Vacation Dreams

For months, the word claimed ownership to weeks on our calendar. It feels like a lifetime ago that Rich and I sat down and plunked “Vacation” on three separate chunks of winter and spring. I knew the drill – if we didn’t dedicate the time early on, we’d fill up the calendar and never get away. But this time it wasn’t being busy that posed a threat.

As Rich’s eyesight issues progressed through the fall, we put our lives on hold. Ordinary outings like going for a walk, having dinner at a restaurant, attending a party all assumed an onerous significance. Could Rich manage it? The future meant later today, maybe tomorrow. Beyond that we could not see. The words languished on the calendar.

As winter’s cold, dry climate and brilliant snow reflections wreaked havoc with Rich’s eyes, we began to ponder the unthinkable. Might we have to become snowbirds? Would Rich have to give up his love of the Northwoods, his hunt for winter owls, and his passion for cross-country skiing to hibernate in a warm and humid climate that was kinder to his eyes? If that’s what it took to regain his eyesight, so be it.

Fortunately, the magic of Rich’s botox treatments turned our world around. With each stride forward, Rich regained aspects of his life he feared were lost forever, and we tenderly ventured to believe we could make plans again. So it was that I deleted late January’s “Vacation” week and replaced it with “Florida.”

Through the generosity of our friends, Arlene and Steve, we spent a glorious sunny week with them in Fort Myers. Rich and I were both there, but had distinctly different experiences.

For me, it was a week of indulging in long walks with Arlene, biking with Arlene and our friend Myra, lapping up the friendships. The constantly sunny days in the 70s salved my winter body. Ventures to Sanibel and Captiva delivered my requisite doses of beach and waves.  Dinners in the company of good friends capped each day.

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling Myra, Arlene and Molly bikers Molly and Rich on Captiva beach Cocktail hour at Arlene and Steves Molly Steve Rich dinner outside at the club

While I reveled in the pure Florida vacation, Rich still faced a series of trials. If Rich’s eye troubles have taught us anything, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted. What the blepharospasm took away from him will take months to regain. Things that used to be second nature, now require conquering anew. His confidence is badly shaken. Even the air travel proved stressful.

On this trip, bicycling posed a major hurdle. Battling fear of failure, Rich took Steve’s bike out for a spin in the safe environs of the development. Hesitant at first, belief dawning gradually, he covered eight miles on the quiet roads. His text to declare success contained four exclamation points, five smiley faces! Over the remainder of the week he expanded his distances, braving the real world, even biking to a birding spot. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to resume our bike touring. For now we celebrate one success at a time.

Ever the birder, Rich researched wildlife preserves and stalked local birds with great success. Perusing his photos each day, I reveled in the beauty – envious of his finds, but fully aware of my lack of patience to find and watch these rarities. Photos would do. Virtually guaranteeing success, Rich lured the three of us out early one morning in search of burrowing owls. Sure enough, we found eight tiny owls perched on their burrows in the vicinity of a ball field in Cape Coral. They weren’t hard to spot – the hovels of this threatened species were cordoned off by plastic piping, their holes marked by wooden crosses. Birding for dummies, perhaps, but they were gosh darn cute.

Burrowing OwlPainted Bunting

Florida may not become our winter home after all, providing the botox keeps up its work. But our sojourn south had many healing benefits.

Merely going on vacation – something so basic, so normal – felt like our re-entry to the world. Rich started to believe again. The future began to stretch out ahead of us once more. And we renamed another Vacation segment on the calendar. Costa Rica, here we come! We might as well dream big.

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

Heavenly Performances in the Tetons

Sometimes nature’s best is just outside your window.  Such was the case in the Grand Tetons.

It pays to be married to a photographer.  Especially one with a passion for night time photography and the sun’s golden hours.  I may not be game for his all-night antics chasing the Aurora, but sunsets and sunrises I can handle.  And I have to admit, Rich does his homework.

Upon arriving at Jackson Lake Lodge, Rich quickly scouted the mountain views from the front of the lodge, his apps that detailed the exact location of sun movement, and the weather forecast.  He deemed it a perfect sunset opportunity.  We were poised and ready with our cameras and tripods well before the action began.  An darn if he wasn’t spot on!

Tetons sunset 1

Tetons Sunset 2

We spent a magical hour watching the pageantry of the receding sun, as it shot light rays from behind the mountains and spun color into the clouds overhead.  We knew it must be something special when we spotted numerous lodge staff members dashing outside to capture pictures of the display.

I could have been thoroughly satisfied with that experience.  But it was far from over.  I was informed that we had a full moon, and it was due to set over the mountains early the next morning.  It was a once-a-month phenomenon.  And we had the good fortune to see it.  So it was that I dragged my body out of bed in the dark and chill of pre-dawn the following morning.  And heck, that too was worth the effort!

Tetons moonset 1

Tetons moonset 2

It wasn’t long from the conclusion of that drama to the sun’s appearance, so we lingered for the final show.  Rising from behind, it slowly painted the mountaintops and slithered down the rocky slopes with pinky golden colors, ultimately meeting the mist rising from Jackson Lake.

Tetons sunrise 1

Tetons sunrise 2

It was the perfect trifecta.  Three heavenly performances initiated our visit to the Grand Tetons.  And the view in broad daylight wasn’t half bad either.

Tetons panoramic view

Grand Canyon under Siege

“Let's go rainbow hunting!” That was Rich. We were holed up in our modest motel room, waiting out the first rain of our trip. He had visions of photographing a beautiful rainbow arching over the Grand Canyon. I was skeptical. Rich has overly-optimistic tendencies. But it beat sitting in the room, so I took the bait.

Arriving at our favorite spot at Yavapai Point during a lull from the rain, the sun was glowing on the canyon formations while ominous clouds gathered overhead. Rich was quick to point out that while blue sky days are pretty, the more interesting shots come with unusual weather conditions.

Grand Canyon before storm 1
Grand Canyon before storm 2

Weather indeed was headed our way. The dark clouds behind us advanced with rumbles of thunder. Rain began crossing the canyon. While we were still dry, it was consuming the scene in front of us.

Grand Canyon rain starting

Raindrops and lightning ultimately sent us fleeing for cover and safety. Retreating into the nearby Geology Museum, we watched from dry environs. Then suddenly, there it was. Just like Rich thought it would be. A rainbow!

Grand Canyon rainbow

Returning outside, we watched as the rainbow extended in length. Where it would normally reach the ground, the rainbow continued to arc into the depths of the canyon. Spreading faintly across the entire sky, it completed well more than a half circle. Not only that, but a faint twin developed to its left.

Grand Canyon double rainbow

The other spectators echoed our excitement over this amazing phenomenon. We all knew we were witnessing something rare and special. We stayed on watching as the rainbow began to shrink. As the sun disappeared. As the storm grew closer again.

Grand Canyon storm

Soon it was obvious. It was time to run for the car. The Grand Canyon was under siege, and so were we. But for once I was glad I was swayed by Rich's instincts. Rainbow hunting indeed.

 

Grand Canyon Sun Painting

It's taken me 62 years to get to the Grand Canyon, and now I'm wondering why it took so long. Seeing it for the first time as we cycled along the South Rim, I was naturally awed by its vast expanse, the colors of the strata, its depth and the unearthly rock formations. Each turn gave us a different perspective, new views to behold. But it paled in comparison to what happened when the sun worked its magic on the canyon.

Near sunset, we toted our cameras and tripods to the overlook at Yavapai Point. It was already crowded with people, both photographers and those there just to bask in the view. Although most had already staked out their spots, we had no trouble finding a good vantage point as we planned to shoot in the opposite direction. While the sun performed its light tricks in the sky producing brilliant orange and red hues, to us the real display was on the canyon rocks. The further the sun sank the greater the glow on the peaks before us. That was the real show.

Grand Canyon sunset 1
Grand Canyon sunset 2

Morning brought a repeat performance. We returned to the same spot, first selecting an East facing view to watch the sun come up. It was more beautiful to watch than what I could capture with my camera. As soon as it crested the horizon, we skedaddled to another position to look West. As the sun advanced in the sky, increasing sections of the canyon were illuminated.

Grand Canyon sunrise 1
Grand Canyon sunrise 2

When the light began to wane, I set out on another tour of the canyon. What better place for my morning run than along the paved Rim Trail? Covering five miles out and then back again, I had beautiful views to spur me on. Both the 7,000 foot elevation and some steep sections of trail took their toll, but I had the perfect excuse to stop and catch my breath while snapping photos along the way. I can't think of many more picturesque runs I have done in my life.

Grand Canyon Rim Trail 1
Grand Canyon Rim Tail 2
Grand Canyon Rim Trail 3
Grand Canyon Rim Trail 4

We haven't even been here a full day yet, and already I think we have seen the best the Grand Canyon has to offer. The rest will be pure gravy.

 

The Many Moods of Crisp Point Lighthouse

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This gallery contains 20 photos.

The lighthouse easily dominates our existence, well beyond our duties as light-keepers. We have the luxury of time to observe it under constantly changing conditions. Its personality varies as much from minute to minute as it does between days. Camping … Continue reading

A Crisp Morning

Perched at the top of Crisp Point Lighthouse, I stand out on the catwalk before dawn. A golden glow stretches across the sky between the narrow bands of clouds that cling to the horizon. My hopes for a spectacular sunrise fade as the promise of glowing reds fails to materialize. I am unaware that the rising sun has yet to work its magic.

Descending the tower, I set out down the beach. The wind of the past two days has calmed and only residual waves lap the shore. It is only when I turn around away from the sunrise, that I see the first colors of the morning.

Crisp Point morning 1

By the time the pinks and blues fade in the distance, the sun begins to spin gold in the clouds directly overhead. A totally different light show is in progress. This sends me scurrying to the opposite side of the lighthouse. Such a brilliant contrast leaves me marveling at the wonders of a single sunrise.

Crisp morning 2

Next I wait for the sun to climb high enough to illuminate the lighthouse itself. Gradually it paints the tower, starting with its red top and slowly migrating downward. In the process it also throws shadows from the towering pines against the white structure. Mother Nature is such an artist!

Crisp morning 3

The morning is still young, and already I have witnessed so many reflections of the rising sun. As full daylight develops, I capture the classic blue sky photo. Compared to the earlier drama, it feels quite ordinary.

Crisp morning 4

At last the sun begins its other duty, warming the brisk 36-degree air. It's time to start the campstove and make my morning coffee. I'm ready to thaw my hands and inner self. This has been a crisp morning indeed.

 

Not all Auroras are Equal

We are fortunate to live in northern Minnesota where we can see the Northern Lights when the conditions are right. Over the years, I’ve seen my share of Auroras. The very best was up at our cabin. Late at night, sitting around the campfire, someone looked up and noticed the green glow. We all trooped down to the dock where we had a view of the whole sky. There were rays shooting up from all directions, reaching the apex and waving.  Lying on our backs to watch the performance was awesome.

More commonly, the lights have been a green glow in the North. Sometimes they create spikes that stretch up into the sky.  Others form curtains that hang above the landscape like the display I saw in the Boundary Waters with my son Carl. Each is mesmerizing and special.

With that as my frame of reference, I was unprepared for the Northern Lights in Norway. Sure, I’d seen photographs and tourism posters, but those are unabashedly sensationalized.  I knew the chance of seeing the lights was better there. Pure geography means even weaker displays are visible.  I just hadn’t realized how different they would be.

Our first night we got really lucky.  In the vernacular of the serious Aurora Hunters, there was a “G2 storm” – which means an extraordinary amount of solar magnetic activity.  That translates to a high likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights.

Not only did the lights blanket the sky, but they were exceptionally brilliant and intense.  We didn’t have to look for a green glow.  The whole sky was glowing.  Against that backdrop bright rays shot across the sky, arcing over our heads and extending from horizon to horizon.  It was as if we were witnessing huge electric currents, pulsating and giving off waves of color.  Everything was perfectly aligned to bring us this fine display – location, clear skies, no moon and solar power in the atmosphere.  And boy, was that obvious.Mountain Pass AuroraThe following night, we knew that the solar activity was weaker, so we adjusted our expectations accordingly.  I think we were still harboring a Minnesota frame of reference, because once again we were amazed at what we saw.  This time the lights may not have been as intense, but the sharp streaks were replaced by patterns and movement and the performance lasted much longer.  For about an hour and a half we watched as the lights danced overhead.  They were constantly in motion, creating shapes then morphing into something else.  First active on one side of the ski, then picking up momentum on the other.  My favorite was the circular curtain of lights, waving its folds and draping its colors as it curved.  It was hard to know which way to look, because to view in one direction meant missing something behind me.Mountain Fjord Aurora 1Mountain Fjord Aurora 2Mountain Fjord Aurora 3I have Rich to thank for the photographs of these displays, as that is his specialty.  Often times I feel that the camera overstates what I was able to see with my own eyes.  But on this occasion, I think that the opposite is true.  His photos are quite true to what we saw, yet cannot do justice to the whole experience.  Not even his wide angle lens could capture the full image of what was happening up in the sky.  You had to be there to see it.  I can now fully appreciate the vast beauty of just what the Northern Lights can do.  And it is abundantly clear that not all Auroras are equal.  I’m convinced that we saw some of the best.

Arctic Aurora Brilliance

When chasing the Northern Lights, there are no guarantees. Conditions can change in an instant. A promising forecast can evaporate. The atmosphere can refuse to cooperate. And even when there is a fantastic display, clouds can completely scuttle the view. How well we know this.

After four nights on our cruise along the coast of Norway dedicated to this pursuit, we have seen only a faint glow. While the trip's daytime scenery has been stunning, the unspoken disappointment over the lack of a nighttime performance is a minor undercurrent. But we still have three more nights on shore in Tromso to score an Aurora.

When I enter the visitor center, it is packed with people all anxious to see the Northern Lights. The number of tour operators promising to mine their expertise, drive to different locations all night long, and deliver a memorable experience is astounding. These visitors are prepared to fork over a small fortune, and they anxiously deliberate the selection of a tour operator and the night they will take their chance. I, on the other hand, am here merely to purchase a parking pass. My tour guide is en route with a rental car, already armed with weather forecasts, Aurora apps, alerts, Kp index and solar activity ratings. Rich may be as qualified as any expert out there.

With Tromso still socked in with clouds, we layer ourselves in warm clothes, collect cameras and tripods and begin our chase after dinner. Rich is buoyed by the recent reports, revealing that “the numbers” are suddenly escalating. The key will be to find open skies. Rich's research convinces him we should drive away from the coast, and he has selected an area 73 kilometers to the southeast for this target. Distance is of little concern in this pursuit.

Traveling down the fjord, I keep my eyes trained on the sky. It's hard to see with the reflections of the dash and outdoor lights on the windows. Peering into the darkness, I suddenly find stars. First just in one spot, soon all over the sky! We are still too near the lights of civilization, but we are on target. Constantly searching, I detect faint green rays in the sky over the water. Surely I am not just willing them into existence. They are there from every angle I try. Wispy and ephemeral they fade, but I'm certain I saw them.

30k short of our destination, the stars disappear. Rich chooses to turn around, hoping to return to the earlier opening. We are amazed at the constant lights along the road – who knew there were so many people living this far north?

Still panning the sky, I spy an unmistakable brilliant green pattern right above us! This time it is the real thing. It moves and changes shape before my very eyes. We have ourselves an Aurora.

We are on the top of a mountain pass between two fjords, and amazingly a pull-out appears next to the road. We park and are out of the car in a flash. Despite the lights in the house across the road and the glare of the passing automobiles, the display is so bright that nothing seems to dim its radiance.

Ribbons of green cross the sky. Stretching from one side to the other, we can't even tell which way is North. They twist and twirl overhead. They form and reform then subside. New shapes appear, like curtains with folds that wave in the breeze. Moving and dancing with varying hues of intensity, sometimes with a tinge of gold. The sky is aglow. Its green illuminates the big grins on our faces.

Rich is in his element, repositioning his camera every few minutes. So much is happening overhead and in every direction, there are endless opportunities to photograph the show. I abandoned all thoughts of trying my hand at photography the moment I exited the car. Riveted by the action in the sky, I prefer to see it all live than to risk frustration trying to capture it. My neck hurts from continually looking straight up – a sweet pain I happily endure. Even Rich shoots fewer pictures than usual as the display is so enthralling.

As quickly as it began, the performance fades. The striking shapes ebb into vagueness then dim into obscurity. The clouds have caught up with us.

In all, the glory lasted 45 minutes. But we continue to glow in its wake for the duration of the drive back to Tromso. It is a night for the memory books. My personal Aurora Hunter nailed it. He found a sliver of open sky during one of the brightest of Auroras. Both Rich and the Aurora performed brillliantly.

 

Cruising frigid waters

Going on a mid-winter cruise.  Those words conjure up images of palm trees, turquoise waters begging for a snorkel, and brilliant warm sunshine.  It conveys a feeling of escape from all that is cold, frosty and covered in ice and snow.  Such would be the case for any ordinary travelers.  But few have ventured to call us typical.

Our packing list includes heavy down jackets, Steger mukluks (the warmest of boots), mittens, hats and scarves.  We’re also bringing our cross-country skis, boots and poles for when we disembark from the ship.  Clearly, this is no tropical cruise.

We already live in the far north, only 90 miles from Canada.  But this cruise starts well above that and travels North.  Our vessel is classified as an “ice class 1X ship” suited for expedition voyages.  It will ply the waters along a rugged coast and deposit us above the Arctic Circle.  Now doesn’t that sound like great winter fun?

Well, if you are an avid outdoor enthusiast, with a passion for the Northern Lights and night time photography, it is a perfect fit.  This voyage of the MS Midnatsol along the coast of Norway is titled “In Search of the Northern Lights,” and is Rich’s pick for his 60th birthday present.  By virtue of marriage, I get to go along.

Midnatsol outside TromsoThis ship is in perfect keeping with our unconventional travel theme.  It is part of the Hurtigruten fleet and is a working vessel, which provides the ferry service for cars and passengers up and down the coast.  It also delivers cargo and mail to coastal villages.  And it takes some cruising passengers.  With a capacity of 500 people, we won’t be among the cast of thousands that typify large cruise ships.  In place of glitzy shows, we might learn to fillet halibut out on deck.  While many cruises boast an everlasting feast, we will partake of typical Norwegian fare.  Dinner is what they serve, no menu choices.  Fish are frequently featured.  There is no casino on board, instead we will cash in on the gorgeous scenery passing by.  It sounds perfect to me.

Midnatsol map 2Daylight hours will be about what we experience at Christmas time in Duluth – sunrise about 8:00am, sunset at 4:00pm. That still leaves plenty of illuminated hours in which to take in the fjords and ports along the way.  But it’s actually the darkness that attracted Rich to this voyage.  He took great care to book this trip during a new moon, to ensure the darkest skies possible. Scoring clear skies and solar activity to activate the Northern Lights is out of his control, but just being that far north will enhance our likelihood of witnessing a display.

Sleep will not be a priority on this adventure – if there is any chance of an aurora, Rich will be out on deck.  And I will be there right beside him.  After all, that’s the whole point of the trip, to see and photograph the Northern Lights.  As we cruise the frigid waters.