Labyrinth & Stillwater

Solo canoe trip through Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons. Late September. 100 miles down the Green River to confluence with the Colorado. Canyonlands, Utah. Intermittent stretches of silence and solitude, amazing side hikes, beach camps, sunshine and flowers in bloom. Feels good to be back in the desert.

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Inside Upheaval Dome

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River Still Life. Please share sketches, paintings, inspired raps or interpretive dance.

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Almost stepped on pink rattlesnake while approaching slot canyon below.

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Searing hike across surreal terrain to confluence overlook. Worth the effort.

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East Coast Sunsets and a Government Shutdown

It’s winter in Ohio and I decide to take advantage of some time off to see something other than winter in Ohio. Erin comes up from Texas for a few weeks. Everything from the apartment gets moved back into the van. And just like that, we’re off. Unstated goals: find some sunshine, sit in the sand, spend our nights in a tent, our days in the open air… Paddle, run, hike, bike, and watch a few sunsets. To face west from the east.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

We have never heard of Congaree until a few hours before we arrive. The first day’s strategy consists of leaving Athens and driving until we don’t want to drive anymore. Potential itineraries begin to take form on the road. Place names and possibilities begin to seem tangible only after a certain radius has been passed. Once forward motion seems sustained. Repeated map checks and sporadic internet searches become the passenger’s primary responsibility.

Snow flurries in the mountains of West Virginia. Creeping traffic and rain in Charlotte, NC. Darkness as we turn onto backroads in South Carolina. We make a quick stop at a convenience store/bait shop along an empty highway in the Deep South, and find that we are a world away from where we started that morning. The campground at the park is vacant, and also completely saturated. The entire park, in fact, is mostly flooded to some degree, something that apparently happens several times a year. At one point it was actually called Congaree National Swamp.

In the morning we cook breakfast early and make an effort to see some of that swamp. When it’s not flooded, wilderness float trips on Cedar Creek and the Congaree River are possible. A trail system also exists. With most of the ground covered in water, however, options are mainly limited a couple miles of elevated boardwalk, which makes for an engaging experience that morning as we stroll along it in a light rain. This type of ecosystem is a novelty for both of us, and I find myself imagining how much diversity exists in such a primal place, so seemingly inhospitable to our species, but entirely conducive to life all the same. It’s easy to envision dinosaurs wading through the trees.

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Weeks later, on the way back to Ohio, we spend another night and most of a day at Congaree, which remains flooded. We make an attempt to paddle Cedar Creek, even going so far as to bike the shuttle, leaving the van at the take-out miles from where we put the canoe in. For the first bit a steady current carries us along, though we have to portage around or over a few fallen trees. Soon enough, however, the creek becomes nearly indistinguishable as we float further into flooded stands of cypress, forcing us to make the decision to either turn around or risk spending untold hours (perhaps days) trying to guess our way through. We make the sensible decision, a rarity at times, and find our way back to the put in.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Upon leaving Congaree that first morning, we continue to head south, crossing the Georgia state line around lunchtime. We decided to spend the afternoon riding bikes around the historic district of Savannah, and stop near Forsythe Park to rent a second bike. The bike shop proprietor provides us with a map of the city and suggests a route, which we follow from park to fountain to park to fountain to the waterfront and back. It’s warm and sunny with a light breeze, a perfect spring day in mid-December. We see for the first time massive live oaks covered in Spanish moss which will become a familiar backdrop later in the trip. The light filtering through fern-covered branches and draped moss creates a calming, otherworldly environment.

That night we make it into Florida, and find a spot to sleep near the coast. Before turning in we walk a couple miles along the beach, illuminated by the waxing moon. In the morning, we drive for a while before pulling over to make breakfast with a view of the sun rising out of the Atlantic. Afterwards, we continue to head south in a less than direct manner, cutting back and forth from coastal highway to freeway in search of a good place for a run. Like Congaree, however, the trails at the state parks we stop at are also flooded, leading to a couple of false starts and frustration. Eventually, we fortuitously find our way to Merritt NWR, and an awesome introduction to wild Florida.

Upon entering the refuge, we make a stop at the visitor’s center for information on trails and the potential of seeing bioluminescence in the bays (turns out Mosquito Lagoon in the refuge is one of the few spots in the world to do so, but mainly in the summer months). Before leaving, I decide to take a quick stroll around the building on the interpretive boardwalk out back, which passes through a small patch of wetlands. On my way from the parking lot to the path, I see what surely must be a lawn statue of a small alligator strategically placed just off the back deck of the building. After studying it for a bit, I realize that it’s an entirely real alligator, about 3’ long. A few minutes later, I see another one, much larger, across the pond. I suppose I hoped to see a gator or two at some point in the trip, but never expected them to be as prevalent as they are in reality. And these two only serve as a prelude for what happens soon after.

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From the visitor’s center we head over to Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven mile one-way dirt road that traverses through wetlands alongside the Indian River. I spot a wild hog grubbing around on the banks of a pond, and then marvel at the avian diversity in all directions. Hooded mergansers, tri-colored herons, little blue herons, green herons, great egrets, great blue herons, osprey, roseate spoonbills, and on and on. There are many species I don’t recognize at all, and others I can only guess at. And then another alligator, like the first one, so dark black and still that it looks fake. Halfway along the drive we turn off to the Cruickshank Trail, a five-mile birding loop along raised earthen dikes through the marshes. We plan to run the loop, following it counterclockwise along the route. Things are nice and dry, with perfect conditions for running. Sunshine and light wind. It’s easy cruising with scenery and wildlife in every direction. About four miles into the run I’m leading the way. When Erin and I run together, we’ll usually switch out every ten-minutes or so, so I decide to let her pass once we get to the big black sand pile a couple hundred feet down the trail. A hundred and fifty more feet and I realize that my marker’s not a pile of sand, but an eight-foot gator, its body stretched almost all the way across the path, reed-lined ponds on either side.

We have no idea what to do. I’m familiar with bear protocol, and moose evasion, and what action to take in the unlikely event of a mountain lion attack, but neither of us has ever read anything about trying to sneak around a sunning alligator. I’ve seen videos of people interacting with gators, and don’t remember them being particularly aggressive, but I’m also thinking about how embarrassing it would be to get chomped my first day in Florida. Erin remains a sensible distance away while I approach the gator in order to gauge its reaction. No reaction. I get closer. Now there is a reaction, but from Erin and not the alligator, which is not moving at all. I try to find something to toss at the gator to see if it will kindly slide forward and into the water, but there is nothing around to throw. I get a little closer. Still nothing. Finally, I back up to stop the increasingly annoying reaction from the opposite direction. Erin and I discuss what we should do. The choices are: wait, which seems like it could take a long time; turn around, which means backtracking four miles instead of running just one more to the parking lot; or run past the alligator and hope for the best. Erin says I should go first, promising to follow if I am successful.

Again, I’ve seen videos of alligators, that’s about it. I’m know they can move much faster than I would like to witness from this distance, but think I can probably kick it into high-gear if this thing starts to shift position. I take a couple of deep breaths, and go for it. There is about a foot of space between the tip of its tail and the steep decline of the bank. I make it to the other side, and the gator doesn’t move at all. Now I’m on one side of it, about ten feet away, and Erin is on the other side of it, about 50’ away. And now that I’m not between her and the animal, she seems to be reconsidering her commitment to following me. I’m looking directly at the gator now, right at its matte-black eyeball (we later read not to ever look a gator in the eye…) which looks almost hollow in its prehistoric head. “I think it might be dead,” I say. On cue, and looking like an animatronic version of itself, the alligator very slowly raises its snout and crooks its head towards me ever so slightly. Erin starts to sprint. Just a she gets to the tail, which she later says she didn’t realize was so long that she almost had to jump over it, her eyes get huge, her arms pump furiously, and she kicks into warp speed, not stopping until she’s long past where I’m standing. As she runs past, the gator does a quick startled thrust upwards as well (which is why I think her eyes get big) and stays in this push-up position as we quickly move on down the trail.

After that excitement, we drive the rest of the wildlife loop and head over to the Haulover Canal where we hope to see a few manatees. We take the canoe off the rack and paddle from the river side to the lagoon side, where they are reported to hang out. They’re not around, however, so we continue into the lagoon for a ways. Soon enough, we hear the forced expelling of air, and sit and watch for a while as a pod of dolphins hunt for fish only feet from the canoe. An inspiring first day in Florida.

10,000 Islands, Everglades National Park, Florida

After around 1000 miles of driving, an exciting first day in Florida, and a few mini-adventures, we’re eager to get off the road, pack our gear into the canoe, and head into some wilderness. The spontaneous day-to-day road trip traveling style can be fun, but exploration feels more authentic when it’s human powered. The longer one can go without hearing an engine, the better. As such, we decide to point it parkward that third morning, hoping to make it into the Everglades region by early afternoon with the intention of starting a week-long paddling trip the following morning. And so it goes. A quick visit with the rangers and a map of the park allows us to come up with an itinerary and the required permit. We spend the night in Big Cypress National Preserve, organize our gear, and return to the ranger station the next morning for an early launch.

After unloading the boat and equipment, I head off to find a navigational chart for the area while Erin finalizes the canoe loading. At the local bait shop, I purchase the map and the woman there asks me what I’m up to for the day. When she hears that we’re going out for a week, she shows significant concern. Around that time one of her fishing guides comes in, and when she tells him what’s happening, he begins to describe an upcoming storm and his predictions for its outcome. While not a hurricane, the scene he offers sounds almost apocryphal in his depiction, with violent winds and fluctuating tides which will completely wash over most of the small islands we’re planning to camp on. Generally, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the weather or listen to second-hand forecasts, knowing that I’m simply going to deal whatever happens as it comes. This time, however, it seems serendipitous to have heard about the upcoming tempest, and prudent to at least consider what I’m hearing, as this individual appears to have a lot of experience with the area and effects of local storms. I thank them both, and head back to the put-in where I consult once again with the rangers. The one that helped us put together our plan earlier acts downright sheepish, saying that he has indeed heard of the impending squall, but forgot about it the day before. As such, we end up modifying our original itinerary somewhat, and it ends up being an incredibly good thing that we do, as two days later everything comes to pass as predicted.

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Everglades National Park, which encompasses most of the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, offers visitors several different sections to explore. As most of the park consists of near impenetrable mangrove habitat, and the glades themselves, shallow sawgrass-covered wetlands, one of the best ways to see the park is by boat. And from a boat, the more accessible areas of the park are found in the keys, or small islands, which lie along the edge of immense swaths of wetlands, swamps, and sloughs. Boaters can gain access to portions of the inner ecosystems, but the general landscape is entirely unlike what I have always pictured when imagining canoeing in the Everglades. Over the course of eight days, we manage to find a few small creeks and passageways into the mangroves (as I’d always visualized), but spend most of our time paddling on open water between the keys, and across the large bays which separate the inner islands of mangroves. Our original course had us traveling inland first, as I guessed there would be more bugs there than out on the keys, but the switch has us paddling out to a couple of islands first, then looping back in for the storm, and finally paddling back out to another section of keys for the final few days.

In spite of the last minute plan adjustments, we push off relatively early in the morning, heading south and into the rapidly warming sunshine. Navigating through the keys provides a new challenge, as the landscape offers little in the way of recognizable features or landmarks. It’s simply open water and islands of green treetops and brown trunks all the way around. Everything is either sea level, or treetop level, and the shorelines offer nothing in the way of distinguishing characteristics to gauge the shape of each island of mangroves as we pass. Erin paddles and steers in the stern, while I sit in the front, alternating between paddling and trying to intuit the map. A compass mounted to the bow helps in deciding which direction to point.

The new plan has us paddling 13 miles out to Pavilion Key, which will be one of the longer days of the trip. This may not sound like a difficult distance to achieve in a day, and with ideal conditions it’s certainly not, but given the added factors of tides, winds, and waves, things can get interesting quickly, especially in an open canoe paddling across open water (by this I mean we often find ourselves further than a mile from the closest shore). After a couple of hours of paddling that morning, we end up arriving at the outer edge of the keys with the Gulf of Mexico in full view. Approaching the first sandy beach we’ve seen all day, we notice a woman sitting in a lawn chair watching her husband fish from his motorboat a short distance away. Not wishing to disturb her solitude, we decide to paddle around the island to look for a landing spot on the other side in order to eat lunch. In the end, however, the other side has nothing but waves (and almost us) crashing into reef, so we end up making a loop and pull up next to her just as her husband comes in for extraction. They live in the local area, so we chat for a few minutes before they leave and find out that we’re one key off of where we thought, which provides a good sense of scale regarding the map with relation to the landscape we’re traveling through.

After a quick bite in welcome shade, we direct the canoe south towards our first bigger crossing of the trip. As we start the traverse, the wind kicks up, and small waves begin moving laterally across our path and into the side of the boat, occasionally nearing the top of the gunwales. Nothing too extreme, but stimulating conditions to be sure. While the navigational charts include depth, knowing that the choppy waters around you are only around 6’ deep doesn’t do much to assuage the imagination once we find ourselves miles from shore for the first time. Capsizing in this situation probably wouldn’t prove deadly, but it would be mean serious catastrophe and a difficult self-rescue. Mental reprieve comes in the form of a heavy breathing manatee which surfaces off the bow before disappearing. After a couple more hours of focused paddling, we arrive at our destination for the evening, an extended sand spit forming the capacious beach of Pavilion Key.

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The way the NPS manages these areas is through the issuance of camping/trip permits only given out the day of or the day before your trip. You show up with a couple of itinerary ideas, and go from there depending on availability. No matter what, you’ll most likely end up with a trip similar to your desired plan, though might have to make a few slight adjustments regarding specific destinations. The longer you plan on staying out, the more flexibility you’ll have in creating your route. I’m sure a lot of people don’t like this first-come first-serve system, but personally I love it, and know how impossible it can be to be spontaneous in the era of internet and required reservations. I get why a lot of the parks run this way – avoiding overcrowding, maximizing revenue, etc. – but in my mind it completely kills the sense of adventure and punishes the free-spirit.

The keys themselves prove remarkable, each separate island resembling a small piece of Caribbean paradise. Sandy beaches, the occasional palm tree, and views for miles across open expanses of sea. Within the permit system, each island has a maximum occupancy, both group and individual. Rabbit Key, for example, a smaller key, allows two groups and a total of eight people. Camping on most of the keys is along a spacious beach, though some of the islands have smaller, more private sites scattered around the coastline. The only development on the islands comes in the form of boat serviceable port-a-lets meant to be shared by everyone on the island (all the ones I visited were remarkably clean – great job NPS crew!). In the 10,000 Islands region there are seven or eight keys designated for camping, along with several inland sites. For conservation purposes, stopping on other islands is not permitted.

Pavilion, where we stay the first night, proves to be one of the larger keys in the system. We end up sharing the space with one other group, a contingent of young sea kayakers who decide to set up camp about 100’ from our tent, even though the beach is over a half-mile long. They’re quiet and respectful kids, however, and barely noticeable as our first sunset viewed from the keys lights up the open sky around us. (The keys prove to be the perfect East Coast sunset spot, as most all of the beaches have sections oriented directly towards the Southwest.) In the morning we cook a big breakfast of eggs and potatoes, and spend an hour strolling the beach before departing.

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From Pavilion, it’s a 4.5 mile crossing to the next night’s stay on Mormon Key, though we opt for a more circuitous route along the coastline in order to occupy the day with activity. This proves to be a wise decision, as the wind picks up rapidly as soon as we start paddling. Unlike the previous day, this time it comes as a headwind from the southeast, kicking up waves high enough to occasionally splash over the bow of the boat. Paddling directly into the waves and wind, however, proves to be much easier than when they were coming from the side, and though it’s a grind, we end up falling into a rhythm which moves us steadily forward. A couple hours into our paddle the wind is strong enough that we elect to take a slightly longer inland route instead of continuing across the open Gulf, a plan that works out well as we navigate our way through sheltered bays before eventually coming back out just in time to make the short crossing over to Mormon Key.

Once across, we paddle around most of the island, finding a small beach on the southern tip which makes for one of my favorite campsites of the trip. It’s like having a tropical paradise all to ourselves, the wind a slight breeze from this vantage and the sun warm enough to allow for a mid-afternoon swim. We spend most of the afternoon lazing around in the sun. In the evening we gather driftwood for a fire, which you’re allowed to build below the high-tide line at beach campsites, and begin preparing dinner as we again watch the sun set directly in front of us. A truly memorable day and an unforgettable campsite, though soon for reasons other than its sheer beauty and solitude.

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A word about insects. Like most people, I don’t enjoy being munched on by bugs, losing blood to mosquitoes, tweezering off ticks, etc. I’m okay with foul weather, willing to accept the risk of recreating among predator species, comfortable with discomfort, and fine with some physical and emotional suffering on vacation from time to time, but I’m not really okay with insects in copious quantities. “Lots of bugs” is perhaps the one thing someone can tell me about an area that will significantly decrease my desire to go there. Which is probably why I haven’t been to the Everglades until now, the place name itself immediately conjuring images of face nets and bug spray and endless swatting and shooing and the scratching of skin hives. Park literature doesn’t deny the existence of insects, rather it does all it can to apprise potential visitors to the reality of a hostile ecosystem. But words will always fail to describe what it’s like to operate amidst a relentless attack of determined swarms of infinitesimal winged parasites. I’m sure you can guess where this is going.

For the most part, bugs weren’t really a major issue on this trip. Reportedly, insect activity significantly decreases in the winter months in all the swampy coastal areas we visited. Many visitor’s centers and park entrances and businesses in these regions display some humorous homemade variety of a “mosquito meter,” generally a hand-painted wooden graph with an adjustable pointer ranging from something like “All Clear” to the extremes of “Combat Zone” or “Blood Donor.” Throughout our travels their arrows are generally resting around what would be a two on a scale of 1-6 or so. On the keys, things are generally meant to be better than inland, mostly due to the reliable island breezes blowing in off the water. And that is the case, most of the time. On this particular night, however, just as we begin to tuck in to our evening meal, an almost imperceptible change occurs. The wind, which we’d experienced since leaving the beach the day before, suddenly stops. And then another, immediately obvious change occurs as we diners suddenly become dinner. There are mosquitoes, to be sure, but also bloodthirsty hordes of no-see-ums, nearly invisible (as the name suggests) gnat like creatures with a vicious bite and a voracious appetite. Things get miserable. Erin barely finishes her food before retreating to the tent. I try to pretend things aren’t so bad as I douse myself with repellent and break out a face net that I’ve owned and never used for years now. I light the fire and try to hang out for a while, but the breeze fails to return, and the net proves ineffectual at providing full protection. The bugs still penetrate somehow, finding every exposed piece of skin imaginable. And then there’s the hum. The droning trill of biomass. The only course of action remains to dive into the tent, zip it up tight, and assist Erin with her in-progress killing spree.

In the morning, things haven’t improved much, so we swiftly pack our bags and get out of paradise with a quickness. Thankfully, those 12 hours or so will be the only time on the entire trip where the bugs prove downright intolerable. The rest of the time, they truly aren’t that bad, and cooler evening temps and breezes allow us to wear sufficient clothing to cover most of our bodies, while a bit of bug spray (from a bottle I’ve had about as long as that face net, such is my aversion to insect prone areas) is enough to keep the bites to an acceptable level. The lull in the wind turns out to be the proverbial calm before the predicted storm, as this is the first day of the bad weather I’d heard about in town. Once on the water a gale begins to build, though as we’re now headed inland, and traveling with the morning tide, the wind pushes us along for 8 miles as we head up the tidal Chatham River and into Sweetwater Bay, where we plan on waiting out the storm over the next couple of days.

On the way there, we stop off at an old ruin/habitation called Watson’s Place, which also serves as a campsite. In addition to the island camps, there are two other types of campsites in the area, ground sites and “chickees.” Having avoided signing up to stay at a ground site, we stop to check one out just to see what fun we might have missed out on. Watson’s Place is indeed not somewhere I would personally care to spend any significant amount of time. Ground sites are small swaths of cleared land along the otherwise heavily vegetated river banks. They are described as having the potential to be more buggy than the other two options, and also offer additional opportunities for undesirable experiences in that they’re commonly visited by alligators and snakes, a fact reiterated through semiotics on a sign at the dock which displays illustrations of a man, an alligator, and a snake with symbolic representation prohibiting the molesting of the animals by the person (though not of the person by the animals). Indeed, the place looks buggy, snakey, and gatory.

It should come as no surprise then, that as I’m flip-flopping around the site I almost step on a very large python near the corner of the clearing. It does come as a surprise, however, as even though I’ve read about the invasive pythons previous to this visit, I certainly never expected to place my foot inches from the engorged body of a six-foot long serpent with a mid-body girth of a human thigh. After the initial shock of discovery, followed by recovery and the realization that the snake doesn’t seem to be particularly lively, I take the opportunity to inspect it from a short distance. Pythons are not native to the Everglades. They exist as a product of irresponsible human actions and their own adaptability. It’s an intriguing story which I won’t get into here as the details are readily available elsewhere if you are curious. In short, the species has proven to be incredibly destructive to the ecology of the Everglades, taking a huge toll on the resident fauna and vying with alligators as the region’s top predator species. State-wide programs exist to eliminate the snakes, but this has proven incredibly difficult to achieve. Knowing all of this, I still have no idea what I should do upon seeing this specimen sitting in the grass in front of me. It’s huge, and even if I wanted to “euthanize” the snake, as I’m guessing would be optimal, I don’t have permission to do so, or the slightest idea as to how I would go about doing it. In the end I take a couple of photos with plans to report its location to the rangers at the end of the trip. And then we leave. Happily.

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An hour later we are blown across Last Huston Bay and up past Sweetwater Bay to the “chickee” where we’ll spend the next two nights. This third type of site is named after dwellings once utilized by indigenous Seminoles. Their contemporary construction consists of metal-roofed wood and composite structures anchored by concrete pylons well away from shoreline. When we round the corner, we’re surprised by how exposed this site looks given the current weather conditions. It’s two platforms joined by a small deck and a port-a-let, sitting about three feet above the water in the middle of a small bay. What would generally be a unique setting looks a tad unprotected given the steadily increasing winds. But hey, definitely no bugs.

With the force of the wind now generating bigger and bigger waves, pulling up to the structure and exiting the boat proves to be a challenge in itself. Once we’ve tied off, we’re unsure as to what we should do next, as getting anything out of the canoe seems a precarious option with violent gusts whipping across the tiny unshielded platform. After a few minutes of assessing the situation, we decide to move a few heavy boxes out of the boat, and attempt to build some sort of windbreak by utilizing the roof supports. The only item we have with us that might be suitable to the purpose is a mesh sand mat that we miraculously threw into the boat as a last minute impulse. Always a novelty item before, it proves to be a crucial component over the next couple of days as it works surprisingly well once we get it secure, which is no small feat. It doesn’t fully block the wind, as nothing short of solid walls could do, but it allows us a bit of reprieve. From here we arrange our gear boxes around the corners of the platform in order to create a place to hunker down for a while as we determine our next plan of action.

It’s kind of an intense place to be. We are definitely a long way from anywhere, and know that we’ll not see another person for quite some time. The platforms barely provide enough space for a pair of backpacking tents in ideal situations, and the wind makes this one seems very minuscule indeed. Each movement requires conscious action. Anything that blows off the sides, or even falls through the cracks in the decking, will certainly be gone for good. Even if it were to float, retrieving something by boat seems highly unlikely and perhaps physically impossible given the conditions. The wind rips across the platform, and the water below courses past at significant speed. We’re sitting perhaps 50’ from the closest shore, though the shores here are not solid pieces of ground where one could huddle up and wait out a storm, they’re impossible structures of intertwined roots sheathed in razor sharp oyster shells. In an emergency one could probably survive on top of them for a couple of days, but it would be most unpleasant. The wind is now blowing hard enough that it doesn’t seem imprudent to assess the structural stability of the chickee itself, though it seems sturdy enough in spite of a few random creaks and strains. Still, worst case scenarios come to mind. We sit behind our boxes and snack on whatever happens to be on top of the food supply. For now, the rain hasn’t started, and it’s warm enough out that extra layers aren’t required. We’re also happy to be sitting where we are, miles from the Gulf, rather than stranded on one of the keys.

Eventually, the wind abates for a while. Slows down some at least. We cautiously manage to set up the tent, utilizing gear straps to secure the corners to the decking. After, we put everything but the food boxes into the tent to weigh it down. At that point, we ease in to the idea of waiting out the storm here, and consider our fortune in having heard about it in advance as we contemplate the route our original itinerary would have had us doing for the day, which would have been both dangerous and downright unmanageable in these conditions. The wind picks up again, and big clouds begin to build to our north. Impressive sheets of rain begin to rip across the bay in waves, though the roof provides just enough dry space to stand and watch for a little while. A powerful experience. We spend the rest of the afternoon reading and sleeping in the tent, listening to the world rage outside. Thinking we will most likely be going without supper, just before dusk everything stops. We get out and cook a quick dinner. The sky begins to darken, an alligator swims lazily by, unconcerned. The sky goes black. The wind starts again in earnest.

In the morning, a lull. We crawl out of the tent and make breakfast. The storm forecast calls for it to continue throughout this day as well, and we are scheduled to stay another night on the chickee. The idea of not loading up the canoe and trying to go somewhere specific is welcome, though the idea of spending the entire day cooped up on the platform not so much. As the wind doesn’t seem to be all that bad, and the clouds not all that ominous, we pack a lunch and paddle the empty canoe back out the direction we came from. The map offers several options, and we end up heading north on Deer Island Creek for a while, with easy paddling once we make the turn out of Sweetwater, the wind now behind us. The best part of the day occurs when we discover that the small squiggly black lines on the map, seemingly unnavigable as drawn, represent narrow passages through the mangroves. Turning into one of these outlets immediately gets us out of the wind, and onto a slender channel winding through heavy vegetation, coming out a half-mile later on another windswept bay. This is the type of paddling I always imagined doing in the Everglades, ducking under branches hanging across the creek and similar fun, and it’s enjoyable to be so immersed in such a foreign environment. After turning back around, we continue on the river with the optimistic idea to cross a much larger bay in order to check out the Alligator Alley channel a couple miles away. Not happening. Once we arrive at the confluence with the bay, we experience the maelstrom in progress as wind and waves thrash across the water. It’s difficult to turn the canoe around without being driven into the mangroves, or swamped by the spraying waves. We manage to do so, without event, and begin the arduous paddle back to the chickee, which first requires battling our way against the wind back to the mouth of the river we’d just sailed down. We pay for a laugh when, after a misjudged turn, we end up at a dead end we’d already seen earlier that day, both of us recognizing the spot at the same time. It requires significant effort to paddle back out the second time around. We finally arrive at the river mouth only to have to work even harder to make it across the small section of bay separating us from the Sweetwater, eddy hopping from one wind sheltered stand of trees to the next. Once on the Sweetwater, however, welcoming déjà vu awaits as the wind pushes us all the way back to the chickee, where it continues to blow for the rest of the night.

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Around 5 a.m., all is calm. After many restful, then restless hours of lying in the tent, we’re ready to move. Getting out of the tent before first light proves much easier when the weather allows for flip-flops and shorts while drinking coffee at daybreak. As the trip progresses, we wake up earlier and earlier, often getting on the water as the sun begins to rise. Two things about winter expeditions: you need more days to explore due to the limited amount of daylight; and, when it gets dark at 5:30, you spend a lot of time in your tent no matter what the weather’s like.

We welcome movement this morning, knowing that we have many miles to go, and four major bays to cross on the way to the next chickee where we’ll be spending the night. We make a mile before the sun hits the horizon, and glide across the glossy surface of the first bay before the wind realizes what we’re up to. It catches on once we enter the second bay, but thankfully lacks the fervor of previous days. Slightly chilled by the breeze, we paddle 11 miles and get our tent strapped down to the chickee deck before lunch. The rest of the day we paddle around the area and explore a couple of the black squiggles on the map, getting in to one small overgrown creek nice and deep. We dodge, duck, push, and pull our way through heavy thicket for an hour before deciding to turn around, probably less than a mile from the entrance. Hundreds of tiny crabs on the tree roots provide additional entertainment, along with a chance couple of ibis.

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When we arrive back to our platform, a group of four occupies the adjoining chickee, and tells us that they had originally planned to stay several nights, but no permits were issued once the park service realized the severity of the storm. We are again thankful to have been fortuitous enough to have made adjustments, and to have weathered it all alone on our little stand in the bay. That night I take the canoe out for a solo spin under the light of a full moon. The intensity of silvery glare drives me into the shadows. I float several miles in complete stillness, unanticipated in this tropical environment, the silence broken only by cautious paddle strokes.

Up early the next morning, we eat and pack with a quickness before bidding goodbye to our chickee mates. We paddle out with the receding tide, our destination the keys once again. On the way, I notice what could be an alternate route through the mangroves on the map, and having all day to paddle, we elect to go exploring. We weave our way slowly down a canal for a couple of hours, eventually floating into a maze of mudflats with the tide still on its way out. Ibis, roseate spoonbills, and a variety of herons inhabit the rich feeding grounds. We marvel at the scene, and somehow manage to scrape our way through the muddle and back onto the open water. A few miles later we watch a loggerhead turtle, or two, rise and disappear, rise and disappear.

The next two nights we spend on the islands. Evidence of the recent storm abounds. The camping location at Jewel Key, normally several feet higher than the tides, is covered in detritus from waves washing completely over the island. I would probably be writing a much different story right now had we been out there as scheduled. From there we cross over to Tiger Key, stopping to admire flocks of great white pelicans standing together on white beaches along the way. Our last night in the area happens to be Christmas Eve, our camp a small private beach. We get in the canoe and paddle around as the sun sets, the sky to the east slowly shifting lavender, indigo, cobalt, even deeper blues without need of names.

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Christmas breakfast: fat burritos and Florida grapefruit. Another sunrise. A tough paddle out against the biggest tide of the month and a steady offshore wind. Punished for our impatience and unwillingness to wait for the tides, we make nine or ten miles in around six hours. The last couple of miles necessitate traveling down the shoreline, our paddles constantly digging into inches of silty mud. Most unsatisfying, though laughable if not for the frustration of awkward and inefficient strokes. We arrive at the dock in good spirits all the same. It’s early afternoon, and downright hot out. A couple of spoonbills methodically shovel through the silt at the take-out. As we derig, a hurried Brit and his partner pull up with their kayaks. He asks about the situation with the rangers due to the shutdown. I have no idea what he’s talking about, and wish I still didn’t.

Peace River, Juniper Creek, and Silver Springs

We spend the next couple of days hanging out in the nearby Collier-Seminole State Park. The most memorable experience comes when we try to run the park’s six-mile “Adventure Trail,” apparently devastated by one hurricane or another in recent years, and end up on a 3-hour bushwhacking excursion through brush, briars, and sawgrass. Over a week later, deep crosshatched cuts on our legs remain as a reminder of the fun. We eventually decide to start driving north, constantly deliberating what we should do next. Almost all of the longer rivers we’d considered running are still seriously flooded, with no signs of falling water levels. Options for other paddling possibilities in the state are almost overwhelming in scope, though most would only be shorter trips, each requiring significant shuttling logistics for only 2-3 days on the water.

As such, we spend the next couple of days working our way from one seven-mile stretch of river to the next, still trying to figure out the best place to get back into some semblance of wilderness for another extended expedition. We waver between too many potential options, most of them only rough ideas encumbered by current water conditions. We paddle a short section of the Peace River, counting gators on the way down. We make our way up to the Ocala National Forest and end up at Juniper Springs, a campground next to a large freshwater spring, where we run on a section of the Florida Trail through a bizarre backdrop of funky flora, and follow up with a swim in the natural pool.

Our last day in Florida easily rivals the first. Wildlife encounters abound. We wake up in the dark in order to get an early start on Juniper Creek, a tiny trickle of clear cool water coming directly out of the spring itself, the put-in barely deep enough to float a canoe and not much wider. The current cruises along at a decent clip, carrying us into constant corners and through dense stands of jungle. We ride it for seven miles or so, the clear water allowing us to see everything below us, including a snapping turtle the size of a dutch oven slowly patrolling its way upstream. Schools of fish, a snake launching from its branch into the creek. We spot deer through the foliage, several alligators only a few feet from the boat.

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The same afternoon we find our way to Silver Springs and another clear water stream emerging straight out of the earth, this one with much more volume than the first. We paddle a loop around the spring itself before moving down the river. There is everything here in abundance, birds, fish, gators, turtles… We have also come to see the monkeys, and a few miles down we do. Only here and the Florida Keys do primates live in the wild in the US, though they are non-indigenous and often a source of controversy. When we do spot them later that day, however, we’re not sure whether to look up or down, as several manatee emerge all around our canoe. They are only inches from our boat, often just beneath it, or underneath the floating aquatic plants beside it, nibbling at them from below. They slowly surface, breathe heavily, and dive again, their deeply scarred bodies baring signs of encounters with engine props. Near the confluence with the Ocklawaha, we’re still seeing new things – a six-inch baby gator sunning on a stump, a pair of purple gallinules. We get off the river late in the evening, and camp that night on the banks of the Ocklawaha River.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

That night we make a decision to move on the next morning. To leave the state. The rivers we want to run, mainly the Suwanee and the Apalachicola, will not be accessible anytime soon due to water levels. It’s not that they’re particularly dangerous at flood stage, it’s just that they spill over their banks into the surrounding lowlands, convoluting routes and submerging camping locations. At least that’s my understanding of it based on what the people we’ve spoken to on the phone have told us, and evidence of such was apparent even on the Peace River. It’s time to move on to something different, and even though there seem to be a lot of amazing parts of Florida left to see, we would rather be in one general area on one focused trip than driving around each day only getting pieces of nature a little at a time.

Having not spent much time in the east, I had never heard of Cumberland Island until this past October when I began to ask around about potential wilderness opportunities in the southeast. The person who told me about the island had recently camped there for a week, and said that he would have stayed much longer given the opportunity. I made a mental note to check it out myself at some point, and even considered the possibility of a visit on the way down to Florida. A bit of research and a phone call to the park office made it seem like an awful lot of required planning and reservations would be required, however (see previous comments on spontaneous behavior in Everglades section…), which I was not excited about committing to.

All of the sudden, however, thanks to Day-Glo Donnie’s ego and his red-herring of a wall, an exceptional opportunity emerged.

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Cumberland is a 17.5-mile long barrier island that sits a few miles off the coast of southeastern Georgia. The island has a rich history of occupation, including ownership by several wealthy families over the past few centuries. In the 1970s, the Carnegies, major landholders on the island, forged a relationship with the federal government which allowed for the creation of a national seashore that now encompasses most of the main island, though some property owners retain ownership and property rights for the remainder of their lifetime, meaning there are still a few people living on the island. The storyline goes that most of the landowners in this era did not want to see intensive development, as was happening in similar locations up the coast, destroy Cumberland, so they figured out a way to preserve it for future generations. Of course, there were a few private interests served as well, but overall the idea proves noble in implementation. Visitors may enjoy untrammeled, unpopulated beaches, and explore miles of uninhabited trails leading across the island through landscapes of saw palmettos and live oaks.

At least that’s how it seems while we’re there, the untrammeled unpopulated uninhabited part. Hardly a person to be seen as most visitors come over to the park via a regularly scheduled ferry which runs from St. Marys, Georgia several times a day, now suspended due to the government shutdown.

There is also the option, of course, of arriving at the island on your own boat, motorized or human powered, though even the shortest paddling distances require several miles of open water navigation. So during the shutdown it basically comes down to this: the park is open, but only equipped or fairly determined individuals have access to it (it’s possible to find a water taxi in St. Marys); camping reservations are nullified and unrequired; and no one knows when or if any of this is going to change. Talk about unanticipated circumstances and invitations for spontaneous journeys…

I will be honest and say that it is with mild trepidation that we depart from Crooked River State Park in Georgia and begin paddling the seven miles over to the island. The situation in general seems ideal in some ways, but creates anxiety as well. Thoughts of anarchy and lawlessness? I’m not sure what. I guess I should have more faith in the rest of humanity, but part of me hates to think of our public lands being advertised as unprotected. I’d like to think that most people value and respect what they stand for, and the places themselves, but I also know that not everyone operates with this mindset, especially if they think they can get the best of the government somehow. (Though within our current government, of course, there are people in charge of our public lands that want to do much worse than build an illegal campfire…) A mild unease sits with me the whole trip, though the few other paddlers/campers we meet seem to be there for the same reasons we are, to capitalize on an exclusive and otherwise negative situation solely for the positive aspects of the possibilities. For over a week, we have a whole national park, a whole island, almost to ourselves.

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I won’t get in to the day to day. We leave the state park that afternoon without any idea as to what we’ll find or what we’ll do. We think maybe we’ll stay for a few days, and end up staying for nine. We only see one or two people a day, many of them locals and all extremely kind. They are happy that we’ve made it over, and all of them hope that we will enjoy the island. While we’re out running on the third day, a man on a four-wheeler with his basset hound riding in a basket stops to chat. His name is Thornton Morris, and we later find that he’s an attorney who helped to create the legislation to make the island a park. He invites us to stop by his house, where he presents us with a book he wrote filled with vignettes and personal memoirs from the island. It’s enjoyable to read it over the course of our days there. The few other visitors that we meet are also entertaining, each with their own mission.

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We spend the first few days running and hiking most of the trails on the north half of the island, making big loops consisting of several miles of trails combined with a few miles of beach travel. We stay several nights at the Brickhill Bluff site, including a peaceful New Year’s Eve. Our camp faces west to the mainland, and the sky lights up in oranges and reds each evening. Later, we embark on a difficult day of paddling to the south end. Strong tides and wind beat us down for the better part of the day as we cover perhaps 12 miles over the course of eight hours. There are a few days of paddling on this trip where I have to remind myself that if it was easy, or even fun, we wouldn’t be out there alone. That the suffering begets the rewards. Half-a-mile from the dock, dark clouds cut across the sky, drenching us as we continue to paddle, knowing that if we stop we’ll only get blown backwards for who knows how far.

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The next four nights we have the main Sea View camp almost completely to ourselves. A boat captain dropping off a couple of backpackers tells us that there were 120 people there the week before the shutdown, as it’s the most popular spot on the island. Erin harvests the grapefruit and oranges from the laden trees around our site. Each day we see several of the wild horses the island is famous for, along with the armadillos, hundreds of shorebirds, and the occasional deer or wild turkey. We walk and run miles along trails and beach without seeing another person. For a couple of days we borrow, with the unofficial off-the-record blessing of a ranger on a morning visit, beach cruisers from the ranger station and ride for miles around the southern part of the island. We wander around the ruins of the Dungeness mansion, evidence of the immense wealth and privilege of Cumberland’s recent history. Eventually, having checked out almost every part of the island, it is time to leave.

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The last morning we get up while it’s still dark, hoping, for once, to ride the tide the right direction and also beat the wind. We eat oatmeal under the still bright stars, and drink our coffee as Mercury reveals itself against the coming dawn. We load the canoe from the dock, and take our first paddle stokes as the day breaks around us. Thankfully, we time everything just right.

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The Great Unknown

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About a week after our last trip to Mexico, we’re back again. This time it’s a quick trip across the border into Ojinaga, Chihuahua and an easy walk over the bridge and into town for a big food buy in preparation for some days of canoeing on the Rio Grande. From our last border crossing back into Laredo, Texas it was a night of sleep near Lake Amistad, then the drive west over to Terlingua, where we generally spend several months each winter guiding trips on the river, and doing lots of hiking, backpacking, canoeing, and running when work gets slow. While here, we usually make the journey to ‘OJ’ every few weeks or so in order to stock up on fresh produce and other items not generally available in the ‘nearby’ towns of Presidio and Alpine (both 80 miles away). Most times we try to combine a trail run and night of camping in the Big Bend Ranch State Park and make a day or two of it rather than drive there and back in the same day.

An afternoon in ‘OJ’ usually starts with a big lunch at Lobbys, a popular local restaurant, followed by a serious bout of shopping at the Al Super, the biggest supermarket in town. Depending on whether or not we drive or walk, which mostly depends on if I’m feeling like it’s worth it to get hassled/searched for driving a van filled with random boxes packed with camping supplies and river gear, we might also make a few stops at the fruit market, the tortilla factory, and maybe even sit around in the shade of an ice cream shop for a frozen fruit bar before coming back over. On this particular day, we walk across with empty backpacks, enjoy our lunch, and then go straight for the groceries, loading up with a couple of weeks’ worth of food for the river trip, which we’ll start the next day, though this already feels like part of the adventure, hence the inclusion here. The walk back to and through customs takes a half-hour or so, and then it’s back in the van and heading out of Presidio. That evening we stay in the state park, as per usual, get up and run some trails the next morning, and then head over to Lajitas and the put-in, where I drop off Erin and the gear before heading off for the necessary tedium of the long shuttle that awaits.

Each year I come down to the Big Bend, I usually have several trips/missions in mind that I want to do before leaving again in the spring. Sometimes those trips entail checking out something totally new, while others are repeats of trips worth revisiting. This trip happens to be one of the latter, in a way, though with a couple of changes to the start/end locations and canyons floated from some years earlier. It’s a trip on the Rio Grande along the border of Big Bend National Park, which also happens to be the international border, right bank Mexico, left bank Texas if one is oriented downstream. The majority of boaters who come down to float the river are generally most interested in paddling through one or more of the several deep canyons found along the 118 miles of river forming the park boundary, which are awesome and certainly worthy of attention. Most trips through the canyons generally start and end near the entrance and exit of the canyons, which clearly makes sense if that’s what you’re down here to see and only have a few days to a week or so to see them in. As such, there is a lesser frequented section of the river, a section that winds slowly along the through the open desert, which receives far fewer visitors each year than the canyons. Due to this relative unpopularity, most folks refer to the section as the Great Unknown. And it is the Great Unknown, with the addition of a couple of those awesome canyons, which we are planning on paddling.

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We’ve allotted nine days to travel about 95 miles total on the river. Sounds easy enough in writing, a measly 10 miles a day, but making miles on the Rio Grande can be a tiresome process depending on how low the water might be, and how fiercely the upstream wind blows. Even on the best of days, paddling more than a couple of miles in an hour can be a chore, and on the worst of days, going even one mile downstream in a canoe can be literally impossible. And down here, it’s best not to ever plan for the best of days.

The crew consists of myself, Erin, and my pops, Glendon, who’s driving down from the Texas panhandle to join us. I love my dad. He’s one of the smartest and most content human beings I’ve ever met. He’s constantly reading something interesting, and always cultivating curious new hobbies such as making and utilizing atlatls and bows, fashioning native flutes and other instruments, studying native grasses, etc. The list fluctuates continually, and I have endless respect for his dedication to lifelong learning. He’s also a lot more of an outdoorsman than he admits, as capable and enduring of a hiker/backpacker/camper as you could ask for, and he never complains about anything – though you wouldn’t know either one were true if you ever read his pre-trip correspondence, which always expresses great concern as to potential weather and his unfounded fear of somehow physically encumbering whatever plans we’re trying to coordinate. To date, I’ve never outwalked him, though we might not always travel at the same pace, and I certainly tend to grumble about the wind, rain, and cold way more than he ever has, especially since that’s never that I’ve heard. We’ve done a lot of great trips in the outdoors together over the course of my life, and over the past couple of decades he’s met me in a lot of different locations, from Colorado, to Alaska, to Costa Rica for a range of different adventures. He’s also been down to the Big Bend several times, including my first time down here when I was a kid, but this will be our first real river trip in this part of the country.

In order to run our own shuttle, my dad and I arrange to meet at the take-out, Rio Grande Village in the national park. He drives down from the panhandle the day before, staying the night in Ft. Stockton, and we both arrive at RGV around 11 a.m., leaving one vehicle and getting right back in the other one for the lengthy drive back to Lajitas. We make it to the put-in around 2 p.m., where Erin has done almost all of the boat rigging and even has lunch waiting for us. It’s a beautiful day. Blue skies, no breeze, maybe 75 degrees out. A true gem of a day, in fact, and over the next nine days we are to be blessed with day after day of amazing weather. Probably the nicest continuous stretch of atmospheric pleasantness I’ve ever experienced down here. There is one chilly morning, one slightly breezy afternoon, one evening of rain, but other than that, nothing but sunshine and no wind – which, if you’ve ever spent much time on desert rivers, is almost unheard of. I’ll credit Papa for the good karma.

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River flows are typically low this time of year, and this trip is no exception, though there is sufficient volume to cover most of the rocks and even a bit of current now and again. That afternoon we paddle about five miles downstream. Erin paddles her own boat, while Glendon and I go tandem in the second canoe. Both of the boats are second-hand beaters Erin and I purchased from the river company we work for, and not designed for anything even close to expedition boating or even smaller rapids, but they float and carry gear and are basically good enough for just about any stretch on the Rio Grande. Having said that, however, Glendon and I come as close to flipping as we will the entire trip about an hour or so into the first day while navigating our way down a skinny channel in a shallow rock garden. The boat low sides through a slot, we lean hard to the right, but still fill up with a significant amount of water and barely make it to shore before tipping over. Funny, but not necessarily the way to inspire confidence at the beginning of a long journey. The next morning our wonky load has us tilting sideways for miles before we finally pull over and reconfigure all the gear in the boat, which sets us up right for the rest of the trip.

That night we make camp on river right, in Mexico, that is, getting everything set up in time to cook dinner and wash dishes just before dusk. One of the more controversial aspects of paddling on the Rio Grande is the fact that it serves as the international border, though, for now, in our potentially pre-wall era, there isn’t anything glaringly different about any one side. This is surprisingly surprising to many of the tourists who visit, and I’ve never been able to figure out what they imagined they would witness when gazing across into Mexico. I suppose the severity of their conceptions could be directly correlated with the amount of corporate media consumed on a regular basis. The same animals live on both sides of the river, the same birds fly back and forth. The same vegetation lines both banks, canyon walls rise on either side or the desert extends in all directions. Sometimes there are great campsites on the left, other times on the right, and there can be long miles between those campsites. It’s a river. And it’s pretty much impossible to only paddle on the left side of a river, which means you’re constantly crossing the border, officially the deepest channel of the river, all day long.

On paper, on your permit, you are forbidden to step into Mexico other than to scout a rapid or portage. In practice, it’s never really worked quite like that. Even on commercial trips, we’re often eating lunch in Mexico, or hiking a side canyon, or even spending the night on the right bank. Guidebooks highlight features on both sides of the river without discrepancy. For decades, river runners have traveled the river as any other, exploring sites of interest on either bank, lunching wherever there’s shade, camping on grassy flats or sandy beaches regardless of nationalistic labels, following the same wilderness ethic without distinction between governing entities or geographical specifics. Recently, however, due to so much vitriolic attention directed towards our southern neighbors, it seems inevitable that consideration must be given to the prudence of this practice, and those thoughts are on my mind that first night, and throughout the trip, a lot more than I want them to be. I’ll leave it at that. We still camp in Mexico that night, and a couple of other nights throughout the trip, just like I always have, just like common sense would dictate one would do while floating down 100 miles of river, but without quite the same serenity as before, perhaps the one downer of the entire experience.

That night we build a small driftwood fire in the firepan and hang out talking for an hour or two before bed. This ends up as the standard for the trip, and is another reason I appreciate having my pops along. Spending so many days and nights of every year in the wilderness, I practically never bother to build a fire. It simply doesn’t occur to me to do so. I suppose I got out of the habit years ago, and no longer associate camping and campfires, as most folks who only spend a few nights outside each year might do. Once it gets dark, I quite enjoy sitting around and looking up at the night sky for a while, and then usually read in bed until it’s time to sleep. This can make for some long nights in the winter months, not to mention chilly evenings, so it’s great to have someone along that’s motivated to gather wood and get a blaze going each evening. We talk about nothing in particular, or nothing at all, simply stare at the fire and enjoy the quiet of the desert.

Relative quiet that is, for another factor to doing trips down here involves the ubiquitous livestock found along every mile of the river. While parts of the Mexican side enjoy a somewhat vague level of federal protection, most of the adjoining land is used for grazing, and, believe it or not, herd animals seem disinterested in recognizing the river as an international border. As such, horses, mules, and cows will be encountered frequently on either side, and are often nonplussed to find humans occupying their nighttime grazing areas and water holes. The beach we are on is no exception, and sometime in the middle of the night a troupe of galloping horses storms through the middle of camp, bringing quick awakenings and unwanted imaginings of bandidos riding upon us. A quick head thrust outside the tent reveals that it’s only frustrated mules looking to graze in their usual spot, however, and they reluctantly choose to move on to perhaps less green pastures rather than roam among the strange tents on their home turf. Several nights later we have a more intense encounter with a proudly prancing gelding intent on intimidation, and have to get out the pots and pans in order to scare it away for good.

In the morning, we wake up, laugh a bit about the horses, and pack up the boats. We float and paddle for several miles through open canyon country, spotting a roving fox on its morning patrol and various ducks, flycatchers, and other birds. We stop at a spot called ‘metates’ and spend a few minutes pondering holes worn deep into bedrock from the grinding of mesquite pods used in the production of flour by early inhabitants of the area. Up on the cliffs around us we spot a herd of about 30 aoudad, or Barbary sheep, a non-native species of mountain sheep that were introduced as game animals on Texas ranches back in the 50s. Aoudad (pronounced aw-dad), native to northern Africa, have since escaped the private ranches they were originally released on, and now thrive in the harsh desert environments of several southwestern states. All over the Big Bend they continue to proliferate, to the point that they are open-season animals for hunters here (though not in the park), and are slated to be targeted for significant numbers reduction by the National Park Service, which considers them a threat to the ecology of the area for multiple reasons. All the same, it’s pretty awesome to see them in what certainly seems like their natural habitat, to admire their climbing agility and determined adaptability. We watch their red bodies move gracefully upwards, almost entirely camouflaged against the desert rocks, until they simply disappear into the mountain.

We lunch at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, and hike up to an overlook for a quick peek into the shady depths we’re about to float through. The canyon is a narrow slot through two massive limestone mesas. Around seven miles long, its walls reaching heights of around 1500’, it’s one of the main attractions in the national park, and an inspiring sight from all vantages, through especially impressive from the river. As we enter the canyon in our canoes, the temperature drops significantly and the current picks up a bit, giving the experience a slightly ominous feel. We navigate a few easy riffles, and line the boats through a couple of others where the current surges into banks lined with overhanging river cane. About a mile into the canyon, we come upon Rock Slide, where an eponymous event centuries prior left monstrous house-sized boulders strewn across the river in a difficult maze. With a bit of lining, dragging, and paddling, we manage to get our boats through the confusion, and then spend the rest of the afternoon drifting slowly downstream, our necks craning upwards as we attempt to take everything in. Reluctant to float through the entire canyon in one day, we decide to camp a couple miles above the exit. Knowing we won’t have any sun the next morning to animate us seems a small price to pay for a sublime evening spent on a rock beach in the bottom of such a wondrous environment. That night, the near full moon illuminates the canyon walls, surrounding us in silvery blue light.

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The next day we leave the canyon mid-morning with cold fingers and toes, happily paddling as we continue past the usual take-out, and officially enter the Great Unknown. Around the first corner we’re immediately rewarded with big views of the Chisos Mountains and Cerro Castellan. A few miles downstream, we stop for lunch at Cottonwood Campground, a popular birding destination in the park, temporarily closed for repairs, but easily accessible from the river allowing us to have the place to ourselves for long enough to sight several colorful species including vermillion flycatchers and golden-fronted woodpeckers. Back on the river we float past a great-horned owl as it snoozes in the sun. That night we camp on a low beach with a good view of the Chisos in the distance. A fiery sunset turns clouds and mountains brilliant pinks and reds.

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The next six days we paddle, hike, camp, repeat. We swim a bit, bask in the morning sun, seek shade in the middle of the afternoon, sit around a fire each night. On the river it’s mostly steep, cane lined banks, though there are occasional glimpses of ever-changing desert scenery as we slowly make our way downstream. There is wildlife in abundance. A short list of birds would include: great blue herons, blue and green winged teal, cinnamon teal, buffleheads, cormorants, multiple raptors, two species of vultures, ravens, Pyrrhuloxia and cardinals, Say’s and black phoebe, several species of wrens… We catch a quick glimpse of a bobcat early one morning, see another fox, spot several herds of aoudad…

The guidebook offers thoughtful histories about the early Anglo settlers of the area, and we often stop to poke around the foundations of old rock houses, remnants of lives left long ago. We try to imagine what life might have been like for those people, how different the landscape might have been before the taxing human endeavors of ranching and mining, said to have significantly altered the ecosystem. More grass and trees? Less desert? How hot?

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After several days of floating through the Great Unknown, we drift into Mariscal Canyon, every bit as spectacular as Santa Elena, though infrequently visited due to the challenge of getting there. We check out the crystal caves near the entrance, walk up a steep path to the abandoned dwelling of a hermit, said to have spent some time there while dodging the Vietnam draft, navigate ‘Tight Squeeze.’ We lunch at Cross Canyon, and speed hike up the steep trail there for a few miles, hoping to get on top of the canyon wall but not quite making it due to daylight constraints; there are rewarding views all the same. We spend a night in that canyon as well, on a high grassy knoll alongside silent waters below.

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One of our favorite campsites is a large barren island just upstream of the old Solis house, which we arrive at the next afternoon. Favorite for the views, and favorite because we decide to do a ‘lunch-over,’ in which the lunch spot also serves as the camp spot, one of my preferred ways to float rivers these days. The afternoon off provides a welcome respite from long days of paddling. We all do our own thing for several hours, reconvening around dinnertime. That night, the moon waning now and not appearing for several hours, the stars explode in the expanse of sky above us.

For half of the next day we paddle through the short but spectacular San Vicente Canyon, and then back into the open desert. A final river campsite, and out the next morning. The last day comes on as perfect as the first. We eat our last oatmeal breakfast, perform the standard camp breakdown, fasten everything securely into the boats, and push off the banks for a few sunlit miles down to Langford hot springs, where we soak in the springs and swim in the river for a couple of hours before paddling through Hot Springs Canyon on our way to the takeout.

We arrive at the boat ramp around noon, pack quickly and efficiently, and head back across the park, this time at 50 mph rather than 2. Back in Lajitas we say goodbye to Glendon, hoping for many more adventures in the years to come, but more than anything incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have lived this one.

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Northbound 17

Left Terlingua, Texas and the southern border in early April of last year. Spent a week with family in the Panhandle, and drove out of Texas around the 14th. The end goal was returning to Alaska for the summer, where I guide whitewater trips for a company called NOVA, primarily on the Matanuska River, which is about an hour east of Palmer, which is about an hour north of Anchorage, which seems to be about the only place anyone has ever heard of in Alaska despite the question I’ve heard about 200 times in the past month “Where at in Alaska?” (Point being, I suppose, if you’re a recluse that cringes at small talk, you should never drive around the lower 48 in a van with Alaska license plates…)

However, the main goal, the means not the end goal, was to see a few states I’d spent little to no time in, but have been interested in for several years. The two main ones being Nebraska and South Dakota, with northern Montana thrown into the mix somewhat spontaneously after visiting some friends down near Yellowstone. I also spent about a day in Wyoming, a half-day in Idaho, and a week in Washington before boarding the ferry in Bellingham and traveling by boat through the Inside Passage up to Haines, AK. From there it was a day’s drive through a sliver of Canada, and then another day of driving over to Fairbanks, where I met up with some folks to do a training trip over Memorial Weekend. That’s the basics.

Here’s the details: Just before I left Texas I decided to participate in some sort of organized run in either Nebraska or South Dakota. I’m somewhat into running these days, I suppose, mostly on trails and on my own, but occasionally I enjoy signing up for an event and spending an hour or two panting alongside a bunch of semi-athletic types who appreciate fitness and suffering more than most of the people I normally hang out with. Anyway, thanks to the interweb, I was able to locate a half-marathon in Arthur, Nebraska, which happened to be more or less on the way to the Niobrara River, the floating of which was my main reason for visiting Nebraska in the first place. And so it was decided, first stop, Arthur.

Left Texas on a windy Friday morning, pausing for coffee in my long forgotten hometown of Stinnett perhaps for no reason other than to write it here, and pretty much cruised right on up through Kansas stopping for gas once and swerving around dead badgers a few different times. It was windy there as well. Ended up staying the first night on Lake McConaughy, enjoying a sunset and the sounds of passing trains.

In the morning I woke up early, drove the remaining 30 miles or so to the town of Arthur, population 146 according to the sign outside of town planted next to a barbed wire fence with posts covered in disintegrating cowboy boots. We, collectively around 120 people I believe, met at the high-school at 7 a.m., boarded three luxurious coach model school buses, and rode out to the start point at a place called Sillassen Ranch. 13 miles never seemed so far as it did that morning with the buses creeping along slowly up and down hill after hill. At the starting point, the wind was whipping, though it ended up blowing from the west all morning as we runners headed east. It was cold, but had it been a headwind instead, the day would have been miserable. Before the race started, the organizers asked all military veterans to step forward and then made the crowd thank us for our service. Having been in the Army for several years, every time someone tells me that I wonder what conservative douche started that trend in the first place, undoubtedly some nutless Fox News pundit trying to con viewers into believing their bigoted rhetoric stems from patriotism rather than cowardice. If you want to thank someone for their service, pick an environmental engineer, a teacher, your local collector of recyclables, or anyone working on the problem of overpopulation (which, I suppose, could grimly be considered to be a soldier after all, so whatever…). Above all, thank a farmer. Thank an artist.

After that we all honored a flag someone had gone to lengths to station nearby, while a high school girl sang the Star Spangled Banner over a portable PA system. Finally, with raw nipples each one of us from standing in the cold wind for 30 minutes in our running clothes, the gun sounded and we started the run. I was tired from poor sleep, untrained, and underprepared, but ended up doing alright I suppose. I ran the entire time, at least, and even finished with a better time than the last one I ran in Anchorage a few months ago. The Nebraska sandhills got bigger and bigger mile after mile, with the steepest two falling at miles 10 and 11, but then the last couple of miles into town were downhill, with BBQ provided to all finishers at the end. A good morning overall, and a great way to start a trip in the Midwest.

From Arthur, I drove up, over, and through further lengths of hills to north central Nebraska and the town of Valentine. On the drive, an odd coincidence occurred as the only station available on the radio was NPR, which was broadcasting the nationally syndicated program Radiolab. The minute I left town and turned on the radio, the show shifted to a story about the very area I was traveling through, which could easily be described as the middle-of-nowhere. It’s a place where there are no towns for long miles, and what small populations there are seem to be very small populations indeed. Not a place, in any event, that generates a lot attention from the national press. Anyway, this show was about one of those towns, or what was once one of those towns, with a populace of about 20 that proposed and then voted to unincorporate due to very opposing views as to what the town was about. Basically, from what I gathered, there were some folks who wanted freedom in the form of living like trashy shitbirds, and a few others who somehow got themselves elected into positions of power (again, in a town of 20 people) who wanted them to clean up their yards, lives, etc. In the end, the shitbirds won and the town was unincorporated. The vote was something like 11-9. As a result the no longer town basically lost all the services and rights once offered to them by the state, which seemed to be significant according to the story and recorded interviews, but no one was forced to clean up their yard. Also, in the end, my previously planned route took me to about 10 miles from what was once the town, and I elected to stick with that route rather than drive 20 miles out of my way to blink past a bunch of stupid people’s trash filled lawns, no matter how cool the coincidence seemed at the time.

Okay, maybe I’ll speed things up a bit from here on out, otherwise I’m guessing this is going to be much longer than the average internet user’s attention span (not that you, of course, my dear friends and family who have managed to follow thus far, are average internet users by any means..). Or, maybe I won’t. I’ll try, how about that? From the junction which led me away from the town, it was a beautiful backcountry drive into Valentine, where I planned on beginning a multi-day float trip on the Niobrara River.

Having worked on rivers for many years, I’ve always enjoyed asking clients about the rivers in their home state. Most folks from the Midwest (I’m hoping my geography is correct here in labeling Nebraska as such) generally guffaw at the question, though many will come up with something when pressed. Nebraskans always answer with the Niobrara, though pass it off as a canoeable stream generally inundated with drunken tubers. I’d heard several times that a 2-day trip was possible, and that it was indeed a beautiful stretch of water lined with waterfalls and wildlife, all this, mind you, by Nebraska standards according to Nebraska residents who often offered that caveat. As such, checking out the Niobrara served as the original impetus of this entire trip. And once I started looking into it online, about a week before I decided to go, of course, I learned that there is actually a 70+ mile section of river that is federally designated as wild and scenic. After a few inquiries to park service personnel and local outfitters, most of who encouraged me to only float the first 20 miles or so, I decided to canoe the entire stretch.

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Oh yeah, speeding things up. Great trip. 4 days. Lots of waterfalls and wildlife, as promised. From the river I saw buffalo, beavers, deer, bald eagles, lots of turkeys (one recently killed and being eaten on by an eagle), ducks, pheasants, monstrous soft shell turtles, and more. After the recommended initial section, the river changed characteristics quite a bit and finding one’s way around sandbars became a slight challenge, though the river was high enough that it wasn’t generally a problem. The only hairy moment came when I took a swift-moving side channel and ended up having to charge across the top of a tightly strung barbed wire fence. Two days of excellent weather, one day of so-so haziness, and then a final night of violent thunderstorms followed by an afternoon of rain, upstream gusts, and chills. I ended up paddling 30 miles into the wind that day, arriving at the van around dusk just in time to chat with the friendly local sheriff who was checking up on the abandoned vehicle his deputy reported some days earlier (after sniffing around for a whiff of a potentially decomposing body inside). I had left it at a supposedly official take-out that apparently receives very little use, and the sheriff was actually so nice that he even said I could go ahead and stay the night there, which is what I was intending on doing anyway as it was past dark by then. Did not see another person on the river at all, which is always my definition of success as far as wilderness trips are concerned.

The next morning I drove a series of small highways up and into South Dakota. I ended up heading east for a few extra miles in order to detour over to Mitchell and the ‘World’s Only Corn Palace,’ a long-standing tourist attraction designed to keep the town alive way back in 1892 (and back then, it wasn’t actually the only corn palace, but more of a rip off of another state’s original). I don’t generally go out of my way to stop at tourist traps in general; most of the time, in fact, I avoid them at all costs. But when I first heard about this place 15 years ago, for some reason the idea stuck in my head: an enormous palace adorned with annually changing murals made from corn. Who could resist? From what I saw of Mitchell, it’s a good thing the corn kingdom (which really isn’t all that enormous after all…) still exists, otherwise that place might not. However, I must say I considered it worth the stop (though I wouldn’t drive more than an hour tops out of the way to get there, if ever you’re traveling through). This year’s theme, which changes each fall hence the double year date, was ‘Rock of Ages.’ The façade murals included Elvis, a nondescript woman belting out a tune, a weird corn guy rocking out, and then for some reason moonwalking Michael Jackson, Saturday Night Fever Travolta, and a prominently featured Willie Nelson (though who knows, maybe it was Dicky Betts – it was made out of corn cobs, after all). So not entirely sure about the Rock part of the theme, but did enjoy checking everything out and seeing all the photos of the palace themes over the past century plus.

That afternoon, I finally started heading west and made it over to Badlands NP in the early evening. Watched the colors change over the Big Badlands Canyon as the sun set, spied on a porcupine walking around on top of nearby formations for a while, and then drove slowly across the north part of the park through multiple herds of mule deer. In the morning, I woke up super early and did some route planning. For some reason, before I left that part of the world, I had to stop off at one other tourist trap, one that I’ve seen ridiculous stickers from for countless years now, as well as billboards galore all across the state: Wall Drug. Somehow, I arrived in the town of Wall around 7 a.m., which happened to be when a few of the shops started to open. One of the ubiquitous billboards on the way in advertised ‘Free Coffee and Donut for Military Vets.’ I don’t generally bother mentioning to most folks that I was ever in the military, but hey, a free donut is way better than the before mentioned ‘thanks for your service’ comment. And damn that freshly made donut was about the best I’ve ever had.

One thing I learned from my South Dakota trip is that I enjoy Americana much more than I cared to admit. I spent about two hours wandering around that place amazed at the success of the original concept, which was basically get people off the highway and make some money by inundating the potential consumer with copious and relentless advertising (still is) and enticing them with a few potential freebies. In the beginning it was, get this, free ice water. There was also a large hall full of articles written about Wall Drug in various mainstream publications spanning several decades, along with exhibits of vintage black & white photos and written histories from the Black Hills area.

With a full tank of gas and a couple dollars less than I came with, I left Wall mid-morning and headed back into the park. Did some scenic driving, spotted several big horn sheep, lots of pronghorn, and uncountable mule deer. A few hours later, I ended up in the main campground drying and reorganizing gear from the river trip. The sun was shining, a light wind helped the drying, and the songs of meadowlarks permeated the afternoon. That evening, I took the bike and rode several miles over to one of the main trailheads, where I got in some sunset hiking and marveled at the ever-shifting hues of light illuminating and then fading from the characteristic formations. In the morning it was a lengthy run on the Castle Trail, followed by a drive west across the park, buffalo and prairie dog viewing, and eventually  finding a secluded spot to camp in a separate sector with amazing views from the rim of a plateau.

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The next morning entailed a lengthy drive across the high desert and along many miles of dirt roads. A shortcut of sorts, I suppose, on the way to Wind Cave NP. Here I went on the morning tour of a small section of what is apparently an incredibly vast and mostly unexplored cave system (also one of the earliest national parks, and the first cave to be designated as such – who knew…) Not the most exciting tour, if you want the truth, but then again being stuck underground with 40 people in a foreign environment guided by a seasonal employee of questionable competence and going ever deeper into a place you could die a slow terrible death in should the lights go out and you get lost, has never been all that appealing anyway. I suppose I only went because it seemed as if you couldn’t visit Wind Cave NP and not actually go in the cave, plus, truth be told, it was National Parks Day, so the tours were free, which made hanging out in the dark with a lot of loudly whining kids and some completely capable seeming old man with his ‘service dog’ and its homemade vest only slightly more tolerable.

Back on the surface, things were much happier. Spent that afternoon hiking around next to buffalo, and the next morning going on a run that ended up being much much longer than originally intended. Also had the distinctive experience of running, inadvertently, next to a small herd of bison and six pronghorns at the same time, and later causing a near stampede when more and more bison joined the original group in ‘our’ run, eventually forcing me to stop, change direction, and sneak around yet another herd. Within the first two steps of resuming the run, I almost trampled a startled coyote in its den which bolted with a surefire quickness.

And that was only the beginning of that day. From there I drove north through Custer State Park and into the Needles, multiple ranges of huge granite spires seemingly transplanted from the southern Sierra into western South Dakota. Without much warning, the road went from ordinary double lane highway to climbing single lane asphalt, hairpin turns, and tunnels so tight the van barely squeezed through. My initial plan was to rest for the rest of the day, and then hike Harney Peak, South Dakota’s highest point at around 7200’, the next morning, but when I asked the gatekeeper of the park what the weather might be like the next day she replied: ‘Snow. For the next week or so.’ So it was over to the trailhead and onto the summit. The trail passed through miles of beetle killed trees, and next to great chunks of neatly eroded towers as I walked under ever-darkening clouds. The top culminated in intricately designed stairways and a huge stone lookout structure built by the CCC long ago. From the tower there were great views to one side of the ridge, and cold misty clouds blowing swiftly up and over the other.

Once back at the van I decided I should start descending, and realized I could probably catch a quick glimpse of Mt. Rushmore before the day was over. And I did. And again, something I had somewhat low expectations for, and no overwhelming desire to visit in the first place (I suppose because I equated the site with places like Wall Drug and the Corn Palace, touristy stops for unmotivated chunkers looking for something to do between meals (this one with an American flag sweatshorts patriotic bend to it…)), turned out to be pretty darn impressive and interesting after all. I was wrong to judge without empirical evidence, though I’ll probably never learn that lesson. I guess that’s all I have to say about that.

That night it did indeed snow, and several inches at that. I woke up around Lake Sheridan, motivated to cook up some coffee and breakfast burritos in spite of the white, and decided to head into Rapid City to figure out what I should do next. Spent the day there, later spent the night near Deadwood, and due to the snow elected to skip the couple of other things I would have liked to do in South Dakota and head west the next day instead.

Drove into Wyoming in full sunshine which quickly turned into a dense fog as I headed north from the freeway the hour or so to Devil’s Tower. Entered the monument having yet to see anything resembling the famous formation, which is usually visible from miles 20170426_120121out. The parking lot and visitors center are at the base of the tower, where you still couldn’t see any rock at all despite being only a couple hundred yards away. There was lots of snow everywhere including at least 6-7” on all the boughs of all of the conifers making for stellar winter scenery and also neck freezing dump hazards when walked beneath the limbs (personal experience). After about an hour things cleared up enough to get some decent views. I walked the mile loop around the base listening to large sheets of ice breaking up and sliding off the columns terminating in small explosions. Saw a pair of peregrine falcons on the far side, and enjoyed the stroll through the quiet snowy landscape. Was nice to experience winter again after several years without.

The next day was driving into Montana across large swaths of green ranchland and through flurries of humongous snowflakes. Made it to Billings in the early morning, and spent a half-day there looking around town and going for a run on some trails down by the Yellowstone River. From there it was over to Livingston, which is about an hour-and-a-half north of Yellowstone NP and a half-hour east of Bozeman. Spent the next several days reconnecting with a couple of old friends that I hadn’t seen in years. They don’t know one another, and lead disparate lifestyles, but it was convenient enough to get to spend a few days with my friend Matt L, who I shared a house with for years in Colorado, and then head south to Emigrant to hang out with Sean H, who I know from the military and have kept in touch with over the past couple decades.

Matt, once a founding member of PETA when we were going to school at Ft. Lewis in Durango, now manages a mechanic shop, recreates motorized, and stockpiles guns. Full force Montana, in other words. He and the owner of the shop, Drew, treated me to a redneck weekend spectacular. We took off on Friday afternoon, drove across Yellowstone and over to Cooke City. Saw a couple bears along the way, lots and lots of bison, eagles, osprey, hundreds of elk, and plenty of early season tourists. I was quite surprised to arrive in Cooke City, the end of the road in the winter, and see that the mountains were indeed still packed with untold feet of snow.

Those guys go out on their snow bikes, a cross between dirt bike and snowmobile with one ski in front and large track in the back, almost every weekend and ride like banshees through the trees. When we arrived that afternoon, they gave me a conventional snowmobile with an absurd amount of horsepower and away we (well, they) went. I putted along behind somewhat nervous to see what the sled was actually capable of (this machine, by the way, had just been repaired since a throttle-sticking incident which ended up leaving one of their mechanics with a broken femur some months earlier). We rode around most of the afternoon, had a big fire and wild game BBQ that evening, and then went back out the next morning for a long ride into the mountains. While I still prefer to burn calories over fuel when in the wilderness, I ended up having a great time and kind of getting the hang of things as far as getting on the gas went. I also managed to avoid crashing into any trees and destroying myself or the recently rebuilt snowmobile, so success overall. Was also fun watching Matt and crew disappear into the trees and fly off the occasional snowberm.

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The next afternoon we met up at Drew’s place for some shooting and basically blasted away for several hours. Target practice, skeet shooting, a fantastic tannerite explosion (look up on YouTube if you haven’t seen this (why is this legal? Not sure, but if you have some extra cash and a high powered rifle I’d recommend seeing it for yourself at least once.)), and some experimenting with Matt’s self-smithed black powder rifle. Crazy to imagine that people were once proficient with these weapons as you have to aim, fire, hope the flint ignites the powder, which it often doesn’t, keep aiming through the smoke when the powder does light, and finally hold steady once it actually fires. Anyways, hell of a weekend. Ye-haw everybody.

From Drew’s house it was a short drive south to meet up with Sean outside of Emigrant, MT. He bought an amazing piece of property some years back, and lives way up on a hill backed up by Forest Service land. Most of the ‘neighborhood’ consists of empty multi-million dollar houses owned by rich folks who are seldom home. The views are stunning, and with the access he has to the wilderness there’s almost no reason to leave the place on his days off as he can just walk around the hills next to his house and spot more wildlife than you would likely see in the national park. I only got to hang out there for a couple nights, but we did a lot of walking around and catching up. Also, thanks to Sean’s hospitality and hunting success, I ate a lot of elk meat. The second day we headed over to Tom Miner Basin to look for grizzlies, one of Sean’s hobbies along with wildlife photography and, again, Montana, shooting (both targets and in-season game). Still seemed a bit early for the bears to be really active, but we did follow some tracks through the snow for a while. Also caught sight of a couple moose, a herd of bighorns, and loads of white-tail and mule deer.

Sean works in the park and had to take off at dawn the next day. I followed him out and made it to Chico Hot Springs for an early morning soak before spending most of the day driving north. I had originally considered spending a few days paddling around Yellowstone Lake, but access was still closed in early May due to snow, and reportedly a lot of the lake was still frozen. As such, changed plans and decided to take advantage of my (relatively) close proximity to the Missouri River Breaks, a canoeing section of the Upper Missouri I’d only heard of earlier this year. Made it into Ft. Benton later that evening after a ridiculous misadventure on some incredibly muddy roads leading to a rural ferry operated by a surly old man with the nose of a lifelong alcoholic. I’ll skip the details. I’ll also go ahead and skip a lot of the details of the week long trip, which was awesome, but will tell you that it started with a lot of uncertainty as to how I could run my own shuttle and which sections I would be able to do due to limitations pertaining to that problem.

In the end, I elected to take a big chance and hitchhike on remote county roads for 150 miles across northern Montana. That allowed me to stay out of the treacherous mud as well as paddle the entire Wild and Scenic stretch of river, though, as before in Nebraska, most officials suggested I might just want to do the more popular sections of the run. They were right, of course, but most times I like to find out for myself. Woke up at 5 in the morning, left my canoe and belongings at the boat campground in Ft. Benton, drove to the take out arriving around 8:30. Sharpied up a cardboard sign and packed a possibilities bag, knowing I could be spending the night out there somewhere, walked across the road, tried to smile, and stuck out my thumb. In the end, I got super lucky. The first car that picked me half-an-hour later dropped me off at a junction about 20 miles down the road, and then, for the first time in my life, a slowing semi pulled over to let me in. The driver, Frank, told me that he was eventually going to Ft. Benton, however, first ‘we’, I was immediately part of the team, which was sweet, would have to detour a few miles in order to pick up a load of fertilizer, but that I could hang out if I wanted instead of getting off where I’d originally requested. I considered myself incredibly fortunate to be in motion at that point, and didn’t need to think about that one at all. On the ride, Frank told me all about the agricultural industry in that part of the world, ‘we’ got our 84,000 lbs. of fertilizer, I got to see a slightly different route than I’d driven that morning, and Frank dropped me in town around 1 pm. An auspicious beginning to the Upper Missouri.

Put in that afternoon and made it almost 20 miles before arriving at camp. Spent seven days floating 150 miles of river, doing a fair amount of hiking, and admiring all sorts of changing scenery and wildlife. Plenty of sunshine most days, but also got to see a couple big thunderstorms roll through, and experienced some major wind at times – though on this stretch of the Missouri the standard pattern actually results in the wind blowing primarily – and what seems like miraculously after all these years on desert rivers – downstream. The first 50 miles or so was mostly farmland and rolling hills, followed by the White Cliffs section, replete with its namesake formations (and also impressively juxtaposed intrusive black dykes) for the next 40, and the Badlands stretch for the final 60 miles. This section, though not as popular as the White Cliffs, was my favorite for its distinctive wilderness feel. The riverbanks also hold lots of history in the form of century-old homesteads to visit, and all along the way the guidebooks offer tidbits of information pertaining to the Lewis and Clark expedition which used the river enroute to the Rockies and beyond.

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From the Missouri it was north again, and then west. A couple days later, I was in Glacier NP, most of which was still closed due to snow. Camped two nights, and caught a couple of sunsets from the banks of Lake McDonald. The one full day I spent there, I rode my single-speed bike 25 miles through the park, up over and down a steep pass, and then along the North Fork of the Flathead River on the western boundary to the locally recommended Polebridge Mercantile, famous for its baked goods, where I had a cup of coffee and a fritter before turning around and riding back.

Westbound now, I checked out White Fish for a morning, had some food at a brewery in Libby, stopped by Kootenai Falls for a while, stayed the night at Bull Lake, and then strolled around the Ross Creek Cedars before leaving Montana a couple days later. Did a run along Lake Pend Oreille and some shopping in Sandpoint, ID, and then kept moving. Ended up cutting back south after Spokane and taking a somewhat circuitous route which eventually led over to Tacoma via the Columbia Wildlife Refuge and Mount Rainier. I loved the refuge. Lots of streams and reed filled lakes/ponds, tall grasses, columnar basalt cliffs, and fantastic colors as the light shifted each evening. Stayed one night along the Tieton River, and then did a slow early morning walk through a grove of old-growth trees at the base of Mt. Rainier while sipping coffee the next day.

In Tacoma, I visited another old Army friend and stayed with him and his 4-year-old son for a few days. From there it was up to Bellingham to catch the ferry to Haines through the Inside Passage, a route I’ve longed to travel for years now, and am thankful to have had the opportunity to do so. Within an hour of leaving port, a pod of orcas swam within view, and that’s basically about how good the whole trip was in my mind. All sorts of weather, from dense fog to belting sun to pounding rain, and I loved every minute of it. Spent three days on the ship and slept each night in a tent on the upper deck. Lots of narrow channels, waterfalls, and marine life. Eventually managed to briefly transcend the solitary travel mode I’d slipped into and have some interesting conversations with some interesting people. The second full day the ship landed in several coastal Alaskan towns, Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg. Each time it stopped a couple of guys and I would grab our bikes and go tearing about seeing everything we could before having a quick drink at a local pub, and then furiously pedal back again before the ship’s departure. Three days after boarding we arrived in Haines and drove off the ferry. 20170521_211040I did some short hikes there, and ended up camping out at a state park surrounded by glaciers with a few of the folks I’d met onboard. The next morning everyone went their separate ways, though we’d later pass each other a few times on the way through Canada and beyond. I stayed to run around the park trails a bit (back to yelling for grizzlies every few steps), then headed north again, this time up the Chilkat River, across the border, through BC, and into the Yukon. Camped one night in Canada next to a little creek and re-crossed into Alaska the next day. Spent the morning looking at birds in the Tetlin Refuge, messed around in Tok a bit, and then kept moving.

The last week of travel was a day at the Chena hot springs, north of Fairbanks, where I toured their thermo-generated power plant and impressive hydroponic greenhouse (9,000 lbs of tomatoes last year, along with a variety of greens and more, all used in the restaurant) before soaking for a few hours in the outdoor pool. The next day I biked around Fairbanks all afternoon, cruising around town and checking out the sandhill cranes on their summer grounds. Spent Memorial weekend on the Chatanika River doing some training with a company that runs trips in the arctic, hoping to guide one later that summer, though things fell through in the end due to cancelled reservations. People talk. From there it was south again, down to Denali to have dinner with my old boss at Denali Raft Adventures, and then further south still to Palmer, AK and back to the Matanuska. And then there I was, 5500+ miles later and hanging out at the NOVA camp getting ready to throw on a drysuit and run some whitewater…