Monday, 23 June 2014

Rocky Mountain National Park: The Littlest Things

In spite of some very cushy times in Colorado, our time in the state wasn’t all indoor plumbing and Jacuzzi sessions.

We also spent a total of almost a week in Rocky Mountain National Park before and after our visit to Pine, and we hiked every day of it.

The first three trails were with Oliver. First, we hoofed it upwards for five miles, through beetle-killed forest, to an old fire lookout, only to have the skies open up and pour rain and lightning down on us once we made it our destination.
Hungry Hungry Hikers

The next hike was more rewarding, as the weather held off and we cruised through some
 mostly-live pines, a moose-frequented meadow, and across a babbling brook.

The last one for this stint in the park was an easy morning walk, in blazing sunshine, around a meadow filled with elk and through grassy hills and sun-warmed rocks.
On our second, solo, visit to Rocky Mountain, Ashek and I got more ambitious (I think we were finally adjusting to the elevation) and went up to a beautiful lake above the snowline, and then beyond, over snow fields to the bottom of a breathtaking glacier. We finished up with another short and steep hike, to Bierstadt Lake and then down switchbacks with views of the whole park below us.

Beetle kill
What struck me most at Rocky Mountain, however, wasn’t the jagged peaks or even the crystal-coloured lakes. It was all the dead trees. Pine beetle has come to Rocky Mountain in a big way, and much of the forest – acres and acres of it – is dust-colored, and slowly falling down in the wind.

Healthy Pines
It’s particularly scary to see as a British Columbian, because it feels like looking into our future. Speaking with Colorado locals, the story is familiar: they haven’t had the cold winters they need to keep the beetle’s numbers down, and so the insect has truly taken over. Instead of attacking only sick or weak trees, as they typically do, they are after healthy pines as well, with a vengeance. In parts of BC the story is already playing out: we have many bright red forests, the colour the trees go when they first are infected. To imagine swaths of gray like those here in Colorado covering the province is deeply disturbing. The silver lining may be that they are, in some places, past the worst. The pines are dead, gone – but Aspen, Fir, and other trees and plants are already filling in the gaps, eagerly seeking the newly available sunlight. In some ways, though, it’s cold comfort. I’m no environmental scientist, but I wonder what the larger ramifications are for the ecosystem when such a dramatic die-off occurs. Certainly something we heard from many in the state was that flooding and erosion are made worse when fires come through, removing the stabilizing effect of healthy root systems. I imagine beetle-kill writ large would have similar impacts. If nothing else, thousands of acres of dead trees surely make fire more likely.

Climate change has been something of a theme of this trip. We hear it everywhere, again and again: it’s different than it was, more extreme. Drought, floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, extreme heat: almost every community we’ve visited has a story about the changes of recent decades, and how they are more difficult to adjust to and cope with than the more gradual fluctuations of times past. None of this is new information, of course. For me, however, seeing the effects in the microcosm of people’s lived experiences strips some of the abstraction away. People need help to deal with the impacts of climate change. Our societies are going to have to develop ways of coping with this, of providing assistance and support to those whose lives are changing too quickly for easy adjustment. This is abundantly clear in the case of climate refugees from other parts of the world, running from drought, famine, or related conflicts.  It is also true for many farmers, fishers, and loggers right here in North America. How our societies deal with the existing crises of climate change will say as much about us as a species as how we approach efforts to slow its progress. Will we look on those who are more severely impacted with compassion, or will we fall to the usual tropes of blame, telling them to work harder and criticising them as burdens on society? It is time to look climate change in the face. And it is time to look at its victims, and to recognize their need, and their humanity. 

Rocky Mountains: Indoor Edition

Rivets and Bender at the 'Top of the World' in Rocky Mountain National Park
This little art piece was found at the top of the Transfer Trail

Colorado. It’s a word that rolls off the tongue, begging to be yodeled from mountaintops. Appropriately enough, as there are plenty of snow-topped peaks to be found in the state. We split our time in the Centennial state between climbing up ridge roads under the power of a turbo diesel engine, and hiking up steep trails under our own steam. Each method suffered notable performance decline due to elevation.

A "friendly local"

Our first set of Colorado adventures took place in the company of Oliver, whom we had met up with again after Moab. Together we hatched a plan of taking some backcountry routes towards Rocky Mountain National Park, where we would get out of the trucks and do a few days of hiking.


We had a less than fortuitous start, showing up just before dark in the tourist town of Glenwood Springs and watching a storm roll in from the windows of the local outdoor shop where we were asking about maps. Camp, it transpired, was many miles up a fairly serious 4x4 trail outside of town. When I asked about it at the store, the first question from the gentlemen at the till was whether we had a winch. We don’t, of course, because Ashek is of the belief that it breeds overconfidence. He must have a point, because with our “no winch” deterrent, we collectively made the decision of delaying our start until daylight.  We went for burgers, checked into a cheap motel, and spent the evening lounging in a hot tub, getting free advice on the area from some locals visiting from a nearby town.

Waterfall near Pine, CO

The next day we began the climb. The trail was definitely 4x4 only, but nothing extreme. No winches were necessary and the views were terrific. We camped a couple nights near Steamboat Springs and went for a beautiful hike in the foothills.
This had not been up the Transfer Trail

After a few days more hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, we once again said our goodbyes to Oliver and headed to Pine, Colorado to visit Ashek’s friend David. Far more than the motel in Glenwood Springs, this was a true luxury break: David and his lovely family fed us like kings, gave us a cozy bed to sleep in, use of their laundry and shower facilities, and took us out to experience some high culture at the “Buck Snort” pub. We also had our egos spanked when David took us hiking: our “we live outside” physiques lost all credibility at this elevation, and David was forced to stop frequently as he powered up the hills to let us catch our breath.

What I’ve learned on the "back nine" of this trip, from travelling in Baja with the Bugs to meeting Oliver to visiting friends, is that people can make travel infinitely better. I loved our time last summer and fall, in the woods by ourselves for months at a time, only emerging for quick grocery runs – yet being with people more often lately has been different, and it’s been positive. So thanks, to friends. We’ll miss being with you guys. 

Thursday, 19 June 2014

It's a Dry Heat...

Landscape Arch

 Ashek was in Moab years ago, and has been teasing me with stories of the hikes in Arches for months.

Leading questions included "How are you with narrow ridges?", "Hiking in the heat - cool?". These ominous queries were interspersed with enthusiastic descriptions of beautiful rock formations and surreal landscapes.

I've been waiting to see Arches National Park for a while.

Ultimately, we did three days of hiking. The days were so hot (by Canadian standards) that we adopted a routine of getting up at 5:30am, packing up camp, arriving at a trailhead by 6:15, and hiking until around 10 or 11am. In addition to the gorgeous morning light, this literally was the only way we could do it. Often, by the time we were nearing the car once more, we were sweating buckets and feeling lightheaded. Days were spent hiding under whatever shade we could find: a tree or the awning, waiting for the sun to go down. Then we would emerge again, make dinner, and lounge around in the cooler air until heading to bed.

Rinse. Repeat. Enjoy.
Here are some highlights:
The "Devil's Garden" with the Lasal Mountains behind
Navajo Arch

Delicate Arch

Friday, 6 June 2014

Dancing in the dark: Birthday on the White Rim

This being my second birthday on the road (im 33 now... holy crap!) my only wish was to not have as many bugs as last year. And maybe some beer. Last year was spent in northern Ontario on a lake with some magic ice-cream cake.  Luckily, the Colorado river on which we were camped only had a platoon of midges standing by, rather than the armada of mosquitos and black flies we had encountered in Ontario.

Unzipping the tent and not immediately being inundated with insects was a relief.

After an amazing breakfast and coffee, a goodie bag full of candy and toys was handed to me.  I will admit that I was most excited about the yellow balloon attached to it, and proceeded to mount it on the truck.  Sometimes its nice to feel like you're 10.

All clear, common up!

Red Beauty completing the ascent
Although the morning was pleasant, a fairly sizeable rock outcrop loomed over the camp.  After the previous days adventure on Murphy's Hogback, an area known as "hard scrabble" was ahead of us, and we had watched the previous evening as vehicles churned out rocks and dust on the climb up the narrow shelf road above the roaring Colorado river.  Needless to say that we were slightly anxious.

Alex, being the ever vigilant scout, offered to walk up the switchbacks with a radio to make sure no traffic was headed down as the convoy made its way up the hill.  As we ascended one by one, a collective sigh of relief came as we reached the top, looked down, and realized that it was the last big 'thing' we needed to drive through that day.


Balloons make me invincible!
Between us and camp was a small water crossing, and a bit of loose sand.  We roared through and rolled into camp at about 11am, ready to party.  In the mid-summer heat.  In the desert. With no access to water...  good times!

As the day cooled, the merriment began, and lights and balloons began being strung up along the various awnings, vehicles, and tents we had with us.  The Roving Bugs handed me a cold Guinness (nothing tastes like cold Guinness in the desert), and I was told to sit down while dinner was being prepared.


Everyone chipped in and Alex managed to top the ice-cream cake from the year prior with a steak, a cheesecake, and scotch, as our wonderful Overlanding family celebrated yet another potluck meal under the stars.

Oh yeah, Oliver broke out glow sticks and LED nunchucks and proceeded to put on a crazy laser light show to some awesome downtempo electrofunk.  For my 32nd I got to fly a plane, and for my 33rd I got a desert rave.  
Life is awesome!

Optical Wizardry

White Rim

Sylvie, Val, Leonie, Robbie, and Oliver: The Overland Adventure Team
After all the diesel fun, we rendezvoused with Trail Magic and the Roving Bugs and together hatched a plan for an adventure on the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park. 
White Rim

We had been hearing about the route since before our trip began, and were stoked to give it a shot. With our motley crew of trucks new and old, we headed to the Canyonlands Visitor Centre. There was some worry on our part about permits, as reservations are recommended and our pre-planning included walking inside together and hoping our collective charm would see us through, but luck was on our side and a rather surly ranger set us up with a permit, campsite reservations, and stern assurances that 4-wheel drive would be necessary. 

Feeling comfortably confident (4-wheel drive you say? Why, yes, we do have that!), the group watered up, aired down and began the descent into the canyon. The switchbacks were tight but the surface had a nice grip to it and several pullouts dotted the bends, making for a relaxing drive despite the canyon’s edge feet from our wheels. By early evening we made camp and sat down to enjoy some refreshingly watery Utah beer and a cheese plate that had somehow blossomed from Oliver’s trailer. I assume they come standard with the LR4, along with those doors that seal properly and the functioning electrical system. Bah! Fancy extras!

The next day dawned hot and windy, and we got an early start in an effort to beat the worst of it. Along with the heat, the road’s technical aspects increased. By midday, we were jostling our way over rocks and dips and winding up and down a few loose climbs. Bouncing along in the hot truck, we comforted ourselves that while Rivets may have a bit of a rattle to him, he is the real deal, the epitome of overland adventure machines. It would take more than a few leaks and a hot cab to change that. 

Cooling our toes in some rare water
Ready for a break, we stopped for lunch and erected a quick shade structure. Sitting in chairs bemoaning the heat, we noticed a group of mountain bikers crouching in the scant shade of a nearby tree. White Rim is a multi-use trail, and these folks were doing the same route we were, but on bikes. These brave souls had beat their support truck to camp and were hiding under the tree, awaiting the arrival of lunch and extra water. We quickly ceased our complaints and after sheepishly snarfing down our sandwiches and going for a quick walk we climbed back in our trucks and set off. 

"Bender" the LR4 climbing the Hog's Back
About a mile shy of our campsite, we rounded a corner and watched as a huge shelf climb loomed its way into view. The famed "Hog's Back" was upon us. With the only manual transmission in the convoy, Ashek and I looked at the loose gravel and steep incline and decided to walk the road first to assess the situation. After hoofing it up the hill in the afternoon sun we determined it would be a good time for low range and an even better time to engage rear and centre lockers. Ashek has a recurring nightmare in which he stalls and rolls backwards off a cliff, and this didn't feel like the time to try a dramatic enactment of the terror. The group suggested we go first so they would be able to see right away if we got into trouble (presumably so they could take pictures). Ashek was struck by a wave of chivalry and requested I walk the trail again instead of riding with him. With all systems go, he began the climb. Rivets performed beautifully, maintaining traction and never once threatening to stall. After I had gasped my way up the hill for the second time breathed in my gratitude at his selflessness, we turned around to watch the others make the ascent. The sweat rolled down our necks, and some longing may have been said to shine in our gaze as we watched the air-conditioned automatics of our friends breeze their way up the steep slope.

That evening we played with the girls and ate delicious quesadillas prepared by Val and Robbie. We chatted about overlanding, the pressures of city life, and finding balance in it all. Would you do this forever if you could? Do you miss home? What will you do differently when you go back? The seriousness was well interspersed with frequent jokes about everything from a Carl Sagan remix that has become the theme song of the ride to knock-knock jokes from the girls (a la Lettuce in it’s cold outside! variety). Turns out overlanding en masse is a ton of fun.

The days after we survived the Hog’s Back climb were just as fun as those before. We rounded out the trip with a birthday celebration for Ashek, and after five days of backcountry wonder, said goodbye to the Bugs as we hit pavement once more. Before saying goodbye to Oliver we had a last hurrah at the Moab Diner with some good old-fashioned greasy spoon fare, followed by enough ice cream to satisfy our calcium and caloric requirements for several days to come.

Fun with Diesel!

I am happy to say that our fuel tank adventure has been  resolved. I wouldn't say it was resolved smoothly, per se, but Rivets is now dry on the outside and (bonus!) significantly less flammable. 

The solution we went with ended up being a welding shop in St. George. After looking around online at the possibility of sourcing and installing a tank we realized that 1) Nothing commerce-related can be accomplished on Memorial Day weekend; and 2) New tanks are expensive! Because Land Rover! 

With some time to kill over the weekend, we went hiking with Oliver in Zion National Park and awaited Tuesday's arrival. Pictures of this much more pleasant event are at the bottom of the post :)

Draining the bondo-ed tank before removal
Ashek found the ultimate welding place to help us in St. George in a small shop behind the owner's house. He let us drop the tank in the yard next door and even brought us each a Pepsi midway through. In very un-Canadian 100 degree heat, this alone was worth the cost of the welding. We got the tank out and he cleaned it and welded it up in a jiffy, and by mid-afternoon we were under the truck again, repaired tank in hands. Tank back where it belonged, we added some fuel and waited with bated breath. Hurrah, no leaks! Eager to get out of the dirt and heat, we quickly reattached the skid plate and sway bar. We hopped in the truck and drove to the front of the shop to thank our new friend Mike the Welder. As I was climbing out, I heard Ashek, who had jumped out first, swear loudly. Uh-oh. I looked under the truck in disbelief. Sure enough, the damn thing was dripping onto the pavement again. How? Why? Such questions were irrelevant to the reality that faced us, however, and there was nothing else for it but to climb underneath and start taking things off to get a look at what had happened. So it was that by early evening a second patch was being welded on the tank. Turned out that a thin line of rust had traveled just beyond the patch, and Mike had missed it. He was unbelievably nice about it, letting us borrow tools to speed the process and refusing to charge us for the second patch. 

The first tank drop

In the end we tightened the last bolt around 10 pm. Bedraggled and diesel-soaked, we ruled out leaving town to find camp and instead headed back to the Rodeway Inn we'd been calling home while waiting for the weekend to end. With what felt like something out of a nightmare, when we got the motel there was, yet again, diesel on the ground. One of the hoses had popped off. Unsure at this point as to the why (but Why?!), Ashek reattached it and we went to bed. 

In the morning it all became clear when the fuel lines on the block itself began popping off as well. We now had pressurized fuel running through lines not designed for pressure, and the already old braided lines had given up. Turns out the opening for the return line on the tank had gotten welded slightly tighter, and not enough fuel was able to get through. So we spent another day at an Auto Zone, bypassing the opening and replacing the fuel lines on the block. This completed, we had a functioning truck once more.
Feels as though we've been using these a lot lately...

Overlanding: the excitement never ends :)

The Narrows trail in Zion

Climbing up a waterfall

Water: more refreshing than diesel