Saturday, August 13, 2011

Spot the Difference: 'Spotted Lake' in British Columbia


Eight kilometres out of Osoyoos, British Columbia, there rests a lake on native reserve land. It is a small lake, surrounded by desert scrub and grasses, unsuitable for swimming, boating, or even wading. You aren’t even allowed to walk down to it, currently, because of its location on native land. So what’s the big deal, you say? Well, this lake is Spotted Lake, and it is the only one of its kind in the world.

Spotted Lake is truly a sight to behold.

The natives call this lake Khiluk, and it is believed to be sacred because of its healing powers. The lake indeed may be therapeutic, because it is a mineral lake. The waters contain high levels of magnesium sulfate, calcium, sodium sulphates, and many other minerals, including silver and titanium. The lake’s minerals were actually harvested for use in World War I to create ammunition!

In the summer, when waters from the lake evaporate in the semi-arid desert ecosystem around Spotted Lake, the minerals harden to form natural walkways between the leftover pools of water. Depending on the mineral content within each pool, the waters take on different tints.

The different mineral pools give this lake its distinct pattern.

To view this marvel, you have to pull over to the side of the highway. There is a gate and fence preventing you from wandering down to the shore (although, I’m sure you could climb the gate or fence if you truly wanted to, but I don’t recommend it because you will anger the natives and could possibly get arrested for trespassing.)

The view from the road is good enough to see what the big deal is about Spotted Lake. Watch for traffic, as the pull-out area is not very big. There is a sign by the gate that explains the history and the science behind Spotted Lake as well.

You are not allowed to walk down to see it up close - just yet, at least.

According to the sign, eventually Parks Canada and the Osoyoos Band will work together to create a scenic path around the lake, as well as a information center on the land around Spotted Lake. I feel this would be nice - to have a path and an information center would be beneficial in a) sharing this amazing place with the rest of the world, and b) preventing destructive trespassers by allowing access in a controlled way. Hopefully, in two years, you will be able to see this marvel of nature up close and personal!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Road Tripping It: How to Last 11 Hours on the Road with Kids


Today I began my 10-11 day journey from my hometown in Alberta to Vancouver to Seattle to home again. I am travelling with my neighbour friend, Jana, and her two adorable and active kids, P and H. (I'll withhold their names for privacy's sake.) Driving from my hometown to Kelowna, according to "George" our British GPS dude, was going to take 9 hours. We managed to stretch it out a lot more by hitting nearly (but not all) cheesy tourist attractions along the way, which was a lot of fun when you are traveling with easily excitable little ones.

Riding in a car with two kids under 10 for 11 hours can still be fun - I swear!

We stopped at a few rest stops along the way to get some great photos of the unrivalled Rocky Mountains, and then parked at Field, British Columbia for a picnic lunch and a chance for the kids to complete their “Junior Rangers” parks program for Yoho National Park. Every national park in Canada creates booklets for children to complete with word searches, matching games, eye spy games, and other activities. These things are perfect for kids to do while driving to keep them entertained - just a helpful FYI for traveling parents out there!

While at the Information Center in Field, B.C., the Yoho National Park kids’ booklet required the kids to do some fossil rubbings. Once those were done, the kids presented their completed booklets to the parks personnel, who then made them do a pledge and presented them with badges. It was pretty cute. And apparently this can happen at all national parks, as long as you can get your hands on those booklets, which are available at any national park information centre.

Taking a break to explore the rest stop at Field, British Columbia.

After a gorgeous picnic lunch by the blue waters of Field’s wading pond (where P had her first “pee pee panties” episode of the trip - potty-training is certainly an adventure, especially while on the road!), we were back on the highway. We traveled along the Trans Canada, which is riddled with cool tunnels, where I challenged P and H to hold their breaths for the duration of the tunnel. It never worked: someone yawned, giggled, or burped. I will not disclose whether it was the kids or me.

Zipping through the tunnels along the Trans Canada Highway in British Columbia.

Our next stop to stretch our legs and experience a little of Canada’s interesting history was at Craigellachie, British Columbia, where the last spike for the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in November of 1885. This site is very famous, particularly for my grade 7 students, who have to study about it in their Social 7 textbook. For anyone who isn’t Canadian (or for those Canadians who maybe fell asleep during their social studies class), Craigellachie and the last spike represent the completion of nearly 3000 miles of steel rails and wooden ties, many years of construction, and a whole lot of tragic deaths. I had to take some pictures for my students while there!

Attempting to 'drive the last spike' at Craigellachie, B.C.

Back in the car we climbed, and drove onto Sicamous, where Jana promised me an interesting ice cream experience. We pulled up at a store called “D” Dutchman Ice Cream, which is not just an ice cream store but a full-fledged dairy farm! The farm produces all of its own milk , cheese, and of course, ice cream. I bought some fresh chocolate milk in a unique litre glass bottle, and a small “Chocolate Raspberry Delight” cone.

We wandered out to the farmyard area, where we could stroll amongst feeding calves, full-grown Holsteins (behind fences of course) and even a few “pet” animals, like the dromedary Caspar (do NOT call him a camel - H will yell at you!), the donkey Poncho, and the white llama Primo. Don’t get too close to Primo - she’ll spit on you! It was indeed an interesting ice cream experience - if you head to Sicamous, do not miss “D” Dutchman Ice Cream!

The DROMEDARY at D Dutchman Ice Cream in Sicamous, B.C.

At Sicamous, we turned onto the 97A highway headed to Kelowna. That road is very pretty, very winding, and has great views of the British Columbia foothills and lake landscape. Along 97A is one of the strangest places you will ever see - The Log Cabin. There aren’t enough words to describe this place, because honestly, there is so much random crap there I wouldn’t know where to start. Giant oversize wooden porch chairs, huge plastic swans, old hand-me-down MacDonalds play place furniture, every tacky lawn ornament ever created, old wagons, old tires turned into petunia planters... it was a haven for junk collectors.

The Log Barn was an extravaganza of cheesy yard ornaments and high-priced couture groceries!

The Log Barn also has a very busy, cute, and slightly expensive grocery store - there are about a thousand and one decorations above the shelves, strange things hanging from the rafters, even fountains and palm trees! The food they sell is really tasty, such as homemade Mennonite sausage and locally cured cheeses, but the prices were too much for me.

The inside of the Log Barn was just as eclectic as the outside.

The Log Cabin also has a bit of everything to entice the young and the old to stop by. The kids’ favourite activity was feeding the greedy goats on “Dave’s Goat Walk” - buy some seeds and popcorn kernels from the bubblegum dispensers, fill up a tin cup which is tied to a rope, and haul the rope to the top of the goat walk - the goats will be waiting on the top floor to receive their goodies! A few goats even knew how to haul the rope up on their own, by either using their hooves or their chins to rotate the pulley wheel. Very entertaining! You could also hand feed the goats, but if you choose to do this, be very careful and never go INTO the goat pen while holding a handful of food - one woman was bitten by a goat while we were there, and the four-footed chomper bit her down to the fingerbone! Yuck!

Crafty, glutenous goats await treats at the top of Dave's Goat Walk at the Log Barn in B.C.

This was our last stop before we made it to Kelowna. We drove past “The Enchanted Forest” - a place I’ve visited during my childhood - because Jana and her kids had been there a couple of weeks ago. The admission fee per person is $18, which includes a walk through the forest to see the different ceramic figurine tableaus of fairytale creatures. Anything additional to that, such as the zipline, costs extra money.

All in all, our drive turned out to be around 11 hours, but we hit up many fun and unusual stops, and it honestly felt like we had only been driving for about 6 hours. For “just a driving day”, it turned out to be quite a full day. If you are planning a long trip, I highly recommend budgeting in just two extra hours on top of your driving time so that you can freely stop at all the strange and random places you find. It breaks up the trip, adds interest for all passengers, and makes for some great memories!

Monday, August 1, 2011

How to Conquer Rome in 3 Days: Things to See and Do


Ah, Rome! How I miss thee! Rome is such a beautiful city, filled with fashion, fun, excitement, and steeped in history. I have written several times about Rome, Italy, in this blog (see posts on the Trevi Fountain, Vatican City, and the Coliseum.) This will be my last post on Rome, unless I have the luck and joy of visiting the city again.

There is so much more to see and do besides the places listed above. Granted, I found that the Coliseum is among one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life, but if you happen to be in Rome, be sure to explore beyond the Coliseum! It's not hard to do - actually, it's literally impossible not to see more sights.

Before you can even get close to the Coliseum, you must first pass by the Arch of Constantine, an intricately carved and decorated triumphal arch erected to celebrate Constantine I. It dates back all the way to 315 A.D., but still stands strong and glorious today. You could probably spend all day checking out the carvings, reading the inscriptions (if you know Latin) and photographing the arch itself - except for the fact that right behind the Arch of Constantine you are continually distracted by the enormous and tempting Coliseum!

The majestic Arch of Constantine, located right outside the Coliseum

Once you have finished with the Coliseum, the Forum is just a hop, skip and a jump away, about a two block stroll. The Forum does charge admission to enter and walk around, but the price is only 12 Euros. Believe me, it is worth the cost. Some of the most amazing pictures I snapped of Rome were of the Forum, which is a long, rectangular plaza filled with ancient Roman ruins. The Forum used to be the city center and the site of various political meetings, rallies, and votes.

The remains of the impressive Roman Forum - you could spend a whole day here!

There are tons of temples located there as well - my favorite being the last few pillars remaining of the Temple of Vesta, where the vestal virgins lived and prophesied the future for Romans. As the story goes, the vestal virgins were only funnels of knowledge from the gods as long as they remained virgins. If any of the vestal virgins were to be touched by a man, the man was killed immediately, usually in interesting ways to teach others a lesson, and the vestal not-so-virgin had to be disposed of as well. However, since it was illegal for anyone to touch them - yes, literally touch them - the woman was forced to crawl into a deep hole, and would then be buried alive. (Because then it was the earth killing her, not a person. Doesn’t that just make so much sense?)

The remaining bits and pieces of the Temple of Vesta.

Another of my favorite locations, which is not that close to the Coliseum so be prepared to grab a bus or cab, was the Pantheon. This was a temple built during the rule of Marcus Agrippa in order to bridge the gap between pagan religion and the newly emerging Christian religion - it literally translates to “to every god”, meaning people could come to the Pantheon to worship any god they chose. Eventually Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it in 126 A.D. to display solely Christian figures.

I loved this building because of the occulus, or giant hole in the center of the ceiling, where you could look straight up into the sky. Because the occulus is open to the elements, the floor of the Pantheon is sloped to the outside to allow for rainwater drainage. Crazy! The outside isn’t too shabby either - the massive Corinthian columns are very impressive. This one is definitely worth the visit.

Posing outside the Pantheon on our first day in Rome

Playing around with the Pantheon's massive occulus

Near the Pantheon is Piazza Navona, a trendy plaza for restaurants and street vendors. It also has three of the most beautiful fountains you will see, particularly the center fountain, called the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Embedded within the fountain design is a true-blue Egyptian obelisk, stolen from Egypt who knows how long ago. Then there is the Fountain of Neptune and the Fontana del Moro.

Every time I go to Piazza Navona, I end up walking away with a really cool purchase, such as a painting of the Coliseum which is now framed and hanging in my bathroom. When I went there in 2010, I bought a painting of a mountain landscape. The painting itself isn’t that impressive, but watching it being made was. The artist didn’t use a single brush, but used bits and pieces of cardboard, torn from the cardboard he was using as a placemat. He dabbed the cardboard bits into paint, and smeared them over the canvas. Within 15 minutes, I was looking at a complete and very pretty painting. I had to buy it.

Sitting by one of the three fountains in Piazza Navona

Finally, in the same relative district as the Pantheon, we visited the Spanish Steps, which lead down from the Trinita dei Monti church into the Piazza di Spagna. They are pretty steep, and there are a lot of steps! In January, the first time we went, the area wasn’t that crowded, and only a few vendors were present to harass you to purchase items. (Don’t ever, ever hold a rose that a vendor offers you - the moment you touch the dang thing, you are expected to buy it for an outrageous price, and they will not take the rose back. Just wave them off right away if they approach you.)

The beautiful Spanish Steps at sunset.

When we visited again in April, the steps were crowded, busy, and filled with flower vendors. It was dizzying, but the flower vendors also made the steps a very pretty sight. I was approached by a rose seller again, but this time knew what to do. When the man continued to follow me after I had told him no and refused to touch the rose in his outstretched hand, a policeman noticed him bothering me. The cop took the man’s bouquet of roses and shooed him from the piazza - I guess they are only tolerated if they behave themselves. Otherwise, they’re not really supposed to be there selling without a vendor’s license.

"Pay the man!" a friend yelled to my husband, so he paid 5 Euros for this one dumb rose.

There are still some things I’d like to see in Rome that I haven’t been able to; the baths in particular. I hope one day I will be able to scratch that one off the bucket list!