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Travel

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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“India? Are you nuts? Join Gerry for part 1 of his series on India.

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This is the first in a four-part series on India

“India. Are you nuts?” an incredulous friend remarked. “Why would you want to go there? It’s dirty, crowded, smelly and full of stray cows.”

So, I was anxious as I stared out the window of the Dreamliner 787 on descent into New Delhi after a 14-hour flight from Vancouver. But Delhi was nowhere to be seen. The worst smog in the country’s history had enveloped India’s capital. Visibility was near zero.

Man carrying basket on head

Smog in India

The late-night ride to the hotel was a dystopian dream. With the twelve-hour time change we were in a trance-like state. The streets were eerily quiet. An acrid smell hung in the air. As we drove through dense smog, the moon made a futile effort to silhouette India Gate, Parliament House and the Prime Minister’s residence.

“What’s happening?” we asked the clerk at check-in.

“Diwali,“ he smiled.

Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival that pays tribute to the victory of light over dark, good over evil – and a highlight of the annual celebration is the setting off of fireworks. When Delhi’s 22,000,000 inhabitants simultaneously ignite firecrackers and other pyrotechnics, the sub-tropical air becomes thick with the stagnant refuse of gunpowder. Add to this the exhaust of 9 million vehicles, smoke from burnt stubble fields in nearby Punjab, plus a temperature inversion – and you have unimaginable, eye-searing air pollution.

“…At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium…”

Schools were closed. Construction was halted. Roads were sprayed to keep dust down. Farmers were threatened with fines for illegally burning rice stubble; all to no avail. The particulate index climbed, from just over 600 when we arrived, to 964 three days later. This level is 15 times the “safe” limit in India – and 60 times what would be considered hazardous in Canada.

Women selling wares

Street Vendors during Diwali

Then the currency crisis hit. In an effort to weed out “black money” – cash hoarded through corruption and counterfeiting – Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetization of all 500 and 1000 rupee bills. That’s like cancelling all our $10 and $20 bills.

India’s 1.3 billion people were given a fortnight to exchange old rupees, after which the old bills would become worthless. The bank lineups were horrifying.

India’s is a cash economy and many people don’t even use banks. The country was in chaos. But surprisingly, most people we met – guides, drivers, shopkeepers, restaurant employees – were sick of the endemic corruption and in favour of this Draconian strategy.

Our tour group consisted of my wife Florence and me, together with our fun-loving travel-mates Kim and Simone from Victoria and Joe and Carla from Saskatoon. We struggled through these pollution and currency crises from the comfort of an air-filtered, credit card-accepting hotel. Meanwhile out on the streets the locals coughed, lined up and resolutely carried on life in 21st century India.

school kids some wearing masks

Air quality is an issue

But for me more astonishing and unfathomable than the choking smog and worthless bills was India’s overwhelming, perpetual traffic congestion.

The “sub-continent” has 54 cities with more than a million people. Four of these urban agglomerations have over 20 million souls. And even the smallest Indian village is a clogged spoke of trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles and foot traffic. Pecking order is determined by size. Bicycles give way to motorcycles, which give way to rickshaws… ascending up to the big Tata transport trucks.

 

full bus carrying men

Traffic is insane

Buses overflow with humanity – arms, legs and heads spilling from every door and window. A moped transports an entire family – and their belongings. The lowly pedestrian occupies the bottom of the traffic heap, flirting death with each wary footstep.

At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium.

people watching cow in street

Cows rule.

This may come as a somewhat of a surprise but Indians are fantastic drivers. In what can only be termed functional chaos, traffic actually moves. Roads designed for two lanes harbour four – in each direction. The tiniest opening in traffic is immediately filled by the largest object that fits that space. India abhors a vacuum.

Horns blast non-stop in a cacophonous chorus, used not in anger but to convey a message. A little beep means, “Hey, I’m here.” A resolute honk indicates, “I’m filling that gap.” And an extended blast from a bus states unequivocally, “Coming through, out of my way.”

The first two weeks of our month-long stay in India were spent in the company – and under the watchful eye – of guide Anoop Singhal and driver Devinder Singh. Each morning Singh Ji, a soft-spoken Sikh, greeted us with a colourful turban and a contagious smile. (“Ji” is an honorific, used to show respect – and we happily started referring to one another as Kim Ji, Anoop Ji, etc.)

kids with balloons

Despite the culinary curry shock to my digestive system – and the occasional experiment with street food – I managed to avoid “Delhi belly.” I credit my intestinal well-being to a daily dose of local yoghurt. But even with the use of air masks, we all eventually succumbed to the dreaded Delhi cough.

White palace on water

The Lake Palace of Udaipur

After “seeing” the capital, we travelled a few hundred kilometers southwest to Udaipur to begin an exploration of the fabulous architecture of Rajasthan. Vast palaces built by fabulously wealthy Maharajas in the 17th century still dominate the landscape. The Lake Palace of Udaipur, the White City, is a stunning snow-white jewel set in a liquid surface.

In Jodhpur, the Blue City, we looked down on a jumble of turquoise buildings from the heights of Mehrangarh Fort. The last in the colourful triumvirate of Rajasthan’s famous towns is Jaipur, the Pink City, where in 1857 Maharaja Ram Singh ordered his palace painted pink to impress the British overlords.

India is a photographer’s paradise. No need to search out photo ops; simply plunk down on any curb and start snapping: a vendor hawking fruit, women in crimson saris haggling over spices, a cow imperially chewing its cud, children laughing, beggars begging. All day, every day the flavour, colour, texture, sound, energy and urgency of India unfolds spontaneously, unrehearsed.

On the last day of our stay in Rajasthan, we stopped in at the famed camel festival of Pushkar where local dromedaries are auctioned annually. I nearly closed on a fine one-humped specimen but was outbid by a clever camel herder from the Punjab. Just as well; probably would have been tough to squeeze a grumpy dromedary into my suitcase.

Next time: Taj Mahal and the Sacred Ganges.

Thank you to these great local sponsors who make these stories possible!

If you go: Explore India from Vancouver B.C., www.exploreindia.ca, capably and professionally handled all aspects of our private month-long tour – air and land travel, hotels, meals, guides, drivers, entrance fees and activities – for one all-inclusive price.

Click below to read about some of Gerry’s other great travel adventures.

 

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I’m goin’ back to Boulder Hut

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BOULDER HUT by Gerry Feehan

I asked the pilot where we were bound.

“Boulder Hut” he said. “Where’s that?” I queried. “Twelve minutes that way,” he said pointing west over Northstar Mountain.

There are no baths or showers at Boulder Hut. Clean-up after a day of strenuous backcountry skiing involves soaping up in a wood-fired sauna, then dumping a bucket of water over one’s head. To my surprise a fellow guest, fit naked – and female – offered to do the pouring. I reluctantly acquiesced. Thereafter, the absence of a proper shower seemed trivial and I decided to forego my complaint to management.

Rosie (indifferently) guards Boulder Hut.

Management at this remote backcountry lodge consists of owners Mark and Sarah Yancey, whose infectious love of Boulder Hut – and the remote lifestyle it entails – is evident from the moment they greet you on the snow-packed heli-pad.

Over the years I’ve acquired all the accoutrements for ski-touring – and on occasion I’ve skinned up from our condo on the Kimberley, BC ski hill – but I had never before toured in the backcountry.

unloading the helicopter

So I was curious when a helicopter touched down at the base of the ski hill on a sunny morning in January. A group of people, ski paraphernalia in tow, was preparing to board. I put down my coffee, stepped off the deck and wandered over. I asked the pilot where they were bound.

“Boulder Hut” he said.

“Where’s that?” I queried.

“Twelve minutes that way,” he said pointing west over Northstar Mountain.

a bluebird day

As I ain’t gettin’ no younger, I determined to be on that chopper before the season ended. And so in mid-March I was soaring over our place, watching my wife Florence waving goodbye from our deck. I hoped it was not a permanent farewell.

Moments later we were up and over the Black Forest on the ski hill’s back side.

Then we were into the rugged roadless world of the Purcell Range. We hugged a ridge of wintry peaks, summited Boulder Pass and descended into a broad forested valley. A tiny dot far below soon resolved into Boulder Hut.

lunch

After a welcoming lunch and safety briefing we strapped on skins and started our first ascent through the thick forest of old-growth spruce that provides Boulder’s gorgeous back-drop. The conditions were fabulous; a storm had just blown through. Fresh powder and sunny, bluebird conditions greeted us.

Drinking water is drawn directly from a small creek that flows year-round.

Climbing.

Every winter the media warns of avalanche danger in the backcountry. At Boulder Hut safety is paramount. With Mark and alpine guide Brent Peters constantly checking conditions – and leading the way through dicey areas – we felt safe and comfortable. When there was any hint of risk they dug a snow profile to check for stability and to ensure some rogue slab wouldn’t ruin our day.

… and climbing.

Boulder Hut is remote, quaint and rustic – guests share an open sleeping cabin. If you forget earplugs (and sleeping pills), your repose may be ruined; exhausted snoring skiers make a hell of a racket.

okay, so Sarah does most of the dishes

In the evening guests are responsible for stoking the wood-burning stove. Failure to maintain the fire means for a long cold shivering night. As the only rookie, I was utterly exhausted at the end of each day and slept like a baby – with an assist from earplugs (and a little blue friend).

Drinking water is drawn directly from a small creek that flows year-round. The same stream supplies power via a small hydroelectric plant.

Boulder has no laundry facilities. By the fourth night my ski socks, hanging over the bunk to dry, had taken on a crisp flavourful bouquet – or so my fellow guests noted (I was obliviously comatose).

Boulder’s bathrooms are al fresco

Boulder’s bathrooms are located al fresco; open A-frame jobbies where one can enjoy a panoramic view of the Purcell Mountains whilst engaging in one’s morning constitutional. A sign planted in the snow announces whether the privy is occupied or available.

At Boulder Hut there is no cellphone coverage or internet. And guests are (gasp) expected to help with the dishes after dinner.

a great crew

I’ve been to five-star ski lodges where a cat whisks you to the top of the mountain for each run. At Boulder Hut every turn is earned. Mark calculated that we climbed 14,000 feet (4300 meters) during our stay.

girls just wanna have fun

Sound like a miserable experience?

I had the time of my life. Mark, Sarah, their kids Grace and Alden, mascot Rosie the Great Pyrenees and my seven fascinating fellow guests made for a fabulous, unique experience.

a sliver of winter sun lights Boulder Pass

I’m going back to Boulder this winter – and taking along a few buddies – all rookies.

goodbye Boulder Hut

Now if only I can arrange for a reprise of that fit lady with the water bucket.

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

Gerry Feehan

Click to read an excellent story about the Turks and Caicos.

 

 

 

 

 

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