Conquering Taft Point – Well Sort Of…….

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Taft Point – The View

After an hour and a half of pushing, pulling, straining and heaving I felt as though I had done an extensive work out at the gym. My arms and shoulders ached from the exertion and I greedily drew in deep lung fulls of the thin mountain air. According to the sign to my right we had come half way along the trail in twice as long as the guidebook suggested. After a few mouthfuls of water I pushed on.

What now seems in hindsight a slightly foolish idea, I had taken it upon myself to push my 10 year old son in his wheelchair along a trail situated at the side of Glacier Point Road to Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, California. My boy has Cerebral Palsy which affects the movement in his arms and legs and consequently his only form of mobility is his wheelchair.

The guide book I had read back at the hotel that morning over breakfast suggested that it was an “easy” hike. Easy on two feet maybe but taking myself and the four wheels of a wheelchair was an entirely different story. I soon discovered that the trail was more challenging than I had thought.

This is where most guidebooks fall down in my opinion. They seem to be written from the perspective of the single traveller or a small group. There is little account taken for those whose mobility maybe limited or the brave family dragging their gaggle of children through the backwoods of America.

Admittedly we weren’t in the back woods – there are too many cafes, souvenir shops and visitors centres to give you the feeling you really were in the middle of nowhere.  But it strikes me that this kind of information would more than useful – if only so that you know it is possible to traverse a trail with a pushchair for example. It certainly would have been useful for us in any case.

My wife and two other children aged 11 and 3 pushed on acting as reconnaissance to any new and interesting barriers that we may come across. They would shout back about what to watch for and then stand there at what seemed some impassable point on the path.

“You’ll never get through this part” they would say.

“Just watch me” I would retort.

“Are you sure, Dad” my son would ask quietly. “No,” I would admit next to his ear so the other’s couldn’t hear. “But let’s give it a try, shall we?” He would smile, the cue that he was happy to let his crazy father bounce him over and through the next obstacle.

There was a good deal of flat ground that meandered through stunning trees and calm wild flower filled meadows, however, the large rocks and boulders that occasionally filled the path forced us to take stock and work out a route over and  around these obstacles and this slowed us considerably. Once the chosen route was decided we bumped and wobbled our way through, on occasion scraping away at the metal of the wheels of the wheelchair.

One particularly awkward challenge was stream with it’s steep embankments to traverse. The wheelchair tipped this way and that at precarious angles. The cool waters of the stream eased my and weary feet as we paddled through. My son to his eternal credit gave only words of encouragement as he tenaciously gripped the arms of his wheelchair.

Occasionally, fellow hikers would stroll past do a “double take” and offer help out what most have looked like a slightly deranged father and family needlessly putting themselves through hell. Especially as some of them will have been aware that Glacier Point, with it flat easily accessible tarmacked paths, café selling food and cool drinks and safely walled look out points, was only two or three miles up the road. I guess it pays to read the guidebook a little more carefully in future and plan these things with a little more thoroughness.

We were reliably informed that the effort was going to be worth it and were complimented more than once for our tenacity. I have always had the philosophy that I will not let the wheels of my son’s wheelchair stand in our way on vacation. I have always found that the extra effort always pays off.

After the arduous and strangely fulfilling upper and lower body work out of the trail we eventually arrived at the top of a hill, the midday sun beating down on us. We looked down to where the path opened out to a huge flat area and then elevated towards the “point” where a lone piece of railing was the only structure that stood between you and a 3,000 feet drop.

With a tinge of disappointment, I looked at the steepness of the path and the way it twisted and turned horribly and realised that I had come as far as I could do. I was confident of getting him and his wheels down to “the Point”, however, in the thin air at the 7,800 feet elevation and the heat of the sun I was less than confident of getting in back to where we now stood, never mind the car.

At that point, a quick decision was made and I reversed him under the shade of a tree for shelter and, after enjoying a hard earned bottle of water, I descended the trail, camera in hand to go and see what all the fuss was about. My wife agreed that we would take it in turns to go and investigate the famed vista and waited with the children whilst I disappeared.

The view from the point is nothing short of spectacular. It reminded me of the feeling I had the first time that I went to the Grand Canyon and looked out at that enormous chasm in the earth. Nothing prepared me (or could have done for that matter) for the sheer scale and majesty of that sight. The sheer size and vastness of the canyon as the red and orange stone drops away from you is awe inspiring.

But in some ways it is also a little surreal because it feels almost unreal when considering the statistics of the canyon. The Colorado River looks like a small stream but it is a mile down in the canyon and has an average width or around 300 feet.  The length of the canyon is around 280 miles which is 80 miles further than where I live in the North of England to London. That’s a 4 hour drive or 2 hour train journey away. It is around 18 miles wide rim to rim – Yosemite Valley itself by comparison seems small at only 8 miles long. To me these distances are difficult to assimilate whilst you stand and take in the majesty of this natural wonder.

On the other hand Yosemite Valley and Taft Point is not on such a huge scale. The reality of the fact that you are standing, precariously in some ways on a 3,000 ft high block of granite seem to hit home that much harder. I have to confess that I have never been afraid of heights and yet when I peered over the edge and saw that there was nothing between me and a long, long fall during which time I would have plenty of opportunity to empty my lungs of scream after scream before my body splattered into the rock. With the Grand Canyon I felt there was a crumb of comfort in that if you fell there would a ledge or two that would break your fall and possibly save you from certain death. With Taft Point you know that there would be no second chances.

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Stunning Yosemite

And so it was that I found myself gripping onto the rail near the edge slightly harder than I would normally and marvelling at the incredible scale of the valley and breath-taking vista. The number of superlatives to describe this place quickly ran dry. I turned to see in the distance my family, tiny dots on the mountain side where they awaited my return. I stuck a hand up to wave and watched them wave back. It was sad that I hadn’t been able to take my son all the way down to the edge, especially after coming so far. I was also aware though that if my boy had been able to make it, so would my 3 year old and I know that I would have had to have maintained a vice like grip on her as she would surely have been too tempted to peer over the edge.

Looking over the valley, I imagined John Muir, back pack filled with bread, tea and a blanket as his only provisions, standing at this point and resolving to protect this area for all time. He spent a great deal of his life investigating the valley and it’s surroundings recording and publishing his findings in the hope that he could inspire people to see this natural wonder and nature itself in a new light and not just as an opportunity for profit and gain. He battled to have the park protected as he watched the lumber companies and farmers slowly erode the lowlands surrounding the valley destroying the meadows with their abundance of wild flowers.

He managed to convince no less than an American President – Theodore Roosevelt – to segregate the valley and surrounding area and make it one of America’s first national parks thereby inspiring a change in attitude and philosophy that generated the National Park system that is in existence today.

At this height you look down on the granite monolith that is El Capitan. Down to the valley to the Merced river below. The railing at the end just doesn’t seem substantial enough and one could imagine a gust of wind could lift you from the lofty perch and deposit you over the edge in an instant.

I quickly absorbed and photographed as much as I could and then followed the path back to where the family had been patiently waiting. Whilst my wife and elder daughter made their way down toward the Point to experience the natural wonder for themselves, I gave my son a full debrief in as much detail as possible and showed him the photographs. Today this was the best that I could do.

Tomorrow, would bring new challenges. Everest anyone?

Isle of Skye

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The Road to the Cuillins

I recently returned from a two week break on Skye with the family and have been asked on more than one occasion: “two weeks on Skye? What did you find to do in all that time?”.

It was this implied preconception and misconception that a small Island of the North West coast of Scotland couldn’t provide enough to occupy a family of five for two weeks that prompted me to write this Blog post.

The first thing to say is really stating the obvious I suppose. If you enjoy wide open soft sandy beaches, siting by a pool, consistent 12 hours of sunshine etc then this is not the place for you and I suspect Skye would not even appear on your radar as a potential destination.

If, like me, you enjoy stunning scenery, lochs, mountains, climbing, walking, wildlife, sea life, great food and drink, rock pools, relaxing by a log fire, weather that can have you in a t-shirt in the morning and wrapped up in a rain coat and woolly hat by lunchtime and to top it all wonderfully warm and welcoming people then Skye is certainly for you.

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The Cottage at Dunpark

This year was our second visit. We fell in love with the cottage we stayed in last Easter – Dunpark –  and were lucky enough to be able to book it again for this year. The cottage is comfortable with all the amenities you could want apart from a dishwasher  – we brought one with us in the shape of our 13 year old daughter.

One of the main appeals of the cottage is it’s location. It is situated on the Sleat peninsula around a 10 minute drive from Armadale ferry port and overlooks the Sound with the mountains of mainland Scotland (including Knoydart) across the water providing a constant picturesque backdrop. There is a great garden for the children to play in and access to the rocky coastline that borders the land.

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Sunrise at Dunpark

Ishbel and Angus MacDonald own and manage the cottage and a friendly and helpful. All in all you have a great almost get a way from it all holiday home at an extremely reasonable price. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

From the cottage exploring the stunning Sleat peninsular is straightforward with a main road that runs the length of the peninsular. There is everything here from great restaurants, wildlife in the shape of otters and seals to spot, deer are quite common and there are great beaches where rockpools abound.

You could probably spend a week or so discovering all the nooks and crannies of Sleat but there are other amazing things to do and see within an hour or so in the car.

On top of the incredible scenery to discover there is also the art trails to explore. Skye is home to some supremely talented artists and photographers. We have visited many of them and they have all been very welcoming and open about their work and influences.

Be sure to visit photographers Russell Sherwood, Tim Wilcock and Alan Campbell for some inspiration. Artists such as John Bathgate and Diane Mackie have some beautiful work to see and purchase in their galleries.

Here are just a few of my other recommendations:

Ellishadder Art Cafe

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We all fell in love with this little cafe in the North East of the Island. It is owned and run by the amazingly friendly and talented Stuart and Maggie Quigley. Stuart is a very talented artist and Maggie cooks delicious vegetarian food – if you are a died in the wool meat eater don’t let this put you off. One visit to the cafe almost turned me vegetarian the food is that good. Save room for some fantastic desserts too! Maggie is also a weaver and both Stuart and Maggie’s work is for sale at the cafe.

Dunvegan Bakery

The oldest bakery on the Island. It is also a cafe too serving simple but delicious meals. Their scones are to die for and the best that we have ever tasted – we always ensure that we leave with a couple of bags full. The owners are also really friendly and make you feel welcome.

The Quiraing

Quiraing

The Quiraing is a geological phenomenon with towering spires of rock thrusting from the earth in a myriad of different shapes and sizes. It really has to be seen to be believed. The views from all areas is sublime and worth the effort to get here.

Dunvegan Castle

Set in beautiful gardens this is similar to Eilean Donan Castle (see below) and again well kept with excellent facilities. The history of the castle is fascinating and there is plenty to keep the children occupied.

Faerie Glen

Close to Uig this is not the most straightforward place to find. Ask a local and they will give you directions. It is all worth the effort though when you get there. The landscape is otherworldly and you have the feeling that you have stepped onto another planet. Unusual rock formations abound with plenty to explore. It is easy to imagine a settlement of fairies living there.

Eilean Donan Castle

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Okay, this is not on the Island but a short 20 minute drive from the Kyle of Lochalsh. Of all the castles we have visited this one is easily the best. Why? For a start it has been beautifully restored with an eye for detail unusual, in my experience. The guides are extremely knowledgable and helpful and went out of their way to ensure our visit was interesting and interactive. The views from the castle are also spectacular. It is no wonder that the location has been used in so many blockbusters – Highlander being the obvious one.

Neist Point Lighthouse

Not for the faint hearted or the unfit. The steps down to the lighthouse seem easy but coming back is a real challenge. It is more than worth it though with some stunning views of the coastline and of course the lighthouse itself. A short walk from the small carpark affords a magnificent view of Neist Point too.

There are many, many other places I can recommend  including the MacDonald visitor centre near Armadale, Kilt Rock, Coral Beach near Dunvegan and Elgol to name but a few but visiting but one of the pleasures of Skye is getting out and exploring the many nooks and crannies of an Island steeped in history.

Whenever we have been to Skye we never want to go home and try and think of ways of us setting up home there at some point. It is the kind of place that captures your heart and inspires yours soul. We could not imagine not making an annual pilgrimage to Skye to visit old favourites and discover new.

Links

http://www.skye.co.uk

http://www.dunpark-skye.co.uk

http://www.ellishadderartcafe.co.uk

http://www.eileandonancastle.com

http://www.dunveganbakery.com

http://www.glendaleskye.com/neistpoint.php

http://skyescapegallery.zenfolio.com

http://www.timwilcock.com

http://www.art-skye.co.uk

Jungfraujoch, A Journey to the Top of the World

Train on the way back from the “Top of the World”

Other then cuckoo clocks, Toblerone and world class efficiency I had no solid preconceptions about what to expect of Switzerland. Looking for somewhere to go for a short break in October last year I researched the area on the internet, however, nothing could have prepared me for the breathtaking beauty of the Jungfrau region and the sights and experiences it has to offer.

We arrived in Geneva via a short Easyjet flight from Liverpool. Once we had picked up our bags from the carousel we made our way to the train station and purchased our rail tickets to Interlaken. Children under 6 travel free on the Swiss Rail network although this doesn’t make the £100 one way adult fare any more palatable.

After the two hour journey to Bern we changed trains for the 45 minute hop to Interlaken we found ourselves standing at Interlaken West rail station bags in hand and ready for the hotel and food.

As an aside whilst the train tickets may have been expensive they arrived and left each station on time and were very clean.

The train station in Interlaken

Surprisingly, it was warmer in Interlaken than it was back home and we suddenly wondered whether the winter coats we came armed with would get much use. After a 5 minute walk down the main street we found ourselves at our chosen hotel and before long checked in and tucking into a family sized lasagne and salad at the hotel’s restaurant.

After a short stroll to walk some of the food off we were back to our simple and clean room at the hotel to get some rest in preparation for our early start the next morning to go and venture to the “Top of the Europe”: Jungfraujoch.

We awoke the next morning to ominous low cloud on the surrounding mountains – at least we assumed there was a mountain range behind the clouds as we had seen nothing having a arrived in the dark the previous night. Mountain weather is infamously changeable over a short period and we set hoping that the cloud would lift and we would be presented with a spectacular vista.

The hotel and restaurant in Interlaken

Having bought our tickets we tentatively boarded the first train that would take us to Grindelwald where we would have to change for the next leg of the three part journey to the “Top of Europe”. Still the clouds clung to the surrounding mountains frustratingly obscuring our view.

Before long we were on the next part of our journey and slowly but surely chinks of blue were staring to appear above us . As we climbed it became brighter and brighter until eventually we arrived at Kleine Scheidigge station through the cloud and looking up at the Eiger in all it’s breathtaking glory. By this time you could see back down the mountain and into the valley with a huge layer of cloud sitting above Interlaken.

Above us towered the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. The story goes that the Monk (Monch) is protecting the Young Girl (Jungfrau) from the Ogre (Eiger)

Breathtaking view from Kleine Scheidegg

So, it was back on the train. After a couple of stops along the track to take in the glacial vistas in all their glory we found ourselves at the top of the Jungfrau.

What struck me first was what I huge complex of buildings we were in. There is an ice palace carved into the glacier, a number of restaurants, several viewing platforms, etc.

It was hard at times to get a proper perspective on how high we were. When looking back down the mountain all you could see were, well, mountains as far as the eye could see. Then you made out a tiny reflective speck in the distance and realised that it was a town or village you were looking at which brought some perspective to the lofty perch you were standing on.

I can only liken it to the Grand Canyon where what surrounds you is such an immense scale that you struggle to take it all in.

We spent the next couple of days almost permanently on the trains and cable cars that criss cross the area assuming that the views couldn’t get any better. They invariably did.

The downsides? Just the one: price. It is, like the rest of Switzerland, extremely expensive but, as a once (or maybe twice) in a lifetime destination it is a bargain.

Duncan Chisholm – Redpoint Album

I was holidaying on the Isle of Skye over Easter and was totally captured by this incredible island.

Whilst browsing through the CD’s in a traditional music shop in Portree the owner started playing some beautiful, haunting fiddle music over the shop speakers.

After two or three tracks (and more than one complaint from my son that he was getting bored) I asked the owner which album it was that he was playing. It turns out that it was a solo album called Redpoint by Duncan Chisholm. Duncan is probably most famous for being a founder member of the band Wolfstone. His solo productions are much more laid back and atmospheric comparative to the band work.

Redpoint was released back in 1997 and features Duncan’s stunning emotive playing backed by Ivan Drever and Phil Cunningham amongst others.

I listened to the album in the car and in the cottage many times whilst away and it seems to me to be the perfect soundtrack to such a awe inspiring island.

Since getting home I have picked up a couple of Duncan’s other solo works and these are equally as good. If you enjoy altmospheric fiddle music that touches the soul then these albums are most definitely for you.

Sit back late at night with a glass of whisky and the light’s turned down and you will be transported back to the land of magical glens, mountains and lochs.

For more information please go to duncanchisolm.co.uk

Yosemite National Park – Paradise in California

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

We love holidaying in North America and over the past 10 years have seen as much as we possibly can with our three children in tow.  From  bustling cities such as New York and San Francisco to National Parks such as The Grand Canyon and Shenandoah we have tried to experience all that represents American cityscapes and landscapes.

There is one state though that we consistently gravitate back to: California. And there is one place in California that draws us back every single time and that is Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite was designated a World Heritage site back in 1984 and was one of the very first National Parks in the USA. It covers over 760,000 acres straddling the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The 3.7 millions visitors per year tend to keep to a 7 square miles of Yosemite Valley.

The park is a reasonable 4 hour drive from San Francisco and it is more than worth the effort to get there. Even on paper the valley is impressive:

  • It was one of the first National Parks in the USA
  • Yosemite falls is the highest waterfall in the US with a drop of 2,425ft
  • The park has three groves of ancient Giant Sequoia, the largest trees on the planet: Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove. Photographs of these trees cannot do them justice. They are truly awe inspiring in the “bark”.
  • El Capitan is the largest single monolith of granite in the world
  • The park is home to one of the biggest bears in the world: the Grizzly.  It is essential that you read and heed the notices and warnings about these animals and be “bear aware”
  • Ansel Adams, arguably one of the world’s best landscape photographers did some of his best work in the valley and it is not hard to see why he was consistently drawn back

In the heart of the valley sits Yosemite Village. This is a great place to stop and has a decent cafe and store. The store is particularly useful if you are lodging or camping in the park itself. It has a good selection of food and drink along with souvenirs, t-shirts and books. There are other interesting things to see and do in the Village including a visitor centre,an art centre and bookshops.

Map of the valley

Most people’s first view of the valley is at Tunnel View where you are presented with an incredible view that will have you instantly reaching for your camera. With El Capitan to your left, Yosemite falls to your right and half dome in the distance it is time to reflect for a minute on what has got to be the perfect picture postcard landscape. In the summer it can get very crowded but there is a decent sized car park. In all the times that we have been we have never failed to find a space.

From here the road winds down into the valley and before long you are in the one way system that loops through the valley and towards the village.

In addition to Yosemite Valley itself there are many distractions including the groves of Giant Sequoia, Glacier Point (with not to be missed views of Half Dome), Taft Point, Toulemne Meadows, the list goes on with dozens of trails to take you off the beaten track.

El Capitan in all it’s glory

Once on the road on the way into the valley itself there are are lay-bys and car parks next to trails, stunning meadows, glimpses of mountains and sheer granite rock faces. Essentially, everywhere that you turn takes your breath away.  It is a area of visual riches that we never, ever tire of.

We have been in Spring when there is still snow on the ground and parts of the park closed; Summer when the weather is beautifully hot and clear; and Autumn where the colours of the trees adds a special dimension.

If you are a photographer, hiker or climber you are in seventh heaven here with so much to photograph and climb that you are spoilt for choice. For photographers my advice would be to take plenty of memory cards with you – you will need them. Also if you venture into the the Ansel Adams Gallery (highly recommended) you may get an inferiority complex so please be warned!!

There is plenty of accommodation around and in the park from campgrounds to plush hotels. Be warned though that in peak season it gets booked up pretty quickly. Also accommodation outside the park is generally cheaper too although you will have a reasonable drive to get to the park.

We have always stayed in a small town called Oakhurst. It is south of the park and around a 45 minutes drive to the entrance. It has some great restaurants with Crab Cakes and Sweetwater Steakhouse being particular favorites – no prizes for guessing what they specialise in! Hotels and Motels are reasonably priced too. We have stayed in both the The Best Western Yosemite Gateway Inn and the Comfort Inn. They were both clean and comfortable although the Best Western doesn’t include a breakfast in the price.

So all in all it is a piece of paradise in California – a State that seems to have more that its fair share of stunning places to visit.

All photographs taken with a Canon 5D MkII and 24-105L lens.


Arriving at the Airport……..A Tale of Perpetual Disappointment……

For reasons that I have been unable to comprehend, I always get the feeling when I come out of an airport that there will be someone there to meet and greet me. I scan the eyes of the people waiting there to see if there is anyone I recognise but it is always to no avail. From the drivers who are meeting their guests with pieces of card or paper with names typed, written or literally scrawled, to the parents and grandparents eagerly surveying the faces themselves for long missed children and grand children.

The opening scenes of Love Actually (if you haven’t seen it – do) really struck a chord with me. All that expectation, relief, hope, hugs, kisses, screams of joy and laughter – it was a stark reminder of what I was missing.

I think that, subconsciously, I get caught up in the collective expectation on the other side of the arrival doors and the people leaving baggage claim with me. We invariably arrive at our destination tired, bedraggled, agitated, irritated and hungry.

We always travel as light as possible and have a small collection of suitcases dragged off the carousel. But we also have two car seats, camera bag, and assorted hand luggage and rucksacks. All those years of filtering out what we don’t need in the cases has mysteriously meant that we take twice as much onto the plane with us. Strange.

I then rummage around my pockets for my wallet so that I can access some dollars or my credit card so that I can get one of the luggage trolleys. How they can charge $4.00 to use one of these is beyond me. Once loaded up with it’s misshapen cargo, I inevitably wrestle with my cart that only want to travel diagonally and not straight lines.

And so our rag tag family of five trudge glumly towards the signs saying car rental. We should be holiday happy and expectant but we leave that to the others behind us and find the shuttle bus to the car rental companies offsite location where we unload all our stuff off the cart and onto the bus to go through the whole process again once we get to the car rental place. What joy!

But does this put us off travelling? Of course not – the means certainly justify the end.

And so, with all the love in arrivals, does anyone offer to help? Nope. Understandably they are caught up in their own little worlds of reconciliation……… Maybe one day it will be me!!

Zuckerberg Island, Castlegar, British Columbia

On our recent trip to Canada we visited Zuckerberg Island which is located on the outskirts of Castlegar.

This tiny island is located where the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers meet. A Russian Civil Engineer by the name Alexander Zuckerberg built the little chapel house on the island around 1931. He died in 1963 and is buried at the back of the house with his wife.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the suspension bridge was erected to allow access to the island on foot.

There is also a Hiroshima Memorial on the island where Japanese maples have been planted in remembrance of the 40th anniversary of the bombing.

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Not everyone enjoyed the suspension bridge!

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An old timer shows how it’s done

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A view from the bridge


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The Kootenay River from the bridge


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The Zuckerburg’s house. Note the Russian influence on the roof. Husband and wife are buried behind the house.

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A view from the front.

20110430-094231.jpgTo us it looked like a fairytale cottage…..

It is a beautiful place to visit and well worth making the short drive out of Castlegar if you are in the region.

All photographs taken with a Canon 5D MkII and Zeiss 21mm ZE lens. An awesome combination.