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Desert delights in Tucson

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Sonoran desert

The pigs attacked shortly after dawn.

The first indication was a dust cloud billowing from the bushes beyond the swimming pool, closely followed by deep, guttural belching.

Javelina pigs are native to the American southwest, extremely shortsighted, and smell like skunk. Perhaps for the last two reasons, they seem to be permanently agitated. Thankfully for us, they were attacking each other in what turned out to be a short-lived domestic dispute.

Short-sighted, smelly and agitated - Javelina pigs.

Short-sighted, smelly and agitated – Javelina pigs.

“If they approach you on a trail, they probably can’t see you,” said our guide, Koi. “Make some noise and they’ll go away.”

Koi works for Southwest Trekking, a professional guide service that offers guests of the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass Hotel free sunrise walks into Tucson Mountain Park. The 6 a.m. start might hurt a little on vacation, but the reward is a fascinating introduction to the unique landscape of the Sonoran Desert.

This is the only place where the saguaro cactus grows wild and many were blooming thanks to nightly thunderstorms during our late-August visit.

“They’re supposed to bloom in May but something’s going on,” said Koi, who showed us another cactus native to the Sonoran Desert, the so-called jumping cholla. The cholla’s stems are easily detached and love nothing more than to reattach to anyone or anything unlucky enough to be close by. The spines are barbed and extremely painful to remove.

Between Tucson and the Mexican border an hour south, the United States’ only population of jaguars roams. I was OK with not seeing one, but we did see several deer, including a buck.

The Marriott Starr Pass: "Too nice," according to Emma Judd.

The Marriott Starr Pass: “Too nice,” according to Emma Judd.

Post-hike, we drank coffee on the Marriott terrace overlooking Tucson, a city I visit for business several times a year. This was the first time I’d been able to bring my family and I had a long list of favourite places to show them: Maybe too long.

The first problem was the Marriott Starr Pass. “It’s too nice,” explained my daughter, Emma, as we floated one more time around the hotel’s lazy river in an inflatable. “Why would I want to leave this?”

“There are wild pigs out there,” my wife, Leah, chimed in. My son, Ryan, conceded that he might be willing to get off his sunbed to play golf at Starr Pass Golf Club: in a few hours.

So it was with some coercion, the Judd family arrived at San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson. When first glimpsed amid dusty farmland from Highway 19, San Xavier del Bac looks like an oasis. Gleaming white with two towers and a cupola, the church is as old as the United States itself and the quintessential example of Spanish colonial architecture.

San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson.

San Xavier del Bac, a Spanish Catholic mission 16 kilometres south of Tucson.

Enter through the impressive carved mesquite-wood doors and you’ll find the interior is just as dramatic. Candles flicker beneath an eclectic mix of religious devotion: paintings, carvings, statues and frescoes fill the church, which was built between 1783 and 1797 (replacing an earlier version built in 1700). It has since survived earthquakes, lightning strikes, and leaky walls, and continues to host daily mass.

We lingered in the pews before heading outside to buy sweet Indian fry bread from a vendor in the car park. We walked it off by climbing Grotto Hill, a short walk from the church and the best place to snap panoramic shots.

No one seemed in a rush to get back to the lazy river. We we’re on a roll, so we headed east to the Pima Air and Space Museum. You’d need several days to fully explore the museum’s 80 acres inside and out. And I needed several hours to sort through the 500 photos I took there. Center-stage in the museum’s main hangar is the Lockheed Blackbird, a plane that will evoke childhood memories for anyone who grew up in the 70s playing the card game, Top Trumps. In the aircraft issue of Top Trumps, Blackbird was a virtually unbeatable card. It flew from New York to London in less than two hours, and from Los Angeles to Washington DC in 64 minutes. Nothing could touch it for speed (2,193 mph) and cruising altitude (85,069 feet).

One of the 500 photos I took at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

One of the 500 photos I took at the Pima Air and Space Museum.

Just a few feet from Blackbird is the Bede BD-5 Micro-Jet, which appeared in the 1983 James Bond film, Octopussy. Almost 13 feet long, the BD-5 was apparently sold in kit form but proved to be beyond the abilities of most homebuilders to complete. (Presumably it wasn’t flown much.)

There’s much to keep you indoors at the museum, and not just the air conditioning. Several exhibitions pay tribute to space travel and World War II, but the huge variety of planes outside on the tarmac were worth braving 40-degree heat to see. Besides behemoths like the Boeing B52 collection and oddities like Aero Spacelines’ Super Guppy (which looks like it should be in an aquarium or a cartoon), there are planes displaying from nose to tail the work of acclaimed street artists and mural designers.

I refused to allow the family back to the hotel until we’d visited my favourite place to eat in Tucson, the Guadalajara Grill on Prince Street. Hand-made tortillas, salsa prepared table-side, a roaming mariachi band, and fresh margaritas served in glasses the size of fish bowls – the Guadalajara Grill by itself is worth visiting Tucson for: Especially if you don’t have to go to work the next morning.

Tucson view

Good morning Tucson!

Back at the Marriott the next day, the male half of the family followed in the footsteps of Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson at the Starr Pass Golf Club. Golf is a huge lure for Tucson visitors, with the city boasting numerous award-winning courses. Many of them cut their prices on mid-summer afternoons for those willing to bear Arizona’s heat. (Tucson is drier and generally a few degrees cooler than Phoenix, 90 minutes’ drive north.)

Starr Pass is no exception. The club features 27 holes divided into three nines played in three different 18-hole combinations. We played the Roadrunner nine, the club’s shortest circuit, which was just as well, having lost all our original balls by Hole 8. The afternoon thunder clouds seemed to be beckoning us inside and at the first sign of forked lightning, we called it a day.

That evening we ventured downtown to Reilly, which combines pizza and craft beer in a century-old building that used to house a mortuary and funeral home. Any morbid thoughts were soon banished by parm truffle fries, roasted crimini mushroom pizza, and Brussel sprouts in sherry, hot sauce and pecan brittle crumbs. Reilly epitomizes the resurgence of Tucson’s downtown, which features numerous bars and restaurants with inventive menus in historic premises restored to former glory. Perhaps the classiest of them all is the Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

Hotel Congress, built in 1919, and now a thriving music venue, as well as housing a restaurant and bar.

A great way to see downtown and learn some of its history is by bicycle with guide, Jimmy Bultman, who runs Tucson Bike Tours. Dive bars, food trucks, a pinball arcade and downtown’s historic neighbourhoods feature in the sunset tour, which I did in April. I enjoyed it so much I rented a bike and covered much of the same ground by myself the very next day.

Jimmy turns kayak guide elsewhere during Tucson’s summer months, but he’s back now. The city is home to a growing bicycle network, including The Loop – more than 100 miles of trail shared with skaters, joggers and horse riders. In the foothills and mountains beyond the city is an extensive network of mountain bike trails.

And for the ultimate in relaxation, there’s always the lazy river at the Marriott Starr Pass. Just give the pigs a wide berth.

yo ma dawgs

If you go:

  • Marriott Starr Pass offers deals starting at $129 a night. Visit marriott.com/hotels or call +1-520-792-3500.
  • For more on the Pima Air and Space Museum, visit pimaair.org
  • Details of Jimmy Bultman’s bicycle tours are at tucsonbiketours.com
  • Desert hiking and biking tours are available through Southwest Trekking at swtrekking.com
  • visittucson.org is a good resource for anyone planning a visit to the city.
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Written by nevjudd

February 15, 2016 at 10:23 pm

The Missing Link: Connecting the Coast to Squamish

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Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

Yellow sections on this Google Earth map indicate about 10 kilometres of work needed to complete a trail connecting Sechelt with Squamish.

The map looks straightforward at first. As the crow flies, little more than 50 kilometres separate Sechelt and Squamish. Then you notice contour lines, crammed together like intense low-pressure systems, numerous splashes of white, indicating icy peaks, and deep blue streaks showing alpine lakes and ocean inlets. In between are green valleys that never seem to quite connect. Old logging roads, new hydroelectric projects, powerlines and pipelines present an extra layer of complexity revealed by Google Earth.

A cursory Internet search turns up more than 100 years of failed attempts to build a road system between the Sunshine Coast and “the mainland”.

So when Geoff Breckner tells me he’s about 10 kilometres away from completing a 75-kilometre trail connector, I’m interested.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley.

If successful, the trail would reveal a side of the Sunshine Coast unfamiliar to most residents, including a series of spectacular waterfalls between Pokosha Pass and Clowhom Valley. All photos courtesy Geoff Breckner

“With 10 capable guys and permission it could be finished in a week or two,” Breckner tells me by phone from Squamish. “But there are channels to go through, rules to be followed … funding.”

Breckner is recovering from major back surgery. When his doctor advised him to exercise he began hiking into the backcountry near his home in Squamish. The 53-year-old estimates he spent 200 hours during the last two summers working on the Squamish end of the trail.

A self-described “mountainbiking nut,” and “bush rat,” Breckner grew up in Deep Cove when the sport was still a novelty. He opened Pemberton’s first bike store, High Line Cycles, in 1994. A trail connecting Squamish with the Sunshine Coast makes a lot of sense, he says.

“I thought this was a great place for a bike trail. I knew there were logging roads up there and I researched as much as I could, checking out the feasibility of a route to Sechelt.”

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Geoff Breckner’s tent at the south side of Pokosha Pass, near Mount Jimmy Jimmy.

Visit Breckner’s Facebook site ‘Squamish to Sechelt Trail’ and you’ll see a Google Earth image of the proposed route. From Upper Squamish and the Ashlu River Road, the route first heads north over existing trail through 4,000-foot Pokosha Pass before heading south, then due west following Clowhom Lake to Salmon Inlet, skirting the Tetrahedron Provincial Park, and on towards Sechelt via the Coast Gravity Bike Park.

About 55 kilometres of double track roads, and 20 kilometres of single track trails make up the route, says Breckner. The 10 kilometres still to be cleared comprise three sections of one kilometer, four kilometres and five kilometres.

“Once complete, it would be a long ride – two days for most people, but I hope to have a hut or shelter so people don’t need a tent and can travel light,” says Breckner. “The main problem would be lack of use, rather than overuse. The more use the better, to keep trail maintained and established.”

Breckner has received numerous offers of help from this side of the divide. Doug Feniak of Tillicum Bay is among those pledging assistance.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

A self-described mountainbiking nut, Geoff Breckner rarely goes anywhere without his ride.

Feniak grew up riding with Breckner in Deep Cove. “It was a dream of ours when we were young, to be able to ride from Squamish to the Coast,” says Feniak. “We hiked into the Tetrahedron in August, looking for the best way. It’s super steep into Thornhill Creek but it shouldn’t be too bad after that because it’s old roads covered with Alders.”

Trails are in the Feniak family’s blood. Wife Jessica Huntington and son Linden both build trails, the latter professionally. Daughter, Holly, was 2012 downhill mountainbike Junior World Champion.

Doug says he expects to have a group working on this end of the trail in the fall.

“It would certainly be good for tourism here and I could see the B.C. Bike Race using it,” says Feniak.

Long-time local trailbuilder, Richard Culbert, says a trail to Squamish is “common sense”.

Culbert built the trail to the summit of Mt. Elphinstone, opening it on his 70th birthday. Now at 75, he’s busy clearing a trail up 4,700-foot Polytope Peak, which connects with Rainy River Road and Port Mellon due south. He believes that a trail from Squamish stands a better chance of completion if it veers south to Port Mellon, rather than to Sechelt.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It's about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

Salmon Inlet from the top of Gray Creek Forest Service Road, looking north across Thornhill towards Clowhom valley. It’s about 60km from here to upper Squamish.

“The trail I’m working on is about a kilometer from a logging road, which appears to connect with this route,” says Culbert pointing at a printed version of Breckner’s route. “It also avoids Thornhill Creek [near Salmon Inlet] where the road is covered in alders.”

Warren Hansen concurs. “That gap after Salmon Inlet is some of the most rugged terrain I’ve ever walked in,” says Hansen, forester/area manager for Chartwell Consultants and an avid trailbuilder. “A lot of that area was logged in the 60s and 70s, so we’re talking about logging roads half a century old – many of which have been heavily deactivated and are covered in alder.

“I admire following an idea, but I worry about the sustainability of it,” adds Hansen. “The skeptical side of me thinks that there won’t be enough people using it. It will need to be on a lot of people’s bucket lists to make it sustainable.”

Hansen identifies with Breckner on one level.

“I believe in unfettered access to crown land. You live in the city, you can’t do this and that, but you have spoon-fed amenities. In a rural environment you don’t have those amenities, but you do have unfettered access to crown land. You can hike it, bike it, pick mushrooms in it, build trails. So you use it as you see fit, knowing that one day, it might be logged.”

Perhaps the person most excited about a possible connection is Bjorn Enga. The Granthams Landing-based filmmaker is the founder of Kranked, an online store for electric-assisted mountainbikes. They may upset purists, but bikes capable of climbing mountains in minutes, as opposed to hours, are catching on, says Enga.

“I’ve been riding on the Coast since 2000, and it’s an amazing coastline,” he says. “Suddenly, I’m thinking how much more I can see up there riding an e-bike. Imagine how phenomenal it would be to offer overnight tours with a fully charged battery for the next day.

“The Sea-to-Sky Corridor could become the e-bike capital of the world.”

Enga is helping Breckner with route planning and believes that trail completion is a matter of when, not if.

“Geoff goes way back to the start of mountainbike culture, before the glamour of the parks,” says Enga. “He’s done the hard part and one way or another, the trail will happen.”

In the meantime, some adventurers will continue to blaze their own trails. It seems as though everyone on the Sunshine Coast knows “a guy” who knows a route to Squamish. But their identity can be as elusive as the route.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

More falls in the backcountry between Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

Not so, Todd Lawson and friends, whose epic three-day trek from Lake Lovely Water, Squamish, to Sechelt via Clowhom Lake and Salmon Inlet, was featured in a 2014 issue of Mountain Life magazine. The trio packed inflatable stand-up paddleboards for the trip, which featured untold hours of bushwhacking through endless alder roots and Devil’s Club – an experience Lawson described in the story as “torture”. (He also wrote of the route, “It looked good on a laptop.”)

A different hazard awaited Denis Rogers of Sechelt, and fellow Coasters Mark Guignard and Al Jenkins, who hiked to Squamish in 2004 after being dropped by boat at the head of Narrows Inlet.

“It took us five days,” says Rogers, whose group followed a route from the head of Tzoonie Valley to a 4,800-foot pass, and then down to Falk Creek and a logging road leading to the Ashlu River and Squamish beyond.

“The third day was an interesting one,” recalls Rogers. “I fell in a lake and broke my watch, and Mark, the only one of us who didn’t bring bear spray, had an encounter with a black bear. Mark was about 20 yards ahead of us, picking his way through the boulders, when we shouted to him that a bear was taking an interest in him.

“The bear started down towards him, but then turned back. We suggested that perhaps the bear had been deterred by an offensive smell.”

Some hazards you won’t find on any map.

Summer in Whistler begins at the lake

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The River of Golden Dreams is an idyllic waterway for a quiet paddle ... unless you find yourself in the middle of GoFest. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

The River of Golden Dreams is an idyllic waterway for a quiet paddle … unless you find yourself in the middle of Whistler’s annual Go Fest and the Great Snow-Earth-Water Race. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

A quiet meander down the River of Golden Dreams, I’d promised my wife. After 36 hours of skiing, cycling, trail running, stand-up paddle boarding, dancing, eating and drinking, this would be a relaxing canoe cruise in the sunshine, a chance to mellow ourselves from weekend warriors to weekend wanderers.

It didn’t work out that way.

We’d come for Whistler’s Great Outdoors Festival, aka GO Fest. Held on the Victoria Day long weekend, GO Fest was the chance to cram an entire Whistler summer of activities into four days. A packed schedule had offered everything from fly-fishing to disc golf, river rafting to yoga, and much in between that involved wearing a silly costume.

By Sunday, my legs were aching from Saturday-night’s AlpenGlow Fun Run, a six-kilometre jog around Lost Lake, while wearing glow sticks. Or they might have ached from skiing Blackcomb’s Seventh Heaven all day; or from jumping up and down to The Sheepdogs during Friday night’s concert in the village.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake and Green Lake. In some places the river is little wider than a canoe.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake and Green Lake. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

Cycling Whistler’s Valley Trail on Sunday morning, we stopped at Lakeside Park where we met Eric White of Backroads Whistler. When he told us about paddling the River of Golden Dreams, the timing seemed perfect: No pressure to perform; tranquility now. Backroads Whistler even picks you up at the end of the two- to three-hour paddle.

“People were coming here for the lakes long before the skiing,” Eric pointed out. “I think you’ll really enjoy it.”

To get our sea legs we warmed up with a stand-up paddle boarding session. Stand-up paddle boarding, or SUP, has taken off in recent years and it’s easy to see why. Not unlike snowshoeing, SUP offers a short learning curve and gets you closer to the elements. It can be as relaxing or as strenuous as you want. Eric gave us a quick tutorial on the dock and we were off.

Pasty Englishman attempts balance feat on stand-up paddle board!

Pasty Englishman attempts balance feat on stand-up paddle board!

The Kahuna boards designed by Whistler local, Steve Legge, were exceptionally stable, despite my initial fears of falling. (The lake ice broke just a month before!) It only took a couple of lengths between Lakeside’s docks for it to begin to feel like a core workout.

Now acclimatized to the occasional gusts picking up on Alta Lake, we paddled to shore for a new vessel.

Backroads offers kayaks and double kayaks but we opted for a two-person canoe. The canoe requires smooth communication between paddlers to navigate the notoriously tight corners of the River of Golden Dreams.

It’s also known as “The Divorce Boat,” according to Eric.

“We’ve only been married 23 years, what could possibly go wrong?” I asked my wife.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake with Green Lake about three kilometres north. Because of its stubborn refusal to follow a straight line, the river’s full length is closer to five kilometres. In places, the river is barely wider than a canoe and portaging is sometimes necessary, depending on water levels, which can fluctuate rapidly depending on rain and snow melt.

After a quick paddling tutorial, we donned our lifejackets and set sail. Within 15 minutes we’d crossed Alta Lake and were nearing the mouth of the river. That’s when I noticed people waving at us from a bridge. Seconds later we heard a siren – the kind that’s normally accompanied by a loud voice shouting “release the hounds”.

“Why are those people waving at us?” asked my wife from the bow.

The answer appeared over our left shoulders: canoeists, two to a boat and wearing helmets and numbered pinnies, launching from a nearby beach and paddling straight for us. Unsure whether the people on the bridge were waving us in or away, we opted to paddle for the river, full steam ahead.

At the bridge we made two discoveries. The first was that we’d need to portage a few yards because we’d arrived at a weir. The second was that we’d unwittingly joined a pivotal leg in GO Fest’s Great Snow-Earth-Water Race – a grueling six-stage competition involving skiing, biking, running and canoeing.

“We’re expecting two dozen canoes through here,” a young man with a radio told us. “You might want to sit out and let them through.”

It occurred to me that on a narrow, winding river with few passing lanes and a head start, we could actually try and win the race. Then my wife reminded me that this was supposed to be a cruise. She also said something about ethics.

So for 20 minutes we perched at a picnic table and watched contestants portage their canoes around the weir and back into the river, cheered on by locals. When everyone had passed us, we re-launched and quickly learned to adapt to the river’s ever-changing moods: turn too tightly and fast eddies would pull us into the reeds; lose concentration and we’d find ourselves turning sideways to the current.

But the lush wetlands and snowy peaks beyond the banks made up for the occasional brushes with low branches. Better yet, during the course of our 90-minute paddle we became minor celebrities to those who had turned out to cheer on the racers. Everyone loves plucky losers and despite not wearing race pinnies, we were assumed by many to be the last-place finishers in the canoe stage of the Great Snow-Earth-Water Race.

I still think we probably could have won it!

The River of Golden of Golden Dreams (Backroads Whistler – riverofgoldendreams.com or 604 932-3111) is just one of a multitude of adventures awaiting visitors to Whistler this summer. Here are five more.

Several runs atop Blackcomb and the Horstman Glacier are open for skiing and boarding until late July.

Several runs atop Blackcomb and the Horstman Glacier are open for skiing and boarding until late July.

Hit the Valley Trail: For a better perspective on Whistler’s surroundings get out of the village and onto the Whistler Valley Trail. More than 40 kilometres of paved trail and boardwalks connect Whistler’s lakes, parks and neighbourhoods. The trail is suitable for bikes, rollerbladers, joggers, walkers and well-behaved pets. Whistler.com offers more information on making the most of the Valley Trail, including a blog on the trail’s “six perfect spots”.

Shred the Park: Valley Trail offers a benign cycling experience and cross-country cyclists will find more than 500 kilometres miles of single track around Whistler. The Whistler Bike Park though condenses the best of Whistler’s downhill for all levels of mountain biker. Ride the lift up and take your pick of alpine view trails, banked cruisers through the forest, tight, winding single track and – for the experts – steep rock faces. Whistler Bike Park offers numerous ticket deals, including some with rentals, and accommodation packages. More information is at whistlerblackcomb.com.

Buckle up and ride the Elaho! Eric Beckstead photo

Buckle up and ride the Elaho! Eric Beckstead photo

Ride the river(s): If paddling the River of Golden Dreams is too tame for you, consider whitewater rafting either of the Green, Lower Cheakamus, Elaho or Squamish rivers. A range of half-day and full-day tours are available from Whistler, (whistler.com/rafting) or from the Sunwolf Centre in Brackendale near Squamish (sunwolf.net/rafting).

Fly by the seat of your pants! The most exciting thing I’ve ever done in Whistler is ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler. Superfly Ziplines (superflyziplines.com) runs Canada’s longest, fastest, highest ziplines where speeds of more than 100 km/h are made possible by runs well over a kilometer long, 200 metres off the ground. Strap into a paragliding-style harness, attach to half an inch of galvanized steel with a trolley rig and prepare to fly! Ziptrek Ecotours (ziptrek.com) combines similar thrills above Fitzsimmons Creek with a strong environmental ethos.

Ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler.

Ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler.

Ski in a T-shirt: For all the great winter skiing at Whistler, the novelty of descending Horstman Glacier while wearing a T-shirt in July is hard to beat. Until late July, two or three runs, plus the terrain park remain open atop Blackcomb where lunch on the deck of the Horstman Hut is a must.

* For details of summer accommodation packages, visit fourseasonswhistler.com

inukshuk-Neville Judd

Las Vegas: The beaten track and the single track

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red rock

For a city synonymous with late nights, Late Night Trailhead just outside of Las Vegas is decidedly different. There are no buildings besides an outhouse, no meandering pedestrians or neon, and certainly no noise. Instead you’ll find about 200,000 acres of desert known as Red Rock Canyon, home to tarantulas, rattlesnakes, burros, bunnies and wild vegetation that can either harm or cure you.

More than 80 miles of trails lure another desert creature, namely the mountain biker – about 2,000 of them locally, according to Brandon Brizzolara. Brizzolara is a guide and mountain bike specialist for Escape Adventures and Las Vegas Cyclery. He grew up in Vegas and fondly remembers when even The Strip had its own biking scene.

“From Tropicana to Fremont we’d have BMX sessions on The Strip like it was a skate park in the 90s,” he says. “Vegas is a pretty active community, it’s just The Strip that’s a little out of shape.”

In his element, Brandon Brizzolara, guide and mountain bike specialist for Escape Adventures and Las Vegas Cyclery.

Brandon Brizzolara, guide and mountain bike specialist for Escape Adventures and Las Vegas Cyclery.

We’re here for The Strip and the desert – the beaten track and the single track: Neville and Leah and their teenagers, Ryan and Emma, all of us with contrasting wishes and expectations for our three-night stay in Las Vegas.

Shopping had been my kids’ idea. For hours we’d lost ourselves in high-octane consumerism at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, a consumers’ paradise with 170 stores, 15 restaurants and several entertainment venues. Britney Spears has her own store here where Britney merchandise exhorts shoppers to “Work it, Bitch”.

It’s a legitimate vice in Sin City, but shopping – and Britney Spears – make me uncomfortable so I stood with a crowd and watched a guy get his belly tattooed at Club Tattoo. Leah got a manicure at Original Diva and had nails “to die for” long after returning home. Ryan and Emma blew their entire budget.

On all of our wish-lists was a Vegas show. Britney had taken March off so we chose Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana, a celebration of circus traditions set in an abandoned theatre (but in reality at the Aria Resort and Casino). The show blends anarchic humour with the precision and grace of aerialists, acrobats, jugglers, high-wire and trapeze artists. The clowns made Ryan uncomfortable but he’s only 16; otherwise we left well entertained.

At 550 feet tall, the High Roller is the crown jewel in Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s LINQ development, a pedestrian-friendly retail, dining and entertainment neighbourhood on The Strip. The High Roller opened March 31. Denise Truscello photo

At 550 feet tall, the High Roller is the crown jewel in Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s LINQ development, a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood on The Strip. The High Roller opened March 31. Denise Truscello photo

The spa treatment was Leah’s idea, but I was happy to tag along. For the Vegas rookie it can be tricky finding places on foot and ESPA at the Vdara Hotel was no exception. We could see it set back off The Strip, but The Strip has a way of keeping pedestrians on The Strip. We eventually got there by walking through another hotel, The Cosmopolitan. Any stress I might have felt at being late for a spa treatment soon melted away under the sensuous heat of volcanic stones, body brushing, exfoliation and a scalp massage. Beats shopping any day of the week!

Great food was on everyone’s list and the following three restaurants more than delivered. The Yard House enjoys an enviable location just a few feet from the High Roller, the world’s biggest observation wheel. At 550 feet tall, the High Roller is the crown jewel in Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s LINQ development, a pedestrian-friendly (hallelujah!) retail, dining and entertainment neighbourhood on The Strip. The High Roller opened March 31, two weeks after our visit, but we were content to admire it illuminated in green for St. Patrick’s Day from the deck of the Yard House. The beer list alone would entice me back to the Yard House, but the St. Louis-style ribs and truffle fries had me at hello.

Chayo chef, Ernesto Zendejas.

Chayo chef, Ernesto Zendejas.

Just a short stroll through the LINQ brings you to Chayo Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar, a two-storey fiesta in the making, anchored by a mechanical bull. Mexico City-born chef, Ernesto Zendejas, draws upon classical training in France to present an exquisite mix of flavours: Lobster tacos, bass ceviche, cilantro cream soup, shrimp fajitas – it’s tough to pick a favourite, but none of us were lining up to ride the bull afterwards. (Portions are decidedly North American – not French!)

Plates are meant to be shared at Crush, one of many dining options at the MGM Grand, but our family came close to making a scene over the sea scallop benny, comprising sunny-side quail egg, chorizo and chipotle hollandaise. Some meals are too good to be shared. The shrimp risotto and lamb sirloin with bacon brussels sprouts also didn’t last long.

Between the shopping, the show, the spa and the dining, we savoured afternoon pool time. In downtown Las Vegas, we mingled with celebrity lookalikes and body-painted models at the Fremont Street Experience, five city blocks of high-tech wizardry featuring a 550,000-watt sound system and a music and light show broadcast from an LED canopy 90 feet above the ground.

Sea scallop benny at Crush, MGM Grand. Don't even think about sharing.

Sea scallop benny at Crush, MGM Grand. Don’t even think about sharing.

And we ventured a little off downtown’s beaten track. Further down Fremont Street, past El Cortez, the city’s first casino, we found The Beat Coffeehouse and Records, the hippest little joint for breakfast and heaven to a 16-year-old who’s just discovered vinyl.

Nowhere though seems quite so off the beaten track as the Mojave Desert and the single track of Red Rock Canyon. The mountain biking had been my idea. Only 17 miles west of Las Vegas Boulevard, Red Rock’s Mustang Trails might have been on another planet, such is the contrast with The Strip.

For two hours we mostly coast on easy trails, stopping occasionally for impromptu descriptions of the vegetation. Brizzolara says he hasn’t taken a pill in more than 10 years, and why would he with nature’s pharmacy on his doorstep? There are seemingly cures for all ailments in the numerous sage bushes and plants like Mormon’s Tea, a species of Ephedra, which is traditionally used to treat asthma, hay fever and the common cold.

Ryan Judd in his element at Red Rock Canyon.

Ryan Judd in his element at Red Rock Canyon.

If inducement to remain on the bike were needed, there are no shortage of plants that could make for a painful landing: cacti, whose barbs expand after piercing skin, and the Joshua Tree, whose bayonet-shaped leaves feature serrated edges – handy for cutting barbecue wieners, according to Brizzolara. We stay on our bikes. My daughter, Emma, who’s never mountain biked, struggles gamely and mostly ignores her dad telling her to relax.

It’s the same advice she gave me at the Britney Spears store.

If you go:

  • Las Vegas Cyclery (lasvegascyclery.com) and Escape Adventures (escapeadventures.com) offer year-round tours (half day and full day) for mountain bikers and road cyclists, as well as hiking tours. If mountain biking, you’ll ride full suspension Santa Cruz 29ers and tours start at $129. Call 1 800-596-29531 800-596-2953.
  • We divided our accommodation between the Downtown Grand Las Vegas (downtowngrand.com) and the MGM Grand (mgmgrand.com). Formerly the Lady Luck, the Grand recently reopened after a $100-million renovation. It’s steps away from the Fremont Street Experience and features PICNIC, a wonderful rooftop pool. The MGM Grand more than holds its own on the pool front with four to choose from and a lazy river. It also offers Stay Well rooms, which comprise more than a dozen health and wellness features, including aromatherapy, wake-up light therapy and Vitamin C-infused shower water.
  • For more on ESPA at Vdara, visit Vdara Hotel and Spa.
  • For more on Las Vegas, visit vegas.com

The Trail Collector

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Creator of sunshine-coast-trails.com Becky Wayte is probably the Sunshine Coast's most avid nature bather.

Creator of sunshine-coast-trails.com Becky Wayte is probably the Sunshine Coast’s most avid nature bather.

You might call Becky Wayte a wanderer. Almost every day for the last 20 years, Becky has hiked or biked a trail somewhere on the Sunshine Coast. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago though, that she became a collector.

Some people collect stamps; others baseball cards. Becky collects trails, maps them with a GPS, and documents them on sunshine-coast-trails.com, a website she created for outdoor enthusiasts. The site lists hundreds of trails, from Langdale to Earl’s Cove, with descriptions, maps, difficulty ratings and useful links. She has her favourites – three of which she describes in her own words in a sidebar to this story.

In 2011, hiking three to four hours a day, almost every day, Becky managed to map almost all of the Sunshine Coast’s trails in six months. She’s been updating her collection ever since. The Coast is home to some prolific trail builders, it seems.

“I actually thought it would take me a couple of years,” she tells me. “But I quickly realized that I’m a little obsessive. When I start something, I need to see it through to the end.”

But the truth is, collecting trails never ends. New trails are always springing up and some remain well-guarded secrets. In a recent interview with pinkbike.com, local mountain-bike phenom, Holly Feniak, describes the Coast’s trails as: “Dreamy. Loamy, mossy, bouncy, incredibly green, and in the secret spots … all that and steep.”

Cliff Gilker Park, Roberts Creek.

Cliff Gilker Park, Roberts Creek.

She might have added ‘never-ending’!

“For heaven’s sake, stop building trails,” Becky laughs, when I ask her about the Coast’s trail builders. “I actually love finding new trails and I admit, there might be the odd one I don’t know about. I’m always trying to keep up!”

For a moment, we think we may have found a new one. It’s an unusually hot day in May and we’re walking through a dusty trail off Field Road in Wilson Creek. We’re accompanied by Cody, a large, lovable dog from the nearby SPCA where Becky volunteers each week as a dog-walker. The path veers past someone’s back yard and into the forest.

“Let’s take a look,” says Becky, in her element. A few minutes later we come to a dead-end. Cody looks at us expectantly and we return the way we came. So what inspired Becky to take on this labour of love?

“I have three dogs and one has issues with other dogs, so I wanted to find new trails to hike where there weren’t so many people,” she says. “There were few websites, but they only featured the most popular hikes, places like Mount Daniel, so I decided I’d do it myself.”

Becky’s well qualified. Not only does she love the outdoors, but she learned to build websites through her work teaching computer courses in the Adult Basic Education Program at Capilano University in Sechelt. With the website established, Ryan Robertson, a Squamish-based app developer, who specializes in creating trail applications for iPhones and Androids, contacted Becky. Becky provided the GPS (Global Positioning System – the satellite navigation application) data and Ryan created the app. Trailmapps: Sunshine Coast costs $10 and is available at the Apple Store and Google Play.

For old-school trail lovers, she’s also created waterproof trail maps that are available in Gibsons at Spin Cycles, and in Sechelt at Source for Sports, the Sechelt Visitors’ Centre, and Off The Edge Adventure Sports.

Outdoors, technology couldn’t be further from Becky’s mind. While she’s always hiked to combat weight gain, she’s also convinced of nature’s therapeutic benefits. The Japanese have a name for it: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Becky cites Japanese research, which points to the many benefits of simply being in nature – lower blood pressure, higher creative aptitude and boosted immune systems.

“I prefer the term ‘nature-bathing’ because I find just being out in nature makes me feel better. I always come home feeling better than when I left.”

Well, almost always.

Becky sheepishly recalls one particular hike that went awry, much to her husband’s despair. “I was hiking up Elphinstone and I’d let people know where I was going and what time I’d return. It took a lot longer than I’d expected though and my phone died.

“I got back around 7:45 p.m. – not the 5 p.m. I’d told my husband. He was pretty mad.”

The experience didn’t sour Becky’s love of Mount Elphinstone. In fact, the Mount Elphinstone Summit Trail ranks in her three favourite hikes and bikes. (See below.)

 

Kinnikinnick Park, West Sechelt.

Kinnikinnick Park, West Sechelt.

Sidebar

My Three Favourite Hikes & Bikes, by Becky Wayte

Mount Elphinstone Summit Trail (hike only)

This is a long, fairly difficult climb, but the view at the very top is worth it. The trail to the top can be accessed from the top of Sprockids or via some feeder trails off B & K logging road in Roberts Creek. If you take your time and enjoy a picnic and rest at the top, this hike will likely take you five or six hours.  Make lots of noise or wear a bell so the bears hear you coming.

Ruby Klein Traverse – Suncoaster Trail (hike or bike)

Beautiful views of Ruby Lake and a hand carved bench greet you at the highest point along the trail.  Easy to make a whole day trip out of this even though the hike itself will probably only take you a couple of hours. You can visit the Iris Griffiths Centre, take a swim in Klein Lake and there is even a feeder trail down to the Ruby Lake restaurant (Trattoria Italiano).

McNeill Lake Circle Route (hike or bike)

This is one of my favourite destinations in the summer months because I always combine a bike ride with a swim. The lake itself is not that well known so often no one else is there, especially on weekdays.  There are several trails that connect to create a loop around the lake, with access to the lake from a couple of spots. I park on Middlepoint Forest Service Road and take Copper Head, Dry Feet, a logging road, Old Pole Road and back to Copper Head. There is a short trail off the logging road just north of Dry Feet that takes you into the lake. This is an excellent place to ride your mountain bike if you have pre-teen kids or you just want a fairly flat ride (we don’t have many flat rides on the Coast). Hiking it probably takes about 1.5 hours and by bike about an hour, unless you stop to enjoy a swim.

For the definitive web guide to the Sunshine Coast’s trails, visit http://www.sunshine-coast-trails.com.

Heart of green

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Sechelt Rotarians, Tom Pinfold (right) and Mick van Zandt on the trails of Kinnikinnick.

Sechelt Rotarians, Tom Pinfold (right) and Mick van Zandt on the trails of Kinnikinnick.

Shirley Macey didn’t have time to waste. When she wasn’t coaching kids, she was raising a family, working as a Gibsons RCMP dispatcher, and lobbying local government for more recreational space.

Somehow she found time every week to climb Soames Hill with a garbage bag to pick up other people’s litter.

“She was pretty amazing,” remembers her son Darin. “I didn’t think much of it growing up; now I don’t know how she did it.”

At the southern end of the Coast, 14 hectares of Soames Hill Regional Park are named after Shirley Macey. No doubt she would be proud of the soccer fields, the wheelchair-accessible playground and Frisbee golf course. Shirley – or Sam (an acronym of her full name, Shirley Amelia Macey) to her friends – was a dedicated volunteer whose legacy is by no means unique.

Shirley Macey, Maryanne West, Ted Dixon, Cliff Gilker and Hackett are – to name a few – venues so familiar to most of us that it’s easy to forget that they were also people. Ted Dixon, for example, worked tirelessly for self-government for the Sechelt Indian Band before dying in a car crash in 1981. Maryanne West was the backbone of community TV and so many volunteer projects before dying at age 90 in 2008.

Scavenging the Porpoise Bay shoreline. Sunshine Coasters are spoiled for choice when it comes to parks and beaches.

Scavenging the shoreline at Porpoise Bay. For parks and beaches, Sunshine Coasters are spoiled for choice.

And not all parks bear a family name. Brothers Memorial Park in Gibsons was named for logging contractors, Al and George Jackson who donated the land.

Today, volunteers continue to be the lifeblood of the Sunshine Coast’s parks and trails. In fact, the parks system wouldn’t work without them.

“We totally rely on volunteerism,” says Sunshine Coast Regional District parks planning coordinator, Sam Adams. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without it.”

For the SCRD that means mobilizing volunteer help in bigger parks like Dakota Ridge, where members of the Dakota Ridge Advisory Committee have been particularly helpful. Volunteers also help the SCRD maintain trails at Soames Hill, most recently working to improve the wooden stairs. Now the regional district is hoping to cultivate more volunteer assistance with an adopt-a-trail program.

“Part of our work plan for 2013 is to develop a more robust volunteer program,” says SCRD parks planning coordinator, Susan Mason. “We have kilometres and kilometres of trails to maintain, so people willing to document changes on a regular basis are helpful to us.”

The government-volunteer relationship is similar elsewhere on the Coast. District of Sechelt parks supervisor Perry Schmitt is grateful for the work of several trail building groups, as well as established service clubs.

Sunshine Coast Lions Club president Len Schollen at the site of the Lions' next project, an accessible viewing deck in the corner of Mission Point Park.

Sunshine Coast Lions Club president Len Schollen at the site of the Lions’ next project, an accessible viewing deck in the corner of Mission Point Park where the beach and Chapman Creek meet.

“The Lions Club has been instrumental in making improvements to Mission Point park and the Sechelt Rotary Club has been assisting in rebuilding decks throughout Kinnikinnick forest trails,” says Schmitt. He also cites the work of the Sechelt Groves Society at the Heritage Forest trails, and the Sunshine Coast Natural History Society, which tends to Sechelt Marsh.

On a cold blustery day, Sunshine Coast Lions Club president Len Schollen shows me work completed on the Mission House deck and the next project – an accessible viewing deck in the corner of Mission Point Park where the beach and Chapman Creek meet.

“We’re basically waiting for some decent spring weather to build the viewing platform and a hard-surface ramp leading up to it,” says Schollen, surveying the footings already in place. “There’ll be a railing around it and hopefully some signs with information about the salmon run and pointing out places like Mount Arrowsmith.”

Why are Schollen and other Lions members involved in the project? “We serve, is the Lions’ motto,” says Schollen simply. “We try to make this a better place to live.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Sechelt Rotarians, Tom Pinfold and Mick van Zandt, when I meet them on the trails of Kinnikinnick park.

“We wanted to work on small projects where a few people could work for a few hours on something with lasting benefit,” says Pinfold. “We’d much prefer to let the District allocate their resources to new things instead of maintenance.”

With other Rotarians, the pair has replaced and built cedar bridges and decks throughout Kinnikinnick’s trails during the last three years. Topped with roofing tiles, the decks are essential given the drainage issues on multi-use trails in a popular park. The new bridges should be good for at least 10 years, reckons Pinfold. (Elsewhere in Kinnikinnick park and at Sprockids park in Langdale, Capilano University students hone their trail-building skills as part of the Mountain Bike Operations Certificate curriculum.)

There are 13 kilometres of groomed trails for cross-country skiers on Dakota Ridge, yet another Sunshine Coast playground.

There are 13 kms of groomed trails for cross-country skiers on Dakota Ridge, yet another Coast playground.

Pinfold and van Zandt have also worked on a wheelchair accessible deck at Halfmoon Bay’s Trout Lake and a viewing platform and trail in Roberts Creek’s Cliff Gilker park.

Elsewhere, volunteers continue to make the Sunshine Coast a great place to play. If you’re searching for the heart of the Sunshine Coast you’ll find it in any park or trail. From Pender Harbour’s Lions Park (the best soccer field on the Coast) to the mountain bike trails of Sprockids Park in Langdale, outdoor recreation thrives because people care enough to make it happen.

People like Shirley Macey.

Shirley didn’t live to see the park she’d fought for named in her honour. Just months after retiring from the RCMP and paying off her mortgage, she died of cancer in 1998.

“I didn’t realize until I was older that quite a few people called her mom,” recalls Darin, who has four kids of his own now. “I met all these people I knew at her service who thought of her as a surrogate mother.

“My kids are certainly proud of the park’s name. It’s too bad she died so young.”

Trail Mix

There are numerous opportunities to get involved in outdoor volunteering. Here are a few websites where you’ll find more information.

http://www.secheltrotary.org/

http://secheltlionsbc.lionwap.org/

http://www.scrd.ca/Parks

http://secheltgroves.com/

email tony@whiskeyjacknaturetours.com for the Sunshine Coast Natural History Society

Thanks to the Sechelt Community Archives and the Sunshine Coast Museum and Archives for their help in researching this feature.

Teens gone wild: An adolescent rite of passage in Whistler

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Hanging by threads, suspended 60 feet up between two Douglas Firs, my mind wanders to the Okiek tribes people of Kenya.

When their kids reach adolescence they are ceremonially circumcised and then secluded from adults for four to 24 weeks.

Social services would probably take a dim view of that here. And it wouldn’t fly with my son Ryan, 13 today and exuding adolescence from his gravity-defying hair right down to his boxers, proudly hoisted above his gravity-defying jeans.

Instead we’re in Whistler with Raven and Cyrus, two of Ryan’s adolescent friends, in search of adventure.

The Birthday Boy in his element.

We found it yesterday on the trails of Whistler Mountain Bike Park. After turning my back on mountain biking years ago, I finally realized what I had been missing: a full-suspension bike with shocks to absorb the worst Whistler could throw at me.

Our guide Mike Johnstone broke us in gently in the aptly named Easy Does It trail, advising us on the basics of braking, cornering and trail etiquette. He also chided the birthday boy for tailgating!

Pretty soon we were launching our bikes into the berms of B-Line and bouncing our way down Crank It Up. And while other bikers were few and far between, we spotted eight bears — the closest all but 20 feet away.

We stopped to watch the experts hurtling down A-Line, eight kilometres of drops, tables and more than 100 berms, and one of the busiest bike trails in North America, according to Johnstone.

We had to talk Cyrus out of trying A-Line, but then I think we all shared a feeling of invincibility by day’s end.

But that was yesterday, back when gravity was my friend.

Today, hanging high above the forest floor, I’m feeling anything but invincible.

“Are you OK, Dad,” asks Ryan thoughtfully from the safety of a wooden platform.

“Don’t show us up,” says Raven, who’s on a fast track to walking home from Whistler.

I say nothing, preferring instead to focus my energy on the task at hand: Walking across a series of spinning balls each hanging from two ropes. My two orange carabiners — a mountaineer’s best friend — are clipped on to an orange wire above me. The orange wire connects the trees, ensuring I at least won’t die on my son’s birthday should my feet slip off the balls.

Orange wire is an important part of WildPlay, an outdoor playground set on Cougar Mountain, 15 minutes north of Whistler Village. Zoom Zip Lines and Monkido aerial courses make for a full day of adventure and, judging by my aching wrists and tender armpits, a full body workout.

Zipliners at WildPlay reach speeds of up to 100 km/h.

Monkido is an obstacle course elevated among the trees and comprises increasingly difficult challenges, from a simple tight-rope walk to Tarzan swings, mini zip-lines, scramble nets, swinging logs and those infuriating spinning balls. From platform to platform, one challenge ends and another begins, with the adventurer continuously reattaching the orange carabiners to the orange safety wire. Preservation instincts make it unlikely you’d forget to reattach, but a WildPlay guide makes sure you don’t while yelling encouragement.

By the time I complete my graceless navigation of the slippery balls the boys have moved on. I’m congratulating myself when I hear Cyrus shout: “How the heck are we supposed to do this?”

This doesn’t bode well. Cyrus may well have been a monkey in a previous life and has been whipping through the challenges.

Through the trees I see Cyrus on his hands and knees crawling a la Spiderman on two parallel wires.

“Just loop your ankles around the wires and start crawling,” our guide Katie tells me with just a hint of reassurance. There’s nowhere to look but down as I inch across, trying to ignore the strain on my knees and the sunglasses about to fall off my face. The Mission Impossible theme tune pops into my head. This must happen to Tom Cruise all the time.

Mercifully it’s a short crossing.

It takes about 90 minutes to complete the course and the teenage testosterone is almost palpable at the finish. The adrenaline kicks in moments later on WildPlay’s Zoom Zip Lines tour.

While Monkido demands physical and mental agility, zip-lining is just a flat-out thrill ride. On a course of five dual zip lines, the longest is the aptly named Godzilla. Four hundred metres up and 1,500 metres long, Godzilla spans two mountains. It descends 200 metres from start to finish, propelling riders in paragliding harnesses at speeds in excess of 100 kilometres per hour.

It’s a bit like bungee jumping, but with a destination and a lot more screaming.

After riding Godzilla, the boys appear momentarily speechless.

“Oh my God,” offers Cyrus.

“I think I may have swallowed a bug,” says Raven.

“That’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” says Ryan.

“Let’s do it again,” I think to myself.

By the fifth and final ride back to base, we are pros at angling our bodies like torpedoes to maximize speed, or making like a starfish with arms and legs out to slow down. We have screamed at each other in tandem on our way down and marveled at the loud but cushioned impact on landing.

At no point do any of us dwell on the fact that we have entrusted out lives to half an inch of galvanized steel and the immutable laws of physics.

Well, perhaps I did a little bit.

“That was the best birthday, ever,” Ryan tells me on the way home.

Mine, too, son.

If you go:

We stayed in Whistler Creekside at Legends, which offers two-night packages, including a Peak 2 Peak sightseeing pass, for $79 per person, per night. Visit www.legendswhistler.com or call 1 866 385-0611 for details. For other accommodation deals, visit www.whistlerblackcomb.com or call 1 888 403-4727.

WildPlay operates parks in Whistler, Maple Ridge, Nanaimo and Victoria. For more information, visit www.wildplay.com or call 1 888 668-7874.

Whistler Mountain Bike Park offers numerous ticket deals, some of which are combined with hotel packages. Visit www.whistlerbike.com or call 1866 218-9690 for more details.

Written by nevjudd

December 7, 2011 at 11:39 pm