Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Thanksgiving Trip: The Mojave National Preserve

We went to see Andy and Kate in Phoenix at Thanksgiving.  We started off from Sacramento where I had a meeting and stayed overnight in Barstow - a lot cooler than last summer.  The next morning we started east on Interstate 40.  Joan's mother's maiden name was Kelso, so we decided to go off-track to see Kelso, CA, and its Union Pacific Railroad depot, not knowing that it is the headquarters for the Mojave National Preserve.   Apparently if hunting is not allowed, the National Park Service calls it a Park; if hunting is allowed, it is called a Preserve.  Things one learns when going off-track.... 

The Mojave National Preserve is a huge parcel of land in California's "high desert."  It is forbidding in its austerity, but there is beauty in that dry austerity.  Some of the world's tallest sand dunes are just outside Kelso.

Kelso Depot

And it turns out that the depot, which we had expected to be a weathered shed, is a large and well-preserved building, an oasis in the desert.  In the era of steam engines, the depot was the center and transient housing for a thriving railroad town - the place where the engines took on water and where pusher engines were added to the trains climbing west into the mountains.  No more steam engines, and the diesels go through at 60 mph.
 Joan in front of the cage that was used as the Kelso jail

But the depot, besides housing Preserve headquarters, has a fine museum and the old lunch counter is now the only place for food for many miles.  Well worth the time we spent there - and the Preserve is inviting enough that we're considering camping there when the desert flowers are in bloom.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Some Lessons Learned

So what are the lessons from the last three months.

1.  Doing what we have done brought us both a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction.  I've lost weight and am generally much healthier.  And I'm in far better shape than when we first camped at Grand Canyon.  Didn't reach the ten miles/day goal, but made substantial progress.  That's the upside.  What's the downside?  Beats me!  I don't think there was one.

2.  I knew I needed a "time-out" from The Sea Ranch, that my health had suffered from my last 18 months on the Board, that I'd gained weight from nervous eating, and that I was woefully out of shape.  What I've learned is just how much stress I was under - and the determination not to let myself get stressed out that way again.  The Sea Ranch isn't worth dying for.

3.  As noted, we can happily live a simple, "pack it all in the Prius," life.  Time to get rid of a lot of clutter.

4.  It's nice to be back in the house at The Sea Ranch, but we're both looking forward to being in a tent again, soon.b

Of Camping and Campsites

We had a great time tent camping, getting better and better at it as we gained experience.  Waking up in the morning was a delight.  And being within the parks made us a part of them in ways that wouldn't be true in a lodge or motel.

We learned that almost all campers are a generous, considerate bunch.  They quieted down by 10:00 pm, either got up quietly in the morning or slept in until 8:00 am or later.  Didn't intrude on each other's space unless invited.

We blundered into doing some things right:
- Our Coleman tent has a 10'x10' floor and a peak height of 6', meaning we could stand in it and had plenty of room for stuff.
- After the mess-up with the two twin-sized air mattresses at the Grand Canyon, we bought a Coleman queen-sized air mattress and slept well thereafter.
- Probably the highest-quality thing we had was the Kelty Eclipse double sleeping bag, rated for 30 degrees.  We had diddled around buying it, but Mel Cotten in San Jose had one in stock when I stopped there on our way to Arizona.
- We got a four-piece teflon coated cookset, just what we needed - and no more - in a compact package.
- Andy taught us about plastic tubs.  We used two - one for food, one for cookware, placeware, and clean-up stuff.
- We abandoned using the big ice chest when we went out for the second time in July.  The small one worked fine - for us; wouldn't have worked for a larger family.

Yes, we learned we had to live by KISS - after all, you can only get so much stuff into a Prism that, in bear country, must carry everything but the tent, sleeping bag, and camp chairs wherever you drive.  We also learned we could do just fine living so simply.

Campsites:  Our favorites were the ones we stayed the longest - Signal Mountain in Grand Teton and Wapitit in Jasper. 

Our least favorite was Lake Louise - it was just OK - even though the campsite, G11, itself was pretty, private, and very functional.  But the facilities were crowded by folks who were not as quiet and easy as those in other campgrounds - the term, "ugly Europeans," came to mind.  Going back to Lake Louise, I'd look into one of the other nearby campgrounds.

Mather Campground at the Grand Canyon is extremely well-run by the concessionaire, Xanterra, and would probably rank near the top if we had been more experienced.  The facilities - showers, laundry, and restrooms are clean and convenient.   Wasn't impressed with the big, cafeteria-style restaurant in Mather Village, but the deli in the General Store was first-rate.

Bryce is run by the National Parks Service and Wapiti at Jasper and Lake Louise are run by Parks Canada.  Bryce seems well run, but struggling with deferred maintenance.  The Parks Canada folk are pretty impersonal and the campgrounds are not kept up as well as, say, Signal Mountain.

Signal Mountain is run very well by the concessionaire, Forever Lodging - good staff who were are frequent, friendly presence.  We did have to go to Colter Bay Village, about six miles north, for laundry, showers, and the General Store and ice cream.  Grand Teton Lodging is the concessionaire there - and for the Jenny Lake and Lake Jackson Lodges, too - and they do a first rate job.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Salt Lake City and Home

We got to Salt Lake City mid-afternoon on Wednesday, the 25th, for a calm few days before driving back to The Sea Ranch, arriving the afternoon of Tuesday, the 31st.

It's always a pleasure to be with Pam and John and we had a good time, mostly talking.  Couldn't get far from the mountains, of course, since wherever one goes in Salt Lake City, one sees the Wasatch Range.

And to top that off, we went downtown to the I-MAX theater at Clark Planetarium to see "Conquest of Everest: The Wildest Dream," telling the stories of George Mallory's ill-fated ascent in 1924 and of Conrad Anker's re-creation of Mallory's ascent, inspired by Anker's discovery of Mallory's body in 1999.  Anker develops a scenario providing circumstantial, but probably not conclusive, evidence that Mallory made it to the summit before he died.

Compared with Everest, our mountain-top experiences were pretty puny, but having been on the summit of Whistlers, near Jasper, gave us some appreciation for the Herculean and seductive challenge of Everest.  If we have come back with anything, it is a fascination for the geology of mountains.  Starting with the Grand Canyon, carved into a high plateau, the hoodoos of Bryce, at eye level, to the hoodoos of Banff and Jasper, 5000' above the glacial valleys.  So distant, but so connected.

On Monday, we left Salt Lake City, going south to avoid thunderstorms and the boredom of I-80.  We headed down US Route 6 to Ely, then took US Route 50 (the loneliest road in the world, so the signs say) to Carson City.  Again, we were in the mountains, crossing range after range, including the ranges that delineate the Great Basin.  It's forbidding country, but with a beauty to it - wouldn't want to live there, but nice to drive through (if you are not looking for the non-existent rest stops).

Yesterday, we had an easy drive from Carson City to Reno, down (and I do mean down - 7200 feet at Donner Pass to sea level in less than 100 miles) I-80 past Sacramento and Fairfield, across our favorite back roads past Napa and Sonoma, to Petaluma.  We knew we were home again when we stopped for the familiar goodies at Trader Joe's.  Then the 1.75 hour drive to The Sea Ranch, and a quick trip the Post Office for an almost full garbage bag of mail.  (New unit of measurement- one tall kitchen garbage bag = eight weeks of mail, including about 30 credit card offers).  The house looks, feels, acts the same as before we left, although surprisingly, the grass in the front grew the past seven weeks - it's not supposed to do that in July and August.

So, in the past seven weeks, the Prius took us 7707 miles at an average of 49.4 mpg.  Not bad considering the mountains we climbed and the roads we drove....

Now it's time to fill in entries on the blog with pictures, post a couple of concluding entries, and then reluctantly say "good-bye" to it - but only until the next installment of the National Park Adventures - this was too much fun not to continue with more.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Not Many Miles, but lots of Yellowstone

We had some thoughts of going to Cody, WY, for the drive from the East Entrance to Yellowstone and the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody.  But that seemed like pressure driving and we got lazy.  Instead, we decided to be lazy and make our way through the part of Yellowstone we hadn't seen - the northwest quadrant.

Started in Mammoth Hot Springs, just inside the North Entrance.  The Hot Springs are thermal features that bubble out of terraces of residue.  Interesting colors in the residue indicating the work of heat-loving bacteria.  One can climb up to the thermal features or look down on them from the highway going south.

The elevation at Mammoth Hot Springs is low enough that it is accessible year-around.  In the 1880's the U.S. Army was given the job of policing Yellowstone.  The Army Corps of Engineers also built the basis for today's roads.
Corps of Engineers Building at Fort Yellowstone

Much of the fort built at Mammoth is preserved as the headquarters and residences for the National Park Service in Yellowstone.  The substantial buildings indicate that Army duty at Yellowstone wasn't bad.

From Mammoth, we had a leisurely drive to Norris Junction, punctuated by stops at viewpoints and educational exhibits and by a most pleasant picnic.  At Norris, we went up to the Norris Geysers, the hottest and oldest Geyser Basin in Yellowstone.  It is a field that is more intimate than Old Faithful and its companions.  Here the boardwalks over the thermally active areas allow one to get within a few feet of the geysers.  For example, Steamboat Geyser is said to be the most powerful in the world, although its major, 300+ foot eruptions occur only every few years.  But Steamboat bubbles with minor eruptions all the time - only 50 feet from the observation platform.
Steamboat Geyser on a Quiet Day
After a sashay to Canyon via the Virginia Cascades for an ice cream cone (the deli there is a winner), we decided to explore campgrounds in anticipation of our next visit to Yellowstone, so on our way out to the West Entrance, we explored the Canyon, Norris, and Madison Campgrounds.  Canyon and Madison seemed very inviting, cut into the trees and more attractive than the exposed campground close to Lake Yellowstone.  Both are conveniently located mid-park, Canyon has the advantage of being next to the many facilities at Canyon Village (like ice cream).

Then it was time to leave Yellowstone, but we have learned that if you want to see elk, leave Yellowstone.  Between Madison and the West Entrance, we saw a small herd of does and fawns feeding along the Madison River.  The fawns are young enough that they still sport spots, although that may not show up in the photo below (hard to see when shooting into the sun).
Elk Fawn - yes, there are Spots
Elk Herd Munching
So we left Yellowstone via the West Entrance, regretting leaving our National Parks Adventure, while looking forward to being with Joan's sister, Pam, and brother-in-law, John, for a few days in Salt Lake City.

Along the way, we had one last look at the backside (West Side) of Grand Teton.
Grand Teton through the Haze along US 89.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Back in the U.S.

We left Waterton Lakes with some regrets - the weather on Monday was much better than Sunday's, and the boat cruise would have been less weather-challenged.  But it was a pleasure to have a hearty "Welcome home!" from the ICE Border folk as we crossed the border on Chief Mountain International Parkway.  We skirted the east side on Glacier National Park, mentally putting camping there on our future adventures list.

On across Montana, marveling once again at its beauty - mountains and hills everywhere, with fascinating patterns and textures from pastures, hayfields, and wheat fields in various states of harvesting, combined with ever-changing terrain and shadows from the ubiquitous white puffy clouds.  We ended up in Gardiner, just at the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park;

Monday, August 23, 2010

Waterton Lakes

On Saturday, the 21st, we broke camp in Lake Louise, feeling some sadness that we had finished our tent camping for this trip.  We're already talking about some short trips - to Yosemite, or King's Canyon, or the Redwoods for more camping.

We drove through some magnificent country on the border between Alberta's plains and its Rockies to Waterton Lakes National Park. 

This relatively small park is the Canadian part of the Glacier-Waterton Lakes International Peace Park, the first example of a cross-boundary park.  We had been to the adjacent Glacier National Park in Montana five years ago, but didn't make it across the border.  We rectified that by staying for two nights in the Waterton Lakes townsite.

The Canadian National Parks are quite different than the U.S. ones in that all three in which we stayed had developed towns within them.  In the U.S., there are lodges and campgrounds, but they operate under strict rules and are isolated from the commercial ventures outside the park.  I think our approach is better, since it provides for more pristine environmental conditions.

Nevertheless, the Waterton Lakes townsite is a charming little town, if a bit schizophrenic.  It simultaneously reminded me of Atlantic City, a very small upper midwestern town, and a bit of Canada.  The town has maybe 1500 residents now, but by the start of October the number will be about 50.  The real owners of the town are the deer, which can be found everywhere and are shown below occupying the baseball diamond.

The high point of our stay was a 2.5 hour boat trip from the townsite to Goat Haunt at the upper end of Upper Waterton Lake.  Goat Haunt is actually in Glacier National Park, since the boat crosses the boundary about halfway down the lake.  The boundary is defined by a 20' wide cut that marches from Puget Sound to Lake Superior.
The Boundary Cut into the Trees
Goat Haunt Ranger Station from Visitors Center
The boat, the International, is an 83 year-old, with a wooden hull, built at Goat Haunt so the Northern Pacific Railroad could claim U.S. registration. 
The International
The Northern Pacific brought its tourist passengers to the lodges in Glacier and built the Prince of Wales Hotel and the International as part of its efforts to spur use of its transcontinental line running just south of Glacier.
Prince of Wales Hotel
The Prince of Wales Hotel and the International were built at the same time by the same folk.  What I found pleasing about both was the sensibilities of the designs for the conditions - mainly harsh weather - both mustr endure.  The International has a deep keel so that she is remarkably stable in the high winds that sweep up the lake; the Prince of Wales has shaply peaked roofs to withstand the 200+ inches of snow it receives each winter.  Incidentally, the view down the lake from the hotel's lobby is one of the outstanding treasures of a visit to Waterton Lakes.