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. 

Finding Inspiration at the Banff Mountain Book Festival

Considering the quantity of sold out events this year at the Banff Mountain Book Festival, I think it’s safe to say that it is no longer a best-kept secret, and no longer the ‘little sister’ to the Banff Mountain Film Festival. On a more personal note, the book festival has always been my favourite part of the festivals – not only because it offers a more intimate experience, but also because words are my medium of choice, the way I process information, my lifeline.

As a writer, the Banff Mountain Book Festival encourages me to dig deeper, to find the story really worth telling and to continue sharpening my skills so that perhaps one year it will be me up on that stage presenting my own book. But for now I’m content to learn from others, to absorb from a seat in the audience, and bring the stories of others to you.

I can’t recap the entire book festival, but the events today offered a particularly good mix of topics and styles. They also brought with them lessons we can apply to our own lives, which I’ll summarize here:

The Calling.Barry Blanchard kicked off the with the presentation of his book, The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains. I was familiar with his book, having reviewed it for The Campsite a few weeks ago, but it was refreshing to hear him reading his own words. In fact, the book read better aloud than it did in my head, and listening to Barry gave the stories new life and the audience an opportunity to laugh. It is clear the crowd – a home crowd for Barry – simply loves this man, and that spoke as loud as his words. One thing I learned from Barry, both through his climbing stories and his account of challenges writing the book, is the importance of perseverance. If you eventually want to see something in print, you need to work away at it, letter by letter, word by word.

Paddlenorth.Next, author Jennifer Kingsley presented her book, Paddlenorth – an account of a 54-day, 1100-kilometre journey she made with friends on the Baillie and Back Rivers in Nunavut. While she didn’t intend to write a book about the trip, the experience motivated her to do so. She didn’t reveal too much about her book (I’ll have to read it!), however a few things she said caught my attention. First, she made a comment about how modern travel allows you to get from one destination to another very quickly, but that does not mean that you have caught up emotionally and psychologically. This also ties into a comment she made about returning home from such a voyage: “This is the kind of trip that when I got home, it wouldn’t lie down,” she said. Having been on a few longer stints of travel, I can relate to both of these comments – to needing time to catch up to my destination and needing time to unravel the threads of the experience once I’m home.

Great Bear Wild.Finally, photographer, conservationist, and author of Great Bear Wild, Ian McAllister, took the stand. I was familiar with McAllister’s incredible photographs, just not the stories behind them. Walking the audience through the backstories of his images, McAllister conveyed a deeper understanding of these magnificent creatures. By explaining their contexts through human analogies, I could relate to the wildlife in a way I never had before. I appreciated these stories because these are the creatures and habitats (alongside First Nations communities) under threat due to the plans to build the Northern Gateway Pipeline. Through McAllister I learned that the Great Bear Rainforest is actually an area that is seeing regeneration and a resurgence of life. It would be a shame to see that compromised. Be sure to check out PacificWild.org for more information on what you can do about that.

The festival doesn’t wrap up until Sunday night, so be sure to check out the Banff Mountain Festivals to snag any remaining tickets.

Keep following along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for dispatches from the field!

Special Announcement: The Campsite Finds New Owners

Back in January 2011 I had a vision: to create an online community that would facilitate discussion about the outdoor lifestyle and the inner journeys we experience there. To give budding writers, or those wanting to hone their skills, a home for their words. To network with the outdoor industry – from longstanding gear companies to grassroots campaigns. To feature high-quality, curated content that would distinguish this outdoor website from a field saturated with outdoor blogs.

Nearly four years later, The Campsite has become just that. It has a loyal community of readers and it has explored the outdoor journey in various forms. It continues to produce highly curated content, and has supported many writers, photographers, organizations and companies along the way. It has nurtured an impressive network. And, finally, in 2014 it was noted for its quality content with a nomination for USA Today/10 Best Readers’ Choice Award for Favourite Hiking and Outdoors Travel Blog – landing in the top ten.

But like many things in life, The Campsite needed new wings to let it evolve. Being a freelance writer, a full-time mom, and a woman with many passion projects, I wanted to see The Campsite thrive, but knew that I would not be the person to take it there. I considered shutting it down, then thought I could bring on someone to help keep it going while I figured out my next steps (thank Helena Artmann for being such an amazing team member!).

The Campsite.

The Campsite.

The Sale

About one month ago, I decided I would list The Campsite for sale using freemarket.com. I used a few websites to get a sense of its value, and took the bold leap to find it new owners. I had no idea what to expect. I had never built and sold a website before. After a quiet first few days, with the odd spark of interest, I got a phone call from a local acquaintance showing a bit more sincerity about taking over The Campsite. After a flurry of text messages, she and her partner were well on their way to putting together an offer for me. I knew instantly that these were the women meant to take over my beloved website. For me, it was about finding the right people to take over and I couldn’t believe these two women had pulled through. To find two other Canadian Rockies souls was a big bonus.

So, I’d like to introduce you to The Campsite‘s new owners as of 2015: Alannah Jensen and Jen Whalen. Alannah, of Lannie Rae Gourmet, and Jen, of Mountain Bound Photography, are teaming up to bring you the next iteration of this outdoor lifestyle blog! They are stoked, to say the least, and I’m equally excited that The Campsite will have the power of these two women behind it. We’ll be sure to give you a proper introduction to these women in the weeks to come.

Of course, I’m a bit sad. It is hard to let go of something you love so much, of something you built and nurtured. But we must let go of things in order to make space for new opportunities. And that’s where my life is leading me right now.

Jen and Alannah, I wish you all the best! And thanks to all of you for your loyal support. You taking the time to read my articles makes it easier to do what I do each day.

Keep Following The Campsite

New E-Guides Available for Adventurous Parents

I’m excited to announce that I now have two e-guides available for adventurous parents, Adventure Travel with a Baby: 40+ Tips and Insights and Essential Gear for Travelling with a Baby (a handy checklist for packing!). Versions of these articles are available on adventurousparents.com (see below), but if you want to full version, you can now download it for a small price. Newsletter subscribers can receive them free! Check out details below.

e-guides:

e-guideAdventure Travel with a Baby: 40+ Tips and Insights

Buy it here!

Description: Adventure travel takes on a whole new meaning when you add a baby to the mix! After 20+ flights and four countries with a baby, outdoor, travel and adventure writer, Meghan J. Ward, has compiled her best tips for globetrotting as a young family. 

A condensed version is available on the blog here.

e-guideEssential Gear for Travelling with a Baby

Buy it here! 

Description: Gear doesn’t make the world go ’round, but having the right gear on-hand can sure make your life, and travels, a lot easier! If you’re bringing a baby along, refer to this checklist compiled by outdoor, travel and adventure writer, Meghan J. Ward, with her recommendations for the best gear for adventure travel. 

A version is available on the blog here. For the handy-dandy checklist (perfect for packing!) you’ll have to download it.

Please note that e-guides contain affiliate links. By clicking on them you say “thank you” to Meghan J. Ward by providing a small commission from your purchases.

15 Tips for Getting Started in Freelance Writing

About once a month a friend, colleague or stranger will ask me the very same question: “I have been wanting to take my writing to the next stage. How did you get started in freelance writing?“.

Sometimes I’m tempted to say, “Just start.” How do you train for a marathon or big climb? You start running, you start climbing.

But I know it isn’t that straight-forward. There are definitely some pointers I wish I had known when I started out – things I had to discover on my own in a fairly long, drawn-out process that continues to this day. So, I often let these curious writers treat me to coffee and I download my knowledge. After some time, though, these conversations became repetitive, and time-consuming for both parties, so I decided to write this article.

These tips are based on my own personal experience. There are many ways of getting started in freelance writing. In my research I definitely looked at a few options and picked the one that resonated most with me. I welcome any tips from other writers out there and encourage you to use the Comments to provide your feedback.

15 Tips for Getting Started in Freelance Writing

1. Keep Writing and Reading

You’ve probably heard it before, but spend some time writing each day. Sharpen your tools so that they are as effective as possible when someone is willing to give you a chance at being published. Tips #8 and #9 can provide you with a great platform for this.

Equally important to writing, however, is that you continue reading. Read the authors who inspire you, deconstruct their sentences and develop a keen eye for what works and what doesn’t. Last year I dedicated myself to 52 Weeks of Feedback to help me commit to reading other people’s work more regularly (and provide some feedback to them).

Also, read the publications you want to write for so that you have a good sense of what they have published recently, as well as their tone, style, departments and article lengths. Many libraries have a good stock of back issues from magazines.

Just some of the books I reference regularly.

Just some of the books I reference regularly.

2. Research the Industry

Some people have the advantage of a degree or certificate that introduced them to the ins and outs of freelance writing. I came out of university with a Theatre Degree. But thanks to the World Wide Web there is a flurry of information already available online and websites ready to help you get started. I spent an entire winter just researching what it meant to be a freelance writer, what kind of outlets existed for my writing, and what the process was for getting published. I met with the only freelance writer I knew to learn how she got started. As it turns out, the path she took (ie. writing for newspapers) had no appeal to me, but at least I learned this was an option.

3. Learn How to Write a Query Letter

Learning about the infamous “query letter” was my first big “aha!” moment when I was researching how to enter the freelance market. Most publications, especially those that pay for material, don’t want to receive a complete, unsolicited article. Instead they want you to pitch your idea in the form of a query letter.

Editors are busy and likely won’t read a full article, but they can make time to browse through a well-written query. If an editor likes your idea, this also gives him or her some space to suggest possible angles and fulfill the current needs of the magazine. Check out this article by Paul Lima for How to Structure a Query Letter. Keep track of your queries so that you know where and when you submitted.

4. Find a Home for Your Words

Writers Market produces an annual volume of publication listings (by category/topic) and writing advice. The Canadian Writer’s Market offers a listing of Canadian publishers, which is handy for the Canucks out there. Otherwise, you can use the web to research magazines and journals that might be interested in the topics you like to write about. Figure out which publication (and department within that publication) is the best one for your idea and submit your query letter to the appropriate editor.

5. Attend Writing Conferences, Workshops and Seminars

I could write a whole post about why this is so important. As a writer, you need to keep learning and these types of events not only help you to perfect your craft, but also teach you about the writing industry (and its current state) and allow plenty of opportunity to network. Sometimes the opportunity to be published is a “right place, right time” kind of thing, and meeting editors face-to-face can really expedite the process. Some of my most valued relationships are with the magazine editors I’ve met at conferences. Meeting them in person enabled me to discuss ideas and turn them into reality almost on the spot.

Thanks to the Internet, online seminars (or “webinars”) now also provide writers with the opportunity to “attend” a workshop without even leaving the house.

6. Read the Masthead

You might have flipped past this before, but it’s a good idea to read through the masthead – that list of names, departments and circulation information at the front end of a magazine. You might see the names of other writers you know, notice that the magazine has a new editor, or learn that the magazine accepts interns (more on that in Tip #10). All this information will serve you well when you are querying a magazine, and particularly when you’re wondering whom to send your query to.

7. Subscribe to Newsletters and Blogs

These appear in my inbox once a week and while sometimes they go straight to the trash (depends on how busy I am) I often scroll through to see if there is any content that appeals to me. My favourites include Worldwide Freelance, Funds for Writers, Masthead and Show Me the Money.

8. Write for Free (at first)

I hear some freelancers screaming out there. There is a debate in the industry about how writers can undercut the market by providing their services for free or cheap. To a large extent this is very true, but there will always be grassroots publications, non-profit organizations or websites in need of content and they simply can’t pay. To get some experience, I wrote for organizations like the Alpine Club of Canada, CPAWS and the Stephen Lewis Foundation – all for free. You need to be published to get published. Start small and work your way up.

9. Start a Blog

I’ll start this tip with a warning: be careful what you put out there. The first blog I ever maintained is now offline. At some point in my career, I simply couldn’t have a lower quality of writing floating around the Internet. My writing has improved hugely since I set off on this journey. But that being said, I now maintain a few websites, including The Campsite and The Adventures in Parenthood Project, which allow me to publish my own words, explore with my writing and position myself as a pseudo-expert on certain topics. On another note, these websites have helped me to nurture relationships with people involved in the industries I like to write about, including other writers, bloggers, gear companies and organizations. Blogging is also just plain fun.

10. Seek Out a Magazine Internship

If you live in a larger city, you’ll likely have more opportunity to find a magazine that is looking to hire an intern (this could be paid or unpaid). I leaped for joy when I discovered that Alpinist Magazine was looking for an Online Editorial Intern and didn’t mind if that intern worked remotely. I spent six months with that magazine, working from Banff with regular Skype calls with my editor. And though I slaved away for free, the experience taught me a lot about the industry and my own writing. I emerged a much better writer, with new connections in the industry I never otherwise would have made, and with a bit more credibility behind my name.

11. Build a Website and Get “You” Online

Once you have a fair amount of credible publications under your belt, and you’re keen on pursuing freelance writing, I recommend you start up a website. There are plenty of platforms to help you do this and my personal favourite is WordPress.com. This can be attached to your blog somehow or kept separate. A website, such as the one you’re on right now, will provide people with an online resume, help to attract potential clients and provide you with credibility. Go ahead: buy a domain with your name in it right now, even if you don’t plan to build a website for a year.

Furthermore, in today’s world I believe it’s absolutely essential for a new writer (well, anyone) to take control of his or her online profile. When people Google your name, what comes up? Google mine. You’ll notice that I share names with another U.S.-based writer. After discovering this, I realized the importance of 1. adding the “J.” to my name (to distinguish us) and 2. further “branding” myself as an outdoor, travel and adventure writer. (From time to time we have been confused but both gladly assist people in finding the right Meghan).

You need to be the one that makes sure your online presence is clean and accurate. Having a website will help.

12. Join a Writing Organization

Once you have a few publications under your belt, you may benefit from joining a larger organization that supports freelance writers. Again, this will broaden your network and provide you with numerous professional development opportunities. I am member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (you’ll also want to check out their writers.ca) and the Alberta Magazine Publisher’s Association.

13. Build a Social Network

Building a strong social network online will not only help you get your work and name out there, but perhaps more importantly will introduce you to people and publications you may never otherwise have encountered. These people include other writers, editors and potential sources or experts. I use LinkedIn to expand my professional network and Facebook, Google+ and Twitter to create community around my work, to crowd-source and simply listen. If I had to pick just one, I would use Twitter (check out my 5 Reasons Why Writers Should Be On Twitter).

If you’re interested in connecting your business online I highly recommend you read Six Pixels of Separation, by Mitch Joel.

14. Don’t Quit Your Day Job…Yet

We only have 24 hours in a day, and many people struggle to find time to pursue writing when they are working full time. For a few years I worked full time while I built up my portfolio. Then I moved down to 30 hours a week, and took on more writing. At one point, I was working 30 hours a week at a local retail store, 20 hours a week for Alpinist, and freelancing on the side. Eventually I took the leap to writing full time but only when I saw that I had enough work to get by.

It’s worth mentioning that there are not many people in Canada who make a living purely off of freelance writing for magazines. My income comes from 1/3 freelance for magazines, 1/3 web/brochure/marketing copy, and 1/3 social media and marketing consulting. Those ratios are always in flux, but at least that gives you an idea.


15. Be Resourceful

One of my favourite quotes is by Ben Franklin: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Naturally, we like to write about topics that interest us. And one of the coolest things about writing is that you can take something you do anyway, write about it and make some money.

In April 2011, my husband and I went ski touring in Auyuittuq National Park, within the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island. While I was writing an article for IMPACT Magazine about ultra runner, Ellie Greenwood, I got talking with the editor about that trip. He asked if I would write something, so I did (you can read about it in The Land That Does Not Melt).

I’ll admit it’s not always easy to find a balance when anything could become fodder for an article. You can read about that in the 6 Things I’ve Learned From Living Off My Lifestyle.

Be persistent. In can take years to build up a portfolio and gain credibility in the industry. If you really want to make it happen, even as a side business, you need to stick with it. To this day I still have many query letters rejected each year (and often I don’t hear back at all). Keep your love for writing at the center. Give yourself a pat on the back just for showing up and watch this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I would appreciate any additional ideas that other writers have for getting started in freelance writing. Please use the Comments feature below to share your ideas!