Reid's Travels

The true confessions and real adventures of a professional travel writer—bizarre stories, amazing characters, and comic mishaps that never make it into the guidebooks

Sunday, July 30, 2006

116-Rafting Montana, Day 3

On the third day, we broke camp early for a change and drove back through Missoula (pausing to stock up on groceries and, for the adults, to call home quickly and be sure families and work were getting along OK without us) then headed west on I-90 to rip some serious rapids and get a change of scenery along the Clark Fork of the Columbia River.

Got off Rte. 90 about a half-hour west of Missoula at Cyr for the river put-in. While Stew and Dan did the truck shuffle to leave a vehicle at the take-out point, the boys readied the raft and duckies. It too them a while to finish due to the distraction of dozens of bikini clad women all around them also preparing for the river. (Plus one disturbing man: paunchy, pasty, bandy-legged, and wearing naught but a miniscule and virulently colored Speedo.)

In the ogling boys' defense, they weren't the only ones in the group to get "Itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, red polka-dot bikini" stuck in their heads for the rest of the day. (Trust me, it was red, not yellow--what little of it there was, that is.)... Full Story

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

116-Rafting the Blackfoot, Day 2

I was awakened nest morning by a woodpecker practicing his Morse code and the honking of Canada geese. Though hiking can take you to a greater variety of places, river trips trump backpacking in two key areas. You can just roll off your craft for a refreshing dunk in the river whenever you get overheated, and the boat can carry a ton of stuff--think: steak dinners with wine (not that the Boy Scouts guzzle Cabernet, but for rafting or kayaking in general).... Full Story

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Friday, July 28, 2006

116-Rafting the Blackfoot, Day 1

The great thing about having former members of 116 scattered to the four winds is that the troop retains the right to call them back into service at any moment. Agnew and Dave Henderson were tapped to purchase the new van we had waiting when the troop arrived in Colorado. I came along to held lead (i.e.: drive) for the second half of the trip (and Agnew for a week of it). And, when we hit Missoula, Montana late one night, we crashed at Dan Berger's place.

Since graduating from the troop just a few years behind the likes of Agnew and I, Dan has become not only a journalist but also a professional river guide on the side. This meant that, rather than shell out $250 per person per day for a multi-day rafting trip with some outfitter, we were going to get three days on a pair of Montana rivers for free. All it cost the troop budget was the food, the beer, and the cost of renting a couple of duckies--an inflatable type of kayak--to supplement Dan's raft...Full Story.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

116-Across the Backbone of the Americas

"You guys want to take the shorter, easier trail over that low pass, or the longer, harder one straight up that way?" As soon as I asked, I knew I had sealed my fate. Also, John Agnew's. No way six teenage Boy Scouts were going to let their adult leaders take the easy way over the Continental Divide.

Never mind that we'd already hiked eight miles at high altitude in the Canadian Rockies--in some places using knotted chains to haul ourselves up vertical cliffs around waterfalls. It didn't matter that we'd climbed nearly 2,000 vertical feet over the last mile alone.

The boys weren't even taking into consideration that we hadn't gotten to bed until 5am that morning, or that Agnew had arrived from Denver late last night expecting to spend his first day on the trip sightseeing in Calgary.

The vote was unanimous for the thigh-burning, lung-aching, nearly vertical little trail--Canadians apparently don't believe in switchbacks--barely scratched into the scree and dust that led up over the highest pass.

We had managed to drag ourselves out of bed at the crack of 10:30am, backtrack north to Kananaskis, and head up the trail along Ribbon Creek in the Spray Valley Provincial Park, Stew leaving us to it in order to drive around to meet us on the other side.

It threatened rain all day. In fact, it sprinkled on us at Ribbon Falls Lake campground where we stopped for lunch and to keep an eye on the weather while we were below the tree line and within an easy lope of the ranger's station should we need to escape a thunderstorm.

Hours later, at the top of the Divide as we hollered our triumphant yells and frightened a few local marmots, I felt more stray raindrops. It was humbling to realize that those drops landing on my left were bound for the Pacific Ocean, while those on the right would eventually make their way to the Atlantic.

We scrambled down talus slopes on the other side, back into fir forest, then finally to the dirt road where the van and Stew were waiting. After some debate, we had dinner at a park picnic table by a little lake, followed by a long drive during which Agnew and I jerked awake occasionally to see an impressive solitary elk or cavalcade of soft brown deer by the roadside and tried and keep up a conversation with Stew so as to keep our driver awake.

Finally, we finally found some forgettable campground by the side of the road that was open where we could flop for the night. Agnew and I set up my tent and fell instantly into deep, well-earned sleep.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

116-Yoho, Yoho, It's over the Pass We Go

We marched out to the van two by two--we always have to try and confuse hoteliers as to how many more people than we claimed we had were actually crammed into their rooms--and munched on cold, greasy pizza for breakfast as we drove east into Yoho National Park (

Yoho receives a mere fraction of the visitors at world renowned Banff, which is what they call this exact same stretch of wilderness on the Alberta side of the border.

We stopped briefly at Natural Bridge, a Greek-Key–shaped spit of rock over a riotously rushing section of glacial melt-off thundering under the stone and gushing down the stream beyond in a flurry of freezing white water,

We pulled into Emerald Lake intending merely to take a quick spin around its cool, shockingly reflective waters--the deep color caused by light refracting off microparticles of glacial rock--and to point out to the boys the famous Burgess Shale deposit of rare, Cambrian-era fossils of soft-bodied marine animals that have taught scientists more about the emergence of early animal life than any other site in the world.

During our circuit, Stew and I noticed a second trail diverging up and over Yoho Pass. It was only 6.6 miles, so while Stew went to drive the van around to the trail's other end, the boys and I strapped on hiking boots.

Over the Pass
The trail that began in mud flats braided with streamlets and bridged by thick wooden planks quickly gave way to a narrow, steep track through wildflowers. We sang "Yoho, Yoho, across the bridge we go" and, once we realized there were seven of us, quickly assigned dwarf names to each person. Quinn was Dopey, Dan Bashful, Ezra (given his snuffly bean contact low of the evening before) Sneezy, Mike was a natural for Sleepy, Ari became by default Grumpy (though that didn't really fit his character, as even when he was bitshing it was with an infectious enthusiasm), equinamable Karis was Happy, and me, I was Doc. We argued hwo best to break the news to Stew that he had become, by the process of elimination, Snow White.

The elevation gain from the lake to the pass was 1,700 feet. We did the 1,200 of it in one fell swoop over the course of a mile, the cool rush of a nearby mountain stream, invisible off to the left, teasing us as we climbed.

Thunder was grumbling and dark clouds peaking over Emerald Glacier by the time we got to the main falls, so we scrambled across a wide talus slope made up of several old avalanches to the safety of the tree cover. A giant guardian boulder stood athwart the path right at the tree line like a gate to the forest. Just beyond it, we paused to eat apples in the shade of the fir trees while the grumbling storm decided not to hit our valley and moved on.

At pretty little Yoho Lake on the other side of the pass, we hollered a hello to two French-speaking Canadian girls looked frightened that we might decide to stay and ruin their gorgeous (and, until our arrival, quiet) campsite. Stew was waiting for us there, enjoying an afternoon of incredible wildlife spotting: mountain goats, black-tailed deer, elk, black bear, and a grizzly mother with her cub.

The trail bottomed out by a dirt road by the Whiskey Jack Hostel beyond which the trail continued to an 838-foot-high waterfall called Takakkaw, a Cree word whose meaning could apply to the whole region: "It is magnificent."

There was another squall of fat rain as we hustled up the trail, and we got soaked in mist at base, but that didn't stop the boys from scrambling over wet boulders as close to the base of the falls as they could get. Shivering, I retreated along the trail back out of the mist zone.

A Late Lunch and A Change of Plans
We finally got our lunch of cold cuts at some picnic tables near the falls. Of course, it was 10pm, but we called it lunch. In our defense, we thought it was only 9pm because we had made the mistake of determining the time by asking Ezra, and Ezra had not yet reset his watch to Mountain Time (which doesn't, incidentally, start where it should, at the BC/Alberta border along the Continental Divide, but rather over along the ridge of the Columbias, around Glacier NP).

We decided we'd be late enough (like, and hour) picking up Agnew at Calgary, so rather than take the time to find a campground in Banff and unpack so the boys and I could set up camp while Stew went and collected Agnew, we just all stayed in the van and zipped through Banff then hauled down to Calgary where, of course, we made several wrong turns trying to find the airport.

"Let's go back to that seedy part of town and look for a cheap motel," said Stew, so we all piled into the "suite" at the Traveller's Inn motel where I found free WiFi. The boys watched Gremlins 2 while Stew, Agnew, and I chatted until Stew asked, "Is the sky lightening out there?"

"Of course not," I said, blaming the city lights of Calgary as I stepped over Ari in his sleeping bag to jigger aside the curtain a bit more and look out. Sure enough, the sky was brightening. "Oh my God," I said and fumbled for my cell phone to check the time. It was 5am, so we decided maybe it would be a good idea to get a little sleep.

See, although Agnew was still under the impression that tomorrow was to be spent calmly sightseeing in Calgary, he was forgetting that, during a six-week circle tour across the continent by Troop 116, the only bit of the original schedule we ever stick to are the airport dates for swapping out adult leaders, most of whose jobs, families, and stamina only allow them to spend a week or two on the road.

In other words, we weren't touring Calgary tomorrow. No, we had decided to check out early and head back north for a little 14-mile hike over the Continental Divide.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

116-Down Mt. Revelstoke At High Speed

We could tell we were in a strange, foreign land just from the roadside billboards:

"CORN (Coming Soon)"
"British Columbia Improvement Project; End of Project"
"WARNING: Killer Highway Ahead"
"Executive Realty, Call Us First" (and no phone number)
"Studies Show Guys Like Cold Beer (That Was A Waste of Money)"

As we wended our way east on the Transcanada Highway, following the deep blue-green water of the South Thompson River, we were passed by nearly endless freight trains (the boys counted: 118 and 132 cars were the two longest). The river slowly widened into the long, scraggly arm of Shuswap Lake hemmed by low, fir-clad mountains.

We went past the Blind Bay Visitors Center--which doubled as the River of Life Community Church (Stew: "Either way, they'll show you the way")--and stopped at Craigellachie to pay our bemused respects to the Last Spike (Canada's version of the Golden Spike that finally linked their west and east coasts by rail on Nov. 7, 1885).

After many tantalizing billboards, we finally came upon the promised Enchanted Forest ("Climb...Explore...See & Do!"), which was described in guidebook as a "kitschy roadside attraction" involving "numerous fairies and other figures, including a craft pirate, scattered around a forest."

It looked even hokier and chintzier than it sounded: rickety miniature plywood princess castles sloppily slapped with paint. But---and this was the unbelievable part--the parking lot was overflowing with cars and camper trailers. The place was simply packed out. I yelled out the van window at the idiots as we zipped past, pointing out that there were six major national parks just a few hours up the road.

Karis Goes Head over Heels for Revelstoke
Western Canada is justifiably famous for its national parks: Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta, Glacier in the heart of British Columbia.

Naturally, Troop 116 ignored those parks almost completely.

Instead, our first stop was unheralded Mt. Revelstoke National Park (, where we met Jeff Sorenson, a Canadian who's not afraid to say "aboot." In his thick BC accent, he told us about his family's generations of lumberjacking and woodworking as he steered his truck up the Meadows in the Sky Parkway through the cedar and hemlock of the lower-altitude temperate rainforest to the balsams and spruce of the high snow forest as we crowned one of the park's 6,600-foot peaks.

Jeff accompanied us for a walk around tiny Balsam Lake and along a short trail through alpine meadows sprinkled with purple daisies, Indian paintbrush, bluebells, and Queen Anne's lace to a point overlooking the Columbia River hemmed in by the Selkirk and Monashee Mountains.

Jeff's Arrow Adventure Tours (877-277-6965, was providing us with both the ride up the mountain and a set of bikes so we could coast back down the impossibly switchbacked, 16-mile road for nearly 4,900 vertical feet. "You'll probably get up some pretty good speed," was all Jeff said.

I'd guess we were going about 40 mph when we hit that first hairpin turn. I slowed and turned my wheel, as you might expect someone who has ever ridden a bicycle before to do.

Right behind me, Andy Karis tried a different tack. Ignoring the handbrakes and refusing to steer, he decided to slam in the bushes lining the curve at full speed.

Karis flipped over his handlebars and disappeared into the dense foliage, immediately followed by his somersaulting mountain bike. For all we knew, there was a cliff just beyond, so as the rest of the troop came screeching to a halt, I went pelting back up the road yelling, "Andy!"

After a few seconds came the reply: "I'm OK.... Just someone get this bike off of me."

A Golden Evening
After a dip in the "dangerously cold" waters in town, we cruised through the Salmon Arm and Columbia River valley, exchanging the lower, older, more rounded Columbia Mountains for the craggy peaks of the Rockies. The landscape truly began resembling a less developed version of the Italian lake district. It was glorious, it was gorgeous, and Stew and I divided our time between admiring it and trying to wake the boys up to force them to admire it, too.

We intended to camp in Glacier National Park, we truly did. But one thing Canadians are not good at, at least in BC, is signposting things. This is our explanation as to how we managed to drive into, through, and out the other side of Glacier NP--even pausing to take photographs of a particularly neat waterfall in the distance--without actually realizing it.

Rather than backtrack--never retreat, never surrender!--we continued on into the town of Golden ( Though the area surrounding the town was packed with hostels (charging a ridiculous US$19 to $24 per person), cabins (from $110), and campgrounds ($14 to $20, at least in the parks), we took our cue from the thick layer of mosquitoes that coated our legs every time we stepped out of the van and opted instead for Packers Place, a handful of cozy, simple rooms above a tavern in the heart of downtown (429 N 9th Ave., 250-344-5951, $46).

Stew and I had a beer in the bar while the boys jogged up the street to order up a passel of greasy pizzas from the inventively named "Canadian 2 for 1 Pizza," which apparently stood for "2 hours of intense flatulence for each 1 slice you eat." Most of us cozied up to the TV in one of the rooms to munch on the greasy pizzas and watch "My Boyfriend's Back," which we all agreed was the world's funniest zombie movie ever, followed by a terribly disturbing episode of "Family Guy" ("Dear Diary: Jackpot!").

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

116-The Sun Never Sets from Australia to Canada

Troop 116 was an hour late, but in 116 terms that's about four hours before I expected them. No worries, though, as it took me a full 90 minutes making my way through the Vancouver airport, given the grilling I got from immigration and, later, customs when--for the first time in my life (and I travel an obscene amount)--I got pulled out of line and ushered to the Canadian Customs Interrogation and Cavity Search Division. I seemed to have found my first Cauncks who put a strain on the theory that Canadians are unfailingly polite.

It's tough to travel for more than 25 hours (including a long layover in L.A.) and still be on the same day--proving yet once again that the sun never sets on the British Empire, at least not when traveling from Australia to Canada.

You'd figure the Customs Service interrogators would understand about long Transpacific flights and cut some slack to the bleary, cranky traveler whose brain is fogged from lack of sleep and prolonged exposure to extreme boredom. But no, they only become even more dubious of you when you hesitate or have to think for a second about your answers to their inane questions, each of which is repeated several times, in slight variations, over the course of the hour-long standing interrogation.

See, they're trying to catch you in a lie or changing your story--they're pathologically suspicious of single males with an incoming flight but no outgoing one, and they didn’t seem to buy my tale that an American Boy Scout troop was picking me up and I'd be driving across the Canadian Rockies before turning south into Montana.

I must admit, I got a little nervous when--after x-raying and rifling through my bags twice--one of the two humorless Canuck Customs agents assigned to harass me pulled on a fresh pair of latex gloves as he asked "So, you're not carrying anything else on your person, sir?"

The Shaving of Andy Karis
The majority of the Greater Vancouver population was at the beach on this hot and sunny Saturday afternoon--and Vancouver has a lot of beaches. The boys ogled the sea of bikinis as we skirted miles of shoreline around West Vancouver.

We talked our way into a $25 "Family" ticket at UBC's famous Anthropology Museum, well-stocked with towering totem poles and piles of beaded masks and carved objects, most of them form Native cultures across North America. After about ten minutes inside, Stew suddenly did a Columbo pocket pat-down and announced he had locked the keys in the van. He borrowed a coat hanger from the ticket desk, and ten minutes of grunting and prying and fishing later, we got into the van and headed downtown.

Stanley Park is a peninsular blob jutting out from the tip of downtown and covered in the only urban rainforest in North America. We drove its circuit road and stopped to watch some Pakistanis play a cricket match for a little while and totally failed to understand what was going on or even fathom the basic rules of the game. Still, it looked idyllic, what with the lowering sun casting a golden glow to the grass and outlining the players' white uniforms in halos.

On our way back into town, Karis said he wondered what he'd look like with a Mohawk, so we kept stopping at hair salons, only to be turned away each time as it was around 6pm, closing time. Finally, we found a Korean barber who, when I stuck my head in and said "Good afternoon! Are you closed yet, or do you have time to shave my friend's head?" looked up at the clock and said, "OK, why not."

About halfway through, the barber's wife and small daughter arrived to find out why he hadn't come home yet and just stood in the doorway, confused, watching as a half-dozen Americans snapping photos circled their half-shorn friend in the barber's chair.

In Which We Try to Kill Ezra
After a long search for a pretty sad little suspension bridge (I had been told it was nearly as cool as the one at Capilano--which costs something ridiculous like $20 to cross), we drove back into town to a street by the park that boasted four bike rental shops and a store called "You and What Army?"

It also had a Mongolian BBQ with a sign in the window promising all you could eat for $9.95, so we went in for a cheap, filling meal and to make yet another attempt to kill our Senior Patrol Leader. A young Mongolian stood in the window, using the world's largest pair of chopsticks to toss and turn a pile of meat and veg around a giant flat skillet.

We shuffled down the sneeze-guarded buffet, filling our bowls with four meats, 20 vegetables, and a mix of 16 sauces to hand over to the chef and his giant chopsticks. Unfortunately, one of the sauces was black bean, and someone in line in front of Ezra must have picked it because, by the time we got back in the Van, our resident allergist was snuffling and wheezing and requesting wintergreen snacks, which he claims helps.

We nervously joked that if he got worse we would get to use his EpiPen on him. Ezra got animated and serious. "Nuh-uh! If anyone is going to use the EpiPen it's going to be me. I've been waiting 13 years for the chance to use that thing." Luckily, Ezra was going to have to postpone that date with the EpiPen a bit longer. We stoked him with wintergreen, Benadryl, decongestant, and tissue and kept waking him up during the long ride to Kamloops to be sure he was still breathing.

The first motel we stopped at wanted too much money. The second one advertised "free adult movies" as the first of its tantalizing amenities on the sign. So we ended up at the Rodeway Inn, with beetles in the bed, pubic hairs under the pillows, and a hole punched in the bathroom door. I didn't care. By that point I had been up for 50 hours straight, more than 24 of them aboard the various planes that got me from Australia to Canada. It was a bed, it was flat, and I fell into a blessed six hours of deep sleep.

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