Kayaking Patagonia: The Icebergs of Upsala Glacier

We are standing on a ferry cruising across the icy blue waters of Lago Argentina in southern Patagonia. We are in our underwear. Our thirteen shipmates—Germans, French, Argentines, Spaniards, and Brazilians among them—are also in various states of undress. We are alone on the water, two hours from any hint of civilization.

Somewhere ahead of us lies Upsala Glacier, the country’s second largest, and we have disrobed in preparation to kayak among the icebergs that have sheered from its face and tumbled into the lake. In the distance, a giant iceberg grows larger as we draw near.

Kayaking in such a place as this requires special gear. Each participant starts with a base layer, which is essentially a thermal onesie for grown ups, and then wriggles awkwardly into a dry suit that seals at the wrists, neck, and ankles with rubber gaskets. Next come a pair of neoprene booties, and finally kayaking skirts, which will stretch over the mouth of the kayak to seal out the lake’s icy water.

The guide gives careful instructions in both English and Spanish. He demonstrates how to squeeze out the extra air trapped in our dry suits. We crouch in the fetal position, knees together, elbows in, and pull at the rubber gasket around the neck of our suits, forcing the air out. We’ve become human whoopee cushions, and as the air loudly expresses itself between the rubber and our necks, we giggle. But the action is no laughing matter; if we were to fall in the water without performing this crucial step, our suits would be buoyant, but our heads would not, and we would drown.

The boat pulls ashore—a pebbled, black sand beach framed by rocky promontories. In the water, icebergs balance awkwardly, opaque limbs protruding in all directions. Upsala Glacier looms in the distance, partially shrouded by the rain that has begun to fall.

On the beach, in the gentle drizzle, the guide gives basic kayaking instructions and leads the group through a series of stretches. Moments later we shove off into the water and paddle for a giant iceberg that towers 20 or 30 feet above the surface.

The tempo is quick in an effort to experience as much of the area as possible in two hours on the water. With one eye on Patagonia’s ever-changing sky, the guides weave us around. Like a row of ducklings, we follow, gliding single file from berg to berg, pausing to admire each one’s signature look: this one, a half pipe for skateboarders; this one’s been shot clean through with a cannonball; this one has a lever you can push to make waves.

For the finale, the guide offers each kayaking pair the opportunity to enjoy a “Patagonian shower;” a glacial waterfall that flows over a rocky ledge and empties into the lake. We pull our kayak parallel to the cliff and paddle hard toward the falls. The water pounds down on our heads with a deafening roar, and time momentarily stops until the guides shouts of “Keep paddling!” cut through, and we emerge breathless on the other side.

It was an allegory for all of Patagonia, a place that takes your mind and body by force, and turns you out on the other side wide-eyed and amazed.

If you go:

  • The glacial habitat is highly protected; our 15-person group would be the only one sailing that day, and departures are allowed only 4 days of the week.
  • Mil Outdoor, in partnership with Viva Patagonia, runs the Upsala Kayak Experience from November through April. To book online, we used CalafateMountainPark.com and checked in at the Viva Patagonia office in El Calafate the evening before our trip. It sounds confusing but it all went very smoothly.
  • The guides take plenty of pictures and at the time of our trip, provided them to participants for no extra charge. Bring a flash drive with; otherwise they’ll upload them to a website for a couple weeks, and you can download them when you have a chance.
  • It’s a two- to three-hour sail to the icebergs, but time passes quickly, between taking in the scenery, getting into the gear, and learning about the ecological and geological significance of the region from the guide. I and many others passed out hard on the ride back but awoke to find a photo slideshow of our day playing on the ferry’s tv screen.

Blizzaargh 2015

We’re getting pretty good at winter around here. Three of the last four have been serious business. 2011 was Chicago’s third biggest blizzard, which John and I endearingly named Blizzack! Then the winter of 2013/2014 was, of course, the Polar Vortex. And this year, on the anniversary of Blizzack!, Chicago had its fifth largest blizzard. This one, maybe we’ll call it Blizzaaargh 2015.

So today was an official snow day. The office shut down on account of the dangerous conditions. And let me tell you, snow days are even more fun as a grown up than they were as a kid.

Today’s schedule: a little reading, a little baking, a little daytime television, and a chance to break out the snowshoes and take some winter photos.

We used Christmas money to buy some of our own, and after busting them out for Bizzaargh, I can say it was worth the investment.

Snow in Chicago quickly turns to a slushy black mess, so heading out to the forest preserve at Herrick Lake in Wheaton with piles of fresh snow was a treat.

Many forest preserves and park districts offer snowshoe rentals. If you go, dress in layers–snowshoeing is a physical effort, especially if the snow is deep, and you’ll warm up quickly. Avoid cotton, which stays wet if you tumble or sweat. Wet and cold is a terrible combination.

Flatness and Frozen Falls: Finding Beauty in Illinois

Scientists determined last year that Illinois is the second flattest state in the United States. Florida is the flattest. But before you go throwing them a pity party, let’s not forget that Florida has the ocean and lots of coastline to go with it. It has the Everglades and the Keys. It has alligators and manatees. So, flat? Yes. Devoid of interesting and pretty nature-y things? Hardly.

In Illinois, on the other hand, we’ll accept your pity readily. Not only are we so very flat, but we also tolerate superlatively meager natural wonders. Of the state’s nearly 58,000 square miles, only 430 or so are set aside for public use (and state parks, forests, and conservation areas). That’s less than one percent.

So what can we count among Illinois’ natural treasures? There are a few things. For one, we can claim a tiny stretch of Lake Michigan as our own. But if you are looking to escape to the wilderness, then the populated shoreline hardly counts.

A 5- or 6-hour drive with a steady view of corn and soy would bring us to the state’s southern tip, where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers converge. There we’d find some lovely rocky bluffs and rolling hills and the only significant splotches of green on the map. But it’s not quite enough to draw people from the Chicago metropolitan area, where over 75% of Illinoisans live.

For those of us who grew up in or around Chicago–that is to say, most Illinoisans—Starved Rock State Park is going to be the place that springs to mind when asked about Illinois’ great outdoors. Less than 2 hours from the city, it’s an easy choice when in need of some fresh air and topographic variety. According to the park’s lodge, the place is Illinois’ number-one attraction. (Though they don’t say according to whom.)

This past weekend was my first visit in the winter. In truth, it was my first visit at all since childhood. And for a moment, I will stop turning up my nose at my plain state (pun completely intended and I’m not sorry) and admit that I had a nice time.


Lover’s Leap Overlook

The park is a series of sandstone bluffs and glacial canyons that hug a few miles of the Illinois River.

Looking down on the Illinois River from Eagle Cliff Overlook

Waterfalls can form in all of the 18 canyons in the spring, and a series of well-marked trails allow for easy access for hikers of any skill level.

In winter many of the waterfalls freeze, and hikers can slip and slide right up to their bases, and in some cases, walk behind them. Ice climbers set up at a couple of the taller falls, as well.

LaSalle Canyon


French Canyon

Eagles migrate through the area in winter, as well, so there’s a good chance of spotting them from the top of Starved Rock, a tall bluff on the river.

So yeah, it’s a pretty nice place in our very flat state. I admit it.

If you go, walking poles or Yaktrax will provide balance and traction on snow-packed trails. Dress warmly and sneak your sack lunch into the lodge. (They don’t allow outside food because they want to you buy from their overpriced and underdelicious restaurant.) Be sure to check out French Canyon, a short hike from the visitor center. For a shorter trip to LaSalle Canyon, park at Parkman’s Plain, an unsigned lot across from the Old Style sign on Route 71, a few miles east of the main entrance.

Great Hikes: Cascade Canyon Trail, Grand Teton National Park

[Leslie Griffin is an editor living in New York City, where nature is hard to come by. She travels to national parks and other hiking destinations whenever the opportunity arises.]

Difficulty: Moderate to difficult for the first 1.5 miles, then easy.
Distance: If you take the boat across Jenny Lake (10 dollars per person each way), the trail is 9.1 miles out and back. If you miss the boat, add 2 miles each way.
Elevation: About 1300 feet gained
Location: Jenny Lake boat dock (assuming you want to take the boat)

“It’s time for the Vicodin.”

Those were the words I uttered upon reaching the end of the Cascade Canyon Trail in Grand Teton National Park, before hiking nearly 5 miles back the way we had come.

Don’t be alarmed! I promise that most people will not need painkillers to hike this trail. But after spending a week in Yellowstone and Grand Teton and hiking more than 50 miles, my left foot bore little resemblance to its former self. Covered in blisters and aching from an old stress fracture, I had hobbled along the last mile or so of the trail, but decided that I needed something stronger than Ibuprofen for the return trip. Fortunately, my boyfriend hikes with every medicine known to man, so he dutifully handed over the pill.

Even though I was in pretty intense pain through the majority of the hike, it’s a testament to the beauty of this trail that I can say I would do it again without hesitation and would highly recommend it to anyone planning to visit Grand Teton.

We knew ahead of time that our feet were not as resilient as they had been at the beginning of the trip, so we opted to take the boat across Jenny Lake to the trailhead to shave two miles off the hike each way. (And, from what we read, those two miles are not nearly as scenic as the rest of the hike.) This required some planning, however, because the boat only runs from 10 AM to 4 PM, so we knew we would need to get on the boat early to ensure that we didn’t miss the last one on the way back.

After a short and chilly boat ride across the lake around 10:30 on an early September morning, we started the actual hike. The first 1.2 miles of the trail are the most difficult because they involve a fairly steep incline on boulders, rocks, and gravel. That said, we were expecting it to be more strenuous than it was. Less than a mile in, there’s a very short detour to Hidden Falls, a lovely waterfall that is—as the name suggests—hidden from view until you round a bend.


Hidden Falls

Another half mile beyond that, the trail reaches Inspiration Point, a rocky outcrop at 7200 feet with unobstructed views of the lake. Most hikers stop here and call it a day. If you choose to continue on, however, you are rewarded with a beautiful and easy hike through Cascade Canyon.


View from Inspiration Point

Shortly after Inspiration Point, the trail levels off and stays that way for the duration of the hike. The path hugs a creek as it winds through the canyon, passing through talus (rock debris) and wooded areas. Stunning mountain views abound from every angle. There are several pebbled open areas along the creek that make ideal stopping points to either eat a snack or just take in the beauty of the surroundings.

Taking a break.

We stopped a few times on the inbound hike due to the pain in my foot, so we reached the end of the trail sometime after lunch. We sat on some rocks and watched the water cascading below us. It was at this point that I decided to take the Vicodin. Admittedly, my pain threshold may be lower than some people’s, but by my estimation, my left foot was about a 9 on the pain scale at that point, and we had to hike all the way back to the boat dock by 4. My boyfriend wanted to push on another couple of miles to Lake Solitude, which is supposed to be incredible, but there was absolutely no way I could make it, so he agreed to head back with me.

There are ample opportunities to see wildlife in Cascade Canyon since both moose and black bears frequent the area. Sadly, we missed seeing two moose right next to the trail on our way back. They appeared about 30 minutes after we had passed a grassy watery area that’s known to be a popular moose hangout, and we heard about them from another hiker who caught up to us. We considered retracing our steps to see them, but we had spotted a moose several days earlier, and the thought of hiking an additional hour total was more than I could bear.

Fortunately, we did see and hear several adorable pikas, small guinea pig type animals that live in rocky areas. They dart in and out of crevices while emitting high-pitched squeaks that can’t be mistaken for anything else once you know what they are.

Pika

Once we reached Inspiration Point on the return trip, we were in the home stretch. You would think the descent through the steep part of the trail would be fairly easy, but it wasn’t. This is one of the few trails I’ve been on that made me wish I had hiking poles. Although the pain in my foot had receded to about an 8, I was pretty tired and wobbly by this time and slipped on some loose gravel and fell on my tailbone. I wasn’t injured, so we soldiered on, making it to the boat dock at 3:45.

Sitting down on the boat was the best thing I could have imagined at that point. I was tired, aching, and limping, but I had no regrets. I would do it again in a heartbeat, because that’s what these kinds of trips are about—pushing myself to get the most out of these beautiful wild places that I may never have the chance to visit again.

Out of This World: Mammoth Hot Springs

[Leslie Griffin is an editor living in New York City, where nature is hard to come by. She travels to national parks and other hiking destinations whenever the opportunity arises.]

Jupiter Terrace

Of the many wondrous things I saw on a recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth Hot Springs is the one I believe will stick with me the longest simply because it’s so unlike anything I’ve ever seen or am likely to see in years to come.

If the name leads you to believe this site is a hot spring that one visits to take a “cure,” you’re not alone. That’s what I thought it was before visiting. I had some vague notion that it involved colorful rocks or water, but didn’t bother to research it beforehand. In the end, this may have been the best approach, since I was all the more surprised and impressed when I saw it.

As it turns out, Mammoth Hot Springs is actually a series of terraced springs formed from a combination of heat, water, and travertine. A geologist I am not, but a simple explanation of the process is this: A leftover magma chamber from an ancient volcanic eruption continues to heat the ground in the area. Numerous fissures in the rock allow hot water to flow up and out, thereby creating the 50 springs that make up Mammoth Hot Springs. Along with the water, calcium carbonate seeps from the limestone underground and, through a complex chemical process, results in travertine—the form of limestone that gives the terraces at Mammoth their unique and otherworldly appearance. Add to that various colonies of algae and bacteria that stain the formations in myriad hues, and voila! You have the hot springs as we see them (and smell them) today.

Accessing the springs is an easy feat since the area was designed for people to see them. The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins is more or less at the base of the springs and is the only place to stay in that part of the park. My boyfriend and I stayed in the hotel for one night. Sure, it looked like the hotel from The Shining inside and we shared a bathroom with other people, but these are the things one comes to accept when seeing natural wonders. The resident herd of elk that grazed on the lawn right in front of our window easily made up for any shortcomings!

We arrived in the late afternoon at the very end of August, checked in, and immediately set off for the famous springs, which are divided into the Lower and Upper Terraces. We opted to see the Lower ones first, which are accessible via a labyrinthine boardwalk system designed to protect you and the springs while allowing you to get as close as possible to the formations.

The first major stop starting from the bottom is Palette Springs, so named for the varied shades of brown, green, and orange that seep down this hillside much like an artist’s palette. Next to this is the bleached Devil’s Thumb formation, which resembles large mounds of oddly shaped meringue.

Another notable stop along the boardwalk is Main Terrace with its desolate apocalyptic landscape and gnarled dead trees.

Main Terrace

A short walk beyond that is Canary Spring, a waterfall of travertine that appears to cascade down a hillside in shades of yellow, gold, and white.

Canary Spring

In addition to the colors and strange ribbonlike travertine formations, there is the constant presence of sulfurous steam, which adds to the unreal atmosphere. I have a pretty sensitive nose, but I think I was so enthralled by the strange beauty around us, that I was able to block out the rotten egg odor.

The following day, we visited the Upper Terrace, which is accessed on a loop road instead of a boardwalk. These springs were slightly less stunning to me, but still worth a look. Orange Spring Mound rises up like a miniature multicolored volcano, while Angel Terrace looks more like the remains of a ghostly burned forest.

Orange Spring Mound

We ended our tour by driving down below Canary Spring, where elk graze, seemingly oblivious to the bizarre geological wonders around them.

There are plenty of other unique features in Yellowstone—geysers, mud pots, pools of boiling water—but Mammoth Hot Springs was the one that pulled me in the most. It’s a must-see destination for anyone planning a trip to Yellowstone.

Great Hikes: Half Dome Day Hike

Difficulty: Very strenuous. It’s long, it’s steep, it’s exposed.
Distance: Our route was 16 miles, starting from the hiker’s lot about a quarter-mile from the trailhead. We ascended via the Mist Trail and descended via the John Muir Trail, which is a slightly longer but slightly easier route.
Elevation: 4,800 feet gained and lost.
Location:
The classic route begins at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley.

It’s impossible to think of Yosemite and not picture Half Dome. It’s iconic; a centerpiece admired from vista points all around Yosemite National Park.

Many visitors come home with photos of the massive granite dome. Fewer come home with the bragging rights that they make the hike to its summit, a hike voted one of America’s 10 most dangerous by Backpacker Magazine.

This year was our turn.

For our fifth consecutive visit to the park, we scored permits for the steel cables that run up the side of the dome, making the summit accessible to hikers who are fit and/or determined and/or crazy enough to attempt it.

We got to the trailhead around 5am and finished the hike around 5:30pm. Headlamps lit the way for the first hour or so.

Summiting Half Dome is a badge of honor among hikers. The hike had become so popular that, according to a National Park System study, up to 1,200 people a day were attempting the cables. Congestion and noise ruined any possibility of a wilderness experience. Not to mention the peril of a crowded, slow-moving queue of people on the cables.

Fortunately, in 2012, the park instituted a strict permit system that allows only 300 hikers on the cables each day, which makes for a much safer and more pleasant experience. Though, some may argue that “pleasant” could never be the right adjective for the ascent of a 54-degree incline up the side of a slick granite rock.

But it’s really not these final 400 vertical feet of the hike that make it such a challenge.

By the time you reach the cables, you’ve already completed a strenuous 8-mile hike on a very steep trail that gains 4,400 feet. (For some perspective, that’s 3 times the height of the Willis Tower, or 3.5 times the height of the Empire State Building.)

The flat stretch through Little Yosemite Valley after 4 miles of nonstop ascent is a sweet relief.

You’ve also carefully navigated the exposed, rocky switchbacks of what is known as the subdome, seen in the photos below.

As you approach the base of the cables, at best, your muscles are a little tired. At worst, you’re dehydrated, out of food, and have blisters on your feet.

It’s here that the cables really come into focus.

Hikers contemplate the cables.

Many turn back at this point, the steep incline just too mind-blowing. We considered it ourselves. Others retreat after making it partway up, and not only for reasons of fatigue or fear. Both decisions are totally respectable. It’s good to know your limits.

What proved more daunting for some was the simple fact that your life is in the hands of those who are above you on the cables. If someone were to slip, to lose their grip, they’d be hitting you on the way down as they go slip-sliding off the slippery rock face.

Is the person ahead of you getting a cramp in his leg? Is someone making such slow progress that your arms are getting too fatigued as you wait for them to move on up? Is someone in such a hurry she tries to squeeze pass you with a giant overnight pack that knocks you off balance? All three of those things happened during the 30 minutes we spent ascending the cables.

A lot can go wrong that is simply out of your hands.Climbing the cables requires faith in the ability and cooperation of those around you. Amazingly, accidents on the cables aren’t that frequent. And the sense of camaraderie as you share this incredible experience with others is kind of special.

On the surprising large and flat 5-acre summit, you are treated to 360-degree views of the most beautiful land our country has to offer.

While you’re up there, pause to consider the visitors on the valley floor, 4,800 feet below. Picture those that have pulled their cars to the side of the road at Olmsted Point off Tioga Road to the north, or at Glacier Point to the south. They’re all looking at Half Dome. And you’re on top of it.

Enjoy that feeling while you can, before you remember that you’ve still got another 8 miles and 4,800 feet of descent ahead of you.

Half Dome Resources
This is not a hike for beginners; some experience with long day hikes will go a long way. These websites are full of solid advice for making your hike safe and successful:

I could only add that as we pulled ourselves up the cables, I was very glad I’d included upper-body strength in my training regimen.

Descending into Kentucky’s Belly: Mammoth Caves Wild Cave Tour

I’m straddled across a 3- or 4-foot wide canyon, 8 feet or so above the cave floor, and I’m stuck. My Siberian guardian angel, the exchange student who’s supposed to keep an eye out for the person behind her (me), is long gone, out of sight around a bend. The guides had told us to follow the footing of the person in front of us to navigate the canyon walk, so now I’m on my own for the next 20 feet or so, with a few others in the tour waiting patiently behind me while I hesitate. I have no choice but to plunge ahead and trust my experience and my footing.

This was just one example of the physical and mental challenges we faced during the Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth Caves National Park.

Mammoth Caves is in northwestern Kentucky, about an hour and a half south of Louisville. It’s the longest-known continuous cave system in the world, with 400 miles of connected passageways. Researchers believe there could be as many as 1,000 miles.

At most national parks, visitors are free to explore on their own. This is impossible at Mammoth Caves. To see them, you must take one of many guided tours. They range in length and difficulty, from easy strolls along wide paths, to the long and strenuous Wild Cave Tour, which is how I chose to spend a recent Sunday.

If you read the description of the Wild Cave Tour on the NPS website, you will likely react one of two ways—“I’ve GOT to do this!” or “I’d rather die.”

If small enclosed spaces, teetering on high ledges, or pushing your physical limits doesn’t appeal to you, maybe take a pass on this one.

Here’s how the tour goes: It’s 6 hours long and covers 5 miles about 300 feet underground. You are provided with helmets, headlamps, jumpsuits, gloves, and kneepads. You will wish you had elbow pads too.

To get through passages that are smaller than you are around, your guide will explain and then demonstrate moves you can’t believe you’ll have to emulate. And then, somehow, you do.

You crawl on hands and knees or army-style through long, narrow tunnels.

You wiggle and contort through tiny holes to emerge into enormous underground caverns that your headlamp can barely illuminate.

You wall-walk across a canyon and hoist yourself through holes in the ceiling well above your head. (If you’re short-legged, like I am, you’ll pretty much have to do the splits to manage this move. Not that I cannot do the splits. But I did them on Sunday.)

You pull yourself up by the arms onto ledges you can barely reach.

You hit your head. A lot.

You experience complete, utter darkness and the oppressive silence that can only be found deep within the Earth. No wind, no leaves rustling, no insects chirping. The silence is so thick it will feel heavy, like a weight on your chest.

You emerge dirty, sweaty, scratched, bruised, tired, and euphoric, in front of more than 100 visitors on one of the popular short tours, who stare in admiration at your group. They’re a little jealous, and you like it that way.

Near the tour’s end, the group inched, on our bellies, through one last 45-foot passage that was quite wide, but very, very low. “Decide now whether you want to look left, or look right, because you won’t be able to turn your head once you’re in there,” our guide advised.

The passage narrowed even more the further in we got, until a pinch point wedged my helmet between the rock above and the ground below.  For the second time on the tour, I hesitated, wondering how I’d get out of this one.

Inching backwards, I freed my helmet and tried again. Defeating the pinch point, I swung my legs up and log-rolled the last 15 feet, emerging dizzy, proud, and happy.

If you go:

The tour isn’t for everyone, but spots are in high demand. It runs only on the weekends and the group size is limited to 14, so book ahead if you want to go, especially in the summer months. The cave itself is between 55 and 60 degrees year round, though, so visit any time of year.