Thursday, July 7, 2011

June 11, 2011 - Ziplining

Yesterday we moved from Tobermory to Meaford, Ontario, and set up camp at the county park in town. It’s right on the water, and has a great day use area for families with a playground, picnic tables, swimming area, and a snack bar. Also free Wi-Fi at your site.

Today is the climax of our trip: a treetop walk and ziplining tour. Our tour starts at 11:00 AM in nearby Collingwood at Scenic Caves Nature Tours, but we need to be there a half hour early for orientation and paperwork.

The waiver warns us of the dangerous nature of the activity we are about to undertake, including, but not limited to: sprains and strains, slips and falls, cuts and bruises, running into or falling onto rocks, trees, or other members of our party, or being impaled on tree limbs and/or plunging screaming to our deaths should we decide to jump from the suspension bridge or treetop walkways. It further warns us that tours are not cancelled due to inclement weather, with the exception of lightning, and we acknowledge that we might get rained on, or the view might be obscured by fog, or we might get sunburned, and we further acknowledge that we have come equipped with appropriate clothing and footwear, and acknowledge that we will not be allowed to hike wearing flip-flops or swim fins or spike heels or snowshoes. Small cameras and packs are acceptable, but large backpacks or bulky items or babes in arms are not permitted, and if in doubt ask your guide whose decision is final so there. We will not be permitted to take the treetop walk using a walker or crutches or if we are blind or carrying oxygen tanks or only have one leg or must be carried by another person. We must be able to understand English and pay attention to the guides at all times and will be instructed in the correct and safe usage of all that clanking junk we have hanging off us. Further, we will be expected to demonstrate our understanding of and ability to use said junk before being allowed to participate in the tour. Also, we agree to release and hold harmless all people involved in the tour in the event of injury due to acts of God, equipment failure, short attention span, or our own stupidity. If you understand and agree to all items in this document and your eyes have not glazed over yet, sign here and initial here, here, and here. Have fun!

Okay, I embellished a bit for (hopefully) comedic effect, but the waiver was quite long and pretty comprehensive. Seriously, they’re serious here. They check all the equipment for damage and/or defects every day, and the guides at each end of the ziplines constantly communicate with each other to avoid an accident. If they’re not within hearing range of each other, they use their radios to make sure everyone’s clear on what’s going on and they don’t send people zipping to their death. They can contact the base by radio if needed, and they have all the equipment to handle emergency situations, such as lowering someone to safety should they become unconscious. So I’m really not worried.

Once we arrive we’re herded together with the rest of our group, 14 total, and fitted with chest and waist harnesses, helmets, carabiners, pulleys, trolleys, and lanyards. On top of all that, some of us have small camera bags and fanny packs. After gearing up we waddled over to the scales so our weights could be recorded.  There’s a 250 pound limit.

The first part of the tour is the suspension bridge. While we take in a panoramic view of Georgian Bay, our guides point out significant features and give us a brief history of the area. All the while, the wind whips in from the bay and the bridge sways. We are assured that the bridge is grossly over-engineered and completely safe. It’s around 1000’ above ground and stretches almost 500 feet over a protected forest. Since they were not allowed to use any heavy equipment in the forest during the construction of the bridge, an archer was hired to shoot a line across the gorge. Using this thin tracer, they attached and pulled across successively heavier cables until they were able to begin construction. Pretty sneaky, I’d say.

Next is the treetop walk. This is a series of 10 inch wide spans that vary from 20 to 60 feet above ground, allowing you to look down at the forest canopy below while you walk. There are 14 spans in all, totaling about 1000 feet in length. They’re suspended from thin cables and attached to the trees at each end by wide straps wrapped around the trunks. Nothing is attached permanently to the trees, and we’re asked to limit the number of people on each span to 3 at any one time to minimize trauma to the trees. Also, to help reduce trauma to the tress, not to mention each other, don’t be an ass and bounce up and down on the walkway spans. Thank you.

But before we begin, we must go through “ground school”, where we’re given instructions on the proper use of our safety gear. Each of us has two lanyards, attached to our chest harnesses at one end and fitted with carabiners at the other end.  There’s 4 “spans” mocked up at ground level with trees between each span, just like the real walkway overhead. There are two safety cables overhead running along the walkway, and our mission is to demonstrate that we understand the proper way to clip and unclip from them whenever we come to a tree. The critical point here is that you must always have one lanyard connected at all times as you go by each tree, so you must press the safety release on one of the carabiners, remove it from the overhead cable, reach around the tree, and attach it to the cable on the other side. Then, and only then, do you remove the second carabiner attached to the other lanyard, and attach it to the other safety cable on the other side of the tree. Plus we’re encouraged to use the buddy system to keep an eye on each other as we make our way around the walkway. The lanyards are short enough so that even if you were to slip and fall completely off the overhead walkway, you’d only fall about a foot or so before you came to an abrupt and bone jarring stop.

Once we’ve all demonstrated our competency, we head up the curiously designed steps to the beginning of the treetop walk. I say curiously designed because the handrail only comes up above the steps about a foot or so. Perfect if your inseam measures 16 inches, but for all others pretty useless.

Treetop Walk
Once we get up into the walkway you begin to hear a lot of stuff like “holy crap” and “nyaaahh” and “oops” and lots of giggling. Most of us, but unfortunately not all of us, quickly catch on to the fact that you can’t walk in sync with the others that occupy your particular span. If you do, the walkway will begin to bounce, and as mentioned earlier, that makes you an ass.

At the end of the walk we get back to ground level via our first short zipline, around 300’ in length. This part of the tour is meant to weed out the meek before the grand finale, so if you’ve recently discovered that perhaps this whole treetop zipline thing isn’t your cup of tea, there’s an escape ladder to take you back to ground level, or winches and cables to lower you down if you’ve lost consciousness and a tractor and wagon to take you back to base.

If you’re still a “go” at this point, the guides give you some brief instructions, hook your lanyards and pulleys to the zipline, and if you’re still hesitant, they put their foot in the middle of your back and push you off into space. No, not really. They’re very good at telling you what to expect, giving you tips on how to enjoy the ride down, and assuring you that it’s really safe. There are several strapping fellows at the bottom to help catch you and get you unhooked. So really what they do is loop a short line around your lanyards while you step off into space and take a few seconds to get used to hanging there. They ask you if you’re still OK, and if so, they count to three and then release you. The zipline is a catenary, low in the middle and high on the ends, so you actually zip past the point where you’ll eventually get off and start to go uphill, slowing down and then slowly coming back to the center, where the strapping lads politely grab your legs to bring you to a stop. Then they use a winch to pull the line down to ground level, unhook you, and get ready for the next victim. As people continue to zip down from the overhead walkway, the guides give instructions on how to do stuff like hang upside down or do the “Nestea Plunge (copyright)”, or stick your arms and legs out and spin, or you can just hang on for the love of God and scream like a maniac. It’s all good.

Once we’re all back to ground level, it’s on to the cave tours, where we hike down into the rock formations and learn a bit about the geology of the area and how the caves and crevices were formed. We also learn about the history of the area, for example, how it was used as a strategic choke point for various Indian tribes in the past to slaughter their enemies. At one point we’re given the opportunity to attempt “fat man’s misery,” a crevice only 14” wide at the far end, which I do not attempt – but not because I’m fat. Then up to a precipice for another panoramic view of the Georgian Bay and to the final zipline of our tour.

See ya at the bottom!
This is a 1000 foot line from the top of the Niagara Escarpment back to the base, and quite a lot more complicated than the first zipline. Remember how we all got weighed back at base? Well, this is where it comes into play. This line is so long and steep that if you were to freewheel down like we did earlier, presumably before you got to the bottom you’d reach terminal velocity and risk bursting into flame. So the pulley used here has a built in braking system that’s adjusted according to your weight, limiting you to around 35 MPH, keeping you un-combusted and giving you time to enjoy the spectacular view. Once you’re hooked up, there are three steps that stick out into space, so you just walk right off the end, which tends to go against every instinct in your body. Also, the other end is raised to working height and lowered to allow you to unhook via a hydraulic system, and there’s also a spring loaded brake system to slow you down at the far end.

Again, I stress how safety oriented they are here. Before casting you off into the abyss, the guides contact the base on their radios to see “how the line is running.” Apparently there’s some additional brake compensation that sometimes needs to be dialed in depending on temperature, whether the line is wet or dry, and whether you’ve shown yourself to be a screamer or not previously. They also check to make sure the other end of the line is raised up to the correct height so you don’t inconveniently smack the platform when you arrive, to make sure there’s nobody lounging down there unauthorized on the platform, and to make sure all employees have set down their can of Jeremiah Weed (copyright) and/or Jimmy John’s Sub (copyright) and are ready for you to descend. I’m kidding about the employees. They’re all focused, professional, and polite. Fear not. 

Once I was hooked up and perched out on the edge of the steps of death, the guides told me there was nothing left for me to do but jump. The guides dared me to jump off backwards, so what could I do? The view was spectacular, as promised. I wonder how often they comb through the brush underneath the zipline and collect all the wallets, keys, glasses, cameras, change, etc., that must get dropped.

Beth took video with her pocket camera on the way down while attempting to keep herself in a somewhat upright position too. Press the arrow above to play.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

June 9, 2011 - The Grotto

The weather today is a bit drizzly and gray, so we took our time this morning, had some extra coffee, and scrapped our original plans of taking the Achilles and spending the day out on Flowerpot Island.

Beth at The Grotto
Instead it’s a car trip through the Bruce Peninsula National Park to see the Grotto caves on the shore of Georgian Bay. After stopping to pay the daily admission fee we continued on to the Grotto parking lot, and from there it’s about a 1K walk over an easy trail to the shoreline. The caves themselves can be a bit treacherous to hike down into, especially if it’s been raining and the rocks are slick, but we managed to visit a few. We’re told there’s one that you can access only from about 15 feet underwater.  The fellow that works at the campground says he’s dived on it several times by just holding his breath. Or you can use diving gear. We did neither, just hiked what we could see without getting too wet.  The 800 K Bruce Trail ties into the trails here in the park, and between it and the park’s own trail system, there’s quite a lot to cover. The trails are all well marked with maps at critical intersections.

Small Yellow Lady's Slipper
Bruce Peninsula National Park
There was a group of about 10 young Asian folks at the Grotto while we were there, and I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that they took around ten thousand pictures. They climbed all over the rocks and cliffs, putting themselves into what seemed like some pretty precarious spots so they could take photos of each other making goofy faces. After taking each photo the rest of them would make comments and laugh hysterically. They also tended to move unpredictably, so I have quite a few dramatic landscape shots showing the rugged shoreline formations with one of their heads or an arm sticking into it. 

June 8, 2011 - Port Elgin to Tobermory, Dangerous Mosquitos

We had a tree down right in front of the truck. Fortunately, we were able to move it by ourselves, and no hail damage was done to truck or pod. It’s a good thing they got started clearing trees as early as they had. If they had waited until daybreak I’m not sure we could have gotten out of the park that morning. There were piles of cut wood everwhere along the road, and they were still using a tractor to haul downed trees off the park roads as we left. The park entrance was closed to visitors when we left.

The power was out again, for the second time in three days. Even though, as stated earlier, there’s hundreds of windmills not too far from here, and one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants, Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, is just down the lakeshore a bit. But I guess it only takes the loss of one wire. The Ontario Provincial Police had the main road closed just beyond the park, so luckily we were going the opposite direction. A petrol station in town was running under generator power, so we were able to top off our tank. Shortly after getting back on the road, we passed a convoy of Canadian Hydro (power company) trucks headed back the way we’d come.

We checked in at Land’s End Campground just outside of Tobermory. This is a private park, and very beautiful. The folks there are constantly working on the landscaping and maintaining the grounds. Most of the sites are pretty small, but OK for our purposes. The standard sites are dirt and not that level, but have electrical service and fire pits. The deluxe sites have level gravel pads, power and water, fire pits, and grassy areas to sit. WiFi is available for free if you go to the picnic table just outside the office. If we had been just a tiny bit closer to the office we probably could have gotten online right at the campsite. There’s two shower buildings, a playground, pond, interpretive trail, and a beach across the road. The camp roads are winding and a bit confusing at first, and yes, we managed to get lost inside the park, stuck in one side loop for a while.  I imagined the people at one site saying to each other, “Look at that rPod. Never seen one before, and today I’ve seen four of them!” 

The park is pretty empty right now, but they tell me as soon as school wraps up for the summer, starting next week, they're booked solid all summer long until the schools get back in session.

Flowerpot Island
Tobermory looks very much like it did last time we were here by boat: Craigie’s Fish and Chips is still down by the boat launch, located in a converted White Rose petrol station, and still has succulent whitefish. The Chart Shop is still there by the docks, and most of the little shops are still there too. The Crow’s Nest Bar apparently burned down a while back, but is being rebuilt and is set to reopen in two weeks. Pity, I was looking forward to sitting on the outdoor rooftop patio, drinking a Black & Tan, and staring at the harbor while  the car ferry Chichimaun (Big Canoe) loads and unloads. The service dock and harbormaster’s office have been moved since our last trip there by boat. They used to be way down inside the harbor, causing lots of congestion due to the limited maneuvering room, but they’ve been moved out toward the mouth of the harbor, and things are much less chaotic now.  You can still take the glass bottom boat tour of the shipwrecks in nearby Big Tub Harbor, or a day trip on the giant inflatable Achilles to Flowerpot Island.  Oh well, been there, done that. Tomorrow we’ll see some new sights.

Today we still have time to walk the interpretive trail in the campground before dark, so off we went to get started. Beth had the pamphlet that explained what we were seeing at all the numbered stops along the way. At first, we paused thoughtfully at each station, read the pamphlet and carefully studied the flora and/or geology explained therein. However, as dusk approached, the chiquitos (cross between a mosquito and a chicken) came out and we had to pick up the pace. By the time we got to the end, Beth was in full gallop up ahead, and as she passed an interpretive spot, she would throw out her arm, point, and without breaking stride she’d holler over her shoulder “Wetland!” or “ Glacier Striations!” or “Sinkhole!” as appropriate. I’d holler back “Yep!” or “Okay!” or “Gotcha” and keep running. Once we got out of the woods and got a nice smoky campfire going we were no longer in danger of needing blood transfusions.

June 7, 2011 - Port Elgin and Bad Weather

Today we biked from MacGregor Point park to Southampton, Ontario and back again. The trail from Port Elgin to Southampton is a converted rail trail, very flat and easy, well marked and pretty busy. Beth and I are geocachers, so it took us quite a while to make our way to Southampton, stopping quite often to find and log the caches hidden along the route. Southampton is a lovely town, very tourist-y and friendly, with unique stores, cafes, and coffee shops. We had our lunch down by the shore of Lake Huron underneath the giant Canadian flag in the park, then turned around and headed back to the park, following a different route. The return route is fairly new, and a bit more hilly, and unfortunately, the section in town is not well marked. It’s well worth the risk of getting temporarily lost, though.

The return route takes you through the waterfront park and its marina, band shell, boardwalk, and fabulous beach. Next comes a wooded park with a small gauge railway for the kiddies to ride, picnic tables and pathways, and then on to an absolutely stunning section right down on the lakefront. Like a small scale version of the Pacific Coast Highway, it’s a curving, paved, two lane road following the lakefront, with a refreshing lake breeze and great lake views. Whoever put that section of the trail together, my hat’s off to you. That is without a doubt the prettiest bike trail I’ve ever been on.

By the time we got back to camp we’d covered about 30 miles. I was sore in places I won’t mention in polite company. Also while we were gone, a raccoon had gotten into the trash can we forgot about and left out for his dining pleasure. It also looked like he or she tried to eat a box of  wooden matches.

That night we had several hours of high winds, strobe lightning, and even hail. You can’t believe how loud a hailstorm can be from the inside of an rPod, like wearing a motorcycle helmet while someone pours a bucket of marbles over it. It ended about 3:00 AM, and almost immediately, park personnel were out clearing downed trees. So if the thunder didn’t wake you up, and the hail didn’t wake you up, chances are the chain saws would. 

June 6, 2011 - Port Elgin and Poutine

Today we’ve decided to more thoroughly explore the bike trails in the park. They’re more suited for mountain bikes than road bikes, but all are pretty clear of tree roots and rocks. We did come across a spot or two with recently downed trees across the trail, but were able to duck under them as we rode. At least Beth was. I didn’t duck quite far enough and ended up putting a gouge in the top of my bike helmet.  Plus for a few minutes afterwards everything sounded sort of echo-ey, like I had fallen down the well.

Just across the road from the park is the beginning of a very nice, flat, easy trail.  It’s about a 20 minute ride into Port Elgin. After exploring town a bit by bike we decided to stop for a bite at a local diner. I had a hankerin’ for fish and chips, so I scanned that section of the menu, and while noting the various combos one can put together when ordering their fish, I had an episode of déjà vu.

The menu said that you could have either chips, fries, or “poutine” with your fish. I saw poutine on the menu board at a Canadian McDonald’s earlier in our trip, and filed it away in the back of my mind for later investigation. So now here it was again. This is no coincidence. It must be a popular regional delicacy, like Pennsylvania Scrapple, New England Chow Mein Sandwich, or Alaskan Akutaq. Or maybe it was a seasonal thing best eaten fresh, like morel mushrooms, baby asparagus, or rhubarb. It was time to get to the bottom of this mystery. Too embarrassed to ask the waitress, I Googled poutine. Turns out that it’s “french fries with brown gravy and cheese curds.” So then I had to Google cheese curds.

I love you Canadians, but c’mon. Seriously?

On the other hand, Canadians have a succulent delicacy known as "butter tarts" which we have become familiar with during our previous trips by boat. Butter tarts, in their purest form, are basically brown sugar, flower, and butter. They can be jazzed up with walnuts or other fillings, but we like the untainted plain ones the best. Beth likes to warm them up just a touch in the microwave, but I like them cold. A fair way to describe the taste might be liquid caramel corn. I'm sure they only have around 384,000 calories each, but still, you must buy some to try. Be sure to buy from a baker or local shop. They have them in the grocery stores, but frankly, they just don't cut it. I'm just sayin'.

Pure, untainted butter tarts. Oops, there's two missing!

June 5, 2011 - Home to Port Elgin, Ontario

The Bruce Peninsula of Ontario sticks out into Lake Huron in a northwesterly direction, dividing Lake Huron proper from the Georgian Bay. If you’re got a Michigan road map, you’ll still have no idea what I’m talking about, because the mileage chart always covers this area up. So if you want to actually see it you’ll probably have to Google it. But in short, the western side of Lake Huron is in Michigan and the eastern side is in Canada.

Several times in the last two decades we’ve made the trip by sailboat from Harrisville, MI, across 115 miles of Lake Huron to Tobermory, Ontario to visit the Bruce. Unfortunately, we’ve never gotten very far from the harbor, because after making the 13 hour trip over the water we tended to walk in circles and stumble a bit when our feet first hit land. It was a bit embarrassing, especially if we were anywhere near the Crow’s Nest Pub at the time. Inside sailor humor: we always called it “involuntary tacking” – HA HA HA! Never mind.

Anyway, we’re excited to see the area by rPod. This road trip will be a circumnavigation of the Bruce Peninsula, starting at the southern shore at Port Elgin, travelling west to the very tip at familiar Tobermory, then back east along the north shore to Meaford before heading home.

Crossing the border at Port Huron into Sarnia, Ontario was pretty uneventful, as is usually the case. From there you’re only on the expressway for a short time, then it’s two lane blacktop through lots of rolling farmland and pastures and many small towns. As you get nearer to Port Elgin we saw windmills by the hundreds scattered around the fields, turning slowly and quietly. I personally think they’re neat to look at, and I know most farmers like them in their fields because they’re a source of steady income and very easy to grow.

When we arrived at MacGregor Point Provincial Park in Port Elgin we quickly went through the check-in process and headed for our reserved site. However, when we got there, there were already campers in that site. We were just a bit early, but it was pretty close to checkout time, and there was no sign of anyone about, and it sure didn’t look like any departure preparations were underway. Oh well. There were lots and lots of empty lots, so we headed back to the office to get it straightened out.

Our camp at MacGregor Point park. No worries.
When we explained the situation to the very nice young lady ranger at the office, she checked her computer and told us that our site was supposed to be vacated by now. She proposed calling security and sending them to the site to hustle them along. However, she warned, if there was nobody at the site, security could do nothing, and we would have to wait until they returned and could be give a good stern talking-to. Such enthusiasm! But I had to be a buzz kill, and offered to set up in the empty site next door to them. After checking the computer again, she said that would probably be OK too.

You’re not allowed to bring firewood across the international border, so we headed to the camp store to grab a few bundles, and maybe an ice cream cone before they closed for the day. When we got there we had to wait briefly while they finished getting all the computers, credit card machines, etc., back online. Seem the power to the park had been restored only a short time before we arrived, having been out for over 12 hours. So all the ice cream had melted and had already been tossed out. Aaaarrrgh!

We did have time to unload our bikes and check out a few of the great bike trails in the park. More biking on the agenda tomorrow, but for now it’s time for supper and a campfire, so SWMBO can make s’mores. I will go out on a limb here and publicly admit that I don’t really care for s’mores. I like all their components individually just fine, but put them all together, and it’s like, “meh.”

Monday, December 6, 2010

Aug 18, 2010 - End of UP Tour - Home Again

First thing this AM the little guy from the camp next door jumped on his bike, looked back over his shoulder, and yelled to an unseen somebody at the top of his little lungs, “I gotta go to the bathroom!” Then off he zoomed in the direction of the bathhouse. Seconds later a lady from their camp walked into view and said to us, “Well, so much for peace and quiet, huh?”

We told her we didn’t mind. It seemed like the kids were having fun. Shaking her head, she followed with, “Well, I’m the grandma, and I’m not sure I’m going to make it!” Turns out the HHR was hers, and she was looking pretty hard at our rPod, wondering out loud if her vehicle could pull it, because it might be just the ticket for her. All by herself.

Then it was time to pack and head on home. We took a different route back to the Xway to avoid that nasty washboard road we took on the way in. On the way home we passed an Airstream trailer being pulled by a Lincoln Blackwood pickup truck. Sheesh. Those two things together are probably worth more than my house is right now. I’m not even sure you could call that camping.

We plan to come back to da UP next winter and snowshoe back into some of the frozen waterfalls and ice caves, and maybe next summer to take a shipwreck tour of Grand Island, and get some more waterfall and lighthouse viewing in.