rob roberts with a sailing canoe in Montana

Why ‘Scanoodling’ Is Our New Favorite Water Activity

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Outdoor Adventures, Sailing

First off, friends, apologies for the long radio silence. I let the blog lapse while I finished my book (hooray!) about sailing across the Pacific Ocean and the subsequent transition back to the U.S. as new parents. Fingers crossed that it finds a home with a publisher soon 🙂

I’ve also been busy writing for magazines and newspapers. You’re welcome to check out recent stories about travel and adventure-parenting here.

And now to the heart of this post: scanoodling, our family’s favorite new hobby.

Brianna Randall sailing a canoe in Missoula

What is scanoodling?

It’s a word we made up that means dinking around in our motorized sailing canoe. Sometimes we paddle. Sometimes we sail. Sometimes we rev up the 3-horsepower motor.

The name comes from the type of canoe we bought this summer, a 16.5-foot Coleman Scanoe. It’s a flat-bottomed, aluminum-framed boat with a square back that’s durable and roomy — a cross between a skiff and a canoe.

Why we chose a scanoodle

Since we returned from our big trip across the sea, Rob and I have struggled to figure out the best boat to fit our lifestyle in Montana. As water-lovers, boats are vital for increasing our happiness factor.

We have two Alpaca Rafts, super-lightweight inflatable kayaks, which have served us well for short day trips or solo missions on rivers and wilderness lakes. But they’re too small for our family to undertake multi-day trips, and hell to paddle into the wind.

talon in snow with packrafts on clark fork river 2

I used to share a 26-foot sailboat on Flathead Lake, but gave up that share when we set sail for the South Pacific. Since then, I’ve rented sailboats from friends for a few days at a time. But we missed the freedom of going sailing whenever I wanted. Plus, a traditional sailboat makes it tough to visit new places, since you’re either locked into one marina with dock fees or you need a big truck to tow a 5,000 to 10,000-pound yacht.

We looked high and low for good options, including small trimarans that our sedan could tow. Nothing seemed quite right.

Until we came across SailboatsToGo.com. This little company makes nifty sailing packages that attach to most kayaks or canoes. The whole kit weighs under 50 pounds, and can be checked as luggage on airplanes. We were sold, especially since we’re planning to sail through Florida’s Everglades National Park this winter.

scanoe with sail rig

We bought the sailing kit before we bought our own boat, and tested it out on friends’ canoes. Then we found the Scanoe, complete with a little outboard motor, for just $800. Packing up after work one Friday, we drove to Sandpoint, bought the Scanoe, and sailed to a remote beachside campsite on Lake Pend Oreille at sunset, the water like glass under our bow.

It was a match made in heaven.

Why we love scanoodling

  • You can sail UP rivers, not just float down, which is uber-awesome.
  • When there’s good wind, you can fill your sail instead of ruin your arms.
  • And when the wind’s in your face and you can’t sail or paddle, the 3 hp outboard pushes the boat along at a good clip: ~8 mph without gear, ~5 mph fully loaded. One gallon of gas keeps us going over an hour.
  • With the pontoons and leeboards (courtesy of SailboatsToGo) and the beamy, flat-bottomed canoe design, the boat is super safe. We can walk around inside or stand up to fish, and not worry that Talon might topple overboard.
  • It’s a craft that can ply nearly any waterway in Montana. While I wouldn’t take it through Class III+ rapids or into the open ocean, the Scanoe does stay stable even when it takes on water.
  • At 80 pounds, Rob and I can easily lift the Scanoodle on top of our car with the sail rolled up under the crossbars. The pontoons, leeboards and steering oar fit handily in the trunk. (Note: We’re planning to buy a small trailer to make transport even easier.)
  • We can pack enough gear in the boat to stay out for a week and the three of us still fit comfortably.
  • You never have to worry about running aground, since it’s made to be beached.
  • Maintenance hours are negligible and dock fees are nonexistent.

sailing upriver in search of yellowstone cutthroat trout

Where we scanoodled this summer

  • Missouri River – 50 miles over 5 days
  • Lake Pend Oreille – 3 night camping trip
  • Lake Upsata – a day of snorkeling and spearfishing
  • Frenchtown Pond – where Talon caught his first fish
  • Clark Fork River – afternoon floats near Missoula
  • Cliff Lake – 2 night camping and fishing trip
  • Flathead Lake – hour-long joy rides from Big Arm campground with friends and family
  • Red Rock National Wildlife Refuge – across Upper Red Rock Lake and 2 miles up the Red Rock River
  • Blanchard Lake & Clearwater River – after-work jaunts to spearfish and snorkel
  • Next up: Everglades National Park in December!

catching rainbows in cliff lake

sailing canoes access back water fishing brianna randall fishes from the bow of the sailing canoe

rob roberts and brianna randall - camping with a baby

The Secret to Getting the Best Compliment Ever

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Outdoor Adventures, Traveling

Traveling without internet is a recipe for one happy family. 

Yesterday, a friend hugged me and said, “You look well-rested, Bri.”

I almost jumped with glee. “That’s the best compliment I’ve gotten in years!”

Because you know what well-rested means? Sanity. It means I don’t look like a cat dragged through the gutter after waking up every few hours to soothe a crying baby. And it means I don’t feel like a hummingbird dipping ever-so-briefly from one person, job, chore, event directly to the next.

The view from the top of the Eureka sand dunes.
The view from the top of the Eureka sand dunes in Death Valley.

The secret to my success at resting? Vacation. Actually, several of them. We were lucky enough to close out 2015 with a suite of trips, hitting the adventure trail with a vengeance during the holiday season. All told, we spent more than 3 of the past 5 weeks in a cabin, cabana, or tent. Most of those trips did not include wifi, a laptop, or even cell service, and all of them fell during the darkest days of the year. We went to bed early and stayed there late, connecting to each other instead of screens.

The Thanksgiving week crew exploring the Wallowas in Oregon.
This crew spent Thanksgiving week exploring the Wallowas in Oregon.

First up, we drove to northern Oregon to meet friends for the week of Thanksgiving, hiking in the Wallowa Mountains, saying hi to the Columbia River, and playing sort-of-in-tune music. A few days after returning home, Talon and Cassidy and I flew to Puerto Vallarta to explore a couple of remote villages in the southern stretch of Banderas Bay while Rob went on a fishing trip in the Everglades with old friends. And a week after that, we flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and spent a week camping in Death Valley National Park with Mark and Katie.

Checking out the waves in Boca de Tomatlan, perfect for babies and mamas.
Checking out the waves in Boca de Tomatlan, perfect for babies and mamas.

As most parents know, traveling with a kiddo–especially an energetic, irrational toddler–isn’t exactly restful in and of itself. Just the opposite, in fact. We schlepped suitcases and sleeping bags, backpacks and carseats through jungles, deserts, oceans, and mountains. We endured way-below-freezing temperatures in a drafty tent, muddy river crossings after tropical rains washed out bridges, and shitty winter driving conditions over several mountain passes.

And was our personal sherpa when crossing the river in Yelapa, too!
And was our personal sherpa when crossing the river in Yelapa, too!

We consoled Talon when he woke up (often) in the middle of the night, uncomfortable because 10 people were crammed into a noisy cabin, mosquitoes were biting his head in Mexico, or an icy wind was howling across the desert.

Dirt abounds, especially when camping in the desert for a week -- the boys didnt mind.
Dirt abounds, especially when camping in the desert for a week — the boys did not mind.

But in the end, the challenges of navigating new places brought us closer as a family. It was well worth the work to watch Talon’s eyes light up at the sight of the sea, to hear his squeals of delight at the birds flying overhead, and to see his pride in climbing a sand dune all alone.

Throwing sand down the 700-foot-tall Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park.
Throwing sand down the 700-foot-tall Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

Moving beyond our daily Missoula routine gave me the space to breathe more deeply, and to focus inward long enough to rest easily while awake and asleep. I finally feel like my head and my heart are back in the same groove. Now, the trick is keeping them humming along in unified tempo back in the world of internet and errands. I’ll know I succeed if more people give me that ultimate compliment: that I look well-rested.

How’s that for a New Year’s Resolution? Happy 2016, friends!

Talon went on a rock climbing expedition to find the only waterfall in Death Valley.
Talon went on a rock climbing expedition to find the only waterfall in Death Valley.
A rare bloom of the desert sunflower above the lowest point in the U.S. ... 220 feet BELOW sea level!
A rare bloom of the desert sunflower above the lowest point in the U.S. … 220 feet BELOW sea level!
Aunt Cassidy carried Talon all over the beaches in Mexico.
Aunt Cassidy carried Talon all over the beaches in Mexico.
We spent plenty of time in PJs the past few weeks.
We spent plenty of time in PJs the past few weeks.

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Talon Randall Roberts in a hammock in MexicoBeach in Yelapa

IMG_2922 - Copy t and rob. waterfallrob roberts and brianna randall - camping with a babyt in crackIMG_2972-Copy1-e1451866868715-1024x852P1020601

 

5 Reasons To Keep Backpacking With a Baby

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Hiking, Outdoor Adventures, Parenting

“You sure have a high misery tolerance,” my friend Linsey remarks cheerfully, as she passes us on the trail. I gaze after her wistfully, coveting her easy pace as Talon screams and writhes in the pack on my back.

It’s a Friday evening in mid-July, and we’re hiking straight up the Swan Mountains to camp near some backcountry lakes for the weekend. Even though it’s mid-July, the temperature is plummeting toward freezing, and the threatening grey clouds and howling wind aren’t helping my frame of mind. Quite possibly nothing would help my frame of mind, though, since bringing a baby on a backpacking trip does indeed entail a certain level of misery.

On Trail - Rocky Mountain Front
Rob and Talon check out the view in Blackleaf Canyon on the Rocky Mountain Front.

Every time Rob and I start down a trail–with Talon on my back, and 50 pounds of camping gear on his–I vow within five minutes to never do it again. Somehow, we do it the next weekend anyway. Are we gluttons for punishment? Obviously.

We stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that our lives might not be as adventurous as before. But the real reason we keep hiting the trails, misery and all, is because by the end of the weekend in the woods, we’re both glad we got out in the wilderness.

Talon loves putting up the tent, since the poles are shiny.
Talon loves putting up the tent, since the poles are shiny.

Backpacking with a baby is hard. First there’s the whining, and kicking, and hair-pulling. Then there’s the poopy diapers–do you haul the dirty ones out? Use cloth diapers and bury the poo? (It’s a lose-lose situation either way.) Once you get to camp, it’s only slightly easier. You have to manage the wee babe for sunburn and bugs, and constantly corral him from crawling off boulders or tottering into the cook stove.

The hardest part, though, is actually the non-stop, nagging voice in my head: “This used to be fun. What if backpacking is never fun again? What if life is never fun again?” Single-track trail often breeds existential crisis–or at least walking alone for long periods adds fuel to the fire. I find, though, that if I walk for long enough, my footsteps eventually: 1) rock Talon to sleep, and 2) bring my thoughts (now influenced by the peaceful quiet of a sleeping baby) full circle to: “Life is awesome, and backpacking is the bomb.”

Picking huckleberries during a break on the trail in the Swan Mountains.
Picking huckleberries during a break on the trail in the Swan Mountains.

This cycle of misery and joy repeats more often, and with bigger peaks and valleys, than a typical day at home. Playing in the tent with a giggling baby is exhilarating; taking the 87th rock out of Talon’s mouth is exhausting. Catching a trout in the lake is a triumph; trying to cook it while Talon tips toward the flames is terrifying.

We’ve taken three backpacking trips with Talon this summer to three different mountain ranges in Montana. All in all, the impetus for our continued expeditions boils down to the fact that we love immersing ourselves in the wilderness, and enjoy introducing Talon to the magic of lakes, peaks, and trails, too.

A tight two-man tent with  all three of us is hours of fun for Talon and redefines "snuggling" at night.
A tight two-man tent with all three of us is hours of fun for Talon and redefines “snuggling” at night.

Here’s why I think it’s worth packing a baby into the woods:

1. You’ll have stories to tell. Regale your friends and family with exaggerated tales of your exploits and mis-adventures in the woods: “And then Talon took a header down the talus field toward the lake! But we caught him before that hawk swooped down to try and grab him.” They’ll think you’re insane, of course, but that’s half the fun.

2. Car camping becomes a walk in the park. Pitching a tent without having to carry it and your kid uphill several miles feels liberating. Plus, you can bring beer, games, and a big roomy tent instead of the two-man-that’s-really-a-one-man setup (which puts new meaning into the word “snuggle”).

3. It makes your home seem like a dream come true. Returning to the house lends a new appreciation for luxuries like running water, cribs, chairs, and countertops above your baby’s reach. The rooms that might have felt claustrophobic all week before your trip suddenly seem like lovely, comfy, safe zones for you and babe.

4. You get alone time surrounded by beauty. Once the baby falls asleep on your back (or switches to your partner’s back), the quiet reverberates ten-fold in the absence of his babble. The leaves look sharper, the air feels crisper, the peaks seem closer. You can breathe more deeply and think more clearly than ever before.

5. It builds endurance. Backpacking with a baby is a physical and mental strength-training exercise. Your muscle tone will improve, as will your reservoir of patience. As your tolerance for misery increases, so does your capacity for joy.

So, there you have it. Let me know how it goes if you brave the trail with a wee one on your back!

P.S. Stay tuned for my upcoming article in Backpacker for tips on taking a baby on outdoor adventures.

Practicing pad surfing in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Practicing pad surfing in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

 

All Photos: (C) Rob Roberts.

rob roberts prepping to stare down some fish under a montana river

How to Stare Down a Trout

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Outdoor Adventures

Underwater World: River snorkeling in southwest Montana

This article appeared here in Outside Bozeman, and I thought I’d share it with all of you. 

“Whoa, big fish,” my husband, Rob, exclaimed. We were halfway through an eight-day backpacking loop in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and had stopped to rest. “Let’s see what they are.”

He skidded down to a cobble beach, whipped out a well-used snorkel and mask, and dove in naked. I followed more cautiously, and arrived just in time to hear, “It’s a school of rainbows!”

He tossed me the mask, and I dove in for my first-ever freshwater snorkel. I was immediately enveloped in a surreal, super-charged world. At least two dozen torpedo-shaped trout rushed around a glacier-green pool that seemed depthless. Asan avid angler, sailor, packrafter, and hiker-of-riverside-trails, I’m no stranger to watery exploits. But I’d always thought snorkeling went hand-in-hand with tropical islands in exotic locales. That first up-close encounter changed my tune—it was magical.

Bri snorkeling in rivers - brianna randall, photo by rob roberts

Snorkeling brought a new intimacy to my relationship with rivers and creeks that running rapids or matching the hatch never could. There’s the muffled silence, marred only by the slow gurgle of water tumbling over stone; the dull hiss of sediment scratching its way downstream; and the slanting rays of afternoon sun, bouncing off cobbles and fish scales that appear super-sized (thanks to the 33% magnification effect of wearing a mask underwater). Motion becomes your sixth sense, and your breath the metronome that anchors you in the current.

Now I’m not about to give up my other water hobbies anytime soon, but river snorkeling has become a welcome addition to my water-sport quiver. A quick dip with a mask can add character to a day hike or turn a raft into an exploratory platform, where I pretend I’m the Rocky Mountain incarnation of Jacques Cousteau. Rob and I are not alone in our love affair with snorkeling: it’s becoming a popular pasttime all across the West, partly because it’s an easy-access, few-skills-necessary sport that’s fun for the whole family.

talon randall roberts getting ready to play with a snorkel at the creek

In fact, “snorkeling” is a bit of a misnomer, as all you really need to become one with the fish is a pair of goggles and the ability to hold your breath. This is especially true when swimming in large, wide rivers like the Madison, which can top 70 degrees, making for a relaxing environment while you peer around boulders and investigate pocket eddies.

On the other hand, most of western Montana’s waterways are bone-chillingly cold, even on the most sweltering summer days. Snorkeling in high-mountain streams can take your breath away, as the water squeezes the air from your diaphragm with an icy punch. Wearing a wetsuit will extend your time in the water, but a drysuit is better at keeping the shiver-factor away.Regardless of whether your nude or fully neoprened, it’s wise to wear good river shoes and leave the fins at home, in case you’re stuck hopping a sudden logjam or traversing slippery boulders.

Our hometown waters offer a variety of snorkeling venues, from placid pools on meandering rivers, to rapids that up the ante and the adrenaline. Take “Fishman” Mike Kasic, a river swimmer and snorkeling aficionado who lives in Livingston and regularly looks beneath the Yellowstone for cutthroat trout. Kasic’s underwater whitewater runs through Yankee Jim Canyon were featured in this BBC-produced video. Inspiring stuff, although I plan to stick to Class I waters myself.

rob roberts checking out trout under the water line

Pat Byorth, Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project director and previously a state fisheries biologist, agrees that the Yellowstone is a fun place to snorkel once spring runoff clears. He also recommends the upper Big Hole and the upper Madison, particularly above reaches with heavy boat traffic. If you can access them, spring creeks are prime spots for underwater viewing. According to Byorth, the best time to snorkel is between 10am and 2pm to maximize the most light penetration underwater. Summer is obviously the best season, but die-hards snorkel year-round.

Once you’re in the river, it’s all about patience and adjusting to a new perspective, like looking at one of those 3-D pictures that were popular in the ‘90s. Once your river-vision locks in, a whole new world comes alive. Stay in one spot, holding onto a rock or root and letting the river pass you by, or if the current is too strong and you feel like going with the flow, bob downstream watching fish dart out your path.

Regardless of your pace, the rivers in southwest Montana are full of life, from the 20-inch rainbows and cutthroats hanging in feeding lanes, to the gossamer caddis larvae, firmly ensconced in protective casings of sticks and stones.

rob roberts prepping to stare down some fish under a montana river

Click here to read more stories about rivers in Outside Bozeman.

Steve Randall, John Castle, Bob Randall, and Brian Pike showing off their "raft" before launching on the Colorado River.

Just Like Huck Finn

Posted on 3 CommentsPosted in Outdoor Adventures

When my dad was 17, he floated 60 miles of the Colorado River on a ping-pong table.  Along with two friends, he set off like Huck Finn into the wilderness to see what might happen.  Luckily, they tested their “raft” in the neighbors pool before setting off.  The suburban backyard didn’t have the desert winds or rapids that quickly poo-pooed their primitive rudder system, but the contraption did indeed float.  Somehow.

Steve Randall, John Castle, Bob Randall, and Brian Pike showing off their "raft" before launching on the Colorado River.
Steve Randall, John Castle, Bob Randall, and Brian Pike showing off their “raft” before launching on the Colorado River.

Fast-forward 45 years to a smaller river in Oregon, where Rob and I loaded his grandson onto a real raft for a 5-day, 70-mile float.  Even though I’ve been on dozens of river trips, rafting with a 9-month-old felt a lot like getting on a rickety ping-pong table strapped to some inner tubes: precarious.  I wasn’t scared of the Class III/IV rapid we’d cross on the John Day River.  I wasn’t scared of wildlife or weather events.  I wasn’t even scared that Talon might fall in the river.  I was terrified, however, that Mr. Wiggly-Crawly-Has-To-Stand-And-Move would scream bloody murder about being trapped in a small space.

Margi gets some time with little man while we rig the raft.
Margi gets some time with little man while we rig the raft.

Talon, like his grandfather, is an adventurer at heart.  But, unlike his grandfather, he required a LOT more gear to get down his first river.  My dad and his friends took a couple of lawn chairs to sit in, sleeping bags to huddle in, and a wooden chest bolted to the middle of the “raft” to hold food (and quite possibly beer).  Our party of roughly the same size filled a 14-foot boat to the gills.  To be fair, Talon’s gear accounted for one medium-sized dry bag.  Kipp, Rob and I, however, like having tables and guitars and comfy tents and binoculars and all sorts of other fun toys.  Plus, we brought along a 110-pound wolf/shepherd, too, which really impacted the Jenga-like raft packing system.

Just chillin' in the Alpaca packraft.
Just chillin’ in the Alpaca packraft.

Once we figured out how to rig the boat to contain the giant dog, tiny baby, three adults, and oddly-shaped gear, we were off.  Sort of.  Turns out that he John Day is awfully slow.  Low flows and up-canyon winds combined to push us backward instead of forward.  Uncle Kipper saved the day by rowing non-stop … for five days.  Meanwhile, Rob and I took turns corralling Talon in the bow, scouring the red riverside cliffs for new birds, and generally enjoying the pace of life on water.  (Thanks, Kipp.)

Talon’s highlights from his first river trip include:

  • watching a pair of peregrine falcons
  • playing with zippers in the tent
  • banging on a bucket
  • staring at riffles
  • eating rocks

His parents’ highlights from the John Day include:

  • mom sleeping in a separate tent to enjoy uninterrupted sleep
  • dad teaching Talon to give high-fives
  • not riding on a ping-pong table
  • good conversations
  • whiskey
Talon made sure that Kipp is rowing straight.
Talon made sure that Kipp rowed straight.

The rafting trip was such a success that we decided to try our luck at a second week.  We traded in the raft for the car and headed to the Oregon coast for an impromptu extended vacation — and my worst fear was realized.  The car seat always causes Talon to scream bloody murder.  Fortunately, he forgot the torture of the road as soon as we arrived at new shores, full of new rocks to taste and new waves worthy of his gaze.

Someone is as obsessed with tending the fire as his daddy.
Someone is as obsessed with tending the fire as his daddy.
Uncle Kipper serenading us before bedtime on the John Day River.
Uncle Kipper serenading us before bedtime on the John Day River.
brianna randall packrafting the siletz river
Bri enjoys a solo afternoon packrafting down the Siletz River.

 

talon and brianna randall on oregon coast - adventures in parenting
Bri and Talon enjoying the Oregon Coast.
talon playing in sand on oregon coast - adventures in parenting
Talon happy about eating sand near Newport, Oregon.
"Hey, did you guys know we're in the middle of this big river?"
“Hey, did you guys know we’re in the middle of this big river?”

Birding, Baby: The New Extreme Sport

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Outdoor Adventures, Parenting

I bet you never thought birding was hard-core.  I didn’t really, either.  But then we added a baby to the mix, and Montana decided to sprinkle in some of its famous fickle weather to make our bird-watching missions more interesting.

I’ve always liked birds.  During college in San Diego, I chose to study the nesting behavior of terns down at the estuary near Ocean Beach as my senior project.  It wasn’t much of a hardship to bike to the beach and sit around watching birds dive and swoop against a bluebird sky.  Then I moved to Montana, and lost track of my birding motivation when the shorebirds and waves were replaced with hard-to-spot, tree-dwelling passerines and cold air.

Enter Rob.  He loves counting the songbirds off our back porch, or carting out his scope to find raptors along rivers.  I started to excited about feathered flocks again, especially during the spring migration when birds seem to appear out of thin air after their tropical adventures to the south.

Birding in Choteau with hurricane-force gusts
Birding in Choteau with hurricane-force gusts of wind.

 

During our sailing trip last year, both Rob and I met a whole new host of birds, using them to gauge our distance from land during passages, and as a way to become familiar with each new island.  We even had a pet Christmas shearwater aboard for a few days somewhere south of the Equator and west of the Galapagos–it got confused during a squall, and hunkered down in the cockpit of Llyr to recover.

Now, birding seems like the perfect way to get outside for mini-adventures with an 8-month-old … especially when the baby in question is fortuitously named “Talon.”  First stop: Freezeout Lake along the Rocky Mountain Front, home of a massive migration of waterfowl each March.  We braved 50 mph gusts of wind and ominous (but gorgeous) skies to watch 8,000 snow geese rise off the lake.  Talon slept through it.

Rob and Bri bundled up to watch sage grouse go 'bloop.'
Rob and Bri bundled up to watch sage grouse go ‘bloop.’

Next stop in April: Bannack Ghost Town to camp and watch Greater sage-grouse strut in search of mates.  It dropped to 20 degrees F and snowed covered our little tent before we could even finish dinner.  After bundling up in parkas, hats, gloves, insulated boots, and downing thermos of coffee, we trundled to the lek before dawn and watched the male grouse dance up a storm for the uninterested hens.  Talon slept through it all.

In California, I introduced Talon to the terns that I used to study.  We pointed out pelicans and plovers, sandpipers and seagulls, all the while dodging the relentless rollerbladers who refuse to yield.  While the weather always cooperates in San Diego, the cutthroat pedestrians on the boardwalk are scarier than any gales I’ve encountered.  Talon definitely didn’t fall asleep on the boardwalk.  But he certainly wasn’t interested in some old birds when dudes were blading by in chaps (and nothing else).

San Diego's friendlier climes were a welcome change of pace from Montana's fickle spring.
San Diego’s friendlier climes were a welcome change of pace from Montana’s fickle spring.

Back on the homefront, we heard that a Great-horned owl had set up a nest nearby, hanging out with her three fledglings in a big cottonwood tree.  Making sure it was before Talon’s bedtime, we biked him down to the park and hiked along the creek to the nest.  The mama owl landed in a pine directly overhead, and proceeded to eat an entire trout in front of us while her babies watched. Talon, of course, fell asleep before the scope was set up.

Showing the baby boy baby owls in Missoula's Greenough Park.

Last weekend, we joined an Audubon field trip to the Montana Waterfowl Foundation in the Mission Valley, which rears and then releases several types of native birds to increase their dwindling numbers in the wild.  The birds that finally kept Talon awake?  A pair of prehistoric-looking sandhill cranes that squawked loud enough to keep him wide-eyed.

Next up: a five-day rafting trip on the John Day River in Oregon, which is sure to add plenty of new bird (and fish!) species to Talon’s already-impressive Life List.

Talon's ready for his next animal encounter -- with a trout.
Talon’s ready for his next animal encounter — with a trout.

 

 

camping with kids in kauai

Sand in your crack

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Outdoor Adventures, Traveling

camping with kids in kauaiWe had a taste of paradise again: a two-week sneak preview of our former life, and our (hopefully) someday-life-to-be. Using airline miles and a tent, we spent two cheap weeks camping on the island of Kaua’i, introducing our Pacific-conceived baby to the best ocean on earth.

He liked it. I could tell by the fistfuls of sand he shoved into his mouth, and the excited shiver that ran down his chubby legs when the waves washed over them. He laughed more in the shadow of the Hawaiian pali, epic surf crashing mere meters away.

camping and hiking with a baby on kauaiSo did I. It was a bittersweet vacation, though. The island reminded us of what we had last year, and what we miss by living in a landlocked northern mountain state. Our feet look better with sand around the edges. My hair looks better salty. Rob is happier shirtless. Talon likes living with sandy ears.

Life is easier when it’s simple, whether in the mountains or on the sea. It feels like there’s an easily defined purpose when you plan your meals around one pot, and when you plan your day around the movement of sun and moon and tides. We had a tiny rental car, one small stove, two plates, a couple of outfits, an old sarong to sit on. A long-time friend who spent a week with us, and a new friend we met sailing who popped up unexpectedly. It was all we needed. More, even.

camping and hiking with a baby on kauaiI know it’s tempting to confuse vacation with real life, and tried to infuse some perspective during our trip. For instance, it’s hard to work without electrical outlets to charge my computer. It’s hard to sleep when it’s blowing 20 knots and raining loudly on our thin nylon tent. It’s hard to get comfortable without a chair in sight and sand in your crack. It’s hard to figure out another cooked-by-headlamp, dried-goods-only meal when all you really want is a hot burger and a cold beer.

But, to me, those are still minor inconveniences. A small price to pay for paradise. They make life real, vacation or not.

I don’t know where our family will end up, in one year or ten. Kaua’i inspired me to start planning for the next long-term adventure, though, which will likely include fringing reefs and crashing waves, along with plenty of simple living in tents or boats. Meanwhile, it was good to feel the familiar Pacific breeze on my face, and her foamy waves on my toes.

camping with kids in kauai

Trekking in Myanmar - Rob deflated with a flat tire on our scooter after a long journey - On the Horizon Line travel blog.

Turning Towards Home: Trekking in Myanmar Part Two

Posted on 5 CommentsPosted in Outdoor Adventures, Pregnancy, Traveling

“Yesterday, there was a war here,” said Romeo, our Burmese trekking guide. He was holding a hand-drawn map, and pointing to the spot where we were about to embark on a 3-day hike through northeastern Myanmar. 

“Wait, what?” I said. “A war? What do you mean, ‘war’?” I asked half in fear, half in confusion. Just a minor shooting, he reassured me. Nothing to worry about. The Shan rebels have been fighting for their own independent state for decades. The recent escalation in fighting was part of a long-running cycle of give and take between ethnic minorities and the national army.

“They won’t hurt foreigners,” Romeo said. Then he turned to Rob: “But you must be alert as you drive the scooter on the highway. The Burmese special forces have road blockades set up.”

Rob and I exchanged glances, and then had a brief huddle. We decided to go ahead with our trek. After a 10-hour train ride from Mandalay the day before and hours of research into the best hikes in Myanmar, we were anxious to get up in the mountains.

Luckily, the mountains turned out to be just what we needed. The first two days and two nights were exactly what we’d been searching for in Southeast Asia: quiet forests, new cultures, and a chance to use our feet after a year floating on the sea. Rob and I were enjoying ourselves more fully than we had for weeks. We were chilled out. At peace. Finally in the moment instead of obsessing over what’s next.

Trekking in Myanmar - Burmese guide looking over tea villages - On the Horizon Line travel blog.

But then Myanmar’s mountains kicked us in the butt. And stepped on our toes for good measure. The third morning, in the tiny village of Bong Lon, Rob woke up sick. Really sick.

I did some mental calculations: we were a 5 hour hike from the two old scooters that carried us and our two guides into the mountains. The scooters were parked in a village that required a two-hour ride over rocky, dirt roads to the nearest podunk town, which was a 10-hour train ride from the city, which was a two-hour plane flight from trustworthy health care across the border in Thailand.

But I didn’t panic. I simply rubbed Rob’s back when he returned from his fourth trip before breakfast to the hole in the ground that counted as the ‘toilet.’ I made sure he ate a few forkfuls of rice, filled our water bottles and packed our things.

I didn’t freak out when he made a dozen more trips into the woods, squatting behind tea trees and losing precious fluids. I started to get worried, though, when I came upon Rob sprawled out on the dusty trail, pale as a sheet, lying flat on his back in the sun because he was too sick to move. But I just put on his backpack and helped him to his feet – there simply wasn’t anything else to do but keep going.

I remained calm when we finally mounted the tiny, old scooters, even though I had butterflies in my pregnant belly at the thought of riding behind a driver who was not my husband. Rob slumped weakly behind the 15-year-old Burmese kid who couldn’t speak English, too incapacitated to drive himself. As we started down the worst road I’ve ever seen, it felt like taking a skinny-tired road bike down a boulder-strewn riverbed.

I barely even screamed as our scooter crashed into a particularly large rock and we went flying dangerously close to the edge of a drop-off. The back brake ripped off, but we escaped with only bruises on our legs. Still keeping it together, I ran down the hill to stop Rob and his driver.

I didn’t panic when I saw the Burmese soldier patrolling the road just in front of me, his AK-47 rifle prominently in tow. Instead, I sent up a brief prayer that no rebels were lurking nearby, waiting to start another “war” while we were caught like lame ducks in the middle.

I breathed a sigh of relief when Rob recuperated enough to drive the non-broken scooter down the mountain, and we left our guides behind. I even refrained from backseat driving as I clung to the tiny bar on the back of the scooter, shifting the heavy pack on my shoulders as we skidded over holes and boulders, inches from cows, drop-offs and passing tractors.

I held a handkerchief to my nose when we walked the scooter through roadside construction complete with barrels of boiling oil and rock-crushing machines spewing gravel at us. See, Bri, life could be worse, I told myself, as we passed women and children working to build the road, scrounging to survive in an arid and unforgiving land.

I didn’t curse when we got a flat tire a mere two kilometers from the only hotel in town, after surviving the harrowing mountainside scooter ride. In fact, I even laughed at the irony of the situation, and took a picture of Rob slumped, defeated, in the dust, while a Burmese mechanic changed our tire for 50 cents.

We made it to the hotel. Rob ran for the bathroom while I haggled over a suitable room.

I still didn’t freak out when I found the bags we’d stowed strewn across the hotel’s storage room. Or when I found our prized possession – the beat-up Panamanian guitar – being played by a lounging hotel staff member. I just snatched the guitar away, and marched off to our room to dose my wilted, feverish husband with Immodium and Cipro.

But then. Oh, but then. I lost it because of a shitty shower. After Rob fell asleep, I stepped in to wash off the days of dust and grime and who-knows-what germs. To sluice away the day’s trials in hard-earned hot water. But the shower didn’t spray down on me. It didn’t even drip down on me. It just sprayed sideways, on the toilet and the sink and the window. That’s when I finally cried.

Still dirty, I dragged myself to the bed and stared out the window, trying to sort through what we should do next. As I pondered, it snapped. TWANG!

Not my brain, not my body, not Rob’s bones. A guitar string. TWANG!

We hadn’t broken a string in 6,000 miles of sailing the Pacific Ocean. After driving 800 kilometers with the guitar precariously strapped to the back of a motorcycle. During thousands of songs performed for strangers on foreign streets around the world.

But the guitar string snapped in that moment, all by itself, sitting in the corner of a hotel in Myanmar. To me, that snapped string represented our travel karma. It had reached the breaking point after so many good memories and too many near-misses.

I looked at the calendar, and realized it was exactly one year to the day that we had closed the door on our life in Montana, walking away from our home to begin this adventure. Ironic? Or cosmic? Either way, I didn’t need another sign.

When Rob woke up, his fever down and slightly more coherent, he asked what I thought we should do. “Go home,” I said immediately, assuredly. “Let’s just go home.”

“I’m certainly not going to argue with you,” he replied with the ghost of a grin.

It took us four days and four nights to travel from Bong Lon to Bellingham. Why Bellingham? Because it seemed fitting to end our year-long adventure with the same friends we began this journey with last spring. After two buses, two taxis, three flights, and an arc from Dubai across the North Pole, we arrived on U.S. soil to find Mark and Katie waiting with open arms.

In the mountains of Myanmar, the universe told us it was time to start the next chapter. We listened. We were ready. We are home.

Trekking in Myanmar - Bri back on US soil - On the Horizon Line travel blog.

Riding the Mae Hong Son Loop with 2 1/2 in Thailand. On the Horizon Line Blog with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts on motorcycle.

I Never Wanted A Crotch Rocket

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Mamalode, Outdoor Adventures, Pregnancy

My husband says that having a pregnant wife is like riding on the back of a motorcycle—you give up control, replace it with trust, and hold on for dear life. He told me that after I declared that riding on the back of our rented motorcycle for a week in northern Thailand was an exercise in letting go.

Let me be clear, here: I am not a motorcycle chick. I harbor no fantasies of riding crotch rockets around tight turns. I have been on the back of a bike only once before, during our honeymoon in Niue—a tiny island with one very flat road. Yet, somehow, it still seemed like a good idea to rent a bike for a week to see more remote reaches of Thailand. Keep reading by clicking here!

This story appears on my Mamalode monthly column. I earn a few dimes for each person that visits this online article, so click away!

Bri with Shan family in Myanmar village - Brianna and Rob - On the Horizon Line Travel Blog

Tea and Babies – Myanmar Trekking Part One

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Community and Culture, Outdoor Adventures, Traveling

We couldn’t speak the language.  We didn’t understand the social structure in the ethnic Shan villages.  We slept on the floor of a teak cabin in the home of complete strangers in the mountains of Myanmar.  But even in a completely foreign setting, tea and babies allowed us to bridge the gap between our culture and theirs.

Rob and I spent three days trekking through northeastern Myanmar with a hired guide named Romeo (his chosen English name, since the Burmese pronunciation stumped most foreigners).  Romeo was 25.  He brought along his “intern,” One, who was 15, energetic, fluent in the local language of Shan, and trying desperately to learn English.  Trekking is actually not a very apt descriptor for how we spent three day.  It sounds too hard-core.  Instead, we walked at a leisurely pace for about six hours each day between tiny villages, chatting with Romeo, listening to One sing, checking out birds and tea plantations scattered among the jungle.

Rob with 2 Shan guides - Trekking in Myanmar village - Brianna and Rob - On the Horizon Line Travel Blog

As evening fell, we’d stop at one of the villages and follow Romeo into an unknown wooden house.  Shan language is closer to Thai than Burmese.  Rob and I quickly learned the basic ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘so long,’ but basically had zero clue what was happening around us most of the time.  We compensated by playing with the ever-present babies crawling and toddling across the teak floors, and by drinking endless cups of tea with their parents, aunts, grandparents and neighbors – many of whom seemed to live in the house.  And we did a lot of miming, which is always entertaining.

The family fed us and gave us blankets and bamboo mats to sleep on the floor.  These houses had little to no furniture, other than a couple of small, round tables about one-foot high.  We sat on old rice sacks.  Water for washing and drinking came from a small tank (which we purified with our UV SteriPen), and the ‘toilet’ consisted of a four-foot-high bamboo box with a hole in the floor.  Most of the village homes have electricity now, thanks to the recent installation of mini-hydro projects or solar panels, but usually only enough juice to fuel a couple of light bulbs.

Firewood for drying tea - Trekking in Myanmar village - Brianna and Rob - On the Horizon Line Travel Blog

Dinner and breakfast were the same: rice, eggs, fried potatoes, and random leaves harvested near the house.  All food is prepared over an open fire that burns constantly in the middle of the main room on a concrete slab set into the hardwood floor (the babies are adept at avoiding the flames).  The Shan villagers rarely eat meat, since it’s expensive, and they usually don’t grow more than a banana tree.  They still gather local roots, bitter fruits and leaves, buying all of their rice and cooking oil for the year in one lump sum after they receive their once-yearly payment for the tea they grow and dry in the mountains.  We learned that one kilo of dried tea earns them $4,000 kyat, and an average family harvests 1-2,000 kilos.  That works out to about $8,000 USD per year for a family of four.

Scooter over construction on Burma roads - Trekking in Myanmar village - Brianna and Rob - On the Horizon Line Travel Blog

After dinner, we gathered around the indoor fire to ask questions of our hosts through Romeo: do they only grow tea or other crops, too?  How often do they go to Kyaukme, the nearest town?  Had they met many foreigners?  What’s the latest with the Shan rebels fighting nearby?  I whipped out our ultrasound picture to further the universal baby bond, which took 30 minutes of translating to explain to the wonder-struck villagers.  Our hosts peppered us with questions, too, including how much it costs to live in America, what our house looked like, why we traveled to their village, how we make money.

Then we curled up under our blankets in the chilly mountain air, sleeping four abreast next to Romeo and One in the main room as our myriad hosts disappeared into the back room to do the same.  The tinkle of bells on the necks of nearby livestock lulled us to sleep.  The early morning chants of Buddhist monks collecting alms woke us up, ready for another day of walking through the mountains of Myanmar.

Stay tuned for Part Two in our trekking tale, which includes Burmese soldiers and a minor scooter accident.

bri and Rob with young Buddhist Monk - Trekking in Myanmar village - Brianna and Rob - On the Horizon Line Travel Blog

 

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