A Walk in the Park: Silver Springs State Park

One day, there were two people who wanted to ride on the boat. Their names were Melani and Jillian. When they were rowing everywhere, they saw two baby alligators. One of the mothers of the babies came out with its whole body and it attacked the little girl’s brother. Her friends were up by the bridge, and they saw everything.
— Jillian, age 5

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

We were in that part of Florida because I was researching the post-sideshow lives of carnival workers. So it was kind of fitting that we stumbled on this old Hollywood starlet, Silver Springs State Park, who has starred in the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and James Bond, and Sea Hunt.

These artesian springs provide fresh water to more than half of Florida. But also, because they are exceptionally clear — you cannot tell whether you are looking six feet down or 65, they are the perfect backdrop for filmmakers who need an underwater stage.

We took the glass-bottom boat tour — designed starting in the 1870s to show off this wonder — and then rented kayaks. 

The wildlife warning “if you see the baby, the momma is nearby” had been impressed upon us by the good folks over at Wildlife Inc. the day before, so we responsibly kept our distance when we twice paddled past young napping gators.

“There’s a big one down there!” hollered someone from the bridge as Melani and 5-year-old Jilly headed toward home base to return their tandem kayak. Twenty-one-year-old Trevor was close behind them, having sped away from me when I told him he looked very redneck-y with his ball cap and a snoozing gator over his left shoulder.

Melani eased the kayak to a safe space to take a look at the sunning eight-footer, and Jilly dropped her paddle into the water to help out. The sound and the sudden jerking motion of the boat made the gator open her eyes and lift her head, which made Jilly scream, which made the gator say, “Nope nope nope damn humans” and slither away through the water, cutting off Trevor’s kayak and slapping the tip of it with her tail.

The little audience at the top of the bridge hollered their approval.

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We’re awarding Silver Springs State Park the ever-elusive yet completely arbitrary five out of five stroller wheels, and not just for alligator sightings. We can’t name all the birds we saw, and there were dozens of turtles and hundreds of fish. The park is rich with history going back thousands of years to when indigenous peoples used this water and harvested the land. The paths are wide and clear — though we only got to walk a bit of them because of time constraints.

The food at the canteen is very well priced, and there are many tables throughout the park to picnic instead. Entrance to the park is only $2. The glass-bottom boat and kayak cost extra (you can launch your own kayak for $4), but the price is reasonable and the experience well worth it. We were on the water for a total of three hours and retreated to our Airbnb exhausted and happy.

A walk in the park: Sentier Inter-Centre and Liberator Harry crash site

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

The Montreal Gazette of Oct. 22, 1943.
The Montreal Gazette of Oct. 22, 1943.

We know for sure it was a Tuesday in 1943. What’s less clear is whether the plane went down in the morning, sometime in the early afternoon, or in the dark of night.

We know for sure the weather was terrible and that the good people of St. Donat heard a large plane fly low over their town. It was wartime and they might have been afraid to look outside, and those who weren’t afraid wouldn’t have known which way to look — sound is tricky in the mountains and muffled by heavy fog. Though reports were made, no one in authority appears to have paid them much mind. It was just a little village with a lot of loggers, after all, and there was important war stuff going on, like the loss of a giant Liberator B-24 somewhere near Mont-Joli.

The Liberator was a U.S.-built monster designed to take out U-boats. It became a popular part of the Allies’ arsenal, though some reports say pilots and crew didn’t love it — it was harder to fly than others of its class, and they felt there was a smaller chance of survival in the case of a crash.

Liberator Harry was a training vehicle that flew out of Gander early that October morning, headed for the darling town of Mont-Joli on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. On board was the pilot and 23 soldiers. The weather was terrible, though, as we’ve said, and the flight was diverted to Montreal, 550 kilometres southwest of their destination.

But they got lost in the fog and rain, and sometime — morning, afternoon, evening? — the giant plane roared low over St. Donat and hit the hard rock of la Montagne Noire.

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As the 24 soldiers lay dead on the frozen mountaintop, confusion reigned below. It is clear from a report in the Montreal Gazette two days later that “the most intensive air search ever carried out in eastern Canada” was focused in the wrong place, in the river near Malbaie, 500 kilometres away.

“Every available plane of both the RCAF and the Royal Air Force Transport Command battled ‘diabolical’ flying conditions in a vain search of the missing Liberator.”

The Malbaie police chief told the Gazette travellers told him a big passenger plane had plunged into the river near his town. Dozens of reports came in saying the same thing, but it made no sense. The area had been well searched, and Transport Command figured the plane had crashed in the morning, not afternoon or evening. “A most thorough search of this area has been made and we have found nothing to indicate they are true.”

It would be more than two years till Liberator Harry and its men were found. June 26, 1946, search crews looking for another crash caught a glint on the mountainside and soon spotted Liberator Harry’s unique tail. The mission to the top of the mountain determined that the men had died on impact, and that the plane had caught fire. Only three of the soldiers have been identified.

It remains the greatest military aviation accident on Canadian soil.

A wing of the Liberator B-24 that crashed near St. Donat in 1943 still bears the American star — it was new enough that the Canadians hadn't had time to repaint it.
A wing of the Liberator B-24 that crashed near St. Donat in 1943 still bears the American star — it was new enough that the Canadians hadn’t had time to repaint it.

four wheels

Sentier Inter-Centre, the trail that leads to the crash site, gets four stroller wheels for story, on the understanding that this is a hike not well suited for younger kids who might not be able to walk uphill for six kilometres and absolutely not for people who need to bring their stroller with them.

We went in the middle of spring, but experienced three seasons on our way uphill. The lower two kilometres were an easy walk on wide trails covered in last fall’s leaves and woven through with green shoots. The middle two were a good combination of thick mud and some snow, forgiven because of the beautiful way the sunlight, unobstructed by leaves, glinted off golden birches and kept our backs warm even as our feet got colder. The last two kilometres were a serious slog through knee-deep snow, but well worth the time and effort, especially if you’ve packed food, water, and dry socks.

The crash site is in two sections about 100 feet apart, the second featuring a monument and interpretive plaques. We picnicked at the summit — 2,925 feet — overlooking a wing and landing gear in the sunlight and were not bothered by ghostly chills.

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A walk in the park: Cathedral Grove & Little Qualicum Falls

cathedral grove101Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

You can almost taste the green. There is the nearly yellow of new growth and the nearly black of the moss, and every shade between those. It’s inside your nose, sweet but wet. Heavy.

It is raining, but the forest canopy keeps you drier than you expected. It is made of shadows and it is muffled, like there’s loose cotton in your ears. Like you’re in church.

This is Cathedral Grove.

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This is our nation’s ancient architecture: 800-year-old Douglas firs and the red cedars that were once used to carve totem poles and hollow out canoes.

These trees are alive. I mean really alive — they watch you and I think they laugh a little behind your back. Be still and you’ll see their faces in your peripheral vision. Rounded trunks become laughing bellies, moss-covered branches are arms, knots are eyes and noses, eyebrows are carved by nature into the bark.

“Cathedral” is a European invention, but the godliness you feel here is older. So much older.

Little Qualicum Falls1

Just down the road from Cathedral Grove is Little Qualicum Falls. It is just as powerful, but it is not quiet and it is not peaceful. You can hear the angry cascade as you approach the forest, like static on a radio turned up too high.

We are still in rainforest here, and it’s dark under the canopy, so the white water shines as it bubbles and races down the mountain, eroding rock and devouring plants that have the misfortune to fall in.

It’s not safe here. That water is hungry, and some of the paths are steep and marked with tangled roots that can trip a careless traveller. The thick black mud under your feet is slippery and makes a threatening sucking sound every time you lift your shoes.

four wheels
I’m awarding MacMillan Provincial Park (Cathedral Grove) and Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park four stroller wheels (out of a completely arbitrary five), with the caveat that I went alone, without children or strollers, and walked only a small part of Qualicum Falls at the tail end of a rainy day.

There are kilometres of trails at the Falls, and although I spent my time in the dangerous portion right by the falls, there are apparently lovely swimming holes and wider, family-friendly paths throughout the park. There is also a campsite. The parks are midway between Parksville and Port Alberni on Highway 4.

If you do both parks, as I did, save Cathedral Grove for the end. Its quiet beauty will offset all that raging water and close the day on a spiritual note.

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A walk in the park: Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

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I watched the sun rise over an ancient Medicine Wheel, and I wept.

I had lost my way twice while stumbling toward this sacred space, first when following the predawn blush in the otherwise black western sky, and again as the horizon pinked in the east.

Later I would find patches of ice on the valley floor, but I wasn’t shivering because of the cold. Sometimes you step into a place or a time that feels like home, and it shivers through you so hard you have to just stand there, or walk the circle, and wonder whether it’s disrespectful to speak a word to the ancestors.

Blackfoot, Chipewyan, Sioux, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Sarcee, Cree, Saulteaux, Shoshoni, Nez Perce, Métis, and countless before them whose names we will never know gathered here, worshipped and hunted here. They had for 6,000 years — some of the archeological dig sites at Wanuskewin are older than the pyramids.

I’m not sure how long I spent at the Medicine Wheel, and even if I could remember everything I said there, in a low whisper, I would not record it here. I stayed until the sky had changed from black to orange and grey to blue and white. When geese broke the morning silence, I said a final, inadequate prayer and stepped back onto the trail that leads into the valley.

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The prairies are not as flat as people think. The plains at Wanuskewin harbour a bowl-shaped valley that dips suddenly from behind a magnificent interpretive centre. What looks like a flat expanse of land from the roadway collapses into buffalo jumps and toward the river.

Here, generations of First Nations gathered not just for the rich bounty of game and plant life but to be protected from freezing winds. It was a wintering and meeting place for nomadic tribes and continues to be an important space to bring together aboriginal peoples and their allies.

With my back to the Medicine Wheel, I walked slowly back to the interpretive centre. The birds were waking in earnest — geese again, and two brown songbirds in the long grass, a call from by the river. There was a fast knocking — a woodpecker, maybe? A beaver? The barking again.

Sound works strangely in this valley, which is marked by ancient tipi rings, an impressive buffalo pound, and a gently curving portion of Opimihaw Creeak, which branches off from the great Saskatchewan River. A bubbling brook flows under and above ground so that one can hear it just over there, but not at all right here. Imagine, a sign urges, what it was like to hear a hundred buffalo come stampeding from the land above. Think of it too hard and your throat will tighten in awe.

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A stand of trees stood out against the grey and brown because there were strips of material wrapped round them. These sacred cloths, some bright, some starting to fade, had been tied in memory of loved ones, as one might light a candle or lay a flower.

As I approached the mouth of the little valley, a herd of something — antelope, I think — went before me. They knew I was there. One kept stopping in her tracks, watching me while she stood still as the medicine boulders.

“It’s okay, lady,” I whispered. “I’m on my way out.”

She lowered her head, seemed to meet my gaze again, and bolted off over the mouth of the valley, after her family. It took a full minute for my breath to return.

four wheels

Wanuskewin Heritage Park6Wanuskewin Heritage Park gets four stroller wheels (out of a completely arbitrary five). It is awesome in the purest sense of the word.

It is one of the longest-running archaeological digs in Canada, with sites representing each important archaeological age for the past 6,000 years. Interpretive signs are useful but not intrusive, and written to engage a hiker and encourage them to imagine themselves in another time. Trails are narrow and blend in with the land, which has gentle hills and sweeps down toward the river. Wildlife are curious but keep to themselves.

I wasn’t able to spend much time in the interpretive centre because I was on my way out of town, but everyone I talked to spoke passionately about it. This space, whose name is Cree for “being at peace with oneself,” is clearly a treasure for Saskatonians.

It’s a 15-minute drive from the centre of Saskatoon, just a touch north of airport. It is open year-round and admission is just $4-$8.50. It also boasts events and education programs.

Tennessee: Mist in the mountains, music on the streets

GATLINBURG, Tn. — The towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are joined at the hip. The hip is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We spent the better part of a day driving through the park, which stretches south and into the sky. We hiked up to Clingman’s Dome—at 6,643, it’s the very top of Tennessee. There, Jilly filled the mist with bubbles and danced on the observatory, waiting till the sky cleared enough to be able to see half of the state laid out before us. At dusk, we approached the edge of the park and discovered a field of grazing elk.

Drivers were extremely courteous and careful. In our entire day drive, we only encountered one ass. He was from New York.

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Though it was full dark, we made the last-minute decision to turn away from our cabin and hit Gatlinburg for some live music. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in Tennessee.

Gatlinburg is a little more sedate than Pigeon Forge, but there was still plenty to see at nearly 10 p.m. There was a fat lady singing outside the circus museum, and greater-than-life-size superheroes across the street at the superstar car museum.

gatlinburg tennessee

I was headed to the superheroes when I heard banjo music and Melani called me back—there was the live music I was looking for, just hanging out ripping tunes on the wide sidewalk.

I sent Jilly over with a dollar bill for the upturned hat and a lady in pioneer costume grabbed her little hands and did the polka while her companions strummed away. Within moments other children had joined till there was a dance party going on outside a discount jewelry store.

We had crossed the street but hadn’t stopped giggling when we encountered a second group of performers and Jilly was caught up again with even more children—where were all these kids coming from?—in a joyful square dance and a semi-successful chicken dance.

We had stumbled upon Smoky Mountain Tunes & Tales, a troupe of singers, dancers and other artists who take to Gatlinburg’s streets to surprise and delight tourists.

We capped off the night with live music, margaritas (virgin for our preschooler, natch) and key lime pie at the brewery.

Gatlinburg doesn’t sparkle and holler the way Pigeon Forge does. But it puts on a good show and makes outsiders—even Northerners—feel welcome for a spell.

A walk in the park: Flume Gorge

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

LINCOLN, N.H. — Some stories must be told vertically.

Website developers and lovers of the iPad’s ubiquitous 1000×750 images might argue the point. But they would be wrong.

Some stories must be told vertically. The story of Flume Gorge is one of those.

The adventurer credited with discovering Flume Gorge in the early 1800s wasn’t your average explorer: She was a 93-year-old auntie, and she was just out looking for a new fishing hole when the gurgling of a brook drew her to the gorge.

That sound enticed Aunt Jess Guernsey into the brush that had curtained a giant gash in the side of Mount Pemigewasset. There it was before her in its vertical glory:

Granite walls rising 90 feet with just 20 feet of air between them. Nearly as high as the clouds was a monstrous egg-shaped boulder suspended miraculously atop the gorge. The gorge itself, blanketed in ferns and moss and dripping with stone-sweet water, was at least 800 feet long. An unseasonably cool, damp air cascaded through it above the deceptively powerful Flume Brook.

Life blooms near Avalanche Falls.

Eighty years later a great storm would wash away the boulder and create Avalanche Falls, 45 feet high and loud enough to be heard from a mile away. The Sentinel Pine, a giant of a tree that stood above the still waters of a pool halfway up the gorge, weathered that storm but would be felled by a hurricane in 1938. It would be repurposed as a bridge, to continue its watch over the pool.

But back in 1803, Auntie Jess scrambled over the rocks for a better look, then rushed back to share her discovery with her family. But she was 93, remember. They didn’t believe her.

The stories don’t say how long it took the family to get on board. Maybe she gave up trying to convince them. Maybe she was eventually followed to her magical fishing hollow by one of the littles, who confirmed her tale.

Faced with believing an auntie or a little … well, we’ll never know, will we?

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three wheels

After much discussion, we are giving Flume Gorge three stroller wheels out of a completely arbitrary five. We leaned toward four, but the final decision comes down to cost vs. fun.

The $16 per person price tag is prohibitive; $48 for two hours of exploring is just too much, even though Jilly got in free, and even though we believe strongly in supporting the public parks system.

But it was stunningly beautiful in there and the cool air was just what we needed. There was an excellent mix of wide easy trails and fun twisty wooden walkways along the side of the rock. This is not the sort of place you’d want to bring a stroller, however — the stairs and few rough trails would be far too frustrating.

The White Mountains are just beautiful and this was a good way to get up close and personal with them for two hours.