A Driving Blind

As December comes to a close so does our Family Big Year. Although, December is a crazy busy month for us we made time recently to check out the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in an attempt of adding a few more bird species to our Big Year list.

The Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is a birder’s paradise with over 5,300 acres of water, wood, and field habitat for birds. From October to May visitors must stay in their cars to avoid disturbing wintering waterfowl. However, there is a 4 mile road through the refuge that visitors are allowed to drive, which gives great viewing access. In addition the refuge offers a guided auto-tour via CD that provides an overview of the refuge and the wildlife species that might be seen.

While most of the refuge is closed to foot traffic during the fall and winter there is a viewing blind that remains open and can be accessed via a short path. The blind looks out on one of the ponds and provides a great view of Tundra Swans, Coots, and other waterfowl.

Although, birding while driving can be a little bit difficult (especially for the driver) it is a really great way to see a large number of species in a relatively short period of time. During our visit we counted over 15 different species of birds and hundreds of individuals. We also added one new species to our Family Big Year list bringing our total up to 114!

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A New Spin on Snow Tubing

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We’ve very much been enjoying the winter climate here on Vancouver Island: cold enough for occasional snow but no bitter cold temperatures. We thought the few inches of snow in our river valley was impressive, but we soon realized it was nothing compared to the feet of snow we found during a day of tubing at Mount Washington.

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The highway drive from Qualicum Beach toward Courtenay was easy, and the 18 km  Strathcona Parkway is definitely manageable for anyone with four-wheel drive and/or good winter tires. Overall, less than an hour total to get from our doorstep to a winter wonderland. The sky was overcast when we arrived, but the clouds soon opened up offering breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks.

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The Tube Park is located at the Alpine Lodge, and we found the layout to be perfect for even the youngest of us. After choosing a lane and whooshing down the track, it’s a short walk pulling your tube up to the “Magic Carpet”, which does the work to get you and your tube back up to the top of the track. The operators were super friendly and made sure the kids got on and off without any issues, and after a few times down the kids felt comfortable enough to race ahead without us to begin their next trip down the slope.

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We originally didn’t know if we would get bored after a few times down, but this definitely was not the case. We underestimated the sheer variety of ways to tube down the track, each one providing a different experience. Fortunately, the wonderful staff at the top of the run gave us the nudge we needed. After the kids had their first time down, they were asked if they wanted a spin on their next trip. The first few spins were of the tame, “let’s see if they like this” variety. By the end of the day, though, the Younger Fives were begging the operators for the most head-spinning whirls they could muster, and the staff was more than happy to oblige. Spins are even more fun when shared, and we experimented with 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, and even 5-person twirls down the slope. The only thing more dizzying than trying to figure out all the possible ride combination with five people was the actual experience of spinning like a mad teacup down the slope yourself!

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Fives’ Facts About Snow Tubing at Mount Washington

1. Location: Mount Washington (elevation 1,590 m or 5,220 feet) is located about 25 km from the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. It is home to the Vancouver Island marmot, one of the most endangered mammals on the planet.

2. Driving: The Mount Washington Alpine Resort is located at Exit #130 of Highway #19, about 13 km north of Courtenay. The Strathcona Parkway takes you the rest of the way, and chains are required if the weather turns ugly. Click here for more information about winter driving to the resort.

3. Passes: There are family two-hour and full-day passes (covers 2 adults and 2 children), with the option to add additional children at a discounted rate. We found the full-day pass to be ideal. We spent about 1.5 hours tubing, then took a leisurely hour for lunch inside the lodge, then went back out for another 1.5 hours. Not having the pressure of trying to get in as much tubing as possible before time ran out made the day much more enjoyable 🙂

4. Height Requirements: Children under 42″ ride free with an adult in the same tube. At first we were worried that our 7 and 5 year old might not make the cut. In the end, with boots on everyone was tall enough to ride on their own, and we were very glad we got each child their own pass so they could ride independently.

5. When to Visit: We planned our trip for a weekday, which meant the wait time was basically non-existent. The Tube Park is open 11am-7:00pm (and until 9pm on Friday and Saturday), and we had the place to ourselves until after lunch. We heard that on the weekends the wait can increase considerably, so go during the week if at all possible.

Halloween on the Road

Halloween on the road is always an adventure. Last year we found ourselves traveling through Hurricane Sandy. This year we drove through a sudden snowstorm in the Targhee National Forest. Luckily our destination was the super relaxing town of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. Dad received a much deserved soak after safely getting us through the storm.

A White Blood Cell, Surfer Girl, and Bus Driver ready for some Halloween fun!

A White Blood Cell, Surfer Girl, and Bus Driver ready for some Halloween fun!

An early morning Trick-Or-Treater.

An early morning Trick-Or-Treater.

A spooky hike through the Yellowstone hot springs.

A spooky hike through the Yellowstone hot springs.

Swimming at Lava Hot Springs.

Swimming at Lava Hot Springs.

Enjoying the over-sized hot spring bath in the hotel room.

Enjoying the over-sized hot spring bath in the hotel room.

Surfing on the beds.

Surfing on the beds.

Super White Blood Cell.

Super White Blood Cell.

Head over heels about Halloween!

Head over heels about Halloween!

Are we there yet?

What a drive! Starting Sunday and ending on Tuesday we traveled 1,894 miles from Prince Edward Island to Bemidji, Minnesota with just a brief stop in Quebec City to break up the trip.

The Younger Five’s were superstars and took the long hours strapped into their car seats in stride. We were all deliriously happy to see the sign welcoming us to Lake Bemidji State Park, where we will spend the next few days recouping before we make the final leg our our journey west to Montana.

Racing to Newfoundland

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When we woke up on Sunday morning Saint John was shrouded in a thick fog complete with driving rain and gusty winds. After braving the weather long enough to scamper around the grounds of the Carleton Martello Tower we made a spur of the moment decision to try and catch the 11:45 p.m. ferry to Newfoundland. We figured that we might as well spend a rainy day driving and hope that the weather would improve once we got a bit further east. However, we didn’t have tickets for the ferry so we would need to arrive at the ferry three hours in advance of departure. That gave us only about eight hours to drive 627km to North Sydney, Nova Scotia.

After stopping for lunch and then a couple more times for the kids to use the restrooms we were really short on time. Luckily the sun came out and there was very little traffic as we traversed the Trans Canada Highway. It was hard passing so many cool places that we wanted to check out but we knew that we would stop back again later this summer. It was even harder for the kids to be strapped in their car seats for so long but it was all worth it when we pulled into the Marine Atlantic ferry terminal with just 10 minutes to spare.

The boarding process was pretty long but the kids could be unstrapped while we waited and it was fun to watch the variety of cars and trucks being loaded on to the ferry. Unfortunately Five Ball’s fingers getting closed in the car door just as we were about to take the elevator up the seating area didn’t start our boat ride out on a smooth note. However, the children’s play area aboard the ferry quickly helped turn things around and soon we were sailing to Newfoundland.

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Due to the high cost of cabin accommodations we chose to stick to the standard seats. All in all we were pretty comfortable and  got as much sleep as could be expected when surrounded by other passengers. The ferry interior was very nice and offered lots of space to move around and a variety of sitting areas. The only downside was the number of televisions mounted all around the ship that kept the kid’s eyes open much later than they should have been staring at horrible reality TV programs.

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By 5:30 the next morning the sun was up and we could get a view of the water and then the coast of Newfoundland. Disembarking was a much smoother process and we were driving off to explore the province by 7:30. From start to finish it was definitely a bit of a rush but it felt totally worth it when we took in the first stunning vistas of Newfoundland.

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