Northwest Territories Nostalgia, Part II

In case you missed it: I started recapping our Woods Explorer adventures in the Northwest Territories here. Check it out to find out how various strangers saved the day at the start of our trip down (part of) the Mackenzie River, better known as the Dehcho.

We woke up at our campsite on the outskirts of a little town called Fort Providence, hoping that the weather today would be a little more cooperative than it had been the day before. It did look a bit better – less stormy, though still pretty windy. We decided to give ourselves a few hours before making the call of whether or not to officially start the journey.

We really, really wanted to get going. For one, Fort Providence was cool, but it was tiny. We didn’t have a car to get us out of the campsite, and we were getting a little bored. Plus, the canoe rental company folks were going to pick us up down the river in Fort Simpson in 8 days time. Delaying our trip any more meant we’d really have to hustle to get there in time.

Around lunch time, we made the executive decision to start paddling. Conditions weren’t perfect, but they were better than they’d been the day before and we were itching to start. The lady working at the campsite gave us a lift back to the boat lunch. Mercifully, our canoe was still there.

In theory, paddling the Dehcho sounded pretty easy. Any time you’re paddling down a river, you’ve got the current giving you a little help, right? WRONG! Not the Dehcho – at least, not this part of it. The wind was blowing very strong. If we lifted our paddles out of the water, the wind would push us backwards – it was much stronger than any current.

We aimed to camp on a little island the first night, which meant straying from the safety of the shore. This made me nervous. I was sitting in the bow and the canoe was doing some serious bobbing. Sometimes, the boat would rock in such a way that the nose pointed down and the water would splash up and over – I was sure that we’d tip. Thankfully, we didn’t, and after an afternoon of tough paddling, we made it to our island, set up camp, ate some food, and hoped for nicer weather the following day.

I was so, so, so, so relieved to wake up to blue skies. Let me tell you – the weather did NOT cooperate with us on this trip, and this was the only full day of sunshine we had. But it was the most important day, weather-wise, because at this point, the river widened into Mills Lake, which is notoriously tough to paddle in bad weather. We’d been advised to paddle along the opposite shore, so we made our way over. It was shallow – very shallow. The tips of our paddles grazed the muddy bottom with every stroke. There was thick grass on either side of us and we’d been told not to try to go towards the middle of the lake, or else we’d get stuck. So we paddled forward – and it got shallower and shallower.

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Good old Mills Lake.

 

I was starting to get nervous. (Are you noticing a pattern yet? I was OFTEN nervous on this leg of the trip). There were points where the canoe itself was touching the mud below and we used our paddles to propel us forward, rather than making actual strokes. I pictured ourselves getting stuck, having to turn around, and having to retrace our steps entirely. And they said paddling the Mackenzie would be “easy”!

I was extremely relieved to make it past Mills Lake.

The days blur together after Mills Lake. The landscape was pretty, but very monotonous – it didn’t change one bit for many, many days. It felt raw and wild in a way I’d never experienced before. It wasn’t at all like the wilderness of BC or the Rockies. It was wide, flat, muddy, and heavily treed. The trees on either side of the massive river were so dense that it was difficult to imagine anything beyond them other than more trees.

Since it was late August, we escaped most of the bugs that plague the area earlier in the summer. It was cold – I wore a toque and gloves almost all the time. The gloves helped keep my hands functioning. They were so, so dry, and I constantly squished a finger between the boat and my paddle or bumped on something that would make my knuckles bleed.

The paddling was, in a word, relentless. For several days, we continued to battle the stronger-than-the-current wind. The scenery never changed, and what looked like a short little section on the map actually took hours to paddle. Since the landscape looked the same, it was very difficult to tell where we were on the map. We often thought we were further along than we really were – only to take a closer look once we were at camp and realize that no, we were still waaaay back here on the map.

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Camp life.

Speaking of camping, there were no actual campsites. For hours, we’d pass sections of the shore that were far too narrow for setting up camp. Eventually, we’d pull over after we were took exhausted to continue, seeking anything that looked flat-ish and wide enough for us to safely separate our cooking and fire area from our sleeping area.

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The good kind of wildlife encounter. Photo from Woods Canada.

The distance between the two areas was necessarily to prevent wildlife encounters. We were extremely careful about keeping our cooking areas clean, sealing all food and smelly stuff into our barrel, and tucking the barrel underneath the canoe, which we kept far away from our tent. The reality was that we were very exposed to wilderness – and it was out there. We saw wolf tracks everywhere in the sand/mud at our various camping spots. Sometimes, we’d even wake up to see various tracks (not wolves, thankfully) that hadn’t been there when we’d gone to bed the night before. I was strangely at peace with the wild animal aspect. I figured that we were definitely the intruders in this scenario, and if one really wanted to kill me and have me for dinner, then that was a fate I was willing to accept. “Here lies Magee, who was mauled by a pack of wolves on the shores of the Mackenzie River” – I mean, that’s a pretty epic way to go.

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Here lies Magee… Photo from Woods Canada.

The wildlife didn’t wear me down – but the weather did. Aside from the sunny day crossing Mills Lake, every day was cloudy, windy, cold, and sometimes rainy. Everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – was caked with mud. I would scrape out the bottom of the canoe with my paddle, scooping out thick and heavy mud without making a dent on the mass of mud covering the boat. Everything was damp all the time.

Talk about character building.

It was hard – but it was also amazing. By now, Cedric and I worked as a perfect unit. When one of us was feeling demoralized, the other would boost him/her up. He didn’t complain when I needed to pull the boat over to pee. I didn’t complain when he stopped padding to take photos. We knew our roles at camp – we’d pull in, Cedric would start working of fire/boiling water/making food, while I set up the tent and our sleeping stuff. We functioned like a well-oiled machine – it was a real partnership.

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Breakfast on Day 2 before tackling Mills Lake. I can tell because the sky isn’t an angry shade of grey. Photo from Woods Canada.

We ate alright, too. The first few days were pretty luxurious – we even got to enjoy eggs for breakfast. We had the luxury of carrying a great big barrel of food with us since there were no portages to tackle. I’d picked up most of our food back in Hay River, and even though it was August, they already had Halloween candy on display. We ate a lot of chocolate. At 10 o’clock every morning, we’d devour our Clif bars (almond fudge for Cedric, chocolate mint for me). I’d watch my little purple wristwatch like a hawk, counting down the minutes ’til Clif time. I’m not sure if I was actually hungry or just very, very bored.

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This sums up day to day life on our Mackenzie trip, but I’m approaching 1,400 words, so let’s stretch the NWT adventures into a third post for another time…

Bobbette & Belle’s Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies

Is there any chocolate chip cookie recipe that doesn’t claim to be the best?

It’s doubtful. But, to be fair, there are a lot of really excellent chocolate chip cookie recipes in this wonderful world of ours. I should know – I’ve baked about a thousand varieties since I’ve known Cedric.

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Although nobody would argue the fact that I have the sweeter tooth, Cedric’s baked good kryptonite is chocolate chip cookies (and apple crumble – or is it apple crisp? I haven’t tried baking this for him yet, though, because I know it won’t be as good as the one his mom makes!)

We eat a lot of chocolate chip cookies. Here’s the thing: when I make a batch of chocolate chip cookies, I don’t bake them all right away. Rather, I freeze the dough. Whenever we feel like fresh baked chocolate chip cookies (which, if I’m perfectly honest, is several nights a week), we just take some out of the freezer and cook two single servings. Boom: hot, freshly baked cookies in just 16 minutes – every time.

I’ve tried a few different methods of freezing the cookie dough, and in this post, I’ll outline the best technique I’ve found thus far. But this post isn’t just about freezing cookie dough – it’s about the Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe from my beloved Bobbette & Belle cookbook.

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The name is slightly misleading because it omits the fact that this recipe contains two cups of large-flake rolled oats. That’s a substantial amount of oats – enough, I would argue, to rename the recipe Ultimate Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies. At first, I thought Cedric would resist the oat factor (after all, some people are cookie purists). But when I ran the idea by him, he seemed very enthused at the prospect of oats. So I gave it a go.

It’s a very easy recipe with the usual ingredients (all-purpose flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, room temperature unsalted butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, egg, vanilla, and chocolate chips) + oats. The only place I tend to get creative is with the chocolate chips. First of all, I disregard the suggested 3/4 cup – I pretty much pour in an entire bag of chocolate chips. As a sage friend once pointed out, “When has anyone ever complained that there are too many chocolate chips?”

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Fun fact: I never eat the raw dough out of the bowl. I’m annoyingly hygienic about my baking. On the plus side, if you ever eat my baked goods, you know they haven’t been messed with.

We tend to prefer milk chocolate chips, which are tasty but arguably not as aesthetically pleasing as semisweet or dark chocolate chips. Sometimes, I like to mix two kinds together (usually when they have a “buy two for $5” promo at Craig’s).

While we’re on the topic of chocolate chips, by the far the BEST chocolate chips I have ever had are the Ghiradelli chocolate chips. If they have these at your grocery store, buy the entire stock. I haven’t seen them around in a long time, but next time I find them, I’m buying them by the truck load. The Chipit Hershey Kisses chips are also the bomb, and also not available at my grocery store. Sigh.

 

Okay, so here’s my freezing technique: I cut out little squares of wax paper. I drop a dollop of dough onto the square, then I fold up the wax paper and shape it into the shape of a puck. I push down slightly in the middle so that the outside edges are thicker than the centre. This makes it bake more evenly later on (because the middle will take longer to thaw in the oven than the edges).

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I reuse the little wax paper squares a few times – just be careful when unwrapping them, and you’ll get a few uses out of them.

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Once I’ve wrapped up all my little cookies, I put them in a freezer ziploc bag. When we’re ready to bake, we take a few out of the bag while we preheat the oven. Boom – easy as that.

In our oven, we find 16 minutes to be the perfect amount of time for baking (this is more than the 8 to 12 minutes suggested in the book). If I’m not cooking from the freezer, I still cook them a little longer – about 15 minutes. I like my cookies to be nice and golden – if you prefer them to be super soft and raw in the middle, 8 to 12 minutes is probably more your cup of tea.

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So is it really the *ultimate* cookie? It’s definitely up there and it has become one of my two chocolate chip cookie go tos (the other one is this one – a good bet if you’re not feeling the oats). This recipe definitely deserves its place in the Bobbette & Belle cookbook.

Race Recap: Comfortably Numb = The Most Fun

I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that the Comfortably Numb Trail Race has already come and gone. June 10 seemed soooo far away for the longest time – then all of the sudden, it was just around the corner. I didn’t really have time to get excited or scared or anxious about the race. That’s probably a good thing.

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The weather forecast for race day looked iffy (rainy cloud image in my weather app). The more detailed overview said clouds in the morning and rain in the afternoon, so I thought we might be in the clear. But on my drive up to Whistler the morning of the race, it started raining a decent amount. Drats. It was also pretty cool (about 7 degrees when I left the house, with a high of 13 degrees later in the day). The most challenging thing about this kind of weather is deciding whether to wear shorts or leggings. After much consideration, I wore the latter (though I brought along a pair of shorts to be safe).

I’m pleased to report that a) the rain stopped shortly after it started and stayed away the ENTIRE race, and b) the leggings were totally fine for the race (though I’m sure I would have been okay in shorts, too).

I realize this is a lot of weather talk, but I’m just so happy with how it turned out because it ended up being my favourite running conditions: overcast, cool, and dry. A race in Whistler on June 10 can go any way. If it had been hot and 30 degrees, it would have been tough on some of the non-shaded parts later in the race (especially because the race started relatively late, around 9 AM). It had apparently been rainy and muddy the year before, which makes for a slippery course and is, in my opinion, way less fun. So three cheers for the weather. Hip hip hooray!

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Views observed while killing time at the start.

I was curious about this race because, as the name suggests, it follows the notorious Comfortably Numb mountain biking trail between Wedgemount and Whistler Village (though this race ended at Nicklaus North). Seriously – when I mention Comfortably Numb to mountain bikers, their faces go pale and they tell me stories about how they did it once, and never again. Mostly, I’ve never traveled that part of Whistler by anything other than car, so I thought it would be fun to explore some new trails. My research indicated it would be technical trails, mostly single track, and that it would gradually go up up up for the first half to two-thirds, then down towards the end. The distance was curiously pegged as “23k+”. I’ve heard it range anywhere from 21k to 25k. My little app put it closer towards the 21k end of the scale, but let me tell you – it felt infinitely farther than my Alice Lake 21k.

Logistically, this race was A+++. I parked as instructed by the RV park in Spruce Grove and caught the free shuttle to the start line at the base of Wedge. Bib pick up was quick and easy. They had a “soft start” time of 8:30 for anyone who thought they might need more than 4 hours to run the race. As always, I had no idea how long it would take me, but I decided to risk it and start with the main crowd at 9 AM. Everything got started on time, and we were off.

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Start line shenanigans

The race starts off on an uphill gravel logging road. You guys – I was at the VERY BACK. Zero people were behind me. That was humbling, but I guess I really take the “don’t start off too quickly” thing to heart. Quite a few people ended up hiking the steep bits near the start (including the 18% grade part!) so I ended up in the general “back of the pack” crowd rather than at the literal back. That was kind of nice.

The rumours are true: the race really does go uphill for a long, long time. I’d been told that the trail is very runnable, and that’s partly what makes it quite difficult: they’re flat enough to keep on running, but steep enough to tire you out (especially after 13k+ of uphill). I definitely did not shy away from hiking anything that felt on the steep side. See, I tried running some of the steeper ups, but I found that if a person was ahead of me and walked the steep part, I wouldn’t gain on them even if I was running/shuffling. My running was literally the same speed as hiking, so I figured why waste the energy?

Eventually, the runners became more and more spaced out. Around 1:30 into the run, a guy was close behind me and I offered to let him pass. He didn’t pass, and we ended up running together and talking for about half an hour. Poor guy – I pretty much told him my life story, including the minutiae of my curriculum vitae. He had recently bought a second home in Whistler, so we talked real estate for awhile (my favourite!)

I can’t decide if running and talking is good or bad for a race. In this case, I think it was good – at this point in the course, the uphills were getting tedious and the scenery was pretty similar, so being able to talk was a bit of a distraction.

Around the 2:00 mark, something weird happened. I’d been completely alone with the guy for a little while – we hadn’t seen anyone ahead or behind – but all of the sudden, about three people came from behind and passed us. The guy joined them (I should mention that he told me he’d literally run 100 ultramarathons in the past, so I didn’t really feel bad that he was faster than me). I was left in their dust and put my head down to get back into the solo running zone.

It was wonderful to pass the sole aid station around km 12.5 (I can’t remember if I made that distance up or if someone told me that). I didn’t actually stop to use anything, but I knew that although the climbing continued after the aid station, it wasn’t for too much longer. That was a good thing, because I already felt pretty tired. It was kind of funny to think that the fastest racers were already close to the finish line at that point. But also kind of not funny.

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Some super swaggy swag, which I will tell you about later if you keep reading this very long post.

After the aid station, the trails opened up a little and became more technical. There was lots of rocky running – it reminded me a bit of parts of my Pukaskwa hike (minus the views of Lake Superior). The trails continued up and up and up until eventually, there was a clearing that appeared to be the top. There was a bench conveniently located to take in the view. I so wanted to sit down for awhile (and by sit down I mean lie down and nap), but on I went.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the official top – but it was pretty close. Not long after, I hit a sign that said “Comfortably Numb – Descent”. I definitely hollered.

The down was technical and tiring, but sooooo infinitely better than the uphill. A lot of it was exposed (as in not in the forest), so it would have been a slog if it had been hot and sunny. I focused on keeping my brain sharp and watching my footing, as there were tripping hazards everywhere. Believe it or not, I even passed a few people on the downhill, which meant I probably wouldn’t finish dead last – yay!

After a little while going downhill, my feet started feeling… well, comfortably numb. Maybe even uncomfortably numb. Parts of the trail were really rocky, and landing on pointy rocks kind of hurts. I felt some rubbing on both of my big toes, which wasn’t ideal, but then I remembered that the quicker I ran, the quicker I’d be done. I should be a motivational speaker.

Eventually, I saw a guy on the trail. There hadn’t been any marshals on course (just the people at the aid station), which was no big deal because it was very well flagged. I recognized the guy from the Helly Hansen dryland training sessions I used to go to when I lived in Whistler (I highly recommend these, by the way). At that moment, he looked like a glorious angel – he told me there was 2.7k left to go.

He conveniently neglected to mention that shortly after I passed him, the trail would go uphill for a bit. Thankfully, that didn’t last long – it became less technical and more flat soon thereafter. I started seeing a few mountain bikers, which meant I was close to civilization. Seriously, you feel like you’re waaaaay out there on the trail. It was nice knowing I was close.

I hollered some more when I saw a sign announcing that there was only 1k to go. It felt like a very long k, but sure enough, the trail eventually spit me out at the finish line 3 hours, 42 minutes, and 6 seconds after I’d started. Was I happy with this time? Well, the short answer is heck yes. That was a really long and challenging run for me, and I was so happy that I still had energy and a smile on my face right up to the finish line. I can sincerely say I enjoyed myself and had fun. Looking at times from previous years, I guessed I’d roll in somewhere around 3:30, so 3:42 wasn’t horribly far off. It put me towards the back of the pack (83/104 overall, 45/61 for women), but that didn’t really bother me.

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Photo: Rob Shaer

Sometimes I wonder if writing race recaps as a slower person is a reasonable thing to do. To be honest, it can feel like the accomplishment of running the race isn’t as worthwhile as the accomplishment of the person who came 1st or 15th or whatever. But then I remember that I ran the exact same kilometers as they did – my feet ran (or, let’s be real, sometimes walked) the same terrain theirs did. There’s no shame in being on the slower side, right? I’m on the slower side of a group of people who feel like running ~23k of tough terrain is a reasonable thing to do on a Saturday morning. That’s a good group to be part of, no matter where you finish in the pack.

(Email me for my rates as a motivational speaker).

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Best. Finish. Line. Snacks. Ever.

The finish line was DOPE! Here is why:

  • It finished outside the Nick North clubhouse. Classy!
  • Finishers got this super rad Helly Hansen hat that makes me feel 33% cooler than I actually am.
  • FINISH LINE FOOD. ICED CINNAMON BUNS FROM HOT BUNS. NEED I SAY MORE?
  • I won a draw prize – a Helly Hansen base layer top. Winning is the best.
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#Winning

I feel pretty confident in saying that I will be running this race again next year. Goal: have as much fun as I did this year.

Fougasse: Looks Good, Lacks Substance

It turns out you can’t judge bread by how it looks.

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Case in point: the American Sandwich Bread I blogged about a little while back looks kind of plain, but it tastes wonderful. (I’ve baked it twice this week.)

It goes the other way, too. Sometimes, a show-stopper looking bread tastes a little underwhelming. That’s the case with the fougasse I whipped up this week.

The good news is that baking fougasse is EASY PEASY. It’s in the “raising the bar” chapter of the Bread Illustrated cookbook (a.k.a. my bible). That’s the advanced chapter – but this is not an advanced bread.

However, with its pretty leaf shape, it looks fancy – so if you’re trying to wow guests with your bread baking skills, this might be a recipe to bust out.

Baking fougasse is a two-day affair. Day one is simple and very similar to other loaves I’ve baked: you mix the flour, salt, yeast, and water, do four rounds of fold-and-waits, then pop it in the fridge for 16 to 48 hours. Gotta love a recipe that gives you a bit of wiggle room!

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Day two is for shaping and baking. You split the loaf in half and shape it into two triangles. One recipe, two loaves – another win. You let the triangles rise for an hour or so, then you whip out the pizza cutter and slice leaf designs into the dough. This is very, very easy. Once the incisions have been made, you just stretch the dough out with your hands to emphasize the holes.

 

The recipe staggers the shaping and rising of the two loaves so that you only have to bake one at a time.

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The main recipe in the book is for a rosemary sea salt fougasse, but there are also variations for asiago and black pepper (yum), bacon and gruyere (yum), and olive (yuck). I think the latter two would be good (assuming you like olives) because the accoutrements are baked INTO the dough. My qualms with the fougasse is that it’s bland – the rosemary seems like an afterthought and it really doesn’t add a lot of flavour. I think something baked into the dough – like the sage polenta loaf I made – would make more of a statement.

I think I might think too much about bread.

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The texture of this bread was a little meh, too. That might have more to do with the baker than the recipe – it can be hard to tell. It was pretty chewy (read: it gave my jaw a serious workout) and I feel like it got stale way faster than other breads.

If you’re going for an herby savoury bread from Bread Illustrated, I’d suggest opting for something like the focaccia instead. (Actually, fougasse is like the Provencal version of focaccia – the more you know!) However, if your heart is set on fougasse, consider one of the more flavourful combinations.

Mmm, Tacos – Flaca’s Tacos Food Truck

When I used to live in Vancouver, my office was located downtown, just on the edge of Gastown. Lunchtime was glorious because the options for deliciousness were endless: Jules, Nuba, sandwiches at MacLeans (RIP), and my favourite fast food place, Freshii. I spent a lot of money on lunches, and I regret nothing – not only was the food delicious, but I lived for the social hour.

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Photo from Arturo’s

However, without a doubt, my #1 favourite food option was ARTURO’S (or as I liked to call it on the inter-office messenger, R2ros). Arturo’s is a food truck specializing in all things Mexican and all things delicious. It was located steps from my building, which made it a great bet for rainy days. Arturo is a real guy, and he is so awesome. I haven’t lived in Vancouver for more than FIVE YEARS, but he STILL remembers me when I visit his truck for a chicken quesadilla on whole wheat – he always asks how Whistler (or now, Squamish) is. If you’re ever in the ‘hood (West Cordova @ Howe) on a Tuesday to Friday, you HAVE to check it out.

I have tried to convince Arturo to open spin-off food trucks in the Sea to Sky, but so far, he has not. But recently, I heard that there was a new food truck in town specializing in tacos called Flaca’s Tacos. To me, this was very welcome news.

I decided to start following them on Facebook. Here, I discovered that they make their own tortillas fresh. That is something I respect immensely. I kept an eye out on their location updates and made a mental to note to visit if I was ever close by.

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Then, on one fateful sunny afternoon, Cedric and I had a bit of time to kill while we were waiting for some car work to be done. I realized that we happened to be very close to A Frame Brewery, which is where Flaca’s was set up that day. Off to the tacos we went.

The menu is short and sweet: tacos of a few different varieties, including spot prawn ($6), veggie ($3.50), pulled pork ($4), and steak ($4). I ordered one veggie and one pulled pork taco, and a couple of minutes later, our orders were up.

(By the way, we popped into A Frame for a quick browse – check out this cool kids set up! I love these toys – they are made in Squamish and I got a little set for my niece for Christmas.)

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My first impression was that the tacos were on the small side – about the same as the tacos at La Cantina, if you are familiar with the Whistler establishment. My general spending quota for a meal from a food truck is $8 – $12. You’d need at least 3 or 4 tacos to make a full meal of it, which would put you closer to $12 – $18. So it’s not necessarily cheap.

But it’s good – very good. The veggie one was simple but nice, with beans, corn, cheese, and some other good stuff. What really stood out to me was the homemade tortilla. When we ordered, we could see the little balls of dough right in front of us, which were popped into the tortilla press (or whatever that thing is called).

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It was game over – in a very good way – when I bit into the pulled pork taco. It had a nice, spicy kick and the pineapple added a little sweetness. The filling was aces. It was soooo good.

If I was at a market or festival with a wide array of food trucks, I’d definitely made Flaca’s my first pick (unless Arturo’s was there, of course!). In fact, I hear they were at the Squamish market this past weekend. I dream of a day where they make a pulled pork burrito on a homemade tortilla – that would be a killer combo.

Next, I’ll be hunting down the Alice and Brohm (love the Squampty name) ice cream food truck that recently opened – just in time for the summer.

I love this town!

Race Report: MEC Lower Mainland Trail Race Three, 15K

The MEC Lower Mainland Trail Race (the third in its series) was a somewhat impulsive addition to my spring and summer racing schedule. When I heard about it, three things made me want to sign up:

  • At 15k, it was just the right distance for an achievable challenge (there’s also a 55k course) a week ahead of the Comfortably Numb race (which appears to be somewhere between 23 and 25k).
  • I thought it would be fun to run in West Vancouver, for a change of pace.
  • It only cost $15 to run.

Sunday morning, I made the easy drive down to Ambleside Park, picked up my bib, and ran my little heart out.

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The perfect place to shake off pre-race jitters.

I was not familiar with the course at all. I’ve never run any trails in West Vancouver. I’d looked at the map on the website, and it appeared to be an out and back with a little loop about halfway through the course. The elevation didn’t seem too crazy, though all those ups and downs supposedly summed to a total of 693m up and 695m down (my RunKeeper app pegged it at 412m up, but I don’t know if I trust it entirely.) As you can see, it looks like the first half of the race goes up-ish, while the second half goes down-ish.

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Based on this information, I came up with a strategy of starting slow and mellow in the first half, then exploding back through the downhills of the second half.

I seeded myself towards the mid-back of the group at the start line, which meant I couldn’t really hear the announcements that were made. I caught that we were to follow the yellow flags, then I crossed my fingers and hoped that the trail would be well marked. Thankfully, it was, and they had course marshals pointing the way at key zones – though most of the course was pretty straight, so it would’ve been hard to get lost.

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Views from the Start Line

We were off.

I quickly threw my strategy out the window, because I didn’t really know how to execute it. Instead, I just aimed to run it like one of my regular runs: walk the longer or steeper uphills, run the flat bits, and book it on the downhills. It turns out that my strategy didn’t really come into play until a few km into the run, because the first part of the course was very flat – a mix between roads, paved trails, and gravelly stuff. There was a small section in some pretty mellow trails, then we were spit out onto a non-technical trail that reminded me a bit of Jack’s: long, straight, and just slightly uphill (enough to make it not that enjoyable).

Meanwhile, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was starting to get hungry. Breakfast from 3 hours ago wasn’t cutting it, so I decided to eat my beloved Kewaza ball pretty early in the race (maybe 4-5k in). No regrets there.

I eventually got into the heart of the trails, which I found to be very non-technical – no roots, rocks, or Squamish-y elements – and nicely rolling. There were a few short ups that I walked, but mostly it was very runnable and actually quite fun, with lots of bridges. It wasn’t until about halfway into the race that things started to get hilly – but when they did, they went VERY hilly. I can’t remember exactly how it went – I think it was long hill up, loop, run down that hill, up another REALLY LONG HILL, then back down again. Because the trails weren’t too technical, they were very easy (and fun) to run down. A few people passed me on the ups, but I gained on a few on the downs.

I also gained a bit of time at the aid station. It seemed like most people stopped there, but I BYOed fuel. This was kind of nice because I was now running around different people. One of the things about races that I can’t really “train” for in my runs is the mental aspect of racing against other people. It’s really hard not to compare yourself to others – to try to match Person A’s pace, or pass Person B, or not let Person C’s heavy breathing behind you get to you. The comparisons didn’t stop, but it was nice for Persons A, B, and C to have different faces.

The run back was nice because I knew what to expect, since it was the same as the run out. As always, I felt challenged by the balance of running fast without burning out too soon. Has anyone mastered this? Can you tell me the secret?

We got back to the road/paved/mellow part of the course around KM 12. I was really putting a lot of effort into running – I didn’t feel like I was spent or anything – but other people had more gas in the tank, and people started passing me. By now, we were pretty spaced out, but I would still guess that 8-12 people passed me between KMs 12-14 (some were in pairs). It’s so hard not to get discouraged by this.

Then, with about 1k left in the race, I got pooed on by a bird! I can only remember this happening once before in my life. Luckily (?), it got my bare arm, so I just had to kind of scrape it along the grass – but the gross feeling lingered. They say that getting bird pooed is lucky, and I actually didn’t get passed at all between the poo incident and the finish line.

Speaking of the finish line, it was a horrible tease – I could see the MEC arch in the distance but it looked like a mirage. It didn’t seem to get any closer. And yet, eventually, it came. I ran through the finish line, straight to the bathroom to soap up my arm.

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The start/finish zone

The night before the race, I decided to check out last year’s finish times to try to set a time goal for myself. Last year, the fastest woman finished in a most impressive 1:12:20. The slowest few were 2:44, and the median was 1:45:46. Most women seemed to finish between 1:30 and 2:00, so I set a goal to finish sometime in there – I definitely wanted to duck in before the 2:00 point.

So How Did I Do?

My final time was 1:47:41 – exactly where I hoped to finish! That put me 51/109 for the women in this year’s race, and 13/31 for my age group. I’m actually very happy about this – for me to be on the slightly faster side of average is great! I’m in awe of the first place woman who ran the course in 1:13:39 (I can’t run 15k on the ROAD that fast!).

Here are my splits, for those who care (a.k.a. me when I run this again next year):

  1. 6:04
  2. 6:11
  3. 6:35
  4. 6:35
  5. 7:47
  6. 7:58
  7. 7:39
  8. 10:23 (this is where the massive uphill was)
  9. 6:19 (and this is where we got to run down it)
  10. 7:36
  11. 8:11
  12. 5:48
  13. 6:46
  14. 6:24
  15. 6:17 (bird poo power)
  16. 5.52 for the last little bit.

Woods Explorer Stories: Northwest Territories Nostaglia

It’s been a little while since I posted about our Woods Explorer adventures. Let’s change that.

(If you’re new around here, the Cole’s notes version is that Cedric and I were hired to do a five month hiking trip across Canada a few years back – start here, then check out some of my other stories from the trails.)

The time has finally come to talk about our time in the Northwest Territories – which is where we found ourselves on the 11th leg of our trip.

It’s hard to find the words to describe our time in the NWT. Cedric says it’s his favourite leg, but I wouldn’t say it was my favourite (that honour goes to Quetico). I would, however, say that it had the most impact on me. It was a leg that opened my eyes a little wider, that tested me a little harder, and that allowed me to feel very connected to my country.

It was a life changer, folks.

So life changing that I’m probably going to take a few blog posts to sort through all of my Northwesterly thoughts, feelings, and memories. Bear with me.

Our mission in the Northwest Territories was straightforward: paddle the Mackenzie River. Not the entire thing (which is doable, but requires a few months – we only had a week and a bit), but the section between Fort Providence and Fort Simpson.

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It looks so deceivingly simple…

We flew into Hay River, where we rented a canoe from a company called Canoe North. They’re a great resource and the owner’s daughter wrote a really good guide book that quickly became our favourite book on this trip. The folks at Canoe North drove us all the way out to Fort Providence, dropped us off at the boat launch, and bid us adieu.

We looked out at the Mackenzie River, which was simply huge. Looking at the land on the other side, it felt more like we were looking across a lake than a river. On this particular day, the water was looking pretty angry. It was very overcast, there was lots of winds, and the water was rough and full of white caps.

NWT-1

How I spent my summer vacation! (PS – this is from later in the day and the water doesn’t look sketchy, but I promise, it was!)

Our trip included a few buffer days to account for weather, so we decided to delay our start until the winds died down a little. The only problem was that we had no idea what to do. We were at a boat launch with barrels full of stuff and no idea where the town itself was. Then, it started to rain.

Just as we were trying to figure out what to do, a truck rolled up. Two people were checking in on their boat to make sure it was still in one piece. “You’re not going out in this weather, are you?”, asked the lady. They offered us a ride into the main part of town, even though we didn’t know exactly where we were going.

We loaded our gear into the truck and the strangers drove us to a hotel – the only one in town, I’m pretty sure. We thanked them, unloaded our stuff, and headed inside to figure out our next steps. I sat by our stuff while Cedric headed in to get some direction from the hotel staff. The hotel didn’t look like much to write home about, but the nightly rate rivaled the Fairmont in Whistler – yikes. After asking about other lodging options, we were told there was a campground just outside of town. We asked how far, and the lady at the front desk said it was too far to walk – especially with all our gear. She gave Cedric the phone number of the only taxi driver in town. Cedric promptly phoned, and the driver told him that he was in Hay River for a few days. Now what?

I stayed at the hotel with our stuff while Cedric crossed the street to a little restaurant. When he came back out, he told me he’d found us a ride. Two girls and a guy, around our age, came out and helped us load our stuff into their van.

If I remember correctly, they were all from Yellowknife, and they were taking part in a program that went to small communities around the province and organized activities for the local youth. They were really kind, and after we dropped our stuff off at the rainy campsite, they invited us to come back to the restaurant with them to play a few rounds of cards.

We played cards for a little while, then someone mentioned that they wanted to check out a little store nearby. We entered through the workshop, where a few people were working in front of sewing machines making gorgeous fur products. In another room, all the merchandise was on display. I’m not usually much of a fur person, but I have to tell you – it’s a lot different seeing it on display in a small town in the NWT with the artisans in the room next to you than it is, say, at the frou-frou Snowflake store in the Fairmont Chateau. I touched the softest mittens on earth and contemplated buying some knit hats and headbands, except I knew they’d probably get very dirty throughout our canoe trip.

My favourite part of the store was a rack of damaged beaver pelts. The damage was minimal in some of them – maybe a little hole or two – and it was only $40-$80 for an entire pelt. (The mittens were like, $300, to put that into perspective). The guy from the group we met ended up buying one with intentions to sew his own mittens out of it.

Eventually, they drove us back to our campsite and said goodbye. NOW HERE’S A CRAZY STORY – a few weeks later, we were in a parking lot in Canmore, Alberta AND WE SAW THE GUY FROM THE GROUP WHO’D BOUGHT THE BEAVER! Can you believe it?! Woods Canada magic!

NWT-2

Sunrise at our camp the next morning

We spent a quiet night at the camp and crossed our fingers that when we woke up in the morning, the river would be calm and the wind, non-existent. Story to be continued…