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Entries about birds

The Trails of El Chalten and the Road to Calafate

El Chalten, Los Glaciares Nacional Parque in Pictures, Patagonian Road Thoughts, Friends of Calafate

all seasons in one day 63 °F

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El Chalten was exactly what I was looking for. It’s a small town. I walked everywhere. Everyone walked everywhere. The streets were full of day hikers, trekkers and climbers. There were more hikers in the streets then cars. The buildings were of simple designs- half shanty and half chalet. They were painted bright colors, cozy, but with a ramshackle feel to them. The bistros and café’s were plentiful. They were all plying for the pre/post hike trade. I would attend the latter, exhausted, thirsty and hungry. The hostels poked out of the ground like spring flowers. Some of them are good (Lo De Trivi). Some of them are not so good (Rancho Grande). The grocery had only a few items, but the gents behind the counter were fun.
“Where are you from, man?” He asked.
“The states,” I replied.
“Yeah, which one?” he said.
“Denial.” I said, “It’s near Michigan.”
He laughed, “Yah, I think I’ve been there.”

The dogs roamed through town in packs. These aren’t strays, these are family dogs that run free during the day, and go home at night to sleep it off. They met in open areas, sniffed butts, wrestled, and chased each other around. Dogs love a good social hour.

The hiking was incredible. It’s easy to find the trails of Los Glaciares Nacional Parque from the hostels. Beyond the first ridge, Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torres dominated the landscape. I spent my days in search of new angles to stare at them for several hours a day.

I offer you the following images as the highlights of my stay in El Chalten.

Chorrillo Del Salto
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I heard the dull roar of the waterfall through the forest. The spray from the falls floated over the viewing area leaving everything with a sheen of water. I walked further downstream to try and find a unique angle for a photograph. I set my tripod up in the river, and spied this bird scratching through the underbrush. It stayed with me for quite awhile, keeping a four foot distance between us, despite my maneuvers to get a clear shot.
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After awhile, I climbed up the side of the cliff to get close to the roar of the water. I took a deep breath of the fresh moist air. It tasted wonderful

My First Llama
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At First I thought this Llama was a stump painted to look like a llama. When it blinked at me, I rejoiced. My first llama!

The Fitz Roy Range
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When I reached Rio Del Salto I hurried down to the edge of the river. I had found my first photo opportunity. Fitz Roy slipped through the clouds with clear blue skies beyond. The clear river gave me the leading line I wanted, and all I had to do was wait for the sun to break through the clouds behind me to brighten up the green shrubs next to the river.

Lago de los Tres
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I like the human perspective of distant hikers in front of the massive mountains.
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Rio de las Vueltas Valley
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On my way back from Lago de los Tres, I saw this light over the Rio de las Vueltas River Valley.

Locro
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Locro is a traditional stew consisting of four different meats, white beans and vegetables. I highly recommend it.

Alpine Flowers at Loma del Pliegue Tumbado
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While sitting quietly atop Loma del Pliegue Tumbado, I noticed a small movement on the rocks in front of me. I focused on it, and saw that it was a grasshopper - a mountain grasshopper. I had never seen a grasshopper this high before.

Laguna Torre
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At Laguna de Torres, I sat on the shores of the lake and stared at Cerro Torres for three hours until the tip of the spire cleared of clouds for ten seconds. Sometimes, you have to put in the time to make things happen.

Forest Scene
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I really like this quiet scene. I was walking behind Steph when I stopped to take this photo. She didn't hear me stop, and she went on ahead continuing to talk as if I was still behind her. I laughed.

Horse in the Afternoon
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This horse wanted its picture taken.

Ben
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I have had good luck with room mates here in El Chalten. Every day when I returned from a hike, I would cautiously open my dorm room door to see if I had gained another room mate. One afternoon, Ben was there.

Ben is one of the best people I’ve met on the road. He’s genuine, generous, and genial. He has a knack of being able to approach and talk with anybody on the street. I wish I could do this. He’s a philosopher, who appreciates the quiet moments in life. He was the first person to show me the matte ceremony. This world needs more people like Ben.

Slack-lining at Laguna Capri
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This is the most gorgeous location I’ve ever slack-lined.

Parrots of the Lenga Trees
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I was hiking up a long hill and I stopped to take a rest. I looked into the trees and saw two parrots foraging among the lenga. I slowly unsheathed my camera and took a lot of photos. After awhile, they flew to a branch close to where I was standing. They “kissed”- they bit each other on the beak. Then simultaneously noticed me. They craned their heads to see if I was trouble. Before I could react, one of them dove low and flew inches above my head. “Whu-Wha-Whuh-Whuh.” I grinned wildly, what a moment!

Piedras Blancas
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My favorite hike was to the glacial lake at Laguna de Peidra Blancas. The last quarter mile involved scaling across a moraine of massive house sized boulders. I love this kind of exploration.

Rio Blanco
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I followed Rio Blanco on my way back from the glacier lake at Peidras Blancas. I took this photo just before the clouds covered the sun for the rest of the day.

By night, I ate my fill in town, or made it for myself. I hung out with some of the best people in the world. Paul and Camille (French), Ben (South Korean), Philip (German), Stephanie (United States). We talked about everything. We shared fresh wine, peanuts and stories. We raised our pints to one another in good cheer. It might have been the best days of my life.

If you want my advice, bring your own produce to Chalten. Bring lots of cash, as there is only one cash machine in town. It occasionally runs out of money. Eat at La Senyera. Eat at La Tempura. Stay at Lo de Trivi. Go hiking everyday. Stay for a week.

The Road to Calafate
Philip and I traveled together to El Calafate. We boarded the bus at the small terminal on the outskirts of Chalten. There were only five passengers on the bus. Patagonia stretched before us. We stopped at Rio Leona to take a break. A simple wood chair stood against a wind battered hotel. Fast moving dark gray clouds whistled by above the greenish opaque river. Without a word, we boarded the bus and rolled on.
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Patagonia is everything I hoped it would be. I sat listening to the prose of Ram Dass and choice music selections. I stared out at the wind swept landscape while everyone else dozed. I love this kind of travel.

In El Calafate, I thought the selection of produce in the grocery store was amazing. We chose salami, cheese and rolls. We ate them in the plaza with a coke. We wandered through the town. I looked at the flamingos at the public refuge. I didn’t want to pay to enter. I despise having to pay to visit a park.

Two women stopped next to us in their car and tried to explain to us in Spanish that we could not cross the river on this street. We were going the wrong way. When I finally agreed with them, they drove off. I asked Philip, “How do they know where we are going?”

We drank afternoon beers and went shopping for dinner. The store was hectic. It was busy with shoppers gathering the evening supplies. We found our produce quickly, and headed back to the hostel.
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That evening we prepared penne pasta with sautéed, garlic, onion, tomato, zucchini, and peppers. We topped it with fresh parmesan. It was heavenly. We sipped a Trapiche Merlot, Philip continually filling his tiny cup. We chatted with our housemates. I did the dishes before joining our hostel mates in lounge to talk the night away. We drank all of our beer. It was a great night, perhaps the finest hostel experience one can have.
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Before he left Chalten, Phillip bought a tiny metal cup. He loves this cup. He spent the entire night in Calafate drinking wine and beer out of it.

The next morning I went shopping in the notoriously expensive shops of Calafate. I needed a pair of trousers. By some piece of random luck, Phillip found me the perfect pair of jeans that cost one-third the amount of every other pair in the store. They fit amazing. I had to laugh. I had to come all the way to Patagonia to find a pair of jeans that fit me. What are the odds?

Philip headed back to Buenos Aires, and I’m heading north to El Bolson tomorrow. The bus will be traveling Argentina’s famed Route 40. Imagine spending 25 hours on a bus rolling across the rising steppe of grassy Patagonia. My friend Camille, who I met in Chalten will join me for the journey.
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I can’t wait. I wonder what’s out there?

Posted by Rhombus 15:26 Archived in Argentina Tagged waterfalls mountains birds parks hiking trekking towns argentina photography patagonia Comments (0)

The Falkland Islands

New Island Bird Colony, Hiking Across Carcass Island, Slacklining in Stanley and Remembrance Day on Tumbledown Ridge

sunny 55 °F

New Island
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I fell in love with the Falklands almost immediately. From the ocean, the Falklands appear to be a barren collection of windswept islands. Upon closer inspection, the landscape consists of long grasslands that rise slowly from one side of the island to the other before falling abruptly into the sea below. The wind blows relentlessly from the west, building waves that smash into its western shores in a foamy crescendo.
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Birds are everywhere. The upland geese graze along the hills like docile cows. Long-tailed meadowlarks sing among the tussocks. Turkey vultures glide effortlessly on the strong breeze above the highlands, and penguins, albatross and shags populate the rocky cliffs. These islands are far from barren.
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I stood upon a western cliff of New Island not more than ten feet away from a breeding colony of rock hopper penguins, black browed albatross and blue-eyed shags. There were hundreds of birds along one section of cliff. These birds were mixing in a giant melting pot of feathers and fowl language. The cacophony of three types of birds squawking over the bashing surf was intense.
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The penguins hopped up and down the cliff (hence the name) from their nesting site to the top of the cliff. They were keenly interested in dried grass in which to build their nest. The shags had the advantage with the ability to fly and could gather grasses in clumps from the hillside before crash landing into onto a narrow section of unattended rock. The giant albatross stood watch on their nests. On occasion, they would waddle over the slanted boulders often tripping over their giant webbed feet. While good for swimming, the webbing makes for walking over boulders quite difficult. Imagine wearing snorkeling fins and walking through a pumpkin patch, and you can see the difficulty.
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Besides the din, the cliff smelled much like a bird colony- the pungent aroma of guano wafted through the breeze. I walked the ridge stopping at intervals to admire the variety of birds. For me, the rock hoppers stole the show. This was my first experience among penguins in the wild, and, well, if I didn’t love penguins before, I certainly love them now.
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Carcass Island
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I passed by a line of Magellanic penguins that sat idly on one of the beaches of Carcass Island. They were content to stand or lie down in the warm sand, seemingly at ease. I gave them a wide berth as I passed them, climbing up onto the flat grassy plain fifty yards past the waterline.
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I walked counterclockwise around the large bay at the south end of the island. The land rose steadily from the waterline to a ridge high above me, but I was content to walk the path that straddled the fence line. The owners of the land raise sheep. In the distance, I could see their dirty cream bodies high on the hillside.

The walk was very pleasant. I took my time, enjoying the beautiful landscape spread out in front of me. The afternoon sun was warm, and I was glad I hadn’t worn any heavy clothes. Who knew the Falklands would have such nice spring weather? I sat down in the warm grass to make some quick sketches of the landscape before moving on. I listened to the plethora of birds, and decided the Falklands are a birders paradise. I walked on.
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As I neared the farmhouse, I passed bright yellow thickets of gorse. The gorse plant is an invasive species to the Falklands. If left unchecked would run rampant over the native vegetation. The thickets are incredibly dense; a twisted trap of strong branches and razor sharp needles. I wouldn’t want to try to walk through such a devilish mess. For as nasty as navigating through them would be, to walk around them is quite enjoyable. The bright yellow petals of the gorse are quite beautiful, and they smell of coconut oil. Many songbirds would sit atop the gorse and sing its springtime song as I passed by.
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“It was one o’ them zippidy doo-dah days.” ~Uncle Remus.

Stanley
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Stanley is not a large town, with something near two thousand full time residents. Stanley sits on a long gentle hillside. The homes and businesses terrace downward from the top of the ridge to the water. The houses are a comfortable size and built low to the ground to get out of the wind. The small yards stand in their natural state, with clotheslines strung up for wet laundry. The strong breeze makes quick work of wet laundry on a sunny day.

The central area of downtown is British. It reminded me of images of the quaint British town, full of red telephone booths, small shops bunched together and narrow twisting cobbled streets. I wasn’t much interested in the many gift shops (much to my niece’s dismay). I was on a mission. I was trying to find two trees with just the right distance between them.

Why was I looking for two trees? Because I wanted to slackline. I reasoned that if I could find some trees to set up my slackline, that I might just become the first person to slackline in Stanley, and perhaps the Falklands. There aren’t many “firsts” left in this world. Somebody has already gone to the moon, somebody has already climbed the Matterhorn, and somebody has already eaten over sixty hotdogs. And it was my hope to be the first to slackline in the Falklands.

The problem was I was having a hard time finding trees. There aren’t many trees in Stanley, and most of them belong to the government. I walked through the memorial wood of 1982, but the trees were too flimsy. I also felt it might have been disrespectful to the fallen, or those that loved them. The Falkland Conflict of 1982 is still fresh in the minds of the residents. I was there on Remembrance Day; more on that later.

I walked past the chapel, past schoolyard playgrounds, and all the way to government house. In fact, I was navigating by treetops, hoping that I would find two trees that would suit my purpose. But all of the trees I found were surrounding public or private buildings. I was about to give up.

Finally, I found an empty playground with a telephone pole and a jungle gym the right distance away. I smiled. The warm grass felt good on my bare feet as I took to the line. During my session, a tour bus full of passengers drove by, and the driver announced in full British accent, “And here we have a man walking a tightrope in the park. How very strange…”
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One of the passengers told me this when we later met on the ship. I laughed aloud at my strangeness.

Remembrance Day on Tumbledown Ridge
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I stepped off the bus onto a gravel road right next to a minefield. This was my first minefield I’ve been close to (unless you consider the cross examination I’ve faced from several females I‘ve known). It was slightly unnerving seeing the minefield. Who knew if they found them all? I stuck to the path through the native grasses from the trailhead, and it took awhile before I felt comfortable in leaving it.

As I’ve said, the conflict of 1982 is still fresh, and there were still many reminders of the war all along this hike.

Hiking in the Falklands is easy and enjoyable. The ground often rises along a gradual slope that isn’t hard to climb. It’s not long before you are hundreds of feet above the trailhead from where you started. After making the initial assault to reach the ridgeline, I saw where Argentine troopers had dug foxholes into the damp earth. I haven’t walked through many war zones in my life, but it had a sobering effect on my hike. I kept wondering what it would be like to be here on this barren ridge, fighting for my life.
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The heights of Mt. William jutted out of the ridge at a steep angle. I wanted to leave the group and climb them on my own, but I knew if I ran off to scale them, some other fool would too. While I’m confident in my own ability, I didn’t think most of my fellow passengers could handle what I had in mind. I stuck to the course.

From Mt. Williams I crossed a narrow peat covered valley across to Tumbledown Ridge. I weaved around perfectly circular holes punched in the peat where artillery fire had landed. From there we climbed up the rocks to where the cross stood. It stands to salute the British troops who had fallen in the skirmish.
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The wind howled over the ridge from the west. I could barely stand upright in the gale, and soon sat down to get out of the pummeling. I listened to one of our guides talk about the battle, how the fighting went from high point to high point all the way down to Stanley, several miles away.
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In fact, I really enjoyed the company of one of our guides. Derek’s family has been in the Falklands for over five generations. This is his home, and he is rightly proud of it. I asked him how his family came to the island.

“Well, back then the colonies offered a chance to get away. Quite a lot of us went to Australia or New Zealand, Canada or America, but somehow, we came here… It’s home.”

We chatted for the rest of the hike, enjoying the exercise and endless beauty around us. He told me he was in the Ramblers association, which had occasional group treks to various islands. I asked him what his favorite place was on the island.

“That’s a tough one; each island has its own charm. There are good things about all of them, I suppose. I like New Island. It’s very nice. And Carcass island is very easy to walk on.“ I had to agree. At one point, Derek walked off to gaze over a cliff, and I took this picture of him. Should you find yourself in Stanley and looking for an interesting guide, Derek’s your man.
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Though my visit to the Falklands was brief, I feel I made the best of it. I enjoyed two solid days of hiking, and became the first to slack line there. I hope I make it back there some day.

Our ship has since turned southeast and is heading towards South Georgia Island. We’ve been at sea for a day and a half, and expect to make landfall tomorrow. By all accounts, South Georgia is one of the most beautiful islands in the world, and full of dynamic wildlife. We’ve crossed the convergence zone of the southern ocean. This is where the water temperature drops, and currents between the relatively warm water of the northerly oceans meet the cold water of the southern ocean. I expect we’ll be seeing icebergs soon.
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“Walk On!”

Posted by Rhombus 07:21 Archived in Falkland Islands Tagged landscapes birds islands hiking photography penguins stanley slacklining falklands Comments (0)

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 Healy to Homer: An Alaskan Ramble

All About Healy, Hitchhiking Tips and Tricks, The Journey South, Don't Mess With The Eagles

semi-overcast 65 °F

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Four hundred sixty miles is a long way to travel in one day, except by a jet airplane or high-speed train. My plan was to hitchhike this distance, starting from the outskirts of Denali National Park and ending on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula in the town of Homer, Alaska. It was an ambitious goal, but I felt good about my chances. Alaska is a hitchhiking friendly state-a fact I put to use two weeks before when I hitched from Anchorage to Denali National Park (240 miles) in six hours.


I spent the day before I left preparing for the trip. I spread all of my gear out on the deck of the shack, packing it away according to a hitchhiker’s necessity. I buried my slackline and sandals deep, but I kept my raingear and coffee cup accessible. Along with packing, I made a giant hitchhiker’s thumb out of cardboard. I copied the design of a Frenchman that I had met at a coffee shop. He had recently arrived in Denali after hitchhiking his way across Canada. It is useful to have a sign, and if you can incorporate a bit of humor, it can definitely help in catching that ride.

With my packing finished, I joined my nephew who was already four bars deep into a Denali pub crawl. Luckily, he had wanted to go ten miles north to Healy, to tag three of their establishments and I joined the cause. Healy is a small Alaskan town. It is the kind of place where the police department, the medical clinic, the insurance agent, and the bank are all in the same building. In late May, the sun never really sets here, and the golden light lasts for hours on end. These long evening hours make the surrounding mountains and spruce forests glow, and I felt as if I was living in a postcard of “scenic Alaska.” It’s bizarre. At midnight, it feels like it is seven p.m.
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At one of the bars, I met a local man by the name of Moe. Moe was an elderly gentleman, his slim body toughened by years of hard work and play. He had silver hair with a light beard. Moe’s face had character. It was deeply tanned with light wrinkles around his eyes. He was a tempered Alaskan, beaten and smoothed down by hundreds of adventures over his lifetime. He drank Budweiser out of the bottle, and talked with a quiet, slightly western accent. While my nephew and his entourage shot pool, I talked with this seasoned old man.

It was time well spent. We talked mostly of his life in Alaska, and some of the scrapes he had been in. “The second time I jumped on the back of a deer from out of a tree, I fell off. When the deer recovered, he looked at me a second, then charged. It was all I could do to get out of his reach by climbing a tree. He was down below me, standing on his hind legs beating on the trunk with his front hooves. I stayed up in that tree for over an hour before he went away. Yeah, I wouldn’t advise jumping on the back of a deer to anyone, not anymore.” When I told him of my plans, he nodded his approval. “You should be all right.” This was a man who had been around, and his confidence gave me hope.

I caught a ride back to the shack with a friend, and wandered off to bed. I had plans to get up early so I could be on the road by seven a.m. At three thirty in the morning, I awoke to the stomping revelry of a drunken dance party taking place on the porch. I heard my nephew’s voice in the din, and I knew they were having fun. I sighed, then smiled. What can you do? I tossed and turned the rest of the night. I finally fell asleep again at five a.m. when the party had ended.

I awoke suddenly from a dream in which a younger version of a friend of mine yelled at me to “Wake up!” I looked at my clock and it read eight a.m. I was “late,” but it didn’t matter. I jumped out of bed, and packed away my final items. I hefted my packs as quietly as I could, and stepped outside. I didn’t feel that well. I was sleepy, slightly hung over, and wishing for a cup of coffee.

The weather looked favorable. It was dry, and the sky was white with high overcast clouds. I pulled on my backpacks, first my expedition pack onto my back. Then I adjusted my smaller daypack across my chest. Fully loaded, I waddled down to the highway. Instead of immediately starting to hitchhike, I followed the roadside bike trail across the Nenano River. I don’t like crossing bridges on busy highways because there is no escape. I felt much safer crossing the river on the trail. Once across, I walked back to the highway. I put on my giant thumb, and started hitching.

I had to walk about a mile before I caught my first ride. It took me thirty miles south to the scattered village of Cantwell. It always feels good to catch that first ride. It gave me a chance to wake up, and get my thoughts in order. My driver dropped me off at a gas station, the only business that was open along the highway. I went in to buy myself a cup of coffee. When I took my first sip of the “black gold” out on the highway, I felt like a new man.
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Thus revived, I took a good look at my surroundings. I remembered this stretch of highway; it followed an open valley surrounded on all sides by the snow-capped mountains of the Alaskan Range. Closer to the highway, stands of black spruce broke up the low wetland areas and open tundra. It was a beautiful Alaskan landscape. I smiled that old familiar smile of a man who is supremely happy. I was footloose and carefree, taking on a unique challenge through a magnificent landscape. I was in my element.
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It took awhile to catch the next ride. Many people waved and smiled at me, but nobody pulled over to give me a ride. By the look of travelers, they didn’t have a lot of room left in their vehicles for a hitchhiker bearing two bags. When hitchhiking, the less gear you bring with you the better. Drivers might have room for a guy with a small backpack, but asking them to haul you and your kitchen sink generally turns potential rides away.
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I didn’t mind. I had fun singing sea shanties aloud as I walked along the road. I was on the look out for wildlife, hoping to see a herd of caribou, or a moose. Finally, after about an hour, a van braked to a stop a hundred yards up the highway. I tried running to catch up to him, but under the weight of my packs, the best I could manage was a hurried plod. I caught up with the van, saying hello, then tossing my burdens into his back seat.
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I learned that my new companion was driving all the way down to Anchorage. I was ecstatic. In two rides, I would be covering half the distance to Homer. It was early yet, but I began to get the feeling that my goal might be possible. We passed the afternoon by swapping travel stories, and comparing notes on our Alaskan travels. I gave him what advice I could, let him use my phone, and tried to be a good companion. We stopped at the roadside park that offered a view of Denali. We also stopped at Wal-Mikes, a beauty of a tourist trap found in the small village of Trapper Creek. It was jammed full of tasteful Alaskan mementos, anything from a wolf’s head hat, to a life size cardboard cutout of “the rock star.”
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Peter gave me some good insight into the mind of a driver looking at a potential hitchhiker. “Y’know, the reason I stopped was because you reminded me of my son.” I had pulled at his heartstrings by smiling, dressing decently, and looking the part of a young guy on the adventure of a lifetime.

Since Peter didn’t have any time constraints to his day, I asked him to drop me off on the southern outskirts of Anchorage along the side of the busy Seward Highway. It is almost impossible to catch a ride in large cities, especially on busy highways. Having Peter drop me off on the outside of town saved me several hours of walking, or the cost of a cab ride. From where he dropped me off, I had two hundred eleven miles to go. No problem.
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My next ride took me down to Girdwood. We followed the narrow and twisting highway along Turnagain Arm, a long stretch of water that reached deep into the surrounding Chugach Mountains. My companions were friendly and comfortable. They had a new puppy that licked my hand every three seconds. Then it collapsed with a sleepy sigh into a puppy nap. They were a sweet old couple, and I smiled when the husband asked his wife, “Can I get you anything, my love?” when we stopped at the Girdwood gas station.
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In Girdwood, I caught my best ride of the day with an Alaskan rambler by the name of Greg. We were kindred spirits, and the conversation flowed easily. For fun, he and his buddies spent their time searching for old ghost towns, panning for gold, camping out, and cracking open rocks. He showed me some rocks that he had split open with a hammer that had fossils etched into it. “We hauled ‘em up to the college, and they said they were 65 million years old. Hell, we don’t even know what we are doin’. We just go down to the creek and crack ‘em open.”
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Earlier in the day, I found a full roll of duct tape lying in the grass. I picked it up, shoving it into my pack knowing how useful it was. I forgot all about it, until it reappeared while I was riding with Greg. I gave it to him, because he seemed like a guy who would use it. I like to think that it will help him out of a jam sometime, somewhere down the road.
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It wasn’t long before I caught my first glimpse of the famous Kenai River. When July comes around the Kenai is jammed full of anglers. There are so many of them, that they are almost elbow to elbow jockeying for position to catch big Salmon that are running up the river to spawn. The river was empty of fishermen on our visit. I enjoyed the chuckling sound of the river over the rocks, surrounded by high foothills covered in springtime greenery.

Greg took me all the way to Soldotna, dropping me off on the western outskirts of town. Greg had hitched before, and knew all about “moon walking”- walking backwards for miles through a town- unable to catch a ride. It was seven twenty in the evening, meaning the sun was still high in the sky. I was getting tired, having traveled well over three hundred miles already. I thought about quitting for the day, knowing I could sleep at the city park campground or even splurge and get a hotel. However, I didn’t want to give up. I would try for another hour and a half to catch a ride. If that failed, then I would hole up for the night.

My persistence paid off, and I caught my final ride of the day. I asked him, “How far are you going? “ “I’m going all the way to Homer, “he replied. I felt a tingle of happiness in my belly. I was going to make it in one day! While we drove, he said that he saw me in Girdwood, and had planned to pick me up after he fueled his truck at the gas station. When he pulled back onto the highway, I was already gone. Luckily, I had stayed ahead of him.
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Chris was a good man. He gave me some advice on what to do in Homer, where to eat, good hiking trails, and the like. This stretch of highway travels along the western coast of the Kenai Peninsula. As we drove along, I caught quick glimpses of the ocean and distant mountain range on the far side of the inlet. It was gorgeous. Chris noticed my cameras and asked if I would like to go down to see the ocean at Anchor Point. Since I didn’t have to worry about a ride, I agreed. It would be good to see the ocean again.

What happened next was something I have never seen before.
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While we were enjoying the evening views of the ocean, a seagull that was standing near a group of four bald eagles on the beach flew away. One of the eagles began to chase it, and a high speed aerial acrobatics display ensued. Despite its tight turns and evasive maneuvers, the eagle easily kept up with the gull.
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Chris and I watched in amazement as another eagle joined the first, intensifying the harassment of the gull. The birds zipped around right in front of us, not more than a hundred twenty feet away. Two more eagles joined the chase, and the seagull was soon knocked down into the ocean. The eagles continued to strafe the unlucky gull, snaring it in their razor sharp talons. The gull was hurt, and it was all it could do to dive away from the eagles when they came close.
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At one point, one of the eagles landed on the hapless gull. The gull rolled, and the eagle ended up in the water. After a few jabs with its talons, that eagle began slowly swimming to shore while the others continued to harass the gull. I saw one of the eagles pick up the bird and carry it a short distance before letting go, tumbling it into the water once again.
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We didn’t stay to watch the end, but we knew the outcome. I may not have much, but I do have timing.

Chris and I continued south to Homer. I had sent a message to my friend letting her know that I was close. We planned a rendezvous at Subway, where I happily piled out of the truck. I hugged my friend, and said, “Hello.” I grabbed my gear, thanking Chris for the ride. My friends took me back to their home, made me a delicious three-course dinner of fresh salad, a giant hamburger, with a glass of red wine from a mason jar. I inhaled my food. I had not eaten much that day, and I was a proud member of the clean plate club. I took a shower, and for the second time that day, I felt like a new man.
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My last thought before I passed out, was that I had done it. I had hitchhiked almost five hundred miles in eleven and a half hours, by far my best day of hitchhiking ever. It would not have been possible without the help of Matt, Peter, Duncan, Greg and Chris. Thank you.

Hitchhiking at its basic element is simply one person helping another person in need. I went to sleep feeling good about my fellow men.

Posted by Rhombus 11:47 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds roads alaska oceans denali eagles hitchhiking kenai Comments (0)

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