Sharing special moments and experiences with friends allows for personal growth and can extend the depth of relationships. Three of my friends and I brainstormed some places that we might go together to enjoy ourselves and experience something new. The challenge was that we liked to do different things. We all liked to do some walks together, but we couldn’t find any ONE place we could all get excited about. That is, until we discovered that there was a tropical rainforest in Massachusetts. Who knew? And the surrounding area had something that suited each of our diverse tastes.
After not doing much traveling due to covid, the four of us decided to do an overnight jaunt to northern Massachusetts. We left my hometown of Willimantic, CT at 7:30am, hoping to get to the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory in South Deerfield, MA by 10 A.M. when it opened, leaving us time to do a pit stop on the way. We arrived at the stroke of 10 and entering this butterfly conservatory felt like emerging into a warm paradise. There was an added bonus of soft, restful music playing. We were surrounded by multitudes of butterflies and tropical flowers. It was like an instant trip to a rainforest in South America. Butterflies flitted all around us, landing on shoes and shirts and brushing by our heads. It felt truly magical.
After a few hours of being mesmerized by these delicate creatures, we left to pick up some sandwiches and view the area from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Summiting Sugarloaf was recommended as something every visitor to the area should do. Readers need to know that we were 4 somewhat out of shape women in their 70’s, so hearing the road goes right to the top of the mountain made it an exciting destination! But when we got to the road that leads to the summit, we found it closed off due to road paving. There was no way other than hiking the whole way to get to the top! Our expectations led to disappointment as expectations often do. We therefore decided to focus on the experiences at hand and found a lovely place to picnic on the grounds of Yankee Candle. The area was complete with picnic tables, gorgeous flowers, and even relaxing music from outdoor speakers. Only two other people were enjoying this pleasant outdoor dining experience. After lunch we strolled through the giant Yankee Candle complex with its overwhelming smells and sights before seeking another adventure.
After lunch we drove through some beautiful farmland to Historic Deerfield. Being there was truly a trip back in time, with homes built in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s along with two schools and three working farms. The Nissan Cube we traveled in almost felt out of place. A horse and buggy would have felt more appropriate here.
We checked into our motel (a Red Roof Inn) in the late afternoon and then returned to Magic Wings since our admission allowed re-entry. We enjoyed a few more hours there and found a brewery that served pizza nearby for supper. After playing a few rounds of Rummikub near the pool area in the motel (Julie won them all!), we declared it a very satisfactory day.
Friday morning we stopped for breakfast and headed north to Greenfield, MA. We very much enjoyed the camaraderie and planning another day of adventure while we drank our coffee and enjoyed fresh baked English muffins. The first stop was Poets Seat Tower. It was dedicated to poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman who “studied nature and wrote verse” in Greenfield. The original tower was built with wood in 1879, and replaced by stone in 1912. It seemed to be a popular place to visit, which nicely overlooked the town and surrounding area. Unfortunately it was decorated with some graffiti, but the stonework was beautiful.
Historic destination #2
Our next destination of the day was in Turners Falls, a village in the town of Montague. We did a quick detour to a thrift store (we have always had a passion for thrift stores) on our way to find the Canalside Rail Trail. This pathway enables folks to walk or bike alongside the Connecticut River. We were fortunate to park near the Great Falls Discovery Center which is housed in former paper mill buildings. Inside we viewed displays about the 410 mile long Connecticut River’s watershed (which we know some of it well, being from CT). Outside we observed the Gill-Montague Bridge over the river and the dam to divert the mighty Connecticut into a deep, swift running canal. You could see remains of old paper mills downstream which made this area thrive in the 1800’s. The Canalside Trail was paved and made for easy walking, and is a joyous path.
Geological & Botanical Destinations
Shelburne Falls was our next stop. We viewed one of the largest collection of glacial potholes (kettles) in the world. The potholes are located below Salmon Falls on the Deerfield River. These continue to be enlarged at winter’s end with the snow melt, and were VERY impressive. We also toured the Bridge of Flowers, an old trolley bridge turned into a beautiful garden. Even though it was early May, it was full of beautiful flowers from one end to the other.
As we sat and had dinner at a Cracker Barrel on the way home, we marveled at how much we had experienced in just two days. So many diverse learning excursions in one small area of north central Massachusetts had us forget that we never got to summit Mt. Sugarloaf. Perhaps another overnight excursion in the future. We were very grateful that we could spend 2 days together exploring this area together, and uplifted by our encounters we could share. Adventures with friends, even just a simple overnight as this one was, filled us with gratitude for the blessing of friendship. I hope you may do the same with good friends.
The video below will give you a sample of the feeling of the magic of visiting Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory. For most North American readers, this will be the nearest Tropical Rainforest you can visit!
Oregon’s Central Coast has something for everyone. Whatever the reason for your visit, whether it is for natural scenic beauty, beach combing, adventure, history, or just relaxation and culinary delights, you will not be disappointed.
Typically the Central Coast of Oregon includes areas from Depoe Bay at the north end to Florence at the southern end and everything in between. Rugged sea side cliffs are punctuated by areas of flat sandy beaches and river estuaries where you will find good harbors where small cities are located. On our most recent three day trip, we covered the ground between Nye Beach just north of Newport all the way down to Florence. For those having at least one more day, I would recommend visiting Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Otter Rock and Agate Beach before having lunch in Depoe Bay, which claims that it has the world’s smallest navigable harbor. Depending on what time of year you go, you might likely spot a migrating Gray Whale just off the coast.
We left our home in the high desert in the morning and made the 4 hour drive across the Cascade Mountains and arrived at Nye Beach by early afternoon. It wasn’t raining and there was a steady Northwest wind. It was just cool enough with the wind that you wanted to wear long sleeves. We were greeted on our walk to the beach by a para-glider who maneuvered his craft just over our path.
Located on the banks of the Yaquina River, the harbor of Newport is a hub for commercial fishing and crabbing, in addition to offering attractions for tourists. The downtown has lots of buildings with Victorian architecture. You will likely see commercial fishermen mingling with tourists in this Bayfront area.
Right next to Pacific Seafoods Inc., immediately adjacent to downtown is a short pier overlooking the docks that California Sea Lions like to rest on. Their raucous bellows can be heard from almost anywhere on the Bayfront.
Oregon Artists have painted many murals on the buildings in downtown Newport. The mural below was painted by Bend artist Rick Chambers, the husband of a former co-worker of mine.
south of Newport
Once you cross the river on Hwy. 101 you will be able to access the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Just a little further to the south is the turn off to the Mike Miller Educational Trail Head. We’ve passed by here many times without visiting, but were glad we stopped this time.
The gentle path leads you through the rain forest. We walked through a tunnel of lush growth with azaleas in bloom all around us.
Yachats is roughly half way between the towns of Newport and Florence. We chose to make Yachats (pronounced YAH’ hots) our home base to explore the Central Coast. We stayed two nights at the Overleaf lodge in Yachats as we have stayed there previously and found it to be a nice property. Besides being centrally located between Newport and Florence, it is adjacent to some spectacular natural features such as the Devil’s Churn, Cape Perpetua, and Heceta Head Lighthouse.
All rooms at the Overleaf Lodge have an ocean view. There is a trail you can walk into town from outside of your room that parallels the coastline just above the beach. We usually have a room on the ground floor with a patio right outside, with close shoreline access.
The reception area has a dining room adjacent to it and breakfast is included. Guests are given their choice of a welcome cocktail or soft drink upon their first night’s arrival.
Yachats, also known as the “Gem of the Oregon Coast”, is a friendly town, small enough that all of the locals know one another. They are welcoming to out of town guests. Even the wildlife show their respect for others by keeping at least 6 feet away and wearing masks to keep the community safe!
Just a few miles away to the south on the coastal highway will bring you to the Devil’s Churn, a narrow cut into the volcanic cliffs where the pounding surf beats loudly against the rocks.
Close by are the high, rugged cliffs of Cape Perpetua, which begs a drive up a sinuous road to reach the top where you are afforded breathtaking views of the coastline from the vantage point of a seagull.
There are some trails from the top parking lot which go into the surrounding rain forest. If you are lucky enough, you might run into a deer grazing in the trail. I saw this little one just a few hundred feet from the top parking lot.
From Cape Perpetua you have access to 26 miles of interconnected looping hiking trails. If you are less energetic, you can drive back down to sea level and take a short walk to see Thor’s Well, an ocean sinkhole.
Further south on the Coast Highway will bring you past Heceta Head lighthouse. There is a pull off on the side of the highway where you can take a picture like the one below. For a small fee for close-by parking, one can enter the grounds of the lighthouse and wander around the keeper’s house.
There are many accessible beaches on the route to Florence. We passed up many of them and chose to hike the trail to Hobbit Beach, so named because of the 1/2 mile trip you have to hike through the rainforest to get to the beach.
If you have ever read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the prequel “The Hobbit” you will imagine that you are walking through the Mirkwood Forest. The twisted trees resemble the Ents in that story. As you walk through the tunneled, dark forest you will find yourself peeking around the corner in hopes of spotting an elf, a dwarf, or some hobbits.
The trail descends through the forest and opens up to a secluded beach where you will see just a few other people. The car parking area on the side of the highway is small which keeps the number of hikers low. You should always consult a tide table ahead of time to check the times and heights of the day’s tides. The highest tide fluctuations coincide closely with the phases of the moon when it is either New or Full.
Traveling further south, the landscape makes a dramatic transition from sea cliffs to a long area dominated by sand dunes. Florence is known as “Oregon’s Coastal Playground” due to the nearby Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area which is a mecca for dune buggies, sand-boarders, birders and hikers.
Like Newport, Florence has an Old Town situated on a river, this one being the Siuslaw River. Old Town has a lot of shops and restaurants that add to the charm of the waterfront location.
One of Beth’s favorite shops is Bonjour, an International clothing store. I appreciate that they thoughtfully put a chair outside the front door for husbands to relax in while their wives are shopping inside. If it is still too cold to sit in the shade outside the store, there is a nice coffee shop a block and a half away under the bridge.
Crossing over the bridge from Old Town will bring you to the entrance to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.
Take the South Jetty Road west from Hwy 101 into the dunes. There are several parking areas to access the high dunes and it is several miles to the end of the road at the South Jetty of the Siuslaw River. Lydia’s broom was in bloom among the foredunes when we visited in late May.
The dunes are quite high and rival the height of the dunes in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They aren’t quite as high as the ones we climbed in Namibia though. There are several trails that lead from a plethora of car parks along the road.
Some areas are designated for off road vehicles and dune buggies. While that is not our preferred mode of recreation, we did stop and take some pictures in those areas.
After exploring Florence and the Dunes area, we retreated back to Yachats and the comfort of the Overleaf Hotel. To our amazement, the Oscar Meyer Weenie-mobile was parked in the parking lot near our car. What a life the driver must have being paid to travel the country in that one-of-a-kind RV!
The Overleaf has a few charging stations in their parking lot for electric vehicles too.
After breakfast the next morning, we headed out the door of the hotel and took the Coastal Trail to the North. The Oregon Coast Trail covers nearly all but 10% of Oregon’s 362 mile coastline. It crosses beaches, climbs over headland, winds through shaded forest corridors and passes through 28 coastal towns. Some parts of the trail are on the shoulder of Hwy 101 and not all of the trail is contiguous. About 10% of the entire length of the trail has “gap” sections, where it is either too dangerous or routes are inaccessible. But even a day hike on a section offers rewards for the hiker.
Having our need for Ocean air satisfied, we again felt the need to smell sagebrush and juniper, so we headed back over the Cascade Mountains and returned home. The picture below is of Mt. Washington near Santiam Pass. In a few more months throngs of thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail will be passing by here. There won’t be nearly that much snow when we make a return trip to the Oregon Coast later in the year.
The scene below looks like a picture of a group of projectiles heading in the same direction. Using your imagination it could represent any number of things. It could be a close-up photo of a sport climbing wall shot from a different angle. It might also be a group of asteroids soaring through space just after a star exploded. Could it be fireworks falling from the sky on the Fourth of July? Or could they be sperm swimming and racing to be the first one to reach an egg? Can you think of any other possibilities?
Mother Nature is an awesome abstract artist. For this piece of art, all she needed was a steady northwest wind and for the canvas to be just below the high tide line. The stones were polished and rounded by abrasion from wave action in the surf zone. An incoming tide combined with some wave action, deposited them near the high tide line. A brief intrusion of sea water packed down the sand below to provide a harder, more uniform surface for the stones to lay upon.
Now that Mother Nature had the stones glued onto the canvas, she needed brush strokes trailing from the stones, all in the same direction. For this, she used the steady northwest wind to blow and thus carry dry sand across the beach. Since the stones already protruded up off of the beach, they blocked the wind, allowing blowing sand particles to slow enough to be dropped just behind them. In any other areas of the beach, the wind is still strong enough to keep the sand moving and not allowing it to build up.
This is only a temporary art display. A change in wind direction, tidal height change by moon phase, or increased surf activity coinciding with a high tide will wipe this mural clean. Then, Nature can create a different art form. If you ever used an etch-a-sketch as a kid, you know what I mean.
Some of Nature’s Art is more permanent, such as you would find in rock formations. Nature’s Art happens to be more ephemeral in littoral zones. But dismay not, since tomorrow brings a new piece of art to a new canvas. Get out your tide tables and head to the beach after a new or full moon to find an art installation near the high tide line!
While nearing the end of my bicycle journey through the happy isles of Western Estonia…..Writing a love letter from Estonia to a girl in the States…..
She wasn’t just any girl….she was my niece. And this is the first time I had ever written to her. How do you tell a young person for the first time that you love them? And how do tell her without making her feel uncomfortable? Well, you can do it simply by addressing a postcard just to her from an exotic place (like Estonia), share your experiences with her, and let her know you were thinking of her.
The trip started in Tallinn, the charming capital city of Estonia. After a LONG travel day from the States to Europe, with a canceled flight from Amsterdam to Tallinn which rerouted me through Stockholm in the middle of the night, I decided to spend a few days in Estonia’s delightful capital city before beginning the bicycle trip.
I booked a room at Fat Margaret’s Hostel, just outside of the north gate to the historical Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old Town blends an interesting mix of old and new, with trendy cafes and wireless internet zones found by wandering centuries-old cobblestone streets behind fortified stone walls. It is one of the purest medieval old towns in all of northern Europe. The city has a unique cross-cultural flavor, due to its strategic geographical maritime location and influences from Finns, Swedes, German Knights, Danes, and Russians. Tallinn’s population is more than four times larger than the next largest Estonian city, but it still retains a small town vibe.
After a few days of exploring the city and recovering from jet lag, I rented a bicycle and pedaled a few kilometers over to the train station. I loaded my bike onto the train and took a two hour ride to Parnu, a spa town on the western shore of the mainland. From here, one can access Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, the two largest islands off Estonia’s west coast. As you can see in the picture below, Estonian trains are bike friendly. Now the bicycle trip begins!
After riding around Parnu and exploring its environs, I stayed at Voorad Oos (Strangers in the Night) hostel near the center of town. Parnu is a laid back town, but still with some of the old world charm of Tallinn.
I headed out on the coastal road the next morning. Light traffic, relatively flat terrain, and a small marked shoulder on the side of the road made for a pleasant ride through the bucolic countryside. Much of the vegetation is boreal forest which is occasionally interrupted by bog or farmland fields. Estonia has a long and dramatically beautiful coastline. Saaremaa, the largest island is also known for its unique flora, and is a stopover point for migrating Arctic waterfowl using the East Atlantic Flyway. I was on the lookout for moose on the stretch of the road shown below.
On the coastal road from Parnu there were ample opportunities to stop at roadside picnic areas and interpretative sites. Thankfully, kiosks used multiple written languages, one of which was English. At the town of Tostamaa, I stopped by a public library, where I could access the internet and check emails.
Occasionally, an old church would pop up around the next bend in the road, begging for a photo stop.
Dispersed camping is frowned upon in Estonia, but as long as you are discreet about it there usually isn’t a problem with it, like there is in most Eastern European countries and in Denmark. At the end of the first day of cycling, I found this secluded patch of woods bordered by a marine inlet. The trees protected me from a brisk wind and some rain droplets in the middle of the night.
A morning ride brought me to the ferry at Virtsu, which quickly and efficiently shuttled passengers and cars over to Saaremaa. I was the lone bicyclist on that voyage.
Once I began pedaling on Saaremaa, I faced strong headwinds. It is no coincidence that there are lots of windmills in Estonia, both historical and contemporary ones. The picture below is from Angla Windmill park which has several well preserved Dutch style trestle windmills built about a century ago.
Usually near the outskirts of a town you would find a convenience store that is the equivalent of an American 7-11 store. Eesti is a difficult language, but pictures of food on billboards make shopping easier. I never felt unsafe in Estonia. People are genuinely nice, although not overtly outgoing. It’s really nice to be able to get a coffee or snack every 15 miles or so.
Fields of flowers seem to like the long days of northern latitude summers, and give bicyclists a reason to stop, enjoy the moment and take a picture. It also gives one a reason to stop without using a respite from the headwinds as an excuse.
Upon entering the large village of Kuressaare, I checked by the tourist office. The staff assisted me in finding a homestay for the night. Kuressaare is one of the few places that you will find amenities on Saaremaa. In addition to a clean bed and a shower, the host washed, dried and folded my clothes for an extra 7 Euros. She also suggested a good restaurant in town within walking distance. I passed up the use of kitchen privileges in the house and traded my own cooking for an authentic Estonian meal from a local restaurant.
The restaurant was just a few blocks away to the East. Since I arrived early before the evening rush, there were only a few patrons in the restaurant when I dined there. The server spoke perfect English and she suggested the special of chicken, vegetables and soup.
She also bragged about the local beer and said what made it special is that it was brewed with Cascade Hops. I told her that I live at the base of the Cascade mountains and all of the local brews I am familiar with are made with these same hops. Midway through the meal she checked with me to make sure the Pintla beer lived up to my expectations. I convinced her it did by ordering another one at the end of the meal.
Leaving Kuressaare the next morning, I headed across the island to catch the ferry to the neighboring island of Hiiumaa. The wind had died down, but it looked like rain was in the forecast. Halfway across the island, the skies opened up. Even though the area is very rural, there are bus shelters far from town. I often used them as rest stops, as the buses run infrequently out here. With nobody around I could fire up the camp stove and make a hot cup of tea or coffee to warm myself up.
I made a short side trip to see the Kaali meteor crater, a lake where a meteor crash-landed about 7500 years ago. It was pouring down raining when I was there, so I will cite someone else’s picture below.
When I got to the ferry terminal, it was abandoned and closed. I looked at the schedule posted on the outside of a building and it seemed that the only ferry that day would be in the early evening. Rather than wait six hours in a cold rain and risking not being able to find lodging on Hiiumaa, which is even less inhabited, I headed east on the north side of Saaremaa towards the town of Orissaare. It was the only other town on the island that might have lodging. I got to the library there just before it closed and found a listing for a homestay just about a kilometer away.
The dorm style room was small, but I was exceeding happy to live in it for a night for just 20 Euros. The gracious hosts also had a sauna, which I used to thaw out my chilled body. Saunas are an important part of the culture for Estonians and Finns. They sure do have that part right! I felt like a new man after a sauna and a good night’s sleep.
From Orissaare it is only about a 16 mile bike ride across another smaller island linked by a causeway to the ferry terminal at Kuivistu. Ferries back to the mainland are much more frequent there and I only had about 45 minutes to wait for the next one.
Once back on the mainland at Virtsu, I started heading Northeast. A local person at Virtsu told me about camping below the historic Kasari Bridge, about halfway to my destination of Haapsalu. The bridge, built in 1904, was the longest reinforced concrete bridge in Europe at the time of its construction. It is now a pedestrian only bridge. Beneath it, on the banks of the Kasari River, I pitched my tent for the last time in the Republic of Estonia and had a peaceful night’s sleep.
Part of my bike trip followed Eurovelo Route 10, the Baltic Sea Cycle route. Eurovelo is an organization that promotes bicycle tourism in Europe and has several cross continental routes.
The last day of biking brought me to Haapsalu, where I raced a bus into the bus station. It happened to be the last bus back to Tallinn, which I was lucky enough to catch. I turned in the bike at the rental shop in old town and stayed an extra two nights at Fat Margaret’s hostel before renting a car and touring other parts of Estonia and Latvia. I’ll leave that portion of the trip for another post. Then, I proceeded to write a postcard to my niece in the States.
I’m sure my niece was the only person in her high school to get a postcard from Estonia. Besides affirming my love for her, I hope it piqued her interest in travel, in hopes of expanding her world.
This trip took place a couple of years ago, and now she is in college. Now that Putin’s war is threatening Europe, I hope that she and her peers are learning about the real places in Eastern Europe that are threatened. I know the Estonians, who share a border with Russia, are anxious for the rest of the world to know about them and appreciate and value their beautiful country.
After my recent bicycle accident, I even more appreciate the time I spent bicycling through the Happy Isles of Western Estonia. Although there won’t be any bike camping trips this year, I’m working hard in Physical Therapy to be able to do something similar in the near future. Until then, I will satisfy myself with memories of this wonderful trip!
To keep the memory of this trip alive and to promote awareness to my community of Estonia and the Baltic States, I often fly the Estonian flag at my house. I also just ordered an infrared sauna, which I hope will arrive within a week. When it is set up, I’ll sit in it, close my eyes and transport myself back to the Happy Isles of Western Estonia…
At some point in our lives we will all be faced with becoming John Wesley Powell in one way or another.
I’ve always admired the famous explorer John Wesley Powell (1834-1902). He was one of the first explorers to run the mighty Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869.
He was an explorer, geologist, professor and ethnographer. I admired him in many ways. However, he also had a darker side. I always wanted to emulate only his better qualities. But on March 22nd of this year, I’ve come to be like him in a way that I never intended to. And that terrifies me!
A river trip is one of the ultimate geographical journeys. A river trip through the Grand Canyon takes it to another level.
A journey down a river can be a symbol for or journey through life. Like rivers, our lives have a starting point (headwaters). Our lives, like rivers, often take sinuous paths through the landscape, passing through place after place only once until we reach the end of our route. Sometimes the water is calm and flows slowly. Other times, there are wild rides through big rapids. The destination may not be as significant as the journey.
I relate to Powell since we both had a penchant for exploring, although the world was much more wild at the time of his explorations than were mine. He spent four months walking across Wisconsin in 1855. I’ve spent at least that much time walking the Pacific Crest Trail, parts of the Appalachian Trail, and other long distance trails, but with the walks spread over many years. In 1856 he rowed the entire Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The following year, he rowed the entire length of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to its confluence with the Mississippi. In contrast, my longest water trips were only one week; a 150 mile canoe trip down the lower Stikine River from Telegraph Creek, B.C. to Wrangell, Alaska, and one-week sea kayak trips through various fjords in Southeast Alaska. It seems he was much tougher than I was.
We did have a few other things in common. We both became college professors later in our lives; he in Geology and me in Geography. We both were fascinated with landforms; their patterns on the landscape and the processes which form them. We both care about conservation and land preservation for future generations. We both were interested in studying other cultures. But that is where our similarities end.
There was a darker side to Powell which I did not want to emulate. While he did publish an ethnography and classification of Indian languages, and studied the effects of acculturation on aboriginal peoples, he had a paternalistic view toward native people. It is no coincidence that the timing of his geologic expeditions overlapped with the time of imperialistic military ventures associated with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Powell advocated for resource exploitation and Native removal from their lands. This is where our outlook on the world bifurcates. Maybe we were both products of the times that we lived in.
There were other major differences between us. Powell was a veteran who fought in the Civil War for the Union Army. I have no military experience, as the Vietnam War and the compulsory draft were over just before I was of age to serve. Powell was shot in the right arm during the Battle of Shiloh and had most of his right arm amputated. Which means he did his epic 3 month river expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers with only one arm. I had two arms for my river and sea kayak expeditions.
That is, until this March 22nd. That was the day I became like John Wesley Powell in a way that I never wanted to.
While taking a short training ride on my bicycle for an upcoming trip, I slowed the bike down to get around a gate blocking the paved bike path. I could not get my foot loose from the toe clips and crashed and fell hard on my left side. Foolishly, I instinctively stuck out my left elbow to protect me from the fall. The sickening sound of my humerus bone shattering was an explosion in my ear, and I felt excruciating pain from my elbow to my shoulder. I lay on the ground writhing in pain while hoping that someone might be walking their dog or riding their bike to come by and help. Now I know how helpless a turtle flipped upside down on his shell feels. I wriggled on my back for more than 10 minutes. Finally, someone saw me, came over, and called the paramedics.
The injury was more severe than a simple broken bone. It was a compound fracture in five places, where the head of the humerus bone split in half. After a four and a half hour surgery, two metal plates and countless screws installed, I was sent home from the hospital on the fourth day. Over a month later my arm is still mostly useless. In the blink of an eye, I became a one-armed man like J.W. Powell. It could happen to any one of us.
Daily life is a challenge having only one arm. I wondered, “How did Mr. Powell pilot a raft down the mighty Colorado with only one arm?” He surely was a much tougher man than I will ever be!
Fears of what my life might look like from now on begin to consume me. What if I am never able to paddle my kayak again? Are my days of camping, hiking, and exploring in the outdoors gone forever? With just one functioning arm I can’t even tie my own shoes, let alone set up a tent. Forget about being able to cut a piece of meat at dinner. Other things one cannot do with just one arm include completely toweling off after a shower, practicing archery, folding clothes well, shucking corn, threading the belt loops on the pants you are wearing, uncorking a bottle of wine, trimming your fingernails, opening a lid on a jar, flossing, using loppers to trim bushes in your yard, signaling a touchdown in football, peeling potatoes, using a broom and a dustpan at the same time, popping a pimple, clapping in applause, serving in tennis, slicing a baguette, driving a stick shift, and cleaning the armpit of your good arm, among other things. Tie your own arm behind your back for one full day and I’m sure you will come up with many more examples. It is both humbling and scary when you realize just how fragile our existence really is. What it really does reveal is that no matter how independent you might think you are, we all depend on help from someone else from time to time.
All of this makes me appreciate John Wesley Powell even more. Not only did he lead the first government expedition down an uncharted dangerous river through lands where the natives were often hostile, but he made a couple more scientific expeditions down the Colorado. The 1869 trip proved the river could be run. That made him a national hero. The subsequent expeditions in 1871-72 were accompanied by photographers, artists, cartographers and other scientists. From riverside camps, Powell would often scale vertical cliffs with his one arm, to take rock samples and find perches for the artists to document the extent of the canyon country. What he could do with one arm was unbelievable.
But Powell made his first down the Colorado a full seven years after losing his arm. Maybe at first he was just as scared about his disability as I am about my own now. Maybe it took him a few years of living with his disability to adapt to it and overcome his fears. He certainly still did need help from others though. Somebody had to tie his shoes for him each morning before they got back in the boat. Somebody else was peeling the potatoes and cleaning the fish he was eating at camp.
Which makes me realize that we ALL have a disability in life to overcome or adapt to. You may have two good arms, but possibly have some other type of physical impairment. Or, your challenge might be psychological or economic. You might be handicapped by having to be a caretaker for someone in your family who would be lost without your help. Or you might be a minority living in a society dominated by a different culture. That doesn’t make you the disabled one, but it sure may handicap your ability for upward social mobility. Which is why John Wesley Powell’s trip down the Colorado should be on the top of our minds if we are to ever form a more perfect union in our country.
Historically, we are in the middle of a very big set of rapids on our downriver journey. Rising inflation, ongoing issues with global and domestic supply chains, disasters associated with climate change which increase in frequency as well as severity, vitriolic hate speech in our society combined with hyper-partisan rhetoric, scenes of death and destruction in Ukraine, fear of global thermonuclear war, social and economic upheaval are all boiling up all around us. It seems that we may be smashed by any of these rocks amid the rapids. We’re desperately looking for a back eddy to find a safe haven and some calmer water. But even if we manage to find one which affords us a brief rest, we will still have to finish running the river. And we’ll need to channel our inner John Wesley Powell to do it.
But simply mustering up grit and courage from within is not sufficient enough. We’ll have to learn to rely on one another too. There are just some things we cannot accomplish by ourselves. We will have to be open to accepting the helping hand of others, while at the same time doing all we can to help ourselves AND each other. If we learn to take the best lessons from Powell while eschewing any similarities to the ethnocentric and imperialistic views that he held, we will again have hope for the future.
Although I only have one arm at the present time, unlike Powell I still have two hands. With a long road of physical therapy ahead of me, I still have hope of regaining most of the use of my arm. Even if I eventually do, I will remember the lessons from Mr. Powell and be more empathetic towards my one-armed fellow citizens. As long as they will strive to do the best that they can with their one good arm, I will be happy to tie their shoes for them. I will also happily shuck the ears of corn that we can dine on together.
Some locations are special because of the beautiful landscapes or the vibrant cultures found there. Other places are extra special due to the unforgettable people you met while visiting there. On rare occasions you can experience all of this together in one place. Namibia was one of those places.
When I think of Namibia, I can never just think about a sparsely inhabited desert country in the Southwest of Africa. Any time I think of Namibia I have to think about Portugal, The Netherlands, England, Germany, South Korea, Australia, Ireland, and even Zimbabwe. Why is that? Sure, some of those places had an influence on Namibia in the past, but the reason is much more than that. I happened to share my Namibia experience with a special group of people from those far away places.
As I sat in my hot tub on a mid-January day this year in Central Oregon, the temperature was an unseasonably warm 50F that afternoon. The snows of early January had already melted. I hiked 11 miles in the desert that day, through sage, juniper, rabbitbrush and bitterbrush. I saw no other human the whole time I was hiking. I can’t be in a desert without thinking about one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world, the desert country of Namibia. And then my thoughts drift to the people who shared that adventure with me.
That begs the question…..”Does experiencing a dramatic landscape bring out the best in people?”
“Or does being surrounded by a stellar group of people enhance the interpretation of the landscape you are experiencing?”
Thinking about one’s Namibia experience will make you want to dance with joy! Just look below to see what happened to our driver Floyd, who was so happy to not be in Namibia with that OTHER group!
Only in Namibia could you see an elephant walking across a sand dune, or herds of exotic species of ungulates roaming over dry, sandy lake beds. Besides stunning desert scenery and abundant wildlife, Namibia also boasts a rich cultural history, from pictographs and rock art from ancient cultures, to towns with German colonial architecture which hints that a piece of Bavaria was plucked out of Europe and placed in a desert landscape. Diamonds are mined here, and Namibia is the only place in the world where several plant and animal species can be found.
Before I sat in the hot tub on that night in January, I checked the weather in Windhoek and Swakopmund, two places in Namibia. Windhoek’s high was 84F and the low was 63F. Swakopmund had a high of 71F and a low of 69. Both places reported showers, which is the time of year that the Inter-tropical convergence zone dips briefly into those latitudes during their summer. Melbourne, Australia, which is also experiencing summer in January reported a high of 87F under clear skies. It was clear and 48 in Lisbon. Amsterdam, Dublin and London had showers, but higher than normal temps for the Northern Winter. Both Seoul, South Korea and Kiel, Germany had clear skies with the coldest temperatures—lows in the mid teens to mid twenties. These are the places where my fellow travelers on my Namibia trip presently live. Now that I gathered meteorological data on cities where my fellow travelers live, I am free to open the cover of the hot tub and dream of Namibia and reminisce on that special trip.
We started as a group of unrelated foreigners choosing a three-week group camping excursion starting in Cape Town, South Africa and traveling through Namibia to Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was the first African experience for most of us. We chose a group camping excursion mostly for economic reasons and most of us were unsure of how the group dynamics would turn out. Our tour company, Nomad Adventures, was a South African based company, and our driver and guide were Zimbabwean nationals. It took just a few hundred miles and a couple of shared experiences to bring such a diverse group of people closer together.
At one of our first stops in the northern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa (RSA), we participated in a Braai, a South African style barbecue. Afterwards, we sat in a circle around a fire and introduced ourselves to one another. Ages ranged from late teens, twenties, forties, to those in their fifties. Beth and I were the lone Americans and the oldest in our early sixties. It was quite a diverse group. Although English was not the first language of many in the group, everyone had enough fluency in English to communicate with one another.
On the long road journeys on the truck, we heard conversations in Dutch, Portuguese, German, and various dialects of English. Each of us had a locker for our personal items at the rear of the seating area of the truck, which had a capacity to carry 24 passengers. Tents and sleeping pads provided by the company were housed either at the rear of the truck or in an outside compartment on the right side of the vehicle. Kitchen stuff was stored in an outside compartment on the left side. All of us were expected to work together setting up and breaking down camp each day, as well as performing KP duty. This helped us bond together. Although we always sat with the same riding partner, each day we all rotated clockwise to the next seating position. Whoever was sitting in the last two seats every day ended up being responsible for keeping the inside of the truck clean and tidy. This not only spread the cleaning duty equally to each of us, but it also made each person more cognizant of their own contribution to a messy environment. We all started to kick the desert dust off of our shoes each time we entered back into the truck. It also allowed for everyone to experience different vantage points from which to view the passing landscape as we toured the area.
When we set up tents for the night, we pitched them right next to each other, like you would see in a refugee camp. In effect, we were refugees from four different continents all huddled together for safety in a land that was both wondrous and strange at the same time to all of us. On the banks of the Orange River on our last night in RSA, I got to know two of the German travelers whose tent was pitched next to hours. We gazed at the beautiful sunset setting over the mountains of southern Namibia across the river. The Orange River would be the last perennial stream we would see for a couple of weeks. When I close my eyes, I can immediately transport myself back to that exact moment in time.
Each travel day around lunchtime, our guides would find a nice area to stop by the roadside. Everyone pitched in for meal prep. Camaraderie was born out of this time of working together.
Once we prepped the meals, we formed a line for the buffet and then sat in a circle. After breaking bread together, we would chat with each other and then clean the dishes and stow away the gear and the food.
Working together and sharing meals was nice, but it was really the shared experiences that brought us closer together. Occasionally someone would opt out of a scheduled group excursion, but more often we did things together. I stayed behind one evening to wash clothes in camp and relax, while the rest of the group went on an evening drive. I enjoyed the peaceful tranquility of the desert, while they spotted groups of springbok and zebra. One other time I chose not to pay extra to go sand boarding down the dunes near Swakopmund, as I let the younger folk bond together.
But there were a few excursions we took together that really stand out as tightening our bond through shared experiences. I fondly remember an early morning hike on Dune 45 in Namib-Naukluft National Park. We woke up before dawn and boarded our truck and queued in line with trucks and vans from other companies at the gate to the national park. Dune 45 is one of the highest dunes in the park and the only one permitted for visitors to hike on. Our driver floored the gas pedal and we raced to be one of the first groups to arrive at the foot of the giant dune. We all cheered him on with race fever and felt like Mad Max being chased through the desert. Actually, Namibia was one of the filming locations for those post-apocalyptic desert wastelands in that movie series.
We took off our boots and shoes and trudged up the steep dune face in the early morning light. The sand was tarsal-chilling cold, but who cared? We made good time to the top as our hearts were beating as fast of a hummingbird’s due to the aerobic workout. From our perch atop the dune, we were free to survey the Mars-like landscape and then watch the sun rise over the Eastern horizon. As we slowly descended, the sun began to warm the sand. At the bottom, I glanced to my left to spot an ostrich streaking across the bottom of the dune. And the day was just getting started!
Later that day, we visited the Dead Vlei (the Dutch word for swamp) where shifting sand dunes cut off an ephemeral stream hundreds of years ago. The extremely arid environment has preserved the dead trees as if they were petrified. The scene is surreal, as if Salvador Dali himself would have created it. I saw another ostrich sprinting over the red sand, but by the time I readied the camera to document that moment, the bird had already disappeared.
One other moment that day brought me closer to my newfound friends. As the route to the Vlei was so sandy, the national park had to shuttle small numbers of tourists from the main road to the Vlei. Lines waiting for the shuttles were long. A group of Spanish tourists tried to cut in line and they pretended not to understand English, as our group scolded them. Since I used to live in Mexico, I started shouting at them in Spanish and shaming them for their bad behavior. Surprised by a foreigner scolding them in their native tongue, they hung their heads and finally moved to the end of the line.
From that incident, I immediately gained favor with two of the Portuguese ladies, as the two cultures who share the Iberian peninsula have tension between them. I apologized to the ladies that I did not also know their language, and admitted that Portuguese was not only a prettier language, but that the Portuguese people obviously had better manners. Of course they already knew that to be true.
We would spot wildlife while riding and staring out the windows of the truck. We developed signals and hand gestures to designate for each type of animal. One of my new favorite animals is the Oryx, also referred to as a Gemsbok. A member of the antelope family, the Oryx has striking black and white facial markings and extremely long, straight horns. The picture below shows the group using our signal that an Oryx has been spotted.
Another memorable moment from that trip was the stop at the Tropic of Capricorn to take some photos. A feeling of gratitude for latitude came over me and I put a lip lock on my wife of 25 years. The group hooted and hollered to see that two old people could still have sexual attraction for one another!
Early this February we broke a record for a high temperature for that time of year here in Oregon, with the mercury nearly hitting 70 degrees. I checked the weather in other parts of the world. It was only a few degrees warmer that day in Melbourne, where it is actually SUMMER. It was a frosty low of 4 degrees in Kiel, Germany. It was raining in the desert in Namibia, with Windhoek reporting a high of 79. “How are my trip companions doing?”, I wondered.
You really haven’t fully experienced how spectacular a sunset can be until you’ve seen some from the southern parts of Africa. Add those to an active group excursion paddling the Okavango delta in Botswana, and you will cherish a memory that will be with you until you draw your last breath!
Traveling by Mokoro through the Okavango was so magical that you wanted to do it again the next day. But be sure to stay in water shallow enough so that you won’t be surprised by an angry hippo surfacing below you boat!
Etosha National Park in northern Namibia is another must see place. It is hard to believe that such a bleak looking landscape with little vegetation can support such large numbers of wildlife.
You might even be lucky enough to spot a leopard close up. The shot below did not need a zoom lens, as the leopard walked right up to the truck we were in. We gently opened the window just enough to shoot the camera without opening it enough to have the leopard jump at us.
Traveling through the scrub forest of Acacia trees, we would see giraffe heads poking up out of the forest. It reminded us of the movie Jurassic Park, where Brontosaurus heads poked through forest canopies. We named this area of Etosha “Giraffic Park.”
The campgrounds in the park have chain link fences around them. Not only does this prevent campers from being eaten, but stadium seating on the human side of the fence allows for excellent viewing of wildlife around the water hole just outside of the camp. However, seeing an elephant getting an erection can really make a human feel quite inadequate! It was equally interesting to be near the waterhole at night listening to the animal sounds of all sorts of species.
In late February we finally had a cold winter’s day in Oregon. That night it snowed and the temps dropped down to the single digits (in Fahrenheit!) Only my colleague from Seoul had a colder night than I had. Besides researching meteorological data around the world, I focused on current events. Covid case counts are finally on the decline here in the USA. Russia is amassing troops on their border with Ukraine. They also had troops staged in Belarus. Europe was concerned, but nothing had happened yet. My thoughts drifted southward to Namibia and the Tropic of Capricorn.
The first day of Spring brought cold temps and some rain here. I had just changed the water in the hot tub and wanted to soak, but had to stay inside. I’m thinking of Namibia again. But when thinking about my travel buddies around the world, I am now thinking about more than the weather they are experiencing. While the cases of the Omicron variant are on the decline here and mask mandates are being relaxed, other parts of the world have rising case numbers. Namibia and most all Sub-Saharan countries have appallingly low vaccination rates. South Africa was just beginning to reopen to tourism after being shut down for much of the Covid surge. The last year must have been hard economically for the guides on our trip. More concerning than that is the worry of the horrible war in Ukraine spreading to other parts of Europe. Putin’s war is on the doorstep of my friends in other parts of that continent. Refugees from that war are relocating throughout Europe. Fuel costs and inflation are very high there due to Europe’s dependency on Russian gas. How will the loss of Ukranian wheat harvests affect food scarcity in Sub-Saharan Africa? When thinking of Namibia now, these thoughts come to mind.
Our Portuguese friends left the tour in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city. We still retained the bulk of our group for the remainder of the trip through Botswana and onto Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Other tourists occupied their seats on the truck, but in no way could they replace them. We still had many memorable experiences together, such as hiking with warthogs near Victoria Falls, and walking past a hippo grazing outside of our restaurant in downtown Vic Falls. Beth and I walked across the friendship bridge with three of our fellow Dutch travelers to film them bungee jumping from the high bridge. They were grateful to have someone to film their daring dives and we were glad to be able to live vicariously through them and not have to jump ourselves!
I had two questions at the beginning of this story. To respond to them, I think that any Namibia experience would be worthwhile, even if you did it alone. I also think that a trip anywhere with this same group would be a success. That still doesn’t answer the question as to which is more important…..the people or the land.
Let’s assume that there exists a symbiotic relationship between the two. Stunningly beautiful unique landscapes may bring out the best in people. And sharing an experience with beautiful people may enhance your perception of a landscape. Also, being with people of different cultures allow one to see the experience from a multitude of perspectives. When you have all of that at the same time, you are indeed fortunate to have made such an unforgettable experience.
Maybe our Namibia experience could serve as a model for the United Nations. Maybe that global organization should reconsider holding their meetings in a building on the east side of Manhattan in New York City. Instead, have them all take a group camping trip together through Namibia. Have them share a unique experience together where they help each other set up tents; where they prep meals together; where they feel joy together. I wonder what the world might look like after that.
At the very least, I will try to comport myself on any future trip with the Namibia experience as my guide, and hope to become part of a community wherever I go.
What can you do when a fire ravages a beautiful forest? Some people might think of salvage logging. One locale with visionary thinkers and artistic talent saw it as an opportunity for an art project and a chance to rebuild community.
High in the mountains near El Bolson, Argentina, lies El Bosque Tallado (the sculptured forest).
Located south of El Bolson, on the slopes of Cerro Piltriquitron, lies the sculptured forest at an altitude of 1400 meters above sea level. Following a devastating wildfire in the late 20th century, local sculptor Marcelo Lopez came up with the idea to give new life to this burned forest. In 1998 a group of artists made the trip on horseback. It took them just 8 days to create the first 13 sculptures. They returned again in 1999 and 2003 to create more.
The artists had three goals. They wanted to give new life to burnt trees neglected by humans, to promote an interchange of creative experiences for the whole community, and to enrich the artistic heritage and culture of the region.
The project has continued to grow over the years. There are now over 50 wooden statues. Admission was free when I went years ago, but now there is a small entrance fee. From the town of El Bolson you can take a taxi part of the way half way up the mountain. From there you will have a 2 hour hike up a steep, rocky road to get to the sculptured forest. However, if you have a rental car, you can drive up the steep road to the car park at the end. Then you will only have about a 1 km hike to the entrance. There is a small kiosk on site for drinks and snacks.
The November day that I visited brought some rain which later turned to snow. Fittingly, the statue seems to be shaking his fists at God to complain about the weather.
With the acceleration of global climate change, many more communities around the world will face environmental challenges. The last several years have brought devastating wildfires to the western USA.
With so many communities in the Western U.S. being affected by recent wildfires, couldn’t the Bosque Tallado serve as a role model to bring artists, foresters, economic development managers and community members together to re-shape a sense of place in locations devoted by wildfire? Various sculptured forests would each have their own unique identity and serve to put these communities on the radar screen of tourists. Even if the economic impact would be minimal, they could serve as a vehicle to bring various parts of a broken community together, and serve as a beacon to create beauty and civic pride from the ashes.
Yesterday I virtually attended a “Teach In” on climate change. Several professors from the college where I work part time gave brief presentations on climate change from different perspectives of their various disciplines. Members of various organizations in our community also participated. Attendees of the conference heard perspectives from the disciplines of Ecology, Conservation Psychology, Microbiology, Sociology, Public Health, Geology, and even from the Visual Arts. Besides stressing the importance of scientific literacy, the concept of community came out over and over.
There are many definitions of what is meant by the word community, which might be geographic or cultural in nature. The presenter at the teach-in related it to other alliterative C words. Words like Connections, Compromise, and Caring for one another. One could also add Communication and Cooperation, or Coexistence.
Groups of people working together for a common good was exemplified by the community members of El Bolson, Argentina. My hope is that you, dear readers, will spread their ideas to communities that might benefit from similar types of projects.
With the situation in Ukraine being foremost in the mind of most of the world these past few weeks, I thought it might be helpful to give a brief background on the region to help better understand the conflict from a geographical perspective.
Full disclosure….although I have been a Geography professor, I have never personally been to Ukraine. But through showing you some maps and graphs with some brief explanations, I hope you will gain a new perspective on this region, which will lead you to further research on your own.
Many people remark about how simple their two color flag is. The flag itself gives you a lens into what the ecology of the region is like. The southern Steppe region has very fertile soils and it a major producer of wheat. Hence, a flag of a blue sky above with yellow wheat fields below. The picture below mirrors the colors of the flag, and is looking at the Black Sea, which is a pretty blue!
Climate is part of the reason for where certain types of ecosystems are found. Under the Koppen classification system, much of Ukraine is classified as a D climate, while other parts are more arid B climates.
The BSk climate in southern Ukraine has hot dry summers and cold moist winters. My hometown of Bend, Oregon has the same type of climate. The northern and western parts of Ukraine have a humid continental climate, with cold winters and warm summers. Prevailing winds are westerly at that latitude, and because they are so far inland from the Atlantic Ocean, temperature ranges are much more extreme than coastal areas like France, which are moderated by the proximity to a large water body. See the map below which gives you an analogy as to where you might find locations with similar climates.
But climate alone is not the only reason for ecosystems being located where they are. Ukraine has a thick layer of very fertile soils. This is also a result of the melting of continental ice sheets from the last ice age melting in the north and the runoff from them depositing silt in the south. The main river flowing through the country, the Dnieper (pronounced NEE’ per) has its headwaters in Russia. The river flows through Belarus into Ukraine and empties into the Black Sea in the south.
The map below shows the Physical Geography of Ukraine, much of which is a flat plain, with notable exceptions in the far west of the country. Besides being good for agriculture, the flat plains have made it easy for advancing armies to invade throughout history.
When looking at the region through the lens of history, it is important to realize that the present day borders of what we call Ukraine have changed many times over the last millennium. A lot of history can be explained by understanding Geography. The location of Ukraine has allowed it to be influenced over two millennia by Greece, the Mongol Invasion, the Vikings coming down the Dnieper from Novgorod, the Austria-Hungary empire, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union to name a few. Its location on the north shore of the Black Sea gave it proximity to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire as well as the rise of Islam and the Ottoman Empires. It is at the crossroads between East and West. I am currently reading Serhii Plokhy’s book, “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.” If your library has it, I would recommend you read this for a comprehensive history of the region.
Take a look at the You tube map below to see how the borders of Europe have changed over the last 1000 years.
The map below shows present day population densities. The two darkest spots are the urban centers of Kyiv and Kharkiv. You will also see concentrations in the East and South of the country. The Crimean peninsula in the south was annexed by Russia in 2014. That was when Russian separatists in the East of the country shot down a Malaysian jet liner. I was flying over that region on that same July day on my way to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Had my plane left on time from Germany and not been delayed, it could have been me that was shot down. You can see how important the control of the two major cities would be for each side.
The map below shows where the Russians have advanced as of 3/9/22. They are trying to first take all of the land along the Sea of Azov to connect Crimea to the Russian separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine is a multi-ethnic society, with much of one’s cultural identity based in language. Both Russian and Ukrainian are Balto-Slavic languages with some similarities in origin, but different enough to base one’s identity around. The map below roughly shows where each language is predominant and helps to explain which areas are either pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian nationalist.
Now compare the above linguistic map with the election map of 2010. Much of the voting mirrors the predominant language spoken. Yanukovych was a puppet of Putin. There were mass protests against his corrupt regime, leading to his ouster. The pro-Europe party talked in early 2014 about joining the EU. That precipitated Putin’s invasion and seizure of the Crimean peninsula later that year.
Finally, the graph below can give you an effect on how war affects migration rates. Look at the negative crude migration rate in 2014. Since the seizure of Crimea did not lead to full scale war at the time, many people moved back. However, the present day humanitarian crisis and horrible situation for the Ukrainian people will make this graph pale in comparison to today’s catastrophe.
These are uncertain times for all of us. I hope and pray for an acceptable resolution to the present conflict. I encourage you all to continue learning all you can about this region by reading peer reviewed documents. I also hope we can see some parallels with the cultural and political strains that Ukraine has with your own countries and work to find solutions to problems before they explode and get out of hand.
Flying low over the Arctic Ocean on our way to Herschel Island, we spot a pod of beluga whales on a collision course with a couple of kayakers. Herschel Island, Yukon Territory is located in the Arctic Wilderness, in the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of the Yukon, in the middle of nowhere. Why would anyone drive hundreds of miles to the north on dirt and gravel roads through desolate Arctic tundra as far as you can go by road, and then continue to fly north on a bush plane to reach an abandoned whaling station on an island in the Arctic Ocean? Well….if you have to ask that question, then you have never visited Herschel Island!
Maybe it is an itch you didn’t know you had to scratch. For me, I had this itch for a long time. You may know people who have visited several oceans such as the Pacific, Atlantic and maybe even the Indian Ocean. But few have ventured far enough north to experience the Arctic Ocean, which the Beaufort Sea is connected to. It was important enough for me at the time to block out a week during the high season of kayak guiding in Southeast Alaska, and head for the Arctic. In retrospect, the trade of a week of lost income for the adventure was well worth it!
A six hour ferry ride from Juneau, put us in Skagway, Alaska, at the end of the Inside Passage. From here, we would drive to the Canada Border just a dozen miles uphill. The drive would take us through Carcross, British Columbia and into Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. After that, we headed up to Dawson City to reminisce about the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98. At Dawson City, the second largest city of the Yukon (pop. 900), we stocked up on supplies before heading out on the lonely Dempster Highway. The 456 mile journey on the Dempster would culminate at the town of Inuvik, NWT, situated near the delta of the mighty Mackenzie River.
Beth flew up from Oregon to meet me in Juneau for this epic road trip. All we needed was our camping gear, a cooler full of food and drinks, a full tank of gas, and a sense of adventure! This would be Beth’s first trip above the Arctic Circle.
The Dempster Highway is a bucket list road trip of 740 km, which starts in Dawson City, Yukon and terminates in the town of Inuvik, NWT in the Mackenzie Delta. The well graded gravel road crosses the continental divide three times and passes through both the Ogilvie Mountain range and the Richardson range. One can see a variety of wildlife species along the route, like this lone caribou we saw walking along the road. In the summer, lone caribou look for windy places to avoid the hordes of mosquitos and flies. So also do human campers. The big caribou migrations occur in the Spring and Fall, so if you are trying to catch a large herd migrating, September might be a better time. The swarms of bugs are less at that time. Always check ahead on road conditions or travel restrictions before you head away from Dawson City. As of this writing, the road is closed at the NWT border to all non-essential travel due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Prior to 2017, Inuvik was as far as you could go by driving in the summer, due to thawing permafrost and boggy conditions which made road building difficult. It was possible to drive to Tuktoyaktuk in the Winter, after the Mackenzie River froze solid enough to drive on. However, a new road (the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk road) was opened in late Fall of 2017 which opens up another 147 km of road to allow drivers to navigate all the way to the Arctic Ocean by vehicle. However, our trip was prior to 2017, so we ended the land journey in Inuvik.
While still in the Yukon portion of the road, we passed by a purple and pink field of fireweed in bloom. It is called fireweed because you will often see it after a disturbance on the land. The seeds are wind blown and are excellent colonizers to areas where there is little competition for sunlight.
Down the road, we came to the Peel River crossing. We had to camp on the south side of the river to wait for the ferry to run in the morning. We pitched a tent on a hill overlooking the river and sipped tea inside the tent as we watched the arctic sun set and then rise again twenty minutes later. The wind calmed. Hordes of mosquitos clung to the outside of the tent. The buzzing sounded like we were camped under an electrical transformer! Poor Beth drank too much tea and had to go outside to pee….After coming back into the tent, we spent the next half hour swatting mosquitos who followed her in.
Heading further North after the ferry, one should stop at Eagle Plains for gas and food and a vehicle check before continuing further. It is an oasis of civilization in the Arctic wilderness. Just past Eagle Plains, YT, you will cross the Arctic Circle
Once you cross into the Northwest Territories you may see an Inukshuk on the side of the road like the one in the picture below. Inukshuk is an extension of the Inuit word “Inuk”, which means “a human being.” They are piled stones in the shape of a human for either communication purposes, as navigational aids, or as a message center. It also symbolizes a spiritual connection with the land. The flag of the newest Canadian territory of Nunavut has an Inukshuk on its flag.
The city at the end of our road was Inuvik. From there, we took a bush plane across the Mackenzie Delta towards the Arctic Ocean and Herschel Island. The pictures below are from our plane ride. The Mackenzie River has a myriad of channels, lakes and backwaters at its delta. The soils are underlain with permafrost and are poorly drained. It is hard to build a road here. The river gets its name from Alexander Mackenzie, one of the partners of the Montreal based Northwest Trading Company. Mackenzie explored the river in 1789.
In the past, there would be no overland road travel in the summer, but when the river froze up, one could drive on the river once it froze up. The seasonal freezing and thawing of the top layers of the permafrost results in a unique landform called “patterned ground.” Larger stones are moved and “sorted” by this freeze-thaw action which forms wedged polygons. They are not as visible while standing on the ground, but really pop out when you see them from the air. The patterns resemble a tortoise shell.
The road to Tuktoyaktuk was not completed when we visited here, but nowadays you can go overland to see another Arctic landform called a pingo. The picture below is of this rare periglacial landform, created by the freeze-thaw expansion of water. From afar, it resembles a volcanic cinder cone, but it is not volcanic in nature.
When we reached the Arctic Ocean by air, we headed west along the coast towards Herschel Island, just off the northern coast of the Yukon Territory. Once the bush plane landed, we had a few hours to explore the island on foot. As it was summer, the hordes of mosquitos rivaled the biblical plagues of Egypt.
The island was used by native Inuit peoples in the past, and historically was the location of Eskimo trading. Modern activity on the island surged after the appearance of the first commercial whaling ships arrived in 1889. Some of them were forced to winter over in Pauline Cove on the east side of the island. Similarly to how the fur trade was driven by the demand for raw materials for the European hat making industry, the demand for whale bone was partially driven due to the use of whalebone in the manufacturing of corsets at that time.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police set up a post in 1903 on the island, mostly to be able to collect customs and duties from whalers. The early 1900s saw the height of commercial activity there, but over-hunting saw the decline of human activity on the island. The Hudson Bay company, who had a fur trading post established in 1915, abandoned their post in 1937. For a more in-depth history of this region, I recommend reading Ken Coates “The Northern Yukon-A History”, written in 1979.
As we hiked across the Arctic Tundra towards the buildings at Pauline Cove, we encountered tracks of Muskox, caribou, and wolves. The closer we got to the Cove, the more we encountered the bleached ribs of old whale bones scattered through the tundra.
While walking near ridge tops, we could remove our headdresses. Thankfully, the wind was strong enough to momentarily knock the hordes of mosquitos down.
A sojourn on the island is a field trip into natural and human history. We did see some Muskox off in the distance, but were reticent to approach them. They are big, strong, and known to have bad attitudes.
Time to hike back to the plane and leave the island. On the way back to Inuvik, we flew low over the Arctic Ocean and spotted a pod of beluga whales. Soon we would wave to a group of kayakers who were paddling on a collision course toward the pod. How I wanted to be in the water paddling with them! I’ve paddled with Humpback Whales many times, and a few times with a Gray or Minke Whale, but never with a Beluga.
The trip was far from over though. Retracing our route back down the Dempster Highway, we camped by the roadside and experienced a strong thunderstorm that nearly took our tent down. Further down the road the next day, we met a road crew who were getting ready to close the road off, due to half of it being washed away by the raging torrents from the previous nights’ rain. We were the last car to pass through that day. The truck was caked in mud from the drive south (see picture below).
After a very long drive, we pulled into Haines, Alaska and got a hotel and cleaned up. We planned to take the ferry the next day back to Juneau. Haines, population just over 3,000, seemed like a megalopolis to us after where we had just been. Haines is almost 350 road miles from the town of Skagway, which lies only 17 miles away by boat. We drove the extra miles because there were no slots available on the ferry from Skagway to Juneau. Lots of RVers get their only taste of ferry riding on the Inside Passage from Skagway to Haines. A few slots opened up on the Haines to Juneau leg. Since Mick had to get back into town for an upcoming kayak expedition, it was prudent to drive the extra distance.
Four and a half hours later on the ferry, and we were back in Auke Bay, ready for the 30 minute drive home to North Douglas Island. Back in Alaska’s “Banana Belt” that night, we dreamed of Muskox, Beluga Whales, Pingos, Caribou….
Years later, we still cherish our adventure to the Arctic Ocean!
Ironically, I sat in my hot tub most January nights, dreaming of hiking the low desert section of the PCT in Southern California. While walking section E, all I could think of was about sitting in my hot tub back home.
Ask most PCT thru-hikers what their favorite section was and responses will vary. Many pick a section of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Others choose northern Washington as their favorite section. But when you ask what was their LEAST favorite part of the trail, more than 75% would list the low desert in section E from Agua Dulce to Tehachapi as their least favorite.
Thru-hikers usually arrive at this section in May, when blistering heat, and lack of water or shade sap their energy and crush their spirits. This is why I chose to attempt this section hike in late January and early February instead of May. A winter hike here has the advantage of avoiding the scorching temperatures of May, along with not having to deal with snakes this time of year. Having to carry less water due to lower temps is also a plus for a Winter hike. The downside included very long, cold nights, and no one else on the trail.
I made the long drive from home, taking advantage of snow free roads, and arrived at the Cottonwood Creek bridge at the California Aqueduct to start the middle of this section. Since I had no support, I would have to use my car as a base camp and do small sections at a time. While this would require doubling the mileage on the hike, it would negate having to hitchhike back to the car during a pandemic. To complete this 108 mile section, I would have to walk 216 miles.
The first few days crossed through the dry Antelope Valley, passing through the massive Tejon ranch on private lands. The temperatures were a comfortable 60 in the daytime, but below freezing at night. I started the hike in the middle of the ubiquitous wind farms. The trail alternated walking over the paved aqueduct or following lonely dirt roads, and unexciting walk. It took two days to walk 34 miles which resulted in only 17 miles of new trail gained. With the completion of the section between Cottonwood Canyon and highway 138, I now had passed the 1,800 mile mark, with only about 850 miles to complete the whole PCT that I have been chipping away at for almost 20 years.
Near the Aqueduct, I came across some large, freshly made Cougar tracks. Needless to say, I kept looking back every few hundred yards.
With two days of windy, boring hiking under my belt, I decided to move to a different part of Section E, up into the Liebre Mountain section, where roads crossed the trail every 7 miles or so. This way, I could “slack pack” the trails in small sections. Slack packing only requires a light pack with water, snacks and a few clothes. I could day hike 7 miles to the next road and then return to the car to camp. The following day, I could then move the car to the next spot and continue on. No need to carry a heavy pack with all of my gear.
The first morning started off with a beautiful sunrise, usually a good omen. However, hiking was another story. The trail was in very bad shape. Blown down trees, bad erosion in places and no tread-way on side-hill slopes were par for the course for the sections that I walked. Much of the forest had been destroyed by fire in recent years. Covid had prevented any trail work being done for the past couple of years. I saw no one while hiking, but could hear the loud sound of dirt bikes on the nearby forest roads.
The trail paralleled a forest road, so when I intersected the road after several miles, I decided to walk the road back to the car. On the way back, I removed several large rocks, so that I could safely move my car to the next spot to resume my hike.
Another day of brutal roads to reposition the car and more miles of eroded trail and I had enough of this middle section of Liebre Mountain for the time being. So, I moved to the north end of Section E to walk the 8 miles between Tehachapi Willow Springs road and Highway 58. This section had well maintained trail and again began in a Wind Farm.
A few miles in, I ran into a fellow from Bakersfield who was trimming brush on the side of the trail. We chatted for a while and I told him how much I appreciated his work. This section was the first pleasant walking I had in days on Section E. He was the only human I encountered on this section of trail.
After crossing Cameron Ridge, the trail descends rapidly to Cameron Road, where the trail joins the road’s shoulder for a couple of miles to Highway 58.
Now, to make the return trip back to the car. 16 miles of hiking to gain just 8 miles of new trail. The sound of spinning turbines and choking on desert dust have me again dreaming of sitting in my hot tub at home. Finally, I reach the car. Tomorrow I will begin a real “backpack” and tackle the Tehachapi Mountains.
There are 22 trail miles between Tehachapi Willow Springs road and Cottonwood Creek, where I previously parked the car to hike the Aqueduct. I planned to backpack in 11 miles and camp, and then turn around and hike back to the car. I would do the same from the other end to complete this section. The picture below shows the difference in pack size between slack packing and backpacking. There is no water on this section, so I carry a gallon and a half for the two days to complete half of this section.
The trail rises abruptly from the valley floor, following the property line of the wind farm. Very soon, there is a big erosion gully to cross.
A few miles further, I find it has hard to distinguish where the trail is, due to the amount of damage done by dirt bikes.
Even though PCT signs are every few hundred yards apart warning that it is illegal for motorized vehicles to use the trail, it is evident that the Proud Boys have willingly disregarded these rules and exercised their “freedoms” of tearing up the trail, even though their designated trails were close by. This is not what I signed up for on a PCT hike! Not exactly a National Scenic Trail in this section….
My friend Larry used to say that it was a sexual thing with motor bikers on the trail. He said that the only time these folks felt power between their legs was when they were on their bikes and raping Mother Earth. I used to think his sentiment was a bit extreme, but after several miles of walking on eroded dirt bike trails and sometimes losing where the actual PCT was, I was beginning to come around to his way of thinking.
The wind was blowing hard and I was not feeling well, so I stopped short of my goal of reaching mile 547, which was the halfway point of the Tehachapi Mountains hike. I made a makeshift camp on a knoll protected from the wind by a few downed trees. My lungs ached badly and I could not take a deep breath without pain. I wondered if somehow I had contracted Covid. The last place I had gassed up had few people masked inside, which made me wonder. I had no energy. I laid down with the ever present sound of humming wind turbines in the distance.
After a fitful night of sleep, I decided to leave my stuff at camp and walk ahead with only water and snacks. I still felt sick, but trudged on anyway. At least it was easier walking with a light pack. However, walking on an eroded motorcycle path while in pain was not my idea of fun.
Finally, at mile 549 of the PCT, I saw something positive about this section. Trail angels had set up a cache of food and water. I stopped and took a granola bar from the cache, sat down and relaxed for a moment.
Still feeling puny, I decided to head back short of the 547 mile marker. I just wanted to get back to the car, and possibly a hotel to recover. Even though most of the trip was downhill, my lungs ached. My calves ached. I had no energy left. I picked up a huge pine cone the size of a loaf of bread on the way back down. If I lived through this hike, I would gift it to my sister.
Just before I reached the car, I spotted a group of horses grazing beneath the windmills.
My body needed some rest, so I drove to Tehachapi and recovered in a motel for a couple of days. After a couple of days of bed rest, my lungs had improved to the bit where I felt I could at least slack pack some more, if not being able to tackle the other half of the Tehachapi mountains just yet. I think the lung infection was a result of dust getting into my bronchial tubes.
I drove to the south end of Section E at Agua Dulce, but first stopped at Vasquez Rocks a few miles south of town. Technically, it is part of section D of the PCT. Vasquez Rocks is the site of many Hollywood films, with some old Star Trek episodes filmed there.
I followed the PCT a bit to the south, and saw where it would run under the Hwy 14 freeway. Then I drove into “downtown” Agua Dulce and parked the car. I saw that the PCT actually required walking on the shoulder of a paved road for the first few miles out of town. Not being interested in that, I drove ahead to scout where other roads intersected the PCT.
From what I could see, the trail undulated up and down over barren, windswept ridges. I was beginning to wonder why I wanted to hike this section. Was it just to complete more mileage? At some point, recreation has to be more than just checking boxes and accumulating mileage. With the wind blowing hard and dust blowing across the road, I made the decision to bag it. It wasn’t just my physical weakness at the moment. I just didn’t want to do any more of this section. All I could think about was being home in a comfortable bed and soaking in my hot tub. Like so many other hikers before me, Section E ended my dream of ever completing the whole trail.
But I’m okay with that. I still dream of completing some other parts of the PCT.
As I drove north on the way back home, I stopped by the Mojave Air and Space port to see the boneyard of old DC-10 jets. Fittingly, old jets go to die on this spot near Section E of the PCT.
At midday, I continued north in time to reach the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine while it was still daylight. From there, I got to see the sun set over Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Finally, something to get excited about!
The night was cold, but I awoke in time to catch the first glimpse of morning light illuminating the top of the Sierras. I fired up the stove and mixed some instant coffee and hot chocolate to make a poor man’s mocha, while I watched the rest of the majestic mountain range being lit up by the morning sun. This morning beat any day I had on Section E of the PCT.
It dawned on me (both literally and figuratively), that I had not yet hiked the PCT in this portion of the Sierras, even though I had climbed Mt. Whitney twice before. Now that is a section of trail to get excited about!
When one dream dies, it allows others to be born to take its place. I started thinking of South Georgia island in the Antarctic, and the deposit I just made on a trip there this coming November. I thought about an upcoming road trip across the country to the Southeast USA this Spring. I no longer HAD to hike all of the PCT. Now I was free to pick a few of the best sections I really wanted to experience and leave the rest to someone else. Disappointment melted into a feeling of freedom!
A fairly long day of driving brought me across the border into southern Oregon. Not wanting to drive the roads on a Friday night, I chose to camp on the deserted shores of Lake Abert, on Hwy 395. The sunset was gorgeous. In one more night, I would be back home in my hot tub, looking at stars and virtually traveling to new places.
When one dream dies, it leaves room for endless possibilities to fill the void. It also brings back fonder memories of another desert trip, the deserts of Namibia. That desert trip was magical for many reasons, mostly because of the people I traveled through that desert with. I also did not have to backpack through it. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on the “United Nations of Namibia”. While we’re at it, “Where else would you like for geographicaljourneys.com to take you to?”