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NateKat · Photography

Photography

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In May last year we joined large crowds of locals to watch the Radnor Hunt Races.  It is a series of steeplechase races around a 1 mile track across the hilly Pennsylvania countryside. The all-day event attracts 20,000 fans for high-class tailgating around the race course.

 

The races also give a nod to the Radnor Hunts (fox hunt), by guiding fox hounds around the 1 mile track.  We think about halfway around the hounds figured out it was too hot and there were no foxes.  The hounds started to stray into the crowds, which got the kids pretty excited.

 

We hope to return this year with friends and family.

 

Most guys in attendance sported an East Coast style with khakis and boat shoes… Nathan added a little SoCal flair with his flip flops and hiking shorts.

 

Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area near Reading, PA is only about an hour from our house and attracts thousands of snow geese and other water fowl every winter. We decided to take a early morning visit in March to watch 50,000 geese rise off a frozen lake right at sunrise!  This lake is a regular stop on the snow geese migration route bringing in over 100,000 geese at its peak.  We were about a week late for the peak, but even with only half the geese it was still an amazing sight to see.

 

In March the sun was rising around 7 am, but it is best to arrive in the dark around 5 am.  You want to arrive before the geese have started moving around, and you also want to claim a photography spot.  This is a popular event and people from all over the East Coast come to watch.  Bring a head lamp or flash light to guide your way for the 1/2 mile trail to the peninsula view point, which was a bit icy when we were there.  You can hear the geese waking up honking and stretching out their wings.  Other V’s of geese start arriving in the dim light.

The geese and photographers start getting anxious as the sun rises and the noise of honking geese grows.  There are several roosting groups on the ice and everyone wants to know which one is going to take off first.  At some point the one group leads off rising in the dim morning light.  It is hard to see the thousands of geese until they break the horizon and the crowd of people erupt in oohs and ahhs and then are overwhelmed by camera shutters as if a celebrity had just stepped out on the red carpet.

 

 

The first few groups to rise just circle the lake and return to the ice.  Sometimes a few thousand geese passing overhead trigger another group  to take off creating a chaotic scene of geese flying overhead.  When staring in awe of a thousand geese flying overhead its always a good reminder to keep you mouth closed!

 

 

The local Amish are also in the crowd enjoying one of nature’s phenomenons.  The ironic thing is they are surrounded by photographers, but there is little risk of anyone is taking their photo.

 

At some point, the geese feel the sun has warmed their wings, and the entire flock rises like a rogue wave consuming the blue sky.

 

 

The entire event only lasts 90 minutes, and the majority of the geese are feeding in the surrounding fields by 8 am, but it was well worth the trip.  If you’re a birder, then you’ll also enjoy the many other species that are also flying amongst the snow geese.

 

2/19 Traveling from Argentina to Chile

It was a long travel day from El Calafate, Argentina back to Punta Arenas, Chile (via Puerto Natales).  Not only was the bus ride long, but getting through the border wasn’t very efficient.  It was quite disorganized and confusing, and a group of us got the wrong date stamped on our passports on the Argentina side, which had to be fixed before we went to Chilean officials.  Once we made it to the Chilean side, they did a full inspection of all the luggage looking for any fruits/veggies/meats that could contaminate the Chilean agriculture. Luckily we expected the border hassles and had scheduled a long layover in Puerto Natales. Turns out we would have missed the earlier bus by about 20 minutes. By the time we made it to Punta Arenas we only had time to grab dinner.  We also found this odd street sign that still remains a mystery.

Snow-women are to the right??

 

2/10 Last Day in Patagonia

On our last day we took a boat to Isla Magdalena, which is a small island inhabited by the Magellanic Penguins.  These penguins are pretty small, only standing a couple feet tall, but full of personality!

 

 

The boat ride to and from the island is pretty long without much to see and no entertainment, so we should have brought something to read.  The ferry fit a surprising number of people, but seemed like it was really designed for non-human cargo, so it was often hard to find a seat.

Once we arrived, everyone flooded the island after getting strict instructions not to approach, chase or touch the penguins.  You also are required to stay within a roped walkway that follows the coast from the boat to the light house on a hill. This is to protect the penguins since they have nests all over the hillside.

 

Although the people can’t leave the walkway the penguins continually cross as they return from the ocean to their burrows or nests.

 

This can cause some humorous reactions and photos as people (like Katharine) are focused on the nests and don’t even realize a penguin is sauntering across the path.

 

Pretty much everyone decided to walk up to the lighthouse, but we chose to hang back and spend some time just watching a few different penguin families.  We saw them digging and cleaning their burrow as well as others defending their nest with vicious bitting and squawking.

We saw these two love birds taking a walk on the beach.

There were a variety of different ages, some were too young and didn’t have their stereotypical tuxedos.

The hillside was just covered in penguins, quite a sight.

As we were warned, it was very cold and windy on the island! (kind of a theme in Patagonia…)

This was a great way to end our trip laughing and enjoying ourselves watching the cute birds waddle around their island.

All in all it was an amazing trip with so many memories and photos.  With all the hectic traveling in Patagonia, it took a little while for the entire trip to really sink in.  Now we enjoy reminiscing about backpacking along the mountain and lakes in Torres del Paine, the relentless winds of Fitz Roy, giant ice walls calving into the lake, and last but not least, the awkward waddle of a Magellanic penguin!

2/18 Perito Moreno Glacier

On our return to Punta Arenas we spent a day in El Calafate and took a tour of the Perito Moreno Glacier.  We booked a Mini-Trekking tour that included plenty of time at the viewing decks and a guided hike on the glacier.  It’s about 30 minutes to the Los Glaciares National Park by bus and an additional 30 minutes to the Glacier viewing decks.  Our tour was scheduled so that we could eat lunch on the viewing decks and watch the glacier calve.

We were fortunate to see the 200+ foot tall glacier wall calve several times in the first 15 minutes.  You could hear the ice cracking, then massive portions of the wall would separate, appearing to fall in slow motion.  It’s hard to put into perspective how big the pieces of ice are that are falling.

RvCYkI

 

It seemed like the lake water had a delayed reaction to the ice falling, waiting until the majority of the ice had been submerged before exploding with a spray of water.  The blast pushed any floating icebergs out into the open water leaving an eerie calm in the water.

The viewing deck is built so close to the ice wall that it is impossible to view the entire glacier at one time.  The glacier wall is 3 miles wide and extends about 240′ above the water, but over 300′ of ice lies beneath the water’s surface.

We watched a couple people jump the railing and try to get a closer look, but they were quickly chased by the park rangers.

After lunch we headed to a small boat that took us across the lake and to the edge of the glacier.  It gave us an interesting view point to see the glacier in profile from a lower view point.

The guides tied the rudimentary (but effective) crampons to our boots and then led us out onto the glacier in groups of 15. They gave us a few tips and little training, but overall the tour felt quite lax in terms of safety compared to what we’d expect in the US.

We made several stops looking down into the deep blue crevasses.  The hike climbed up and over small glacial ridges that had been exposed to the air and sun and had been melting for some time.  The melting had reduced its density causing the ice to lose its blue color and look and feel more like snow.

Guide Surveying the Crevasse

Katharine looking down a crevasse as the guide holds onto her backpack for ‘safety’

 

We spent a couple hours on the glacier traversing up and down small hills. It was amazing to see the bright blue revealed in the crevasses while the rest of it resembled whipped cream or meringues.

The hike ended at a small table in a valley where the guides scooped up glacial ice in tumblers and poured everyone a celebratory whiskey toast.

We’ve seen a number of glaciers in Alaska and Montana etc., but this was by far the most impressive and memorable.  The vast ice wall was stunning, and of course the hike was an unforgettable experience.

 

 

 

2/14-2/15 Traveling from Chile to Argentina

Before we could recover from our 4 day backpacking trip we were faced with trying to buy Argentinian bus tickets from Puerto Natales (Chile) to El Calafate (Argentina) and on to El Chalten (Argentina).  El Calafate was hosting a week long music concert driving up the cost of hotels and booking all the buses in and out of the city.  To us it was just a layover to get to the small remote hiking/climbing town of El Chalten.  We finally managed to get tickets to El Calafate arriving around midnight, but still couldn’t get tickets for the next leg of the trip in Argentina. After many failed attempts at trying to contact Argentinian companies from Chile we surrendered and decided to have dinner.  We were giving advice to an Australian couple and Irish traveler about the W-loop in Torres del Paine when we mentioned our bus predicament.  Luckily for us they mentioned a website where you can buy Argentinian bus tickets!

It still took us 2 days, a really short but expensive hotel stay, and many hours riding on a bus full of backpackers to reach El Chalten.  That afternoon we hiked to Las Aguilas and Los Condores view points.  The Fitz Roy and Torre ranges were socked in with clouds, but it was nice to stretch our legs.

Rock climbers walking through town – a common sight in El Chalten

2/16 Day Hike to Fitz Roy

We had decided not to backpack in El Chalten since nearly all the trails can be day-hiked and the weather and wind are unpredictable. So when we woke up in our hotel and saw it was rainy, we were glad for the comfy hotel, and were happy to take the chance that the storm would pass, which it did by mid morning.  Other photographers in our hotel decided to take the day to sort through photos and sadly missed out on a spectacular view of the mountain.  We got a shuttle to take us down the road so we could hike 14 miles back to our hotel.  The hike started in an open forest shading the intense sun, but we could catch glimpses of Fitz Roy through the trees.  Eventually after 3 miles we reached a view point of Piedras Blancas, a glacier fed lake on the back side of Fitz Roy.

 Piedras Blancas

Side of Fitz Roy

We continued hiking 3 miles across the open landscape with the iconic Fitz Roy range (used in the Patagonia clothing logo) on the horizon.  We made it to Poincenot, a popular backpacking campground, hidden in the trees and last bit of shade before the push to the top.

We’ve found on steep inclines it is better to take it slow but rarely stop.  We play the tortoise in the classic story, while other hare-like hikers storm past us.  On a long climb like this we often ultimately reach the top first as they continue to feel the pressure to stay ahead of us, it always satisfying when we overcome them as they are exhausted trying to rest in the hot sun.  We both know the game that is being played and we usually smile as we pass them for the last time, and they usually smile back knowing they’ve lost.

There is always someone more hardcore, like this couple who carried their baby up to the top!

The view point of Fitz Roy is incredible with the green Laguna de Los Tres at the base of the large granite spires. We were lucky the clouds cleared for us to take a few…162 photos of the peaks.

After we ate lunch we watched the clouds engulf the peaks so we turned around and headed back down almost 8 miles and 2,500 feet to El Chalten.

We stayed in the Poincenot hotel while in El Chalten and took advantage of the local restaurants and enjoyed a lot of lamb, steak, and wine!

2/17 Day Hike to Cerro Torre Range

The next morning it was cloudy, but it was our last day so we wanted to make the best of it.  We hiked 7 miles out to Laguna Torre and had lunch.  We watched pieces of ice from the Glacier Grande wash ashore.

After completing another 14 mile day of hiking we were glad it was the last of our hiking, but also sad that our trip was coming to an end.  It felt like we were just getting used to traveling in South America.

 

It’s been over 4 months since our last post!  In those 4 months we’ve been busy buying and fixing up our first house, catching up with friends and family, and of course working, but we have also managed to fit in a little exploration of the East Coast.  We are just way overdue on posting about it!

Back in April we drove down to Washington D.C. to see the world famous cherry blossoms.

 

We were lucky to have Katharine’s aunt Lisa as our very own tour guide to help navigate the metro and crowded Tidal Basin area.

 

 

This year the peak bloom, parade, and sunny weather all landed on the day that we visited, which created massive crowds lining the Tidal Basin and other monuments.

If you click on the photo to zoom you can see the Jefferson Memorial stairs covered in people

Although there were thousands of people, the trees were spectacular overflowing with blossoms.  When the wind blew, the trees showered the visitors with white and pink petals.

 

 

We don’t exactly love crowds, so we found the experience a little stressful and overwhelming, but it was clear why so many people were there.  The blossoms were amazing and totally lived up to the hype. The monuments, water, and cherry trees make for some unique sights and photos.

 

 

 

We can’t wait to get back to DC to visit the other monuments and the museums. We’ve both been before, but years ago. It’s nice to being so close to so many interesting cities out here!

After our visit to Nome we flew to Fairbanks for a few days to try out dog sledding and see the Northern Lights.  We tried out the Alaskan tradition of staying in a B&B at Dale & Jo View Suites just outside of Fairbanks.  We enjoyed the hospitality and breakfast in the morning.  We tried to stay up and look for the Aurora, but fighting the time change and our busy days, it was hard to stay up past midnight.  In any case, the first two nights were cloudy, and talking to other guests in the morning confirmed that we didn’t miss much.

While in Fairbanks we tried dog sledding since there was more snow on the ground than in Nome.  We went to Just Short of Magic for our incredible mushing experience.

 

Katharine with Our Lead Dog, Patch

We decided to take the “mushing school”, which means they teach you about dog sledding and then you get a chance to stand behind the sled and drive the dogs.

Eleanor Wirts, owner and expert mushing guide, taught us all about the different types of sled dogs and equipment.  We learned how to harness and hookup the line of dogs.  We had 9 dogs in our team and we were surprised how friendly they were.  They were anxious to get on the trail, but they knew to stand still when you were putting the harness on, but once it was on, you better hold on tight or it would be off and running without you!  We were also taught about the different positions in the line. We had 1 lead dog, 2 swing dogs, 4 team dogs, and 2 wheel dogs to pull the sled, Eleanor, and both of us.

Hooking Up Starbuck, one of the Swing Dogs (2nd in line behind the Lead)

At first we both sat in the sled as the she told us about the commands (Gee- Right, Haw- Left, and Whoa- Stop!).  Little known fact, the dogs learn to poop on the run.  Not thrilling at eye level with 9 butts running 15 mph!

Sledding on the famous Yukon Quest Trail

After 10 minutes we stopped and Katharine jumped on the runners with Eleanor to get some hands on experience.  After a couple turns we stopped and Eleanor got in the sled and Katharine got to drive the dogs solo!

After another 10 minutes Nathan also got his instruction and solo turn on the runners.  It was a thrilling experience to have 9 dogs pull you over miles of snow with what seemed like little effort.  You could tell the dogs were enjoying themselves and could go for miles.

It was about 30 degrees which is pretty warm for the dogs so every time we stopped, they never missed the chance to jump in the snow drifts and burrow to cool off.  Before we knew it we were pulling up to the kennel and the thrill ride was over.

We spent another 30 minutes with the dogs as other guests took their tours.  The dogs were very excited, but once the sled left a calm silence came over the kennel until another sled could be seen coming out of the trees and chaos would erupt.

The dogs were so friendly we wanted to take one home.

While in Fairbanks we had dinner with Tim and Mary who are old friends of Peter’s.  They live in a cabin with limited utilities, which was an interesting lifestyle to learn about.  They had a lot of stories and experiences and it was intriguing to meeting someone who walks the talk even if it isn’t the easiest when living in one of the coldest cities in Alaska.  Their do-it-yourself attitude and accomplishments were inspiring and got us excited about our future house even though we know we’ll never sacrifice as many creature comforts.

After about two days hanging out it Fairbanks, we headed to Chena Hot Springs to get away from the city for one last chance to see the Northern Lights.  We decided to give it our best shot by taking a snow cat tour to the top of a nearby mountain/hill to wait for the phenomenon.

Riding in a snow cat is loud and uncomfortable, but it’s the only way to get there.  After spending an hour or so in a heated Yurt drinking cider and hot chocolate, we heard some excitement outside as the northern lights started to appear.

It was just a trace of a greenish cloud and could easily have been mistaken for a wisp of regular clouds.  The camera picked up the green much better than your eyes could.  The full moon didn’t help either.

 Canon 7D, Sigma 17mm, f/2.8, 8 sec, ISO 400

We were hoping for more colors, but we’ll take what we can get.  It was 10 degrees outside so when after 30 minutes the Aurora faded, we went back into the Yurt to stay warm. We were definitely glad that we did the late night tour because we probably would have missed seeing them otherwise. But we still would love to see them in the future in more glory. A good reason to return another year!

During the day back at the resort we took a short dip in the outdoor hot springs, which felt good in the freezing temperatures, except your wet head above water gets pretty cold.  The resort has gained popularity in Japan, so much so that there are direct flights from Tokyo to Fairbanks.

We had a couple hours before we left for the airport to explore the Ice Sculpture World Championship in Fairbanks.

Love in Motion, 1st Place, Single Block, Realistic

Imagine Dragons, Multi Block, Realistic

There was also a lot of scuptures for kids to playing on along with a couple ice slides!

Katharine Needed a Sled

It was a fun way to end the trip. After spending 10 days in sub-freezing temperatures, 8 flights, 1,592 photos we were ready to unthaw and hopeful for warmer weather back home, but we were greeted with similar temperatures when we arrived in Philadelphia. Longest winter ever, we are so glad that Spring has finally arrived now!

We’ve heard many stories about the harsh Alaska winters, abundant wildlife, and many other adventures from Peter, Katharine’s uncle, who lives in Nome, AK.  We had a great time on our honeymoon in Alaska in the summer of 2011, but we always wanted to go back to experience the winter season, so we decided to make a trip of it! We planned for a few days in Nome and a few days in Fairbanks.  Of course if you’re going to Nome in the winter/spring, you have to see the finish of the Last Great Race, the Iditarod!  The 1,000+ mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome can take anywhere from 9-15 days because of the harsh and changing weather.  After 3 flights and ~18 hours of traveling we arrived in Nome on Sunday (3/9) greeted by Peter in a small 1 room airport.

 

Peter gave us a great tour of the small Bearing Sea costal town with a population of 3,600.  While driving around the town we kept our eye open for musk ox.  We found a small herd grazing on the outskirts of town. They were grazing and butting heads as we walked from our car.

 

When they feel threatened they gather together and stand their ground to protect their young.  This of course doesn’t work too well against hunters.

 

This winter was unusually warm and they had gotten a lot less snow than normal.  As we listened to the Iditarod reports we continued to hear about injuries due to the icy and rocky conditions on the trail and Nome was no exception.  We were able to drive 25 miles east on the Nome-Council Rd along the shore to the Safety Roadhouse checkpoint, which is normally only accessible by snowcat, snow machine, or helicopter.  With the mushers (dog sled racers) still a couple days away, the place was deserted.

 

 Safety Roadhouse, the last checkpoint of the Iditarod

Looking Across Safety Sound

Looking Across the Bearing Sea Ice

Even though it was clear and sunny, it was nearly zero degrees Fahrenheit, and the brisk wind kept us from venturing outside the car for more than a couple minutes.  As the temperatures dropped and the winds picked up, we decided it was too risky to attempt anymore trips to the Safety Roadhouse. Drifting snow could block the roads in a matter of minutes and the harsh conditions could be deadly without any means of communication.

We decided to spend Monday exploring Nome, souvenir shopping, and watching last minute construction of the snow chute to the burled arch finish line.

This pretty white snow was trucked in that day

We also took in some of the local activities such as the craft fair, snow sculpting contest, and local eateries.  We also noticed as the finishers got closer, the town’s population grew with tourists, mushing support teams, and even a couple (low profile) celebrities including Ariel Tweto from Flying Wild Alaska and Wipeout.

We downloaded the Iditrod GPS app on our iPad to monitor the mushers progress from the checkpoints Elim, White Mountain, and Safety, as well as the final leg on the way to Nome.  There’s a mandatory 8 hour layover in White Mountain and then it’s just 77 miles to Nome.  Since they were traveling at ~7 mph, we figured once they left White Mountain it would be another 11 hours before they reached the finish line in Nome.  So we followed the top three racers over the next 24 hours:

  • Jeff King, 4-time Iditarod winner
  • Aliy Zirkle, Runner-up last two years, our favorite
  • Dallas Seavey, Last years champ

The following is our account of the Iditarod drama leading to the finish…

Monday 3:00 PM

Jeff King leaves White Mountain rested with a 1 hour lead on Aliy.  It seems like another 2nd place finish for Aliy as we watch her GPS marker leave White Mountain and both Jeff and Aliy progress toward Safety with a consistent gap.  They have 77 miles to go and are expected in Nome around 2am. Dallas is still under the mandatory 8 hour layover and can’t leave for another 3 hours. Peter warns us that it’s still anyone’s race, but everyone seems pretty sure Jeff will win it again this year.

9:30 PM

The sun has set and the winds are picking up.  The official race website is reporting 45 mph winds pushing the temperatures around -40F.  Jeff continues to lead Aliy, but his marker has momentarily stopped.  Dallas has also left White Mountain, but is almost 2 hours behind Aliy.

10:00 PM

Something is wrong with Jeff or his GPS is updating because his dot isn’t moving and Aliy is gaining as he sits just a couple miles from Safety.  We continue updating the app hoping he and his dogs are okay, but also excited about Aliy’s possible comeback.

11:00 PM

They announce Aliy has officially passed Jeff and it’s not a GPS error.  Aliy is the first to check into Safety, but is clearly stopping until the winds die down. The officials are clocking winds at 70+ mph at the Safety check point 22 miles outside of Nome.  With Aliy waiting for the winds and Jeff pinned down we decided to go to sleep and wakeup around 2:00 AM.

2:00 AM

Jeff has officially scratched after flagging down a snow machine for help.  His dogs we’re tangled in drift wood and he wasn’t able to get the organized and back on the trail in the strong wind.  In more surprising news, Dallas checked in and out of Safety at 1:16.  Aliy left in pursuit 14 minutes later.  With still 22 miles to Nome we decided to get another hour of sleep.

3:20 AM

Aliy is gaining on Dallas and they are within a mile of each other.  We slowly get out of bed layering clothes for the brutal temperatures.  We wonder if they can even see each other out there? Does Dallas know how close Aliy is?  With the drifting snow, maybe he doesn’t know.  We eventually get out the door and drive 5 minutes and park just off the finish line.

3:55 AM

We can hear the crowd yelling and cheering as we shuffle across the polished icy roads.  Not knowing where the finishers are we run along side the crowds of people lining the chute looking to see if anyone has finished.  Then the announcer yells out Dallas has just come off the ice and onto the street! We fight for place at the rope and look down the street.  The crowd begins to cheer and suddenly we see a team of dogs trotting across the snow and Dallas running along side.

Dallas Seavey

The crowd goes wild and the rope can’t hold the people back as they surround the chute and the 2014 Iditrod champion is named Dallas Seavey!  A couple minutes after the announcer yells and there’s Aliy!  Now the crowd really errupts with cheers.  The officials string out the rope holding the fans back and soon another dog team passes and a smiling Aliy high-fives fans as she glides to the finish line.  It seemed like everyone was rooting for Aliy, ourselves included, hoping she could avoid another 2nd place finish. She was a good sport and spent a lot of time with the fans and taking care of her dogs before she left the chute to get some much needed rest and probably think over her strategy and decision to wait at Safety.

Aliy’s Finish

Kids leading the way for Aliy’s dogs after the finish

We left and went back to Peter’s thinking of the agony she must be in missing 1st place by just minutes because she decided to wait.  She was 12 minutes faster over the last 22 miles, but didn’t have enough distance to overtake Dallas.  Dallas however was exhausted and didn’t even realize he was the first to leave Safety.  He thought Aliy’s light behind him was his father in 4th and his goal was not to lose to his father.  He was shocked to find out he was the winner.  We were still amazed how a 8 day race could finish with just minutes between 1st and 2nd.  Peter was right, it really was anyone’s race.  White Mountain to Nome is 77 miles of unpredictable terrain and weather, and it can often allow last minute lead changes.

We spent the next couple days tracking mushers as they left Safety Checkpoint, headed for Nome, so that we could meet them along the trail. The Nome-Council road follows the trail for several miles, so it was easy to drive a little ways out of town and wait in the warm car to see them racing across the open tundra or sea ice. As they’d pass we’d cheer them on and take photos, then we’d drive a little ways farther, leap frogging past them, to repeat the cheers and photos. This way we were able to see each musher 3 to 4 times as they headed into Nome.

Sonny Linder (5th Place)

Sonny on the Bearing Sea Ice

The conditions changed rapidly from hour to hour and depending on the location of the trail.  Some mushers fought whiteout conditions with drifting snow.

Martin Buser (6th Place)

They all had to cross the wind polished sea ice which we saw many mushers slide, fall, and dogs stuggle to maintain any traction.

After they went through the final check at the finish line the dogs were given treats and the mushers were greeted by family and friends.

In the chaos some clever dogs stole some extra treats

The dogs also go through routine vet checks throughout the race including the end.

The dogs then get to rest on straw beds until they are flown home.

While waiting for other finishers we also walked out on the sea ice.  It was slippery and you can see the buckling effects of the strong winds and moving tides beneath the surface.

We also watched migratory buntings outside of Peter’s house and even caught a glimpse of a fox.

Jessie Royer (7th Place)

Somehow the sea ice seemed particularly slippery as Jessie came across. Nathan had gone down to the ice to get some different perspective shots of the dog team, and as Jessie headed towards Nathan, they both struggled to gain traction on the ice. A couple minutes of hilarity ensued as Nathan slipped on the ice had to crawl out of the way as Jessie’s dog sled team slipped and slid just several feet from Nathan.

Nathan was extremely embarrassed, only moment ago voicing his concern for the possibility of slipping on the ice and getting tangled with a dog sled team.

Hans Gatt (9th Place)

At this time of year there was about 12 hours of daylight from 9:30 am to 9:30 pm.  We could hear the air raid sirens sound throughout the night and morning as the mushers approached Nome, but sadly it was hard to get motivated when you knew it was dark out and they would be hard to photograph.

Robert Sorlie (21st Place)

We also learned there are actually several races that use the Iditarod trail including a bicycle race.  They started a week before the dog sled teams, but they are clearly crazier.

They had signs of frost bite and open cuts on their faces after falling many times. They said the winds and drift conditions were the worst between Safety and Nome and they had fallen over the handle bars into the drifts multiple times. We also heard there were people running the 1,000 mile race, but we didn’t see any runners finish.

The last night we had an incredible king crab feast with Peter. It doesn’t come much fresher than being caught right out of the Bearing Sea.  We cooked 2 huge crabs giving us each almost 1.5 lb of delicious crab meat!

The last morning after we dropped our bags off at the airport we watched one more musher arrive.

Kristy Berington (30th place)

After the first 10 finishers Nome starts getting back to normal and the crowds die down and sometimes you forget there’s even a race happening.  We saw dog sled teams weaving around traffic down Front Street as they made their way to the arch.

Like most finishers their faces were frozen, but they were happy to be done.  Kristy’s eyelashes even had ice coating them.

Musher’s Mascara

We were to be able to borrow a car from Peter and Jean, which allowed us to greet and follow the mushers into Nome.  We also were thankful for the fur hats they lent us which by far out-performed any synthetic hat we had brought.

It was an incredible 4 day experience.  We have a greater respect for people who enjoy living in Nome and it was great fun to watch the Iditarod finishers, but we were out of time and off to Fairbanks!

We couldn’t include all the photos in our post so check out the rest below.

Day 64: New Mexico (10/6)

After 63 days of exploring the west it was time to head east.  The original plan was to visit a number of National Parks along our route to Pennsylvania, but the federal government was still shut down.  So while in Gallup, New Mexico, we visited Red Rock State Park for a quick hike. The park was pretty empty and we lost the trail several times since the ‘trail’ was mostly rock scrambling across the red sandstone.

 

 

 

The trail eventually leads to Church Rock, but we had to get back on the road. The goal was to cross New Mexico and stay the night in Amarillo, TX!

 

After 2 hours of driving some of the most visually spectacular terrain (sarcasm) we stopped at a McDonald’s in Albuquerque to use the bathroom. As we sat in the car checking our map, Nathan looked up and saw a newspaper dispenser displaying a free paper, which had a hot air balloon on the front.  We knew Albuquerque has a huge balloon festival, and had even discussed wanting to visit it at some point, but thought what are the chances it’s going on the day we happen to be passing through Albuquerque?  We did a quick google search and discovered that it in fact was! Not only that, there was one of the best events going on that night. As we drove through a quiet downtown, we were amazed to find not a single sign, banner or indication of the massive balloon festival just a few miles away!  We finally found out where the open field was, which most likely was where the entire city’s population was hiding.

 

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest balloon festival in the world! The first festival was held in 1972 with only 13 balloons. Over time it grew to more than 1000 balloon, but in 2013 the festival limited the balloons to 600 and has various events over 9 days. The day we visited was the launching of the helium gas balloon long distance contest and the balloon glow.

 America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race – Launching

The winner of this year’s competition landed in Ontario, Canada a couple days later covering 1,430 miles!

The balloon glow is a spectacular event where the balloons stay on the ground, but light up the night sky with their brilliant colors.  It was fascinating to watch the small teams unravel and inflate their balloons.

 

 

 

There were a mix of colors, shapes, and sometimes corporate sponsored balloons.  At first it was just a few teams and as the sun started to set, we wondered where all the other teams were.  The spectators gathered around the first few balloons as they fired their burners and breathed hot air into the thin fabric.

 

 

We were so fixed on this one balloon we didn’t look around to see 20 to 30 balloons being inflated all around us. What was an empty field just minutes ago was suddenly filled with trucks, teams, and balloons. It was chaos trying to capture all the different balloons while the sun was quickly setting.

 

Soon there were over a hundred balloons in rows.  There was no way to see all of them so we picked a row and watched as the flames lit up the balloons.

 

 

Soon all the balloons were inflated slowly swaying in the night sky.  We could hear a countdown over the loud speaker as we looked at each other puzzled.  Suddenly the roar of hundreds of propane takes and flames broke the silence and lit up the field.  It was visually stunning, but hard to capture in a photograph.

 

 

Right when you think your camera settings are right the glow would stop and you would be standing in complete darkness.  Luckily we had our headlamps and could see as we walked down rows of balloons.  The occasional solo balloon burn would light up the ground, keeping the balloon from deflating too much.

 

 

 

We could hear the count down again.  We froze, adjusted our camera settings, and aimed at the balloons.  This time the balloons alternated giving a flashing pattern as flames pulsed across the field.  After hundreds of photos we paused and stood together in a field of balloons and just watched pointing out different ones.

 

 

There was a coordinated burn every so often for about an hour before it was over.  As fast as the balloons appeared, they also disappeared.  They were deflated in the dark and quickly rolled up, and soon the field was empty again.  Although the backpacking and wilderness part of our trip was over, the Epic Trip continued to live up to its name. This was definitely one of our favorite coincidences of the whole trip!

 

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 64
  • Miles driven: 7,903
  • Photos taken:  12,426
  • Miles Hiked: 239
  • Hot Air Balloons: 650!

Day 61-63: Havasupai, AZ (10/3-10/5)

We saved an amazing experience for the last backpack of our Epic Trip. Havasu Canyon, a part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation, is known for its remarkable blue-green water and beautiful waterfalls. We had seen pictures of it before our trip and couldn’t believe the water really is that color, but it really is that blue! It did not disappoint, it’s an amazing place that we highly recommend.

The trip does require permits for camping overnight which can be hard to get in the peak season (particularly long weekends like Memorial Day), and sometimes it can be difficult to reach the Havasupai Tribe’s tourist office on the phone, but back in May Katharine was able to get permits for October. We decided to reserve 2 nights so that we would have plenty of time to explore the canyon. After we finished the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim earlier than expected, we were even able to move our reservations up by a couple days, so apparently they weren’t totally sold out. In the end, that worked out great for us because we hiked out on Saturday, which allowed us to avoid the apparent weekend crowds.

Since the government shutdown was still in full-force, we were very glad that this amazing place was on tribal lands and still accessible. It is possible to hike to the Colorado River and enter Grand Canyon National Park, and while we considered doing it just to be in the park briefly during the shutdown, we decided it wasn’t worth the extra 8 miles of hiking. Instead we enjoyed a very leisurely 3 day backpack.

 

A view from Hualapai Hilltop, the start of the trail to Supai

This adventure starts by driving down the remote Indian Road 18 to a parking lot with a helipad in the middle of the desert on Hualapai Hilltop.  The only way to the Supai village is hiking or riding a mule 8 miles through a canyon or via helicopter. All supplies and everything needed in the village are transported one of those ways.

The trail descends about 2,000 feet to the canyon floor, most of which is in the first couple miles.  The canyon walls were the traditional red sandstone, but after backpacking Zion and Grand Canyon we weren’t as impressed.  We only took a few photos of the hike to the village, which definitely improved our hiking time.

 

There were a few differences we noticed from hiking in the Grand Canyon and other National Parks.  For example, the mule trains supplying the village were much larger and the mules were loose, relying on herding techniques. Of course the canyon walls do much of the herding, but there are several areas where the canyon is rather wide and there are multiple different paths to follow, so sometimes the gear-laden mules would split up and the herder on horseback would go one way and rely on his dog to go the other. This was fun to watch, but did force us to take cover behind rocks or climb up a small ledge to get out of the way. This is not a trail to put on headphones while you hike… you need to be alert!

We noticed that backpackers were in the minority here… while we only saw a few people riding mules, most people used the mules to transport their gear. Given that it’s a pretty long hike for most people (10 miles to the campground) with a lot of elevation loss/gain (depending on your direction), we totally understand why most people use the mules to transport their packs.

 

 

After 8 miles (which felt longer since there was a lot of sand to hike through), we reached the village of Supai, where we checked in at the tourist office to get our wristbands and permit tag for our tent. The village was tough to walk through because although it is located in an internationally-renowned hiking destination, it is also a grim reminder of the poverty and remoteness of the village.  We didn’t take any photos in the village because many of the conditions were so poor, and we felt it would be disrespectful. Mostly there was a lot of trash, but we also saw malnourished horses and many wild (but mostly friendly) dogs roaming the dirt roads hoping for food hand outs. On the other hand, the school building was very well maintained and the grocery store had a lot of postings for community events. We couldn’t imagine living in such a remote community.

The last 2 miles from the village to the campground seemed like they took forever, but we were encouraged by the blue water of Havasu creek and finally knew we were close when we came to Havasu Falls. The turquoise water pouring over the cliff into a beautiful deep pool was as amazing as all the pictures show it. We decided to leave exploring the falls for the next day since the sun was setting behind them, so we continued on to the campground.

Havasu Falls

At the campground, there were some obvious differences between the National Park and the tribal lands. Here there were no assigned campsites, and a recent flash flood had completely reshaped the area and left many picnic tables stranded in the river. We were amazed how many picnic tables they had made or transported down there, and the campground was clearly meant to hold hundreds of people, which was definitely more than the NPS would have allowed, but certainly makes getting permits easier. Limiting access to protect a place like this is such a tough trade-off, especially when tourism is the main source of income for the tribe. Unfortunately there was quite a bit of trash left by all the campers, which is always such a shame to see. On the other hand, the tribe had an impressive number of solar toilets that were quite good shape and we noticed they were serviced every day. They also did check permits on every tent to make sure that everyone had checked in. As rule-followers ourselves, we like to see permits enforced because there are plenty of people who ignore the system on the chance they won’t get caught. We’ve only had our permit checked in a National Park/Forest once in all our years of backpacking (it was in the Grand Canyon actually).

 

Picnic bench washed away during a flash flood

Lasting effects of the flash flood

The campground was also different because there were lots of dogs roaming from campsite to campsite begging for food. We didn’t feed the dogs, but others did which would cause more dogs to gather at their campsite and sometimes break out in small skirmishes over food. Luckily though they didn’t seem too aggressive, and there were plenty of people, so if you didn’t give them attention they left pretty quickly.

 

We had the entire next day we to explore Havasu Falls and dayhike to Mooney and Beaver Falls (8 mile round trip).  The water in Havasu Creek percolates through layers of limestone picking up high concentrations of magnesium and calcium carbonate, which gives the water an unusual blue color and builds striking travertine dams.  The 100 ft Havasu Falls is quite a sight, and we were glad to return to explore it a little more, but the 190 ft high Mooney Falls was even more impressive. The surrounding walls are minerals built up over many years and the water changing its flow around the walls.  The falls were named after a miner who fell to his death on the falls in 1882.  They were never able to retrieve his body, and it is now encased in the walls.

Mooney Falls

Reaching the bottom of Mooney Falls is actually quite a challenge, especially for those with a fear of heights. It requires climbing down the walls through a series of tunnels, chains, and wooden ladders, all of which were cold and slippery due to spray from the waterfall.  Once again we were reminded that this is not a National Park, and the maintenance and safety of the trails are not guaranteed. All hiking beyond the campground is at your own risk.

 

 

The narrow tunnels and ladders can get crowded and we watched as many people became stranded in the cold spray from the falls.  Keep in mind, most people are headed down in the morning and up in the afternoon.  Trying to go up in the morning will be nearly impossible.

 

But once you get to the bottom, you realize the climb was well worth the wait and effort.

 

We ate a quick lunch and switched to our water shoes to hike to Beaver Falls.

 

 

The creek flow and depth varies and some areas are easily traversed while others are quite deep.  Our Zion backpacking trained us quite well to identify deep pools and find unique routes around them.

 

 

The trail is unique since it crosses the small water fall travertines, fields of vine-like bushes, makeshift bridges, and ladders.

 

 

 

 

After hours of photography and hiking we reached Beaver Falls in the afternoon.

 

It’s almost impossible to get lost because you are just following a canyon, but you can get on the wrong side of a deep pool or waterfall making it more difficult to continue on to Beaver Falls.  One of the only directions we heard was to look for a single palm tree.  You want to make sure you hike on the side with the tree and at that point you’re getting close to the falls.

The single palm tree

We saw a lot of people turn around before reaching the falls, and by the time we reached the falls many people had left and we had them all to ourselves! Unlike Havasu and Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls is more of a series of smaller falls, which makes it easier to explore and get up close.

The view from above Beaver Falls

Many people also just enjoy the view from above Beaver Falls, but we hiked down to the bottom then back up the travertines.

Yes, we hiked with our tripod and remote!

As the sunset behind the canyon walls we made the lonely hike back to the campground.

Keeping with our desert hiking tradition, we also saw a snake.  It wasn’t a rattlesnake this time, but still startling.

After our long 8 mile day hike, we made it back to the campground and enjoyed some local fry bread!  The local vendors are just outside the campground and are very friendly.  To our surprise, the young locals we talked to had never been past Mooney Falls!  We were shocked that you could listen to thousands of people from around the world rave about the creek and falls and never go explore them in your backyard.  We were also surprised to find the two fry bread vendors were quite competitive and did not work together to fix prices… the stand we went to was relatively new and had driven prices down. The fresh fry bread was less than $5 and tasted amazing after a full day of hiking!

We left early on a Saturday morning passing almost a hundred college-age kids backpacking down the canyon.  It definitely seemed like the campground would feel very crowded that night, so we were glad to be on our way out. The hike out wasn’t too bad, but it definitely got hot once the shade disappeared.

When we got back to our car, we found a tribe member sleeping in the shadow of our car, apparently waiting for someone/something!  Nathan gently woke him up and pointed him toward the next shady spot, which he crawled to and went back to sleep.  Just another reminder this was a different world!

We highly recommend visiting Havasupai… and since the mules can carry you and/or your stuff, it’s quite accessible for anyone. They even have a lodge in the village if you aren’t up for camping.

Although we were sad that this was our last time camping as part of our Epic Trip, taking us to a total of 33 nights in a tent, this was definitely a great place to finish it off! And we were still excited for the final leg of our trip, taking 6 days to make the remainder of the drive from AZ to PA.

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 63
  • Nights in a tent: 33
  • Miles driven: 7,475
  • Photos taken:  11,834
  • Miles Hiked: 237
  • Water crossings: countless

Check out some more photos of this amazing place! 

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