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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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Gerry Feehan

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

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What could be finer than swimming in a warm ocean, peacefully drifting over a colourful coral reef, snorkeling amidst a myriad of tropical fish? In my estimation, not much. And one of earth’s finest snorkel sites is the Island of Cozumel, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Or at least it was until Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005. The most intense tropical cyclone ever to strike the Atlantic, Wilma pummeled the Yucatan, flattening buildings and killing scores of people. But the death and destruction was not limited to land. The churning storm surge also destroyed life under water.

Cozumel is situated along the world’s second largest barrier reef. The Great Mayan Reef stretches from Mexico’s Yucatan 1000km south to Belize in Central America.

When Wilma finally passed, resorts that formerly advertised “walk-in” snorkeling were suddenly left with ocean desert—broken chunks of dead coral lying in a watery grave. Until then Cozumel had been high on our bucket list. Wilma moved it down a few notches.

There was a time when a Mexican all-inclusive was our go-to vacation; a cheap week on the Mayan Riviera where food was plentiful (if not particularly appetizing) entertainment was non-stop—and best of all, the Corona flowed freely. But those days passed and we gradually moved on to more exotic—and expensive—vacations. So my expectations were not high when we decided to go retro and check out the Fiesta Americana all-inclusive on Isla de Cozumel’s leeward coast. Would the snorkeling be good? Would the resort be serving up Montezuma’s Revenge for lunch?

It didn’t take long for all-inclusive nostalgia to kick in.  The first day at the pool we watched a couple of hefty strangers drink themselves into a stupor and pass out before noon in the searing tropical sun. While I am as big a fan of the swim-up bar as the next guy, we were here primarily for the ocean experience.

The swim-up bar.

Cozumel’s currents are notoriously powerful, so that afternoon we walked up the beach half a kilometer, donned our gear and enjoyed a frighteningly quick drift back to the resort. Happily, a decade-and-a-half after Wilma, the reef is showing signs of recovery—tiny colourful fish darted in and out of small but healthy new coral formations.

Walk-in snorkeling at the resort.

The following morning I booked a drift dive with a local scuba operator. We motored out to Palancar Reef in Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park, jumped overboard, descended 20 meters and floated through the famed Coral Gardens. It was magical. This deeper reef was unaffected, with pristine red, green, purple and orange coral heads glowing brightly in crystal-clear water. And the sea creatures—sea stars, lobsters, small crustaceans and a multitude of reef fish—were everywhere.

The next day we rented a jeep convertible for the obligatory circumnavigation of the island. We peeked in at some of the fancy resorts on the protected west shore before driving up Cozumel’s rugged windward side where rough seas wave in from the open Caribbean, pounding the unpopulated eastern coastline. En route we stopped for a swim at Punta Sur on Cozumel’s southern tip. Warm calm waters greeted us. We snorkeled over a shallow sandy bottom, admiring large coral heads and schools of damselfish and wrasses. A puffer fish inflated itself defensively, comically. Then we drifted into a garden of sea fans. Acres of purple, pink and mauve giants swayed softly just below the surface. Miraculously, this tip of Cozumel had avoided Wilma’s random fury.

Sea fan.

Giant Brain Coral.

Sea star.

 

The ocean is not Cozumel’s only attraction. When a new ring road was built around the island, local leaders had the wisdom to leave the old highway in place, close it to motorized traffic and convert the road to pedestrian and bicycle use. Now cyclists from around the globe come every November to participate in the annual Cozumel Gran Fondo, nicknamed “the world’s most beautiful bike ride.”

Not all the animal life is underwater.

The Fiesta Americana had a few rusty bicycles available for patron use and, although these old contraptions had been exposed to the briny sea air for years, still it was fun to pedal around the island. We engaged in our own Petit Fondo, from the Fiesta down the coast to Playa Palancar. Our clocking for the twenty-one kilometer return trip was a respectable 60 minutes—excluding the three and a half hours we spent at the Palancar Beach Bar.

Cozumel is a long way away.

 

The staff at Fiesta Americana was embarrassingly polite and helpful. Early on we became attached to young Moises who manned the coffee and pastry bar in the open-air lobby. By the third morning I had no need to order. While we made poquito talk en Español, he’d whip me up a double café con leche. Moises, eighteen, worked 10 hours a day, six days a week at the resort—for about $20 a day. He didn’t live on the island—too expensive. Every day he endured a ferry commute from the mainland. And yet I’m not sure when I last met a happier, more positive person.

Moises.

One morning I was feeling self-pity over some trivial e-mail I had received. As Moises handed me my coffee, he asked if everything was okay. I felt like going back to our lovely ocean-view suite and giving myself a very hard look in the mirror—but instead I just ordered an extra helping of bacon with my scrambled eggs. The food at the Fiesta was really good—more than palatable.

So our nostalgic all-inclusive experience was a success—and a heck of a lot simpler and cheaper than organizing one’s own tropical tour. And the entertainment? Awesome—particularly when the two chubby drunken fellows reappeared bashfully on day two, pale as ivory on one side, red as a Caribbean lobster on the other.

Our visit to Cozumel was pre-Covid—but Mexico is open for business again!

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.

 

Gerry Feehan explores Cape Breton Island

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