Archive | March 2012

Soundtrack

I drove 10,000 miles around the county and saw lots of amazing things – but I could never have done it in silence!  This post is a tribute to all the music and other sounds that emanated from my stereo and carried me through the unending plains, dark nights, and twisting turns along the way.

Top 10  – Soundtrack

1. Trampled by Turtles

On the advice of friends, I had been to a Trampled by Turtles show in Madison the spring before my trip.  It had been “okay,” at least partly due to the fact that the venue it was held in was not my favorite.  However, I accepted a couple second-hand CD’s of the band, and loaded them onto my i-pod for this trip… and soon found myself listening to Trampled almost daily!  Now I’m hooked on the energy, lyrics, and musicianship of this young bluegrass band with all the excitement of their rock ‘n’ roll colleagues.  I bought their newest CD, and I’m looking for a show near me… but the ones in Duluth (their home town) and Madison (new-grass friendly in the extreme) seem to sell out quickly.  Turtles, come to Marquette soon!!!

2. NPR

As anyone who has traveled our great land knows, sometimes the only thing you can pick up is Public Radio – so it’s good that I like it!  I liked being able to grow weary of music, advertisements, or asinine DJs and be able to say things like, “It’s 4 o’clock; I bet I can find All Things Considered somewhere,” or “Oooh, I hope I’ll be able to pick up Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and This American Life on Saturday!”  It didn’t hurt any that I had recently acquired an i-pod, and an i-trip, and had figured out that free downloads of most NPR shows are available online… so I could listen to some of my favorite shows even when I wasn’t in range.

3. Bob Dylan

I don’t actually remember specifically listening to Dylan on this trip, except that I’m sure that I couldn’t have lasted very long without his music.  My favorite album is Freewheelin’, which I only have on cassette, though I was recently introduced to Blood on the Tracks and I know that I had that along with me, too.  His newest, Together through Life is also pretty darn good.  Now that I think about it, I am sure that I listened to a lot of Telltale Signs: The Bootleg Series, Vol.8, which I got for my dad for Christmas a couple years ago. I would recommend that album of ulreleased acoustic recordings to anyone, whether you think you like Dylan or not.  I, for one, think that he’s among the best!

4. Lou Harrison

A friend introduced me to Lou Harrison’s musical style years ago, when I was living in California, and although it took me a while to get into that “weird music,” I came to appreciate it.  Then, a few years back, my parents told me about this great new CD they had bought – and Harrison surfaced again.  The music is very easy to listen to, as a result of the “just intonation” scales used, as well as the instrumentation and relaxed tempo.  I wouldn’t call it “easy listening,” though.  Some might consider it “new age” or “classical,” but I tend to steer clear of those genres, so I personally wouldn’t.  All I know is that it came in very handy on my journey… though I’m a little ashamed to admit the reason.

So, I’ve already mentioned… several times… that I had an i-pod along with me.  It was a tiny one, only 2 MB, and weighs almost nothing.  So, contrary to my usual practice, I decided to bring some music along with me when I took my week-long backpacking trip to Isle Royale.  Normally, back in the days of the Walkman, I would simply relish the sounds of nature… and besides that carrying a heavy electronic device and bulky recordings just doesn’t work.  The i-pod has now revolutionized my solo camping experience: I used to lie awake at night, worrying about moose or wolves or bears or raccoons or goodness knows what until I’m cold and sore from lying on the ground and ultimately never get enough sleep for the walking I have to do the next day.  Now, though, I can put on some music and fall asleep in 45 minutes to a night of sound slumber… as long as nothing rustles the leaves too close to me!  Lou Harrison’s Serenado helped me do that on Isle Royale, and across the country.  Thank you, Lou!

5. Ito-Ale-Lises-Zay

This is another album that I usually only listen to when I’m taking a nap, because it is so beautifully relaxing, but it rarely puts me all the way to sleep.  It is a traditional-style band from Easter Island, which a friend in Chile introduced me to, and which I’ve listened to every since.   They have this instrument that’s kind-of a cross between a ukelele and a mandolin which I find completely awesome!

6. Mix CD’s from friends

Well, of course I had some of these along!  Not only do my friends have great taste in music, and I get to learn about bands or even musical genres that I never knew existed, but I get to think about the wonderful people I know at the same time.  There was one in particular that I always put on when I was in an amazing new situation, such as a national park or a spectacular sunset, because it was just the right combination of subtle and exciting.  I wish I could show you all a video I took, driving past cows and antelope into the sunset and over Lemhi Pass – it actually looks like this inspiring music is the soundtrack for my adventure!

7. Amazon Free Music

I don’t like to “pirate” music, not only because it’s illegal but also because I think it’s important to support the art that makes my life more pleasant and exciting.  However, if it’s being given away free, I won’t sneer at it!  Amazon.com offers a lot of free mp3 downloads of all genres, mostly new artists who want to get some exposure, and compilations that smaller record companies put out so that people buy their artists’ albums.  It’s a great way to get to hear new music that doesn’t get played on the radio and I’ve found some hits in there (some duds, too, but that’s why it’s free, right?).  Check it out yourself!

8. Country Radio

It’s pretty hard to get around the country without listening to a lot of “Country” music.  Good thing I (mostly) enjoy it.  It’s best when I can find a station that plays a good smattering of Classic County, up through the Outlaw Country phase, but I do also enjoy singing along with some “Top 40” Country… for about 2 hours, that is, until they’ve played all 40 songs in their playlist and start over again!

9. Telepath

This was a cool band that I discovered through the aforementioned Amazon giveaways… and their plan worked, because I wound up buying the whole album.  Some of their music is listed as “acid jazz,” other as “electronic,” or “electronica” or “dance.”  I would call it kind of jazzy electronica.  I’m not sure how good it would be to dance to.  But it is fun to listen to!

10. Lewis and Clark Journals

I had listened to most of these over the summer, before my trip began, along with my work crew, and we had all enjoyed them then.  However, once I started crossing the same landscape that the Corps of Discovery had, and eventually began visiting their historical sites, I ran through all 6 discs again.  While I listened to several audio books along the way, this remained my favorite.  I would highly recommend this edited version of their journals, whether in a regular old bound book or as I experienced them – though Tom Wopat as Clark makes a convincing case for the audio version! The Essential Lewis And Clark edited by Landon Jones.  Enjoy!

Road Food

While most of my food was cooked over a fire or on my little camp stove, and PB & J provided almost daily sustenance, I would occasionally splurge on local items, or grab a bite with my hosts.  Those explorations resulted in this list of edible and potable stand-outs that are every bit as memorable as the scenery I encountered along the way.  While it didn’t make this list, though, I would like to give an honorable mention to Lipton Noodles and Sauce, the prolific varieties of which provided many a satisfying camp meal – everything tastes better outdoors!

Top 5 Food and Drink – Roadtrip 2010

5. Morel and cream pasta

This was the best of my own creations on the road.  I rehydrated the last of the morel mushrooms that I had harvested and dried in the spring, sautéed them in butter with salt and pepper, added some heavy cream that had probably spent a couple days too many without refrigeration, and stirred the resulting sauce into cooked bow-tie pasta.  Voila!  A delicious dinner to keep me warm as the night temperatures neared freezing.

4. Colombo Pizza

I went to Colombo’s Pizza and Pasta because I had to… but I was sure glad I did!  Fresh vegetables were piled high on the pizza with home-made sauce and crust and just the right amount of cheese.  The place was bustling with college students, families, and young adults alike, and the service was friendly and efficient.  You may not think of pizza when planning a trip to the Rockies, but after a long day of skiing, hiking, or paddling the area wilderness, you won’t be disappointed.

3. Stephanie’s cooking

Anyone who has met Stephanie has probably tasted something she’s cooked… and not been disappointed.  Not only did I get to taste just about every variety of soy food produced by Ota Tofu, but I got the gourmet preparation to boot!  Fresh salmon, delicious cheeses, and crisp veggies rounded out our meals, and her mom even introduced me to Puerh teas, which I have since made a part of my regular diet.  I don’t even remember everything we ate in the few days I visited, but I sure wish I had Stephanie here to make my dinner tonight!  Mmmmmm…

2. Texas Tacos

I’ve never seen quite the variety of tacos that I got in Austin, TX, and all of them were wonderful.  Fish tacos, fusion tacos, veggie tacos, traditional tacos… the list could go on and on, and I certainly didn’t get anywhere near sampling everything available.  Your next trip to Texas should probably include a “taco tour”!

1. Fresh-hop beer

If you’ve been reading this long, or talked to me in the last year and a half, this ranking won’t come as a surprise to you!  The awesome variety of high-quality beer amazed me – and that’s coming from a girl used to Wisconsin’s motley brews.  However, the fresh-hop beer was more than just tasty… it revolutionized my way of thinking.  See, I never liked IPA’s, or APA’s, or any PA’s for that matter, because they were just too bitter.  The beers brewed with fresh hops (only a few hours off the vine), Pale Ales or not, were light, crisp, and fragrant without the bite!  Once I learned how delicious hops could be, I was able to find the flavor underneath the surface acridity in the ales I’d encountered before.  Now I’m at least as likely, if not more likely, to pick up a Hopalicious, Hopdinger, or Hop Hearty than anything else.  Thanks to Oregon’s healthy, hearty, and delicious beer industry!

Do you have any good food experiences on the road?  Know the best thing Stephanie has ever cooked?  Have an IPA recommendation?  I can’t wait to hear about it!

Wildlife Abounds

Agave, Century Plant, and Big Bluestem - where the desert meets the prairie

Although this wasn’t a safari, and it wasn’t the best time of year for “botanizing,” my innate interests in plants and wildlife made for some memorable experiences.  I looked at plants every day, and learned many new ones as I traveled to new regions and climates.  It was hard to narrow the list down to just a few, but I did my best, and the list wound up reflecting the iconic species that I encountered, rather than the delicate wildflowers I might have seen in the springtime.  The same is somewhat true of wildlife, though I did not have memorable encounters daily.  In fact, I saw relatively few animals  – but what I saw stuck with me.  I had to decide between the wildlife-viewing events that occurred, and those animals that I got to see for the first time, or that intrigued me without learning in-depth about them.  Here’s the result:

Top 10 Flora and Fauna

10. Rabbitbrush and Pelicans

What do low-growing shrubs and fish-netting birds have in common?  Rabbitbrush was ubiquitous in the North Dakota badlands… but also in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas!  Pelicans, with their large windspan, were one of the few species aloft during my windy day of birdwatching in the North Dakota plains… and two months later I saw them be buffeted by the breeze on the Texas coast.  Their presence tied together two of the primary destinations of my trip – the most northerly and most southerly.  Rabbitbrush and White Pelicans helped me to realize that our country has similarities not only by latitude, but by longitude as well.  Sure, the climate is similar across the far south, from LA to Houston, and across the far north from Montana to Maine.  But geological commonalities, along with rainfall patterns, create “The Great Plains,” “The Rockies,” and “The Pacific (or Atlantic) Coast” – comparable across temperature climes.  Some of our most iconic species show this quite clearly!

9. Antelope in MT

Since the mountained West was not on my destination list, but simply conveniently between stops, I had forgotten all about its wildlife.  I was therefore surprised to see antelopes on the plains of eastern Montana.  Watching them run when I rolled down my car window to take a photo, I was reminded of Cpt. Merriweather Lewis’s description of attempting to sneak up on them in nearly the same location.  They are quick, with a striking appearance, and for a couple days they were frequent appearances in the meadows along the road – but only in Montana, and then they were gone again.

8. Agave

It was tough to decide which of the desert species was my “favorite,” because they have some amazing adaptations and unique forms.  I settled on the agave species because they were so varied, but were consistently present throughout the deserts in my travels.   I watched bats veer around them at Carlsbad Caverns, swung from their limbs at Joshua Tree, and saw them growing in the prairie in the Guadalupe Mountains.

7. Fungi

Well, fungi are technically neither plants nor animals, but in a kingdom of their own.  Until I write a “top ten fungi” list, though, they should be honored to be included here.  I saw some awesome fungi on my trip, primarily in the colder and wetter climates – northern Minnesota, the west side of the Rockies in Idaho, and the Cascades in Oregon.  Very cool, and an inspiration to learn more about the mushrooms around me!

6.  Armadillos and Roadrunners and Alligators

Okay, maybe it is cheating to include these all together – but this item is a tribute to all of those animals that I’d never seen before in the wild, and got to see pretty much by accident on this trip.  I saw one armadillo, a couple roadrunners, and a whole lot of alligators… all pretty interesting to watch go about their business.

5. Prairie Grasses

I could pass this ranking off as another case of a suite of plants tying together diverse locations… but that wouldn’t be telling the whole story.  I made sure to spend a full day playing in the prairies along the Upper Mississippi as I started my journey, because I knew that I would enjoy that adventure, if nothing else for the next few months.  When I got to western North Dakota, I was pleased to find those same grasses growing among the petrified wood, rainbow-colored cliffs, and cottonwood-lined chalky rivers – it made me feel comfortably “at home” after a few cold and dreary days on the plains.  When I hit the Guadalupe Mountains, I thought that I was still in the desert, and was astonished to see those grasses at my feet as I made my way up the trail – believe it or not, I nearly jumped for joy!  Sure, I liked these plants a lot before leaving home, but going away helped me to see that they could hold their own among all of the other awesome species out there!

4. Oak Trees

Oak trees are pretty awesome, and I’m not the first to think so.  Nearly every culture that has survived where oaks thrive has adopted them as a symbol.  They are revered as a food source, for their longevity, for their beauty, and for being a definitive species in their ecosystems.  “The mighty oak” grows in some places, but in others, like the high desert, oaks are nothing more than shrubs.  This very diversity is amazing, and I enjoyed all the oaks I saw, from the mighty Burr Oak to the Live Oaks of California, to the tiny Gray Oaks in the mountains.  But maybe the best one was when I found the Chinquapin Oak in the mountains of West Texas – I squealed with excitement at the time, and I still like re-telling the story today!

3. Large Ungulates: Roosevelt Elk, California and Moose, Isle Royale

I won’t re-tell the stories of these encounters, because I’ve already devoted full posts in my blog to them (click links above if you missed them).  However, these chance encounters with very large (and frustrated) male animals will definitely stick in my memory for a long time to come.  Definitely not the kind of adventure I could have had sitting on my couch!

Roosevelt Elk among the Redwoods

2. Redwoods

A lot of other items made it onto this list by surprising me – either by their presence or by their significance.  I knew the Coast Redwoods were there in northern California, and I knew that they would be impressive.  They were.  ‘Nuff said!

1. Waterfowl at Brazos Bend

I was going to put this item a little lower on the list, until the experience I had earlier this evening.  I realized that, had I not swung into Brazos Bend State Park, had I not taken the hike that I did, I would not be where I am today – in every sense of the phrase.  For the first time in my life, I was captivated by birds, and wanted to keep watching them and learning about them.  It convinced me that a career in natural resources was worth struggling for, and if I hadn’t made that decision, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be in the position I am now.  Even if I were, though, I wouldn’t have opted to spend my evening watching returning migrants splash into the flowages and sedge meadows of northwest Wisconsin, if I hadn’t found out how cool they would be.  More about that adventure coming soon!

Favorites

Shortly after returning from my big trip a year and a half ago, I took a new job and moved to the northeast corner of Wisconsin – a land of tall pine trees, clear waters, and primal predators.  Living in the land of wolves, Wild Rivers, and old-growth hemlock has its perks, but I alternated between exploring my new territory and missing the cows, prairies, and delectable local brews (and cheeses) of the southern portion of the state.  I’ve had a lot of questions about what I’ve been doing up here (and, from the skeptics, what there is to do up here), but new friends have also been asking me about the trip I took, and one of the first questions out of everyone’s mouth is, “So, what was your favorite part?”  In light of that, before I jump into my “new” adventures, I thought that I would present a post on my “Favorites” from the cross-country travels that inspired this blog.

That proved to be a little more difficult than I thought.  There are a few places that stand out as #1 or #2 on my list, but when I try to expand that to a Top 5 or Top 10, I find myself asking, “Well, Favorite what?”  Places, people, and things might be highly memorable for only one reason, but not qualify for the overall “Favorite” distinction.  Since they say that people today like easily-digestible, prescriptive information, I thought that I would provide a few different summaries of such things as my favorite foods and beverages, wildlife and plant experiences, music and radio stations, and of course the overall cream of the crop.

I’ll start with a list of places that may or may not have made my overall favorite list, but that might have if I’d given them a better fighting chance.  I call it:

Top 5 Places I Want to Go Back to and Explore More

1. Salmon River/Idaho Rockies

Some of the other places on this list might think that it isn’t fair to include this, since I’ve been hoping to plan a trip out here ever since I first saw the area in 2001, moving between Alaska and California.  I made a conscious choice not to spend time in the Rockies on this last advenure, because I felt like a week-long backpacking trip needed more specific planning.  I wasn’t even planning to go to Idaho, until I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to follow Louis and Clark’s tracks over Lemhi Pass.  My one night on the Salmon River was not only a breath of cool air between the heat of central Montana and that of the coastal Central Valley, but the babble of the blue river was a relaxing break between two long and winding days of driving.  I’m hoping to get back to the general vicinity sometime in the next two years for a more in-depth experience.

2. Sonoran Desert/Tucson, AZ/Saguaro National Park

I also decided not to spend a significant amount of time in the desert Southwest, since I had spent over a week there in 2003, moving back from California.  I did, however, take a more southern route, and the plants of the desert astounded me more than the red rocks of northern AZ and NM had years before.  I dragged my feet a little bit through Arizona, trying to take it all in, but I never had a chance to spend much time in any one place.  Specifically, I would have liked to spend more than 18 hours in Tucson, visiting family and getting to see some of the artistic side of the town.  I would also get slightly out of town to get to see the more wild and undisturbed portion of Saguaro National Park, and to get a better understanding of desert ecology and plant life.  I hope to get back there sometime in the next five years, maybe for a springtime blooming of the desert.

3.  Gulf Coast

When planning my travels in Texas, I didn’t even think of the ocean and beaches, so the time I spent there was short, but enjoyable.  I wouldn’t mind spending a couple days lounging on a beach, eating oysters on the half-shell, and learning about the coastal ecology that is so valuable to the healthy function of our hemisphere.  A couple years back I went to New Orleans for a weekend, and I remember thinking that, if I had scheduled it better, I would have saved some time for the coastal bayous, as well.  I’ll probably get down to somewhere along the Gulf coast in the next few years for an informative, tasty, and relaxing few days!

4. Oregon

Unlike every other place on this list, Oregon was an integral part of the planning for this cross-country journey.  I had never been there, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  During my week there, I had the opportunity to look at most of the more exciting parts of the state, but each portion only briefly.  I could spend a lot more time in the mountains of the Cascades and the Coast Range, exploring the neighborhoods of Portland, and dipping my feet in the Pacific.  It would be fascinating to give myself a rigorous course in volcanic geology while driving around the state.  Most of all, however, I’d like to do a focused survey of the fresh-hop beers that are tapped late every summer.  I got a small sampling when I was there, but I was a little late for the peak season, and I hadn’t planned on touring brew houses.  Next time I go back, I’ll make sure to be better organized and have a clearer direction to my visit.  It might be a good idea to trek the mountains before I start the beer tour, though!

5.  Big Thicket

If you recall my recent post on the Big Thicket National Park, you’ll remember that I was very excited about this ecological melting pot, but didn’t even have time to enter the park proper.  I’d like to spend several days in this north Texas/north-western Louisiana area with a few good field guides and maybe even a local naturalist to lead the way.  Not sure when I’ll get back there, but there’ll be some good botanizing when I do!

To all my fellow adventurers out there – have you been to any of these places or done any of these things?  Do you have suggestions for off-the-beaten-path exploration when I finally get a chance to return?

Last Day on the Road

November 5-6, 2010   

Miles 9133 – 9836

Mountain View, AR – Chicago, IL

After leaving the awesome Blanchard Springs Caverns, I headed over to nearby Mountain View, Arkansas for some culture.  The Ozarks are known for three things, at least in my mind: beautiful scenery (check), hillbillies (er, check), and music.  The first two are shared pretty closely with lots of places, among them southwestern Wisconsin.  The last makes the area unique, and in a lot of different ways.  Most people have heard of Branson, MO, and a lot have been there.  That’s one example of the excellent country music available in the Ozarks, but Mountain View shows off another side of things.

In warm weather, visitors to historic downtown Mountain View, “The folk music capitol of the world,” can listen to accomplished musicians picking guitars, banjos, mandolins, and bass on porch stoops all over town, and even join in if they had the foresight to bring an instrument along.  Nightly concerts at multiple locations around town bring in sell-out crowds, and several museums of mountain music and crafts round out the experience.

In November, though, most of those places are shuttered up tight, along with the ice cream shops, fudge factories, and t-shirt dealers.  In late fall, I was left with a few die-hard music stores, a luthier’s studio, and a small post office from which to mail the last of my postcards.  I nearly bought a mandolin in town, just to say that I had, but settled on just a few picks, instead (after all, I’d barely played the mandolin I’d just dragged over 9,000 miles around the country with me).  I walked around town in the chill, and drank a hot tea in lieu of the ice cream before heading over to the Ozark Folk Center.  Of course, even that closes early in the off-season, and I got there just as the doors were shutting.  Instead of displays of heirloom crafts and musical artistry, all I got was the gift shop… but even that was full of high-quality, handmade items.  Plus, it gave me the opportunity to look for some last-minute gifts from my long travel – and even a couple Christmas presents!

I left Mountain View with a determination to head back on some warm summer day in the future, and headed north.  I crossed into Missouri just before sunset, drove straight east, and a few hours later crossed into the southern tip of Illinois.  I meandered around, generally northward, for a few hours before finally finding a spot to spend the night in the Shawnee National Forest.

I woke up in the morning to a towering cliff topped with brilliant fall leaves  – I couldn’t have picked a better campsite if I had tried! 

I headed up from Cairo towards Carbondale, with a short detour to go through Anna, IL, which I had always wanted to see.  Around mid-morning I got to a park near Carbondale that had been recommended to me by a friend (thanks, Jared!) for one last hike.  The Little Grand Canyon is a favorite among college students and families alike, and on this beautiful fall day I could see why.  Not only was the scenery itself beautiful, but I had the chance to look out on the flat Mississippi River floodplain and realize that these were the last hills for many, many miles.

My drive north confirmed that fact, as I got on the interstate and zoomed my way north through cornfields and concrete for another 6 hours until I hit the urban sprawl of the Chicagoland area.  I threaded my way through it until I could smell Lake Michigan, see familiar store fronts, and make second-nature turns through narrow city streets.   I rang a familiar bell, and my mom opened the door and welcomed me in to the fragrant meal they had been keeping warm all evening.  Home at last!  And ready for the next adventure…

Looking westward towards the Mississippi River from the peaks of the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois.

Just one more thing to see…

Nov 5, 2010

Miles 9071-9133

Silver Hill, AR – Mountain View, AR

The previous night, around the fire at the Buffalo River, someone had inquired whether I was going to “the Caverns” or not.

“Uh…,” I replied, “I hadn’t planned on it.  What is it?”

The group went on to explain to me that Blanchard Springs Caverns, within the Ozark National Forest, was an attraction not to be missed on any trip to the Ozarks, so I figured I’d stop by there on my way out the next morning.

When I pulled into the parking lot that morning, it was already full of cars and school busses, and I was told that it would be a while before I could get onto a shuttle to the cave’s entrance.  Pretty popular for a Friday in November.  I went to check out a small hiking area to the spring’s outlet while I was waiting, to keep from shivering in the frosty fall morning.  I nearly decided not to pay the $10 admission fee for the cave proper, but decided on one last splurge  – and it was certainly worth it!

A short waterfall at the outlet of Blanchard Springs

Ceiling of the cavern at the outlet

Blanchard Springs Caverns formed as a byproduct of the same geological forces that created the rest of the Ozarks.  Hundreds of millions of years ago, an inland sea covered the central United States, including Arkansas, and laid down millennia of sediment on the ocean floor, including tons of calcium deposits from decomposing shells and bones.  That sediment was compressed by the weight of the water above it, and when the ocean receded it became the newly-exposed bedrock, composed largely of limestone.  After that, but still hundreds of millions of years ago, the earth shifted and lifted up the crust of what is now northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.  This is known as uplift, and it is what created the Ozark Dome – see my previous posts for some pictures of relics of this.  As water rolled downhill from this plateau, it naturally sought out cracks in rocks, and wore away softer minerals from on top of and within the stone.  Millennia of this process created the steeply rolling topography of the Ozarks as we see them today.   Eventually, in much more recent geologic time (but still tens of thousands of years ago), the trickling water began wearing away the softer stone under the bedrock in what was to become the Caverns.  At this point, the water was able to tap into the source of a natural spring, which gave it a quick outlet from the interior of the rock.  This increased the speed and quantity of water coming through, and the water’s erosion of the limestone intensified as well.  Over time, the amount of water flowing through decreased, leaving empty cavernous rooms under the bedrock.  In places, the ceilings collapsed once the support of the water was removed; in others they became sturdier as the rock walls shored them up.  Small amounts of water continued to pass through, eroding and depositing minerals as it went, creating the Blanchard Springs Caverns as we know them today.

The “Dripstone Tour” takes visitors past the most dazzling of the cave formations, or speleothems as they are technically known.   Blanchard Springs Caverns is an “active” cave, which means that the formations are still growing as water is still dripping through.  The $10 fee includes a shuttle to the

The "Curtains" formation was as thin as potato chips

cave entrance, a short lecture on cave formation and history, a self-guided tour recording, and the elevator back up to the top.  You can get through it in an hour or spend all day in the dark, humid, 58-degree depths.  In the summertime, two other, more extensive (and expensive) tours are offered, but the Dripstone was my only option in November.  While there were plenty of other people down there with me, it never felt really crowded – that might be different in the heavy tourist season, so I felt lucky in my timing.  I’m not going to both saying any more about the cave, because my photos can probably explain it better.  I don’t have equipment for fancy cave photography, but good theatrical lighting helped me out, and my photos turned out better than expected.  To get a really good look at the place, you’ll have to visit for yourself!

Baby stalactites grew from the ceiling until the water in this area stopped flowing and they became inactive.

The variety of formations in the cave was astounding!

The enormous cavern, before descending the stairs to walk among the formations.

These forked stalacmites looked just like saguaro cacti - not everyone is lucky enough to see them at Blanchard Springs less than a month after walking among the real thing!

The ceiling in the cave, where it hadn't collapsed, was almost perfectly flat - the underside of the Ozark bedrock I had seen at King's Bluff a few days before.

A visit to any cave these days requires some mention of the bats that inhabit it.  The Blanchard Springs Caverns is the only cave currently open to the public on any National Forest, and visitors who have visited another cave or expect to are required to sterilize their shoes and change clothing before entering this one.  The reason for all of this security is the spread of White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that is devastating bat populations across North America.  I’ve touched on it in a past post, and for more information on the latest research, the official web page is a great source: http://www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/.  I won’t say more about it now, but I have plans to devote an entire future post to the subject, so stay tuned.

A National River – Part 2

I went back down to the lower parking area, saw that the crew was back and busying itself to make dinner, and sought out the leader, Ken Smith.  He graciously accepted me into their little group, showed me where I could pitch my tent, and the crew invited me to eat with them.  Over the next 36 hours, I got to know this bunch of kind and passionate people, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been part of such a great project, if only for a

Ken Smith, warming by our camp fire

moment.

The first thing that I learned was that any story of the Buffalo River had to have Ken Smith at its heart.  He was instrumental in the movement to preserve the river in its free-flowing form, and it was that process that eventually resulted in the creation of our first National River.  That designation turns out to mean something between “National Park” and “Wild and Scenic River.”  The latter term is used for a river that has been preserved without dams and artificial control, but does not necessarily have public ownership along the river.  In the case of a National River, the lands around the river are owned in large part (if not wholly) by the National Park Service, which preserves and protects lands in its care, as well as providing for responsible public recreation.  Today, most of the National Rivers are also part of the Wild and Scenic River program, but are protected to a greater degree.

The Buffalo River, like many others, was threatened in the middle of the 20th century by the proposed development of large hydro-power dams, and locals sought to preserve the river’s natural flow among steep cliffs and rock formations.  The Ozark Society was founded to lobby for protection, and was ultimately successful when, in 1972, the Buffalo National River was signed into law by Richard Nixon.  Ken Smith worked for the park service for ten years int he 1960’s and 70’s before leaving to become Education Director for the Ozark Society in 91974.  Today, he is officially retired, but continues to live out his passion for preservation of the BNR, by working towards the creation of a comprehensive hiking trail to span the length of the river.  He does this by bringing together teams of volunteers, then providing tools, campsites, food, transportation and – most importantly – expertise in trail engineering for a few weeks every year.

I had happened into the middle of all this, and despite the fact that the other volunteers had paid for their opportunities (to cover the costs of all of the above), they welcomed me into their fold and shared what they had.  Upon waking up in the frosty cold, they shared the warmth of their fire as we all bustled about, eating breakfast and making lunch while we warmed our toes.  By mid-day, though, after some hard labor on the new trail, we had stripped off a few layers and were happy to sit in the shade as we ate our sandwiches.  I arrived at the end of the week, so the finishing touches were being put on the trail surface – I was given shovels, garden rakes, and pulaskis, and alternately asked to pile rocks for cairns, chop out roots that might cause a stumble, or rake the trail into its final smooth surface.  Even the boring work was made entertaining by the great and dedicated folks who I had the opportunity to work with, and who told their own stories of life-long commitment to the Buffalo River as we worked.

Fall Colors in the Ozark hills along the Buffalo River

I'd never seen an armadillo in the wild until I spied this one, nosing the leaves for a tasty meal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night, the crew invited me to dine with them again, and then we sat around the fire for a couple hours… it was the last night of the fall trail-construction week, and I had graciously offered to help the guys finish the beer they had along, so no one had to pack it up in the morning.  We went to bed early, though, after a long day, and I snuggled deep into my new down-filled sleeping bag, protected against the chilly November night.

Looking south along the Buffalo River at Tyler Bend on a fall evening

Some of the many uncommon rock formations on the Buffalo River

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was very happy to delay my trip north for a couple of days for this opportunity, and hope to get back to explore the Buffalo in greater depth.  If you’ve ever been there, or to any of the other National Rivers, leave a comment below and let me know about your experience!