Friday, April 27, 2012

On the Oregon trail - exploring the NE
April 14 - 20(ish)

Smith Rock from Monkey Rock
A couple more days in Bend enabled us to do a few chores as well as take in a hike of the nearby Smith Rock, a spectacular craggy peak that rises over the surrounding flat agricultural landscape, shaped in part by the Crooked River which cuts through the middle of the rock. On approaching from a distance, it looks a bit underwhelming - just some rocks sticking out of another-wise fairly uninteresting landscape, but once in amongst the towering cliff faces, and climbing over the peaks, it’s scale and grandeur is truly striking. Didn’t take the camera (what were we thinking?) so only have a crappy phone photo for this one.
Benham Falls - the top of our kayak run

Our departure from Bend got off to a very slow start. After 20 minutes of driving we decided it was time to stop and play on the Deschutes River, ideal for trying out the kayak on some flowing waters - we figured out that a grade IV-V river was the perfect place for a couple of novices to develop their skills. For those not in the know, IV-V entails massive rapids bordering on waterfalls, so we cheated by putting in just below the grade V Benham Falls and drifted along in the bouncy current (grade I-II) for an hour or so before pulling out just above the grade IV Dillon Falls on a gorgeous sunny afternoon. Our strategy for shuttling back to the car was to first drop of a (my) bike at the bottom of the run, drive to the top, float down, and then I get to cycle back to the car whilst Christine lazes around in the sun. Perfect really, although I think we  may need to re-negotiate the last bit about who gets to sit in the sun.
Dillon falls - time to get out!
Crooked River - starting to get a bit bumpy
From there, we headed on to camp on the Crooked River, just below the Prineville Reservoir which was releasing enough water to offer us the next challenge, this time a river with some rapids which require you to think a bit about which route you are going to take and actually work reasonably hard to actually enact the plan - and you get wet! We decided that this was not suited to the tandem kayak which is not so easy to maneuver, so broke it into three, took out the middle bit, put the two ends together and, lo-and-behold, a kayak for one, which I then took down river, dodging the rocks and the trout fishermen while Christine drove along the road that followed the river - great fun and I was delighted with how maneuverable and stable the cut-down kayak was. 
Our next destination was the Painted Hills, and whilst the day was a little overcast, the rain of the night before seemed to bring out the colors in a more subtle way than probably would have been the case on a sunny day. 
Painted Hills - colorful as the name would suggest

Our camp that night was on the John Day River, where the Spring that we had left behind in California appeared to be catching up with us again as the first leaves of the deciduous trees and the blossoms of the fruit trees emerged. The slightly more turbulent rapids of the John Day tempted me again and Christine again played shuttle driver while I got to play along a couple of kilometers of river.

Had a cool video to insert here but keep getting an error - will try to fix later
Campsite view on the John Day RIver
Having thought that Spring was upon us, we then found ourselves climbing into the ranges once again where we attempted to take some winding backroads across the Blue Mountains, but eventually the snow beat us, and after busting one of our snow chains and digging our way out of a snow bog, we retreated back to the low lands. On our way back down we came across a large caravan parked in a glade and decided to ask the occupants if they knew about any alternative open routes. As we pulled up, a very large guy dressed in big black boots and military camouflage with a flat top haircut and massive walrus mustache and a pistol on his hip came out to meet us. We figured that turning and running would be a bit rude so said Hi and asked if he new about the road conditions around here. Turned out that he was a very friendly hunter who was just getting out for a few days. He normally came out here with the wife and grand-kids, and proceeded to talk about how beautiful the emerging spring flowers were and told us about all of the wonderful places we should visit in NW Oregon - just goes to show, shouldn’t judge a person by their really scary looks! 
Courtesy of him, we also got an insight into the hunting system here, with very limited numbers of permits being issued through a lottery for the less common species like bear, mountain goats and mountain lion, while more easily obtained permits were required for deer and turkey. Seems also that there are additional regulations about not taking female bears with cubs during the spring season. When I asked if hunters generally complied with these rules, he said most do but there are always some that pretty much shoot anything anywhere. With so much testosterone invested in hunting and so little funding for the Parks, it’s hard to imagine that there is adequate enforcement. 

Main street of Mitchell, Oregon

Our next river encounter was with the Grande Ronde, a fairly wide, fast flowing river with lots of riffles but nothing too scary, so we decided we would tackle this in the tandem kayak. Dropped the bike off just out of La Grande then drove upstream for a great little 4-5 mile paddle back down the valley, followed by a bike ride up again - might have to think about triathlon training!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Across the border to Bend

March 27 - April 4

Mt Shasta
Having spent so long wandering (peregrinating?) around California, crossing the border into Oregon seemed like quite a significant event, although it did occur in the middle of a snow storm, whizzing past trucks on icy roads, so we weren’t quite sure exactly when it happened. Our need to get the car registered (a month after we bought it) meant that we had to make a bee-line for Bend where my sister Carla’s house was about to become our place of abode for registration purposes, as well as a fun place to use as a base for exploring the diverse and spectacular landscapes of central and eastern Oregon. The west coast is being rained on so we thought we would save that ‘till we came back through in the autumn.

I think we are in Oregon
Rowena and Adrian, who we had stayed with in Santa Barbara were also in town so, together with their friends dropping in and out, the house was always busy and there was always something going on. 
Took to the slopes of Mount Bachelor and the Mackenzie Pass area for some snow skiing, mountain biking through the pine forests to the NW of town, watching the kayak slalom competition through the rapids in the middle of town on the Deschutes River (was hoping to get a photo of someone in a yellow canoe so I could pretend it was me, but not to be), breakfasting in the local cafe’s  and drinking by the log fire in the McMenamin’s brew pub that has been converted from the Old St. Francis School (quite like the notion of converting schools to pubs!) has certainly kept us occupied. 
Gonna have cold butts today!
After California, coming to Bend feels a bit like arriving on another planet occupied by a different species,. Everyone here is very fit (don’t think I’ve seen an overweight person yet - probably not allowed?). Every man and woman and his/her dog (highest rate of dog ownership in the country) runs, cycles, skis, kayaks, swims or, in the case of my brother in law, John, all of the above pretty much every day, and every vehicle has all sorts of adventure paraphernalia hanging off it - so at least we fit in on that count - just need to keep working on the getting fit bit!
We were taking notes

Exploring the high deserts

April 5 - 7

Campsite on the boat ramp
Spectator seats for the battle of the elements
From Bend, we returned to our more confined, but very comfortable, mobile home and hit the road again, this time for a tour around the South East corner of Oregon, starting in the Cascade Ranges and then heading out into the high desert, a remarkable contrast of landscapes caused by the rain-shadow effect of the mountains. Again, we drove through the snow, past beautiful alpine lakes, to spend the night on the boat ramp on the edge of the snow-covered Diamond Lake. The setting sun tussled with the darkening clouds across the lake, slithers of light briefly slashing across the surface before being subjugated by the swirling clouds which cast waves of soft snow across the landscape. Seemingly vanquished, the sun sank below the horizon, but not before handing the baton on to the rising full moon which continued the battle on the eastern horizon, its momentary victories celebrated by the emerging stars - all viewed from within the margarita-enhanced comfort of our snug little house.
Snug as a bug in a rug under a layer of snow
Next morning dawned with scattered cloud and so we wove our way around more circuitous freshly snow-covered mountain roads (like driving through marshmallows) to Crater Lake where we snow-shoed around the rim as the sun came out. All the roads are closed so we shared this magical area with only a few other people prepared to go out on foot or ski.
Crater Lake & Wizard Island

From there we left the mountains and entered the vast eastern plains of Oregon, firstly through agricultural land and then increasingly, as the rainfall diminished, into increasingly less populated ranching country. Our search for pronghorns (antelopey-like deer) took us to the Hart Mountains where we did see a couple of males, but we were to discover that the main herds were still down in the lower plains to the south where we were able to see a few groups in the distance - its hardly surprising that such a vast landscape can swallow up the few thousand animals that remain. 

Lake country below the Hart Mountains

Ground squirrel

Cycling in the Hart Mountains
Again, some of the reserve roads were closed to cars, so we reverted to our bikes in order to explore a bit further into the region. 
While the pronghorn didn’t really cooperate, we were treated to a great sighting of big-horned sheep, a flock of which had come down off the mountains to a salt lick just by a small back road we were taking. A couple of males butted heads, but without any great enthusiasm, before the group headed off back towards the mountains. 

Big Horn boys sizing each other up.

Party time for owls 
April 9(ish)
Because these vast plains are nestled in between substantial mountain ranges, with largely internally draining rivers, there is a vast network of lakes and wetlands, which sometimes house millions of migrating birds, but now was not their time - presumably they are still to arrive from where we saw them a few weeks ago in the Klamath Lakes further to the south. 
We were however treated to some good sightings of ring-necked pheasants and great horned owls. As the sun set over our camp, the latter started to call. Now they may not have sounded all that excited in tone, but I’m sure they were calling “whoop-de-doo, whoo-hoo!” in an owly sort of way rather than the rather unimaginative description of “ 3-8 hoots, the 2nd and 3rd often short and rapid” given by the bird book. 

Musk rat
An early morning walk by the stream that we had camped next to brought me (Christine was still in bed awaiting her cup of tea) upon a musk rat, firstly swimming across its pond and then coming out on to the bank to feed as I sat only a few yards away. While “musk rat”, may not sound  very exciting, they are more like beavers than rats, and build substantial lodges out of reeds in the middle of the ponds that they occupy, so are a bit more exciting than their name may imply.

After searching far and wide for the fabled pronghorns, we turned back in the direction of Bend, with the threat of more rain coming and , would you believe it? 40 miles out of Bend, there is a big flock of the things in a furrowed paddock next to the road looking for all the world like domestic animals - good to see them but the setting didn’t quite work.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Looking for the lost coast
Sheltered cove near Mendocino
Heading north from San Francisco, Highway 1 clings to the cliffs of an increasingly rugged and remote coast. Whilst summer must bring many San Franciscans for their weekend escapes to the mutitude of quaint B&Bs, during winter the coast is almost deserted and the quickly changing weather reveals it in all of its manifestations - windswept, sunny, misty and grey, all in the passage of no more than a day or two. Found another backroad to explore, this one taking us along a remote bit of coast  to Usal Beach, the name being an acronym  for USA Logging, a company that spent many years removing the majestic redwoods from this part of the coast. Their presence followed that of the Russian sealers and otter hunters who also over-exploited the resources they sought, to the point of the industry failing. The seals seem to have recovered but haven’t seen any otters, altho there were elk - very impressive when you see them for the first time!

Back road to Usal Beach
Overlooking Usal Beach

Into the land of giants...with Bruckner’s 4th
Moving north along the coast, the dairy country gives way to the mighty sequoia, or redwood, forests - magnificent trees that have drawn people from all over the world to view their majesty, and there is no denying, they are impressive - particularly as our first encounter was accompanied by Bruckner’s 4th symphony playing on local Mendocino community radio - a more fitting soundtrack is hard to imagine. Having left the car stereo behind, however, the forests are strikingly silent. Most of the birds are yet to return from their annual holidays in central America and those that are here are too cold to be vociferously cheerful, except of course for the crows and ravens which seem happy to express their opinions regardless of the circumstances. 

A couple of hikes took us into the midst of these mighty forests, firstly  in Hendy State Park, yet another closed-for-the-season park, where we camped in the day use area, and the second in the Humboldt State Forest where we camped in the Avenue of the Giants. 

Beneath the giants feet...
Not everything is large in these mighty forests:

California - closed for camping
As has been mentioned a couple of times above, it seems that California is pretty much closed for camping at this time of year, partially because of regular seasonal closures, but increasingly because the State is broke and the forestry departments have had their budgets slashed. Consequently they are now either closed Monday to Thursday, closed seasonally or, in many cases, on the brink of closing permanently as the State shuts them down or tries to sell them off. Seems like its OK to bail out the banks and the car industry but not the forests! Makes it a real challenge for anyone wanting to vacation out of peak season. Nonetheless, we are managing to find all sorts of out-of-the-way places that are only accessible with a vehicle that can tackle the snowy and muddy backroads, many of which are completely deserted. Tonight we are camped in splendid isolation near Trinity Lakes in northern California, beneath the redwoods alongside a babbling snow fed mountain stream. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More snow-play
11-16th March 2012

A cold front is on the way, promising feet of snow which, if you are a skier, is a great thing, but if you are camping, is not something to get stuck in, so we have a day or so to play before we head back down to the coast and on to San Fran.
MorningView from Big Pine Creek below Palisade Glacier
This morning's vista from from Big Pine Creek certainly gave no inkling of the cold change that is meant to be coming - a beautiful clear morning with a spectacular backdrop. We had camped the night in a closed campsite (California is going broke so they have shut all of their parks over winter to save money) so we have now spent about 5 nights in a row camping for free.  

An American Widgeon

Headed for Mammoth Lakes where we again found a remote campsite in the snow and unpacked the snow shoes to do so some local exploring - not a lot of snow around at the moment but enough to enable us to get our snow legs sorted out. 
Trying out the snow-shoes

As the snow came in that night, we decided to head down hill, visiting Mono Lake - the site of a contentious water battle between Los Angeleans and environmentalists. The Dept of water was diverting streams that flowed into the internally draining, saline Lake Mono to enable people in LA to wash their cars, thereby reducing the water levels and threatening the limited (in diversity but not in numbers) yet unique biota that occurs there. Fortunately the court ruled in favor of the lake and, while water levels have not yet returned to the agreed target levels, it is still very impressive. One of the lake’s claims to fame are the Tufa structures that formed under water as sodium-rich spring water seeped out under the carbonate rich lake, causing the formations of weirdly shaped columns of sodium-carbonate.

Not-so-sunny San Francisco
16th -19th March 2012
Arriving in San Fran as the cold front rolls in.
The weather that is bringing snow to the mountains is also dumping rain on Frisco so we’re taking the opportunity to catch up with friends, take in some sights and get some jobs done.
The Women's Centre in San Fran
Our first social engagement was a catch up with Mike Schuller, a friend I had made in Sabah with whom I spent some magical times on the Kinabatangan River watching elephants and spectacular sunsets and less magical moments traipsing around in swamps at night in an unsuccesful search of the elusive slow loris. We had a great evening chatting over a few premature St Patrick’s Day Guinnesses before Mike took us on a guided tour of the  extraordinary murals on the alleyway walls in his local Mission neighborhood - the location of the first settlement in San Francisco. A delicious Japanese dinner topped off the evening - thanks for the great company Mike!

Our second social event was a catch up with a Somali family in Oakland, the sister of one of Christine’s work colleagues in Perth. A delightful family who hosted us with a scrumptious Somali lunch.

Not the usual view of the Golden Gate Bridge!
Of course, our sightseeing took in the mandatory bridge (although in the time of our stay here we crossed just about every other major bridge in the Bay Area, each of which is quite impressive in its own way.  Had a crab pizza lunch with champagne sitting by an outdoor fire by the waterside in Sosolito, on the northern side of the bridge, and cooked our own meal on the hills over-looking the bridge as the city lights came on - a million dollar view from our mobile restaurant!

The more conventional views of the most photographed bridge in the world

View from our restaurant window

Another highlight was the Museum of Modern Art, the interior of the building itself being an attraction in its own right, with a diverse range of permanent and visiting exhibitions making for sometimes challenging but always fascinating viewing, watching and listening. 
Hung Liu - Loom

Robert Rauschenberg - Collection

Our theme song!
When too many toys are barely enough....
20th March 2012

The good thing about a big van is that you can fit a lot of toys in and on it, so today we treated ourselves to a new acquisition - a modular kayak that converts from solo to tandem. We thought it was a bit of a gimmick at first but our reading of revues and discussions with people in kayak shops suggest that it is a fair dinkum serious canoe, so we loaded one atop the car and headed out to Point Reyes, a spectacular coastal reserve just north of San Francisco with a number of sheltered inlets just perfect for novice ‘yakers to get their sea legs. While unloading the boat, we got chatting to a fellow called Tom who was out for a stroll after just returning from a holiday in New Zealand. Having accepted his very generous offer to drop around for a drink later that day, we put boat to water and passed the morning paddling beneath the cliffs and forests of Tomales Bay.
Lionel the Loon enjoying the ride
From there, we headed out to  Point Reyes where we watched whales off the headland - lots of gray whales heading back north after wintering in warmer climes - as the mist rolled in off the ocean. Also spent a bit of time in the parking lot talking to people about Sportsmobiles - a very frequent event - beats dogs for initiating conversations with strangers! Again US hospitality astounded us with an invitation from Amira and her partner to drop by if we came through Berkely. Unfortunately it is not on our now-northward route, so we’ll have to take a rain check on that one - maybe on our return in autumn.
Returned to visit Tom and his wife Barbara who live in a stunning house that they had built themselves, overlooking Tomales Bay. Chatted about travels, holidays, politics, forestry and back-country roads. I think that Barbara was at least pleased that Tom had managed to bring home two of the few other people on the planet not interested in fishing, so we didn’t have to cover that topic! Again - thanks for the hospitality guys - really enjoyed the evening.