Unplugging, setting sea turtles free at Arena Island

Within a year or two, the loan on my Toyota Camry will finally be paid off, and I’ll own the car. I hope to one day own a home, and — if all goes well — maybe even a boat.

Owning an island? That’s probably not in the cards for me, but businessman Fuji Rodriguez has done just that. Fuji is the owner of Arena Island, a 10-acre plot of land located off the eastern coast of the Philippine province of Palawan.

The island resort features four cottages that are purposely low-tech and not equipped with Wi-Fi or TVs. The point of visiting Arena Island, Fuji said over dinner, is to truly unplug and recharge your body.

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The sun rises over Arena Island.

Arena Island offers guests privacy

With only four cottages, the island is perfect for vacationers seeking privacy and exclusivity.

I spent two nights at the private island, and with few distractions it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of this (mostly) untouched tropical landscape.

In addition to renting out the cottages, Fuji is developing the island as a nature preserve. While Arena Island is home to a number of roosters, peacocks and other birds, the highlight are its sea turtles.

To help boost the endangered animal’s numbers, some of the turtles laid and hatched on the island are kept in ponds until they are 4 weeks old. At that point, they are set free.

Since 2003, more than 12,000 hatchlings of the green and hawksbill sea turtle species have been released from Arena Island.

On the last day of my stay, I participated in a mid-morning hatchling release. Our group carefully plucked a few turtles from the pond for 4-week-olds, and walked toward the edge of the sea.

The turtle I picked out easily fit into the palm of my hand and weighed no more than a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin.

Once we got the OK from island staff, we lowered the turtles to the sand and watched nature take its course. The turtles scooted into the water using their tiny flippers and began swimming away from the shore.

This baby sea turtle was around 4 weeks old when it was released into the sea.

Seen here are tracks from a sea turtle that came to shore to lay eggs.

These preservation efforts are necessary because of threats from illegal poaching and destruction of habitats. “The greatest cause of decline in green turtle populations is commercial harvest for eggs and meat,” reads a sign on the island.

Proceeds from cottage rentals are used to fund the sea turtle conservation program, making Arena Island an ideal getaway for those looking to help an endangered species and — at the same time — unplug from the modern world.

The island is home to a number of birds, including this peacock.

Casita Dos, one of the four cottages on Arena Island, at sunset.

A view of Arena Island from the sea. The resort is located off the eastern coast of the Philippine province of Palawan.

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Winding between skyscrapers in the Windy City

After a whirlwind of a first day in Chicago, my wife and I were looking for a relaxing way to spend our second night in the Windy City.

By happenstance, we passed a Chicago Architecture Foundation store on Michigan Avenue and decided to pop in. The foundation offers various tours of the city, and after some back-and-forth we settled on the River Cruise.

As far as spontaneous decisions go, it was one of the best I've ever made. The cruise was worth every bit of the $46 price of admission.

The hour-and-a-half journey on the Chicago River takes you past many of the skyscrapers that shape the city's skyline. Our guide explained the history behind the buildings and the architects who designed them.

We went on a day when there wasn't a cloud in the sky, so at some points I struggled to make out the finer points of the buildings while not damaging my eyesight in the sun's rays.

All in all, though, it was a great journey, and one I highly recommend to anyone visiting Chicago.

Postcards from Apgar Village Lodge

At $100 per night, these rustic cabins inside Glacier National are a bargain. Located at the southern tip of Lake McDonald, Apgar Village Lodge is a great place to stay a few nights while exploring the west side of the park. 

The highlight of my stay was waking up around dawn each morning, getting a free cup of coffee at the lodge office, and watching the sun rise over Lake McDonald. 

The reflections of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake would change as morning became afternoon. 

In the evening, the brilliant reflections faded to dark. With little light pollution, the stars and moon lit up the night sky. 

Here are a few photos I took while staying at the lodge. 

The entrance to our cabin.

Our room had a view of a river that ran near the lake.

The room didn’t have a TV or wifi. To me, that was one of the perks.

Hiking the Avalanche Lake Trail

Since I visited Glacier National Park in May, many of trails were still closed because of snow and ice. 

However, I was able to hike one of the most popular trails in the park: the Avalanche Lake Trail. 

The 4.6-mile (roundtrip) trail cuts through thick woods, with moderate climbs in elevation. The highlight is the lake, which is rimmed with steep cliffs on three sides. 

The melting snow in late spring/early summer creates several waterfalls, which send water cascading down the cliffs.  

It’s a must-see for any visitor to the park.  

 

Why I bought bear spray, and maybe you shouldn’t 

If you google “things you need to know before visiting Glacier National Park,” the first link that appears includes a reminder that you’re in grizzly bear country.  

Entering the park, the signs are everywhere: “Bear Country: All Wildlife Is Dangerous Do Not Approach Or Feed.” 

My wife and I were on the fence about buying bear spray, but talked ourselves into it after overhearing a conversation a forest ranger had with a local convenience store owner. 

Store owner: Busy lately? 

Ranger: Actually, yes. We’ve had quite a few bear sightings. I always tell people to carry bear spray. You pay for life insurance, and this is a form of insurance. 

Store owner: I’ve been hiking this area for 30 years and always carry it with me.     

So, we bought a can. I shopped around a bit and found one for $45, which seemed like a bargain given the prices of “higher-end” options. It came with a holster that I could fasten to my jeans, making the can, in theory, easily accessible at a moment’s notice. 

Signs all around Glacier National Park warn visitors that they are entering bear country.


 

A pun-laden manual that came with the spray — “Bear Safety Tips: Bear in Mind the Information — recommended testing it before hiking. 

“Test fire downward,” the manual states. “Outside pointed safely away. Contents may travel and/or linger longer than expected. Using a quick half-second burst will increase safety and confidence with this product.” 

A footnote in the manual explained that exposing your eyes to the spray could cause “irreversible damage.” 

Given that the odds of me accidentally spraying into the wind and subsequently blinding myself were much greater than getting attacked by an actual bear, I skipped the practice test. 

Instead, in an empty parking lot, I practiced pulling the can from the holster and firing at an imaginary beast until I got comfortable with the maneuver. 

I did some shopping around, but ultimately settled on this bear spray.

And so, spray can in tow, we went into the wilderness. We didn’t encounter any bears on that hike … or any other in the park. That’s the norm, of course, as sighting are rare and attacks even rarer.

I know it’s a “form of insurance,” as the ranger put it, but I couldn’t help but think I had wasted my money. If a bear charges you in the wild, the spray might not even help. The bear spray manual clearly states that more than once.

(“Although nothing is 100 percent guaranteed effective,” the manual says, “here are some tips that might prove to be useful in an encounter.)

Here’s a tip that might prove useful when considering whether to buy bear spray: if you’re not comfortable practicing because you’re afraid you might shoot yourself in the face, take your chances in bear country without it.    

The glory of Glacier National Park

Hiking through the wilderness wonderland that is Glacier National Park, I couldn’t help but think of the conservationists who had the foresight to preserve these lands. 

After President Teddy Roosevelt helped establish national parks in the Dakotas, Oregon, Colorado and California in the 1900s, an explorer named George Bird Grinnell pushed the federal government to add Glacier to the list. 

In 1910, Roosevelt’s successor, President William Howard Taft, signed a bill that did just that, making Glacier the country’s 10th national park. That action preserved over a million acres of forest, lakes, rivers and glaciers that visitors still enjoy today.

I didn’t come face-to-face with any glaciers; the roads and trails that led to them were still closed because of a late spring snowfall. 

But I did see a moose taking an afternoon dip in a lake; mountain goats holding up traffic as they scurried about a rural road; and, thousands of feet above me, streams of water racing down cliffs glistening in the sunlight. 

There are several lookout points along Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile route that spans the width of the park between the west and east entrances.

For the most part, I didn’t have a cellphone signal in these areas. My instant gratification consisted of new discoveries around each corner, whether it was bugs splatting onto my windshield, or a snow-capped mountain stretching into the sky. 

That was part of the thrill: Seeing unspoiled nature and animals in their environment, as Roosevelt and Grinnell would have witnessed it over a century ago.

Glacier National Park was established in 1910.

The park is home to more than 700 miles of hiking trails.

When I visited the park earlier this month, many of the roads were still closed because of snow and ice.

Glacier National Park has many options for lodging, from campsites to high-end hotels.

A man fishes in a river near the St. Mary Falls trail.


The park has more than 200 waterfalls.

Postcards from Boulder 

I recently visited Boulder, Colo., and now I understand why people are flocking there in droves. The scenery is amazing, and the food scene – for the size of the town – is great.

Boulder is located around 30 miles southeast of Denver.

People from all over the world come to Boulder to hike the trails surrounding the city.

Patches of snow can still be seen in early March near a lake outside Boulder.

Postcards from Custer State Park 

Buffalo graze at Custer State Park. The park is home to more than 1,300 buffalo.

The donkeys in the park often approach vehicles passing through Wildlife Loop Road. They seem to expect handouts, so have a snack ready if you roll down your window.

Before the arrival of European settlers, millions of buffalo migrated through the Great Plains. They were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1890s. Today, there are more than 200,000 in North America.

To the person who stole my bike tire, I hope it takes you far in life

When I came home for lunch Wednesday, I noticed that the rear tire of my mountain bike was missing. The bike was locked to a rack outside my apartment, and I assumed the thief incorrectly thought that taking off the rear tire would free the rest of bike.

I’ve experienced worse thefts. In college, my car was broken into, and hundreds of CDs, expensive speakers and a CD player were stolen. Several years later, I made the mistake of leaving my work laptop in the backseat of my car overnight. An opportunistic passer-by armed with a brick shattered one of the rear windows and took the laptop, once again leaving me with a broken window to fix.

Those crimes I can somewhat understand. Used CDs, speakers, a laptop — all are easy to sell for some quick cash. But a used tire from a dirty mountain bike?

I went to the shop where I bought my bike to get an estimate for replacing the tire. Bummer man, was their response, in a nutshell. A new tire will set me back $150, and that’s if they don’t find anything else that’s broken.

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At least they left the front tire.


Reporting the theft to the cops seemed like a waste of a time, but a contact of mine who works in law enforcement advised me to do it anyway, on the off chance my tire turns up somewhere.
I called dispatch, and within 10 minutes an officer called to get my information. He took my name, number, address and asked what happened. No, I didn’t see it happen. No, I don’t have any idea who did it.

He didn’t ask for a description of the tire (it has a lime green stripe that makes it stand out), which seemed odd since there are a lot of mountain bikes in the Black Hills.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll get called down to the police department one afternoon and they’ll roll in a bunch of tires confiscated from the streets. “Not it. Not it. Hmmm, maybe … Can you roll it closer, so I can see it under the light?”

So, to the person who stole my tire, enjoy it man. It probably needs some air so tread lightly, especially if you’re using it to build a unicycle. Those probably went out of style in 1916, but vinyl is cool again so you never know.

How Donald Trump made my vacation spot an international story

As the results came in on election night and it became increasingly likely that Donald Trump would become the next president of the United States, a few friends who knew I was out of the country jokingly asked whether I was coming back.

I was in Taiwan, a place that — unlike the Chinese mainland — had received little if any attention during the 2016 race. What a difference a few weeks make.

Last week Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen spoke on the phone, breaking four decades of diplomatic protocol and setting off a firestorm with China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province. Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, and since then no U.S. president has spoken directly to his Taiwanese counterpart.

Policy experts and China watchers are still debating whether Trump was unaware the call could cause a crisis or did it intentionally, as a way of sending a message to Beijing that the U.S. president can talk to any world leader, whenever he wants.

With U.S.-Taiwan relations in the spotlight, I thought I’d share something I picked up as a souvenir. The day after the election, I bought a couple of local newspapers in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to see how they covered the election.

The Apple Daily, the second-largest paper in Tawain, published a special section on the results, in addition to several more pages on Clinton, the protests that followed, and a racy image from Melania Trump’s modeling days.