Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Yoho National Park of Canada

Yoho, named for a Cree word expressing awe, is a park of rock walls, waterfalls and glacial lakes. It's a park with snow-topped mountain peaks, roaring rivers and silent forests. It's a park whose history is bound up with a railroad: spiral tunnels inside mountains and stories of runaway trains.

Established in 1886, the park currently spans 1,310 square kilometres (507 square miles) on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, and borders Banff National Park to the east and Kootenay National Park to the south.

Yoho's craggy peaks and steep rock faces posed an enormous challenge for Canada's early explorers. The mountains that were the curse of railway builders are responsible for the park's many waterfalls including Laughing Falls, Twin Falls, Wapta Falls and one of Canada's highest at 254 m (833 ft.), Takakkaw Falls. Silt carried by streams from melting glaciers high on the mountains is responsible for the deep, rich turquoise colour of Emerald Lake and Lake O'Hara.

Water is responsible for creating a natural rock bridge over the Kicking Horse River. Torrents have worn through a solid rockbed leaving a flat-rock bridge. Water erosion has also formed another Yoho marvel: balanced boulders on tall pillars of glacial till, called Hoodoos, found in the western end of the park.

Many of British Columbia's plants and animals reach their eastern extension in Yoho. The high peaks of the Continental Divide wring out the precipitation remaining in clouds moving eastward from the Pacific Ocean. This creates pockets of wet belt forest where coastal species such as devil's club, western red cedar and western hemlock thrive.

One of the world's most important fossil finds, the Burgess Shale, is located in Yoho. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1981, the Burgess Shale Formation contains the fossilized remains of more than 120 marine animal species dating back 515 million years. The Burgess Shale World Heritage Site is now incorporated into the larger Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site with Yoho, Kootenay, Banff and Jasper National Parks and Mt. Assiniboine, Mt. Robson and Hamber Provincial Parks.
Some Yoho facts

* 28 mountain peaks more than 3000 m in height
* Takakkaw Falls, with a free fall of 254 m, is the third highest in Canada
* over 400 km of hiking trails
* most abundant large mammal in the park: mountain goat

Points of interest

Wapta Falls (24 km west of Field)
In 1858, near Wapta Falls, a pack horse kicked explorer James Hector in the chest, and the Kicking Horse River got its name. Wapta Falls is the full width of the river and drops 30m (100'). A short drive off the TransCanada Highway takes you to the start of an easy 2.4 km trail to the falls.

Hoodoos (22 km west of Field, in Hoodoo Creek Campground)
It's worth the steep hike to see these capped pillars of glacial debris. The 1.6 km trail starts in Hoodoo Creek Campground.

Natural Bridge (3 km west of Field, on the the Emerald Lake Road)
The Kicking Horse River has carved a natural bridge through solid rock, 1.6 km from the Trans-Canada highway on the Emerald Lake Road.

Emerald Lake (11 km west and north of Field, on the Emerald Lake Road)
Emerald Lake is popular for sightseeing, canoeing and hiking.

Yoho Valley Road (3 km east of Field)
Travel 13 km on this narrow, steep road beside the Yoho River to see Takakkaw Falls. Leave trailers at the parking lot across from Monarch Campground. Facilities on the Yoho Valley Road include Monarch and Kicking Horse Campgrounds, seasonal accommodation and viewpoints. The road is snowbound from mid-October to mid-June; it is used by cross country skiers in the winter.

Takakkaw Falls (13 km north of the TransCanada Highway, at the end of the Yoho Valley Road)
With a free-fall of 254 metres, Takakkaw Falls is one of the highest waterfalls in Canada.

Lower Spiral Tunnel Viewpoint (8 km east of Field)
A fascinating display explains the history and operation of the spiral tunnels. From the platform, visitors have a spectacular view of the Yoho Valley, Yoho Glacier and the lower spiral tunnel portals in Mt. Ogden.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Victoria Falls, Zambia

Soaking up the power of Africa's mightiest waterfalls

By Andrea Davoust

While in Zambia on a work assignment, I took the first opportunity to escape from the dreary capital, Lusaka, and visit Victoria Falls, which are a six-hour bus ride away through flat, dry savannah. In fact, African public transportation schedules being what they are (“when it is full o'clock” is as close as it gets to a departure time), it took me and my friend Leila most of our Saturday to reach the characterless town of Livingstone, then the park.

We first heard the low rumble. Then we came across the life-size statue of David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer of Doctor-Livingstone-I-presume fame. As the first European to have seen the falls in the mid-19th century, he named them in honor of his monarch, Queen Victoria. A little further down the path, we caught our first glimpse of the cataracts. Stretching as far as the eye could see, curtains of furious white water tumbled down, divided by the rocks jutting from the crest of the falls. A massive cloud of spray rose from the gorge, hiding the depths of the chasm.

As we walked down the path that paralleled the falls and led to a narrow footbridge spanning the gorge, we noticed that all the people coming in our direction were soaked. Continuing beneath the protection of the trees, we began to feel fine drops, which, once on the bridge, turned into a literal upside-down rain, so thick was the spray. “Hence the clever stand renting out raincoats back there!” shouted Leila, as she started to run towards the other end. But the sun playing on the drizzle had created a beautiful rainbow, a sharp circle leaping over the walkway and plunging into the gorge. Later, as the sun descended over the far side of the falls, the light turned the haze into a golden cloud. The next day, we made our way to the bungee jumping center on Victoria Bridge, which spans the second gorge a few hundred meters downstream, linking Zambia with Zimbabwe. As we reached the entrance, 120 meters above the rocks and rapids of the Zambezi way below, my knees went weak. How could my so-called friend have talked me into hurling myself off that bridge? Feeling hollow inside, I trudged to the jumping platform, amid the traffic of indifferent African women carrying bundles on their heads. As the instructors strapped my gear on, they directed a steady stream of chatter at their (idiotically consenting) “victim”, to distract me from what was coming. I had picked the gorge swing, so I was to step off the structure, not drop headfirst. “Look straight ahead, not down, and when we count to three, just walk,” they told me.

My friend was almost in tears as the instructors gently pushed her into the void. She screamed all the way down. Bounced up. Fell again, still screaming. Later, she swore that she would “never again” perform such a jump, but it was too late - we had both earned our bragging rights in one of the world’s most amazing natural sites.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Fairytale in Interlaken, Switzerland

Skydive in the morning and then relax in an alpine village

By Josh Faircloth

Switzerland is a country of picturesque mountain ranges and quaint little alpine villages. Alpen HausI had always wanted to visit this beautiful country and now I was finally getting my chance. However, having spent the whole day on a train, I was starting to wear down and my excitement was dwindling to say the least.

A bus ride was in order before we would arrive at our final destination, but as the bus approached, I fel sense of dread boiling up within. It was getting late in the evening and I hadn’t booked accommodations, so we would have to search in the rain for a bed.

As the bus pulled off and meandered along the roadway, my spirits began to brighten a little as the scenery developed before me. The mountains gently descended down to meet the calm waters of an alpine lake. Outside my window, a rainbow appeared over the water, forming a scene so lovely, I went from a state of near exhaustion to an almost giddy exuberance. When the bus slowed to a halt, I stepped off with renewed energy and an eagerness to explore my new surroundings.

Interlaken was to be the home base for my Swiss adventure. This medium sized town is located in central Switzerland between the lakes Thun and Brienz. It offers plenty of shopping, nice architecture, and a variety of restaurants, but what really brings people to Interlaken is the wide variety of activities available due to its location in the Jungfrau region of the Swiss Alps.

Alpen ViewThe mountains around the city provide some of the finest skiing and snowboarding in the world during the cold months of the year when snow blankets the landscape. In the summer, extreme sports take center stage, with multiple companies offering an assortment of choices including bungee jumping, paragliding, river rafting, sky diving, hiking, ice climbing, mountain biking, glacier walks, canyoning, and for the particularly strong of stomach, zorbing.

Interlaken is surrounded by modestly sized mountains in the forefront, with bigger mountains in the distance. While the whole scene is impressive, the smaller mountains tend to shield the higher peaks from view, so I set out to get a better look from some of the neighboring towns. I had read in a guide book about a small village called Gimmelwald perched high in the mountains, and seeing that it wasn’t far away, I decided to make that my day trip destination.

The first stop was a town by the name of Lauterbrunnen. After stepping off the train and walking away from the station over a small hill, the panorama that unfolded before my eyes left me almost speechless. Snow-capped mountains formed a majestic stone wall around the narrow green valley.

Numerous waterfalls poured over the sides of the cliffs, adding to a scene unlike any I had ever observed. We ventured to the edge of town, where we found a small path that cut through a rolling green pasture. We followed the trail as it led to an outcrop carved into the stone mountain directly behind one of the waterfalls.

While trying not to slip on the wet rock floor, we reached out to try to touch the water Viewcascading down just beyond the railing. After a few minutes, we slowly began our way out of the mist and back toward the station to hop on a bus toward Gimmelwald, not knowing if it could possibly top what we had already experienced, but eager to find out.

The easiest way to get to Gimmelwald is by gondola. Our gondola cabin was almost completely full, but almost everyone continued up the mountain when we stepped off. Walking outside, I was immediately overjoyed at what I found. Gimmelwald had no tourist office.

There were no streets lined with storefronts. The only sights to see were the mountains all around and the village itself. As we walked along the main street, or rather the main path, we passed quaint little houses and a fenced in lawn with a few chickens and a couple goats. I stopped in front of one particular spot that caught my eye; a house that seemingly sat on the edge of a cliff overlooking the snowy peaks that made up the backyard.

By this time, we were getting a little hungry, so I rang the doorbell on a shop that advertised for an assortment of homemade snacks. After a short delay, a young man of about high school age opened the door and invited us inside the store, which was actually the front room of his home’s basement. We stopped at another house that offered sandwiches and drinks. There were tables set up on the front porch, so we sat down and enjoyed our lunch in the warm sun and crisp alpine air.

That night, I thought about Interlaken with its architecture, friendly people, and amazing variety of exciting things to do, but what I will remember most was there in Gimmelwald. I couldn’t help but love the simplicity and the relaxed nature. Slowing down and appreciating the small things are a fact of life there. That it was also one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen seemed like icing on the cake.

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