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.