“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."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Florida Flats Fishing

A great winter trip fishing the shallow saltwater grass flats of Florida's Indian River Lagoon. Huge redfish and drum hitting our lines repeatedly for the entire trip. Constant activity on a warm winter day with Captain Rocky Van Hoose from Native Sons fishing. We combined the fishing with the 24 Hours of Daytona race--a fantastic weekend.

Redfish like this all day long

Another big one

And a few big drum

Details:  Native Sons ProFishing Team, http://www.nativesonsfishing.com/

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Floating Alabama's Sipsey River

Alabama’s Sipsey Fork (commonly called the Sipsey River) flows south through the William B. Bankhead National Forest. Sipsey Fork is Alabama’s only stream classified as a “National Wild and Scenic River.” Floating the upper Sipsey Fork by kayak or canoe takes you through some of the wildest natural areas left in Alabama. High rock bluffs rise along the river’s edge, thick hardwood forests creep to the shoreline and the river meanders through isolated hills and valleys. Periodically you will glimpse waterfalls cascading from the bluffs and rushing tributaries flowing into the main channel.

The Sipsey Fork is an easy Class I float and low water may require short portages around shoal areas. The best times to float the river are April through June and September through November, not only to avoid hot summer temps and insects but also for the fishing. Bluegill, sunfish, spotted bass, white bass, largemouth bass, and channel catfish can be seen in the river.

There are three floatable sections:

The first section extends from the Thompson Creek access off Forest Service Road #208, downstream to the Sipsey River Recreational Area at the crossing of Winston County Road #60. This nine and one-half (9.5) mile stretch of stream will take about ten hours to float and is within the Sipsey Wilderness. Attempting this stretch should be restricted to the wetter months to avoid having to drag your canoe or kayak over the shoals.

The second section is from the Sipsey River Recreational Area at County Road 60, downstream to the access point at the Highway 33 crossing. This nine-mile trip takes about nine hours to float. It too can be difficult to float during times of little or no rainfall.

The final section is from the access point off Highway 33, downstream to Highway 278 bridge, about ten miles. This stretch starts out with a healthy current but ends up in the slow headwaters of Smith Lake and the last few miles are lined by summer houses and fishing cabins.

DETAILS:  Canoes and kayaks can be rented from Winston Outdoors, 205-489-5000, http://www.smithlakervpark.com/

Information on river levels can be checked with Winston Outdoors and with the local Forest Service Office, 205-489-5111. Always check water levels before going to avoid dragging your boat or encountering unsafe water levels.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Walls of Jericho, Alabama

For decades, northern Alabama has had an area that, due to its forbidden access, gained an almost legendary reputation among the region’s outdoors types. Stories have been traded among hunters, hikers, and climbers for years about the incredible natural rock formations, waterfalls and rugged hills and valleys hidden within the 20,000 or so acres of the area. Even the name—which some say was given to the area by a circuit riding preacher in the 1800s who was awed by the near-spiritual ambience of the cathedral-like canyon--carries a certain mystique.

This rugged wilderness, alluringly called the Walls of Jericho, which has been in private hands and off limits to the general public for decades, has been a cruel enigma for area outdoors enthusiasts—a place that acquired an almost mystical aura yet one that could only be experienced at the risk of being arrested for trespassing.

Since my move to Alabama over a decade ago, I would occasionally hear old timers talk about the towering cliffs and hidden canyons of the Walls of Jericho, about Hurricane Creek which runs clear and swift through the canyons, and about the two-hundred-year-old trees that supposedly stand by the hundreds. But I could never (legally) verify the stories--the land has been closed to the public since 1977 when then-owner, Texas oil millionaire Harry Lee Carter, died and the land became entangled in various legal and familial tussles.

As a result, like hundreds of others, I could never experience first hand the wonders I kept hearing about. All that changed in 2002 when the property came up for sale and The Nature Conservancy, a national conservation group, snapped it up in partnership with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Division of State Lands. The state of Alabama opened up the 12,000-acre portion that lies in Alabama (about 9000 acres are in Tennessee) to the public and is gradually adding facilities that enhance the outdoor experience.

What a bargain Alabama got. This huge tract of creeks, heavily forested mountainsides and tumbling waterfalls is spectacular. The centerpiece is a huge bowl-shaped 200-foot wide gorge that on a rainy spring day looks like a setting out of “Lord of the Rings”. Verdant beds of leafy ferns and velvety blankets of moss crowd the steep canyon walls and water splashes and cascades out of jagged fissures and onto flat slabs that overhang each other stair-step style. Standing within the confines of this natural amphitheatre, you feel like you are embraced in a cocoon of mist and rock. I’ve never seen anyplace like it anywhere else in Alabama.

Part of the reason for the uniqueness is the part of the state where it is located. Northeast Alabama doesn’t fit the Alabama stereotype of flat red clay cotton fields and white Gulf Coast beaches. Think of the mountains of east Tennessee or the hills of north Georgia and you’ll come closer to the terrain of northeast Alabama. And the Walls of Jericho exemplify this topography. From the moment you leave the spartan gravel parking lot and begin your descent into the arms of the Walls area your day is dominated by steep hills, rocky overhangs, and flowing creeks.

Don’t go expecting to be surrounded by elaborate infrastructure. There are no restrooms and no water. The minimal facilities consist of two parking lots, a few signs, a 2.5 mile hiking trail and an 8.3-mile horseback riding trail; other than that, you’re on your own. The main hiking trail is moderately rugged, descending in a series of switchbacks into the depths of the canyon. You’ll have to hike around gaping sinkholes and fallen trees and across a couple of creeks to reach the canyon floor. Until recently this involved wading across Hurricane Creek but a new footbridge means dry feet now.

You’ll know you’re near the valley floor when you see and hear Hurricane Creek rushing through the preserve. The creek hugs the steep valley wall on one side and opens up to a broad level field on the other. This flat field offers good camping sites and a place to graze your horses. Past the field the hiking trail begins a slow ascent along the bank of the creek and the going gets a little more rugged. The trail is muddy and narrow and in some spots you are treading a foot-wide path with a sheer cliff rising on one side and steeply falling away to a raging creek on the other. Just about the time you’re wondering if this trip was worth the effort, the canyon walls open up and the waterfall at the head of the bowl is sitting below you. No matter what time of year you visit, the Walls are spectacular. Although the lush springtime greenery is hard to beat, in the winter the Walls at the head of the creek are often a glistening display of ice falls, frozen columns, and icy sheets shimmering hundreds of feet up the canyon walls.

If your closet is packed with saddles and reins instead of hiking boots, you’re going to love this ride. There is a horses-only parking area that feeds directly into a designated equestrian trail that descends steadily to the valley floor. The horse trail and the hiking trails cross each other a couple of times but for the most part, the two groups will not be aware of each other’s presence.

The trip in sounds daunting but trust me, you won’t be disappointed, the Walls of Jericho is a real gem.

The Walls of Jericho is located west of Scottsboro, Alabama near the town of Hytop. Take Highway 79 north from Highway 72 for about 20 miles. The parking lots are located on the left.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Seven Southern Summits

In the world of extreme adventure one achievement stands out: climbing the seven summits. These are the highest points on the seven continents; Denali in North American, Aconcagua in South America, Asia’s Mount Everest, Europe’s Mount Elbrus, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, and Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Those adventurers who stand atop these seven can rightfully boast of an enviable feat.

For those of us who don’t have superhuman endurance and can’t afford $60,000 and six months off of work for a trip up Everest, we must set our sights a little lower. Like bagging the seven southern summits, the highest points in the states of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee.

Granted, bagging these peaks doesn’t have the same glamour as climbing the real seven summits, but at least you can say you got off the couch and did it. And that’s how I found myself standing atop the highest point in Florida. At least I think it was, according to the map; the hump I was standing on didn’t look much higher than the surrounding countryside. A church steeple off in the distance looked suspiciously taller. Nevertheless, Britton Hill, at 345 feet the lowest high point in the United States, was our first victory in our seven southern summits trek.

I figured attacking these peaks (OK, hills) would be a fun adventure and I enlisted the services of my daughter, Sara, to act as my porter and Sherpa. We quickly discovered that finding the summits was considerably harder than climbing them. Thank heavens for Mapquest because these are not commanding mountains you can see from miles away. Britton Hill, for example, requires some studying to discern that yes, it is higher than the rest of Florida. We climbed up it anyway--or I should say strolled up it, a 500 foot saunter from a nearby parking lot. An inauspicious debut for what we envisioned as a challenging and strenuous quest.

But we figured that we would face some real struggles as we attempted the other states’ peaks. So we headed for our next conquest, Mississippi’s Woodall Mountain. At least it had the word “mountain” in its name. Located just outside of Iuka, barely across the Alabama border, Woodall Mountain is hidden off of a country road. A small sign declaring the mountain as Mississippi’s highest peak points to a gravel road that leads right up to the 806-foot summit. We opened the car door and practically stepped on the US Geological Survey high point marker. The view of the surrounding countryside (you can supposedly see three states from the top) was hidden by a thick stand of trees and radio antennas. We could sight down a cleared power line and barely make out a few fields off in the distance. Oh well, this was still just a warm up, we had some real mountains ahead of us.

Off to Mt. Cheaha, Alabama’s rooftop. This was more like it. Situated in the middle of the Talladega National Forest, Mt. Cheaha is a commanding presence as you drive up to it. At 2,407 feet, it was our highest point yet. Alas, again we were able to drive right up to an attractive stone building that dominates the top. Our only exertion consisted of climbing the steps to the building’s tower to take in the breathtaking view of some of Alabama’s prettiest country. We spent the night in the State Park Lodge where we had a filling meal at the lodge restaurant and finished the day rubbing sore bellies instead of sore feet.

Up at dawn to conquer Brasstown Bald in Georgia. This crag in the Smokies promised to be our first real challenge and we could see it looming in the distance as we approached it. At 4,784 feet, it was the first peak that could legitimately lay claim to being called a “mountain”. We fought disappointment as the road wound towards the top and we feared that this would be another drive up. Fortunately, we came to a parking lot below the summit. For once, we could actually trek up a mountain instead of driving. We would be real mountain climbers, forging a rugged route to the top. Of course, this meant that while we hiked the half-mile trail to the top we had to ignore the shuttle bus that was chugging elderly vacationers and toddlers to the top from the parking lot. But hey, at least we hiked it. And it was worth it, a moderate climb up the mountainside through rhododendron thickets to the summit lodge. The view was tremendous.

Atop the "summit" of Sassafras Mountain
Next summit: Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina, 3,560 feet of grueling, punishing uphill slog. Or not. After burning gas up and down the backloads of Pickens County, with the humped back of Sassafras taunting us through the trees, we finally stumbled on the hidden road sign to the summit in the tiny village of Rocky Bottoms. Once again, a winding and rough road led to the summit which was cloaked in thick stands of sassafrass trees, blocking any view. My visions of achieving hard fought victories in the rugged mountains of the southern Appalachians were rapidly evaporating.

Our quest continued at Tennessee’s Clingmans Dome, the second highest mountain on our list at 6,643 feet. We had heard enough about this popular destination that we knew what to expect: a paved half-mile trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that curves gently to the top where a commanding flying saucer shaped observation platform provides visitors with an above-the-trees view of most of the Smokies. We joined couples pushing strollers, people leading dogs on leashes, and one man with a decided limp in the leisurely amble to the top. The last bit of machismo drained from my body.

The grand finale was Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, the highest point east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet. This was actually the prettiest peak of the seven. A short trail leads to a stone observation tower and the grave of Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who lost his life on the peak. The trail is about a quarter mile long but we took an alternate route which was a little longer and meandered through a thick conifer forest.

The bottom line: the southern summits trek is a soft adventure, to put it mildly. It’s not disappointing though. You’ll drive through some of the south’s most scenic areas including the Smokies and at least three national forests, stay at lodges and hotels at some of the best state parks and tourist towns. In short, a terrific road trip with plenty of nearby attractions and challenging hiking trails should you want to toughen up your adventure. Most of all, you’ll have an attention-grabbing accomplishment to casually mention back at the office. Just leave out the part about the drive ups.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Wakulla River Florida

Good river, bad river.  The Wakulla kind of captures Florida; abundant wildlife, crystal clear water, impressive towering cypress trees and curtains of Spanish moss so what's not to like?

Well on a hot summer weekend how about crowds of drunken rednecks captaining flotillas of rubber rafts; fleets of pontoon boats; discarded beer cans bobbing in the current; and speedboats scattering birds, alligators and ducks as they motor up and down the narrow channel?  A beautiful river ruined.

A little bit about the place: The Wakulla River is an 11-mile-long waterway about 45 minutes south of Tallahassee and near St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (see another of my posts on this wonderful refuge). The river carries the outflow from Wakulla Springs, site of the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, to the St. Marks River 3 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way it flows past summer homes and boat docks, wooded islands and schools of fish.

The Spring moves a constant and high volume flow of water into the river, making for slow paddling upriver, an easy float downriver.  If you visit the Wakulla on a cool March weekday, as we did the first time, the potential natural beauty of the river is apparent--flocks of waterfowl, swallow tailed kites and osprey, clear water that reveals the sandy river bottom full of schools of fish. 

Probably how the river looked decades ago when several Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies and Creature from the Black Lagoon were filmed here.  Nowadays unless you float the river during the off-season the only thing likely to be filmed on th Wakulla is Girls Gone Wild.

I don't think I've ever seen an adult manatee in Florida
that doesn't carry scars from a run-in with a boat propeller.
This one is no exception.
Still, even with all this, during our second trip on a hot June day we spied a couple of gators and, just before we pulled our canoe and kayaks out of the water, we spied a family of manatees, two adults and a large baby.  Wild Florida at its finest.

Details: Kayaks and canoes can be rented from TnT Hide-a-Way, Inc., 6527 Coastal Hwy. Crawfordville, FL 32327.  Phone: 850-925-6412. E-Mail: tnthideaway@nettally.com

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Shark Tagging, South Carolina

If you’re like me, you probably think that the numbers of sharks in the water around you on any particular day at the beach are few and far between.

That’s what I thought too until I spent a day with biologists with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. I hopped aboard a 21 foot boat and accompanied Brian Frazier and Ashley Shaw, two SCDNR biologists, into the shallow estuaries and bays around Charleston, assisting in an ongoing project to track and understand the population, birthing and migration of these beleaguered animals.

SCDNR has been conducting a shark population since 1998 in coordination with the federal government under a program called COASTSPAN. The study targets first year pups and juvenile sharks as study subjects. Sharks are captured, measured, tagged and released, numbered tags providing the means to track the animals’ movements and life spans. Six species are targeted: Atlantic Sharpnose, Bonnethead, Sandbar, Blacktip, Scalloped Hammerhead and Fine Tooth. Blood samples are taken from any mature females captured to assess reproductive status.

It was early morning as we motored away from the boat slip in the tiny fishing village of Bennetts Point accompanied by dolphins swimming and surfacing alongside our boat, seemingly curious as to our presence. We sped through meandering waterways, among islands and vast expanses of sea grass, and finally idled to a stop in Saint Helena Sound just off the edge of Morgan’s Island. Brian said that this spot was, for some reason, a place where sharks congregated.

There are two capture methods for sharks: longlines and gillnets. We set both out, first running a 300 foot longline with baited hooks every 6 feet or so. Once the longline was set, we ran a gillnet across the sound, setting it in about 7 feet of water. Then we waited, letting the sets soak for 30 minutes. As it turned, this was our last rest of the day.

Brian counted down 30 minutes and we ran the longline, pulling up each hook in turn. The first dozen or so were empty, not a good omen for the rest of the day I thought. But then things changed. The next hook revealed a two foot Atlantic sharpnose, then another and another. Three small sharks on the first soak—not bad. On to the gillnet and things got even better. Pulling the gillnet over the bow of the boat, I spied a large fish thrashing in the net—a four foot bonnethead, not happy to be entangled in the nylon. We heaved the shark aboard, avoiding its slashing tail and lethal teeth and finally extricated it from the tangled net.

She was a beauty, the first shark I had actually held in hand. Running my hand along her flank from head to tail her skin was smooth and silky, but rub in reverse and she felt raspy. Her eyes were cold, but she was a beautiful animal. We measured her, took a blood sample, inserted a small plastic tag in her dorsal fin and released her back into the water.

OK! This is what I came for! Sharks up close, an amazing sight. They are amazing creatures, even more so once you hold one and feel their powerful and lithe bodies in your hands.

We emptied the gillnet, time to go back to the longline, and so on for the entire day. We set and gathered the longlines and nets all day long, hot, tiring, grueling work—pulling in a gillnet encumbered with angry sharks against an opposing tide is backbreaking, hauling up lines hooked with unwilling sharks even harder. But the excitement never grew old and by the end of the day we captured 36 sharks, including a dozen mature females of four foot or more.

All of the sharks were caught in an area water of maybe 100 acres—many more sharks than I ever expected one would find in such a small area. It seems like a healthy number but these were pups and few will live to adulthood, falling victim to larger sharks, commercial fisheries, pollution. Sharks are in trouble worldwide, no doubt about it, but in the estuaries of South Carolina, you may want to think twice about dipping your toes in the water.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Paddling the Gnarly Nolichucky

On this cool April morning the Nolichucky River is running high and fast. Not a roiling mass of whitewater but definitely enough to grab your attention. We shiver in the cool mountain air and the sight of the wild river adds to our trembling.

"Gnarly," says the guide at the outfitter's store."You guys are definitely going to have some good rafting this weekend."

We've traveled a long way to reach the banks of this isolated river and we definitely do not want to hear that we won't be rafting today, so his words are music to our ears. Unlike many eastern whitewater runs, the Nolichucky is a free-flowing river, which means that no upstream dam provides reliable flows of rollicking whitewater. When you head to other popular whitewater runs in the southeast, like the Ocoee or the Gauley, predictable and planned releases guarantee specific water levels. When you run the Nolichucky you take your chances. You may be met with a raging — and dangerous — torrent of runoff from violent spring rains or a trickle over a rocky riverbed that makes for a bumpy, dragging ordeal. The Nolichucky is kinda like that old saw about the weather: You don't like it? Stick around and it'll change.

We stand on the riverbank 48 hours after a tropical storm worked its way up the Eastern seaboard, dumping some serious rain on the Carolinas, so we knew we'd have enough water to raft the river. Our worry was that we'd have too much water — the commercial outfitters refuse to run rafts when water levels are too high. Standing on the front porch of the outfitter's store and looking out over the rushing brown and white runoff churning past, we wonder if the water is too wild and we are concerned that we won't be rafting. But our guide assures us that we'll hit the water today.

With dozens of outstanding rivers competing for the attention of eastern whitewater enthusiasts, the Nolichucky is often overlooked. Part of this is due to its isolation — the river is hidden in the mountains of North Carolina on the Tennessee border near the tiny town of Erwin, Tennessee. Once you reach Erwin, which is nestled in the Appalachians of eastern Tennessee near Johnson City, it is still a good one-hour drive on snaking two-lane mountain roads to the put in point in North Carolina. By then you're WAY back in the mountains, so far back that you'll cross the Appalachian Trail to get to the river.

This is a true mountain stream, the headwaters originating near Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, at 6684 feet, the highest point in the eastern U.S. The water flowing from the Mt. Mitchell drainage swells into the Cane River and the South Toe River and, after joining with the North Toe River flowing out of Iron Mountain and Roan Mountain, forms the Nolichucky. Imagine over eight hundred square miles of steep mountain peaks and valleys funneling water into one narrow 900-foot deep gorge. Add a heavy spring rain and a riverbed sprinkled with a healthy mix of truck-sized boulders and the result is exactly what you would expect: a churning maelstrom of standing waves, steep drops, and rushing chutes producing a staccato series of rapids that go on for miles.

The stretch of river we're rafting from the town of Poplar, North Carolina to Erwin is the most popular section of river for kayakers and commercial whitewater rafting outfitters. This ten-mile stretch is a challenging series of Class III-IV rapids and it drops an average of 33 feet per mile so there is not going to be any slowing down during this trip. The rapids here are the biggest on the entire 110-mile length of the Nolichucky. Minivan-sized boulders, plummeting drops, and technical chutes characterize this section of the river.

It looks daunting from the gravel bar as we push off. "Gnarly!" our guide shouts again. "The river's running above three feet on the gauge."  He tells us that this is just about the upper limit for commercial running and we quickly find that this is not going to be a leisurely laid-back float. The raft barely loses hold on the crunching pebbles and gravel before the current grabs us and jerks our bow around into its clutches. Within a quarter mile of the put in, we stumble into the Class III+ Railroad Rapid and paddle furiously to keep our raft just right of the main drop to avoid the hole below. One thought crosses our minds: This is going to be a great run!

We've hardly recovered from Railroad and our guide is yelling over the roar of the whitewater for us to set up for On The Rocks, a Class III-IV four-foot drop with two major holes below and a huge boulder exactly where the river tries to drop you. Next is Jaws, a Class III ledge that is a prime surfing spot for rafts and kayaks at lower water levels but is dicey today. We paddle into an eddy and watch a small coterie of kayakers playing below the ledge before pressing on.

Jaws spits us out into Snappy, a lively Class III and then a long, steep rapid called Quarter Mile-and it is at least that long. Quarter Mile is basically a continuous rock garden with boulders and ledges peppered along its entire length. This is probably the"gnarliest" part of the river (our guide tells us so) and an upset in Quarter Mile is no fun, what with boulders and rocks waiting to bang and bruise you. At the bottom of Quarter Mile is Murphy's, a four-foot drop that is high in entertainment value. We pull into an eddy below the ledge and wait for the inevitable disaster.

It doesn't take long before a raft comes through sideways, catapulting paddlers over the ledge and into the pool below. Of course, in the gallant code of the whitewater world, we guffaw and point mercilessly. Too much fun to miss, so we pull over for a lunch break and watch the carnage for the next 45 minutes.

The next three miles don't get a whole lot easier. A series of Class III-IV rapids; Roostertail, Rollercoaster, Surprise, Rock Garden, and Maggie's Rock offer a quality selection of standing waves, technical maneuvers, crunching holes, and chaotic drops. Below Maggie's, the character of the river changes a little. These first few miles of river have dropped an average of almost 67 feet per mile, but now the river starts to level out. The near-vertical walls of the Nolichucky Gorge, steep and constricted before, flatten out and broaden, angling into more gradual slopes. The gorge widens out here and so does the river.

The last four major rapids are Hole-in-the-Wall, Big Eddy, Shoo-Fly Shoals, and the Slide. These are big pillowy Class II-III rollers that give us a chance to lean back and enjoy the scenery of Pisgah National Forest and Cherokee National Forest. The stark gray bluffs disappear and lower tree-shrouded hills angle up and away from the river. The early-April buds are just beginning to appear on the redbud, dogwood, and poplar trees vying for space on the hillsides and vestigial leaves paint the slopes with just a hint of green. Thick patches of rhododendron and mountain laurel begin to appear, their waxy green leaves splashing the scenery with deep emerald swatches. The final four miles of the commercial section smooth out into gentle pools and eddies where ducks, geese, herons, and deer play.

Below the commercial section, the river flattens out even more and becomes a much tamer run. Rafts and kayaks are replaced by open canoes and, on hot summer days, by inner tubes. The Nolichucky mellows out and the big drops and rollers are replaced by lively riffles and Class I and II rapids. The claustrophobic towering walls of the gorge are replaced by long vistas of the Appalachians fronted by open meadows of wildflowers. This section is especially attractive in the late spring and fall, when you can enjoy the blooming wildflowers or the autumn foliage.

The Nolichucky is sometimes a questionable run in the summer. Be sure to check with one of the local outfitters for water levels before making the trek to the mountains. A level of less than 2.4 feet is marginal for paddlers and only experienced paddlers should attempt anything near 3 feet. As with any free-flowing river, caution should be exercised any time water is high. At medium levels, the surfing spots and playholes are full of kayakers who descend magically on the Nolichucky as if on some telepathic cue. The spring rains make March through April the best times to experience exciting water levels. If you catch it right — say, after a generous April storm as we did — you'll enjoy an almost continuous series of Class III and Class IV foam and experience eastern whitewater rafting at its finest. Or as our extremely eloquent guide exclaims as we beach our raft at the take out,"Gnarly!"


Erwin is about fifteen miles south of Johnson City, Tennessee on Highway 19 or highway 19/23 north out of Asheville, North Carolina. The section described in this article starts in the Pisgah National Forest and then enters the Cherokee National Forest.

Although most of the 110-mile length of the Nolichucky can be paddled, the 30-mile section from Poplar, NC to Embreeville, TN is the prime section. This section can be broken into three smaller runs depending on your skills and time available. The run from Poplar to the railroad bridge near Erwin is nine miles of Class III-IV whitewater. From the railroad bridge to highway 81 you can enjoy ten miles of Class I-II Water. Another ten mile run from Riverview to Embreeville is a nice Class II paddle. The milder water of the lower sections is good canoeing water.

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

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Rare Sighting on Fort Morgan Peninsula

I trekked down to Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula, a thin finger of dunes and beach the juts into the Gulf of Mexico along the southern shore of Mobile Bay. My quest: to take a look at the bird banding efforts of a group called the Hummer/Bird Study Group (HBSG).

The HBSG is a group of volunteers is dedicated to studying hummingbirds and migratory songbirds and part of their study includes the capture and banding of migratory songbirds at various locations throughout the United States. One of their primary banding sites is among the dunes and coastal scrub of Fort Morgan. For two weeks every Spring and Fall, the group sets mist nets out in the dunes of Fort Morgan State Park to capture migrating birds.

For migrating birds, Fort Morgan peninsula is perhaps one of the most important pieces of real estate along the Gulf coast.  It is particularly critical to migrating birds because it is the first landfall for arriving Spring migrants and the last departure point when they head south in the Fall.  Uncountable numbers of birds fly through this funnel point each migration season.  Taking advantage of this dense concentration of migrants, HBSG annually bands thousands of birds as they pass through the peninsula.

I hiked into the scrub and found a small group of dedicated people busily extracting birds from capture nets, weighing them, measuring them, recording the species and then gently releasing them to continue on their way. The data the HBSG collects is important to understanding populations, migrating times and species fluctuations. I had been to the site many times before, but my latest visit in April of 2012 put me there in the middle of a slow period.  For various reasons, primarily due to weather conditions, the number of birds passing through Fort Morgan was low and banding activity was slow.

He's the good looking one on the left
So I took off into the dunes to do some birding on my own. The capture nets may have been empty but the trees were alive with migrants and resident birds and I quickly spotted Swainson’s Warbler, Wood Thrush, Eastern Towhee, Palm Warbler, Hooded Warbler and Prothonotary Warbler and a dozen other species.

My best spot was yet to come. I met another birder along the trail and joined up with him. It took me many minutes to realize that it was Scott Weidensaul, naturalist, author and an accomplished birder.   Scott is one of my favorite authors ( his works include Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds, Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians and Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul) and I think I’ve read every one of his books.  It was a real thrill to walk through the dunes with a famous author and birder. The high point of my birding day at Fort Morgan.

Friday, April 6, 2012

New River, West Virginia

It’s not the wildest whitewater river in the East; that honor is reserved for the Gauley. Nor is it the most famous; the Chattooga achieved that distinction by co-starring with Burt Reynolds in Deliverance. But no Eastern river rat can hold his own in a campfire bull session unless he has rafted the New River.

That’s because the New’s big rapids, inspiring scenery, and long stretches of churning water make it one of the East’s premier rafting rivers, arguably the most popular of a legion of exciting whitewater venues stretching from Maryland to Georgia. The New is nestled in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, one of a half-dozen rafting rivers in the state. The steep mountain gradients that spawn these cascading rivers make the area a mecca for eastern river runners (as well as skiers at nearby Snowshoe and Canaan Valley).

Rafters can choose two options from the New’s fifty miles of whitewater; the scenic upper section, a mild float down languid pools and gentle Class II rapids; or the kick-butt lower section, a five-hour run through major Class III, IV, and V drops. There is no time to get your sea legs on the lower New; this 15-mile run baptizes you immediately with a series of rapids that will definitely focus your attention. The lower section has five Class V runs, the best of which is the Keeneys, a series of harrowing rapids that drops over 30 feet in a quarter mile.

But the New is not just brawn--there is beauty to match. The placid water sections stringing together the big rapids are perfect for kicking back and taking in the spectacular scenery of the New River Gorge. The sheer gorge walls—1200 foot tall in some spots--enfold rafters in a blanket of incredibly beautiful mountain terrain. Near the take out on the lower section, the river flows under the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest span bridge in the world and a memorable ending to a thrilling adventure.

DETAILS: The New River is about 30 miles southeast of Charleston, near the town of Beckley. More than twenty outfitters service the New. A couple of notable ones are Mountain River Tours, 800-822-1386 and USA Raft, 800-USA-RAFT. Rafting season runs from March through October. The upper section is perfect for families and most outfitters take kids as young as six or seven; the rougher lower section has a minimum age restriction of twelve. Costs vary, but a one-day trip with an experienced guide in your raft runs about $60 per person and includes lunch. If your New River trip doesn’t satisfy your whitewater lust, other outstanding rivers in the area include the Gauley, the Cheat, the Tygart, and the Youghiogheny. Accommodations are available at Hawk's Nest State Park, near both the New and Gauley rivers. For additional information on the area and to make reservations at Hawk’s Nest call 1-800-CALL-WVA.

(This article originally appeared in SKI Magazine)


“This is a country, but the city is the country.” These words from Mahmet, the manager of the Brasserie Guiliaume, an upscale restaurant and bar in the city center, pretty much sum up Luxembourg.

The country of Luxembourg is only 120 square miles, about the size of an average county in the states. These 120 square miles encompass a smattering of small villages and Luxembourg City, which, with 250,000 of the country’s 350,000 people, dominates the duchy, the last remaining monarchy in Europe.

“Luxembourg is small enough that most people know each other,” Mahmet continues, “You see the same people on the streets each day and you get to feel comfortable with each other. It’s a good place to live.”

And a great place to visit. An intriguing mix of old world castles and fortifications, and modern glass and steel high-rise bank and business buildings, Luxembourg was once the most heavily fortified country in the world and the imposing 700 year-old stone fortifications still bear evidence of that past history. The city embraces rows of massive stone casements, towering block walls, gun emplacements, and arched bridges. All of these man-made fortifications sprout from near-vertical natural stone bluffs that enhance the imposing character of the battlements. The result is a city of breathtaking historical beauty, a fairytale scene of cathedrals, stone revetments, and natural escarpments. At practically every turn an open vista over the deep gorge that bisects the city centre presents itself. The River Alzette tumbles through the Grund, or valley, smack in the center of the city and the soaring stone bridges that span this small waterway add even more scenic beauty to the city.

Luxembourg is a tiny chip of land bordered by Belgium, France, and Germany and as such is a crossroads of cultures. I asked a bartender at a restaurant if most Luxemborgese speak French and he took great umbrage with me.

“No! We speak Luexmbourgish, not French!” he indignantly huffed.

To my untrained ear, it certainly sounds like French, but who am I to argue? The French influence is definitely strong, most signs and menus are in French and the French culinary influence is prevalent. Listen to the people talking in the shops and streets and you’ll hear a polyglot of French, German, and Portuguese (about 14% of the population is Portuguese) and the restaurants are a happy smattering of French, German, Spanish, Greek, and Italian. In all of my European travels, I have yet to visit another city which is more cosmopolitan and varied.

The city is tourist friendly. All of the city attractions are concentrated in a small area near the city centre within walking distance. Locate in a hotel near the centre and stroll through the city. The streets are the typical narrow winding cobblestone affairs and traffic is heavy so don’t bother using a car to get around.

The central point of the city is the Palace de Duchy, the home of Luxembourg’s royalty, the very popular and dashing Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg. The palace is a grand building with a mustard colored façade and black iron gates with gold-gilded coat-of-arms. A lone color guard stands sentry at the palace entrance.  You can walk within meters of the palace—a disconcerting lack of security given today’s terrorism inclined world. The palace sits amid a mélange of shops and restaurants so you can combine shopping and eating with your sightseeing. Just down the street is the Place Guilliaume, an open cobblestone square dominated by the equestrian statue of Grand Duke William II and surrounded by shops and the city courthouse.

Walk east from the palace, through the walls of the fortifications to the Grund bridge, a wide road that sits atop a massive stone wall and winds slowly down to the Alzette River. About halfway down the road is an entrance to the wall. You can tour the innards of the fortifications, a winding maze of narrow and dank tunnels that the city’s defenders used in the Middle Ages. There were reportedly 29 kilometers of tunnels and passageways in the original fortifications and some 17 kilometers still remain. You won’t want to walk all of them but do take a tour. Be forewarned; the passageways are tiny and dark so you will need a flashlight and if you are claustrophobic, forget it.

If you like good food, you have arrived in gastronomic heaven. The international flair of Luxembourg offers a smorgasbord of diverse tastes. I recommend To Kastro, an excellent Greek restaurant in the depths of the fortifications near the palace. Apart from the excellent food (try the spiced lamb), the atmosphere is unique, located as it is in the bottom of the ancient fortifications. Vaulted stone ceilings and massive stone pillars surround you, with muted lighting throwing shadows against the contours of the walls and ceilings. Prefer Italian? Try Come Prima or Piu de Prima, both located in the same fortifications. Both of these establishments are run by Italian families and the food reflects its authentic origins. Come Prima’s appetizer bar is worth the visit by itself—the sun dried tomatoes are unlike anything I have ever tasted. I could have left happy after eating my fill of them—but, of course I didn’t—and was glad I stayed to try the seafood linguini, with fresh shrimp and mussels in a light cream sauce.

Just around the corner is Los Amigos, a casual understated Spanish restaurant with a widely varied menu. We tried, but we couldn’t find a bad meal. One evening as we headed back to our hotel, we stepped into Bodega, an unassuming family run bar near the Place de Armes to catch a quick dinner and stumbled onto an exceptional and huge meal of lamb and beef kebab and Cordon bleu. I also recommend the Brasserie Mousel Cantine, at the bottom of the Grund bridge. There the Scheinhaxe (fried and roasted pig leg) is rolled out on a huge platter. I felt like Henry VIII, gorging on one of those huge legs of meat. The Cantine is next door to the Mousel Brasserie, one of three major breweries in Luxembourg, and you can venture into the premises and glimpse the making of Luxembourg’s favorite brew.

If you have a car and tire of the city’s charms (not likely) you are within an easy drive of Germany, France, and Belgium. Drive an hour north into the Ardennes Forest (take the back roads through the villages and mountains) to Bastogne, the site of the Battle of the Bulge. Visit the Bastogne Historical Center, a museum dedicated to the battle, and walk through the city square, where a monument to American General McAullife (who uttered the famous “Nuts!” when the Nazis demanded his surrender) and a battle-scarred vintage World War II Sherman tank dominates the square. Also nearby is a WWII Allied cemetery where General George Patton is buried and, like all American military cemeteries in Europe, it is immaculate with gleaming white crosses in precise rows on a neatly manicured field.  In sharp contrast, just down the road is a Nazi WWII cemetery with dark gray stone crosses gloomily shadowed by shade trees, and a large mass burial mound dominating the landscape.  Depressing.

Not into WWII history?  Drive an hour east into Germany to the city of Trier and walk down the hauptstrasse where an array of shops and restaurants await. Or drive an hour south to Nancy, across the border in France, and check out the fine arts and history displays in the Musee Lorrain and the grand architecture in city centre.

Walk or drive, but don’t miss Luxembourg. Rarely mentioned as a European tourist destination, this country is an often overlooked gem.

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Flyfishing Nevada's Ruby Valley

Forget all your preconceived notions of Nevada—the glam and glitter of the Las Vegas strip and the funky, hardcore casinos of Reno. The other side of Nevada, far removed from Vegas and Reno both in miles and in feel is a remote and sparsely populated region that beckons to those who would rather spend a day summiting an 11,000 foot mountain or hooking a trout in an alpine stream than spinning the wheels of a slot machine.

This part of Nevada, in the far northern reaches of the state, is an outdoor paradise, an area filled with imposing snow covered peaks, rugged high desert and clear mountain lakes. It’s also relatively unknown. Ask people if they’ve ever heard of the Ruby Mountains, the Goshutes or Great Basin National Park and chances are all you’ll get are blank stares. Yet all those places and more dominate the landscape.

Too much to see and do in one trip—how do you choose between hiking the Ruby Crest National Recreation Trail, heli-skiing the Ruby Mountains or trekking to the 13,063 foot summit of Wheeler Peak? So I opted to spend a few days there flyfishing the marshes and streams of Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This 35,000 acre refuge, located two hours south of the town of Elko, hosts thousands of ducks, geese, sandhill cranes and other waterfowl in its marshes and lakes. And it also offers good flyfishing for trophy sized rainbow, brown and brook trout as well as tiger trout, a brown trout/brook trout hybrid.

The refuge has a lengthy network of ditches and streams interspersed with small ponds that harbor healthy but finicky trout. I spent my entire first day watching trout ignore my best nymphs and midges with zero luck—not a single hit. Especailly frustrating since I could see them clearly swimming in the clear water.  I was sure I had wasted a week coming to this remote place only to be shut out.

Day two was a different story. I stumbled onto an easily accessible fishing spot known locally as Governor’s Pond, a still, open bay near the edge of the refuge. I spotted large numbers of trout working the water and gently rolled a nymph into the water. What followed was two hours of near continuous action, nearly thirty trout in the 8- to 14-inch range taking my offerings.

Then as quickly as it started the pond went cold. Another fruitless hour and I gave up and headed across the refuge to a large oxbow below a fish hatchery located on the refuge. This spot also proved fruitful, but with one significant difference—the fish here were ginormous. I hooked three fish in quick succession—all being long distance releases. One was particularly huge—the largest trout I ever had on line but it flipped loose well away from my net. You know the story—the one that got away. I felt bad but not as bad as when I read this story a few days later:


Yep, exact same place I fished, within mere days of my trip. I’ll always tell myself I let the state record slip away.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Flyfishing the Big Thompson River, Colorado

It just doesn’t get much prettier than this: A clear mountain river coursing through the heart of an alpine meadow, the warm morning sun sparkling on the current’s riffles. This is the Big Thompson River, a flyfishing mecca. Brown, rainbow and brook trout lurk in its eddies and deep pools and bear, moose, elk and mule deer haunt its edges.

The Big Thompson originates in the far reaches of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, flowing through the mountain wilderness of Rocky Mountain National Park before tumbling down through the town of Estes Park Colorado in the valley below. Snow melt and the frigid temps of the high Rockies mean cold water in the Big Thompson, and the steep mountain flanks mean rushing, oxygen-aerated water. Just what trout like. And if trout like it, so do trout anglers, which is how we found ourselves thigh-deep in the rushing waters of the river, flipping delicate flies over the jangling water.

Before we hit the high alpine meadows, we took a couple of hours to literally get our feet wet, checking out the hatch and throwing flies at likely trout-lurking spots. Our guide, Marsh Thompson from Kirk’s Fly Shop in downtown Estes Park, took us to a section of the river accessible from a bridge just outside of town. We walked across a meadow of waist-high goldenrod and through an alder thicket to this hidden-within-view spot less than twenty minutes from downtown. We could hear the occasional car rumble by on the road but the spot still felt wildernessy and we quickly tied on nymphs and started working the water. The Big Thompson here is a little tamer than what we would encounter over the next two days—by the time it reaches this spot near Estes Park, the broad level valley has slowed the current down and it’s a gently flowing waterway.

But no less productive. We had barely gotten our waders wet and we were already into a hungry school of brown trout. The hits came rapidly and continuously for the next couple of hours and we lost count of the number of fish we hooked. It was fast and fun, an addicting introduction to Big Thompson River flyfishing. As the morning rolled on the fishing slowed and we pulled out for greener pastures. We headed further into the backcountry, hiking into an isolated stretch of the river dominated by huge boulders and fast water. The fishing here was even better and the browns and rainbows even hungrier. We easily caught thirty fish each.

Next day: Rocky Mountain National Park where the Big Thompson meandered through a broad meadow next to our campsite. Spectacular fishing, just as productive as the valley and add a backdrop of snow capped peaks. Our best two days of flyfishing ever and Kodak moments to complete the experience.

Details: You can wander about trying to find a prime fishing spot or you can hire a guide to save time searching and have more time fishing. I highly recommend Kirk’s Fly Shop in Estes Park, www.kirksflyshop.com 877-669-1859. Kirk’s does one-day and overnight trips and will rent gear plus they have a fully equipped shop for any last minute flies you may need.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Haulin' Halibut, Alaska Halibut Fishing

Our twin 150-horsepower Yamaha outboards had barely had time to cool down when my fishing rod bent ninety degrees. I was unprepared for action so quickly and stared stupidly at the tip of my pool-cue-sized rod as it twitched violently back and forth. “Fish on!” yelled Landis, our charter captain. His shout fired me up and I pulled the rod out of its angled holder on the boat’s stern and set the hook as Landis slipped a belt around my waist. The butt of the rod slammed into the cup on the front of the belt and I was in business.

“It’s a big halibut!” Landis shouted. And it felt like it. The first hit on the boat today and it must be a monster. I leaned back, pulling the rod tip up and straining against the resistant fish. Between pulls, I’d reel line in furiously as I let the rod tip fall back toward the rolling waters of Alaska’s Cook Inlet. I’d been saltwater fishing before in the warm waters of Florida and the Gulf Coast and I’d never hooked into a fish that felt this big. After ten minutes of exertion, my arms were burning and my wrists ached and I thought I must be pulling what must surely be the biggest fish in Alaska toward our 28-foot boat.

My friend Wes and I caught a charter out of Ninilchik, Alaska, a small fishing village on the western edge of the Kenai Peninsula, about two hours south of Anchorage. We had a particular hankering to catch some halibut. We had just driven up the Sterling Highway from Homer, Alaska and saw numerous large halibut—in the 90 to 160 pound range—being unloaded and weighed on the docks there.

So it was just a matter of good luck when we ran into Jim Considder in Soldotna, on the banks of the Kenai River about 30 minutes from Ninilchik. Jim is from Florida but spends his summers in Soldotna. He is a charter captain himself, but is not chartering this season. He does, however, know many of the locals and when we told him we wanted to try our hand at halibut fishing, he checked around and managed to get us space on this charter during an extremely busy season.  It's unusual to luck into these last-minute deals and we were fortunate to run into Jim who was able to get us aboard two open spaces on a five-person boat.

So we were a couple of happy campers when we stowed our gear in the cabin with three other passengers; Dale from Florida, Keith from Anchorage, and his father, Ray from Nebraska. Like us, all but Ray were first time halibut fishermen. While we waited to pull out, we watched boats coming in from early morning charters with massive fish. A couple of 150-pounders, a half-dozen in the 100-pound range, and a bunch of 50-to-80 pounders.  Things were looking promising.

So now that I was feeling the pull at the end of my 130-pound-test line, I felt sure that I would be top dog back at the scales. Halibut fishing is different from the cobia, snapper, and speckled trout fishing that I am used to in the Gulf of Mexico. First, halibut like to stay deep so we were fishing in about 200 feet of water, fifteen miles offshore. They are bottom feeders, so the deal is to find a likely spot--maybe a tidal rip or where cross currents meet--anchor, and let heavily baited hooks, weighted with four pound lead weights, ride along the ocean floor. You also want to be fishing with either a strong incoming or outgoing tide. Natural baits tend to collect there and the opportunistic halibut take advantage. They will jockey for a spot on the ocean floor and wait for the rushing tide to whisk a tasty morsel past their nose. The idea is to make sure that the chunk of herring on the end of your hook is the morsel that they chomp down on.

By now I could feel the shortness of the line and I knew the fish was close to the stern. I caught a glimpse of a milky white flank and Landis leaned over the side, gaffed the fished and hauled it aboard. Everyone stood speechless. What we had all thought would be a 150-pound trophy was a 45-pounder. It had snagged the hook on its underside and I had been retrieving it flat-side-forward through the outgoing tide, kind of like pullng a barn door sideways through the water, the reason for the tremendous pull on the line.

Still, like I told Wes, anywhere but Alaska, this would be a prime catch. Only here would we be disappointed in a four-foot, 45 pound fish. We caught six more halibut before dusk, the largest two being 45 pounds. Throw in a few 36-inch gray cod, and two three-foot sharks, and we had a nice trip, no complaints. Still, on the way back to Ninilchik, Landis told us that this had been his worst trip of the summer. Just enough to sucker us into a return trip—not that we needed much convincing.


Saltwater Charters runs charters into Cook Inlet on a daily basis during the May-to-September season. You can book a halibut charter, a salmon charter, or a combo deal, depending on the season. Full-day and half-day charters are available and include all equipment and bait. All you need is a $10 one-day Alaskan fishing license. The Alaskan limit on halibut is two per person per day. Don’t do what we did and expect to show up and get a slot on a boat the same day. Make reservations well ahead of time at 907-333-3333.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Down East Maine

Courtesy George Goff
"This is stupid!" grumps my son Val. We are treading gingerly across the rocky nesting ground of thousands of Arctic terns and the object of his derision is the three-foot wooden stick he is holding straight up like a flagpole over his head. No sooner have the words escaped his lips than a furious, dive-bombing tern slams against the stick, almost knocking it out of his hands. This aggressive tern is one of many that we will encounter today on Machias Seal Island, a barren eighteen-acre rock outcropping ten miles off of the Maine coast. Val may feel stupid but he follows the advice of the Canadian Wildlife Service officer who greeted us as we landed on the island: “The terns will attack the stick instead of your head if you keep it pointing up high.” The terns are very territorial and during the height of their nesting season they are frenetically attacking us as we walk along wooden boardwalks through the heart of a very boisterous and busy nesting area. The sticks divert the fury of their attack, so that they strafe the sticks instead of our heads, an alternative that Val quickly comes to appreciate.

Courtesy George Goff
Machias Seal Island is the culmination of an extended wilderness trip through far eastern Maine that combines a week long canoe trek along the Maine New Brunswick border with a visit to the island and a couple of days of hiking and biking in Acadia National Park. This trek takes us through a variety of habitats that make for an exciting and beautiful wilderness expedition. This area of Canada and Maine offers excellent outdoor opportunities with the chance to glimpse moose, bear, seals, and whales--and birds are everywhere.

Courtesy George Goff
For sheer numbers of birds however, Machias Seal Island would undoubtedly be the high point of this adventure. We had heard stories about thousands of birds that could be seen on the island and wanted to see for ourselves so we departed from Jonesport, Maine on the Chief, a boat captained by Barna and John Norton. The Chief sails from Jonesport for a two-hour run to the island, a picturesque outpost jutting out of the north Atlantic. The island’s shoreline is steep and rocky but gently sloping fields of lush green grass dominate the rest of the island.

Our first sight of the island confirms that we will see plenty of birds. The cliffs, the sea, and the surrounding sky are alive with wheeling, diving sea birds. Visualize a cloudless azure sky, the rolling Atlantic Ocean breaking in white spray against the island’s rocky footing, and a quaint red roofed white lighthouse perched in the middle of a deep green meadow. It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque tableau.

Courtesy George Goff
Getting from the boat to the island is no piece of cake. After anchoring off of the lea side of the island, we scramble into a small skiff to ferry to the rocky shoreline. There is no pier or dock for visitor access and the rocks are exposed to the sea. The landing is treacherous and we hop out of the skiff onto slippery wet boulders, timing our leap from the skiff with the swells so that the surging waves do not wash us into the cold ocean.

Courtesy George Goff
This scary landing and the attack of the terns make us wonder what we have gotten ourselves into but as we hike through the tern nests up a gentle slope to the brow of the island, we hear the raucous squawks of birds carried on the brisk wind in our direction. A stealthy tiptoe into a series of wooden blinds constructed on the peak of the hill reveals a rocky sloping field angling down to the foaming Atlantic a quarter mile away. A group of small wooden blinds overlook the rocky cliffs and allow us to observe the primary attraction of the island up close. The snug blinds are situated within feet of thousands of Atlantic puffins calmly flying and sitting among the rocks within feet of our cameras. It’s an incredible thrill to see and photograph puffins that are less than six feet away. The gentle slope provides an unobstructed view of thousands of nesting seabirds. We spot razorbills, thin billed murres, black guillemots, common terns, common eiders, herring gulls, greater black backed gulls, and a lone sharp tailed sparrow.

Courtesy George Goff
To minimize disturbance to the birds, visitors are limited to about two hours on the island so we’re off the island way before we want to be. During our return trip to Jonesport, Captain John points out a Wilson's storm petrel shadowing the boat off to the starboard. As we near the Jonesport docks, we pass huge harbor seals sunning themselves on rocks in the harbor. Although we missed them, finback, humpback, and minke whales are often seen in the area.

Our Maine trip actually began nine days earlier when we sighted a large moose serenely feeding in a bog as we launched our canoe on Spednick Lake. A large, island dotted lake, Spednick empties into the Saint Croix River, which defines the border between Maine and Canada. Camp on the left bank of the Saint Croix and you’re in Canada, camp on the right and you’re in Maine. Spednick Lake allowed us two days of leisurely lake travel to get our "sea legs" prior to beginning the trip down the river itself. We had beautiful early June weather with a clear blue sky outlining the quaking aspen, paper birch, and sugar maple on the far lakeshores. Nosing around the bays, inlets, and small islands, we also sharpened our eyes spotting bald eagles, ospreys, black ducks, common goldeneyes, and green winged teal. It was isolated and serene and our first night in camp we went to sleep to the call of common loons.

On the third day, a portage around a dam in the tiny town of Vanceboro, Maine changed the nature of the trip from lake canoeing to fast water paddling on the Saint Croix River. The Saint Croix is exciting, but not dangerous, with practically all of the rapids being no more than Class II, easily run by all but the most inexperienced canoeists. The flat-water stretches interspersed among the rapids offer plenty of time for wildlife viewing. The Saint Croix is an isolated and undeveloped river surrounded by lush expanses of spruce and fir forests, only occasionally interrupted by the presence of a cabin or other sign of civilization. There are campsites located at well-spaced intervals along the river, each equipped with fire rings and primitive facilities. The first night we camped on a small shelf of land atop a squat bluff overlooking the river. Just before dusk, a Bald Eagle glided silently and majestically downriver, 20 feet above the water, followed in seconds by another. The next night we camped near a large bog, perfect moose habitat, but failed to spot a single moose, much to Val’s chagrin. Birds were everywhere and we continued to see ospreys and bald eagles each day. We were reluctant to leave the Saint Croix as we ended our canoe journey but we looked forward to the next leg of our trek.

We moved on to Acadia National Park. This 40,000-acre park, located on Mount Desert Island jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, is a haven for hikers and bikers. The park features converted carriage trails that provide great hiking and mountain biking opportunities. These trails are the legacy of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who built 50 miles of carriage roads for his sightseeing enjoyment via horse drawn carriage. He eventually donated the land for the park to the federal government. We rented mountain bikes in the nearby town of Bar Harbor and toured Acadia over these carriage trails. 

With so much variety, this part of Maine guarantees exciting and varied adventures. Machias Seal Island offers spectacular birding and the always-captivating puffins. The Saint Croix River offers wilderness paddling. Acadia National Park's biking roads offer easy access to memorable scenery . And don’t worry about being disappointed, just the sight of thousands of Atlantic puffins on Machias Seal Island is worth the trip.

Visitor Information:

Acadia National Park
P.O. Box 177
Eagle Lake Road
Bar Harbor, ME 04609-0177

For information and outfitting on the Saint Croix River:

Sunrise County Canoe Expeditions, Inc.

For Machias Seal Island:

Capt. John E. Norton
118 Main Street, Box 330
Jonesport, ME 04649

The number of visitors to the island is limited so make early reservations.

(A version of this article originally appeared in Bird Watcher's Digest.)