Flying through the Fog

‚ÄúIf you can‚Äôt see the mountain, don‚Äôt waste your time,‚ÄĚ is what I read over and over when doing research on visiting Grouse Mountain. ¬†But, I don‚Äôt like being told what to do, so we walked to Canada Place and hopped a shuttle to the base of the mountain. ¬†We were hoping to go paragliding but fog seemed to be clinging to the mountain with no indication of dissipating anytime soon thus cancelling all paragliding tours. ¬†However, the ziplines were running, so we purchased a zipline time for a little later in the day hoping to give the skies time to clear.

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Tickets in hand, we boarded the skyride which lifted us to the top of the mountain.  There we checked out the Lumberjack Show which even in the front row was hard to see due to the thick fog.  After the show, we took a hike with a guide who tried to tell us what we would see if it weren’t so foggy.  He gave us indications of how high the snow gets in the winter, where bears had created trails, and stories about First Nations people.

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Between the rain, fog, and wind, I was having a hard time staying warm.  At this point I was regretting the decision to leave the fleece in the hotel room.  So, in an attempt to both kill time and keep warm, we headed over to the two resident grizzly bears, Coola and Grinder.  Both bears were orphaned and brought to the mountain to be cared for by park rangers.  I watched as they lumbered around their habitat thankful that we had not run into bears this large in Ketchikan only days before.  These two bears were massive with intimidating claws that inspired a healthy fear of them.

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The fog had turned to drizzle as we made our way to the zip lining building.  There we met up with the guides and a girl from New Zealand that would be joining us.  A few minutes were spent going over how to safely hook up to the zips as well as the correct position for stopping.  These zips were not the kind that you find in the Caribbean where you use your hand to break, instead you flip back in your sling, shoot your feet straight into the air, and slam into a giant spring which stops you at the next platform.

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We practiced our form on the first zip which was very short and went above a walkway where people were headed to see the grizzly bears.  This was one of the only lines in which we could actually see the ending platform.  Lines two and three were longer than the previous and allowed us time to play around with our camera.

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Then we jumped on the Alpine Lift that took us further up the mountain for zips four and five.  Here we chatted with our new Kiwi friend who was living in Vancouver to do an internship as a doctor.  As we ascended the mountain, the fog grew even thicker.

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As Geoff and I prepared to race each other on zip four, we could not see the other platform.  As we stepped off and headed at speeds upwards of 50mph, we were enveloped in the fog.  The tops of pine trees poked out of the fog in our immediate sight line, but looking forward there was nothing but thick grey and white clouds.  The only sound was the whir of the zip line as we sped toward the next platform.  Being encased in fog was quite surreal.  What we could see of the forest below us took on a mystical feeling, and I felt like phantom flying through the air.  One minute later, we were slamming into the spring jarring us back to reality.

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The last zipline included a very steep hike to the next platform. ¬†The ‚Äústairs‚ÄĚ we had to climb were hewn out of the mountain and were sometimes so high I had to literally climb them with hands and feet. ¬†Arriving at the wooden platform was a relief so that I could catch my breath before ascending fifty more stairs and hooking up to the last line. ¬†All of the work getting to the last zipline was so worth it. ¬†It was over 200 feet high and,if I remember correctly, ¬†about a mile long. ¬†¬†¬†Within five feet of leaving the platform all I could see was Geoff next to me. ¬†¬†Arms flung wide open, we sailed down the last zip, the wind slapping our faces. ¬†There was an overwhelming silence as we cut through the fog which was punctuated by the slamming force of both of our slings hitting the springs indicating the end of our flying experience.

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While our day on Grouse Mountain did not include the sweeping views of downtown Vancouver that the brochures promised, we were rewarded in other ways.  I’m sure that when most people picture zip lining they view tropical lush canyons or white sand beaches.  Zip lining through the fog beats zip lining in any of those places hands down.  On my next trip to Vancouver, I would love to head up Grouse Mountain again, but maybe this time I’ll hit the snow-covered zips and and try my hand at some snowboarding.

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Skagway’s Gold Rush Cemetery and Lower Reid Falls

On our eighth wedding anniversary, we docked in Skagway ready for a day of vehicular exploration.  Off the ship at 8 A.M., my dad and I headed for downtown Skagway to pick up our van for the day.

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A quaint National Park Visitor Center

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This building is made entirely out of sticks.

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We spent a few minutes exploring the historic gold rush town, before driving to the Gold Rush Cemetery.  The cemetery, located behind the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad Depot,  held the trains we would view a few times throughout the day.  In this historic cemetery con man Soapy Smith and heroic Frank Reid lay as a reminder of the bygone gold rush era.  With the mountain surrounding us and the Chilkoot Trail not far from us, it was easy to imagine a prospector with his one ton of food making his way to the Klondike with hopes of striking it rich.

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Not but a few feet behind this storied graveyard plummets a 300 foot waterfall named after Skagway’s hero, Frank Reid.  So with a short hike up a rocky trail, we were met with the misty spray of a lovely waterfall.  It was turning out to be a great start to our day.

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Bears and Salmon: The Circle of Life Continues

Alaska brings to mind some very specific images of playful sea otters, graceful humpbacks, sleek orcas, and gangly moose.  For me the majestic grizzly was the one animal I hoped to see up close.  Bears are fascinating creatures, protective, playful, predatory, and pretty.  To be able to observe them in their own habitat without the confines of bars or fences was one of the top items on my Alaska checklist.

Since bear viewing was at the top of Geoff’s list too, I jumped into research mode finding Michelle with Island Wings Air Service.  There was not a negative review to be read about Michelle’s operation, so after having both our parents jump on board, we set aside a large chunk of our vacation money to book a float plane excursion to Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory.  This is not an excursion to book late.  With only 80 passes procured each year, Anan Creek bear watching is for the advance planner.

So nearly one year after booking, we were boarding a van to the Island Wing’s dock where we would meet Michelle before packing ourselves into her DeHavailland Beaver named Lady Esther II.  There is no hyperbole when I say we packed ourselves into the plane which seated our party of six, our bear guide, and Michelle.

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Meet the Lady Esther II

Michelle was a great guide, talking to us about everything from life in Alaska, to her plane, to the bears we were going to see.  She did her best to make us all feel at ease, especially my mother-in-law who is afraid of flying.  Michelle told her that she had the best seat since she had no window to see out of easily.

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Here we go; my first float plane ride.

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Views of Misty Fjords National Monument

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Shaky float plane selfie

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More Misty Fjords National Monument

The 45 minute flight lead us along the outer boundary of Misty Fjords National Monument before dropping us off in Wrangell where we would hike the half mile to the viewing platform.  While the flight was mostly smooth, the tiny confines and bumpy arrival did not help with my motion sickness.  Upon landing and disembarking the plane, my first stop was to the latrine to promptly throw up in the cleanest latrine I have ever seen.

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Not so nauseous anymore

Feeling immensely better, we began the hike to the viewing platform.  The forest rangers at the trailhead reminded us to leave any and all food with them before heading down the path.  We knew not to bring food, so we left nothing.  The hike to the platform was uneventful and our shotgun armed guide pointed out all the signs of bear activity along the route.

We paused to look at salmonberries which bears love to eat, and come to find out so do I.  Ferns and mushrooms covered the forest floor, but no bears were to be seen.  Our guide pointed out bear claw marks and scat, but still no bears.  Anticipation was running high, and I was so hopeful that we wouldn’t be disappointed.  After all we had forked out over two-thirds of our excursion money just on this one trip.

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Our first salmon viewing

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Our guide called this bear bread.

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A bear was here. I’d hate to have a closer encounter with those claws.

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Anan Creek

About a half an hour later we arrived at the viewing point perched on the side of Anan Creek. ¬†As soon as we climbed the stairs to the platform, we were greeted by another forest ranger who motioned us over to the railing to view our first bear–a grizzly.

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My first grizzly viewing

The bear was beautiful.  His slick fur glistened in the misty air like overgeled hair.  He entertained us like a playful puppy with his splashing and pouncing as he tried to fish for salmon for over a half an hour before catching one to eat.  When he tired of fishing, he wandered upstream running and splashing in the cool creek waters and providing us with the best show.

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Predator spotting his prey

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Going for the kill

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Success!

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Round two

Only after our grizzly wandered upcreek did the black bears feel safe to fish for themselves.  The forest ranger informed us that the black bears don’t like the grizzlies and will hide until they leave.

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Snacks

One by one they started to show themselves.  They climbed out of the trees, from under our viewing platform, and from across the creek bank all converging on the salmon-filled stream.  In those moments, my camera never stopped snapping.  In fact I was so absorbed with capturing their fishing skills on camera, I didn’t notice that a bear was literally inches from me.  The only thing separating me from her was a wooden railing that provided no protection at all.

My own mama bear was watching though and pulled me away from the railing to a safer distance.

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My stealthy companion

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My own mama bear

Our viewing continued for a few hours with Geoff and I taking turns capturing photos and making trips to the photo blind directly on the creek bed.  In the moments when the bears weren’t visible, we focused our attention on the eagles, like winged rats, scavenging the fish carcassas from the shoreline.  And when we grew board of the eagles, there were always the impressive salmon expending their energy to make it upstream where they would spawn then die.

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Perched for the leftovers

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Majestic and beautiful

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Swim salmon swim

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You can do it!

The highlight of our trip came about forty minutes before leaving Anan Creek.  We were blessed with what the ranger called, a rare appearance.  A mama and her cub came out to eat.  That cub was the cutest thing I have ever seen.  He followed his mom everywhere.  He tried to imitate everything she did including fjording the rushing stream.  Smartly, the little cub realized the rushing waters were too much for him, and he ran around a rock outcropping to meet her on the other side.

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His best antic though was his tree climbing. ¬†This little cub could scale the tree quick as lightning, but he hadn‚Äôt quite mastered the descent part. ¬†Stuck, he began bawling for his mama which literally sounded like he was saying, ‚Äúmaaam,‚ÄĚ over and over again.

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Where’s my mom?

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Have you seen my mom?

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Mom?

Somehow mama talked him down and the began to retreat into the forest, but not before a bear fight erupted six inches to the left of the platform.  As mama and cub walked towards the forest, mama did not like something that the male bear did and she charged him.  As the mama bear charged, everyone on the platform retreated to the far side.  We watched in terror and awe as mama bear chased the male bear up the tree that was precariously hanging over the platform and our heads.  Being around wild animals never really frightens me, but my adrenaline was pumping as I was thinking how quickly someone on that platform could easily become bear lunch.

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Don’t mess with my baby!

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Scaredy bear

Once mama had eliminated the threat, she didn’t pay any attention to the petrified humans watching her retreat.

After such a climax, it was time to make our retreat to catch our flight back.  Our guide rounded us up and secured us a passage back to the trail.  We hiked bearless to a new pick-up point up and down the rocky shoreline.  As we heard our plane approach we were a little bit away from the pick-up location, so our 70-year-old guide kicked into high gear, leaving us all huffing and puffing to keep up with him.

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All members present and accounted for

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Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory

Carefully we reboarded the plane smiling as we remembered the seventeen bears we had encountered that afternoon.  Sadly, a short 40 minutes later we were returning to our cruise ship and bidding a fond farewell to Michelle.  Even though the highlight of our trip was over, I will never forget that first glimpse of the circle of life completed by a fishing grizzly on the banks of Anan Creek.   

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An Icy Dream

Seeing a glacier up close had been something I was dreaming about for all of the months leading up to our trip. ¬†And when I saw the fog that morning, I was hoping that it wasn’t going stay a dream. ¬†The fog hovered above Auke Bay as we transferred from the Zuiderdam to our catamaran operated by Allen Marine Tours. ¬†Quickly the Zuiderdam was swallowed by the fog as she sailed on towards Juneau. ¬†We would be meeting up with her in about five and a half hours. ¬†In the meantime, we made ourselves comfortable on the second¬†heated level of the catamaran just in time to see the signature hump¬†of a humpback whale. ¬†Our captain stayed in the area for about 10 minutes allowing the port side to get a fantastic view of the whale before we moved on towards our goal–South Sawyer Glacier.

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Humpback whales are so graceful as they make their way out of the water.

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Good bye Zuiderdam, see you in a few hours.

The catamaran was equipped with padded seats and a pair of binoculars for each passenger.   We sat on the second level which provided quick access to the open air decks, but offered us a place to warm up from time to time.  On the first level there was a galley with complimentary hot chocolate, tea, and water.  Alcohol, soda, and food were for sale as well.

The aqua water was deceiving, reminding me more of warm Caribbean beaches instead of the frigid Alaskan icebergs that were periodically floating along.  One step out of the heated cabin onto the frigid deck ,and I was quickly reminded that I was in Alaska and not headed to some Caribbean island.

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Granite cliffs ending in aqua water that was carved by Sawyer Glacier.

Our entire trip up Tracy Arm Fjord was loaded with scenery.  From waterfalls to glacier-carved mountains, the view did not disappoint.  Our skilled captain maneuvered the boat close enough to the granite rock faces that we could feel the waterfall spray as the water plummeted to the bay below.

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Iceberg dead ahead!

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The sheer granite cliffs allow for hundreds of waterfalls.

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Family waterfall selfie

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Feel that frigid waterfall spray!

As we progressed further up the fjord, the icebergs became more frequent, dazzling us in both shape and color.  The phrase ice blue has new meaning after seeing South Sawyer Glacier and her icebergs that floated down the fjord.

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Harbor seal hanging out in the safety of an iceberg.

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The closer we get, the denser the ice field we have to sail through.

Before we knew it, we were rounding a striated rock face and before us was the glacier.  A tiny shelf in the distance.  Geoff and I decided to climb to the third deck at this time so that we could be on the railing when we arrived at South Sawyer Glacier.    It was in this next  hour that I was so happy for the layers of clothing I brought.  The wind cut through every scrap of clothing i had on.  I spent a lot of time hopping from foot to foot to keep my blood flowing, and even though I was becoming my own type of iceberg, I was not about to give up my prime real estate along the railing for people-free pictures.

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There she is, South Sawyer Glacier

The captain, who had my complete confidence, expertly negotiated the dense ice field bringing us within a quarter of a mile of the glacier face. ¬† While we weren’t rewarded with any calving ¬†here, we were able to see several harbor seals lounging on icebergs. ¬†The star of the show was glacier itself. ¬†Nearly a mile wide ¬†I felt dwarfed by it‚Äôs massive wall. ¬†¬†¬†¬†In the crevasses the blues ranged from lighter shades of baby to deep royal and indigo. ¬†¬†¬†With popsicle fingers and hundreds of pictures, we returned to the heated cabin to enjoy our sail back to Juneau.

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Half a mile away

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Look at those shades of blue

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Leaving South Sawyer Glacier

As we made our way towards Juneau, the ¬†weather, which ¬†was perfect on our trip up the fjord, quickly started to ¬†deteriorate . ¬†That wall of fog we had left behind with the Zuiderdam was waiting for us along with rain. ¬†To pass the time, Geoff and I ¬†shared ¬†a turkey wrap Coke, and caramel corn and watched tiny puffins float by the side of the boat. ¬†The warm cabin, my full belly, and the rocking of the waves put me to sleep on our way back to Juneau. ¬†It was a good thing that the weather was so dreary that even if there was wildlife to spot, I would never have been able to see it. ¬†And just like that, we arrived in Juneau. ¬†I woke up ¬†from my cat nap wondering if the beauty I had just witnessed was truly just a dream. ¬†Thank goodness I have the pictures to remind me it wasn’t .

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The Juneau fog was waiting for us.

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Chilly day, great memories

Nothing Soothes Disappointment Like King Crab Legs

I love seafood.  Cruising through Alaska I was most looking forward to having salmon and halibut, but more than anything, I was looking forward to having Alaskan king crab legs.  After a not-so-great experience with crab legs in the Pinnacle Grill on the ship, I was able to indulge on the one of the best meals of my life!

The day we spent in Juneau was supposed to be jam packed.  We were scheduled to visit Tracy Arm Fjord in the morning, and within an hour of returning to our ship, we were to meet our helicopter pilot who was going to take us glacier hiking.  Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate that day.  The fog was so thick that every helicopter flight had been cancelled throughout the day, and ours was no exception.  Disappointed, we found ourselves with a block of open time.

As we walked through Juneau, I felt like I was in the Caribbean. ¬†Diamonds International, Del Sol, t-shirt stores, and other cruise sponsored shopping lined the streets. ¬†Nothing felt authentic until we walked past the gift shop of Tracy‚Äôs King Crab Shack, and while the gift shop was definitely another tourist trap, the ‚Äúshack‚ÄĚ behind served up nothing but the best.

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This doesn’t look like a shack to me!

 

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Mmmmm!

Geoff doesn’t like seafood, but he humored me as I ordered the Crab Shack Combo which included one giant king crab leg, four crab cakes, a cup of crab bisque, and a couple of garlic rolls.  We topped that off with a couple of Alaskan Summer Ales, and made our way to find a picnic table.

By this time it was starting to rain again, so it was really appreciated that all the picnic tables were under cover complete with plastic sides to keep us dry.  So we sipped our summer ales as pieces of our meal were delivered.

First up were the crab cakes. ¬†They were perfectly crispy and accompanied with a tangy sauce. ¬†Geoff helped me eat them, and agreed that they were pretty good. ¬†Quickly following was the crab bisque, which was creamy and comforting on the rainy afternoon especially after a few drops of tabasco sauce were added. ¬†For a non-crab lover, Geoff did a pretty good job of finishing up that bisque. ¬†A few of the tastiest garlic rolls came followed by the star of the show–the king crab leg.

 

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Second best meal, ever.

Cracker in hand, I went after that leg like it was going to run away.  I plucked the red tinted, snow white meat from the shell and popped it in my mouth.  It’s sweetness exploded on my tongue moving this meal to the second best one I’ve ever had.  (The best meal was in Japan and also involved super fresh seafood and Kobe beef.)  This crab was perfect the way it was, and didn’t need an ounce of drawn butter, so that remained on the table untouched.  Each bite went a long way to replace the glacier hiking disappointment I had been carrying around with pure happiness.

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Watch out, I’m diving in.

If I ever venture to Juneau again, Tracy’s King Crab Shack will definitely be a scheduled stop. As I write this, my mouth is watering from the memories.  This is not a place to drop in on by chance. And while it is a little bit of an investment, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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You can be a crab fisherman too.

Vancouver’s Swinging Jewel

Vancouver is an expensive city, and any attraction that offers free transportation to its gates moves to the top of my must-see list.  Capilano Suspension Bridge Park was our first stop post cruise, and after dropping luggage at our post-cruise hotel, we were off for a day of exploring.  With a conveniently located shuttle stop at Library Square, only feet from our hotel door, we were whisked away for a 15 minute narrated tour on a comfy bus.

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Selfies outside the park

It was a foggy, rainy, overcast morning, but that didn’t dampen our spirits nor those of the employees at Capilano.  Everyone from the bus driver to the guy that served us our ice cream was so pleasant that we easily forget about the less-than-ideal weather conditions.  Thank goodness for my North Face rain jacket that I purchased pre-trip.  It was worth every penny!  However, even if I wasn’t prepared for the weather with my great jacket, the park hands out free yellow ponchos.  Yes, free!  Being from the land of Disney where they charge upwards of $10 for a rain poncho, it was quite refreshing to see the park take such good care of their guests.  The poncho really came in handy for us to keep our backpack covered and our camera equipment dry. IMG_4188 Upon entering the park, we were first presented with the history of the park in a well done display.  Artifacts, photographs, and and informational placards tell the story of the bridge that dates back to 1889 when its first visitors traversed from one side of the Capilano River to the other.  From there the path leads to the largest display of First Nations totems in British Columbia.  Each totem tells its own story and there are park guides on hand to help you interpret what they say.

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Part of the park’s storytelling display

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Dwarfed by totems

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First Nations artwork

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Do you want your picture in a totem pole? Why yes, I do!

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Such personality in the carving

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I love the bold colors and expressions on this totem.

Leaving the totems behind we decided to explore the newest feature of the park, the Cliffwalk.  Opened in 2011, the Cliffwalk offers explorers the opportunity to walk suspended 300 feet over the Capliano River.  Not for the faint of heart, the walkway is secured into the granite face of the canyon wall and hovers over the canyon floor beneath it.  So after descending a series of stairs, I was plopped on a 20 inch walkway keeping me from plummeting to the canyon floor below.  This was a single line endeavor as our party inched our way along the path.  Bring patience with you because on a busy day you will stop and wait while other families capture that perfect photograph, much like we did.

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Family time on the cliffwalk. Thank goodness for that free poncho!

The highlight of the Cliffwalk is the curve that made me feel as if I was floating over the forest.  To my right, the granite canyon.  To my left, the fog-filled air.  I had to keep reminding myself I wasn’t on a series of switchbacks climbing a canyon trail, but instead floating to side of it.  The eeriness of the fog and drops of plopping rain helped add to the surreal mood.  If I closed my eyes, I could actually imagine what it might be like to be an explorer making my way through the dense forest.

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The perilous cliffwalk shrouded in fog.

Before long, my feet were back on solid ground, but not for long.  The next stop would be park’s namesake.  The suspension bridge.

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Busy day on the bridge

I love a good suspension bridge!  The rocking and instability makes it feel like I’m on some kind of super easy version of Wipeout.  Thankfully there are no flying projectiles to dodge, just hoards of other visitors.

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My first crossing and core workout for the day.

450 feet across, the bridge can hold a 747 with 22 elephants stacked on top.  Knowing  that it would not snap and send us 230 feet to the river below helped ease any fears our group had of wading through the 150+ people making their way across on the bridge with us. While there are signs asking visitors not to intentionally swing the bridge, many of the kids and teens did just that which made the walking fun but the picture taking almost impossible.  Five minutes later we were pulling ourselves to the platform on the other side of the river. IMG_4281 On this side of the park, we headed for the Treetops Adventure.  I imagined being an Ewok moving from tree to tree.  After hanging in the air, it was time to explore the ground on the Nature’s Edge Boardwalk, but not before stopping to hear what the bird handlers had to say at Raptor’s Ridge.  A falcon and red-tailed hawk were on display for visitors to get an upclose view.  A Great Horned Owl rounded out the trio, but he was not on display when we walked by the handlers.

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A little soft serve ice cream before climbing in the trees…fuel up!

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My moment as an Ewok

Along the boardwalk, views of the river greeted us and and we viewed the suspension bridge from a lower perspective.  Closer to the river it was much easier to see just how high that suspension bridge really was.  We walked among 500-year-old trees and marveled at their majesty.  Their grandeur all the greater due to the foggy conditions. IMG_4275

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Ancient trees graced the paths we walked through.

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Beauty among the boardwalk

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I could be a Great Horned Owl!

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I think William Blake pretty much captures the idea of nature perfectly.

Sadly, it was time to exit our treetop experience and with it the park. ¬†But before exiting we stopped by guest services to pick up our “I Made It” certificates verifying that we now inducted into the Capilano family. ¬†We had thoroughly enjoyed every moment spent suspended over the cliffwalk, swinging on the suspension bridge, and moving among the trees like squirrels. ¬†Vancouver truly has a jewel in Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, and I hope that it continues to shine for the next 125 years.

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A special thanks to Samantha from the park’s Media Relations who came in on her day off to give me a quick tour of the park.

North to Alaska

The suitcases are unpacked and the washing machine is on its own marathon at the moment. Life is returning to normal after hours of flying, days of early rising, miles of walking, and thousands of calories consumed. In a word, our trip was amazing.

One year of reading, researching, and revising travel plans was played out over the last two weeks, and I have to say that all of that planning really did pay off. I spent countless hours reading books, blogs, message boards, and any other website a Google search provided about each and every place that we visited. We were able to see and experience so many different things that its hard to wrap my head around every detail right now.

As we headed North to Alaska, we began our journey in the Pacific Northwest including, Mt. Rainier, Seattle, Vancouver, and finally ending in Southeastern Alaska. The we in this adventure consisted of myself and my husband, my in-laws, and my parents. And over the course of the past two weeks I

  • learned what a Hoary Marmot is
  • dipped my toes in the Pacific Ocean
  • watched Humpback Whales
  • experienced the beauty of a glacier
  • savored the best crab legs ever
  • was within three inches of a bear
  • was swallowed by fog
  • walked among the treetops
  • biked Stanley Park

This is by far, the highlight list, and I as I go through each of the 3500+ pictures we took, I am reliving each of those moments. Moments I plan to share with you in more detail.

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John Hopkins’ Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park