Author Archives: Muma Dean

About Muma Dean

Busy mum of 3, farmer, nurse and wife. Love the outdoors and making the most of life. Freethinker and advocate for HG survivors.

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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Brilliant Bushcraft at Earth Knack!

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We arrived in the afternoon on the Tuesday with plenty of time to set up our tent, arrange some dinner and settle in. But the place was deserted! Certain we were in the right place on the outskirts of hippy-ville, (otherwise known as Crestone, which makes our home town of Lostwithiel look positively un-hippyish!), we waited a while to see if our host, Robin would appear. We made a fire and as all Brits do in such circumstances… we had a cup of tea. Eventually my phone graced me with the ability to make a phone call (a rare luxury with an iPhone!) and we got through to Robin’s voicemail which confirmed she had been delayed in her journey from California which should have seen her return the night before. So we pitched our tent, found the compost toilet, made dinner and when to bed, optimistic that our new warm sleeping bags would keep us toasty warm.

campfire at Earth Knack

A fire is an important moral booster for outdoor living!

After a long night freezing our butts off we rose to find Robin had arrived home in the night and after introductions and explanations we settled in. Later that day some other people arrived for their “internships” learning primitive skills. We spent the day getting to know each others stories and learning the ways of the Earth Knack camp… how to empty the buckets of “communal compost”, how to avoid a bear trying to share your tent and other such delights.

Earth Knack, Crestone

The communal camp area with the outdoor kitchen in the background

Earth Knack

Bridge over carefree waters

As family wwoofing goes, this is spot on. Robin is like a child whisperer and instils calm and respect from all three of our increasingly feral children. She believes strongly in including the children in the adult work and they are encouraged to stoke the fire, partake in the primitive skills and ask questions. As such the work is arranged so that the while family can join in. We are mainly digging over and weeding a set of flower beds to be planted next week and there is a communal garden in the town where we are all pulling, digging, chopping, rotorvating and generally getting filthy. Other tasks include collecting wood and preparing the communal evening meal.

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Collecting firewood as a family affair – Orla is in her element!

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Family wwoofing at it’s best when we can all join in

After a couple more freezing nights we obtained a couple more blankets, found our warmer winter clothes from the roof box and have learned how to wrap ourselves in such a way that the last couple of nights have seen us warm and cosy and sleeping just lovely.

After watching the interns, Grey and Susanna, learning to use a bow drill, Alfie has been utterly determined to have a go. So last night Rob and he worked hard preparing their bow drill set and set to practising the technique – with huge success! Fire from friction surely has to be one of the most satisfying skills one can learn.

Bow drilling

Alfie learning to make fire by friction with a bow drill – aged 6

As the weeks go on we’ll be learning more about the edible plants in the area, Alfie will have a chance to make a bow and arrow and I’m hoping to have a chance to learn some basic flint knapping techniques to take home. Talking of home…. You’ll have to wait a little longer to hear….

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Bird Watching in Monte Vista

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We decided to head to Monte Vista in advance of our wwoof placement which starts tomorrow (or today for UK readers). On arriving in this small town (supposedly a City although I have no idea how they differentiate between towns and cities here – this place is small!) to find that the whole place is a rather run down dump of a place, with an appalling Mexican restaurant I hope never to go to again.

However, after paying too much for luke warm fajita’s and far too much for some crappy accommodation we awoke the next morning to discover the area has an outstanding wetland nature preserve. We spent a few hours there in the morning watching incredible White faced Ibis, shovellers, ruddy ducks, marsh wrens (pictured above), yellow headed black birds a northern harrier, mule deer and a coyote and decided to return at sunset to try to spot owls and other birds of prey.

We passed the afternoon with some bowling and a hotel picnic dinner (which we’re getting pretty good at although still feel exacerbated by the waste created). A quick swim in a freezing pool and we got the kids in their pyjama’s for some late evening bird watching (or in Orla’s case Sponge bob watching).

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Yummy hotel floor picnic – chicken salad and strawberries!

It paid off – in addition to a couple of muskrats swimming silently through the water we also saw a stunning clarke’s grebe and a Swainson’s Hawk. Although by the time it was dark and we were heading out of the preserve we had yet to see an owl… “Go slow Rob, there’s no one behind” I said in the hope of spotting one on a telegraph pole… and for once he listened! And when I said “stop!”, he actually did! And sure enough there was the owl, perched on a pole. With no one around we watched for a while and then he flew off right past the car. A great sight, but sadly too dark to identify more precisely than as an owl.

When we got back, reeling from our bird watching, I submitted my book to the publishers and it’s a huge weight off before our wwoof placement in the morning – we are sipping champagne now. I’m not sure how much internet connection or laptop juice I’ll have for the next two weeks so if I’m silent that’s why, but I’ll be sure to fill you all in on my return to civilisation after that.

We’ve also just been through the photo’s from today and I seem to have got a setting wrong or something because, bar this reasonable marsh wren, they were all completely rubbish. Although I must admit I prioritised my binoculars today so I didn’t put a lot of effort into the camera and sorting out it’s blur… you’ll just have to look all the above birds up for yourselves I’m afraid.

Manitou Springs, Colorado

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It’s been a slightly odd week for us. We’ve holed up in a particularly nice Days Inn, visited various tourist attractions, dealt with some admin issues, watched lots of TV and split our time with the kids so I could get the book I’m working on finished.

First up we had to swap our hire car having now travelled well over 10,000 miles. The process of swapping meant we had the chance to upgrade to an SUV and we took it… we’re now in a 4×4 Chevvy Suburban. We also bought new, warmer, sleeping bags for camping next week. The Bass Pro we got them at also had a bowling alley so we had our first family game of bowling.

Bowling at Bass Pro, Colorado Springs

Orla’s first ever go bowling!

Manitou Springs is a funky little historic town on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. By ‘historic’ I mean it’s over 150 years old, which by American standards is positively ancient, whereas to us it’s like a toddler aged town. It has great restaurants, shops and a whole host of fascinating, geology and history based attractions.

Our first stop was the intriguing cliff dwellings, which demonstrate delightfully that the human history of the continent didn’t in fact start with the European settlers. These impressive feats of architecture date back around 800 years and demonstrate the highly sophisticated nature of the societies and cultures in this stunning and abundant region.

Manitou Cliff Dwellings

Manitou Cliff Dwellings

Next stop was a ghost town with interesting displays of the various shops, homes and workshops of the old frontier towns. Live wasn’t really very different to today really. The biggest difference was the pharmacy, which was full of basically utter nonsense that did nothing to prevent serious illnesses from killing their victims. The lotions, potions and poisonous pills of yesterday truly makes one thankful for modern medicine.

Ghost town, Colorado Springs

Lotions and potions… all utterly useless if you were actually ill. They did use a lot of morphine in those days though so if you were doomed anyway at least you weren’t in pain.

ghost town, colorado springs

The old stage coach – Calamity Jane eat your heart out!

And it’s that thanks that I worked on for the next few days as I would likely have died during pregnancy had I lived during the pioneer era in America. So while I focused on finishing the book I am authoring about hyperemesis gravidarum, Rob took the kids out to play parks and the Zoo, where they fed giraffes and watched grizzly bears catching fish from under the water.

Colorado Springs Zoo

Patrick feeding a giraffe

Colorado Springs Zoo

Face to face with a grizzly!

The book finally complete, ready to go to the publishers and me significantly more relaxed we went to visit the Cave of the Winds. An impressive maze of tunnels and caverns deep inside the mountains. Hundreds of stalactites, stalagmites, ribbon formations, cave corral and all sorts of interesting and beautiful cave features. Admittedly they would have been even more beautiful had our irritating tour guide not have thought he was a comedian rather than a tour guide.

Cave of the Winds

interesting geological features at the Cave of the Winds

Today we headed over to the gold mining town Cripple Creek. This un-politically correctly named town appeared almost overnight and at the height of the gold rush had a population of around 35,000. Despite being burned to the ground the town thrived and had three rail roads leading to it. But when the gold rush came to an abrupt end the people left and the population dwindled to just 300 residents. Now it is a major tourist attraction and has a host of fantastic museums and, like most of America that we’ve seen so far, a bizarre number of casinos.

The Heritage Centre and the Jail are both well worth a visit with brilliant interpretation and personal stories of the towns residents. But our favourite by far was The Old Homestead Museum. It was the towns most prestigious brothel, charging up to $250 per night (about $9,000 in today’s money). Pearl DeVere, the original proprietor was clearly an entrepreneurial beauty and knew exactly what she was doing when decorating the house in the finest, most expensive furniture and decors from around the world. The house now contains rare and beautiful furniture, lamps and clothes from the era and fascinating history of the town and it’s residence. Sadly Pearl DeVere wasn’t so cleaver when it came to taking morphine as she died very young of an overdose after a row with a wealthy customer she was clearly more than fond of. Her funeral was the biggest in the town to date after the gentleman in question donated $1,000 after her death, along with a ludicrously expensive gown for her to rest eternally in. The brothel was then taken over by one of the other girls and continued successfully until all the people left the town. Without the demand for services the girls left too and the house became a boarding house and then a private residence until it was opened as a museum in the 1950’s.

Thanks to the private ownership the interior has been preserved beautifully with original, vastly expensive wall paper and much of the furniture. There are dresses found in the property and the rooms have been recreated perfectly thanks to the help of one of the original residences who married and remained in the town.

The pair of ancient old ladies who gave the tour were brilliantly knowledgeable and enthusiastic, which infused the house with a sense of care and love. Sadly I couldn’t take photos due to the potential of damage from the flash to the old artefacts and I didn’t have the tripod for non-flash indoor ones – you’ll just have to visit for yourself one day!

On the way back to Manitou Springs we tried to go the mountain track route through a National Forest but discovered the road was closed 16 miles in along the dirt track. So we had some fun trying out the 4×4 skills of the car and got to go through an awesome tunnel before head back to the main road. We were hoping to spot a bear, which as yet has proved elusive to us, sadly it remains so.

Bridge on the old railroad track between Cripple Creek and Colorado Springs

Tomorrow we are heading down a little in Colorado, towards Crestone, where we have our next wwoof adventure at Earth Knack, a stone-age living skills centre. We’re really looking forward to it!  

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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