Elliot Lake: A Little Outdoor Adventure

Early on this year, I made the decision to take the summer months and spend them with friends whom I didn’t get to see often and/or for significant periods of time. K and her husband, S, are in New Jersey (click here to read more about my time in NJ) and D and her husband, M, were in Northern Ontario, Elliot Lake to be exact. K and D are both teachers so they would both be on summer vacation. Rather than rushed long weekends or a single meal during which we’d try and catch up on everything that had happened since the last gathering, this summer would provide us with an opportunity to just hang out, to do nothing particularly special, besides the very special activity of spending time with each other.

Elliot Lake is located roughly 6 hours northwest of Toronto and is surrounded by so many lakes that many of them don’t have names, just numbers (take a look at this Google map view).

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Pull Off the Road & Find Yourself a Lake….

My friends moved to Elliot Lake 6 or 7 years ago and I’d been up to visit a few times but never in summer and was looking forward to taking advantage of the seasonal offerings. The city is an incredibly attractive spot for those who like/love the outdoors: ATV and hiking trails; more lakes than you could ever imagine for boating, fishing and swimming; Mississagi Provincial Park with its designation as a natural environment class park (both a recreational park and a natural reserve); its offering of, and close proximity to, campsites (some free of charge and without the need to reserve); and its prime location in the heart of the Deer Trail for motorcyclists.

While I enjoy a good trail walk, I cannot in good conscience describe myself as a full-fledged outdoor lover: I can be talked into a multi-day “hardcore” camping trip  – defined by me as having no bathroom facilities but a realistic chance of coming upon a bear (or a bear coming upon us) – for the “experience” but only by someone who has 1) completed many of these camping trips; and 2) has a story of successfully avoiding a bear encounter. But, to say that I would eagerly seek out this trip is a gross exaggeration.

Having said all that, I still love visiting Elliot Lake, despite the signs warning you that “You are in Bear Country”. One night during my stay, I missed all the excitement: my friend, D, woke and noticed that the motion detector light in the backyard was on. She parted the curtains and noticed a baby bear meandering.

I am a city girl, there is no denying it. I was born and raised in one and I would very definitely miss the variety on offer. On occasion, though… okay, maybe more frequently than ‘on occasion’ if truth be told, I feel the pull to get away, to go somewhere with more breathing room, greenery and peace and quiet. For me, Elliot Lake fits that bill.

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View from One of the Many Hiking Trails

On the first weekend, Serpent River (a nearby town) First Nation were holding their 24th Annual Powwow. The grounds were right off of Highway 17 with different coloured flags waving, attracting both those looking to attend the venue and, I would imagine, curious travellers. I’d never been to a powwow before and wasn’t sure what to expect. Dancing and music dominated the event: the former activity displayed a number of different styles and regalia – incredibly colourful, with feathers, shawls, beadwork and ribbons, while the latter consisted of drumming groups taking the lead during different parts of the event. I wish I’d known more about the history of First Nations in Canada, and particularly in Ontario, going in. Personally, the event highlighted for me how little I know about a very significant part of the historical landscape in Canada, one with such richness and complexity.

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Dancers at the 24th Annual Genaabajing Powwow

My friend, D’s, husband, M, loves motorized vehicles. I write this statement without having checked with him for accuracy but I’m fairly certain he’ll agree with me. He’s the son of a mechanic and rebuilt his own Mustang years ago. He rebuilt a bike for him and D, a VTX 1800 that I can declare, from personal experience, as being super comfy for a passenger, a boat (which he let me drive!) and an ATV (which I chose not to drive… if you’d seen our first trail you’d understand).

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On the Deer Trail: Visitor’s Tour on the VTX 1800…

Having said this, nothing about that collection of vehicles I’ve mentioned is unusual in Elliot Lake. It is the only place I’ve been where no one looks up when a motorcycle goes by… and many do!

Given his love for all things motorized, experience working on engines, love of classic cars (a love I share) and the utter bliss he experiences riding a motorcycle, it was no surprise to me when he announced his intention to open up a shop restoring classic bikes.

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Hutchinson Motorcycles & the VTX 1800

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Close up of the VTX 1800

 

M is working on rebuilding a 1963 Honda Benly for D….

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Speedometer for the 1963 Honda Benly for D

 

While, personally, I’m in love with this bad girl (we all know bikes are female, right?), a 1973 Honda CB350F.

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1973 Honda CB350F Before Shot

 

Needless to say, when I go for a visit, I’m getting different views of the city and its environs from multiple perspectives, including the ‘deep in the woods’ view:

Me & the ATV

Yes, That Really is the Size of the ATV and Yes, I Really am That Excited

If you ever have some time to head up to Elliot Lake, I really do recommend it. Hit the Deer Trail, in a car, ATV or motorcycle, whatever you have… it is breathtaking. It’s more… untouched – raw, I suppose, is the best word I can think of – than any place I’ve been in Ontario so far.

I got to complete my stay in the best way possible: my friends were looking after a friend’s cottage the last week I was there. We cooked, we ate, we read, we swam and we sat by the lake. I took in the sunset on the dock and the starlight on the balcony.

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Sunset on the Dock

I hope everyone had a great summer!

 

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What’s in New Jersey?

“What’s in New Jersey?”

That is almost always the immediate response when I tell people I’m headed to New Jersey. Once associated mainly with Atlantic City and its casinos and boardwalk, the mention of this northeastern state now provokes loud images and soundbites from “Jersey Shore”, the MTV reality TV show that followed several housemates spending their summer in the borough of Seaside Heights, which sits around the halfway mark on the coastal stretch known as the Jersey shore.

“I’m going to visit friends. They live by the water… the town has a really chilled and relaxed vibe,” I reply. 

“By the water…” The pondering begins. Silence follows. “You mean, the Jersey shore…???”

Sigh. No more needs to be said. Unbidden visions of JWoww and Snooki are suddenly bursting before our minds’ eye.  Locals are quick to counter that all that went down in Seaside, far south of Highlands and Monmouth Beach where I spend my time.

So… why a 3-week stay in New Jersey?

My friend, K, and her husband, S.

I met K almost 7 years ago in Tibet. She was traveling around Asia; I was taking a circuitous route back to Toronto from Auckland, my ‘home away from home’ for (almost) two glorious years. We met on a G Adventures tour (GAP Adventures at the time) that started in Beijing, took us on a 48-hour train journey to Lhasa, continued overland via jeeps through several smaller towns in Tibet, before ending the trip in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Point-and-Shoot Photos from Tibet, 2007

Lhasa – Circling the Potala Palace

Lhasa – Spotting the Moon

On the Road To Gyantse

On the Road To Gyantse

Desert Road, To Gyantse

Prayer Flags at Everest

Prayer Flags at Everest

Although we tried to keep in touch during the first few years after returning to our respective homes, life got in the way as it often does and contact became sparse and then more or less trailed off. In 2012, I had some time off and decided that it was about time to reconnect.

By this time, K and S had moved in together. While K was thrilled that we would be meeting up again, S was a little more wary. He’d never heard mention of me and the details of our friendship hardly allayed his concerns: we met halfway across the world 5 years before and the sum total of our interaction since was a few emails. And now I was coming to stay with them? To say he was concerned about his physical safety is not an exaggeration… he’s from Queens, NYC.

His reaction was understandable. Friendships are normally developed over months and years, not a week to 10 days. But there’s an intensity to travel and to the bonds that are formed during it: you begin to rely on one another, to look out for each other and to admit truths that you might be loathe to express to those who you see day in and day out. Your ‘travel friends’ are getting to know the you that’s coming into being, the one that changes and grows because of the travel, at the same time that you yourself are. And the longer you’ve been roaming, the more you look for those true connections, what with all your old and familiar friendships feeling so very far away.

Fast forward to today and I’ve met the families of both K and S, stayed in relatives’ homes near and far and had the privilege of attending their wedding.

When they think of me, they now also think of food.  Generally meat. Often on a spit. Did I mention I was invited to their Greek Easter celebration last year?

Greek Easter 2013

Adding skordalia to the beet filling for the pantzaropita

Adding skordalia to the beet filling for the pantzaropita

Homemade Dessert

Homemade Dessert

Food, Food and More Food

Food, Food and More Food

Lamb and Kokoretsi on Spits

Lamb and Kokoretsi on Spits

Lamb Close-Up

Lamb Close-Up

So it all seemed very natural that my stay ended up being dominated by food. Poor K now had to put up with two large appetites, her husband’s and mine! She would wake up thinking: What are we going to eat today?

Ingredients

Ingredients

I watched as K’s practiced hands made pita after pita after pita for one of the 4 or 5 savoury veggie pies (her own variation of spanakopita) we consumed during my stay. She’d layer the bottom of a cast iron pan with one pita before adding the filling (a combination of various veggies she’d grown in her garden, onion, garlic scapes and feta cooked down in a pot) then covering it with another layer of pita, folding over the edges of the bottom layer to seal everything in, then adding a generous topping of extra virgin olive oil. I very quickly understood why they purchased their olive oil in one gallon cans: it is used in a huge amount of Greek dishes from sauces, to appetizers, marinades and mains.

Rolling Out the Bottom Layer

Rolling Out the Bottom Layer

K's Garden Veggies for the Pita Filling

K’s Garden Veggies for the Pita Filling

One Gallon of Olive Oil... Disappears in No Time Flat

One Gallon of Olive Oil… Disappears in No Time Flat

Finished Product: Veggie Filled Pita

Finished Product: Veggie Filled Pita

 I learned how to make proper tzatiki, draining the cucumbers of excess water with a sieve and salt. Unsurprisingly, the larger the container of greek yogurt the happier everyone is. The tzatiki is topped off with a few whirls of extra virgin olive oil.

More Yogurt = More Tzatiki

More Yogurt = More Tzatiki

K showed me how to cut up the tomatoes properly for the Greek salad: take a small knife and make a scooping motion to carve out a section that includes a good chunk of the “meat”. If you do it well, you should be left with just the top of the tomato in your hand. I, however, did not do it well and was left with, instead, a tomato that looked like it had been cored. I hid my tomatoes under hers.

Finished Product: Greek Salad

Finished Product: Greek Salad

And, ah yes, last but not least, the meat! The marinade is a basic combination of oregano, salt, pepper, lemon juice and, of course, extra virgin olive oil, but man, is it ever A-MAZING! Grilled on a bbq or skewered on a spit and roasted, the combination of the sour bite of the lemon juice and the slight bitterness of the oregano with the salt and flavour of the meat (usually pork, but chicken occasionally) was drool-inducing.

Prepping the Pork for the BBQ

Prepping the Pork for the BBQ

Chicken and Pork on Spits

Chicken and Pork on Spits

Finished Product: Roasted Pork

Finished Product: Roasted Pork

My three weeks in New Jersey were food-filled, rather than activity-filled. I wanted the opportunity to hang out with K and S, something we’d never really had an opportunity to do given how we met. I wanted the chance to get to know them in their space, doing nothing special, the way you do with friends who live in the same city and the goal is just to spend time together.

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Costa Rica Continues: House Geckos, Lizards and Realizing I’m Not a Jungle Girl

So, where did we leave off?

Ah, yes… about to head up the mountainside dirt road. Now slicked with rain.

After a few tries to ensure the 4×4 function was working properly, I shifted into low gear and began what I expected to be a 5-minute (so I was told) slow climb up. The jeep lurched along the dirt road, rutted and pitted by small and large stones alike. Dark and muggy, the jungle’s moist branches and vines hung low and glistened eerily in the glare of the headlights. With only about 10 feet in visibility, the jungle felt closer and more oppressive and each hidden, unknown stretch more harrowing. Battling with the shadows and the darkness, I had spent far more than 5 minutes trying to follow (figure out might be more apt) the directions, sneaking in u-turns on the path when I was clearly wrong, then just randomly turning this way and that praying I’d find a sign (in the dark) that would point me on the right road. Eventually, I knew it was time to give in and ask for help.

Jungle Walk – Dominical, Costa Rica

Ah, thank goodness for that local SIM card. I tried the number the owner had given me. Three, four rings… no answer, then, a message in Spanish. In desperation, I began dialling the number in different variations: with the country code, without the country code, with a leading 0, etc. – none of them were working! Then I remembered that the owner, N, had provided a different number for her partner, B. He answered! It turns out, I had chosen the back path – while shorter, it was a little harder to navigate for newbies, particularly, in the dark. Kindly (I learned later that he was actually away with visiting family), he stayed on the phone guiding me all the way up. Upon arrival, he told me just to honk twice and N would come out.

A little surprisingly, I was greeted not only by N, but by 8 dogs as well, all varying in colour, size and shape, her rescues and adoptees. Trying to make my way to the little studio in the dark (no outdoor electricity really) without running them over was an additional challenge I didn’t feel I needed at that moment, but it was the least of the difficulties for the day.

N kindly gave me some food from her own kitchen and some tea. She showed me to the little studio and then left me to settle in.

Relief does not fully express how I felt at that point to have arrived in one piece with no damage to the car nor to myself, especially after having had to put serious deliberation into the possibility that I might crash into a tree, a car, an animal or just drive off the side of a cliff. I wolfed down the rice crackers with jam that N gave me and enjoyed a sip of hot tea.

View of Playa Hermosa and the Surrounding Jungle – Sunrise from the Studio, Casa Vista

Suddenly, loud scratching noises started up. I looked around, trying to isolate the sound. More scratching, along with a few bumps. From the corner of my eye, I noticed movement. Two pale, grey-coloured lizards had come racing out from behind the tall dresser in the corner. Completely startled, I really didn’t know what to do. I watched as one chased the other, back down behind the dresser then back up onto the wall above it. This, was too much.

I couldn’t do this… could I? I called N and informed her that there were two lizards in my studio. Two lizards? What colour were they? How big were they? Small, pale grey I replied. Oh, she said, those are house geckos; they’re kind of everywhere here in Costa Rica, nothing to be afraid of, they don’t go near humans. Oh, okay… I sputtered, embarrassed by my fear of them, not to mention my ignorance. How had I come to Costa Rica and not known that I would likely be sharing my space with house geckos?

My heart was still pounding. The geckos continued scuttling and scratching. Without fully realizing it, my anxiety continued to expand, now verging on panic. I tried to tell myself that I could handle this – after all, the way N described them, they were clearly harmless and ubiquitous here. Rationality does not help in these situations.

I reached for my cell and called my friend, L, dearly hoping that she would pick up. When she answered, I proceeded to relay the entire story to her from start to ‘finish’, picking up the car, getting lost, avoiding stray dogs, driving through the wall of rain, losing all concrete awareness of where I was or what was around me, getting lost again, driving up the wet, muddy, dark dirt road, getting lost, finally arriving and then, being accosted by geckos. I relayed the reaction of the owner and then, unbelievably (to me), began to cry, all the while feeling absolutely ridiculous for crying in reaction to a bunch of tiny-ass practically domesticated lizards that no one here felt any fear of. And as we continued talking, her discussing random topics to try and take my mind off things, it gradually dawned on me that my tears weren’t really a reaction to the geckos, but rather to the shock of having the hard-won relief I’d finally attained upon arrival so abruptly torn away by another unknown, another experience I wasn’t prepared for. Eventually, I made it to bed.

Any qualms I had about continuing to stay in this studio for the full two weeks completely disappeared when I awoke to the view.

Sunrise View From the Porch of Casa Vista

Deluding only myself, I vowed to stay the full two weeks.

True to N’s word, the two geckos clearly did not want any part of me, preferring to stay behind the dresser/armoire. Foolishly, I chose not to consider what might be going on hidden away from my now-alert eyes. Just as I began to get comfortable with the presence of the two clandestine geckos, I discovered that there were now babies, three to be precise.

Now, two adult geckos who tended to stay out of sight and in one place, that was one thing. But now I had three baby geckos who clearly hadn’t developed a fear of humans yet, who hadn’t figured out that they should stay in areas out of reach. They were now surprising me on the kitchen wall by the toaster oven, by the light switch, by the faucet and on the counter; then, upon entering the bathroom, there one sat, on the low, tiled shower wall. 

Baby Gecko (1 of 3) on the Shower Tile



The anxiety returned and multiplied. Even as I reminded myself that the baby geckos were hardly likely to come near the giant being that I must have resembled, their behaviour was not increasing my confidence in this conclusion (they clearly hadn’t developed the appropriate fear and flight responses yet). Finally managing to convince myself that I was physically safe, there was still the problem of gecko poo. I was finding a fair amount of it in the studio now that there were five of them. Given the tendency of the baby geckos to wander haphazardly, immune to the dangers that led adult geckos to hide, wasn’t it possible, if not likely, that one might decide to hang out over me as I slept and release a dropping?

Geckos like humidity, so my solution – as futile as it may have actually been – was to keep the fans blowing cool air around me to keep the geckos away. Well, it seemed to work anyways.

Each morning, I would awake to that spectacular view and any residual presence of the anxiety and difficulty sleeping from the night before would dissolve and I would renew my pledge to stay.

One day, I thought I’d spend some time hanging out at the other studio, Casa Selva. I had originally booked this studio, but due to an accidental double booking, I ended up at Casa Vista for the first few days of my stay. Casa Selva now sat empty, but the previous guests had mentioned that they’d seen a mouse (not so unusual in a jungle, I suppose), while N also remarked that she believed there were bigger geckos living there. I decided that just visiting would be fine with me.

Wearing just a sarong and my flip flops, I eased into a deck chair with my coffee in one hand and my book and cell phone settled on the low table beside it. Enjoying the glimpse of water below that peeked out from between the trees, I rested my feet on the low railing and leaned back into the cushion. I felt my breathing slow, the light wind teasing my hair and skin.

Remember the porch from Casa Selva…?
Suddenly, I felt something land on my upper left arm. From the corner of my eye, I saw green. A leaf perhaps? I desperately wanted it to be, but it had more volume and some weight to it. I realized it had to be… well, a THING. A mottled scream left me and I jumped out of the chair, flinging my left arm out instinctively, knocking the object off its comfortable perch on my limb. Drops from the forgotten coffee in my right hand sloshed onto my sarong. I looked down and to the left, having caught a glimpse of the THING arch and land on the corner of the porch. A green lizard, 7 to 8 inches in total length, roughly half of that made up by its tail. It stared at me calmly, unaware of why its choice of my arm as a resting place could possibly have resulted in such a violent upheaval. I did the only thing I could think of: I took its picture with my cell phone. 

(Sadly, I’m having some trouble retrieving my own image of the lizard from my old SIM card, so for now, here’s a close-up shot of the same type of lizard, a green anole, from ‘caspar s’ and flickr, via Wikipedia)

Neotropical green anole on vegetation.jpg

Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neotropical_green_anole

I looked down at my left arm and saw scratches from the lizard’s nails, a perfect impression of where at least one of its feet took hold during its very brief stay on my appendage. I wasted no time leaving that porch. Clearly, I was not meant to stay at Casa Selva. When I saw N next, I told her about the green lizard that docked briefly on my arm and showed her the nail marks and the cell phone snapshot. She was in absolute disbelief: in the eight years she’d been living in Costa Rica, she’d never heard of a lizard touching a human being and had told me as much on my first night when I called in a panic. She laughed that she’d never be able to make that statement again!

The Hammock Under the Porch: My Spot for Napping, Reading & Spotting Howler Monkeys

Despite my not-so-pleasant encounters with house geckos and green anole lizards, all the other birds and animals that resided in the jungle were captivating. Napping in one of the hammocks, I awoke one afternoon to the sounds of munching above me. Shuffling to the right edge, where I could see past the porch roof, I craned my head out searching for the source of the noise. Happily ensconced in a cecropia tree (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecropia) was a howler monkey enjoying a commonly-sized leaf from said tree. It continued to munch away contentedly, oblivious to the human laying below staring at it wide-eyed.

Another day, I was cooling off in the pool when I heard this fwoop-fwoop-fwoop-fwoop sound above my head. Looking up, I caught just a glimpse of the bird now in a glide at the end of its short trip, the unmistakable multicolour bill and body of a toucan. Another soon arrived and they swooped back and forth from a tree at one end of the pool to another on the opposite end. I would lean back and just watch, admiring the powerful sound of their wings beating the air. (Unfortunately, this picture is also, currently, locked away in the old SIM card).

Can You Spot the Lizard? – Hacienda Baru, National Wildlife Refuge

Resting White Ibis Seen at Hacienda Baru, National Wildlife Refuge

White-headed Capuchin Monkey – Nauyaca Waterfalls Horseback Riding Tour

Each time I was lulled into thinking that my comfort level with Costa Rica and its indigenous creatures was turning the corner, a new encounter would send me plummeting back to the soothing image of a nice, enclosed modern hotel room: night would return and the baby geckos would make their way out to surprise me in odd locations; I would return home from dinner, flashlight out to illuminate my foot path, when my eyes would land instead on the burly cockroach about 2/3 the size of my foot (I’m a size 6.5) standing just outside my door; a spindly-legged black spider that looked like a 5-year old had drawn it, would scuttle off with astonishing speed, the flip flop in my hand barely moving before the arachnid had disappeared from view. The final straw, though, that thoroughly decimated my determination to stay the full two weeks was the collection of ants I found in my bed, whose source I located on the next night after which I promptly drowned what I thought was the opening, along with a trail of ants, with a heavy spray of Raid.

Willing to finally admit defeat by the second last night of my Costa Rica stay (my bizarre way of balancing my need to ‘prove myself’ with giving in), I made up my mind to spend the last night in a hotel by the airport, which turned out to be a wise choice that had nothing to do with the country’s lizards or insects: on my drive back to San Jose, a day earlier than originally planned, I encountered a 2 to 3 hour delay due to an accident on the main highway that led up and over a mountain, blocking the one northbound lane leading to the capital city. I never would have made my flight had that happened on the day of my flight!

In the end, I had to concede that I couldn’t cut it. Friends from tropical locations found it hilarious that I was afraid of the geckos but I’m from Canada! The uneasiness that started with the adult geckos and grew with the disturbing innocence of the baby geckos only multiplied thereafter with the hefty cockroach, the super fast stick figure-like spider, the line of ants and the other foreign flying, crawling and buzzing insects.

But the truth that I am loathe to admit is simple: none of the incidents listed are unusual or foreign in Costa Rica (or in many other countries for that matter); I am the odd one out. I am the one who could not get comfortable with or used to my surroundings. I’ve always thought that I could handle anything that travel threw at me and I suppose I hung in there long enough to not be totally embarrassed; nevertheless, it saddens me to think that this city girl was unable to divest herself of that layer and adjust to her surroundings. I’d like to think that one day I will overcome my fear of geckos (and the like) and return to Costa Rica or head to some other new tropical destination with nothing but an appetite for more adventure, but the nagging voice in my head is telling me that perhaps, I’m just not a jungle girl.

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