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Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

—Helen Keller

We’ve been home now for several weeks, and a new school year is getting underway.  I am way overdue in putting up a post to wrap-up our summer odyssey and had better do so now before the teaching treadmill picks up too much speed.

Denali Highway, Alaska: a long, long way from home.

Looking back over my posts from the road, I’m struck by the way they fizzled out toward the end, partly due to technical issues but also partly due to languor, the daily demands of logging significant mileage often leaving little time and less energy for blogging at the end of the day.  Compared to the posts from my 2008 trip with the boys, a journey with no real agenda or timetable, the writing just didn’t measure up.  And besides the tyranny of the timetable, there was another significant difference with this trip: I had adult company for the duration.  After the boys went to sleep, I still had someone to talk with.  And, while my dad was with us, someone to knock back a few Alaskan Ambers with.

Anyway, unlike my blog posts, the trip most definitely didn’t fizzle out toward the end.  In fact we ended on a real high before I put Belinda and the boys on a plane in Salt Lake City and drove the rest of the way back.  But more on that later.

First, a couple of general reflections: (more…)

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We made it to Fairbanks.  In fact, we’re about to leave again after a busy 36 hours.  Dad has the boys downstairs in the hotel pool while I scrape together a quick update.  It’s funny how quickly the time seems to go up here, even when the daylight lasts forever, as you’re tempted to keep cramming in activities and stay on the move.  Following dinner last night, we left my brother’s apartment at nearly eleven with the sun still up and would have probably stayed there and kept talking until the wee hours had the boys not kept us honest by looking tired.

The Alaska Highway took us a leisurely four days, and I might have a lot to say about the drive if I had more time.  On the other hand, how much is there to say, really, about a drive?  In general, the road was emptier and prettier and in better condition than I expected once we got beyond the surprisingly busy and refined Dawson Creek and Fort St. John area.  Our campsite at Muncho Lake will undoubtedly be a highlight of the trip.

Every chance they got in this campsite, the boys would say “You know where we’ll be” and disappear to the lakeshore to journal, skip rocks, and fish. The boys have now fished unsuccessfully in Wyoming, British Columbia, and the Yukon Territory.

We saw lots of wildlife, including this black bear right at the side of the road who probably would have let us hang out with him all afternoon.

Hey, BooBoo.  Let’s go get us some motorhome tourists!

On all accounts, the drive out went astonishingly well.

So now we begin the slow road back.  We’re heading toward Denali and will then take a few days to reach Haines.  From there,  several short ferry hops through the southeast islands will take us to Prince Rupert, BC.  On the 12th, Belinda will meet us in Vancouver and I’ll kick my Dad out of the car so she can travel with us for a week or so.

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I always expected that the middle third of our outbound trip would be the most psychologically difficult.  We’ve been getting further from home with every mile yet are still a very long way from road’s end, and it’s been difficult to strike the right balance between keeping the driving days manageable and making enough progress to feel like we won’t be on the road for all eternity.  Moreover, I know from her tone of voice on the telephone that this stage has been tough on Belinda, too.

But things are looking brighter.  Tonight, we’re holed up in Hinton, Alberta, and by perhaps lunchtime tomorrow we should make Dawson Creek, BC—Milepost Zero for the Alaska Highway, the beginning of the end for our outbound journey.  Tonight I had the first chance since we left to have a substantive phone conversation (beyond routine checking in) with my beautiful and tolerant (and lonesome) wife.  And firm plans are taking shape for her joining us for the middle third of the return journey.

Some notables from the last few days:

  • On Tuesday, we camped at Belly River in Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada’s sister unit for our Glacier).  We were worried that the little campground there might be full by the time we arrived, but we found it absolutely empty.  We enjoyed such a quiet night that we found ourselves ludicrously annoyed when two cars rumbled through during breakfast the next morning.

We had it all to ourselves.  Why this place wasn’t overrun is still a mystery.

The wind was just right to break out the big kite for her maiden flight.

  • We spent much of Wednesday afternoon at a place called Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the Blackfoot people (before horses and firearms had been introduced by European contact) hunted bison by stampeding them off a cliff (that’s an exceptionally condensed summary of a fascinating and complex practice).  This site is well worth the visit—the haunting physical location and first-class interpretive center made quite an impression on the boys.
  • Driving north from Great Falls, Montana you can’t help but be struck by the emptiness of the landscape, the feeling that you’re coming to the end of things. It’s just too cold and lonely way up there.  And then you cross the border and continue north into Alberta and the country strangely starts filling up again until you reach Calgary, a sprawling and gleaming ultra-modern metropolis that feels like a city the Sunbelt somehow misplaced.  Driving through on the third day of summer, I had trouble imagining it ever being cold and snowy and dark there.
  • Banff is a funny place.  I think about it in comparison to Jackson, WY . . . Jackson might also be touristy and glitzy and expensive (and not without its charms) but at least it’s tucked away in the southern end of the valley and doesn’t sit smack-dab in the heart of the Teton’s signature scenery.  Banff shows no such modesty.  Then again, the Canadian Rockies have so much signature scenery that one jaw-dropping valley can be “sacrificed” for a township.  In particular, all 140 miles of the Icefields Parkway heading north through Banff N.P. into Jasper N.P. had scenery so numbingly spectacular and pristine that, had I been in a pull-over-and-take-a-picture mood, the traverse might have taken us  two days.
  • That said, Lake Louise did not live up to my expectations.  Any mountain hiker worth his or her salt has been to numerous alpine tarns of equal or greater beauty that didn’t have an incongruously modern hotel and parking lots packed with tour buses at one end.

The obligatory snapshot.  Thousands of other people were taking one, so I had to, too.

  • The interpretive portion of the Athabasca Glacier visitor center (sorry, I mean “centre”) in Jasper N.P. was very, very well done.  The gift shop, however, was a joke, filled with the same useless trinkets that you might find in a Gatlinburg T-shirt shop.  I’m struck by the irony that downstairs they hit you with displays extolling conservation and living in harmony with the earth while right above they push mindless consumer dreck like Canada shot-glasses and Jasper N.P. ashtrays.  And I’m reminded of the wisdom shown by our own National Park Service in turning over visitor-center gift shop duties to non-profit natural history associations.  Instead of Gatlinburg T-shirt shops, we get independent niche booksellers.

If all goes well, by this time next week we’ll be in Fairbanks.  The roads get awfully (wonderfully) lonely from this point . . .

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We’re in Great Falls, Montana, at the moment, having arrived yesterday after three night’s camping in Yellowstone and the Beartooth Mountains.  Opi is at the laundromat while I hang out at our hotel, letting the boys sleep in.  I don’t have the time to write a proper post, so I’ll mostly let a few pictures speak thousands of words.

Opi continues to cook up a storm, drawing on the experience of “camping” on board his sailboat for nearly two decades.  Two years ago, I mostly prepared glorified backpacking meals on my trip with the boys, but this time we’re taking full advantage of the relative comforts of car camping.  Before departure, we spent the better part of two days building a wooden “chuck box” to serve as the heart of an organized camp kitchen, and we’ve both been inordinately pleased with our creation.  And while Opi cooks, I’ve had more time to fulfill fatherly duties like flying kites or tossing a baseball with the boys.

Tonight’s menu: grilled pork chops with baked potatoes and steamed leeks.

Top of the boys’ list of “to-do’s” in Yellowstone was to try out the new fishing rods they received from their Uncle Michael for their birthdays, so we spent two hours on Saturday scaring all the fish in Nez Perce Creek and a couple more spooking them in the Gibbon River.  Come to think of it, the fish were probably more amused than terrorized by us.  The boys got a lot of casting practice but not a single nibble,  likely using the wrong tackle with the wrong technique in the wrong location.  I was absolutely no help at all, failing miserably in my fatherly duties in this realm.  Fish were rising all around us on the second afternoon, and Uncle Michael would have known what to do.  Nonetheless, I did get a lot of practice untangling hopeless snarls of line, and I no longer need to consult the diagram he gave me for how to tie something on the end.  I practiced enough patience to supply a lifetime of fishing trips.  In the meantime, Opi went and sat on a log and read.

I’ve always thought of unsuccessful fishing as a great excuse for spending more time in locations like this one.

At any rate, Yellowstone was magnificent as usual, and I could fill paragraph after paragraph with superlatives.  I have to laugh, though, that we saw three wolves about a mile from our Madison River campsite—after years of my mostly fruitless effort over a half-dozen visits with students to see Yellowstone’s wolves (hiring expert guides, getting up in the wee hours to be in position at dawn, waiting patiently for hours in freezing temperatures), these three might as well have walked up and introduced themselves.

The boys agree that thermal features, like campfires, are more watchable than television, even static ones like Grand Prismatic Spring.

After two nights at Madison River, we camped in a delightful Shoshone National Forest site up in the Beartooths, right under the two iconic peaks known as the Bear’s Ears.  Somehow I neglected to take pictures, probably because I was too busy enjoying a few Father’s Day beers with my Dad and poking at the campfire with my boys.  I won’t need pictures to remember this night.

That’s enough for now . . . it’s time to leave Great Falls and head north into Canada.  Hope everyone is doing well at home.  Mom, we miss you!

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We arrived in Niobrara State Park yesterday evening to find a landscape full of light and motion, the tall grasses on the hillsides rippling in the wind like the surface of a pond and the setting sun flooding the entire scene with warmth.  It was every bit as spectacular as the boys and I remembered from our visit two summers ago.  The boys lobbied hard for us to return to the same campsite we had used before, one tucked into a sheltering grove of trees in a little hollow.  In the end, though, we chose a site high on an open, grassy ridge.  Dad was really taken with the panorama of the braided confluences of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, and the boys exploded with delight to see a bald eagle wheel past at nearly eye level.  About the wind, Dad predicted “I really think it will die down once the sun sets.”

Well, I’ve been teasing him all day about this last one, his finely-tuned sailor’s intuition not serving him well in the center of the continent.  The wind was strong enough as we cooked dinner to blow a full can of beer off of the cooking table, and erecting the tents was something of an adventure (would have been flat-out impossible with cheaper gear).  On the plus side, it was nice and warm, and no mosquitoes pestered us.  I’ve got to give Dad credit, moreover, for cooking a terrific meal in that howling gale—bacon-wrapped filets and fried potatoes and steamed vegetables.  I’m basically putting him in charge of the cooking for the duration!  And in the meantime, the boys and I learned that you can succesfully fly a kite in that kind of wind  provided you attach the right kind of tail.

In fact the wind did not die down overnight but has steadily increased all day.  Cooking breakfast (scrambled eggs and fried potatoes and sausage links) and breaking camp was again a bit of an adventure, and by this afternoon we were fighting a steady 40 mph headwind as we drove west across the plains.  Tonight finds us camped in another comfortable hotel, this time in Casper, WY.  We’ll head to Yellowstone tomorrow.

The boys journaling through our lunch stop at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

A quick note about the boys: the best 15 dollars I have spent on ths trip has them both set up with little journals, and they have been writing and drawing away in the back of the car and at every stop to make this English teacher’s heart proud.

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For the first time since our summer odyssey, the boys and I got away for a quick camping adventure this past weekend.  I’d been trying to make this trip happen for weeks, so I dug my heels in and cavalierly brushed aside Belinda’s misgivings as the mercury plummeted in the days leading up to our departure.  “They won’t freeze,” I said. “The fact that human beings survived in cold climates for thousands of years means that kids must be tougher than we think,” I said.  But yeah, with a low in the mountains for Saturday night expected to be somewhere in the high teens, I was inwardly worried.   Not that we wouldn’t survive the night, necessarily, but that they’d be miserable, that they’d quickly sour on the whole camping concept altogether.

Doubt has a way of manifesting itself as crippling procrastination, and even as late as noon on Saturday, Belinda had to ask “So, are you going or what?”  Bitten by an insistent wind every time I ferried a load out to the car, I’d come back in and get caught up in something on television . . . or log on the computer to see how the Liverpool/Fulham game was getting on . . . or read through my guidebooks for another twenty minutes, vacillating on just where we might go.   Finally, however, the boys kicked us out of the door—having enlisted them as allies in my negotiations with Belinda, I couldn’t say “no” to them now—and so late afternoon found us settling into our campsite in the upper Tallulah River headwaters, in the shadow of Standing Indian and Big Scaly mountains.  I was quickly reminded of a personal epiphany I reached years ago, that inclement weather is never as bad in person as it is when contemplated from a warm, dry place.

southern-nantahala-campsite1

Not as fragile as we think they are.

Simply put, the boys didn’t freeze.  They had a great time.  They learned a number of important winter camping lessons: to eat heartily (food is fuel) and quickly (cold food is not good food), to get up and dance around if your feet or hands start to feel cold (we would have looked mighty silly to someone watching from a saner vantage point), that a Nalgene bottle filled with hot chocolate and tucked inside your jacket works like a personal heater for hours.  I built a good fire (nothing beats a store-bought bundle of firewood and a Duraflame log to start it for speed and ease) that we needed less for warmth than we did for marshmallows.  I’ve written before about how much work it is to be the solo adult while camping with young kids, and I’ll admit that this time it was worse—along with the usual needs to tend to, someone always seemed to need help getting a glove back on or something zipped up—but watching them feel comfortable and confident in conditions that most adults would recoil from made it all worthwhile.  As we lay in our sleeping bags and drifted toward sleep, we chatted happily about trips we’d like to do in the future.

The next morning we found a small cliff festooned with icicles, and the boys had a great time breaking them off and swordfighting with exploding weaponry.  As the day warmed up, we moved downstream to a place where the river cascades through a gauntlet of car-sized boulders, found a nice sunlit slab to eat lunch on, and threw rocks into an emerald pool, trying to imitate the sound of each splash (“thiomp!).  And then even as we began to drive home, the boys decided they weren’t through—”we haven’t climbed a mountain”—so I drove to a place where a short hike on the A.T. took us to a summit of west-facing rock slabs, and we luxuriated in the sun for well over an hour.  In the end we had a weekend worth four or five ordinary weekends, and I come away wondering why we don’t do that more often.  What would we have done at home?  Watch TV?  Spend too much time on the computer?  Mount an expedition to Target to buy paper towels?

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“Is exploring the natural world just a pleasurable way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper?  I am sure there is something much deeper–the development of an inner resource of strength that will endure as long as a man or woman lives.”   –Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

“I cherish the sacredness of these outings.  They return me to the father I want to be rather than the one I sometimes am” –Rick Van Noy, A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature through the Seasons

[August 1]  We’re all back home now, including my car, which I went and fetched from K.C. last weekend.  Andrew got his plaster cast off yesterday and was outfitted with a removable walking cast, and the doctors are hopeful that he seems to be (slowly) healing normally.  Nonetheless, he screamed bloody murder as his plaster cast (security blanket) came off, and he’s very reluctant today to put any weight on his foot or let anyone come anywhere near his toes.  With Andrew, the emotional healing is likely to take longer than the physical regeneration.

I still have a week before school starts for me, and there’s plenty of unpacking and cleaning and storing yet to do.  My car needs some attention, too; besides being absolutely filthy, there’s the matter of the “check engine” light that came on about the time I turned eastward.

Looking back on the trip, here are some lessons learned:

  1. I may have backpacking down to a science, but I’ve got a lot of room to refine my front-country car-camping technique.  A first step . . . I’m building one of these.  Moreover, I left town with very few provisions, figuring it would be easy enough to live off the land.  But the little commissary in Cooke City, Montana, has very little in common with my local Whole Foods, and my general lack of preparation was one of the factors that forced us to come down out of the hills every few days for supplies.
  2. I will never ever get a car with an onboard DVD player.  It’s totally unnecessary, unless the kids’ sense of curiosity and imagination has already been sucked dry by such a device.  Windows are amazing things, and I encourage all kids to try them while traveling.
  3. The decision to blog the trip was, on the balance, a good one, and I think I’d do it again.  Keeping up with all that techno claptrap was something of a pain, and from time to time this added layer seemed to usurp our agenda, but writing and sharing was fun, and the boys were proud that other people followed us and seemed to think that what they were doing was special.  Our blogging certainly helped Mommy keep her sanity while we were away from her.  For myself, it was a good dry run for what I might do with future summer courses . . . the Field Geology courses and Naturalist Field Study course that I’ve taught in the past could certainly have incorporated this!

One a more serious note, one of the reasons you leave home is to be able to come back and see home from a new perspective, and I’m sorry to say that I’m even less happy with Atlanta summers than I thought I was before I left.  Baking in its own heat island and smothered with a blanket of bad air, this has not been a pleasant place to come home to.  Of course I expected that.  What’s changed for me is that I look at it now in terms of my kids’ experience; they’ve quickly gone back to being caged creatures.  I’m as convinced as ever that nothing could be more wholesome for my boys (for all children) than more opportunities to be “free range kids” in healthy natural environments, and I’m determined to give my boys more opportunities, but where to do this in Atlanta?  I might take them to Sweetwater Creek, I might take them down to the Chattahoochee River, but I certainly wouldn’t let them play in the water, and I probably wouldn’t let them out of my sight.  (Of course, Andrew can’t get out of his wheelchair, anyway, so it’s a moot point right now.)  What about as they get older?  As a kid, I spent hours with my friends (no parents!) exploring the little pockets of woods in my neighborhood that stitched together the backs of people’s backyards, but do kids do that anymore in the city?  Do I have to drive two hours (or three weeks) out of town to give them these opportunities?

And finally . . .

There are some pictures that I didn’t take but that I cannot get out of my head, as much as I wish I could: every single lodgepole pine tree in the mid elevations of the upper Colorado River watershed is dead or dying from pine beetle infestation.  The west side of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding area is just devastated beyond description.  We drove for two hours through a forest that has died seemingly overnight, mountainside after mountainside, valley after valley.  I backpacked in RMNP last August, and you could see the beginnings of this outbreak, but nothing like what has transpired this summer.  Now I’m not bothered by forest death under natural conditions (the Yellowstone fires of 1988, for instance, were all part of the healthy natural cycle).  Pine beetles are native pests, and big outbreaks do happen every couple of decades under normal conditions.  But the extent of this outbreak is unprecedented, absolutely staggering, and the cause is alarming–ten years of warmer-than-usual winters have removed the primary limiting factor keeping beetle populations steady, and what you have now is an ecosystem in radical flux.  National Park biologists are unequivocal about climate change being the primary factor (among several) contributing to the unprecedented severity of this outbreak.  Is this just a taste of things to come?

Of course I realize that I radically expanded my own carbon footprint by taking a six-thousand-plus mile road trip this summer.  It bothers me.  Theoretically, our family’s cars and air travel are carbon neutral because I purchase offsets for them through TerraPass (who knows, maybe I helped subsidize the windmills I saw popping up in Nebraska and Iowa) , but that doesn’t change the fact that there would be some 5,300 fewer pounds of CO2 in our atmosphere had I stayed home.  Oh well.  To paraphrase Barry Lopez (I think), it’s not the environment that is degraded, it is humanity’s relationship with it.  That is something I can address, at least within my own family.

Back to start of trip

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