Jun 252012

John Hoffman about to heli-portage the Tweedsmuir Glacier and Turnback Canyon on the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

Taking a momentary pause in rafting, we are ready to fly. That’s John Hoffman in the front passenger seat, he’s not our most junior member on this trip, as a matter of fact he’s just north of 80 years of age. We are about to start the helicopter assisted portage of Turnback Canyon and along the way we’ll be offered a bird’s eye view of the Tweedsmuir Glacier. After landing on this beach two days ago, we hauled our gear out of the river and started prepping things for our portage. Yesterday the finishing touches were done and now here we are. Just an hour ago there was some uncertainty if this was actually going to take place this morning as some heavy fog had moved in over night. And then the familiar sound reached us before sight of the chopper did, time to get serious. Our rafts, gear, food, toilets, tables, and trash have all been placed on the netting; hopefully we haven’t exceeded the 1,200 pound external weight limit the helicopter can lift safely. Sure enough, we did exceed it. After a shaky moment of hovering, the pilot put the gear back down, landed, and we scrambled to lighten the load. As some of us unloaded a heavy box, the helicopter remained busy and moved a load of passengers to our landing site where they would be ready to start reassembling our rafts. We required three flights to move everything and everyone. Caroline and I took the last ride and I shot a video from the same place the other John is sitting in the photo; I’ll post that some day soon.

On the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

We were back on the river right away. In the time it took to make those three flights, the others who had gone first had already put our flotilla back in working order. Long live the Richter family, they were workhorses on this trip and maybe one of the most well-adjusted families I have ever met, they were also the ones who portaged first. I should point out that this was Caroline’s first helicopter flight and a big mental hurdle for her. Years prior she had told me that besides bungee jumping, she would never ride in a helicopter. Lucky for us, her curiosity and intense desire to be introduced to Alaska in such exotic circumstances allowed her to get over her fear and approach this with some enthusiasm. After the flight, as you can guess, she was amazed, ecstatic even.

Crystal clear water on a tributary of the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

It’s early afternoon and the morning gray hasn’t burned off. We were warned that once below the Tweedsmuir we would be entering the coastal range and that the weather might turn. Well, at least it isn’t raining. As is the situation nearly every day, we need to collect fresh water, it was this side stream that was chosen for us to gather from. On other days we had taken water from rushing streams that met the Alsek, today we learned of a new level of quiet, as all of a sudden the raging river behind us felt as loud as any freeway. We are now floating on glass.

Rock, moss, plant - because it just looks cool. Off the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

After the rush and intensity of the morning in order to have a flawless portage, it was nice to just hang out. Lunch was passed around from items we could easily put our hands on, it was our version of drive-thru junk food. After eating we simply drifted along, chilling out, watching the moss grow.

Floating on glass off the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

Hey military-industrial complex, forget about putting drones over our cities, my vote is to have solar powered drones hovering over places like this with a live camera sending hi-def video to my computer so I can sit here and watch the seasons change when I’m not in some of the world’s most beautiful places.

The weather is turning for the worse as we ply the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

Here we are in the Noisy Range with a great opportunity to learn why it’s the Noisy Range: a landslide in the distance roars! We know it was a landslide because of the cloud of dust kicked up after it had finished falling. As loud as it was to us on the river, I imagine it was a deafening roar within a mile of its location, we were probably about 7 miles away. Meanwhile the weather appears more ominous, so far so good.

Mountain side peaking out between low clouds along the Alsek River in British Columbia, Canada

With the clouds hugging the mountain sides that reach right to the waters edge and the broad expanse of silty river, not only do I feel out of season, I also feel as though I’m in the Triassic age. It wouldn’t much shock me to see a pterodactyl descending from the sky in an attempt to pluck one of us from a raft. Should it actually happen, I’m cool with that, because I couldn’t be any more comfortable with life as I am while on this river. We row forward, not often though, as the current carries us along at a good clip. There is a silence of mind that accompanies me on this journey, with occasions of awe breaking through the wonder. Oh how I wish I were still floating on that river under those clouds while astonishment overwhelmed my ability to own every last sighting of the amazing.

Purple flowers near the confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers in British Columbia, Canada

After being lost in the infinity of mesmerism, I am soon brought around to full attention with the task of pulling into camp. Bear scat, paw prints, and wildflowers greet us.

We make camp at the confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers in British Columbia, Canada

In the distance you can just make out the Tatshenshini River, we are camping at the confluence with the Alsek. Visibility progressively deteriorates and drizzle is now falling on us. Expansive sunny landscapes were not to be on today’s menu. What was on offer was a pot of hot yummy tomato soup and a giant bowl of fresh popcorn that made a perfect accompaniment to the soup. Tonight we do not dine alone – mosquitos by the truck load have joined us. Ugh, where’s a strong wind when you need it? The walk to the toilet is a two person operation if you are so lucky, one to take care of their business, the other to fend off the pests. Before dinner a bunch of us will go out looking for extra fire wood.

Water droplets collecting in the damp environment next to the Tatshenshini-Alsek confluence in British Columbia, Canada

Nope, no wood down here. Just me and these tiny water droplets.

A cluster of mushrooms looking dandy next to the confluence of the Tatshenshini-Alsek Rivers in British Columbia, Canada

Firewood is in the tree line – with the mosquitos. Out in the open it’s just me and the microscopic world of the pretty, everything else is hidden in the fog. Following dinner and a baked brownie dessert, it’ll be Caroline and me hidden in the tent delighting in the world of exploration we have been traveling through. As I move to finish writing about this day, I can’t help but think about how strange it is that while anyone reading about this trip to the Alsek will be able to see the same mountains, the snow, clouds, river, and trees, Caroline and I will forever be the only people on earth who will have ever seen this mushroom cluster. That makes me intensely aware of how rare this experience on the Alsek truly is.

Jul 252011

The small cabin on the dock was our home away from home here at Five Branches Camper Park in Bayfield, Colorado on the Vallecito Resevoir

That sweet little cabin over on the dock was our home away from home for the past five days while we stayed at Five Branches Camper Park on Vallecito Reservoir. Our lakeside view, the beautiful forest, and the ride through the woods every day is hard to leave behind. Lucky for us, we leave with fond memories. The two bears that had been visiting the camp nearly every night, didn’t have the chance to eat us or any of our neighbors. The sun rose, it set, and inbetween we saw the sun, unless the stars were out. This place could easily stay on our list of places to return to someday. Sadly, we never had the opportunity to go out kayaking or canoeing. The problem here is that no one can take a boat out before 8:00 a.m. by which time we were already gone, and boats had to be returned by 5:00, we never got back much before 6:00. No matter though, we enjoyed our stay.

Two osprey starting to build a tree top nest next to Vallecito Reservoir in Bayfield, Colorado

Today Caroline was sporting her eagle eye as while we were driving along the narrow lakeside road she spotted two large birds sitting atop a barren tree. I turned around so we could inspect (and verify her rare find – think myopic), sure enough, she had seen two osprey, also known as sea hawks. The bird coming in for a landing is carrying a branch that we watched it snatch off a nearby tree with a pronounced snap. It circled around and was about to deliver the beginnings of a new nest for momma and poppa bird.

Aspen stand off the Redrock Highway in northern Arizona on the Navajo Reservation

The next hours we drove through the Ute Reservation and their town of Ignacio. Next was Aztec, New Mexico and the first and one of the last Starbucks we would find before passing through Flagstaff, Arizona later in the day. So, I’m addicted. It is a long drive from Durango, Colorado to Phoenix, Arizona. After Aztec and nearly the same town, we drive through Farmington. It was in Farmington back on October 19, 2000 that we had the chance to spend a night at Kokopelli Cave while my mother in-law Jutta was visiting. The cave is one of the most unique places in all of America to stay at. But today, we are going home.

Looking south on the Navajo Reservation in eastern Arizona

We have left the Redrock Highway with some great views and beautiful red sandstone bluffs but quality photos were not in the cards this trip. Back down on flat land we were afforded some tremendous vistas, even a little rain was spotted way off in the distance left of the centerline. No rivers, no trees, not much of anything out here, can you guess why this made perfect Indian Reservation land? The answer is easy, there was nothing our forefathers wanted from this land. Caroline and I find it infinitely gorgeous, sadly, most tourists do not. The casual observer gets distracted by the poverty, desolation, and inane stereotypes that have been propagated over the years regarding the indigenous people of North America.

Two dead calves roadside on the Navajo Reservation

Two dead calves lie in front of the gate that leads to Keams, Arizona – they are a warning to white people to not trespass on Indian lands. Black magic as used by drunken Indians on welfare is a fashion on the Rez, it’s like white trash girls wearing big framed sunglasses sporting slutty clothes or some dufus guy wearing his white baseball cap backwards with his pants hanging off his ass so we can read what size boxers he wears – it’s just a fashion, nothing more – but it is effective in keeping others away. Or I’m full of cow-poop, yep, that’s more like it, but these two cows wasting away, who could-have-been-steaks, are probably clean out of poop or any other fluid. Even if one were to want to open the gate to take a shortcut to Keams, how would you maneuver the carcasses?

New Native American pictographs of Mickey are replacing the more old fashioned Kokopelli, dear, or sign for the sun, water, or some other dumb stuff

This is the new face of Native American rock-art, also known as pictographs. Out with Kokopelli, the sun, water, dear, or other tired old-fashioned symbols from the previous thousands of years. Modern Indians are putting down new icons, like Mickey Freakin Mouse. Strangely, Mickey is almost across the street from the two dead calves, could this be some mysterious signal to passing native motorists that running down animals to leave subversive and superstitious looking roadside messages is right on? Then they throw out Disney characters to disorient us tourists into fearing the red man. Maybe the tide is turning and the Indian is getting wise to our wacky rightwing belief systems and are starting to toy with our heads. Native America, rise up and takeover the media landscape, it’s time for revenge against what was taken from you. First step, corrupt our icons.

A curve in the road on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona

With the aerosol bombardment of peyote starting to wear off, a curve in the road returns me to my senses and out of the hallucinations I was obviously having back there deep on the Rez. I’m sure that later when I look back at those photos, the dead calves and Mickey will have proven to be a figment of my imagination. You can bet I’m happy to be returning to normal.

Up that way is the Navajo Rez, behind the camera is America. Fuck yeah!

In front of the camera is Rez land, behind me is America where I feel like a white guy. Soon, we will approach gas stations with hordes of hot tourists driving down Interstate 40 clogging some the grimiest bathrooms your nose wants to experience in the summer. Flushed of their overflowing bladders, they will flock to the freezer for ice-creams and coke – good old American food, no more of that sinewy old mutton and fry bread cooked in lard for me. Just me and my America, going home. Makes me well up and think about listening to this when I get home. Click here to listen and watch


Jul 242011

Vallecito Reservoir on an early morning in Colorado

The sun will soon be fully over the mountain horizon behind our camp, but until then we enjoy our breakfast, watching the calm water of the lake in front of us . By the time the sun is up, we’ll be on our way into town. Stay here a few days and you’ll have growing respect for the retirees who drag their 5th wheels and motorhomes out this way to act as camp hosts for the season. For the entire summer, they call this view home.

A man fishing next to the reflective waters of Vallecito Reservoir near where the waters of the Los Pinos River enter the reservoir

An early riser out lakeside looking to compliment his breakfast with a fresh trout. I don’t know if he was successful, Caroline and I were in the car about to drive up the hill and around the lake. On the north end of the lake a wayward pony was walking along the road, seemingly lost and bewildered. I stopped, rolled down the window and offered the horse a lift, but it just kept on walking, oblivious to us. I admit that the horse didn’t have a thumb out so I can’t say it was actually hitchhiking, but you never know. The rest of the drive into Durango was uneventful, but we did see a bunch of turkeys in a meadow heading for the forest.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train getting ready for another day of work taking people on a historic ride to an old mining town

While Caroline has nerves that are able to deal with the trauma of caffeine withdrawal, I have no such inner strength and must heed the call of Starbucks. Like the old steam train above loaded with coal and water, I’m properly tanked up on my espresso shot that was carefully blended with a rightly amount of steamed soy milk and three splashes of sugar-free hazelnut syrup so that I am now able to take on the tasks that await me. Like a hunting dog distracted by a squirrel, I don’t get far before – "TRAIN!" Does it matter that I already have no less than 83 other photos of the D&S? Of course not, this one could be better than all the rest. But it’s not; I blame it on the jitters of too much coffee.

Caroline Wise and John Wise's final dinner lakeside at Vallecito Reservoir in Bayfield, Colorado

The remainder of my morning into afternoon was spent photographing the various workshops for the Intermountain Weavers over at Fort Lewis College. When that part of the day was finally complete, Caroline and I made our way back to the lake for our final dinner to be enjoyed on the dock. Up for tonight’s dining pleasure: mixed beans with Grand Canyon-style dutch oven baked green chili, corn, and cheese cornbread. We toasted the fun getaway with some sparkling cider. Word of warning, we dragged this bottle of Martinelli’s from our refrigerator in Phoenix (elev. about 1100 feet) to this lake (elev. approximately 7600 feet) and popped open the bottle with no idea that I would be wearing a quarter of the sparkling apple cider as the pressure release jettisoned off a nice glass full of juice from my knees to my chin. Laughter made for a great appetizer.

Jul 232011

Los Pinos River running through Bayfield, Colorado after leaving the Vallecito Reservoir further upstream

It’s going to be an easy day today. I don’t feel like going far, but I am curious what lies east of Durango and south of Bayfield. Before entering the small historic downtown area of Bayfield, I had to first cross a little bridge spanning the Los Pinos River. This is the same river that feeds Vallecito Reservoir further upstream where Caroline and I are staying during our visit to Colorado. If you drive the speed limit through town, it will take about 30 seconds to have seen it all. Back on the main road, I am moving away from the mountains that are fading in my rearview mirror.

Wide open view of the area south of Bayfield, Colorado

I followed a sign that pointed in the direction of Ignacio. Along the way I passed Chimney Rock Archaeological Area. There were a couple of guys at the primitive gate with a small tent, obviously something special was happening here today. I’m told the entry fee is $10 – cash or check, I have $7 cash and no check. There is no ATM to be found out here either. On this particular weekend Chimney Rock is hosting the Native American Cultural Gathering featuring singers, storytellers, and dancers from various Pueblos. This event is now on our calendar of things to return to. I suggest you check out the Chimney Rock website as they have events all year round.

A telephone pole next to barbed wire fence in the dry grass with a deep blue sky

Good thing I didn’t have enough cash, I may have gone in and really enjoyed myself, I’d rather share this with Caroline on a future visit as we both enjoy these types of events. So I continued driving instead. These roads are not popular with RVers or bikers, it would appear that mostly locals were passing me. The land is mostly flat with some rolling hills but still this is a landscape I appreciate. If only I could have seen these places before power lines traced the routes, airplanes flew overhead, and the roar of engines scream past me as people race to buy something else.

A random shack not much larger than an outhouse sits falling apart on the way to Ignacio, Colorado

Moments of solitude are all I am afforded when stopped roadside to admire a view. Invariably someone else will chase by, on occasion, youngsters think they need to honk the horn and yell some unintelligible words warbled by the Doppler effect of their speeding car. They disappear over the next rise and I am once again alone to listen to the birds, the stir of grasses as lizards dart by, and a few brief seconds of silence.

Barbed wire fence in Colorado

I’m a sucker for old weathered relics from the past. My imagination can easily get lost exploring the story behind the object that has performed sentinel duty for decades prior to my arrival. I enjoy dreaming of who the builders were, who passed this way, and what life was like for the folk who one day stood here chatting with a neighbor out in the middle of nowhere. I probably over-romanticize the scene, influenced by a movie or two too many but that’s ok, I’m still happy that memories can take me somewhere after my intent has delivered me to the place where my mind can play.

An bunk house that is part barn falling to bits on the road to Vallecito Reservoir in Bayfield, Colorado

One more stop before this brief road trip is over, this time at a collapsing barn that appears to have also been a bunkhouse. The proper house is long gone, only its stone chimney survives in the background. Inside the building is a slightly underground "cellar", not sure that’s what it was but it looks like it could have functioned in that capacity to my untrained eye. There is an old bunk bed frame with a stamp of U.S. painted on the ends, looks like surplus World War II era Army bunks. It will be when augmented reality becomes reality and I can have some type of mobile device that with the use of GPS, I can learn the history of the family that lived in the house and what kind of life they lived here at the foot of the San Juan Mountains,then I will buy a cell-phone or tablet.

Vallecito Reservoir in Bayfield, Colorado

I was back at the cabin before lunch time. Before I would make a late lunch / early dinner for myself and grill a piece of fish for Caroline for when I meet  her on campus later, I sat lakeside writing – and burning. How old does a man have to be before he learns that even in the shade sunblock is required? Answer: it probably will never happen, so no numeric value of age can be given – thus, this is a trick question. The rest of the day was given to lounging right here with pen, paper, and a book for when my mind could not produce renderable words. Later, I took Caroline her dinner and we attended the fashion show of the Intermountain Weavers Conference. I was asked to photograph the proceedings, I’ll share some of those on a subsequent blog post when I detail Caroline’s workshop and attendance of the conference.

Jul 222011

South of Silverton, Colorado in the San Juan Mountain range

Caroline will be busy all day with her workshop leaving me to do the proverbial "whatever." Whatever for me is to go out and laze about in the verdure. I couldn’t ask for better weather, bluer skies, or more dramatic scenery. I love the San Juan Mountain range. There is something about these mountains that speak to me more than most any other I have traveled through and over here in the lower 48 states. The San Juans feel more accessible, more intimate, compared to, say, the sub-range of the Rocky Mountains that make up Glacier National Park. Don’t get me wrong, Glacier is beautiful but there seems to be more to be seen here in the San Juans for the casual passerby who may not have the time to really get out and explore the mountains.

The old mining town of Silverton, Colorado seen from a road high above the valley.

Those tiny specks down in the valley are the old mining town of Silverton, Colorado. It was a mere 48 miles (77km) from Durango up to Silverton and still I required more than 2 1/2 hours to make my way this far. There are meadows along the way that beg of those susceptible to such messaging to stop, get out of the car, and check out the lilypads covering the surface of small ponds or the wildflowers punctuating the landscape. There are two other popular methods that allow one to travel slower from Durango to Silverton, the first is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad – it takes 3 1/2 hours to chug up the hill. The other method is to use a bicycle. I have no idea how long that takes, but passing some of them while I was doing only 20mph, my guess is they were lucky to be making a mile an hour up some of the steep mountain grades.

Wildflowers along a dirt road north east of Silverton heading to Eureka, Colorado

Not really knowing where I would ultimately end up I was just following the road. At a fork where to the left I would be on my way to Ouray, I veered right to visit Silverton. At the end of town I noticed that the road kept on going, Caroline and I had never ventured this far north east of the downtown area. Quickly the road loses the pavement and becomes a very well maintained dirt road. To the left of the road is the Animas River; melting snow fields and waterfalls running out of the mountains bordering this trail are feeding the river – I need to take note to return and spend some days camping out here.

The wreckage of a former mine works north east of Silverton, Colorado

And now you know why this old dirt road is out here: I am in mining country. As far as I can tell, there is no more mining out here, and certainly not at this wreckage of a former mining site. Off the beaten path, away from the popular National Historic District of Silverton which is already far removed from America’s big cities, it’s a difficult picture to draw in one’s mind how busy these trails were 140 years ago, as men became rich hauling ore out of these mountains. Towns would spring up for a few moments, becoming home to thousands before they would disappear back into the scenery with few remnants to remind us of a way of life long gone.

An old mine works in the ghost town of Eureka, Colorado

Eureka, I found it. I didn’t actually find anything much, but I did arrive in the ghost town of Eureka – and the end of the road, for me. A steep narrow road only recommended for those with 4-wheel drives or all-terrain vehicles continues out of town. That road heads up to Animas Forks, another old mining ghost town, but one with a claim to fame. Animas Forks features the ruins of a three-story home once owned by Thomas Walsh, who bought and gifted the famous Hope Diamond to his daughter for a wedding present. It’s but a short drive up that trail at only 4.6 miles, but I play it safe not wanting to push my little Kia too far.

The road to Ouray, Colorado

Back on pavement I shift speed going from 5mph to the blazing 20mph I was traveling before my Silverton detour. Caroline won’t be finished before 5:00 p.m., I have to time to lounge about. This corner in the road looks as good as any to stop for a moment to enjoy the landscape. Somebody will make millions someday when they figure out that roadside hammocks for rent would be a goldmine in places like this.

A cascade that flows under the road through a natural hole in the rock is seen here where it emerged just a few feet above this photo

If you don’t pay attention when traveling north, you just might miss this. This is a cascade flowing out of the mountains next to a small rough road. The water flows right through a natural hole bored into rock and emerges 40 feet away from its cave. The highway department went ahead and built the road right over the rock bridge. The pullout is often very busy with travelers moving south, vying to get a good shot of the cascade from the road as they approach this bend in the road. As I stood here trying to get a photo, some stranger walking by told me how his friend found a gold nugget here last year. Not too far a stretch, really, as this area had some of America’s richest gold mines at one time.

The town of Ouray, Colorado

End of the road for my day trip – Ouray, Colorado. It took me 6 hours to travel 67 miles (108km) and you thought I was joking about my speed. Caroline and I have meant to return to Ouray for many a year, down in that village you are in one of the most idyllic hamlets in America. If I had one complaint it would actually be two complaints, no McDonald’s and no Starbucks. Perfection is just a latte and a set of golden arches away. Just kidding, seriously. You think the guy who will eat Burmese pig ear salad and loves kimchee needs a Mickey D’s? The coffee on the other hand….

Vallecito Reservoir at night in Bayfield, Colorado

The drive back to Durango took less than two hours. Caroline’s class was over but we were not finished with the time we would spend at the college campus. Dinner tonight was cafeteria style, no wonder college students from the midwest have such boring tastes when it comes to diet. We were sticking around to listen to a keynote address in the hottest auditorium I have ever sweat in. The speaker was noted Shibori artisan and educator Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada. Her talk was fascinating as she walked us through the foremost icons in Japanese fiber design working today and the exotic techniques they are trying to keep alive in these days of mass-production. The photo above was our view upon getting back to our cabin, guess there won’t be any kayaking today either.