2015 - My Year In Review (Part 3 of 3)

2015 - My Year In Review (Part 3)

 

Storm The 'Scarpment - September 2015
As we stood amongst the other competitors, Mark Highfield and I shared sideways glances.  One quick look around at the 200 or so other athletes and we both knew that we were out of place.  Most of our competitors were consuming energy drinks, working through their ritual like warm ups and reviewing race maps.  Mark and I were still groggy from the large Big House Pizza, the growler of beer and the 5 hours of sleep that we managed the night before.  

We were minutes away from our last adventure race of the season that would challenge us with running, biking, canoeing, paddle boarding (something the neither of us had previously done) and orienteering.  After catching the look on each other's face, we laughed and it was clear that we were just here to enjoy the day. 

Storm The 'Scarpment was being held at the Kelso Conservation Area in Milton, Ontario.  The race totaled approximately 28km and we were there to have a good time.  Neither of us had committed much to training but as we saw it a bad day at a race is better than a good in the office. 

The race started with a short run of about 2km and then we transitioned into the canoe.  For those unfamiliar with the Kelso Conservation Area, there is a relatively small body of water on the north side of the park.  This would be the location for our canoe and paddle board legs. 

By the time that we mounted our bikes we were in the middle of the pack.  Our energy was high and we were chatting and joking with the teams around us.  After a difficult climb up the Niagara Escarpment, our biking and orienteering experience took over and we gained a lot of valuable ground on the other teams. 

What goes up, must come down; the downhill section came next.  For those of you not familiar with Mark's riding style, he LIVES for downhill.  It was all I could do to keep up as other teams were just a blur as we blasted past them.  Mark yelled out at one point "It's because of Physics" as he passed a group and it was all I could do to keep control of my bike as I broke into a fit of laughter.  We were genuinely having fun. 

A quick paddle back to the start of the race marked the halfway point and we set out again for our second and final lap.  This lap saw much of the same as we struggled with the running sections but excelled on the bikes. 

3 hours and 29 minutes after starting the race, Mark and I crossed the finish line.  As we turned in our timing chip we received what I can only refer to as 'a look' from the race coordinators and they asked for our manual passport (used as a backup if there are any issues with the electronic timing).  We handed it over and thought nothing of it.  We had completed a challenging course and had a lot of fun doing.    

With a long race behind us, and thinking nothing of the results, Mark and I started to pack up our gear.  Within the hour we were cruising down the 401 on our way back to Toronto.  Two days later while sitting in Pearson Airport waiting for a plane I received a text message from Mark asking me if I had seen any of the race results.  I hadn't but quickly went to check online.  At that moment the 'look' that we received from the race coordinators finally made sense.  How could these two pizza and beer fueled, out of shape fat guys finish in 2nd place?

Europe - Sept / Oct 2015
In 2010 four friends and I took a trip to Europe to visit our very good friend Dave Welte.  While on that trip someone had casually mentioned that we should make this trip a regular occurrence, every 5 years.  That causal comment was made a reality as we visited Dave again in 2015. 

Summarizing a 15 day trip through 9 cities in 4 different countries is challenging.  I have decided to keep things as simple as possible and just reflect upon some of the highlights of the trip.

We flew into Prague on September 22nd.  Our plan was to stay here for one night and then travel into Austria.  Dave met us at the Prague airport and had coordinated a rental van.  Besides the beer in Prague (Pilsner Urquell is highly recommended) I was rather underwhelmed with the city. 

The next day we were up early and travelled to Dave's property in Gfhol, Austria.  If you were to blink when travelling through Gfhol you could easily miss it.  It did however provide an excellent stop for the evening.  The rustic accommodations gave way to a camping like feel and we enjoyed dinner and drinks over an open fire. 

After the night in Gfhol we were off to Dave's parent's house which was in Bad Lainach.  This lengthy trip took about 6 hours and included a train ride through the Austrian Alps.  It was September 24th and we were surprised to see that unseasonal weather had brought several feet of snow in the higher regions of the alps. 

Dave was very guarded about the details of his parent's house; and rightfully so.  We arrived in Bad Lainach at about 4pm.  When we pulled up in front of the 'house' it appeared to be more of a hotel than a house.  It turns out, Dave's parents had purchased an old hotel, complete with a fully functioning western themed bar called The Lucky Luke.    

The kegs of Gosser beer were tapped as Ennio Morricone's theme for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly belted through the speaker system.  I must admit that the rest of the night was a bit of a blur. 

7am came much too fast for my liking.  We were up early and the plan for the day was to head into the high alps and complete a 12km hike through the mountain range.  During our 2010 trip we climbed the Hoher Freschen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y56h2-Y0_xg) which became a highlight of that trip. 

This time around we were tackling the Zellinkopf mountain (2597m) and to make matters more difficult we were attempting this after a significant snowfall.  After a hearty breakfast we set out for the climb.  It didn't take long to realize that we had bitten off more than we could chew.  Hiking this trail would have been challenging at the best of time, but it proved nearly impossible with the recent snowfall.  After several hours of hiking we had yet to reach the first peak of our journey.  At about 2450m we recalibrated our expectations and made the decision to scale back our adventure. 

With waist deep snow and trails that ran precariously close to shear drops we took our time.  Before long the group was cold, wet and exhausted.  Although we didn't complete our intended route, or even make it to the summit of the first peak, the view was breathtaking and this adventure still remains one of my top highlights of the 2015 trip.

If anyone has not visited Munich, Germany during the month of September I would highly recommend that you do.  There is a little known festival that takes place which is commonly referred to as Oktoberfest; perhaps you have heard of it. 

I likely don't need to get into too many details here.  As one can imagine the 3 days in Munich were all very similar in nature.  Wake at a reasonable hour, take the train to the fairgrounds, find a seat in one of the tents, consume an ungodly amount of beer, stumble back to our hotel and repeat the next day. 

The next leg of our journey took us to Salzburg, Austria, yes the famous city featured in Robert Wise's The Sound of Music.  The city of Salzburg played an important role in the history of Austria, but I'm not here to bore you with a history lesson.  What I can tell you is that Salzburg is home to two of the incredible breweries; Stiegl and Augustiner Brau. 

The Stiegl Brewery offers up over 500 years of brewing tradition.  On site they offer guided and self-guided tours through their rich history.  Being able to see the evolution of beer making from it's early days to today's standards is simply incredible.  The beer is pretty tasty as well!

By far the best experience that I had in Salzburg was at the Augustiner Brauhaus (http://www.augustinerbier.at/).  Tucked in the Mulln suburb of Salzburg, this nearly 400 year old brewery still serves beer from a traditional wooden barrel.  Their tavern/brewery can seat 1400 people and offers up a variety of food stands to accompany one of Austria's best beers.  I wish that we could have stayed longer.

From Salzburg we travelled to Vienna where Dave has an apartment.  We had spent a significant amount of time in Vienna in 2010 so for this trip we only spent 2 nights.  The highlight in Vienna (besides the amazing meal at the Schweizerhaus) was a trip to the gun range.  I'm by no means a gun lover, but I have had some experience on the range.  Pete and Steve were relatively new to the sport and it was fun to see them in action.  One small side note; be careful what you wear / bring to the range with you.  Steve brought his backpack that also doubled as his carry-on bag for the flight home.  While going through security he was stopped because they detected gunpowder on his bag.  Being the silver tongued devil that he is, Steve was able to talk his way out of a missed flight and a night or two in what I can only presume a Czech Republic jail. 

The next city on our journey was Budapest in Hungary.  I found Budapest rather unremarkable.  The tourist areas were nice, but off the beaten path the city was dirty, derelict and rundown.  We had the misfortune of selecting a hostel in a less than desirable section of town.  One highlight was the cheap cost of beer.  We were able to get half-liters of beer for about $1.33 Canadian.   My highlight from Budapest was a small little restaurant called Dracula's Restaurant and Pub.  We were the only people in the place and our waiter actually put on a black cape and fangs.  I highly recommend the Dracula Platter.  It was meat piled upon meat piled upon more meat.  I'm still unsure what the meat was though. 

With the trip nearing the end we travelled back to Prague to catch our flight home.  It was great to spend some quality time with old friends and to catch up with my old trip partner Dave.  By the end of the trip I had sampled 33 different types of beer.  With only 1 or 2 exceptions I have to tip my hat to the Czech, Bavarian and Hungarian beer makers.      

Bahamas - Nov 2015
After hiking through the rugged hills of the La Cloche mountain range, grinding out 2am laps in a 24 hour mountain bike race and drinking my way through Europe, it was time for a real vacation.  In November Lori and I had a unique opportunity to travel to Nassau, Bahamas.  

We joined Joe and Katie Armitage and 3 other couples.  We met in Nassau and stayed on the Atlantis Resort for a couple of days.  Atlantis offered up the typical amenities one would expect with from a tropical resort with a few additional twists.  The resort offers a myriad of different restaurants, a casino, pool and beach access.  What sets it apart from most is the incredible 140 acre water park and aquarium attractions on site.  If travelling to Atlantis I highly recommend their (not so) lazy river ride which I donated some skin to as well as testing your metal on the Leap of Faith waterslide that takes you under the shark tanks.

After 3 days at Atlantis we boarded the Argyll M/Y and made our way south to the Exuma Islands for a few nights.  Besides the beauty of the tropical islands and the open sea the experience was made all that much better by the great company and the extravagant meals that we were treated to.  

Did you know that pigs can swim?  I wasn't aware of this fact until this trip.  One of the major attractions in this area was Big Major Cay and it's world famous Pig Beach.  If you travel up to this island you can see a number of pigs come out of the bush, down the beach and into the water to meet anyone landing on the island.  The rumor has it that these pigs were aboard a ship when it sank.  The pigs were able to swim to this uninhabited island that they now call home.  It was a very unique experience being so close to 400 plus pound pigs rifling around and begging for food.  http://www.bahamas.com/swimmingpigs

The following day we visited Thunderball Grotto.  James Bond fans will recognize the name immediately and this particular location provided some of the fantastic filming locations for the 1965 movie starring Sean Connery.  Access to the grotto proved to be challenging as the current and waves made accessing the small underwater entrance difficult.  I'm happy to say that I left some skin in the grotto as a wave ran me into the rocks and mangled my shoulder.  The grotto itself was something to behold and it was easy to see why it was chosen for the films setting. 

For our final night at sea we anchored in Warderick Wells which is part of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea National Park.  Warderick Wells offers up some breathtaking views, incredible swimming and snorkeling experiences and when the tide is out, a number of small sandbars to explore.  At low tide we enjoyed a picnic on one such sandbar.  It was fascinating to experience the tide roll in and erase all evidence that we were there. 

As with all good things, they must come to an end.  We travelled back Nassau and flew out the next day.  With record high temperatures in Toronto we still suffered some shock going from 30˚temperature to just above zero. 

Special thanks to Joe and Katie as well as Captain Jim for safe passage.   

Albion Hills - Dec 2015
Mountain biking in December in Ontario is generally unheard of.  2015 saw some unseasonably warm winter temperatures and Mark and I were not about to miss an opportunity to hit the trails of Albion Hills for a (very) late season ride. 

Although it was cold, rainy and damp, Mark and I were both in excited about this experience.  We met at Albion hills and were on the trails by 10am.  The first thing that we both came to realize was that we were not exactly trail ready.  Limited opportunities to ride over the past 2 months had left their toll.  It was at this point that we decided we would dial back the pace and focus more on enjoying this unique experience.  A thick fog had rolled in and filled the trails creating a very eerily and isolated atmosphere.     

After an hour on the trails we were back at our makeshift campsite and enjoyed a warm barbeque lunch and a few beverages. 

Refueled, we hit the trails again for our second ride.  Our pace was again sluggish, but we hardly cared.  The fog had lifted and the sun was warming things up.  We logged a modest 10km and decided to call it a day. 

Riding on a day like this really makes me wish that I had taken more advantage of the trails when the weather was more favourable.  I'll just have to remember this in 2016.  This is the video from our ride: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTfW_GBq4B8     

Conclusion:
2015 proved to be an incredible year for me.  I had many great opportunities to travel and I saw a wide variety of places while doing a lot of the things that I love.  I have only fond memories of 2015 and I hope that 2016 will bring much of the same for me.  

Darren