Linda Ballou

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Within moments of being in a mall bombarded with different music from all sides, I experience sensory overload and start searching for the nearest exit. Whales can’t escape the noise pollution in their world so easily. The effects of sonar testing by the U. S. Navy, seismic blasts by oil and gas companies mining the ocean floor and noise from ships create a constant acoustic assault on marine mammals. Hemorrhaging in the brains, ears, and eyes of whales caused by this barrage of sound is so painful that they heave their immense bulk upon the shore to get free. Once on dry land their organs are crushed by their own weight, and they die.

I have been tracking this tragedy since the year 2000 when seventeen whales thrust themselves upon the shores of the Bahamas. The U.S. Navy denied any connection between the sonar testing taking place nearby and the death of the whales. Necropsies performed on the whales by marine biologist Ken Balcomb verified the cause of their death as “barotraumas,” which was evident in microscopic sheering and compression injuries to sensitive ear and brain tissues. The Navy then did admit that there was sonar testing taking place in the region at 180 dB (decibels) previously considered to be a “safe” level for non-serious injury to whales. However, with multiple submarines and ships sending signals at the same time, they admit the effects could have been intensified.
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Whales depend upon their super sensitive hearing for survival. The haunting song of the male humpback whale brings his mate to him and allows him to communicate with the pod. The noise level in the ocean can drown out the love songs of breeding leviathans. It also causes the whales to veer off migratory paths, established feeding stations and breeding areas selected for this purpose for millennia, thus threatening their very survival. Blasts of noise have caused whales to surface too quickly creating “gas bubble trauma” with effects similar to the bends in a diver coming up too fast.
Use of military sonar has been associated with whale strandings not only on the Bahamas, but in Greece (1996), Madeira (2000), Vieques (1998-2002), the Canary Islands (2002, 2004), the northwest coast of the U.S. (2003) and Kaua`i Hawaii (2004) and Spain (2006). In 2004 and 2005 whale and dolphin were stranded or died on the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, North Carolina, and Florida after use of high intensity sonar.
All of these sonic assaults on the environment were done in the name of homeland security.

The U.S. Navy Fleet Commanders in Chief have determined that SURTASS LFA sonar is a crucial element in the Navy’s anti-submarine warfare. They state that it is highly unlikely 180 dB will cause injury to marine life. The Navy’s response to accusations of harm has been to deny negative impact and to spend 16 million dollars to prove it. If you go to www.surtass-lfa-eis.com you may see how they state their case. Top scientists were hired to conduct scientific research and develop an Environmental Impact Statement, including the development of marine mammal mitigation systems. The Navy states that the outcome of this research by the Bio-Acoustic program at Cornell University has not been influenced by the Navy. The problem is that having the Navy finance the research is a bit like paying the fox to investigate the hen house. One leading scientist compares Navy-funded marine-mammal science to tobacco industry-funded studies on lung cancer. The researchers are not directly influenced by the Navy, but they are inherently dependent upon government grants for other projects.
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The results of the studies sound good until you learn that the Navy refused to employ the mitigation tactics recommended by the researchers. In fact, The Coastal Commission in California, where deep canyons serve as migration routes for whales, had to sue to force the Navy to employ these very precautions. A U.S. District Judge ruled that they Navy will not be permitted to use its mid-frequency sonar within twelve miles of the California coast, a zone that is heavily used by migrating whales and dolphins. Sonar is also banned in the Catalina Basin, an underwater canyon with a high density of whales. The Navy will have to monitor for marine mammals from both the ship and from the air before and during its sonar exercises. If any marine mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards of the ship, the Navy will have to shut down its sonar.

Ignoring vigorous objections put forth by environmentalists to sonar testing taking place in 80% of the world’s oceans, the U. S. Navy and others, continue to threaten the survival of marine mammals. Dr. Christopher Clark, of Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program, has described what marine mammals face today as an ‘acoustic traffic jam.’ “The noisiest offenders are supertankers and cargo ships, whose propellers emit a pervasive low-frequency hiss, which penetrates more deeply in warmer water. The shipping lanes pretty much parallel the gray whale’s migratory route.” Dr. Peter Tyack, an expert on whale acoustics feels the greatest potential for ear injury is explosions, sonars, and the air guns used for seismic surveys by the oil companies. But, the most pervasive and most easily mitigated is the use of low and mid sonar frequency by all navies around the globe.

The most pressing threat to ocean life today is in the environmentally sensitive shores of Hawaii. In 2006, President Bush announced with great fanfare that he had established the largest marine protected area in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Bush said, “ To put this area in context, this national monument is more than 100 times larger than Yosemite National Park….It’s a big deal.” The Northwestern Marine Islands cover 84-million acres and are home to 7,000 species of birds, fish and marine mammals, at least a quarter of which are unique to Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the Navy acknowledged in its Environmental Assessment for Hawaii exercises in the same region that its sonar will reach levels at up to 235 dB-at least a hundred thousand times more intense than the levels which stranded whales in the Bahamas incident-and that sonar will, at a minimum, likely significantly alter or cause the abandonment of the whales’ migration, surfacing, nursing, feeding or sheltering behaviors. War games are also slated in the Humpback Whale Sanctuary in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Recognizing that this is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Bush administration in January 2007 exempted the Navy from the law.

In order to stop the flagrant refusal to observe environmental laws, suits were filed by environmental groups to force the Navy to respect laws in place. In Nov. 2007 they achieved a stay of execution for the whales and other marine mammals whose lives are in jeopardy. When the Navy announced plans for up to twelve sonar tests of Undersea Warfare Exercises during 2008 in Hawaii’s waters within the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, near the Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Dr. Marsha Green, president and founder of the Ocean Mammal Institute, came forward. In May 2007 Dr. Green, who has dedicated the last twelve years of her life to bringing this hidden problem to the surface, organized protests on Oahu, Maui and Kauai to create public awareness. All she is asking the Navy to do is adhere to the same mitigation recommendations presently being observed in California. So far, the Navy has turned a deaf ear on her protests and that of KAHEA, the Hawaiian environmental Alliance.

It’s ironic that whale watching is a 500 billion dollar business globally, but that so few people are aware of the underwater assault upon cetaceans taking place for over a decade. The battle beneath the surface of the deep blue sea goes on unnoticed. A female humpback whale entangled in a spider web of nets and hundreds of pounds of crab pots nearly perished just outside the Golden Gate Bridge. She was rescued by a diver who worked for hours to cut her free. When she was free, she swam in joyous circles around him. Then she came up to him and looked him in the eye and nudged him gently as though to thank him for her rescue. The man said the connection he felt to this sentient being was the most beautiful experience of his life. The whales can’t defend themselves against us. We need to remember in our urgent desire to protect our homeland that when the whales stop singing, it will be forever.

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At the Spotted Horse Ranch, just sixteen miles south of Jackson, greenhorns of all stripes mounted on their new best friends climbed steadily up a shady draw lined with pink wild rose and blue harebell. The intense thrum of the cicadas filled the air and sagehen wings whirred as they lifted from our path. We crested the mountain and did a little trail blazing in a meadow carpeted with yellow arrowroot flushing a mule deer and her fawn. The ride home took us across a ridge with heavenly vistas of the Bridger – Teton National Forest. We covered a lot of ground with some steep climbs and tricky footing. Our fit, well-mannered mounts remained calm through it all, allowing urban cowboys and girls to know the grandeur of Wyoming’s wild west.
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Unlike most dude ranches, the Spotted Horse offers non-riders lots of fun choices for all ages and degrees of fitness. Activities nearby include white water, or scenic rafting on the Snake River, swimming in Granite Hot Springs, tubing down the Hoback River, and some great fishing. Kids have their own teepee for supervised campouts so parents can get a time-out. A lady art director from Boston on holiday with her family of eight to celebrate her parent’s 50th wedding anniversary told me she never got near a horse on her stay at the ranch. Still, it was one of the family’s best group outings with riding and rafting for her teen-age son and plenty of relaxation and off-ranch excursions for parents.
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Jackson’s historic district is fun to walk around. Even if you don’t care to buy Native American jewelry at good prices, you can cruise over thirty western art galleries or visit the homespun historical museum. The Grand Teton Classical Music Festival that takes place in August is an exciting event for guests to the region, and locals alike. Just north of Jackson, on a knoll that overlooks the 24,700-acre Elk (Wapiti) Refuge is a gallery that houses an outstanding Animal Art collection. The refuge was established in 1910 due to the efforts of biologist Olaus Murdie and his wife Mardi. If you want to know what Jackson Hole was like before it became a celebrity playground, read Wapiti Wilderness-the couple’s charming, joint-account of the early days in the valley. The elk herd summers in higher meadows, but many birds can be spotted in the marshy flats the “Wapiti” call home in the winter.

The fifty one-acre Spotted Horse Ranch was officially homesteaded in the 1930s. The close proximity of the lodge and cabins to the Hoback River has been grandfathered in. Ninety- seven percent of Jackson County is preserved land, so private shoreline is a coveted commodity. The ranch is just far enough away from the hubbub of Jackson, Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park that guests can enjoy genuine quietude, yet remain close enough to visit these attractions on a day trip.

Folks have been coming to Jackson to go fishing ever since Teddy Roosevelt’s time. Four professional gents from the east coast, who played their cards close to their chest, represented the anglers in our group of thirty-one guests. After recovering from the initial shock of not having cell phone service, computers or TV, the men relaxed into their stay. They told me the all day float down the Snake in a pursuit of feisty trout fulfilled their fishing fantasies. A river does run through the ranch, and there is a stocked trout pond, but your hosts will also arrange for outings on the Snake, Salt, South Fork and Green Rivers.

To cool off from unseasonably warm temperatures, I rafted the forty miles of class II-III rapids on a stretch of the Snake just west of Jackson. The river funnels through a narrow canyon, forming some fun wave trains. A dozen bald eagles watched us from the shore while a couple of Osprey wheeled overhead. The kids took turns sitting on the bow to meet rapids head on. A big wave knocked a couple of people in our party out of the raft. While a dunk in the Snake will take your breath away, it is not life-threatening. If you want a more relaxed day, take the pleasant glide on the Snake through the center of Jackson Hole at the base of the snaggle-toothed Tetons. The snow-streaked range is forty-miles long with eight granite spires higher than 12,000 feet.
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The half-day raft is capped off with an afternoon at Granite Hot Springs. After lunch, we piled into the ranch van to drive up a pristine river valley where deer and antelope roam. A manmade pool capturing water from a natural thermal spring is a welcome respite after a couple days of riding and a morning of digging deep in the brisk waters of the Snake.

The ranch supplied a box lunch for me the day I decided to hike some of the well-groomed trails in the 484-square mile Grand Teton National Park. About forty miles north of the ranch, turn left at Moose to find the Teton Park Road that connects the string of lakes at the foot of the famed peaks. You can catch the water-taxi across Jenny Lake to “not so” Hidden Falls. The two-mile trek back to the dock on the shady trail that wraps the shore is delightful, but its easy access makes it the most popular trail in the park. The trail to jade-green Taggart Lake tracing chatty Taggart Creek is moderate and is also well-groomed, but is less-traveled. Two-hundred miles of trails interlacing the lakes, connecting to backcountry canyons with turquoise cirques, a dozen small glaciers and solitude make this region hiker heaven. Rock climbers also flock here in droves to learn how to master the chiseled granite spires.
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Meanwhile, back at the ranch, two cordon-bleu chefs worked feverishly to deliver three gourmet squares on time each day. Guests shared their separate adventures over meals served country style in the cozy dining room overlooking the Hoback. Lots of healthy choices with fresh salads and veggies are at every setting. The cook-out is the gastronomical climax of a week at the ranch. Juicy steak, mushrooms, and onions grilled to perfection topped off with blueberry cobbler put a purple grin on everyone’s face. A local lady with a voice like liquid sunshine serenaded us by the campfire with western standards like, “I’m Goin’ to Jackson.” Everyone joined in for a rip snortin’ rendition of “Rawhide” and a heartfelt “Happy Trails to You” until we meet again.

The all-day ride included in the week’s stay at the Spotted Horse whetted my appetite for more. You can ride for days without running into another soul in the 150,000-acre, roadless wilderness surrounding the ranch that begs to be explored. The Spotted Horse is the only outfitter in the area licensed for permanent overnight camping. The ranch has two camps supplied with tents and staff available for extended riding in the spring and summer and hunting in the fall. I snagged Marc, another experienced rider, and pressed Kevin, the ranch outfitter, for a private all-day ride.

“How about you go with the boys up to the overnight camp at Martin Basin? They are taking up supplies today,” he offered.
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We jumped at the chance to tag along behind three wranglers, each with a string of pack horses loaded down with supplies. As they climbed up the narrow trail on the edge of Grays Ridge, I wondered what kept the horses from tipping backwards with their cumbersome packs. The ranch, fast falling away, looked like a tinker-toy town sitting beside a silver vein threading through the center of a broad, green valley. The view was a reminder that a good horse can get me where I can’t get to on my own. We made our way to an alpine meadow resting at about 8,200 feet with vistas of the Grand Teton range sparkling beneath crystal-blue skies. Thirty miles to the south a forest fire started by a lightening strike sullied the air. Though fires are a natural event here, much of the west is dryer than normal and fires are happening with greater frequency.

Cooler temps at the top of the world with sage meadows framed in velvet green forests soothe the mind, as well as the eye. The wranglers swung their reins from side to side-not saying much of anything-as we ambled through stands of lodgepole pine and blue sage meadows blanketed with purple swathes of lupine. The first week of July is the tail end of the wildflower show, but we were just in time to see hundreds of butterflies floating on a sweet breeze. We enjoyed a sack lunch, dropped off the supplies, and sashayed back down the steep mountain.
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After the sixteen-mile run, I wish-boned walked back to the rocking chair waiting for me on the porch of my log cabin. There, I was lulled by the hushed conversation of the river, the twitter of swallows flitting over the clear water, and the occasional knickers of a horse in the barn nearby. A stint in the hot tub beneath a full moon casting a platinum path on the Hoback River, and I was good to go again.

Eco-alert: Kevin Watkins, manager of the Spotted Horse Ranch, who has been a guide and outfitter in the backcountry of Greater Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park for twenty years, expressed fears that gas and oil permits issued in the winter grazing areas south of the ranch will diminish herds of antelope and mule deer. Roads to access the drilling will allow future development that will eat up our open land. “It’s all we have left. It sure would be a shame to see it go,” he said. I can’t agree more.
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After nine days of non-stop fun on a multi-sport adventure with Active South America in Costa Rica, floating belly-up in a secluded cove at Playa Coyote gave me a chance to savor the journey. A morning swim in placid waters beneath pastel pink heavens soothed muscles put to tests that included mountain biking, white water rafting, pony trekking, hiking in rain forests, kayaking across blue-green depths to a picnic on a palm-studded island, and a night patrol with turtle conservationists along a strand of deserted beach. These were just a few of the high points of this holiday designed for those who want to breathe deeply of the landscape.
Our group of ten seasoned travelers included two high-flying “birds” from London, four laid-back Californians, a couple in love from Texas, and two solo female professionals. We left San Jose in a comfy van with panoramic viewing windows ready for action. Carlos, our driver and local guide, weaved through traffic as we made our way past foreboding walls capped with rolls of barbed wire guarding the well-kept residences inside a city that seems not to care about outward appearances. Yannick, our lead guide, of Belgian descent, fluent in five languages with seven years of adventure travel and a degree of biology under his belt, kept his band of thrill-seekers on track throughout our 11 day loop in Costa Rica.

 

We switch-backed our way through well-tended fields of pineapple, tomatoes, papayas, and coffee plantations interspersed with bright green cattle pastures to our first hike. Turrialba Volcano at 11,000 feet is the fourth highest of the nine active volcanoes in a country that is about the size of West Virginia. Carlos veered to miss a wooden cart drawn by the ubiquitous Brahma bulls. Children with sweet faces and inquisitive brown eyes waved to us as we navigated through their world. Even the most humble cottage was decked with a Merry Christmas on the door or a reindeer on the roof. December, the dry season, is the most favored time to explore this region.

 

The hearty in our group sprang up the stiff climb to the lip of the volcano then vanished in lush foliage on their descent into the depths of the crater. Feeling the affects of altitude, I opted to trot sprightly up the mountain aboard a trekking pony to view the smoking cauldron of the live volcano. Crisp, scintillating air brought me to life after the long flight and noxious fumes of the city. I marveled at the splendid aerial view of the green valley far below, resting beneath the purest blue sky. Back at our remote, mountain lodge sitting atop a green knoll, a “typical” Costa Rican meal of shredded pork, sausages, fresh fruits, black beans, rice and vegetables awaited us.

 

Costa Ricans, or Ticos, have embraced eco-tourism as a major source of income. So many opportunities for adventure and cozy quarters are offered throughout the country it is impossible to explore them all in less than two weeks. Active South America gives you a sampler of the best the country has to offer at a price that could not be duplicated by the independent traveler. More than 25% of national land is protected in 27 national parks and 8 biological reserves, as well as 63 wildlife refuges. There are 27 private refuges that serve as biological corridors for wildlife. The country itself is a land bridge linking North and South America. Although Costa Rica covers only .03% of the earth’s surface, it provides habitat for 4% of the world’s estimated 13-14 million species of flora and fauna. Multiple changes in altitude and temperature create micro-climates that are responsible for the country’s renowned bio-diversity. Each day brought fresh discoveries and new challenges.

 

Nominated one of the top ten rivers in the world to run by National Geographic, the Pecuare River winds through dense, primal rain forests, allowing the visitor to see the world as it was when man was just a sparkle in the creator’s eye. This adrenaline-spiked ride took us through towering buttresses shaggy with ancient trees draped in heart-shaped vines, monster tree-ferns, mosses, orchids and purple bromeliads -all hangers-on in the eternal quest for light in the jungle of foliage forming layer upon layer of luxuriant green.

 

Over eons, symbiotic, parasitic, and epiphytic relationships have evolved in the forests. Hollow trees harbor colonies of ants that protect the tree against insects in exchange for safe harbor. There are trees growing upon trees, like the strangler fig or killing tree, which envelopes its victim in sinewy ropes then sucks the nutrients from the host tree until it is left standing alone. The sloth sleeps in higher elevations of the trees and has a metabolism so slow that he only comes down from his sleepy perch once a week to make his organic deposit at the base of his tree, ensuring its long life. Other fascinating partnerships formed in the forests are those of pollinating bats, hummingbirds, hawk moths and butterflies.
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The Class III to IV rapids on the Pacuare River- Rapids on the Pacuare-Ticos River Adventures

 

The Class III to IV rapids on the Pacuare River keeps paddlers’ alert.
“Okay, pay attention. This set of rapids starts with a double drop to a stepped series that can get ugly,” came from our expert guide, Roberto, who has been running this river for the last 30 years. “I’m not kidding. We are rafting 25 miles today, and this kind of water makes me a happy man.” He beamed from his perch at the rear of our rubber raft.
High overhead the tropical sun poured down warming rays between billowing snow-white clouds as we floated past the idyllic Pecuare Lodge, detailed by Real Travel Adventure Editor, Bonnie Neely, in a May 2006 article. With Roberto at the helm, we expertly navigated foaming rapids and entered a gorge where waterfalls tumble over lava rocks worn smooth by pounding cascades. Robert maneuvered us behind a white curtain of water spilling over the lip of a gorge. In the heart of the chasm still waters allowed us to swim in the refreshingly clear water. This was the moment I came to know the meaning of the Costa Rican greeting: Pura Vida, or Pure Life.

 

On shore a shy Indian girl waved to us. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived here in search of gold in the 1500s, the indigenous people burned their crops and hid in the impenetrable forests to avoid death or enslavement at their hands. Still, by 1563 their numbers were decimated by European diseases. Today, there are about 40,000 Indians living on preserves, mostly in the wilder, more remote regions in the south. The elite wore gold disks around their necks, bracelets, ear cups and nose rings that led the Spanish to believe there were rich gold deposits here, but in fact their gold was painstakingly panned in the rivers in minute quantities. They were a handsome race of voluptuous women and athletic men. Both sexes were industrious, spending their days perfecting their crafts. An extensive collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts may be viewed at the Jade and Gold Museums in San Jose.
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Blue Butterfly-Photo by Ticos River Adventures

Birds were big in the native culture. Bones and feathers were used by shamans to combat negative forces. Costa Ricans are the only culture to imbue the vulture with mythological nobility. These birds circle high overhead in vast numbers. They were considered intermediaries from the physical to spiritual plane, taking messages from earthly shamans to the gods. The feminine counterpart is the immense, neon-blue butterfly often seen wafting on a sweet breeze. While on the river, I spotted Amazon kingfishers, tiger herons, numerous egrets and big blue herons, as well as green parrots and the hanging nests of orioles. With over 850 species, which includes migrants, colorful, exotic birds are found in all parts of Costa Rica.

 

At La Fortuna- Waterfal in Arenal Volcano Region-photo by Mike Grayford

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At La Fortuna, the adventure capital of Costa Rica, nestled at the base of Arenal Volcano, we split up. The stalwart embarked on a six hour hike through the cloud forest along the Rio Celeste River topped by a swim in a frosty crater lake. Others went for a chest-thumping eight-run zip line glide through the lime-green tree canopy. I did a bit of birding on an intermediate hike to a lava flow that took place in 1992. One of the beauties of this trip is that people with disparate interests and different energy levels can find the perfect option for any given day. We reunited in the afternoon for a plunge at the base of a staggeringly beautiful waterfall, capped off with a soak in an elaborate labyrinth of pools ranging from polar plunge to 102 degree melting pot at Baldi Hot Springs. By all accounts by those who made the big hike, it was daunting, but worth it to spend the day immersed in green.

 

I finally found the bicyclists high on a run with easy ups and heart-thumping downs on sweeping curves of the less-traveled road that traces Lake Arenal. A brisk, cooling wind blew off the man-made reservoir that provides clean drinking water for all. I flew through the forest of ferns, elephant ear and frilly trees with yellow blooms, past rivulets cascading to the shimmering lake below. I hit a traffic jam when a family of Coati, raccoon-faced critters with monkey-like tails, came out of the forest to beg shamelessly. The next stop was to check out a group of Howler monkeys making a huge racket in the tree canopy. When threatened these monkeys are known to hurl feces with great accuracy at intruders, so I made sure not to overstay my welcome. After fifteen kilometers, I turned my bike in and joined the others in an open air café where I enjoyed talapia, a tasty white fish caught in Arenal Lake, grilled to perfection, with fresh veggies and rice.

 

No trip to Costa Rica is complete without a stop at the famed Monteverde Cloud Forest. Carlos expertly navigated the narrow, rutted road to the top of the world making stops to point out wildlife along the way. Seemingly with eyes on four sides of his head, he spotted an ornate hawk-eagle, a Paca, a pig-like rodent with spots on his rust-colored coat like that of fawn, and a pair of mating iguana. To our right the Pacific glistened, and to the left the cone of the mighty volcano Arenal poked through azure skies. In 1968 Arenal volcano came to life, killing 87 people. Since then it has been continuously active. While in La Fortuna, I awoke to a puffing sound and jiggling tremors. From my room, I witnessed the eerie sight of molten lava oozing down the sides of the foreboding mountain.

 

We arrived at the Sunset House, overlooking the tiny hamlet of Monteverde, just in time to watch the sun drop into the sea shining in the distance. Those who had taken the Rio Celeste hike and missed the thrill of zip-lining through the canopy were given a second chance to experience Costa Rica’s answer to bungee-jumping. Being suspended in a harness from a 2,000 foot cable over gaping chasms was not for me, so I opted for the walk on a series of hanging bridges spanning the forest canyons that allow a close up and personal look at the fantastic array of plant life in the tree canopy. In this most famous of birding hotspots not a Resplendent Quetzal or even a common brown thing was in sight. Our naturalist guide told us it was because we were here at high noon, but I think it was the yelps of humans flying overhead at 50 mph that kept the birds in less frequented parts of the forest. I took consolation in viewing the hundreds of hummingbirds flashing through the green, stopping to refuel on crimson blooms called Hot Lips.
We were greeted at Playa Coyote on the Nicoya Peninsula with warm rolling surf and a burnt orange sun floating above a pink sea. While Yannick and Carlos pitched our tent camp beside a beach café where the owner was preparing us a meal of fresh, giant, shrimps, ten adventure-sated travelers plunged into the embryonic brew. This was our rest stop, where we were given a free day to wander.
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Our Last two Days- Second Growth Forest-photo by Mike Grayford

Our last two days spent at Curu, a 200- acre private refuge behind guarded gates resting on a sheltered bay, were filled with water sports; kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving in aquamarine depths. An easy amble through second growth forest on well-groomed trails garnered many bird sightings and a glimpse of the Agouti, the largest rodent in the world.

 

Sunset Playa Coyote-Linda Ballou

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Though all of our days in Costa Rica, literally the rich coast, brought new discoveries, for me time stood still at the long sweeping strand of deserted shore at Playa Coyote. Here I was lulled by the sound of crashing surf, cooled by a sea-scented breeze, and mesmerized by a golden sunset as I rocked in a hammock strung between palms beneath a sign that said, “A Seafood Restaurant and Much, Much, More.”

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I have been migrating from Los Angeles to Haines, the prettiest little town in Southeast Alaska, for the last 40 years. Like the arctic tern in its epic 25,000- mile round trip journey and the salmon’s primordial yearning to return to the clear waters of its birth, I come home. When snow-frosted peaks of the Coastal Range that hug the tiny berg and Port Seward come into view, I mist over. Alaska is to me austere, rugged and moody, yet thrilling in its unrelenting beauty.
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Haines, population 2500, was once a homely pioneer town; now Main Street is lined with freshly painted shops gussied up with bulging blooms in window boxes waiting to show off wares of local artisans to tourists off cruise ships and the Alaska Marine Highway. Everything from trucks with campers to mammoth RVs, to cyclists pulling carts with tents roll off the ferry on their way to the interior of Alaska. Pedestrians arrive on the Fast Ferry from Skagway and
Juneau daily in the summer. Locals wanting to prevent Haines from becoming overrun with tourists like Skagway, fourteen miles to the north, voted against having cruise ships dominating their landscape more than once a week.
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Instead, Haines has become a jumping off point for a myriad of outdoor adventures. Nature Tours offers knowledgeable guides carrying high powered birding scopes and leads groups on a choice of hikes. Chilkat Guides raft tourists daily down the Chilkat River where 3,500 eagles congregate each year in the fall. They offer the more daring adventurer a 10-13 day float down the Tatshenshini River, a 140-mile run through 24-million acres of unrivaled grandeur that includes the largest non-polar ice field on earth. Scenic flights over the swirling marble cake patterns of the Davidson and Rainbow Glaciers are available weather permitting. Sockeye Cycle Company rents bicycles to independents and offers 1-11 day tours that take the traveler into the Yukon and British Columbia. Be sure to bring your passport for this and other local outdoor adventures.
On my most recent trip home, I took my 89-year-old mother on a safari in a four-wheel drive buggy. We spiraled up a precipitous mountain climb, through alpine meadows to eye-popping vistas of Chilkoot Lake on the freshly carved Takshanuk Mountain Trail. A tasty halibut dinner at a hand-hewn lodge overlooking the Inside Passage was included in the fare. All summer fishermen and women line crystalline Chilkoot River trying their luck for Dolly Varden. Hundreds of tourists turn up at dusk to catch a glimpse of a brownie or black bear fishing for salmon on the far side of the shore.
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When John Muir ventured here in 1879 he was greeted by Chief Shathitch at the village of Klukwan on the Chilkat River. Muir described him as “one of the proudest and worst old savages of Alaska.” He controlled the trade routes from the sea to the inland tribes and was known to be a shrewd bargainer. Today Klukwan is the oldest surviving Tlingit village, not a rendering of traditional life for tourists, but a place where Indian people work and live. Inheriting the shrewdness of their ancestors, The Alaskan Native Corporation has made successful investments and has representatives at state and federal levels.

The gold rush brought a short-lived influx of opportunists like Jack Dalton. He was quick to take over what was called the “Grease Trail,” so named because the Tlingits used it to carry precious fish oil, used to thicken their blood against long winters, to inland tribes. He, like Chief Shathitch, exploited all those who traveled what became known as the Dalton Trail to Dalton Post where he charged them excessive tolls to pass.
Logging and fishing were the economic mainstays in a landscape notorious for its hardships when I lived in Haines. Loggers came into town, lived large for a week and then headed back into the woods for long months of hard work and isolation. Fishermen often garnered $5,000 for a week’s catch. The cannery was the best place in town to find a summer job. Over the years those activities have been curtailed by environmentalists. Almost no logging is allowed in the Tongass National Forest, fishing is strictly regulated, and the long defunct cannery is slated to become a marine museum. As with so many beautiful places, eco-tourism has become the mainstay.
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Outside Magazine voted Haines the best place to live if you don’t have to make a living. The population has not increased-rather it has been transfused by an enclave of artists and a burgeoning population of retiring boomers. Local author Heather Lende’s If you lived Here, I’d Know Your Name is the most recent bid to put Haines on the map. A leisurely drive on Mud Bay Road, past the cannery, to the tip of the peninsula takes you to Extreme Dreams. John and Sharon Svenson have thoughtfully framed the Rainbow Glacier in their art gallery window and welcome visitors.
If you want to get closer to the scenery, Seduction Trail in Chilkat State Park at the end of the road will take you through the forest and to the shore of the Lynn Canal. Do take your bear spray and don’t hike alone. A walk along the beach through billowing grass and wild beach sweet peas can garner sightings of soaring eagles, an otter curling under the jade green waters or a playful harbor seal -images often depicted in local art.
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When you get back to town, don’t miss the Sea Wolf Gallery where Tresham Gregg features woodcarvings, silk screen prints and t-shirts with unique spins on traditional Alaskan motifs. For authentic Alaskan crafts, done by native artists, try Bell’s Store owned by my family for forty years. Stop in the Bamboo Room at the Pioneer Bar across the way for a spicy halibut taco and the best clam chowder around. Rambling Roy up the road a piece has an eclectic collection of pioneer memorabilia at modest prices. At Bell’s Seafood, my brother has local catch as well as King Crab from the Bering Sea fresh for local consumption, or he will ship it for you anywhere in the lower forty-eight.
Sheldon Museum on Main Street with one of the best collections of Chilkat blankets, famed basketry and photos of the past is well worth a stop. Or you can just sit down at the boat harbor and reflect upon the light dancing on snow-streaked Santa Claus Mountain on the far side of the fjord. It’s a good place to watch fishing boats come in at the end of a long, Alaskan summer day. That’s where I end up when I come home. I’m grateful that in spite of shifts in humanity over the years, the overwhelming beauty of Haines remains the same.

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The Tatshenshini River is a powerful torrent that flows from its headwaters in Canada’s Yukon Territory for 120 unchecked miles to the Gulf of Alaska. It is the main artery through the pulsing heart of one of the world’s largest wilderness areas that encompasses the Kluane, Glacier Bay, St. Elias-Wrangell and Tatshenshini/Alsek Preserves. We put our three 18-foot rubber oar-boats on the back of the gray, silt-laden lady and turned our fate over to the river gods at Dalton Post. Tall buttresses crowd the first stretch of the river into a chute, creating a series of roller coaster waves that landed squarely on our bow.

“Bail! Bail! Bail!” came from veteran rafter Margaret who held tightly to my life vest as I bailed for all I was worth. Meanwhile, the bow of our raft was filling with water. “We’re going to sink,” Margaret hissed. A bit over-reactionary I thought, as my rubber boots slid out from under me and I found myself doing the splits on the wet plastic floor of the raft. I fell backwards, sitting down in the mounting water, and gave way to hysterical titters that rendered me helpless.
“Get a grip” came from an irritated Margaret.
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A calm stretch between the Eye of the Needle and the rolling rapids of M&M Falls allowed me to tidy up for the next round. This frothy fun, lasting about an hour, exposed me as being the weak link on this eight-day run that has no turn back option. The river soon calmed to a steady six knots. We spotted a Brownie on the shore that ducked into the alders as we passed by. Feathery horsetail fern filled the under story of the spruce and hemlock forest, while clumps of frilly cow parsnip, lupine and magenta “River Beauty” decorated the shore.

The ten guests sharing this adventure with me were a fit family of four from Vancouver, a gentleman traveling with his two grown sons from Texas, guide Brian’s mother Debbie from the Olympic Peninsula, Ann, a school teacher from Delaware who had never camped before, and Margaret, a 74-year-old local who has hiked, rafted and kayaked all over southeast Alaska. Cameron, our lead guide, is a nine year veteran of this challenging river. Jeremy cut his rafting teeth on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. He told me that the Tatshenshini is one of the top three rivers in the world that every boatman must run. Our third guide, Brian, works for the Department of Fish and Game when he is not on ice-age wilderness adventures. Permits to run this river are limited. About 500 people are allowed down the river every year during the short summer season. One company is allowed each day so that groups are well-spaced and with any luck will never see one another.

In 1976, Bart Henderson, owner of Chilkat Guides, was the first commercial outfitter to explore what river rats call the Tat. He fell in love with Haines the starting point for this trip, made it his home and has led expeditions in the region ever since. No one knows the nuances of this shape-shifting river that begins as a 15,000 CFS (cubic feet per second) flow that gathers velocity and volume from tributaries as it takes the traveler though the largest non-polar ice field in the world, better than Bart. By the time it reaches Dry Bay in the Gulf of Alaska the river is a braided channel five times the size of the Colorado River.

Twenty years ago, Bart invited my mother, who was 70 at the time, and a few of the other seniors from Haines, to join him on this scenic glide. The average age of the guests on the Tat is 50, but anyone can come providing they can navigate getting in and out of a rubber raft, walk and are able to sleep in campsites littered with moose, bear and wolf tracks. My mother holds this trip as one of the highlights of her 45 years in Alaska. When I was growing up in Haines, men went into the woods for food, not fun. Bears in the woods meant I was not to hike alone. This trip was a chance for me to “get out into it” safely with guides dedicated to helping me see one of our last remaining wildlife corridors for myself.
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After a couple of days of relaxed floating though the warmer inland forests of cottonwood, alders, and spruce under tender blue skies, we took a day off. That meant sleeping in, a Sunday morning breakfast with a second cup of coffee and setting up the spotting scope. We camped at the confluence of the O’Connor River and the Tat on a sheltered beach with a scintillating breeze that kept the bugs at bay. Shafts of light spotlighted the granite mountain with three avalanche chutes veining its side on the far side of the braided river channel.

The swooshing sound of the glistening platinum water of the Tat racing by with the occasional screech of an eagle wheeling overhead was all that was heard. Motorized craft are not allowed on the river. There are no roads and therefore no vehicles or dwellings of any kind. An enormous effort is in play by park officials and rafting companies to keep the impact of humankind down to zero. The sound of a jet high overhead seemed an intrusion upon the blessed absence of noise pollution.

Our small society soon shaped into a companionable band of fun-loving folk who understood the need for personal space and shared the awe inspired by our surroundings. We watched a moose and her calf hurriedly make their way across the gravel bar on the far side of the river. Shortly behind them, a thousand pound grizzly was on their trail. In this vast region bruin can roam free without bumping into mankind. Signs of grizzlies that can get to be 1,500 pounds and the smaller black bear are everywhere. Salmon choked streams provide high protein reserves needed for them to survive the long winters. Scratches on trees, logs shredded in search of insects, meadows upturned for berries and fresh scat were often seen on our day hikes on centuries old bear trails. Bears step in exactly the same spot on their trails to their dens, creating indentations in the ground that look like they could belong to Big Foot. Stretching to step into the paw prints marking the trail, I felt the bear’s enormous stride and sensed the powerful presence of Ursus Horribilis.

We headed up a rock slide formed by a creek charging through barren scree slopes to join the Tat far below. I spotted a black bear with two cubbies about 100 yards away. The cubs, as curious about us as we were about them, stood on their hind legs so that they might get a better view of the aliens that had entered their world. Canadians do not allow firearms in their national parks. We were armed with bear spray and a safety talk by our guides. There are no recorded incidents of bears attacking groups in our numbers. Wandering off alone or getting too close for that National Geographic shot is not advised.
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This river corridor is also home to moose, lynx, wolves, wolverine, golden and bald eagles, mountain goats and Dall sheep. A myriad of smaller animals like pika, hoary marmots, beavers, snowshoe rabbits and a dazzling array of birds thrive here as well. What a travesty it would have been if Geddes Resources Limited, a Canadian mining company, had gotten its way with this pristine wilderness. In the early1990s plans were afoot to shave off the top of Windy Craggy Mountain to get to one of the world’s largest copper deposits. A bridge was to be built across Monkey Wrench Rapids with a road along the Tat to the O’Connor drainage and eventual connection with Haines Highway that would take the ore to the nearest deepwater port in Haines. Trucks carrying toxic cargo would rumble over this road every eight minutes. The tailings lake, a noxious brew of chemicals created by mining, was to be situated squarely on the most active seismic area in America.
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The battle against the billion dollar corporation by fifty environmentalists groups went relatively unnoticed in the lower 48. Thankfully, in June of 1993, then-Vice-President Al Gore and Canadian Premier Mike Harcourt joined forces in the fight. The struggle served to galvanize this World Heritage Site into 24-million contiguous acres encompassing and surrounding the Alsek-Tatshenshini watershed. This priceless legacy for those who worked to preserve the waterways, forests and solitude of this magnificent region is proof that there are rewards for those who care.

Next day found us maneuvering roiling hydraulics where the O’Connor River and the Alki Creek merge with the Tat as it increases in strength and magnitude on its rush to the sea. We zipped along at a faster clip, catching wave trains and avoiding raft-sucking holes for 35 miles. The brooding snow-streaked peaks of the Fairweather Range, floating in white mists sitting on their shoulder like a gossamer gown, are on the left side of the river, and the dry, desolate south facing peaks of the Noisy Range are on the right. We could hear the hiss of the rocks rolling beneath our boat in the strong current as we hurtled through this corridor of unrivaled grandeur.
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At “Palm Springs North,” a surprise beach where we found dry channels of sand, we tore off our river gear that consisted of rubber boots, a pair of heavy rain pants and a jacket over long underwear with layers of fleece on top and a life vest to stretch out on the warm sand. Delicious! After lunch, we merged with the mighty Alsek where the river takes on that name, becomes about a mile wide, and is flowing at about 65,000 CFS. Two thirds of this journey is in Canada with a large part of it in British Columbia. We stopped to gather firewood where the international border between the U.S. and Canada is marked by a swatch cut into the trees. A marked increase in prickly devil weed in the increasingly lush forests was the only distinction I could see between the two countries.

For Mom, Walker Glacier was the highlight of this journey. Of the twenty glaciers muscling their way through the mountains to the river it is the most accessible. It also marks the beginning of soggy, coastal weather patterns. A blanket of fog, dubbed the Iron Curtain, always hovers over the valley carved by this river of ice which has receded a mile since my mother visited 20 years ago. A civilized stroll through a wildflower meadow brings you to a ridge walk along berg-choked Walker Lake at the terminus of the glacier.
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Once upon the glacier itself, I was struck by that fact that it is dotted by living moss. We hopped foot-wide aquamarine crevasses and crunched our way around water pools and rivulets sculpting pathways though the living-crust of the river on the move. When we turned to leave the swirling turquoise half moon face on the snout of the glacier, we saw the figure of a mature black bear silhouetted against the purest white. Humans are neither prey nor predator to the bear in the natural order of things, so he was indifferent to our presence. I felt privileged to be in his world as he sauntered across our path in unhurried strides.

Death Channel, where no one has died – yet, leads to Alsek Lake, where the Alsek and Grand Glaciers calve off apartment sized icebergs to drift across cobalt blue depths. “Who opened the freezer door?” Ann wanted to know. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees in as many minutes. The thunderous voices of calving bergs made it easy to understand why the native Tlingit Indians believed spirits lived in the ice. I was nervous as we floated in our tiny rubber crafts through clusters of berg bits. Icebergs can be dangerous as the bottoms in the water melt faster than the top in the air, causing them to flip. One could shift and tip us, and we could end up swimming in 32 degree glacier melt. Cameron expertly navigated through downed logs and icebergs and got us safely to Gateway Knob, our camp for the night.

Moments after we had popped our tents, and settled down to yet another scrumptious meal prepared by our guides, a berg the size of a cruise ship about 100- yards away from our camp decided to flip. A thundering boom echoed into the mountains, followed by a sparkling spray of water as the mast came crashing down, creating a monster wave. To cap things off the clouds parted exposing frosty Mt. Fairweather, the 15,300-foot monarch of the region, bathed in the celestial light of an Alaskan summer’s eve.
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The last stretch of this monumental journey through diverse bio-regions is lined with the velvet green pleated peaks that reminded me of the Napali Coast in Hawaii. The swollen river lumbers into Dry Bay and the Gulf of Alaska at a formidable 100,000 CFS flow. Foaming waves of the shining Pacific greeted us as hundreds of seagulls circling overhead crying out with mad laughter. Thoughts of Lewis and Clarke and the joy they must have felt when their senses were livened by the scent of the sea came to mind. I silently thanked my mother for inspiring me to come here and apologized inwardly to Margaret for laughter under fire.
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I bound up the boulder steps of the Basin-Cascade trail tracing an energetic river graced with glistening waterfalls. While navigating the twisted roots of birch trees, I chanced a look to the heavens trembling with lemon leaves rustling in a flirtatious breeze. Relishing a moment of sacred solitude while waiting for the rest of my hiking group to join me at the base of Ellis Falls, I listened to the full throated roar of the powerful white curtain of water carving a path through sheer granite. The fragrance of balsam fir and the fecund odor of the gold and amber carpet of falling leaves filled the air. Like the poets, painters and millions of trampers before me, I’d come to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to rid myself of commercial chatter, pollution and to know Mother Nature’s healing heart.

Over 600 miles of well-marked paths lace our first National Forest. These trails seduce the hiker into shady glens through lacy fern forests and to alpine climbs pocked with turquoise glacier cirques. The Whites from a distance appear benign but are reputed to be intolerant and unpredictable. The weather at the top of Mt. Washington, the highest of the peaks in the Northeast (elevation 6290) has the worst weather in the world. Gusts of over one hundred miles per hour have been reported during all months of the year.

“Winds funnel into the canyons from several different directions creating churning whiteouts that blind hikers and stop rescue attempts,” our guide, Nichol, told us. Hikers get lost so often the good folks of New Hampshire now require them to pay for the cost of their rescue. With the aid of New England Hiking Holidays, I was able to explore with carefree abandon the fabled notches, intervales and peaks painted by over 400 landscape artists and listen to the stories the forests tell.
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The median age of our group was fifty. Fitness levels ranged from recovering couch potato to personal-trainer buff. Many of the guests were seasoned, international travelers, and most had a few week-long hiking adventures under their belts. After hiking 5-7 miles each day, we enjoyed the luxury of the Thorn Hill Inn and Spa, where we could partake in a full massage, steam or hot tub under the stars. The sophistication of the group made for stimulating conversation over gourmet meals prepared by a chef with a flare for perfection. The Inn is located in Jackson, a village oozing with White Mountain charm; pumpkin men and ladies on the lawns, benches for strollers to enjoy, bright flower boxes and a red covered bridge spanning the Wildcat River that runs through the town. Two of our nights were spent in the Sugar Hill region at the lovingly restored Sunset House, built in 1882, overlooking a vast meadow dotted with wild turkey.
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Amazingly, the group of eighteen settled naturally into two groups of nine with similar degrees of fitness and aspirations. Once my group caught up with me, we tramped together to Lonesome Lake, where we enjoyed a healthful repast at the friendly AMC hut maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club, the oldest outdoor organization in the U.S. In our week we walked on several segments of the 2,125 mile Appalachian Trail that runs all the way from Maine to Georgia. In the sunny afternoon we circumnavigated the lake on boardwalks that kept us above the moose marsh surrounding the blue gem nestled in pines. I was struck by the fact that there were no mosquitoes swarming in what looked to be the perfect habitat.

“Fall is the best time to come here because there are no bugs.” Nichol explained. The pesky black flies of the summer months are at bay and ticks are out of season. The crisp nights bring out brilliant color in the foliage, but the days are in the seventies, perfect for the droves of leaf peepers who flock to the region this time of year.

On the way to the Basin hike, we passed by what remains of the Old Man in the Mountain. So loved was the jagged granite face carved by nature thousands of years ago he was put on state license plates. The “Old Man,” credited with being the guardian of the mountains, was held together for years with cables. Despite these efforts to save him, he came down in 2003. Now, he is affectionately referred to by locals as “Cliff.”
One day was spent exploring Crawford Notch, where Ethan Allan Crawford built the first hospitality house in the 1800s for the “rusticators” who came by train and stayed all summer. Tourists still pour off the train from Conway at the depot in the notch. Crawford also carved a trail to the top of Mt. Washington, which remains the oldest trail in continuous use in the United States.

After a saunter through the woods on a path of soft moss, we crossed a wooden bridge spanning a ravine where deep pools carved by the charging water serve as swimming holes for the intrepid in the summer. Soon, we arrived at the back door of the Mt. Washington Hotel. The last of the grand hotels, built in the 1800s, is a bit fussy for the Teva-set, but we were graciously allowed to enjoy a drink on the veranda. From there we watched the cog-train chug its way up the flank of Mt. Washington.

Mt. Washington was called the Place of the Storm Spirit by the Native Americans, who viewed it as the sacred home of the Great Spirit. The moody monarch, generally crowned with dark swirling clouds with a white cape on the shoulder was plainly visible in the cloudless blue sky. From the top of the mountain one may see Maine dotted with lakes, The Green Mountains of Vermont, the settlements of Bartlett and Conway, the four-toothed summit of Mt. Chocorua, and the other main peaks of the Presidential Range.
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While relaxing at the hotel, our guide, Graham, who calls the Mt. Washington Valley home, shared the story of the Willey family with us. The Willeys were warned that they had built their home at the base of avalanche- prone mountain. So, they built a small shelter away from the house. When they heard the inevitable rumbling of a slide, the family of five went into the shelter. Unfortunately, the shelter, not the house, was crushed with all the Willeys in it. The site of the Willey family’s demise in 1826 was painted by Thomas Cole and is recognized as the best and most famous work of the White Mountain landscape artists.
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During our visit we hiked to Arethusa Falls, which at 200 feet is the highest of falls in the Whites, Sabbaday Falls, a picturesque series of cascades into a narrow channel, as well as Avalanche Falls in the dramatic Flume Gorge. But of the over one hundred waterfalls in the mountains, Crystal Cascade was my favorite. This most alluring rush of white plunges into staggered pools formed by boulders the size of a Volkswagen Bug. Twisted birch cling to the sheer granite walls that survive winters with snow so deep the cross country skiers have only the tree tops to find their way home. Nichol is one of the stout-hearted young men who carry their skis up to Tuckerman’s ravine, a huge glacier bowl above the falls, for a death-defying run down the mountain in the spring.
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The bottom leg of the Basin-Cascade trail is a 2-mile mama bear run that follows the Pemigewasset River. It was to be our last stroll through burgundy and bronze, spiked with happy chartreuse leaves over head. Light streaming through the cathedral that is the woods spotlighted our path. I felt fortunate to have this quiet time free of cell-phone bleeps calling me back to duty. My internal tape had run clean during my week in the mountains, leaving me free to absorb the beauty all around me. I just hoped this calm feeling inside would stick. When we reached the Basin, a bowl gouged into solid rock from 25,000 years of hydraulic pounding, Nichol pointed to a rock formation under the water.

“They say that is the foot of the Old Man of the Mountain.”
“He must have been the first hiker to come here,” I said. “I bet it did him some good.”

New England Hiking Holidays offers all inclusive five-day trips from late June to early October. Prices before Sept. 18th $1,495. After Sept. 18th $1,595. In July and August they offer a gentle New England exploration that covers much of the same terrain of the other five day trips but focuses more on the rich history of the region. They also have 2-3 day trips available from May through Oct. from $885-$995.1-800-869-0949

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“Shorten your rein, grab mane, prepare to canter,” came from plucky Lari Shea, owner of Ricochet Ridge Ranch. Mounted on a Black Beauty double named Rascal. This petite lady leads countless horse treks through the primordial redwood forests of Northern California. I tried not to think too much about the turkey vultures wheeling overhead or the growing chasm between me and a soft landing and focused on the footing of the trail as the white-fringed Pacific fell away. The brisk canter took us through a frilly fern forest and we splashed through a gurgling creek to a grand vista that is best reached on horseback.

My mission is to enjoy as many beautiful places as I can before they are no more. Horseback riding allows me to get into the scenery, away from police sirens and cell phones, and to get in tune with the rhythms of nature. So, when I found one of the last best riding opportunities in California on the Internet and saw that Lari offers everything from slow ambles though gorgeous scenery for the novice, to week long “real deal” rides on fit endurance horses for experienced riders, I was eager to get in the saddle.
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Lari has been winning endurance races since 1966. These are grueling 50 to 100-mile scrambles through rough terrain that must be completed in a 12 or 24 hour time frame, respectively. She runs her ranch with 55 horses and a dozen guides with the same strict precision she applies to her racing. She offers week-long rides through the redwoods, custom rides tailored to suit your schedule and riding abilities, as well as a string of combination rides with the cooperation of local innkeepers. I chose the combo that seemed perfect for the mature rider; a relaxing three night stay at the tranquil De Haven Valley Farm contrasted by two days of fast, challenging riding.
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I found the country inn and restaurant, built in 1875, tucked in a sheltered valley off Union Strand Beach. It’s easy to miss this last opportunity for good food and cozy lodging before entering the ragged edge of the Lost Coast. Guests here enjoy delicious meals prepared with fresh ingredients grown on the farm. While owner Bill plays his interpretation of the ocean sounds on the piano, his partner, Michael, plies visitors with exceptional local wines. After a four-course set-dinner, guests gather by the fire to share their day’s explorations. There are no televisions here to distract from gentle conversation in the old-fashioned parlor. Activities range from birds sightings at De Haven Creek, a walk along the bluffs overlooking a turgid sea, a hike on the well-maintained trails that lace the twenty-acre farm, or a stroll through the gardens with heavy-headed blooms tossing in the sea breeze.

After a leisure rise and a hearty country breakfast, I began my full day ride through a shady draw beneath towering redwoods. Our energetic horses charged up a steep slope thick with devils club then sashayed into a dell where a creek whispered to us from a moss-laden ravine. This is the home of a 1,500-year old giant that towers over the forest gilded with columns of light. This granddaddy of all the trees on the mountain was here when Columbus landed in the Americas and, with luck, will be spared the logger’s axe and continue to live for another 1,000 years.
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Another climb brought us back into the sun and a view of the blue pacific wearing a lacy white skirt. We trammeled through knee-high, velvet grass meadows spiked with white daisies and red columbine. In May the shoulder of the mountain is cloaked in royal purple Iris and gold fields. The crystalline air and endless blue sky livened horse and rider alike. Our group of seven, a mother and daughter team, two guides in training, Lari, her husband Harvey and I, moved briskly through tree tunnels shrouded in wild cucumber vines. Mats of sorrel, trillium and miner’s lettuce thrive on the cool forest floor beneath the canopy of bishop pine, Douglas fir, spruce, and coastal redwood. A majestic stag standing in a shaft of sunlight upon a ledge above us was completely unmoved by our caravan. This ride is on private land where he remains Lord of the Forest.

“It’s so great to ride the trails in an English saddle,” chirped the young blond studying to be a doctor at USC. “Hardly any of the outfitters offer that anymore,” she said, flushed with excitement.

I opted for an endurance saddle that provides a more stable seat with English stirrups that allow the rider to comfortably post to the trot. Western saddles are also available. All the gear was in excellent condition. All of the horses on our ride were Arabs except my mount, Dakota, a six-year-old quarter horse. Lari specializes in an Arab-Russian Orlov trotter cross that she breeds for her endurance rides. This mixture produces horses with a ground eating stride, sure-footedness and a relaxed disposition. All of our mounts were well-groomed and their hooves recently trimmed and shod.

“These horses really are incredibly fit,” came from the girl’s mother, a veterinarian from Davis, as we trotted up to a ridge trail no more than 30 feet wide with vistas on either side. To the right velvet green forested slopes. To the left, the shimmering blue sea with a ten-mile strand of sand that would be our destination in the morning.

“This trail was used as a trade route for the Pomo Indians. The indigenous people weren’t stupid. They didn’t live in the rain, wind and fog that goes with living on the coast. They traveled to the other side of this mountain,” Lari explained, as she snipped overgrown limbs shrouding the less-traveled track. An estimated 250,000 Native Americans lived in the region at the height of the culture. They engaged in extensive trade with neighboring tribes, and carried as much as a hundred pounds of goods strapped to their foreheads over this ridge that is part of the California Cultural Trail. I don’t know if this reflects superior intelligence, or exceptionally thick skulls.

After a thrilling two-mile canter up a narrow,winding path that wraps the mountain, we gave the horses a breather. While the horses regained a proper pulse and respiratory rate, Lari gave pointers on how to check their vital signs. Lari’s extensive knowledge of horse anatomy and a genuine regard for her animals makes her a superior rider. She wins her races with a tortoise and hare philosophy that requires paying strict attention to the needs of her mount. She is fond of saying that she wins by going slower than her competition, leaving them behind at the vet check stations as their horses struggle to recover from over-exertion.
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Over a picnic lunch, we talked about why the North Coast has escaped over-development. Convenient to nowhere, it is best reached by Highway 128 off of the 101 about 140 miles north of San Francisco. This lovely byway purls through oak woodlands and Anderson Valley wine country then dips down into cool cruise through a large stand of redwood to connect with curvaceous Highway One. A staunch environmental stand on the part of locals and a vigilant Coastal Commission prevents developers from corrupting this shoreline with strip malls and condos. Huge swathes of land are preserved, and the rest is owned by large timber interests. Mother Nature has given a helping hand in the form of wildfires. Westport, about a mile south of De Haven Valley, had a population of 10,000 and was once the largest city between S.F. and the Oregon coast until it was leveled by fire. All that remains is a market-deli that builds superlative sandwiches to suit for day-trippers. With little industry, the region has become an enclave for artists living in rustic hideaways competing for the biggest profusion of blooms in their gardens.

After a few stretches to ease stiffness on the ride home, we ambled down the mountain. I high-tailed it back to De Haven where I could settle into the spa beneath of swath of stars. I sidestepped up the stairs to the hot tub overlooking the depths of the valley, slipped into the steamy brew, and prayed my muscles would forgive me in the morning. De Haven proved to be the perfect antidote to my 25-mile ride.
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I must have won my stripes on Dakota, who kicked up his heels on more than one occasion on the full-day ride, because Lari gave me “Ricki,” short for Ricochet, for the beach outing. At seventeen, she is super fit, bomb-proof, trained in dressage and extremely sensitive to the aids. In fact, Lari plans to ride her in her next 50-mile race. Ricki’s ears perked at the sound of the waves, and her pace quickened with the smell of the salty spray off frothy waves rolling in sets of seven. Eager to get on with her workout, she pranced through the fog hugging the shore.

The untamed surf on the North Coast breaks hard on jagged sea stacks, but here for ten miles at MacKerricher State Park there is hard packed sand and a perfect spot to ride. Vast dunes draped with beach morning glory have formed here that can reach 130 feet in height. Tucked behind mountains of sand, endangered species like nesting plover find protection from the ceaseless wind off the sea. Many shorebirds, including osprey, congregate here at Cleone Lagoon at the mouth of Ten-Mile River. We stopped to check out sea lions sprawled on a rock ledge with their young.
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Our guide for the day was generous with riding tips to ensure our safety before allowing us to canter on. Ricki found her rhythm, and we settled into a rocking chair lope. A flock of willets lifted at our approach. As we flew into a windy world shrouded in mist, minutes passed and years dropped from this aging cowgirl. I was an endurance rider on a horse with the stuff to win races against the best of them.

Thanks to Lari’s thirty years of building relationships with local innkeepers, like the owners of De Haven Valley Farm, forest officials, and wealthy landowners that allow her to take riders into pristine forests on trails, and her passionate regard for her animals that keeps them well-trained and conditioned, it’s not too late to get in on this not-to-be-missed riding adventure.

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If you ever thought you wanted to own a ranch, but don’t want to work 24/7 to keep it going in rugged outback country, then Indian Creek Ranch is where you want to be. My pulse quickened at the sight of velvet green slopes plunging down to Indian Creek making its merry way to the Salmon River in Idaho. The sweet fragrance of mock orange blooming in white profusion was my first greeting. Next, I encountered the friendly faces of Jerry and Terry Meyers, both former river guides, whose only desire is to make your stay at the ranch a special one.
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Following the lead of early homesteaders along the river, the Meyers have created a self-sufficient, secluded hideaway where the fetters of the modern world melt away. Luxurious log cabins with hand-hewn beams, wood planks and romantic rock fireplaces are scattered about well-tended grounds. A maximum of twelve guests gather in the cozy lodge for meals. Over filet mignon capped with Portobello mushrooms in béarnaise sauce, we discussed the plan for the next day.
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Personalized service, and flexibility in schedule make Indian Creek a cut above the average guest ranch experience. Choices include a full day horseback ride into the mountains with grand vistas of the continental divide, a float down a lazy stretch of the Salmon, a hike up a trail through a shady draw to Ulysses Gold Mine, a stroll on a well-marked nature trail, or a day trip to the new Sacajawea Cultural Center and Lemhi Pass where Lewis and Clark gasped at the sight of the Idaho batholith, a series of mighty peaks staggered to eternity.
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Jerry accompanied me on the trail to the mine shaded by willow, cottonwood and Ponderosa pine. Along the way he pointed out the many types of berries and plants used by the Indians, early settlers, and Lewis and Clark to survive. He loves to share the secrets of flora, fauna and the history of the canyon with guests. During 1895-1920 as many as a thousand people lived on Indian Creek, and the lodge at the ranch was a watering hole for the miners. Soon we came to the remnants of the abandoned mine where we enjoyed a picnic lunch among the wooden structures shrouded in wildflowers and vines.

That night, after a stew in the wood-fired hot tub under a velvet sky spiked with diamonds, I snuggled under my down comforter, glad that I had no idea what was going on in the rest of the world.
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We began our 86-mile float down the Salmon River, the longest free-flowing river in the lower forty-eight, with the sun shining and snow-bright clouds mushrooming on the horizon. By the time we pulled into Magpie Beach for lunch the clouds had turned kettle black and let loose on our tostada salads.

Our caravan consisted of three oar-boats loaded down with camp supplies, one paddle boat manned by guests, a couple of two-man kayaks and two solo kayaks called “duckies.” My fellow adventurers ranged in age from 14-84. Ben and Alex, teens with considerable canoeing experience, bobbed behind us in the “duckies” through waves that often took them out of sight. Seven of the guests were adventuresome women who do a different river every year and call themselves the “River Spirits.” Their ringleader, Elaine, a plucky matriarch, told me that at her age (84) the river was the last best way for her to get outdoors. She rode the current, perched in the front of the oar boat like Cleopatra on her barge. Our group of seventeen also included a couple on their 25th anniversary and a pair of globe-trekkers from Phoenix.
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“The next stretch of the river has the most intense rapids out of the forty we’ll see on this trip. If you want to get the most out of them, you should try the kayak,” Chris, owner of Silver Cloud Expeditions, told us.

” If I’m going to get wet, I want it to be for a good reason” I said.

I snagged Garret, young apprentice guide, to join me in the two-man inflatable kayak. After we navigated about a half dozen rapids, I was raucous and high-spirited. Then, I heard the rumble of big water and saw spray spitting over the rocks ahead. We slid over the top of Baileys, one of the few 3+ rapids on this run, with confidence. After surviving an assault of five huge waves, the sixth one rolled over our heads and flipped our boat. I came up squarely beneath the overturned kayak. No time for hysteria. I pushed up hard on the rubber kayak and got out from under it. I grabbed it and rode with it until I slammed into the paddleboat. Chris held the kayak while I hauled myself back in. Shaken, but good to go, I had a renewed respect for the power of the river. With a giddy rush of adrenalin that called for more, Garret and I paddled on.

Modern life is easy on the river, the big decision of day being; “Do you want to share the paddle boat with a guide at the helm, kayak independently or float lazily down the river in the dry “catbird” seats on the oar boat?” The weather here is riveting, compelling and dramatic, but Mother Nature’s mood swings rarely last longer than a half an hour.

Darkening clouds mean you better paddle harder to reach the next sandy beach campsite in order to pitch your tent for the night and have time for a cozy afternoon nap. I loved listening to the grumbling clouds and patter of plump raindrops while our six guides set up camp and prepared another scrumptious meal.

What comes out of a Dutch oven on the river is nothing short of miraculous. Egg frittatas, cranberry muffins, rhubarb crisps, lasagna, chocolate pecan pie, prime rib and more. Evenings are spent in camp chairs about a warming fire counting stars and telling tales. I brought mosquito netting and bug juice for these occasions but never had to use them. I awoke each morning to the smell of fresh coffee and the lilting call of the shy canyon wren.
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But for those who lived on the river before me, life was a demanding, isolated affair. Early homesteaders had to be independent, tough and self-sufficient. Buckskin Bill’s reaction to the depression was to take up life where there were natural resources to defeat it. A sweet paranoid, he lived in isolation at Five Mile Bar for fifty years. He skillfully crafted his own tools, cooking utensils and guns. Like other river folk he had an orchard and vegetable garden to sustain him. His compound of cabins included a rock lookout tower in which he could spot unwanted visitors before they saw him.
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Barth Hot Springs, a steaming rock pool forged into a mountainside that simmers at about 106 degrees, was a favorite stop of the early scow captains at the turn of the century. These men brought supplies that included livestock in bulky wooden boats to settlers and placer miners who lived on the river. When the boats reached the end of their journey, they were broken down for their lumber and used to build cabins. The boats never made it back to their put-in points, which is why this stretch of the Salmon is called “The River of No Return.”

We passed by the mouth of the famous Middle Fork of the Salmon that courses through the heart of the 2.2 million acre Frank Church Wilderness to join the main Salmon. It is rated one of the “Top Ten” white-water rivers in the world. Jagged spires hug the river forming a chute of over a hundred rapids in 125 miles.

We slid past a herd of mountain sheep munching peacefully on shore. Enormous swallowtail butterflies wafted on the gentle breeze. A big green dragonfly landed on my knee and stared at me with wide set eyes. I heard the cluck of the chukar on shore and spotted a merganser with six chicks floating behind her. One of our last road-less wilderness areas these rugged mountains are home to bear, elk, deer, and the re-introduced wolf. Cougar and beaver were both hunted mercilessly by early mountain men, but both species have rebounded and live happily here today. Humans have shared this 45 million year old river canyon with animals large and small for 8,500 years.

Our peaceful glide was interrupted when Garret and I came around a big rock and I found myself facing a six-foot hole. The nose of the kayak was pointed straight down and there was literally nothing I could do, but to go down with it. I flew forward over the arc of a huge wave and sped down river in a frothy brew. Overcome by an insane exuberance, I gave way to uncontrollable laughter. When I hauled myself back on board to face the river once more, I felt light, energized and brave.

By the last day of our five-day trip, I yearned to take on the river alone. I settled into a solo- ducky and pointed her nose towards the “bubble line” paying strict attention to the movements of the water, swirling broils that tried to spin me in circles, deep holes behind boulders that threatened to suck me in, and the big waves that wanted to knock me sideways. I found the line of the current that carried me back and forth around the meandering bends and steered clear of backwater eddies. Though I was often submerged in foamy waves, the warm dry wind kept off the chill. What I learned in this conversation with the great river left me feeling young and powerful. The two teen boys on our safari on the Salmon scored a 9.50 on their high adventure scale. For me it was a 10.

Silver Cloud Expeditions offers personalized, top-quality river vacations on the Salmon. Rafting trip travel packages include local air and ground charters as well as all meals and equipment. Everything is provided; tents, sleeping bags, pads and waterproof duffel. Owners, Chris Swersey and Mary Wright, both seasoned guides and longtime residents of Idaho, take pride in providing the best food, guides and rafting equipment on the river for their guests at a reasonable price.