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Angling and adventure greet our intrepid traveller on Padre Island

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By Gerry Feehan, award-winning travel writer and photographer. Here is his latest story, Padre Island, Texas.

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“…I peaked through a stack of chili-flavoured pork rinds, past a battered flag of the Lone-Star State hanging in the dirty window, and into the parking lot. Smiley was staring storeward… waiting….”

 

Padre Island Texas is a long spit of sand dunes guarding mainland Texas from the destructive tornadoes and winter storms that pound in from the Gulf of Mexico. Between this narrow barrier island and the mainland lies Laguna Madre, a shallow hyper-saline sea renowned for sensitive sea grass and world-class fishing.

Padre Island Texas

The end of the road on South Padre Island.

On some Padre Island beaches, camping is free. South of Corpus Christi, at Padre Island National Seashore, free boon-docking extends for over 100 kilometres. But the sandy entrance is also the only exit. So, after you bite off as much of the hard-packed seashore road as you can chew and you’ve had your fill of remote surf and turf, a tight U-turn and a long return drive up the beach is required to get back to civilization.

It was shoulder season, so we and our RV had the whole shoreline to ourselves.

Padre Island Texas

Now that’s remote camping!

The other campers were all outfitted for fishing. “When in Rome,” thought I and asked the park ranger if he knew of any local fishing guides.

The weather was atrocious: 3°C with a 70-kilometer north wind. Only a Canuckle-head would beach in such conditions; five meters from the raging ocean and sideways to a Gulf gale. The van was a rockin’ all night.

In the morning the weather cleared, the sun shone and the wind ebbed, portending a fine day on the Laguna Madre. We drove back across the causeway to the mainland, toward Arroyo City and a lovely campground along a canal fronting the ocean. We chose a site protected by live oak trees in case (heaven forbid) the weatherman’s prognostication was inaccurate and the wind began to howl anew. As per our typical MO, we arrived at dusk, sans reservation.

The other campers were all outfitted for fishing. “When in Rome,” thought I and asked the park ranger if he knew of any local fishing guides.

“No, I sure don’t,” he said. “Y’all could check with the live-bait store back in town. Look for the big sign – a redfish – out front. They may have a’ idea.” I asked Florence if she’d mind hanging solo for a day while I went angling. “No, go ahead. I’ll spend the day relaxing, reading and knitting.” I wandered down the road.  When I saw red, I stepped in. The shop smelt. After baiting the proprietor with fishing small-talk, I asked, “Do you think you could find a guide to take me out tomorrow?”

“Well, I know of a fella lives right by,” he said, chewing uncertainly on a pork rind, “but it’s kind of late and I doubt he’d be available on short notice. I could call if you like.” He picked up the phone.

Padre Island Texas

Captain Smiley

Five minutes later ‘Captain Smiley’ was walking in the door. He shook my hand and arrangements were made to tackle an early morning. The sun had not yet risen when the Captain putt-putted up to our riverfront campsite and welcomed me aboard. Minutes later, dawn greeted us as we cast our first lines into the shallow, glassy waters of Laguna Madre. A fat red drum hit on my second cast; a fighting day was upon us.

I had a great time with Smiley. Affirming his moniker, he laughed and joked all day long in his charismatic Tex-Mex accent.

The night before I had warned the Captain that I was short on greenbacks and would need to pay by cheque. He hesitantly agreed. When we arrived back at dock he expertly prepped my red-fish “on the half-shell” for grilling. Driving me back to our campsite he diverted his battered pick-up truck toward the bait shop. Pulling up he informed me that there was an ATM inside. Evidently he preferred cash to a cheque written on the reputable but foreign Royal Bank of Canada. I smiled, opened the door and headed into the store.

I had no bank card, just a US Visa. Uncertain if I could withdraw cash or whether my PIN# would work, I shoved the card in, chose English over Spanish as my language of preference and, after agreeing to an unreasonable fee for using the bank machine (“in addition to whatever other charges your financial institution may impose”). I prayed silently as I entered my personal security particulars. The machine sat quietly for a time, made some distant interior rumblings and eventually announced: “Request Declined.”

Padre Island Texas

Roseate spoonbill

I peaked through a stack of chili-flavoured pork rinds, past a battered flag of the Lone-Star State hanging in the dirty window, and into the parking lot. Smiley was staring storeward… waiting.

I checked to see if there was a back exit. The wary owner eyed me suspiciously. The rear door led through a heap of fish offal into an alligator-infested swamp. Preferring embarrassment to an awful death, I thought I’d again ask the Captain if he would accept my cheque. I took a last baleful glance at the ATM and noticed a message: “maximum withdrawal $120.” I had requested too much dinero. I started the process anew, punched in my PIN, agreed to pay the usurious fees and crossed my fingers. The machine slowly spat six tattered twenties at me. A full day of guided fishing is not cheap. I repeated the process a few times. Eventually the tired machine coughed up enough cash to retire my piscatorial indebtedness.

I handed the dough to Smiley. He smiled and asked, “Do you want to fish tomorrow?” I couldn’t envisage enduring another ATM debacle and, in any event, it was time for us to move on from this arroyo.

“No thanks,” I said, “we need to hit the road tomorrow.”

“Aw, that’s too bad,” said Smiley. “Tomorrow’s my day off and what I do on my day off is… go fishing. I’ll take you out on my dime.”

Padre Island Texas

A great blue heron eyes the fishing.

I saw my calendar clearing.

I called Florence to ask leave. She concurred, delighted. (Apparently, one day away from her beloved was insufficient to create any overwhelming desire to be reunited in the confines of our small RV.)

I had another great “caught my limit” day of fishing. As I fried up a delicious speckled sea trout that night, Florence asked, “Are you going fishing again tomorrow?”

“Naw,” I said. “Smiley’s got a customer lined up for the morning.”

“Gee, that’s too bad,” she said, “this fish is incredible.” She was eyeing her knitting.

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Close up shot of writer Gerry Feehan

Gerry Feehan

Hope you enjoyed your trip to Padre Island Texas.  Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer.  He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC. You can read more of his stories here.

Thanks to these great local sponsors for making this feature possible!

 

Read Gerry’s excellent tale – The Long Road to Texas.  Click below.

 

 

 

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Alberta

On top of the world with Gerry Feehan

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Fisher Peak by Gerry Feehan

Taunting the Temptress

Once in a blue moon something improbable occurs. A goal beyond expectations and beyond the capacity of aging knees is accomplished.

Once in a Blue Moon

The view of Fisher Peak from our Kimberley condo is mesmerizing. For years I’ve gazed across the Rocky Mountain Trench at that daunting, taunting pinnacle. Fisher dominates the skyline in this range of the Rockies. At nearly 3000 meters it towers over its lofty neighbors.

Last July my brother Pat and I watched the second full moon of the month, a blue one, rise over Fisher and decided, “Let’s do it.”

The start of a long climb!

Good weather is critical to mountain climbing. Luckily, the forecast was ideal: clear skies and calm winds. An alpine storm even in summer can necessitate an overnight bivouac. We were not equipped for that nasty contingency. (An aside. Have you noticed the weatherman has become markedly more reliable over the last few years?).

As predicted a perfect day greeted our early start. Climbing Fisher requires no mountaineering equipment, no technical skills. But it’s a long drive to the remote trailhead and the sheer, steady steepness of the climb – and the equally grueling descent – make for a long, hard day. From trailhead to summit the elevation gain is 1400 meters. That’s nearly a vertical mile!

tarn at the halfway point

The hike began unfortuitously. When Patrick donned his daypack, the water reservoir was empty – and his pack was sopping wet. A leaky start. It is imprudent to begin a seven-hour climb on a hot summer day without H2O but we had little option. We’d driven an hour up bumpy logging roads to reach the trailhead. Returning to get water meant we would not have time to complete the ascent. Besides, we were in the mountains. That’s where water comes from. Find a stream, fill up – and beaver fever be damned.

Prayer flags adorn the saddle

The upward march began in a shaded forest of conifers. After an hour patches of light started to shine through the canopy and the trail opened across a jumble of rocks. Beneath our feet we heard gurgling, the babbling of an invisible creek. The steepness continued as the path skirted a cascading waterfall, the source of the hidden rumbling – and the source of clean, beautiful liquid sustenance.

What goes up …

After ninety minutes of relentless climbing, the trail leveled and we came upon a beautiful alpine tarn, its crystal clear waters mirroring the jagged peaks enveloping us. Above the small lake a cirque opened up and we had our first clear view of Fisher, the temptress, still hundreds of meters above us. A solitary marmot whistled a warning call. The sound echoed loudly off the walls of the rocky amphitheater.

… must come down

We were halfway to the summit.

The next leg of the assault is difficult: three hundred vertical meters of steep, loose scree. A real b#&ch! Even with foreshortened hiking poles digging firm, two hard-earned forward steps were countered by a slippery step backward. The scree section is also dangerous. As it steepens, the risk of lost footing and a fall increases. And, worse still, a hiker above can dislodge rocks upon those below. Self-preservation dictates that you want to be in the lead. Unfortunately, Pat is fitter, stronger and younger than I. So, lagging behind, my focus was keeping my head up while keeping my head down.

Did I mention the scree was a real b#&ch!

After an hour the loose slope resolves to a saddle – a safe refuge before the final climb to the top.  This notch in the mountain is festooned with prayer flags. We took a breather in the thin air and gazed around. We had equaled the height of the nearby Steeples. Dibble Glacier, a remnant of the last ice age is visible from this vantage, its ancient blue-grey mass cupped within the Steeples.

The last section begins innocuously with a well-marked switchback through ever-bigger rocks. But soon these boulders become broken, vertical slabs. We abandoned our hiking poles, which became a liability in the four-limbed scramble up, over and around truck-sized stones. Clinging precariously to handholds and squeezing through narrow fissures, we neared the top. In a few spots only a tiny foothold marked the difference between moving safely upward or making a quick 1000-meter descent. But for us Feehans this is the fun part.

The top of Fisher is as tiny as it appears from our balcony 30 kilometers away: a small platform with room for just a handful of climbers. I’m not sure what I expected at the peak but was surprised to see just a jumble of huge boulders stacked atop one another, like the playthings of a giant. The view from the top is remarkable. 360 degrees of pure horizon. To the north and east an endless ocean of mountain peaks. To the south the blue meandering waters of the Kootenay River and Koocanusa Lake disappearing into the United States a hazy hundred kilometers away. In the west, directly below us, lay the verdant green fields of the Rocky Mountain Trench. Further distant the bare ski runs of Northstar Mountain stood out clear as day. I could see my deck over there in Kimberley. No, I couldn’t.

Gerry at the top.

The difficulty with scrambling up to a steep, precarious perch is… what goes up must come down. On the ascent we had concentrated on grabbing, reaching and looking upward. To get down we had to look down. It was disconcerting hanging over a cliff ledge, slipping toward an invisible foothold below. But we slid safely through the slabs, retrieved our poles at the saddle and surfed down through the scree. Soon we were back at the lovely tarn. We stopped briefly to look back up at the now distant peak. Picas gallivanted about, squeaking cutely, gathering nesting grasses, oblivious to the great feat we had just accomplished.

on top of the world

Surprisingly, the last downward section can be the hardest, an unrelenting ninety minutes of joint-jarring, toe-busting, knee-knocking descent. Alpine wildflowers in radiant bloom helped ease the pain.

fireweed

We were back in Kimberley in time to enjoy barbequed steak. At sunset we sipped a cold one on the deck and watched as alpenglow lit Fisher’s face. The next blue moon is October 31, 2020. What to do for an encore?

Thanks to Rod Kennedy and Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for helping to make this series possible.  Please support them.

contact Gerry at [email protected]

‘Adventures in Pandemica’ or ‘What I did on my Isolation Vacation’

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‘Adventures in Pandemica’ or ‘What I did on my Isolation Vacation’

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Adventures in Pandemica’ or ‘What I did on my Isolation Vacation’

Our trip to Pandemica was unplanned. It began March 17, 2020, on a sunny St Patrick’s Day. The voyage was short, comfortable and hassle-free. No packing, no suitcases, no plane tickets – and no jetlag. We simply got out of bed and we were there. I wasn’t sure what to expect in this strange land or how long we’d be here, so I acquired a couple of travel books. Fodors Guide to the Living Room has come in handy and Lonely Toilet has been indispensable.

The climate in Pandemica is quite lovely. The weather hovers around room temperature year-round and there’s very little precipitation – with the exception of an occasional morning shower. The sights and sounds are unique, wondrous, spectacular. I never get tired of staring into the refrigerator. There’s something raw and primal about gazing vacantly into an appliance, the barefoot uncombed silence broken only by the perpetual tick of a kitchen clock. Pandemica is a fun, exciting place. Every day brings new adventure, challenges and occasionally, life-defining choices. Should I brush my teeth before or after checking the mailbox? Is that stale-dated yogurt edible or shall I just heave it?

Although not a big place (as vacation spots goes), Pandemica has lots of interesting, undiscovered regions to explore. Don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten path. Move that fridge. Open the hide-a-bed. Look behind the stove. Venture outside your comfort zone. Here you will discover strange sights, ancient artifacts, long-forgotten foodstuffs. And before vacuuming up the primordial grime and decades-old grit, reminisce and enjoy the moment. Take the time to really examine that plastic letter ‘K’ you found under the oven. Time will fly. Before you know it, it’ll be time to stand naked in front of the fridge again.

The view from my armchair is comforting but yesterday, throwing caution to the wind, I snuck out the back door to dump the garbage. I scanned the perimeter for Covid-19 police, then made a dash for the alley. The fresh air on my face was intense and exhilarating – but also unfamiliar and a little unnerving. I looked up at the clear blue sky. There were no contrails. I shuddered involuntarily and scurried back inside to seek comfort from the daily White House briefing.

Often, we sleep in. But one day, it was a Tuesday, maybe a Wednesday, I got up early… and sat on the couch.

Time in sequestration can pass slowly if one doesn’t keep mind honed and body occupied. And since I’m a ‘get things done’ kind of guy, early on I created a to-do list:

  • look longingly out window
  • observe woman at other end of sofa knitting something
  • check corona virus stats
  • wander aimlessly from room to room wondering what it was you went in there for
  • descend into YouTube wormhole/re-watch Groundhog Month
  • stare vacuously into refrigerator
  • (repeat above steps as necessary until mind is comfortably numb)

Before you know it the day will be over and it’ll be time for bed. And you can look forward to tomorrow – and another pathetic day executing the same monotonous rituals. But remember, a steadfast routine is what makes life worthwhile, consequential, meaningful.

We borrowed a 1000-piece puzzle from the neighbours. It took forever. Cleaning each chunk before assembly was enormously gratifying and a real time killer.

 

For moi, self-isolation has ratcheted up the agoraphobia factor a couple of notches. The more I’m confined, the less I’m socially inclined. Humans are an adaptive species – but also remarkably sheep-like. The new awkward requires that, on those rare occasions where we dare step outside to seek provisions, we keep our heads down, move quickly to the other side of the vegetable aisle and, at all costs, avoid eye contact. I’m really enjoying it.

And it’s interesting how quickly we have evolved to accept and adopt strange new mores, such as physical distancing. On the thirteenth straight night of Netflix, I began talking to the television, quietly berating the stars of a ‘90s sitcom. The actors were co-mingled around a coffee table, unabashedly unmasked. I really lost it when they hugged, high-fived and then broke bread together. Disgusted, I switched over to watch Gravity, not my favourite flic, but at least the cast had the decency to wear space suits.

From the heights of my step ladder in the dining room, the vista is stunning. I have an unobstructed look at the neighbour’s garage and a bird’s-eye-view of our entire ceiling. Overcome by this stippled splendor I nearly forgot my purpose atop the ladder. But I was quickly brought back down from my lofty reverie when my wife hollered, ‘Are you or are you not going to remove the dead flies from that light fixture.’

We so enjoyed our trip to Pandemica that we decided to exercise the full two-month extension. And I’m proud to say I’ve now checked off some lifetime bucket-list items: taking down the Christmas lights before June, vacuuming the wood pile, discarding a pair of mis-matched socks, sharpening a drawer full of dull pencils. There’s more but I don’t want to boast about my less sensational achievements.

At the end of week nine we finally caved and invited a couple of friends over for a social-distancing dinner. What with catching up, toasts to the ‘new normal’, etc., it went rather too well and, since no taxis were operating, our friends and their car had an impromptu sleep-over. After breakfast, unwilling to don her previous evening’s formal attire, our lady-friend exited the house barefoot, clad only in a pair of borrowed pajamas. Fortunately, no nosy neighbours were extant. But a murder of crows, blissfully ignorant of their obligation to self-isolate after a winter abroad, were on hand to raucously caw Barb’s ‘walk of shame’ down the driveway.

When this mess is finally over, I’m not sure I want to go back to work. Come to think of it, since I didn’t have a vocation before this compulsory vacation, I’m pretty sure I’m not going back.

Thanks to Rod Kennedy and Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for helping to make this series possible.  Please support them.

 

“Can you tell me if there’s a good spot to fish around here?”

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