We are down to the last month of the summer season and only a few weeks away from our backpacking trip to Isle Royale National Park. While in Northern Minnesota for this experience the thought of also visiting Voyageurs National Park had crossed our minds however that has been dismissed due to the distance involved. Voyageurs is about 4.5 – 5 hours drive time from where the boat picks up for Isle Royale in Grand Portage, Minnesota. That would be about the same distance from our house so we will have to look at that another time. Much of the spring and summer has been spent getting ready for our backpacking trip to Isle Royale and the time is near for all that planning to be put through the test. Often you hear that you should step outside of your comfort zone to experience life and find out more about yourself. This trip is doing that for us.
Over the past 5 months we have been researching the gear necessary along with the cost for that gear and possible alternatives and procuring that gear. This being the first backpacking trip, most of our camping equipment does not work due to weight and size. We are restricted to 40 pounds of gear for each person contained in a backpack for the boat ride to and from the island. This should be easier to accomplish on the way back as much of the food weight will be gone. There is a lot of stuff to carry on your back while hiking for miles and most of that is all in an attempt to sleep as comfortable as possible such as tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and a tarp for under the tent. Keep in mind there are 4 of us to accommodate with one of them unable to carry their weight worth of stuff so the rest of us have to pick up that weight. All of this for 3 nights camping on Isle Royale.
In an effort to be prepared for this backpacking trip we embarked on a trial run this weekend. We stayed at a county park with numerous short hiking trails in a mock hiking trip. It was a mock trip because we had our car with us and some extra camping equipment just in case. We tested our 4 person tent, sleeping pads which were made out of foam mattress pads, blankets, cooking equipment and mess kits, etc.… The tent was really tested because there were 5 people and one golden retriever. One person and the dog will be absent on Isle Royale. Surprisingly we all fit however there wasn’t much room. Our sleeping pads work well for adding warmth but offer little in the way of softening the ground. The blankets we brought didn’t keep us warm enough during a summer night and the nighttime temps on the island are expected to be a little cooler so there’s one area we need to improve in the next couple of weeks. Fortunately we had sleeping bags in the car so warmth was found.‘
On the cooking and eating front things look good. Backpacking stoves were tested in an effort to learn how to cook different foods as well as how much fuel we will need. We found foods that will work well and some that we should stay away from. There are two types of stoves in our arsenal: a gas stove and an alcohol stove. Each have their advantages and disadvantages. The gas stoves are adjustable so you can use that for foods requiring different temperatures in order to cook thoroughly or keep from overcooking. Alcohol stoves are either on or off more like a candle. You light it and it heats or the flame is out. They tend to have a wider flame to heat more evenly so are good for boiling water as long as you add enough fuel. Our alcohol stoves come from bottlestoves.com and are quite useful and durable along with made from recycled materials. The mess kits include plastic ware and storage containers that are lightweight and pack together fairly tightly so they don’t take a lot of room. They seem to fit what is needed for backpacking. We did also bring a steel knife, spoon, and spatula for cooking purposes since plastic will melt. One of the things learned in this area is to use a different metal spoon and spatula since the pots being used are Teflon coated and metal can scratch that off.
During our time camping we took 1 1/2 mile hike with backpacks loaded just to get a feel for what we’re in for on Isle Royale. All things considered, this hike went well. We traveled at about a mile an hour on average over uneven terrain. Not bad considering there are two younger kids traveling with us carrying backpacks. I’m glad we did a practice trip as there are a number of things we learned and need to make some adjustments before getting to Isle Royale. All of this for only 3 nights on the island. This better be worth it!
Before leaving on this adventure I had heard about and seen pictures of Half Dome and several of the waterfalls. I also new that this was the third busiest national park in 2011 so there were likely to be a lot of people visiting during the summer. We had made reservations at the Ahwahnee Hotel for dinner as this holds a spot on the Monopoly National Parks Board. Other than that, I didn’t even look at a map or things to do before making this trip so I didn’t even know where we needed to go for dinner. Part of this was due to the craziness of spring with school activities coming to an end along with extracurricular activities ending and all of the end of year celebrations that go along with that. Being a horticulturalist I was also working hard in the yard as life was returning and getting things ready for the up coming summer. Part of my lack of preparation was wanting to be somewhat surprised and flexible to explore whatever caught our attention.
After arriving at our overnight lodging we headed to Yosemite National Park for a few hours of adventure. We stayed outside the park in Oakhurst as many of the areas inside the park were filled before we could make reservations and the cost was somewhat less. There was no disappointment as we headed to Mariposa Grove to get a glance at the giant sequoias. I have seen some large trees but these were almost unbelievable they can grow so large. There were a lot of people walking around which I expected but there were still areas of solitude allowing us to listen to nature around us so all was good. As night was beginning to fall it was time to leave and hopefully catch the setting sun over the mountains.
Our first full day provided us with warm temperatures and blue sky as Glacier Point was our first destination for the first glimpse of Yosemite Valley. Along the way we stopped a time or two to take in the sights. There was even a park ranger filming a video. Not sure for what, we didn’t ask but this is California. Filming is expected I think. Once arriving at Glacier Point we started to get a taste of all of the other people visiting. Parking became a little more of a challenge and there were plenty of lines for the bathrooms. Make sure you plan extra time if going during the summer for lines and finding parking.Views from here are phenomenal! All at one time you can see Half Dome and several waterfalls along with most of Yosemite Valley where people are full of activity. Bring binoculars and you can see people climbing Half Dome. They look like ants busily exploring one area or another.
As early afternoon could quickly turn into evening we decided it was time to go down into the valley and locate the location of our dinner plans. It takes about an hour to get into the valley with plenty to see along the way. You may get carsick as there are many twists and turns jolting you from one side of the vehicle towards the other as you meander down the road. Along the way there is a tunnel carved out of the mountain adding to the interest of the trip. Once out of the tunnel you are struck with an amazing and popular view of Yosemite Valley. Moving on towards the village we stopped and became mesmerized by the base of a Bridalveil Falls. Watching as the water plunges toward you and feeling the mist as the breeze directs the falls towards you was well worth a few minutes to stop. Continuing on we began to feel the presence of so many people as the only way to find parking was to wait for another vehicle to leave. With an hour or so to spare before dinner we stopped at the visitor center to look over the exhibits and took in a quick ranger program. Then it was off to the Ahwahnee for dinner.
After dinner it was time to take in a little wildlife viewing, sometimes a little closer than desired, and off to find a nice location to see the sunset and possibly take in the night sky. Off to Glacier Point once again as this is partially on the way back to our hotel and was high enough we could possibly still catch the setting sun. Along the way a Coyote decided to play chicken with the vehicle. We won. (there were no animals injured during this adventure) Unfortunately we missed the setting sun and had to settle for the evening sky and wait for the stars to appear. As the night grew darker we could see hikers as they descended from Half Dome using flashlights (In the photo below if you look hard enough you can see bright light on the left side of Half Dome towards to bottom. That is a hiker descending). Being exhausted from the day’s activities it was time to return to the hotel and catch a few hours of sleep.
The final day was filled with a 5 mile hike to explore many of the sequoias in Mariposa Grove. For many it may seem odd that we could fill a day with this short of a hike but I would like to mention we were with 5 children and the youngest was 4 years old. This is not just a straight hike, there are many stopping points along the way such as playing in the water whenever there is a stream, climbing any available rock, and playing around the trees. This does not even include the water, snack, and bathroom breaks. Are you starting to understand? Besides, it was not a race but an opportunity to explore our surroundings. I was amazed at the number of people we encountered along the way. How do you keep things as natural as possible when there are so many people beating the trails through the forest? This is the dilemma for the National Park Service. Maintaining nature while allowing as many people as want to explore it. After the hike it was off to find a ranger to sign our board and get something to eat. There is so much more I would like to do but that seems to be the case at most of the parks. Our Monopoly Travels were never meant to be full explorations, just a taste of what each park has to offer in an attempt to experience different landscapes and cultures that the United States has to offer.
May is when the memories of winter start to fade as plants start to grow and flower, the leaves of the trees become large enough to provide shade, and natures orchestra begins playing once again with the birds singing, frogs croaking, and the breeze moving through the trees. There are many things about this time of year that I truly enjoy. Flowers gracing us with their beauty and fragrance, the smell of freshly mowed grass, and the warmth provided by the sun. While these are great moments to enjoy one of the things I enjoy most about May is going on a darter hunt.
What’s a darter hunt you ask? Well it’s not really hunting as there are no guns or arrows. Instead a group of people are armed with the appreciation of nature and a few nets. A darter is a relatively small fish related to perch that are native to North America. Every May the Minnesota Aquarium Society plans a few trips near the Twin Cities in search of the different darter species that are native to this area. Along with members of the aquarium society they also invite members of the North American Native Fishes Association to participate of which I am a member.
Members of these two organizations get to take some of these darters along with other minnow species home to learn about and enjoy in aquariums. Some of these fish end up in school aquariums or even at the Minnesota Zoo allowing more people the opportunity to see native fish they probably never new existed. I do have an aquarium dedicated to native fish and will bring some home from these darter hunts but mostly I participate because I enjoy seeing what fish are in area lakes, rivers, and streams. A special permit is required by the MN Department of Natural Resources in order to keep these darters which the aquarium society obtains every year so this is the one time of year I can get this unique fish.
A darter hunt begins by donning waders or hip boots for those that do not want to get wet. The water is usually a little on the cold side but there are those that don’t mind getting wet so go without waders or hip boots. Once dressed for the water we grab a couple of nets and minnow buckets to put in our catch and head for the stream. Or lake. Or River. And don’t forget the cameras but the real trick is to keep them from getting wet. A couple of people go a short distance downstream and hold a net across a portion of the river or stream keeping the bottom secured to the stream bed and the top above water if possible while a few other people begin chasing fish into the net by shuffling feet across the stream bed. Once this group chasing the fish gets to the net they quickly reach down and grab the bottom of the net and pull this whole thing up above the water to see what was caught. If this is not done in unison with those holding the net the likely scenario is escape. Fish are quite adept at escaping and only require the chance to do so.
As the hunters begin combing through the debris caught in the net to reveal fish the look on their faces is almost always the same – amazement. Amazement at success of actually catching some fish, amazement at how colorful some of these fish are, and amazement that these fish actually live in these bodies of water. As soon as first timers actually see and hold some of these darters for the first time they are hooked and ready to spend an entire day searching for more. Sometimes they are ready to hunt for much more than a day. Watching someone’s reaction to this success may be the best part of a darter hunt. Although, the beautiful surrounding could also be the best part. I can’t really decide.
My first darter hunt took place a number of years ago now. I remember the hunt but I don’t remember which year it was. I was hooked on native fish and prefer to keep native fish above tropical fresh water fish and even saltwater fish. Mostly this is because very few people have or even know about these fish and knowing exactly where this fish was collected makes keeping them more memorable. There are many people who would like to collect tropical fish that they see and buy in fish stores but are unable to. Native fish allow a person to experience fish collecting without arranging a trip to some tropical place. This being written, I do still have a tropical fish aquarium and a saltwater aquarium.
Soon I came upon some cannons that had been put there from a shipwreck for people to explore. There were some fish swimming in and out of these objects. I was following one fish trying to get a nice photo of it when all of a sudden it took off. I didn’t move enough to cause it to disappear so what scared it. Immediately I looked behind me and saw what it was. A larger school of fish coming right at me. These fish were about 18 inches long or so and there were hundreds of them. At first I wasn’t sure if I should try and swim away quickly or if it was to late and they were going to hit me. After considering the situation for a few seconds I calmed down and just watched as I became a part of their school and they swam all around me. Above me, below, and on both sides. What an amazing experience something of which I have never been a part of before.
Once the school had vanished out of sight I quickly looked around for Karen who was snorkeling with me and could not find her. Popping my head above the surface I saw she was closer to shore and swam to talk to her. Excitedly I asked if she had seen the school of fish which see hadn’t however she did see one or two of them and wasn’t overly thrilled by it. She continued to explain that while she was watching a fish swim around a larger one came from behind and ate it. I realized at that point those fish had seeked us out because we were disturbing fish as we swam making them easier prey. I began to laugh at the circle of life and shared the experience of being engulfed in hundreds of fish. After a few minutes we continued swimming to see what else there may be to find and also search for a stingray if it was near.
There were some really interesting looking fish hiding out around the shipwreck pieces and around the ledge of the drop-off. I did build up the courage to go a little distance beyond this wall into the unknown but wasn’t really able to see much so returned to exploring shallower areas. After continuing on this little underwater adventure for awhile the school of fish returned and this time Karen also became part of the school. At first she was startled but then took it all in like I had the first time around. This time I was able to just enjoy the experience and take a few photographs. Once they had left Karen and I shared our experiences with each other for a few minutes and decided we have been shivering long enough that it was time to get out of the water and warm up.
While swimming back towards shore I was feeling extremely satisfied with the decision to enter the water in spite of the cold and potential disappointment of the area reserved for this. I also felt a little disappointed for those who were in the water before us and did not get to see the giant school of fish. We did mention it to another couple that had just entered the water in hopes they would get to experience becoming a part of a school if only for a few brief moments. We washed off and cleaned our gear allowing it to dry for a few minutes before walking saying good bye to the Florida Keys. In the end our decision to take to the water came down to one thing – would we regret it if we never tried to snorkel in this beautiful place? Without a doubt the answer would have been YES! Who knows if we will ever make it back to do it again and look at all the things we would have missed out on.
This was the first time I’ve seen a live conch scooting across the bottom. The intense red foot was surprising and amazing. Unfortunately I didn’t get a good photograph of that.
The color and variety of fish in the ocean is incredible. I love all the patterns on this fish. How do these patterns and colors benefit this species of fish? In the right location it becomes easier to figure out but no so much in this picture.
They are a little hard to see but there are several squid watching you. There are a couple of yellow stripes in the center of this photo. That is a squid. There are at least two more, one on each side of the most colorful one. Can you find them? I was surprised by these. At first I saw one swimming in front of me and all of a sudden I noticed a school of them. Once I stopped close enough and they stopped I realized what they were as they would move what appeared to be backwards.
A piece of the moat wall of Fort Jefferson which has fallen into the water. It is surrounded by fish and coral.
A specimen piece of coral. I could have spent a lot of time observing and photographing these corals. Unfortunately time was short.
Another larger seafan.
There is a lot going on around this rock. There are a number of smaller fish searching for food and/or shelter among some smaller corals and algae.
Brain coral with feather dusters emerged.
A red sea star or starfish sifting through the sand.
A large purple seafan moving with the ocean currents. Surrounded by a number of other corals together creating a beautiful underwater landscape.
We continued to descend as quickly as possible but that was slow going at the best because each step had to be felt before placing your full weight on your next step. A fork in the trail arrived and while I was pretty certain which direction to go, I did not want to end up making a very costly error so out came the lighter. Most of the time you would think of a lighter as a source for light because there is so little there. In complete darkness a lighter can blind you for a minute or two. After a little light near the sign indicating which way to go a little feeling of calmness fell over me and now time to continue on. Unfortunately it took another minute to go as my eyes needed to re-adjust to the darkness. Moving slower once again we came to a staircase built out of rocks. I recalled this part of the trail and knew that Karen should be at the bottom waiting – this is if she was still brave enough to be sitting in the dark forest. I was anticipating that she moved on to the car. There was just one problem, I had the only set of keys. What I believed to be the bottom of the stairs was approaching but I could not make out a bench and there certainly was no sign of Karen. I stopped and tried to get my baring’s but the feeling of being lost was creeping in. I could not find the direction of the trail and where to go next. Finally I decided that the best direction was to continue in the same direction we were already going.
Moving extremely slowly we I found more stairs to descend and in a short time the place we left Karen was in front of us. Still no sign of Karen though. I was pretty sure that she had returned to the vehicle. Maybe it was more hope that she had gone back. Only one way to find out – continue on. The trail was relatively flat at this point with few stones to trip over allowing us to move faster. FINALLY! THERE IT IS THE PARKING LOT! There may have been more whoops of joy if it were not for the welcoming words of Karen. O.K. so they were not as welcoming as scornful. The ensuing conversation does not need to be repeated here but I was still extremely glad to see her standing by the car.
Kristy and Lysa have agreed on a new hiking rule since this – no hiking within 45 minutes of darkness. I believe we just need to bring flashlights next time. A good night hike can be a great experience. The next day the girls thought we should go back to bubble rock so mom could see it. What they didn’t realize is that mom had no interest what so ever to go back to that location after the less than positive experience the previous night. I believe this was a great learning experience for all of us and created an adventure we’ll never forget.
After a full day of exploring Acadia National Park, the sun was beginning to wane so off to find a great spot to watch it set. Looking at the photo above I would say we were successful although I’m sure there are a number of great spots to watch both sunrises and sunsets. We pulled over on the side of the road, got the tripod and camera, and found the best spot to view the sun as is slowly merged into the horizon. There were a few other cars that stopped to quickly take a picture and then moved on but for most of the time we were able to enjoy a spectacular sunset on Mount Desert Island, Maine which is were Acadia resides. This was likely going to be our only opportunity for enjoying a sunset as Hurricane Irene was headed our way and the next night would be filled with clouds. Once we were satisfied with the viewing it was time to move on to our evening residence.
Along the way I caught a glimpse of Bubble Rock sitting high above on a ledge of stone. Wanting a longer view of this large rock that appears as though it could tumble over the edge with just the smallest incentive we found a parking lot with a trail to a better viewing area. Earlier in the day this parking lot was full so we continued on planning on returning later. There was about 30 minutes of daylight left and the hiking trail was only 1/4 mile long. Doing the math assuming a walking rate of 2 miles per hour it should take us about 15 minutes to get there, 15 minutes of pictures and enjoying the surrounding and 15 minutes back to the parking lot. I knew it would be getting pretty dark by the time we got back to our vehicle but we should be fine so off on another adventure it was.
About a third of the way Karen decided she was going to utilize a bench along the trail and would wait for us. I expected that the trail should terminate not to far ahead and we would get a nice look from a viewing point and then return to the car. As we continued on the trail it kept winding back and forth and then began to ascend more than expected. The longer we followed the trail, the darker it got and the more I began to realize this trail led right to the boulder we had seen from a distance below. Well, it shouldn’t be to far now so on we went. Finally we were at the top of the trail and near our objective. It was amazing to me that the National Park Service would allow people to get so close to this rock at the edge of a cliff. Once we finally saw this boulder I understood a little better. There was no way anyone was going to move this rock allowing it to go over the cliff. Once you realize that it has been in this location since the glaciers you can understand how unlikely it is to move.
There are a couple of National Parks on our Monopoly board that stand out to me as the places I am most eager to see. One of them was Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). I have enjoyed all of the national parks we have visited to this date but RMNP is so far my favorite national park. There are some great places yet to come so I expect this may not remain my top pick in the end but for now this is the park I think of first when talking about national parks. What makes this my favorite national park? The elk, moose, marmots, the tundra in bloom, picturesque snowcapped mountains, wild orchids, waterfalls, beautiful lakes and rivers, intriguing trails, and on and on and on… Does it appear as though I enjoyed our time here?
We entered Colorado from the plains of the Mid-west. The mountains continued to grow larger in the background until we were at the base of the Rocky Mountains beginning our ascension towards the top. Our climb towards the top started slowly at first and then quickly became steeper and steeper as we drove higher towards RMNP. Watching the trees and rocks all around us was mesmerizing complimented by the raging rapids from the snow melting higher in the mountains. After a short time we entered Estes Park where one of the entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park resides. We settled in at our lodging for the next couple of days and prepared to go exploring in the mountains for the next couple of days.
The next morning we grabbed some breakfast and headed out to continue our adventure. Upon entrance to RMNP we browsed over the activities available for the day and began our drive towards the Alpine Visitor Center. As we meandered along we came upon a traffic jam. Further inquiries declared there were a few elk rested in the area. Driving along a little further we spotted an elk. This one happened to be a bull with horns towering above his head completely covered in velvet indicating they were still developing. For us this was exciting as we have never seen a bull elk before. While visiting Wind Cave National Park we watched a heard of elk in the distance but there were no bulls visible in that heard. Spending a few moments we snapped a few pictures of the elk and enjoyed the surrounding landscape and then off towards the visitor center once again.
Our road trip to Alpine Visitor Center would have been much faster had there not been so many places to pull over and gaze in amazement and the snow covered peaks where the snow was melting. Streams of melted snow turned into rivers with beautiful waterfalls and violent rapids allowing us to get lost in these scenic moments and lose track of time. There were at least 4 stops off of Trail Ridge Road on the way to the visitor center each one capturing our interest and providing a unique look at these mountains. Along the way we encounter snow drifts that had covered this road weeks before. Some of them were at least 10 feet tall reminding us of the harsher times of year and the amazing feat required of animals and plants in order to survive this environment. At our last stop before reaching our destination a marmot appeared in and out of rocks while crawling around on the tundra which was full of plants displaying their beautiful flowers showing the attraction of this alpine terrain. Eventually we arrived at the visitor center where Lysa and Kristy began their journey towards another Junior Ranger Badge.