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NateKat · Life, Love, and Adventure… and a whole lot of national parks!

Just before New Years we closed out the year with a weekend trip to Assateague Island, Chincoteague Island, and the Outer Banks.  This post is a little rushed since we are also leaving for PATAGONIA this morning!!!

Assateague Island, MD

This part of the island is maintained by the National Park service. Wild ponies live on this island and can be seen grazing on the tall grasses growing in the shallow brackish water. We’d love to come back in the summer and do some camping.

 

 

Assateague Island, VA

The lower VA part of Assateague is also a park, but the the horses are owned and the herd is maintained by the Chincoteague Fire Department.  The fire department herds the ponies from Assateague Island across the inlet to Chincoteague every year in the summer to auction off the new ponies in order to control the population and raise money.

 

We took a boat tour around the island to try to spot the ponies along the shore, but the cold weather and wind kept them along the tree line.

 

We enjoyed our informative tour from Barnacle Bill, a local native tour guide, who told us how the area has expanded geographically and in popularity.

This light house was once on the shoreline to the right, but the island has grown over the years and now it looks more landlocked.

Assateague is also a refuge for many migratory birds.  There was always a helpful birder around to identify the various species. There were hundreds of snow geese, but apparently not as many as in other years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outer Banks (OBX), NC

The Outer Banks also has about 100 ponies on its island, but their population is struggling with a limited gene pool.  They are also thought to be abandoned Spanish horses from early ship wrecks as explorers came to America and misjudged the shallow shores.

We took a Hummer tour to explore the sand dunes looking for the wild horses, but only saw a few.

 

 

They didn’t look quite as wild when they were running around the few mansions on the island.  One harem of horses belongs to a feral mule who is pretty aggressive and successful in stealing females from other harems.  It is quite a funny story and a shock to see a mule amongst a group of wild horses.

 

 

We also attempted sand boarding at Jockey’s Ridge, which wasn’t as successful as we had hoped.  We’re not sure if it was our technique, equipment, or damp sand conditions, but we can’t recommend it.

 

 

On our way home we visited the Wright Brothers Museum at the site of the first powered flights. It was interesting to see, but we felt it could have been even more informative and the $8/person price was very high compared to other National Park operated services.

 

Nathan tried re-enacting the historic event

Now we’re off to the airport and we’ll share many photos and stories from our next adventure.  Check out some of the other photos from the trip.

Our Thanksgiving tradition is to visit Nathan’s family in San Diego.  It’s only a 4-day weekend, but we always try to make the most of it.  San Diego is a great city to visit, packed with a variety of activities.

San Diego La Jolla Tour

Nathan’s dad is also a certified tour guide so we took a great informative tour of the La Jolla coastline learning about the history, geography and current events in San Diego.

 

 

 

 

Wild Animal Park

We’ve been to the famous San Diego Zoo many times, so we thought it would be interesting to see the Wild Animal Park this time.  The exhibits are more spread out, so it was pretty exhausting, but we saw more young animals since this is the zoo’s breeding facility. The new tiger exhibit was also pretty cool in that it really let you see the Tigers close up.

 

 

 

Lobster Fishing

A few years ago we went lobster fishing and were really successful, catching several lobsters per person.  Ever since then, we’ve been trying to beat that experience, or at least match it. Unfortunately this year it was unusually windy, which meant we had to stay closer to the shore, likely hurting our chances. We caught three legal sized lobsters, but had more fun playing cards in the cabin between pulling pots.

 

 

 

Horseback Riding on the Beach

As a special treat, Nathan’s dad arranged for us all to go horseback riding on the beach! There are only a few places that still allow you to ride horses on the beach in California, so we were glad to get the opportunity.  We took a 2 hour ride along the Mexico border and out on to the beach.  It was fun to see how the horses personalities played out during the ride, even following the same track they always take. Despite our inexperience and some conflicting horse-human personalities, we all managed to stay safe and enjoy the ride. But two hours was more than enough for our unconditioned butts… we couldn’t get out of the saddle fast enough!

 

 

It was another great trip to San Diego, we are already thinking of what to do this year… maybe a trip out to the desert in Anza Borrego Park.

This year was really our first full fall season on the East Coast, so we tried to do a few hikes and activities to enjoy the weather and changing leaves. The warm weather of summer lingered this year, which extended the fall foliage season, but also meant there wasn’t a real ‘peak’ to the color. Still, before we knew it, the leaves were falling and winter was setting in! So we were glad to get out on the trail a few times.

Tohickon Creek Gorge & High Rocks Trail

Tohickon Creek Gorge is over an hour north of Philadelphia near the New Jersey border.  This was a short 4.5 mile hike starting from the Pleasant Valley Park parking lot winding through the woods to the High Rocks Trail.  There were a few nice views overlooking the Tohickon Creek Gorge, but the best colors were at the edge of the creek.

 Overlooking Tohickon Creek Gorge

 

Pulpit Rock & Pinnacles Loop

This hike is about an hour and a half northwest of Philadelphia.  This was a longer 8.7 mile loop with 1,300 feet of gain.  Much of the trail follows the AT (Appalachian Trail) including the two best views on the entire Pennsylvania stretch!

 

 View of Lehigh Valley

 Pulpit Rock

After reaching Pulpit Rock and Pinnacles we headed back down along Furnace Creek.

 AT

On our way back we ran into a couple lost kids about 10 years old who got separated from their mom and other siblings.  Luckily we were able to point them in the right direction, and their mom was eagerly waiting a mile down the trail.  The boys were only wearing shorts and looked very cold, definitely not prepared to spend the night out there!

This was our first hike over 5 miles in almost 2 months, so we were feeling pretty out of shape, but we kept a steady pace and still had smiles at the end!

 

Canoeing the Brandywine River

Nathan’s parents came to visit us and see the fall colors in October.  We thought what better way to see the leaves then from the slow moving Brandywine River in our own backyard!  This was our third time down the river this year, but it was our first time with the autumn colors.

 

 

Making it Challenging

Paradox Winery

We also all met up with Katharine’s parents at a local winery and enjoyed a few fall activities.

Nathan’s parents first corn maze after living in Iowa for almost 30 years!

Pedal Go-Carts!

Corn Cob Sling Shot!

Corn Cob Air Cannon!

It was a great fall season, but felt like it went too fast… We already have ideas for what we want to do next year!

Check out some of the other photos.

In August after visiting Mammoth Cave, we headed to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  We purposefully didn’t visit this park on our cross country trip since we knew it was a destination we would visit once we lived on the East Coast.  The park is located along the Tennessee and North Carolina border and straddles the Appalachian Mountains.  It is one of the most visited national parks with ~20 million visitors in 2010 – twice that of the Grand Canyon!

 

We spent 4 days in the park and packed in as many sights as we could.  We drove Cades Cove Loop Road and saw a mother black bear and her cub in a tree, which halted traffic as everyone tried to catch a glimpse.  We also drove to Clingmans Dome twice, but were socked in by the “smoky” fog.  We also did a short 1.3 mile hike on asphalt to Laurel Falls, one of the most accessible and visited falls in the park, but also quite impressive.

 

But the majority of our time was spent on two back-to-back backpacking trips!

Spence Field Backpack

The first trip started near the the Cades Cove campground.  We backpacked 3.5 miles up Anthony Creek Trail to Bote Mountain Trail.  Then we continued 1.7 miles to the AT (Appalachian Trail) and the Spence Field Shelter.

We noticed the lush and dense east coast forests,

the bright white AT blazes,

and some unusual bugs! Katharine was brave enough to lend her hand as a scale.

 

Spence Field Shelter

Not sure why it wasn’t more crowded in August, but we shared the shelter with only one other adventurer, Linda and her pack mule.  She was a more seasoned Tennessee resident and had many stories to tell.  For whatever reason it was comforting having another person and a mule to keep us company in the open air shelter.  We weren’t visited by any bears, but could see the mice scurry along the rafters. A ranger called us a couple days later though because someone had to use his bear spray at that shelter the next day, and they were considering closing it.

The next morning we set out in the early morning fog.

We hiked an additional 2.9 miles down the AT to Russell Field junction.

Russell Field Shelter

Then we turned and headed 3.5 miles down Russell Field Trail and back to Anthony Creek Trail returning to our car.  We didn’t see many hikers or wildlife and our view was always blocked by the thick forest.  We didn’t take many photos on the return hike and were while we appreciated the greenery, we miss the above tree line views of the western US.

Wildlife! (Newt)

Dense Forest

So that ended the first 2-day backpack after 13.2 miles with 2,800 feet of elevation gain, which was probably more than enough for two out-of-shape backpackers.  In an ideal world, we would have ended the day and regrouped for the next adventure, but time was short so we drove 2 hours to Big Creek campground in North Carolina (on the far other side of the park).

Mount Sterling Backpack

Already feeling pretty tired from backpacking 8 miles down 2,800 feet that morning we hit the trail again late in the afternoon starting at Big Creek Campground. We hiked to Backcountry Campsite 37, (5.1 miles, 1,000′) along Big Creek Trail.  Postcard waterfalls and babbling creeks crisscrossed the Big Creek Trail.

We arrived with about 10 minutes to setup our tent, hang our packs, and then the summer rain came…

When it rains, it pours! We were instantly drenched while we waited for our Mountain House dinner to cook.  We watched as the ground failed to absorb the down pour and water began pooling under our tent.  After a couple hours of rain we passed out, fingers crossed our tent material would keep the water from soaking our down sleeping bags.

We awoke with dry sleeping bags and began drying out our clothes and rainfly.  We had a short 5.4 miles and 3,000′ to Mount Sterling so we thought we would wait as long as we could before packing the wet rainfly.  To our surprise, the humidity was so high the rainfly wouldn’t dry even after being stretched out and hung in the sun for a couple hours. 

We packed our wet gear and headed up the Swallow Fork Trail to Benton MacKaye Trail and found Backcountry Campsite 38 on top of Mount Sterling (5,842′).  Along the way we saw only a couple other young backpacking families and just a few small animals and colorful plants.  

Even though we were hiking along a mountain ridge the tall dense trees blocked our view of the surrounding mountain ridges.  It wasn’t until we climbed the 60 foot tall fire tower atop Mount Sterling that we got a sense for the vast Appalachian Mountain Range.

The next day we hiked out 6 miles and 3,500 feet down Baxter Creek Trail to Big Creek Campground.  Again we were treated to occasional streams and waterfalls in the lush forest, but no sweeping viewpoints.

Backcountry Faucet

This 3-day backpacking trip totaled 16.1 miles with 4,200 feet of elevation gain.  When we finished, the sun was shining, so we celebrated with a much needed dip/bath in the frigid Big Creek before heading to a nearby campground for the night.

We also found these strange hitchhikers on our tires.  Anyone know what they are?

 

We roasted marshmallows and reminisced about our last 4 days in the Smoky Mountain backcountry covering 29.3 miles and 7,000 feet of elevation.  It turned out to be more challenging than we expected (mostly due to being a little over zealous trying to fit too much in to too little time), but we definitely got a good taste of backpacking on the East Coast – a lot more rain and trees than we are used to!

 

Check out all of our trip photos:

As we drove through Loretto, KY after leaving Mammoth Caves, we knew when we were getting close to the distillery as we passed a dozen large black buildings with the Maker’s Mark Logo on the side.  These buildings house thousands of barrels of aging bourbon.  After a long and winding drive, we finally arrived at the small parking lot and signed up for the distillery tour.

The tour was very informative about how the Samuels family created what we know today as Maker’s Mark – from the flavor to the shape of the bottle and the famous red wax.

 

The tour itself wasn’t quite as entertaining as the one we did at Jack Daniel’s since our tour guide wasn’t as enthusiastic and they we’re currently making any bourbon during our visit. We did enjoy the aroma of standing in their warehouse surrounded by thousands of gallons of aging bourbon though.

 

We also go to see a portion of their bottling process which includes an automated system that rinses each bottle with Maker’s bourbon prior to being filled!  The bottles are then each hand dipped in wax giving each bottle a unique drip pattern, with a minimum number of drips to pass their quality test. They claim that each operator develops a certain style and can actually identify their own bottles if they see it in a store.

 

Of course one of the best parts of a distillery tour is the tasting!

 

We got to taste 4 types of bourbon of varying availability.  First was Maker’s White, which is the bourbon prior to aging in the barrels, also known as moonshine or white lightning.  It’s only available for purchase at the distillery and only recommended for cooking, not drinking. The taste is very harsh and burns your throat even though they dilute it for the tasting.

The next was Fully Matured, i.e. standard Maker’s Mark, which was very smooth and enjoyable after the moonshine.  The tour guide did a really nice job of describing how the flavors would interact with your taste buds, activating different parts of your tongue and making them tingle.

 

Next was Over-Matured, which tastes terrible, like extremely bitter charcoal and is basically provided just to prove the point that too much time in the barrel isn’t always good. If aged too long, the bourbon soaks beyond the burned layer of the barrel and into the raw wood, imparting the bitter flavor.

The last taste was Maker’s 46 which goes through an additional special aging process and is more mellow than normal Maker’s.  We both enjoyed this the most so we purchased a bottle in the gift shop.

 

Another perk to purchasing the bottle at the distillery is that they have dipping stations where you get to dip your own bottle! Katharine dipped our bottle and did an amazing job creating just enough drips to pass a normal production grade bottle!

 

 

On our way out we also enjoyed some well-placed glass art by Chihuly, which cast a colorful glow over the barrels.

 

 

So far we’ve really enjoyed factory tours of companies that take pride in their product.  Not only is it interesting and entertaining, but you get a sense of brand loyalty, which makes us wonder why more companies don’t create tours for their customers. (The other tours we’ve done which we highly recommend are Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee and Celestial Seasonings in Colorado.)

 

Summer Road Trip!!!!

One year after our Epic Trip across the country, we were itching to get back out on the road!  We had one week off so we decided to visit Mammoth Cave National Park, which we had to skip on our 2013 Trip due to the government shutdown, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which we had intentionally saved for when we were living on the east coast.

 

We spent the 11 hour drive reminiscing about our Epic Trip, trading stories back and forth, “Remember when…”  We then played a game recalling every single day of our 70-day trip in order by listing one or two events that happened each day!  We were able to come up with several stories for each day without forgetting a day including some days that just involved driving 10 hours across Nevada.  We hope to never forget those stories.

We stayed in a hotel just 20 minutes outside of Mammoth National Park.  We woke up to torrential rain and realized this is probably one of the best National Parks to visit in the rain… since it’s all underground! To see the caves, you have to take the guided tours. They have a ton of options with different focuses like history or geology.

We decided to take the Beginning Caving Tour, which goes off the defined pathways and is intended to give you a taste of exploring new pathways or areas of a cave. To protect yourself and the cave, you have to wear a one-piece jump suit which comes in handy while you are crawling on your stomach from one room into another. Unfortunately, it also meant that larger cameras weren’t really an option. Then again, the areas we went were totally dark except for our headlamps, so photos would have been tough anyways.  It was truly an introduction to caving and we didn’t see or learn much about the history of the cave, but we did learn how easy it would be to get lost.  The guide took us in several circles and always surprised us by revealing that we had already see this particular opening or feature, just from a different direction.  After that tour, we probably wouldn’t ever try exploring a cave on our own. We also were glad that we didn’t sign up for the more advanced version of the tour that lasts 6 hours… 6 hours of crawling on your hands and knees or sliding on your belly in the dark without much to see isn’t really our idea of fun.

There isn’t much in the surrounding “cities”, but we thought we should try eating at a local restaurant.  It was an Italian restaurant that had a few nice reviews, so we went expecting a standard place with menus, but there was only two choices for entrees! Neither were very good, but it was quick! We then returned for another tour focused more on the history and discovery of the cave.  The local park ranger was entertaining with his Kentucky accent, dry humor, and vast knowledge of the cave’s history.

 

Mammoth Cave is the longest cave system known in the world, with 400 miles of surveyed passageways!  The cave was mainly created by water dissolving the limestone and hollowing out large areas. The water level later lowered, creating large dry rooms supported by the stronger sandstone. So most of the cave is totally dry and doesn’t have any stalactites/stalagmites.

Sometimes there is a small crack in the sandstone ‘roof’ allowing stalactites to form creating a more traditional cave architecture. We found photography to be really tricky because the tours moved along pretty fast and it’s so dark. You really need a tripod to get any great shots.

 

Much of the cave is just large open rooms, which eventually lead down to the underground River Styx.  They used to have boat tours on the underground river, but those were discontinued in the early 90’s.  During the high-season (summer) they do have tours to view the River Styx.

It was interesting to explore the cave, but after doing the two tours we felt like we had a good sense of it. Instead of staying another half day, we decided to leave ahead of schedule and add a visit to the Maker’s Mark distillery to our itinerary instead.

Looks like it’s time to catch up on some really old posts…

We spent our July 4th weekend working on some home improvement projects, but we decided to take a break and check out a Friday night Polo match at the Brandywine Polo Club.

 

It was a casual game played by all ages.

 

It turned out to be a good match for first-time viewers like us since the announcers spent some time explaining the rules and strategies during the game.

 

When a group of 4-5 polo ponies ran down the sideline you could feel the hooves pounding the ground.

 

We were also surprised that each player had multiple polo ponies and would swap them out after each chukka (period).

 

It was a casual afternoon event with families having a picnic on the lawn with wine, cheese, and crackers.  It is definitely something we’ll be doing again next summer.

In June we took advantage of living on the east coast and took a bus to NYC for the weekend. We met up with our friends, Mike and Dar, who were completing their round-the-world trip!  The last time we had seen them was at their send off party in San Diego, which was coincidentally also the weekend we started our Epic Trip.

We spent the evening catching up with them on their travels and decided to meet the next morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum has some interesting exhibits beyond the traditional paintings and sculptures.

Mike got a couple chuckles from other onlookers

 

In addition to the weapons and armor exhibit we checked out the musical instruments. We wished there was an audio component to the exhibit though, it seemed such a shame to see so many beautiful and unique instruments but not get to hear what they sound like.

As we were walking out, the classic painting of George Washington Crossing the Delaware caught our eye.  A fitting painting to end our visit.

We took a quick stroll through Central Park before parting ways.

And in the end, Nathan still hasn’t had a burger from Shake Shack… maybe next time? [a bit of an inside joke…]

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!

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