Saturday, March 30, 2013

Winter Glamping - Not for the Faint of Heart

Our annual winter backpacking trip into Elk Lakes Provincial Park in British Columbia is becoming an anticipated family tradition with us.  We made our first family trip to the Alpine Club of Canada's Elk Lakes Cabin last April on a cold and snowy weekend that felt more like February than April.  Last year we chose to snowshoe, not knowing what conditions would be like in April for skiing, but this year we decided to ski the 9km to the cabin - and go in a little earlier in the ski season.  We planned the trip for Mid March, hoping it would be a warm weekend and that we would be able to sit on the sunny deck in the afternoon, sipping hot chocolate and Baileys while watching the kids play in the snow outside the cabin.  We gathered 4 other families to come with us, 14 people in total, and 6 children under the age of 5.  We would pull the kids to the hut in sleds and bring along toddler sized skis and snowshoes for exploring when we got there.  

That was the plan. 

However, plans change and by the day of the trip we were down one family due to a sore back that wouldn't permit carrying a heavy pack while pulling a 4 year old in a sled for hours.  Still, we had 5 children and 4 families total - it was going to be a blast.  Then,the trip leader got sick - yep, ME.  I got so sick on my way home from Mexico that I spent 24 hours in bed right before the ski trip and knew I'd never make it to the cabin.  I convinced my husband to go without me and to take on the role of fearless trip leader so that our son could still spend the night in his favourite camping house.  It would be their first father-son trip into the mountains for an overnight adventure.  How would it go?

And, that's where my trip report ends.  After all, I was at home in bed during the ski into the cabin and spent most of the weekend passed out on the sofa.  Fortunately I convinced one of my friends to finish the story for you.  Her report is below.  I hope you enjoy it!  I've also added her photos to the story.  Thanks Jen so much for sharing with us.

Winter Glamping - Not for the Faint of Heart

The Elk Lakes Cabin

I must say I felt a little uneasy about our overnight back country ski trip into Elk Lakes Cabin with 3 other families when driving from Calgary in -13 degree Celsius blizzard conditions. This would be our family's first back country ski trip with a young child that was remotely close to winter camping. You could call it winter "glamping" as we would ski into a back country cabin that possessed most of the modern hut amenities. We would not have to set up, carry a tent and camping gear. The trip would entail a 9.2 km back country ski into Elk Lakes Cabin towing over 300 lbs. in gear and kids amongst 4 families, 2 of which were single parenting for the trip. This was definitely not a trip for the faint of heart, as carrying heavy loads, tons of fresh snow and cold temperatures would make for very slow and arduous conditions.

Greta pulling her two kids up the Elk Pass ski trail in a double chariot

The Elk Lakes Cabin in BC can be accessed from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Alberta by parking in the Elk Lakes Parking lot and skiing the 5 km track set trail up to Elk Lakes Pass. From there you can take the power line down the other side of the pass into British Columbia if the conditions are good . Another option is to take the switchback maintenance road which also descends the pass to the cabin. You then head 100 meters west at the bottom where you see the sign for Elk Lakes Provincial Park.

Mark pulling his son in a pulk up to Elk Pass
Brielle and her double chariot carrying her daughter and all of her gear

As our family waited for the others to arrive, we hoped everyone would brave the storm. Of the interested 14 people, kids included, 11 managed to make it out for our big adventure. Unfortunately Tanya the organizer of our ski trip was laid up with the Mexican flu and regrettably could not join us. The other family of 2 was also unable to make it out.

Making the trip to the cabin

The composition of our group consisted firstly of a family of 4 who were pulling the ultra heavy double chariot with ski attachment, 100 lbs plus with their 2 children. They were on metal edge cross country skis without skins. Another mom with her daughter left their younger family member and husband at home. She also pulled a double chariot while on cross country skis with skins. Tanya's husband on alpine touring gear with skins, pulled a pulk with all their gear and son, probably 80 lbs. plus. Lastly, our family on metal edge cross country skis pulled a pulk with gear and our 3.5 year old daughter with a tow rope. This was appearing to be more like an expedition as opposed to a leisurely back country ski.

Ashley towing his daughter down the power line to the cabin

If there is one word to describe our successful back country ski trip it is definitely TEAMWORK. The team work started in the parking lot and continued until we arrived back at our snow covered cars over 24 hours later. When everyone arrived and started organizing their gear, one of our party noticed that they had forgotten the pin to their chariot poles. We had to use the hook on a bungee cord to secure the pole. Another party had forgotten their son's ski jacket.  Luckily, we had brought an extra kid's jacket, the right size and color brown for the only boy on the trip. Coincidentally it was the same family that forgot their son's mittens on last year's Elk Lakes Ski trip. I won't mention names ;-) - (but, editor's note here, I will.  Yes, it was my husband that forgot the jacket.  And me that forgot the mittens last year.  Can't wait to see what we forget next year.)

Trail Break

Teamwork was put into play again as we made our way up to Elk Pass. The 5km trail up to Elk Pass was fairly straightforward and track set. The heavy double chariot, however, could not make it up the steep hills without help pushing it from behind. The chariot and pulk with the kid riders could be pulled up with skins, but without skins the same help pushing would have been required.

Push and Pull - Team Work

Once we reached the second rest stop at the top of the pass we had a quick lunch at a picnic table. A bit hurried we then plodded on as there was quite a wind chill with the cold temperatures and we were worried the kids would get too cold, not mentioning the adults.

One of the rest stops

With wonderful powder ski conditions we followed the powerline down from the pass. Additional challenges were keeping the heavy kid laden pulks and chariots from tipping over on some side slopes. My daughter and husband also had frequent stops as she made a game out of dropping the rope and playing in the snow. Through the tough trail breaking and lots of sweat and calories burned, we managed to arrive at the cabin.

Final push to the cabin
Arriving at the cabin

Once in the cabin, the kids settled in by running around playing upstairs in the loft jumping on the cushions followed by running around the stairwell playing tag. The adults went to work doing the usual hut chores starting a fire, chopping wood, hanging wet clothes, fetching water from the creek, and making sure the kids were still in one piece. Once we settled in, the adults could relax as the kids played with glow sticks, read books and colored on wipeable doodle cards. We enjoyed a gourmet dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce, garlic bread and a green bean side dish, all being extra tasty after a long hard ski; and the kids loved it too. Once the dishes were done the adults and kids were so tired we all went to bed at the same time - quite early indeed. The cabin sleeps 14 adults comfortably in an upstairs loft, so we had plenty of room to spread ourselves and gear out without being too close to others. There is also a room downstairs with a bunk bed.

Story Time
Meal time at the cabin
After a somewhat restless sleep, the adults packed up while the kids went outside to burn off some more energy. The kids had a blast making snow angels and playing in an existing snow fort. They also did a little of their own snowshoeing and cross country skiing. 

Junior Skier
Playing in a snow fort
Three of the girls playing in the snow

The journey back to the cars was also not without challenges, as one of the members had flu-like symptoms and nausea so we swapped gear to make his load lighter at times. We initially opted to take the less steep switch back trail and then connect with the power line trail half way up. With all of our team work ie. breaking trail in knee high snow, pushing the chariots up the steep sections, swapping gear amongst the parties to make the load easier; we managed to make it back to the cars not so worse for wear. We suffered from some bruised hips, blisters, and minor fatigue, but happy we survived a winter back country trip with kids. I think for all of us it was a memorable trip as friendships grew stronger and we had delight in seeing the kids have so much fun "winter camping in the big cabin." The kids still had lots of energy to play hide and seek and slide down the snow banks in the parking lot until the final cleanup and car packing was accomplished with everyone feeling quite tired but fulfilled!

Elk Pass in the sunshine
Noah and the girls
Playing in the parking lot

I'm sure next years back country trip will look quite different as the kids have almost outgrown their pulks and chariots. A few members of the party mentioned this would be their last long back country trip pulling  kids in a sled, but also mentioned fond memories of their previous trips with the kids. I think we all agreed that we are determined to get our kids skiing and not just going along for the ride for future trips! 

A Look at the future

I want to say thanks to Jen for writing this awesome story.  If you want to see more stories from Jen in the future please leave comments for her below.  She is one heck of an outdoor mom and we are blessed to have met their family through our Outdoor Play group. 

Jen and her daughter on the ski trip
All photos and story courtesy of Jen Sollid. 

To read more about our adventures in Elk Lakes Provincial Park, check out the story I wrote last April, 2012 - Snowy Adventures in Elk Lakes Provincial Park 

I also wrote on the topic for Keen Canada on their new Canadian Outdoor Adventures website and you can read the story here - Spring Backpacking with Kids 

Finally,  I have a feature story in the spring edition of the Alpine Club of Canada's Gazette Magazine right now titled "Family Shares Adventures at Elk Lakes Cabin."

As you can see, it has been a favourite subject of mine to write about.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Spring Hiking With Your Family in Kananaskis

Easter's coming and it's a three or four day weekend for most families.  If you have school aged kids, chances are good they are already on Spring Break - and maybe even driving you crazy by now.  Below is one of my top suggestions for where to get out and hike during the break or over the weekend.

Spring Hiking on the Beaver Flats Trail

 The Beaver Flats Interpretive Trail, Elbow Valley

This 1.5 km out and back trail is guaranteed to fascinate small children with its string of ponds and beaver dams connected by an enchanting creek that you'll follow the length of the hike.  When Highway 66 from Bragg Creek is open past Elbow Falls you'll be able to park right at the Beaver Lodge trailhead.  Before May 15th however, you'll have to park at the winter closure gate which is located right at the driveway down to Elbow Falls.  Total hiking distance from the gate is roughly 4km return, 400 metres of which you'll do at the beginning and again at the end as you walk the snow covered highway to the trailhead. 

Snowshoes  Not Necessary
We did this hike just today at the end of March with 9 toddlers and preschoolers.  We took a couple sleds for the road (not really necessary), snowshoes (which we left at the trailhead realizing they were pointless), and ice cleats (which would have been useful had we actually have worn them.) We didn't make it the full distance to the Beaver Flats Campground at the other end because each pond became increasingly more interesting with the children and we finally just decided to let them play rather than push for distance.  

The kids entertained themselves tossing rocks and snow into the water

If you have children that like to be IN the water rather than looking AT the water, make sure you bring appropriate clothing and rubber boots.  The creek and ponds would be a lot of fun to play in on a warm sunny day as today was.  

Directions in a nutshell:
  • Drive to Bragg Creek from Calgary

  • Head South for a few kilometres on Hwy 22 from Bragg Creek at the four way stop

  • Turn right (west) onto Hwy 66 into Kananaskis and towards Elbow Falls

  • Drive about 18km, passing the Allen Bill Pond Day use area, and arrive at the road closure right above the Elbow Falls Day Use Area. 

  • Hike along the highway for 400m until you see the sign for the Beaver Lodge pull out.  An arrow directs you down off the highway and onto the trail

For a map of the area, visit the Alberta Parks website. (link goes directly to the Beaver Flats Trail)




Need more suggestions for early spring hikes that are safe and fun to do with snow still lingering on the ground?  The following trips are all excellent choices for late March and April. 

A sunny trail through Hay Meadows takes you to the frozen Troll Falls. Lots of fun can be had along the Kananaskis River as well as at the falls.  The trail starts near Ribbon Creek, just below Kananaskis Village.

Read More in this new story from 2018: The NEW Hiking Trail to Troll Falls and the Upper Falls, Kananaskis

Troll Falls, Ribbon Creek

This easy hike follows the Elbow River below the Paddy's Flat Campground. Little bridges and creek crossings guarantee the hike to be a success with small children.

Before May 15th you'll have to park at the campground gate and hike through the closed campground to reach the trail.  It adds a bit of distance but if you go before the snow melts, you can take a sled if you want.   

Paddy's Flat Interpretive Trail in Spring

7 bridges and a hidden waterfall - what's not to like?  In fact, I challenge you to reach the end of this hiking trail with small kids.  There's so much water to play in you'll likely only get half way at most before your family decides they just want to play in the creek, throw rocks in the water, or even spend an hour scrambling on small boulders.

Expect some lingering snow early season, a lot of water, and some icy sections.  Cleats, yak trax or icers are always a good idea when spring hiking.  

Heart Creek Trail in Spring

You'll follow a narrow path above the Kananaskis River that's barely wide enough for a family to walk single file above the slalom canoe course beside you.  For an alternate path, you can stay above the river with small children and stick to the trees - much safer.

Either way, you will find secret little spots that take you down to the river complete with small waterfalls and picnic tables.  It's the perfect trip for a warm spring day outing.  

Widow Maker Trail in late March

 I'll see you on the trails this weekend.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Family Friendly Mexico

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

It's been long bothering me that while we travel all over the Canadian Rockies, we haven't been out of the country for over a year.  It's been a goal of mine since getting married that we would board an airplane and go somewhere new and exotic once a year.  Since having a child however, it's gotten a tad harder to save up for these vacations, to make them a priority, and actually execute a big trip.  In 2011 we compromised and drove to Washington in the United States for our summer vacation.  Technically, while we didn't use an airplane, we were still out of the country.  We played and camped by the ocean in Olympic National Park, hiked in Mount Rainier National Park, explored Seattle and felt like we had discovered and explored new territory.  It was an awesome vacation but it's still seemed like a long long time since 2010 when we did take an airplane to travel to both Maui and Puerto Vallarta Mexico while our son was still flying for free.  We took full advantage of that, knowing it would be a while before we could afford to pay for all three of us to go somewhere again.  3 years later, buried under mounds of snow in Calgary with no glimpse of spring in sight, we decided it was time to throw caution into the wind and take that next airplane ride to someplace warm and sunny.  Affordable would have to be the key word in the vacation planning and we knew we wanted water.  Lots and lots of water!

Water!  Lots and lots of water!
The Tesoro Resort, Manzanillo
Manzanillo Mexico pretty much jumped into my lap one day while going through emails when I noticed a travel special being advertised through Transat Holidays.  For a very reasonable price we'd be able to fly to Mexico for a week, enjoy the all inclusive benefits of the Tesoro Resort, and hopefully remind our Vitamin D starved bodies what sun felt like.  While only rated with 3.5 stars, I know from previous experience that the rating of a hotel does not define how much fun a person will or won't have.  What I was looking for was a resort that would excel in family friendly amenities, provide plenty of yummy food my son would eat (read:  pasta, french fries and hot dogs),  and concern itself with our safety so I could focus on the fun part of relaxing.  The awesome Mexican food I ate all week was definitely a bonus!  Tortillas and Chilaquiles for breakfast anybody?  Yes, please. 

There were several things that I was looking for in children's amenities and the Tesoro Resort in Manzanillo knocked most of them out of the park in the best way possible. Mostly, I wanted a really good water park for the kids with slides, a shallow swimming pool and maybe a splash park.
The Kid's Club at the Tesoro Resort, Manzanillo
The Toddler Pool
While the resort didn't have a splash park with fountains and buckets of water dumping on you, it more than made up for the absence with water slides and shallow swimming pools.  The Kid's Club had a shallow pool (knee deep for the average 5 year old) with 6 water slides spilling out into it.  I loved that I didn't need to supervise my son at the bottom of each slide as he came down and that he was never in danger of drowning as he landed in the water each time.  Most of the slides slowed down as they approached the water and older kids added more challenge by riding tubes down the biggest slide.  There was also a toddler wading pool within the Kid's Club gates and it had its own small water slide that would have easily entertained a two year old for hours.  

Kid's Water Park
The Kid's Club was stocked with water and sand toys as well as provided a quiet room in which to do puzzles, play games or watch a video out of the heat.  It was a great place and we spent hours there every day.  A tennis court was located right beside the club so school-aged kids could  learn to play tennis during the day with Kid's Club staff members.  A mini-golf course was also found within the gates and clubs could be signed out for a short game.  Finally, there was a small playground that consisted of some swings and an area for climbing up ropes or running across a little rope bridge.

Hole in One

Just about to hit the water...
My only complaint with the Kid's Club was that according to the resort's website and all travel information I read, the club is intended for kids ages 3 to 12.  This led me to believe me that I would be able to leave my son there for supervised play during the day.  That is at least how a Kid's Clubs operate at other resorts I've stayed at.  Meanwhile at the Tesoro Resort, you definitely wouldn't be able to leave any child under the age of maybe 8 or 9 there unsupervised.  There were times when I didn't see a single staff person inside the club and if the attendant was playing tennis with older kids, there would often be nobody supervising the pool. We did see a few kids left there to play on their own but they were older school-aged kids who would know where to find their parents if they needed help.  In the end, it didn't ruin our vacation, and we just stayed there to play with our son, met other families, and then even joined new friends for dinner in the evening.

Playground in the Kid's Club
The second area of the resort we spent a lot of time at was the main swimming pool with its adjoining kid's pool.  The pool was the perfect depth for my son to make running feet-first jumps into, over and over until I was sure he must have consumed half of the pool based on the frequency with which we were taking him to the bathroom. This pool was a hotspot for local Mexican families and so we had plenty of opportunity to practice our Spanish.  It quickly became apparent that my son's ability to count to 10 was not quite enough to actually make a friend (though it did impress the moms).  More lessons I guess.

The Main Pool and Adjoining Kid's Pool
Jumping into the Kid's Pool

Jumping into the big pool with Grandma who travelled with us
We brought a life jacket with us and were grateful for it in the main pool which had no shallow end to it.  The pool had a swim-up bar (with a counter on the deck as well) which served us well as a family.  They were never short on orange juice and provided filtered water to drink.  If your child likes apple juice be warned that there was none on the property that we could find.  Maybe it isn't a common drink in Mexico? 

The Pool area on a busy weekend day

Water Babe!
Also, on the topic of drinks for kids, families might want to know in advance that the resort is very short on straws!  If your child needs one, bring a sippy cup with you or bring a package of straws in your suitcase (and share with all the other families there too). We did bring a special cup with us but had to cart it around with us all day or else use coffee stir sticks for a straw - which in a pinch worked.

Quiet Afternoon at the Pool
Playing on the Beach
Finally, no beach resort is complete without, well, a beach!  We didn't make use of the beach as much as we could have because we found the sand to be very hot during the day and unfortunately many guests chose to use it as their personal ash tray.  It's pretty disgusting to watch your son try to make a sand castle out of cigarette butts - really, he could have!  We didn't find much shade on the beach as well and the few chairs with umbrellas were always occupied by the time we got down there to play.  However, that didn't stop us from playing in the sand a bit each day, braving the waves to approach the ocean, and even taking out the kayaks.  

Sand Angel
My Pook and I
My First Time Kayaking
Kayaking at the resort was the highlight of the week for this paddling girl!  I was sad that the resort didn't offer any other water sports that would have been perhaps more family friendly but I did convince the guys on the beach to let me take my son out with me in a kayak for 15 minutes one day which was nice of them considering the minimum age for using the boats was 13.  It was confusing during my first few days at the resort to actually figure out how to borrow a kayak because I just assumed everybody working on the beach was trying to sell sunset and snorkel tours.  When I actually approached one of the tents though to talk to some of the guys, I finally figured out that I could just ask to take a kayak whenever I wanted and the process was pretty simple.  Weather was the only factor that occasionally turned me back because they'd only let you take the boats out on calm days.  There didn't seem to be any rules for how far or long you could take out the boats and the men were awesome at helping you get out over the first waves as well as pulling you back in again at the end. 

Riding a small wave to shore
Paddling with my son
Our beach wasn't the best swimming beach and had a fairly strong undertow.  The waves coming in were small but had a large break very close to shore that was too powerful for small children.  The water also dropped off over my head within a few feet of shore which intimidated me from trying to take my son into the water with me to swim.  Fortunately, he was content to play in the waves as they lapped safely against the shore and to play in the sand.  For swimming we had plenty of other options and didn't really suffer.

Playing in the water
Holding a sea turtle at El Tortugario
We had a fabulous time in Mexico and we definitely made sure we got off the resort property a couple of times to explore the real Mexico.  You can't really say you visited another country if you just cloister yourself amongst the safe walls of a protected resort and fail to see where the local people live, eat and shop.  We chose to first visit El Tortugario, a sea turtle sanctuary located about 30 min. south of Manzanillo.  I fell in love with sea turtles when we were in Maui a few years ago and couldn't pass up the opportunity to maybe help release some baby turtles to the sea or even hold one.  While we didn't get to release any on this visit, we did at least get to hold a baby turtle and touch some of the big ones.  

While at the sanctuary we also got the opportunity to take a 45 minute jungle cruise through a mangrove forest.  I could have sworn I was back in Costa Rica!  While on the boat ride we looked for crocodiles and exotic birds and while we only found one baby crocodile, we did see plenty of interesting water birds.  The boat ride alone was enough to entertain a child who thought he was in a real jungle!

Dream come true Moment

Mangrove Boat Tour
The tour was a great first choice for our family and allowed us to explore the state of Colima and the seaside village of Cuyutlan.  I liked knowing that our admission to the Tortugario also helped with the protection of sea turtles and their eggs.  The only thing that could have been added to the tour would have been lunch in a local restaurant.  I would have enjoyed more time to explore the local village and to eat at an authentic cafe rather than returning to the resort's buffet.  Next time...

Visiting the Beach in Cuyutlan
Chasing pigeons downtown Manzanillo
For our second adventure off the resort, we chose to do a sightseeing tour of Manzanillo so that we could actually say we had seen the town of Manzanillo beyond the resort.  We did some shopping at a lovely arts and crafts market on Miramar Beach and thoroughly enjoyed our time downtown exploring in our own unique way.  While the rest of the  tourists on our bus were exploring the shopping mall downtown, we spent 45 minutes chasing pigeons around the waterfront plaza.  My son was in absolute heaven!  I had no idea he could be entertained with something so simple as a few dozen birds.  It was a fun half day trip and had we have done the tour earlier in the week, I feel confident that we would have felt comfortable to take a local bus or taxi downtown to explore on our own. 

Downtown Manzanillo
Here pigeon pigeon....
We had a great time in Mexico and found it to be a very family friendly vacation destination.  We still had to come home to snow and winter is long from over I'm sure (despite the fact we just celebrated the first day of spring), but it was nice to get away for a week and see how the other half of the world lives without blizzards and ice. 

The view from our room
This was our view every morning from our hotel room on the 14th floor of the Tesoro Resort. Paradise doesn't get much sweeter than this, does it?

Happy, happy, happy

And this was the smile I got to look at all day long for a week.  He never stopped smiling, laughing, and running - the whole time!  I actually think I lost weight in Mexico just from chasing him the whole time.  He ran steady from breakfast till dinner until he pretty much flopped into his pasta during dinner each night.  No surprise we never got to take in any of the evening entertainment at the resort.

Sunset in Mexico
While normally Daddy would have travelled with us, this trip was a nice opportunity to bond with my son and spend more time with him one on one. Tesoro means treasure in English and we certainly did treasure our moments in Mexico. We treasured the laughter, the fun, the meals together, and the sunsets.

Sunset over the Cove of La Audiencia, Manzanillo
Final sunset at Tesoro, Mexico
Sadly, we had to say goodbye and come home so I took this final photo below on my last night in Mexico to remind me of the magic I felt each evening as I walked around after dinner, in the stillness of the warm evening as I listened to waves crashing below me on the beach.  It feels like an eternity away already.

 If you found this travel story interesting, I hope you will please consider taking a quick second to cast a vote my way for the Big Blog Exchange, sponsored by Hostelling International.  If chosen, I will get to exchange lives and blogs with another blogger somewhere in this big incredible world for 10 days this June on an all expenses paid trip of a lifetime.  You only have to vote once and you'll receive a confirmation email within a few minutes to verify your vote.

Disclaimer:  The Tesoro Resort did not sponsor our vacation or pay for this post. As always, all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.