Archive | May 2016

Prairie Chickens and Other Strange Birds

t16It’s 3:30 in the morning, dark, no sign of a sunrise. We slog through soggy marshland. April is not always kind. It’s cold, damp. What the hell are we doing here near Plover, Wisconsin in the middle of a freezing night? Finally, we arrive at a low building, a blind. If you stand to your full height, even mine!… you bang you head on the roof boards. We sit on low benches, peer through slits in the structure. Like a bunker on a battlefield! And then, daylight pops up like a mylar helium balloon let fly by a child with greasy fingers. I’d missed it, sunrise; maybe I nodded off… I look through the narrow window; there they are! Dozens of them. Prairie chickens! Dancing wildly, horny, moaning madly, revealing the full majesty of their gorgeous feathery sex apparatus!

What a terrific, comic performance! They puff out brilliant orange sacs beneath their throats, drum their little feet, dance furiously to attract a mate. Territorial males leap into the air to warn off other males, interlopers. Then attraction happens!… A successful male bows to a female. She shakes her ruffled feathers. It’s done. They’re married, or mated in non-anthropological speak! A field breakfast follows, including thick hash brown potatoes served from an enormous, deep-sided baking pan. And meaty things!

This was one of a several remarkable trips conjured by and taken with precious friends, Rob and Susie. All of them unusually different, and all memorable and filled with strange delights in the unique manner of each. Near Lansing, Iowa, we floated along the Mississippi witnessing great bird migrations. The were swans and masses of coots, goat prairies, bald eagles, even a mink foraging for food along a wing dam. Prior to this voyage, I’d never before witnessed swans in full flight. Never seen so many coots gathered together on a single slice of river… (“Coots” meaning birds. Not geezers playing checkers in coffee cafes and saloons!)

That Mississippi River journey may have given us the idea for another. We four rented a houseboat out of Alma, Wisconsin. Spent one evening in an inlet. Built a fire, sang “Old Man River.” Wonderful time. On the second night, after a day of prowling the Great River, passing magnificent-looking barge tugs, we beached ourselves between a pair of wing dams. In the middle of the night, we were roused twice, once by a thump, once by a passing barge urged slowly along by a brilliantly-lit tug, so beautiful in the darkness of the still river. The thump was, we thought, a tree branch that had lodged itself under our houseboat. Couldn’t budge the “branch” no matter how the four of us tried! Turned out to be an entire tree! Had to summon Captain Jack of the rental service and his powerful motorboat. He, too, couldn’t believe the size of the tree that anchored us to the shoreline. Spotted an eagle’s nest so large the four of us could have moved in with kitchen appliances and lounge chairs… maybe too a Murphy Bed!

In Mexico, we discovered a spider monkey preserve near Akumal. The four of us spent more than an hour interacting with the monkeys in a large, cage-like enclosure. We fed them snacks, and they, in turn, picked “artifacts” from our hair and skin (or whatever it was they found and ate!). Such wonderful groomers! Inquisitive but almost always gentle (save for a few little nips, occasionally)! The seafood restaurant was superior. The palapas-sheltered “Turtle Beach” was gorgeous to behold! The ferryboat trip to and from Cozumel was perilous, with huge swells on an angry Caribbean. We all thought we’d capsize and drown in the roiling azure soup! But (maybe you read about it in the Playa del Carmen Porque-Pescado!), we survived to sail another day… (Petitions of thanksgiving to Saint Elmo… ).

Most recently, we traveled to Starved Rock State Park in north central Illinois. A place of magnificent rock formations, waterfalls, streams and wildlife, including funny-looking tourists. Great hiking trails. Prior to our arrival, not far from the park, we stopped in Lasalle, near Lock 16, to ride an authentic canal boat powered by a single mule named “Mo.” By the by, we highly recommend Lock 16 Cafe in that charming community. Wonderful food, great people! Starved Rock (named for a Native-American battle site on which the vanquished were starved out of their stronghold!) is located on the shores of the Illinois River. The lodge and cabins are beautiful, welcoming and comfortable. What’s that? Oh sure, we’d go back there!

We’ve often thought about a possible Geezers’ Guide to Great Travel Adventures and Good Restaurants That Cater to a More “Seasoned” and Thus Discerning Traveler (Working title!). As a sampling, and to whet your appetite (you’ll please forgive the obvious attempt… ), you should try Greenfire in Rockford, Illinois. It’s on our “Big / Lots of Stars”listing of fine commercial cuisine. Here’s another… Cafe McGregor in McGregor, Iowa, just across the Big River from Prairie du Chien, WI. I think we liked The Blue Heron in Winona, MN where we stopped to dine during our auto excursion along the Great River Road. And, they have an Eagle Museum and (a kind of) sanctuary in Winona. Lots of information about the Mississippi River Eagle population, their comeback from near extinction. The place has a pet or mascot eagle that was wounded and now lives in quiet harmony with staff and visitors, and you can have your photo taken with the eagle. She likes people!

8 Reasons Why Kodiak Alaska Should Be Your Next Epic Adventure

t15Although it is the second largest Island in the United States, only around 10,000 people actually populate the Island. Only a few roads access the most eastern region of the island and that area is known as the road zone. The rest of the island can only be accessed through rough ATV trails, backpacking, a boat or a float plane. That area of the Island is known as the Remote Zone. This area, covered in dense brush, frozen streams and snow covered mountains, is an endless expanse of some of the wildest country in the world. It is truly, “The Last Frontier.” In this part of the world, the Kodiak Grizzly bear is found, which can grow to over ten feet tall and weight over 1200 pounds. The island is a Sportsman’s dream. Salmon runs last from June to September. Halibut are abundant along the coast and have been as big as 400 pounds in these waters. Sitka Deer, Reindeer and Mountain Goat hike along the mountain trails more frequently than backpackers. Kodiak Island even has its own wild Buffalo herds. The summer months allow for beautiful long days with 18 hours of light. This lighting is perfect for photography during Sunset and Sunrise. With the longer days comes dryer and warmer temperatures. But don’t let your guard down, because in Alaska the weather can turn in minutes. Although the wind can whip, the rain sting, and the temperature drop, this beautiful rugged landscape has everything a true outdoors man/woman is looking for! Here are 8 reasons you need to make Kodiak Island your next adventure vacation!

1. World Class Fishing

Kodiak Island has been a fishing community since the 1800’s and is home to some of the famous fleets that take on the deadly Bering Sea. Some of the boats from Deadliest Catch, even call Kodiak home. You won’t need to re-enact the deadliest catch on your visit, since all of the best fishing is near the coast. All of the best Salmon fishing is just miles outside of town. The Buskin River just 2 miles outside of downtown Kodiak has Red, Pink and Silver Salmon runs that last from June until September. The American and Olds River other sushi grade King Salmon, weighing on average around 20 pounds. If the open water is more your style, than Kodiak offers some of the best waters for Halibut and Rockfish. On our 12 day trip to Kodiak we caught over 150 pounds of Red Salmon and 200 pounds of Halibut. The halibut was all in one day.

2. Larger Than Life Hunting

In Kodiak no animal is safe, even the famous Kodiak Grizzly can be hunted here. This doesn’t mean that all animals aren’t protected in some way. Although it is encouraged to hunt for food, many animals need special permits to be hunted. Certain tags such as a Bear tag can only be taken every four years. There are an abundance of guided hunts on the Island from, Mountain Goats to Sitka deer, but at a very expensive cost. The best way to hunt is to backpack up into the mountains with a good pair of binoculars and some stalking skills. Either way it isn’t hard to put some meat in the freezer for the family.

3. Challenging Backpacking

The Island only holds whopping 3-4000 foot peaks, but they sure gain elevation quickly. Raising straight from the ocean at sea level, don’t let these peaks low elevation fool you. The hikes are usually steep, slippery, over grown in summer and covered in snow in winter. These mountains will surely put your backpacking skills to the test. On day one, you will hike on a beautiful 70 degree and sunny day. The next day it will be 50 degrees and rainy. By the third day, you will be in the middle of a snow storm. After you experience all the elements and seasons in one hike, you will definitely be rewarded with wildlife, great mountain views of snow capped peaks, and open ocean for hundreds of miles in every direction.

4. Rugged Landscape

This unique and rugged landscape allows you the ability to Surf and Ski all in the same day. Here you can fish for salt and fresh water species within miles. You can go from rugged mountains, to calm lakes and everything in between. The landscape provides you with the opportunity to take on any adventure endeavors. The open ocean provides SUP, Kayaking, Surfing, Kite boarding and boating activities. Where the mountains provide inland glacier travel, back country skiing, and snow shoe opportunities. This rugged landscape will not only test you, but also reward you with any outdoor activity you have in mind.

5. Unheard of Isolation

With only 10,000 people occupying the island and almost all of them living in one tiny corner of the island, it is very easy to find some peace and quiet. It only takes a short drive or hike to find yourself miles from civilization. If you are really feeling adventurous, rent a float plane or boat to reach the more remote sections of the island. People say when you step onto the beach in those parts of the island and the float plane or boat leaves, you truly feel like you are in a different world. No one is going to come to your rescue there, but that is part of the adventure right!

6. True American Freedom

Kodiak Island today is like America 60 years ago. It’s like a land trapped in time with everything we wish the lower 48 and the National Parks still were today. If there is a beach you want to camp on, than camp there! If you see a mountain you want to climb, than climb it! If there is water you want to fish, than fish it. Although a few rules apply, it is a much more laid back and wild atmosphere than in the lower 48. The Island allows you to still have the true freedoms we all want when we go out into the wild. Alaska doesn’t see the same amount of visitors as the lower 48 destinations, so the rules on camping, fires, or hiking permits hasn’t reached this part of the world yet! So, get up there and enjoy freedoms like you never have before.

7. Golden Hour Photography

We always seem to search for that golden hour near sunrise and sunset with the perfect natural lighting for our shots. Kodiak Island offers endless opportunities to capture that perfect shot. Every time I went for a hike, fishing or camping, there was an epic photo opportunity around every turn. The summer months offer the perfect lighting. The early morning light last a couple hours and the evening twilight last nearly 4 hours. The soft lighting creates this beautiful glow that silhouettes the trees, draping over the valley floors and glowing on the mountain meadows. The glass like lakes and snow covered peaks also add depth and color to the dramatic landscape. If wildlife photography is what you are into, then you need to book your flight now! In Kodiak a Bald Eagle is as common as a city pigeon. Kodiak Grizzly walk up and down the river just 2 miles outside of town. Sitka Deer and Mountain Goats can be seen high in the mountains of nearly every hike, and Buffalo roam the grasslands like cattle!

8. The Kodiak Island Brewery

This stop on your epic trip may be the best stop, especially if you just crawled out of the rough Alaskan wilderness. The Kodiak Island Brewing Co. has many craft beers on tap and is the only brewery on the island.The brewery only uses pure island water and the finest malts. The taproom located in downtown Kodiak offers plenty of seating and all ages and pets are welcome. Grab the kids and pups, then head down for a couple pints. You can even bring your own food and enjoy Kodiak like a local. The Brewery is open everyday from noon to 7 pm.

The Essence Of Adventure

t14Do you like to take vacations? Where do you go? Depending on your answers, you will tag yourself somewhere in a range between the cautious traveler and the thrill seeker. There is nothing uncool about being anywhere on the range. Folks tend to take vacations that fit their age, experience, temperament, judgement, and budget. Also, a thrill seeker who has a young family with children, will be impeded by responsibility, so it evens out.

What is the essence of adventure? I define it this way: It is an adrenaline rush of exhilaration, an experience that combines freedom with vulnerability precisely when a spark is fired by sheer terror! If you survive it, you will have a hair-raising memory that you will share with other people for the rest of your life. If you are harmed by it, you have my sympathy.

I cannot fit examples of my adventures into this article, but I can tell you how to have your own adventure. Play Airport Bingo (Railway Bingo, Cruise Ship Bingo, Taxi Bingo), a game in which you and your favorite person snag two discount tickets, a bargain basement savings to fill in an otherwise empty pair of seats. Then, just go! Don’t even pack a suitcase! Realize the power of this. Those tickets are the way to go everywhere. The fact that you don’t know where you are going until you spontaneously buy them is the thrill!

Suppose that you chicken out. After all, you have no luggage, no guaranteed place to stay when you get to your impromptu destination, and you can think of dozens of reasons not to do this. But, you do have your favorite somebody to share the experience, and figuring out what you will do is like finding the pieces of a puzzle. You live in the now. It is easy to chicken out, and if you do, years will pass. Regret haunts the caverns of a mind that has no memories. Be brave.

The Roof Of The World

t13The roof of the world is where there is nothing taller than you. We’re going from Lhasa to the border with Nepal. We are twenty tourists who rented a bus, and among us there is also a polio with crutches. The last pass we crossed was 5220 meters, and there was the usual mound of rocks with hundreds of Tibetan flags waving in the wind.

We’re going to spend five days on the bus – we were told before leaving – with eateries very far from each other. The group leader is an American and tells us to organize ourselves for good because the next stop will be after seventeen hours. At that point we just have to buy a few packs of biscuits to the Chinese army bunker in which a soldier is guarding the land and sells biscuits.

The air, of course, is thin, the atmosphere is heavy in spite of the lightness we feel, and we’re clumsy, awkward in movements, wrapped in our yak wool coats and walk, when stop to stretch our legs and piss, like zombies, as if we were on the moon. Something is missing, and in this case it’s not just gravity. But it’s nice.

The distant landscape shows small peaks, which are the highest in the world, but from that height, they’re not at all great. Even Mount Everest viewed from above 4000 is a beautiful mountain, but certainly not a huge, or a giant one. From there it’s only 4,000 meters high, along with all others more or less the same altitude.

The sky is large and at night is as black as the darkest pitch and populated by billions of extremely brilliant and pulsating stars. Never seen such a thing; they’re like light holes on the dark background of the cosmic theater. The journey is not so easy and at the same time even not very pleasant, precisely because it’s tiring. It’s tiring to breathe, to walk, to relate with others in the group. It’s tiring knowing that we’ll arrive after days of shaking on this bus running over roads of stones and rocks, bouncing safe in the middle of an empty scenery; empty above and inside.

I’m not happy. I’m not unhappy. I’m not strong and not weakened; not fast, nor slow. It’s the atmosphere of I’m not; a feeling that pervades everything, outside, inside, myself, and others. It’s hard. Everything is beautiful, absolutely beautiful, but at the same time absolutely at the limit of my endurance. Not for human. I see it in the eyes of my fellow travelers. That is a place of rock, thin air, black sky and shimmering stars. I’m glad I’m doing it; I wouldn’t have ever experienced such a feeling anywhere else, but I don’t know if I want to try it again or even returning to Tibet.

After five days we get to the border with Nepal. The border check point is two and a half hours of dizzying descent in the midst of tea plantations operated by Indians. Finally we can see women dressed as women, men dressed as men and boys and girls who smile, play, work, and look at us with amazement. They look at this group of twenty, including a polio, coming down from the highest mountains to arrive at a border post in which there is absolutely nothing.

After passing the immigration and customs, which are just two soldiers standing outside an empty booth, we go down even further until the first village, everything on foot, all at dizzying descent, all in the midst of tidy, beautiful, verdant tea plantations. At the village there is no one and nothing, just a truck carrying cement bags stationary in the middle of the dirt road, waiting for us to get on and take down to Kathmandu. So it is. That truck was sent from God. I wonder what web of events, destinies, things, and universal dynamics made sure that we eventually got down to Kathmandu.

This entry was posted on May 1, 2016.