ADK 2021: Paddling Lake Placid

When I sat down to plan a week’s worth of Adirondack paddling, Lake Placid was the top of the list of lakes to hit. How could it not be? Just a five minute drive – or less – from our hotel, it doesn’t get more convenient. Or more beautiful! I’d paddled Lake Placid before, with my dad – we dropped our kayaks in at the Lake Placid boat launch, paddled four miles to the back slope of Whiteface Mountain, and floated around drinking wine. (An epic day.) I was eager to show Steve the same paddling route – minus the wine, because this was a quick late-lunchtime escape, and we were headed back to “work” afterwards.

Steve grew up in the Adirondack region – just “outside the blue line,” as locals say, in Glens Falls. But he wasn’t an outdoorsy guy, and he didn’t paddle growing up. So this was his first foray onto Lake Placid.

Obviously he loved it.

I was excited to show him the gorgeous Adirondack camps and boathouses. We’d love to own lakefront property in Virginia someday (longterm financial goal alert!) and I think the boathouses inspired him. He especially liked the Japanese-style one; I preferred the more traditional Adirondack architecture – but they are clearly all stunning.

As we checked out the classic architecture, another Adirondack symbol popped up a few dozen yards away – a common loon! I can’t get enough of them. Sorry for the blurry picture – iPhone zoom.

As we paddled up toward the back slope of Whiteface, we passed by a group on a pontoon boat, who had obviously started their happy hour early. (No shade!) One of the men on the boat shouted to us, “You guys look so beautiful, paddling with the sun behind you!” Blushing, we laughed as his friends reprimanded him: “You can’t say stuff like that to strangers!” (“What!?” he protested. “It was a compliment!”) We laughed and assured him that we were flattered and not at all weirded out.

Approaching Whiteface – this might be the most serene, pristine bay in all of the Adirondacks. Change my mind.

We bobbed around for a few minutes, drinking water from our Nalgene bottles (not wine, sadly – next time, maybe) before reluctantly turning back toward the boat launch. We had another four miles of paddling ahead, so that was something to look forward to, at least.

(I love my paddle.)

Heading back to the boat launch, we passed our pontoon boat friends – and the same garrulous gentleman called to me “You have the smoothest paddle stroke!” I shouted back that I’d been paddling for twenty-five years and he replied “It shows!” As we cruised off, I heard him protesting to his friends, “What, I can’t compliment people’s paddling strokes either?!” Steve and I paddled off, laughing to each other that our new buddy reminded us of our dear friend Seth, who lives up in the Adirondacks and makes friends everywhere he goes. But really – in a place like this, how can you not be so full of joy and life that you want to befriend absolutely everyone?

Next week: a classic LP village hike.

ADK 2021: Hiking Phelps Mountain, Adirondack High Peak #5

As we planned our week of mostly-working-but-also-some-fun in the Adirondacks, Steve suggested that we bang out another high peak; I was skeptical that we’d be able to fit it in around work, but still willing to listen. As we looked over our list of “peaks to get to, soon,” Phelps stuck out to both of us; the hike up was relatively short, we could knock it out in a morning if we skipped Tabletop (the neighboring high peak, often paired with Phelps), and the views were supposed to be great. Looking over the weather for the week, Steve suggested that we go for it on Monday, which looked to be the best weather day. Having nothing urgently pressing until Monday afternoon, I agreed, and we set our alarms for zero dark thirty.

We arrived at the Loj with plenty of parking spaces still available – a good omen. After a few minutes of chatting with one of the local park stewards, we set off on the first – flat! – portion of the hike, through the woods to Marcy Dam.

I hiked along at a fast clip (about the same speed as a neighborhood walk, which is lightning for an Adirondack hike) and marveled at how easy it felt so far. Figuring it wouldn’t last, I made up my mind to enjoy the gently rolling groomed trails while I could.

The first (easy!) portion of the hike flew by, and before I knew it we were standing in the middle of a stunning vista at Marcy Dam. I couldn’t get enough of this view.

After Marcy Dam, the trail begins both to climb and to look more like an Adirondack trail. Saw that coming a mile away – no, I mean literally.

Stream crossing? Let’s do it.

A little more than a mile from the summit, the trail began to really climb – as we knew was coming. The intel on Phelps was that it’s a relatively moderate, gentle hike until you get to the last mile, and then it wallops you. Well, no stopping now.

Still all smiles, though!

The last mile was an Adirondack mile, to be sure – scrambling up creekbeds, grasping at tree branches, heaving over boulders, and gaining about a thousand feet of elevation in the final third of a mile. No pictures, because my mind was completely focused on the job. But eventually, we pushed over the final boulder and found ourselves on a windswept summit ledge.

High peak summit number 5, in the books!

And even more beautiful than I’d expected.

We kicked back and enjoyed the view for awhile.

And posed for summit selfies, because we’re nerds.

It was just so hard to even think about saying goodbye to this view.

We did stop to find the spot where the summit marker was once planted – no longer.

Eventually, reluctantly, we turned our backs on the summit and started the descent; work and conference calls beckoned.

We did stop at Marcy Dam so that Steve could try out his Grayl filter bottle (a very generous Christmas gift from his Mom). The water was delicious.

I wished we’d had time for Tabletop – not only to tick off another high peak, but because I didn’t want to leave the woods. But Steve was dealing with a hiking boot problem (his ankle boots were nowhere near as grippy as the sneaker-style boot of the same model, go figure) and he was sliding perilously across the Adirondack granite; he even broke a hiking pole. And we did each have several hours worth of work to do. So it was back to reality for us – but with the memory of a beautiful day in the woods and on another windswept peak. As we drove back to Lake Placid, we started planning our next peaks – for the next trip.

Next week: a perfectly Placid paddle.

ADK 2021: Kayaking Schroon Lake

As I’ve mentioned a few times, Steve and I didn’t plan a real vacation for summer 2021. I’m still getting my feet under me in a new job, and it didn’t seem like a good idea – plus I’m saving vacation time again for the first time since my days in the federal government. (Law firms don’t do “vacation time” – you just take your vacations when you can, if you can.) But my parents wanted a week with the kids, to ply them with soft serve ice cream and trips to the dollar store, so Steve and I were told to make ourselves scarce. We shrugged, booked a hotel room on Mirror Lake in the Village of Lake Placid, and drove north for a week of working in a different location and squeezing adventures in around business hours.

As we mapped out our week, I tossed out the idea of stopping somewhere on the way up to Lake Placid and getting our new kayaks wet. We could drive straight to LP and drop in there, I suggested, but we’d definitely be paddling there at least once over the course of the week and wouldn’t it be fun to pop off somewhere else and explore a different lake? Consulting a map, I noted that Schroon Lake was right on the way, with a boat launch conveniently just off the highway – and neither of us had ever paddled there before, so it’d be a new adventure. Steve was down.

We rolled into the Schroon Lake boat launch and tackled the intimidating task of getting 17-foot touring kayaks off our car for the first time; they’d been hanging out on the roof since we rolled out of Lake George, but it was time. It was a bit of a comedy of errors, and we were both drenched in sweat by the time we got them off the car and onto the grass – but we did it! (Insert strong-arm emoji here.) A once-over from the Schroon Lake boat steward, and we were on our way.

We started paddling tentatively, then picked up speed as we cruised past beaches, boathouses, and swimmers cannon-balling off floating docks. As I pulled up next to Steve, he looked at me, grinned, and suggested: “Should we do a blue water crossing?” Obviously.

We turned our bows away from shore and paddled to the opposite side of the bay, pausing to navigate speedboat and pontoon boat wakes and to surf a few small breakers along the way.

A very special island, indeed!

We were absolutely giddy to be out cruising the Adirondack waters in the touring kayaks we’d dreamed of for over a year. And something else occurred to me – “Do you realize,” I called to Steve, “that every time we leave the kids with my parents, it’s to go kayaking?” The San Juan Islands in 2019; cruising the Potomac in 2020; now we were planning a week of Adirondack lakes (and a big kayaking adventure in 2022, pandemic permitting).

Look, we just really love kayaking!

All in all – a successful first outing for the ‘yaks (the demo day didn’t count!) and the beginning of a gorgeous week of paddling and hiking in one of our favorite places in the world. What’s not to love? We had big plans for the kayaks, and big plans for our hiking boots too – stay tuned.

Next week: an epic Adirondack hiking day!

Hiking Thacher State Park, August 2021

Although we didn’t plan a “real” vacation for 2021 – I’m too new to my job, and saving vacation time for a big adventure this winter (hopefully it happens…) – Steve and I still looked forward to our trip to upstate New York for months. We headed up at the end of July for my cousin Jocelyn’s wedding, and planned to stick around for a few weeks, mostly working and letting the kiddos enjoy grandparent time, but also folding in adventures here and there. On the Sunday after the wedding, we found ourselves unexpectedly free (we’d planned to drive out to Old Forge, in the western Adirondacks, to try to get a kayak for Steve – but he serendipitously found exactly what he’d wanted in Lake George the day before). We thought we’d go up to the Sacandaga, the Adirondack lake where my parents, aunts and uncles all have camps – but the weather was looking iffy. So instead, we stuck closer to Albany and hiked one of our favorite spots: John Boyd Thacher State Park.

When we pulled up in the parking lot, fat raindrops were splashing down on our windshields. The hike we had in mind had some exposure and some slick spots, so we reluctantly decided we’d just check out the overlook and then go on home. But as we gazed out over the hills and valleys around Albany, the rain stopped and the cloud cover lifted, a little, just enough for us to decide to hike after all.

The whole family hit the trail together! Parents, kids, grandparents.

With all the rain that upstate New York has had this summer, my parents haven’t been able to get out for many adventures. The upshot is that Thacher State Park had waterfalls. Entire rivers were tumbling down over the limestone escarpments.

When I was a kid, my parents went off to Hawaii and left my brother and me with our grandparents. (They did this several times – sometimes just the two of them, sometimes with friends. I was always openly jealous.) Their pictures snapped from behind a waterfall captured my imagination when they came home. I wanted to see what the world looked like from behind a waterfall, too. Turns out I didn’t have to travel too far…

So cool! We’ve done this hike a few times now and never saw waterfalls. It opened up a completely different experience of a well-worn path.

We saw evidence of the wet summer everywhere – in the bright green lichens, moss, and tiny plants growing on the rocks, and in the small rivulets pouring over the limestone and trickling through the little caves dotted all along the trail. I knew my parents hadn’t especially enjoyed all the rain – but this new lease on the park sure was pretty.

The waterfalls were the star of the show, though. Oh! And we also counted twelve little orange newts along the trail. Sharp-eyed Nugget spotted most of them.

It wasn’t the longest hike ever, but it was a feast for the eyes and senses and a new view of an old favorite. How can you go wrong?

Next week: getting our new kayaks out for the first time! Stay tuned.

Pony-Watching on Assateague Island

Planning our weekend trip to Chincoteague, I spent an hour or so tooling around on TripAdvisor, looking for activities to do that would take us out of the campground. I knew that we would want to get in a good few hours at the Assateague Island National Seashore beach, and beyond that I wasn’t really sure but I was hoping to see the famous wild ponies. (Which are actually ponies – not horses.) So Saltwater Pony Tours, with it’s 750+ rave reviews on TripAdvisor, caught my attention right away.

Saltwater Pony Tours is just one of several pony-viewing boat tour companies operating out of Chincoteague, but was by far the highest rated. As a concession to COVID-19, they’ve implemented a new policy – at least temporarily – of one family/group (plus the guide) per boat, meaning you automatically get a private tour for your family. Between that policy, the reasonable price, and the piles of outstanding reviews, I was sold. Luckily, there were several available time slots, and I booked us in for a two hour tour starting at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday. We rolled into Chincoteague around lunchtime, grabbed some snacks at a waterfront restaurant, got the kids ice cream, and then headed to the marina. Our guide/captain, Casey, met us at the dock and escorted us onto the boat – a large, beautiful pontoon that we had all to ourselves. Steaming out of the harbor, Casey oriented us to the geography of the islands and pointed out wildlife, including pelicans diving for their happy hour.

Our attitude whenever we are out for a wildlife-viewing adventure is: nature gonna nature. We know wildlife is wild (that’s the appeal, right?) and that there’s no guarantee of any sightings. Worst case scenario, we spend two hours on a boat on a beautiful day. Can’t really beat that, even if we don’t see any animals.

As luck would have it, though, within a few minutes of pushing off the dock, Captain Casey got a radio call – ponies! One of his colleagues from the tour company was reporting that there was a group congregating in an area called Black Duck Gut, which is pretty much inaccessible (thanks to tides, wind, and shifting sands) unless you really know what you’re doing. Fortunately for us, we seemed to have the best and most skillful navigator in the islands driving our boat.

Casey expertly steered us through the channels and within minutes – there they were, the famous wild ponies of Chincoteague (actually Assateague)!

My small horse fangirl was entranced. She has read Misty of Chincoteague (I haven’t – must correct that) and she and Captain Casey spent the ride over discussing the book (he’s a teacher in his regular, non-summer life) – at least until we got to the ponies, and then she just stared starry-eyed.

In fairness, though, we were all doing that.

Thanks to Casey’s expert navigation, we were able to get up close to the ponies – within 50 yards! – and bob around watching them for over an hour from the boat. (He explained that they consider the boats as just “part of nature” but if they were ever approached on foot, it would be a different story.) Between the excellent viewing spot and my sick zoom lens, I was in wildlife photography heaven.

The highlight was seeing all the adorable foals – especially this wee one, who Casey told us was only four or five days old!

We actually got to see it nursing! Totally unforgettable.

After the baby had been nursing for awhile, Casey predicted: “He’s gonna lay down in a milk coma soon.” Sure enough…

Down he flopped.

Casey explained that ponies and horses only lay down when they are feeling really comfortable and safe. Our pontoon (and one other that made it into the channel) clearly was not bothering them at all.

The new baby was adorable, but he or she wasn’t the only foal in the group. This one was born in the spring sometime.

And still enough of a baby to need Mama’s milk.

We watched the ponies graze on the short salt grass for over an hour, completely transfixed, and then reluctantly turned away and headed back to civilization.

On the way back to the dock, Casey showed us the spot where the famous annual pony swim takes place, and regaled us with an insider’s view of the action. Then – because over an hour of close-up pony watching in Black Duck Gut wasn’t enough and we had more treats in store – we spotted another band of ponies on the other side of the island.

Casey explained that the ponies tend to congregate in bands of mostly females with one dominant male. The group we had been watching on the other side of the island was led by a male named Riptide, who had been king of the islands for years. This band was following a much younger – three years old – male named Norm. Riptide would never let Norm near his ladies, so Norm has to make his own destiny.

Seems like Norm is doing just fine.

It was an absolutely magical two hours, and we couldn’t have asked for a better experience! Casey’s knowledge of the waters around the islands and the ponies themselves made for the perfect pony-viewing tour. We felt incredibly lucky to have gotten to see these beautiful creatures wild and free in their natural habitat.

After the pony tour, we were all walking on air – but Assateague wasn’t done with us yet! The next day, driving back to camp from the beach, we got lucky enough to see ponies for a third time – grazing on salt grass right by the side of the main road! Steve pulled over and I darted out with my big camera.

Hey, look, it’s our old buddy Riptide! (He’s the brown pony with the blond mane – an unusual combination, making him easy to spot.) Riptide and his ladies were accompanied by a gaggle of cattle egrets.

Totally amazing to see this majesty right off the side of the road!

Throughout the pony tour, I kept using the word “magical” – which is what this experience was. Seeing the famous ponies up close was definitely one of the wildlife-viewing highlights of my life. We were very conscious of how lucky we were to be sharing space with them. I hope we return to Chincoteague and Assateague and see the ponies again someday (soon), and I hope that this experience stays with Peanut and Nugget forever.

Have you ever been to Assateague?

Camping on Chincoteague

After more than a year of going basically nowhere, we were all stir-crazy and itching to get out of the house and do basically anything other than hike our local trails (as nice as they are). But I don’t really have the ability to take a weeklong vacation right now – having just started a new job – and there was almost nothing available in the way of beach houses anyway. After spending several hours scrolling Airbnb and VRBO unsuccessfully, I hit on the idea of a camping trip. Even the campgrounds were mostly booked, but I found a KOA with availability on Chincoteague Island, about three-and-a-half hours from D.C., and leapt on it. So in the late morning last Saturday, we shoved off for Chincoteague.

We rolled into Chincoteague around lunchtime and after a quick snack at a waterfront restaurant (crab legs for me – I had to share every other bite with Nugget) we hopped aboard a boat for a tour with Saltwater Pony Tours. It was a magical experience that deserves its own blog post (so that will be next Friday) but – spoiler alert above, we saw the famous ponies and spent more than an hour observing them up close. Totally incredible.

Still reeling from the incredible pony-watching experience, we made our way to the campground and staked out a spot for our tent. I’d booked us one of the “primitive” tent sites, which were already crowded by the time we got there – but we found a little nook near the marsh where no one else had set up. Steve suggested that people might have avoided it on the theory that it would be buggy but after a few layers of bug spray, the mosquitos weren’t too bothersome. And I pointed out that there was standing water all over the campground – there must have been a storm – so if they were avoiding this spot because of fear of bugs, the joke was on them because our site was the driest one I saw all weekend, and it had an amazing view.

The Assateague Island Light, right across the marshy creek!

Dinner the first night was shrimp boil foil packets, which Peanut helped me assemble – followed by s’mores, obviously. The Hershey bars I packed for the purpose had inexplicably melted and turned into liquid goo (how? nothing else melted?) but I rigged up a squirting system and it ended up being kind of amazing. Not that I will be melting all s’mores chocolate going forward.

Home sweet home – from left to right, Peanut’s sleeping bag, Steve’s, mine, Nugget’s. Notes on the sleeping arrangements: Nugget was obviously delighted to have Mommy next to him all night; Peanut brought five stuffed animals; Steve’s air mattress got punctured by a tack that stowed away in Peanut’s backpack (“YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO HAVE TACKS!” … “I DIDN’T KNOW, IT WAS STUCK TO MY BOXCAR CHILDREN BOOK!”).

On Sunday morning, after a mostly decent night’s sleep, considering the arrangements, we drank our coffee with a view of the Assateague Light – not too shabby. And then headed out for the one must-do activity of the day…

The beach! We were a ten minute drive from the Assateague Island National Seashore beach. (I had actually wanted to camp on Assateague, but turned my sights to Chincoteague when Assateague was – unsurprisingly – booked solid for the Fourth of July.) But it was a convenient drive and we sailed through the check-in thanks to our America the Beautiful pass (seriously, best purchase).

We were on the sand by 9:00 a.m., which was perfect timing. The beach wasn’t too crowded yet, we got a money parking spot, and it was fairly cool with a refreshing morning breeze. We didn’t plan to get there that early, but after drinking our coffee and having breakfast at the campsite, we figured we might as well go to the beach early since there was nothing else to do – it ended up being totally the right call. (By the time we left at around 1:30, the cars were parked along the road a mile back, and there was a massive line to get into the park.)

It was a gorgeous beach! I grew up going to Cape Hatteras every summer, so I have a deep affection for the National Seashore system as it is, and Assateague was every bit as beautiful as Hatteras.

Assateague National Seashore was a perfect place to spend the Fourth of July – I always want to be around water, but we usually do a lake day. The beach was a fun way to mix it up, and we all had a fabulous time. I showed the kids how to build drip castles (“That looks like poop!” ~Nugget), Steve took a nap in the beach chair, and we spent hours wading in the surf and jumping over the waves.

Perfect!

After we had thoroughly doused ourselves in ocean water, we meandered to a trail with a “pony overlook.” I did see the ponies again, but only through the viewfinder of my gigantic zoom lens, and I couldn’t get a good picture – plus there were armies of mosquitos that were intent on eating us alive, bug spray be damned. (They were near the road heading out of the park, so I got some good pictures on the way out – stay tuned next week.) So we didn’t stay long and headed for the opposite of the National Seashore…

Maui Jack’s Waterpark. Had to happen! It was right at the entrance to the KOA campground, so naturally the kids noticed it immediately. Nugget had a fabulous time – he was too short for the really big waterslides, but he bounced back from that disappointment and did the lazy river three times, got dumped on by the gigantic bucket in the little ones’ area, and hit the smaller waterslides dozens of times. Peanut spent the entire time pouting on a lounge chair; we couldn’t figure out what her problem was. Can’t win ’em all.

Fourth of July dinner at the campsite – campfire nachos for the whole family (delicious, but would have been better if a third of the jar of salsa hadn’t ended up in Nugget’s tummy before I got the chance to put it in the nachos) and hot dogs for the kids, cooked over the fire with their telescoping toasting forks that I bought because I’m a soft touch. And then we crashed pretty much as soon as the sun set, and continued our grand family tradition of somehow missing the fireworks.

On Monday morning, we planned to hike before heading out of town. The idea was to hit the Lighthouse Trail and then the Wildlife Loop on Assateague. Lighthouse Trail first – it was a short hop through the woods to the Assateague Island Light.

The woods were swarming with mosquitos – you could tell they were bad because they were even biting me (and my bitter blood is usually disgusting to insects, it’s a gift). So we didn’t stay long – just long enough for me to snap a couple of pictures, declare “Another lighthouse for Mommy’s collection!” and flee back to the car. No one wanted to do the Wildlife Loop after being eaten alive on the Lighthouse Trail, so we packed it in and headed to the Chincoteague Diner for breakfast, and then home to warm showers.

It was the best kind of weekend, though! Entirely outdoors, mostly unplugged, with some beach and some wildlife and some hiking, and we all ended up exhausted and filthy at the end. Can’t complain about any of that!

How was your Fourth of July?

Way-Back Wanderlust: A Day in Monet’s Garden

Two things: (1) it’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere worth writing about, thanks for nothing ‘Rona, and (2) it’s spring and I’m craving color and flowers. So I thought it might be nice to take a few (or ten) turns in the way-back machine and show you snaps from Steve’s and my visit to Claude Monet’s garden, in September 2010 – more than ten years ago now, which seems incredible.

I had wanted to visit Monet’s garden since I was a little girl and read the classic Linnea in Monet’s Garden. When I was a bit older, my school used to take field trips to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts; I loved the entire – extensive – collection of French Impressionists, but Monet was my favorite. So when Steve and I planned a trip to France in 2010, I knew that Giverny was a must.

Like most visitors, I imagine, our top priority sight was the famous water lily pond. Living in D.C. by then, I had made many pilgrimages to the water lily paintings in the Smithsonian’s National Gallery.

The iconic bridge!

Although I was most excited to see the water lily pond, I surprised myself by loving the gardens closer to the house even more.

Monet’s pink house with the green shutters, hung all over with ivy, is iconic. (We walked through the house, but photos aren’t allowed inside. No matter – I had no problem blowing up a memory card in the garden.)

I loved the riotous green pathways, leading in every direction, with flowers of every color reaching up for the sunlight.

I had intended to ask my grandmother for a painting of this wheelbarrow, but never did. Maybe I’ll have the photo printed on canvas or wood, instead.

The crowds seemed to all head for the water garden, and we had entire pathways to ourselves, to wander and feel the enchantment of being in the place that so inspired Monet. A few days later, back in Paris, we visited his great masterwork at the Musee de l’Orangerie.

Someday, I hope to find myself back in Giverny. Until then, I’m contenting myself with these photographs from more than a decade ago, and remembering the warm sunshine and the heady aromas of the artist’s garden.

Are you looking back at old vacation photos to cope with COVID wanderlust, too?

In Which I Am Emphatically Pro-Geotagging

The Great Range, snapped from a viewpoint on Big Slide Mountain, Keene Valley, New York

Warning: soapbox deployed, lengthy diatribe ahead!

I’m a member of a few different paddling interest groups on Facebook.  Kayak Mamas, Women Who Paddle, and Paddling in the Adirondacks.  I love the Paddling in the Adirondacks group for the beautiful pictures the members post, which give me an ADK fix when I’m not able to be in the region.  But lately, the group has been really annoying me.

There’s a subset of members of several of the outdoor groups I follow – Paddling in the Adirondacks being just one of them – who have been clutching their pearls especially tightly of late.  There was already a debate raging in the outdoor community about proper use.  And to a large extent, I’m sympathetic to the pearl-clutchers.  I get as angry as anyone when I see litter, graffiti, or initials carved into trees.  Enjoying an outdoor space in a way that mars it for others, or harms the environment, is selfish and irresponsible.  And as someone who lives in a tourist-heavy region, I understand the frustrations of traffic-clogged roads and out-of-towners behaving cluelessly.  (In D.C., there’s a special scorn reserved for people who stand on the left side of a Metro escalator.)

Kayaks on the beach at Jones Island State Park, Washington

But the pearl-clutching gets overdone in certain areas.  My Paddling in the Adirondacks group has a couple of bugaboos: closeup wildlife shots (don’t post a picture of a loon unless you’re prepared to include in the caption a breathless disclaimer about your long-range zoom lens); people who leave their gear scattered all over the previous night’s campsite (I agree: disgraceful; although I’m not sure it’s always downstaters or out-of-staters, ADK folx); and geotagging.

Mather Gorge, Great Falls Park, McLean, Virginia

So what exactly is geotagging?  Simply put: it’s the practice of including a location on your outdoor social media posts.  (Instagram, Facebook, and I assume other social media outlets – those are the only two I bother with – have location tagging as an option.)  Geotagging has been vilified for a few years now, but the pandemic really threw the debate into sharp relief.  As options for indoor entertainment fell away and more people hit the trails, the rivers, the mountains and the beaches, those who were “here first” (<–LOL, you were not) were incensed at the waves of newcomers, and convinced that the new people are ruining their favorite fresh air sports.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been frustrated by people not social distancing on trails, and not wearing masks in crowded areas – even outdoors; I care enough about you (perfect stranger) to endure the mild discomfort of wearing a mask, and you should do the same for me.  But at the same time, I am on record as saying that I like to see other people on the trails – it makes me happy to see others experiencing joy in the outdoors, and I am disillusioned enough about politicians to believe that they won’t be motivated to protect a wild space unless they see it is being used and loved by their constituents.

Sunrise over Mirror Lake, Lake Placid, New York

So why chime in now?  I’m at my tipping point after one too many annoying social media posts.  Recently, scrolling Facebook, I was stopped in my tracks by a lovely picture of fall foliage over a serene Adirondack lake.  Enjoying the picture, my smile fell away when I read the smug caption: “If you know where this place is, please keep it a secret!”

I don’t know where that place is.  And I guess I never will, since the author – who I will call Smug Paddler – doesn’t want me or any other unwelcome out-of-staters sullying up his secret paddling spot.  (Another group member offered a guess and Smug Paddler, still smug, responded: “Nope – but I might check that spot out, so thanks!”  So, basically, gatekeeping is for other people.)

And that’s my main issue with the no-geotagging movement: it’s a form of gatekeeping and purity testing, and gatekeeping is inherently elitist and exclusionary.  Oh, and more than that?  It’s racist.

Bears Den Overlook, Bluemont, Virginia

At its most basic: the no-geotag gatekeeping movement is nothing more than a bunch of tone-deaf white people, blind to their own privilege, other-ing “urban” hikers and people of color to keep them from enjoying the same recreation opportunities.  It’s keeping the so-called “wrong sort” of hikers out, so that the “right sort” can have the outdoors all to themselves.  It’s the promotion of the idea that certain people are inherently less deserving of fresh air, a beautiful view, or space on the trail.  And that’s just wrong.

Melanin Base Camp says it much more eloquently than I could:

The #nogeotag movement is a form of gatekeeping, or elitism. It involves individuals—usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping—asserting their self proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn’t be allowed into certain outdoor spaces.

Most of the articles begin with a white writer reminiscing over a much beloved hot spring, a treasured swimming hole or a rustic hiking trail from childhood that has now been “ruined” by a sudden influx of selfie-taking hikers.

They never stop to consider that their childhood was privileged with outdoor experiences not available to the majority of working-class families in the United States. They never stop to consider that this is a privilege many people in the U.S. would like to experience if given the chance. Their lack of self-awareness is pretty stunning.

(By the way, give Melanin Base Camp a follow.  Their Instagram feed is stunning, inspiring, and inclusive.)  The article, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety, lays out all of the problems – and there are many – with gatekeeping and excluding “urban” hikers (read: Black and brown folx), working class families, and people who are new to the outdoors.  It’s a must-read.

In fact, there’s no proof that geotagging social media posts has any effect on overuse of outdoor spaces.  As a like-minded soul helpfully posted in the comments to the obnoxious Facebook post that put me over the edge, the REI blog’s article “Is Photography Ruining the Outdoors?” debunked that notion pretty heartily.  (Using data collected by the Adirondack Council, in a bit of poetic justice for Smug Paddler.)  There’s no evidence supporting that photography (yes, including selfies) and social media sharing are responsible for overuse or improper use of public lands.

The only persuasive argument I’ve seen made against geotagging relates to safety concerns: it’s not wise to broadcast your location to the entire internet, especially when you’re in the backwoods.  I agree.  If we’re friends on social, you’ll notice I don’t geotag all of my posts.  There are certain posts I never tag with a location: my kids’ school and summer camps, for instance.  I do geotag my hikes and paddles, but I don’t post the pictures – or tag the locations – until I’m already back home (or at least in the car, on my way home).  If I’ve posted a picture of an outdoor adventure and tagged the location – especially if it’s wilderness – I’ve already left.  That practice, and keeping my Instagram account private (meaning I have to approve anyone who wants to follow me) is how I address those appropriate concerns about safety, and I’m comfortable with the personal decisions I’ve made in that respect.

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, Luray, Virginia

There are plenty of ways to address overuse and improper use of public lands.  The good and smart folx at Melanin Base Camp suggest several.  More funding for the National Park Service, for instance, and more funding in general for education and outreach.  (Don’t like the way new outdoor adventurers are using public lands?  Educate – politely and respectfully – don’t gatekeep or hector people.  Those of us who choose to eat plant-based can explain how you inspire people to make better choices for the planet, without being a total @$$hole about it.)

While we’re funding NPS, maybe politicians can stop using government shutdowns as a political football, so that parks don’t end up unstaffed and abused.  Those images of Joshua trees cut down and overflowing trash cans at Yosemite were awful.  Keeping people of color out of public lands isn’t going to fix that problem, though.  You know what would?  Responsible government.

Other solutions: education, outreach, permit requirements, promoting alternatives (like state, regional, and local parks, or national forests and recreation areas that don’t get as much attention as the legacy parks).  Working with stakeholders.  Including indigenous groups and First Nations communities, and respecting their cultural and spiritual connections to these places.  (The myth of wildness, which Melanin Base Camp also eloquently debunks, is extremely harmful.  Public lands have not been “wild” for millennia.  They’ve been cultivated and stewarded by indigenous communities and that history deserves recognition.)

Widewater State Park, Widewater, Virginia

Golly.  Can you tell I have some feelings about this?  Clearly that Facebook post touched a nerve.  But honestly?  I’m sick and tired of exclusionary tactics and elitism in the outdoor community.  Of course we should be responsible.  But what gives Smug Paddler the right to declare anyone unwelcome on a public lake?  People protect what they love; that’s well-known.  Doesn’t it serve everyone – and the public lands we claim to care about – if more people love the outdoors and want to protect it from the ravages of climate change?

So I’ll keep geotagging my posts and sharing my outdoor adventure finds.  And if someone finds a new favorite hiking or paddling spot because of me, I’ll be pleased – not incensed.

Where do you fall on the geotagging debate?  Debate welcome, but respectful comments only, please.

The Great Bass Island Circumnavigation of 2020

Who’s ready for some Adirondack paddling?!  MEEEEEEEEEE.  Y’all know I can’t resist an afternoon on the water – especially via my kayak – and after many days of quarantining at my parents’ house (with my laptop, of course) I was desperately in need of some fresh air and fun.  We were cautious and mindful of the New York State travel advisory, but my parents’ camp is very private, and we were the only ones there, so we figured it still counted as quarantining.  The moment we got there, Nugget started begging me to take him out in the kayak.  You don’t have to ask me twice!  Steve hauled my old Perception kayak (I got it when I was fifteen!) and my parents’ Old Town down to the beach, and my mom dug up the duffing seat out of cobwebs.  I don’t think it had been used in years – since I used to paddle my cousins around.

Skipper Nugget was READY to go.  We let him decide where to paddle, and he said he wanted to paddle across the lake.  That’s 37 miles, so probably not doable in a day.  (Definitely not doable in a recreational kayak with a densely-packed duffer.)  But some additional questioning revealed that he actually wanted to paddle across the bay (whew) to Bass Island.  That, we can do.

We set off across the deepest part of the bay, carefully avoiding motorboats and waterskiers.  Nugget insisted he was having a good time, but later confessed to being scared at first.  Poor little dude!  Once he got into the rhythm, he definitely shook off any fear and started to really have fun.

Approaching the island…

Dad landed first and pulled us ashore.  Nugget immediately hopped out of the boat and set off on a hike into the brush (note: this is a very small island) while Steve and I followed behind him shouting things like “WATCH OUT FOR POISON IVY” (me) and “THERE IS GOOSE POOP LITERALLY EVERYWHERE” (Steve).

Don’t care, Mommy-Daddy!  Explooooooooooooooore!

We hiked through most of the wooded part of the island (it really is small, you guys) and came out on the beach on the other side, then walked around the point and back to our boats.  Where to next, Nugget?

Around the island, Mommy!

Whatever you say, Henry Hudson.

After our circumnavigation of Bass Island (which took less then ten minutes #keepingitreal) Nugget directed us to paddle along the shoreline.  We obediently turned our bows into the bay and paddled the length of the shore.  Nugget shyly waved to some people who were having a party on a pontoon boat, but they didn’t notice his sweet little greeting.  Their loss.

Much better: Nugget directed us into a smaller bay that off-shoots my parents’ bay.  We paddled around in the calm and quiet waters for a bit, and were treated to a fantastic view of a great blue heron – a huge one.  So cool.  After it noticed us and took off flying across the bay, Nugget dictated that it was time to return home, so return home we did.  With sore arms and cores, and big smiles.

Returned with plenty of time left for more swimming and mountain views.  Can’t beat it.

The state of the world being what it is, I don’t know if we will make it back to the lake again this season.  So it felt good to get there once.  Next year, I hope to make up for our relative absence this summer by being up there a lot more – and in some different seasons.  I want Steve and the kids to see the “ring of fire” on Labor Day (when everyone lights bonfires on their beaches and the whole lake glows) and experience the magic of a chilly autumn paddle while the mountains are ablaze with color.  There’s absolutely nothing like it.

Where are you escaping this summer?

Bluebells on a Battlefield

While we are all holed up at home, spring is springing all over the place!  It’s been raining and gloomy here for most of the past couple of weeks, which has made the social distancing harder to handle – especially with two energetic kids in the house.  By Sunday we all had energy to burn, and even after last week’s crowded trails, we wanted to try hiking again.  I had some good intelligence that the famous Virginia bluebells were blooming, so we decided to check them out.

We normally hike the Bluebell Loop Trail at Bull Run Regional Park.  This year, with the pandemic raging, the park is open for “passive use” only – which means hiking YES, but parking NO.  The parking lots at Bull Run Regional Park were closed, and while parking outside park boundaries and hiking in to the Bluebell Loop Trail is perfectly fine, that would add 2.5 miles each way to our hike – just from the car to the trailhead and back.  Fine for adults-only parties, but when you have two little hikers, you have to maximize every step.  Bull Run Regional Park’s social media team was suggesting other options to folks who didn’t want to park more than two miles from the trailhead, so we decided to try one of the alternatives – Manassas National Battlefield Park.

Civil War buffs, this is the famous Bull Run battlefield.  Steve and I hiked the battlefield itself years ago – pre-small hikers – but had never been to this part of the park.  We made for the Stone Bridge parking area, lured by the promise of bluebells growing on the banks of the legendary Bull Run.

Crossed the bridge over Bull Run and saw…

That famous blue glory all over the forest floor!

We were a bit early – it’s always tough to time peak bloom for any flower show, especially when it’s not a flower that grows in the neighborhood (and can be monitored accordingly).  Local friends – if you want to hit the trail later this week or this coming weekend, I think you’ll be in for a good show.  As for us –

We had plenty of visual treats to enjoy!

The trail was a bit damp, but not too muddy.  Peanut made the best shoe choice, wearing her wellies.  Nugget decided on his Keen hiking boots, which worked well, but didn’t allow for puddle-stomping.

The wildflowers were growing all over the opposite bank of Bull Run, too.

We were careful to take precautions on the trail – we left as early as possible to avoid crowds (even so, there were definitely folks on the trail) and were cautious about touching anything.  We also leapt off the trail to give people distance, and most reciprocated by kindly and responsibly walking all the way on the other side of the wide trail, at least six feet away from us.  With the exception of two women who thoughtlessly breezed down the middle of the trail despite our attempting to give them plenty of space, everyone was responsible and considerate about personal distance.

I wait all year for this fabulous floral spectacle, and it definitely didn’t disappoint.  It was a lot of fun to check out a different spot – while I missed our usual stomp along the Bluebell Loop Trail, mixing it up is good, too.  And there’s a lot to explore out Manassas way – we really should make a point of getting here more often, and checking out some different scenery.

This weekly trail time is keeping my sanity intact – barely!  Missing our annual bluebell hike was unthinkable, so I’m glad we were able to take some precautions and make it happen.

What are your local spring spectacles?