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Gerry Feehan

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.

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

 

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

The Olympic Peninsula by Gerry Feehan

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The Olympic Peninsula

On November 8, 2021 the land border to the USA opened again!

I love America. The weather is great, the scenery fantastic and the people hospitable. But the US has a problem: guns. We hadn’t been in the country twenty-four hours before we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a sheriff’s assault rifle—at a campground. After a lovely morning hike overlooking Washington State’s San Juan Islands we were skipping happily back to our site when a camouflaged sniper waived us to the ground. We crawled toward our motorhome—which had been commandeered for police cover.

Four muzzles were aimed from behind our RV toward an adjacent trailer. I heard the words, “domestic…choking…firearms,” crackle over the commander’s radio.

What would spark gunplay in a campground? Had someone made the campfire coffee too strong? Were the marshmallows charred? We never did find out. The police escorted us out the park gate—and we returned blithely to the meandering highway. We monitored the radio to ascertain the cause of the fireworks but learned nothing. Perhaps a nearby school massacre overshadowed the shootout at the OK Campground.

But after this first hiccup our Washington State experience was gun-free, peaceful and marked entirely by friendly encounters. Everywhere we were greeted by kind, attentive folk with a genuine interest in how their Canadian brethren were faring.

“Do you think we can get through the south shore road to Grave’s Creek campground tomorrow?” I asked.

The Rain Forest Resort sits along the shores of Lake Quinault in Washington’s beautiful Olympic Peninsula. The narrow road to the resort passes through a cathedral of towering Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and red cedar. The largest in the world of each of these species grows within spitting distance of the lake—and the quaint village provides access to one of the world’s great temperate rain forests.

bull Roosevelt elk

The Morrison family has owned this little jewel of a resort—and everything else in town (including the coin laundry and paid showers)—since the 1960’s. The town gets four meters of rain a year. The camp store sells a lot of quarters to soggy travellers trying vainly to dry hiking gear—while thawing chilled bones in a hot shower. In the 48 hours we were hunkered down, hiding from a brutal storm, 15 cm of rain bombarded the Rain Forest Resort campground. The lake rose and water began lapping up the wheels of our RV. There was a knock on the door. Don Morrison kept both feet safely on the running board of his old pickup as he pointed to the half-submerged post to which our electrical cord was plugged.

“We’d better get you to higher ground.”

“Neither rain, nor…”

We evacuated uphill, and plugged in at the local post office building (which, naturally, is owned by the Morrisons). So neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can stop the post office from delivering—either the mail or electricity to a stranded RV. That evening, over happy-hour cocktails at the Salmon House Restaurant (which is owned by… guess who?), Don and his brother traded war stories about just how high the water can get.

“Remember ’94?” said Don. “That was the year we put the cabins up on stilts.”

“Yeah, but what about the summer of ’79 when we lost power for ten days?” responded his brother. “We threw out three freezers of elk, salmon and frozen clams.”

While they happily reminisced about past disasters Florence and I stared out the window at the non-stop deluge.

“Do you think we can get through the south shore road to Grave’s Creek campground tomorrow?” I asked.

“Hard to say,” said Don. “You’ll have to drive through Sasquatch valley, which can be slippery and there could be some trees down. There’s always the long way round, over the north shore.” He pointed across Lake Quinault.

Optimistically we struck out in the morning on the south route. On a narrow stretch ten kilometers down a muddy gravel road we rounded a steep curve. I slammed on the brakes. Fifteen or twenty massive, freshly fallen trunks lay across the road. A swath of ancient conifers had toppled, domino-like, rendering the route impassable. The locals call this a blow-down event. Where the trees had formerly stood, a narrow window of light shone brightly through the dark canopy, illuminating the carnage.

Now what?

We backed up for almost a kilometer before finding a safe spot to turn around. Intent on getting to the remote rain forest at Graves Creek, we drove around the lake and tested the equally tricky north shore road. We arrived at the secluded campground as darkness descended. The rain had abated from gale-force to storm-watch. In the morning we geared up for a wet tromp. An hour or so in we met Michael Butler on a remote hiking trail that had converted itself into a medium-sized creek. The sky was pouring buckets. The only people stupid enough to brave the elements were Mike and the Feehans. We were headed upstream and he down.

Banana slug meets mushroom (inset orange jelly fungus)

“It gets quite a bit worse up there,” he remarked, glancing over his shoulder, soaked to the bone and smiling. Water was running out the toes of his hiking boots. A banana slug floated by. We abandoned ship and turned back, down-trail with Mike.

He was from Long Island New York, sleeping in his car and subsisting on cold rice. His eyes were red. “I didn’t sleep much last night,” he said. “I have mice—two of them.”

We invited him for dinner chez Feehan for Florence’s famous Friday night homemade pizza. He acquiesced without an arm-twisting. Mike is a lanky kid, but like most twenty-two year olds can really pack away the groceries—particularly when served up in a dry, rodent-free establishment. Mike was travelling the entire “lower 48” carrying his grandparent’s ashes, leaving a trace in every State. He’d been on the road for six months but still had a bunch of places in which he’d not yet spilt his relatives’ remains. He’d taken a sabbatical from medical school to nurse his grandparents at the end of their lives. After they died he quit school entirely, disgusted with the insurance companies and the medical system in general. Did I say the US has a problem with guns? Apparently it also has health-care issues.

Florence and Mike have different perspectives on life.

When we left in the morning, Mike was still sawing logs, mouth agape, driver’s seat splayed back. Through the foggy windshield I spied a mousetrap, set for action. We quietly left a note under his wiper:

“I can see a pair of mice by your dashboard lights.”

As we drove out, through an ancient grove of large-leaf maple trees draped in wet club moss, the rain stopped. For the first time in days the sun began to shine.

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.

 

We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

A Necropsy in Friday Harbor

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Friday Harbor – by Gerry Feehan

On November 8, 2021 the land border to the USA is open!

The quay at Friday Harbor Labs.

I had no idea what a necropsy was until we visited the marine lab institute at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. It might have been better had my vocabulary been left unimproved, since a necropsy is not for the faint of stomach.

San Juan Island is in the United States but is actually much closer to Victoria, B.C. than it is to the U.S. mainland. British Columbia’s capital is just a few kilometers away, across the Juan de Fuca Strait. San Juan can only be reached by small plane or, as in our case, via ferry. We embarked with our motorhome at Anacortes, Washington and, after weaving through and around a multitude of conifer-clad islets, disembarked an hour or so later in Friday Harbor, the quaint town of 2200 people that serves as County seat and is the largest town in the San Juan archipelago.

We had come to visit our daughter who had recently accepted a position as postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington marine labs in Friday Harbor. Colette’s area of expertise is the interaction between sea urchins and kelp—that’s what urchins like to eat.

The harbor seal under scrutiny had been floating lifeless for many days and decay had set in.

Friday Harbor Labs is a true scientific research facility. It attracts renowned marine biologists from around the world. Small laboratories hug the shoreline of the lovely grounds. We strolled the shore, peaking in windows, spying pumps, beakers and aquariums full of life. It was exciting and mysterious watching lab coat-clad scientists recording data while carefully poured funny-looking liquids into test tubes.

It is encouraging and reassuring to see real science being performed—and adequately funded. Fortunately a good relationship and camaraderie exists between Canadian and U.S. researchers, particularly in the marine science field. Data is shared and papers co-written, without regard for border fences.

For most of our stay we were “in residence” and treated hospitably by everyone we encountered, from the maintenance people and dining hall staff to the doctoral candidates and tenured professors. Colette’s mentor invited us to dinner and served up a tasty dish of coconut curry soup while we watched sunset from the deck of her rustic home high atop a hill overlooking the San Juans.

The islands thrive with wildlife. On our walkabouts we saw river otters, harbor seals, dolphins and orca whales swim, jump and cavort offshore. On shore deer, bald eagles, raccoons and fat native foxes frolicked in the autumn mist.

In the San Juans, there’s lots of life—both below and above surface.

One brisk afternoon we hired a local guide for a sea kayaking tour in the cold fecund waters off Lime Kiln Point State Park. Colette and her oceanographer husband Mike pointed through the clear water at colourful sea urchins clinging precariously to rocks in the swell below. Colette gets pretty excited when she spots an urchin—particularly when a healthy bed of bull kelp floats nearby. Our guide reached into the kelp and handed me a raw blade. “Here, try this,” she said.

I munched. It was palatable. Nice texture, not too salty, with a kale-like flavour. Our spiny urchin friends have made a good dietary decision.

Drifting in a bed of kelp.

A necropsy is to an animal what an autopsy is to a human: an examination of a dead body to determine cause of death. Fortunately the procedure we observed took place outdoors—on the quay at the Lab. The harbor seal under scrutiny had been floating lifeless for many days and decay had set in. I was careful to remain upwind from the carcass. The necropsy was performed by a renowned local marine veterinarian, Joe Gaydos. He carefully dissected the entire animal—from flipper to brain. No organ was left unchurned: heart, lungs, stomach, glands, even the tongue, were surgically, skillfully removed and splayed out upon the dock in the crisp salty air for all to see. As he cut, Dr. Gaydos carefully explained each step in the process and what role each body part played in the life—and death—of the animal, in a matter-of-fact, good-humoured fashion.

Apparently the animal died of a chronic lung infection. At least that’s what I learned after I was revived by the smelling salts.

The necropsy.

Our last night on the island was a stargazer’s dream. We checked out of the marine lab residence and into the campground at San Juan County Park on the west side of the island. Across the Juan de Fuca Strait the shimmering lights of Victoria seemed a mere stone’s throw away. Florence knit while I lit a roaring campfire. An occasional cloud drifted by to briefly mask the moon and the Milky Way. Camping made perfect.

In the morning back in town Mike and Colette treated us to a hearty farewell breakfast before we caught the ferry back to the mainland. As we sailed away I snapped pictures of Friday Harbor Labs from the ferry deck.  A young couple was out on the windy bow taking selfies. I pointed to the cozy buildings lining the shore and said proudly, “My daughter is a scientist over there.”

They nodded vaguely but I don’t think they heard me.

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

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

 

 

 

 

Revisiting the “All-inclusive” in Cozumel – by Gerry Feehan

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