Thursday, July 11, 2019

Climbing Mt. Mansfield, Vermont's Highest Peak

    From our spot in Jeffersonville, Vermont I can see the highest peak, Mount Mansfield. It is not just the tallest summit in Vermont at 4,393ft, but it the same mountain where the famous Stowe ski area can be found. I have always looked at the mountain, which resembles the profile of a giant face looking up towards the heavens, and wondered how I could get up to the summit. During this visit to Vermont I was determined to make it happen, so after a bit of research I did just that.
Crossing beautiful streams on the way up

   My calves are still burning as I am writing this, several days later, but the pain is all worth it knowing that everytime I look up towards the mountain I will remember standing on top of it and soaking in that 360 degree view. Here is how I made it....

Breathing hard on the way up
   A short 25 minute drive away from Jeffersonville is a place called Underhill State Park. It is located at the base of Mt Mansfield and houses several trails leading up to the summit, which is actually the chin of the giant face. Upon arrival at the parking lot I was pleased to find an open spot, aparantly the small lot can get filled up fast, especially on weekends. I chatted with the park ranger, paid my $4 parking fee, and enquired about the different trails. I was intrigued by the Laura Cowles Trail as it appeared to be a bit shorter than the popular Sunset Ridge Hike to the summit. The ranger said it is steep, then he added, 'its very steep'. I said, 'sounds perfect. I can take one trail up and another down and see twice as much.' He suggested I take the Laura Cowles trail up rather than down...I soon figured out he was right. 

Where the trails meet
   The trail meandered its way up through a beautiful forest, along a tumbling creek until splitting from the main sunset ridge trail. From there I followed the creek which was more like a waterfall for about 3000' straight up. At some points the trail and the waterfall seemed to combine, so I worked hard to keep on the dry rocks as best as I could. On hikes like these where you are hopping from rock to rock, having the traction of dry shoes can be a lifesaver. If the trail had been any steeper I would have needed to use my hands in order to scramble, or climb instead of hiking (hence the sore calves.)

   The stream became smaller and smaller until finally I reached an altitude where the rocks were covered in a thick blanket of moss that continuously seeped out water like an oversaturated sponge. It was pretty wild to see, especially since it was a beautiful sunny day without a single raincloud in the sky. Yet here was the headwaters of the everpresent river down below.

Alpine summit environment
Summit of Mt. Mansfield, VT
  Finally I busted out of the treeline to an amazing view out over Lake Champlane backed by the Adirondack Mountains. I made my way along the rocky ridgeline through an interesting alpine environment. The rangers had roped off a lot of the non-rocky areas in an effort to preserve the rare alpine species that live here.

     A USGS survey marker was at the very top of the summit. I was surprised by the number of folks up here, as I hadn't passed a single person on the trail up. I later found out that there is a much easier way to the summit, one that most of these folks had taken. Over on the Stowe side of the mountain you can drive up the toll road which takes you to the very top of the Stowe ski area lifts. From here it is short climb followed by an amble along the ridgeline to the scenic summit. I stopped for a hearty picnic lunch at the top, soaking in the beautiful weather and cool breeze. And after a few pictures from the summit I raced down the Sunset ridge trail, passing folks on the way. I felt like I was setting a pretty fast pace to try and get back home before Catalina woke from her nap. That pace was definitely put into perspective as I crossed paths with a trail runner literally racing up the trail.

  In the end it was a great half day's adventure. In fact the total time I was up and down including lunch was three hours. And I made it back before Catalina woke from her nap. Mark that as another great Vermont adventure.

The summertime view of Stowe ski resort, from the Chin

Friday, July 5, 2019

Shakes Glacier Jet Boat Adventure

Our jet boat
Unusual walking spot
 After spending a day jet boating up the Stikine River, over a terminal moraine and into a glacier lake I realized that I am a pretty cautious captain...compared to these guys! If you ever come to Wrangell, Alaska this adventure should definitely be on your list.

Grounded 'berg
Pushing icebergs
  You board your jet boat at the dock in Wrangell. Everyone has seat and even seat belts, which is a bit unusual for a boat. Instead of propellers that spin under the boat making it go fast, this style of boat has water intake that it shoots out in a stream kind of like a jet ski. Manuevering is with a giant joystick and the draft, or depth of the deepest part of the boat, is only 12 inches. This is perfect for heading up the silty and shallow Stikine River.

Grounded 70ft deep
Wine, salmon, and cheese
  Shortly after leaving the island of Wrangell and heading towards the mainland I watched as the depth sounder started giving shallower and shallower readings. We were speeding right along as the water got to about 5ft deep. I would have been very nervous. And it was high tide! What do they do at low tide? Our captain new right were to find the "deepest' channel and we made it past the delta into the mouth of the Stikine river. "Now's where it gets tricky." he said.

Beautiful day in Alaska
  Just past the entrance to the fastest free flowing navigable river in North America, we came across another shallow section called, the 'stump graveyard.' Ground logs were everywhere here. I would never take a skiff or zodiac into these waters. Once we were past the stump graveyard we jetted up the river, taking several side passages on the way up. The captain pointed out several of his favorite salmon fishing grounds and we stopped at several forest service cabins for bathroom breaks on the way.

   The next big challenge was making it over a terminal moraine, downstream from a huge glacial lake created by the receding Shakes Glacier. I had flown over this area during a surprise impromptu float plane adventure a year ago, saw the glacial moraine from the plane, and swore that noone would be able to take a boat past it, as it looked too shallow. You can check out the float plane adventure here. But sure enough, we took the jet boat at high speed right over the moraine, past the grounded ice bergs, and into the glacial lake.

Waterfall cascading onto the boat
   From here is was a relaxing ride, pushing ice bergs, washing the boat by driving into a waterfall (see photo below) and having a picnic of wine and cheese and salmon while admiring the glacier that created it all. We left behind grey skies and rain in Wrangell to enjoy some blue skies and sunshine tucked away between the mountains. I still can't believe we were going 35mph in water that was sometimes 2ft deep. I have to put this down as one of the most unique Alaskan adventures that you can experience.

   Check out Alaska landscape photos here.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Haines, Alaska Thru the Lens

4am Sunrise coming into Haines
Silver Muse at the Haines dock
  Haines is a wonderful small town at the top of Southeast Alaska's famous Inside Passage. Yet in my extensive travelings within the Inside Passage over the past five years I had never been there. So I was quite excited to have Haines as a port stop for my new itinerary on the Silver Muse. It has a population of just under 2,000 people, and is famous for having over 3,000 eagles at certain points of the year. Dramatic mountains form the backdrop of the town with glaciers tumbling down out of them.

Alaska Trainquility
Lupine in bloom
  This week I started off the voyage with a lecture on photography. So I made sure to sign myself up to escort the "Haines: Thru a lens" tour to further the experience for our guests. I also thought that it would be a great way to see some of the best locations in Haines and get the scoop from a knowledgeable local.

A fine day at work
    I was in luck. The rain held off, but the dramatic clouds remained which created a wonderful backdrop to the landscape shots. The water of Chilkoot Lake and stream were turquoise blue thanks to all the glacial melt upstream in the mountains. And to cap it all off the wildflowers were in full bloom. Purple lupin, yellow buttercups, and deep brown chocolate lilies added beautiful color to an already beautiful scene.

Chilkoot Lake, Haines
  Most of the big ships miss this port as they head fourteen miles north to the town of Skagway. If you ask me, Haines is much more my kind of town. I felt lucky to be able to catch it thru my lens and I look forward to coming back again.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Helicopter Glacier Trekking in Juneau, Alaska

  Over the last fifty days I have been implementing an expedition style program on one of Silversea's classic fleet ships called the Silver Muse. It can hold around 600 passengers and is far and away the largest ship I've ever worked on. Figuring out the logistics of where the expedition equipment would go, like all of the zodiacs and kayaks, and other gear was only one of the many challenges that my team and I faced with this assignment.

   Now that we are all packed up and can relish in the success I can finally look back at the few times I did get off the ship for some pretty fabulous adventures in Alaska. When the ship was in port, and not all the expedition team was needed for our excursions, I would try to send the team out as escorts on shore based trips. This was one of my favorites.

  On one rainy day in Juneau I watched the poor shore concierge team as flight after flight of sightseeing helicopters postponed and outright canceled. There was a lot of confusions as some of these calls to cancel come at the last minute. On this day though I would get very lucky. All of a sudden a young girl called my group to head towards a waiting van. I really couldn't believe my luck. We jumped in and drove north out of town towards the airport. Once there we got all geared up with waterproof layers, boots, survival packs in the form of fanny packs, gloves, and even waiters. We walked out to a waiting helicopter and off we went!

  The clouds were pretty dark and low, but we had enough of a ceiling to fly up the face of Mendenhall Glacier. After a few scenic turns we touched down on lookers left of the glacier. Here our guide Jaydan met us and equipped all of us with crampons that fit snugly underneath our boots. I had experienced wearing crampons once before when I walked on Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand. The grip they give you on the ice, and the ability to walk up and down almost vertical slopes gives you the feeling of being a wild animal.

   The adventure was called Glacier Trekking with NorthStar trekking based in Juneau. We climbed around the ice marveling at sky blue streams running through the glacier, holes that seemed to have no bottom, and caves just big enough to squeeze through. Even though it was raining back down in Juneau, it was nice enough up on the glacier to take my camera along for the ride and score some amazing photo opportunities.

 We walked and explored for about an hour and a half before the helicopter came back for our pickup. Instead of flying straight back to the airport we spent a good half hour flying up Mendenhall glacier, over a few dog sledding camps high on the ice field, and then down  Herbert glacier out to Auk Bay. The drizzly rain greeted us again down at the airport where apparently it had never stopped. We all felt quite lucky to have had such an amazing experience. 

  Enjoy scrolling through the rest of the pictures. Glaciers can be some of the most photogenic areas in nature. Juneau, Alaska happens to be a great place to access quite a few of them. I'm looking forward to more glacial mountaineering adventures in the future!