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Entries about hiking

Yodeling Under a Glacier

A Thom Style Adventure...

rain 51 °F

It is raining as I step off the number three bus and onto the side of the Mendenhall Loop Road. It has been raining since I woke up hung over at the Alaskan (a Juneau tradition), and it has been raining all morning. I don’t mind. Rain is a fact of life in Southeast Alaska, and you can’t let it get to you lest it crush your spirit.

The bus pulls away and I am free to choose my own adventure. I have only a rough idea where I am going. I vaguely remember the roads on a Google map I looked at earlier in the morning. I also have a soggy paper map that shows the bus route and a glacier towards the top of the map. This map is not to scale, and I don’t know how far away the glacier is from the road.

I’m aiming for that glacier. If all goes well, the road I’m walking will lead to Mendenhall Lake. If I can find the lake, I can find the glacier. If I can’t find the lake, then I have no idea where I’m going.

I met a guy in Antarctica who put the idea of this adventure in my head. That was back in November. It’s been simmering in my mind since then. I purposely chose to fly out of Juneau so I could make this day happen. As I walk, I try to remember what he said about the trail. “I walked up the trail and there was a sign that said, ‘West Glacier Trail’ with an arrow to the left and another arrow to the right that said, ‘Primitive Trail.’ I went to the right.” Once I find the lake, I have to find the trail.

I feel good. My stride is strong. My pace is quick. It isn’t long before I find the lake - right where I hoped it would be. I pass a small covered shelter near the edge of the lake. Applause erupts from within. I know it isn’t for me, but I pretend it is. “Why, thank you,” I say. “I’m very happy to be here.” Smiling at my own silliness, another bout of applause opens up and my smile grows.

There it is - the west glacier trailhead. I stop briefly to text a few people my exit time. I often travel by myself. If I know I’m heading in the wild or about to do something dangerous, I will text a few buddies who I can count on to send help if I need it. My text said: “Hi. I’m in Juneau and taking a hike on the west glacier trail. I should be out by 9 a.m. tomorrow. I’ll text you by then. If not, wait 3 hours, and then call the cops. Thanks.” Now, I didn’t mention the fact I was going to the glacier. I also didn’t mention that I was looking for ice caves. But, at least it would give them a place to start looking for me. By the way, nobody in their right mind should go looking for ice caves on a glacier by themselves. I am the only exception! Remember that!

Anyhow, I have my safety net in place. I turn off my phone and start up the trail. It’s a great forest trail. Moss covers everything. The forest is green. The path crosses several creeks gushing with clear water. The air is cold, and the rain continues to fall. I’m very tempted to take pictures of the forest scenes, but my camera would be soaked in minutes.

I stop briefly at a viewpoint with a covered roof. There is a family taking a break. They ask me to take a picture of them. I’m happy to do it. In return for my good deed, they tell me how to get to a good ice cave. The information matches what I already know about this enterprise. I thank them and head back onto the trail. My confidence grows.

The trail starts climbing the ridge and it gets steep and rocky in areas. The rocks are wet from the rain, and the tree roots are slick. I slip a couple of times, and I remind myself to take it easy. Getting hurt is not an option.

Finally, I reach the sign I am looking for. The main trail cuts to the left, the primitive trail goes to the right. I step off the easy path onto the rough track. It passes through a thick stand of twisted alder trees. I slip several times on the roots. Picture James Brown in his prime dropping down into the splits. Now picture me doing that on a steep rocky trail. I bet if you compared screams, they would sound oddly similar.

As I walk, I start putting together a songline of my landmarks. If I remember this little song, I will be able to find my way out if I get lost. It’s an idea I’ve taken on from the aboriginal people of Australia and I find it works rather well. The landscape is a song, you just need to remember the lyrics.
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The trail leads to an open rocky area. I jump across two creeks and follow small rock cairns which now mark the path over the rock. It isn’t long before I’m looking at the massive expanse of the Mendenhall Glacier. It is truly awesome.

I have seen many glaciers in my life, from Alaska to Antarctica. I’ve watched them calve off huge chunks of ice. I‘ve flown over them, and I’ve stared at them from a ship. This marks the first time that I have seen one on foot. I smile. I love it when a plan comes together - especially a half ass plan such as this one.

I pick my way down the side of a rock bluff and skip down a steep talus pile to the very edge of the Mendenhall Glacier. I take a few tentative steps on the ice. I feel tiny. I am treading on just the tip of the toenail of this giant moving ice sheet. I know enough about glacier trekking to know I am not prepared. I’m not wearing crampons. I don’t have an ice axe. I don’t have any line. I don’t have a partner. I am smart enough to know that I have no business walking around on top of the glacier. However, I’m hoping to walk underneath the glacier on solid ground, and that is a different matter.

The trail has ended at the glacier, and I’m left to my own devices. I start walking along side of the ice sheet picking my way along a steep bank of loose talus. The stones are muddy from silt, and I sink up to my ankles in stones. A handful of rocks tumble down the slope with each step. It is not easy to walk here.

I follow the side of the glacier for about a half a mile before I see two waterfalls cascading down the side of the fjord. The two waterfalls meet at the base of the slope to form a larger creek. This creek disappears into the side of the glacier forming a giant ice cave.

“Holy shit,” I whisper. Good words fail me when I confront grandeur.

I slide down ten feet of loose rock to get to the waterfalls. I slowly spin in a circle taking in my surroundings. There are two waterfalls dropping down from the clouded heights of the fjord face. There is the glacier itself - massive and impassive. Finally, there is a jeweled ice cave cut into the ice. I’ve never seen anything like this, that’s for damn sure.
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The entrance is large perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. On one side, an overhanging arch forms one-half of the ceiling. I’m a little leery about that arch. It doesn’t look very sturdy. The entrance appears more trust worthy on the other side of the creek. It looks more like a cave. There is a narrow gravel bank between the side of the cave and the creek. I pick my way across the waterfall hopping from rock to rock to get on the side I want to enter.

I pause at the entrance. This is scary as hell! The thought of stepping into the cave sends tingles down my entire body. My heart beats loudly in my chest. I start giggling. I love this high. I know I’m going in. I didn’t come all this way to chicken out now. Do you remember the movie, “Field of Dreams?” Do you remember the scene where the writer Terrance Mann was about to step into the rows of corn for the first time - to see what is on the other side? That’s how I feel. Though they are one in the same, I ask for courage from Buddha, The Universe, My ex-girlfriends, Tao, Zeus, Krishna, The Great Spirit, The Glacier, God, The Great Pumpkin - anyone I can think of, and take ten steps inside the cave.
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It’s too much for my senses. The ice walls of the cave amplify the roar of the creek tumbling through the rocks. The sides of the cave are smooth, dimpled and sparkling like facets of a cut jewel. The ice is very clear. I half way expect to see an iceman frozen inside of the ice. Ancient rocks are stuck in the walls. Water drips from the ceiling. The whole cave glows with a dull blue color. I am standing inside of a cold sapphire. It takes a while to get used to this.
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My initial high dies away, and I settle down. I walk deep into the cave. The creek tumbles over the bedrock creating a never-ending set of rapids and waterfalls. I can’t see the white glow of the opening of the cave anymore. I wonder if I kept following the creek would it lead me to the face of the glacier. I’m tempted to try, but the bank of the creek has ended. I will need a dry suit to investigate further.
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I reflect on my situation. I am standing alone underneath a glacier. There isn’t a single person on this planet that knows where I am. “Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown,” I say to myself. It’s an interesting thought.

I start mindlessly humming aloud. It sounds really cool. The acoustics of ice caves are great. Soon, I am chanting “Ohmmmmmmm…” really emphasizing the mmm’s. My voice never sounded so good. I take it up another notch and try out a yodel. Now, yodeling can go one of two ways. It can sound amazing, providing the yodeler can hit the notes clearly or it can sound terrible, like a teenage boy reading aloud in English class. I’ve had it go both ways. I will only yodel under the right conditions. I’ll test my voice first, and if it seems like it will hold, I will let ‘er rip. I don’t know if it was the acoustics of the cave, or just being in that moment, but my voice rang loud and true over the roar of the water.

I’ve never yodeled this good before and I let it flow out of me (I know how ludicrous this sounds to those of you who don‘t know me). My last efforts end in a bout of laughter. I am a happy man.

My time in the glacier is nearing an end. I still have to find my way back to civilization. I knew before I entered the cave that I would have to keep track of time. I stick to my rules and leave the cave. I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I have no regrets. I’m riding an amazing high of discovery and I am tingling with the experience.

I back track down the glacier to the trail. I remember the lyrics to my songline: “Climb the creek to the shallow valley. Follow the cairns past the open rock area. Cross two creeks and follow the little snake through the alder. At the duck tape and orange flagging, veer left back to the bigger snake. Follow the bigger snake back to the lake and you are home free.” When I get back to the trailhead, I text my people. I let them know that I have made it out and all is well.

I am satisfied with my efforts. I am drenched to my skin, cold and hungry, yet I am completely euphoric. It has been a great day.
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Life Accomplishment No. 37,824: Yodel Under a Glacier. Check!

Posted by Rhombus 10:03 Archived in USA Tagged waterfalls hiking adventure ice alaska glaciers photography icecaves Comments (0)

A Celebration of Green

A Day Hike Along the Indian Creek Trail

overcast 55 °F

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I grew up in the woods. The wilds of northern Michigan contain a thick forest of hardwoods and pine. I spent many days wandering through the trees with my friends, dogs, and by myself. There isn’t much of a horizon up there, just more trees. If you want to see far away, you must visit the shore of Lake Superior.

My background lends me comfort in other woodlands that I may visit. I still enjoy a good romp among the tall trees of the forest wherever I can find them.

I felt that familiar pull to head into the forest several days ago. I was in Sitka, Alaska recuperating from my latest working stint. I knew a walk through the woods would be good for me.

With my friend Annie in tow, we started walking towards the trailhead of the Indian Creek Trail. I used to frequent this trail when I called Sitka home. It had been two years since I had last seen it, and I wanted to reconnect with it.
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Before we got there, Annie spied a couple of gravestones from the sidewalk. We stepped into the dark woods to investigate. One grave led to another. We found perhaps ten graves with stones from various decades ranging from the late 1800s to the 1950s. The graves were spread throughout a little patch of spruce. The graves weren’t in a designated cemetery. They didn’t look like they were cared for anymore. Some of the stones were chipped and leaning. Some of the graves had sunk into the earth.
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I like old cemeteries especially when I find them in an obscure place. They have character, and tell a silent tale of the rise and fall of humanity. I thought it was a very peaceful place.

We stopped briefly at the trailhead to look at the map. I remembered the way, though not the particulars of the trail. The Indian Creek trail is well marked (at least up to the waterfall). I didn’t have any worries about finding our way there or back. We walked on.
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The temperate rainforests of southeast Alaska are among the prettiest I have ever walked through. If I could only use one word to describe them, I would use “green.” The Sitka spruce dominates this stretch of forest. They stand thickly together, towering above the trail. These are old trees, some of them dating back five hundred years or more. The trunks of these old ones are huge - far bigger than I could put my arms around. They remind me of the redwood trees of northern California, though these spruce are not as big as the largest giants down there.
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A thick green mat of moss covers the entire forest floor and fallen stumps below the canopy. Swampy taiga areas dot the forest floor with heads of skunk cabbage growing from them. Tall whips of devil’s club grow everywhere - their broad leaves just beginning to unfurl. Various types of ferns grow from fallen stumps.
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The forest floor is a jumble of fallen limbs and massive trunks scattered all over the place. Some of the newly fallen trees ripped their roots out of the ground when they fell down. The black twisted root system easily stands over ten feet high.

It is a great forest.
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Throughout this forest runs Indian Creek. The melting mountain snow and continuous rainfall feed the river in an unending supply of cold clear water. Several smaller brooks also feed this creek and we crossed several of them by bridge.
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“Stand Still Like a Hummingbird”

Annie and I stopped to take a break after crossing the first major bridge over the river. We sat down, ate some tidbits, drank some water and chilled out for a few minutes. As a photographer, I always am looking for a good photograph. It was here that I made some of my favorites of the year.
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Overhanging the creek was a small mossy patch that looked like a perfect seat. I had Annie take an easy pose that she could hold for several seconds at a time. She needed to hold completely still, because I had my shutter speed set at three seconds. A long shutter speed will blur moving water for a silky effect. I took a few photos, recomposing and trying different speeds until I found the right spot.

I wanted to try to see if both of us could be in the picture. I had Annie sit down in her spot and I looked over the scene to see where I would fit. It was obvious that I had to be in the river. I set my camera up to take a picture every ten seconds for ten pictures. I climbed down a stump put my feet into the icy cold water. It was painful. My feet started to go numb almost instantly, but I hustled as fast as I could to where I thought the composition was right. I turned and held my pose for the camera. It was imperative that I held still. This was not easy, because my feet were in agony. The water was frigid, and it took all of my composure to hold still. I held as long as I could stand before lunging back to shore. I happily yelled out in pain as I climbed out of the water. Cold isn’t strong enough a word for the temperature of that water.

We looked at the results as I warmed my feet. My positioning was just a bit off, but the pictures were great. I had created the effect I wanted to in this picture. To make it perfect, I’d have to do it again. This time, I made mental notes of where I had to be. The water wasn’t any warmer on my second attempt, but I was satisfied with the results.
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I put my boots back on, and we continued along the trail.

This walk had no parameters. Time didn’t matter. Distance didn’t matter. There wasn’t any destination. We turned around when it felt right to do so. When we were hungry, we pulled out our lunch and put our one beer in the creek to cool. Trail beers get cold in just a couple of minutes in Alaskan streams. As we ate, it started to rain. That didn’t matter either. We were content to enjoy the walk for what it was.

The Fascinating Banana Slug
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Annie is good at seeing banana slugs. She found this one eating a leaf right next to the trail. Banana slugs thrive in the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. They come in a variety of colors, waxy pale to jet black. This one was a handsome dog turd brown color.

Banana slugs leave a slime trail wherever they crawl. They move slowly, and it’s interesting to see how far they have crawled over the moss carpet.
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I put my macro lens on my camera to see if I could get any close ups shots of the slug. It was hard to get the lighting right in the gloom. With a little experimentation, I was able to get the right combination of physics and art.

End Game

It started to rain harder. We grew weary with our efforts. The walk turned into a slog, but we made the best of it. We finished our day by stopping at the grocery store for food before heading back to the hostel. We put on dry clothes, cooked a healthy dinner and relaxed. This is one of the best ways I know of to end a good hike.

Author’s Note:

The Sitka Trail Association has done a marvelous job with its trail system. The Indian creek trail is a shining example of what happens when a group of good people gets together and create a good trail system. To find other trails in Sitka, volunteer or support them find them at: www.sitkatrailworks.org
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Posted by Rhombus 13:16 Archived in USA Tagged trees rivers hiking green alaska photography trails forests sitka Comments (0)

Vagabond Interrupted: A Spectacular Week in Baja

Swimming in Bioluminescence, Painting with Light, a Vagabond Interrupted, Whales, Dolphins, and a Day Off

sunny 85 °F

I promised myself that I would jump in the ocean and drink a beer after work. By the time my shift ended, it was dark out. This didn’t deter me in the least. When I stepped ashore, I stopped briefly to say hello to some friends of mine near the bonfire, before slipping away to fulfill that promise.

I walked a couple hundred yards away from the landing area to a secluded sand beach where I couldn’t see or hear the ship. I set my pack down, and turned to look up the stars. Orion, Taurus, the Milky Way, and a hundred others twinkled above. I grinned. I turned to the water and padded over the cool sand to its edge. I dabbled my toe in an inch of water. It felt delicious. I entered the water, making sure to shuffle my feet along the sandy bottom in order to warn any rays or puffer fish of my arrival. When it was waist deep, I dropped to my knees, gasping from the chill of the water. I felt my body relax, my grin widen, and I started giggling. This was what I was dreaming about all day.

When I swished my hands through the water, tiny glowing orbs swirled in my wake. The bioluminescence glowed like fireflies on a late July evening. I am totally immersed in the grandeur of the desert seascape. At that point, I just let go. I figured the sea would take care of me. The gentle swells pull me in and out. I thought to myself, “I am riding the breath of the ocean, if not the breath of the world.”

I’m not sure I’ve had a better swim in my life.

Back on the beach, I cracked my beer. I took that first sip and looked up at the stars again. I had an idea. I grabbed my camera and tripod and set up a basic composition at the mouth of an arroyo. I tried a few exposures before I dialed in my ISO, my shutter speed, and aperture. Then I started experimenting with “painting” the rock with my flashlight.
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I like the results.
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My friend wandered down the beach to see what I was doing. I set down my camera, and we sat in the sand talking of constellations, whales, dolphins, birds, and Mexico. A single shooting star streaked by. After awhile, I grew chilly as I stopped taking pictures. I gathered my gear and we walked back to the bonfire.
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We grabbed a drink and settled around the fire. Who doesn’t love a bonfire on a beautiful beach with friends? Alberto played flamenco songs on his guitar. A large waning moon rose over the ocean, gradually rising high enough to light the eerie sandstone formations of the desert.

I can’t think of a better way to cap off a great evening.

Vagabond Interrupted
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I’ve had an amazing week. It’s been hard for me to write this entry on the count that I keep being interrupted by all of the awesomeness happening around me. For instance, this morning there were fin whales right off of our bow. Fin whales might be my favorite whale species, but that can change depending on if I ever see a narwhal or not. As it is, the fin whales were less then forty feet away. They had relatively short dive intervals going down for about three minutes before coming back up for air. I watched them for an hour. I even caught a quick glimpse of a fluke. Fin whales rarely show their flukes.

This episode led to more downloading and editing of photos for this entry. When I was in the middle of editing, the call came over the radio that there were mobula rays skimming the surface of the water off the bow. Once again, I set down my computer and tromped off to the bow.
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I’ve never seen mobula rays up close before and was soon lost in the moment. The mobula rays could be the most graceful animal I‘ve ever seen in the water. They glide with elegant strokes from their wings, the tips breaking the surface of the water by a few inches.
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I ran off to wake my friend who was taking a nap. It’s common among crew members to make “wake up” promises if something awesome is happening near the ship. The mobula rays definitely triggered the wake up clause. Experiences like this are better shared than not, and I was glad to rouse everyone out of their naps.
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When I got back on deck, the rays glided along our port side, less then twenty feet away. I decided to get my camera… Ah jeez. See? Even as I write this, there are dolphins leaping just outside of my window. Well, I gotta go. I’ll be back.

From Sunrise to Sunset
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It’s difficult to explain to people what a typical day is like working on a ship here in Baja. If you were to read my journal, or look at my pictures, one might think I spend all day relaxing on a beach, watching whales, or taking photos of dolphins.

What you don’t know is that I work twelve hours a day-everyday. This gives me the chance to experience the wonderful wildlife and play on the gorgeous desert islands. Generally, I keep myself very busy with the boat operations and up keep. But when there is good wildlife, I set down my angle grinder and pick up my camera. When I’m off shift, I take off my uniform and head to the beach.
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Each day has been remarkable enough to deserve its own chapter. But, I’m not writing a book. It’s difficult to make time to write when there is so much to experience just outside that door.

The pictures that follow are this week’s featured bouquet. My days have been awesome from sunrise to sunset.

Sunrise Over Mexico
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Bow Riding Dolphins
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Land’s End
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Dolphins in Flight
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Humpback Whales near The Gorda Banks
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These humpback whales breached dozens off times in a three-hour period. The food was plentiful. They would rise half way out of the water and fall atop the bait ball with a tremendous splash. Then they would eat the stunned baitfish.
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Fin Whales
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What you are looking at here is a fin whale just beneath the surface of the water. You can see a thin white line just below and right of the spout. This is the right side of the mouth of the fin whale. The left side doesn’t have this coloration.

Magic Water
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Sunset Over the Pacific
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I often wonder about my path in life. Sometimes it feels as though I look for greater meaning and miss the point completely. I don’t think I’ve made that mistake this week.
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Cheers! To the good life…

Posted by Rhombus 01:53 Archived in Mexico Tagged desert wildlife hiking whales oceans dolphins climbing rays photogaphy Comments (3)

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)

Ushuaia And The Long Road to El Chalten

Returning to Terra Firma, In the Forest, On The Bus, and Patagonian Road Thoughts

semi-overcast 59 °F

It took me a couple of days to get used to Ushuaia. Actually, I should have said it took me a few days to get used to civilization. After four months of ship life, I was a landlubber once again. The transition is hard. I suddenly (and violently) realized that if I wanted to eat, I had to prepare something, or go to a restaurant. It’s a cruel world, sometimes.

I was nervous. This time I was starting in a foreign country, I didn’t know the language, and I was alone. But, I did it. I put one foot in front of the other and I walked off that ship. I haven’t really looked back. Argentina has been too alluring.
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Ushuaia is a bustling city. People have places to go, and a never ended stream of traffic moves along its sidewalks and streets. The city was bigger than it appeared from the ship. The city looks and feels like a larger ski town, with upscale outdoor clothing shops, and very high prices.

Ushuaia reminds me of southeast Alaska. I think its the climate. One can see every type of weather in one hour. The mountains are similar. The forests are similar, but the plants are not all the same. They both have clean mountain streams, and the town is perched at the base of the mountain. I almost felt at home.
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I spent my first day attending to business. I found my hostel. I bought an adaptor for my computer, a small lock, a bus ticket, and food. I managed all of this without speaking many words. I don’t speak Spanish very well. So, while I may be able to ask for directions to the supermarket, I don’t know what they said to me in response. They could have told me it was on Mars, and I would’ve replied, “Yes, thank you.”
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I feel bad about it. I don’t want to be another dumb American who demands English in a Spanish-speaking nation. Therefore, no matter how badly I mutilate their language, I will still try to speak it.

It is always difficult to shop at a grocery store after being on a ship for so long. I never know what to buy, or what I want to eat. I’ll spend the first ten minutes kind of wandering around in a daze. I’ll touch various pieces of produce remembering that somehow French fries come from this earthy brown thing. A mom was pushing her cart around with two kids in tow. The one sitting in the basket looked at me, smiled, and said, “Hola!” I smiled back, and said, “Hola!” Then I repeated the process with her brother. Kids are the same everywhere.

After a good night of sleep, I felt much better. I could do this. I met all my daily requirements, and slept well besides. I decided that the day’s mission was to find a place to slack-line.
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My small city map indicated there was a park six blocks west of my hostel. I found it, and I set up my line between two likeable trees. Whenever I have an audience, I always perform my best tricks. I think I’m trying to show off how fun slack-lining can be. I listened to the usual catcalls, but this time I didn’t understand what they were saying. No matter, I was having fun.

On my last day, I decided to see if I could find a hiking trail. I had two different sets of directions on how to find the trailhead, sandals, my adventure bag, and good weather. I wanted to see how feasible it would be to hike in sandals. I reasoned that people have been using sandals for thousands of years, yet hiking boots are a modern invention. If I could hike in sandals, it would save me the hassle of shopping and the cost of the boots.

I found the trailhead to Cerro del Medio right where they described. I grew confident. I know what to do with an unknown trail that ventures into the mountains. The trail snaked upward through thick woods that covered the foothills. The trail became increasingly muddy. Mud doesn’t pose a problem if you have boots, but it becomes a challenge in sandals. I clung to any patch of higher ground and stepped off into the woods to make my passage. I broke the hiker’s commandment, “Stay on the Trail.” But, it worked.
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Then I took a bad step and sunk up to my ankle in mud. When I pulled my foot out, I discovered my sandal had broken at one of the straps. Sandals were not a good idea. Fortunately, only one strap broke. This meant I could still walk in them, but they were very loose.

I heard rushing water through the trees, and decided to investigate. I wanted to wash my foot off before slogging back down to town. When I neared the stream, I found a long gently sloping waterfall running over a carpet of green moss. It was beautiful. I forgot about my sandal, and pulled out my camera. I spent the next half hour setting up scenes through my camera, and blurring the water into a silky white.
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When I returned to the trail, I turned uphill. I saw no reason to return to town. I felt good. I liked this mountain track. I passed the tree line. I clawed my way up a snowfield onto a rocky side the mountain. I followed the track for another half hour. I wove along moss-covered rocks with beautiful patterns.
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I could see forever. The beagle channel and Ushuaia lay far below. The wind whispered through the rocks, but I’m not sure what it said. The trail went on up to the ridgeline, but I did not. I was satisfied.
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The Long Road to El Chalten
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I walked to the bus station through the early morning gloom of a rainy day. I boarded the bus at 5:00 in the morning. I would not reach my destination until 9:00 the next morning.

Even at that early hour, I was excited. I was heading into the nether regions of Patagonia. All I wanted to do was listen to a good book and stare out the window. I love endless landscapes. I love moving through new country. This was going to be great! Within ten minutes, I fell asleep.

I woke up some time later in the town of Rio Grande. Soon afterward, the road had turned to gravel, and we were slowly bouncing through the mud at a steady clip. The mud flew up and slowly spackled my window into an opaque layer of filth. Light could pass through, but I couldn’t see out of it at all.
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The bus stopped, and the driver told us we had to pass through customs. I didn’t know what he said, but when everyone else left the bus, I followed. I understood when I saw the building. I went through the line. With my passport stamped, I stepped back on the bus.
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A little while later, it stopped again. I didn’t like not being able to see where we were going. Again, we all filed off the bus and I saw we were on the south side of the Straits of Magellan. Aha! I walked on the ferry. It was weird to be crossing another famous waterway. I never imagined I’d ever see the Straits of Magellan. Yet, here I am.

Once I was back on the bus, we passed through customs into Argentina, and Rio Gallegos.

The bus station in Rio Gallegos was dirty, but had plenty of seats. Stray dogs with ratty and matted looking hair wandered in an out of the station trying to get out of the cold. They scratched their fleas, and chewed their fur. They smelled of dank dog sweat, and stale fur. They were a sorry lot.

It’s a five-hour bus ride from Rio Gallegos to El Calafate. I slept through most of it. I remember waking up somewhere out in the middle and trying to see out of the window. From what little I could see, it reminded me of nighttime in North Dakota. Wind whistled through the crack in the window near my head. My eyes were dry and unfocused. I tried to remember my dream. I couldn’t grasp it.

Outside El Calafate, the police checked our passports once again. We motored to the top of the hill to the bus station. The station was mostly empty, the station kiosks closed for the night. There were a handful of passengers waiting for the next bus. I sat down on a wooden park bench. I had six hours to wait. I brushed my teeth. I washed my face. I applied deodorant. This was my shower, El Calafate style.
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When the last bus for the night arrived, it took the rest of the passengers. I was alone. I wondered if I could stay there all night. There were no signs, and I reasoned I wasn’t the first gringo to stay overnight at the bus station. I tried to get comfortable as I could. I sighed. I settled in for the long haul.

I had Chatwin to keep me company. I read his prose and tried to relate. I was getting sleepy. Every half hour or so, and army man would walk around the deserted station. He didn’t look at me, or talk to me, and I didn’t say anything to him. At four thirty, I sprawled on the uncomfortable bench and fell asleep. I woke up an hour later to one of my snores. I would have been embarrassed, but there was only the stoic army man to hear me.

I huddled by the heater for the next hour as the station began to come alive. At 6:30, I boarded my last bus that would take me to the promised land: El Chalten. I dozed off. When I awoke we were rolling through the grassy steppe of Patagonia. The steppe was mostly grassland, but there were many stones and rocks sprinkled throughout. I wondered if I would see Mont Fitz Roy from the road. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was glad my journey was nearing an end. I couldn’t wait to sleep in a real bed.

Finally, we rolled into El Chalten. I had made it right on time, twenty-nine hours later. I was glad to be here for many reasons, but the number one reason is that El Chalten is gateway to Los Glaciares National Park’s north side. This is home to Mont Fitz Roy, Mount Torres, glaciers, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and as it turned out, one of my favorite towns in the world.
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More on El Chalten to come…

Posted by Rhombus 08:33 Archived in Argentina Tagged mountains islands hiking buses photography forests patagonia ushuaia roadtrips Comments (2)

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