A Travellerspoint blog

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The Sangre De Cristo Mountains and Nebraska

To North Crestone Lake, Colorado Wildflowers, The End of the Adventure and the Best of Nebraska

sunny 91 °F

To North Crestone Lake
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I had been following North Crestone Creek since I left my campsite at seven in the morning. It was now nearing ten o’clock, and I had hiked four miles while rising well over three thousand feet. Across the grassy meadow to my right was a skinny waterfall that dropped one hundred feet or more. I figured that North Crestone Lake had to be hiding somewhere above the waterfall.
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Up here, the air was noticeably thinner. My breath came in small gasps as I followed the steep switchbacks that wound through the loose rock of the ridge wall. When I paused to rest, I caught my breath within a minute, and my heart slowed to a normal rhythm. I smiled. I was in shape. The last three months of vagabonding has treated me well. I am in the best shape of my adult life, and this five mile hike into the high country of the Sangre De Cristo (SDC) mountains of Colorado was a piece of cake (POC).
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During my hike, I passed through four noticeable zones of vegetation. I started out in a narrow canyon of the creek in a thick pine forest. I gradually rose into healthy groves of aspen. Their lime green trunks were smooth to the touch, and their quaking leaves offered a shimmering shadow on the path I followed. The aspen groves gave way to open high mountain meadows. They were full of lush green grasses and bursting with wildflowers. Finally, when I neared the lake I found an alpine meadow. The soil was thin, but it still provided enough nutrients for an entire meadow of wildflowers. I unfocused my eyes and saw a carpet of purple, mays, white and blue dotting a lush green background. This could have been a dreamscape.
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The scenery was spectacular. I have had visions of Colorado high mountain meadows in my head for as long as I could remember. The landscape I walked through was reminiscent of these daydreams, and the higher I climbed the more I realized I was living my dream.
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I counted twelve different varieties of wild flowers. I’m certain this number is a conservative count, as I hadn’t been keeping track for most of the hike. Flitting among the pockets of flowers was an equally diverse population of butterflies. I wondered if the thin air affected a butterfly in any way, but they seemed normal to my eye. This Swallowtail posed beautifully for me and allowed me to get very close to its perch. Perhaps mountain butterflies are more tolerant of humans, then their low elevation cousins.
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I felt small. The rocky mountain peaks of the SDC towered all around me. Sheer walls of rock protected their high points, and by the effort it would take to scale them. To me, they looked inviting. Where there is a will, there is a way, and I’m certain I could unlock the puzzle of climbing those walls safely. However, this was just a warm up hike, and I decided against the extra strain of mountaineering on this hike.
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Finally, I gained the top of the ridge and below me lay the crystal clear lake tucked neatly beneath four peaks. I laughed. I whooped, and I let out a yodel. It’s true, I can yodel. But I don’t do it very often. It’s bad enough I roam around without contributing much to society for months on end, why would I make the populace listen to my yodeling too? My soaring voice ricocheted off the first mountain and back to the wall behind me, before making its way higher up the walls of the distant mounts and escaping into the stratosphere. I was satisfied with my insignificance. Once in awhile, you might notice a cricket chirp too.

I skipped down the trail to the edge of the lake, pausing to admire the sunny meadow full of flowers, bees, grasses, birds, butterflies and me. There wasn’t anyone else around for miles. I stripped down to my underwear, and eased myself into the cold water. As I slipped deeper and deeper into the water, my skin tingled with chill. It was like dipping yourself into an icy energy field that took your breath away, yet left you feeling more alive than you have ever felt, at least for this week. It was awesome.
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I drip-dried among the flowers, content to take in some sun, and sip water while the world buzzed around me. I think it’s safe to say I was buzzing too, but it is hard to notice your own buzz that you emit and share with the world.

End Game
When I reached the trailhead, I was melting. As a candle slowly shrinks, my wax was dripping out of me in the form of sweat. It felt like ninety degrees, at least. I popped open my car, and dodging the rolling ball of heat trapped within. I opened my cooler, and found lukewarm water instead of the ice I placed there yesterday. I sighed, grabbed my cheese, a tomato, cranberry juice, and a hunk of French bread.
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I sat in the shade of a giant boulder and ate my lunch. It was good, and tasted great. In the heat, I tend to eat lightly, opting for easy to prepare non-cooking foods. It was in that moment that I grew weary of this adventure. I was tired of trying to figure out where I was going to sleep every night. I was tired of the heat. And I was just plain tired. I had been on the road for three months, and I had reached my limit.
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I packed up my gear, and put on my flip-flops. I drove out of the campground, and stopped briefly in Crestone to call my brother. The conversation was quite short. “Hey man, I’m headed your way. “ I informed him. “Ok, dude, I’ll see you when you get here.” My brother understands me. He didn’t even question me. With that, I was off. I drove south and east to escape the mountains. From Walsenburg, I started traveling northeast.
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As I passed from the mountains and into the eastern plains of Colorado, I felt my soul ease into contentment. On the western edge of the vast emptiness, I found peace. There is something soothing to the open grasslands that speaks to my soul like nothing else I know. As I drove northward, the sun set into the smoky air over Colorado Springs, turning the sun into a bright fiery ball of orange. To the east, a shaft of a rainbow grew bright for an instant, then eased from my sight as if it had never been there. Colorado was saying farewell.

I rolled on into the night.

Nebraska
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I was cruising north on a skinny black asphalt road somewhere in western Nebraska. I was too lazy to stop and buy a map, so I wasn‘t sure where I was. It was very liberating to travel without a map. I chose my directions by dead reckoning and by the allure of the surrounding scenery. If I passed a road that caught my eye and it was heading in the right direction (north or east), I took it. It’s the only way to travel the plains.
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I was thinking a lot about a cup of coffee. I love the taste of coffee as I drive my morning roads. As luck would have it, a small roadside picnic area appeared just up the highway, and I slowed to pull over. I laughed. It consisted of a small picnic table in the shade of two giant cottonwood trees at the intersection of two lonely highways. It was very modest, but it was perfect. I happily pulled out my Jetboil stove and heated up some water for my French press. I ate an orange, and a Clif bar, while sipping hot black coffee. I was in breakfast heaven.
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Nebraska makes me appreciate trees. There aren’t many trees out here, so when I see one, I take a good look. You might not see another one for another hundred miles. I look to see what type of tree it is, how much shade it produces, and can I set up my slack line or hammock. In western Nebraska, Cottonwoods are the most plentiful. Where Cottonwoods grow, you can usually find a good source of water (though it may be underground). That’s why they are so plentiful around the rivers and canyons of the west.
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The sand hills region of Nebraska is very beautiful, but so very lonesome. It is so forlorn and empty; it could make a coyote cry. There isn’t much out here but undulating grass covered hills, wild prairie flowers, the relentless wind, and assorted prairie animals. Most Americans and travelers miss this unique place. With time on my side, I pulled over to admire some prairie sunflowers bobbing in the hot wind. I also stopped to use the local rest stop. Believe it or not, this was one of the cleaner rest rooms I’ve seen in my journeys. It had a small population of hornets living inside, but they minded their own business, and I minded mine.
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I love driving through the small towns of the plains. If you are driving through Nebraska, get off the major highways. Go and visit towns like Arthur, Tryon (population 157), Amelia, Winnetoon, Verdigre (The Kolach Capital of the World) and Orchard. Not only are these towns charming, but they help break up the monotony of the drive. The big question I ask myself is, “Why do people live here?”
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I love the fact Nebraska is a waving state. Eight out of ten cars will wave at you when you pass them on the highways. Not every state waves, but Nebraska does.

In the evening, I pulled into the small town of Orchard. I was getting tired of driving, and I was looking for a place to camp. One great thing about the small towns of the plains is they are very friendly to campers. Most towns have a city park, and most parks offer free camping. Orchard’s city park was perfect. It was dotted with old oak trees and pines. It had some playground equipment for the kids and a covered picnic area for receptions or rainy weather.
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The grass was green and well tended. I parked my little car and got out to stretch. I set up my slack line between two trees and practiced my craft. Then I cracked a sweating Corona from my cooler, and chopped up a cucumber, avocado, onion, and green pepper. I squeezed some lime juice on it, hit it with a dash of pepper and ate it with tortilla chips. My green salsa is always a hit.
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After dinner, I relaxed in my hammock. I popped another beer, and took out my phone. I sent texts out to five random people, just to say, “Hey, how are you?” The sun set, and the stars emerged from the dusky blue sky.
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I think my next American road trip is going to be a tour of the Great Plains. I’m going to start either on the south end in Texas, or on the Canadian shield in northern Saskatoon. I’m going to try and see every backwards old town I can find. I’m going to camp with the coyotes, hike out into those sand hills of Nebraska, and see what is beyond those endless hills. I can’t wait.

Posted by Rhombus 09:28 Archived in USA Tagged mountains flowers hiking colorado photography trails philosophy meadows nebraska plains Comments (0)

Adventures On The Great Sand Dunes

Visions of Sand, When Adventure Starts, Moonlight Dune Climb

sunny 94 °F

Sand Lands
The View From My First Campsite.
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Velvet Buck.
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Pine Meadow.
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Prairie Sun Flower.
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Self Portrait.
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Sex.
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The Edge of the Dunes.
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Sand and Pine.
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“Ha ha ha…. Wheeeeeeeeeeee! What a Predicament… ha ha ha…”
It was hot. The sun blazed overhead turning the dune landscape into a sandy broiler. I felt like a twice baked potato. Temperatures on the sand of Great Sand Dunes National Park can reach up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit during midday. The park service warns against walking on the dunes during this time, but there I was, padding along in the deep sand just after noon (a mistake). I began to feel woozy. I stopped to take another swig from my water bottle. I still had enough water, but the next creek was three miles further along the trail. I had long way to go to get there, if I got there.

My pack felt exceptionally heavy. I chose my food and equipment poorly for this trek. The problem was that I had made the plan to hike deep into the mountains after I had gone shopping the day before. Therefore, I was stuck with too many heavy food items. I love my new pack, but the weight dug into my shoulders and drove the load down my legs and into my feet, which sunk into the dune a good four inches. I could feel a moving pocket of sand inside both of my hiking boots. It was annoying, but that was the least of my problems.
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My left leg began to hurt. With each step in the sand, my left hip ached. Then I began to feel an aching knot in my calves as well. I rarely feel any soreness in my body. When I do, I know I am straining my body too hard. I kept going, though I was noticeably slower than when I started this trek. The sand was going to be my downfall. Thinking back to my planning in the Visitor’s Center, I remember the ranger didn’t mention the first ten miles was through sand. He must have assumed I’d know. At the time, I felt good about my chances of hiking ten miles on the first day. Out on the sand, I laughed aloud at my stupidity.
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On the trail in front of me, were fresh footprints of a black bear. The bear seemed to be following the trail. I had first noticed its huge prints in the mud near the last creek I crossed. I had not yet seen the bear, but I sang out once in awhile to avoid a surprise encounter. Bears don’t like surprises, and I don’t like surprising bears. Sure, it’s exciting, but the outcome in never certain.

An ominous roll of thunder sounded off to the west. The hazy bluish clouds of the front were building on the far side of the valley and moving east. The thunder was a subtle reminder of the power of a storm. The park service also warns hikers that “lightning can kill.” They go on to recommend leaving the dunes area immediately upon seeing signs of a storm. I looked at my GPS again. The elevation read just over 9,000 feet, which meant I was nearing the high point of this section of trail. Damn.

I took another twenty steps along the sandy trail before I stopped again. I was panting, and I bent over to rest my hands on my knees. I felt lightheaded. I took another swig of water, and realized that there was no way in hell I was getting to the Sand Creek campground. It was still six miles away, and I was feeling like crap. I had to get out of the sun. Ahead of me were some pine trees that offered a bit of shade. I left the path, and crossed two hundred yards of sage covered flatland to the pines. I dropped my pack in the sand, dug out my other water bottle and sat down in the shade with a plop. I was beat.

Now I had to decide what to do. I grabbed some food, and while I munched I took stock of my situation: I was five miles out on the edge of the dunes. I was showing signs of heat exhaustion. My left leg hurt a lot. I was following a bear. The nearest water was a mile and a half back down the trail, or three miles ahead of me. There was a thunderstorm approaching from the west. And I was fairly exposed high on top of the dune. Mulling this, I decided that, “Yes, this was a good one.” I had not been up against adversity in awhile, and this was a pretty good pickle.

Yvon Chouinard once said that, “Adventures start when everything goes wrong.” It was safe to say, this trek wasn’t going according to plan. But what to do? I know my limits, and I’m good at recognizing bad situations (and good ones, too). To continue would be foolish. If I decided to stay where I was to avoid the heat, my water would run out, and I would be exposing myself to the thunderstorm. I knew I was close to a campground, but since it didn’t have water, I couldn’t stay there either. I decided water was the key. I needed water to stay hydrated, and the nearest source was back the way I came. I also decided that though I was very tired, that it would be in my best interest to get off the exposed dune. My leg was sore, but there was nothing to do about that. The bear would show up, or it wouldn’t. I’d deal with it if I had to. Satisfied with my rational thinking, I heaved my pack up on my shoulders and started back down the trail.

As I walked, the thunderstorm passed by me to the north. It rumbled a bit, but it didn’t rain. Nor were there any terrifying lighting bolts to dodge (as if I could). The heavy clouds blocked out the sun, and I relished the cooling change. My trek back to the creek was uneventful. I was still sore, but I would heal. I drank the last of my water before I pumped more into my bottles. I continued on to Little Medora Campground where I set up my camp. Easing into my hammock, I contemplated the day and laughed. I had just enjoyed yet another near life experience.

Starlight Dune Climb
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I looked up at the stars to check my orientation. The North Star was still off to my right, and I could still see one of the two bright stars I had been using as a guide ahead of me. Not that star navigation was necessary, the dune field was directly west of the campground. All I really needed to do was walk toward the giant blob of sand. But I like to practice navigation, and stars are an easy guide to use at night.

I chose to hike the dune at night for several reasons. It is much cooler at night than during the heat of the day. I wanted solitude, and nobody else was getting up at 3:30 in the morning to climb the dune. I wanted to watch the sunrise from the top of the dune. I wanted to photograph the dunes with good light. Finally, I figured it would be an awesome experience to hike the dune at night, then watching the day dawn over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado.
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My feet made a “Hisssssk-Hissssk” sound with each step I took on the cool sand. I couldn’t see the definition of the dune I was climbing due to the almost total darkness. The moon had set two hours ago, and the only light available was starlight. I had a flashlight, but where was the challenge in that? The dune began to climb again, and so did I. I was more or less climbing this dune by brail, only instead of using my hands, I used my feet to sense the changes of the dune.

The dune I was climbing was the highest sand dune in North America. At its highest point, it rose seven hundred and fifty feet above the valley floor. My calves began to throb with the increasing pitch of the pyramid I was climbing. This dune isn’t one giant wall of sand. It has twisting ridges, valleys and pits. Just when I reached the top of one ridge and followed to a peak, I found that I had to descend down into a pit and climb an even higher pyramid. It wasn’t easy, but it was enjoyable.
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The stillness and silence of the desert was complete. I’m not sure I have heard a silence as deep as that anywhere else on earth. It was so quiet, I swear I could almost hear the energy of the sand. It sounded like a very low hum on the lowest frequency that I can hear. Maybe I was imagining things. At any rate, I felt a strong connection to the earth and the dunes.

I started the final climb. I could only take thirty steps before I was gasping with the effort. The dry air parched my throat. After my breath settled, I took another swig of water. Then I would climb another thirty steps. There might have been easier ways to climb the dune, but I couldn’t see them. I had a sure fire way of getting to the top, which was simply to keep climbing up.

Then, with a push, I was on top. I rested my hands on my knees and let my heart and lungs slow down. Then I looked about at the expanse of the sand plateau all about me. It was amazing. I went in search of the perfect spot. My perfect spot needed to meet the following criteria: It needed a view of the dune field below me. It needed to be photographically interesting. It needed to be a good breakfast spot. After wandering another two hundred yards, I found it. Satisfied, I pulled out my breakfast (an orange and a Clif bar), and settled in to enjoy the start of the day.

The Dune Field In Pictures
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"Behold, The Sands of Thom!"
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Posted by Rhombus 11:03 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes parks flowers hiking colorado adventure sunrise sand insects photography dunes Comments (1)

On Isle Royale

The Hammock Tour of 2012

semi-overcast 74 °F

June 20th, 2012
Thunder Shack #2
Moskey Basin, Isle Royale, Michigan
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The rain continues to fall unabated as it has for the last two days. I am sitting in my lean-to, a three-sided wood structure of ingenious design. Its sound quality and craftsmanship protects me from the worst of the wind and rain. A fine screen covers the front side of the building. This screen allows air to pass through, but keeps the damnable mosquitoes out. Thusly protected, I am comfortable enough and am taking time to catch up on my journal.

I arrived on the island yesterday after a lengthy and uneventful passage from the outpost of Copper Harbor, Michigan. The vessel, the Isle Royale Queen IV, makes daily passages to and from the island, and I procured my passage via telephone the day before. The cost was reasonable, some $120.00 roundtrip to this wilderness isle. The waters were calm, though the sky was building darker clouds to the northwest. I felt like it might rain, but wasn’t worried as I had the necessary rain gear to stay dry.
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Upon reaching the protected waters of Rock Harbor on the northeast corner of the island, the Captain docked the vessel, and I stepped ashore. I checked in with a park ranger, who signed off on my proposed itinerary. I secured my equipment from the deckhands, and weighed my pack on the scale at the park store. It registered at 65 lbs. It was heavy, but I took on this burden without complaint.
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With my trusted walking stick in hand, I commenced this journey at a brisk pace walking southwest along the shoreline trail towards my destination for the day, some seven miles distant. The path followed the shoreline passing through groves of spruce and birch. It twisted and climbed up and over occasional black basalt rock outcrops. The summer foliage is lush and green and many wildflowers were out in bloom including wild rose, blue bells, and bunchberry.
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After I had walked five miles, the darkening clouds finally released their load, and it began to rain. I put on my raingear and continued along the trail. I was still feeling good, though I was tiring from my efforts. I had just returned to Michigan from the wilds of Alaska, and my body had yet to adjust to the difference of the light. Because of this, I had only slept for four hours before I rose from my bed to embark on the ship.

I continued walking through the rain shower. I consulted my map, and knew I was getting close to the Daisy Farm campground where I would make camp for the night. I arrived at the campground in the late afternoon. I set down my burdens and sighed with relief. I found an unused lean-to that I have described above, and set about making a lunch of peanut butter with honey spread on a round Mexican flat bread. I ate two of them with little difficulty.

I set up my hammock outside under the eaves of the shelter and lit my pipe. It felt wonderful to free of my heavy pack for the day, and it was very pleasant to sway in my comfortable hammock. After about an hour, it began to rain much harder than before, and I had to move my enterprise inside the lean-to.

I checked my pocket watch for the last time at six pm, and laid down on my bedroll intending only to stretch out for a few minutes before preparing dinner. I awoke to the booming of thunder, many hours later. The sky was darkening in the east, and I presumed it to be near eleven o’clock at night. I rose briefly to attend to my nightly personal affairs and went back to my bedroll. There was no dinner this night. The thunderstorms continued all night. The lightning hit with such intensity that the thunderclap shook my lean-to with its force. The rain intensified, and it sounded as if the drummers of Scotland were beating on my roof. I slept.
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Upon waking up, I felt completely refreshed. I think my slumber lasted well over twelve hours, a luxury I rarely get to enjoy. The day was still dark and gloomy, but I happily made breakfast of oatmeal and tea inside my shack away from the rain. I pumped water from the lake into my canteens, repacked my equipment and donned my raingear. I was ready to continue my trek. I had not hiked very far before the trail was covered in several inches of water. Indeed, it looked much like a spring creek, with water happily chuckling over the rocks. This was to be a trying day. My boots are durable and mostly waterproof, but the amount of water I was walking through eventually overcame their protection, and soon I was walking in sopping wet footwear. It began to rain again, and the mosquitoes tapped into me with annoying regularity. I was sweating in my raingear, and the rock outcrops I crossed were slick with all the water. I was moving slow.
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I stopped briefly to take a rest on an outcrop. As I sat there, I noticed a hare several yards up the trail. I kept quiet. Then, it came hopping down the very path I was walking. It stopped three feet away from where I sat, and I had a good look at it. It looked pitiful. Its hair was matted and soaked through, clinging to its body. Its large black eyes looked at me as if to ask, “Oh dear, oh dear, what has happened? Where has all this water come from? My home is flooded.” It bounded off down the path, looking for an answer. I saw three more rabbits that day. I think their warrens were flooded, and they had no place to go.
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It is just under four miles from Daisy Farm to Moskey Basin. I planned to stay at Moskey Basin for two nights. I passed one moose that was munching leaves just off the trail. Beleaguered as I was, I didn’t even stop to look at it. I simply talked to it, letting it know I was passing by. Moose are quite plentiful on this island, and I was happy to see one.
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I finally made it the head of Moskey Basin in time for a brief lull in between rainsqualls. I was soaked through, tired and sweating. I found this shelter in reasonable condition and set about making it more comfortable. I hung a clothesline under the eaves, and hung up my wet effects. I went down to the shore and dunked myself twice in the chilly water of Lake Superior. I returned to my shelter, changed into dry clothes and set about making lunch. That is where you find me right now, lounging comfortably in my hammock. I’m content to nap through the afternoon, as my old tomcat would on rainy days. I’m enjoying the graffiti written on the walls of the shelter from past tours. It seems I’m not the only hiker who has spent rainy afternoons in this lean-to. “I love Isle Royale, but I don’t love mosquitoes and rain.” “I miss my pizza.” “Berry Girl Aug 2009.” Below that, her partner wrote, “a.k.a. the snail” meaning she spent her time picking berries instead of hiking.

6 O’clock - Still raining.
8 O’clock - Rain and thunder.
9 O’clock - Rainy, going to bed.

June 21st, 2012
Thunder and Sunshine Shack #2
Moskey Basin, Isle Royale, Michigan
~Summer Solstice~
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What a difference a day makes! Today dawned clear and bright without a cloud in the sky. If it weren’t for the slippery mud on the campground trails, I would almost believe it hadn’t rained at all. I spent my morning at ease, content to sit quietly on the rock ledges and watch the wildlife around me. I find that sitting quietly is the best way to witness wildlife in their element. For instance, I saw a raft of otter swim by, some 100 yards distant. There were five or six in the group, grunting amongst themselves as they swam towards the head of the bay. There are several types of fowl that live here in the bay. I saw several golden eye ducks, some red headed mergansers, and heard the haunting summer call of the common loon. While I sat on my rock, a dragonfly on patrol flew out to a golden eye paddling in the water. I’m not sure if its intent was to land on the duck or not, but it flew too close. The duck looked up and snapped the dragonfly in its beak, shaking its head and munching the unfortunate fly for a late breakfast snack.
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I swam in the lake around midday. The water is still quite cold, but very refreshing. After drying off, I made lunch and took a nap. I love my days of leisure.
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Towards evening, the rumble of distant thunder rolled over the basin. I looked at the sky and a large dark gray cloud rolled overhead. It began to sprinkle, but only for a short while before the cloud past and the sun returned. The waters of the bay had flattened, almost to a perfect mirror finish. The clouds above reflected below made for a beautiful scene that I enjoyed. I had a feeling there was going to be a rainbow. I ran out to a rocky tip with my camera. A beautiful spectrum of color rose from just above the treetops in the eastern sky. At first, it was dull, but as the sun cleared the clouds, the more intense the colors became. The nearby pines glowed in the golden light from the sun. It was truly magnificent. Nature knows how to put on a good show.
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I finished the evening by sipping tea and watching the sun set over the island. The clouds glowed orange as if lit by fire. The solstice is our longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. This one was spectacular from dawn to dusk.
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June 22, 2013
Three Mile Campground
Isle Royale, Michigan

Today was as bright and clear as yesterday was, and I spent the day hiking eight miles along the lakeside trail back to Three Mile campground. The hike was uneventful. The trails were in better condition than they were on the 20th. They had dried out from the last two days of sunshine. I enjoyed the trek and made good time down the path. I slipped on a rock at one point and landed with all of the combined weight of the pack and myself right on my left kneecap. Evidently, I’m made of some stern stuff, as it didn’t affect me at all.

I arrived at Three Mile just after noon, and happily threw my pack down. The sixty-five pounds were starting to get to me. My shoulders were getting sore from carrying the load, and I longed for a massage from a sweet lady I know. Alas, it was not to be. I jumped in the lake once again, and dried off on the hot black rocks that make up this island. I looked at my remaining camp food with disinterest. I had nothing that looked appetizing anymore, and so ate more rolled up peanut butter flat bread.

I set up my hammock in the shade, and read for a while. I am reading “Black Elk Speaks” by John Neihardt. I wrote in my journal, and took a brief nap.
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I passed the afternoon away, enjoying views of the lake, and watching the trees sway in the breeze. The campground red fox trotted past me along the trail to my camp. It paused briefly to inspect my wares. I had my sweaty clothes drying on the picnic table, and moved on. It had a beautiful rich coat of auburn, its tail full and fluffy. Its eyes were yellowish green, and it looked at me and said, “Hey amigo, Que pasa?” in a sly, quiet way foxes have.

I started craving pizza about the time I was watching the noodles boil for my dinner. I was starving, and while I waited, I began to imagine the particulars of the post trek celebratory pizza. [Cue Harps]. It would be a large, pepperoni, green pepper and onion pizza from Jim’s in Calumet. The cheese would be perfectly cooked, almost molten. The crust would have a satisfying crunch... After daydreaming for several minutes about it, I popped back into reality and looked at my pot of bubbling noodles. I laughed. My dream dinner would have to wait, and I finished preparing my dinner of macaroni and cheese with tuna and shallots. It was good, but a starving man will eat most anything and call it delicious.
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For dessert, I made a cup of tea and ate the last of my chocolate. I sipped my tea along the shore, and took in one last sunset over the island. I couldn’t see the actual sunset because of the island’s trees. The setting sun lit up the clouds over Rock Harbor and they reflected into a collage of oily colors on the flat surface of the bay.

June 23rd, 2012
Isle Royal Queen IV
Lake Superior

I’m on my way back to the mainland of the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan. The vessel is running true, and the waters calm, despite a stiff breeze out of the south. The only event worth mentioning is that we passed the ore freighter Arthur M. Anderson. The Anderson is one of the more famous ships in the great lakes fleet. The Anderson was traveling ten miles behind the Edmund Fitzgerald the night the Fitz went down back in November of 1975. It was the Anderson that witnessed the Fitz disappear on its radar.
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As a mariner, I look at ships all the time on our vessel’s radar. To see a ship the size of an ore carrier disappear off the screen would be very intense. It is one of every seaman’s worst nightmares. I can’t imagine the surge of adrenaline that went through the bridge of the Anderson, not to mention the uncertainty of their own survival in seas that treacherous.
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I stepped ashore safe and sound and keenly aware of my proximity to the pizza I craved. And let me tell you, it was as good as I imagined it to be.

Author’s Note: The ranger in Rock Harbor informed me that it rained three inches on the island during the first two days of my stay. The city of Duluth, MN received seven inches from the same band of storms. The resulting flash floods caused remarkable damage to the city.

Posted by Rhombus 08:21 Archived in USA Tagged birds islands parks flowers rainbows backpacking photography trails Comments (0)

Haines, Alaska

The Last Stop of My Springtime Alaskan Adventure

semi-overcast 64 °F


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Have you ever been to Haines, Alaska? Haines was never on my Alaskan places to see list. I had seen it on a map, but breezed over it for sexier locations like Denali, the Kenai, Glacier Bay, and Tracy Arm to name a few. Fortunately, I have friends in Haines. And these friends who have collectively said, “Come visit us. We have a place for you to stay.” While I was figuring out the end game for this Alaskan adventure, I decided to go and visit my friends, which is how I ended up in Haines.
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Haines isn’t an easy town to get to. There is only one highway into town, highway seven, that cuts south off the Alaskan Highway in the Yukon Territory. Alternatively, a ferry runs from either Skagway, or Juneau. I rode the ferry from Juneau, and recommend this option. Finally, you could take a small plane in from Juneau. Bank robbers aren’t making a fast get away from this outpost.
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Haines carries a small town atmosphere. It is a refreshing change from the tourist ridden, knick-knackeries of Juneau and Skagway. On my first walk through downtown, I was struck by the modest appearance of its shops and services. There’s no flash to Haines, and to me that is its greatest allure. When I stepped into the nicely appointed shops and restaurants, the shopkeepers looked up with a smile and a genuine, “Hello. How are you?” The owners of the establishments were generally hard at work in the kitchen, stocking shelves, or running the till. They were an active part of the service, not hiding in an office somewhere or teeing off at the ninth hole (though after work you might find them at the local disc golf course).

The Alaskan pioneer is still alive and well in Haines. Many folks are living off the grid. They live far enough out of town where they don’t have running water, or electricity they didn’t make themselves. Some have to plan their day around the tides-meaning they can only get to town at low tide. They live this way by choice, and continue the pioneering spirit that has made Alaska what it is. Granted, modern conveniences have made homesteading “easier” than in times past, but they are still over coming hardships that most of us wouldn’t even consider. Compared to the overweight, red-bull powered, television worshipping couch potatoes that we Americans are (prove me wrong!), these folks are our equivalent of modern pioneers. I applaud their spirit.

The days are long in the early part of June. Daylight lasted for just over eighteen hours on my visit. Summer is the busy season, when everyone wants to cram as much work and play into their day as they can. Summer is a big deal to the residents of Haines, especially after surviving last winter. This past winter broke many spirits all around Alaska. There were records broken, or nearly broken all around the state and year round residents of Haines had their hands full all winter long.
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“I stood on the top of this totem pole,” my good friend Kathy told me, “that’s how much snow there was.” This was coming from someone who as of March 2010 had never seen snow before. She survived this past winter, and lived to tell the tale. She’s seen more snow this past winter than most people have seen in the last ten. Girdwood, located just south of Anchorage, received eighty feet of snow this year. Eighty feet! That’s incredible.
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That’s why summer is so important to Alaskan residents. It gives them a chance to breathe a collective sigh of relief-no more snow shoveling for another five months or so.

Throughout my week, my friend Kathy introduced me to most of the town. “Hey Kathy, we saw you walking Frankie (her dog) and noticed you were walking with someone we didn’t know. We thought we’d see who it was.” I’d laugh, and Kathy would introduce me to someone new. In my line of recreation, I meet many people. The problem is, I’m terrible with names. So please forgive me if I remember your face, but can’t quite make the connection.
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As you might imagine, I spent a lot of time outside during my week in Haines. I love the lushness of summer in Alaska. Though the summer season may be short, every plant, wildflower, shrub and tree makes the most of it by blooming to its fullest. The pure green of the lowlands meshed beautifully with the pale blue sky and snow covered mountains. Add in some wildlife, such as a humpback whale in the canal, or Brown Bears munching grasses on the shore, and you have yourself another gorgeous Alaskan view.
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Highlights of Haines

Mt. Ripinsky
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Though I didn’t reach the summit of Mt. Ripinsky, I hiked to the top of its ridge three times. One of the trailheads was one hundred yards from my house. I went up for a hike with some friends on a summit bid. On top of the ridge, the heavy snow pack made the trail hard to find, and slowed us down. We bush whacked our way around the backside of the mountain eventually finding the main trail which took us back to where we began.
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On two other occasions, I went up to enjoy the eagle eye view of the town and surrounding mountains and valleys. I also found a mossy clearing where I set up my slack line.

Beach Barbeque at Mud Bay
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One day, the sun came out and my jaw dropped. Where once was a misty mountainous landscape obscured by clouds, there was now a brilliant mountain scene of blue sky and snow capped peaks. Then, the wind died down, and it became a perfect night for a barbeque. On the last day of shrimp season, a local fisherman gave Kathy a two-pound bag of Southeast Alaskan Coon Striped Shrimp that he had caught that day. We took them out to the head of Mud Bay, and after considerable effort, Kathy’s boyfriend started a fire using rain soaked wood. When the coals glowed orange, we pulled across a cast iron table over the flames and spread the shrimp on the grill. While they cooked, we watched the sunset, sipped PBR from a can (the Alaskan cheap beer of choice), and marveled at the beauty all around us. We pulled the shrimp off the flames with our fingers, yelping as we peeled off the hot shells. They were delicious! These freshly caught shrimp were some of the best shrimp I have eaten.
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The Chilkoot River
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The Chilkoot River is a beautiful river that runs from Chilkoot Lake a short distance to the ocean. Anglers of the skinny two-legged kind and the massive four-legged kind frequent the river. Somehow, they get along, but I think the four-legged anglers are in charge. The Chilkoot is a very picturesque river. Wildflowers grow abundantly along its bank, as do spruce, and other shrubs. A high mountain ridge forms the backdrop, and skinny waterfalls tumble down its side. I liked the rivers boulders. They had character. Some even provided homes to small Zen pines, which reminded me of Chinese gardens that I have visited (see Sleep Deprived in Portland, Oct 2011).

Rafting the Chilkat River
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Through the power of couch surfing (www.couch surfing.org), I made a connection with a local raft guide who invited me for a float trip down the Chilkat river. The Chilkat runs through a beautiful plain surrounded by lush forests and mountain peaks. It runs several miles through an eagle preserve, and we had several great views of these magnificent birds. At one point, we saw an eagle sitting on a log. Our guide asked us to be quiet. We slipped slowly past within twenty feet of this bird! It was awesome! I’m still get excited by eagles, no matter how many I see.
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I enjoyed the trip, and I was glad I reached out to the couch surfing network.

It’s safe to say, I enjoyed my visit to Haines. A week wasn’t long enough, but it was time to move on. I wanted to head south back down to the lower forty-eight for a while to take in some warmer temperatures, and work on my suntan. I’ll be back in Alaska in August, so I won’t be gone for long.

I took the evening ferry from Haines back down to Juneau arriving just after eleven o’clock at night. My flight was leaving at eight in the morning, and I didn’t have a place to stay for the night. I didn’t want to spend money on a hotel, not for that short of time, and the hostel closed its doors at eleven. I decided to see if I could spend the night at either the Juneau ferry terminal or airport. As it turns out, sleeping at the terminal is common, though their doors close from 11 pm to 3 am. As I set up my bunk on the concrete, I talked to some of the other folks who would be sleeping out, waiting for their ferry the next morning. I wished them happy travels, and tucked into my sleeping bag.
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Author’s Note:
Chilkoot means “basket of fish” in the Tlingit language.
Chilkat means “bigger basket of fish.”

Haines concluded my Alaskan adventure for now, and I’ve just returned from a five day backpacking trek on Isle Royale National Park. In two days, I’m heading to Colorado for three weeks in the mountains. As you can see, not only am I trying to catch up on my writing and photography, but I’m also trying to make plans for Colorado and points beyond at the same time. So this week I will be putting out two entries to catch up on my adventures. Thank you again for your continued support. It makes me smile to think of all the good people out there cheering me on, and inviting me into their lives.

Posted by Rhombus 11:03 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds boats rivers flowers hiking towns alaska oceans rafting photography Comments (1)

From Homer to Haines: Crossing the Gulf of Alaska

Two Days in Homer, The Best of the Spit, On the Ferry, Alaskan Scenery, and the Fairweather Mountains

semi-overcast 57 °F


Homer, Alaska is a “quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.” It is also the “halibut capital of the world” (so they say). I don’t know if either of those boasts are true, but I DO know that Homer is home to the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had (from K-Bay Coffee), and home to the best seafood I’ve ever eaten (Captain Patties). Beyond those opinions, Homer is an intriguing Alaskan town that catches hold of you like a virus. When you first arrive, you say, “Wow, that’s a hell of a view.“ Then, thirty years later, silver haired and rheumatic, you say, “Wow, what happened? I came here to visit and stayed for thirty years.“ I stayed for two days, and I regret leaving.
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I think it is the view. Homer sits largely on the side of a long, high bluff that runs roughly southwest to northeast on the north side of Kachemak Bay. On the far side of Kachemak bay, lie the snow capped and picturesque mountains of the Kenai Peninsula Mountain Range. It is a daily view of this mountain range, which captures the soul. I felt their pull. Every morning I would wake up and look out over the bay to those mountains and think to myself, “I want to go play over there.” In talking to a Homer resident, he put it this way, “There’s something powerful about this place. I could be having the worst possible day. On my way home I’ll look out at the view of those mountains and see the sunset lighting up the clouds in colors I’ve never seen before. Then a rainbow will form above it all, and I forget about what it was that was bugging me.” In my experience, it’s hard to feel bad when you live near mountains.

With two days to explore, I barely had enough time to see the town, much less Kachemak Bay and the mountains beyond. If I had to do it over again, I would have stayed for a week and researched the region enough to make an adventure out of it. However, on this occasion I was just passing through, waiting two days to catch the ferry to Juneau.

My main goal in Homer was to visit some friends of mine. One of them was nice enough to put me up for a few days, a burden I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But she did it without complaint, and for that I give her my sincerest thanks. My other friend was an old classmate of mine who I had not seen in nearly a decade. It is roughly 2,600 miles from Homer, to the small town where we went to school (as the bluebird flies) in northern Michigan. I was curious to see what she had to say about life in Alaska, and we set up a time to go out for dinner at Captain Patties.
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On my first day, I was given the driving tour of the town. There really wasn’t much to it, but she showed me the downtown area that was full of the necessary services such as the bank, grocer, liquor store and hardware store. There were quite a few restaurants, and independent shops. Most of the businesses looked like fun places to visit. They were brightly painted, clean, with a funky feel to them. My friend told me that, “The meals you eat here in Homer, will probably be some of the best food you’ve ever eaten. The people of Homer spend all winter trying new recipes and tinkering with old ones.” It’s true. Homer serves delicious food. They also embrace the locally grown food movement, which is always good to see. I sincerely regret not eating at the Vagabond Café. I mean, who better to endorse such a place? I’ll eat there next time.

After our spin through town, we drove out onto the Homer Spit, and it was here where I would spend most of my time.
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The Homer Spit is a narrow piece of land that juts almost five miles into Kachemak Bay. The Spit-as it is locally known-is where the action is (at least during the summer months). The Spit is home to an eclectic mixture of tourist shops, restaurants, campgrounds, sport fishing charter companies, fish cleaning shacks, and industrial warehousing. The marina can handle any boat from a small skiff to deep water vessels hundreds of feet long. There is public access to the beach at Pioneer Park, and many people take advantage and use this park daily. Next to the road sits an asphalt bike path that runs almost the entire length of the Spit.

My host was working evenings, so I had plenty of time to roam around town. But since I was on foot, I decided to base my explorations on The Spit because of its scenic beauty, beach access, restaurants, and photo opportunities.

Scenes From The Spit
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The Salty Dawg Saloon is one of my favorite taverns that I have visited. This small wood tavern was built from the wood of several of Homer’s historical buildings and has been around since 1957. I had to duck my head a little to get through the front door. I went in and sat down at the end of the bar, taking in my surroundings. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. As it was, I couldn’t stop looking at the building’s decoration. There were thousands of dollar bills pinned to every open surface available. The bills displayed the name, and hometown of the people who pinned them up. It was really cool. I felt as if I had just walked into the secret room of a mad man obsessed with dollar bills. I ordered a brew from the Homer Brewing Company, and hung out, digging the atmosphere. A small group of friends began to sing a traditional shanty out loud, and it sounded beautiful. Besides the bills, there were unique pictures and pieces of maritime history from old ships that have passed through. As a mariner, I loved this place. And of course, I put my own dollar bill up on the wall.
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Taking the Ferry From Homer to Haines
The ferry was seven hours late. In Alaska, the tides control a lot of the timing for a large vessel. This is because the difference between high and low tide can be quite dramatic. The Alaskan ferry Kennicott was delayed by these tides somewhere along the line, and we had to wait. When it arrived, I was sitting in the ferry terminal building finishing up a chapter in my book. There were two kids staring at the monstrous ship as it slid close to the dock for mooring. I don’t know if they had ever been on a boat before, but they looked to be in awe.
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After I boarded, I checked in with the purser to see if there were any cheap cabins available. I would be aboard for three days, and thought I’d see if I could get a roomette. I was in luck, and I purchased a room for thirty dollars a night. The room wasn’t fancy, but it had a bunk, and a place to keep my stuff. I was happy with it.

I had never been on the Kennicott before, and I went for a walk to check it all out. I won’t give you all of the vessels stats, but its 382 feet long with a beam of 85 feet. This vessel is one of two accredited ocean going vessels that the Alaska Ferry System runs. On my walkabout, I found that the vessel had a large forward observation lounge, a dining area, a small bar, a solarium (where I would’ve slept had I not taken the cabin), and two aft observation lounges. Beyond that, it had two outside companionways on two different levels where the passengers could hang out and sit in the sun if it appeared. I would be comfortable enough.
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I sat on a watertight locker as the Kennicott’s deckhands hauled the massive mooring lines aboard. We were finally leaving, and I was at sea once again. I wanted to find a place on board where I could watch the passing scenery and have quick access to the exterior decks on either side of the ship if there was a scene I wanted to photograph. I found the aft observation lounge perfect for this purpose. Since it was directly over the propellers, the room was slightly louder than the forward lounge, and it also had a bit of a shake to it. Being a seasoned mariner, this didn’t bother me at all. I had the room entirely to myself for most of my voyage.

I spent my days sitting back in the aft lounge relaxing. It felt great to sit around for a few days, something I rarely allow myself to do. On a boat, you have no choice. Time passes slowly.
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After living in a plywood shack for two weeks in Denali, it made me appreciate having a warm, well lit room where I could plug in my computer, get a drink of water, and use the head. I was loving life! I took turns reading, catching up on my writing, playing games, taking photographs, and listening to tunes and podcasts. I ate when I was hungry. I made a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, and suffered through meals from the ships cafeteria. No offense to the good people who work on the ferry, but the food is awful. There is no love in it, and it’s all prepackaged, or frozen. Ugh. I’ll admit I’m a spoiled mariner, as I work on a cruise ship that serves fresh, local, nutritious food that I don’t have to pay for.

My plans for exploring the coastal towns that the ferry stopped at were dashed by our seven hour delay. At each ferry terminal, we were reminded that we would be leaving as soon as we possibly could, as the captain was trying to get us back on schedule. On the original itinerary, we were to scheduled to be in port for several hours at a time. Instead, we spent just enough time to unload and load passengers before moving on. We also arrived at most of these ports in the early morning hours when I was fast asleep. Ah well.

The following pictures are scenes from the Ferry.

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Islands and Clouds
I was amazed at how thick these low island clouds formed. They stretched out in a long low band across Ushagat and Amatuli islands. They were simply beautiful.
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Chenega Bay
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We arrived in Chenega Bay just as the sun was setting over the mountains. The surrounding islands and mountains were bathed in great light.

The Fairweather Mountains
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I’ve seen the Fairweather Mountains from Glacier Bay National Park, and I have seen them from far away (near Sitka, Alaska). But I’ve never seen them from up close. We passed by them on a stunningly beautiful day, and I sat outside in the chilly air all afternoon. Mt. Fairweather rises 15,325 feet above sea level. That high point was almost three miles above where I sat on the bow of the Kennicott. I don’t think I’ve seen a prettier mountain range. Bands of clouds flowed around the high peaks of Mt. Fairweather, Mt. Adams, and Mt. La Perouse among others. I saw the Fairweather glacier, and had a good look at the La Perouse glacier as we passed by. I love traveling by ship. Most vessels travel so slowly, it gives you a great chance to enjoy the scenery. In the late afternoon, we rounded Cape Spencer and passed into Cross Sound leaving the open ocean behind. I was back in familiar territory. We passed familiar places, such as the Inian Islands, Glacier Bay, Icy Straight, Funter Bay on our passage to Juneau (see May to September 2011 for more adventures and pictures of these incredible places).
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We docked in Juneau at 8:30 pm. I stepped on land for the first time in three days. It felt good. I spent two hours reading my book before I boarded the ferry Matanuska which would take me north to Haines. I slept on the ferry under the heat lamps of the solarium. But it was a fitful sleep where I tossed and turned on the plastic deck chair. When I awoke for our arrival in Haines at 3 a.m., I got a call from my friend who arranged to have her boyfriend pick me up. I was looking for a guy named Darren who had a full “Fu man chu.” He said “hello,” handed me a beer and drove me to the apartment where I would be staying. We talked a bit, but it was 3 am, and we were both beyond tired. I went into the spacious one bedroom apartment that I learned would be my home for the duration of my stay, and crawled into the bed that was already made up for me. I love having good friends! I fell asleep just as the sky was starting to get lighten up for the coming dawn.

I wonder what Haines is like?

Posted by Rhombus 08:17 Archived in USA Tagged mountains boats islands alaska clouds oceans photography homer taverns fairweather Comments (0)

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