Paddleboarding

Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, U.S.A. – February 13th, 2011

Free Watersports West paddleboard demos are held weekly in summer, monthly in winter.

The sign said: ‘Free Paddleboard Demo’, and a half dozen people were braving the fifty degree weather (frigid by Floridian standards) to give it a try. The beginners were standing up slowly and carefully – a February morning swim was not on anyone’s agenda. That was just fine. Paddleboarding isn’t that kind of sport.

“This is the yoga of surfing,” said Steve LeVine. “You don’t put in where there are a ton of boats going back and forth, or where there are huge waves.” He advised us not to paddleboard where we wouldn’t feel safe putting a canoe, and gave a few good and bad examples in the area. Steve owns Watersports West, and runs frequent demos so people can take a turn paddleboarding, or ‘standup paddle surfing’.

I cuffed my jeans and took off my shoes to try it for myself. I was a little nervous about standing up, dreading a cold swim, but the board was broad and didn’t tip easily. Before I knew it, I was up and moving. When I went with the wind, I didn’t have to do a thing – my body acted like a sail, and the board glided over the water. The paddling came in when I headed back towards the beach. It takes some practice to put deep strokes into the water without shifting your center of gravity too much. I wobbled almost as much doing this as I had getting to my feet!

I look like a cross between a Gondolier in Venice and Huck Finn rafting down the Mississippi. I can live with that.

The paddles are a little different than the ones used when canoeing or kayaking. They’re much longer, so you don’t have to bend down, and the blades are more sharply curved and a little counter-intuitive. “It’s like you put it in backwards!” another participant agreed with me. But for the most part, the basics are easy to pick up. By the second time I went out, I had a handle on the mechanics and could concentrate on the experience.

I understood why Steve compared it to yoga. It was more peaceful than thrilling, but in the best way. Like a kayak, the board moved silently, without disturbing the water underneath. Pelicans seated on dock pilings seemed completely undisturbed as I slid past them. Another bird came within a few feet of me as it flew just over the surface of the water. Standing upright meant I could look down as easily as up, and it was dizzying to watch fish, sea plants, and submerged mangrove go by. It just might be the closest I ever come to walking on water.

/Even Where You Are

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Mountains in the Rearview Mirror

Where: Rocky Mountain National Park, U.S.A.

When: July 2010

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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A reflection in a crystal-clear mountain pool? A break in the fabric of dimensions? Actually, it’s just an interesting way my camera dealt with my rear-view mirror while I was driving on Colorado’s Highway to the Sky.

/American Road Trip Plus

Notes from the Cloud Forest

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica – June 10th, 2008

When I was a child, I saw a cartoon set in the cloudforest of South America, and I had wanted to go there ever since. I was reasonable about it – I knew one couldn’t truly expect to find ancient ruins, hidden caves behind waterfalls, or the secret sanctuary of the endangered quetzal birds. Still, the name promised enough with its very essence – imagine, a forest set so high in the mountains that it rises into the clouds and is filled with mists… It’s like something out of a story book.

And it really is. Something out of a fairy tale and a sci-fi horror all together. Some of the plants growing in there were like nothing I’d ever seen, like the shoots of wet green, covered in dark spots as though, reaching a certain age, it would rise from the earth as a sentient being… plants whose roots pulled nutrients out of the wet, rich air itself, the monkey tree, which ends in spiralling branches so like the tails of monkeys…  and monkeys themselves, spider monkeys and howler monkeys, crashing through the leaves overhead, making the forest alive. And the mists swallowed everything, enshrouding the forest in mystery and leaving beads of moisture on everything that passed through it.

Lianas like those of a thousand jungle movies hung from the branches above, and disappeared below into the mists as we crossed swinging bridges hung over valleys. It was something from a dream, from another planet, from a fairy tale, from an earlier age in the long lifespan of the world… beautiful.

Perhaps I had learned something from O’Toole’s photography lecture at the volcano. Some things… you just remember. I didn’t take as many photos as usual there in the forest. Of the few I took, most failed utterly to capture the experience. The water everywhere, the wet echoes of footprints and screeching wildlife, the grey mists and sudden, jolting, flash of colourful wings, the heaviness of the air, when I almost expected to see my reflection, hovering in the mists ahead.

And the sloth. I have no picture of him, but that does nothing to diminish the memory. It looked at me, see. It was high up in the trees, covered in shaggy fur, tinged slight green by the fungus that grew there, and it looked down at me from there, the absolute picture of mischievous smugness. Not in a dog, not in a dolphin, not in a monkey, have I ever seen an animal mirror a human emotion so clearly. His little humanoid face peeked out at us through thick green fur with a knowing, mocking gaze – as if he knew he was special, knew we were staring at him in awe, and was laughing at us.

/A Walk in the Clouds

USA 2010

American Road Trip Plus

July 10th-27th, 2010

Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:

This trip started with a email from my penpal, Liisa, who I visited in Finland in 2008. She wanted to come to America – see my haunts, and maybe a litte more – and since I’m pretty well spread out over the continent, we first decided to split the time between Florida and Missouri. As we started talking, the idea of a road trip seemed more and more appealing. After all, what mode of travel is more American than hitting the highway?

Our options were limited by automobile availability. Since we were too young to rent a car, we had to both start and finish in either Tampa, Florida, or Springfield, Missouri. We decided to start in Missouri and drive west to Colorado, then north to South Dakota, return to Missouri, and finally fly to Florida for a few days at the beach and at the theme parks.

Our final path took us through no fewer than ten states: Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Florida.

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Considerations/Advice:

Cost: My budget was approximately $1750, once we started off in Missouri. (Obviously, Liisa had to pay more than I did to get to the starting point). This broke down to $300 for food, $330 for accommodation, $210 for gas and tolls, $240 flight to Florida, $160 for parking and miscellaneous entrance fees, $380 for extra experiences like horseback riding, rock climbing, and universal studios, $75 for souvenirs and presents, and $45 for pre-trip car expenses. I had originally hoped to spend up to 25% less, but we splurged on extra experiences and ended up paying more than we estimated for miscellaneous entrance fees, food, and accommodation.

Thinking Ahead: The only things we reserved ahead of time were airfare, hotels in Orlando, and the rock climbing and horseback riding adventures. These were booked 1-2 months prior with no issues, and we never wished we had made reservations for anything else – the closest was in Custer, where many of the motels were full, but we still managed to find one without much trouble.

Timing: We travelled in July, so it was a good time to go north and to the mountains. The weather was accordingly quite pleasant for most of the trip, although the Missouri and Florida segments may be better done in cooler times of the year. The highway we took through Rocky Mountain National Park is only open in summer, and winter conditions would have greatly changed our horseback riding and rock climbing experience.

Food: As per our budget and search for the authentic road trip experience, we ate a lot of fast food and gas station meals. We did, however, splurge on a few nicer places. The culinary highlights of the trip were tasting rocky mountain oysters in Colorado and butterbeer and pumpkin juice in Universal Studios.

Getting Around: We were very grateful to have a car in Mid-America, where that’s often the only viable option. We drove almost everywhere, more than 3500 miles in total, although we did save about $30 in parking fees by walking from our hotel to Universal Studios.

Language: I was travelling in my native country, and Liisa’s English is excellent, so this was never a concern. Even dialectal variation in the region we were travelling was low and never hard to adapt to.

Other: For some reason I don’t quite understand, motels in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota were on average twice the price of similar motels in Kansas, Missouri, and Florida.

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Itenerary:

Liisa arrived in St. Louis on July 10th, and we spent the next two nights with my friend Kate’s family. The first night, Kate got us free tickets to see a Titanic musical at the Muny outdoor theatre. On the 11th, we did a whirlwind tour of St. Louis, starting with the prehistoric city of Cahokia Mounds just across the border in Illinois, then brunch at First Watch with my cousins, the St. Louis City Museum, the historic downtown and Gateway Arch, and the famous free zoo.

On July 12th we warmed up for the road trip after a morning in my part of St. Louis. We drove to Columbia, Missouri, ate lunch and frozen yogurt with some friends and toured the Journalism school, then continued on to Lawrence, Kansas. July 13th was the longest day of the trip as we drove 550 miles across the plains of Kansas and into Manitou Springs, Colorado.

July 14th saw us shopping in Manitou Springs, tasting rocky mountain oysters, exploring eight hundred year old Native American cliff dwellings, and marvelling at rock formations in the Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where we almost stepped on a rattlesnake.

July 15th was consumed by a nine hour horseback ride on the silver dusted mountain trails of the Roosevelt National Forest. The view from the top was unbelievable – even worth my horse going a little crazy and Liisa getting sick from allergies and the sun exposure. On the 16th, we drove the highway to the sky through the Rocky Mountain National Park, ate lunch at 12,000 feet and played in the snow on the alpine tundra before driving on to Wyoming.

On the 17th, we drove into South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial in progress. In the evening we toured Wind Cave National Park in search of wildlife and had buffalo, elk, coyotes, and countless prairie dogs step feet from the car. On the 18th we drove through the Needles of the black hills, learned to rock climb and even scaled a 180 foot granite dome before heading to Deadwood for some history and wild west reenactments, one of which we had to adopt temporary parents to get in to see!

On the 19th we started heading east again, taking time to visit a random Norwegian Stavkirke, see an underground waterfall, take old-time photos in the Wall Drug Store, and drive through the otherworldly badlands just ahead of a thunderstorm. On the 20th we saw Mitchell’s Corn Palace and the falls of Sioux Falls, hopped the border into Minnesota for our state count, had a classy and delicious lunch in Omaha, Nebraska, and ended up back home in Columbia, Missouri.

The 21st and 22nd allowed me to show more of my university, friends, and state off to Liisa as we toured Devil’s Icebox, Bridal Cave, and Ha Ha Tonka state park, ate nachos bianco at Addison’s and cream cheese clouds for breakfast, then flew to my parent’s house in Florida for the last stage of the trip.

We spent the 23rd and 24th on the barrier island, tasting sushi, walking on the beach, having lunch at Bubba Gump’s, touring downtown St. Petersburg, and taking a boat through a thunderstorm that gave way just in time to reveal a fiery and brilliant sunset.

The 25th and the 26th were our days in Orlando, as we visited Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure Theme Parks, most notably the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with its magical talking portraits, fantastic scenery, butterbeer and pumpkin juice – a satisfying end to our trip.

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Posts about this trip:

(Check back on this section from time to time – I’ll continue to put up new links!)

Journal Entries:
Little Norway on the Great Plains (Rapid City, South Dakota – 7/19)

Photography: Crossing Kansas

El Mercado de Heredia

Heredia, Costa Rica – June 6th, 2008

Heredia was much like San Jose. Exteriors were dirty concrete and rusted metal, with the junctures between the two often neglected. To say there was no insulation would be an understatement – a Missouri rainstorm would whip in through every crack.

We were assigned a scavenger hunt in the Mercado. They divided us into groups to look for items from a list, which we were forbidden to show anyone – we were meant to ask people where we could buy things and how they were used. All of our things (with one exception) turned out to be herbs and spices, so we found ourselves bothering the same people again and again.

A group of exhausted high schoolers need some sort of authority figure to maintain organization, so when it came time to eat lunch, in particular, there were arguments. For about half an hour we bickered over where to eat, as half the group wanted cheap, authentic food – the kind most prevalent in the Mercado itself, while the other half couldn’t be persuaded to go anywhere near the street vendors.

The group finally split and I stayed with the Mercado group. The little bar we ate at probably left us more exposed to thieves and pickpockets than any other place we went on our trip, but I wasn’t at all worried about the food. They prepared it right in front of us, and meat and cheese and cilantro smells wafted over the dirty glass that separated the kitchen from the counter. My first full and real Costa Rican meal – Pollo con Gallo Pinto – was delicious. I even ordered a cheese tortilla to finish it off.

Photo: Toxic Environment Cow (Costa Rica)

Where: Costa Rica

When: June 2008

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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When I visited San Jose, the city was holding a CowParade public art exhibit. Dozens of artists had decorated cows, placed throughout the city, in ways that were sometimes beautiful, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes expressed a poignant social or political message. I made it my mission to look for these cows wherever we went. This cow, with it’s gas mask, green hooves, and carbon emissions statistics printed in green, warned passers-by about pollution and the toxic environment humans are creating for themselves.

Cereal with Milk and Iced Tea

Two for one!

Iced tea with lemon... always delicious over your honey oats! ^^

The first time I saw cereal prepackaged with milk in Costa Rica, I thought I was going a bit crazy.

But, once I remembered that most of the milk sold in Latin America is super-pasteurized and doesn’t need refrigeration until it’s opened, I got used to it fairly quickly. And then I saw cereal packaged with tea…

The Jungle Fights Back

Where: Costa Rica

When: June 2008

Camera: Canon Powershot A550

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I took this picture from the bus as we were driving in western Costa Rica. I loved how the lush, tangled green of the forest suddenly parted to reveal the brightly coloured touristy towels hanging by the shop. I guess the photo could be a statement that the jungle is taking back the land, covering the buildings, or that tourism is encroaching on Costa Rica’s natural beauty – but for my part, I thought they co-existed rather well.

/Pura Vida in Costa Rica

 

Treasure Island Kite Festival

Where: Treasure Island, Florida, U.S.A.

When: January 2011

Camera: Canon EOS Rebel T1i

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The uninformed might be forgiven for looking out their window yesterday and thinking the world was ending, that their city was being invaded by an army of giant, flying centipedes, lizards, squid, and… purple people eaters. The real explanation was the 14th annual Treasure Island Kite Festival, where hundreds of people head to the beach to launch airborne monstrosities larger than some light aircraft, race smaller, more agile kites with fellow enthusiasts, or simply watch from below.

/Even Where You Are

Little Norway on the Great Plains

Detailing on the Stavkirke replica

Rapid City, South Dakota, U.S.A. –  July 19th, 2010

I had been puzzled by the billboards and flyers touting a Norwegian Stavkirke in South Dakota’s Black Hills. I had seen one or two of the old wooden churches in Norway, but why would there be one in South Dakota? What could it amount to? On our way back to the interstate from seeing Thunderhead Undergound Falls, I saw a sign pointing off to it and made Liisa pull off the road. Whatever it was, I couldn’t pass it up when it was right in my path.

Called the Chapel of the Hills, the church is an exact replica of the Borgund Stavkirke in Norway, and together with a tiny museum, giftshop, and prayer walk, is supported entirely by donations and wedding fees. The arrival of a real Finn was something of a surprise to the friendly women working there, who were happy to tell us all about the chapel, how all the local high schoolers go there for their prom pictures, and how the authentic stabbur that houses the gift shop was brought all the way from Norway.

❤ for the stabbur gift shop!

The chapel was lovely and put me back in Norway instantly, but Liisa and I were even more thrilled by the giftshop, which was filled with all manner of Nordic goodies, from books of Scandinavian-American jokes to chocolate and jewelry brought from over the sea. The two of us are certainly biased, but we found this stop better than the average tourist trap – you’d have to travel several thousand miles to get any closer to Scandinavia!

/American Road Trip Plus