Friday, July 31, 2009

Millennium Trail Wildflowers Picturesque in Pastel Profusion

The Millennium Trail is ablaze with blooming wildflowers, making this ever scenic trail even more beautiful...
















Check out a forest preserve trail near you -- it's probably just as magnificent.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Indoor Rain?

Amazing! Sit back, turn up the volume on your computer, relax, close your eyes, and envision a Spring thunderstorm approaching...


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My Alaska Adventure

This month marks the fifth anniversary of my greatest adventure -- an 11 week driving trip to and through Alaska. Most links in this post take you to my own web pages which detail that aspect of the trip with additional explanation and well over 100 photos combined. (Yes, an 11 week trip in such scenery does engender many photos in this digital age -- over 3000 are in my Alaska album -- but only a small percentage are presented.)

I began the 10,000+ mile odyssey by driving to Washington state, and since my route took me near Yellowstone, I left the Interstate and made my 8th or so visit to the Teton/Yellowstone area. Next I camped around Creve Coeur, Idaho and biked the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes, followed by biking my favorite of the 100+ bike trails I've pedaled, The Hiawatha Trail, which traverses the Bitterroot Mountains on the Idaho/Montana border. This bike trail travels the roadbed of the Milwaukee Road's "Route of the Hiawatha" which takes you over 7 high steel trestles and through 10 tunnels, the longest of which is the 1.7 mile-long Taft Tunnel with no lights inside.

A solo backpack in Washington state's Goat Rocks Wilderness was followed by a volunteer trail project in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Then I visited some friends in Seattle and also biked the Burke-Gillman Trail. Finally it was to Bellingham, Washington, to catch the Alaska Ferry after a quick ride on the Inter-Urban mountain bike trail.

Then the Alaska portion of the odyssey began. I cruised on the Alaska ferry for 36 hours to Ketchikan, Alaska, accessible only by air and sea, but I opted for a stateroom in lieu of camping on the ferry deck as seen here (click to enlarge any photo)...


After getting off the ferry, I camped 4 nights in the Tongass National Forest with this view from my campsite and with regular visits from deer...



... and kayaked Misty Fjord National Monument, hiked numerous trails through the forest, visited the three totem pole locations, and did the tourist-type-stuff in town along with thousands of passengers from several cruise ships docked there. My favorite part of town was historic Creek Street, the old bordello section of town that is now chic and expensive shops. The reason I liked it was the clever sign that proclaimed it as "Creek Street -- Where fish and fishermen came to spawn."

Then back on a ferry for the overnight cruise to Juneau, Alaskla's capital, also accessible only by air and sea (to keep the politicians safely away from their constituents, no doubt!) I again camped 4 nights in the Tongass National Forest, and during the days I rafted the Mendenhall River. I'm seated front right in blue shirt and green hat and about to be swallowed by the wave...



...and biked several Juneau trails and roads, hiked numerous forest trails, took a small boat cruise to Tracy Arm Fjord and Sawyer Glacier where we saw the glacier "calving" and spotted hundreds of sea lions...



... and back in town, I ate at the famous Red Dog Saloon. Here's a photo of the scenery I biked by near town...



Then back onto the ferry a final time for more magnificent views like this...



... as we traveled the last leg to Skagway, Alaska, where I camped 3 nights, rode the White Pass and Yukon Railroad which took miners up 3000 feet elevation into the Yukon of Canada, and also went on a single-engine sightseeing plane flight over Glacier Bay National Park...



The next 3 days I was driving through a corner of British Columbia and then through the Yukon to get back to Alaska -- two more border crossings -- camping each night and enjoying the breathtaking scenery and wildlife sightings. A detour to the Town of "The City of Dawson" (check Wikipedia for an explanation of that strange name!) was a natural for a retired English teacher because it has the homes of poet Robert Service ("The Cremation of Sam McGee" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew")...


and, a mere block away, author Jack London (The Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf, and White Fang)...



After a ferry ride across the Yukon River, I drove the Top of the World Highway which promised endless vistas -- only to see nothing but smoke from wildfires which burned millions of acres that summer.

Anchorage was next. I rode the Alaska Railway, rafted Spencer Lake alongside Spencer Glacier and down the Placer River...



...and biked 3 of Anchorage's bike trails, one of which takes you past a historical display of the massive earthquake of Good Friday, 1984 which registered 9.2 and lasted nearly five minutes.

I was actually in Alaska for 7 1/2 weeks, driving most every paved road and some gravel ones. The fabulous Kenai Peninsula was amazing and I visited towns such as Homer, Girdwood, Portage, Frazier, Kenai, Soldotna, Whittier, and Seward, and took a boat cruise to Kenai Fjords National Park, Holgate Glacier, and Chiswells Island NWR.

I visited America's two largest national parks -- Denali (3 times) and Wrangell-St. Elias (twice) -- and camped and hiked at both. For perspective: Yellowstone is the largest national park in the lower 48 states at 2 million square acres and has 251 miles of paved roads. Denali NP has 6 million acres and one road which is 95 miles long and mostly gravel. Wrangell-St. Elias NP has 11 million acres and 2 roads of 60 and 42 gravel miles.

The highlight of Denali is the wildlife. They consider 5 animals to be the representative species of the park: grizzly, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and wolf, and I was fortunate to see plenty of all five...







Out of Denali, I rafted the Nenana River with its class 4 rapids so turbulent and water so cold we had to wear dry suits and helmets...



In Fairbanks, I flew 170 miles on a two-engine flight to Coldfoot, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where a van picked us up and drove us back on the gravel Dalton Highway (built for construction of the pipeline)...


...alongside the Alaska (Aleyeska) Pipeline...


The highlight of the trip was a 2 week Sierra Club outing. We met in Fairbanks, spent 9 nights in our tents, hiked and camped in both the national parks mentioned above, including this high mountain ridgeline hike in Denali NP...



...and did a backpack in Denali State Park across the highway from Denali NP because large groups can't backpack the national park...



...and from which we had views of Mt. Denali (aka Mt. McKinley) the highest point in North America at 20,320 feet...



Our second planned backpack in the mountains north of Fairbanks was canceled due to those raging wildfires.

Yes, it is cold in Alaska in September -- below freezing most nights with our water bottles freezing in our tents overnight! The fringe benefit: we encountered none of the gargantuan mosquitoes Alaska is known for (often called Alaska's state bird!)



And yes, several nights we were entertained by Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights show...



...and I got to canoe amidst the magnificent scenery...



...and in Wrangell-St. Elias NP, I did a 4 hour hike on Root Glacier during some free time from the group, wearing crampons to scale the ice...



Did I say that my 2 weeks on the Sierra Club outing was the highlight of the trip? Well, the drive home on the famed Alaska (or Al/Can) Highway was another highlight! Running 1523 miles from Dawson Creek, Canada, to Fairbanks, it is a drive of a lifetime. The signpost in Fairbanks lists the mileage to many cities, including back to Chicago...




Encountering wildlife on the road or alongside the road was normal, as the photos on my Al/Can page linked to above will attest. Speeding would have caused you to miss magnificent scenery, or worse, caused you to hit wildlife just around the next bend. I even spotted a black bear slowly ambling across the highway. As you can imagine, I stopped often for wildlife and scenery photos, and as seen below, Fall was rapidly approaching as I drove home...



So that's a brief description of my greatest adventure. Or odyssey? Or epic? Or search for self?

Whatever you call it, this adventure so affected me -- being immersed so long in Alaska's history, culture, scenery, wildlife, outdoor offerings, and having met and conversed with so many of her residents -- that a poem came pouring out, "Homage to Alaska."

I had worried before the trip that it would be hard for me to sustain a solo driving trip of 10,000 miles and 75 days, and though I was anxious to get home, the lovely drive on the Al-Can was invigorating and I savored it. After Dawson Creek, when the terrain turned to farmland and expressways as I drove across eastern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, I finally longed for home and the miles couldn't pass fast enough. But it was indeed a trip of a lifetime and one I would recommend to everyone who has the time and opportunity. And probably best enjoyed with a companion.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Alaska Marine Highway

The Alaska Marine Highway is not a highway but rather a ferry service operated by the State of Alaska to serve the three dozen or so Alaska communities in southeastern Alaska that have no road access and are located along the Inside Passage. It also serves the eastern Aleutian Islands and British Columbia, Canada. It covers 3500 miles of sea routes and receives federal highway funding as part of the National Highway System.

It carries passengers, freight, and vehicles...



...offers accommodations for its overnight cruises...




...but does not offer the luxurious rooms and service of a cruise line. Food is served cafeteria style and passengers are allowed to sleep on deck chairs...



...and even erect tents on deck, though it is quite windy and they have to be duct-taped to the deck or tied to railings...

The views never cease to amaze and can be viewed from the deck or from the comfortable indoor seating area...



...which is also the location for the daily talks by rangers supplied by the Tongass National Forest which you are cruising alongside.

The 11 vessels in the fleet are all named for Alaskan glaciers. The Alaska Marine Highway was founded in 1948 by two residents and in 1951 their business was purchased by the territorial government. Alaska became the 50th state in 1959 and the ferry system became a state operation. It was renamed the Alaska Marine Highway System in 1963 and was an "All American Road" in 2005.

Biking the Des Plaines River Trail

Patti and Dave and I biked 22 miles on the Des Plaines River Trail yesterday from Independence Grove north and were delighted that all the underpasses are now open...


The trail was pretty busy for a weekday. perhaps indicative of the gorgeous 82 degree sunny day. After the ride, we enjoyed lunch at the Independence Grove Cafe...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Monkey See, Monkey Do!

In the Caribbean, Vervet Monkeys have developed a taste for alcohol and can regularly be spotted stealing cocktails from humans on the beach. Brilliant wildlife video from BBC animal show 'Weird Nature'.



At least they don't drive after drinking!

Family Time

After church, it was out to Scott and Sarah's in Wheaton. Scott and I biked 17 miles on the Illinois Prairie Path...



...then on to dinner at Muldoon's Irish Pub, joined by Steve, Mom, and Sarah...



... and then conversation at their place, where Linda and Phil later joined us. I actually got our hosts to sit and smile for this photo...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Backpacking Michigan Wildernesses

My first backpacking was as a Boy Scout in the 1950s and '60s when my troop made its annual pilgrimage to Michigan's Manistee National Forest to the Owasippe Scout Reservation run by the Chicago Area Council since 1911.

Over the last 20 years, Michigan has provided me 6 marvelous backpacking venues, presented here in alphabetical order. If pressed to decree one the best, I'd have to say Isle Royale National Park, which is not only my favorite Midwest destination, but also one of America's premier backpacking locales. Each page below gives info on the location and a few photos I took while backpacking there.


Bay de Noc - Grand Island Trail in the Hiawatha National Forest (2001)

Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior (1993 and 1996)

North Manitou Island/Sleeping Bear Dunes Natl Lakeshore (2009)


Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (including neighboring Grand Island) (1996)

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (1992)


Sylvania Wilderness in the Ottawa National Forest (1992)



(To see all 52 locales where I've backpacked, go here.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Birds and Wildflowers...

The rapacious birds can empty my 3 feeders in under 6 hours! This photo is taken from my deck, and the view is a fringe benefit of a home bordering the forest preserve. (Click to enlarge photo.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Biking Poplar Creek Forest Preserve

I met Len and Dave and Patty and we biked 15 miles on the Poplar Creek Forest Preserve loop today, including several on the mountain bike trails seen below.



Beautiful 84 degrees and magnificent forest scenery!



Then lunch at IHOP where we ran into another former colleague, Paul Reeff. Great day!

Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge



At over 32,000 acres in size, Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States. The marsh provides habitat for endangered species and is a critical rest stop for thousands of migrating ducks and Canada geese. It is recognized as a Wetland of International Importance, as both Globally and State Important Bird Areas and is also a unit of the Ice Age Scientific Reserve.

Several hundred thousand Canada geese migrate between Hudson Bay and southern Illinois, stopping here briefly. In addition, over 223 species of birds also call the marsh home, including thousands of redhead ducks as well as deer, red fox, otters, muskrats, snapping turtles, and garter snakes. The marsh supports the largest blue heron nesting rookery in Wisconsin. Shorebirds, marsh birds, terns, raptors, and songbirds also use the marsh.

The northern two-thirds of Horicon Marsh is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as the 21,000 acre Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. The southern third of the marsh is managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area. The National Wildlife Refuge System has over 545 such refuges across the country.

The marsh is a 14 mile long, shallow, peat-filled lake bed scoured out of limestone by glaciers over 70,000 years ago, surrounded by escarpments (hills).

The Horicon TernPike Auto Tour Route located on State Highway 49, just east of the city of Waupun, is open daily year-round, weather permitting. Three hiking trails are located here along with a floating boardwalk and bicycling and hiking access to the Wild Goose State Trail.


It is commonly asked when the peak of migration is at Horicon Marsh and that depends on which group or species of birds we are talking about. The best migration time to see the greatest variety of birds is from mid-April to mid-May and mid-September through October. However, there is no one time when you can see all the birds of the marsh. By the time one group of birds is at its peak, others may have already departed or might not yet have even arrived. Therefore, to see the greatest variety of birds it requires several trips throughout the season and throughout the year in order to get a true feel for the diversity and abundance of wildlife that is attracted to and supported by Horicon Marsh. Here's a month-by-month listing of the approximate times for various species.

Over the years, a total of 290 species of birds have been sighted at Horicon Marsh. Among them are many common wetland and upland birds and some of Wisconsin's rarest bird sightings. On a single day in spring it is not unusual to find up to 100 species of birds on Horicon Marsh alone!

Our visit was at the end of our summer drive around Lake Michigan and was the "off-season," but we still saw a number of waterfowl. Here are many photos of Horicon waterfowl.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Hard Act to Follow if you're planning a wedding!

"Our wedding entrance dance to Forever... yeah, forever." (Posted by TheKheinz)








This clip has had over 65,000 views in 3 days. Guess you'd have to say it's going viral!

Kohler Factory Tour

In 1873, Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler started the Kohler Company as a farm implement manufacturer, and it now has manufacturing plants in 56 countries on six continents, and has diversified to include manufacturing kitchen and bath fixtures, furniture, upholstery, ceramic tile, lodging and golf resorts, power generators, and small engines.

John Kohler purchased a cast iron and steel foundry in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and later purchased 300 acres west of town and founded the town of Kohler. The firm hired the Olmsted brothers (think Central Park in NYC) to create a 50 year plan for the town which developed Kohler Village into one of the most beautiful residential-industrial communities in America. Decades later, the company hired the Frank Lloyd Wright Institute to develop the town's second fifty year plan, making it the country's longest-lasting planned community.

Kohler's first foray into fixtures involved taking a hog scalder/watering trough, enameling it and adding 4 legs, and selling it as the first Kohler bathtub -- he sold it for a cow and 14 chickens -- and eventually parlayed that into one of the oldest, largest privately held companies in the United States. Records show that prior to 1883, farm implements accounted for about 80 percent of sales, but by 1887, plumbing fixtures and other enamelware accounted for 70 percent.

Kohler always looked for improved products and production techniques. Their first new breakthrough came in 1911, when Kohler Co. introduced the one-piece built-in bathtub, a product we take for granted today. Prior to that time, built-in bathtubs were cast in two separate parts: the tub itself and the exposed side or apron. The two parts were fitted together by the plumber doing the installation. Overcoming technical challenges, Kohler Co. employees learned to cast the entire unit in a single piece. The one-piece bathtub eliminated crevices, joints and seams and is still the industry standard. Kohler Co. followed up quickly on that success by introducing the industry's first one-piece bathroom lavatory and the first one-piece kitchen sink.

The three hour factory tour was free, though a reservation was required, and included the Pottery, Brass, Foundry, and Enamel Shops. No photos are allowed on the tour so the photos included in this post are from the Kohler Design Center which is open daily to everyone and displays many of their products on the main and upper levels. The lower level houses a museum chronicling the history, development, and products of the company over its 130+ year history.



All of the factory buildings are on the national historic record. The first building we toured housed pottery manufacturing (or ceramic that is glazed, vitrified, and extremely smooth) where we saw the forms and machines and processes involved in making toilets and sinks of many styles and shapes. These are made of clays that are glazed and fired at extremely high temperatures, causing the glaze to fuse with the clay and become nonporous. Two types of clay are combined with feldspar and flint to create the sand used to make Kohler sinks and toilets. After being formed, huge ovens dry the products before spray painting. Custom designs can be applied to fixtures and baked on, and these special orders utilize artists who create the designs for the glazed sinks, stands, tubs, etc. The plant buildings are all clean, utilize computerized modern machines and even robotics, and always, safety is stressed.

As early as 1927, the company introduced bathroom sets– a bathtub, toilet and lavatory– in matching colors. The innovation showed a concern for aesthetics and manufacturing ingenuity for matching colors across a range of materials and dissimilar processes. From that point on, Kohler plumbing products meant beautiful form as much as reliable function. The Design Center features all their products and sports a 30 foot high wall of toilets along with the dozens of other fixtures, including numerous samples of its hand painted vanities...



32,000 Kohler Co. associates are employed on six continents, 18,o00 of whom live outside the United States. Inspection stations check every phase of production. Pottery fixtures which don't meet A-1 quality are recycled and transformed back into sand and used again. If they have already been glazed and then rejected for imperfections, they are broken into small pieces and used as base material for paving projects. Such recycling occurs all throughout every plant.

The Design Center men's restroom featured four different urinals, and the two on the right are waterless units...




In the foundry operation, Kohler hauls in scrap metal which is melted down to create its cast iron tubs and sinks. We saw the huge machines that hold the foundry forms for tubs and sinks, and the large vats that deliver and pour the molten metal into the forms. Other machines later bombard the tubs with BBs to remove the sand, and a series of robots later take red-hot tubs, powder them with enamel powder, reinsert them into the heat to fire the enamel onto the metal, then apply a second coating and repeat the firing. Yes, it's hot in there, but the building has a monstrous ventilation system to clean the air.

Another building creates the brass fittings, faucets, shower heads, drains, etc., and many of these are hand poured molten metal. All are then hand ground, sanded, plated, polished, and/or buffed. In another section of the building, they assemble whirlpool tubs and spas. Teams of two attach the motors and jets and piping and then water-test each for 20 minutes to check for leaking.

Kohler advanced the trend toward increased luxury in the home by fostering the master suite concept. Console tables and bath vanities shared a unity of design with bedroom furnishings; electronics and other technological improvements contributed to an array of stylish toilets, faucets and showerheads engineered to promote water conservation; innovative showering products and luxurious whirlpool baths transformed bathrooms into relaxing retreats in an otherwise fast-paced world; and decorative fixtures, textured surfaces and expressive colors elevated the rituals of everyday living to an art form. The Design Center also offers many sample "suites" to display products in realistic settings, including faucets, lavatories, toilets, cabinets, mirrors, whirlpool tubs, and spas...





During the past 15 years, Kohler Co. has provided more than 43,000 kitchen and bath products for Habitat for Humanity homes, and also helped fulfill needy families’ dreams by donating more than 8,000 products for the popular ABC show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

The tour was interesting and inclusive, and I highly recommend it for anyone traveling in the Sheboygan/Kohler area.