Sunday, October 28, 2012

Backyard Bucket List: Frank Slide

It is almost Halloween, my favorite holiday of the year.  I love everything about this season - the mystery, the costumes, the candy, and especially the spooky stories!  As I write this, I have Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" on in the background: a soundtrack for my creative writing.  It is inspiring me to write a post that also has a spooky undertone, rife with tragedy, mystery, and even some urban legends!  I have chosen the topic of Frank Slide - one of Alberta's most interesting and mysterious sites.

Turtle Mountain in the Crowsnest Pass of southern Alberta.

Back in April of 1903, in a valley in the Crowsnest Pass of the Rocky Mountains, the residents of the small mining town of Frank lay sleeping peacefully.  Suddenly, the ground began to shake and rumble.  Before the townsfolk could rise or even realize what was happening, they were wiped from existence as half a mountain crushed much of the town of Frank off the map.  Very few people survived this massive rock slide, and 70 to 120 people lost their lives.

It was 4:10 a.m. when the mountain collapsed, and it only took 100 seconds for the rock slide to destroy a town, obliterate a mine, crush a railway, and turn a river into a lake.  Workers running a train on the CPR rail heard the first rocks fall, and pushed the train to maximum speed in order to escape with their lives.  Many weren't so lucky - three coal miners were killed as they stood outside the coal mine, all workers inside a power plant at the base of the mountain were killed, nearly 50 transient workers camped out near the river were crushed, and the residents of the eastern portion of Frank were buried by the massive rocks.  Of the 76 townspeople trapped beneath the rocks, only 18 bodies were ever recovered.

The devastation left over from the rock slide - the town of Frank lies buried.

Today, the devastation is as clear as ever.  The rocks are so large and heavy, weighing multiple tons, that it makes them problematic and even impossible to move. After the initial slide, the CPR rail was cleared with much difficulty, and in 1924, rocks were moved to permit the construction of a highway.  Otherwise, the boulders still rest where they landed, and it is possible to visit the ruined mountain by journeying to the Frank Slide Interpretive Center.  The Center provides an excellent view of both Turtle Mountain and the panorama of the rock slide's destruction, as well as providing visitors with an excellent museum containing the history of the slide.  It is $10.00 for one adult day pass, $5.00 for youths, and children are free. Visit their website here.

At the Frank Slide Interpretive Center, learning about the tragedy at Turtle Mountain

Not all tales of the Frank Slide are depressing .  Seventeen coal miners were buried within the coal mine when the rock slide occurred, but had the sense of mind to dig through a seam of coal that led to the surface.  It took the men all of the night and into the next afternoon to dig themselves out, and by the time they surfaced, only three were strong enough to wield a tool.  However, all 17 survived.

My favorite tale from the Frank Slide Interpretive Center was that of Charlie the Horse.  It is a blend of victory and tragedy.  Poor Charlie the mine cart horse was trapped inside Turtle Mountain when the rocks rained down.  No one gave a second thought to a poor mine horse when they were understandably devastated by the loss of their families and friends.  On May 30, the mine was reopened for business, and shocked workers discovered an emaciated Charlie, who had survived in the mine for a month by drinking seepage water off of the mine walls, and chewing on wooden coal carts and timbers.  Unfortunately for Charlie, whose digestive system was a touch delicate at this time in his life, celebrated a bit too hard with his rescuers, and died shortly after his return home from an overdose of brandy and oats.

A bird's eye view of the sheer force of Frank Slide, courtesy of

There are two other great stories that go along with Frank Slide.  The first is that of "Frankie Slide", who was rumored to be one of the most miraculous survivors of the rock slide.  Baby Frankie (which is what she is known as because no one ever knew her real name) was said to have slid from harm's way in a basket (or on a bale of hay, or in her dead mother's arms, depending the version you hear).  However, this is an urban legend - no such baby slid to safety in that fashion. Frank Slide was a blend of two true stories: that of Gladys Ennis, a two-year-old found lying stunned in a mud puddle, and Marian Leitch, who was knocked out of the way into a pile of hay while her home was demolished.

The other legend is that of the bank. So many times people have commented on the "buried treasure" of Frank Slide, which I must reiterate is a total lie.  Legends abound that there is up to $500,000 buried somewhere under the ruins.  This is silly in two ways: one, no bank in a small mining town in 1903 would have that sum of money inside of it, and two, the bank was not in the path of the rock slide, and remained untouched in its original location until 1911, when it was torn down by human hands.  Sorry, treasure hunters!  Better cancel that order on the backhoe you ordered!

Joey models what is left of Turtle Mountain, which might not be done sliding...

Despite the fact that there is no buried treasure to be found, that doesn't mean you shouldn't go check out Frank Slide.  It is a humbling, sobering, and at the same time, majestic experience that is not to be missed!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Visit a Cactus Garden in a Chocolate Factory

There are some things every person pictures themselves doing while visiting the amazing light show that is Las Vegas: strolling the Strip, gambling in the casinos, drinking from a cup shaped like the Eiffel Tower, and enjoying a variety of performances, from Cirque du Soleil to Carrot Top.  Maybe some people envision themselves visiting a cactus garden.  (I never did, but cacti are pretty popular in this area of the world.)

But I will bet - and since this is a post about Las Vegas I really should do some betting - that no one has ever daydreamed about traveling to Vegas to visit a cactus garden in a chocolate factory.

Yes, that's what I said. Somewhere in the back streets of Las Vegas, there lies a beautiful cactus garden in the middle of a chocolate factory. It was an unscheduled and unexpected stop in my last trip to Sin City, but I'm sure glad we went!

pumpkin cactus, Las Vegas cactus
Some pumpkin-shaped cacti in Ethel M's Botanical Garden!

It all began when my cousin Marriann and I booked a day trip to see Hoover Dam.  That was a cool side trip, and a great way to spend a sunny day in Nevada.  On our way back, our tour bus driver, Harriet, made an announcement. "Ladies and gentleman," she began, and our heads automatically spun to the windows, eager to see whatever landmark she was about to point out. Instead, she told us, "I have a hankering for some chocolate."

I looked at her in confusion, as were all the other passengers.  "I am about to tell you a well-kept Las Vegas secret, folks," Harriet continued.  "Our city is the headquarters for some of the most delicious chocolate you will ever taste - Ethel M Chocolates. This place is where M'n'M chocolates began."

My mouth started to water.  Call me Pavlov's dog.

Las Vegas chocolate factory, MnM chocolate
Yum! Fresh chocolate made right in the factory.

"I'm all out of Ethel M chocolate at home, and I wouldn't mind stopping by to get some more, if that's okay with you folks," Harriet hinted.  "Is anyone in a hurry here?"

The bus shook with a resounding no, as everyone had been hooked by Harriet's introduction.  We all now wanted chocolate, and a free side tour to boot!  Harriet nodded smugly, and changed lanes.  As we drove to the factory, I got to see a side of Las Vegas that your typical tourist never gets to see - regular box-store malls with grocery and home renovation stores, neat boulevards lined with middle-class housing, playgrounds and parks for family recreation.  It was good to remind us that Vegas is much more than the busy, tourist-laden Strip.

Las Vegas Chocolate factory, MnM chocolate factory
Welcome to Ethel M Chocolates (and cactus garden).

Harriet explained to us that Ethel M Chocolates is not just a chocolate factory and shop, but also a famous botanical garden.  The original owner, Ethel M, was obsessed with cacti, and began her cactus garden in a courtyard just outside the factory so she could enjoy it every day.  Eventually her little side project grew to be a world-famous cacti collection.  The garden is free to visit, as well.

Las Vegas cactus, cactus garden Las Vegas
Standing outside the world-class botanical garden.

When we arrived, everyone made a beeline for the chocolate factory and store.  Figuring it would be busy and crowded, Marriann and I opted to stroll through the cacti instead.  We were very surprised at the massive amount of cacti and other desert plants - the gardens were very comprehensive and well-kept. I enjoyed seeing my first Joshua Tree, which don't typically grow in Las Vegas but flourished due to Ethel's tender, loving care.

Ethel M Joshua Tree, Las Vegas Joshua Tree
Standing next to a Joshua Tree - it looks fuzzy but it really is quite sharp!

The other fascinating feature of the cactus garden was the collection of saguaro cactus skeletons.  I found it amazing that these plants have 'skeletons' which stay standing long after the actual plant has died and decayed.  They were creepy-looking, but also hauntingly beautiful.

Ethel M cactus garden
The strange and beautiful saguaro cactus skeletons.

Sadly for our group, we had arrived just before closing time at the chocolate factory, so the machines and production lines were no longer running.  The fine folks at Ethel M still allowed us to wander through the factory tour to see what it looked like inside.  And of course, they let us buy chocolate to our heart's content in the store (oh... so... good!)

Las Vegas chocolate factory
Just a sample of the machines that go into making delicious M'n'M chocolate!

I'd like to thank Harriet, wherever she may be, for being such a creative and flexible tour leader, and for taking us on this unexpected and strange side tour for free.  It was a very unique experience!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why I'll Probably Never Hike the Wave (a.k.a. #35)

When you have a travel bucket list as long as mine, you have to be an optimist!  I am optimistic that somehow, someday I'll have unlimited funds and time to accomplish the items on my list.  I am optimistic that I will have the health and fitness to explore with energy and enthusiasm.  I am optimistic that my husband won't divorce me after I either a) drag him around the globe several times or b) ditch him repeatedly to globe-trot on my own.

But every now and then, I must also be a realist.  This is why I am willing to admit that there might be one item on the list that might not get checked off.  (Just one though... let's not get too crazy here.)

I am talking about Travel Bucket List item #35, section A: See the Painted Desert (the Wave) in Arizona.  It is beautiful, mysterious, unique, and seemingly virtually impossible to visit.  Allow me to explain.

The Wave, Arizona, courtesy of

I have indeed decided to go to Las Vegas for my Fall Break week in November.  I am going to the National Convention for Teachers of English, and I am going to aspire to meet Nicholas Sparks and many other famous authors.  I'm going to learn about teaching Language Arts in a world of digital books and graphic novels.  And, yes, because it is officially my Fall Break and a holiday for me too, I am going to do some sight-seeing.

But what to do? I have been to Vegas twice now, and have seen most of what the Strip has to offer.  I have been to Hoover Dam, the roller coaster at New York New York, the rides at the Stratosphere, eaten in some raunchy restaurants, visited a chocolate factory with a cactus garden (weird combo), and ziplined in the Nevada desert.  These were all amazing activities, and I'd certainly do them again, but I like trying new things and going on new adventures.

One of the items (#35 on my list) is to hike through the Painted Desert and find the formation known as the Wave.  The Wave is located in Arizona, but near the Utah border in a protected park called the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.  This patch of land is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, who strive to keep the Wave pristine, natural, and un-trampled by thousands of tourist feet.  This I respect, but boy!  Does this ever make it tricky to get to!

A play of shadows and light in the Wave, courtesy of

For starters, the Wave is about a 5 hour drive from Las Vegas, and no tours can be booked from Vegas to the town of Page, which is the closest settlement to the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.  So you'd have to rent a car.  This is not really a big deal, because I'm sure it would be a fun drive with lots to see and do.

Second, in order to hike in the Wilderness area, you require a permit.  This is where it starts to get challenging.  The Bureau of Land Management limits permits to only 20 issued per day.  10 of those permits can be gained through an on-line lottery system, but this must be done four months in advance.  The other 10 "walk-in permits" are given out (lottery-style) at the ranger station at 9:00 a.m. the day before you can go hiking.  There is no such thing as 'dropping in' to see the Wave. You plan your whole vacation around this landmark!

The Wave with a beautiful pool of water, courtesy of

BUT... but... that's not all.  If you are lucky enough to acquire a permit, you still have to find the Wave.  Due to the protected status of the Paria Canyon area, there are no trails or paths that lead you safely and surely to the beautiful Painted Desert sight.  IF the weather is nice, you won't get flooded out or washed away or covered in sand or cooked in the heat or eaten by vultures.  Chances are, however, that it will either be super hot, or super wet, so come prepared for the elements.

You must also come with a GPS device or your own magical sherpa.  No trails and very little landmarks make this nearly 5 kilometer hike to the Wave difficult to say the least.  Your only 'signpost' is a ripple in the distant hills known as the "Black Crack".  The Wave lies directly under this creatively-named formation, if you can get there.  Don't forget that 5 kilometer hike back home, too!  As you pick your way towards the Wave, beware crossing the open desert, with its baking hot stretches of sandstone, slippery sand dunes, and the wind blowing into your face - you guessed it - more sand!

Enroute to the Wave, courtesy of

As I continued to do my research on how to find the Wave and the best ways to get there, I came across a lot of articles about "Missing Persons" who had gotten lost in the unforgiving desert whilst searching for the elusive Wave.  Apparently, as the sun shifts, the shadow of the "Black Crack" can shift like a sundial, often causing hikers to misjudge the final location of the Wave, and leading them to get hopelessly lost.  This sounded promising.  P.S... Searchers must stop looking for you after sunset, or if the weather gets bad, so people, be prepared to be out there on your own after dark!

The "Black Crack", courtesy of

All in all, this is one bucket list item that I might not be exploring just yet.  I enjoy a good hike just as much as the next travel-obsessed girl, but getting lost in a desert and eaten by a vulture doesn't fall into my definition of a "good time"!  Perhaps I will enjoy instead Googling pictures of the Wave, and focus on completing section B of #35, which is hiking the much more accessible Antelope Canyon!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Getting Antsy at Home: My Husband's Worst Nightmare

It has been four months since my wonderful, inspiring, and beautiful trip to Scotland. The summer flew by with a fun family trip to the Rocky Mountains and lots of adventures with my Little from Big Brothers Big Sisters. September literally rocketed past due to my involvement in teaching a new grade, in a new (elementary) division with all new learning styles and curricula.

I have been busy coaching volleyball, preparing for a much-needed bathroom renovation, and developing some professional development activities for my staff due to a new role that I embraced at work. I met "Kids in the Hall" star Kevin McDonald during a hilarious night of improv at a local theater. I even took my niece and nephews to the West Edmonton Mall Water Park and was bullied into going down a water slide that was literally vertical and sent you hurtling through the air via a disappearing trapdoor. 

Meeting Kevin McDonald of "Kids in the Hall"
The crazy slides at the West Edmonton Mall Water Park

Busy, but seemingly not busy enough.  The itch has begun...

The second week of November is a week off from school, due to a day in lieu for two long evenings of Parent-Teacher Interviews (or Portfolio Conferences as they are known in my school division), Remembrance Day, and some other thing that I cannot remember at the moment. Regardless, it all adds up to a week away from work, and oh! The possibilities for adventure are endless.  Except...

Except I promised my hubby no more trips in 2012 (I've gotten to go to St. Louis, Portland, Las Vegas, Scotland, and British Columbia already).

Except I promised my hubby AND my bank account to quit impulse shopping and spending money on unplanned, big ticket items (like the grey pull-out couch I want for the basement guest room).

Except I promised everyone that I would have a complete bathroom renovation done by Christmas season so we could possibly host a family dinner.

My dream bathroom off Pinterest

As I mulled this over in my mind, most likely with a very unattractive pouting expression on my face, fate decided to step in.  Or at least, pop her head in the door.  I morosely Googled "Teaching Conferences November 2012" to see what I could find... and what do you know?  There is an AMAZING English Teacher's conference in Las Vegas during that particular week in November.  Not only would I get to scratch that travel itch that has begun to squirm under my tan-faded skin, but I would have the opportunity to meet authors such as Nicholas Sparks, Jon Sczieska, and Scott Westerfield.  I would get free novels to add to my classroom library. And even better, since I was shortlisted for an Excellence in Teaching Award in Alberta last year, I have some PD money that I was awarded to help pay for this adventure.  My husband and my 70s bathroom decor couldn't even complain!

So, the choice lays before me.  I haven't booked anything yet, but by Friday I hope to have made my decision.  Will I be taking a day-trip to the Grand Canyon?  Will I rappel off the side of the Stratosphere? Will I become the next romantic muse for Nicholas Sparks?  Check in this weekend to find out!