hiking · holidays · nature · traveling

Trekking in the Pyrenees, and not trekking in the Pyrenees

Last week I finally got my summer holiday. I really had to wait for it this year, but September did finally come! My partner and I went to northern Spain, where he’s from. We spent some days with family and friends, but we also spent three days hiking in the Pyrenees. In total, it was a five-day adventure because we needed to factor in two extra days to get there and back by public transport. As the owner of a hostel we stayed at put it, “people think there’s a motorway out here connecting everything, but that’s not quite the case”. I would say it’s definitely not the case. There’s one bus a day from the nearest larger city in each direction, if you’re lucky, and it meanders along curvy mountain roads, stopping at every village along the way. It was exactly what we wanted: to have some “us time”, just the two of us, in nature.

a horizontal white bar above a red one, painted on a tree.
GR11 signage: a horizontal white bar above a red one, painted on a tree.
a pole with arrow-shaped wooden signs pointing in different directions saying "GR11" and the names of different villages.
More GR 11 signage: a pole with arrow-shaped wooden signs pointing in different directions saying “GR11” and the names of different villages. There are three arrows, the middle one pointing towards the right and our destination on day one: Hiriberri.

For a bit of background, we decided to do a trek of three stages on the GR11 Transpyrenees trail. “GR” stands for Grande Randonée in French, or Gran Recorrido in Spanish (“long hike”), and is used to designate a network of long-distance hiking trails across Europe. The GR11, or “Transpirenáica“, runs from Cabo Higuer on the Basque coast all the way across to Catalunya and finishes at Cap de Creus. We chose three stages in Navarre (stages 5, 6, and 7), because the area is beautiful and was accessible by public transport from Bilbao (via Pamplona). The stages in this area are around 20 kilometres each and somewhat demanding mostly because there’s a lot of up and down, but no alpine mountaineering skills are needed.

Purple wild crocuses surrounding a silver thistle. This flower is a symbol of good fortune in the Basque region.
Pretty local flora: purple wild crocuses surrounding a larger yellow flower (a silver thistle, Wikipedia tells me). This flower is a symbol of good fortune in the Basque region.

The trail did not disappoint. On the first day, it rained in the morning, but cleared up by the afternoon. The next two days were beautiful weather: bright blue skies and sunshine! On day two, we had a lot of wind while hiking along an exposed ridge, but it was all safe and, have I mentioned, beautiful?

A wide path meandering along a soft slope, high mountains in the far distance.
A wide path meandering along a soft slope, high mountains in the far distance. The path wasn’t always this wide and flat though!

Also, cute villages! And nice country hostels and hotels!

a small hamlet nestled into a valley beneath a mountain
Cute village, exhibit (a): a small hamlet nestled into a valley beneath a mountain (that we hiked down and then back up on the other side!)

Unfortunately, we did what we usually do when we go on holiday and both got a cold. I don’t know how, but every time we’re on leave, at least one of us gets sick. I don’t know if it’s the germs on the plane, the change in weather, or the sudden lack of stress, or a combination of all three. This time, it hit my partner first, so by the time we were on the trail he was already recovering. But he kindly shared it with me, so on day three we actually had to call it quits. I was so congested I could hardly breathe, let alone hike 20 kilometres with a backpack.

I was so disappointed. But we did the sensible thing and took a taxi from the village we’d spent the night in to the next place, our final destination (Isaba). It was actually a fun taxi ride. The driver is also the local school bus driver and chauffeurs anyone who needs to go somewhere in the area, from school kids to drunk local youth during the village festival and hikers with head colds. We then spent the rest of the day wandering about and resting in the sun in Isaba, which also happened to be the nicest of the villages we stayed in. It’s surrounded by pine forests on steep slopes and consists of lovingly restored traditional houses. I would happily have spent another few days there.

A narrow cobbled street lined with traditional houses with wooden balconies on the left. A square stone church tower in the background and forest-lined mountains in the background.
Cute village, exhibit (b): Isaba. A narrow cobbled street lined with traditional houses with wooden balconies on the left. A square stone church tower in the background and forest-lined mountains in the background.

I’ll be honest, I’m still angry with that stupid cold that made us miss the last day of our trek. But what can you do? I suppose I should be happy I didn’t get really sick, so by the afternoon of that day I was well enough to take a short stroll around the area. But despite the dreaded lurgy throwing a spanner in the works of our trekking plans, it felt so good to be out there, largely on our own. In two days of hiking, we met exactly five people on the trail. It was a much needed respite from the current busyness of both our jobs and lives.

But still, I need to know: do any of you have any tips to avoid the dreaded holiday cold?

dogs · family · hiking · nature

Walking in the woods with Cheddar and Gavin

Walking is tricky these days. I have good days and I have bad days. I’ve been worried about my future walking. I’ve been jealous of friends posting very high step counts on social media and angry at friends who say they can’t imagine a life without walking.

Saturday was glorious. Here in Guelph it was 13 degrees and sunny. Cheddar needed walking and my son, Gavin, and I wanted to go back to the Rockwood Conservation Area. I did all the right things. I’d biked that morning (Zwift in Central Park), and stretched, and taken pain killers. My knee is always better after riding and that’s a great thing.

I’d just a read a story about seniors with knee osteoarthiritis being encouraged to take brisk walks. So I figured an afternoon dog hike might be a good thing, on balance.

Also, I read that taking at least 20 minutes out of your day to stroll or sit in a place that makes you feel in contact with nature will significantly lower your stress hormone levels. It had been a stressful week at work. I needed this walk more than Cheddar.

It worked! We walked 5 km on mostly level trails and boardwalks, saw some beautiful scenery, met lots of dogs, and had a great afternoon. I was relieved that my dog hike days aren’t over. I think Cheddar was happy too!

Here he is with other family pets napping after the walk.

health · nature · snow · winter

Sam Goes to a Spa. Yes, Really.

So I went to a spa. First time ever. First pedicure a couple of years ago (never since!) and now the spa.

What next? What’s the world coming to?

I’m just joking (sort of). In my mind spas aren’t meant for me. Like pedicures, I think of spas as a THING RICH PEOPLE DO.

It’s not that I don’t spend money on luxurious things, like expensive bicycles, I do. And it’s not like I don’t spend $60 (the price of spa admission) on meals or concerts pretty regularly. I do.

But for reasons of family background in the first part of my life and resisting normative feminity, in the second, spas have never been on my radar. I’m the kind of person who didn’t have nail polish or make up for my own wedding. I did my own hair and it was touch and go whether I’d shave my legs.

I resisted getting a hot tub at our old house for years but then loved it and used it lots. I love sitting outside, in the heat, surrounded by snow and ice. I loved soaking after long rides and tough Aikido classes. My highlight of my holiday in Iceland a few years ago was soaking in a hot river after a long hike.

We went to the Scandinavian Spa on the Sunday of our weekend at Mount Tremblant when it was too cold and icy to ski or fat bike. I loved how much of it was outdoors. I really liked the steam rooms and the sauna and the hot tub but probably my favorite thing was relaxing in front of a fire outside wearing a bathrobe while covered in a giant warm fuzzy blanket. I loved basking in the sun, surrounded by trees and snow.

Some quick observations:

I loved wandering around outside in a bathrobe and bathing suit in the middle of winter. I love the outdoors and I’m almost always happier in the sun.

I’m so glad it was a silent place. I realize that I’m quiet anyway but I was so glad I didn’t have to listen to other people’s conversations. I found that really relaxing. I didn’t mind the other people there with everything quiet.

There are a lot of beautiful bodies out there. But it’s mostly the women who are on display. That’s no surprise but I forget that sometimes. I saw a lot of women in thong bathing suits with men in baggy board shorts. What’s with that?

I loved the idea of swimming in the river in the freezing cold water between hot things but I couldn’t make myself do it. Instead I settled for the cold bucket of water over the head a couple of times. That actually felt pretty refreshing.

I didn’t count the spa time as a workout though it turns out that time in hot water does have similar health benefits to exercise.

I’d definitely go again.

boats · canoe · Dancing · nature

Mallory Goes Thanksgiving Canoeing (Guest Post)

Several weeks ago for (Canadian) Thanksgiving I spent the weekend in Algonquin with the Western Outdoors Club. This is an annual trip which I have gone on several times. This year was the largest group I’ve been part of: 62 university students in 21 canoes!

Approximately 12 green canoes sitting on a hill on a island in Algonquin

A bunch (too many to count) of tents and people with a campfire nearby

There are several things I love about this trip (and about Western Outdoors Club in general):

  • the variety in skill level and equipment
  • the number of international students
  • how accessible the club makes trips like this
  • the cost
  • beautiful scenery

Scenic shot of a lake with fall coloured trees on islands on either side. It is raining quite heavily.

However, this year there was one thing I DIDN’T ENJOY and that was the weather: cold and wet. Weather forecast was for highs of 8 and lows of 2 with rain on and off most of the weekend. I’ve camped in much colder weather (-27 winter camping!) but I find fall weather much colder. I’m not sure why, possibly the damp but also possibly because I’m not mentally prepared for it and/or never seem to pack enough warm gear. That being said, I was not cold at night even though I was sleeping in my hammock tent.

Despite the cold it was a fun trip! If you don’t believe me, watch a video here

Guest Post · hiking · nature

Joh et Sabrina en randonnée à la Péninsule Bruce/Joh and Sabrina hiking on the Bruce Peninsula (Guest Post)

Joh. et Sabrina en randonnée à la Péninsule Bruce (see English below)

En juillet 2018, j’ai eu le plaisir d’aller en randonnée pédestre pendant 3 jours à la péninsule Bruce avec mon amie Sabrina Olender . Quel bonheur que de voyager avec une personne aussi organisée que Sabrina! On a préparé la liste des repas et du matériel commun ensemble, mais quelques jours avant le départ, Sabrina avait contacté le parc national pour s’assurer que nous avions tous les permis en main avant de partir, nous épargnant ainsi une heure de transport supplémentaire vers le poste d’accueil, en sus de la route de Toronto.

Après quelque quatre heures de route, nous voici donc arrivées au stationnement du lac Crane, notre point de départ vers le camping High Dump (après avoir pris une mauvaise route privée et rencontré une résidente assez abrupte de notre erreur). Nous mettons la dernière touche à nos sacs à dos, enfilons nos bottes et étudions la carte. Je marche 10 pas et réalise, catastrophe, que la semelle de ma botte droite s’est complètement détachée, affichant un large sourire. Comment vais-je marcher 8 km avec un sac à dos de 18 kg sur le dos sans bottes de randonnée?

Heureusement, Sabrina la prévoyante avait du ruban adhésif (le bon vieux duct tape) avec lequel j’ai réussi à attacher ma botte tant bien que mal. À ce moment est sorti du sentier un couple de randonneurs (de 75 et 78 ans!) qui m’a aussi donné du ruban pour tenter de réparer ce dégât; un autre randonneur rencontré en route m’a également donné du ruban. Beaux exemples de solidarité en camping!

Après une randonnée sans autre anicroche, nous avons entamé la descente abrupte vers le site de camping, à l’aide d’une corde pour faciliter le tout. Notre campement était le plus éloigné de tous, situé près de l’eau et très bien aménagé avec une plateforme de bois entourée d’arbres pour bien attacher notre bâche. Aussitôt arrivé, il a commencé à pleuvoir, interrompant notre observation de la magnifique baie Georgienne pour terminer notre installation. Grâce à la plateforme, la tâche nous a été simplifiée, et la cuisine aussi, que nous pouvions faire debout

Le lendemain, nous sommes parties pour une randonnée d’un jour avec un plus petit sac, mes bottes toujours maintenues par le ruban et munies de notre enthousiasme à explorer le secteur et les différents points de vue sur la baie Georgienne. Le sentier était vraiment plus difficile, parsemé de grosses roches et très accidenté. Nous nous sommes rendues au point de vue situé à 2 km, avons dévoré notre lunch et sommes revenues profiter de notre campement et de la plage.

Pour conserver notre nourriture au frais au campement pendant notre randonnée d’un jour, nous avons eu l’idée géniale de la mettre dans un sac étanche dans l’eau glaciale de la baie, bien sécurisé sous des roches et arrimé à la terre ferme (photo 5)… sauf que, deuxième difficulté technique, nous avons dû constater au retour que le sac étanche ne l’était plus et qu’il était plein d’eau; celle-ci avait pénétré par une ouverture béante à son côté! Heureusement que tout était emballé à l’intérieur du sac, sauvegardant la nourriture qui s’y trouvait.

En ce qui concerne les animaux, nous avons vu de multiples grenouilles et crapauds dans le sentier qui sautaient littéralement juste devant nos pieds, un serpent d’eau près du campement, des tamias rayés assez agressifs (un d’eux a même suivi Sabrina dans les bois) et des oiseaux. Pas de trace d’ours, malgré les avertissements. Et vraiment trop de traces de l’animal le plus terrifiant des bois à cette période de l’année : le moustique! Omniprésents et fatigants, ils ne nous ont pas laissées tranquilles, comme en fait foi l’épaule de la pauvre Sabrina!

Le dernier matin, avant de tout remballer et de reprendre le sentier, il y a des crêpes au menu… mais plus de beurre ni d’huile pour les faire cuire, et la poêle n’est vraiment pas antiadhésive. Ce sera notre dernière mésaventure technique… et une chance que nous avions beaucoup d’autre nourriture pour bien commencer la journée!
Puis, ce fut le démontage du campement et le départ! Il s’agissait d’un trop court séjour pour cet endroit magique et magnifique, que je revisiterai assurément.

Et vous, quelle est votre destination préférée de randonnée pédestre avec camping?

Joh. est traductrice, originaire de Montréal et vit maintenant à Toronto. Elle aime être en plein air autant que possible et fait du vélo, du ski, du canot, du kayak, de la randonnée pédestre et, plus généralement, aime trouver du temps pour être active, malgré une vie divisée entre un travail à temps plein, des contrats et un enfant.

 

 

Joh. and Sabrina on the Bruce Peninsula

In July 2018, I had the pleasure of hiking on the Bruce Peninsula with my friend Sabrina Olender.

Sbarina (left) and Joh (right), all smiles and backpacks

What a joy to travel with someone as organized as Sabrina! We have prepared the list of meals and common equipment together, Sabrina had contacted the national park to make sure we had the right to leave the room. pick up our permit before getting to the trailhead.

After a couple of hours on the road, we arrived at the Crane Lake parking lot (after taking a wrong turn on a private road and meeting a resident who was quite angry at our mistake). This was our starting point towards the High Dump campground. We put the finishing touches on our backpacks, put on our boots, and checked the map. After 10 steps in, I realized that the sole on my right had been completely detached, showing a wide smile. How am I going to walk 8 km with 18 kg backpack on my back?

Hiking boot with duct tape

Fortunately, Sabrina the farsighted had the good old duct tape with which I managed to wrap up my boot as best I could. We also have a couple of hikers (75 and 78 years old!) Who were getting off the trail. And as luck would have it, we put another one in the way who also gave me some more. Beautiful examples of solidarity in camping!

Boot with tape

After all, we started our strenuous descent into the camping site, using a rope to facilitate everything. Our site was the most remote of all, with a wooden platform. As soon as we arrived, it started to rain, interrupting our break to observe the beautiful Georgian Bay. Thanks to the platform, we were able to set up camp and it was nice to cook on a level surface, which we could do up.

Wooden tenting platform

The next day, we still have a little bag, my boots are still wrapped up in its tape, and we’re all looking at Georgian Bay. The path was more difficult, strewn with big rocks and very unven. We went to the viewpoint 2 km away, ate our lunch and cam back to enjoy our camp and the beach.

To keep our food cool during the day, we had the brilliant idea of ​​putting it in a dry bag in the cold water of the bay , right?)  This is when we encountered our second technical difficulty – we realized that it was a long time ago because of a gaping opening at its side! Fortunately, everything was well inside the bag, saving the food.

As for the animals, we have a lot of frogs and toads on the trail, we are going crazy, and we’re going crazy. No trace of bears, despite all the warnings. And too many traces of the most terrifying animal in the woods at this time of the year: the mosquito! Omnipresent and tiring, they did not leave us alone, as shown on this picture of Sabrina’s shoulder!

Sabrina’s tattooed shoulder with lots of bug bites

The last morning, before packing everything and heading out, we had pancakes on the menu … no more butter or oil to cook them, and the pan was not really non-stick. It was our last technical mishap … and good thing we had plenty of food to start the day!

Then, it was time to dismantle the camp and off we go! It was too short a stay for this magical and beautiful place, which I will certainly revisit.

And you, what is your favorite destination for hiking and camping?

Joh. is a translator from Montreal who now lives in Toronto. She likes to be as active as possible, and is into biking, skiing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and enjoying an active life, between a full time job, some contracts and having a kid.

accessibility · climbing · fitness · hiking · holidays · inclusiveness · nature · running · traveling · yoga

Women, mountain sports, and privilege – thoughts on an all-female sports festival in Austria

Two weeks ago, I attended the Women’s Summer Festival in Ischgl, Austria. It’s basically a three-day summer camp for female adults. You can sign up for lots of different sports workshops, including yoga, mountain biking, climbing, hiking, the full works. All of it women-only, set very scenically in the Austrian Alps. I’d read about last year’s edition and it sounded like a ton of fun: a chance to try out new things, meet people and spend a few days frolicking in the mountains? Sign me up.

IMG_3594.JPG
View over a lush green alpine valley, from the beginning of our via ferrata.

I agonised for a while about my choice of workshops – there’s no way you can do them all – and finally put myself down for a via ferrata (complete novices), trail running (beginners), morning yoga (all levels), and an all-day hike (experts). Aside from yoga and hiking, I decided to do things I hadn’t done before, so for instance bouldering fell by the wayside in favour of the via ferrata. And I was too much of a chicken for mountain biking. Somehow, the thought of hurtling down a mountain on two wheels terrifies me a lot more than the thought of being suspended above a precipice secured by nothing but a fixed steel cable and two carabiners attached to my harness through a via ferrata set.

f16d49f8-f3e3-4a9c-b9eb-182e60926933.JPG
Bettina in full gear, taking a well-deserved sip of water after completing her first ever via ferrata.

The classification of levels, I later learned from fellow participants, stumped not only me. How do you know you’re an “expert” hiker, rather than an “advanced” one? As I’ve mentioned before, I have my share of athletic impostor syndrome, so I was mildly terrified of both the trail running (should I have signed up for the “complete novices” one?) and the hiking tour (what on earth had made me think I was an expert? The hubris!). If anyone still needed proof that women tend to underestimate themselves, they only had to attend this festival. Nearly everyone rocked up with the same self-doubts.

But these shared concerns actually ended up making for an incredibly supportive environment. Everyone cheered each other on and kept encouraging others. It had been a long time since I’d seen two people as happy as two women with vertigo after crossing an incredibly scary suspension bridge on our trail run, fuelled by gentle coaxing from our guide and the supportive cheers of the other participants. It was wonderful to watch.

IMG_3706.JPG
The really quite scary suspension bridge we had to cross during our trail run, complete with some runners from our group approaching in the distance.

The other thing I’d been a bit wary of is going by myself. I wasn’t organised enough to enlist anyone else to come with me, and I’m not exactly a social butterfly – my small talk is limited and I tend to get incredibly intimidated by people I think are cooler than me, which is pretty much everyone. I ended up really, really enjoying myself, both in terms of the activities and the company. I met some very nice people, and the activities were great. In fact, both the via ferrata and trail running (who would have thought, considering how badly I do running uphill!) left me hungry for more.

The morning yoga was beautiful, and the hike was out of this world stunning – three three thousand-metre summits in one day! With bright sunshine! And incredible views! If I were to do this again, and I’m definitely keeping this option open, there are plenty of things I didn’t get around to doing: a more challenging via ferrata, bouldering, more hiking, and maybe, just maybe, even some mountain biking?

IMG_3751.JPG
Bettina in a red t-shirt and hiking gear, beaming widely with one of the summits she climbed during her all-day hike in the background.

There was a framework programme too, to keep yourself occupied while not attending a workshop, with ad-hoc activities such as TRX training, massages, pilates, etc., and you could even get your nails and your hair done if you wanted (I opted for the nails, which I usually never do or get done, and also because there’s not much you can do with my hair). In the evenings, one night there was dinner at a local hut, which ordinarily is a hip après-ski joint, and another night there was a concert with a local band in the festival tent. And as these things are wont to go, there were exhibitors peddling the latest trail running shoes, hiking poles, outdoor and yoga clothing, etc. You could also try all these things in action, which was fun, though it didn’t motivate any purchases for me.

The whole thing was a very enjoyable affair, but I wouldn’t be a good feminist killjoy if I didn’t have some issues with it. This was obviously not a free event. The all-in festival pass set me back just under 280 Euros, and I treated myself to a nice hotel in addition. There was the option of booking just individual workshops, but they also weren’t super cheap. There was a goodie bag for those who’d booked the festival package that contained some ecologically very dubious plasticky giveaways (although in fairness, there were some great quality ones too that I’ll definitely be using). And diversity at the event was limited to cis-gendered almost exclusively white, almost exclusively able-bodied, relatively fit women who could afford to be there, and a bunch of invited press, bloggers and social media influencers who were there for free (disclaimer: I wasn’t one of them).

In other words, we spent three days oozing privilege from all pores. Is this inherently a bad thing? Probably not. We had a lot of fun and it was great to completely disconnect from the news and the heat wave gripping the rest of Europe for a few days, being active among a bunch of very nice, like-minded women and pushing our comfort zones in a highly supportive environment. The event is absolutely fantastic in that it lets you test the waters with new activities that might otherwise be quite intimidating, which I think is very important in getting women to be more active. But it’s important to be aware of that privilege – and of the fact that if you were insecure about doing any sort of exercise, you probably wouldn’t sign up for a three-day mountain sports festival in the first place, so a substantial threshold is still there.

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Enjoying these views was part of our privilege: panorama of the Alps with some flecks of snow in the sunshine.

And things could be done to make the event more inclusive. One could think of travel stipends, marketing the event a bit differently to attract a more diverse crowd, and so on. Again, the organisers are a for-profit company that makes money with this, so it’s not surprising that it’s all a bit commercial, and all things considered, the commercialness is very low key – you’re not forced to buy anything or partake in any activities that aren’t your jam. And yet. A bit more of an effort in making the event more diverse and accessible would be very welcome.

Will I go back? Maybe. I had too much fun not to contemplate a return next year. I’ll keep you posted – and if I do, perhaps it will be in some fit feminist company? Would be fun.

canoe · fitness · nature

Getting dirty and doing hard things

For the 4th year in a row I did a backcountry canoe camping trip in Algonquin in August. The first year was just me and Susan. That’s how our friendship really began. Hi Susan! Thanks so much for inviting me that first year. I missed you this time!

Then for the next two years we went with an extended group of family and friends including our teenagers and Susan’s mom. This year it was back to another two person trip, me and Sarah.

We’d planned a more adventurous trip with more paddling given that it was just the two of us this time but life, including a late start on day 1, got in the way. I also began the trip pretty tired after a big week at work (more on that later) and I was more ready for rest and beautiful scenery than an active adventure. But we had a bit of both.

See my before and after boot photo below? That’s after a really muddy portage. And guess what? For the first time ever I carried my own canoe. I was pretty happy to learn how to do that. I didn’t quite manage to get it up on my shoulders solo but I didn’t have to. I am going to practise in the backyard though.

I also did a small stint of the trip in the stern of the canoe and got a lesson in steering.

So even though this trip was big on hammock naps and low on endurance exercise, I got to paddle each day and wake up in one of the most beautiful places in the world. There was also delicious coffee. I saw a beaver very close up! One jumped on the rocks while we were star gazing at night. I saw carnivorous plants. And I learned some new hard things.

As Sarah reminded me, “This isn’t easy. If it were there’d be more people here.” True. Especially the hilly, muddy, buggy portages!