Seljalandfoss and Skógafoss

There is no shortage of waterfalls in Iceland, although some are more spectacular than others. Estimates of total waterfalls throughout range from 10,000 and up. But Icelanders have their favorites, and Seljalandfoss and Skógafoss are two of them. Located just off the Golden Circle and only 30K apart made it impossible to resist, so off we went, chasing waterfalls.

What makes Seljalandfoss special is its geological standing. It’s believed to be a part of Iceland’s receding coastline in Southern Iceland, where the Seljalandsá River once ran over the edge of a volcanic cliff and dropped into the Atlantic. 

Seljalandsfoss’ glacial water originates from the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, a smallish ice cap atop Eyjafjallajökull volcano that last erupted spontaneously in 2010, belching so much ash high into the atmosphere that day turned into night and European air traffic was grounded for 5 days.

Eyjafjallajökull towers above the waterfall,

and the Eyjafjöll mountains feed meltwater to the river Seljalandsá, which runs down the slopes before dropping off the Seljalandsheiði heath in the form of Seljalandsfoss waterfall.

Repeated eruptions over millennia have extended the coastline by 12K, while erosion has hollowed out an extraordinary hiking trail that circles behind Seljalandfoss, which literally translates to “selling the land of waterfalls.”

Leah and I could immediately tell upon approach that this was a popular destination, which was soon confirmed by a full parking lot. There was a kiosk for paying the 800 ISK parking fee ($6), but I didn’t realize it until we were leaving. Oh well, I guess I was too focused on the shower I was about to take.

But Leah had different plans. “I’m not doing that,” she insisted. “I can’t find my rain pants anywhere and there’s no way I’m getting soaked. Besides, it’s probably slick from all the mud and water, and I don’t feel like breaking my neck on the third day of vacation. But you should go, and I’ll just look at the pictures later….Tell me about your insurance, again.”

“Shouldn’t we at least take a selfie like everyone around us?” I asked.

Leah had decided that Seljalandfoss’ 60 meter (200 feet) cascade was best appreciated from a distance,

while I was too anxious to capture Seljalandfoss from every angle.

True, the trail was muddy and slippery, but that was only a minor inconvenience.

The challenge came from dodging the unrelenting spray, as if it was weaponized by the wind.

I instantly missed Leah as my assistant. She would have made the perfect rain shield.

After coming around the back side of Seljalandross, I rejoined Leah on a path which led to a small waterfall known as Gljufrabui,

hidden within a slotted canyon.

We hiked back to the Land Cruiser and headed in the direction of Holt. I was casually driving, enjoying the scenery at 90 kph (60 mph), Iceland’s top speed limit, when I hit the brakes….after noticing Iceland’s perfect farm.

We made one additional stop along the way to Skogafoss, when I slowed to catch a glimpse of what appeared to be a Hobbit house built into the mountain.

However, on closer examination, it appeared to be a shelter for sheep and goats.

The approach to Skogafoss had several imposing mountains in the vicinity, also part of the former coastline.

Ironically, Skógafoss translates into Forest Falls, but there’s not a tree to be found in the area. It seems the Vikings had a penchant for chopping all of them down to create their settlement a thousand years ago.

Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. Game of Thrones fans may recognize the falls as the aerial backdrop for a romantic encounter between Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow when flying with her dragons.

With a width of 25 m (82 ft) and dropping 60 m (200 ft) with water fed by two glaciers, a rarity (Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull),

visitors can climb a rickety 430-step metal staircase anchored into the cliff, allowing visitors to reach the spillover and enjoy a view of the coastal lowlands while basking in the Highlands, or continue on a popular trail leading up to the pass between both glaciers.

Skógafoss is a place where magic happens…

Completing the Golden Circle

Feeling exhilarated after our Silfra snorkeling adventure, Leah and I said goodbye to Thingvellir, and set out to complete the remaining natural wonders of the Golden Circle trifecta.

We continued to Haukadalur, a geothermal valley in South Iceland that boasts a plethora of fumaroles and geysers,

including the powerful and predictable Strokkur, Iceland’s most active geyser that regularly erupts every 5 to 10 minutes like clockwork,

sending boiling water skyward, 20 to 40 metres beyond its mineral-stained crust.

Afterwards, we traveled to Hvítá river canyon to visit Iceland’s beloved falls, Gullfoss. The water in Hvítá river travels from the glacier Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest ice cap, before cascading 32 meters (105 feet) down Gullfoss’ double drops in dramatic display.

We arrived in time for one of Iceland’s typical daily weather changes as we hiked to the closest observation deck. The blustery gales had driven the cold drizzle and falls spray sideways. While we were dressed appropriately in warm parkas and rain pants, Leah was miserable and could only manage a walk to one of many overlooks of Gullfoss.

I tried to ignore the weather, but the poor visibility and annoying spritz was affecting my ability to keep the camera lens dry while trying to capture the “perfect shot.”

Leah retired to the comfort of the Land Cruiser, while I climbed above the canyon wall in search of a different perspective, thinking that if I distanced myself from the water, I could keep my camera dry.

The best that I could manage, given the circumstances was adequate…

However, to my chagrin, I found the perfect shot at the base of the foothills, but it belonged to a park graphic with information about Gullfoss…

However, looking southeast, I also discovered a telling view of Thingvellir’s distant topography just beyond the Visitor Center.

Of course, being a national park, certain rules apply; and understandably, drone photography is a no no. But Gullfoss is so expansive that it would surely benefit from an aerial approach, so the Park Service sanctioned a third party to capture the awe and splendor that only a drone can see.

We ended our day in Selfoss,

where more adventures await…

Touching North America from Eurasia

There is one place on earth–Silfra–where it’s possible to “touch” two different continents underwater and it’s located within the Golden Circle of Iceland. Leah and I were up for the challenge, but it required some preparation.

First, we traveled southeast of Reykjavik to Thingvellir National Park, the birthplace of parliamentary government (Althing, 930 AD), and the zone where volcanic activity has played a heavy hand in shaping our planet.

Not to get too bogged down in earth science, but a rift occurred through the middle of Iceland where two tectonic plates are pulling away from each other 2.5 centimeters every year as a result of volcanic activity in the region since the beginning of time,

and much of it vents under Lake Thingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake.

Above sea-level, lava fields at Thingvellir have been torn apart by tectonic forces, leaving gorges and fissures to admire between two continents.

However, inside the rift valley created by daily earthquakes throughout time, there is one ravine, Silfra that allows snorkelers and divers to experience the tectonic plates underwater, but it requires a dry suit to tolerate the water temperature (2o C) and a certified outfitter to guide thru the underwater fissure.

Leah and I had booked an excursion through Arctic Adventures, who supplied all of our underwater gear and a guide to assist with dressing, and underwater photography.

We dressed in a parking lot by the roadside where various outfitters have set up shop.

Over the thermals and wool socks we supplied, we stepped into fully insulated jumpsuits to wear under incredibly bulky dry suits with fixed booties, snug rubber sleeve guards around our wrists, lashed with rubber bands, and a snug rubber seal around our neck with a rubber band choker. An industrial zipper across our deltoids sealed us in.

Then came a rubberized neoprene hood over our heads. Imagine forcing your head through your neck. After accessorizing our fashionable outfits with neoprene lobster gloves, we were ready for the apocalypse.

We were a group of twelve…

under the supervision of Chris (from Hungary) and Marcelo (from Sao Paulo). We split into 2 groups of 6,

and waited our turn to enter the water.

Immediately, the suit constricted around my lower body as I stepped deeper and deeper into frigid water…but I stayed dry! Without hesitation, I glided in and immersed my face. Only the small area around my facemask was exposed and the sensation around my lips felt like a cold scalding until they turned numb after 10 seconds.

We flopped onto our backs, and let the current carry us slowly through the gorge while watching the arctic terns doing aerial maneuvers overhead.

As we floated past Grynningar Shallows, I was awed by the clarity of the water, with visibility beyond 100 meters (300 ft).

We were in the water approximately 40 minutes. Once we reached the Silfra Lagoon, the stiff current required strong frog kicks for us to reach the exit point.

As promised by Marcelo, each of us emerged from the lake with “Angelina Jolie lips.”

Overall, the experience was sublime. However, my biggest complaint had to be cold hands. Most of the time, my hands stayed clasped behind my back, out of water, but the weak stitching around the seals of the gloves made them porous. Marcelo quipped that the gloves leaked because they were made in Sweden.

Lest we be judged for our adventurous antics, consider this unassuming mother of three from Germany, who stripped down to her swimsuit, and took the polar plunge, albeit for only 30 seconds.

I don’t think she’ll be doing that again, anytime soon, but for me, it could become an addiction.

New River Gorge

The New River has been carving the Appalachian Valley for the past 10 to 360 million years–depending on who you ask–which makes it an ancient river–ranked behind the Finke and Meuse as the world’s third oldest river. Of course, there is the obvious non sequitur, given the river’s moniker and apparent age.

One story claims that its name comes from a translation from Indian dialect meaning “new waters.” Another explanation tells of Captain Byrd who had been employed to open a road from the James River to Abingdon in 1764. Byrd used the Jefferson-Fry Map published in 1755. However, this map did not show the river, so Byrd noted it as the “New River.”

Originating in North Carolina, the New River flows 360 miles north until it meets the Gauley River in southern West Virginia, providing some of the best whitewater (Class IV rapids and above) on the planet, and the main reason for our visit.

Our first look came from an overlook behind the Canyon Rim Visitor Center,

treating us to canopied canyon walls as far as we could see, soaring 876 feet above the water.

and a profile of the New River Gorge Bridge (the Rusted Rainbow).

When the New River Gorge Bridge opened in 1977, it was the world’s longest single-span arch bridge for 26 years. With an arch 1,700 feet (518 m) long, it is now relegated to the fifth longest.

While I appreciate the engineering feat of a half-mile span that saves travelers 45 minutes of detouring,

it’s the river I’ve come to conquer.

New and Gauley River Adventures shoved off from Stone Cliff at 10am–14 miles downriver from the bridge–with six eager adrenalin junkies and our guide, Costa Rica Scott in one raft, and a support raft to tag along. Leah refused to float with us, despite my gentle coaxing.

Once we were properly outfitted with life jackets and helmets…

off we went…

While the first half of the trip was relatively lazy, with fountains of 60oF spray coming from occasional haystacks and laterals, the spring run-off and torrents of rain before our arrival had turned the second half into a fast-moving, turbulent churn, filled with hydraulic traps, and 7 foot waves.

which had us threading our way through Keeneys, Dudleys Dip, Double Z, Greyhound, and Millers Folly Rapids with increased caution.

Miraculously, we never flipped and everyone remained in the boat throughout the ride. However, the soul behind me spent most of the time stretched across the raft with his head pinned over the gunwale, retching. Fortunately, whenever our pilot commanded us to “dig in” (paddle like our lives depended on it), I avoided smacking him across the face.

After 4 hours on the river, our take-out was just shy of the bridge, beyond Fayette Station.

What a blast! If only there was time to run back and do it again, but that would have left little time for hiking to Diamond Point;

visiting Cathedral Falls in Ansted;

investigating abandoned beehive coke ovens in Nuttallburg;

strolling through a mining ghost town (pop. 5) in Thurmond;

or just chilling at The Outpost, “Where Wild Meets Wonderful.”

Perhaps another visit is in order.

Babylon Badlands: True Religion

There was a time 10 years ago, when Scenic, South Dakota was for sale–yes, all 10 acres of the town and 36 acres of the not-so-scenic, surrounding property.

It was originally offered up for $3M by Twila Merrill, local rodeo legend who earned a tough-as-nails reputation for never being thrown from a bucking bronc from 1956 to 1963, but with her health fading, it was time to sell.

She eventually sold the whole kit and caboodle to a Filipino church group for just shy of $800,000 in August, 2011.

Ten years later, Scenic looks unchanged. There is scant evidence that parishioners of Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) are welcome at this ghost town, although the pastel-colored Adirondack chairs on the porch suggest that a resurrection of activity is possible.

Back in the day, Scenic was a thriving hive of entertainment, with a full-scale rodeo arena, a racetrack, a manicured baseball diamond, a theatre and a dancehall.

Main Street was home to a General Store,

and a requisite saloon which was thoughtfully annexed to the town hoosegow.

It should be noted that Indians were allowed inside Longhorn Saloon, but only after Twila bought the joint and painted over “NO” on the marquis.

Meanwhile, the culture crowd would gather at Sam 2 Bulls.

Off the main drag, there’s an assortment of incongruous buildings: a couple of standing churches, a few warehouses and barns, a defunct gas station, and a post office behind a dedicated monument featuring a pterodactyl that defies logic or explanation.

Leah and I rolled through Scenic, on our way to an outpost of Badlands National Park known as Sheep Mountain Table, located in the Stronghold Unit within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

At 3,300 ft. elevation, Sheep Mountain Table is the highest point in the park.

The good news is that we could drive to the top.

The 6.5 mile road was hard-packed and serviceable all the way to the top of the table, albeit a single lane and a handful of hairpins. Once we arrived, there wasn’t much to see on the surface except tall grass, road tracks and traces of spent and unexploded ordinance scattered throughout this one-time gunnery range used by the USAF and South Dakota National Guard. The wind was blowing furiously,

which kept us anchored a careful distance from the ledge overlooking the Cheyenne River Valley.

But there was much more to explore on the other side of the table, which we could reach by hiking 2 miles or driving the rutted terrain…

so I drove…pitching and rolling along…

until we arrived at an open plateau with dramatic vistas to the west…

and the White River Valley to the east.

These Badlands were once considered sacred to young Sioux braves who would trek to the tables for prayer and self-reflection as they approached manhood.

That’s when it occurred to me that Scenic, South Dakota was rightfully named, not because of the town’s location, but because of the Badlands omnipresence and its omnificent landscape. And that may also explain why the Filipinos invested in Scenic.

Badass Badlands: a Surreal Landscape

Pillars and spires, pinnacles and hoodoos, canyons and gorges, ridges and ravines, bands of colors and beds of fossils, mixed-grass prairies and resilient wildlife…the Badlands of South Dakota are a scenic recipe so fantastic that I sometimes wondered if my camera could adequately capture the range of strangeness that surrounded me.

But I was up for the challenge!

What follows is a visual diary of Badlands National Park…told in 3 parts.

The Yellow Mounds of Dillon Pass

From a distance, this mustard-colored landscape qualifies as the perfect location for a film shoot on an alien planet.

Leah and I were casually driving along the Badlands Loop Road near Dillon Pass,

when the Yellow Mounds popped into view…

and I knew that I had to explore this phenomena more thoroughly.

I climbed atop one of the mounds…

which overlooked a network of foot paths…

to the Pinnacles on one side of the hill,

and offered an outstanding overlook of the Conata Basin to the southwest…

and beyond.

And as I surveyed the scene below,

I realized that the scope of South Dakota’s Badlands defies framing.

The Badlands cannot be contained, and the sheer beauty and colors transcend any exposure.

Biking the Black Hills

During our travels across America, Leah and I have cycled on several amazing rail trails–each one offering a variety of gorgeous scenery, interesting terrain, historical context, and wildlife features. The Black Hills of South Dakota boasts the George S. Mickelson Trail, which checks all the right boxes.

The trail follows 109 miles of Burlington Northern’s historic rail line from Deadwood to Edgemont–

crossing 100 converted railroad bridges…

and pedaling through 4 tunnels.

The result is breathtakingly beautiful.

Named after South Dakota’s governor following his untimely death in 1993, George S. Mickelson’s ardent support was instrumental in creating a non-motorized mixed-use trail,

from his dedication of the first 6 miles in 1991 to the trail’s completion in 1998.

Rather than limiting our linear miles, we rode the trail from Dumont (its highest elevation point at 6240 ft) to Hill City,

and hired a taxi service to transport our bikes back to Dumont.

The trail consisted of crushed limestone and gravel which was perfect for our road bikes clad with all-terrain tires.

While riding the trail was effortless (mostly a slow downhill roll), there were many reasons to stop:

whether to soak up the landscape;

or reflect on South Dakota’s cultural heritage–such as farmers using cyanide lids left over from Deadwood’s Gold Rush days to shingle and side their houses.

All of which made for a glorious outing,

which only adds to the allure of Black Hills lore.

Rock Art

Billings was our final stopover in Montana before continuing east to Deadwood, SD. Upon arrival, Billings health officials issued a local advisory restricting outdoor activity due to a blanket of smoke and ash that had invaded the valley from several regional fires that were burning unabated.

While we would have preferred exploring the winding trails through the Rimrock Bluffs–overlooking the Yellowstone River and town–we lowered our expectations, given the extreme heat and unhealthy air quality index, and opted for a brief walking tour through Pictograph Cave State Park, known for its natural and cultural significance.

Just a 5-mile jaunt south of Billings, we approached a sandstone bluff in the shape of a horseshoe, and turned into an empty parking lot. Surprisingly, the Visitor’s Center was open and filled with a variety of artifacts that WPA workers recovered from the cave floor between 1937 and 1941–considered the first major archeological excavation on the Northern Plains.

In all, over 30,000 artifacts were discovered, with some dating back over 9,000 years.

We cautiously hiked up a narrow, sandy footpath through sprigs of yarrow and juniper shrubs, hoping to avoid an encounter with a prairie rattlesnake or bull snake…

until we reached the mouth of Pictograph Cave, revealing a stone wall that was once part of a ceremonial lodge. The dotted line above the left side of the wall structure was drawn by WPA workers to mark the original floor line before they began digging.

We stood motionless for a beat to allow our eyes to adjust to the shadows, before scanning the cave in search of ancient charcoal and red markings. Even with the help of graphic displays that emphasized these creations,

it was no less a challenge to identify the drawings due to a veil of calcium that had formed over the pigment during a dry period. These figures were carbon dated between 1480 to 1650 A.D.

The red pigment was created from an ancient recipe combining ground up hematite (concentrated iron ore) with assorted binders such as animal fat, berries, blood and adjusted with water or urine while heated to form a paste that was applied by finger or stick.

A rack of flintlock rifles that were painted within the last 200 years is located no more than 15 feet away from the other figures.

While not the easiest to decipher, a nearby graphic makes it more apparent.

Continuing our walk along the cliff, we reached a middle cave with evidence of clams fossils and other sea life embedded in sandstone that likely lived during the late Cretaceous Period when this portion of America was under water.

Then up a rising that followed the curvature of the cliff, we reached the Ghost Cave. While no drawings were discovered here, a series of round boulders known as concretions formed as a result of a clam bed that was exposed when the sea eventually receded.

These cliffs continue to evolve as winter ice cuts through brittle stone; massive rains charge over the cliffs, turning into intermittent waterfalls; and smoke ash eats away at porous surfaces.

While the evolution of our landscape is inevitable, we must look for ways to tap the brakes on what’s creating the intensity and severity of our man-made issues, and allow nature to take its true course.

After all, it’s not supposed to be this hot; it’s not supposed to be this dry; and it’s not supposed to be this smoky during Montana summers.

How Great is Great Falls, MT?

The short answer is,”Not so great; it used to be greater.” But then there are those who prefer baldness to a full head of hair. Allow me to explain:

To be fair, my perception of Great Falls is not how it originally presented to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark,

while they mapped the mighty Missouri on their epic expedition from Pittsburgh to Fort Clatsop, at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Lewis’s impression of Great Falls was, according to Paul Russell Cutright, in his book Lewis & Clark, Pioneering Naturalists, “the grandest sight he had ever beheld, the water of the Missouri here dropping over a precipice more than 80 feet high. He stood motionless for a long time, completely enchanted by the beauty of the scene.”

Photographed by F. Jay Haynes, Summer, 1880–Montana Historical Society

In fact, as Lewis slowly portaged the Great Falls in June 1805 (his greatest challenge to date), he was amazed to find not just one “great falls,” but a series of five falls of varying sizes that dropped the river level a total of 612 feet over a 10-mile stretch.

Then came the dams. By harnessing the power of five falls with five 20th century hydro-power plants, the industrial age awakened the West, and “The Electric City” became an important crossroad for future settlement, forsaking the beauty long admired by the Blackfeet and other tribes.

Leah and I set out to discover the “falls”, by racing to Ryan Dam before the last light of day.

The gorge was aglow,

while the sinking sun was offering up a shadowless palette of pastels.

I imagined the falls as it once was and what it’s become…

and wrestled with my first impression informed by mountain and machine.

There is no denying that nature has carved out something very special…

but the landscape has been inalterably changed.

Big skies are forever interrupted,

and prairies yield to bounty over beauty.

The following day, we set out by bicycle on the River’s Edge Trail to “find” the other falls.

Nearly 60 miles of paved and single-track trail along the Missouri River provided panoramic views of scenic river valleys;

engaged us with public art created by local artists…

as we rode through neighborhood parks.

The trail carried us to cliffside lookouts of Black Eagle Falls and Dam…

Rainbow Falls and Dam…

and Crooked Falls (still untouched by a dam);

while also connecting us to historic downtown, filled with numerous casino options and burgers to die for…

at the celebrated Roadhouse Diner.

Unfortunately, our search for Colter Falls (the final of five falls) would remain unfulfilled, as the reservoir created by the Rainbow Dam has permanently submerged Colter Falls (making this the perfect metaphor for Great Falls) to the extent that we are left to debate if commerce is a compromise or a sacrifice.

Big Things Come in Small Packages

This post originally celebrates the enormity of the General Sherman sequoia as I observed it 4 years ago. However, today it’s a reminder of the fragility of this ancient forest–currently facing a ravishing fire–where the largest living organisms on our planet are in peril. General Sherman has survived over 100 burns in its 2,200 years of existence, but the scale and intensity of today’s wildfires have become more commonplace, and threaten the world around us. I pray the fire can be contained and the forest survives, so future generations can appreciate nature’s miracle.

Streaming thru America

“Size matters!” has long been considered a hard fact among those who measure the enormity of things, and eagerly justify the value of their preponderance. Yet all things big begin from most things small, and that’s the long and short of it. While this may come as a relief to many who seem challenged by the limited extension of their personality, it comes as no surprise to sequoias that have sensed this for millions of years.

Giant sequoia trees are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, where they grow exclusively in protected groves. Every tree starts from a firm cone no larger than a chicken’s egg–

hand and cone

–each one releasing thousands of seeds resembling oat flakes, hoping to take advantage of a litter-free forest floor made fertile by fire.

Flash forward 2400 years, and if the then-seedling hasn’t been logged…

Mark Twain stump

…or besieged by fire (although its bark…

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Glacier N(o) P(ass)

Each and every time Leah and I applied online for an entry pass to Glacier NP we were too late, and we fretted that maybe we made the trip to Glacier for nothing.

Then I learned that if we make a reservation for an activity inside the park, that would guarantee our entry through the gate. So I booked a scenic rafting trip through the Middle Fork of the Flathead River with a third party vendor.

Problem solved…or so I thought.

It turns out our rafting outfitter operated in the village just outside the park gates, and our park entry was still in jeopardy. We could have canceled with sufficient notice, but we were still up for a float,

and decided to go with the flow…

through glacially carved flats,

and formidable canyons walls…

that were ideal for jumping into crystal-clear waters.

But there is another way in, and it’s not really a secret. Just get to the park anytime before the gate attendants arrive at 6AM, or visit the park anytime after the gate attendants leave for the day at 5PM.

We did both, and left tired each day…but satisfied!

There’s very little to say about Glacier National Park that hasn’t already been said. It’s acknowledged by many as one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service since its inception in 1910.

If there was a beauty pageant for National Parks, Glacier would win the crown, and wear it with authority:

There are more than enough peaks to pique a mountaineer’s interest;

plenty of waterfalls to satisfy a photographer’s wet dream,

and a fair share of elusive critters to make one’s heart beat fast.

Sadly, no bears wanted their portrait captured by me, despite ample park activity reported at the time of our stay.

While much of the park’s majesty is projected through its mountains, lakes, canyons and waterfalls, its easy to overlook the shimmering river rocks beneath our feet,

or the shimmering heavens above our heads.

North Cascades Detour

So much about North Cascades National Park reminds me that I’m at a very remote place in America. For starters, there’s limited phone service here which makes GPS plotting a nightmare, and probably explains the frequent mile markers that line North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). It’s the only road that winds its way through the park, and connects all the entities that encompass Stephen Mather Wilderness.

Of the 684,000 acres that Lyndon Johnson and Congress set aside in 1968, 94% of the land has been designated as wilderness. Of the remaining 6%, there is no formal camping and only a handful of designated trails, which may help to explain why the park hosts an average of 30,000 visitors per year compared to 2 million visitors per year at Mt. Rainier National Park.

By the time Leah and I reached the Pacific coast, we learned that the Cedar Creek Fire was burning out of control within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest–threatening the eastern entrance to North Cascades NP, and compromising Winthrop’s air quality, nearby. To make matters worse, North Cascades Highway had been barricaded between mile marker 170 and 185, which meant that if we managed to visit the park–which was always part of our original itinerary–we had no way out.

SR-20 road closures are not breaking news to the people living east of the North Cascades. They’re used to it. In fact, every year from late fall to early spring, SR-20 is closed because of drifting snow across the road (measuring 12 feet) and the high risk of avalanches in areas of steep terrain. Anybody wishing to travel to Seattle must settle on traveling I-90 through the dreaded Snoqualmie Pass.

One week before our anticipated arrival, we phoned a park ranger to voice our concern about likely dangers, and help us determine if our plans were realistic. In return, she gave us a website address to track the daily conditions of the fire, and she reassured us that, “Every day in the park is unpredictable. It all depends on which way the wind blows.”

By the time we were scheduled to visit the park, the Cedar Creek Fire had merged with Cub Creek 2 Fire to become America’s largest forest fire with over 100,000 scorched acres and still burning wildly. Leah and I had an important decision to make: either we risk a visit, or we make alternate plans. There really wasn’t much debate. We were determined to stick to our plans, while well aware of the ranger’s mantra.

We camped outside the park in Rockport at an unusual location dotted with dated, theme cabins, a shuttered restaurant, a wine-tasting room, and a smattering of weedy RV sites overrun by rabbits.

After unhitching, we drove a half-hour to Newhalem, the site of a company town owned by Seattle City Light and the residence of employees working on the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project–a series of three dams and power stations along the Skagit River–

Gorge Power Station
Diablo Dam
Ross Power Station

providing electricity to Seattle since Calvin Coolidge ceremoniously started the first generators in 1924.

As of this summer, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe has petitioned Seattle City Light to remove the Gorge Dam in order to restore treaty-protected fishing rights to sacred grounds known as The Valley of the Spirits–a 3-mile stretch of the Skagit River area that has dewatered since the dam’s creation–causing the disappearance of bull trout, chinook salmon and steelhead, and consequently threatening the existence of killer whales in the Puget Sound that depend on the fish to survive.

If Seattle City Light hopes to win a new 50-year license to operate the dams, they must demonstrate that the dams cause no harm to the environment. However, regulatory agencies have noted that the dams limit fish passage, affect the water temperature, and prevent much-needed, mineral-rich sediment from reaching the river beds where salmon once spawned.

The following day, our excursion took us deeper into the park, where a faint scent of smoke was in the air. It wasn’t bad enough to impact a full day of activity, but it still managed to drop a smoke bomb on our vistas, turning the “American Alps” into an American disappointment.

We started our exploration at Diablo Lake, created by the Diablo Dam finished in 1930. While the smoke offered an impressionistic vision of the mountain, water and sky,

I much preferred clearer conditions the following day.

Nevertheless, we took advantage of calm waters,

and beautiful scenery.

Feeling like a hike nearby, we followed a trail that followed Thunder Creek,

providing the following views:

until we reached our turn-around point at the suspension bridge…

and reflected on flowing riverscapes north,

and south of the span.

The latest news on the Cedar Creek Fire brought tears to my eyes. Officials proposed closing North Cascades Highway for the remainder of the year. I immediately recalled the time four years to this day when we crossed the Continental Divide at the Vermilion Pass–outrunning the BC wildfires on Kootenay Highway–with the mountains ablaze on both sides of us (see Smoke and Mirrors).

While I had no interest in repeating history, I wasn’t looking forward to the two-hour detour that would return us to I-5 in order to reach Spokane to the east. But if that was to be our only way out, I was determined to travel the North Cascades Highway the next day for as far as the law allowed.

Of course there were stops to make along the way. When we reached Ross Lake at milepost 134, we took the opportunity to stretch our legs along the Ross Dam Trail. With so little traffic on the road, we were not expecting the parking lot at the trailhead to be a challenge. But then we weren’t anticipating a mule train either.

They were preparing to cross the dam to perform trail maintenance further up the Pacific Northwest Trail.

We crossed a dense forest…

to the edge of Ross Lake and across the dam road,

where we were soon joined by the pack leader and company…

for views of Snowfield Peak and distant glaciers.

Of course, we had to dance around the mule poo on our return to the parking lot before continuing our quest.

Our next destination took us to milepost 158, where we intersected the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail at Rainy Pass on our way to Rainy Lake for an easy, 1-mile, wheelchair-accessible hike, until we encountered a tree across the trail within 500 yards of the trail’s end.

Unfortunately, physically disadvantaged people could not appreciate the crystal clear water of this alpine beauty,

or enjoy a distant look at Rainy Lake Falls cascading 850 feet into its namesake lake.

Shame on the NPS!

We reached Washington Pass Overlook–our final destination at milepost 162– to ogle the Liberty Bell Group,

and Kangaroo Ridge–

the defining point between Western Washington and Eastern Washington.

And that’s when I saw it! In the distance, midway along the stretch of highway, 8 miles away was the end of the road. I steadied myself for the shot.

We had completed our mission. There was nothing more for us to see before returning west to resume our journey east on August 5th.

By August 10th, the road closure was lifted, and low-speed, one-way traffic resumed in both directions. But I was unconcerned and didn’t mind. I had already arrived at Glacier National Park.

Blockhouse, Bluffs, and Bagels

It was our last day on the Olympic Peninsula, and we intended to visit the San Juan Islands, but time and weather never allowed it. Getting an early start in the rain seemed risky given the distance we’d need to travel, and the ferry reservation was an added hurdle and inconvenience.

Instead, we hoped and patiently waited for the early morning weather to abate. There was news of improving conditions by mid-morning, so we chanced a trip to Whidbey Island, where we were rewarded with thick, dismal skies, (yuck), and no rain in sight (yay)!

We drove to Mukilteo, where we just missed the 10 o’clock ferry to Clinton by 6 cars (damn!), but we were poised at the front of the boat for the half-hour ride to Whidbey Island at 10:30 AM (yay!).

After docking, we completed the half-hour ride to Ebey’s Landing, site of the Nation’s first National Historical Reserve (1978),

and a stunning landscape that befits the gateway to Puget Sound (wow!).

Just outside the Jacob Ebey homestead (now the Visitor’s Center) in Pratt’s Preserve…

stands a reconstructed blockhouse, originally built in 1854, and one of four still standing (who knew?). The blockhouse was built by Colonel Isaac Ebey to defend his claim against insurgent Skagit natives, who naturally resisted the pioneer settlement. Unfortunately, Isaac’s father, Jacob was beheaded in the cabin by a Skagit warrior in retaliation for the murder of one of their own chieftains (hmm…).

On the edge of the prairie, tangent to the Sherman-Bishop Farm…

is the trailhead that follows the bluffs along Admiralty Inlet.

We steadily climbed the bluff which gave us a birds eye view of Perego’s Lagoon–half wet, half dry–(huh?)

with a salt residue that could have resembled the surface of a different planet (odd)

until I spotted the pentagram that an ambitious soul had designed from driftwood logs (very odd!).

While the landscape was certainly impressive, something was still missing (huh?).

Where were the picture postcard views of Port Townsend and the Olympic Mountains across the water that were hiding behind overcast skies? (right?)

Nevertheless, our spirits were undiminished. We finished the Bluff Trail (phew!), and continued by F-150 to the historic waterfront of Coupeville, Washington State’s second oldest community, and it’s teaming with century-old buildings (nice!).

Our stroll down Front Street, once a beehive of maritime commerce,

brought us to a gentrified collection of bookstores, wine tasting rooms, gift shops, ice cream shops and coffee shops (sad).

Discovering the birthplace of Seattle’s Best Coffee was of particular interest to me, as I served this coffee exclusively when I operated my boil-and-bake-from-scratch, bagel bakery in Denville, New Jersey (really?). Their company and my franchisor later became symbiotic partners when both companies were acquired by AFC Enterprises in 1998.

All of which has contributed greatly to my being able to gracefully retire and follow my whim in pursuit of images, impressions, and memories.

The Mountain Is Out Today

Mount Rainier is so imposing that it makes its own weather, and on most days the mountain disappears under its thorny crown of rain clouds.

In fact, weather analysts calculate the odds of “seeing” Mount Rainier likely hovers between once or twice a week, considering the 189 rain-days per year, producing 126 inches of precipitation annually.

On the other hand, July is Mount Rainier’s driest month, with an average of 7 days of rainfall, amounting to 2 inches on average, which improves the odds tremendously for the millions who live and travel the I-5 corridor between Tacoma and Seattle. They invoke a familiar colloquialism that captures the moments when Mount Rainier reveals itself. They say, “The mountain is out today.”

My youngest son Nathan, who lives in nearby Bellevue had arranged long ago to glamp with Leah and me for a summer weekend at the National Park so he could experience Paradise, up close and personal, for the first time.

Happily, during our visit, “the mountain was out,” and it was magnificent!

On our first day together, we sought out a few of the requisite park sites as part of Nate’s Rainier orientation, including:

a wobbly walk across a suspension bridge…

to gaze at ancient trees…

in the Grove of the Patriarchs;

a hike to Myrtle Falls, cascading 72 feet into a rocky gorge;

a gambol across Sunbeam Creek on the Wonderland Trail before it rolls into Stevens Canyon;

tracking iconic, Narada Falls,

as it plunges 168 feet into a canyon of split rocks;

admiring Reflection Lakes, sans the reflection (ruined by wind-swept ripples);

and relishing the trove of jaw-dropping, mountain vistas that seem to vanish into thin air–

which we reflected on while enjoying a soft-serve swirl at the historic Paradise Inn.

The next day, the mountain was still out, and it was a picture perfect day for hiking the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point.

Of all the trails I’ve trekked, I can say with cautious certainty that the Skyline Trail may be among the most magnificent of them. With the sun out, and blooming wildflowers dotting the landscape, there are few hikes that can compare.

We started on a paved path from the Paradise Inn at 5,420 feet elevation, and continued to climb through flower-carpeted meadows for a mile…

until we reached the Deadhorse Creek Trail spur, and looked back in wonderment.

We were now traipsing through packed snow and rocky terrain as we reached the tree line. We paused for a break where other hikers were keenly aware of something or someone through binoculars and long camera lenses. I scanned the mountain for movement through my viewfinder, and discovered the attraction–a team trekking across the glacier on their way to the summit.

Nisqually Glacier was now looming large in our sights.

The spectacle of watching the snowmelt pummeling the moraine below was thrilling.

It seemed to us that Rainier was so close, we could almost touch it.

With one last push, we arrived at Panorama Point, having climbed 1400 feet in 2 hours. I should have felt drained, but I was giddy with excitement with views from the overlook,

while also spotting Mount St. Helens far in the distance,

and capturing the Nisqually River as it meanders through the Rampart Ridge gorge.

On our return trip, we opted to take the Glacier Vista spur for a beauty shot of the mountain,

and ourselves.

Returning via the Alta Vista Trail gave us a very different impression of the valley below,

but also prompted us to occasionally glance back to admire the source of all the magic.

An Olympic Reunion

Dear Olympic National Park,

I missed you, and that’s the truth. It’s why I wanted to see you again. But you sure don’t make it easy–playing hard-to-get with me. You had me waiting over 40 minutes outside your gates before you finally greeted me.

After the way things ended between us four years ago, I expected better, but I guess I was wrong about us. I realize that we got off on the wrong foot during my last hike, but that’s because I woke up on the wrong side of your park. If only I had paid more attention to your signs, then maybe I wouldn’t have driven myself crazy driving through your forest like a maniac in the first place (see An Olympian Apology).

While I’m grateful for all the photogenic landscapes that you provided in the past…

I’m here to make amends and some new memories…with your cooperation, of course.

You might think I’m asking a lot of you, but it would go a long way towards rebuilding our partnership if you could spare me a blue sky and high clouds during my stay.

In return, I promise to leave no stone unturned…

While in your presence, I will pay respects to your ancient trees and forests;

I will tread lightly through your Hoh Rain Forest;

I will resist the Sirens of your noble beaches;

I will appreciate the beauty of your mountains views;

I will treasure the pristine waters of your alpine lakes;

and I will appropriately distance myself from your wildlife, as you have requested.

My one-week stay with you was delightful, thanks to your moderate temperatures, and your smokeless, blue skies. I sensed you enjoyed it too, because I caught you basking in your own sunlight.

I hope that we can remain friends, because I find you so intriguing. I’m amazed that you have so many different ecosystems to juggle, and you manage them all so effortlessly.

I’m a fan.

All the best,

Neal and Leah

Oregon Potpourri

Leah and I had a lot of ground to cover during our brief visit to the Oregon Coast. With so much to see and do before we moved on, there was little time to waste. We immersed ourselves in seaside activities until we were Ore-goners.

We set up our first camp site at South Beach State Park, and made a beeline to the beach. After 10 weeks and 9,000 miles on the road, we were finally celebrating “sea to shining sea.”

The following morning, we visited Yaquina Head to play in the tidepools;

observe the seabirds,

study the sealions;

and visit Oregon’s tallest lighthouse (93 feet), projecting its light beam 19 miles out to sea since 1873.

And then we were off to Newport’s Historic Bayfront,

where we lunched with our safari buddies Brenda and Michael, who drove from Portland to join us for the afternoon.

On our last full day at South Beach, we played nature tourist. We gawked at Devil’s Punchbowl;

the Seal Rock;

and Cook’s Chasm.

We combed the black sand beaches, searching for sea glass gems;

and we were entertained by surfers braving frigid waters along Beverly Beach to round out our day.

Typically on moving day, it’s clean-up, hitch-up and safety check before moving on to our next destination. Once in a while we’ll break up the drive by stopping for lunch at a roadside dive, but mostly we’ll snack in the pickup. However on this particular day, on our way up the Oregon Coast Highway to Cannon Beach, we were eager to stop at Tillamook Creamery.

And we were not alone. Hundreds were passing through the overhead exhibition windows with us…

before earning a taste of Oregon’s finest ice cream.

Once situated at camp site #2, we were free to roam the shore to explore a different kind of scoop, but still a rocky road…

along Ecola State Park.

Our evening was reserved for clam chowder at Dooger’s in Seaside, and then a walk along their lively beach at dusk.

The area is also filled with history. Leah and I spent the next day time climbing through the gunnery emplacements at Fort Stevens,

intended to protect the mouth of the Columbia River.

We also discovered the Peter Iredale, or what was left of the four-masted steel barque sailing vessel that ran aground in 1906 en route to the Columbia River.

Nearby, the Lewis and Clark Historical Park offered a replica of Fort Clatsup,

and a glimpse of early 19th century housing for Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark,

and their guide Sacagawea and son, Baptiste.

Finally, a day of walking through Astoria gave us wonderful examples of coastal living…

and coastal culture,

But a hike up 164 steps to the tower of the hand-painted Astoria Column…

offered us a scenic perspective…

that prepared us…

for our crossing to Washington’s Olympic National Park.

to be continued…

Oregon’s Rugged Coastline

I’ve longed to experience Oregon’s rugged coastline in person ever since the 4th grade, when I was assigned to write an essay on Pacific Ocean sea stacks by my social studies teacher. I can remember dutifully tracing the shapes of coastal rock formations from an atlas I discovered at my community library in preparation for the accompanying poster that counted for 50% of my grade.

60 years later, I finally got to see this exquisite landscape with my own eyes, and it was worth the wait. So much so, that I decided to reenact the assignment and create a new poster of my own images.

(Click on any of the images for a full-frame slide show)

No other words are necessary.

Caldera Lake, aka Crater Lake

When Mount Mazama, a 12,000-foot volcano exploded approximately 7,700 years ago, the mountain collapsed into itself and created a caldera–not a crater.

Subsequently, the caldera–not the crater–filled with rain and snowfall, giving birth to Crater Lake–despite not being a crater.

Craters, on the other hand are formed by the outward explosion of rocks and other materials from a volcano.

Given the current r/age of woke, caldera supporters from around the world have voiced their concern that calderas run the risk of becoming extinct because they’re misunderstood and so often mistaken for craters.

Yet this caldera is not giving up so easily. It may be dormant today, but that doesn’t mean it won’t blow its top in another thousand years if provoked.

And the caldera experts say they have solid, supporting evidence that science is on their side,

convincing them to champion a campaign that calls attention to the ‘Calderas Matter‘ cause.

There are also plans to petition the Department of Interior for a Caldera Lake name change to assure accuracy in earth science, eliminate caldera bias, and restore caldera dignity.

Eventually, a hearing conducted by the National Park Service will help to decide the matter, and weigh the importance of the Mount McKinley/Denali precedent as part of the woke defense.

The strategy may seem twisted to many skeptics,

and naturally, the Caldera Committee members acknowledge the uphill struggle–

considering that Crater Lake (aka Caldera Lake) was declared a national park by Teddy Roosevelt in 1902, which amounts to overcoming 120 years of fake news.

Nevertheless, Leah and I were immediately dispatched by the Caldera Committee to Crater/Caldera Lake for a routine site inspection,

but what we observed was anything but routine.

The day after our arrival, an ill wind blew in from the east bringing smoke from the Bootleg Fire,

which settled over the caldera like a blanket of blur, and interfered with our investigation.

We had little choice but to comb the mountain in search of alternate evidence, and found it on the backside of the caldera in the shape of giant pinnacles that rose up from the ashes to vent the volcanic gases.

Additionally, we followed the Pinnacles Trail to inspect Plaikni Falls,

and observe the habits of local insects.

We also trekked to Annie Creek to judge the wildflower growth…

against the ash canyon.

Ultimately, there will be a public forum on the issue, but the final decision will always come from those in high places.

Mount Denali

Clear Lake Mistake

There is a lake in Oregon’s high Cascade Lakes region that was created 3,000 years ago by a lava flow that burned and dammed a forested valley. Then it filled with fresh spring water from Mt. Washington snowmelt and the McKenzie River springhead that percolated up through pumice and lava rock. The water is so pure and cold enough throughout the year that algae has no chance of growing, allowing remarkable visibility–up to 100 feet below the water’s surface. Hence, the name Clear Lake.

But even more remarkable is the standing forest of sunken petrified trees that time and alpine freshwater has preserved in pockets of the lake.

We arrived at Coldwater Cove to survey the scene with the option of launching our origami kayaks to explore the depths for its underwater secrets.

But Leah preferred to hike the 5-mile trail around Clear Lake, thinking that the water would be too cold.

So we set about on foot, through the lava fields on the eastern shore, and walked around the south side of the lake, crossing the McKenzie River…

to an inlet where the water was mirror still.

At this point, I was perfectly happy to backtrack to the pickup to reconsider our kayaking option, but Leah wanted to finish the loop and talked me out of it.

The trail hugged the western shoreline, providing amazing views of the water…

until we reached the resort area, where a boat concession reminded me of my missed opportunity

to be paddling on the open water with the others.

We pit-stopped at the resort store and filled our water bottles before pushing on, past the lakeside cabins to complete the second half of the hike…with the light beginning to fade.

Just as I was wondering out loud that we’d lost sight of the lake, we came to a bridge over a creek that directed us to the McKenzie River.

“I really think we should take the bridge and follow the water, because the trail we’re on is taking us away from the water,” I advised.

“But there was never any indication that we ever wandered off-trail,” Leah countered, walking past the bridge, “and besides, if that was the way back, it would be marked that way.”

“Okay, but if this trail is supposed to be a lake loop, then where’s the lake?” I followed up, as I was following her footsteps.

“How should I know? I’ve never hiked this trail before. Besides, you’re just bitter,” she said.

“Fine! Have it your way! But for the record, I think we should have taken the bridge,” I reiterated.

We continued to walk for a mile or so until we noticed changes to the forest. The trees grew thicker and taller, and light was struggling to penetrate a dense canopy of spruce. The mosquitoes must have sensed my uneasiness; they were feasting on the backs of my legs.

According to Leah’s iPhone, we had already exceeded what was to be a 5-mile loop.

“I think we’re lost, and if I only had a spark of phone service, I could prove it!” I said.

This is the map I could have downloaded if only I had a signal.

“Do you want to go back and take the bridge?” Leah offered.

“Are you serious or seriously joking?” I asked, wondering if Leah was really surrendering.

“In fact, we could also walk back to the resort, and bum a ride somehow,” she suggested.

“Who in the world is gonna pick us up and drive us back to our truck?” I sighed.

“You never know,” Leah snapped, “I can lure them with my wily ways.”

That’s when I heard the sound of traffic. There was a whoosh and it was gone. Then another whoosh, and another. The road had to be close by, but now the trail was leading us to the right, away from the road noise, but onto a single-lane gravel road with marker NR-2676. We followed the road north and around the bend, which brought us to a McKenzie Hwy turnout.

“Do you know which direction to go?” Leah asked.

“We have to cross to the other side to go back to the resort,” I advised. “Maybe you’ll have a chance to charm a ride from someone who’s rented a kayak for an hour or two.”

There wasn’t much traffic in either direction, which meant the park at 7PM was past its peak busy period. We walked along the roadside, occasionally stopping to flag down oncoming traffic but no one had any interest in slowing down.

“You realize it will be dark by the time we reach the truck,” I figured.

“What if I fake a limp, and maybe someone will feel sorry for us and stop.” she said, badly imitating someone with a bad knee.

“I’m not sure I want a ride from someone who pretends to feel sorry for us,” I mused.

That’s when a gray Toyota Avalon sedan slowed and pulled off the road, fifty feet ahead of us.

“I told you it would work,” she declared.

Leah didn’t know whether to run, or limp, or limp-run.

A burly middle-aged man with thinning gray hair exited his car, and opened the rear door.

“I’m gonna make some room in the back for you. Don’t mind the dog on the floor. He’s old and harmless,” he assured.

Leah took the middle seat beside his sullen son, and I wedged myself behind the driver’s slouching seat. A mangy terrier sat between our legs while our driver drove us to Clearwater Cove where our truck was parked.

His mother was animated in the front seat during the ride. She explained to us how special it was to “see the sights of nature” with her family.

We were so relieved to get back to the truck, and so was their dog, because It followed Leah out the door and refused to listen to its owner, our driver. Leah and I spent the next 10 minutes chasing, corralling, and eventually luring the dog back to the car while everyone watched from inside the car.

Nevertheless, Leah and I are immensely grateful to you and your family for stopping to help us in our moment of need. You saved us the time and trouble of walking an extra 3.5 miles.

We certainly need more moments like this in our lives, if only to prove to ourselves that humanity is about community, and mistakes make us more human.

P.S. I regret that I never learned your name during our brief exchange, but I remember giving you my card. If by chance, or design you happen to be reading this, I hope you’ll post a comment so I can thank you by name.