Sunday, February 9, 2020

Frigid adventure into the Canadian Rockies

Brothers and I trekking into Johnston Canyon.
My brothers and I were carefully making our way across Abraham Lake in the Canadian Rockies on the North Saskatchewan River in western Alberta. Now that’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever write!

The lake, Alberta’s largest reservoir, was a frigid expanse of ice stretching to the distant horizon. The temperature was hovering in the mid-teens but thanks to a strong breeze and Mother Nature’s sense of whimsy the mercury felt like it was dipping into negative territory. No problem.

We were mostly prepared for the harsh winter weather that blankets the area around Banff National Park, in fact had been getting ready for a month or two after I messaged my brothers — Gary, Larry and Ian — that I was bored and it was time to plan another wintry adventure.

I suggested Banff. My brothers foolishly agreed.

Searching for bubbles on Abraham Lake.
That’s how we ended up standing on a sheet of ice in search of bubbles — yes, bubbles — filling up the Canadian freezer we were slipping and sliding on during day two of our trip. The bubbles, a dazzling maze of whitish goop held tightly in an icy embrace, are actually frozen pockets of methane gas.

They were just one of the natural wonders and highlights of a day-long mountain photo tour that included stops at a number of iconic spots filled with the heady and awe-inspiring handiwork of Mother Nature and her magical elves — thanks and a tip of the cap to Nick, our splendid guide and photographic guru.

My brothers, all talented photo hobbyist, were weighted down with 20 to 30 pounds of cameras and equipment — extra lenses and polarizing filters, spare batteries and memory cards, remote shutter releases, lens cleaning kits and tripods. I was lugging around an iPhone 11 that weighs in at a tortuous 7.97 ounces! Okay, their photos are probably better composed and a bit more focused and colorful then mine. My arms and back, however, didn’t ache at the end of the day and, to tell the truth, my pictures were just fine!

Stupendous sunrise at Vermillon Lake.
The trip was a memorable, at times spiritually-rich exploration of the wondrous and beautiful gifts in the world if you’re out and about and looking in the right direction. When resting, we camped out in a three bedroom, three-and-a-half bath Airbnb in Canmore, about an hour west of Calgary and 20 or so minutes outside the city of Banff.

We mostly stayed busy driving around Banff National Park, staring somewhat slack-jawed at the snow-capped peaks and pristine valleys that are as ubiquitous in the Canadian Rockies as billboards and pine trees are along I-75 in South Georgia.

Our first road trip found us knee deep in ice and snow at Johnston Canyon, a 30-minute drive north of Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway. The popular site features overhanging Canyon walls and dense vegetation, worn trails, steel catwalks, and a challenging three-mile hike — out and back — to a distant waterfall that during the winter months is transformed into a stunning tower of ice.

Canadian-Pacific train chugging through Morant's Curve.
Three of us managed the trek and were rewarded with spectacular scenery and the chance to watch several ice climbers scale the upper falls.

A day later we were up before the crack of dawn to begin our photo tour of the region. We began the outing at Vermillon Lake to watch the sun rise. We weren’t disappointed. The sun, literally and poetically, brushed the sky with lovely streaks of, wait for it, vermillon.

It was spectacular and an auspicious beginning to a journey brimming with aching beauty that filled both our hearts and cameras with delight. It was also chilly — very chilly!

To battle the elements I wore a base layer of merino wool underwear, a flannel shirt, fleece vest, thermal snow pants and socks, quilted puffer jacket, balaclava and woolen beanie. Finally, after pulling on a pair of Merrill Thermo Chill Mid-Waterproof boots, I was good to go. And go we did.

Trekkers hiking across Bow Lake and the Wapta Icefield.
Most of the day we spent on the Trans-Canada and Icefields Parkways, surrounded by the natural beauty of the Canadian Rockies at a dozen or so stops, including Castle Mountain and Lake Minnewanka, Morant Curve and Lake Louise, Bow Lake, the Wapta Icefield and Howse Pass between Mount Conway and Howse Peak.

Each spot was filled with a preternatural beauty, hard to define and impossible to capture. It was something to be felt and experienced, like a soft breeze in early spring or the stirrings of first love.

Norman Maclean, one of my favorite authors, once wrote about the same idea in much more poetic fashion.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

Me, too.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Getaway to Beantown a chilly, tasty delight

Boston harbor, downtown goes dark as sun sinks below the horizon. 
After a torrid summer and early fall, Wendy and I thought a quick getaway up north might be just what the doctor ordered. So I booked a longish weekend in Boston and we both agree it was a cool -- at times frigid -- way to spend a few days.

Despite Mother Nature's blustery and chilly hello, we managed to crisscross much of the central city, from Back Bay, through downtown into the North End. We also made our way to Cambridge and spent a few hours mostly exploring Harvard on a free walking tour that offered a decent overview of the university and surrounding area.

When not checking out the sights -- Faneuil Hall and the Old State House, Beacon Hill, the Freedom Trail and Boston Common -- we were probably eating! There were quick bites and sweet nibbles, most notably at Boston Chowda in Faneuil Hall -- corn chowda for Wendy and lobster bisque for moi -- and Mike's Pastry in the North End. Can you say cannoli? How about whoopie pie?

Mike's Pastry, an iconic bakery in Boston's North End.
We also managed a couple of leisurely and lavish meals, in and around our hotel just across from Copley Square, at Legal Seafood and Joe's American Bar and Grill. We discovered the restaurants on an earlier trip to the city and found them just as good and tasty this time around.

Truth to tell, much of the fun on this short getaway was simply moving around the city, making our way from here to there. Being out and about in the heart of Boston, a most walkable place, we were able to enjoy the crisp, colorful last days of fall up close and personal.

When we needed to venture further afield there was a subway station -- the Back Bay stop on the city's "T" -- only a block or so from our hotel. The train was clean, comfortable and easy to use.

Out and about and on our way to see "Come From Away".
And while we're on the topic of public transport, the Massachusetts Transit Authority (MTA) offers a free shuttle from Logan International Airport that dropped us off only a block or so from our hotel. The shuttle back to the airport costs a paltry $3 but we were both surprised and delighted to learn that the fee is waived for seniors!

We saved a bunch of money riding the shuttle and -- good news alert -- were also escorted to the front of the security line when we reached the airport, just another perk for using mass transit.

After all the dashing about -- and eating -- and in search of something a bit more relaxing and sedentary, Wendy and I were pleasantly surprised to learn that Boston has an active and vibrant theater scene.

The Old State House in Downtown Boston.
We snagged a couple of tickets for one of our favorite shows, "Come From Away", that was finishing up a month-long run at the Citizens Bank Opera House, aka The Boston Opera House.

We first saw the musical when it opened on Broadway and can happily report that the play and players in Boston captured the same magic and vibe that's made the show a rousing success across the nation.

It remains funny and sad and offers up both a toe-tapping good time along with a timeless and pleasing message of what can happen when a community pulls together to offer aid and comfort to people in need.

The show, along with the historical and natural beauty of the city, tasty meals and snacks, a public transport system that's fast, clean and affordable and Mother Nature's pleasing, if chilly embrace made our little outing something we'll be recalling fondly in coming months. We'll be back!

Monday, September 2, 2019

Why did the little boy ask why and then why again?

Avi wants to know the "why" of just about everything these days.
Avi, my three-year-old grandson, has recently launched into the "Why" stage of life. So he's wondering now why the sky is blue and water wet, why the sun is hot and ice is cold.

Curiosity is a good thing, but when every explanation is met with a question it all can be a little, er, annoying. Fortunately, the why of life can also be funny.

Here's a mostly true conversation Avi and I had just the other day:

Avi: What happened to your hair, Pops?
Pops: It fell out.
Avi: Why?
Pops: Because I got old..
Avi: Why?
Pops: Because I wanted to stick around so I could play with you.
Avi: Why?
Pops: Because you're so darn cute.
Avi: Okay ... gimme a cookie.
Pops: Why?

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Leaping into the future with Bailey and Avi

2019 edition of the grandchildren.
I blinked and my grandchildren leaped into the future, Bailey heading off to Kindergarten this week and Avi back to preschool. Because their mom -- my daughter, Lauren -- teaches in a nearby elementary school, all of them are now together under the same roof.

Lauren spends her days teaching kids with special needs while Bailey and Avi spend their time showing off just how special they are. Hey, I'm their Pops so I have the right to pop off every now and again!

Truth to tell, the kids are absolutely normal. They run around and play, manage to get into stuff that often drives me bonkers -- why do the kids put beans in their ears? -- and often fight with one another like cats and dogs.

They also both remain pure spirits with hearts of gold, filled with the innocence of youth and unconditional love.

Avi: Always smiling and ready for fun.
After a morning that had me thinking it would be easier to herd a bunch of cats then control my grandkids at play, I finally managed to get Avi into his crib for a nap. As I went to close the door, Avi called out that he wanted a hug. He wrapped his little arms around my neck, then kissed me on the cheek before settling down with a contented smile across his face. A moment later he was asleep.

I then got Bailey to quiet down by handing her my iPad. As she got comfy on a couch in our den, happy to spend some quality time on YouTube, I was thinking I might grab a quick nap.

Bailey: Now in kindergarten and ready to read.
Bailey had other ideas.

"Pops", she called out, "won't you come snuggle with me?" And that's how I got to spend some quality time with my granddaughter and JoJo Siwa -- trust me, JoJo is very big with 5-year-old girls.

In a world that often seems turned upside down, at times dark and troubling, Bailey and Avi provide a measure of light. It might seem counterintuitive, but with all their ranbunctious play and zest for life, they offer up an island of calm, a sense of normalcy ... hope.

And isn't that the way it should be with all of God's children?

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Back to New York and Into the Heart of Darkness

Times Square goes dark after power outage in Midtown Manhattan.
Wendy and I had much to cheer about during a recent trip to New York.

Two musicals, "Tootsie" and "The Prom", had us and a few thousand other folks on our feet applauding while Billy Joel enjoyed much the same response from 20,000 fans -- that would include Wendy and me -- attending a concert at Madison Square Garden.

But the loudest and most enthusiastic cheers came when the lights flashed on across an expansive swath of Manhattan where we spent an interesting couple of hours in the dark. We weren't alone!

Tens of thousands of tourists and locals, in one of the most densely populated areas of the country, were caught off guard when a transformer blew in Midtown and the lights of the city blinked off and stayed off for nearly five hours.

Made it to Nathan's ... Hot diggity dog!
A Jennifer Lopez concert at Madison Square Garden was abruptly stopped, thousands of fans forced to make their way through the darkened structure onto Sixth Avenue. Shows in the theater district were canceled and tourists with rooms in Times Square's towering hotels were stranded at street level. The outage slowed or stopped subways throughout Manhattan, with ripple effects in the outer boroughs and, just as troubling, street lights and traffic signals across a 60-block area west of Fifth Avenue blinked, grew dim and went dark.

As luck would have it, Wendy and I were on a walking tour of Midtown when first word of the blackout reached us. Since it was still light, we didn't notice anything unusual. After all, unusual is the norm in the Big Apple, ground zero for all things bizarre!

We had arrived in the city a few days earlier and stayed busy eating our way across Manhattan at a few of our favorite spots -- Ben's Kosher Deli in Midtown and Rafele's and S'Mac in Greenwich Village. We also booked several tours -- NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Terminal, the High Line in Chelsea and, as mentioned earlier, an evening walking tour of Midtown.

We even managed to make it out to Coney Island -- 45 minutes away by subway -- where we took in the sights, including a visit to Nathan's for a little nosh!

Spent some quality time with the on-air talent of the Today Show at NBC.
A few hours later, just outside Grand Central Terminal, the first stop on our walking tour of Midtown, I received a text detailing a possible problem in the area. Our guide Nick was also getting news of the blackout and was trying to figure out the best and safest way to proceed.

Eventually we made it to the southern fringes of Times Square. The block we were on was filled with tourists and all appeared light and bright. But a block north the area seemed swallowed up in a black hole that grew ever darker in the far distance.

Naturally, Wendy and I left the group and immediately headed off into the heart of darkness. Our journey began around 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. There was a smattering of light and people as we trudged toward our hotel, The Warwick, on 6th Avenue and 54th Street.

Blackout hit just moments after we explored Grand Central Terminal.
The only real problem we encountered was when we got to 45th Street. That's where the traffic lights began failing. For the rest of our hike home it became a bit of a challenge simply to make it across each intersection.

We were in total darkness -- the sort of I can't see my hand in front of my face darkness -- after turning onto 54th Street, just a block or so from our hotel. Once there, we made it into the lobby, filled with hot and frustrated tourists all quivering and softly aglow from the light given off by dozens of candles strategically placed about the room.

After quizzing the desk staff -- no, there was nothing new to report and, yes, we could climb nine flights of stairs to our room but, no, that wouldn't be a good idea -- we grabbed a couple bottles of tepid water and made the strategic decision to wait out the blackout on the street.

Coverage in the NY Post.
And that's exactly what we did, along with a few thousand other folks unable or unwilling to make it up to their rooms. Mostly we stayed busy on our phones tracking down the latest news and sharing bits of information with strangers sharing info with us. The good news is most everyone remained calm and in reasonably good spirits despite the hot and humid weather.

It would take another couple hours before the power grid was completely rebooted and Wendy and I made it up to our room. We had just enough time to pack, get a couple hours of sleep, clean up and head to the airport.

By the time we made it back to Atlanta, the city that never sleeps was rubbing the sleep from its metaphorical eyes and opening up for business once again.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Exploring the left coast aboard the Norwegian Bliss

Sunrise as we enter San Francisco Bay.
Wendy and I spent some time recently traveling about the left coast, from Los Angeles to Vancouver, with stops in San Francisco and Victoria.

Most of the getting from here to there was done aboard the Norwegian Bliss, one of the new class of mega-ships that is filled with an assortment of bells and whistles -- water slides, hot tubs and pools, go karts and a large laser tag venue, restaurants, bars and a wannabe shopping mall.

The ship has a crew of 1,200 and can accommodate well over 4,000 guests. The Bliss isn't exactly blissful -- way too many people -- but it is new and sparkly and, I'm thinking, a perfect getaway for young adults traveling with kids.

Anyway you parse it, the lovely Miss Wendy and I are no longer, ah, young and our kids were at home taking care of their kids.

Wendy making her way across Santa Monica Beach.
Fortunately, extending our journey out west both before and after the cruise was a winning idea that turned what could have easily been a lackluster holiday into a memorable adventure.

We stayed in Santa Monica for two days before visiting relatives and friends around Mission Viejo. Santa Monica is a lovely beach community with shops and restaurants, expansive green spaces and an iconic pier filled with additional shops and restaurants.

There's also an amusement park for tourists and, better yet, miles of walking and cycling trails along the nearby beach.

We spent a couple hours following the trail into Venice Beach and exploring the aging hippy community there that has morphed into a sort of hip-hop, grunge and bikers mecca. The area, jarringly, also appears to be home base for many homeless and disenfranchised folks from across Southern California.

Bucket list alert: Cruising under the Golden Gate Bridge.
When we weren't walking or window shopping, we were eating. Wexler's, a New York-style Deli -- aren't they all! -- was conveniently located just a few blocks from our hotel and helped jump start our vacation on a gastronomical high. Can you say pastrami ... hot pastrami!?

Santa Monica proved to be a tasty starter on our holiday getaway, but after dashing about Southern California we were ready for the main course.

The Bliss, despite its shortcomings, managed to deliver us to a couple of world-class ports: San Francisco and Vancouver.

Both cities are touristy delights. They share much in common: expansive green spaces, soaring skyscrapers and picturesque neighborhoods.

They also have splendid waterfronts featuring a pleasant blend of souvenir shops, retail outlets, restaurants, bars and marinas filled with a wide and varied assortment of sailboats, fishing skiffs and sightseeing vessels.

Vancouver's Waterfront offers grand view of city's skyline.
Wendy and I spent a couple hours walking along the waterfront in the City by the Bay, from Pier 39 -- chock full of tourists and a pod of seals -- to Fisherman's Wharf, then up to Ghiradella Square and Russian Hill Park. Off in the distance we could just make out the outline of the Golden Gate Bridge that, hours earlier, we had cruised under as we made our way into San Francisco Bay.

A few days later we were in Vancouver where we spent a longish weekend hoofing it across the city. We went on several walking tours and eventually made our way from Gastown -- an intown neighborhood filled with restaurants and nightclubs, fashion boutiques and art galleries -- to Canada Place, Coal Harbor and Stanley Park.

After our six-hour trek, I posted a few photos and this blurb on Facebook: Take the big city vibe of Manhattan, striking architecture of Chicago, waterfront beauty of Miami and diversity of San Francisco ... stir briskly and garnish with a hockey puck and, voila, Vancouver on the rocks!

I stand by the A-Plus review, however it turns out that the top highlight of our time out west came a couple of days earlier and 60 miles south of Vancouver. After mentioning to several friends that we would be stopping in Victoria, most everyone told us we had to visit Butchart Gardens because, well, it's incredible.

One word to describe Butchart Gardens: Spectacular!
They weren't exaggerating!

The gardens, a National Historic Site in Canada, is about a 40-minute drive from Victoria. It spreads across 55 acres and features 900 bedding plant varieties serviced by 26 greenhouses and 50 full-time gardeners. In a word, the gardens are spectacular -- okay, they are also beautiful and delightful, mesmerizing and other-worldly!

Wendy and I happened to visit when most of the 160,000 Tulip bulbs planted months earlier were on full display. The colorful and fragrant flowers shared space with a wide variety of other plants and trees, including English Daisies and Elephant Ears, Dogwood trees and Trout Lillies, Christmas roses, Hyacinth, Skunk Cabbage, Forget-Me-Nots and Poor Man Orchids.

I don't know the difference between a petunia and a pansy, but the pleasant blend of flowering plants, water features and hardscape designs had me -- and a million other visitors each year -- entranced and thrilled we made it to Butchart, the bloomin' center of the world!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Frigid trip a really cool adventure

Ian, Larry and me all dressed up and ready to explore.
My brother Ian and I were on our way to Jackson Hole Airport, returning to Atlanta after spending a long weekend exploring some of the iconic natural wonders in and around the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks.

"So, how was your stay," our Uber driver asked as he gingerly maneuvered about the icy roadway between Jackson, Wyo. and the airport.

"Chilly," I said.

The driver chuckled, then responded that that was probably one of the main reasons tourists visited the area in winter, "to get a taste of real frigid weather."

He's probably right; at least that was one of the primary reasons that I and two of my brothers -- Ian and Larry, who had said his goodbyes earlier that day -- had decided to make the trip.

We weren't disappointed.

Temps ranged mostly from lows in the single digits to highs in the mid-20s. Most mornings and late evenings, however, the mercury would dip into minus territory. It was a numbing sort of cold that I had never experienced, a frosty frigidity that attacked with an unforgiving icy grip.

First Stop, the Grand Tetons just outside of Jackson, Wyo.
That's not to say there weren't warm and unforgettable moments during the trip. All three of us had spent time in the area and seen most of the major attractions, but the region glistens with an icy charm during the winter that melts away in the spring and summer.

Since we were all a little skittish about driving on icy roads, we booked two, day-long tours and left the driving and navigating to seasoned guides. The first focused on wildlife around the Grand Tetons and the second on the natural wonders to be found in Yellowstone.

Turns out, even in the dead of winter, there's lots to discover and lots to see if you know where to look. Fortunately Steve, our guide, knew where the elk and bison were wintering; also, a herd of mountain goats, some coyotes, a bald eagle or three, and a wandering moose.

So, why did the moose cross the road? Because he could!
The wildlife was strikingly positioned about the majestic peaks and tranquil valleys of the Grand Tetons, a poetic placement that managed to be both natural and wondrous; thanks and a tip of the beanie to Mother Nature!

The next day we traveled an hour or so north of Jackson in a specially outfitted van -- really big tires to handle roads and trails filled with slush -- to explore the natural wonders of Yellowstone.

The National Park spreads across 3,500 square miles of land in the northwest corner of Wyoming -- it bleeds over into Idaho and Montana -- and I imagine we managed to cover about 50 or so miles from the park's southern entrance to the Upper Geyser Basin.

The area, filled with the largest concentration of geysers in the world, was decked out in a dazzling coat of ice and snow. The sky was a frigid blue, the perfect backdrop for all the natural wonders and beauty on display.

Yellowstone is a geothermal wonderland.
We even got to see Old Faithful pop off before venturing off on a short hike that included an up close and personal look at a series of hot springs and mud pots. The surrounding landscape, meanwhile, offered up an extravagant mural of wintry delights: icy brooks and waterfalls, snow-covered woods and mountain peaks, and achingly beautiful meadows that -- at least poetically -- stretched into tomorrow.

The trip, as expected, was memorable -- and, yes, brutally cold! The weather, however, was manageable because we spent 30 minutes each morning dressing for anything Mother Nature might toss our way.

That meant after tugging on a base layer of Merino wool underwear, I followed with a pair of warm and water-resistant socks, thermal snow pants, a flannel shirt, sweater vest and fleece hoodie, quilted puffer jacket, balaclava and woolen beanie. Finally, after pulling on and lacing up a pair of Merrill Thermo Chill Mid-Waterproof boots, I was good to go. And go we did.

Up Next: Someplace warm and toasty!