Saturday, July 31, 2010

Fun with Friends in Lander, WY

We spent a great weekend in Lander, WY with friends who just moved back here from Celo. Annie and Jarred have been so sweet to let us wash up and take over their carport for some van repairs. This is a great little town with everything we could need in bicycling distance: multiple auto parts and hardware stores, used book store, outfitter, bakery, park, and a great microbrewery that also serves local organic beef. Wyoming is beef country after all - at least that's what all the signs say!

Today we took a beautiful hike up into Sinks Canyon to a great rock slide. What fun! We even found a smaller rock slide up river that was just the right size for Adalaya. Here we are on the big slide.

Thank you Annie and Jarred (and Butter Bean) for showing us such a good time! We wish you all the best in Lander, but we'll miss you in Celo!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Black Hills, SD

After leaving the Badlands where the temperature reached 100 degrees and there was very little shade, we made our way west to the Black Hills. The Ponderosa Pine covered hills were a sight for sore eyes! We first headed to Hot Springs, SD which is a vibrant town filled with beautiful sandstone buildings and an active downtown built along a creek that is fed by several thermal mineral springs. The mineral springs are a constant 87 degrees, much cooler than the water in Hot Springs, NC, but perfectly refreshing during a South Dakotan heat wave!

George and Adalaya did some investigating around town and found "Evans Plunge", a thermal spring-fed water park. This place was so great! The entire pool bottom was covered with river pebbles and they had water slides, inter-tubes, floating alligators to climb, water volleyball, and monkey rings. We thoroughly enjoyed some good clean family fun!

George, George, George of the jungle.
Strong as he can be.
Watch out for that tree!

While in Hot Springs we also visited The Mammoth Site (just like the sign in the above picture recommended). An ancient sink hole, it was filled with warm water and lured mammoths and other creatures to its banks for a drink and green grass. However this oasis was a death-trap, for it's banks were composed of a very slippery clay and many mammoths fell in, were buried in sediment, and perfectly preserved. The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological dig site where they leave the skeletons in situ. Interestingly, all of the mammoths that they have found in this sink-hole (87 of them so far) have been male, and most of them teenagers. Evidently the mammoth matriarchs knew about this dangerous place and warned their herd to stay away from the area. Meanwhile the lone males had no one to warn them and thus were lured to their deaths.

Also nearby is Wind Cave National Park. We took a tour of this amazing cave - the most complex and the 4th largest in the world. A unique feature of this cave is a formation called "boxwork" which looks like a honeycomb of calcite crystals which were left after the limestone washed away from inside the lattice work. Evidently this cave houses 95% of all the known "boxwork" in the world. Here's an example of it.

We continued our journey into the heart of the Black Hills. We took the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park and saw herds of bison, pronghorn antelope, burros, and more prairie dogs.

The hills turned to mountains with lots of exposed & upturned granite which made for beautiful views. The road we traveled was neat with many loops, twists and tunnels. As we exited one tunnel we saw Mount Rushmore in the distance carved into one of the many granite outcrops. It was a good way to approach the monument. We stopped in the National Forest to check out the view from afar. Here is the carving in the distance behind Adalaya.

Here's another photo from the base of the monument with all the states' flags lining the entry.

There is a lot more to see out here in the Black Hills, but it's time for us to move on. This is definitely a place I'd like to come back to!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Badlands, South Dakota

We are just leaving Badlands National Park after exploring it for a couple of days. Surprisingly, there are not a lot of marked trails in this park; most of the area is wilderness area. We found out today as we were leaving why this is: the military used to test bombs here and there are still unexploded bombs out in the park. Yikes! Glad we didn't decide to explore off the trails! We did take the longest hike in the park, 5 miles, through the amazing sci-fi landscape.

The Badlands are a series of jagged, serrated, knife-edge precipices jutting upward from the prairie. They are made of soft clays, silt, and volcanic ash, all of which erode at an extremely fast rate, about 1 inch per year. You should all come visit this unearthly landscape before it washes away! We added to this erosive process a little by climbing one of the peaks to watch the sunset & moonrise while we waited for the evening ranger talk. It was an astronomy program and they even had 4 telescopes set up for everyone to view planets, stars, and nebulae of the night sky! Amazing!

Appropriately enough, we had some bad feelings arise while we were in the Badlands. Our second night in the campground we had an RV pull up to the campsite next to us around 11pm. They proceeded to turn on their generator since there were no hook-ups, and run both their generator and A/C unit all night long. George is very noise sensitive, but he has also been reading a book about preserving natural quiet in National Parks (One Square Inch of Silence) and was thus very annoyed at our #%^&*#! neighbors. We were also surrounded by tent campers and George took it upon himself to right the situation for the good sleep of all. He boldly knocked on the door of the RV, prepared to politely inform them of the quiet hours policy. They totally ignored his knocking. He knocked again (by now it is around midnight) and they once again ignored his plea, turned off their lights, but kept the A/C unit and generator humming all night long. Needless to say, we left early the this morning. Here's a photo of George enjoying life and trying to beat the heat before our naughty neighbors arrived. You don't want to see the one of him after the event.

Adding to those bad feelings, we drove to the South Unit of the park which is located within the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota Sioux. We stopped at the visitor center and the Lakota ranger was incredibly informative and helpful. We learned how the Native Americans would use everything from the buffalo, and we got to touch a buffalo bladder, sinew, bone tools, fur, horns, toenails and more, all of which had multiple uses. We also got to hear stories and read about all the lies and treachery of the white man. The Massacre of Wounded Knee occurred nearby, the slaughter of over 200 women, children and elders by our Government. Stories of broken treaties time and again, with money and provisions guaranteed to the people which never arrived or included Small Pox infected blankets with them when they did arrive. It is all very hard to hear and it makes my conscience hurt.

Friday, July 23, 2010

On The Road Again!

By George, he fixed it! Hooray for the self-proclaimed Hillbilly Extraordinaire! The van's running smooth again with a new fuel pump, new filters and many cleaned connections. We're on the road again and we've traveled 300 miles today through South Dakota, the most remote area I think I've ever been to in America. Prairie grassland everywhere, all day long. Not even many crops around here; some wheat fields but mostly rolling pasture and round hay bales.

We were needing some gas so we pulled into Hoover, the smallest town I've ever seen - it makes Micaville look big. Fortunately the woman mowing her lawn opened the Hoover General Store so that we could purchase some gas. The entire town consisted of this store, a few houses, a couple barns, 2 dogs and some chickens. I think the population consisted of one extended family. But it looked like Hoover must be a happening spot sometimes, because inside the general store there were several poker tables that looked well used. Here we are in Hoover, SD.

Down the road we came to Sturgis, SD another happening town. Starting the 2nd week in August, Sturgis hosts the biggest motorcycle rally in the world. A week long event, they are expecting between 600,000 and 800,000 motorcycles to descend on this Black Hills town for the 70th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The whole town seemed geared toward motorcycles, and many vendors with their tents full of T-shirts and motorcycle merchandise were already lining the streets. We figured we should enculturate ourselves while we're here, (yes I just made that word up) so we spent some time in the Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame. We saw lots of cool old motorcycles (the oldest was a 1905 Excelsior) and watched a little movie about the Sturgis Rally. Sturgis is for motorcycles what Darlington is for Nascar. George wishes he could be here for the rally. I am happy to be in Wyoming or Montana by then, but it was pretty cool seeing it today.

We took some back roads this afternoon and found a place to camp with a great overlook of the area. Unfortunately this knoll also had a good crop of prickly pears which George accidentally kicked while barefoot, and Adalaya sat upon. Ouch! Nevertheless, we watched a beautiful sunset and heard coyotes howling and yipping.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Broke Down in Prairie Town

Well, we've just had our first inevitable breakdown. The van has been balking more than usual for the past few days, and just as we were driving toward the campground in Theodore Roosevelt National Park the van died. George got out his tools while Adalaya and I got on our bikes and scouted ahead for a campsite. We found a great one, and George joined us in the van a few minutes later. It would be a nice scenic spot to do some mechanicin' on the van.

Then we had a surprise visitor - a great big buffalo bull! Several other bulls and buffalo pairs ambled through the campground that evening, enjoying the forage and taking dust baths in their buffalo wallows. One even walked right through our campsite, totally ignoring us who were no more than 20 feet away! The ranger later said he weighed around 2000 pounds. Amazing creatures! I wish they still roamed the prairie the way they used to.

Without the reliable use of our van, we explored the park on our bikes and on foot. The landscape here is like nothing I've ever seen. There are amazing painted canyons similar to those in the southwest, but with prairie above and below the canyon walls. There are also huge cottonwood trees in the bottom-land of the Little Missouri River. The air is full of the sweet scents of yellow and white sweet clover, and the pungent scents of juniper and sagebrush. And of course there's the occasional whiff of fresh buffalo chips. Watch were you step!

We definitely had to watch where we stepped during our hike, not only for the bison pies but also for the rattlesnakes. We had 2 separate encounters with Prairie Rattlesnakes on our 5 mile hike. One rattled a long warning at Adalaya, which made her stop dead in her tracks 'till I yelled "get back!" She says she'll never forget the sight of that coiled-up rattlesnake that was looking straight at her. Another rattler was at the base of the cliff wall and alerted George as he approached. We got some good photos of this one. We also learned that rattlesnakes get a new rattle every time they shed, and they will shed 3-4 times per year. So this one is about 3 years old.

The next morning Adalaya and I took another bike & hike while George worked on the van some more. We visited Adalaya's favorite town so far - Prairie Dog Town. There were several acres of prairie dogs mounds and the cute little critters. Adalaya had fun trying to see how close she could get to one before it would dash into it's hole.

Thinking that George had fixed the van, we headed for the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 68 miles away. There were three sections of road construction, and at each of them (and a few other times) the van lost power and we had to pull off the road. George did some tinkering, but we had to get towed out of one detour area. It took us 5 hours to reach the campground. During that time we stopped in Belfield, ND, an interstate pit-stop-of-a-town that luckily had an auto parts store and a truck stop with a shower. We used the facilities at the "Superpumper" and ordered a part for the van. The part would take a couple of days to come in, so we entertained ourselves in the National Park for another couple of days.

We took a great ranger-led hike to the Petrified Forest. Our ranger was also a geologist and he explained how "petrifaction" of the area occurred 60 million years ago. Volcanic eruptions during the formation of the Rockies spread several feet of ash over this area, which was cypress swampland at the time. The buttressed bases of the cypress trees as well as other trees became petrified in the ash, while the trunks and branches that were above the ash rotted. This is one example of the vast amounts of petrified stumps we saw. This one was especially neat because it was hollow inside.

We tried to head south to South Dakota today after we picked up the van cable and George installed it. Unfortunately the van conked out again outside of town, so we are now back in Belfield for the 3rd time, parked for the night behind the auto parts store. This is the current view out the van door.

Let's hope he gets it running for good this time!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Our Little House on the Prairie

We've been traveling through the prairie of southern Manitoba, Canada and North Dakota for about 5 days now. I am in awe at the size of the prairie that comprises the heart of this continent. I have traveled through Missouri and Kansas and the more southerly reaches of this great breadbasket, and it is awesome to think that this fertile land extends northward to the Canadian Shield. I now truly understand that this land could feed the entire world. It is unfathomably vast!
Sometimes this land is flat for as far as the eye can see, and sometimes there are rolling hills and bluffs by a river. But nearly everywhere there's no standing water, there are crops. The most plentiful crops have been wheat and canola (rapeseed) which can fill the entire horizon with bright yellow.

There have also been many fields of corn, hay, and beautiful blue fields of flax - the first flax fields I've ever seen.

A few days ago we got ourselves lost on some North Dakota gravel back roads (although since they all go north/south or east/west it was easy enough to go the right direction). We came upon several cowboys and cowgirls herding cattle across the road to a new pasture. Then we saw a crop duster in his bi-wing plane circling round and round a field. Except for the chemicals, that would be a really fun job!

Now we are following part of the Lewis and Clark trail along the Missouri River. Adalaya has been a long-time fan of Sacagawea, and just finished a historical novel of the voyage west to the Pacific Ocean from her perspective. George had previously read Undaunted Courage, and we all watched the Ken Burns film Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. Yesterday we had breakfast, a hike, and a shower in the Lewis and Clark State Park, located on Lake Sakakawea.

Last night we camped (or had an "overnight picnic" as George put it) on the banks of the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. At this point in Lewis & Clark's adventure, they did not know which river to take in order to reach the "Great Falls" that the Mandan Indians had told them about. One river headed south and was muddy (the Yellowstone) and one headed northwest and was clear (the Missouri). As the story goes, the rest of the crew wanted to take the southerly route, but Lewis and Clark chose the clear river and did in fact find the "Great Falls" which assured them they were on the right route.

Here is the Yellowstone and Missouri Confluence (and pelican) at dawn.

Having been missing our berries from home, we stopped by a U-pick raspberry farm and picked our breakfast. Yum! Happiness abounds!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Best Buds, Bikes, and Bugs

We are in Victoria Beach, Manitoba visiting David Wilson, Samarie and family. Samarie is Adalaya's best friend, and they have wanted to spend time together at Sammy's Grandpa's place on Lake Winnipeg for many years. We finally made it! Victoria Beach is a unique and beautiful place; automobiles are not allowed in this area (except for an occasional taxi) so everyone rides bikes - even Sammy's 89 year old Grandpa zoomed around on his new electric assist bike!

"Town" consists of an amazing bakery, general store, library, clubhouse, and one restaurant/ice-cream parlor. All this and many beaches to choose from, what more could you need, eh? Needless to say, the girls and Samarie's cousin Noah are having a great time together - bikes, friends, and free roam of a car free peninsula! Thanks for a great time Wilsons!

Instead of a driveway full of cars, the Wilson cottage has a driveway full of bikes. Much nicer I think! And luckily there's a resident bike mechanic here!

Even doing the laundry is fun here with this 1950's wringer washer!

Another unforgettable aspect of this area is the sheer quantity of bugs! We were expecting swarms of mosquitoes, as many Canadians had warned us that Winnipeg is the mosquito capital of Canada. Incredibly, the mosquitoes here are not nearly as bad as we previously encountered, and in the several nights of sleeping in our tent I was never awoken by one. Thanks to the dragonflies! I've never seen so many dragonflies. Out on the beach, I could have counted 50 in sight at any given time. However, the population of dragonflies is meek compared to the sheer number of mayflies (called fish flies around these parts). These insects sleep under leaves, on tree trunks, under porches, everywhere during the day, then fly into the air at dusk to mate and then die. If you brush against a bush or limb during the day, hundreds of fish flies get disturbed and fly away. At dusk there are so many that they form dark clouds of fish flies swarming above. Individually these insects are silent (and luckily do not bite) but as a swarm they create a humming noise with their wings that underlies everything else in the evening. The fish flies only live a couple of days, so there are piles of carcasses left on the beaches and under street lights in the morning. And this is where I think they get their local name from; the piles of dead fish flies smell like rotten fish!

Fish Flies at their finest!

And speaking of fish, we had the very best smoked fish ever while we were here. Goldeye is a fish that is native only to Lake Winnipeg. When smoked it tastes like "smoked butter" - soooo good! David made a delicious smoked Goldeye dip, and we also had smoked fish burritos. Another fish favorite of the Wilson's was Grandpa Bill's fried pickerel. Yum! All this amazing fish from the lake for dinner, and treats from the local bakery for breakfast, or lunch, or anytime - we are spoiled. Adalaya's favorite bakery treats were the cowpie (a cinnamon roll the size of a cowpie) and the smiley face cookies. George's favorites were the pecan loaf and sausage rolls, and I favored the cinnamon buns!