Hiking the Utah National Parks

By Dom Nozzi

It is late at night on Wednesday, March 25th, 2015, and I’m driving my Florida adventure buddy and I from the Salt Lake International Airport south on the infamous Interstate 15 in the middle of the Salt Lake City metro area. Infamous because I-15 is what appears to be 12 lanes of superhighway in each direction (with construction suggesting the state Dept of Transportation is building even MORE lanes), and one drives for 40 to 60 miles of screaming agony and high anxiety through awful strip commercial entropy, and hostile, high-speed, randomly-lane-changing motorists – undoubtedly driving so fast in part to minimize the time they spend in such a depressing nowhere place.

Shockingly, this monster highway is filled with cars. At 10:30 pm. It appears that due to the tragedy of spending billions to require nearly all trips in this region to be forced onto this soul-crushing freeway, Salt Lake City’s signature nightmare road is now delivering 24/7 rush hour traffic.

The next morning, the day starts poorly, as our plan to visit Cedar Breaks National Monument (a place we had not heard of previously) is thwarted by the fact that access roads to the park are inexplicably closed.

Instead, Plan B finds us briefly hiking northern Zion National Park. We follow this by hiking one of the most stunning – and most scary – hikes in the National Park system: Angels Landing.

Angels Landing is a somewhat terrifying, very narrow trail. A number of times on this trail, the tread narrows to a razor-sharp 12 inches wide with 1,000-foot cliff drops on both sides. This necessitates the National Park Service installing long stretches of stainless steel chains that we are obligated to hold onto for dear life.

I am feeling a great deal of anxiety and must regularly fight the sensation of vertigo. Quite thankful for the chain.Angel's Landing hike Zion NP March 26, 2015 (41)

Views on both sides of us, as we ascend the trail, are spectacular. We soon arrive at switchbacks, which allow us to ascend a very steep section. One set of switchbacks is called Walter’s Wiggle.

Here are the photos I shot when hiking to the summit of Angels Landing.

Zion National Park, on the day we are there, is packed with tourists.

The following day promises to be epic. Today we are to hike The Narrows. For over ten years, this hike has been near the top of my bucket list, after hearing from a sister-in-law that it is a MUST hike. We have worked to figure out the gear we will need: waders? Neoprene socks? Wetsuit? Waterproof boots? Having appropriate gear turns out to be especially important, as we learn on the morning of our arrival at the shuttle access point that the water is running at an icy 41 degrees. Yikes.

I have brought along a full wetsuit. Water/boat shoes. Neoprene sox. Daypack with hydration system and food. My buddy has not brought anything appropriate from Florida, so ends up renting waterproof hiking boots and neoprene socks. He wears shorts instead of waders or wetsuit, which shocks me. And many other hikers later in the day, who repeatedly ask him if he is not numb cold. He ends the day saying he was fine.

Unlike most hikers, we opt not to use a walking stick.

Much of the many miles we hike from bottom trailhead has us in ankle-deep to calf-deep water on sand and softball-sized rocks. Periodically, we are able to walk on dry sand, as the river is a bit below normal height.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe slot canyons of The Narrows are simply stunning. Jaw dropping. I cannot stop taking photos of the sheer, wavy, colorful rock walls soaring hundreds of feet above us on both sides. The beauty is hard to describe. Unlike anything I’ve experienced previously.

Oftentimes, it seems as if we are walking in the American version of ancient Rome, as the rock walls around us reminds me of the marble walls and arcades and columns found in that ancient city.

The current in the river was rather swift, which regularly tested our balancing skills as we worked to cross it several times without a hike-ending fall into the ice water.

At one point, we take a branching slot canyon off the main canyon. The slot is much more narrow, and after a few miles we reach a shoulder-deep pond. Of a group of hikers stopped at this point, I am the only one to be able to cross the pond, because I zip up my full wetsuit and wade across. We end up turning around here and returning to the main canyon, where we stop for lunch before continuing on.

I have hiked a great many spectacular hikes around the world in my life, and yet would place this hike in my Top Three all-time best hikes.

Unfortunately, I had not really used the water/boat shoes before The Narrows, and learn – to my great dismay – that the shoes were extremely inadequate. No sturdy leather soles or other support. Just a thin layer of very pliable rubber. After several hours of walking over rocks in The Narrows, my feet are extremely painful and numb. I need to remove the shoes and walk barefoot along the paved path back to the shuttle.

Here are the photos I shot during my exploration of The Narrows.

Like the other mornings, the next morning starts out with bright blue skies and sun. Precisely the sky we want for our next destination: Bryce National Park. Spectacular rock formations. Navajo Trail and Peekaboo Trail Bryce Canyon March 28, 2015 (74)Unimaginably colorful and vibrant orange colors. Hoodoos everywhere. At the end of an incredible day of hiking the stunning canyon trails, our thirst brings us to a grocery store. I am in search of one of Utah’s trademark microbeers: Polygamy Porter (Motto on label: “Why Have Just One”). Unfortunately, they are sold out of Polygamy Porter, so I opt for something similarly amusing: 4-Play Porter. We end up at Sunset Point on the Rim Trail. Here, a large number of people have assembled with extremely expensive cameras to shoot photos of the fantastic flat light of sunset playing on the canyon formations.

Because alcohol is strictly prohibited at a national park, and because such patronizing rules never stopped us, we hit on a way to enjoy the sunset with our beer: We pour our beers into our canteens. No one suspects a thing…

Bryce is exceptionally photogenic. Here are the photos I shot while hiking Bryce Canyon.

On Sunday the 29th, we find ourselves at the Grand Staircase National Monument. We opt for a hike on the Escalante River trail.

This hike teaches me that my buddy and I have different hiking philosophies: I am here to experience the geology, which is easily enjoyed on the trail. He is here to experience the biology, so he opts to hike in the sandy river.

Grand Staircase National Monument Escalante River, March 29, 2015 (22). Natural Bridge.After a few hours, we have lost track of each other (and have neglected to agree to a plan if we are separated). I stop for a leisurely lunch at the impressive Natural Bridge along the river. Expecting to find him coming up the river when I start heading back down the river, we don’t cross each other.

I stumble upon his hiking boots, which he had taken off and planned to return to after his hike. Here I wait – knowing that he will be obligated to return to retrieve the boots.

I wait for 4.5 hours.

I give up on him and head back to the trailhead. My plan is to call emergency rescue, but just before I do, I hear a report from a few hikers that they have spotted a hiker who fits the description of my buddy. I am relieved that he is still alive.

Here are the photos I shot while hiking the Escalante River.

On our way to this region, we are puzzled by our Delormes map, which shows a town named “Ruby’s Inn.” Why would a town be named after a motel?

Later that night at a restaurant, we learn why. Long ago, a family had settled in the area and established a motel called “Ruby’s Inn.” They ended up building an empire complex of restaurants, stores, gas stations, and offices – what ended up amounting to nearly a full set of town elements. We are informed that like the TV show “Bonanza, Ruby’s Inn was started by a family somewhat like the Cartwrights in the TV show. But the Ruby’s Inn family ended up being “the Cartwrights Gone Bad.”

Our last day featured relatively short hikes, but the first hike on this day is a hike for the ages. A peak experience hike. On the strong, enthusiastic advice of a Grand Staircase National Park Service ranger, we warily opt for starting the day by hiking Spooky Gulch, Peekaboo Gulch, and Dry Wash slot canyons. We are wary for two reasons. First, we are informed that the access road is up to 45 minutes of driving (each way) on a washboard dirt road. Second, we are told that the Spooky Gulch slot is often so narrow (as narrow as 10 inches) and its walls so tall that it can induce claustrophobia (hence the name of the slot).

These three relatively short trails are part of a loop (which I greatly prefer, as I dislike backtracking). We unknowingly start our hike at the Spooky Gulch entrance, as the Peekaboo entrance seems slowed by a family of parents and young children. “Unknowingly” because we are about to learn that this counterclockwise direction requires a serious test of our free climbing skills.

Spooky Gulch is otherworldly. Surreal. Spectacular in golden colors and smooth, wavy, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsunsplashed rock walls and white sandy floor. As advertised, we regularly found ourselves squeezing through slots no wider than 10 inches. Indeed, it was common for us to have to remove our backpacks to fit through, and it seemed to me that anyone even a few pounds heavier than I could not push their way through the tight gaps.

The curving, rounded walls appear to be waves of water frozen in a large pipe.

We unexpectedly arrive at a long rock chimney above us. We had not heard or read anything about it. We spend about 20 minutes closely inspecting the rock faces and evaluating whether it is possible to ascend without ropes or other climbing gear. Finally, we spot a solution. There is a very thin foothold about chest high on the wall, and a reachable hand hold that is just barely reachable above the foothold. Mike ascends slowly while I hold his backpack. After several careful minutes of free climbing, he finally shimmies his way through the chimney. I hand him both his pack and mine, and I repeat what he has done.

Clearly, our counterclockwise direction makes for a much more challenging hike through Spooky.

There were hikers going the same direction we were going, and we could see that they would CLEARLY be incapable of ascending this rather technical free climb up the chimney. We stopped and waited at the top of the chimney to listen to their voices below — so that we could hear comments about what they would do – knowing they would have to turn back.

Hikers coming clockwise would have it much easier, as they are simply needing to slowly slide DOWN the chimney.

While the dusty, bumpy access road was a tough slog of over 80 minutes of driving, the slots we experienced behind us made the demanding ride well worth it. One important benefit of the washboard access: It tends to discourage less serious hikers from using the trail…

Here are the photos I shot while hiking the Spooky, Peekaboo, and Dry Wash slot canyons.

We end the day by arriving at Capitol Reef National Park – yet another national park we had not previously heard of. The name derives from the fact that the rock formations on canyon walls here appear to be coral reef formations.

Because of the lateness in the day, we take a ranger’s advice to hike the Sulfur Creek trail – a trail I had previously seen was highly rated on the Internet.

I scramble up a slightly rounded canyon wall to get large views of the horizon, while Mike remains along and in the creek. On descending back to the creek and trail, I come upon Mike carefully trying to figure out a way to get across a very slick, tricky waterfall crossing.

We spend about 30 minutes trying to decide if there is a reasonably safe way to cross. We are standing on a narrow lip on a rock wall next to the falls. To get close enough to the falls to have a Mike Byerly at Sulfur Creek waterfall, Capitol Reef NP, March 30, 2015 (60)chance to leap over would require us to somehow use very thin hand holds far above us and inch along a very steep, smooth, slippery rock face. See photo to left.

This seems to iffy to me. I propose to make a running leap over the falls (instead of using the hand hold/inching method). I am confident that my momentum and my history as an all-county triple jumper in high school will allow me to do this successfully.

But in the end, we decide it is not worth the risk. The payoff rewards in front of us on the trail are not high enough for us to take the chance. This is a historic moment, as in the past, whenever I faced a risky maneuver in the outdoors, I would always tell my companion that “if Mike was with me, I would do this.” I say this because Mike and I invariably WOULD do what it takes.

Risk never stopped us.

But this time, for the first time, it does. But we know how we can do it next time we are here. We know what we will need to be wearing for footgear and other clothing.

Our unforgettable, peak-experience week of hiking the Utah National Park concludes by our battling the 16-lane SUPERHIGHWAY SPRAWL of Salt Lake City.

After checking and turning down several hotels near our airport (due to high cost), we finally find one that is somewhat reasonably priced.

Dinner tonight (at an Applebees, which has a sign on its wall that inappropriately calls itself a “neighborhood restaurant”) is at 11:30 pm.

Latest dinner I have ever had.

Categories: 2011-Present, Hiking, Utah | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Enjoying Five European Countries, May 2014

by Dom Nozzi

Ann and I can hardly believe it. We are with friends in Boulder on Tuesday, April 29th, and will be getting on a plane the next morning. Our first stop is in Rochester NY, where we will join my family in celebrating my mom’s 80th birthday (I have used ancestry.com to create a family tree book as a gift for her). After a few days there, we fly to Amsterdam in The Netherlands, then on to Hungary, Czech Republic, Croatia, and Montenegro.

We are excited in anticipation of what will surely be an unforgettable trip to five nations we have never visited before.

It is May 5th. I have survived a nasty, mercifully short-lived stomach virus I contracted in Rochester (which included a fortunately unrealized fear that I’d be nauseous for seven hours in a plane over the Atlantic Ocean). We are on a noticeably quiet train taking us from the Amsterdam airport to the Centraal Station in Old Town Amsterdam. The architecture we see from our train window transitions. First, in the newer, outlying part of Amsterdam, we are given unpleasant views of the almost invariably unlovable modernist architecture of boxes and glass cubes. We know we have arrived in Old Amsterdam when we start noticing the change in architecture toward the timelessly lovable, ornately classic architectural styles of buildings built over 80 years ago.

The older architecture is such a nice change. What a tragedy for what we have built in modern times, however.

In our too-brief couple of days in Amsterdam, we are astounded by the overwhelming amount of charming streets, canals and architecture – as well as the great food — in the town center neighborhoods that surround our Air B & B hotel.

Bicycling, of course, is seemingly engaged in happily by all demographic groups: very young through very old, businessmen and women in suits, elegant ladies in high heels and dresses, very poor through very wealthy. Over the course of our first day, I notice a great many women singing as they bicycle. It is obvious that bicycling is a great way to feel happy.Amsterdam May 2014 (26)

We make the excellent decision to rent bikes and join the thousands of happy Amsterdamers bicycling through their lovely city.

In the late afternoon of our first day, we serendipitously bicycle to a canal bridge where thousands have gathered to enjoy a concert by a symphony orchestra which is performing on a stage floating on the canal at Hermitage.

In our two days in the city, we have an absolute blast bicycling in what amounts to a ballet of bicycling. So many bicyclists that we feel as if we are joining a flowing river of bicyclists. Scooters, cars, and bicyclists are weaving and darting in a dizzying number of directions at intersections – almost without care or worry, as they somehow safely avoid each other. Indeed, during our time in the city, despite this seemingly chaotic mixing on streets, we don’t witness even a single minor fender bender or crash. Safety is truly in numbers. The ballet induces joyful riding without crashing. Check out this video I shot of one intersection I came upon while bicycling in Amsterdam.

A colleague of mine – urban design consultant Victor Dover – has cited his admiration for a street in Amsterdam called Tweede Tuindwarsstraat in his Street Design book. We eventually bicycle to the street and confirm its wonderful, vibrant nature. We join many others in happily eating gelato at an ice cream shop on the street after I’ve shot several photos of the architecture and street dimensions.

Over the course of our 2014 journey in the five European nations, we are relieved to find that most everyone speaks English. I feel shame that like most Americans, I do not, by contrast, speak more than my native language.

As Rick Steves points out in his tour guide for Amsterdam, we notice that many who reside in this city are relatively tall, attractive, and seemingly healthy. Is this any wonder, given how much bicycling (and walking) occurs in Amsterdam?

The next day, May 6th, I set off on my own. I arrive at the festive Leisplein Square, where so much seems to happen in this city. Here one finds the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, a great many restaurants, and lots of lingering people.

I also walk Kalverstraat, the famed pedestrian street in Amsterdam (which seemed a bit antiseptic to me in comparison to the delightful, vibrant rough edges I find elsewhere in the city), the well-known Spui Square, and the extremely popular Dam Square. The walk on this morning also brought me to Anne Frank’s house, and the Flower Market. One of the most interesting (amusing?) things I experienced (as both an observer and a user) was a tiny, simple, low-cost public men’s urinal. The device was a small, green, sheet metal wrap that allowed males to pee very quickly and with just enough privacy (which wasn’t much!) to avoid any embarrassment. A brilliant idea.

Next I stroll the obligatory Red Light District, which was highly entertaining. On very narrow alleys, a large number of sizeable studio windows feature a scantily-clad prostitute – a great many of whom did whatever they could to draw me into their “office.” Most all of them winked, vigorously beckoned me to walk in, or mouthed a welcome to me. I was quite impressed by the fact that a large percentage of them were highly attractive. Had I any interest in using their services (I’ve never been tempted at all throughout my life, for the record), this would certainly be a place I would make a “purchase.” One such alley contained a number of young males who seemed not very happy when I shot a photo of them and the alley.

Later, Ann excitedly informs me that she has boldly asked an artist she had met earlier in the day (who pointed out to her in passing that he had a small boat) to give her a tour of the Amsterdam canals. Surprisingly, he was happy to agree to do that (and later expressed surprise to us that she was so forward about asking). He gives us a fabulous, leisurely guided tour (coupled with his many thoughts about Amsterdam and politics) of the Amsterdam canals at dusk. Our “fee”? We are to provide a picnic meal, which we are of course more than happy to do. The tour was an excellent way to see town center Amsterdam (including another amusing pass through the Red Light District), and the lights at night showed how romantic the city can be (even more so than it already is in daylight). He even provides wine for the three-hour trip.

We start the next day by stepping into a bakery for a superb breakfast sandwich, and a chocolate croissant (Ann feasts on them throughout the trip). We step into a nearby cheese shop and are extremely impressed by the vast quantities of cheese on display – including, of course, Edam cheese, which the Dutch are known for. It is our farewell to Amsterdam.

Here are the photos I shot while in Amsterdam.

We fly to Budapest. Our first stop is the very enjoyable, charming Castle Hill, where our lodging is located. We go to the Royal Palace and the over-the-top ornate Matthias Church. Crossing the Chain Bridge brings us to Pest (Buda is west of the river). Here we find Vaci, which some call the best pedestrian street in the world (I would rate it a 7 out of 10). The architecture is stupendous. The public library, for example, is a beauty that any city would be proud of. We also visit the Synagogue, the gorgeous Budapest Opera House, and Franz Liszt Square.

Budapest is known as a city with perhaps the most impressive collection of natural hot baths in the world (who knew?). The main reason Ann has added Budapest to our itinerary is to enjoy the baths here, and she is not disappointed. We visit Szechenyi Baths (via the Budapest metro subway), which contains an amazing labyrinth of a seemingly endless number of heated baths, saunas, and steam rooms. Visiting these baths ends up being a highly enjoyable experience for us on this day. Ann later concludes that Budapest is now her favorite city in the world.Ann at Szechenyi Baths Budapest May 2014

As I am to notice in the other four nations we visit, a great many of the women in Budapest are highly attractive.

The next day, we walk the “long” way to Pest from our across-the-river hotel over the bridge north of Chain Bridge. We pass by the impressive Hungarian Parliament building on our way to Szabadsag Ter (Liberty Square). Here we find the controversial Soviet monument of liberation (often defaced), and visit the “Great Market” – which is loaded with sellers selling a vast array of goods (although a surprising lack of food diversity).

We buy a loaf of rustic black Hungarian bread, and Hungarian cheese. I can’t resist sampling the Hungarian vino, so I buy a red Hungarian wine for $990 Forints (the Hungarian currency, which is equivalent to about five US dollars). That night, we picnic on the steps of the Royal Palace. Our vantage point gives us an impressively panoramic view of the Danube River and the Budapest skyline lit up at night (including the Parliament Building and the Chain Bridge – both of which are superb when lit up). It is the night before the Hungarian Prime Minister is to be crowned for his second term of office on these very palatial grounds.

Here are the photos I shot while in Budapest.

First thing on the following day, we are on a train through the Hungarian countryside. We had wanted to use a train each time we went from city to city (or nation to nation), but were surprised to learn that they are not only much slower than planes, but more expensive. Our train crosses through a portion of Slovekia. Along the way, we see vast acreages of agricultural fields that are brilliantly bright yellow. Later, we learn that this is the “corn” of Hungary. Huge government subsidies seek to promote the production of rapeseed as a way to create more energy independence through bio-diesel. The Hungarian countryside we pass through reminds me very much of my boyhood home region in upstate New York.

We arrive by train in Prague, and on our way to our hotel we stop at what is obviously a local beer hall filled with boisterous, blue collar locals happily drinking pilsner beer. Like the other local beer hall we sample later in Prague, this place is choking with cigarette smoke. It would be my first-ever experience where every single patron (about 40 in the second beer hall) was chain smoking like a chimney. Overall, my assessment of the Czech version of a dark beer is that at least that particular beer is mediocre.

My walk he next morning gives me an unusual experience for town center Prague, as the annual Prague marathon is being run this morning, and there are runners and running booths everywhere. I come upon Nerudova Street, cross the fantastic, pedestrian-only St Charles Bridge, the Tyn Church, the Church of St Nicholas, the Old Town Hall (including the Astronomical Clock), Bethlehem Chapel, the Estate Theatre, the Powder Tower, the Municipal House, and the Church of St James. I am overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture of the buildings in the town center, and cannot stop taking photos.Charles Bridge Prague May 2014 (5)

That night, we are, in effect, robbed by a restaurant we visit for dinner. There is no other way of putting it than to say it was a HUGE rip-off scam operation. Name of the restaurant is “Mystic.” Avoid this place at all costs (although we were to later learn that the place changes its name often – apparently because it strives to avoid losing customers who might see bad reviews). We ask for tap water and are given priced bottled water. Little do we know that the cheap, paper-thin potato chips (about 5 chips) set in a bowl on each table will later cost us three dollars. A mediocre salad cost Ann $13. The waitress brings out a main dish without the cranberry sauce on the menu, so comes back with a bowl of awful creamed berries in a tasteless white cream. To economize, we order only one main dish that we share. We are also hit with the surprise of a large, hidden “service” charge. Total bill: $70 (had each of us ordered a dinner, it would have cost almost $150. When we complain about the terrible, rip-off nature of the meal and ask the waitress if we can speak to the manager, she informs us that the manager will not be there that night or the following night. We then get a sob story from her informing us that if we leave without paying (as we threaten to do), she will be forced to pay the bill herself. Later that night, we learn that the Internet is filled with criticism of the place. One called it a “criminal rip-off.”

Overall, the “Mystic” restaurant offered the worst meal experience I ever had, and, ironically, the most expensive.

In the morning, I walk the west side of the river, and find it almost as impressive as the famous town center of Prague.

Here are the photos I shot while in Prague.

We fly to Split, Croatia from Prague airport. Split has a very Caribbean, tropical ambience. Our first experience is to tour the astonishing Diocletian’s Palace (built by a Roman emperor as a retirement residence – and who was terrified of being assassinated). We stumble upon a pair of acoustic guitar players serenading a crowd at the ancient Peristyle Square. They play a melody of famous American popular songs. Check out this video I shot of the performance.

After the performance, we dine on a very tasty seafood risotto and a tuna steak dinner. I finish the night with a draft pint of dark Czech beer (this time a bit better) at a local pub.

I walk more of Diocletian’s Place first thing the next morning, explore the old neighborhood west of the palace, and circumnavigate Marjan Park further to the west. The park provides great views of Split, the Adriatic sea, and many coastal villages.

Ann opts to have us be given a walking tour by a historian. He informs us of many interesting historical facts about the palace and emperor. We learn, for example, that the main entrance to the palace essentially operates as a human mouse trap. Invaders would naively rush through the open gate and find themselves stopped by a closed gate inside a circular “foyer” area. The gate they rushed through would quickly be sealed shut, and archers would then proceed to fire arrows at the trapped men. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel.Peristyle Square Split Croatia May 2014 (2)

Here are the photos I shot while in Split, Croatia.

We ferry to Korcula, an island famed for its wonderful waters and beaches and ancient architecture. A heavy thunderstorm hits on the first night. We are later to learn that this storm system causes major flooding in nearby Bosnia and Serbia, but we somehow don’t see any of this in our later bus crossing into those nations. Because of the rainy, surprisingly cold weather that greets us in Korcula (and is forecast for the next several days), we end our stay in Korcula and opt to go to Dubrovnik. Our brief stay in Korcula, however, gives us enough of a taste of this lovely island to tempt us to want to return.

Here are the photos I shot while in Korcula.

Our bus from Korcula to Dubrovnik is loaded onto a ferry to get us across the water to the mainland. The bus takes us through the Croatian countryside and along the coast. Both are gorgeous. We are rewarded with great views of the islands along the coast that dot the Adriatic sea. The region we pass through is rich with grape vineyards, wineries, olive orchards, fig treess, and oranges. The countryside and coastline have an appearance very much like the Amalfi Coast in Italy, including many treacherous hairpin turns on steep mountain roads. The drive is so scary that I start wondering if cars have plummeted off the cliff to the sure doom of the drivers. Sure enough, just as this thought crosses my mind, I look down to the bottom of the cliff and see a number of crumpled car carcasses.

Dubrovnik immediately signals to us that it is often inundated with tourists, as the port is crowded with cruise ships and the gateway jammed with tour buses. And for good reason. Dubrovnik is shockingly dripping with the charm that only ancient construction can provide.Old Town Dubrovnik May 2014 (3)

I should note here that many of the towns along the Croatian coast are so flooded with tourists that their economies have become distorted. Nearly all jobs are now tourism-related.

In Old Town Dubrovnik, I find alluring swimming holes behind the St John Fort, and immediately alert Ann about them. I hear a commotion of parading, singing, shouting young people who are setting off firecrackers, and learn later that this is the annual celebration of those graduating from school.

We visit the Rector’s Palace, and an amazing display of seafaring artifacts and history at the Maritime Museum. Like many other ancient quarters of towns we visit, old town Dubrovnik is graced with highly polished stone roads and walkways due to the centuries of being walked on by residents. I end the day by strolling along the top of the city fortification walls, which provided spectacular views of old town and the coastline, and had my shooting photos almost non-stop. We stop to enjoy two live music performances. One a band of men, and later a group of girls singing near our hotel.

During our four days in Dubrovnik, we learn why our hotel is called “La Musica.” While there, we were serenaded by lovely classical music played at a neighboring music school.

I opt to buy a van and walking tour of nearby Bay of Kotor and Budva, and my van sets off the next morning. Along the way, the driver points out that the nation we are driving to (Montenegro) is named because the mountains in the region appear black during heavy storms. Montenegro is also the most recent nation created in the world (2006).

Among the many noteworthy features of the Bay of Kotor is the fact that it is so well protected by a very narrow 58 Kotor May 2014waterway throat and surrounding mountains that it was the only community in the region that was not conquered by the mighty Turkish Empire. We also learn that the Bay contains the southernmost fjord in Europe.

Here are the photos I shot while touring Kotor and Budva.

Our final full day in Croatia is spent at the little-known seaside village of Covtat. A 50-minute ferry ride from Dubrovnik Old Port takes us there. I experience my first-ever kayaking  and swimming in the Adriatic Sea. The water was chilly, but crystal clear.

My maiden kayak voyage on the Adriatic was on a relatively “tippy” kayak, and combined with the sea waves being “pushy,” I felt somewhat ill at ease (despite my many years as a kayaker). But while it felt disconcerting, it just added to the enjoyment of it all.

Here are the photos I shot while in Covtat.

Our final dinner was a joyful discovery Ann made of the Lady Pi Pi restaurant, which sits perched at the highest point on the top of the old town Dubrovnik city walls. The restaurant, which is named after a female statue that crouches and “pees” into a ceramic bowl as a fountain, offers commanding views of Old Town, and is topped by attractive green grape vines.

Here are the photos I shot while touring Dubrovnik.

Overall, our three weeks touring five nations in Europe was highly pleasant and quite unforgettable. Ann repeatedly noted that she wants to either live in a number of the places we visited, or visit them over and over again.

 

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skiing the best snow on Earth: Park City, Alta, and Snowbird

They have been at the top of my “must ski” list for a long time. Park City, Utah was rated fifth best ski resort in the Western United States by Ski Magazine in 2006. Nearby Alta and Snowbird average 500 inches a year of fluffy, dry powder. Alta is considered to have the most reliable, high-quality ski snow in the world, and was ranked Number One by Outside Magazine in October 2008 for snow and terrain.Snowbird ski4 Feb 2014

To say I was exceptionally eager to ski these three ski playgrounds was putting it mildly.

Despite the reputation, I grew worried as our trip date approached. A good quantity of snow fell at the first of the month, but not a single flake had fallen for three weeks. Would our timing be awful again for a ski trip??

Fortunately, there was justice in the world – at least for me on this trip. The day before my arrival, a foot of light, fluffy, soft powder falls on the Utah resorts we intend to ski.

Flying into Salt Lake City from Denver, our plane arrives at sunset, which provided an exceptionally scenic view of the Great Salt Lake, which appeared to be glowing orange as the sun set on it. And despite my living on the front range of the Colorado Rockies, I was surprised by the big, bold impressiveness of the large mountains that surround the Salt Lake Valley on all sides.

As I drive from the airport to my hotel on Interstate 80 and Interstate 15, I notice immediately that Salt Lake City if afflicted with highway GIGANTISM. The interstates are ten to twelve lanes in size. Of course, the ungodly amount of public money that was spent to build these HUGE monster roads did nothing to avert congestion in the region. Indeed, they did the reverse: We know from studies that these massive highways INDUCE new car trips that would not have occurred previously, which means that the Federal and State governments have spent ruinously large amounts of public money to create massive congestion every single day during the morning and evening rush hours. On my first day there, I felt extreme stress, unease, and anger. I was in fear for my life due to the crazy, high-speed jockeying of all the cars on the regional superhighways.

Every day, twice a day, commuters in the area must put up with the huge dose of stress and fright. How do they do it? How do they avoid high blood pressure? Do their relationships with friends and spouses suffer from the daily psychological damage? Is the region better off now that so many new car trips and suburban sprawl have been induced by the 14-laners?

Unfortunately for my Florida ski buddy, he loses a day in arriving, because his flight is canceled due to winter weather. And it is NOT weather in snowy Utah. It is weather in normally sunny and warm Florida.

As I head out to the car from my hotel room in Sandy, Utah on the first morning, stormy weather is still making itself felt in Utah. I come upon another skier who sees me with my gear. He asks what my plans are. I tell him I’m going to ski Alta. He informs me that the Alta website is reporting that the access road is only allowing four-wheel drive cars and cars with chains. I have a small, two-wheel drive rental car. Oops.

Park City6 UT ski Jan 2014Good thing I have run into him. On his advice, I opt for Plan B on the first day, then. Despite no prior plans to do so, I decide to drive out to Park City – a world-class resort I’ve long wanted very much to ski.

My first day at Park City is superb. A large number of exciting runs to choose from, including a healthy selection of tree glades, which are almost exclusively my ski preference these days. Because I am skiing alone, I’m getting on and off ski lifts much faster than I would if I had a ski companion. So on this first day, I ski an astonishing 22 runs – including two under the lights (I made a deliberate decision to ski the resort into the night hours to avoid the crushing highway congestion). Best-ever powder (much of it virgin, untouched powder – secret stash conditions) and tree glades I’ve ever skied. Favorite run: Motherlode Meadows. I get a good taste of Park City, and enjoy it enough to want to perhaps return some day.

To further delay my return to avoid the rush hour frenzy, I stop at Squatters brew pub for some food and excellent oatmeal stout.

I was later to be reminded that I had once seen that the Canyons ski resort is top-rated for tree glades, and since I did not have an opportunity to sample Canyons at all, there is even more reason for me to consider Utah skiing again.

I pick up my friend that night at one in the morning at the airport. For his first day, we learn that the Alta access road is accessible, so we head there. It is my first experience at Alta. After a pretty good day of skiing, my impressions of Alta is that the resort, while in many ways good, has too many runs that are too easy, and too many that are too Alta ski resort6 Feb 2014difficult. Several chutes/gullies are found here, which I personally enjoy. But on this first day, we find tree glades to be too sparse and too small (in contrast to Park City).

In addition, too many runs require an uphill hike to access.

Given the disappointing features, we decide to sample neighboring Snowbird the next day. We don’t make the decision lightly, as we had just bought a four-consecutive-day lift ticket for Alta, and skiing Snowbird requires us to pay another $30.

As it turned out, our first day at Snowbird was substantially more enjoyable than our first day at Alta. Rather steep like Alta, but the tree glades and chute runs we find are much more to our liking. We enjoy several “dream” tree glade runs (some of our best-ever glade runs) in the secret stashes we discover. The deep powder we find at Snowbird is so forgiving that we find it irresistible to ski even impossibly steep runs (knowing we can control our speed in the powder). We are, in fact, often skiing runs we have no business being on, as they are normally runs that only extreme expert skiers have any hope of surviving.

For the entire day, it snows on us heavily (a first for me as a skier), despite weather forecasts of zero to ten percent chance of snow. As a result, we were essentially “skiing by Braille,” as our vision was so severely limited that we could not see hardly anything in front of us. In addition to the blinding snow, my 16-year old ski goggles (bought at Panorama Ski Resort in Canada) decide to reach the end of their useful life on this day. The scratches on the lens and the loss of ventilated padding (which is thereby regularly filling my goggles with snow), in combination with the snow, gives me the sensation that I’m skiing blindfolded. Not good for a skier like me, who needs to ski at high speeds and in tree glades that require lightning reaction speeds.

I make the call to end our ski day earlier than we had planned, as it becomes apparent that it is just way too dangerous for me to ski without reasonable vision.

We had started our day at Snowbird on their famous aerial tram, which is somewhat disconcerting. The tram moves at a relatively fast speed, is elevated to an unusually tall height, and delivers skiers to the somewhat scary upper reaches of the mountain. This is particularly true for us, as newcomers to the resort, not at all knowing if skiable runs awaited us at the tram summit. Adding to the anxiety, we are positioned at the front of the tram, and at an open window as the tram cuts through bitter cold wind, fog and snow on its way up.

Given the harrowing tram experience, we opt not to return to that lift.

Mike Byerly after sliding down a chute at Snowbird ski Feb 2014We opt for a second consecutive day at Snowbird the next morning (and the $30 added fee). We are thrilled to discover spectacular tree glades. And the combination of brand new ski goggles (which provided what seemed like my best-ever vision while skiing) and the soft, deep powder gives me, by far, the most confidence I have ever felt as a skier. It is no wonder that deep, fresh powder is sometimes called “ego snow,” as I felt invicible. Without fear. Like I was suddenly an expert skier. No matter how impossibly steep or tight the run looked, I found that I opted to ski it without hesitation (runs that just a few weeks ago would have seemed impossible). Cutting fast through big moguls was done with joy and ease. It is said that one must look relatively far ahead (rather than what is immediately in front of you) to best ski moguls and trees. With my big confidence on this day, I find that I’m looking ahead without thinking about it. After all, I have no fear that I will be negotiating what is dead ahead.

My favorite runs at Snowbird? Tiger Tail, Primrose Path, and Black Forest. Favorite runs at Alta? Nina’s Curve,  Westward Ho.

Plenty of soft, fluffy powder in the trees. Steep and deep. Learned that fresh powder means the skier can ski fearlessly. We didn’t hesitate to do runs that would have seemed impossibly extreme in the past. I never felt so confident or so skilled as a skier. It is said that Utah resorts get the best snow on earth. We can now see why.

Overall, as I look back at our Utah skiing, I would say that the skiing is excellent. Both Alta and Snowbird, however, Snowbird ski8 Feb 2014are relatively skimpy when it comes to providing signage for runs. We often had to guess where to go. Both resorts have outrageously steep runs, and the skier is often surprised to find himself looking at a cliff dead ahead. Both are intimidating when you drive into the canyon and arrive at the main parking, as the very steep mountains loom over and around you menacingly. And, unfortunately, both Alta and Snowbird require far too much poling and hiking to reach a number of runs.

Nevertheless, they are both world-class, and I recommend them for other skiers.

Our last day in the Salt Lake City region is a needed day of rest and healing from our days of rather aggressive, bruising, exhausting skiing. We spend the day sightseeing in Salt Lake City. Once again, the unbelievably huge roadways and confusingly gigantic intersections boggle my mind. Shocking. And as a colleague says, great opportunities for “road diets” (removing travel and turn lanes to improve the obese sizes).

As is typically the case, I’m only interested in visiting the historic areas of the city. Like most all cities, the more recent areas of the urban area are sickeningly car-happy or afflicted by modernist buildings, which leaves placelessness that has no charm. There is no “there there” in such a post-apocalyptic setting.

Fortunately, the modernists and conventional traffic engineers have not yet destroyed areas in or near the “temple square” area, where walkable neighborhoods and charmingly gothic buildings are in relative abundance. Our timing allows us to enjoy the daily noon organ performance at the impressive Mormon Tabernacle building.

Tabernacle2 Salt Lake City Feb 2014

I find Salt Lake City to be somewhat creepy and awkward. Why? Because while walking around in the town center, one frequently gets the impression that locals you meet have a hidden agenda. That the happy, friendly persona I encounter from locals I come upon is ARTIFICIALLY happy and friendly because the local knows happy and friendly people are more likely to persuade non-locals to consider the merits of Mormonism. Proselytization, in other words, seems to be just under the surface of those you meet — and seems to be something you will eventually be subjected to in the conversation.

We also visit the exceptionally charming, gothic “city and county building,” which has lovely faces in each of the four directions it faces. The county courthouse across the street is also worth visiting to at least enjoy the front lobby area.

On the grounds of the city/county building, we find, happily, a secular monument – a surprise in such an obviously and aggressively religious community. The monument reads: “I pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, for liberty and justice for all.” No mention of the relatively recent, religiously degrading and unfair “UNDER GOD.” My hat is off to the City

We visit the Utah State Capitol Building, which sits desolately up on a hill far from any other buildings (or even trees). The inside of the building is magnificent. Do not miss it. We get a tour of Brigham Young’s “Beehive” house. The beehives are seen all over Salt Lake City, and are a symbol of industriousness.

Temple Square5 Salt Lake City Feb 2014A great many monuments, statues of people, water features, and public art are dispersed throughout the city.

As a grand finale, we enjoy great glasses of beer at the Red Rocks brewpub, and have an interesting chat with the pub brewmaster, who generously provides us with a delicious bottle of his Russian Imperial Stout (10.2 percent alcohol).

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Our Old Stomping Grounds in Arizona: Arcosanti, Jerome, and Flagstaff

Ann and I spot a screaming deal for round-trip airfare from Denver to Phoenix. We opt to carry out a desire we’ve had for years: To return to Arizona and see places we had lived in decades ago.

We drive north on I-17 from Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix. The city of Phoenix is a poster child for sprawl, as several decades of publicly-funded highway widenings and the creation of oceans of free parking has dispersed houses across endless miles of desert surrounding Phoenix. As we head north on the Interstate, we cross an exit for Northern Avenue. And doing this gives us a clear view of the extent of Phoenix sprawl, as Northern Avenue in the early days of Phoenix was surely at the northern edge of the city. Today, several miles of residential and commercial sprawl have been smeared across the arid landscape north of Northern Avenue. Indeed, Northern Avenue could probably be called “South Central Avenue” now, given all the costly dispersal.

Ann decides to drive us through Black Canyon City in her search for some needed eye drops. We spot a tiny, lonely, hardly visible Mexican “café” and on a whim, Ann adventurously decides we should sample it for lunch.

The ambience could hardly be worse. The “café” is playfully called the Chihuahua Chill Grill Black City3 AZ Dec 2013Chihuahua Chill Grill, and the restaurant “building” is housed within a tiny trailer sitting on one corner of a vast, empty Family Dollar asphalt parking lot. The “seating” is on small outdoor picnic tables grouped around the trailer, and the “floor” is asphalt. Surrounding the “café” is chain link fencing topped by razor wire. Tumbleweeds and cactus are the neighbors.

What could be worse?

As it turns out, however, the Chihuahua Chill Grill has gotten rave reviews from visitors throughout the world, as the fish tacos and enchiladas are superb. And affordable. We enjoy our filling, delicious lunch there so much that we later decide to stop there again for lunch on our way to Sky Harbor airport at the end of our Arizona tour.

Our first visit is to Arcosanti, where Ann lived briefly in the 1970s.

Arcosanti is an experimental town and molten bronze bell casting community that has been developed by Paolo Soleri, who began construction in 1970, 70 miles north of Phoenix. Soleri started the town to demonstrate how urban conditions could be improved while minimizing the destructive impact on the earth. He taught and influenced generations of architects and urban designers.

My assessment of Arcosanti is one of surprise and great disappointment. I had heard of Arcosanti when I was at school in nearby Flagstaff, and expected it to impress me. But what I find is appalling.

The poured concrete buildings are hideously ugly, bizarre, and utterly unlovable. Why did Soleri not use the timeless adobe architecture that had existed in the region for centuries?Arcosanti8 Dec 2013

In the middle of a very arid, extremely water-scarce region, Arcosanti must draw precious water from a well system. Yet despite the desperate lack of water, Arcosanti has several areas landscaped with grass sod. Unsurprisingly, the grass is being watered by an irrigation system while we are there. Why did Arcosanti not opt for xeriscape landscaping to avoid the need to squander precious water on grass? And why does Arcosanti have an enormous outdoor swimming pool that results in high levels of water evaporation?

The main dining hall for Arcosanti is stunningly cold on the day we spend there. Indeed, all that have gathered for the meal we attend need to wear winter coats as they sit at the indoor dining tables. I notice that the dining hall has enormous, unshaded glass windows facing south and west. Clearly, the design leads to huge heat gain in warmer months, which must turn the space into an oven. Why, then, is Arcosanti designed to be so awful regarding climate control?

Arcosanti is isolated in the middle of the central Arizona desert. Such a location necessitates relatively high levels of motor vehicle trips to support the “community,” which was envisioned to be the home of 5,000 to 6,000 people, but currently has a population of 56. To make a visit to the doctor, a trip to buy clothes, a night at the movie theatre, or an excursion to buy groceries all require long car trips. Why is Arconsanti not location-efficient, so that it closely neighbors such regular needs?

We stay in the “Sky Suite,” which provides grand views of a scenic desert landscape surrounding Arcosanti, as two of the four walls of the suite consist almost entirely of glass. But the glass is unshaded, which surely leads to issues of energy conservation problems and climate control issues, not to mention the lack of privacy. With its high elevation and abundant glass, I feel as if I am in a fishbowl, where everyone around us can look in on us.

After Arcosanti, we drive to the charming, historic hill town of Jerome. Ann lived in Jerome in the late 1970s at the same time I lived in nearby Flagstaff. We stay at the lovely “Surgeon’s House” bed and breakfast, and enjoy a stunning sunset over the valley and canyons to the north of Jerome5 Dec 2013Jerome, and are treated to the best breakfast we have ever eaten on the morning of our departure.

Jerome was founded in the late 19th century on Cleopatra Hill, overlooking the Verde Valley, it is about 100 miles north of Phoenix. Supported by copper mines, it had 10,000 residents in the 1920s. As of the 2010 census, its population was 444.

In the late 19th century, the United Verde Mine, developed by William Clark, extracted ore bearing copper, gold, silver. In total, the copper deposits discovered in the vicinity of Jerome were among the richest ever found in any time or place.

Jerome made news in 1917, when strikes involving the IWW led to the expulsion at gunpoint of about 60 IWW members.

We drive to Oak Creek Canyon on yet another bright, sunny day. Our Wilson Creek trail2 Oak Creek Canyon AZ Dec 2013dayhike is on the incredibly beautiful, picturesque Wilson Creek Trail. In the late 1970s, I would tag along with friends from Flagstaff to go tubing at Slickrock in Oak Creek Canyon. So enjoyable is the hike that Ann and I vow to want to return to Oak Creek a number of times to enjoy the many gorgeous trails there.

Our last Arizona stop is Flagstaff, where Northern Arizona University is found. I was a student at NAU for three years from 1978 through 1981 before transferring to the State University of New York at Plattsburgh to finish a degree in environmental science.

I had not been to Flagstaff in 33 years, and despite having lived there for three years, I did not recognize anything in Flagstaff, or on the university campus.

My favorite drinking and live music nightclub when I was a student was a place called “Shakey Drakes.” It has since become a strip club briefly, and is now a Thai restaurant. My buddies and I drank many pitchers of Schlitz beer there while enjoying performances by our favorite local band – “Loosely Tight.” According to Wikipedia, Loosely Tight was based out of Phoenix, got a lot of airplay on KDKB radio station (our favorite rock station), and the band came to prominence after taking top honors at the 1979 California World Music Festival. My favorite song by Loosely Tight was a song called “Renegade.”

As they say, “you can’t go home again,” as communities change quickly (and old friends move out of town).

For old times sake, I return to my old college dorm – Peterson Hall – and Peterson Jam 1980 and Dec 2013actually remember my old dorm room door. We go into the basement and I “reenact” my being a rock star where I had played air guitar with a plywood guitar in 1980. Later, I stitch together a photo of my 2013 visit to a shot taken of me there in 1980. The white metal trusses on the ceiling match, which provides evidence that the venue is the same.

 

 

Here are the photos we shot during our visits to Arcosanti, Jerome, Oak Creek Canyon, and Flagstaff. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left.

Arcosanti and Jerome:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/ArcosoniAndJeromeAZ

Oak Creek Canyon:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/OakCreekCanyonAZDec2013

Flagstaff:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/FlagstaffDec2013

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Dom’s Adventure Tour of Southwest Colorado (September-October 2013)

A Florida friend and I opt for an eight-day adventure tour of Southwest Colorado, a place neither one of us has previously visited. The trip will heavily focus on checking out national parks. As is generally the case with us, we have not made any lodging reservations in advance, but simply assume we will find hotel rooms on the road. That way, we preserve flexibility on where and when our trip finds us.

We drive our tiny rental car – a GM Spark – from the Denver airport on a Thursday night to Buena Vista, Colorado – a gateway for many adventures in Colorado. The beautiful view we see the next morning of the striking Collegiate Peaks to the west of town gives Buena Vista its name. Buena Vista beautiful view from town, Sept 2013 M

I have selected a hike on the Hartenstein Lake trail between Buena Vista and Cottonwood Pass. Immediately after we depart from the trailhead, we find ourselves immersed in the bright yellow colors of aspen trees changing color in the fall. Soon, we find ourselves hiking in a snowstorm that dumps six inches on us. A rude awakening for my Florida friend, but we press on to the lake. A disconcerting thought occurs to me: When we turn around to return to the trailhead, will we get lost due to the snow hiding our tracks on the poorly marked trail? Fortunately, this does not happen. A night spent in the national forest of Colorado at high elevations in the snow would have been quite grim for two hikers utterly unprepared for such a night.

Three days after this hike, we are stunned by the news that five hikers (three of whom were family members) have been killed in a rock slide on a Colorado trail. At first, we thought the trail was hundreds of miles away near Denver. But we then learn that they were hiking only a few miles to the southeast of our Hartenstein Lake trail.

After our hike, we reverse our plans. Instead of next driving to the Black Canyon National Park, we double back east. For much of the drive, I am cruising on a multi-lane highway, making for easy passing in the passing lane. Unfortunately, this state of affairs lulls me into complacency. I begin passing a large recreational vehicle and casually see a wonderful view of snow-capped peaks in my rear-view mirror. I nonchalantly urge my friend to have a glimpse of the wonderful view. Fortunately, my friend happens to be paying more attention to the road than I am, as he looks up from the map he is looking at to see that I am on a two-lane road with the other lane carrying traffic coming towards us. IN OTHER WORDS, I AM NO LONGER ON A MULTI-LANE HIGHWAY. He sees a vehicle in the opposing lane a short distance from us and rapidly closing on us for a possible high-speed head-on collision. YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!!!!, he shouts at me. Startled back into paying attention to the road rather than the mountains, I immediately realize that I’ve made a potentially deadly mistake. I hit the brakes and quickly drop back into my own lane behind the recreational vehicle. WHEW!!

Despite my driving blunder, we safely arrive at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dunes are the tallest in North America. The dunes are otherworldly immense (32,643 acres in size, with another 40,595 acres in National Preserve). Most sand, we learn, comes from the San Juan Mountains, 65 miles to the west. The dunes are about 440,000 years in age. A storm is rolling in as we start out onto the dunes, and we are pelted by a cold rain. We press on, and are soon on a sand dune ridgeline. Here, winds that must be approaching 100 mph are pounding us. So this is what it is like to be caught in a sandstorm! We opt to stop in our tracks periodically while being battered, and quickly move forward only when the winds have mercifully died down. Finally, we arrive at our goal: we summit the highest sand dune peak at the park. For weeks afterwards, I am finding sand in my ears and in my clothes.

Here are the photos we shot during our first day of adventure. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GreatSandDunesColorado

Here is a video I shot of the Great Sand Dunes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biHF_0lpPLE&feature=c4-overview&list=UUr3Iyrr6_pzCS56wz0_ELGA

On Saturday, we opt to visit the nearby Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, which is 11,169 acres in size. Large areas of marsh flank the Rio Grande River here, and it reminds me of Paynes Prairie State Preserve in Gainesville, Florida, where I formerly lived. We then drive Route 160 west, an extremely scenic route that takes us along the south side of Colorado. My road map indicates which roads are considered scenic, but oddly, this section of Route 160 is not one of them. I suggest to make-makers that they add the route…

On our drive, we stop to enjoy the impressive Treasure Falls. See photo below.

Treasure Falls, Rt 160, Colorado, Sept 2013We visit the famous, acclaimed mountain town of Durango. The town was organized in September 1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to serve the San Juan mining district. The city is named after Durango, Mexico, which was named after Durango, Spain. The word Durango originates from the Basque word “Urango” meaning “water town”. In 2010, 16,887 people lived in Durango. We find a noticeably vibrant town center here, despite being in an off-season. As an urban designer and transportation planner, however, I would suggest an important renovation to the town: Your main street is overweight. It is too big to create a human-scaled sense of place. Please consider putting your main street on a road diet by reducing it from four and five lanes to three lanes. You’ll end up being much more wonderful.

Here are the photos we shot while driving in southern Colorado:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/SouthernColoradoSept2013

Late in the day, we arrive at Mesa Verde National Park. The park was created in 1906 to preserve the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people, after being discovered by local ranchers in the 1880s. There are 4,500 archeological sites at the park, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. We hike the Knife Edge trail. On the Park Point trail, we watch the sun set over the horizon. While at Park Point, I am astonished to see that we can view the famous “shiprock” geological structure hundreds of miles away in Arizona. The views all around us on these two trails are big.

The next morning, we make the surprisingly long drive from the tiny town of Mancos to the famous Cliff Palace Pueblo ruins at Mesa Verde. The Pueblo started living in this area in 550 AD. The guided tour provided by the park ranger was exceptionally interesting. We also take a self-guided hike to the Soda Canyon Overlook nearby.

We then enjoy a guided tour of the Balcony House ruins, which is also embedded in the Mesa Verde cliffs. Both Balcony House and Cliff Palace afforded the Pueblo with astounding views into the distance, which surely provided good defense from possible invaders (although our rangers inform us that it is not clear that the settlers had to defend themselves in their over 700 years living there).Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde NP2, Sept 2013

At both Balcony House and Cliff Palace, we see well-preserved “Kiva Houses,” which are round depressions that acted as a venue for much of the life and ceremonies of the Pueblo.

After our visit to Mesa Verde, we finish our day with a short trip to hike the Pass Creek trail and Little Molas Lake. We find a room at the historic Grand Imperial Hotel in the historic mining town of Silverton, which is surrounded by impressive San Juan Mountains. Silverton is a former silver mining camp, most or all of which is now included in a federally designated National Historic Landmark District, the Silverton Historic District. Silverton is linked to Durango by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Silverton had a population in 2010 of 638 people.

Here are the photos we shot on this day at Mesa Verde:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/MesaVerdeNPAndSanJuanMtns

Monday turns out to be The Day of Debacles. Our plan is to hike the highly-rated Highland Mary Lakes trail. But because trail guidebooks today place too much reliance on navigating by GPS (which we don’t own), the guidebooks deliver us a bum steer. Our drive on the very rough, narrow, steep, harrowing, rocky road has us make a wrong turn, which means we unknowingly hike a trail that we THINK is Highland Mary Lakes but turns out to be a nearby, seemingly unnamed trail. Fortunately, the trail – like most all trails in Colorado – is quite impressive. We realize we must not be on Highland Mary San Juan Mtns hike near Highland Mary Lakes trail8, Sept 2013Lakes trail when we thoroughly scope out the mountain ampitheatre at the end of the canyon we are hiking. Where are the three lakes, we ask ourselves. Nowhere to be found. Oops.

Because we had extra hiking time, we then opt to hike the Hope Lake trail from the optional east side approach. But again, the guidebook assumes we are using GPS, and leads us astray. We never find Hope Lake. Not only that. In our futile search, we actually lose sight of each other, and only discover each other hours after we split up.

Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/SanJuanMtnsHiking

The next day more than compensates for The Day of Debacles.

On our drive to the town of Ouray and the Ice Lake hike, we notice that Route 550 from Silverton to Ouray is eye-popping in its splendor. So much so that there are groups of professional photographers with their $10,000 cameras and tripods at each of the road overlooks on Rt 550. Along the way, we are treated to several clusters of glowing, gorgeous, fiery yellow aspen tree clusters, and the bright strawberry red-streaked mountain peaks in our view.

I must say that in this section of my driving that unlike my near head-on collision, I was forced to pay close attention to the road, as the drive on Rt 550 from Silverton to Ouray has many more sharp hairpin turns than any road I have ever driven on.

In 2010, Ouray had a population of 1,000. Originally established by miners chasing silver and gold in the surrounding mountains, Ouray at one time boasted more horses and mules than people. Prospectors arrived in the area in 1875. At the height of the mining, Ouray had more than 30 active mines. The drive along the Uncompahgre River and over the pass is nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway.

I suggest we experience the Ice Lakes trail. It turns out to be one of the best, most gorgeous hikes we have ever done. Simply spectacular! Early in the hike, we unintentionally take a diversion side trail off the main trail in order to cross at the top of a very tall waterfall off to our right. It was a very steep climb to arrive at the precipice of the falls. Over the precipice is a wooden log structure. Logs are lashed together facing in the direction of waterfall movement, with another set of logs running perpendicular to the lashed logs. I arrive first, and notice that one side is ponded water and the other side of the wood platform is relatively dry logs (the relatively dry side, however, is unprotected, as the perpendicular logs are not between the falls and the hiker. Nevertheless, I foolishly decide that the exposed, dry logs are the place I will cross. I’m holding the trail guidebook in my right hand as I tentatively cross a section I presume is adequately safe. But I slip on an incredibly slippery log. In an instant, I am on my butt, only a few feet from surely falling to my doom over the falls. As you will see in the photos below, my hiking buddy had his camera ready and shot a photo of me only feet from my death. I jokingly tell him that it was good he got a photo, rather than doingn something to save me, and that I would return the favor if I see him plummeting over a cliff to his demise.

Overall, a VERY close call.

Ice Lake turns out to be, by far, the bluest lake I have ever seen in my life. So blue that it does not look real. It looks more like a Dr Suess cartoon. I could not stop taking photos of it.Dom on Ice Lake hike41, Oct 2013

We also hike to the nearby Island Lake, which was nearly as spectacular as Ice Lake. I also opt to hike to Fuller Lake. We then notice that the stream near us is a bright white color in its bed. Is it the “glacial till” (“white flour”) I had heard about in my geology classes in college?

Here are the photos we shot on this day in the San Juan Mountains:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/IceLakeHikeOct2013

On Wednesday, we hike the Bear Creek trail, said to be the most spectacular of all four of the Bear Creek trails in Colorado. The trail has two very interesting mine site ruins: Grizzly Bear Mine and Yellow Jacket Mine. Near Grizzly Bear, we enter and explore a long mine shaft adjacent to the trail. At both mines, we puzzle over how on earth the original miners were able to haul in large, very heavy iron to build their mine processing machines. Mules? Trains?

I find myself laboring and gasping for air as I ascend the steep switchbacks of Bear Creek. I tell Mike that these miners were surely in top physical condition by having this sort of daily commute carrying their heavy pick axes up these steep trail sections. The views along Bear Creek are astounding. Did the miners even notice the views?

The Bear Creek trail is “infamous” largely because it has trails that are noticeably narrow, are often skirting along rock walls, and have a tremendous amount of exposure to very scary and enormous cliff drops. One misstep and it is all over…For us, however, while these frightening trail sections look worrisome as we come upon them, hiking on them is less dangerous than we expect.

Yellow Jacket Mine ruins, Bear Creek hike58, Oct 2013We end our day by visiting Box Canyon Falls and Cascade Falls – both of which are on the periphery of Ouray. Box Canyon Falls have a VERY loud roar. The roar of the thundering hoof beats of a huge herd of horses. We read an interpretive sign that informs us that if the energy of the falls were harnessed by a hydroelectric plant, the falls could supply nearly all of the electrical needs of the Town of Ouray. The deafening sound of the falls makes me believe it. I decide that the falls are so powerful that it would be impossible for a human to stand in them. It would be equivalent to being shot at by a machine gun spray of bullets.

Here are the photos we shot on this day in Ouray and the Bear Creek trail:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/BearCreekHikeOct2013

On our final day of adventuring, we opt for a 14-mile paddle in inflatable kayaks (commonly called “duckies”), which takes us through the northern section of Gunny Gorge National Conservation Area and Wilderness on the Gunnison River. The Gunny Gorge area is 62,844 acres in size, and was designated in 1999. As I noticed during a canoe trip through Escalante Canyon on the Gunnison River, the canyons which the river passes through is a treasure trove for geology class field trips. Indeed, the geological history for these canyons is said to span 1.7 BILLION years. The Gunny Gorge has been inhabited by humans for at least 13,000 years.

During our kayak paddle, we come upon a sign that reads: “EXTREME DANGER!!!! WATERFALL AHEAD!! EXIT IMMEDIATELY!!!”

Of course, we ignore the sign – partly because our kayak rental manager had told us to do so. But then we come upon a second warning sign, and soon we are upon a river that is nearly entirely roped off by warning signposts for the falls. Did the manager lie to us? We carefully navigate to the western side, and are disappointed to see that we have therefore paddled past what looks to be a wonderfully enjoyable Class II-III sluice where the dam used to be. Damn!

Fortunately, we had previously enjoyed several Class II ripples and whitewater wave trains upstream.

In the middle of our adventure week, the dysfunctional U.S. Congress has created yet another fiasco: For the first time in 17 years, congressional fighting forced a Federal Government shutdown. The result, for us, was that our final destination – the Black Canyon National Forest – had closed and locked its gates. We surprisingly did not “stand tall for freedom” by running over the gates with our car to enter…

We were, however, one of the few Americans this past week who had not only visited three federal parks in the past few days, but had hiked on federal forest lands for many of those days as well. HMPF!

After our paddle, we drive through – for us – the previously unheard of Curecanti National Recreation Area, which is an extension of the Black Canyon adjacent to the east. Here we enjoy STUNNING fall colors. Some of the best fall colors I have ever seen. I need to return for fall colors here in future years.

A fitting conclusion to a week of adventuring in Southwest Colorado.

Here are the photos we shot on this final day on the Gunny Gorge and Curecanti NRA:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GunnyGorgeKayakingCurecantiNationalRecreationalArea

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking, Miscellaneous, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summiting Longs Peak

Standing boldly, the mountain dominates the sky at 14,259 feet. Its prominent size means that it attracts dangerous Longs Pk in Rocky Mtn National Park from Knobtop trail July 2012thunder- and hailstorms nearly every day in the summer. About half of all those who attempt to summit this monster fail to reach the top. On average, two climbers die in their attempt to summit this massive mountain each year.

Longs Peak is the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, and perhaps the most infamous, fearsome and dreaded fourteener in Colorado. A popular goal for Colorado mountain climbers is to summit “fourteeners” (mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation). And Longs, despite its dangers, is the most well-known fourteener in Colorado.

In December 2014, this danger was proclaimed by Outside Magazine, which listed Longs as one of the 20 most dangerous hikes in the world.

For several months, I had felt some anxiety about summiting Longs. A friend down the street had told me he had run a marathon, but summiting Longs was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. Would I be in good enough shape to do it?

Each time I hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park, Longs loomed menacingly on the horizon. Could I actually climb that angry beast? And what about all of the scary lore surrounding the mountain?

On Friday, July 26, 2013, I meet a group of adventurers at the crazy hour of 3 a.m. at the “Bustop,” a “gentleman’s club” located next to a major Boulder bus stop on North Broadway. We meet to take on the mountain, and like most climbers of Longs, our plan includes meeting at this early hour to reduce the likely chance of getting caught in a dangerous storm at the summit.

Our carpool reaches the Longs Peak ranger station and trailhead at the very early hour of 4 a.m. Already the parking lot is filled almost to capacity with climbers. “Are we starting too late?” I think to myself. Indeed, in 2014, an employee for Old Town Outfitters in Longmont CO recommended starting at 2 a.m. The weather forecast, which I had checked a number of times over the past few days, has gone from a 40-percent to a 50-percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Would they be early afternoon storms? Or late, after we have escaped the mountain?

My group starts heading up the mountain at 4:20 a.m. In front of us is 7.5 miles of rugged, sometimes treacherous trail. Our pace is torrid, as each of us is well aware of the importance of being off the storm-battered summit as early in the day as possible. Our anxiousness is heightened by the fact that NONE of us have ever summited Longs before, which I must admit seems troubling to me.

Ahead of us is an intimidating elevation gain of 5,100 feet. This will be the tallest mountain I have ever climbed. And surely the most physically demanding.

Each of us is wearing an LED headlamp, as this early hour makes the trail corridor leading into the pine forest utterly black.

By 5:30 a.m., we are above treeline (the trailhead is perched at just over 9,000 feet in elevation). We look back to see a gorgeous, bright orange sunrise coming up over mountains to our east. Our headlamps come off.

Longs Peak climb3 July 2013Soon we reach the trail junction that takes climbers either to Chasm Lake — which I had hiked to the foot of Longs last year. Or to Longs summit. We stop at the junction to use the “privy,” and to shoot photos in the morning sun, which is making Longs a glowing giant.

Here, we are quite close to the summit, and it seems that we can reach the peak in 15 minutes. But we know from our research that we are barely into the climb. That we have several hours of arduous work in front of us to reach the top. The trail to the well-known “Keyhole” (an extremely common gateway to the summit) takes one on a circuitous, back and forth route — much of which is over the large, challenging Boulder Field.

At a little after 6 a.m., we see the “Keyhole” on the horizon. Between us is the difficult Boulder Field. For years, I had thought that a large notch near the summit was the famous “Keyhole,” but today I learn otherwise.

A few nights before, my girlfriend Ann and I were providing a farewell dinner to a woman I had been good friends with in Upstate New York 40 years ago. She was the girl I had my first crush on, and we had coincidentally chosen to live in the same town (Boulder) many years later on the other side of the country.

Like others, we heard from her that when she summited Longs many years ago, a woman with her took one look over the ridgeline of the “Keyhole,” lost her nerve, and turned back, rather than try to negotiate a trail at the edge of a terrifying cliff hundreds of feet above a rock-filled valley.Keyhole on Longs Peak climb2 July 2013

Would I find the courage and press on after glimpsing over the “Keyhole” edge? Or would I fearfully turn around, like so many others have done?

“Hell,” I tell myself as we approach it. “If lots of others can find the gumption, so can I!”

We reach the “Keyhole.” Instead of terror, I feel exhilaration. Before us is a spectacular view of mountain ranges in the Rockies. And the trail on the west side leaving the “Keyhole” (known as the Ledges) looks much less narrow than I had been warned about previously.

It is here that we first spot the “bulls eye” red and yellow circles painted on several boulders along the trail. Descriptions I had read earlier led me to believe there was only one such trail marker, and it was in a boulder field near the summit. But we thankfully find a great many markers showing us the way. Without them, it was clear to me that I would make dangerous, mistaken guesses on to which direction to head in trying to find my way.

From Keyhole on Longs Peak climb July 2013At the end of the Ledges, we reach a quite long, steep boulder field. I look up and decide the summit is surely reached just beyond this ascent. Near the top of this ascent, there is a quite steep little climb that one must negotiate. Like a number of other climbs we must overcome this day, the climb has few foot- or hand-holds. Somehow I manage to scramble up it. Once at the top, I learn that the Longs summit is NOT just ahead. Instead, we are at the gateway to the next trail section, which has the frightening name of “The Narrows.”

It is said that the final mile and a half to the summit is the most difficult part of the ascent. I soon learn why.

Instead of immediately starting on the Narrows, I must wait several minutes, as a long line of climbers are descending in the opposite direction from me, and the entrance to the Narrows is one-way in width. The group is moving exceptionally slowly, as the descent down the narrow, slick chute I had just ascended is a challenge for those going down this V-shaped passage.

Finally, the entrance is clear and I start on the aptly-named Narrows, which is quite tiny in width (only a few feet wide). And unlike the Ledges, this trail has a much more steep, almost cliff-like drop-off at its edge. It takes my breath away. “I’M GOING TO CLIMB ACROSS THAT????” Worried, I find myself deliberately leaning strongly toward the mountain to feel less like I’ll plummet to my doom down into the rocky valley hundreds of feet below.

Several times, I feel nausea. And vertigo. I think to myself about how dangerous it must be to be caught in a thunderstorm while traversing the Narrows. To top it off, I am gasping for air most of the way. Very little oxygen at the elevation we find ourselves at: well over 12,000 feet.Dom negotiating a difficult section on Longs July 2013

The Narrows turns out to be quite long. And extremely exposed (i.e., very little, if any, protection between the trail edge and the big drop-off). I had earlier convinced myself that this scary-sounding trail would be only 20 or 30 feet in length. But it actually turns out to be much, much longer than that (it seemed like well over a mile in distance to me). It is on the Narrows that one in our group of five tries repeatedly to climb a steep, slippery pitch, but is unable to do so. With deer-in-the-headlights eyes, she loses her nerve and hikes back to the keyhole. Five others could not find the courage either, as our original group of ten had narrowed to five at the trailhead.

Many of the smooth-faced boulders we climb are disconcertingly slick due to spring water issuing from the mountain. I find myself quite surprised by how treacherous some of the very tricky climbs are that I come upon during my assault. That’s me in the yellow rain jacket and Australian Barmah hat in the photo — a little worried about whether I can avoid slipping to my death.

Indeed, 20 days later, a 24-year old man plummeted 150 feet to his death during his traverse of the Narrows.

I had been ready for the tough physical exertion. But nothing could prepare me in advance for the Narrows.

Finally, I am at the end of the Narrows. Above me is about 300 feet of a very steep rock face (a section of the climb known as the “Homestretch”). But instead of feeling dread, I feel relieved. “Once I climb this, I will be at the top of Longs Peak!” I can The Homestretch on Longs Peak climb2 July 2013already see the tiny figures of climbers looking down from the summit. A photo I shot of the Homestretch is to the left.

After almost an hour of hard climbing on the face of the Homestretch, I reach the goal. I am at the summit of Longs Peak — the Top of the World — at 10 a.m.! Slightly more than 5.5 hours after starting the climb.

The views at the summit are 360 degrees of fabulous mountain ranges.

But the danger is not over, as the descent from the summit along the Keyhole route is said to be the place where most injuries occur. I learn that on the descent on the Homestretch, the steep pitch dangerously coexists with a shocking amount of loose rock and gravel. For much of my descent here, I was surprised that me and other climbers were not starting large rockslides.

A minor hailstorm begins to rain down on us. I pick up my pace as it is not clear to me that minor will not transform itself into major

We get back to the trailhead at 3 p.m.

An extremely physically demanding climb, and a number of surprisingly difficult sections that climbers must contend with. Incredible views.

An unforgettable experience.

Here is a description from Wikipedia:

Longs Peak is one of the 53 mountains with summits over 14,000 feet in Colorado. It can be prominently seen from Longmont, Colorado, as well as from the rest of the Colorado Front Range. It is named after Major Stephen Long, who explored the area in the 1820s. Longs Peak is one of the most prominent mountains in Colorado, rising 7,000 feet above the town of Estes Park, Colorado to the northeast, and 9,000 feet above the town of Lyons, Colorado to the east.

As the only “fourteener” in Rocky Mountain National Park, the peak has long been of interest to climbers.The Keyhold on Longs Peak climb5 July 2013

The first recorded ascent was in 1868 by the surveying party of John Wesley Powell. The East Face of the mountain is quite steep, and is surmounted by a gigantic sheer cliff known as “The Diamond” (so-named because of its shape, approximately that of a cut diamond seen from the side and inverted).

In 1954 the first proposal made to the National Park Service to climb The Diamond was met with an official closure, a stance not changed until 1960. The Diamond was first ascended by Dave Rearick and Bob Kamps that year, by a route that would come to be known simply as D1. This route would later be listed in Allen Steck and Steve Roper’s influential book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

Longs Peak has one glacier named Mills Glacier. The glacier is located around 12,800 feet at the base of the Eastern Face, just above Chasm Lake. Another permanent snowfield, called The Dove, is located north of Longs Peak. Longs Peak is one of fewer than 50 mountains in Colorado that have a glacier.

Trails that ascend Longs Peak include the East Longs Peak Trail, the Longs Peak Trail, the Keyhole Route, Clark’s Arrow and the Shelf Trail. Most days, no technical climbing is required to reach the summit of Longs Peak during the summer season, which typically runs from mid July through early September. Outside of this window the popular “Keyhole” route is still open, however its rating is upgraded to “technical” as treacherous ice formation and snow fall necessitates the use of specialized climbing equipment including, at a minimum, crampons and an ice axe.

It is one of the most difficult Class 3 fourteener scrambles in Colorado. The climb from the trailhead to the summit is 8 miles each way. Most climbers begin before dawn in order to reach the summit and return below the tree line before frequent afternoon thunderstorms bring a risk of lightning strikes. The most difficult portion of the climb begins at the Boulder Field, 6.4 miles into the climb. After scrambling over the boulders, climbers reach the Keyhole at 6.7 miles.

The Narrows on Longs Peak climb8 July 2013The following quarter of a mile involves a scramble along narrow ledges, many of which may have nearly sheer cliffs of 1,000 feet or more just off the edge. The next portion of the climb includes climbing over 600 vertical feet up the Trough before reaching the most exposed section of the climb, the Narrows. Just beyond the Narrows, the Notch signifies the beginning of the Homestretch, a steep climb to the football field-sized, flat summit. It is possible to camp out overnight in the Boulder Field (permit required) which makes for a less arduous two day climb, although this is fairly exposed to the elements. 57 people have died climbing or hiking Longs Peak. According to the National Park Service, 2 people, on average, die every year attempting to climb the mountain. In the summer of 2005 a Japanese climber was blown off a ledge after reaching the summit. On September 3, 2006 a man fell 800 feet to his death when some rocks let go while he was descending the Loft route. Less experienced mountaineers are encouraged to use a guide for this summit to mitigate risk and increase the probability of a summit.

Here are the photos I shot during the ascent. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/DomNozziSummitingLongSPeak

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paddling the Gunnison River between Escalante and Whitewater (July 2013)

Ann and I sign up for an adventure company group canoe trip along the 26-mile stretch between the Escalante bridge and the town of Whitewater. This section of river is mostly class I, with small amounts of class II water. We pass through both Gunnison River canoe trip70 July 2013Escalante and Dominquez Canyons, where we find extremely impressive canyon walls up to 800 feet tall, and an arid, desert-like landscape.

The 26-mile paddle takes two full days. We tent camp along the river for two nights, with our three guides providing river guidance, water and wine, three cooked meals each day, and dishwashing.

Along the way, we stop in Dominguez Canyon, where we hike into the canyon. There, we enjoy an extremely refreshing waterfall and pool of water, spot several Bighorn Sheep, and find a number of “pictographs,” which are ancient boulder drawings dating back to 400 AD. The drawings are called pictographs because the artists picked small depressions into the rock to create relatively permanent art.

While at this canyon, we learn of Billy Rambo, who has lived alone in Little Dominguez Canyon for most all of his 93 years. The Bureau of Land Management has granted him a life-lease for the 2.5 acres he lives on. His nephew is said to deliver him supplies each week.Gunnison River canoe trip41 July 2013

The river during our two days of paddling was a chocolate brown color due to a severe thunderstorm that struck the region the day before our trip, and the many flash floods the storm created had deposited a great deal of silt into the water. Nevertheless, the water cooled us down many times as we often slipped into it for a swim.

The canyon walls are fascinating because they clearly show many layers of rock, sand dune, and sediment deposition over the millions of years of the creation of the canyon. The black gneiss rock found in the Dominguez Canyon is exceptionally rare, and both the layers and the gneiss make these canyons a superb place for geology field trips and study.

The Gunnison River is formed by the confluence of Taylor and East rivers at Almont in eastern Gunnison County.

Here are the photos I shot during our trip. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/GunnisonRiverCanoeTrip

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My First 14er: Mt Bierstadt, June 2013

I ascended my first-ever mountain summit that is over 14,000 feet yesterday. Mount Bierstadt is in a gorgeous setting. Long vista views of valleys and the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies. And abundant wildflowers.Bierstadt Mtn hike16 June 2013

According to Wikipedia, Mount Bierstadt is found in the Front Range region of the Rocky Mountains, in Clear Creek County, Colorado, 12 miles south of the charming little mining town of Georgetown. It is one of 54 fourteeners (mountains with peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation) in Colorado. It is located approximately 1.5 miles west-southwest of Mount Evans. It was named for Albert Bierstadt, a popular painter of Colorado’s Rockies of the 19th century.

We started relatively early at 7:50 a.m. to try to avoid thunderstorms at the summit, as had the 360 hikers who had arrived before us that morning, but our timing could not have been worse. Gasping loudly for air as I scrambled up the slope (very little oxygen at 14,000 feet!), I reached the boulder field about 100 yards from the summit. When I was about 50 feet from the summit, two very loud thunderclaps roared as they struck and shook us. The hair on my arms literally stood on end, which is the first time that has happened to me since I was a teenager. Since I was so close, I did NOT turn and scramble down the mountain to get to safety, as one must do when that happens (indeed, a large group of hikers were rushing towards me as I continued ascending). I figured another 60 seconds would not significantly add to my risk. The 14,060-foot summit was irresistible, mostly because I had never climbed to 14,000 feet before.

Summit Fever.

I had become infected with the infamous, well-known affliction of many mountaineers.

Once at the summit due to my fever, I witnessed a young man PROPOSING to his girlfriend. She threw her arms straight up in the air and yelled “YES!!!” Joyfully. Quite an unforgettable proposal at 14,060 feet in the middle of a violent thunderstorm! I quickly snapped some photos. The views were so breathtaking that I could not resist, despite the thunderbolts blasting near me.

Then, as I turned and high tailed it off the summit, a strong HAILSTORM erupted. The boulder field became very slick as I leapt from boulder to boulder. (Many of the hikers with exposed skin looked like they had the measles at the bottom due to the hailstones that had pelted them.) As I looked at the wall of hail approaching us on the summit, I Bierstadt Mtn hike36 June 2013could see that the thickest part of the wall of white was passing right over our heads. We therefore had not only awful timing, but the misfortune to be in the bulls eye center of the storm.

Rushing to escape the storm, my hands became numb from the hail and cold rain, which forced me to don winter gloves. Quite an odd experience, given the fact that I was sweltering in 97-degree weather the day before in Boulder.

The hike was a good preparation hike for what I will do in four weeks: Long’s Peak, the most feared 14er in Colorado. That hike will be TWICE as long as Bierstadt, and has almost twice as much elevation gain (5,000 feet). It will be 12-14 hours of climbing up to the summit and returning to the trailhead. We will start at 3 a.m. to avoid storms. Since Bierstadt was so exhausting to me, thinking about Long’s has me a bit worried. A friend down the street has run a marathon, but he says summiting Long’s was the most difficult thing he has ever done…

Here are the photos I shot during the ascent. For the best view, after you are taken to the Picasa photos, don’t forget to click on “slideshow” in the upper left:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/MyFirst14erMtBierstadt

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Strained by Boulder Creek Whitewater

Having spent over 20 years paddling nearly all of the navigable flatwater creeks and rivers in Florida, the over two decades of kayaking experience I had would be of little use when I relocated to Boulder, Colorado, a city abutting the Rocky Mountains. Here, the younger, steep mountains deliver high velocity waters due to a more abrupt force of gravity. And when rivers delivering this water do so at high water volumes, the force can be terrifying for kayakers and canoeists.

There is very little time, unlike in the gentle Florida waters, to react when paddling in the Rockies. The often rampaging current can be quite unforgiving to those who do not make split-second decisions (decisions that must be accurate), and those who do not have the strength to battle the powerful flow of water.

But my passion for kayaking would be too high for me to be dissuaded by the more risky waters found in the Rockies, so my search began for rivers and creeks that I could run.

In my first few years trying to develop the new and much more challenging task of kayaking in Boulder, my few attempts are made much more difficult by making the mistake of purchasing an expert-level “playboat” kayak, which is faster and more responsive than I am prepared for, and which would regularly flip me upside down – even in relatively gentle waters.

Eventually, I discover on a guided trip at the Colorado River with a rented kayak that an inflatable kayak is much more forgiving, and better suited to my skill level, without compromising on my adventure and adrenalin needs. Therefore, over the course of the next year, I search far and wide for an affordable inflatable kayak to buy.

Finally, I find a Stearns inflatable being sold by someone in Tacoma, Washington. The boat arrives just as Boulder is starting to see elevated water levels from spring snowmelt in 2013. Stearns Inflatable Kayak I bought in May 2013

Here in Boulder, the most popular creek for whitewater kayaking and tubing is the relatively narrow Boulder Creek. From its source at the confluence of the North and Middle Boulder forks, Boulder Creek races down Boulder Canyon and through downtown Boulder. On the east edge of the city, the creek joins South Boulder Creek, which originates at Rogers Pass on the Continental Divide, just south of the Moffat Tunnel.

After leaving the city, Boulder Creek flows northeast into Weld County, where it joins St. Vrain Creek, and on to a confluence with the Platte River. Its waters ultimately flow into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

At the lower flows, Boulder Creek is a technical run with lots of boulders and eddies. At higher flows (over 400 cfs), there are waves. There are small, unforgiving, man-made holes. And there is faster water.

In my research for information about running Boulder Creek by kayak, I find one description that noted that when the creek goes under Arapahoe Avenue for the second time, the river turns into a Class I-II run (much easier than upstream of that location). The description went on to point out that the creek is not very deep, which means that when higher-velocity waters are running, less skilled kayakers will be beat up if or when they flip. The creek, as this person mentions, lacks good shore eddies for novices, especially for rescues.

Given that, I am careful to scout the creek by bicycle along the Boulder Creek path. I investigate the portions of Boulder Creek within the city which I am considering running. As a relatively new whitewater kayaker, I want to avoid any big drops or big wave rapids.

In my survey, I discover that there is a section of creek that starts at 30th Street and Scott Carpenter Park and runs to the 55th Street bridge that is free of drops (waterfalls where kayakers find more challenging, scary waters).

With my new inflatable kayak, I decide I would christen the boat using my relatively novice whitewater skills in this easier this section of the creek.

For a number of days, my plans to try out my boat keep being put off by my busy schedule. Finally, on a sunny mid-June day in 2013, the opportunity arrives.

I had earlier learned that Boulder Creek at 150-400 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water flow is the best range of volume discharge for kayaking. This generally occurs in May and June. Today, however, it was running at its highest level so far for the season: 420 cfs. A level that is a bit worrisome to me. Here are two short videos I shot of what Boulder Creek looked like during the spring snowmelt run-off in June of 2011 (to give you a good idea of what I would be up against today):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKtn14pe3hc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy3rZDikwUA

My girlfriend Ann repeatedly tries to talk me out of it, thinking this high level would be too dangerous for someone with my lack of skills on a brand new, untested boat. Not only that, but I’d be paddling a stretch of river I had never been on before. And would do so without a buddy watching my back…

Generously, however, she agrees to accompany me to scout the creek by bicycle after our Sunday pancake breakfast ritual to see what the water looks like, and whether others are crazy enough to kayak or tube it. Seeing no others, we opt to bike to a kayak and tube rental shop nearby, and learn that while the creek is running too high for tubing, the shop manager and a few others had just kayaked the section I was considering the night before, and found that it was reasonably free of “strainers,” which are low-hanging tree branches that can snag kayakers and trap [and sometimes drown] them.

He convinces us that the section I am electing to run would be a good, fun idea. Ann thankfully agrees.

Ann drives me to a good put-in spot at Scott Carpenter Park. Through trial and error, I eventually figure out how to inflate my kayak to proper firmness. I then carry my very bad-ass kayak – bad-ass because it is painted in camouflage patterns to allow stealth activity and avoid having the kayaker look like a dork — to a place under the 30th Street bridge that had relatively gentle waters. Ann and I agree that she would meet me an hour later (our wild, conservative guess as to the longest possible time it could take me to navigate the distance) at an agreed-upon take-out point that we had earlier scouted. A place that raised worries as to whether I could manage to navigate to a gentle eddie where I could step out of the river – a navigation that was questionable due to the relatively high volume and velocity of the creek water on this day, and the relative lack of eddies on this creek.

Back at the put-in point we found, I slip into my camo bad-boy kayak under the 30th Street bridge. Ann bids farewell and bicycles down the creek path, hoping to catch (worried) glimpses of me (and jealous because she can now see that the creek water looks like a lot of fun). I happily and confidently inch forward with my paddle, and the current soon grabs me.

I’m off!

Very soon, I am feeling as if I perhaps got myself into more than I bargained for. The water and waves are bigger and faster than I had anticipated. The current is so strong (particularly compared to the quiet Florida waters I was accustomed to) that I quickly realize I would have to rapidly and strongly paddle hard to avoid being sent crashing into tree branches. Two unexpectedly large S-turns require me to quickly learn how to dig in with my paddle and steer into the middle of the current. PAY ATTENTION, DOM! YOU ARE NOT IN KANSAS (Florida) ANYMORE!

My breathing is coming hard, and worry is in my head. Would the boat repeatedly flip like my earlier kayak had done – sending me into the icy cold snowmelt waters?

Fortunately, my new boat turns out to be very stable and never gives the impression that it is on the verge of flipping.

Several times, the strong current disconcertingly forces me under small tree branches that harmlessly brush over and past me. Whew! Boulder_creek_colorado

No big tree limbs yet. Nothing strong enough to catch me in a deadly strainer.

But I do find myself at this point beginning to question the accuracy of the claim that this stretch of the creek was relatively free of strainers and other obstacles. And I realize that because I am on much faster water than I had expected, I would finish running this section in what seems like 3 minutes. NOT an hour!

Another hair-raising, unexpected discovery then appears. I have not one, but two drops and big waves in front of me! I had seen no drops while scouting the section twice. What are these doing here? Am I ready to navigate over them? Probably not, I decide. Here comes trouble…

But again, my inflatable shows impressive stability and I go over both drops so free of incident that my confidence level soars.

Until I come to the next turn.

In front of me is a seemingly impenetrable wall of vegetation. I immediately spot two small gaps in the vegetation on both edges of the creek channel. Which one to take? I choose the one on the right.

Bad decision.

The “gap” is surprisingly choked with relatively large branches, and my kayak is instantly squeezed and trapped by the pushy water under one of them. I am unceremoniously dumped out of my boat and into the madly rushing current. It is my first-ever experience with a “serious” strainer.

And I must, without hesitation, decide how to save myself. Instantly. No time to think. The current is too fast and too strong to give me even a second to figure out how to solve my problem. Instinctively, I realize I must somehow stay with my boat to save myself from the furious current – a current which is a mighty force trying to tear my frantic grip from the tree branch I have grabbed in the strainer of caught branches.

I am situated slightly ahead of my stuck kayak – so stuck that I cannot budge it. With all my strength, I try to pull myself back to my boat. But after several minutes of trying, it is no good. I am not making any progress against the 430 cubic feet per second of snowmelt water bearing down on me, and seemingly fighting me to prevent me from rescuing my kayak.

The problem is made worse by the fact that I can only use one hand to pull, as my other hand must hold onto my paddle. Without the paddle, I will be utterly unable to navigate the fiery whitewaters downstream from me.

Then an idea occurs to me: Instead of working directly against the current by taking the shortest route back to my boat, I opt to GO AROUND the current by working my way into the tangle of tree branches to the left of my kayak.

It works.

After several minutes using my new tactic, I somehow manage to get alongside the kayak. But the inflated portions of my boat are tenaciously being held by the branch stubs. Nevertheless, through a series of strategic lifting of branches and pushing my boat in various directions, I free my kayak from its tree prison. Because I am now separated from my boat by a large branch, I decide I must pull myself over the branch and hop (flop?) into the kayak. I must also align myself within the kayak quickly enough to be able to immediately and strongly navigate in the angry, high-speed waters.

To my horror, a relatively large tree branch has somehow managed to perch itself across the front of my kayak bow. I realize I cannot continue with this monster log on my boat, so I take a moment to flip it off with my paddle.

Another mistake.

Not even a second is available when creek water rages below me. With terror in my eyes, I turn my head in the downstream direction and realize that I am only a few feet from ANOTHER drop. And this is the biggest one I’ve faced so far. No time to right my boat to face downstream. I immediately and unintentionally find myself going over the drop and rapids. Backwards. Not a good maneuver for a whitewater novice in a new boat. In an angry torrent of rushing water.

But again, my kayak stays upright and I am shocked to find myself passing the drop and rapid as if I was an expert.

After some worry that I have inadvertently passed the agreed-upon take-out bridge (and the thought that doing so would doom me, as I have no way to inform my girlfriend that I had passed her by), I spot the familiar bridge I had spotted earlier that would signal I was at the take-out point. I confidently and calmly steer my kayak to the eddie I had spotted while scouting.

Another unforgettable, adrenalin-pumping adventure has come to a successful end. And I can’t wait to ride that snake again…

 

Categories: 2011-Present, Colorado, Paddling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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