Day -217 – National Parks, once again

IMAG0665New River Gorge National River is a National Park, who knew?  I found it by accident on my map as we looked for something to kill time with in West Virginia.  The bridge and the whitewater rafting is what attracts most to the area.

The bridge is impressive, built of steel in the late 1970’s, it is taller than the Eiffel Tower plus two Statues of Liberty.  Viewing it from the river side is particularly impressive.  The area played an important role in the industrial revolution, it hauled coal on the railways from the mines tunneled in to the mountain there.  People came from all over for the jobs that were available in the area.

The Park Service has taken ownership of 70,000 acres, but for once, they haven’t shrunk the value of the area.  I am not one to criticize the National Park Service, I love the properties they have preserved for the future.  What they have done differently with this one is to continue to allow use of the river for commercial purposes and there is even hunting on NPS land.  That makes great sense to me.

Josh and I got our Junior Ranger badges too, not sure how many that is now, but it sure is fun.  The last project in the JR handbook at New River Gorge was talking to a Park Ranger.  Ranger Billy was at the front desk of the Visitor Center, so he was our guinea pig today.  My first question…”what is the most asked question at this National Park?”  he smiled and said, “Where’s the bathroom?”  Apparently that is the most asked question at every National Park.  We had a great conversation, someday, maybe when I grow up, I will get to be a park ranger.

Day 31 – Another National Park

bearBy now you know that I am a big supporter of National Parks, Monuments, anything.  I particularly like the big natural spaces set aside, these seem most representative of the west, but I am beginning to really appreciate the history set aside in the east.  Alaska is unique all in itself.  There are so many wide open spaces, carved from the mountains, isolated by the weather, lack of roads, desolateness of the area.  Add that to it’s remoteness from the Lower 48 and you can find space anywhere to breathe, really breathe.

It’s the end of the season in Alaska, the tourists are slim, the stores are closing, the rain has come and the temperatures are dropping. Even the rangers at the Visitor’s Center are talking about where they are headed next.  The place has an emptiness about it, as does the community of Seward.  It feels like everyone is holding their breath, waiting for the harshness of winter to set in.

Kenai Fjords is the National Park on the outskirts of town, it’s purpose is to preserve and protect the Harding icefields and glaciers.  Fjords are the water valleys created by the melting glaciers, and they are definitely melting.  Photographs tell the story best, the retreating of the ice over the course of the last 100 years.  Exit Glacier is the easiest to get to by land, it is beautiful and serene, the blue glaze from the captured sunlight in the ice is spectacular, seen even in the small pieces that have calved off the main glacier.  Easily one of the most peaceful places I have been.

Back in to Seward, we went by the Sea Life Center where we took our grandson earlier in the week, window-shopped the local stores in the rain, and drove out to the ends of the roads.  First on to the east side of the bay, then the road on the west side, here was where I encountered my third bear in the wild EVER.  The two times before, I had seen them crossing roads, this time, he was sitting in a tree.  It was raining a little and we had seen a cluster of people gathered, so we stopped to see what they were looking at.  What appeared to be a mild mannered black bear was sitting about 30 feet up in a tree, trying to get comfortable on his perch.  To be able to see such a creature in the wild is a rare treat.  I know it happens a lot in Alaska, but not to me, I was thrilled.

Day 46 – Speed Touring

mammothWe hit our third National Park this week – that’s like 15 in the last twelve months.  Mammoth Caves sits in the middle of Kentucky, a huge underground cave where over 400 miles of underground paths  have been mapped so far, more each year.  The cave itself is 54 degrees, it is large and ummm, how do I say this….boring.  There is no color, no cool draperies, no stalactites, no stalagmites, not much to see except a big hole in the ground.

We took the Historic Tour and learned a lot about the park and the caves, but with 120 people on the tour, it was like a speed walk through the place.  About two miles round trip and 440 steps, we descended to 350 feet below the cave surface.  We learned about the folks who have been touring the cave since before the war of 1812; the saltpeter mining that was done for the war effort to create gunpowder is still in evidence.  Years later, young Stephen Bishop, a slave, mapped as much of the cave as he could and gave tours to the upper class and scientists from around the world, this all happened before the Civil War.  The stories were fascinating, but the cave itself is stark.  Nothing like you would find at Carlsbad Caverns.  It just simply didn’t share the same beauty.  My understanding is that there are some other areas of the cave where there is more water and many cave elements exist, but not so much as you find elsewhere.

Of course, we had a blast, like we always do…I earned enough bat points to get my Junior Ranger and we laughed and laughed.  Our tour was interesting too, mostly because of the people on it.  There was one lady who left as soon as we got inside the cave, she had a panic attack.  After we got through “Fat Man’s Misery”, a narrow, twisty spot that we had to duck through, another lady left, she had a claustrophobia attack, and yet another one left when we got to “The Tower”, an eight story staircase that brought on the vertigo if you weren’t careful.  The extra ranger on the tour covered a lot of miles leading these folks out of the cave, it was kind of fun to watch.  Not that I take joy in other people’s misery, but sometimes, you know, especially when you are running through the caves on a speed tour.

 

Day 49 – The War is Won

donelsonNot the Civil War, that would take until 1865, but my battle to get my Junior Civil War Historian badge is finally complete.  We visited our third Civil War Battlefield today – technically, the sixth, but the third one with a Junior Ranger program.  My hats off to Susan, the ranger at the Fort Donelson Visitor Center, what a pleasure to talk to.  She even signed off on my Junior Ranger book and gave me my patches before I did the work.  She was worried that I wouldn’t be back in time since all the centers close now at 4:30.  So we picked up all my loot, and started our tour.

Fort Donelson is on the banks of the Cumberland, one of two rivers that parallel coming down from the Ohio, the Tennessee is the other.  Together they formed the Land Between the Rivers, what the Tennessee Valley Authority has now made the Land Between the Lakes, but that’s another story (we went there too).  In February, 1862, two smaller forts on the Tennessee were taken by the Union with the help of the Ironclads.  Boats specially designed for shallow water and then iron plated to try to protect them.  The first battles worked so well, they set their sights on Donelson on the Cumberland, steaming back to the Ohio, they took the southern route towards Dover, Tennessee.  The Confederates were better prepared, but the Union was able to secure Fort Donelson as well.

Ulysses S. Grant negotiated the surrender of 13,000 Confederate troops from General Buckner at a hotel called the Dover.  The Dover still stands today as part of the National Park.  This was the place U.S. Grant received the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” because that is what he demanded of the Confederates.  Fort Donelson was a major victory for the North, it gave them access to Nashville and the Confederate supply lines.  So often war comes down to how well you are provisioned.  It would take several more years for the war to come to an end, but the North was finally on their way.

Now I have to confess, I got my Junior Ranger badge and my Junior Civil War Historian, but I haven’t done the book yet.  I read it all while we were at the park, but I didn’t write a single thing down.  The guilt is bugging me, I’m going to have to go do the book now.  I hate getting something for nothing, it’s just now how I’m made.  I better get crackin’.

 

Day 51 – The Battle Continues

lookoutChickamauga fought a bloody battle over two days in September,1863, in an attempt to march on Chattanooga and reclaim it from the Federals, the Confederate drew battle lines across miles of Tennessee farmland south of Chattanooga near today’s Fort Oglethorpe.  112,000 troops met on the battlefield, the Union army made some mistakes and ended up on Snodgrass Hill with Major General George H. Thomas leading the troops.  25,000 men held the hill, allowing the Union to retreat to Chattanooga in tact.  The Union lost the battle of Chickamauga that day.

The retreat to Chattanooga was to fortify troops already there holding the city.  Chattanooga, set on the Tennessee River, had roads, water and rails, a key to supplying any army.  The Confederates adopted the ridges, Missionary Ridge to the east, Lookout Mountain to the west, their intent was to starve out the Federal troops.  By late October, the Union had opened the Cracker Line from Bridgeport, Alabama, allowing a new supply line to provide supplies.  With fortified troops coming in from other states, by the end of November, the Union army was able to attack the Confederate troops and push them out of the Valley.  This set the stage for Sherman to use Chattanooga for his base as he began his march to Atlanta.

In present day, the battlefields are not as sparce as they were 150 years ago.  There are commercial businesses, residential areas and roads running through the same places that were once farms and battlefields.  It takes a bit of imagination to see the troops on the battlefield, to eliminate the clutter of present day, to recognize the sacrifices of the many.  The Civil War represents the bloodiest was America has ever participated in, the casualties were many and affect each of us.  It is our duty to recognize the sacrifices made to build our nation to what it is today, for me, it is an obligation to visit OUR National Parks.  It is our history, and it is well preserved.

Day 154 – History Preserved

shilohShiloh, almost six square miles in Tennessee that once housed families and farms, a peach orchard, a couple of ponds, smiles and laughter, over 70 buildings of one sort or another..  One hundred and fifty years ago, the Blue and the Gray clashed in a bloody battle, over 111,000 men met in this small space; over 7,000 died, more than 30,000 others were wounded.  One of the first battles of the bloodiest war in the history of America in the War Between the States, took place in April 1862 at Shiloh.

It has become known as The Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, over 10,000 battles raged across the country – as far west as New Mexico, but concentrated in along the borders states between the Union and Confederate states.  There are many monuments to both throughout the country, this was our first all out tour of a military battlefield.  The Shiloh National Military Park is well put together, the museum holds artifacts from the time period, the movie is well worth every minute, but the battlefield is what will impress you most.

Each space is filled with markers that relate the troop movements, relate the battles won and lost, the sheer number of participants.  There is a nine mile loop that takes you through the various spaces to give you an idea of what it must have been like, but we were there with probably 100 other people, not 100,000.  I can’t even imagine the crush of people, all carrying weapons, the damages were staggering to both the North and the South.

This is definitely a place the Junior Ranger program came in handy, I learned so much more by answering the questions in the book than I would have had I just toured the grounds.  And, as an added bonus, because we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I have an opportunity to earn my Junior Civil War Historian Badge, you can bet that I’m going to get that bad boy.

As a follow up to our tour of Shiloh, Brices Crossing and Tupelo, I read The Widow of the South, by Robert Hicks.  Set in Franklin, Tennessee toward the end of the war, it describes in incredible detail the lives of some of the combatants and the families living in the area.  Highly recommend, a very moving story based on a true one.  There are thousands of books on the Civil War, I used to ask my dad every time he was reading another one if the ending changed, he always just smiled and went back to reading.

Day 231B – Awe-inspiring! Carlsbad Caverns

cavernsJust a few miles from the Guadalupe Mountains National Park is Carlsbad Caverns, just a single state and a short highway stint up the 62 to New Mexico.  Don’t trust the signs, at one point the Texas sign says 23 miles and just a 100 yards further, New Mexico says it’s 16 miles – I’m not sure who put the sign in the wrong place, but whatever the mileage, it is worth the trip.

About 20 years ago, I visited Carlsbad Caverns with my kids, we took the Natural entrance in to the caverns, about a 1.25 miles straight down hill.  When we got to the bottom, just entering the Big Room, they asked us to please step to the elevators and find our way out.  Apparently there had been a bomb threat and they were evacuating the Caverns.  We were bummed, but didn’t have the time to stay, so we never actually got to visit Carlsbad.

This time, we were more fortunate.  We walked the Natural Entrance in.  Truly it is an 800 foot descent in 1.25 miles, at times, it feels like you are on the dance floor playing limbo the grade is so steep.  We will be feeling it in our calves the day after.  The entrance is beautiful, a huge powerful cave discovered in 1898 by Jim White at age 16.  He spent many, many years exploring the cave and finally in the early 1920’s it was named a National Park.

When we got to the bottom of the descent, we made our way along the mile long path through The Big Room.  A large cavern filled with stalactites, stalagmites, huge cones, soda straws and draperies.  Most of the formations are dormant, not enough water still seeping in to the cave to continue their growth, but others are still forming.

The Cavern is incredible in it’s size and dimensions, originality, lighting and protection.  The areas are well marked, lit appropriately and made to impress.  This has got to be one of the most awe-inspiring sights I’ve seen in a very long time.  It just proves that nature can build things so much grander than man, it just takes a whole lot longer.

Make the trip to southeast New Mexico, it’s not on the way to anywhere, but it is worth the effort to get there, and while you are there, join us as the newest Junior Rangers at Carlsbad Caverns, it’s fun and you learn new things too!

 

Day 249 – National Parks and a little rant

joshua treeJoshua Tree National Park sits in southern California, a piece of ground between I-10 and JohnsonValley.  We drove in from Twenty-nine Palms and took the loop back to Joshua Tree, about 35 miles.  Throw in the 18 mile loop on the Geology Tour Road, just east of Jumbo Rocks Campground, and we had a great day.  I love National Parks, this one is one of the babies though, it only became a National Park in 1994, before, it was just a National Monument.  Joshua Tree is known for the place where the Mohave desert and the Colorado desert come together.  It ranges from zero elevation to over 6000 feet.  There are wide sweeping sandstones, tons of granite, trails for hiking and four wheel drives.  Rock climbing is rampant. Joshua trees are all over the Mohave side of the Park.

Joshua Trees impress me, especially this time of year, the bright green stands out among the desert January brown.  Yucca plants and Ocotilla dot the skyline, but it’s the rocks that impress me.  There are granite formations that rise high above the skyline, pushed up through the pinto gneiss by the granite.  Closer to Joshua Tree, CA are rocks that look like they have been stacked for several stories.

Because I love National Parks and they serve a great purpose, I need to rant about something that we see often.  If there are established roads, stay on the established roads.  There is absolutely no reason to go off road in a National Park.  I love offroading, it’s our lifestyle, but this isn’t the place.  So what do we see when we take the Geology Tour Road, tire tracks out in the dirt.  Just once, I want to come upon one of those dumbasses when they are doing it.  It makes me crazy, folks if you want to drive offroad, come on out to Johnson Valley and drive offroad, the National Park is not the place for that, you give us all a bad name.

Day 341 – Junior Rangers x2

Josh had so much fun yesterday I had to join him.  Zions National Park was today’s destination, the weather was beautiful all day.  Today was the last day of the shuttle running through the canyon so we hopped on the shuttle with our Junior Ranger books.  One for Josh and one for me.  The first stop after the Visitor’s Center was the Human History Museum, a good place for us to take stock of our JR requirements and watch the intro movie, there were no Ranger-led talks today.  Then we hopped the shuttle and drove through the majesty that is Zions.  It’s difficult to describe how high the ridges rise and tower above you in the narrow canyon carved by the Virgin River.  So many trails and stops available along the way.  The end of the shuttle is at Sinewava, where the canyon narrows, it is a great place to begin hiking and see the wonders that Zions offers.  I plan to do that on our next visit.

In addition to the cool canyon, there is a 1.1 mile long tunnel that was dug by the CCC back in the 30’s to allow travel to the other side of the Canyon.  The whole area is Navajo Sandstone, used to build many of the original buildings and rising hundreds of feet in the air.

As we neared the end of the day, we scrambled to complete our Junior Ranger badge requirements, our last stop was the Visitor’s Center that has been built eco-friendly.  We finished our last activity and went in to turn in our workbooks.  There had been sixteen different activities, our Ranger, Paul, reviewed our books and bestowed on us Zions Junior Ranger status, we were sworn in and given our patches.  As we were walking out, we realized that he had given us Desert Junior Ranger patches, not Zions ones, so we rushed back to the gift store and got the patches we earned.  Josh plans to put them on his fire suit someday.  I’m really proud of him, told him that when he gets 20 Junior Rangers, I’m going to get him a Super Junior Ranger badge.

For those of you that are thinking Junior Rangers is for kids, think again about how you visit a National Park.  It is far more interesting and educational when you have things to look for, challenges to meet.  It’s not just for kids, I’d recommend it for anyone.

In addition to the cool canyon, there is a 1.1 mile long tunnel that was dug by the CCC back in the 30’s to allow travel to the other side of the Canyon.  The whole area is Navajo Sandstone, used to build many of the original buildings and rising hundreds of feet in the air.

As we neared the end of the day, we scrambled to complete our Junior Ranger badge requirements, our last stop was the Visitor’s Center that has been built eco-friendly.  We finished our last activity and went in to turn in our workbooks.  There had been sixteen different activities, our Ranger, Paul, reviewed our books and bestowed on us Zions Junior Ranger status, we were sworn in and given our patches.  As we were walking out, we realized that he had given us Desert Junior Ranger patches, not Zions ones, so we rushed back to the gift store and got the patches we earned just as they closed up shop.  Josh plans to put them on his fire suit someday.  I’m really proud of him, told him that when he gets 20 Junior Rangers, I’m going to get him a Super Junior Ranger badge.

For those of you that are thinking Junior Rangers is for kids, think again about how you visit a National Park.  It is far more interesting and educational when you have things to look for, challenges to meet.  It’s not just for kids, I’d recommend it for anyone.  I’m counting this on my list of 50 new things to try.  I’m a Junior Ranger now.

Day 342 B – Junior Rangers to the rescue

Our afternoon found us at another National Park, this one was Bryce Canyon, a lesser know park than several around the area, but I think only because you have to travel a little farther to get there.  Bryce is beautiful.

 

Bryce Canyon

Last winter we visited Saguaro National Park, and on a whim, we asked for the Junior Ranger handbook for Josh to do while we went through the park.  He worked on it, we all learned a lot and messed around some.  When he turned in his book, the Ranger at the Park denied him his badge.  It was heartbreaking.  What had started out as just some fun, took a nasty turn.  It wasn’t just Josh that was denied his badge, a little 5 year old was also scolded, it just took the joy out of hanging at the park.  Since then we have visited several other parks, but it wasn’t until today that Josh wanted to try the Junior Ranger program again.

Now for those of you that don’t know him, Josh is awesome, he is 25, a big kid, he works for us in the rock crawling/racing business.  I love Josh, he has a big heart, he is strong and talented and can make anyone laugh.  Academics was never his thing, but he’s as smart as they come and can do anything.  A great photographer and an even better friend to all that know him well.  Our team doesn’t thrive without him.  Josh is not related to us by blood, but we tell people that I have three kids, Rich has two and together we have Josh.  Anyone would be proud to have his as a son, so we claim him when he is with us.

Back to Junior Rangers, Josh asked at the front desk for the Junior Ranger handbook, the Ranger there gave him specific instructions on what needed to be done to complete the program.  Attend a Ranger led talk, pick up 20 pieces of trash in the park and complete six of the activities in the book.

I helped him figure out which six activities in the book, this is the Academic part that he struggles with, but he was so intent on succeeding that he worked really hard on this part.  In fact, he was so focused on getting that part done and right that he forgot his camera when we were headed to meet up for the Ranger led talk.  At 5:22 p.m. all the requirements were finished, we headed back to the VisitorCenter to turn in his book.  Josh was really nervous, he was afraid he would be denied again.  I have never seen anyone so happy as when the Ranger asked him if he wanted to be sworn in as a Junior Ranger.  He was all about that, we even got him the hat!  Josh, we are proud of you, you worked hard and did your best and it paid off.  This is something no one can ever take away from you.

Proud moment!

Swearing in ceremony

 

The Junior Ranger program is an educational part of the National Parks system, it is designed to teach kids, no matter their age, how to care for and preserve natural resources.  It teaches about the local history and threats to the resources and presents a proud heritage to follow.  We learned today that you are never too old to be a Junior Ranger, I think I might try it next.