Million Dollar Views

We arrived in Durango, Colorado by pure happenstance two years ago.  Today’s return was very deliberate.  On our last visit, we took a short drive on the Million Dollar Highway, a 70-mile stretch through the Rocky Mountains with hairpin curves surrounded by snowy peaks in all directions.  We vowed to return to complete the journey.

We were selective about our plans.  For days we monitored the weather reports, only intending to make the drive if we had a clear sunny day.  Luck was with us, and with the promise of good weather we booked our room at the Adventure Inn once again.

Over dinner last night, we eagerly shared our plans with our waiter.  “You know, that road’s only been open for 4 or 5 days,” he said.  It never occurred to us to check the snow conditions.  At breakfast this morning, motel owner Nigel showed us videos of the double avalanche that blocked the road between Silverton and Ouray.  Two massive columns of snow blew down the mountainside, taking trees and boulders down with it as it ripped through the forest.  Crossing the road, it filled the 150-foot canyon below and “splashed” up the opposite side.  Leaving 60 feet of debris-filled snow on a lengthy stretch of the highway in the Red Mountain Pass, it took highway crews 20 days to reopen the road.  Little did we know.

Today we drove that highway under blue skies on perfectly dry pavement.  We had learned that they had record snowfalls this winter, topping 360 inches.  It was still very much in evidence even on this April day.  With each turn of the road, we had more snowy peaks to admire.  At our elevation, the snow was pristine with only a few snowmobile and ski tracks crossing its silky mounds.  Occasionally I could make out curvy trails through the mountainsides, evidence of some intrepid skiers enjoying pure powder.

Million Dollar Highway 1 Million Dollar Highway 2 Million Dollar Highway 3 Million Dollar Highway 4 Million Dollar Highway 5

The wintry journey from Durango to Ouray was well worth the return trip.  With the avalanche video replaying in my mind, I had renewed respect for the seemingly pastoral scenes passing outside my car window.  Million dollar views indeed.

Chilling out on Mount Lemmon

The forecast was for another day in the mid 90s.  Our northern Minnesota blood was too thick for the heat. Sylvia, our AirBnB hostess, had just the answer.

“Have you been to Mount Lemmon?  It’s always 30 degrees cooler up there.”  That’s all we needed to hear.  It was also on my left-over wanna see list from last year’s stay in Tucson.

At 9,100 feet, Mount Lemmon is the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains, the same range we’ve been admiring from our patio all week long.  It boasts a ski hill at the top, so there is a good paved road and a small community called Summerhaven near the summit.

Sunset view from our patio Tucson

We crossed town to reach the start of the Sky Island Scenic Byway.  I settled in to enjoy the ride, as the 27-mile journey is an attraction in itself. We started out in the now-familiar Sonoran Desert environment, surrounded by cacti and scrub brush.  As we rose, saguaro and a sea of yellow wildflowers took over the landscape.  The city of Tucson dropped below us, a miniature playset of streets and buildings just visible over the edge of the cliff.  Fortunately, there were frequent pull-outs for safe gazing.

Each curve delivered new scenery.  Saguaro giants gave way to real forest, with Aspens and Ponderosa Pines looming overhead.  Wildflowers changed suit as well.  But it was the rock formations that demanded my attention, and added a new term to my vocabulary.  “Hoodoos.”  Tall thin columns of weather-beaten rocks stood at attention on the slopes as we navigated the switchbacks.

Mt Lemmon rocky view

At Windy Point, I just had to get out and mingle with these giants.  Numerous other visitors populated this stopping point, clambering up rocky promontories for pictures and posing for selfies.  I enjoyed the same views and poses from safer flat rocks.  And there was no mistaking the refreshing breezes that cooled the higher air.

Molly at Windy Point Mt Lemmon 1 Molly at Windy Point Mt Lemmon 2Rich at Windy Point Mt Lemmon

A pool of cyclists congregated at this vista as well.  The byway is a popular challenge for cyclists, and by this point the intrepid athletes had already climbed 18 miles and 3,600 feet.  We would continue to see bicycles all the way up and down the mountain.  Never once did we wish ourselves in their seat!

Near the summit, we continued on past Summerhaven and beyond the ski hill to reach the very end of the road and a trail head.  Those last few cliff hanging miles justified the 10 mph speed limit.

Itching to get out and experience the mountain up close, I insisted on a hike.  Sylvia was right, the car thermometer registered 64 degrees, and we each donned an extra layer before setting off.  Left over snow was not confined to the ski hill, as we traversed thick patches on our trek.  We felt right at home in the pine forest.

Molly hiking in snow Mt Lemmon

We noticed the lookout tower in the distance, but it took a fellow hiker to entice us down another path to take in its views.  The wind whipped around us as we stood on the rocky promontory.

Mt Lemmon Lookout Molly and Rich Mt Lemmon Lookout 1 Molly and Rich Mt Lemmon Lookout 2

The trip back down the mountain let us view the whole scene in reverse.  Cyclists continued to struggle up and whiz down, even as the afternoon waned.  The temperature rose in reverse proportion to our elevation, but we had successfully missed the peak heat of the day.  Instead we had a delightful Minnesota type day, chilling out on the mountain.

Life with a Birder

The plan was to go hiking.  We were going to Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson.  Even though it’s a birding destination, Rich assured me he was there to hike with me.  But there were caveats.  We had to stay near the flowing river.  Making our way up the canyon, I wasn’t allowed on the Nature Trail that ventured away from the water.  (This was the desert, after all, and birds flock to water.)

Medera Canyon

Reaching the top trailhead, we headed up the Carrie Nation Trail.  Yes, it followed a stream.  I tried to ignore the huffing and puffing behind me as I forged upward on the trail.  And then I heard it.  “I think I’m nearing my limit.”  He didn’t say he was done yet, so I kept going.

A young woman came down the trail toward us, and hoping to prolong this hike I pumped her for information.  How steep was it beyond here?  The news was reassuring.  But then she said the magic words.  “I just saw an Elegant Trogon.  He loves the sycamore trees, just above here.”

Suddenly Rich’s legs gained new strength.  He strode purposefully past me with a burst of energy.  He was on a mission.  I could barely keep up.

The Elegant Trogon has been in Rich’s sights for two years now.  The brilliant tropical bird’s range only barely reaches into far southern Arizona, Medera Canyon included.  Last year’s visit to this canyon was too early in the season and proved fruitless.  Last week’s visit was better timing, but also came up empty.  This trail is not where the bird had been sighted.  Rich wasn’t even looking for it.  But he smelled victory.

We soon ran into a handful of other birders toting cameras with obscenely long lenses.  They had already seen and photographed the elusive bird, and were hoping for another glimpse, more photographs.  Rich eagerly joined the little enclave, whispering, pointing, gesticulating and searching.  I did my best to melt into the background.  To remain silent and motionless, lest I spook the very bird they sought.

Tiring of the hushed drama, I left them to their hunt and continued up the trail.  We were here to hike, remember?  The trail petered out sooner than I expected, so I reluctantly turned around.  I found Rich and the pack further downstream than where I had left them.  But they didn’t notice me.  All cameras were trained on The Bird.

Birders photographing Elegant Trogon Rich photographing Elegant Trogon

Lenses pointed and shutters clicked incessantly.  Arms stretch out and fingers silently pointed when the bird moved.  Photographers shifted accordingly.  New vantage points, more photographs.  And still I was blind to the subject that took over the souls of these intrepid birders.  All I saw was trees and leaves.

The hunt slowed temporarily and Rich took in the fact that I was there.  “Have you seen it?” he asked excitedly.  I shook my head.  I didn’t even know what the bird looked like.

With hundreds of images already safely saved to the memory disks on their cameras, Rich and the photographers eased up a bit.  Rich pointed out the bird, and I finally focused in on its brilliant red breast, the luminescent green glow of the feathers on its back.  Despite my firm stand that I am not a birder, would never be a birder, I couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty of this particular specimen.

The solitary bird toyed with these camera toting devotees all the way back down the trail.  He flitted from tree to tree, never too far to disappear from sight.  Even I got the hang of glimpsing the red breast as he took flight and following it to his next perch.

The camaraderie of the little group grew as we inched our way along, and they even drew me into their huddle to make sure I could see the bird’s latest landing.  Having nothing else to do, I succumbed to the impulse to remove the lens cap from my own camera, hunker down to steady my zoom lens and click the shutter.  Oh cool, I got him!  I tried again.  And again.

Elegant Trogon 1 Elegant Trogon 2 Elegant Trogon 3

By the time we reached the trailhead, Rich was bursting with excitement.  And gratitude for my patience while he pursued the Elegant Trogon.  So I seized the opportunity.  “That’s okay.  You can keep birding.  While I take the Nature Trail back down to the car.”  I was happy for him.  But I still had some hiking to do.

Medera Canyon Nature Trail

The Big Bend Experience

Sometimes the feature attraction is not the star in the theater of travel experiences. In our recent visit to Big Bend National Park I’d have to say it was the entire cast of desert offerings that made the visit memorable.

It started with our accommodations. Choosing to stay just outside the park where there were more amenities, we had reservations in the Terlingua Nights Cabins. Situated in the desert dust, the little sleeping rooms were just that. We had electricity, a mini fridge and barely enough room to walk around the double bed in our pristine minimalist room. We shared the bathhouse and an outdoor living area with a fire pit with our cabin neighbors.

Terlingua Nights Cabins

Our Cabin at Terlinqua Nights

It was 93 degrees when we arrived, with a brisk wind sweeping through the grounds. By evening, it was comfortable to sit out on our porch to read. It felt like the desert.

The revitalized ghost town of Terlingua lay a few miles down the road. Driving over to search for dinner options, we surveyed some of the competing lodgings – tents, tepees, a pastel “Easter” motel and shacks dotted the dry countryside. Hardly your typical National Park tourist environs. We stumbled on a humble eating establishment and settled into the last two seats out on the shaded patio. The slow service suited the warm air and we lingered over our Tex-Mex meals while chatting with nearby diners.

The long bench on the porch of the Trading Company was reputed to be the place to watch the sunset play out on the distant mountains. I insisted we do just that.

Sunset from the Trading Company porch

We left our little cabin well before dawn in order to watch the sunrise in the park. We didn’t count on a rough dirt road to reach our chosen scenic location, and decided to detour on the paved but still-slow road. The Mule Ears rock formation materialized in time to stop for the sun’s arrival. Finally having light to see our environs, we took in the bluebonnets blooming on the roadside – uniquely tall and stringy, compared to their short, dense Hill Country cousins.

Sunrise behind the Mule Ears Big Bend Bluebonnets

Our destination was Santa Elena Canyon. A short walk took us to the Rio Grande and a view of the entrance to the canyon. But the best part was the hike into the canyon. Crossing a narrow flow of water from a side stream, we followed a well-worn path with switchbacks up the edge of the canyon wall. The trail stretched back into the narrow canyon where we could appreciate the river’s handiwork in carving this deep crevice. Nearing the end of the trail, faint musical notes floated through the air. The pipe flute blended naturally with the environment, lending a mystical air to the experience.Rich at Santa Elena CanyonMolly in Santa Elena Canyon

Our second hike of the day was in the Chisos Mountain area in the center of the park. A three-mile walk through scrubby desert environs took us gradually down into the valley. We were at the beginning of the desert bloom, with plentiful wildflowers of all colors and cactus flowers just popping out. The easy path ended with clambering over boulders and hopping across slightly flowing mountain streams. But the end view was worth it – The Window provided an opening with a straight drop below and a narrow crevice beyond. A fierce wind whipped through that window, and I kept well away from the opening.

The Window Hike 1The Window Hike 2Molly at The Window

We experienced the extremes of the desert climate when the next day dawned cloudy, super windy and 46 degrees. In no hurry to rush out into the chill we headed back into Terlingua to Espresso Y Poco Mas. Geared for the desert heat, the eclectic café offered only outdoor seating. Settling ourselves at a well sheltered table, we were surprisingly comfortable and delighted with the breakfast tortillas. But we were thankful for our Minnesota clothes stashed in the car!

Molly at Espresso Y Poco Mas

With low expectations we returned to the park under the cold cloud cover. But on our first hike, while scouring the environs for elusive birds (Rich) and wildflowers (Molly) the sun emerged. As the sky cleared, the temperature zoomed to a comfortable warmth.

Driving to Rio Grande Village at the far end of the park provided a constant panorama of its nature. We were surrounded by rolling desert land covered in bushy vegetation, surrounded by soaring rocky peaks and mesas. It was majestic in its own way, in sharp contrast to the dense forest and white capped mountains that define National Park in my northern mind. The wilderness experience is all relative. By the time we arrived, I regretted forgetting my swim suit to soak in the hot springs. It just didn’t enter my mind that morning. Instead, we walked the local nature trail where we watched nutria at play in the pond, and climbed to a view of the Rio Grande.

Rich on Rio Grande Nature Trail

We capped our visit with dinner at the popular Starlight Theater restaurant.  We lucked out that night, getting in without the normal 1.5 hour wait to take in the western décor among patrons clad in cowboy hats and listen to the local guitar playing singer.

I’ve decided on one word to describe the overall experience – Quirky.  How often do you frequent a former ghost town? Consider a tiny sleeping cabin to be among the best of the lodgings? Hike in winter jacket, mittens and hat, and remove them all within an hour? Explore a narrow canyon and wide-open desert land? Big Bend with its Terlingua neighbor was all that and more.

At Your Service

The boys thought they were asking a big favor.  But in fact it was a privilege.

I’m not sure where they got this adventure gene.  But our sons both inherited it.  Five years ago Carl and Erik climbed my great-grandfather’s mountain, Mount Brewer – 150 years after William Henry Brewer’s first ascent.  Together they have backpacked in the Porcupine Mountains and the trail above Pictured Rocks.  Last year they winter camped in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  This year they upped the ante, planning a 40-mile trek following the border route in the BWCAW.  And they asked us to be their shuttle service.

Rich drove the boys up to Ely and beyond, to Moose Lake where he deposited them with all their gear.  After harnessing up their pulks, they set off across the frozen lake, Erik on backcountry skis and Carl on a new set of Altai Hok skis – a cross between a ski and a snowshoe.  Snowshoes were stowed within easy reach for portages and deep snow conditions.  The deep blue sky contrasted sharply with the pristine snow and pine woods border under the bright sunshine for a picturesque start.

Carl and Erik begin trek

They allowed themselves three days to make it to the end of the Gunflint Trail.  It would have been three days of waiting nervously to find out if they made it had it not been for Rich’s sleepless nights leading up to the trip.  To assuage his concerns, he diligently researched satellite tracking units, and ultimately insisted they carry one.  Or no deal on the shuttles.

Thanks to the generosity of a friend who lent them a Garmin inReach, they had the means of providing us with updates and more importantly, sending out a call for help if needed.  At the end of day 1, we received the following message at dusk, “Camp made on Knife [lake].  Great day.”  What followed was a link with their GPS coordinates.  With one click we could see exactly where they were.  Whew, peace of mind.

GPS location on the trek

While we drove up to a modern warm cabin on the Gunflint Trail overlooking Poplar Lake, the boys made their way along the border from lake to lake, slogging through snow drifts, skiing on hard windblown crust and plowing through waist deep snow on portages.  They trekked from sunup to sundown, made camp, ate and slept when darkness fell.  Although they saw plenty of open water, they were fortunate not to find slush between the layers of snow and ice.  Snowmobiles and dog sleds were allowed on some of the lakes, but alas, none created a packed path for them in the direction they were going.  They took turns breaking trail.

Carl trekking

Erik trekking

Of course, we knew none of this at the time.  We pondered the snow conditions, praised the good weather, hoped they were staying warm enough at night.  The daily updates were a godsend.

We were in position for pickup on the third day.  Mid-day we got word: “At Sag [Saganaga Lake] at American Point may finish late”  I settled in with a good book across from the cozy fire.  At 4pm we got the text we’d been awaiting.  “ETA 1 hourish on snowmobile trail.”  When we arrived at the designated boat launch, I couldn’t just stand there and wait.  Hiking out the narrow inlet, I searched the distant shore, footstep after footstep.  The two tiny figures that materialized on the horizon lifted my heart.

They arrived very sunburned and weather-beaten, but with the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.  They had done it!  It was a lot harder and slower going than they had anticipated, due to the lack of packed snow, but they made it and were justifiably thrilled.  Carl summed it up, “This trip gets a big check on my To Do list.  I don’t need to do that again!”

Carl and Erik finish their trek

The accomplishment deserved celebrating with dinner at the iconic Trail Center Lodge.  Word leaked out about their adventure, and soon everyone around us wanted to know all the details.  The staff presented them with medals and even offered to be their food sponsor for the next adventure, with their locally made Camp Chow !  Nothing could top seeing the pure pleasure on the faces of my sons.

Celebration at Trail Center

I’m not likely to trek with a sled across frozen lakes through the Boundary Waters, go winter camping or even climb my great-grandfather’s mountain.  But I’m so glad to be a part of my sons’ lives watching them do it.  It fills my heart to know that they choose to pursue these dreams together.  Carl and Erik, I’ll be there, at your service, any time you plan another adventure.

On Location

Donning every possible layer of outdoor clothing I own, I pull on my mukluks, fling a camera around my neck and grab my notebook.  It’s time for the start of the Arrowhead 135!

At the 7am start, it’s -9 degrees with a touch of snow falling in International Falls MN.  Bikers, runners and skiers line up and head down the Arrowhead Trail as fireworks light up the inky sky.  The race takes its heritage seriously, ranked as one of 50 toughest races in the world.  The finish line is 135 miles away.Skier in Arrowhead 135

These intrepid athletes will endure up to three days on the trail, with temperatures predicted in the -22 degree range by morning.  My role is far easier.  And warmer.  I am here to cover the race for the Lake Country Journal, a beautiful glossy magazine that covers all things related to our northern lakes area.

Teaming up with Rich, we have created a new niche for ourselves – find fun events that interest us, sell the idea to a magazine, attend and experience them, then produce a story.  I write, he takes the photographs.

Today we leapfrog the trail, catching the racers at intervals along the way.  Rich looks for unique photo opps, I make mental notes of what I see – the steadfast determination in the racers’ eyes, the thick boots, the ice encrusted beards and fanciful antler hat.  We have time to warm up in the car.  The racers have only their energy to heat their bodies.

Biker in Arrowhead 135I would never be here if it weren’t for my writing.  Seeing folks pursue the impossible.  Following the Holiday Train.  Leaning the ins and outs of sled dog racing.  Attending a home grown radio show.  Then bring them to life for others.  New horizons, unique adventures, a break in my strict daily routine.  It’s a privilege to be able to write about topics of my own choosing.Runner in Arrowhead 135It wasn’t always this way.  Getting here has a been a seven year journey of my own.  I got my humble start in writing with Lake Superior Magazine, which accepted my first cold submission.  Editor Konnie went on to gently mentor me year after year, offering me more stories as my skills improved.  Just seeing my work come out in print was a big thrill.  And it remains one of my favorite magazines to write for.

As today’s racers doggedly push on toward the finish line I remain vigilant as we chase them down the trail, composing lines in my head, shaping the story to share with my readers.  It’s already been a memorable adventure, and we haven’t yet seen them press on through the dark of night.  But when they do, I’ll be there.  With my talented photographer husband at my side.  On Location.Molly and Rich at Arrowhead 135

Winter Water

If I had any doubts about winter’s arrival, it only took a trip up the North Shore to the Canadian border and beyond to confirm it.  While patchy snow powdered Duluth, the more northern climes delivered deeply flocked pines and enough snow on the ground to make boots a necessity.  Not exactly typical waterfall weather, but that was the whole attraction.

It took two stops at Kakabeka Falls north of Thunder Bay to catch in it bathed in sunlight.  Afternoon delivered the warmth and light we sought, and transformed the view into a thunderous sparkling delight.

Kakabeca Falls in winter Rich at Kakabeca Falls

Pushing further north, we ventured in search of Silver Falls.  Following unplowed roads into the park of the same name, we stopped to hike at Dog Lake.  With only vague directions to the falls, we declined the remaining narrowing white road onward.  Silver Falls await a return visit.

Molly hiking at Dog Lake

Just at the border, High Falls in Grand Portage State Park graced us with sunshine once again.  The Pigeon River flowed with gusto, even as its borders froze into creamy icicles.  Especially intriguing was watching the water falling behind the thinner icy patches.

High Falls in winter High Falls closeup

While Rich stopped to investigate the water fowl in the bay at Grand Marais, I found yet another water feature in the crystal remnants of recent wave action.

Icy bushes Grand Marais

The best part of all?  We had every single one of these sights to ourselves.  Apparently, we were the only ones out in search of winter water.