by Gerry Feehan
You would not want to go on an RV trip with me. Plans are inevitably last minute and unpredictable. An innocuous road sign may result in a quick U-turn – and a two-day detour to places unknown.
In early fall we packed our modest motor home and slowly, circuitously ambled from Red Deer southward toward Texas. While impatient snowbirds zoomed by on the interstate en route to a quick, warm Arizona fix, we meandered the back roads, stopping to smell fall’s decaying flowers.
Our destination was the Texas Gulf but we ultimately took more time getting there than we spent in the Lone Star state.
We had no reservations, just a vague malleable plan that, malleably, seemed to change every day. An open travel agenda often leads to pleasant surprises, particularly if one foregoes the freeway for those tranquil country roads. In every backwater town knowledgeable locals are anxious to share wisdom about local pearls. Preconceived plans may go into the rubbish bin but… c’est la vie.
That’s how we stumbled upon Great Sand Dunes National Park. As usual, we had eyed the map one morning, fired up the RV and started to wander. We were lost, headed down the Arkansas River in south Colorado. It was late afternoon. I pulled over and asked directions from a local lady walking her dog.
“Excuse me,” I enquired apologetically of the woman curbing her canine. “I’m a little displaced. Do you know of any campgrounds near here?”
She looked at me, astounded. “Don’t you know that one of America’s great treasures is right there?” She pointed toward a distant, sandy pile fronting the Sangre de Cristo Mountains: Great Sand Dunes National Park.
We rolled in just as lengthening shadows crept over the vast dunes in a remarkable, rippling display. We set up camp as a bloodshot sun set on the Sahara-like landscape. Coyotes howling at the moon lullabied us to sleep.
In the morning I stepped out into the crisp mountain air. The sand was now shadowed from the east.
We enjoyed our cup of morning joe as dark images, reversed from the night before, played across the dunes. After breakfast we huffed and puffed a thousand feet to the summit of the sand; then ran, child-like, down to the flat plain.
At the visitor center I told a Park Ranger that we were headed toward Texas and asked if there were any other such magical places along the way.
Have you ever been to Palo Duro Canyon State Park?” she asked, pointing to a map of Texas. Palo Duro was directly in our path to the Gulf. Perfect. That afternoon we descended from a Colorado Rocky Mountain high to the bleak, flat scrubland of west Texas. We stopped for the night at “Happy Plains” RV Park in the sleepy town of Texline. We were the only guests. The proprietress, a lonely retired schoolteacher, was happy to shoot the breeze during check-in:
“You’re from Canada? Well, welcome to Texas. My late husband and I drove through Canada once on our way to Alaska. Very friendly people. What’s the name of that National Park? Barff? Great food there, not too spicy.”
I averted my eyes. Florence yawned in an effort to speed up the check-in process. The old gal continued undeterred:
“But Canada was just a little too clean for me. I’ve never been happier than when we finally got to Alaska and saw all the cars jacked up on blocks. Made me feel I was home again. Don’t get me wrong,” she continued, “there is no reason for you to feel ashamed. In fact I believe there is no reason why we wouldn’t welcome you to join us and make one big country.”
“Good idea,” I responded. “We could call it Canada.”
She looked at me quizzically. It hadn’t occurred to her that Canadians might actually cherish their northern independence, that we might like our clean, polite wasteland and that we enjoyed our bland dishes, even if they were served up in “Barff”.
In the morning we hastily broke camp and tried to sneak out the Happy Plains gate. But there stood the lonely matron, blocking our escape route, a basket in hand. She handed me a fistful of chocolate bars. It was Halloween.
“I’m sorry about that nonsense last night,” she said, “sometimes I say silly things. ”Don’t we all, sister.
Late that evening we descended into Palo Duro – the “Grand Canyon” of Texas – near Amarillo. Palo Duro is famous for its spectacular red-rock vistas and endless hiking and biking trails. As usual we arrived without reservation. It was a busy weekend. The ranger greeting us was a mountain of a man. His nametag said simply: “Moose”.
“Geez your lucky,” he said. “We’re full up but just had a late cancellation for one of the finest spots in the park.” I shrugged happily. As I affixed the park pass to the windshield, Moose remarked: “Sometimes it pays to travel by the seat of your pants, last minute like.”
Yup, it does.
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.
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Todayville Travel: Part 3 of Gerry’s Yukon Road Trip
Last in a 3-part series on a Yukon road trip – Mt. Logan – Kluane National Park
by Gerry Feehan
“You’re not going to believe this. Sian called again. It’s just cleared up at base camp and the radar report looks good. It’s a go if you’re still willing.”
I’ve been a geography nut since I was a kid. My noggin is full of useless facts. In pre-metric days I memorized details of the world’s highest and lowest: Mount Everest 29,028 feet, Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench 35,814 feet. As a proud Canadian I knew that our highest peak, Mt. Logan in Yukon’s Kluane National Park, topped out at 19,850 feet above sea level. To my chagrin, North America’s highest reach, 20,320-foot-high Mt McKinley, was located across the border in Alaska. As usual, America had outdone us, even at something as Canadian as rock, snow and ice.
I’ve always wanted to see Mt. Logan. We were nearing the end of our six-week-long Yukon road-trip. The highway would take us through Kluane National Park, so I made inquiries. A Whitehorse friend told me it was possible to organize a flight from Kluane Lake into Logan base camp. The camp is on a glacier in the heart of the St. Elias Mountains, a vast roadless, uninhabitable wilderness.
Sian Williams and her partner Lance Goodwin operate Icefield Discovery near Haines Junction, Yukon on beautiful Kluane Lake. I called early in June to book a day-trip. Sian (pronounced “Shan” – a Welsh name chosen by her bush-pilot father Andy) told me that due to spring’s late arrival they’d been unable to access the camp located on Kaskawulsh Glacier beneath Mt. Logan. She added that the long-term forecast was poor. I was crest-fallen. We were booked to leave the North by ferry on June 21, the summer solstice.
We arrived in Kluane National Park with only a two-day window of opportunity. I checked in with Lance. He wasn’t optimistic. Sian had flown into the camp a week earlier and been stuck there, socked in by a brutal snowstorm. Kluane’s mountainous terrain means that all access is by air. And this region is too dangerous and unforgiving to rely solely on instruments so visual flight rules are always in force. No see, no fly.
We sat put, waiting for the mountain weather gods to calm. Our first night, camped on the shore of frigid Kluane Lake, we enjoyed a repast of fresh Arctic Grayling (supplied courtesy of my fly rod). Meters away a grizzly bear, terrifying claws in close-up view, combed the beach in search of its own fishy catch. The next day we spent cautiously hiking an alpine ridge, bear aware. Fortunately we shared the pristine view with only mountain sheep, moose and caribou.
As we set off she pointed to a gaping cobalt scar part way up the snowfield, “Watch out for the crevasse.” We set course accordingly.
The morning arrived when we needed to make a move for the coast. The solstice was nigh. I phoned Lance and he said, “I spoke to Sian on the satellite phone. It’s still a whiteout up there. Sorry.” We reluctantly packed camp and were on our way south when Lance rang back, “You’re not going to believe this. Sian called again. It’s just cleared up at base camp and the radar report looks good. It’s a go if you’re still willing.”
We high-tailed it for the Kluane airstrip where we met Donjek, the pilot. He was born here, named after the Donjek River that flows into Kluane (naturally his father was also a bush pilot). As we took off, the plane’s shrinking shadow followed us across the emerald beauty of Kluane Lake. Soon the lake gave way to a snaking, silt-laden river. We gained elevation and the dirty toe of Kaskawulsh glacier appeared. Then all was ice; white curving fingers spilling from mountain valleys. Dark lines of ground rock defined the course of each icy highway. Then all became snow, the line between earth and sky indiscernible.
We flew over the camp. Sian waved from below, a tiny solitary figure surrounded by white glacial enormity. Mt Logan, draped in sun and cloud, stood imperiously in the background. Donjek lowered the skis of the Helio-Courier prop plane and we skidded to a smooth stop.
We climbed from the cockpit and walked through virgin snow to where Sian was standing in a deep pit, shovel in hand. It looked like she was cutting blocks for an igloo. Actually she was retrieving the prior season’s camp from burial under three meters of winter snow pack. (That’s how glaciers grow – year upon year of accumulated snowfall eventually compressing into ice. At Logan base camp the ice is over a kilometer thick.)
We helped Sian haul a heavy tent from its deep winter interment. She suggested we hike over the glacier to a viewpoint framing Mt. Logan. As we set off she pointed to a gaping cobalt scar part way up the snowfield, “Watch out for the crevasse.” We set course accordingly.
When we returned Sian boiled water for tea and chatted about the inner workings of glaciers and their role in hydrology, geography and world climate. Icefield Discovery’s headquarters, on Kluane Lake, house the Arctic Institute of North America, which conducts glacier research.
We were in the heart of the world’s largest non-polar ice field. Due to its proximity to the warmer, lower Kluane valley and nearby Whitehorse, the St. Elias region is ideal for ice-core sampling and Arctic-style exploration. Canada’s other, more northerly polar arctic regions are less accessible and more inhospitable.
After three sun-drenched hours on the glacier Donjek fired up the prop and we skied off into the airy abyss, down the dirty winding glacial trail and back into the summer greenery of Kluane Lake. It was late in the day when we finally climbed into our RV and started south for Haines, Alaska, three-hundred kilometers away on the coast. Along the way, colorful pink Yukon wildflowers contrasted with the snowy splendor of Kluane’s mountains – as did my beet-red, fried face. I’d forgotten to apply sunscreen.
Near midnight we arrived in Haines, located in a narrow spit on a scenic Alaskan fjord. As we set up camp a wildlife ballet greeted us. Two brown bears were dancing, performing a grizzly twilight duet. Behind them across the spit, like curtains on a stage, two majestic waterfalls cascaded into the ocean.
In the morning we awoke with the solstice. Summer had arrived. Our ferry departure was nigh.
For a final boreal treat we rode our bikes through a coastal rainforest. Dwarfed by thousand-year old giants, we crested a hill in the dappled forest and came upon a large group of Japanese tourists, walking single-file. Each sported a pair of white gloves and what looked like a beekeeper’s hat. As we rode by, one by one they broke into spontaneous applause – golf-clap style. On occasion life is surreal.
Gerry Feehan QC is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.
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Click below to read Part 1 in Gerry’s 3-part series on the Yukon.
Click below to read Part 2 in Gerry’s 3-part series on the Yukon.
Click here to visit our Travel section and see more of Gerry’s stories.
Flights restart at Hong Kong airport as protesters apologize
HONG KONG — Flights resumed at Hong Kong’s airport Wednesday after two days of disruptions marked by outbursts of violence that highlight the hardening positions of pro-democracy protesters and the authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
About three dozen protesters remained camped in the airport’s arrivals area a day after a mass demonstration and frenzied mob violence forced more than 100 flight cancellations. Additional identification checks were in place, but check-in counters were open and flights appeared to be operating normally.
Protesters spread pamphlets and posters across the floor in a section of the terminal but were not impeding travellers. Online, they also circulated letters and promotional materials apologizing to travellers and the general public for inconveniences during the past five days of airport occupations.
“It is not our intention to cause delays to your travels and we do not want to cause inconvenience to you,” said an emailed statement from a group of protesters. “We ask for your understanding and forgiveness as young people in Hong Kong continue to fight for freedom and democracy.”
The airport’s management said it had obtained “an interim injunction to restrain persons from unlawfully and wilfully obstructing or interfering” with airport operations. It said an area of the airport had been set aside for demonstrations, but no protests would be allowed outside the designated area.
The airport had closed check-in for remaining flights late Tuesday afternoon as protesters swarmed the terminal and blocked access to immigration for departing passengers. Those cancellations were in addition to 200 flights cancelled on Monday.
Hong Kong police said they arrested five people during clashes with pro-democracy protesters at the airport Tuesday night.
Assistant Commissioner of Police Operations Mak Chin-ho said the men, aged between 17 and 28, were arrested for illegal assembly. Two were also charged with assaulting a police officer and possessing offensive weapons as riot police sought to clear the terminal.
More than 700 protesters have been arrested in total since early June, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, but also including women, teenagers and septuagenarians.
Mak gave no further details, but said additional suspects were expected to be arrested, including those who assaulted an officer after stripping him of his baton and pepper spray, prompting him to draw his gun to fend them off.
Hong Kong law permits life imprisonment for those who commit violent acts or acts that might interfere with flight safety at an airport.
More than 74 million travellers pass through Hong Kong’s airport each year, making it “not an appropriate place of protest,” Mak said.
“Hong Kong police have always facilitated peaceful and orderly protests over the years, but the extremely radical and violent acts have certainly crossed the line and are to be most severely condemned,” he said. “The police pledge to all citizens of Hong Kong that we will take steps to bring all culprits to justice.”
That was backed up by a statement on a newly launched government website set up to provide the latest information on the crisis, which said, “The police will take relentless enforcement action to bring the persons involved to justice.”
Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific said in a statement it had cancelled 272 flights over the past two days, affecting more than 55,000 passengers, while 622 departures and arrivals went ahead.
Cathay also said it has fired two pilots, in an apparent response to their involvement in activity related to pro-democracy protests.
They included one pilot who is “currently involved in legal proceedings.” The airline said earlier this week one of its pilots has been charged with rioting after being arrested during a protest.
It said the second fired pilot “misused company information,” but gave no further details. The Hong Kong Free Press reported that the pilot posted a photo of a cockpit screen on an online forum used by protesters.
The airport disruptions have escalated a summer of demonstrations aimed at what many Hong Kong residents see as an increasing erosion of the freedoms they were promised in 1997 when Communist Party-ruled mainland China took over what had been a British colony.
While Hong Kong’s crucial travel industry suffers major losses, the city’s reputation as a well-regulated centre for finance is also taking a hit. Some 21 countries and regions have issued travel safety alerts for their citizens travelling to Hong Kong, saying protests have become more violent and unpredictable.
The demonstrators are demanding Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam step down and scrap proposed legislation under which some suspects could be sent to mainland China, where critics say they could face torture and unfair or politically charged trials.
Lam has rejected calls for dialogue, saying Tuesday the protesters were threatening to push their home into an “abyss.”
In a statement Wednesday, the Chinese Cabinet’s liaison office in Hong Kong said the protesters had “entirely ruptured legal and moral bottom lines” and would face swift and severe repercussions under Hong Kong’s legal system.
“Their behaviour shows extreme contempt for the law, seriously damages Hong Kong’s international image and deeply hurts the feelings of the broad masses of their mainland compatriots,” the statement said.
Most of the protesters left the airport Tuesday after officers armed with pepper spray and swinging batons tried to enter the terminal, fighting with demonstrators who barricaded entrances with luggage carts. Riot police clashed briefly with the demonstrators, leading to several injuries and prompting at least one officer to draw a handgun on his assailants.
The burst of violence included protesters beating up at least two men they suspected of being undercover Chinese agents. Airport security appeared unable to control the crowd, and paramedics later took both men away. Police have acknowledged using “decoy” officers, and some protesters over the weekend were seen being arrested by men dressed like demonstrators — in black and wearing face masks.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, identified one of the men as a journalist at the nationalistic Chinese tabloid.
“Fu Guohao, reporter of GT website is being seized by demonstrators at HK airport,” Hu wrote on his Twitter account. “I affirm this man being tied in this video is the reporter himself. He has no other task except for reporting.”
Protesters on Wednesday apologized that some of them had become “easily agitated and over-reacted.” On posters, the demonstrators said they have been “riddled with paranoia and rage” after discovering undercover police officers in their ranks.
Earlier this week, the central government in Beijing issued an ominous characterization of the protest movement as something approaching “terrorism” — a label it routinely applies to nonviolent protests of government policies on the environment or in minority regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet.
President Donald Trump tweeted that U.S. intelligence believes that the Chinese government is moving troops to its border with Hong Kong and that, “Everyone should be calm and safe!”
While China has yet to threaten using the army — as it did against pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989 — recent police exercises across Hong Kong’s border with mainland China were a sign of its ability to crush the demonstrations, even at a cost to Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe haven for business and international exchange.
Images on the internet showed armoured personnel carriers belonging to the People’s Armed Police driving in a convoy Monday toward the site of the exercises.
Associated Press video journalist Katie Tam in Hong Kong and writer Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.
Vincent Thian And Yanan Wang, The Associated Press
Todayville Travel: Part 3 of Gerry’s Yukon Road Trip
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