Exploring the Everglades

September 2020

Bicycling & Exploring Florida’s Everglades National Park

The year 2020 was one where the international travel limitations imposed by the Covid-19 Pandemic refocused our adventurous glances to domestic locations that we had not yet explored. Only hours away from our Florida home is the Everglades National Park – a place that neither of us had visited or ventured into previously.  And so, after a bit of hurried planning, we decided to load our bicycles and head for the Park’s Eastern Entrances to learn what we could and to explore this national wonder.

Everglades Trip Locations Map

The Park’s history extends back to the 1800’s and early 1900’s when the only human residents of the region were local Native Tribes. The early European settlers viewed the region as a wasteland full of mosquitoes and useless for development.  Most of the area is characterized by an immense, flat, limestone plateau with less than a few feet elevation variation, populated by extensive grasses, sparse hammocks of trees and bushes, and covered by ~1-4 feet of water.  The water is really a 100-mile wide river that slowly flows south into Florida Bay, providing the habitat for various species of birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians, and providing the source of fresh water for both the recharging of Florida’s aquifers and for Florida Bay. As Florida’s population grew and development capabilities progressed, the water supply to the Everglades was diverted via irrigation and canals to the ocean to create more farmable land.  In 1945, the problem had gotten so bad that the dry, central Everglades’ grasses caught fire and destroyed a large part of the ecosystem.  In response, the Everglades National Park was created in 1947, and since then, a comprehensive restoration project has been underway to restore the historic natural flow of water to the region, and to remove non-native and invasive species.  Today, it is encouraging to see the return of nesting birds and wildlife to the region.

Sunday morning, we rose early and headed in the car to the Park’s most northeastern entrance at “Shark Valley”.  Shark Valley is actually a long, wide, shallow valley, only a few feet deep, that extends from northeast to southwest across the Park, and that empties into Florida Bay. The Shark Valley Visitor’s Center is located 30 miles west of the Florida Turnpike, and we parked and unloaded our bicycles when we arrived. Here is located a 15-mile-long loop on paved road through the “fresh-water prairie”, with an observation tower at halfway point.  The route is shared by a tour-tram that circles the same loop every hour.  As we rode, we observed birds (cormorants, ibis, anhingas and blue herons), turtles and a few small snakes, but no alligators.  At the Tower, we climbed to the Observation Deck to look out over a vast vista of sawgrasses as far as the eye could see.  The ride was hot and steamy in the mid-day Florida sun, and at the end we visited the Visitor’s Center there for a cold drink and to learn more about the area’s history. After inspecting the area’s other trails the (Bobcat Boardwalk and the Otter Cave Hammock Trail – which was under water), we headed east out of the park through the water Control District to a local Pit Bar-B-Q outdoor place where a cold beer and local pulled pork made for an excellent lunch.

Biking the Everglades
Anhinga Drying his Wings
Anhinga Upset with Us
Observation Tower at Shark Valley
Blue Heron Looking for a Meal

After lunch, we headed south to the Park’s most southeast entrance at the Ernest E. Coe Visitor’s Center located 11 miles from Homestead – an area that was devastated during Category-5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  The Visitor’s Center has a gift shop and excellent displays, but its Parking Lot is under renovation getting ready for the “winter rush” of visitors and the hourly free tram that they run from there to The Royal Palm Visitor Center located ~8 miles away.  After our visit, we headed towards the Royal Palm Center and were intrigued by a sign to the “Nike Missile Center”!  We headed down an old, small paved road past denuded limestone covered with ~1-foot of water with a mound of dirt in the distance.  Apparently, the area had been used for growing the non-native Brazilian Pepper Plant which has been nearly impossible to eradicate.  Therefore, they removed everything above the limestone and secluded it for some number of years in a last effort to eliminate it from the area.  Someday, the thin soil layer will be returned to the carbonate plateau. 

After traveling ~10-miles down this road and passing a South Florida Boy Scout Camp, we came upon a set of pink buildings that were locked up with a dozen Government vehicles parked outside. It turns out that these Administration Buildings were the entrance to the site of the HM69 Nike Hercules Missile Center that once housed nuclear warhead surface-to-air missiles.  The warheads are gone, but the barns used to hide them are still there, as is a fully restored Nike Surface-to-Air Missile. Because of the shallow water table and limestone base, the idea of silos was replaced with 3 barns, including 4 bunkers of 6 missiles each, as well as dormitories and guard dog kennels – and, of course, many, many alligators! Although the site was closed the day we were there, it is opened for public viewing with a ranger in the late Fall and early winter. For more information, visit the site: https://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/historyculture/hm69.htm

Excerpts from their site:

HM69 Nike Missile Base – A Relic of The Cold War

Everglades National Park houses one of the best-preserved relics of the Cold War in Florida, a historic Nike Hercules missile site called “Alpha Battery” or “HM69”.

The site remains virtually the same as it was when official use of the site ended in 1979. Construction of the site by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was completed in 1965, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. At the time, the nation’s air defenses were positioned to protect against a possible Soviet air attack over the North Pole and thus, this and other anti-aircraft missile sites were established to protect against a possible air attack from the south. The Nike Hercules missile site was listed on the U.S. Department of the Interior Register of Historic Places on July 27, 2004 as a Historic District.

The area includes 3 missile barns, a missile assembly building, a guard dog kennel, barracks, 2 Nike Hercules missiles, and various support elements. HM69 was also significant because of the technology employed. The South Florida Nike Hercules sites were integrated with Hawk missile sites to provide an all altitude defensive capability around South Florida. Approximately 140 soldiers staffed the 3 above-ground missile barns of HM69 to protect against an air attack from Cuba. The personnel of HM69, along with the members of other South Florida unites, received the Army Meritorious Unit Commendation which was one of the few times that it was awarded for deterrence rather than engagement with the enemy.

Visitors may visit the site most days between early December and late March. There is an open house program, as well as Ranger-guided tours. Our visitor programs fluctuate due to seasonal changes and staffing capability. Please check with the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center or view the park’s calendar for scheduled programs at the site.

Nike Missile Base Administration Offices
Nike Missile Base from the Air

After sidetracking to explore the Nike Missile Site, we completed our journey to the Royal Palm Visitor’s Center to check out the trails there.  The Center was closed, but we made note of the local trails that were located there in preparation for our return visit the next day. We then drove to scout out the area and trails at Long Pine Key. The Camping Area there was also closed, but the region looked to be a good place to explore by bicycle when we returned. 

From there, we traveled west on the Main Park Road to a short boardwalk at Rock Reef Pass – one on the highest elevations in the Park – 3-4 feet above sea level! Here we could observe the ibis’ hunting in the grasses and the Florida Garfish swimming in the shallow water.  Then, we traveled to the Pa-hay-okee Overlook which provided a boardwalk to a raised platform that overlooked the extensive freshwater Marl Prairie.

After that, we headed back east out of the park just in time to meet a storm that brought wind and heavy rain to our drive.  We arrived at our hotel – the Hampton Inn in Homestead at about 5:30pm, where we enjoyed a hot shower, a lite dinner, and a bottle of red wine.

Monday morning, after an early hot breakfast, we headed back to the Royal Palm Visitor’s Center to watch the sun rise and look for wildlife.  The Royal Palm Visitor’s Center was originally located among a grove of royal palm trees, but they were wiped out with Hurricane Andrew in 1992. We walked the Anhinga Trail – a wonderful boardwalk loop that winds out over the hammocks and sawgrass prairie.  Immediately we came upon several enormous grasshoppers that were mating, and along the side of the trail we saw three different 5-7’ alligators resting warily. The sawgrass marsh was full of birds and small fish peacefully hunting as the sun rose over the horizon.

Giant Grasshoppers Mating
Everglades Alligator

Next, we headed back to Long Pine Key – a two lane limestone track that winds through the pinewood forest for a few miles on some of the higher and dryer land.  We unloaded our bicycles and entered at Gate #4 and rode for some distance, but it soon became apparent that the prior evening’s rains had flooded sections of the trail and that the mosquitos were in full attack mode. When the trail became almost impassable, we finally turned around and decided to look for other adventures. After returning to the car, we decided to explore the deserted campgrounds on bike, checking out the lake, the campsites and the new outdoor theater awaiting their eventual re-opening for campers. Then, after loading up our bikes, we drove to the boardwalk at Mahogany Hammock – an area that is still home to a giant Mahogany tree and a tangle of Strangler Fig trees and pairs of nesting owls.

Flooded Long Pine Key Trail

Our next stop was West Lake which was said to have a lovely looped boardwalk through the mangroves and out over the lake. The area was renown to be popular with boaters and picnickers, but we had yet to see another person all day. We set off one direction on the loop marveling at the boardwalk built through the nearly impenetrable mangrove forest and listening to the frogs and fish startled by our presence. However, just before reaching the lake, the boardwalk was closed, and we could see that it was heavily damaged up ahead.  We circled back and took the other direction around the loop which went all the way out onto the lake before it was also closed, but it did provide an excellent view of the twisted, broken and contorted remains of the lake portion of the boardwalk.  Apparently, Hurricane Irma in 2017 drove huge waves in the small lake that destroyed anything built over the open water.

Garfish in the Shallow Water
Damaged Boardwalk at West Lake

After West Lake, we continued southwest on the Main Park Road until we arrived at the entrance of the Snake Bight Trail which would take us to a scenic Florida Bay viewpoint. We parked on the roadside, unloaded our bikes and began to ride down the trail.  However, it soon became apparent that this trail had not been maintained as we had to fight encroaching bushes, downed trees, and the ever-present mud and mosquitos.  Apparently, this end of the park is only principally visited by campers, boaters and hikers in Florida’s winter months of December-February, and the Park does not dedicate many resources to it out-of-season. Therefore, we again decided that discretion was the better choice, turned around and went in search of other areas to explore. Along our journey traveling southwest, we had hoped to explore a paved road and trail to Bear Lake, but this lane was clearly so overgrown that we did not even attempt to enter it.

Finally, we reached the end of the Main Park Road at the Flamingo Visitor’s Center located on the shores of Florida Bay. This Visitor’s Center was also destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and it is currently being rebuilt and is scheduled to reopen in 2021.  The construction workers were the first people we had seen all day. In the parking lot, we unloaded our bikes and rode the lovey Guy Bradley trail along Florida Bay’s shore until we reached the Eco-Center Campgrounds.  Here there were mowed camping pads, an amphitheater, restrooms, and a series of Eco-Tents – all set-up and waiting for visitors – of which there were none! We rode back to the Visitor’s Center and checked out the adjacent marina and store where we stopped for a snack. The Marina was open and provides fuel, supplies, rentals, and boat tours to visitors. In one section of the marina were a half-dozen manatees snuggling up near a water runoff outlet and we watched them for awhile before biking back to the car, loading up, and beginning the trip back through the park.

Ibis at Florida Bay
Manatees at Flamingo Marina

Upon exiting the park, it was still early afternoon, and we decided to head east 18-miles to Biscayne National Park, located on Florida’s East Coast between Key Biscayne and Key Largo.  The Park encompasses a mainland mangrove shoreline, the shallow Biscayne Bay, the surrounding islands, living coral reefs and a large number of shipwrecks. It was established as a National Monument in 1968 and became a National Park in 1980. It was designated a park to protect both the terrestrial and undersea life in the region. The Park was open, but Hurricane Teddy located offshore had brought huge tides and waves to the region flooding most of the shoreline and boardwalks.  We walked the fishing pier and explored the Park’s store before leaving for dinner carry-out from Chili’s, a hot shower and packing for our return trip home in the morning.

Map of Biscayne National Park
Biscayne Park Visitor’s Center

Utah – Dead Horse Point SP, Delicate Arch, & Colorado National Monument

July 2020

Exploring & Rafting Arches & Cataract Canyon in Utah

Part 5 – Dead Horse Point, Arches Delicate Arch & Colorado National Monument

Dead Horse Point State Park

Since the rafting trip was ended and it was still early afternoon, we returned to the hotel to check-in and then immediately drove in the car to Dead Horse Point State Park. This park follows a narrow mesa that juts out and overlooks Canyonlands National Park with spectacular view and was recommended by the River Guides for us to visit.  At this park, the Entrance Gate was open and there was a $20 charge to enter. Dead Horse Point is a small and narrow mesa connected by a very narrow “neck” where early cowboys would drive wild horses to capture and secure them.  Apparently, one time, they left a large pen of horses trapped there, but with no way out and no water, they all died, thus giving the area its name. At the park’s “Point”, the trails follow the mesa’s edge and one can see amazing views of the Colorado Canyons.  After exploring each of the easy trails and views, clouds began to roll-in, so we began the trip back.  On the way out of the park, we noticed signs for “Yurts”!  Not knowing what “yurts” are, we followed the signs and came upon a group of wooden platforms supporting large, round, pointy “tents” that are apparently for rent from the park.  Most of them were occupied by families with off road bicycles, which the park supports with a large number of dedicated biking trails.

Dead Horse Point State Park Map

After returning to the hotel, we showered and went to the liquor store to buy a celebratory bottle of wine.  However, it turned out that today was “Pioneer Day” – a State Holiday in Utah, and the store was closed.  Then we went to dinner at our favorite eatery – The Brewery – and bought a bottle of wine with dinner from them.  That night we packed and prepared for the next day’s adventures.

Colorado River from Dead Horse Point
Cataract Canyon from Dead Horse Point
The Loop from Dead Horse Point

Arches Park’s Delicate Arch

On Saturday we awoke early and immediately drove to Arches National Park and drove to the “Wolfe Ranch” trailhead to the famous and oft-photographed “Delicate Arch”. The moderate morning weather would make the 3-mile 2.5-hour hike more enjoyable. 

Hike to Arches Delicate Arch Map

Upon arrival, there were only ~10 cars already there and the trail in front of us was vacant.  The trail starts with a few ups and downs, but soon starts a steady ascent over slick rock petrified sand dunes with the trail marked by stone cairns and an occasional “trail” sign. The final part of the trail is a small ledge that circles a rock spire before coming into view of the arch located across a steep, circular depression. The backside of the arch is a very steep drop to the mesa floor, but the few people that are there are respectful taking turns taking their pose under the “Delicate Arch”.  After taking our fill of pictures and relaxing to enjoy the view, we begin the hike back to the trailhead passing an increasing number of people making their trek to this landmark.  Upon getting back to the parking lot by ~9:30am, the number of cars now number in the 100’s and we are glad we began early before the crowds came and the temperature rose.  We return to the hotel for breakfast and showers before packing, loading up the Jeep and checking out to begin the uneventful drive back to Grand Junction.

Arches Delicate Arch
Side view of Delicate Arch
Hike Down from Delicate Arch

In Grand Junction, we check into our hotel located only 1/2 -mile from the airport and unload our gear.  This hotel is a throwback to hotels of the west from 30 years ago, but the rooms are huge and comfortable. Once we are settled, we decide to grab some lunch on the outdoor patio of a local “Buffalo Wild Wings”, which we have not visited in over a year.

The Colorado Nation Monument

After lunch, we decide to take one last scenic drive along the 26-mile Rim Rock Drive of the Colorado National Monument Park. Colorado National Monument Provides some great views of the town of Grand Junction, towering columns, and red rock canyons. The drive ascends to the top of a mesa and follows its edge along every nook and cranny.  At the end of the drive before the descent off the mesa, we stop and visit the Visitors’ Center where the Ranger tells us that we just missed seeing a group of the park’s Bighorn Sheep.

Grand Junction from Red Canyon Overlook on Colorado National Monument Rim Road
Ute Canyon from Colorado National Monument Rim Road
Artist Point from Colorado National Monument Rim Road
Independence Monument at Colorado National Monument

Our final drive is to the airport where we drop off our Jeep rental car and call the hotel for a shuttle ride back.  After showering, we enjoy drinks at the hotel’s old-time bar where a live musician is performing. Then, it is off to bed for a very early rise the next morning, and flights back to Orlando. A Great Trip.

Utah – Rafting Cataract Canyon

July 2020

Exploring & Rafting Arches & Cataract Canyon in Utah

Part 4 – Rafting the Big Drops to Lake Powell

Rafting Cataract Canyon Map

Thursday morning began with a large number of sleep-deprived campers as many had improvised during the night’s rains.  The staff, who usually slept in the open on the boats, had huddled down in hastily assembled tents and umbrellas, and many guests needed to dry out.  The rain was still coming down, but the coffee was ready on time, and by the time the “Big Breakfast” was ready, the rain had stopped.  The “Big Breakfast” was eggs cooked-to-order, hash browns, sausages, and berries.  After breakfast, it was time to clean-up and pack-up wet chairs, wet cots, wet tarps, and wet tents, and load the boats for the day of the most serious rapids.  We were hopeful that the sun would be available later to dry everything. Rapids #11 through 14 were straight-forward, but rapid #15 – Capsize Rapid – saw us lose our first person overboard.  They were immediately recovered, however. We continued through Rapid #20 – Ben Hurt Rapid – before pulling over to the left bank at Big Drop Beach so that the guides could scout the Rapid #21 – Big Drop 1! Big Drop 1 is the first of 3 very large, technical, class 4-5 rapids, and each requires an assessment and plan to negotiate.  The guides re-board the rafts and we set off on the rollicking ride down Rapid #21.  Then we repeated the process for Rapid # 22 – Big Drop 2 Little Niagara – and for Rapid #23 – Big Drop 3 Satan’s Gut. All goes well for Rapid #22, but our boat takes Rapid #23 backwards, and Mary Jane does not see the drop coming and is tossed out of the boat.  Our guide, Colston, immediately pulls in his oars, moves to the side of the boat, grabs her, and hauls her back in! The following few rapids were again of class 2-3 and they allowed us all to recover from our excitement. Next, we pulled to shore for a lunch of cold cuts with fruit.  We then re-board the boats for a few minor rapids before reaching the official end of the cataracts and take the boats to shore to re-raft the boats back together and to attach the motors.  While this is happening, the guests are allowed to drift/swim down the river to be picked up downstream. Because the height of Lake Powell is so low, a few riffles now exist downstream of this point which allows us to ride feet-first through some minor white-water. After being picked-up downstream, we can again be on the rafts without lifejackets, and we enjoy drying off in the sun. We motor the rafted boats down to “Cove Canyon” where we stop to set up camp for the night.  The camp is on a narrow, sandy beach with a small rise, and camp set-up goes fine until a huge set of wind gusts come down the canyon and knocks everything down.  Tents turn over, the bathroom tent blows into the river and requires rescuing, and sand covers and permeates everything!  The event only lasts 20 minutes, but the mess and chaos it causes has people hauling boulders to anchor their tents, sand being shook out of everything, and causes the bathroom tent to have be repositioned.  Despite this, the guides have now dressed-up in “formal” attire, (ties, dress shirts, dresses) and hand-deliver shrimp cocktails to all the guests at their tents, followed by celery and ranch dressing.  Meanwhile, the grill is set up and ribeye steaks are being cooked along with corn, broccoli and cheese, shredded potatoes and cheese.  Thankfully, the winds die down and dinner is a relaxing and enjoyable affair.  To join the mood, Rocky fashions his sheet into a toga and Julie dons her elephant pants – the dressy things we have!  Dessert was vanilla ice cream with hot “dump” cake and strawberries.  The happy group finishes with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” for a young girl on the trip who turned 13 that day!  Thankfully, the rest of the night was peaceful and uneventful, and we slept like babies.

Facing the Big Drop Rapids
Relaxing after the Rapids
Our Final Camp at River Mile 187.5
Our Women River Guides

Friday morning everyone slept-in a bit given the adventures of the previous day and the peacefulness of the night.  Breakfast was coffee, French toast with fruit and grapefruit. We packed up our tents, tarps, sleeping bags, cots and chairs for the last time and loaded the boats.  The storms of the previous night upstream filled the river with red sand and the river had turned brown with mud and debris. We navigate our way along avoiding the debris piles past “Dark Canyon”, enjoying the views of the canyon walls. All along this portion of the river, the banks are lined with 20’-high sediments that are remnants of when Lake Powell was so full the it backed all the up the river past here. Next, we pass “Sheep Canyon” where Powell’s Team took sheep in the valley for food in 1869.  Finally, the river narrows and begins to clear, and everyone enjoys one last swim. No sooner do we resume the final leg of our journey when we spot a young coyote scavenging along the bank of the river, unbothered by us. Then, we see the first sign of civilization as we cross under the Hite Bridge. The bridge was named for an early gold miner of the area, Cass Hite, who had killed a fellow miner on the Green River and was sentenced to 12-years in prison.  After some prison time, he fell terminally ill and the Utah Governor pardoned him to live out his remaining time (and get him off the State payroll!)  But Case Hite recovered and started a small settlement at this important river crossing point until he died in 1914.

Canyon Wall at Sheep Canyon
Final Turn on the River
Coyote Scavaging
The Hite Bridge

Past the bridge, we pass the “Dirty Devil River” and then turn right to our “Takeout” location, across from Hite Marina, where we unload and take a final lunch of chicken salad in pitas.  After lunch, we take a group photo, say our “goodbyes”, and board an old school bus to make the short trip to a small airstrip nearby where we are met by 4 airplanes. Six of us fill the capacity of our small plane, and we take off and fly a spectacularly beautiful 30-minute flight over Canyonlands National Park to Moab’s airport. Along the way, we observe the “Needles” area of the park and see the “Dollhouse” from the air.  We can also see what the storm did to the rivers’ colors as the Colorado River upstream of the confluence is clearly colored “green”, while the Green River has turned a muddy “Red” which then colors the Colorado downstream of the confluence – a “Christmas” effect that is rare in the Park! Upon landing, we take an air-conditioned bus 20-minutes back to our meeting point where we say our final goodbyes to friends, old and new, and the trip ends.

Unloading at the Landing
The Travel Group Picture
Loading the Plane to Moab
North Edge of Lake Powell from the Air
The Needles Area from the Air
The Confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers
Canyonlands Park from the Air

Utah – Rafting the Colorado River

July 2020

Exploring & Rafting Cataract Canyon in Utah

Part 3 – Rafting to Before the Big Drops

Rafting the Colorado from Moab to Rapid # 10

The Canyonlands area of southern Utah was one of the last Continental United States areas to be explored. Major John Wesley Powell was the first non-native American to travel and explore the river in 1869. The Colorado River upriver of its confluence with the Green River was originally called “The Grand River” until the State of Colorado forced a name change in 1921.  Until rugged inflatable rafts became available after World War II, only a few dozen expeditions had ever managed to navigate this part of the river. 

Rafting Cataract Canyon Map

Tuesday morning, we arise, eat breakfast, and check out of our hotel and meet our Trip Group for the short bus ride to the boat ramp. For our expedition, 26 guests with 7 rafts (2 paddle-rafts and 5 oared-rafts), and 7 guides would launch from the boat ramp at Bootlegger Canyon just upriver from Potash and ~54 miles from the confluence with the Green River. Our group was an eclectic mix of families and retirees spanning from 10-70 years old, (one must be at least 10 to take the trip, and 12 if the water is at higher levels).  After storing our gear in waterproof bags, we boarded the 5 passenger rafts (2 of the oared rafts were for gear only) and began our adventure down this flatwater part of the trip.

Loading the Rafts

The waters are calm in this part of the river, and so we raft together boats into groups of 3 and 4 and accelerate our trip downriver with a small outboard motor located on each grouping. We enjoy the spectacular scenery and introduce ourselves to each other before taking a “swim-break” in the water after an hour travel. After 16 miles of travel, we are at the closest approach to Dead Horse State Park, and soon after we stop for lunch on a convenient river sandbar.  Lunch is cold-cut sandwiches and chips with ever-present water and lemonade to drink.  After lunch, we travel again until we get to Lathrop Canyon where we put ashore for a 1/2 -mile hike in the heat to an ancient granary storage site and various petroglyphs. This area of the canyon is visible from the White Rim Overlook in Canyonland National Park. After the hike, we re-board the boats and travel a short distance to our campsite for the night at  an area nicknamed “The Corner Pocket” – a large sandbar that has room for our group to pitch tents for the night. Given the hot temperatures, we choose to sleep outside in the open tonight, but we set-up a tent so that our friend, Mary Jane, and Julie have a changing area with a modicum of privacy. That night, we played games while the staff prepare dinner.  Appetizer is tortilla chips with fresh guacamole and bean dip, and this is followed by dinner of BBQ chicken with salad and green beans, with chocolate and vanilla cakes for dessert. That night the sky was clear, and the stars shone brightly, but the temperature stayed in the 80’s all night until ~2:30am when a sudden wind-gust toppled a number of unoccupied tents.

Julie on the Colorado River
Rocky & Julie on the Raft
Grainery across from Lathrop Canyon
At Corner Pocker Campsite

Wednesday morning the (cowboy) coffee was ready by 6:15am and we enjoyed a breakfast of blueberry pancakes, bagels, and turkey sausage before breaking down our camp and repacking our belongings.  The National Park Service Rangers showed up in a boat just to check-in and make sure everything was going well, and once we were ready, we set off again downriver. The day is overcast with rain on-and-off, but a welcome relief from the heat of the past 3 days. After a short distance, we came upon a part of the river known as “The Loop” which offered those of us who were interested, the opportunity to disembark the boat and ascend 500’ over the saddle between the double-back bend in the river.  While Rocky joined the hikers, Julie rode the rafts the 3-miles around “The Loop” and everyone rejoined on the other side. A short seven miles later and we reached the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, and lifejackets were now required to be worn in the rafts by all participants. A short mile later, we stopped at a “Ranger’s Box” to register our group for campsites for the next two nights, and then, we entered the cataract portion of the river. After passing “The Dollhouse”, (a series of formations on the top of the cliff’s edge in the “Maze” part of the Park, named innocently by Powell’s daughter), we stop at “Lower Red Lake Canyon” for lunch where we saw two deer getting a drink from the river.  Lunch was cold-cuts or peanut butter and jelly in a tortilla with fruit and leftover cake.  While we enjoyed lunch, the staff stowed the outboard motors, separated each of the rafts and each guide took control of 1 boat. The two paddle boats were led by Jacob and Kelsey, respectively, and they principally were manned by two families from Chicago (9 guests on one boat) with two couples and two individuals joining them (6 guests on the other boat). Two of the oared boats were carrying gear only and were led by Hank (trip leader) and Paco. Finally, the other 3 oared boats were led by Spencer (2 young guests with gear), Riley (4 guests) and Colston (5 guests including us). With everything secure, we were set to run the first 10 rapids (#1- Brown Betty – through #10) of Cataract Canyon located over the next 4 miles. This set of rapids are only Class 2 and 3 but serve as a good introduction for what was ahead. With the water from both rivers now channelized in the Canyon, the color (redder), temperature (colder) and speed of the flow (faster) were noticeably different than before. The running of the rapids went well except for one boat getting stuck on a rock in Rapid #4 and requiring bouncing and work by the participants to get free.  At the end of the 10 rapids, we went ashore for our night’s camp at “Top Ten”, stopping early for time to swim, play games (spike ball, cornhole) and enjoy a frozen popsicle.  Because of the day’s rain, we set-up our cots and gear inside a tent although many other again chose to sleep in the open air. For dinner, we had grilled salmon and salad with a fruit bowl and watermelon for dessert. The National Park Rangers also stop-by to do an assessment of our guides and camp. They go through an extensive checklist of procedures, certifications, and questions to issue a grade for the Western River Expeditions Company.  These assessments only happen 2-3 times per year but are extremely important because 3 failures within 5 years will bar them from using the river for the next 5 years!  However, it was a comfortable night, and everyone finally settled in about 10:00pm until the skies opened and a deluge occurred between 1:30 and 3:00am.  While we were fine within our cozy tent, those that had chosen to sleep under the stars scrambled to cover themselves with tarps, umbrellas, and tents, or suffered a cold, wet night.

Julie on Raft from atop the Loop Crossover
Unloading Rafts while Registering after Confluence
Guides Registering for Campsites
Stuck on the Rocks
Camping after First 10 Rapids

Utah – Canyonlands National Park

July 2020

Exploring & Rafting Arches & Cataract Canyon in Utah

Part 2 – A Day in Canyonlands National Park’s Islands in the Sky Area

Monday morning, we again arose early, had breakfast at the hotel, and began our 45-minute drive to Canyonlands National Park’s northern entrance.  Canyonlands Park is divided into three distinct areas: the northern “Islands in the Sky” area; the southeastern “Needles” area, and the southwestern “Maze” area.  Given the size and distances involved, we decided to explore only the “Islands” area.

Canyonland National Park Map

Again, the park was open, but the gate office and visitor’s center were closed when we entered. We took the park road south to near its end and began the “White Rim Overlook” hike (1.8 miles) first, due to the anticipated limited parking there. Along the way we encountered 4 mule deer before reaching the viewpoint from which we could see the Colorado River, Monument Basin and the La Sal Mountains. Upon returning to the car, we continued to the southern end of the road to begin the 2-mile hike along the “Grand Viewpoint Overlook”. This hike follows the canyon’s edge and provides spectacular views of not only the Colorado Canyon, but also the Green River Canyon, as they head to join at The Confluence.

Canyonlands White Rim View
Canyonlands Grand View
Canyonlands Grand View of Green River

Next, we drove to the most northwest part of the park to climb “Whale Rock” – a 1-mile hike and scramble along “slick rock” surfaces to a high, 360-degree viewpoint, complete with a cooling breeze.  After returning to the Jeep, it was only a short drive to the trailhead for “Upheaval Dome” overlook – a massive crater from either a meteor impact or eroded salt uplift, and a place where we observed Bighorn Sheep tracks.

Canyonlands On Whale Rock
Canyonlands Upheaval Dome Crater

It was past noon when we made it back to the Jeep, so we ate a lunch/snack and took a short drive to the “Green River Overlook”, and then hiked ½-mile to the famous “Mesa Arch” where we encountered the most people we’ve seen on the entire trip.  On the way out of the park, we stopped at the Visitor’s Center which was now open and reported our wildlife sightings to the ranger.  Apparently, deer were rare in the park, but Bighorn Sheep have been sighted over in the canyon areas along the Green River.

Canyonlands Mesa Arch
Anastasi Hieroglyphics
Canyonlands View

After returning to the hotel and showering, we went window shopping in downtown Moab and ate a soup and salad dinner at the local Brewery Restaurant.  Then, we returned to our hotel to finalize our packing for the next day’s beginning of our River Rafting Trip.

Utah – A Day in Arches National Park

July 2020

Exploring & Rafting Arches & Cataract Canyon in Utah

Part 1 – Getting to Utah & A Day in Arches National Park

The Year 2020 will historically be known as the “Covid-19” year, as the global pandemic cancelled all our international travel for the year, as well as most of our domestic events!  However, one domestic trip which worked out was a July trip to Utah to explore Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and take a 4-day rafting trip down Cataract Canyon with the Western Rivers Expeditions company, (with whom we also rafted the Grand Canyon in 2014!)

The trip began on Saturday with flights from Orlando to Denver and then to Grand Junction, Colorado – just over the border from Utah. Grand Junction got its name from the confluence of the Grand River (now the Upper Colorado River) and the Gunnison River located within the Grand Valley. In Grand Junction we rented a Jeep Cherokee and drove the ~100 miles in 103-degree heat to Moab, Utah. On the edge of Moab, we pass a Federal Clean-up of Uranium tailings site left from the Government’s Uranium Mining in the past and that is currently 61% completed. In Moab, we checked into a hotel near the center of town on Main Street and made visits to the grocery for water & snacks, liquor store for wine, and ate dinner at a local Brewery.  We rested that evening and avoided the 106-degree heatwave that swept the area outdoors!  The next morning, we began our exploration of Arches National Park.

Arches National Park

Sunday morning, we were up early for the hotel breakfast and off for the short drive to Arches National Park.  Although the National Park is open 24-hours per day, apparently the Park’s gate is only manned from 9am until 7pm and so using our National Park Pass was unnecessary!

Arches National Park Map

We drove first to “The Windows” and hiked up to see both the large “North Window” and then the “South Window”.  From there, we moved on to “Turret Arch”, and then “Double Arch” where a bride in her gown was taking wedding pictures.  From here, we drove to “Devil’s Garden” at the farthest end of the park and hiked 1.6+ miles to see the spectacular “Landscape Arch”, and then the “Tunnel Arch” & “Pinetree Arch”. Along the way, we encountered our first deer and enjoyed a lunch/snack-stop with the ever-present opportunistic chipmunks. On the hike back to the car, we enjoyed seeing a 5-foot Gopher snake annoyed by the attention he was receiving.

Arches Tower of Babel
Arches Rocky & North Window
Arches Double Arch
Arches Landscape Arch

We then drove to the view of the “Fiery Furnace” which is an area that only allows hiking into the canyons with certified guides or permits due to the likelihood of getting lost in the myriad of steep walls, and then to the trailhead of the famous “Delicate Arch”.  Here there are available two routes – a shorter “viewing-only” route that gives you a line-of-sight viewing from across a canyon (0.5-mile hike); and a longer “visit-route” that would take 2.5 hours, which we decided not to do in the heat of the day (3-mile hike). We ended up hiking the “upper viewpoint” route which included a steep 300-foot climb and scramble up the rocks. Upon descending, we stopped at the “Delicate Arch” visit-route trailhead to view some petroglyphs from the 15th century, and learn about the preserved “Wolfe Ranch” home – a primitive house of timbers, mud and skins with a small garden, built and lived-in during the 1800’s.

Arches Fiery Furnace
Arches Delicate Arch Viewpoint

From here, we began to head for the Park’s exit, stopping at “Balanced Rock” for a short hike and sightseeing.  On the way out, we noticed that the Visitor Center had opened, and we stopped to pick up some postcards and souvenirs. Then, it was back to Moab for a little local shopping on Main Street and a salad & pizza dinner at Zak’s.

Arches Balanced Rock
Arches Park View

Norway the Northern Adventure – The Trip South out of the Arctic

Part 3 February 2020

The rough weather delays our arrival in Mehamn by 90-minutes until 2:30AM. Our stop here is very brief and just enough time for Julie to disembark and join her snowmobiling group of 10 people.  After a short van ride, they get dressed and suited-up and begin their 2-hour adventure traveling through the deep snow in the arctic night single file with the girls first.  Initially, they travel at ~20 km/hr. heading ~1200 ft. up into the mountains.  Once there, they have a brief stop with a hot fire and some warm lemonade before saddling back up and continuing their journey – this time at an increased speed of 35 km/hr.  Finally, they reach a waiting bus and driver who is nervous about the degrading weather, but who successfully transports them to dock in Kjollefjord where they rejoin the ship at 5:00AM and bed down for some well-deserved sleep.  Later that morning, we pass a huge Liquid Natural Gas facility loading one of its ships on our way to Hammerfest where we have a few hours to walk around town and explore.  Traditionally, for over 200 years, Hammerfest had been regarded as the world’s most northern town at 70o 39’ 48”, the same as Point Barrow, Alaska.  However, the definition of “town” has resulted in conflicting claims among contenders.  Today’s population of 7000 is a significant increase from the 350 who lived here in 1945. We walked through the snow-covered sidewalks to the town’s historic church, and to its newer cathedral built in 1961.  On the way back to the ship, we stop to collect an application to join “The Polar Bear Society” and to visit their historic museum. Then, it was back on board and off to the next series of ports arriving in Tromso at midnight. Tonight, many of the ship’s passengers will be treated to a concert in the Tromso Cathedral.  We quickly board busses for the short trip to the Cathedral located just over the bridge, and then make our way up the icy path to the Cathedral’s warm pews.  Soon, 3 musicians – a flutist, a pianist and a baritone – serenade us with 12 traditional Finmark songs that are lovely and haunting.  After the hour-long concert, we re-board our buses to return to the ship and continue our voyage throughout the night.

Julie Snowmobiling towards Kjollefjord
The Cathedral at Hammerfest
Julie with Polar Bears in Hammerfest

It is now early Saturday morning, February 8th, and the ship is running a few hours behind schedule due to weather and a few mechanical difficulties with the ship’s disembarkation ramp.  Therefore, the Captain begins to make up time by restricting our time in each port.  By late afternoon and 5 more very brief stops, we are traveling through the stunning Vesteralen Islands and crossing the Raftsund strait before arriving in the town of Stokmarknes – the home of Hartigruten shipping and their “Museum of the Coastal Express”. Here we have just enough time to take a walk up the local bridge to get a view over the fiord and town, and then it is on to dinner and a repeat visit to Svolvaer.  This time we have a little more time to explore the harbor, including the island restaurant and hotel connected by a narrow wooden bridge.  The ground is icy and covered with snow and we find the slip-on crampons that we have brought still necessary. After enjoying the brink air, we return to the ship for a lively game of cards with our sister and brother-in-law before calling it a night.

Fiord Views on the way to Stokmarknes
The Bridges near Stokmarknes
Homes in Stormarknes
Sunset at Blue Hour
Blue Hour Reflection

On Sunday morning we gather on deck to cross the Arctic Circle once more and continue our travel south. This time to celebrate, we each drink the obligatory serving of cod liver oil!  Yes, that childhood threat of ultimate disgust that strangely is palatable as an adult, but still requires washing down with a sparking glass of champagne. Soon after lunch, we assemble on deck again, but this time to view the famous “Seven Sisters” mountain peaks.  By now, the snow and ice on the deck have melted, the waves have subsided, and the view is spectacular. Later that afternoon, we arrive in Bronnoysund, often referred to as “The Heart of Norway”. It is connected over the Bronnoysund strait by a 550-meter-long bridge that will lead you to Troghatten and the famous “hole in the mountain” natural wonder. This is Norway’s geographical center and we take some time to walk out onto the harbor’s dock and sample the local aquavit with our tour leader and fellow travelers.  After this, we walk through town to a local pub where we have a round of wine and beer while enjoying the pub’s homage to the Beatles. Then, it was back on board for a night’s gentle cruising to the city of Trondheim.

Traveling South from the Arctic Circle
The Seven Sisters Mountains
Abby Road in Bronnoysund

Monday morning, we arrive early in Trondheim, and although we have toured the city by bus earlier in the trip, we set off on foot this time to walk to the Old Town Wooden Bridge and Trondheim Cathedral. On our return, we catch up with our Tour Guide who takes us into the city’s AquaCenter, complete with slides, pools, and all sorts of aqua-adventure opportunities.  In addition, the facility is built on the waterfront and looks out over the fiord and Munkholmen. As leaving and heading back to the ship, we see Hurtigruten’s newest ship, the Fridt Jof Nansen practicing maneuvers in front of the wharf. We leave the town and cruise past the islands of Grip and Hitra before arriving back in Kristiansund in late afternoon.  Here we take another quick walk around the harbor before boarding the Kong Harald one last time for our trip back to Bergen.

Cod Drying Racks in Rorvik
Kristiansund at Night

On Tuesday, we arrive back in Bergen at ~2:30PM and transfer back to our Clarion Hotel.  We have just enough time to shop before the stores close, and decide to eat a dinner of pizza, beer and wine before returning to the hotel for farewell drinks and deserts with our traveling group.  That night is spent arranging and packing, and the next morning, it is breakfast and transfer off to the airport.  Everything has gone so well that it is not surprising that KLM was now not able to check us into the flight!  After an hour at the ticketing desk, they finally were able to print Boarding Passes for us, and to route our luggage to our final destination. The flights back through Amsterdam, Atlanta and New Orleans were pleasant but uneventful. This trip accomplished reaching the far north and finally seeing the Aurora Borealis – two of our long traveling desires.

Traveling Back to Bergen

Norway and the Northern Adventure– The Arctic Circle, Aurora Borealis and the Russian Border

Part 2 February 2020

The next morning, we rise early to catch a view of the globe monument that indicates that we are crossing the Arctic Circle – the border with the” Land of the Midnight Sun”.  Daylight has only recently returned to this region, and our sun is in the sky here only ~4 hours. The night has seen us experience some larger waves, and we have already had 4 short stops to unload cargo and take on passengers in the night. The Norwegians are planning a “shortcut” to our route by building a ship tunnel 75’ wide and 40’ deep that is 15 miles long under a mountain, (The Laerdal Tunnel), to be finished in 2028. After we cross the Arctic Circle, we voluntarily celebrate the “crossing” on the ship’s back deck with a toast of champagne and a “polar baptism” – the ladling of ice and ice water down one’s back followed by a shot of aquavit, all presided over by the norse god of the sea – Njord!  After lunch, we docked in the city of Bodo (pronounced like budha) where we take a quick walk about in the 25 degree F weather to look at the modern, post-war Bodo Cathedral, (built in 1956), and stop into a local bar, (The Nortlaenningen Pub – which was located two stories underground), and where we all enjoyed a local beer and a little warmth. The town was founded in 1816 and only became accessible by road shortly before WWII. During the German invasion in April 1940, over 2/3’s of the buildings and homes were destroyed. Upon completing our drinks and enjoying the local hospitality, it was back to the ship (with a shortcut through the town’s indoor shopping mall), and a hot dinner with friends and family. That evening we stop and take a brief walk around the harbor of Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands.  Svolvar has the distinction of being the warmest town in the world given its degree of latitude – averaging over 35 degrees F in January & February and is home to racks of drying cod along the port’s entry! 

The Globe marking the Arctic Circle
The Town of Bodo

After five more stops in the night, and we arrive in Harstad early on Tuesday morning.  Harstad is known for its cod and herring fishing, and for its annual cultural festival. We don’t have much time at the dock there, but we take notes and pictures for our Norwegian friends back in the States.  Then we leave and make our way to the city of Tromso , the city known as “the Gateway to the Arctic” and the “Paris of the North”.  Nearly every important Polar Expedition has been tied to this city, including those of Fritiof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, and the city houses the most northern University in the world. Here we split our forces, with Julie taking the afternoon city tour, and Rocky taking an excursion to go dogsledding.  As the tours begin, darkness set in and heavy snows began to fall.  Julie’s city tour visits the University Museum where one can create “Northern Lights” in a laboratory and with exhibits on the Sami culture and the traditions of trapping, hunting and fishing.  Then it was on to the Polar Museum to learn of the exploits of the polar explorers and the history of Svalbard Island – home to the world’s largest population of Polar Bears and Walruses. Tromso is also home to the Mack Brewery which is famous for its Arctic Ale. Meanwhile, Rocky’s dogsledding adventure took him by bus to a camp where a champion professional woman dogsledder houses over 300 sled-dogs and offers 1-hour sledding adventures.  We were divided into 3 groups of 12 people each, and then loaded as the first group, 2-people-per-sled.  The other two 12-person groups would tour the kennels and enjoy hot drinks in the camp’s accommodations while we sledded, and the plan was to then rotate after each ~1-hour. However, while sledding through the snow with the first group, the weather degraded significantly, and the second group’s sledding was cut short and the third group’s sledding was cancelled altogether.  In fact, the weather got so bad, we had to immediately board buses to insure we could make it back to the ship.  However, the hour that Rocky had sledding was great fun, and the musher was a young lady from Austria who was building her personal experience. After arriving back at the ship, we set sail in a snowstorm and went to eat dinner.  That night, we were treated to a magnificent show of the Northern Lights. We stood on the back deck as the skies cleared and the green electromagnetic show began.  Although capturable on camera, the boat’s motion made it difficult to get extremely sharp photos.  But the aerial show was spectacular!  Unfortunately, by the time we arrived in Skjervoy, the city lights and growing cloud cover ended our show for the night.

Entering the Harbor of Harstad
The Dogsledding Kennels
Rocky and Pam on the Dogsled
The Aurora Borealis over the Ship’s Smokestack
The Aurora Borealis over the Horizon

We wake on Wednesday morning with 4 new inches of snow covering the ship’s decks and icicles hanging down from the ship’s windows. The daylight is getting shorter as we travel north, and it is a “blue morning” with snow, sky and water all reflecting blue.  We dock in the town of Honningsvag – the capital of the “North Cape” and home to 2800 sturdy inhabitants. Every Spring, the Norwegian Army helps transport 3,800 reindeer over the Mageroy Strait to their summer pastures on Mageroy Island, and every Autumn, the Sami herd them back to the wintering plains of Karasjok with an 1800-meter swim back.  The town’s church, built in 1884, was the only building left standing after the town was razed near the end of WWII.  Today the town serves as one of the northernmost cities in the world, and the gateway to the North Cape, the most northern point of any continent on earth.  After a brief sightseeing excursion, we head back to the ship to round the Cape through rough wind and waves to arrive in Berlevag at 10pm, a difficult port to dock in, and the home of up to 10-meter waves directly out of the Arctic North.  Today, ships can more safely access this port due to the extensive network of 15-ton concrete blocks that were set in place in 1973. Here, Julie was supposed to have joined a snowmobile excursion to travel between coastal towns, but the weather was so bad that the snowmobile excursion was cancelled.  However, she was given the opportunity to try again later on the return trip back down the coast.

Morning at Hammerfest
Viewing the Bay at Honningsvag

After delivering cargo in Berlevag, we begin the difficult travel back south but further to the east to Vardo, the eastern-most point in Norway, located further east than Istanbul or St. Petersburg, and connected to the mainland via a 2900-meter tunnel. Then we are on to Kirkenes (pronounced “chur ken knees”), the heart of “border country” located at the mouth of the Pasvikelva River which forms part of the border with Russia. Here we have time to explore and to take a bus excursion inland to the surrounding area and the Russian Border.  Kirkenes grew up around an iron ore mining company which was a critically sought-after resource before, during and immediately after WWII.  Today, the mines are idle, and the town survives on fishing, tourism and trade with Russia. During WWII, Kirkenes served as a key base for raids against the Soviets’ ice-free port of Murmansk by the Germans, and as a result, suffered 328 Soviet bombing air-raids before the Nazi’s retreated.  Our bus takes us on a brief overview of the town before heading 15km to Storskog – the only official border crossing between Norway and Russia.  The town has always had a vibrant but uncomfortable relationship with their neighbors to the east, but certainly better now since the “Cold War” has ended.  At the border is a Sami local who runs a little souvenir shop and has a wonderful Malamute (named Bamse), that everyone wanted to pet.  This part of “Finmark” which extends across the northern portions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia is dominated by the Sami people.  10-15% of the Sami are still traditional reindeer herders, but the majority survive today on fishing.  The reindeer are used for food, pelts, and even milk, and the antlers are even ground for medicine.  After the visit to the border, we are off to the famous “Snow Hotel” – an annual seasonally-created lodge constructed from snow canons piling snow over a removable form, and then decorated by ice carvers using large ice-blocks taken from the nearby frozen lake.  The hotel has 14 “snow” rooms with a reception center, and 20 additional cabins located nearby. The beds are ice and the rooms go for ~$300/night with the bathrooms located separately.  The Hotel also houses a few reindeer which we get to feed, (reindeer eat lichens), and additionally have their own dog-sledding area housing ~100 dogs which we get to greet and pet. After the visit, we head back to the ship for lunch and to turn around and begin the cruise back to Bergen.

Ice filled Harbour in Kirkenes
Kong Harald at Kirkenes Harbor
Julie at the Russian Border
Feeding lichens to the Reindeer
Entrance to the Snow Hotel
At the Reception Bar in the Snow Hotel

After lunch, we dock again in Vardo, and this time we have time to disembark and briefly explore the town. Vardo is the administrative capital of Finmark, and most of the people here are taught to speak Finnish. The town was completely destroyed in WWII, and like much of Norway, was rebuilt with great assistance from the US Marshal Plan.  Today, the town of 70,000 make a living on fishing and public administration.  After our walking tour, we re-board the ship, enjoy a dinner of reindeer, and make plans for the evening and Julie’s late-night snowmobile adventure.  In preparation, she goes to bed early, but Rocky stays up and is rewarded with a modest display of the Northern Lights.  Unfortunately, the 4-5-meter waves make taking pictures on deck difficult, and by the time we get back to Berlevag, the clouds have retaken to night sky and the show is over.

The Town of Vardo
Northern Lights after Vardo
The Aurora Borealis before reaching Berlevag


Norway and the Northern Adventure – From Bergen to the Arctic Circle

January/February 2020

Part 1

A country that we have never visited and about which we had heard great things was Norway.  Norway is a country of only 5.4 million residents distributed along a string of western coastal towns that are principally located at the terminus of deep fiords. Their eastern border is defined by a range of steep mountains, the Scandes, which historically served as the natural boundary between Norway and Sweden. The northern reaches of Norway wrap around the Scandinavian peninsula to reach the border of Russia and serves as the center of the multinational region of Finmark and Sápmi – home to the indigenous Sami people best known for their seasonal reindeer herding. We also had high hopes of finally seeing the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – which reach a peak in the January and February months north of the Arctic Circle.

Map of Hurtigruten Coastal Voyage

Having had a great experience on a Hurtigruten Expedition ship in Antarctica, we decided to make this adventure on a Hurtigruten Coastal ship responsible for deliveries and ferrying up and down the Norwegian coast.  This would ensure that we would visit the maximum number of places stretching from our port of embarkation at Bergen in the south of Norway, all the way along the coast to the Russian border, and back – a two-week trip!

Out trip began with flights from the USA to Amsterdam, and then on to Bergen, Norway, arriving early on Thursday, January 30th. Bergen was founded in 1070 and was the capital of Norway until 1299. It was one of the most important trading centers of Europe providing transport of dried fish to the south and of dry goods to the north. The town once had 9 shipyards and 28 roperies making ship ropes until well into the 18th century.  Today, the city is 180 square miles spread over a ragged coastline. Our hotel for the night was a Clarion hotel that was housed in the historic harbor shipping office building on the Bryggen wharf. The Bryggen’s historic wooden “Hanseatic” German merchant buildings located here are over 100 years-old and are built on raised wooden timbers that protect them from the occasional tidal flooding.  Between each of these buildings are wooden walks that provide access to novel artisan shops. Across the street from the hotel is St. Mary’s Church, the oldest building in Bergen dating to the late 1100’s.  The church was originally built for the predominantly Catholic merchants before the reformation that resulted in Lutheranism being declared to be Norway’s official religion in 1537. On the opposite side of our hotel was located the Bergenhus Fortress, the oldest fortress in Norway dating to the 1240’s which still remains under the command of Norway’s Royal Navy. That evening, we explored the wharf area including the local fish market, the shops surrounding the Vagsalmenningen Square, the Galleriet Mall and the local Starbucks, weathering the light rain.  After dinner at the hotel, we took advantage of the view from the hotel’s historic 100ft-high tower before making plans for our day tomorrow and calling it a night.

Bryggen Buildings of Bergen Wharf

Friday morning began with an early breakfast at the hotel before embarking on a walk to the town’s funicular that would transport us up Mount Floyen which towers above the city of Bergen. The funicular appears to be both electric and cable driven as it hauls us up a steep grade through tunnels, under roads and up the mountainside, including stops at two small housing areas.  Once at the top, we enjoy the spectacular views and examine the old funicular components before deciding to take on the long walk down.  During our walk, the rains begin again in earnest.  Bergen is known as the rainiest city on earth averaging 240 days of rain per year! This is a result of the moist air riding above the North Atlantic Current coming from Great Britain and dropping its rain as it encounters Bergen’s mountains.  After finding our way back to the hotel, it was time to check out and take a brief bus tour of the area. After viewing various areas of the city, we headed out into the country to the little town of Troldhaugen – a suburb of Bergen and the former home of Norway’s most famous composer Edvard Grieg.  Today, his home and study host a museum dedicated in his honor.  After spending time learning more about his life, we re-boarded the bus and headed to our accommodations for the next two weeks – the Hurtigruten ship “Kong Harald”. Once settled, we enjoyed a buffet dinner and preview of the week before casting off at 9:30pm to begin our cruising adventure north.

The Mount Floyen Funicular
View of Bergen from Top of Mount Floyen
Composer Edvard Grieg’s House & Museum
Our Coastal Ship – The MS Kong Harald

After 3 very brief stops in the night, (this coastal ship serves as a delivery ship and passenger and auto ferry, as well), and our first few hours at the mercy of the open seas, we arrived the next morning in the town of Alesund.  Alesund sits near the mouth of Norway’s longest fiord and was rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style after the town’s wooden structures burnt to the ground in 1904. After a brief tour of the harbor and along the town’s cobbled streets, we climbed the 418 icy steps to the top of Aksla Mountain for spectacular views of the town and surrounding area and then walked down the winding path along the peninsula through 4” of freshly fallen snow. Along the way we passed statues of Rollon-Gange Rolv, the founder of Normandy and Kaiser Wilheim II who often visited the area, finally making it back to town in time to shop before re-boarding our ship.

The Art Noveau Architecture of Alesund
Alesund from the Fjellstua Viewpoint

Our next port that afternoon was Molde – the “City of Roses”. Molde was extensively destroyed in WWII as the German Army leveled and burnt the town on their retreat at the end of the war.  Today it serves as a popular summer-home location for wealthy residents and includes a brand new boardwalk and the 13,000 seat Aker soccer stadium as home for their local professional team. After dinner onboard, we have a chance to briefly explore our next stop at Kristiansund – a harbor town spread over three islands dating back to the Middle Ages. We checked out the monuments to ships and sailors before making a short trek to the local Kristiansund Church.  It was night and the streets were empty, so we headed back to the ship for a night’s sleep and voyage.

Fish Farms on the Way to Molde
Streetlight over Kristiansund Cathedral
Crab Traps on the Docks at Kristiansund

It is Sunday morning when we arrive in Trondheim, formerly known as Nidaros (“mouth of the river”) and Norway’s first capital from 872 until 1217.  Leif Eriksson completed his military service here and the St. Olaf Shrine located here still attracts legions of pilgrims.  Nidaros served at the religious center of Norway, and the seat of the archbishop diocese until the reformation in 1533.  The city is Norway’s third largest (175,000 people) and is built around the River Nid (Nidelva) which snakes its way through town.  After arriving, we board a bus for a “city tour” that climbs to an overlook before heading to a walk on the old Town Bridge.  Most of the city was rebuilt after the great fire of 1681 destroyed much of the town. After visiting the bridge and marveling at the old, wooden warehouse buildings built on pilings along the river, we walk to the nearby Nidaros Cathedral – one of Northern Europe’s greatest Gothic memorials. Since it was Sunday, we had to wait in the Visitor’s Center until the Church Service was over, but by then, it was pouring rain outside, and so we entered the cathedral via an underground entrance through the crypts. The crypts are still populated with a mix of Norse, Catholic and Lutheran tombs and markers, many of which are not yet fully examined.  The cathedral is spectacular with 3 separate organs, each from different eras (1200AD, 1600AD, 1900AD) which includes over 12,000 pipes in total.  Next we toured the central part of the city including the University and the old Kristiansten Fortress. After leaving Trondheim, we cruised past Munkholmen, an islet lying just offshore that served as a Middle Ages monastery. Today it is a recreational center for families and visitors during the warmer months.

Trondheim’s Old Town Wooden Bridge
The Warehouses along the Nid River in Trondheim
The Nidaros Cathedral in Trodheim

As we cruise along the coast, we pass many islands (including tens of thousands of “skeeries” which are islets too small for inhabitation) including the Kjeungskjaer Lighthouse, (the “red sailor”), which somewhat recently housed a young family with 5 children who would sometimes need tethering when playing outside given the waves and winds that are experienced there. Many of the larger islands are connected via tunnels and bridges (over 19,000 of them), most of which were built after the discovery of oil offshore on Christmas Day in 1969. Today, Norway is the 7th largest producer of hydrocarbons in the world, but nearly all of it is exported.  98% of Norway’s domestic power needs are met from hydroelectric plants which are scattered across the country. That night we learn more of Norwegian history and the origins of the legends of trolls. As we continue to travel north, the chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis increases, and we bed down for the night with our room intercom set to wake us should they be spotted while we sleep.

The Kjeungskjaer Lighthouse

A Visit to Puerto Vallarta – Mexico’s West Coast

November 2019

Our close friends, Bob and Diana, kindly invited us to join them for a week at the Vidanta Resort located on Mexico’s west coast near Puerto Vallarta on Banderas Bay. The Saturday flight to Puerto Vallarta is an easy one connecting through Houston, Texas, and the airport exit is the typical chaos of hawkers, salespeople and taxi drivers.  This weekend is the annual “Day of the Dead” festival, and tourists are crowding the small facilities.  We finally found our way to our transport to the resort, which required entrance through an impressive security gate and passage through miles of meticulously gardened roads.  Apparently, the resort owners are terra-forming the many acres of reclaimed ground into a mini-Disneyland of Mexico’s west coast.  The resort itself is huge with multiple timeshare, hotel and condominium buildings, numerous restaurants, and a half-dozen pools, including swim-up bar, a lazy river, wave pools and cabana service. We checked-in, drank our complimentary margarita, met up with Bob and Diane, and made our way to our 6th-floor, two-bedroom suite in The Grand Bliss, a central building overlooking a pond, a pool, the beach and Banderas Bay. The suite included a complete kitchen, 2 ½ baths, a balcony and a private plunge pool!  All the facilities and amenities at the resort are connected by walkable paths but can also be accessed via a complex golf cart transportation system, as automobiles are not allowed into the guest areas. Dinner was at Epazote restaurant where we dined on traditional Mexican fare, including guacamole made fresh at our table-side.  That evening, we enjoyed fireworks over the Bay, and prepared a plan to explore the next morning.

Local egrets (Nivea Garza) wandering the extensive gardens.
View from the Suite’s balcony of Banderas Bay.

Sunday morning, we were up early for a walk on the beach where we saw many tracks from active Olive Ridley Sea Turtles nesting during the night.  At the southern end of the resort, there is a point of land where the Ameca River flows into Banderas Bay, and it was populated with numerous local fisherman casting from the beach. On the way back, we watched two local men swim their gillnet through the surf and manually haul it in, reminding us of similar fishing techniques that we watched local tribes do in Nigeria. As the sun rose over the mountains to the east, we watched the many dolphins playing and eating just offshore before heading back to get breakfast.  After consuming huge crepes at the Sweet Paris Creperie, we walked to the resort’s local grocery to stock-up on water, wine, rum, cheese and snacks.  Then it was off to the Concierge to book any tours that we wanted to do later that week, which would include a trip to the town of San Sebastian, and an excursion offshore sport fishing.  Then, it was off to one of the swimming pools for a relaxing afternoon of reading and margaritas. Julie and Bob took a couple of trips around the Lazy River, where they enjoyed waves from the wave machine, while large 3-foot-long Green Iguanas along the way took little notice of them.  After pool-time, we all headed up to the suite for a dip in the plunge pool and a glass of wine, before getting ready to head out for dinner.  That night we dined “french” on lobster, escargot, and scallops at the Azur Restaurant, which we finished off with an excellent crème brulee. 

Local fishermen with mornings catch.
Relaxing in the suite’s plunge pool.

Monday morning, we had a light breakfast at the suite, before meeting our bus for our excursion to San Sebastian.  San Sebastian del Oeste is a town 60 miles from the resort located high up, (over 1-mile in altitude), in the mountains.  The town was founded in 1580, and at one time was home to over 30,000 people – most making their living from the vast silver mines located there.  During the revolution of 1910, the mines were blown up, and the town has shrunk to less than 1000 people today. Their economy is now principally driven by agriculture and a growing tourism business.  Until relatively recently, the trip to San Sebastian would have taken many hours over dirt and gravel roads and old river crossings.  Today, the road is paved, and a new bridge crosses the principal river gorge making the trip only about 90-minutes. Along the way, we stopped at Raicilla de El Nogalito de San Sebastian, a local family-run tequila maker that only makes small runs of tequila monthly from their locally grown blue agave plants.  There, we tasted Blanco, Reposado and Areanas tequilas, and tasted their local flavored blends, including our favorite – coffee. We then traveled to the edge of the town, San Sebastian, where we stop to explore a local coffee plantation – the Café de Altura La Quinta.  This small plantation (~12 hectares) has been operated by the same family for over 100 years, originally founded by a Spanish settler who married a native woman.  The coffee trees are shaded by an extensive fruit orchard that towers over them, providing both the right amount of sunshine and the necessary soil nutrients to be successful.  After exploring and tasting their coffee, we walk into the town of San Sebastian, where the building and stone cobble streets are still original from the 19th century.  Access to town for the surrounding population was principally still via donkey carts until 2010. We stop for lunch at a local restaurant, “Jardin de Ninos”, where we have a fantastic traditional meal of quesadillas, machaca, chicken mole and refried beans.  After lunch, we walked into the town’s center looking at the pre-revolution architecture, including the old silver company store, the jail (still in use) and the church.  After free time to explore and shop, we board the bus for the trip back to the resort, go for a quick walk on the beach where we watch the “Fiesta Mexicana” show and firework.  That night we relax at the suite enjoying drinks and a light dinner.

New bridge across river gorge on the way to San Sebastian.
Blue Agave – the principal source of Tequila.
The quaint still used by the local family for tequila.
The streets of San Sebastian.
San Sebastian Old Town Square
Inside the San Sebastian Church.

On Tuesday morning, Rocky arose early to try his luck fishing from the beach but only caught two small stingrays. After a light breakfast, we assembled at the pool for another relaxing day.  From 11am until 3pm is “happy hour” at the swim-up bar, and we take advantage of the 2-for-1 drinks, cooling off from the sun with frozen margaritas. We both decide to ride the Lazy River before coming back for a poolside lunch of mussels and quesadillas. After the restful day, we had dinner on the beachside restaurant, “The Havana Moon”, where we enjoyed Cuban preparations of salads, shredded beef and barbequed pork ribs.

Julie on the Lazy River.

Wednesday morning gave Rocky another chance at fishing from the beach, but with no success at all this time.  However, the early start did offer the chance to see one Ridley Turtle finish laying her eggs and make her way back into the sea.  The Olive Ridley Turtles are only ~18” to 2’ long, and their nests are very shallow, making them easy targets for predators such as birds and racoons.  After returning to the suite to clean-up, we all headed to a complementary buffet breakfast at The Café Largo Restaurant. This was an appointment scheduled for Bob and Diana to review their current membership status, but the breakfast offered some of the best empanadas and Mexican treats that we had had.  After breakfast, we headed to the pool and “happy hour” for the rest of the day before making reservations for a traditional Mexican dinner at La Cantina.  This novel sports bar boasts stools made from horse-riding saddles and traditional décor and food.

Mexico’s Green Iguana – about 2 1/2 feet long.

Thursday morning, we were all up early to catch our taxi transport to Paradise Village Public Pier for a day of sport fishing. At the pier, we were met by the captain and first mate of the “Luky”, a twin outboard sport fishing boat.  As we motored out into Banderas Bay, the weather was good, and the seas were calm.  By the time the sun started showing over the eastern mountains, we had motored west ~20km to a point near Destiladeras where we began fishing for bait and potential lunch.  While there, Rocky caught two Spanish Mackerel and one Skipjack, Diana cause a Spanish Mackerel and Yellowtail, Bob caught 2 Spanish Mackerels at one time, and Julie caught a Spanish Mackerel, as well. With these fish and others that the first mate both brought and caught, we continued our journey to the southwest to get beyond the bay and into deeper, cooler waters where mahi and billfish might be caught. With seven lines out at various distances, we fished for the 4-hours past the Marietas Islands and all the way across the outer edge of Banderas Bay, however, we never got a bite. As noon approach, the first mate cleaned and filleted several of the mackerel, and made an outstanding ceviche, which we ate with chips for a delicious lunch.   As afternoon began, we headed back to the port, stopping briefly to watch the frolicking dolphins that came to investigate us.  After returning to the resort, we went for a walk on the beach, explored the Turtle Nesting Nursery, and spend some time at the pool.  Dinner that night was via “room service” where we had steak and fajitas and watched a movie, “Deja Vu”, in Spanish on the television.

Sunrise from out on the water.
Fishing in Banderas Bay.

On Friday morning, Rocky again tried his luck fishing at the beach, but again with no luck.  Julie came down to encourage him and to explore and got to witness not only a nesting turtle, but also the release of baby turtles back into the sea from the Turtle Conservancy located there. They have a regular program where they collect turtle eggs from their beach nests, rebury them in a protected area, and then release them into the sea when they hatch.  After our morning beach excursion, we headed to “Sweet Paris” again for a crepe breakfast, and then again spent the day poolside before making reservations at “Gong”, an Asian-style restaurant.  Here we had one of the best tempuras we’ve ever tasted and complimented our meal with dumplings and red wine.  Then, it was back to the suite to pack for our journey home the next day.

Nesting Olive Ridley Turtle.
Baby Olive Ridley Turtles

Saturday was “travel day”, but, after arriving at the airport, we were excited to discover that part of our trip we were upgraded to first class.  This was a great way to conclude a fantastic and relaxing week.