Monday, September 1, 2014

South Manitou Island backpack Trip

On this long weekend, I sit on my wood floor with the candles lit, windows open, rain pattering, chili stewing and thoughts swirling as I enjoy the first weekend of being home in over a month. Ahhhh I've never been so excited to sleep in, make breakfast and clean this neglected apartment. Reflecting on my busy, adventurous month, I am sore and beaten down but fulfilled with a sense of accomplishment. Why work hard to travel, explore and learn on the weekends? Well to me, there is nothing in the world that makes me feel more alive than being out in the element, or in a brand new place. I love being submersed in the unknown and I absolutely love adventure. But with that, I also travel to learn of places that I'd like to bring my future children and family. I can't help but to think ahead - it motivates me.

On this trip, I was seeking a bit of solitude after a long couple of weeks. I decided to head north alone to explore South Manitou Island, which is located in the lower peninsula of Michigan. The tall dunes, chilly breeze, and miles of shoreline to backpack lured me in.

Red skies at night, sailor's delight; Red skies by morning, sailor's take warning. After twelve hours of driving north, the road I was on brought me to this beautiful place - Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan. En route, I passed many sleepy towns, including Glen Haven, which is where this gem lays. Lakes and water sports, cherry stands, mom-and-pop restaurants, vineyards, and a constant breeze could sum up my drive. 

Glen Haven was founded in 1851 and housed a saw mill, cherry cannery and Coast Guard life saving station. I was in awe as I pulled up to such a well-restored town in an area with such a small population. I'd imagine it looks very similar to how it did during the 17th century. 

On my way up, I passed through Traverse City where I bought a map to plan my trip and a sandwich to keep me fueled. Miles later in Glen Arbor, there was a campground area but I was so tired that I decided to drive right through into Leland, where the ferry was set to depart in the morning. Luckily, the lot was part of a lighted marina, which had wi-fi. I always bring a blanket and pillow for emergencies so I hunkered down for the night with the windows cracked to let in some of that fresh Lake Michigan air. I slept in, brushed my teeth and headed over to the ferry house to grab a sandwich and my ticket. The weather was nice at the moment but changing quickly as a layer of fog billowed over the glassy calm water.

From Leland, it takes about one and a half hours to reach South Manitou Island. Still groggy from my make-shift sleeping situation the night before, the old over-zealous Italian ferry-mate seemed to understand, picking fun of me from across the vessel. I think he thought I was hung over so he insisted that I try their "world famous" bloody Mary. I complied and needless to say, it was as world famous as it could get in a red solo cup, deluded with alcohol. Rise and shine!

As we reached shore, the Island park ranger gave his spiel and we were off. Of the 30+ visitors, I was the only person to request a pass for the furthest campsite on the island - Popple Campsite. He warned me that the winds would be very strong that night and to lay low when I arrived.   

Popple Campsite ended up being well worth the hike. I passed an old farm and a lush beech-maple forest full of wildflowers along the way. I set up camp and went against the rangers advice to check out some of the tall perched dunes the island had to offer. The photo to the right shows North Manitou Island.

After climbing several hundred feet to see the tall perched dunes, I decided to hike east past the campsite to Gull Point. The very tip of the point is normally closed off to backpackers because it is a breeding ground area for the endangered piping plovers. The name "Gull Point" made complete sense as there were bleached bird bones strewn about. The mixture of sand, bones and lake tossed granite and limestone was artistic. I hung out there for almost an hour before heading back to cook dinner. The winds, scents and chilly breeze had me reminiscing about growing up near the ocean.

On the way back to the campsite, I caught a couple of familiar sites. Hoary pacoon and green milkweed are common plants throughout the native prairies of North Dakota where I worked as a Biological Science Technician during the summer of 2011. They thrive in sandy conditions of the north and were a nice site to see among the dune grasses.

On my final day, I woke early to catch the sunrise before hiking over 10 miles of beach back to the dock. Along the way, I passed an old weather station, the wreck of the Morazan (1960), and the South Manitou Island lighthouse. 

I spent the weekend looking for a gift to a friend that I had learned about in Traverse City when I overheard an old couple talking about Michigan's claim-to-fame, the Petoskey stone. This rock is really an ancient lithified coral formed over millions of years. They are mostly limited to upper Michigan. I always try to bring back pieces of my trip as gifts because I think it's important to pay your blessings forward whenever possible. This trip surly was a blessing and I'm anxious to show South Manitou Island to friends and my future family one day soon. Cheers!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Dolly Sods Wilderness on Fire

I admit, moving from the east coast (Massachusetts) was pretty tough and, at times, I'd do anything to be back. There's just something unforgettable about driving up to Cape Cod with your good friends for a night of striped bass fishing off of a jetty overlooking Woods Hole. The sights, sounds and smells of the full moon above, waves crashing below and the electric splashing of herring in the distance turning on like the flick of a light switch, as they fend for their lives from the predators below. Slack tide has arrived in the "Great Harbor."

But there is something unforgettable about any place, really. Despite what some of my hometown friends say, the midwest ain't nearly as bad as they think. The cost of living, sense of community, scenery and the close proximity to pretty much anywhere else in the country is second to none here in the rolling hills of Southeastern, Ohio. And having lived here for seven years, I've been fortunate to keep that perspective fresh as I take full advantage of the endless opportunities around me.

In the past seven years, I've been blessed to see many different areas in a number of states; yet, two places have stood out to me like no other. One of them is the backcountry keys of Key West, Florida and the other is Dolly Sods Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia. When I truly gain a love for an area, there's a good chance I'll be back. So, the backcountry keys have taken the place of my spring break for the past two years and Dolly Sods has been my autumn destination for the past three years, with a handful of trips and memories there in between. There's just something amazing about this place in the fall that keeps me coming back with different groups of friends each time.

During this past fall, I was lucky to finally have the same weekend off as three of my favorite travel friends - Alexa, Alex and Lakota (the Germain Shephard). Alex spent summers in the north woods guiding boyscout groups through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and through Quetico, Canada. Alexa has traveled all around the country to research bats as part of a private consulting company. It's always great traveling with Alexa because she is so laid back and Alex is completely full of survival information and great stories. On down the road, four and a half hours fly by as we become taken back by the increasingly growing and colorful hills mixed with a slough of good bluegrass tunes from each of our playlists.

As I picked up on at an early age, no matter how many times you visit the same place, or look up at the same sky, the only thing that will remain the same is the memory that you've kept from before. Otherwise, you have no idea what to expect the next time. That held very true during this trip as we were consumed by a dense, refreshing fog throughout most of the hike. And to many, this might put a damper on an ordinarily scenic trip like this, like trips I've experienced there before; however, it only made the area  come to life in a different way -- everything changes. This old wind blown cherry tree tells a story, perhaps many, as it it protected from encroachment of other trees by a sea of azalea and blueberry shrubs. I know one thing: this would be a sight to see had I lost my compass as the wind blows from the west in the Northern hemisphere, hence "westerlys." Perhaps it's telling me to head east, back home?

Dolly Sods sits along the Allegheny Plateau and is made up of many of the same temperate plants and animals found here in Southeastern, Ohio. This makes complete sense since we are so close to West Virginia. Although, what makes this place so surreal and unique from the rest of the midwest is its elevation. Everything is stunted here and there is little tolerance for hardwood forests because of the harsh climate from being of the subarctic tundra. Although, when you do finally come across a woodlot, my oh my! The beeches and maples and mist and northern birds had me dreaming of the very place I was standing at.

As we traveled from Blackbird Knob trail (the usual meander from year to year), the crew decided to veer off for a trek via Daubenmire Glade. For those that don't know, a glade is basically an area of vegetated land that sits right on top of bedrock; which, in this case, happens to be white sandstone made up of quartz, making it light in color. At first, it reminded me very much of that granite back in Massachusetts. But notice that weathering of the boulders. Granite endures abrasion much better than sandstone because it is an igneous rock (created by heat or lava) as sandstone is sedimentary. I always love finding plants for the first time in far off places that I've only read about, like this red elderberry. This plant is native in Ohio but not common and inedible, unlike some of its relatives.

In years past, I've been lucky to kick up a flock of ruffed grouse, a vibrant mud salamander, and even bears on forest roads leading into the wilderness. Some say to travel here during parts of the summer to see black bears foraging on the miles of blueberry and huckleberries. I don't think there's anything better than homemade blueberry pancakes under an old stand of pines...mmmm. So we happened to find this fat guy on the trail. He needs to lay off the blueberries for sure.

 And even more common than the abundance of wildlife that we see is the many edible plants that we find. I already mentioned blueberry and huckleberries. We also trip over our fair share of teaberry, cranberry, and edible mushrooms along the way. Rose hips and pine needles provide a huge vitamin-c boost as well. 

And finally, during our last night in the wilderness, we bumped into some fellow ohioans and shared some whisky and lies over the damp fire. Apparantly I woke up in the middle of the night screaming at the top of my lungs haha. I don't know what that was about but everybody thought there was a bear in the campsite when I didn't answer the first time, until it kept happening of course haha. But hey, back to the point of the story --look at the view from that campsite!!! What a great trip with excellent company. I feel blessed to have this one on my belt.

 Cheers --

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cumberland Island National Seashore - WIlderness Trek

On the way back up from our Key West backcountry paddle trip, we decided to stop by the Everglades before spontaneously deciding to pull an all night detour up to Georgia's Cumberland Island National Seashore, which has long been on my bucket list of places to backpack. To summarize in one paragraph why this 23,000 acre island is such a gem of a place would be both difficult and omissive. So I'll dedicate this blogpost not only to describing the highlights and details of our trip, but also the history, biodiversity, geology, and intrinsic value of this site.

As you pull into St. Mary, Georgia, you're greeted by beautifully restored 17th and 18th century buildings wrapped in cedar shingles. The atmosphere brought back memories from my time living on the north shore of Massachusetts, particularly memories in and around the Gloucester area. This old town is very well-kept with waves of character. The main strip ends at the entrance to the St. Mary's ferry, which is the only means of transportation to and from the island. Despite highly recommended reservations in advanced, we were able to squeeze onto the 45 passenger vessel with only one spot remaining. The island itself only allows a maximum of 300 people on the island at one time - a fraction of those are able to purchase an overnight permit. That's not very many people for an area larger than Manhattan! Although, the island rarely experiences that many visitors at one time.

The 45 minute ferry ride amounted to a picturesque glide across the glassy cumberland sound and the ferry was filled with men, woman, children and a slough of lightweight backpacking gear for those who craved a bit more adventure than a day's hike near the dock. The trip back produced goodbyes from a group of playful dolphins at our gunnels to a curious laughing gull that followed us back.

Our trip was divided into two long days. 

Day 1: we began on the parallel trail, which meanders through acres of healthy maritime forest, predominately made up of live oak and palmetto. This ecological community is sometimes referred to as a hammock. We eventually made our way to Stafford Beach, where we exited the forest and walked north, close to 8 miles of the longest barrier island beach (17.5mi) in Georgia. Eventually, we doglegged over via South Cut Trail to find the main road, which led us to the furthest primitive campsite on the island's wilderness - Brickhill Bluff. All in all, we hiked a total of 13.4mi over a span of 8 hours for the first day.

Day 2: We knew we had to catch the 2:45p ferry so we woke up early to get a head start. With sore hips and aching blisters, we decided to take the main road back, which would cut our second day down to 10.3 miles. Along the way, we passed one group of hikers from Pennsylvania who were haphazardly walking with their heads down. Come to find out, they were searching for sharks teeth. Soon after, we were doing the same thing, lining our pockets with the old dark fossils including those of macko, sand, and lemon sharks - some even of extinct species. The island is compiled of 50 miles of backcountry trails - we covered just under half of them in almost 28 hours (including sleep!).

This healthy maritime forest is mostly occupied by live oak and palmetto. The canopy sealed off just enough light to produce perfect, cool conditions to endure such a long trek. Despite what many sources say, Cumberland Island is not the largest barrier island in Georgia; however, it contains the largest tract of upland habitat and the longest beach of them all. If you factor in marshland, Ossabaw and St. Simon take the cake for overall size. Although this forest is steadily growing towards a climax forest via succession, it was once much healthier during pre-settlement. Most of the island was actually logged for ship building and shingle manufacturing, among other land uses. 

Soon after connecting with the beach via the Stafford Beach trail, we decided to take a lunch break for some hearty calories (mashed potatoes and tuna). We spent hours walking the shoreline combing the islands rich supply of seashells, littered about like colorful Christmas ornaments ready to be hung on Black Friday. On the east coast, the winter months always provide the best shelling opportunities so we were having a field day identifying the wide variety of species. Just as Alexa found a lined starfish, Kaitlyn pointed to a bald eagle feeding on a decaying skate as we tripped over an aboveground cemetery of horse shoe crabs and cannonball jellyfish. We found dozens of lettered olives, lightening and knobbed welks, a handful of mottled purse crabs and a wallet full of sand dollars to boot. 

When traveling long distances, especially on sand, it might be more beneficial to walk barefoot. At the end of the trip, Alexa paid the price for wearing her "five fingers" Vibram soled shoes, especially since sand kept getting trapped between the shoes and her feet. Kaitlyn did well with her running shoes until we had to cross dune areas. Ultimately, this was a tremendous trip and challenge that the crew handled very well. It's always much easier traveling with laid back people who are able to go with the flow. After all, surprises, setbacks and learning to deal with the unexpected is truly half of what we are out there for. I couldn't give more credit to this awesome crew for stepping up.

Another category that Cumperland Island is superior in is the high level of biodiversity. With an old Pleistocene (1.8mil - 10,000ya) geological regime throughout most of the island (especially the northern portion), the island's soil is very mature, allowing for a wide range of species. In contrast, harsher environments with poorer soils such as deserts and the boreal forest tend to support less biodiversity. One of the highlights on the trail was finding scores of corral root orchis. The live oak-palmetto hammock sporadically changed into slash pine forest as well as the occasional old growth red cedar.

At some points, we found ourselves with our heads down hundreds of feet apart from each other without realizing it until we made a cool discovery that we wanted to share, such as this decaying wild boar. Cumberland Island is really one of the most historic sites in America rich in archeology findings, to evidence of the war of 1812 to remnants of old slave buildings. Unfortunately with people came domesticated animals such as hogs and horses, which have seen become ferrel and continue to roam the island. Although they are quite the site to see and largely add to the character of this place, they take their toll on the fragile dune systems and native flora and fauna. For example, Cumberland Island is the largest breeding area for the endangered loggerhead sea turtle, which holds as many as 200 nest sites; although, wild boar have additionally damaged this already threatened population. The National Park Service recognizes this and has created a management plan to reduce populations.

Cumberland Island is home to approximately 140 wild horses, which are best observed throughout the dunes. We spent hours looking for horses until we were surprised by this small population grazing on grasses - they were surprised to see us as well.

Alexa and Kaitlyn looking west as we found our first population of wild horses. Quite possibly, the abnormally large and non-vegitated dune that they are standing on could have been caused by a combination of human impact such as logging, and exotic animal species.

Finally, we were able to reach Brickhill Bluff in just over 8 hours after stepping foot off of the ferry. This spot always tends to have more gnats than the others but we decided to make the trek for the sunset, which we just barely caught, and for the challenge of hiking to the furthest campsite in the backcountry wilderness. We were rewarded with this beautiful view of St. Mary's river, Brickhill river, and the Cumberland sound. Excellent trip!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Key West Backcountry Expedition - Round 2

These days, I've been working much longer hours at work, especially with my side job as a Field Biology instructor. With two sections of class and a full-time job, I've decided to boost the level of outdoor travel and exploration to help balance things out a bit. What I've quickly learned is that traveling on the weekends is mucho expensive so I've become increasingly interested in getting the best bang for my buck on each trip. Of course, you pick up little tricks along the way to save money, time, and resources. But ultimately, preparation is keystone. Anymore, my trips have become more adventurous, lightweight and strategic as I trim down my pack-weight. Blaise Pascal said it best: "I'm sorry I wrote you a long letter. I didn't have time to write you a short one." Preparation takes time but will allow you to travel further and more comfortably.

With a summer trip to Venezuela in my sights, I thought for sure that I had my big yearly vacation locked in until the news came out about the recent protests and political turmoil there. Around that time, a complete stranger from Minnesota contacted me about a blog post of mine that he found online detailing the Key West backcountry kayak/backpacking trip I took last spring. And after I received more calls from other inquiring strangers, I realized how unique and memorable the trip really was, which enticed me to dream bigger. So, I decided to hold off from traveling out of the country for one more year to add on to the route I paddled last year. Accompanied by two of my favorite people to adventure with, Kaitlyn Liptka and Alexa Gaant - strong paddlers to say the least - we were lucky enough to see much more than the keys on this trip.

Above is a snapshot comparing this year's trip to last year's. The white route is the 2013 trip. This year, we traveled 28 miles in three days. Like last year, we camped on Sugarloaf Key prior to meeting our outfitter, Bill Keoff at Big Pine Key Kayak Adventures. From there, we set out from blimp road on Cudjoe Key to Tarpon Belly Key (yellow line) for our first night under the stars.

Tarpon Belly Key is a favorite local get-away island since it is fairly close to the mainland. It gets it's name from being one of the first commercial shrimping operations in the united states. In fact, the island still has the remnants of two canals that were left after the business fell through. Unlike last year, we had company probably because of the unlikely low-80's weather for the month of March. That night, I met a young Cuban immigrant on the small island who had camped there for the last week with his grandmother. They collected sea sponges for a living. He kept me cognizant as I fished with some of the trials and errors that he had learned of while living on the water. 

Early that morning, we were surprisingly excited to wake up to gnats. Gnats are a quick indicator to a groggy camper that there is probably little to no wind, which was excellent news to us as we were setting out to paddle 12 miles that day (green line). 

As we left Tarpon Belly key, we decided to head northwest to Sawyer Key, which is a protected Wildlife Management Area. We didn't stay long but we did manage to see frigate birds, white ibis and ruddy turnstones (pictured above). We then headed west to take a break on Marvin's Keys to take a nap on the sandbars. Marvin's Keys always has local traffic as well since the islands are surrounded by pristine sandbars. But they tend to leave before dark. We decided to keep trucking' west to a new-to-me spot - Snipe Key.

Along the way, I caught a couple of jacks. We stopped along the way to throw topwater plugs at a school of big barracuda. Although a few took swipes at my lure, I came up empty handed. By the second day, the piece of fabric draped over my legs was completely necessary to prevent my legs from peeling.

We finally reached Snipe Key around 4pm to set up camp. Almost immediately, we picked up on a bad scent that led us to a decaying pilot whale (pictured above). Later, we found out from locals that there had been a bad algae bloom off the coast that caused over a dozen pilot whales to wash up on shore. The spot we chose was actually part of Snipe Point, which is the northern most part of the key. I stayed up for a few hours to sip some wine, read a book and tend the fire as the girls dozed off. 

On the third day, we traveled southeast from Snipe Point to the Sugarloaf Kamp of America (KOA) where we first began our excursion. We experienced a westerly wind, which helped us a little bit. But there were decent white caps the whole way back. At one point, it was important to paddle hard as the current was pulling us one way and the waves, another. The outfitter picked up our kayaks that night and we set out the following morning to Key West to scope out some of the shops.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Fall Raccoon Creek Paddle

Tucked away in the heart of southeastern Ohio lies the beautiful Raccoon Creek, which meanders through some of the most scenic counties in the state. Due to this region's rich supply of natural resources, Raccoon Creek has suffered from Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), sedimentation and pollution. Fortunately, the Raccoon Creek Partnership (RCP) has since emerged (2007) to provide restoration to this biologically diverse aquatic ecosystem. Prior to the 1800s, this stream was a favorite hunting area for Native Americans who sought white-tail deer, turkey and beaver. Raccoon Creek flows 114 miles from the scenic Hocking Hills region south to the Ohio River.

During the first weekend in September, my friend Grace and I decided to take one last outdoor retreat while the weather was still favorable. Despite the low water level, our plan was to spend the weekend paddling 20 miles down the stream, camping along the way. We knew it would be an adventurous trip as neither of us had paddled Raccoon Creek before and our prediction was correct to say the least. 

We arrived late Friday night at Zaleski State Forest - the most scenic portion of the creek, which is near the headwaters. We decided to hike to Lake Hope via the Hope Furnace trail to camp for the night before putting in nearby early the next morning. We fell asleep to the echoes of beaver smacking their tails all along the lake. As we climbed in our canoe and took off Saturday morning, the abrupt change from civilization to solitude was instantly conspicuous. Over 75% of Raccoon Creek is forested and very well-kept, which really creates a wilderness feel to it. At times, we would stop paddling to listen birds that were beginning their fall migration, breathe the fresh air, and take in the beautiful views.

We passed subtle signs of civilization and history here and there, including the historic and haunted Moonville Tunnel, old train trestle remnants from coal operations, and beautiful abandoned logging road bridges and cabins. We were lucky enough to find a healthy supply of paw paws along the way as well (as pictured above).  Paw paws are nicknamed the "indian banana" and grow best in Ohio and it's surrounding states. Paw paws pack more potassium than most fruits, which provided us with an excellent source of nutrients to keep us fueled up. 

Our first rude awakening came moments after we put our canoe in the clear blue water as we came upon our first portage. We predicted a lot of portages due to the water level but couldn't have imagined the amount and size of the log jams we encountered along the way. All in all, we probably carried our canoe over forty portages! But it was well worth the effort and even added to the trip at times. By the end, Grace and I had a quick and efficient system that worked well for us. The woodland sunflowers and cardinal flower flourished along the banks like weeds.

This area was one of the most beautiful spots we came across. Here, the grade grew steepest, which created small riffles and ankle deep water. This time of year is perfect for this - little to no mosquitos, cool breezes with warm weather and water temperature. The river birch, sycamore and willows shined bright on that day, providing us with the perfect ratio of sunlight to shade. We could only imagine the diversity of darters, aquatic insects and pan fish swinging beside our feet.

After a long day of paddling (10+ miles), Grace and I pulled out canoe up onto a bank where we would pitch our tents, tell stories, and prepare our meal for the night. We couldn't wait to pour a glass of wine and reflect on what we had seen on Saturday. After taking a look at the map, we dozed off early.

Since Grace had to be home by 1pm on Sunday, we awoke very early to get a head start on the clock. Unfortunately, we realized that we had made a mistake in our planning once we had hit route 50 - we knew we had paddled a good distance past our end point. As we reached the route 50 bridge, we decided to leave our canoes and walk the road towards the area where we had parked her car. 

At the time, we were convinced that the car would appear around the next bend. But after 10 or 20 bends, we found ourselves pausing at any and every subtle sound, hoping that a passerby was traveling towards us. We began to switch our efforts to hitchhiking. By that point, we were in Vinton County. We knew that we would likely not see a car until church let out and we were right. But as soon as it did, the very first car that came around stopped. Mr. Wilbur Connely, a preacher for an apostolic church, was kind enough to take us to Grace's car - paddles and all. We were amazed at how far we paddled past our destination - 6 miles in all! But, I must say, it felt like 12 miles because Mr. Wilbur preached more than he was driving. It surely added to the experience. 

I'd recommend Racoon Creek to anybody seeking a tranquil, scenic getaway in Southeastern Ohio. Of course, the ride is much easier during the rainy seasons but the late summer benefits made our trip well worth the effort. Cheers!