“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ecuador Zipline

This zipline was on the road from Banos to the Amazon jungle in Ecuador.  An exciting ride, made even more so by the fact that the people running the line weren't exactly sure that they had my harness attached correctly.  The zipline was almost a  mile long and overflew a mountain river.  I felt like a bird soaring over the rainforest--beautiful.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Cumberland Island National Seashore

Remember your last trip to the beach, tripping over coolers and sunscreen bottles to find a piece of open sand to spread your beach towel? Well picture this: 17 miles of white sand beaches, 33,000 acres of forests, seashore, and marshes, and only 300 people. Which means if all 300 have the urge to hit the sand at the same time, you’ll have to scrunch up and try to make do with your own small 100 yard stretch of pristine beachfront to spread your towel.
Some mega-buck resort for the ultra-rich? Hardly. This is Cumberland Island National Seashore, an undeveloped and totally natural barrier island off the coast of Georgia. While practically all of the barrier islands on the east coast have been developed into condos, golf courses, and resort hotels, Cumberland Island has been protected by the National Park Service and exists now pretty much as it has for centuries. With the exception of a very few private homes and park service buildings, the island is unaltered from its natural state.

Cumberland Island escaped the hands of the developers due to the largesse of Thomas Carnegie, the steel magnate. Originally purchased by the Carnegie family in the 19th century as a personal oceanside playground, the family donated the island to the federal government, which protected it as a national seashore in 1972. Evidence of the Carnegie reign on the island remains. The crumbling walls of their massive mansion, Dungeness, which was destroyed by fire, still stand on the island’s southern end. An equally impressive mansion, Plum Orchard, built as a wedding gift for son George, dominates a point on the western side of the island. And a third mansion, Greyfield, has been turned into an upscale hotel that is still in operation.

One of the most beautiful legacies left by man on the island is its herd of wild horses, descendants from stock originally owned by the Carnegies. A herd of about 250 grazes the interior grasslands and the beach dunes. They are skittish and can be dangerous in the mating season but the sight of a wild stallion grazing in the dunes with the surf breaking in the background is a sight not to be forgotten. Another, less attractive legacy, is the island’s wild pigs. Like the horses, descendants of domestic herds, the pigs have become feral and roam the island’s forests and marshes. While heading back from the beach just before dusk one evening, we ran face-to-face with a large male. He eyed us warily for a second then tore through the underbrush and began to circle around behind us. Not wanting to encounter a large angry boar in the fading daylight, we made a beeline for our campsite.

The only public access to the island is by a Park Service-run ferry, which departs at least twice daily from St. Marys, Georgia for the 45 minute run to the island. Once there, there are three ways to experience Cumberland: primitive, civilized, and luxurious.

First, the primitive. There are four backcountry campsites, which can only be reached by foot. The closest one, Stafford Beach, is also the best. Just behind a thirty-foot dune on the beach, Stafford is dominated by large spreading southern live oaks. Hard to find a prettier spot for camping. The other three backcountry sites range up to 11 miles from the ferry dock. None of these campsites have any facilities and while water is available in the backcountry, it must be treated.

The civilized option is Sea Camp, a short jaunt from the ferry dock. Unlike the backcountry sites, Sea Camp has rest rooms, showers, and drinking water. There are no stores on the island so all supplies and food must be carried in.

The luxurious option is the Greyfield Inn, built in 1900 as a home for Lucy and Thomas Carnegie's daughter, Margaret. Since the 1960’s, Margaret’s daughter Lucy Ferguson has operated the mansion as an Inn. Walking into the lobby of the Greyfield is like walking into the past, since it is furnished as it was at the turn of the century. The air conditioned Inn provides respite from the summer heat and large stone fireplaces blaze in the living room and dining room in the winter. Dining at the Greyfield is an experience. Dinner is served in the dining room by candlelight with fresh flowers and an island sunset for accompaniment. Fresh seafood, Cornish game hen, lamb or beef tenderloin, homemade breads, fresh vegetables, desserts and a fine wine list complete the experience.

No matter how you choose to experience Cumberland Island, the slow pace of nature will govern your time on the island. Long slow walks through palm trees on flat island roads, gentle offshore breezes, golden sunsets, and dolphins playing just offshore will dominate your days. Miles of hiking trails lace through the island and the wide gently sloping beaches are also good for hiking. Beachcombing, birding, fishing, swimming, or just cooling it are the preferred pastimes on Cumberland. You’ll find yourself kicking back and just enjoying the sound of the surf and the sea birds, on an island so quiet you can hear yourself breathe.


Visitation is limited to 300 people per day. Reservations are required and are first come, first served. Reservations may be made up to six months in advance. Call 912-882-4335.

The Greyfield Inn may be reached at 8 North Second Street, P.O. Box 900, Fernandina Beach, Florida 32035-0900. Call 904-261-6408.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nantahala River

The Nantahala River flows like the plot of a Stephen King novel. The intensity of the rapids slowly increases, tension building to a screaming climax at notorious Nantahala Falls. You’ll recognize the Falls by the unruly mob of spectators crowding the riverbank. These people are not your friends. They are rooting for an overturned raft or crumpled kayak and the Falls feeds them a steady diet of chaos and calamity. The river funnels through a narrow chute of boulders and ledges that catches the unwary in a wrenching spin cycle and spits any remains out the other end. Mess up here and your experience will forever playback in your memory accompanied by a soundtrack of whoops and guffaws. You’ll be a hero or a goat, depending on luck or skill, but either way the Falls is a splashy (literally) finale to this river, one of the Southeast’s most popular whitewater destinations.

Tucked away in the highlands of North Carolina, a couple of hours from Sugar Mountain and Ski Beech ski areas, the Nantahala tumbles cold and crystal clear along the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. With almost two dozen major rapids in eight-and-a-half miles, you’ll be able to paddle on a near-constant string of exciting mountain whitewater. The most memorable drops–Patton’s Run, Tumble Dry, Whirlpool, and Surfer’s Rapid—are excellent spots to try out your kayaking moves or just play in the spray. The biggest rapids on the Nantahala are Class III, which means that you don’t have to be a world-class paddler to handle this river.

This challenging-but-not-life-threatening reputation also means that you’ll be sharing your run with a fleet of kayaks, canoes, and rafts—about 200,000 people float the Nantahala annually. If you’re a serious kayaker you may have to queue up for the most popular play areas. But don’t let that bother you, there is plenty of river here for all. Peel out and paddle a few yards downstream and there’ll be another rapid to surf and play in. And if your arms start to ache, lean back and float through the flatwater stretches where you can enjoy the richness of the rhododendron, mountain laurel, azalea, and trillium that paint the near-vertical cliffs of the Nantahala Gorge. Just remember to save some muscle for Nantahala Falls!

Details: More than a dozen outfitters serve the river but the premier outfitter is the Nantahala Outdoor Center (888-662-1662), www.nocweb.com. If you are running the river in your own kayak or canoe, NOC offers a restaurant, outdoor equipment store, and lodging conveniently located right on the river. Kayaking skills a little rusty? NOC also provides kayaking classes. If you’d rather attack the Nantahala in a raft NOC can handle that too, or you can also try USA Raft (800-USA-RAFT), www.usaraft.com. Check out the Bryson City website at www.greatsmokies.com for info on the area.

(This article originally appeared in SKI Magazine)

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

I keep having this bad premonition that I’m going to be conked on the head by a flaming hot basketball-sized rock. This is not an irrational fear given the recurring crescendo of boulders pounding and bounding down the cinder-ash sides of Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano over our heads. We are hiking through the deep green rainforest that circumscribes the base of Arenal. A low cloud cover obscures the mountain’s peak so all we can see through the green jungle canopy is a fine white mist. But the constant burbling emanating from the volcano’s cone some 4000 feet up the slope and the crashing and rumbling of the rocks being flung from the volcano’s core are unnerving. We keep an eye cocked towards the sky, ready to scamper out of the way of any red hot missile that may come hurtling out of the mist towards us.

Actually, the chances of us being carbonized by an errant lava rock are not that great. The last hiker to actually be burned to a crisp occurred a decade ago when three hikers were caught by a particularly energetic eruption. One was fatally burned, the other two were critically injured. But the volcano seems particularly active this day, a fact confirmed by a local guide we happen across on the trail, and we are wary of flying lava. We don’t want to have our names added as a footnote to the lore of Arenal.

Arenal is like an impulsive child and the local populace never knows what to expect. The volcano goes through cycles of relatively calm dormancy, interspersed by outbreaks of active spitting and spewing. When we planned our trip to the volcano, we naturally hoped for a period of high activity with its accompanying fireworks show, but now that we’re within a stone’s throw of the hot magma, and Arenal is throwing, we are having second thoughts. While we marvel at the power that is evidenced in the clamor and spectacle of the eruptions, it does nothing to ease our fears about being incinerated. We continue our trek through the rainforest and come to a second-growth hillside that was once cattle grazing pastures but is now being slowly reclaimed by the jungle. We don’t see any of the impressively tall Ceiba trees that dominate the uncut inner jungle at lower elevations in Costa Rica. But it is obvious that the long growing seasons, abundant rainfall, and warm climate of Central America are providing conditions that are fostering nature’s rapid reclamation of the rainforest from the rancher’s hands. Palm, ficus, rosewood, chicle, and balsa trees have already appeared. The magenta jacaranda, the ochre-colored poro tree, and the almost blinding yellow corteza amarillo tree are re-staking their claim to the land. Understory plants—bright red heliconias--members of the banana family, begonias, purple orchids, thick carpets of morning glory, huge bromeliads, and the ubiquitous ferns, are everywhere. Too early for the howler monkeys and three-toed sloths to move back in, but we see plenty of toucans, aricari (a smaller but just as colorful version of the toucan), and orapendula birds with their daffodil-colored tails, and electric-blue morphos butterflies flitting in the leafy canopy. Long lines of marching leaf cutter ants go busily about their business, carrying small bits of vegetation across the jungle floor to their nests.

But our goal evades us. We still haven’t caught sight of the volcano’s active crater. And if the low cloud cover stays, we will never see the peak of Arenal, its cone spewing rocks and lava. So we continue upward, hoping that we’ll get a break. We leave the second-growth area and hike through a zone of thicker rainforest. The canopy here completely hides the sky. So now we are even more skittish. At least before we were comfortable with the pretense that we could see a hurtling rock and scramble out of the way. Since we can’t see through the jungle canopy some 80 feet overhead to watch for flaming meteors (not that it would do much good anyway, we’d probably stand awestruck while a boulder flattened us.), every rumble from above results in involuntary flinches from us.

About 2200 feet up the mountain’s steep lower slope, we break out of the thick rainforest into an open area on the western slope. This face of Arenal has been scoured clean of all vegetation by the heat of the volcano’s core and the rocks flying out of the volcano’s innards. The climbing is tough here, the slopes a combination of loose gray ash, small porous lava rocks, and irregular football-sized boulders. There is little soil to hold this aggregate together and we find our footing precarious and dicey. Our hiking becomes an ordeal of sliding and stumbling. The contrast between the open slope and the rainforest is dramatic. From the deep green rainforest vegetation with its colorful splashes of red and yellow and blue birds, butterflies, and flowers we have emerged into a dull monochromatic world of ash and smoke. Everything is gray; the ash-laden slope, the dreary gunmetal volcanic rocks, and the dull sky overhead.

The grumbling from above, no longer muffled by the isolating effects of the jungle canopy, is unnerving. Each eruption is announced with a sharp report similar to a cannon shot, followed by a growling roar that sounds like a cross between rolling thunder and Godzilla’s stomach after eating half of Tokyo. We can feel the ground rumble beneath our feet. From somewhere up the slope we hear gigantic rocks skipping and somersaulting down the gradient. We have come about five miles from the road near the village of La Fortuna, through the rainforest to this point on the naked slope. It has been a hot and hard climb through rough terrain with the ever-present threat of catapulting rocks on our minds. We have ascended beyond the recommendations of the local guides, who at this time are no longer leading clients much beyond the confines of the upper rainforest.

With the limited visibility, we know it is unsafe to proceed further. Besides, any further progress would be futile since we would practically have to reach the summit to see any volcanic activity. The day is growing short and light is fading. We decide to stop and regroup and decide on our next move. Then, as if on cue, the mist disappears, the clouds that have enveloped Arenal blow away and there it is. In its near symmetrical beauty, the conical mountain is revealed. Arenal has two peaks, the result of an ancient eruption that blew out of the side of the mountain and then formed another cone. Both summits sit before our eyes. We can see the cone flinging rocks up into the sky where they tumble back to earth and begin their cartwheeling roll down the mountain’s flanks. A puff of ash dust explodes with each impact and the rocks fracture and splay into ever smaller and more numerous bits, one trail of hot rock becoming two, then four, then twenty, fanning out over the lower slopes.

In the bright daylight, we can barely discern any color to the show. But as we watch from our slopeside vantage point and the setting sun is chased by encroaching darkness, the show becomes more intense and vibrant in the fading light. As the sun slides below the horizon, the orange glow from the mountain’s mouth replaces the sun’s glow and we are treated to a fiery display of shooting sparks, skyrocketing boulders, and streaking lava. After dark, the dull scenery transforms into a colorful palette of reds, oranges, and yellows, the lava an incandescent flow, lighting paths of fire down the smoldering black mountainside.

Arenal is one of the most active volcanoes in the Americas. Located along the mountainous central spine of Costa Rica, in the Tilarán Range, about 80 miles northwest of San Jose, the volcano is surrounded by a number of hotels, lodges, and restaurants that cater to hikers. Guides and maps are available at most of these businesses. Be aware that the many tour companies and guides serving Arenal strongly discourage independent hikes up the volcano. This is not only for selfish reasons, but also due to safety concerns. Local guides know the safe areas to enter and the unsafe areas to avoid and will discourage you from hiking to the mountain alone. Still, the available maps show various trails to take to reach points on the mountain that are well beyond where most guides are willing to take you. With a little bit of coaxing, you can squeeze hiking advice from the guides. During our hike we encountered more than one guide who strongly discouraged us from proceeding up the mountain beyond the limits of the rainforest. Despite this, hikers commonly proceed onto the lava fields. But use caution and definitely do not proceed up the slopes into the volcano’s active danger zones. Many of these are marked with signs and flags. You can get a great view of the volcano and experience the beauty of the rainforest without frying the rubber soles off your boots.

If you decide against hiking up the mountain, an attractive alternative is to hike around the edges of Lake Arenal which sits at the western foot of the volcano. On a clear day, the smooth waters of Lake Arenal reflect the image of the volcano perfectly. Don’t forget your film. The lake is especially popular with fishermen and windsurfers. The anglers are drawn there by the abundant guapote, or rainbow bass. Windsurfers gather at the western end of the lake, where strong and consistent winds make it one of Central America’s premier windsurfing spots.

Also near the foot of the volcano is Tabacon Springs, whose volcano-heated hot springs are famous for boiling tourists. There is a spa located along the highway leading past Arenal and after a tiring day of hiking the mountain, this is a great place to catch dinner and soak in the steaming springs while partaking of a cool drink from the swim-up bar in the spa’s pool.

Arenal volcano is one of the major tourist attractions in Costa Rica. As a result, a significant infrastructure of hotels has grown up in the surrounding area. Finding adequate lodging and dining is no problem. There are many fine lodging options in the area but a notable one is the Arenal Lodge, located about 10 kilometers from the volcano. Rent a junior suite at the lodge and your picture window will face Arenal. You can sit on your front porch and watch Arenal’s show all night long. The nearby tiny town of La Fortuna offers shopping and a smattering of local restaurants offering authentic Costa Rican cuisine.

Contact Arenal Lodge at 011-506-228-3189, email: info@arenallodge.com. If you prefer not to hike solo, many Costa Rican companies provide tours to the Arenal area, offering combinations of guided hiking tours, mountain biking, or horseback riding. A couple of these are Fantasy Tours, 800-272-6654, email: fantasy@sol.racsa.co.cr , and Sunset Tours, 011-506-479-9415, email: info@susset-tours.com, http://www.sunset-tours.com/.

(This article originally appeared on Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (GORP.com))

Monday, September 5, 2011

New Zealand on our Own

“Shaving their bums” is not a memory I expected to bring back from New Zealand but these words from a local sheep rancher stick in my mind. We were cruising down a lonely country lane on the North Island when we spied a dog working a flock of puffy white sheep in an adjacent field. The dog was gradually herding the sheep toward a long low shed near the end of the field where three men were stooped over, working the animals. We stopped, hoping to see a sheep shearing in progress. “Hey mates,” a tall wiry man caked in mud called to us, “come on over.” Except once we slogged through the deep mud to get to the shed we saw they weren’t shearing sheep—at least not the entire sheep. The sheep’s caked and clogged rear ends were getting all the attention and we got the questionable privilege of viewing this delicate process up close.

Not something you see on the agenda of a packaged tour. Which is why we prefer the spontaneity and surprises of simply getting in a car and striking out cross country on our own. And New Zealand is the perfect place to do that. Apart from the unfamiliarity of driving on the left side—which quickly becomes more familiar--road signs are in English, roads are generally well maintained, and traffic is practically nonexistent once you leave the cities.

We mapped out a two-week route beginning in Auckland on the North Island and ending up in Christchurch on the South Island. In between we planned to hit some of the major attractions and still leave time to just ramble at our whim.

Auckland discombobulated us. Everything we had read about New Zealand led us to believe that the country was rural and bucolic but we dropped into a modern, bustling center of commerce. Perched on the edge of the Pacific, Auckland’s 350,000 residents seemed to be all business, hurried and harried, much like those uptight corporate types that are fixtures of large American cities. But as we explored the downtown area, another facet of the city emerged—an air of adventure and fun that we would surface as a recurring personality of the country everywhere we went. We shopped along unremarkable Victoria Street, with the usual line up of boutique shops and restaurants, but then stumbled across Quay Street, a short, almost hidden lane with quaint pubs packed with a vibrant mix of young free spirits and middle-aged artist types. We took in the Tower of the Pacific, a 600-foot tall glass and metal skyscraper that dominates the skyline and presents a very ordered and disciplined face to the city, but we also watched people queue up to bungee off the tower’s upper floors. We ferried over to Devonport and walked through the town’s back streets, viewing its pretty Victorian houses and hiking up to Mt. Victoria, which provided a grand vista of the bay bracketed by the Auckland skyline.

Once we left Auckland we discovered that the rest of the country bears little resemblance to its capital city. We consciously avoided the main thoroughfares, opting instead for secondary roads, and headed south for the Waitomo Caves, famous for their endemic population of eerie glow worms. Admittedly a tourist attraction, the caves are still well worth the visit. The entrance is a drive-up located right on the road and you can stop and buy tickets on site. The cave tour is actually a boat ride through the high ceilinged labyrinth with the attraction being the tiny glow-in-the-dark creatures that cling to the cave ceilings and suspend short silky strands down to entrap passing insects and other food sources. Thousands of pinpoint pricks of light gleam in the inky blackness of the cave’s twists and turns, and the specks of light above reflected in the water underneath provide an eerie and memorable spectacle.

We headed down highway 3 to Rotorua, through a sweet green valley that curled gently among farms and forests. Houses were few and far between and we passed through a half dozen wide-spot-in-the-road towns, most of which consisted of a few houses and maybe a farm implement business or garage. In the tiny town of Benneydale, we stumbled into the deserted Benneydale Hotel where the proprietor seemed flabbergasted to actually have customers walk in the door. Clearly not too many tourists make this stop. We had an excellent meal of fish and sausages amidst a motif of beer signs, a wall plastered with pictures of the locals in various stages of inebriation and posters of the beloved All Blacks, the national rugby team.

Rotorua smelled of sulphur—an unpleasant byproduct of the town’s plethora of geysers and steam vents. The odor is quickly forgotten as the town’s scenic location on the shores of Lake Rotorua and its green Government Gardens located near the city center grab your interest. The Princes Gate Hotel, a rambling 1880’s-era Victorian-style inn conveniently located at the front gate of Government Gardens, offers quaint accommodations, with a warm, wood-paneled off-lobby sitting area and outdoor garden dining complete with steam heated pools. South of the town are the geysers, with hiking trails winding around numerous active vents and geysers. Also here are Maori-run venues that provide a glimpse of native culture and customs such as native dance, wood carving, and traditional hangi, feasts featuring meat prepared in the time-honored Maori method of cooking over hot stones. We chartered a boat and fished the deep clear waters of Lake Rotorua, hooking a number of 4-5 pound lake trout which we took directly from the boat to one of the local restaurants for preparation. Fresh New Zealand fish from boat to table in less than an hour, with all the fixings. Rotorua has a fairly active nightlife, with the Pig & Whistle Pub and a couple of nightclubs on Tutanekai Street being the local hangouts.

We headed on to Nelson, which, with its meticulously maintained art-deco buildings, can best be described as passing into a time warp and coming out in the 1920’s. The city sits on the eastern shore of Tasman Bay with a narrow pebbled beach between the calm bay waters and the city storefronts. Apart from the picturesque buildings, the main attraction in Nelson is the Possum Store, offering everything possum-related.

Possums are to New Zealanders as Osama bin Laden is to Americans. A New Zealander would as soon compliment an Aussie as hug a possum. These introduced critters have overpopulated to the point of ecological disaster, stripping the countryside of vegetation, plundering native bird eggs, and otherwise exhausting their welcome. The national sport seems to be squashing the slow moving animals as they trundle across the roads and drivers can be seen careening down the highway, swerving toward them in murderous attempts to contribute to possum family planning. Possum carcasses litter the roads and are invariably squashed flatter than a fritter as succeeding drivers ensure that yes, that possum is indeed dead. In keeping with this cheery philosophy, the Possum Store has stuffed possums, possum recipes, possum fur coats, and a shoot-a-fake-possum arcade. Don’t miss it.

After a night hitting the clubs and bars of cosmopolitan Wellington, we caught a ferry across to the South Island. The Western shore of the South Island is a rocky and rugged landscape of rocky cliffs, lush rainforest, and windswept mountains. On the shoulder of this coastline is Punakaiki Rocks, one of New Zealand’s most breathtaking natural areas. Hiking out to the rocks to view the surf crashing into the rocky formations and spewing upwards in spectacular natural geysers is not to be missed.

Further south we arrived at Franz Josef, the staging area for treks onto Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. These massive ice flows dominate the area landscape and are a major tourist draw. The area abounds with hiking, camping, helicopter, and biking concessions so picking your method of approach to the glaciers is an easy propositions. We opted to hike to the glaciers’ bases first to get a feel for their massive proportions. Both are huge but Franz Josef seemed more dramatic to me. The fractured and tortured face is a near vertical 500-foot jumble of ice with a torrent of milky white water and tumbling ice boulders flowing out of an ice tunnel carved in the center foot of the icy face. You can hike up onto the glacier with a guide, but the hike is strenuous and if you suffer from vertigo, forget it. If you forego the glacier hike, hiking across the tumbled scree alongside the river of glacial water makes for a dramatic trek. We hitched a helicopter ride onto the top of the glacier, rising up from the cloudy sky on the valley floor at Franz Josef into the brilliant clear skies above the glacier. The bright afternoon sun hitting the white and glacier ice was near blinding and the deep crevasses that striated the glacier’s back glistened a brilliant cerulean.

Queenstown is the adventure center of New Zealand and it was bustling with young and athletic types. Take your pick here; jetboating, bungee jumping, horseback riding, biking, parasailing, hiking—you can try a new pursuit every day for weeks and not get bored. We spent a day jetboating and horseback riding and closed out our Queenstown visit with a shared a bottle of wine on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, the Impossibles Mountain range reflecting off the cool blue waters.
Last stop: Christchurch, a very proper and British feeling city. We arrived during the Annual Buskers Festival and dozens of street performers were singing, dancing, juggling or performing other, more arcane shows in the shadows of imposing cathedrals and buildings. After taking a punt ride on the gentle Avon River flowing through the city center and viewing exhibits at the Art Museum, we took in the architecture before hitting the pubs and restaurants. The Bog, a lively Irish Pub on Cashel Street, was hitting stride with a Celtic group playing traditional Irish folk music and the crowd bustled with lots of hot young bodies hitting on each other.

The next morning we opted for a day trip to the seaside village of Akaroa and a boat trip out to the ocean to spot Little Blue penguins, endangered Hector’s dolphins (which repeatedly shot through the water alongside the boat) and New Zealand Fur seals lounging, pups and mothers, on the rocky shoreline.

Two weeks of leisurely driving, picking and choosing our next destination and seeing the finest of this lovely country at our own pace, provided the perfect alternative to a structured package tour. If you want to avoid the tourist rut and experience your own customized adventures, New Zealand is a hassle-free place to make your own way.

Len Foote Hike Inn

I’ve spent thousands of hours in the wilderness, from the tundra of Alaska’s Denali to the jungles of Costa Rica. In all that time I’ve seen dozens of different kinds of animals—gray wolves, grizzly bear, caribou, elk—but I’ve never seen a bobcat, that fairly common wild feline of the southeastern states. So when I see my son Val ahead of me on the trail silently motion for me to catch up with him, bobcats are the last thing on my mind. After all, we had just left the parking lot in Amicalola Falls State Park in northern Georgia less than an hour before. We are barely three miles into Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and, although the mountains are relatively untouched, this is far from a secluded wilderness. Yet he had met a bobcat in the trail.

We were hiking up into the mountains of Georgia to spend a night at the Len Foote Hike Inn, a cozy backcountry lodge that opened in 1998 and has quickly become one of the most popular attractions of the state’s park system. We had briefly looked at the topographic map of the area and the trail to the lodge didn’t look too strenuous; still, our experience with mountain hiking had taught us that hiking in the Blue Ridge is often an exhausting slog up steep and rocky trails. So we came prepared for a long hike over rugged terrain up the side of this mountain. What we encountered instead was a delightful trek through blossoming mountain laurel thickets and across splashing streams. Which is why we were so surprised to meet a bobcat—we felt like we were on a stroll through a park instead of way back in the mountains of Georgia.

That’s what I like about Len Foote Hike Inn—you’re only five miles from civilization but you feel like you’re dozens of miles into the backwoods. You can leave the crowds, traffic, and hustle of modern life in the parking lot and barely three hours later plant yourself in a comfortable Adirondack chair on the wide wraparound porches of the inn and sip a steaming cup of hot chocolate. The temperature differential between the inn and the state park can also be dramatic. The day we hiked to the lodge it was almost ninety degrees when we left the parking lot; at the lodge it was a cool and refreshing 65 degrees.

You also don’t need to worry about traffic and noise at the inn; the only way to reach it is by foot on the narrow trail we just hiked. But that has not deterred a steady stream of hikers from trekking up the mountain to experience the inn’s unique mixture of simplicity and comfort. The lodge is a modern rustic structure that looms suddenly out of the lush hardwood forest as you approach. It is a complex of twenty rooms surrounding an airy, two-story central lobby, an attached dining room, bathhouse (with hot showers), and a gathering room. The central lobby is designed with lots of glass, the result is a feeling of being outdoors while indoors. The sleeping rooms are small but adequate. Bunk beds and a shelf line one wall, on the other wall hangs a mirror and wooden clothes pegs; that’s about it—this is not a four start hotel stocked with all the amenities but it is comfy and inviting. The inn sits amidst a lush forest of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and majestic oak and hickory trees. These is no other sign of civilization for miles around so even when the lodge is full, there’s plenty of rambling room on the grounds and in the surrounding forests. If for some reason you get the urge to roust yourself out of your chair, you can follow the trail past the inn further up to Springer Mountain, the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, four miles away.

This will work up your appetite for the inn’s excellent meals. The cook rings the cast iron dinner bell which brings guests from all parts of the forests and grounds. Dinner is served family-style at long tables in the dining room. On our visit we shared our table with the night’s other nine guests, hungrily wolfing down a hearty meal of lemon pepper chicken, twice-baked potatoes, broccoli, peas, macaroni salad, potato salad, and the best homemade cornbread in northern Georgia, with cupcakes and ice cream for dessert.

We dawdled over after-dinner coffee and hot chocolate with our fellow guests, getting to know each and then waddled into the Sunrise Room, where a well-stocked library and games kept us occupied until late evening. As dusk settled over the surrounding countryside, we wandered back out to the porch and watched as the fading light turned the sky into inky blackness. Sitting 3100 feet up near the peak of a mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest, the inn offers a scenic panorama of the surrounding area. Off to the southeast we could see the twinkling lights of the city of Dahlonega. But to the east and north all was dark, the thick forests undeveloped and pitch black.

The mountain air quickly cooled as the sun set and we headed for our room. The rooms are unheated but the stacks of fleece and wool blankets in each room will fend off all but the coldest nights. It got down to 48 degrees when we were there but we were warm and toasty in our room and fell asleep to the hooting of an owl.

We awoke to something quite different; the pounding of a drum. Penny, our cook, was giving us fair warning that the sun would soon be rising over the eastern horizon. Trust me, this is a sight that is worth stumbling out of a warm bed for. We gathered on the eastern slope of the mountain and watched the orange sun tiptoe up over the hills. A great send off for our hike back down to the real world.

Details: The Len Foote Hike Inn is located at Amicalola Falls State Park near Dawsonville, GA, about four hours from Huntsville. The Inn is open year round. Reservations are required and accepted up to 11 months in advance. Call 1-800-864-7275 for reservations. Call well in advance, the popularity of the inn means that some date fill up quickly. Rates are $65 per night per person (children under 12 are discounted) and include dinner and breakfast. Weekdays are often available but weekends may be booked up several weeks in advance.

(This article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Gorgeous Gorge: Kentucky's Red River Gorge

Winter is making its last call in the Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky. A late March snowfall provides the last salvo of a dying season, a desperate parting shot that can’t deny the already evident imminence of Spring. I awake to a one-inch frosting of brilliant white snow, the warm morning sun caroming shards of sunlight through millions of refracting snow flakes. The mountain laurel and rhododendron, enticed by the warm Spring afternoons, have already shed their drab gray-green winter color for the vibrant waxy green of reborn leaves. Champagne snow teeters delicately atop the vibrant waxy green leaves. The contrast between the dazzling white sparkle of the covering snow and the showy green is dramatic. I am on the trail quickly--these early spring snowfalls disappear in an ephemeral mist with the rising sun.

I love the unpredictability of Red River Gorge. An isolated natural hideaway awash with sandstone arches, cascading waterfalls, and sparkling mountain streams, the beauty of the area is courtesy of the frequent rains, snows, and winds of the southeastern climate. Over 25,000 acres of rugged valleys, streams, and mountains nestled in the foothills of the eastern Kentucky Appalachians, the Red River Gorge Geological Area (RRGGA) is a long drive from any interstate highways and a good day’s drive from a major city. Because of this, it is lightly used. Which is why I have this whole spectacular day in the gorge to myself.

I stop at a wide spot on Swift Camp Creek Trail, which accompanies its namesake waterway through one of the most inaccessible areas of the gorge. Alternately descending to the creek’s edge only to abruptly reverse its slope and head back up the mountainside, the trail here provides a grand vista of Swift Camp Creek bending around on itself. Halfway up the gorge’s near vertical walls, the trail sandwiches me in a blanket of shimmering, blinding snow. Below I can see the creek bubbling clean and clear over gentle riffles. The sun-speckled snow draws me on down the trail. I feel I could follow it for days; not an impossibility since this trail is only a small portion of the hiking trails in the gorge, a network that ties in with the 257-mile long Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail, eventually ending in Tennessee.

This is a land of snow and water, which have combined with erosive effects to sculpt spectacular natural rock formations, including the largest concentration of natural arches east of the Rockies. My favorites are Sky Bridge, offering an expansive view from the trail on top of the span; Rock Bridge straddling Swift Camp Creek; and Grays Arch. Pristine mountain streams splash down the walls and stairs of the gorge into the Red River, part of the state's wild river system. I watch a tumbling rivulet undercut a snowy crust, the fragile edges turning from white to crystal, for a second reflecting the colors of the rainbow, then breaking into the rushing water and bobbing away. The snow is disappearing, Spring recovering from this last skirmish with Winter.

Despite its isolated location in the remote mountainous region of eastern Kentucky, in the early years of this century the gorge was occupied by an army of loggers who cut and shipped the area’s timber. Sawmills and narrow gauge railroads cut and transported the abundant hardwood to eastern markets. Logging camps housed hundreds of loggers and their families. Thousands upon thousands of magnificent oak, hickory, and poplar trees were felled and shipped out of the area and, by the end of World War I, the steep valleys and hillsides of the gorge were left shorn and abandoned. Period photographs show steep, clear cut hillsides with a few forlorn saplings and endless killing fields of ragged stumps.

In the ensuing eight decades, things have changed dramatically. The area became part of what is now the Daniel Boone National Forest in 1937 and the gorge slowly reverted to its natural state, its steep ridges and hollows again teeming with rhododendron, hemlock, wild holly, oak, hickory, and white pine. The sorry impact of the loggers is now hard to see. Their abandoned railroads, sawmills, and houses were overgrown or simply rotted away. The only evidence that remains of the gorge's former role as a logging center is the narrow Nada tunnel near the western entrance to the RRGGA. Carved out of the side of a mountain in 1912 to provide railroad access to the gorge, it now provides hikers, kayakers, and bikers access to the area.

The Red River Gorge now stands out as one of the most spectacular undeveloped mountainous areas of the eastern United States, something I savor on this cool spring morning as winter slowly loses its grasp on Kentucky. The sun rises to its midday zenith, extending its warming fingers into the bottom of the narrow gorge. The forest undergoes a rapid metamorphosis from blinding crystalline white to dripping verdant green and in a matter of minutes, I am transported into another world. As quickly as it appeared, Winter is gone.

(This article originally appeared in Backpacker Magazine)

LeConte Lodge: Sleeping Above the Smokies

The chilly September mountain air is creeping around my jacket collar, hot chocolate is steaming in my mug. I’m leaning back in a rocking chair on the deck of LeConte Lodge, near the top of the Smoky Mountains. Down in the valley below---way down in the valley, a good fifteen miles away--I can see the twinkling lights of the bustling town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. But up here near the very pinnacle of Mt. LeConte, in the middle of a half-million acres of the pristine wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the stars in the inky black sky overhead far outshine any manmade lighting. All around me is total darkness, only the occasional warm yellow glow of a kerosene lantern dimly shining through a cabin window to break the velvety night.

LeConte Lodge is not your typical pool-and-a-fancy-restaurant hotel. The accommodations are classy and clean, but simple. There is no electricity, no telephone, no traffic noise, and no television. The lodge is actually a tiny village of cabins and sleeping lodges, striking in a rough-hewn sort of way, perched amid the pine trees and mountain laurel of the Smokies. The only way to reach the lodge is by foot—even food and supplies are transported up the mountain on the backs of llamas--so we had made the four-hour hike earlier in the day. We took the six-mile Rainbow Falls Trail up but four more trails, ranging from five to eight miles, lead to LeConte Lodge.

As soon as we walked onto the lodge grounds we knew we were in a very special place. We found ourselves standing in the midst of a small huddle of rustic cabins, arrayed around an equally rustic central dining lodge. This collection of lodge buildings and cabins is the only permanent lodging available inside the boundaries of the national park. Narrow rocky paths connect each cabin, and the entire lodge area is perched on the side of the mountain in a patch about the size of a football field. Sitting practically at the peak of Mt. LeConte, at 6593 feet above sea level, the lodge is the highest resort east of the Mississippi.

We checked into the main cabin and were assigned to one of the sleeping lodges. Our lodge consisted of a central common area with a large stone fireplace, chairs and a table. Four separate private sleeping rooms faced this central area. We unpacked in our room and found it simple but comfortable, sparsely furnished with a double bunk bed covered with fleecy virgin wool blankets, a small side table and a chair. Modern flush toilets are nearby but there are no showers and bathing consists of cold water sponge baths over a basin. But this high up in the mountains where the temperature has never reached 80 degrees even in the summer, we are not too anxious to get wet anyway. Before the night is over, we will be glad for the wool blankets on the beds.

We had barely had time to check out our room when some hikers spied a black bear wandering near the cabins. The camp was immediately abuzz with bear sightings. We decided to head out and see if we could find the intruder. What we found instead was that we were in the middle of one of the most remote and scenic areas of the Smokies. Panoramic views of gentle valleys, sweeping vistas of broad mountains, and encroaching emerald forests met us at every turn.

We were hot on the trail of the bear, spotted snacking in the middle of a large blackberry patch, when the clanging of the dinner bell summoned us to the dining lodge. The staff had prepared a sumptuous meal of roast beef and gravy, fried apples, mashed potatoes, and veggies all served family-style, with hot chocolate to warm us up. A dessert of hot peach cobbler topped the dining. In the middle of the feast, we glanced out the dining room windows and saw two whitetail deer staring back in at us.

One attraction of LeConte Lodge is that it offers probably the best place in the eastern United States to see a sunset. Cliff Top is a rocky western-facing outcropping on the brow of Mt. LeConte. After dinner, we joined our lodge-mates and strolled the half-mile up to Cliff Top to watch one of the most spectacular sunsets we have ever witnessed. We looked out over hundreds of miles of the long low valleys of Tennessee and North Carolina, over thousands of acres of virgin forests and mountains, the setting sun etching molten orange in the meandering rivers miles below.

After a full day of hiking, a delicious meal, and a stunning sunset, we close out the day rocking on the porch, gloating over those poor unfortunate souls caught in the traffic jams and whirl of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge down below.

The next morning we are up at dawn with our flashlights to make a ¾ mile trek to Myrtle Point. You want to see a spectacular sunrise over the mountains? Myrtle Point is the place. Same deal as Cliff Top, only eastern-facing to catch the early show. We watch as the black sky almost imperceptibly turns gray, blue, yellow, and finally a brilliant ginger as the tiny arc of the sun grows larger as it emerges from the horizon. The hillsides blush, the morning mist in the valley floors turns pink.

Tough to leave? You know it, but we have reservations for only one night so we load our backpacks and head down the mountains, six miles back into civilization and the modern world.

(This article originally appeared in The Nashville Tennessean)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Congaree National Park

I feel like some unseen creature is dragging me into the bowels of the earth. I’m stuck—really stuck—in thigh-deep, boot sucking mud, struggling to haul our canoe through yet another portage. With every step I sink deeper and deeper into the thick imprisoning muck. This is supposed to be fun?

Well, maybe struggling to escape from the vacuum-like grip of South Carolina mud isn’t exactly fun but given the scenery around us, it’s worth every minute. Sometimes you have to work for your pleasure.

We’re deep in the enveloping thickness of Congaree Swamp in the heart of Congaree National Park. This is no holds barred swampland, chock full of snakes, spiders, mosquitoes, deer flies, and heat. We’re paddling down the park’s main waterway, Cedar Creek, because canoeing or kayaking is the only way to really experience the National Park—with the exception of a few short developed hiking trails, most of the Congaree is a checkerboard of swampy lowlands that inhibits foot travel. Backcountry hiking is a difficult proposition given the thick underbrush, thousands of knobby cypress knees and watery terrain.

So we launch our flotilla—one canoe, one kayak—onto Cedar Creek at Bannister Bridge near the extreme northwestern border of the National Park. Cedar Creek is narrow here, the tea-colored water flowing swiftly through twisting passages fringed by Sabal palm, loblolly pines and tupelo trees. It is a hot June day when we begin paddling and brilliant rays of sunlight pierce the thick leafy canopy. There is a slight morning fog lingering in the air, hanging like a gauzy curtain in the trees. The scenery is enchanting, southern swampland at its finest, archetypical southern sloughs meandering among towering bald cypress trees garlanded in thick wisps of Spanish moss. It feels primeval, like a scene from Jurassic Park.

Congaree National Park is relatively small at 26,546 acres (by comparison, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 521,000 acres) but they are lush, beautiful acres. Due to the inaccessibility of the Congaree wetlands, loggers were stymied in their efforts to harvest the swamp’s timber. Consequently, very little of the area was logged and massive bald cypress, loblolly pines, oak, sweetgum, ash and hickory trees dominate the park. These old growth forests harbor trees that are 200 plus years old and form towering canopies over 150 feet high. One loblolly pine in the park is over 15 feet in circumference and almost 170 feet tall.

This woodland paradise was almost lost in the late 1960s when high timber prices led private landowners to resume logging operations in the Congaree watershed. The potential loss of the forest alarmed local citizens who worked to protect the area and, as a result, in 1976 Congress authorized the establishment of the Congaree Swamp National Monument, a designation that was changed to Congaree National Park in 2003, making the area America’s second newest national park.

In keeping with the austere character of the swamp, park facilities are few. The Harry Hampton Visitor Center is your starting point and it includes the standard park exhibits on wildlife, fauna and history including a short orientation video. Other than that, facilities include primitive camping, a boardwalk loop and four hiking trails. The longest, Kingsnake Trail, scribes a long U-shaped path through the interior of the swamp.

But if you want to really see all the park has to offer, you’ll have to get your feet wet. And they will get wet. The 13 mile long Cedar Creek Canoe Trail twists and turns through the heart of the park and can be a real hull scraper if the water is low. Although the trail is maintained, storms and beavers often block the creeks with fallen trees, requiring difficult and arduous portages past blockages. High creek banks and that entrapping muck make things demanding. We had five hard portages and numerous encounters with hidden logs just below the surface that reached up and grabbed our boats. And the Congaree’s resident critters have a great sense of humor—practically every horizontal fallen tree over the creek seemed to have a giant pile of steaming crap on it—strategically placed in the exact spot where we needed to grab the log in order to portage.

Backcountry camping (with a free permit from the Visitor Center) is permitted along the creek and our fist night campsite was near Cedar Creek Landing, about midway through the park. If you’ve never camped in a southern swamp, you’re in for a real treat--that is, if you like noise because as the sun goes down, the decibel level goes up. Frogs croak, owls hoot, fish jump, otters and beaver splash through the shallows, deer crash through the underbrush, feral hogs grunt. Trying to sleep through all that racket can be a real challenge until you adjust to this new environment. Then you come to appreciate the natural beauty of a night in a swamp. For one thing, the night is dark—the only light is from the millions of stars that you forgot existed and the legions of fireflies dancing through the trees.

Courtesy USF&WS
Of course, all those critters are the other attraction of the Congaree. The place is a haven for deer, feral hogs, turtles, snakes, frogs, beaver, raccoon and coyote (and, reportedly, alligators, although we didn’t see any). I paddled around a bend in Cedar Creek and came nearly face to face with a river otter. He didn’t seem surprised to see me and we stared at each other for a while before he calmly swam behind a log. The Congaree was designated an Important Bird Area (an area recognized as being globally important habitat for the conservation of bird populations) in 2001. It’s easy to see why. We saw and heard more Barred Owls than I have ever encountered in any other place and we were continually hearing and seeing Pileated, Red headed and Downy Woodpeckers. White Ibis, Great Blue Herons, Osprey, Red shouldered Hawks and multiple warbler species (including the pretty Prothonotary Warbler) completed our birding experience. We had little luck catching the largemouth bass, panfish and catfish in Cedar Creek, but the days were hot, not the best of conditions for fishing.

We extended out trip onto the Congaree River which defines the southern boundary of the park. Cedar Creek flows into the Congaree and allows floaters to extend their trip for another ten miles. The Congaree is big, broad and fast compared with the narrow Cedar Creek and is an easy float down to the Highway 601 bridge take out point. We camped for the second night on a wide inviting sandbar. Although this part of the float is not as wild and primitive as the Cedar Creek section, it is still a nice experience and we glimpsed Osprey and feral hogs on the Congaree.

If you want to experience one of the South’s prettiest swamps without a multi-day trip that places like the Everglades or the Okefenokee entail, try the Congaree.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Undiscovered Ecuador

Cotopaxi Volcano
We had just saddled up and were following Diego, our Ecuadorian mountain biking guide, down the very steep flanks of an Andean mountain when he promptly executed a spectacular over-the-handlebars face plant, sprawling in a cloud of dust and pebbles. Not a very confidence inducing beginning to an edgy ride down the side of a slippery, sliding mountain. My sea level acclimated lungs were burning from the altitude and the near-vertigo-inducing vista below didn’t give me any comfort that I would make it to the base of the mountain intact. Diego’s dump didn’t do anything to persuade me otherwise.

This was our first full day in the Ecuadorian highlands and we were getting a jump out of the gate, hitting full stride immediately with a bike ride (more accurately, plunge) down the flanks of Cotopaxi, a snow covered 19,347 foot peak in the Andes, the second highest peak in Ecuador. Our bike ride began far up the mountain’s face, at 14,000 feet. We were below the snow line but above—well above—tree line and the terrain was barren, rocky and slick with loose scree and deep volcanic dust. Not a good combination for speeding down a mountain. So we all started out cautiously, squeezing brakes till our hands ached, but as we gained confidence our speeds increased. That’s when the carnage began and practically everyone in our group got to experience Ecuadorian dirt up close and personal--wipeouts which naturally came to be known as “Diegos”.

The flanks of Cotopaxi leveled out as we continued downward, gradually turning into level doubletrack that scribed the perimeter of the mountain. Our exhilarating plummet turned into a slog through high plateaus, starkly beautiful with miles of uncluttered backdrop in all directions. Little vegetation and no trees made for a forbiddingly captivating landscape and we enjoyed the better part of the day pedaling through the Andean highlands as the weather gradually deteriorated, turning first to rain and then to a pelting hailstorm that covered the ground with a white dusting of icy pellets. Enchanting.
An excellent introduction to this small, overlooked country. Only slightly larger than the state of Nevada, Ecuador encompasses a remarkable variety of landscapes-- glacier-covered peaks, desolate high plateaus, verdant highlands, lush green Amazon jungle and the bustling cosmopolitan atmosphere of Quito. Trekkers tend to head to the more glamorous South American destinations of Brazil, Peru and Chile which is a big mistake. Ecuador has as much natural beauty as its more famous neighbors and, unlike those three countries which are huge and sprawling, Ecuador is small enough to give trekkers a chance to experience all it has to offer in just a few days.

That compactness became quickly apparent. We had spent the evening before our Cotopaxi excursion at Hacienda La Alegria, a working dairy ranch dominated by a sprawling 1911 era ranch house. The best way to experience a ranch is on horseback, of course, and we had saddled up and hit the trail, riding among the lush fields and smattering of small hovels that huddled along the narrow paths through the ranch’s backcountry. And yet within a couple of hours of leaving La Alegria we had transitioned from that inviting green ranchland to the harsh mountain slopes of the Andes. Try that in Peru, where a day’s drive often gets you only halfway to your next stop.

From Cotopaxi we headed to the village of Banos--if you go to Ecuador, you have to go to Banos—the country’s adventure capital. Nestled between two mountain ridges in a subtropical cloud forest and surrounded by waterfalls and near vertical forested walls, Banos is small and charming. The village square is dominated by the basilica of Nuestra Señora del Agua Santa, a Gothic style cathedral constructed from volcanic rock from nearby Tungurahua, a still-active volcano.

We took advantage of Banos’ offerings, biking the road from Banos to Puyo and stopping at Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Punchbowl), a hidden waterfall in a valley near the road. The ride is spectacular, traveling through tunnels and overlooking the broad and scenic Pastaza River valley. The hike down to the Punchbowl is easy and a short crawl through a low overhang leads behind the cascade.

The Amazon jungle
In keeping with Banos’ reputation, all kinds of adventure activities are available including horseback riding, bungee jumping, ziplining and rafting. We took advantage of a roadside zipline, plunging hundreds of feet into a deep canyon and across a wild river, flying like Superman above the jungle. We ended our bike ride in the town of Rio Verde, enjoying the sweetness of plantain and queso from a roadside vendor. Being a tourist center, Banos has an active nightlife with a row of restaurants and bars near city center. The Leprechaun Bar seems to be the most popular and the open courtyard with a blazing bonfire is a nice backdrop to the salsa music that keeps the crowd moving in this two-story bar.

We reluctantly left Banos to other partiers but the Amazon jungle beckoned. The terrain changed noticeably as we made our way into the Amazon basin. The high cloud forest gave way to lush rainforest as we descended into Ecuador’s Amazon jungle lowlands. We arrived at the Shangri la Lodge, perched on a 300-foot bluff overlooking the Rio Ansu, a broad, lazy flowing river that cuts through the edge of the Amazon jungle. We immediately plunged into the rainforest, hiking along the high bluffs overlooking the Rio Ansu. The contrast between the highlands of Banos and the rainforest could not have been more drastic. Heat and humidity replaced cool mountain air. Bugs and thick vegetation replaced open skies and soaring birds. A tarantula the size of a small skillet greeted us in our lodge. Welcome to the jungle.

We floated the Rio Ansu, immersing ourselves in the tropical rain forest. Experiencing the Amazon rainforest from a river is the only way to go and we spied birds everywhere before stopping along the way to make our way through the forest to an indigenous village. Visiting with a villager in the family’s hut gave a brief glimpse into the lives of the villagers and we tasted manioc and chicha, a fermented drink made from manioc.

The jungle is hot and one of the few ways to escape the pervasive heat is to climb a waterfall. Fortunately, there are many waterfalls in the rainforest and we stumbled on a pretty little stream carving its way out of the jungle. We scrambled up a narrow gorge, wading through a rushing stream that plunged over boulders and splashed over rocky ledges. A relatively easy climb with rope assists brought us to the bottom of a 100-foot cascade where a fine mist formed a rainbow in a narrow slot canyon. A picturesque finale to a cooling hike.

Many days of high activity deserved a rest and we moved onto the highlands to Papallacta where we kicked back and soaked in thermal hot springs with the cloud forest and mountain peaks framing our view. Our rest was short-lived, however, and the next morning we were up early for a hike through the cloud forest, looking for exotic birds. A rainy day and cool mountain temps made for a classic high altitude hike through thick forest and high fields.

The transition from the lowlands back into Papallacta’s high altitude prepared us for the Santa Lucia Highlands Plateau, on the northwestern side of Antisana volcano, back up again to near 14,000 feet. Antisana is typical Andean terrain; open, barren, beautiful. We hiked along a road in the national park while Andean condors, variable hawks and buzzard eagles rode the thermals between peaks and caracaras, horses, cattle and sheep grazed the open grasslands, the tableau dominated by Antisana, at 18,875 feet the fourth highest volcano in Ecuador. The summit was wreathed in clouds but the massive flanks gleamed in the afternoon sun, brilliant white glaciers reaching like fingers down from the clouds.

Sunset on the Rio Ansu, Amazon
I’ll take Ecuador. Where else can you experience 19,000 foot peaks and near sea level jungle with mountains, cloud forest, rainforest, rivers, waterfalls and glaciers thrown in—all easily reachable without grueling drives? Ecuador is incredibly beautiful, the people are inviting and friendly and the American dollar (the official currency) goes a long way. And the best part is, few people have discovered its attractions so you pretty much have the country to yourself.

DETAILS:  We took this trip with Active South America, http://www.activesouthamerica.com/.  Their Ecuador trip is called the Tapir Tour.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Cedar Key, Florida

"Well, it got pretty damn grim around here for a while." says Captain Ron, "I had a couple of shots taken at my boat." We've chartered Ron's boat for the day and, while we pull speckled trout one after another into the boat, he is telling us about the rancor and conflict that accompanied efforts to implement a commercial net fishing ban in Florida. "Fishing is big around here and you don't mess with fishing without causing problems. It was the commercial men against the sportsmen."

While the rest of Florida agonizes over condo building permits, beach development, and real estate deals, the big issue in Cedar Key is fishing. That's because fishing is still a way of life here; condos, restaurants, and amusement parks have not yet arrived to destroy the key's easy ambience and convert the locals into shills for timeshares and beach front lots. A laid back vestige of the Florida of the 1950's, Cedar Key is a small unassuming town with no stop lights, fast food joints, four lane roads, or sprawling condominiums to muck up the place. Handpainted signs advertising fresh bait are the norm and many of the locals still make an honest living from fishing and sponging. A couple of bars on the main drag turn lively on weekend nights with an easy mix of locals and refugees, but for the most part the town is quiet. In short, Cedar Key is what the rest of Florida was like before it was ruined. Seemingly indifferent to the pursuit of the tourist dollar, the town is largely devoid of T-shirt shacks, trendy restaurants, and condos.

Situated at the end of a desolate stretch of two-lane highway on Florida's western coast, the town of Cedar Key sits on the island of the same name, a tiny speck of land surrounded by marshland and mangrove. Nearby, Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge's twelve islands lie within five miles of the town pier. Isolated and lightly visited, the Refuge islands offer outstanding beachcombing and fishing. The refuge is the highlight of a stretch of uncommercialized Florida that reaches from just below Tallahassee nearly to Tampa. This western coastal area, aptly called the nature coast by locals, is a paradise of tidal flats, tangled mangrove swamp, and marshes which have stymied development. Swamps and mangrove may be nirvana for fish but they don't have the appeal of a white sandy beach on the cover of a real estate brochure.

Captain Ron beaches our boat on the soft sand of North Key and scatters hundreds of tiny ghost crabs in front of us. A short, distinctive hiss resembling steam from a boiler drifts across the bay. We look around to see two bottlenose porpoises surfacing fifty yards off of the beach. The exhaled mist from their vent holes hangs in the still afternoon air, glistening in the hot blue Florida sky. Other than the great blue herons stalking the island's ponds and the blackheaded gulls wheeling overhead, the porpoises are our only companions all day. The lack of facilities and the fact that these islands are accessible only by boat means that they are not visited by hordes of sun worshipers. So you can pretty well be assured that you will have the place to yourself if you are ambitious enough to boat to any of the keys.

If you prefer not to take the Captain Ron route, sea kayak or canoe is the way to go. The nearest island to Cedar Key, Atsena Otie (Seminole for "cedar island"), is within an easy fifteen minute paddle of the Cedar Key pier. This pretty little dot of an island is neat for exploring the old cemetery, building foundations, and the remnants of a pencil factory that once dominated the island. An ancient wooden pier extending from the west end of the island makes an excellent fishing spot and a sliver of white beach provides shelling opportunities.

The twelve islands of the refuge demand a little more exertion to reach, but most of the water, though open, is shallow and dotted with shifting sandbars that provide convenient opportunities to stop and rest along the way. Each of the islands offers solitude, wildlife, and natural beauty. Seahorse Key, the refuge's largest island, is dominated by a large central ridge that rises some fifty feet above the water surface. A lighthouse that was built on the island in 1851 and used as a military prison during the Civil War still stands on the key.

Back at North Key, we drop the fishing gear and do our Robinson Crusoe routine, walking aimlessly along the key's edge while Ron takes a siesta. The incoming tide rushes through a narrow inlet on the north side of North Key, pooling into a small natural bowl before disappearing into the palmetto, cabbage palm, live oak, and red cedar of the interior. Sitting on the edge of this impromptu pond, we watch a pair of osprey feed their fledging young, then reluctantly rouse Ron and head back to Cedar Key before the sun dips below the horizon.

After docking at the marina we grab a cold one at the local bar, then sit on the edge of the bridge to take in the sunset. I reach for my camera as the sun burns orange and flaming red over the water, silhouetting an abandoned beach house sitting on stilts in the bay. But then I say to hell with it and just watch the show. A picture can't come close to the real thing, just like the rest of Florida can't come close to Cedar Key.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Manatee Magic: Swimming with Florida's Manatees

Courtesy USF&WS
OK, I know they’re gentle animals. No one in recorded history has ever been injured by an enraged manatee. Still, when you unexpectedly come face to face with one underwater, you can’t help but almost swallowing your snorkel. So when I snorkel over a gentle rise of waving sea grass and nearly smash my mask into the whiskered muzzle of a full-grown 1,500-pound, ten-foot male, the massive looming hulk startles me. He is as scared as I am and we both flinch and stop dead, sizing each other up.

He has much more to fear than I. Humans have not been kind to manatees. Deaths due to boat strikes, pollution, and habitat loss keep the animals in trouble and the population of this endangered species is less than 3,000. But their plight has had some positive benefits--they receive lots of publicity and public support is growing to save them. As a result, they are popular animals and practically everyone knows about them: large as a cow, slow moving, gentle, appealing.

Because of this popularity, thousands of adventurers flock to Florida each winter to swim with them and watch them up close. Perhaps the best place to mingle with manatees is in the clear water of Crystal River just below the panhandle on the West coast.

To understand why this is the place to go, you need to know a little about what makes manatees tick. They are warm-blooded mammals, very sensitive to water temperatures. The arrival of cold weather finds them seeking out warm water around power plant outlets and springs. Such springs exist in Crystal River and from October through about April, dozens—sometimes hundreds—of manatees congregate in the river near the 72-degree waters of the springs.

This results in another congregation: people. Crystal River’s shallow shoals, clear water, and abundant manatees mean excellent viewing and on winter weekends hundreds of wet-suited manatee enthusiasts are snorkeling off of pontoon boats anchored around the river.

This winter, we joined the snorkelers in the town of Crystal River, about two hours south of Tallahassee, and hooked up with Diane Oestreich of Bird’s Underwater Dive Center. On a cool and cloudless December morning we meet her at the dive shop she and her husband run on the edge of Crystal River—at an ungodly six o’clock in the morning.

Two dozen sleepy manatee maniacs are milling around the dock, shivering in the early morning chill and eager to get into the water and see a manatee. But first Diane makes sure that we see, but don’t harm. We will be snorkeling around the fringes of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, which has stiff regulations to protect manatees. Diane shows a video and gives us a short lecture on “manatee manners”—that is, not harassing the animals.

I am not a morning person so I have to ask Diane if the early shove off time is necessary or if she just has a sadistic streak.

“The earlier you go, the better visibility you’ll have,” she says “Get one group of divers in the water and things get stirred up quick. We want to get out first while visibility is still good.”

As we pull away from the dock I look over the pontoon’s railing and can’t imagine visibility being any better. The still water is crystal clear (Hmmm, wonder how the river got its name?). If there are manatees here they will be easy to spot.

And so they are. Barely ten minutes away from the dock, with most of us still wriggling into our wetsuits, Diane spots one. In the calm water I see what appears to be a fist-sized piece of floating bark. It’s a manatee muzzle and it disappears with a tiny swirl. Below the surface I can make out the massive outline of a manatee. We spy two manatees lying motionless in four feet of water. Diane throttles back the motor and we hover over the unperturbed creatures. They are sleeping, something which Diane assures us is their second favorite activity—eating being number one.

We head on to Three Sisters Springs, a small spring in a shady tributary and drop anchor. Diana drops over the side of the boat and swims toward the spring. I throw on my flippers, pull my mask down and join her in the water, taking care to remain out of the roped off “off limits” area that gives the manatees some refuge from divers. I barely have time to take my first breath when a huge adult manatee swims alongside me.

I have dived with manatees many times, but it is still thrilling to me. This is truly one of nature’s magnificent creatures, a huge lumbering beast with a gentle demeanor. Individual animals also have unique personalities. Some like to interact with humans, others don’t. This one wants to be touched. He sidles up to me and I oblige him. As I rub his flank, he pirouettes over on his back. I rub his exposed belly and his “armpits” (behind his flippers) while he lays motionless, enjoying the moment.

Courtesy USF&WS
At Three Sisters we watch two juveniles—there’s no other word for it—smooch. They are in a full face-to-face embrace, flippers clasped around each other’s body, rolling gently over and over in the shallow water. The less friendly ones stay within the confines of the off-limits areas to avoid humans but these two are not so shy. One finally breaks away from the embrace and swims lazily up to me, inquisitively nuzzling my dive mask.

We spend most of the morning at Three Sisters, swimming with and watching seven manatees, most of them continually coming up to us to look us over. About mid morning, we head out into the open water of Crystal River and Diana drops anchor near King’s Spring, a large spring in an open channel near Banana Island. Manatees congregate here too, but when we arrive there are two pontoon boats in the area and the water is filled with people. We see only one; a large adult with boat-propeller scars across her back who doesn’t want to have anything to do with us and quickly disappears into the off-limits area. So we amuse ourselves by swimming through the center of swarming schools of silvery mullet that part and swirl around us as.

That evening we sit on a deck overlooking the river and watch two river otters splash and play as the sun slips away. Somewhere out there with the otters a family of manatees is calmly munching away, oblivious to the perils they face but waiting to capture the hearts of another crowd of curious visitors.


There are a number of dive shops in town but based on our experience one of the best is Bird’s Underwater Dive Center. They showed a strong conservation ethic and seemed to have the welfare of the manatees at heart. Contact Bird’s at 352-563-2763, http://www.birdsunderwater.com/.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)