About Me

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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

ROAD TRIP: Churchill and the Polar Bears

At first glance, the frozen little Canadian town of Churchill doesn’t suggest much in the way of terrific vacation spot.

Located in northern Manitoba, Churchill is a small town at the southwestern crook of the Hudson Bay. No road goes there, only a single rail line and a handful of flights per day during the “tourist” season. It’s bitterly cold during the winter months, while summertime finds it uncomfortably infested with mosquitos. Words like “desolate”, “flat” and “remote” could equally be applied to its existence. Shopping -- more accurately called "outfitting" -- is limited but fun. It's a standard issue, run of the mill, northern Canadian village which annually hunkers down against the cold

Churchill, Manitoba
But what makes Churchill unique, what makes the town a destination special to travelers, is its place in the world of nature. During the winter months the town is ground zero for the polar bear communities’ annual migration onto the frozen Hudson Bay in search of their favorite food source: seal.

Summer finds the town similarly visited by another natural inhabitant of the region. The town’s location right along the mouth of the appropriately-named Churchill River as it dumps into the bay also attracts a different kind of visitor, the northern Beluga Whale. Hundreds of them gather each year to bask in the relatively warm waters of the river as it flows into the bay, creating a true natural spectacle and a helluva reason to visit this town even when the bears are away.

The Tundra Buggy Lodge
This gives Churchill a special position amongst the more adventurous travel fan. It doesn’t feature luxurious accommodations, world class restaurants, or a significant nightlife (though we are told that everyone in town gathers at a local bar every night for a jam session during the high seasons). But it does promise (and deliver) an adventure unlike anything found just about anywhere else on the globe.

We braved the elements -- and more than a few hours in transit -- to spend two nights out on the frozen tundra in Northern Adventures’ Tundra Buggy Lodge, a series of giant trailers dragged out onto the shoreline of the bay twenty or so miles from Churchill. Our trip was in late October, so the bay itself was not quite frozen over, and the lodge was positioned only halfway down the coast. Later in the year it is pulled an additional fifty miles out, and is surrounded by the ice, snow and hungry bears. It’s difficult to imagine a more remote spot, or a more gratifying adventure.

The Sleeping Car. Privacy Not Allowed.
Our trip began with an hour and a half long journey along roads that would challenge the best four-by imaginable. The formidable Tundra Buggies are essentially giant SUVs, capable of transporting forty or so people on a tour over some pretty rough terrain. By the third half hour you’re willing to trade your gloves for an Advil or two, but it’s absolutely worth the abuse -- and actually is made a bit more fun in the process.

The Lodge itself is reasonably comfortable. The buggy arrived and backed right up to the lodge’s “back door”. The rear two trailers are double decker sleeping compartments with a narrow aisle down the middle. Bathrooms in the center -- and these are essentially RV-type washrooms, with a slightly larger version which includes the shower. Each bed is a long double, and you’re protected from the aisle only by a thick curtain -- don’t assume you’re going to have any intimate moments with your travel partner. The lodge isn’t built for privacy (or even modesty. Thankfully a good number of your travel associates are European, and seem to take everything in stride... though streaking would be frowned upon, I’m sure).

Between the sleeping cars and the dining trailer is the open-room “Social” car. This is where slide shows are conducted, meetings to discuss the next day’s itinerary, and receptions. In the early mornings this is where you’ll find the all-essential coffee station.

The dining car is cramped, and echoes a low-rent diner in many ways, but the food is surprisingly good and the employees go out of their way to ensure you’re having fun and being well taken care of.

Our first morning began perfectly, as a sizable bear came up to investigate the smells of breakfast at roughly the same time we were loading onto the Tundra Buggy for the days’ excursion. Immensely curious about us, it wandered around the side of the buggy and lodge (both eight feet above ground level to ensure the bears cannot simply reach in for an appetizer or tourist when ever they feel like it).

A Tundra Buggy,  ready for action
The bears have no natural fear of man, and frankly consider us little more than two-legged seals -- which can be quite an issue of they happen to catch you outside the protection of the buggy and lodge -- something Frontiers North doesn’t allow. (Once you’re embarked on the buggy in Churchill, you’re in a protected environment until you return to the town.) You;’re constantly warned about hanging over the rails, letting jewelry or cameras drop down to within striking distance of the bear’s powerful paws. Even the gentlest looking of them is perfectly willing to take off your head and see what might be available for dinner.

An Arctic Fox cavorts around the Buggy
Our day out on the tundra was indeed exciting. The buggies follow an existing, and again very rough, series of dirt roads around what was once a military installation. The bears are relatively easy to spot amongst the low brush, their dirty white fur sticking out from the generally brown ground and plantlife. Some of the other denizens are more difficult to sight , though we were fortunate to have a spectacularly beautiful arctic fox cavort around the ties of the buggy for several minutes as it checked us out. Very skittish animals, the arctic foxes are amazingly quick and, well, foxlike.

Late Afternoon
Because of the northerly location, during the winter months the days are not only cold but probably shorter than you might be used to.  The sun comes up just after 7am, by which time you’re expected to be up, showered and fed. Sunrise occurs just before the buggy sets off for the day, and is a serene event. It’s one of those situations in which you speak in hushed tones for fear of disturbing the world around you.

Up close and personal
(Brief aside: Much is made about the loudness of tourists, particularly Americans. And, being frank, there’s a lot to it. It isn’t that we are being deliberately rude, it’s that in most cases we’re simply not paying attention. Two people, thoroughly wrapped up in their own conversation, might miss the silence around them and unwittingly make nuisances of themselves out of their not-so-hushed voices. Happens all the time, and I am sad to admit it’s usually Americans. I’ve personally encountered precisely such a thing in places as diverse as Alaska, The Grand Canyon and the Maine seacoast. Oddly enough, it’s usually people jogging or walking together, a situation in which you do tend to ignore your surroundings. In the case of the Tundra Buggy Lodge, a simple, gentle hushing seemed to do the trick. Well, until the bears appeared, and then all Hell broke loose -- but that’s a different situation entirely!)

Hunting Lemmings
Out on the ice we had an hour or more of complete isolation before town-based Tundra Buggies arrived from Churchill. Frontiers North offers two different Tundra Buggy experiences: one is based, as ours was, out on the lodge. Though a bit more expensive than the town-based tours, staying on the lodge gives you a better sense of isolation, of community with the other travelers, and as noted above a head start on the bearwatching. At the end of a long day on the ice I cannot imagine having to make the hour and a half bumpy ride back into Churchill. The lodge avoids that, since it’s based right next to one of the roads that the buggies traverse.

Sunrise over the ice
The tour we took featured two days on the lodge, and unless you’re traveling for scientific purposes or as part of a photographic expedition I would suggest that two nights is sufficient for the trip. (You also have two nights’ accommodation in Winnipeg, the staging city for flights into and out of Churchill.) We found our eagerness for seei ng the bears and other northern fauna completely satisfied over the two days. We learned quite a bit about the north of Canada, the impact of global warming, particularly on the bears, and even saw a faint display of northern lights.

For more information, contact Frontiers North at http://www.frontiersnorth.com/

A run with the dogs at Blue Sky
Also highly recommended is Blue Sky Expeditions' dogsledding. We had a wonderful half day with the owners and the dogs. It’s a great way to spend your first hours in Churchill -- it establishes the tone and mood for your trip just perfectly, and is a helluva lot of fun.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Taking it to the Extreme

I opened my email this morning to discover one from a travel company with the title blazing "Extreme Adventures Await".

Ooh, thought I, "extreme"! 

Of course my second thought was "what do they mean by Extreme"? This got me to wondering what the definition of extreme is when applied to travel. There is, of course, the commonly accepted viewpoint that somehow you'll be risking life and limb in the pursuit of some sort of intense physical activity. 

Yeah, understood, but is that really a fair perception of Extreme Travel? Or even accurate? Are extreme vacations the sole reserve of superfit vacationers who want to race down a mountain trail on a bike. 

Is the only challenge allowed on an Extreme vacation the physical kind? 

Not in my opinion -- and since this is my corner of the universe we're going to explore this a little.

The author in Hell.
(Town of Hell, Cayman Islands)
There is a tendency amongst travel people to associate extreme destinations with some sort of intense physical activity. I kinda chafe at that sort of thing because it really discounts so many of the -- to me -- some very extreme adventures that can be had without the physical exertion. Emotional and mental excursions can do very nearly the same thing to our being, not deserving the discount of not being "physically demanding" -- that sounds like some sort of sports-enthusiast's definition, not mine.

In normal, everyday parlance the term extreme means something that, well, Dictionary.com defines as "of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average". There are a handful of other, lesser definitions, but this is a good one to use. Webster makes it even more complicated so we're not even going to go there.

So, using Dictionary.com's definition, Extreme Travel must necessarily take us on a journey of "a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average"

Sounds intimidating, no? And let's face it, everyone's personal definition would vary greatly depending upon their point of view. To a New York window washer, for example, rappelling down the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park wouldn't really be as extreme as it would be to, say, a pharmacist from Des Moines. And if you make your living shooting wildlife documentaries going in shark-infested waters for a swim might just be a day at the office for you.

An Extreme Situation
But for the rest of us -- those not in the "extreme" lines of work -- the personally challenging sort of travel holds an appeal if you're an adventurous sort. And there are degrees of moderation in almost every extreme endeavor that may still meet the criteria of extreme without risking life and limb to do so. (Yeah, I know. I used "moderation" and "extreme" in the same sentence. Get over it.)

Windstar Cruises, those sparkling white five-masted sailing cruise ships you see in some pretty exotic ports, uses the advertising slogan of "180 degrees from Ordinary". Which means, by definition, they are an extreme cruise line, right? (I'm kidding, but the point stands that you do not have to be dangling from a wire a hundred feet over Copper Canyon to qualify as an adventure traveler. You can't bungee from a Windstar sailing mast -- well you can, though I'm pretty sure they'd haul you away immediately afterward -- but in a way the trip itself really is very different from "the average". Not really extreme, since it in all likelihood doesn't take you out of your comfort zone. If anything it's more likely to shove you deeper INTO a comfort zone than take you from one.) If your intent on a trip is to challenge yourself, either from a physical or emotional level, it doesn't necessarily involve life-threatening situations. If you're Jewish, a visit to Auschwitz would be an extreme -- it's emotional for everyone, but it cuts directly into the heart of the Jewish community. Is it fair to assert that this sort of thing isn't extreme? Of course not.

One of the items on our Life List -- developed via Amazing Race host Phil Keoghan's terrific and highly recommended book No Opportunity Wasted -- is a cruise along the upper Amazon basin. There are those who would have you believe that this sort of a trip -- a weeklong cruise through a wild rainforest, featuring hikes and meetings with local cultures -- isn't extreme unless you include a day of ziplining and climbing the tallest trees as a wild boar circles menacingly at the base. You can probably already tell I'm going to dismiss that attitude with prejudice. Let's go back to the definition of the word Extreme. Tell me where it says I've got to risk breaking my neck?

Another of our goals is hot air ballooning over either Sedona or Napa. Years ago we had actually scheduled such an adventure, but Mother Nature decided an intense storm front had priority, forcing the ballooning company to cancel the booking. I am a serious acrophobic, so something as gentle and serene as a balloon trip aloft is about as extreme as you can get.  

Where No One Has Gone Before
Extreme means getting far, far outside your zone of experience. And well outside your comfort zone in all likelihood. If you're afraid of water, doesn't a snorkeling trip to Hawaii count as extreme in your circumstances? If you have a fear of heights such as mine, the Empire State Building's 86th floor observation deck may well be the sort of extreme you would just as well prefer to pass up. (My sister-in-law DeLois still ribs me about this. I've been to the top perhaps a half dozen times, but this last one, with DeLois and her husband Gary, my nerves overcame the view and I found lots of interesting things in the gift shop after a quick circle of the outside deck. To be fair, I HAD seen and photographed the view a number of times already. There's exposing yourself to your fears and then there's downright pummeling of your own psyche. My Id had accepted the previous lunacy, and I felt justified in sparing it one more dance along the edge. Literally.) 

It's getting outside of your comfort zone that embodies "extreme" in my view of the word and world. Despite my phobia, plans are still afoot for the ballooning trip, as well as a certain to be nerve-racking saunter over the Grand Canyon Skywalk in Arizona -- and insane horseshoe of a walkway 4000 feet over the Canyon floor featuring a glass floor (look straight down!!!) and glass-paneled railings. A three minute walk not extreme enough for you? That's about two and a half minutes longer than your typical bungee and I guarantee just as challenging.

There are relaxing vacations, such as a weekend in Palm Springs or a week at a resort in the Catskills. There are people who want excitement, such as New Orleans' Bourbon Street or the Las Vegas Strip. Still others find wonderful natural beauty in our national parks, Sedona or along the Maine coastline. Yet more who want to spend time with family and friends in places like Branson or your nearest campground.

Contemplating the options.
But when it comes to adventure travel -- or even the use of the term Extreme -- you really have to base your expectations on where you are as a person. What is the best kind of trip to get you, as stated above, "a character farthest removed from ordinary or average"? Challenge yourself. Make it something which you, yourself find exhilarating even if it doesn't involve upping your insurance premiums.

If you're a stockbroker on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, maybe a week relaxing on the beach in St Barth is your definition of extreme. 

And don't let anyone tell you anything different.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Meals Ready to Eat

Breaking bread has long been a traditional way of celebrating friendships and family. So it stands to reason that it’s also a dynamite way of learning about cultures and truly immersing yourself in a place when traveling there.

A weekend or so ago we had our friends Mark and Karen in town, who were passing through while catching a cruise ship from Long Beach down to Mexico. We spent our day together driving down the coastline to Laguna Beach – tasting and shopping our way through each of the coastal towns as we wended along the Pacific Coast Highway.

What has this got to do with breaking bread? Along the way we stopped at several places and shared generally excellent meal – but the capper was a simply terrific dinner at CafĂ© Piccolo here in Long Beach. It’s one of our favorite restaurants, and certainly a great place to take out-of-towners on their way through. This is the value of the place -- it's a wonderful spot to connect with friends (or loved ones) and spend a beautiful evening among favored company, excellent food, and a warm and comfortable ambience. Precisely what should be the best example in any town you visit. Mark described it best when he named the meal (and conversation) as one of the ten best in his lifetime -- a sentiment with which I heartily agree.

The point of all this? Mark and Karen’s visit reminds me of what I believe to be two fundamental goals for any traveler: 1) Learn about a place. Get IN there! Don’t just pass through and whisper “ooh pretty” as you stare at the Grand Canyon from the windows of your tour bus. Get your hands dirty, your feet wet. (Metaphorically, that is. I don’t want to be responsible for any epidemics out there). And 2)  Food is one of the best ways to learn about a culture. THAT is the purpose of traveling, in my opinion. Food can tell us an amazing story about the local environs, the history, the culture, and the values of that society. Taking the time to sit, eat and enjoy is a basic right of the traveler. (Even for those making the trip for business. I am saddened by the number of businesspeople who travel for their companies and feel they don't have the time to explore each new destination. It's a loss, for their minds as well as their souls.)

Looking back on all of the journeys I’ve made, which by now number in the hundreds, food plays a major role. It seems to be a terrific guidepost to formulating those things we can recall later. It’s not really surprising, in that eating appeals to more than just one or two senses. There are the aromas and tastes. The look of the meal. Sometimes the tactile nature of a particular element – there’s nothing like the soft, warm texture of freshly baked rolls as you break them apart to butter and then consume them. Or the stem of a glass as you lift it to sniff and taste the meritage, cabernet or other favorite wine.

There are circumstances that require the expediency or convenience of a chain restaurant, but to opt for the nearest Olive Garden (or “Salt Central” as I like to think of them) when there are a handful of local favorites just seems to be a shame. Can you really say you’ve experienced New Orleans if you dine at the nearest Bubba Gump Shrimp Company instead of, say, Chartres House Cafe, or The Court of Two Sisters? You may have visited the Crescent City, but have you truly experienced it?

Or, more pointedly, if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in Paris, do you really want to opt for a meal at McDonald’s? There are people who do that and it astonishes me – yes, there’s a comfort factor, and I understand that. But the whole reason you’re traveling, I would naturally assume, is to enjoy being somewhere ELSE. It doesn’t need to be fancy, it doesn’t need to be expensive. Grab a hot dog on the streets of Manhattan, or a slice of pizza at the nearest Ray’s. In San Francisco go for the sourdough bread. New Orleans ask the locals for the best jambalaya – you’ll get a dozen different suggestions, but my bet is that not a single one would be Macaroni Grill.

Looking back at all of the various trips, finding the local place and hanging out for a while is a fabulous way to absorb the local culture (pun intended). Eat what the locals eat, where they eat, and whatever you do avoid the tourist traps. Some of the biggest disasters have been when I forgot this very basic rule.

(There are exceptions. The late, lamented Tavern on the Green provided for a wonderfully memorable meal some years back. Ditto for the Sky City restaurant high atop Seattle’s Space Needle. But these tend to be exceptions which charge a lot more for their ambience and still manage to give you terrific food. If money’s no object, knock yourself out. For the budget minded I’d much rather pull up a table at Arturo’s Pizza in the Village and at Ivar’s for clam chowder in Seattle.)

With few exceptions, following the rule of “eat local” has served us well.

(This is not to suggest, of course, that we haven’t made some serious errors in judgment -- things like going to a cheesy “local” French restaurant in London’s Piccadilly neighborhood. “Tourist trap” should have been emblazoned on its windows in great big Times New Roman bold. One of the worst meals we’ve ever eaten – but it was followed the next day by a spectacular fish and chips place in the Strand district.)

By patronizing the local places as opposed to the chains you not only contribute to your own enjoyment, you also ensure that the people who are most passionate about the local cuisine can afford to stay in business. If you honestly, truly, completely want to dine in the chain restaurants have at it I guess. But why travel any kind of distance if you eat in a place you can find right around the corner, right back at home? It's one thing if it's a localize chain or even fast food place -- just try prying the In-and-Out Burger from peoples' hands. Likewise The Waffle House is a regional wonder. But the big, national chains? International? You might just as well stay at home as to wander into the Key West Denny's.

For the rest of us -- the people who travel for the purposes of seeing new places, experiencing new things, enveloping ourselves in things we cannot find in our own neighborhood – heading for the bistro across the street, or the patio-dining restaurant on the main square, are simply part of the deal and –oftentimes – the stuff of which memories are made.