I find myself trying to pin the source. Surely, there must be a source which we can pin, then attempt to emulate, only to fall frustratingly into the trap of deconstructing things that cannot be taken apart.

Can you relate?

Casting rays at dawn. We can see the light but not feel warmth. A little repositioning is all that is needed.

Last year I put thirty-thousand kilometres on my sprinter van in a pretty narrow travel window of about five months. Five times thirty days, divided by thirty thousand…. 200 kilometres a day? If i’m averaging 50 kph, thats four hours each day.

Driving was my part time job.

Off the clock, Zion National Park UT.

You’re thinking, no, Sean, you entitled son-of-a, Driving through national parks and land reserves, taking in epic sunrises, casually strolling to the next destination in a comfortable fashion does not constitute work. Well, you might be right, but allow me to further gripe.

Mother nature has the ultimate daily rituals, Salt Lake City UT

Last fall road tripping stirred a range of emotions, from deeply uncomfortable to pure contentment. The contentment comes and goes easy, but the discomfort much more difficult to shed. I’d arrive at some revered destination; Moab to bike, Red Rocks to climb, Trestles to surf, with expectations so high as I hopped out of my van and suited up, literally vibrating in the process. When something is so built up in your mind, variance from the expected can surface as a negative.

No variance on the 5.fun “Skyline”, Gallatin Canyon MT

Not up to expectations? well, that’s disappointing. And while it feels like you have been slighted by a place, it is hard to make the argument that a salient dot on a map can cause this strife. Disappointment, locational anxiety, coupled with a sensitive ego results is some form of offended feeling. What do insecure people usually do when they get offended?

They run. Queue the long drive…

Golden hour in Jackson, WY. Sublime location, but a lonely night. Zipping in-and-out of town without adequate social time has it’s drawbacks.

Noticing the pattern, and having repeated it myself several times, I can assuredly report back that nothing changes. The unsettled feeling that comes with this form of travel will remain. Neil Gaiman couldn’t have said it better; “Wherever you go, you have to take yourself with you.”

Failing to lean in, explore and resolve this discomfort will only result more of the same. Why do I set these lofty expectations, and why am I so hard on myself when they fall short?

Where hot and cold meet, Yellowstone WY.

Recently I was chatting with a friend about travel by bike. He raised the issue of something we can call “destination hopping”, described as if a trip or journey are discreet points on a map, with nothing to be experienced in between.

He shared that he wouldn’t visit an unfamiliar country again unless it was by bicycle touring. From there, stories emerged of going to place X to see Y and Z, but the most memorable and culturally rich experiences came from the unplanned, impromptu stops in small villages and towns.

Trying to create order from harvest, Southern AB.

And then there’s the pace, one mode resembling something of a slow-iv-drip, compared to an epinephrine injection. After a long driving session, I feel exhausted. Overloaded by visual sensations while the body feels restless, plus the standard disdain for other drivers who may have been following you just a bit too closely.

Now, bike touring isn’t for everyone, but maybe we can take the mindset of one and apply it into the conventional forms of travel?

Sundown in Jackson, WY.

Less moving time, more doing time. There is beauty everywhere. There are things to do, and company to enjoy. This doesn’t require a momentous uproot-and-go approach. The itinerary based, gotta-make-the-most-of-it approach applies blinders to everything you do. Plan to do less and watch the time fill itself.

Simple pleasures of sandy feet in Pacific Beach, CA

Maybe the unsettled feeling comes from the unnatural state of moving thorough so much country at such a rapid pace. As if our subconscious knows it’s wrong to go on some whirlwind drive-a-thon to chase something we saw in a magazine, when pulling off on side road and going for a walk in the woods would provide just as much enrichment to our lives.

Be mindful of the others on that walk…. Yellowstone, WY.

Grinding sucks, period. Through work, an education, a road trip, all forms will result in the query “why am I doing this?”. It has been said, many of times, that what we’re here to experience is a journey, not a destination. I’ve been learning to love the process, even when it is hard, in hopes that the hard moments make one appreciate when times aren’t.

I don’t have the best history of taking my own advice, but these are points I’ve been working hard on. The last two months have been nothing short of an incredible adventure; ample social time with friends new and old, physical challenging with human-powered efforts to reach summits and stashes (of powder, y’know?), and time for self care in all departments. All the these things are what I thought van life to be, but only now am I realizing that they have pretty much nothing to do with the van.

My odometer shows about 3,000 km.

“Puff Daddy” in Rogers Pass, BC. Photo: Phil Tomlinson (www.mountainwagon.com)

I’m sticking with this new motto: less moving, more doing.

S

Come As You Are

About a year ago, I was introduced to a fellow named Patrick who practiced at Yoga Passage in Calgary. Great guy – kind hearted, easy to talk to, always in a state of calmness, and had a background of success in business. With similar ambitions and working to realign some of my own values, I saw him as a great role model and potential mentor. He shared with me one of his current projects, organizing the Sheep Creek Yoga Collective, which ran Karma classes with volunteer teachers (some of the best in the city), and two summer events out on his farm in Turner Valley.

When I left the studio, just prior to quitting professional employment in Calgary, I remember feeling a pretty strong sense of loss. I had made a few connections there that carried on beyond departure, but just the ritual of sitting down in a room full of people with the same intention, either physical or mental development, and gave a strong sense of unity. A time to connect, absolving separateness for a short period of time.

Patrick asked me to lend a hand with the fall equinox event this year. At first, I was nervous. I didn’t know a single person who was attending, I hadn’t been to one before, and here I was going to be telling over 200 guests’ the ins and outs of the event? One theme that has continually appeared in past months travels is that the best experiences often originated from the most uncertainty about how they would go, the law of reverse effort on full display. The more we know about something, the more comfortable we are with it, the greater the expectation, the less room we leave to be surprised, and the less satisfied we become.

I said yes, and arrived at the farm on a crisp Friday morning to help get things set up.

Just below freezing

We stoked fires, set up and decorated the various tents on the property. One hosting the kitchen and communal eating area, another on a forested plateau above the property. Stringing lights above, hanging nepalese flags and other sightly objects on the wall, creating shrines that carried significance to all. Maybe not in an religious sense, but simply serving as a reminder to simply be. 

Warming the yoga tent

The afternoon came, and so did our guests.

Eddie lending a hand with the arrivals

Arriving at the farm, you are encouraged to find yourself at home for the weekend. There is ample room to pitch a tent, whether gathered close in with your neighbours, or in a more remote forested or river-fronting area for those seeking solitude. Have a camper or small trailer? Great. Lots of level ground, as near or as far away from the festivities as you’d like to be. It’s basically a big campground, little trails deeking in and out of the woods, open fields, a river running through. Everything to make one feel like a big kid again; a venue to bring us back to a time before certain social conditions onset.

Need directions? Illustration courtesy of Nicole (@nicthehappyyogi)

Settle in, get registered, and make some new friends. In the barn, Brooke (@ombwellness) started the weekend off with an upbeat flow class to bring the Friday crew into the weekend, winding down the mind and gearing the body up.

The Barn

Twenty classes and sessions run over the weekend, lunch and dinner is catered. Everything is optional, but you must try the curry. Opt in to what speaks to you, there is something for everyone. But be warned, you might get caught up diving deep into conversation, or lost (perhaps found is the right word) in the woods. Being somewhere at a certain time and place has great economic and social value, but give yourself the chance to let it slide here.

After dinner, Jenelle opened the evening with a Kirtan performance. I’d never sat down in a room with complete strangers and sang before. Didn’t know what the words meant, and was probably off tone for most of it. Did it matter?

It wasn’t really about hitting the notes like they do on American Idol. Here there was no judgment of the sounds you make. So, just go on ahead make some.

Napping is totally acceptable, too.

Wesley followed. He shared is own story prior to the guided mediation and I couldn’t help but draw parallels between similar personal challenges. It wasn’t just me, others in the room let out the final nodes of tension on this note with a big sigh. The drumming began; a vibrational orchestra. The kick of the drum coming from the ground-up, and higher notes rippling through the air.

Beasts entered the room, or so it sounded. With circular breath and his didgeridoo, Wesley circled, casting tones off the walls of the barn. They were dark, yet beautiful. They were sounds of war, battlefield preparations. But with no enemy in sight, where do we turn? Inwards? Creations of the mind can be haunting, but with little representation in the real world, maybe there isn’t much to be afraid of.

Saturday morning came early. Short on rest, but full of energy, the wood stoves were fired, and the sun slowly rose behind overcast skies.

Warmth

Patrick and Cynthia opened with a warm welcome. How they maintain such a calm presence with so much happening behind the scenes is really beyond me. They are both service oriented folk and have worked tirelessly up to this point, but I think they fill their own cup here, too.

Caryn (@caryn.kilback) followed with meditation in the barn, full house. We our intentions for the day ahead.

Greetings & morning meditation.

Acceptance is a reoccurring theme as of late. Accepting of the self, of those you meet, removing the distance between entities. I spent the morning welcoming, and accepting, new arrivals to the farm. I was fortunate enough to catch up with Caryn between arrivals, and we ended up chatting at length. Her story and comfort with being open about her past, exposing vulnerability, was really refreshing to experience. Shielding our vulnerabilities is something I think we can all relate to.

In the afternoon, the sun emerged and the upper yoga tent completely lit up.

When you meet Denis, you quickly recognize that he sees things a little bit differently. I’ve never seen someone so excited about chocolate. “Wow!” he continued to exclaim, as if he himself was hearing the facts presented for the first time.

Denis

Rightly so, this stuff wasn’t just a nice additive to a wholesome diet, it’s as lifeblood. We’re not talking a nestle chocolate bar, Denis deals in pure cacao paste ground from the bean. And as he suggested, you can feel the energy it offers as the array of rich nutrients enter the bloodstream. Remedy? Drug? Why not both.

Post-cacao Autumn

Caryn introduced us Vedic meditation, which is her to study of focus. From what I understand, traditional meditation is all about a meditation object; focusing on the the breath, counting, a visual object such as a frame, etc.

Caryn opening with instruction

Her practice uses a prescribed mantra as a guide and lets you sit in a much more relaxed state. Forget the full lotus, straight back, finger to thumb posturing, and feel free to rest against the wall – ignoring those queue of guilt that, without perfect posture, you might be doing it ‘wrong’.

Eddie playing teachers’ assistant

Dinner. The best indian food, from the cheeriest of people, in an incredible atmosphere. You can’t buy this stuff in the city, and if you could, they still wouldn’t let you sit on the floor.

Community tent

Temperatures dropping

At sunset, Cesar led us on a walk down to the sheep river for a ceremony. We celebrated the ground beneath our feet, the water down the river, the sky in the air, and the fire lit before us. We acknowledge the East, the West, South and North. The directions we come from, the places we will go. It is easy to forget what lies beneath concrete and asphalt, but we are never not in nature.

Tossing stones, letting go.

Over seventy drums and handheld instruments arrived and were hauled into the barn and we, the players, trickled in. The kids, the adults, found something for them, and we started to play. We played for an hour, or was it two? It is easy to get lost in something so simple, the rhythm as an undistinguishable guide. You stop thinking about hitting the drum, and you start feeling how the drum is being hit.

The sound bath began when a dozen of us took to the ground, lying on our backs, in the centre of the barn, the centre of the sound, and the focus of our collective energies.

I picked up a handheld drum, and like forty others, began to strike while circling our friends on the floor. We cast our sound, moving from foot to chest, and back to the toes, sending pressure and vibration throughout the body in a wave-like fashion.

Human touch, like a drum, is powerful force. From the acoustic height, we set down our drums, and gathered around the human pinwheel. Gently resting hands on hands, on legs, on temples, we embraced our friends and sent them whatever it is we felt they needed.

Reversing roles, I was part of the new group who took the floor; an opportunity to receive what is given. Shutting the eyes, the other sensations are enhanced. Air pressure changes along your body, the dynamic qualities of percussion, the beat echoing off the barn walls. The lack of sound between strikes. You hear, and feel, everything. “I felt completely loved.” one of the participants shared with me after the session.

A few of us gathered around the fire as temperatures dropped, resting states came shortly after.

Clear skies greeted the early morning so I snuck away from my volunteer responsibilities to take in the sunrise over Turner Valley.

Coyotes sang in the near distance. A thousand black crows flew east, motives unknown. Harvest is a time to reflect on the bounty of food available to us, but this event has revealed gratitude on so many different levels.

Grateful for (new) friends and family, for the earth beneath our feet, for the seasons that remind us of the impermanence of things. For the food grown far away, from recipes transcending generations, prepared by those within arms reach. For people meeting eye to eye, open to alternatives, unstuck in opinions, clear of judgement.

We filled the barn for the final practice. Emily brought the harp, and Catherine served as our guide. The live performance was, well, alive.

Kyle closed the circle in the late morning. He told us a story of one of his inspirators; a bold mountain climber dealing with adversity on Mt. Everest. That mountain is not one of my goals, but I can tell Kyle and I will be bonding over ascents in the near future.

Kyle closing,

We packed up, followed by alternating sits in the sauna and the river. A great time to reflect on the weekend with those who put so forward so much of their own resources. I speak for those organizers, the participants you’ll meet, and myself, when I say please consider the next event.

Having some idea and expectation about what the weekend might hold, I can safely say it was so much more than I imagined. This statement was repeated by so many others over our short time together. I’ve tried to put the feelings and emotions into words, but they fall short on capturing the experience as a whole. It is a very special state where you can look someone in the eye, and really see them.

Next year, clear the calendar on summer solstice. Bring yourself, loved one(s), and come as you are.

Please visit www.sheepcreekyoga.com for details on current initiatives and events.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything is ‘Lit’

Summer 2017 – So hot right now. Or maybe its all ‘Lit’, that word is trending… right?

In the most literal sense, it’s lit. Everything on fire and it’s making it hard to breathe.

Descending into the Hermit valley, the day starting off sunny with blue skies 

We were hiking/contemplating bathroom-inducing mountain ascents in Rogers Pass when the smoke rolled in mid-July.  They say to make the most of what you have, where you are. But being completely mobile and preferring to not inhale copious amounts of smoke during high output activities, I decided to head west to try to escape it.

Unfortunately, the reprieve of the west coast didn’t last long. Winds stagnated and fires erupting just north of Pemberton left the entire whistler valley socked in. You could barely see the Chief from downtown Squamish.

Sitting in the adventure centre, examining the smoke map, contemplating which direction to go. Far North, or South? It just so happened that the highway was closed in the northerly direction, due to fires. No opportunity for indecision here… hit the road, Jack!

Eyes wide at the idea of some fresh air, I sent for the border. The plan? not really sure. Head east through Washington’s north cascades park for starters, and drive until the smoke clears…

While no presence of moisture was detected at the time… this lush rainforest proved that rain could happen.

“Welcome to the American Alps”, greets the sign as you entered the national park. I chuckled a little bit… mountaineering in Washington? Come onnn. That’s some kind of tourist catch phrase, yeah?

Nope, you’re wrong. As I later learned, Washington has every type of mountain activity spanning each of the seasons. World class Trad, sport, crack climbing. Skiing, so much skiing. Endless trails to run, hike, and bike, including stunning sections of the PCT. Aye, this is a place I will have to revisit, many times.

About an hour or two into my drive, the sky started to open up. Good god, I’ve never missed the blue sky so much. It was time to stretch the legs and get some of that clean air in the lungs – Heather & Maple pass loop offered a great opportunity to do so.

The alpine loop of 12km, consistent grade all the way up and down, makes for a great trail run. Add an extra 2km for a quick dip in the lake on the way back to the car

Feeling grounded and relaxed, I set off to a little town of Mazama, specifically the Mazama Store, which had been recommended to me by a wonderful father/daughter duo on the trail. And they were on point, talk about a cool little spot to stop, grab a beer or coffee, and stay awhile in their outdoor picnic area. Campground vibes and friendly people enjoying their R&R after a day’s adventures in the mountains – my kind of place.

Exiting North Cascades Ntnl. Park enroute to Mazama… what a drive.

Evening came shortly thereafter and the night was spent at a great little pullout along the river. What comes after? Well, Morning. But the first moments of consciousness indicated that it was not going to be a very pleasant one. My throat felt seared, and the eyes were begging to return to their shut state. As the situation sunk, in the heart sank, too. Smoke was thicker than i’ve ever seen due to more fires erupting on the east side of the Cascades… it was time to hit the road, A/C & Recirc enabled.

Driving through Winthrop, Twisp, I felt hurried. Which was exactly the opposite thing I was trying to achieve: Travel without deadlines or urgency. Apparently, there was epic ridgeline mountain biking to be had all along the east sides of the Cascades, but all I was doing was periodically checking my speedometer. Fifty five? Add half, and an extra ten. It didn’t come with imperial measurements – Mercedes quiet revolt against the Trump administration.

Highways closed, travel advisory signs lit up at each major junction, fire operations set up in empty fields just outside of very small towns, firefighters outnumbering the populous itself.

Traces over the prairie east of Leavenworth, but significantly better than the situation up north

I had been encouraged to check out the Enchantments, a revered alpine hike in the area. But the permit waitlist for this 28 kilometre (2,000 vertical metre) three day hike was about a year. What happens when impatience and ambition meet? You run it in a day. The hard way. Just, because.

A gateway of glass

Do yourself a favour and run the loop in the counter-clockwise direction. You’ll enjoy getting the bulk of the elevation gain (Asgard pass) out of the way fairly early in the day, and finish up with a beautiful full-stride finish towards [TK:Sun Valley], about 7km of gentle descent to bring you back to the parking lot. There is a net difference between the two lots of about 400 metres. My logic was that elevation gain is easier on the joints than elevation loss, which I still believe, but the nature of the trail, especially the Asgard section, should make this a one way trek. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

Tranquil meadow before heading down Aasgard

 

Doesn’t the ridgeline resemble a stock market crash?

Post swim and stretch session on the Icicle river, it was time to leave the ol’ bavarianesque tourist trap behind (Leavenworth). Tonights goal was to get just outside of town and find a nice forestry service pullout to spend the evening. Within 90 minutes of heading south on the 97… I was parked and fast asleep.

Blue. Sky.

Emerging from the foothills and into the prairie, the situation began to improve. Nearly a full month had passed with some level of smoke exposure. And today would be the first day (of several) with nothing obstructing the heavens but clouds.

The road continued south towards the Columbia River Gorge. The slower, more scenic route along the north side complimented my lack of urgency in “getting somewhere” today. Approaching White Salmon/Hood River, trails begin to populate the region, and I couldn’t help myself to not get the bike out and spin the legs for a while – great recovery to yesterdays greatly strenuous mountain adventure.

Two words: beautifully fun. With Mt. Hood in the background, windswept grass in the fore, and handfuls of waterborne kiters somewhere in the middle, the Syncline trails offer copious amounts of type 1 fun. Easy, scenic climb, and a good variety of ways to get down. First up, “Hidden” starts with a fast flowy section, switchbacking the grassy hills of the gorge, and then mixes it up with some technical, steep, rocky sections. Beautiful to start, Fuuuun at the finish. Round two, the name “Little Moab” gives unsubtle suggestion to this fun ridgeline descent with a good mix of dirt and rock, drops and ride arounds, to be taken as fast or as slow as you’d like.

Wrapping up the ride, a buddy had suggested that there is some legendary forestry sides in the Mt Hood region, and with hunger building and daylight slowly fading away, I set off, and an hour later…

It was a rad night. Cooking up a storm, Vegan Queso & Raspberry crumble in the oven, while being persistently distracted by what lies beyond the tinted glass and sheet metal. Am I really here right now? You can… just drive up? Shouldn’t an experience like this cost several thousand dollars per night? Would anyone have a problem with me living in this exact spot for 6 months of the year?

The follow morning was a crisp eight degrees and the perfect temperature to grind out Surveyors Ridge loop: a 40 km ridge ride with about 1800m of vertical climbing. While the trail itself isn’t particularly challenging, but there are some exciting sections and awe inspiring views as you continuously pop in and out of the trees.

Heading south – high on fresh air, low on electrolytes, my muscles ached. It was a good time to be getting some rest, accommodated by the hospitality of some great friends in Bend, OR.

Evening paddle down the deschutes river

My host, Dakota, suggested we check out the Mackenzie River Trail, just west of Bend, along with the Olallie-O’leary; another epic ridge traverse. We had fun on the Mackenzie – full of pizza and short on daylight, we rode, and then sketchily made our way back to the trailhead in the pitch dark.

The traverse was a little less simple…

As we approached the forestry road turnoff, a roadblock appeared. “The roads closed due to fires nearby” The man said. Dakota and I exchange some glances, “how about we go contemplate our plans over here?”, moving out of out of earshot of our new friend…

Now we’re adventuring.

We had the same idea. Start trekking through the bush and ride it anyways. We felt (mostly) sure that the fires were well beyond our riding destination, plus who likes to obey authority?

Coast is… not really clear.

Realizing that none of my muscles had fully recovered from the previous week of going hard, I wasn’t having a great time. It was a long day, with only my exceedingly fit and speedy compatriot to compare myself to. Comparing between avocados for ripeness at the store is one thing… but comparing yourself to other people is never good!

The beautiful, arduous ascent.

 

Still, some stoke was had!

On our return trip to Bend, the fire situation started to get real. As the sun lowered, the smoke rose. Sisters, the town just northwest of Bend, would be later evacuated due to the increasing danger in the area.

Stand on roof, take pictures, make friends…

A few restful days passed. Exploring Bend and gaining a better sense of the community. Could this be a place to call home in the future? Deep thinking required on that point. We watched the eclipse from a park just west of Redmond, a pretty incredible feat. People travelling from all of the world, booked years in advance at great expense. How lucky was I to be here?

 

I gave it my full attention instead of fiddling with a camera and hoped National Geographic would deliver. They did.

With the main event passed, it was time to carry on. Unfortunately, the fires in the region had worsened and smoke became thicker and thicker, and the notion of mountain biking Southern Oregon and Northern California became less and less appealing. It was time to change things up and head for the coast.

There is a stark contrast between flowing down a mountain on a bike, and dropping down the face of a wave. Rubber and centrifugal inertia, dust and smoke, high output, demanding of endurance. The cold ocean, seemingly mystic force of waves pushing vertically, idle period between sets, upper body fluidity – all so refreshing.

Driving on hard sand, warm sunshine, quaint beachfront towns – the journey up the 101 was a delight. Favourite surfing destination was definitely the bay at Oswald state park, a nicely sheltered spot, often delivering a nice offshore breeze. Ecola state park hosts an incredible viewpoint of Cannon beach, and the more desolate ocean-going rocks to the North. I ventured out one evening to capture the sunset, but enjoyed much more…

 

The spot

The miles of coastal life slowly ticked away as I continued north. Westerly winds picked up and pushed much of the smoke further inland and created an enticing opportunity – Visit Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainer on the journey to the border.

Mt. St. Helens

As it turns out, you can drive nearly next to the crater (from the north) on a paved road. If theres one thing that has struck me on this trip is the ease of access into, what otherwise would be backcountry, beautiful places in the United States. With parking front row at Windy Ridge, the show began…

I’ve never quite seen stars like this before. The lights of Portland behind St Helens giving it a sort of ambient glow, not bright enough to take away from the stars, but present enough to add a sense of locality. Calmness amongst a commercial wonder.

Stuart Creek/Ape Canyon offer an intermediate bike loop that skirts the east side of St. Helens, a fun XC ride, but with the location making it one to remember. Memory won’t shake on this one though, due to the events to come…

Ape Canyon

As the kilometres racked up and the slow grind of a climb came to an end, a busy intersection appeared, a bottleneck. Where the trail narrows, the exposure becomes significant – a seventy degree sandy scree chute bumped with loose rock.

The trio ahead of me spun their pedals, when the woman at the front of the pack came to a stall.

She fell.

My heart sank as I glimpsed her riding jersey just beyond the crest, a point where you might be able to arrest yourself – I watched her accelerate.

Dropping the bike, gaining a view from the flank. I was so relieved to see her perched. about twenty feet down, bracing arms and legs on two rocks where the chute narrows. Right above where it it goes from a chute to a cliff, beyond which point rescue would not have helped.

We got her out, but not before each new bystander was introduced to the situation. Heroic at heart and at the eyes, each one eager go down and save the woman, oblivious to the surrounding scree and rock to be sent down on the victim.

After some calm, careful instruction, a bit of parachute cord, and patience, she was fine aside from a few medium sized rocks to the helmet, scrapes and what would become bruises.

I finished the ride.. with caution.

Exposure. Photo: outdoorproject.com

Packing up the car, I couldn’t help but notice the comings and goings at the end of the road. Five cars in the morning turned to fifty. People sitting in idling, air conditioned cars. Getting out and taking three minutes to glance around – a seemingly unfair exchange with the roundtrip drive being three hours. Why would you do that to yourself? It’s Saturday at one in the afternoon. Where else do you really need to be?

Collecting myself, I continued on. A friend suggested that the Sunrise entrance to Rainer offered a spectacular perspective of the mountain. I think the quality of your friends could be determined by the quality of their recommendations… Aliza makes the the great category.

Having captured the beauty of a day ending at St. Helens, I thought it would be great to experience the opposite at Rainer.

4:30 AM came quickly, and shortly thereafter I ventured off to the Second Burrows, a six mile round-trip hike to the west. The closest you can get to Mt. Rainer without actually being on it.

Gooooood morning!

Wanting to test my fear of crowds, Seattle came next. Days of rest, exploring, tasting new cuisine (Turkish food is amazing). It feels great to be back in the city as an observer, without the stresses a participant.

It seems fitting that at the end of the tour I discovered all the other amazing destinations and adventures to be had in Washington. A really wonderful guy named Chris put me up at his place in Bellingham and shared a few snippets from his last twenty years of being a resident – feeling no urge to go anywhere else. “You have everything here” He remarked, as he rattled of the various outdoor pursuits like ingredients from a nutritionally charge smoothie. The trails in Bellingham were great and well worth a revisit… and when imagining the summer/winter combo, maybe even to relocate!

As I reflect on this short journey, a few themes develop:

  • Smoke sucks, but everything is impermanent. The situation was totally fine in Squamish when I started running into issues in Oregon, expecting a better situation can lead to dissapointment.
  • Feelings often shouldn’t drive action. Everyone ‘jumping to action’ could have ended badly with the mountain biking incident. Step back and use that rational processing power before taking action.
  • Where you are is often right where you need to be. This seems contradictory with travel, but let me explain. So many times I found myself saying “I’ll stretch when I get to the right spot”, “I’ll make some supper when I have a nice view.”, “I’ll get my book out and read when find a nice place to do so”. Finding myself tight, hungry, and intellectually unstimulated – I started realizing that the where you were mattered less and less, especially when your attention is should be focused on the current task (Yoga, Cooking, Reading etc). Keep in mind that Van life, or any form of long term travel, requires an adjustment period.
  • Rest is an important part of the training program. I biked too much. I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to ride so much, or thought that it could hurt you. Like all things… some moderation is necessary.

You should definitely go to Washington and Oregon (and wherever else you’re longing), budget a little more time than you think you need, and try to see it all for the first time… like you’d never come across this article 😉

Thank you for being here.

 

Mosquitoes and Awe: Bugaboo Special

Bugaboo provincial park is nestled in the purcell mountains of British Columbia, west of the hamlet of Brisco, about 3.5 hours from Calgary or 7 hours from Vancouver. Nestled is a good way of describing it, because you’d never know the world class granite existed just passing on the highway.

I suggested to Brandon a few weeks ago that we check out this alpine climbing destination. “The Bugs’ are out in July”, he says.

A week later –

“Bugaboos this weekend?”

Now i’m confused.

We met late Friday night in front of Radium – the crew drove 3.5 hours from Calgary to rendezvous. The questionable van would no longer be lingering next to the towns’ children park, finally putting the neighbourhood at ease.

The crew, Brandon, Maple, Xavier. Left to right.

A short jaunt north to the hamlet of Brisco, and then some 50km west on some logging roads, you’ll arrive at a trailhead. But if you’re poor planners like us, somewhere between Brisco and the trailhead you might have to camp. Don’t mind the thousand blood hungry mosquitos – get that tent set up quickly and rest the eyes. You’ll need them tomorrow for the mind-blowing visuals.

In the morning, amongst swarms of black flies and mosquitos, we started the 5.5km 800M elevation trek to Applebee dome campground. Maple had bummed one of her ankles and was relying pretty heavily on poles. She, and her ankle, are total champs.

Pictured in the background is the chicken wire burrito-wrap to be performed on your vehicle – the porcupines really like to chew on rubber.

The majority of the morning was rather unpleasant. It was hot and humid, the bugs were relentless, and our packs were heavy as hell. Long sections of the climb were spent in the forest, patiently counting our steps until the next gully, which would welcome us with a breeze of fresh glacial air.

Brandon toting a 65lb pack up the valley. ‘Fast and Light’ is out – ‘Ultra Heavy’ is in.

 

Feeling a sense of progress as we approach the Cain Hut. Snowpatch spire resting behind.

 

If possible, stay in the hut. Seriously. Go right now and see if reservations are available . It hardly qualifies as a hut – with hot running water and a hydroelectric generation system, comfortable sleeping arrangements and a sizeable common area for dining, lounging, and connecting with others. I don’t think you could have a more spectacular view from the dinner table.

Not surprisingly, the Cain hut was practically fully booked for the summer. What ever happened to the Bugs’ being out, Brandon?

A quick recap of the guide book and much needed break from the blood suckers outside. You get a sense of the view out of the dining area windows, but I encourage that you need to see it yourself.

Applebee, which currently has unlimited tenting capacity (under review by BC Parks in 2017) is still a few hundred metres above the hut, which works to your advantage by putting you closer to the climbing objectives… but at the mercy of the elements.

The final push to Applebee. Not visible are the mosquitos, which we expected to fade away at treeline. That makes sense right? Expectations suck, and mosquitos continued to suck (literally).

Relieved from the weight of our packs, we set up camp and took in the sights for the balance of the evening.

Eastpost spire, catching rays.

 

Red moon rising

 

Lights out.

After an enduring struggle to keep my air mattress inflated through the night, alarms sounded at 5:00 for a semi-alpine start. We read that pigeon spire should take about seven to nine hours depending on group proficiency, so we gave ourselves twelve.

Volcanic sunrise, looking back towards Applebee.

Within an hour, we had reached the start of the Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col (B-S Col). It is known dangerous rockfall, and ever inclining finale, which I’d estimate is probably 60-65 degrees. We remained unroped for this, as the bergshrund appeared to be well bridged by snow and several other groups had tested its integrity before us.

Maple on her final steps up to the Col. Things are steeper than they appear.

After a quick snack break, and trial of the most spectacular portable toilet I’ve ever seen (five star view, but bring your own TP), we roped up and began our glacier traverse. Very simple terrain, as we had expected. There was one crevasse opening as you near Pigeon Spire, but very obvious and easily avoidable.

The shadows of Snowpatch spire

 

The road ahead

 

Xavier channeling his inner Borat.

 

No words…

Crampons off, shoes on. The west ridge of the Spire was looking very manageable, but with just a titch of exposure off the north side… mind your step!

 

Brandon leading the pack, Bugaboo Spire painting the backdrop

We began scrambling the first few hundred meters unroped – easy peasy.

 

Between the two big sections of 5.nil climbing, there is one cruxy move. Not advanced by any means, but a slip could result in a very long, contemplative fall. Brandon proceeded to “have a look” (solo it), and suggested that we might want to tie in. I like suggestions!

Tying knots, magestically

 

 

Continuing after the crux, without a rope, to the first peak.

The simple scramble section came to an end as we crested over the first peak, a slabby descent to the first technical climbing section. It looks much steeper than it actually is, though.

We roped up in teams of two and began simul-climbing, Maple placing gear, maintaining 1-2 pieces between us, with myself cleaning up as we progressed along. Xavier managed to capture a slightly augmented photo of the first few steps, increasing the pitch of the backdrop and giving me a false sense of badassery.

There is one section of elevated exposure, in which the guidebook recommends going “au cheval” style. Still, a very simple section of ridgewalk, but be mindful of the occasional wind gust and try to not get distracted by the view.

We arrived at the second peak just past our turnaround timed, noting developments in the weather system headed our way. We called it – high fived – and proceed to take advantage of the incredible backdrop with ample photos.

Retracing our steps down, the down climbing was easy.

Maple cresting the ridge walk. Peak lighting of the day, no pun intended.

 

Busy being distracted the artsy nature of this rock and rope

 

Glacial, dude.

Arriving at the first crux, we decided to hitch a rappel on some cordage left behind. One 60M rope brought us down to simple slab down-climbing that we had previously cruised up.

 

A walk in the park – Maple struts. Little did she know, her rappel resulted in the rope wedging deep into a crack, making Xavier’s descent very difficult. We learned many inappropriate french words.

Back to the boots, we snacked, crampon’ed up, and began the trudge to our mosquito infested home for the night. Oh, and the lighting got really good.

 

 

 

Two rap sections, one 30M and one 60M (look for rings on the way up), and 200 metres of pacing, we had descended the B-S Col.

All in all, the day ran about 16 hours. Down climbing took more time than anticipated, due to traffic, and placing a little extra gear to ebb on the side of caution. It could have been worse, though, like Brandon and Maple’s 18 hour day. She didn’t notice her axe missing until we neared camp – found later near the bottom of the Col. In team spirit, dinner was waiting for them on return.

We met two really great climbers from Kelowna on our trip, Nick & Tom. Both high spirited guys, having just accomplished what they set out to achieve that day. It was time for them to pack the bags when I captured this photo, prepping for the journey home early the next morning.

Tragically, the following weekend Tom perished on Mt. Sir Donald in Rogers Pass, BC. It was a very somber day when the news struck. Having had only brief interactions, we can only imagine how those close to him were affected by the loss.

Stay safe out there.