Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sinclair Canyon: Gateway to Beauty

For eight years now, my husband's immediate family and my own little clan have been vacationing in British Columbia for a week each summer. This little getaway enables us to enjoy precious family time surrounded by the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, with its deep valleys, towering peaks, and glistening rivers.

Each year we choose to haunt the same area: the Kootenay region near Radium and Invermere. I have written in the past about some of the great places to visit around this stretch, such as Lussier Hot Springs or going white water rafting.

There are also some beautiful hiking areas nearby, both official and unofficial, and last year we took our two little ones to one of my favourite hiking places. My husband would like me to stress that this particular spot is not a HIKE in the official sense, although I call it one because you have to walk a little ways to enjoy the beauty. In my opinion, if you are walking, and there's nature, it is a hike. But that's neither here nor there.

There are a lot of beautiful and easy 'hiking' locations between Radium and Invermere, B.C.

I'm talking about the Sinclair Canyon Pass near the entrance to Radium. Many people may have driven through the canyon, as it towers above each side of Highway 93 South, which is one of the main roads to access Radium. Most people I know marvel at the tall canyon walls as they pass through, but not many have stopped to stroll around the canyon and enjoy the views. Granted, it is a busy road, narrow and twisty and not the most ideal for taking the fam-jam out on a jaunt, but I am telling you now that it IS worth it.

If you are driving towards Radium on Highway 93 South, you will pass the entrance to the Radium Hot Springs. Not three minutes away from the springs is a small parking lot, dusty and narrow, that provides a space for visitors to get off the highway just outside the Sinclair Canyon walls. That's where my family and I left our car as we began our short HIKE around the canyon. (Yes, I said it. We hiked.)

The towering walls of Sinclair Canyon just outside of Radium

Sinclair Canyon isn't the deepest canyon I've ever seen, but what makes this canyon spectacular is how it opens up into an amazing view of the valley below. It is very narrow, just wide enough for a strip of highway to roll through, allowing traffic entering the town limits of Radium to witness the valley emerging as they exit the canyon's shadow.

What drivers view as they pass through Sinclair Canyon towards Radium

A small strip of sidewalk lines the highway, guiding visitors along the canyon walls. Halfway through the canyon, there is a shallow cave to explore.

The tiny 'cave' in Sinclair Canyon

Just past the cave, Sinclair Creek turns into Sinclair Canyon Falls, a short waterfall that leads down into the valley. If you hike further down the valley, you will find the entrance to Juniper Trail and can hike (for real hike) along Sinclair Creek into the valley's base.

Sinclair Falls, which are tiny, just outside Sinclair Canyon

We didn't walk that far (although Joey and I have hiked part of Juniper Trail in the past, long before we had our children). This time around, we had the double stroller with us and taking that sucker down Juniper Trail's valley stairs did NOT seem fun. Or smart. So we loitered around Sinclair Canyon, the falls, and the lookout.

A view of the Radium valley from the Sinclair Canyon lookout point

I love the lookout point. It branches away from the highway-hugging sidewalk, and takes visitors to a precipice overlooking the canyon and part of the town of Radium. You can look back towards the way you came to see Sinclair Canyon and Sinclair Canyon Falls with a view of the Rocky Mountains peeping through the crack. There is a giant boulder in the centre of the lookout area to climb for some really spectacular photos.

Enjoying the lookout point at Sinclair Canyon before descending down Juniper Trail

That is about it, however, for things to see and do at Sinclair Canyon. There are hikes dotting Highway 93 up and down the road in both directions, and they are usually empty so you have the trails and the trees to yourself. In the past, Joey and I have hiked back towards the hot springs and enjoyed splashing around in Sinclair Creek. I recommend taking advantage of the ease of the trails, and the peacefulness you are sure to encounter there.

Sinclair Creek as it makes its way to Sinclair Canyon

This summer we hope to do more hiking, especially around Olive Lake and Marble Canyon. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Athabasca Falls of Jasper, Alberta

down the wrabbit hole

The Jasper area of Alberta's Rocky Mountains is often overlooked in favor of the more popular tourist destination of Banff. I myself, a resident of Alberta, Canada, am guilty of choosing to visit Banff over Jasper in the past. However, a quick trip in May of 2015 with my family convinced me that Jasper has a lot to offer, and is often times more appealing to visit. It is beautiful, clean, and not as busy as the more touted Banff region.

My husband had never been to Jasper, and I had last visited when I was still in elementary school, so for both of us, the trip was a fun treat. During our road trip, we stopped to walk the Glacier Skywalk, located along the Icefields Parkway highway (otherwise known as AB-93) just outside of Jasper. This excursion set us up nicely for our mountain experience. We had our fourteen-month-old with us, so the rest of our first day in Jasper was spent unloading our never-ending baggage and setting up the hotel room. No need for a blog post on that!

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Athabasca Falls in Jasper, Alberta is thunderous and breathtaking

The next morning, we headed down the Icefields Parkway towards Athabasca Falls as early as our babe would let us. I had read it is better to arrive early in the day to avoid large crowds, so that is what we, the ever obedient tourists, did. The drive to the falls from the town of Jasper is about 28 minutes, driving south down the Icefields Parkway. If you turn left at the "Athabasca Falls" sign, you'll enter a large, looped parking lot and it will be obvious that you have arrived. The sign off the highway isn't terribly large or glamorous, so keep your eyes peeled.

Once parked, we secured our 1 1/2 year old into the hiking carrier and began our trek. The falls are free to visit, including parking, so it was just a matter of getting out of the car and going. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect regarding the duration and difficulty of the hike to the falls, but I needn't have worried. The 'trails' around the falls are literally wide, smooth, paved sidewalks designed for hundreds of tourists to access at a time. The falls are about a five minute stroll down one of these paved trails from the parking lot itself. I wouldn't even call the venture down to the falls a hike. I could have easily done it in heels and an evening gown. Nevertheless, it was still very beautiful.

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My family (including one unborn Parker) enjoys our first view of the Athabasca River

The paths are nicely maintained, and of course, placed very strategically. Around the first bend, you get a clear view of the Athabasca River, a distant glimpse of the mouth of the falls, and can see the sunlight sparkling in the spray. There is a look-out point placed just so, where you can take a selfie or family photo with the falls in the background.

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Peeking at Athabasca Falls through its unusual gorge walls

After that first look, you cross a sturdy bridge that spans the Athabasca River as it continues downstream. The water is a vibrant, glacial, icy blue, bubbling with white froth. You can hear the roar of the falls echoing through the undulating gorge walls, carved by millennia of water run-off.

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Rock formations surrounding Athabasca Falls

Once you've crossed the bridge, you walk for a little bit more before finding yourself at the mouth of the waterfall itself. The freezing water thunders down, wetting your skin with escaping droplets. Various lookout point jut along the retaining wall, allowing visitors to get great photographs from multiple angles. It isn't a record-breaking drop (it is a Class 5 waterfall with a drop of only 80 feet), but the curious rock formations along the sides of the waterfall make for a majestic scene. What makes Athabasca Falls so famous is the force at which the water is jettisoned through the relatively narrow waterfall mouth - this waterfall moves with deadly strength.

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The mouth of the Athabasca Falls

There are beautiful flat rocks overhanging the waterfall, and they appear to give visitors a foothold for an amazing view of the drop below. However, several signs warn that the rocks are extremely slippery, and that many unfortunate people have slipped over the edge after ignoring or not seeing the park's warnings. (I read somewhere that at least ONCE a YEAR someone dies trying to explore these rocks. Once a year! People, please be careful!)

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A beautiful memorial - please stay behind the retaining walls when visiting the falls

There are other trails to venture down, once you have finished with the waterfall. One trail, a for-real dirt-packed root-infested trail, leads down past the mouth of the waterfall, along the river into the woods. We followed that one for a short distance, hopping down off the trail after awhile to scrabble along the rocky beach beside the river. The view of the Rocky Mountains from the river's edge is incredible, and it was fun to sit on the larger rocks and relax in the sun for a spell.

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The rocky beach of the Athabasca River has a great Rocky Mountain view

You can also explore the river downstream from the waterfall. A trail leads you into an old river tunnel, carved ages ago by the rushing waters of the Athabasca River before it was eventually diverted into its current course. It was my daughter's favourite part of the trail, since she is obsessed with rocks.

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A pathway carved by the river eons ago

The path takes you around a rocky precipice (where I will warn you, the path gets a little narrow - we had to back up at one point to let a family come through before we could continue) to a giant bowl of water where the gorge empties itself of the rushing river. It is calm and quiet at this part of the trail, but there weren't any places to simply sit and relax, so we turned around and went back the way we came after enjoying the scenery.

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The beautiful blue area where the gorge empties

There are also some prominent potholes dotting this area of the gorge. I was curious to see them, so we followed one trail promising to take us to the largest of the potholes. It was extremely disappointing. People had been using the potholes as giant garbage pails, and they were littered with pop bottles, wrappers, and cigarette butts. Pretty disgusting. (The behaviour more so than the garbage!)

All in all, we spent a few hours at the falls, strolling up and down virtually all of the trails. Our daughter ran around a little, collecting rocks and pinecones ("cones!"), and then it was time to head back into Jasper for lunch. I really enjoyed our foray to the Athabasca Falls and recommend it to anyone who visits the Jasper area. Just please don't climb the rocks, or litter when you visit! Stay safe and try to keep this treasure of an area looking pristine, because it is worth it.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Monteverde Coffee Farm Tour: Life Monteverde

Well, this post was a long time coming. Life is beginning to settle (a little) with my two kidlets. Avy is almost two and Parker is almost seven months old - I can hardly believe how fast they are growing! I am hoping that 2016 will see a return to our travels as the kids are now accustomed to each other, and both are quite good travelers, other than the fact that Avy gets car sick every now and then. I would relish any advice on car sickness in children, because I'd like to do a road trip this summer with them down into the United States to check out some parks.

My family - a future troupe of travelers?

My husband would really like to spend some time in Costa Rica again this year, and since we've been chatting about it, I realized that I still haven't written about our amazing coffee farm tour from 2014! So here we go...

We visited Costa Rica in November of 2014 with our daughter when she was 10 months old. She was a fabulous traveler and we were so pleased. I was, on the other hand, not such a great traveler as I was suffering from extreme morning sickness, being pregnant with our son at the time. But that's another story. Despite the multiple stops we had to make on our drive to the cloud forest, we did eventually make it to Monteverde and spent one day touring Selvatura Adventure Park.

I had also booked another day trip to explore a real-life coffee farm, Life Monteverde Coffee Farm. It was a 'green' farm, so I was really interested in how they produced and maintained their product in such an environmentally sound fashion.

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Touring a true-blue coffee farm sounded excellent to me!

A company van picked us up at our hotel and drove us out of town to the farm, which was located at the top of a relatively steep hill that provided a stunning view of the Monteverde valleys and slopes. My husband, daughter and I were the only participants that morning, and it was nice having a 'private' tour of the establishment. Apparently we were there between busy times, as the company offers work experience semesters for local and foreign agriculture and environmental studies students. Our guide was a former environmental studies student who liked the 'green' aspect of the farm and signed on to help increase its effectiveness.

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Joey and Avy having a chat with our guide.

Our tour started in a mess hall-type building, where we sat for a short slide show depicting a brief history of farming and agriculture in the Monteverde region, naturally focusing on the coffee trade. I won't go into detail here, but it was interesting to hear how coffee plantations developed in the region. We didn't stay long here, as our daughter was getting squirmy, and since no one else was there to object, our guide decided to just give us a casual walking tour of the farm and threw the formal tour guidelines to the wind.

Unripe coffee beans on the bush

We wandered through the coffee fields, which featured a variety of older, more established plants growing among younger, smaller coffee plants. Every now and then, a lime or orange tree would tower above the coffee bushes.

There were several distinct, separate fields, but my favorite was the one planted right on the steep hillside with a fantastic view of the valley.

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A coffee field with a view.

Our guide showed us the various stages of coffee bean maturation on the plant. Green beans were still immature and not ready for picking. Red or brown beans were ripe and ready to be harvested. We pulled a few red beans from the plants and our guide showed us how to skin them to find the coffee bean used for brewing inside.

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Ripe coffee beans, picked fresh from the bush.

He explained that different coffee flavors come not only from roasting times, but also from how the bean is peeled. Some prefer an unpeeled bean, some prefer coffee beans with the sticky, sweet middle membrane intact (called a 'mucilage'), and some prefer a bean completely peeled and washed of the sweet membrane. He showed us how to scrape the bean of its outer layer to find the mucilage, and encouraged us to taste it. It was surprisingly sweet, and I was curious how this layer would affect the flavor of coffee. Naturally, I was due to find out during the course of the tour.

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A coffee bean with its sticky, sweet mucilage still intact

One special field was being used to test a particular blight that affected coffee plants. The coffee farm does not use pesticides or herbicides, but tries to employ natural resistances to plant disease, and they were using this specific field as a testing ground. You could see which plants were infected, as they had shriveled, yellowed leaves with pock marks on them. Their beans were smaller and seemed dried out.

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Evidence of coffee plant blight

The employees of the farm were open, friendly, welcoming, and very informative. The man harvesting the yuca was using the moon as his guide, harvesting during the waning moon, as the plants' water content is affected by the pull of the moon's gravity. If harvesting during the waning moon, the root lasts longer in storage, and the stems have more water present so it is easier to grow a new plant from the unharvested portion.

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Harvesting yuca.

The farm also produces other plants, such as yuca, and sustained a small number of animals, such as pigs and chickens. They used the animals for food, and collected their waste for fertilizer. It was an extremely efficient and economical business, where nothing was wasted and everything had a purpose. Even the pigs' waste was useful - it was stored in a giant methane bag. From there, the methane gas was piped into the kitchen and used as gas for cooking.

Avy was not a fan of the chickens - one of them squawked and lunged at her and she cried for about fifteen minutes afterwards!

coffee tour Costa Rica
The methane gas is stored and used to power aspects of the farm.

After learning about the farm and its environs, we were led to a building which stored the picked coffee beans and layed them out to dry. The building also acted as a greenhouse for coffee tree seedlings. There, the guide showed us several trays which demonstrated just how versatile one coffee bean can be. One tray held unpeeled beans, dried in the sun and ready to roast. Another tray held beans that had been peeled down to the sweet mucilage. One tray had dried beans that had been completely peeled. They all had distinctive appearances, and I knew that they would also inevitably have very different tastes.

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Dried beans ready to be roasted. Who knew they came in such a variety?

Finally, the farm portion of the tour ended back at the mess hall, and this time, our friendly yuca harvester was waiting for us. He had plates piled with fried plantains for us to snack on - Avy was a huge fan! (It was here I realized that cooking with methane made from pigs' waste was probably not meant for my home.)

The yuca harvester demonstrated how to brew coffee in a traditional Costa Rican brewer, made from wood (like the one at the farm) or dried yuca stalks (which is what we bought) and a cloth filtration bag. It was a very slow, methodical brew process, but the coffee it made was thick and rich and delicious! I can't remember what type of bean he ground for us, but it had a strong flavor that was perfectly complimented by the sweet plantains.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Brewing coffee the Costa Rican way

Once we'd had our fill, the two men (our guide and the yuca harvester) decided that instead of taking the giant tour van to the coffee mill, we'd all pile in their rickety farm truck so they could deliver some beans and kill two birds with one stone. We were super casual about the tour and didn't care at all - in fact, it was quite fun to be treated as a local instead of a formal guest, just piling into this dusty ol' truck! The two men loaded the truck bed while Joey, Avy and I climbed into the backseat. The two men hopped into the front seats, and we were off to the mill.

The ride was extremely bumpy, and I think it was Avy's favorite part! She giggled the entire ride while I just tried to keep from getting jostled right off the seat.

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The coffee lab is part of the collective, where all local farmers have their beans roasted and packaged.

The mill, Monteverde Coffee Lab, is not part of the Life Monteverde Coffee Farm. We learned that it is a separate, independently-owned business that services all of the coffee farms in the area. Its main job is coffee quality control, and coffee farming education, but it also works with the smaller coffee farms to act as their roaster. When we arrived, however, we were once again the only ones there and got special, personalized treatment. It was fantastic.

The roast man was amazing. He was young, but so passionate about what he was doing it was infectious. He knew his stuff! He didn't speak English, but the speed and vehemence at which he spoke translated well enough. Our guide tried to translate everything, but we knew we were missing information because the roast master was going a mile a minute, he was so excited to share his knowledge.

coffee tour Costa Rica
Our enthusiastic and knowledgeable roast master.

We learned the difference between roasting a light roast, a medium roast and a dark roast. The light and medium roasts are the most difficult to make, because they require diligent attention on part of the roast master. He has to listen to the sounds of the beans as they roast, and take them out after the first few 'pops' before they get too dark. He had the system down, and roasted two batches of perfectly light roasted coffee while we watched all without referring to his charts (but he charted every batch anyway). Of the dark roasts, he said dismissively, "Anyone can burn coffee beans." A true artist!

coffee tour Costa Rica
An unroasted vs a roasted bean - the roasted beans expand to twice their original size.

It was quite fun watching the beans roast in the big metal vat. It was a like a giant popcorn machine, and indeed, the beans sound like popcorn as they heat. Chaff gets puffed up into a vent by the heat and air flow inside the roaster, and what is left after the process are pure and delicious smelling beans.

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The roasting equipment at Monteverde Coffee Lab

I enjoyed the open bags of beans in the back room of the coffee lab. I liked to sink my hand deep inside the beans and feel their silkiness as I wiggled my fingers. There was something very alluring about working in that coffee lab, surrounded by the wonderful smell of roasted coffee beans, the cozy heat from the roasting vat, and the possibility to relax and sip delicious fresh coffee between customers. Oh yeah, and you live in Costa Rica. I seriously began to question my life's career choices.

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The inviting interior of Monteverde Coffee Lab

After the last batch was roasted, the roast master took us to the front room and introduced us to the idea of 'cupping', or coffee tasting. The roast master took five different beans, and had us first stir the coffee and smell the aroma, then taste the coffee to try and determine which roast and type of harvested bean the coffee was made from. I got three out of five.

My favorite coffee turned out to be the medium roast of the bean harvested with the mucilage membrane still attached. This roast is called "honey roast" and for good reason: it is sweetened by the membrane but not so much that it tastes like someone just added a packet of sugar to the brew. It left a delightful aftertaste as well. The most surprising coffee was made from the unpeeled, or natural, bean. Because the coffee bean's casing is left intact, the coffee actually tastes much more plant-like, and has a blackberry aftertaste.

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Our 'cupping' session - tasting one delicious coffee after another.

Our coffee tasting session ended a little early, because Avy, tempted by the mesmerizing liquids in the steaming hot cups, shoved her little hand inside of one. Luckily, it had been after quite a long period of coffee tasting, and the brews had cooled a little. She wasn't burned, but she was quite upset at the nasty surprise.

We left the tour laden with bags of coffee: Joey bought a medium roast fully-peeled bag of beans, and I chose to get some of the honey roast I liked so much. We also bought a bag of the natural roast because we knew no one would believe us that we had drank coffee that tasted like blackberries, without anything added to it to make it taste that way.

I highly recommend attending this coffee tour if you are in the Monteverde area. It is loaded with information about the region's history, biology, agriculture, and economics. You will learn about self-sustaining farm practices, harvesting rituals, and planting processes. You will get a first-hand look at how coffee is roasted and might even get to help. And of course, you get to drink delicious fresh coffee made locally and roasted before your own eyes. You can book with them here.