Archive for the ‘The Great Outdoors’ Category

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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On the second day of our kayaking adventure, we woke up to rain pattering on the roof of the tent –  awesome.  Wondering what happened to that gorgeous PNW summer weather we’d been enjoying, we crept reluctantly out of our sleeping bags and ventured into the dripping wooded clearing where we’d made camp the night before.  There was one compensation for being out of the tent…

Banana nut pancake.  Yes, I will have that.  But things got colder – and wetter – from there.  After fortifying with a pancake and coffee, we huddled together as a group and Ben recommended that we press on with our plans despite the now-driving rain.  (Very unusual for summer in Washington, I hear.  Winter, not unusual.  But summer…)  Ben explained that we’d be more comfortable moving our bodies in the kayaks than shivering at camp in the rain.  The plan was to paddle to Patos Island, a tiny island up near Boundary Pass, inaccessible except via boat.  Even the guides don’t make it up to Patos more than a couple of times per season, and Ben was stoked about the idea of getting there on our trip.  Since the rain was just cold and wet – but not dangerous – he thought we could do it.  So we climbed into the kayaks, battened down our spray skirts as securely as possible, and pushed off for Patos.

I didn’t take my phone out from under the spray skirt all morning – let alone my big camera.  The rain was absolutely drenching, and the longer we were out in it, the colder I was.  I didn’t take a single picture all morning; I was just trying not to get hypothermia.  When we finally pulled ashore for lunch, about halfway through the day’s paddling, Ben took one look at me and remarked, “You look really cold.”

was really cold, but I figured probably not colder than anyone else, and complaining wasn’t going to help anyone.  I figured the best thing to do was to press on to Patos Island and dry clothes, so I told him – through gritted teeth – “I’m fine.”  He suggested that we all spread out and pick up some driftwood – driftwood foraging is legal on certain beaches, including this one – and haul it to Patos for a campfire.  Sounded good to me!

I was a little skeptical about whether the driftwood would actually burn – it was pretty wet – but we all gamely rounded up a good fire’s worth and strapped it to the kayaks.  Our groupmates joked that the amount of driftwood on a kayak was directly proportional to how cold the people in the boat were.  Needless to say, Steve and I had the biggest load.

Let’s do this!  Even Steve was cold, so that should tell you how really damp and blustery it was.

Eventually, the rain stopped driving down and – while the sun didn’t come out all afternoon – paddling was really pleasant.  Before I knew it, we were rolling into Patos.  The landing was made more interesting by a narrow-ish passage (although nothing to what we’d navigate the next day) and a couple of little whirlpools that made for a fun water ride onto the beach.

As we paddled up, we spotted a few sailboats moored in the calm little bay, and a campsite up on a bluff with a fire and – miracle of miracles – coolers!  There was much speculation about what kind of beer the (obviously rich, because hello: COOLERS) sailors were enjoying.  Plans were made to befriend them.

In the end, though, no one drifted over.  We were already starting to bond as a group, and everyone just wanted to hang out in camp and enjoy each other’s company.  Steve pitched the tent…

While I helped Ben get dinner on the table: vegetable curry and Asian-inspired cabbage salad.  Hearty and warming.

The rest of the gang agreed.  Seconds and thirds were passed around.

After dinner, while a couple of the gents took over dish duty, the rest of us browbeat one of our number into building a campfire for us.  His girlfriend explained that he was a volunteer firefighter back in Bavaria, and we decided that made him more qualified than anyone else to build a fire.  The poor guy was fire captain for the rest of the trip.  He was a good sport about it.


(One of my favorite pictures from the week, right there.  It was just so lovely, toasting my hands over a campfire, shoulder to shoulder with a whole mess of new friends.)

Soon the sun started to dip lower in the sky, and we all rushed to watch.

Just epic.  I couldn’t believe the beauty all around us.

After the sunset, we sat around the table sipping herbal tea and chatting.  At one point, everyone except for Steve and I jumped up from the table and whipped their heads around, pointing at the sky and shouting – a Navy helicopter was flying low over the horizon, just offshore, running a training mission.  Much laughter ensued when the rest of the group realized that Steve and I hadn’t even noticed the (incredibly loud) helicopter flying just over our heads.  We chalked it up to living in the D.C. area – helicopters are like mosquitos to us.

Eventually we realized that something was happening and joined the group.  Pretty neat stuff to watch, even if we were late to the party.

Truly the campfire at the end of the world.  Oh, Patos Island – you were worth every raindrop.

Next week: A hike to a remote and historic lighthouse.

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After a flight across the country and two days of falling in love with San Juan Island, the big day finally arrived – time to get into the kayaks!  Steve and I had booked a five-day kayaking ecotour around the islands and we were looking forward to seeing lots of wildlife and incredible scenery.  Our itinerary directed us to meet up with our kayak group at the traffic circle in Friday Harbor, so that’s where we headed at 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning.  (Yes – “the” traffic circle.  There’s only one.)  We were the first to arrive, so we dropped our dry bags on the curb and plunked down on a bench.  Soon other pairs of people toting their own dry bags began to arrive; we sized each other up and started cautiously chatting.  (I whispered to Steve: “By the end of the week, we’re either going to hate these people or they’ll be our best friends.”  Spoiler – best friends, as it turned out.)

Before we knew it, a white van pulling a trailer loaded with kayaks pulled into the circle.

An extremely energetic college-aged kid bounded out of the van and introduced himself as Ben, our guide.  We shook hands quickly and got to work loading our bags into the trailer.  And then it was time to hop into the van for the fifteen-minute drive over to San Juan County Park, our launch point for a week’s worth of adventures.  On the ride over, Ben had us introduce ourselves and share where we were from and our paddling experience.  The group hailed from all over the world – we had paddlers from Canada, England, Germany, both coasts and the upper Midwest of the U.S.  Steve and I were the lone representatives from the East Coast.  Before we knew it, we were rolling up to the launch beach.

Our rides for the week!  (And Steve discovered via his Maps app that we were launching from Smallpox Bay.  Cue the Gilmore Girls jokes about “Sores and Boils Alley.”)

After hauling the kayaks down to the beach, we all got to work hefting our dry bags.  Here’s Steve’s and my pile – not too bad!  I insisted on bringing my own life jacket.  Ben was skeptical and asked me if it was Coast Guard certified.  “Of course!” I said confidently.  (Narrator voice: she was not confident, but it was from REI, so that’s something.)

Let me tell you: carrying a heavy fiberglass kayak is hard enough without trying to do it while walking on a rocky beach covered with slippery bull kelp.  Anyway!  Some friends came to see us off – a small family of deer.

A great blue heron and several belted kingfishers (look at the very top left corner of the photo).

And a bald eagle!  (Note: sorry about the blurry wildlife photography.  I was armed with multiple cameras, but in the kayaks and on the beaches, the easiest thing to do was to just pull out my cell phone.  Sometimes the cell phone’s accessibility was the difference between a bad blurry picture and no picture at all.  So – consider this your warning, more blurry pictures ahead.)

Anyway, I was sure that the wildlife on the beach as we loaded the kayaks was a good omen for the week.

A quick review of paddling techniques for the less experienced members of the group, and it was time to hit the water – FINALLY!

One of our first sights from the water – a small island with a massive seal haul-out!  There were probably a couple dozen harbor seals, lazing about and enjoying the sunshine on the rocks.  We gave them a wide berth, but it was so cool to see them.  (Again – blurry photography alert, sorry!)

We paddled for a few hours and then pulled onto a beach for lunch.  As we were meditatively munching our sandwiches, we noticed a few whale watching boats idling just offshore – a good indicator that something interesting is in the water.  Ben mused, “I wonder if they have a baleen whale tucked away in that cove.”  Before anyone could get up to check out the scene, I spotted a massive dorsal fin cutting smoothly through the water around a rocky jetty.  We all lost our minds and ran, slipping over bull kelp, to the waterline.

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but this dorsal fin was at least as tall as me.  Its owner was a massive bull orca from one of the transient families – or Biggs killer whales, as they’re sometimes known.  We all had to pull our jaws off the beach as this gigantic boy swam just offshore.

Two female members of his family followed him – most likely a mom and sister, given the structure and organization of transient orca families.  They stick together in matrilineal groups, much like the southern residents – and while female orcas will eventually start their own families in a continuation of the matriline, bull orcas are gigantic mama’s boys and tend to stay with their mommies for the rest of their lives.  Transients will occasionally get together in larger groups and often cooperate with other matrilines to hunt, but they don’t tend to roll in a big pod like the SRKWs.  This was a small family group and they were just traveling along, very chill, right off the beach.

It was incredible to see them.  As I told Steve, even if we didn’t see anything else for the rest of the trip, those few moments while the Biggs family swam past made the whole trip worth it.  All my life, I’ll never forget the moment of seeing that giant bull orca dorsal fin coming around the rocky jetty.

Once the orcas left, we hopped back into the kayaks for the afternoon’s paddling.  We were headed for Stuart Island, a smaller – but still populated – island in the archipelago.  The last bit of paddling was the easiest, through a long, calm bay.

Landed!  12.5 nautical miles of paddling – I think this was the longest paddling day either Steve or I had ever done (but it wouldn’t be the longest day of this trip).  Our shoulders were pretty stiff, but damn, we were proud.

The end of a paddling day doesn’t mean the end of the day.  We hauled the kayaks up to a safe spot on the grassy bank, then got to work pitching our tents and setting up camp.  In addition to our own personal gear, we were each hauling some of the communal camp kitchen gear and the food.

Another new experience!  Steve and I muddled through and figured out how to pitch our tent – home for the week.  (Steve discovered that he really enjoys pitching tents – who knew? – so he mostly did that task by himself for the rest of the week, and I helped Ben set up the kitchen and start dinner.  But on the first night, we built our home together.)

Cooking time!  We were all pretty hungry.  Everyone pitched in to help, either with the cooking or with the dishes after the meal.  (Ben said that as a collective, we were the most helpful group he’d ever taken out.  Yay, us!)

My station: salad!  It was hard not to inhale the entire pot.  I was hungry!

Settled for this lovely plate of green goodness.

And then a hearty, warming pasta with tomatoes, pine nuts, goat cheese and artichokes – delicious.  After dinner, Ben took a few people out for a sunset hike, but most of us chose to stay in camp.  It was a long, tiring day.  I did some yoga, Steve read an ebook, and we spent some time perched on a log, taking in the views of the bay before turning in early – I don’t even think we made it to sunset.

It was a darn near perfect day.  New friends, orcas (and lots of other wildlife) and a full day of paddling on the water – what more can you ask for?

Next week: RAIN.

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After Lime Kiln, Steve and I were still looking to squeeze in some adventure, so we headed about half an hour away, to hike the South Beach trail to American Camp.  Not having a car with us on the island, we relied on Friday Harbor Taxi to ferry us from point to point.  We ended up with the same driver each time, and he was a delight – clearly in love with the island, he pointed out all of the local landmarks – everything from madrone forests to a wave in the direction of Chris Pratt’s house.  (Yes, Andy Dwyer has a house on San Juan Island!  I nearly died of excitement.  Spoiler: we did not see Chris.)

I really wanted a hike, so we had our driver drop us off at South Beach, planning to follow the trail to American Camp (a National Park Service site near the southern tip of the island; English Camp is in the northern section, and while both looked beautiful, we decided on American Camp for its more expansive water views).  Before we hit the trail, we spent a little time poking around South Beach, checking out the driftwood and seabirds and – always – scanning for dorsal fins.

People had built really cool driftwood structures along the beach – little forts and hideaways.

As we were picking our way off the beach, headed for the trail to American Camp, a woman waved us down and quietly told us that there was some excellent tidepooling for those who were willing to scramble over some rocks.  Lots of sea anemones, she said.  Naturally, we had to check it out – Washington state is famous for its tidepooling opportunities – so we rock-hopped over and she wasn’t kidding.

Rockweed, barnacles, clusters of mussels, and lots and lots and lots of sea anemones!

Such a cool treat, to find this treasure on a hike.

We watched the sunlight dancing on the water for a little while, lost count of the sea anemones, and then went on our way – up to the grassy South Beach Trail and headed for American Camp.

The South Beach Trail turned out to be a trail through a gorgeous open meadow, with sweeping vistas across the water, all the way to the Olympic Mountains.

So stunning!  When we reached American Camp, we found our taxi driver waiting for us in the spot we’d prearranged with him when he dropped us off at the trailhead.  He motioned to us to join him and we stood against the wall of the ranger station, peering up at…

An eagle’s nest, with BABY BALD EAGLES in it!  We caught a glimpse of their little heads, but I didn’t snap the shutter on my camera quite fast enough.  So you’ll just have to trust me – but they were there, and it was so cool.  And speaking of cool – best taxi driver ever, seriously.  How many taxi drivers consider it part of the service to scramble through the dirt to show their customers an eagle’s nest?  Not to mention Chris Pratt’s house – or, at least, the general direction in which Chris Pratt’s house is located, probably.  Good enough for me!

It felt good to stretch our legs and get a hike in!  It had been awhile since we’d hit the trails, and sometimes it’s nice to get away for a hike as adults (don’t get me wrong, we love the rugrats, but we can cover more ground and take more challenging hikes without them).  Looking ahead to a five-day kayaking adventure, it was great to get some land-based exploring in, too.

 Next week: we’re finally hitting the water!  Day one of the kayaking portion of the trip – I can’t wait to share it with you!


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Knowing that we only had a day and a half to explore San Juan Island before we’d be meeting up with our paddling group, Steve and I had to accept that there was no way we were going to be able to experience everything the island had to offer – but one thing I did insist on was a visit to Lime Kiln Point State Park.  The locals call Lime Kiln “Whale Watch Park” because with its rocky vantage point, and expansive views overlooking Haro Strait – prime southern resident killer whale hunting waters – it’s an ideal place to spot orcas from land.  J, K and L Pods are known to swim within feet of the shoreline!

I wasn’t especially hopeful that we’d see whales – the southern residents had not been spotted in these waters for months, and the Biggs (transient) killer whales don’t wend their way over to Lime Kiln nearly as frequently – but I still wanted to see the park that featured so prominently in the multiple killer whale updates I receive each month.  And – I’ll confess – a tiny part of me still thought she might spot a dorsal fin.  Alas – no orcas, not surprisingly, but we did see a few porpoises rolling through the waters off Lime Kiln Point.  (As I learned later in the week, this isn’t surprising; porpoises are most often found swimming off points.)

We ended up hitting the park on probably the busiest day all summer – the centennial celebration for the Lime Kiln lighthouse.  There was live music and entertainment, and the park was crawling with people.  (I know it looks like we were the only ones there.  That’s strategic photography, my friends.)

We approached through the trees and took our time picking our way along the bluffs, taking in the stunning views of the Olympic Mountains in the distance.

Less talk, more pictures!

(Getting closer to the lighthouse, you can see the people clustered around, jamming to the music and collecting literature on the history of the lighthouse and on the killer whale communities around the islands.)

We went inside the lighthouse at one point and talked to the park rangers staffing some information tables.  They had a very depressing chart on which they were recording the killer whale sightings for the year – just a handful of “T” sightings, and no SRKWs at all.  Sob.

But it’s impossible to be disappointed in such a beautiful place, with sunlight dancing on waters you’ve been dreaming of seeing for years.

Shiny happy people holding hands.

Lime Kiln was breathtakingly beautiful.  I hope to return someday, and to see J Pod cruise by when I do!

Next week, we check out a hike with views great and small.

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