Sunday, August 31, 2008

Adv #5: TransAm North: NYC to San Fran via Canada

The next trek assignment I had was called “TransAmerica North.” The itinerary was designed by a French company for some of their French customers, and we spent 3 weeks trekking from NYC to San Francisco by going up through Canada. The tourists were 24 French students, ages 17 to 20, (plus 2 chaperones) and admittedly.....I was a bit concerned about this group dynamic before meeting them. I think I'm a fairly "agreeable" person that gets along with pretty much everyone I encounter...but this felt like a situation where I would have nothing in common with the passengers and it might be a tough time to connect with them. The outcome could not have been further from this though!

Starting with a tour of Manhattan, we then headed up to Montreal and Quebec City, then to Niagra Falls. Took the Tobermorry Ferry across Lake Huron, and went up over Lake Superior to Thunder Bay. Then down through Minnesota, over to Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse (in South Dakota) then Devil’s Tower (Wyoming), Billings Montana, and the beautiful “Beartooth Pass” drive from Billings to Cody, Wyoming. Cody to Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Wyoming, Twin Falls Idaho, South Lake Tahoe, and eventually to San Francisco.
Bill Gehrke was the other Suntrek tour leader driving the other van in the group, and here’s some of the things we saw: We can start with a group shot at the border leaving New York, and headed into Quebec. Pretty neat that I got to see so much of Canada this summer, both east and west (but west is better : )

Quick shot of Quebec City with Olivier and Mattieu in the foreground. What a great little city this was. Plenty of character and old world charm for only being a couple hundred years old.

A few of us together for a quick photo in front of Niagra Falls. Next thing we did was the famous “Maid of the Mist” boat tour that takes you pretty close to the base of the falls.

Eastern Canada, aside from Quebec City, was quite insignificant. I think it was some long rides for a group that was mostly jet-lagged, so even Montreal really didn't dazzle anyone and our first week didn't produce too many pictures. Okay, Niagra Falls is pretty cool. But the pictures below start to show that we’re back in the U.S. now when we crossed the border just south of Thunder Bay.

One of our first stops back in the U.S. was the Twin Cities, and we had a night to take the group to the Mall of America. Erwan is seen here yucking it up on one of the roller coasters with our other driver, Bill.

Hustling west, we stopped in places like the famous Wall Drug, and got to visit more scenery like Cathedral Spires and Mount Rushmore. Little Audrey (below) was one of my favorites amongst the group. I kept calling her “Tautou” as in “Audrey Tautou”, the adorable French actress that starred in the Da Vinci code. After a while, she told me that “Tutu,” pronounced about the same way is what you would call a small dog to get it’s attention. I stopped calling her that.

Have you seen the story behind the Crazy Horse Monument? If not, it’s amazing what is going on here. 65 years in the making thus far. The original sculptor has since passed on, and his family has taken over the project. Will I ever see the final product in my lifetime? This thing is absolutely huge, so I’m not sure. To help describe the scope of this: All of Mt. Rushmore would fit on the head of Crazy Horse. This thing is HUGE. Second picture is a model of what the carving will eventually look like. Someday...

Devil’s Tower (below) in Wyoming is an interesting phenomenon. Formed underground millions of years ago underground, it’s now exposed thanks to erosion.

Marie (a.k.a. “Morris) was also one of my buddies on the trip. The whole group was really great…I guess I just connected best with those who spoke the best English? This picture is along Beartooth Pass from Billings to Cody, Wyoming. What an incredible drive.
Yep, Mo Mo (Eduard) even got this chipmunk to smoke, too. Someone in the background must have had just the right snack to offer. In just my third tour now, I'm still being reminded that squirrels and chipmunks and such are not as common in Europe as they are in the U.S. Passengers are going nuts for them.

At about 11,000 feet, a mid-August snowball fight sounds pretty good, eh? Just found a patch of snow along the route.

And when we come across what looks like a neat swimming spot….so be it. Here’s Bill about to freshen up a bit, still along Beartooth Pass.
We saw the rodeo in Cody that night. They put on a totally entertaining exposition of what a rodeo is like. Full of laughs and some real live action. Most of the tourists were really surprised about how violent rodeo is, and I recommend anyone see this show if you're passing through town.

Not even ten minutes into Yellowstone, and we’ve already got an enormous grizzly in our sites. You just have to know how to scratch them behind the ears just right.....and then they won't bother you.

We even found some time to do a little rafting on the Yellowstone River. The best part was, none of these folks had ever done any rafting before. Even a little class 3 bump here and there can provide some thrills if it’s your first time.
Now THIS was amazing. The Boiling River in Yellowstone is heated by the lava 2 miles below. (In case you didn’t know, 1/3 of Yellowstone NP sits atop an active caldera. It’s essentially a volcano that could blow again anytime.) So the Boiling River is created and was coming out of the ground at a temperature that we could barely stand to touch. This pictures below show how the Boiling River (coming from above) spills into the Gardner River (the lower portion.) The neat part is that the Gardner is extremely cold, about 45 degrees fahrenheit at that time, and it mixes right there with the Boiling River Find the right places where the two mix and its an incredible sensation! One side of your leg is uncomfortably hot while the other side is uncomfortably cold. Back and forth, spots all over your body are constantly changing temperatures when submerged in the water along here. Bring your swimsuit, this is a MUST "Feel" experience in Yellowstone.

Artist’s Point in Yellowstone is appropriately named. Just beautiful. And yep, the yellow is sulphur.
Julie, you’re so cute. Small town girls from the north of France. Just my type…
Above is just a series of photos from Yellowstone. Mammoth Hot Springs, the Geyser Basin, Old Faithful (about to go off with the Park Ranger talking to us about it) and many other things to see in Yellowstone are incredible. Don’t come to Yellowstone without at least 3 days to see the many geological phenomenons here. Not to mention the wildlife!
In the pool at Nat Soo Pah Hotsprings Campground in Idaho. Yep…Julie….you’re alright. The movie ‘Dirty Dancing’ was on our mind, and I felt like proving my shoulder was okay….having just had surgery on it last year!

An even better picture of Julie is appropriate now. Yow.......

Back in San Francisco now, we had to check out Lombard Street of course.

Axelle and Celine were part of the gang checking out Lombard Street with me, too. This pretty much marked the end of our three weeks together. I'll admit, I was a bit choked up when we were on the Bay Bridge with San Francisco in our sites. Having listened to Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco" so many times on the 3-week trip, plus getting through some definite high moments and many "low's" together, the end of our three weeks together was really a bittersweet moment. It also marked the end of 6 consecutive weeks of work for me, and considering that this is work where I'm surrounded by customers 24 hours a day, 7 days a can imagine what that feels like to finally have a break coming up. (Looks like I have a week off.)

And just after I finally dropped off the French gang at the airport after 3 weeks together, who is there riding beside me in the car but Mr. Handsome himself. Nice tuxedo, pal! He looked at me and said “Away, put your weapon. I mean you no harm!” Tell me he doesn't look like Yoda...

Great group, the Frenchies were. When I first learned I’d be doing a trip with such a young group, admittedly, I was concerned about how well I could possibly connect with them. It worked out really well though, and there’s quite a few of these folks that I’ll continue to stay in touch with.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Adv #4: Canadian Rockies - July 20th thru Aug 2nd

Now we're getting into the good stuff. A little more rugged...a bit colder... more wildlife danger, more outdoor adventure. I like it !

I was so excited when I heard I was chosen to do a Canadian Rockies tour. I'd been given "hints" about this being on my schedule since about the 2nd week of training, but its very rare that Suntrek gives rookies opportunities to work outside the U.S. in their first season, so I wasn't quite sure it would happen until I was handed the paperwork.

Two weeks, my single van, 13 passengers, and altogether great experience. We started in Seattle as I was dropping off my last group. This time I had a bunch of 20's and 30's Germans (Jens, Thomas, Dennis, and Robert from my first tour) 2 South Koreans (Sarah and Jinny, mother and daughter 8 years old,) a Swiss mother and Daughter (Monica and Rebecca,) 2 Austrian cousins (Phillip and Sebrina,) 1 Dutch guy (Twan,) and a 70 year old Australian couple (John and Mary Rose) to round things out. Quite an eclectic bunch, but it was so fun to see such a diverse combine for such a great time. I guess it's a bit like I predicted: Take the kind of people who are happy to jump in a van full of strangers, possibly share a tent with them and every single meal for 2 weeks.....and you're bound to have some good personalities. Such was the case.
So we started in Seattle by visiting REI, as nobody (including myself) was prepared for the potential sub-zero temperatures we would possibly be camping in. After that we had a ride north to Vancouver for a visit of places like Stanley Park, Granville Island and a quick run through the famous China Town. But we quickly headed up to Wells Grey Provincial Park (British Columbia), Jasper National Park (Alberta), Banff NP (Alberta), Calgary, and then back west through Glacier National Park, Yoho, Golden B.C., and back to Seattle.
This is what I mean by an "eclectic group." Two cousins from Austria, mother and daughter from Seoul South Korea, and an Austrailian couple 65 and 70 years old....all mixed in with the rest of the group. Here we are in front of waterfalls in Wells Grey Provincial Park.
Our first adventure was an overnight canoe trip on Clearwater Lake in B.C. Ever played this game before? Each person stands on a round log, grabs the end of a rope, and start pulling it in to yank the other person off. But what if the other person doesn't resist? It's totally entertaining, and much more tricky than you'd think.
This is why it's called "Clearwater Lake." Pictures could never show, but we could easily see 30 meters below us along the shoreline. I was just dunking my water bottle in and drinking right from the lake. Clearwater drops off quickly though....actually dropping to 600 meters deep in the center! Anyway, we canoed for about 3 hours across the lake to a completely remote campsite with no running water or electricity. Running water was no issue at all, as we were all drinking directly from the lake that beautiful, crystal clear water. (And it actually tastes better than most of the bottled crap we are fed these days.)
The picture above might not be "awesome" in site, but to me, it represents one of those beautiful moments in travel and life. We were in the middle of practically nowhere....some small little town you'd never heard of in B.C., and during a lunch break, just hanging out, tossing the frisbee around in no particular hurry. It was one of those moments where I think about what my old career was like....what I would have been doing on a Thursday at 2:24 in the afternoon back in my old life.....

Then onto Maligne Lake, we passed right by Medicine Lake and stumbled across this shot. What a reflection! It's not hard to stumble across a beautiful setting in the Rockies of B.C., as the scenery is everything in life there.

Jens and Thomas from Wiespaden Germany, working up a good Thai dish for us on Maligne Lake. Good buddies back home, Jens actually won this Suntrek trip online in some contest he never thought twice about. Pretty neat deal. Of course we see bears in the Canadian Rockies. They're all over the place, and love to come out berry-hunting at dusk. Two cubs were following momma bear in the picture above, and I was glad we got to see some bears because it was a high priority on everyone's list. Funny that....the first bear I saw on this trip, nobody else was there to see. I had left everyone alone for a bit to drive the van in for repairs....having hit a stump back in the woods at the Wells Grey Guest Ranch. Driving back from repairs, an enormous black bear darted out in front of me, missing my front bumper by about 20 feet as I was moving 60mph.

As we drove down the Icefield Parkway toward Banff, an absolute highlight of this trip was the hike on the Athabasca Glacier. Led by Joel from Quebec, this is a pretty dangerous situation to be in if you don't know what you're doing, so you need a trained experienced guide to show you the proper footing and path to follow.

Pictures like the ones below show "well-holes" that are formed by the melting ice, and running water trickling down the glacier all the time. The water slowly cuts these holes, which typically have no consistent shape or known path of travel. Only a few unfortunate people know what the path is really like, headed down the 300 meter drop through the glacier to the earth's crust below. Yep, Joel assured us there'd been a few incidents where.....someone didn't pay attention, or some kid ran out onto the glacier and ignored his parents. Those people disappear down these well-holes, never to be found again. These holes might level-off after 100 meters, and form into a pool or something. It's scary to think that someone might be stuck just that far down....still alive and un-injured because they just went down a cold water-slide....but they're unreachable, and freezing to death there in the cold water.

Group picture near the top of the hike. The Mom's and Daughters and older couples took the bus tour while the guys did this frigid 4 hour hike (in July mind you.) Cold air descends, right? The air is getting cold at the top of the glacier in the Columbia Icefield, and every bit the cold air descends, further and further down the glacier, the colder it gets. So the colder it gets, the more speed it picks up, and seriously.....this is one windy hike with that cold air excelerating all the way down the glacier. We were literally being chased down to the bottom by some nasty weather that was rolling in from behind us (see below.)
(Further down the Icefield Parkway, John and I in front of Peyto Lake.)
Below is a picture of myself and Jinny, my little girlfriend from Seoul in front of Lake Louise in Alberta. Okay...I had heard of Lake Louise before this, but I had no idea that it was this stunning of a site. I'll never forget walking down the pathway to the lake, not really knowing what the big deal was about. Suddenly the trees clear, and there to your left is one of the most incredible settings in the world. Encased by snow-capped mountains on each side is this beautiful lake with a color I'd never seen in water before this trip and a color I'll never forget. (A couple of clouds were overhead at the moment of this photo, so that incredible blue will show up in other pictures at nearby lakes.)
Now THAT'S the blue I was talking about (above.) This is Morraine Lake, right by Lake Louise. Look at the color of that water......and make your plans to go see it for yourself! The glaciers scrape away fine particles from the rocks, that "silt" is deposited by water run-off into these lakes, and the silt reacts with the sunlight to create this most incredible of sites.

For some reason, I only got a couple of pictures from the Calgary Tower, and none really from Banff, but I'll try to add some in the future if I get my hands on some from my new friends (hint, hint gang!)

Headed back west now, below are a couple of shots of Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National park. Highest falls in all of Canada at 254 meteres.

I'd heard this before, and John confirmed: You just can't get fireworks in Australia anymore. (The driest continent on the planet is doing what it can to keep wildfires to a minimum.) So when we saw an advertisement for Fireworks for sale near our campground in can bet we took the opportunity to buy some. John was like a kid in a candy store, pulling out his money, running around looking at the options. And he couldn't even wait until dark to set them off in a nearby quarry we found. Good fun.

Above is the group photo in Golden B.C. on one cold, cold morning. We hit 36 degrees Fahrenheit overnight a few times on this trip! That's a cold, cold morning wake July, but I slept like a baby on the roof-rack of the van, under the stars.

Headed more west still, we had a nice hike through the Giant Cypress trees in Glacier National Park (yes, they have such a park in Canada, too.)

So why not finish the trip with a stop at the Mariner's game in Seattle? It was fun to take a bunch of Europeans to their first game, but wow, baseball is a tough game to explain from scratch.
There's much more to tell about this trip, all the things we saw and activities we did. Don't ever hesitate to ask me for more details. I had a 2-day drive (have to watch the hours and follow the D.O.T. guidelines) back to Santa Rosa, where I spent a couple of days preparing to fly to New York to pickup a different van, equipment, and my next group for a 3 week trip across Canada and the northern U.S.!