Redwoods and Blue Seas

California stopped us right in our tracks. We had just crossed the Oregon state-line, only to be unexpectedly diverted to a border patrol checkpoint.

“What could we have possibly smuggled into California from Oregon that would need further inspection? Maybe they’re looking for the coyote who’s been running Canadians into the States?” I posed.

“More likely, there’s a bounty or some kind of quota for captured Mexicans,” Leah contributed.

Ahead of us, the RV from Nevada was being questioned. He pulled away, and then it was our turn.

Waiving us forward, “Wow,” the California agent exclaimed. “You guys are all the way from New Jersey?”

I’m almost certain his eyes lit up behind his dark glasses. “Do you know anything about gypsy moths?” he asked.

“We are, and I do,” I responded to both questions.

“Well then, since you won’t be needing this brochure about gypsy moths, would you do me the favor of pulling up to those cones over there,” he indicated, “and I’ll have an officer come by to check things out in a jiffy. We won’t keep you very long.”

“Are we really getting checked for moths?” I asked rhetorically, as I crept to the cones.

“I don’t know,” Leah admitted, “but I can see two guys in my mirror, and they’re coming up to the Airstream, and one of them is carrying something big, but I can’t make it out.”

“I suppose it makes sense, considering the importance of protecting America’s timber land,” I stated. “In fact, what this country needs is a net. The United States government should cast a tremendous net over America’s airspace to protect us from immigrant leaf-eaters that only mean to do us harm. These are very bad bugs–the worst you’ll ever find anywhere–and these bugs have to be stopped before they threaten the security of this great country. Believe me. Thank you very much.” I campaigned.

“And this net…are you gonna get the bugs to pay for it?” Leah mused.

The inspector set the car dolly on the ground and crab-walked around the Airstream undercarriage while on his back, poking around with his fingers and a flashlight. He started on the left side of the Airstream, and I followed him as he scooted under the tail to the other side for more of the same.

After completing the circle, he stood and declared, “All clean. These campers are completely sealed. Those guys do a good job.”

“And made in America!” I chimed in.

He stamped my official Certificate of Inspection, and bid us safe travels.


Certified predator-free, we were now permitted to resume our journey throughout California, with Redwood National Park as our first stop.

Redwood National Park is a splinter of a park that hugs the rocky northern coast, and reaches across the Yurok Reservation and reciprocating California State Park affiliates.

Because Redwood is not a traditional National Park, it can easily get under your skin. Navigating through the blurred lines of park boundaries always had me wondering if we were “in” the park or not, as we rode Redwood Highway through forests and meadows to beaches and towns.

Unlike other parks, there is no entrance fee, but then again, there’s also no practical way of collecting a fee when the road is open to all traffic.

We set up camp on the bank of the Klamath River,

Klamath River sunset (2).jpg

and explored in earnest the following day when we followed the river to the estuary,

Klamath channel (2)

where a family of barking sea lions,


and humans…

ocean play

…frolicked in the sea spray and sea foam.

sea foam

We continued our hike along the Coastal Trail, with views north…

Bird Rock

…and south of High Bluff overlook.

coastline overlook

“I miss the ocean,” I confessed to Leah. “There’s something serene about staring into the surf.”

Although three months had passed since visiting the Jersey shore, I was immediately transported back to a familiar scene of waves rhythmically crashing against the rocks.

crashing waves

“Let’s go find some redwoods,” Leah advocated, pulling me out of my trance.

We branched out to a deeper part of the jigsawn park, and settled on a grove of giants dedicated to the beatification efforts of Lady Bird Johnson by Richard Nixon.

Lady Bird plaque

With ancient redwoods as old as 2500 years and reaching upwards of 380 feet, the notion of something bigger than oneself becomes more than a literal interpretation.




redwood grove

How fortunate we felt to be bathed in streaming shafts of light–dancing between feathered limbs, and flickering in the balmy breeze.

shafts of light

There’s much to learn from trees that have survived the dinosaur. Redwoods are a family of trees that share root ancestry to keep them anchored. They propagate by seed or by sprout, and are known to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the younger and stronger sibling.


The redwood’s bark may grow to two feet in thickness to protect itself from fire damage. However, repeated fires can eventually penetrate through the bark, leaving the tree to rot out from the core,

burned out redwood

and yet…it may still survive.

burned out but alive

Even in death, there is a twisted beauty to be found in its decomposition.

rotting stump

At the dedication ceremony to honor Lady Bird Johnson, President Nixon intoned,

…to stand here in this grove of redwoods, to realize what a few moments of solitude in this magnificent place can mean, what it can mean to a man who is President, what it can mean to any man or any woman who needs time to get away from whatever may be the burdens of all of our tasks, and then that renewal that comes from it…

As I strolled through the grove surrounded by God’s fingers, oh, how I prayed that Donald Trump could take Nixon’s advice, and listen to the trees’ whispers for just “a few moments”.


Delicately durable and delicately vibrant–two oxymorons that epitomize the characteristics of an ammonite fossil exhibited at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta.

ammonite (2)

Yet, it’s the simple complexity of the structure that best explains why after 200 million years, we can still appreciate its resilience and iridescence. The integrity of the ammonite’s spiral chambers are believed to have regulated buoyancy, and protected the crustacean from the tremendous force of oceanic pressure drops.

And while it may have taken an epoch of tectonic pressure, heat and mineralization to metamorphosize and fortify such a fragile fossil, the structure of time has enhanced our revelation of objects possessing rare and infinite beauty.

In Search of Crater Lake (OMG, SMOG)

“There’s a lot of smoke in the park today, so be careful,” warned the ranger, as we crossed the threshold of Crater Lake National Park for our second day of touring. Earlier in the day, I searched the National Park Service webcam aimed at Crater Lake from the Sinnott Memorial Overlook–with the intention of evaluating views of Wizard Island and Llao Rock–but there was no image…just a gray blob.

“Aw shit! Is this camera off-line, or could this really be smoke?” I wondered aloud.

While I craved the crisp cerulean air punctuated by wispy snippets of marshmallow clouds floating over a rippling realm, I knew from our 35-mile approach to the park that this was pie-in-the-sky thinking, since the valley was completely cloaked in smoke.

Yesterday, as we embarked on our ring around the 33-mile Rim Drive–with its multiple viewpoints along the caldera wall, overlooking magnificent cliffs that surround Crater Lake–our eyes could barely penetrate the haze that gave us gauzy views across a vast expanse of water.

Wizard Island

The fact that we could see anything at all, brought tears to our eyes, but that was probably caused by the irritants in the air.

Every vantage point brought a dazzling, yet indistinct impression of the landscape, elevating form over color and detail as the dominant design element.

Lookout over caldera
Grotto Cove
ice and water
Shell Channel

It was also an opportunity to reflect on objects closer to the lens.

a tree with an idea1

arms ans legs and limbs

unusual tree behavior

There were moments when the haze worked to my advantage, revealing a lake with a more mysterious and pastel personality.

Wizard Island ray
Wizard Island morphs into a giant ray
Phantom Ship ES
Phantom Ship sailing on Chaski Bay

Fortunately, the sun broke through at the right time, shining a spotlight on Pumice Castle,

Pumice Castle CU

Pumice Castle

illuminating the illusion of Phantom Ship,

Phantom Ship

and electrifying the Danger Bay coastline with lenticular textures.

Danger Bay

What a difference a day makes. Today’s scene had us wondering if Crater Lake was really down there at all, and maybe part of a bigger conspiracy.

where is the lake

Has Crater Lake been de-ported? Is Crater Lake being held hostage in exchange for Congressional funding of the “Wall”? Or is Crater Lake relying on a failing projection system that once led (b)earthers to believe that Neil Armstrong faked the lunar walk? Fake views. Sad.

I wondered if Park Rangers were doing enough to reassure the public that Crater Lake would reappear.  And had they considered putting out an A-P-B for a M-I-A lake that’s gone A-W-O-L?

“Be on the lookout for a large body of water that goes by the name of Crater Lake–measuring somewhere between five to six miles across, a quarter-mile deep with a deep blue complexion, sporting two enormous moles and a shaggy shoreline. Last seen yesterday, wearing a cloudy disposition.”

Poised at the Cloudcap Overlook and hoping for a miracle, it was the smoke, not the view, that took our breath away.

But being the intrepid explorers that we are, if the lake was invisible from above, then we would search for it beneath the shroud.

The Cleetwood Cove Trail drops 700 feet to the water’s edge through a series of sandy and steeply graded switchbacks.

trail switchbacks

It took us fifteen minutes to breeze down the the one-mile trail, until we reached the water’s edge with rewarding views of the penultimate infinity pool.

jump off point
Cleetwood Cove to Pumice Point

The cove is home to an outhouse-shaped instrument shed…

outhouse monitor

that monitors lake elevation levels for the US Geological Survey,


and a dock for concession boat tours that circle the lake or visit Wizard Island.

boat launch

But reservations sell out quickly. Leah and I considered bringing a credit card along in the unlikely event that seats would become available, but decided against it.

Instead, our afternoon entertainment was provided by young thrill-seekers who dared themselves and each other to take the plunge off a 25-foot cliff…



…into heart-stopping ice water.

Returning to the dock, we learned that seats had become available if we were willing, but without a method of payment, alas, we missed the boat.

aboard the Rogue

And so began the long plod up the mountain, and back to a sky that refused to yield.

We had gone in search of Crater Lake, and all the while it was right under our noses.


A small corner of the sky captured most of America’s attention and imagination on August 21, 2017. It was the celestial event of the millennia that brought a momentary pause to many people’s lives as they looked up and marveled at the source of our very existence.

Leah and I had our own corner of the parking lot at Benton County Fairgrounds in Corvallis, OR.

Leah lounging

A party atmosphere surrounded us. Some were expecting a spiritual awakening, and some were interested in the science of the occasion, but for most of us it was a social connection. We sat around with family, friends and strangers, looking goofy in our mylar glasses…

3 loungers1

…as we shared a brief moment together as sun worshippers.

We all held our collective breath at the precise moment the moon completely eclipsed the sun. And then there were cheers.


For one brief moment, we were all related. For that one instant during totality, we had turned the corner, and became the human race.

And just like that…

partial eclipse (3)

…it was gone in a flash, and a tear passed the corner of my eye.

Sadly, it’s going to be a long time before our next solar eclipse.

Beauty and the Beast

Some mountains should keep their distance or at least stay in the background, while other mountains always seem ready for prime time. And so it is with Mt. Ranier and Mt. St. Helens–two significant volcanoes within the Cascade Arc, and part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

As the crow flies, both peaks are 50 miles from each other, yet on a sliding scale, they couldn’t be further apart.

For starters, Mt. Ranier is majestic,

view from a bridge

lush and verdant,


powerful and dominant,

Ranier glaciers

and picturesque;

Ranier reflection

while Mt. St. Helens appears wretched,

Staring into the crater


crispy trees



and grim!

southern valley

To be clear, none of the fault belongs to Mount St. Helens. Before May 18, 1980, this was a vital volcano with a perfectly shaped cone, rising 9600 feet over Spirit Lake. But when the explosion raised the mountaintop, she was stripped down to 8366 feet without her snow bonnet.

The results were catastrophic: 300 mph force shock waves tore ancient trees from their roots, and the largest landslide in recorded history combined with glacial meltwater to create raging lahars that deposited up to 600 feet of volcanic slurry as distant as 50 miles from the eruption. Fifty-seven lives were lost in the blast, which also caused over 1 billion dollars in damage.

Thirty-seven years later, the altered landscape remains daunting and unforgiving,

MSH panorama.jpg

By contrast, the continuing history of Mt. Ranier and the surrounding area can be told in the 8 ft. diameter cross-section of an ancient Douglas-fir beside the Longmire Museum.

history tree

Although Mt. Ranier has been sleeping since 1895, its volcanic volatility may pose a bigger risk to nearby population centers than Mt. St. Helens.

But until then, the love affair continues with visitors who pass through the gates…


motorcycle dog
Thanks, Leah

…on the road to Paradise, stopping at Narada Falls…


Narada Falls wide

in the hopes of finding the mountain clear of cloud cover.

below Paradise

If there was ever a beauty pageant for mountains, Mt. Rainer would be a contender for the glacial tiara. There are few mountains more photogenic.

wildflowers and Ranier (2)

While the obvious star of the park is the mountain, the bounty extends beyond the twenty-five glaciers clinging to its summit,


as the park deceptively draws its visitors into the forest where the reward is equally as impressive, and no less stunning.

looking west of Ranier

Louise Lake

view from Paradise

Lest anyone think that Mt. St. Helens’s image can’t be salvaged, consider what a few accessories can accomplish to dress up an outfit.

While you can’t put lipstick on a mountain, there are artful techniques that offer instant gratification. For instance: point the camera a safe distance away from the subject, add a few clouds to soften the light, frame the composition with trees for a bit of mystery, then employ a spot of color for distraction, and voilà–Mt. St. Helens transformed!

view from the marsh

Or by photographing the beauty on the edge of the ugly, makes the ugly seem more attractive by association.

lily pads

Adams and Spirit

Although Wrangell–St. Elias, the Great Smokies, the Rockies, Shenandoah, and Grand Tetons are recognized as jewels in the National Park Service crown, none of them is a mountain unto itself. Only Mt. Ranier and Denali command the right to be a park that bears their names. (Mt. Rushmore doesn’t qualify; it’s a National Monument.)

While Mt. Ranier and Mt. St. Helens are very much a tale of two mountains, each one (despite their appearance) commands respect for different reasons: Mt. St. Helens for the power unleashed, and Mt. Ranier for the power restrained.


An Olympian Apology

Dear Olympic National Park,

It’s not you, it’s me.

Usually, I like knowing something about my destination before I get there, especially when I’m planning to visit a National Park. I’ll make a point of scanning the internet or paging through some travel books, gathering information about your geography and your attractions before my arrival.

For starters, it gives me a better sense of how close we can get to you, which is important to me, considering I have little interest in a long-distance relationship.

But this time around, I didn’t do my homework. I suppose I could blame it on solar eclipse fever— my frantically searching for totality-zone accommodations in Oregon—such that I skipped an Olympic step and planned without thinking clearly.

Instead of settling by Port Angeles—at the north gate of your park—we arranged to camp by Lake Cushman on Skokomish tribal land near your Staircase entrance. At the time we made our reservations, it looked like a good fit. But in hindsight, it turns out we were too far from many of the features that make your park so formidable and special.

I realize now how different things could have been between us. Given another chance, I would gladly coast across the coarse black sands of your rugged Pacific shore to admire your infinite tidepools, or marvel at the sea stacks and arches stretching across a sunset-lit horizon. I would have loved to stroll through your lush forests by the Hoh rain forest just to gape at the massive cedar and spruce trees that serve in the company of Mt. Olympus (your highest peak) and the many glaciers that ring her summit. Ahh, what could have been!

But things being as they are, the powers of Mt. Olympus had a different plan for us. It wasn’t terrible… it was just different.

We approached you from Olympic National Forest, with views across the east bank of Lake Cushman.

Lake Cushman

You probably don’t remember me—since you’re the seventh most popular park in the nation, with nearly 3 million visitors a year—but we first met after I passed your tiny isolated gatehouse powered by a whirring 1500 watt Honda generator.

I know I shouldn’t have sworn at you when I realized my mistake. Please consider it more of an over-reaction to a situation that I couldn’t correct after your ranger informed me that Staircase was a remote access point without roads to any other part of you.

However, she graciously told us of a nifty loop hike through an old growth forest that followed Skokomish River. And so, with few other options on the table, we set out to hike the Rapids Loop Trail as a way of discovering something about your ecosystems.

The bridge to the trailhead was a fitting place for lunch, providing river views north…

view from the bridge

… and south of us.

Copper Creek

Walking upriver, we encountered the remains of an ancient cedar,

elephant trunk

and an active cedar that pierced the sky.

giant cedar

Along the river, the pace quickened…

Rapids Loop Trail

… but had little impact on the chunky boulders crowned in moss,

yellow moss

or a fallen giant we passed on our return.

Stairhouse cedar logs

We completed our afternoon at the Visitors Center in Hoodsport, grateful for an internet connection and the advice of a local outdoorsman who persuaded us to explore the Hood Canal from a higher perspective the following day.

The park map offered few details of our route, but the turnoff to Duckabush Road was clearly marked. Seven miles in and we were surrounded by Olympic National Forest. The further we penetrated the backcountry, the more isolated we felt.

“At least there’s no crowd where we’re going,” I reminded Leah.

NF-2510 split just past Collins campground, providing us with a fresh choice. According to the map, the fork to the left ran into the Duckabush River. But the right fork—a one-lane rutted road disappearing into the Brothers Wilderness—was precisely the challenge I needed to shake off my mistake.

At first, the road meandered through a dense forest, until we began our ascent. As the F-150 climbed higher and higher, I was inclined to drift closer to the mountain wall in defense of the unstable cliffside that had given way in places from repeated flood damage. It felt so risky, and we were giddy with fear. Seeing a huge fallen tree stump ahead in the road initially caused concern. Would the road be wide enough to pass it?

“This was a huge mistake! What if we’re stuck here?” Leah panicked. “There’s no room to turn around, and there’s no way fucking way you’re backing out of here!”

Creeping towards the barricade, I engaged the 360° camera view on the dashboard monitor while Leah coached from the right side. Holding my breath, we cleared the obstacle by inches on the right, as the left side of the truck kicked gravel over the open side of the road.

But it was too soon to celebrate. There was more road in front of us, and we were still climbing. As the elevation rose, the trees eventually gave way to a valley view of Hood Canal.

Hood Canal

Leah was emphatic. “I think we’ve gone far enough,” she expressed. “And you finally have a place to turn around.”

“What’s the fun in that,” I overruled, “when we’re so close to the top.”

After fifty minutes of driving six nail-biting miles, I needed a bigger reward than the view at hand. I was hoping for wide open spaces at the end of the road.

It was only another mile of switchbacks to the top, and perhaps the easiest mile traveled—most likely the result of a recent forest fire that groomed the hillside of old growth pines.

atop Mt. Jupiter1 (2)

lodgepole silhouette

We arrived to a field of maturing fireweed, firing off thick bursts of puffy seeds that floated through the air like a bubble cloud over our heads.

Mt. Constance

We roamed around the damaged summit, finding crushed beer cans, campfire rings filled with debris, and shell casings one-hundred paces away from target practice paper. It must have been a wild and crazy party that we missed.

The ride down the mountain (what I believe was Mt. Jupiter) was uneventful, although this time the tree stump was on my side, and Leah got a chance for a glance down the cliff.

An hour later, we were driving up a paved road to the lookout atop Mt. Walker, with views from the north face…

North view from Walker

…and views to the south, and the contrast couldn’t have been more startling.

Ranier levitating

And so, Olympic National Park, I think we got off on the wrong foot. It might have been the right time, but it must have been the wrong place. Still, I hope it’s possible for us to hang out together in the near future, now that I’ve been to the mountaintop and seen the light.

Lake Cushman sunset

Yours truly,

Neal and Leah

Glacier Assurance

Glacier National Park had some big shoes to fill considering we were still riding a Canadian Rocky Mountain high from our past visit to Banff and Jasper National Parks. It’s as if Banff and Jasper were the opening act and killed it, and just as Glacier, the headliner took the stage, the power went out. While I anticipated the beauty that over 4 million park visitors per year have heralded, I was preparing to be disappointed.

If there were gorgeous mountain views present, they belonged to those with x-ray vision. An impenetrable veil of smoke from prevailing wildfires in western Montana and British Columbia had settled on the peaks and deep in the valleys like a “cloak of choke”, elevating the air quality to alert status.

The sun appears

shadow peaks (2)

But there was still a park to discover, so undeterred, we took the high road in search of beauty where we could find it.

In the case of Glacier National Park, the high road is named Going-to the-Sun Road, a marvel of civil engineering completed in 1932. The 50-mile stretch traverses the park from Lake McDonald…

Lake MacDonald Runoff.jpg

to the western point of St. Mary Lake.

view from the hike

The road crosses the Continental Divide through Logan Pass at an elevation of 6,646 feet, providing a series of white-knuckle hairpin turns that only a vintage fleet of Red Jammer drivers can negotiate with ease.

red jammer (2)

We drove around The Loop, where a carpet of late-blooming wildflowers painted a swatch of pink across the foothills of Flattop Mountain,

valley of pink1

and beyond the Weeping Wall, where embedded glacial remnants…

Snow on the Mountain

offered an aerial microcosm of the landscape beneath us.

ice sculpture

leftover ice

Yet, excitement was as fleeting as a burst of blue sky…

lost in the clouds

Our plan called for a stop atop Logan Pass, but 30 minutes of switch-backing through rows of parked cars with no possibility of finding a space left us with few options; either we turn back, or we finish the road.

With the gas gauge nearing empty, it seemed a safe bet to continue to the village of St. Mary, so down the mountain we rode, until the glacial green of St. Mary Lake–winking between the trees–became the itch we had to scratch. A turn-out with parking space (yay!) at the trail head of several waterfalls gave us more of a reason to stretch our legs.

We hiked above a shoreline of densely packed trees, giving us picket-fence glimpses of the lake, until we came to a clearing.

Arrow into St. Mary Lake

And in the distance, Mt. Siyeh had shed its shroud and come to life.

Clouds Across the Peaks

Baring Falls was the Hail Mary pass we caught to save our day. While it wasn’t a view of monumental mountains in mirrored waters, it was still a place where pretty happened.

Baring Falls

river rocks

The overnight rain was enough to cleanse the sky, and random patches of morning blue gave us enough faith to run to the Sun for a second chance. This time around, our carma delivered us to a parking space at Logan Pass.

From there, our hike across the alpine slopes to Hidden Lake was enough to erase my doubts about Glacier National Park.

Logan Pass panorama


grazing by a glacier

glacial pond

Bearhat Mountain Hidden Lake (2)

Certainly, while I would have preferred the postcard vistas that leave me slack-jawed and breathless, Glacier proved to be a worthy contender to the Canadian twins, and deserving of a rematch.

Ohh, Shiny!

Water falls are my kryptonite, and an easy source of distraction for me. I can easily get lost in them. Whether it’s following its flow from source to destination, or studying the water as it ricochets against the rocks, the falls are guaranteed to captivate and provide inspiration for a photograph.

But equally as special are the details worth discovering if we stop time and look more deeply into a moment of gravity–examining colors, patterns and subconscious imagery that are unavailable during normal viewing.

And then you see it: the unlikely face in the water, or the unexpected rainbow, or the highlighted pearls of foamy spray. That’s the epiphany. That’s the “Ohh, Shiny!” moment.

Baring Falls detail.jpg

Baring Falls, Glacier National Park

Smoke and Mirrors

Sadly, we were nearly out of time. Our visit to Banff and Jasper had taken our breath away, and now becomes the benchmark by which all future destinations will be judged.

Fortunately, our farewell tour followed the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff, and continued down the Banff-Windermere Parkway to Radium Hot Springs–our last Canadian hurrah before reentering the States.

But this road trip promised to be different, because now we would be the tourists we intended to be a week ago–when we rushed to attend our Glacier Adventure, and missed the Icefields Parkway party.

“Why does it seem like we’re always in a hurry?” I asked rhetorically.

But this time we vowed to linger longer, and savor the flavor of the Canadian Rockies.

3 peaks


The skies were overcast at the start of the day, but a favorable forecast seemed promising, with the winds working to defeat the fog.

a ray of light

Upon returning from Maligne Canyon…

canyon bend.jpg

we were breezing down the Parkway, when suddenly I felt compelled to pull over.

“Wait a minute!” I declared. “That’s wild! How is that even possible?”

People and pets were crossing the spiritual sea–each one having a “Jesus moment”.

people and dog

As it turns out, during the summer, Edith Lake fills with inches of crystalline water, making it possible to wade through the sand flat with nary a risk of getting wet… unless you’re young at heart.

walking on water

There were several unforgettable stops along the way to Banff:

Iconic views of Endless Chain Ridge…

Endless Chain Ridge.jpg

Sunwapta Pass, the dividing point between Jasper and Banff National Parks…

Big Bend Parker's Ridge

The Athabasca Glacier, clinging to the sides of Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda…

Columbia Glacier

and Peyto Lake, a band of shimmering turquise reflecting nature’s magic act.

Peyto paddler

As we neared the Castle Junction, we crossed our fingers that we could cross to Kootenay National Park. Recent wildfires had kept the road closed for days, while firefighters worked around the clock to control the blaze. To miss the turn would add four hours to a seven-hour trip.

To our delight, the Castle Junction roadblock had just been lifted, and travel over the Continental Divide at Vermilion Pass had resumed…at least for the moment. We rolled along a vacant highway that we claimed as our own–as if we had the only key to this part of heaven’s gate. But then the scene turned hellish.

We could smell it before we saw it. The smoke that surrounded us was infiltrating the truck cab, and I struggled to close the vent while I looked for the source along the road. And then we were upon it. As we drove deeper into the vanishing skyline, our thoughts turned to the scorched earth and charred pikes that smoldered across the barren fields.

Kootenay on fire

The hills were ablaze, with billows of acrid smoke surging up the slopes and penetrating the highest peaks.


Aerial firefighters were making frequent passes in a Sisyphean effort to control the damage,

while the distant sound of gunning chainsaws drowned out the occasional birdsong.

fire gear

But as we pressed on, the light at the broad end of the funnel gave us renewed hope that we had passed through the darkest part of our day,

beauty thru the haze

as we fled the fiery furnace to the boiling cauldron of Radium Hot Springs.

Radium Hot Springs valley

Blue Icing on the Cake

Hiking six miles around five lakes left us energized and ready to explore more of Jasper, but we had to arrive at the Edith Cavell check-in point before 4:00 pm, or we’d be turned away. And that would be a shame, since we awoke at dawn to secure a coveted permit up Cavell Rd. to admire Angel Glacier clinging to the north face of Mt. Edith Cavell.

But in our haste, we turned left from the Valley of the Five Lakes parking lot, instead of turning right, and continued south on the Icefields Parkway till we reached Athabasca Falls.

“This isn’t right,” I announced, turning into the Athabasca Falls parking lot. “There’s no way, we’re going the right way. I need to see the map,” I declared.

Ordinarily, this attraction would have been a worthy succession to our last hike, except it was in the wrong direction. We should have caught our mistake sooner, but the soaring mountain peaks on both sides of the road can be hypnotic and easily rob a sensible person of their better judgement.

And so we inadvertently drove 12 miles out of our way, wasting precious time against our impending deadline. What now?

But then again, there are few better places in the world to u-turn.

“Look,” I suggested to Leah. “We may as well walk around. We’re already here.”

“So you’re okay about missing the glacier trail at Edith Cavell?” Leah countered.

“No, I’m not,” I insisted. “But if I’m going to leave here to drive there, and we’re too late for there, then we blew for here and there. So why not at least do something while we’re still here?” I thought my logic was impeccable, but then Leah played the absolution card.

“You’re gonna do whatever you want anyway, so why are you even asking me? Just don’t blame me if can’t get to Edith Cavell in time,” Leah asserted.

“We wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t told me to turn left in the first place,” I said in my head.

“He’s so smug,” Leah thought to herself, “and it was his idea to extend the Five Lakes hike in the first place, so none of this is my fault if we don’t get there in time.”

Grabbing my camera, “Well then, I’m going to shoot the falls. What are your plans?”

Leah paused, then announced, “There’s way too many people here. I’ll just hang out in the truck. Besides, it’s just another waterfall.”

But that wasn’t the case. While the Athabasca Falls isn’t the longest and the widest in the Canadian Rockies, it surely ranks as the most powerful.

establishing falls

The fury of the water as it drops over the lip and plummets into the abyss is nothing short of spectacular…and the sound is deafening.

cascading water

On the other side of the viewing bridge, the turbulent water collects itself,

falls chute

as it runs though a canyon of its own making.

Athabasca Falls exit

The back road to Edith Cavell was winding, narrow and pitted, and 12 miles away. Arriving before our 4:00 pm cut-off would require some steering finesse, a good suspension, and a heavy foot. I was up for the task, and hoped that my F-150 was up to the challenge. It was us against the road.

I could feel my body absorbing the vibration as I firmly gripped the wheel. Leah was mostly quiet as I swayed around potholes without leaving the road.

“I should have worn a sports bra,” she lamented.

“Not to worry,” I assuaged, “We’re making good time.”

Even the road surface began to cooperate–going from rough to smooth. However, a time check showed 10 minutes left on the clock with a 10 minute ETA. It was going to be a very close call.

A road detour diverted us to a turn-off where we offered our credentials to a ranger sitting under a portable canopy, and we held our breath. He scanned a print-out before returning our permit.

“You’ll need to display this on the dashboard. Enjoy the park, guys,” he proclaimed, and waived us through.

“I can’t believe we made it!” Leah blurted, followed by a high-five.

“Piece of cake,” I replied.

Like a runner taking a celebration lap, we took our time on the road to the summit, advancing through a steady combination of hairpin switchbacks followed by long runs that kept me guessing how high we were climbing.

Finally, we pulled off the road at a clearing that gave me some answers.


mountain valley

first look from trail

Soon after, we reached a parking area occupied by no more than twenty vehicles, and we instantly realized how lucky we were.

A trail head shrine dedicated to Edith Cavell gave us some insight into the person and this special habitat.

Cavell sign.jpg

The uphill climb along along the sub-alpine ridge revealed our first full look of the Angel’s blue tongue receding into the pass,

Angel Glacier upper

ice cliff.jpg

where glacial melt spilled between deep channels of rock…

glacier falls

…and collected into Cavell Pond,

lower angel glacier.jpg

guarded by Cavell Glacier–a 150 foot wall of ice…

Cavell Glacier.jpg

that occasionally calves into bobbing icebergs the size of school buses.


The one mile trail terminates at a railed platform with a skewed view of the pond, albeit a safe distance away from potential avalanches.

But better views are there to those who are willing to scramble to greater heights over loose rock piles and between boulders as big as buildings…

ice pass

to a place where playful hoary marmots dart…


marmot CU.jpg

around the many imaginative cairns that punctuate the landscape.


This is a solemn place that memorializes the service and duty of Edith Cavell.

Cavell Glacier overlook

This is a place where angels fly…

Cavell Lake.jpg




River Rock Falls–Elemental

I came across a kaleidoscope of submerged river rocks at the base of Baring Falls in Glacier National Park while on a hike yesterday afternoon. The air was smokey from area wildfires, and the haze was holding the blue sky hostage.

Surprisingly, the temperature was crisp on the trail, and the spray from the falls efficiently air-conditioned the scene to scrub the smoke from our senses. I was reminded of fall leaves, but knew that these rocks would still be around for all seasons. It was elemental.

River Rocks of Baring Falls

Valley of the Five Lakes

Clouds to the right of us…

overcast sky1

…and clouds to the left of us…

overcast sky 2

…left us completely surrounded by clouds. Now we had to figure out what to do on such an overcast day.

Park cognoscenti suggested a popular destination showcasing five distinctly different alpine lakes–each with its own signature green hue. I was hooked.

With temperatures dropping overnight to comfortable levels, an extended hike to the lakes became the likely candidate for the first half of our day, provided we could balance the second half of the day with a visit to Edith Cavell Mountain, located within the vicinity. However, the access road to the mountain was now restricted to limited traffic while the trail head parking lot has been undergoing needed repairs from a flash flood months ago. So, park headquarters–when it opens at 8:00 am– has been issuing a controlled number of passes to Edith Cavell at staggered times on a first-come first-serve basis.

We arrived at the requisite hour to encounter the line for passes winding around the building. 15 minutes later, Leah emerged with a 2:00 pm call time along with a two hour buffer. Our itinerary was set.

Surprisingly, when we arrived at the Valley of Five Lakes parking location, only a few cars occupied the lot. Maybe it was the threat of rain, or maybe it was our lucky day. Either way, we were not apologizing for feeling lucky.

Scanning the trail map gave us perspective for our hike,

park map

but we weren’t prepared for a sophisticated signpost at the start of the trail,


or an amber graphic touting the trail in greater detail, which made the impending hike seem more foreboding.

amber sign

According to the legend, we were being directed to the Fifth Lake first. I thought it odd to begin the first leg of the Valley of the Five Lakes hike at Fifth Lake, but then no one sought my counsel about the matter.

5th lake sign

The long and narrow lake was shallow, but a raft of ducks glided across the water effortlessly. Two rowboats were chained around a tree stump by a slumping dock with a rental notice painted across the bow, but both boats were taking on water.

Lake 5.jpg

Lake 5.1

We rounded the tip of Fifth Lake, to discover the Fourth Lake,

4th lake sign

which had been shrouded by the trees as we walked alongside it on our way to the first lake, Fifth Lake.

Fourth Lake was like a kidney-shaped pool filled with the illusion of a primordial incubus submerged across the diameter, but in an inviting way, drawing us closer.

Lake 4

It too was shallow like Fifth Lake, but Fifth Lake reflected a paler tone. And while Fifth Lake appeared serene, Fourth Lake’s personality rivaled the Sirens.

Lake 4.2

Hiking to Third Lake turned out to be only steps away from Fourth Lake, but I didn’t know it at the time. A footbridge crossed over a running stream from Fourth Lake that fed into Third Lake, so it appeared that Third Lake really belonged to Fourth Lake.

Yet the map showed a distinctive break between the two Lakes. I had my doubts about the legitimacy of Lake Three, but no one was asking my opinion on the matter.

And then Leah called out to me from around the bend, “I found the sign for the Third Lake.”

3rd lake sign

Gaining some elevation on the trail made all the difference, revealing an eerie luminescent halo hugging the shoreline of Third Lake.

Lake 3.1

Lake 3

which differed from Fourth Lake’s lack of uniformity, and the shape of Fifth Lake.

And it was on to Second Lake,

2nd lake sign

the smallest of the Five Lakes, which by comparison probably deserved to be called a pond and not a lake, but no one bothered to ask my opinion on the matter.

Lake 2

Nevertheless, the shimmering green soup of the Second Lake was haunting and other-worldly under gray skies, where the light seemed to emanate from under the water.

Lake 2.1

With only the First Lake left to see, we approached a crossroads in the trail. Either we finish the hike by passing the First Lake on our right, or we extend the hike another 2.5 miles by circling the final lake.

1st lake sign

After a quick look at the long ribbon of turquoise water disappearing around the bend, I knew I needed to see First Lake from the other side.

Lake 1.2

Yet it seemed like First Lake was playing hard to get. Along the way, thick tree cover offered only teasing views,

Lake 1 tease

until we reached an opening that finally offered a sweeping vista of First Lake.

Lake 1

A path of braided tree roots

braid of roots

led us to the top of First Lake,

Lake 1.1

where rock rubble challenged the overflow that fed the lush marsh grass downstream.

marsh grass

The hike was satisfying, but we emerged from the forest later than expected at 3:00 pm, giving us one hour to make the trip to Edith Cavell check-in. It was going to be a race against the clock.

Stay tuned…


The Icefields Parkway represents the spine of Banff and Jasper National Parks. It runs a crooked line astride the Continental Divide for 140 miles between Lake Louise and the town of Jasper–rising and falling, twisting and turning–as it follows rugged mountain vertebrae, verdant river veins, alpine organs of opalescent waters, and at the heart of it all, the highest concentration of ancient glaciers in the Rocky Mountains.

Athabasca River (2)

While it can take 3.5 hours to complete the journey without stopping, most travelers will take their time, stopping along the way to inhale the majestic beauty. Unfortunately, we were in no position to stop and gawk. We were holding our breath, hoping to arrive in time for a prepaid tour of Athabasca Glacier.

It drove me crazy, passing up scene after scene, my shutter finger convulsing around the steering wheel as we pressed on toward our destination. And even if we had all the time in the world, nearly all the turn-offs were on the opposite side of the road, making it a logistical nightmare for the Airstream behind us.

“All I can say,” lamenting to Leah, “it’s a good thing we’re coming back the same way, so we can stop as much as we want to take it all in.”

Leah had no objections.

Having started from Banff Village, we were among the last of 56 ticket-holders to be scanned for the 2:30 tour, only to stand by for another half hour…

waiting in line

…until a bus could drive us to the Ice Explorer depot…

ice explorer depot

…where we waited another 15 minutes for an available Brewster behemoth of our own. I was excited to take the ride onto the glacier in this buggy, although the boarding sign caused Leah some anxiety.


We learned from Ryan, our twenty-something driver, that the tires are 5 feet in diameter, rated at 15 pounds pressure (half that of an auto tire) so they don’t harm the ice, and cost $3000 a piece.


Once we got rolling, we paused at the crest until Ryan got radio clearance to continue…

Athabasca Glacier crossroads.

…down a 33% grade that pressed us against the front of our seats,

on the road of ice

yet delivered exhilarating views of the glacial ridge,


and an ice tour in progress to the tongue of the glacier.

ice tour

Before disembarking, Ryan delivered strict instructions: “I want to be clear about this. You walk onto the glacier at your own peril. You have 20 minutes on the ice, that’s it! This bus leaves at exactly 3:45 pm, no exceptions! Any questions?… Good! And don’t forget to fill up your water bottles. This is the purest water you’ll ever drink.

With that said, we climbed down the ladder stairs, and joined approximately 300 sightseers already on the ice.

explorers on the ice

Almost immediately, there was a surge to the rope line 200 ft. ahead, where a Battle Royale ensued for unobstructed “selfies” of the glacial mouth. We stood in awe of the competitive scramble,


which was a huge distraction from the awe of the terrain.

glacial ridge

Of course, with the clock running down, we turned our attention to the glacial spring running through the middle of the pedestrian corral.

flower and ice

ice water

so Leah could fill her bottle with 200 thousand year-old vintage water.

glacial water

After returning to the depot with all passengers accounted for, we boarded another bus that continued to Brewster’s Glacier Skywalk,–a glass-plated arch nearly two inches thick, suspended 800 feet above the valley floor–

glacier skywalk

glacier bridge

steel supports

giving us commanding views of Athabasca Mountain,

Athabasca Mountain

the corresponding run-off,


stormy river

…and a local grazer, precariously gripping the mountainside.


Even now, I’m uncertain how the mountain goat turned itself around.

Not that l’m complaining, but one year ago, Leah and I had an opportunity to visit the Juneau Icefields by helicopter…

flying over Herbert Glacier

and step onto Herbert Glacier where nobody was waiting.

landing on Herbert Glacier

Herbert detail

The remoteness gave us a completely different perspective and appreciation of nature that Brewster was unable to deliver.

But at the very least, we left with a bottle of chilled glacial water.







The Texture of Water

The power of wind and water can carve a glacier* in uncertain ways.

But there is no mistaking the coarseness of glacial ice, compounded by the amorphous form of rushing water, which suggests a texture of turbulence.

ice water

* Athabasca Glacier at Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park

Banff Is My New Bff

I really missed being in the mountains, and eagerly anticipated the rush of crossing into the Canadian Rockies. After a month of wandering through American and Canadian prairies, Leah and I were more than ready for a change in scenery, but it came with a dose of anxiety.

British Columbia was on fire at several National Park locations, and much of the smoke and ash that was rising into the high air was now drifting toward us, acting as a blue sky spoiler.

Cloud over Kootaney

A gauzy gray veil had settled over the mountains surrounding Banff, cloaking the distant peaks like a cruel magic vanishing act.

overcast sky

There was little to be done about many of the fires that were burning out of control, so essentially, we were at the mercy of the winds to give us back our views.

We secured reservations months ago for a coveted trailer court site inside the park, but could only manage to snag two overnights, as this was the park’s busiest time of the year. Our biggest concern: salvaging two precious days in a park so vast, with so many highlights to choose from, while wildfires loomed over the horizon.

As luck would have it, we overshot the turnoff to our campground on Tunnel Mountain Drive with no chance of u-turning with a twenty-eight foot Airstream in tow. I drove on until a turn-in appeared a short distance up the road featuring Banff’s only hoodoos– overwhelmed by the grandeur of Mount Rundle and the beauty of Bow Valley.


Once we settled into site 818, we drove to town in search of recommendations from the Visitor’s Center staff, and came away with an avalanche of maps and brochures, along with a strong warning about bear activity in the park. Apparently, August is known for offering the best berries for bears in Banff.

With the haze blowing west and sky beginning to brighten by 5:00 pm, we headed out to Johnson Lake–a favorite for paddlers, and the warmest alpine lake in the park for swimming at 50º F.

Johnson Lake

But we were content to hike the loop around the lake and gaze at Cascade Mountain in the distance before calling it a day.

Johnson Lake with inflatable

On our return ride to the Airstream, we were surprised to find a small herd of bighorns grazing by the side of the road…

bighorn herd

…while an elder patrolled the perimeter.

one-eyed sheep

The following day–with fires raging to the southwest of us–we planned a trip to the north country in search of clear skies. A leisurely ride along the Bow Valley Parkway (from the Village of Banff to its terminus at the Village of Lake Louise) gave us plenty to see, with several stops along the way—most of them intentional…

Castle Mountain1


rail bed

Ranger Creek

Mount Ishbel

and one of them unexpected.

black bear

We eventually arrived at Lake Louise via park shuttle on the advice of a park official who claimed that the parking lot by the lake was bulging with traffic chaos, which turned out to be an understatement. Even the road to Moraine Lake, an off-shoot of our shuttle route was barricaded to all traffic.

The short trail to the Lake revealed a sea of people on the boardwalk jockeying for position with selfie sticks–each one vying for the iconic pose with Mount Victoria in the background. As if in a trance, I stood in awe of the scene, my focus rapidly shifting between the splendor of Victoria Glacier and the vivid turquoise water, and wondering if any photograph could ever capture the beauty I felt honored to witness.

Victoria Mountain

It was only after somebody tapped me to snap their picture that I came to my senses. Of course, they gladly returned the favor.


Leah and I elected to hike the Fairview Trail, a one-mile ascent through a spruce forest offering commanding views of Chateau Lake Louise. There was no vacancy at the hotel that day, despite room rates ranging from $450 to $1100 per night.

Lake Louise Lodge from Fairview overlook

Equally shocking was the rate for canoe rentals at the boathouse.

canoe pricing

But avid seafarers were undeterred, as reservations were unavailable for the next two days.

Canoes for rent

At 5:00 pm the barricades to Moraine Lake were lifted, once again making it acceptable to drive the distance to an overflowing parking lot. We passed car after car haphazardly leaning into a drainage ditch along the roadbed in lieu of a formal parking space half a mile ahead. Consequently, we were road-sharing with fearless pedestrians who were determined to make a pilgrimage to the lake, come hell or high traffic.

For many, it was equivalent to a religious experience…

Lake Moraine1

Lake Moraine canoe rental

Lake Moraine

glacier on the mountain

While some bridesmaids found it titillating.



The next day we awoke to a hazy sky. The fires in Kootenay National Park were spreading south of us, causing thousands in BC to evacuate. We were scheduled to pack up and leave by 11:00 am, but on a whim, I challenged the campground attendant to search for cancellations and find me an extra day.

And she did!

While I would have preferred to stay put at #818, the site was promised to another. The best she could do was to place me next door in #816. It meant having to unhook all the utilities, and hitch up the Airstream only to pull it 50 feet, but I wasn’t complaining. I can’t imagine a faster move!

With our bonus day, we cruised the Vermillion Lakes Trail, stopping to admire Mount Rundle, considered the most photographed, painted, and climbed mountain in Banff.

Mt. Rundle behind Vermillion Lakes

After debating our next objective, we elected to drive a short distance into BC to inspect a waterfall from above at Marble Canyon in Kootenay–as long as it wasn’t on fire! However, as if by providence, an attendant was lifting the parking barricade to Johnson Canyon as we were approaching the turn-in, and we quickly detoured to one of Banff’s signature trails.

We followed a paved trail bordered by arrow-straight pines…

Leah and bow tree

bow tree Johnson Canyon

as it transitioned into a cantilevered walkway, steadily climbing along a fast and meandering stream, where it culminated in a bridge across a torrent of cascading water…

JC lower falls

…that lead through a narrow low-clearance tunnel.

“I’d make sure to protect my head if I was you,” I advised Leah.

We battled through the claustrophobia and B.O. until the passage opened out to an onslaught of gushing water.

Johnson falls spray

By this time, Leah’s arches were giving out, and we would have called it a day, but we pledged to make good on our original plan, so it was off to Kootenay we went.

Marble Canyon was a slow assent along a canyon of rock, where the water was steadily dropping lower into the gorge beneath our feet, and every step brought us closer to the source of the roar.

Marble Canyon


falling water Marble canyon

The only thing left to do was to hike downhill to the stream, and feel the alpine water rush over my feet, as I watched the clouds race across a clear sky.

We borrowed from Bow Valley Provincial Park, next door to score an extra day in Banff and it paid off–the weather cooperated, the smoke dissipated, and the scenery elevated our mood and our feet.