snorkeling in shark ray alley

I was waiting in the gym lobby yesterday, watching the TV as a shark shredded through a man’s left calf, part of a Shark Week special on shark attacks. The girl behind the counter grimaced at the dangling flesh left as a result of the shark’s razor sharp bite, while I bit my tongue, letting her fall prey to the sensationalism of these rare underwater attacks. I wanted to blurt, “I SWAM WITH SHARKS THIS YEAR AND IT WAS AWESOME!!” Because it was. And really, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning, fatally slip in your own shower, or even have your shoulder chomped by that cannibalistic soccer player from Uruguay than you are to succumb to Jaws. So let it be known, I swam with sharks this year, and it was awesome!

Snorkeling in San Pedro, Belize

Ambergris Caye was the second destination of my 8-day trip to Belize. Accessible by small plane or boat from Belize City, we chopped across the Caribbean toward San Pedro on the upper deck of the Belize Express water taxi—Central America’s first class. Only eight of us privileged enough to bask in the sea spray and watch the sun disappear below the cayes: my travel companions, a local fisherman, the captain, and Joe, resident dive expert of Ambergris Caye. By the time we docked in San Pedro, Joe had arranged a private boat ride to the north end of the island to our treehouse accommodations as well as the next day’s excursion to the Belize Barrier Reef, just off the coast.

Rivaled only by the Great Barrier Reef, the Belize Barrier Reef is the largest reef system in the Northern Hemisphere, attracting divers and snorkelers from around the world. I am just a snorkeler, but on that particular day, with near perfect conditions and 70 feet of visibility, a mask and fins were all I needed. Our snorkel boat dropped its anchor in two spots along the reef. The first was Hol Chan Marine Reserve, the water calm, clear, and aquamarine like a postcard, the reef ecosystem abundant and lively. Two minutes into the snorkel, we were met by an unmistakable glare and distinguished underbite: barracuda. He was motionless, silver scales gleaming in the sunlight. Knowing his ability to accelerate and his affinity toward shiny objects, my elephant charm necklace and I kicked hard in the opposite direction, right into the invisible tentacle of a jellyfish that grazed my left tricep. My skin reddened and my nerves stung, but my throat didn’t swell and my breathing didn’t falter; only a Portuguese man o’ war would stop me from seeing the rest. I snorkeled on, and the ocean crackled in my ears.

Snorkeling in Hol Chan Marine Reserve Park Belize

Below us, two spotted eagle rays soared through a gap in the coral, black wings moving water without effort. Our snorkel guide knocked on the door of a green moray eel with an oversized conch, bared teeth and crossed eyes scared us off his porch and back to the boat, where a man-sized grouper was seeking shade under the aluminum hull. As we settled ourselves back in the boat, a neighboring snorkel guide lifted a three foot shark from below the surface, close enough for us to reach over the edge and touch its rough, taupe skin. It was a nurse shark, the species of shark found at the next snorkeling location: Shark Ray Alley.

Spotted Eagle Rays Snorkeling in Belize

I was relieved to know the sharks we were about to swim with were small and accustomed to human handling. But when the boat floated into Shark Ray Alley, a massive shadowy object crept along the ocean floor, a saltwater villain certainly more than three feet long. My heart dropped thirty stories. Another boat was chumming not far from us—another ten story drop, with only one place left to go: I leapt fin-first into the sea to fulfill a travel dream at the bottom of the ocean. Eyes wide open, we drifted with the current as nurse sharks and sting rays moseyed through the sea grass.

Nurse Sharks Belize Barrier Reef

Swimming with Sharks, San Pedro Belize

Shark Ray Alley Belize

I swam with sharks, and it was awesome. And a Shark Week special on shark attacks couldn’t stop me from doing it a hundred times over.

Photo Credit: Sarah Brogden-Thome

a birthday drive to metaline falls

I turned 29 a few weeks ago. It was a Tuesday, so you’d expect to find me gazing into a constellation of google map dots and agonizing over the cultural shackles binding me to a desk on my birthday—or daydreaming of a faceful of coconut cake. But I did neither. Birthdays are revered in my office, and we get them off, like a sick day, but better. Yes, my employers gave me one of the best birthday gifts: precious minutes wrapped in dollar bills.

A birthday with nothing to do except whatever I want. I’m not sure what other people would do with a free day like this, but I imagine it wouldn’t look much like mine. I slept in just late enough to decide on a destination and still make it through the McDonald’s drive-thru at 10:29am for a sausage biscuit with egg; that’s 2 minutes away from a biscuitless birthday girl and a full blown temper tantrum. I splurged and got an orange juice too because it’s my party and I’ll eat bad if I want to.

After that close call, I turned my steering wheel toward the north. The goal was to go somewhere new and off the beaten path. I’m not sure what inspired my decision besides the potential of waterfalls, but I ended up in Metaline Falls, just south of the Canadian Border on the International Selkirk Loop. I didn’t actually see any waterfalls, but I did stumble upon Boundary Dam, which supplies almost one-third of Seattle City Light’s power. The dam is only open for public tours Thursday through Monday, so I couldn’t get as close as I would have hoped, not that I’d expect it to be open on a Tuesday anyway.

I still visited both sides of the dam. On the west side, there was a small campground littered with tents, trucks, and hooded teenagers, along with a boat launch into the Pend Oreille River where a few aluminum fishing boats tooled around in the rain. Beyond the campground is the dam entrance. A friendly security guard left his post and approached the passenger window, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, and told me to turn around and drive to the other side, where the lookout tower I’d spied from the campground sits atop a treelined ridge. There, the gravel road above Crescent Lake gave way to an empty gravel parking lot and what seemed to be an abandoned lookout tower, although the website promises it’s open the same days as the dam. Can’t a girl get a public restroom in these parts? No? Fine. I peed on the trail, which was fenced, like everything else.

Boundary Dam, Metaline Falls, Washington

The barbed wire and chain links made it hard to get a clear view of the dam until the trail opened up onto a large wooden platform below the lookout tower. I’m not afraid of heights; I actually enjoy standing on the edge of most tall things, but I started to doubt the integrity of its foundation, and my own. Vertigo or dizziness, I’m not sure, but the spinning behind my eyes and wobbling in my knees were quieted by the panorama before me. The dam’s watergates were closed, exposing its concrete under layers and a single lane over which I was surprised to watch a Seattle City Light utility truck pass. Giants on the horizon, six transmission towers, reign over the sheer rock face across the gap, contemplating a long jump into the dark water below as it flows toward Canada through the Selkirk Mountains.

Panoramic Photo of Boundary Dam, Washington

Boundary Dam, Metaline Falls, Washington

Boundary Dam, Metaline Falls, Washington

Boundary Dam, Metaline Falls, Washington

Boundary Dam, Metaline Falls, Washington

I didn’t have my passport with me, luckily. Instead of a date with Lake Louise, I returned to Spokane to close out the day in more typical birthday fashion: dinner (soft pretzel and macaroni & cheese—birthday carbs trump birthday cards every time) and drinks with friends—all more reasons I love birthdays so much. A heartfelt thanks to everyone who took the time and effort to wish me well on the dawn of a new year.

central ferry + towell falls

Sunrise doesn’t get enough credit, which is probably why people refer to it as an ass crack. Catch a glimpse and you cringe, shutting your eyes and pretending it’s not there in an attempt to fall back to sleep. I cherish my sleep, but I also get harebrained ideas when I ride my bike, and the longer I’m on it, the more wascally they get. So, last weekend as I was winding down the Centennial Trail toward Idaho, I set my heart on catching sunrise at Central Ferry on the Snake River. Local grain growers bring their crops to the Port of Central Ferry to be transported down the Snake, and in their free time, fish, camp, and imbibe on secluded sand beaches along the river. I have fond memories of this place, including one hot July night leading up to harvest a few years ago – triple digit temps and the river surface like glass, mirroring the cherry and tangerine swirled sunset. Clearly, the sun saves the most vibrant colors for summer on the Snake, painting a crack worth opening your eyes for.

Sunrise over the railroad tracks at the Port of Central Ferry on the Snake River
Sunrise at the Port of Central Ferry

Port of Central Ferry sunrise

Deer in the Sunrise on the Snake River

I say this all the time, and will keep saying it, but there’s something so invigorating about speeding with the windows down through Eastern Washington’s unfamiliar highways; my mind runs rampant. I am enamored with wind farms and wheat fields and am always so blown away when I stumble across places I didn’t know existed. Like, how is that possible? …to be so unaware of the treasures in my own backyard. It challenges my definition of adventure, because while I yearn for distant exploration, I’m reminded there are things worth discovering right where I am, no plane ticket required.

Starbuck, Washington is just one example. The speed limit drops from 60 to 25, and at 6:00am, there was no coffee, just a diligent greenthumb welcoming me to her tiny town with the wave of a hand shovel, a friendly cheers to the early birds. And a few miles further on 261 is another surprise: Lyons Ferry, where the Palouse and Snake Rivers converge. It’s an entire world in itself, with a KOA and a marina full of riverboats and a handful of painted wooden houseboats; I’m curious about the stories of those dreaming inside. I bet they’re twice as impressive as the bridges that span the river.

Lyons Ferry Bridge over the Snake River, Washington

Lyons Ferry Bridge on the Snake River

Lyons Ferry Washington

Lyons Ferry Marina, Starbuck, Washington

Sunrise at Lyons Ferry

Palouse Falls

I stopped briefly at Palouse Falls, but my timing was poor, and instead of getting a good view of the falls, I was merely staring into the sun. So I continued north in search of Towell Falls, another out-of-the-way hiking destination I read about recently. After more desolate highway driving and almost fifteen miles of gravel road, it dead ends at the abandoned Escure Ranch. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that isolated – no humans, no cell service. Getting off the grid is something I fantasize about, and I am confident in my ability to travel alone almost anywhere, but I can’t deny the anxiety I felt for the entirety of the hike.

What I thought was three miles round trip, ended up being three miles to the falls and three miles back on an overgrown access road. That’s too much time to spend inside my own head hushing my imagination, that is often outrageous and enjoys entertaining nearly impossible situations. Animal droppings with berry seeds. Must be a bear because this is their usual habitat. The whispers of a pleasant breeze combined with a plague of grasshoppers that scatter with every step.  Something is stalking me. If not an African lion, a mountain lion, and if not that, one of those human-humping bucks. And what about rattlesnakes? If I get bit, it will surely be by one of the little guys who’s overeager with his venom delivery. I am a goner. I kept looking over my shoulder and scanning the rock formations for human predators. Nothing. Just deer, grasshoppers, cows (that my imagination nearly convinced me were on my side of the range fence), and me.

Towell Falls Hike Directions

cows at Towell Falls Hike

Towell Falls Hike

Towell Falls Hike

Towell Falls

Towell Falls Hike

Towell Falls Hike Washington

Towell Falls

Towell Falls, although not nearly as spectacular as Palouse Falls, are a small oasis in the Eastern Washington desert. Water spills over 12- and 15-foot ledges into the creek. Unfortunately, by the time I reached them, I was ready to be back in the drivers seat where my imagination is tamer and I am safe from any kind of animal attack. I made it out with just a few fly bites and one snake sighting, all of which were forgotten when I rolled down the windows to let my fingers dance in the wind all the way back to Spokane.

the spin cycle

Today I bought a bike. It’s an early birthday present to: me, from: me to replace the one I received on my birthday twenty years ago. All of that makes me sound old.

New Bike

I didn’t wrap it, so after a few hot laps around the driveway, I pedaled it out onto the Centennial Trail, shattering the Cardinal Rule of cycling right out of the gate: always wear a helmet. I let my pony flail in the wind. In my defense, my Nutcase helmet – appropriately named, might I add – makes my head look monstrous. How the hell are you supposed to go fast with that kind of drag? And! The moment the wheels started spinning, so did the webs of happy thoughts in my head. If I got hit by a car, a huge pile of endorphin-laced brain tissue would spill out onto the pavement. There are worse ways to go! Anyway, it won’t happen again. I promise.

Because let’s get real for a second, there’s an element of fear associated with biking for me. I had my share of traumatic experiences learning how to ride, none of which could have been avoided by wearing a helmet, however. When I was five, our whole family took a vacation to Sandpoint, Idaho. The dads golfed, the moms shopped, and I wheeled around uncontrollably trying to prove my worth did not rely on training wheels. Long story short, I bonked my head on a side mirror and put a ding in a parked car’s door with my chain. Didn’t leave a note. (Sucka!) In my perseverance, I continued to “ride” only to crash into an 18 inch curb and sprawl headlong over the handles into tall grass and, what in my bitter memory I like to claim, were blackberry bushes. Tears welled as my aunts, uncles, mom, and favorite cousin all laughed hysterically at me. And to put a rotten cherry on top, I forgot my favorite Barbie when vacay was over.

A few years later, I decided to give the neighborhood obstacle course a go. A sharp turn and a mud puddle won. And I got laughed at. Again.

Basically, I’m terrified of getting hit by a car and you laughing about it, but I’ve decided to become one of the crazy people who commutes to work on two wheels anyway. I have a backpack full of work clothes all ready to go for the morning, and I am giddy. I’m sure the novelty will wear off along with the tread, but until then if you see me on the streets, please don’t honk. I will probably shit myself, and a passerby will snicker at my misfortune.

paddy or patty?

St. Paddy's or St. Patty's

Every year around this time, there are typically a handful of recurring thoughts swirling around in my head… which team should I pick to win the NCAA tournament? is this finally the year a 16 seed beats a 1 seed? can I get away with wearing orange instead of green on St. Patrick’s Day? It is the new black, after all. And is it St. Paddy’s or St. Patty’s?

Now this last one drives me crazy. I spend minutes agonizing over which one to use because I don’t know which one is right… kinda like Presidents Day. Do I need to use a damn apostrophe or not?! (For the record, both Presidents Day and Presidents’ Day are acceptable, but for Abe’s sake, do not use President’s Day.) With a patty here and paddy there abbreviating St. Patrick’s is flat out confusing. The etymologist in me, had to put an end to this yearly internal debate.

Turns out, the answer is simple, really. A patty is flattened, ground meat, often in the shape of a circle or someone whose full name is Patricia. Paddy, on the other hand, is short for Padraig, an Irish male name derived from Patricius, or Patrick. Like St. Patrick. So there you have it: when asking yourself if it’s St. Paddy’s or St. Patty’s, it’s definitely paddy.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

And just to prove that I’m not making things up, check out paddynotpatty.com – you know, because everything you read on the Internet is true.

the yards bruncheon

The Yards Bruncheon in Spokane, WAI have always cherished Saturday mornings, when the demands of the world are no match for goose down and the sweet sound of sizzling bacon is a welcomed wakeup call. In a perfect world, every day would be Saturday and the most difficult decisions would be “scrambled or poached?” and “waffles or pancakes?”. Here in Spokane, Sunday and the rest of his tagalongs rob us of that luxury, but the brand new Yards Bruncheon is dishing up diners’ indecision all week long.

I had a chance to grab brunch with a good friend at Yards yesterday, overjoyed and overwhelmed by the menu selections before I even stepped foot in the diner. We seated ourselves, making our way over the checkerboard floor to a back corner table where we discussed the politics of sweet versus savory: sourdough waffles or Chick’n n’ Waffles, Wild Huckleberry Pancakes or housemade biscuits and gravy, pastries or pastrami. How’s a girl supposed to cast her vote? Compromise, I tell you.

Chick'n n' Waffles at The Yards Bruncheon

We split the Sweet Biscuits, the first bite halting all intelligent conversation as we entered the sixth level of huckleberry heaven (the seventh being The Ram’s Huckleberry Milkshake). The buttery crust of my Sausage Apple Cheddar Quiche flaked away from my fork like a good pie shell should, and from what I could tell, Whitney’s new love is a one Sir Eggs Benedict.

Personally, eating brunch just means enjoying breakfast around noon; I will never order a soup and sandwich combo when I can douse my meal in maple syrup instead. With that said, the “unch” portion of the Yard’s brunch menu boasted a few items I might consider if I were actually there to eat lunch, like the B.L.Toad in the Hole, your typical BLT on sourdough but filled with a fried egg, and the SpokEngland Clam Chowder. …I’m a sucker for portmanteaus, which is probably why I like this new bruncheon so much. Oh, and they also pour a life-saving Bloody Mary.

(images via @teamruster3 and @iviozartsghost)

new year, new habits

I never have been a fast mover: 15 days in and I’m just now settling into 2014. Come January 1, most people hit the ground running. I just hit the ground, with a courtesy shove from holiday stress and an obnoxious cold bug that takes out a short lease in my sinus cavities every December. And not that I’d ever complain about an open bar, but counting down to midnight on New Year’s Eve with a drink in each hand may have hastened my descent.

So now that I’ve slow crawled through the first half of January, let me stand up and say that 2014 is going to be a huge year. Like new boobs huge. Personally, I love resolutions, just not of the New Year’s variety. I find myself making them in July, October, and random Tuesdays in between, but January is usually the best time to reevaluate. If a fresh calendar was the only thing forcing self-reflection, I’d need more than resolutions to right this ship.

Even then, I try not to call them resolutions because, like ripples in a wishing well, resolutions tire quickly, and I’m not casting forgotten pennies. I’m making changes, forming new habits, and breaking free of the ones that hold me back, all to get exactly where I want to be this year. So while my 2014 “Wish List” may seem like a catalog of fanciful desires, each bullet point will be the culmination of a hundred tiny steps, and a brief slow crawl, that involve discipline and heart.

So here it is, my 2014 Wish List:

Riding an elephant in the rivers of Thailand

  • Explore a new continent (South America, Asia, Antarctica, and Australia are all fair game)
  • Write a book
  • Have a conversation in Spanish
  • Try a new mode of transportation (I’m thinking elephant, but I’ll be equally happy with a hot air balloon, helicopter, tuk tuk, or sidecar)
  • Spend New Year’s Eve in my pajamas (so as to hit the ground running, in style)
  • Stay positive (starting with this simple rule I stole from a friend: say 3 positive things before saying 1 negative thing)
  • Use my tent. Regrettably, it has been hanging in the rafters of my garage since September 2011 – safe to say it’s aired out.

Let the journey begin. Happy (belated) New Year!