Thursday, January 21, 2021

Best way to view polar bears in the wild

Magnificent polar bears at Churchill, Canada

Just inches from my feet, two shiny black eyes stare up at me through the metal mesh floor of our Polar Rover. A bear cub lifts his button nose as if to check out the scent of my heavily padded boots. I’m furiously taking pictures, camera in burst mode, in hopes of capturing a few good shots of this incredible moment.

A cub peaks up from the outside grate of our Polar Rover,
 right where I'm standing.

We’re in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada—1,000 miles north of Winnipeg--on a polar bear expedition, hunting with our eyes and our cameras. It’s polar bear season, a six-week period during October and November when hundreds of polar bears migrate to this area on their way to Hudson Bay. When the sea freezes over, seal-hunting season begins.  After fasting during spring and summer, bears are ready to hunt (and eat) seals to fatten up before they again enter a period of living off their fat reserves.

Mother and cub walk over the slushy ice of Hudson Bay, not yet
frozen over.

Why Hudson Bay?

Hudson Bay is the first place that gets iced over each fall. Located in the middle of the North American continent, this region has no coastal waters to moderate temperatures. Also, the Churchill River, which drains from the Rocky Mountains, flows into Hudson Bay. Being fresh water, it freezes at a slightly higher temperature than salt water.  Aided by strong counter-clockwise currents, the bay can freeze very quickly forming prime hunting grounds for bears-in-waiting.

Journey to the Far North

We’re traveling with Natural Habitat, a leading tour company that partners with World Wildlife Fund to offer a variety of 6- and 7-day environmentally responsible wildlife excursions. While this is my favorite adventure tour company (we have gone on numerous adventures with them), other tour companies also provide similar itineraries in Churchill.

We overnight in Winnipeg where we are issued right-sized parkas and snow boots. These are snuggly warm and comfortable, eliminating the need to cram-pack or carry bulky items while traveling.

 An informative dinner introduces us to our guide, Drew Hamilton, whose photos and commentary whet our appetites even more for the experiences we’re about to have. Because no roads go into Churchill, the following morning a charter flight whisks us to the outpost town of 800 residents. The other option would have been a 52-hour train ride.

Bears are curious. This one checks out the 6-foot tires
on the specially-built Polar Rover.

Polar Bear Capital of the World

Although more than 14,000 visitors are expected during the peak season, the number of vehicles allowed each day on the government-owned 26-by-7-mile tundra region where polar bears congregate is highly regulated.  With only 16 people in our group, everyone has a comfortable window seat from which to observe the bears and take photos. On the back of the specially-built Polar Rover is an elevated outside observation deck. This is where I come face-to-feet with the bear cub.

Adventure in the tundra

Our first tundra excursion starts shortly before sunset. In the dimming light we soon cross paths with a polar bear family—mom and two cubs about eight or nine months old—that we watch slosh through semi-frozen puddles and muddied snow. We see tracks of an Arctic fox but no sign of the elusive camouflaged animal.

Male bears practice sparring skills that may be needed later. 

At dusk we come upon a group of three male bears. One is sleeping and uninterested in bear society, but the other two put on an amazing show of sparring, bear form of play-fighting. Raring up on hind legs, they nip at each other with open mouths, exposing long sharp incisors that could do plenty of damage under other circumstances.  Pushing and shoving each other with their huge paws in a pseudo-wrestling match, these enormous animals practice skills they may need later.

Sunset is a fiery feast of red hues.

Just before nightfall, streaks of scarlet red, orange, and yellow spread upon the clouds turning the horizon into a fiery blaze. Reflections on not-yet-frozen pools and dazzling snow-tipped vistas broken occasionally by scrubby reddish willows or brown boulders reveal a splendor unique to tundra landscapes.

Our first full day on the tundra yields about 20 bear sightings, with an equal number the following day, and more on our evening excursion—all observed from the comfort of our Polar Rover bus.  Male bears enchant onlookers with their sparring antics, mama bears keep watchful eyes on wandering cubs, and one male bear shows dominance by approaching another bear in a way that causes it to retreat.  Numerous bears sleep or stroll across thin ice, while others meander close to the Rover, poking around and climbing on the six-foot tires to check out their surroundings.

Polar bears are fascinating to observe in the wild.

Bears in the wild

Viewing these magnificent animals in their natural habitat is an incredible experience, but we’re constantly reminded that they are wild creatures. On the tundra we never leave the Polar Rover. Signs throughout town, where we stay in a basic but comfortable hotel, warn locals and visitors that this is bear territory. If an unruly bear wanders into town, it is captured and held for several days before being helicoptered back to the tundra.

Push comes to shove in good-natured fun.

Almost half the world’s population of polar bears (estimated numbers range up to 40,000) lives in northern Canada. Warmer temperatures from climate change may affect their natural habitat as ice starts to form later, allowing less time for bears to hunt and build up stores of fat. In the U.S. polar bears have been considered threatened since 2008, although they’re not endangered.

If you're craving a nature adventure that's extraordinarily inspiring, I suggest an expedition to Churchill to view polar bears in the wild.

A version of this story first appeared in NowU in 2014.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Driving Colorado's San Juan Skyway

For a spectacular spring or summer drive, map your course on the 233-mile (a little more with detours) San Juan Skyway in Colorado. This road trip will take you around half of the largest mountain range in Colorado.

Wildflower meadows surrounded by majestic mountains.

The loop can be driven in less than seven hours, but plan at least a long weekend to enjoy all the sights and activities along this famous highway. Take time to explore abandoned mining sites, scenic trails for hiking or biking, jeep tours over mountain passes and through wildflower meadows, natural hot springs perfect for soaking in glorious views, and Old West towns along the way.

Jeep ride to mountain pass from Silverton

Journey overview

Start your tour in Durango, stop at Silverton (48 miles by car), then head to Ouray (23 miles), Ridgway (another 10.5 miles), and on to Telluride (39 miles) or nearby Mountain Village, which is exquisite in summer. Continue on the western portion of the San Juan Skyway to Cortez (75 miles) and then return to Durango (46 miles).

Durango

Fish, float, or raft on the Animas River which runs through Durango.

Durango is well-known as the starting point for the historic Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. But with the free-flowing Animas River running through town and the rugged San Juan Mountains in view, it has become a gateway for outdoor activities in southwestern Colorado. In addition to the beauty of its natural setting, Durango’s Old West history and Southwest-inspired shopping and cuisine make it a top travel destination.
Stay at or visit the renowned Strater Hotel in Durango.

the haunted 19th century Strater Hotel, a prominent landmark in downtown, or at least take a tour. For a special treat, feast on a sumptuous breakfast at The Rochester Hotel and Leland House. Take a jeep tour into the mountains, play golf on a hillside, ride the train, or tube in the Animas River. 

 Ouray

Take the train or drive to Silverton, an Old West mining town.

Drive to Silverton, where you’ll think the time machine has zapped you back a century. Then continue to Ouray via the Million Dollar Highway (U.S. 550), a scenic mountainous stretch of hairpin curves.

The Million Dollar Highway is a spectacular drive.

Although it’s only 25 miles from Silverton to Ouray, this road, which was rebuilt in the early 1920s at considerable cost (hence the name), requires navigating narrow lanes on the edge of steep cliffs. Allow time to gasp at the crimson mountains of Red Mountain Pass as you navigate this breathtaking road.

Waterfall in Box Canyon
at Ouray

Called “Switzerland of America,” Ouray is the perfect base camp for exploring peaks and valleys of the San Juan Mountains, as well as remnants of mining towns,  by jeep, bike, or on foot. Fish or raft in the Uncompahgre River. Dip into the soothing hot springs, watch a glassblower at work, and marvel at the waterfall in Box Canyon.

Telluride

In addition to summer festivals, 
Telluride's red rock landscape is
fun to hike--this one to a waterfall.

A famous ski resort in winter, Telluride becomes a city of festivals in summer—bluegrass music, yoga, arts, and mountain biking. Stay in town to be close to activities and shopping. The entire town has been designated a National Historic Landmark District with all construction promoting its Victorian image.

Alternately, stay at beautiful Mountain Village, just a free gondola ride up the mountain, where panoramas viewed from 9,500 feet include magnificent peaks of the San Juan Mountains and plenty of outdoor adventure for all skill levels.

A free gondola take visitors between Telluride and Mountain Village.


Mesa Verde

Spend a day at Mesa Verde National Park for an historic look at how the Anasazi tribes lived and worked long before “civilization” came to this part of the country. Explore the cliff dwellings to learn about ancestral life in one of the most preserved archeological sites.

Mesa Verde National Park features Anasazi ruins.

For a less crowded look, check out Ute Mountain Tribal Park near Cortez, only open to the public with Ute guides navigating visitors into the wilderness adjacent to Mesa Verde's southern boundary. With only 1,300 visitors per year, Ute Mountain is a quiet spot where you can hike narrow trails and climb steep ladders onto high ledges.

Hieroglyphics are visible at Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Complete the loop by returning to Durango. Follow up with activities you might have missed the first time here, or just savor your memories of this spectacular journey.

Try a game of golf when you return to Durango.
TIPS:                                      

  • The byway passes through five million acres of both the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests.
  • Recreational activities are also available along the Byway at Mancos State Park and Ridgway State Park.
  • For more information: www.coloradodirectory.com/maps/skyway.html

This article originally appeared in Dallas Morning News.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Friday, January 8, 2021

Bargain-priced adventure



Visit national parks for free

Arches National Park in Utah is a geographical delight.

National parks have been called America’s Best Idea for good reason. To encourage people to visit these special places, every year the National Park Service designates days when fees to explore nature and the great outdoors are waived. On six days on 2021, you can visit parks that have a charge (many national park sites do not) for free!

Green is the dominant color in Olympic National Park in Washington.

The next fee-free day is January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and there’s no better time to enjoy our country’s history and natural beauty.

Additional days for fee-free entrance are April 17, the first day of National Park Week, and August 4, the one-year anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act.

Also mark your calendar for August 25, birthday of the National Park Service, September 25, National Public Lands Day, and the final fee-free day on November 11, Veterans Day.

Driving toward Mt. St. Elias, which dominates the landscape
of Wrangell-St.Elias National Park in Alaska.

Fee-free days make parks accessible to more people and provide a great opportunity to visit a new place or return to an old favorite, especially if your favorite park is one that normally charges an entrance fee. It’s good to note that only 108 of 419 National Park Service sites have an entrance fee, ranging from $5 to $35. Eliminating the entrance fee is a significant savings for popular parks including Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Olympic, and Acadia National Parks. Or you might discover a new favorite among less-visited national parks like Shenandoah, Sequoia, and Guadalupe.

Take a raft trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.


Note that fees such as reservation, camping, commercial tours, concession, and fees collected by third parties are not included in the waiver.

 Special passes

Any fourth grade student, including home-schooled learners who are 10 years old) can get a free annual pass through the Every Kid Outdoors program, Paper passes can be obtained by visiting the Every Kid Outdoors,  and these can be exchanged for the Annual 4thGrade Pass at federal recreation sites that charge Entrance or Day Use Fees.

Active duty military and citizens with a permanent disability can also get free passes.

Rafting and Hiking are popular activities in Big Bend National Park
in Texas, one of the lesser-visited parks.

If you are age 62 or older, the best travel bargain you can find is the lifetime national park senior pass for $80. Alternately, you can purchase an annual senior pass for $20 that is good for one year at all national park sites.. The senior pass allows all persons traveling in your car to also enter parks for free, up to four adults (Children under age 16 are always admitted free).

Many sites also offer discounts on amenities like camping, swimming, boating, tours, or shopping with the senior pass. You can purchase Senior Passes at a national park, online, or through the mail with an added processing fee. Contact https://store.usgs.gov/recreational-passes If you have a lifetime pass purchased under the previous $10 fee, it is still valid; but if you lose it and have to replace it, you’ll pay the higher fee. 

Waterfall in Yellowstone National Park

For $80 anyone of any age can buy an annual pass that allows unlimited entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation areas year round. For more information about discounted passes, visit America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass.

If you love America's national parks as much as I do, you’ll be happy to know that funds from all Senior Passes purchased in a national park go to a National Park Foundation Endowment.

What are you waiting for? Mark your calendar and go explore your national parks for free!

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

 



Saturday, January 2, 2021

Taking the leap: skydiving for the fun of it

The pure thrill of flying!

A rush of cold air presses against my body as the door of the small airplane opens. I try to hang my legs outside and step onto the wing support as instructed—so I can fling myself into the nothingness of wispy clouds. But, at 10,000 feet altitude, the force of the wind is stronger than anticipated, and I have trouble getting my body out the door.

Getting ready to leave the plane!


Quickly, the jumpmaster, who is harnessed snugly to my backside, counts one-two-three, and together we heave our bodies into the silent sky.

Exhilaration kicks in as I realize this is it! I’ve jumped out of a perfectly good airplane for the thrill of freefalling up to 130 mph straight down to earth.

I’m on a tandem flight with Matt, jumpmaster at Texas Skydiving Center near Lexington, Texas (about 50 miles east of Austin). This is my first skydive, but it’s free fall number 1,601 for him. Despite almost total coverage in body art--which puts Matt in a very different generation from mine--he is personable, professional, and reassuring.

We are airborne!

Before arriving, I had been instructed on what to eat and wear—for my comfort. At the skydiving center Matt gave instructions on land about what to expect as he carefully explained procedures for the jump. In the air, he keeps me informed of each step in the process—all of which is being recorded by a videographer. He wears the parachute, and it’s his job to steer during our soaring descent. I’m just along for the ride.

The pure thrill of flying

Once out of the plane, I’m surprisingly calm. The sensation I feel is of floating, not falling. I let go of all anxieties and trust Matt with my life. It’s his life, too, so I feel perfectly safe.

We flow through the air, above the clouds at first, and I wave to the videographer who is filming us from a camera attached to his helmet. The videographer is having one heck of a ride, much friskier than ours, as he maneuvers into positions for the best shots of Matt and me, the disappearing plane, and the approaching ground below.

Matt, my tandem partner, plays
hide and seek for the photographer.
The air is cold and eerily quiet.  My mouth is dry because I’m gasping from pure enjoyment and trying to smile for the camera (Note to self: Keep your mouth closed next time).

We plunge 5,000 feet in 40 seconds, although there’s little awareness of downward movement.  I wave to the videographer. Only later will I realize how comical I look--hair and facial skin stretched back tightly from the forceful wind.

Too soon, I feel a slight tug when Matt deploys the rainbow-hued, rectangular parachute that slows our downward descent. It’s now okay to remove the tight goggles necessary during the free fall. 

Now there’s time to appreciate the scenery--views of lakes and farmland in the rural landscape below. In about five or six minutes we zoom in for an upright landing exactly on the drop zone-- the perfect ending to my first skydive experience.

We're soaring above the clouds!

Tandem jumping is ideal for anyone with an adventurous spirit who doesn’t want to take the time to learn the technicalities of a full solo jump—at least the first time out. You get all the thrills of skydiving without the responsibility of remembering when and how to deploy the parachute.

Skydiving has gone mainstream

Judging from multiple offers found on group discount buying websites like Living Social and Groupon, more people are stepping out (literally) and taking the plunge. Has the public become more daring, or is the attraction of a large discount luring participants to this thrilling adventure?  When I first took advantage of such an offer, I thought it was a novelty and a one-time splurge. But then a year later I did it again—and my husband joined me—using such vouchers.

A perfect landing in nearby field.

Perhaps—like me—people are marking things off their bucket lists. Each year I find myself becoming braver and more willing to tackle activities that once seemed too crazy—and discovered that skydiving is not nearly as scary as I thought it might be. I decided to take the leap for no other reason than Why not?  

Some skydiving centers take only one or two people up at a time for tandem jumps; others take a plane load of participants who jump in rapid succession.  Of course, they will teach you how to jump on your own, if you’re so inclined. Videos and still images are an extra charge, but you’ll want this excellent remembrance of your brave adventure—and it gives you undisputable bragging rights.

 Photos by Larry Burmeier and Texas Skydiving Center.