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8 August, 2016

Traversing the Enchantments

I hadn’t seen a cairn in at least ten minutes. But there were boot tracks, and I knew we weren’t lost. The trail had to be down there somewhere. Still, this provided little comfort as I stared down a vertical cliff, wondering how we were going to descend from a ledge we shouldn’t have come to. We stepped and dropped and scrambled our way to what appeared to be a dead-end. Going down wasn’t an option; going back up the way we came was a task I’d rather not consider. As I grabbed the branch of an alpine larch for balance and swung around the cliff, trying not to look down and hoping Kristin could make the maneuver, it dawned on me that perhaps we shouldn’t have waited so long to do this hike.

For twelve years we’d been putting off this bucket-list hike. My, how it would have been easier when we were younger. Fitter.

For fourteen years we’ve lived a short two hours from one of the most beautiful hikes in Washington state, if not the entire country. And yet here we were, finally, for the first time. How many times have we pushed it off on account of me wanting to go mountain biking or Kristin going to visit family or one of us being on a business trip. Or because we didn’t have a permit or didn’t want to go without the dogs. The excuses were endless. I spent the last week in Vancouver, BC for work and only returned home Friday evening. We pulled into an overpriced Howard Johnson near the trailhead late Friday night after a short detour home so I could pack. And the only reason we did was because the motel was paid for, else we may have canceled again. Sometimes you just have to commit.

Trekking Aasgard Pass

The shuttle deposited us at the wrong trailhead, leaving us with an additional three-quarter mile walk up the road. None of us in the truck realized until the driver had already left. It served as a nice warm-up before the uphill hike to Colchuck Lake, a turquoise gem we had hiked to once before for an afternoon swim with a visiting cousin.  I remember then looking across the lake at the vertical granite wall known as Aasgard Pass and thrilling at the thought of finally, one of these days, cresting the pass and taking in the views of the Enchantment Basin beyond.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake to Aasgard Pass, left of Dragontail Peak.

Guidebook author Craig Romano has this to say about Aasgard Pass:

Beyond the lake, the way continues as a climber’s route to 7800-foot Aasgard Pass. Only experienced and extremely fit off-trail travelers should consider attempting this taxing and potentially dangerous climb involving 2200 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile.

Looking across the lake this time, knowing where we were headed, I was ecstatic. We were finally going to do it. But did it always look so steep? The closer we got to the start of the climb, the more the butterflies began to flutter. And the further the top seemed. I’m not sure what I expected, but the boulder fields and drifting piles of moondust made the going even slower than I had expected. Just getting around the lake to the beginning of the climb was an ordeal. Cairns (piles of rocks) marked a suggested route up the pass, but there is no trail nor one right way to go. Boot tracks can be found zigzagging across the scree slope in myriad directions. The climb was slow going, sketchy at times, and occasionally puzzling.

Aasgard Pass

Kristin roughly two-thirds of the way up Aasgard Pass.

Rock climbers scaled a nearby spire. Granite boulders the size of buses littered the hillside. Remnant fields of snow and trickles of meltwater added to the scenery and the challenge. This was alpine trekking like we had never experienced it before. And two hours after leaving the shores of Lake Colchuck, we reached the top. Two hours of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other toil brought us up the 40% grade.

And it was absolutely worth it.

Isolation Lake

Kristin tasting the rainbow in a slice of heaven.

The Enchantment Lakes Basin

Perched high atop a mountain-ringed plateau in central Washington lies the Enchantments. A basin home to some two-dozen turquoise lakes with names like Inspiration, Perfection, Tranquil, and Crystal, it is the crown jewel of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. And it was in danger of being loved to death. A permit system now regulates overnight stays in the area during the peak summer months — and permits can be very hard to get for those who don’t plan months in advance. Fortunately for those with the fitness (or misguided confidence), the 19-mile trek across the Enchantments from one end to the other can be done without a permit, provided you complete the route in a single day.

mountain goat

Mountain goat frolicking on the rocks near our lunch spot.

It is not a place one wants to hurry through. Dozens of sparkling lakes dot the landscape amid fields of snow and endless outcrops of glittery granite. We took a seat on the banks of Isolation Lake and alternated bites of our sandwiches with mouthfuls of Skittles and dried fruit, all the while snapping countless photos. The lakes, the mountains, the goats and the marmots. Every direction a new and interesting sight.

Enchantment Basin

A view from the trail into one of the lower lakes.

Being One with the Mountain Goats

Despite the lake’s name, we weren’t alone. There were some other hikers, for sure, but people tend to get pretty spread out in such a massive landscape. No, those lingering within earshot were not human. Mountain goats grazed mere yards away. A baby goat cried to its mama. Two nearby goats scampered along the rocks. Others walked ahead on the trail. I had missed a chance to photograph a mountain goat some fourteen years ago after nearly walking right into one on the McClellan Butte trail and I wasn’t going to miss my chance again. The mountain goats proved to be accommodating models.

Enchantment Basin

Three hikers heading in the opposite direction traverse the upper basin.

Though the majority of the elevation gain was behind us, we still had some twelve miles to go. We could have spent days soaking in the views, but we had to keep moving. The crossing typically takes between ten and twelve hours for those of similar ability and we wanted to avoid finishing in the dark (though we did have headlamps with us, just in case).

Enchantment Lakes

Kristin crossing a snow field in the upper Enchantments.

The thing we quickly realized about this hike is that the elevation profile is misleading. Sure, the route is primarily flat and then steeply downhill once you’re past Aasgard Pass, but the surface is highly technical. The eight miles through the basin and down towards Snow Lake are extremely rocky, dotted with lingering snow fields, and require periodic scrambling. The trekking poles we carried alternated between essential and hindrance, as we often needed to use our hands for grip on the too-steep terrain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is a major comfort knowing how capable Kristin is when it comes to outdoor travel. Yet, this route was pushing the limits of our comfort zone.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

 

Stay low and try not to fall.

Stay low and try not to fall.

Twelve miles and some eight hours into the hike, we were ready to have it over with. The views were amazing, we saw ample wildlife — marmots, chipmunks, and at least two dozen mountain goats — but the terrain soon wore us down. Eleven hours of walking on granite soon had our feet hot and sore. Blisters formed on my pinky toes, and the stress of worrying about our footing and the precarious nature of the trail exhausted our minds. We spent the final five miles descending some three thousand feet on aching feet and wondering when and if we’d ever do this again.

mountain goat follows hiker

This particular goat followed us for a while.

I can’t answer that. Not yet anyway. I’d like to think we’ll return again in the future for an overnight hike. After all, there is so much up there that we hadn’t seen yet. And I really can’t think of anywhere I’ve been that is more beautiful. The photos, as impressive as I think they came out, don’t do the place justice. The landscape is just too big, the colors too stark, to fit in these little images. But if I learned anything, I now know not to underestimate the difficulty of this hike. It’s far harder than its measurements suggest. 19 miles and 5000 feet of climbing may not sound that hard, but this trip took every bit of eleven hours to complete with a modest amount of down time. Chew on that before you tackle it. And then have a great time.

Some parts of the descent made for some interesting moments.

Some parts of the descent were more interesting than others.

 

Perfection Lake

Hiking alongside Perfection Lake before beginning the descent.

13 June, 2016

Backpacking the Teanaway Valley

If you were to ask me, interview style, what my biggest weakness is, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer. Not with my body aching as it does from sunburnt head to blistered toes. No, I would not pause in telling you that I often underestimate the challenge of my grand ideas. I don’t come up short, but the finish line is only reached through much pain and suffering along the way. I was acutely aware of this habit yesterday afternoon as we faced our final climb of an arduous weekend spent backpacking the Teanaway Valley. The climb, a 2.5 mile grunt climbing 2,200 feet up Bean Creek, was a stark reminder of how much easier these types of trips seem in the planning stages.

Equipped with a new 2-pound, two-person tent, one of the lightest and most compact on the market, we set off to explore one of the most picturesque areas of central Washington. The Teanaway Valley in Wenatchee National Forest is a place I’ve gone mountain biking numerous times over the years, and on some of these very trails, but never on foot, and never such a route. We began at the seldom-used Standup Creek trailhead, at the end of a steep dirt road featuring a dozen water bars that nearly damaged our car. We bottomed out on several of them on the way up and dug the front into a few more on the way back down. Fortunately, the car survived to deliver us to the overgrown, un-maintained Standup Creek trail (#1369). Up we went, hiking seemingly straight uphill at times. Four miles and three-thousand feet of elevation later, we reached our reward.

Standup Creek

Kristin atop the Standup Creek divide.

The descent into the adjacent drainage valley was covered in snow drifts, requiring some tricky route-finding. While Kristin can dance her petite frame across the drifts without care, I broke through on more than one occasion, plunging me groin-deep in snow. Fortunately, the east-facing slope only held snow above 5,600 feet and we were soon onto the Stafford Creek trail (#1359) and climbing again. The upper Teanaway Valley features a ridge that runs east-west at roughly 6,200 feet above sea level. Either side of this ridge is fluted with a number of drainages, V-shaped valleys that tumble down into the main creek on either side. On the south side, that’s the Teanaway River, to the north it’s Ingalls Creek. There is no flat land in this area. To hike it is to commit yourself to rising and falling in and out of these various drainage valleys. But the view of the Stuart Mountain Range to the north makes it all worth it.

Stuart Range

The view of the Stuart Range, looking north from the County Line Trail atop Stafford Creek.

Forest fire swept through the Ingalls Creek side of the ridge several years ago and many of the trails that descend this lesser-visited area have been left to return to nature. Oh, they’re still on the maps, but carry the warning: “Trail overgrown, hard to find.” Dropping off the north side of the County Line ridge, between Navaho Peak and Iron Peak, are several of these hard-to-follow trails. We sat atop the ridge, enjoying the view of the Stuart Range while eating our tinfoil-wrapped sandwiches, and decided to go for it. The upper reaches of the Cascade Creek trail (#1217)  was buried in snow, but the map showed a dashed line staying just left of the creek. If we skirt the snow to the left, and double back towards the creek, we should intersect the remnants of the trail. Or so we thought.

Cascade Creek trail.

Descending the Cascade Creek drainage from Navaho Pass. One of the few areas we weren’t pushing through brush.

In reality, the trail is gone. Completely. There are also several creeks, cliffs, and a jumble of fallen trees littering this scarily-steep valley that made this descent one of the most arduous things either of us have ever done on two feet. The trail, just 2.4 miles in length, descending some 2,400 feet in elevation, shouldn’t have taken more than 40 minutes to descend. If the trail was a thing. It was not. Instead, we spent 3 hours bushwhacking our way down the Cascade Creek drainage. We stumbled across the remnants of the trail on several occasions, only to have it disappear under a tangle of fallen trees and adolescent alders steps later. Visibility was seldom more than twenty feet as the spring growth was borderline impenetrable. Three nervous hours of treacherous descending only to be met with the roaring waters of Ingalls Creek. Clinging to the banks, and dancing from one rock to the next in hope of a  reasonably dry crossing, we saw our hope evaporating. Screw it. Planting my trekking poles with all my might to brace against the current, I waded out into the water. I have no idea what voodoo magic my newly-purchased hiking pants had been enchanted with, but they did an astoundingly good job of repelling the frigid water as it raced around my knees and thighs. Kristin, some eight inches shorter than me, followed next and managed to step so the water never crested her thighs. We scrambled out of Ingalls Creek on the north bank, intercepted the Ingalls Creek trail (#1215) and found an empty campsite mere steps away. Incredibly, it was the campsite marked on the map that I had hoped to find.

Cascade Creek trail.

Bushwhacking the Cascade Creek trail… or what’s left of it.

We pitched camp, made a fire, put our boots and socks too close to said fire, and piled into our rather snug tent at 8:30, exhausted. We woke several times due to the cold, but otherwise slept straight through the night until after 8 a.m. Eleven hours of sleep should have been enough rest, but day two proved harder still.

campsite

Our campsite at the intersection of the Ingalls Creek and Cascade Creek trails.

There was an unspeakable dread lingering over our camp as we had our granola and coffee: the fear that the uphill climb out of the Ingalls Creek area was going to be as difficult as our descent into it was. Fortunately, the trail we were to take back to the south didn’t bear the “trail overgrown, hard to find” warning. It was also marked as being open to equestrians so, in theory, it should be a bit more well trodden. And it was. Our climb up Fourth Creek (#1219) was an enjoyable, scenic several miles that climbed relatively gently compared to the steep ascents of the prior day (and of those to come). Unfortunately, the easy three miles we anticipated along Ingalls Creek were anything but. The forest fire had left the area a maze of pick-up-sticks. And this being part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (note the capital “W”), trail maintenance can be done with hand tools only. No chainsaws allowed in Wilderness. So, for three miles, we climbed over, under, and around countless fallen trees that aren’t likely to be cleared anytime soon. No wonder we didn’t have to compete for a backcountry campsite: few people make it more than a few miles up the Ingalls Creek trail!

Sherpa Peak

The view of Sherpa Peak from the Ingalls Creek trail.

Our re-crossing of Ingalls Creek three miles upstream (and past several tributaries) was far easier. The cold night had also brought the flow rate down a bit — rivers run highest in the mid afternoon after the sun had all day to melt more snow. We were able to cross without the water lapping above our knees. Which, since we had another 12 miles to go, was nice.

Ingalls Creek

Crossing Ingalls Creek at the base of Fourth Creek.

From Fourth Creek we descended the Beverly Creek trail (#1391), took a deep breath, and turned up the Bean Creek trail (#1391.1). We were spent. The blisters on my heel had torn free, the skin flapping around under my socks. The heat of the day and the weight of our packs had begun to take its toll. I so wanted to be done. Kristin, forever steady, just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and urged us on. Conversation soon shifted to the plate of ribs we would enjoy back in Cle Elum, once we got to town. And, before long, we were cresting the Bean Creek divide and about to descend into the Standup Creek drainage, ready to complete our lollipop route with a 4-mile descent back to the car. We ran into another couple enjoying the view from atop the divide. They had done a similar overnight hike, minus the descent to Ingalls Creek. They too spent 3 hours bushwhacking along a portion of forgotten County Line trail. Mutual badassery was agreed-upon.

Beverly Creek.

Enjoying a gentle descent down the Beverly Creek trail.

Our hike was ultimately just 25.4 miles according to our GPS, but included 8,750 feet of elevation gain. That’s a whole lot of climbing for such a short distance. Too much if you ask me. This was a beautiful place to go hiking, but I can’t say I’d ever do this route again. There’s no reason to drop down to the Ingalls Creek side of the ridge again, least of all on any of the overgrown trails that should, in all honesty, probably be removed from the registry, erased from the maps, and left to revert to nature. It would be far too easy for someone less experienced and less fit to get in a very bad predicament attempting the descent down Cascade Creek. The sign atop the County Line ridge pointing to where the trail used to be is only tempting fate. But, for those who want an adventure, a physical test, and are looking to surround themselves with tremendous views and few people, this is a route worth considering. We only encountered other hikers on Stafford Creek and Bean Creek trails. Otherwise, we saw nobody. It was just us, the mountains, and our thoughts.

Our route and elevation profile for those familiar with the area.

Our route and elevation profile for those familiar with the area.

12 April, 2016

Day-Hiking the Central Cascades #1

Long before embarking on a two year cycling odyssey, prior to our amassing a stable of nine different bicycles (now only three), and before my love affair with mountain biking, we were hikers. Kristin and I stole away whenever we could during our college years to go backpacking. It wasn’t easy with my Saturdays being spent with the track team, not to mention our studies, but the Appalachian Trail ran just twenty miles from our campus in eastern Pennsylvania and we took advantage of it as often as we could. It wasn’t long before we had sectioned nearly 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail, biting off scenic chunks in North Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, and, of course, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, our stomping grounds.

Hiking gave way to mountain biking and trail running over the years, but something unexpected happened after our bike tour: I wanted to go hiking. It wasn’t that I was tired of cycling — I’ve been mountain biking three to four times a week lately — but something else entirely. Something unexpected.

I missed our time together.

Spending 21 months with someone, virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week without interruption, can be a lot to get used to. It was. There were days we now joke about, in which we simply wanted to go eight hours without seeing one another. Please! The best birthday gift she ever gave me was a half-day of freedom to wander Paris without her. And for her without me.

We had our moments when we argued and yelled and occasionally cursed at one another (usually on a really hilly ride in hundred-degree heat or intense cold and freezing rain) and this excessive amount of togetherness is often the first thing married couples ask us about when they learn of our trip. But for every bit as challenging as that was, it’s been equally difficult readjusting to the opposite: seeing that same person for just a few hours each night is no longer enough.

Enter hiking. We picked up a copy of Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Central Cascades book, an excellent guidebook containing maps and directions and information for 125 different day hikes stretching from Whidbey Island to the town of Wenatchee and north to Chelan, essentially, a slightly north-of-center tract across the state from the coast to just east of the mountains, in apple country. I have a bin filled with dozens of trail maps for all over the state, but my knowledge of the trails along Highway 2 is comparatively lacking, given that we have always lived along I-90, the other major east-west route in western Washington.

Most of the really good hikes in Washington are buried under snow for seven months of the year, which raises another reason for buying this book: it contains a number of lowland and island hikes, many we hadn’t done before (much of our exploration has tended to be where it is legal to mountain bike). So we started going hiking — and sometimes trail running — once every weekend with that thought that it would be nice to check off each of the hikes in this book in a calendar year. We’ve done a couple of two-a-days and even spent a weekend away on Whidbey Island in which we hiked four separate trails in the book. Some are quite short, but we hope to be able to link together several of the trails into longer loops as the weather improves and the snow melts.

Below are some thoughts on the day hikes we’ve done so far, along with recommendations for those we feel are worth doing. The conversations we have and the dreams and plans we share during those hikes will remain private. For now…

Whidbey Island

Normally when we go to Whidbey Island it’s to go mountain biking and trail running at Fort Ebey State Park or to gawk at the bridge at Deception Pass. These other hikes were a first for us.

Double Bluff (Hike #1)

Distance: 4 miles

Surface: Sand and Gravel Beach

Verdict: Best left to the local dog walkers.

Double Bluff Whidbey Island

The rocky far end of the Double Bluff beach walk.

The hike is a flat four-mile hike (out and back) along the beach. It’s a fine hike for locals and very popular with dog owners as the dogs can safely run off-leash at the base of a bluff, but I wouldn’t make a point of walking this route again, given the nicer walk at Ebey’s Landing. That said, the beach at Double Bluff has better footing than the one at Ebey Landing so those with walking difficulty should consider it. It is scenic, just not as scenic as some of the others.

South Whidbey State Park (Hike #2)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path

Verdict: Do it for the old-growth.

western red cedar old growth

Western Red Cedar over 500 years old and saved from logging in the 70s by a couple of literal “tree huggers”.

This short hike on the inland side of the road loops past several amazing old-growth trees, including a Western Red Cedar over 500 years old. It can be muddy in spots (we were there in February) and the walk through the upland part of the park is along an old wagon road with younger alder trees and not entirely worth the effort, but it is a nice, small park with a very attractive forest.

Greenbank Farm (Hike #3)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path & Grassland

Verdict: Worth a visit while you wait for the galleries to open.

Greenbank farm.

View of the farm and bay from the grassy ridge.

A network of trails looping through the forest and across the grassy ridge provide a nice place to take a stroll before or after your visit to the galleries and cafe at the Greenbank Farm complex. Views of the water and an opportunity for off-leash dog play are abundant. The forest isn’t particularly pretty, but the grassy area is quite nice. It’s worth stopping, even if only to stretch your legs.

Ebey’s Landing (Hike #4)

Distance: 5.6 miles

Surface: Sandy Trail and Gravel Beach

Verdict: Arguably the best hike on Whidbey Island!

Ebey's Landing

Kristin along the bluff at Ebey’s Landing.

If we were to do this hike again, we wouldn’t bother descending to the beach as the cobble/gravel surface made for a very unpleasant 2.5 mile return trip. Instead, we’d simply stay on the bluff where the trail begins. Follow the bluff northward for wonderful views of the beach below and the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound. Combine this hike with a trip to Coupeville for lunch!

Goose Rock (Hike #5)

Distance: 2.5 miles

Surface: Hilly Forest Path

Verdict: Worth the effort!

Goose Rock trail.

The steep path up Goose Rock near Deception Pass.

The climb up to the bridge provides some great views of Deception Pass and the forested trail that loops around — and then over — Goose Rock is very scenic. The switchbacks up to Goose Rock are steep (400 foot climb in 0.4 miles), but the views are worth the effort. It was quite windy and cold atop Goose Rock when we went in March so bring a coat if you want to linger.

Hoypus Point (Hike #6)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path & Paved Trail

Verdict: If you’re in the area…

View of Deception pass.

Looking across to Goose Rock from Hoypus Point Trail.

The closed-to-vehicles paved path that heads to Hoypus Point is a lovely mile-long trail offers plenty of majestic trees, waterfront views, and benches to enjoy. The trail that loops through the forest was exceedingly muddy in spots and relatively forgettable, save for a few areas of larger second-growth trees and towering firs and cedars.

Skykomish River Valley

We’ve never done any hiking along Highway 2 west of Steven’s Pass before. We were happy to have this guidebook motivate us to check it out.

Wallace Falls (Hike #14)

Distance: 5.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Exceptionally beautiful falls, but very crowded

Wallace Lake (Hike #15)

Distance: 5.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A pleasant hike without the crowds

Wallace Falls.

Wallace Falls is certainly worth the effort (and the crowds).

We combined Wallace Falls and Wallace Lake into a single 10+ mile hike. We chose to do this on a cloudy day in early March when the falls were at their most impressive. Several hundred other people chose to do the same. It was quite surprising how crowded the trail was given the steepness of the terrain, but the view of the falls more than makes up for the extra people. As crowded as the hike to the falls was, the hike to the lake on the Greg Ball trail was every bit as empty. We enjoyed a very peaceful walk through a beautiful forest en route to the lake, only to have the rain start when we got there. These two hikes can be looped with a road, but we did them as a “Y”. Both are worth doing, but next time I’d go during mid-week.

Wenatchee River Valley

We did these next two in a single day and then went to Leavenworth for lunch and some light shopping.

Tumwater Pipeline Trail (Hike #52)

Distance: 2.4 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: If you’re in the area…

This trail offers excellent views of the Wenatchee River and, in the spring, you’ll be able to watch some of the area kayakers having a blast in the meltwater. The trail crosses a water-logged bridge and then follows a rocky path along the side of a hill upstream for about a mile before seemingly petering out. It’s popular with dog walkers and those looking to stretch their legs before driving home.

Wenatchee River in spring.

Wenatchee River from the Tumwater Pipeline Trail, just beyond the bridge.

Peshastin Pinnacles (Hike #53)

Distance: 1.5 miles

Surface: Sandy hillside

Verdict: Leave it to the climbers

Peshastin Pinnacles outside of Cashmere is a postage-stamp of a park with several towering sandstone outcrops that are very popular with rock climbers. The trails that wind around the pinnacles are very steep, sandy, and not enjoyable to hike on. To be honest, I have no idea why this is even in the guidebook.

Peshastin Pinnacles

Peshastin Pinnacles are scenic, but not great for hiking.

4 April, 2016

Top 10 Favorite Photos

I set an impossible task for myself. While assembling a collage poster for our home, I thought it would be worthwhile to put together a list of my Top 10 favorite photos from our trip. That I took over 22,000 photos during our travels wasn’t of concern, as I had deleted a large percentage of them. I figured I’d pick out my favorite fifty or so for the poster, knowing already which ones were likely to make the cut, and then narrow those 50 or so down to a Top 10 for the purposes of this blog post. What better bicycle touring inspiration than that?

So I went through my collection of meticulously-organized photos and Alt-C’d the best of the bunch to a new folder in preparation for designing the collage. Wouldn’t you know it, but 261 made that initial cut.

Problem.

Photos from our travels stand out on many levels. Some for the technical quality of the image, others for the people in them, and yet others for the day or moment they remind us of. We wanted the collage to contain the best photos, but also the lighter moments and the group photos and the emotional reminders of the roller coaster journey we were on. But even on a 24×36-inch poster, 261 was far too many if I wanted to be able to enjoy the images sans magnifying glass. I managed to cull the herd to 109 photos.

With the collage poster off to the printer, it was time to narrow those 109 images down to the 10 finalists. Kristin suggested we do multiple categories and, instead of a Top 10 list, do multiple Top 5 lists. It’s a great idea. One we may do in the future, but not today. Today is about picking those 10 best shots.

109 became 37 which became 17 which soon became 13 which eventually got whittled down to the the 10 photos I’m including here. Dedicated readers will no doubt recognize these photos as I’m pretty sure all of them had been featured in blog posts and on Flickr, if not also on Facebook. I arrived at these Top 10 by focusing on the technical quality of the photo and the sheer impact value of the image. For every one of the thousands of photos I returned home with, I asked myself one simple question: Is this one of the most visually stunning photos we took?

And yes, I do mean we. Kristin took two of the photos in the top 10, one a relatively lucky snapshot with her camera and another in which she was serving as my human tripod for a tricky self-photo. On to the photos!

North America

Couldn't stop photographing the beautiful birch forest surrounding the Mesabi Trail (when not winding around the world's largest open-pit iron mines).

Minnesota, USA: I really like the contrast of the blue sky and the white birch along the Mesabi Trail with the bright panniers.

 

A river had flooded the trail and it was only after the water rose above the panniers and I noticed fish swimming past me that I turned around. Kristin took this from dry land after I managed to turn around.

Quebec, Canada: Rather than follow me across the flooded trail, Kristin grabbed her camera and took this photo right after I turned around.

 

Europe

The view looking down from below the crest of the pass as Kristin climbs the final quarter mile.

United Kingdom: Looking down Kirkstone Pass in the Lake District as Kristin makes her way up the 20% grade.

 

Though we arrived under threatening skies, we left with gorgeous sunshine.

France: The rain stopped and we were able to set the tripod up for a photo as we left Mont St. Michel, the island monastery in northern France.

 

IMG_3499_TuscanyMountains_resize

Italy: It looks wet and cold and not a small bit spooky, but this ride through the mountains of Tuscany was one of my favorite wet-weather days on the bike.

 

The view we encountered on the walk back to our tent after a lovely dinner in picturesque Barrea.

Italy: The view we encountered on the walk back to our tent after a lovely dinner in picturesque Barrea. The last of the major climbing days in the Abruzzo region was finally behind us.

 

Gorgeous riding along the coast on the day we rode to Athens.

Greece: There were plenty of other photos from Greece that might be more impactful because of the colors, but I really like the layers in this photo and how small Kristin appears in the landscape.

Africa

Kristin nearing Erg Chibbi and the mighty dunes east of Merzouga.

Morocco: The end of the pavement in Morocco, on the doorstep to the Sahara Desert. Our final 25 miles in Morocco were through sand and gravel en route to Erg Chibbi and the mighty dunes east of Merzouga.

 

Asia

Flying east into the sun.

Turkey: Our pre-dawn hot air balloon flight over Cappadocia was one of our favorite off-the-bike moments of our entire trip.

 

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Japan: The snow had melted, but it didn’t stop the Japanese Macaques from taking to the hot springs at Jigokudani Monkey Park. This particular monkey impressed us with his zen gaze.

 

I’ve got another blog post coming soon, filled with photos you haven’t seen yet! We’ve been getting a fair bit of early-season hiking in and even got out on our snowshoes this past weekend. And the views have been great! We look forward to sharing some of these outings with you soon. Thanks for reading, as always.

10 December, 2015

Day 628: Flying Home

The bags are packed, we returned the scooter, handed back the key to Rendira II, and indulged in one final massage. By the time this post goes live, we’ll be somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, flying a circuitous route from Bali to Australia to Los Angeles and onward to Seattle. From takeoff in Bali to touchdown at Sea-Tac: 27.5 hours.

We left at 11:55 p.m., five minutes before our visa expired.

The past month in Bali was the perfect wind-down from the trip. To arrive back in a place this beautiful and already know our way around, have our favorite restaurants, and know its flow and patterns was truly a gift to be cherished. Countless travelers have come and gone since we were last here, yet we were remembered. The welcome back hugs from our instructors were a nice touch. As was having our “usual” orders remembered by the waitresses at our favorite cafe. Long-term travel isn’t about packing your days “doing things” but rather about selecting a location and simply being.  And that’s what we did. We went to yoga nearly every day, a 90-minute morning session in a studio set in the treetops. It was the perfect way to ease into a day of relaxation and reflection. A little swim to cool down afterwards — it was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit almost every day — and then a few hours being productive in a cafe before taking another swim, reading, and going to the grocery store. Just like home.

Our home away from home is Bali. Pinch me.

Kristin cutting a papaya in our outdoor kitchen in Bali.

Kristin cutting a papaya in our outdoor kitchen in Bali.

Kristin starts work on January 11th and was notified today that the company performing her background check needs to do a criminal search for each of the countries we spent more than 30 days in. It’s an unusual situation, she’s in. Before this trip, I had never been in a foreign country for more than ten consecutive days. But now? Thanks to the meandering style of our journey, they’ll be having to run those criminal checks in Morocco, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Japan, and Indonesia. Lucky for them, we came up a couple days short of thirty in France, Spain, United Kingdom, and Canada.

We took the scooter for a day-trip up to the Tegallalang Rice Fields north of Ubud.

We took the scooter for a day-trip up to the Tegallalang Rice Fields north of Ubud.

This makes me giddy. It’s amazing to look back over our itinerary and know that there are six countries that we’ve now spent over a month in (and over two months in Italy and Indonesia). And not because it brings me some sort of bragging rights, but because I know certain towns and places so well that I can go back tomorrow and know where things are. I would recognize people, be able to identify restaurants we ate in, markets we shopped in, and know how to get around. I wouldn’t be lost; I wouldn’t need a map.

One of the joys of Bali is you never know when there's going to be another procession to a nearby temple.

One of the joys of Bali is you never know when there’s going to be another procession to a nearby temple.

 

Brain Freeze!

Brain Freeze!

I never wanted anything more from this trip than to feel at home anywhere we went in the world. And we did. From Pamplona to Kobe to Bordeaux to Edinburgh to Fargo, and everywhere in between, we have memories. For the rest of our lives, we will hear the name of a city or a country or a mountain range and instantly recall a friendly local who took time to chat with us; a restaurant we dined in; or a road  we pedaled along. Bicycle touring gives one on-the-ground knowledge the likes of which is impossible to obtain otherwise, save for walking. It’s this knowledge that means the most to me as we head home. It’s my most cherished souvenir.

I just paused my writing this to read the above to Kristin, to check with her on the tone and content. I read it aloud, as she likes me to do, and she nodded and returned a sad smile from across the room. We sat in silence for a few minutes; time we really don’t have to spare. The bags actually aren’t completely packed yet. There’s a rotisserie chicken cooling on the counter, we’re leaving for the airport in less than two hours. And just this past moment, as we sat in that silence, it finally dawned on us that this is really over. Six years of planning, two years of doing. And now it’s over. I always knew there’d be some tears eventually.

A lotus flower in the rooftop pond at the Four Seasons.

A lotus flower in the rooftop pond at the Four Seasons, a great place to stop for a drink in Ubud.

Where was I?

The same wonderful friends of ours, Katrina and Alan, who so generously hosted us after we sold our house and who drove us to the Seattle waterfront for our initial start, will be there picking us up tomorrow when we land. Great friends make the sturdiest bookends to our life’s biggest moments. We’ll be staying with them again while we get settled. They’re already filling our social calendar with Christmas parties and happy hours. I can’t wait. It’s also the reason why I’m so glad we took this time in Bali. We’ve met other long-term travelers whose segue back into real life was anything but smooth. People who were back at work within a few short days of pedaling their final mile. We used this past month to not only come down off the trip, but to plan for our return home. We’ve e-signed a lease on a townhome, finished a slew of digital chores we wanted to get done, and even started picking out furniture and a car. It might not sound like an effective use of one’s time in a tropical paradise, but that’s the reality of the kind of trip we’ve been on: the extraordinary eventually became ordinary.

And that’s how we knew it was time to go home.

The weekly dinner buffet at Yellow Flower Cafe. We had a standing reservation and are going to miss it.

The weekly dinner buffet at Yellow Flower Cafe. We had a standing reservation and are going to miss this place.

 

The volcano was out for our final yoga class this morning. Going to really miss this studio.

The volcano was out for our final yoga class this morning. Going to really miss this studio.

Thank you for reading; see you in the New Year!

The two of us on our final night of our travels, at Bridges restaurant in Ubud for happy hour.

One final photo from our final night abroad.

PS: We’ll be back early in the New Year with some fun to share concerning our future travel plans. Some of our Facebook followers have been busy chipping in with suggestions; the results will be made clear soon enough!

15 September, 2015

Photos: Flying Above Cappadocia

We’ve turned the corner back to the west, to Istanbul, after spending three wonderful nights in the heart of Cappadocia’s fairy tale landscape. The central Turkey region of Cappadocia, a name dating back to the Persians meaning “land of beautiful horses”, contains multiple extinct volcanoes that, over the thousands and millions of years predating ours, the Persians, and the Hittites arrivals, buried the landscape in ash and basalt. Rain, wind and man went to work carving a fantastical landscape of narrow rock spires, many of them capped with a slab of basalt. Back home in Washington state, we call these landforms hoodoos. Here in Turkey they call them fairy chimneys. They’re basically the same thing, though here in Cappadocia, particularly around the town of Goreme, hundreds (thousands?) of these tufa-based fairy chimneys were hollowed out and became homes, churches, and storerooms.

The best and most popular way to witness this amazing landscape is from the air. Every morning nearly a hundred hot air balloons take to the sky above Goreme and fly up to 3,000 feet above the fairy chimneys and valleys that make up Goreme National Park.  Like the camel trek in the Sahara, hiking with the Komodo Dragons, and taking the Queen Mary 2 across the Atlantic, we decided it was time for another bucket-list type of splurge. Riding in a hot air balloon was something Kristin and I have always wanted to do and there’s arguably no better place to do that in Cappadocia. So after 11 days of cycling from Bodrum to Goreme — and with my fortieth birthday coming up —  we lived it up for three nights in a fancy cave suite, went sailing on a 90-minute sunrise balloon ride, and joined an all-day tour of the villages, valleys, and one of the underground cities in the area — the Hittites carved out 32 multi-level underground cities in the 6th century BC, some extending over 150 feet below the surface and spreading out over 3 kilometers in area. The underground city we visited was 8 levels deep, extended over 2 kilometers in area and is believed to have been able to temporarily house up to 4,000 people. Goreme’s location along the Silk Road meant it was a prime target to brigands and invaders and the peace-loving Hittites found it better to carve out extensive underground hiding places rather than face the invaders in combat.

But enough with the history lesson (as told by our tour guide), let’s get on with the photos!

Last-minute burn before we boarded for our sunrise flight.

Last-minute burn before we boarded for our sunrise flight.

Another Butterfly Balloon over Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia.

Another Butterfly Balloon over Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia.

Sunrise over the town of Goreme where nearly a hundred balloons set flight almost every morning.

Sunrise over the town of Goreme where nearly a hundred balloons set flight almost every morning.

Flying east into the sun.

Flying east into the sun.

Rocks and balloons!

Rocks and balloons!

Wow! The interior of our hotel room at Ottoman Cave Suites in Goreme.

The interior of our hotel room at Ottoman Cave Suites in Goreme.

Table with a view. Sunset at Goreme from Nostalgia Restaurant.

Table with a view. Sunset at Goreme from Nostalgia Restaurant.

The Three Beauties fairy chimneys at Urgup.

The Three Beauties fairy chimneys at Urgup.

On a hike in Soganli Valley.

On a hike in Soganli Valley.

Pigeon Valley from Uchisar.

Pigeon Valley from Uchisar.

Kristin in one of the fairy chimneys of Soganli Valley.

Kristin in one of the fairy chimneys of Soganli Valley.

I want to take a moment just to say something nice about the town of Goreme that was both surprising and refreshing. Yes, this town is a tourist hot spot. But a tourist trap it is not! We found the prices of the hotels and restaurants to be well within the range of everywhere else we’ve been so far in Turkey — that it is to say, much less than Greece and Italy! The prices of snacks, beers, and groceries at the markets were as well. Better still, there’s no high-pressure sales annoyances to deal with; you can browse the market stalls and craft shops without being hassled; and the touts that are present keep their distance and are polite. Our tour guide, Gulsen, from New Goreme Tours not only really seemed to have our best interests in mind when it came to steering us clear of rip-off “wineries” and museums that offer little to no value, but it was clear that she was well-trained in dealing with westerners. And trust me, we North Americans and Europeans (and Aussies and Kiwis too) have certain idiosyncrasies about us that not every tour guide is ready for.

So if you’re thinking of taking a trip to Turkey, don’t hesitate. Go! And if you were worried about the hot air balloon rides not being worth it or Goreme and the Cappadocia region being one giant tourist trap, you can put that fear to rest as well. Yes, it’s extremely popular, but even right now in high season it didn’t feel the least bit crowded and the people in the tourism industry here really know what they’re doing and never once make you feel like you’re just a bag of money to them. That being said, definitely splurge on one of the 90-minute hot air balloon rides, as they are capped at 12 passengers whereas the 60-minute flights pack 20 people into the same size basket. We went with Rick Steves recommended Butterfly Balloon Tours and would go again in an instant. Our pilot, Mike, is British (i.e. fluent English speaker), had once flown over the North Pole in a hot air balloon, and has been in Turkey for 15 years. Butterfly offered a safe, professional service from the hotel pickup to the champagne toast back on land. Last but not least, we also highly recommend our hotel. Ottoman Cave Suites is small and very boutique-ish, but also very high on service and attention and in a great location.

Still not sold? Here’s a video from everyone’s favorite Seattle-area travel guru, Rick Steves, from his visit to Cappadocia.

Special Thanks: We wish to once again offer our continued thanks and acknowledgment to Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc for their generous sponsorship of our journey. Thank you so much!

17 August, 2015

Photos: Traditional Cretan Wedding

In no hurry to complete our lap around Crete too quickly, I turned to AirBNB in search of some cheap digs to rest our tired legs and found a great place in the small village of Kritsa nestled in the mountains of central Crete, not far from our general direction of travel. A small one-bedroom apartment with kitchen for $34 per night was too good to pass up so we turned inland, and upward, for three nights of relaxation. Little did I know that this sudden detour would not only lead us to one of the most beautiful stretches of road we’ve yet ridden, but that we’d arrive on the day of a traditional village wedding.

The village has apparently been wanting to stage a traditional Cretan wedding for some years as a means of enriching tradition amongst the youth (who often leave these tiny villages at first chance) and to promote the village economy, but it wasn’t until this year that a couple agreed to marry in this style. Lucky for us, we just so happened to be there to catch it.

Kritsa assigned unused houses to be the traditional groom’s house, bride’s house, and marriage house and decorated these house in period furnishings prior to the wedding. Meanwhile the local communities assembled all of the traditional clothing needed to take the village back in time.

The groom's company sing for him outside his house in Kritsa.

The groom’s company sing for him outside his house in Kritsa. With the dowry taken to the bridal home, the party returned to the groom’s house for song and dance. The groom’s house was just steps from the house we’re staying in.

This little boy was caught sneaking candy at the groom's house in Kritsa.

This little boy was caught sneaking candy at the groom’s house in Kritsa.

The procession through Kritsa heads for the bride's family house so the bride and groom can continue to the church together.

The procession through Kritsa heads for the bride’s family house so the bride and groom can continue to the church together.

The groom's men heading for the bride's house.

The groom’s men heading for the bride’s house.

Two local girls attending the wedding in Kritsa.

Two local girls attending the wedding in Kritsa.

The party moves to the church courtyard for the nuptial ceremony.

The party moves to the church courtyard for the nuptial ceremony.

The bride and groom knotted in matrimony.

The bride and groom knotted in matrimony.

Flower girl in Kritsa.

Flower girl in Kritsa.

Local family in traditional dress for the wedding in Kritsa.

Local family in traditional dress for the wedding in Kritsa.

The four hours of processions, song, dance, and the actual wedding ceremony were a wonderful sight to witness and we’re so fortunate to finally be in the right place for a village wedding ceremony. Numerous houses and shops set up tables along the walk with free olives, bread, almonds, and raki, a locally-produced brandy made from the mashed grapes left over from wine making that runs about 60% ABV. The local villagers really seemed happy to be reliving their traditions, if only for a day, and graciously posed for photos when not busy singing and dancing.

Click any of the photos to head over to the Flickr album for even more photos from Greece, Crete, and of the wedding in Kritsa.

Best of luck to the new couple!

18 July, 2014

Manhattanhenge 2014

We interrupt this month off the bikes to share a series of photos I took last weekend in New York City. Our good friends Alan and Katrina traveled east to spend a week with us in New Jersey and that nonstop whirlwind tour of city, beach, and amusement park landed us in Manhattan during the annual “Manhattan Solstice” event. For those who, like me, had never heard of the so-called Manhattanhenge phenomena, twice a year the setting sun aligns perfectly with the grid-shaped orientation of Manhattan’s urban landscape, creating a mesmerizing effect as the glowing ball of light falls perfectly between the buildings of Manhattan’s cross-streets.

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According to Wikipedia, the term was first coined by everybody’s favorite COSMOS celebrity, Neil deGrasse Tyson. The effect is most striking during the days immediately following the alignment. This year, by sheer luck, we were there on July 11th, the day of the full sun alignment. We positioned ourselves on the corner of Madison and 34th (we were told to find one of the wider cross streets, which 34th is) and so, after a few drinks at the Morgan Museum’s happy hour, we joined a crowd of dozens and rushed to the center of the street every time the light turned red to grab our photos and soak in the crimson glow reflecting off the steel and glass canyon.

No filters have been applied to the photos in this post, nor have any lighting or saturation adjustments been applied. Seriously. And to make it a little more unbelievable, I’ll add that I took these shots with Kristin’s waterproof compact camera, the PowerShot D20

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