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Journal

The Ultimate Autumn Travel Experience Is in Churchill, Manitoba

There's more to fall than pumpkin spice and changing leaves

When I was first asked to write a piece about autumn travel destinations, I have to admit I was a bit stumped. I knew the editing desk would be flooded with submissions about road trips through Vermont, coffee shops in the PNW, and early-season skiing in the Rockies. I’ve never been one to chase the ordinary, and I knew that pushing out another paraphrased narrative about sweater weather and #vanlife would just get lost in the flurry. Autumn is a beautiful time of year full of incredible transitions as the world settles down for a long winter, and nowhere exemplifies that more than the arctic. The days rapidly dwindle to nothing, the temperature plummets and sparkling summer lakes turn to frozen glass. The ever-present daylight of the high summer is replaced by spectacular, dancing aurora against a backdrop of dazzling stars above the cleanest, most crisp air you’ll ever breathe. Many animals head south to avoid the unforgiving winter of the high arctic, but a robust few hang around to take advantage of the rare resources proffered by a frozen world. To truly experience the magic of the fall, I needed to head north. I wanted to witness one of the most incredible sights on this planet: the first few days when the oceans freeze and polar bears arrive from inland and head out to sea to begin a long winter of hunting seals from the sea-ice.

Sony A7R III, 400mm f/2.8 GM

The epicenter of this transition is Churchill, Manitoba. One of the first places where the ocean freezes each year, Churchill is jokingly referred to as the Polar Bear Superhighway due to the massive convergence of bears each autumn. I knew that just seeing a wild polar bear would be the experience of a lifetime, but I wanted to really be there with them. Eye-level, on the ice, to capture their personalities and experiences in a way that just can’t be done from an elevated platform or enclosure. Finding people willing to go on a hike in polar bear country during peak feeding season proved to be a challenge, and only one guide company in Manitoba offers ground-level experiences. Thankfully, the experts at Churchill Wild graciously agreed to host me at the Seal River Heritage Lodge, right on the shore of the Hudson Bay. With knowledgable guides leading my excursions each day, this would make the perfect pushing off point for this expedition. 

Because polar bears are inherently solitary creatures, finding them in the wild means getting away from human-populated areas. A 45-minute plane flight north of the town of Churchill - itself so isolated that there are no roads in or out and fewer than 800 brave souls call it home year-round - the Seal River Lodge is by all accounts in the middle of nowhere. Upon arrival it becomes immediately clear that you’ve arrived in polar bear country - the guides greeting you are armed with several methods of bear deterrent, the lodge features an elevated tower for keeping watch, and the entire compound is surrounded by a fence that’s reminiscent of Jurassic Park. Polar bears are the largest land-based predator on planet Earth, and due to the dramatic and challenging landscape they call home, they’re extremely “food motivated.” Although fatal interactions with polar bears are generally few and far between (because polar bears themselves are few and far between), the risk is ever-present. Thankfully the guides at Churchill Wild are spectacularly prepared and educated and I never once felt uneasy. 

Sony A7R III, 400mm f/2.8 GM

I’ve always considered autumn to be my favorite season for backcountry hikes, and while trekking across the frozen ocean in -30ºF weather isn’t what I generally had in mind, I have to admit I found it immediately appealing. Very few living beings dare to brave the elements of polar autumn, and exploring such a stark and gorgeous landscape by foot causes feelings of extreme badassery and hardcoreness. The landscape in Churchill is admittedly flat, perhaps the flattest place I’ve ever seen (and half my family is in Nebraska), but the arctic-coastal scenery is gorgeous in a way I never imagined. Brilliant orange willow leaves and crimson berries contrast against virgin snow and ocean waves flash-freeze over the rocks, forming crystalline sculptures glowing deep blue. As if that wasn’t enough to cement the Seal River Lodge as a true photographer’s dream, the extreme latitude causes the sun to stay low in the sky for the entirety of the day, creating a permanent golden-hour. There are no towering peaks or vertigo-inducing canyons, but I enjoyed my hikes on the arctic tundra as much as literally anywhere I’ve ever been. 

Sony A7R III, 16-35mm f/2.8 GM

And of course, there was wildlife. Arctic hares, ptarmigans, and arctic foxes scurried through the bushes and across the frozen sea, keeping us entertained between the excitement of commuting polar bears. It’s an indescribable feeling to be face-to-face with the largest carnivore in the world, on their turf. To stand there, in a landscape genuinely not meant for humans, to watch these beautiful animals in the wild is an experience that should be on everyone’s bucket-list. It’s every bit as impactful and humbling as standing atop Machu Picchu, seeing the great pyramids or watching sunrise in Yosemite, with the added imperative of a ticking clock. Current analysis claims that we may be sharing the last few decades with polar bears on this planet, and there’s nothing I’ve ever experienced that was as important to me as my time spent among these beautiful giants. Pumpkin Spice Lattes and New England road trips can wait - true autumn magic is found up north, where the wild things are.

Sony A7R III 16-35mm F/2.8 GM

Sony A7R III, 400mm f/2.8 GM

Sony A7R III, 400mm f/2.8 GM

Sony A7R III, 400mm F/2.8 GM

Nate Luebbe is a professional travel/adventure photographer from Seattle, Washington. He is a member of the Sony Alpha Collective and has a weird obsession with bears. For more, check out his website or Instagram

Best Hikes In Washington: Yellow Aster Butte

Finding an approachable hike in the North Cascades can be quite a daunting task. With over 10,000 square miles of protected wilderness but so few roads you can count them on your fingers, most trips into the Cascades require a serious backcountry slog. If you’re looking to bask in the astonishing beauty of Washington’s northern mountains but don’t want to blow a hamstring on a 25+ mile trek, Yellow Aster Butte is the crown jewel for amazing day-hikes.

Located just 38 miles east of Bellingham, the Yellow Aster Butte makes for a perfect weekend day-hike. It’s listed on the Washington Trails Association website as 6.8 miles roundtrip with 2,500 feet of vertical gain, but my GPS actually recorded closer to 9 miles and 3900 feet of elevation gain.  Not exactly a casual stroll, but very manageable for most hikers in reasonable shape.

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The first few miles wind through an old-growth evergreen forest, surrounded by lush greenery and mossy trees. After some fairly steep climbing you’ll break through the trees and traverse a gorgeous hillside with small streams crisscrossing the trail and sparkling alpine tarns dotting the surrounding hillsides.

The last push is very steep, and will definitely test your strength after the approach. Dig deep and charge up to the top to be rewarded with one of the most astonishing views I’ve found in the lower-48.  Looking south you’ll see Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan towering above the Nooksack River Valley and to the north you have unimpeded views of Tomyhoi Peak, Mt. Larrabee and the Canadian border. We sat on the ridge for well over an hour watching the sun go down, and found the hike back to the car to be quite manageable in the dark (with a headlamp, of course).

With so much territory to be explored and so many miles upon miles of hiking trails, it takes quite an impressive trail to make me want a repeat. Yellow Aster Butte absolutely fits that bill, and I will be back.

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The brightest lessons can emerge from the darkest hours.

I’m fortunate in this life to have many friends who share my same passions. I never need to look far if I want to share a nice hike, good beer, or night of live music. It is rare, however, to meet someone whose fiery passion for everything they do is so contagious that it inspires everyone around them to push their limits.

I met Justin on Craigslist. He sent a single sentence reply to an ad I had posted looking for a new roommate. Since I was broke and the deadline was coming up, we scheduled a time for him to come by and see the place. He introduced himself as Jarstin McFlarstin (an actual nickname that everyone, even family, calls him).  The apartment was an absolute shithole, but only minutes after his arrival we were already swapping stories of grand adventures – summit conquests and life changing hikes. I was immediately inspired. My Friday plans changed from beer and video games to 8pm bedtime and grueling hike in the morning.

We lived together for 3 years, even working side by side as line cooks in a Thai restaurant in downtown Boulder. We egged each other on, as guys in their early-20’s often do, to see who could run the fastest, eat the hottest chile, or get the cute girl’s phone number.  He even convinced me to wake up at 3am one day to go climb TWO 14,000 foot mountains, then drive back to Boulder for an 8 hour shift in the kitchen. We came down the wrong way and had to summit a third peak to get back to the car.  I literally fell asleep fully clothed on my living room floor when our shift was finally over.

We hiked and climbed everything we could think of, and continuously pushed each other to go harder.

Summit #1. Notice how we're still happy. 

One day Jarstin and some friends took off to Grand Teton National Park to climb the middle Teton. His friends came back. Jarstin didn’t.

Losing a friend is never easy. But Jarstin and I had jokingly covered the topic before and I knew that he had very literally died exactly how he wanted to; pushing his limits in some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. It was almost poetic. It reinforced for me that we are simply visitors in nature. Things can, and will, go wrong. But beautiful life lessons emerged from the shadows of that day.

Here are the 5 things I learned from losing a friend in the mountains.

1. Making excuses is the same as preemptively quitting. 

You see, Jarstin was born with a rare condition that caused severe curvature of his spine, and deformation of his legs. He grew up wearing Forest Gump style leg braces and didn’t even take his first steps until age 10. When the braces came off the ONLY thing Jarstin wanted to do was walk. He walked to school.  He walked around the local parks in Benicia, California.  He enjoyed his walks so much that he landed a job on the trail crew in Sequoia National Park. A man at age 24 with one leg still deformed and significantly shorter than the other had chosen a career in hiking. Grueling 14 hour days of physical labor, no creature comforts beyond a simple sleeping bag and a worn-out tent, and dehydrated food for months at a time.

Jarstin straight-up kicked my ass on the hiking trails, but there was no excuse I could think of to not keep up.  If this lopsided goofball could practically jog up the side of the mountain while telling dirty jokes and whistling old showtunes he learned from his father, then my fatigue was downright pathetic. He would fall multiple times during a hike, but be back on his feet so fast I almost thought he just took a break to do a quick pushup.  I was exhausted, sweaty, and hungry, but here was Jarst – stumbling uphill faster than I could even run back down.  I had no excuse to stop. I ended up in the best shape of my life that summer.

If you want something, go get it. Making excuses is just another way of giving up ahead of time.

2. Live fast, die young. 

I know that’s just about the most cliché sentence I could ever type, but I seriously mean it. Jarstin packed more life into his 27 years than most do in 40. At one point he had bought a ticket to Thailand, arrived with $25 to his name, and spent the next 2 years hand-building a bar on the Mekong. With some clever marketing and hard work he eventually sold enough drinks to tourists to buy a plane ticket home.

That’s the kind of adventure seen in Hollywood movies, but very few people have the guts to gamble like that. I still don’t, and probably never will, but the lesson has stuck with me. This is your only trip through this life. Not everything will go exactly as planned, and not everything you experience will be pleasant. But you should arrive at the finish line satisfied with your attempt. Give it your all. Take risks, gamble, push yourself, and make a serious lasting impression.

Who knows, maybe some day your friends will even write about you.

3. Trade comfort for memories. 

Your grandkids aren’t going to want to hear the amazing story about the time you Netflix-binged an entire season of House of Cards without a bathroom break. You won’t fondly reminisce about how you once wore sweatpants for 3 weeks straight because you were too lazy to do laundry.

Spend a couple of nights in a tent when the weather dips below 0°F (did it). Have a float plane drop you off in the middle of the Canadian Wilderness with some food and a canoe so you have to paddle back across the US border (did that too). Walk into the woods with nothing but a jacket and a pocket knife and spend the night in a handmade shelter, eating dinner that you foraged yourself (surprise, did it). Or spend 14 hours climbing mountains before a full kitchen shift. Thanks, Jarstin.

I find that most of the best stories I’ve heard in this life involve some sort of discomfort. A broken tent, a flat bike tire, lost luggage. Comfort is temporary, but amazing experiences turn into life-changing memories.

Out of my comfort zone, into my life-long memories. 

4. Nobody is beneath you.

One of Jarstin’s best friends was a part-time dishwasher in our kitchen. Jorge spoke almost no English and for the most part kept to himself. But Jarstin took it upon himself to learn enough Spanish to ask Jorge when he needed help, ask how his day was going, and just generally be a friend. Maybe one of the only friends Jorge had in town.

A year later Jorge got a new job as a line cook at a very expensive restaurant in town, and Jarstin and I were repeatedly treated to exquisite cuisine for free, simply because we had taken the time to treat him like an equal when very few others would.

Don’t forge relationships for your own benefit. Forge relationships because all people are truly worth knowing. If you’re genuine and true, the good will follow.

5. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. 

Jarstin lived his life on stage. He was always singing, doing impersonations, whistling or cracking jokes. Sure, some of it was dumb, but nobody bats 1.000 in this world. Having the guts to throw it out there and let the world see the real you is terrifying, but overcoming that fear is true freedom. I’ve heard countless people retell stories of Jarst and his incredible freedom of expression is always the centerpiece. Nobody remembers the stupid jokes and nobody remembers the failures. But everyone respects the effort and the selflessness of going for it.

Does this look like a man who cares what you think?

The greatest people in history have failed, very publicly. The gumption to get up and carry on is the measure of the man or woman, and all successes are born out of first learning how to NOT do it.

You have no reason to not. Go out and do.

Why I Bring a Camera

I like to know things.

There it is – basically my entire existence summarized in a single sentence. My unquenchable thirst for knowledge and skills borders on fetishism. Unsurprisingly, such a thirst seeps into every facet of my life; work, leisure, even romantic questions are exhaustively researched.  Many hours have been spent googling what most would barely glance at on their phone, bored, waiting for their latte. How much does the length of each day differ as the seasons change? How much farther south will the sunset be in the winter? Where are the best natural hot springs in Colorado? Can you actually pulverize a golf club in a blender? (spoiler alert – yes. And it’s AWESOME.)

Of course I never wanted to just learn. What good is knowledge unless it’s put into practice?  So, with this new knowledge came new adventures and eventually my life was filled with extraordinary experiences and wonderful memories.

Memories are powerful, but as with any avid adventurer I wanted to relive those moments, and be able to share them with anyone who wasn’t able to attend.

Words have an incredible way of painting a mental image, but if words are too sparse, the story lacks luster. If the recounting is too rich in descriptors, it’s too tedious to be enjoyable. And so, my foray into photography began.

At first glance it was too good to be true. Just point this thing at a sunset and my friends will see exactly what I saw?

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Nope.

Turns out cameras take a bit of skill too. In this age of iPhone bathroom mirror selfies and shaky GoPro footage it seems that cameras are everywhere and I definitely misjudged how hard it was to capture a quality moment. Not just the colors and the lighting, but the emotion, the feel, the memory.

So I went down the photography rabbit hole, reading and absorbing everything I could about framing, exposure and processing. I was in my element. There was stuff to learn, and I had the passion to take my nightly googling from “casual” to “weirdly obsessed.”

But with any new skill, reading is only step one. Practice makes perfect, and practice I did (though perfect I’ll never be). Every spare moment was spent shooting and editing. Waterfalls, sunsets, action sports, my roommates on a hike, my roommates in the kitchen, even some classy portraits of my roommates dog. Not kidding.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Classy. Dog. Portraits.

I submitted my pictures to various websites for approval (thanks for the thrashing Reddit), and even entered several photography contests. I transitioned my Instagram from pictures of my beer (still not kidding) into scenic photography.  With careful deliberation and invaluable feedback from the digital communities I finally started cranking out some pictures I was proud of. I still have a thousand things I want to improve on but I’ve actually begun getting paid for pictures, which does a far better job of paying the bills than Instagram likes.

Eventually my photography progressed to the point of autonomy. I no longer felt like the camera was an unwieldy tool to manipulate, but rather an extension of myself. I realized that I had stopped focusing on things like shutter speed and aperture, and had begun learning something new; the landscape around me.

My everpresent quest for the ultimate scenic landscape had subtly forced me to explore the area around my home. I had accidentally built a vast mental collection of nearby hikes, scenic vistas, beautiful drives and picnic spots.

Once I had found a landscape, there was more learning to be done. In the process of a sunrise photoshoot I would spend hours studying the landscape before me. The way the crest of a peak interplays with the lines of hills below, or the subtle contours of clouds drifting down-valley. While dozens of photographers line up at the scenic pulloff, I explore nearby. Zooming in and out, walking to different vantages, playing with every composition I could think of. A small hike up a nearby hill can change a picture from stereotypical to revolutionary.

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This picture brought to you by random exploration above oxbow bend, a world famous photoshoot location in Grand Teton National Park.

I understand that many people don’t want to be tied to a camera when they’re outside, and of course they enjoy their time outside every bit as much or more than I do. Occasionally I will get told to put the camera down and live in the moment. However, I learn so much more in a moment through my lens. I find zen in capturing the fiery oranges fading into silky purples of twilight, and noticing when and where the first stars make their appearances.  I have to notice when the sky is brighter than the forest, and the times when it’s not. Those things used to happen all around me, with no acknowledgement. Now, I notice. My surroundings have become my priority and so much previously-unseen beauty gets stored in my memory.  I no longer simply exist in the moment, I internalize it. In the process of trying to freeze an entire existence into a single frame I’m forced to obsessively dissect everything around me, and the takeaway is so rich in detail and love that I’m nearly overwhelmed when reliving the moments on my computer screen.

I no longer remember, now I re-live. And that is why I bring a camera.

I’m a man who carries two different business cards. One reads “Professional Brewer” for one of the largest craft breweries in Colorado. The other, “Professional Adventure Photographer.”  I spend a LOT of time outside, and I take pride in bringing delicious golden suds with me wherever I go. However, being a literal card carrying beer nerd creates certain standards and expectations. I’m not going to hike a liter of Dortmunder with an authentic stange in to the backcountry, but I have enough pride to at least drink my beer cold!

So until someone invents a portable, solar-powered fridge that fits in my tent, I’ll keep using the elements. Here are Nate Luebbe’s tricks to chilling your beers in the backcountry.

1. Rivers, Lakes and Streams!

If this picture doesn't make you thirsty, I'll sell my camera.

Alright, let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, tarns, puddles. Nature’s drinking fountains, with a secondary (better?) use as a beer cooler.

Nothing goes together better than river sports and beer.  Standing thigh-deep in a creek casting flies can work up a mighty thirst; so fill that net with a 6-pack of your favorite local brew and plop it in the water. Floating some whitewater?  Tie a mesh bag to the back of your raft and fill that puppy with cans.  I’ve even used my mosquito headnet and hung it off the gunnel of my canoe to make sure I had some proper refreshment when the paddling was finished. Plan ahead for diminishing stocks, it seems that my “post paddle” refreshments always seem to disappear during the trip… some mysteries just can’t be solved.

It’s worth noting that beer cans are just about the same density as water so they will float away if you just toss them in a river. Be smart and protect our wilderness, wedge those suckers behind a rock or better yet use some sort of bag or tether. Also please no glass, for reasons that I hope are obvious.  There’s a reason that every good outdoorsy brewery packages in cans.


2. Get high!

I’ve literally never drank a warm beer at high elevation. It’s a miracle to break 45°F (which is the correct serving temp for IPA’s) even in the dead heat of July when you’re at 13,000 feet.  If all the trunk time warmed your cans on the drive to the trailhead, just store those babies near the outside of your pack and let Mother Nature work on refreshments while you work on some elevation!

This works as a wonderful odometer too. If the beer isn’t cold, then you must not be done hiking yet. If you’re on the summit and they still aren’t cold, then maybe it’s time to pick a higher summit. Use your beer as motivation to push yourself, it’s like dog treats for people!

Remember, It’s always good practice to plan ahead and bring a few extras. Almost everyone on the mountain mentions how good a beer sounds, but few people take the time to pack a can for the summit. A full 6 pack only weighs 4lbs, and pulling out a few spares is a sure-fire way to make new friends.

Up to you if these are the kind of friends you want to make. (Humboldt Peak, 14,065)

If you’re passing around beers on the summit, always double check that the empties are getting packed out. Pack it in, pack it out, even if you didn’t get to do the fun drinking part.

3. Ice and Snow!

The mountains didn’t turn blue, but I think it’s cold.

If you’re a true fan of delicious beer and outdoor adventures, then you don’t need a sweaty summer afternoon to crave a frosty beverage.  A hard ice climb up a frozen waterfall or grueling skin to the top of a mountain can get me as hot an sweaty as any summer sport,  and a cold can of beer is the perfect way to cool back down. I usually just store the cans in my backpack and then toss them in a snowbank for a couple minutes at the top while I recooperate from the climb.  The best part is how quickly they cool, if you decide on one more (and you probably will), then 5 minutes in the snow is all it takes to chill a can to drinking temp.

This may seem obvious but I’ve seen people pack a cooler with ice to go skiing in January. Let Mother Nature do her thing and save the fossil-fuel produced ice cubes for the warm months!

Quick note; if it’s cold enough out to have frozen waterfalls, then it’s probably cold enough to freeze your beer as well. I recommend stuffing the cans into the snow because snow actually insulates to 32°F on the dot. Your beers will be cold and delicious but won’t turn into frozen chunks of disappointment.

4. Evaporative Cooling!

A cold beer in a very hot place.

In the warmest of summer months I often find that rivers and lakes near me are warm enough to not adequately cool a beer. Thanks to the power of thermodynamics and (I’m pretty sure) straight witchcraft, there’s a beautiful workaround; evaporative cooling. You see, transitioning water from liquid to gas requires a substantial amount of energy to break the molecular bonds holding the water in it’s liquid form. This transition (known as a phase change) absorbs heat from nearby molecules and as a result hot steam floats away and the surface that water evaporated from is left considerably colder. This is the entire basis of how sweating works.

So since beer cans can’t sweat (thank God, am I right?), we can mimic that and cool our beers off using just a gentle breeze on a warm summer day. Sounds like the next #1 hit on the country music charts.

  • Take a piece of thin cloth and get it wet. If it’s super fancy “wicking” fabric this will work even better, as it’s literally designed to evaporate and cool.
  • Wrap it around your most favorite beer.
  • Put that can in the shade. Of course it will dry faster in the sun, but the direct heat of sunlight will be very counter productive.
  • Wait a little while. Continue to rehydrate the cloth as needed.
  • Drink up!

This effect won’t ever get you down to ice-cold, but as discussed you should really be drinking your delicious craft beers at cellar temp (45°-55°F) anyway. Plus you get to talk about science to all your friends, and who doesn’t love to sound smart?

5. Keep it warm?!

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Not a waterbottle. Insulated Growler. We don’t mess around.

Ok this one is kind of a trick. But sometimes enjoying a delicious beer in the wild means putting effort into keeping beer warm enough to remain a liquid. I’ve had some amazing days skiing in the backcountry with 3-4 cans of PBR stuffed into my parka. Finding a pocket that perfectly balances your body heat with the piercing cold of January at 12,000 feet takes a bit of trial and error, but you’ll be deliciously rewarded once the balance is struck!

The good news is that beer will stay a liquid below the freezing point of water, thanks to the alcohol and pressure of the can. Usually keeping the beers in the center of your backpack, or jacket pocket should be enough to prevent freezing. If a beer does freeze, it should fully homogenize and be completely delicious and drinkable once it thaws, so don’t throw it out! If you’re lucky enough to have a big winter beer like a chocolate stout, grab a spoon and eat that sucker like a slushy. It’s totally not that weird, I promise.

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