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Adventures On The Great Sand Dunes

Visions of Sand, When Adventure Starts, Moonlight Dune Climb

sunny 94 °F

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Isle Royale

The Hammock Tour of 2012

semi-overcast 74 °F

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 23rd, 2012
Isle Royal Queen IV
Lake Superior

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

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

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

Haines, Alaska

The Last Stop of My Springtime Alaskan Adventure

semi-overcast 64 °F


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Homer to Haines: Crossing the Gulf of Alaska

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

semi-overcast 57 °F


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following pictures are scenes from the Ferry.

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

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

I wonder what Haines is like?

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

A Day Hike In Denali

Hiking to Impress, Polychrome Mountain, Denali Mountain Dance, Clearing Skies, and Night Life

semi-overcast 54 °F

When I stepped outside of the dark plywood shack, it started to rain. I didn’t even get my boots on yet. My plan was to hike over to the WAC, and catch a bus into the park to enjoy a little day hike. My time in Denali was running short, and I wanted one more excursion into the park before it was time to go.

The first thing I found out was that my shuttle was free. If you buy two trips into the park, you get one free ride. I thanked the clerk, and went off to the coffee stand to purchase some coffee and pastries while I waited for my ride. I sat on the porch, sipped the surprisingly decent coffee, and ate some prepackaged danishes. Not bad.

The journey into the park was uneventful. We did not see much in terms of wildlife, and the clouds were still hanging low over the mountains. The rain had quit, but it was still cold and gray. Maybe not the best conditions for a hike, but good enough. We finally saw some dahl sheep near Polychrome Mountain. We watched them for a while, as they sat unperturbed on a nearby knoll. Then the bus broke down. The driver couldn’t get it into gear, which meant we were stuck there until the next shuttle came.

I looked up at the mountain and figured that I could start my hike here. Why not? It looked steep, but I was used to that. I got up and filed past my fellow passengers to the front of the bus where I asked the driver if I could start my hike here. She asked me which way I wanted to go. I told her, “Up.” She said, “Sure, so long as you don’t go near the sheep.”
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I grabbed my daypack, exited the bus, and started hiking up the first slope directly along side of the bus. Now, I knew I had an audience. Besides the sheep, I was the only interesting thing that was happening on that bus- the weirdo- who left the bus and was actually hiking straight up a mountain. I wanted to get away from the bus as quickly as I could, but I wanted to look good as I did so. I started at a good clip, picking my way expertly up the rocky tundra, through the willow whips, matted lichens and around the scattered brush. The first slope was about two hundred yards long, and every step took me higher than I was before by a significant amount. My legs began to burn. I began to gasp, sucking in air as if I had just been underwater for five minutes. Still, I didn’t want to take a break. I kept going. “Gasp“, step, “GASP“, step, “WHEEZE“, step. My “good clip” had slowed to a very bad clip, but I made it out of sight of the bus without stopping. Success! I celebrated, by collapsing on the tundra, and continuing my gasping. Eventually, I caught my breath, and let my wobbly leg muscles recover. As I lay there, I enjoyed imagining the envy of the other passengers. “That weirdo sure makes a lot of noise when he goes hiking.” “Say Mel, pass me a cookie.” “I wonder when the other bus is coming.” When I recovered, I smugly started up the next section, out of sight, and out of mind.
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To reach the top of the ridge, I had to climb a steep talus pile of jagged rocks that gave way with each step. I made decent progress, though with each step I slid back down a little bit, sinking up to my ankles in sharp rocks. Then I caught onto a sheep trail, and followed it up to the top of the ridge. My plan had worked, and I had reached my first goal.
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The wind was raw, and I was glad I had a good windbreaker. Not that it breaks wind (which is another term for farting) (which would be silly), but it kept me warmer than my adventure shirt would. As I walked along the ridge, scanning my surroundings for wildlife, I came across this flower. The wildflowers bloom quickly, here in Denali.
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I was among the foothills of Polychrome Mountain that loomed above me separated by several steep ridges and valleys. Since the walking was now quite easy, I decided to cross the canyon and climb up to a high point on the other side. I figured I could get some good views, and perhaps follow that ridge back to the east fork of the Toklat River, which could take me back to the park road. I didn’t know if I could, but I figured it would be a good place to start.

I descended the steep slopes of open tundra, and lichen covered rocks. I picked my way down carefully, as I didn’t want to twist an ankle out here. That would spell trouble. Once again, nobody really knew where I was, I didn’t leave a hiking plan with my nephew, as I didn’t know where I would be hiking. This is bad hiking etiquette, and I do not recommend it. I digress. At the bottom of the canyon, I stepped over a small creek, and began another ascent. This one was much easier to accomplish, as I did not have anyone to “impress.” I took my time, enjoying my thoughts, my exertions, and my day. As I neared the top, I found this feather stuck into the ground. In some cultures, feathers are thought to carry powerful energy. I handled this one carefully before returning it to where I found it. The bird that left it might not like to kindly on my handling of its feathers.
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When I gained this second ridge, it was easy enough to follow an old path up to the high point that I wanted to climb. As I neared the pyramid, the trail steepened, and the rocks grew slippery. However, it didn’t slow me down, and it wasn’t long before I was high above the surrounding countryside. Do I have to mention the view was incredible? It was.
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Inspiration struck, and I decided to do my version of a Denali Mountain Dance. I didn’t have any specific goal for the dance, as in, “make it rain” or “make it stop snowing” or “I’d like a pizza dropped from the sky,” but my spirit carried me on for the sake of the dance. I set my camera on a time lapse setting and got down with my bad self. In truth, it was all improvised, there are no steps, and you simply dance for the mountain. What fun. It was so much fun in fact, that I did two Denali Mountain Dances. That’s good stuff!
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I happily sat down out of the wind, and pulled out my lunch. It was simple food for a simple man, and I enjoyed it while I gazed out over the earthy purple, tan and gray shades of earth that make up the countryside, stretching from Polychrome Mountain as far as I could see into the Wyoming Hills.
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It was time to turn around, and make my way back to the road. I just didn’t know how I wanted to get there. I could have went east to the river and follow that back south to the road (the hard way), or I could follow the ridge I was on west to the road (the easy way). Looking at my options, I chose the hard way, after all, I am me. At the end of the ridge, I realized the hard way was going to be a lot harder than I first thought, and after a little deliberating, I decided to cancel that approach and instead hike back down the canyon and back up the other side, summiting further south from where I started. At the bottom of the canyon, I stopped to filter some water into my water bottle. I figured it is always better to fill up when you can, rather than wish you did when you cannot. From there, I started back up the canyon wall yet again. At the halfway point, I took a break. I was getting tired. This was my third ascent of the day, and the foothills and mountains of Denali are not easy. They are steep!
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When I reached the top of the ridge, I had to cross several patches of knee-deep snow. The sun still hadn’t gotten to these areas yet, but I didn’t mind. I could see a small section of the road below me, and as I descended, I realized it would make a great picture. I found an appealing perch on the tundra and decided to wait to see what happened. What happened was that the clouds that were once so thickly covered the higher peaks of the Alaska Range, were breaking up. The sun came out, and blue sky began to appear in growing patches. My Denali Mountain Dance worked!
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The following images of are among my favorites that I have from Denali. The park road was a perfect leading line into the awe-inspiring mountain landscapes. The pack of dahl sheep I had seen earlier in the day reappeared, adding yet one more element to theses photos. They are small, yet you can pick them out in the bottom of some of these photos.

Denali Visions
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On my way down to the road, I saw my first marmot, which looked like a giant rock squirrel. It perched on a rock not more than 25 feet away from me, happy to be out in the sunshine again. Down on the road, it took well over an hour for a shuttle bus to pick me up. I really didn’t mind, as the glacial river valley that I was walking along was absolutely gorgeous. This was a fine day to walk in the park! Finally, a bus rounded the corner, and I flagged it down. It was time to go. However, I was well satisfied with my efforts for the day, and this day was seized.
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As a final parting gift, “the high one” came out of the clouds, and I was able to see Denali one more time.
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I capped off my day, by hiking back to the shack. There I enjoyed a “luxurious” lukewarm shower. I ate a gigantic dinner, with some good beer, and hung out with the hill people until I was able to convince one of my new friends to come over to glitter gulch for some fun. What happened was another night of Denali carousing in its most beautiful forms. We drank, we laughed, and we giggled at everyone. There was karaoke being sung (which I did not partake in, thankfully). There was some dancing, many friends hanging out and having fun. Somewhere near the end, there were a few nips of tequila. I stumbled off to bed at 3:30 a.m. (it was still light out). I smiled to myself about how good this day had been.

I am still smiling about it. Denali is awesome.

Posted by Rhombus 16:09 Archived in USA Tagged mountains parks flowers hiking roads alaska dancing photography denali Comments (2)

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