Sunday, July 5, 2015

A bison jam

I’ve been to Yellowstone once before. It was the middle of winter, I was travelling for work, and my client took me snowmobiling in between locations on the weekend. It was a lot of fun, but aside from lots of snow and trees, I didn’t really see much of the park, since it was all buried under the winter blanket. This time was much different.

Yellowstone Park is huge—I mean, it takes a couple of hours just to drive the loop without stopping. Our first day in the park, we stopped to see Old Faithful on the way to our campground. We thought it would be a quick stop, but ended up staying for a couple of hours, getting to see the famous geyser erupt twice, and walk along the boardwalk to see probably a dozen other geysers as well as lots of beautiful pools. We even were lucky enough to see the Beehive geyser erupt—something that happens once, twice, or not at all in a day.

Over the next couple of days, we saw lots of bubbling, gurgling, splatting steaming geysers throughout the park. It’s pretty amazing to look out into a white field on the side of the highway, and see steam coming up from a dozen or so openings in the ground. The geysers and pools were all so unique from each other—colourful, muddy, violent, gurgling, tiny, giant, violent, calm. Just when we thought we were geysered out, we’d make just one more stop and be amazed yet again.

We also saw lots of bison and even a couple of moose. At one point, we got stuck in a traffic jam caused by a whole herd of bison crossing the road in front—including the adorable little calves running after their moms.

Yeah, go ahead, we can wait.

A lake, an outhouse, and a birthday

One of my favourite ways to spend my birthday is camping. Since my birthday is on July 1, this is usually pretty do-able. This year, we camped at one of the most peaceful campgrounds I’ve been to: Pinnacles Forestry Campground in Wyoming.

The campsite was high up in the mountains, about four miles down a gravel road, which probably helped deter some people from finding it. We go there early in the day and managed to snag a prime spot, super private, overlooking the lake, with an unbeatable view of mountains across the water.

It was also right near the bathroom, which is always a plus when camping. Being a forestry campground, at $10 a night, Pinnacles has outhouses, but these were no ordinary outhouses. There’s a sign on the door saying “Welcome to our home” and a little mat right outside the door. This seemed quaint enough by itself, but when I stepped inside, I was shocked by what I saw.

There was a small square table with a cloth thrown over it. On top of the table were some brochures about bears, a vase with fake flowers, a few knick knacks, and, oddly, an old rotary phone. In the corner on the floor was a real, living plant and the walls had posters and signs. All of this managed to transform an outhouse, normally a place to run into and out of as quickly as possible to avoid the stench, into a pleasant, non-smelly, welcoming surprise.

We swam in the cool lake, had hot dogs and s’mores over the fire, I went for a bike ride, and we played some cards. After the boys were in bed, Gerry and I sat around the fire gazing out at the lake. It was a full, bright moon and all felt just right.

Not a bad way to spend a birthday.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Sinks

We’ve had a couple of invaluable books that have been really helpful as we figure out where to go next on this trip. One of them, Moon’s Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho camping tipped us off to a little Wyoming State Park called Sinks Canyon.

What makes Sinks Canyon really cool is that the rushing Pogo Agie River thrashes away, then cascades down into a large, deep cavern and disappears (called “The Sink”). The river calmly reappears a quarter of a mile down the road into a large, peaceful pool (called “The Rise”) before speeding up into a rushing river again.

We started at the Sink, splashing around a bit on the edge and marvelling at the force of the water and the size of the cavern. From there, we walked down a path and across the road to an observation deck and were pleasantly surprised to be able to see about 50 rainbow and brown trout swimming around at The Rise, an area apparently rich in food. The kids had a lot of fun watching the fish, and there was a food dispensing machine, so they had even more fun throwing food in the water, then watching the fish splash around to get it.

Our campsite was inside the State Park, right next to the Pogo Agie River. It was a large site, with separate pads for tents and the boys decided it was a good night for them to sleep in the tent by themselves. After supper, Gerry and the boys got to work setting up the tent. Just as they were finishing, lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, and the skies opened up and dumped a violent waterfall of rain and hail down on us.

There was a steady downpour for about 30 minutes, which we watched from underneath our awning, laughing at the hail and the steam coming off rocks that were still hot from the afternoon sun.

However, not to be deterred, once the rain slowed down, the boys hunkered down in the tent and stayed there most of the evening and all night long, giggling themselves to sleep.


The one where we all went to prison

We started yesterday off with a seven mile bike ride along the Yampa River where we’d been tubing the day before, with a pit stop at Starbucks for a cold drink. The trail was paved and flat, with several small bridges crossing back and forth over the water, making for a nice, easy ride that was a perfect way to see a bit more of the city and enjoy the river some more.

After we piled back into the RV, we continued on down the highway to Rawlins, Colorado to the site of the former Wyoming State Penitentiary. The prison opened in 1901 and remained in use until 1981, holding several well-known criminals, including Butch Cassidy.

We took an in-depth tour of the facilities and saw the tiny grungy cells, the inadequate shower room that was a place for settling scores, the cafeteria where prisoners could only talk to the person to the immediate right or left or face being shot, the darker side of cell block A where prisoners could hide in the shadows of their cells and reach out and grab someone walking by, and the gas chamber where two men were executed.

The guide had lots of grisly stories for us of escapes, riots, scams, and deaths. One of my favourites was the story of a few prisoners who were in the death row section. They managed to sneak out of the cells at night and start tunnelling their way out, hiding the dirt in the ceiling tiles. They were making pretty good progress until they hit something hard, kept digging, and managed to rupture a gas line, putting an end to their efforts pretty quickly.

Not quite Shawshank.

Floating along in Steamboat

One of the things I’ve wanted to do for years is float down a river in a tube. I imagined it being tranquil and relaxing. Well, in Steamboat, Colorado, I finally got the chance to give it a try.

A free transit bus picked us up at our campground and took us a few miles into town where we got off,  confidently walked down to the river  with our inflatables—the boys with a boat and oars, Gerry with an inner tube, and me with some sort of double tube/chair thingie that I suspect was designed to use up left over plastic at the factory.

We could hear the tubers on the Yampa river before we saw them. Mostly locals, hanging out on the rocky shores whooping and cheering on their friends as they did more boogey boarding than tubing.

 We walked just in front of a bit of a rapid, put our inflatables in the water, and climbed in, ready to float along. Instead, we all got caught in the circular current coming off the rapids and started going backwards. We all frantically tried paddling our way out, but the locals soon grew tired of watching us silly tourists blocking their boogey boarding on the rapids, and one of them gave the kids a push out of the way. Not needing to worry about the boys, Gerry and I were able to make our way out right afterwards and settled in for a nice, relaxing ride down the river.

Or so we thought. Within a minute, we hit another rapid. My tube/chair/plastic collection flipped, taking me with it. Luckily, I managed to hold on to the tube, as well as my processor that was in a waterproof case around my neck. When I came up and made it to calmer waters, I realized I’d lost my second pair of sunglasses this trip. Sigh. Oh well.

With the initial excitement out of the way, the rest of the trip was relatively uneventful, save for a few large rocks that we rode right over and had to lift our bums in the air to avoid. The boys, best equipped for the ride in a sturdy boat and oars, managed to get way ahead of us, but we were super proud that they stopped at the giant sign saying “All tubers exit here” and held their boat and our supply bag there until Gerry and I caught up to them.

Unfortunately, when Gerry tried to stop himself in the same spot, he got a bit tangled up, was separated from his tube, and the current quickly snatched his tube away downriver.

This posed a slight problem, because contrary to the giant sign, we were actually planning to continue on down the river right back to our campsite, as the staff at the campground told us we could (the sign was mostly for the benefit of a touring company/shuttle bus). At this point, we were 2.5 km from the campground without enough inflatables to make it back.

Undeterred, we started walking and managed to find a bus stop about a kilometre down the road. After waiting a few minutes, the bus arrived and drove us right back to our campground where we made smoothies and collapsed into our lawn chairs to enjoy them.

It was awesome, though not quite as relaxing as I’d envisioned. Next time, I’m getting a better tube. And maybe leaving my sunglasses behind.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

People are people

Mesa Verde National Park is a series of Native American communities that were built in 1200AD in southern Colorado. The amazingly well-preserved ruins are built into the rocky overhangs of cliffs. I saw some pictures and thought “Huh. That looks cool. Maybe this will be educational for the boys.” I didn’t realize visiting Mesa Verde would leave us all so moved and humbled.

Our first stop was called Spruce Tree House where we got an introduction to how the structures were built and some of the common elements, including the kivas—round rooms built into the ground with seating and room for worship and socializing.

From there, we drove to an overlook to view Cliff House, one of the best preserved ruins that remain. Seeing the building from further away gave us an appreciation  for how well the structure is integrated with the mountainside.

Our final stop was a tour described as “strenuous” and not for the faint of heart. Balconey House is only accessible by tour with a ranger, and involves climbing two ladders, including one that’s 32-feet tall, squeezing through small tunnels, and standing precariously close to the Cliffside with no railing. Dave described it as the “Indiana Jones tour” and said many people change their mind when they see the ladder.

It was a tight squeeze and a bit nerve-wracking, but being able to walk inside the ruins, peer inside rooms, and see evidence to people living and working there, like the soot on the ceiling and the handprint in the clay, made it worth every skipped heartbeat.

But what really made the tour special was Dave. Dave is part Native American, part Caucasion, and he spoke with such a tenderness for the ruins, the land around us, and the people who lived there before, that we were all captured by his stories and his life lessons. He was able to bring the ancient people who lived there to life for us in our imaginations and left us with the message that “people are people” and we have different ways of doing things, but it doesn’t mean one is better than the other.

I wasn’t sure how much of Dave’s talk really sunk in with the boys, but a few days later, when we asked the boys what some of the highlights of the trip were so far, they both said “that really good tour guide.”

Huh, pretty cool.


Yeah, we're not paying that

Glenwood Springs was recommended to us as a good stop to enjoy some hot springs and take a break. The hot springs were great, and it was a nice break, but for a bit, we weren’t sure we were meant to stop there.

·         The woman at the visitor’s information centre didn’t have any information on campgrounds in the area. “Yeah, I don’t know anything about that.”

·         We went back to a campground we’d seen as we were driving into town, only to get a bad feeling and be reminded of what we affectionately call the “Deliverance” campsite from our previous trip—minus the stunning views.

·         The GPS led us 22 minutes outside of town and up a mountain to the supposed location of another campground. When “our destination” was on our right, all we saw was a cliff.

·         We backtracked another 20 minutes to a campground that offered a spot right on the Colorado River—for the not-so-low price of $65+$5/child+$5 for the dog+someothercrazyfee. No thanks.

Finally, at 4:00, by backtracking yet again, we managed to snag the last site at a charming campground, for the much more reasonable price of $30, with full hookups.

Undeterred, after securing our campsite for the night, we headed back out, made a stop for slurpees, then went to the hot springs.

And the hot spring were impressive, being the largest hot spring in the world and all. We soaked up the warmth, went down  a few waterslide rides, had supper (spaghetti in the motorhome, because, as we found out at 6:15, the concession stand closed at 6:00. Ah well, spaghetti was awesome), then soaked some more.

Certainly not the way we planned the day, but a good day nevertheless.