Monday, January 2, 2017

New Gadgets for a New Year

Some new gadgets, games and equipment made it into our collection this Christmas. Looking forward to 2017 and the adventures that lie ahead!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Arrowhead Park, Pottawattamie County, Iowa

This past weekend's fun was a jaunt to the most fun county name in Iowa. POTTAWATTAMIE, baby. Arrowhead Park is near the small town of Neola, maybe 20-30 minutes from Council Bluffs and the Nebraska border.

Needing a peaceful retreat in the election aftermath, I reserved one of Arrowhead's three cabins for my first visit to this lovely park. And peaceful it was. It's not a big park but it has several camping areas, for tents and RVs, all of which are first come, first served. You can pitch a tent right on the shore of the lake if the geese will clear space for you. Next time.

Pretty, right??

The cabins have plenty of space, and provide the luxuries of electricity, heating/ac, a small microwave and refrigerator. No running water, although there is a hydrant outside. No TV, which was fine with me. A surprisingly clean pit toilet is nearby, and a shower house is a longer walk (or a short drive) away.

I had some issues getting my microwave to work, and the park staff quickly responded to bring me a working one. (The only meal I came prepared to cook over the fire was veggie dogs, and I didn't want those for every meal. Even though they're pretty good.) 

Sunset view from my front porch

I explored some of the park's trails. The trail map didn't have distances marked, but I would guess a total of 2-3 miles of trails, and they were groomed well. One trail followed the south shoreline of the lake, and others went into wooded/hilly areas. (You could add distance by following the road and looping around the north side of the lake.) I saw horseshoe prints, so it's apparently equestrian-friendly as well. 

Every park should have a station like this.

I also enjoyed driving into the village of Neola. Adorable! I made a couple trips to the Blue Cow Market, absolutely the cleanest, most immaculate little grocery store I've ever shopped. And I got a pizza from the cute and theme-y "Buck Snort" restaurant. They were busy, and the pizza was good. This is apparently THE PLACE in Neola.

It was a weekend free of chain stores/restaurants and away from the 24-hour news cycle. Bliss. 
Arrowhead/Neola are right off I-80 and just an hour and a half west of Des Moines.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Destination NE Iowa: hiking, camping, spook cave, and a giant strawberry

A few words about our foray a week or so ago to Northeast Iowa. If you're going to talk Iowa backpacking and trails, it's just a matter of time before Yellow River State Forest gets mentioned. Everyone seems to love it, so we picked a beautiful fall weekend to check it out.

It's a solid four-hour drive from Des Moines, and if you haven't been to this part of the state, the bluffs and hills are unlike anything you see elsewhere in Iowa. This area didn't get smooth rolled by the glaciers, and it's dramatically different. Stunning bluffs along the Mississippi.

We opted for the relative luxury of a drive-up campsite this weekend. Chairs, cooler, full-size tent (which felt absolutely cavernous compared to our backpacking tent), and air mattress. AIR MATTRESS. Sleeping like royalty, I tell ya.

We reserved a $6 campsite (no water, no electricity, no problem) at Little Paint Campground, and slept to the sounds of this lovely little stream:

The campground was full and fun. On one side of us was a large group of guys presumably there to fish or hunt. They had a community tent, mess-hall style, with a generator. Because that's what we all wanted to listen to in our non-electric campground. A generator. Serenity now! That's okay. We also had some grad students from Iowa City on the other side of us. We know college students. Dennis offered them hot dogs and marshmallows and we became BFFs and talked trails. Nice guys. (Why are there no women here, one might ask herself??)

A little more time spent in research would have informed me that Yellow River's campgrounds have hole-in-the-ground outhouses but not shower houses. So I guess I didn't need to pack those towels after all. Less towels, more deodorant. That's the right plan.

Anyway, the hiking. Yellow River has 45 miles of trails for different purposes (hiking, equestrian, mountain biking, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling). We found a source of water for filling our water bottles by the Park Office and White Pine/Forester trailheads, and hiked a total of 8-9 miles on Saturday, only getting lost once. The trails are mostly marked, but not exhaustively so, leaving a little room for adventure. We did a combination of trails: White Pine, Forester, Brown's Hollow, and returning back to our starting point via Fire Tower Road. This gave a variety of terrain and quite a bit of elevation change. The Forester Trail was my favorite part, narrower and on a forested hillside slope. Really pretty.

A few pics:

My favorite part of the hike was coming upon Brown's Hollow Camp, a small hike-in campground, where three campers were sitting around a fire. One asked, "Have you had any contact with the outside world?" Um, yeah, pretty much just a couple hours ago. They wanted to know the weather forecast, and we were also able to tell them that the Cubs would be playing the Dodgers in the NLCS. These trails aren't THAT remote, but they draw some serious backpackers. Of the gear we've thought about adding, a saw and full axe haven't even been considered. But we saw people carrying both of those with them through the woods, so maybe we need to 'up' our game. Or not.

Yellow River is much bigger than we had a chance to see in a weekend. Still, the Paint Creek Unit where we spent the entirety of our time was really beautiful and unspoiled. We drove up to an overlook near Bluff Trail, and decided this would be another good area to explore by foot on another visit.

On Saturday night we left the campground and spent a little time in nearby Harper's Ferry, watching the Cubs game at "Miss Fitz" bar, and then on Sunday before heading out, we drove through the charming river town of Marquette and across the river to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Cute cute cute. I could spend more time here. But not on this particular day, because we were being drawn in by all the roadside signs for Spook Cave.

SPOOK CAVE. Let's do this.

About 10 minutes west of Marquette, signs will direct you to the heralded cave, where for $12 per person you can get in a metal jon boat and venture into the cool and creepy cave. And by "venture," I mean duck down as far as you can bend over so you don't hit your head on overhead rocks as you enter. And by "cool" I mean a constant 47 degrees year-round inside the cavern. Our guide told about the cave's history, and about the rocks and stalactites and bats and frogs and alligators and missing people. You have to do your own separating of facts from fiction. It's weird and interesting and well worth the stop. 

Also on our route was Strawberry Point, Iowa, home of the world's largest strawberry. So there ya go.

We stopped and had strawberry shortcake at the old Franklin Hotel. It seemed like the right thing to do, and the Franklin is pretty cool. 

And then, for good measure, we drove a half hour out of our way to see the Field of Dreams, because Dennis hadn't been there before. Why not.

Yep. It's a baseball field in the middle of a corn field. So there ya go.

You can really fit a lot into a weekend! I think we have more to explore in NE Iowa, but this was a good start. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Operation Vacation: Maritimes Canada

September 2016

Three weeks after dropping off Nate at college in Texas, I found a way to stop being sad.


We had been planning this one for a long time, to the Maritimes provinces of Canada -- Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and a little bit of New Brunswick. We've been back for several weeks, and I just looked back through our trip photos again. They give a fairly accurate breakdown of our vacation:
50% Nature, 25% Lighthouses, and 25% Beer. Yeah, that sounds about right.
Here are a few more details...

We went with another couple, our friends Bill and Rhonda, who were up for adventure as well. We flew into the seaport town of Halifax and based there for a couple days. (Our luggage flew in a day after we did. No biggie.) We enjoyed the waterfront area of Halifax, and the tour of Alexander Keith's brewery was a highlight. From Halifax, we daytripped down to the adorable but wildly overrun fishing village of Peggy's Cove, as well as Lunenberg, similarly charming.

Peggy's Cove lighthouse, at an angle that betrays the 10,000 people swarming around its base.

Lunenberg. Cute cute cute.

After a couple days in Halifax, we started our road trip north to Cape Breton Island and the Cabot Trail, a 300-kilometer (oh yes, we are on kilometers now!) driving loop of stunning natural beauty. We donned our hiking shoes and trail maps here and made frequent stops to venture out into the wilderness. Two favorite trails were the Skyline Trail, where our trekking effort was rewarded by a stomach- and jaw-dropping vista at the end... 

...and the White Point Trail, which we wouldn't have found if not for the tip given by our B&B host. This trail follows a slice of land jutting out at the entrance to Aspy Bay. It's unspoiled and remote, and makes you feel like you're standing at the edge of the earth. A grave of the Unknown Sailor adds a somber touch. Hard to describe and even harder to capture in a photo, but it was a highlight for all of us.

After Cape Breton Island, which was a two-day affair, we ferried over to Prince Edward Island ("PEI") for more lighthouses and a visit to the Anne of Green Gables house. We really just skimmed the surface here and could have added another day easily. 

Our final destination was the Bay of Fundy, which I've wanted to see for probably 20-25 years. I watched some kind of National Geographic special on Fundy a long time ago and have not been able to shake it from my head. It's an enormous bay between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that experiences the largest tidal changes of anywhere in the world -- it can be up to 50'. FIFTY FEET. (Ahem, 15 meters.) Twice a day. We decided to view Fundy from the Hopewell Rocks area. I got up early and went a little after sunrise, which was low tide on this particular day. (There are about 6.5 hours between each high tide and low tide, so each day's schedule is different.) You can walk along the ocean floor and among the rock formations at low tide, and then watch the water slowly but noticeably come in. Just amazing.

The week went quickly, and we covered a lot of ground. We stayed at small inns, B&Bs and a cabin/cottage during the week, and with the current exchange rate, it was all quite reasonable. Our accommodations probably averaged around $100 US per night. 

We ate a ton of seafood, drank a little beer, and enjoyed the music-immersed culture of this part of Canada. I had a lot of fun putting together a 7-hour-long playlist for our driving time of only Canadian artists, including everyone from Bieber and Alanis to Rush and The Weeknd. BTO. Gordon Lightfoot. Oh, it was eclectic. 

Thanks Canada! We're kinda smitten with you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

P.S. Chigger Bites.

I've counted around 120 of them on my body. Super fun. Turns out they don't show up and bring the itch until a couple days post-ambush. "Surprise!"

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Backpacking overnight #1: Stephens State Forest (southern Iowa)

August 23, 2016

A few days after dropping off the youngest at college (related lamentations here), we decided it was a good time to get lost in the woods and try out a backpacking/overnight combo for the first time. We headed to Stephens State Forest in southern Iowa, about an hour south of Des Moines, with gear in tow.

Stephens feels somewhat remote (getting there required an exception to my "no-gravel-roads" policy). We passed through the tiny hamlet of Woodbury and continued a little further south on the country road before arriving at a small, grassy parking area and nearby trailheads of the two separate hiking loops (each of them about 3 miles long).

We hiked the entire east loop first, before coming back to the west loop to find a campsite for the night. There are 5 primitive campsites total (first-come, first-served, no fees), the closest site being a one-mile hike from the parking area. No running water, no outhouses, no electricity. The campsites do have fire rings and picnic tables.

White Oak campsite, on the east loop: 

Bottom Oak campsite, where we set up, on the west loop:

The trail was pretty much what we expected for a forest trail. It was easy to identify and follow. There were a few points where we questioned it a little, but never seriously worried about getting off track. Some areas were a bit overgrown, but I thought it was pretty well maintained overall.

There are several creek crossings. I was relieved (and just a little disappointed) they were dry. 

Some things we learned: 

• Long pants were a great idea. Our legs would have been ripped up if we had tried this in shorts. 

• Know the trail. We brought printed trail maps which we looked over ahead of time, and still consulted regularly during the hike. These trails weren't difficult to follow, yet I don't think I'd want to rely solely on trail signage, which can be hit-or-miss. 

Side note: we only saw two other people on the trail all afternoon. But, about an hour after dark, when we were already in our tent for the night, a flashlight beam came into our campsite...  a fella approached (don't I seem backwoodsy calling him "fella"?) and asked if we knew whether there was another campsite nearby. The closest one (0.4 miles away) apparently was occupied. The next closest one was two miles away, on the other trail loop. Who knows what they ended up doing, but I wouldn't want to be in that position, walking around the woods after dark, wondering where the campsites are.

• Even on a night without rain, prepare for everything to be wet in the morning. Hello, heavy dew. I was happy we packed a lot of things in ziplock bags.

• The most important thing we learned: One mile of hiking with a 20+ pound backpack, on hills and uneven terrain, is not the same as just walking a mile. We ended up doing about 4.5 miles on Saturday, and it was way more tiring than I expected. Each mile took at least a half hour. 

"Next times": 

We had some trouble starting a fire with our foraged wood. We took along dryer lint as a fire starter, but still had trouble getting the wood to catch fire. Trevor gave us the tip to use our utility knife and add wood shavings on top of the lint. Next time. 

I really wished I had other shoes to wear around the campsite. My feet were tired and wanted out of the hiking shoes. Next time I'll throw in a lightweight pair of flip flops. 

Honestly, we got a little bored after dinner. Next time we'll bring a book, or playing cards, or something. 

Added to the wish list:

- hiking stick/pole. I found a long, sturdy walking stick on this outing, and used it a lot for leverage and balance. Especially in and out of those creek beds. 

- higher top hiking boots. I didn't realize the combination of carrying a heavy pack and walking on uneven ground would wear out my ankles so much. 

- I really missed having camp chairs for sitting around the fire. Need to look into whether there are any good, small, lightweight options. I'm intrigued by hammock camping. Maybe if we get hammocks and ditch the tent and sleeping bags, I can justify chairs. 

It's such a balance of wanting to bring everything you need, but not wanting to carry any more weight than you have to. The quest continues. 

A couple more pics:

Until next time! (perhaps Yellow River State Forest in NE Iowa, which comes highly recommended)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Inaugural use of the tent!

Aug 7, 2016

We have now spent a couple nights in our new tent. Not a backpacking venture -- a music festival. Whatever. Baby steps.

Here's our tent, next to others for scale comparison:

It's the "tiny house" in the middle. Our campground neighbors were amused. For some reason I felt compelled to tell them our other tent has two rooms and a sun porch. I don't know why. In the future, there will be no apologies.

The tent goes up super quickly and easily. It's a Himaget, with entrances on both sides, which is a pretty nice feature, so you don't have to climb over your tent mate if you want in or out. The tent structure itself is mostly mesh, and the rainfly covers the whole thing but can be tied back, so you can make it as airy as you want. Our overnight temperatures this past weekend got down in the lower 60s (ahhhh!) but it stayed pretty warm inside the tent, even with the rainfly open. I guess that's the thing about close quarters.

We opted to save a little money and got this tent from Amazon, for 90 bucks. The thought is that we're likely to have more of an opinion about what we want after we get a little more experience, so that might be the point to upgrade to a more expensive tent. This one weighs about 5 pounds and seems like it'll be just fine. We'll find out eventually how it does in rain or wind.

We slept pretty well, and broke in more new equipment, all of these purchased from Amazon as well:
- Therm-a-Rest BaseCamp sleeping pads (~$57) -- these are self inflating, and just take a few extra puffs of air to fill more completely. Easy to inflate and deflate, and they each weigh 2 pounds. Surprisingly comfortable! I'd say they're about 2" thick when inflated.

- Outdoor Vitals OV-Light 40-degree sleeping bags (~$40). These were comfortable and pack down really tightly in their compression bags. Each of them is about 2.5 pounds. It's hard to know how well these will do when it really does turn chilly overnight.

Our main issue was that the bags are somewhat slick, and so are the pads... and our tent really did seem to be on level ground, until we hunkered in for the night... and then experienced an *almost* imperceivable slow slide toward the lower end.

Last but not least...
- Therm-a-Rest compressible pillows (about 0.5 pounds and $12 each). We got the small size, which is 12" x 16" and rolls up pretty tightly. When unrolled, these puffed up and were surprisingly comfortable. When we start backpacking, if we end up needing to ditch things for space, these might not always make the final cut.

Spending the past two nights in the tent has given confidence that we're ready to do a legitimate backpacking overnight. Two weeks from now is the plan!

Oh, and here's last night's headliner, Willie Nelson! Big fun in the rolling hills of southern Iowa.