2nd Annual New Year's Day Hike

For the second straight year, we bundled up, and set out on a New Year's Day hike. (A family tradition I hope to continue for many years to come.) Our 2014 trip was to Turkey Run State Park, and while I don't have many photos from that hike, I did find these three on Instagram. [1] [2] [3]

For 2015, I wanted to go somewhere we hadn't been before. It's hard to find new places to explore in Indiana, but I'd heard about a couple of off-the-beaten-path nature preserves near the small town of Attica.

Portland Arch Nature Preserve was the larger of the two parks we visited. What a hidden gem! Here, a pristine creek runs through a wooded valley flanked by massive sandstone cliffs. We had a great time exploring the frozen landscape. The almost fluorescent green moss provided a stark contrast to the barren winter browns. I've read that the presence of moss and lichens is an indicator of good air quality. After a few deep breaths, I can attest to this.

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A short drive from the Portland Arch we found the Fall Creek Gorge Nature Preserve. The frozen ice here made the initial stream crossing quite treacherous. Swirling water has eroded the bedrock into a series of "potholes", which over time, have created a unique topology. A short footpath leads to a waterfall at the head of the gorge where I was unable to convince the kids to take a polar plunge. Maybe next time.

Fall Break 2014 - Florida Vacation

Back in 2011, the Nyce and Rothe families cobbled together an impromptu Fall Break trip to Destin, Florida. Miraculously, by the end of it, everyone remained friends – a sign that it would be safe enough to try again. The 2014 school calendar showed an entire week for Fall Break, so the trip planners went to work. It's this writer's opinion that Fall Break is an ideal time to visit Florida. The crowds are non-existent, there are no lines at restaurants, discounts and deals abound, yet the temps and Gulf waters are still relatively warm, at least to this northerner.

I don't have much additional narrative about this trip, just photos. In a few of them, an eerie light was cast by a (partial) solar eclipse – which was a lot of fun to shoot in. We enjoyed hanging at the beach, around town, and generally doing a lot of nothing. It's this last bit that was especially refreshing. We had a great time with a great family! Somehow we ended up with a couple of hermit crabs on the return trip. Sadly, one didn't make it back to Indiana. The other however, is still alive and well.

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July 4th Weekend - Day Trip Reports

After leaving the kids behind on last year's Alaska adventure, they were adamant about being included in any outdoor plans this summer. And, as any parent knows, traveling with kids can get expensive fast, so we settled for a few nearby budget options. Paddling in Prince William Sound gave us the itch for kayaking and I was able to buy a couple boats with the goal of exploring Indiana's many creeks and rivers. A long July 4th weekend gave us just the opportunity.

07/03/2014 2:30 PM – Cagles Mill Lake to Lower Cataract Falls

We set out for Cagles Mills Lake under blue skies and low humidity – a welcome respite from the sticky weather that has settled upon central Indiana for the last couple of weeks. Since we have only two kayaks, but four people in our family, the plan was for the girls to paddle roughly four miles to Lower Cataract Falls where we would meet up and switch roles. Mel and Greta put in at the Cunot Boat Ramp and had a tail-wind to the Highway 42 bridge. From there, the water level was high enough in Mill Creek for flat-water paddling.

Meanwhile, Dirk and I headed for Cataract Falls SRA via Cunot-Cataract Road. We explored the Upper Falls and the covered bridge. We also hiked an overgrown nature trail that ran along the creek. The path quickly deteriorated and forced us to turn back after a losing battle with stinging nettle. We then headed to the Lower Falls parking lot to wait for the girls. A short trail leads down to the water from the parking area to where Mel and Greta were waiting on a sandbar.

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Mid-summer in Indiana means daylight until 10p and we were treated with golden light and long shadows on the return trip. We paddled by several great blue herons and an immature bald eagle. The sunlight bouncing off of the arch bridge over Cagles Mills Lake was spectacular. 2-1/2 hours later, we were back where we started. We loaded up our yaks and headed for the next leg of our adventure.

07/04/2014 – Brown County State Park

Even though it was last-minute, we were able to get a couple of sites in the campground at Brown Country State Park. Our friends were set to join us for a day of hiking, bicycling, and horseback-riding around the park. All of the kids with one exception could ride their own horse unassisted. Just the excuse I was looking for! I could hang with Ellie-Kate while everyone else got their equine fix. Afterwards, we cooked up a hearty campfire meal and headed into nearby Nashville for the community fireworks show.

07/05/2014 4:30 PM – South Fork Salt Creek @ Elkinsville

I've been to some rural places in Indiana, but this one might top the list. 5-miles southwest of Story lies the sleepy community of Elkinsville. Our group of nine was looking for a lazy spot to paddle near Brown County State Park, where we had set up camp. Unfortunately, we did not find it on the south fork of Salt Creek. Instead we found a secluded, stagnant tributary. I'm not suggesting this wasn't scenic, or that I wouldn't come back under different circumstances. But for a larger group that includes kids, other rivers would be a better fit. There aren't any rocky sandbars to take out for breaks, and swimming is a non-starter given the clarity of the water.

We put in at the west end of Combs Road and paddled downstream for about 90 minutes before heading back to the starting point. To maintain interest, we crafted a train by attaching all of the boats end-to-end with towropes. The "engines" got a good workout, if nothing else.

Appalachian Trail - Carvers Gap to Highway 19E

Around Thanksgiving of last year, my Dad came up with the idea to get the family together for a reunion. This happens very rarely (never), but sounded tolerable none-the-less. He's good friends with the innkeepers of The Inn Around the Corner, a quaint B&B in Black Mountain, NC, who graciously agreed to host our entire clan for the weekend.

Our kids were on Spring Break from school and so it was that we found ourselves in western North Carolina, just a short drive from the fabled Appalachian Trail. The plan was to hike a 2-day, 1-night section along the North Carolina and Tennessee border from Carvers Gap to US Highway 19E. I had done some preliminary research and discovered that the Mountain Harbour B&B in Roan Mountain, TN offered a shuttle service and hostel for AT hikers. We could park our car, hitch a ride to the gap, and hike back to the car so we didn't have to retrace our steps. This section of trail was especially noted for its picturesque balds and mostly downhill elevation profile. A desired quality considering we planned to drag our kids along.

For early April, the weather outlook was good. After a fantastic breakfast, we said our goodbyes and headed out under blue skies and a warming sun. My Dad agreed to see us off, so we caravanned to Tennessee. The blue skies quickly changed to gray, which quickly changed again to snowy white as we gained elevation. By the time we reached Roan Mountain, TN, it was positively scary -- the snow wasn't falling down, it was blowing horizontally. Even though we had prepared for inclement weather, it was apparent that it would be negligent to willfully take our kids up the mountain with a mandatory 15-mile hike to the nearest town. We decided to stop at Mountain Harbour for some local knowledge. Turns out they had been busy performing rescues for AT hikers all morning. They had brought several groups out and recently noted that the road up to Carvers Gap had iced over. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize we'd be crazy to attempt it -- especially with young kids. In the end, wisdom prevailed and we decided to try again the next day. The local forecast was calling for an abrupt end to the blizzard and pleasant temps for the remainder of the week.

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Dad continued on to Indiana and we decided to explore the local area. We made a brief visit to nearby Linville Carverns and were led through the caves by a most uninspiring tour guide whose only comprehensible sentence was, "Does anyone have any questions?" Soon after, the weather broke and gifted us with a winter wonderland -- the rare kind that can only be seen in those fleeting moments before nature reverses course and erodes the very scene it so painstakingly created. We still had a few hours before sunset, so we drove up to Carvers Gap to scout. We were blown-away by two things: 1.) The incredible beauty of wind-driven snow plastered to every surface, and 2.) The wind. We were literally blown-away. We could not stand up straight. Backpacking in these conditions would be miserable, not to mention dangerous. We went to bed hoping tomorrow would be better.

We awoke to gray skies and little wind. After a hearty breakfast we packed our gear and were shuttled to Carvers Gap to try again. The sun peeked out on the drive and we arrived to discover that much of the snow had melted overnight. What a difference! We unloaded and were soon left to fend for ourselves.

The first part of the trail winds through a natural Fraser Fir forest. John Fraser discovered and named the species in this exact area in the late 1700's. After a too-short trek through the fir forest, we were exposed to our first of four grassy balds. How and why a summit develops into a grassy bald is curiously unknown.

We passed through another historically interesting area near the well-maintained Overmountain Shelter. The area was used by the Overmountain Men in the American Revolutionary War where they crossed the mountain at Yellow Mountain Gap.

We camped for the night in a grassy area on the leeward side of Little Hump Mountain. What a view -- both at sunset and sunrise! The wind whipped up again during the night so our plan for pancakes was postponed. Starting the stove would have required a bit more fortitude and I was anxious to get moving. We needed to make it back to Indiana as I had to work the next morning.

(Big) Hump Mountain was the last rigorous climb on the route. It was all downhill from the summit. Six miles of downhill. Our quads took a beating, but we grinded it out and arrived at US Highway 19E at about 3:30pm. I slack-packed another .3 miles west to Mountain Harbour to get the car. Mel and I witnessed true deliriousness on the drive home. For 45 minutes, the kids literally could not stop giggling at the most dull things. For example, "Did you see that car? It was red." This mundane observation was followed by 5 minutes of uncontrollable laughter, and then the process repeated itself. Then, as if a switch was flipped, they completely zonked out. Greta was still holding a drink in one hand and a half-used napkin in the other. Dirk was her mirror opposite. Hopefully, they aren't permanently scarred by the experience.

Several general AT trail observations in no particular order:

  1. The footpath is often several inches, and in some cases a full foot, lower than the surrounding flora. I can only assume that it has been worn down by decades of use.
  2. We enjoyed meeting all of the thru-hikers we came across. (A thru-hiker is attempting the entire length of the trail in a single year. It's roughly 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine.) We encountered several, and the kids enjoyed learning their trail names. Of course, we had to adopt our own trail names. Dirk quickly became "Topple" -- he face-planted into the mud more than once. Greta is "Cruise", Mel is "Slide", and I'm "Kodak".
  3. Waterproof shoes are an absolute must-have. Even though it wasn't raining, we did encounter more than enough mud to make a passel of pigs forget they were hungry. Everyone had good shoes except for Dirk (age 7). We didn't see the point in spending a bunch of money on something so temporary. We improvised and used plastic baggies from Subway over his socks. This worked pretty well.
  4. Water sources were plentiful, but often not on the beaten path. Plan to walk a few extra miles on side trails to retrieve water. I'm not sure if this is true of the entire AT, or just this section.
  5. Kids need to use the bathroom. A lot. Not surprisingly, there aren't any facilities. We should have practiced this more ahead of time.

Mel's 40th Birthday - Sedona, Arizona

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not big on birthdays. Unfortunately, Mel is also keenly aware of this fact and has lowered her expectations over the years to feeling lucky if I remember, and downright giddy if she receives a birthday card or some other bauble. It's against this backdrop that I decided to plan something big for her 40th -- time to use those years of lethargy to my advantage!

What to do? Mel's good friend, Sarah, raised the bar pretty high by inviting us along on her 40th birthday trip to the Alaskan backcountry. We enjoyed this greatly and hoped Sarah and her husband Chad could be part of any birthday plan for Melanie. So, a trip, but where to? Mel indicated in veiled conversations that she'd be interested in going somewhere warm -- this winter has been particularly biting. Another requirement was not sleeping on the ground.

We're a pretty active group. Lounging at a beach is good for an afternoon, but we could hike for days and be even more content. Especially hiking to places off the beaten path with vantages not likely to be gained without moderate effort. I do some work for Arizona Highways magazine, so I have no shortage of inspiration. Sedona and Tucson both sounded promising. The L'Auberge de Sedona looked really nice and was in the heart of uptown Sedona. Sold!

Next, instead of a boring birthday card, I wanted to up the ante and create a photo book with memories and photos from 40 of her closest friends. This was much harder than I thought it would be! I received all sorts of things: Photos, hand-written notes, flyers, illustrations, and even a complete page layout. I took stock of everything, semi-organized it sequentially, and transformed it into spiral-bound booklet she was sure to love.

Finally, I planned an impromptu surprise party to spring all of this on her. I'd take her to dinner while the kids covertly decorated the house.

On the day of Mel's birthday, I unremarkably intoned that I'd pick her up at 6 o'clock and left for work. So far so good. As the day wore on, the weather went from bad to worse; freezing rain, sleet and snow all conspired against me. A 20-minute drive to dinner turned into an hour. Party guests outside of a 5-mile radius couldn't be expected to brave the conditions. The good news? We had the restaurant to ourselves. We ordered and I presented the photo book. Bad idea. The waitress spent the next half-hour trying to decide if it was safe to visit our table because she couldn't be sure if Mel was crying from anger, or joy. The food was really good, but we took most of it home. The grand party I had planned turned into an intimate gathering with close friends and more pints of Graeter's ice-cream than we could consume.

Two weeks later we found ourselves on a plane bound for Phoenix where we rented a car for our drive to Sedona. The weather would again factor into our plans; instead of sunny and warm, the forecast called for buckets of rain. Let's look at the bright-side -- not everyone gets to see rain the desert! Over the next 24-hours, central Arizona would set the single-day record for rainfall. Good thing we bought all that rain gear we didn't use in Alaska. We didn't need to be in Sedona until later that evening, so we meandered down Highway 87 through the Tonto National Forest with a couple of strategic detours along the way.

The first stop was the Pine Creek Loop & Ballatine Trail. We walked a 3-mile loop through a native saguaro habitat. The size of these desert sentinels is impressive; we saw several over 40-feet tall. Our next stop was at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. This park may be small, but it makes up for it with some truly grand scenery. We were able to successfully navigate the canyon floor before scrambling up the slippery red rocks, just as the park was closing. We encountered another family as we were climbing out. They had at least one young child and a stroller which they had managed to get down the trail much further than I would have thought possible. We collectively arrived at the trailhead at roughly the same time only to discover that the gate had been closed and secured with a chain and padlock. The surrounding fence wasn't razor-wire, but it was a problem for a child in a stroller. I hopped the fence in search of a park ranger. I was almost to the ranger station when I began to hear hearty laughter echoing across the valley. The moral? One cannot always assume a closed padlock is actually locked.

I'd like to say the remaining drive to Sedona was uneventful. By this point, we were in the Mogollon Rim area which varies in elevation from 5,000-8,000-ft. The roads at this elevation are especially susceptible to freezing whenever there is precipitation. We encountered two overturned cars within 10-miles of one another, and we were the first car on the scene for the second crash. Miraculously for the driver, we'll call him "JC", the car flipped into perfect position on the uphill side of the mountain. The other side of the road featured a perilous drop-off. JC walked away without a scratch. We waited with him until the emergency responders arrived.

We arrived in Sedona, at last, and checked into the resort. Someone then decided that what we needed was to get wet. The pool and hot-tub was a short walk from our cottage. By now, those buckets of rain the forecasters predicted had turned into barrels. We donned our robes, put on our rain slickers, and headed to the pool.

By the morning, the rain had turned into a cold mist, which was a marked improvement. Chad was adamant that we attend a morning yoga session; when in Sedona, do as the Sedonans do. This was a new and strange experience for me. Can't say I'm eager to try it again, but I did enjoy the instructor's flute solo at the end. I had researched a few different day-hikes in the area and decided that Bear Mountain would be a good candidate. It was 6-miles round-trip -- 3 miles up and 3 miles down without any swollen creeks to wash us away. (Many of the photos are from this trail.) By the evening, the sun had peeked out. Hoping to see a grand sunset, we grabbed our headlamps and climbed nearby Doe Mountain. It wasn't to be, but we did get to use our headlamps for the hike down. Afterwards, we were in the mood for some southwest cuisine. A local recommended Oaxaca for dinner and we were not disappointed.

I had one more trick up my sleeve, and this surprise was for the whole group. I had booked us on an early morning hot-air balloon ride. The balloon company had been grounded for the previous three days, but I was hopeful the inclement weather would soon pass. In the morning, I slumbered onto the deck to check our fate and was greeted by the twinkle of early-morning stars and calm winds. Yes! We were picked up in the lobby by Red Rock Balloon Adventures and driven to the launch site. If you ever get the chance, a balloon ride in the desert southwest is a real treat.

After the balloon ride, we had time for one more trek. Many of the trails in the area were closed or impassable due to high water, so we stopped in at The Hike House to consult with the locals. A new trail system not yet on many maps was nearby and highly recommended. The Hangover Trail is a combination mountain bike (rated double black diamond) and foot trail. Typically, I don't like bike trails for hiking, but this one was an exception. In fact, if we hadn't seen it first-hand, I wouldn't have believed sections of this trail were even possible to bike on. We encountered a few different ecosystems all on the same loop. Munds Wagon trail follows the pine forest floor via a creek bed while the north side of Hangover is predominately in the shade with clumps of manzanita. The saddle area on Mitten Ridge is exposed red rock and breathtaking -- we could have stayed there all afternoon.

By nightfall, we were thoroughly exhausted and hungry. We grabbed a wood-fired pizza at the Sedona Pizza Company, where Mel orated a heart-felt toast. I have a hunch that this was the first of many informal valedictions yet to come. After dinner, we headed back to L'Auberge to get what little sleep we could before our early morning departure in Phoenix. As far as birthdays go, I'm off the hook for another 40 years!