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.

img_1060

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.

Advertisements

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.

War Games on the Prairie 

From 1963 to 1993, soldiers went underground every day in remote locations around the U.S. not knowing whether this would be the day they would start a nuclear war. 

It was a peacekeeping mission, according to the military. Thousands of miles away, in the Soviet Union, missiles with the same capability of destruction were aimed at cities throughout the U.S.

In many ways, it was the 20th century’s most dangerous game of chess: a constant build-up of weaponry, with each side determined to keep up with the other. A miscalculation on either side could have started the next world war.

These tensions began in the years following World War II, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. My mother, who was just an elementary student at the time, recalls participating in drills at school in which students crouched under desks to increase their chances of survival during a nuclear attack.

Years later, in the 1980s, I went through similar drills at school, but it was to protect students against falling debris in the event of a tornado or earthquake.

To me, outside of a muscle-bound boxer that gave Rocky Balboa all he could handle, the Soviet Union didn’t seem like much of a threat. It was a just a place that got very, very cold in the winter.

In 1991, after negotiations between the two governments, the U.S. and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce and limit their nuclear weapons.

Missile launch control facilities throughout the Great Plains closed, including one in Philip, S.D., about 70 miles east of Rapid City where I live. It was turned into a museum and is now owned by the National Parks Service. For $6, a park ranger will give you a tour of Launch Control Facility Delta-01 Compound.

img_8479

The entrance to Launch Control Facility Delta-01 Compound in Philip, S.D.


Our tour guide, a young man named Ted, met my wife and me at the entrance of the compound, which is still protected by a chain-link fence. Everything was just like the military left it in 1993 when the site closed, down to the typewriters and faded issues of Time Magazine.
We walked past the officer’s sleeping quarters and into a factory-like cage elevator. Ted bolted the door twice — multiple layers of security are commonplace throughout the facility — and we were lowered into a bunker, fortified by concrete thick enough to withstand a nuclear attack.

img_8476

The entrance to the bunker.

img_8478

Two officers stayed in this room 24 hours a day between 1963 and 1993.

img_8471

In the event of an attack, the red box would have been unlocked, allowing officers to fire missiles at the Soviet Union.

img_8482

The door to this silo would have blasted off, allowing the missile to fire.

img_8483

Until the 1990s, the silo contained a fully operational Minuteman Missile.

In the middle of the room, there’s a red box on the wall that reads: ENTRY RESTRICTED TO MCC DUTY. It’s secured by two Master Locks. In the event of an attack, Ted said, two Air Force officers would have opened it simultaneously to launch missiles at targets in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. 

As the tour came to a close, Ted told us about the handful of times that a miscalculation almost led to war or, using his preferred term, “mutual destruction.” Both sides experienced radar failures during the Cold War that made it appear as if they were under attack, but chose not to fire because they couldn’t be certain.

It was only through extreme restraint, Ted says, that “mutual destruction” was avoided.

Taipei 101: A skyscraper with style

Taipei 101. To those unfamiliar with Taiwan’s tallest skyscraper, it might sound like a stiff drink served at an Asian bar. But, for a five-year period from the time it opened in 2004 to the completion of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2009, it was the tallest building in the world.

With a design that pays homage to Chinese traditions, Taipei 101 is one of the more impressive skyscrapers I’ve seen. Its repeated segments are said to invoke a large stalk of bamboo, the plant of choice for China’s beloved Giant Pandas.

There are eight segments in the main tower, each with eight floors. This was, of course, by design as the number eight in Chinese culture is associated with good fortune and abundance.

This design is best observed from a few blocks away; or at night, when the skyscraper lights up the skies of Taiwan’s largest city.

img_0102

Taipei 101, as seen from street level.

When Taipei 101 opened in 2004, it was the tallest building in the world.

The view from an indoor observation deck on the 88th and 89th floors provides a different perspective: a 360-degree view of the city.

After paying a US$19 admission fee, I entered a crowded elevator on the fifth floor that takes visitors to the observation deck. My ears popped as we shot hundreds of feet up the tower, arriving at our destination in what seemed like only a few seconds.

The deck is enclosed, but that didn’t stop me from getting weak in the knees when I pressed my face up against the glass, the only thing separating me and the hordes of selfie-seeking tourists from imminent death.

The view from the observation deck on the 88th floor.


After snapping several photos and checking out the gift store for mementos to bring home, I got in line for the elevator that takes visitors back down to the fifth floor. It was several hundred people deep and — still jet lagged from the travel — I was in no mood to wait.

Forty-five minutes later, I was finally back at ground level, glad I had made the trip but in the mood for a different kind of Taipei 101 — the alcoholic version.