Archive for the ‘The Great Outdoors’ Category

There’s no better way to start off a new year than a first day hike – wouldn’t you agree?  By New Year’s Day, 2020, we were all a little holiday-ed out and ready for some fresh air and trail time.  In an effort to squeeze in as much upstate New York fun as we could, we were also planning to stop by my high school BFF’s house for a good long visit with her, so we targeted a trail near her home.  After kicking around a few options, we settled on the Wilson M. Powell Wildlife Sanctuary in Old Chatham.

Sharp-eyed readers may recognize pictures of the trail, because we’ve hiked it before – last Thanksgiving, specifically, with my parents.  We thought about checking out a new-to-us trail, but decided on the tried and true.

Pretty quick hike to the overlook, and a minimum of whining – I’ll take it.

This is a good way to start a new year – looking out over a beautiful vista, scheming up plans big and small for the next 365 days.  As I hiked along, I thought about what I want life to look like at this time in 2021.  I have a lot of dreams for this year.

We didn’t linger long at the overlook, because someone (cough cough NUGGET) didn’t want to hold hands with a parent up on the blustery cliff.  That’s a non-starter, so we turned around and headed back downhill (much to his chagrin).  But it was long enough to get in a good gulp of fresh January air and a dose of scenery.

Here we go, 2020 hiking!

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After a long car ride on Wednesday and an indoor, food-filled day on Thanksgiving, several of us were craving outdoor time and fresh air.  I’d been hoping to make a hike happen and was secretly cherishing an ambition to hike Mount Jo, Heart Lake or Indian Head in the Adirondacks, but the long drive up to the mountains wasn’t especially enticing – something closer to my parents’ house sounded much better, and after some discussion we settled on the Pine Bush.

The Pine Bush is a unique ecosystem – one of the few remaining inland pine barrens, with lupine and scrub oak also growing in the sandy soil.  (It’s also the home of the endangered Karner blue butterfly, but I figured I’d be safe from flapping wings in November – and I was.)  We parked near the Discovery Center, spent a bit of time exploring the indoor exhibits, then set off for a quick meander around one of the well-marked trails.

It was just Steve, me, and the little dude this time.  Peanut is the latest victim of the disgusting chest cold that Nugget brought home from school and has been passing around the family, so she stayed home with Nana to rest and recover.  Also – lest you think that all of our family hikes are perfect – you should know that Nugget screamed to be picked up the entire time.  We’ve gotten out of the habit of hiking, thanks to a busy summer and fall, and both kids have started complaining vociferously on the few hikes we have been able to fit in recently.  We ignored him and he finally stopped complaining and just hiked sullenly along with about five minutes left of trail.

The scenery was a good distraction from the caterwauling.  Can you believe this park and preserve is just a stone’s throw away from the largest shopping mall in Albany?  I know.

I was happy to be here, and not there, on Black Friday.  Trails suit me much better than a crowded mall.

Pine Bush, you’re beautiful!  I’ll definitely be back.  Just maybe not in butterfly season.

Did you hike over Thanksgiving weekend?

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I woke up on Friday morning, the fifth day of our paddling adventure, with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I felt decidedly grimy – ready for a hot shower, clean laundry, and lunches that consisted of something more exciting than a powerbar.  But on the other hand – man.  Over four days of paddling through all weather, currents, waves, I had fallen in love with the Salish Sea.  I wasn’t ready to leave these waters.

I think everyone felt that way.  We shoved off from Jones Island and everybody seemed to be in quiet, reflective moods.  We hung together closely as a group, although several boats paired off.  Steve and I had become especially close to B and M, the two English guys in our group, and we mostly paddled alongside them.

We pulled over on a rocky beach for an early lunch break, and Ben turned on the whale watch radio and got the news that the Southern Resident Killer Whales – J, K and L pods – had been spotted on the west side of San Juan Island.  Unfortunately, we were… on the east side of San Juan Island.  There was some talk of sprinting the approximately two miles it would take to cross overland to the west, but instead we scurried back to the boats in hopes of seeing J pod from the water (ultimate dream).

It wasn’t to be.  We all kind of knew it – they were heading north, all the way on the other side of the island; it looked like this was just a short visit.  Not surprised, but maybe the tiniest bit sad, we continued our paddle past a big seal haulout, headed for our final destination – the beach, and then the Sea Quest van.

We landed the kayaks a little after noon and pulled together one final time to get everything unloaded and cleaned out.  The boats, we left on the beach for the next group, who were meeting up and taking them right back on the water.  I tried not to be jealous, and to focus instead on the good part of the paddling being over: being reunited with my Birkenstocks.  After a week in Keen sandals that never quite dried out, I almost cried with joy when I slipped my Birks back on.  (They’re the Mayari vegan, if you’re interested, and I basically live in them.)  After the van dropped us in town, we all went our separate ways – a few people to the ferry, a few people to bum around town until the Clipper left, and Ben to the two-person tent he lives in while not guiding.  Steve and I lugged our heavy backpacks, full of waterlogged clothes, around Friday Harbor until we found a restaurant that would seat us.

Afternoon, and the Clipper, came too soon.  B and M had tickets too, so we made plans to meet up and share a table.

They claim to have fought off several people while saving our seats.  I believe them.  We settled in together and began discussing who would get first shower when we got back to our hotel rooms.  I asked our friends who smelled worse – me, or Steve – and they promptly answered, in unison, “Him.”

Eventually B, M and I headed to the upper deck to watch the Clipper steam out of the harbor.  Steve stayed below to guard our table and – this is important – the beers.

Chugging out of Friday Harbor.  I’m not ready, please don’t make me leave!

As we steamed out of the harbor, we watched a seaplane land.  I tried not to be jealous of the pilot, just arriving on San Juan Island instead of leaving.

We were determined to soak up all of the scenery on the way back to Seattle.  No matter how cold and windy it got.  We’d all been living rough for five days.  We were committed.

As the Clipper steamed through Boundary Pass, I spotted a coffee cup rolling around on deck.  I’d never have forgiven myself if it blew overboard, so I snatched it up and rushed down the stairs to throw it away.  Stopping by our table to check on Steve, I spotted out the window –

ORCAS!  I flew over the table, slammed myself against the window, shouted “ORCASORCASORCAS!” and the boat listed to starboard as everyone on the upper level rushed to look out the window.  The Clipper’s on-board naturalist came on the radio and announced that the T065 family was swimming off the stern of the boat.

I ran up the stairs, shouting to B and M, “Orcas, guys DID YOU SEE THEM DID YOU SEE THE ORCAS!”  They laughed, said they had seen the orcas, and were very relieved that I had seen them too.  They didn’t know what they were going to say to me if I’d missed them.  I was surprised M hadn’t flung himself overboard; his dream is to swim with them.

Still sad, still leaving a piece of my heart in the islands – but it felt right to have been seen off by the Biggs.  They’re incredible, majestic, beautiful creatures and it was my great privilege to see them twice on this trip.

Next week: hello, civilization – Seattle!

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A bit belated, since it’s already fall, but I wanted to share a few snaps from our recent (ish… it was Labor Day) family paddle out on the Potomac.  Steve and I had been talking about how we hadn’t been out on the water since we got back from the San Juans, and we were both jealously eyeing the kayakers and canoeists out on Lake Burke during our family hike there over Labor Day weekend, and we decided a family paddle was in order as soon as possible.  We’d initially planned to go to Lake Anna on Labor Day, but swimming was prohibited due to a harmful algae bloom (yuck, and also, what are we doing to this planet?).  So we quickly shifted plans and headed to our favorite local kayaking spot – Fletcher’s Cove.

Fletcher’s is upriver from Georgetown and on a particularly narrow, calm and sheltered stretch of the Potomac, making it especially good for the little duffers – yet we don’t make it there nearly as often as we’d like.  In 2018 we didn’t even get to Fletcher’s once – every time we tried to paddle, it was closed for high water, and I was working on the 52 Hike Challenge anyway, leaving little time for river fun.  This year, we bounced from boathouse to boathouse, checking out the paddling options on other stretches of the Potomac and on the Anacostia.  Closing out the summer at our old favorite boathouse seemed like a long-overdue treat.

Nugget and I were first to launch this time, and instead of paddling upriver toward Chain Bridge, we meandered downriver while we waited for Peanut and Steve to catch up.  The dock employee who launched us suggested we might see some interesting birds on the way, and he wasn’t kidding – there were waterbirds aplenty, and we got up close and personal with this Great Blue Heron.  (I think we also saw a cormorant – we weren’t able to get close enough to positively identify it before it took off, but it had the trademark awkward cormorant flight.)

Steve and Peanut caught up with us soon, and got to check out the avian life too.  The water was so peaceful!

As we headed downriver, I spotted a familiar landmark ahead.

The Washington Monument!  I didn’t realize we would catch a glimpse of it, and now I’m kicking myself for all the times we paddled to the Chain Bridge instead of exploring in the downriver direction.

Eventually, we turned around and headed back to the dock – but it was a great morning of paddling (despite the blister I was working on; Steve accidentally shrank my paddling gloves in the wash after we returned from the San Juans, and I haven’t replaced them yet).  Both Nugget and Peanut were totally into paddling.  Steve said that Peanut’s paddling form was great and they actually got into a paddling rhythm for awhile!  She’s growing up, you guys.  Hold me.

Totally self-indulgent and way belated, I know, but I couldn’t let the month get away from me without sharing these snaps from a gorgeous morning on the water.

Do you have a favorite local paddling spot?


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July 4th dawned sunny and beautiful, and we prepared to do battle with the raccoons of Jones Island.  It being Independence Day, the Americans in the group were ready to celebrate!  I wore my stars and stripes headband under my hat, and a fellow kayaker tied an American flag bandana to her bow – and we pushed back from Point Doughty ready to do battle for Old Glory against the raccoons.

The views of Turtleback Mountain were beautiful from the water.  I shouted over my shoulder to Steve, “It’s Te Fiti!”

The paddle from Point Doughty to Jones Island was relatively short, but as we glided by the shorelines on the way we counted a total of seven bald eagles!  We saw eagles almost every day, but the sightings never got old, and it felt especially appropriate to see so many of them on Independence Day.  It reminded me of the first time I ever saw an eagle – Steve and I were visiting Mount Vernon, and as we walked behind the Mansion to look at the sweeping views of the Potomac, an eagle soared low overhead.  It was as if the spirit of George Washington was looking down on us.  So what I’m saying is – these eagles really seem to know how to choose their moments.

We stopped for a long lunch on a private island that allowed for public access to its bluffs.  Most of the group spread out across the shoreline, looking out at the expansive views – always on dorsal watch.

After lunch, back in the boats, we cruised on over to Jones Island.  As we hugged the shoreline preparing to land, we saw two large raccoons scamper over the rocks in the 2:00 p.m. sun, prompting yelps from several boats: “I thought they were nocturnal!”  Clearly, these were no ordinary raccoons.

We landed on Jones Island, which was clearly a popular spot for Independence Day camping and cookouts, and quickly claimed a campsite near the water.  We unpacked our gear and Ben solicited a vote from the group – would we rather go for a hike, or get back in the kayaks and explore the surrounding islands?  We had one vote for a hike, but the rest of the gang (including Steve and me) cast our votes for the kayaks: still hoping we might see some Biggs killer whales in their prime hunting waters.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the islands surrounding Jones – didn’t see any orcas, but there was plenty of other beautiful sights to keep us busy, and we hardly noticed that we’d paddled 17.5 nautical miles over the course of the day.  Everyone was hungry when we got back to camp, so Ben quickly fired up the camp stove and started an “appetizer course” of grilled cheese sandwiches before moving on to our regularly planned dinner.

Side of sautéed bull kelp with soy sauce and a dash of sriracha.  I tried some – pretty darn good.  I balked at trying the rockweed, though.

Although we didn’t see orcas, the other wildlife on Jones was not so shy.  No confirmed raccoon sightings after dark – there was some rustling near the tent, but no visual so I’m pretending it didn’t happen – but a black-tailed deer came into our campsite and stood within feet of us for several minutes.  (We think it was the same deer that one of our group caught some fellow campers petting in a different campsite.  Later in the evening I encountered a teenaged girl in line for the restrooms, who proudly recounted that the deer had followed her family around and they had pet and fed it.  I read her the riot act.  Don’t pet the wildlife, and definitely don’t feed them!  They’re unpredictable wild animals and it’s dangerous for them to get too comfortable with humans.)

Home sweet home.  Last night in the tent!  I was already starting to miss this simple life.

As the sun went down on the Fourth of July, I think we were all feeling a bit nostalgic and sad about parting ways the next day.  Our group really worked, and we are already feeling like old friends.

Next week: The Biggs say goodbye (sniff).

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The third day of our kayaking adventure dawned grey and cool, but dry – a definite improvement from the previous day’s paddle.  We had a slow morning – Ben was planning the shortest paddle of the trip, a mere 5.5 nautical mile “blue water” crossing from Patos to Point Doughty on the back of Orcas Island.  So the gang slept in while a few of us got in an early morning hike, then we all enjoyed a leisurely breakfast around the picnic table before breaking camp and pushing off for Orcas.

Fortified with toad-in-the-hole and a lighthouse hike, ready for a short day of paddling!  Let’s do this!

The water was calm and gorgeous, almost like a mirror at times.  There was very little wind and very little current – just smooth sailing across the Salish Sea.

It almost felt like we’d just hopped into the boats, and before we knew it, we were navigating a treacherous passage of whirlpools and boulders to land on the beach at Point Doughty.

The landing was so narrow that only three boats could pull in at any given time; the rest had to idle out on the water while we unloaded a few at a time.  Steve and I went in with the first batch, and I promptly took a knee on the slippery bull kelp.  It’s not a vacation until someone is gushing blood, right?

Eventually, we got all the boats in and Ben announced to the entire group that I had “an owie situation.”  Thanks, man.  I cleaned my knee, verified that it wasn’t a barnacle cut (which tend to get infected) and then we turned our attention to the problem of how to get all of our gear – including the tents and the camp stove – up a narrow and slippery path to the campsite on the bluff.  No one was keen to scramble up and down, so (cementing our place as the most cooperative and cohesive kayaking group ever) we formed a human chain and passed everyone’s gear from paddler to paddler until we had the beach cleared.

Set up camp, then wandered off to explore.  It was a fairly small campground, so we covered the scenery quickly, then Ben called the group together to review options for the next day’s paddling.  He told us we had a few options: we could return to Stuart Island and do a bioluminescence paddle (tempting), set up camp near civilization and pick up some beer (pass) or hit Jones Island, which would take us through prime Biggs killer whale hunting waters and be the best chance of seeing orcas from the water.

The group unanimously voted for Jones Island.  Ben frowned and cautioned us that the island was home to a brigade of aggressive raccoons who were known to pillage campsites and rip hatches right off of kayaks, and orcas were no guarantee.  One of our fellow paddlers assured Ben, “We know there’s no guarantee of wildlife.”  Ben shook his head.  “No, orcas are not guaranteed.  Raccoons are guaranteed.”  We decided to risk it, and came up with a plan to sleep in shifts and use our kayak paddles to slapshot the raccoons into the water, ideally into the mouths of the waiting orcas.  What could go wrong?

Ben left the rest of the group to continue planning for day four, which was now officially named “the Battle of Camp Raccoon,” and he and I headed up to the top of the bluff to do some birding.

We discovered that the hilltop at Point Doughty is the best birding spot ever – a perfect confluence of shore birds, cliff-dwellers, and woodland birds.  We probably saw a dozen different species.

The view was also on point.  I made sure to keep an eye out for dorsal fins while Ben and I did our bird nerd thing.

Stayed up on the bluff for hours and took in a truly spectacular sunset.  Oh, Washington, why do you have to be so fabulous?

(My mom saw this picture and said, “Oh, finally, you got some booze!”  Ha – if only.  This was chamomile tea.  I was still warming up after the previous day’s rain.)

We passed a slightly restless night – unbeknownst to us at the time we pitched our tent, we were sleeping on a slight incline, and I kept slipping into the downhill corner of the tent.  I woke up several times with the distinct sensation that I was going over the bluff – I wasn’t, but it didn’t make for the best sleep of the trip.  Once the sun finally rose, Steve and I got our campsite broken down quickly, and after I’d helped pack up the kitchen, I wandered down to the beach to do some tidepooling before it was time to go.  On our way from Stuart to Patos, we’d passed gorgeous purple ochre sea stars, and I wanted to see one up close.

The rocks down on the beach at Point Doughty were dotted with them, and I spent a blissful few minutes going from sea star to sea star, getting acquainted.  It was a peaceful way to begin the day on the water – and then I joined the group, armed myself with my paddle and got ready to fight for the Stars and Stripes in the Battle of Camp Raccoon.

Next week: Indepedence Day, and the Battle of Camp Raccoon!

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Having passed on the sunset hike the first night of our trip, Steve and I definitely didn’t want to miss the next hiking opportunity – which came on the morning of our third day in the kayaks.  The night before, Ben suggested an early morning hike to a remote lighthouse out on the tip of Patos Island.  Always up for adding another lighthouse to my life list, I was especially gung-ho.

Early morning view!  The sunrise wakeup call was no hardship for Steve and me – we’re used to kids who wake up with the sunrise.  Ben was just a slightly bigger version of Nugget.  Also, when you unzip your tent flap and see this, who can complain?

We set off into the woods, and after a very short, very gentle incline, it was all level ground and smooth sailing.

Our group was small – just Ben, Steve and me, and the grandfather/grandson duo from our paddling group.  The rest of the gang decided to stay back at camp and sleep in.  Ben pointed out tree and plant varietals as we walked along this gorgeous red trail.

Before I knew it, we’d broken out from the trees and could see the top of the lighthouse, perched on a little bluff.

Ben brought his first aid kit.  I decided to believe that he brings that on every hike, and it wasn’t just because I am accident-prone.

The long approach to the lighthouse – so beautiful.

Gotta love a moody sky, amirite?

We finally made it to the lighthouse.  Most of our little band occupied themselves with exploring around the building.

Meanwhile, always on dorsal watch, I wandered over to the bluff.

The view over the rocks was gorgeous.  I sat for awhile, watching violet-green swallows swoop through the sky and harbor seals and porpoises play in the waves off the point.

It was a perfect way to start the day!  We had a short paddle ahead of us – just 5.5 nautical miles straight across from Patos to Point Doughty on Orcas Island, a far cry from the 12.5 and 13.5 of our first two paddling days – and I can’t think of a better place to spend a morning relaxing and exploring.

Next week: up close and personal with a sea star.

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