Using my zoom lens like a pair of binoculars, I fixate on a pale-bodied woodpecker with a distinct cherry tomato nape on the back of its head, and black and white checkered wings. It’s not a Hairy or a Downy– the ‘regulars’.
It’s a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a bird I’d first observed a few months earlier on a canoe-camping trip in Frontenac Park. I take a few photos, but the woodpecker is so high up in the tree that I know it will be difficult to see clearly.
I stand silently in the snow, watching the woodpecker hammer frozen bark in a calming drumbeat. I lose myself in the peacefulness of the moment, like being mesmerized by a flickering campfire.
For a few glorious minutes, I forget about the pandemic and the lockdown and Donald Trump and virtual schooling and the sad reality that, due to travel restrictions, I haven’t seen my boyfriend since 2019.
It’s similar to the feeling that I get at the end of a yoga class, when I’m lying on my back with my eyes closed.
Worrying about nothing.
Thinking about nothing.
Breathing in. Breathing out.
I take another photo just before the woodpecker flies away.
Such is the beauty of birding.
I somehow unexpectedly and unintentionally fell into birding, much like other people fell into baking or puzzling or home fitness during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After I was forced to cancel a March Break trip to Ecuador, I went to my parents’ cottage in Norway Bay, Quebec for what I had thought would be three weeks: a week of Spring Break followed by two additional weeks of school closures as we waited for the pandemic to clear.
Three weeks became six months.
My brother even mailed me some spring and summer clothes from Toronto via Canada Post: a few t-shirts, shorts, a couple of summer dresses to save me a drive.
To give myself a break from virtual teaching and long hours in front of a screen, I went for walks behind my cottage, and worked on my photography skills by taking pictures of wildlife. Birds were particularly challenging subjects to practice on because most of them don’t pose or wait for the photographer to be ‘ready’.
Photographing birds introduced me to diverse species that I had never noticed before, despite coming to the cottage since I was a kid. I became addicted to learning as much as I could about the birds in my backyard and brought my camera everywhere I went– on walks along the beach, kayaking, on bike rides, and on drives–so I would always be ready to capture a chance encounter with a rare species.
Throughout the pandemic, as more and more milestones were cancelled, like my high school’s graduation and several friends’ weddings, birding was a constant, reliable source of joy. It was something I was always allowed do, as everything else was shutdown.
Birding also taught me many lessons. Here are a few of them.
Adventure can happen in my own backyard
I have spent the last decade actively seeking adventures away from home—Hiking in Patagonia, teaching in Colombia and the High Arctic, cycling in Spain and Italy. The more I learned about diverse people, cultures and environments, the more I would learn about myself.
Learning about the birds in my backyard has sparked similar feelings of excitement and aliveness that I get through travel. It seems that encounters with the ‘unknown’ can happen wherever we are in the world and when we stay still enough to pay attention to our surroundings, we give ourselves a chance to know a place more deeply.
In Spring 2020, after the river thawed, my parents and I acted like wildlife safari guides and tracked a family of eagles that nested nearby. We learned which trees they preferred to perch on as they hunted and were able to predict where they would be depending on the time of day.
We watched three eaglets grow into juvenile eagles and saw them hunt for the first time. I felt like a cameraperson filming a nature documentary as I watched one juvenile eagle feed its sibling some sort of small mammal (from the photos we think it might be some sort of weasel?).
Although I had originally planned to spend the summer of 2020 teaching a course in Costa Rica and the rest of my time in Ecuador, being able to adventure in my own backyard helped me develop deeper knowledge for one of the places I call home.
There is beauty in the ordinary
Pre-pandemic, a few of my friends from Toronto came to the cottage for a weekend getaway. When they saw all of the blue jays that come to our feeder, they immediately got out their phones to take pictures and videos of them, commenting on how “pretty” and “colourful” they are. For me, blue jays are quite common so I rarely take pictures of them.
As the pandemic progressed many everyday things like going to work, meeting up with friends, going to the gym, making plans, were canceled. The ordinary, common birds like blue jays, chickadees, blackbirds, and nuthatches, started to bring me just as much, if not more joy, than the rare species I was discovering.
From hearing the sweet whistle of the chickadees to watching nuthatches battle each other for space at the feeder to noticing the innocent way that song sparrows hop over a log pile, I found comfort in paying attention to the familiar while the world was transforming in unimaginable ways.
I also found myself appreciating the ordinary, everyday moments in my daily routine that stayed constant through this time of turbulence and change.
I quickly learned how much I had taken the ordinary, everyday routines in my life for granted.
Little things like my morning coffee, chats with friends, students showing up for virtual classes, and watching the sunset with my parents: these little doses of normalcy provided a sense of comfort and routine when so much of life was out of my control. Not surprisingly, I started to take more pictures of blue jays!
Borders are both real and artificial
My cousin Laura texted me a video of Canada Geese on the Ottawa River a couple of days after the Quebec government closed the borders between Ontario and Quebec.
We had been talking a lot about the consequences of borders in the previous weeks. How long would her American fiancé be able to stay in Canada? If he went back to the US, would he be able to come back? Should my boyfriend and I continue an already complicated relationship now that international borders were closed indefinitely? When would we be able to return to Ontario? Would our friends and family be able to travel to their cottages in Quebec at all this summer?
For the next couple of weeks, we watched as what must have been thousands of geese flew overhead. It was like this section of the Ottawa River in front of Laura’s cottage had transformed into a migratory check point.
Migratory birds represented a freedom we no longer had, something we had clearly took for granted with our Canadian passports and cosmopolitan international lives. While we were stuck within our provincial and national borders, the birds were free to continue their journeys.
Throughout the spring migration, we connected with friends, coworkers, and loved ones in different postal codes via Whatsapp, Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, and other platforms for meeting in cyberspace. We showed that we could transcend border closures. Even though this feeling of connection was artificial, it allowed us to maintain relationships across borders.
Now more than a year has passed and the birds are traveling north in the spring migration once again. I continue to take pictures, excited by the return of the blackbirds and the herons, and warblers, and other migratory birds, inspired by the freedom of their movement and fueled with hope that, we too, will be able to cross borders this season.
Being Present Brings Joy
Prior to the pandemic, I began the training process of completing the 200-hr Yoga Instructor certification. It felt timely that I had been learning about the health benefits of being still and living in the present moment at a time when we couldn’t do much else.
I was surprised to learn that birding required me to practice mindfulness in a similar way that yoga does. Often with birding, we hear birds before we can see them. So in order to identify birds, I need to be still, breathe, listen and wait for them to appear.
Once I learned the whistle of a Cedar Waxwing, I started seeing them quite regularly around my cottage. I had never seen them before and suddenly they were everywhere—in cedar trees in the islands I passed when I went out kayaking, or trees I biked by while cycling in Gatineau Park. Learning to be more present allowed me to see birds that I had been passing by year after year without really noticing them.
I have a habit of taking on too many responsibilities to the point where I often feel like I’m sprinting towards a dead end. Birding has helped me to learn that when we are quiet and still, what we are seeking can show up when we least expect it.
When I’m observing or photographing a bird, whether a common sparrow or a rare owl, all that matters in that moment is watching the bird exist as it is. When I look at a bird, I am captivated by beauty. I am not doing anything else or thinking about anything else. I’m just present with something beautiful in nature.
So why do I like birding so much? It brings me joy. It forces me to slow down, be still, and pay attention to the everyday moments of beauty.
Birds connect us.
The last year of lockdowns and social isolation have been very difficult. Birding has helped me manage these feelings of loneliness and disconnection. When I’m looking for birds, I don’t feel “lonely” even if I am alone. Instead, the solitude in nature brings me a sense of peacefulness and calm. I feel connected to the environment around me- the trees, the elements, and of course, the birds. Hearing birds chirp, call and sing, also reminds me that nature continues to thrive around me, which inspires me to feel more resilient.
In addition to helping me connect with nature, birding has helped me connect with other people. Sharing the pictures of my sightings with my parents and other family members has brought me just as much joy as the act of birding itself. Since I started photographing birds and learning about new species, my small COVID “bubble” has developed a collective curiosity about backyard birds. We text each other updates on new birds at the feeder and share in the excitement when someone spots a rare species. Birding has given us something positive to chat about other than the pandemic or virtual teaching, like the bully White-breasted Nuthatches at the feeder, or updates on the latest sightings of the Red-bellied Woodpecker!
After I posted some photos on Instagram, a friend suggested that I register with eBird, a citizen-science conservation program managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to share my sightings with other birders and learn more about birds. eBird has introduced me to a wealth of local knowledge and has connected me with other birders in my community. eBird has even helped me to make new friends!
The pandemic has caused us to make changes to the lives we thought we would be living right now. Even for those of us who have been fortunate to stay healthy and keep our jobs, we have all experienced some level of grief or loss for the life we used to live, and for the future we thought we would have.
Many of us have referred to this pandemic life as being “on hold”. However, from watching the birds continue to migrate, mate, visit the feeders, and sing their songs, I realized that life goes on in spite of all of the global hardship.
While it takes a lot of work and resilience to accept the many tragic losses of the past year, life is not “on hold”. It continues, and it is up to us to make the most of what we are living right now.
I have been fortunate and privileged throughout the pandemic to keep my job and my health. I haven’t experienced the tragic losses that so many have had to endure. Still, it takes a daily practice to remind myself that I am lucky when I feel sad.
One thing that has helped me foster a sense of greater gratitude was actively putting myself in the path of joy by identifying little moments in the day that make me smile—watching the chickadees come to the bird feeder or seeing a couple of geese swimming with their goslings. Many of my moments of joy in the past year involved birds.
Maybe birding will become another one of my short lived passions like learning guitar, knitting, podcasting, and questionably blogging.
Regardless of birding’s future in my life, I am so grateful for all of the birds, for adding joy to my days and for teaching me to live life more fully during a difficult time in history.
Thank you to all of the people who shared in my love of birds and who encouraged my enthusiasm.
Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile, is one of the world’s most beautiful places.
The landscape is stunning: jagged mountains, seemingly endless glaciers surrounded by crystal blue lakes, snowy mountain passes with Andean condors flying overhead, and green mossy forests straight out of a scene from The Lord of the Rings.
During our time in the park, my friends and I continually redefined our vision of paradise. Comments like, “Wow, this is my dream place” were quickly replaced with “Oh, wait, THIS is my dream place,” followed by, “No no, THIS is my dream place.”
Torres del Paine is so breathtaking that it pushed the boundaries of what we imagined to be possible, not only in nature but also in our own lives.
It inspired us to dream bigger, feel stronger, and become more at peace with the choices that we have made that led us to such a special place at this point in our lives.
The “O” Circuit, the longer, more difficult of the two popular treks in Torres del Paine, was both physically and mentally challenging.
Our packs never seemed to feel lighter, despite dropping food weight as we progressed. At the end of each day, my legs were exhausted, my blisters were juicier, and I often felt like I would not have been able to take one more step. However, I enjoyed the physical challenge because it helped clear my mind,, and was a welcome opportunity for personal growth reflection.
Focussing on my physical pain helped me to let go of silly stresses:
Did I do the right thing turning down a teaching job at a school I liked?
Should I be investing energy into a relationship that is in many ways unrealistic?
Am I being too selfish and entitled to make time and space for writing in my life, when it probably will never translate into a full-time career?
Am I being irresponsible by taking time off to travel when so many BIG LIFE questions are up in the air and I have deadlines for my PhD that I’m falling behind on… and I don’t even have a permanent job?
Being on the trail helped me focus on the present, and reminded me to just let life unfold as it’s meant to, without worrying too much about what the future will look like.
The choices I have made thus far brought me to Patagonia, so I must be doing something right, even though it sometimes feels like I’m far behind from where many of my friends, who have stable careers, marriages, and families, are.
Planning Tips for Hiking the “O”
Hiking Patagonia’s “O” Circuit requires an extensive amount of planning, research, and advance decision-making…which is hard to do when you’ve never traveled to a place before. (Most of this was done for me by my friends Jill and Katelyn–thanks ladies!)
Hopefully, the following will help future trekkers with the trip prep needed to have an amazing experience in the mountains.
Make Reservations BEFORE You Go & Book Early
One of the most important things that you will need to do before you even think about heading to Torres del Paine is to make reservations.
I can’t emphasize this enough. MAKE RESERVATIONS.
It is essential to have reservations at each campsite before you start your trek. Fortunately, the friends I traveled with are currently living and working in Colombia, so were in contact with colleagues who had already done the hike and knew that they had to make reservations well in advance.
Being more of a spontaneous traveler, I could easily have seen myself arriving in Chile without having made any reservations in the park at all.
Unfortunately, camp sites book up very quickly. We saw several hikers being turned back by park rangers at various points on the trail because they didn’t have reservations for upcoming campsites.
My friends made reservations in October for our trip in January and some campsites were already booked. This required them to modify our itinerary based on availability of campsites.
When making reservations, you also need to decide whether you are going to sleep in tents that you bring yourself, tents that are already set up on platforms at the sites, or in refugios.
It is not mandatory to hike with a guide in Torres del Paine, but it is a great option for travellers with less backcountry experience, for those interested in learning more about the landscape, and for additional safety.
My friends and I opted to carry our own gear, including our tent, camping equipment, food, clothing stove, etc in backpacks and organize the trip ourselves without a guide. This is definitely the cheapest option and since trails are so well-marked for the most part, it was fairly safe.
We camped in a 3-person tent which we had rented in Puerto Natales for 5 of the nights and stayed in hostel-style rooms with bunk-beds in ski-lodge-esque refugios for two nights.
Our packs were quite heavy (especially mine–I definitely need to invest in a lighter sleeping bag!) and it rained a lot, so it was a nice splurge to sleep in beds a couple of nights. This was quite a bit more expensive, though, so staying in refugios every night wasn’t really in our budget.
If we were to do the hike again, we would consider reserving tents at campsites to avoid having to carry our tent throughout the trek as this was not much more expensive and would help to reduce the weight in our packs.
Before you book your accommodation at campsites, you need to decide on your route.
There are two main treks in Torres del Paine National Park. The “W” is shorter (76km) and much more popular. The trail follows a “W” letter shape taking tourists to spectacular miradors (look-out points) to see views of the French Valley, Grey Glacier, and the infamous towers, Las Torres, after which the park is named. It takes between 4-6 days to hike the W depending on weather conditions and how long you want to spend at each site.
We opted to hike the Paine Massif or “Big Circuit,” the “O,” which is a longer and more challenging route of 110km that takes between 8-10 days to complete.
It is less busy and more remote, which was more appealing for my friends and I as we were craving a physical challenge and an opportunity to be fully immersed in the wilderness.
To complete the “O”, hikers follow a counter-clockwise loop around the backside of the mountains before hiking the entire “W” route.
We hiked the “O” in 8 days, since we were more limited with vacation time and planned to travel to Valparaíso and Santiago afterwards.
In hindsight, we would plan to do it in 9 or 10 days to allow for a recovery day (perhaps at Grey Campsite where we could opt to kayak or hike with a guide onto Grey Glacier). Also, the views at the miradors are very weather dependent, and more time could increase chances of being able to see the French Valley or the Torres on a sunny day.
Where We Camped on the “O”
My friends made reservations for our trek (December 31-January 6) in October and several campsites that we wanted to stay at were ALREADY SOLD OUT. Therefore, we had to modify our itinerary slightly to adjust for the campsites that we were able to book.
This was our itinerary for hiking the “O” in Torres del Paine.
How to Book Your Campsite
There isn’t a central reservation system for Torres del Paine, so if you are planning the trip yourself, you need to make reservations at campsites run by one of the three companies below.
As previously mentioned, my awesome friends made the reservations for this trip. They expressed having had some difficulty/frustration with the reservation process. Many people we met on the trail also said they had some problems communicating with some of the campsites and securing their reservations.
Everyone agreed on the importance of BOOKING EARLY.
Fantástico Sur is a family business that has refugion, cabin, and campsite accommodation located along the W Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park.
Each Refugio has a restaurant, which offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, beverages and boxed lunch options to carry while hiking. It’s also possible to rent camp equipment such as sleeping bags, insulation mats and tents.
Vertice provides accommodation as well as guided tour packages along both the “O” and “W” trails. They offer shelters at Paine Grande, Grey, and Dickson, and campsites at Paine Grande, Grey, Dickson, and Los Perros.
I traveled from Toronto to Puerto Natales all in one day because I was meeting friends who were already in Southern Argentina and we wanted to get started on the hike as soon as possible since we were limited by our vacation time.
While I did end up making it to Puerto Natales as planned, it was quite stressful as my original flight was delayed and I missed my connections. This being said, I would recommend spending a night, or even a couple of days in Santiago, instead of trying to do it all in one journey.
1. Flight from Santiago–> Punta Arenas
I flew Air Canada direct from Toronto to Santiago (10 hours) and booked a separate ticket through Sky Airlines to Punta Arenas. There is also an airport in Puerto Natales, which is closer to Patagonia (saves the 3.5 hr bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales) but flights were much more expensive than our Sky Airline flight option to Punta Arenas.
Sky Airlines is a low-cost Chilean airlines that operates domestically in Chile as well as to a few international cities in South America.
Unfortunately, my flight from Toronto was delayed by more than 2 hours so I had already missed my Sky Airlines flight by the time I picked up my luggage.
Since I basically just didn’t show up for my flight, I anticipated having to buy a new ticket out of pocket, but luckily the Sky Airlines agent allowed me to get on the next flight without any hassle (which saved me at least $250 US, possibly more if I would have had to stay in a hotel).
On the return trip, my friends and I spent a night in Punta Arenas. It’s a gritty, seaside town and the entry point to Antarctica.
I’d recommend spending a whole day there and take a trip to Isla Magdalena where you can see penguins in the wild. I had hoped to do this but we didn’t plan enough in advance and weren’t able to make time for it (it requires at least a half-day).
2. Bus Punta Arenas–> Puerto Natales
As mentioned above, there is also an airport in Puerto Natales, but prices were substantially more expensive and less frequent than flying to Punta Arenas and taking the bus to Puerto Natales.
The bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales is 8, 000 CLP and takes 3.5 hours.
I had planned to take the 9pm bus, the last one of the night, which was tight given my flight change. Luckily the travel Gods were on my side, and everything worked out.
As my ticket said that the bus leaves from “Terminal Bus-Sur” in Punta Arenas, I took a 25 min taxi ride from the airport to the bus terminal (10 000 CLP) to catch the bus. It turned out that the bus stopped at the airport after leaving the terminal…so I could have saved myself time, money and stress by staying at the airport. Oh well. I was happy to have made the last bus of the night, meaning I would arrive to Puerto Natales late that evening as planned.
3. Taxi Puerto Natales Bus Terminal–> Yagan House Hostel
When I arrived at the Puerto Natales Bus Terminal at 12:15am, I took a taxi to Yagan House Hostel, which cost 1, 500 CLP and took less than 5 minutes.
Jill and Katelyn were relieved that I arrived safely in Punta Natales and on time. Jill had received a few panicky “Not gonna make it to Puerto Natales!!!” when I was dealing with missed flights and tight connections, so they had thought they might not be seeing me until sometime the next day. We shared a bottle of Chilean wine (the first of many during the trip!) and made a plan for a busy day of trip prep.
4. Bus Puerto Natales–> Torres del Paine
From October to April, several bus companies perform regular daily trips from the bus terminal in Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine.
The bus costs $ 7500 Chilean Pesos. It takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes to travel by bus from Puerto Natales to Laguna Amarga (where you have to pay $21 000 Chilean Pesos as a foreign tourist to enter the park).
From there you can take connections to the Pudeto catamaran at Lake Pehoe or transfer to Base Torres (which is where we started the O. Tickets cost $ 3000 Chilean Pesos).
Information about routes and fares is available directly from the companies offering transportation of passengers.
Buses JB : Departs from Puerto Natales at 7:30am and 2:30pm
Buses Gomez: Departs from Puerto Natales at 7:20am and 2:30pm
The regular buses from Torres del Paine National Park to Puerto Natales have 2 schedules, and it is possible to take them from three different places of the park, Administration Office, Pudeto and Laguna Amarga Gate.
1:00pm Administration Office
2:30pm Laguna Amarga.
4:30pm Arrival to Puerto Natales
6:30 pm Administration Office
7:45pm Laguna Amarga.
10:00 horas pm Arrival to Puerto Natales
Trip Prep Day in Puerto Natales
It took us an entire day to do last minute trip prep like renting equipment and buying food for the trail.
I would highly recommend planning to spent at least one full day in Puerto Natales to do this.
While we met a couple on the trail who had arrived in Puerto Natales in the morning, and only spent two hours getting last minute packing before getting on the 2:30pm bus to the park, they said that it was very rushed and stressful. (They had also brought freeze-dried with them from the UK so didn’t need to get much in terms of groceries).
Also, many stores are closed in the early afternoon (1:30-4:00pm) for siesta, so we ended up taking a lunch break to coincide with the few hours in the afternoon where we wouldn’t have been able to do any shopping anyways.
Make a Pit Stop to Frutos Secos!
In the morning, we went to the grocery store to get snacks, coffee, and lunch items for the trail.
I had brought freeze-dried backpacker dinners that I purchased at Mountain Equipment CO-OP for our meals. However, I discovered that you could buy these same meals at most gear stores in Puerto Natales for about the same price that I paid for the meals in Canada.
Then we made a trip to Frutos Secos, which was definitely a highlight of the trip for one of my friends.
Frutos Secos is a tiny dried food shop in Puerto Natales where you can buy snacks like dried pineapple, apple slices, blue berries, craisins, raisins, etc, chocolate covered coffee beans, nuts, trail mix, spices, and freeze-dried meal packages. These treats certainly added some much needed flavour and variety to our daily breakfasts of oatmeal and provided us with sweet and salty snacks at the end of a long day on the trail.
Go to the “Three O’Clock Talk” at Erratic Rock Hostel
Erratic Rock hostel offers free Torres del Paine trekking seminars daily at 11am and 3pm.
We found the guide’s seminar to be helpful, informative, and entertaining and gave us a thorough and informative overview of crucial details that better prepared us for the trek. He talked about everything from getting to the park, equipment and food prep, hiking times, what to bring and what not to bring, weather, terrain information, permits, camping, and gave us a chance to ask questions.
The guide was obviously very experienced in Torres del Paine and had some fantastic advice for making sure we had a positive experience in the park. He was also hilarious and taught me some important tips like:
Don’t wear a rain poncho unless you want to become a “flying tortilla”
The mice in Torres del Paine speak English and have generations of experience in tourism (ie. don’t leave crumbs in tent).
Don’t trust a stone when crossing rivers. Instead, get your feet wet!
Avoid doing the “Gortex Dance” by keeping your rain jacket in your backpack while hiking. You will get too hot hiking in Gortex and will get wet anyways.
You can drink the water from the lakes and streams in Torres del Paine and at all campsites.
Bring your passport and make sure you have reservations. Rangers will be checking passports and reservation receipts.
Mosquitos are bad at Seron and Dickson (They actually weren’t too bad).
Leave early from Perros to Paso because Paso John Gardner closes at 11am. It takes 1 hour 40 min to get to the pass.
When there are high winds, lean into the mountain!
You can leave your pack (at your own risk) at the Ranger’s station at Italiano to climb to miradors in the French Valley without a heavy pack
There are very difficult sections of the trail where you will ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” but it will be worth it in the end!
You can rent gear at Erratic Rock Hostel as well and don’t need to make reservations to do this.
Once we rented all of our equipment and purchased all of our food (and some wine!) for the trail, we went back to Yagan House Hostel and packed our bags. In terms of clothing, it is important to stay light, and avoid packing things you don’t need.
Here’s what you do need: a ‘wet uniform’ and a ‘dry uniform.’
Passport: You are required to show your passport at the Rangers Station at each campsite
Chargers: there are places to charge phones/cameras at many of the campsites
Underwear (some would argue that this is optional LOL)
Biodegradable shampoo/soap (there are several places to shower along the trail)
Hiking Poles (I didn’t bring these and my kneed regretted it on the steep descents)
Ziploc bags/dry sack/garbage bags
Cash/credit card (You can buy food/booze/supplies at refugios)
We traveled during the Christmas holidays, which is high season in Patagonia due to it being summer there, and didn’t make any rental reservations in advance. We had no problems renting all the gear we needed, although we had some difficulty tracking down a three-person tent (most places rent one or two-person tents).
I would suggest renting as much as you can while you are there in order to travel a little lighter.
I brought my MSR Whisperlite camping stove, empty MSR fuel bottles and pot, spoon, mug, and bowl for cooking with me from Canada. Since it was so cheap and easy to rent gear in Puerto Natales, I would leave the stove behind the next time around and rent one there. It was also somewhat tricky to find the white gas (Benezina Blanca) that my stove requires (we found it in a hardware store).
We each brought our own sleeping bags and sleeping pads, which I would do again since I prefer sleeping in “my own bed” than in a sleeping bag previously used by someone I don’t know.
There were many other places to rent gear in Puerto Natales (such as Yagan House where we stayed) with equivalent prices.
I had packed my dry clothing in a dry sack and sleeping bag in a waterproof compression sack that I brought from Canada.
These items were key as it rains a lot in Patagonia and your gear is bound to get wet. That being said, put any dry items like journal, maps, books, camera, phone, into Ziploc bags and line your pack with a garbage bags. My friends and I also had waterproof rain covers for our packs which we found to be helpful in keeping our gear dry. It can get very windy in Torres del Paine so it is important to secure the rain covers to your pack so that they don’t blow away in high winds.
Gear I Didn’t Need
Before I went to Torres del Paine, I had this vision of it being very remote and wild, like a previous camping trip I had taken in Alaska.
While Torres del Paine is remote and feels wild in some sections (especially along the “O”), there is actually quite a lot of amenities and camping infrastructure that I hadn’t anticipated. There is even an option to pay to use Wifi at many of the refugios, especially along the W (although I was happy to take a break from cyberspace).
Here are some of the unnecessary items that I packed:
Lots of Extra/Emergency Food
If you aren’t on a budget, you don’t need to pack much food to hike in Torres del Paine. The refugios sell hot meals, as well as beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages (much more expensive than what you could bring yourself though). You can even buy packed lunches to take with you on the trail.
NOTE: On the “O” it isn’t always an option to buy food. Some of the campsites are a little more basic (like Los Perros and Paso).
I hadn’t realized that there would be bathrooms with flush toilets at each campsite (the simplest at Los Perros being a drain hole in the ground) and even hot water for showering at the refugios.
Water Filtration Supplies
You can also drink the water at each of the campsites and don’t need to filter the water from the streams. I put water filtration tablets in my water for the first couple of days on the trail, but stopped once I realized that the water was safe to drink and tasted great.
I had packed my bathing suit thinking that I might take a quick swim at some point to freshen up. However, the lakes contain icebergs and glacial water and I was often cold on the trail due to wind and rain. There are hot showers along the trail so if you want to get clean, you don’t need to freeze in order to do it.
Peace & Inspiration
I feel very grateful that I was able to take the time to travel to Patagonia and hike the “O” in Torres del Paine National Park with my friends.
The trail inspired reflection, calm, and future travel plans, and helped us feel at peace with the choices we have made that have enabled us to embark on such an amazing adventure.
The Importance of Taking Time Off
I made what felt like an irresponsible decision to take unpaid weeks off work to travel to Chile (and later Ecuador).
I don’t have much money or a permanent job: shouldn’t I be working towards more stability and certainty in my life, rather than gallivanting around the globe?
Wasn’t it time to buckle down, grow up, and start taking life more seriously?
At one of the ranger’s check-in stations, there was a sign that translated to “Travel. Money can be recuperated, time cannot.”
This quotation helped me feel more at peace with my decisions to take time off, despite the social pressures in North America to work, work, work and never give ourselves a break.
While it is a privilege to live in a country and work at a job where I am paid fairly, which enables me to have some disposable income to travel, I returned home feeling proud & grateful that I gave myself some time off, rather than irresponsible.
My trip to Torres del Paine has made me stronger, and has helped me to gain a greater sense of clarity on my personal and professional goals.
When I went back to Toronto, I realized that nothing was lost professionally by taking time off. I jumped right back into work as I left it, and actually, my bank account is not suffering as much I had anticipated.
Live at Your Own Pace
Sometimes on the trail my friends and I felt frustrated that we were hiking much slower than the recommended hiking times.
We thought that we were pretty fit and would be ABOVE the average hiking speeds. But we were also stopping a lot to take photos of the scenery (especially me!) and took breaks to have some deep conversations that were inspired by the sense of peace that the wilderness had instilled in us.
We decided that it didn’t matter what speed we were hiking at, as long as we got to our intended destination eventually.
In Patagonia in January the sun doesn’t set until close to 10pm, so there is really no rush to get to the campsites early. This helped me to realize that, like hiking, life doesn’t need to happen at anyone else’s speed but your own. I guess my pace is the right pace if it works for me…even if it means that I haven’t started making dinner when everyone else is washing their dishes.
Stay tuned for an upcoming post about my daily reflections and more wilderness wisdom that the “O” inspired for me.
If you have more specific questions about the hiking in Torres del Paine, don’t hesitate to contact me.
I hope the woman sitting beside me can’t smell my feet.
But I had to take off my hiking boots because my feet were swollen and sweaty and I have a 3.5 hour flight followed by 3 hour bus ride before I make it to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Patagonia, and my destination.
If I make it tonight.
I arrived in Ottawa around 7pm last night, about 24 hours earlier, to catch a flight from Ottawa to Toronto (I had spent Christmas at my family cottage in Norway Bay, Quebec). My flight from Ottawa was delayed more than an hour due to freezing weather conditions which required the plane to be de-iced and the engines reset.
So when I got to Toronto, I had to sprint through Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport to catch my connection to Santiago. RUN! The lady at the gate urged me.
When I arrived at the gate, I learned that the flight to Santiago was overbooked and would be delayed more than an hour. Once we finally boarded, we waited on the runway for more than an hour for more de-icing and for the runway to clear.
When we finally took off I knew I was going to miss my connecting flight in Santiago to Punta Arenas.
The plan was to meet my friends in Puerto Natales just after midnight (a 3hr bus ride from Punta Arenas). We were going to spend the following day planning our food, gear, and route to hike the popular and rugged “O Loop,” an 8-day trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile.
Anyone with common sense would have spent the night in Santiago and given themselves a bit of a buffer in case there were delays, and to avoid a stressful travel day of plane, plane, plane, taxi, bus, taxi. But I was itching to meet my friends and get started on the big adventure.
As time passed, it seemed like my travel itinerary was a little too ambitious for the Christmas rush and record breaking cold temperatures in Ontario.
I was sure I was going to spend the night in Santiago alone. I had been mentally calculating how much it would cost. I figured it would be a minimum 250$ US to re-book my flight to Punta Arenas and another $50-100 US for a last-min hotel room near the airport. Plus meals. I had a Costco-sized pack of protein bars in my bag, so maybe I would skip dinner to save a bit of money.
It took about an hour for me to get my collect my bags and go through customs. I tried to calm myself down, reminding myself that’s there no point beating myself up for buying a cheaper ticket with another airline which meant that the airline I had traveled with from Toronto had no responsibility to ensure I would make my next flight. They were completely separate bookings. Being cheap and thrift can sometimes have consequences. Luckily, I could speak a bit of Spanish now and the agent who is in charge of managing delays tells me I have to go upstairs and hope that the next airline will re-book me. Probably for some exorbitant fee.
I email my friend to tell her that I will be spending the night in Santiago.
Instead, the next agent tells me if I hustle I can make the last flight to Puerto Arenas which will leave in 45 min. I run towards the Domestic Departures area with my nearly overweight bags.
El hombre me dijo que necesito traer mis maletas allí.
A bit of broken Spanish comes out as I try to catch my breath.
The woman nods, hands me my ticket, and gestures towards security.
When I get there I’m dripping in sweat. I’m smelly from 24 hours of wearing the same clothes and stressed from the uncertainty of the journey. I’m so thirsty because I didn’t even have time to buy a bottle of water. Remind me again why I choose to spend my vacations in a stinky state of panic and chaos?
Importantly, I’m excited to begin the next adventure, unsure as to whether I will be spending the night alone in Punta Arenas or if I will catch the last bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales where my friends have booked a room in a hostel.
So far this adventure has gotten off to a stressful start. But I’m learning how to accept things I can’t control, to surrender to the unknown, to stay calm in stressful situations, and to advocate for myself in Spanish.
If I don’t get to Puerto Natales tonight, I will get there tomorrow. It doesn’t really matter because the adventure’s already started. (And the women to my left hasn’t said anything about my stinky feet.)
When I was in Grade 2 a teacher at my school gave me the children’s novel, The Secret Garden, as a gift.
As I was quite the avid reader, I read it in less than a weekend. It’s a story about an orphan, Mary, who is sent to England to live with a a grieving uncle. At first she feels isolated and neglected, but eventually finds solace in a rose garden she discovers. Being in the secret garden is a magical experience for Mary and transforms her into a healthier, happier version of herself.
Maybe it was my love of nature, the outdoors, and summers at the cottage, but I instantly connected with the story of a girl who is transformed by the power of nature.
I was also enchanted by the idea of secrets; the playful privilege of holding onto information that others would never know about.
So after reading The Secret Garden, I did something that seemed like the obvious next step: I created a fake cover in the book and hid a couple of crisp $2 bills inside (which had recently been discontinued from circulation), thinking that they might be worth something someday. They are still there.
More than 20 years later, I was reminded of that childhood secret I created–the discontinued 2$ bills hidden in a secret cover inside The Secret Garden, bills which are now valued at more than 20$–when my friend, Michelle, recommended that I visit The Secret Garden Cotopaxi. “It’s literally the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at.”
Two months later, The Secret Garden Cotopaxi became my favourite hostel as well.
When I arrived it felt like I’d stepped into a fairytale. The landscape: golden grasses of high Andean tundra, rolling green pastures, and clear blue sky contrasted against the snow-capped peaks of Cotopaxi (which means the neck of the moon in Kichwa, one of Ecuador’s Indigenous languages), was enchanting. It was like I’d stepped into Mary’s rose garden, the majestic Eden I’d read about as a child but that I knew didn’t really exist in real life. It was beautiful. Enchanting. Real.
The hostel itself was as magical and special as the surrounding landscape. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I felt like I’d become part of a family. There’s no WIFI, so travellers are forced to talk to each other, share dinners together, play cards, and relax in the hot tub, basically, a kind of summer camp for adults.
During the day, we could opt to go hiking, mountain biking, fishing, horse-back riding, or even summit the volcano (this option was not available to me as Cotopaxi was closed due to recent volcanic activity).
Even though I met many amazing people from all over the world at the hostel, I appreciated being able to take time to myself to write, read, and reflect.
For me, it was a time of transitions.
I was moving back home after living in Colombia for nearly a year, and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to leave. Part of me wanted to stay. There was so much more of South America that I wanted to discover. I wanted to improve my Spanish. I would be leaving behind a special community of friends that I had made. The story felt, in a way, unfinished, and I wasn’t ready to write the ending just yet.
But I knew I needed to go back to Canada, at least for a little bit, to publish my first novel, to spend time with my family, to gain a little bit of stability before the next adventure (Patagonia: Dec 2017!!!).
I’m thankful that the mountain air of Cotopaxi helped me to find some peace and clarity about moving forward at a time when all I wanted to do was take a u-turn and go back.
The thing I’ve learned about journeys and paths from traveling is that they don’t have to be linear. Mine is winding and twisted, with just as many u-turns as straight stretches. I’ve learned that just because you leave doesn’t mean you can’t, or won’t, ever go back.
“I guess I’d been experiencing it for the 30 years before I actually started writing the book,” I admitted. “I knew that I wanted to write a book ever since I was a kid, but I was too afraid to try.”
It’s true. My fears—of failure, of not being good enough, of what people would think, of not getting published—had held me back from starting at all. So I made a lot of excuses and told myself a narrative of “shoulds.”
I should work toward a more stable career.
I should accept that it’s too hard to “make it” as a writer.
I should appreciate my life as it is.
I should be more realistic.
In my latest piece for Elephant Journal, an online magazine dedicated to mindful living, I write about fear, self-doubt, success, and why it’s not selfish to pursue our dreams.
“It is always quietly thrilling to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.”
― Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Since I’ve been living and working away from home over the last couple of years, I’ve taken every opportunity to travel during my holidays.
For me, the purpose of travel is to deepen my understanding about people and life. Through exposure to new people, places, and cultures, travel has broadened my perspective about the many different ways that one can live a happy and meaningful life. It has also helped shape my identity by reinforcing which values I held onto and which ones I let go of.
So it may seem strange that I chose to stay home this summer during my holidays from teaching…especially since my bucket list keeps getting longer and longer.
One of the main reasons that I stayed home was to promote my first novel, See What Flowers, which I recently published through Amazon CreateSpace. As I self-published my novel, I’m required to do all of the marketing and promotion myself. While this work has been very fun and interesting, it’s also quite time-consuming. As writing a novel has always been a dream of mine, it was important to me that I invested the time and energy into making this happen.
Another reason that I stayed at home was to spend time with friends and family. Several of my closest friends live abroad and came home for parts of the summer and it was important to me to hang out with them as much as possible while they were here.
By staying at home, I was able to go to the ROM in Toronto for the first time with my friend Meira who lives in Israel. I was able to meet my friends’ Lisa and Jessie’s new babies. I was able to attend my friend Paige’s wedding in Creemore. I was able to have some long chats with my friend, Laura, who lives in New Zealand, and attend a Blue Jays game with my friend Jill who lives in Colombia and her awesome dad. I was able to explore a few of Ontario’s Provincial Parks with friends and family. Oh, let’s not forget that I was also able to spend last Saturday night alone with my parents at the cottage listening to Taylor Swift on repeat.
While I still intend to travel to as many different places as I can, my summer at home has helped me see the value of making time for the people and places that matter most to me. Although travel has been one of the most incredible teachers in my life, some of the most formative experiences for me have resulted from building deeper connections with the people and places I’ve known forever. Turns out that some of my best adventures have happened in my own backyard.
Here are a few photos from ‘local adventures’ that I partook in this summer:
^ I started teaching myself how to windsurf at the cottage…this involved at least 20 wipeouts. Thanks to my Aunt Pat for rescuing me from a near storm.
In addition to these things, I also did a lot of NOTHING. (Although I’ll admit that a lot of this nothing was spent watching fan commentary about GOT Season 7 on YouTube!) I’ve learned that doing nothing every once in a while fuels creativity, reduces stress, and makes space for spontaneous surprises. It also makes me excited to get back to work in a couple of weeks once I feel fully rested and recovered (However, I’ll likely be saying something different on Labour Day weekend!)
The first draft of my début novel, See What Flowers, was written in Toronto, after I’d returned from just over a year of teaching in Nunavut, Canada. (Check out my interview in Shedoesthecity for details on how living and working in the Canadian Arctic influenced the writing and research for my novel. )
In addition to Vancouver and the Arctic, much of See What Flowers is set in Toronto, particularly on Dufferin Street and Bloordale Village. Landmarks such as Christie Pits Park, the Baldwin Steps (Spadina stairs by Casa Loma), Snakes & Lattes, Toronto Western Hospital, High Park, and the #29 Dufferin bus are described in the novel.
Not only is Toronto featured in See What Flowers, but various locations in the city also inspired the writing of it. Here’s a few Toronto landmarks where See What Flowers was written:
1. Boxcar Social (Summerhill)
Boxcar Social is my favourite café in Toronto. I love the ambience, the lattés, and the back patio. One Sunday afternoon, I even saw Andrew Coyne, one of my heros in Canadian writing, there. He was writing too. I was writing. He was writing. I thought, maybe one day, we’ll both be Canadian writers. Maybe one day.
Boxcar will always have a special place in my heart because that is where I finished the first draft of See What Flowers.
It was a Saturday night in October 2015, just a few weeks before I left Toronto for a year to teach in Colombia. I arrived at the café at about 7pm intending to stay for a couple of hours. The café turned into a nightclub and I didn’t even notice. At midnight I was still writing. Some guys came over to ask me if I was freezing and if they should close the back door. I didn’t even notice that the back door was open. I didn’t even notice that it was dark out. I didn’t even notice that the café had turned into a bar. It was like I was in the zone on a long run. All I could focus on was what I was doing right then. The writing.
The last thirty or so pages of the book contain the strongest writing. They are also the most autobiographical and get as close to the truth of life as I know it. I’m really proud of them. So thank you, Boxcar Social…maybe it was the music, maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was the beer, maybe it was the crowd, but you certainly inspired something in me the night I finished the first draft of my first novel.
In 2015, I took almost a year off teaching high school to write. But I kept my job as a fitness instructor at Goodlife Fitness Clubs and taught lunch time classes from Monday to Friday at the Yorkville, Manulife Centre, and Bloor Park locations. My days usually involved writing at my aunt and uncle’s Forrest Hill mansion (where I was living) in the morning from about 8:30am-11:30am, then I would go teach my class from 12:15-1;15pm, and in the afternoon, I would go to the nearby Toronto Reference Library from about 2:00-5:00 pm.
Luckily, my good friend, Keira, was writing her Master’s thesis at the time, so we would often meet and write together at the library. This enabled us to take coffee breaks together and support each other in what can be a very isolating process.
One thing I loved about writing at the Toronto Reference Library was that I was surrounded by thousands of books. The books were written by humans. Maybe I could write a book, too. It was also great to have a free space to use for the afternoon during a time when I had very little income.
All of those afternoons spent writing at the Toronto Reference Library made for many, many coffee breaks at Balzac’s. I often brought my laptop with me and stayed there for an hour or two for a change of scene. Balzac’s coffee is some of the best in Toronto. They even have an Atwood Blend, named after Canadian literary icon, Margaret Atwood. So perhaps Balzac’s coffee contains some secret ingredient to inspire great writing.
Since she lived in the west end at the time, often my friend Keira and I would meet at Saving Gigi a hip café on Bloor at Ossington. It serves coffee, beer, brunch, and amazing salads and sandwiches. The part I loved most about writing there is that it attracts the staring artist type. I was always surrounded by others working on screenplays, articles, blog posts, graphic design, and other creative projects. Their work made my own creative venture seem less of a silly fantasy and more of a worthwhile venture.
I was inspired and motivated by others struggling to pursue their dreams at a time when social pressures were encouraging me to develop a sustainable financial plan and settle.
Just west of Saving Gigi is Bloomer’s, a homey vegan café which serves coffee, tea, beer, whiskey, salads, sandwiches, and delicious home baked goods. It is an amazing space to write, especially in the summer. It has big booths and tables, a positive vibe, and a garage-style open window which allows you to write while people watching the passerby’s on Bloor Street.
Bloomer’s is the only café in Toronto that I wrote at which is actually featured in the novel, See What Flowers. Adam and Emma’s basement neighbour, Jess, describes a terrible Tinder date experience that she had at “Bloomer’s, you know, that great vegan café at Bloor and Ossington?”
Most of my writing happens when I’m not writing. I get ideas when I’m walking or running or biking or thinking or staring into space. Or reading. I get inspired by ideas that were written by other authors and incorporate them into my characters and plot.
So when I get an idea in the midst of doing another activity, I often stop and write it in my phone. Then I email it to myself and incorporate it into the draft of my writing.
In March 2015, I marked the OSSLT (Ontario Literacy Test), which is a great opportunity for teachers to gain experience in assessment. But it is also a bit soul crushing. It is like an assembly line for grading essays. I marked the same answer from thousands of students across Ontario for two weeks straight! It took me over an hour to travel to the location of the OSSLT at the Toronto Congress Centre. I had just started writing the first draft of Parts 1 & 2 of See What Flowers, and much of it was written on the 52 Lawrence West bus as I worked a little creativity into an extremely monotonous work day.
Where I Wrote It: Outside of Toronto
While I wrote the first draft of See What Flowers in Toronto, much of the editing happened outside of the city.
See What Flowers is available as an eBook and paperback on Amazon. Thank you everyone for all of your support.
Although the bar is packed for shows–I’d estimate 200+ people were in the audience for my story, it feels personal, like your at a family gathering.
It’s a fresh space for connection and intimacy in a city that can sometimes feel cold, lonely, and isolating.
Somehow, I pushed through my fear and sense of impostor syndrome and told my story. It was really fun, and while of course there are things I would change for next time, my first live story definitely went better than expected. I feel proud of myself for standing up and doing something that scared me.