Adventure Seven: Into the Great Wide Open of the Pacific Northwest

After an unexpected six months off the road (death of George’s mom, a change in motor homes, our move to MN, my sister’s surgery, etc.) we are finally on to a new adventure across the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. It is so thrilling to be back in the wild, but sadly, we find that we are completely out of practice and stumbling around like newbies…. forgot a bunch of supplies at home, don’t have a stable routine for our setup and takedown, and it’s injected a note of crankiness into the first couple of days while we get our groove on again. But when we think of those who are still working and cannot get away for more than two weeks at a time, it’s a good problem to have.

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Day one has been a letting-go of our home territory. Now we see only huge fields of corn, soybeans and alfalfa hay that stretch out to the horizon. Gradually noticing still-standing spring wheat fields awaiting harvest. This is not typical in Michigan or Minnesota in early September, but is increasingly frequent as we drive across North Dakota and of a size that leaves one breathless. Harvesting this crop requires multiple gigantic combines, cutting and threshing. These are the behemoths you see on TV shows where the biggest (fill-in-the-blank) is featured. See our later post from a visit to a Montana wheat farm for more mind-blowing statistics on western farming.

Night one was spent boondocking in a Walmart parking lot because we were hellbent to get as far into North Dakota as possible for the inaugural sleep. So far, so good…until 2:30am, when a hard knock came on our door, with an overnight workman asking us to move our rig so that they could finish painting lines on the parking lot surface. In the middle of the night. Are you kidding??? Walmart graciously allows travelers (RVs, truckers) to park in their out-lot for free, so we cannot complain…but we sure did swear a bit! Thank goodness we were so dog-tired that we quickly fell asleep again after the move maneuver.

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Day two brought us to the very western side of North Dakota, just outside the southern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. FYI North Dakota seems to suddenly morph from the Upper Midwest to the Cowboy West just after crossing the Missouri River at Bismarck. It leaves behind all of the eastern side’s lovely prairie pothole lakes and ponds created by the glaciers, and becomes the arid, rolling, nearly treeless plains one associates with eastern Montana. The home of buffalo and pronghorns. No more marshes or wetlands, no more dairy farms, and even the cattle herds are few and far between. There are, however, still larger vast fields of bearded wheat and both horse and alfalfa hay still awaiting harvest. Indisputably, we’re in the West now.

After arriving at our campground there was enough left of the day for a hike, so we Jeeped over to the National Park to take the circle scenic drive to the trailhead. We’d hoped to get in a nice 5.8-mile trek across the Little Missouri River and up one of the park buttes, but just as we shed our shoes for the river crossing, a light rain and thunder started up. Behind us lurked an ever-darkening sky with lightning bolts in the distance, so we ran for the car. But not before seeing a crew of trail riders out watering their horses in the river – such an iconic western image.

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The rest of the drive around the 38-mile circuit traversed clay and sandstone hoodoos, long vistas of the park’s buttes and rounded monadnocks, around scoria slopes and cottonwood groves next to the river. It might have taken Teddy Roosevelt the better part of a year to fall in love with this region, but not us – we love its stark beauty and abundant wildlife already. Quite comparable to Death Valley in terms of being unforgiving and harsh, but so stunning, and so fragile. To think that the Bakken Shale Formation is right outside the park, and fracking has ruined the landscape just over the horizon for decades to come, it’s just a nightmare. This is land so very worth protecting. A bush torn out here takes decades to regrow.

Quite a few wild horses roam throughout the park and adjacent Grasslands Wilderness, as do restored herds of buffalo, elk, pronghorn antelope, whitetails and mule deer. We saw deer, buffalo, horses and prairie dogs today, can’t wait for more tomorrow, when we drive to the northern unit of the park.

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The middle (Sunday) of the Labor Day weekend has been predictably crowded, the campground is wall-to-wall people and the park entrance is backed up 7 cars deep, which seems a lot for a park out on the edge of North Dakota.

After driving the 70 miles from the park’s south unit to the less-visited north unit, we picked out two western-side hikes for the day, starting with a rim walk on the south Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point. An embarrassingly short (1.4 miles) distance, but since we’ve been off the road for 6 months, best to start slow.

Met up with a park ranger in the parking lot, very opinionated individual who urged us to take the north Achenbach Trail, which we did next and it did not disappoint. A very steep descent down hard clay slopes tinged with lignite from the coal veins in the hills. Funny how it’s always easier to hike UP than down a strenuous slope. Gorgeous geology to be seen here. The day had heated up to the mid-80’s by 3pm, our signal to get off the trail and cool down.

We drove into the largest town near the park, Watford City, in search of ice cream and a grocery store. Nothing doing on the ice cream front. Seems this town is nearly as overrun by the Bakken shale oil and gas boom as its neighbor to the north, Williston, and apparently oil-rig workers have little use for ice cream. No one drives anything in this town except pickups. And the lone supermarket seems to have an abundance of he-man foods. Quite a bit like the gold rush era, I’m sure, the incoming workforce has taken over the local culture and it’s no longer a farming-dominant community. Wonder what the town will be like when the oil rush is gone.

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We woke up early this morning and sneaked off to a morning hike on the trail the storm shooed us away from two days prior: Big Plateau to Mah-de-Hay to Ekblom Springs, 5.5 miles round trip. What a glorious hike!! It featured two fords over the Little Missouri River, multiple gigantic prairie dog towns, sightings of coyote, wild horses on a high ridge, turkeys, pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer, and bison, always bison, both singly and in herds.

Just to be clear, Elvis sought us out, we did not stalk him. He is a magnificent bull bison in his prime, probably 2,000 pounds of muscle, hair, horns and attitude. We’d come out of the east across a very large prairie dog town, and we were ready to ascend a rocky slope toward the intersection of two of our trail segments. Elvis was right in the middle of the trail, scratching himself on some large rocks that had recently tumbled onto his path.

We figured he’d go further up the path and we’d then be able to continue. But instead he swung around and headed directly toward us, leaving little time or room to beat any kind of retreat. So we ducked behind our own stash of big rocks and waited for the Big Guy to walk past us, which he did soon enough. We heard his huffing and snorting as he walked by, barely 20 feet from our hiding spot. He turned, looked us squarely in the eyes, seemed to ponder whether we were a threat, judged that we weren’t worth his time or effort, and ambled off, swaying his little rump into the distance (thus earning the name Elvis). What a thrill!!

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This National Park is everything we’d hoped for in a vast, restored prairie with hundreds of river-eroded canyons displaying the dozens of colors of clay, loam, bentonite and lignite that make it so unique and impressive. Because we had done some prairie restoration on the farm with native grasses like big and little bluestem, side oats, buffalo grass, wild brome and the like, and native flowers like wild bergamot, purple coneflower, blazing star, wild asters, spiderwort, penstemon, milkweed, etc., we appreciated all the species on display in the park. For the grazing and browsing animals, these plants present a lush variety on which to dine. For now, nature seems in balance here and both flora and fauna are flourishing. Good to see.

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For a few days now, we’ve been in the wilds of Montana. Tonight the Moho is parked in Salmon Lake State Park, 45 min east of Missoula (which totally rocks, btw). We’re now resting from today’s hike up the ridgeline of Mount Morrell in the Lolo National Forest. It was a relatively short hike by our standards, 2.5 miles, but with 600 feet elevation gain and ending at 8130, it was challenging for us flatlanders who haven’t acclimated to altitude yet. Got a great 360-degree view of all surrounding peaks, canyons, lakes and valleys. Fall flowers (fireweed, yarrow, wild asters, even some confused lupine!). Despite the smoke from distant forest fires, we saw all the way to the Mission Mountains, nearly to Flathead Lake to the north.

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Devastation from last year’s fires throughout the Swan-Seeley area is vast. Lightning strikes ignited a three-month fire that burned through 160,000 acres. The conifers will take 20-50 years to recover. Even bushes take 15 years here, because of the area’s limited topsoil and unpredictable rains.

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We’d stopped to see the USFS Forest Ranger at the Fire Tower before hiking to the mountain summit, and chatted him up for 20 min or so. Learned a lot about how they watch over the area and manage the burn probabilities. Nice young man. Jeez, I sound just like my folks.

Apparently, the Forest Service sets up a yurt in the winter for people who want to snowmobile up the fire management road, hike to the mountaintop and then ski down. Good deal.

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Today being a sore muscles day from yesterday’s hike to the summit, we decided on a horse ride at a guest ranch operating for the past 60 years in the Bob Marshall Wilderness area. Our guide, Tommy Tyler from Georgia, was knowledgeable and very personable. He gave us two lovely steeds and a spectacular ride up and down the mountain. George got a gorgeous painted pony, and I got a roan quarter horse as shiny as a copper penny. My horse responded very well to corrections and gave me a thrill by trotting up every hill. George’s horse definitely had a mind of his own, diverging from every path to forge his own way.

It is always a thrill for us to connect with animals, and even though we’d been warned that they probably wouldn’t like the apples we brought along (can you imagine??), both of our mounts as well as the guide’s horse gobbled them up after the ride. I believe if you take your time to let the horse to get to know you, show only love and no fear, treat them well and give them lots of strokes and cooing, they learn to trust you in short order. At least it’s worked for us.

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Tonight we’re in Great Falls, getting ready for my two-day driving lesson with Don, the pro truck driver who works for the RV Driving School franchise operating nationwide. Should be interesting, and I hope, effective!!

I have decided that my daily task while on moho adventures is to clean the front windshield. So necessary. We encounter a multitude of winged insects on the drive, and regrettably, some of them stay with us, stuck to the glass. In the fall, carnivorous hornets and bald-faced yellowjackets swarm over their carcasses like starving mobs — it’s quite the challenge to scrub the glass without being stung. But the weirdest observation of all: after several days of being parked in a cloud of feasting wasps, the bug bodies previously stuck to the radiator grille are….gone! The carnivores made off with every single body part. Amazing.

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Well boy-oh-boy, did that RV Driver’s training make a huge difference!! George and I both went through the 14 hours of instruction and practice, me as the driver and he as the co-pilot, and we learned so much. Extremely happy to have that under our belts, and we both have great confidence in our improved ability to handle whatever lies down the road. Check that box with a gold star!!

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Don, our instructor, also did us a huge favor by introducing us to a fellow farmer up north of Great Falls who farms at least 6500 acres of wheat, chick peas and barley. We drove up to meet him and his family, learning about how North Central Montana was settled by homesteading farmers like his ancestors from eastern states (ND, NE, MN) in the late 1800s, who each got a grubstake of 360 acres. Third generation grain farmer Jay, his son, daughter-in-law and eldest granddaughter had just finished bringing in 160,000 bushels of wheat and were starting to plant the 2019 crop of winter wheat, at a clip of 300 acres per day. FYI that’s mighty fast.

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The scale of farming in Montana is so immense, it’s hard for a midwestern farmer to comprehend. In northwest Michigan, a dairy farmer might grow 400 – 600 acres of corn and other grains per year, both as feedstock and to sell on the commodity market. The Montana grain farmer is at least an order of magnitude larger, with combines and grain drills that are like small houses in size and reach 70 – 90 feet across the field at a time. The tires on the combine alone cost $12,000 each, the combine costs $575,000, and Jay and his son own 2 of those, a huge grain drill and several dump trucks, along with innumerable grain bins and sundry other equipment. Whopping capital investments, and as always, farming is a risky business. Not for the faint of heart.

I just want to say that almost no one in Montana drives anything but a pickup. Ford must be so pleased. Even in Missoula. Remarkable.

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Today brought us to the MT-ID border for a much-needed soak in hot springs pools, and two nights at Lolo Hot Springs so that we’d have time to take in at least one area hike.

What can you say about a resort that time forgot? This camping area-cabins-hotel resort has likely had ZERO capital investment since 1960, and if you ever wanted to know what Soviet Russia’s public baths were like back then, this is your holiday spot. It’s quite a mental trip back in time, and we’ve never driven through a bumpier, more rutted parking lot and campground than this one, so the value of yearly maintenance to a campground is now highly appreciated by us and our rig. But the baths are sublime!  I’ll be filing a guarded review on Yelp and RVParkReviews.com on this one.

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Today brought us a nice 3-mile hike up the Nez Perce/Nimiipuu Trail along the Lolo Creek valley. Heavily forested slopes let us forget the ravages of the area’s forest fires for a while, and we finished out the day with another soak in the hot springs. Sure takes the soreness out of hiking muscles still getting used to the ups and downs of the trails.

After a good sleep, we pushed on to Idaho through the Lolo Pass. Tonight we’re camping at one of the US Forest Service campgrounds that is still open through the end of the month, and it’s a beauty. Took in Diablo Lookout Trail this morning, a verdant and very well vegetated trail that winds through both burn areas and untouched fir forests. Love the very-miniaturized lupine on the slopes and the heathers, as well as the profusion of fir tree starts that cluster along the path, hardly more than one foot high.

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This is the start of carrying my bear-bells on our hikes, therefore we don’t expect to see much wildlife on the trail (an ok tradeoff for scaring away grizzly bears), but we did manage to spot a ruffed grouse, a small hawk and a mystery bird (brown-grey, white and red)* that we have yet to ID. Six and a half miles round-trip in less than three hours, which makes us feel we are starting to get our hiking legs back.

Tonight’s menu called for homemade turkey vegetable soup, canned while we were still on the farm, and buttermilk biscuits made in the moho’s convection oven. We waited with baited breath to see how they turned out — it’s all a grand experiment. As is the rest of life.

*We now know this is a grey jay!

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This morning’s weather was cool and skies were grey, but we struck out for the Warm Springs Trail anyway, as it promised seven hot springs and much beautiful scenery. Got as far as the first four springs, then the skies opened up for a steady-to-heavy rain. The area needs rain very badly, so we’ve got lots of patience for the wet, but after 20 min of waiting we figured it would be miserable hiking to go the rest of the 7.5 miles in a downpour. Still, the hike was beautiful with the river on the south side of the path. Such clear water, running over small-to-large rockfall…a perfect Norman McLean river. Met up with a bow hunter on foot, also exiting the trail. From what we understand, out here most hunters pursue their prey on horseback, so that they have some means of hauling out the carcass if they get lucky.

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Maybe the rain will ease off later in the day and we can attempt another hike along the way. Good weather for reading, in the meantime.

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This trip is turning out to be one spontaneous modification after another….figured it made little sense to truck all the way down to Boise from North Idaho….far better to roll on to Moscow, and try to see our good friend Gillian (Program Director for NWPR, Northwest Public Radio, and all-around wicked fun crazy-woman!) To our great good fortune, she was able to make time for us over the weekend and we had non-stop merriment in her hometown! Touring around the beautiful Palouse region was eyeful enough, but she took us to the PieSafe and Creamery in Deary, where we loaded up on pie, pastries and CHEESE, then we swung into Pullman, WA for a quick tour of the WSU Grizzly Bear Research Station (10 bears on site) before going to a fabulous party hosted by advisors to NWPR. Next morning we had a delectable brunch together (just a few “simple” dishes thrown together by G!), then ambled over to the County Fair in search of goats, sheep and rabbits (check, check and check). Had to say fond farewell at noon to be able to drive on to the next destination, but we will be coming back to Moscow, the gorgeous Palouse geography (not my photo, but you see how splendid the landscape is!), and more fun with Gillian.

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After four hours of driving through the high plains of eastern WA in a 25-mile headwind, we were ready for a night’s rest in Pendleton, OR. What luck that we spent the weekend in Moscow, as the Pendleton Roundup was also this very weekend. One of the area’s biggest western parades/rodeos, it attracts thousands. Maybe we’ll see it someday, with our grandkids. And maybe not….

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Stopped at the Pendleton factory store for a much-needed blanket to go in the moho. My feet have been freezing overnight as the weather turns colder, and I must have more heat on the feet!! I also wanted to do justice to seeing the Pendleton Mill, as it was one of the original providers of trading blankets to the American Indian tribes, an honorable business that was vital to the tribes. The old brick building is a landmark from 1909. Just beautiful.

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Today’s drive took us down to John Day, named for the eponymous river that runs through central Oregon. We’re staying here prior to visiting the amazing John Day Fossil Beds national monument tomorrow. Sneaked in a short (2.6 mile) hike up Strawberry Creek Trail to an ethereal mountain lake just beneath Strawberry Mountain. Splendid.


Turns out John Day Fossil Beds are the best place in the US for diversity of fossil species across geologic eras. Starting with plants and small-celled creatures 600 million years ago and rolling forward through multiple glacial periods, this park contains fossils of lizards, dinosaurs and many mammals, together with the foods they ate/animals they preyed upon, giving paleontologists a complete picture of how they lived and died. There has been continuous exploration here since the 1850’s.

We hiked a four-mile trail through the Blue Basin in John Day, which was every bit as colorful as many hikes made through Death Valley’s mineral canyons. Never saw a single rattlesnake. Thank goodness.

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By this time, I think we can unequivocally confirm that yes, the National Forest Service owns and manages vast stretches of the western landscape. We can also say with confidence that a very large percentage of the NFS lands are, whenever viable, leased for grazing by private ranchers. So, the claim that the government unfairly controls the West’s land seems bogus to us. Whether lessees are paying for the grazing or not (shades of Cliven Bundy and his ilk), the cattle are out there and eating whatever they can scrounge from the land.

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On to Bend, Oregon, to camp near the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. First up: a 7,000-year-old lava field which was barely starting to support life again. The basaltic lava is a harsh environment for plants and trees, and virtually zero humus has accumulated atop it in the millennia since it settled upon/rolled across the landscape. The very sharp rocks are impossible to walk across, so we stuck to the asphalt path through the lava fields.

That afternoon we drove down to see the obsidian flows in the park’s south end. But first we had to get on top of Mount Paulina, an 8,000 ft high crater rim, to see the glassy pool. We climbed for 90 minutes, gaining 1500 feet through heavy forest and emerging onto a windy ridgeline populated only by gnarled whitebark pine, Clark’s Nutcrackers (old friends from our trip through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison), Gray and Stellar Jays. When you’re at the summit you see the impressive view of two glacial lakes and the obsidian bed winding its way between the lakes and around the south side of the smaller lake. A great reward for the effort.

 

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Now onto the Columbia River Gorge, to start working our way toward Portland. The drive north from Bend is a continuously rolling series of ascent-descent-ascent-descent, for 130 miles. Parts of the drive looked like the desolation of central Montana, while one stretch near Mount Hood looked similar to the Palouse. You can see an unbelievable amount of scorched earth from grass fires which have consumed grain crops, wooden fences and grazing land. This tragedy must make farming in the Central Oregon corridor a going-out-of-business proposition.

Nothing on the way prepares one for the likes of the River Gorge itself, as the river is broad, deep and sapphire, swiftly moving (despite the dams) and appears quite clean. The walls of the gorge are nearly vertical or steeply tilted from the Cascades uplifts of past eons. Large vineyards and fruit orchards can be found up the east end of the Gorge. We have driven through the stretch that includes the Eagle River fire from last year, and blessedly, it hasn’t badly scarred the beauty of the Gorge, but it surely was terrifying to those who live here.

 

 


Beacon Rock lies just west of the Bonneville Dam, was noted in Lewis and Clarke’s expedition as an outstanding landmark, and is actually a basalt volcanic plug similar to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It towers 900 feet above the Columbia river, and was purchased in the late 1800’s by a philanthropist to avoid local developers from blowing it up to make a pier structure out into the river. We climbed it today, and the view is commanding out toward the dam structure.

It’s not hard to figure out why the Gorge is beloved by Portlanders, Oregonians and anyone who visits, let alone the native Chinookan, Paiute, Multnomah, Klickitat, Umatilla, Umpquah and Warm Springs peoples who lived here starting 10,000 years ago. The geography is impressive, climate is relatively mild and moist, food grows well, and the environment is clean and verdant. People kite-ski and windsurf on the Columbia, and boating as well as sternwheeler cruises are popular. We stopped in a small town near our RV park to purchase fresh caught salmon, smoked and dried salmon for several meals. Baked with a maple mustard glaze, the salmon filet from the center of the fish was the best we’d ever had, no more than 24 hours out of the water. Native line-caught salmon is readily available along the river. Thank goodness.

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Took a drive today in the rain showers into Portland….too wet to hike….and stopped at the Alder Street Food Pods in the middle of town to enjoy the fare. I had one of my daughter’s favorite Beijing dishes, binh mi (crispy pancake filled with fried egg and vegetables), while George had five bao (steamed dumplings, Nanjing-style). Washed down our lunch with a fresh mango lassi. Yum! Stopped at Pearl Bakery to pick up fresh artisan bread, and pastries for breakfast. Planned to stop at Portland’s Art Museum…..as did hundreds of other patrons for free-admission-Saturday. The line went around the building, so we passed and will try again tomorrow! A happy accident in Portland’s Chinatown, though….Autumn Moon Festival! We strolled through the grounds, enjoyed the music and dance – just the right capper to a day in the city, and a testimony to the large numbers of Asians who have settled here.

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Today was the day for the Portland Art Museum, two hours of native Northwest tribal art and pre-European era crafts, as well as contemporary Indian artistry and Asian antiquities. We are loving the exposure to so many tribal names we’ve never heard of, but which the Pacific Northwest seems determined to reintroduce to the public and to credit for their achievements and culture. This is a very fine museum, thanks to generous donations from private collections (as always in premier museums). Afterwards we drove around north Portland, a fantastically eclectic blend of hipsters, Ethiopians, African Americans and young professionals’ living and working spaces. Saw the Nike Factory Store (mobbed on a Sunday) and the Portland Marina on the Columbia. Feasted on local native-caught and smoked chinook salmon salad in tomato boats for dinner. Singularly delicious!!

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Dropped off our motor home today for service tomorrow (steering stabilizer system), so we’re in an industrial neighborhood of Vancouver, WA for the night. First foray today into Washington State Park hiking brought us to Paradise Point and an Ireland-green walk along a small river and through cedar forests. We extended the day’s hiking with a stop at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge near the Columbia River outlet to the Pacific Ocean, and walked the refuge’s Oregon White Oak and Cedar forests for several miles. Saw coyote, blue herons, sand cranes, river otters, lots of turtles and nutria, a larger-than-muskrat fur-bearing rat imported from South America in the 1930s as a source of revenue for trappers in the Northwest. Another get-rich-quick scheme that introduced an invasive species, and now they are thick as flies here.

Trees on this stretch of the coastal area get little exposure to harsh elements but plenty of rain, a good amount of sunshine and the kind of undergrowth that creates a lot of moisture-retaining humus. The oaks and cedars are simply immense, in girth and height. One oak, over 400 years old, had dozens of huge branches radiating from its trunk and bent gracefully to the ground. The diameter of the canopy had to be at least 70 yards. And it showed zero signs of slowing down, healthy as could be. Apparently the winds are no problem for these behemoths to handle. Similarly, the cedars are ancient, tall and broad at the base. The trunk of one multi-centennial tree on the way to the refuge occupied 80% of the front yard in which it grew. Hope the house occupants like the view of the bark!! Also, a sycamore-like tree lives out here, producing giant leaves – turns out to be the Bigleaf Maple!

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It is so much fun to stop at eateries recommended by those whose taste you respect. In this case, the recommend came from Andrew Zimmern, for Broder Nord in north Portland, one in a family of three authentic but hip Nordic restaurants in the greater PDX area. We caught breakfast there today. Nordic griddlecakes with maple syrup and apple pork sausage, aebleskivers (Danish fritters, light as a feather), and assorted Norwegian pastries. Strong coffee and a Hollander (espresso with a shot of Advocaat), and we’re good to go for the day!!

Portland closed out for us with a drive up to the renowned Japanese Gardens, a visit my parents would have treasured. When my dad was in the Air Force, he was stationed on Hokkaido and we lived on base. He learned and then taught Japanese flower arranging to local women, and this graceful style percolated through our family to be appreciated for a lifetime. The gardens in Portland were originally architected in the early ‘60s and today the plantings are mature and majestic. From bonsai to towering cypress, stone raked gardens, koi ponds, temple gates and breathtaking views of Mt. Hood, the 12 acres are a tranquil refuge from the noise of the city, and they attract birds to complement the quietude of carefully arranged nature.

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The setting up in the hills of Portland is perfect not only for the cedars, pines, spruce and cypress of the park, but also plays host to Portland’s 4-acre International Rose Test Gardens. 10,000 rose plantings including Floribunda, Hybrid Tea, David Austin English, Grandiflora, Tree and Miniature Roses entice the nose and the eyes. PDX is called Rose City, because the climate is so very hospitable to the flourishing of this species. Plenty of sun (except for winter), plenty of moisture, and moderate temperatures.

The last escapade of today came late in the afternoon, when we drove up the mountain road to the Silver Star Mountain Loop in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, north of Vancouver, WA. We knew we’d be too late in the day to make it to the top of Silver Star, but we did get up to 3100 feet on the mountain for a total of 2.65 mi round trip. Enough to get us a view of Mt. St. Helen’s from the west side, and to see the Canyon Maple bushes in their glorious coats of blazing orange, red and purple. A very fitting prelude to what’s next in the journey: hiking around Mt. St. Helen’s.

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Only two hiking days in Mt St Helen’s Memorial is not enough. We knew that going in. Resolved: from now on, allot the first day in a park or memorial to orientation, watching the location’s preparatory movie, talking to rangers, getting a feel for the place and any other learnings we need to do before hiking. This makes all days to follow so much better prepared, and validates how much time is needed to do justice to the place without rushing around like a bat out of hell.

We did not do this at MSH, and we were sorry afterward. The first day, however, was glorious. A 3.5 hr hike up to Harry’s Ridge, which placed us at a peak to stare right into the bowl of MSH’s crater, and to look down on Spirit Lake, the azure blue waters of which were half-filled with the blowdown trees from the blast occurring 38 years ago.

 

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The rangers have a helpful description of what the MSH eruption really was, for all plants, trees, animals and natural structures there on May 18, 1980: a 600-mph rock and fire wind.

Imagine hot boulders the size of refrigerators and less, airborne lava, ash, burning pumice and liquified glass hurtling through the air at the speed of a rapidly-moving jet. No visibility because of the density of flying matter, temperatures up to 1200 degrees or more in the blast zone (a 15 mile-radius around the crater), and every tree flying like a knife-point projectile because all were sheared off at their bases and splintered, with branches singed off, milliseconds after the blast. Hell on earth.

So much of the memorial ground has been left as-is, testimony to the power of the explosion and available to nature to reclaim, restore and repopulate. No replanting of trees, except by Weyerhauser outside of the memorial. Recovery will take decades, even centuries, because of the desolation and how the earth was scorched to lifelessness by the violence of the eruption.

The good news is that grasses, sub-alpine flowers and a few hardy firs are taking hold. The prairie lupine was the first to come back, two years after the event. Lupine are able to produce nitrogen and phosphorus, fixing them in their root systems, so they make the landscape hospitable for many others and restore the microbes desperately needed in soil that is devoid of humus. Paintbrush, pearly everlasting, heathers and now a sea of sitka and red alder bushes are slowly spreading over the ashen ground. The elk are back, grazing on the alders and grasses. And because elk have returned, the mountain lions are also back. We scared up woodcock on our hikes, and heard many, many birdcalls as well as the bull elk bugeling.

The second hike, Loowit Falls, took us across miles of pumice field and lava beds all the way to the edge of the crater. A 13-mile+ hike on a windless 75-degree day felt like a visit to a blast furnace, because of the reflected heat from the pumice fields. We were shredded by the end of the hike, but still glad to have witnessed the eruption’s remains and to see the snow-fed falls pouring from the jaws of the mountaintop crater. We’ll be back to hike Windy Ridge and the Bivouac to the top of the crater.

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Driving back and forth from our campground to the Research Station inside the memorial, we kept seeing an appealing roadside sign promising “homemade meals and cobblers.” After the 13-miler, we stopped to investigate. Indeed, the Fire Mountain Grill serves mountain berry, apple and peach cobblers daily, along with very tasty chicken and dumplings and elk burgers. This being the shoulder season, we had no wait for a table, but in the summer, diners are lined up out to the road awaiting a table. A just reward for any hiker.

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We are now at Mt. Rainier National Park for a four-day stay, and the new plan is working well. First day, we enjoyed driving around the southern side of the park, taking in the spacious visitor center and chatting up the rangers for hiking tips.

 

On day two we embarked on an 8.3 mile hike up the Skyline Trail (a peak experience for views of Mt. Rainier, her glaciers and surrounding peaks) and then down and across the Lakes Trail. We heard and then saw a fat, saucy hoary marmot, as well as multiple bears gorging themselves on the wild blueberries which spangle every slope of the park. Everywhere you see blueberry bushes turning crimson red (and canyon maples in brilliant orange) that create an eye-popping color contrast to the grey of the sheer rock slopes and the dark greens of the lush noble firs and tall cedars. Oohs and ahhs at every turn.

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Tomorrow we drive to the park’s Sunrise (east) side for a shorter, but steeper hike on the Burroughs Mountain Trail. It will be the last day of the season for Sunrise, as the east side closes end of September due to uncertain weather.

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We unexpectedly took a trip up to the Arctic Circle today. Overnight the weather on Mount Rainier’s east side turned cold and foreboding, and the trail signs warned when we arrived, that we were entering a tundra zone up at 6700 feet on the Burroughs trail. In the span of a 3.5 hour hike we encountered shale-showered slopes, treeless bowls with grazing mountain goats in the distance, a very low cloud ceiling that ringed the mountain like a halo, spruce trees that did not rise above two feet because of chilling winter winds and ice, and rain – in short, a landscape more like Siberia or the very north of Alaska, rather than what we’d seen just a day earlier. It was very likely snowing upslope on the mountain, we just couldn’t see it for the low clouds.

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George and I have decided that we really like austere, severe and desolate landscapes, and as long as we dress for the temperatures and precip. conditions, it’s not really hazardous on trail hikes. We keep eyes on the skies, have the latest forecasts before we start, each have a rain slicker in our backpacks at all times, and continually gauge our ability to get back to the car before any weather deteriorations become threatening. The upside of this is that generally, we encounter less traffic on those types of trails, and get to see some dramatic sights, sounds and moods of nature. There were times on today’s hike where it seemed like we were on the surface of the moon, so grey-black and non-vegetated was the ground. The trail crossed through the blast zone of one of Rainier’s eruptions about 5,600 years ago, and the blowdown area is still almost devoid of plants. Yes, it really does take a long time for fragile landscapes to recover. Think about that and consider oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Not a good idea.

Dinner in a Nepali restaurant less than two miles from our campground capped off an adventurous day. The curries, mango lassi, pappadums and huckleberry pie were really good. The very cozy place is run by a Sherpa who also works in mountaineering here in the park as well as in the Himalayas. He holds the fastest time from base camp to the top of Everest: 3.5 hours. How did he do that???

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Last hike in this national park: Christine Falls Trail up to Comet Falls. 3.5 miles in 2.5 hours. Part stroll through a cedar and fir rain forest, part rock scramble, it gave us a great workout enjoyable even if it was drizzling. Oh, the terpenes (the volatile compounds in the firs that make the air smell like Christmas) – yum!! The higher we went (1200’ ascent), the more it became clear that we were hiking in the clouds, with precip. getting heavier at every switchback. We decided to end the climb at Comet Falls (135’ vertical drop of a good-sized mountain creek) and head back down for hot soup. Good call.

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Now on the west coast of WA, we are near the Pacific but also in the heart of the Olympic Rain Forest. As you would expect, everything grows like there’s no tomorrow with the copious rain, humidity and mild temperatures that predominate. Over 200 inches of precip per year. Lush.

We drove out to La Push tribal area and walked 3 miles of undeveloped beach front (Rialto Beach) out to the Hole in the Wall rock landmark. Had fun looking at tide pools with anemones and small sea cucumbers, as well as both live (in the sea water) and dead kelp (washed ashore). Saw what we think were two white tailed kites (raptors) soaring by the seastacks.

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It smells so clean and salty along the coast, what a treat. Centuries of driftwood that has been hurled up onto shore by violent surf, and the original trees must have been giants!

Tomorrow we head into the inland Rainforest, one of only six (along with Alaska, Chile, Japan, China and New Zealand) in the temperate zone worldwide.

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Well, we’ve had to do the Rainforest piecemeal, as it’s, er, quite regularly raining. In fact, one of the roads to the famous Hoh Rainforest hikes is out because of flooding. So in fits and starts, along the Hoh and Bogachiel rivers, we’re seeing what it does to flora and fauna to get weekly rain and lots of it, mild temps and lots of sun in between. OMG. Never have we seen such densely packed fir trees, ferns, ground moss and aerial moss anywhere. There’s hardly a speck of dirt that doesn’t have something growing on it or out of it.

In case you’re wondering, a rainforest has a canopy that blocks out 70% of the sun. Perhaps one reason they look so verdant is because most of the light is in fact filtered through the green canopy. And indeed, thousands of shades of green are on display, occasionally some fall color in between. Few plants look at all like they are preparing for winter. According to our reading, we lucked out in selecting Bogachiel (means “muddy after rain” in local native language) State Park for our campground while here. This landing spot is the least visited of Olympic’s Rainforest locales, and we have it almost completely to ourselves!!The ground here is lusciously soft to walk on, and the atmosphere is a muffled but resonant quiet.

I think that we probably prefer these temperate rainforests to those of the tropics, but anywhere there is this plant-dense environment, the air is supercharged with oxygen and moisture. It leaves one feeling cleansed and hugged, nearly overwhelmed, by the energy the flora give off. Even if we weren’t completely thrilled by the all-day rain today, we could readily see that all growing things in the forest were LOVING it. A true garden of Eden.

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Another day in the PNW Rainforests – this time it’s out to the furthest northwest point in the continental US, Cape Flattery, as well as a hike across the Makah Indian Rainforest out to Shi Shi Beach. A total of 7.5 miles of pure loveliness.

This is like being in a Tolkien landscape, and reminds me so much of a likely gnome habitat (as if there were such a thing), because I read gnome-themed novels nonstop about little people in forests when I was 9 or 10. It fires the imagination to see such vegetation, so many old and craggy fir trees, ethereal hemlock branches floating on air like a melody, mosses growing up the entire trunks of trees, and many, many plants which are entirely unfamiliar to me. It’s no stretch for me to see gnome-homes in the trees, and tiny footprints everywhere! Although, there is much mud around from frequent rains….the little people would have to have boats or be swinging on vines to stay out of the drink!!

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the GORGEOUS beaches we’ve been seeing: Rialto Beach and Ruby Beach along the southern coastal boundary of Olympic National Park, and Shi Shi Beach here at the northern tip. They seem like quintessential Pacific Ocean beaches (think Malibu), with the stunning sunlight washing each wave as it rolls in, mist hanging over the beach, rocky headlands covered in firs and salal, and plenty of seastacks as mentioned before. We are camped tonight at Cape RV in Neah Bay, listening to the seals barking from the harbor where over 50 fishing boats await tomorrow’s troll out to sea for black cod, the catch of the season. We hope to run over there in the am to see them bobbing in the water while the catch comes in.

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Only saw one lone seal today, as we missed the departure and return of the ships. In a steady rain we drove out to Ozette to take in the Sand Point trail through yet another section of rainforest. Maybe it was the rain, but today’s forest seemed to us the lushest yet. Thanks to the National Park Service in cooperation with the Makah tribe (more on them later), the 3.35-mile trail out to the sea was all paved either in cedar boardwalk or cedar-boxed gravel flats to allow for full water drainage, thus we completely avoided the squishy, sticky mud prevalent in yesterday’s hike. This trail was just perfect for a quick sprint. Packed tightly against the path were dozens of species of ferns (sword, maidenhair, licorice, deer, bracken), Oregon oxalis, salal, bunchberry, explorer gentian, salmonberry and beargrass, towering cedars of 6 and 7-foot diameters (as noted in Mt Rainier NP, this means they could be 500 years old or older), many different species of hemlock and firs, mushrooms and epiphytes (plants that grow parasitically on the trees).

This day ended at the Makah Museum and Cultural Research Center, one of the best displayed and documented collections of pre-contact art and artifacts of indigenous life anywhere in North America.

The Makah tribe, which today numbers 2500 people, has existed on the northwest tip of Olympic Peninsula for thousands of years, as a whale and seal-hunting people. Five hundred years ago they numbered as high as 10,000 in five very large villages on the coast. One large settlement was completely buried by a massive mudslide, and except for oral history passed down by survivors, no trace was left of this grouping until 50 years ago, when some of the village began to be uncovered by the tides.

Anthropologists rushed to the scene to preserve the remains, and over eleven years of hard excavation and recovery work by scientists and Makah volunteers resulted in the thousands of tools, baskets, hunting harpoons, boats, oars, garments, bowls, jewelry and Makah art on display today.

The skill of this tribe in predicting weather, understanding animal behavior, making advanced tools, housing, fishing and fish management systems, basketry, inlays and working with metal, bone, wood, plants and hides was not well understood until the buried settlement discovery. It is to the tribe’s credit that it has kept cohesively unified in the face of colonization, revived its language and retained its culture, despite losing 95% of its heritage land.

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A stunningly beautiful hike today. Up above Port Angeles in the Hurricane Ridge area, we started on the path toward Klahane Ridge/Mount Angeles already at some altitude (4900 ft), and over 2.5 miles ascended another 500 feet to spectacular views of the entire Hurricane Ridge constellation of mountains, including Mount Olympus at 7980’. On the front side of the path, the clear skies let us see all the way to Victoria on Vancouver Island and a broad sweep of the Straight of Juan de Fuca – glorious!! For a mere 5-mile round trip hike, we got many eyefuls and an eerie stillness that one doesn’t often get on a windy ridge where gusts up to 70 mph are fairly typical. A fantastic natural encounter that makes us want to come back and get all the way to the summit of Mt. Angeles (we’ll need another 4 hours for that).

Also briefly saw Sequim (yes, we picked up lavender) and Port Townsend in the process of running some errands. The latter’s Silverwater Cafe serves the best crabcakes we’ve ever had, from local fresh Dungeness crab. Their sour cherry pie was out of this world. Do go if you have the chance.

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Mount Storm King kicked our butts today, and we loved it. 2,032 feet of elevation gain over 2.3 miles….that’s like a 20% grade, man! We summitted in 2 hours, and descended in 1 hour, using seven ropes to aid our ascent in the final ¼ mile. I’ve resolved to march into REI when we get home, in order to better my pretty-shabby technique when I have to rock-scramble up very rough terrain, and to get me ready to do Angel’s Landing in Mount Zion NP and Half Dome in Yosemite. We want to do these challenging hikes for as long as we can. No other hikers encountered along the path who were older than mid-thirties in age. We may hike more slowly (1.5 to 2.5 mph) than younger trekkers, but we do get there, safe and sound. And we have monstrous fun doing it!!

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Home now (in the moho) from a quick two-day trip across the Straight to Victoria BC for whale-watching. Peak experience par excellence, highly recommended. Went over on the 10am ferry from Port Angeles (only 2/day at this time of year), toured Butchart Gardens and the First Nations Gallery in the Royal BC Museum thereafter, then dinner at Victoria’s best farm-to-table restaurant, 10 Acres Kitchen.

This morning got us to BC Whale Tour dock for a 10am sailing, weather couldn’t have been better for the trip on a Cousteau-style Zodiac boat with 10 other passengers. The 3.5-hour trip went 35 miles out the Straight of Juan de Fuca separating the US and Canada, and we had probably one of the “best tours of the entire 2018 season” per our captain. Saw TWO humpback whales and TWO separate pods of Orcas, dozens of seals and sea lions, and one of the Orca pods had three successful lunch hunts while we viewed them. This aspect of wildlife observation is not for the faint-hearted, as they pursued, cornered, killed and ate a porpoise and a harbor seal in the waters right in front of our boat. But every living thing has to eat, and the harbor seal and porpoise populations are very healthy and well-stocked. Some animals are born as predators, some as prey. None of them gets to choose which.

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Captain Kaegan gave us a super tutorial on the lives of whales and their prey while we were underway. Female Orcas live 80 to 90 years, birthing 4 – 6 calves and running the affairs of the pod. Their sons take direction from them for their whole lives in the pod, and are low guys on the matriarchal totem pole (they eat last). Male Orcas live 30 – 40 years. Why the discrepancy? Because they are much bigger and it takes a lot more energy to run their bodies. They just run out of gas sooner. At least 450 orcas live in the Puget Sound/Straight of Juan de Fuca waters, some are residents and some are transients. Contrast this with 80,000 seals and sea lions. Wow. You may have heard about the J pod of orcas in Puget Sound, who are starving to death because they only eat salmon and there aren’t enough around. According to Kaegan, there are no more 50-lb Chinook salmon in the waters, because we caught them all. It takes 5 times the energy for an Orca to catch and eat a 5-10 lb salmon (the typical size now), and therefore they’re always at a deficit. Why do they only eat salmon and not seal? It’s probably a genetic thing that started millennia ago – they never learned to eat seals, therefore don’t see them as food. J pod will likely go extinct because of this aberration.

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Our last day in Olympic National Park was much like our last day in Mt. Rainier NP. We picked a hike that took us to a desolate, bleak, austere landscape high on the rain shadow side of the mountains, and we loved it!

The road from Hurricane Ridge to Obstruction Point was a well-traveled dirt road up to Lillian Ridge, where the winds were blowing at 17 mph and the wind chill was 31 degrees. I stuck cotton in my ears to avoid getting a headsplitting earache from the cold. We set a very brisk pace, let me assure you.

Rain shadow landscapes are obviously more arid than their rainy side counterparts, but this one is routinely punished by 70 mph winds, which means that trees have a very tough time gaining any height, and all other plants grip the earth closely. Lillian Ridge’s junipers and heathers rise mere inches from the ground. The cirques up there still host pockets of snow, and the peaks have NOTHING growing at all. The sharp peaks look like they were born yesterday, so ragged, spiky and honed to razors. The softer mountaintops were tall heaps of slate, obviously uplifted at one time in the past and worn by the wind and ice of the eons. Otherworldly, and yet so beautiful. We could only last for 3 miles, fleeing for hot tea in the valley.

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Today’s attraction was found in Bow, WA, where my friend and fellow goat cheesemaker Rhonda Gothberg runs a dairy with 40 beautiful black-and-tan LaMancha goats. We’ve been jonesing for a cuddlefest with goats for months now, and wanted to see her setup, so we eagerly drove the hour north of Seattle to get to her farm in the fertile Skagit Valley, from where you can easily see the snow-covered peak of Mount Baker, as well as the mountains around Vancouver and even the Olympics to the south. And only a couple of miles to her west is Puget Sound. Does it get any better than this?

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Rhonda’s does and bucks happily ate our quartered apples and endured our cooing and petting. Then we got down to business, buying one of nearly everything she has in stock at present: Raw milk gouda in several renditions (including cinnamon+beer and roasted chicory+cocoa), gruyere, feta, caerphilly and chevre. That’s a LOT of variety!! We look forward to cracking some of them open when our kids come later in the week for some Seattle fun, with 3-yr-old Mason in tow!!

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Just prior to kids’ arrival, we tackled Kendall Katwalk, or rather the 4-mile approach to said famous upper-elevation ridge walk. This trip has been all about getting too late a start to complete our targeted hikes.

KK was another seemingly endless approach through heavily forested switchbacks, but it was a good workout and for a while, we thought we might make at least a mile of the Katwalk up top. But autumn brings ever-shorter days, the skies began to darken somewhat ominously, and we had more than an hour’s drive back to camp, so we turned around before ever glimpsing the rocky spine. It’s ok, the list of to-be-completed thrill-hikes in the Cascades grows, and will be kept close at hand for the return to this area. We’ve decided that Class 3 hikes are our destiny for the time being – thrills, challenges, requiring us to be strong, but minus the risk of falling off the mountain!!

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Post-weekend update: Seattle with kids and grandson was TERRIFIC! Aquarium, Whidbey Island, Pacific Science Museum, Pike Place Market (twice!), Bainbridge Island, ferries and beaches, restaurants and food stalls, it was all wonderful. No rain, just mood-setting fog and lovely sunsets. Perfection.

We’re now firmly on the return-to-home path. Made it to Albany, OR tonight, going to Yreka, CA tomorrow and on to Rocklin, CA, where MoJo will be stored over the holidays. George caught the flu from our grandson, so we are minimizing the running-around and will take things slowly from now until the flu departs. No biggie.

A few parting thoughts on the Puget Sound area – a proliferation of man-buns, vertiginous streets (think SF), independent coffee huts by the side of the road, Teslas on the road, heavy traffic on every freeway, seafood everywhere, bikes everywhere, construction cranes everywhere, and shoreline in every view. Not as many Starbucks as expected.

It’s a young city, vibrant and crowded, thickly-treed with firs, bigleaf maples and rhododendron (rhodies), the cost (and quality) of living is high, and residents seem to have a very intimate relationship with both the sea and the mountains. Lots of Indian reservations throughout the Sound, and use of native names for places. NW tribal art is well-incorporated into visual culture (whether the tribes want it or not).

Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon have made their marks on Seattle, but are not so dominant as to be inescapable. The city appears to be highly conscious of its impact on the environment, and is moving toward more and more eco-friendly measures, although in the early November midterm elections, voters did NOT confirm the carbon tax much wanted by WA governor Inslee. We all win some, lose some.

We hope to be back in two years.

Passed briefly through Salt Lake City while on the road home. A very unique metro area, with reminders everywhere of its religious roots and hard-scrabble life in the 1800’s. Everything begins and ends with Temple Square. The city deserves a closer look, and we hope to spend more time here, investigating history and hikes. French bakery alone is worth a return visit!

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Adventure 6: Winter 2018 in the Southwest US

Starting a trip with an event of cultural or historical significance is ALWAYS a good thing for us.

Thus it was very fulfilling to have a two-fer (cultural AND historic) in Memphis, TN at the beginning of this adventure. January 20 and 21, 2018 were the days for anniversary events celebrating the Women’s March of 2017, and they did not disappoint. Millions of women again marched and met up in all of the major US cities, many smaller cities and towns, even rural areas. Our Memphis event was the fifth or sixth city chosen by us, mostly because we had to rearrange our departure date many times over. Initially we’d planned to march in Nashville, then plans changed and we targeted Austin; then Lansing, then Indianapolis, then Carbondale, IL, and finally Memphis – whew!!

As it turned out, the Memphis event was 100% indoors, as the city (a solidly blue-collar working town) doesn’t turn out for these protest marches in large numbers like other metros. Too many people working on Saturday or tired from a full week’s work, or holding down two jobs….so 1,000 of us met in a huge First Congregational Church and made a lot of noise!!!! Great speakers, great energy, great momentum! Get to the Polls in May, August, November, people, change is COMING!!!!

As a follow-on, we went to the Memphis National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the old Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King stayed during his last days, and where he was assassinated. Powerful, well developed and staged exhibits showing 300 years of slavery and struggle for equality and justice. Museums such as this one are simultaneously enriching and exhausting, and this was no exception. The display of MLK’s hotel room and the wreath on the balcony where he was struck down were especially poignant, as was the recreated slave ship where the audio track simulates the screams of slaves being whipped, the wrenching coughs of those who sickened and died during the journey, the cruelty of the slavers. Artifacts and pictures that one might see at the new Smithsonian African American History Museum in DC are here, as well as the stories of ordinary Americans in the Deep South, risking and in many cases giving their lives so that small steps of progress could be made. It is an amazing retrospective that harkens forward to our time, as so much ground is now being lost in the struggle. This April will be the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. It was good to be here.

 

Our first real warm weather came outside of Austin, TX, in McKinney Falls State Park. The first hike of the adventure, 3.4 miles through the hill country, was glorious, even if not too physically challenging. A good thing, too, as we have had ZERO hiking time since the last adventure through Ontario!

We took in the LBJ Presidential Library while in Austin, especially significant to us as children of the ‘60’s who remember well the anguish of the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty, first stirrings of the environmental movement, protest marches against the draft and war, Johnson’s Landmark Voting Rights Act and Medicare/Medicaid Acts, all passed by Congress. Perhaps the last of our presidents with a true long-term vision for the country. No matter how one regards Johnson, it’s still a tragedy that the intractable war took such a toll on him that he died of a heart attack, five years after leaving office.

We also drove through Austin’s newest night spot, Rainey Street, to see the fancy food trucks, bars and restaurants in rehabbed small houses from Austin’s 1900’s history. Then off to Lady Bird Johnson’s Wildflower Garden, a 260-acre restorative work to cultivate Texas’ incredible profusion of wildflowers, bushes, trees and plants. January is hardly prime time to go for the view of blooms, but we really enjoyed the live oak arboretum, the hothouses and well-architected beds of medicinal, culinary and aromatic plants. Lady Bird did a lot for this country in terms of replanting native plants along highways, in cities, and pushing LBJ to recognize 36 new national parks and monuments.

From Austin, we returned to San Antonio, one of our favorite stops from last winter’s journey to Big Bend National Park. We again walked three miles of the glorious Riverwalk, after stopping for pie (!) at Bird Bakery in north San Antonio. The Riverwalk has been so lovingly and artfully laid out with plant, flower and tree landscaping, murals, mosaics, ironwork, sculptures, fountains and stone scapes – like nowhere else in the US.

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On our last day there, we took in the Institute of Texas Cultures, affiliated with UT San Antonio. The exhibits were the main draw, and of all things the Center hosts the city’s naturalization ceremonies for new American citizens there – just on the day we visited!! So we witnessed 224 new Americans from 47 different countries. Put a lump in our throats, the perfect antidote for so much immigrant-hating in the US at this moment.

A small but significant art museum, the McNay, was our next stop. Such an intimate setting in which to view French impressionists, Picasso’s very first works, Rauschenberg, O’Keefe, Hopper, Indiana, Giacometti, Goya and hundreds more. So much looking, thinking and walking works up an appetite, and since it was Restaurant Week in SA, we feasted at Bliss in a lovely semi-industrial neighborhood and then went to a small theatre downtown to see Tango Fire from Buenos Aires. Talk about HOT!!! Tango like you’ve never seen!!

It was time to start working our way westward, since this trip is really about New Mexico and Arizona. Found an exquisite pie bakery in Fredericksburg, the appropriately named Texas Pie bakery, where we picked up Buttermilk and Chocolate Crème pie slices, as well as Peach Praline and Blueberry Peach. Wowsers. Why can’t we get pies like this up north??? Or more frequently on our travels? Sigh.

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Now in Las Cruces, NM, we’re kicking the hiking muscles into high gear. Two great hikes today, Aguirre Falls’ Pinetree Trail and Soledad Canyon Trail, are in the Eastern Organ Mountains National Monument, run by the BLM. Splendid hikes that gave us almost 7.5 miles of good workout and 1500 feet of elevation. Tall Ponderosa pine trees and junipers abound, scarred by forest fires and still thriving. The views northeast showed White Sands National Park 35 miles away, and the NASA research base with seemingly thousands of solar arrays. Thank goodness someone in national government gets the need for solar power.

We headed northeast next day for the Northwestern Organ Mountains tract, where we hiked Robledo Mountain and 3 miles of the Prehistoric Trackways Trail. Thousands of shells and early invertebrate creatures embedded in the slate flats at the bottoms of washes – fantastic to observe! We are reminded of the Permian Reef that covered this area 250 million years ago. Bald mountains are a stark difference from yesterday’s wooded slopes. We made it to the top of Presidential Peak and took in a 270-degree vista over the Rio Grande floodplain, all of Las Cruces and the hundreds of pecan orchards in this area. Thank goodness for pure blue skies here!

 

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Fun fact: New Mexico produces more pecans by value than Georgia. We picked up five pounds, just shelled last week and harvested in early January. NM pecans are THE best!

Last night we made sourdough garlic naan from scratch in the convection oven, not too difficult because we brought our sourdough starter from home. Yums!!

The road led next to Deming, NM, where the City of Rocks and Rock Hound State Parks beckoned. Believe it or not, Rock Hound Park ENCOURAGES hikers to pick up specimens and keep them! Also, the official paths are just access paths to enable hikers to go anywhere they want to go. So, if the main trails are picked clean, just strike a new path and look for agates, thunder eggs, jasper, chalcedony, pearlite, flint, and the odd chunk of petrified wood! We got some lovely specimens during a 3-mile hike, which is feasible for most people. Lots of dedicated rock hunters with picks, shovels, gloves, hiking boots and specimen bags, and lots of novices with plastic bags hiking in tennis shoes. Take your pick (pun intended)!

After Rock Hound, we drove the 41 miles to City of Rocks State Park. Otherworldly is one description, a crowded US Stonehenge is another. 35 million years ago, a volcano blew in the area, many times larger than Mt St. Helens, and spewed lava and pumice all over. The pumice/potassium feldspar clumps fell in elevator-shaft sized columns, strangest thing we’ve seen in a while, and formed ridges over a one square mile area. Over the millennia, wind and water erosion wore down the columns to look more like Stonehenge, some are tilted and there are sizeable (20 – 50 feet) spaces between the columns. The stone looks like fine-grained concrete with diamond chips in it. And the park allows campers to park right next to the columns. Like I said, otherworldly!

On to Gila Hot Springs and the Cliff Dwellings National Monument. It’s a slow drive here, over very winding roads, but the forested mountains are spectacular to see. The Gila river flows through a massive caldera (80 miles across), with high walls along the sides where the cliff dwellings were built into caves that have eroded into the walls.

We have come across many cliff dwellings, from last year’s trip to Mesa Verde and the Ute Mountains Tribal Park, to Canyon de Chelly several decades ago, but these dwellings are unique in terms of geology and their thermal qualities: warming in winter, cool in summer. They were inhabited by the archaic Mogollan (Moh-goy-OWN) Tribes in the 13th century, and all the way back to 12,000 years ago, Mogollan were living here in pit houses. Then came the Chiricahuan Apache Tribes, after the Mogollan vacated the cliffs.

I am very taken with the Mimbres pottery developed by the Mogollan. We hope to see more of it if/when we get to the Albuquerque Pueblo Cultures Museum.

Today we hiked an incomparable path, Trail 729, aka Little Bear Canyon to the Gila River. It’s 8.5 miles round trip, and the bulk of the hike is along a gentle ridge line at 6000 – 6800 feet (1100 ft elevation from the trailhead at JT Corral). The last mile to the river is spectacular. You descend into a canyon and follow the streambed through its meanders, realizing that at one time, millions of years ago, it was a slot canyon much like Antelope Canyon in Arizona (walls so close together you could touch both with your arms extended). This canyon is wider (maybe 50 – 100 feet) than the Arizona canyons, and cuts through conglomerate, petrified pumice, sedimentary rock and rhyolite, so its colors and textures vary dramatically from one bend to the next. Canyon walls are 250 – 300 feet tall. The air is cool in the canyon, next to running springs which feed the Gila, and the hiking path crisscrosses the brook like one of the braids of a stream. This hike was a peak experience for us. Simply stunning.

 

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Both yesterday and today, we enjoyed an hour-long soak in the hot spring pools of the camping village up here in the mountains. Water was 102 degrees, just right for sore muscles. This community, called Gila Hot Springs, is only four miles from the National Park, and was settled about 80 years ago by Doc Campbell’s family. Still today, the Campbell family owns most of the commercial property up here, they are very friendly and not particularly interested in maximizing their profit, so everything has a simple, down-home, approachable, non-chichi appeal to it. What a nice change from places that have made vacation spots too expensive for just normal folks. We will be sorry to leave Gila tomorrow, but have to press on to Tucson as we have some minor repairs to make to the motor home.

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Tucson is as nice as ever, but the downtown is pressing out to the periphery and the old “adobe house plus 3 acres of horse pasture” on the outskirts is giving way to suburbs. Too bad that. We have spent time in Tucson several times in the past twenty years, one time taking a hot air balloon over the east side and seeing how many Tucsonans had horses. Times are changing. Happy to see SO many vegetarian tamale options!! Yum!!

We’d planned to visit a friend who is a master gem cutter, stone-setter and jewelry maker at the Tucson Gem and Rock Show this weekend. It was great to finally meet him in person, and his work is simply gorgeous. Even bought a small pendant made of Montana Yogo Gulch sapphire and pink tourmaline (you didn’t know sapphire is mined in the US? ONLY in one spot, east of Helena, on Blackfoot Indian land). The show itself was so immense, it completely overwhelmed us. Acres and acres of raw, cut, polished, faceted, carved and set stones of ALL types. Just for some comparison, we are also stopping at the Quartzsite, AZ show in a week or so, much smaller and really only for those in the industry. I can only consider myself “in the industry” as an amateur geologist, not a jewelry maker or lapidary expert. I just love rocks, is all.

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Our RV “Resort” featured an evening entertainment of four high-school musicians from Phoenix suburbs who play violin and standing cello together. They’re going on the road to give concerts, and were really on point with their talent and spirited celtic music!

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We’d heard about the vast storehouses/graveyards of military aircraft in the Arizona desert, but until now had not seen them. South of Tucson is an Air Force Logistics Camp, where thousands of small, medium and very large transport planes and other craft are warehoused. Some appear fairly new, others look as if WWII vintage. The USAF needs to hold a garage sale.

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Today’s hike went to the east side of the Saguaro National Park, where there are many rolling hills, foothills and peaks of the Santa Catalina mountains. At the ranger’s suggestion (to avoid the weekend crowds), we took in parts of the Douglas Springs Trail, just enough to get us 4.7 miles of length and 734 feet of elevation. In temperatures ranging from 75 at the peak to probably 80 on the canyon floor, we couldn’t have gone much farther in the midday sun. Our schedule would not allow getting out at a decent morning hour, so we paid the price in sweat and fatigue. But the geology, the workout and the view were magnificent.

The Santa Catalina Mountains are a most unusual combination of rocks, including a rare mylonitic gneiss (a metamorphic rock with unusually long striations, slabby textures and contrasting colors). Geologists come from all over the world to study this rock. We also saw an unusual amount of mica, marble chunks and what looked like flint, all created by the severe folding and pressure the mountains underwent during metamorphosis. Beautiful colors everywhere. Good that it was a national park hike, otherwise my pockets would have come back full.

The stately Saguaro cacti, for which the park was named were a joy to behold, from baby specimens to multi-armed colonies over 20 feet high and 200 years old. The park also holds millions of cholla, barrel, organ pipe and prickly pear cacti, Palo Verde (AZ state tree), mesquite and creosote bushes, ocotillo, jojoba, yucca and Arizona desert thorn, to name just a few. All told, there are thousands of ways to impale oneself on spiny, thorny plants, should one fall on or off the trail!!

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Turns out that you can become addicted to hot springs! We had two lovely nights of muscle-healing therapy in Gila Hot Springs and are now enjoying multiple nights of hot-tubbing in Tucson. It’s critical to wait until the heat of the day dissipates, but 102 degrees of swirling water can make one forget all about sore shin muscles, cramped quadriceps and ground-to-a-pulp toe pads. Sweet!

Today was a day for the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. The drive out, 15 miles west of downtown Tucson, took us over the Santa Catalinas into the Avra Valley to visit the museum for its morning Raptor Free Flight demonstration. Loved it so much, we stayed for the afternoon event and spent five hours in-between touring the various cactus gardens and wildlife displays on site. Even saw the mineral exposition, which showed all of the gorgeous minerals found in the Sonoran desert (AZ and Mexico included).

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So the raptors free flight demonstration…wow. This museum has trainers and bird biology experts who condition these birds, mostly rescue/rehab patients or orphans, to fly for quail, mouse and rabbit meat, just as you would see them in the wild. They are not shackled, they wear no jesses (leg straps), and they are given the choice of whether to participate in flight on any given day. From all appearances they LOVE their “enrichment activity.” We saw Great Horned and Barn owls, Ravens, Grey, Ferruginous, Coopers and Harris hawks, and a CaraCara falcon. The Coopers are not even part of the museum community, they just live in the area and one was defending its territory from the other birds. When brought out, the Ferruginous and Harris swooped and dove so low, you could almost feel the wind from their wings. The display is breathtaking, and you leave with so much respect for the birds as athletes and survivors, as well as a determination to help preserve their habitats. A sweet little bonus was the plethora of cactus wrens who feel so safe among the well-fed raptors that they can afford to harass and tease them. The chatter is fun to hear.

The museum’s extensive cactus gardens have been beautifully landscaped and cultivated to astound and educate visitors. Cacti are important pollinators and protectors of desert bees and birds, and they number into the hundreds and hundreds of species and subspecies. Slow-growing and spiny, they give color and water retention to the desert. Arizonans treasure their cacti, state law protects 350 of their species, and you’ll see nary a conventional lawn here in Tucson. Strictly xeriscapes – we love it.

Today we moved to the far west side of Tucson metro, driving through beautiful Gates Pass to enjoy the western zone of the Saguaro National Park. Due to heat we took in only two short hikes, the Valley View and Signal Hill Petroglyphs Trails. More and more saguaro to be seen, the further you get from the city. It’s clear that a lot of people lifted cacti from the desert before they were protected. Only now are we seeing the appropriately-termed cactus forests. More rugged hills on this side, more blue, green and turquoise colors threaded or washed through the rocks. The petroglyphs here are numerous and date from 200 AD up to 1450 AD. Very similar to the symbolism in use by the Tohono O’Odham tribe of southern Arizona today in their baskets, pottery and jewelry.

We’ve looked forward to tonight’s event ever since our first Star Party at MacDonald Observatory in Texas last year. Southwest of Tucson is Kitt Peak National Observatory on a 7,000-foot mountain in the desert, and we are booked for a two-hour intensive stargaze. The drive was spectacular up to the 26-telescope site. Twenty of us gathered to observe planets, galaxies, nebulae, stars, red giants and stellar nurseries. Excellent and informative leadership from observatory staff taught us much about the significance, location and history of what we were viewing. Photos can be seen at www.kittpeak.wordpress.com.

About a third of the way into our observations, a number of us saw and wondered about a round object moving through the sky, throwing a barbell-shaped spray out of its opposing sides. Our leader explained that sometimes one can see military aircraft at night which can never be identified. But then she remarked, “No, I don’t think that’s one of them. What could that be??” Several of us commented that SpaceX had just launched the Falcon Heavy this afternoon, and wondered if we were seeing it in orbit, when suddenly the object exploded from one side, throwing a gigantic V of dust and vapor across its trailing end. The V grew into a huge ball of light grey debris, while the moving object appeared much smaller. There were loud oohs and ahhs from the whole group – this was an historic moment, completely unanticipated by all, and a great thrill to behold. We learned the following morning that indeed, Falcon Heavy had fired its final (third) stage rockets seven hours after launch, to pull itself out of Earth orbit and toward Mars. So that is precisely what the phenomenon was. Indescribably exciting.

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Today we crossed the large tract of land where the Tohono O’odham reservation is, between Tucson and Ajo, AZ. A vast expanse of cactus, mountains and mostly bare ground, it is inhabited by 11,000 tribal members. This is meagre agrarian territory with one small casino, but the tribe is helped by rent from the Kitt Peak Observatory because the research facilities sit on tribal land. Long after the rest of the land around here is “developed,” this area will stay wilderness desert.

On to Ajo, where we’d heard from friends of a drive/hike to Marble Mountain on BLM land, where a specific hill is littered with Moqui Marbles (sandstone balls that have been coated by iron oxide and rounded by wind erosion into hard pellet, symmetrically round). Similar to our drive across Big Bend Ranch State Park, this 20-mile trek was a bone-rattler all the way across dozens of washes, up rocky and uneven slopes and through sand pits. Regrettably we did not start out early enough for time to search in depth for the marbles, so although we had a wonderful desert hike, we returned to base sans marbles. No worries, we’ll get some at the Rock Show in Quartzsite. The vast views were enough to justify the trip. And we saw the elusive, charming and petite Acuña cactus, found only here in the Sauceda Mountains.

It is hard to overstate the fragility of this land. Cacti, spare grasses, palo verde trees and mesquite bushes grow exceedingly slowly and do not regenerate easily, especially if there are no rains. The first waves of settlers through the territory shortsightedly allowed their animals to graze down the grasses, and over the century since then, nature has still not fully rebounded. The dust blows continuously and the washes erode mercilessly. What the sheep and cattle could not do, Freeport MacMoran has accomplished with its mining operations, laying open whole mountains in search of copper. The colors on display in the enormous tailing piles are vivid, but there is NO vegetation for miles around them. Except for one lone roadrunner and a tiny lizard, we saw no wildlife on our hike.

We did hear the Air Force launching flights and going supersonic every ten minutes, especially in the late afternoon. And in a surreal moment, two smallish radio-controlled desert-camo “jets” flew low overhead, looking for all the world like they were in a dog fight. No RC operators in sight. Were they military drone operators in training? You never know what you’re going to see in the remote and desolate Southwest.

Our stop in Quartzsite, AZ was solely intended to be able to stop by the US rock cutters’ and gem-setters’ wholesale open air market. This event occurs every year, November to February, and 3,000 rock vendors come here to sell raw rock chunks and slabs to those who polish, tumble and set stones for a living. I’ve bought many a slab or cabochon from those who buy here, and I wanted to come to see what it’s like. Answer: like every other flea market you ever went to, some good stuff, lots of junk stuff and questionable stones…. But we did find a couple of moqui marbles and a lovely small slab of bumblebee jasper, one of my very favorite rock types. Now I think we’re done with rock shows!

A couple of hours from Quartzite, we arrived at the Lake Mead Recreational Area in Nevada for the night. I have always wondered why, around such a large body of water, there are NO green plants at all. It must be the rock basin that doesn’t allow the moisture to travel out beyond the lake. A 7.4-mile hike over the old train bed that had delivered supplies to the Hoover Dam construction crew brought us to the edge of the dam and under the new giant arch bridge high over the Colorado River. Gorgeous geology along the way, with igneous and sedimentary rock in all colors of the rainbow on display.

Helicopters whup-whupped overhead every 3 minutes to take tourists on an aerial tour of the Grand Canyon. Little did we know that this very day one crashed in the canyon, killing three people. I’d rather go on foot. We got back just in time, beating sunset by mere minutes and setting a new race-walking record of 3.1 miles/hour (for us, that’s fast!).

You who love venison backstrap meat should try it sometime, grilled to medium rare, sliced thinly and served with warm flour tortillas, mango salsa, chopped tomatoes, guacamole and shredded Mexican soft cheese. Perfection.

As John MacPhee wrote in Annals of a Former World, most of the geography west of the Rockies consists of basin and range, basin and range, repeated seemingly forever. And so it is in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and a good bit of California. Driving through the Mojave Valley, past the New York Mountains, through the Ivanpah Valley and up the Amargosa Mountains, we see so many single-file ranges and so many desert plains. One will have piñon pines and Juniper bushes, the next only Joshua Trees, the next only Teddy Bear Cholla cactus, the next only Creosote bushes. The desert seems to specialize in what it will support at each different altitude, and even if it seems like there is no life here, wait until dark.

The textures in Death Valley are endlessly varying. Some ranges look like sawdust, some like jagged daggers, others like drip castles, elephant hide or playdoh. Some have impossibly thin layers stacked like crepes atop one another, with ultrathin fillings of borax sandwiched in between them. Some are awash with minerals like chlorite, manganese, titanium, hematite and iron. The resulting blues, greens, purples, reds and oranges seem too bright to be natural, but their pigments have also been enhanced by boiling springs, steam and the heat of lava. The stark white that appears can alternatively be borax, talc, salt or marble. An organic chemist would have a field day here.

So many worthwhile hikes in Death Valley National Park. We did Desolation Canyon yesterday, our first slot canyon. Today we did the (seemingly) lifeless Badwater Salt Flats, Artists’ Palette and the Natural Arch Canyon. Of the three, we were just awed by the end of the Natural Arch Canyon, which we had all to ourselves. It consists of what appears to be green, blue and grey marble, washed smooth and shiny by millions of years of rushing flood waters. There are three distinct waterfall points (all dry) that hikers scramble up, then you come to a fourth which you cannot climb without pitons, rope and/or a grappling hook (about an 18 feet high hanging valley). The travertine-like stone was so beautiful and so unexpected. We love scrambling up rock walls, as long as they’re not too treacherous. All in, we hiked 4 miles today and are up for 7 miles tomorrow in Fall Canyon, then the 600-foot deep volcanic crater at Ubehebe, followed up by Indian tacos from the Timbisha Shoshone Village. This park is the Timisha Shoshone people’s ancestral home, proving that a resilient people can survive and thrive, working with nature and the seasonal cycles at their most severe.

Fall Canyon was an epic hike, leading 3.5 miles through a deep gravel and rock-strewn wash into canyon switchback after switchback. The walls towering overhead were at least 300 feet high, and of every conceivable composition of rock. Elevation gain was 1200 feet, no wonder we were a little tired at the end. What really kept us going throughout the trek were the amazing rocks underfoot – striated black and white gneiss, deeply colored sandstones and quartzite, sparkling diorite, rose quartz, agate imbedded in walls of rock, chert, bloodstone, marble, jasper, even what we guessed might be alabaster or onyx.  And as we’d experienced yesterday at Natural Arch Canyon, the navigable trail ended at a high (20’) dry waterfall, where water had scoured the rock to a polished sheen. This “roadblock” could not be scrambled over or around, so we just turned around and headed back to the car. But two hikers going ahead of us managed to shimmy up a somewhat perilous detour, so they were the lucky ones to see the final (to us inaccessible) 7 miles. Next time maybe we’ll use chalk to enable us to chimney up safely.

The day ended at Ubehebe Volcanic Crater, a stunning phenomenon to stand atop. The crater was produced by a gigantic steam and lava explosion which blew millions of tons of cinder out the west side of the crater and left beautiful orange rock exposed on the east side. It is possible to hike down into the crater’s 600-foot pit as well as around its circumference. We chose to go ¼ of the way around at the top elevation, also viewing one of 6 adjacent craters. Seems quite a few volcanos blew their tops 2,000 years ago on this spot! This park never fails to amaze us, and it has become one of our favorites for impressive artifacts of natural history.

Oh, and we managed to get our Indian Tacos tonight!! Taco meat with shredded lettuce, cheese, salsa and refried beans over Indian Fry Bread. And George had one more with cinnamon and sugar for dessert. For a simple meal, it fills the bill.

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This morning started with overcast skies and wide, gravel-filled canyons. We set out to hike Sidewinder Canyon, but first had to hike across about a mile of 3”-deep fine sand-like gravel to get into the main wash of the canyon. There is more gravel in Death Valley than you can shake a stick at!!! And walking across it is not exactly fun. One foot forward, one foot down into the stones. It’s work. After about 2 miles came the slot canyons. And those are FUN!!! Still lots of gravel, but it’s mainly in the walls of the cemented slot canyons. And lots of rocks to scramble over.

 

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Sidewinder is just as the name implies: it winds around, just as a sidewinder snake (which they have here) would do.  Back and forth, around like a corkscrew and into very small spaces. With very tall walls. A wee tad of a claustrophobic experience, but mostly cool. The second of three canyons in this set was the best, going ever upward for about ¾ of a mile and up perhaps 500 feet, until we came to a 6’ boulder stuck in the middle of the space, with no alternate route. The end of the road for us.

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More sheep droppings along the way in the canyon tell us that the bighorn rams and ewes are coming down into the canyons at night to nibble on spring greenery (actually, the NP ranger told us that). This hike finished out at 5.4 miles and 1340’ of elevation gain. And my legs finally feel like they’re getting into the shape I need for longer hikes. Yay!

It is a wonderful experience to camp in the National Parks, and Death Valley is no exception to the rule. You meet a very broad cross-section of friendly people in the NPs, camping in everything from a van, Jeep, SUV or Element, to a tent, pop-up camper, self-built rig, trailer or RV. Lots of campfires at night. Lots of folks walking and biking. And of course, you meet lots of people in the communal bathrooms! Most of the national and state parks have quite large spaces for each camper, and lots of greenery around each to provide privacy and sound buffer. Here, where greenery is almost non-existent, there is (unfortunately) an abundance of salt cedar trees (a nasty invasive), which steals the scarce ground moisture from indigenous mesquite bushes; however it makes a nice verdant privacy screen.

Today was an easy hiking day, up Gower Gulch, Badlands Loop, Zabriskie Point and Golden Canyon. 6.8 miles all told. Lots of ups and downs, but elevation gain was never that significant and the ground was firm, vs. the previous days’ sandy gravel washes. We learned that the top layer of Death Valley’s dusty, silty mounds is actually a living thing, called cryptobiotic crust. Such a shame that so many people forge their own path away from the main hiking trails. They do permanent damage to this park’s ecology, without even realizing that they are harming a living thing. A bit like someone playing with a baby dolphin, taking selfies and horsing around with it, until the poor thing dies. We all need to be more cognizant and caring, even when on vacation.

We drove twice through Artist’s Palette Drive, a special section in DVNP where the rocks are painted with pastel colors of all shades — just beautiful!

On the last leg of Golden Canyon, we came across a young woman I call Chanel Lady. Silk jumpsuit, designer leather street shoes, no hat, no water, no map, fancy sunglasses, just “strolling” down the canyon. I offered her one of my electrolyte drinks, I was so worried that she would expire before getting back to the parking lot. Wow. Time and again we see evidence that people just don’t read the warnings about having to carry drinking water on hikes. The rangers are not kidding. Take a drink along.

 

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The night sky is quite dark in Death Valley, so tonight (while we’re in the new moon phase) we’re going to attempt some time-lapse photograph of our galaxy and its constellations. The sky is just gorgeous, Mercury and Mars are both visible at this time of year, as are Orion’s belt and sword. I can’t wait until our grandkids are old enough for us to share all of this with!!

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This is NOT my photo — NatGeo has much better technique. Someday we’ll be able to make our own!

Today was our last set of hikes in Death Valley National Park….for this trip. We know we’ll be back! Mosaic Canyon (3.95 mi, 930 ft elevation gain) and Keane Wonder gold mine were both memorable and impressive.

Mosaic is a dolomitic and marble canyon, with loads of other metamorphic and sedimentary rock thrown in for good measure. The pictures say it all: sinuous and shiny at the beginning, from millions of years of flood waters charged with gravel (the perfect polishing compound) racing over the rocks, miles of mosaic-like conglomerate and breccia which have also been buffed by the same waters and now undulate along the walls (thus the name Mosaic Canyon). Lots of rock scrambling and dry-fall detours, lots of worn-smooth chutes and sluices where the raging floods created perfect half-bores in the white rock. Of all our hikes, this path held the most surprises for beauty of the colors in the rock. I would do this hike yearly, it’s that eye-popping.

We almost skipped the gold mine, but I wanted George to be able to do something he declared at the outset was of interest to him. As it turned out, we both loved it. The mine was closed in 2009 for safety reasons, then rehabbed to close off the dangerous bits and reopened late last year. We walked up the short, steep hike to the tramway that sent smashed, vibrated and washed the ore-bearing rock fragments down to transport out of the mine area. Everywhere there was evidence of the old (1907) equipment, wooden building fragments….and lots and lots of galena. This is a high-sheen rock which glints like silver metal, is very pretty, dense, and toxic because of its high lead content. It beckons to be admired and touched, but stay away — mines are often so dangerous because they bring up other minerals along with the targeted treasure, some of which are very bad substances. At least there were no uranium tailings at this site….that we know of!

Leaving Death Valley this morning, we stopped at the Visitor Center to check one last time for the more obscure and worthwhile hikes, in order to know whether the next trip back should be for one week or two. The very knowledgeable hikers’ guide behind the counter assured us he could keep us busy for months, as there are at least 200 more hikes plotted by GPS coordinates in the mountains. So, next time it will be two weeks, at a minimum!

We’re now in Phoenix for a couple days, to stock up on hiking tools, hike a bit in the Fort McDowell Mountain Park and take in museums and a concert.

Hiking is great, just entirely too windy (25 mph gusts are a pain to hike in). Took in the Wells Fargo Stagecoach Museum and Museum of the West, both pretty impressive. Hard to truly appreciate the primitive nature of travel back in the mid-to-late 1800s until you see the conditions. And in the Museum of the West, OMG, the bronze sculptures of John Coleman and Joe Beeler are just breathtaking in detail and in the stories they tell about indigenous life. To say nothing of the priceless Hopi pottery collection, dating from the 1500s to modern day and including a vast array of Nampeyo family vessels – we were left speechless by their beauty, symbolism, intricate geometries and innovative techniques. If people could just comprehend what it takes to build works of art like this entirely from hand, mix the colors from ground minerals, hand-buff the surfaces to a warm patina….stunning.

Next up: a lecture/demonstration of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata at the Phoenix Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). Enlightening, amusing, always a reinforcement of how art presents “The Shock of the New” to its contemporaneous audience, and then becomes mainstream over the following decades and centuries. Fabulous performance by Korean pianist Hye-Jin Kim and exposition by Rob Kapilow. This piece of music is captivating.

Today we drove to the Meteor Crater west of Winslow. On Navajo land and operated by the tribe, it’s well done and impressive. Have not previously been in a 50,000-year-old crater created by a 150-foot diameter metallic meteor that drove a hole 300-feet deep and nearly one mile across into the earth. It was interesting to see how this crater differed from the Ubehebe volcanic crater we’d just seen in Death Valley. In the latter (Ubehebe), we saw a tremendous amount of volcanic ash ejecta in and around the crater, and an uneven depression caused by uneven direction of the volcanic explosion. Here, there was obviously no ash, a much larger hole, a very even depression and no ridge lines in the crater’s sides. This crater was studied exhaustively to help scientists in the 20th century understand and differentiate between volcanic and meteor-caused craters. Fascinating.

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Also saw an area museum with lots of artifacts from the Pony Express era. Amazing that the Pony Express only operated for 18 months, before it was made obsolete by the stagecoaches of Wells Fargo. What a lot of folklore came out of that period.

Tomorrow: Petrified Forest National Park (PFNP) and Painted Desert 25 miles east of Holbrook. We’ll need our strength, so for the first time, we baked sourdough in the moho!

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PFNP is even better than the first time we were here 25 years ago. George and I know a lot more about silicated rocks now, and seeing the wood turned into agate is just spellbinding. Turns out that 225 million years ago, flooding brought thousands of dead trees to the NE corner of Arizona, where they were then covered by blowing sands and loam, which prevented them from decomposing very much. Then the Yellowstone volcanic explosion happened, the one that caused a great extinction in what was then North America, and the ash cloud drifted over the Four Corners area (where CO, UT, AZ and NM meet) and settled down through the soils and into the trees’ tissues. It took 18 million years for this to occur, and a lot longer for the crystalline structure to form in the wood.

This is the same effect we saw last year in Alibates Flint Quarry in Texas (near Amarillo), and the colors are every bit as beautiful! The park has quite a number of hills and mesas where you can see the ash that has been cemented together down through the ages, and they are colorful, as well. Crossing over I-40 from Petrified Forest to the Painted Desert, you see some of the most beautiful red and maroon hills and mesas anywhere. The skies were so clear today (because it was only 28 degrees and snow was on the ground!), that we could see 108 miles in the distance, spying the snow-covered San Francisco mountains near Flagstaff! Several beautiful murals depicting the area’s Pueblo Indians was a perfect complement to the scenery.

 

Today Zuni Pueblo was on the schedule, so we drove to El Morro Federal Monument for our campsite and drove to Zuni village. It is hard to put into words how wonderful this visit was. Our guide, Kenny Bowekaty, is the tribe’s resident archaeology, trained at Stanford University, and he has been the driving force behind the cultural discovery, documentation and public access to the history of his people down through the ages. We sat with Kenny at the Visitors’ Center for 90 minutes while he related the creation story of the Zuni people, the migration of the tribe from 70,000 BCE to the present time, the incursions of Spanish and English military and cultural forces, and his team’s archaeological discoveries in the Middle Village. He explained how the Zunis are the oldest example of a people inhabiting a single dwelling place for the past 10,000 years, and how his tribe relates to the surrounding tribes of Ácoma, Isleta, Laguna, Hopi and Jemez.

Kenny then took us on a walking tour of Middle Village, explaining the 14 stories of buildings (three above ground, and 11 below ground built throughout the ages).  He has documented  the oldest sections, revealed through 70 feet of excavation, 25 additional feet of core drilling, and LIDAR remote imagery throughout the original village footprint. He and his contracted archaeologists and anthropologists have performed their work over the past 30 years to reveal great detail about the Zuni way of life, religious practices, art and artifacts. Everywhere in the village you can smell the sweetness of cedar wood burning on the hearths, needed to chase away the chill from the winter’s mid-30’s daytime temperatures.

Our tour had just concluded when, to our total astonishment, a religious parade of nearly 20 Kiva Circle dancers in amazing regalia came through the main square. This was not on the schedule, and not known to Kenny or Marla (responsible for tourist activities). We froze in place, not knowing whether we should retreat to our car or what. A young woman and her three-year-old child beckoned us to come stand with her as they quietly observed the procession. Then she asked if we wanted to follow her to the dancing square. Are you kidding?? You can’t make this kind of fortuitous event happen, it has to be on the personal initiative of the residents of the pueblo. We still can’t believe our luck, having such magic materialize then and there.

We followed Jessica through the village to an enclosed courtyard where at least 25 tribal members stood on rooftops and ground level, watching the ceremony unfold. The drummer and the head of the parade began to chant and drum, and the “White shirt” dance began. It would be unfair to describe it, as we do not know the steps, words or meaning of the two dances we were allowed to see, but the dancers were reverential and resplendent. Zuni headdresses were elaborate and showy with many symbols displayed, hand rattles were used, and every part of the dancers’ bodies was decorated with turkey and macaw feathers, ribbons, shields, skins and buckskin. These ceremonies are never allowed to be photographed, but we have them in our memories.

These models (Kachina dolls) and sketches are similar to the costumes worn by the dancers.

 

Today we observed and participated with Zuni ancient culinary experts to prepare an ancient Puebloan cuisine, parched corn. We also sampled their wheat pudding and pudding cakes, all intended to be highly portable foodstuffs to be carried in pockets or carry-bags. Even the ancestral Puebloans, thousands of years ago, cooked with chili peppers, and today, every table has chili sauce on hand to season foods to taste.

Following the culinary lesson we toured the studio of a beading artist and her stone-carving and jewelry maker husband, where George acquired a couple of Zuni fetishes and I bought a lovely turquoise buffalo pendant. We called it a day with those purchases, had wonderful conversation with beading artist Roxanne about other aspects of Zuni culture, and then wound our way back to the campground in El Morro.

For those interested, a non-scientific scan of dozens of residents walking the pueblo, engaged in commerce or social activities, eating or relaxing in the café or on their way to work or school showed significantly less obesity than in the US population at large. Virtually no drunkenness in the two days we spent in Zuni. This settlement of nearly 14,000 people appears to be healthy, engaged and positive about life, which is tragically not something one can say about many US Indian reservations.

The healthy, proud way is the way it should be. We can only hope our cultures find ways to validate and respect one another, so that more natives feel the strength of their heritage and the self-worth they deserve to have, rather than feeling denigrated and usurped of their rights, property and native pride.

Onward to Albuquerque (or the ‘Burque, as it’s known locally)! We took in the Old Town, an impressively preserved ten blocks of adobe homes, businesses, churches and squares that are surviving more successfully than San Antonio, TX’s old town. This city dates back to the 1600s, when the conquistadors and missions pushed into the region. But the settlement is in fact older than that, dating back to the Sandia and Aztec peoples’ habitation in the area from 1300 AD.

Each pueblo has its own creation story, language or language nuances, arts traditions, dances and feast days. With such rich cultural life and heritage, is it any wonder that the state flag and symbol for New Mexico derives from an indigenous symbol for the sun?

We topped off the first (and as it turns out, only) day in the ‘Burque with a concert at an area nightclub/concert venue known as El Rey. The theatre is a bit gritty, with no chairs for those not in the bar section, but no matter, the music and the mood of the audience was great. Since we were unable to get tickets for Austin City Limits while there, this was as good if not better, since we were on the rails right next to center stage. Three bands we’d never heard of before the night (Heart of, the National Parks, Ron Pope) gave it everything they had, and it was a great night of music. We need to do this a lot more often!

We are heading home today, two weeks short of the original plan. George’s mom is quite ill back home, and we need to be there. Much like our trip has been all along, we are called upon to be flexible and adjust plans as necessary. We’ll see you on the other side of Adventure 6, whenever the calendar and our hearts call us back to the road!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adventure 4 — Lakes Huron and Superior

Living Further Up North  (see end of post for pictures of this adventure!)

George and I live in that part of Michigan that most people refer to as Up North.

But apparently, it’s not far enough north for us, so as the August heat hits, we’re headed to Georgian Bay, Bruce Peninsula, Lake Huron and Lake Superior, all on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. Seems like an especially prime time to do so, what with the US headed into a cesspool of racially-driven hate, ignorance and violence.

On the way, we drove the Thumb of Michigan Huron coast because we’ve never seen the waterfront there. How very different it is from Lake Michigan’s shoreline! Rocky, windy and rough, with clear water because there is no sand or silt to get mixed into the water (and the zebra mussels have eaten all the organic matter!). Seems to explain why Detroiters don’t want to vacation on Lake Huron — the swimming is tough and the water is COLD!!

Crossing into Canada at Port Huron/Sarnia, we realized this is the only place on the itinerary we’ve been before, probably 37 years ago. It puts us on Queen’s Highway 21 up toward Bruce, with the first stop being Goderich, a lovely town that reminds us of Scotland’s west coast. The town has lovely architecture from the turn of the 19th century and a waterfront that seems to have always struck a balance between work and leisure, with its saltworks and railroad right next to the sand, waves, pretty train station and beachhouse.

Friends had warned us that although Bruce Peninsula National Park was gorgeous, Tobermory was thoroughly overrun with half of Ontario’s urban residents, overcrowded and not a great stop. We must have picked exactly the right week to come, since it was not all that packed, and even though it smelled like fish and chips everywhere, that fish smelled good! Sweet little harbor downtown — called the Little Tub — had many private and public boats bobbing in it, the latter running tourists non-stop around the Fathom Five National Marine Park to see shipwrecks and the islands.

On the first morning here, we woke at 6am to scramble to the signup at the National Park gate. Since this is Canada’s 150th anniversary as a nation, all tourists get into the parks for free. And boy, are they coming!! Bruce National Park had to institute a 4-hour maximum timeslot for hikers wanting to see its most popular shoreline attraction: the Grotto. We got a spot from 7am to 11am, and hiked out to see the craggy cliffs, deep cave, aquamarine and turquoise waters…absolutely chock-full of morning hikers, swimmers and sun-worshippers! So, Leann and Roger, you were right about the mobs, but for us they were all at the Grotto!

This sea feature was still lovely to look at, and I photo-shopped away all the people on the shore so that you could imagine it in a pristine and natural state. We continued hiking along the Bruce Trail for a couple miles, stopping at the Overhang Point ( a deeply carved horizontal shelf over the lake), and to a couple of bluff clearings with clear views of the Bear’s Rump and Flowerpot Islands, and then turned back to scramble over dolostone (magnesium-rich limestone) rocks in a large cove. Lucky we didn’t twist an ankle!!

In the evening, we came back to the park for a couple of hours of Anishinaabe storytelling and hot cocoa around the campfire. Our Ojibwe storyteller, Lenore, has been a ranger for 18 years here and is an outstanding guide on all things natural, supernatural and historical. From her people’s folk legends, we heard how children learned to stand on two legs by reaching for butterflies, how the fisher (Odjiik) was turned into a constellation (the North Star/Big Dipper), how the baby rattlesnake won and lost his rattler tale, and how Squirrel was turned into a bat. We also heard yet another creation myth about how Turtle Island (the North American continent) came to be.

Ranger Lenore led our hike the following morning, as well, to discover local plants and their medicinal uses in the National Park. In the drizzle, we hiked for a couple of miles through conifer and hardwood forests, along paths used by the local bears, moose, deer and Ojibwe medicinal plant-collectors.  We learned about Labrador tea, red osier dogwood, cattails, pearly everlasting, tamarack, eastern white cedar, balsam fir, hemlock, bull rushes, striped maple, sugar maple, squaw root, birch, beech, bear berry (George gamely tried a berry), Indian hemp, milkweed, various ashes, plantain, and their uses.

Lenore showed us ropes she had made from cattails, hemp and milkweed, baskets from ash splints and spruce, brooches from porcupine and birch, a beautiful totem and a dreamcatcher made of tamarack branches. Then she served us a delicious tea made from the rhizomes of the wild ginger plant. We learned a great deal about how and when to harvest these renewable resources, and how to prepare them. We also learned a lot of new vocabulary and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) customs, which were fascinating and inspiring.

Tonight it’s raining pretty heavily, but we are snug and warm in our little motor home. Awaiting tomorrow’s weather to see whether we’ll be on land or water for the next day’s exploring.

Enjoying Daily Forest Baths in a Sea of Green

It is primeval green and verdant up here on Bruce Peninsula, so much that it almost hurts the eyes. Abundant rain has kept the millions of 700+ year old (!) cedar trees an electric avocado green, along with other bright emerald, malachite and olive hues found in the area’s balsam and hemlock trees, huge yews and vibrant dogwood bushes, ferns, spruces, thick mosses and white pines.

The smell is just stunning. The balsams waft their resins, smelling of Christmas trees and orange peels. Brisk air off the Georgian Bay is crisp and clean.

We had a slow start to the day, as power was out from a storm last night and everything in the campground was muddy to the max. Ambled over to the park’s visitor center for a climb up the 150-foot lookout tower (see where the analogy to a sea of green comes from?). George is successfully battling his fear of heights, making it all the way up to enjoy the view.

Lunch of homemade sourdough rye bread and smoked whitefish spread was awesome, and the right fuel for the long-awaited ferry ride out to Flowerpot Island. Winds had settled down to allow the ferries to start running again, so we got to the island and trailhead for a 3 km hike up the island’s “mountain” and along the coast to see the flowerpots (eroded limestone cliffs that eventually separated from the island to form upside-down triangular columns resembling (vaguely) flowerpots). More luscious smells of the forest ensued!

Neyaashiinigmiing Anishinaabekiing Pow Wow 

What good luck to be here for this summer’s 33rd annual Pow Wow of the Nawash Ojibwe at Cape Croker!! It was a blast, even in the pouring rain. Natives from all over Canada and the USA came to celebrate and dance, and we were able to stay for 3 dances and a sumptuous lunch of venison sausage on frybread.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Pow Wow order of business, the action starts with a Drum and Song accompanying the Grass Dancers, who bless the grounds and “tamp down” the grass upon which all successive dancers will dance. The ceremonial ground has at its center the drummers under a canopy. This Pow Wow featured lush cedar boughs hanging from the canopy roof.

After this, an elder from the tribe says an opening prayer in the native language, and then the Grand Entry starts, with the colors at the head of the parade. The military flags and all available veterans march in uniform and/or tribal ceremonial dress. Next come young girls, followed by the female elders, followed by the men and boys. Much dancing is done as the entourage circles around the canopy and the drummers and singers play the opening music. In the Grand Entry, all dancers are included, and the crowd gets its first look at those who will eventually compete for recognition in various categories, such as best fancy dancer (in highly decorated regalia, dancing with acrobatic and exaggerated moves and choreography).

It is awe-inspiring to see the clothing, the bead and jingle work, the ornamentation, animal skins, back and headdresses on the dancers. We learned a new term, porky-roach, describing a flattish feathered headdress decorated with long porcupine guard hairs that quiver with every dance step. Magnificent. Many eagle feathers were featured on the garments, a sign of tribal honor and respect. We also saw massive bear claws used in necklaces, feathered fans, ornate shawls with long fringes that swirled like ribbons during the dancing. The fringes are to sway in a circular motion to reflect the women dancers’ gracefulness (like a butterfly) and their connection with Mother Earth.

We were unable to stay for the Fancy Dancing competition, but it is said that the fancy dancers evolved directly out of the historical dancing the Ojibwe warriors did prior to going to war. Nor did we see the jingle dancers, although we would have loved to, as this Pow Wow featured some amazing regalia with more jingles per inch than we’ve ever seen! We don’t believe there was any hoop dancing at this event, but they certainly had the Tiny Tots category of dancers populated, with some eager participants standing by.

Learning the History, Meaning and Technique of Ojibwe Drumming and Songs

One of our adventure goals this time out was to get to Manitoulin Island, ancestral home to at least 6 Ojibwa-Odawa-Potawatomi tribal bands. It’s a magical place, and we were able to participate in several wonderful activities while there.

From Tobermory you can take the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry, operated by the provincial government of Ontario, to the island in about 1 hour 45 minutes. Lovely roll on-roll off ferry.

We signed up for an orientation to native drumming and singing in the Wikwemikong Tribal Reserve, and found it to be a spectacular session featuring Craig Fox, a 40-year-old Ojibwe drummer who has been cultivating his talents for the past 18 years. He graciously taught us how the Ojibwe learned to utilize drumming as a sacred component of their ceremonies and celebrations, what the various beats and strokes mean, how the drums are made, and how the singing accompaniment is done (and who does it) during the drumming. Everyone in our group was invited to learn how to drum and how to keep in step with the lead drummer-singer. It was quite spine-tingling, and we loved every minute.  Craig graciously answered all questions, and we were offered hot tea and chat after the session. Such outstanding hospitality.

We also toured a native crafts museum (including antique porcupine quill and birchbark boxes) and drove to other noteworthy spots on the island, including the villages of Sheguindah, Mindemoya, M’Chigeeng, Manitowaning and Aundeck Omnikaning.

Shoot, not Chutes!!

A three-day visit to lovely Chutes Provincial Park turned into a one-day chase to find new RV batteries, when we discovered that we had not been assigned an electricity-equipped site and (to our horror!!!) our RV batteries had been burned up by our rooftop solar unit. RATS!!!! So we rushed to a new campground in the area, where we could also get the needed amps until the new batteries were delivered at the nearby NAPA store.

The Moho now has all the proper settings for solar trickle-charging of our batteries, needed when we don’t have what is known as “shore power” (electrical hookup from the campground). It’s amazing that the battery compartment wasn’t glowing orange from the heat of overcharging that it’s been under for the past year. Won’t make that mistake again!!

On the way out of town we stopped at a gem of a café, the Backyard Bistro, because it got such high ratings from TripAdvisor. A peak experience for sure!! A woman and her two daughters run this breakfast-lunch spot out of love for food, and it’s truly a scene out of Babette’s Feast. Such splendid entrees and sides, artful garnishes and loving service were completely shocking in the middle of the lonesome north, and for that, they do pull in the crowds. We wish there were such a place every 500 miles!! We had sumptuous breakfasts and took carryout portions of desserts (pumpkin cake with brown butter frosting, dulce de leche banana cream pie, and macaroon cookie with chocolate glaze) – satisfies my bakery craving for at least a week!

Pebble Beaches and Hiking on the TRUE NORTH SHORE of Lake Superior

Today we turned our faces away from Lake Huron and toward Lake Superior. What a massive change. The water went from Huron’s calm and clear conditions, with deep bays the colors of turquoise and aquamarine, to a sand-churned light brown agitated ocean, with tall whitecaps and rolling waves. The big lake the Ojibwe call Gchee Gami (Superior) is often angry, riled up and stormy. Not sure we want to be here on shore to see the Gales of November. The wind drives such violent conditions into the water.

The drive up from Blind River to our present location in Marathon, Ontario is gorgeous, just as many had told us it would be. The tall church spires on the black spruce fir trees are magnificent, and any scrap of land that isn’t bedrock, water, road or swamp has these trees as well as tamaracks, aspen and white pines on it. We’ve never seen this density of trees on land anywhere!!

Lakes and rivers up here are like Eden. Inland water is the color of root beer, from all the tannin in it. No sign of humans. Superb. Still haven’t seen any moose yet, but we’re keeping eyes peeled for them. The road cuts made to fit the Trans-Canada Highway through this land when it was wilderness have my geologist eyes popping: so many variations of granite, gneiss, diabase, schist, basalt and gabbro, in colors ranging from petal pink to kidney bean red to ebony black and moss green. Plenty of pebble beaches yet to come, so for us rock-hunters, fun awaits!!

Fun in Puck (Pukaskwa National Park, which is pronounced Puck-a-saw. Go figure.)

The coastal portion of this gorgeous park – in fact, just a small part of the coast – is the only area accessible to day hikers and campers, and there are 7 main hikes that most visitors focus on. We hiked six of those trails over the past five days, steadily building up distance and terrain challenges as the week proceeded. It’s probably because so much of the park is unpopulated and pristine that the air up here smells magnificent. That, and the fact that the huge Boreal Forest is Canada’s oxygen factory!

Every trail was superb, offering views of the basalt and granite whalebacks that dominate the area’s shoreline, or densely moss-carpeted fir forests. These glacier-smoothed rocks are a constant reminder that we are traveling over the Canadian Shield, i.e., the bedrock left by the Pleistocene-era glaciers after they shoved all of Ontario’s topsoil into Michigan and Wisconsin.

The idyllic coves, bays and harbors here are so serene and inviting on a calm, warm day. But within 24 hours they remind you of why Lake Superior has a killing reputation: even in August, the waters are cold, the submerged rocks perilous and just add wind for high waves, treacherous currents and whitecaps. Still gorgeous, just foreboding and mysterious.

Up here we see vegetation not present in other areas of North America: Touch-me-not, bunch berry, blue bead lily, Labrador tea and fireweed are all displaying beautiful fall colors. Great groves of black ash, tamarack, ground cedar, black spruce (looking like a giant bonsai with its miniature needless). The amount of red osier dogwood, cedar and balsam up here is mind-boggling. Provincial Tourism Board photos attest to how stunning the park’s fall leaves will be in October.

Still no moose sitings, but we have seen grouse, long-billed dowitchers (like a sandpiper), loons, eagles, LOTS of gulls, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels and some snakes. And as always, we’ve heard tons of woodland birds.

On a rainy day, we drove up to the latitude where there are more no roads, Highway 11 across Northern Ontario. From that point, all rivers flow north to Hudson Bay and all transport is via boat or plane. It focuses the mind to know that up here, gas stations are 100 miles apart. The rock outcroppings along the way were just as impressive as those we had seen in Colorado. And only 7 cars per hour on the road. We stopped at John’s Restaurant in Hearst, the area’s best-rated restaurant, to hear mostly French Canadian spoken and eat food mostly of Greek descent. George pigged out on souvlaki, Greek salad and, what else? Poutine. One the way home we started noticing how prominent aspens are in the landscape and along the ridgeline. Up here they grow to fifty feet in height.

Next day was the Seven Grandfathers’ Hike in Pukaskwa, a self-guided interpretive trail around a whaleback-surrounded lake. Stunning views. And each of the Ojibwe teachings (7 virtues) was explained on individual plaques along the trail, as dictated by an elder of the tribe. This First Nation believes every person should carry these 7 virtues, to lead a worthy life beneficial to others and to Mother Earth: Respect, Wisdom, Trust, Honesty, Courage, Humility and Love. Good counsel for all of us today.

Saving the best hike for our last one in Puck, yesterday we hiked the 12-mile round trip Coastal Trail to Hook Falls, which included crossing the 35-foot high see-through metal mesh suspension bridge over Chimaniwinigum Falls (it’s not that hard to say. Just separate the piece parts: Chi mani wini gum). George is bravely working on getting rid of his paralyzing fear of heights, and he crossed it with no problems. Yay George!! Just as before, there were many whalebacks and moss-carpeted forests, as well as a boardwalk stretch through marshland and numerous beautiful beaches and portage/put-in points for kayaks and canoes. We met a few through-hikers on this path, as usually happens with long trails like the Appalachian, North Country, Continental Divide Trail and the like. It’s a pleasure to encounter them on their way, and they always have inspiring details about where they stayed, how long they’ve been out, etc. Now back to the moho to soak our feet!

Roots and Shoots and Rocks, Oh My!

We’re on the very top of Lake Superior now, about 200 km east of Thunder Bay, in Rossport.

Just a tiny village, it is the terminus of the Casques Isles Canadian Shield Coastal Hiking Trail. 53 km of scrambling through wet forest (it’s been raining here a LOT), sandy beaches, boulder beaches, driftwood strewn beaches, whaleback beaches, and rocky glacial till fields. The path is challenging, to say the least.

There are so many wild blueberry bushes along the forest path, it’s amazing. George snacked on berries whenever he saw them. The bears up here have been busy, as there were typically only 2 – 3 berries per stem when we found them. They are tiny and seedy, but their flavor is far, far superior to cultivated ones. Sweet and tart, very complex, with a wild finish.

We hiked only 12 km of this coastal trail (~7 miles), and that was enough for us. Once again, the views are spectacular but it rained twice along the way, making the rocks and driftwood very slick. This is not a combo (daunting trail and iffy weather) we will choose again, just a bit too treacherous.

Tonight we’re going out to dinner at a lovely little restaurant nestled along the quiet bay in Rossport. We’ve waited a week to celebrate my birthday, as fine dining is very scarce up here. I think trout is on the menu!!  Update: trout and rice pilaf were amazing, but the real topper was blueberry shortcake made with wild Ontario blueberries and whipped crème – out of this world!!

Ouimet Canyon and the Amethyst Mines – spellbinding 

Getting closer all the time to Thunder Bay. This afternoon we drove to Ouimet Canyon to dodge the rain….little did we know the majesty of nature awaiting. This little-known (to US travelers) slit in the earth is akin to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, only smaller and no river at its base.

The rock is diabase (an intermediate igneous rock between Gabbro and Basalt, for those who want to know). That means it’s very dark and columnar (think Devil’s Postpile, CA). We drove out there not expecting too much, and were floored to discover the gorgeous views down the canyon, and to know that the climate at the top of the canyon is boreal (basically the same as where we are now) while at the bottom it is sub-arctic tundra because so little light gets down there. Basically, permafrost and arctic plants. Fascinating. We could see all the way to Lake Superior, some 25 km away.

Also visited one of the area’s half-dozen or so amethyst mines, again not expecting too much. But to our surprise we found a type of amethyst that exists nowhere else, a beautiful rose-colored stone. The mines are chock-full of every color of amethyst from this lovely rose to the typical rich purple to black. We chose not to dig, as it is cold and damp today and they had so many wonderful specimens at reasonable prices to choose from. But a dig-your-own-stones mine trip is definitely in our granddaughter’s future! She will explode from excitement!!

Ruby Lake and Beyond

Each hike up here on the northern edge of Lake Superior has been so gratifying and such a great learning experience.

While camping 100 km east of Thunder Bay we hiked the Nipigon River Trail from Red Rock Marina to the Eagle Ridge (about 4 miles round trip), and it was amazing. From three separate vantage points, we saw the Nipigon Harbor/Delta, its basalt escarpments on the eastern shore, the islands where the river meets Lake Superior and even raptors in the sky. Trail designers gave us outlooks at 100, 200 and 300+ feet above the water. Ethereal.

They call this area the Canyonlands because of the similarity of the topography to what one sees out west. It’s true – you can see many uplifted sections that look like mesas, buttes and bluffs, canyons created by glaciers (think Yosemite), and dramatic vertical walls that rise hundreds of feet from the floor.

Promontories, Points and Palisades

Exploration of the Ontario Canyonlands continued for three (make that nine, as Canyonlands extends to west of Thunder Bay!) more days, encompassing a gorgeous hike in Ruby Falls Provincial Park (site of a now-defunct marble quarry), around the “buttes” of Deer Lake Mountain, and 50 km north of Nipigon in the Orient Bay area.

It is so wonderful to follow a trail upslope, knowing that there are 5 lookouts at elevation ahead on the path, and you might see anything from otters (we did today) to bald eagles (yup), ruffed grouse (unh-huh), partridge (check), moose (still not yet), beaver (dams and slides, but no critters yet) or any manner of other interesting wildlife. To say nothing of the overlooks and what you can see in the distance.

We’ve seen so many uninhabited lakes up here, many with the vertical diabase cliffs described earlier. Many lakes with loons, whose melancholy calls echo off the rocks. The lakes are unpopulated and untouched by human hands. The quiet is magnificent. Again, inland lake water like root beer, from the profusion of cedars, black spruce, balsam, white pine and hemlock. And the cedars – two to three foot diameters, which you NEVER see in Michigan, and 40 feet high. Breathtaking.

The smell in the air is one of the best parts of hiking in this northern paradise. The airborne resins from the pines and firs gives such a heady mixture, it just compels you to stop and draw a big breath every couple hundred feet. Surely must be addictive, as we miss the endorphins and intoxicating smells when we take a day’s rest off of the trails.

We are learning to mention the trails we’ve enjoyed when we’re shopping or just chatting with locals, as people are proud of their natural attractions and are inclined to mention other trails to be enjoyed, once they know what we’ve hiked. Great to learn about paths not in the brochures!!

Reaching the Sleeping Giant (Provincial Park)

Now we’re up to Thunder Bay (100,000+ inhabitants), at long last! It’s quite a nice city, and looks to be booming economically. Quite diverse, which is great to see. There are more Finns in TB than anywhere outside of Finland, and quite a few Ojibwe and Metís (mixed Ojibwe or Cree and Anglo-heritage people).

We stopped in town on what was to have been a rainy day, but the weather turned nice, giving us a lovely, sunny look at TB’s botanical gardens, waterfront park, one of its heritage cow cheese farms, a Finnish bakery and a fabulous restaurant on the west side of town (the Caribou). This all as a run-up to one of Ontario’s most beloved provincial parks, the mighty Sleeping Giant, across, well, what else but Thunder Bay (the city as well as the watery bay).

The Sleeping Giant park campground is quite superb, located on the east shore of Marie Louise Lake, where the loons call every night. Yesterday we tackled the Kabeyun North Trail (rhymes with Savion, as in Glover). Cliffside views over the uplifted diorite columns were beautiful, as we’ve come to expect on Superior’s northwest shore. Eight and a half kilometers, some ups and downs, with one concentrated section of rock climbing.

Today we did three trails in a row for a total of 14.5 kilometers (9 miles). Lunched at a beautiful slate-beach cove where a Superior Sailing charter boat had anchored, waiting for its passengers to return from hiking. The first two trails (Sawbill and Sawyer) were easy to moderate (some 7% grades), but the final trail (Head of the Giant) was extreme for nearly a kilometer, with 20% grade climbs. It kicked our butts, but in the best way. The entire stretch gave us a five-hundred-meter elevation gain, and we hope you can tell from the photos how spectacular the view was from atop the Giant’s Head. It was a breakthrough hike in distance + extreme physical challenge. Felt good. Very few hikers now on trails, as it’s after Labor Day, but we did get our first sighting of a Canadian whitetail deer on the drive back to camp. They are not plentiful up here, as there are few farms and thus much less for them to eat, other than forest browse.

Today’s hike took us to Middlebrun Bay and Finlay Bay (5.2km), along the southeastern coast of Sleeping Giant park. An easy hike at the shore level, it finished at a black sand beach filled with microscopic fragments of magnetite. I used the magnetized clip of my water pack’s bite valve to verify what the park ranger described as the magnetic nature of the sand, then spent several minutes trying to extract all the metallic sand particles from the valve. Plan ahead, Jill!

This was way-cool nature, but not yet enough of a workout, so we trudged on to see the park’s Sea Lion rock feature out on Silver Islet point. Another 2.6km round trip, also an easy hike with several moderately challenging rock slopes on the way. The Sea Lion is an igneous dike which formed at least 1.1 billion years ago (remember, the Canadian Shield is among the oldest rocks on earth, at 3.3 billion years). A dike is sort of like a hard rock sand casting in the surrounding sandstone. Once the sandstone erodes away, you are left with this vertical slab of irregularly shaped, hard diabase, which (if you use your imagination) just happens to look like a male sea lion. Given the fury of Lake Superior slapping at the lion, it will probably be gone entirely, eroded to nothing, in another 100 – 150 years.

We’ve enjoyed Sleeping Giant Provincial Park a lot, but because we’re in shoulder season (mid-September), not all the hiking trails in this park are accessible. So instead of staying eight days in the area, we’re moving on in just four days. Gotta stay flexible!!

It’s a rainy, cold day outside Thunder Bay, so we opted for another long drive up to where the roadless frontier begins. Drove up to Armstrong Station, a tiny village connected to hundreds of other small whistle-stops via the northern Canadian Pacific rail line. The road up here is just a spur, so your destination better be Armstrong or the giant fly-in-only Wabakimi Wilderness, otherwise what are you doing up here?!

The drive was gorgeous, because it showed us fall colors arriving, two grey wolves crossing the road (YAY!), lots of wood thrushes in flight, a partridge just sitting by the side of the road, and another remote Anishinaabe community (the Kiashke Zaaging). Just outside the Armstrong village limits sits an enclave of long abandoned buildings. Come to find out, they are the remains of an old Cold War-era US Air Force base for monitoring long-range radar (!!!) The base was built close to the site of an old WWII German officers’ prisoner of war camp. How crazy is that?

One of the most dramatic road cut rocks encountered on this trip was along the highway to Armstrong, and there we collected a few specimens including deep peach/black granite and George’s all-time favorite: metamorphic diabase with veins and phenocrysts of sodium plagioclase. Translation: a coal-black sparkly base stone with large black crystals, shot through with large streaks of translucent and bright white rock crystals. Looks like nothing else we’ve ever seen. Nature is too cool for words.

On to Kakabeka Falls today, our next-to-last Ontario Provincial Park for this trip. This park is memorable for the history that accompanies it. Kakabeka Falls is near a major colonial outpost, Fort William, that long stood on the Canadian/British frontier, but more than that, its river (the Kaministiquia) was used as a prominent trade route by the First Nations (who named it Thundering Waters in their language) and by fur traders as early as 1678. Just imagine trying to canoe upstream on this fast-moving river, carrying hundreds of pounds of blankets and metal for trade, portaging long, rough trails to avoid the 50-foot falls. A grueling line of work, no wonder their lives were so short.

We hiked 10 km worth of trails here to see both the Main Falls and a shorter set called Little Falls. Both beautiful. Along the main Kakabeka Falls basin an eagle flew out along the shore, just beneath us on an elevated trail. We watched this splendid bird for 10 minutes as he/she perched in multiple trees scanning for fish in the water, then swooped down multiple times onto the water and river rocks. Stunning. Then s/he was joined by three more (1) baldies for some soaring hundreds of feet above the river. Wow!

Also surprised a sharp-shinned hawk who had just caught a ground squirrel and was having lunch. He flew up into a tree and waited for us to pass. We waited and walked backwards on the path ahead to see if he would return to his booty. He scolded us from above, so we moved on to leave him in peace, as he would not fly down again until we were out of sight.

Again and again we are reminded of how much more nature we see and experience in the state and national parks. Every once in awhile we cannot avoid the commercial campgrounds, but staying there is so often a sardine-like existence – give us the public parks instead!!

Quetico Provincial Park, the Last of our Ontario Park Experiences (this time!)

We reached Quetico, the Canadian counterpart to Minnesota’s famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area/Voyagers National Park, in the rain today, but by the time the hiking boots were laced up, it was gorgeous weather for a 12.5-km outing…which is what we did. Teaching Trail, Whiskey Jack and the Pines Trail all run along French and Pickerel Lakes, so we got a good look at what canoers and kayakers see in the park, while still on solid ground. More hawks and pileated woodpeckers. George also heard wolf howls in the night.

There is an old Voyageurs’ Canoe replica in Quetico, which gives visitors a sense of scale compared to today’s modern canoes. It’s also an indication of what has priority in this park: canoeing, not hiking!

This huge beast of a paddle boat on display is 24’ long and at least 4.5’ wide, with room for five men to paddle. We’re guessing that voyageurs of yore dedicated themselves to not tipping over or leaving their boats under any circumstances. The boats must have been very laborious to construct (out of birchbark), and they were loaded with irreplaceable valuables that sustained these men and their livelihoods.

Worth mentioning is that we saw another large wolf just loping across the highway minutes before arriving at Quetico. Also saw moose tracks on the hiking trail, deep impressions in black mud, but alas, still no live moose sighted. It has been raining so steadily all summer up here, the parks and hotels complain of significant loss of business. But for us, rain’s not really gotten in the way except for the ravenous and plague-like mosquitos, who are loving the wet conditions.

Random thoughts about visiting Ontario

This is lovely country. The Great Lakes portion of Ontario has overwhelmingly friendly people, both in and out of the camps, and the landscapes are so very breathtaking. The landscape is largely free of all litter, and the air is very clean. The culture up here seems not nearly as mass-marketing saturated as in the states (i.e., fewer billboards, less pressure to consume things because they are trendy/cool) – this also means that in some ways, Canada is like the US was 20 years ago. This observation is not meant condescendingly, in so many ways I wish we were not as jaded, polarized, cynical and socially networked-to-death as we are now. It is refreshing to see people and the personality of their communities less programmed by Wall Street, Hollywood and Facebook. Eh?

Curling is a BIG sport up here. Every town has a curling club, and from the size of the club buildings, it’s going strong. Could be as popular as hockey.

LOTS of solar panels out in fields. Canada’s efforts to bolster their hydro energy with wind and sun are still going great guns, as far as we can tell.

Canada has gone from paper to coins for their one and two-dollar denominations. One-dollar coins are called loonies, and two-dollar coins, toonies (or two-nies). It grows on you.

Canadians are more subtle than the US about road signs for their public attractions. Many’s the time we have missed a turnoff because the signage indicating an upcoming park turnoff or lookout was too small and only indicated right at the point of the turn.

Tim Horton eateries continue to be wildly popular, as ubiquitous as McDonald’s in the US. Any town larger than 5,000 has at least one. We went once. It’s like Dunkin Donuts + Subway +soup. No substantial presence of US fast food, except for A&W (weird!). Refreshing! And of course, Chips stands (Poutineries) are also everywhere!

Back in the US of A

Just across the border from Thunder Lake lies the Grand Portage National Memorial, operated by the National Park Service.

A fantastic recreation of the 18th century fur trading post at the mouth of the Pigeon River, this post is the terminus of north-central waterways, all the way to the northwestern Great Slave Lake in the Yukon. It acted as the safe marketplace for natives of various nations to bring beaver, otter, mink, fox and other skins to the Northwest and Hudson Bay Company traders in exchange for cloth, blankets, guns, ammunition, tobacco and other valued goods. Ojibwe, Cree, Assiniboine and other tribes would paddle their goods thousands of miles in birchbark canoes. Red-capped French Canadian laborers, called Voyageurs, would then load the furs into 24 to 38-foot transport canoes to carry them across Lakes Superior and Huron, and down the St. Lawrence seaway to Montreal.

Two trails captivated us here. The Mount Rose trail climbed 300 feet above the trading post, allowing a view of it and the bay in which it sits. The Mount Josephine trail, made harder by recent rains and mountain drainage which created streams over many sections, gave us multiple views at 600 feet above the bay, islands and forests.

 

Isle Royale National Park has been on our “to-visit” checklist for a long time. Now we can say that we’ve been there, via the 2-hour ferry from Grand Portage. Given all the fantastic geology, botanical wonders and great scenery/vistas already experienced along Canada’s north shore of Superior, Isle Royale was a bit of a let-down, but the fault lies in the shortness of our visit, which was only 2.5 hours due to the fall ferry schedule. You just cannot experience the special qualities of this place which attracts so many repeat visitors to the Back Country in such a short window of time.

 

Coming down the North Shore of MN, we are reminded of the many things we love about Minnesota: its embrace of the great outdoors, with ample opportunities to beachcomb, hike, bike, camp, nature-walk, sit on the shoreline in an Adirondack chair; the entrepreneurial spirit that compels cooks, bakers and brewers to try their luck satisfying these hungry outdoorspeople with delicious temptations; and the love of MN residents for any season, including winter, that gives them a reason to BE outdoors! The North Shore and Arrowhead are still full of visitors in late September, unlike other areas starting to empty out after the hectic summer season.

Tackled three hikes along the Gunflint Trail today, just for old times’ sake as former MN residents, saw the Arrowhead Region in its fall glory. Don’t remember so many quaking aspen up here before, but we were probably not as focused on flora and fauna as now. Now that we also know what Black Spruce look like, seems MN has them as well as Ontario! Loving Grand Marais, which has only increased in lovability since the last time we were here.

On the way south from Grand Marais we stopped at the Beaver Bay Agate Shop to have the experts take a look at the “could be agates” we’d collected at Paradise Beach. They confirmed a slew of them, along with a ton of chert and one bona fide artifact, a knapped agate tool that a native had worked thousands of years ago, either to be a hide scraper or a small cutting knife. The knap marks are obvious, which means it was not a flake off a tool — it was intended to BE a tool. The point broke, thus the tool-to-be was discarded. Very exciting. Could be between 2,000 and 10,000 years old!

Passed through Ely and had to stop at the International Wolf Center, first visited at least 25 years ago. They do good work there, educating the public on the facts surrounding these magnificent animals. Did you know that wolves are responsible for far less lifestock predation than they are accused of, and that most of it happens when farmers allow their livestock to graze in the woods? I can’t blame the wolf if his territory is invaded by a prey animal. Ever heard of fences?

We stopped in Bemidji at the Fish Locker to pick up a 10-pound box of walleye fillets, then on to Walker, MN for the night. Here we hiked 4 miles along the Heartland and Paul Bunyan trails, which are repurposed Burlington Northern rail beds. It is definitely autumn in MN! And here ends Adventure Four! Tomorrow we stop at the kids’ house in the Twin Cities for six days of fun and then home to the Farm to close up the gardens for the winter!

A quick list of northern MN/Lake Superior plants and their First Nations uses:

Labrador Tea (a northern-hardy type of azalea) – beverage

Red Osier Dogwood – source of aspirin

Cat tails – mats for weaving, edible roots, boil for tea; spike on top is male, pollen, used for flour

Pearly everlasting – ward evil spirits away

Tamarack – branches are used for duck decoys, roots harvested for binding ropes

Eastern white cedar – use bark, seeds, wood, roots – vitamin c, good for moistening mouth, bark can be twirled into twine or yarn; wood is strong and lightweight, holds fire; cedar bath for post-illness rejuvenation; branches make tea, expectorant, promotes positive energy

Balsam fir resin is good for bug bites

Wild sarsaparilla – root beer, root is astringent

Hemlock is hardwood, resists decay

Striped maple

Sugar maple is a hard wood, sweet sap

Large-leaf aster

Hemlock has short, alternating needles with rounded tips, balsam needles are straight across from one another

Squaw root for fertility

Birch is sacred tree – wigwa, for wigwam

Birch is a hardwood, nice grain, strong, used for bows

Beech tree called bear tree because they climb up to get beech nuts; bear is considered the healer animal

Bear berry – medicinal bath

Plaintain leaves, when crushed are used for bug bites and to reduce swelling

Four sacred Foods: berries, wild rice, game, corn

Four sacred plants: sweet grass, cedar, tobacco and sage

Flowerpot Island, Bruce Peninsula:

Tobermory, Medicinal Herbs Hike, Lagoon View:

 

Pow Wow on Bruce Peninsula

 

Manitoulin Island Drum Ceremony Instruction, Sites

 

Chutes Provincial Park

Pukaskwa National Park

 

Casques Isles Trail, Hearst

 

Rossport and Canyonlands

 

Ouimet Canyon

 

Nipigon River Hikes

 

Sleeping Giant National Park

 

Thunder Bay and Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park

Quetico National Park

Final National Park of this Trip: Mesa Verde

Finally, after only visiting the parks in shoulder or off-season, we’ve reached a National Park in high season. We’re surrounded by families with children and international visitors from everywhere. Not so bad after all. Plenty of room for everyone in this 52,000 acre park.

Signed up for the three formal cliff-dwelling tours (the only way to see Mesa Verde’s major ruins is on tour with a guide): Balcony House – the most adventurous to reach; Cliff Palace – the biggest ruin; and Long House – the most in-depth ranger guidance.

Balcony House required scaling a 35-foot wooden ladder to reach the dwellings, three “squeezes” through progressively smaller and smaller claustrophobia-inducing passageways, and two more ladders to get off the cliff. The ruins were decidedly worth the trouble.

Long House was a wonderful combination of multi-storied cliff dwellings and pit houses all together in the same sandstone alcove, showing remarkable evolution of building techniques by the same group of people.

The Cliff Palace tour was a twilight event, with only 8 of us along. The sun was at its most golden, and shadows were long. The well-informed ranger took time to tell us how important trade networks and intellectual/technology transfer were, the passing of knowledge and technique to the Ancestral Puebloans from the Toltecs and Mayans on the Yucatan Peninsula. We also got to witness ravens flying back to their nests to feed their young just above the ruins, which was very cool indeed.

Mesa Verde offers half a dozen self-guided tours as well, and we combined those with hikes on the mesa top. But there are at least 5,000 sites in the park, including 400 cliff dwellings, and it’s gratifying to know how many lie protected and untouched, for future generations of scientists and visitors to discover. The peaceful repose of the Ancestral Puebloan spirits, for now, is somewhat assured.

Decoding the secrets of these dwellings, their architects and the long-since migrated residents of these beautiful canyons is a task that will never be complete, but it’s best attempted over months, if not years. One compressed week of observation here, front-ended by our visits to Crow Canyon, Sand Creek Canyon, Aztec National Monument and the Ute Tribal Park, has started the learning process, but we will be sorting out the physics and metaphysics for a long time. Reading “The Cliff Dwellings Speak” and other reference guides that blend the archaeology and anthropology with native perspectives helps. Time helps. Building an understanding and appreciation is not, as a friend used to say, “like making instant coffee.” We will come back to these deserts. They have much to teach.

During our time in SW Colorado, the most amazing display of swifts and swallows has been on display in the canyons. On every hike that includes a precipice view from the mesa top into the valleys, dozens of acrobatic little birds can be seen and heard: black with black wings, black wings with white bodies and brilliant tourmaline-colored iridescent backs. Swifts and swallows are, as noted earlier, among the world’s fastest fliers, but they are more than that. The artistry with which they soar, their razor’s edge turns and the thrilling parabolic arcs they cut while pulling up into the sky or plummeting 100 feet down to scoop up dinner in mid-air is thrilling – they are such amazing creatures, at less than a single ounce. They buzzed us today at close range, with such chipper songs and no apparent fear. Could have stayed there for hours watching the show.

At least a dozen massive forest fires have devastated the mesa tops and slopes of this park, as recorded since the 1920’s. All ostensibly started from natural causes, they have been whipped up by strong winds to strip large sections of acreage. The most tragic part is that they destroy 800-year-old stands of juniper and pinion pines, in some cases even sterilizing the earth so that nothing but grass will grow back for decades.

Recently mutilated acreage sits next to swaths of new forest recovering from the 1920 firestorm. Your eyes become trained to estimate a landscape of devastation: “This probably burned in the 1990’s. At least it has sagebrush and rabbitbrush now.”

It takes pines and juniper at least 100 years to start to regenerate. Imagine how many species this displaces and for how long. The ravaged landscape looks littered with bleached bones. Seemingly empty except for the bones and birds. But there are dormant seeds in the soils.

And so tomorrow we start the rapid recompression back into civilization on the road home. Goatrekking Adventure #3 has been glorious. It’s added to the refinement of our camping, hiking, exploring and activity selection techniques. Looks like we’ll indeed be able to achieve two major goals through these trips: to see nature with continuously sharper focus and insight, and to never stop learning, stretching, growing (and suppressing arthritis!). Amazing how many people we meet along the way who are also on an encyclopedic tour of national parks – losing oneself in the wilderness means finding oneself, and an endless supply of wonderment.

 

A few final glimpses of SW CO:

If you go at this time of year, here are some of the flowers/plants/trees you can find along the Colorado Mountain Trails:

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Quaking Aspen (a massive grove of thousands of trees = 1 organism)

Blazing Star

Cactus Blossoms (prickly pear, barrel and claret cup)

Calendula

Cardinal Plant

Chapin Mesa Milk Vetch

Choke-cherry

Coreopsis

Douglas Fir

Engelmann and Colorado Spruce

Gambel Oak

Gentian

Hackberry

Hawthorne

Hayden’s Gilia

Helleborus

Indian Paintbrush

Indian Rice Grass

Utah Juniper and Rocky Mountain Red Juniper

Larkspur

Lupine

Mariposa Lily

Monarda (Bee balm)

Mountain Arnica

Mountain Mahogany

Mountain Wild Rose

Mountain Thistle

New Mexico Spiny Star

Oregon Grape

Penstemon

Pincushion Flower

Prairie Smoke

Rabbitbrush

Rocky Mountain Maple

Sagebrush (both black and big varieties)

Snowberry

Serviceberry

Thistle (both Shale and Canadian varieties)

Wild Gooseberry

Wild Iris

Wild Phlox

Wild Sweet Pea

Wild Violets

Black Canyon of the Gunnison – a very spiritual place

 A most extraordinary place, the Black Canyon National Park is a 48-mile narrow gash in the mountains that gives you butterflies in your stomach, no matter where your viewing point is. The rock that lines the narrow (less than 40 feet across in some places) canyon is at least 2 billion years old, composed of metamorphic schist, gneiss and pegmatite rocks. When the ancestral Ute tribes migrated through this territory, they found it too overwhelming to make it to the bottom or across — one feels the presence of spirits, both current and past, in the quiet canyon walls, the raging Gunnison River at the bottom, and the constant flow of wind currents and birds throughout the air.

The name Black Canyon comes from the dark shadows that haunt the canyon walls most hours of the day, and the deeply dark rock. You can imagine that peering into its 2,000’ depth (twice the height of the Empire State building) sometimes with only 40 feet from side to side, you don’t get much sun exposure, and the walls look like charcoal.

We hiked 5-6 short paths to the canyon rim on both the north and south sides, each time breathless at the vertiginous drop along the edge. Next door is the National Conservation Area, called Gunnison Gorge, where we took an enchanting hike along the Chukar Trail to the bottom of the canyon – after a grueling 7-mile downhill drive over extremely rugged terrain (top speed: 2 mph).

The afore-mentioned trail rapidly drops about 400 feet into the canyon bed, where we walked next to mind-bending geological formations along the canyon walls and marveled over the rocks that had dropped from on high. This is what we imagine slot canyon hiking to be, and wish we hadn’t been forced by the clock to turn back before we’d gotten our fill.

Loving (Y)Ouray and its mountains

The lovely town of Ouray, named after Chief Ouray of the Ute Tribe, is pronounced YOU-ray. It ranks right up there with Creede and Durango in terms of charm, personality, worthwhile hiking and beautiful nature. We came here to find challenging paths and a bit more warmth than what could be found in Silverton or Telluride, and it did not disappoint, even though the nights still get down to 30 degrees at the end of May.

Today we tackled Bear Creek Trail just southeast of town, hiked to the Grizzly Bear mine site and then halfway to the Yellow Jacket mine before snow turned us back (six miles total, over an 1800-foot elevation gain). Back in the 1900’s Grizzly Bear produced mostly gold and silver, but was also known to yield copper, zinc, bismuth, lead, barite and tungsten. It is awe-inspiring that the miners could transport their heavy ore production out of this sheer canyon without benefit of modern technology.

Bear Creek was the most technically challenging hike to date, as its first leg quickly climbs 700 feet over slate talus (large, slippery shards that have fallen onto the slopes from higher elevation), and the narrow trail crosses at least six places where water from snowmelt is cascading down the mountain. Hikers don’t get much reprieve from hard exertion until later down the path. Because we hike four-legged (trekking poles always along for weight distribution, upper body exercise and balance), we didn’t feel at risk. Our goats surely would feel at home here.

Only met nine people over the five hours we were on Bear Creek Trail. One is training to hike Mont Blanc later this summer, and four others are used to hiking 14ers in Colorado, so it made us feel in very fit company indeed to be accomplishing this route.  Colorado native hikers are everywhere in the mountains, but there are thousands of paths for them to scatter over, and we have crossed paths with relatively few on this trip. It’s a privilege to enjoy the solitude. George and I are convinced that heaven smells like fir trees and snowmelt water!