This is Detroit

Detroit has been working overtime on a public relations campaign to scrub the grime off its tarnished reputation and buff the rentability of its landmark towers. A downtown resurgence is helping to restore the luster of a once-burgeoning city that grew into an industrial and economic juggernaut during the first half of the 20th century, but became a municipal pariah after accruing $20 billion of debt since the 1950s.

In its heyday, Detroit was a magnet of opportunity, attracting new residents from all American sectors with the promise of manufacturing jobs. Consequently, its population swelled to 2 million.

The collapse of the city’s automobile industry was the catalyst for Detroit’s demise. Racial tensions culminated in riots in 1967 that led to a mass exodus, and Detroit shrank to a third of its size. Vacant lots and abandoned buildings became the norm. Ultimately, the city went bankrupt in 2013–the largest debt of its kind for an American city.

Today, Detroit is rebounding, but not without new growing pains. City leaders hope to strike a balance between renewed economic confidence and building a future that is more inclusive of long-term residents who have suffered the most.

As it’s explained by Pete Saunders for Forbes Magazine:

  • …A partnership between city and state government, business leaders and the city’s philanthropic community led an innovative effort to restructure the city’s debt, estimated at $19 billion.

  • Private investment in downtown Detroit, already on the upswing prior to the bankruptcy filing, continued to trend upward.  Last fall’s opening of Little Caesar’s Arena, part of the larger District Detroit business and entertainment area, the construction of a landmark mixed use development on a former iconic department store site, and the recent acquisition by Ford Motor Company of Michigan Central Station all demonstrate the accelerated pace of development in the city.

  • Detroit’s Midtown area, also just north of downtown and home to many of the city’s arts and cultural institutions and Wayne State University, has been the site of dozens of new mixed use developments with hundreds of new units designed to attract Millennial urban dwellers.

  • The city’s former warehouse district on the east riverfront is attracting development attention for high-end condos and apartments with downtown and waterfront views.

  • Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, the city’s oldest neighborhood and one that’s grown in trendiness over the last half-decade, is set to receive more investment in commercial and residential development, pushing its recent successes to the next level.

  • The New Center area, further north of downtown, is beginning to see development activity tick upward as well.  Community anchor Henry Ford Hospital has just broken ground on a new cancer center.  The Detroit Pistons basketball team will build a new office and practice complex in the area as well.  More high-end condos and apartments are being constructed in New Center too, and the Motown Museum is planning for a $50 million expansion.

  • Detroit’s development resurgence is being tied together by a brand-new streetcar line that opened last year, the QLine.  The 3-mile streetcar connects downtown with the adjacent neighborhoods where activity is taking place, and there are hopes that the line could expand further outward and gain additional branches.

Leah and I took a walk around downtown to see for ourselves. First, we stopped at an Art Deco-styled landmark building celebrating its 90th anniversary.

front desk

Guardian arch

Guardian mural

Guardian entry

A short walk to the Detroit River brought us face to fist with an homage to Joe Louis.

homage to Joe Louis

Nearby, the Spirit of Detroit was undergoing a makeover.

Spirit of Detroit

We crossed E. Jefferson to arrive at Hart Plaza to gaze at Michigan’s Labor Legacy.

Labor's Legacy, Hart Plaza

Walking a short distance to the Detroit River brought us views of Windsor, Canada as once imagined by slaves making their escape through the Underground Railroad.

Windsor CA

In the distance, stands the Ambassador Bridge–the busiest crossing between U.S. and Canada–with 10,000 commercial vehicles making the trip daily.

Ambassador Bridge.jpg

Beyond Dodge Fountain, the GM Renaissance Tower rises from the International Riverfront. 

Dodge Fountain

A walk along the riverwalk delivered us to the GM Wintergarden, where a life-sized model of a Chevy Silverado was made entirely of Legos.

Lego Chevy left.jpg

It took 18 master builders over 2,000 hours and 334,544 “bricks” to complete. At 3,307 lbs., the sculpture stands at half the curb weight of its legitimate counterpart.

Lego Chevy rigft

Equally as impressive, and no less the engineering feat, the Fisher Building has been referred to as “Detroit’s largest art object.” 

Fisher Building

Finished in 1928, the 30-story building was financed by the Fisher family from the sale of Fisher Body Company to General Motors.

1928

Albert Kahn’s opulent 3-story barrel vaulted lobby…

Fisher Building arcade

decorated in paint…

Geza Maroti frescoe

and marble by Géza Maróti is considered a masterpiece.

Black marble

Alfred Kahn also spent time up river on Belle Isle (an island park originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1880s), where he designed America’s first Aquarium and Conservatory in 1904.

Auquarium facade

Belle Isle Aquarium

Marlin mosaic

Belle Isle Conservatory

Conservatory

Another part of Detroit’s revitalization effort included the construction of Ford Field, the domed home of NFL’s Detroit Lions,

Ford Field

conjoined with Comerica Park, home to baseball’s Detroit Tigers.

Comerica Park.jpg

Detroit has been hailed as The Comeback City, emerging from Chapter 9 with a new vibe that seems to be drawing people back to a city that was broke and broken, and considered unliveable only six years ago. With continuing investment and broad community suport, the prospects for Detroit are bright,

lungfish

and turning naysayers into believers.

Looking Back in Pictures

Leah and I are winding down our Great Lakes circumnavigation 200 miles south of Lake Erie, where a hundred or more local and distant celebrants have gathered in Ligonier, PA to party with Tiff and Jim on their 25th wedding anniversary.

Appropriately, it was Ligonier and the surrounding Laurel Highlands where Leah and I broke our Airstream cherry. It was the cusp of winter/spring; it was the day after Leah’s 60ish birthday; and it was my first day of retirement.

We dug ourselves out of a major New Jersey snowstorm, and loaded up the Airstream and the F-150 with a year’s worth of gear and courage. Our maiden voyage left us white-knuckled as we precariously cruised the backroads to find Tiff and Jim’s country house in darkness. That was 29 months ago.

Today, we are seasoned road warriors who have grown in confidence, and somehow avoid repeating our original mistakes. Instead, we make new mistakes, which keeps us on our toes.

Circling back to Ligonier after three months of Great Lakes coastal roads has also given me time to reflect on the places I traveled, the things I’ve seen, and the moments I captured.

What follows is a snapshot retrospective along our route:

Niagara Falls ON
Niagara Falls, Ontario–Victoria Avenue
Wawa ON
Wawa, Ontario–Young’s General Store
St. Ignace MI
St. Ignace, Michigan–Castle Rock
Ft. Williams, ON
Fort William, Ontario–Mount McKay
Duluth MN
Duluth, Minnesota–Canal Park
Duluth MN (2)
Eldes Corner, Minnesota–Jay Cooke State Park
Carlton MN
Carlton, Minnesota–Buffalo Valley RV Campground
Cloquet MN
Esko, Minnesota–East Highway 61
Bayfield WI
Bayfield, Wisconsin–Howl Adventure Center
LaPointe WI
Bayfield, Wisconsin–1st Street
Musining MI
Munising, Michigan–The Dogpatch
Sturgeon Bay WI
Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin–N. 3rd Avenue
Ellison Bay WI
Ellison Bay, Wisconsin–WI-42
Egg Harbor WI
Egg Harbor, Wisconsin–WI-42
Devil's Doorway, WI.jpg
Baraboo, Wisconsin–Devil’s Doorway, Devil’s Lake State Park
Baraboo, WI
Baraboo, Wisconsin–Circus World
Wisconsin Dells, WI
Wisconsin Dell, Wisconsin–Broadway
Plain, WI
Plain, Wisconsin–Ederer Dairy Supply
Milwaukee WI
Milwaukee, Wisconsin–Lakefront Brewery
Stay Puft
Highland Park, Illinois–Ravinia Festival
Niles IL
Niles, Illinois–Leaning Tower of Niles
Grand Rapids MI
Grand Rapids, Michigan–Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
Traverse City, MI
Traverse City, Michigan–Warehouse District
Dearborn, MI
Dearborn, Michigan–Ford Rouge Factory
Detroit, MI
Detroit, Michigan–Heidelberg Project
Detroit, MI1
Detroit, Michigan–Comerica Park
Long Live Rock Leah
Cleveland, Ohio–Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Bellefountaine, OH
Bellefontaine, Ohio–S. Main Street
Pittsburgh, PA 1
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–Andy Warhol Museum (Keith Haring)
Pittsburgh, PA
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–Mattress Factory (Yayoi Kusama)
Willie and Leah
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–PNC Park (Willie “Pops” Stargell)
Ligonier PA
Ligonier, PA–Fort Ligonier

This is only the beginning for us. Stay tuned for more travel follies…

Sunset over Agawa Bay

When the sun’s last rays warm Agawa Bay,

sun over the hill

the bugs attack without delay.

Agawa Bay

They make their way, prepared to stay

breaking at sunset

on a patch of skin, where they can win

lake and sky

to my chagrin, a forearm or a shin.

Stones and surf

Mosquitoes take top billing, and black flies are willing

colored pines

to make a killing from their drilling.

trees and sky

But I remain to snap a frame, and find it’s still fulfilling.

 

Thunder Mountain

From a distance, Mt McKay is imposing, rising 1200 ft over Lake Superior and making it the largest of the Nor’Wester mountains. It gets its name from William Mackay, a Scottish fur trader from the mid-1800s, who lived for a time in the Fort William vicinity.

However, the Fort William First Nation, descendents of the Chippewa tribe, call the mountain Anemki Wajiw (ah-NIM-ih-key waw-JOO), meaning Thunder Mountain,

Thunder Mountain

and consider it sacred land.

In Honor of Our Ojibwa Elders

Mt McKay is a prominent landmark of the Fort Williams First Nation reserve, and offers sweeping views of Thunder Bay…

plane landing

from its boardwalk overlook on the eastern plateau…

boardwalk to overlook (2)

and beyond…

Fort William First Nation

Leah and I drove up Mission Road to a toll house, where a First Nation member collected $5.00. She advised us to hike the western trail to the flat cap for more commanding views, and encouraged us to return in 3 days to witness a powwow of the Lake Superior chapters. She also offered a menu and invited us to visit her lunch counter in town.

The trail was narrow, steep and challenging with shards of shale scattered over rocky formations. We took our time.

After a weary climb of 40 minutes, we welcomed the cooler air around us as we crossed onto a plate of volcanic rock formed over 1,100 million years ago.

Leah and me

The bright sun promised a crisp and dazzling vista,

Thunder Bay overlook

but it also seemed to energize the horse flies that soon regarded me as bait.

harbor view

That’s when I knew it was time to retreat to the bottom of the hill, oh-so-gingerly over long drops onto loose shale.

Once we landed at the trail head, I had decided (after checking with Leah) that we should attend the powwow on Satuday.



On the day of the powwow, we looked for news on the internet. and it was everywhere. The council was expecting over 5,000 attendees over two days with plenty of drumming and dancing. Food tents and crafts stalls would round out the affair. The rules were simple: No Alcohol. No Drugs. No hiking. Have a Safe Time.

We drove to Fort Williams First Nation ice arena, where we met a yellow school bus that shuttled us the rest of the way. Only three days ago, the area was empty and quiet, but today, it looked like a parking lot next to a fairground with fringe tents and trailer camping.

Participants were gathering inside the spirit circle and adjusting their costumes, while spectators were filling the grandstands, and the royalty was assembling in anticipation of the welcoming ceremony.

Welcome ceremony

It was a colorful and festive affair. A steady drum beat managed by eight drummers, accompanied a caterwauling chant of guttural highs and lows and occasional shrieks.

drum circle

After a prolonged opening procession and invocation, Chiefs and Elders presented flags,

Chiefs

and then it was time to drum and sing and dance again. Grass dancers followed Elders…

grass dancers

who were followed by family members…

procession

who also danced several times around the pavillion with their children…

father and son

tiny dancer

showing off their feathers,

eagle feathers

their elaborate ceremonial costumes…

teal man

red costume

blue costume

and their elaborate moves…

Little Bear 2

Little Bear

Little Bear 1

After a couple of hours, Leah and I returned to the boardwalk for a stroll to the memorial,

WW1 Indian memorial

where we discovered a trail to the right that hugged the cliff around the plateau. We hiked further along, scouting for poison ivy as we walked, and came to a clearing where three girls in training bras were sneaking cigarettes around a slab of concrete.

It was an amusing irony and signaled our time to return to the ice arena. The school bus that brought us circled the field–collecting passengers–and momentarily paused at a graphic display of Ojibwe insight and life lessons:

Ojibwe Code

They are good words to live by!

Neys Provincial Park

Dear Diary,

Today was unsettling, as nothing went as planned.

A high probability of intermittent rain had been forecasted throughout the day, which gave us very few options. Although we were snug in our pull-through campsite overlooking the northern boundary of Lake Superior from Neys Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, we were looking forward to exploring the stark coastal beauty of an area once known from 1941 to 1946 as Neys Camp 100–an internment facility for German POWs and Japanese Canadians.

detention sign

Prisoners arriving (2)
Kreigsmarine and Luftwaffe prisoners of war arriving at Neys, ca. 1941

Prevailing wind from the west had whipped up whitecaps across the water, and threatening skies promised to restrict our outdoor time, but we were determined to make the most of current conditions: buggy, chilly, yet dry.

Terrace Bay

A short walk to the Visitor’s Centre for sight-seeing suggestions proved useless since the door was locked–maybe from campground inactivity, I surmised. There was, however, an interesting park bench design overlooking the lake by Sean Randell. 

Trout bench Neys PP

With 144 sites covering 4 areas, Leah and I spotted less than a dozen occupied sites. Many of the seasonal campers left their trailer set-ups behind for greater comforts nearby. With electricity only provided at less than half the sites, we had the showers practically to ourselves.

We were determined to get a hike in, so we selected the 1 km Dune Trail loop for its brevity (in case of sudden rain), and our fascination with sand dunes by the lake. We followed each other single file through a skinny path snaking through a plantation of red pines and a forest floor of lichens, mosses, and herbs. But we never found the dunes–only rolling mounds of sand over soil. We began the hike with an interpretive trail guide corresponding to 7 markers, but mosquitoes quickly put an end to that. We found ourselves marching through the forest just to complete the loop. The roundtrip walk to the trailhead proved to be longer than the entire trail.

With a faint drizzle falling, we planned a 35-mile drive to Terrace Bay, following TransCanada Highway 17 west around the top of Lake Superior, but the truck refused to start. Earlier in the week, I was stuck in a parking lot under similar circumstances, but Leah located a Samaritan willing to give me a battery boost. Today, however, was a different mater. After shlepping a spare battery around America for tens of thousands of miles, I finally got a chance to use it.

The battery installation set us back half an hour. And then the sky opened up the moment I dropped the hood and climbed inside the cab. It was an auspicious moment in my life!

We finally arrived at Terrace Bay (pop. 1100) and descended an elaborate boardwalk to a high viewing platform that distanced us from Aquasabon Fall’s 100-ft. drop,

Aquasabon Falls

and the granite gorge that carries the spill water to Lake Superior.

Aquasabon Falls and Gorge

Back at the boardwalk entrance, I stood alongside a millennial male. We were studying an oversized graphic together about the geological properties and commercial significance of the Falls.

Falls and Gorge graphic

My neighbor had a cat perched on his shoulder wearing a harness with a leash. Suddenly, a light rain began to fall, spooking the cat. It leapt to the ground, surprising the host. He had control for a moment, but it squirmed out of his arms, and wriggled free of its harness. He dove for the hind legs, but the cat was too fast. It bolted 50 yards to the trees, and disappeared in the brush with his girlfriend chasing after it and screaming its name. We briefly watched in amusement, wondering if the cat would reconnect with its owners, but we had our doubts.

While in town, we filled the truck with $130 Canadian of gas, and searched for a lunch spot, but ended up at a Chinese Canadian restaurant in a strip mall just to use the internet. I had fried chicken balls (no joke), and Leah ordered dry-rubbed spare ribs. The food was as disappointing as a dead car battery and tasteless as a lost cat in the woods.

spare ribs

A stubby white lighthouse planted in front of the strip mall parking lot offered a view of Lake Superior. To Leah’s amazement, I passed on a picture of the tower and a view from the bridge. 

The ride back to Neys was rainswept and uninteresting except for a cow moose that galloped across TransCanada Highway 17, followed closely by two calves. They hurdled the guard rail and instantly disappeared into the forest. Maybe they’ll discover the cat.

 

Agawa Rock Pictographs

The trail was advertised as 0.5 km.

“It’s probably very steep,” Leah figures.

“How hard can it be?” I wonder, still a skeptic.

“It says so in the brochure,” she states. “I quote, ‘Caution is advised when venturing onto this rock ledge due to its slope and the unpredictable nature of Lake Superior and its wave action.'”

“Sounds like fun. We should see it,” I suggest. “This is ancient historical shit!”

“It sounds a lot like the petroglyphs that we saw in Nevada,” she offers.

“You mean the Atlatl Rock in Valley of Fire State Park,” I acknowledge.

“Exactly!” she states.

“But this one’s on the water, and not the desert,” I tease.

“I know that, smart ass, and it’s also harder to get to, so you need to be careful!” Leah lectures.

“Like I said, how hard can it be?” I reiterate.

We park the truck only minutes from our campsite at Agawa Bay, and enter the trailhead where we are met with a screaming red sign:

warning (2)

“Like I said…” drops Leah.

I deflect the dig. “Check it out.” I direct Leah’s attention to a different sign to our right–a red diamond hammered to a tree with a white arrow and 400 km on it.

“That’s where the trail begins. And according to that sign, we’ve already walked 20% of the trail!”

It’s true the trail is rugged and a scramble. The descent runs through a narrow chasm, over sharp boulders and bulging roots. But it’s only treacherous if wearing flip flops, which a student rangerette at the visitor’s center admits can be a problem with some hikers.

Halfway to our destination, a gash in the cliff exposes a 10 ft granite chunk mysteriously wedged between darkness and daylight.

split rock (2)

In 15 minutes we arrive at a clearing of flat rock where the sky opens up to the water. A colorful cliff 15 stories high looms above us, grabbing my attention.

Painted Rock

Leah is content holding onto a pipe rail that separates the adventurous from the cautious.

“Are you coming?” I ask.

“Down there? Not a chance!” Leah answers instinctively.

A short drop onto a wet ledge of granite sloping into Lake Superior takes added time, but planting my feet with measured steps is the best method for staying safe.

on a ledge
courtesy of Leah

Knotted ropes threaded through embedded pipes are there to assist the daredevils who spill into 50° F water.

from Picturegraph ledge

Once I get my footing, I can sidle across the ledge for a better look at the cliff face.

painted rockface

Venturing further out on the ledge, I meet Mishipeshu, the Great Lynx, who was empowered by the ancient Ojibways to control Lake Superior.

Mishibizhiw Great Lynx, who controlled Lake Superior

There are dozens of sacred drawings set in stone, dating back to the 17th century, but most are faded and nearly unrecognizable from eons of sun, water, ice and wind. Their message remains unknown, but experts reason that the pictographs depict historical events, and could signify manitous from shamanistic ceremonies.

I carefully manuever onto terra firma,

Agawa Rock Lake Superior (3)

and we hike back to the parking lot.

“That was amazing, down there,” I exclaim.

“It was alright,” notes Leah.

“But you never got to see the pictographs,” I mention.

“That’s OK. You did all the hard work for me. I’ll just have a look at your photographs,” she laughs.

 

 

 

Great Lakes Hyperbole

Of course, the Great Lakes are great; they constitute the world’s largest above-ground freshwater system in the world, containing about 18 percent of the world’s supply.

However, beyond its scale (larger than all the Eastern seaboard states combined), what about all the other awesome attractions that border its shorelines? Are they equally as great, or big, or best, or exclusive?

Let’s take a look:

Given the many possibilities for food around the Great Lakes, the area’s largest hamburger rests atop Burger King in Niagara Falls, ON.

Burger King

And the largest hotdog can be found in Mackinaw City at Wienerlicious.

Wienerlicious (2)

Both can be purchased with the world’s largest nickel…

biggest nickel

the brainchild of Dr. Ted Szilva,

Dr. Rred Szilva (2)

and on display at Sudbury’s Dynamic Earth.

Dynamic Earth

Only one mile away, Inco’s superstack–the tallest chimney in the western hemisphere–rises 1250 feet atop Vale Inco’s Copper Cliff processing facility–the largest nickel smelting operation in the world.

INCO Superstack

Nowhere as tall, Castle Rock (commonly referred to as Pontiac’s Lookout) is a natural 200-foot limestone sea chimney…

Castle Rock

overlooking Lake Huron and Interstate 75,

I-75

and considered the oldest lookout in St. Ignace, Michigan…until the Mackinac Bridge was built in 1957.

Mackinaw Suspension Bridge

Spanning the Straits of Mackinac, and connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, the Mackinac Bridge is hailed as the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.

Building the bridge

Although less of an engineering feat, the upside-down house, built in Niagara Falls, measures up to 1200 square feet of topsy-turvy, making it Canada’s most unusual landmark.

upside down house

Nearby, at Niagara on the Lake, locals can tee up at Niagara Golf Club, the oldest existing golf course (albeit, nine holes) in North America.

Niagara Golf

In Midland, Ontario, a grain elevator looms over a Georgian Bay harbor, featuring North America’s largest historic outdoor mural created by Fred Lenz.

Midland mural

mural history

History also abounds at Colonial Michilimackinac–

Fort Michilimackinac

a reconstructed 18th century frontier fortress originally garrisoned by the French during 1715, and later controlled by the British.

3 British Stooges

After 60 years of excavation, valuable relics from fort living continue to be unearthed, making it the longest ongoing archeological dig in North America.

digger

One of the many buildings discovered and recreated inside the fort belonged to Ezekiel Solomon, a fur trader who has been celebrated as Michigan’s first Jewish settler.

Solomon House

Solomon plaque (2)

And then there’s Niagara Falls, a natural wonder that needs little hyperbole.

While not the highest, or the widest falls, its combined falls (Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls) qualify Niagara Falls as the most powerful, forming the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America.

Niagara Falls horseshoe

While this “Great” list may not represent the best of all gilded attractions in the Great Lakes area to date, it’s the only list I’m likely to compile

…until the next one.

Rain or Shine…or Snow

It’s been two weeks since crossing over into Canada, and it’s been mostly cloudy and wet so far. I don’t know if this is a cause and effect circumstance, but locals are approaching me with snorkels and flippers.

The weather has put a damper on our outdoor time while extending our Airstream time. The mosquitoes have been hungry and swarming around the clock, turning mosquito swatting into a cabin past-time.

Nevertheless, it hasn’t been completely bleak and dismal. We had agreeable weather during a brief stay at Six Mile Lake Provincial Park, where we visited Georgian Bay National Park on an unusually clear day, and took a 15-minute ride on a Daytripper ferry…

daytripper.jpg

to explore the network of trails on Beausoleil Island, guiding us to Honeymoon Bay,

30,000 islands

Fairy Lake,

Fairy Lake

and a keyhole to the many island cottages that dot Chimney Bay.

island cottage

The weather also cooperated during a recent visit to Discovery Harbour, once a British naval and military base in Penetanguishene commissioned to secure back door access to Upper Canada after the War of 1812.

nautical history.jpg

Of the two warships safeguarding the King’s Wharf at the time,

skiff and Tecumeth

the H.M.S Tecumseth has been replicated to stand guard once again,

skiff hull.jpg

Yet the schooner has been deemed unseaworthy by authorities, and is destined to be a floating exhibit, much like the original.

Tecumseth replica

Because the Rush-Bagot agreement between Britain and the United States restricted the number of active warships on the Great Lakes, the H.M.S. Tecomseth was decommissioned in 1817, and kept in a state of readiness until it eventually rotted and was reportedly scuttled in 1828.

However, its 1815 hull was raised from Penetanguishene Bay in 1953, and placed in a climate-controlled museum inaugurated in 2014.

1815 hull.jpg

As day turned to twilight, the clouds began to thicken,

tree silhouette.jpg

providing a curtain call that few campers had seen in weeks.

Sunset over Lake Mindemoya

Moving our location to Manitoulin Island did little to change a now-familiar weather pattern. We pondered whether sandbagging the Airstream might become necessary, but that thought slipped our minds soon after being preoccupied with scratching our mosquito bites.

Working around the rain was challenging. Under cloudy skies, we hiked the trail leading to Bridal Veil Falls’ 35-foot drop near the town of Kagawong.

Bridal Veil Falls.jpg

And despite the threat of rain, we continued on, climbing the cliffs of M’Chigeeng on the Cup and Saucer Trail,

The Cup and Saucer Trail.jpg

for splendid views of the North Channel.

Cliffside overlook.jpg

But our luck ran out as we drove to Ten Mile Point for a stormy lookout of Georgian Bay…

10 Mile Point

and found similar blustery conditions at Providence Bay, on the edge of Lake Huron,

Lake Huron surf

before returning to the sanctuary of our Airstream.

The following day, our four-hour travel time to Sault Ste. Marie was compromised by a tire mishap (see Blowout!). And then it rained…a lot!

By now, mosquito bashing had turned into a bloodsport. There were a few brief intermissions that allowed us to explore Sault Ste Marie’s famed boardwalk, which carried us past a whimsical sculpture in Roberta Bondar Park,

Three Bears

on our way along St. Mary’s River…

Soo Locks Boat Tours

to Sault Ste. Marie Canal–transitioning between Lake Huron…

Sault Ste. Marie Canal (2)

and Lake Superior…

Lake locks

before continuing across to Whitefish Island, where the convergence of Lake Huron and Lake Superior forms St. Mary’s rapids.

St. Mary's Rapids

And then a ride through downtown Queen St. produced a completely different climate,

Queen St.

where traces of snow formed around a movie set,

Christman in June

looking much like fire foam…

Fire foam (2)

to create a wintery look…

Fire Foam

for a Hallmark Christmas production adapted from Kevin Major’s The House of Wooden Santas.

Lamp pole and steeple

The weather always sets the tone for the trip. At the moment, rain amounts are up 30% over past years, and lake levels continue to rise above one meter.

This is a time for the birds…

bird on bird

the mosquitoes, and black flies.

And while there’s little we can do to control or avoid the weather, at least we are now prepared.

netting

Falling for Waterfalls

Leah and I are back on the road again, touring in our Airstream and excited to explore and record our impressions.

Before mothballing the trailer in North Carolina for the past 11 months, we had traveled 44,000 miles, crossing 33 states, 4 Canadian Provinces, and 2 Mexican States in one-year’s time (see Epilogue).

Unfortunately, there were glaring omissions in our route that never took us through the Rust-Belt, so for our second act, we are circumnavigating the Great Lakes–visiting 8 States and 1 Province.

Our summer journey begins with a visit to historic Jim Thorpe, PA in the Pocono Mountains–
St. Mark's Episcapol Church
a famed destination for winter sports and whitewater rafting.

steeple

With water levels high, and water running fast, it was shoring up to be a high-water adventure.

Lehigh River1

Class II and III rapids would be the perfect way to jump-start this trip.
Danger sign
However, I scratched the raft ride after learning that only family floats were running the Lehigh River,
Lehigh River.jpg
with the earliest dam release scheduled for the following weekend.

Lehigh River whitewater.jpg

Nevertheless, Leah and I were content to take a leisurely, 26-mile cycling tour down the Lehigh Gorge Trail, where we followed an abandoned railroad grade-turned-trail, offering river view…

river view

copulating snakes…

copulating snakes

canal lock relics…

Lock wall

and several hillside trickles…

rushing water

culminating in captivating waterfalls by the Rockport Access, with fast water cascading 50 feet over flat rock and flora at Buttermilk Falls;

Buttermilk Falls

and Luke’s Falls, featuring 50-foot water flowing over mossy ledges;

Lehigh Gorge falls

and occasional Lehigh spillovers on the side of the trail.

Lehigh Falls

While in the White Haven neighborhood, we ventured to the Park Office at Lehigh Gorge State Park for information on hiking the fabled Glen Onoko Falls Trail, but were informed that effective May 1, the Game Commission had closed the trail indefinitely until all safety issues have been addressed.

Glen Onoko Falls warning

Apparently, the risky behavior of many irresponsible and inexperienced hikers ended with far too many serious consequences, necessitating aggressive action. It was disappointing being unable to experience the Niagara of Pennsylvania, on a hike dubbed by Outdoor Magazine as “one of the 10 best waterfall hikes in the Northeast.”

Instead, the rangers diverted us to Hickory Run State Park, where we walked upstream along the Shades of Death Trail…

above Stametz Dam

to Stametz Dam, culminating in a 25-foot splash.

Stametz Dam Falls

While not a disappointing hike, it was anti-climatic and not what we came for, requiring some forward thinking.

When we eventually crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, we were ready for sweeping views of gushing water…and we were not disappointed!

Top of the Falls

As a basis of comparison, we observed the falls from multiple vantage points…

Hornblower to the Horseshoe

multiple perspectives…

into the falls

changing light…

Niagara Falls

varying focal lengths…

Niagara Falls--US & CA

and different dayparts.

Niagara Falls pm

And we both came to the same conclusion: that Victoria Falls was more spectacular than all other waterfalls combined.

horseshoe (4)

Now I fear that seeing the Holy Grail of waterfalls has tainted my impression of all other falls to come, and that’s okay for now.

Main Falls

Eventually, I will come around, and perhaps by that time the Glen Onoko Falls Trail will welcome us back in earnest.

Happy Trails

The shortest distance between two points of outdoor interest is rarely a straight line, but it’s always a trail–whether it’s over water…

Buffalo Pound Nicolle Flats Nature trail
Buffalo Pound–Nicolle Flats Nature Trail
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge trail
Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Trail
Drumheller Valley Star Suspension Bridge trail
Drumheller Valley–Star Suspension Bridge Trail

…or mud,

Great Smokys Andrews Bald trail
Great Smoky Mountain NP–Andrews Bald Trail

…or through a tunnel…

Great Smokys Lakeshore trail (2).jpg
Great Smoky Mountains NP–Lakeshore Trail

…through a tree…

Yosemite Tuolumne Grove Nature Ttrail
Yosemite–Tuolumne Grove Trail

…or under a rock;

Sequoia Potwisha trail.jpg
Sequoia NP–Potwisha Trail
Mammoth Cave trail
Mammoth Caves-NP–Historic Trail

Whether it requires a conventional staircase…

Valley of Fire Atlatl Rock trail
Valley of Fire–Atlatl Rock Trail
Moro Rock trail
Sequoia NP–Moro Rock Trail
Eureka Springs Center St to Main St trail
Eureka Springs–Center St. to Main St. Trail

Descending Lower Antelope Canyon trail

Ascending Lower Antelope Canyon trail
Lower Antelope Canyon Trail
Kentucky Natural Bridge trail
Kentucky Natural Bridge Trail

…or integrated steps,

Arches Windows trail
Arches NP–Windows Trail

…or at times, a ramp,

Hobe Mountain Observation Tower trail
Jonathan Dickinson State Park–Hobe Mountain Trail

trails can be linear or curvey, ascending or descending.

Tower ramp
Great Smoky Mountains–Crescent Mountain Observation Tower Trail

Some trails are meant for bicycles…

Tres Rios Cenotes trail

Tres Rios Cenotes Nature Trail
Tres Rios Ecopark–Cenotes Trail
John Dickinson bicycle trail.jpg
Jonathan Dickinson State Park–EaglesView Trail

…while others are intended for boats…

Everglades Airboat trail
Everglades Holiday Park–Everglades Canal Trail

…or horseback…

Palo Duro Canyon horse trail
Palo Duro Canyon Horse Trail

…or a four wheel drive vehicle.

Canyonlands Horshoe Canyon trail
Canyonlands NP–Horseshoe Canyon Trail

At times there are trails that require more extreme modes of transportation, like an all-terrain Ice Explorer…

all-terrain Ice Explorer
Columbia Icefields–Athabasca Glacier

…or a train to explore the Rockies…

Banff Rocky Mountaineer trail
Banff–Rocky Mountaineer Tracks
Pikes Peak mountain trail
Pikes Peak–The Broadmoor’s Cog Railway

…or a formation of F/A-18 Hornets…

Blu Angel formation contrails

Blue Angels contrails
Marine Corp Air Station Miramar–Air Show

or even a Space Shuttle.

Atlantis shuttle (3)
Kennedy Space Center

But mostly, hiking a trail is best accomplished by putting one foot in front of the other, although the terrain can vary from sand…

footprints
White Sands National Monument
couple taking a walk
Singer Island Beach
Saguaro Valley View Overlook trail
Saguaro NP–Valley View Overlook Trail

…to volcanic gravel,

Lassen Cinder Cone trail
Lassen Volcanic NP–Cinder Cone Trail
Lassen Volcanic Painted Dunes trail
Lassen Volcanic NP–Painted Dunes Trail
Olympic staircase trail
Olympic NP–Staircase Rapids Nature Loop Trail

or from ice…

Athabasca Glacier trail1
Columbia Icefields–Athabasca Glacier

…to salt;

Salt Flats (2)
Death Valley–Badwater Basin

and from granite…

Yosemite Four Mile trail
Yosemite–Four-Mile Trail

…to sandstone;

Valley of Fire White Domes trail
Valley of Fire–White Dome Trail
Valley of Fire Wave trail
Valley of Fire–Fire Wave Trail
Palo Duro Canyon Big Cave trail
Palo Duro Canyon–Big Cave Trail
Bryce Canyon Amphitheater trail
Bryce Canyon–Hoodoo Amphitheater Trail
Wildrose Peak trail
Death Valley–Charcoal Hives–Wildrose Mountain Trail
Death Valley Fall Canyon trail
Death Valley–Fall Canyon Trail
Death Valley Golden Canyon trail1
Death Valley–Golden Canyon Trail

and from tree bark…

Sequoia Cedar Grove trail
Yosemite–Cedar Grove Trail

…to tree roots…

Athabasca Falls trail
Athabasca Falls Trail

…to pavement.

Sioux Falls Falls Park trail.jpg
Sioux Falls–Falls Park Trail
Looking down Kill Devil Hill
Kill Devil Hill–Wright Brothers Memorial Trail

But in the end, regardless of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,

parhelic circle with sundogs
Great Smoky Mountains NP–Andrews Bald–Parhelic Circle with Sun Dogs

it’s the journey to get from here to there that matters most–because it’s the journey that builds character, and defines us like the lines on the palms of our hand.

palm and seed.jpg
Sequoia NP–Sequoia seed

The Aftermath, or If I Could Be Anywhere Else Right Now

It’s been 48 hours since arriving home after one year of steadily moving about the country. However, now that I’m physically situated in one place, it seems my mind continues to wander, yearning for places I’ve been or yet to experience. I fear I’m going through wanderlust withdrawal.

The feeling is eerily reminiscent of adjusting to the constant sway aboard a boat–to where I’ve finally gotten my sea legs–yet after docking, the motion of the ocean has robbed me of my equilibrium. Nothing seems normal to me. I still feel adrift, like a bobbing buoy.

Perhaps it’s some sort of jet lag (without the jet), or some kind of Post-Travel Stress Disorder, where my internal GPS continues to send rerouting instructions with every step taken, redirecting my brain and body back to the Airstream presently parked in Lakewood.

Acclimating to everyday life has been challenging, as I’ve yet to re-establish my new old routine, or shake off unsettling circadian rhythms of disorientation. Already, I’ve forgotten which cabinet holds the coffee mugs, or where to find the bottle opener, or what it was like to sleep on a king-sized mattress. Even after unpacking, I’m likely to open the wrong dresser drawer to find my socks.

Of course, it’s only been two days since landing, so I’m certain the confusion will abate and I will eventually adjust to a different way to fill my day without hesitation. But in the meantime, I will travel to my favorite places through my photographs, and dream about the possibilities.

One special destination–among more than a hundred visited in the past year–that still resonates to my core is reliving the beauty of Banff.

Mount Victoria (2)
Mt. Victoria watching over Lake Louise

Epilogue

We pulled the Airstream onto Colonial Airstream’s parking lot in Lakewood NJ, on St. Patrick’s Day, ostensibly marking our one-year anniversary Streaming thru America, and my one-year anniversary of blogging with WordPress under the same moniker.

Colonial Airstream

This has been a journey of a lifetime after a lifetime of journeys. It seems that everything I’ve done up until last year’s departure has prepared me for this adventure: as a NYC taxi driver, I honed my driving skills; as a restaurateur, I learned to cook using simple ingredients to create meals with complex flavors; as a camper, I grew up with an appreciation of nature and an affinity for adventure; as a producer, I perfected a perspective for planning and budgeting; as a carpenter, I mastered my mechanical skills; and as a special educator, I learned how to gain acceptance with the many special people we’ve met along the way.

This has also been a trip of numbers. As road warriors, Leah and I have travelled to 127 destinations: covering a total of 44,600 miles (5,500 flying miles) to thirty-six U.S. States; one Mexican State (Quintana Roo); and four Canadian Provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia).

Cost-wise, Leah acted as bursar for the trip, and took responsibility for all data entry into a categorized spreadsheet. Using round numbers, our largest expense was campground fees at nearly $13,000. We stayed at a smattering of National Parks (only because gaining online reservations are fiercely contested up to a year in advance), a few State Parks, a handful of Provincial Parks, some County and City Parks, predominantly private RV parks (many Good Sam and KOA affiliates), and an occasional Walmart parking lot when we were transitioning between longer distances. As a rule, we rarely travelled further than a tankful of gas, or the rough equivalent of 400 miles.

Entertainment was our second leading expense at approximately $10,000, which covered films, concerts, shows, tours, park fees, and ample opportunities for sampling the best food of the area, from fine dining to dive bars.

Next, we spent nearly $8,000 purchasing food and groceries–including paper products, personal hygiene, and liquor–with the lion’s share spent at Walmart and Costco.

And our last largest expense was for gasoline and liquid propane, which ran us close to $8000. We made 115 trips to the pump for 3300 gallons of gas, yielding an average of 11.8 miles per gallon from coast to coast to coast, while towing mileage topped out at 10.1 MPG.

Living aboard the Airstream for a year was also an exercise in living with less. At 240 square feet from stem to stern…

2017-airstream-flying-cloud-27fb-2-e1521351550640.png

and cargo limited to a folded rear seat and 52.8 cu. ft. of storage behind the cab of our Ford F-150 pickup…

2017-ford-f-150-carry-on-seats-folded (4)

we learned to live efficiently, but never uncomfortably.

Leah and I scaled down to a small wardrobe of layering, using a combination of casual sportswear, appropriate outerwear and a wide variety of outdoor footwear to address most weather conditions.

The galley held two pots, two pans, two mix bowls, and Corel for four; a drawer of utensils and a drawer full of cooking and kitchen gadgets; a traditional assortment of spices and herbs; one presspot (mine), one two-cup percolator (Leah’s) and two coffee mugs; a tiny toaster, a hand mixer, a built-in microwave, a compact vacuum, and a VitaMix–my biggest indulgence for emergency frozen margaritas.

Electronics included: two mounted LED TVs, two tablets, one laptop, a color compact HP printer, a Kindle, a pair of UE Booms, Jaybird wireless earbuds, a Lumix DMZ-FZ300 for photography, and a tangle of cables and charging accessories.

The truck bed was home to a couple of stadium chairs, a CLAM screen enclosure, a 2000-Watt Honda generator, a hefty tool chest, and a portable Weber grill.

Our bicycles clung to the backside of the Airstream, tied to a Fiamma rack.

bikes.jpg

Getting along for 365 days was our biggest experiment, and a wild card for this trip’s success. While there was no denying our compatibility, we would often joke if we would still be smiling and talking to each other by day 365.

Our roles were defined early on, seemingly divided along gender lines: I did the routing, navigation and driving, the setups and breakdowns at RV sites, and all the general maintenance; while Leah acted as cleaning commando (inside and out) and laundry lieutenant. Invariably, Leah prepared a simple breakfast and packed a light lunch, while I played chef de cuisine for dinner.

Although our living quarters were tight, our door usually opened onto something spectacular, from sunrises…

sunrise (2)

Grand Canyon sunrise (2)

to sunsets…

Mt. Pleasant, SC

sunset

sundown panorama (2)

so most of days were spent exploring the extraordinary.

We brought along a cribbage board and backgammon set, thinking that when our conversation ran dry, we could always resort to games, but when it was the two of us together lounging in our lair, we either stretched out along the dinette streaming Netflix when internet allowed, or sought alone time at opposite ends of the trailer, separated by a sliding screen or a swinging lavatory door.

Our queenish-sized platform bed was roomy and comfy. And the only times we slept apart was for five days when I was fighting the flu. Otherwise, our sleeping cycles alternated between retiring together, or more often than not, Leah retiring early while I night-owled to edit photography du jour, or posted to my blog.

Although this blog is by no means the end, it has been a means to an end. Streaming thru America has given me a springboard to dive into my desire to write consistently for a audience bigger than one, and a jump-start to reinvigorating my passion for photography. Combining my writing and photography in a travel blog has been reaffirming and therapeutic, and the motivation I needed to pump out 160 posts of 100,000 words and 2800 photos along the way.

What started as a forum for family and friends has grown organically to a following of 1900 plus fans through WordPress and social media, with viewers from 140 countries along for the ride. I am awed and humbled every day that people from all over world find value in my words and pictures. And I am determined to keep going.

Long before we started out, Leah had already decided on our exit strategy–that once we’d completed our trip, and our Airstream had served its purpose, we’d put it on the selling block. But I had a different vision–that this trip would lay the foundation for future trips around the continent. While it would never be as epic as this particular journey, I could nonetheless foresee regional trips to faraway fields and streams for a month or two or three.

However, after shoving off and putting hundreds of miles behind us, the new and scary gave way to familiar and fearless, and Leah was hooked.

As it happens, there were so many destinations that we short-changed in favor of keeping the whirlwind spinning (see An Olympian Apology), not to mention sections of the country that we bypassed all together, that today we feel compelled to prepare preliminary plans to patch the holes in our past itinerary.

For now, the Airstream sits in the dealer’s lot awaiting its spring maintenance, although the fourth nor’easter forecasted to hit this area in as many weeks makes us yearn for the Texas heat spell we endured last April (see “We’re on the Road to Nowhere”).

When we return to Towaco, we’ll have a house to sell and a household to pack away for our anticipated move to St. Augustine (see Finally!). Then, in a few months, we’ll recapture the glory of living as seasoned road warriors, as we savor the feeling of hauling our reconditioned Airstream through the Shenandoah Valley and over the Blue Ridge Mountains to a long-term storage solution in Charlotte NC.

And before too long, it will be time to hitch up the Airstream like old times, and follow the road on a new course and a new adventure.

Until next time,

streaming thru america

Happy Trails!

Mercer’s Swan Song

High on a bluff, overlooking the Wilmington River, sits Bonaventure Cemetery, 160 acres of inspired Southern Gothic funerary art and monuments worthy of any fabled ghost story setting, and one of the most hauntingly beautiful resting places found in America.

Named Bonadventure–good fortune in Italian–and conceived as a 9,920-acre plantation stretching from Ebenezer to Sunbury, Georgia, the land owners, Tattnall Sr. and Mullryne (son and father-in-law) mistakenly sided with King George III during the Revolutionary War, and were immediately denounced as traitors and stripped of their holdings by a Georgia council.

Tattnall Jr. returned from England soon after the war and reacquired a 750-acre tract of the property, where he settled with his Savannah-bred wife and family, before selling to Peter Wiltberger in 1846, who converted the land to a cemetery.

The day of our visit was dreary and wet, and it seemed fitting that the Spanish moss draped over 300 year-old oak trees would be weeping from the occasional drizzle.

Theuslandscape

Oddly, two sets of gates provide access to the graveyard: a Christian wing to left…

Christian entrance

and a Jewish gate to the right.

Bonaventure gate for Jews

We approached a gravedigger who was stepping out of his pick-up.

“I couldn’t help but notice the Jewish stars on top of the gate posts,” observed Leah.

“Yes, ma’am,” responded Doug, “This here’s a public cemetery.”

So Christians and Jews are buried together?” I questioned.

“Yes, sir,” agreed Doug. “Each religion’s got their own separate sections, and…”

“And there’s still room inside?” Leah interrupted.

“Yes, ma’am. I dug two fresh graves today. But you can’t buy your way in anymore, cuz everything’s all sold out long ago. But people keep askin’. I guess they’s dyin’ to get in,” joked Doug.

Fascinating!

We set off to explore. The cemetery was unexpectedly quiet for being a top attraction for curiosity seekers, and the bereaved.

Bonaventure Lane

We were on separate missions. Leah went in search of her namesake, and found her in a short matter of time.

Leah Goldstein

Whereas, I was in search of Johnny Mercer’s memorial–the legendary lyricist who penned over 1500 songs, was nominated for 14 Academy Award nominations, won Oscars for The Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, In the Cool, Cool, Cool, of the Evening, and On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, and co-founded Capitol records–which turned into more of a scavenger hunt.

Resorting to the internet, I discovered the section and plot (H-48), but finding it was another matter, since the layout is unlike any grid, with over 31,000 burial records to date.

map.jpg

Leah went one way, and I went another. We wandered aimlessly through rows and rows of plots till we plotzed. I quickly understood why guided tours through Bonadventure Cemetery are so popular.

Eventually, I got some help from a pair of caretakers who were blowing damp leaves across the dirt and gravel roads. They were eager to help, but my inability to translate Malaysian, turned my request into a game of Charades.

Using broken English and hand gestures, they redirected us to the general vicinity, where we crossed paths…

intersection

with officers…

General Anderson

Wheaton and wife

and gentlemen…

Morgan

Rauers

Dieter

ladies…

Hartridge

Ives

…and children.

4 babies

We wound our way through Section H until signs pointed to Johnny Mercer’s shrine of hits.

Johnny Mercer site

JM bench

Also in the vicinity, lies Georgia’s poet laureate and tragic orphan, Conrad Aiken,

Conrad Aiken

who is buried beside his father who murdered his mother, before turning the gun on himself when Conrad was 11-years old. Conrad went on to study at Harvard, where he was mentored by T.S. Eliot, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems in 1930.

Another literary thread woven through the Bonaventure fabric includes New York Time’s longest-standing (216 weeks) bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a true tale written by John Berendt.

midnight-in-the-garden-of-good-and-evil

The book cover featured Sylvia Shaw Judson’s Bird Girl, who graced the graveyard in relative obscurity for decades, until fans of the book sought out the statue’s location at Bonaventure, and began chipping away at its base for souvenirs. Eventually, Bird Girl was rescued and resettled in Savannah’s Telfair Museum of Art, where she can rest in one piece.

Bonaventure Cemetery under overcast skies during late autumn appears mostly monochromatic and presents a solemn and sombre mood. There are occasional pops of color from late blooms, to liven up a lifeless location,

angel and roses

but I was unprepared for the cheeky display I discovered on my way out.

cheeky Vaughn

For me, this represents a bonafide celebration of a life once lived, versus a death soon forgotten.

Oxymorons

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.

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

mountain-glow1.jpg

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.

smolder

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.

overlook1

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.

icefloes.jpg

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

marmot CU.jpg

around the many imaginative cairns that punctuate the landscape.

kairn.jpg

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

 

 

 

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,

signpost

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…

H2O-2-GO

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.

warning

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.

tires

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,

glacier

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,

portrait

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,

waterfalls

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.

Cheers.

Ahhh!