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Gerry Feehan

Heavenly Valhalla by Gerry Feehan

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In Norse mythology, Valhalla is the place where slain warriors dwell under the leadership of god Odin. The einherjar blissfully hang out in the netherworld, patiently awaiting the arrival of Doomsday. Not my idea of a fun place to winter. Luckily, the Valhalla we visited last March, a quaint mountain lodge tucked away in BC’s Selkirk Mountains, is rather less bleak—and a lot more heavenly. This was our first destination-vacation in over a year and we were giddy with excitement—with a touch of trepidation thrown in. A physically demanding three day ski touring adventure was on tap. From our home base in Kimberley we enjoyed the leisurely drive—and a peaceful ferry ride across Kootenay Lake—to New Denver on Slocan Lake where we checked into the hospitable and very unique Adventure Domes cottages.

adventuredomes.ca

In the morning, at our designated pick-up spot on the north end of Slocan, the March snow had deteriorated into that ugly freeze-thaw meringue typical of a strengthening spring sun. Hmmm, how would the skiing be? While we helped load gear into the snowcat, I wondered out loud if it were wise that we’d chosen a slot so late in the season. ‘Ha’, laughed the driver, ‘you’ll find it a little different 1000 meters up the mountain.’ And indeed, one very steep hour later, we emerged into deep soft snowy white winter. Heavenly Valhalla.

That Valhalla Mountain Touring (vmt.ca) was even operating is a testament to the perseverance of owner Jasmin Caton — and the dedication of the whole Valhalla staff, given the stringent conditions wrought by this rotten pandemic.

Every guided backcountry ski tour begins with terrain orientation, where the guests gather outside in the snow to practice avalanche training, mountain rescue techniques and the use of a transceiver beacon to rescue a dummy. We had packed all the necessary gear, but some were borrowed—and apparently outdated. Dan, our lead guide, politely asked me to hand over the ancient probe which I was ineptly attempting to assemble. ‘This is a good example of something not to use when attempting to locate a submerged body; probably more suitable for British mountaineering in low snow-pack.’ I nodded but failed to mention that I had indeed obtained the feeble tool from a British acquaintance who had proudly lauded its efficacy.

Lunch.

In her 10 years of backcountry ski guiding, Jasmin has never had a serious accident to contend with. (On the Kimberley ski hill the day before we left, we watched the ski patrol haul down three stretchers.) Jasmin jokingly complained that she’d never had to use the assortment of fancy gear she hauled up the mountain every day. That would change during our stay.

After orientation we tucked back into the cozy lodge and, as eyeglasses de-fogged, a feast of appetizers appeared, courtesy of chef Annie. These treats did not remain in view long. All 9 guests quickly gobbled up the delectables, storing up calories in anticipation of the weight-loss program which would commence in the morning: climbing 1500 meters up a snowy mountain for three straight days.

My wife Florence and I are relative newbies to ski touring and, although we had put in a respectable amount of pre-arrival training, we were pooped by the end of day one. So after another remarkable meal—Annie’s signature lamb-chops—it was early to bed, where we slept the sleep of the dead.

I assume you’re familiar with the adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Well, the maxim certainly applies to ski-touring. I pride myself (erroneously as is now apparent) on being in pretty good shape for my vintage. As we gathered gear, donned equipment and shot the breeze in the breezeway on day one, I noted the advanced age of some of my fellow guests and, inwardly smirking, thought, ‘I hope that old gal doesn’t hold us all up.’ And… no she did not. As it turns out, neither did I. Utterly exhausted, I had begged off the last climb of the day and trudged morosely back to the lodge, watching my geriatric friend tirelessly scurry uphill for another run down the pow.

Day two dawned with a mess of fresh snow. We devoured breakfast, packed our pre-made lunches, strapped on skins and strode out across frozen Shannon Lake. As we exited the lake and began a steep ascent to the mountain summit a kilometer above us, Dan stopped, shushed us all and steered off the intended track. A huge yellow-white mountain goat was demanding the right-of-way. The big billy regarded us for a moment, then diverted directly uphill, striding tirelessly through the deep untouched powder. We watched mouths agape as the mighty creature slowly became a speck far up mountain.

At every hard-earned turn, the view is spectacular.

It was toward the end of day three—our last—when Dan’s radio crackled an urgent message. Someone in the group below had been hurt. We were only a few hundred meters from the notch where we were to perform our final transition: strip off skins, buckle boots, set heels, point skis downhill, hoot with pleasure.

Dan instructed us to stop immediately, huddle up and prepare to descend. ‘Stick together and ski carefully,’ he said, ‘the last thing we need now is another problem.’ 20 minutes later we came upon the other crew. Jasmin’s mother Lynda had had a nasty spill. Her leg was badly broken. Jasmin had assembled her mom’s skis into a makeshift toboggan, used poles as a splint, wrapped her in the insulating warmth of some spare coats and hauled the bundle up to an access spot where a VMT snowmobile and sled met us.

Jasmin jumped aboard and disappeared down the bumpy logging road to rendezvous with an ambulance on the highway far below. The lodge is isolated from the world. There is no margin for error when an emergency arises. The professionalism and expert training demonstrated by the whole VMT team in this serious situation was remarkable.

Later that evening, as we finished dinner and reposed by the roaring fire, Jasmin stepped into the lodge to reassure us that her mom was doing fine. She provided an update on the weather and outlined the plan for the following day. She smiled, non-plussed and said, ‘Well, at least I finally got to use all that stuff I pack.’ Then she ducked out the door. Her two-year-old twins, Spruce and Indigo, were waiting in the staff quarters, ready to spend some quality time with their mom. Just another amazing day in Valhalla.

Jasmin enjoys a well-deserved break.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

The Oregon Coast by Gerry Feehan

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Gerry Feehan

A glorious afternoon among the vineyards by Gerry Feehan

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A glorious afternoon among the vineyards

One of the keys to enjoyable travel — and recovery from a seven-hour jet-lag hangover — is to give oneself time to acclimate. And what better place to do that than in the City of Lights?

On tap was a week-long bike ‘n barge in southwest France. But rather than simply change planes at Charles De Gaulle airport and continue on to Bordeaux, we deplaned, shuttled into the French capital and gayly strolled the streets of Paris for a couple of days.

Fun in the streets of gay Paris

Paris, like many of the world’s great cities, is a pleasure to walk. From our hotel in the Latin Quarter, it was an easy saunter along the left bank of the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. En route, we passed two of the world’s great museums, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. Famished after a half-hour en pied, we stopped at a quiet brasserie for escargot and steak tartare. Fun fact: raw beef is best washed down with a heaping helping of Pernod. After lunch we wandered on and were soon gazing up at the Arc de Triomphe and the crazy traffic on the Champs-Elysees. On the return traipse we followed the river’s course to Notre Dame Cathedral where we climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the church’s wooden bell tower for the magnifique view of Paris. We were amongst the last to do so. A couple of months later, the 800- year-old edifice was gutted by fire.

After our relaxing stay in La Cité, we boarded the train at Gare Montparnasse, well-rested and physically and mentally prepared for the formidable task ahead: seven laid-back days of pedalling through the serene back roads of southwest France, coupled with the burden of sampling fine Bordeaux wines.

The trip from Paris to Bordeaux is over 500km, but when travelling by rail at over 300km/h, the journey is over in a flash. At the station in Bordeaux we transferred for the short run into Libourne, a sleepy little village on the Dordogne River, where we boarded our vessel, the aptly named MS Bordeaux. The ship was originally commissioned in the 1920s as a Rhinetuger, hauling heavy burdens on the Rhine River. The old gal went through a number of iterations over the decades before being converted into a passenger vessel. The boat has 49 cabins, but there were only 23 guests, so we became friends with everyone on board — crew and clientele alike.

It was a cozy, intimate experience.

On the weeklong voyage, we drifted slowly down the Dordogne toward the Bay of Biscay. When we reached the wide Gironde estuary we made a u-turn and rode the incoming tide up the Garonne River to Castets-en-Dorthe where we were to disembark. It was late fall, the ship’s last sailing of the season. The weather was ideal. The autumn hues of southern France were on full display.

Each morning, after a fine petit dejeuner, we stuffed our panniers with a picnic lunch of oven-fresh baguettes, pate, brie, fruit — and a world of pastries. Then we’d roll down the gangplank and hit the bucolic road. Each route was unique and scenic.

A GPS mounted to the handlebars kept us on track, ensuring we didn’t turn a la gauche when we should have gone a la droit.

We pedalled past orchards of ripening grapes, waving at the friendly vendangeurs hand-picking the last sweet remains of the year’s vintage. Often the route led us up what looked like a private lane, a path we’d never have taken had not the GPS assured us we were on course. We’d stop and gawk at some enormous ancient stone Château before continuing down the cobbled way.

Fall is hunting season

Despite the season, many of the Châteaux were open for tastings, invariably hosted by a friendly, effusive, fifth-generation proprietor, happy to share the family cellar with a group of foreign geeks in cycling shorts.

Bordeaux boasts some of the most stunning scenery in all of France — and some of its best vintages. That’s saying a lot in a country renowned for le vin. Personally, I turn up my nose at snooty French reds like Cote du Rhone and Burgundy. They’re a little too subtle for my meat-and-potatoes palette. Give me a big beefy Bordeaux any day. And that is what this appellation is all about: deep purple merlots blended with a splash of cabernet sauvignon.

Some of our fellow passengers chose e-bikes to lighten the load, but our group of eight hearty Canucks toughed out the Bordeaux hills with good old-fashioned foot-pedal power. We logged about 50km per day, a distance one could easily cover in a few hours. But, what with stopping to marvel at the glorious views, photograph the panoramic campagne, sip Sauterne and enjoy a leisurely picnic lunch, we managed to stretch every outing into an eight-hour work-day.

Beware of dogs in the fog!

One morning as we meandered down a medieval lane enjoying the ‘douceur de vivre’ a layer of mist descended upon us. This typical morning fog offers perfect growing conditions for Bordeaux’s famous varietals. Suddenly from out of the haze a huge dog, teeth angrily bared, descended on my wife Florence. I shouted but the mongrel continued its malevolent advance, apparently unfamiliar with English profanity. Then I remembered the tip regarding unfriendly curs contained in our pre-trip information pamphlet:

“Continue cycling past the dog. If it persists, a more aggressive approach may be required, in the form of pretending to throw a stone (or in extreme cases actually throwing a stone).”

The animal’s command of English may have been lacking, but it was a quick learner when it came to comprehending the meaning of rock on chien.

That evening, after another glorious dinner on the boat, we retired to the lounge for a digestif. It was the last night of the last sailing of the year and Sebastian, our maîtres d’, cum waiter, cum bartender, was ready to let his hair down. He brazenly lassoed all the female passengers onto the dance floor for a Bacchanalian romp. Overhead, a faux-disco ball twirled as the ladies gyrated and the boat rocked. The men, fatigued from another trying day amongst the Bordeaux vineyards, were content to sip Pastis and chat.

An ebullient Sebastian

Another fantastique dinner

I quietly slipped into the night air and onto the upper deck. After bidding adieu to my bicyclette and its worn tires, I made my way to our berth and slipped into a dreamless sleep. I needed the rest. In the morning our last arduous adventure would begin: two lazy days of decompressing back in gay Paris.

If you go: www.aquitaine-cruises.com

 ‘Goodbye Bordeaux’

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

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Gerry Feehan

Hawaii Five-O’s by Gerry Feehan

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Standing on an active lava flow is ill-advised. But our guide Steve demonstrated the art carefully, with a brief clamber onto the quickly cooling pahoehoe.

We were on the Big Island of Hawaii. Ten of us, five couples in our fifties (the Five-Os), were sharing a charming three-floor oceanfront home in Kona. Although we spent much of our two-week stay lazily floating in a private solar-heated pool watching humpback whales breach, spinner dolphins spin and surfers hang ten, we also took time to explore the many wonders of Hawaii’s largest, youngest chunk of land.

Posing papaya enjoys the view

It is labelled the Big Island for good reason. All the other islands of the 50th state could fit easily within its landmass. Driving from Kona on the western leeward side to Hilo on the wet eastern side is a three-hour drive one-way. But that’s where the lava is and it doesn’t flow uphill. So we hopped in the rental cars and made the overland foray.

Their motto is “go with the flow” … so we did.

There are few places on earth where one can view lava freshly vented from a magma chamber, oozing inexorably toward the sea, creating new planet. The Big Island is one of those magic spots.

Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of the Volcano, is tempestuous and unpredictable. As placation she insists on an offering of gardenia, plumeria or an equally entrancing native Hawaiian blossom. So said Steve as we embarked at twilight on our trek across twenty-year-old lava toward the fresh, gurgling stuff.

There are two types of lava, each easily recognized by its remnant trail. A’a’ flows are jagged and brittle, settling in an upright, dangerous posture. Our path was over the more subtle, titanium-coloured pahoehoe lava, defined by its often ropy, luxuriant and more accessible texture. Pahoehoe wanders hot and plentiful, vented from deep in mother earth’s mantle. A’a’, pushed methodically downhill, builds like windrows graded from a winter street. I prefer pahoehoe. It’s much more forgiving if you trip and fall.

Steve and his partner Ken purchased 23 acres of oceanfront Hawaiian land a decade ago. Recent transports from Montana, they intended to milk goats on their new abode. Lava had not invaded this parcel for 5000 years. But their nanny-milking ambitions were destroyed within three months of move-in when Pele unleashed her fickle fury on their whole tract of Hawaiian soil.

So they gave up the goat and took up lava tours. Their motto is “go with the flow” … so we did. They are a knowledgeable, informative and respectful team. We dutifully followed our guides across terra incognita. Ken led. Steve took up the rear.

The group begins their twilight traverse across pahoehoe lava

Twilight in the tropics is brief. After an hour slowly meandering across the shiny titanium landscape we halted. Utter blackness had descended, but beneath us the darkness evaporated. We stood mesmerized atop newly borne earth — the fresh molten evidence under foot, like a glowing red spider-web. And to our left and right fresh molten rock slowly flowed by, like incandescent rivers.

I proffered Pele’s floral gift directly into the path of the creeping molten stone. The flower wilted and disappeared beneath the hot rock’s onslaught. Nearby a large Koa tree caught fire, exploding in light, whistling and popping like Canada Day fireworks.

The author a little too close to the lava for comfort

When Steve stepped up onto pahoehoe that, seconds earlier, had been a red-hot sinuous mass of 1100°C flowing stone, we stood back, aghast. Fortunately, Steve is light on his feet. After a moment atop the smoldering lava he hopped back to safety, the bottom of his boots smoking faintly. Goddess Pele loves to see soles burn.

Steve prepares to pose atop the cooling lava.

Headlamps illuminated for the hike out, we carefully retraced our steps through a minefield of sharp lava. In the night sky the island’s persistent vog had evaporated. The Milky Way lay crisp and clear above us. We were one with the universe. Well not actually one. But pretty darn close.

Mahalo

The beachfront house at night.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

 

Vancouver Island by Gerry Feehan

 

 

 

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