Thailand round 2…On Beaches and Buoyancy

 After two months of new cities, roads and adventures, it felt great to be back in Bangkok where we knew the streets, sights, and most importantly, where all the best street food vendors were located. Although many of the friends and travelers we’ve met along the way made their best effort to get in and out of Bangkok as quick as they could, Alison and I found that we enjoyed the crazy collision of culture, religion, and late night shenanigans that this city has to offer. It was also nice to be back in a traveling hub where backpackers converge and we could sit for a few nights enjoying beer on the street while swapping tales of travels with others. After spending a few days gathering information and seeing a few of the sights we missed the first time around, we jumped back on the bus and headed south, making way for the small island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. 

  The northernmost of three large islands situated in the Gulf, Koh Tao is quieter and less rambunctious than its sister islands to the south. Since the first hotel was built in 1984 it has experience rapid growth to tourism, and is now known for its affordable and excellent SCUBA diving. The island boasts more dive shops than 7-11s, a feat in this country, even if you are on an island! Despite its popularity however the island still maintains a laid-back tropical island charm, where sunsets are watched from the balcony with a beer, and residents are tucked into bed not long after dark.

 It had been 10 years since I’d been under the water on a dive, but after a quick refresher in the shallow water we headed out to the deep, excited to see what secrets lay beneath. I’d forgotten how awesome it is to be underwater; the feeling of being completely weightless, swimming silently about while curious fish flitted in front of your eyes, while the more shy ones tucked themselves further into the rocks or anemone, hoping to escape your sight. The world under the water is such a fascinating one; to think that all that we see when we are diving is constantly there, swimming, eating, living just as we do on land beneath the water on a day to day basis fascinates me. Sometimes when I’m on a boat I look over the edge and get lost simply thinking about everything that is going on down there, everything that we know, and so much more that we don’t. It both fascinates and scares me, and I think it is what always keeps me coming back for more. The sea is such an incredible place and what makes it more incredible is how little we truly know about it. 

Although I was hesitant to go diving after 10 years out of the water, I’m glad I did. In the past I have had trouble pressurizing my ears when diving, however this time with some recommended 7-11 decongestants (oh thank heaven!) and Alison’s encouragement we were soon swimming peacefully along side each other under the sea. Alison and I have been on the road together now for six months, never more than a few feet apart. For many that may not work, but for us it has been a welcome change to the time we spent apart while focused on our careers over the past few years. It has made a strong relationship stronger, and we continue to push each other when needed; this time I was happy Alison pushed me into the water. 

After two full days of diving we pulled ourselves out of the water to dry off and explore the island a little bit further by land. Diving in 30C water is a far cry from my certification dives off the coast of Nova Scotia, and it was definitely a welcome change. Although we didn’t see any big sharks or whale sharks, we did see healthy coral and all the fish that rely on a healthy reef eco systems. What initially started out as a 2 day trip turned into 6, and put Koh Tao up there on the list of one of the best places we’ve visited so far on this trip, and one we’d definitely return to. 

From Koh Tao we headed west across Thailand’s narrow sliver of land to Ao Nang, where we set up shop for the remainder of our days in the country in a little bungalow tucked up off the beaches, at the edge of the jungle under towering limestone peaks. Every night as the sun set bats would leave their hiding spots in the cliffs high above and come down to our cabin, chasing the bugs that swarmed to our porch light in the dying light of dusk. Some seemingly the size of birds, these never failed to cause Alison to shriek as they swooped in for the kill, always coming so close to our heads but never hitting as they caught dinner and dashed back out again at breakneck speed.  

By day we explored the surrounding area of Krabi beach and Koh Phi Phi Island, while at night we ate our fill of delicious seafood and street food. Our days in the sun and warm water were numbered, so we soaked up every last bit of the rays and even snuck in one more day of diving. Only days before we had hit the button and booked the flights for the next stage in our adventure… in a week’s time we would say goodbye to the warmth of south east asia, and say hello to the snowy winter streets of Japan. After three months exploring this beautiful corner of the world, we decided it was time to change gears, we’re going skiing baby! Japow, here we come!

xo, Alison and Byron


Recommendations:

For those looking to do some diving in Thailand, we highly recommend checking out Koh Tao. The diving is the most affordable we saw in the region ($70CAD for a 2 tank dive), and the marine life is plentiful. We dove with the PADI certified dive shop Ocean Sound, a well run and reputable company owned by a fellow Canadian who has lived on the island for over 10 years now. We also dove with Buddha View diving on Koh Tao, and The Dive in Ao Nang, both great companies that offered great service and dives.

   

  

  

  

  

  

  

     

    
    
    
    
    
  

Cambodia

 With the Christmas holidays approaching and our cycling adventure now behind us, we set out for Cambodia. Arriving in the the capital city from Ho Chi Minh City via bus, the freedom our own two wheels afforded us already seemed like a distant memory. As the bus careened into Phnom Phen, a frenzy of hungry tuk-tuk drivers immediately surrounded the bus, hustling for a fare. Succumbing to one extra persuasive individual we jumped into the back, knowing then and there our days of independent travel were over.

 

       The following day we wanted to take in some of Cambodia’s more recent history, and headed off to the Killing Fields. Throughout Cambodia, there are a numerous sites where the Khmer Rouge regime executed and buried over 1 million people in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ the country of those that threatened the communist farming utopia it envisioned for the nation. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, or ‘Killing Fields’ outside of Phnom Penh has preserved the graves and memory of those murdered within the region, and serves as a powerful reminder of the tragic and destructive power an unchecked governing body can reign over its own people. Much like the resilience and power we found in the Vietnamese however, the Cambodian people have shown strength in recovery and reconciliation since this horrific period of history. Only 40 years after the devastating regime massacred almost a third of its people, Cambodians are working hard to put the past behind them and rebuild the spirit and strength of their country.

     

 After a somber morning at the fields, we enjoyed lunch with our driver (now turned tour guide) at a great cafe run by an NGO that provides technical training for Khmer youth. The food was delicious, and as we ate our guide discussed life in Cambodia and the opportunities available for its people today. Although they are now standing on their own two feet, Cambodia still seems to be looking for a place in the world and a voice of its own. Often during our few short weeks in the country we found ourselves at a curious juxtapose of stunning cultural artifacts, surrounded by restaurants offering nothing but full western fare. It is my hope that Cambodia sees the beauty and strength in its own culture and ensures that it is preserved and championed in years to come; while it’s hard for an emerging market to find a balance between cultural preservation and visitor appeal, if the latter of the two becomes too much of a priority, they may run the risk of losing the first all together.    

  

 We spent the evening watering ourselves along the Mekong River, watching as families and friends played along the wide boulevard against the shores of the river. After a few days in the city we had finished our exploration, and were ready to pack our bags. With two months of jungle, rivers and roads behind us, we were finally heading to the beach, just in time for Christmas. 
  Koh Rong island is one of a handful of undeveloped islands off the the coast of Cambodia, just a quick ferry ride from the mainland. For five nights we enjoyed the sun, sand and clear blue waters of the gulf of Thailand as we relaxed in our tiny rustic beachfront bungalow. We read our books, swam day and night, and explored the the little lush island to our hearts content. After a month of cycling and a week of cities and buses, it finally felt like we had a chance to unwind. The sun and sea carried our aches away with the tide, along with our glove tans, worries, and cares.
 From Koh Rong Island we made the long haul to Siem Reap, home of the spectacular ruins of Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century, they are a reminder of the Khmer people’s dominant reign over the region for hundreds of years, serving as the center of their long standing dynasty. Much like the Aztec Mayan ruins and the high altitude remains of Machu Pichu, Angkor Wat is a fascinating example of the strength and ability of people long since past.  
 After reaching our fill of historical culture we joined the throngs of people gathered on the streets of the city to celebrate the start of another year in a modern cultural fashion. As we clinked glasses with others from countless other nationalities, Byron and I said goodbye and gave thanks to the end of an amazing 2015, and set our sights on the continuing adventures that 2016 would bring.
 Two days later we boarded a bus for Thailand, ready to complete our loop of south east Asia as we made way back to the crazed metropolis of Bangkok. From there we would head south to experience the plethora of beaches and hot sun the southern stretch of the country offers, ready to dip our heads underwater and see if what we could find below matched all that had mesmerized us above. 

  
    
  

Killing fields memorial

 
   
    
    
   
   
 

   
    
   
   
    
  

  
 

   
 Happy new year ! 

Things on Scooters…

It was such a large part of our photographic journey through Vietnam and Cambodia…we just couldn’t resist sharing a few photos of the humorous, shocking and sometimes appaling things we saw on the back of scooters as we made our way through SE Asia.

Pretty good way for a pup to get around!

      

Note the ‘child seat’ strapped on the bike

 

This little piggy went to the market….

 

Even on scooters the girls remained prim and proper

 

The local air conditioning install men on their way to work

Just your average door delivery

 

I’m liable to believe the kitchen sink is in there too

 

No big deal. He’s got this.

 

Your local veggie delivery man.

 

Optimus Prime retired in Cambodia, as a tuk-tuk.

 

Don’t worry, this will work out just fine.

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BANNANA!!

Four Wheels and a Scheme…Biking Vietnam Part 1

Well, against all odds we found two bicycles and bags that would fit our (excessive) gear, and made it out of the city of Hanoi alive.  Our crazy scheme came to fruition and our legs were only starting to realize what they were in for as we pedalled out of the city at 6am 22 days ago, with little to no idea what was in store for us.  It all started out so simple.. I came across A Cruising Couple’s blog post while we were still finishing up our time in Laos, and it sounded like a great idea; buy some bikes in Hanoi, pedal roughly 1600kms to Ho Chi Minh City, sell the bikes, and call it a day.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t think either of us were under any illusion that this was going to be easy; but we figured we’re both pretty fit, we enjoy biking, and we were looking for a new means of travel through Vietnam, so how hard could it be?  As we sit a little under 400kms from Ho Chi Minh City though, I realize this has been the most physically and mentally challenging experience of my life.  But it has also been one of the most rewarding.  After we stopped for a water break at the top of a series of never-ending hills the other day, Byron turned to ask me if I would ever consider doing this again, knowing what I know now.  And I said absolutely.  There have been moments where I have cursed myself for coming up with this idea, cursed Byron for being stronger and faster, cursed the wind for blowing in my face and not at my back, and cursed the sun for not spending enough time behind the clouds during the heat of the day.  But each time my mind turned sour, it would only be a matter of minutes before the vista of green jungle would remind me of the beauty surrounding us, or a sharp ‘hello!’ would come crying from the depths of a house we were passing by, as the delighted and humoured Vietnamese would see us and shout out a greeting. I swear if we were counting, there may be a hello for every kilometer we’ve pedalled.

Yesterday we came across the first bikers we’ve crossed paths with so far on our journey; it was like we found the only other fish left in the sea, we were so excited to stop and share our stories with each other.  And they said something interesting that stuck with me; of all of the countries they’ve pedalled through so far (Vietnam is their fifth!), Vietnam has been their favourite for one simple reason: the people.  And it couldn’t be more true; whether they’re laughing at or with us or offering a helping hand, the Vietnamese people have warmed our hearts and given us a boost whenever we’ve needed it most.

So for now I’ll leave our story at that and wait until we’ve pedalled our last kilometer into Ho Chi Minh City to write about this jouney at length.  But I will also recommend that if you’ve got a harebrained idea up your sleeve and you’re not sure if it’s going to work, go for it.  You never know where the road will take you, and you can be sure you’ll at least get a few ‘hellos’! along the way. 🙂

ps – check out Tan and Aleu’s blog and facebook page on their biking journey so far…they make us look like amateurs over here!

xo Alison and Byron

A Little Laos

    From the beauty of Chiang Mai, Thailand, we left heading north then east, bound for a border and river journey into the heart of Laos. With new friends by our side we stocked up on a few essentials and prepared for the cruise that would take two days down the Mekong, stopping only to spend the night in a remote village perched on the edge of the swift moving muddy water. The trip down the river was beautiful; with time on our side we were afforded scenes of towering limestone peaks jutting up out of the landscape like lost teeth, remote villages reached only by boat, and slowly spiralling whirlpools our captain kept only faintly out of reach. After many hands of cards, chapters of our books and stories later, we arrived at Luang Prabang in the heart of Laos. Once under French colonial rule, the heart of this old city still holds on to many architectural pieces influenced by the time, and is now recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. We spent our days touring around the city and then its surrounding countryside, enjoying waterfalls and swimming holes by day and the food, culture and people by night. With hidden bars tucked over the river, colonial architecture, croissants and sprawling night markets, the city offers a beautiful blend of old and new as two cultures mesh into one unique urban atmosphere. It was a warm welcome to the country, and definitely a city we’d return to in a heartbeat.      

    Since we had run out of river boat options, we were left with limited options to head south to Vang Vieng and ended up on one of the more harrowing bus rides of the trip thus far. Unfortunately, as a local later explained, corruption runs rampant in the road building industry in Laos, and more often than not the funds allocated to the winning contractor end up being used for only half of the agreed upon work; the other half is used to pay off those that helped said contractor secure the work in the first place. Unfortunately those that suffer the worst of the consequences of these backdrop deals are the likes of us, and any other motorist on the road. It’s a wonder that the bus had any shocks left in it at all by the time we finally reached our destination. 

  A very touristy town which has built its reputation renting inner tubes and hot air balloon rides, Vang Vieng thrives on churning the tourists through the natural wonders and beauty that surrounds the small town. Unfortunately as the hours creep on into the evening and the drinks keep getting poured, some of the less admirable traits of travellers come out, and at times, you aren’t sure if you’ve been transported to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or an LA nightclub. With a good set of earplugs and a reminder that you can act over the age of 21 however, Vang Vieng is still a glorious spot worth the stop on your travels through Laos. We spent our two days there biking through rice fields to azure blue swimming holes, floating casually down the river, exploring stunning caves with hidden temples and enjoying all of the local treats the street vendors had to offer.

    With a growing idea of what our next adventure might be we made way for Vientiane, Laos’ capital city in the South. Plane tickets in hand for Hanoi two days later, we spent our last days in Laos exploring the city and learning a little more about the country’s history. Although we had read snippets of stories in our travel guide and rumours of the problems the country’s people still face today, we had no idea for what was in store for us when we visited the COPE center, a facility created by a not-for-profit dedicated to the manufacturing, education and distribution of prosthetic limbs for those affected by both the Vietnam and Secret War between 1964 and 1973. During those years, the Americans completed more than 580,000 bombing missions, making Laos the more heavily bombed country in the world per capita. Over 2 million tons of ordinances were dropped on the country, many of them cluster bombs containing dozens of smaller ‘bombies’ inside, set to detonate either upon impact, or through a variety of either trip-wire or time clock mechanisms. With only a 70% detonation success rate, approximately 80 million of these ‘bombies’ remained undetonated throughout the countryside following the war. More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of unexploded ordinances incidences in the post war period between 1974-2011, and today approximately 100 new casualties occur annually. COPE has done an amazing job in the country thus far to help rehabilitate those affected by these ordinances, and to educate the population on proper recognition and reporting of those remaining in the field. While Canada has never used cluster munitions, they are still available and used in war around the globe today. Warfare is a powerful and indiscriminate means to an end, and it was eye opening and powerful to see a country still in the recovery stages of a battle largely unknown to us both.

  We enjoyed our visit in Laos, but if we returned we would do it different. I think this spectacular country has a lot to offer if you wander off the beaten track, which is unfortunately what we failed to do. But with a little bit of luck we’re going to try and avoid making the same mistake again; once we land in Hanoi we’re setting out to find bicycles, and if all goes well we’ll set off what should be the most challenging adventure of our trip so far as we  attempt to bike from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, a distance of over 1600kms. With too much gear and not a lot of money to spend on bikes, no matter the outcome I know it will be a journey we’ll never forget. 🙂

Until next time, 

xo Alison and Byron

Our trusty riverboat that guided us down the Mekong

 

Our view over Vang Vieng

  

A sun bear surveys his domain at the bear sanctuary outside of Luang Prabang, where those seized from paochers and illegal traders are brought

  

On the streets of Luang Prabang

A hot air ballon catches the last of the sunset over Vang Vieng

 

Through the rice paddies on our way to the swimming hole outside of Vang Vieng

     
  
 

Kuang Si waterfalls, Luang Prabang

       

Exploring the caves, Vang Vieng

    

Being a tourist and loving every minute of it…

 

Found a rope swing!!


 
   
  
    

But it’s good to know everyone enjoys the water just the same 🙂

  

Prosthetic legs collected and exchanged for newer models hang on display in the COPE education center, Vientiane

  

Mae Hong Son Motorcycle Loop

The easy life in Chiang Mai is hard to leave, but after 6 days in and around the city we figured it was time to strike out and see the countryside, and a motorcycle seemed like the best way to do it. With some self-awareness and assertiveness the roads and traffic are reasonably easy to navigate in Thailand, especially when bikes and scooters flow like pebbles around boulders to the front of the line at a traffic light, assuring a safe start in front of the larger vehicles on the road. Our steed of choice for the trip was a 200cc Honda Phantom, a popular bike styled after the more muscular cruiser bikes of America. A decent bike, it was no problem for getting around the flat city streets, although we did find it to be slightly overloaded and underpowered for the remainder of the trip. But if time is on your side, who cares?

They claim there are 762 curves over the 140km distance from Chaing Mai to Pai, which sounds like a dream on 2 wheels unless those 762 curves are under construction. The road from Dong Palan (where you leave the main road) and Pai was an absolute disaster. Without warning two lanes turn to one, huge potholes appeared, gravel was everywhere, construction occurred without traffic control…you name it and we rode around, or through it. Stopping half way we questioned our sanity and judgment, but kept quiet any suggestion of terminating the trip. Three hours later we pulled into Pai, a small town in the middle of a broad lush green valley with a lazy river snaking its way through town and a large white Buddha statue sitting on the mountain side, presiding over it all. After the ride we’d just been through, it was a very peaceful place to pull into. We found a little guesthouse along the river and sat down to relax with a well earned drink. Pai has become a very popular destination with the backpacker crowd as of recent, and many of those who found it have never left. The town has a developed a very hippy feeling to it, unfortunately it’s a bit of a western one.

We both weren’t ready to get back on the motorbike given the previous day’s experience, so we decided to hang around town and explore. The area around Pai is dotted with farms, rural guesthouses and best of all, waterfalls. We rode the Phantom out to a popular waterfall where the cascading water has smoothed out the rocks, creating a great natural set of waterslides. The cool crisp water was a refreshing break as we splashed with the locals and visitors alike, soaking up the afternoon sun, playing and relaxing all afternoon. 

The next day, relaxed and refreshed, we hit the road. Thankfully we had made it through the majority of construction on the road, and the rest of the trip would see us alone on beautiful smooth blacktop. After some time on the road we stopped to explore a series of caves which have been carved into the limestone mountains, many of them popular tourist destinations, while others lie hidden, yet to be found. The largest and most accessible cave in the region is called Nam Lod, where a river has carved a path straight through the side of the mountain, leaving kilometres of caverns to be explored. A local guide (manditory) and a bamboo raft are the best way to explore this large cave, and for $18 you can spend several hours being guided both on foot and by boat. The main chamber of the cave is an impressive 100 feet high and features numerous stalactites and stalagmites, as well as hundreds of swallows and bats swooping and shrieking their way about the darkness, high above you. The third cavern we were shown by our guide was both fascinating and eerie; the remains of several teak coffins have been discovered and left on display for visitors, thought to be carved by the Lawa tribespeople some two thousand years ago.

After leaving the cave complex we headed south, paralleling the mountain range that makes up the Thai – Burmese border. Two very scenic hours later we reached our destination for the night and the namesake of our loop, Mae Hong Son. A tranquil village centred around a large lake, our guesthouse overlooked a temple and the evening market which surrounded the calm waters. We relaxed in the shade and then headed out for an authentic Thai dining experience, collecting dishes to try by pointing and laughing with the various food cart operators as the rural/tourist language gap was too large to bridge. Bellies full, we fell soundly asleep in the quiet peace of rural Thailand.

Continuing south the following day we bombed down rural roads, flying through shady forests and past endless green rice paddies. There are two different options to complete the loop to Chiang Mai once you leave Mae Hong Son; the longer route continues south until Mae Sarieng before heading east, while the shorter but less travelled route takes you east through Mae Chaem and over Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon. As is our nature, we chose the latter route

Up and down, up and down would be the theme for the days of travel through small farming villages and past fields of banana, rice and corn. Our third day was an amazing one on the bike where we felt entirely alone in the world, only passing the occasional overloaded pickup truck delivering produce to market. After we passed the small village of Mae Na Chon, we stumbled into the Hot Coffee guesthouse, a great little spot which offers quiet private bungalows beside the river. it was only 2pm, but the temptation of a cool swim in the river and a cold beer on the deck was all we need to stop for the night. Our night at Hot Coffee will go down as the most comfortable so far in Thailand; you couldn’t ask for better accommodations or a more welcoming host. As it turns out we weren’t the only ones who thought so, and found ourselves confronted with familiar faces from the downhill mountain bike race we had been at only days before. A father/son duo from the US who now live in Hong Kong were completing the same loop as us only on dirt bikes and the backroads, but after some navigational difficulties with the other members of their group and a flat tire, they found themselves at Hot Coffee for the night. We laughed to think how small this big world truly is, and spent the evening with their group swapping road stories and tales.

Friday morning marked out our last day on the road, and return to the Chiang Mai. Just a easy trip over the highest peak in the land, and hey, we’d be drinking beer by the moat in no time. The day started out cool, and while the bike struggled a bit with the altitude, it was nothing more than we had made it suffer through for the past four days. At the top, we joined the locals in donning our jackets, where 16 degree felt practically chilly after several weeks of much warmer weather. The ride down the other side was a breeze; the road widened out as we rejoined traffic on the freeway and the throttle was opened up, the familiar heat of the valley surrounding us yet again. About 50km out of Chaing Mai we stopped for a cold drink in the shade and a stretch of our legs, the end of our journey in sight.

Now I’ve previously failed to mention in the story so far the issues with the Phantom, our trusty steed that it turned out wasn’t actually all that trusty. We quickly discovered that she refused to start everyday once it got hot; I refused to take issue with it though as there was usually a hill or stretch of road around, and I could pull a fast one on her and get her going every time in second gear, circling back around to pick up Alison after the bike had stubbornly roared to life. So when we mounted the bike for the final ride into town, we were not surprised when it failed to turnover. A push start was initiated with negative results. More push starts were attempted with the same results. The Phantom unfortunately, had appeared to have given up the ghost. We tried and tried to get it going, but to no avail. Our final attempts were made in exasperation in the parking lot of a service station, where a group of employees soon gathered to help us in our quest, pushing me around the parking lot in a futile attempt at motorcycle resuscitation. Now even the Thais were sweating, and Alison and I were a hot mess, our situation beginning to look bad. I rolled the bike into the shade, and we contemplated what to do. While we were cooling down the Thais continued to try and help solve our problem. Soon, some rudimentary tools were located, and every man present to the situation had gathered around, offering advice, already contemplating which piece of the bike to pull apart first. With the group gathered around, the spark plug was checked, the oil was checked, and a few people even scoped out the gas tank situation. All of this still left the phantom spiritless. After a phone call to the rental shop and some use of Google translate, it was settled that we’d take the bike down the road to the local repair shop. After the spark plugs, the oil, and gas were again checked, further discussion with our rental shop decided a truck would take the bike and ourselves to town, where we would be relieved of the beast and their mechanics would be left to solve the riddle of her demise.

As we sat in a shady corner of the shop on some old car seats it became apparent that the truck that would take us to town was currently beside us on the hoist, a Songthaew, which was being frantically repaired before our eyes. A couple hours passed, and after returning from a successful test drive we and the disabled bike were loaded into the freshly repaired truck, heading for town. There are many forms of transport in Thailand, and the Songthaew is one of the many brilliant options of a modern-day vehicle converted for local transportation needs. With two bench seats in the back and a cover for shade, these colourful little trucks rip around town, delivering riders and their loads to and from destinations with enthusiastic efficiency.  

The breeze felt good as we rolled towards town and the driver (and shop mechanic) seemed happy to make an extra buck off of our delivery, in the truck we couldn’t be quite sure was his, or just a customer of his shop’s which he was moonlighting for our purpose. Suddenly the truck slowed, and as it sputtered to a halt on the side of the highway, it became apparent that their quick fix in the shop might not have done the trick. We were now 0 for 2 on transporation. With the hood up, our driver worked to figure and fix. Not surprisingly a crowd gathered, and soon tools were brought out, and everyone went to work. This time however, the result of the communal effort was a success; with a puff of black smoke our truck rumbled to life, and we were off again. We flew into town, and were greeted by a crowd at Mr. Mechanic, our rental agency who through all of this mess had done everything they could to get us back to town at no expense of our own. They were indeed very helpful and apologetic, and after some laughs and reassurance that we weren’t mad, we retired back to the old town of Chiang Mai to sit and laugh over the day, passports and cold beer back in hand.

Our plan for now is to spend the remainder of the weekend relaxing in Chiang Mai, and catch the bus to Laos on Monday. once we arrive in Laos we will take the slow boat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang, and from there, who knows!  

Until then

Byron and Alison
Tips for Mae Hong Son Loop by bike:

Rent from Mr Mechanic or a shop with insurance. Although our bike did break down, their response and help was excellent and didn’t cost us extra. They were great to deal with

Get the map ‘The Mae Hong Son Loop’ by Golden Triangle Rider, it’s very helpful and detailed for the journey..

Tour around the towns for guesthouses and shop around for best price; most towns have a lot of options and the prices vary for basically the same thing. 

In Pai we stayed at Golden Hut, in Mae Hong Son we stayed at Johnny guesthouse and outside Mae Na Chon Hot Coffee guesthouse. I recommend all of these places as they are all clean, comfortable and quiet.

Fuel is plentiful along the trip.

The road between Dong Palan and Pai is awful, but when construction is complete it will be an amazing journey. 

There is a cool guest house beside the Nam Lod cave called Cave House, we didn’t stay there because of timing but I would recommend it rather than staying two nights in Pai.

   
  
  

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Chiang Mai

Stepping off the train from Bangkok we were greeted by a cool breeze and a lone pickup truck set to take us and our fellow travellers into town. Surrounded by mountains, Chaing Mai is considered the capitial of northern Thailand, a green landscape of forested mountain peaks and lush farms set in the valley bottom below. In the  heart of Chaing Mai is the old city, a collection of temples and guesthouses spread throughout a web of narrow streets filled with cafes and markets. The sleepy old city is separated from the frantic modern Chaing Mai by a moat, built over 700 years ago to protect its residents against invading Burmese. We booked ourselves into one of the many liittle guesthouses tucked within the old city walls, excited to spend the next few days exploring the city and its surrounding area.   By that evening, we had discovered that one of the old city’s best kept secrets; the Talat Pratu Chaing Mai; a large open air food market where vendors spread along the roaside against the moat and you can  eat to your heart’s content.  We couldn’t think of a better place to eat and drink with new friends, and spent the next few nights doing just that. The only thing better than the warm hospitality of the Thai people is their food, and after a week of eating our way north we decided it was time for a work out. 

             You can do anything you want in Chaing Mai to get your heart rate up, but hiking and mountain biking seem to be the most popular and heavily advertised at all but a few of the tour operator stands you walk by. After sussing out our options we figured we would try something new, and signed up for an afternoon of  Muay Thai lessons. Our estemed trainer Kru Pong stood at best 5’6″,  and picked us up in his hello kitty adorned car.  We were quickly reminded however that looks can be decieving.  Soon after we arrived at the gym and  unloaded the 10 gallons of water Kru brought for us, we got to work. The session started with a full body tiger balm rub down and questions from the trainer for Alison inquiring when she was going to produce a child he could train to fight. After these early pleasantries, Kru proceeded to punish us in the afternoon heat. Although his english was limited, he seemed to have a mastery of numbers above 10, which he frequently used when giving orders of excercises we were to do to for warm up.  He always claimed it was the last set, but it never was. The three hour session was beyond hard for both of us but very rewarding, and by the end of the session Kru wanted Alison to stay for a month so he could turn her into a fighter. 

           After a day of recovery from our training session with Kru, we wandered the town in search of our next adventure.  Curious to see what the local mountain biking scene was like, we popped into Trailhead Tours, one of Chian Mai’s newest bike shops.  There we met Nui, one of Trailhead’s proficient guides and an active participant in the local race scene.   Although we declined a tour, Nui invited us to join him that Sunday to watch one of the national races happening just outside of town.  Due to a broken collarbone which he had aquired only a few days prior he wouldn’t be competing, but he was eager to watch others he knew and happy to have us along for the ride. 

The lush green mountains surrounding Chaing Mai are all protected by some form of park or reserve designation, providing the perfect trail building environment for local riders. The Thailand Gravity series is part of a circuit of downhill races in northwest Thailand which attracts riders from across the country  and as far away as Austrialia and New Zealand. We arrived early enough that Alison and I were able to hike the course while watching riders take advantage of last minute practice runs. The course was everything you’d want; some steep technical terrain, followed by some fast flow leading into the big air for the crowd at the finish. After sweating in the jungle heat slogging to the top of the course we decided the large jump was the best spot to watch, and joined the crowd to cheer on the riders and they (mostly sucessfully) aired it out to everyone’s delight and cheers.  After the race the crowd moved to the finish area to enjoy a cold beer and a riding skills display put on by some of the riders. I found it exciting to be around so many people who loved their sport and their community, the energy was contagious and won’t soon be forgotten.  Alison and I decided then and there that Chiang Mai was definitely going on the list of places to return in the future, but next time with bikes in tow.

   

  

   
    
    
 
   

   
 
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Tuk Tuks and Trains

We landed in Bangkok Saturday morning around 11am. Having managed to convince our bodies to sleep in an only mildly reclined position for 9 hours on the plane over from Los Angeles, we were both determined to make the best of the day and fight off any jet lag until later that evening. After making our way to the end of the skytrain line we jumped aboard a tuk-tuk, the equivalent of a gas-powered rickshaw so colourfully decorated you would think it had just come from the disco.

Unfortunately, there are moments when you look as fresh off the boat as you truly are. After quite a few city blocks I attracted the keen eyes of a motorcycle-mounted pair of purse thieves who clearly saw the weight of my burden and decided to relieve me of some of it. One close pass from behind and a snatch from my chest and they were off into oncoming traffic. Good-bye $15 Bently purse….
After tears, a bout of fuming silence, many choice curse words and some time to cool off, we confirmed that there was nothing I couldn’t live without that was in that cheap little sucker of a purse, and that the most the thieves got away with were my debit, visa and nexus cards, hand sanitizer and lotion, and a pair of ear buds I was rather attached to. So if you happen to be in Bangkok reading this and you run into a set of Thai men on a motorcycle with suspiciously clean, soft hands, punch them for me would you? While the city redeemed itself in the following days, there is nothing more violating or infuriating than having something stolen from you, and it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth having only just arrived in the country. On the bright side though, I got to go purse shopping that night.  

After changing out of the clothes we had been occupying for far too long we headed off into the streets, hungry for some food and beers in the streets of Bangkok. Our hotel was situated in the Banglamphu district, not far from Khao San road where backpackers and vendors crowd the streets and you can find everything from pad-thai to knock-off designer purses and the latest trend in Thai tourist tshirts. We wandered for hours, making our way eventually to a little hole-in-the-wall soup joint that seemed quite popular with the locals. As with everything we ate over the next few days, it did not dissapoint. From red curry to meat-on-a-stick to padthai, we tried whatever we could find. We made it until about 9 o’clock that night, then promptly crashed, excited to do it all over again the next day.

The next day we made for the Chatuchak weekend market, an open-air market that boasts to be the largest in the world (250,000 people and counting attend each weekend). From puppies to vintage clothing to art, you can bet you’ll find it at the weekend market.

For hours we wandered, in awe of everything you could buy. Byron noted that a traveller really didn’t need to pack a bag when heading for Bangkok. One just has to be sure to arrive on the weekend and head straight for the market; within a few hours you’ll have everything you could possibly need.

From the market we made our way back into the heart of the city and headed to Wat Pho, one of the city’s many temples which showcases and displays the Buddha idol. Wat Pho itself houses the longest reclining Buddha, which measures at a stunning 50m long and 15 meters high. Although not well versed in the Buddhist religion, I have always enjoyed the idol and couldn’t help but feel a warm and peaceful glow standing in admiration of this massive form. With intricately decorated and adorned stupas lining the grounds as well (commemorating the first four Chakri kings), it is easy to understand why architecture is held as one of the highest forms of art in the country.

From the temple we made our way over to Bangkok’s Chinatown in search of further stimulus for our culture-hungry minds (and possibly a bite to eat while we were at it). Whether it was a special occasion or a nightly occurrence we never found out, but as we entered the streets we were greeted with fireworks and a parade, complete with dancing dragons and crashing symbols. We sat down to dinner at one of the many crowded street food vendor gatherings, and were soon sweating profusely as our dinner was cooked in a pile of searing flames only meters from our table. Again, the food did not disappoint, and we ended the night with happy bellies and full minds at all the city had shown us.

Knowing we would be leaving the city the next day, the following morning we made way for the train station to purchase our tickets, and then on to the Tropical Disease hospital, where on the good advice of our Canadian doctor we skipped getting the Japanese Encephalitis shot until we made it here, where the vaccine was a tenth of the price of what we would have paid back home. Two sore arms later, we were back out on the streets, taking in our last day of sights in the city.

And now, four days later, we have made our way north on the train, heading for Chiang Mai where the mountains, temples and elephants (!!!) await us. After we have our fill of the region we’ll head east into Laos and Cambodia, and who knows where from there. We’re only just getting started! 

xo Alison & Byron
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
 

The Coles Notes:

Here’s to those of you who may be heading to, or are currently in Bangkok

1. Try and take tuk-tuks with netting or webbing on the side to protect your stuff from theives. Be diligent; It’s a big city and a small bag or purse can be ripped right off your chest if you’re not careful and it’s got cheap straps

2. Bring an unlocked cell phone from home. You can pick up a cheap sim card right at the airport (ours was 30days, talk and text, 4G of data for $20CAD)

3. Negotiate or confirm price of transportation before you go

4. Go to the Chatuchak weekend market if you can; you won’t be dissapointed

5. Eat street meat at the busy stalls, and try as much as you’re brave enough to

6. Banglamphu has the cheapest beers we could find (60baht for a tall Chang); anywhere along the river had the most expensive (130baht for a small Chang)

7. Head to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases for a cheap ($25 CAD) Japanese Encephalitis shot if you need it

8. Dried sardines are not that good. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

9. Buy tickets at the train station (at least one day in advance) for any trips; don’t buy them from an agent or side-street shop

10. The A/C cabs on the train can be ridiculously cold; get ready to wear all of your warm clothes on the trip.

Baja Bound

We left the north with dog in tow, heading south for the first time all summer with visions of beaches, palm trees and tropical waters in our heads.  Partly as an excuse to travel to one of our favorite places, and partly because it was a place to park the Delica and swap our dog-sitter for a new one (thank you parents, you’re awesome!), we made Castillo de Arena our destination and jumping point for our soon-to-be travels overseas.

Because we had done this drive twice, we wanted to take a new route and stop and see some family along the way.  Leaving Calgary and Canada after a great time home with family, we headed south through Waterton National Park and the adjacent Glacier National Park across the US border where clear skies afforded us spectacular views of this stunning cross-border park system.  On good family and friend advice we made way for the ‘Highway to the Sun’, a spectacular 85km (53 mile) road that traverses the entirety of Glacier National Park from east to west, allowing visitors to experience the spectacular mountain vistas and wildlife without even leaving their vehicle. (This seems to be a theme in American National Parks.  I can only hope this fosters a greater appreciation for parks nation-wide.)  We were blown away by the scenery, and while not as plentiful as Denali, we had some great wildlife viewing moments that showcased the wilderness that resides in the parks, and why it is so important that we protect them across all borders.

After a couple of cool morning in Montana we looked for a place on the map that would take us off the beaten track; so enter Burgdorf Hot Springs. Tucked up in the hills of Idaho, we were hopeful that the warm waters would pacify the cooler air surrounding us that evening at 7000 feet.  Unfortunately, fires burning in the area delayed us from climbing the northern pass to the springs that evening, and by the time we made our way up into the hills they were closed and we had to make due with a warm dinner instead.  As we soon would discover, dry hot conditions would become the theme of the trip down the eastern California, where fires plagued the hillsides and water levels have been dropping for several years. Docks that once graced lakeshores now sit meters above the water, mocking the boats who only now can dream of docking on their planks.

After leaving Glacier, we made our way south along the mountains as far as we could until turning inland to cross over Idaho for Bend, Oregon, where one of Byron’s cousin’s has recently relocated and we were excited to visit.  Bend (or Bend’Or, as the locals call it) did not disappoint. This is a town where most locals pride themselves in the number of outdoor activities they participate in, and the number of breweries that have sprung up to support their drinking habits after said activities have been accomplished.  Sean, our host (you rock Sean, thanks again for your amazing hospitality!), showed us the best of all sides of Bend.  Not only did we get a chance to check out the local dirt in both their biking and hiking trails, but we spent many nights checking out the local bevvies and entertainment the town has to offer as well.  Byron and I both said it; if there was one place in America we could move to immediately, it would be Bend(‘Or).

Finally though after stealing Sean away from his work commitments for several days, it was time for us to continue our journey south.  From Bend we made our way down through Crater Lake National Park (nothing has ever looked so blue), heading for the towering granite peaks of Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite is a behemoth and mecca for climbers and hikers alike.  As one of the United States’ oldest national parks (established in 1890), its towering granite faces have held climbers and hikers in a trance for decades, beckoning them to ascend its lofty peaks.  Byron and I spent two nights and one day in the park, climbing to the top of the Park’s namesake falls, which, unfortunately, were running dry by this time so late in the season (this surprisingly isn’t a drought factor, the falls usually dry up in the fall due to the limit of the lake which feeds it the majority of the year).  Although the hike offered none of the treasons the climbers experience when ascending its peaks,  the view from the top was spectacular, betraying dizzying heights as you stood leaning over the fence perched on the edge of the peak, wondering just how grounded the support cables were strung into the ground.

From the towering heights we continued to make our way south into the forests of Sequoia National Forest, where equally immense trees awaited our arrival.  Byron and I were both left mesmerized by these trees; what started out as a three hour trek one afternoon ended after 500 meters and too many photos to count; we laughed in the mutual understanding that neither of us was going to make it very far down any trail that day, or any to come; the trees were just too magnificent and overwhelming to allow us to pass with only a short glance.  Each one deserved at least several minutes of awe and admiration for the years it has withstood history, and the conquest of humanity itself.  The oldest tree in the world stands in this park, and it outdates the birth of Christ himself. When one starts to think of everything these trees have withstood, and stood by, you can’t help but stand by and be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it all.  A timespan like that holds no relevance in the human mind.

Once we managed to pull ourselves away from the timber giants, we quickly made tracks for the Mexicali border crossing, eager to feel the sand beneath our toes and hot Baja sun on our faces.  Since we have done the drive a few times and there are a finite number of roads to traverse, we made haste for Dad and Mom’s place, only spending a few nights to enjoying the solitude of Baja southern California before arriving in the casa we so dearly call one of our homes.  Travelling south in the Delica was a treat though; not only were we able to sleep with the back hatch open to let in the warm salty air at night, we could keep our sandy dog outside long into the evening hours to ensure she had ridden herself free of as much sand as possible before joining us in the cab.  The drive down is always warm, fun and exciting in the senses that one feels at home when returning to a place well known.  The Baja holds a magic where it is always the same and yet the subtle negotiations with the land and people are forever changing, challenging, and fun. Nothing is as it was before.  It is a land of love.  And with an open heart and mind, you can always make it out for the better.

And so here we sit, on the last day before our departure, ready for the next phase of our adventure.  With our bellies and our hearts filled, we are ready for the long trek that will take us overseas to Bangkok, and then on to lands unknown.  Unfortunately our original plans to head to Kathmandu were thwarted by political instability and jet fuel shortage, so working with the benefit of time and agenda flexibility we will head where the winds will take us.  First stop is South East Asia, and then possibly India after that.  But who knows!  Here’s to luck, love, and a little bit of adventure.  We’ll see you overseas!

Xo Alison and Byron

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Glacier National Park; elk bugling in the morning and spectacular mountain vistas all day!

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Beautiful morning mist on the lake

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The wooden bridge that would lead us to beautiful Idaho mountain scenery! We were definitely a little nervous crossing it…

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Winter enjoying the sights of ‘dog town USA’ (aka Bend’or)

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We equally enjoyed the sights (and dirt!) or Bend!

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Hiking with our awesome host Sean in the mountains behind Bend.

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Crater Lake National Park (the blue-est of all blues)

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From the top; the Yosemite Valley at its finest.

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That’s a mighty long ways down.

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Just for perspective. See him? Remember, the guy’s 6″5″.

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Winter also seemed to enjoy the bounties of the forest…

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Southern California, USA

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We made it! After months of pants in the north, I could finally bust out the shorts.

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All that sand. She never seems to get rid of it until she’s back in the van……       DSC_0480 

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And then the green appeared! After a few months of summer rain the countryside resembled Hawaii more than Baja…

Bikes, Ice and Bears

If only the summer could last just a little bit longer, I think we could stay in the North forever.  Unfortunately, after a month and a half on the road exploring the wild, the weather began to turn and the cool nights prompted us to start looking south again. After leaving spectacular Kluane National Park we headed south for Haines, our last sojourn into Alaska for the time being.   Although the cooler weather kept my arms tucked securely under the duvet at night, it also brought the bounty of migrating salmon, and with them, those that feast on their return.  For hours we sat upon the river banks surrounding town and watched as bears themselves watched the waters, combing the shores for that which will help sustain them throughout the winter as they hide from the cold dark days in their dens.  Absolutely fascinating, beautiful and brilliant beings, the bears we saw on the latter half of our trip illustrate the power nature holds and the strength of survival in a climate so variable and harsh.

After a few days exploring the area on our own, we met up with some old friends for a night of socializing and tasty home-cooked food.  Seeing family and friends, old and new, has been a highlight of the trip up North; one of the biggest banes of limited holiday time when you are working is trying to find a balance between spending your hard earned vacation days on yourself, and also fitting in visits with everyone in your immediate (and sometimes extended) family too. Without this deadline, the conflict for us has been erased; not only have we been able to commit a healthy amount of time to ourselves, but also to spending as much time as we can with those we love along the way.

Departing Haines by boat, we left our wilderness trekking and travels behind and began to make the journey south.  Itching to get back on our bikes, we made way for Carcross, a small town southwest of Whitehorse, where the Carcross/Tagish First Nations youth have developed an amazing network of mountain biking trails.  Although the weather wasn’t in our favor we persevered (there’s a great little coffee shop in the main square where you can warm up after a particularly cold and wet run), riding the trails with namesakes such as ‘Wolverine (in the woods), ‘Grizzly (charging steep lines), ‘Goat’ (technical rock lines) and AK-DNR (think Pseudo Tsuga for those of you who have ridden Squamish) for three awesome days.

From Carcross we headed south into our home province via the Cassiar Highway, a beautiful and much lesser-traveled route through Northern BC that parallels the boundary of the coastal and interior mountain ranges with (thankfully) much less road construction and potholes than it’s sister highway to the east.  After making a side trip to visit the spectacular Salmon Glacier west of Stewart (omit the note about better roads here) we continued on to Terrace, the first stop on what would become a week of amazing riding in the region.

Terrace has a few different spots to hit the trails, and the type of terrain you find varies greatly.  Copper Mountain was the talk of the town though, and much to our delight it lived up to expectations (Trailforks said STEEP and they meant it; think Cypress Mountain for those of you that ride the North Shore).  We spent the afternoon with adrenaline coursing through our veins as we rode the mountain and brought home a few bruises to boot.

After saying goodbye to Terrace we headed for the coast to visit some dear friends in Prince Rupert who not only gave us use of their cabin while staying in Terrace, but allowed us another night under a dry roof along with a hot shower, good food, and a few glasses of craft beer from the local brewery.  Seeing and meeting those along the way who also love to travel and explore the world brings a smile to my heart, as it only feeds our addiction and enthusiasm and makes me excited for all of the adventures that still await us.

From the coast we headed back inland to Smithers, a beautiful little alpine town surrounded by high mountain peaks, world-class fishing rivers, and a few more mountain biking trails to boot.  Fortunately for Byron (but unfortunately for me) a stomach bug kept me from riding that day, so he took advantage of my offer to shuttle while he checked out the local dirt.  Huckin ‘Eh turned out to be the day’s favorite, so while I curled up to play countless rounds of Angry Bird (yes, it still exists), Byron coated himself with mud and grit, claiming it to be one of the best trails of the trip thus far (a statement he still stands by too).

Whether it’s just local rivalry between competing trail builders or town councils I don’t know, but as i’m sure its becoming obvious, you don’t have to go far in the region to find more mountain biking trails than you can ride in a day, maybe even a week.  From Smithers we made the quick trip to Burns Lake, the second to last of our stops on our southwards journey home.  With a beautiful little rec site and lake awaiting you at the base of Boer Mountain, bikers can shuttle or pedal up the mountain and do endless laps throughout the day.  Those that enjoy a little more speed and structures can check out the likes of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ (fast, steep and flowy) and ‘Water Lew’ (an impressive amount of woodwork), while those looking for a longer cross country ride can spend the day out on Razorback, although be warned, I think there was more up than down.  After two days the rain found out where we had moved to, and we decided it was time for a hot shower and some rest.  Heading into Prince George was almost a shock to the system after our time up North, where one is more likely to see more moose than traffic lights on your daily commute. Nevertheless we quickly adjusted, and spent the evening enjoying a bounty of craft beer and delicious food from The Copper Pig, a great little BBQ joint in town that I highly recommend for anyone passing through.

Will full bellies and clean clothes we set off on the last few days of our Northern road trip, with the frequency of familiar places and faces quickly replacing the nights of solitude and days in the wild we had become so accustomed to. Not wanting to miss one last opportunity to ride, we made a stop in Williams Lake, where the trails rivaled any of those found in it’s neighbouring towns of the north.  Let me just summarize it this way: if you’ve always wanted to ride a suspension bridge on your bike, I highly recommend making the trip.  Like surfing a wave on the ocean, there’s something quite unique about the ground underneath you moving as you move, swinging under your weight and rolling tires as you traverse the boards strung high up over a gulch.  If that doesn’t suit your fancy though you can always hang back and practice your wall rides and moves on the teeter-totter, the latter of which I was much more comfortable on.  There’s something about being perpendicular to the ground on my bike which I haven’t quite mastered yet.

With that one last stop we came full circle and have now landed back in Vancouver for some rest, laundry, and family time.  In a few days we’ll make our way east to pick up Winter (video requests of our reunion have been stated), then we’ll start the drive south to the Baja.  From there we are planning to fly overseas (Kathmandu is the rumoured destination at this point!) and our adventures will continue.  We look forward to seeing as many of you as we can along the way, and continuing to share our adventures as we go.

Until then,

xo, Alison and Byron

A sow and her two cubs comb the tidal shores of Haines, AK, in search of salmon and other seafood snacks

A sow and her two cubs comb the tidal shores of Haines, AK, in search of salmon and other seafood snacks

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Mother bear patiently watches for dinner…

While the cubs goof off and brawl on the shore behind..

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An eagle watches the river mouth for dinner at Lakelse Lake, BC

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Back to BC, and free rec-site camping.

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The bears and eagles weren’t the only successful ones..

Salmon Glacier, BC.

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Clouds hang out over the Salmon Glacier, BC.

Glacier lines. Salmon Glacier, BC.

Stewart, BC.

Stewart, BC.

Stopping to admire the historic totem work in Gitanyow, BC.

Bear Glacier, BC.

Black bear sow and cub, Stewart, BC.

Totem poles and clan totem paintings, Carcross, Yukon.

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Jump, this way. -->

Jump, this way. –>

Air time (Carcross, Yukon).

Navigating the end of the rock slabs on 'Grizzly' in Carcross, Yukon.

Navigating the end of the rock slabs on ‘Grizzly’ in Carcross, Yukon.

Bridge to rock to bridge to rock to bridge - and done! 'Goat', Carcross, Yukon.

Bridge to rock to bridge to rock to bridge – and done! ‘Goat’, Carcross, Yukon.

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The forest starts to show its fall colours in Burns Lake.

Playing on the trails above Bohr Mountain in Burns Lake, BC

Byron tackles the woodwork on Snakes and Ladders in William’s Lake, BC.