Grasslands National Park: God’s Glory is Vast

My follow on stop after Saskatoon was a night of camping in Grasslands National Park. I want to find and use the right words to describe how I felt as I first entered the park and while exploring. My initial reaction was to cry.  I stopped the car and broke into tears. I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the blessing of finding myself in such an incredible place. A bison ran in front of my car, blowing me away with his size and magnificence. It was my first time seeing a bison.

Bison in Grasslands National Park

Beauty is addictive. The feeling of being overcome by the splendor my eyes and being find themselves wrapped around is something I chase. It’s my high of choice. To be left feeling insignificant in the grander of God’ vast creation is incredibly freeing and priceless—all concerns, worries, and thoughts are erased in order to be able to begin to grasp the marvel of my surroundings. I swim in the waves of gratitude, joy, and awe. That was what my stay in Grasslands National Park was like.

I really wish I had spent at least two or more days there.

Grasslands National Park

I arrived in early afternoon and after setting up camp at the Frenchman Valley Hub Campground, I headed out on my bike to explore.  The self-guided ecotour scenic drive is a popular thing to do in the park, so I decided to explore part of it on my bike. What I absolutely love about being on my bike versus my car is my ability to connect more with the environment.

Prairie Grasslands National Park

While pedaling along, taking in the sights, I was easily taken back to a time when Indians roamed the land following the Bisons to secure their survival, and stops along the tour offered flashbacks to when homesteaders, ranchers, and cowboys battled the rough life in the prairie to “cultivate” a new life for themselves.

The encounter with another Bison, a few variety of deer and a visit to the Black-tailed Prairie dog “town” was such a treat. I first saw a couple of Black-tailed Prairie dogs on their mounds before realizing the full extent of just how many of them there were on both sides of the road. They seemed to be everywhere, but just within a few square mile area of the park. I observed them in all facets of their natural environment.

Black-tailed Prairie dog Grasslands National Park
Black-tailed Prairie dog Grasslands National Park

I stopped a lot during my bike ride to simply stare in wonder before returning to my campsite to check on Little Man, eat, and catch the sunset.

Road in Grasslands National Park

Sunset Grasslands National Park

The following day, before departing, I hiked the 11.2 km Broken Hills Trail and witnessed more of the beauty of the vast landscape and its rolling hills, mixed-grass prairies, and flowers.

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I was sad to leave but it was on to Calgary.

Thunder Bay: The Sleeping Giant

After my morning stroll, it was time to break-up camp and drive to the next destination. I arrived in Thunder Bay in early afternoon, but couldn’t check-in to my AirBnB until after 5:30pm, which meant I had some time to kill. The day was overcast and cool, so after a short drive around and not seeing anything interesting to do or see, I decided to go to Starbucks to logon to the Internet and do some blogging. I was in the Starbucks for about 15-20 minutes before retrieving to the back seat of my car with Little Man. The noise, commotion, and people inside were too much. I wanted back to the serenity of the last few days. I hung out in the back of my car until I could go check-in.

I settled in to my AirBnB and called it an early night. I woke-up to a rainy day and didn’t do much except find a gym to workout. Thankfully, the following day, the sun was shining and it was time to go check-out the Sleeping Giant. Sleeping Giant is one of Ontario’s Provincial Parks and it surrounds/overlooks Lake Superior.

View of Lake Superior from Sleeping Giant
View of Lake Superior from Sleeping Giant

I purchased a National Park pass ($67 Canadian dollars and it’s good for two years) at Pukaskwa National Park…only to discover that Provincial parks aren’t included. Anyway, be sure to pay your park passes…I’ve seen people get tickets.

My goal for the day was to make it on top of the Giant. What I really liked about this hike was that I could bike the beginning of the trail (Kabeyun Trail). Honestly, I would have hated hiking the start of the trail since it was basically flat and in the woods. You save a lot of time biking it. Do bring a lock because eventually you link up with Talus Lake trail and the Top of the Giant trail which has to be done on foot. There’s even a bike rack to accommodate bikers.

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It’s a semi-steep hike with some decent views along the way…but the best view by far is at the top. Well, let me correct myself. Once you get to the top, you still have to hike an additional two kilometers to get to awe-worthy view. Total was 16k biking, 10k hiking.

Top of Sleeping Giant Ontario

I was once again impressed by the immense size of Lake Superior. I hung out at the top taking in the view and ate my lunch. I even did some yoga…

On the way back to the parking lot where my car was parked…I had my first encounter with a mama bear and her cub. I was speeding along on my bike, pedaling my heart out, going through puddles getting quite dirty, passing poor souls who I’d seen coming down as I was hiking up, when in the distance, I saw a black bear coming down the trail. I stopped. She saw me. She raised her head, looked my way, and continued to walk down the trail. As she came towards me, I saw the cub behind her.

She didn’t appear concerned with me, but she was on the path to my exit. I back tracked about a 100 yards, enough that she was now out of view and waited to see if they would get off the trail. They didn’t. They kept walking down the path. I rode further back until I linked up with two guys and their dog. After explaining the bears on the trail to them, we waited to see if they were still coming our way. They were. We made a bunch of noise trying to get them off the trail, but it didn’t work. So now, all three of us and the dog, back tracked until we met up with a larger group.

Thankfully, the larger group finally did the trick. Mama bear and cub went into the woods and I rode on.

Not entirely sure what I would have done…had I been on my own. I would’ve had to wait them out in the woods, hoping they passed me without bothering with me.

There was more I would have liked to see around Thunder Bay, like Kakabeka Falls, but it was time to move on. Next stop: Winnipeg

Pukaskwa National Park: The Beauty of Lake Superior

The drive from Sault Ste-Marie to Pukaskwa National Park was a pretty one. Most of it was riding along Lake Superior. I had no expectations of what Lake Superior had to offer. Besides knowing it was an immense lake, I knew little else about it, and had no idea I would find myself in such magical settings, once I got to Pukaskwa National Park.

As I mentioned in my other post, I Bought a Tent, this was my and Little Man’s first camping experience. We rolled up to the campsite, which overall was as I expected. I setup camp, made sure Little Man was alright and headed out to explore. Unfortunately, the hike I wanted to do (White River Suspension Bridge Trail) was too long of a hike to do in the few hours I had left of daylight, so instead, I did some of the hikes closer by.

I was blown away by the magic in the forest, everything had some sort of moss growing on it, giving the woods a look I had never seen before. Next, I was stunned by the size of the beaches and the large trees that clutter their shores. The vastness of Lake Superior, in that I couldn’t see the opposite shore, also surprised me.

Magical Forest

Shore of Lake Superior

I love finding myself somewhere that doesn’t remind me of anywhere else. That’s how I felt, as I explored the trails of Pukaskwa National Park.

Pukaskwa National Park a dawnt

After my hike I returned to the campsite to eat and waited for the sun to set so I could go watch it. It got much cooler as the sun went down, and my fire building skills left me without much of a fire. I also felt lonely…would camping leave me feeling this way? With nothing to do in the evening, in the solitude of the woods…would loneliness creep in while on this trip?

Eventually I crawled into the tent and tried to get some sleep. I didn’t sleep very well, but none the less, in the morning, I did one more short hike…regretting I wasn’t here for two nights so I could do the longer hike.

Next stop. Thunder Bay.

Stowe Vermont: An Austrian Reminder

How did I end up in the cool town of Stowe Vermont, you ask? Simple. A guy from Tinder turn me on to the excellent single track mountain biking that can be found at Kingdoms Trails in Burke, Vermont. My search on AirBnB and Booking.com showed no availability in Burke but I found a place called Innsbruck Inn, which happened to be in Stowe on Booking.com about an hour and half away from Burke. The name of the hotel took me back to a place I love—Austria, so after a quick Google search to make sure there were things to do in Stowe, I booked a room for three days.

If you've been to Austria -- you've seen many of these Inns
If you’ve been to Austria — you’ve seen many of these Inns

Day 2

Hiking Mount Mansfield

I arrived to Stowe on the first day later than planned, so unfortunately, there wasn’t much daylight left for me to do any exploring. But I woke up the following day determined to spend the day hiking and mountain biking. I enjoyed a hearty breakfast (included with the room) before setting off to hike the tallest mountain in Vermont—Mount Mansfield.

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Finding the hiking route online proved to be confusing. Thankfully, the owner of the Inn was able to trace the route for me and tell me where to get started. My journey began at the start of the Long Trail path off of Route 108 up to chin (the summit), across the ridgeline and what should have been down Haselton Trail, except I never found Haselton, so I came down one of the ski slopes—making for a steep descent. Killed my knees.

Long Trail Hike Mt Mansfield

Mount Mansfield

The hike up was challenging and definitely required wearing hiking boots. The path followed along a few streams which means it was rocky and wet. The hike was worth it for the view at the top of the ridge was beautiful. From anywhere along the ridgeline, the mountain offers breathtaking views of Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, the Green Mountains and Mont Royal in Quebec.

Biking Around Town

After my four plus hour hike, I got back to the hotel and took a quick nap. My plan was to eat a late lunch after my nap and spend a few hours in the afternoon mountain biking. I searched online and found an area with some single tracks that I could bike to—I jumped on my bike and hopped on the paved recreational path that covered the miles all the way into town. I had lunch and continued on to find the mountain biking trails.

Due to my lack of paying attention to direction, I went out of my way a few miles in the wrong direction…twice. The plus side of my mistakes allowed me to see more of Stowe. A lot about it reminded me of Austria. Especially while riding the paved path that offered lovely views of the fields, the town, and the mountains. The minus side of my mistake, it tired me out. By the time I was almost at the entrance of the mountain biking trail, I had biked over ten miles and my legs were getting tired.

I decided to turn back, go feed Little Man and save myself for the mountain biking the next day.

Day 3

A Rainy Day

I woke up to rain, went to breakfast to sunshine but returned to the room to rain. It rained almost all morning long—ruining my plans to mountain bike at Kingdom Trails. Once the sun finally returned, I mounted my bike but didn’t feel like doing an hour and a half drive to Kingdom Trails, so I headed to the trails on Cady Hills from the night before. It wasn’t a big network of trails but it was still some fun riding.

Cady Hill Bear Trail

Riding that made me realize what a mountain biking rookie I am.

My day ended feeling bummed out.

Day 4

Kingdom Trails

I woke up to sunshine. The point of this stop in Vermont was to mountain bike Kingdom Trails. So while I was happy I had discovered Stowe—I had to fulfill the purpose of this stop. It was only a slight detour to stop in Burke on my way to Canada so I loaded everything up and headed that way.

I’m so glad I did!!  While once again I felt like a complete rookie mountain biking the single tracks of Kingdom Trails—I had a blast! It made me wish I could do this every day. There’s more than 100 miles of trails—a mixture perfect for all skill levels.

I want to go back and spend more time on those trails. Perhaps I’ll spend next Spring/Summer in Vermont. Who knows…after all, I get to make it up as I go!

San Ignacio: Mayan Ruins

Two and half hour drive from Belize City is the small town of San Ignacio—I arrived with a full bladder and an empty stomach at Hode’s, the restaurant where my AirBnB contact was meeting me.  I filled my belly with my first chicken “stew” with beans and rice and coleslaw. I would eat a lot more of both in the weeks to come. Not complaining by the way, it was always delicious. On Caye Caulker, I ate a lot of chicken and shrimp kabobs, also yummy and healthy. Other common selections on most local menus include burritos and fajitas.

After my meal, Suzy and her husband took me to the open air market for some fruits, veggies, and eggs, followed by the grocery store, before taking me to my home for the next seven days, located outside of town.

Cabin by the Mopan River in San Ignacio
Cabin by the Mopan River in San Ignacio

I walked into the small cabin and was amazed by how modern, well decorated, quaint and cozy it was. It lacked nothing—it even had a blender for me to make protein shakes. I knew right away it wouldn’t be difficult to be productive here.

Inside Cabin San Ignacio

I started each morning with a cup of coffee either down by the Mopan River watching the sunrise or comfortably lounging in the hammock on the porch before getting my sweat on exercising.

Sunrise over the Mopan Ricer in San Ignacio
Sunrise over the Mopan Ricer in San Ignacio

Once I’d cooled off in the shower from my workouts, and a proper breakfast, I normally spent a couple of hours writing before venturing out to do some exploring of the local Mayan Ruins. The first ruins I visited were right in town called Cahal Pech. The site was a palacio home for an elite Maya family, and though most major construction dates to the Classic period, evidence of continuous habitation has been dated back as far as 900 BC, making Cahal Pech one of the oldest recognizably Maya sites in Western Belize. The site is a collection of 34 structures, with the tallest being about 25 meters in height. The site was abandoned in the 9th century AD for unknown reasons.

Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins in San Ignacio
Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins in San Ignacio

Cahal Pech Ruins

The following day, I took the 20 minute drive to Xunantunich. I embarked on the manually ran ferry across the Mopan River to make my way to the ruins. This site was bigger, but just as peaceful, well groomed, and even more impressive than Cahal Pech. Xunantunich served as a Maya civic ceremonial center in the Late and Terminal Classic periods to the Belize Valley region. During this period, the region was at its peak, nearly 200,000 people lived in Belize, which is impressive considering that the current population in Belize is about 300,000.

Xunantunich Mayan Ruins
Xunantunich Mayan Ruins

Xunantunich Ruins

The Mayans definitely knew how to pick prime real estate. I didn’t hire a guide, although one could have been procured before getting on the ferry for $60 BZE. I wanted to be able to walk the site at my own leisure.

I spent a full day writing, the next day, in anticipation of taking a day off to check-out the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. I only stopped writing to cool off in the river by doing some tubing. River and cave tubing are very popular activities in Belize, but you do have to be careful of the little fish who like to nibble on whatever they find in their environment. I’ll admit it freaked me out when they surrounded me, it felt like I was getting stung. Needless to say, I didn’t stay in the river very long. It was none the less quite refreshing.

I booked my ATM tour with Pacz Tour which is located on Burns Street (the main street in San Ignacio). You can’t visit the ATM cave without a tour guide…and quite frankly, you couldn’t even if you wanted to. It’s a dark, wet, and confusing place. The guide provided us with a helmet and head lamp. He used a larger flashlight to make sure we didn’t miss the highlights of the cave.

The ATM cave is notable as a Maya archaeological site that includes skeletons, ceramics, and stoneware. The most famous of the human remains is known as “The Crystal Maiden”, the skeleton of a teenage girl, probably a sacrifice victim, whose bones which have been completely covered by the natural processes of the cave, leaving them with a sparkling appearance. There are several such skeletons in the main chamber.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Remains

We learned during the tour that the ceramics at the site are significant partially because they are marked with “kill holes”, which indicates they were used for ceremonial purposes. The kill holes ensured the bowls could never be used again.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Pottery
Actun Tunichil Muknal Pottery

The sheer size of the cave, with its rock formations, and large chamber where the remains are located competed as attractions with the almost 3,000 years old artifacts and skeletons. It was impressive.

Pictures are not allowed inside the ATM, since a few years ago, someone dropped their phones and destroyed one of the skeletons.

I would’ve liked to have visited Caracol, which is the largest Mayan ruins in Belize, located in another worth attraction, Mountain Pine Ridge, but I had more writing to do and was running out of time. I figured it’s a wonderful reason to go back to San Ignacio. I can definitely see myself spending more time in that lovely cabin by the river writing another book!

This was the life!
This was the life!

 

Caye Caulker: Writing and Water Activities

“Slow down, why you walking so fast, man. Take it slow.” One of the locals said to me in a Caribbean accent. I smiled at him and nodded. I had no reply for him, I always walk like I have somewhere to go.

My day started with a 0300 wakeup call. After making a protein shake, getting dressed, and stripping off the bed, my dad was already asking me if I was ready to go. He was driving me to the airport. I replied I needed at least another 15 minutes. This was my third time leaving to a new distant land to go write a book in The Chapters of My Life Series. I had packed the night before, and for once, I’d been able to cut back on what I was taking with me. But, I still needed to grab the last of my things, before I could head out the door.

The flights to Belize City, from Boston, via Miami, unfolded without any issues. I arrived, and, as soon as I had my luggage, my long sleeve shirt was stripped off, down to a tank-top, and my sneakers switched out for sandals before I made my way to the local gate for my flight to Caye Caulker. It was beach time! It’d snowed during my short two weeks back to Massachusetts, so I was excited to get back to the beach.

I was the only passenger on the small propeller plane heading to Caye Caulker. I could’ve taken a water taxi, it would‘ve been cheaper, but also longer. Since I get sea sick, the 10 minute plane ride worked for me. I felt like a well-traveled millionaire taking a private plane to my own island! The water was a beautiful, clear blue, and welcoming me to my home for the next seven days.

On my solo flight to Caye Caulker
On my solo flight to Caye Caulker

I landed, exited the plane, and was asked if I needed a taxi. I wasn’t sure where my Airbnb cottage was located so I accepted the offer the attendant made of calling me a taxi. The island is only five miles long and a mile wide, at its widest point, so I was pretty sure I could’ve handled the walk, but how many times do you get to take a golf cart as a taxi? There are very few cars on Caye Caulker, transportation is either by golf cart, bicycle, or on foot.

Riding in my golf cart taxi
Riding in my golf cart taxi

I checked-in to my new home, traded everything I was wearing for a bathing suit and shorts, applied sun tan lotion, and went exploring—that’s when I was called out for walking too fast. I would later learn the moto of the island is in fact: Go Slow.

Go Slow!
Go Slow!

Caye Caulker is a simple place, with a few streets, and about a half mile ocean front strip with a few restaurants, bars, a coffee shop, and a few places advertising rooms for rent. There are no resorts to be found. One side of the island is for tourists, and the other side, for its residents. Although small, and designed for tourism, it didn’t feel touristy. There’s a healthy selection of companies from which to select snorkeling, or diving tours to a plethora of spots all advertising exciting sights and sea life.

Caye Caulker Front Street

Beach Strip
Beach Strip

Caye Caulker Water Taxi

I did a one day sailing and snorkeling tour with Raggamuffin tours. I hadn’t snorkeled since my time on Okinawa, a good 14 years ago. It was an excellent tour—took sea sickness pills, so I didn’t have any issues. We stopped in three different locations, and the guides took us around pointing out the sea creatures and different aspects of the thriving barrier reef. Most memorable was swimming with the nurse sharks, string rays, and seeing a green eel. We were treated to juicy pineapple and watermelon on the way to our initial stop, lunch after our first excursion, and delicious shrimp ceviche on our way back. I met and chatted it up with a couple from Quebec, and later a guy from Toronto. I encountered quite a few Canadians on this trip. It was a splendid day!

Caye Caulker Tour Company

Aside from my day out at sea, snorkeling, my time on Caye Caulker was spent in a routine of waking up early, exercising on the beach, having breakfast at the Caribbean Colors Art Café (loved both their egg whites omelets, which came with a nice serving of fruits, and yummy banana bread and their banana pancakes, which were light and fluffy), writing, followed by taking various breaks to enjoy some sort of water activity.

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I rented a sea kayak a few times. My first sea kayak experience was in Dubrovnik where I initially struggled, lagging behind the other couple on the tour with me. But eventually—I figured out how to paddle properly, something I remembered how to do. I surprised myself with how easily and familiar paddling felt once I got back in a kayak. I had kayaked one other time, at Lake Bled, in Slovenia.

Kayaking Caye Caulker

Up in the neutral position
Up in the neutral position

My Caye Caulker first was wind surfing. I didn’t know what to expect. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be easy, but I also didn’t think the two hour lesson was going to wear me down, as much as it did. The sail was so much lighter than I expected it to be, meaning, it didn’t offer me the balance I was looking for. The balance, my instructor kept reminding me, is in leaning back and keeping my arms straight while comfortably keeping my hips forward. The position he wanted me in, was not one my body allowed me to achieve. I fell a lot and had to hop back on the board, re-establishing myself into the neutral position. I did manage to learn some of the basics like the neutral position, front and back turns, and I even sailed back and forth for a bit. If I lived by the beach, I’m pretty sure I would pick-up windsurfing as a regular addition to the activities I partook in.

The day came when it was time to go and I felt bummed out. I was a little behind on my word count, and definitely not ready to leave. It was with a heavy heart I looked back at the tiny island, surrounded by clear blue water, as I flew back to the mainland to pick-up my vehicle for the next leg of my adventure.