Tag Archives: travel

McFaddin Beach: Biologist’s Heaven or Hell?

Previously, I wrote about an amazing trip Hubby and I had to McFaddin Beach, fossil hunting. We had a great time, and we knew we couldn’t wait long before we were wanting to go again. It’s pretty rare that we have a weekend coming up that doesn’t already have plans, but last weekend just such an occasion arose, so we decided to head back to McFaddin to do some serious fossil hunting.

So let me back up: I have had one of the busiest months ever at my company. For those of you that don’t know, I’m in the Zombie and Poltergeist Prevention business. And baby, business is boomin’. We were already pretty busy, when all of a sudden Louisiana was under MUCH more water than it normally is. So, because of my job saving the planet from Zombie invasions, I have been doing A LOT of work in Louisiana, and I didn’t get home until 11 pm on Friday. Saturday morning we slept in, and finally decided to head to McFaddin Beach for the weekend. I wanted to be able to relax and not have to think about anything for about 48 hours. What better way to do that, then at the beach?

So we loaded up and got to the beach around noon. Immediately we got out and started birding, because we are working on our 2016 Bird List and it’s the beginning of Fall Migration and you can find some really interesting species this time of year. The mosquitoes were pretty bad if you walked in the grass, so we covered ourselves with bug spray and kept on with birding and then moved on the fossil hunting. I didn’t find anything spectacular, so I decided to read for a little while and take a nap on the beach. Perfect day for relaxing! I helped Hubby get the canopy set up, and then I went back to fossil hunting while he started to make dinner.

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I noticed a storm starting to build, and I kept an eye on it, thinking it was going to go around us. After all, we had checked the weather forecast for the area, and there wasn’t anything worrisome there, which is why we had headed down to the beach to begin with. As we sat down for dinner, we watched the storm roll in. The majority of the storm went south of us, and there was even a teeny-tiny water spout! Which was pretty cool since I had never seen one before and it was small, so we weren’t worried. We did get some rain after all, so we moved the generator under the canopy to keep it as dry as possible.

As soon as it stopped raining however, is when all hell broke loose. The mosquitoes came out in droves. We rinsed off as fast as we could and then ran to the camper. We were covered in mosquito bites, so we both took some Benadryl and I passed out. Hubby, on the other hand, couldn’t sleep. He was too concerned about the storm surge. It was still raining, and the water was getting higher. It’s a pretty small beach to begin with, so there wasn’t a lot of “wiggle room.” Finally, at around 12:30 am, Hubby opened the door to look outside. In a Benadryl fog, I wasn’t sure why he was doing that, except that he was letting in more mosquitoes.

He said he was concerned about the storm surge, and as soon as I looked outside, a wave came up the beach, and went UNDER THE CAMPER. We knew if we stayed there, we would be lucky to dig the truck and trailer out of the sand in the morning. Not to mention the  amount of money we would have lost with the generator, canopy, chairs, table, and cooking equipment that we had set up that would have been washed into the ocean. So we ran outside as fast as possible to move our stuff to higher ground. Hubby pulled the truck and trailer around into the grassy area while I ran interference for any debris that was in the way (there is a lot of garbage on that beach, unfortunately). I was getting devoured by mosquitoes, but I didn’t have time to think about it – we had to get our stuff to higher ground. Once the truck and trailer were at high ground, we moved the generator, all the cooking stuff and table and camp chairs, and then we had to get the tie-down weights untied from the canopy so we could move it without bending it, and then we had to re-tie them so the canopy would be over the generator, and not fly away. At this point I couldn’t handle the bug bites anymore. If I stood still it felt like I was getting attacked by needles all over my body. While I was running around moving our gear, I had to keep my mouth closed to keep from swallowing them.

Once we made sure that everything was moved to high ground, and Hubby put a car tail light at the water line (I told you were was a lot of debris on this beach) in order to see if the water was getting higher or not (if the tail light moved or was gone, the water was getting higher), we went back to the camper. Again, standing still, waiting to make sure that everything was okay, we were getting mauled. I looked at the camper and it was covered in clouds of mosquitoes. I swiped them away from the door as best I could before jumping into the camper. I cleaned the sand off my feet as best I could, and then began to SCRATCH. I hadn’t been this itchy in my entire life. It was like I had Chicken Pox on steroids. I was almost in tears, I was so itchy. Hubby jumped in the camper, and repeated my process. Smashing every mosquito we could find inside the trailer, I was crazy with the need to make sure they were all dead. I couldn’t handle getting ANOTHER mosquito bite.

When we finally began to win the battle again the mosquitoes inside the camper, I began to see what looked like evidence for a murder that happened inside the camper. The mosquitoes we had been smashing were full of blood, so there were blood smears all over the doors and walls of the camper. It was hilarious and horrific at the same time (probably only hilarious because of the delirium caused by low red blood cells).

We finally were able to settle down, and we watched the water to see that it wasn’t coming up any further. However, we confirmed that if we had stayed there, there would have been serious problems. It was not about 1 am. We took another Benadryl each and passed out, making sure the turn off the alarm we had set to get up early and take sunrise shots. Eff that, after the night we had.

The next morning we got up and it was still raining. Exhausted, itchy, mentally drained, and disappointed, we left the beach without doing any more fossil hunting. I was sad, but I just didn’t have the energy needed to put into fighting mosquitoes for another day. And the sad thing is, I know that storm pushed some amazing fossils to the beach. I just couldn’t muster the strength.

In closing, we will be going back. Just not camping there on the beach. There is a State Park nearby, called Sea Rim State Park, where we will be camping. The storm surge is much less of a concern (because you are MUCH further away from the beach) and the mosquitoes are on the tolerable level, rather than the insanity-inducing level.

But I have decided that McFaddin Beach is a special hell.

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(One should never pass up the opportunity for a Firefly reference – Ron Glass as Shepherd Book, image found on http://theretiredbridgeburner.blogspot.com/2013/05/hanlons-razor.html, source unknown)

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#Opt Out (Freeze Out)

(Ok, I know this is WAY LATE but that’s what happens when you have photos on one computer and write a post an another…)

Typically, every year Hubby and I “opt out” from the jumble of Thanksgiving and Black Friday and use that time off of work to head out to the middle of nowhere and camp. (Even REI does #optoutside so you can share your photos from your hiking adventures, rather than getting run-over by a crowd trying to get the cheap tvs at Walmart for Black Friday.) A year ago we went to Big Bend National Park, and this year we decided to go to Palo Duro Canyon State Park outside of Amarillo, Texas. It’s the same amount of time in the car, and neither of us had ever been there before so we wanted to give it a shot. After we had booked our trip we discovered Run Away campers, and fell in love. They are affordable, they are comfortable, and they are TINY! We ordered our little Range Runner model camper (it’s actually the largest model they have at 6’x8′) from Florida and it was delivered just a few days later! We were excited to get it before our camping trip because that meant we would be able to glamp (glam camp) instead of being in a tent, which had been the original plan. The first chance I got, I called the Park Service phone number for reservations, but they were out of RV camp sites! I was sad, but I thought, ‘One last trip of rocks in the back and waking up stiff. After this, we will use the camper.’ But as we got closer to the date, every time we checked the weather it was looking worse and worse. The high for the day dropped from being in the 40s to being in the low 20s with freezing rain. It was going to be miserable. We were going to cancel, defeated and depressed. Until Hubby got the idea to check the RV site availability again. Lo and behold, other people had checked the weather too, and cancelled their trip so there were spaces available! I did a happy dance and we started planning for the trip once again. We left before the crack of dawn on Thanksgiving Day since it was a 9 hour drive, and got there just in time for the park office to tell us that the weather is going to get worse, so they will probably close the office over the weekend. “That’s fine,” we told them. “We have a tv and a stack of movies.” But we had no idea what we were in for.

The rain turned to sleet, and the sleet turned to ice. We tried hiking around our camp site a little bit but the mud was caking onto anything that touched it and making a huge mess. I was afraid of slipping and hurting my back so I was being extremely careful. We got back to the camper to thaw out and ended up having to heat up canned soup inside the camper because it was too miserable to cook outside.

From Thursday night to Saturday morning we watched 3 of the Planet of the Apes movies and Season 2 of Scrubs. We got a little bit of cabin fever so we bundled up and headed out to do a little birding once the ice stopped falling. There was a thick layer of ice on every surface. Walking through parking lots was difficult because it was so slippery. But I got some great bird shots anyway! We saw a huge flock of turkeys (30 or more) and each bird had ice frozen on its back. We went to a birding station and the Cardinals and Finches had frozen feathers also.

female cardinal Gold Finch male cardinal turkeysWe headed back to camp to hike around a bit more (now that the ground was frozen, the mud wasn’t an issue) and Hubby saw the Park Host come by to fill the bathrooms with toilet paper. He went to go talk to them and they told his that the road to get out of the park was closed and we wouldn’t be able to get out until noon on Sunday! That was a problem. With a 9 hour drive, that was cutting it close. What if the roads didn’t improve and we were stuck longer? The last thing I wanted was to get home at 2 am and have to go to work the next day. So Hubby and I loaded up into the truck and checked the road for ourselves. He has all wheel drive so we weren’t concerned, and any point that the road looked icy, we would get out and check it before driving on it. (The road to get out of the park goes up through the canyon, so if you lose traction on the icy road, it’s quite a tumble down). The road seemed fine as we headed up, and I had him stop a few times so I could get pictures of the beautiful ice-covered grasses and yucca and barbed-wire fence.

frozen grassI even heard coyotes howling VERY close to me and I was so happy to hear them. Every time I hear coyotes, I’m the only one around for miles (while Hubby sits in the warm car!) and it seems like they are singing to me. I even saw one of the singers a few minutes later!

coyoteWe finally made our way to the park entrance and saw that the gate was wide open. The park host had told us it was closed and locked and we couldn’t get out! So we looked at each other and came to this conclusion: If the road freezes, it will be over night. The road is passable now, but in the morning there is no guarantee. So we got out while the getting was good and headed to Amarillo to spend the night.

We headed back down the park road and hooked up the camper. In 20 minutes we were back on the road, carefully heading out of the park. The highway was frozen so we took it slow and then pulled into the parking lot of our destination: The Big Texan steak ranch. Part of our plan on this trip had been to eat at The Big Texan because it’s an icon! It has been on tv shows like Man vs. Food and Day Tripper because they do the 72 ounce steak challenge. You have to consume a 72 ounce steak, a baked potato, a shrimp cocktail, salad, and a bread roll, all in 60 minutes. Of course, we weren’t going to be PARTICIPATING in the steak challenge, but we still wanted to eat there. Also, as it turned out, The Big Texan has a hotel ON SITE so we didn’t have to go anywhere by the end of the night! The parking lot was an ice rink so I was really happy we didn’t have to get back on the highway and find somewhere else to stay. (Also, I just saw on their website that they now have an RV park too, so that’s good to know in case our next trip to Palo Duro gets cut short again!)

The next morning, before heading home, we stopped at Cadillac Ranch.cadillacs3cadillacs

It’s literally a bunch of Cadillacs from the 1940s-1960s that were jammed into the ground in the 1970s as an art installation. The thing is, it’s legal to do graffiti art at this site. I guess that’s kind of the point – everyone is an artist if they are given the chance. We had never seen it before, and we might never come back to Amarillo again, so we had it on our list of must-dos while we were on the trip. We trudged out to the cars through the snow and ice, took a couple pictures, and got back to our heated car as quickly as possible. But I noticed some interesting things while we were there: there are so many layers of paint on the cars, that it looks like the cars are melting.

frozen paintThere had been people out at the site spray-painting in the snow and ice, so that the frost on the cars was painted orange and blue. The snow on the ground was also used as a temporary canvas, saying the typical “So-and-so Loves So-and-so” and happy holidays. Also, even the barbed-wire that surrounds the property had been painted. It was surprisingly beautiful.

Once we were done at Cadillac Ranch we headed home, stopping in Dallas to see some family, and then making our slow trudge home (the drive from Dallas to Houston is supposed to take 3 hours, but for any number of reasons, it always takes 6).

Our trips are always adventurous even if they don’t go as planned. I guess that’s how I know I love my Hubby too, because instead of being ready to kill each other by the end of the trip, we were planning our next adventure!

Atlanta Road Trip

Seeing as how I wrote a post about bucket list activities, Hubby and I decided to start crossing a few more things off our list. We normally go on a 7-8 day trip in the beginning of May but this year scheduling conflicts only allowed for a 4 day trip in June. We went to Jamaica for 4 days, which really wasn’t long enough because 2 of those days were travel days, so it didn’t actually feel like we had a vacation.  When we got back we started planning another trip for the end of summer, when Hubby was between summer courses and the fall course.  We had the hardest time deciding where to go! Back to Jamaica? Back to  the Florida Keys, or maybe just Key West?  I know, I know…Talk about a Champagne Problem…But still, it took some serious discussion. Then we decided to do something we had never done, and something we had always wanted to do. Go diving in the aquarium in Atlanta. The Georgia Aquarium is amazing. It’s #1 in the US, and it’s the largest aquarium in the world. The main attraction? WHALE SHARKS.

Two of the Four giants together
Two of the Four giants together

They have 4 whale sharks in a 6.3 million gallon aquarium, along with 2 Manta Rays and about 5,994 other fish, rays, and sharks. The whale sharks were originally rescued from sale to the fish market in Thailand. They had been trapped in a net ready to be sold, when the Georgia Aquarium showed up and purchased the sharks, loaded them up, and literally shipped them via UPS to Georgia. Seriously.

Anyway, we didn’t want to spend the whole time in the car, so we spent the first night in New Orleans. What was supposed to be a 5 hour drive turned into about a 9 hour drive. So much for not spending the whole time in the car. But it was due to unforeseen circumstances. As soon as we got into Louisiana my low tire pressure light came on. And that was bad news, seeing as how I had new tires put on 2 days before. Luckily we were able to find a shop that was open past 5 pm (what a concept!) and he was able to patch the tire. Of course, this was backwoods Louisiana, so the mechanic had never seen a Prius before! He didn’t know how to turn the car on, or put it into park. Hubby had to talk his through it. Then once he got it onto the lift he climbed out of the car and said to his buddies, “this car ain’t got no engine! It runs on battery!”

Once he patched the tire and we were off, we ended up in construction traffic for HOURS. They really have no idea what they are doing in Louisiana. The drivers feel like they have to drive 20 MPH when there is a closed off lane, and the construction crews set up MILES of cones and close off the lane when they aren’t doing anything even remotely close to the area. We ran into this type of traffic probably 3 times. It was awful. We finally got to our hotel at midnight and didn’t even have the energy to leave our room. We ate a quick dinner of sandwiches in our room, had a couple beers that we brought with us, (we travel on the cheap) and went to bed.

Comparing beignets at different cafes in New Orleans
Comparing beignets at different cafes in New Orleans

The next morning we headed to Pensacola, Florida. The idea had been to possibly find a dive shop in Pensacola, but we didn’t really have the time and the weather wasn’t great while we were there either, so we didn’t do much. I took some photos on the beach that night, we did some shopping, and we went for a run the next morning before heading to Atlanta.

Crab and Shrimp Mac-n'-cheese in Pensacola
Crab and Shrimp Mac-n’-cheese in Pensacola
Future Crafting ideas - Pelican made out of driftwood
Future Crafting ideas – Pelican made out of driftwood
Future Crafting ideas - Crab made out of driftwood
Future Crafting ideas – Crab made out of driftwood
Sunset in Pensacola
Sunset in Pensacola
Pier at night in Pensacola
Pier at night in Pensacola

I didn’t get a picture of it, but our hotel in Atlanta was literally next door to Turner Field, where the Atlanta Braves play. I don’t really care about baseball, so that’s probably why I didn’t get a picture, but it was pretty neat, nonetheless. We walked around the stadium, watched a drunk guy stumbling down the sidewalk as he left the game that had just ended, and then headed to the restaurant next door to get some Georgia BBQ. It was good, but of course, it wasn’t nearly as good as The Salt Lick. Texas BBQ always wins.

The next morning we got to the aquarium when they opened and pretty much had the place to ourselves. The first thing we did was head to the giant tank where we would be diving, and we watched as divers fed the whale sharks.

Divers feed the whale sharks krill from a squeeze bottle for training purposes
Divers feed the whale sharks krill from a squeeze bottle for training purposes

It was so neat to watch!

I took SO MANY PICTURES. It’s unreal. But everything was amazing to see, and I wanted to capture it all. Here are a few more shots I took in the aquarium…

We weren’t allowed to bring cameras into the aquarium on the dive, but you can imagine that it was pretty F-ing spectacular. We were able to swim up to the glass and play patty-cake and paper-scissors-rock-lizard-Spock with the people standing on the other side, and get up close to several different species of sharks, rays, and (other) fish. I wanted to pet them SO BAD. One of my favorite things to do is feed the sting rays at various aquariums that offer that, where you can pet the sting rays as long as they allow it. It took all my strength to NOT pet the rays and sharks in the tank, but that was the only rule they had for us on the dive, and I was not about to break the rule and get kicked out of the dive. I was so determined to NOT be the one to end the dive early, that I was trying my hardest to not even breathe while I was down there, for fear of running out of air and causing the dive to be over! For those of you that aren’t divers, when you are diving with a group, you dive until either a certain amount of time has passed, or until the first person is low on air. Once someone signals that they are low on air, EVERYONE in the group has to end the dive, as a safety precaution so that no one gets left behind.

After the dive we headed back to the hotel. We were pooped from being at the aquarium all day. The next morning we got up and headed to Zoo Atlanta. We were some of the first people in the door (again) and headed straight for the panda exhibit! We don’t have pandas in Texas, so we watched the two 2-year-old sisters wrestle in true WWF fashion.

They have a HUGE gorilla exhibit and we got to watch the infant gorillas climb and play while the adults lounged in the grass.

Baby hanging out with Mom.
Baby hanging out with Mom.

We were done at the zoo in the late morning, so then we headed back down to New Orleans for our last night on the road. This time we were spending a night in a super old hotel with a balcony, just a couple blocks from the French Market, in a perfect location.

We went out onto Bourbon Street for a little bit, but honestly, that street stresses me out way too much to enjoy it, so we didn’t spend a lot of time there. We had a drink at the Carousel Bar, then went to Cafe du Monde to get beignets and coffee before heading back to our hotel that night.

Finally, on the last day of our trip, we got up and went to Belle’s Diner for breakfast and hit the French Market for some Christmas and “Thanks-for-watching-our-house” gifts. And we saw Andrew Zimmern filming a new episode of his show!

Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizzare Foods, filming a new episode
Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizzare Foods, filming a new episode
Andrew Zimmern, filming in front of the famous St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans
Andrew Zimmern, filming in front of the famous St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans

All in all, it was a great trip. I was ready to be home and sleep in my own bed and play with my dogs, but I would have been just as happy staying on the road forever. It was so relaxing.

St. Louis Cathedral
St. Louis Cathedral

Birthdays in New Orleans

Hubby and I are exactly 365 days apart and this year he turned 30 so he wanted to do something more than just go out for dinner and drinks with friends. He had never been to Nola before so that’s what he decided to do. I had gone a few times but only with work people during the week so it was VERY different. The benefit though, was that I knew my way around the French Quarter pretty well, which took a lot of stress off of planning.

We got free flights through Southwest Airlines so the trip was relatively cheap, but it was also REALLY quick because the only free flights we could do were Saturday morning and Sunday night. Not much time to spend exploring a new place. We also went during the first weekend of Mardi Gras, so it was much more crowded than I had ever seen, and made the hotels much more expensive. Our solution was to get a hotel outside of the French Quarter, near Lake Pontchartrain. MUCH CHEAPER. For Christmas, a friend of ours bought us what is basically a City Pass. It’s an entrance ticket for the Audubon Zoo, the Aquarium, and the Insectarium, because he knows how much of nerds we are that we basically plan our trips around that kind of thing. However, since our trip was so short, those three things took up A LOT of our time, so we are already planning on going back to see the historical stuff, and do a little more of the French Quarter than we got to do.

We landed in New Orleans at 8 am, and we were walking around the French Quarter by 9. It was really nice because no one was out on the streets yet (well, almost no one. The only people we saw were stumbling home from the night before-yikes). We had the streets to ourselves for actually appreciating the architecture, getting lost looking for Jean Lafitte’s, and find a bistro for some breakfast.

Bubbles show you where the party's at
Bubbles show you where the party’s at – even at 9 am.

Artists line the fence of Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral
Artists line the fence of Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral

We didn’t get to eat at Cafe Du Monde because there was a CRAZY line from all the tourists that were in town for Mardi Gras. Luckily we found another beignet cafe across the street with no line so we were still able to eat beignets while over looking the Mississippi River.

Cafe Du Monde - famous beignets
Cafe Du Monde – famous beignets – Crazy crowded

The zoo was great – they even had a climbing tree!

Beautiful Coastal Oaks make great climbing trees!
Beautiful Coastal Oaks make great climbing trees! But please do not go beyond the sign 🙂

We spent a good chunk of the day at the zoo, planning on hitting Bourbon Street in the late afternoon/evening, so I was able to spend a long time with the Amur Leopards, who were surprisingly active while we were there. I took a ton of photos, but this was my best one.

Tranquil Amur Leopard
Tranquil Amur Leopard

I plan on editing out the chain link fence…one day….

The zoo was great, but it was definitely obvious that we were in Louisiana…

What kind of zoo tells you how to eat the animals here?!
What kind of zoo tells you how to eat the animals here?!
And gives recipes for them???
And gives recipes for them???

And they say Texas is like a whole other country…

Since our flight home was on Sunday night, we spent the rest of the day enjoying the French Quarter and Lake Pontchartrain. Sunday we went to the Aquarium and Insectarium which were both pretty dang cool.

Huge shark tank
Huge shark tank

In this giant shark tank we saw a huge pile of Nurse sharks sleeping on a rock together. We counted 9 sharks! Who knew they were so social.

Dog pile of Nurse sharks....Shark Pile?
Dog pile of Nurse sharks….Shark Pile?
Sea anemone
Sea anemone

Also at the aquarium, they have a huge aviary where you can buy food for the Parakeets. They fly all over you, land in your hair, and try to sneak out by climbing into your purse. Because Parakeets are cavity nesters, there is a sign when you leave to make sure you check your jacket hoods, purses, and backpacks for any stowaways.

Getting attacked by adorableness
Getting attacked by adorableness

At the insectarium there were tons of displays of beautiful beetles and butterflies from all over the world.

Beautiful insect displays at the Insectarium
Beautiful insect displays at the Insectarium

The insectarium is a federal building, so make sure you don’t bring anything in that you can’t bring past airport security, essentially.  It was a great trip and Hubby and I already looking forward to exploring Nola more.

Niagara Falls

As you probably already know, I have the opportunity every once in a while to travel to some pretty awesome places, thanks to my job in the Toxic Waste Division of Zombie and Poltergeist Prevention, Inc. A few weeks ago I was sent to Canada for the third time in a year.  This was by far the best trip of the three, but that probably wasn’t hard to do. Let me esplain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I went to Ontario in December. Yes. You read that correctly. Ontario. in DECEMBER. Typical flight delays occurred, in addition to my baggage getting left in Toronto (where I was NOT), my rental car was given away, the first taxi I called ended up upside down in a ditch, and the second taxi I called only took cash (which I only had American, but he was happy to have it). When I got to my hotel late that night, I ordered dinner at the hotel restaurant which was also cash only. I had used all of my cash on my taxi. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry by this point, but a Good Samaritan in the hotel restaurant bought my dinner for me, and turned the entire trip around. The rest of the trip was uneventful.

I went to Alberta in April. You have to remember something. There isn’t a Spring Season in Canada. There is Winter and there is Summer. April is still Winter. While I was trying to follow my site contact to the property, he was driving 100 kph (about 80 mph) THROUGH A SNOWSTORM.  Although I was able to take some beautiful photos and see some beautiful country, the entire province was covered in snow and ice.  Being from Texas, I could only stand that for so long.

But this time, I was in Ontario and Quebec in the last week of September and first week of October. It was gorgeous. The leaves were at their peek for fall colors, and I drove a lot of miles through beautiful country. A LOT OF MILES. 730 miles, actually. And that doesn’t even include the mileage to and from my hotels – that is simply from the airport, to my sites, and back to the airport. All in 5 days.

I did, however, find time for a little fun. See, when you are traveling to or from Canada, it takes ALL DAY. I couldn’t plan for my work day to be done and get to the airport by noon, and then try to fly home that same day. First of all, if I had planned that then something would have gone wrong and I would have missed my flight. There is just not enough wiggle room to do that, and when you aren’t flying Southwest, things need A LOT MORE WIGGLE ROOM. With Southwest you can just hop on an early flight home if you want. Not with other airlines. You have change fees, cancellation fees, PIA fees, and whatever other fees they feel like tacking on. So I gave myself ample time to travel home on Friday, and save the headache.  But because I had extra time on Thursday, I took advantage of my close proximity and was able to visit Niagara Falls.

It was A. MAZ. ING.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

I know what you are thinking. “I have seen pictures of this my whole life. It’s a big waterfall. Meh.”

Seriously, you are wrong. And I know just HOW WRONG you are, because I thought the same thing. I thought, “I have seen waterfalls, and I have seen pictures of Niagara. There is not a real reason to go up there.” Oh man, I was DEAD WRONG.

Niagara Falls, with Maid of the Mist for scale
Niagara Falls, with Maid of the Mist for scale

You don’t realize how MASSIVE the falls are until you see them. Until you hear them. There are people walking and talking behind you, and you can barely hear them over the raging water. Even the size of the river itself was amazing. If I had seen a river like that in Texas, I would assume there had just been a massive flooding even, and the river had breached its banks.

Shipwreck on the Niagara River
There is even a missive shipwreck on the Niagara River, known as the “Old Scow”

As I stood in awe of the river and the falls, I literally zoned out and heard nothing but the raging water. I was almost brought to tears by the beauty. Just across the street was a pub with outdoor seating, so I sat down and ordered a while and watched the falls. I also had a cell phone signal from the US, so I called Hubby without international charges (SCORE!) and played on facebook a while. Then my dear sis-in-law asked me a very interesting question: “Are you staying to watch them light up the falls?”

WHAT??? I don’t even know what that means, but YES I’m staying for that!

I was going to have to wait until 7 pm, but I couldn’t leave when it was so close! So I waited at the restaurant for a while, then I decided to head back to my car to get my coat before it got too cold. By that time I was starting to have second thoughts. I still had a while before sundown, and as I did the math in my head, I realized that I was going to be paying at least $25 in parking. Dang. That’s not cheap. And I was mad at myself for not parking in the $18 lot originally, because I was pretty sure that was for all day. My lot was $5 per hour. I was going to do good on parking prices until I realized I was going to stay so much longer. And then my foot started to hurt. Bad. Hubby and I had run 4 miles a couple days before, and since I had hurt my back in the beginning of the Summer, I hadn’t been running. So that 4 mile run really did a number on my foot. I couldn’t imagine walking all the way to my car to get my jacket, all the way back to the falls, and then ALL THE WAY BACK TO MY CAR AGAIN after the light show! So regrettably, I limped back to my car, stopped in the botanical garden to take some pictures and rest my poor foot, and got ready to head to my hotel.

A greenhouse I was definitely jealous of!
A greenhouse I was definitely jealous of!
Adorable sculpture of a boy ride a snapping turtle
Adorable sculpture of a boy ride a snapping turtle
Beautiful Japanese Maple, starting to turn from green to red
Beautiful Japanese Maple, starting to turn from green to red
Roses of every color!
Roses of every color!
pink fuchsia flowers
pink fuchsia flowers

And then a miracle happened.

There wasn’t a guy in the pay booth. The gate was open. The tenant of the parking lot was gone! FREE PARKING!! I even waited for a couple minutes to make sure he wasn’t walking back up to the booth or something, but he was officially GONE. Now, I know you know that I love a good deal. A free, my friends, is the best deal you can get.

I headed back to the falls, planning on parking much closer. I was willing to pay $5/30 minutes to park super close to the falls, now that I wasn’t going to be there much longer. But then I saw something even better. MORE FREE PARKING. Holy crap on a cracker! At the pub where I had relaxed earlier, there was a free lot. This was Karma’s way of telling me that I needed to stay a little longer to appreciate the beauty of the world, and I obliged! And this is what I waited to see. Magic.

New York, USA, the American Falls
New York, USA, the American Falls
Horseshoe Falls, the falls that separate the US from Canada
Horseshoe Falls, the falls that separate the US from Canada
the lights changed color every few minutes
the lights changed color every few minutes

308

300

 

I didn’t stay much later than sunset, because I still had to drive to my hotel, but this just makes me want to take Hubby to see this, so we can do the Maid of the Mist tour and stay much later so I can get better pictures! (Also I hadn’t brought my tripod because of packing restrictions, so I will have that too!)

By the time I got to my hotel I was exhausted, and I had to get up at 5 a.m. the next morning to make my flight, but it was so worth it.

Yellowstone Part 4 – Saving the Best (and Worst) for Last

Wow, it took a lot longer to get this post pulled together than I thought it would! I finally learned how to put Watermarks on my photos, so I was trying to get that done before I posted these photos.  So, without further ado – here is the final installment of our epic Yellowstone trip! You can catch up and read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here.

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Seeing as how this was a trip to Yellowstone, it was high time we spent some time in the park. By this time we moved to our cabin on the Idaho/Montana border, just outside of the western park entrance. Based on my limited knowledge, the western portion of the park was where you were most likely to see the wolves, so I made sure to book several nights at these cabins to give us a good chance at seeing them. It was also cheaper than staying in the town of West Yellowstone, which is mainly just a tourist attraction since you have to go through the town in order to use the West Entrance. This is also where the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is located, and I wanted to be sure to check that out as well.

On our first full day in West Yellowstone, we headed straight to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but I still learned A LOT. They had dioramas of different seasons and species, and had a lot of information about why the grizzly and wolf numbers dropped so quickly. (Mainly, the government at the time thought of bears and wolves as pests, and hired government trappers to kill them off. But more on that later). We were able to watch the grizzlies in their enclosure wrestle and play, search for food under rocks, and munch on tasty elk legs! (Road killed animals go to the Center). The wolves that were there are all extremely old, for wolf standards. They all looked like they were about 15 or so years old and were happy to lay in the sun and get tasty free meals that they didn’t have to hunt down on their arthritic legs.

After the center we went next door to an Authentic Mexican Restaurant. I know, I know. Why on Earth would you go get Mexican food in Montana? It was there, I was starving, and I didn’t think about it. Okay?!

Needless to say, it was terrible food. No flavor. I mean really. I couldn’t make food that flavorless on purpose. Live and learn, right? Now I’m passing on my knowledge to you so you have a better meal somewhere else.

After lunch we headed into the park to look for wild wolves! Yay!

One of the best things about Yellowstone is also one of the worst things about Yellowstone: the number of tourists. We were there before the summer crowd, but toward the end of the week more and more people started coming into the park because it was a holiday weekend coming up. So by Wednesday the park was packed! However, like I said, this is also a great thing because when one person sees awesome wildlife, everyone pulls their car over and you are sure to see whatever it is that they are looking at.

We saw a bunch of cars pulled over so of course we pulled over too. We got to see a huge coyote hunting rodents in their tunnels by pouncing on the ground and breaking their tunnels open, much like they do through the snow (see Part 3).

We continued on into the park, headed toward Lamar Valley, where everyone said is where you see the wolves. We stopped at another pull off where we saw a ton of cars and people with spotting scopes, and sure enough, our first sighting of wild wolves! While talking to a gentleman who had a spotting scope the size of our rental car, we were informed that they had killed an elk earlier in the day, and they were still lounging around letting their fat, happy bellies settle. There was a black wolf, and white wolf, and a dark grey wolf. They were really far off so I didn’t get great pictures, but they were wolves!

After the wolves wandered off, we continued up to Lamar Valley. On the way we got to see a black bear or two, but our only focus was wolves. We got to Lamar Valley and it was the most beautiful place I think I have ever seen. It is now on my favorite places list. Mountains, rolling foothills, herds of bison and antelope, grizzlies grazing on grasses and flowers. It was spectacular. We knew we were in the right place because of the number of people pulled over on the roadside with their scopes and cameras ready. Normally you would wonder what they are looking at, but then you notice that everyone is mingling, and simply waiting. They knew something was coming, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

So while we waited with the pros, we got to see some great stuff. Antelope coming close, bison calves running and playing, a grizzly family running away from some mysterious unseen object up on the hill. Then we noticed the Giant Grizzly on the river below us. Now, I’m no good at judging distance, but I would guess she was about 500-600 yards away. She was feeding on a wolf kill from several days before (according to the pros that were waiting for the wolves to show up) and her name is Scar Face. I’m sure for good reason, but she was far enough away that I had to only take their word for it. According to the pros though, Scar Face has been photographed more times than the Kardashians; I’m guessing because she frequents the area that the wolves are often found in, so people do like I did, and take pictures of her while we are waiting for the main attraction 😉

However, while we waited, Hubby noticed that people were leaving. There were still the same number of people there waiting, but the crowd itself had changed; the pros had given up to try a different spot!

I suddenly panicked – What do I do? Do I stay here and hope that they show up? Or do I try my luck somewhere else? And what if I leave and then find out that the wolves showed up right after I left? Luckily Hubby was there to help me decide. Lamar Valley is pretty big after all, so maybe they will be in a different area. We headed back down the road a ways, and when we were sure we were no longer in the valley we turned back around and headed back to a different pull off we saw. I was getting a little discouraged because by hearing all of the stories, wolves would be everywhere! I wanted to get some good pictures of wolves! Not just zoom in on a picture and have to point out “See? That black speck? That’s a wolf!” I had to see them closer!

By this time my back was aching pretty bad, so I wasn’t going to get out of the car unless there was something photo-worthy, so Hubby got out and made friends with some Canadians who are living in an RV and watching the wolves for the summer. (Fun Fact: the wolves of Yellowstone came from Alberta, Canada. It’s funny that the Albertans come all the way down to Wyoming to see the wolves they gave us!) Suddenly, out of nowhere, a black wolf runs by, down on the river about 1,000 yards away. I’m not sure where she came from, but we saw her swim the river and dash up the mountain before she was gone. I got a couple pictures of her, but nothing spectacular since she was running pretty much the whole time.  Apparently she was Number 89, and she is a rogue female that frequents the valley.

We learned a lot about the wolves by talking to all of the “wolf chasers” (or “sighters” I guess would be a better term).  Because the National Park Service is broke (because it’s always the good programs that get their funding cut first) they could no longer afford to tranquilize the wolves from a helicopter. This leads to shotting them with net guns and tranquilizing them once the researchers have gotten up to them, so the wolves have gotten a bit skittish of people. We also learned that the research program is now on a voluntary basis. The rangers that were paid to follow the wolves now must volunteer their time because the park service can’t afford to pay them. Such a sad situation. What is good though, is that there is such thing as “Citizen Science” much like with bird surveys. Enough people are interested in this subject, that they seek out the animals, watch their behavior, and report back to the rangers. Many of the observers know the rangers and vice versa, so the data that are provided are understood to be factual and non-biased (mostly).

After Number 89 ran up the hill, we started heading back, since it was getting late and we had several hours to drive back to our cabin. We stopped again at our first location because I saw something feeding on the same carcass that Scar Face had been eating earlier.

IT WAS A SILVER WOLF.

We stopped the car and I ran up the hill with my camera and tripod (I had the speed clip this time). While we were watching this grey, I decided to get some video of him feeding (unfortunately, WordPress won’t let me upload my awesome video…I’ll have to figure out how to get it onto YouTube or something). In the video you can hear Hubby and I quietly discussing if the wolf was wearing a collar or not, and if Hubby was going to hide behind me so he wouldn’t get eaten. I stopped filming right before the wolf came right passed us so I could get some still shots of him as well. I probably should have just kept filming because the pictures didn’t turn out great (it was getting dark and he was running) but live and learn, right? (that seems to be a theme for today). After the grey ran across the street into on-coming traffic and almost got plowed by a car, he disappeared up the hill and was gone. At his closest, he was probably 20 yards from us.

Ah. Maze. Ing. I was so happy, and he had gotten so close! I was in heaven. But of course you know what that means, right?

I HAD TO SEE THEM AGAIN. This wasn’t nearly enough. Andrew and I were already planning the next day. Get up SUPER early and get to Lamar Valley before sunrise because that is reportedly the best time of day to see the wolves.

Of course then it took us a few hours to get back to our cabins. And it doesn’t get dark until about 9:30…So we didn’t get back to the cabins until midnight. Last thing we needed to do was get up at 3:30 am after going to sleep at midnight, so we decided that the next day we would relax, get up whenever we felt like it, see the rest of the park, and go to bed early that night so we could get up super early the NEXT morning.

So we did the whole “geyser” thing again the next day and relaxed, doing our last bit of souvenir shopping as well. We had dinner at a restaurant/bar in West Yellowstone called The Slippery Otter, and this place was great! The owner was super nice, they had great food, and really good beer. Finally, we had found good food in Montana!

The next morning we got up at 3:30 am and I drove into the park. At about 5 am we were flagged down by a truck coming up the road, telling us to pull over because 4 HUGE BOATS (on trailers, duh) were about to be coming down the road, and they needed as much road space as they could get! Well of course he flagged us down at a terrible spot – not only was there no shoulder to pull onto, but there was actually tons of tree debris on the side of the road from doing road work in the park the day before! HOW MUCH SPACE DID THEY NEED?! I hoped we had scooted over enough; all we could do is wait. And all I could do while I waited was think about how I’m going to miss the wolves because I’m pinned between a boat trailer and the hillside! Finally they drove by without incident and we headed down the road again, but slowly this time. One thing I didn’t count on was the mount of fog that we had to drive through. Cool morning+geothermal activity=lots and lots of scary fog. I love looking at fog; I hate driving in it. I was super nervous that a herd of bison would be in the road in the fog and I was going to miss my opportunity to see the wolves because there was a dead bison on the hood of my car. So I drove carefully and as quickly as I dared. As the sky began to lighten, it was easier to see that we were engulfed in fog, and it was much brighter than I had thought it would be. I was going really to miss the wolves!!!

Finally we made it to Lamar Valley. I was in such a hurry to get to my spot and wait, that when we saw a truck stopped in the road I almost went around him. Then Hubby saw why he was stopped – the same Silver wolf  from before was standing on the hillside!

The next events were a blur – I took tons of photos, and he wandered off into the sage brush. The truck drove away, and we waited to see if he would come back. He did, and he was actually carrying a child’s stuffed animal in his mouth. No, I wasn’t confused and he really had a live dead squirrel in his mouth – it was a toy. You could see the tag on the plush, and the little stubby legs.  We have no idea why, but he was carrying around a toy.  He dropped it after a few minutes of carrying it around, and then he sort of zig-zagged in front of our car  while he tried to decide where to go, until he walked across the road back toward the river where we had first seen him a few nights before.  Then Ranger Rick pulled up. Seriously. That’s his name. He’s a Ranger named Rick. He asked what we were looking at, and when we told him a wolf, he pulled over and got out his radio telemetry equipment – SCIENCE AT WORK! Sort of. Rick couldn’t identify the wolf because the batteries on his collar were apparently dead; but that didn’t matter, because I got some amazing photos of him while he was with us. Suddenly more and more people started showing up, and we met a huge group of wolf chasers. Rick told us that the black female would be coming by soon (her radio collar was working so they knew where she was), so we waited until, far off in the distance, we saw her making her way through the river valley.

By this point my back was killing me. I could no longer appreciate the magnificent scenery I was surrounded by, because I was in blinding pain.  I told Hubby we had to go to the doctor now.  We headed to the northern portion of the park where the doctor’s office was, but they didn’t open until 8:30, so we had to wait. I was about in tears by this point and when they finally opened, I was at my breaking point. Talking to anyone would cause my voice to break, and I finally broke down and cried in front of the nurse while he asked me all the questions that he had to ask, and cried some more while talking to the doctor. He wrote me prescriptions for muscle relaxers and Vicodin and we had to drive up further north to get them filled at the pharmacy. By the time I received my prescriptions and ate some breakfast, I was done. It was probably 10 am on my second to last day of my vacation, and I couldn’t move without being in blinding pain. I was heartbroken that this is how our vacation ended. Hubby had to drive for the next 2 days because my drugs kept me knocked out. But while I was awake I was still in pain.

Our last night was spent in Centennial, Wyoming, through the Snowy Range. The Snowy Range is one of my favorite places in the US, but I slept through it because of my medicine. We got to the hotel and ate dinner in one of the 4 restaurants in town, and then I went to the room to sleep. Hubby, since he was still on vacation, wanted to go check out the town, so he bar-hopped at the 4 bars in town and met wonderful people wherever he went. I was glad he had a good time, because I felt guilty for being the reason we had to cut the trip early.

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Now my back is feeling better, although not 100%, but Hubby and I are already talking about going back to see the wolves again.

Yellowstone Part 3 – Not Actually In Yellowstone

I ended Part 1 when we were leaving Yellowstone and heading down to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Part 2 was a typical little rant explaining how NOT to be a jerk while you are Site-seeing. Part 3 was the actual hiking of the vacation, in Grand Tetons National Park.

Seeing as how much of Yellowstone tries very hard to kill you by either wildlife attack or geothermal flesh melting, the safest hikes are MILES AWAY in the Grand Tetons. This is probably why you get access to both parks when you pay your $25 admission.  We started off by finding famous places for famous photos. I wanted to re-create the infamous Ansel Adams photo of the Grand Tetons with the Snake River flowing majephtically below, but we couldn’t find THE SPOT.

You know...THIS ONE
You know…THIS ONE

Instead, we found an awesome pull off that was covered up in tourists all taking pictures of the mountains. It was cold and windy, but I couldn’t just stay in the car! Then I wanted to find the famous barn that you see EVERYWHERE.

and you know...THIS ONE
and you know…THIS ONE

I googled it because I didn’t even know what it was called, and I found GPS coordinates for its location. I put those bad boys into our car GPS, and sure enough, it took us right to the beautiful old Mormon barns, complete with an information placard explaining about them. There were hardly any people there, so I waited somewhat patiently (ok, not patiently at all, but mainly because they were rude and walking ALL OVER THE AREA while I was trying to take pictures. Hubby kept telling me they have the same right to be there as me, and they will leave soon so I will be able to get my photos. yeah yeah….It was cold and about to rain! I needed them OUT OF MY SHOT!) There were little squirrels EVERYWHERE and we even saw a coyote that was hanging around, I’m assuming trying to hunt them as soon as the annoying humans got out of his way.

After we took these pictures we headed deeper into the park to do some true hiking. We were going to head to Jenny Lake, via the Taggart Lake trailhead. I really wanted to head to Lupine Meadows, because I knew the lupine would be blooming and I thought it would be a great photo-op. Unfortunately, we decided to head to Taggart Lake first and see how my back was taking the hike. If I was feeling good we would continue up to Lupine Meadows. This is where we made the wrong choice. Half of the 1 1/2 long trail was covered in snow. I’m not talking about a beautiful dusting of snow. I mean FEET OF SNOW. FOR 1/2 A MILE. IN ONE DIRECTION.

IMG_3341
It was pretty, but deceptive
IMG_3343
Still not there, and still walking through snow. This was more of a slush.
IMG_3342
Hubby wondering how cold his feet can get before they simply fall off.

I thought “well, I’ve come this far. I have to finish this trail.” Bad idea. I have no experience traveling through deep snow. I have no equipment for traveling in deep snow. Hubby had holes in his hiking boots so his feet were soaked and frozen by the time we got to our destination. I had slipped and slid on snow that had been walked on so much it was turning to slick ice instead of crunchy snow. I fell through thin spots. Just to let you know, this is a horrible idea if you are having back pain. You use every muscle in your back with pretty much every step you take. So if you jerk to one side, all of your sore muscles get jerked too. Needless to say, we didn’t make it to Lupine Meadows. We did, however, make it to Taggart Lake. And it was breathtaking. Then we had the dreadful realization: we had to walk through all of that again.

I tried to break up the slip-n-slide journey by taking photos of stuff along the way. Where the snow was starting to melt, you could see little tunnels built by rodents in the snow. Now, I always knew that they did this, which is why there are so many silly pictures of foxes doing this:

fox hunting

But what I didn’t know is that it appears that rodents actually move soil in to create the tunnels – I thought they just tunneled through the snow itself, but clearly not, based on these pictures!

IMG_3352 IMG_3353

So while I was ready for this icy hike to be over, I was learning too, which is always fun! Once we finally got back through the snow and came upon the trail split that led to Lupine Meadows, I decided I couldn’t keep going up the mountain, because if I did I would have to be carried down the mountain on a stretcher because of my back. Seeing as how I didn’t want to become a hiking statistic, we headed back down the mountain to the car. I took a few more pictures to break up the hike, and when we got to the car, Hubby instantly took off his boots and socks and cranked up the heater on his poor frozen toe-sicles. Then he got on his phone and ordered a new pair of boots online. Sometimes you really have to love technology.

After our hike we went back to the cabin to take a nap a recuperate before bar-hopping in town. We enjoyed a little bit of night life, then we headed out to the mountain pull-off and I gave my star photography another shot (or two, or two hundred! ha). Since I was so excited about my next photography section, I was super proud of myself for being dressed warmly and prepared for a long time out in the wind. I even bragged to Hubby about how prepared I was. Then I realized that I forgot something. Something pretty darn important.

Part of my tripod.

See, there is this “speed clip” thing that you screw into the bottom if your camera, so you can just clip the camera in and out of the tripod quickly and easily. I took this off of my camera so that I could use my padded hand strap (which uses the same hole that the tripod speed clip uses). Instead of putting the clip back onto the tripod like a good girl, I put it on the table to “deal with later.”

That is always a horrible idea. At least for me. That is how things get misplaced and opportunities can potentially be lost! Luckily though, I’m a resourceful Texas Girl, so I did the next best thing. I made a small pile of gravel and used that as a sort of sand bag for my camera. It worked pretty darn well too, if I do say so myself!

Not only did I get to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the United States during a time that most people don’t get to see it, but while I was sitting on the ground freezing my tush off, I had the chance to hear coyotes singing in the river below, with no other sound and no other person around for miles. It was ah.maz.ing.

(yes, Hubby was there. He was “waiting” in the car. And when I say waiting, I mean unconscious. And snoring. And warm).

This made for a very late night (for me, since Hubby was “waiting”) but it was worth every second. I wished over and over that I had brought my speed clip, but I chalk it all up to the fact that I’m new to this whole photography thing, so I’m allowed to screw up once in a while.

Again, I put most of the pictures into a Gallery below. Enjoy, and send me some feedback! Do you prefer the photos mixed into the story or in the gallery at the bottom so you can enjoy them all together?