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Category Archives: Trip Reports

Video: A quick trip to Stansbury Island

Last night I took the kids for a quick trip to the Great Salt Lake’s Stansbury Island.  Here are a few clips from the trip– filmed and edited on my phone. Man, mobile tech is getting awesome!

 
 

Mystery of Kanaka Lake carp defies those fishing for answers

Mention Iosepa and most people think of the modern steel pavilion that dominates the site. For others, the tidy cemetery comes to mind. Few, if any, consider of the large, pear-shaped pond across the highway. That’s too bad, because it’s one part of Iosepa that remains almost perfectly intact—physically and maybe biologically.

Yep, it's there: Kanaka Lake at sunrise (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared, without tangents and nested tangents, in the November 11, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

It was still dark when Tyler and I rolled onto the banks of Skull Valley’s Rock Bottom Spring.  From here the rutted double track we had been following veered sharply eastward.  Our destination, an unassuming pool called Kanaka Lake, was another half mile due south.  We’d have to park and hike the last leg, but that was fine by us.  What better way to arrive at our favorite Hawaiian ghost town?

“Hmm, coats would have been nice,” Tyler quipped when we were met by the frigid, pre-dawn air.

Ah yes, coats.  Of all the things to forget.  I blamed this year’s extra long autumn for the lapse.  Note to self: the desert gets very cold at night.  The flannel shirt won’t cut it anymore.  Tyler, whose light jacket was also not cutting it, made a similar note.  At least there was no wind.

We hopped a wide ditch and trudged into the darkness, our limbs warmed by movement, our hearts by the prospect of adventure.  Tyler and I have spent a lot of time exploring desert places, but we had never seen this outlying corner of Iosepa up close.  As far as we were concerned, this was uncharted territory.

Though it existed for a brief 28 years, Iosepa occupies a revered spot in Tooele County’s history.  Its story of faith and resolve has captured hearts worldwide.  The town was settled in 1889 by Hawaiian converts to the LDS Church who had moved from the islands to Utah.  Built on a working 1,280 acre ranch purchased by the church, the new colony would become a cultural and economic sanctuary for the Polynesian pioneers.  At its peak, 228 people called Iosepa home.

The town was abandoned in 1917 when all but one family returned to Hawaii to support a newly announced temple there.  The ranch was sold and the buildings were dismantled.  The entire town site was later plowed.  Today, virtually nothing remains of the town that in 1911 held the designation of “best kept and most progressive city” in Utah.

Despite the interest Iosepa generates today, not much is known about day-to-day life there.  Not even the remarkably preserved cemetery can tell us much about how these extreme pioneers lived.  In 2008, archaeologist Benjamin Pykles and a team of New York anthropology students began an ongoing study of the town site.

Regular readers of this column know of my own efforts to help connect the dots of Iosepa’s past.  In 2008, Tyler and I located and documented what the old timers called Story Rock, a limestone slab carved with images of palm trees, sea turtles and sharks.  I often reflect on those petroglyphs and the Hawaiians that carved them.  Who were these people who traded their island home for an unforgiving desert?  What were their dreams?  How did they spend their spare time?

Mention Iosepa and most people think of the modern steel pavilion that dominates the site.  For others, the tidy cemetery comes to mind.  Few, if any, consider of the large, pear-shaped pond across the highway.  That’s too bad, because it’s one part of Iosepa that remains almost perfectly intact—physically and maybe biologically.

The “lake” is a pooling of one or more geothermal springs and part of the extensive wetland system that spans the length of Skull Valley.  Kanaka’s warm, brackish water never freezes and is suitable for livestock drinking.  Carp planted by the Hawaiians thrived in its shallows.  Modern critics who question the Hawaiians’ choice to settle in such a seemingly inhospitable clime need look no further than Kanaka Lake.

The lake was also a recreation hub for the Iosepans.  If Salt Mountain was their island, Kanaka Lake was their Pacific.  Summer days were spent swimming and basking on its shores.  In his 1958 BYU Master’s thesis, Dennis Atkin noted that the Hawaiians caught carp by sneaking up behind the fish, gently stroking them along their sides, then grabbing them by their gills.

SIDE NOTE/TANGENT: The notion that the Iosepans ice skated on Kanaka has been perpetuated in several articles through the years. Atkin mentions ice skating in the same section of his thesis that he writes about Kanaka Lake.  It’s likely that some lazy writer falsely connected the two and everybody else ran with it.  Kanaka Lake is a warm spring.  It does not freeze.  This is just one more example of myth perpetuated by lazy writers.

NESTED TANGENT: There is no documented evidence of the Iosepans ever referring to the lake as “Kanaka Lake.”  The term “Kanaka” is Hawaiian for ‘people’ or ‘person.’  Outsiders often referred to the Iosepans as “the Kanakas” and Iosepa was known to most people as “Kanaka Ranch.”  It’s likely only the surrounding white settlers called the spring “Kanaka Lake.”  If the Hawaiians had an official name for it, it is not known to history.

Last July, Professor Pykles and I stood at his dig site and gazed down at Kanaka Lake.  Are there still carp in there, we wondered.  If so, are they of the same stock planted by the Iosepans?  Pykles wouldn’t have time to investigate the lake before he left.  Neither would I until fall, but if I could catch a carp, somehow deflesh it, and send its bones to New York, Pykles would see if they match the bones he unearthed during his dig.

I secured access from the Ensign Group who now owns the land.  The pressure was on.  I’m a decent angler until an article depends on it, and then I can’t catch anything.  My bad fishing luck has become a running chuckle in the newsroom.  The fishing part of this trip, I assured Tyler, was secondary to the actual experience of being where the Iosepans fished and played.

“But how hard could it be?” I asked as we approached the misty lake.  The atmosphere was surreal.

After almost a century without human encounter, surely these fish were up for a glittery ball of Power Bait.  We cast in as the sun peeked over Salt Mountain, but Kanaka’s surface was as still as glass.  Three hours passed without so much as a nibble.  The sun was up; it was t-shirt weather now.

Tyler decided to consult Google.  “When angling for carp, develop a patient approach,” he read from his phone, then shook his head.  “That’s bogus!  Haven’t you ever spit in the pond at Lagoon?”

“Maybe the Lagoon carp are tame,” I postured.  “Iosepa carp are wild.”

Wild and very picky.  We moved to the lake’s outlet where massive two-foot carp taunted us by zipping back and forth in water more shallow than they were tall.  Our varied baits and techniques were useless here too.  But we had answered our first question:  there were carp in Kanaka Lake.  The second would have to wait.  Like other Iosepa-related quests, success rarely comes on the first try.  It’s ok.  We’re persistent.  Those carp can’t run forever.

 

Best adventures of 2010 offered laughs and life lessons

Many of this year’s episodes marked first-time experiences.  Some were as frustrating as they were enjoyable.  Others combined outdoor sport with investigative journalism in attempt to unravel forgotten histories.

King of the urban jungle: Me and my Heelys (photo by Meagan Burr)

The following originally appeared in the December 31, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

ON THE FLANKS of the Stansbury Mountains west of Grantsville stands a common U.S. Forest Service signboard.   Wooden and weathered, it marks the end of the 5 mile dirt road from town and the beginning of the 4 mile hiking trail that winds deep into West Canyon. A placard at the top reads “Travel Information.”  But ironically, save for a few staple-trapped shreds of bulletins long torn away, the signboard’s face is completely empty.

First-timers on West Canyon Trail no doubt bristle at the least informative information board in western Utah.  I chuckle, because it illustrates a certain recreational ambiguity in our neck of the desert.  Opportunities for outdoor fun here are countless, but despite commendable efforts by the Forest Service and other local agencies, most are poorly documented.  The purpose of this column is to highlight the unique experiences our vast back country has to offer.  I’m satisfied that 2010 saw a good number of tips, back-stories, and ideas tacked to the proverbial signboard.

Thanks for the info!

Many of this year’s episodes marked first-time experiences—like hunting for meteorites and handling live rattlesnakes.  Some– like getting skunked by carp in Kanaka Lake or by crawdads in Grantsville Reservoir—were as frustrating as they were enjoyable.  Others combined outdoor sport with investigative journalism in attempt to unravel forgotten histories.

Of the latter type, my favorite was an investigation of an old airmail beacon in the Oquirrh foothills above Lake Point.  The idea for the story was posed to be by a reader from Stansbury Park.  A pilot with a thing for historical recon, Brian Staheli often flew over the structure and wondered what it was.  Over the years I’ve come to realize that everything has a story, and this collection of concrete slabs shaped like a double-tailed arrow was no exception.

With a little research we identified the structure as Airway Beacon 61A, one of the last surviving remnants of the legendary U.S. Air Mail era.  The beacon, we discovered, was constructed circa 1923 and was a key point along two Contract Airmail Routes.  With the back-story mostly assembled, it was time for the real fun to begin.

A hike to the arrow gave us a close up look, but that wouldn’t cut it for either of us.  61A was built to be viewed from the air, and we’d do the old thing a grave disservice if we didn’t oblige.  So Brian borrowed a plane and I grabbed a camera.  We took off early and flew low and slow over the Great Salt Lake while we waited for the sun to hit the beacon.  After two passes, we realized we would need to fly even closer to get a decent photo.  This all-encompassing adventure reached its apex when Brian executed a brain-juggling maneuver called a “slip,” rapidly dropping us to 50 feet above ground level and giving me a square-on view of the arrow.

The money shot. Not the best photo in the world, but it was the best I could do given the circumstances.

Oh that I could take this full-on approach to every exploit!  Alas, exploring a concept from every possible angle is rarely feasible.  Fortunately, the simple, impromptu outings are often just as rewarding—especially when they involve the kids.  Each of my children has seen their fair share of back country, but my oldest sons Bridger, 9, and Weston, 7, have been my trustiest companions.

Of our adventures together in Tooele County this year, 13 made the column.  Aside from the comic relief, the boys bring a wide-eyed perspective to every excursion, allowing me to see the rocks and ridges the way I did when I was their age.  Nothing brings a smile to my face quite like a fireside conversation with them about space and dinosaurs and the icky girls at school.

Nothing breaks the ice like a campfire.  The boys and I build them whenever and wherever we can.  I like to think I’m planting seeds in them—nourishing, perhaps, that innate and symbiotic relationship between boy and wilderness.  I think they appreciate my efforts.  Both boys have sworn to be my buds forever—“even when we’re teenagers and we think you’re a dork.”

The boys

I may have already earned my dork badge last spring when I set out to master the art of skating in Heelys.  As it turns out, those hip shoes with removable wheels aren’t just for the youngins.  In fact, any parent willing to risk a little embarrassment can order a pair of adult-sized Heelys and join their kids on a glide through the urban jungle.  I wrote about my journey from crash course to semi-success in a March article and have steadily improved since.  I have yet to complete my outfit with a skull print hoody, but my wheeled wonder shoes are never too far from reach.

The Heelys saga highlights the varied nature of this year’s activities.  Looking back on this topical hodgepodge, no distinct patterns emerge, but several themes are woven prominently—though not deliberately—throughout.  For example, I’m apparently obsessed with the concept of technology in the outdoors.  This isn’t surprising, considering my devotion to both.  2011 will seriously test my ability to balance the convenience of tech against the exhilaration that comes from roughing it.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

Until then, I’ll close this retrospective by sharing a few handy tips I’ve picked up while afield this year:

15 minutes spent gazing at the stars does more for the mind and soul than four hours of yoga.  Take weather reports and online trail guides with a few grains of salt, but always trust your gut.  Dad was right—that ridge is steeper than it looks from the trail.  When old people tell you stories, pay attention.  And carry a tape recorder; they might not be around the next time you come calling.  Never back away from a rattlesnake that’s close enough to strike.  Despite your body’s relentless attempts to convince you otherwise, early morning is the best time to hike.  Always pack enough water—and don’t forget the bratwurst.

Thanks for reading, and have an adventurous 2011!

 

Where I’ve been

So yeah, I took November off from blogging.  I didn’t plan on it, but that’s obviously how it worked out.  I’ve got a good excuse– about 11 of them, actually:

Maryland
Kansas
Arizona
Washington, D.C.
Virginia
Texas
Oklahoma
Colorado
Utah
Wyoming
New Mexico

For a combination of familial, professional, and recreational reasons, the Thomsen gang took a three week whirlwind tour of the country.  I hoped to find time to blog about the usual stuff along the way, but whenever I weighed time at the laptop against time adventuring (i.e. driving, eating at roadside barbecue shacks, taking pictures of abandoned buildings and old bones), the blogging lost out.

But…that gave me a whole lot of awesome material to write about for the next month or so.

Also…some change is afoot.  I’ll tell you all about it in the coming days.

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2010 in Site Updates, Trip Reports

 

Ghosts of Mercur Cemetery don’t reveal themselves easily

“In recent years the cemetery has become a popular target for paranormal investigation groups, who document their findings in spine-tingling detail.  There’s the little girl who appreciates the dolls that visitors place on her grave.  There’s the Italian immigrant miner who enjoys a nice graveside conversation via EMF meter.  And let’s not forget the cold spots or the power drains on electronic devices.

Or the would-be voices discovered later on digital recordings, which state with horrific clarity things like ‘You don’t belong here.'”

 

Mercur Cemetery by day (image source unknown)

The following originally appeared in the October 28, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

FULL MOON: CHECK. Midnight: check.  Spooky, century-old graveyard: check.  The inexplicable flickering of my LED flashlight: check.  It was the perfect recipe for a Halloween-time adventure.

Granted, the inexplicable flickering of my flashlight might have had less to do with otherworldly phenomena and more with the fact that I bought it at the gas station for $1.99.  But there’s no need to quibble over technicalities, because none of them mattered when the boys and I walked into the old Mercur cemetery and laid our eyes on those first moonlit graves.

Paranormal enthusiasts argue that places marked with high emotion or scarred by traumatic history act as spectral magnets.  They’re “hot spots”—areas of high paranormal activity.  In short, they’re haunted.  Many ghost towns naturally fit the bill—especially those built around mining.

Life in boom-and-bust mining towns was rife with anxiety.  Technology was primitive.  Miner safety was often an afterthought and fatal accidents were commonplace.  Even on the best days, the threat of cave-ins, injury, or an ill-timed blast always loomed.  If you didn’t meet your fate deep in earth’s bowels today, there’s always tomorrow.  And if your business doesn’t go broke when the mine plays out, it’ll probably be destroyed in a freak, town-wide fire.

If such ghost towns attract real haunts, Mercur should be a good candidate.    Its story began in 1870 when prospectors in the Oquirrh Mountains working southward from Ophir discovered gold in Manning Canyon.  Then called Lewiston, the town saw its first boom around 1873.  Its population grew to 1,500, but not for long.  The mines proved unreliable, and by 1880, a single soul called Lewiston home.

The town saw its second boom when a Bavarian prospector discovered mercury and named his claim Mercur.  The name stuck, even after the focus of mining shifted predominantly back to gold.  By 1898, nearly 6,000 people lived in Mercur.  The town prospered even after a 1902 fire claimed most of its buildings, only to be abandoned again in 1913.

Though limited operations continued in the mines until 1997, Mercur’s real R.I.P date was 1913.  Any remaining structures were razed in the 1980’s and a gate blocks entrance to the area that was once town proper.

All that’s left of the great mining town is its small cemetery, which closed in 1915.  It sits atop a steep hill and is accessible from the canyon road by a narrow trail that must have been a pall-bearer’s nightmare.  The graveyard is the resting place of some 100 souls.  Rock ovals with larger limestone slabs at their heads mark 40 or so graves.  The rest are completely unmarked.   Around 20 of the marked graves are individually enclosed by picket fences.  Of all the graves on the hill, only one bears an actual carved headstone.

SIDE NOTE: The grave is that of Annie C. Jones– born 189(7), died 1898.  Her headstone is mostly illegible.

Tales of paranormal encounters at the cemetery are ubiquitous online.  The stories range from humorous to terrifying.  In recent years the cemetery has become a popular target for paranormal investigation groups who document their findings in spine-tingling detail.  There’s the little girl who appreciates the dolls that visitors place on her grave.  There’s the Italian immigrant miner who enjoys a nice graveside conversation via EMF meter.  And let’s not forget the cold spots or the power drains on electronic devices.

Or the would-be voices discovered later on digital recordings, which state with horrific clarity things like “You don’t belong here.”

I read the stories with interest, but my skepticism was firm.  It’s not that I don’t believe in ghosts—I just don’t see why they’d be hanging out at cemeteries.  Why exactly would a dead miner haunt a place he had little or no connection with in life?  Wouldn’t his afterlife be better spent scaring the tar out of witless teenagers along the canyon road, or stealing campers’ left socks?

Craig Campbell, founder of Salt City Paranormal, shares my skepticism.  Campbell and crew conducted their own investigation of the cemetery several years back with inconclusive results.

“There are just too many variables in that environment,” he told me.  “You’ve got the wind, other interference— it’s just too easy to get a false positive.”

Campbell says he looks at each investigation as a court room case.  Until he finds solid evidence, he’s not convinced.  Solid evidence, as Campbell defines it, would be a documented phenomenon that he is unable to recreate himself.  But the lack of solid evidence of the supernatural at Mercur Cemetery doesn’t mean nothing’s afoot there.

“It’s definitely a hot spot,” Campbell ceded.

In his book, Talking to Yourself in the Dark, Wasatch Paranormal founder Tom Carr recalls leaving the cemetery after a particularly disturbing visit:

“No more than an hour into the investigation, we found ourselves heading back down the hill to our cars.  I would have to say this was the first time in a long time that I was that scared.”

I’m glad I didn’t read that chapter until after our own trip.  The storm clouds parted almost full moon illuminated the picket fenced graves.  I only needed my flashlight to examine the sole carved headstone.

“1898—that’s forever ago, Dad,” pondered 9 year old Bridger.  “Wow,” echoed his 7 year old brother, Weston.  They scampered from plot to plot looking for another legible headstone.  I paused to collect my thoughts.

No voices, cold spots or other disturbances— only a solemn calm, punctuated at times by a slight unease.  Maybe the ghosts had taken the night off.  If so, I wasn’t complaining.  Perhaps they weren’t ghosts at all, but echoes of consciousness—or reflections of our own.

Were we welcome there?  Were we imposing?  Craig Campbell or Tom Carr might have asked out loud.  I didn’t, just in case.

When my flashlight finally died, we hiked back to the car and drove up the canyon to the gate.  Mercur was back there, once upon a time.  When we arrived home I emptied my pockets, habitually clicking my flashlight’s power button as I put it away.  It was only after I was half asleep that I realized it was working just fine.

 

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Trail rider puts first love on hiatus for fling with ‘Des’

Ideally, a man’s bike should be like his cell phone—a device thoughtfully selected and customized for his needs, synchronized to his instinct, intuitively responsive in a crunch.  Such was not the case with Des and me.  Ours was an arranged marriage, so to speak, one based more on cold practicality than true love.

Des, with Oquirrh Mountains in the backdrop


The following originally appeared in the October 7, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

I don’t remember exactly when the hair on my neck stood on end, but it must have been sometime between the first lightning flash and my realization that I was the tallest object around for at least a mile.  One thing was for certain:  The modest storm that hung above Rush Valley ten minutes ago was suddenly a torrent directly on my heels.

Was it one mile per five seconds between lightning and thunder or one second for five miles?  I scrambled for the answer, but now was not the time for math.  Now was the time for pedaling.  Furious, superhuman pedaling.

“Des,” I might have called—but certainly didn’t, since talking to a bike would be weird. “Time to see what you’ve got.”

Ideally, a man’s bike should be like his cell phone—a device thoughtfully selected and customized for his needs, synchronized to his instinct, intuitively responsive in a crunch.  Such was not the case with Des and me.  Ours was an arranged marriage, so to speak, one based more on cold practicality than true love.

To be brutally honest, Des is a short-term substitute.  She’s a surprisingly worthy fill-in, but a fill-in nonetheless.  I hadn’t so much as looked at other bikes until my regular mountain bike broke down last year.

It’s a sad story, really.  The high-end model Marin was a noble of her day.  A friend, the vice president of a scented candle company, bought her new about 15 years ago.  After striking it rich during the scented candle bonanza of the late nineties, he sold her to another friend.  I bought her a couple years later.  Despite her age, the bike is streamlined, sophisticated, and light as a feather.  Together we’ve tackled many a trail.

The trouble started early last year when despite my careful nurture, the Marin’s original components began to surrender to the ravages of wear and time.  First to go were the handlebar grips, which wasn’t too big a deal.  Neither was the wobbly, untruable front wheel.  But then the derailleurs failed, followed by both shifters.  I continued to ride the Marin in one gear until her worn crankset teeth could no longer grab the chain.  Finally, during an ill-fated ride to Jacob City, the chain snagged and jammed, and the old Marin finally succumbed.

First love - the Marin

That’s not to say she’s beyond repair.  Her frame is solid as ever.  It’s just that getting her trail worthy again will mean replacing nearly all of her components.  And that would require funds that, at this juncture, would be more wisely allocated to things like diapers, milk, and car repairs.  The Marin was essentially down for the count, and I was a man without a bike.

That changed a few weeks ago when my wife called me from the Deseret Industries thrift store.

“I’m at the D.I.,” she said.  “I think I found you a bike!”

“Awesome!” I responded, feigning excitement.  I’ve never been an only-the-best-will-do type, but a bike from the D.I.?  I wasn’t optimistic.

When she returned home with it I realized I should have had more faith.  My new bike was an older model Mountain Tek with.

“I don’t know anything about bikes, but I had to fight off a bunch of people once I grabbed it,” she said.  “I figured it must be worth twenty five bucks.”

Indeed.  While it was by no means a perfect bike—its frame is slightly small for me and weighs roughly a ton—it sported solid components and nearly new tires.  Judging by its relatively good condition, its previous owner kept it safe in a garage and only rode it to the library once a month.  I was back in the trail riding business.

I named the bike Des in honor of its humble origin, and in keeping with what Google says is biker tradition, “it” officially became a “she.”  I took Des to local bike whisperer Curtis Beckstrom for inspection.  Beckstrom, a retiree who spends most of his days building and donating bikes to the homeless, was quick to praise my wife’s find.

“Twenty five bucks? She did well,” he exclaimed.

Beckstrom replaced both tire tubes, lubricated the shifters, and adjusted the rear derailleur.  Des was now ready for a shakedown ride.  The next day we rolled onto a dirt double track at the intersection of  Droubay Road and the railroad tracks in Tooele.

Cove Trail is the newest on the Tooele County Trails Commission’s roster of public trails.  Originally named for the Erda developer who donated land for the parking lot, Cove Trail derives its current name from the unique geologic formations crafted by the ancient Lake Bonneville.  The trail provides access to a mountain biker’s paradise on the BLM managed Oquirrh foothills.

Des rode smoothly, effortlessly sinking into and climbing out of ruts in the dusty road.  I ignored the looming storm as I glided along a 10% grade into the foothills and curved south toward Pine Canyon.  Arranged marriage or not, Des and I were syncing well.  The small raindrops that preceded the storm made a thick mud to test her tires.  I photographed my new bike against an Oquirrh backdrop.  The air was heavy.  The sun’s diffuse rays cast a soft light on the strange rock formations above.  I was thrilled, and I imagined Des was too.

Her real test came when the lightning started.  Raindrops had yet to fall, but the strikes were coupled almost simultaneously with deafening thunder claps.  I put boot to pedal and raced at 16 miles per hour toward a lone tree near the trail head.  My trusty transport and I were soon overtaken by the deluge, which hampered visibility and rendered the road a muddy mess.

The rain continued, but the lightning retreated along the final stretch of trail.  I reduced speed and played in the ruts before ending the ride.

“You’re growing on me, Des,” I might have said if I were weird enough to talk to a bike.  “Just don’t tell the Marin.”

 

Best Sleepover Ever: Video wrap up

Well here it is– the final installment of Best Sleepover Ever!

For those of you who’ve been coming here to see what these little-publicized sleepover events are all about, I hope these articles have been helpful.  The SeaWorld marketing team is in the process of republishing the series at the SeaWorld Parks Blog.

To wrap things up, here’s a montage of scenes from the Best Sleepover Ever that I shot with my Flip UltraHD camcorder.  You’ll have to forgive the over-simplistic editing.  Flip shoots a format that is only editable using their severely hamstrung application.  You can’t do much more than string clips together and add giant font titles.

But you’re not interested in the technical gripes of a frustrated video hobbyist.  Onto the montage!

Much thanks to the SeaWorld San Diego Education staff for a wonderful experience!

 

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Return to South Willow Lake takes the measure of an underestimated trek

Boo and West are like child versions of TV naturalist Jeff Corwin and survivalist Les Stroud.  In many ways, my boys are complete opposites, but when it comes to adventuring theirs is the perfect alliance of wide-eyed idealism and practical grit.  Wilderness is one place their personalities converge.  And though they’ve only done it once before, they consider the 12 mile round-trip trek to South Willow Lake the ultimate wilderness adventure.

What a view! Boo and West stand atop a ridge above South Willow Lake in Tooele County last weekend

The following originally appeared in the September 23, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

I didn’t want to jump into the lake. I really didn’t.  Not just because I find the idea of blindly submitting oneself to strange waters generally disturbing—or that my last encounter with this lake resulted in a bloody foot laceration.

No, it was much simpler than that.  Truth is, South Willow Lake is cold.  Freeze-your-tuckus-off cold.  No matter how long you’ve been hiking or how parched you are when you reach the lake, a dip in South Willow will always be several shrill notches past refreshing.

So what compelled this wary father to take the plunge?  Only the resolute declaration of his 7 year old son: “I’ll do it if you do, Dad.”

The internal debate ended there.  West and I waded out, counted to three, and dove in.

“I think you’re both nuts,” said 9 year old Boo as we climbed back to shore.  He was crouching intently over a puddle at the lake’s south end.   “Check this out,” he called, unwittingly stealing our thunder.  “This has got to be the weirdest bug I’ve ever seen!”

Boo and West are like child versions of TV naturalist Jeff Corwin and survivalist Les Stroud.  In many ways, my boys are complete opposites, but when it comes to adventuring theirs is the perfect alliance of wide-eyed idealism and practical grit.  Wilderness is one place their personalities converge.  And though they’ve only done it once before, they consider the 12 mile round-trip trek to South Willow Lake the ultimate wilderness adventure.

By strict geographical standards, the lake is small and rather unremarkable.  But like most alpine lakes, South Willow’s beauty is defined by its surroundings.  The lake is partially encircled by tall limber pines.  It lies at the foot of a sheer 10,685 foot glacial cirque in the heart of the Deseret Peak Wilderness.  Aesthetically, South Willow Lake is the crown jewel of the Stansbury Mountains.

The chameleon waters of South Willow Lake

Judging by various online trip reports, most people reach the lake by following the Mill Fork Trail from Loop Campground in South Willow Canyon.  Last year we took the more direct route from the Medina Flat Trail Head further down the canyon.  This route follows the Stansbury Front Trail to its junction with historic Mining Fork Road, which leads to the wilderness boundary and a final trail to the lake.  This is the steeper of the two options, but it covers more varied terrain and offers striking views.  We decided to take it again this year.

Most trail literature list a 6.8-7 mile round trip distance for the Mining Fork route.  I was skeptical of those numbers after last year’s hike, so I decided to measure it myself this time.  Using a GPS mapping app on my smartphone, I would record our entire track.

We began hiking late in the morning under clear skies and an uncommonly hot sun.  Boo took the lead and set the pace.  It’s his usual role, and he does it well.  The boys had resolved to carry their own gear the whole way.  A clear departure from the norm, it was yet another reminder to me that they’re growing up fast.  I hung behind and to listen to their trail banter.  Among other priceless tidbits, I learned that West is the best basketball player at recess and that Boo is now just as flexible in P.E. as his toddlerhood friend, McCall, who, amazingly enough, becomes less and less icky as time passes.

“Me and her are getting along a little better these days,” he said.

By the time we reached Mining Fork, I regretted packing our jackets.  This is my favorite section of the hike.  The narrow road is believed to have been built during World War II.  It traces the canyon bottom at a steady grade beneath a thick canopy of fir and spruce, passing the remains of collapsed mining cabins along the way.  At times, this road has certain aura that I’d describe as eerie, but that I’ve never been able to pin down.

The road eventually opens into a stand of aspens and a single track trail picks up at the wilderness boundary.  The cirque, which is unofficially referred to as South Willow Peak, looms constantly from this point.   At its foot, the lake is surrounded by a ridge; it isn’t visible until you’re standing on its shores.

The stretch from the wilderness boundary to the lake measured 2.4 miles with a 1,555 foot elevation gain.  It’s the steepest leg of the hike.  We rested often on this stretch, but stops were short—the boys were eager to reach the lake.  When we rounded the last ridge, they tossed their backpacks and waded in.  I checked my phone.  We had hiked 5.8 miles—nearly two miles further than the listed distance.

Our route to South Willow Lake. The push pins represent cool spots along the trail. Total one-way distance measured 5.8 miles (measured using My Tracks for Android)

West and I didn’t swim long.  There was no need to loiter in the frigid depths.  After a letting out the requisite victory howls, we moved onto the very important tasks of drinking warm Gatorade, eating smashed peanut butter sandwiches, and watching Boo’s weird bug drag lines in the mud.  Later, I taught them how to skip rocks.

With evening coming, Boo gazed up at South Willow Peak.  “We need to climb that sometime,” he said.  “I bet it’s cool up there.”

We reluctantly packed for the return trek.  Our legs were sore.  It was a sweet sore, the kind of sore you get from a good, long hike.  The boys were hesitant to leave, as they always are when it’s time.  Nothing’s better than hanging out lakeside after a hike, and nothing’s worse than the prospect of leaving.  In my mind, the end of this hike marked the end of summer.  Yellowing leaves on surrounding trees reinforced that notion.

I reset my GPS app.  When we arrived back at the trail head, the readings matched up—5.8 miles with a 3,364 foot cumulative elevation gain.

“How deep do you think that lake is?” West wondered on the way home.

“I don’t know, but I think I’ll try swimming next time,” Boo answered.

I think they’re both nuts.

 

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Martin Fork hike makes ideal prep course for tougher challenges

I finally understood the purpose of Dad’s conditioning hikes the first time I climbed Hades Pass with him.  I was exhausted by the end of that ascent, but the view of Grandaddy Basin from the top was breathtaking.  Making the moment even more poignant was the later realization that not only was Dad packing his own gear—he had been carrying most of mine, too.

Happy trails!

The following originally appeared in the September 9, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

For the analytically minded, there’s nothing more satisfying than being able to break down a complex circumstance into tidy causal chunks.  Of course, the impulse to dissect each and every condition can be maddening, especially when it comes to those that aren’t so cut and dry—such as love for the outdoors.

And yet I continue to try.  When I describe it here, I tend to illustrate those specific moments of actualization, like reeling in that big fish or watching that incredible sunset.  What’s sometimes overlooked—at least when pen hits paper—are the outwardly mundane, laborious processes that make such moments possible.

Nobody understands the principle of work before reward like my dad.  An avid backpacker, Dad lived for his summer treks to the High Uintas.  He’d begin preparing weeks before each trip—carefully organizing gear, transferring food items from their bulky retail packaging to Ziploc baggies, pitching his tent and taking it back down again.

Most curious to me were the walks he’d take around the neighborhood wearing his boots and fully loaded pack.  When I was about 10 years old, he gave me my own external frame pack and invited me along.  We’d tread for what seemed like miles, waving to amused neighbors as we passed.

I finally understood the purpose of these conditioning hikes the first time I climbed Hades Pass with him.  I was exhausted by the end of that ascent, but the view of Grandaddy Basin from the top was breathtaking.  Making the moment even more poignant was the later realization that not only was Dad packing his own gear—he had been carrying most of mine, too.  It was one of the more memorable adventures of my childhood.

My sons feel the same way about the climb to South Willow Lake in the Stansbury Mountains, which they’ve spoken of frequently since we made it late last summer.  Interestingly, their memories center on the few hours we spend at the lake itself, rather than the encompassing 6.8 mile round trip hike.  Yet were it not for those punishing miles, they wouldn’t recall the lake with such enthusiasm.

Since the two older boys and I will be returning to South Willow Lake in two weeks, I thought a short conditioning hike was in order.  A moderate climb in the Stansbury’s would reacquaint the boys both with the work and the reward that would ensue.  The 2 mile Martin Fork segment of the Stansbury Front Trail would be the perfect practice route.

The Stansbury Front Trail stretches 25 miles along the eastern face of the Stansbury Mountains between Clover Creek Campground and West Canyon, bordering the Deseret Peak Wilderness Area along most of its route.  The narrow single track dips into and climbs out of canyons like a roller coaster as it traverses rarely seen areas of range.  Though the more remote sections of the trail see mostly mountain bike and motorcycle traffic, day hikers frequent the mid-course trail heads at Big Hollow, South Willow Canyon, and North Willow Canyons.

We caught the trail at Boy Scout Campground in South Willow Canyon on Saturday evening.  The path rose sharply under a canopy of pines as we wound our way up to the canyon’s eastern ridge.  Boo, 9, and West, 7 scampered ahead while I nudged 4 year old Coulter along behind.

Coulter loves the mountains—he called the Stansbury’s “my mountains” when he was a baby—but he’s usually averse to hiking any further than about 20 yards.  The boy was kind to me that night; he walked a whole half mile before begging me to carry him.

“But I’m already carrying Deedle,” I told him, pointing to the 1 year old mini linebacker who was enjoying the ride from the comfort of his baby backpack.

Deedle’s presence served two purposes: conditioning weight and comic relief.  He squawked something unintelligible to his brother, which Coulter correctly interpreted to mean “back off, pal!”

From the ridge top, the trail bent southeast, offering a sweeping view that included Tooele Valley, Mining Fork Road, the glacial cirque that looms over South Willow Lake, and Deseret Peak.  Still visible below were The Narrows portion of the canyon road and the historic U.S. Forest Service cabin.  I had hiked this section of the trail before, but had never noticed that most of the canyon’s gems were viewable there in a single panoramic glance.

The glacial cirque above South Willow Lake, taken during last year's hike

When we caught up with Boo and West, they were chasing a snake through the brush.

“I got a good look at the tail,” Boo assured me.  “No rattle.  We’re good.”

A group of motorcyclists passed just before the trail dropped 400 feet to the bottom of Martin Fork.  By that point, the boys had managed to stow their sweaters and water bottles in the cargo pouch of Deedle’s pack.  Bring it on, I thought.  Conditioning.  I’ll end up with most of their gear on the big hike anyway.

The boys had mastered pacing by the time we headed back.  The lake hike will be longer and steeper, but they’d be ready to take it on.  Coulter, having finally realized that riding in my arms was not an option, made the return trip in good spirits and at decent speed.  We finished the evening off with snacks and a campfire at Boy Scout Campground. The cold front that had kindly waited to approach until we were done finally began to blow in.

“Man,” West said as he coaxed the a few last sparks from the dying embers.  “Nothing like a good hike, some pepperoni and a nice fire.”

Profound analysis from a young outdoorsman.

TRIP TIPS
Martin Fork segment of the Stansbury Front Trail is accessible via posted trail head at Boy Scout Campground in South Willow Canyon.  Distance to the fork and back is approximately 4 miles.  The trail is narrow, featuring sharp rises and drops over non-technical terrain.  Trail head parking is available at the adjacent Medina Flat trailhead 1.7 miles from the Forest Service gate.  No fee is required.

 

Best Sleepover Ever: Orcas, rays, and a comatose moonlight excursion

Morning view

This post continues my report on the SeaWorld Adventure Camps’ Fathers Day Sleepover that my 8 year old son and I attended at the San Diego park back in June. If you missed previous installments,  check them out here, here, here, and here.

When it came to getting the best sleeping spot in Wild Arctic, skipping the teeth brushing turned out to have been an excellent idea.  But skipping the bathroom part of that last bathroom break?  Eh, not so much.

It hit me at about 2:00 am.  Or at least that was the point when ignoring nature’s call was no longer an option.  Answering it wouldn’t be simple.  We’d have to get up, tip-toe to the exit, take a flight of stairs, wake our chaperone, and trek over to a building by the Penguin Encounter.  First, though, I’d have to wake Boo.

“Hey pal, do you need to go to the bathroom?”  (It would be slightly less embarrassing for me if Boo was the reason we were going.)

“Nope,” came his comatose response.  Wonderful.

He slowly came to as we trudged up the stairway to check out with the doorman.  The balmy air outside contrasted starkly with our virtual igloo.  I walked slowly in order to take in the SeaWorld that very few humans ever see–  middle-of-the-night SeaWorld—when the path lights have been dimmed and that infamous elevator music quieted.

Boo resumed his slumber immediately upon our return.  As I arranged his blanket I noticed that his clenched fist still held a stingray tooth he had found earlier in the evening.  I carefully pulled it away and secured it in a zipper pouch in my backpack.  If he lost it during the night I’d never hear the end of it.  After all, this was no ordinary stingray tooth.

I continued to replay the evening’s events in my head– picking up after the Shamu Rocks show.  After the crowds filtered out of the park, the education staff had gathered us to the orca habitat’s underwater viewing area for a little Whales 101. While a staffer named Erin demonstrated the insulating qualities of whale blubber using clay and ice water, I walked over to the massive viewing window.  Hovering on the other side was 12 year old Sumar.  Sumar seemed to enjoy interacting with me and the other parents.  Like the belugas, his song was audible through the acrylic.

“I heard you can use some of the moves the trainers use to make the whales interact with you,” one father asked.

“Well, we can ask them to interact with us,” James censured.  “Then if they want to, they might.”

SeaWorld campers get a close-up of Shamu and friends in this extraordinarily cheesy photo from SeaWorld Public Relations (copyright SeaWorld.com. All rights reserved.)

Despite his wiry figure and youthful gait, James carried a certain gravitas with the kids and amongst his fellow SeaWorld staffers.  He employed the same sarcastic finesse both to coax the bashful kids from their shells and repress Annoying Kid’s loud interjections.  And though his primary duty was to keep the larger flock together, he still found a way to make each kid feel important.  When Boo lost the polar bear claw keychain he had made, James ducked out of the Shamu show to make him a new one—with the same color beads arranged the same pattern.

The last activity of the night was a visit to the Forbidden Reef, where a few dozen stingrays and a sturgeon that thinks he’s a stingray solicit fish and rub-downs from visitors.  After feeding the rays, Boo spotted a stingray tooth at the bottom of the pool and James fished it out for him with a large net.

“I can’t lose this stingray tooth,” he said.  “It’s a special stingray tooth.”

Boo’s tooth now secure in my backpack and nature’s call finally answered, I finally bid good night to the belugas.

Here are a few clips I shot when I woke up in the morning.  Notice how quiet it is in there.  If you listen closely, you can hear whale song:

—–

The next (and last) installment in this series will feature a video summary of the sleepover.

*Sadly, Sumar passed away earlier this month of unknown causes.  I’m glad we got a few minutes with him that night.

 

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