Tag Archives: Family Travel

Canoeing and Wild Camping

To celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary this year Rob and I left the kids with the grandparents and embarked on a canoe expedition course to learn the necessary skills to head off on our own adventures. In that week we fell in love with canoeing and on our return invested in two canoes and the various paraphernalia required such as life jackets, dry bags and so on. The kids have been desperate to get out on the water with us but I’m in the final stages of dissertation writing for my MSc and with weather and tide considerations a couple of weeks passed before we had a chance. That chance came last weekend and we went for it, full bore!

We could have fit way more stuff but this is all we needed for the five of us overnight

We could have fit way more stuff but this is all we needed for the five of us overnight

We set off just before high tide going up stream with the flow which made for easy initial paddling. Although as we rounded a corner the wind caught us and with only my 8 year old in the front of mine we were much lighter than I had anticipated and we kept getting turned. Even with the camping kit there wasn’t a lot of weight in the canoe and it was very much in the middle (kit) and back (me)… first lesson learned in terms of kit positioning.

drifting paddling

Eventually after spinning in the water for a while and even walking along a stretch of shore until we were past the bend in the river that was catching the wind, we were back on route and arrived at our camping spot.

tide going out drying sicks high tide

Traffic on the river was busy around high tide and we didn’t want to draw too much attention so we didn’t set up the tarp until much later but we set about collecting and processing firewood. We lit the fire with a flint and steel using tinder we found around us and the kids played in the water before the tide went too far out. Rob strung them up a simple rope swing which proved fun for hours (and also caused irritating “my turn” arguments!!)

processing wood

Boys processing wood for a fire

rope swing water fun summer fun whittling

Dinner was a basic chicken curry and here I learned another lesson… when taking curry powder in a pot seal the pot in bag or decent container… the curry powder spilt in one of the dry sacks and covered EVERYTHING! I salvaged enough for dinner and sucked up the lesson. We had taken about 10 litres of water with us but actually on such a hot day and with cooking dinner and washing up this was only just enough. On our course we had learned about finding water on an expedition, filtering and sterilising but the river we were on is largely salt water so that wasn’t an option. There was a stream feeding into the river nearby that we could have got water from had we been desperate and next time we’ll take a suitable filtration system in case we need it.

cooking dinner

Cooking dinner on the fire

curry

Curry with a view

After dinner and some bird watching we set up the tarp and as the sun set we got the kids to bed and us shortly after… we had to be up at 5am to catch the outgoing tide back home or we would be stranded until mid-afternoon!

bird watching setting up tarp camp sleepign babies

The early start was brilliant, we had the camp packed down and ready to set off in half an hour and we made sure that we left no trace that we had been there… an important principle we are pressing hard on the children!

early morning

Up and ready to set off at 5.30am

The trip back was effortless on a mirror still river drifting with the tide. Of course at 5.30am we were the only human life on the river but it was teeming with bird life and the beauty of a canoe is that you can silently drift along without disturbing them.

morning shot misty morning one of me still waters

We were back at the car by 7am and heading home for a big old breakfast and a nap.

heading home for breakfast

heading home for some breakfast

Perfect Yellowstone

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After our disappointment at Yosemite we had lowered our expectations for Yellowstone, the mightiest and most famous of all the National Parks in America. It was probably wise as we had previously had very high hopes for this “Serengeti” of the Northern Hemisphere, having watched numerous spectacular nature and geology programs about the place. It was, however, unnecessary. Yellowstone did not disappoint. Far from it, our expectations, pre-Yosemite were easily surpassed and we were utterly blown away but the most incredible landscape, fascinating features, wonderful wildlife and fantastic people.

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Rob and Alfie using the scopes

One aspect of Yellowstone no-one can prepare you for is the smell! Boy O Boy does that place stink of rotten eggs and burnt matches. But that’s as wonderfully weird and interesting as all the other geological features of this super-volcano. I can’t capture the smell in photographs for you I’m afraid (although we did consider trying to bottle some for a particular Derby-dwelling, smelly bottomed friend back home). So you’ll have to settle instead for photographs of boiling mud pots, vast water squirting geysers and bottomless hot pools of magical colours.

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Stinky boiling mud pots

Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone

Old Faithful Geyser erupting

Morning Glory pool at Yellowstone National Park

Morning Glory pool – it has to be seen to be believed!

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake

The wildlife in Yellowstone is unsurpassed anywhere else in North America. We had a list of “would like to see” animals and very few were creatures we actually expected to see. Well we were just ticking them off almost hourly for the first couple of days! On expanding our list to things we never thought we would get a chance to view, Yellowstone continued to perform, tick tick tick! Now, don’t think you can just rock on up and see grizzlies, wolves and mountain goats. You need to actually look for them and be in the right place at the right time… ie. The Lamar Valley at 5am. Indeed we Deans did rise at 5am (hardcore right?), bundled the sleeping children into the car with blankets and set off to see the wolves. And it paid off, we saw two separate black wolves and a big grey fellow. You also need to stay up at dusk to see more of your bucket list species but it’s the mornings that really pay off. From coyotes and badgers to birds of prey and yellow-bellied marmots, they all rise with the sun to be seen by the hard core nature watchers.

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Loading the kids in the car at 5am, Orla was surprisingly cheerful!

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A little note on rising early for parents – If you are planning to drive a long way from your base camp for the entire day then remember to take clothes and shoes for your children to wear once the sun is up… My children may have seen the spectacular geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone National Park but they did it in their pyjama’s and with utterly inappropriate foot wear which I ended up carrying for most of the way.

Sunrise at Yellowstone

Getting up early means spectacular misty sunrises

Sunset at Yellowstone

And staying up late means even more incredible fiery sunsets!

There are parts of Yellowstone which are particularly busy, around old faithful and anywhere a bear is hanging out near a road, thereby creating a “bear jam” as the hoards swarm to get photos. But, if you take a few of the tracks off the main roads, boy does it pay off. There is a 6 mile track between Mammoth village and Tower, where our campsite was, which was particularly quiet in the evenings and provided incredible encounters, such as a coyote hanging out with a badger right there in front of us. We also found secluded yet accessible fishing spots with no one else around and (with bear spray on Rob’s belt) we caught 6 brook trout which we ate for dinner back at the camp ground.

Fishing at Joffee Lake, Yellowstone National Park

Alfie fishing at peaceful Joffee Lake

Brook trout caught at Yellowstone

And the Brook Trout he and Rob caught which we had for dinner, yum!

The camp ground at tower was ideal for us, most of the park was easily accessible, particularly Lamar Valley where a lot of wildlife is easily spotable. All the campsites here have great fire pits and nice flat places to pitch the tent. Shady from the trees but with enough sunlight to warm up the air, we warmed water on the fire to bath the kids a couple of mornings and we all slept snuggly. Although getting out for a wee in the night in grizzly territory is a whole different experience.

bathing the baby in Yellowstone National Park

The best thing for us about the campsite was the people we met in the pitches near by. A slight disappointment for this trip for myself and Rob has been the lack of new people we have met along the way. We had imagined meeting all sorts of interesting and diverse people at campsites and in the National Parks. Admittedly we’ve met some lovely people at our wwoof placements and friends we’ve stayed with whom we already knew a little but at the campsites people have very much kept themselves to themselves. Until Yellowstone that it. The first night we arrived the children were invited to a s’mores campfire party which they loved and the next few nights we happened to find ourselves next to one of the most interesting and fun couples we could have hoped for. Bruce and Pat – wolf educators, film makers and authors, also brilliant with kids. Having lived with a wolf for 16 years they had fascinating stories and interesting takes on current hot topics. I shall tell you more about Bruce and Pat after we stay with them at the end of June at their Montana home but on returning to our tent after a late night wildlife watching we discovered our tent decorated with fairy-lights, lighting the way for our sleeping babies safely to their beds. Kind gestures make the best memories.

Camping at Yellowstone

Coming home to find the fairies had been

Everyone we met in Yellowstone were fantastic and interesting and helpful except for one nutty lady who wouldn’t shut up, convinced that there were both Bison and Buffalo there, two separate species, hard to tell apart… “you’ll have to ask an American Indian to know the difference”. Oh and “the brown coloured black bears are actually brown bears”… Right Oh! Apart from her (there’s always one!) people shared tips, stories and experiences as soon as there was a clear interest and everyone was helpful and kind to the children. We went to see the ranger, Jim, who we had met a month ago in Canyonlands National Park and got more fantastic tips about where to see our tick list species, and the harder things to spot… though a live skunk still eludes us.

So here is our list of what we saw in Yellowstone (there are plenty more things we’ve seen elsewhere in the States but that list will come at the end of the trip). It’s not totally exhaustive and there are plenty more birds which we didn’t positively identify but this is the vast majority:

Mammals and reptiles

Grizzly Bears

Wolves

Black Bears

Big horn sheep

Mountain goats

Elk

Moose

Bison

Unita ground squirrel

Beaver

Badger

White tail deer

Mule deer

Red fox

Yellow-bellied marmot

Coyote

Bull snake

Chipmunk

Jack rabbit

Common muskrat

Pronghorn

 

Birds and waterfowl

Osprey

Mountain bluebird

Red tailed hawk

Swainson’s hawk

Scaup

Trumpeter swan

American kestrel

Western tanager

Yellow rumped warbler

Northern flicker

Stellers jay

Brown headed cow bird

Brewer’s blackbird

Common loon

Sandhill crane

Common Merganser

Blue winged teal

Western meadow lark

Cliff swallow

Violet-green swallow

Tree swallow

American white pelican

Buffle head

Golden eye

Raven

Magpie

Killdeer

Rough grouse

Williamson’s sapsucker

Red-winged blackbird

Red breasted nuthatch

Canada goose

Great blue heron

It’s almost impossible for me to explain the magic of Yellowstone in a blog post and my amateur photographs really don’t do it justice. If you have even a vague interest in wildlife or geology then you must put this place on your bucket list. Save up, do it on a budget in a tent, get up at 4.30 or 5am to make the most of it and just do it. You’ll never forget the massive bear tracks in the mud crossing your path or the experience of seeing wolves eating a bull elk carcass. The incredible fire like sunsets will burn in your memories along with the vast sky with ever changing clouds casting shadows on the most incredible and diverse landscape. The revolting yet fascinating smells will linger in your nose to remind you of the volcanic activity bubbling away below you as you live and breath forever touched by perfect Yellowstone.

Black bear at Yellowstone

Black bear

Bison at Yellowstone

Bison

bison with calf at Yellowstone

Muma bison feeding her baby

Beaver at Yellowstone

Beaver munching some branches

Bull elk at Yellowstone

A regal bull elk from a distance

Trumpeter swan at Yellowstone

Trumpter swan

Coyote at Yellowstone

Camouflaged coyote

Yellow-bellied marmot at Yellowstone

Yellow bellied marmot with a snowy backdrop

Bear tracks at Yellowstone

Fresh bear tracks in the mud by the board walk around the hot springs and geysers

Hot spring at Yellowstone

One of the magical hot springs bubbling and boiling away

Boiling mud pots at Yellowstone

Vast and stinky, boiling mud pots

A small geyser at Yellowstone

A small geyser erupting and spluttering over us

Beaver at Yellowstone

And finally, here is the beaver from Joffee Lake again

South Dakota and the Big Face Place

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From Washington DC we made good progress albeit a little dull bar stunning sunsets and a handful of deer sightings, the highlight being the high speed glimpse of a new born fawn with it’s mother licking it as it learned to stand.

Once in South Dakota however things got a little more interesting. First of all psychedelic signs for “Kids Love Wall Drug” and other blander Wall Drug slogans started to appear along the roads. Our interest pricked we googled Wall Drug and were dully enlightened to a truly brilliant story of success in the face of adversity.

Click here for the full story, but in brief, Mr Ted Hustead, a young pharmacist, and his wife Dorothy, the true hero in the story, bought the run down Wall Drug Store in 1931. The town of Wall at the time was in the arse end of nowhere and all the 200 odd inhabitants were stone broke. It was however enroute to what would be Mount Rushmore, or as Alfie renamed it, “The Big Face Place”, and towards the end of the miserably hot journey across the Great Plains for it’s visitors.

After nearly five years of struggling by in their quite store with a room fashioned from a blanket across the back Dorothy Hustead had an idea. One of the simplest and best marketing ideas this world has ever seen and it remains a valuable lesson to us all… Lets put up some billbords on the main road offering free ice water for thirsty travellers. By the time Ted got back from erecting the first signs the customers were already rolling in for their ice water and buying other goods at the same time! And now the business, still family owned and run is one of the USA’s biggest roadside attractions and turns over $10 million per year.

Obviously we planned to stop and see the spectacle and despite low exceptions for the world centre of tack-ville, which it turned out not to be, we were in fact pleasantly surprised by decent souvenirs, a well presented history of the area and the business and of course plenty of free ice water.

On our way to Wall, having survived an impressive thunder storm with fork lightening crashing down to earth in the fields all around us, we then virtually stumbled upon the Badlands National Park. Not realising there was access from the route we were on we were pleased to detour from the boring interstate and took the scenic route through this incredible landscape which seems to come out of nowhere.

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park on a rather grey day

After our exploration of Wall Drug we pressed on to Mount Rushmore but arrived to discover the entire place in a thick fog that meant we had no chance at all of seeing the Big Face Place. So we stopped over night in a hotel and went in the morning, which was beautifully warm with clear blue skies. Wow… if you haven’t been to Mount Rushmore then do… it is impressive! To think of the work that when into carving the faces of the Nations forefathers into the jagged mountain cliffs is staggering. In fact just the conception of the idea itself is staggering let alone the execution of it. And it is beautiful. The message and honour instilled within the sculptures too are humbling and awe inspiring.

Mount Rushmore

The Big Face Place

And then we headed on through the pretty Black Hills of Dakota singing Calamity Jane songs and on the look our for mountain goats, which sadly eluded us.

Next stop… Yellowstone.

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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!

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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