Archive for the ‘hiking’ Category

Flip Flop to Costa Rica

February 4, 2017

This Central American country had been on Mike’s bucket list a long time. He showed me magazine articles about traveling there in the first month we were dating, but it remained the elusive, exotic goal for a few years.Costa Rica surfing

We were there a year ago this week. Was it amazing, was it worth the wait? I’ll let you make up your own mind.

First, we had visions of dipping our toes in the Pacific as soon as we got off the flight, but that evening we were instead schlepping chicken and canned beer from a street vendor to an unanticipated overnight in a city hotel room. That’s because we’d arrived too late to make the drive to our guest house by the sea. And because the car rental agency had abandoned us when we got stuck at an airport. Travel in Costa Rica is still pretty third-world. Our hostess had warned us that the 30+ mile trip from the airport to her guest house near Manuel Antonio National Park would take two hours or so, depending on traffic. I didn’t believe her until we were zig-zagging around food vendors who walked in traffic with bags of snacks for sale. Or maybe it was when we got on the main highway and discovered it was only one lane wide.

Narrow roads are the norm in Costa Rica, and I won’t exaggerate but I need to be clear. They’re often twisting, steep lanes where it’s risky to walk or drive because cars come at you at top speed only to skid to a stop just as the Grim Reaper has his hand on your shoulder. Once we arrived in our little village we decided we wouldn’t travel far for that reason. But this location would be just what we needed for relaxation and access to what matters: great waves on a long stretch of beach on one side of the peninsula, a calm lagoon for snorkeling on the other.

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The first thing we discovered is that the calm lagoon contained very little sea life. We had hoped to snorkel to some coral or pretty fish or SOMETHING to look at,  but there was very little. The water was also MUCH warmer than expected (yeah, I know we were close to the Equator but this is the largest ocean in the world..). Swimming was barely refreshing because of the ocean temperature. Everyone told us it was a warmer than average January, but isn’t that what we’ve been hearing everywhere?

The surf side of the peninsula was pretty spectacular. Big waves rolled in across a sandy break. We could walk for miles along the beach, right to the national park entrance. We both rented surf boards and had a great time practicing that (despite the bandage-covering-stitches-and-wrapped-with-duct-tape on my hand).. until Mike caught some waves that were a little too big and got freaked out (what’s sport without near death experiences??). But the sunsets here were to die for!

[I wasn’t joking about the lines at Manuel Antonio National Park, nor the monkeys]

Our outings included a morning in the National Park (honestly my assessment was a resounding MEH because of the crowds, the heat, and the damned monkeys). It was scenic but a chore to shuffle through with a million other people looking for sloths sleeping in the trees, and much of the park was closed to hiking without a permit and a guide, which was disappointing. When we took a sanctioned hike around a not-so-crowded peninsula to see cliffs and jungle we were accosted by a couple nasty monkeys on a bridge who wanted snacks. Also had a nice conversation with a giant iguana that got between me and my stuff on the beach — those suckers look lazy but can move really fast!

Another interesting day trip was to zip lining recommended by our hostess at the guest house. It included a bus ride with a ton of other American tourists into a very scenic area of the interior of the country (about an hour each way). We weren’t disappointed by the big trees we were frequently jumping off of! My issue (and this isn’t a minor one) is that the crew here made the quickest, most cursory equipment checks I’ve ever seen. I haven’t done a lot of rappelling or rock climbing or zip lining, but I know that  the way they were slapping on the carabiners that were going to hold a person 125 feet above a river isn’t enough of a safety precaution. I was nervous much of the time on this side trip but tried to put a good face on it. Also, I couldn’t help but analyze the return on our investment: we saw a beautiful area, we can say we did zip lining, but the reality of it was a lot of driving and standing around and perusing the base camp’s butterfly exhibit with a total of about 45 minutes of actual zip lining thrown in.

One of the aspects of the trip that we revisit is that we met some great people. Our guest house had a common room with kitchen that allowed us to relax and interact with couples from Europe, Canada, and the US. We had sundowners at a bar one night and met a naturalist who works at a local hotel and was very fun and interesting to talk to. There were people on the beaches who enjoyed sharing their suggestions and travel tips. All in all, the people were friendly, unlike the monkeys who were cute for about a day then got pretty annoying.

[Monkeys were cute for the first day or so.. and grocery shopping in foreign countries is so amusing to me!]

This blog item might sound cynical — Costa Rica is beautiful, but go with your eyes open. Don’t expect American-level facilities or infrastructure. Don’t try to pack in too much.

We had fun but we’re not in a big hurry to go back unless I decide to do the cross-country MTB race… which would probably result in the Grim Reaper REALLY getting his hands on me. (Check out this story!)

 

An exotic domestic trip you’ll remember

January 30, 2017

Winter getaways are so sinfully fabulous: you go back to the office after a week or so with a mild tan, refreshed attitude and a secret smile about “something I just thought about.” Yes, that means the absolute best part is that your coworkers wish they’d done the same rather than blowing their vacation time on an extended Labor Day weekend stuck in traffic.

Here’s one to do, and it’s incredibly simple: Puerto Rico.

Want to be out in the sun, to enjoy a tropical vacation without going broke, and not have to endure the snobbery of resorts? PR has it all, plus surfing and mountain biking and easy-to-navigate services. And, there are ways to avoid the crime that the little island was once known for.

[It took us about an hour to end up bushwhacking to a beautiful rocky overlook on Day 1.]

Jet Blue flights are pretty inexpensive to the island (you don’t need a passport!). We took a late-night flight to save a few bucks (Orlando-Ponce). The island is small enough to travel the perimeter by car in a day (but why would you?), so distances are easy to cover as long as you avoid San Juan-area traffic. Don’t expect high rise beachside resorts here (maybe in San Juan if that’s what you like) — better yet, skip them entirely! We found a lovely AirBnB accommodation that allowed us to enjoy home cooked meals on the wide veranda with other guests and offered local info from the owner.

Our route was Ponce-Guanica-Aguadilla, running from the south-central coast to the northwest coast on Route 2. If I were to go back (yes I would), I’d love to spend more time around Aguadilla, a small city with a decent airport and great beaches/surfing nearby, including the surfing hotspot Rincon.

In the south, the coast has small waves and from what we could determine, not much to look at when snorkeling. There are many mangrove islands offshore that make an interesting destination if you rent a kayak (just don’t rent a tandem, a.k.a. “Breakup boat” with your partner unless you’re prepared for all of the possible ugly ramifications). Guanica’s coastline in particular is bounded on the east and west by nature preserves, so the water was clear enough to see the sea urchins lurking on the bottom, waiting to stab bare feet!

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It only took a couple hours to drive from the Guanica area to Aguadilla on a Saturday afternoon. The main highway is 2 lanes in each direction but goes directly through several towns including mid-sized Mayaguez and Rincon. There are lots of opportunities along the way to stop and check out beaches or surfing but we were rewarded for waiting until we reached Aguadilla and Borinquen.

Weekdays were the best time to access beautiful stretches of beach, long rolling waves and some colorful snorkeling around Aguadilla’s Crash Boat Beach and Surfer’s Beach.

[Crash Boat Beach above]

[Surfer’s Beach above]

We also visited the north shore’s premiere surfing beach, Jobos, on a stormy day when the waves were crashing over offshore islands of lava rock in spectacular fashion. The beachside bars were empty and Mike’s memories of the place included being swept out past the surfers by a killer current. He learned later that more people die at Jobos than any other beach on the island due to the current. He made a joke about it at the Coast Guard gathering he spoke to but few people laughed (ahem).

Please note: Undertow and currents at these beaches aren’t funny! If you go, scout first and use caution. Crash Boat Beach had a great gradual break but the undertow would leave you at least a quarter mile south if you had a good run on a wave. Many beaches have  waves that can land you on rocks.

If you’ve read this far, I’ve got a reward: the best hike you can do in the NW of PR. Go to Surfer’s Beach and take the little bridge on the northern end to a trail. Here you’ll begin a spectacular jungle and cliffside journey to the remote, secluded Coast Guard beach, which is the sort of strand of sand and palm trees that your Caribbean dreams are made of.

The day we went, the surf was pounding the rocks. While it made for a spectacular walk, it cut off access to the beach at the end and was a little worrisome as we’d gone out with just enough time to get back during daylight (nothing new for us!).

The route was just challenging enough to make it worthwhile, the scenery was gorgeous, and there were some huge, spectacular lava rocks where the surf spume roiled and hissed. Plus, we saw a huge iguana on the trail on the way back. It was hard to keep moving as I wanted to take so many photos. If you go, you MUST try this hike.

Fall hikes: Look out above!

October 2, 2016

Without April’s muck, May’s black flies, July’s thunderstorms, and August’s crowds, hiking in the fall can be sublime. Consider dry conditions, warm sun, and quiet trails for opportunities to see animals foraging for berries and nuts. Think of the golden late-afternoon sun warming yellow and orange foliage.

Then consider that the seasons change faster up north than at home. The ranger wasn’t joking when she admonished my daughter Grace and I that the summit we sought last weekend was 20 degrees cooler than the trailhead where we began, and the wind chill up there (at 10-15 mph) made it colder than that. We laughed at the warning sign posted at the trail head. C’mon, the sun was shining, we had food and water — what could possibly go wrong??

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We’d chosen the trail to Madison Spring Hut because the 4,800-foot ascent was spread over a 3.8 mile trail, making it a relatively gentle hike. Compared to Mount Monadnock’s 3,600-foot scramble/climb in just a mile (white dot trail) it was a breeze. And then it got breezy.

As we climbed under the protection of a canopy of trees, we stripped off layers. I wondered several times if I hadn’t over-packed, as my backpack seemed to bulge with food, survival essentials like headlamps and gatorade tablets, extra clothing, and even waterproof matches. Surely I wouldn’t need most of it. My biggest concern was avoiding blisters caused by the new boots I’m still breaking in. The one thing we were slightly troubled about was our water supply, as we each carried a large bottle of water (and I had another bottle of Gatorade in my pack). We were counting on refilling at the hut, but the ranger at the trail head told us the hut was closing for the season that day and “might” be able to provide some. Neither of us liked that situation and it might have made us hike a little faster to get there before they closed the doors for the last time. (We had water treatment drops too but I’m not crazy about that option — we’d used it in Peru and didn’t die…)

Many of the people we met coming down were dressed for much colder weather. My brain took notice but didn’t completely register the reason: of course it was colder at the top, much colder. Given my experience at the Kinsmans a couple years ago, it should have hit me like a brick. But there was no snow on the ground to make it completely undeniable and duh, I was enthusiastic and enjoying myself so it never sank in.

When we broke out of the treeline, I looked up and saw thin clouds sweeping quickly across the summit. We were briefly showered in a light sleet when the wind blew. Windbreakers were in place before we approached the hut, but I could already feel myself cooling off rapidly. The northern side of every spruce tree was white with frost.

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As we approached the hut, a sign to the left showed the trail to the summit of Madison (5,300′) to the left. I figured we’d go inside, get our water and have a snack then continue over the peak and down another trail … but it wasn’t to be.

Inside the hut, everything was boxed up and being inventoried. The kitchen was being cleaned by the AMC staff. And I quickly realized that the staff were not wearing hats and Patagonia down jackets because they’re young and hip but because the hut was just as cold as the outside temperature minus the wind. It was unheated. Still, we were there for water and a snack, which we immediately refilled and consumed. Then things unraveled.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize signs of hypothermia. I could barely eat and had trouble holding my water bottle to my lips for a drink. Grace immediately got me a hot cup of tea from the staff but it wasn’t quite enough. I stripped my wet layers off and put on dry clothes, then a down jacket and hat (look at that, those “extra” supplies in my pack were actually necessary!). I was still shivering uncontrollably. Grace put on tights under her pants, then extra layers. We were both shaking. I was amazed at how quickly the symptoms started and that they wouldn’t go away (multiple cups of tea later).

“Well, let’s hit the summit and head out,” I said to Grace. She shook her head. “No, we need to go back down. This is close enough to the summit today.”

I felt like a kid who had been denied a treat. I wanted to say we’d summited a 5,300′ mountain. It was only a few hundred feet away — we could SEE people climbing it. She pointed out that we could see people climbing it because the approach was completely exposed — to the wind, sleet, and whatever else. I knew she was right. Dammit.

grace-at-madison-hut

We took some pictures and hiked out. Thank God the trail we’d chosen was gradual as I was a little shaky at the beginning. Then we had a little Nutella and pretzels to celebrate, and made it back to the car in no time. And without injury.

Hike carefully out there. And don’t think that you have to go to the big mountains to enjoy beautiful scenery — there are at least 52 mountains in New Hampshire with gorgeous views that are more accessible than those over 4,000 feet. See this list for ideas.

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I miss winter

April 8, 2016

It’s not a popular statement to make, I know. Nor will friends sympathize when it’s revealed that I was swimming in warm ocean waters off Florida for a couple weeks in March. But I miss winter, I really do.

April sucks, there just isn’t another way to put it. We had snow last weekend and a monsoon yesterday. The temperatures are soaring into the 40s for the weekend, a good 10-15 degrees below normal for this time of year. Spring keeps making promises and breaking them.

(above, exploring Ames Nowell State Park in Abington for the AMC hiking book)

If I had a choice between two adversaries, I prefer the one that’s more direct and perhaps predictable. That’s why winter is better than spring: you know it’s going to be damned cold, so you’re mentally prepared to have your face stung and your nose hairs frozen when you step outside. There’s little guessing at what to wear, there’s no hunting around for gloves that are only needed for a few minutes one morning a week because in winter you need them every time you go outside. Which is why I own dozens of pairs of gloves.

More reasons:

  • frozen ground that supports my bike vs. tire-sucking mud
  • trails that are unbroken vs. the unpredictability of flooded streams that are much more difficult and time consuming to cross
  • layers: putting them on and taking them off — and carrying those that are shed. ugh.
  • black flies: they’re coming. and there’s nothing you can do about it.
  • visibility: do we really need leaves when we’d rather enjoy the full, 20-watt-bulb strength of the sun this time of year?
  • animal tracking*
  • the trail race I signed up for is happening way too soon, and it’s going to be a muddy, layer-carrying, cold, why-did-I-do-this experience

*April is so .. equivocal. It’s a little of this and a little of that. In April I won’t be skiing in the woods, finding coyote tracks that, hmmm, are just fresh enough to make me look over my shoulder and make my skin prickle with anticipation and fear.

(above, views from the Mt. Major winter hike)

Also, this winter I had a great hike in 32 degree weather: Mt. Major, south of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. The conditions were just right to make me want to keep moving yet enjoy the distant views of the lake and dream about going back in summer when the blueberry bushes that cover the summit will be bursting with fruit. I wanted to go back and do more of the 52 with a view (see map view here) during the winter — but I ran out of time. It was a much better experience than my attempt to bag the Kinsmans in the snow, which turned out to be a lesson in humility.

(When I saw these photos of my bike leaning against trees I thought twice about posting them.. but I was so juiced about riding in the snow that I actually did a lot more riding than just posing it for photos. A bonus about winter riding: I can tell when I’m going in circles because of the tracks!)

There was sadness seeing my skis in the corner of the living room when I got home from Florida. It felt like they were accusing me of abandoning them, of cheating winter. Now I’m having second thoughts.

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I can’t wait for June, when I’ll be able to complain about the heat.

 

 

Making Reality a Dream

April 1, 2016

A few years ago I was hungry for new adventure, ravenous for the thrill of adrenaline-pumping experiences. I sought out new trails and eagerly logged them here on my blog.

Then life and a significant relationship got in the way, bending my ambition to better suit us rather than just me. Instead of biking, running and skiing dozens of new trails a year I was getting more adept at the few that were convenient to his house or mine… I began to feel the sluggishness of complacency weighing me down. I pined for the wonderful chill of getting lost at dusk, of knowing (from fresh evidence) that coyotes were probably watching me ski in circles in the woods, trying to find my way out. I missed the bruises and the excitement of crashes that only fellow mountain bikers enjoy.

Then last fall a project came up: would I update a hiking book that he’d authored many years ago? He was too busy schmoozing Hollywood stars who made a movie of one of his books. Fine, I thought, this is my opportunity to blow out the cobwebs and explore tons of trails, just what I needed!

I immediately booked several hikes with local groups, hoping to get most of them done before snow made it impossible without snowshoes.

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The first one I did was the Skyline trail (above) in the Blue Hills back in November, and I was shocked to find the trails very crowded on a mediocre day. Crowds, what? I didn’t sign up for that!

But the reality of updating a hiking book isn’t quite so dreamy as spending all my time out on trails. He said it’s a waste of time to revisit each of the 30 trails described in my half of the book. Just confirm the details of the descriptions and maps with the rangers on-site .. and spend more time being productive on other projects. That was a great reality check from the efficiency expert but a big letdown at the same time.

Still, the book needed a handful of new trail guides created, so I geared up to visit each and earnestly record my impressions of the wildlife, the history, and the enjoyment of the destinations accurately and completely. The book was still an excuse to get out and hike, bike and ski new places again, just not as radically as I imagined.

One was Massasoit State Park, a woodsy area including several ponds between an airport and a golf course that the state apparently stopped funding as a park more than a decade ago when a storm blew out power to the old campground. I’m assured the park is being funded again, thanks to a handful of local residents who made enough noise to be heard in Boston, but for now you’re flying without instruments because the trail markers are nonexistent and there are trails in places where none exist on maps. Still, the glacial hills and absence of root-strewn trails made it great mountain biking, especially the zippy waters-edge trails around the small ponds.

Another of my “new finds” for the book is an interesting 1,600-acre parcel in Hanson controlled by the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, called Burrage Pond. It consists of white cedar swamp, open reservoirs, defunct cranberry bogs, active bogs and woods. Because it’s so flat and wide open it has a distinctly different feeling than Massasoit, and bird watching there must be great in season. I loved skiing the overgrown causeways between the old bogs, it was like going through a tunnel.

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This definitely wasn’t my dream book, but it’s a start. Maybe my next will be about crossing Patagonia or the Continental Divide. For now this one may suffice to help fund those future trips. And it got me out to some new places during the dull winter months. Now I just have to keep the momentum going.

 

 

Peru — trip #1

October 19, 2014

Stop saying “that was a trip of a lifetime” because that makes it sound like my last big international adventure — and I swear it won’t be.

It was my first trip to South America, but 10 days just scratched the surface of so many destinations and opportunities there, not to mention the fabulous welcoming people, inexpensive travel and gorgeous landscapes. I used to love visiting Europe and wouldn’t sneeze at doing it again but seriously? Screw $50 lunches and people who’d rather spit at you than help you, I’m looking south from now on.

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I signed up with Bioandean Expeditions about 10 weeks before going, and started running harder to train. Despite a couple bike crashes and stuff I felt like my aerobic capacity and leg strength had improved enough to tackle the trip — part of the issue would be altitude, the other the significant 4 day hike we planned to do. And I couldn’t be upstaged by my 20 year old daughter and translator, Grace, who was flying from Rio, Brazil to meet me.

Let’s get the useful information out of the way first: altitude sickness feels like a hangover. We attempted to acclimate in Cusco, Peru for a couple days before the trip, walking up and down the city’s stair-lined streets and sampling local delicacies like grilled alpaca.We tried to stay away from Cusquena, the local beer (the “black” version is really good) but they had great 2-for-S/12 deals on 620 ml bottles in our hostel bar (it’s the approx equivalent of $4 for 4 beers)… so by day three I had the altitude headache AND THEN we got picked up by a van at 4am to start the trek and the twisting turning roads took a toll on my stomach as well..

So my antidote to altitude sickness was puking on the side of the road with 10 groggy strangers watching from the van. After that, I never had another altitude sickness headache or any symptoms. I’m just wondering how to market that cure — relabeling bottles of Ipecac?

The challenge: 4 days of trekking

Cusco is at 11,000 feet; our trek with Bioandean would take us to the Salkantay pass at 15,000 ft in two days, then down into a jungle and back up Machu Picchu (7,900 ft) and Huaynapicchu (8,900 ft). The days were divided roughly into 7 hours, 9 hours, 5 hours and 3 hours of hiking respectively. Our guide said the first three days amounted to about 35 miles of walking. (He had no estimate of the number of photos I’d take… 368??)

the pack horses knew what they were getting into but did we?

day one: the pack horses knew what they were getting into but did we?

The first day included a lot of steep uphill climbs into the foothills.. and our guide had said this was “easy peasey”?? Not really, but it provided some insight into the psychology of getting people to do what their bodies might balk at. He warned us repeatedly that the second day would be really tough, three hours straight up, then two hours to the lunch spot and 4-5 hours downhill. Gulp.

 

me and my trekking partner, 20-year-old Grace who is living in Rio

me and my trekking partner, 20-year-old Grace who is living in Rio

So at the end of our first 7 hour day, the group (a Dutch couple, a Brit, a Swiss woman, a Brazilian couple and four Americans including Grace and me) had chatted and bonded and despite the aches and pains, relaxed over dinner (I must say the Expedition company provided excellent food for us along the way, carried by pack horses). A few expressed concerns about the 3-hour uphill forecast for the next day.

a tiny outpost along the way -- the Andean 7-11 selling drinks and candy bars (no slurpees)

a tiny outpost along the way — the Andean 7-11 selling drinks and candy bars (no slurpees)

The morning of Day 2 included a great breakfast of pancakes decorated with flower designs (in syrup) and accompanied by hot fruit cocktail. We had hot cocoa and nescafe coffee and wedges from a big round loaf of bread smothered in butter and marmalade. Carb heaven for hiking! They passed out snacks of apples and packages of cookies for us to carry to our first break spot, a lagoon high in the mountains, about 2 hours into the hike. The weather was cloudy, literally. We were up in the clouds. Clouds are misty and cool, but they made for dramatic scenery as dark jagged peaks were briefly revealed when the clouds were wispy.

Reaching the summit

Now I have to get a little philosophical. There’s hiking, and then there’s hiking. This trip was definitely both. When you’re setting out, you’re just hiking, putting one foot in front of the other, burning fuel, enjoying the scenery. But when you’re feeling new muscles  with every step, when you’re walking alone through the mist for an hour or so with nothing in particular on your mind, when you realize that the rocks around you have been there for millennia, the activity becomes a meditation. You don’t think about emails and relationships and the bills you have to pay. You focus on the three feet of muddy, rocky earth in front of you and the peace and calm all around. Of course the cocoa leaves our guide taught us to chew might have nudged this illumination along.

the snow-capped mountains were just the icing on this meditative trek

the snow-capped mountains were just the icing on this meditative trek

Around this point, we reached the summit we’d sought. It was more than a physical achievement and I’m not ashamed to say between getting there and the amazing Incan ceremony our guide led us through (prayers to the Pacha mama and the protector mountains) brought a tear to my eye, not to mention that it was accomplished alongside one of my daughters. If you don’t have a transformative experience on such a trek, I have to ask if you are capable to having one at all in your life — if you’d know a transformative experience if one ran you down?

Getting beyond the aches and pains was one aspect of the transformative achievement. Believe me, after a couple days of long hikes on this sort of grade (both up and down) one becomes intimately acquainted with body’s many muscles and ligaments. In a moment of humor, our guide Tony said, “If you are sweating it’s your fat crying.” I’ll keep that simple sentiment in mind.

The jungle

Day three, we had descended back into a reasonable climate with clear skies and had a good night in a family’s campground/back yard. Like most of these remote outposts they sold bottled water, beer … and for the first time, hot showers for about $3.50. After my shower I bought two beers off a little girl of about six who was sent into the family bodega because her mother couldn’t be bothered.

Here is where we discovered a serious disconnect with the world: our group of hikers had collectively spent thousands on wicking clothing, high-tech boots, telescoping poles and breathable rain gear to do this trip once while some of our guides made the trip over the mountain many times a month in jeans and sneakers. No joke.

the high tech gear that a couple of our guides wore (and they do the mountain several times a month)

the high tech gear that a couple of our guides wore (and they do the mountain several times a month)

Instead of the Lord of The Rings scenery we had on the back side of the mountain, we were now in lush jungle with waterfalls cascading across the path and beautiful flowers everywhere. Swarms of orange and black butterflies flew overhead. And then came the bugs. Grace had warned me about the mosquitoes and she wasn’t kidding — the little monsters could do a number of any amount of exposed skin. They weren’t in our faces, but for those who dared change to shorts they quickly chewed on legs and ankles, leaving itchy, nasty welts.

our final campground where hot showers were $3.50

our final campground where hot showers were $3.50

The jungle is where our guide, Tony’s, skills shone: he had answered many, many questions about history and culture (and Quechua language from Grace) along the way, but he clearly enjoyed discussing the plants and animals of the jungle. He cut us each a portion of mare’s tail (looks like bamboo) so  we each had a “flute” to play while another group trekked through (obviously not having as much fun as we were). He warned us against drying and smoking leaves of a particular plant with medicinal properties because other tourists had done it and “were stoned for a week” — thanks, I hadn’t thought of that!

plant used in ancient brain surgery, Tony said -- don't smoke the leaves!

plant used in ancient brain surgery, Tony said — don’t smoke the leaves!

We split from the rest of the group (who were on a 5-day cycle) and took the train to Aguas Caliente, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. It was a smart move as the alternative was a three-hour hike along the train tracks. The mountains here changed from steep and conical to steep and pointy with sheer rock walls plunging to the Urubamba River.

 

the jungle trek was long but much easier than the mountains

the jungle trek was long but much easier than the mountains

 

we experienced a series of climate changes on the trip, ending in the steeply conical mountains near Machu Picchu

we experienced a series of climate changes on the trip, ending in the steeply conical mountains near Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Everyone back home was focused on Machu Picchu — “you’re going to Machu Picchu!” — but it was just the terminus of the trip, not really the high point. We did the tourist thing and got up at 4am to Grace’s alarm playing the theme song to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” How appropriate. It’s about a 20 minute walk in the dark to the gatehouse that opened at 5am to let hikers cross the bridge to the steps up the mountain. Tony had warned us that his last count totaled 1,600+ stairs and it was definitely on our minds as we started out with hundreds of others in the pre-dawn hours. It wasn’t much fun to join this herd and move up the steps as one giant caterpillar with thousands of legs after our wonderful, isolated trek in the mountains.

getting to Machu Picchu means climbing at least 1,600 stairs

getting to Machu Picchu means climbing at least 1,600 stairs

Machu Picchu was not the serene hike we were used to, it attracts thousands of tourists a day

Machu Picchu was not the serene hike we were used to, it attracts thousands of tourists a day

Then the buses started, disgorging dozens of tourists at the site so by the time we reached the top at 6am there was already a long line to get in. No surprise it’s on the UNESCO list of endangered sites.

Of course the historical and archaeological aspects of the site were staggering, but so was the number of tourists. Tony gave us a great personal tour, including the temple of the condor, the Intihuatana stone that acts like a compass, and the history of Yale professor Hiram Bingham’s location and excavation of the jungle to reveal the walls and terraces we now see.

I don't mean to downplay the beauty and impressiveness of Machu Picchu but it wasn't really the high point of our trip

I don’t mean to downplay the beauty and impressiveness of Machu Picchu but it wasn’t really the high point of our trip

Our last uphill hike was to Huaynapicchu, the gorgeous spiked peak that overlooks Machu Picchu. It took some fortitude (and snacks) to prepare. Our legs were quite sore from the days of hiking and the morning of ascending steps, but realizing that only 400 people a day are allowed to climb to this secondary peak, we knew we had to do it.

There are few ways to describe the steps to the top of Huaynapicchu. Scary is one word. Rustic is another. They clearly don’t have the same liability concerns that American tourists sites have. We could have fallen off the side of the mountain at any time and tumbled the 1,900 or so feet to the Urubamba river — and nobody would even know. When we reached the top there were even more scary, tiny steps — ladder-like — alongside the stone structures at the top. And a cave we climbed through on the quest for the summit.

Finally we found a place to relax at the summit, right where the “path” to the exit was literally a crease in a sheer rock face. The view of Machu Picchu was great, about 1,900 feet below us, but the prospect of unclimbing all those stairs (first Huaynapicchu to Machu Picchu then down to the town) was painful to consider. We conjured a vision of pizza and beer and got going. Fortunately there was a woman along the way selling big slices of bundt cake (no joke) which was a good way to fortify.

descending from Huaynapicchu -- you wouldn't want to stumble or you'd end up in the river about 2000 feet below

descending from Huaynapicchu — you wouldn’t want to stumble or you’d end up in the river about 2000 feet below

My opinion: GO. See the places, enjoy the people. Get away from the good old USA for a while and unplug from the up-to-the-minute news. Gain some perspective on life from ancient cultures. But let the journey be your destination.

Happy Flu Year to you

January 1, 2014

A couple days inside with a flu is enough to make anyone feel crappy. Particularly during the post-holiday period. Add to it that today’s New Year’s Eve and we’ve got the formula for a sorry ass situation in the making.

life feels this way sometimes

sometimes I’m just not feeling it

But I decided to turn that frown upside-down! Yessirreee.

First, I let my phone battery die in order to avoid all those happy party shots and new year’s greetings (or worse yet — if none are texted to me!). Then I dug out my calendar and decided to tally up my notes for the year. Turns out I enjoyed runs, skating, skiing, snorkeling, hikes, mountain biking, SUP, swimming, kayaking, fishing, yoga, spinning classes and weight lifting an average of 18 times a month. And I didn’t even count a couple of trips when we were just enjoying ourselves on auto pilot.

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I’m glad I kept this calendar of ups and downs through 2013 because I might have just assumed —  influenced by the chill and ache fluctuations over the past couple days — that the year averaged on the sucky side. Upon closer inspection, I see notes about beach days and remember SUP’ing for hours around Narragansett RI. Things like “90 min bike S.Woodbury/run around pond/swim” go a long way to ease the discomfort of sitting on the couch wrapped in a blanket. And then there’s the mid-July day that’s marked “All Day Adventure on the Ammonoosuc” and it’s impossible to discount the year as a complete suckfest.

No day is truly that bad when I’ve spent an hour or two out in it. Tomorrow I’m starting the year with one resolution: to improve my average.

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
John Muir

Lessons in peak bagging

November 23, 2013

When the magazine assignment came in to profile a business in Littleton NH I jumped on it: of course I would do it, even with a 3 hour drive each way. And of course I would plan the trip around the opportunity to climb a mountain alone in winter conditions.

By the time the day was over I’d learned a lot about planning, gear requirements and time.

Shame on me for being surprised when I showed up at The Basin: snow in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in November? Well, duh! But I had the whole day to myself and was committed to a significant hike, so I did. I’d left the house at 4am and was on the trail by 7:30, ice and snow crunching under my feet as I made my way toward Lonesome Lake Trail.

My original plan was for a “light and fast” 8-10 mile loop over Kinsman Ridge, hitting at least North Kinsman, possibly South Kinsman peaks. I gave myself 5 hours. It wasn’t to be, but I’m glad I made some rational decisions along the way or I might still be out there somewhere. It’s so unlike me to reduce my expectations in light of the conditions.

on paper, it all looked so simple and doable, in the snow it was different

on paper, it all looked so simple and doable, in the snow it was different

First, I was surprised at the slippery trail conditions. Lonesome Lake is a popular, accessible spot (beautiful too) with an AMC hut open in winter making families with kids comfortable taking a winter hike. That traffic means lots of feet compacting the snow, making for slick lower trails. Later I was surprised (unpleasantly) that there weren’t many beautiful views from this ridge trail as most of it is in the trees. Once I turned around (I was going north-to-south) and saw Mt. Washington in the distance, gorgeous, but it was a fleeting sight, nothing like the spectacular views from Franconia Ridge across the way.

the biggest challenge on the lower trail was ice from compaction

the biggest challenge on the lower trail was ice from compaction

Once I hit the intersection to climb higher, to Kinsman ridge, the snow was deeper. There was only one, maybe two sets of footprints in the snow on the ridge, perhaps from the day before. So I realized it was unlikely I’d see another person on this 3-4 mile leg of the hike. It would not be a good place to fall, twist an ankle or otherwise screw up. That realization slowed me down a little, as did the rocks that were icy under the snow and stuff like these ladders on the trail (it was that steep in some places).

steep enough to require ladders, slippery and with only one other set of footprints in the snow, Kinsman Ridge trail

steep enough to require ladders, slippery and with only one other set of footprints in the snow, Kinsman Ridge trail

I went as fast as I could without sacrificing all of my traction and judgement about where my feet were going. Did I say it was slippery? Some of the tight vertical scrambles were real challenges that required rock climbing skills like finding crevices I could get my fingers into and close attention to balancing my body weight, keeping my center of gravity low. I had extra pants, gloves etc in my pack but was still concerned about getting wet and cold, so I tried to keep from doing any butt-plants in the snow. I wasn’t completely successful. I was definitely doing harder stuff — sliding splits with spins and grab-a-tree descents — than that stunt that got Jean Claude van Damm so much attention, yet nobody was there to witness my feats of flexibility and grace.

a couple good decisions kept me from disaster on my winter hike

a couple good decisions kept me from disaster on my winter hike

The first good decision I made was to skip the turn toward Cannon Mountain, which would have extended the ridge hike. I snapped the above photo at 9:30am, confident that I’d cover the next two miles quickly and move on to the north peak. But it took two hours to reach the junction of Kinsman Ridge and Fishing Jimmy trails. At that point I’d already been in the woods four hours, which was way beyond my time budget. I had to cut my losses and take Fishing Jimmy back toward Lonesome Lake and out of the mountains. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so rational if there weren’t an assignment waiting (and I needed time to change and clean up before meeting my interview subjects too!). Thank God for small favors.

Lonesome Lake

Lonesome Lake

Instead of a peak-bagging expedition, I had to accept the hike as a lesson in planning. First, waterproof shoes were smart, but gaiters and microspikes would have been smarter (they’re on order as I type this). Poles would have been a plus in many areas (but I hate dealing with them in steep spots where you either have to stop and stow them or figure out how to hold them in one hand when necessary). Overestimating the ground I could cover was probably my biggest lesson, and I’d learned it before but I guess it hadn’t sunk in thoroughly. Despite being able to run 8 miles in an hour on pavement, vertical trails are very different and I averaged about one mile per hour. That was confirmed by this hiking time calculator, so I consoled myself afterward that I’d actually done very well in the conditions and with the gear I had (no spikes, no poles).

Broken branches and a bald spot on the rock mark the spot of a spectacular sliding wipeout, not sure I could have avoided it completely but next time I'll prepare better

Broken branches and a bald spot on the rock mark the spot of a spectacular sliding wipeout, not sure I could have avoided it completely but next time I’ll prepare better

On the way home I kept thinking “next time, I’ll …” — the best part is that there WILL be a next time to hit those elusive peaks.

The things we carried

August 24, 2013

It’s great to spend a summer with a person on the same wavelength:

“That’s a fishy looking stretch of river. Pull over and let’s take a few casts!”

“Oh, we’re going within 25 miles of that stand of pristine hemlocks I heard about, let’s detour over this mountain.”

“We’ve been driving for hours and it’s hot. There must be a swimming hole around here somewhere.”

On the other hand, being prepared for these and other mini-adventures means we’ve got to have some gear. Therein lies the rub. We don’t exactly travel “light and fast.”

not exactly light and fast

not exactly light and fast

How much gear is too much? Sometime several weeks ago we loaded the truck with a box of food, duffel bags and fishing gear, then strapped kayaks to the roof and bikes to the back. Things got a little ridiculous when we had to dive over the back seats to reach anything because we couldn’t open the rear hatch with the bikes on there.

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Almost immediately we reconsidered: how long to keep kayaks on the roof when they suck the gas mileage down to nil? How often will we actually use the bikes? After a week, we thought we could have gotten away with just bathing suits and fishing rods.

But bringing all that stuff along was good in many ways. We rode bikes when the weather turned too chilly for swimming. We took advantage of higher-than-usual rivers with the kayaks, logging more miles than anticipated. And we held one another to the pledge that we’d take any challenge, jump in any river, explore any back road. No excuses, no sitting on the sidelines.

without the kayaks we might not have seen some fabulously remote stretches of river

without the kayaks we might not have seen some fabulously remote stretches of river

We lived in quick-dry shorts and old, reliable water sandals (the sneakers, flip flops and -definitely- the pretty sandals were superfluous). While we had long pants for wading through fields and scratchy underbrush, they remained in the duffels as we successfully prayed that ticks would not be interested. Mike acknowledged that I’ve provided him plenty of breathable shirts but he didn’t bring any (per usual) and wandered about most often without any upper body coverage. No complaints here! My raffia sun hat got wet, squashed, dirty and lost under the stuff in the back of the truck. Then I dusted it off and put it back on. What an amazing $10 investment that has been. And, oh, the $5 CVS sunscreen is just as effective as the $15 stuff.

Of course this nomadic existence has had its downsides.

Getting a 10-foot SUP in and out of hotel rooms can be tricky. We apologize to the people in #510 who had the “Do Not Disturb” sign on their door the other morning. You can’t bend a SUP around corners unfortunately.

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One morning this week we awakened in the luxurious confines of a friend’s home in Orleans where we had use of a $1200 espresso machine (I only know because we had to Google instructions to use it — then nearly blew it up) and this electric commode that made me laugh: which button to flush vs getting your backside rinsed?

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Another morning we awakened in this houseboat on the Annisquam River in, let’s say, more rustic surroundings (yet fishing on a moment’s notice) … and a complete absence of plumbing.

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On another day we were in a library parking lot (he was getting ready for a presentation, I might have been changing my clothes from paddling) and a woman gasped when she witnessed “stuff” tumbling out of the back as I opened the hatchback. Suddenly I realized that there aren’t many people who would enjoy living like this. Homeless? Aimless? Funny, I don’t care what anyone thinks. There are a couple of weeks of summer left and I’m gonna keep it going as long as I can.

Rope Swing at swim hole

Fishing Lessons

August 2, 2013

We had three glorious weeks in Vermont and New Hampshire this summer. Day after day, we asked each other, “what do you want to do?” Sometimes we mountain biked on back roads and snowmobile  trails (VAST), sometimes we swam and picked blueberries. But mostly, we fished.

Fishing isn’t the same as catching fish. I know that and I’m just a novice. Not that it mattered. It was the exploring, the hunting for fish that captivated me.

“When I say I fish, most people think I sit in a boat,” Mike said one day as we bushwacked to yet another remote spot. It’s an understatement to say nothing deters him from getting to what he thinks will be good fishing. I didn’t keep track of all the places we went except for the dozens of photos that show “going fishing” included climbing under highway bridges and over guardrails, following railroad tracks, crossing farm fields, sliding down steep embankments, fording fast-moving water, worrying about critters and poison ivy … and — sometimes — finding fish.

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Mike has been fishing New England for many years and he studies the rivers. His atlas is dogeared and annotated with many circles and notes about getting to particular pools. In three weeks we didn’t hit all of his spots, and some that we hit didn’t give up any fish. It’s a scavenger hunt, the kind I could do day after day, outside in the woods, riverbanks and fields. Fortunately the equipment is pretty lightweight and easy to set aside when it’s time to jump in the rivers to cool off. These kids on the Mad River had the right idea.

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And then there’s the scenery. Do I really need to say that the most beautiful parts of rivers AREN’T the ones you can see from the highway? Sure, those glimpses you get from the air conditioned comfort of your car are nice, but they’re nothing like this. They were so beautiful that it was a challenge for me to stop snapping pics long enough to cast for fish.

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I used to think of fish as slimy (yet tasty), something I wasn’t really interested in until it was properly cooked or sushi’ed and on a plate. But once I started hooking into them I realized the fish you may get in the seafood market aren’t as beautiful as these, with golden scales, orange spots or blue patterns on them. (The little ones are still out there swimming, we didn’t keep them all.)

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And there’s something completely different about catching your own fish. I mean, I’d been fishing before — as a kid, with a worm and a red-and-white bobber — but learning how to find the right spots, then casting across whitewater and feeling the tug of a fish on the line and landing one were all amazing steps along the way. After a couple of weeks I knew I couldn’t really claim the “fisherwoman” title unless I went beyond the happy photos of posing with the fish I caught.

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Lisbon-20130715-01715

Yup, I finally told Mike I needed to start cleaning my own fish. He was surprised. “I’ll do that for you,” he said. But I’d leaned on his expertise enough already, taking baby steps in landing my own fish, then extracting the hook. It was time.

On the last day, I landed a beautiful rainbow trout. It wasn’t pretty or as efficient as when Mike handles them, but I took out my Leatherman and opened him up, butt to gills. I scooped out the guts and twisted the head off with my bare hands. Then I cut into the stomach and made my report: two Japanese beetles, a few golden snails. Great, Mike said, sounds like we’re using the right lures if that’s what they’re eating.


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