There is a glacier lagoon at the tip of Sólheimajökull’s tongue that never existed a decade ago. Today, that lagoon is 80 meters deep, and its fed by glacial melt.
Sólheimajökull is an 11km outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland’s 4th largest ice cap of 269 named glaciers, and easily accessible and suitable for ice adventuring.
Climatologists have been studying Sólheimajökull’s since 1930, documenting a loss of more than 2 sq.km. of its ablation area, and retreating a mile from its original marker.
During the summer Sólheimajökull loses 3 meters of ice every month with frequent ice calving.
With so much chatter about climate change and glacier volatility, I thought it best to have a look around the ice and judge for myself. So Leah and I drove to Sólheimajökull to join a guided glacier expedition,
where we were outfitted with a harness, helmet, crampons and ice pick. With some instruction, we learned how to dress ourselves and behave like mountaineers.
Then the conversation shifted to safety first, and how to avoid the treacherous crevasses on a melting ice mountain that’s constantly in motion.
After a brief hike, we arrived at the ice, but the approach to the top wasn’t a graduated trail; it was a wall.
Suddenly, I felt our training was insufficient, and I couldn’t imagine that all of us were prepared to dig in with our crampons and ice axes and climb over this wall, but that was unnecessary. We simply stepped around the mound on chiseled risers that were rapidly melting…
until we we all reached flat ice.
I questioned why this ice had a different color and texture–more like ice coal–than blue crystal.
Valerio, our guide from northern Italy attributed it to the 1918 eruption of Katla, Iceland’s largest active volcano, and fragments of rock and debris–known as glacial till–that typically develop when a glacier passes over bedrock. We were walking on 100-year ice dated by the volcanic ash trapped inside the ice!
Except for occasional photo ops like a discovered ice cave,
we were always moving across the ice and up the throat, and discouraged from breaking the line or falling behind.
After 30 minutes on the ice, it was time to celebrate with a drink. Valerio grabbed his New Zealand ice ax to tap a vein under the ice, and the bar was open…
and it was cold and refreshing!
Since 1890, Iceland has lost approximately 18% of its ice mass to warming, and Sólheimajökull is melting faster than scientists originally speculated. They are sounding the alarm–telling us that Iceland’s glaciers are melting faster than they can recover.
And climate change, of course, plays a pivotal role in this process. Ironically, eco-tourists are rushing to Iceland to experience the glaciers before they disappear.
But Iceland is doing something to mitigate the damage by pledging carbon-neutrality before 2040. Already, the island’s geography and geology provide almost 100% renewable energy for generating heat and electricity.
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.
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.
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.
By the time Leah and I were flying over Iceland, we were zombies.
Leah was outraged by the airline’s no-frills service. “Not even a tiny bag of pretzels,” she lamented, “Maybe I closed my eyes for one or two minutes.”
I was mostly pissed that my gummies were duds, but I thought the Icelandair pilot and jet did a commendable job of getting us to Iceland–crossing 4 time zones in 5 hours.
We arrived at Keflavik International Airport at 5:30am, found our bags, cleared customs, bought some duty free tequila, and got our bearings…
We have embarked on a 2-week road trip around Iceland, hopping from one hotel or guesthouse to another until we complete the circle, and we’re not too sure what to expect.
By the time we reached the reception atrium, half-a-dozen drivers were gathered by the airport entrance looking for a match. But none of the clients’ names on their iPads and iPhones matched with mine.
I approached one of the drivers and handed him my voucher. His English was perfect.
“I know this driver,” he said. “He’s the best! I think he’s running late on another trip, but I’ll call him for you.”
The phone call was brief. “He says he’s on his way.”
By 6:30am we were riding in an electric Audi SUV to Grandi by Center Hotel, discussing with our driver how Iceland’s road system is still too immature to support a fleet of EVs–plagued by insufficient charging stations and improper maintenance. The ride took 40 minutes.
“The hotel is full,” we learned from the on-duty desk clerk. “The earliest we may make a room ready for you is 2pm, and I will make it my first priority.”
Disappointed, we power-walked through a chilly spray under overcast skies from Grandi to Sandholt, a nearby bakery highly recommended by the desk clerk.
“What are we gonna do for 7 hours? I need sleep!” Leah groaned.
The streets were stone quiet this Sunday at 7am, except for a street cleaner and vacuum buggy attacking the trash along the alleys of a popular square filled with eateries.
However, one road along the way caught our attention…
We discovered that Iceland is regarded as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in the world, having elected, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, an openly gay head of state in 2009, and Althing (Iceland’s Parliament–founded in 930 and one of the oldest surviving parliaments in the world) unanimously voting for same-sex marriages in 2010. Unsurprisingly, one-third of Iceland’s population turns out for the Reykjavik’s Gay Pride parade in August.
Leah was thrilled with her breakfast. She had an omelet and I had a waffle with fruit. It gave us the boost that we needed to explore the rainbow road to Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s National Church.
and Reykjavik’s iconic Lutheran landmark.
I would have liked to climb the tower for what is reputed to be the best lookout of the city, but we were too early.
And that’s true for most of the city, which doesn’t wake until 11am on Sunday, so shopping was also out of the question.
Begrudgingly, we returned to the hotel, admiring some of the charming homes,
and graffiti along the way…
and took possession of our room by 1pm.
After a 5-hour nap and an early dinner, we were ready for bed and ready for whatever new adventure awaits us in the coming days.
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.”
It’s been a while… nearly 5 months since my last post…
I could blame coronavirus for the lapse, but that would be cheating,
I took a vacation from writing just as Covid-19 was rolling out a fresh variant.
I was gathering details about Alex Jordan’s sprawling House on the Rock for a future photographic commentary on excessiveness,
when I folded my laptop and put my writing away… until it felt like less of a job.
I always intended on working my way back to it…
But then I got married…
to Leah, after 17 years of togetherness…
in front of friends and family!
We partied long into the night….
with historic St. Augustine as our magical backdrop.
And we’ve planned a super summer honeymoon. We’ve loaded up the Airstream and we’re heading for New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. There’s a week stopover in NY/NJ, and then we’re off to Iceland for 2 weeks.
When we return, we’ll camp at Acadia National Park before crossing into Canada for a drive around the Bay of Fundy, the Cape Breton Highlands, Prince Edward Island, and down the St. Lawrence Seaway, with stops in Quebec City and Montreal.
Our southern route home includes time in Lake Placid, Lake Luzerne, the Jersey Shore, and northern Georgia.
I hope to share the highlights as soon as we make them.
As a young boy growing up in the ’50s, I was fascinated by the circus. Toby Tyler, written by James Otis was a bedtime favorite, and fueled my fantasy of running away to join the circus. Alas, over time, the circus has fallen out of favor as family entertainment.
After incessant criticism by animal rights activists and the advent of video gaming and media streaming, the 1905 Gavioli Band Organ Wagon (with 367 wooden and metal pipes, 2 drums, a cymbal, and a 17-bar glockenspiel) which once heralded the arrival of the circus train…
has now been relegated to a circus museum with fifty other antique circus wagons within the W.W. Deppe Wagon Pavilion…
at Circus World in Baraboo, WI,
conceived on grounds known as the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers,
who launched their first circus tour from Baraboo in 1884.
As we walked the grounds,
we realized that the circus is more than the sum of its parts.
It’s more than the costumes;
more than the animals;
more than the performers;
more than the sideshow attractions;
and more than the music;
It’s a longing for our youth,
and our feelings of wonder before we were forever trapped in our responsible, adult bodies.
Long stretches of telephone totems tethered as far as the eye can see…
Free-ranging livestock sprinkled across the flatlands…
Barbed wire perimeters surrounded by pastureland and littered with cow pies…
From 1963 to 1993, one thousand Minuteman II missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead to a Soviet target in 30 minutes were housed in underground silos like Delta-09 that stretched across the Great Plains,
with 150 launch sites dispersed throughout South Dakota, transforming the serenity of the prairie into a hibernating military zone.
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site commemorates a period in America’s history when “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) imperiled the world, and delves into the birth of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and development of ICBMs.
At the height of the Cold War between Soviet Union and United States there were more than enough nuclear missiles in both arsenals to destroy the planet 5 times over.
As I walked through a maze of interactive exhibits, childhood memories came flooding back.
While growing up in an era of “duck and cover” mindfulness, we were acutely aware of the danger outside our global window.
With the school claxon sounding in 3-clang intervals, my classmates and I responded by hunching under our desks in silence until the principal gave us the “all clear” over the PA. It was our way of showing the Commies that we were prepared and doing our part in the recurring struggle to keep ourselves safe from a political bogeyman.
Of course, as we got older (these drills lasted through middle school), we doubted that “duck and cover” would ever protect us from a nuclear firestorm or subsequent fall-out.
Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the realization that Pittsburgh’s steel mills were a likely military target, my father’s master plan in the event of a nuclear attack was to convert our basement closet filled with dusty canvas awnings and rusted paint cans. We painted the concrete blocks a putrid shade of green under the glare of a single dangling light bulb swinging from the ceiling, and filled the 6 x 6 closet with mattress slabs, jugs of water, and a box of batteries for our flashlights. I always wondered how our family of four (at the time) would survive inside this moldy space.
After touring the Visitor Center, we rode 15 minutes on I-90 West to a decommissioned missile silo roughly the size of a football field, and the feeling was ominous.
Locked beneath a sliding 9-ton hatch…
was a vertical rocket in-waiting. I pressed against the tinted, transparent armor and peered into a hole 185 feet deep for a first look and a photograph.
Despite being disarmed,
it was no less unsettling to consider that humanity holds the power of mass destruction, and the Badlands backdrop–75 million years in the making–could vanish in an instant.
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 ofIglesia 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.
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 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.
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.
Leah and I were prospecting for wedding bands along downtown Deadwood’s famed historic Main Street when we ran into a local miner–a chip off the old block–who told us that touring the abandoned gold mine on the edge of town was a hoot and a value-added experience.
Broken Boot Gold Mine has been running tours and amateur gold panning since reopening as a visitor attraction in 1954–long after the last ounce of gold was discovered.
The 15,000 ounces of gold extracted from Sein’s Mine (1878 -1904) through pickaxe and candlelight was hardly the mother lode the Sein Brothers had hoped for, but a rich vein of iron pyrite (also known as fool’s gold) ran through the mine, and that was just enough to make the mine profitable…for a time.
The mine closed in 1904, but reopened in 1917 to extract iron pyrite for the war effort. After a year, all mining operations stopped and the mine went quiet…
until Olaf Seim’s daughter (and sole heir) was persuaded by promoters to segue Sein’s Mine into Broken Boot Gold Mine–thereby creating a new tourist experience and de facto location for shlock horror movies…
According to the operators of Broken Boot Gold Mine, “[it] has operated longer and more successfully as a visitor attraction than it did as a working mine.”
Leah and I made a $14.00 investment (seniors get a $1 discount), which got us a 40-minute walk-thru and Wild West mining advice. We donned our plastic pastel safety helmets and entered a tunnel that was dim and chilly.
We crept through reinforced passages with 10 other investors,
and imagined a 10-hour shift in relative darkness–about the time it took to burn through one candle–while searching for precious metal,
and valuable mineral deposits.
Our guide reinforced the feeling of claustrophobia by switching off the lights and allowing our eyes to adjust to total darkness before lighting a single candle, a miner’s only light source.
Despite the price of gold hovering near $1,800 per ounce, few amateur miners were willing to spend an extra 10 bucks for gold panning lessons after the tour…
while Leah was completely satisfied with her bogus stock certificate.
Leah and I deliberately planned our arrival to Deadwood to coincide with the conclusion of the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and for good reason. This year’s 10-day event brought 700,000 bikers to Deadwood’s neighbor town of 7,000 residents amid the highly infectious Delta variant–without vaccination, testing or masking requirements–which from a Covid-19 perspective is equivalent to shoveling 100 pounds of shit into a 1-lb. bag.
Adding perspective to our paranoia, last year’s event qualified as the nation’s #1 super-spreader of the summer when 462,000 gathered for the rally–infecting 649 with Covid, and contributing to soaring hospitalizations throughout the region, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Despite the many Harleys that lingered at our campground beyond the last tequila shots and freshly inked tats, the streets of Deadwood were relatively crowd-free. We weaved around occasional families, and dodged small gatherings of people dressed in leather vests when they were missing masks.
Because we had little interest in repeating the same activities that brought us to the Black Hills 4 years ago–albeit still wanting to be safe in the process–we decided on pursuits that would limit our exposure to the Delta variant, like: cycling on the George Michelson Rail Trail;
touring a gold mine on the edge of town;
and strolling through Mt. Moriah Cemetery…
which I’ll detail now, with the other activity highlights to follow in future posts.
On a clear day, the best view of Deadwood gulch and the surrounding Black Hills comes from Mt. Moriah Cemetery, rising 200 ft. above town. And from the look of early photographs taken from the edge of Deadwood’s Boot Hill, not much has changed.
Thanks to the 23 casinos across town, the revenue taxed from gaming has funded the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission which provides loans and grants for large-scale restoration projects that manage to keep the 19th century vibe alive.
When strolling down Main Street, it’s easy to imagine the likes of Jack McCall sneaking up on Wild Bill Hickok while he played a hand of poker at Saloon #10,
and shooting him dead in the back of the head on August 2, 1876.
Wild Bill’s final resting place is just beyond the cemetery gates.
Calamity Jane, per her dying wish, keeps him company next door.
However, it was widely known that Wild Bill had no use for her and considered her a nuisance, which makes their graveyard union the cruelest of eternal jokes.
There are many distinct sections of Mt. Moriah Cemetery:
A children’s section of unmarked graves calls attention to a time of heartfelt tragedy;
In Section Six, an alter for offerings to departed spirits denotes the thriving community of 400 Chinese immigrants who followed their dream of striking it rich during Deadwood’s Gold Rush. Thirty-three souls were buried in Section Six, but only three remain, with the majority having been disinterred and returned to China;
There is a Soldiers’ Lot of Civil War veterans administered by the NCA;
But most interesting is the Jewish section, known as Hebrew Hill,honoring many Jewish pioneers who made significant civic, commercial and social contributions to Deadwood society, notably:
Harris Franklin, an immigrant entrepreneur from Prussia who amassed a fortune through banking, ranching, mining, and hospitality, and whose son became the the second mayor of Deadwood;
and Nathan Colman, who became Deadwood’s life-long elected Justice of the Peace, and lay Rabbi for the Jewish community for more than thirty years. His daughter, Blanche was the first woman from Black Hills to be admitted to the South Dakota Bar.
Oddly, Solomon Star is missing from Mt. Zion. He died alone on his Deadwood estate in 1917, and was thrown a lavish funeral fit for a king by the townsfolk…but he was buried in St. Louis.
Sol Star was a dedicated public servant, who served on Deadwood’s first town council before becoming Deadwood’s ten-term Mayor. He was elected to the State House of Representatives, and won a seat in South Dakota’s State Senate shortly after. He finished his civic career as Lawrence County’s Clerk of Courts for twenty years.
But if that wasn’t enough, Sol Star was also a long-time business associate of Seth Bullock, the undisputed king of the hill…
from where he shares unimpeded views of the Black Hills with his wife, Martha beside him.
Seth Bullock’s origin story is an essential part of Black Hills lore. He arrived two days after Wild Bill was murdered and was quickly appointed Deadwood’s first Sheriff. He was an imposing figure who got the job done without ever killing a man or woman.
He celebrated his deeply personal friendship with Teddy Roosevelt by building The Friendship Tower atop a peak in the Black Hills National Forest 2.5 miles from Deadwood…
and declared it Mount Roosevelt.
All the history that’s baked into the bones of Deadwood’s dearly departed, and all of the iconic imagery that’s scattered among them are references and remembrances of a time when people pulled together and persevered.
Together, they tamed the Wild West. Together, they defeated lawlessness with civility, and went on to create a diverse and inclusive community that was determined to improve their condition through mutual cooperation.
And they accomplished this in the midst of Black Hills, South Dakota…
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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–
–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…
Leah and I crossed the great Mississippi on our way from Memphis, TN to Hot Springs, AK by-way-of I-55 after Tennessee DOT inspectors closed the I-40 Hernando DeSoto Bridge 16 days earlier, blaming a crack in one-of-two 900-ft structural beams.
It was a major traffic snafu, but I also remember thinking at the time that this was a bad omen of sorts, yet so apropos, given our divided nation debating whether a critical investment in infrastructure is necessary for our survival.
Things had gone smoothly during our first month on the road, until we hit this speedbump traveling from the eastern states to the western states. Absent a few nagging issues on the shape of Lay-Dee! (our newest-used Globetrotter), this was a minor inconvenience.
But any concern about its impact on our Memorial Day holiday quickly vanished after a hug from a nursery school buddy I haven’t seen in 50 years. And it was great reunion.
Lee and Debra’s hospitality extended to a tour of Crystal Bridges Art Museum,
and an overnight at their home near Wally World.
When we left our friends for OKC, our F-150 hit a new milestone which we mistook for a good omen.
However, the following family reunion with Carrie and grandchildren was temporarily delayed by an Airstream blowout the moment we crossed into New Mexico from Texas. Bad juju, right?
Once we were back on the road,
our visit with Carrie and the kids began in Santa Rosa, where we cooled off (62°F ) at the Blue Hole,
and continued at Dan’s house in Cedar Crest, where Lay-dee! dropped anchor.
Soon after, Carrie surprised Gabe and Devon with Lucy–from erstwhile riding pony to Aiken family adoptee.
It was a brief and bittersweet visit…
but we had to move on to Loveland, Colorado, where our African safari mates, Linda and Heather were expecting us for dinner.
We left Lay-dee! behind in Dirk and Heather’s hayfield,
While keeping company at Linda’s house with her goofy Newfie, Angus…
and Forrest the gentle giant, who passed away 2 months after our visit.
From Loveland, it was short drive to Cheyenne, WY to reconnect with NJ hiking buddies George and Tere, and meet their uni-corny granddaughter, Val.
Leah and I boondocked behind their house at night…
and enjoyed the local parks…
and museums by day.
Eventually, Leah and I worked our way to the Pacific coast, where African safari mates Michael and Brenda were holding a table for us at a popular Newport, OR fish house…
on the historic wharf.
At last, Leah and I arrived in metropolitan Seattle, where my son Nate has settled for the past three years, and we were there to pop his National Park cherry.
Despite being only two hours away from Mt. Rainier, Nate has never had the opportunity to get any closer, and we were determined to fix that.
Finally, we arrived in Spokane, where cousin Lisa, her son David, and partner Bob hosted and fed us for three days…
preparing us for the long trip back home…with plenty of new adventures and miles along the way.
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,
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–
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.