Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Unexpected Pleasures, The Joy of Fulltiming

Every once on a while we find a place that is so perfect, so beautiful, and so unexpected that we shake our heads as to how we found it. Its not a destination place, like our present journey to Connecticut, but a place we stop at for the night that grabs us with its beauty. West Virginia just did it to us.
We left Mammoth Cave, and Cave City, heading to Salt Lick, Kentucky. Why, cause Renita got a chuckle out of the name Salt Lick, just as we both did with Toad Suck, Arkansas. Trusting to map quest we traveled uneventfully until we turned down Old River Road. Big mistake! Never turn on a road called "old" anything! Low lying trees blocked our way as I dodged them, trying not to damage our roof. The road narrowed before coming to an end at a highway. We turned right and drove awhile before realizing that the rv park was nowhere in sight so Renita called the place and all was well again,(luckily I only scratched the air conditioner cover).
We spent an extra day in Salt Lick planning our next weeks travel, and found a Corp of Engineers campground named Gerald Freeman. Our luck was back on. The drive into West Virginia was beautiful. Thick forests covered the hills on both sides of the road. Redbuds were in full bloom and seemed to line the highway.
Turning off the interstate we got on a road, 15, that led to the campground. It narrowed and wound and curved and turned into a tough drive pulling a 37 foot fifth wheel, but oh was it worth it!
We got a spot next to Elk River! As we set up our neighbors Cooter and Shiela came over and asked if we needed any help. We thanked them and declined. They were amazed to have people from Wyoming, and a coal miner to boot, next to them,(Renita worked for 23 years as a secretary in a Wyoming Coal mine). Later Cooters brother yelled out from his car window, "Welcome to West Virginia!" We felt at home.
It didn't take long to set up and even less to take the canoe off and get it ready!
I took it for a paddle and got it ready for the next day when Renita and I would explore the "Holler",(Cooter warned us that there were coyotes in the next holler and that they would come in after our dog).
The next day was perfect as we climbed into the canoe and headed up stream. The current was slowed by the lake and so it was an easy paddle up Elk River. We watched bluegill, bass, carp, and trout swim by. A pair of Baltimore Orioles sat patiently and let us admire them.
The stream was blocked by a rapids and a fallen tree so we headed back downstream and explored another river that emptied into the Elk. The current was also easy and we found a suspension footbridge that crossed the channel. Too soon we ran into another rapids and so we headed back floating easily with the current.
Yellow warblers flitted in the trees. A pileated woodpeckers hammered on a tree in the distance. The day was blessed as dogwoods and redbuds were at their peak and the surface of the water was lightly covered with fallen red bud blooms.
We floated further and pointed out things to one another, like two children really, but isn't that what retirement is supposed to be? A perfect day, a beautiful place, and friendly people, bless you West Virginia. Clear skies.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Mammoth Cave

When you get to the visitor center you are almost overwhelmed with the number of cave tours available. There's the Frozen Niagara Tour, the Historic Entrance Tour, the New Entrance Tour, just to name a few. We chose the New Entrance Tour.
The tour got its name when it was discovered in 1921 and competed for years with the people operating the Historic Entrance tour. Both were finally united when the land was bought, some by eminent domain, in the 1930-40's and are actually united underground as both meet at the area called Grand Central.
You enter the cave by walking in to a dug passageway. Cave crickets lie on the walls and some really large, but harmless, spiders greet you. From here you plunge down a series of steps, This tour is not for the agoraphobic! Water streamed down from overhead and I had to shield the camera to keep it dry.
After over two hundred and fifty steps we reached a large opening where the Ranger, Bobby explained the dynamics and history of the cave. He also demonstrated the usual total darkness routine. What was unusual is his discussion of the New Madrid Fault of 1813 and its effect on the cave. Surprisingly, saltpeter miners said that while the cave shook, the only noticeable event was a cloud of dust. He also pointed out four earthquake monitors, really large rocks that hung balanced from the cave roof.
Continuing on, the cave is actually three tours in one. The first part of the tour was entering the sink hole and was very wet. The second part was traveling under a ridge and dry, and the third was wet with numerous stalactites, columns, drapery and the usual cave formations.
The major cave formation here is the Frozen Niagara Falls. It's a wall of drapery that was named after Niagara Falls in a attempt to lure customers, just as the Grand Central grotto,(lots of caves have sections with the Grand Central name and I never realized it was a marketing ploy).
The most unusual part of the tour was when the Ranger pointed out the huge cave crickets! He shone his light and you could easily see their huge antennae waving in the cave air. Groovy,(Did I mention we had a large group of people from California?).
All in all the tour was really good and informative. Asking him several geology questions, I was impressed with Ranger Bobby's expertise! Well done! We both enjoyed the tour and would highly recommend it. Clear skies.

ps Renita and I were both sore from the 500 steps on the tour. It was an excellent workout and also not for the claustrophobic as we had to turn sideways for one passageway.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hiking Mammoth Cave National Park

How deep is Hunts Sink, Monroe Sink? What direction does the Green River flow? What are the features of Karst Topography? This and other questions would perplex my Earth Science students as they peered intently at the topo map. Some would get a magnifying glass and count the depression contours, some would text their friends for the answer, when I turned my back, and some would simply roll their eyes wondering why anyone would care.
So after thirty years of teaching, and asking these questions I had to hike to Hunts Sink and stand at the bottom. The ranger, at the visitor center didn't know it by name but did know of a double sink near an elevator entrance. He showed us the topo map and told us it was ok to drive down the road, marked official vehicles only, and so we did.
Morel mushrooms were starting to pop up, and as it was legal to pick them in the park, we carried an official park approved mushroom gathering sack. Starting down the sink hole I found a morel!. Poison ivy was everywhere, leaves of three let them be, and the hike was quickly blocked by fallen trees,(the area had a massive ice storm in January). Renita decided to stay at the crest and I continued down towards the bottom smelling the pungent and rich aroma of rotting logs and forest soil. The bottom was blocked by debris and so I turned and took a picture of Renita far above, (Can you see her, she's wearing a black sweatshirt?).
We hiked other places, Sand Cave,(pictured), the Historic Entrance, the Echo Springs Trail. Each were special in their own way. On the Echo Springs trail Renita found groups of butterflies swarming each other in a spring mating ritual. May apples formed circular patches on the Forest floor and Jack in the Pulpits stood proud, their large pistil standing white among the green flower. I was reminded of how lucky I was to have a Dad that taught me those plants while hunting morels in Iowa"s forests,(the area brought back memories of growing up in Northeast Iowa).
Returning to the vehicle we watched as a truck rode the ferry, before returning home tired but sated for the day with new and beautiful images in our heads. Oh, and if you think I am going to tell you the answers, that's not what teaching is all about! Find out for yourself. Clear skies

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Natchez Trace to Nashville

Our last few days have been spent hiking the trails at David Crockett State Park, resting and reading and relaxing at cour campsite, and driving the last seventy miles of the Trace into Nashville. All good days and all necessary parts of our journey.
We hiked along the bike/pedestrian trail that goes along the lake, behind the amphitheater and through the woods. Missing the first part we walked the road and then cut across the grass to the asphalt trail. The road had been pretty but birdless, however that changed as soon as we entered the thick forest.
The sound of the mowers quieted,(I don't understand why a park service spends its money mowing grass that wildlife could eat and inhabit?), and we were quickly greeted by two tufted titmouse. They actually came quite close and we could easily see their crested feathers atop their head. It made the lgb's,(little grey birds), easy to id and they were a new species for us.
Continuing along the trail we were in a tunnel of towering yellow popular and tall loblolly pine. Further on Renita spotted a special treat, a summer tanager. Its rosy red head confused us at first as we thought it was a cardinal but after getting a good look we correctly identified the bird.
The next day was also clear and windless. We lazed around the camp and I got hooked reading the book Desert Solitude by Edward Abbey. The campers next to us had noisy children, they had even brought the little girls electric car but it ran our of juice and I quickly tuned out their noise. Remembering Arches National Park and last years travels made me realize I missed the desert.
The next day was also bright and clear and we decided to run to Nashville and return on the last leg of the Trace. Stopping first at REI, we barely avoided the temptation of purchasing new mountain bikes, just barely. We got lost and then finally found the Grand Ole Opry. From there we went to Camping World, where I shook my head at their overpriced dicor tape.
Trying to find the entrance to the Trace, we got confused again asking for help by a guard at a gated community. He lied and sent us the wrong way, or maybe didn't know and we quickly realized we were on the wrong compass heading. Turning around we found our route and turned into the Trace.
The road at first was slower. Curve after curve wound us along ridge tops until we came to the bridge pictured above. Further on we stopped at Fall Hollow where we clowned around and under the waterfalls. We met am Amish girl, who had just been under the falls, smelling a purple wildflower. I felt like we had intruded on her special moment and didn't take her picture.
Continuing on we made our last stop of the day at the Meriweather Grave site, where the monument Broken Arrow marks his dust. We felt we had come full circle as we had been to his winter camp on the west coast and had traveled along the Missouri river, so many times(By the way we checked out the campground there and its dry camping heaven, for us and a definite place for us on our next Trace trip).
Returning home, Molly greeted us at the door and then frantically ran to the steps, telling us it was time for a walk and NOW! After making our circuit and making the dog happy we ate leftovers and called it a day. Clear skies.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Natchez Trace, Trace State Park-David Crockett State Park

We stayed an extra day at Trace State Park, as storms were happening in Tennessee, and the place grew on us. Its a pretty place with nice campgrounds, and a place to comeback to, but it was more developed and we prefer more primitive.
While there we did some birding and picked up some new birds for our life list. Renita spotted a green heron out our rear window. It waded along and greedily ate one minnow after another. A red bellied woodpecker flew from tree to tree and was another new bird as was a ring necked duck.
We drove into Tupelo and visited the Tupelo National Battlefield. The battlefield site was small as most of the area was developed. It wasn't a large battlefield but it seemed too small a site for honoring those that died there. Another short drive took us to the Tupelo Natchez Trace Visitor Center. We learned quite a bit about the Indian Tribes and the history of the Trace. It was a good stop.
From Tupelo and Trace Sate Park our next drive took us along the Trace Parkway, crossing into Alabama and then Tennessee. The dogwoods were in full bloom and Renita observed that they looked like Christmas Trees all dressed in white garlands......
We passed more mounds but I was too eager to get to David Crockett State Park. The campground there is first come first serve and not reseverable but we didn't have any problems getting a spot.
The campground itself is heavily wooded and the sites are far from level but turkeys walked through our campsite and red headed woodpeckers fought for nesting sites. The next day was cold and damp so we stayed home and caught up on minor and not so minor repairs,(My freehub on my mountain bike is just about shot).
The following day the temperatures warmed up and cleared in the afternoon so we went down to the displays along Shoal Creek. A covered bridge and gristmill recreated Davey Crockett's place, which had been destroyed in a flood and the reason he moved westward.
We hiked a short portion of the trail and were treated to lots of flowers and spring blossoms, of which we have no idea as to their names,(identifying birds is hard enough, botany and botanists are on a different planet)! There were self interpretive signs that identified the shaggy bark hickory and american elms.
Driving back to camp, we stopped to check out a small lake. Unfortunately we couldn't launch the canoe as the only boats allowed are the ones rented by the park. Some teenagers were fishing and one caught a nice bream.
Driving further two tom turkeys fed and I got them to look up by giving them a hen cluck,( a turkey call from my turkey hunting days). Renita was suitably impressed as they posed for pictures and I was actually secretly surprised as turkeys usually run when I try to call them. Arriving back at the fifth wheel we grilled onion stuffed hamburgers, a recipe taught to us by my sister Connie. A fine and relaxing day. Clear skies.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Natchez Trace, Part 1

New friends, Mike and Loretta, had suggested we take the Natchez Trace Parkway as we traveled to the east coast. What a great suggestion! The trace is actually a 440 mile long parkway, with a speed limit of 50 mph and no commercial vehicles, stop signs, or stop lights, so the driving is easy.
The Trace starts at Natchez and we were stuck by its beauty in the first mile. Crimson clover lined the roadways, Dogwoods were in bloom, everywhere there were flowers. American birch, southern pine and other new and unknown trees lined the road and it seemed as if we were driving in a tunnel.
Along the way mile markers are posted with frequent stops at historical sites. One of the first was at a place called the Emerald Mound. Its a huge Indian mound, built about 1600 and is over eight acres in size. Its amazingly huge compared to the Effigy mounds we were used to seeing in Iowa. We hiked to the top and Junior Ranger Renita reminded me to be respectful. I can't imagine how many baskets of earth were dug and carried to make this place.
Quite a bit further down the road we stopped at a place called Mount Locust. It was a stand, homestead, and plantation built in the 1780's, near the end of the Natchez trace and was a stopping place for the river men as they walked back home to Kentucky.
Huge fields had been cleared, by slaves of course, and I had a hard time imaging the work that went into removing the huge trees. The actual house had damage from Hurricane Katrina, but was being repaired and was mostly original.
Farther along the trail we stopped at Hurricane Creek Picnic area. High winds blew the trees and branches fell on fifth wheel, but nothing big. A little further we saw where a huge tree had blown down and blocked the side road,(Later we learned that high winds and hail had caused a lot of damage but we missed it all).
Again we were moved by the beauty of the parkway and resolved to return and drive it next time we pass this way. Arriving at our next spot, Trace State Park, we set up the camp, ate baked speckled trout for dinner, and called it an early night. What a great day! Clear skies

Natchez, Mississippi

"Can anyone tell me what the large wooden device is that is hanging over the table?", the Ranger asked? "Speak up, and if you are right I will make you an official junior ranger",
Of course I knew the answer,(Brackins know everything), but just as I was going to say it, Renita spoke up! Now shes a junior ranger in the family, duly sworn and badged. I am so jealous!
From Grand Isle we drove 250 ,miles north to Natchez, Mississippi. The drive was pretty uneventful, except for some wind gusts at Lake Ponchetrain, that caused the canoe to shift a bit. Our destination for the evening was Natchez State Park, It turned out to be an absolutely beautiful place. The trees towered over us and we couldn't see the lake for the forest, even though it was only a couple of hundred feet away.
The next day we drove to Natchez and headed to the visitor center, where there were lots of people trying to sell tickets to attractions around town, mostly the private mansion tours, but we declined as we wanted to see the National Park Service mansion called Melrose House.
The Mansion was built in the 1840's. It was one of five plantations owned by the family, and like all the places here was built on the backs of slaves,(People here call the Civil War, The War of Northern Aggression), In fact the grounds, about 110 acres contain two slave quarters, a laundry and bakery building,(that both also housed slaves on its upper floor), and a livery or stable. Cotton was grown across the river in Louisiana. The slave owners lived on the bluffs of Natchez, to avoid the malaria.
From the front the mansion was everything you expected to see from the movie "Gone with The Wind". Inside it was almost as ornate as the finest palaces in Europe, with gold leaf covered decorations and flower covered painted wallpaper. The original floors were intact, but covered with a protective carpet that was patterned like the original.
Entering, we walked into the waiting room, On the right was the drawing room and on the left a huge dining room. The furniture was the finest money could buy,(we were told by another that one of the large plantations in the area grossed about 220000 dollars a year from cotton alone). A huge wooden punkah hung over the table. A slave would pull ropes and it would fan the table shooing away the flies. I suggested we put one in our fifth wheel and Renita could work it as needed. That drew the usual glare from the newest Junior Ranger.
The ballroom was bordered by a smoking room/library where the men would retire for a cigar and the usual drinks. I was somewhat surprised at the number of books in the library. While there were quite a few, I expected more.
The upstairs was separated into four bedrooms and a commode area. Three were family rooms and one a nursery. All were built bordering a inner large passageway. The commode was between the two main front bedrooms. Each room was for a family as there were three families living in the mansion, the husband and wife, her parents, and their son and his wife.
The slave quarters were plain. I was bothered by the riches we had just seen and how it contrasted with the descriptions and pictures of hanging slaves and scarred backs, welted from whippings. Each building had three rooms and housed a family in each room. We walked the grounds before continuing our tour of Natchez.
Natchez's downtown was refreshing, compared to all the other tourist towns we have been to. It was unmarred by all the tourist shops one sees elsewhere. Saint Mary's Basilica was beautiful, built in the 1850's?, with ornate stained glass windows and statues of the saints. The Presbyterian Church was built in 1841 and looked elegant!
We strolled the rest of the downtown before eating at a cafe named Soul Heaven, and of course I had the fried chicken.
We did drive through the part of the city under the hill. It contained a few shops, but was mostly devoted to the riverboat casinos. As casinos are boring, we didn't stop. Returning home we both agreed that Natchez is a beautiful city and definitely a place to come back to. Clear skies.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Grand Isle, from a Visitors Perspective

While down here at Grand Isle, Louisiana we read a book on the Louisiana Coast, and to paraphrase one sentence it said, 'Grand Isle and the area around it is a place that could be a National Park, except for the oil wells'. We also heard it described, by a religious leader as a place where seventy percent of the people are going to hell! Another person, a commercial fisherman described it to us as a place teeming with fish. A final description is from a book on Jacque Lafayette, where the author describes the people as friendly and warm. All seem probably true, to an extent.......
Traveling down to Grand Isle, from Raceland, the road follows the Lafouche Bayou, an old Mississippi River channel. It is actually built on the old natural levee, like the one along New Orleans. You cross the chenaires, dotted with buildings, which are old sand dunes that marked the Gulfs edge. The salt marsh greets you and the egrets, and herons, and roseates look up in passing.
Arriving on the Isle the beach is full of shells, black skimmers fill the land on some points and dolphins seem to fill the waters, actually following you when you travel by boat, waiting to see if you are catching any fish.
Looking out, past the rocks you see oil platform after oil platform. Pumping stations dot the skyline and shrimp boats are everywhere and yet it's marred by the dead sea turtles washed ashore from a careless and illegal shrimper. The night sky is star filled but also filled with the loudest music coming from a bar called Daddy's Money,(If you stay here and value your sleep do not spend a weekend within a mile of the place).
Developers are building cottages on stilts called camps,(A camp is a place for vacations and has a name on it. The permanent residents don't name their homes or place flags on them when they are home as camp owners do). The place is buzzing with activity and money is being made.
Steven, a commercial fisherman regaled us with his stories of catching 300 pounds of kings by simply trolling to his fishing spots. He described catching blue runners and sheephead, and jacks, in thousands of pounds,(And all caught by hand lines with only a few hooks). "The place is a nursery for sharks", he stated and went on to say that Florida and the Atlantic are home for the larger adults,(I saw an account of a surf fisherman last summer catching four black tip sharks in a single day). Certainly the fishing here is the best I have experienced, along the Gulf, and no boat is necessary.
The people here can be said to be Grand Isles best asset, like many places but with a Cajun atmosphere. Listening to Rueben and Floyd, and Oben and Peco tell their stories. Meeting my sisters friend Mona as she come over to "vee eight", a cajun phrase meaning shoot the breeze,(and most definitely misspelled by me). Meeting a newcomer, Melissa, and watching her explain her jewelry making to Renita. Their accent, bearing, strength, and pride are so evident, as well as the pain from Katrina and Gustov and all the storms too numerous to mention.
So which of the above is a true picture and what will the Isle become? A place for only the very rich, a place for the party crowd, a fishermans paradise, a place overdeveloped like so many coastal islands, a place that stoically stands always perparing for the next hurricane? That friend, you will have to find out yourself. Our answer is that we look forward to returning here again and hoping the beauty is still here. Thank you Grand Isle for the stay. Clear skies.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Grand Isle Fish Stories

The fish took off on a run for the gulf. It quickly ran out all 150 yards of my 30 pound test and then went into my backing, finally coming to a stop. I gained some line back before it changed direction and then headed for the end of the fishing bridge. I chased it by walking down the bridsge and handing my pole around the lights. At the end of the bridge, I tightened my drag and finally stopped the run. Pumping my rod I gained back line, but I was putting too much strain on the line and the fish surfaced about 100 yards away. It was the biggest fish of my life, a red or black drum and it dove again. I fought the fish for 15 minutes and then the line broke and I reeled in, inspecting my leader. Damn, I wish I could have got it closer for a better look. I don't really know if I could have landed it as I was on the bridge and looking down 20 feet. but it didn't matter as I had another great fish story.
My first fish story occurred when I was five, on a family trip to West Union, Iowa. The purpose of the visit was to see family, but somehow we ended up fishing Otter Creek for trout,(Stangely we visited lots of family near trout streams, but rarely any where the fishing was poor). Casting my pole out I waited patiently for the bite to happen, but no bites. Soon the rest of the family walked back to the car and Dad informed me it was time to go, but I didn't wind in... After he left my pole atarted to jump and I fought a trout in only to lose it right at the bank.
Now the rest of the family had already left so of course no one believed me and my first true tale of losing a fish was doubted. Being a good kid and having never stretched anything, unlike my brother Mike, it galled me as they laughed at my story. It would end up costing me as I was hooked on fishing and proving the doubters wrong.
Since then a lot of years have passed and I have caught a lot of nice fish, but its kind of strange as some of my best memories are of big fish that got away. There was a big walleye that I lost at Keyhole, while fishing with my friend Ken Johnson. Another at the Cabelas National Championship, that would have won Bob,(Bentley) and me first place and a new Ranger boat, but it wasn't meant to be.
Through the years there have been many stories, some believed but most doubted as fishing tales. I guess thats the nature of fishing. A sport where there are lots of doubters, lots of out right liars, and a few honest fishermen like myself. Oh well, the sun will rise soon and I am heading back to the bridge at Grand Isle. Clear skies.

ps Did I ever tell you of the time I was fishing with my cousin David Leitz and .....
pps(The above pictures are of a gafftopsailsail catfish and the fishing bridge at Grand Isle, La).