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Posts Tagged ‘kite flying’

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 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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Following a couple of days of traveling what must be some of the loneliest roads in Nebraska and South Dakota, we’re suddenly in tourist country, and the contrast is rather jarring.  After three nights of camping (the boys won the hotel/camping debate the night before last and we tented in the Badlands–more on that later), we’ve parked our wagon in the Back Hills town of Custer, SD.  The three of us being pretty worn out, we couldn’t resist Comfort Inn.  I am, however, drawing the line against our wandering across the street to the Flintstones theme park.

Let me get some photos in here to give you all an idea of what we’ve been up to.  For what it’s worth, I’ve only just learned how to resize my photos before inserting them, so if you’ve been having trouble with load times, they should get better (at least it got way better for me in terms of upload time).

First, a few shots from Niobrara State Park.  This place caught me totally by surprise . . . it’s quiet, remote, and absolutely spectacular.  Arriving on a perfect golden evening, we decided pretty quickly that we wanted to have a layover day here before moving on.  We decided too quickly, in retrospect, as the weather took a strong turn for the windy the next day and the park’s daily raft float on the Missouri (one of the few stretches of river left that’s not channelized or impounded) had to be cancelled.  Instead, we managed a short hike, discovered that you can absolutely have too much wind for kite flying, and ended up lounging in the tent for a good part of the afternoon.

Above the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers.

“Desolate? Forbidding? There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful…Even in drought, or dust storm or blizzard it is the reverse of monotonous, once you have submitted to it with all the senses. You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it. You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small.”    –Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow

Leaving Niobrara on Sunday, we headed north and west towards the Badlands.  One of our priorities for the day was to find either a good cell signal or a payphone and let folks back home know we were still breathing, but for some three hundred miles we were totally unsuccessful.  We found only one payphone en route, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and the receiver had been ripped from the cord.  At least we found a McDonalds with WiFi.  (No, Mom, we aren’t eating a lot of fast food; that was just the only thing open in southern South Dakota on a Sunday.)

We timed our arrival in the Badlands perfectly, the sun dropping toward the horizon, all the formations kissed with golden light. And I’ve got to hand it to the boys for convincing me to camp . . . we had an absolutely lovely night.  Passing up the main campground by the visitor center, we drove out to the remote and primitive Sage Creek campground, where we cooked and ate dinner to the sound of howling coyotes and slept under an impossibly starry sky.

No need for a tent fly this night . . . nothing but stars overhead.

He sleeps better in a tent than he does in a hotel room.

In the morning we decided to give kite flying another try.  This time the wind was perfect!

Yes, they really were that cute.

Those little black dots on the other side of the creek are bison.

Yesterday’s big attraction as we came into the Black Hills was a stop at Wind Cave National Park and a cave tour with the excellent and animated Ranger Sam.  Andrew in particular loved the cave and helped Sam entertain the tour with his breathless “Woah, look at that, Dad!” exclamations.

Okay, Dad stop annoying everyone with your flash!

Today we’ll check out Mount Rushmore and Devil’s Tower before heading west toward the Bighorn Mountains, our probable campsite tonight.  Hope everyone back home is doing well!

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