Friday, March 30, 2012

Nature isn't far away in Calgary

I was on my way to the zoo when my friend called me - the zoo is living up to its name - can't get in the parking lot - too busy - spring break - please, let's go somewhere else.  I looked back at my son, knowing I had promised him a trip to the zoo, and he was passed out sound asleep.  What to do?  Toddlers may be young but they have very good memories when it comes to things owing or promised them. This my friend found out the hard way as she turned away from the zoo and was hit with sobs from the back seat.  Her son definitely wanted to see some animals.

Fortunately, we live in a city full of nature and wildlife waiting to be explored.  You don't need a zoo pass to see squirrels, birds, deer, coyotes, porcupines, the odd  bear, and even the occasional cougar.  You can't drive more than fifteen minutes in Calgary without coming across a creek, ravine, forest, river, park or natural area.  I took these things for granted before I had a child and would drive over an hour to find nature in the mountains every weekend.  We still drive to the mountains a lot but we are exploring our city too every chance we get.

Seeing as Noah was sleeping, and we still planned to do something with our friends, we drove down to my favorite park in Calgary; North Glenmore Park .  I don't know how long it takes to cross your city, but it's a good hour at least to drive from North to South Calgary (in good traffic); the perfect distance to allow a child to have a nice nap.  Many if not most people who visit North Glenmore stick to the paved paths winding their way through the park.  Another percentage don't get past the playgrounds or the path above the Elbow River Delta.  Nature lovers though have discovered a secret gem in this park; the Weaselhead Flats Natural Environment Park. 

Why should you visit Weaselhead Flats?  The City of Calgary website describes this unique area in the following words:
Delve into the only delta in the city. As the Elbow River flows into the Glenmore Reservoir it slows down, thus depositing sand and gravel creating a network of bars, channels and marsh areas. This type of habitat is called a delta and is host to a relatively unique array of plants and animals. Weaselhead Flats also contain one of the largest stands of coniferous forest in the city.
If words aren't enough, photos usually do it for me.   I'll leave you with my favorite photos of Noah and his friend enjoying this precious part of our city.

Toddlers running free and happy

Playing in the meadow

You'd never know you were still in the city when you are in the Weaselhead

Mud, puddles, and snow - oh my (our mantra for the day)

What child doesn't love sticks!

Noah was fascinated by these branches

Waving his branches in practice for Palm Sunday

The boys had so much fun in the mud!

The puddle that was almost a lake for the boys

I'd love to hear about your favorite park or natural area.
Where do you go when you need to reconnect with nature?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What Spring means to us

Puddles, free toes reminded that flip flops are so much easier to put on than boots, children wanting to stay outside for hours, first hikes of the season, having brunch on a sunny patio - yes it's Spring in the Rockies!  I'm not sure what you think of when you hear the word Spring, especially if you are from a warmer climate, but for me, it means that the thermometre finally stops going below zero Celsius in the daytime.  At night however, it still freezes well into April and we can get snow in mid May.  You might still need to wear a tuque when you visit a patio for lunch and your toes will be cold in their flip flops as you step around slush puddles and ice patches.  As with all seasons, Spring brings new activities to us here and we jump into fresh explorations with excitement and a renewed zest for life.  Some of our favorite Spring activities you'll find below might be a shock to you, again especially if you don't get a lot of snow where you live.

Building snowmen
It's easier to make a snowman when the snow is warm and sticky.  We've had a LOT of snow here in March so it's been perfect weather for making our first snowmen of the season.  I know we aren't alone either because I've seen photos all over facebook of beautiful snow creations made in the last couple weeks.

The kids went searching for the pine cones and sticks for the snowman

I didn't realize what a great nature craft building a snowman was.

Noah's friend helping with one of the balls
Another strange one I'm sure under the category of spring activities but honestly, it just isn't that much fun when it's -20C to go sledding.  Warmer weather makes this a sport our family finally enjoys.  We didn't do much sledding this year until March and then we took advantage of the fresh warm snow.  My son is still a little tentative about sledding and wants to ride with one of us most of the time but Grandma took him out one day and said he went down the hill a dozen times by himself and had a blast.  Yay Grandma!  Note to other Grandparents - our Grandma was pretty skeptical at first about how much fun playing in the snow would be.  She came home soaked and beyond happy with the experience.  It was probably one of her highlights this whole winter.

Noah's biggest hill this winter

Our friends took us to the sledding hill at their lake and it was a very LONG run.
You don't need a lot of snow to go sledding

Puddle Jumping
Who doesn't love jumping in a good puddle?   My son is no exception.  We went to the zoo the other day but we didn't go with the purpose of seeing the animals.  We went because we knew that the Calgary zoo has some of the best puddles in March.  We spent a good half hour in one particularly large puddle and my son was still talking about the bubbles he saw in it the next day.  I felt sad for the children at the zoo who hadn't worn rain boots.  We passed many young tots sitting in time out after moms had screamed at them one too many times to get out of the puddles.  Meanwhile, I was encouraging my son to jump higher, to run through the biggest puddles, and to get utterly soaked.  I wasn't very popular with the other moms since apparently we were setting a bad example I'm sure.

Noah sporting his new rain boots

Jump, splash and stomp

Spring Hiking
We got out for our first Spring hike last weekend and it was a bit of a challenge finding a trail that was snow free.  In the end, we chose a trail that was part mud, part slush, and part packed down snow.  It was only 2km but The Fenland Trail in Banff was the perfect start to the season for a three year old.  We took Grandma with us as she's always good at the hand holding and encouragement often required to complete even the shortest of walks.

Spring hiking on the Fenland Trail

Noah and Grandma

The snow is starting to melt

Because most of the trails in the Rockies are snow covered well into May and often beyond, we do a lot of snowshoe hikes in Spring.  We don't like to hike in the winter when it's so much more fun to ski but come March the ski trails are starting to get icy and we usually wind down for the season by the end of the month.   We've done a lot of snowshoeing and snow hiking in April with cleats or yak trax on our feet for traction.  Usually we pack our snowshoes, yak trax, hiking boots, and poles, deciding what we'll need when we get to the trail.  More often than not, we don't actually need the snowshoes because the snow is so well packed down, it's easier to just walk on top of it in boots.

Snowshoeing at Upper Kananaskis Lake last Spring

Lake Louise - well before the crowds descend
One of my favorite Spring snowshoe trips into Skoki Lodge

All in all, Spring is a great season.  We look forward to seeing green grass for the first time, we enjoy feeling the warm sun on our skin, and we especially love stripping off all the winter layers.  Our son was pretty tolerant of his mittens, ski pants, tuque, scarf, etc. all winter but there comes a point when nobody really wants to wear ski pants one more time.  We transition to a rain suit instead and throw the mittens along with other warm layers in the pack, hoping we honestly won't need them.  More often than not, we do, but at least my son can play at the playground for half an hour without mittens.

Playing at the amazing Zoo playground
Fun swings we have here

The coolest playground we recently found

Trying to climb up on the big logs in one of our school playgrounds

We don't wait for the snow to melt  before we hit the parks

Our next Spring adventure will be helping our son learn how to ride his new balance bike.  We are now in possession of a bright orange Strider bike and are super excited to watch our son grow with it. 

What does Spring mean to your family? 

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Wild Mountain Girls - Our Lake O'Hara Winter Adventure

One of the things on my winter bucket list was to make the ski trek into Lake O'Hara for the day to have lunch at the backcountry Lake O'Hara Lodge with my girlfriends.  The lodge is only open for a very limited time each winter and serves a light but decadent lunch on weekends that consists of fresh bread, salad, soup, dessert and coffee or tea.  I found a group of three friends and we set out this past Saturday hoping to reach the lodge in time for lunch; no small feat when it requires a two and a half hour drive plus an 11km ski in that's mostly uphill.  We had to leave Calgary around 7am in order to accomplish our goal and for one of my friends in the far South of Calgary, that meant being on the road from her house at 6am. 

Our mighty group of wild mountain girls

I've been into the Lake before in winter and it's always a nice adventure but I enjoyed this trip more than any of the previous ones.  This was my first all girl's expedition into Lake O'Hara.  As a mom, I know it's important to get time away by myself with my friends and I place a high value on pursuing the kinds of adventures I used to do before I became a mom.  Usually however, girl time consists of a night out to watch a movie, an evening at a local restaurant, a scrap-booking day or on occasion an actual weekend away.  When we go away for the weekend, the focus is usually on relaxing.  We might go for a small hike but there are no epic adventures, no challenging ski trips, and few exciting stories to tell when we get home beyond who drank too much or who had the best stories to share.

This trip into Lake O'Hara showed me why it's so important to get away with your girlfriends for at least a day and why it's even more fun when you include memory creating adventure and excitement.  I can't remember the last time I laughed so much; how can you help it when you reach the bottom of a hill and find two of your friends wiped out in front of you with skis and poles everywhere?  How can you not laugh when your friend goes flying past you with fresh  glide wax screaming that she'll see you at the parking lot.  We laughed at the wipe-outs, we laughed as we slogged up yet another hill I had promised was all behind us, and we laughed at each other trying to strip out of wet clothes in the parking lot (not easy or fun when it's below zero C and you have exposed skin open to the blowing snow and wind).

Finally within a kilometre of the Lodge
Enjoying our Red Velvet Cake at the Lodge
Girl down
Skiing out through glorious fresh powder
True backcountry skiing at its finest

On many of my past girl's trips I've chosen to invite other moms with babies and toddlers who already knew each other.  Our group for O'Hara was more of a mixed bag though.  Patricia is my backcountry mountain friend who joins me for most of my child-free trips.  She doesn't have children and is pleasantly young and carefree by comparison to myself.  Raechel and Greta had met a few times in the past but were still acquaintances to each other more than friends.  The three of us have kids very close in age and though we promised ourselves we wouldn't talk about them all day, we had to apologize to Patricia on occasion for slipping up.  It's hard not to talk about the kids that monopolize most of your waking and often sleeping hours.

 I was very proud of Raechel for coming because this was the first time she had been away from her kids for a full day; her oldest soon to turn three.  It's hard to let go and believe that your kids will be ok without you for a day (or even worse - weekend) but it's vital that you learn to trust Dad, Grandma, or whoever is watching them.  We need to make time for ourselves as moms and women.  I saw a side of Raechel, carefree and fun-loving, that I'd honestly never seen before.  We spend a lot of time together in the city but we're always chasing kids, soothing tantrums, and trying to pacify our emotional toddlers.  We'd never had the opportunity until this trip to just be friends together, to be girls, to be wild women in the mountains; free and unencumbered.

Raechel and I enjoying our hot coffee at the Lodge
Raechel and Patricia on our way out

I also commend my friends for having the courage to come on this trip with me.  A 22km ski trip isn't something to be taken lightly and I confess that I have been known to push my friends to their limits in the mountains.  Greta had only been out on skis once so far this winter and Raechel hadn't done any skiing this winter until she did a couple short days with us last weekend when we stayed overnight with our families in Kananaskis.  I knew they'd both be fine and I trusted their natural strength to complete the trip.  I'm glad they also trusted in their abilities and endurance because the trip wouldn't have been the same without them.

Greta having a blast!

I just want to finish here by encouraging all of you moms to take some time for yourself, to get away from the craziness and the pressure, and to escape with a few friends for at least a day off every few months.  You don't have to go backcountry skiing, but choose something that will challenge you, create memories, and make you feel alive, strong and beautiful. 

Information on Lake O'Hara
Lake O'Hara is located in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, just beyond Lake Louise as you head towards Golden.  It's an 11km backcountry ski into the Lake and mostly uphill.  The trail is often track-set by the Lodge staff but you should expect backcountry conditions.  We were skiing through fresh powder for the first 3km in the tracks of one lone skier who had gone ahead of us.  After that we were able to pick up the old tracks but they were covered by fresh snow.  The trail is never so steep that you need technical ski abilities but it is helpful if you can snowplow.  Most people doing a day trip into the Lake use standard cross country skis though many people appreciate light touring skis equipped with metal edges.  You are skiing up a summer road so the trail is very wide and easy to navigate.  There is never a concern that you will get lost.  Most people don't snowshoe into the Lake because it isn't very exciting to walk up a road.  Skiers enjoy it because of the scenery at the lake and the quick descent back to the parking lot.

There is little to no avalanche danger if you stay on the road en route to the Lake.  If you want to go beyond the lake, you should have avalanche training and carry the proper equipment.  If you are at all concerned about conditions, call the Parks Canada Office.  

The Lodge is open from late January through late March.  It closes March 25th this year.  If you want to have lunch at the lodge, you will want to arrive between noon and 1:45 for the last sitting.  The cost for lunch is $20.

If you don't want to pay for lunch at the lodge, you can make use of Le Relais Day Use Shelter.  It's open while the Lodge is open and day guests are welcome to go in, light a fire, and eat their lunch.

Photo from our 2006 trip into Lake O'Hara

Another photo showing a typical winter scene at Lake O'Hara
Le Relais Day Shelter on a previous trip