Holi in the Himalayas

A second time around paragliding in Pokhara, Nepal 

Ah, Pokhara

It’s so good to be back!  Pokhara, and Nepal in general, have a special place in my heart.  Not just the incredible Himalayas, or the amazing paragliding, or the friendly people, but there’s just something about this place that’s….magical. 

The last time I was here, I was a brand new paragliding pilot, but now with 2 years of experience under my belt, I’m definitely more prepared for some epic flights in the Himalayas. 

 

Sending it to the Mountains

As the crew headed up to launch, it was looking like an epic day.  Cloudbase was super high, Annapurna and Machapuchare sticking out amidst the perfectly blue sky, and I was stoked.  Flying with friends, we pushed back from the ridge we launched from deep into the mountains. 

One of the most memorable parts of the flight begins when you’re low on this one ridge, called the “Green Wall” because that’s exactly what it is: one big green wall.  The thermals were popping and as you turn and get higher on the Green Wall, you can start to get glimpses of Annapurna and Machapuchare poking out behind the wall, and with each turn and each gain in elevation, more and more of the mountains stick out, making for the most beautiful reveal. 

It’s so easy to get distracted by that view – when you see mountains like this, it’s not hard to understand why they’re sacred. 

Can’t forget friendly dogs and kids at the landing!  

Busy Livin’

Today didn’t end with the flight, though.  It’s spring in South Asia, and that means the festival of Holi is celebrated.  Holi is probably the best-known of the Hindu festivals, probably because it’s the most fun by far.  This celebration of spring means you buy packs of colored powder and throw them at anyone and everyone in the streets! 

Just make sure you don’t get any in your eyes, and if you get it in your mouth, we learned the hard way that it does NOT taste good. 

Properly covered in a myriad of color, we considered this a Holi well-celebrated.  Happy spring! 

 

Thank You, Pokhara

Other places I’ve flown just don’t compare to Pokhara.  When I think about the best places in the world for paragliding, I don’t think just about the flying.  Even when you have epic and long flights, it’s such a small part of your day, and it makes all the difference to come back to an amazing town with the best of people. 

Hawai'i Humpbacks

Following the whales from Alaska to Maui

I’ve been working in Alaska with their summer humpback whale population for years, listening to stories from friends detailing their adventures “following the whales” to Hawaii in the winter.  Finally, this year, I decided to see if the Maui whales are what they’re cracked up to be.

Living in a van for a month (and not even a fancy #vanlife one, literally a Honda Odyssey with an inflatable mattress in the back, but it was great!) let me drive around the whole island of Maui and see the first incredible thing about this island: you can reliably see the whales from shore.  Every night, I backed the van up into the sand, set up my beach chair, sand mat, and grabbed some fruit and binoculars from my cache so I could snack and watch for whales as the sun set and the stars came out.  Nowhere else have I so consistently seen humpbacks breaching and tail-slapping into every sunset.  Truly magical. 

Almost every morning, I woke up to whales offshore, then grab my snorkel gear to head out and see what I can see!  The single biggest highlight was freediving off the west coast of the island in 100-foot visibility, when I saw a big blow and a little blow a few hundred yards south.  It was a cow and calf humpback whale pair and they were heading right towards me.  As they approached, the baby, only a few weeks old but still a behemoth at over 15 feet long, started breaching repeatedly.  They approached further, and I dove down to listen to the whales.  Only males sing, but all whales vocalize, but the song can be heard from miles away when you’re underwater.  As I was listening under the water, the cow and calf swam within about 50 feet from me, hanging out long enough for me to watch the calf tuck under mom’s pectoral fin, then they continued on their way.  It was only a quick encounter, but it was one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen.

As a cetacean photographer, I headed out on multiple photo expeditions into the channel to look for whales.  If there’s anything I’ve learned from working in wildlife tourism in Alaska, it’s that there’s nothing like being in a zodiac or a low-to-the-water vessel to view whales.  Curiosity reigns, and that leads to some incredible encounters between me and the whales.  But sometimes, the whales don’t want to cooperate, so you have to improvise with a plastic whale for photos! 😊

My final goal on this month in Maui was humpback whale education.  I worked with a nonprofit called Whale Trust during their annual scientific outreach and fundraising event, aptly called “Whale Tales”, a Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua Signature Event.  The public is invited to come and learn about humpback whales in Hawaii and the rest of the North Pacific.  I spent the weekend educating the attendees about how humpback whales feed, how we learned about their migration, and the structure of their song in Hawaii this year, complete with actual sound bytes from this year’s song.  We can only want to protect animals we understand, and I loved seeing the faces of people I talked with light up when they learned something new about these incredible animals. 

Long story short, I’m now a firm believer in “following the whales” as they migrate from Alaska to Hawaii, and I hope I can come back next year for more Hawaii humpback adventures!  

Wilderness with a Capital "W"

Far from civilization in Glacier Bay National Park

The Idea

Back in 2017, I read a book called The Only Kayak by Kim Heacox while I was on my way to Alaska for the first time.  I then continued to experience Southeast Alaska from a small tourist vessel for the next two summers.  It was incredible: bears, humpback whales, killer whales, unreal sunsets, fresh fish, and the friendliest people.  I knew this place was special, and I wanted to explore it on my own terms. 

This past winter, I pitched the idea of taking kayaks into the Alaskan wilderness to adventure buddy and fellow Alaska guide Max.  Before long we roped in his sister, Ashley, and his girlfriend Laura to set out on an adventure.  As a former whitewater paddler, this was my first true kayak camping trip and I was hoping it would reinstall a love of paddling that I lost after my whitewater days.   

 

Welcome to Alaska

On Ashley and Laura’s first time to Alaska, we loaded them into a bush plane to fly them to the small town of Gustavus, population 400, on the outskirts of Glacier Bay National Park.  The town was hosting a corn hole tournament to raise money for the school track team, and not only did I meet Kim Heacox, who lives in Gustavus, but I had some of the best homemade ice cream ever.  Loading up all our stuff, we got everything into packable, bear proof, containers and ready to load into our kayaks, our homes for the next week. 

 

Respect the Tides

Having spent the last three summers working in Southeast Alaska, I know that the tidal exchange here is huge.  However, not much would’ve prepared me for the first night camping in Glacier Bay National Park.  I knew the high tide was going to be around midnight and that it was a +16.2 foot.  We found an amazing campsite with beautiful mountains and a tidal outwash that made for incredible reflections.  Luckily, Laura convinced us to stay up a little later to play cards, and as we did, I heard a little trickle of water. 

Turns out, the tide was coming at us from both sides and we knew we would lose the beach!  We packed up as fast as we could and moved beaches to sleep for the night, but kept waking up every half hour or so to check on the water level outside our tents.  By the morning, there was only a small circle of dry beach left: our tents. 

 

The Goal

Make it to the ice.  We found the entrance to McBride Glacier and played on an alien landscape of huge mountains, mud, and 250-year-old glacial ice. 

  

Epic Wildlife

Viewing whales and bears from a ship is cool, but nothing got my heart racing like viewing them from eye level on the water line in a kayak.  Steller Sea Lions are much larger when you’re in a kayak, and so are humpback whales.  Bears can get you a little uneasy in a kayak, but sea otters are even cuter. 

 

True Wilderness

Experiencing a National Park on our own terms.  Sharing the experience with great friends and adventure buddies.  Respecting the power of nature.  Reminding me why I first got into a kayak and why it’s sometimes important to be the only kayak in sight.    

Not just Cabo san Lucas

The Sea of Cortez is a hidden gem of North America

It was coming up on a year since I had last traveled in the Sea of Cortez and I was itching to get back, even though I knew it would only be for two weeks.  Last year, I spent two months down here and I was hoping I hadn't romanticized it too much in the year I had been away.  Baja did not disappoint. 

To top it all off, I was able to take my parents on this incredible cetacean expedition.  Letting them see what I do for work was something I was looking forward to, but also the most anxious about.  What if they still didn't understand?  What if we didn't find any wildlife?  What if they didn't like my boat family?

Coming back to the National Geographic ships is like coming home.  Warm embraces and travel stories are shared endlessly while you realize you are once again among kindred spirits.  Very few people are able to commit to the lifestyle I have chosen, so being among friends definitely helps with the loneliness I feel sometimes when I'm away.  

Baja California is an amazing contrast between the desert on land and the rich marine life below the water.  You can find fossilized whale skeletons, kelp forests, coral reefs, endemic lizards, and so much more.  And the best part is how remote it is.  Among all the many islands in the Sea of Cortez, I was often the only one there.  Endemic reptiles galore!

Along with the amazing life on land, the cetaceans were something to behold.  Huge pods of long-beaked common dolphins would give way to blue whales.  But the most amazing experience was with a pod of about 40 or 50 short-finned pilot whales.  Seeing puffs from their blowholes a few miles away, we took our Zodiacs and motored over to see what interactions we could have.  This family group stayed with us for over an hour, coming to inspect the Zodiacs, tail slapping, diving together, and we even saw a breach!  

All in all, I'm always happy to accept a job in the Sea of Cortez, the wildlife and the landscape truly makes it a gem of North America.  'Till next time! 

Namaste Nepal

A paragliding journey

Nepal is a place you look back on and remind yourself of the ways travel changes your outlook.  Even if you don’t talk to a single person (which is pretty impossible to do), it’s hard to stand at the foothills of the Himalayas and not be in awe of the landscape in front of you.  That being said, the people are also incredibly friendly and fun to talk with!  I arrived in Nepal with a goal of improving my paragliding skills, and along with some friends who are much better pilots than I am, we travelled across the world to experience the mountains.

 

Up until this trip, my paragliding journey had been learning to fly five months prior, and while I since had the opportunities to paraglide in Alaska and Colorado, I was doing what we call “sledders” or “sled rides”, where you launch from the top of a tall place, and then use the paraglider as a descent tool.  The flights are no more than a few minutes and while it’s fun, (and I mean, you’re still FLYING.) I was looking to become a better pilot.  And with the guidance of my friends, that was going to happen. 

Daily life in Pokhara was laid back.  Every day after breakfast, we headed up into the mountains for a quick morning flight to stretch our wings, and then head immediately back up to see if we could fly for longer once the thermals built.  Thermals are pockets of warm, rising air that birds use to gain elevation while not flapping their wings, and paragliders can do this as well.  My goal: learn to properly use these thermals to fly cross-country.  It took a few weeks, but flying in these conditions daily was the best thing I could’ve done.  I got heavily acquainted with my paraglider, feeling the subtle things I had to do to be the most efficient in the air.  I got more comfortable pushing myself to fly just a bit closer to that cloud, or just a bit more over that ridge, and still be safe throughout. 

I also attempted what we call “vol-biv” flying: pack up a sleeping bag and some food and try to fly somewhere, land, and camp there for the night before flying somewhere else the next day.  Trying to use my newfound thermalling skills, I followed my friends in the sky.  The best part of this trip wasn’t necessarily the flying or the food or the festivals, but it was when I landed in some stranger’s rice field, miles from anyone, and had to find my way back.  Many Pokhara residents see paragliders regularly, but rarely does one literally land in their backyard.  Young kids ran to greet me as I came in to land, I was offered tea, and after I packed up my gear, I walked along the closest road until I found a bus that was hopefully going in the direction I wanted.  Eventually I made it back!   

Growing up, I played team sports and individual sports.  Aspects of each I loved.  Paragliding with friends is the best of both worlds.  There’s no feeling quite like finding a thermal with friends and you circle around each other, calling out encouragement over our radios.  But in the end, your ability to get yourself from A to B and beyond is truly individual and sometimes (or often, in my case) you fail.  Luckily in Nepal, when I failed to complete our missions, I could take a taxi 😊