Monthly Archives: April 2014

Canyonlands National Park

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There is no phone signal or Internet in Canyonlands National Park… It really is a long way from anything in the depths of Utah. And that’s a good thing as the crowds can’t be bothered, so the people there are there because they have made the effort. The long drive is stunning and wildlife is easy to spot, a coyote ran right across the road in front of us.

Canyonlands makes the geology easy…. It’s right there in front of you. Pink and white layers of sedimentary rock having built up by the alternating periods of sea, lake and river deposits then being worn away again by rivers and winds. The fine sand clearly from the rocks around us blowing and washing away.

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Impressive views in every direction at Canyonlands National Park

At first sight it’s easy to think this landscape is rather barren and bleak but on closer inspection you become aware of how abundant the life here is. Plants thrive in the unique biological soil and reptiles, mammals and birds are everywhere the moment you stop, look and listen. But even before you stop, their tracks and signs are everywhere and easy to spot in the fine sand. Tiny shrew tracks, pursued by thick and distinctive snake tracks. Lizard lines and feet criss-crossing every sandy gap between plants and rocks.

A brilliant display in the visitor centre prepared us for a better understanding of what we would see on our short, child friendly walk around Cave Spring trail. Particularly the flowers and plants which have a variety of uses from nutrition to medicine, dyes and useful materials. We also saw a fascinating cowboy camp which was still in use until 1974! Although short, the trail offered everything from fantastic animal tracks to follow, plants to identify, ancient petroglyphs to marvel at, ladders to climb leading to views that make you feel like you’re on Mars.

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Historic cowboy camp

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Petroglyphs are abundant in the area, which was heavily populated by Ancestral Puebloans until a few hundred years ago when they departed the area, probably due to drought

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Newspaper Rock on the road into the Park. A mind blowing display of petroglyphs from people spanning millenia

For the afternoon we hung out at the camp, washing our clothes, painting and cooking on the campfire. My boys are impressive climbers and having got to the summit of the hefty rocks behind our camp the night before with Rob they convinced me I would love the climb too. So with Orla on Robs back up we went and the view was amazing… But I’m going to skip over the bit about the descent in the hope that my children (and I) can all forget the rather embarrassing panic attack I had half way down a steep bit when I caught a glimpse of our tiny camp way down below the sheer drop to my left… Anyway, we survived and I decided I’m definitely more into climbing with a harness and ropes.

Camping at Canyonlands

Our humble abode

Camping at Canyonlands

Orla painting in the desert

Camping at Canyonlands

Snack time while the washing dries

Canyonlands National Park

Alfie climbing – this was a small one…

We also discovered that our sleeping bags are utterly unsuitable at high altitudes… Boy can the desert get cold at night, brrrrrr!

With another trip to an outdoor store on our list of things to do we packed up and headed for the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Just before we left though, we met a friendly man by the water tap who was down from Montana escaping the snow for a few days… he happens to be a ranger at Yellowstone and after a lively conversation about our respective trips we exchanged emails with instruction to get in touch before arriving at our most exciting destination in just over a month. He was actually there at the release of the first wolves in the Park and knows the place inside out and back to front. Exciting times ahead!

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The peaks of the Rockies calling us onwards and upwards

A Bird Watchers Paradise – The Great Salt Lake

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Almost by accident we stumbled upon the Salt Lake. I had intended that we drive that way, partly out of necessity and partly curiosity having seen footage of the brine flies and subsequent bird life on a nature program. We were utterly unprepared for the delicious feast of wildlife our eyes were about to gorge upon.

Antelope Island is the largest Island within the Great Salt Lake, accessible via a causeway about 45 minutes drive north of Salt Lake City. It is 28,000 acres and stretches for 15 miles. The lake is apply named as it is as much as 27% salt in places (compared to the ocean’s average of 3.5% salinity). As a result there are no fish in this entire massive lake. There are however billions of brine shrimp and brine fly which support a vast amount of birds in turn.

In addition to Antelope Island being a birders idea of heaven it also offers plenty of mammals. I am literally reeling still from the spectacular views we got of coyotes trotting along the shore line. We had resigned ourselves to being satisfied with spotting dead coyote road kill and hearing their waling calls at night as the chances of spotting these elusive scavengers is slim. Well not, it seems, on Antelope Island. We also saw pronghorns and bison (or as the Americans call them, antelope and buffalo as they seem determined to call things names which already have been assigned to completely different things). Sadly we were eluded by the resident big horn sheep and the bob cats, which I am determined to spot at some point.

I made a decision there and then… I need a bigger lens. I know I’m only an amateur but it’s a natural progression from binoculars and scopes into wanting to photograph your finds. Without a suitably big lens the results are frustrating. So we stayed the night in Salt Lake City in order to get to a camera shop in the morning and then return to the Island to try it out.

We had thought about camping on the island but discovered on arrival that only hard-core nutcases do that at this time of year due to the ferocious bombardment of gnats. While Rob and I may well fall into that hard-core nutcase category, sadly our small children do not and we opted for a Days Inn as so far our experience of this particular chain has been very positive… Well, in hindsight I wish we’d taken our chances with the gnats.

As it turned out we found ourselves staying in the arsehole of Salt Lake City, with a fair proportion of the City’s arseholes arguing right outside our room, plus on either side and above also! For most of the night. We did consider bundling the sleeping children in the car and fleeing but in the end we got a few hours kip and survived.

Having got my new lens (at a fraction of the UK price and a great exchange rate to boot) we headed back to the island… and here are the results. As an amateur I would love comment, constructive criticism and advice from more experienced photographers. I know I could tweak all of these in photoshop but with three kids in tow I barely have time to take them so these are as shot, some with a bit of cropping.

American Avocet, Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

American Avocet

 

American Avocets Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

American Avocets

Bison Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

Bison

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Coyote Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

Coyote licking her lips

Coyote Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

Coyote

Grebes

Thousands and thousands of eared grebe

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Eared grebe

gull Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

Gull in flight

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Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

The lake is surrounded by snow capped mountains

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On our first day the water was still. It is highly reflective due to the shallowness of the lake and it’s salinity. The next day it was really choppy. In high winds waves on the lake can reach 10 feet.

Western Meadowlark on Antelope IsLakeland, Great Salt

A Western Meadowlark

Bison Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

A lone bison on the salty beach

Pronghorn Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

A Pronghorn

 

Road on Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

The road along the South of the Island

Pronghorn Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake

The Island was named after these, but clearly they are not antelope… they are pronghorn. One of many naming anomalies in America (It started with the “Indians” and has carried on from there)

 

Yosemite – moving swiftly on

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The first bad decision of our trip so far… Leaving the wonderful Sequoia National Park early to head to Yosemite National Park. We planned to spend five or so days there camping and exploring having heard wonderful things about this unique and popular park.

Yosemite National Park

We had heard that it was a particularly busy park but had underestimated quite how busy it would be. It’s basically like a theme park. Massive queues and traffic jams line the roads, pavements and buildings in the valley. Huge car parks cover acres. Camp spots are entirely booked long in advance and people are everywhere.

It is a truly beautiful valley of massive granite rocks and gushing waterfalls flowing from the snow capped peaks that frame the sky. But the people on the rat tunnels around the valley were just too much to bear and we had to get the hell out of there.

There is also an awkwardness to the beauty in the valley. Or at least for us there was. You see for the last 8,000 year there was a civilised population of native people living in this area. Not that you would know as they stepped lightly and left little trace of their long inhabitance. They lived there in harmony with their surroundings until about 100 years ago when their numbers were destroyed by disease brought by white settlers and the few remaining were forced out. Since then the white people, in the name of “preservation” and for recreation paved the foot paths, made roads, visitor centres, restaurants, lodges, shops and everything else required for people to flock like gulls and shit all over the place.

Yosemite Falls

The walk to the falls was marginally better than negotiating Oxford Street on a Saturday before Christmas!

After 8,000 years of native “ownership” there was virtually no trace, no damage, no evidence of human impact… yet after just 100 years of the new “ownership” there is so much interference it would take millennia for the evidence of us to fade away. There is no humility about this or shame about the destruction of the native population.

We left, feeling embarrassed by the spectacle and a little sad although we would be inclined to return out of season for wilderness exploration or rock climbing away from the crowds (the rock climbing is certainly unique and world class and the climbers we saw seemed inconspicuous and respectful).

Having been totally peopled out in California we have instead headed across the Great Basin towards Utah again to explore more of the canyons and parks in that region before time in Colorado.

With over 12 hours of driving yesterday through vast expanses of nothing, bar casinos and services with slot machines (with loads of people from the middle of nowhere playing them, providing the demand that explains their supply!) we covered 600 miles and got close to Salt Lake City. 

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The Big Trees – Sequoia National Park

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Rob loves trees – Big time. So seeing the biggest trees in the world was an ambition of his. A bucket list item. The Sequoia’s in the Sierra Nevada aren’t the tallest trees in the world, nor do the have the biggest circumference, but they do have the greatest mass and are the oldest living things on the planet. They really are giants.

Happy family Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park

The “Happy Family” copse of Sequoias

Visually, although their size is impressive, it is more their beauty that strikes. Their majestic presence is humbling and it is impossible not to be utterly wowed by them. The red bark is soft to the touch on the older trees and has a dull hollow sound when knocked upon… giving you an overwhelming desire to find a secret door somewhere around their vast girth. And often a dark door like opening is found in the form of a fire scar, allowing you to actually step inside drawing you further into their magic.

Sequoia National Park

Inside a massive Sequoia’s burn scar

For me, more than their size and beauty, (as if they aren’t enough), the invincibility of the sequoia’s is perhaps their most awesome quality. They don’t die of old age! Imagine that! They literally live forever if they are not toppled in a storm or cut down by man. Far from fire being a foe it is their friend… they depend on it to reproduce. The tiny seeds wait patiently in their dangling cones for up to twenty years until a forest fire, in the past started naturally by lightening but now either deliberately by their protectors or ignorantly by visitors too lazy to put bottles and cigarettes in bins, burns the floor around them and dries up the cones for them to drop their seeds. Once dropped the seeds land softly in the perfectly fertilised, ashy forest floor with all local competition, bar it’s parent tree, wiped out by the life giving fire.

Sequoia tree bark

The Bark of the Sequoia’s is resistant to fire, fungus and insects, making the tree almost invincible. It’s soft to the touch and sounds deep and hollow.

Even once fallen these never-ending trees go on, taking centuries or even millennia to degrade. In the process providing habitats to innumerable species of fauna and flora, even humans.

fallen sequoia

The trunk of this fallen sequoia has provided a home for humans over a number of decades in the last two centuries. For a sense of perspective spot Orla inside.

fallen Sequoia

Once fallen these mighty giants can take millennia to decompose. This has already been here for centuries.

Sequoia National Park offers more than big trees too. Near our camp at Potwisha is hospital rock where evidence of the five century long settlement of the Potwisha people intrigues the mind of us wanna be hunter gatherers. Over 500 people lived in the village, sustained by acorns ground in these grinding holes in the rocks like permanent and massive pestle and mortars, and other abundant resources in these luscious mountains. Their pictographs adorn the split rock over one hundred years on from their demise… their first encounter with white people. Although not malicious, they were befriended by the areas new settlers and within a decade so many had been killed by newly introduced diseases that the survivors dispersed and the village site abandoned.

Pictographs at hospital rock Potwisha, Sequoia National Park

Pictographs by the Potwisha people at Hospital Rock

grinding holes at hospital rock, potwisha, Sequoia National Park

Grinding holes made by centuries of acorn grinding by the Potwisha people at Hospital Rock.

The wildlife in sequoia is impossible to miss. Woodpeckers are as common as sparrows and almost every bit of dead wood has neat lines of stored acorns. Deer meander through the campsite and squirrels and chipmunks dart around the undergrowth of the pretty oaks. At night bats, far bigger than our British ones come out with audible calls and there is as much wild sound after dark as in the day.  

woodpecker at Potwisha camp ground Sequoia National Park

A woodpecker welcomes us to Potwisha Camp Ground

acorns stored by a woodpecker

Acorns stored by a woodpecker. Every bit of standing dead wood was covered in long lines of holes filled with acorns.

Lizard

A lizard popped out to say hi too

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Joshua Tree National Park – Our first foray into camping

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Heading out of Phoenix towards California with our new tent we were unsure of how the next leg would pan out. We’ve not really camped with the kids before and we weren’t sure how they would take to it. We appreciate our sleep, every precious moment of it and despite our farming background we are not particularly inclined to getting up before about 7am. Without the ability to block early morning light in a tent we were concerned our “lie ins” may be severely compromised.

Camping in Joshua Tree National Park

Our tent in the desert

We were also nervous about bears and other wildlife but to our relief there are no bears in Joshua Tree National Park. Just lots of snakes, scorpions, killer spiders and coyotes. As well as stunning geological features and mind boggling flora. The Joshua Trees themselves are wonderfully knarly and strange looking, although in an already alien looking landscape they fit in perfectly.

Joshua Tree National Park

Wonderfully weird Joshua Trees

It couldn’t have gone better really. The camp site was stunning, clean and convenient. The kids slept in well past 7am having spent hours climbing rocks and we got to witness a rare total luna eclipse from one of the remotest places we’ve ever been! We didn’t even know about it before hand but over heard a conversation in Mexican restaurant and googled it. Even more lucky it started just as we were going to bed and we stayed up to watch it instead of getting up with our alarms at the time suggested online… by which point the whole spectacular event was over!

Luna Eclipse

Not quite full yet. The Luna eclipse turned the whole full moon to a deep red colour… such a strange effect to witness out in the wilderness.

We only stayed one night and moved North to Sequoia National Park the next day… we’re a bit deserted out now so needed a bit of green and some cooler temperatures.

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Lets go to the desert and shoot some guns

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There is nothing particularly spectacular about how we know Ian and Amanda Krekelberg other than the fact that until we met them last week I had only ever spoken to Ian on the phone a few times, about 5 years ago. But to be honest in this Facebook age that’s not unique for me nor unusual generally. We have kids of similar ages (although they have way more than us, 4 with #5 on the way!) and Ian and I share a liking for post apocalyptic novels – plenty of reason to ask to meet up. Once met we all got along and we stayed, once last weekend and returning this weekend for a couple of nights.

First we zoomed around a massive lake on jet-skis. And it was fun!!! Saguaro lake was beautiful and huge. Man made by the Stewart Mountain dam on the Salt River it is a great spot for bird and wildlife watching. A friend of the Kreklebergs took us out on his boat to explore the lake shores, spot some birds with the boys and chill out while Amanda looked after Orla. Then we ate Italian food and the kids played, it was great.

Jet Skiing at Saguaro Lake, Arizona

Ian on a jet ski

The beautiful mountains of Arizona as seen from Lake Saguaro

The beautiful mountains of Arizona as seen from Lake Saguaro

After our week in Canyon Country we headed south again to Mesa for some more American adventures. We had a campfire on Friday, complete with s’mores. It seemed like a great idea until we got it lit and realised that cooking on a fire when it’s alreay 100 degrees Fahrenheit out isn’t such fun… it’s more like fiery torture, literally “hellish”! But we did it none the less and the food was great. The kids slept well and we stayed up late playing board games after a spot of scorpion hunting with a UV light, as you do of an evening in Arizona.

Amanda’s parents live nearby and happen to have a pool so we headed for an afternoon in the pool with the kids. They loved it.

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Fun in the pool with giant inflatable killer whales

Early evening and we were waiting for their brother in law to arrive with a suitable off road truck to negotiate the desert sufficiently to the spot where people go “to shoot stuff up”, ya know, TV sets stuff like that.

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Me aiming at a clay pigeon with a shot gun. Admittedly I’m not great with a moving target and didn’t get a single one… Rob held it well for the Deans though

Guns really are not my thing. I’ve shot a rabbit on my land before and my husband has his license so we have guns at home but it’s nothing like this. They’re tools for controlling rabbit populations and so on. We eat what we kill and it’s a heavily legislated sport in the UK. I wasn’t going to go… but I was persuaded and figured it would make a good post. Also, Amanda was looking after the kids so it was our first opportunity for a couple of hours “off” together in two and a half months – too good to turn down!

I climbed up on Robs lap as the truck was just a front cab and there were four of us squeezing in along with the various guns and ammo. Eventually we arrived at a spot littered with shot up stuff and empty cartridges and shells. We set up the clay discs as targets and had a go…

Caitlin Dean

Me firing a .40 calibre hand gun

Okay it was quite fun, although I did feel quite overwhelmed most of the time. I said “Blimey” almost every shot as the power nearly took me off my feet. My shoulder bruised from the shot gun and ears ringing we headed back satisfied that I had actually not only had I hit a few clays, they had exploded in a dramatic, satisfying and quite scary display of the guns immense power.

Rob Dean

Rob with a .22 hand gun. Cowboy style!

In a brilliant end to the day which felt like a “day off” Amanda’s parents babysat while we went to a Teppanyaki/sushi restaurant with a comedy chef who threw fake eggs at us, made continuous jokes and flicked food in our mouths.

Got Sushi, Mesa

Our hilarious Teppanyaki Chef at Got Sushi, Mesa. We’re going to take the kids to a teppenyaki place soon, they’ll love the performance!

Sushi from Got Sushi

Fabulous sushi. We are getting used to the way they box up your left overs so we enjoyed this for breakfast on Sunday.

 

We may not have really known Ian and Amanda before we arrived in Mesa but we left having made good friends, or as all the children found easier to comprehend and determined to use, cousins!

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Canyon Country Photos

Monument Valley

Here are  the photos from the last week travelling through Arizona and Utah’s canyon country and the Navajo Nation.

For accompanying story behind the pictures see my last post Deserts deserts everywhere.

The start of the week was in Flagstaff where we visited the Lowell Observatory

Lowell Observatory

The home of the telescope that discovered Pluto and the site where dark matter was first stumbled upon by accident!

And got to witness with expert commentary the rising of Earth’s shadow in the East as the sun set in the West.

waiting for earth's shadow

waiting for the shadow to reach the horizon. You see how there is a point in the middle where the trees have no shadows… that’s directly opposite the sun setting behind us.

Earth's Shadow

Earth’s shadow nearly full before dispersing into the dark night sky.

We moved onto the Grand Canyon, one of the seven wonders of the world.

Grand Canyon

There was a slight hazy in the air thanks to pollution from the west coast cities but it was an impressive sight none the less.

Muma Dean and team at Grand Canyon

Us all at the Grand Canyon

Elk at Grand Canyon

We spotted a cow elk while there, just chilling in the shade

Patrick Dean mooning at grand canyon

And strangers enjoyed Patrick’s very own Grand Canyon

We moved on through the desert and driving late we got to enjoy some spectacular sunsets over the next few nights

desert sunset

Desert Sunset over a vast landscape

The drive to Monument Valley was fantastic… just as imagined from films (picture at top) and we passed various interesting points

Mexican Hat Rock in Navajo Nation

Mexican Hat rock in the Navajo Nation country

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Delicate desert flowers in this harsh habitat

Monument Valley

Team Dean at Monument Valley

Monument Valley

Wild country at Monument Valley. A 4×4 is required for the 17 mile track.

We moved onto Bryce Canyon on Thursday. Now this may be a little controversial but I, personally, think that Bryce Canyon is a little bit more spectacular and special than the Grand Canyon. Yes, the Grand Canyon is vast on an almost unimaginable scale even when stood there looking at it but Bryce… well Bryce is eye poppingly, brain frazzlingly, skin tinglingly beautiful. It’s colours are more vibrant and it’s geology more unique and interesting… Well I think anyway. On top of there there is more wildlife easy to spot with fewer people and the subsequent need for less car parking and so on and due to the extreme conditions at Bryce the plants have adapted in fascinating and incredible ways. We spotted prairie dogs and chipmunks as well as various birds and interesting flora.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

The day was perfect for viewing the Canyon and there weren’t many people around

Bryce Canyon

The boys looking over the edge at Bryce Canyon. There is a fair element of stress visiting canyons with such little children… we had Orla on a lead but the boys were hard to control at times!

tree at Bryce Canyon

Check out the roots on this tree. It’s incredible how they can adapt to thrive in these challenging positions

twisted tree at Bryce Canyon

A tree which has grown twisted on the edge of the Canyon

Grottos at Bryce Canyon

Grottos are an interesting feature of the canyon edges

road to bryce canyon

Even the road to Bryce Canyon, through mountains and little villages, offers impressive views and magical landscapes