Monthly Archives: May 2014

The bear experience

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My exhausted eyes and strained neck were not the worst part of the unsuccessful bear spotting expeditions we had spent the last weeks, indeed months, doing. Since we arrived in America and left New York City I have been on constant watch, scouring the endless forests as we drove deserted roads. But the worst part was the pessimism creeping in on me. I had been fighting Rob’s naturally gloomy outlook for the last few days but the negativity was starting to win as I heard a “we’re not going to see one here” from the drivers side once more. The kids were beginning to chime in too and my mood was grumping rapidly.

Until that moment… “STOP! A bear… Definitely a bear”. And rob swerved the car to the curb, hazards on and we backed up cautiously along the mountain road. I knew it the split second I caught a glimpse. The large black figure was moving sideways through the dense undergrowth in the greening deciduous woodland of the Shenandoah National Park. And there she was, with two tiny cubs following behind. Our nature programme dreams right there in front of us.

Her direction meant we could back right up to a pull in area to watch as the little family snuffled around and ambled peacefully on their route through the season. With the boys on the roof and us out of the sunroof with our binoculars and camera it was obvious we were watching something so it wasn’t long before a small crowd gathered, mainly consisting of a large family who, utterly disregarding the guidelines and courtesy of wildlife watching immediately jumped out of their car and swarmed towards the woodland. The effect of such inconsiderate disrespect was that the bear and cubs immediately changed course away from the clearing they would otherwise have passed through so that neither they nor I got a really great picture.

But no matter, I got enough for my memory and the encounter was so perfect for us that we were happy to move on, reeling and beaming from ear to ear. Hungry we stopped for lunch and talked endlessly of the muma bear and the cubs and how our tired eyes were worth it, and of course, how I’d been right all along.

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Bears bears everywhere but not a bear to see

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For the last few days we took a chill pill and holed up in a log cabin on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Complete with hot tub, wonderfully comfortable bed, dishwasher and DVD player we’ve had an easy week of wildlife and thunderstorm watching. Internet connection was less favourable though so we’ve felt frustrated by that, particularly as I had hoped it would be an opportunity to catch up with some work. Instead we enjoyed fishing in the trout stocked Tribal waters of the Cherokee Reservation (although unsuccessfully) and we watched the entire third season of Game of Thrones once the kids were in bed.

We are also seriously frustrated by the lack of bear sightings. Despite a ratio of two black bears per square mile in the National Park and our 4×4 vehicle allowing us to access some of the quieter roads in the park (honestly – there is more traffic jams in the National Parks than in the big cities!), my poor strained neck and exhausted eyes have yet to be rewarded with a bear. We scoured the forest floor and the tree tops too, we creeped and we waited and I gained great views by standing out of the sunroof on the off road tracks… but not views of bears.

Today we have driven the stunning Blue Ridge Parkway through an empty national forest at dusk, passing only a handful of other motorists for over 60 miles of remote mountain roads. The bear proof bins mocked our inability to actually see one as all we spotted were deer, albeit beautiful white tailed ones and impressive views over Virginia and the Appalachian Mountain range framed by rainbows with thunderous sound effects.

We head to Yellowstone next week and then to Montana and Canada so there’s plenty of time yet to catch a glimpse of our elusive Black Bears.

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Witchcraft and Voodoo in Illinois?

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So we’ve kind of noticed that there is a serious mistrust of the government and big corporations here, it’s obvious and to a degree understandable. There is also a general paranoia about personal safety, planning for disasters and terrorism. It’s a trait that is encouraged by giant government billboards reminding you to have a disaster plan and defensible space in your house. “Remember, winging it is not a plan” is plastered across the country from the centre of New York City to rural western towns. It all adds to the slightly paranoid and crazy image of Americans that many Brits (and probably other nations too) hold and isn’t an entirely unfounded stereotype although fairly harmless and quite amusing.

However, until a couple of days ago the thing we hadn’t experienced was full blown crazy talk. That is until we met Randall at a random store in Illinois. We had been in the store, which looked big from the outside, the day before and knew that the chance of the grumpy proprietor of the virtually empty building selling a few bags of crisps and sweets was very unlikely to be able to help us with our fishing spot enquiry. So when we spotted hefty Randall heading to his truck with a fishing fly in his cap we thought our best bet was to ask him. After establishing his fishing prowess yet lack of knowledge about local spots to try, and the fact that his father had worked for the local forestry people “would we believe” (frankly it was about the only thing I did believe), all of a sudden the conversation jumped right across crazy town to witchcraft, voodoo, the CIA, government conspiracy the hex he was under right now and the spells ‘they’ could do with a bit of rob’s blood, hair, his watch and another personal item. Did you know the FBI use witches whose spirits can turn into animals and creatures that can go through walls? Apparently Illinois is full of these witches and voodoo people… “It really does work, but I’m not going to tell you how now”.

He then gave us a card for the clerk in the next town and on the back he wrote his name and “aw heck, I’ll just give you my number too” and he set us off with instructions to go to this man, show him the card with Randall’s name and ask the question “is this man an expert in anything”… The answer was meant to be “yes, the supernatural” but I suspect had we have actually followed Randall’s instructions the poor man we had been sent to would likely tell us to run hotly out of town as fast as we could.

We set off… Baffled and dazed by what we had just experienced, and none the wise on local fishing spots. Three miles down the road and who was behind us… Randall and his third eye! He had said he was heading in that direction also but we had hoped he wouldn’t catch up, seeing as we had no intention of visiting his friend and showing the card. When there was a bit of a gap we swung the car into a marina park and shortly after saw Randall’s truck head past the turning… Phew, he was gone!

And we had found the perfect fishing spot on the massive Ohio river. The day ended with Alfie catching a large mouth bass big enough to feed us all for dinner! We took it back to our woodland camping spot and cooked it on the fire, yum!

We’re now in the Smoky Mountains for a week determined to see a black bear before we go to Washington DC to stay with friends and take part in a charity run event at the end of the month.

Missouri – the beautiful

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It’s not just the lack of offensive billboards that make Missouri beautiful. The rolling emerald hills, deep deciduous woodlands and roller coaster roads that leave your stomach catching up every few hundred metres make Missouri a fun place to drive through. It looks a lot like the Cornish countryside but with even less people. We loved it!

But Missouri seems to lack self confidence. Everyone we met questioned how we ended up there and were even apologetic of their State. The ferry man asked if we were lost, utterly baffled as to why we would be there otherwise. Yet it was truly beautiful, has a lovely climate and there’s loads to see and do.

We hired a camping cabin and had a fire outside. The boys fished (without success) and we had fun. The next morning we hired a raft and floated down the a river for five miles in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, stopping for a picnic lunch. We made a great team paddling, Alfie and I at the front and Rob steering from the back. The little two hanging over the sides watching fish darting around in the crystal clear water and spotting herons and turtles by the banks.

Later we had a campfire and I had brilliant success cooking a loaf of bread in the Dutch oven for the first time. Then Alfie had success catching his first ever fish!

Everyone here is really friendly and helpful, which combined with the stunning countryside, bird watching and fishing it’s got to be one of our favourite places so far. The benefit of the area’s lack of confidence is that the whole place is wonderfully quiet and empty, although there are signs of busier seasons in the summer months, now in May seems absolutely perfect to visit this region.

Alfie Dean

Alfie learning to fish – he’s good at casting in

Alfie Dean and Rob Dean

Daddy helping to unhook his first fish

Alfie Dean

Alf with his first ever catch – a little small to eat though so it went back in

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His second catch – a pretty long eared sun fish

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I’ve wanted to cook bread in the dutch oven for ages – my first attempt was a brilliant success – YUM!

Caitlin Dean

Proud of my success!

Alfie Dean and Patrick Dean

Jokes around the campfire – fun times!

Kansas

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Almost everyone we have met and discussed our route plans with have scoffed rudely about Kansas. “There’s just nothing”, “it’s so boring”, “oh I’m sorry you have to go through there” where the sorts of comments we heard. So understandably our expectations were low for this large state. That said, we have an interest in farming and farm equipment so were still keen to see the scales and methods which we couldn’t imagine coming from small scale Cornwall.

Well I honestly don’t know where it has got it’s reputations for ugliness from. It was green and hilly and really quite pretty with spectacular sky overhead. Or at least it would have been pretty had we not have been bombarded every few hundred years with the most offensive, crude and outright cruel billboards depicting picture of foetus’s and dire warning against the murder of abortion. Images of beating hearts and utter nonsense about tiny bundles of cells being able to smile are rammed down throat. Holy crap guys… What is with this place? Why are people so caught up in other people’s business in completely the wrong way?

The “marriage is between one man and one woman” and other anti-gay propaganda was the final straw and we cranked up the cruse control a couple of notches to get the hell out of this offensive, attempted brainwashing bullshit. I thought America was meant to be the land of the free and yet the people here are shackled by chains to a ridiculous religion based on nonsense images of a white “Jesus” walking in corn fields! You can’t escape it anywhere. We drove through a village with a population of 502 people… One street had 5 churches all next to each other.

And throughout the entire state of Kansas, despite the impressive attempt to brain wash us into an extremist religion there was not a single billboard addressing domestic violence or child abuse… Oh I forgot, they’re okay in the bible. Like almost anything you want to do you can interpret the bible to make it okay. Including selling your daughters, beating your children with an iron rod and taking an eye for an eye.

But should you be so sick that you have no choice but to make the awful decision to terminate your desperately wanted baby or you don’t want to bring into the world a baby produced through rape, an abusive relationship or simply by accident then let’s hope you don’t live in Kansas or you’ll be reminded 30 times a day that “Stop Drop and Roll don’t work in Hell!”

Oh and between the billboards you know what they have… Adult stores selling pornography!!!

If the real life Jesus that lived 2,000 years ago could see the puke inducing display of hatred and intolerance that his message had been bastardised into now he would be ashamed and probably terrified!

Achieving our goals

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This week Alfie achieved something amazing. He carved a spoon from a piece of wood using his pen knife. It took this determined 6 year old three whole days of fairly constant work. He has blisters on his little hands and his arm is aching. But it was worth it. It is beautiful. And it is practical! Rob and I supported him, we helped a little with the curvy neck bit and I gouged out the bowl with the finger slicing crook knife but ultimately he did it himself through his own focus and skill. He listened when we gave him instruction and he worked carefully and safely with his penknife.

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Early on with his lump of wood – a half log you would likely throw on the fire – it didn’t resemble a spoon in the slightest and the task looked almost impossible, he didn’t lose hope. He just sat by the fire and pressed on. And with each stroke of his knife on the hard, dry wood the spoon came a little more into his sight. In the middle, when you could sort of see the shape but there was still an awfully long way to go doing more of the same, he didn’t get bored, he kept on carving, through snow and wind and hail, warmed by the fire he worked thoughtfully. Towards the end when the spoon shape was there but he then had four rounds of sanding to go before it was finished he didn’t give up, or try to rush through it. He worked carefully with the different grades of sand paper to get the beautiful smooth finish it deserved.

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The long sanding process

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When it was finally finished I helped him carve an A on the top for Alfie, we stained it with charcoal to make it stand out. We washed the spoon, oiled it and he ate his dinner with it that night. We are going to buy him a proper bushcraft knife for carving when we find the right one for him, he has earned it. And he has decided that when he grows up he wants to be an instructor at Woodlore, Ray Mears’ school of bushcraft.

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Finished!

Reflecting on our goals from my post back in January we are all managing to do the things we came here to achieve. We’ve seen wildlife ranging from coyotes and moose to chipmunks and marmots. We’ve encountered bald eagles and golden eagles, mountain blue birds and road runners. Bats and owls, lizards and alligators, we really have seen so much! Robs doing well with identification and both boys are great with binoculars. Admittedly though Orla is louder than ever so we have a little work there still!

The geology we’ve experienced has ranged from the northern forests in the depth of a snowy winter, southern swamps coming to life in Spring, deep red canyons and bleak and scorching deserts with giant cactus. We’ve driven high winding passes on the snow capped Rockies and long straight highways across the Great Plains. We’ve smelled the Californian orange blossom and explored deep caves created during the birth of mountains.

Our children have witnessed fire produced from friction and developed skills in wildlife watching. They are resilient and developing skills in self reliance. They are great spotters and have such an interest in the sights were seeing… “Woooooowwwww” and “quick look” comes frequently from the back seat. They recognise deer, elk, turkey vultures, American robins and dozens of other species of mammals, reptiles and birds. They even spot tracks and signs along the way. Although I must admit the “home schooling” has rather gone out the window and there’s a fair amount of bickering in the back too (they are kids after all). But they’ve met people from all sorts of cultures and religions, they’ve learned about race issues and seen the place Martin Luther King died. They’ve learned about history and conflicts and witnessed the differences in nations.

Yet as we cross the continent for the second time we remain excited about what is yet to come. Tracking skills in Yellowstone, ranching in Montana, taking part in a charity run in Washington DC, eventually seeing a bear and crossing back across the length of Canada, and so much more!

A bad day turned good

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We reached our limit camping in the Rocky Mountains… The snow was too much. Day time temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius and night time temperatures dropping to -6 was a little too low for the Dean kids and the bad mood of the youngest who is unfortunately cutting her last teeth was taking us to the edge of reason and sanity. So despite loving where we were and gaining so much from the fantastic knowledge and experience of our host, Robin, we took the decision to move on to warmer climates for camping. We are heading back to the Appalachian Mountain range.

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Camping in the snow with a toddler is a step too far for even for us.

We had a brilliant time at Earth Knack and achieved lots despite the weather and toddler tantrums. We dug flowerbeds, build bridges, Rob did some tree work and the kids always love watching him working with a chainsaw. We potted up seedlings, prepared communal meals and emptied the compost toilets. We also made great new friends with Gray and Suzannah, the interns there now.

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The bridge Rob built with Suzannah and Gray

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Watching daddy working… and freezing!

We were a bit sad packing up but as the two younger kids decided to really step up the bad behaviour we knew the decision was the right one and we cracked on. But we decided to head to some hot springs to get clean and have some fun. It worked and we emerged clean and refreshed, ready to hit the road.

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Breakfast in the snow!

It’s funny how things turn out though because at this point things improved… Not only did we find the most delicious Chinese food in America a little cafe we happened to stop at but we then spotted a Golden Eagle feasting on it’s freshly caught prey in a field. We were able to stop right by the edge of the field and get an incredible view of it tearing the dead creature to pieces. It’s the first time I’ve seen a Golden Eagle and it was spectacular, breath taking and skin tingling.

Driving late into last night we drove along snowy mountain passes as the temperature dropped around us. But snugly in the car we knew a warm motel bed and indoor toilet awaited us instead of a freezing tent.

This morning, refreshed we headed to the Rocky Mountain National Park. The vast majority of it was shut due to the heavy snow but we went ten miles into the park in the hope of finally seeing a bear. Sadly the bears still elude us but we did spot moose, pelicans on a lake and some yellow bellied marmots which more than made up for the closed road and lack of bears.

Heading East again now past Denver we’ll be driving through Kansas tomorrow and on to Tennessee, the Appalachians and warmer weather. We might make it right over to the east coast for a beach day… We haven’t seen the sea for months which is a strange feeling when you’re used to seeing it from the kitchen window at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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