A moment of silence, as I stepped back and let myself fall. It was a new sensation and almost peaceful.
It was not my first time jumping from a helicopter, but maybe the first time I really appreciated the experience.
For a non-skydiver, falling out of a plane or helicopter might seem like nearly the same experience, but they are actually quiet difference. Many skydivers try a helicopter jump because they are chasing the experience of “dead air.” That moment of silent air, where you actually get the sensation of falling.
In an airplane the forward speed prevents people from feeling as though they are falling when they leave the plane. It’s probably closer to being sucked away from the plane then anything. It also tends to be loud, as the wind rushes past your face. This fast air is what allows skydivers to maneuver and perform in the air.
Dead air is pretty much the opposite. Jumping from the stationary helicopter means you truly feel like your falling – until you speed up to terminal velocity.
For the thrill seeker it is the next experience after skydiving. It gives you a bit of an idea of what BASE jumping might feel like, although I never intend to try that.
It was interesting, after all the anxiety of the flight up, that moment of stepping off and falling back was strangely serene. Time slowed down. It was a few moments in time that I remember vividly and will not forget.
A lack of waterfalls can sometimes be beautiful. It is a reminder to have an open mind to different possibilities in life.
We were in Ottawa, Illinois and looking for something to do. Skydiving had brought us to the area, but clouds had put us on hold. Our options were to drive to Chicago or find something local to do. As I generally prefer forests to cities, we decided to do some googling of state parks.
Starved Rock State Park with a promise of waterfalls and sandstone canyons seemed like the natural choice. Upon arrival, signs informed us that recent dry weather meant the waterfalls would not be flowing. We decided to continue on and were very pleasantly surprised by what we found.
We started out at the visitors centre and walked to the first outlook named after the park. Although there was a nice view, this lookout was busy and touristy because of its proximity to the visitor centre. After a quick stop we continued on to more rustic trails deeper in the park. As we continued on, the paved trail dropped off into a pretty forest. Well worth the walk!
The first and probably my favourite stop was French Canyon, which has a dried out waterfall. This canyon was unique because you could walk up a dry stone river bed to get into the canyon. After some exploring we hiked up along the edge of the canyon before continuing onto Wildcat Canyon.
The trail between the two was heavily forested, but the forest floor was uniquely sandy. The sand gave way to occasional boardwalks before we emerged to the much larger Wildcat Canyon. This one was impressive in height, but also drew in more crowds. Our walk back took us along the sandy trails on the banks of the Illinois river. We stopped up a few look outs, but the canyons were really the main attraction for me.
Starved Rock State Park was voted the number one attraction in Illinois. I would suggest arriving in the morning because the park was really becoming busy on our way out. The parking lot was packed even on a Thursday! Overall a beautiful park with unique features that is well worth the visit.
The skydiving season trickled to a start this year. Unlike other skydivers, I jump with some regularity through the winter, so for me it was a slow start to the season with sporadic jumping in March and April.
Dropzones start Safety Days in May, which often marks the beginning of another season.
Safety days are an opportunity for all experienced jumpers (or fun jumpers) to run through safety procedures and discuss best practises for dealing with malfunctions. They tend to have a scare factor that helps remind us skydivers to not become complacent or over confident. Although skydiving statistically is extremely safe, it is a good reminder of the inherent risk of what we do.
This sport has scooped me up and intertwined itself in my life. Many people I now consider close friends come from skydiving. The sense of community is just as important to me as the skydiving itself.
I am starting to get this sit fly thing nailed down too! Although sit flying is relatively easy to learn, it is incredibly hard to get good at. Sit flying is a type of free flying, which means you fall vertically through the air, as opposed to on your belly. The discipline gained in popularity and seems to be the natural progression for most skydivers to learn. Although lots of skydive continue with relative work or formation skydive and never learn to free fly.
One difficulty is that many people who sit fly learn to do it in a wind tunnel. This allows them to learn faster in a controlled environment. As I have a horse and other expenses, it never made sense for me to fly in a wind tunnel too. The mentality to learn in the wind tunnel can be discouraging, but a few “old timers” have encouraged me to continue pushing to learn in the sky. Although my progress might be a bit slower, I am excited to finally have a solid sit fly.
I am pretty pump to see what this season has in store!
I recently experienced the Niagara wine scene by bike – a pretty cool experience.
I took my mom on a wine tour with Grape Escape bike tours for her birthday. This company appealed to me because it married being physically active with wine…I mean what doesn’t sound good about that?
Our tour was on a Sunday afternoon and promised to be about 20km with four wineries stops. The beginning of the bike tour was beautiful, as we wound through tall forests along a canal. It was a beautiful sunny spring day with just enough warmth to make biking enjoyable, but not hot.
Our first stop was Inniskillin where we had a tour and tasting. This was our longest stop on the tour including background on making ice wine and the winery. The other three stops on our tour were relatively close together and an easy bike ride to each. One stop included a cheese pairing, which was a nice addition. I enjoyed biking between these wineries because they were small and off the beaten path. We biked on back roads past wineries and farms. After the fourth winery we continued biking through the country and about 30 minutes later returned to Niagara on the Lake.
Overall, I would recommend this tour company. The guides were friendly and made sure we had a great experience at every stop. This gave us a more in-depth experience than if we showed up at each winery on our own.
The afternoon took about 5 hours with 3-4 small tastings at each winery. I would recommend this tour in the spring or fall when it is cooler and the groups smaller.
Last fall I discovered McCrae Lake while searching for an adventure activity near the cottage. The cottage is great, but I can only relax so long before looking for something to do. Fall at McCrae Lake was beautiful and led to my first HIGH cliff jumping experience – like 82 feet high!
Spring at McCrae Lake did not disappoint. McCrae Lake has a reputation for more rowdy campers because of its accessibility. It is, however, a fabulous location in the spring and fall. It is also free to use, which is an added bonus.
We arrived to sunny skies and a muddy trail. Our plan was to use the McCrae Lake hiking trail and bushwack into the cottage from there. The cottage is boat access only in the summer.
It would be me and the guys for the weekend, as we set out under a crystal clear blue sky. The trail was still covered by large puddles and rivers from the winter melt, but
otherwise our progress was quick. The trails are well marked, which was appreciated as they meander through the forest.
We estimated the hike to the cottage would be around 7k, which made Crow’s Cliff a halfway point. We took a break there to admire the beautiful scenery. The view under the warm sun was well worth the hike. We saw a few tents below with eager campers out for an early April camping trip. Crow’s Cliffs also boasts a climbing area, which might be an adventure for another trip.
We continued on through the twisting forest and around a small lake that had a beautiful camping spot. Our journey continued up hill, as the forest gave way to expanses of rock. There is something
uniquely beautiful about the Canadian Shield in this area. As there were fewer trees to hang markers, some enterprising hikers built small inuksuks to point us in the right direction.
We watched a stunning sunset that night on the Georgian Bay before returning to the cottage for a bonfire.
This is hopefully a start to some great camping trips this summer!
During our trip to Ecuador we spent one day white water rafting the Amazon River basin outside Tena, Ecuador.
Our tour was pre-arranged by the local guides and the rafting company, Rios Ecuador, they picked was fantastic. We enjoyed a day rafting the Jatunyacu River on class 3 rapids. Our group was large, so they split us into an experienced and beginner group. Both our groups rafted the same river, but our group did more difficult lines.
The day of the tour
The tour company picked us up from our hotel and we arrived on the Jatunyacu River around 8:30am. The drive to the put in location was about 40 minutes over mostly-dirt roads.
After a safety introduction and gear fitting, we hiked down the riverbank to the rumbling water below. In addition to the rafting guides, we also had someone in a kayak to help people that fell out and to take pictures. After a spectacular launch off a cliff in his kayak, we got in our rafts for the white water that awaited us.
Around noon we stopped for lunch on the beach of a pretty little camp. Lunch was provided on this stop by our guides. We spent time playing games and looking at local crafts for sale. After lunch and some more pictures, we continued down the river. The trip ended just outside Tena around 4pm.
The pace of the river was perfect; we had fairly constant rapids with short breaks on flat water to catch our breath. I don’t know if the classification system is different than at home, but the rapids were more exciting than I expected. We even flipped quiet spectacularly once, although the guides did a good job of avoiding these areas with the raft of beginner paddlers.
Our guides also made an effort to keep the trip interesting. They were professional when needed, but also made the experience fun with a variety of activities. I was lucky to play rodeo, where I sat facing out on the front of the raft while they took us through rapids. It was fun trying to stay on! They also stopped to let us swing off “tarzan vines” on the side of the river and jump off of large rocks into the rapids.
If you are doing this trip remember to bring sunscreen AND long active clothing. I am glad I had long sleeves to prevent sunburn, but also to stop a chill after being wet for several hours.
Overall, I highly recommend this tour!
Check out our other adventures in Ecuador on the Ecuador travel page.
“That is my favourite sound,” I said.
“Just listen,” I explained and as we stopped talking the sound of frogs calling through the forest became clear.
For me their chirping is a reminder of summer camping trips deep in the bush, paddling down winding rivers under the hot sun or hikes on a crisp spring morning as the sun warms the forest. It is the dawning of a new season.
Although temperatures in Canada have been up and down, this past Sunday was a balmy 15 degrees, which encouraged us to go on a hike at Hilton Falls. It is a favourite of mine as it is close to where I live and has a beautiful waterfall.
The downside is that the weather brought out a lot of tourists. I think it is great that so many city people are exploring nature, but if you want to avoid crowds at Hilton Falls stick to the Bruce trail side trails for a peaceful hike. Either way it felt great to be outside enjoying the warm weather.
What is your favourite spot for a short hike?
Other local adventures:
The sun was glimmering off the ocean below and I felt a warm breeze on my face. As I turned for final approach I scanned the beach below for hazards. There are certainly no lack on them; a volleyball net, palapas, rocks, palm trees, buildings, pools and beach goers paying no attention to us flying above.
I finally got to do my first beach jump, which has been on my list of goals for a long time. As luck would have it, it also happened in Mexico, which was a beautiful backdrop for this experience. Although striking, it was stressful, as the beach was small and packed with things to avoid. The feeling of flying beside massive buildings on one side and crashing waves on the other is something I will not soon forget. As was the rush of sound in my ears while speeding by people on the beach to land softly in the sand (we will pretend to forget the landing where I tripped in the sand and face planted).
A lot went into making this jump happen from getting my gear to Mexico to the final beach landing:
The journey started by getting my gear to Mexico. Skydiving rigs can be taken as carry-ons and most skydivers prefer this, as it eliminates the possibility of having thousands of dollar’s worth of equipment lost or damaged. While we can carry on ours rigs, we still need the proper documentation to do it. Even with that a security person can inspect or refuse the equipment. I decided to purchase a special designed bag (RigSleeve) to put my rig into that protects all the important cords and handles while still allowing it to be easily moved like a backpack.
Once we settled into our hotel and enjoyed the beach, we took a 20 minute taxi ride to Skydive Vallarta. Skydive Vallarta takes-off from the international airport, but drops skydivers over the beach closest to their dropzone office. If you have visited a dropzone before or done a tandem, you know this is fairly unusual. In most cases everything from take-off to landing happens in one location. We looked at a map of the beach and the staff walked us through where we would land. I was given a call, so I put my rig and gear in the dropzone’s truck and waited for them to round up all the tandem students.
The international airport can get busy and becomes difficult to drive in without spending lots of time in traffic. To avoid this the dropzone’s van pulls into a driveway outside the airport. All jumpers and tandem students grab their gear and walk to the international airport.
To avoid hold ups in security skydivers enter through the private pilot entrance and use that security machine. This involves dropping skydiving gear on a table, walking through a scanner and picking up your gear on the other side. Once cleared by security you walk out onto the tarmac and gear up under an awning. This whole process goes surprisingly fast and is pretty slick after a few years of practice by the dropzone staff.
We walked to the plane as usual and taxed to the runway. It is an interesting experience sitting in the plane, in a que of jets waiting for our turn to take off. It makes you feel rather dwarfed in comparison to the huge planes taking tourists across the world. We were in the air and on our way to altitude before I knew it.
The regular jumpers and staff pointed out the landing area on our first pass by the dropzone. The landing area is a stretch of beach, so jumpers have only two directions to land in. Either towards the river or away from it, which dictates the landing pattern. We would not be determining our landing pattern based off of a wind sock here. We simply had a large arrow in the sand telling us which way to land. Although this means possible cross wind landings, it eliminates the danger of someone landing the wrong way in the small available space.
We were out of the plane and flying to the beach. I was pretty pumped to land in the right direction, avoid all the hazards and land relatively softly. It was also a unique experience to have such an “audience” on the beach. The beach is lined by hotels, so at times there is a big crowd of people watching you land – something out of the ordinary.
I did, however, manage to catch my heal on the door of the plane on another jump and tumble away from the group I was jumping with. On another occasion I tripped in the sand on landing and fell on my face, but hey, what an experience!
After chatting and answering some skydiving questions, we made the walk back to the office. I learned how to shake sand out of my parachute before packing it up. We celebrated a day well spent watching the sunset with drinks on the beach.
A warm salty breeze, crashing waves and the glow of a setting sun – I could not imagine a better backdrop to a horseback ride down the beach.
We were visiting San Pancho in Nayarit, Mexico. Although this town is about 45 minutes from Puerto Vallarta, it is worth the drive for a taste of local culture, food and a beautiful beach. San Pancho is still frequented by tourists, but those who want a local feel, which makes it feel friendly and culturally rich. Visitors should spend some time on the beach before watching the sunset and then walking through the town at night – it is beautiful.
My highlight in this town was the opportunity to ride a beautiful Andalusian horse on the beach.
My friends spotted two locals leading horses by the water. It appeared they were letting people take photos with the horses (for a cost). I was reluctant to ask about riding someone’s horse, but our friends, who live in Puerto Vallarta, encouraged us to ask. For $10 each and after explaining I know how to ride, they were more than happy to let us ride along the beach. I guess things are different in Mexico! I am so glad we inquired because the experience was incredible.
I was also glad to see how well the horses were cared for. Sometimes you find horses in less than ideal conditions on vacation, but these ones were healthy and well groomed. Making the minimal cost to ride them quite attractive compared to a trail riding facility.
A highlight of our trip to Mexico, so please enjoy the photos.
Photo credits: Greg Laver
Check out some of my other posts:
- Read more about our trip to Puerto Vallarta: Why you should leave the resort in Mexico.
- Learn about horseback riding in Ecuador: Ecuador volcanoes: sometimes you listen to the horses
- Read about when I rode on a beach in Spain: Spain and Horseback Riding at Equestrian Center Las Marias
I’m surprised by how many people told me to stay near the hotels in Mexico. Resorts are beautiful, but you do not get the true feeling of a country on one. Always be cautious, but you can certainly journey off the resort. Just be aware of your surroundings and travel with someone you trust.
Not only is the experience likely to be more fulfilling, but guess what? It is also more affordable.
During our recent trip to Mexico, we did not stay at an all-inclusive and in my opinion they are over-priced for what you get and the quality of it. People find it hard to believe, but eating locally and spending time outside the resort is often more affordable than paying a set price at an all-inclusive.
During our resent stay in Puerto Vallarta/Nuevo Vallarta we spent all but one of our days outside the resort. And here is why:
1. Access to quiet and beautiful beaches: they also happen to be where locals are selling great food and beautiful goods to take home with you.
2. Local markets: there are local markets all over the place in Mexico. Rent a car or take a taxi and walk through them. You will find many at the side of the road with great fresh food! If a local market is not for you, go to a grocery store. We had many of our breakfasts for less than a few dollars by purchasing food in advance.
3. Local food: along the same line, you might think that the guacamole is good at the resort, but wait until you leave and taste authentic hand-made food. It is worth it, believe me. Tacos at a local spot in San Pancho, Mexico cost us less than $1!
4. Nightlife: it is amazing how vibrant the towns in Mexico become after sunset. The locals are out and so are all the vendors. It is really worth spending one evening out in a town. Stay in the busy areas and don’t wander off alone!
5. Wildlife: we discovered a turtle hatchery where we watched and learned about the catch and release program. We literally just stumbled across this walking around.
6. Adventures: all the fun stuff is outside your resort. Really! It is often more cost effective too. We met some locals that let us ride their horses on the beach for $10. We found an ATV tour for half the price by booking it outside the hotel. And we got a cheaper price renting skidoos by wandering down a beach.
Be smart, be careful and have fun!
What gems have you found off the resort?