Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Long Walk in the Woods

The Summer has been a hot one. As hot as any I can remember in my -nearly- 40 years living in this state. Because of this, there's been a lot of motivation to get out doors and, luckily, this happened to pair nicely with both of the kids finally being old enough that we could easily drag them along on hike of three to four miles. As a result, we've done a lot of hiking and camping this year. Especially in comparison to the last few years, were we've considered ourselves luck if we got up into the mountains more than a couple of times a season.

Unfortunately, we've been a lot better about hiking recently than we have been about posting here, so we haven't had a chance to talk about it here. I'm going to try to fix that. This is going to be a big, jumbo, woodsy post. But, to keep things manageable, and to keep my sanity (hopefully), I'm going to try to limit it to a paragraph of two about each outing, and only a couple of pictures. If I can.

Here goes...

Snow Shoeing At Sleeping Lady
While a lot of our hiking has been driven by the warm weather, our first outing actually happened just a day or two into 2015. We had, rather promptly, decided to spend New Years weekend at Sleeping Lady, a resort in Leavenworth, a few hours outside of Seattle. While a whole entry could -and probably should- be written about that weekend, one of the most noteworthy experiences was all of us snowshoeing for the first time.

I'd actually been dubious of the idea, though it's been something Sarah has been interested in for some time. But, I have to admit it was a smashing success, and I was definitely a convert. What I'd imaged would be a tear filled session of the kids rolling around in the snow actually was a delightful experience, wandering snow covered paths, as cross country skier slide silently past us.

There was definitely some falling that occurred. But, most of it was more humorous than tearful.
Snowshoes around!

Franklin Fall
The second hike of the season actually resulted from a failed snow shoeing attempt. Later in January, we decided it would be fun to try snow shoeing again, and headed for the pass. Unfortunately, the Winter had been so warm that they'd already closed all the snow shoeing trails. So, after eating lunch at a pancake house across the street from a sad looking ski slope littered with skier trying to find some pleasure in grass dotted sheets of slush, we double back to Franklin Falls, which we had hike before on previous Summers. 

While snow shoeing had been a bust, we were glad that we had brought the kids snow suits, since the trail was slick with ice and slush itself. The kids seemed to take it in stride though, spending as much time falling and slipping in muck as they did actually hiking. 

 A sample portion of the trail. Still covered with a slick sheet of ice.
 The falls themselves. We actually weren't able to take the kids down to them, owing to the slick path. Still, nice view!
Happy hikers! ...though you can't tell with Otto. This was in the middle of his "I'm not looking at the camera phase," which dominated much of the Winter and early Spring.

Dorthy Lake
When it came time to pack for our hike to Dorthy Lake, the memory of slipping on snow was still fresh in the kids mind, and they insisted on packing their snow suits. I poo-pooed the idea, but Sarah humored them and they ended up being smarter than dad. When we pulled into the parking lot of the trail head, it was grey and wet, but -as we pushed farther uphill- large wet snowflakes began to fall. 

Still, this was our first hike to Dorthy Lake, but likely not our last. The lake itself was beautiful and -with the white flakes falling around us- the whole location had that mysterious feeling of being on the edge of deep winlderness.

 The snow beginning to fall on the approach to the Lake.
The view out and across the lake. When I see vistas like this, with distant, mist enshrouded mountains, it makes me thing "there be monsters" in all the right way.
Descending, as the snow falls more and more heavily around us.

Nisqually Wildlife Refuge
With it's well-build wood boardwalks and level ground, the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge always feels more like a pleasant stroll than a true hike. But, at the same time, you are walking on those boardwalks for several miles out in bird-filled tide flats, often under unrelenting sun. So, we'll count it here. 

We've done this hike several times before, but this trip was noteworthy in that it was the first time that all four of us made it out to the viewing platform at the end of the boardwalk. Also, less amusingly, it will be remembered as the time that Otto got halfway there, and then decided that he needed to go the bathroom "super bad" and I was stuck carrying him back to the outhouses and back. (Sadly, no just peeing on a bush when you are out over exposed tide flats.)
 Otto bird watching. Or, at least watching something.
 Stella and I, a bit punching in the sun.

Stella, checking out the tide flats.

Talapus Lake
By May, things were in full swing for us, hiking-wise. Which, honestly, was already a little amazing, because in passed years we'd often encountered cold weather and even snow when trying to explore the mountains this early. Instead, this year, after a brisk uphill hike, we were already soaking out feed in an alpine lake. 

Probably my favorite memory from this particular outing would be Otto jokingly holding out some food to a camp robber bird... only to have it surprise him by happily swooping in and grabbing it. 
 Sarah, Stella and Otto, enjoying the view and the water.
Now entering the Alpine Lake Wilderness. In what would begin to become a bit of a joke, Sarah and I started noting and even taking pictures of the Alpine Lake Wilderness signs. As I maintain: "The Alpine Lake Wilderness always brings it's A Game."
Happy family! Another hike down!

Snow Lake
Speaking of bringing you "A Game," Snow Lake, located near Mt. Rainier's Paradise Lodge certainly did. The day itself was misty and mysterious, but that only added to the super cool ambiance of this short hike. We rarely make it down to the Mt. Rainier area, owing to so many other, closer hikes, but each time we do, Sarah and I are left scratching our heads and thinking "why aren't we down here all the time." While it's easy to find wilderness in Washington, Rainier's alpine fields and forest are otherworldly and just on a different scale.

 A happy Sarah, in her element.
 The misty, surreal world of Snow Lake.
 At only a little more than a mile in, this hike was easily manageable by these experienced hikers.
More wilderness. Here's the thing about this photo: It's upside down.

Dads and Kids Camping - Kanaskat-Palmer State Park
After all that hiking, it was time to switch it up and do some camping. Mine friends, Justin and Kip, and I had decided (or possibly our wives had arranged in a Machiavellian-manner, depending on how conspiratorial you are) it would be a good idea to do a "dads and kids" camping trip where we took our collective horde up to the woods for a weekend. 

We decided (owing to the number of kids) that it would be easiest to make reservations at a State Park. And, though we'd never been before, Kanaskat-Palmer ended up being a great fit. While at first I think the three dads were a bit overwhelmed when we realized there's were 2-to1 in the kids favor, we quickly settled in nicely. There was a central (safe-ish) section of forest that the kids had free-reign of and spent most of their time exploring and digging up, which left the dads largely free to put around the campsite, hang out and drink beer. The arrangement suited everyone nicely. 

The second day, what had started as a short walk around the campsite turned into an extended lounging and exploring session down by the adjacent river. Again, a perfect fit.

 The kids, learning valuable life skills from Kip.
 A panorama of the campsite.
 Exploring a small pool next to the river. Where the kids spent most of their afternoon, on the second day.
 Things did occasionally have that Lord of the Flies feel. The boys rarely wearing shirts, and Stella ended up spending about 75% of the trip in her night grown (see photo below).
Six kids, after 48 hours in the woods.

Lake Phuckalia
The annual trips to "Lake Phuckalia" are well documented in this blog by now. This year marked Sarah's 10th visit to the tried-and-true campsite. And, the hottest. Temperatures were north of 90 for most of the weekend. And, while most trips to Phuckalia involve an obligatory visit to the "Lower Lake Phuckalia" swim hole, this year it was nearly a matter of survival, to get through the hottest part of the day. I know I haven't spent that much time actually swimming there.

 Camping or off to school? It's hard to tell with Otto sometimes.
 The kids, trying out the new horseshoe set. The oppressive heat kept the adults from playing, but I'm sure it will be back for future trips.
 Trying to "beat the heat" in Lower Lake Phuckalia.
There were still some Lord of the Flies moments on this trip too. Otto appears to be stalking Stella and Ryder.

Lake 22
Lake 22 has been another favorite hike of ours, but none of us had been in several years. And, actually, I still haven't been in several years. While Otto and I attended a Birthday party, Sarah took Stella up for a mommy and daughter hike. So, while I'll post a few pictures here, I -sadly- can't share much beyond the fact that I know they had a great time. Stella was apparently a positive and talkative hiker, and there were lost of salmon and thimble berries to be eaten.
 Happy Sarah and Stella without and grouchy daddy or Otto to slow them down!
 Stella for scale, at Lake 22.
Another hike, another feet soaking in an alpine lake.

Mountain Loop Highway
(4th of July weekend)
The 4th of July weekend found us camping out on the far end of the Moutain Loop Highway, a couple hours north of Seattle. We'd camped in a nearby site last 4th with a coworker of mine and his family, and had a great time, so we were eager to go back and explore some more, now that the kids were a year older. 

Like the last couple of outings the weather was oppressively hot, and there was a veritable mist of biting flies, but it was truly an amazing weekend. Owing to the holiday weekend, out site was small but nice, so we spent most of our day making out way to various alpine lakes. 

The first day was Kalemas Lake. Several miles up a dirt road, the actual hike was less than a mile in, but still the drive must have deterred most day trippers because the trail and lake were both nearly empty. And what an amazing lake it was. And warm! While most lakes are -shall we say- brisk; you could easily float in this lake for extended periods of time, feeling cool and refreshed, but never overwhelmed by the chill.

The second day brought our most ambitious hike. Peek-A-Boo Lake was only listed as being 2.2 miles in, and only 800 feet elevation gain; but what that didn't mention was that the trail actually went steeply up and down several times, bringing total elevation gain to well over 1000 feet. The reward though was worth it, as -again- we found ourselves at another nearly abandoned lake. Still, the kids were tired when we reached the trailhead again.

On the last day, heading out, we decided to check out Coal Lake. This lake wasn't really a hike, but instead it was another drive up a winding dirt road, followed by a quick 100 meter trek in to ...yet another nearly empty lake. Truthfully, there were two fishermen when we arrived, but they promptly left, giving us the entire lake to ourselves. 

When was the last time you got to swim in three separate alpine lakes in one weekend? Definitely a happy 4th of July!
Our campsite. Simple, small, but a nice place to place our chairs with a view of a river, so I ain't complaining.
 Sarah and Stella at Kalcemus Lake. About as warm a wilderness lake as I've ever encountered.
"Daddy, really?" Stella, I think less-than-amused by all the trudging up hill.
...but the pay-off for the hard work was some great vistas and neat alpine fields.
 Me, swimming in Peek-A-Boo Lake. Not nearly as warm, but more remote.
 Coal Lake. We had this whole place to ourselves, for an hour or so. Well, if you don't count those pestering flies.
 Sarah called this our "Wes Anderson kid" photo. Can't argue that.

Franklin Falls Revisited
Again, I can't share too much about this, since I wasn't there. But, for Sarah's return visit to Franklin Falls, it was Otto's turn to hike with mommy. This time out, they were joined by one of Otto's good school friends and his mom. I don't have much in the way of details, but I know everyone eljoyed themselves. 
Otto, and his friend, Brick, goofing off on a boulder.

As promised, this entry has been a long haul, and it's now well past my bed time. Still, I'm glad I sat down and powered through this. It's been an amazing and fulfilling first half of the year, hiking and camping-wise. And, while I think that most of our wilderness adventures are likely (and sadly) done for the Season, it's been great revisiting and recording them. As always, there are a ton of more pictures on our Flickr page.

OK, now off to bed!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Home Stretch

Here I sit, roughly a week and a half after returning from the trip, trying to remember the details and particulars of our last two days in Ireland. So, that I can write this entry and hopefully wrap up our account of that fast and fun ten days. I think that it says a bit about how busy Sarah and I have become, between work, family and general life responsibilities, that it has taken me this long to work through these entries. Entries which, at another point in our life, would have been done the same day we experienced things. But, so it goes, I suppose.

Thursday was our last full day at Jody and Sandeep's house, and -after the more low key previous day- we decide to make a run out West to the wilds of Connemara. Entertainingly, we'd already sort of been out that way a couple of times before, once while rushing Southwest to catch our ferry to Inishmore, and once while hopelessly lost trying to get to the Cliffs of Moher. On neither occasion had we felt like we'd really had a chance to take in the region though, in both cases, we noticed the remote, open bleakness of the area. Though, an appealing bleakness.

This time, following the directions of our trusted Garmin, we set off on the winding backroads, and allowed ourselves to travel farther and farther afield. In Ireland, or at least in this part of Ireland, it's not difficult to feel like you are suddenly in the middle of nowhere. And, sure enough, it wasn't long before we were traveling down nearly one-lane roads, with barely a house, car or even tree to be seen.

A typical view while driving in this part of Ireland. On one hand it would be easy to paint it as dull or barren, but honestly it all struck me as stunning in it's starkness and rugged beauty.
 Sheep. The first couple of times we came across sheep grazing like this right next to (or actually on) the road, we had presumed they'd escaped somehow, but it became more and more apparent that -in these sparsely populated areas, people probably didn't even bother fencing their pasturelands.

At one point, we passed what looked like a farm house that was being used as a staging area for a large film production, and were told later that it was likely people filming Game of Thrones. We had entered the Kingdom of Winderfell.

Eventually our winding road lead us to the tiny village of Leenane, which seemed to be composed entirely of a single strip of pubs and shops, lining a road which overlooks a gorgeous fjord. Stretching out legs, we found a small café that was just opening and dug in for tea, scones and smoked salmon. Refreshed, and with food in our bellies, we headed onward to Kylemore Abbey.

Otto in front of the fjord that Leenane hugged the edge of.

Initially, after our previous hit-or-miss experiences with the kids and castles and/or manor houses, we had ben considering just stopping for the quick photo op at Kylemore Abbey, before heading on to do some hiking elsewhere. But, as we crossed the bridge over Kylemore Lough, and got our first glimpse of the Abbey, it quickly became apparent that we would want to get out and explore a bit.

Kylemore Abbey was initially made by a Mitchell Henry for his wife, Margaret. Then, in 1920, it was purchased by an order of Benedictine nuns who were fleeing WWI; and -while the location is now popular with tourists- the nuns still reside there to this day.

In addition to Abbey's main building, there is also a small cathedral and a number of other features, including a walled garden. Since the garden lay roughly a kilometer from the house, we decided not to explore inside the abbey house itself, and instead wanders around it's vast grounds, taking in the beautiful lake, the gardens and generally enjoying the sunny day.

Kylemore Abbey, whose grounds were a long, thin strip pressed between the lough and the mountain the rose behind it. Coming across such a beautiful and palatial structure in such a remote feeling locale only added to it's beauty; and it speaks to the wealth families like the Henry's must have had in order to build something like this, especially when you take into account it was built effectively as a gift to his wife. (Sadly, I doubt I will never be able to give Sarah a manor house.)

 The Cathedral on the Kylemore Abbey grounds. Also built for Margaret Henry, but -sadly- built in her memory after she died from a stomach illness upon returning from a trip to Egypt.

 Local legend says that this "iron-shaped" rock ended up here after two giants (one of which had possibly the best name ever: Fionn McCool) had a contest to see who could throw it between their mountains. Purportedly, you get a wish, if you can stand on the far side of the path, throw a pebble over you shoulder, and have it go over the stone. Otto deemed that too hard, and just tried to throw it over the rock directly.
Part of the walled garden. I picked this picture because it shows how big it is (this is not even a quarter of it's entire size) and because Stella is in it. But other part were more interesting it that they had sections dedicated to herbs, vegetables, and even a "nuttery."

After hiking down to the gardens, and taking a shuttle back, it was on to the village of Letterfrack for lunch. Arriving in Letterfrack, we were all in our collective hunger-fugue state, where we were all drifting between cranky, indecisive and confused. Luckily, we discovered the Lodge, another in a string of great little Irish restaurants with a singular focus on locale ingredients.

With lunch in our bellies, and some focus back, it was on to Connemara National Park... which turned out to almost be within walking distance of where we'd parked our car for lunch. Arriving, we selected a three kilometer loop to hike and set off (albeit a little concerned that the kids would make the loop, having already put more than one kilometer under their shoes that day).

At first, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical, as we set of on the train, which began in what appeared to be simple scrubland. Then, the terrain turned more peaty, and then climbed a hill opening up to spectacular views of the coast and surrounding countryside.  As for the kids, the did amazingly. In fact, Otto practically ran the last kilometer of the hike, knowing that -at the end- there was a small playground.

 The view, once we'd gotten up on top of the hill. Photos like this never do views like this justice... yet we all keep trying, right?
 Otto sprinting and leaping down the path, during the final kilometer. I was pretty much ready to watch him bail completely on the uneven pavers, but somehow he made it down in one piece.

Two lovely ladies hiking.

Back in the car, we realized that we wouldn't be able to make it to our final destination of the day, Clifton and the Sky Road. The afternoon had passed quickly, and we would have to drive fast to get back to Ballinrobe for dinner.

With the kids crashed out in the back of the car, after their long hike, we raced back across the countryside one last time. Arriving at Jody and Sandeep's place, we were disappointed to find out that Jody was tied up with a work call, and that they would be unable to join us for dinner, but grabbed  meal at the cozy Lough Inn, not far from their house.

Dinner at the Lough Inn. I'm pretty sure that Otto slept through at least a third of the meals in Ireland. It's hard work being a little guy on a big trip.

The next morning, we were up early, packed and -after saying our goodbye's to Jody and Sandeep, we were on our way to Dublin. Neither Sarah, the kids nor I was particularly excited about diving into the 3 hour drive, but our flight home the next day was early, and we had decided to stay at an airport hotel the last night to avoid an early morning scramble. Thankfully, both traffic and the kids were on our side for the entire drive, and we made it back across the width of Ireland with little hassle and barely a complaint from the kids.

Arriving a little after noon, it gave us half a day to explore Dublin. After a week in the countryside, with little in the way of traffic, Dublin was definitely a shock, and I was glad I had now had several thousand kilometers of Irish roads under my belt before navigating it's confusing spidereweb of streets. Our initial impression was that Dublin felt (for lack of a better term) very "blue-collar." The buildings lacked the ornamentation and grandiose architecture that I equate with other European cities and -instead- the predominate builds seemed to be brick factories and storehouses. That's not to say the city was ugly, mind you, but instead it had a very lived in feel that was equal parts honest and charming.

Our first destination was possibly the most touristed place in Dublin: The Guinness Storehouse. It was the Guinness Storehouse that you visited to find out about how Guinness is made, how the pour the perfect pint and -of course- sample the drink itself. But, if you are expecting a folksy old factory, you've got another thing coming to you. Instead of being an old-fashioned brewery, with vats, barrels and piles of hops and barely, the Guinness Storehouse is a state-of-the-art, multi-storied, interactive experience, filled with restaurants, souvenir shops, curio pieces from Guinness' past and more than it's share interactive touchscreens and giant monitors explaining how the beer is made.

The beer itself isn't even made on the premises, so it' snot exactly even a brewery tour. But, it does make up for it through the range of activities. Unfortunately, most of the ones we were really interested in -like how to pour the perfect pint or the chance to taste different Guinness beers- also had prohibitively long lines, since we had two little travelers with us who had little interest in imbibing in beer. So, instead we stuck to the areas that had interesting things for them to look at, before finally heading up to the Storehouses Sky Bar with it's 360-degree views.

The views in the bar were, indeed exceptional, and gave us our one real look out at the layout of the city. And, the complimentary Guinnesses were -likewise- immaculately poured. But, the crowds and restless children soon brought us back down to the ground floor and on to our next location.
The Guinness Storehouse. I'm sure this entire place just confused the kids. Heck, it confused me.
When I picture where Guinness might be made, I think of old barrels and rough stone walls. The reality is giant projection screens and interactive displays.

 Our "prefect pints" in the Sky Bar. Despite the crowds, I will say they really were quite good. Sarah looks happy in that reflect on the table.

A short drive later brought us to a parking garage (my first European parking garage!) a short walk Stephen's Green, one of Dublin's city parks. Our initial plans had been to wander through the park before moving on to Trinity College and it's promises of Harry Potter-esque libraries. But, it quickly became apparent that the kids would be happier with some time at the playground to run free and relax.

The kids strike a pose in front of some pretty flower beds at Stephen's Green.

Finally, it was on to our last tourist destination of the trip: The 800-year-old Brazen Head. The oldest pub in Dublin. While we knew that the "oldest pub in Dublin" would obviously be a draw for tourists, we were actually surprised by how fun and homey it felt, and how much we enjoyed it. To enter you passed through a courtyard bar, with it's obligatory smokers and revelers, and into the pub itself, which was actually a series of small rooms, each seemingly sporting their own bar. While some rooms were cramped and others more specious, each seemed to have an authentic sense of history to them. One wall, for example was covered with hundreds of patches. Closer inspection of the patches revealed that most of them were patches off of police and fire jackets, left by visitors from the states and other locales. Otto, for his part, slept curled up on the bench next to me, which led to more than one joke with the wait staff about how he'd already had enough Guinness for the day.

 The kids and I, outside the Brazen Head. 800 years is a bit weird to imagine. I mean, that was before the America's were even "discovered." There was no Guinness then. 800 years is a lot of history and -I imagine- revelry.  
Sarah, in our final pub of the trip. One last Guinness and hearty meat and potatoes meal, and then back to the States.

While both the Brazen Head and the Guinness Storehouse were tourist draws, it will definitely be the Brazen Head I look back on more fondly.

Done with our dinners, it was time to check in at the airport hotel. After all the events of the day, I think we were actually all sort of looking forward to the predictable comfort of our hotel room. Stella, upon seeing it declared: "It's like staying in a castle, except nice and new."

Then, the next morning it was home again. The flight back was long. Frustrating at time, tedious and times and challenging at time. But, never quite the gauntlet that flying out there was. Movies were watched, hobby-kit-style meals were consumed and the kids eventually nodded off in the final hours before landing. Returning through customs proved challenging since, in the heads of both the kids and us, it was something like 3 in the morning. Otto, having spilled juice on himself in the flight, became the first person I've known to pass through customs not wearing pants.

And then, we were home again.

Since pretty much every entry has featured at least one picture of the kids sleeping, I figured it was only fair to include one of me too. Especially after finally wrapping up these entries.