Gate to Gate

The Needles Highway, one of the famous scenic routes in the Black Hills, takes on a new character in its winter isolation. The gates close late in the fall, not to open again until spring, but a handful of hikers, skiers, and snowshoers take to the highway to enjoy the beauty of the spires and sprawling landscape. Sarah and I decided to add ourselves to that number and hike the Needles Highway, gate to gate. IMG_3378eWe set off after church. Our mom dropped us off at Sylvan Lake, and we would then hike to our truck, which our loving family left for us at the other end of the highway on their way home.IMG_3381eWe were set. We had plenty of water, food, an extra layer, and a whole bunch of enthusiasm. I was only too excited to get to try out my brand new Osprey Sirrus 24 backpack, which I had bought with Christmas money from my Uncle Jim. An 8 mile hike in springlike weather would be heavenly. And it sure was, to start with. The blue sky was overwhelming, the sunlight was almost too warm and the trail was a gradual uphill climb to the Needles Eye lookout and tunnel. Stunning. Pristine. We chatted and laughed and walked quickly, making pretty good time, stopping occasionally for pictures and enjoying the views.IMG_3421eIMG_3433eThen we got past the Needles Eye. For about another mile, things went swimmingly. But we had made a handful of miscalculations and we were starting to realize it.IMG_3448eFirst (Call us ignorant. Or naive. Either works.), since we hadn’t had any snow in two weeks, we made the mistake of assuming that there wouldn’t be “that much” snow on the highway. I mean, look at this pictures of the spires! It sure doesn’t look like there’d be “that much.” Well, there was. However much we imagined “that much” to be, there was that, and more.  Starting about a mile past the Needles Eye, the real snow began. At times, we hiked in just a few inches, but other times we stumbled into almost knee-high drifts that continued on for way too long. Eight miles had seemed easy. But 8 miles in heavy and sometimes deep snow? Talk about a workout. By mile 2 or so, our tracks were the only tracks on the highway (all the smart people had turned around), except for a very faint, lonely set of ski tracks. Another fresher set of ski tracks showed up around mile 5.5 and we accompanied those the rest of the way out.
IMG_3454eSecond, we had assumed a hiking time based on little snow. Let’s just say it is a good thing we headed out on the trail when we did, and didn’t dawdle at church any longer.

Third, we assumed weather based on Custer’s weather. But the problem is, when your hike takes you over a mountain range to the other side of said mountains, even modest mountains like the Black Hills, even a relatively short hike, weather patterns change. Not because the weather actually changed, but because you leave one hemisphere and enter another hemisphere. At about mile 5.5, we left all the beautiful sun and blue sky behind us on the other side of the Hills and entered into a damp, dark, cheerless fog bank. It was great fun.

By mile 6, our boots had soaked through, the sun was gone behind the hills, the fog was eerily clinging to the trees, our protein bars were frozen, my hip was aching, we were constantly in snow up over the top of our hiking boots, and our hiking time was suffering. Sunset and our exit time were starting to overlap in our minds to an uncomfortable degree. We had lights, but still…Then we started to see very large mountain lion tracks. Our hiking time magically improved. Amazing. Although I’m by no means a mountain lion expert, I’ve seen mountain lion tracks on a number of occasions, and these absolutely dwarfed the others I’ve seen. The spread of that cat’s toes was impressive. Since we were getting a little jumpy in the fog and the failing sunlight, we failed to get a comparison shot, with our hand or something next to the paw print for reference. So for all you know, our brains blew up the size of the print in our minds and what you’re looking at is really a little old bobcat print, or even a wandering house cat. Meow.  IMG_3456eIn summary – A lot of things could have gone wrong in those 8 miles, but they didn’t. In spite of some lack of planning, the hike was fantastic, the views were beautiful, and the memory is a fun one. The Sirrus backpack was fantastic – I never even felt it on my shoulders. Snowshoes would have been nice. Winterized hiking boots would have been nice as well. Wool socks are amazing. My socks were damp probably by mile 2.5 (to the point of leaving wet prints on the occasional patches of dry asphalt when I stopped to shake snow out of my boots), but my feet felt dry until about mile 5 or 6. But even then my feet never actually felt cold. Sloshy, yes. Cold, no. The sight of our truck at the end of the highway was a welcome sight, I have to say.IMG_3458eWhat a hike. A great start to the hiking season!

 

 

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Wonders

I have to admit, I didn’t expect the eclipse to be as startlingly beautiful as it was. When Sarah and I were in between Lusk and Douglas, WY, with tepid water in our water bottles and warm air blowing from the vents and sunlight beating in on us as we started to get a little drowsy, I have to admit, I was wondering if it would be worth the hassle of driving all the way to Douglas to see this event.

The eclipse commenced in the heat of the morning. Every few minutes, we looked through our glasses to see the strange sight of the moon slowly overshadowing a growing part of the sun. That was interesting, but it was only beginning. A spectacular drama was in the process of unfolding.

About a half hour before totality, we noticed that the sunlight was indeed dimmer. There was a strange cast over the landscape, almost like a haze, and even though the light was still bright, the intensity had diminished. The air had cooled, and we pulled on sweatshirts. As totality neared, things happened faster – The light changed more rapidly, and we noticed with delight the crescent shapes dancing in the shadows on the ground. The sky continued to grow darker as the moon closed over the sun. From the west, a deep shadow suddenly approached as the eclipse neared completion, spreading ominously until the whole landscape around us was bathed in a strange midday night. Venus appeared, almost straight overhead. A rose-colored curtain hung at the very edges of the horizon. For two minutes, we reveled in twilight, and everything was silent. The graceful moon completely covered our majestic sun, briefly cutting off the vital heat and life-giving light in an amazing display of God’s order over the celestial bodies.IMG_3117The corona around the black of the moon was breathtaking. The sky was deep violet, and the moon was darker than night. The two minutes of totality seemed to last a mere few seconds, and then the sun appeared again, and the nighttime soon warmed to day. Awe-struck, we knew we had witnessed a miracle.

An article in WORLD Magazine explained the phenomenon, that the sun, which is 400 times the size of the moon was at that moment 400 times further away, making this miracle possible. What clear evidence of God’s creative abilities, as THE creative mind, THE Creator of all things! But so many people will have watched this miracle and will have come away from it awe-struck, but with wonder misplaced. So many scientists spend their lives searching out the mysteries of God’s Creation, and somehow never reach the point of being humbled by our lowliness and God’s greatness. Too many people will watch this miracle and attribute it to random chance – But what are the chances logically that this could have happened?

God created a world where many miracles are simply a part of our existence. We need the plants and the trees and the animals and the water cycle and our atmosphere. But we don’t need the eclipse. If I lived my whole life without ever seeing an eclipse, my life wouldn’t materially be changed at all. It doesn’t benefit us in any way, in the way that a rainstorm or the seasonal cycles do. The eclipse is completely unnecessary.

I was reading through the Sherlock Holmes stories over the winter and stumbled across the gem of a quote: “Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from flowers.” I’d say the same holds true in the miracle of the eclipse. It is an extra. God didn’t need to do this for any scientific reason or reason of sustaining life on our beautiful little planet. Why would He, then? Although I hesitate to speculate, I do know that God does that which is for the good of His people and for His glory. I think that God, in His glorious love for us, decided to create a phenomenon simply out of delight, simply because He could and it would dazzle us and glorify Himself.

So wonder at the miracles we see every day, and the more spectacular miracles we are privileged to witness less frequently – And let your awe and your delight be directed where it belongs. Give God the glory, great things He has done!

Canada/Alaska Adventure | Home Again

Somehow, the three and a half weeks since I got home from Alaska flew by without me realizing it, full to the brim with summertime and normal life. I jumped back in to work the day after I got home, had a week of work and then five days on the road and in Bozeman, MT, at a Biblical counseling training conference. The rest of the time filled in with everyday life, family, housekeeping, unpacking, packing again, unpacking again. My brain has been so fried, my blogging took a back burner.

Alaska, like all of the West that I’ve seen so far, tugs at my heartstrings in mysterious ways. While once-upon-a-time (and not too far in the past) I would have said I never wanted to leave the Black Hills, I find my heart waking to the idea of seeking out the deeper West. There is that quiet place in my soul that hungers after the remote, the distant, the separate, the raw.

It was definitely a shock to the system to come from the cool moistness of the Glacier View climate, to the hot, arid Black Hills. It was strange to leave behind a green, lush landscape and exchange it for a landscape that had been green when I left, but is now very lacking in rain. I miss puttering in the garden for hours at a time in the cool of midday, without scorching or melting or frying. I miss the bright flowers and foliage that thrive in the almost endless daylight. I miss the wildness, the steepness of the peaks right outside the window, I miss the water and the clear, blue mountain streams. But then…this is home. Where the hot summer air smells piney and golden. Where beebalm and chokecherries line the Hole-in-the-Wall Trail, where the stars are diamond bright, and the sun sets behind Harney Peak. Home is where my family is – my blood family and my church family. Home is where Trixie and our log cabin and the Miner’s Cabin wait in our little hollow underneath our red ridge. Where Ember comes running when I call her name, or sits yowling outside the window until I let her in. Home is where I have a bed underneath the eaves and can hear the raindrops pattering on the tin roof a foot away. Home is here.

They say home is where the heart is. For now, my heart is here. But will it always be? Only time will tell.

Canada/Alaska Adventure | Entry #10

America from the earliest days was built upon tenacity and determination. Each place has its stories of the men and women who were the first-comers, the settlers, the pioneers, those at the front lines of the frontier. Driven by myriad reasons, but driven nonetheless, men and women trekked through the harshest conditions to pursue and fulfill those dreams. It is amazing to what lengths mankind is willing to go, to expand, to explore, to pursue freedoms and wealth and opportunity and stability and adventure. And the further west and north in the United States, the more recent those stories are.

The Independence Mine was a hardrock gold mine, formed by the joining of two mining companies in 1938, and was worked until its closure in 1951. It was the second most productive Alaskan gold mine, producing nearly $18 million by today’s standards. This is an informative article, briefly outlining the history of the mine. IMG_0035eIMG_0026eIMG_0045eIMG_0053eJenny and I, along with a friend of Jenny’s, visited the mine on Friday, after we hiked Hatcher’s Pass. If we hadn’t been starving and a little pressed for time, we could easily have spent more time walking the trails around the park, taking pictures, and taking in the scenery. Run-down and tumble-down buildings, in various stages of dilapidation, hugged the mountainside, giving quiet testimony to a time when the area was alive with industry. It is amazing to think of the men who first came into this area, in spite of – and maybe because of – how remote and rugged it is. The camp buildings in particular were fascinating to me, as someone who loves old buildings, but also because of how out of place they seemed compared with the rest of the mine buildings. The bunkhouses, cookhouse, and other camp buildings, according to the informational signs, were painted with aluminum paint and red trim, “giving the camp a clean, cheerful appearance.” The manager of the mine wanted to keep his miners happy, and the accommodations were known as the best in the area. IMG_0081eIMG_0127eIMG_0118eIMG_0114eIMG_0002eIMG_0014eIMG_0097eSo much history, and so recent. A step back in time.

 

 

 

Canada/Alaska Adventure | Entry #9

What had begun as a beautiful Sunday morning and early afternoon turned to clouds and drizzle by the late afternoon and evening. The closer we got to the Lion’s Head trailhead, the greyer and rainier it became, but we had coats with us and set out hiking in the drizzle.
IMG_9724eAn online hiking article states that the trail is 1 1/2 miles long, and it definitely is a good scramble, steep, narrow, and slick in the rain. Jenny and my Uncle Dan both are skeptical of the 1 1/2 miles and think it has to be shorter – I’m not. Though, it didn’t feel nearly as long coming back down!

IMG_9698eIMG_9577eMost of the trail does indeed go straight up, with a few too-short switchbacks and some rocky climbs. The rain had made the trail a muddy mess and the footing somewhat treacherous in places. Lots of easy handholds are to be had, however. About half of the distance is in forest growth, though there are open areas boasting beautiful views of the Matanuska Valley. The rain and clouds and mist gave the landscape a moody, surreal atmosphere at times, with the river and the Glen Highway gleaming dully in the distance, beneath towering clouds and strange sunlight. The scramble includes a stretch of boulder field, which was easy to navigate and was actually a nice break from the raw, muddy scramble. The trail begins to level out towards the top, with a pretty gentle grade over the ridge to the actual peak. IMG_9604eIMG_9573eOnce again, I couldn’t help but exclaim over the strange terrain, with the soft and spongy moss covering pretty much everything in thick, tangled mats. Large lichens added weird pattern and texture. Tiny flowers poked up among the fronds of moss, delicate and seemingly vulnerable, and little ferns grew impossibly in the boulder field. How amazing, that God has equipped these plants with fortitude and tenacity to be able to grow and flourish in such harsh climates. IMG_9574e IMG_9611eIMG_9595eIMG_9582eIMG_9596eIMG_9701eThere were glorious views once we reached the top, and the sun began to show itself. There must have been some electrical activity in the storm, since our hair was standing up on end at the peak, in spite of being wet from the rain. Hoards of mosquitoes were also waiting for us, as well as a number of swallows dipping and diving over the cliffs, and beautiful clusters of wildflowers springing up seemingly from the rock itself. The Matanuska Glacier snaked back out of sight, hidden by mountains and mist. A swampy area dotted with little lakes sprawled between us and the glacier. The mountains along the Matanuska Valley were blue with rain, losing themselves in the distance. Breathtaking, truly.IMG_9669e We hiked back down the trail, bug-bitten, rain-wet, sweaty, and muddy. What a joy, to be able to spend God’s Day in His glorious Creation, marveling at His handiwork, His Creative powers in having shaped and formed this world we live in!

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Canada/Alaska Adventure | Entry #7

When Jenny and I headed out on the fourwheeler at 9pm last night, we had kind of expected a more leisurely spin. I’d never done any fourwheeling, so anything would have been fun for me! The trails we intended to ride on were reported to be in good condition and to have been recently repaired, to some extent. A fifteen minute drive got us to the old Glen Highway, and another ten minutes got us out into the real off-roading.IMG_9544The area was beautiful. The landscape, a boggy tangle of spongy moss and lichen and slender spruce, sprawled to the mountains, the tops of which were buried in clouds. The trail became more mountainous as we climbed towards the pass, crossing a few streams, taking alternate routes around the largest puddles, some of which were deceptively deep – we found out the hard way. On a number of occasions, we almost ended up stuck, which at a minimum would have been very embarrassing. A couple of the bad spots almost made us turn around, but then the road would get better so we’d keep on trucking! It was a gorgeous evening. Why turn around?

IMG_9546 We were never quite deterred until we got to a particularly steep spot requiring some tricky maneuvering. I hopped off to make the maneuvering easier for Jenny, and as I did, I got a whiff of that unmistakable smell of something big definitely dead. I mean, it wasn’t just a dead rabbit close by. “Jenny, do you smell that?” I asked uneasily, as the stench got stronger, at the time that she was processing the same thing. We both had the “Let’s turn around now” feeling, and did so as quickly as she could get the fourwheeler turned around on the muddy slope. We had a tense couple of minutes there on the slick, steep, rutted slope, with pretty thick brush and uneven terrain on either side of us, and poor visibility as a result. The turn around was challenging enough, but if we’d gone on any further, Jenny said we wouldn’t have been able to turn around until we reached the top of the trail. With a persistent creepy feeling, we headed back down the trail. That stench sticks with you, particularly when there’s a good chance the stench was from a grizzly cache. We would have felt at least a little better if we had brought a bigger gun.

I wasn’t quite able to shake the creepy feeling until we got back home at 11pm and warmed up with some hot tea. Nothing like that to get your heart pumping!

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