Tuesday, July 19, 2011

No Trails

 This year for the annual hike I go on with Zac and group (group is a lose term, as the people change a little every year), we chose to hike in Alaska.  To be more specific we flew to Fairbanks and then took a charter plane just east outside of Denali national park; about 60 miles south of Fairbanks.  Our group this year was myself, Zac, Zac's cousins Jeff and Chris, Randy (there dad), Zac's brother in laws, Doug and Rob, Robs brother Jared, and Jeff's friend Seth.  9 in total, our biggest group yet.

We all arrived in Fairbanks on the evening of the 24th, got a couple hotel rooms and packed and repacked our gear.  The next morning we caught our charter flight out.  It was about a 45 minute flight.  We had to take 3 planes to shuttle us all there because of the weight restrictions and small landing strip.  The country below from the plane was incredible!  I could easily have just flown around for hours!

Once we all arrived, we set off.  Zac (our master planner again!) had planned for about 7-10 miles each day which seemed very doable.   The first day though we struggled and only made it about 6 miles.  It was crazy.  At first we were literally walking through a forest of Alder scrub.  After a bit we got to a creek (Virgina), that we intended to follow most of the way to a couple lake where we hoped to make it to.  The creek was difficult to hike also, as the sides were full of large rocks and boulders thrown about from each years snow melt.  Also we often had to climb through the Alder scrub again to get around a bend where the side was blocked by the flowing water. After a few hours, we actually got totally blocked and had to climbed through the Alder scrub again and up onto the steep hill side.  We then followed the hill side through Alder scrub, berry bushes, rock fields, and a huge downfall of rain that made everything incredibly slick.  We were really lucky nobody got hurt.

After a couple more hours of this we came to a spot where we reached a perpendicular creek that made a canyon blocking our way.  This was a great spot though as just on the other side of the canyon we spotted Dall sheep.  Apparently Dall sheep are pretty rare, and only exist in a couple valleys anymore.  This was one of those valleys...

By the time we hiked back down to the creek bed again (we had been slowly going higher as our planned destination was up over the ridge line) everyone was really tired.  So we decided that we would move to plan B and just camp here for the night.  Night is a relative term.  It never got dark.  Technically there was 4 hours when the sun was down, but it looked more like a really cloudy about to storm day. 

We made camp right along the creek.  It was a great spot.  The Dall sheep we just above us on both side of the creek, and they were fun to watch; incredible climbers.  There was enough wood in the dried part of the creek bed that we were able to make a decent fire as well.

The next morning we decided to leave camp set up and do a day hike up to the lakes we intended to go to the first day, about 2.5 miles away, and come back.  I forgot to mention that on the first day we hit a little ice still not fully melted from the winter.  Well on this day we hit a lot more.  The temperature was fairly nice, perfect really for hiking.  But there was some ice that made our day a little interesting.

First though, about a mile up the creek we saw our first (only really) large animal of the trip.  It was a mother caribou and her fawn.  They we a ways up, but crossed the creek and came down the other side past us.  They were pretty big even from a distance.  Cool to see.

After this the creek turned and headed towards the lakes we were going to.  Most of us continued to follow the creek, but Zac headed up back onto the hillside, which was the better route.  The creek almost came to a dead end again where we couldn't pass.  We were able to find a way to cross it, and then scale the edge on a large piece of ice that looked stable. Zac at this point was above us looking down and laughing at our chosen route.  Once through this little section, we had to again cross the creek, and basically climb straight up the hillside to the lakes. It was worth the climb though, they were incredible!!!

After taking a long break and enjoying the lakes we headed back down towards our camp site.  On the way down Doug and I walked back towards the valley that we climbed through on the ice on the way up to see how it looked from above.  Wow, glad I didn't see that before I did it. 

We also came across a Marmot that actually froze when it saw us, which allowed us to get some great pictures.  I was actually able to put a camera with in inches of it to take some pictures.  As soon as we backed away a little he ran for it.  Funny little guy...

When we got back to camp we relaxed a little again and made another fire.  I am pretty sure we were all really glad we didn't try to keep going all the way on the first day to the lakes, it would have been an impossibly long day. 

On our 3rd day, we packed up and headed back down the creek towards the landing strip again.  The idea was to go back and then up the Wood river and camp at another lake just off the river.  About half way down, we looked at the GPS, and saw that if we crossed the creek and climbed over a smallish hill we could drop down to the lake without going all the way back to where the creek and river intersect.  The smallish hill though was anything but easy.  On top of the scrub we were getting used to hiking in/through, the ground was really spongy.  The ground really sank 6 inches or more each step you took.  It felt like hiking in the snow.  It was tough.  Anyway, we finally made it up, and took a nice long rest at the top.  The view was great, worth the labor of hiking up.  We were able to see our lake from above and it looked like there would be a nice spot to camp along the side of it. 

When we finally made it down though we found ourselves hiking in a wet bog.  When we made it to the lake, the surrounding area was all bog also, and camping there would have been wet and miserable.  Around the lake were a lot of bones from moose that had been killed and eaten there.  There were moose tracks everywhere. 

So we headed out to the river and searched for about a quarter mile and finally found a nice wide spot where we could again camp on the side where the water had receded.  This time it was sandy though, and it made for a really nice camp site. The rain came in again, and we made a fire, and went back to the lake to check it out a little more. Rob and Jared tried fishing, but there didn't seam to be anything in the lake at all.  They gave up pretty quickly and we headed back to our camp.  It was wasn't that late, but everyone was tired and we all went to bed a little earlier that night.  Although our mileage was not high, the hiking had been really tough.

On our final full day (my birthday!!!), we decided to again leave camp set up and just day hike near by.  We went down to the air strip where we were dropped off, crossed over Kansas creek and followed it for a ways.  We found lots more animal prints and a large kill site (looked like a wolf pack took out a moose or caribou).  

When we got back to camp, Randy had the fire going good, and Zac, Jeff, Chris and I tried to make a raft out of some fallen trees to float the river on.  The trees were to water logged though and it couldn't support any weight.  While we were doing that the rest of the guys attempted to make a 20 foot tall bonfire.  They ran into the same problem, wet wood.  In the end we were all sitting around our original fire that had been burning since the day before...

The next morning we packed up, hiked the 20 minutes or so back to the air strip and our planes came to pick us back up.

Another great adventure!!! Can't wait until next year!!!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Eastern Europe - Romania

After sleeping until 10ish in the morning we woke up had breakfast and looked at our plans for the next 4 days.  We planned to basically copy the Rollins trip of Romania from about a year earlier, but the last day of that trip included about a 14 hour drive, and we really didn't want to do that again, especially what would have been arriving back at their house and leaving for the airport 6-8 hours later.  So I jumped online and starting sending out emails to rearrange our schedule a little.  What we ended up worked out almost flawlessly.

We left at around 2 in the afternoon after saying good bye to everyone (expect the Rollin's) since they were all leaving early the following morning.  This was hard on Paige as she really had a great time with Emma, and saying good bye is always hard for her anyway.  That afternoon, we drove about 4 hours north to the border between Bulgaria and Romania and stayed in a hotel in Ruse.  Ruse is actually a decent sized city, but after the trip we had had so far, for us it really was only a stopping place to break up the driving some.  Our hotel was nice though, it smell a little of smoke, but we had a two bedroom room and each kid had their own bed.  This was great for them as they had been sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor for a lot of the trip.  They liked the sleeping bags too, but a bed was nice.  

The next morning we woke up had breakfast and by 9 in the morning were crossing the border into Romania!

 It was funny, Romain and Bulgaria are separated in this area by a river, and on the Bulgaria side everything is dry and brown, and sage brush like.  On the Romania side everything was green, we really liked it.  Right as we crossed over we drove past this guy who was tearing down and old building or barn or something.  It was really funny, because it was one guy and he has a not very big sledge hammer.  It looked like it would take years to tear the building down, maybe it will.

Anyway, after about 4 hours of driving we made it to our first stop; Bran.  More specifically, we were visiting Bran Castle.  This is the castle that is credited at being Dracula's castle.  Dracula was a real person, Vlad Tepes Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) who lived and ruled Wallachia in the 15th century, and it is thought that he was some of the inspiration for Bram Stoker's character Count Dracula.  In fact, there is no proof that he lived at Castle Bran, it is actually thought he may have spend a few nights in the castle though.  In any case Castle Bran is romanticized as being Dracula's Castle, and in any case, it is simply a really cool castle in Transylvania, which by itself is just cool.  So we spend a few hours exploring the castle.  It is in really great shape as it was used as a principle residence of the queen of Romania in the early 20th century, Queen Marie.  Now it is a museum.

After visiting Bran we drove 20 minutes to the town of Brasov.  This was where we initially intended to spend the second night of this road trip, but had now cut out and intended only to spend a few hours here checking out the city.  Brasov, was interesting as it had a lot of elements of a small walled in medieval town, but clearly was also functioning as a more modern day city at the same time.  We really cracked up at the old church connected to the KFC.  It turned only the entrance walkway to the church was here, the church itself was behind with a little courtyard.  

Anyway, after walking around a bit and stopping so the kids could get ice cream and I could try a yummy local treat, we got back in the car one last time for the day and drove another hour and a half to Sighisoara.  This is where we intended to stay for our third night initially.  Sighisoara is similar to Brasov in that it is a old medieval walled town, and has continued to grow into a more modern city, but with Sighisoara the modern area is down below, while the walled town sits up on a hill and it still 99% unchanged.  When we got there it was just getting dark, so we checked into our hotel and wow, what a hotel it was, check out our room!!!  I normally don't get excited about a hotel room, my general rule is, if it has a bed, I am good, but this was great, and it wasn't that expensive either.

Anyway, after loving our room for a few minutes we walked about 2 minutes from our hotel to Casa Dracula, the childhood home of Vlad Tepes now a restaurant, and had dinner.  After we briefly walked around Sighisoara to see the town lit up at night. 

The next morning we set out early to walk around Sighisoara and check it out before getting in the car for what was to be our longest day of this road trip.  Sighisoara was a great little town.  There really wasn't anything there, a few souvenir shops, some restaurants, church's, etc. but the town was really cool.   We just enjoyed walking the 4 streets that made up the town on the cobblestone roads looking at the buildings.  We go to the top of the clock tower and were able to check out the entire city from above, which provided some nice views.  By about 11 though we were down and ready to hit the road again. 

Our goal for the rest of the day was to drive the Translyvanian and the Saxon lands, hopefully drive the Transfagarasan road over the Carpathian mountains, visit the ruins of Poenari Castle (Vlad Tepes actual castle), and make it back to the hotel in Ruse, Bulgaria where we stayed the first night.  If everything worked out, I thought we would be back to the hotel by about 8 PM.  Driving in the Saxon lands was incredible. We drove through several small towns where basically it was a fortified church and several houses, other than the main road everything was unpaved, and most of the people didn't even appear to have cars.  We thought it might have been mostly Roma, but don't know for sure if that is correct or if that is just the simple life in this area for everyone.  Regardless, it was like being in Amish country in Pennsylvania, and we loved it.  We we started to approach the Carpathian mountains, I started to get excited, I really wanted to drive the Transfagarasan road, which is a famous windy road through the mountains.  The road though is closed for the winter because of snow (and windiness, not a good combination...) so we didn't know if it would be open yet.  To our surprise, and my joy, it was open when we got there.  So we started to climb the mountain, it was plenty windy and fun to drive, but really no more so than a lot of other driving we did on the first road trip, especially around Meteora and Delphi.  Anyway, when we were getting close to the top we watched as the thermometer in our car told us the temperature was dropping outside.  Soon the light rain turned into light snow.  As we approached the top of the mountain, which best I can tell reaches a peak but then follows the ridge line for a long time before finally dropping down the other side, we passed a snow plow and then almost immediately came to a second sign that now said the road was closed.  This was a total bummer.  Really, missing out on the driving of the road sucked, especially because the more scenic and beautiful part was on the other side, but also because we had to turn around, drive all the way back down, and then go around the mountains.  This added about 3 hours driving to our day. The kids were also really excited to see the real Dracula Castle, which happens to be located of the Transfagarasan road on the other side, so not only did we completely drive around, but then we drove back up the same road from the other side.  In the end, I think the only part I didn't drive it the segment that is famous for it picturesque views of the area with the windy road below.  So when we finally got to Poenari everyone was ready to get out of the car.  So ready in fact we decided to hike the 1480 steps up to the castle.  1480 is a lot of steps!!!  When we go to the top the wind was howling through the area, and the castle was totally exposed.  I thought it was cool, Julie couldn't wait to take a couple of pictures and head back down a little to get out of the wind.  There really wasn't a lot to see, most of the castle is gone, just the front wall and one tower remains, so the picture from below is really the best view.  But we needed to get out of the car, and now we can proudly say we visited the REAL Dracula's castle.

After this we drove for a couple more hours back across the border into Bulgaria, stayed in Ruse again and the following morning headed back to the Rollin's house.  About 5 minutes away is Boyana church which is about 900 years old.  We had a pizza dinner that night and just relaxed and let the kids play.  It was a great way to end a really great (but long) trip!