The Lure of the Ocean

We recently got back from visiting my family near Raleigh, North Carolina. Even though it is winter, I have been longing to see the ocean so we made a weekend excursion to the coast. It was extra special as this was Roland’s very first trip to the ocean. I was excited too, but it wasn’t until I was walking along the beach on our first evening there that I did the math in my head and realized it had been 10 years since I had visited the Pacific Ocean and even longer for the Atlantic.

How could this be? I mean, I grew up in Miami! But, ever since then we have lived in pretty land- locked places (interior Alaska, Vermont, Idaho, Minnesota, and now Nevada). We have spent plenty of time near rivers and lakes, including Lake Superior, but sadly it has been a decade since I have experienced the grandeur of an ocean.

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With that said, we had a great time. It was the off- season so we were able to share the beaches with a tolerable amount of people.  One nice thing about taking a multi- generational family trip to the beach is that it is large and flexible enough to appeal to just about everyone- all ages, interests, and energy levels. Roland had a blast running from the waves (although not quite fast enough as he got soaked in the chilly water). Matt played in the water with Roland while  I enjoyed scanning the sand for shells. All the adults alternated between chatting with each other and taking solitary strolls along the beach, just soaking it all in. Doing fun things together as a family creates bonds that can withstand years apart.

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I know it has been said a million times, but there is just something so special about the ocean. The combination of endless sky, fresh breeze, and the rhythmic crashing of the waves creates the most rejuvenating and calming setting.

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It is the most pleasant case of sensory overload and it is so easy to lose yourself in it all- listening to the birds and waves, feeling torn between searching for the pretty sea shells scattered over the sand and watching the waves roll up on shore, feeling the breeze on your face and the soft sand under your feet. The views go on forever and it all feels so big and open and free.

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The ocean is probably one of the best balms that God has given us to soothe so many ailments: anxiety, grief, stress, boredom, sluggishness, depression. Pretty much anywhere in nature will help with those things, but like I said before, there is something special about the ocean.

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One morning we took a detour from the beach and visited the nearby Fort Fisher. We toured the historic fort area and then took a pleasant walk on a boardwalk through the coastal grasses adjacent to the water.

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I loved the twisted branches on these trees. I don’t know what kind of tree they were, but they sure looked interesting.

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Roland is ever- ready to get back to the water. He had so much fun he didn’t even mind his shoes and clothes being drenched in cold ocean water. (I did not anticipate the mild weather so I didn’t pack appropriate beach clothing).

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I really do enjoy and feel at home in the Southwest. The stillness and quiet of the deserts, rocks, and mountains are peaceful. However, the constant motion of the waves gives off an energy that is so refreshing and mesmerizing. It was definitely a nice change of pace. We all agree that a visit to the ocean should occur more than once a decade.

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“The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t.” 

~Christopher Paolini

 

 

Ending the Year in a Valley of Fire

We spent the weekend between Christmas and New Years visiting Valley of Fire State Park, located near Las Vegas. While the East Coast was bombarded with snow and freezing temperatures, we explored a red rock wonderland beneath pleasant blue skies. The purpose of this  little getaway was to celebrate our 12th anniversary. I have always sort of regretted getting married on Dec. 30 because it is hard to fit in an extra thing to celebrate during the holidays and the weather usually is lousy. Now that we live in Nevada, we have a perfect winter destination only 4 hours away.

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We stayed in Henderson to save money so the drive to the park was a little over an hour from our hotel. It was a scenic drive through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area to get to Valley of Fire. We got little glimpses of the lake and I really wanted to check it out, but we were already short on time and visiting the state park was our priority. As it was, we ended up hiking fewer miles than I had planned, due to a late start and the shorter daylight hours of winter.

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Valley of Fire is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park (and I would venture to say the most visited.) We loved walking among the red sandstone formations, but we definitely did not have the place to ourselves. I expected the crowds as it was a holiday weekend, the weather was in the 60’s and it was near a large city, but it still took away from the experience. The parking lots and trails were crowded and I yearned to experience this awesome landscape with a bit more solitude, but that is probably rarely an option here.

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The Mouse’s Tank trail took us through a little canyon surrounded by red sandstone walls. It was short and mostly flat so we decided to leave our backpack full of water in the car and just head out. However, it took us longer than we expected since the trail surface was composed of soft sand, requiring a bit more effort. I sure was glad we weren’t walking it during the heat of summer.

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The canyon was pretty full of people, which was not much fun, but seeing where groups of people congregated made it easy to spot the many petroglyphs along the way.

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It was late afternoon by the time we hiked the Fire Wave trail. The winter sun, low in the sky, reflected off the red rocks, making them ablaze with color. In every direction we were surrounded by glowing, rich red sandstone in an array of shapes and designs. The sight was pretty awe- inspiring. It was evident how the park got its name.

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We walked a couple yards off the busy trail to take the family picture below. Matt was busy preparing the camera while I was acting as a place holder for the picture. After a couple minutes I turned my head and saw a bighorn sheep, not that far away, staring right at me, probably wondering what these weird people are up to. (The camera was already occupied so we didn’t get a picture.) It was pretty cool to be able to have a private, memorable experience in the otherwise crowded park. I wonder how many dozens of people walked right by without ever noticing the creature was there.

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Even though we didn’t end up spending a ton of time there and we had to share it with too many people, Valley of Fire was still a pretty special spot to celebrate our anniversary and to say farewell to 2017.

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I hope in this new year, you are able to set aside some time to spend out in nature and fully experience the pure joy and wonder of God’s handiwork. Happy New Year!

 

“Then here’s a hail to each flaming dawn,

And here’s a cheer to the night that’s gone,

And may I go a roaming on, 

Until the day I die.”

~Anonymous (carved into a rock on Mount Katahdin, Maine)

Zion Day 2: Sunshine & Solitude

As you can probably tell from my title, I enjoyed our second day in Zion National Park more than our first. After heavy wind and rain the evening before, the skies cleared for an absolutely gorgeous autumn day. This day was a Saturday and the park was even more crowded than the previous day, but somehow we were able to find little pockets of solitude.

We started off the day with the Watchman Trail, which begins right at the visitor center. I thought this trail was going to be packed, but it was surprisingly not bad. We saw other people on the trail, but we were staggered enough that we were able to hike mostly by ourselves. The beginning of the trail briefly meandered by the Virgin River and we saw this handsome heron (who, like the deer, was not scared of us at all).

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We soon began gaining elevation up the mountain. When I was planning our trip, I read that the Watchman Trail had only mediocre views and was only good for filling up a couple extra hours. I have to disagree with that review. This ended up being my favorite trail we did at Zion. It was not crowded, even though the park was, and I thought the views were fantastic the entire way.

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We zig- zagged up switch backs until we eventually made it to a sort of plateau, offering grand views of the red rock mountains and the valley.

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We saw people below us making their way up the switch backs, but we were fortunate enough to have at least 30 minutes alone at the top before anybody else came. The three of us were able to sit quietly, have a snack, rest, and just take it all in. It was the first time I felt like I could actually enjoy the park. I wasn’t rushed, and it was just my little family surrounded by a red rock wonderland.

After a while, we headed back down and spotted a herd of bighorn sheep on the opposite side of the ravine. It is always a special experience to watch wildlife while you are sharing the same space with them, instead of whizzing by in a car.

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After finishing the Watchman Trail, we fetched our car and headed out on the Mt. Carmel Highway, which takes you through a couple of tunnels and accesses the eastern part of the park. We saw another bighorn sheep from the car and we were able to get a better picture of him.

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There was absolutely no parking available for the one short trail in this part of the park, so we skipped it and did our own exploring. This area ended up being my favorite scenery of the whole park. I’ve seen mountains and valleys before, but this was something new. The earth was composed of giant waves of red rock, solidified into all sorts of shapes and varieties. It was almost other- worldly. There were numerous patterns on the rocks, anywhere from swirls to checkerboards.

We didn’t hike any actual trails, but we parked at a couple of pull- outs and explored a little. There were people and cars all around, but nobody was precisely where we were. It wasn’t exactly solitude, but it was close enough. We were able to breathe in and experience this special place on our own terms. The sun’s evening glow on the rocks made the area even more magical.

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Having the opportunity to get away from our everyday lives and see someplace new is a wonderful blessing. It allows for more intimate family time as we were distanced from distractions and chores. Also, seeing a new wonder of creation fills my soul with fresh awe. Knowing that God personally hand- crafted areas such as this for our enjoyment and benefit is truly humbling and gives me ever more to be thankful for.

 

Psalm 150

Praise the Lord.

Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
    praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
    praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with timbrel and dancing,
    praise him with the strings and pipe,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
    praise him with resounding cymbals.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.

Zion Day 1: Clouds & Crowds

In mid- November we were able to sneak away for a weekend trip to Zion National Park in southern Utah. After our visit, we left with two equally strong impressions of the park: 1. Zion is very beautiful, and 2. Zion is very crowded. Matt and I had visited Zion 14 years ago so we expected the beauty, but the crowds were not as we remembered.

Our first day there was overcast so the red rocks were not as brilliantly red as they would have been on a sunny day. It was late enough in the season that the park’s shuttle system had just suspended its service so we were on our own to find parking spaces. Parking was tight, but we managed to park at most of the places that we wanted to stop.

First on our itinerary was the Emerald Pools trail. The trail began with a bridge crossing, offering beautiful views of the Virgin River, the red rock mountains, and the last remaining fall leaves.

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The following picture may look serene, but it does not show the hoards of other people on the trail. I didn’t mind the people on the first part of the trail to Lower Emerald Pools, when it was paved and easy. However, the trail became quite a bit rougher going to the Upper Pools. Navigating a rough trail with a 5- year- old while there was a line of people behind us (even though they were quite friendly) was not a super enjoyable experience.

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We eventually made it to Upper Emerald Pools (along with seemingly every other person in Utah). Our reward was a very small pool of water surrounded by sheer red rock cliffs.

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In the picture below, if you look closely, you can make out a small trickle of water. Maybe in the springtime this area is more interesting, with bigger pools of water and more water cascading over the rocks. However, in late autumn things were pretty dry and yet the crowds were still there. I wasn’t too impressed with this one.

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Next up on our agenda was the Riverside Walk. I was prepared for this one to be crowded, as it is an easy paved trail at the end of the park road that lets you get a little bit deeper into the canyon before having to wade in the water.

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It was a pleasant walk, even though it felt a little more like a theme park than a national park (there were groups of people making so much noise it sounded like they were riding a roller coaster). Even with the commotion, we saw numerous mule deer coming down to the river for an evening drink. They are national park deer and not skittish at all so we were able to watch them for a while.

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It was quite cloudy, but at the end of the trail, one mountain flickered in and out of the last remaining evening sunshine. It glowed brilliantly while its neighboring mountains were shrouded in the shade. It gave us a little preview of what the park would look like the following day when the sun was shining.

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On this trip, Matt and I got a first- hand experience of the overcrowding of America’s National Parks, which is becoming a real issue. I have thought about it a little bit, but I am at a loss for what the answer might be. It is good that people want to visit the parks, and it is also good for the parks, up to a point. If nobody ever visited or cared about them, they would never get any funding. However, their infrastructure just cannot support this amount of visitation. And that really does have an affect on the visitor’s experience. They recently announced that they are raising the entrance fee to a few of the parks. If this does deter a few people from visiting, it will only be the people who are very strapped for cash, and that is a real shame.

Personally, after having to share Zion with so many people, it makes me less inclined to visit other national parks. Sure, there are a few that are so iconic and special that there are no replacements for them, such as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. For the most part, though, I think I will be sticking to National Forests, BLM land, and state parks. Living in rural Nevada has spoiled me;  I like a little peace and quiet with my natural splendor.

*Stay tuned for the rest of my trip notes*

Celebration in the Rubies

A couple of weeks ago we took a weekend trip to our nearest “city”, Elko. It is a three hour drive to get to Elko and it’s population is less than 20, 000 people (yep, our town is pretty remote). Our reason for going was pretty important, though. We adopted our son almost two years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo and he just now officially became a U.S. citizen. We had to travel to Elko to meet with an USCIS officer to pick up his Certificate of Citizenship (Yay!!). We technically could have done it in a day trip, but we took advantage of the opportunity to visit an area we hadn’t seen before- the Ruby Mountains.

The Ruby Mountains got their name when an early explorer found garnet in them and wrongly assumed they were rubies. While the mountain range may be lacking in precious gems, it is most definitely not lacking in beauty.

On our drive to Elko we took a side trip to visit Angel Lake, the only lake in these mountains that can be reached via paved road. Unfortunately, we got there right as the sun was setting behind the mountains. Even though we ended up experiencing the place in the shade and the temperature started to quickly drop, it was still a beautiful sight. It is also a good thing that we went as Angel Lake ended up being the only lake we saw on the trip (spoiler alert).

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The following day we took a breathtaking drive through Lamoille Canyon. We earnestly scanned the mountain slopes for mountain goats and bighorn sheep, but never saw any.

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We reached the end of the road, had a picnic lunch by a pretty creek, and then set out on our hike to Lamoille Lake. The beginning of the trail took us through this cool rocky valley. We headed out into it for a while, mesmerized by the scenery, until we realized we weren’t really on a trail anymore. We backtracked a couple times until we discovered that we were supposed to cross a creek near the beginning of the trail. We lost some time and energy, but we finally found the right way….and that is also when things got tricky.

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The aspen leaves were long gone (which was a shame since there were so many of them). All we had were these red stick plants to add a nice pop of autumn color.

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Just taking a breather on one of our many rest breaks. At least we had a nice sunny rock to sit on this time.

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The Ruby Mountains are the wettest mountain range in Nevada and we soon found how their conditions differed from the mountains in our neck of the woods.

The trail started out at around 9,000 feet and went steadily uphill from there. There was patchy snow from the very beginning, but the patches became increasingly larger and the trail became increasingly steeper. It wasn’t supposed to be that long of a hike, but after over two hours of slogging uphill in the slippery snow and ice, there was still no lake in sight.

At one point Matt was helping me through an especially treacherous section. My feet lost all traction on the slick, melting snow and they slid out from underneath me. If Matt wasn’t holding onto my arms, I would have slid all the way down the trail. I don’t know how, but we managed to get to the side of the trail where there was a snow- free patch and I was finally able to stand upright again. We hiked uphill a bit farther, but my nerves were shot and I eventually admitted my defeat. I was a bit bummed to give up my chance of seeing Lamoille Lake, but it was not like we did not see gorgeous scenery the entire way. So we rested and then started our slip- and- slide descent off the mountain.

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Even though we didn’t reach our destination, we still ventured farther than most people. The parking lot was full of sight- seers, but most of them just strolled through the sunny and warm rocky meadow. We saw hardly anyone anywhere on the trail. (Maybe they were wiser than us, but we had ourselves an adventure!)

All in all we had a great weekend exploring a new area of our state and celebrating our family and Roland’s new citizen status. We fell in love with the rugged beauty of the Ruby Mountains and we definitely want to visit them again (but maybe not quite so late in the season).

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“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature…We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” 

~Henry David Thoreau

First Camping Trip, Part 2

Even though Tettegouche State Park was beautifully rugged, I enjoyed the views on the second day of our trip even more. Our destinations were more easily accessible, so it made the whole pace of the day more leisurely. Even though we visited two different parks, our walks were shorter and easier, giving us more time and energy to just soak up all the beauty of the area.

Our first stop was Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The lighthouse was built in 1909 and protected sailors from the rocky shoreline for 59 years. It is now one of the most photographed lighthouses in the country.

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The lighthouse sits on the edge of the rocky bluff in the picture above. It cost an extra $10/ adult to get anywhere near the lighthouse so we contented ourselves with the distant views. Besides, we were a bit distracted by Lake Superior’s almost vacant and absolutely gorgeous rocky beaches.

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Roland put his crazy three- year- old energy to use and spent his time running away from the waves (although, his timing was not perfect and he ended up pretty wet by the time he was done). I on the other hand, seated myself down on the rocks, basked in the warm sunshine and lost myself in the sounds of the lake. I decided that there are few things in this world that will take your cares away more than the rhythmic sounds of waves crashing on the shore and then receding back over the rocks.

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A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

~Henry David Thoreau

Our second stop for the day was Gooseberry Falls State Park. This park was not only very pretty, but it was also much more fun to explore than I was expecting. A network of stairs takes you by Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls. At the bottom of each waterfall there are large areas of flat rocks and shallow streams of water that were perfect for playing. The landscape was so interesting; the water had carved out little arches and caves in the rocks so you never knew what unique feature you were going to come across next. Gooseberry Falls is the closest state park on Lake Superior to Duluth so there was a large number of visitors there, but there were enough nooks and crannies for everybody to find their own little spot to explore.

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The photo below gives a good overview of the area’s landscape. You can see people playing on the rocks and shallow water between the waterfalls. The blue in the background is Lake Superior.

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We were able to finish our day’s activities early enough to get back to our campsite and have a campfire. A little bit after the mandatory s’mores eating was done, I looked up into the clear night sky and saw that the northern lights were hovering right above us. We watched the dancing white streaks in the sky until our necks were sore. They weren’t as amazing as the ones we have witnessed while living in Alaska, but it was special all the same. Maybe even more special since seeing the aurora borealis outside of Alaska is more rare and this was the first time Matt, Roland and I have watched one together. It felt like a special little blessing from God, just for our family. It was a perfect end to our first camping trip together.

First Camping Trip, Part 1

I grew up camping. Every break from school my parents would hook up the pop- up camper and we would hit the road. We lived in Miami, but I ended up seeing and appreciating many places throughout the country that my classmates knew very little about. Camping and travelling with my family are my happiest childhood memories. Ever since I became an adult and got married, I longed to share those experiences with my children. It has been a long wait (many years of infertility issues and then a 3.5 year long adoption), but my husband and I finally took our son, Roland, on his first camping trip.

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We took our maiden trip as a family of three to Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. Most of Minnesota is city, farmland, or forest (and lakes) and the scenery does not change very quickly. It was nice to leave the flat, boggy forests of the Bemidji area for a couple days and enjoy views of some vast open water.

We camped at Jay Cooke State Park, which is just south of Duluth, and worked our way up the first 60 miles of the North Shore. It is 150 miles from Duluth to Canada and 1,300 miles if you want to drive the whole perimeter of Lake Superior, which happens to be the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area. We did cram a lot into our two day trip, including four different state parks, but we saw only a small section of this impressively large lake.

Jay Cooke State Park turned out to be not only a convenient, but also a scenic base camp for us. The St. Louis River, Lake Superior’s largest U.S. tributary, runs through the park. As we walked over the suspension bridge, we enjoyed views of rugged rocks and rapids.

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On our first day we drove to Tettegouche State Park and “oohed and aahed” over the views of Lake Superior along the way. We only had one day to enjoy this large and diverse park so we focused on the highlights: views of the lake and Minnesota’s highest waterfall. First, we trudged up the many stairs to Shovel Point and we were rewarded with a view of Lake Superior’s intricately jagged shoreline.

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On the way back down the stairs, we decided to go down even more stairs to reach the lake shore. We found a pretty little cove and enjoyed it all to ourselves.

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By this point we were already getting a little tired of stairs so we were less than thrilled that our next hike also consisted of mostly stairs. The lure of High Falls kept us motivated, though. There was no way we were going to miss the highest falls in the state. The lovely High Falls drops 60 feet before flowing into the Baptism River, which eventually makes its way to Lake Superior.

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We ended up walking around 4.5 miles, most of which was going up and down stairs. We got plenty of exercise, fresh air, and beautiful views (and our 3- year- old son did very little whining on the longest hiking day of his life!). Challenging your body to see something new and wonderful is always satisfying. We thoroughly enjoyed Tettegouche and we were thoroughly worn out by the end of the day, but we were excited about what adventures lay ahead on our last day on Lake Superior.

We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.

-Anonymous