On the Hunt for Aurora Borealis with Paul Zizka

Feature photo from Travel Alberta Winter Magazine 2014-2015. Photo by Paul Zizka.

It is not every day that you get assigned a story you’ve been dying to write, and even less likely to be asked to write about a person very close to you. So, I was ecstatic when Travel Alberta approached me about writing a story about my husband, Paul Zizka, and his quest to chase the Northern Lights here in the Canadian Rockies. Having the insider’s perspective on this crazy chase, especially during the solar maximum in 2013, I could have written a lot more about life at home, and how it intermingles with aurora forecasts, solar flares and Paul’s incredible ambition to capture the dancing lights. But I left myself out of the story, and talked purely about Paul’s efforts to photograph the aurora borealis, and the resources he uses to track the likelihood of their appearance.

It was a cool night on May 31, 2013, when professional photographer Paul Zizka left his home in Banff to drive to Herbert Lake, a small body of water along the world-famous Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park. Eagerly, he glanced upwards through the windshield, checking the skies at regular intervals. All forecasts predicted the aurora borealis, aka the northern lights, would put on a show – perhaps the best one of the year. “I knew I was on the verge of what could be one of the greatest photo ops I had ever encountered,” Paul explained.  → Read the rest of the article, starting on Page 30 here. 

Travel Logs from the South Pacific

I’ve been a bit quiet on here the past few months, but that’s because I’ve been island-hopping in the South Pacific with my husband (photographer Paul Zizka) and my now 13-month-old daughter, Mistaya.

Our travels have taken us to New Zealand, Niue, French Polynesia (the islands/atolls of Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Maupiti, Bora Bora, Tikehau and Fakarava), and Hawaii. Throughout the journey, I have been writing about the process of travelling abroad with a baby – the joys, challenges, enriching moments, and the struggles.

You can find all of these blog posts using the South Pacific tag on The Adventures in Parenthood Projecthttp://adventurousparents.com/tag/south-pacific/

Here is the archive:

70 Days in the South Pacific

Finding Our Bearings on the Banks Peninsula

Is Adventure Worth It Even When It’s Miserable? A Baby on Jetlag

Solitude and Separation at Punakaiki Beach

Finding Our Groove in Opunake

Why My Husband Hiked a Volcano in the Middle of the Night

Discovering More Than Meets the Eye in Niue

Paradise, Milestones, and a Reality Check in French Polynesia

6 Awesome Things About Travelling Abroad with a Baby

Thoughts Turning Homeward in Tikehau

Determining Success Amidst the Hardships of Travel

Interview with Where.ca

Where.ca recently contacted me about participating in their Travel Tuesday Q&A. I promptly agreed. A chance to talk about my favourite place on the planet (The Canadian Rockies)? You bet I will!

They asked me lots of questions about my favourite spots in the Canadian Rockies, my life as a writer, and my own travel habits. My favourite question: Are there any common misconceptions about the Rockies region that you’d like to dispel? You’ll have to read the article to find out!

6 Things I’ve Learned About “Living Off My Lifestyle”

“How do you make a living out of your adventures?”

This was a recent question I got from Marissa over on The Campsite during the latest Stoke the Fire, a post in which I ask readers to share what’s on their minds about any and every topic to do with outdoor adventure. “How do you pay your bills? Is it selling articles to publications? On your blog? With videos?” she asked.

Working in Boghara, Nepal. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.

I let out a deep sigh of “if only you knew!” when I first read these questions. We all have people we admire or perhaps even envy in life. From the outside their arrangement seems so perfect. They seem to have found “the way,” the ideal equilibrium in which their playtime becomes a source of income and they have endless amounts of time to pursue adventure.

But I think that’s an illusion, at least partly. And it definitely doesn’t describe my personal arrangement.

To answer Marissa’s question, I make a living out of my adventures by working extremely long hours; being self-employed; learning to cope with an unknown future; networking the heck out of social media; choosing projects that will develop me professionally, even if they aren’t for pay right away (like Mountains in Motion and The Adventures in Parenthood Project); and learning how to be rejected over and over again.

On the plus side, the rewards are well worth it: I get to write about topics that inspire me, get invited to cover stories or events that are outdoor or adventure-related, seek opportunities less and less and instead wait for them to come to me (which they often do!), meet and interview amazing people, and control my own schedule so that I can make time to pursue my outdoor passions.

Without divulging all my secrets of how I pay my bills, I’ll offer up a few things I’ve learned along the way. Keep in mind that our career paths are ever-evolving. These lessons are based on my experience in the here and now.

6 Things I’ve Learned About “Living Off My Lifestyle”

1. The process is never completely linear for me. I based my niche as a writer on what I love to do, but sometimes it will be years before a trip I take turns into content for a story or lands in a brochure. For example, an article I recently wrote about Nepal was something I pitched in November 2010, submitted March 2012 and won’t see published until at least this July. Also, the many years of hiking and exploring Banff National Park have enabled me to write and suggest content for my local clients, particularly for the marketing materials I produce for the park. It could be four years between the time I meander my way down a trail and a description of that trail ends up in a hiking brochure for Banff or Lake Louise.

2. Many writers have their passion projects and ones that they do for pay. After learning the hard way, I now choose projects that I will enjoy and that align with my own values. If I do something only for pay, I end of compromising majorly on my happiness and lose motivation. Words come more easily when I’m not trying to fake them.

3. Ask and you may receive. If you don’t you’ll never know. I attribute some of my bigger successes to the times I took a big leap of faith and put my head on the chopping block only to discover that it actually never gets chopped off! Every query letter, request and idea is a stepping stone, even if the person on the other end has to decline or say a flat-out “no.”

4. If you want to love what you do for work, you may have to let go of certain types of securities and comforts (having health benefits provided by an employer, vacation pay, a pension, regular pay checks).

5. I have learned so much about the industry by joining a variety of associations, including the Professional Writers Association of Canada, Alberta Magazine Publishers Association and the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition. There are resources, and other people, out there to help you achieve your work and lifestyle dreams.

6. Last but not least, giving back to the outdoor/writing community, providing feedback to other writers, volunteering my skills, commenting on blogs and articles, and engaging with people on Twitter and Facebook have all helped me grow and learn as a writer, outdoor enthusiast and a person. Supporting others in their work is the best way to grow in your own.

Any other writers out there have some lessons they’d add to the list?

Blogging is a great way to keep in touch with your fans and bring your readers along your travel journey. Allowing them to be part of the process allows them to connect with you and that may mean more to them than you think! I wrote this piece for my blog, The Campsite, providing tips for travel blogging so you don’t burn out while you’re at it.

Beyond the Campsite

Many people travel to “get away” or pursue adventure, but that doesn’t have to mean that you disappear altogether. Even some of the most remote places on the planet have access to the internet these days, making it possible for you to have the best of both worlds: to be “away,” yet still connected. Travel blogging can be a neat way to stay in touch with family and friends and also keep a record of your trip. For the writers out there, blogging can be a great way of including your readers and fans in your travels and providing them with some words to chew on along the way.

But, it’s not always easy to blog on-the-go.  Many people set out with the intentions of blogging, even starting up a travel blog prior to leaving and announcing it to all their friends only to realize that they just don’t have…

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Top 10 Posts of 2010

Turning the corner on a new year always causes me to look back at the previous one. For this year, I decided to take a look at the stats from this website and take a look at which posts got the most ‘clicks’ in 2010. So, for your reviewing pleasure, here is the Top 10.

1. Destination Review: Casa Zen in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

A short overview of one of my favourite spots on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.

2. Publications

A select list of my publications.

3. Banff’s New FEAST

An introduction to Banff’s new artisan grocer.

4. Ski Touring to Lake O’Hara and McArthur Pass

Turns out a lot of my website hits come from people searching for beta about ski touring, hiking and climbing in the Rockies. Here’s one example.

5. Hiking Clearwater Pass and Lake O’Hara

Trip reports from these destinations.

6. Best Spots for Ice Skating in Banff National Park

A little guide to natural outdoor skating rinks in Banff National Park.

7. Alpine Ski Tour: Peyto Hut and Wapta Icefield

A short description of some of my favourite places to visit on skis (or boots in summertime).

8. Education, Experience, and Development

A little bit more about me…

9. Ski Tour at Bow Summit

One of the most popular ski touring destinations in Banff National Park. Great if you’re just starting out.

10. Who is Yahe-Weha?

The answer to my most popular question. With a Twitter name like yaheweha, I’ve always got people wondering.

Enjoy! And here’s to more great posts and visits in 2011.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2011.



Guest Post: Terminal Lhasa (Mark Unrau)

This week’s guest post is brought to you by Mark Unrau, professional photographer and multi-media enthusiast based in Banff, Alberta: http://www.markunrau.com/

In 2006, after finishing film and recording work on a project in Amdo, Tibet, I decided to make my way to Delhi, India, overland through the Tibet Autonomous Region and Kathmandu, Nepal.  I happened to be in Xining a month after the highly debated and anticipated rail line that China had completed, crossing expanses of permafrost and high mountain passes ending in Lhasa, Tibet. This rail line connects China to Tibet in an accessible trade and tourist route.  Built to impress the world with engineering and ingenuity, the train hauls tourists, locals and entrepreneurs in a comfortable and interpretive 3 day trip.  The passenger style train is equipped with oxygen under the seats for those of a weaker constitution, and boasts explanations of the technology and scenery in English over the intercom. Until the opening of this rail line the only way to make it to Lhasa was by plane, or on a very uncomfortable, and very long nine day bus ride.  For the entrepreneur and locals the flight is an unattractive option because of baggage restrictions the new rail which is able to carry much heavier and larger loads is an appealing alternative.  For tourists, the very reasonable ninety Yuan price tag and amazing scenery to be enjoyed in cushy roomy seats make it very hard to pass up, except for the following consideration…..

A functioning rail line to Lhasa has allowed an explosion of new development in Tibet, due to ease of access for the Han Chinese, and swift transportation of goods to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.   For the Chinese this is a victory of commerce, and the train has often been portrayed as a good will gesture towards the Tibetan people; the reasoning is that more tourist dollars rush into the local economy and new business opportunities arise.  This may seem fine from a Chinese or businessperson’s point of view; however, for the Tibetans living in Lhasa for generations, it is a disaster. Almost all the business opportunities are being taken by Han Chinese.  On my journey, there were a very few Tibetans taking advantage of what the train had to offer.  Most passengers, including my neighbor, were Chinese.  My neighbor sat quietly for the whole trip, pensive in a well pressed suit.  I didn’t imagine that she was a tourist heading to Lhasa to visit temples, embark on a pilgrimage or buy trinkets from the locals.   The Tibetans were most easily distinguished by their plain clothes, or traditional wear,   burdened with loads of baggage.

I have not done research into the facts and figures around the Beijing to Lhasa train, but the fact is that it has wrought huge change in the Tibetan culture.   With the enormous influx of Han Chinese into Tibet, the eradication of Tibetan culture within Tibet has increased rapidly.  The cost of living has gone up with the influx of Chinese currency and resultant lifestyle expectations.  Some observers, even in the West, say that this increase in living costs and “higher” standards helps the local Tibetans, but as has been the case in our own country, the effect of colonization on the indigenous people, sped up by the arrival of the train, has been profound. During the few days I spent in Lhasa I observed many construction projects, with traditional Tibetan buildings being torn down and replaced by buildings featuring Chinese style architecture. There were Chinese citizens everywhere, with the major concentration of Tibetans clustered in the Barkhor, and near the Jokhang Temple. Chinese police watch carefully, as do the unblinking video cameras in many of the public places.

I had read in books that Lhasa was a beautiful city, and I found this to be true; however, I had never seen the “old” Lhasa, so I have nothing to compare it to.  Though “modern” can be beautiful, one has only to look at cities and towns in Canada that have been built in recent times to meet the demand of an economy that is growing rapidly.  I see a difference in priorities in the function and look of these kinds of places.  What are the views of the developers on providing and maintaining cultural necessities? In northern Alberta, it is instructive to head into the local Native communities that are living within the high development areas and ask how they are benefiting with all this development and prosperity.  Tibet is rich in minerals and there are many mining prospects active on the Tibetan plateau; in fact, some of those projects are headed up by Canadian mining companies.   I have worked in the oil and mining industry since 2002 and know people who have worked on such mining projects in Tibet.   It is not a stretch to see the similarities between our development style and the Chinese, in areas with a high resource value. Lhasa and Tibet are losing, or have already lost, a wonderful architectural and cultural heritage, a culture and history that permeates the thousand year old walls and streets.  There is a feeling, anywhere you travel in the world, that you get when you walk into a home that has been lived in by generations of the same family.  There may be pictures on the walls and markings of how tall the children have grown and the smooth wooden doorways that have collected the oils from the hands of energetic children running through.   These homes were built to be beautiful and are more than just a place to lay your head.  Homes, whether buildings or towns, are made by people who care about more than dollar value. The Tibetans have been making Lhasa home for many generations, contributing and crafting a city much like the one you can imagine.  There is room for new comers as not even the Tibetans are exclusive and they may very well arrive by this train.   Migrants and visitors could be Chinese or Tibetan or even Canadian.  What I found disturbing is the quick and merciless destruction and rebuilding of the great holy city, to fit the ever-expanding needs of the Chinese while ignoring the rich Tibetan heritage, and the desires and needs of the Tibetan population.

There is one thing I value more than a beautiful city or a healthy culture and community.  I am so thankful that in Canada I have the freedom to publish such an article and express strong opinions. In Tibet, many people have been taken away by the police never to be seen again by their families, simply for displaying, or carrying, a worn photograph of the Dalai Lama.  No matter what your thoughts are, or what the facts may be concerning mining or oil and gas prospects, here in Canada we have a choice to voice opposition because of our concerns for irreversible damage to the environment or people.  Tibetans as of the time of this writing still do not have this right.

It is a threat to my romantic memories of Lhasa to return.  If I do, I will probably become like many who have visited many times over the years – I will forget what has been lost, and thus lose a bit of my appreciation for the beautiful place called Lhasa.


This guest post was provided by Mark Unrau, a professional photographer and multi-media enthusiast based in Banff, Alberta:

Mark Unrau is a professional photographer and multi-media enthusiast with a diverse range of skills and experiences.  From immersing himself in different disciplines in the audio/visual  industry and having a passion for creative challenges, Mark has developed a company that continually strives to produce the highest quality products while expanding its creative services.  Mark Primarily uses cameras for still photography which in recent years has brought him accolades such as the Grand prize from National Geographic Traveler’s ” World in Focus” and honorable mention from ” Prix de Paris” International Photo competition.  Mark also works in sound and video which he is proud to have been  involved with The Shining Spirit Project which brought him to Tibet as their field Sound Engineer for the music CD, “Shining Spirit – A Tibetan Family’s Reunion Through Music”.   The Shining Spirit Project documentary has recently been accepted by National Geographic to show at their “All Roads Film Project” in 2010 and has been showing non-stop around the world at festivals.

Mark is available for Photography and Audio production as well as assistance in Photography/Video post-production.

He is currently living in Banff Alberta, Canada.

Check out his website at http://www.markunrau.com/