Paddling the South Saskatchewan River: Old Bindloss Ferry to Estuary

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Close encounter of the rattler kind and storm of the sesquicentennial behind us – Ma Nature went all out with a noisy and bright light show for Canada’s 150th – we launched two canoes and a single kayak at an old ferry site on the South Saskatchewan River. Heading downstream, we were searching for a little r’n’r – with a dash of history on the side.

Paddling the South Saskatchewan River

In honour of Canada’s 150th year, we decided to forgo modern forms of transport for a couple of days and paddle our way back into history – before planes, trains and automobiles – back to a time even before this great country called Canada came into existence.

Our starting place was the old Bindloss Ferry site, five kilometres (3 miles) downstream of Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Suffield. The crumbling remains of a concrete approach for the ferry crossing was perfect for sorting gear away from the mud. It’s early July. River levels are dropping. The spring melt is pretty much done, making canoeing and gravel bar camping a little easier.

Boats ready to launch for our 3-day river adventure. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Day one’s route would take us on a gentle, approximately 21 km (13 mi) float down through the coulees of the Middle Sand Hills, past deer grazing along the still-green grasslands, beaver plying the waterways, and cliff swallows dipping into the mud on the riverbank to build their clay castles in rocky outcrops.

Sandy Point Bridge over the South Saskatchewan River. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

We continued to a point just below Sandy Point bridge and its established, but busy campground, where an open sand and gravel and rattlesnake-free shoreline became home for the night. Nighthawks serenade from above as we sit riverside, watching the sky turn golden.

Sunset on the river. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

River Day Two

The second day – with almost 32 km (20 mi) of river travel – should have felt a little more difficult. The light push of the wind, the warmth of the sun and the catch and release of sauger – tiny fish in comparison to the massive sturgeon that inhabit the South Saskatchewan River – had us drifting along without much of a worry. Popping back and forth along the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, the river meandered effortlessly in a northeastly direction.

A gaggle of geese pulled up onshore as we drifted by. Three young owls took practice flights in the low trees along the bank. Sandpipers ran along the mudflats. A great blue heron flew effortlessly downstream.

Ma Nature held true to course and gave us a little test of wind in our faces for a short stretch of the journey. She relented, came back in from behind and allowed us to drift down using umbrellas as sails. The ghostly abutments of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) bridge that spanned the river in 1914 came into sight.

Canoe hounds could care less about the ghostly railway abutments in the distance! (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Long abandoned, the concrete pillars on a midstream island provided the perfect backdrop for camp – with ready-built shade. Unloading quickly, it was all hands in the cooler for happy hour. Deer crisscross the river up and downstream. Beavers swim around us. White pelicans bob in slow upstream eddies. Relaxed? Oh yeah – nature’s medicine is working its magic!

Camp perfection! (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Final Float to the Pullout

We can hear the meal bell from the nearby Hutterite colony as we prep for a leisurely breakfast. Reluctantly, we load up and drift down past the flood-blasted muddy confluence with Red Deer River. The channel becomes a wide flat lake for a short stretch. Tip: stay river right to avoid having to walk on water across the shallow sections.

After the confluence of the Red Deer and the South Saskatchewan, the river stretches across like a lake. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

It is somewhere right in here, on river left, that Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) explorer, surveyor and trader Peter Fidler built Chesterfield House in the fall of 1800. HBC established the trading post on the South Saskatchewan River to provide competition for the Northwest Company (NWC) and other Canadians trading for fox, wolf, badger and beaver pelts with the Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan and Gros Ventre in southern Alberta.

It is also somewhere right in here that his First Nations wife, Mary Mackegonne, gave birth to their third son George on November 10th of that same year. Fidler and his family would spent two seasons at the original post before it was abandoned due to increasing tensions with the Gros Ventre.

The post was resurrected in the winter of 1804/05, left for almost another two decades and then rebuilt as a temporary trading post and palisade about seven km (4 mi) downstream of the confluence in 1822 – the same year Peter Fidler passed away in his post at Fort Dauphin. In April of 1823, Chesterfield House was abandoned for good.

Sadly, there are no visible remains of either trading post, but the fact that we were paddling alongside the past was some kind of Canada cool.

Empressive – packing five adults, two dogs, two canoes & a kayak into one return shuttle vehicle! (Photo: Megan Kopp)

If You Go:

  • Our trip ran from the Old Bindloss Ferry in Alberta at Km 255 (5 km east of the CFB Suffield boundary) to the Estuary Ferry in Saskatchewan, just past Km 320. We covered 65 km distance on the South Saskatchewan River easily in 2 ½ days.
  • We accessed the put-in point at the Old Bindloss Ferry landing on the north side of the river. Range Road 2-3 is graveled down to a band of willows just above the river, but be aware the lower section is not maintained and may have washouts in wet weather.
  • A second vehicle was left at the take-out point at the Estuary Ferry (talked with ferry operator to ensure that where it was parked was okay before leaving)
  • Buy a copy of Prairie River, by Dawn Dickinson and Dennis Baresco. It may be dated, but the cultural and natural history information and maps inside this small volume are still valuable. You can find it online in books at Paddle Alberta’s store.
  • You can access additional maps online at Alberta River Basins. Flow levels can be monitored by accessing the Alberta Rivers: Data and Advisories Mobile App on this same page.

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Machu Picchu’s Story in Stone

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Sitting in the Vilcabamba mountain range of Peru, perched high above the Vilcanota River, is a sacred place. They call it Machu Picchu. Viewed from above it looks like a great bird – like a condor –  turning in full flight. Up close, it is a key to a past life. Machu Picchu’s story is shared in the carefully considered placement of rock.

The Story of a Name

The original name of Machu Picchu is unknown. Archaeologist and explorer Dr. Hiram Bingham gave the city its current name in 1911. It is the same name of the mountain that rises above it. Machu means “old” in the Quechua language. Picchu means “mountain” or “peak.”

The namesake old mountain itself towers at a height of 3,050 meters (10,004 feet) to the south. Waynapicchu (young peak) rises 2,750 m (8,965 ft) to the north. The buildings and terraces of Machu Picchu sprawls out on the col between the two peaks, sitting at around 2,400 m (7,824 ft) above sea level.

Building Machu Picchu’s Story

According to archaeologists, building Machu Picchu’s story began during the reign of Inca Pachakuteq in 1438. It took about 30 years to complete the initial phases of construction. An exclusive group of priests and priestesses and important members of the Inca government lived here.

Machu Picchu’s terraces as viewed from the urban section of the site. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Machu Picchu is divided into two sections: agricultural and urban. The agricultural section contains more than 100 terraces. It covers over half of the built area within the site. Experts estimate that the terraces were capable of producing nearly 9,000 kilograms (19,840 pounds) of corn each year. The urban section holds the main temples, residences and storehouses.

The stony enclave became an educational center for future leaders until 1537 when war broke out. As a result of the conflict, Machu Picchu was slowly and systematically abandoned over the next eight years. It soon became a distant memory, its presence known only to locals.

Machu Picchu’s Story of Rediscovery & Restoration

1895 – Peruvian government restores the old Inca trail from Ollantaytambo to Quillabamba (passing below Machu Picchu, alongside the Vilcanota river)

1907 – Two local families move into Machu Picchu and farm the terraces

1911 – Dr. Hiram Bingham (Yale University) is guided to Machu Picchu for the first time

1912 – National Geographic and Yale University lead an expedition to open tombs, uncover buildings, photograph buildings and complete topographical research

1914 – Third expedition by Bingham; explores trails leading to Macchu Picchu

late 1914 to early 1934 – Machu Picchu is left alone again

1934 – Spanish government and Patronato de Arqueologia (archaeological sponsorship) take over, start to remove growth and begin restoration

1941 – Machu Picchu is declared a National Archaeolgical Park

1946 – Construction on a road to connect the archaeological site from the begins

1948 –  Road opens and a tourist hotel is built near ruins

1981 – The site is declared a Historical Sanctuary by Peruvian government

1983 – Machu Picchu becomes a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site

Hidden Stories Seen Today

Half of the Inca cross, placed in front of the Temple of Three Windows. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Dig a little deeper, look a little closer and Machu Picchu’s story starts to emerge. The Sacred Plaza includes the Main Temple, the Temple of Three Windows and the Priest’s House. There is half of an Incan Cross placed in front of the Temple of the Three Windows.

Why only half of a cross? Because the trio of open windows face west. When the sun come in the windows, the light hits the cross and the shadow that is cast completes the cross. Circumstance? While it may seem like it, this was a result of careful consideration and planning.

Paying Attention to Detail

Precision stone work and fine quality granite are signs of important buildings. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Compare and contrast the granite stones used in the buildings. Notice the range of quality. A finer grade of stone was used to build royal residences and temples. The stone placement is precise. Primitive stonework can be found in the terraces, storehouses and other less important buildings. Read the stones, learn a little more of Machu Picchu’s story.

Part of the Inca Royal Residence. Notice the round rock on the patio, hold water. Another stone, another purpose – as a mirror for astronomical observations! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Look at the doorways. Some entrances have a double-jamb doorway. This means that it the entrance to a sacred place, such as the priest’s quarters and areas used for ceremonies.

Double-jamb doorway in Machu Picchu. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Many doorways are quite tall. There is a reason. Inca rulers were carried everywhere. The extra height was necessary to facilitate movement of the Inca.

Entrance doors are almost always trapezoidal in shape. They look cool, but there is more to it. Earthquakes are common in the region. Trapezoidal shapes are strong. They resist movement.

Now, check out the roofs. Cylindrical stones were stacked in the gables. Decorative? No, they had a purpose. These stones were used to tie down wooden roof beams to keep the roof from blowing off in strong winds.

Note the less precise stone construction of the guardhouse and the tie down rocks for the roof. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Machu Picchu’s Story of Random Stones

This carved granite altar was used for funeral rituals, sacrifices and offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Funeral Rock next to the Guardhouse is a granite block delicately carved into an altar. It was used for funeral rituals, sacrifices, healings and offerings to Pachamama, Mother Earth. Most people see the large funeral rock, few see the smaller stones.

Machu Picchu’s story includes these miscellaneous stones found around the funeral rock are called the Apacheta. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Apacheta is a collection of medium-sized volcanic, limestone, sandstone, and other stones not native to the area. They are now found littered around the funeral rock. It is thought that these stones were brought by pilgrims as offerings during Inca times. When a pilgrim crosses a mountain pass (abra) or visits a sacred place for the first time, carry a stone to make an offering to gain protection from mountain spirits.

Each stone in Machu Picchu holds a story – a story of purpose, a story of vision, a story of belief. Machu Picchu’s story is written in stone.

Read more about the Historic Sanctuary at Machu Picchu on the UNESCO WHC website.

What stories did you uncover in your visit to this storied place?

Planning to Go?

A wide selection of accommodation options can be found in nearby Agua Calientes, also known as Machupicchu.

The Wild Side of Machu Picchu

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Machu Picchu – architectural wonder, Inca monument, historic gem. All are fitting descriptions for this fortress carved of stone, but I’m going to detour for a moment and take you along for a walk on Machu Picchu’s wild side.

Discovering Machu Picchu’s Wild Things

Thousands of visitors flock to Peru’s Andes on a quest to tick off Machu Picchu on their bucket lists – and for good reason. Machu Picchu is a stunning example of Incan engineering prowess.

We finally made it! (Credit: Megan Kopp)

Stone temples and carefully placed sacred rocks perch on a pass between 2,750-metre high Waynapicchu and the 3,050-metre high Machupicchu mountains. The sheer majesty of the view and the architecture make everything else irrelevant…

… until a bear walks by.

Bears? In Machu Picchu?

Apparently.

I wish we’d been one of the fortunate ones to have witnessed the spectacle of the Andean bear sauntering through Plaza Principal or scaling the terraces in the Agricultural sector, but just the fact that they are here is captivating.

Lucky visitors have videoed Andean bears – also known as spectacled bear – at Machu Picchu.

A Little Llama Love

While we didn’t personally see any bears during our visit – next time! –  we did find a wild side to Machu Picchu, starting with the llamas.

Photo star of Machu Picchu! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

Llamas are not exactly wild. They were brought to the site as workers. Yup, they are the lawnmowers that keep the terraces cropped. We saw four and one sweet baby still wobbly on its feet. The llamas are free to wander, but why would they want to  go anywhere else when they can get free food with little competition and get to pose for the paparazzi whenever they want?

Chillin’ Cinchillas

Technically, the large, bushy-tailed rodents that scamper around the boulders – often overlooked by visitors – are called viscachas. But they are members of the chinchilla family. Their fur matches the colours of the stones for perfect camouflage.

Looking like a cross between a rabbit and squirrel, the southern viscacha is a Machu Picchu original! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

 

Taking Flight

Using spiders as hosts to feed their young, this wasp is a killer! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

While the spider wasp looks threatening – and indeed probably are to spiders – this curious insect is worth a closer look.

Birds abound in Machu Picchu, but finding the right opportunity to take a pic can be a bit of a challenge.

This rufous-collared sparrow serenaded us from the treetops while standing below the guardhouse. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

We don’t always photograph birds as the camera we carry is not meant for that level of photography, but the avian life at Machu Picchu demands an attempt.

Sugar buzz! Come a little closer and sit still for a moment would you! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary spans across 32,590 hectares. It lies on the eastern slope of the Andes. Humid montane forests drop down towards the Amazon basin. Over 400 species of birds have been recorded in this prime habitat.

Temple of the Condor

Birds held high court in the world of the Inca as well. The Temple of the Condor was named for its appearance, stretched out like the wings of the condor.

The rock outcrops of the Temple of the Condor look like the wings of its namesake. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

Take Time to Smell the Flowers

Machu Picchu may be on the bucket list for its impressive architecture and cultural legacy, but don’t pass up the opportunity to take a moment to stop and smell the flowers – or listen to the birds or watch the insects or enjoy a chillin’ chinchilla – along the way.


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Exploring Northern Spain: Hiking Urkiola

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

Hikers look for parks and natural spaces to explore wherever they go – and we are no exception. Pulling out the map, we spied Urkiola Natural Park, in the heart of Basque Country just south of Durango in northern Spain. A quick internet search unearthed hiking options worth investigating. 

The road winds up and up and up from Durango to Urkiola Pass.

The Sanctuary at Urkiola Pass. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Driving past the imposing Urkiola Sanctuary shrouded in fog, we parked and began the gentle uphill climb into the heart of the park. From the Sanctuary, it is easy to follow the signposts indicating the route to go up Mount Urkiolagirre.

Urkiolagirre is one of the most important stockbreeding zones in Urkiola Natural Park. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The fog slowly lifted. Wire fences separate herds of belled livestock. The path climbs gently up the verdant pasture land.

It takes about half an hour to reach the small summit of Urkiolagirre, where photogenic Basque ponies demand to be photographed. Look for the orientation table with the names of some of Urkiola’s limestone peaks and other notable points of interest.

Young Basque pony in Urkiolagirre, one of the most important stockbreeding zones in Urkiola Natural Park. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

 

Pol-Pol spring and its iron-rich water. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The way down from the peak leads to the Asuntze col, with the Pol-Pol spring and its reddish waters. There are several well-marked paths from the col. A signpost lists various trail options. We chose to head up to Larrano.

Santa Barbara Chapel on Larrano Col. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

It took less than half an hour to  climb up to the Larrano col. Here stone herder cabins and the tiny Santa Barbara Chapel capture the imagination.

This lush, grassy pass overlooking the town of Durango would be a good place to stop, but the rocky series of small summits to the southeast were calling our names.

Up and up and up – the trail winds to the first summit

There isn’t a readily identifiable trail. We headed up, following a fence line and animal trails and then funnelling into a rocky access point where a more obvious route appeared.

A short scramble up to the first summit. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A short scramble and we summited the first small peak with stunning views of the countryside. Hiking options in northern Spain are endless. Urkiola Natural Park is only one of the hidden gems in this region.

Have you hiked in northern Spain? What gems have you uncovered?

Unique summit marker in Urkiola Natural Park. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

When You Go: 

Read more about the Hiking Routes through Urkiola Natural Park here.

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Exploring Northern Spain: The Painted Caves of Cantabria

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

Cave paintings – they are history, art and exploration all rolled into one sweet package. How could we come to northern Spain and not check out some of their painted caves?

First up, the star of northern Spain’s painted caves – Altamira.

Cave painting of Northern Spain

 

The Cave of Altamira

Altamira has an intriguing history – in addition to the prehistoric paintings dating back some 14,000 years.

This painted cave is 30 kilometres (19 miles) west of Santander on the northern coast of Spain, in the province of Cantabria. A roof collapse blocked the entrance 13,000 years ago, sealing off the paintings inside. In 1868, a hunter stumbled across the treasure. Eight years later, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola saw the cave for the first time.

An amateur archaeologist, Sanz de Sautuola returned to excavate the entrance to the cave. During one of his visits, his daughter Maria found paintings of bison on the ceiling of a side chamber.

Nobody believed that the paintings were paleolithic art. After 20 years of controversy about their status, the authentic nature of the Altamira paintings was recognized in 1902. Archaeologists discovered engraved animal bones in subsequent digs. One of these carved bones dated to 14,480 years ago.

Maria’s chamber contains most of the paintings. There are red hematite and black charcoal bison images, horses, and a doe – which at 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) is the biggest painting in the collection. Altamira was finally designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 – more than 100 years after its discovery.

After Altamira, everything is decadence.” – Picasso stating his belief that in Altamira, art had reached maturity.

Neo-Cave

On one hand, a visit to Altamira is exciting. On the other, it is a mixed bag. The original painted cave closed in 2001 to protect the art. Understandable. Altamira Museum’s Neo-Cave is a replica of the 270-metre (885 feet) long cave and its paintings.

We purchased our entrance tickets and at the same time were given a spot on a cave tour. Touring the museum during the wait, we had time to learn more about the painting process and techniques.

Cave painting
Example of a charcoal outline. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The image is complete. (Photo: Brad Kopp)
The reconstructed Altamira cave is a carefully crafted exhibition. Every detail of the cave paintings is faithfully replicated. But the fact that it is climate-controlled, it has no loose stones or pointed outcrops or low ceiling dips to avoid, and that there are not even faint sounds of dripping water makes it all seem a bit soulless. Even though it’s perfect, it’s kind of like looking at a good forgery of a masterpiece.

Beyond Altamira

Seventeen painted caves now make up the UNESCO designated Paleolithic Cave Art of the Cantabrian Coast. These include caves in Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country.

There are seven painted caves in the province of Cantabria: Chufín, El Castillo, Las Monedas, El Pendo, Cullalvera, Covalanas and Hornos de la Peña. Because many of the sites are only open Tuesdays to Sundays, timing is key. We lucked out with visits to El Castillo and Las Monedas – both part of the Monte Castillo cave complex near Puente Viesgo.

Monte El Castillo is riddled with caves; only four of them have paintings. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Cueva El Castillo

King of the castle, archaeological excavations date the use of this cave back 150,000 years. Cuevo El Castillo was re-discovered in 1903.

The tour starts in the museum and walks under the protective roof to the rubble left from the archaeological digs before entering the cave. A real cave! And there are more than 275 different example of Paleolithic art in its dark recesses. Now this is what I was looking forward to experiencing.

Puntas – or dots – are a common art form in the cave. There are over 300 dots between the entrance and the end of the cave paintings. Why were they put there? It seems like a obvious question. Sadly, there is no obvious answer.

In addition to the dots, there are paintings of horses, bison, does, aurochs, stags, goats and a mammoth. Dozens of 40,000-year-old handprints mark the inner walls of the cave. Who left them here? What do they symbolize?

My mind is abuzz with thoughts and images and questions – oh, so many questions.

Protected painted cave entrance
Painted caves are protected on Monte El Castillo; entrance by guided tour only. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Cueva Las Monedas

In 1952 Cueva Las Monedas’ existence came into the light, along with its 12,000-year-old artwork. The cave itself is the longest cave in Monte El Castillo – stretching 800 metres (more than 2600 feet) from the entrance.

The paintings themselves are interesting, but it’s the story of the 23 Spanish coins dating back to the 16th century that really sparks the imagination.

When were the coins left in Cueva Las Monedas? Who left them? And why?

Maybe I’ll never find the answers to all the questions these painted caves bring about. Then again, if it means taking another trip back to northern Spain to continue the quest, I could live with that!

When You Go:

We stayed at the Hotel Villa Arce just outside of Puente Viesgo. In good weather, it has a view of Monte El Castillo.

Be sure to book ahead of time as painted caves are popular tours.

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Exploring Northern Spain: Fuente De

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

Zipping up close to 700 metres (2300 feet) without breaking a sweat sounds like heaven. Indeed, the cable car at Fuente Dé is a little slice of bliss. Exploring the hiking trails of Picos de Europa in Northern Spain just got a whole lot easier!

Picos de Europa

The Southeastern Side of Picos de Europa

There are places that make your heart sing. Picos de Europa is one of those places. From Arenas de Cabrales, we moved southeast to Potes to continue our exploration of Picos from Fuente Dé.

Fuente Dé
Trail marker in field at the base of the cable car in Fuente Dé
It is an easy half hour drive from Potes up to Fuente Dé. The rugged stone wall at the end of the valley draws eyes away from the cable car – or teléforico – passing overhead.

We couldn’t help snapping a few pics before heading over to the terminal for the ride up into the still partially snow-covered alpine. The cable car has been hauling people up the mountainside since the 1960s.

 

Hiking around Fuente Dé

Mere minutes after boarding, we are standing at the cable car summit. Packs on backs, light hikers laced tight on eager feet and we’re off.

Within 20 minutes there are no crowds and only a few other people working their way through lingering patches of snow.

Spring hiking in Picos de Europa. (Photo: Megan Kopp)
We took route PR24 in a clockwise direction. The trail climbs up to a pass before heading down the other side to a red-roofed refugio (closed until summer).

Refugio in Picos de Europa
Looking back at the pass above the cable car summit. (Photo: Brad Kopp)
From the refugio, we took a short detour up onto a rise in search of the elusive chamois.

Scanning for chamois. (Photo: Megan Kopp)
And wouldn’t you know it, we saw one!

Asturian chamois
A rare Asturian chamois sighting! (Photo: Brad Kopp)
We climbed back up to the route, past Hotel Áliva (again, closed for the season) and down towards an old church.

Hiking in Picos de Europa
The hills are alive with the sound of music! (Photo: Brad Kopp)
The Virgen de la Salud Puerto de Aliva stands out in the meadows like a beacon to all who wander nearby.

Church in Picos de Europa
Worship in the mountains. (Photos: Brad Kopp)

Heading Down from the Alpine

From here the trail joins up with a gravel road for a short distance as it descends back down toward Espinama.

Hiking Picos de Europa
Heading back down towards Fuente De from the alpine meadows above the cable car summit. (Photo: Brad Kopp)
We pass an historic fountain before descending into a thick oak forest. Towards the end of the hike, the trail surface became a bit of a mud bog in early May.

Hiking Picos
Valley bottom trail not quite as pleasant as the alpine! (Photo: Megan Kopp)
The sight of the cable car at Fuente Dé looked even sweeter than it did on our initial approach. What a hike!

Trail PR 24 – over and out.

If You Go:

  • The cable car at Fuente Dé cost 11 Euros each on our visit.
  • The circular route following PR 24 – including countless detours and an extended picnic time – took us 6 ½ hours. Total distance was 16.8 kilometres (10.4 miles).

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Exploring Northern Spain: Cares Gorge

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

More than 500 workers carved over 70 tunnels to carry water from Cain to Poncebos for a hydroelectric project. The project started in 1915 and was finished in 1921. Eleven workers died. Of course we didn’t know any of this when we started out. All we knew is that we were going to hike into the famous Cares Gorge, in Picos de Europa, Spain.

Cares Gorge

The Spectacular Gorge

The Cares Gorge (Garganta del Cares) is a cleft running through the heart of the Picos de Europa mountain range. Carved by the Cares River, this massive rift reaches more than 1000 metres (3300 feet) deep in places. It stretches 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) in length.

A testament to work involved in building the canal in such a rugged canyon. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Portions of the Cares River were diverted in the early 1900s for a hydroelectric power. Some of the water from the Cares flows through a canal that is built into the mountainside. The maintenance path for the canal is now an extremely popular hiking path through Cares Gorge.

The Path

A local decided to show us the way at the start of the trail! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

It is possible to do the hike in either direction. Because we based out of Arenas de Cabrales, we started at Poncebos. The six kilometre (3.7 mile) drive snakes high into the mountains. After one false start, parking too early and crossing over the canal before the bridge and tunnel, we found the trailhead.

Old stone buildings along the trail speak to the past. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

It is a steep, rocky climb up to the pass. Near the summit, old stone buildings speak to another life. It is also here that the first signs of the canal appear. At the summit, interpretive signs tell the story of the canal’s construction. Who knew?

Rugged and steep, the beauty of Cares Gorge is undeniable. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Down, down, down – the path levels off as it hugs the cliff above, below and on top of the leaky canal. Stone retaining walls and short tunnels help maintain the grade. We catch occasional glimpses of the fast-flowing, blue Cares River far below. There are numerous side trails – goat tracks for the most part – veering off down into the canyon. The views continue to make us stop again and again for photo after photo.

Should you consider doing even a portion of this walk if in northern Spain?

Without a doubt!
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Tips for Hiking the Cares Gorge

  • Be prepared for hundreds of people if on a weekend.
  • There are no washrooms or trash cans along the route, use Leave No Trace principles.
  • Sporadic signposts help mark distances.
  • Weather can change without warning, pack an umbrella and windcoat.
  • Don’t forget your camera.
  • To get to the trailhead, take route AS-264 to Poncebos from Arenas de Cabrales. Drive across the bridge and through the tunnel and watch for the sign “Funicular de Bulnes.” Take the right fork of the road here and continue uphill to the gate and trailhead.
  • Get a hiking guidebook:

Picos de Europa: Spain’s First National Park

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

For me, the thought of travel to northern Spain was always about hiking the Camino de Santiago. That was always the goal. While it’s good to have a goal, some trips have a way of morphing from an original idea to something even better than you could imagine. Discovering Picos de Europa took our exploration of northern Spain in a different direction.

Picos de Europa

Ideas and a Different Reality

It all started with the Camino de Santiago. If you’ve ever seen the movie, The Way, starring Martin Sheen, you’ve seen portions of this historic route. I’ve had a guidebook and map on my bookshelf for years. It’s on the list to do eventually, but…

The reality is that the Camino wanders not only along forest and mountain paths, but across vast stretches of farmland, through towns and along sections of roadway across northern Spain. It is a long and winding path. Furthermore, the section we were considering ran some 750 kilometres (465 miles) from St Jean Pied de Port in France through the Basque Pyrenees, across the plains and on to Santiago de Compostela. Check out A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St. Jean – Roncesvalles – Santiago if you’d like to to learn more.

The more we researched, the less it sounded like a trek we could realistically do with only one month of holidays and a host other “must-sees” on the list.

Flipping through the The Rough Guide to Spain, we stumbled across Picos de Europa – a small mountainous region in Asturias and Cantabria. A couple quick keystrokes and we were looking at pictures of rugged and snow-capped limestone peaks and deep river gorges. Without a doubt, we knew Picos de Europa was our kind of place. In addition, we discovered that Cantabria was also home to one of the best collections of cave paintings in Europe. Our path was set.

Picos de Europa

Spain’s oldest national park (est. 1918) is located about a seven-hour drive north of Madrid. The area has been inhabited since Paleolithic times. The region’s lush meadows, forests and alpine pastures have been farmed for the past 5,000 years.

Picos de Europa straddles three provinces in northern Spain: Asturias, Cantabria and León. The peaks rise up just 20 kilometres (12 ½ miles) inland of Spain’s northern coast. It is home to such endangered species as the Cantabrian brown bear, the Iberian lynx and the Cantabrian chamoix.

Picos de Europa
Alpine areas abound in Picos de Europa. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The mountain range itself is relatively small, stretching only about 40 kilometres (25 miles) east to west and 20 kilometres (12 ½ miles) north to south, but it rises like a steep barricade. As a result, the roads wind through narrow valleys and it takes more than you’d think to get from one section to another. None of the main roads cut through the centre of the massif, so we decided to base out of Arenas de Cabrales for our first foray into Picos de Europa.

Arenas de Cabrales makes a good base for exploring the northern side of Picos. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

If You Go:

Picos de Europa is about a seven-hour drive north of Madrid. Flying into Santander and renting a car might be a good idea if short on time. More information about Picos de Europa can be found online from the Tourism Office of Spain.

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Next up: Hiking Cares Gorge

Path of the Paddle: Canoeing Bowron Lakes

At first glance, my notebook tells a rather negative tale of wind and rain and mud-sucking portages. A closer look suggests that canoeing the twelve lake, 116.4 kilometre (72 mile) Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit might just be for the birds.

Did I mention I like birds?

The world-renowned canoe circuit is home to loons, osprey, bald eagles, kingfishers, common mergansers, harlequin ducks, nuthatches, woodpeckers, warblers, chickadees, white-throated sparrows – the list goes on. There are also black bears, moose and mink in this rugged wilderness area. It is situated on the western slopes of the Cariboo Mountain Range, about 120 km (75 mi) east of Quesnel, B.C.

Getting Set to Paddle

Rather than hauling boats from Alberta, we rented from Bear River Mercantile. It is perfectly situated at the head of the Bowron River for our takeout at the end of the circuit.

Sandy and Dick own the business and are knowledgable outfitters. They are also keepers of history. The mercantile is also a museum, devoted to the history of Wells, Barkerville and the Bowron Lake area. It has a diverse collection of artifacts, as well as an impressive collection of old Bowron Lake photographs.

A Touch of History

During the heydays of the gold rush, Bowron Lake supplied fish to feed hungry miners. Bowron Lake was named after John Bowron, the first Gold Commissioner in nearby Barkerville. In the early 1900s, locals trapped and guided to make a living. Frank Kibbee was one of the first settlers to build a home on the shores of Bowron Lake in 1907. Other families began farming along the Bowron River. Lodges were built around the lake.

Old cabin/shelter on McCleary Lake. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

By the early 1920s, there was growing concern for the health of wildlife populations in the region. A 620 square kilometre (240 square mile) wildlife sanctuary was established. The protected area increased in size over the years and eventually became the 139,700 hectare Bowron Lakes Provincial Park in 1961.

The Path of the Paddle

Weighing in! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

We sat through the park staff orientation talk about weather, safety, leave no trace ethics and then set about sorting gear for the weigh in. Only 27 kilograms (60 lbs) of gear is allowed in the canoes on portages in order to keep the trails in somewhat good shape. Anything else goes on your back.

The canoe circuit runs counter-clockwise in a roughly rectangular shape. It starts with Kibble Lake and goes onto Indianpoint, Isaac, McCleary, Lanezi, Sandy, Unna, Babcock, Skoi, Spectacle, Swan before ending on Bowron Lake. Beyond the lakes, the circuit includes about 10 kilometres (6 mi) of portages and a short paddle down the swift Cariboo River.

Setting Off

It’s uphill right off the get go – and we push, pull and find our rhythm on our way to Kibbee. Loons are everywhere – nesting, calling, fishing, flying. A short paddle, another portage, a little help to a young family of canoe trippers to manouver their load up and over a bridge and we’re back in the water on Indianpoint Lake.

Campsite on Indianpoint Lake. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

It’s a short paddle to our first campsite – in time for Happy Hour, dinner, a couple of card games and a crackling fire. We head tuck into sleeping bags listening to one final song from a Swainson’s Thrush before darkness descends.

The next five nights and six days would find us alternately setting up and taking down rain tarps. It would find us drifting by thundering waterfalls, grunting as we pull the boats through another portage, and uttering sighs of content as we sit by the evening fire listening to the call of the loons.

Common Loons on Isaac Lake. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

We angled for trout and kokanee, caught glimpses of mink cavorting on the shoreline, discovered bear tracks, and saw osprey dive into the lake.

Nothing beat the experience of watching a kingfisher play whack-a-mole with its catch, hearing a mother moose and her calf stroll by our campsite in shallow waters just offshore and counting the endless parade of young mergansers tagging along behind mom.

The Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit is an ultimate wilderness experience.

If You Go:

Additional information about the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit can be found on the BC Parks site.

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Barkerville, B.C. – A Grave History

Written by: Megan Kopp

At its peak in the 1860s, the gold mining town of Barkerville, B.C. was the biggest thing west of Chicago and north of San Francisco.

The ghost town today sees a mere fraction of the number of people that once clomped along the wooden sidewalks off Williams Creek in the foothills of the Cariboo Mountains. Past glories have become faded memories. Stories of what life was like back in the goldrush era need to be carefully curated and fleshed out by historians. One surprising way to uncover life is to look at death. Cemeteries are devoted to remembering lives, and the historic Barkerville Cemetery is no exception.

Walking Back in Time

We tromped along with a small group on a guided tour, passing the site of the Royal Cariboo Hospital before arriving at the hillside resting place for miners and soldiers, surveyors and shopkeepers, doctors and lawyers. Most came from Canada and the United States. Others travelled to Barkerville from as far away as Wales, England, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden and Germany.

Grave marker for Peter Gibson – the first person buried in the Barkerville Cemetery. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

31, 21, 32, 24, 25 – many people died young in the goldfields. Peter Gibson was the first soul to be laid to rest on July 24th, 1863 in what was then known as the Cameronton Cemetery. Peter, 31, died of typhoid fever. He worked for John ‘Cariboo’ Cameron before his early demise.

Cariboo Cameron was a miner who struck it rich with a claim on Williams Creek. A small township grew up around his strike. Not surprisingly, it was dubbed Cameronton. Cameron himself died on November 7th, 1888. At the age of 68, Cameron is one of the oldest people buried in the cemetery.

Sidenote: Although Cameron was a noteworthy citizen, it’s the tale of his first wife – who is not actually buried in the Barkerville cemetery – that is even more memorable. Seriously, who has “two caskets, three funerals and four burials?”

By 1866, the Barkerville Cemetery had 27 graves. There were no Chinese or Native burials in this graveyard – a reflection of the time. Most of the burials were men – a reflection of the population demographics during the goldrush.

Women of the Goldrush

One notable woman buried in the Barkerville Cemetery is Janet Allan. The marker on her grave reads:

Sacred
to the 
memory of
Janet Allan

The Beloved Wife of
William Allan
Native of Fireshire
Scotland

Who departed this life
September 1870

Aged 42 years

Sometimes I wish we could rewrite these tributes. There’s an interpretive sign just outside of the town of Barkerville that tells so much more of Janet’s story.

“…dressed like a man, drank like a man, and died like a man…”

Janet was actually better known as ‘Scotch Jenny’ – a well-respected woman who showed kindness for the sick. Apparently this store keeper’s wife also dressed like a man, drank like a man, and died like a man (when the carriage she was driving plunged over a bank into William’s Creek on September 7th, 1870).

Costumed tour guides lead regular hikes to the Barkerville Cemetery. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Today, our journey to see Scotch Jenny’s final resting place was less of a hike and more of a stroll up the 750 metre (1/2 mile) long, accessible trail from St Saviour’s Anglican Church – along a portion of the old Cariboo Wagon Road. Guided tours to the Baskerville Cemetery run on a regular basis, departing from the church.

Go ahead, take a walk and discover life through death with Barkerville’s fascinating grave history.

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