Sunday, December 27, 2009

Big Bend Winter Solstice/Christmas

Well it only took me 54 yrs and 319 days but I finally made the sojourn to Big Bend. Somehow it always seemed too far to drive, and anyway, I could be paddling in the Sunshine State before I made it all the way out there. It's not like I haven't traveled, I have, but for some reason, Big Bend was always somewhere I was going to get to some day.

I left the dog at the kennel at 4 pm on Sat. Dec. 19, and made it to the Wal-a-day Inn in Abilene, rose at 4 am and arrived at Rio Grande Village campground at about 11:30 after making a quick tour of Marathon.
Part of me, upon entering the park, really wanted not to love it, "see, it's just a big desert, no big deal, I was right not to have come for all those years." However, the desert was just exactly what I did love about Big Bend. Yes, I drove to Chisos Basin, and the vistas were beautiful, but the desert drew me back down out of the mountains. The expansiveness took my breath away, but it was the silence, the silence broken by only a bird's song, no disruptive planes incessantly flying overhead, no cars roaring off in the distance...just blissful, peaceful silence.
My plans were to spend a night or two at RGV to see the east side of the park, and then mosey on over to Cottonwood campground at Castalon. When I arrived and took a look at my reserved campsite, I drove around in circles through the campground looking for a more suitable spot. After about 3 turns, a ranger flagged me over and I explained my predicament. I found a spot on the back loop in the no generator zone. I asked her about switching over to Cottonwood in a couple of days, and she assured me it shouldn't be any trouble, as it didn't fill up like Chisos. Of course no sooner had I changed sites when a family settled in a few sites over, and let their small children scream at the top of their little lungs..they were the only noise in the campground. Well I wasn't planning on doing anything but sleeping here, so I stayed put, as I knew this scenario could go on and on.
I quickly headed out to walk the nature trail, which had only recently been re-opened due to last years flood. After that I headed over to Boquillas Canyon, past the Barker house, which was once the center of Boquillas, Texas, walked around a bit, and then drove to the Hot Springs. By the time I finished hiking the springs trail, shooting some of the pictographs, the ruins of the old post office and early settlements; the Hot Springs were teeming with kids,the sun was beginning to sink, and I made my way back to camp, stopping first to catch the sunset over the mountains.

Monday December 21, the Winter Solstice
Wow the drive must have affected me more than I thought, as I slept til almost 7!!! I dressed, made coffee, ate a bagel, and headed out.
I decided to drive back over to Boquillas and hike the trail, since I'd run out of time the day before. I stopped at the Marufo Vega trailhead and walked a ways out and back, enjoying the early morning sun.
I had seen the wares, the walking sticks and scorpions made of wire, along with other trinkets, displayed on the river bluff overlooking the tiny town of Boquillas Mexico, the evening before, and had heard the men across the river talking.
I arrived at the trailhead at the same time as a couple, but lingered at the car in order to let them go on ahead. They were deep in the canyon when I started down. As I descended the trail, I heard a beautiful male voice singing in spanish from across the river. While I truly relish my silence, this was not altogether unpleasant, and I kind of appreciated his sense of entrepreneurship; he did have a lovely voice, and he was just trying to make a few bucks. A bit later the couple passed me on their way out and I asked them if the enjoyed the serenade, they smiled commented on his good voice and left. Now I was alone in the canyon, and the man started singing again, this time to me. He tells me the song is for me, and I thank him in spanish. He sees me looking at his wares, and asks if I'd buy something, and I tell him I have no money, which in fact is true; I am notorious from leaving home without cash, and this time I only brought a handful of quarters for the showers at camp, which I never used;that's right no bath for 5 days, well I had wet ones and I was alone after all.
Later in my trip I met a couple who told me the man actually came across the river and fairly harassed them. I'm not sure, but I'm guessing he didn't resort to this with me for one of two reasons.
First and most likely, was because I was a woman alone, and in his eyes figured I'd have been frightened by it, and would likely report it to the park. The second was that I was carrying a sheathed fixed blade knife and bear spray in plain sight at my waist. I had considered hiking the Hot Springs trail to Daniel's ranch and back, but the prospect of running into the good men of Boquillas deterred me, as prudence overrode desire.
From hear I decided to drive up to Chisos Basin and the Lost Mine Trail. There were already many cars parked there and I drove on into the campground to check it out. While to basin is beautiful, I didn't care for the campground at all, which had been touted as the favorite and hard to get into. The campsites were stacked on top of each other and very open. The view was awesome though. I decided to drive out the Grapevine Hills road and hike the trail at the end. It was another clear beautiful day, cool but warming, a good day for a hike. A great way to celebrate the shortest day of the year. Especially with the knowledge that the days will gradually lengthen from here on til the summer solstice and it starts to swing back again.
I have always been accustomed to hiking early or late in the day, but there was so much to see and only 5 days to do it.
Hiking at midday did have a detrimental effect on my photography throughout the trip, along with a couple of rather flat overcast days, and some haze from somewhere far away, maybe El Paso, but this trip wasn't really about the shots; it was about hiking and exploring. Grapevine Hills was awesome, one of my favorite hikes of the entire trip. By the time I finished the hike and the drive the day was nearing it's end and I drove back to camp, setting my alarm for early the next day.

Tuesday, December 22
I began the day by driving the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road and making stops along the way. First, was a sunrise stop at Sotol Vista, then back tracking to Burro Mesa Spring Trail; this was a lovely hike too, especially early morning, and it amazed me later, that Santa Elena Canyon is visible from so many spots in the park. From there to the Pour Off, a short hike, on to Tuff Canyon, and finally to Cottonwood to scope it out. It was beautiful and best of all, practically empty! I drove back to the Castalon Historic Compound, where I inquired about spending the rest of my stay at Cottonwood. I could see that this was not going to be as easy as I had hoped. They radioed for the park host, who was out of pocket, and told me to go pick out a site. I did and as I was heading out to Santa Elena Canyon, I met the host on his golf cart and told him I was the one switching campgrounds, whereupon his face contorted as he explained the difficulties of this process. I smiled and ended the conversation by saying I was off to the canyon, leaving him to work it out. Before going he admonished me to "observe the speed limit in the campground" , now I'm not sure if it was the peace sign Buff I was wearing or if I just looked like an undesirable, but I quickly shot back "hey I have a Leave No Trace bumper sticker on my car!" thinking this would allay his fears of me somehow. There is a possibility he now thought I was completely nuts.
It had been overcast all day and still was, so the shots I got were mediocre to say the least. I hiked the trail, watch a family drag their canoe down across the sand and launch into the canyon. This was about the same time I noticed a woman painting the canyon from down river and I walked over to check it out. They were a delightful couple from Mandeville, Louisiana. We talked about all things South Louisiana, the festivals, the food, and then about the Buffalo river. While the woman painted, and was very good, the husband photographed. They ended up giving me their email address so we could exchange photos after we got home. He had a very nice Canon DSLR. The sun was waning as I headed back to camp, and the cottonwoods were glowing when I arrived. I couldn't get over how I had managed to stretch the fall foliage from October in the Ozarks, to Thanksgiving at Lost Maples, to Christmas here...amazing.

Wednesday December 23
It became obvious to me that time in Big Bend was on a whole other dimension, as I have never seen it fly by so fast anywhere else.
I set the alarm again to wake early as I was determined to go back to Santa Elena and try to get something other than drab, flat shots. I was hoping sunrise would light up the canyon, and it did. I got there before first light and watched the stars slip out of sight and the canyon take on the glow of a new day. It was also wonderful to be in the canyon alone, without the throngs of people from the day before. Just me, the sun warming the canyon, and the sound of the river running through a shoal. The world at its finest.
Upon leaving the canyon to head for another hike, I detoured at the the Sublett/Dorgan ruins; two old ranch houses. The sun lit up the earthen bricks like gold. I ended up spending the better part of an hour here, contemplating the view from what was once these settler's front porches. It really made me think about what it must have been like back then. Hard, I'm sure, but incredible at the same time.
I didn't make it to the Mule Ears Spring Trail until nearly 10:30. There was one car already there, the occupant must have been in the backcountry, as I never saw him on the trail to the springs. It was a glorious day, warm but with a wonderful breeze. The forecast had been for cold and mostly cloudy, but this didn't materialize until late in the afternoon. Meanwhile the warm sun and brisk breeze made for a wonderful hike to the springs and back. It was a little disconcerting that the springs were located in a thicket of mesquite, cottonwood, rushes, and boulders, as it was a perfect place for a cougar to lie in wait for a meal, so upon entering the oasis, I picked up a rock and banged it on the trail sign hoping to run off whatever predator might possibly be lurking nearby. This was one good thing about getting on the trail later in the day, as these places tend to be visited by animals early morning and late afternoon...well in the summer anyway :) I cautiously took off my boots and cooled my feet in the spring water, which gurgled and burbled, surrounded by maidenhair ferns, frogs and bird song. After a while I hiked back to the car, the wind was picking up considerably, and the sky was darkening with the arrival of the cold front. I decided it might be a good time to venture into Terlingua and Study Butte. It was about what I expected, I'm sure with friends out for a night, it would be fun. I drove back to the park,stopped at the site of the old Sam Nail Ranch and managed to shoot off a few pics of the approaching storm. I hoped for a great sunset which often accompanies such a cold front, but it was not to be. By the time I made it back to camp at dusk, the wind was blowing so hard that I began to question choosing a campsite under the big cottonwoods. As beautiful as they were, I didn't want one landing on top of me as I slept. It was predicted to get into the high teens to high 20's that night so I dressed accordingly in my warmest thermals, slipped the liner into my 35 degree bag and had the synthetic down comforter at the ready. I never needed the comforter and woke to a just below freezing morning.

Thursday December 24, Christmas Eve
Well my time at Big Bend was coming to an end, as I had plans to leave at sunrise the next morning. I had originally thought of leaving before dawn, but it seemed sacrilege to sneak out in the dark.
As I left camp about 7 and climbed in elevation toward the basin, the temp slowly dropped into the twenties. I decided to drive the Dagger Flats road and let it warm up a bit, then hike Dog Canyon. As I drove to the trailhead I saw a javelina foraging near the road.
I was anxious to be hiking again, my body was really enjoying the workout, and by the time I got to the Dog Canyon pull off there were already two cars and two more pulled in as I arrived. One of the cars left shortly, and I gave the others time to get out of sight on the trail before heading out. One couple was funny; the man stretching for the trek with his walking stick as a support while he flexed this way and that. Less than an eighth of a mile I would meet them coming back to the trailhead. That left a threesome of girls far ahead and one guy in between, who I also met coming out; not sure he even made it to the canyon. I didn't see the girls again until I was leaving in my car, so they must have gone out the other side of the canyon, farther than I.
It started off clear with a few interesting lenticular clouds, but by the time I reached the canyon it had clouded up considerably, so again I was left with flat scenery. Once again I was left considering that the canyon walls, with their overhangs and small caves, were prime real estate for puma concolor. I was making plenty of noise walking through the cobbles lining the draw, but I did look around a lot! I scanned the cliffs hoping not to make eye contact with a big kitty. Peace to the big kitties became my mantra. (This line shamelessly stolen from a well wishing friend);I had read way too much about cougar attacks prior to my trip.
I drove once again to the Lost Mine Trail, and once again, the parking lot was full. It was Christmas Eve and the park was getting crowded. I opted instead to hiked the Chimneys Trail, it was after 3 pm before I got started, and I walked almost to the end, when I discovered a group of people climbing all over the rocks ahead and shouting back and forth. I had completely forgotten about the pictographs, and was just enjoying the hike. I drove to the nearby Homer Wilson/Blue Creek ranch site and hiked down to get some shots of the old house and outbuildings, and again was amazed when imagining the people who made this their home. It was getting dark, and I headed back to camp, checked the posted weather report which predicted lows for the night between 19 and 29...brrrrrr. It would be a night for the heavy thermals,the bag, liner and the comforter. I sat in the car eating dinner, watched a coyote trot down the fence line, and contemplated not leaving at sunrise, I then remembered about the rock art! Well, I couldn't leave without see it, now could I? I contemplated going back and hiking the Chimney Trail and finding the pictographs....I would let the weather decide. Just before dawn, a chorus of coyotes broke out, as if to welcome the day.

Friday, December 25, Christmas Day
I awoke to frost on the inside of the car (when the weather is cool/cold, it is easier to camp in the car rather than the hassle of a tent, since the Matrix is as roomy as my tent) and 26 degrees. It did finally get cold !! Again as I headed out just ahead of sunrise and up in elevation, the temp steadily dropped, leveling off at 20 before beginning to inch back up. I had already made up my mind not to leave without seeing the rock art! I had warm gear and only waited for the sun to crest a peak before heading down the trail, it was 31 degrees, a veritable heat wave! There were two cars that I recognized from the night before so I guessed they had backpacked in, as there were connecting trails past the Chimneys. It was a beautiful morning and as it warmed up I began to shed layers. When I reached the Chimneys I saw a figure high atop one of the peaks, and by the time I reached the base and started searching for the art, I met two young men whose sleeping bags I had passed just off the trail. I apologized for the intrusion, and they were cordial, but didn't know anything about the pictographs. I hiked up some of the trails, and not having any luck, began to feel a little disappointed, when I decided to try the single chimney to the south, and looking up, there they were!!! I got my shots, and was on my way, not wanting to intrude on the guys who'd enjoyed a night of solitude, albeit, frigid, under the stars. I felt a twinge of envy as I walked again past their sleeping bags lying on the ground. I took my time hiking back, stopping again this time taking advantage of the early morning light. As I made my way back I passed a couple of groups and a single hiker, all who wished me a Merry Christmas, not a bad way to spend the day, we each opined.
When I got back to the car I quickly shed my warm clothes and hiking boots for comfortable "road" clothes for the drive home.

Big Bend is a hard place to leave. I had spent five full days there and hadn't even hiked any of the Chisos trails, but I don't have any regrets, the weather was perfect for hiking, I fell in love with the desert, and while the Rio Grande was low and somewhat sad, given its status as controversial border and downdrawn, polluted water source, it is a beautiful country and I'm glad that I finally made the trip. A spring trip would be beautiful......
As an aside, my wildlife sightings totaled several mule and white tailed deer, mostly in the basin, a lone javelina in the northern park, a lone coyote at Cottonwood, jackrabbit, cotton tail. No bears or mountain lions :) Bird sightings included several first timers, a pair of vermilion flycatchers, canyon and cactus wrens, scaled quail, black phoebe, and black-throated sparrow, along with common ravens, red-tailed hawk, roadrunner, shrike, pyrrhuloxia,mockingbird,dove, cardinal and swallows. I would have loved to spend one day just birding, but just got too wrapped up in everything else.

Link to pics

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thanksgiving in the TX Hill Country

Sometimes things go the way you plan, and sometimes....well, you know. I originally had this trip planned for Mon-Fri. but due to friends paddling plans moved it up to Sat-Wed. These plans fell through and I was left with Sat-Wed. Kennel plans are hard to change at the last minute on a holiday, without making me less than popular, and I want to stay in their good graces. I don't like to leave the dog at the kennel too long, so most of my trips are 5 days, which is how long the cat feeder runs without refilling :-)
I headed out early Sat morning to meet friends for lunch in Austin. I arrived at the prearranged time, but no friends. I got a table, and waited a few minutes, then stepped outside to call them. The words "that was this weekend?" pretty much says it all. Well I wasn't really hungry, and was kind of anxious to get to my destination, so I jumped in the car and got back on the highway. My destination for the first night was Garner State Park. Now I grew up in San Antonio, and have spent many summer days and nights at this park, but haven't been there since those days, many many moons ago. What I do know is that this park it the most popular in TX , and can be very crowded at times. I was going to end up there on a Sat night, but fortunately being the weekend before Thanksgiving, it wasn't too bad, and by Sun it was almost empty. Unfortunately my next days destination was not.
Lost Maples in the fall can be a nightmare since the fall foliage draws people from as far away as India and Japan. I dropped by the park to pick up a map Sunday, as I thought I'd lost the one I'd printed out prior to the trip, and immediately got the "tooooo many people heebie jeebies." This is a common affliction I come down with in places like malls, Walmart's and recently REI, when I arrived 10 minutes before opening, so I can get in and out asap, and find they have chosen this day for one of their famous "garage sales" and not only is the parking lot completely full, but there are several hundred people waiting to get in. I don't do crowds well. Anyway, back to the park. I arrived Monday morning, bright and early, only having to stop at the cafe in Utopia for coffee, as somehow, having packed the coffee, the stove, the fuel, etc, I had left the coffee press on the kitchen counter upon leaving home.
Monday turned out to be a busy day as well, I hiked and took pictures and tried to keep my sanity while small children ran up and down the trail yelling....Yes, I too was once a child, and I remind myself of this at times like these, but I don't think my parents allowed me to run amuck like that, at least not in a public place. I honestly think I was too wrapped up in nature study as a kid to exhibit these behaviors anyway. I hiked about 5 miles this day and would have liked to do the west trail, which probably would have been less crowded, but by then I was no longer sane and needed to flee.
Tues morning I left Garner and headed for Pedernales, since I wanted to be close to Austin to get me home sooner, and I planned on visiting with my friends whom I missed on Sat.
I hiked eight miles this day, carrying a pack that weighed about 20lbs trying to acclimate myself in case I decide to actually take up backpacking. Yes I know, most people do this the other way around, backpack when young and strong, instead of taking up such nonsense at 55. I like to think it will help me stay young and strong. I love walking long distances in the woods alone. The last time I'd hiked here was when I lived in Austin, and I'd never caught the creeks running. It had rained the week before, and to my surprise, I had to ford all three creeks on the trail. About half way I stopped at Jone's spring and had lunch. I removed my hiking boots to soak my toes in the cool water, only to find it wasn't all that cool. I did find a nice pothole above the spring which was icy due to the low temps of the night before. Ahhhh! I continued on, stopping to photograph different scenes along the way. The day was bright and crisp, but the light was too harsh for good photos, unlike the day before at Lost Maples where there sky stayed overcast all day. It was a perfect day for a hike though, in the low 50's and windy. By lunch time I was hiking is short sleeves. At the last stream crossing coming back I stopped and removed my boots again, sat on a rock in the sun with my feet in the rushing water and soaked up the day. Very pleasant.
I got up the next morning, headed to Austin, where I ate at Magnolia Cafe, before heading over to my friends house for a quick visit. I left town about 11 not thinking what I-35 would be like the day before Thanksgiving......someone shoot me the next time I pull a dumb stunt such as this!!!!! I finally managed to exit on hwy 7 east and took the backroads home. All in all it was a wonderful trip, but would have been even better I think if I'd stayed with my original time and learn, live and learn.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Upper Buffalo Hiking

I played hookie last Thurs. and Fri. and headed 500 miles north to the hamlet of Boxley, AR. I had been watching Arkansas nature photographer Tim Ernst's journal to get an idea of how the foliage was shaping up. I had to plan a little ahead so the dog could go to the kennel and I could put in for personal days, but I picked a wonderful time to go, as hopefully my pictures will illustrate. Had I waited and gone this weekend or the one before I went I wouldn't have been as lucky. It rained pretty much all Thurs, but that was a travel day so it was ok. I puttered around the little town of Jasper then headed on to scope out Boxley Valley. I had bought a copy of the wonderful dvd, The Buffalo Flows, and knew something about the history of the community. I also knew there were elk all around this time of year, and sure enough, there they were grazing in the valley, along with the swans I had read about, and a flock of wild turkeys grazing as well. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, only better!
Finally I went to pick out a campsite for the night. I decided on Steele Cr. campground. It was empty except for a tent down on the far end and a few horse trailers in the horse camping area. By Fri evening this would change dramatically, but you can't blame folks for wanting to partake in this kind of beauty and the weekend was suppose to be sunny and gorgeous. The rain abated late in the day, just in time to get some shots of the trees with their turning foliage nestled against Roark Bluff. The Buffalo River country is beautiful any time of the year, but this was amazing.
I set out early Friday morning before the sun came up, to drive to Lost Valley Trail. I had never been to this upper area of the Buffalo and was anxious to see what it held. As I drove the gravel road to the trail, I saw a beautiful bull elk and two cows, but there were already photographers lining up for shots. I drove on to the trail, unpacked my photo gear, threw on my rain jacket. It was about 7 am and none of the campers were awake yet so I quietly head down the trail. There was a soft glow to the woods and the mist came and went. When I came to my first photo op I opened the tripod and began to attach the camera to the pod and realized I had lost the quick release from the bottom of the camera where I thought I'd secured it well. I guess all the walking with it under my rain jacket somehow worked it loose. A few tense moments ensued until I regained my composure and decided that I was not going to let this ruin my day. Needless to say with a gazillion leaves on the trail, I didn't find it. I spent the rest of the trip bracing my camera on the tripod by hand. It would just have to do. The recent rain had done wonders for the waterfalls.
When I finished my hike to Eden Falls and back, I got in the car to drive down the road to find a spot to get out and photograph an old building I'd seen on the way in. There were several cars already parked along the road so I found a spot and headed out into the pasture to get my shot. I noticed a group of three down under a large tree and as they started walking my way I realized one of them was none other than Tim Ernst!! I said good morning and the three of us got to talking; I mentioned where I was from, and that I was a member of the Ozark Society and the Arkansas Canoe Club and we discussed the recent calamity of Ed Cooley, another photographer who had a near tragic fall in the backcountry and was saved by his SPOT, which alerted SAR to his whereabouts. The rescue took almost 7 hrs in which Ed was lying in the water with several broken bones. Without the device, he would have died most likely, of hypothermia. The conversation ended with me leaving with one of Tim's beautiful calendars! Cool!
I went on to Whitaker Pt, better known as Hawksbill Crag, one of the most photographed spots in AR. It was still misty and slick so hiking was a slow careful process. I was quite shocked to see families with small children hiking the trail in these conditions, and worried about their safety, as the trail runs in places right along the edge of the bluff.
Upon arriving back at my car, I decided that the Glory Hole was next on the agenda, as it was on "this side of the mountain" and the next day I would be in another area, so off I went. It was getting close to 3:30 when I began my hike. I had been tipped off by a paddling friend about this hike, and it wasn't in my hiking guide. I knew it was a very short hike down to the waterfall, but also knew it would be slow going, and was hoping the light would hold. I don't normally set off on a hike to an unknown place in the late afternoon, and was a bit edgy about it, but I really wanted to see this natural wonder. I was not disappointed, although I did miss my good shot of the falls due to the batteries running down, the light fading, and my need to get back to the car. I should have just stopped and changed the batteries and continued on but instead I put up the camera and just enjoyed the scene. Well it seemed to make sense at the time...but not when I looked at the photos at home. With just a little more effort "I coulda been a contender" LOL. Oh well, it's the seeing, not the photographing that's the most important, at least to me.
I spent the night again at Steele Cr. then headed south early in the morning, driving up out of the fog and into a clear bright fall day.
I hit the Round Top Mountain trail first, got a few shots of the fog in the mountains surrounding the river valley, then headed up the trail. It was a glorious day for a hike, cool crispy (it had gotten down to 37 degrees in my car the night before;one thing I love about the Matrix is that I can forego the tent when the weather is cool)and no others on the trail. I spent several hours hiking the entire trail, up and down the mountain.
I enjoyed my lunch back at the car; it was noon and the parking lot was filling up with hikers, time to move on.
My last stop was to be Alum Cove, home of a natural bridge in the limestone. It was beautiful, but since I was getting there so late, it was inundated by visitors, one large noisy group, ruined the ambiance of the day. I just don't get it.......
Last January this area of Arkansas was hit by an ice storm, the evidence of which was obvious throughout my trip, but none as much so as here. I don't know if it was because there were no volunteers to help clear the trail, which is less than a mile total, or if they just had so much to do they hadn't made it here yet. I had to constantly climb over downed trees laying across the trail. I finally made it down to the creek but then completely lost the trail and had to backtrack to the trailhead. It was now midafternoon and I had yet to decide my plans for the night. I didn't really want to join the circus at Steele Cr. so I continued on south with the idea of heading down scenic Hwy 7 toward Lake Ouachita. Do you have any idea how good a shower feels after spit baths for three days? Glorious, even with low flow heads and semi hot water!!!! I finished up just in time for a lovely sunset dinner on the shore of the lake. I rose early the next morning and headed for home to have time to clean and put away my gear, gather the dog from the kennel and have time to sort thru the 300+ photos I took.
What a wonderful fall break!
Thought I'd add a few links. Here's Tim's Journal for some really good photography! He also has copies of The Buffalo Flows for sale.
Here's my picasa page

Sunday, October 4, 2009

In My Own Backyard

I have been raptly watching Ken Burn's National Park documentary,and as with most of his stuff it's wonderful, in fact I think it's his best so far. But then the subject matter is close to my heart. There is so much beauty in North America, more than a person could possibly see in a lifetime. I have seen some of it and hope to see more before I take my leave. I have been to the Grand Canyon, the mountains of Colorado, Yosemite, the coast of California, the Okefenokee, the bayous of south Louisiana, the glorious springs, caves, and swift clear waters of the Ozarks, the Texas hill country, the Gulf Coast, the Finger Lakes, Carlsbad, the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico....I have yet to stand in awe of Denali, the Great Smokey Mountains, the Great Lakes, the Keys, the Everglades, the Tetons, and so much more. Someday if I'm lucky, I tell myself. I'm thankful someone had the foresight to realize these places needed to be set aside. It's easy to be a curmudgeon and hate them for being so crowded, which I do sometimes, although if you plan, you can escape most of the crowds. I would rather have to share these places than not have them at all.
Sometimes I forget when dreaming about these lofty places, that if we look closely we can find wonder and beauty right in our own backyards. For several years I have been moving farther and farther away from the city. I would like to live even more remotely than I do, but for now this is home. I can walk thru the woods for miles. I can walk less than a half mile and find myself at water's edge. I can watch a hawk perched in a snag, or a great blue heron patiently fishing. I can hear a chorus of frogs outside my window, as well as coyote and owls. The black bear and cougar, while not in my backyard, are returning and are not far away. Even the wolf may return one day. In the winter if I'm observant I can spy a bald eagle flying overhead. Just cataloging all the trees and wildflowers could take me years. In the summer, the wood thrush and the summer tanager return along with other migrants. And then there's the weather to watch and the sky. It's not that I don't have the money or the time to see the great natural wonders of this great land, it's that I get caught up in the nature right outside my door. It is there when I wake up, when I get home from work,there when I can't sleep. It's accessible; I don't have to pack the car, or make reservations, and most of the time I don't even have to share it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Coyotes and Screech Owls

A cool front blew in to coincide with the autumnal equinox, making the first day of fall actually feel like it here in the piney woods of deep east Texas. I was looking forward to sleeping with the windows open, and I wasn't disappointed. Sometime during the night, I awoke to the yipping and wailing of a pack of coyotes; it's a sound I look forward to this time of year. I like living where I can enjoy their wild serenades. It helps me remember there's a little wildness out there still. I got another treat just before dawn. It was far off, and at first I thought it was a coyote, then a dog. My dog and cat both let me know they heard it too. I listened hard and then realized it was a screech owl. I hear a lot of barred owls and an occasional great horned, but these are a treat.

Friday, September 11, 2009


I've been seeing signs of fall for a few weeks now. First I noticed on my morning walks the absence of the Wood Thrush and Summer Tanager. Now I've noticed the bucks have shed their velvet and thankfully have found something better than my young pines to do it on this year. On my drives to work I am beginning to see a hint of red on the black gums, and the cedar elms have just a tinge of yellow, and the sassafras are turning too. I'm ready for the change of seasons, such as it is here in the piney woods of northeast Texas. By the calendar, fall is only a little over a week away, but the news comes slowly down here.

When the weather cools, I love to sleep with my windows open, and hear the coyotes, sounding like a band of Indians on the war path. It's fascinating to me that a group of 3 or 4 can sound like a dozen or more. With my windows open. I can also hear the sound of tree frogs, barred owls, the occasional screech and great horned owls that share the woods.

I haven't heard geese flying over yet, but it shouldn't be long now.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What I did on my Summer Vacation

OK, I'm a teacher, so you should have expected a line like that ;-)
But seriously, I did have a great summer. As you can tell from the name of my blog, I like to spend time on the river....and beyond, the beyond being mostly what surrounds the river. I began kayaking about 10 yrs. ago, when I was living just down the road from Caddo Lake. My first boat purchase was a Dagger Baja, 16' sea/touring yak. I'm happy to say that it still serves me well. Two yrs ago I purchased my first canoe, a solo Wenonah Vagabond, another right on purchase, as it's perfect for canoe camping. Which brings me back around to my summer vacation. It started with a trip to the Buffalo River, a 65 mile, 5 day trip from Tyler Bend to Shipp's Ferry on the White River. More to come... OK, this is long, but it was a long eventful trip....note: I apologize for the ferrying back and forth with tenses, try not to drown;-)

Buffalo River Trip Report 2009

Day 1 Mon. 6/8/09
6.5 hrs to Tyler Bend. Arrived around 7 pm, stopped to talk with some canoe people in the campground at it turns out to be Pam Elwood, an ACC and OS member, she told me that Karen and David from LA, BCOS, were also in the camp. After setting up my tent, I walked down to meet them, found that Barbie, another BCOS member was with them. I'd met her on the Ouachita/ Paddle for the Planet trip last month. Warm that evening, but cooled off nicely after dark.

Day 2 Tues.
Met at the put in at a little before 11 to get a spot in the shade, as suggested by David.
I introduced myself to Alice and Charline, the trip leaders. Met Margaret aka “Stan”, and discovered we have the same boat, her’s in . ivory. I had been told that she was an interesting person, and I had seen her in the documentary The Buffalo Flows. I would find out later that her late husband(cancer) Gordon had nicknamed her Stan, and he was the love of her life, so she is Stan. She was coming along as an independent, which meant she would go ahead of the group solo, self-sufficient. I got several chances on the trip to talk with her, and I hope to paddle again with her.

With support/kitchen johnboat loaded, we departed for our down river adventure a little after 1:00. There were 17 of us ranging in age from 15 (Tyler, with her dad, John) to who knows, probably 70+.
We made an obligatory stop at the Gilbert General Store for drinks and to have a look around.
We camped the first night at Red Bluff, paddling about 8 miles the first day. The water was perfect for a swim, especially after putting up the tent in the sun. That night it rained a little, and because I didn’t have my tent fly staked (threw it on during the night) where it made contact with the tent I had a little drip at just about my forehead. Pam who had camped next to me experienced the same thing. As she put it, we gambled and we lost, by not properly putting on the rainfly early on because it was warm. She loaned me a couple of her 12 inch nails for the next night. The weather service had predicted between 20-40% chance of rain for the entire week, so we figured we’d get some rain at some point.

Day 3 Wed.
We left about 9, after breakfast and breaking camp. Today we would go 15 miles to Spring Creek.

I saw my first ever Louisiana Water Thrush, the teeterer as it is known.

I kissed the end of a strainer early in the day, but managed to lean into it and work my way around it. The next rapid with strainer turned out to be very tricky, and one of the inexperienced, but arrogant regulars traveling with a first time newbie girlfriend ended up in the worst case senario with the boat and boaters stuck in the tree, and had to be rescued by the John and his daughter Tyler who were sweep this day.
I too had trouble with that rapid, but after kissing the previous strainer, I got too far away from it and the bow caught the inside eddie and swung me around. Rather than heading into the strainer backwards, I paddled into shore and walked to the end of the rapid, better safe than sorry; no shame in that. I later asked Charline, who had stopped to keep an eye on folks because of the nature of the rapid/strainer, if there was anything I could have done to prevent kissing the previous strainer, as I have an inordinate fear of them, and she said that while she paddled most of the time with her Zaveral paddle, when she gets to sticky places she switches to a paddle with more face, which I did from then on and it kept me safe for the rest of the trip-Lesson 1.

65 miles is certainly a great stretch to improve paddling. We stopped to play in a spring fed creek, very cold and refreshing, we hiked up it and took lots of pictures, including a beautiful wild rose.

That night we had another great meal, and all headed to bed. The weather said 40% chance of rain, and after the night before, I took care to attach the rain fly properly and stake it with Pam’s two nails. I hadn’t brought stakes for my tent as I usually just stack some gear in it for weight, unless I’m going to have it up while I’m away hiking or paddling.

Lesson 2 don’t leave home with stakes!!! I had pulled my boat up as high as everyone else had and our high water stake was at river’s edge. I had already taken off my shoes when I got to thinking that if the wind got up it might blow my Zav paddle away, (since it weighs only about 10 oz.) as I had stuck it under the canoe, so I got up, put on my shoes and walked down and secured it between the hull and the float bag, this would later prove to save my $200+ paddle. I undressed, and was just finishing brushing my teeth when I noticed the wind pick up just a bit, then die away;a few minutes later.... boom! it hit with a vengeance ! The first sound was the parawing over the kitchen exploding…I hurried to get dressed knowing we would have to chase down kitchen tables etc. Before I get my shoes on, I hear a rapid thump thump thump, and someone screams canoes!!! All of the canoes, save one barge, heavily loaded, were flying down the bar. I burst out of my tent barefoot in the rain, wind and lightning; I did have my headlamp on, and met my canoe rolling down the gravel bar. I grabbed the painter, and my flying life jacket (which has my wallet and car key in the pocket) this episode will prove to be lessons 3,4 & 5 respectively.) I manage to have drag have lead the canoe up to the tree line and secure it to a tree. I climbed the sand bank, up roots and probably poison ivy vines to get to it. I ran back to gather what gear I could, grabbed several paddles, and helped someone, not sure who at this point, turn the barge canoe parallel to the wind. While all this is happening, my tent, which I had positioned broadside to the wind, to “catch a breeze” after the warmth of the night before, (this falls into the category of be careful what you wish for) is practically lying on its side from the gale. The only thing that kept it from flying far far away, were the two stakes from Pam…bless you Pam! Alice comes around to check on people and gear, and sees that I will not be able to sleep in my tent tonight…at this time the wind is stilllllll blowing. She informs me that I can sleep with Charline and Ginger. John and Tyler also offer as their tent is next to mine. I unzip the back door on my tent and extract my thermarest pad and sleeping bag still in its compression sack, and therefore dry ;-), and Alice and I head for Charline’s tent. She and Ginger graciously take me in. I am soaking wet, and peel my clothes off and slip into my bag. I tell them I was just about to pee when the storm hit, and I really need to go, I wrap a towel around me and Ginger hands me one of her “freshettes” a FUD, and I slipped out of the tent. I’m standing there peeing when I see flashlights heading my way. I quickly finished, and climb back inside. The lights asked if we have room for one more; Darlene had also lost her tent for the evening. Thank goodness for big tents! Charline and Ginger are in cots on opposite walls, and there’s just enough room for Darlene to squeeze in on the floor beside me. She is in a rain jacket with just bra and panties underneath when she arrives carrying her sleeping pad. Stan comes down and brings her a wool blanket, and some dry thermals. Ginger gives her a garbage bag to put her wet pad in as well as her sleeping bag, and I end up with the wool blanket as a pillow. We were all so charged with adrenaline we laid there and giggled and talked for two hours like teenagers. When the rain stops, we are treated to a display of fireflies like I have never seen before. The following morning the tent is dubbed the “battered womens shelter.” We survey the damage, gather up gear and tables from the yard sale along the gravel bar and it appears we have only lost one PFD and one dish pan from the kitchen.

I couldn’t help but rib Alice about what she'd said after dinner the previous night “ What a wonderful day the river gods have blessed us with” or something on those lines. She later said that her husband reminded her of this faux pas also. The river gods may have been kind, but the wind gods taught us never to doubt their power. We were blessed though, as we didn’t have hail, no one was struck by lightning, or otherwise hurt.

Lessons 3,4 & 5; always tie you boat above where you lay your sleeping pad (thanks Cowper, I could have used this tidbit of info a little sooner), do not leave your life jacket with your wallet and spare key in the boat at night, and NEVER underestimate a 40% chance of rain. It has the potential to spawn severe storms and because the front was stalled out on the AR Missouri line it remained so for days. Later, driving home, I would see examples of the damage the wind caused all the way past Little Rock. There were tornadoes reported in Pruitt, winds from 100mph in eastern OK, to 70 and 50 in our general area. The leaders said that in the 13 yrs they have done the trip, they had never encountered winds like those. Guessing, and judging from later info, I’d say they were at least 50+.

Day 4 Thurs. (I told you this was long)
We paddled another 15+ miles today and camp above Big Creek. We stop at Buffalo Pt. to resupply water and swim, then off we paddled to Rush to rendezvous with Wild Bill’s to get ice for the food coolers in the john boat. We are informed ahead of time how to run Clabber Creek rapids, which I had read about and was a little uneasy about running. I ran them accordingly, and although I take on some water, it seems easier than I expected.This is to say, I did not fall out of the boat, wrap it around a boulder, or die. Of course the water levels are just right, not too high or low.
There was no doubt that I’d secure all of my gear, my tent (with rain fly attached)boat secured, before going to bed this evening. Charline loaned me 4 of her 12 inch nails as well. Of course it didn’t storm at all, but it was cooler. The food each day has been great, so I guess there is something to be said for a support boat. And, in the event of an emergency, especially in the back country, it would be a very good thing.

Day 5 Fri.
We headed off again for another 15 miles to camp at High Burr Bluff. We stopped for lunch across river from where the trail to an old school house is located. Some opt to hike it, but even though I have coated my long pants, tennis shoes and socks with Permanone, I opt out, as the weather up river is beginning to rumble, and is headed our way. There are mammatus clouds forming and I’m ready to stay ahead of the storm.
It began to rain shortly thereafter, but a nice gentle rain, which can be a pleasure to paddle in as long as there’s no lightning, which there isn’t, although we still hear thunder off in the distance, which unnerves me.
We got to camp with light rain, and fearing the bottom will drop out soon we opt to set up our tents. I get the tent up, with the rain fly on, but not staked, when the wind and rain hit hard! Everyone is scrambling to get tents done; David and Karen are frantically staking their tent, and I’m just standing in the rain, holding onto my tent once again. As soon as they complete their’s they come and help me with mine.
The storm moves on in about 30 min. and the sun comes out and we enjoy dinner. We see the first signs of the water rising, as the dry strip of land between the johnboat and the kitchen has disappeared.
We get the story from Alice of the nickname for High Bluff; Dead Wife Bluff, and how a man and woman were camped here and during the night the woman gets up to go to the bathroom supposedly, the husband goes back to sleep and in the morning finds her floating in a pool nearby. The man doesn’t know what to do, and afraid of what people will think, wraps her in a tarp and puts her in the bottom of the boat and then at the take out into the trunk of his car. He finally reports to the authorities, but no charges are filed and it is called an accident. Rumor is that there were drugs involved, a probable overdose.

We are graced with out second eagle, this one landing in a nearby snag and watching us for some time.

The forecast had dropped from 70% to 20%, but we hear that a tower is out nearby and no longer transmitting. This is not good, and it foretells of what transpired during the weather which has been all around us during this trip. About midnight, just as the weatherman had predicted, a crack of thunder wakes me and I think, oh here we go again! But fortunately it just sprinkles and moves on.

Day 6- Sat.

Everyone was thankful the weather moved along last night and we didn’t have round 2 of Wed. nights storm. The water level is stable for now, and we had breakfast, packed up and headed for the take out which is on the White River. As we neared the confluence we stop and everyone is advised to put on their PFD’s, (which I have worn the entire time),because we are told the water is very cold and if they are releasing from the dam, will be very swift. It was obvious when we reached the White, as it was indeed icy, but they are not currently releasing, although there is a good flow. I am disgusted with what appears to be remains of fish that have been mutilated beyond recognition in the dam turbines. The river is so full of this that I can’t imagine swimming in it.

We reached Shipps Ferry about 1:00 unloaded, packed up, had a bite of lunch, then said our goodbyes, and head home.

Prologue: When I check the weather and ACC reports the next day, I see that the Buffalo rose 7 ft in 2 ½ hrs on Sat. morning, at Ponca, the river is closed and campers deal with close calls in the early morning hours. We were on our way to the takeout as this was happening far upriver.

What a great trip! The scenery on the Buffalo is just amazing, as anyone who’s ever been there knows; the springs, creeks, bluffs, seeps, ferns, shoals, all of it is just gorgeous. Drifting down the river and listening to only the sound of copious bird song.
I look forward to more floats, and hiking when the weather turns cold as well.