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Monday, March 28, 2011

FIRE DANCING: An Out-of-body Experience in Macedonia, Greece

I should have known that my plans were in the hands of Fate when I got food poisoning two days before my departure from Athens to attend a much anticipated performance of fire dancing at the annual May 21st Feast of Saints Constantine and Eleni in northern Greece. I was determined to go. The pharmacist assured me that the box of capsules he prescribed would do the trick. Just to make sure, I bought a second box to take during the overnight train ride to Thessaloniki.

Upon arrival in Thessaloniki, I went straight to the bus depot. The fire dancing takes place in the town of Langadas, a forty-kilometer journey. As I sat in a nearby park while I waited for the bus, a strange sensation came over me. I felt disoriented, dizzy and light-headed, strangely out-of-touch with reality. My senses seemed numb as if my mind and spirit had completely left my body. I began to panic. I felt as though I were dying. I imagined the horrified reaction of my family in Canada when they learned that my body was found on a park bench here in this foreign country. Alone and anonymous, I scribbled down information about myself on a scrap of paper and put it in my pocket just in case.

Three police officers appeared. I considered appealing to them for help. Instead, I took a deep breath, sipped some water, and told myself it was all in my imagination. Anyway, it would be better to die in a hotel bed than on a park bench. So I got on the bus headed for Langadas.

Langadas is a quiet farming community with tidy houses, rose arbors and vegetable gardens. I had no trouble finding my hotel, the Lido. It’s the only one in town. I bought a souvlaki to eat and went up to my room to sleep off the light-headed and disoriented feeling I had. But even after I woke, the euphoric out-of-body sensations persisted.

I went for a walk breathing in the fresh pungent air of the countryside. Still I felt strange, disconnected from reality. I considered going to the local hospital. First I’d go back to the hotel, shower and change my travel-soiled clothes. I wanted to die looking presentable.

While combing my hair, I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed how my eyes were glazed, the pupils small as pinpoints. The I realized that the strange euphoria I had felt all morning must have been caused by drugs. The diahorrea medicine!

A local pharmacist confirmed it. “You shouldn’t have taken more than the one box dosage,“ he scolded. I had overdosed on opiates. I wasn’t going to die. I was just stoned. The instruction on the package had been all Greek to me!

That trauma taken care of, I set off to find the Anastenarides, the famous mystics who dance barefooted on hot coals and somehow miraculously never get burned.

In Greece, the Orthodox Church considers Fire Dancing to be a pagan ritual, even though the initiates claim that their unswerving faith in God protects them from the fire. The Fire Dancing is performed every year on the Feast of Saints Constantine and Eleni in the Greek Macedonian towns of Seres and Langadas. Although the Church has ceased to heap fire and brimstone on the Fire Dancers, the ceremony is still secretive.

I roamed around the town asking several locals where I could see the fire dancing. My question was greeted with a stern look and stony silence. Why such mystery? I wondered. Near the outskirts of town, I located the small Church of the Saints, but there was only a wizened crone dressed in black solemnly tending the graves. No sign of Fire Dancers. A small midway had been set up on the roadside near the Church with carnival rides, game booths and fast-food cars. Behind the midway the field was cordoned off with a picket fence and rows of wooden chairs had been set up. A group of gypsy women dressed in bright flowered skirts and colorful kerchiefs surrounded me. They smiled at me, their gold teeth gleaming.

“Pou einai oi Anastenarides?” I asked. “Where are the Fire Dancers?” Once again my question was greeted with the typical lift of the shoulders, chin and eyebrows, which translates “I don’t know.”

Back at the Hotel Lido, I struck up a conversation with Marc, a Belgian photojournalist. He had also spent a fruitless day searching for the Fire Dancers. He had learned that the fenced-off part of the midway was where the Fire Dance would be performed.

“It’s held outside of town because of the Church’s edict,” he explained. “The presence of the carnival and gypsies gives the Fire Dancing more of a circus atmosphere, which is acceptable to the town folk.”

Marc’s detective work proved more fruitful than mine did. The next morning he located the konaki, the house of the Anastenarides where a calf had been sacrificed as part of the mystic rites.

“The house is not far from the church,” he said. “The ritual dancing begins this afternoon followed by the Fire Dancing.”

I set off toward the pastures at the edge of town. I could hear the distant throbbing of drums, and followed the sound to a low-roofed house with a long porch on which many people had gathered.

I approached the house cautiously, not sure if I would be permitted to enter but I was welcomed into a large room where benches had been arranged around the walls for spectators. The sharp aroma of incense and bees wax permeated the air. At one end of the room was a table heaped with religious relics, ornate silver icons and varnished paintings of the Saints. As visitors entered, they lit slender bee’s wax candles and genuflected before the icons. In front of the altar table, the barefooted Anastenarides, both men and women, whirled and swayed as they danced to the throbbing of a big single-sided drum, a wailing clarinet and the whining strings of a lyra. They circled the room in front of the table of religious relics. As they danced they clutched icons and waved red handkerchiefs decorated with silver and gold talismans to ward off evil and made strange groaning sounds, which give them their name. Anastenarides is derived from the Greek word anastenagmos, meaning “to groan”.

The mood in the room was one of reverence. As the haunting cadence of the music filled the room, a gray-haired elder carried around a clay smudge pot and drenched the participants and spectators with fragrant sage-scented smoke. I thought of the similarity to our North American aboriginal ceremonies.

The monotonous booming of the drum had a hypnotic effect. After several hours, in a state of Fire Dance just as hundreds of years before, their forefathers performed their perilous walk through fire.

These mysterious rituals began during the invasion of the Tartars who swept through the Byzantine Empire burning and pillaging. In a Macedonian town, a church named for Saint Constantine had been set ablaze. The parishioners who went through the flames to rescue the priceless icons were miraculously not burned. To the Anastenarides, the Fire Dance represents the triumph of good over evil. They belief it is their absolute faith in God and their ability to achieve a state of self-hypnosis, that allows them to dance on hot coals and remain unburned. It is truly an out-of-body experience.

Several hours passed. The music and drumbeats grew more intense. I felt mesmerized by the wailing minor chords of the music. Outside the konaki a large crowd had gathered. Suddenly there was a commotion. A contingent of local police had arrived. Where we to be arrested for participating in a pagan ritual? No, the police had come to escort the Fire Dancers to the carnival site.

A long processional formed. The spectators followed the Anastenarides down the country lane, accompanied by the musicians. Suddenly, as we trooped through the pastures toward the carnival site, ominous black clouds obscured the sky. A violent eruption of thunder boomed and dangerous spikes of forked lightening crackled earthward. A deluge of rain poured from the black heavens. Within minutes, the road was churned to mud and flooded with rivulets of water. As the drenching rain poured relentlessly down, the Anastenarides clutching their precious icons, ran for cover back to the konaki. I found shelter under the eaves of a farmhouse with Marc, the photojournalist.

“No fire dancing tonight,” Marc laughed. The two of us were soaked to the skin.

“Tin oh kahnomay,” I replied with a typical Greek shrug. “What are we to do?” It was the hand of Fate. I knew it!

There was still one more day left of the religious celebration. The next morning dawned bright and sunny. No sign of storm clouds. Once again I went to the house of the Fire Dancers and spent the afternoon watching the initiates dance. Just as it had the day before, a crowd gathered, the dancers performed their rituals, the musician played, and in the evening a processional formed to parade down the country lane. Then, at exactly the same moment, as the Anastenarides left their konaki, it began to storm. Once again it seemed that the Fire Dancer’s mystic communion with the Saints had been squelched by an Unseen Power.

“Somebody up there definitely doesn’t want this to happen,” I remarked to a bemused black-robed priest who watched from under the shelter of his umbrella as the rain-soaked Anastenarides scrambled back into their house.

He shrugged, lifting his chin and eyes heavenward. “Ti krema!” he said. “What a pity!” There was a smug smile on his face.

Disappointed, I left the konaki and made my way through the downpour back to my hotel. I had to leave Langadas the next morning. I’d have to wait for another time to see the Fire Dancers perform. The only out-of-body experience that year was the one I’d had on the park bench in Thessaloniki.

To View You Tube films of the firedancers: 

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Sunday, March 27, 2011


It was an overcast day when I set off for my Sunday walk today.  I headed down to the Bay in the West End.  English Bay is one of Vancouver's most popular spots any time of year.  In the summer it's a busy beach scene and in other seasons it's a good place to relax, talk a walk, jog, in-line-skate or cycle.  The sea-wall that circles Stanley Park extends along the beach front as far as Sunset Beach just past English Bay.

As you approach the Bay and foreshore park you'll see a group of bronze laughing men at the corner.  These are part of the public art displays you'll see around the city.  I stop and check them out.  Always worth a chuckle or two.

Sun Dial

I never fail to discover new things when I'm walking.  Today, in spite of having been by here hundreds of times, I actually stopped to read the plaques around the Sun Dial and found that it is a dedication to 3 the greenhorns who staked the first land claim in this spot in 1862 at a time when this was all forested area. 

Sylvia Hotel

I headed down the sea wall walking west past the venerable Sylvia Hotel, a heritage building built in 1912, one of Vancouver's famous landmarks.  

Ships in English Bay

The day was cloudy and cool.  Out on the bay there was the usual fleet of tankers at anchorage.  It took just half an hour to walk from  English Bay to my favorite summer-time spot, Second Beach.  This is where I spend many leisurely hours in the summer, especially in the swimming pool.  It's also a good place to lounge or play on the sandy beach.  In the park nearby there are children's play areas and picnic tables under the trees.

Second Beach

There's a concession stand at Second Beach so I stopped for a coffee before heading back along the trail toward Lost Lagoon.  This time, I didn't walk along the Lagoon, but took the upper trail along the Rhododendron Garden.  There were actually a few in blossom.
Early Rhodies in Bloom 

It wasn't until I started out of the Park that I began to see more signs of Spring.  And when I got to Barclay Street, there were the cherry blossoms I was looking for! 

Perhaps by next week there's be more signs of Spring.  So why not come along with me on one of my Sunday walks?

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(What my Mother told me: “Don’t take candy from strangers!”)
Note:  This story happened several years ago but the same thing is happening today even in my own home town in Canada!
Full Moon Over Philipappou Hill

The first night of the July full moon in Athens. My friends and I have gathered at our local taverna with plans to view the spectacular full moon from the Acropolis, while enjoying classical music played by the Athens Symphony.

A strange young man enters the taverna. He is dressed in sandals, short tunic and carries a homespun wool bag. His hair and beard are long and blonde. He is an apparition of someone from Biblical times, like a modern-day version of John the Baptist. Mike, a British painter who has is studio in the area, says he has seen this odd character many times. He thinks the young man lives in one of the caves on Philipappou Hill, near the Acropolis.
The young man appears to be a deaf mute. He does not speak, and gestures to Anna, the taverna owner, indicating he wants food. She gives him a souvlaki and he leaves. But we are curious. We wonder where he has come from, and how he makes his living here? Clearly, he is not Greek. Who is he?

Philipappou Hill, Athens

The second night of the July full moon. Anna Britt, a Norwegian classical scholar; Vesa, a Finnish architect; Lena, a Danish girl studying Greek, and myself, a writer from Canada, decide to have a picnic up on Philipappou Hill to celebrate the moonlight. The hill is opposite the Acropolis. Footpaths wind up through the pine groves to the crest of the hill where there is an impressive monument to Philipappou, a Prince of Syria who was exiled to Athens by the Romans and died here in AD 116.
From the crest of Philipappou Hill we have an eye-level view of the Parthenon all lit up with golden floodlights. In the brilliant, star-studded sky, the beautiful moon beams down flooding the hillside with a soft silvery-blue light. We sit at the base of Philipappou’s monument and share our snacks: a bottle of wine and a bit of brandy, some crackers, cheese and olives.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, truly like the appearance of a an apparition, the strange young man we had seen at the taverna the night before, is standing in our midst. We are stunned speechless, as his appearance is so sudden and eerie. But because we are also still curious about him, we invite him to share our food and drink. He refuses the food, but snatches the bottle of brandy out of Vesa’s hand and quickly drinks down what is left of it then smashes the bottle on the rocks. We are startled by this abrupt, rude action. He takes a bottle of ouzo out of his bag and offers it to Vesa. Vesa, who has been drinking the brandy, refuses. I have been drinking wine and decline the offer too. Lena is pregnant, and doesn’t drink. To be polite, Anna Britt takes a couple of sips of the ouzo. then hands the bottle back.
We invite the young man to sit with us. We want to know all about him. What is his name? Where does he come from? Where does he live? He squats down, not speaking but evidently capable of hearing everything we say to him. It doesn’t take long before we grow suspicious of his ‘mute act’ and wonder if he merely belongs to some odd cult and has taken an oath of silence. Anna Britt takes another swig of ouzo and tries another angle to engage him in conversation. He says nothing, but occasionally laughs in a derisive manner, laughing at us. His attitude is arrogant and rude. We are beginning to feel very uncomfortable in his presence.
I decide to challenge him about his inability to speak. He knows exactly what I’m saying and laughs. Anna Britt says she is feeling dizzy and decides to lie down on a flat slab of marble. He finds this very amusing. Our suspicion increases. We are feel uneasy and wish he would leave. All the other moon-watchers have left the hillside. We are alone with this weird guy. Anna Britt say she is feeling nauseated and tries to get up. She can’t move. She is very frightened, almost hysterical.

“What was in that ouzo?” she asks the young man.

He laughs maniacally and as suddenly as he had appeared, like a disappearing ghost, he is gone... poof! Vanished into thin air.

Anna Britt tries to move, but her limbs seem to be paralyzed, and she begins to retch violently. She is conscious. but now we are certain there was something potent in those few sips of ouzo she drank from the young man’s bottle.
I volunteer to run down the hill to find help. Halfway down, I meet two Greek men and explain what has happened. We race back up the hill. They try to help Vesa pick Anna Britt up. She is crying, and vomiting every time she moves, but somehow, even though she is a dead weight, the three men lug her half-way down the hill to the parking lot. One of the Greeks runs down to the street to find a telephone, and calls an ambulance. We are so thankful for their help. Without them, we would not have got ten Anna Britt down the hill.

The ambulance arrives, but the drivers appear to be helpless. It is Vesa, and the other Greek men who tell them what to do. “Put a cover over her. She’s in shock!” (By now Anna Britt was shivering even though the night was very warm.) We asked if they had equipment with them to pump her stomach. They did nothing but cram her and us into the back of the small ambulance and drive off to an unknown destination.

We arrive at a hospital, but we have no idea which hospital or where in Athens we are. Nobody speaks English and even with our elementary Greek we get no straight answers. We are deposited in the emergency room. There are several nurses lurking in the office drinking coffee and smoking. Nobody rushes to help us. Eventually a doctor comes. By now we are frantic, because Anna Britt is clearly in serious distress. We explain to the doctor what has happened. Can she pump Anna Britt’s stomach, please? Obviously she ingested something toxic and it needs to be flushed out of her system. The doctor’s response was simply: “We have strong drinks in Greece.” (Referring to the fact that Anna Britt had drunk some ouzo.) We try to explain that Anna Britt only had at most five sips of the ouzo. That she was not drunk. That we were not ‘stupid tourists‘, we were scholars, living in Athens while we researched and studied.

This did not impress the doctor. Anna Britt continued gagging and vomiting. Her limbs were still paralyzed. There was nothing she could do, the doctor said. We would have to wait until she ‘slept it off’.

I decided to phone the tourist police. I still had no idea of what hospital we were in. A man in the waiting room talked to the police officer and explained. The police officer said that we must make a report the next day. Several hours had passed by now. Anna Britt was not improving and the doctor and nurses were doing nothing to help her. We are more than frantic. What if she dies? What shall we do next? I decide to phone Mike.

Four o-clock in the morning, Mike drives across town to the hospital. We tell him what happened on Philippapou Hill. He speaks sternly to the doctor and tells her she must do something, that this wasn’t simply a matter of ‘too much ouzo.’ Mike has lived in Greece for many years, and is fluent in the language, and whatever he said had some impact. With that, they put Anna Britt on an IV. But it isn’t for several more hours that she recovers enough so she can move without vomiting and get off the gurney by herself. She is weak and shaken, but she is alive.

The next day, Anna Britt and I set off to make the police report. First we visit the tourist police office, as I had been instructed. They sent us to another precinct downtown. When we began to describe the weird young man dressed in Biblical clothes, the police officers simply laughed at us and dismissed us.

“Too much ouzo. We have strong drinks in Greece,” was their only response.

Frustrated, we stop by the tourist information booth at Syntagma Square and report our dilemma. The woman says Anna Britt should inform her Embassy. We go to the police station in our district. The officer in charge is cordial and invites us to sit and chat. We explain who we are and why we are living in Athens. “How interesting! Would you like to talk about archaeology?” he asks. He is not interested in taking a police report of last night’s incident. He suggests we talk to the officer in charge of patrolling Philippapou Hill.

By now it is nearly six p.m. and we have been roaming around Athens since early morning trying to make a police report. We go to the place where we are told the Philippapou patrol will be waiting. But when we start to describe the weird young man with the unusual Biblical costume, and explain that he lives somewhere on the hill, is obviously making a living out of doping tourists so he can steal their money, the officer snickers, waves his hand, and dismisses us. He is not the slightest bit interested in what has happened or who this dangerous young man might be. He lights up another cigarette and lounges over to the kiosk to buy a coke.

Completely frustrated, we give up our quest to make a police report. We return to the taverna where our friends are waiting. Word has gotten around about our terrifying experience. The general attitude of the Greeks is a shrug. “Serves you right!” is the basic message.

Anna Britt contacts her Embassy. There is nothing they can do unless a police report is made and charges laid. The entire episode is dismissed. The weird guy in the Biblical costume with his drug-laced ouzo is still at large somewhere on Philippapou Hill.

Anna Britt and Me Under Another Full Moon
(Philippapou is behind us)

We all agreed on one thing: When we were children, our mothers warned us: “Don’t take candies from strangers.” It might be an old-fashioned adage, but it’s still true. And it’s something that, even though we are now adults, we still need to keep in mind.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Date rape drugs, and other ‘knock-out’ substances have been in use for several years, often in bars around Athens, as well as in cities other parts of the world. Victims are not only young women, but men too. Travelers, be aware when accepting drinks from strangers, no matter where you are, that this could lead you into a dangerous and compromising situation.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Last weekend I went on my first long sea-wall walk in Stanley Park.  It doesn’t matter what kind of weather, you’ll always find walkers, joggers, cyclists and in-line skaters on seawall. It was the first spring-like weekend of the year and a good day for a brisk tour around one of Vancouver's most popular walks.

I started my walk from the Park entrance, walking along by the Yacht Club, going east toward Brockton Point.
The Stanley Park seawall is 8.8 kms  (5.5 mi) so I don't usually attempt the whole circuit. People have been enjoying this seaside path since 1917 but it wasn’t until the mid ‘70’s when the walk was properly surfaced making it an easier route for walkers, joggers and cyclists. The seawall loop around Stanley Park is one of Vancouver’s most popular locations to enjoy the outdoors. The path is divided making it easier and safer for pedestrians and those on wheels. Remember to check the park map for signs indication direction as cyclists can only go in a counter-clockwise direction.

There are interesting sights along the way and benches lining the path if you need to pause for a rest. You might also consider a horse-drawn carriage ride around the Park which is loads of fun.  You can also rent bikes.

Be sure and stop to see the totem poles at the Brockton Point Oval. And past that is the famous 9-o'clock gun that booms out over Coal Harbour to mark the time every night.  There's also the historic Dead Man's Island, now the naval reserve, but once a First Nations burial ground.  Next you'll come to the Brockton Point Lighthouse.  In the early settlement days, there was a small village near here where ship-jumpers lived with their native wives. 

This part of the walk will take you all the way around to Lumberman’s Arch.  This was once the site of a First Nations village. There's a children's water-park here and even though there wasn't water to frolic in, there were plenty of kids enjoying fun on the adventure equipment there.

 From here you can cut back through the park to the entrance. There are refreshment stands at Brockton Point, Lumberman’s Arch, and by the Aquarium if you want to take a coffee or snack break. You'll also find washroom facilities there.

I stopped on the beach here for my first picnic of the season and rested awhile enjoying the view of the snow-capped mountains of North Vancouver and the busy waterway of Burrard Inlet and the inner harbour.

From here I walked back through the park on a quest to find cherry blossoms, but because of the late season there weren't any in bloom around the Japanese memorial for WWI.  I stopped at the Aquarium to view the Belugas in their outdoor pool.  Then I walked along the trails to the Pavilion and bus depot.

On my next Sunday sea-wall walk I'll take a different route.  There's lots to see in the Park and it makes for a relaxing, refreshing afternoon to enjoy the day on the sea-wall.
Bike and Rollerblade rentals are located near Denman and Georgia St.

Stanley Park Cycle: 768 Denman St. 604-688-0087

Stanley Park Rentals: 1798 W. Georgia St. 604-688-5141

For a map of the seawall:

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Thursday, March 17, 2011


The James Joyce Irish Pub,  Monastiraki

I was strolling around Monastiraki Flea Market one afternoon last August when what should my wandering eyes see but a Paddy green awning with "The James Joyce Irish Pub" written on it.  Imagine that!  An Irish pub in the midst of Athen's most famous Greek bazaars. I had passed by there the day before while exploring Thission but this time I decided to check it out. Friends had told me about it and guaranteed it was worth a visit.  It's located on a side street just between Thission and Monastiraki Metro Stations. You can spot it right behind the fences that block off a new archaeological dig on the street running by the rail tracks. 

It was afternoon, so still early for the rowdy crowd that I'm told jam the place in the evening, but I was hungry and thirsty after my long walk around in the mid-day heat, so I went inside.

It was like stepping back into Ireland,  dimly lit, dark wood, tables with stools and a long bar - and air-conditioned!  I checked out the menu. and it had a mouth-watering list of dishes to choose from including such dishes as Sausages and Mash and Dublin pasties. Of course there is Guiness on tap!

Naturally, the first thing I ordered was a tall glass of Guiness.  After all, this was an Irish pub, so I passed on my usual favorite beer, Mythos.

I ordered steamed mussels. The mussels were stewed in white wine and lemon with bacon bits and were absolutely fabulous! Some dark bread accompanied them to sop up the 'soup'.

I spent a quiet, relaxing hour or two at the James Joyce. Next time I'm in Athens I'll go by in an evening when the places is hopping with good cheer and Irish music.  It's unique to find such a place in the middle of the traditionally Greek market area and it topped off my afternoon wanderings.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011



I'm not a skier or a snow boarder but I love them mountains, and snow and other winter sports.  So when I was invited to spend several days at the Sun Peaks Resort with my daughter, her partner, and my grandson along with other guests, I was so thrilled and excited!

First of all, my daughter, Alex, got me a plane ticket from Vancouver to Kamloops which saves hours of bus riding.  It was the first time I've ever flown that short distance (just under an hour) from Vancouver to the Interior of BC town of Kamloops.  So that in itself was a worth-while adventure.  Next, was my good fortune to have landed an 'assignment' from the Planet Eye editor to write a feature for about the Resort.  And, with the generous help of Sun Peaks Tourism their rep, Melanie, arranged my pickup by shuttle from the airport to the resort where I was dropped off right at the door of the chalet my family had rented for the week. 

The chalet was huge with various separate units which included kitchen facilities, fireplaces etc.  There was a large group already there when I arrived on the Saturday evening, including my grandson Mike who had flown in from California with his girlfriend Ali.  It was my daughter's partner Jim's birthday that weekend so the party had already begun setting a jolly, friendly mood.

Alex, Ali and Jim get ready for the slopes.

While the family members set off for their day of skiing or 'boarding, I went off on my own to explore the Village and later, thanks to the Sun Peaks Tourism, I took the bus to the road that led to the Mountain Man Adventures where it had been arranged for me to go dog-sled riding.  This in itself was one of my biggest adventure thrills and turned out to be one of my most memorable winter-time experiences. (See my next blog about Dog Sled Riding). 

Sun Peaks Resort is a real family affair.  You don't have to be a skier or snowboarder to enjoy yourself there.  There's fun for everyone from the tiny tots to the elders.  There are 122 runs for skiers and 'boarders of all skills as well as cross-country ski trails, snow-shoeing and snowmobile areas.  There's a skating rink and toboggan runs closer to the Village too.  They even have a day-care where you can leave the little ones while you go off to the mountain and the children are provided ski lessons.

The Resort is located a 45 minute scenic drive from Kamloops, nestled at the foot of three mountains.  The most distinguished resident is former Canadian Olympic ski champion and member of the Canadian Senate, Nancy Green Raine.  She's actively invovled in the community and you can enjoy a complimentary ski with her or sit in on a fireside chat at the Hearthstone lodge on Sunday evenings.  Her husband, Al Raine, is the mayor of Sun Peaks.

I wasn't at a loss for things to do, from exploring the Village boutiques,  dining at the various bars and restaurants,  taking a long quiet walk out to the skating rink (would have gone skating but it was closed til evening!).  I opted on a sleigh ride but it turned out I was the only passenger.  I snuggled up on the big sleigh pulled by a team of sturdy Clydesdale's named Zeus and Thor who took me on a jingle-bell ride around the resort and out into the surrounding countryside.

There's something about spending a few days enjoying the crisp mountain air as you watch the sparkling snow fall over the tranquil village, sitting round the fire laughing over the antics of the birthday-boy while w sipped tall glasses of iced paralyzers, that made for an extra special family weekend.

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The team is off and running!

I've always wanted to go dog-sledding.  Since the days when my family lived in Edmonton, northern Alberta, and the annual Muk-luk Mardis Gras took place, I became keenly interesting in the dog teams that were brought down from the north country to participate in the dog-sled races. We had a dog of our own at the time,  a part Samoyed/Lab named Chinook who loved pulling the kids around on a home-made sled.  My husband made a proper racing sled for Chinook, we bought a harness, and my son, Steven, (at the time age about 10) entered her in the races.  Chinook would have won, too, except that the kid on the sled behind her stepped on the back of my son's sled, thereby slowing it down so he could get ahead and win.

I'm a dog-lover anyway, and fascinated by these sturdy dogs that work pulling the sleds, racing in the annual northern races and are used as 'working dogs' by the Inuits and northern people.  So when I discovered they had dog-sled rides at the Sun Peaks Resort where I was planning to visit, I was quite excited at the prospects.  It was expensive though - a lot out of my budget - but I lucked out.  Thanks to the Sun Peaks Tourism and the editor of Planet Eye, the on-line travel magazine that I write for, I was able to get an assignment for my 4 day stay on the mountain.  And the Sun Peaks Tourism gal, Melanie, was generous enough to include the dog-sled ride.

Chris Schwanke and Taryn Rixon and one of their 50 sled dogs.

I was transported by mini-bus from the Sun Peaks Village to the road that leads to the Mountain Man Adventures kennels.  From a distance I heard the howling and yelping of the dogs,  that grew louder as I trudged down the snowy road.  When I reached the kennels, I was greeted by Taryn, one of the new owners of the pack of sled dogs.  She took around to introduce me to her team members.  Each dog has it's own kennel with plenty of running room.

"Far enough that they can't fight or breed with each other," she explained.

Taryn and her partner Chris have experience with dogs and it's clear to see how much they love their teams.  Both of them are from Saskatchewan so they're used to these snowy conditions on the mountain.  Chris started out dog sledding in Canmore Alberta and has 10 years experience.  Taryn quit her city job to join him at Sun Peaks running the Mountain Man Adventures.  As she introduces me to the dogs, she tells me a little about them and a personal anecdote about the dog.  All the dogs are cross-breeds: Malamutes, Alaskan Huskies, Greyhounds and other breeds. They live on-site along with the dogs.  Some of the elder dogs who are retired from active work often sleep indoors with the owners.


Taryn chooses the six dogs who will pull the sled.  The others yap and howl in anticipation as if to say "Pick me! Pick me!"  She chooses Loki, a grizzled veteran and experienced dog-sled racer.  He is paired with handsome blue-eyed Rodeo, who Taryn tells me is one of the pack's most promising mutts.  A tawny pair, Comet and LJ take the middle positions, and in the "wheel" position at the back are two of the strongest dogs, ginger-colored Jackson and Lima who looks like he might have some German shepherd genes.

"We put the largest dogs in the rear, because they pull most of the weight when the sled goes uphill," Taryn explains.

I'm given the privilege of helping her harness the dogs, a fairly simple task as they are co-operative and lift their legs automatically to slip them through the harness loops.  Once the team is ready, I settle myself comfortably on the cushions in the sled with a warm blanket to cuddle under.

"Okay, boys! Let's go!" Taryn shouts.  And we're off, the dogs running at full speed, yapping happily with excitement.

We hurtle down the narrow road past some cross-country skiers, then turn into the woods on a narrow pathway hedged with high snow drifts.  Mid-way the team stops to rest and have a biscuit treat.  I get off the sled to investigate some interesting tracks Taryn has pointed out left by a snow-shoe hare,  something I've never seen before.  She asks if I'd like to be the 'musher' for awhile, but I decline and settle back down on the comfy cushions.  I wish now that I'd not been such a sissy and taken that opportunity.

"Let's go!" Taryn shouts.  And the team is off again, racing down the curves and up over the small hilly mounts of packed snow.

Back at the kennels I help Taryn feed the dogs their treat:  big hunks of fatty meat donated by a local butcher.  Later they'll be given a special meal, their reward for all that hard work!

It was an exhilarating adventure and one I'll not soon forget.  One thing that impressed me so much was the care and affection that Chris and Taryn give to their dogs.  An unfortunate incident at the Whistler Outdoor Adventure Tours recently has made world-wide news,  sullying the name of dog sledding,  because that operation was neglectful and cruel in their methods of culling their animals.  But not all dog sled operations are like that, and Mountain Main Adventures is one example of how knowledgeable owners provide caring attention to their dogs.  

I'd recommend everyone put dog-sled riding on their 'bucket list'.  It was truly one of the highlights of my winter vacation and one I'd love to repeat some time! 

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