Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Taming the dragon in Edmonton's River Valley

On any given evening if you amble by Dawson Bridge in Edmonton you will see numerous folk donning lifejackets and holding paddles, alongside others who are performing various warm up exercises.

These brightly coloured patrons are about to board a dragon boat, a kind of long boat, that will seat up to 20 people plus a steersperson (a person who stands at the back and steers the boat) and a drummer (sits at the front and coaches the crew).

Originating from southern China, dragon boating is the world’s fastest growing international team water sport; the beauty of the activity being that you can start as a coach potato and with time, practise and passion can work your way up to a competitive team level fairly quickly.

Dragon boating is also an entertaining sport to watch and family-friendly festivals are held on a frequent basis. These events are fun for everyone whether you prefer to volunteer, watch or participate.

Of course Edmonton’s River Valley is the perfect environment for dragon boating and the Edmonton Dragon Boat Racing Club (EDBRC) holds practices on most weekday evening for the novice to the competitive.

If you are interested in joining an activity that encompasses team work, physical exercise and endurance; together with the benefits of being outdoors and meeting new people, go to the EDBRC website for further information.

Edmonton Dragon Boat Racing Club qualified last year to send teams to both the World Club Crew Championships (in China) and the Commonwealth Games (in Malaysia) in 2010.

For more information go to:

Edmonton Dragon Boat Racing Club 

Edmonton Dragon Boat Festival

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A little dose of (horse) sense!

It was with much trepidation that I drove out to visit Gary Millar and his farm yesterday to discuss his company and passion Equus Alive.

Equus Alive is a company that has developed a series of personal development experiences built around working with horses, in a picturesque setting just a few minutes from Elk Island National Park, Alberta. Yet, the stunning scenery provided only a small amount of distraction from my nervousness!

Let me explain. I am not a horse person! In my opinion, they are too high and have too many legs!

The two attempts I had at horse riding (aged 13 and then again at 34) were both tainted with fear, frustration and a feeling of being out of control.

So, when I met with Gary yesterday and he took me to the barn where two large horses enthusiastically greeted us, I had to admit my fear and blurted “Okay ... so I am not a horse person. They make me nervous.”

Okay. Fear admitted. All is good. Gary can show me around and then I can get out of here! Phew!

Hmm... Seemed like Gary had a different idea!

He introduced me to Sensor, a good looking grey Arabian gelding who initially seemed quite keen to check me out. As Gary continued to explain about Equus Alive and about ‘horse sense’ I found my attention was distracted a couple of times by the horse next to Sensor; Sox. This animal, a chestnut Arabian gelding, was not just large, he was gigantic! Sox proceeded to stick out his neck, over Gary’s shoulder and turn his head from side to side, grinning at me almost crazily.

I backed up a little. Sox seemed to have the amazing ability to stretch his neck out even further and continued to turn his head from one side to the other. “He’s the comedian of the bunch!” said Gary, noticing my attention. Huh.... and I thought he was trying to eat me!

As Gary explained further, I couldn’t help be fascinated by the concept of Equus Alive. “Horses never lie.” Gary explained. “They respond honestly to the way you interact with them. You cannot BS a horse.”

Gary led Sensor and I to the ‘arena’ and then proceeded to explain more about the programs that he offers.

Sensor and Gary Millar
 From a half day up to 5 day advanced workshops, Gary and his team focus on communication with the horses in a safe, secure environment.

Working with a horse in this way allows people to relax the defences that they operate with on a daily basis. Growing in confidence and trust with each other enables the individual to gain self-esteem and confidence and create a bond of trust between horse and human.

This was somewhat hard to believe when Gary handed the rope to me and I was instructed to start walking with Sensor and to trust that he would do what he was asked. Thoughts of this 1000lb animal eating or crushing me were running rampant through my head. “Breathe!” reminded Gary.

“Okay, I can do this.” I told myself. I held my head high, breathed and walked alongside Sensor, trying to match his pace and trust in the process.

Next I had to have Sensor run alongside me, an altogether daunting experience, yet as he ran, obediently, I felt a growing sense of exhilaration.

When we reach a small jump in the arena, I hesitated and panicked a little, but Gary was right there beside us, soothing both Sensor and I.

From my perspective, Sensor initially was curious about me and wanted to know more, yet his behaviour seemed to change as he reacted to my demeanour. He became gentle, thoughtful and almost cajoling as he waited patiently alongside us. He seemed to be expressing that he was okay and that I could trust him. He wanted me to like him, in the same way that I wanted him to like me.

Sensor and the brave author

This was just a taste of the programs that Gary offers and the course continues and includes interacting with the horses without a harness, working with other horses to gain further relationships and grooming the horses in their stalls.

When we took Sensor back to the barn, I had graduated from standing back against the opposite wall to being able to stroke, pat and feed him treats and then even give a treat to Sox, the gigantic, crazy neighbour!

When I left the farm, I felt intrigued by my own emotions and reactions. After all, I had opened up and shown my vulnerability to a 1000lb animal; he didn’t eat me and he didn’t berate me for my fear! I was still a little nervous by the end of the two hours, but my captivation in the process and my newly gained trust in Gary and his concept will take me back for more!

Urban Insight has travel packages available that include the Equus Alive programs, please contact us for more information.

Gary Millar also runs school programs that help motivate kids to want to read. These programs teach children of all ages to read to horses and to be able to communicate with them. For more information go to http://www.arabianhorsereading.com/

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Kayaking in winter, Alberta style!

When I tell folks that I am currently enjoying kayaking lessons, the first question that they normally ask is ‘Are they inside?’

Bearing in mind that I live in Edmonton, Alberta and my lessons began in early February; this seems like a ridiculous question considering that the average February temperature here is -12 degrees Celsius!

But then again, this IS Alberta that we are talking about and there is no doubt that Albertans are resilient and also quite ingenious when it comes to finding ways to have fun in the winter!

Yes, the kayaking lessons are inside! Together with a group of nine other keen people, we are halfway through enjoying four weekly sessions, aimed at teaching basic white-water kayaking skills.

The United Albertan Paddling Society is a white-water kayaking organization focused on introducing both youth and adults to kayaking as an active lifestyle choice.

So far, two weeks into the course and the emphasis is to have fun. Yet the lessons are challenging and also a pretty good workout. (Just ask my oblique’s today!)

During our first lesson our instructor Rob had us practise a wet-water exit; a manoeuvre that requires the paddler to turn the kayak upside down and safely exiting the boat. Whilst seemingly a little daunting, even the most fearful amongst us (namely me) managed to execute this exercise without swallowing all of the pool water!

We then practised a few basic paddling strokes; forward and reverse strokes and forward and reverse sweeps, and then it was time to play. Water polo and relay races made the lesson even more fun, yet also had us practising our new skills!

My inner child escaped within minutes into the first lesson. I (along with others) had this incessant need to just have fun, paddle as hard and as fast as I could, race with others and just kid around!

Week two consisted of further paddling strokes followed by basic edging, and straight draws; skills that are needed for when we learn how to T-rescue (flip upright assisted by another boat). These actions seem fairly manageable in the safety of the Scona swimming pool, but they are necessary skills for kayaking on the river.

With two more lessons to come, the plan is to learn how to complete the T-rescue, edging, bow draws and also how to ‘roll’ the kayak (the roll is optional although by week two, this is already something the whole group wants to accomplish!).

Yes, I am very glad that the lessons are inside ... but spring is just around the corner ;-)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Learning to fly ... winter style!

For most Canadians, surviving the winter means embracing the season wholeheartedly; after all, in many provinces the snow arrives in November and sticks around until April!

Luckily, as a nation, we figured out numerous ways to not only take advantage of this season, but also to enjoy it!

Cross Country skiing is just one popular winter activity, so it was with some enthusiasm therefore that I recently joined an introduction to cross-country skiing group lesson at the Strathcona Wilderness Centre.

The Strathcona Wilderness Centre is located just 30 minutes east of Edmonton and is a four-season outdoor adventure centre that offers a variety of recreational programs for groups and individuals.

After a cold spell, the morning dawned cold but sunny; with a stunning cornflower blue sky ... ah February finally arrived! Many others felt the same way it seemed, as we arrived into a very busy parking lot, at only 10.30 on a Sunday morning.

The Wilderness Centre has a cozy lodge and we were greeted by an efficient team that helped us with obtaining our rental equipment. A short time later, we were really to roll... or to ski ....

The two hour Adult Introduction to X-C Skiing group lesson is only $36.75 per person and is designed to introduce participants to Classical Cross-Country Skiing. The lesson focuses on gaining comfort on skis, weight shift and flat terrain techniques.

Our excellent instructors Sean and Alex began the lesson with fun warm up exercises, such as jumping in a circle, ‘jogging’ along the tracks and learning to ‘fly’ before progressing to diagonal stride and basic hill manoeuvres.

The whole experience was a lot of fun, especially being amid a group of beginners. Tumbling over was a frequent occurrence for most, but with it came lots of laugher, smiles and the odd triumphant yell!
The two hour lesson (which was actually more like two and a half hours) ended with a short ski around a section of the park, by which time most of us felt fairly confident that we could attempt to ski again with some skill and knowledge.

There is something to be said for watching hundreds of brightly-dressed people darting around the tracks on a dazzling sunny, winters day ... there’s even more to be said for being one of them!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cold Edmonton weather = climbing the walls ... literally!

Top Rope climbing at Climb Edmonton

Edmonton is blessed with crisp, dry, sunny winters that are sometimes, to be fair, a little cold!

Whilst some of us thrive in this weather and take advantage of the snowshoeing, cross country skiing, downhill skiing and skating on offer, some of us ... do not!

The point is if you don’t like winter, but do want to remain active, then indoor wall climbing is an excellent alternative activity. And it’s warm!

I, together with a group of 11 others, recently descended on Climb Edmonton, the newest climbing gym to the city. Climb Edmonton opened in February 2010 and claims to differ from some other gyms by their dedication to the customer’s needs and their warm welcome. They certainly made our group feel welcome as we arrived with much enthusiasm and little knowledge!

Our Intro to Indoor Climbing group lesson was conducted by Taiger, the Climb Edmonton General Manager and he immediately had us learning the basics of bouldering; grab hold of anything and try and climb, with a ‘spotter’ in tow! A spotter is the person that stands behind you, arms held out (thumbs tucked in); ready for when you fall off or disembark the wall, to stop you either a) banging your head or b) toppling off the crash mat.

Bouldering is fairly easy for most people, doable even for vertically-challenged people like me. After all, we’ve all had some climbing experience as kids.

Bouldering efficiently though is a different matter. Taiger soon had us effectively practising the ‘pyramid’ and ‘triangle’ stance (feet together one on hold, or hands together on one hold) and ‘crimping’ (a type of hold that relies only on the fingertips for support). Sounds painful? It is a little, but gets easier with practise apparently!

Once we had the bouldering techniques down pat, or at least the idea of them, Taiger then set us two different challenges which involved climbing ladder-like rocks and crimping up a narrow rock face. At least two of our group managed to successfully complete the challenges ... I guess that’s why it’s called a challenge!

All too soon our bouldering fun came to an end. Then the real stuff began!

Learning how to tie a figure 8 knot, attaching a belay device (a mechanical piece of climbing equipment used to control a rope during climbing) and the basic belay techniques needed to top-rope (climb a gym wall using a rope) were our next priorities.

The figure 8 was mastered (some even with their eyes closed!) and the top-rope climbing began.

Relying totally on your ‘belayer’ (a designated partner who remains on the ground controlling the rope with a belay device) we each climbed sections of the wall according to our ability and comfort level, overseen diligently by Taiger.

This was three very quick hours of fun! An exhilarating and challenging experience, climbing is without doubt, enjoyable for all the family. It’s an activity for all ages and fitness levels and is also a great all-over body workout.

Our group left happy and a lot wiser. Even those with some experience agreed that this was an excellent refresher with many new tips and excellent instruction.

And for the vertically-challenged? I am pleased to report that I did reach the top of the wall, despite my shaking knees!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cooking up a storm ... loft style!

For the average person cooking is a necessity and sometime a chore. We are not all, unfortunately, blessed with the ability to throw ingredients into a pot and produce a masterpiece. Nor are we all necessarily capable of following a recipe and producing the required results. “Hmm...Is preheating the oven important?”

It’s fascinating therefore to combine a group of ten people, many of which fit into the ‘average-in-the-kitchen’ skill set and then proceed to teach them to cook! This is precisely what Gail Hall bravely attempts to do with her cooking classes.

Let’s get clear here ... this is not a basic ‘learn to boil an egg’ cooking class!

Gail Hall is the owner of Seasons Solutions, an Edmonton based company, and spends her time educating folk on local and regional produce, leading hands-on cooking classes and developing and hosting international culinary tours. Just to ensure Gail does not get bored in her downtime, she also has a weekly food column on CBC radio and regularly appears on breakfast TV.

Gail’s enthusiasm is contagious as she soon organises the group into chopping, peeling, coring, seasoning, whisking and just about every other kitchen activity possible. Yet the emphasis on this experience is fun!

Gail hosts her classes in her home, in a kitchen setting to die for. Class members sit around a large island, on tall stools and the atmosphere is engaging and relaxing. As an individual you can be as hands-on as you wish, but soon find yourself clamouring to be involved as the enthusiasm spreads. Or maybe it’s the wine, which Gail pours liberally!

It’s not just physical work either. Gail’s husband Jon often partakes in entertaining the class members. He is a local historian and enjoys regaling the group with snippets of Edmonton’s history. He’s also very knowledgeable about the wine, which he also liberally pours!

After the hard work is complete it’s time to reap the rewards and the whole group sits down to enjoy a 4 course meal over a glass or two of wine.

Together we managed to create a very respectable and enjoyable meal consisting of a market salad with honey dressing, a fresh maple sausage frittata with roasted vegetables and yummy mini ‘tatin’ apple tarts. Most importantly, as Gail is so proud of reminding us; the meal is created with local and regional ingredients, most of which are organic!

When you enter The Loft, it is as a group of colleagues or friends or as individuals or couples. When you leave the experience, you feel warm, tingly, and well-fed; with a smug feeling that perhaps your kitchen prowess was indeed hiding, under a very large bushel! 

Seasoned Solutions Loft Cooking School hosts regular classes with a maximum of 10 participants and is a great introduction to Alberta regional cuisine.

Contact Urban Insight Travel to book one of our culinary travel packages.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Crypt Lake hike, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta

Hurrying to make the 9am water taxi with 11 other people on a chilly August morning was almost enough to make anyone want to crawl back into their warm sleeping bag!

In fact, only the thought of the reward ahead was enough to keep away the craving for a second cup of coffee!

I had hiked Crypt Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park two years prior and remembered being awed and amazed, despite hiking it at breakneck speed (my fellow hiker was very adamant about hiking fast!).

This time around, I was accompanied by 11 other hiking enthusiasts, many of whom were seeing the National Park and this exceptional hike for the first time.

Crypt Lake Trail is considered one of Canada’s top rated hiking trails and has numerous exciting surprises for the outdoors fanatic.

Perhaps the most rewarding is the constant change of scenery. After a 15 minute water taxi across Upper Waterton Lake, you are greeted with a series of switchbacks, numerous beautiful waterfalls, expansive open valleys and a delightful array of wildflowers, berries and plant life.

The trail gains a respectable elevation (675m) and culminates in a narrow trail adjacent to a sheer drop, ending at a steep wall with an iron ladder. Climbing the ladder is an easy feet for two legs, but if you are carrying a dog (as did one of our group) it’s a lot more challenging!

Upon reaching the top of the ladder, there is a 20m tunnel that cuts through the mountain and leads out to a trail that runs across an exposed precipice. Whilst not really for the fainthearted, the ledge does have a cable to help in some of the narrowest parts.

Luckily once past this hair-raising part of the hike, the trail ends at Crypt Lake, which is well worth the obstacle course it took to get there.

Surrounded by 600m cliffs, the lake is glacial carved, has stunningly deep green water and is ice-cold!

Sitting precisely on the Canada-US border (the east shore is in the US!), the lake is the perfect spot to lunch, cool down the toes or even cast out a line and fish.

Hiking back down the 8.7km trail only highlights the beautiful scenery even further and it’s with aching feet and a full camera that you arrive back into the town of Waterton. My second experience of hiking this trail only surpassed the first and is still definitely one of my top 5 hikes to date!