Monday, August 14, 2017

Thank god for treehuggers


Good morning! I was up with the dawn, packed and ready to tackle another day with my trusty steed! Jane and I hopped on the first ferry off the island and headed on over to the Olympic peninsula in good time.

Ha! Just kidding. I was up at 9 AM, and it didn’t occur to me to buy a ferry ticket until 10. Seems that since the ferry is really the best way to get to the Olympic peninsula without traipsing through the snarl of Seattle, quite a lot of people take it. By 10 AM, all of the morning ferry tickets were sold out. So I bought the first available one for the afternoon and then screwed around for a few hours at the grocery store and Starbucks.

At 2:30 PM, Jane and I finally got moving for the day. Well, whatever, I’m on my own vacation and I can be late to my own stuff if I want!

We boarded the ferry in Coupeville with little fuss, though the exhaust was quite loud in the little side tunnel the ferry guys stuffed us into. I set the brake and buttoned Jane down for the ride, then headed up onto the top deck to check out the views.

The GPS is very confused.

The Coupeville ferry isn’t a very long ride – only a half hour – but it shaves off a good three hours of drive time if you’re trying to head to Port Angeles from the northeastern side of the state. Even better, the ferry treats you to a view of Washington’s complex cliffy shoreline as it resists the hungry waves of the Pacific. Seabirds weave and whirl in clouds along the shore and above fleets of small fishing boats, keeping a sharp eye out for fish popping out of the water, fleeing unseen predators below. The boats appear as so much confetti scattered across the bay, each puttering about in its own little world of sea and sky.

As we got out into more open water, a stiff frigid wind strove to push me back indoors from my position on the top deck. I did eventually relent so that I could grab a hot dog – kind of odd that a half hour ferry ride would have a cafĂ©, but I guess it helps make money since the ferry ride itself is inexpensive. I enjoyed my hot dog from the safety of the mezzanine where the breeze wasn’t quite so sharp, and before I knew it the ferry ride was over.

Jane and I disembarked and promptly headed to the visitor center at Olympic National Park, where I spent some time calling around campgrounds to find a good site. With that taken care of we headed up to Hurricane Ridge, a high spot in the park that is named for its frequent hurricane-force winds. Fortunately, we arrived on a good day with just regular-force breezes.

Before I go any further, I should give you a brief overview of Olympic National Park. This park is unique in that it showcases a variety of drastically different ecosystems. The northern end of the park contains the majority of the Olympic Mountains, a range of jagged, steep, snow-capped peaks that march dramatically across the landscape, their lines broken only by deep forested valleys. The western side of the park protects a portion of the Pacific coast with its classic seamounts and a myriad of tide pools teeming with life. And the southern part of the park features old growth temperate rainforests, mossy and ancient. It’s possible to travel between these three areas within the space of a few hours, which has a tendency of distorting your sense of time disconcertingly.

I elected to just check out Hurricane Ridge for the rest of the day, saving the coastline and the rainforests for tomorrow. The views from the top of the ridge were stunningly picturesque, vast and awe-inspiring. Competing for my attention were meadows of densely clustered wildflowers of every color and shape. I hiked around several of the trails, enjoying the alpine wilderness.

This tree has some awesome crazy hairy moss all over it

These trees have grown in a really peculiar way - I assume that at one point they looked normal, but a change in wind conditions caused them to abandon their top branches and instead spread out, bushlike, along the ground. 

I saw a lot of wildlife on those trails – I suppose they were also enjoying the nice day in the alpine wilderness – and it occurred to me that this is kind of a unique thing. In properly managed National Parks, wildlife coexists with humans in a really special way. I’m not talking about the squirrels that people feed all the time. I’m talking about the animals that see people and just go on with their day, knowing that they’re not a threat. They don’t care if you’re pointing at them, or taking pictures of them, or yelling near them. They’re just hanging out doing their own thing.

This phenomenon fascinates people, and that’s why you always see tourists getting unnecessarily close to animals to photograph them. But I think that to some degree that’s a reflection of who we would like to be. The seamless integration of people into the natural world is something that a lot of us have lost – knowing or unknowingly – and we don’t realize that we’re missing it until we have interactions like these. Now, I’m not saying that all animals should be protected and that we shouldn’t eat or kill any animals or anything like that, and that’s not at all the point. The point is that a lot of us are missing the link to the rest of the world, to the parts that aren’t dominated by humans. So when we see animals that view us as just another part of their day, giving no second thoughts to our presence, we are abruptly pulled into an alternative world of previously unrecognized beauty where coexistence is not just a possibility, but reality. And that is fascinating.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is: thank god for treehuggers. Thanks to the people who recognized that these lands were worth protecting in their wild state. Thanks to the people who fought to protect and preserve them. Thanks to the people who saw what we were missing, and held onto it for us to rediscover. Thanks to everyone who made it possible for me to take this photo of this super cute young buck hanging out under a tree.

Silliness aside, I really am thankful for the privilege of getting to experience this part of the world. I can’t wait to get to explore the rest of Olympic tomorrow! Writing from a campsite in Port Angeles in perfect weather with some hamburgers on the grill… Kelly signing out.

All of Canada’s a BBQ, and I’m in the smoker


I awoke to the wonderful smell of someone barbequing downstairs. Kind of odd to cook out in a hotel, in retrospect, but the charcoal and burnt wood did smell quite nice.

It was only when I made it downstairs that I realized that no one was barbequing, unless you count the entire province of BC. The smoke had blown in full force overnight, blanketing the town and infiltrating every building, likely causing everyone to very suddenly desire a nice grilled rack of ribs or hamburger. It smelled great, as long as you ignored the fact that the smell was a result of tens of thousands of acres of land burning out of control.

One such wildfire was near Kamloops and had last been reported as being contained, but I was a bit suspicious. So I hightailed it out of there down the Coquihalla Highway once more, heading for Vancouver.

I believe there's mountains back through there... somewhere.

The Coquihalla Highway is apparently known for occasionally being a bit vicious to vehicles. I couldn’t see why, as it seemed just like another normal highway to me. A bit rough in spots, maybe, and quite hilly, but nothing out of the ordinary. As I was thinking this for possibly the hundredth time (being extremely bored, as I couldn’t see any of the landscape through the haze), I heard an extraordinarily loud backfire come from Jane. No reason for it, just completely out of the blue. Heart pounding, I eyeballed the gauges on the dash real hard for a few minutes to monitor the breakdown that was surely impending. But Jane carried on without a worry, and I eventually decided that probably she had just scared the hell out of me to break up the monotony of the drive.

I stopped at a gas station and noted that my mileage was kind of crappy, but a few laps around the car showed nothing amiss so I carried on. Please remember this, as it will come back to bite me in a few paragraphs.

Anyways, we made it into Vancouver fairly quickly, so I stopped by for a drink with some friends of mine who live in the Surrey area (an eastern suburb of Vancouver) and hung out for a few hours. It was awesome to see some familiar friendly faces! It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen anyone that I know, and while I’ve made new friends in a lot of places, it can get lonely when you’ve got no one to anchor you. It’s a bit odd, but since I meet so many people and spend a lot of time telling the “origin story” and not much else, I really appreciate being able to have a normal conversation about other things with people who already know who I am and what I’ve been up to.

Eventually, though, I had to scoot on, as I had US Customs to look forward to! Yep, back into the good ole States. I hit the border around 5 PM and sat in line for 45 minutes with my eyes glazed over until it was my turn. 

Goodbye, Canada! You've been kind to me.

What an odd assemblage of American landmarks to feature on this sign!

As I pulled up to the station, the Border Patrol guard asked me the normal questions – who am I, why am I driving this car, what the heck am I doing in Canada, am I really from Texas, did I really drive all the way here, etc. Friendly guy. But it was what he said as he waved me through the gate that stuck with me: “Welcome home.”

As a frequent traveler, I’m used to the constant feeling of displacement, of never really having a home base. It’s a perpetual slight unease, a bit of nervousness in the back of my mind, that I have just learned to push past. The world is huge, I want to see it all, and I can’t do it without leaping out of my comfort zone with aplomb. But those two words just really resonated and made me feel a lot better. Never mind the fact that I’m still a few thousand miles from ACTUAL home, or that I’m still alone, or that I’m still just one very small person in a sea of people in a big world. I just felt better.

You know, plus I finally had cell phone service again for the first time in ten days.

I stopped off at a gas station, excited to finally be able to measure gas in gallons again. But that excitement was short-lived as I realized that it was kind of actually peculiar that I needed gas. Normally I fill up at half a tank, which is approximately every 150 miles. But this time I was filling up at 100 miles. My thoughts leapt back to that single backfire and started going a million miles (not kilometers) a second, but again the gas tank filled up fine and all fluids were fine and Jane was fine. So I kind of just shrugged.

I sat there at the pump (the station was empty except for myself) and read a bunch of text messages for the first time in a week and a half, which took a while. And then I noticed that a stream was trickling past my foot. Not raining… suspicions return instantly.

I crawled under Jane to finally find the source of the bang earlier in the day. What had sounded like a backfire was, in fact, actually the tire somehow grabbing the gas tank vent and forcibly ripping it off of the side of the wheelwell where it had been comfortably housed for thousands of miles. Don’t ask me how or why this happened, but it did. As the gas tank vent valve was ripped off and discarded somewhere along the Coquihalla Highway, the hose that connected it to the tank was also displaced, drooping down onto the rear suspension.

I found that when the gas tank was filled, siphoning action through that vent hose then pulled the top 3 or 4 gallons out of the tank and deposited it straight onto the ground.

Hello, source of bad gas mileage.

I kind of ignored the potential ramifications of draining all this gas so close to the exhaust – after all, I hadn’t exploded – and instead clipped the end of the hose back up into the wheelwell, where it promptly ceased putting my gas onto to the ground. Hurray! As the hose no longer has the large valve at the end, it cannot be caught by the tire and get pulled down again. So, no harm no foul, though it is something that I will have to repair and reroute when I get home to make sure that it’s working exactly as it should. And I was happy to have found the source of the earlier noise, even if it was a perplexing kind of thing to happen. Jane does things like this sometimes, you know.

We puttered on down south for a ways, finally escaping the haze which appeared to have stopped at the border to check itself through customs. As the sun descended, the Pacific Ocean came into view – my first glimpse of the Pacific in a long time.

Eventually, we crossed over into a chain of islands north of Seattle - don’t ask me the name of that area, as I have no idea. I do know that I finally stopped for the night in Oak Harbor, where I settled for a motel in lieu of camping as there weren’t any reputable campgrounds in the area. My chosen motel was the Acorn Motor Inn, a cheap-but-clean place, according to the reviews. I had low expectations. What I got instead was a room filled with the NICEST furniture I have ever seen, ever. I’m talking intricately carved marble-topped furniture, no joke. I have no idea how it got into this little place but I loved it.

So here I am, ensconced in a little motor inn in a little town, living like a queen (or at least like a person who’s acquired a queen’s furniture), back in the States. Tomorrow, I’ll take the ferry over to the Olympic peninsula and see some more of the world. Until then… Kelly signing out.  

Thursday, August 10, 2017



You know, when you live a very exciting life and have a lot of exciting adventures, it can sometimes be nice to have a day where you’re just bored. It’s almost a relief when lethargy born only of a truly mind-numbingly boring day slips over you, dulling your mind and turning the world kind of gray.

Wait – or did the world itself actually just turn gray?

Yes, it appears that it did.

How did this happen? Well, I started the day off well enough, entering British Columbia (BC), which advertised itself as “the best place on Earth”. And it certainly seemed very nice, with lovely soaring mountains and snow and forests and all the things I’ve grown accustomed to seeing here in this part of Canada.

But then, slowly, I saw less and less. It’s not that the mountains weren’t there – oh no, they were there, I just couldn’t see them. It turns out that the majority of the western half of Canada is on fire right now. While I had experienced some haze in Banff and Jasper, it hadn’t been that atrocious. But as soon as I got into the western reaches of the mountain range, the smoke descended and clung to the landscape like a heavy woolen blanket, stifling and hot. It was truly awful. I contemplated going back to Jasper and then heading south to Glacier, fleeing the haze, but it then occurred to me that I wouldn’t get to see Washington that way and that would just be awful too. So I headed west towards Kamloops, a relatively quick drive that was so incredibly boring that I may have actually lost some brain cells. I’m told that the route down the Coquihalla Highway is actually fairly scenic, but I wouldn’t know because the haze obscured everything more than 100 feet away from the road, and my world was just nothing but gray.

This mountain would probably be quite scenic... if I could see it.

At least the signs are kind of exciting here. I like the emphasis so you know that you're really really supposed to go 80.

I pulled into Kamloops sometime late in the afternoon to find the city swarming with evacuees from the fires. I wandered around a while checking the town out, and saw that most of the restaurants and other venues in the city had discounts for the evacuees, which I’m sure at least helped ease their discomfort at being forcibly ousted from their homes. Multiple people mistook me for a fellow evacuee, so I guess maybe I looked a little bedraggled and off-kilter as well. Or maybe because I had spent the day going gradually further into a gray world, and was kind of feeling a bit dull.

So there you have it, a short post for a truly unremarkable, boring, gray day. I’ll be happy to get back to the adventuring soon now that I’ve had a day to remember how awful it is to be bored!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Marvelous marmots


The haze of distant wildfires settled over Jasper National Park once more, seeming quite permanently affixed to the mountains for the day. Aha, but I had already seen my mountain vistas yesterday – so I was not too peeved.

Instead of looking for soaring, wide-open (and smoke-filled) spaces, I headed back south down the Icefields Parkway to Athabasca Falls, a popular destination. There, the wide, slow Athabasca River gets funneled down through a narrow slot canyon, temporarily turning the gentle giant into a raging torrent. Signs are posted everywhere on the trail warning tourists against standing closer to the falls, which are known to be deadly. After standing close to the head of the falls, it’s easy to see why. The entire river empties down one rocky throat, cascading down sharp rocks and gathering in a maelstrom at the base of the falls, swirling around and around in a basin before exiting out the bottom of the slot canyon. Standing so close to the waterfall gives you an appreciation for the brutality of the thing, the force with which the water exerts its will. The entire slot canyon has been carved by the river over thousands of years, reaching dozens of feet in depth through simple erosive powers.

The whole river drains down this relatively tiny spout.

At the base of the slot canyon, the river spreads out again into a wide, fairly placid body of water. It seems almost impossible that the river – which is over a hundred feet wide upstream, and a few hundred feet wide downstream – could get forced through a canyon only a few feet in diameter. It is certainly one of the most dramatic bottlenecks I’ve seen in a river.

Checking out an old channel abandoned by the river long ago.

Cross-bedding! Hmm.

The river resumes its wide, placid course at the bottom of the falls.

Athabasca Falls is a short hike, so I didn’t spend much time there. I had no plans for the rest of the day but fortunately ran into the Parks Canada people (equivalent to the US NPS park rangers) at the entrance to the falls. One fellow advised me to go to Mount Edith Cavell for a hike around the Meadows Trail, which is known for its incredible views of glaciers and wildflowers alike. The catch, he said, was that I’d need a permit from the bureau to go hike, because they were doing construction in the parking lot and were only allowing so many cars to go up there in a given day. I had plans to leave Jasper the next morning, so no chance at a permit for me… bummer!

But then luck struck in the form of this fellow’s kind heart. “Well, don’t worry, we’re each kind of allowed to let up one extra person a day, so if you get to the entrance at 4 PM I’ll let you up! It’ll be late enough in the day that there will be plenty of parking anyways,” he said.

“Great, I’ll be driving a blue 1966 Mustang, so I’m easy to find,” I said.

He gaped at me, then managed, “Not what I expected to hear! Okay, I’ll see you then. Go hike Valley of Five Lakes if you’re looking for something to do until 4.”

So, because this fellow had offered me such wonderful advice up until that point, I took that nugget as well and headed to Valley of Five Lakes. I didn’t have the time to hike all the way along the long part of the loop, but I did get to see ach of the five lakes in this valley! Each lake is a slightly different color for a slightly different reason. My favorite was the grass green lake, just because it was a color that I’ve never seen a lake take before. Also, it had ducks in it.

The lakes are much more scenic on clear, calm days, but they were still pretty neat to see. And they made a good prelude to the Mount Edith Cavell hike.

The Canadian national parks for some reason have these red chairs installed at particularly scenic spots. They are nice to sit in.

A leaf with a snail trail on it! Or some other small animal - unknown, but it just went in circles around this leaf chowing down on the good bits.

At 4 PM sharp, I showed up in line to get up the side of the mountain. And sure enough, there was my new friend. He waved me on through, grinning, and I thanked him profusely as I roared up the mountain to the waiting parking lot. The sun descended low over Edith Cavell, cascading across the meadows and forests through which the Meadows trail wound. The time of day was perfect, as was the weather, and a lot of wildlife was out soaking up the last rays of the sun as I headed out on the trail.

The first portion of the trail struts up a rocky ridge ringing with the “eep!”s of pikas calling back and forth to one another. Over the ridge, you are treated to a stunning view of Edith Cavell and a couple of large glaciers. The largest glacier, Angel, sits in a bowl near the top of the mountain with its wings spread along the ridge, head craned down over the edge to inspect the valley below. A waterfall pours from its mouth, feeding a large lake at the base of the mountain. A second glacier rests in that lake, remarkably chopped in half and showing an incredible cross-section depicting its growth through time.

Look at those whiskers!

Cross-section of a glacier - check out the awesome layering!

I pulled my eyes away from the glaciers to focus on the meadows, which were admittedly beautiful but not nearly as colorful as those at Glacier National Park. I did see a marmot licking a tree though, which was interesting.

The wildflowers were actually quite beautiful.

As I hiked through the meadows I was periodically treated to echoing cracking sounds and sprays of ice tumbling from the upper parts of the mountain – glaciers are not still beasts, after all. They move ever downward, always seeking a lower point in the land. While their slow, steady creep, born through ice and meltwater, progresses fairly regularly, they do tend to crack off chunks of ice and rock that have the potential to snowball into huge avalanches. I didn’t luck into seeing any of those, though it did later occur to me that the chunks of ice I saw cracking off were likely boulders larger than I am. It is easy to forget your sense of perspective when in places this vast.

Having looped my way around the meadows and the top of the low ridge in the shelter of Edith Cavell, I headed back down the trail. As I reached the rock piles again, I heard some scuffling and squeaking. After a bit of searching, I located the source of the sound and was treated to an amazing wildlife sighting: a marmot fight.

Now, you’d probably expect a fight to be one of those brutal tussles you see on National Geographic, with the animals rolling all across the ground biting and clawing and kicking and bleeding. But I am here to tell you that marmots do not fight this way. Instead, they stand up on their hind legs and… push each other. Yep, just hand-to-hand pushing. Every once in a while they’ll go to bite each other, and kind of lock their teeth together in what really looks like an overenthusiastic kiss, but mostly they just push each other. It's like watching a slap fight where the combatants are just too lazy to actually slap each other.

Super dramatic push!

Every once in a while, one of them would lose their footing and fall over and then the other one would fall over too and then they both would kind of make grumbly chirps and squeaks while pushing each other some more, before finally righting themselves. And eventually, they both just kind of walked away.

It was by far the best fight I’ve ever seen.

This guy watched.

This little guy was not a witness, but was just so incredibly cute that I had to post his picture anyways.

I kind of wonder if maybe we shouldn’t all just fight that way. I mean, maybe it’s actually great for problem-solving and calming tempers. Just standing there with your hands against someone’s shoulders, their hands against yours, just pushing each other steadily until one of you gets distracted and falls down. I don’t think I could keep a straight face doing that and I definitely couldn’t stay mad. Maybe I’ll try that technique next time I get in a fight with someone.

Anyways, that concluded my hikes for the day. Three hikes in one afternoon – not bad! Jane and I made our way back to the campsite and I admit I was a bit heavy-hearted, despite the afternoon’s entertainment. Unfortunately, today was my last day in Jasper National Park. Tomorrow, I’ll be heading on west towards Vancouver, and all I’ll do is drive. Once I get out of the Rockies, there won’t be any giant glaciers, sweeping mountains, or marmot fights. I suspect I may be quite bored.

Until then… Kelly signing out.

Bonus picture of a weird tree with some weird stuff going on with its cones. Don't know what's going on here really but it would be cool if someone knew and could tell me!