Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Beavers on the ice

Last night I drove to a local lake near my house to see if the beavers were active yet.  As I approached the lake I could see an opening in the ice near the beaver lodge and figured they would be out.  Sure enough, as I got closer I could see two large lumps on top of the ice near the water... it was the beavers!  I spent about an hour sitting on the bank of the lake watching and photographing the beaver family.  There were four total... the parents and two young ones.  They sure were fun to watch as they took turns sitting on the ice and going for a swim.  We got a bunch of rain this morning so yesterday may have been the only opportunity to watch them on the ice.  The ice might be gone today!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Finally Free

After a VERY long winter with lots of late spring snow and cold temperatures, the rivers are finally opening up!  This was the scene today at High Falls of the Pigeon River in Grand Portage State Park.  The ice on the river has completely opened up over the past few days and the river is raging!  With plenty of snow cover still on the ground up around the headwaters of the river, the water level should stay high for quite some time.  This has got to be one of the latest ice-out dates on record. 

Below: Iceberg stuck in the Pigeon River

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tossing Chips

This time of year, wildlife is abundant as many animals are busy preparing for the coming summer season.  As is the case with many creatures, this means building a nest in order to raise their young.  Today at Grand Portage State Park (which is where I work for my day job) my co-workers told me about a large bird that they had seen climbing out of a hole in a tree.  Based on their description I told them it was probably a Pileated Woodpecker.  They showed me where they had seen it and sure enough, that's what it was.  He was diligently working all afternoon on carving out a nest cavity in a tall aspen tree.  When we first got to the tree the bird was nowhere to be seen, but we could hear a muted tapping sound.  After a few moments the woodpecker stuck his head out of the hole and promptly threw a mouthful of wood chips to the ground.  We watched him do this over and over again. 

I knew I had to get some footage of this activity, so after work I went back to the nest and he was still hard at work, tapping inside the tree then throwing the wood chips out.  I watched and photographed him for about an hour.  Hopefully this means that they will be having babies soon and we will be able to see them being fed by the parents.  This is an easily accessible location at the park so it would be neat to share this wildlife encounter with park visitors :-) 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

April moonrise over the Grand Marais Lighthouse

Last night after work we headed to Grand Marais to photograph the rising full moon behind the lighthouse.  At first it looked as though we may not see the moon much if at all, because there was what appeared to be a cloud bank forming on the eastern horizon.  As it turned out, though, we were able to see the moon completely and once it rose a little ways into the sky the thin clouds started to illuminate from the moonlight and really complemented the scene.  I made plenty of photos as the moon passed behind the lighthouse, but this one where the moon is just above and to the right of the lighthouse is my favorite.  I really liked how the reflection of the moonlight and the reflection of the lighthouse light are side by side on the water.  What a magical sight!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

April Ice Land

Well, I never thought I would be photographing beautiful ice on the Lake Superior shoreline this late in the spring!  Speaking of spring, only 4 more days and it will be one whole month since spring officially arrived.  Not like you can tell around here this year.  Heck, in the past week we've received about 16 inches of new snow!  At least we can take comfort in the fact that it melts quickly this time of year.  Before we know it we will be getting rain instead of snow and everybody will be complaining about the rain :-)

The photo you see here was taken this morning along the shores of Grand Portage Bay, just a half mile from our house.  Yesterday all these ice chunks were pushed into the bay by the waves, making for an incredible foreground for a landscape image.  We took a few photos of these ice chunks last night but the sky was pretty overcast and gray.  This morning at sunrise the sky was much prettier!  I am as anxious as everybody else for the snow and ice to melt and be gone for the year, but in the meantime as long as there are still scenes like this around, I am going to enjoy them while they last!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Nebraska Sunset - Heading Home

On our journey home we decided that Grand Island, Nebraska would make a nice stopover point.  So, once again we found ourselves along the Platte River watching for Sandhill Cranes at sunset.  There were still quite a few cranes in the area and we enjoyed watching them fly around the farm fields as the day drew to a close.  For sunset we stopped by the viewing platform at the Alda bridge.  I have had good luck at this spot in the past; it seems the cranes favor the section of river just downstream from the bridge.  On this evening, however, it was not the best location as there were not very many cranes landing in the area.  There were a few coming down to the river but they were too far away to see very well.  Maybe this was due to the fact that we were at the tail end of the migration, or maybe for whatever reason they just didn't want to land here for tonight.  As a result I do not have any nice crane images to share from this end of our trip, BUT we sure did have a beautiful sunset!  One of the best of the trip, in fact.  We greatly enjoyed watching the clouds change colors as the sun dropped below the horizon.  The weather was also much nicer than it was when we passed through a couple of weeks ago.  We'll take mid 60's temps over low 30's any day of the week in Nebraska :-)  At any rate, it was a supremely beautiful evening and a great way to bookend our honeymoon trip!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Southwest Rock Art

Along the first leg of our journey back to Minnesota we made a couple of short side trips from I-70 to some rock art sites.  The first of these was the "Head of Sinbad" rock art site.  This is some of the best preserved rock art in the southwest.  According to local literature these pictographs are at least 3,000 years old. 

The second site we checked out was Sego Canyon. Unlike the Head of Sinbad panel, some of the Sego Canyon pictographs have experienced a lot of vandalism.  There was one panel, however, that was high enough on the canyon wall that it was relatively untouched by vandals.  According to the BLM, Sego Canyon contains 3 culturally distinct styles of rock art: Fremont, Ute and Barrier-style.  After these quick stops we got back on the Interstate and continued our journey home. 

Morning in Cathedral Valley

We woke early to break camp before sunrise and head back down to the valley for the early morning light.  Both of us slept very comfortably in the tent as it was probably the warmest night of the trip, with the temp not dropping below 45 degrees.  At first the sky didn't look too promising, as it was still cloudy.  The clouds were thinner than they were the previous night, though, and seemed to be breaking up.  By the time we got to the valley floor there were patches of blue starting to show through the clouds.  Before long the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds and illuminating the sandstone monoliths of Upper Cathedral Valley.  We walked along the main row of cathedrals and enjoyed watching the changing light as it washed over the sandstone cliffs.  It was a supremely beautiful morning, a fitting end to our last morning in the southwest before heading for home. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Evening in Cathedral Valley

After yesterday's hikes it was nice to relax in the truck for a while and enjoy a little road time between Natural Bridges and Capitol Reef.  Speaking of which, the drive between those two parks has some of the most incredibly scenery to be found anywhere!  It is also a very desolate road with almost no development.  We arrived in Capitol Reef National Park during the early evening hours and were hoping to camp at the park's campground, unfortunately it was FULL.  So, we headed into the nearby town of Torrey hoping to find a nice private campground.  We certainly did find a nice place! We actually ended up renting a small camper cabin at a private campground on the west end of town.  The cabin was warm and cozy, there was a shower building AND the cabin had wi-fi!  We were in heaven :-)

This morning we had a nice breakfast at the cabin then headed out to explore Capitol Reef National Park.  We did a hike through the Grand Wash, which was really cool but also overloaded with people, being that it wasn't that far from the visitor center.  After that hike we couldn't wait to get into the backcountry of the park, which was our plan for the rest of the day and the next morning.  Earlier on in the trip we had decided that we wanted to see Cathedral Valley, which is a very remote part of Capitol Reef that is in the northern part of the park.  There are 3 different ways to reach the valley; we went in from the southeast direction via the Caineville Wash Road.  The road, like many in southern Utah, varies between a base of gravel, clay and sand.  It was actually in very good shape and we had no trouble at all passing through.  It is still a very remote area, though, and we only saw 3 or 4 other vehicles during our time in this part of the park. 

The first area of the valley that we came to was Lower Cathedral Valley, which is famous for its two massive sandstone monoliths known as the Temples of the Sun and Moon.  These monoliths are incredible... they are so big that you feel truly insignificant when standing alongside them.  We walked around the temples and photographed them from various angles then continued on the road to Upper Cathedral Valley.  We were, of course, hoping for a magnificent sunset but it was not to be.  Clouds moved in and made our evening light rather flat.  We drove up to the backcountry campground and set up our camp then returned to the valley to spend more time taking in the wonders of the cathedrals.  The sandstone here is endlessly intriguing.  The lines and patterns in the cliffs surrounding the valley made for some pretty interesting photographs.  As the light faded we made our way back to camp where we enjoyed a very calm and peaceful evening.  There was only one other party staying at the 6-site campground that night and we didn't hear a peep from them all night.  We crawled into our sleeping bags glowing from the excitement of another amazing day of adventure in the southwest, but also a little sad knowing that tomorrow we have to head home :-(

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Natural Bridges loop hike

Our second hike of the day brought us on a combination hiking/biking loop within Natural Bridges National Monument.  The only road that goes through the park is a 9-mile one-way loop road, so this would end up being a perfect place to use our bikes in conjunction with a hike.  The monument has 3 natural bridges along it's hiking trail and we were planning on doing 2 of the 3 bridges.  The road through the park is up high on the mesa and the bridges are down low in the canyon.  Hiking to each one means you have to hike down a very steep trail with about a 500 foot loss in elevation, then hike back up to return to the road.  The bridges are also all connected by a trail that winds its way through the canyon.  So, we left our bikes at the first trailhead, which is for Sipapu Bridge.  We locked our bikes to the bike rack provided at the trailhead then drove to the trailhead for Kachina Bridge.  

The hike down to Kachina Bridge was fascinating, as park service staff had used saws and drills to literally carve a trail out of the rock down into the depths of the canyon.  Kudos to the NPS staff for building such a nice trail!  About halfway down into the canyon Kachina Bridge came into view.  We marveled at the view, then realized that these tiny dots we were seeing underneath the bridge were people.  The bridge was positively HUGE!  We continued hiking and reached the canyon bottom about 5 minutes later.  The bridge was not visible right away when we reached the floor of the canyon but came into view after walking a short distance upstream.  When it did come into view, we were awed by its massive size.  The trail went underneath the bridge and I have to say, it was a little spooky walking under such a massive span of rock!  

The next few miles of the trail were incredibly beautiful as we walked through the canyon towards Sipapu Bridge.  We met a few people along the way, but this is not a highly visited park so it never felt crowded.  As we walked the path we marveled at the black streaks lining the rock walls of the canyon. Every now and then we could hear birds calling in the distance.  The temperature was perfect for hiking.  We couldn't have asked for a better day!  Eventually we rounded a bend in the canyon and Sipapu Bridge came into view.  Sipapu is the 2nd largest natural bridge in the world.  Only Rainbow Bridge on Lake Powell is bigger.  The trail went part-way under this bridge before climbing up out of the canyon.  It was a strenuous hike back up out of the canyon, due mostly to the fact that we were at about 8,000 feet in elevation and got winded easily.  Once we were back at the trailhead we hopped on our bikes and really enjoyed the easy 2-mile bike ride back to the truck.  According to the GPS unit, our loop was just over 8 miles, so we hiked about 6 miles and biked 2 miles.  Back at the truck we made a couple of wraps for a late lunch then got back on the road.  Our destination tonight was Capitol Reef National Park, the last stop on our southwest honeymoon.  

House on Fire

After our "rest" day with minimal hiking and another soak in a hot tub last night, we were ready for another full day of hiking adventures.  Our first hike of the day brought us to Mule Canyon on Cedar Mesa, to an ancient Anasazi ruin known as the "House on Fire".  Since we were now at a higher elevation than we had previously been on the trip, the environment was a bit different from what we had seen so far.  Mule Canyon was a beautiful hike with a LOT of trees and shrubs and even a little bit of water in the canyon.  It was a shock to do a hike with so much vegetation, because most of the hikes we had done so far were in open desert and extremely dry with very little vegetation. 

The hike to the House on Fire ruins was a very pleasant one with minimal elevation change.  After about a 1.5 mile walk we rounded a bend in the canyon and immediately noticed the ruins on the right.  House on Fire is just one of several ruins in Mule Canyon, and was occupied by the Anasazi.  According to literature that we saw about the area, the ruins in Mule Canyon are over 800 years old and have never been excavated or restored in any way.  The House on Fire ruin is so named because of the overhanging cliff above the ruins that has patterns in it resembling flames.  If you visit the ruins in the morning all of the light illuminating the House on Fire is reflected light from the opposite side of the canyon, which means that the roof above the ruins glows with warm light and contributes to the "fire" look.  We found it a fascinating site to visit.  We would have loved to hike through more of the canyon to see some of the other ruins but we had a long hike planned within Natural Bridges National Monument so after taking in the wonder that is the House on Fire, we hiked back to the truck and continued on to Natural Bridges. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Wolfman panel and Muley Point

Since we had been doing a lot of hiking every day up to this point we figured we should take a "rest day", so that's what we did today.  We only did a couple of very short walks today but still saw some incredible sights!  We were heading into the Cedar Mesa region of southeastern Utah which has quite a few locations of Indian ruins and rock art.  Our plan for the day was to check out a couple of areas that were supposed to have some interesting petroglyphs, then work our way up towards Natural Bridges National Monument.  Our first stop of the day was what is known as the "Wolfman" panel in Butler Wash not far from the community of Mexican Hat.  It was less than a half-mile walk to see the panel, and it was fascinating indeed.  On the side of the cliff near the bottom of the wash was a very nice series of images carved into the rock.  It is always fun to sit and contemplate these images and what they may have meant to the people that carved them. 

After our visit to the Wolfman panel we headed for a road known as the "Moki Dugway", which is sort of a shortcut road between Mexican Hat and Natural Bridges National Monument.  As you head towards the Moki Dugway from the valley, the road is paved but as you approach the base of Cedar Mesa the road turns to gravel and gets very narrow, then it starts to climb.  The Dugway is a gravel road with a series of steep inclines and 180 degree switchbacks as it ascends 1,200 feet to the top of Cedar Mesa.  At the top of the dugway a 5 mile dirt road goes through BLM land to an overlook known as Muley Point.  The overlook has very dramatic views south over the twisting, entrenched canyons of the San Juan River and to the desert beyond.  You can even see part of Monument Valley far off in the distance.  We took in the views for a while then decided to head further up the mesa.  Our plan was to camp at Natural Bridges, but as we drove towards the monument it started to snow and the temperature dropped from the mid 50's to the mid 30's.  We didn't want to have a miserable wet and cold camping experience so we instead headed for the town of Blanding where we stayed at the Super 8.  This turned out to be a nice treat because they also had a hot tub and for the second night in a row we were able to relax in the soothing waters of a whirlpool :-)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch

After our hike to the Toadstools we headed down the road to our second planned hike of the day: Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch.  This would end up being our last slot canyon hike of the trip.  Like most of the canyon hikes, this one starts out in the open desert.  As you walk down the wash towards the canyon it is quite wide at first but eventually starts to get narrower.  After about a mile from the trailhead you reach the first set of narrows.  Almost immediately after entering the narrows we came to a small group of people and the first obstacle: a large chockstone that was stuck on the bottom of the canyon.  We waited as the people in front of us figured out how to negotiate climbing down the stone.  Soon it was our turn.  I was able to climb down the face of the rock pretty easily and with my longer legs could drop down to the bottom with little difficulty.  It was harder for Jessica who isn't as tall as I am.  I actually helped lift her down from the top of the rock :-)  

We were worried about trying to climb back up the rock on our return, but we shouldn't have worried.  It ended up being much easier to climb back up over it than it was climbing down it :-)  This proved to be the only major obstacle along the route.  We also came to a few logs that were jammed in the canyon from previous flash floods but we were able to easily get around them.  Wire Pass was an amazing canyon, much darker than the other canyons we had been in.  The canyon walls were taller and very narrow at the top so very little sunlight spilled down into the canyon, even though we were doing the hike right in the middle of the day when the sun was the highest.  We went through a couple of sets of narrows then came to the confluence with Buckskin Gulch. 

The area where Wire Pass met up with Buckskin Gulch was beautiful.  The canyon opened up a lot to where there was plenty of sunshine coming in and we decided this would be a good place for a rest and a snack.  We only sat down for maybe 10 minutes and in that time several groups of people went by.  This is easily one of busiest slot canyon hikes in the southwest.  It's also the starting point for an almost 40-mile backpack journey through Paria Canyon all the way to the Colorado River.  After our snack we hiked a little ways upstream into Buckskin Gulch then turned around and went back through Wire Pass to the trailhead.  The rest of the day was spent driving through Page, Arizona and on to Monument Valley where we stopped for dinner at "The View" restaurant.  After dinner we drove a little further on to Mexican Hat where we stayed for the night.  The "Hat Rock Inn" was a very pleasant surprise with beautiful, extremely comfortable rooms and an outdoor pool and hot tub!  We checked in about 9 PM and after settling in to the room we headed down to the pool and enjoyed the hot tub underneath a beautiful star-filled southwestern sky.  The inn sits right on the edge of the canyon for the San Juan River, so as we soaked in the soothing hot water we could also hear the water running over the river rapids below.  It was a sublime end to a wonderful day :-)

The Toadstools

We had planned on camping last night but thanks to the rain and high wind from the thunderstorms we instead decided to stay at a motel in Kanab, Utah.  Since we were in Kanab, we figured we would head over to the BLM visitor center in the morning and sign up for the daily lottery to try and win a spot for a hike to "The Wave" (google "The Wave" and you'll see how cool this area is).  Basically, because The Wave is in a designated wilderness area, access is strictly controlled by the BLM.  Each day they allow only 20 people to hike to The Wave.  10 of these spaces are reservable online 4 months ahead of time and 10 spaces are given away each day in a "lottery".  So, basically, you go to the visitor center in the morning and sign up, then wait as they literally conduct a lottery using bingo balls.  You are assigned a number that corresponds to one of the bingo balls, and they spin the balls in a cage.  If your number pops up, you get to do the hike the following day.  There were 108 people signed up for the lottery the day we were there, so needless to say, our chances weren't very good and we didn't get a spot.  Thankfully, though, there are plenty of other cool things to see and do in the area and we already had a backup plan in place.

After the lottery let-down, we hopped back in the truck and headed east towards Page, Arizona.  Along the way was the first hike in our back-up plan, an easy walk to an area known as "The Toadstools".  This certainly was an easy walk, much less strenuous than most of the hikes we've done on the trip so far.  It was  not quite a mile from the parking area to the Toadstools area, and it was pretty much a flat hike.  In case you're wondering, a "toadstool", according to the park literature, is "a spire-like feature with a boulder perched atop a pedestal rock, like a mushroom.  It forms when softer rock erodes away, leaving a column sheltered from the wind and water."  We had a great time exploring the Toadstool area and as the norm has been the past few days, we had beautiful clouds which made for great pictures!