Fine camping and exploring

Yellow-petaled flowers with large brown corollas backlit by the sun.
Ox-eyes on the fishing trail

We went camping at Yellow River State Forest in northeastern Iowa’s river bluff country. There was hardly anyone there when we arrived Friday afternoon, except for the camouflage-clad fishermen squatting in our reserved campsite. I don’t blame them; it was a nice shady spot under some big maple trees to set up camp on a hot afternoon. The nearby fishing trail led down to a sunny, florid opening on Big Paint Creek. We expected more weekend arrivals but they never came. We almost had the campground to ourselves.

Northeastern Iowa is hillier, rockier, and more heavily forested than the rest of the state. Lore loved the change in scenery. “This is so different from Iowa!” she exclaimed. “This is Iowa,” I said.

Carved wood scene from the Passion titled Jesus Meets Women.
Jesus Meets Women in Saint Boniface Church

We stopped in New Vienna on the way north. Lore noticed it as a “point of interest” on the map. There’s a big (for a little town in Iowa) basilica, Saint Boniface Catholic Church. More impressive than its limestone exterior was its interior with ornate woodwork and stained-glass windows. The carved-wood scenes of The Passion decorating the walls had amusingly succinct titles like “Jesus Meets Women” and “Jesus Gets Nailed”.

Shiny round saw blade in a sawmill.
Saw blade in the state forest sawmill

Near the campground was the park headquarters and sawmill. The state runs an active forestry program at Yellow River and apparently has its own sawmill. It was after hours and the sawyers were off-duty but there was a big round saw blade and some logs waiting to be sawed up into lumber on Monday.

A car and tent in a park campsite.
Our campsite

Lore and I were both annoyed that this was our first camping trip in two years (since our honeymoon in Hawaii). We’re out of practice so it took us a while to get ready, even though camping with the car means we can just throw stuff in the trunk and not worry about packing. We still forgot a couple of things, like instant oatmeal for a hot breakfast. Despite the early sun shining on our picnic table, Saturday started out a little briskā€”the kind of chilly morning I associate with back-to-school time.

The sun shines through a spider web across a forest trail.
We found a spider web across the forest trail

We spent our day on a leisurely 6.5 mile hike in the hills and along Paint Creek. Forest trails can be lacking in nice views but they force you to look at the smaller stuff like spiderwebs, mushrooms, and frogs. Like the campground, the trails were pleasant and well-maintained. The state forest has a few backcountry campsites that we checked out for future reference. We broke for a snack near an old metal fire tower which we weren’t allowed to climb. Many of the trails are well-used equestrian trails that are not too messy except for right near the equestrian campgrounds, which were much busier than ours.

Two riders hitching their horses to a post in a forest campground.
Riders hitching their horses to a post in the equestrian campground

The day wasn’t all bluebirds and trail mix: I got caught in some stinging nettles. Not being a frequenter of forest trails, I am not very familiar with them (John showed them to me once in New Jersey). I had the good sense to back out when I realized what I was into so I didn’t get stung too bad but, man, they were painful.

A young green frog sticks its head out of muddy water.
One of the frogs we found in a puddle on the trail

The skies clouded up after we got back to the campsite and the biting gnats came out swinging. I wonder where they were on Friday night. One bugger gave me a welt about 50 times its own size. It was still quiet though; so quiet I hated to do anything like go to the toilet or cook a meal.

A courthouse and water tower on a hill overlook a small town main street.
Bridge Street in Elkader

We’re both out of hiking shape, so even Saturday’s moderate hike wore us out. Since we don’t have a yard at home, we took our time cleaning and drying the tent Sunday morning and, after a brief stops in the picturesque towns of McGregor and Elkader, we made it home for showers and naps.

I posted a full gallery of photos on August 28.

Around river bluff country

Winding down on Maui

Our last evening in Haleakala: another fire, another soup. We’re getting better at it. The tent stinks, our clothes stink, we stink. Everything must be washed. We’re only allowed three nights here per month so this is it. It occurred to me that leaving the comfortable, steady climate of the coast, the hotels, the nice little tourist towns, for the relative discomfort of camping and hiking in a volcanic desert high above the clouds takes some mental discipline. I can see why the park wasn’t too crowded.

With the weekend done there was a tamer crowd in the campground last night: no potheads, no later music, no loose chihuahuas. In the morning I walked the campground’s nature trail and belatedly discovered its environs. The campground is exactly at the tree line, between a planted forest of nonnative trees and a native shrubland. I finally saw a few honeycreepers (of the more common species, ‘Apapane I think) in the shrubs.

We’re back at God’s Peace of Maui, a nice place to stay if you don’t need a lot of attention. We treated ourselves to a nice lunch at the Hali’imaile General Store (Lore was already beyond tired of granola bars and trail mix), owned by one of Hawaii’s better-known chefs who is also a proponent of Hawaiian regional cuisine. In the middle of a pineapple plantation, they have a mean pineapple upside-down cake.

We also had a good pizza dinner at the Flatbread Company in Pa’ia. I never have high hopes for pizza from anywhere west of the Hudson, and I think barbecue sauce and pineapple on pizza are separate atrocies. However, our pizza was delicious.

We’re going to the beach one more time tomorrow morning and then leaving. Lore and I discussed whether or not we would want to live here. We both like it a lot. The weather is superb (forecasts are ridiculous: 89 and mostly sunny every day). There is so much to do that we barely scratched the surface of it. The towns are pretty, the scenery is incredible, and the food is tasty. I wonder if we’re better off just visiting when we can.

Ka Lu’u o ka O’o

I cannot pronounce it but it is beautiful.

Barren brown gravel descends to a red outcropping, and then to a gray crater floor.
Along the Sliding Sands Trail

This is one of those easy downhill hikes (about 2.6 miles and 1,400 feet) into Haleakala Crater along the Sliding Sands Trail and then to Ka Lu’u o ka O’o, the nearest cinder cone. The view across this part of the crater is (by my own reckoning) about 5 miles from ridge to ridge, but it is impossible to get any perspective on the scale because there are no man-made objects inside it.

A woman is a speck on the far side of a cinder cone crater.
Across the Ka Lu’u o ka O’o Crater

For a place with only a few sparse plants it is spectacularly colored with red, yellow, green, brown, black, and gray cinders. The walls of the crater are chocolate brown or slate gray with occasional sparse covers of yellow-green shrubs and white-leaved silverswords. The cinder cones of the smaller, later volcanoes inside the crater are red– brownish red to bright brick red– against a deep blue sky. The clouds below seep over the crater rim or through the massive gap in the north where the volcano is eroding into the ocean. Lore and I spent about an hour and a half alone at Ka Lu’u o ka O’o, walking around the rim, photographing, painting, eating lunch, and staring at the scenery.

The price of this is the hike out, not long or steep but tiring in the thin, dry air under the mid-afternoon sun which alternated with chilly overcasts of clouds.

Hosmer Grove

The only front-country campground in the summit district of Haleakala National Park is Hosmer Grove. It is simply a small field with picnic benches, potable water spigots, and fire pits, a picnic shelter and a pair of pit toilets with a sink. It is free and there are no assigned camp spaces nor is there a ranger or host stationed there.

A woman blows into a smoking campground fire pit.
The fire Goddess
Lore wanted something hot to eat this time and was confident about building a fire. After a couple of lame attempts Lore challenged me to do better and we started an unnecessarily large blaze in the fire pit for my little one-quart pot, which is really only meant to be used with a backcountry cook stove. The soup was good but my pot is black with pine resin.

Maui is generally dark at night, but you can see the stars here above the clouds. The Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon directly above our heads like a celestial archway.

This campground seems kind of free and easy but it has a downside: it is noisy. We were woken by some chatty potheads (12:30 a.m.) and then some jackass playing a radio (1:00 a.m.) and then by somebody’s errant chihuahua sniffing around the tent (5:30 a.m.).

Haleakala Crater

A man points to the crater floor from the ridge.
Adam at Haleakala Crater

We got up late but I feel better and can eat again. We planned an easy hike to get acclimated to the high elevation, and followed the Halemau’u Trail to the rim of Haleakala Crater. The crater is pretty amazing: steep cliffs, red cinder cones, and nothing much grows down there. I want to see more.

We are above the clouds. It is very strange. The park road is a good one, well paved and clearly marked. There are no guard rails or shoulders so if we drive off the road we’ll dive right down in to the clouds.

There is a Visitor Center near the summit, at almost 10,000 feet. A few exhibits there explain the geology and efforts to protect several endangered species. Mostly it has more stunning views of the crater.

Altitude sickness

We are at Haleakala National Park. After we set up the tent and had a cold dinner I got really sick, probably from the high elevation. I’ve camped and hiked higher than this but I’ve never gone from sea level to 7,000 feet in one day.

While I was incapacitated in the tent Lore experimented with fire-making in one of the fire pits. A couple of neighboring campers– of all people a couple of Long Island transplants who teach tango– helped Lore build her fire.

Las Vegas and beyond

I haven’t written much about my vacation in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. In two separate trips during August and September, I visited Las Vegas three times, plus six national parks.

It only took me a couple of days of Las Vegas to realize I disliked the place. For a while I kept telling people I wasn’t in Vegas to gamble. Well, I did gamble–on a relationship–and lost big time. It was an emotional disaster, but at least I had a good time hiking, so enjoy the photos. I took five hundred or so, and posted much fewer.

During my first stay in Vegas, we went backpacking at Lake Mead National Recreation Area–a poor exercise in judgment on my part. It was August and about 100 degrees; “cool” according to the volunteer in the visitor center. We did find a nice camping spot on Lake Mojave, the part of the Colorado River just downstream of Hoover Dam.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Elephant HillHere I am in Elephant Canyon, camping in the backcountry by myself for the first time ever. It is starting to snow on my tent! I am two and a half miles from the trailhead, where my car is parked at the end of a winding three-mile dirt road down the mesa, several miles from the ranger station, an hour’s drive from the nearest town.

Needles from the Elephant Canyon Trail.I can’t believe it’s snowing. It wasn’t in the forecast. I hope it doesn’t snow too much: I want to find my way out in the morning. Plus, I don’t know how this bivy sack is going to hold up. There’s already moisture inside, but I think it’s condensation from my breathing. I’m having visions of breaking through a few feet of snow in the morning. Cripes.

I swear this country is right out of Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. I remember thinking that while hiking at Arches and it’s similar here. Do people ever get tired of seeing red sandstone? I hope I never do.

I got my backcountry permit from the British volunteer at the visitor center. Everyone here is really nice. It’s a small NPS world; the oak tree of a female ranger I met used to work for one of the interpretive rangers at my park. Apparently there was some confusion over giving me a discount on the backcountry permit (I did not get one and was not eligible for one), because another ranger drove down to the trailhead to explain it to me. “You didn’t drive down here just to tell me that, did you?” I asked her. Yeah, she did. That was nice; I didn’t really care if I had to pay full price (I never expect a break, but then it never hurts to ask). We chatted for a good while. She knows another ranger from my park.

Chelser ParkSo then I hiked over Elephant Hill to Elephant Canyon (so named, I think, because some of the sandstone is shaped like elephant legs) and set up my campsite on a ledge over the wash. Then I went for a hike into an area called Chesler Park, probably about a six-mile loop. More mind-amazing scenery. I can’t believe such places exist. I might be dreaming this whole trip, it is so unreal to me. There’s still snow around, and it highlights the mesas and the rock formations in a very striking way.

An adventure: I had to hop over a two-foot rock gap on my way back into Elephant Canyon, then scramble up a short ledge. As I scrambled, my water bottle popped out of the pouch in my backpack. I watched it bounce, roll, and then disappear into the crevice. Tragedy. Not only do I not want to litter this beautiful place with my carelessness, but I need the bottle if I run out of water. The plan is to pack snow into it (there is no standing liquid water here now), melt it, filter it if needed with my pump, and refill my Camelbak (probably an unecessarily long sequence, but THAT’S THE PLAN, GODDAMMIT).

I was determined to get the bottle back, and I could see it at the bottom of the crevice, about fifteen feet down. It was in fine shape; it’s one of those Lexan Nalgene things. (There was another water bottle wedged in the bottom of the crack as well, so I’m not the only one). I enthusiastically set about solving the situation in a very rangerly manner. I may have spent most of my career on Staten Island, New York, but I know how to improvise. I duct-taped open my caribiner, and tied my parachute cord (using the clove hitch I learned in boating class) to it; fashioning a fishing line of sorts.

By God, I thought, I will have that bottle back in no time.

Elephant Canyon TrailI could sit over the crack, bracing myself with my legs, and dangle the line down. But there was a draft blowing into the crevice from the canyon bottom, very light but enough to make my “fish hook” drift up the crevice. I just couldn’t drop the caribiner into the bottle’s cap loop.

Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit.

I did this for an hour. A juniper branch employed to leverage the cord didn’t yield results. Neither did replacing the caribiner with my hand-shovel work to nudge the full water bottle up the crevice floor to an easier spot; the shovel was still too light. I failed figure out a good way to fasten the cord to a flat piece of sandstone for the same purpose. While I was doing all this, the clouds overtook the sun and sunset was approaching, and I still had two miles to the campsite. I also noticed a raven watching me work. He was after my pack, naturally, and the food inside, so I had to take a break and repack the contents, which I had strewn about the rock during my labors. “What are you doing? Get out of here!” I said, but it only perched closer. “Go away!” The raven spoke to me in its rattly way, paused, then flew off. God only knows what it said to me. My friend Debi always used to tell me that the ravens were messengers from another world. Anyway, I got back to work.

On my very last attempt, the draft died and I snagged the bottle and hauled it up. I could have danced a victory jig, but I was getting scared because it was less than one hour to sunset, and it was totally overcast. I was really afraid I would lose the cairns, even with the flashlight.

I can walk, and I made the two miles or so up the canyon before sunset.

My campsite in Elephant CanyonIt was dark by five thirty, and it was cloudy, so there wasn’t much to see at night. All I could see was the glow of the snow cover, and my white permit attached to my bivy sack. I ate dinner (granola bars, pretzels, raisins, nuts, and seeds- the raven would have loved it), then crawled into my bag and read Abbey for a couple of hours. Then I fell asleep for a while, and awoke to the sound of snow falling on my tent.