For Memorial Day weekend this year we did one of the things we love best: head out into the woods. I had been waiting for this weekend like a little kid thinking about Christmas, jittery and overwhelmingly excited. Two reason this weekend felt so special, it was our first time full-on backpacking since leaving Alaska and my dad was coming with us. And the trip certainly lived up to my expectations!
We made a plan to head north and hike the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, which, ironically, we learned about while traveling through Canada last summer. After a little reasearch, it was clear that the 30 mile West Rim Trail would be our route for exploring the “grand canyon,” otherwise known as Pine Creek Gorge.
Fortunately, Pine Creek Outfitters, a local guide and rental shop, offers a shuttle service for backpackers so we could do the trip in one straight shot with no back tracking, ideal hiking. So after a three-hour drive, we parked our car at the north trailhead, hopped on the shuttle and headed south. We hit the trail just after 1PM and managed to pack in 10 miles before we made camp for the night. It was a strong push to start our weekend!
The first ten miles slowly rise to the ridge and include meandering streams with baby waterfalls, thick waves of fern undergrowth, and a mix of pines and deciduous trees. It felt great to be out in the woods and the weather was perfect, cool with a light breeze to keep the bugs at bay. We also got our first glimpse of the gorge. Although the vista’s get better as you head north, even on our first day you could see the curving, thick-green walls of the gorge mounded on both sides of Pine Creek. It is vastly different then the true Grand Canyon, but certainly beautiful in its own right.
My favorite vista on the first day was just north of our little campsite and we could see the rapids of the creek, the Tom Sawyer-like islands that speckled the gorge, and the sun just touching the top line of trees in a milky-orange. It was a perfect cap to the day and set the stage for a great dinner around the campfire.
Day two we completed the middle, and longest, leg of our journey, leaving us with a quick six miles for the final day. One of the best parts of day two was our lunch vista. The vista was the first place that really allowed us to see north up the gorge and we had a blast watching canoers and kayakers try to navigate the rapids far below us. We even got out the binoculars for a closer look. One guy lost a paddle and had to jump out of his canoe to get it back. It was a day of enjoying the peaceful way light filters through the leaves of trees making a polka dot-pattern on the trail and, once again, great weather!
Our second campsite, again we had the place to ourselves, was right along a creek and a waterfall rushed behind our head all night. Greatest white noise ever! Another campfire and cards and quiet. There is nothing like sinking into the woods so deeply you forget about the fast pace of everyday life. Instead, you eat when you are hungry and rest when you are tired and spend your day looking out because everything happens and exists independent of you. It is almost a relief to be so insignificant in the face of nature.
Our final day, an easy, short (6 miles- everything is relative!), mostly downhill, light-pack kind of hike, brought the best views of the trip. The trees gave way to vista after vista that allowed us to see the rim we had just hiked and north to a place we wouldn’t set foot on. It made the gorge feel large and deep in a way I hadn’t yet felt. I almost wanted to slow down, to make it last a little longer. I think we all did.
I love the fall because it is, without a doubt, the best time to camp. The bugs are gone, the nights are dark and cool, campgrounds are mostly empty, and you can hike for hours without getting too hot. The perfect storm of camping.
So I was more than excited to head off into the woods for the weekend, especially since it was also an opportunity to recreate and re-imagine a father/daughter camping tradition from my early days out in the woods. Our little group of four has since expanded, and isn’t strictly father/daughter any more, hurray for Lucas joining our gang. But it still held the essence of what made all those early camping trips so wonderful: way to much food, laughter, walks in the woods, building campfires, long morning breakfast (fire included), and lazy evenings.
There is something so special about turning your cell phone off, forgetting about time or meetings or deadlines, and drifting into the pleasant cloud of the moment. Sitting around the campfire at night we sometimes just watched the fire crackle and hiss and lick at the logs in long, blue flashes.
Beyond the joy of camaraderie, we also experienced a spectacular display of fall colors, rushing rivers, and waterfalls. Ohiopyle State Park is one of my favorite places in Pennsylvania. I have been there several times, and I never get tired of seeing the Youghiogheny [yaw-ki-gay-nee] River rush in sweeping twists around corners and over boulders slowly carving a tree-lined gorge.
Along the banks of the river, and above our heads on the trail, the leaves rustled in bright shades of fall. My favorite are the yellow leaves. Crisp and striking against the blue sky, like blots of paint flung haphazardly on a blank canvas.
A wonderful fall weekend!
The Road Trip Continues… Alaska to Pennsylvania
I had planned to do one blog for Glacier National Park, but this morning as I sat down to write I realized there is just too much for one post. We spent four days in this fabulous park, and I wish we had more time. In order to maximize our time, we hit a different section of the park each day, sleeping in a new campground each night.
Our first night we stayed at Many Glaciers campground, in the northern part of the park, and woke up early (hoping to beat some of the heat) to hike Iceberg Lake Trail. This gradual ten mile hike is beautiful. It moves up along a ridge and in and out of the woods as it curls higher towards the lake.
Along the way, little creeks rushed across the trail turning the stone crimson red and wildflowers speckled the hill like multicolored freckles. On the open ridge line you could see out into the valley and above to the rugged mountains. The mountains here are so different than in Canada. They are darker and older looking, at the peaks they look broken and fragile, like the unfinished edge of a jigsaw puzzle.
Near the end of the trail we crossed into several snow fields, slick and icy under the afternoon sun. The snow packed trail ended at a half-moon of mountains surrounding the frozen Iceberg Lake, where we stopped for lunch. I loved the water falls formed by snow melt cascading down every crack on the mountain faces and the cotton-like puffs of clouds overhead. Beautiful. One of my favorite hikes in the park.
Another highlight from the park: the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Beyond the sheer craziness of creating the road, which is cut into the side of a mountain, and is constantly fight erosion and water, the views and stops along this make it a place I don’t mind being stuck in a car rather than out on a trail. The road twists and bends, and at one point, we drove directly under a waterfall. So cool.
More on Glacier National Park soon.
The Road Trip Continues… Alaska to Pennsylvania
When we arrived in the town of Lake Louise we went straight to the campground, which is right “downtown” (including a stop sign, a little corner of stores, and two restaurants). While we were waiting in line, a ranger came up to the car and told us there were still a few spots left in the tent camping area (which is separated from the RV section). Then in a nonchalant tone she tells us there is an electric fence surrounding the tent camping area. Electric! She explains that this is to keep the bears out. Yep. And then continues to tell us, in the same tone, that today in the RV park a grizzly charged several people. Hmm.
We had been living smack in the middle of grizzly country for 10 months and never had to sleep behind an electric fence. Crazy. But honestly, it was kinda cool. Our first and only night being fenced in
After throwing up the tent, we decided to check out the famous Lake Louise. It wasn’t exactly what I expected. It is pretty, yes, but after all the beauty we had seen and would continue to see, it wasn’t our most impressive stop. It is touristy. A giant hotel fills one whole side and people poured out around the lake like ants on a good crumb.
There were even women wearing heels. Heels! And there I was in pants I had worn for at least the last four days. So maybe it just wasn’t my kind of outdoor experience.
But, the good news, just outside of Lake Louise is the Valley of Ten Peaks, which surround Moraine Lake, and holy cow this place is pretty. Lucas and I arrived in early evening just as the sun was about to dip behind the mountains and most people had already left for dinner. We sat up on “the rock pile” a literal pile of rocks facing the lake, and enjoyed the quiet beauty of the mountains.
And then…. we saw an avalanche. It was high up on the face of a mountain. It echoed like thunder, and then snow rushed down the face like a waterfall. It lasted long enough for Lucas to get out his camera, zoom in, and take a picture. So cool.
A wonderful way to end our time in Canada.
Next stop: Glacier National Park!
We are 24 days into our journey from Alaska to our new home in Carlisle, PA, and I am finally getting around to writing my first blog about the trip. I’m behind. Way behind. And it is hard to imagine how to backtrack and tell you about all the amazing things we have seen over the last 5,000 miles. But here goes nothing.
We left Alaska on June 30 and headed straight for Canada. Crossing the boarder felt a little like taking a big gulp of air and diving into the water. No turning back now. Let the road trip begin!
Driving east, we took the famous Alcan Highway. It would carry us approximately 1,700 miles from Alaska deep into Canada. It has a reputation for great wildlife sightings, rough roads, and fabulous scenery. And it certainly lived up to our expectations on every front.
The first stretch of the Alcan travels through the Yukon, which I loved. It is wide open and wild. Sometimes we would drive for hours without seeing another car. Bears appeared alongside the highway like dark shadows and the mountains poured across the landscape. It is a place where you breath deeply and feel the power of the natural world.
The road conditions were awful: frost heaves, gravel, and pot holes that could swallow a dog. But our car plugged on without incident (which we were thankful for).
We camped every night. Enjoying the quiet of this part of the country and the rush of water from rivers and rain that make sleeping outside feel like being swept up into a lullaby. Lovely.
In many ways the Yukon felt a lot like Alaska. Like home. A fabulous start to our journey (even with so many hours in the car).
Our campsite at Wonder Lake, Denali (Mt. McKinley) in the background 2012
A few weeks ago a reader asked if I would write a post about camping. She explained that she hadn’t done much camping and would be interested to know how we camped, since we have been doing so much of it in Alaska. So here is my post about spending the night outside
The great thing about camping is that there are so many ways to go about it. Everyone has there own “style.” You can adapt and change based on the location, who you are going with, and how much “luxury” you want or require. Lucas and I have certainly grown and changed as campers since we first started pitching a tent together six plus years ago. And continue to enjoy everything from “luxury” car camping to minimalist backpacking.
One thing I have come to strongly believe in is the “leave no trace” ethics of camping. Although I didn’t always know all the guidelines when I first started camping (and I’m still learning and trying to get better), I think it is so important to protect and respect the outdoor places we enjoy. I think learning how to camp in a low-impact way is SO important if we want to keep our wild places wild. Leave No Trace is a nonprofit that helps educate people on good practices for camping. Here is a link on the seven guiding principles of the organization if you want to learn more.
Okay, off my soap box and back to camping. Both Lucas and I camped before we met. I started camping as a kid with my family, and he was actively involved in Boy Scouts. As a kid I did a lot “car camping.” Which means you can pack your car as full as you want, drive into a campground, park, and drag out what you need. To car camp you can be a little less organized and add in items that I would never make room for when backpacking. This is a great way to start camping. It is low pressure and you always have an out (your car) if things get really crazy.
My parents have this fabulous camping story (before my brother and I were born) about a time it was raining. As the story goes, my mom says something like, it’s really raining hard. And my dad says something like, it isn’t that bad. And moments later as my parents are laying inside their tent, the Kleenex box floats by. That is a moment to head to the car.
Our 1st tent
For car camping you need basic equipment, tent, sleeping bag, extra, but it doesn’t have to be top of the line or high tech. I camped for years with family and friends in a huge, old, blue canvas tent that was a puzzle to set up and sagged like a wet doughnut, but it was perfect for that time in our lives (it has since been retired).
When Lucas and I first started camping together in state parks near Pittsburgh, PA we car camped exclusively. We would drive in, set up the tent, go out and hike all day, and come back to cook dinner over an open fire. We had a small two-person tent (that made it all the way to Alaska) that we bought with a sporting good store gift card we won in a raffle. A joint purchase, it was our first “home” together. Our early camping days were low budget and awesome.
Isle Royale National Park 2009
When we moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where outdoor paradise was less than a ten minute drive, we took camping up a notch and started backpacking. Our first big trip (7 days) was to Isle Royale National Park. We backpacked from one end of the island to the other, carrying everything we needed for the week on our backs. This was a whole new way to camp, and for the most part, it is my favorite way to camp. You step into nature and don’t reemerge until the trip is over, and I love that. Being submerged in wild. But it certainly isn’t the kind of camping everyone might want to do.
To backpack, you need to be prepared and organized. Since you don’t have a safety exit (like a car) it is important to be sure you have everything you will need (or could need) before you leave. Gear for backpacking is more expensive, but the good news is, once you have it, you are set for a long time (unless you want to upgrade or go lighter). Lucas and I started out with mid-range gear and have been slowly upgrading and adding as we move into our 4th year as backpackers. Like our new tent- larger and lighter than the original (which we still have).
For us, the big thing we did to transition from car camping to backpacking was research, talking to people who were already going into the backcountry, reading online forums, and then, going out and trying it. We started out with a one night trip to see what worked and what didn’t. (We took more crap than we needed.) And we began to figuring out our preferences. Some of the key differences are food (no coolers, unless you want to carry it!), water (you need to be prepared to carry or purify all water for the trip, depending on the area you will be backpacking), less (better) clothing, full first aid kit, stove (fires are often not allowed in the backcountry), emergency supplies (duck tape, whistle, extra), maps/GPS, and research (know the weather, terrain, camping conditions, and so on).
Denali State Park 2011
But as much as I love backpacking, I also love the comfort and convenience of car camping, which we still do often. And will be doing for approximately 19 days this summer on our road trip from Alaska to Ohio. More on this soon.
Until then, enjoy the long days of summer!
You know a trip is going to go well when on the first morning you are ten yards away from a moose eating breakfast while you wait for the bus. Yep. No other way to start the day. Better than coffee.
This weekend we made a trip back to Denali National Park, perhaps my very favorite place in Alaska. For this trip we pulled in late, camped a night at Riley Creek, the campground at the park entrance, and got up early to catch the camper bus. That is when we saw the moose munching on willows. It strolled around like we weren’t even there.
We jumped on the bus about 7:30AM, and rode it out to the end of the road, about six hours to our final destination: Wonder Lake. Riding the bus is a little like going on a safari set in the mountains. At every turn there is a chance to see wildlife and jaw dropping scenery. My kind of playground.
We saw: moose, grizzly bear, caribou, Dall sheep, and a fox who used the park road like a side walk. Not bad for a days drive!
Our final destination, Wonder Lake, was new territory for us. We had never been this far out on the road before, and we were looking forward to spending two nights deep in the park. Our campground sat facing Denali (Mt. McKinley). But when we arrived all the mountains were clouded over as a storm rushed in bringing high winds, rain, and hail. So we did the only logical thing, took a nap
But that night we got what we were looking for, clear blue sky and a picture-perfect view of Denali. Just 26 miles from the mountain, it filled the sky line dwarfing the foot hills around it like a giant jagged tooth. We were so close you could see the details on the face of the mountain, the places where the rock breaks away into air, the knife edge ridges leading towards the summit, and the snow clinging in a bright white veil.
If the mosquitoes hadn’t been so ferocious we would have stayed out all night soaking it in. But the mosquitoes, wow, we have never had to wear our head nets so much. Best $2 we ever spent. And don’t we look cute?
Day two we had a breeze making the mosquitoes more tolerable, thank goodness. And spent time hiking, soaking our feet in the lake, and tracking the visibility of the mountain. There is something so special about sitting up on a windy knoll looking out over a rippling lake with the tallest mountain in North America drifting in the clouds out in front of you. Totally worth the mosquitoes!
We took way, way to many pictures (over 500) during our nine day trip so today I thought I would present the next leg of our journey in pictures.
Our Juneau, Alaska photo journal:
The M/V Columbia.
Wonderful visit to the Alaskan Brewing Company!
The view from Mt. Roberts (Juneau below).
Bald eagles at Auk Bay.
One of the many harbors, plus the mountain reflection. Makes me happy.
Whale Tail: Step 1
Whale Tail: Step 2
Whale Tail: Step 3
Beach walk on our drive “out the road.”
Mendenhall Glacier. Love. Love. Love.
View of the Mendenhall from the west glacier trail.
Lake feed by the glacier, near our campground. Great views in our own backyard.
Steaming to Sitka!
We arrived in Ketchikan, AK in the late afternoon, after a “milk run” plane ride. Meaning we stopped everywhere on our way: Fairbanks to Anchorage, Anchorage to Juneau, Juneau to Sitka, and finally Sitka to Ketchikan. Needless to say, I was happy to be off the plane, ready to begin our adventure.
Ketchikan is on an island. A small dot of civilization on a wild, rugged coastline. The town itself is a mix of industrialism and tourism. These two seemingly opposing sides of the coin geographically split the town. From the airport ferry drop-off to downtown we walked through two different world. Outside the downtown, the city is framed in metal shipping containers and warehouses and commercial fishing boats, rusted and twisted by harsh weather. It felt gritty and real. The transition to downtown was striking. Fresh paint, bright signs, little shops, and looming over the harbor, giant cruise ships that swamp the town in loads of people when they dock. The strange thing is the two parts seem to merge and separate seamlessly. I liked the juxtaposition of it all.
The little downtown was cute, and tiny, but my favorite part was seeing Creek Street. Not because I wanted to shop or the salmon where running, but because my grandparent’s had been there, many years before, on their own vacation. I had seen the picture my Gram took of the shops lifted up over the water by stilt-like wooden beams, and I wanted to merge the real version with her picture. Memories laid on memories. And it lived up in the live version. A quaint, walking-only street, floating in the air over water.
We only had a short visit in Ketchikan, but to me, these were the highlights:
- Ward Lake- our pretty (but loud) campground. Nestled in a valley ward lake is surrounded by snow capped mountains and features a walking trail that circles the lake. On the trail, green draped trees towered over us, twisting towards the sky like sleeping giant. Sitting by the lake, in the shadow of the mountains was a beautiful place to eat our first dehydrated dinner of the trip!
- Deer Mountain- a local called this the “standard” hike, and I can see why. With a quick rise in elevation after just a few short miles, it offers spectacular views. I loved both the hike through the temperate rainforest (more green- I may be obsessed!) and the ocean/mountain views at the top. We didn’t get all the way up, about 500 feet short of the summit, because the snow was still very heavy, but it didn’t impact the beauty. We could see out over another distant island, and on the farthest horizon, snow covered Canadian mountains. Water drifted like dark ink between the green and white pockets of land making the world seem like the wide screen opening of a movie. Pretty, pretty.
- Rotary Beach- our first ocean stop. Here I loved the piles of sun bleached drift wood stacked in haphazard designs, the rocky crests of tide pools, and slow lapping of the stunted ocean waves. We ate lunch here, smelling the thick aroma of salt and drying seaweed, and later came back for a nap/break. It is such a different kind of Alaska leaning against the smoothed wood, sitting in sand, scanning the sky for eagles.
- Totem Bight State Historical Park- the totems in this park are as impressive as I imagined they would be. A gravel path weaves through the woods to an open area with totems looking out towards the ocean. I loved the intricate designs, paint colors and patterns, and the stories they tell through symbols. A remarkable history. Most totems are made of red cedar because it resists rot and for the height, isn’t as heavy as other kinds of wood. Standing beside one of the massive totems made me feel toy-solider-small.
- Settlers Cove- our second camp ground, snug against the rock shoreline with a waterfall pushing fresh water out into a new salty world. And it was quiet. Thankfully. So quiet. Here we also hiked, Lunch Falls Loop, with nice view of the waterfall and the river, more green on green, and the howling of ravens that sounded so much like monkeys it felt like we had slipped into the jungle. Dinner on the rocks looking out at the ocean.
Bright and early on our last day we boarded the ferry. Best way to travel ever! The solarium, a covered outdoor deck complete with overhead heaters and chase-lounge chairs, was our spot. We put our sleep pads and sleeping bags right on the chairs and watched the scenery float by while snug and warm.
Steaming to Juneau!
Last week Lucas and I went on a nine day adventure to Southeast Alaska. It is a place of extremes: overwhelming mountain and ocean views coupled with intense weather and an abundance of wildlife. In moments of sun or clear skies, it was beautiful, like seeing a cloud of sparklers at night, almost magical. But other days, it was wet and foggy, which was sometimes eerily striking in its own right, and sometimes equally frustrating. I have never been so glad to own a good rain coat.
*Map courtesy of http://montessoriborealis.wordpress.com/about/
It was a traveling trip. We flew into Ketchikan, AK, a small town of around 14,000 people, and the southern most city on our trip. We spent two nights camping and touring this area before hopping on the Marine Highway, the state ferry system that connects this roadless corner of Alaska. Our ferry, the Columbia, passed through the even smaller towns of Wrangell and Petersburg, before we reached our next destination, Juneau. The state capital, and home to around 31,000 people, Juneau is nestled in a narrow straight with mountains on all sides. Here we explored and camped for three nights before getting on a new ferry, the Fairweather, for our final boat ride to Sitka. It is a small town, around 8,000 people, on the outer edge of the southeast, surrounded by little islands that dot the ocean like gum drops. We spent three nights here, staying with a family friend. I loved the sinking immersion of being in one region for so long and seeing how the little communities that stretch out across this part of the Alaskan coast are so similar and yet so different.
One of my favorite unifying factors was the Tongass National Forest, part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world that stretches 1,000 miles along the coastline of the Pacific. All the places we visited were dripping in green for this exact reason. On several of our hikes in the southeast, moss and lichen were so invasive it covered every inch of the forest floor, wrapped up around the trunks of trees, and hung like gnarled green hair from the limps above. A snow globe of green. After months of white on white, it felt almost like falling into another world.
In addition to the forests, and the snow capped mountains towering over them, the ocean and the culture it creates seem to tie this part of Alaska together in a way roads never could. Fishing is life here, whether as a profession, for food, or for fun, boats and harbors are more plentiful than parking lots. Access to the water expands the reach and scope of life in the southeast making the small stretches of land populated with people feel much bigger than they look. And of course, I never get tired of seeing all the marine life that thrive in this isolated place.
I can’t possible write about our whole trip in one blog, so this is the introduction. Welcome to the southeast. More to come in the next few days.