Sunday, December 31, 2017

Our 52-Hike Challenge 2017

On January 1, 2017 as Ann and I were headed to Harper's Ferry WV for our first hike of 2017, Ann told me of something she read about on a hiking site, a 52-Hike Challenge in which participants strive to make 52 hikes in a 52-week period. She asked if I might be up for it. Why not?

Our real challenge is that I work 6 days a week and 7 days some weeks. That leaves fewer than 52 days a year for hiking especially if you factor in days off for sickness and really bad weather. In any case, challenge accepted for the calendar year 2017 and this is our saga.

Hike (click through)
Aug 20, 2017
Aug 13, 2017
Aug 6, 2017
Jul 23, 2017
Jul 17, 2017
Jul 9, 2017
Jul 4, 2017
Jul 3, 2017
Jul 2, 2017
Jun 25, 2017
May 21, 2017
May 14, 2017
May 6, 2017
May 4, 2017
May 3, 2017
May 2, 2017
May 1, 2017
Apr 30, 2017
Apr 23, 2017
Apr 16, 2017
Apr 9, 2017
Apr 2, 2017
Mar 19, 2017
Mar 3, 2017
Feb 26, 2017
Feb 19, 2017
Feb 12, 2017
Feb 5, 2017
Jan 29, 2017
Jan 1, 2017


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Oregon Trail

We had the time of a lifetime moving across the country from Virginia to Oregon. The map below shows our route and some of the places that we visited. Many of our friends called us crazy or asserted that we have really big balls and most said that they were envious that we were doing something that they had always wanted to do. Like most things in life that are extremely challenging, it mostly just takes an unwavering conviction to accomplish a journey such as this, a journey that requires leaving the comfort of an established life on one coast to face a total unknown on the other coast. Call it what you will, here it is.

Index of Posts by Day

  September 15, 2017: Oregon Trail: Moving Day
  September 16, 2017: Oregon Trail: Ohio to Lake Michigan
  September 17, 2017: Oregon Trail: The UP
  September 18, 2017: Oregon Trail: Michigan to South Dakota
  September 19, 2017: Oregon Trail: Badlands National Park
  September 20, 2017: Oregon Trail: Custer State Park SD
  September 21, 2017: Oregon Trail: Wyoming Day 1
  September 22, 2017: Oregon Trail: Wyoming Day 2
  September 23, 2017: Oregon Trail: Yellowstone and Idaho Falls
  September 24, 2017: Oregon Trail: Idaho
  September 25, 2017: Oregon Trail: Oregon!

Oregon Trail by the Numbers

  13 states
  11 days
  4300+ miles
  3.5 days in EDT
  3 days in CDT
  3.5 days in MDT
  1 day in PDT
  3 cameras
  1200+ photos 
  7 bald eagles
  1 great grey owl
  countless hawks and falcons
  sandhill cranes
  50ish wild turkeys
  thousands of pronghorns
  4 bighorn sheep
  7 elk
  hundreds of bison
  some mule, blacktail, and whitetail deer
  a solitary bull moose

I had not been to Ohio, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Montana, or Idaho before.
South Dakota takes the prize for being the most beautiful state.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Oregon Trail: Oregon!

It's Monday the 25th and the final day of our adventure in moving from Virginia to Oregon. It's been a lot of fun and its been tiring living in a cramped car and an endless stream of hotel rooms with two dogs. Grace doesn't seem to mind the life, head hung out of the car window and snoozing in the sunshine in between, but it's been tough on Charlie, he who hates to travel. He hasn't eaten well but he has managed OK despite his anxiety. It has seemed like a small victory each time we have been able to persuade him to eat.

Final Day on the Road
Why is Chuck Getting Breakfast in Bed?
Finally in the Pacific Time Zone after crossing into Oregon—how weird is it that this is home now?—we would make our final push to Yamhill in the Willamette Valley, 28 miles as the crow flies (and an hour in the car) southwest of downtown Portland. We're aiming to meander along the Columbia River, bypass Portland traffic, and arrive in Yamhill late afternoon. But first, coffee in Baker City before hitting the road. One of the great things about the PacNW is coffee, good coffee, everywhere. The roadsides are littered with tiny little drive-up coffee shacks.

Tiny Coffee Shop in Baker City, Quintessential Oregon
Northeastern Oregon is really cool high mountain desert of a type that I have never seen before. The mountains are really tall, pretty rugged, and totally treeless, quite the alien landscape for a guy from Virginia. Across in Washington state, it looks exactly the same. Google "Blue Mountains" if you've never seen this kind of otherworldly landscape. Further west, the mountains get more rugged and covered in what looks to be ponderosa pine for the most part.

Between La Grande and Pendleton on I-84 sits Deadman's Pass at 3631 feet in the mountains. We climbed more than 2,000 feet on some steep grades with a bunch of double-hairpin turns. It was unnerving to be on the outside of a logging truck going through some of these beastly curves. This section of I-84 follows the old Oregon Trail wagon road, a fitting place for us to be on this trip. There must be a lot of accidents involving trucks (likely brake overheating and failure). On the western downgrades, we saw one sign restricting truck speed to 18 mph.

At the pass, we stopped at the rest stop and to go to the scenic overview. The scenic overview is down a frontage road along the interstate and then along a dirt track winding through the woods for a ways. It is open range here and cattle were everywhere.

Off-The-Beaten-Path Scenic Overloook
The Columbia River even at this point hundreds of miles from the ocean is a serious river with tugboats pushing barges and here and there, buoys and floats for gill nets. We saw a lot of gill nets deployed; I'm not sure of the salmon seasons here, but this seems very late to me and the fish are likely to be a little thin from their trip up the river.

The Columbia River Gorge is spectacular and to see it closer and at slower speed, we got off I-84 at The Dalles and took the scenic US 30 through the hillsides covered in grasses and Oregon white oaks interspersed with huge ponderosa pines. We climbed the very twisty road up to Rowena Crest where we had great views of the river and Washington state across the river.

The Road Less Traveled

The Rowena Crest Viewpoint

The Columbia River and Washington State

Barge on the River

Brown Dog Loves the View

Black-tailed Doe
US-30 winds down through beautiful oak savannah, farms, and orchard land into the tiny town of Mosier where we picked up I-84 for a couple of moments until we exited at Hood River.

One Last River View
We left the Gorge at the town of Hood River and followed the Hood River up to Mount Hood which we never got to see fully for the abundant cloud cover. We got some teasing glimpses of it here and there, but nothing worth stopping for especially since it had started raining about the time we left Hood River.

On the back side of Mt. Hood, we picked up US 26 and headed back for the Portland area to pick up 99-W into the valley. Traffic on 99-W was terrible and that is all I will say about that. We were so frazzled by the traffic that we stopped at Chehalem Valley Brewing in Newberg on the way to the house in Yamhill, another 15 minutes down the road.

Final Road Beer
And there you have it. It was a long eleven days and we got to see some of the most spectacular scenery that this country has to offer. Now on with our new lives in Oregon.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Oregon Trail: Idaho

Tomorrow we arrive at our new home in Oregon. We're ten days in at this point and the sightseeing is mainly behind us. We have to get clear across two states in two days. It is 750 miles no matter how you slice it, so we buckled in for a couple of long road days. Still, at 75mph average speed (most of I-84 is posted at 80mph but there are constant construction zones), we did have a little slack in our schedule to get off the highway for a few minutes.

The first thing I noticed was lava. There are lava rocks everywhere and we have driven through a few cuts in lava beds. The rest of the place is flat, dead flat, and I have the distinct impression that there is but a very thin veneer of topsoil over lava beds. I also notice that it is very arid: just about every field has big irrigation rigs. Good thing the Snake River, which keeps getting wider every time we encounter it, has a lot of water.

The ever present irrigation rigs prove to be excellent perches for raptors. We see hundreds if not thousands of raptors. Every fence line and every irrigation rig has at least one if not more raptors perched upon it. Every couple of minutes, we see a kestrel hovering over some prey. As the Snake River came close to the highway, we saw four bald eagles perched right alongside the highway. Remember my U-turn in Wyoming to see two eagles in a tree and my thinking that I might never see such a sight again in my life? Never mind. Life is good.

But the most prominent sight? Potato fields. Mile upon mile upon mile of potato fields. And potato barns. Some are tiny, some are acres and acres under roof, but they all have one thing in common: the lower side walls are insulated with mounded dirt, rigid insulation, or some combination. I have never seen anything like this before, huge above-ground root cellars. Some of the larger warehouses have monster condensing units outside with refrigeration lines going inside. Potatoes are huge business here. We also saw row after row of potato harvesters, giant rolling conveyor belts that loosen the earth, scoop the potatoes and dirt onto an open conveyor that lets the dirt falls through and transports the potatoes to a truck or hopper.

Mustard in Eastern Idaho, A Rare Non-Potato Field

We Agree. Portland Beer in Idaho
Because we had a little slack in our day, we started looking for things along the interstate to amuse us and we quickly latched onto Shoshone Falls on the Snake River at Twin Falls, ID. The pictures we saw on the internet were amazing; they don't call it the Niagara of the West for nothing and at 208 feet high, it's taller than Niagara Falls. And bonus, it is perhaps a 10-minute detour off the highway to get to the park managed by the City of Twin Falls. As we were navigating the back roads to the park, we got a great view of a prairie falcon as it winged right in front of our windshield.

Shoshone Falls. Detour Number One

Snake River at Shoshone Falls
As you can see in the photo below, we didn't see the massive Niagara of the West that is shown in all the photos of the place. Waterflow was restricted to a trickle, the usual state of affairs at this time of year. Still, as a great place to get out of the car and stretch our legs, it was well worth the detour off the highway and the $3 entrance fee.

Where are the 208-Foot Falls?

Looking Downstream of the Falls

Small Waterfall at Park Entrance

Creek Spilling Into Snake River Canyon

Another Trickle

The Main Falls, Just About Dry

Butte Overlooking Canyon
I took leave of Ann to scramble higher on the canyon walls to get a different angle for my shots and at one point when I looked down at her from a couple hundred feet above, I saw this shot of her warming herself in the sun.

Warm Sun, Chilly Morning

Hillside Covered in Gutierrezia sarothrae, Broom Snakeweed
For the last week at least, we have been driving past clematis plants covered in their fuzzy seed heads. This is the first place that I have actually been able to walk up to a plant to see what it was. And to my surprise, it was still blooming, making the identification that much easier.

Clematis Seed Head

Invasive Clematis orientalis, Oriental Clematis
As I was scrambling on the hill sides, I came across a lot of prickly plants blooming pink. I was guessing they were Euphorbias, but that turned out not to be the case. I had no idea that I was looking at Prickly Russian Thistle aka Tumbleweed. It's a pretty undesirable invasive in most of the western US.

Salsola tragus, Prickly Russian Thistle (Tumbleweed)
We all recognize sunflowers when we see them, but when those of us back east see them, it's almost always because they've been planted in somebody's flower bed. And the ones we see are likely highly selected and bred for color, shape, and height. I find it really cool to see the native plants growing in their native habitat. It's fun to be where they grow just naturally. Of course, I am reminded of the vast fields of sunflowers grown as a crop in South Dakota.

Annual Sunflower, Helianthus annuus
After visiting the falls, we headed back to the highway for points west. There wasn't a lot to see along the road at this point, just mile after mile of high desert. West of Twin Falls the land becomes much more rugged and then the interstate dives down inside the Snake River canyon for a while. Off to our north, we had good views of the Sawtooth Range, some 60 miles distant.

About 1pm, we started getting really hungry so we looked for a nearby town. The next town of any size (there's a whole lot of nothing between Twin Falls and Boise) was Mountain Home. We were looking for a sit-down meal to get us out of the car, rather than fast food, of which we were totally sick.

We came across a Singaporean restaurant named Shiok. With visions of Singapore noodles running through my brain, we left the interstate to find the restaurant which is about 15 minutes south of the highway, right near the main gate for Mountain Home AFB. In other words, the restaurant is smack in the middle of nowhere, BFE to be exact. We wondered exactly why such a restaurant would be this far out in nowhere. The Air Force base, we guessed.

Pavement Mirage, Mountain Home ID
The food was well worth the effort. Of the four dishes we ordered, three were really good. Only a hot pot was not good, the worst kind of American-Chinese glop in a dish. We ordered extra Singapore Noodles to take with us for dinner.

Laksa Curry Noodles

Singapore Style Vermicelli

Salt and Pepper Calamari
After lunch we headed to Ontario on the Idaho-Oregon border. This is the point where we needed to decide which route to take across Oregon. We could go through the back country on either US-20 or US-26 or we could continue on I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge. It was the traveling with dogs deal that decided for us. It was tough enough finding a hotel that accepted dogs along the I-84 corridor. Traveling the backroads did not look like a win, so we stayed on I-84 until we came to a town with a hotel that accepted dogs, Baker City OR.

Northeast Oregon. Golden Brown Mountains with Zero Trees
After our dinner of leftovers, we turned in for our final night in a hotel, equally looking forward to our last day on the road and a bit sad that our great adventure was coming quickly to a close.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Oregon Trail: Yellowstone and Idaho Falls

Saturday was an early morning for us: we were up, showered, dogs walked and fed, and checked out of the Snow King Resort in Jackson Hole at 7:42 am. First order of business: find some coffee. Back at the hotel, an internet search turned up a promising coffee shop on the square downtown, but we couldn't drive right to it: the street was closed for the final farmers market of the year.

Clouds on Ski Runs at Snow King Resort
Ann walked over to it to find that it didn't open until 8am. A passerby pointed her to a bakery just down the street and Annie bee-lined for it. I pulled the car over to the bakery while she went in. A sea of beautiful Patagonia-clad people and what appeared to be soccer moms were coming and going from the bakery. Clearly, Patagonia down puffies are a fashion statement in Jackson Hole. Even Ann was wearing one. I felt so out of place wearing my Montbell ultralight down vest, like a country bumpkin come to town, but I rocked it anyway: it was 28 degrees. And if you believe a word of that, then you know me not in the slightest.

I could see Ann through the front window as she loaded up her coffee. Me, I like mine black. Ann, not so much. She's more of the milkshake kind of person. So it takes her a while, especially when she is busy chatting up everyone around her. Her hands were going in true Italian style as she was conversing most animatedly with the woman beside her. Do you have any idea of the torture it is to be in the car dogsitting, fiending for coffee, while watching your cup of coffee sitting on the counter, all alone and neglected?

While she was inside, though, she did discover the reason why we couldn't find a reasonably priced hotel room. There was a huge invitational soccer tournament in town. We had already driven by one field that was loaded with kids and just around the corner from the bakery, hence the continual flow of soccer moms, we drove by another larger complex wall to wall with kids and soccer balls.

Our first stop out of town was to have a glance at the wetlands on the National Elk Refuge, a 25,000-acre sanctuary that borders Jackson Hole on the north. Elk are migratory, moving up into higher elevation in the warmer months in search of food and coming down from the brutally cold heights in the winter. Our timing was not good: the elk were still up in Yellowstone. But still, I had seen a lot of ducks on our way in the day before and I wanted to have a brief glance at them. It is prime time for waterfowl migration.

Bordering Jackson Hole to the North

Ducks and Wetlands in Context
The light, staring due east into the sun rising over Bridger-Teton National Forest, was not good for either photographing or identifying what birds had stopped in for a rest on the waters of the refuge. But still in the photo below I see several Ring-necked Ducks, Aythya collaris (white rings on bills, upper left and center), a Red-necked Grebe in winter plumage, Podiceps grisegena (with the needle bill, lower left), and perhaps five American Coots, Fulica americana (lower center and right), the ones that look a bit like floating chickens.

Duck Soup,National Elk Refuge
We didn't linger over the ducks. They're not Ann's thing and she was great to humor my wish to stop for a moment. So we headed north for the 60-mile drive into Yellowstone, all the while keeping our eyes peeled right for elk. We did not see any elk. But we did see a very dark animal larger than a horse with massive horns and a dewlap: a bull moose! I'm guessing it was a young bull that had never been on the refuge before. It seemed to be trying to go west through the fence that establishes the western boundary of the refuge and keeps the animals off the busy highway that runs along the refuge. Neither of us had seen a moose before so it was quite thrilling to be in exactly the right place at the right time.

Holy Bullwinkle Batman!
I had been trying to get a photo of a magpie for several states in a row. They're pretty wary of humans and don't want to hold still to have their portraits taken. Ann spotted this one on a fence as I was filling up with gas and I was able to get a photo, not a great one, but a photo. Speaking of gas, I couldn't figure out why the Jeep was sucking wind going up the mountains until I finally spotted the octane ratings on the gas pumps in Wyoming. Regular gas comes in at only 85 octane which sucks compared to 87 octane for conquering mountains. Once I figured this out, it was only mid-grade (87 octane) for us.

Black-billed Magpie, Pica hudsonia
Once we had gassed up, the ground fog was dissipating and the sun was coming on strong in stark contrast to the crap weather of the day before. The Tetons were stunning in the morning light and we stopped several times just to admire them. I had to wait a couple minutes for the last shot of Grand Teton below. The cloud cover was changing rapidly. I put on a 4-stop polarizing filter and waited until a shred of a cloud passed in front of the summit of Grand Teton. The dumbed down JPEGs in this post don't do the photos justice. No photos of this glorious place do it any justice at all. This is another must-see place that should be on your bucket list.

Tetons,  Grand Teton Far Right

The Tetons are Stunning

Grand Teton, Ground Fog Over Snake River
North of Jackson, the road splits and the left fork heads north past the entry gates for Grand Teton National Park and then following the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Highway, into Yellowstone National Park. If you're following this route, you're going to have to ante up entrance fees for both parks. It probably makes good sense to purchase an annual parks pass for $80. I know we probably would have incurred $125 of entry fees on this trip alone. Because we do so much hiking, we buy an annual pass each year.

Ann Waited in Line for Two Minutes to Take This
We finally hit the south entrance gates to Yellowstone at exactly 10am, two hours and fifteen minutes after we left Jackson. That tells you how much time we spent looking at things along the way, including beautiful Jackson Lake. Our first long stop was in the West Thumb (of Yellowstone Lake) Geyser Basin to check out the geothermal things going on.

We were not alone. We encountered tour bus after tour bus of Asian tourists who spoke no English. I believe they were Koreans. In any case, they didn't seem to operate by American rules of politeness and had no problem blocking paths, shoving you out of the way if they wanted to see something, or planting themselves in your frame just as you were shooting a picture. It's probably a cultural thing but it came across as rude to us. In any case, hordes of people are not our thing and we moved along fairly quickly.

Chipmunk Eating Grass
I expected to see much more diversity of birds in Yellowstone than we saw. Other than a handful of ravens and a couple of raptors, the most commonly spotted birds were Mountain Bluebirds, flashing brilliant blue in the morning sun, and Brewer's Blackbirds.

Female Mountain Bluebird, Sialia currucoides
So here's the thing about most of Yellowstone's thermal attractions, especially in cold weather and it was cold with snow all over the ground except on the warm spots: the steam from the various things obscures any reasonable photo. And a lot things look liking boiling mud, flat and uninteresting in a photograph, in a word: ugly. But the juxtaposition of snow and steam did make for some interesting photographs.

A Thermal Pool

Another Pool, Boiling

Mini Geyser in Aquamarine Pool

Steam and Snow in a Geyser Basin

A Fumarole
Many of the great sights in Yellowstone are the (for the most part) tranquil rivers flowing through the valleys. East of the Continental Divide, the Yellowstone meanders through the Hayden Valley where we saw a few buffalo grazing up and off the river. The Gibbon River is quite a spectacular trout stream with falls and rapids easily visible from the road. The continuation of this river going west is called the Madison River and it was dotted every few hundred yards with fly fishermen. On the way into the park from the south and west of the Continental Divide is the Lewis River shown below just before it dives off a 30-foot ledge at Lewis Falls.

Snow and Rivers

Lewis Falls
Lewis Falls are pretty much small potatoes compared to the main attraction, the 308-foot Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River located in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone

Love the Spray From the Falls

Rapids Below the Falls

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
At Canyon Village, we turned west towards Norris to start completing our loop through the southern half of park. Frankly, miles and miles of snow-covered spruce trees was doing nothing for us and we were getting hungry. We had no desire to subject ourselves to further hordes of tourists by dropping down to see Old Faithful and it would have cost us another couple hours to do so: not enough bang for the buck.

Feeling a little let down at the whole Yellowstone experience, we decided to exit west out of the park and find some lunch in West Yellowstone MT. It was looking like we were going to be shut out in seeing elk, but finally along the Madison River on the way out the west entrance, we spotted six does lying down in the field along the trout stream. Despite this, neither of us found Yellowstone to have lived up to what we thought it would be.

Because the snow the day before killed our time budget and road closure for construction in the park limited our route, we couldn't get to the parts of the park that we really wanted to visit. We just could not get to Idaho Falls by evening and still see the north and northeast parts of the park, where apparently the elk and therefore the wolves and grizzlies are holed up. We were limited to cruising the southern loop road through the forest for miles at a time with no view. And when we did stop, we were overwhelmed with tourists, even at the end of September. We never really had the chance to get out of the car, get away from the road, and experience the place.

The Only Elk We Saw in Yellowstone
West Yellowstone was a bust. We saw a deli where we could get some sandwiches, but they were closed for the season. Alas, it was McDonalds and some really crappy and tasteless chicken sandwiches. Not having fast food as any part of my diet, I was unaware how awful McDonalds food really is. From West Yellowstone, US-20 is a straight shot through the southeast corner of Montana that goes directly into Idaho Falls, a relatively easy drive after climbing up and over the Continental Divide once more on the Idaho-Montana border.

Show Us The Potatoes!
As we came down out of the mountains in Idaho, we descended onto much flatter ground. What surprised me is that we were often traveling through old lava flows. I've never seen that before. As we drove through the increasingly agricultural landscape, we were fortunate to see a prairie falcon flying alongside the road. We did not know it at the time, but on our drive on Sunday through Idaho, we would see hundreds of raptors of all kinds.

It was about 4pm when we got to Idaho Falls, having sat in traffic for a half an hour because of a horrendous accident: a box truck looked like it had exploded. The closer we got to town, the more potato-oriented businesses we saw selling all manner of potato handling equipment. We started seeing trucks hauling both potatoes and onions.

While we were stuck in the traffic jam, we decided to visit the falls in Idaho Falls before heading to a brewpub for dinner. Unlike in Sioux Falls, we couldn't get a decent address: in Idaho Falls there is a long strip park along the river with apparently no central destination. Ann put an address into the Garmin, but it clearly took us to the wrong side of the tracks and so, frustrated and hungry, we bailed and went to Idaho Brewing.

The beer wasn't bad but it wasn't exciting either and the tasting room was really sterile, so we had a beer and left for Snow Eagle Brewing which turned out to be right on the falls that we wanted to visit in the first place. I guess our good karma was working.

Idaho Falls

The Kids on the Snake River

Idaho Falls, LDS Temple

Snow Eagle Brewing
Snow Eagle Brewing is unusual for a brewpub in offering sushi. Now we love sushi more than most food, but "brewpub" and "Idaho Falls" didn't inspire confidence despite the bartender's claims that it is really good. We were seated right by the sushi bar and the product that we saw being served made me think that we were justified in passing it up as much as we might have wanted some sushi after 9 days of road food. After an early dinner, we walked the dogs along the river before heading to our hotel for the evening.

Our 52-Hike Challenge 2017

On January 1, 2017 as Ann and I were headed to Harper's Ferry WV for our first hike of 2017, Ann told me of something she read about on ...