Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

Mountains and Sea, Part II

November 11, 2017

Nothing makes a person feel more alive than ambling along a trail and having a bear pop up from behind a log 25 feet ahead. It’s like getting an electric shock.

The first time this happened to me was just last month when we were in Sequoia National Park in California. We knew it was possible and even likely to encounter bears there, but that knowledge didn’t quite control my instinct to run when I saw the first one. Mike and I have spent lots of time in remote places in New England yet never run across bears along the rivers we fish in or the back roads we bike on (he has, I haven’t).

We apparently missed the memo that our third day in Sequoia was Bear Day. It started with bears crossing the road ahead of us on our way to the trail. Then the one popped up from behind the log — and promptly ran away, before Mike even got a good look at him. Later we saw an adult black bear with a green tag on his/her ear rooting near a busy trail intersection (poor thing is so used to paparazzi that it’s like a Kardashian of the mountains, paying the camera-toting tourists no attention). The last time it was the same green-tagged bear again, but too close for comfort, and we were the only ones around.

In the last incident the bear again ignored us and kept rooting around some logs. He was too close to the trail to pass him with a decent buffer of safety. He seemed to know we were there but didn’t care — and we didn’t want to test his patience. We waited until the bear made some progress across the trail, then began hurrying him along by clapping and making noise. He headed up a hill to one side of the trail, so we passed, keeping a wary eye on him. We weren’t far away when the bear veered back to the trail behind us. Mike was alarmed, thinking the bear decided to follow us. I just wanted to put more distance between us and the big animal. Then we ran into a guy going in the other direction, toward the bear. We warned him and everyone else we saw in the next half mile. Their reactions were similar: “oh cool, a bear!” And they all headed toward it. Yikes.

A couple days before we had been on a very remote trail through mountain lion country. It was another 7-ish mile (round trip) hike through boulder fields and twisted bristlecone pines to (of course strip down and jump into) freezing cold Weaver Lake at 8,700 ft. I whistled and clapped every few minutes to let the critters know we were coming. It  didn’t take long before I got really sick of hearing myself whistle and clap but not seeing a mountain lion is probably a good thing.

This is the second installment of my trip report. We spent a second week stalking ocean creatures in Hawaii — how peculiar that we tried so hard to avoid large mammals in the California mountains but sought them out in Hawaii. Mike even swam alongside a couple seals and emerged from the water a little freaked out by how close he had been.

Solitude was what we sought on this trip, not so much communing with others, whether mammals or reptiles. It was easy to avoid crowds and tourist traps in these places — just step away from the pavement! At Sequoia National Park we did three days of significant hiking and only saw people when we were near the big named trees (the General Grant, General Sherman, etc). Funny thing, that’s where the bears were, too! In Hawaii, completely empty beaches were easily located but the one significant hike I took (Kalalau Trail, see my previous post) was way too popular and crowded.

There’s something extraordinary about being alone (together) in remote places. It’s serene, sublime. Getting a feeling for the terrain, the scope of the wilderness, and the astounding size of the sequoia trees requires time and patience. Sharing the wonder and awe with someone who appreciates the natural world (and doesn’t whine!) is a rare thing. If we never take another significant trip like this I will always remember those days, unplugged, meandering through the woods and looking up at the big trees.

me an dmike on rock sequoia

Now here’s a shocking revelation: I think I liked the Sequoias more than Hawaii. Here’s why: the Kaweah River. This frosty, fast moving river shoots out of the tall Sierras — headed, I’m pretty sure, for people’s lawns and faucets in the LA basin. But Sequoia National Park’s lower elevations near the Three Rivers gate gets the best of it. We spent a day here, hiking in from Buckeye Flats campground to find the perfect flat rock for warming up after a plunge in a deep pool. There was no one else around: no voices, no car engines, not even an airplane overhead. The campground was closed, so we were a mile or more from the park road. How often in life are you in a place that peaceful, secluded, and fun? If you can’t think of a recent time you’ve done something like that, go NOW before it’s too late. You won’t regret it.

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Mountains and Sea, part I

November 1, 2017

It’s impossible to compare our two destinations: Sequoia National Park and Kauai, Hawaii. Which did we like better? Which was more fun?

Sorry there’s no simple answer. It’s more than a matter of sea turtles vs. black bears, crowded or uncrowded. The two places are about as different as you can get.

One thing they had in common is that it was possible to get away from people in both locations, and that’s something we like. We don’t travel to eat at restaurants or to visit museums. On these trips we’re going for the natural beauty of the destinations, to feel a part of the landscape and to be as far from deadlines and demands as we can get. When judging by this criteria we certainly succeeded.

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I’ll try not to bore you with a multitude of photos of beautiful empty beaches, but on the east side of Kauai they are plentiful. Too far north and too far south the beaches are much busier. We stayed in between the busy areas in a town called Kapa’a, (which we didn’t know how to pronounce until nearly our last day) where a wonderful 4-5 mile paved bike trail follows the old pineapple railroad route right along the beach. Our guesthouse had an arsenal of beat up beach cruisers to choose from. Since we had done a lot of hiking in the Sierras, biking fit the bill here.

Underwater in Kauai

One disappointing aspect of Kauai was the absence of coral. Mike has been to Maui where he says the coral was beautiful, but we spoke to some local folks here who pointed to Kauai’s frequent rainfall and subsequent runoff as one significant reason why there’s little coral found here. We saw some large sea creatures like seals at Poipu (south) and turtles at Anini (north) but there were few places to snorkel and see other sea life (Poipu beach near the Sheraton was one of the best places we found for tropical fish, and there’s also a beautiful hiking trail along the edge of a cliff there).

Before I prattle on about the trip and its logistical challenges let me slow down and say swimming with sea turtles is incredible. Watching colorful tropical fish feed on rocks and hide under ledges is amazing. We had some fun boogie boarding — and we got trashed by huge waves but walked away.  And I even got to chase wild pigs around in the yard of the place we stayed (trying to get a photo of them, which was very amusing). So any critical comments that follow should be kept in context.

mike and turtle 2 oct 2017

Hiking in Kauai

My assumption was that we’d hike in the Sierras and swim in Hawaii but we managed to mix both in each place. To my surprise there are many hiking trails in Kauai’s mountains. I’d hoped to do the Giant’s Chin for its views of the coast but we ran out of time. Also, stretching across the west-northwest coast of the island is a canyon with many hiking options but we only nibbled at its edges.

My big kahuna on this trip was the Kalalau Trail that departs from the northernmost accessible beach in Waineha on the north shore and hugs the sides of steep mountains along the coast. In October it’s muddy — very muddy! The day I hiked it we had rain squalls every 30 minutes or so. While not unexpected and not unpleasant, it turned the trail into a morass of slippery red muck that will quickly cake up the lugs on your shoes and turn them into skates. The conditions made the right gear so important: quick dry wicking fabrics (never cotton!) and decent shoes with deep lugs; a hat, sunglasses, and a pack with some food, water, and other supplies (more on this below).

As tempting as it was to dive in and hike it, Mike only did the first half-mile due to a foot injury, and that was smart. This trail is hyped online and every day there’s a lot of people making their way along its rugged route. The majority only go to the secluded beach at the 2 mile mark which doesn’t seem far but the conditions slowed me to 2 mph, about half my normal walking speed.

Just before the secluded beach is a river. I carefully removed my sneakers and carried them across, only to realize that there was no way to scrape the sticky muck off them. Therefore every subsequent river crossing (there were many) was a welcome opportunity to lighten the heavy load of mud on my shoes as I wore them through the water and was happy they remained comfortable and drained quickly (they’re Salomon Sense Pulse).

From the beach, the historic valley is another 8+ miles, which I would not have made it to in my allotted time, so I chose to hike in toward the mountains to a waterfall about 3-4 miles away. This trail was quieter, following the river through some heavier foliage and past thick bamboo groves. I hit my turnaround time before getting to the base of the waterfall but I didn’t mind. It was enough hiking for me, with 2,800 feet of elevation gain.

I’m planning a separate post on the interesting and alarming gear observations from the trip, but I want to return to the topics of the backpack and preparedness. I’ve done plenty of spur-of-the-moment hikes without putting a lot of thought into it, but in these 7.25 miles I ran out of water right at the end. I generally have a few packaged snacks buried at the bottom of my backpack just in case. So I was adequately prepared but so many other people weren’t. Lots were suffering through the choice of flip flops for the trail, which didn’t perform well in the mud. Most weren’t carrying water or supplies. Then I met three women on the trail carrying a baby in nothing but a diaper, headed for the secluded beach they’d heard about. That was not just ridiculous but irresponsible. I warned them in no uncertain terms that the trail was poor due to the rain and then I went a little further: “I wouldn’t take a baby in there,” I said sternly. I hated being such a spoilsport but seriously folks??

That evening the property managers at our place told us about friends who got stranded on that secluded beach when rain in the mountains made that river rise and impassable. That night 60 unprepared, cold, and hungry people spent a night on that beach, they said. Who thinks of those possibilities?

At some point in the future I’d like to go back to Kauai to hike. I would like to be prepared and have the right gear and enough time. It’s a beautiful trail and a rewarding hike, but it deserves to be done right.

napali coast kauai

Rules for Ragnar and other relays

June 1, 2017
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chugging along Lake Ontario

The smell hit me and nearly made my eyes tear up: it was something acrid, like a solvent. Great, I thought, it’s impossible to hold my breath and run at the same time. Maybe the chemical in the air will kill me before some ax murderer steps out of the bushes and grabs me. (It happens, read this.)

This sort of fatalistic thinking is not normal for me, but nothing was normal that day. I was in the midst of a 36-hour relay race with people I didn’t know, in an unfamiliar place, it was nearing midnight and I was on a dark, desolate stretch of industrial road between factories with no one else in sight.

Compounding my growing panic was the following calculation: I was probably on the wrong road, headed in the wrong direction (what race director would send runners down an isolated, unlighted industrial road on the fringes of a city?). The course was sparsely marked and it would have been easy for someone to move the relay race’s last directional arrow, sending me to my death. Even better, I realized —  if I got lost in Toronto at midnight and couldn’t find my team of near-strangers, I wasn’t carrying any identification or money or a working cell phone (mine stopped functioning at the border). Great.

Doesn’t this sound like fun?

Believe it or not, I paid for this experience. I was doing one in a series of popular “Ragnar” relay races that each covers 180 miles (or so). They’re all over, this one being along the shore of Lake Ontario in Canada, ending at Niagara Falls. Six of us decided we could take turns running 4-9 mile portions, each covering a total of about 30 miles in 36 hours. Other teams had 12 people in 2 vans, each covering approx. 15 miles.

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Obviously I survived being on this side of Toronto.

However… in the 6 years since I ran my first Ragnar (Greenwich Conn. to Boston) the emphasis has apparently shifted from running to a silly group bonding exercise on wheels. It’s a trap. My observation is that lots of people get sucked in by the party atmosphere, the option of wearing silly costumes like tutus and viking hats, decorating their vans, as well as buying all sorts of Ragnar branded crap to show that they’ve done one of these expensive weekends … and the running is secondary.

That’s not the way it works.

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Viking hats, how original.

Oftentimes the “bonding” experience flops when people are tired, cranky, and wishing they hadn’t bought into this trip. The fun part of spending two days in a van with 5 other people lasts for about the first 4 hours, and after that you need to focus on running. Sadly, lots of people are not prepared to deal with the less-fun parts of completing their portion.

Here are some suggestions to make your decision to run a long relay race go smoothly:

No smelly food in the van: it’s one thing to share the aroma of your favorite dish with those around you, it’s something else entirely when the smell is amplified by your moist breath when you fall asleep. Nix the jalapeno chips and garlic chicken in favor of bland, energy-rich food like bananas. Please.

Control your mess: before the race I saw a great article about giving each person a bin for clothes and shoes to limit the piles of cast-off gear that others had to climb over between seats. Whether that might work in practice is still unknown to me, because our van devolved from orderly to chaotic, leaving us crawling across seats layered in clothing and others unhappy about people falling asleep on our stuff..

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Van management and navigation should be required courses.

Train the driver: Part of the issue with my team was the isolation of running an hour through unfamiliar territory with the same misgivings I described above. There were several desolate stretches on this race. However if your van actually stopped midway on each leg or otherwise accompanied the runner when possible, thoughts of axe murderers might be alleviated.

Stop: Part of getting cranky and uncomfortable was the lack of facilities. Filthy port-a-potties were easy to find, but running water and actual soap was elusive. With a little planning and flexibility, everyone would be happier using a Dunkin Donuts/Tim Horton’s bathroom (and getting hot coffee) once in a while. We didn’t do this often enough.

Change: dry clothes make a huge difference in a runner’s attitude and comfort. Strip off the wet layers when you’re sitting in the van waiting for your next running leg. Bring warm layers even if you don’t think you’ll need them (our weather turned cold and rainy).

Plan for priorities: Costumes and markers and group t-shirts are not even secondary to logging training miles. Things like 18557438_1827871270863859_1406266920653950139_nappropriate food, access to your stuff, and small comforts (like coffee) become far more important once the race starts. These are the important things to plan for, as well as having a fallback if someone gets hurt and can’t run.

Van necessities: Get a vehicle with separate controls for heat and ventilation from front to back. We had a van with lots of room (for lots of crap) but temperature was controlled on the dash only, and windows only opened at the far ends (front and back). Discomfort and noxious smells resulted in further unhappiness.

 

Resist the urge to succumb to Ragnar’s increased commercialism. Do you really need to pull out your credit card at a (lousy) transition area and buy a hat, sweatshirt, or souvenir with the Ragnar logo on it? Really? Why not withhold that additional cash until the race director(s) supply decent (clean) facilities, frequent and reliable route markers, or, God forbid, a snack for runners along the way. That way, when you get to the finish line and find that they don’t give you so much as a freaking free beer and burrito you don’t feel like so much of a chump for buying their brand along the way.

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There were no “extras” for the runners — no hot coffee, power bars, and not even a free beer at the end — but they’d take your money for branded crap even at a transition area in the middle of the race.

Be honest: are you in it to push your physical limits, to test yourself, or are you in it for the silly costumes and party atmosphere? Think about it. If it’s the latter, do a 5k. Don’t screw up another person’s budget and training just so you can wear Ragnar gear and say you were part of a team.

Mom needs a kayak

May 12, 2017

Yup, you read that correctly: it’s your answer for the annual Mother’s Day conundrum — and you still have two whole days to shop (or procrastinate).

Freedom. Power. Shopping. Those are the reasons why you’ll buy Mom (or your wife or significant other — or yourself or your daughter!) a kayak this year. Let me explain (note: this is one of those kayak-endorphin inspired musings that revealed itself to me as I plied the windy waters of the St. Lucie River, which will make more sense as the explanation unfolds):

Freedom: The realization that she can’t do anything she wants and she can’t do everything the boys do is something that slowly and insidiously seeps into a young girl’s consciousness. The result is often a home-bound woman frustrated by her limited choices and afraid to step outside the boundaries that society and the media have created. Those boundaries tell her she’s too old or too weak or it’s dangerous for her to do something like kayaking.

Of course the first problem with kayaking is “I can’t lift one of those onto my car.” But this video (link below) shows plenty of ways to get around that issue, even for a small woman. Where there’s a will …

Think about this: As we age and grow, true freedom evaporates for girls. We’re in the kitchen cleaning up after parties and dinners while the guys continue drinking and watching the football game. There’s little choice in the matter. We’re constrained by expectations of appearance in dress and manner, further eliminating choices and options. By adulthood, because we’re working and nurturing others or doing free work at schools and libraries many women are too pressed for time to do anything for ourselves. We’re too concerned about smelling bad or looking disheveled to participate in anything athletic, so we turn to finding cute outfits and cooking or keeping house as our outlets.

But eventually the beast emerges, hungry for freedom and choices that aren’t satisfied by retail therapy. A woman who’s been saddled with raising children, toiling under an ungrateful boss, and frustrated by time passing will inevitably implode.

Unless she has a kayak and freedom.

A kayak is a vehicle that doesn’t need roads and signs; it carves its own path to adventure and happiness. Travel quickly or meander aimlessly, the kayak doesn’t care. She may look for fish, for birds, for signs of spring or fall colors — or nothing but peace and quiet.

A in kayak Pittsburg NH  Freedom. Serenity. Power.

Power:  Women are generally discouraged from building or using muscle. “Let me do that for you” is a frequent phrase we hear for everything from lifting groceries to moving furniture. Call the handyman when a job requires lifting. Get a man to do that. Well, I’m calling BS — start with a kayak and pretty soon she’ll be doing pushups like Ahhhnold.

The sore muscles are a badge of honor after a long paddle. They remind you that you did it yourself, you propelled a watercraft and succeeded. You tamed the wind and were challenged by the tides, but you survived. Pretty soon the desire to tackle more physical challenges takes hold and the sky is the limit: a 5K run? climb a mountain? anything is possible.

Shopping: This is the gateway, it’s one of the ways a woman’s mind works when her options are limited. Bear with me: If Mom/wife/daughter is used to handling the family shopping, she will love a kayak because it opens a new world of choices and decisions. Cruise through a scenic harbor and she’ll begin to imagine herself aboard a variety of yachts or looking down from the balcony of a chic townhouse (whether as a Bond Girl or maritime skipper, that’s up to her). Glide by some cute seaside shacks and she’ll consider the scenario of running away from responsibilities to make a new life without the SUV and 9-to-5. She may be immersed in the suburban lifestyle now while raising a family but things will change eventually and unless she’s got some inkling of her next step (through “shopping”) the transition could be rocky.

It’s liberating to enjoy sights and sounds and sensations that aren’t loading up the car, getting kids to school, or the same old power walk around the neighborhood. You might have let the genie out of the bottle, but that’s OK because she will escape one way or the other.

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Note to readers: if you’ve read this far, I have one small item of advice — DO NOT buy a tandem/2 person kayak. If she’s timid of the water then start on a quiet, windless day on a small pond in separate kayaks. Tandems simply accelerate the implosion that I warned you about.

Also, don’t buy a crappy $300 kayak. Spend the $1400 and get something above 12 feet with a bit of a keel. If she’s nervous about controlling it, get a rudder installed. Mom is worth it.

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.

costa-rica-map

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.

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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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Sail into my heart

July 14, 2016

We went out last night despite 35 knot gusts and 4 foot waves, and we got soaked. Sailing in the Old Sigh races on Wednesdays from Pocasset and into Buzzard’s Bay is my team sport. Four of us squeeze into a small racing boat, relying on one another’s skills for sail handling, strategy, and map reading to get ahead of the other four or five boats in our class.

We’d gasp at the cold slap  when waves came over the side then laugh uncomfortably as the water drained through the cockpit. Sustained wind over 20 knots took a little getting used to before we decided to use all of the sails but we settled into the angle of the boat, steadying ourselves against the opposite side of the cockpit with outstretched legs.

Later we high-fived when on a dead run with the stiff wind and our little Alerion surfed down the waves sometimes hitting 9 knots. And high-fived again when we crossed the finish line first in our class. We took on the elements and prevailed. (Photos were from a previous week with little wind and flat conditions!)

Sailing doesn’t look too exciting to most people. But when you get out there and the wind fills the canvas just right, when your bow cuts through the waves and begins a rhythmic rocking, there’s something magical about it. There are no lanes, no yellow lines painted that you have to stay within; you can point your bow across the bay or across the planet and just go anywhere there’s a little wind.

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the family Winnebago (Catalina), too big for the kids to handle

We did that sort of exploring a lot when we had a big boat that was the family Winnebago on the water, but the kids had little opportunity to participate in sailing it so I dropped about $250 on a used sailboat they could handle. We lived in a town without a lake and the boat wasn’t an easy one to lift onto the roof of the van, so it sat in the back yard a lot. Still, they got out on it several times and learned a little about using the wind to get where they wanted to go. Now it’s in my backyard lake and they use it whenever they come down, bringing friends who have never sailed. Heck, even Mike, the Master of Maritime Disasters, has learned to sail in it and taught his son, too. Best yet is seeing my 14-year-old niece, a child of the big city, step confidently into the old Snark and take off across the lake.

These days sailing is probably relaxing for my daughters. They don’t know how important it was to me that they learned how to handle a boat.

I wanted them to take a little risk going out themselves, to decide autonomously how to use the wind and the canvas, to learn this mode of travel that reaches back into history, mostly unchanged. Knowing how to sail is like knowing how to drive a stick shift, or how to ride a horse: they may not use the knowledge a lot but it’s a feather in their quiver, a notch of confidence that they carry everywhere. You may stall a few times before you get the hang of it, but that’s okay. Now they can look into a harbor and know every boat is essentially the same, that they have the skills to step aboard and take any route they want to the other side of the world.

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.

 

 


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