January 23, 2011

Swamp Trip to Congaree National Park

January 16 - 17th, 2011

Thanks to Dr. MLK Jr we had a nice long weekend to explore one of America's lesser known National Parks. Congaree National Park is one of the most recent additions (2003) to the National Park System and is not heavily visited minus a few locals. This trip started due to Lisa's strange obsession with swamps and canoeing. Raleigh has the benefit of short trips to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and the deep blue Atlantic Ocean but Lisa wants the greenish brown stagnant water and erie, creaking and slumping trees that fill the swamp marshes characteristic of the South East. So we went...into the swamp.

Chloe was not informed that she was not coming with us. This did not stop her from trying her cutest poochie looks and antics to accompany us. A 90lb 1 year old Bernese Mountain Dog who doesn't like water and refuses to sit still meant Chloe was not coming. No matter how cute she looks in the car. Poor baby she likes the trips.

If we wanted to canoe on this trip we had 2 options; rent a canoe for $50 near Eastover, SC (nearest city to Congaree National Park) or pay $24 at the NCSU Outdoor Adventure office. Keeping true to our cheap budget travels we decided to use the NCSU canoe and pray it stayed on the Jeep for the 4 hr drive to South Carolina. Due to liability, the Outdoor Adventure staff would not help tie the canoe to my Jeep. Using three tiny blue straps I latched the 16ft canoe to the top of my Jeep. The entire ride down 95 and into the park was accompanied by a loud howling coming from the canoe. It was so loud I had to put ear plugs in and even that couldn't drown the noise from rattling my eardrums to the point of explosion. Somehow the sound of a jet airplane on top of our car didn't phase Lisa as she slept peacefully in the front seat. There are 10 different entrances to the Congaree National Park however, only one is open year round. We played the game of driving to each entrance before finally finding the right one on the 5th try. Finally, no more HOWLING..

Once we took our ceremonial "picture at the sign" we rushed to the visitor center to get a camping site for the night. Seeing that it was a holiday weekend we needed to get a site before they filled up. Since the park is not heavily visited they only have several camping sites unless you want to head into the swamp / wilderness for a night of fun. We were lucky, the weather was quite cold, hence the low mosquito rating, and they had plenty of sites available.

Retying the canoe every 60 miles meant we had to hurry if we wanted to set up camp, hike, and have some wonderful backcountry pantry dinner with a fire of course. Congaree is known for its elevated boardwalk that traverses the 24,000 acre swamp / flood plain ecosystem.

So many options....

One reason Congaree was designated a National Park is that is it home to the largest cyprus and loblolly pine trees in North America. This Loblolly Pine tree is 157 feet tall!

Lisa just can't seem to get her arms around this Loblolly with a 15 ft circumference!

The reason these "champion" trees are still around today is that the swamp / wetland prevented these large trees from being logged. Luckily, we are able to see these trees today. This picture below is actually inverted.

The boardwalk loop dropped us off to a beautiful, black motionless pool of water called Weston Lake. Cyprus trees line the banks and drape over the water with moss dangling from their branches.

The boardwalk was fairly lengthy and we had to stop to pet some poochies along the way which meant darkness was sweeping over the park. We raced back, gathered some downfall and prepared dinner (opened the bag).

Lisa and I quickly began our normal argument of the best way to start a fire. Lisa has her heart set on setting up the standard boy scout tepee while I focus on finding pine straw and start small. This time I won and Lisa had to settle for the small, sustainable fire that Leave No Trace would have been proud of. Backcountry Pantry dinners are so delicious. We scarfed down a 3 course meal of beef stroganoff, vegetable medley and cheesecake. All of a sudden the temperature plummeted 20 degrees and we quickly retreated to our sleeping bags in the nice warm tent. Or at least I thought it was nice and warm. The temperature dropped to the teens as Lisa and I fell asleep at 7:30!! It was a pretty standard Lisa and Chris camping session with Lisa making bathroom trips every hour on the hour while I listened to the swamp creatures exchanging noises all night. Finally, daylight! While Lisa snoozed in the tent I headed out to pick some fire wood and pine needles for a quick fire and a delicious breakfast. Our tent was completely frozen over so when the fire finally caught Lisa ran out of the tent with a blanket to warm up by the fire. Once again Backcountry pantry didn't disappoint with raisin oatmeal and chipotle scrambled eggs.. but no coffee. Immediate caffeine headache for me.

Satiated and warm we packed up and headed to Cedar Creek to embark on our much anticipated canoe trip. The way Lisa talks about canoeing would make you think she has canoed every major river, creek, stream, lake and ocean in the world.

Quickly I found out that this was her first creek/river canoe experience. She has only canoed 2 - 3 times and each time involved a calm lake. Almost immediately we began to spin circles as if practicing an off beat dance on the heavy green water. Lisa just sat in the front enjoying the scenery unaware that hitting trees and spinning circles is not the best way to travel in a 16ft canoe upstream! She looks so innocent at the start here.

The creek was well marked with Canoe mileage signs located every quarter mile. Evidently someone in the signage department thought brown signs 20 feet up the trees would be appropriate for swamp travel. This picture is cropped and you still can't see what it says.

Watch as Lisa takes us up river!

We were the only ones on the creek for MLK jr day and it was very peaceful. A good break from school and work. Eventually we figured out a good system for canoeing and Lisa led us the last 2 miles without too much damage to the park!

The bald cyprus trees and their "knees" lined the shores of the creek. They are quite beautiful in their own swampy kind of way.

After hiding out in the swamps of South Carolina it was time to head back and get CHLOE!

Tired from the canoe battle down Cedar Creek Lisa is ready to kiss the swamp goodbye.

BUT.. before we could leave we had to carry the canoe 100 yards to the car and put it on top. Lisa was struggling to keep the heavy canoe up so we ended up taking that 100 yards in 10 foot intervals. After our painful progress we then lifted the canoe over our heads and mounted it on top of the jeep. All tied up and ready to go I began to prepare myself for 4 more hours of jet engine howling and watching Lisa snooze the day away. By a gift from God that damn canoe was silent the whole way home. Unbelievable. The drive back felt much quicker and enjoyable overall.

Chloe, though happy we were back, let us know that she would be accompanying us on all future trips. She has put her paw down.

January 11, 2011

Raleigh Ice

We never get snow here in Raleigh only ICE. Last night my bike ride home from work was nothing but sleet and freezing rain into my face. Seeing that I was wearing my headlamp to see at night it wasn't possible to wear my sunglasses to protect my eyes from the pelting precipitation. With about an inch of ice covering roads, sidewalks, my car and everything else I decided to put on the Yaktraks and try running to work/class!

January 10, 2011

2010 Washington Winter Trip Summary

6,857 Miles - 2 Brothers - 8 Days

The Entire Trip Route

Our Winter Trip Route in NorthWest Washington

The trip started after I arrived from a 9 hour drive from Raleigh, NC to Cleveland, OH. Already, I was 800 miles ahead of my travel partner and brother, Dave. We did not know what to expect from this 8 day journey other than traditional North West weather of rain, snow and clouds and a super long bus ride across the country. Our bus departed from Cleveland, OH on time at 3:30 am, Wednesday, December 21st. Stops included Chicago, IL., Minneapolis, MN., Fargo, ND., Billings, MT., Spokane, WA., & arrival at Seattle, WA. What we did not know was the type of people who use Greyhound, there are 40 stops between these major stops, that Greyhound is a monopoly and provides awful, unorganized service. With that in mind we left to explore the U.S. and to snowshoe & camp in some of the best National Parks in the country; Olympic NP, Mt Rainier NP, & North Cascades NP. Food, bags, clothes, gear all ready to go... and so we went into the unknown.

Our First Greyhound Bus Departing Cleveland.
Notice the nice leather seats with outlets.
It was the only one that was nice and provided us with false hope!

The Immaculate Milwaukee Greyhound Station.
This was the only station that seemed clean.

Minneapolis, MN at 10pm on Thursday.
I carefully stepped around looking for dinner but came up empty handed.

Dave in Fargo, ND at 2:00 am.
He has no idea where he is or what is going on.
The bus driver carefully navigated through a blizzard while we slept.

Little Coffee Shop in Montana.
This is right after the Montana police ejected a drunk fellow.

After 3 days or 53 hours of travel we finally arrived in Seattle, WA. The bus trip was interesting to say the least. Before the trip I did not realize that so many Greyhound riders were at one time prisoners or drug attics. Besides the blizzard in North Dakota the trip was pretty uneventful. Oh wait there was a guy in Montana who was forcibly taken off the bus by Montana State police officers for being drunk and arguing with the driver. But don't worry he found a taxi and met us at the next stop when the bus drivers changed. Great! And one last thing.. Greyhound lost Dave's one and only bag full of clothing & essential gear. No big deal Dave doesn't need clothes to climb mountains, snowshoe in sub zero weather or camp in the cold North West mountain nights. Nope he can do it all with the clothes he wore for 53 hours straight on the bus trip.. that is according to Greyhound. The greyhound employees said if the bag did not turn up in 90 days they would reimburse him. Now all we had to do was wait 90 days and keep trying the baggage claim phone number which apparently was fake and didn't exist.

Welcome to the Beautiful NorthWestern United States.

Downtown Seattle as the sun rises

Dave in front of the Needle Tower.
He was shocked by the $20 ticket price.

Once arriving in Seattle we set out to explore - Puget Sound, Space Needle & Starbucks of course. Since Greyhound lost Dave's suitcase we had to find a Walmart & REI to protect him from the elements and his newly acquired smell. In an frantic attempt to recover my fitness I ran 30 horrific minutes on the treadmill in the Best Western Tacoma Dome Hotel in Tacoma, WA. That night we ordered a Domino's pizza to the room and the pizza deliver boy had a thing for Dave. Saturday morning was the official start of the Santa Runs Tacoma 5k! My preparation was horrid at best - 53 straight hours on a Greyhound bus with 4 days of NO running or sleeping or standing or feeling good or eating healthy or enjoying life in general. Another thing I should mention is that I don't have racing flats since they are a luxury these days so I raced in my heavy trainers. Unfortunately, Dave, who paid the registration fee could not compete because Greyhound had still not found the bag with his running clothes and running shoes. His options were to race in his steel toe boots or what he ended up doing which was watching as a spectator. Thank you Greyhound, and yes we are still waiting for that bag!

Start of the 2010 Santa Runs Tacoma 5k.
I love the adventurous & athletic spirit of the North West.

Dave took this beautiful shot of the Puget Sound.
In the middle is a row team practicing on a beautiful Saturday morning.
The race closely followed the Sound the entire way.

Race day was rainy, wet, cloudy but atleast we were outside in the fresh air. First 800 m was interesting as I battled my way through kids, grandparents, and a santa clause as I did register as an ELITE athlete, who starts near the front. After the initial 800m and the adrenaline wore off I wanted to die. Cramps from not running or eating in 4 days took over as did the cold chill of running alongside the Puget Sound. Even with all of that I was still in 2nd place at the 1.5 mile mark. There were mile markers but no one telling splits which doesnt help because I refuse to wear a watch while running. Running blind. The guy in the lead looked back at me and the guy next me and took off. He must of put 30 seconds on me from 1.5m to 2.5m. After that guy next to me faded, I started to recover and finished 2nd in 15:28. Last year the winner was 15:50 and this year the guy who won ran 15:01. I was disappointed with not winning but happy that I mustered out a 15:28 under the circumstances and was even happier when I met Allie the Bernese Mountain Dog post-race! How I missed my Berner CHLOE.

Me finishing the last 200m of the 5k.
2nd Place in 15:28.

Post-race kisses from Aliy the Tacoma Bernese Mountain Dog.

After the race my brother and I walked back to the hotel and drove out to Olympic National Park. Unfortunately Hurricane Ridge, where we planned to snowshoe and camp, was CLOSED due to 50mph winds and white out conditions. It sucks coming all the way from NC and finding out it was closed but that is what happens when you play in the mountains. After talking with some NPS rangers we decided to head over to Mt Storm King near Lake Crescent to hike and look at some old growth forest. Soon night was upon us and we decided to drive all the way back to Tacoma in order to get an early start at Mt. Rainier.

Olympic National Park Welcome Center in Port Angeles, WA.
This road leads to Hurricane Ridge, which was closed.

Dave relaxing near Ranger Station at Mount Storm King.
Moments before our brief night hike.

Crescent Lake in Olympic National Park.
Typical weather of cold, cloudy, quiet & beautiful.

On Sunday our luck had taken a change for the better. We made it to Paradise Visitor Center in Mount Rainier National Park on a cloudless morning! Immediately we broke out the snowshoes and headed out into the backcountry. After hours of forcing our way up steep, untrammeled snow we stopped for lunch near Camp Muir. The wind was so strong and so cold I nearly had frostbite after taking my glove of to snap some pictures. We enjoyed a rice and chicken backcountry meal on top of the Mt Rainier glacier fields. Interestingly enough we met two groups of people on top who provided us with travel tips for our next excursion into Bellingham and Mt Baker. Dave, who was tired and ready to kill me convinced me to head back for some coffee at the visitor lodge. On our way out of the park we saw two arctic foxes, one orange and one black. They were shivering like mad and the orange one tried to jump into our car through the passenger window. The second surprise on the way down was that our butane canister had a puncture and was leaking into our closed car. After choking and realizing something was wrong I pitched the canister into a NPS dumpster. Crises averted.

Dave at the Entrance to Mount Rainier National Park.
Confident that oncoming traffic does not scare him, Dave embraces the moment.
After much travel we finally can SNOWSHOE!

Dave patiently awaiting a Backcountry Gourmet meal of rice and chicken.
Moments before he threatened my life if we did not stop & eat.
Notice - Dave did not help cook, just eat. He never left that spot.

Glacier Fields of Mt. Rainier ~ 10,000 Ft

Dave ascending the Mount Rainier Glacier Fields.
Clouds were forming and dissipating here at 10,000 feet.
Definitely the best part of the trip.

Mount Rainier National Park road Video

The ride to Bellingham was long and dark but we did manage to pick up Dave's lost bag at the Greyhound station. What a great surprise for Dave who lost pretty much of all of the clothes he owned. Fresh clothes brought a recharge of energy and we powered into Bellingham and spent the night at a local hotel. Monday morning started with the continental breakfast and a trip to downtown Bellingham. Immediately we found the Bellingham Port and signs for ALASKA! It was very tempting. Instead Dave saw and touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time in his life while I tasted the Pacific Ocean for the first time. The drive to Mount Baker is exactly 55 miles on the Mt Baker Highway or more commonly known as Route 542. It is a beautiful drive, once past the hitchhikers aka local kids who don't have a ride to the Mt Baker Ski area, through huge, thick, dense evergreen forests. Though I picked up some tire chains outside of Olympic NP and road signs advised their use, we never had to use them. Our economy car from the Seattle Enterprise did just fine in the snowy, icy alpine passes.

One of the Arctic Foxes we saw leaving Mt. Rainier.
In the car, I was telling Dave how we hadn't seen any wildlife yet.

Me trying to figure out a way to get to Alaska.
I knew if I did I would not come back.

Mt. Baker Ski Area in blizzard like conditions.

Our plan was to snowshoe to Artist Point and then hit the ski slopes for what time we had left before 3:30pm when the Mt Baker Ski Area closes for the night. The backcountry ski area is not marked well and we spent the first hour snowshoeing on the opposite end of the ski area. Finally, we talked to a local lady who pointed us in the right direction. By then it was close to 11am and we would never make it to Artist Point and ski. Instead (mistakingly) we headed into the backcountry of the Mount Baker National Forest / Wilderness. Signs for and of avalanches were everywhere. We had no SPOT or emergency beacon and it was probably unsafe at best. There were several groups of snowshoers out there so we felt comfortable enough with that. Snow here was much different than Mt Rainier. It was wet, soft, and very deep. Immediately I was soaked through my layers and waist deep in snow. Dave hit his stride with his ice crampons while I struggled with my wooden Alaskan snowshoe (no ice crampon - grip). Like all of our snowshoe adventures we headed up the closest steep mountain. I spent a good part of an hour stuck in waist deep snow, trying my best to not fall into a snow covered crevasse. Dave was triumphantly marching up the mountain and taunting me when he recovered his breath. The tables had turned but I have not met a mountain which I could not climb up so I buckled down, climbed, spit, crawled, elbowed, and kicked my way up to him. Seeing that everywhere we could go was prone to avalanches we decided to head back and ski.

Mt Baker National Forest & North Cascades National Park Visitor Center.
This was the only visitor center open in the winter but it was CLOSED on Sunday.
We never made it officially into North Cascades.

Backcountry Snowshoeing in Mt. Baker Wilderness
So peaceful and quiet.

Dave extremely excited to be done snowshoeing and begin snowboarding.
He led the charge in the Mt Baker Wilderness / Avalanche Area.

After spending so much time in the backcountry it was weird to be back amongst thousands of people on the Mt Baker Ski slopes. Dave spent much of the afternoon on his butt or adjusting his snowboard. I quickly became frustrated and headed off alone to ski. The ski lifts were like roller coasters winding way, way up the mountain side. Not something for anyone with a fear of heights. After spending $150 to ski and snowboard (dave) it didnt feel the same. To pay $150 to do something less exciting than what we had just done for free. A sense of regret filled me and tainted the experience which was not helped when I lost my lift tag, was questioned for 30min by ski patrol and ultimately ended with me getting ride from a cool old mountain ski rescue guy (with handlebar mustache) to the other side of the mountain. We chatted about the resort, mountain biking, and I learned about a new ski that has grips so you can climb up and ski down any mountain rather quickly! Dave and I met up (he went through a similar ordeal of being on the opposite side of the mountain with 10 min before the lifts closed) at 3:30 and headed back down old Rt 542 back to Bellingham for the night.

The infamous Boundary Bay Brewery in downtown Bellingham, WA.
I was too tired for a beer but the food and cider were amazing.

Taking the advice of that couple from Mt. Rainier we had dinner at the famous Boundary Bay Brewing Co in downtown Bellingham. True to its word the place was amazing. Popular with the locals, we ended up waiting 45 min to get a table which sucked since we hadn't eaten since noon and spent thousands of calories snowshoeing and skiing. Luckily they had free, local hot apple cider. I recommend this place for anyone who is closeby. After dinner we hurried back to the hotel and slept soundly till the alarm at 6:30 am on Tuesday. The drive back to Seattle was sunny and quick. We returned the rental car, walked around the Seattle Market and said goodbye to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

Me in front of a totem pole on the Puget Sound in downtown Seattle, WA.
The North West is known for its indian heritage.

Greyhound bus station in Seattle, WA.
Place where we began and ended our Washington trip.
Also where Dave's clothes were returned to him safe and sound.

On the bus in Washington speeding towards Spokane.
Eastern portion of Seattle, WA.

We mistakenly believed our adventure was over, but it was just beginning. Our Greyhound bust was scheduled to leave Seattle at 11:30 am, Tuesday, Dec 21st and arrive in Cleveland at 9:00 pm, Thursday, Dec 23rd or Christmas Eve Eve. The trip out was great and we expected to be home just in time for some family time and Christmas Eve. Greyhound had other ideas. We made it from Seattle to Spokane to Billings, MT just fine. Our bus driver from Billings to Fargo, ND enjoyed smoke breaks and we arrived 1.5 hour behind schedule. Luckily our bus driver from Fargo to Minneapolis, MN knew we were late, floored it, and recovered 1.45 hours. Over the loud speaker he announced that he was sorry we could not make up the full 1.5 hours and would arrive 10 minutes behind to Minneapolis. Previously we had been 1-2 hours behind schedule and Greyhound had flawlessly keep us on schedule through blizzards. Now we were 15 min behind and the next bus driver left without us. Our current bus driver warned us that this particular driver was egotistical and would not wait 30 seconds let alone 10 minutes. From here on out we spent hours and hours at greyhound stations through Iowa and Illinois. After being rerouted to Des Moines, IA we finally caught an express I repeat EXPRESS (no stops) bus from Des Moines to Chicago. Our bus driver started by not knowing how to take tickets, spent 30 min trying to find 2 people who didnt give her tickets, yelled at a blind man to get out of her way, spent 45 min adjusting the volume on the dvd player, had to get assistance on how to shift the bus into reverse, hit a tree, took us out of our way 20 min to drop off a guy who (allowed by her) boarded the wrong bus, stalled out every time she accelerated and frankly should never drive a bus again, caused us to miss our connection from Chicago to Cleveland. At this point all you could do was laugh. We had been on the bus for 48 hours at the point, no food, shower, room, fresh air but plenty of prison stories, drug stories, and incest stories. We arrived in Chicago at 6pm on Thursday December 23rd (close to when we should have been arriving home in Cleveland) to find the next bus to Cleveland left at 3:30 am and would take 9 hours. Since we had not eaten in days I sprinted through downtown Chicago, through Union Station into McDonalds for some double cheeseburgers and fries for Dave and I. After consuming what felt like a 10,000 calorie dinner I spent the night sleeping on the floor of the Chicago Greyhound station.

Dave in Union Station.
Hungry and looking for food while taking in the beautiful architecture.

Meanwhile Dave stood in line for 5 hours and informed me at 2 AM that a local Chicago penitentiary had unloaded its holiday prisoners into the Greyhound station for travel home. Almost all of them were heading back to Cleveland with US... I was fortunate to find a nice young lady to sit with while Dave tried his luck at the back of the bus. A typical prisoner, greyhound greeting of "boy you better watch your ass" was provided to him by the prisoner who was not excited about Dave being his bus partner. At this point Dave had exhausted his ipod batteries and his happy place. Finally we made it to Cleveland around 10:30 am where Dad picked us up and took us home for some much needed rest and food. We would spend the next 3 days recapping the story to interested family members who thought we were out of our mind. Dave and I had a very enriching, cultural experience on those Greyhound buses and we were introduced to life in the Midwest and North Western United States. We experienced one of life's great lessons, one introduced to me long ago, that the adventure doesn't begin until everything goes wrong!

Me taking in every second of Mt Rainier & this amazing trip.

Originally from Strongsville, OH, I spent 8 years in Raleigh, North Carolina and have since recently moved to Missoula, MT. I have been a runner all my life and have recently started pursuing ultra marathons. Any excuse to be outside and on the trails.