Monday, November 29, 2010

Dive Dive Dive

3 days 6 dives and my advanced SCUBA certification.  It has been so amazing I can´t even begin to put it into words.  To SCUBA dive is to experience a sort of freedom.  Temporarily free from the need to surface for air, floating weightlessly and able to move in 3 dimensions in a world so diffent from the terrestial happenings. What you aren´t free from though, is the need for good training.  Poor training, or no training, is very bad judgement and has very simple and harsh penalties.  Good training, and following proper procedure makes, on the otherhand, SCUBA diving a safe, highly enjoyable, and highly rewarding activity.  To obtain my Advanced Certification I completed the following adventure dives.

Dive One - Refresher:  I hadn´t dove for 7 years so it only made sense to reaquaint myself with the equipment as well as the 20 skills learned in the Open water Course I did back in ´03.  These skills teach you what to do in case of emergencies, how to avoid emergences, how to deal with equipment issues, and basic techniques like buoyancy control.  It all came back to me surprisingly quickly but I would not have felt comfortable with further dives if I had not taken it.  At the end of the skills my instuctor, Jorgen, and I cruised along the reef checking out the coral, a lobster, loads of fish and a sea spagetti (a type of worm with tenticles)  It felt so good to be back down there.

Dive 2- Underwater Navigator:  This dive teaches general navigation such as natural navigation and compass work underwater.  It was pretty straight forward but it is by no means precise, as elements such as current move you off course very easily.  The importance of paying attention applies just as much as it does on land.  Paying attention to the position and angle of the sun, landscape formations, biological communities, contours on the bottom, maps, and such must be noted as it is easy to become disorientated.  We saw a lot of the same wildlife on this dive with the addition of a hawks bill seaturtle at the end of the dive.

Dive 3 - Underwater Naturalist: You can imagine by the title why this dive appealed to me.  Ecology, ecosystems, and best practices in interacting with marine organisms were discussed.  The dive consisted of me having to identify a number of invertibrates, vertibrates, and plants.  I knew some of them already but had to describe a few, writing down characteristics on a slate to look them up later.  Jorgen showed me all sorts of neat things, the highlight being 2 giant green moray eels, which can reach lengths of 5 feet.  One of the eels was at least that.

Dive 4 - Deep Diver: Open Water Certification, my previous cert and the first in a journey to become a master diver, allows a diver to go to depths not exceeding 18 metres.  The Deep Diver course brought me down to a maximum depth of 30.9 metres.  It was a different world down there with different creatures and differnt light.  Light is filtered out by the water.  Its not just a loss of light but a loss of spectrum.  We brough a colour card with us.  At that depth red is no longer visible.  The dive was short as air supply is used a lot quicker at depth. The gas is compressed, at that depth it is use 4 times faster than at the surface.  This causes some other considerations to deal with.  The air in the tank is compressed normal surface air.  Normal air contains nitrogen which is simply expelled by the body. Breathing condensed nitrogen can cause an intoxicating effect called nitrogen narcosis.  Nitrogen narcosis in itself is not dangerous but the effects can cause a diver to make irrational decissions putting them at risk. Its kind of like being drunk.  The other thing with nitrogen is, again under pressure, in the body it doesn´t come out as fast.  This can cause decompression illness, also known as the benz (or the ben´s if I didn´t follow procedure correctly)  Decompression illness can be very serious and usually requires specialty facilities like a decompression chamber and straight oxygen. The procedure to avoid this illness is straight forward.  A slow asscent with a saftey stop at 5 metres for 3 minutes is required.  Then using a dive computer or chart you figure out how much residual nitrogen is in your body before subsequent dives.

Dive 5: Underwater Photography:  Unfortunately I am still unable to upload photos.  Might have to wait until I return.  I probably didn´t get any National Geographic cover shots but I think I captured the world down there pretty good, at least for my own memories, with a simple point and shoot camera in a special housing, waterproof and able to withstand pressure.

Dive 6:  Night Dive:  Really, really cool.  Fish were sleeping, lobsters roaming around, the coral was fuzzy as much of it was activley feeding on algae and perhaps the coolest thing, bioluminescence of plankton.  I am not entirely sure what is going on here, whether it is somesort of defence mechanism or what. But agitate the water and it is like thousands of stars all around you.  We spent a few minutes without torch light just watching it, between cruising around looking at the reef at night.

Now I am waiting on news about another dive.  A shark dive!  Hopefully I will be able to go tomorrow to a place where a lot of sharks hang out.  Today I had no diving which was hard to do.  Instead I lounged on the beach for a bit this morning and then walked into the next town in search of a haircut.  My head has been too hot and I was starting to feel a little ¨clown like¨  I made my way along the beach towards West End about a 40 minute walk.  It was nice just walking in the sand looking dreamingly out to sea and singing raggae tunes in my head.  All was great until I had a not too nice of an experience.   I heard a dog bark, very aggressivly, and turned to see a dog teeth out, face all scrunched up barreling towards me.  I turned to face it and readied for a fight.  Then another dog sped out flanking me on the right.  It came in so fast but it was quiet.  They weren´t huge dogs but they were big enough, probalby just a bit smaller than my dog Miko.  I put put my hand out thinking it might smell me and calm down but before I knew it I felt its teeth penetrate my thigh.   I roared and took a swing at it and it let go jumping back.  The two dogs were continuing to bark aggresively and were circling around me.  Having had enough of this already I took on the mentality of an enraged bear and growled, snorted and kicked at the ground. I advanced on them and they took off.  I got some good teeth marks but am fine.  They didn´t seem rabid just mean.  As I carried on along the beach I wondered if I should take a different route back but decided that no stupid mut was going to dictate my day.  I would just be ready for them next time.

I had a quick chat with a bar owner when I reached West Bay.  He informed me that the only barber in the town was off today so I would have to go to the next town, Coxen Hole.  As I tried to figure out my means of transport a young local guy asked me where I was going.  I told him about the haircut in coxen hole and he came back with ¨my brother cuts hair¨ I thought what the hell, should be interesting.  I got on the back of his scooter and he drove us a long a bumpy back street to his house.  It was quite the place.  Basically a ghetto.  Out front were 3 old timers.  One big lady, Craig, the scooter driver´s mother, and 2 old guys one smoking the absolute end of a cigarete.  There were a bunch of kids running around, one naked todler and a few kids that proably should have been in school.  There is a school, some go, some don´t.  Out front of the house was a lot of exposed soil, a few trees, and a washing machine that looked like it died decades ago.  The yard was littered with garbage and old broken machine parts. The house was small, run down and had no windows.  At one point it proabaly did but they had long ago been boarded up.  One of the oldtimers put in a call to the barber.  It took him about 20 minutes to get there.  He was very surely and didn´t say hi, only ¨how you want your hair cut¨ I explained it and we made out way to a chair at the side of the house, behind some laundry lines.  He put a sheet around me.  In front of the chair was old plastic table with a few very used clipper combs and a pair of scissors, missing a handle.  He handed me a mirror, or part of a mirror to be more exact, to check out the progress.  It had been a mirror of 2" or so but all that was left was one jagged corner.  The haircut was a bit rough, not going to lie.  My barber, not even sure of his name, pulled at my hair alot and seemed to comb my ear more than my hair. The thought came to mind of ¨what the hell am I doing¨ but I pushed it away.  These people were nice and gentle (except the actual haircut) and I felt relatively safe.  The job wasn´t too bad.  Its a bit uneven and lumpy but I´m ok with that.  My dad always said that a bad haircut will grow out in 3 days and if it doesn´t I don´t mind shaving the rest off.  Barber asked for 100 lempires, about 5 bucks.  I gave him 150 and a smile and was on my way.  Definetly the most interesting haircut I have ever had!

It was time to make my way home.  Again making my way along the beech but thinking about the ¨friends¨ I met on the way.  They may have moved since my earlier walk so I started preparing myself early, finding a large, heavy peice of drift wood.  As I got closer I bent down and picked up a handful of sand, keeping it my right hand, my throwing arm, and the stick in my left.  If the dogs came at me again I would throw the sand in their eyes and pop the stick up into my right hand in a baseball bat position.  If the dirty buggers got closer than 2 metres I was prepared to give them the good news with the club and if I was bit again I was going to bite back.  I also stayed along the waters edge so I could step out into the ocean.  A few metres in and I would be standing, the dogs swimming, and me with a big advantage.  What I was really hoping for though, was that in the heat of the day they were lying under a tree somewhere and would not be a problem.  I kept myself switched on tracking in the sand for their prints and stayed at the ready, not tense but ready.  I soon passed the area that we would be in and made it past a pier that I was pretty certain they couldn´t pass.  Lucky for me lucky for them.

I can hear the jungle screaming my name and should be there in the next few days...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Trains, plains, and parrot fish

6:25am flights kind of suck, but that is what you get when you go for the cheapest flights possible.  Besides I probably wouldn´t have slept a wink anyways with visions of dolphins, boas, and coconuts drifitng through my conciousness.  Instead of waking up ridicoulously early to make the airport I decided to catch the morning from the otherside.  I left downtown Toronto just after midnight and got to the airport about an hour latter.  The night was chilly, far from the temperatures I would be experiencing in the next few days. 

I never like to rush, so this was perfect for me to figure out where I needed to be for my flight.  Pearson Airport is a big place and a guy like me can get lost pretty easily in there.  Afterall there are no trees, ridges, or streams for me to navigate with.

I found the air canada desk and picked out a spot on the floor for a few restless hours of getting my head down.  Sleeping in an airport is difficult especially when they are doing a major vaccuuming of the terminal. 

The first lag of the journey was quite short; Toronto to NY.  Then I had to swithch airports which was bit of a stress as; the time was short, the 2 airports are not close, and it was rush hour.  The cabby didn´t help either as she didn´t think I would make the plane.  Fortunately she was wrong and I was there with an hour to spare. 

The next flight was to El Salvador.  It was beautiful as we approached the landing strip; plantations, mountains, and volcanoes (some of them smoking) welcomed us. An old beat up, possibly burnt, abandoned jet was lying off to one side of the run way.  I told myself that it was there for decoration.

Finally I arrived in San Paulo Sula, Honduras at approximately 4pm.  It was hot and very spanish. I figured I would just kind of wing it with the whole language thing. ``It`will be like jumping off a dock.  You´ll be fine and figure out how to swim`` I told myself.  Well I was drowning for awhile.  Trying to figure out my phrase book and trying tricks like saying it in english but putting an o on the end, then the same with french, I wondered if I would be better off trying to communicate telapathically.  I managed to get a bus out of San Paulo to La Cieba.  I am glad I did.  It looked like a rough place.  Mostly it was a ghetto with a few wealthy surrounded by high gates, dotted the city.  I had forgotten what this kind of poverty looks like.  Its sad to see people living, literally in garbage.  One thing I did get a kick out of though is not only are there stray dogs roaming around but also stray horses.  I watched out the window as we passed one feeding at the side of the street.

I arrived in La Cieba at about 9:30pm and got in a cab.  I had to laugh at myself for the situation I was in. I had no clue where I was going and had to trust the driver. He got me to the hostel I showed him in my lonely planet.  I was dead tired but I stuck to my habit of doing a bit of a hazard check when I arrive at a place.  A quick recce around the building can give some pretty valuable information.  Its not that I am paranoid or expect any problems but if things go pear shaped all of a sudden I like to be able to act with out thinking too much.  Honduras has a gang problem and by the lack of fire alarms, smoke detectors and extinguishers it doesn´t have much in the way of firecode.  I like to know my exits and where they lead.  Its a solid routine and only takes a few minutes.

I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow and awoke the next morning with a start, not quite sure where I was for a second.  My hesitations with spanish were soon overcome by my belly and I hit the town for some grub.  There is a war going on down here.  I guess it is all over the place but seems more prevelant in poorer countries.  The war is between Coke and Pepsi, to see who can have more advertising.  They must give out signs and chairs to every store and restaruant.  It made it easy to find some food though.  Waking up in La Cieba meant that I could get the morning ferry to Routan.  My driver from the night before, Ramone, came to collect me at 8am for the 9:30, 50km boat ride.

Routan is a meca for scuba diving and snorkeling. At one point it was a basecamp for pirates plundering the spanish as they plundered the americas. It has a huge reef off the northern side.  I spent the afternoon snorkeling along checking out the reef and the colourful fish.  I probably saw well over a thousand fish today.  You can hear them too, as they munch away at the coral, turning it into the white sand of the beaches.  The coral is under a lot of pressure though because of its accessibility.  Even though there are a lot of signs advising people to not touch the coral, they do anyways.  Coral has a covering of slime which protects it from infection.  Touching it removes the slime, exposes the coral and kills it.  It was very obvious that the signs were not being followed.

For the next 3 days I will be going a bit deeper, under the blue.  I have 6 dives lined up.  At this time I am unable to download photos so that will have to wait for an uncertain amount of time.    Hasta Leugo, Ben

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Banana Republic

Hold on to your sun hats folks, grab some bananas and ready yourself for my next big adventure.  This week I embark on a solo journey to the heart of Central America.  A short trip but exciting none the less. I will be spending 2 weeks in Honduras.  

Honduras is in the centre of Central America and is bordered by Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  It touches both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific.  While it has thriving coffee and banana industries it is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.  There are 3 tourist draws for me; world class diving off of the second largest coral reef in the world, expansive rainforest jungles full of monkeys, snakes, crocs, and jaguar, and lastly the impressive ruins of the ancient and fascinating  Mayan. Surely there will be many amazing things that are unknown to me currently.  The journey is often better than the destination!  I will be avoiding cities as much as possible as there is quite a gang problem, although tourists are rarely targeted. I will be switched on none the less. Besides cities aren’t my thing anyways.

I will have no fixed plans but will most likely start by heading north, to the Caribbean coast.  I plan on beginning and ending my trip with SCUBA  diving and am hoping to better my certification to Advanced Diver.

Unsure about internet connection, I will try and post a few photos and stories from the road.  

So long for now, 

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dead Deer - Feb 15, 07

Warning:  Contains graphic images.  Do not view while eating, or if you are soft!

Last week I was missing the body.  This week I found it…

It all started with an abnormal feeling to my day off.  Usually I wake up with great excitement and enthusiasm.  I normally roll out of bed with a charge, an urge to explore and to find adventure.  This day I was lethargic, and lazy.  All I wanted to do was to lie down.  Could I waste my one and only day off of the week doing nothing?  I had been working really hard as of late.  Maybe I owe it to myself to have a down day, layin’ about, watchin’ the boob tube.  The utter thought made me more depressed.  I needed to get outside and recharge my batteries, touch the earth, and feel the rapture of life.  You trippers know what it’s all about.  You wear yourself down physically but you build up stronger, emotionally and mentally.

With Miko at my side, off I went.  Dragged my feet for the first few steps but then it all came back to me and I was once again in my zone.  To balance the way I was feeling I decided not to wander far.  We headed out into the back 40.  I can truthfully use this term as we have 40 acres of crown land sitting behind the Wolf Den.

Past the scout camp and around by the river we went.  As part of my wanders I always try and light a fire.  My brain randomly selects a time and place then it will tell me to get to it.  At first it was ‘do it as quickly as possible’ now I try and use different materials and different techniques.  Partly it’s for survival skills, partly for connecting with the earth, and partly it’s just for fun.  There is a little pyro in all of us!  I don’t make a ragging fire, just enough to get it initiated and to know that I could easily keep it going.  Then I put it out in the snow.  It is a teaching in what burns, what doesn’t and how certain conditions effect the whole process.  This time I tried lighting it with a twig bundle.  I made a bundle of dead, dry spruce branches about a foot long by 3 inches wide.  Holding the bundle in my hands, I lit the small twigs at one end, then manoeuvred the bundle to ignite more and larger twigs with the growing flame.  It worked really well.  Top drawer, as the English would say.  In fact it worked so well that I almost burnt myself.  I’d imagine that it may not work so well in moist conditions but you could probably stuff some dry tinder in it to help it out.

My fire lasted approximately 5 minutes, and then I put it out.  Throughout the whole process I was noticing a lot of raven commotion.  We have lots of ravens around but they are generally fairly quiet and only 1-3 are usually about at any given time.  This time was different. There were lots of them and they were loud and excited.  Something was up!  Ravens often fly about looking for wolf kills to scavenge.  Maybe they found one!  As I approached, a snowplow went by and 3 ravens went airborne.  I then noticed 1 big raven in a tree keeping watch.  They’ll do this when they are feeding.  One will keep watch while the others feed, then they’ll switch up.  When I got a little closer a call came from the watchtower and they all flew away, flying over me for a look, and giving out a verification call.   We got a little closer and then saw it.  There on the ice was the body.  It was a small deer.

There were literally hundreds of tracks around the deer, fox, mink, and raven.  No sign of wolf though.  The wind was very strong causing drifting around the site.  I didn’t see the deer tracks either.  Maybe Mother Nature had covered up the last events leading up to this deer’s demise and its killer’s marks.  There was however extensive feeding on the rear of the animal, typical of wolves.  What wasn’t typical of wolves is that the rest of the animal hadn’t been completely consumed after the rear end.

Many people, visiting Algonquin, have asked me, “Where is a good place to see animals?”  Well my friends, this was the place to look for.  The best way is to find an area where there is lots of sign, of frequent and recent activity then sit there.  Become part of the landscape, a rock a stump, then patiently wait until visitors arrive.  With all the activity that had already been at this kill site, and the high amount of remaining food on the deer, there were sure to be scavengers returning. 

Miko has a rather annoying habit of chasing anything that moves and an equally disgusting habit of rolling on dead things.  For these reasons I brought her back to the Wolf Den.  Also needed to grab my camera and some warmer gear for the long sit.  On my return visit I approached from the road, and secured the vantagepoint of the bridge.  Within minutes, I had a new best friend.

It was a Mink (Mustela vison).  This sleek little bugger, who is as at home in the water (diving as deep as 6m) as on land, is a fierce predator.  They have been known to attack animals much larger than themselves and usually prey on rabbits, mice, fish, frogs, muskrat, and crayfish.  The word mink comes from a Swedish word, menk, meaning stinky animal.  Like all members of the weasel family, they have anal scent glands, which produce a skunk-like odour.  Although they cannot aim, they can spray this odour when threatened.  It is not as strong the odour of a skunk, but is pungent than most other weasels.  They normally hunt at night, so seeing it in the middle of the day was a real treat.

The top of the bridge had its advantages, but I was exposed to the bitter cold wind and I didn’t like standing so close to the odd passing car on an icy bridge.  Noting some wolf tracks in the deeper snow on the farside of the bridge, I moved down and into some tall grasses for cover.  My disturbance was too much for the mink and he was gone before I got into position.  The raven guard also spotted me and they periodically flew over and announced my presence to all, raven kin or not.  After about an hour I was still being introduced and the cold wind was getting to me so I headed home with intentions of returning a bit before dusk.

Striking out again just past 4pm, I kept my raven friends in mind and headed around through the thick canopy cover of a spruce pocket, off to one side of the bridge.  From there I slipped undetected under the bridge and set myself up against the gabion baskets, that were attempting to hold back the inevitable force erosion under the bridge. 

As many of you know, a majority of animals are nocturnal, coming out at dusk to feed.  There is a fox that crosses the Wolf Den every night.  I have seen its tracks as many mornings as I have looked, but am yet to see him.  I was hoping that this would be my chance.  I have also seen lots of wolf sign in the area.  There is a resident pack around, and I saw one of them right by this bridge just 1 month ago.  Dreaming of a magical encounter I hunkered down and tried to fight the cold.  For an hour and a half I sat there trying to not let discomfort get to me.  Tried meditating, wiggling fingers and toes, and recalling memories of times spent in tropical environments.  At least there were no bugs!  Close to frostbite and not far away from hypothermia I had to finally pull the pin and head home.  Just as I was about to move, my mink friend returned for a last visit.

Two days later I went by the deer again.  There was nothing left but lots of tracks, wolf scat, deer hair, and frozen red snow. The ravens were gone and my mink friend was nowhere to be seen.  I am unsure whether this was a wolf kill or not.  It could have died of exposure and then been fed on by the members of its community.  However with the way it was first fed on, the local presence of a pack, wolf tracks in the deeper snow, and the wolf sign 2 days later, I believe it may have been a wolf kill!  Being so close to the road, the wolves may have been frightened off by the passing of a car or the thundering of a snowplow.  Either way, the wolves were there and I missed them.  Maybe I’ll catch them another day, on another Wilderness Wander.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Gravel Falls - February 8th 2007

Ah, What a glorious day to have off.  Today the plan was to snowshoe in to Gravel Falls, a nice little waterfall along the Oxtongue River, between the boundary of Algonquin Park and Ragged Falls.  I had been there once before in the previous summer.  That day I had travelled Northwest of Algonquin Outfitters, waded down the Oxbow creek and then headed east into a large expanse of crown forest.  Using the sun as my guide I cut through the bush, over high ridges, and through some mucky swamps.  I knew that on my current course I would eventually hit the Oxtongue River.  From there my next destination was unknown.  I finally reached that river, 6 hrs later. 

I walk really slowly when I am in the forest and literally smell the flowers, along with anything else I may find.  I find nature to be incredibly fascinating, every plant a miracle, every mark a story.   Many people rush through the forest like they rush through life.  The more ground they cover the more satisfying.  They miss so much!  The forest is my church, my playground, my classroom, and my home.  Nice and slow that’s the way I like it.  To each there own.

After a refreshing swim in the river I decided I wasn’t ready to go home.  There was a worn trail along the bank that beckoned me to follow.  A short walk brought me to a pleasant surprise.  I feel really blessed to live so close to Ragged Falls.  It’s powerful and magical.   To find another beautiful waterfall in my “backyard” was almost unreal.  Gravel Falls, albeit smaller than Ragged, is spectacular and its remoteness adds heaps to its charm.  I’ll be going back there, for sure.

Today the goal was to find a more direct route to that little gem on the river.  It would be nice to be able to send worthy guests to the place without losing them to the North woods.  I figured it would take me some where around 2 ½ hrs to reach it. 

Same as with the last time, I headed out with my adventure companion, Miko, perhaps the coolest and smartest dog to ever live.  We headed up Camp Lake Road, a logging/hunt camp road starting directly across the road from the Wolf Den.  As it turns out, it was trail all the way to the Waterfall.  From the road I followed and old ATV trail then some portage routes.  All up it was only a 1 ½ hr hike from the Wolf Den.  Looked a little different in the winter though.  Old man winter had almost turned off her taps, but not quite.  No swimming this time! The formations of ice were pretty striking.  The way the icy spray collects on the surrounding rock and trees makes for some great natural art. 

Just down river I found this spot where burgy bits were being pushed by the current up against the ice.  They would hit the ice then circle back up river again, where they would get caught in the current and circle, again and again.  It was mesmerising and I watched it ‘til I was dizzy.

On the way back I encountered a Black-Backed Woodpecker (Picioides articus).  Like the other birds with whom he shares his genre, - the Downy (P. pubescens), Hairy (P. villosus), and the Three-Toed (P. tridactylus) - and unlike the Pileated (Drycopus pileatus) he seemed quite unaffected by my presence.  I observed this often-elusive northerner for awhile, my concern trying to get good photos, and his, chiselling away flakes of bark to get at over wintering insect larva.  Miko found entertainment with scorning red squirrels.

Shortly after our bird encounter I noticed a lot of disturbance under a large pine tree.   Closer inspection revealed what appeared to be a wolf kill.  Lots of tracks, wolf scat, deer hair, and frozen red snow.  No sign of any leftovers though.  The tracks looked to be from 3-4 days old, corresponding to the light snow that had fallen earlier.  Exciting, but a body would have been better.

A gentle snowfall accompanied us the rest of the way home.  I hit the sauna and went to sleep, with images of waterfalls, wolves, and woodpeckers visiting my dreams.