Sunday, July 23, 2017

Discovering the Cool Coulees

When we left our cozy little camping spot at Alpine View campground in Leavenworth, Washington, we were officially heading east. We were sad to leave the Cascade Mountains behind, and our stomachs were equally sad to see the last of the fruit orchards. We are seeing empty wooden boxes used to transport fresh fruit from the orchard to the processing plants. These boxes are stacked as tall and big as a barn, ready for more of the fruit harvest. This area is known for its apples and pears, and they won't be ripe for over a month from now.

We stopped in for more bing cherries selling for $1 per pound at a little fruit stand we had visited several days earlier. When we found that they were finished for the season, Denisa almost cried. This is going to make it harder for her to keep her pledge to eat her weight in cherries while living in Washington this summer.

We noticed that our blue sky also looked sad, sporting a gray hazy color today. We heard on the news later that smoke from forest fires in Canada has made its way into Washington on the south summer winds.

We are actually in high fire danger here too, and we passed by a section of Highway 2 that had burned recently. The weatherman is predicting more "dry thunderstorms." It is the lightning from these weather events that starts most of the forest fires, with no rain to put out the fire.

Highway 2 suddenly started climbing, as we left the orchards behind. An increase in 2,000 feet of elevation later, and we were suddenly in an entirely different world! This new part of the state was filled with golden wheat fields, almost ready for harvest.

Denisa was raised on a wheat farm, and this landscape looked more like home than anything we have seen on this trek out west. With golden wheat fields on both sides of the road, this looks more like Oklahoma, instead of the fruit-orchard-filled section of Washington we had just left. They farm all the way to the asphalt here, with no fences.

The other thing that looked familiar were the "dirt devils" that were making their way across the just-plowed fields. We're not sure why there were so many, and why they are so big. But we probably saw twenty different mini-tornadoes we call "dirt devils" as we drove this section. We also found they are very hard to photograph. So after Denisa had snapped dozens of pictures from the passenger seat, this was her best picture showing the dust circling high into the air.

After months of traveling among the tall trees and the ocean, we are suddenly on a high plateau with no trees in sight. We did find some curious house-sized boulders in the middle of some of the fields. We found they are called "hay stacks" and they were deposited here by the glaciers thousands of years ago. Today, it just means that the farmer has to drive his tractor around them.

This drive was less than two hours long, but it felt like we had traveled far in terms of landscape. It changed again, as we topped a hill and looked down into a wide canyon with tall black canyon walls around us. We had just been introduced to our first coulee!

In fact, that it reason we are driving this direction. We had heard about the coulees found in north central Washington, and someone had to tell us that a coulee is a deep gully or ravine. We had to be educated on all things coulee, so here's a layman's description of what the geologists say:  This area was once a giant lava field. But lava cools quickly, with cracks and breaks in the newly formed rock. So when a giant ice age flood roared through here 10,000 years ago, the wall of water washed away channels of the brittle volcanic rock. That left these tall black canyon walls surrounding the washed-away gully. 

More simply, we think that God thought that this north central part of Washington would be pretty with this unique geological wonder. So we are camped in the shadow of the coulees that ring Banks Lake here in Coulee City.

Aren't coulees cool? We plan to see more of them as we wander through more of God's wonders near our new home town of Coulee City, Washington.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Kayaking the Icicle and Wenatchee Rivers

From the first time we saw the rivers that flow through our new home-town of Leavenworth, Washington, we knew we wanted to take a kayak trip while we were visiting here. There are several companies that rent equipment and provide shuttles, but we are always looking for a way to do it for free. We found that combination here.

We first dropped off a bike at our designated take-out spot in town. Then Mark dropped Denisa and the boat off at a put-in spot up-river by the fish hatchery. We inflated the boat and got everything we needed out of the car.

Then Mark drove back to the take-out spot, parked the car, and picked up the bike we had stowed earlier. Mark rode the bike several miles back to the beginning of our float. Who knew that this self-shuttling a kayak ride was so complicated?!? Mark took this selfie picture as he rode on the road towards the river.

He was snapping other pictures, for proof that this is a beautiful area by bike or by boat.

We locked up the bike at our put-in spot, and we were on the water by 10:30. It was just a couple minutes down the river that we saw our first wildlife of the day--a mother deer and her spotted fawn in the shade beside the water.

It looks like spring instead of summer, as we also passed a mother duck and her ducklings. You can see them in the bottom left hand corner below.

For this portion of our voyage, we are on the Icicle River that flows straight out of those mountains. True to its name, it is as cold as an icicle. 

When we put a foot in the water, in only twenty seconds it was numb and achy from the cold water. We shared the Icicle River with many people riding on tubes. They confirmed that the water was equally cold to their (ahem) posteriors that were in constant contact with that cold water. So we were glad to be riding high and dry in our trusty Sea Eagle kayak.

The water flowing out of the mountains was perfectly clear. We could see all the rocks below us.

After an hour and a half of effortless floating on the Icicle River, it flows into the wider Wenatchee River. Our floating speed picked up as we joined the faster pace of the larger river. Have we mentioned that we love the mountain views around town?

It took about two hours to float the four miles of river this morning, and the weather was absolutely perfect for it. Mark used his paddle to steer us in the right direction, but Denisa hardly got her paddle wet today.

We exited the water in town, and loaded the boat into the car. We took the short drive to pick up the bike, and we had completed our totally free float down the rivers surrounding our new little town. Considering that tourists usually pay over $30 per person for floating in that chilly tube, we think our free float was better. 

We really are enjoying our week here in Leavenworth. We braved the crowds again to spend a little time downtown on the weekend. We are still marveling at all the flower baskets that are brimming with blooms. We don't understand how they can keep these baskets looking full and beautiful all summer, but they are everywhere!

In keeping with the Bavarian theme, the local chamber of commerce sponsors authentic music at the downtown gazebo. How can tourists not be happy with accordion music and  guys wearing leather lederhosen yodeling in the background as they browse the shops downtown?

We have really enjoyed our week in Leavenworth. But it is time for us to hit the road to new adventures as we continue to wander His wonders.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Hiking the Mountain Lakes

Shortly after we arrived in this area, we stopped by the National Forest Ranger Station to ask for advice for the best hikes in the mountains around Leavenworth. We had it narrowed down to our two favorite trails, and they both led to mountain lakes--Lake Colchuck and Lake Stuart. Mark read reviews on them, and we were still waffling between the two when we set out early for our hike. It must be a good omen when you start a morning hike with a deer stepping out onto the trail right in front of us.

Both trails shared the same trail head, and even the first 2.5 miles of the trail. We knew we had found a great hike when the large parking lot was already filled at 7:30 a.m. We headed up the tree-shaded trail with the rest of the weekend crowd.

We knew that the town of Leavenworth would be crowded on this beautiful Saturday, so we planned to escape to the mountains for an early morning hike. Some of that crowd was enjoying the mountain trails as well. But there are enough miles that we were scattered over the trail without being crowded.

After 2.5 miles of hiking uphill, we came to the split in the trail that separates the two trails. We decided to veer to the left towards Colchuck Lake. Here the trail turned even more steeply up-hill. For the next 1.67 miles we were on a stair-master made up of rocks and tree roots going up the mountain.

We noticed some movement in the trees beside us, and realized that we had hiked up to mountain goat territory.

When the goat moved away from the trail, Mark followed him through the trees for some great pictures. This guy is transitioning from his winter coat into his summer wear.

He must be used to sharing the trail with hikers. When he laid down, we took one more picture and then continued on our way up the mountain.

It was a tough hike, but the pay-off was grand as we got our first glimpse of Colchuck Lake. Mark is blending into the scenery, but he is standing out on the edge of a boulder jutting into the water.

After hiking three hours, the sun was right overhead. So our pictures of the surrounding snow-covered mountain faces don't have the right lighting. But they're still pretty darn pretty. We love the color of a mountain lake that is filled with snow melt.

It's not only a brilliant blue-green, but it is also crystal clear. You can clearly see the under-water boulders in the foreground of the picture below.

We noticed that we seemed to be the oldest people at the lake. We were decades older than most of the other hikers. Most of them knew to bring swim suits for diving into the lake. From the yells uttered when they hit the water, we knew that the water was a little nippy. One swimmer described it as "not warm." 

Mark was out on a boulder checking the water temperature, and he had to agree that it was snow-cold.

We ate our picnic lunch and enjoyed some good views on the trail-side of the lake.

But we wondered how far we could hike around to the other side of the lake. There was no trail, but we bush-whacked our way to the far side. We had to make a water crossing over a narrow log that was wedged above the lake. There was extra incentive not to fall off the log when Mark spotted this snake swimming by.

On this tough hike through the brambles and across the creek, we started tallying up our trail injuries and awarding points for new bumps and bruises. But we also got to witness new perspectives to the lake and the snowy mountains around it.

Denisa thinks it was still worth it for the views from the other side of the lake.

We had spied this large flat boulder from the other side of the lake, and that was our destination. Then we found that the only way to the top was climbing up two logs resting on the edge.

It was an interesting climb using the knobs left over from the missing branches.

But it made for a good view from the top. And no one else was crazy enough to get there, so we had the entire area to ourselves.

Here we could be entertained by the antics of the much-younger hikers that were "enjoying" time in the water straight off the snow melt. It's an interesting picture that has both swimmers and snow in the same frame.

After we climbed down off our boulder, we took off our hiking boots for an icy foot soaking too. We've hiked well over five miles, and that certainly was a refreshing water bath.

We saw that one of the local mountain goats was coming down for water, and perhaps hoping for handouts from the other hikers.

We were tired by the time we bush-whacked back across the lake. Denisa thought she was ahead on the trail injury tally, but Mark got extra points from spearing his head on an overhead branch. It was a tiring and rugged hike in a beautiful setting. One more look across beautiful Lake Colchuck before we left it behind.

We got back to the trail, now heading straight downhill. We noticed that the trees that are standing look healthy and green. But we also notice that the forest floor is covered by downed trees that look like toothpicks.

It was on this section that we met a couple rangers, and asked about the comparison of this trail and the one to Lake Stuart. That had been our second choice, and we were still wondering if we had made the right choice. They explained that the other trail was much flatter and easier, with great meadow views. They added that it would "only" take an extra 4.5 mile hike to do both trails today. Hmmmm

We simmered that idea in our mind as we headed down the steep trail. It was steep enough that we had to be careful with each step, and we weren't making very good time. When we finally made it to the intersection, we had already hiked 8.2 miles today and we were still almost 3 miles from our car. We would have to be crazy to add a hike to the other mountain lake, right?

That's when a couple of middle-aged hikers urged us to take the Stuart Lake trail too. Call us crazy, but for some reason we turned our hiking boots uphill to our second lake of the day. The rangers' descriptions were actually accurate. Even though it was longer, there was little elevation gain. They were also right about the great meadow views of Mount Stuart along the way.

After the up-hill trail earlier, it was nice to be in a broad meadow filled with wildflowers in the shadow of some of the tallest mountains in Central Washington.

It was already 3:30 by the time we got our first views of Stuart Lake with the mountain of the same name in the background.

Not as turquoise-blue as Lake Colchuck, it was still a lovely mountain lake. We also noticed an older and smaller crowd here. So it was a quieter place for a little rest time. Mark found an interesting rock at the water's edge for an unusual nap position.

By the time we soaked our tired feet in the cold water of Lake Stuart and had a revitalizing snack, we had spent an hour here. We hoped we had rested enough to make the final 5+ miles back to our car.

The good news is that the entire hike back was basically downhill. Our legs were feeling the effects of the long trail today as we made that long push back to the car. We tried not to get distracted from our goal, but we had to stop for cute little wildlife creatures on the the trail. This guy was chewing on a pine cone, eating across it like it was corn on the cob.

We were glad we made that detour to Stuart Lake, but we were certainly feeling the effects as we hiked 16 miles before the day was over. We had to walk a little further past the trail head to get to our car. Even at 7:30 a.m., the parking lot had been full, so we had to park beside the narrow dirt road.

Now 11 hours after we got here, we are leaving at 6:30 p.m. We see that the parking lot is still full, and there are cars parked 3/4 of a mile down the road. We had read that these were two of the prettiest hikes in the state of Washington, and as we remember some of our favorite views of the day, we would have to agree. We have definitely wandered into another of God's wonders today!