Follow my progress: See SPOT messages displayed on a map.
Update: I hope to hike the entire trail rather than the southern 2/3rds.
Over the last several years, as Liz and I have gotten older, we have been working on our Bucket List items.
Jim retires by 50 years of age — check
Jim and Liz bird Newfoundland seabird colonies — check
Jim and Liz visit Missouri Botanical Gardens — check
Jim and Liz bird the Alaska Marine Ferry to at least Juneau — check
Jim and Liz hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back — check
Jim finishes the John Muir Trail (JMT)
We are getting close to the end of the list. Sure, some items have been forgotten and others will be added, but “Jim finishes the John Muir Trail” is next up.
The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a popular trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California that runs through some of the most scenic terrain in the United States. The trail was named to honor John Muir, a preeminent, late 19th century conservationist who was a driving force behind establishing Yosemite National Park and other conservation areas in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an effort that resulted in establishment the “Sierra” Club. Planning for the trail began in the 1900s, and construction began in 1915, the year after Muir’s death.
Completed in 1938, the John Muir Trail runs from the bottom of Yosemite Valley (Happy Isles; 4,100 ft elevation) north to Tuolumne Meadows (8,600 ft elevation; where John Muir first learned to love these mountains), and then south through high country (35% of the trail is over 10,000 feet elevation) to the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,505 ft elevation; highest point in the continental United States). The trail was originally 212 miles, but rerouting over the years has added a few miles, so now it seems to be 214 based on GPS tracks with careful editing using Google Earth images. In addition, the trail technically ends atop Mt. Whitney, and hikers still need to hike at least 11 miles farther to reach civilization, so as a technical matter, hikers doing the entire trail need to hike 225 miles.
The bucket-list item reads “Jim finishes the John Muir Trail” — that implies Jim tried but didn’t finish before?
Well, not exactly. In 1973 when I was 15, between my freshmen and sophomore years in high school, I hiked with a high school friend named Tom (last name lost to history) from Rock Creek to Yosemite Valley, a total of about 102 miles in 30 days, and about 88 miles on the JMT.
The following year, in 1974 at age 16, between my high school sophomore and junior years, I hiked with Steve Ponting (another high school friend) from Kings Canyon to Rock Creek (113 miles). I then walked back into the wilderness alone and hiked farther north to Reds Meadow (43 miles), a total of 156 miles in 32 days, and about 111 miles on the JMT.
So, in those two years, I did about 199 miles on the JMT, but there was some overlap, so I’ve only done a total of 171 JMT miles. The entire trail is 214, so I’ve not walked on 43 miles of the JMT.
Actually, it isn’t quite that simple, as I’ve hiked several times on parts of the JMT. In 2008, I hiked with Liz and my sister and her family from Mammoth to Tuolumne Meadows (about 35 miles), and during several years Liz and I hiked various routes from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley (25-35 miles each). In 2005, we did the traditional JMT route from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Valley. Thus, in total I’ve walked about 300 JMT miles, but those 43 un-walked miles still hang on me.
After hiking during my high-school summers of 1973 and 1974, life got busy (working in the mountains of northern Idaho; 1975 and 1976) and I drifted into other endeavors (e.g., climbing the big walls in Yosemite; 1977; hiking in northern Alaska 1978), but I’ve always planned to go back to the Sierras and finish the southern 43 miles of the JMT. I’ve thought about thru-hiking the entire trail, I’ve thought about just doing the minimal 43-mile section, and I’ve thought about doing it all again in sections.
This summer, I’m hiking the entire trail from a bit south of Mt. Whitney to Yosemite Valley (242 miles).
Hiking from south to north, the trail starts over Mt. Whitney, but it is very difficult to get permits for that section, so I’ll start at the next trailhead south where it is easy to get walk-up permits. Permits for these mountains are “entry permits,” so once a hiker enters, they can go more-or-less anywhere for as long as they want, and that is my plan.
I’ll leave during the third week of August, entering west of Lone Pine, California, at the Cottonwood Pass Trailhead. From there, I’ll head north about 20 miles to meet the JMT near Crabtree Meadows and climb Mt. Whitney (14,500 ft) from the west side as a day-hike. This will be my second ascent of our highest mountain (first in 2002), but the first from the west side.
From the summit of Mt. Whitney, I’ll turn around and hike north 43 miles to Woods Creek, the point where I joined the JMT in 1974 (starting from Kings Canyon). I’ll then continue north 86 miles to Mono Creek, the point where I joined the JMT in 1973. From there, I’ll keep hiking north to Reds Meadows, another 28 miles, to where I ended in 1974. Continuing north, I walk another 60 miles all the way to Yosemite Valley, completing the entire JMT in one run — but we’ll see how it goes
I’ll be carrying a SPOT device, which allows me use the satellite phone system to send geo-referenced pre-recorded messages from the trail. Visitors can follow my progress by opening my SPOT webpage where messages will be displayed on a map. I hope to start hiking slowly until I get my mountain lungs and legs, then pick up the pace — I’ll need to average about 10 miles per day to reach Yosemite Valley in 24 days.
Up early with Liz who dropped me at the airport about 3:30 for a 6:00 am flight. The flight to Denver was uneventful, but it was nice seeing my territory from the air. We even flew over Gold Butte and I got photos of the Colorado River delta at Lake Mead.
In Denver, the flight to DC was delayed about 2 hours. I spent about one of those hours hiking a loop on our concourse. Departing Denver, the land was different and I couldn’t figure out where we were. I got lots of landscape photos, but the Mississippi River was the only one where I recognized features on the ground.
In DC, I bought a card and took the metro to near the hotel. Unfortunately, there were several exits from the subway, and I took the one that gave me the longest walk. At least I got to see some of Chinatown.
I found the hotel, Courtyard Marriott at F and 9th and got checked in. The day had seemed long and draining, even though I’d done nothing, but perhaps the 2:45 wake up was getting to me. In the room, I relaxed a few minutes, then did a FaceBook check-in to let the world know I’d arrived. To my surprise, Annette Magnus responded to my post with a “come downstairs and meet me for dinner.” No to pass up an offer like that, we had a great chance to chat and catch up on what we’d been doing back in Las Vegas and some information about what we’d be doing here.
Back in the room, I did more social media, cleared out the email, read a bit, and hit the sack about 10:00 pm. It was getting late here, but that was on 7:00 pm “brain” time, but even so I conked out for the duration.
June 15, Wednesday — Washington DC
I decided to skip breakfast so I could sleep an extra hour and got up about 7:30 am. By 8:00 am I was out the door and heading to the Pew offices just around the corner. It was convenient that they put us up in an adjoining building.
The morning meeting was a pep talk and rehearsals for the day ahead, and although they had coffee, there were no snacks, so I struck out on my skipping breakfast gamble.
After the meetings, we piled into two cabs and headed to the Dirkson Senate Building. First things first, we got lunch in the basement (philly cheese steak), then headed upstairs to Senator Heller’s office.
After a polite wait, Jeremy Harrell took us into a meeting room where we had an interesting discussion about northern Nevada land bills (the Senator is moving them along) and Gold Butte. The Senator is opposed to designation as a National Monument, but is interested in a second Clark County Lands Bill. We shall see how things go. But anyways, I went away thinking that Heller isn’t really the devil I make him out to be.
From Heller’s office, our contingent walked across the street to the Capitol Building where, after several layers of security, we go into Senator Reid’s office. We were met by Sara and Timothy and had a nice chat, then the Senator came in and spent about 3 minutes apologizing for why he couldn’t meet with us. We finished the meeting with Sara.
Four of us spent about an hour walking on the National Mall and visiting the Botanical Garden.
Back to Dirkson for a 2-hour reception. Nice chance to chat with lots of people working on lots of different land campaigns. Highlights included the VetsVoices guys (Steve and Garrett) and the GB Working Group voices I head on the weekly phone conversations.
Back to the hotel for writing and social media, then to bed late at about 11:15 pm. At least I’m sleeping in until 8:00 am.
June 16, Thursday — Washington DC
Breakfast with the crew, then off to Dina Titus’ office (Titus and Ben Rosenbaum). We had a nice chat and she said there was a chance the monument would be paired with Stonewall and declared within a month. That would be exciting. Titus seemed tired.
From there, we took a cab to CEQ across the street from the White House. Good meeting with Sally Hardin (Michael Degnan couldn’t make it), but not remarkable. Photos in front of the White House.
Walked a few blocks to the DOI building. Got there early and stopped for lunch. I didn’t eat, but the AC was nice on a hot, humid day.
We had a 1-hour delay, so we walked to the Washington Monument and back. The DOI building looked old and tired, and the restroom felt like an old visitor center restroom. Good meeting with Nikki Buffa, but she suggested Gold Butte might be set aside due to fears of armed insurrection (not another Malheur Sec. Jewel says). Nikki was interested in the northern boundary issue, but suggested that I needed to chat with Reid’s office (Carrie set up the meeting for tomorrow).
After the meetings, we returned to the hotel and left our bags, then Patrick and I went to the National Museum of the American Indian. It was an interesting cultural experience to visit the museum with a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo. Patrick showed me around exhibits of his people. He was so excited to share, and I was so eager to learn.
Took cab to Vietnam Veterans Memorial and walked a bit. Brought back powerful emotions from when I was a young man. We took a long walk on the mall, then cabbed back to the hotel.
Dinner alone in the hotel restaurant, then social media and to bed late.
June 17, Friday — Washington DC to Las Vegas
Had a hard time sleeping. Stayed awake thinking about the meeting in the morning. Got enough sleep in parts, and could have stayed up at 5 am, but got up about 8:30 am. Breakfast at the hotel buffet, then checked out about 10:00 am leaving $10 in the room.
I walked a bit more than a mile to the Hart Senate Building. It was warm and humid outside, but the morning was fresh and it was nice to walk, get some exercise, and see the people (first obviously homeless people), birds (mostly robins, starlings, and house sparrows), and Eastern Gray Squirrels (seemed to be a lot of Sciurids out this morning. It had rained overnight, so there was wetness in places, and that added to the humidity.
I arrived at the Hart Senate Office Building about 10:30 am. Thought about relaxing outside, but decided to cool off and dry out inside. Met Sara Moffit and Thomas (Tim? the BLM intern) in Reid’s office (#522) at 11:00 am and talked about map issues regarding the northern boundary. I wanted to make sure they knew about the Mud Spire area and how that would make a nice site for the Visitor Center, but willing to compromise in other areas. Matching boundaries with Parashant make some sense, and I really don’t want to give away the Bunkerville Ridge area. It sounds like DOI is really afraid of antagonizing Bundy, and Reid may have to give a little to keep a lot. DOI is talking about pulling the boundary back to Whitney Pocket, which would be a real tragedy, but Sara says this is just the first whack at the ball and Reid will try to get it all if he can.
Sara also said that Reid had tried to get “garden valley” twice before in the 2000 and 2006 Lincoln County bills, but it didn’ts work that time. This gives data points to the story that Basin and Range didn’t come out of nowhere. There was 15 years of work put into the project, but I still wonder why the conservation community didn’t rally the first two times.
After the meeting, I walked over to the capital and got a few photos with the Gold Butte sign, then walked all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.
Along the way, I toured the Botanical Gardens again. It is such a cool place (actually hot and very humid) with Gray Catbirds, Red-wing Blackbirds, and Song sparrows inside. The cactus section was closed for roof repairs, which is disappointing because I wanted to use the Gold Butte sign with the cactus. I did get some nice orchid and other photos for Liz. Maybe it is time to visit Washington again.
Walked up to the Washington Monument, then on down to the WWII memorial. It was interesting, but without the features I expected (no tanks). There was a nice pond with fountains, lots of stars, and a pillar for each state and territory.
Continued along the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. Stopped about where MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. For such a powerful place, it was interesting that there was no marker in the flagstones memorializing the event. I’ll have to pay more attention to photos from the event to see exactly where he stood (on his platform). Sitting on the plane next to a Black lady and an Asian lady, I think about how far we’ve come — yet how far we have to go.
Inside the memorial I was one of hundreds of people taking photos and contemplating the events that led to this memorial. I started to read the 2nd inaugural speech on the wall, but decided I needed to get going. There are a lot of steep steps up to the memorial, and as I was leaving, an elderly man was taking his last, wavering, step upwards. I offered him a hand to steady his last step, but he smiled and wanted to do it on his own. I guess it was an event for him too. He was dark skinned and I didn’t think black, but maybe so.
From there, I hustled back up the Mall, following along the shaded walk on the other side of the Reflecting Pool. I stopped to set off SPOT between the Reflecting Pool and the WWII memorial, then hiked on to near the Smithsonian. There I detoured right and walk out Independence Ave to 7th, then down to the L’Enfant Plaza to catch the subway to the airport. I had hiked pretty hard and was soaked in sweat by the time I got to the subway.
I found my way to the subway with the kindness of strangers, and after getting off the train, I gave my left-over card with $5.60 left on it to the ticketing guy who was helping tourists buy tickets. I asked him to give it to someone who needed it, perhaps a single mother or a vet, and he suggested a homeless person. I got the impression that I wasn’t the first to give away my card before departing, but that it was an uncommon event. The ticket agent seemed surprised and delighted to have it.
The airport was really crowded, so I’m glad a saved one last clean shirt for the trip home. Everything worked out and the flight departed on time for Charlotte, which was only 45 minutes away, but took twice that long just because of taxi out and taxi in time.
Charlotte was much more peaceful, and we departed there on time too. We chased the setting sun all the way to the middle of Arkansas, and even now more than an hour farther west (western Oklahoma [got tracks]), we still have a grand glow of orange on the horizon as we are passing what looks like a great salt flat with a small lake; I wonder is this is the place we visited at the Prairie Chicken Festival.
We are now in the northeast corner NM and we still have sunset orange in the northwest sky (other side of the plane). Out my window, it is essentially dark with lots of lights on the ground in places but not here. We also have a nearly full moon tonight. A bit farther along, I can see the lights of ABQ in the distance coming out from behind the Sandia Crest,
April 27, Wednesday — Train from England to Germany
We had an early train and needed to be at the train station a bit before 6 am. The train station was not far from the flat, but we needed to catch a bus to the subway, then the subway to the train station without error to get there on time. To help us on our way, Cathy got up early and rode with us to the train station to ensure we got there on time. It turned out that the bus would be late, so we walked to the subway. Cathy stayed until we headed into security and customs, then she waved us off on our way to Germany and was gone.
Our EuroStar train departed from the London St. Pancras International Train Station at 06:50 hrs. We made it through security, much like an American airport except you keep your shoes on, and through French customs (what happened to open EU borders?) where I got a serious pat-down.
We switched trains 3 times, always making the connection, but all were fairly tight. It is a good thing the stations were compact and the schedules are good. On the first leg, we sat in a 6-seat isolated compartment that felt like a fishbowl; I wondered what the other passengers thought as they walked past to take their regular seats. At one stop (there were few), a German guy got on and came in with us. He was friendly enough, but it was easy to see that he wanted a quiet compartment to sleep.
From London, we headed southeast towards Dover, where we’d been before, but on a slightly different route. At some point, I decided to take photos of the countryside before we descended into the Chunnel (the tunnel under the English Channel). I shot one, then we went into a tunnel as we had done before to cross under rivers. However, after several minutes, we realized that we were inside the Chunnel, and after about 20 minutes, we emerged into the sunlight on the rolling plains of coastal France.
From London, it took about 2-1/2 hours to get to Brussels, Belgium, and the day had gone from sunny to heavy clouds and cold. In Brussels, we had 15 minutes to find our next train, and fortunately it was fairly easy to find our way.
Departing Brussels towards Köln, Germany, the weather went from cloudy to rainy, to snowing. It was unseasonably cold in all of western Europe — the climate is changing here too. It took 2-1/4 hours to get to Köln and when we could, the engineer didn’t waste any time. The fastest speed I noticed on the GPS was 143 mph, but it recorded speeds to 192 mph in France (many miles in the 180+ range) and 196 mph in Belgium. In Germany, the train didn’t go faster than 120 mph, and most of the trip was below 100 mph.
In Köln, we had a relaxing 30 minutes to catch the next train, but not speaking the language, we hustled through the station and got on the next train as soon as it arrived. From there, the route turned more northeast and ran 3 hours to Hanover, Germany.
By the time we got to Hanover, we had figured out the patterns on our German-language train ticket, finding the proper trains, the proper cars, and the proper seats. However, in Hanover, we apparently switched from the continental trail system to the commuter train system, and the text on our ticket made no sense this time — and we only had 20 minutes to figure it out. We checked the signs and got to where we thought we were going, but we weren’t sure. We asked a few fellow passengers if they spoke English (none did) or if they could read our ticket and help (none could).
While Liz and I were fretting about where to go, I noticed one of the men I’d asked staring at us. When he caught my eye, he pointed vigorously towards a woman standing nearby. I wasn’t sure what he intended, but as I moved towards the woman he grinned in approval. I asked her if she spoke English, and she said only a little, and I showed her my ticket. She looked it over and said “Yes, this is my train; follow me when I get on.” When the train approached, she looked over to make sure we were paying attention, then she stepped on while looking back at us.
We got on the train, which was crowed with commuters, found seats, and started looking at route information inside the train. The train left the station and before too long the same lady came walking by — checking everyone’s ticket. She was the conductor! When she said “This is my train,” she really meant it.
The train made several stop on the way north towards Walsrode (vals-ROW-day). On this slower train, we had better opportunity to see birds, and the birds of the day were White Storks foraging in a farm field. When we arrived in Walsrode, Anita and Jürgen were waiting for us on the landing and Anita was so excited when she saw us get off–it was quite a warm welcome.
Walsrode is a town of about 25,000 people with roots dating to before 986 AD. Much of the old city structures were destroyed during the 30-years War (1626) and a big fire (1757), but some older structures remain. The city is surrounded by forest and agricultural lands, and Anita and Jürgen live about 15 minutes west of town in the village of Hamwiede (Hum-VEE-day).
We saw few birds along the way, but we did see five White Storks in a field. Anita and met us at the train station in Walsrode and took us to their home in the village of Hamwiede.
The house is great, a converted 180-year-old barn, and they feed the birds! An ancient apple tree in the backyard is slowly dying – with a rotten trunk where the birds fly in for food and cover. We got to see Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Bullfinch, and European Greenfinch right out the window. Three cats live with Anita and Jürgen; the princess Paulina, Emma, and young Footsie.
April 28, Thursday — Hiking in the Local Moor
Anita and Jürgen took us for a nice, 3-km walk around the local moor, Grundloses Moor, an area of peat bogs and lakes. The area was entirely peat bog, but they mined the peat for fuel in the old days, and the areas where they removed peat became ponds. The peat probably is reforming on the bottom and edges, but in the mean time, the landscape provides a nice mix of timber, boggy flats, ponds, and one larger lake, Grundloser See that is a residual ice age lake.
It was pretty cold, but we had a nice mix of sun and light rain, and it only snowed a bit. We saw several species of birds, but didn’t really take the time to birdwatch. With her bionic ears, Liz located the best bird of the day: Eurasian Treecreeper. Other new birds we recorded were: 10 Willow Warbler, Common Chaffinch, Common Wood-Pigeon. We also saw 15 Barn Swallow, 3 Green-winged Teal, and 1 Mallard, all of which are the same species we have in North America.
We liked the creative “symbol signs” along the trail (and elsewhere along our travels). One here showed a squirrel with a flaming tail, which we interpret to mean “don’t light squirrel tails on fire,” but the inscription read ‘Waldbrandgefahr,’ which means “forest fire hazard.”
Back at the house, the bird feeder entertained us endlessly: 2 Common Wood-Pigeon, 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 2 Coal Tit, 5 Eurasian Blue Tit, 5 Great Tit, 1 Eurasian Nuthatch, 3 Eurasian Blackbird, 2 Eurasian Bullfinch, 2 Hawfinch, 2 Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
April 29, Friday — Hamwiede and Walsrode
After a great breakfast, Liz and I walked around the village (Hamwiede) for two hours and had mixed sun (warm) and clouds (clouds and wind). The habitat was a diverse mix of farm fields and woods, and the birding turned out to be pretty good. We saw lots of species, including: Eurasian Marsh-Harrier 1, Eurasian Sparrowhawk 1, Common Buzzard 2, Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Barn Swallow, Eurasian Blue Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Eurasian Wren, Willow Warbler, Eurasian Blackcap, European Robin, Eurasian Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, European Starling, Dunnock, and White Wagtail.
Later, Anita took us to the main town (Walsrode) so she could mail out some work that she’d finished up. After visiting the post office (inside a hardware store like is often the case in the US), she took us on a tour of town that included walking around the historic parts of town, an urban park, and in a wooded park with lakes. The day remained cool, breezy, and partly cloudy with some drizzling rain.
The bird list for the trip included: Graylag Goose, Gray Heron, Eurasian Coot, Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), Common Wood-Pigeon, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Common Chiffchaff, Eurasian Blackcap, Eurasian Blackbird, European Starling, White Wagtail, Common Chaffinch, Eurasian Bullfinch, European Greenfinch, Hawfinch, House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
April 30, Saturday — Harz Mountains in the former East Germany
Today is May Day Eve (Walpurgisnacht, May Eve), so May Day celebrations started today. We made a long day of it and drove about 140 mi to the Harz Mountains in the former East Germany where we made two main stops. The first stop was at the cross-roads town of Torfhaus (ski resort area) where we walked around a bit but mostly had a look at the former Soviet radar instillation atop the highest peak: Brocken Mountain (now a resort hotel). The second stop was in the town of Schierke where we attended a Renaissance Festival featuring the Medieval period costume, crafts, games, music, and foods. Also, peculiar to this region, the witches and devils came out — making great fun for everyone.
We departed Hamwiede heading south on the Autobahn where, traffic permitting, Jürgen drove at about 90 mph to keep up with mid-paced traffic. We passed trucks, but we were passed by lots of vehicles traveling very fast.
We eventually got off the Autobahn and took regular highways into the mountains. We passed through the historic town of Goslar, which was founded in the 10th century after the discovery of silver deposits in the nearby mountains. We didn’t stop, but some of old town remains, and about 50,000 people live here now.
We continued up into the mountain where at about 2,000-ft elevation, we started seeing snow along the road–winter had not yet released its grip on the land up here. In the forest, it was interesting to see large areas of conifer trees killed by bark beetles. Large outbreaks of these beetles in recent years is attributed to a warming climate that no longer freezes enough of the beetles during winter.
We stopped for a few minutes in Torfhous at the Visitor Center for Harz National Park where it was cold, partly cloudy, and breezy. We didn’t actually go inside, but we walked around a bit and looked at the outside exhibits. We also saw in the distance the former Soviet radar installation atop the highest peak in this part of Germany: Brocken Mountain. With powerful radar, the Soviets could look out over much of northern Germany from the summit. After unification, the radar facility was shuttered, and now it is a resort hotel with a weather station, natural history exhibition, and botanic garden with plants of the higher mountain regions. The whole area is a nature reserve, and we could have spent the day hiking to the summit, but decided instead to continue our journey.
We continued towards the village of Schierke and because we didn’t understand the signs, passed a memorial and crossed into the former East Germany (GDR) without realizing it. I’m not sure if something was lost in translation or if nothing was said because it was a traumatic reminder of family history for Anita and Jürgen when they were young. On the way home, however, we stopped on the west side of the former border for photos, but we learned later things that might explain why we didn’t stop the first time.
We eventually made it to Schierke where it was cold, calm, and overcast with some snow remaining in the shadows. Schierke is an ancient town, as these mountains have been inhabited by humans forever, although the first written records date from the late 1500s AD.
May-Day Eve (Walpurgisnacht), or simply May Eve (Walpurgis), is an important tradition in the Harz Mountains where the local culture celebrates a Halloween-like springtime event when witches and devils gather for the night in Schierke. Witches weren’t always celebrated here, and in 1589, the ecclesiastical authorities sentenced 133 so-called witches to death in an effort to end pagan traditions. Link to a detailed history of Walpurgisnacht, see: Season of the Witch: Walpurgisnacht in Germany’s Harz Mountains.
Today, Walpurgis in Schierke is a festival with medieval roots where witches and devils come to celebrate the expulsion of winter. According to old traditions, many witches gathered on the Brocken to dance and bring in the spring. In the layer cake of northern European mythology, Queen of the Witches: Frau Holle, is the main character. During song, we engaged in a traditional chant to encourage Holle to return and vanquish winter’s cold grip on the land.
For a village with witches-and-devils roots, it is interesting to note that the coat of arms for the city, granted in 1939, is the skull and antlers of a stag (elk) on a field of yellow.
Part of the modern Walpurgis celebration here is a full-blown Renaissance Festival featuring Medieval period costume, crafts, games, music, and foods. With a long ways to get home, we stayed until early evening, and as we were leaving, the witches and devils really started coming out — making great fun everywhere.
Schierker Feuerstein (Schierke Fire Rock), a herbal liqueur and digestive (35% alcohol) that was patented in 1924 by a local chemist, is now a celebrated item in the area. We each tried a bottle (20 ml [0.7 oz] Miniatures), and indeed, it was tasty, but one miniature bottle was enough. Link for details and ordering.
On the way home, we stopped on the west side of the former “internal German border” for photos. I ran back to the east-side monument, and Liz got out to see the west. It was interesting to realize later that neither Anita nor Jürgen got out of the car.
One final treat for the day, when almost home we saw 1 White Stork and 2 Gray Herons feeding together in a farm field.
May 1, Sunday — May Day Celebration
Nice trip around the area. We tried to participate in a May Day celebration in a local town, but they scheduled the May Pole raising for 2 PM and we left because we didn’t want to wait all day. We went to a living history museum in a nearby town that was also holding a May Day celebration. Liz was thrilled because the local spinning guild was there.
On the way home, we stopped and walked a short distance along a river where 4 CAGO were present and 2 Egyptian Geese were breeding (4 goslings). 3 E. Blackbird, 10 House Sparrow. Then, just coming into Hamwiede, we saw a couple of Eurasian Jays. At home, Anita fixed steak while Liz and I relaxed in the yard listening to bird songs that we didn’t know.
May 2, Monday — Hamwiede and Bennetzer Moor
A nice sunny day, Liz and I helped Jürgen clean out his pond. Mostly we watch, but we help where he gives a clue about that he is doing. His English vocabulary is extensive, but his accent is thick, and it can be hard to follow him. He does tell great stories about life on the sea.
Yard birds: 2 White Stork, 1 Common Buzzard, 5 Common Wood-Pigeon, 2 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 1 Eurasian Jay, 1 Eurasian Magpie, 3 Carrion Crow, 8 Barn Swallow, 5 Eurasian Blue Tit, 2 Great Tit, 1 Firecrest, 6 Eurasian Blackbird, 8 European Starling, 1 Dunnock, 2 White Wagtail, 5 Common Chaffinch, 2 Eurasian Bullfinch, 5 European Greenfinch, 5 Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
In the afternoon, when it was warm clear and calm, Anita took us to another moor area with big, open ponds: Hüttensee Park at Bennetzer Moor. We walked a several-kilometer loop around the biggest pond and saw lots of fun birds, including Graylag Goose and Canada Goose (both with fledglings), Mute Swans, and Common Shelduck. On the way home, we saw two White Storks feeding in a freshly plowed field and stopped to watch for a few minutes.
Birds of Bennetzer Moor: Graylag Goose 10 plus fledglings, Canada Goose 15 Plus fledglings, Mute Swan 20, Common Shelduck 4, Gadwall 2, Northern Shoveler 2, Red-crested Pochard 6, Tufted Duck 6, Common Goldeneye 4, Great Crested Grebe 6, Great Cormorant 20, Black-headed Gull 35, Black Tern 1, Common Wood-Pigeon 1, Eurasian Jay 2, Eurasian Magpie 1, Carrion Crow 3, Barn Swallow 3, Great Tit 1, Eurasian Reed-Warbler 1, European Robin 1, Eurasian Blackbird 8, European Starling 5, White Wagtail 1, Common Chaffinch 2, Eurasian Tree Sparrow 1.
May 3, Tuesday — Hamwiede
Liz and I slept late, still trying to overcome jetlag, and ate breakfast late. We stayed in as a storm with a fair bit of rain passed, and I got caught up on geotagging photos. Soon it was time for big lunch (dinner).
Liz and I eventually went for an afternoon walk from the house heading north and visited the town swimming hole, a nice sand-bottom sculpted depression with grassy edges and picnic tables with benches. During the walk, it was sunny, but a breeze brought cold temperatures. We saw some good birds, including Eurasian Kestrel kiting, a Buzzard, Common Swifts, a pair of Lesser Whitethroats, and two Black Redstart.
When we got home, we helped Jürgen with a project to replace an old canvas awning with a new one- a great patio cover.
The rain today might be the last of the trip, but the cold front brought cold air from the North Sea.
After dinner, we did laundry for a second time here and watched soccer (football) as Germany and Spain played a championship playoff game. Unfortunately, Germany won this match, but got eliminated from the payoffs.
Birds of the day: 1 goose sp., 2 Common Buzzard, 8 Common Wood-Pigeon, 2 Common Swift, 2 Great Spotted Woodpecker, 1 Eurasian Kestrel, 2 Eurasian Magpie, 5 Carrion Crow, 10 Barn Swallow, 2 Common House-Martin, 8 Eurasian Blue Tit, 4 Great Tit, 1 Firecrest, 2 Eurasian Blackcap, 2 Black Redstart, 12 Eurasian Blackbird, 8 European Starling, 5 White Wagtail, 2 Common Chaffinch, 2 Eurasian Bullfinch, 10 House Sparrow, 10 Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
May 4, Wednesday — Hamburg
Up and out fairly early today, Jürgen took us to a friends farm where they grow Spargel (asparagus), which is an important crop in the local area. Unfortunately, his friend was out and therefore not available for a tour of the operation, but Jürgen told us about it. He also showed us his friend’s pair of captive Eagle Owls that his friend maintained on the property because they couldn’t survive in the wild. The birds were beautiful, but the male had a bad eye. The female didn’t like us much, but her three nestlings didn’t seem to mind us.
Unfortunately, about a month after our visit, we learned that the female owl killed the male perhaps because of her protective instinct for the babies. It is sad, but maybe even a relatively good cage is against nature when one of the parents needs to escape from attacks of the other.
On the way back, Jürgen drove backroads through the woods looking for deer and hogs. We saw Roe Deer and Red Deer, and not Russian Boar. Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) are relatively small, reddish and grey-brown deer. Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), are larger and similar to our elk (or wapiti, C. canadensis). We saw both elsewhere, but not today.
After lunch, Anita took us north to Hamburg, about an hour drive from Hamwiede, for an overnight excursion to meet her daughter and see the city. On the way, we spotted 1 White Stork, 1 Eurasian Green Woodpecker, and 8 Hawfinch from the car.
Hamburg is also an old city, first mentioned in writing in the 2nd century by the Greeks, and is now the 2nd largest city in Germany (8th largest in the European Union) with a metropolitan-region population of about 5 million. Situated on the Elbe River (at the confluence with the smaller Alster River), Hamburg is the 2nd largest port in Europe–even though it is located some 60 miles from the North Sea–and is the largest deep-sea port in the region for container shipping. Hamburg is a major trading center and commercial center, and has become affluent as a result. This is evidenced in the wonderful and stylish architecture seen all over the port region.
Upon arrival, it was warm, clear, and calm, which was fortunate because we had to drive into the suburbs to find free parking, then took a train downtown to the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, busiest railway station in Germany. Walking out the back, we got on a tour bus (about $15 each) for a 2-hour tour of the city. We sat upstairs in the front of the bus where we got a great view, although it was sometimes hard to hear and understand the guide over city noise. Nonetheless, she did a pretty good job of switching between German and English.
The Alster River flows through town following scenic canals. Tour boats, long, narrow, and low, now ply these tidally influenced waters.
The Reeperbahn, the red-light district, it a tourist attraction during day, and watched over by staff in this Polizei (Police) station during night.
There is some really interesting architecture in Hamburg. The Dancing Towers, so called by city fathers, is located at one end of the Reeperbahn. The architect, however, called his structure something like: Prostitute Leaning Against the Wall. Other interesting buildings include the Philharmonic Hall (looks like a wave crashing on the shore), Dockland, a building that looks like a ship on the edge of the harbor, and the Kebab Tower, a building that resembles the rotating piece of meat on a skewer from which one cuts kebab.
After the tour, we retrieved the car and drove over to Karola and Caro’s flat located near the harbor. Karola is Anita’s daughter, but by marriage, Anita gets to have two delightful daughters. We found them to be gracious hosts, and they fixed a great lasagna for dinner, complemented by an excellent Spanish wine.
After dinner, Karola and Caro took us on an evening walking tour to the port area and then to the Planten un Blomen (Plants and Flowers) Park where during summer nights they do a fountain and lights show that is played live to recorded music. On our night, they did a classical piece. The show was reminiscent of the water fountains at the Bellagio Casino back home, but this show was performed live .
In our time driving and walking around Hamburg, we saw Graylag Goose, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Common Merganser, Great Crested Grebe, 15 Great Cormorant, Eurasian Coot, gull sp., Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), Eurasian Blackbird, and a rat.
May 5, Thursday — Hamburg
Without getting up too early, Karola and Caro fixed us a great breakfast, after which we all started off on a foot tour of the harbor. The day was warm, clear, and calm, and lucky for us traveling at this time of year, we happened onto another major cultural event: the annual “Port of Hamburg-Birthday.” This was a huge event and tens of thousands of people came to the harbor for the festivities.
Karola and Caro took us down to the harbor on foot with Karola keeping up a running commentary on everything we saw. Karola speaks very good English, only stopping to search for words now and then. She learned English in school and practiced in the U.S. two years ago when she and Caro came to the States on their honeymoon. They came through Las Vegas, but for some reason, they decided to stay in a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip rather than say on a stranger’s futon (after all, we are just her mother’s friends). They said, however, that when they come back to the States to visit Karola’s brother Bjorn, they won‘t book a hotel for Las Vegas and would be delighted to stay with us.
Caro also spoke some English, but she was bashful about speaking. She said she could understand what we were saying, but that she had trouble forming words in English. I can relate, my use of Spanish is similar: I can carry on a simple conversation in my mind, but when it comes to speaking, I just can’t get the words out. By the end of our second day with them, however, Caro was more comfortable with us and did talk with us.
At any rate, we walked down to the harbor, which was crowded with booths and people. Town, and thus the harbor, is situated along the Elbe River some 60 miles from the ocean, but there are several feet of tidal influence here. The city side of the harbor is mostly homes and business, while the far side is built up with huge container ship facilities and industrial buildings.
Knowing what the day would be like, Karola and Caro directed us onto the water taxi before the crowds got too bad, and Caro found out how to organize a cheap ticket for all 5 of us to ride the ship-on-ship-off loop. We rode down the harbor with some time to just watch the sights and some running commentary. The route for this taxi was down one side of the harbor and back up the other, so towards the far end of the loop, we got off to walk on a path below interesting historic homes and overlooking the river and the sandy Hamburg Beach. We walked out, then dropped down to the beach and walked back along the water.
We walked back to the taxi and continued our loop around the harbor area. Towards the far other end of the loop (near where we first got onboard), we got off again to walk along the harbor.
It had been interesting on the water taxi watching old ships moving up and down through the harbor area. The main event at Harbor Birthday is the boat parade, and it was getting close to starting time. The city side of the harbor was packed with people, and Karola thought that it might be better to escape to the other side, and she knew a good place to go.
On foot, we headed for the Elbe Tunnel. The tunnel used to be a roadway, but now it just handles foot and bicycle traffic, and on this day, there was a lot of traffic. I don’t care much for crowds, and being in a long, crowded tunnel under a river wasn’t my favorite place to be. It was interesting, however, that as with so much architecture in Europe, there was artwork built into the design, and I tried to focus on that while keeping pace with the flow of the crowd.
After coming out of the tunnel, it turned out a crowd had the same idea we had (get away from the crowd on the other side of the harbor), but Karola knew of yet another place. It was a long walk, but we eventually came out on a nice, sandy beach were we could sit and watch the parade. We didn’t get there any too soon, as the parade started within 10 minutes or so.
The parade started with a fire boat spraying water in every direction, and when the angle was right, we got a nice rainbow in the mist.
Following the fire boat, the real parade started with a massive, modern warship coming up the channel.
Up until that point, a large 3-masted sailing ship moored across the river had been blaring rather loud and raucous music that sounded rather eastern block to me. As the German warship moved up the river, much to my surprise, the 3-masted ship started firing cannons at the warship. The bombs burst in mid-air, and I’m not sure what it all meant, but it was a curious show. I learned later that the shots were in salute of the warship and in honor of the Harbor Birthday.
After that, the parade consisted of a curious mix of ancient (replica) and modern sailing ships, modern boats, and warships, and the grand finale was a historic cargo ship that was unbelievably huge.
After the giant ship passed by the main show was over, although lots of other ships were still coming up the river. Even so, we departed because Karola feared the huge crowd would all try to squeeze through the Elbe Tunnel at the same time. We weren’t the only people to think that, but it was nice to be out with people who knew the area.
We walked back to the flat, but not directly, and finished a grand day with new friends and ice cream.
While in town and on the water, we saw some nice birds, including: Graylag Goose, 3 Common Shelduck, Mallard, Great Crested Grebe, Great Cormorant, 1 European Shag, 1 Gray Heron, Eurasian Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Mew Gull, Herring Gull, Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Blue Tit, Eurasian Blackbird, House Sparrow.
We departed Hamburg, and because the days are so long at this northern latitude, we had sunlight to stop at one more point of interest along the way back to Hamwiede. Anita took a short detour to see an historic windmill in the town of Sprengel that was build around 1877. Everywhere you turn, there is history in the country.
May 6, Friday — Walsrode and Bremen
In the morning, Anita had a translation job to do at a wedding in Walsrode, so we went to town with her. While she worked, we birded a city park and walked around town.
In the park, we saw about a dozen Fieldfare, which was surprising because we saw none elsewhere during the trip. One Fieldfare was collecting mud to build a nest, but most were collecting worms and carrying them off into the trees to feed nestlings. It was interesting to learn that Fieldfare nest semi-communally, with individual nests in close proximity so that the community of adults can mount a group defense in response to predators.
After birding the park, we walked around town. Liz found a fabric stores to investigate, and we found an ATM, but otherwise we just wandered until it was time for Anita to finish up. We got a table at an outdoor cafe, but couldn’t communicate that we would be three and wanted to wait to order until Anita arrived. So we just ordered. “Coffee” sounds the same as “kaffee” in German, and “cream” sounds the same as “creme” in German, so that that was always easy. Eventually, I got up, got a chair from another table, and set it at ours–that worked for “party of three,” but of course, we already had our coffee.
Before too long, Anita returned and got a cup too. On the way home, we stopped by the grocery store, which always is a special cultural event for Liz.
Birds in Walsrode: Warm clear calm. Common Wood-Pigeon 5, Common Swift 3, Marsh Tit 1, Eurasian Blackbird 3, Fieldfare 12, House Sparrow 5.
After lunch, Anita took us to Bremen for a tour of the old town. On the drive, Anita told us about Jürgen’s time growing up in East Germany. As a young boy he was allowed to travel to West Germany to visit family, and that gave him a lust for freedom that he never out grew. He was a rebellious youth and was captured by East German boarder gurards while trying to escape to the west. He was accused of subversive agitation against communism and imprisoned for several years. The trial was secret and he was without a lawyer, and upon conviction, there was no right of appeal. He even had to sign a confession because if not, he would be given an additional 5 years in the penitentiary.
Conditions in prison were very difficult (Anita used the word torture), especially for victims of political prosecution. He was forced into slave labor in an iron smelting factory. Conditions were so bad that a friend jumped into the hot furnace to escape his pain. It is a very sad story, and these things are still close to the surface.
This explains why Jürgen didn’t like to have his picture taken–fears remained for a long time about being followed and documented by the GDR state security service before Germany was reunited. In fact, several years after he got out of East Germany, he got official letter from West German authorities warning that he should never enter GDR territory because he would risk being captured and detained again for a long time.
Anita said that the only place he felt comfortable, where he could escape memories of the past and feel free, was on the high seas. He studied and finished an Engineering School for Marine engineering, the worked in the merchant navy for some 30 years, first as an engineer and later chief engineer.
In Bremen, we parked in a garage and walked into the historic market square, which is dominated by twin towers of Bremen Cathedral. Anita and Jürgen had lived here some 30 years ago, and she knew the historic part of town well. The first church was built here in 789 AD, but as usual, fires, building collapse, and wars took their toll over the centuries. It seems the current form was built about 1050 AD, but the building was completely destroyed during WWII, and reconstruction wasn’t completed until 1981 AD.
Bremen is interesting for its architecture and artwork, some of which are based on medieval fairy tails. We stopped to see the bronze statue of a pig farmer, his dog, and his herd of pigs where children of all ages come and ride the animals. This commemorates the history of this medieval market street where after the farmer’s market was done for the day, pig farmers brought their herds in the evening to clean up the spoiled produce. The street here, Sögestrasse (Pigstreet) is a main shopping street in Bremen with lots of high-end shops. The street was first mentioned in 1261, but by 1306 it was named Sögestrasse.
One thing I found interesting about being in Germany was the relationship of geography and fairy tales. Growing up in the States, fairy tales always happened in some far off land across the sea, so no matter how scary, they didn’t really apply to me because they were from a land literally “far far away.” I started thinking about this relationship between geography and fairy tales in the Harz Mountains with the witches and devils.
Over lunch before we left Hamwiede, Jürgen was telling us what to expect in Bremen, where he and Anita had lived for some years and the statue of the “Musicians of Bremen” is an important landmark. Over meat and cheese, he told us the fairy tale: Grimm’s Musicians of Bremen. In the story, a old donkey being cast off by his master starts off from the countryside on the road to Bremen. Along the way, he picks up an old dog, an old cat, and an old rooster, and they all go off to become musicians in Bremen and make a better life for themselves.
In this story, however, the donkey doesn’t start in some far-far-away place, he starts two villages over from Hamwiede! He then meets up with the dog near Hamwiede, and they continue on towards Bremen picking up the rest of the crew. As it turns out, they never make it to Bremen, but that is beside the point. So here, at the lunch table, I actually find myself in the land of a fairy tales.
The Musicians of Bremen are important characters in the local lore because, in part, the troop was heading to Bremen because it was an enlightend town where personal liberty was held as a virtue. We saw several examples of the quartet in arts-and-crafts shops, and in one place, they were made into a political cartoon. The animals stacked up in the fairy tale according to their talents and abilities (donkey at the bottom, rooster at the top), but in the political cartoon, they were reversed. The text translates to something about lazy politicians riding on the backs of ordinary people. Here, as in so many cases, we learned that people the world around suffer from the same hopes, fears, and tribulations.
German: Die Wahrheit über die Bremer Stadtmusikanten: in Hierarchien sitzen die größten Esel oben!
English: The truth about the Musicians of Bremen: in political hierarchies, the big ass sits at the top!
We finished the tour by walking through some of the old parts of Bremen, although at this point I’m not sure how much was old and how much was rebuilt after the war to look old. Regardless, it was fun to wander through the warrens of narrow streets, window shopping, poking into the odd shop. We also walked along the river front, Bremen Harbor, which was another commercial port. We saw some historic 3-masted ships, a few large modern ships, and bomb damage repaired in a way that left a reminder of the war.
In the evening, after some beers or something, Jürgen began talking and told a story of how his father had fought in the German army. He survived fighting on the eastern front (Russia), then was called back towards the end of the war to help defend the western front. He was killed two days before the end of the war when Jürgen was only 5 years old. At that point, Jürgen fell uncharacteristically silent with that far-away stare that one gets when they aren’t really here for a time. I think the 5-year-old Jürgen was spending a few moments with his father.
Some days earlier, Anita had told us her story of survival during the war. If I recall correctly, her father was a land owner and banker in Poland. He remained in his job during the war, but was called up for duty near the end of the war. He said he would join the effort, but needed to settle things at home with his family: “I’ll be there in the morning” he told them.
They tried to escape with 50 horse wagons equipped with the most necessary food stuff and warm clothes taking almost all people from the village with them and managed to cross the Oder river before the bridge was blown up. The family remained in Eastern Germany – at first in the British zone, but reorganized into Soviet occupied zone, for 4 years. In 1945, in the night under cover of darkness, the family fled towards the west. A neighbor saw them leaving, and they were terrified that they’d be killed if that person spoke; fortunately they did not. The family stopped in West Berlin and were sheltered by a Jewish family who hid Anita and her family in their home for three months. Apparently conditions were difficult and food was short. As the war ended, the family tried to get out of allied-occupied Berlin to West Germany. It was made possible by the American airlift (supplies into West Berlin; passengers out). I didn’t press for details, and being sheltered in West Berlin by a Jewish family raises questions, but it was a gripping story. We were grateful that they shared such intimate details of their lives with us.
May 7, Saturday — Heath Hills of Lüneburger Heide National Park
On our last full day with Anita and Jürgen, a warm, clear, and calm day, Anita took us to hike in the Heath Hills of Lüneburger Heide National Park. We walked several miles in low rolling hills to the highest point in the region at an elevation of 555 ft. Along the way, we actually heard two Common Cuckoos, which actually sound exactly like a cuckoo clock!
We first climbed onto Bolterberg Peak at 526 ft elevation. We relaxed, ate a trail snack, and enjoyed the view. The summit was marked with a carved boulder that included the name of the peak and elevation, plus the German version of a Leave No Trace message: “prevent wildfires and pick up your trash.” The use of carved boulders for signs is common in this part of Germany, and interestingly, they are glacial erratics, stones carried here from elsewhere by ice-age glaciers and left behind when the ice melted.
We then hiked down into a valley and up to the main summit, the highest point in this region of Germany: Wilseder Berg Peak at 155 ft.
Back at the trailhead, we stopped at an outdoor cafe to relax with a beer, which was a nice way to end things.
Birds of Lüneburger Heide National Park: Common Buzzard 1, Common Cuckoo 2, Eurasian Green Woodpecker 1, Sky Lark 8, Barn Swallow 6, European Pied Flycatcher 1, Black Redstart 1, Eurasian Blackbird 8, European Starling 8, and House Sparrow 2.
Back home, we packed, ate a late dinner with too much wine, and stumbled off to bed with the window wide open because it was so warm in the house.
May 8, Sunday — Travel: Bus to Frankfurt
I must have been excited to be on our way because I awoke early, about 5:15 am, and stayed mostly awake just listening to the birds singing in the yard for more than an hour.
After a last great breakfast with Anita and Jurgen, we departed Hamwiede about 8 AM as they took us to the bus station in Hannover, about an hour away. We arrived early and mostly relaxed enjoying each other’s company for a last few minutes. Anita did think that I should get a SIM card for my phone, but we couldn’t find one in the station so early on Sunday morning. It would have been easier in an international airport, but not so easy in the bus station.
Anita and Jürgen saw us off at 9:55am. They had been very good to us and treated us like family (or perhaps the children who have left the nest empty), and everyone was sad at the departure.
We rode the bus south from Hannover to Frankfurt, making several stops along the way. This was an express bus, so we only stopped a few times. We stopped in Göttingen for lunch, and we found tasty sandwiches and a pastry in the bus station. This was a curious place with traditional monuments, an odd structure associated with the stars (especially the zodiac), and apparently was a major hub for bicycle riders who were taking the bus somewhere. It would have been nice to chat with a local to understand the story.
We made a short stop in Kassel, an interesting town centered on a large, castle-like structure, the Hercules Monument (Castle), atop a mountain that is visible from everywhere. It would have been fun to get off and explore — something for next time!
We made it to Frankfurt am Main (just Frankfurt to westerners) a few minutes early, so the driver pulled into the bus maintenance station, which seemed really confusing to everyone. In German, the driver invited everyone to get off and relax outside while she gassed up the bus. Then she was amused when I became concerned when someone else drove off in the bus. I guess this is how they clean busses here, but it seemed rather odd. About 15 minutes later, the bus came back and we drove another 5 minutes to the main bus station, where Liz and I got off.
The main bus station is also the main train station, so Liz and I went downstairs to the train, which we needed to get to the airport. After some confusion and helpful staff, we figured out how to use the machines to buy a ticket and found our way to the proper gate. After what we had seen elsewhere, this seemed harder than it should have been, but we found our way.
We rode the train to the airport, and again with the help of locals, got off at the right place. Inside the airport, we needed to find our way to the hotel shuttle busses. This, however, was particularly difficult, as signs and maps in the airport were particularly bad. In particular, they directed us down hallways to a T-intersection, with no relevant information at the T. We went back and eventually found another way — but more by trial and error than anything definite. Eventually we found the shuttle bus zone and our bus.
We had reservations at the Meininger Hotel, which was conveniently located just across the main highway from the airport. Staff at the check-in desk spoke excellent English, and we got a nice room on the top floor with a view away from the airport and highway.
We asked about dinner at the hotel, but there was some issue with the kitchen and all they had was pre-packaged sandwiches, but the check-in lady said there was a nice cafe within walking distance “behind a gas station.” She even said that it was pretty good and we’d “thank her to the recommendation.”
Well, the area around the hotel was a construction zone criss-crossed by highways, but we made our way around and found the gas station (not before walking under an underpass with a homeless camp where one thirsty guy had nearly built a house out of green beer bottles. The gas station had a sandwich shop inside (not unlike a Subway sandwich shop inside a gas station in the States). Assuming we were in the wrong place, we walked out past the gas station into the woods.
Back in the gas station, we bought sandwiches and beer for the night and tasty looking pastries for breakfast. Walking back, we realized that it probably was good that we walked back during daylight rather than after dark if we’d enjoyed a sit-down dinner. It turned that the sandwiches were as good as any we’d eaten in Germany, and the pastries didn’t last past dessert.
May 9, Monday — Travel: Frankfurt to Las Vegas
We were up and out of the hotel pretty early and caught the 7:30 shuttle bus back to the airport. This time, things were easier as we’d seen everything yesterday.
At the check-in desk, we expected to just turn in our luggage and get boarding passes, but it turned out we got a full interrogation by the ticketing agent. The lady was nice and we talked about birding in Germany, but to us it seemed odd.
After talking with the ticketing agent, we made it through immigration and into the duty-free zone. We had planned to eat breakfast in the airport (to avoid 11-euro [$15] breakfasts at the hotel), but the choice was between a Burger King and some high-end restaurant. Liz suffered a BK burger (they had no breakfast food — not even coffee), but I refused. If I was going to Europe, the last thing I was going to do was eat at a BK. My ace-in-the-hole was an old bagel in my pack.
After “breakfast,” we got through security, which was pretty easy and into the gate area. We were pretty sure we’d get on the flight, as there were a moderate number of open seats, but I find these things nerve-wracking as people pour into the area. The plane arrived with some mechanical issues, and they kept standby people outside the waiting area until after we were supposed to have left, adding to the nerves, but eventually we were called and assigned seats.
As we went into the gate area, the ticketing agent was keeping the gate and recognized us from earlier. She double checked our tickets to make sure her colleague had given us good seats, and happy with our assignment, let us into the seating area. We waited for a long time, but eventually we all got on the plane and took off headed for Dallas.
We departed late and expected to miss our connection in Dallas, and Bill was there to visit and help us along the way. As it turned out, our flight to Las Vegas also was late, and Bill talked to the gate agents and got us on the flight. We were disappointed to spend so little time with Bill, but it was great that he smoothed our way home.
In Las Vegas, we made the first flight, but our luggage made the second. Fortunately, by the time we figured that out, it was only 45 minutes before the next flight arrived, so we just walked around trying to stay awake until it arrived. After that, we caught the city bus back to the carpark, collected our car, and drove home where Mom and Mocha were waiting.
They say that travel opens one’s eyes to the world and helps people understand that everyone the world around faces the same issues in life. In so many situations, Anita and Jürgen would say something about the difficulties of life in Germany, and in virtually every case, we would say that we have the same issues back in the States. By the end of our visit, it almost became a joke: everything is the same everywhere; everyone has the same struggles in life; people everywhere are just people.
Liz and I are preparing to head to Europe to visit friends and family and to do a little birding. We are excited about what we will experience, but for now we are busy with last minute annoyances (like realizing that my luggage is 2 inches too long for the current rules for airline carry-on bags).
We started our trip with a long night in the McCarran International Airport (Las Vegas). Our international flight departed at 5 AM, so we needed to be there by 2 AM (they say to arrive 3 hours early for international flights). We decided to take the last city bus (which would get us there by 11:30 PM) and just spend the night in the airport.
April 18, 2016. Traveling to London, England
We caught our standby fight at 0510 hrs headed to Chicago. We were the last two standby passengers to get on, and they made us check baggage because the overhead bins were full. However, I forgot and left my lithium camera batteries in by now-checked luggage, a violation of federal law these days. On the flight, which was uneventful, we sat separately with Liz several rows ahead of me.
In Chicago, we recovered our bags and extracted the batteries, but had to go through security again, which is always annoying. After some food and time to relax, we got on our London-bound flight.
The flight to London departed at 1625 hrs and was only half-full, so we had no trouble getting on except that the gate agent never called standby passengers and we almost missed the flight. During the flight, it was fun watching the landscape, and darkness overtook us as we bid farewell to the coast of Labrador and started out over the Atlantic.
We sat in the first row of coach, so we had a flat bulkhead in front of us and little leg room, but at least nobody laid their seat back in our faces. During the flight, they played movies all night, and we were so close to the screen that the light kept us awake most of the night.
April 19, 2016. London, England
We arrived London about 0630 hrs, made it through customs and immigration, and took the Underground (Mind the Gap!) to within walking distance of Cathy and Peter’s (my sister and her husband’s) flat in an older part of London.
After resting a bit, Liz and I walked down to St. Paul’s Cathedral and then crossed the Thames River to the south bank. We visited Shakespeare’s Old Globe Theater, walked along the river, went into the Tate Art Museum, and got a take-away lunch to eat in some little park. We saw lots of birds. Dinner in a delightful, small Italian place a 15 minute walk from the flat.
Birds of the Day:
St. Paul’s Cathedral–Willow Warbler (1), European Blackbird, Feral Pigeon, Wood Pigeon, European Blue Tit, eastern gray squirrel
Globe Park– Herring Gull 5; Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 5; Common Wood-Pigeon 2; Eurasian Magpie 1; Eurasian Blue Tit 2; European Greenfinch 2; European Goldfinch 1
April 20, 2016. London, Kew Garden
The morning was brisk, in the 40s, when Peter took Hulky and me for a morning walk. We saw some nice little urban parks with a few birds including European Blackbird, Feral Pigeon, Dunnock, and European Wren. We also walked by their old flat.
Later, Cathy, Liz, and I took the subway to the Kew Royal Botanical Garden, a bucket-list item for Liz. We stopped and picked up some great sandwiches (salami and brie on fresh-baked roll) before entry. We walked a long ways on the grounds and visited two greenhouses, George III’s summer house, and the tree-top runway. We saw lots of cool plants and birds. Perhaps the most interesting plant was a cycad potted in 1775. Peter cooked a nice pasta dinner for us.
April 21, 2016. London, Downtown Parks
Liz and I took the bus downtown to where we had turned back on our previous river walk (April 19th). From the bus stop, we continued upstream under the London Eye and across Westminster Bridge past Big Ben. We thought about visiting Westminster Abbey, but it cost about $30 each, so we decided instead to visit the smaller St. Margaret’s Church (free). St. Margaret’s was constructed in the late 1000s (late 11th century) and has been fixed up several times, but it remains similar to the original. People liked to be buried inside the church, and nearly every space is given over to crypts. All of the walls have crypts, and even the isles between the pews are crypts. With people walking on the floor over the centuries, the names and dates of people buried below often are nearly worn smooth.
From St. Margaret’s Church, we continued across Parliament Square and walked to St. James Park. We spent several hours watching native and non-native waterfowl and recorded a total of 36 species. Among the Queen’s collection of waterfowl, we saw lots of ducks and geese, including Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Graylag Goose, Barnacle Goose, Canada Goose, Red-breasted Goose, Mute Swan, Black Swan, Egyptian Goose, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Red-crested Pochard, Common Goldeneye, Smew, and Hooded Merganser. We also saw a few native species of waterfowl, including Common Shelduck, Mallard, Common Pochard, and Tufted Duck that all come in to live with the captive species.
We saw some fun species of water birds, including Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, and Great Cormorant, White Pelican, Gray Heron, Eurasian Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Herring Gull, and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Land birds included Common Wood-Pigeon, feral Rose-ringed Parakeet, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Long-tailed Tit, and Eurasian Blackbird.
Towards the end of the day, we wandered over towards Buckingham Palace, but it was so crowded with tourists that we used our binoculars to observe from afar (preparations for the birthday of the Queen). Eventually we started for home via Trafalgar Square, visiting cultural sites along the way. We stopped to see the statue of the explorer Captain Cook, the Admiralty Arch, and Trafalgar Square.
We eventually took the city bus back home. After a quick takeout dinner, we all headed back downtown to St Martin’s Theatre to see an Agatha Christie play called “The Mousetrap.” It was a fun murder mystery. The Mousetrap opened in 1952 and has been running continuously since then, so it was a real fixture in that area.
April 22, 2016. London to Dover, England
Cathy, Peter, Liz, and Jim took a trip to the southeast coast of England and the town of Dover, stopping to visit Canterbury Cathedral along the way.
We took an early train to Canterbury Cathedral and the town of Dover. Long-distance trains in Europe run really fast, to 150 mph, so the trip to Canterbury took only about an hour. It was fun seeing the urban area of London graded into rural areas and then farm lands. We looked for birds along the way, but the train ran so fast that were only able to identify Carrion Crows and a Little Egret (looks like North American Snowy Egret).
We packed light for the weekend, but we ended up getting off the train in Canterbury and hauling our luggage through town and the cathedral. We had hoped to check our luggage at the train station, but it turned out that we departed from a different station.
We walked through Canterbury to the castle gate. It was interesting to see modern buildings (many restored to look historic) set up against the exterior castle walls. I guess it has been like this since the beginning, but from a US perspective, it was unexpected. In fact, the castle walls were, for the most part, buildings with businesses facing the street.
Passing through the Cathedral Gate, we deposited our $15/each and headed onto the grounds. The central feature is the Cathedral, but there are many other buildings inside the walls. We proceeded directly into the cathedral and did our own walking tour. It was interesting to see the stained glass windows and architecture. The first cathedral was built here in about AD 597. Wars over the centuries damaged parts, which have been rebuilt, but most of the older stuff seems to date from about AD 1070.
Lots of people are buried inside the Cathedral, perhaps the most famous of whom is Thomas Becket. He was murdered inside the Cathedral in 1170 in an attempt by King Henry II to assert supremacy of the monarch over Church affairs. Supporters built a shrine inside the Cathedral that stood from 1220 until it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538, but now only a candle burns on the floor where the shrine stood. Other cool dead people in the Cathedral include the Black Prince (Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales) who died in 1376 and would have become King Edward IV if he had survived his father. King Henry IV is buried here, too.
The Cathedral has an extensive collection of historical books. In the crypt below the Cathedral, we got to view a rarely seen 17th century book of Shakespeare’s works , the Second Folio, containing 36 of the 38 plays attributed to Shakespeare (printed in 1632).
One thing that struck me was the graffiti inside the Cathedral, and apparently I only saw a little of it. We work hard at home to protect historical sites from damage, and seeing graffiti scratched into the wall here during the 1600s really annoys me and makes me want to work harder to protect treasures at home.
We departed Canterbury on the train to Dover, another short journey, and as I recall, on a commuter train this time. In Dover, we hauled our luggage downtown looking for a late lunch, but we were between traditional lunch and dinner, and few places were open. We stopped at The Beano Cafe, which had a fair crowd inside. We might be excused for expecting Mexican food, but it was British food cooked by Middle Eastern immigrants. An online TripAdvisor review reads: Eat where the locals eat! Good value. We had fish and chips it was not amazing but still we enjoyed. £5,5 for Cod, chips and peas. I could have written this myself, except to add that the cod was one huge slab of fish.
After eating, we walked up to the B&B: Bleriots Guest House (Bleriot’s Belper House). This was a simple, quiet, and pleasant place to stay, and our room had a wonderful west-facing view across the backyard into a tall tree that was a magnet for birds, especially Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, and European Goldfinch. We also had nice sunset views from the room. Other birds in the B&B yard included Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), European Turtle-Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, and Dunnock. Not a bad list for not really trying.
In the evening, we ventured out in a light rain to a basement pub for a couple of beers and live music.
April 23, 2016. Dover Castle and White Cliffs of Dover
We started our day with a great breakfast at the B&B. We had quite a few choices, but I took the “full English breakfast,” which included bacon, eggs, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, fried bread (more like toast dipped in lard and deep fried), sausage, baked beans, coffee, and I’m sure something else. It was a lot of food, and the B&B also provided yoghurt, cereal, juice, milk, and other breakfast foods.
We departed on foot and hiked up to Dover Castle. It turned out that the weekend of April 23-24 is St. George’s Festival where visitors can witness the “ultimate showdown as gallant St George takes on his arch nemesis in England’s most legendary battle.”
Unfortunately, the morning was bitter cold, with temperatures hovering just above freezing, and windy, so we didn’t spend much time outdoors where we would have “gasped as the lances shattered in the medieval joust; felt the earth tremble as the Norman warriors of 1066 marched to their arena; marveled as feathers flew in the falconry; and chortled at the cheeky jester.” We also didn’t watch fearsome fellows battle it out in the Clash of Knights or visit the Roman gladiator’s arena for displays of courage and might [with some grammar edits].
We did, however, “immerse ourselves into the sights, smells, and sounds of this historical extravaganza.” Perhaps the most notable things we saw were the medieval actors in the cooking and pooping section. These people were real pros and lived the history. The medieval foods lady gave a great talk, put on a grand show, and answered all the questions – in character. The “poop guy” works on internal parasites and put on a memorable show and wide-ranging discussion about poop in the middle ages. Did you know they used urine to make gunpowder?
After visiting the main castle building, we walked across the grounds to the Roman Lighthouse. This structure, one of a pair, is about 80-ft tall and was build by the Romans in about AD 50, soon after their invasion of England. The outer structure is original, but the lighthouse innards were converted to be used as a bell tower for the adjacent Saxon church (St Mary in Castro) that dates from about AD 600 (although heavily restored to current conditions).
We could have spent all weekend inside the castle, and never even looked at World War II modifications, but we pressed on to our other goal for the day: a walk along the White Cliffs of Dover. We caught a cab from the castle to the White Cliffs trailhead where we were assured we could get a cab for the return trip.
We started off on what would be 4.5 miles of hiking atop the White Cliffs of Dover. The wind was down a bit and the afternoon temperature was up a bit, but a brisk pace was required to stay warm. The trail was well worn as hundreds of people per week walk here, and initially, a well maintained, 5-ft wide gravel trail ran 0.4 miles to a nice overlook with views up the coast along the white cliffs and across the English Channel to France in the distance.
From there, we continued along the cliffs heading northeast all the way to South Foreland Lighthouse. At the lighthouse, we took an interesting tour of inside. Our guide was very knowledgable about the lighthouse, the history of shipwrecks in the area, and the war history.
We walked back to the trailhead hoping to relax and warm up with a cup of coffee only to find the facility closed. We also discovered that the city bus had just left for the last time (nobody mentioned that earlier?) and we couldn’t get the taxi to come out. One worker did come out and told us how to walk back to town using a foot trail that was more direct than what the taxi had taken. We were tired, but at least it was all downhill to the harbor. We hailed a taxi there, but the guy refused to take us because of some rules regarding in-town vs. out-of-town taxi rules, so we walked on.
We had intended to go out to a pub in the evening for dinner (The White Horse), but it happened that we walked right by it, so we stopped in to relax and have a pint. This was the pub where everyone who swims the Channel can stop in for a free pint and write their name on the wall. We were surprised by the number of names: they were written everywhere, and some had several dates.
Birds of the day: Northern Fulmar, Great Cormorant, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Sky Lark, Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, European Robin, Eurasian Blackbird, Dunnock, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, Hawfinch.
April 24, 2016. Dover to London
After another great full English Breakfast without the deep-fried lard bread, we departed on foot heading downtown. Our first stop was the Dover Museum where a lot of history is packed into a fairly small building. The ground floor was mostly ancient history and the Roman Invasion. It is hard to believe that the Romans brought war-elephants across the channel on boats when they invaded England.
The most interesting artifact, however, was a bronze-age boat that dates from about 1550 BC. Yes, that is a wooden boat that is about 3,500 years old! The exhibit and explanations were great, and I was impressed by how complicated the structure was — those people were pretty smart.
After touring the museum, we walked to the waterfront and got aboard the Southern Queen for a 40-minute boat tour of the harbor. We endured a bitter-cold wind and even got a bit of snow and hail on the open-air boat, but it was fun and gave a different view of the White Cliffs of Dover.
After the harbor tour, we stopped for lunch in a nice restaurant. I forget the name of the place, but the food was tasty and I’d give it a good review. We then caught a cab to the B&B, recovered our bags, and continued to the train station.
Heading towards London on the train, we watched the scenery and the birds pass by. Following along a river, we saw Black-headed Gulls, Gray Herons, and a few ducks, but overall it was another study in changing landscapes: this time from agricultural to rural to urban. After a fun 3-day weekend, it was nice to be “home” with Cathy and Peter.
April 25, 2016. London Parks, Museums, and City Life
After the weekend, Cathy and Peter both headed off to work, and Liz and I rode the city bus towards downtown. We stopped at Hyde Park, an enormous city park, to do some walking and urban birding. They had some nice water features and lots of trees, and for not really trying, we made a pretty good list of birds in Hyde Park: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Moorhen, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Common Wood-Pigeon, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Blue Tit, and Eurasian Blackbird.
We eventually wandered over to the Wallace Collection, Liz’s brother’s favorite museum in London. It was a classy place: (edited from the Wikipedia page): The Wallace Collection is an art collection that includes a range of fine and decorative arts from the 15th to the 19th centuries with large holdings of French 18th-century paintings, furniture, arms and armor, porcelain, and Old Master paintings. The museum was established in 1897 from the private collection of Richard Seymour-Conway (1800–1870), who left it to his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace (1818–1890), whose widow bequeathed the entire collection to the nation. So, during the 1800s, Wallace’s old-man gathered a grand collection of stuff, then Wallace created a museum to show off his inherited collection.
From the Wallace Collection, we wandered through town looking for some fabric that Liz needed to help Cathy with a minor sewing project.
During this time, it rained heavily on us, but in one little fabric shop, we were directed to the Liberty Shopping Center, a grand Tudor-revival building built in the 1920s and filled with high-end fashion and luxury homeware. It also had a large fabric shop. While Liz inspected the wares, I was fascinated by the handmade window frames and window-opening hardware. Looking at the glass and handwork, I was surprised to learn that the building was only built in the 1920s as it seemed much older. The main timbers in the building, however, were reclaimed from two old sailing ships.
Back at home, Liz was tickled to join Peter on a walking-trip to their local grocery store. Liz has a great fondness for grocery stores, and it is always interesting to see how other people solve the problems of life.
April 26, Tuesday. British Museum
Again, Cathy and Peter both headed off to work while Liz and I rode the city bus towards downtown. This time, we went directly to the British Museum and spent all day visiting only a small fraction of the holdings.
We started on the ground floor and visited the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman exhibits. Liz was excited to see the Rosetta Stone, and of course I enjoyed the Greek and Roman goddesses. Much of the large-scale artwork depicted scenes of warfare and power, reinforcing the notion that the history of humanity is the history of war.
Later, we visited the upper floor where we visited all sorts of collections, including the Mesopotamia Room (6000–1500 BC), the Ancient South Arabia (mostly Yemen) Room (1000 BC–500 AD), Britain and Europe Room (800 BC–AD 43), and others to the modern era.
In the evening, Peter and Cathy took us out to a great little Indian restaurant. We rode the bus out, visited a bookstore, ate dinner, and walked back to the flat.
The story continues as: Overseas Travel and Urban Birding — Part 2: Germany
Departing fairly early, Liz and I closed up the house, gave the cat a last scratch behind the ears, and headed for the Grand Canyon. The day was cool and mostly cloudy, but except for some heavy rain near Seligman, the weather was fine for our five-hour journey.
Upon arrival at the South Rim, we secured a site in Mather Campground and headed out to investigate trail conditions. We intended to hike down the South Kaibab Trail, so we parked at the visitor center and caught the shuttle bus to Yaki Point.
About the time we arrived at the Grand Canyon, it started snowing, and out at Yaki Point, the ice-encrusted sign read: Trail may be Icy. True it was, but people were going down and coming up, so we figured we could get down in the morning.
We then went to the Backcountry Office to check on our permit and current trail conditions, all of which were fine, but we learned of a wind advisory for the next day with winds of 40+ mph expected on the narrow ridges along the South Kaibab Trail — Yikes! At least there was some chance that the storm would pass in the night and the morning would be clear and sunny.
In the blustery cold, we decided to eat an early dinner in the Bright Angel Lodge rather than at the campground. After dinner, we walked along the rim towards the El Tovar Hotel as the sun set around 4:30 PM and the darkness began to close during these short days of winter. Dark-eyed Juncos and Western Bluebirds hastily scratched among fallen leaves looking for tasty morsels to fill their bellies as the cold of a long night approached, and we visited the warm Verkamp’s Visitor Center where the Park Service has done a nice job of reviewing cultural history at the South Rim.
Back at the campground, the ground was white with about an inch of snow covering everything, but the sky was clear (foretelling a cold night) and we hoped that the snow storm had passed. Retiring to a warm nest in the back of our van, we settled in for a long night anticipating an early start to our morning backpack. The winds blew hard during the night, but a 3 AM bathroom trip confirmed clear sky, the wind had died, and we had no new snow.
November 16, Monday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 1
Expecting a sunny morning, dawn seemed to take a long time as we stayed snuggled down inside our warm, zip-together sleeping bag. Eventually we realized, however, that it was later than we thought and the windows of the van were crusted over in a thick layer of snowy ice. Getting up, we were alarmed to learn that the sliding side doors were frozen shut, but Liz was able to raise the back door and we escaped our icy enclosure.
During the pre-dawn hours, we added a couple of inches of snow during the 26-degree night, and it was still snowing hard. Unsettled by the storm and in anticipation of a steep and icy, even dangerous South Kaibab Trail, we decided to drive back to the backcountry office and see if we could change our hiking permit to a safer trail.
Some of the roads had been plowed during the early morning hours, but the road was icy and drivers were doing a fair bit of slipping and sliding. We slowly and carefully drove to the backcountry office, and it seems that shortly after our arrival at the long-term parking lot, the park shut down the shuttle bus service due to the dangerous road conditions.
We were able to change our permit from the South Kaibab Trail to the Bright Angel Trail. Technically, our first night was scheduled for the Bright Angel Campground at Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, but that would mean hiking 7 miles down the steep South Kaibab Trail or 9.5 miles down the not-so-steep Bright Angel Trail, and I wasn’t sure that we could make 9.5 miles on our first day out. Thus, we changed our permit to allow us to spend our first night in Indian Garden Campground, which is only 4.5 miles down the Bright Angel Trail.
With a shorter hike for the first day, we decided to eat breakfast at the Maswik Lodge and wait to see if the storm would clear by noon as forecast.
The storm did not clear, and in a driving snowstorm, we loaded water and final items into our backpacks before closing the van. We walked the few hundred yards to the Bright Angel Trailhead, glad that we didn’t need to wait for a Yaki Point shuttle bus that might come tomorrow. Jim did take a nasty fall on the ice while crossing the railroad tracks, and we both hoped that didn’t portend things to come.
Departing the trailhead at 11 AM, fogged in with heavy snow falling and still at 26 degrees, we started down into the Grand Canyon under a forecast of snow all day but clearing by the next morning. We passed a few people higher up, but the trail was unusually empty even for this time of year. Parts of the trail were icy, but the fresh snow improved our grip on the trail, and never again did either of us slip and fall, which is particularly good given that from many places along upper parts of the trail people could slip into the abyss and never be seen again.
We descended into the canyon at a fairly quick rate, and even wearing layers of coats and rain gear, we stayed cool. We didn’t stop to rest until we reached 1.5-mile Resthouse, a stone structure built during early days of the park. Inside was dry, and we propped our packs up on the windowsill, ate trail snacks (it was now noon), and shed some layers as the snow was now falling more gently and in the narrow canyon, the wind was merely a light breeze. The nearby toilets were useful for returning some of our Maswik coffee to the canyon.
Departing 1.5-mile Resthouse, the trail was still covered in snow, but shortly below there, the trail became clear. We still had plenty of snow on the bushes and trees, but the trail was becoming muddy rather than icy. Descending this section, the clouds lifted somewhat, giving us views down into the canyon, and at one point, even a bit of direct sun on the fall-colored trees in Indian Garden Campground.
We arrived at 3-mile Resthouse and again took a break inside the structure at 2 PM and again recycled coffee at the nearby toilets. A group of noisy young adults joined us there, but we were glad they had more energy and walked faster than we did, and soon their noise faded away in the depths of the canyon.
Departing 3-mile Resthouse, we descended quickly through the Redwall Limestone, an imposing vertical wall of limestone, some 500-ft thick, where the trail was blasted out of the cliff. This cliff, about halfway down the canyon, forms a barrier to travel that can only be breached in a few places.
Below the Redwall, the trail drops into the bottom of Garden Wash and continues down at a fair grade, but at this time below all of the visible cliffs rather than above them. Along the wash, we encountered the first of several groups of mule deer, this one with a yearling.
About a mile down the canyon, we arrived at Indian Garden Campground at 3 PM. For desert backpackers, this is a high-end place with shade trees (Fremont’s cottonwood, velvet ash, redbud, and even wild grapevines), covered picnic tables, running water, and composting toilets well provisioned with paper.
Indian Garden was, in fact, an Indian garden before white settlers ran them off in the early 1900s, that is well supplied with spring water. Our campsite was between to two small springs, and during warmer weather, we probably would have been serenaded by canyon tree frogs and red-spotted toads. During this cold weather, however, everyone was silent and probably sleeping away tucked down in the mud.
With the storm, most of the 25-or-so campsites were empty when we arrived, but by dark (before 5 PM) few sites remained open. It was a damp cold that evening, and most campers were in their tents early, but we stayed up later than most as Liz cooked a nice box dinner with a package of chicken. We too eventually turned in and settled into a long night that got down into the high-20s. We also heard what sounded like the calls of a Flammulated Owl during the night, but it seems a bit late in the year for this species.
After only hiking 4.5 miles, we were both surprised by how sore our legs had become, although we didn’t really notice them until we got to camp and our muscles started to stiffen up. Jim also pulled a muscle in his back, but that might have been the result of the fall on the railroad tracks.
November 17, Tuesday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 2
After a cold night with high, blustery winds and temperatures in the high 20s, the sun arrives late in deep side canyons on the south side of the Grand Canyon, and we were up and long gone from camp (9:30 AM) before it came up over the cliffs. A ways down the trail, however, we stopped for a few minutes to bask in the warn sunshine. At this elevation, the cottonwood trees were just starting to turn color, and after a day under the clouds, tree-fulls of bright yellow sun-lit leaves were striking.
Scattered cottonwoods lined Garden Creek, and as we followed it downstream, the trail initially ran along sandstone ledges above the stream, putting us at eye-level with the yellow leaves. The stream channel slowly cut down through the Tapeats Sandstone, a cliff-forming layer of early to middle Cambrian age, and after crossing the Great Unconformity, we dropped into the wash and hopped across the stream a few times.
The Great Unconformity, a “non-layer,” represents pages missing from the book of history in this area where about 1-billion years of history are missing. Not really missing, mountains once stood here, but over those billion years, the mountains eroded to form a flat plain. What we now see as the Vishnu Schist is the core of those old mountains, and as sea levels rose, the Tapeats Sandstone represents beach sand that washed along the ancient shoreline.
Now in the Vishnu Schist, the “basement rock” of the grand canyon, our narrow Garden Creek Canyon opened abruptly onto the broad shoulder of a ridge. Here, atop the Devil’s Corkscrew, Garden Creek falls away into a narrow canyon in a series of waterfalls, while the trail turns away from the creek to cut down and across cliffs where the trail was blasted out of the bedrock.
Near the top of the Devil’s Corkscrew, the trail crosses two seeps where a few cottonwood trees cling to the cliff and shade rocky walls covered with marsh vegetation including ferns, mosses, and even orchids. Unfortunately, none of the flowers were blooming.
In the Devil’s Corkscrew, the trail winds down and around the head of a canyon ending in a series of switchbacks. Here, the summer sun reaches straight down to cook the rocks and produce an oven-effect for hapless mid-day hikers. For us, however, after passing the sunny seeps, we descended into deep winter shadows.
Below the Devil’s Corkscrew, the trail runs down Pipe Canyon at a moderate grade. Higher up, Pipe Creek ran as a trickle, but about a mile down canyon, Garden Creek cascaded down the cliffs and joined Pipe Creek. We hopped back and forth across the wider creek a few times, only dampening our boots a time or two. Pipe Canyon eventually narrows and sharply winds back and forth through S-curves making all of the canyon walls look the same until suddenly there was no canyon wall ahead, and we arrived on the bank of the Colorado River just after noon.
We stopped to celebrate our arrival at the bottom of the Grand Canyon by eating lunch and taking celebratory photos. It was a bucket-list item to get Liz to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, so technically we could check it off at that point, but we decided it made more sense to do the checking when we got back to the South Rim.
The Bright Angel Trail technically ends here, and after lunch, we followed the River Trail east heading upstream along the Colorado. Along most of this section, the Vishnu cliffs drop straight into the river, so trail builders again took to blasting a trail into the cliffs. We were actually following the trace of a water pipe along here, which it turns out to be nice because the engineers made for gentle slopes and wide turns. We learned that all of the water on the South Rim comes from Roaring Springs, high on the North Rim. Water is piped down from the North Rim following the North Kaibab Trail, across the Colorado under a suspension bridge, down the River Trail, then up cliffs to Indian Garden (delivered to our campground water faucets), and finally up to the South Rim.
Eventually the River Trail dropped to the banks of the Colorado and we crossed the river on the Silver Suspension Bridge to the north side. A few more yards upstream, and we turned up Bright Angel Canyon. The delta of Bright Angel Creek is broad and is used by the Park Service for mule corrals, ranger housing, and a waste treatment plant.
A few minutes up Bright Angel Canyon, Bright Angel Campground begins on the west side of the creek. The canyon is narrow here, and designated campsites line the rock wall. About halfway along the campground, the trail passes restrooms with flush toilets, electric lights, and electrical outlets. Above there, the canyon is somewhat wider and campsites line both sides of the trail. Campsites on the left lie up against the rock walls, and those on the right overlook Bright Angel Creek. Considering what little remained vacant, we were lucky to get the relatively isolated campsite against the cliffs just south of the toilets.
We had heard that there had been a problem with the water pipeline, but the park website suggested that everything would be fixed a month before our arrival. Alas, this was not the case. Somewhere up the canyon, the pipe broke, and while water is flowing to the South Rim, they were having problems with the system in the Phantom area (Phantom Ranch Lodge and Bright Angel Campground), and the water was turned off.
Camper water was available from a single faucet outside the dining room at Phantom Ranch, necessitating a 1/2-mile, round trip, hike from the campground. Of course we could get water from the creek and treat it ourselves, but it was downstream from the Phantom Ranch mule barns and so not too inviting. At the restroom, the water was turned off, but the park service had stationed a 1,500 gallon firefighting water tank by the men’s door, and everyone had to carry water in 5 gallon buckets from the water tank to pour into the toilet to effect a flush. It worked, but it was less the optimal. The people staying at the lodge for $140 per cabin per night had similar inconvenience with the toilets, but also suffered from lack of showers — without an annoyance discount.
Perhaps the true motivation for the trip was the opportunity to see Ringtails (aka Ringtail cats) in the campground where some years ago they had become real pests for campers as they did everything they could to steal food. When Jim was there in 2006, a pack of Ringtails raided his campsite, but he woke up too late to see anything more than a black-and-white banded tail disappear into the bushes.
We’ve looked for them elsewhere, and we’ve interacted with captive Ringtails, but we’ve never found them in the wild. As a result, Liz cooked a dinner that smelled good enough to bring in ringtails, but no such luck. We sat up late into the night hoping for nocturnal visitors, but alas, by 10 PM we gave up and went to bed. We never did see any ringtails, so we’ll have to keep looking elsewhere.
November 18, Wednesday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 3
At the bottom of the Grand Canyon, at only some 2,500 feet elevation, it is supposed to be warm at night, but it was not to be as temperatures dipped to about 30 degrees. Again, we were colder than we expected, but at least here on the north side of the river, the sun comes up earlier than it does in Indian Garden. With nothing to do today, we lounged around breakfast and enjoyed an extra cup of coffee. We decided to do two short hikes today, or maybe just one if we were still feeling sore.
At about 10 AM, we set off on the River Loop Trail, which departs Bright Angel Camp upstream to the Black Suspension Bridge, crosses the river, goes through a tunnel, climbs steeply towards the sky, then descends at a gentle grade about a mile downstream to the Silver Suspension Bridge. From there, we could retrace our tracks from the day before back to camp for a total of 2+ miles.
Starting out, we crossed a bridge over Bright Angel Creek, which already was warm from the sun. Across the bridge, we headed east on the South Kaibab Trail, upstream along the Colorado, and quickly arrived at a trail junction. We detoured to the right and wandered down the Boat Beach Trail to where river runners haul out on a sandy beach in a backwater area. There were about a dozen small rafts and several kayaks tied up along the beach, and one group of yahoo raft guides made us glad we were just wandering by rather than doing the river with them.
Back on the South Kaibab Trail, we continued east and saw that the Side-blotched Lizards already were coming out to bask in the morning sun. We also passed the grave site of Rees Griffiths, a CCC trail-crew foreman killed by rock fall in 1922, and the Bright Angel Pueblo, an interesting archaeological ruin where several families lived while farming the Bright Angel delta during about 500-1250 AD, but mostly 1050-1150 AD.
A few minutes beyond the pueblo, the trail reaches the Black Suspension Bridge. We had nice views up and down the river from the bridge and probably stopped to relax in the sun for a few extra minutes before dipping back into the shadows.
Interestingly, the south side of the bridge ends at a tunnel, where the trail cuts through a rocky buttress (about 40-50 yards long) before emerging onto steep, rocky slopes on the south side of the Colorado River.
On the South Kaibab Trail, we immediately began climbing a steep series of switchbacks and Liz just busted up the trail without stopping until we reached the River Trail junction, which was several hundred vertical feet above the river. It turns out this was a good omen for our upcoming climb out of the canyon.
On the River Trail, we turned downstream and followed the trail west. As elsewhere, the trail was blasted out of the rocky cliffs and supported both the trail and the water pipe. From the trail junction, the trail runs mostly level for a ways then descends to the Silver Suspension Bridge, for a total of about 1 mile. Along the way, we enjoyed one spot of warm sun, explored a narrow slot canyon, saw several species of blooming shrubs, and generally had a nice stroll above the river with grand views into the distance. In this area, the Vishnu Schist is highly metamorphosed, twisted, and incised with striking granitic dikes of Zoroaster Granite.
At the Silver Suspension Bridge, we crossed back to the sunny side of the river and returned to camp for lunch and a chance to rest for a few minutes in the sun. The high for the day got to about 60 degrees, and basking in sun the was a treat.
After lunch, we hiked up through the campground to Phantom Ranch, then continued up the North Kaibab Trail for 1-1/2 miles or so. Starting out, we enjoyed the warm sunshine, but eventually the canyon narrowed and began to wind about, plunging us back into the shade of winter.
As on the south side of the river, the Vishnu Schist is highly metamorphosed and incised with granitic dikes making rock walls that are a mix of pink and black, but here the walls supported wonderful cactus gardens. Most of the species were familiar from home, but we saw lots of Graham’s Fishhook Cactus (Mammillaria grahamii), a species of fishhook cactus that while small, is much larger than our familiar species from home. Other common and familiar species included Catclaw Acacia, Nevada Ephedra, and Brittlebush. We also saw a few more Side-blotched Lizards.
We hiked upstream, crossing two bridges, to the confluence of Bright Angel Creek and Phantom Creek. We had intended to hike up the deep and narrow Phantom Canyon, but Bright Angel Creek was running too high for us to ford the creek without getting our boots wet. It was also too cold to wade the creek and get wet, although we would have enjoyed private baths up the canyon after three days on the trail. Hiking back down, we did find a quiet spot off the trail where we could get quick baths, but it sure was cold!
Back at camp, we relaxed a bit, then after dark walked back up to Phantom Ranch for dinner. The lodge offers dinners for campers, steak at the early sitting (about $50/plate), and beef stew at the late sitting (about $35/plate; all you can eat). Eating out during a backpacking trip was a treat, but it wasn’t as good as I had expected from my 2006 visit. Even so, we had fresh green salad with vinaigrette dressing, cornbread with butter, hot and cold tea, coffee, and chocolate cake. They also make a vegetarian stew, which to me was the highlight of the meal. Liz was good, but I ate too much. Dinner is served “family style,” with people sitting at long tables and passing things back and forth. We met an interesting woman from Phoenix who works for a local NPR radio station and was doing a report on hiking in the canyon. Another couple was from Vermont, and we kept running into them on the trails.
Afterwards, we attended on impromptu evening program in the outdoor amphitheater given by a National Geographic photographer who was trying to do a thru-hike of the Grand Canyon. It turns out that more people have walked on the moon than have thru-hiked the canyon, and as he described the difficulties, it was clear to understand why. He had walked from Lee’s Ferry to Phantom Ranch in about 2 months, and intended to take a break before continuing downstream.
Back at camp, we spent a few minutes hoping to see ringtails, but gave up before it got too late and we got too cold. We did hear Great Horned Owls calling, so not all was lost. While we had been in Bright Angel Campground, the nightly forecasts were for temperatures in the mid-40s, but both nights were actually in the mid-30s, colder than we expected, and we should each have brought another layer of clothing.
November 19, Thursday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 4
On our last morning in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Jim awoke in the early dawn hours to see a Great Horned Owl fly over camp heading for its roost tree somewhere upstream.
We actually set an alarm and got up about 6:30 AM hoping for an early start on the trail because we didn’t know how slowly we would hike back up to Indian Garden Campground. We ate a quick breakfast and broke camp in time to get on the trail shortly before 8 AM — not bad timing for us — about an hour earlier than usual.
We crossed the Silver Suspension Bridge into the winter shadows, said good bye to Phantom Ranch and all of the uncooperative ringtails, and headed downstream along the Colorado River. About 1/2-hours out, we got into a spot of sun and stopped to bask for a minute or two, then continued up across the cliffs on the blasted-out trail.
In about an hour, we arrived at the River Resthouse where we planned to stop, rest, and eat trail snacks. We felt fine, so we just recycled some coffee and turned up Pipe Canyon, glancing back for one last look at the Colorado River and leaving the bottom of the Grand Canyon, proper.
We hiked up along Pipe Creek for about 45 minutes without stopping until we reached the base of Devil’s Corkscrew. We had planned our second stop here, and this time we took off the packs and spent a few minutes relaxing. This time, we also noticed a mine opening across the creek, so of course, Jim had to go investigate. The adit ran back about 30-40 feet into the cliff following a narrow vein of white rock. Not sure what is was, apparently it wasn’t valuable enough to keep working the mine. This likely was one of the Cameron mines operated not for the minerals but rather to control access along the trail where Cameron charged tourists $1 each to pass through his claims.
After our 20-minute rest, we started up the Devil’s Corkscrew, which starts as a series of steep switchbacks. To Jim’s surprise, Liz just kept going and going and going. Jim took a lot of photos, and in doing so, had a hard time catching up with Liz. We finally stopped for a 5-minute break at the upper spring where the cottonwood trees seemed even more yellow than before. This point is essentially the top of the steep Devil’s Corkscrew, and Liz hiked the entire way without stopping to rest — amazing!
From the spring, we walked the remaining 5 minutes to the top of the Devil’s Corkscrew, and this time stopped for a short sit-down break and a few trail snacks in the warm sunshine. While there, we looked up to the top of the adjacent cliffs and saw tiny dots moving along the edge. The tiny dots turned out to be people atop Plateau Point (atop the Tapeats Sandstone layer) that looked impossibly far above us, but was actually about the level of Indian Garden. Jim joked that we could just climb the cliff and short-cut the trail, but the joke was more to relieve the tension of thinking that Liz really could hike that far up (even on the trail) without having any trouble.
Departing the top of the corkscrew a minute or two before 11 AM, we continued up the trail following Garden Creek. We re-entered the narrow canyon with its winter shadows and hopped the stream twice as we worked our way up through the last of the Vishnu Schist to the Great Unconformity and the base of Tapeats Sandstone layer (11:20 AM). We stopped for a couple of minutes looking for a good place to photograph the Unconformity, but we realized that we’d already come up too far and weren’t about to hike back down looking for it.
Winding up through the narrow canyon following Garden Creek, we dipped in an out of the shadows, hopped the creek a couple of more times, and suddenly we were above the Tapeats Sandstone (11:30 AM). Without even stopping to rest, Liz had hiked all the way to the level of Plateau Point that had looked impossibly high only 30 minutes before!
We stopped for a few minutes on a rock ledge in the sun that made for a nice bench, then continued up what turns out to be a steeper than expected hike along Garden Creek where it crosses the Tonto Platform (Bright Angel Shale layer).
We arrived into Indian Garden Campground a few minutes after noon and chose a site high on the hillside with nice views of the cliffs and fewer trees to provide shade (which is to say: more sunny than others). Surprised to be in so early, we relaxed in the sun, hung our gear to air and dry out, ate lunch, and generally lounged around for the afternoon.
We wandered about the local area visiting the ranger station, the visitor center, and other facilities, but generally just relaxed. By about 1:30 PM, the sun went behind the cliffs and we bundled up again. We borrowed a book from the lending library about park rangers, and had fun reading about our former life. By 6:30 PM, it was dark enough for some great star photos, but by then it was cold and we went to bed. It wasn’t too cold, only getting down to about 40 degrees, but in Indian Garden it was a damp cold. Great Horned Owls called in the distance as we drifted off to sleep.
November 20, Friday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 5
This was another lay-over day, so we enjoyed sleeping in and eating a slow breakfast (hot oatmeal) with an extra cup of coffee.
Our adventure for the day as a 1.5-mile hike over gently rolling terrain to Plateau Point, the impossibly high cliff were we had seen dot-sized people the day before. It was a nice walk out over the Tonto Platform, and it gave Liz a good example of the terrain I’d traversed during several long, solo winter backpacking trips a decade ago. It is hard to believe the way time flies, but it was nice to be back on the Tonto.
We relaxed in the sun out on the point where the smooth rock allowed us to take off our boots and walk about freely. The 360-degree views were grand with the North and South rims standing tall above us and the Colorado River far below. It was even fun to look down on dot-people along the trail where we had been the day before. Right at our feet, the stone recorded the passing of Cambrian-era creatures as they scurried around on what as a muddy ocean bottom.
We spent about 1-1/2 hours on the sunny point, and during that time, we mostly had the site to ourselves. Day hikers from the South Rim occasionally interrupted our silence, but we had a chance to meet trail runners from Austria, a pair of elegantly dressed hikers from Spain, a lone hiker from Holland (where he says the land is entirely flat), and even one American kid from Iowa.
Hiking back to camp, we enjoyed the last of the sun for the day and dipped back into the winter shadows. In camp, we busied ourselves getting ready for the long hike out tomorrow, relaxed, ate too much so we wouldn’t have to carry it out, and listened to the owls again.
November 21, Saturday — Grand Canyon Backpack Day 6
Up early again to the sound of the iPod, we managed to get out of bed by 6:15 AM even though here in the canyon it was still dark enough to need a flash for photos. The night had been windy, but by dawn it was only breezy, and the breeze served to dry the tent and ground cover before we packed them up after an otherwise damp night.
On trail at 7:50 AM, we started up along the gentle grade of Garden Creek. We had our daily strategy set, but Jim thought it might be overly aggressive, despite how well Liz did coming up from the Colorado River. We arrived at our first rest stop, the base of the Redwall Limestone at 8:40 AM, sooner than we expected. We stopped to rest and snack. It was cold, and we only stayed long enough to let a mule train go by before Liz was ready to carry on.
Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, a steep series of tight switchbacks, we climbed through the Redwall layer with barely more than a moment’s stop here and there.
Taking photos, Jim stopped more often than Liz, and we arrived atop the cliffs at 3-Mile Resthouse at 9:20 AM. Only 30 minutes and Liz had climbed all the way through the Redwall! Things were looking good, but we still had 3 miles and thousands of feet to climb.
After what seemed like a long, cold rest, we felt ready to go and departed 3-Mile Resthouse at 9:40 AM (only 20 minutes rest). Powering up the trail in slow-gear, Liz just kept climbing through the Supai Group, a mix of layered sandstone and mudstone. On the way down, we had slogged through mud in this area, but now the trail was dry, or seemed to be dry although we occasionally saw ice crystals in the mud.
Liz powered on, and by 11:10 AM we arrived at 1.5-Mile Resthouse where snow from our Monday storm had been pounded by so many feet into snow-ice on the trail. We stopped here to rest, snack, and recycle the last of the coffee, but it seemed very cold here, and by 11:40 AM we were back on the trail.
Fortunately, as we left the 1.5-Mile Resthouse area, the snow cleared from the trail and the temperature seemed warmer. Climbing towards the base of the Coconino Sandstone, the big layer of vertical cliffs, Jim recalled seeing a bobcat here in 2006, and keeping an eye out, we saw several bobcat scats along the trail, so it was nice to see they were still around. We also saw a coyote scat, so the kitties better watch out.
We arrived at the base of the Coconino Sandstone at 12:00 noon and Liz kept powering along, taking only 20 minutes to climb all of the switchbacks and cross back through Second Tunnel. We had been told by a ranger at Indian Garden about clearly visible ruins near the trail just below the tunnel, but as hard as we looked, we saw nothing and kept climbing upward.
By this time, we were encountering more and more snow-ice on the trail, and even icicles at seeps along the cliffs, and by about 12:40 PM we found ourselves with serious slippery ice on one of the steepest parts of the trail. We carefully negotiated the worst of the ice, but often that meant walking on the very outside edge of the trail where a slip over the edge would surely be the last. We passed the steep section without incident, and the rest of the trail was either clear or much less steep. We were glad to have our trekking poles, but wished we’d brought our instep crampons.
By 1:10 PM, we were passing through First Tunnel accompanied by what turned out to be three bus-loads of Asian tourists. The icy trail was a bit crowded, but we continued upward, and Liz crested out onto the South Rim at 1:15 PM. Jim was amazed that we’d come all the way up in only 5-1/2 hours when he was afraid we might be coming out in the dark, and surprisingly, neither of us felt tired or sore.
We checked off our bucket-list item, got a double-scoop of ice cream to share and celebrate, and hit the road. Driving pretty hard, we make it home by about 7:30 PM, successfully completing our grand adventure.
Working with a friend, I suggested that he use WordPress to post his own materials without my interference. I thought perhaps I should take my own advice and opened an account with WordPress. Starting this blog, I hope it will be a convenient complement to my website: birdandhike.com