Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Cross country skiers love Mount Washington’s “Far East” trail for good reason

by Keith and Heather Nicol
       When we ask Mount Washington skiers what cross country ski trail they prefer they often say “Lake Trail” or “Far East”.  Both trails have much to recommend them but Far East is abit more forgiving in terms of required skills so might appeal to abit larger audience.  Lake Trail is classed as a black diamond or difficult while Far East is classed as a blue square or of moderate difficulty. Depending on your route around the “Ponds” , Far East is roughly 11 km long so makes for a nice workout. To access Far East you need to follow the Ponds to Paradise Meadows to Jackrabbit Link to reach the 4.5 km Far East loop. We usually go around it in a counter clockwise fashion since some the steep twisting hills as easier skied going down and and the long gentle uphill return slope can often be rhythmically skated or strided.

Be sure to have a good snowplow for this trail
       On Tuesday, March 13 the forecast was not looking good- showers turning to rain. But when we got up to Raven Lodge there was no rain and the sun was even popping in and out of the clouds. It looked like weather was coming but if we got going quickly we could take advantage of the fast snow for skating and perhaps not get rained on. We also ran into our friend Doug Rose in the lodge and he was thinking like us—lets get in a quick ski before we the weather system arrives. We were some of the first people to lay down skate tracks on the firm corduroy skating lane and we one skated and two skated our way to Far East. 
You will use all your skating techniques on this trail-- Doug offsets up a a hill
Once on Far East the hills get abit more serious and we had to employ a solid snow plow and had lots of places to do quick step turns around corners. One of the nice aspects of Far East is that you get a chance to use a variety of techniques to get you around the trail. We also like to open aspect of Far East and it is one of the only cross country ski trails at Mount Washington to give you views of the ocean and mountains on the BC mainland.  Turns out we timed it well since the showers started only as we headed back to the lodge over the final 2 km of trail. Overall we were gone for 1 hour. So this time of year-watch the weather forecast but we aware that it is often wrong so check the web cams and current weather at Mt Washington to see what is really doing. You might get in an unexpectedly good ski.  For more information see: https://www.mountwashington.ca/
We love the distance views of the ocean and mountains

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Sea Kayaking with dozens of sea lions at Pt Holmes near Courtenay, B.C.

by Keith and Heather Nicol
    On Thursday, March 8 we attended a dinner party and one of the hosts Guy Wassick mentioned that he had seen many rafts of sea lions off Pt Holmes that day while driving along Lazo Road. We had been out to that area earlier in the week looking for evidence of herring spawning and the buzz of wildlife activity that occurs with that but had seen nothing at Pt Holmes, Air Force Beach or Kye Bay.  So with this new information we headed out to checking things out on Friday morning and sure enough we could see many congregations of sea lions with their fins in the air and some groups were noisily barking. Curiously we saw no other activity that we knew was associated with herring spawning like gulls squawking and eagles swooping but it is always fun to see large groupings of sea lions so we headed back to the house to get our sea kayaks.  
Heather paddling slowly toward a group of sea lions
The water was flat calm and the boat launch at Pt Holmes made it easy to launch. We could see several rafts of sea lions just off shore so paddled off toward the closest grouping.  Sea lions use their flippers for thermoregulation and in this grouping we could see a mass of flippers, tails and heads. Biologists think they use the flippers to gather the sun’s energy and then this is heat is transferred to the rest of the animal below the water surface.  Sea lions are also known for their distinctive barking, a sound which carries a long distance across the water. It seems like once one sea lion starts barking it sends others into the barking mode as well.  Most of the sea lions we saw appeared to be California Sea Lions and the males have a distinctive “dome” on the forehead. 
Bring a camera with a telephoto lens - lets you see the mass of fins and heads up close
   We usually give these animals a wide berth since they do have a mouthful of sharp teeth but as far we can determine they never seem to attack kayakers. We would typically paddle within a 100 meters of so and then just sit and watch and often they would come closer. Sometimes they would surface close to us have a quick scan around and then noisy dive under the water. This isn’t too unnerving when they are in front of you but when you hear loud slapping and splashes behind you wonder what is going on. One sea lion seemed intent on sunning his head and swam quite close to us keeping its head above the water the whole time. Then another sea lion came up next to it and fortunately I had my camera out and got a picture of the 2 of them “kissing”. They stayed like that for a few moments before one sea lion let out a snarl and the other one quickly disappeared under the water.  We also saw some sea lions with herring in their mouth as they came to the surface. 
Two sea lions came face to face right in front of us
A paddle boarder also came out to investigate and he got very close to the sea lions. In fact at one point a large group seemed to swim right toward him but since it was 200-300 meters away we couldn’t see exactly how close they were.  Herring season is short lived but is well worth having a look at either from on shore, from a paddle board or from a small boat.  Click on the link to see a video of our outing-  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKZV-q2poPk

A paddleboarder cruises past some sea lions with Lasqueti Island behind

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Returning to Red Mountain Ski Resort was ski down memory lane

 by Keith and Heather Nicol
Michael on top of Granite Mtn

   In late February, 2018 my son and I took a road trip along the Powder Highway to check out Red Mountain and do some cat skiing at Valhalla Powdercats. It had been roughly 50 years since I had skied at Red Mountain and it certainly has changed. When we skied there in 1968 there was a single chair running up Red Mountain and a double extending to the top of Granite Mountain.  There was also a poma lift on the Red Mountain side.  We were there the winter that Nancy Greene won Olympic Gold and Silver at the Grenoble Olympics in 1968 and since Nancy’s home mountain was Red Mountain there was a buzz in the air. There was also a World Cup race in the spring of 1968 at Red Mountain and I recall Jean Claude Killy arrived in a helicopter took his runs and then took off again. Nancy Greene won the Giant Slalom race at Red Mountain before 7000 cheering fans and this was the first World Cup race to be held in Canada!!
Michael checking out the powder on the T bar slope

   Fast forward to the winter of 2018 and it was time to take a return trip to Red Mountain and show my son Michael where we used to ski 50 years ago on wooden skis with screw edges with bear trap non releasable bindings. When we arrived on Saturday, Feb 24 it was sunny and the lift lines were stretched out well before the chairlifts started turning.  We arrived just after 9:00 am and after getting our tickets we opted for the shortest lift line which was at the T bar. That turned out to be a good choice since we had several runs through nice powder snow that had fallen in the last 48 hours. All with no lineups!  After 4 laps on the t-bars we noted that the lift line for the Red Mountain chairlift had diminished so we did several runs on it before turning our attention to Granite and Grey Mountain. There are now 4 ski lifts on this side – 3 on Granite Mountain and 1 on Grey Mountain which was a big change from 50 years ago. We found the snow less deep on this side and mostly skied out and after a few runs here exploring this area we returned to Red Mountain and took a final few runs down the face of Red. This is where the Giant Slalom was set that Nancy Greene raced on and it certainly has not gotten any less challenging.  I can`t imagine skiing it in the equipment of the day back in 1968. We had a post ski beer in ``Rafters`` which has been named one of the best ski bars in Canada by Ski Canada Magazine.  There is a ton of terrain at Red Mountain and we plan to check more of it out on our next visit. For more information see: http://www.redresort.com/   
We found the best snow in the T bar slope

Monday, 5 March 2018

A day with Valhalla Powder Cats reminded us what powder skiing is all about

by Keith and Heather Nicol
Michael (left) and Keith in front of the cat
     On February 25, 2018 son Michael and I had booked a day with Valhalla Powdercats located at South Slocan near Castlegar in B.C.’s  West Kootenays.  We arrived at 7:30 am at their base station where we picked up our avi gear, signed waivers and met our guides for the day. By 8:00 am 24 skiers plus guides were heading out in the Valhalla “Superbus” for the 45 minute drive to the staging area where we boarded 2 snowcats for our day in the rugged Selkirk Mountains.  Thirty minutes later we were outside doing avalanche drills so that we could do a self rescue if necessary. Our head guide for the day was Josh Slootweg who did a fine job of telling what to do at the top of each run and mentioned that any us that wanted a “sportier line” could veer left or right of his tracks to get some air or drop down a steeper slope . Since most of our group were dentists from Bellingham, Washington in their 60’s those “sportier lines” remanded intact!  Our tail guide was Keegan Murphy and he stayed back to help anyone who had lost a ski or accidently made it in to a tree well. “Tree wells are places to avoid and rarely a day goes by that we don’t get someone out so stay with your buddy and don’t lose sight of them when we ski the trees”.  Good advice.
Michel sends up a cloud of powder
     Over all we did 9 runs with typical vertical drops of around 1000-1200 feet. Most of our runs were on north facing runs where the snow was amazingly deep and the terrain steep. This combination meant that we often had to pull to one side to let the loose snow avalanches carry on past us.  The snow on these north slopes was typically knee to waist deep which keep our speed down on the steep slopes. Both Michael and I couldn’t remember when we last skied snow this light and deep. Amazing! 
Da Bench gave us the longest run of the day
 At one point we ventured on to a south facing slope and were immediately into a just buried sun crust which challenged our skiing. “Stick to the trees” Josh told us “although the open slopes are inviting they tend to have the worst crust”. More good advice!  Our longest run of the day was while we had lunch in the cat and it proved to be a real winner in terms of snow. Da Bench offered up 2600 feet of vertical and a great variety of terrain.  One of our favourite runs was Rapture to Barracuda slide path where we had close to 1800 feet of great snow.  Thanks to Josh and Keegan for a great day and for more information check out: https://www.valhallapow.com/   
Keith enjoying the deepest snow he has skied in years.


Saturday, 3 March 2018

Looking for spawning herring on Denman Island

by Keith and Heather Nicol
Heather looking for herring action at Fillongley Park
Saturday, March 3 dawned sunny and calm – a rarity this winter in the Comox Valley.  We knew that this is herring season so we decided to head to Denman Island to check it out. Denman Island is a short 10 minute ferry ride so once we had made the decision to go , we quickly made a lunch, checked the ferry schedule and made the 11:00 am ferry with 15 minutes to spare. We had heard that the area around Fillongley Park was a good spot to view the frenzy that comes when the herring spawn.  Gulls, eagles, seals and sea lions all take advantage of this huge natural buffet that lasts for a short time in late February and early March.  The herring spawn in such large numbers that they colour the water green with the milt from the males. In fact the Hornby and Denman Island Visitor Guide for 2016-17 features an aerial view of this amazing natural phenomenon on their front cover. When we arrived at Fillongley Park we could see lots of gulls offshore and the distinctive barking of sea lions but when we went to the tide line we saw no spawn in the water. Perhaps they were just getting ready. 

Overlooking Chrome Island Lighthouse from our lunch spot
 From there we headed for Boyle Point Provincial Park to do our favourite hike on Denman Island which leads to an elevated view of Chrome Island Lighthouse. Along the way the road winds along the water and we kept our eye out for bird and sea lion activity just offshore but unfortunately didn’t see anything. The trail is easy walking and is about 1 km (one way) so is doable by a wide range of people.  We saw about 15 people doing the trail including a couple of families and the real highlight was looking down on an eagle’s nest at the trail’s end. Two eagles were in the tree (three at times) and since the terrain is steep you can virtually look right down into the nest. There were several photographers snapping picture after picture. With the March sun beating down and we had a perfect lunch seated on a bench overlooking Chrome Island Lighthouse.  Idyllic!  The view of the eagle’s nest is easy to find since you simply take a side trail to the right for 10 or so meters after you reach the end of the trail. Bring binoculars and a camera! If readers do see evidence of the 2018 herring run in the Comox area let us through the comments section below. It should be any day now. 

The lower eagle in the middle is on the next