Photo Of The Day: Stand-Up Paddling On The Colorado River

The confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers in Utah is a maginificent sight for the adventurous traveler. To see it from above is one thing – you can access it by trail in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park – but to see it from the ground is quite another.

Today’s Photo of the Day comes to us from Flickr user Terra_Tripper, who paddleboarded to the confluence of the two great rivers of the West – an up-close way to explore one of America’s greatest natural spaces.

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[Photo credit: Terra_Tripper]

Journey To Secret Beach in Austin, Texas

I walk through the open gate and into a dusty backyard BBQ party. I offer the contents of a grocery bag to the men manning the grill. The afternoon sun on July 4 in Texas isn’t subtle. Dozens of friends are gathered here and sweating in unison. I find a place to relax in the shade — a slice of watermelon in one hand and a cold beer in the other. I think of my puppy, Fiona, at home. I’ve just left her alone for the first time. Once an hour has quickly passed, I excuse myself on behalf of Fiona’s assumed despair. I think of her barricaded in my kitchen, all eight pounds of her. Before I leave, I’m invited to rejoin my friends later at a purported “secret” beach, appropriately and memorably called Secret Beach. I’m given specific directions that are promised to take me there, but I never go. I open the front door to my house to find Fiona hiding under the couch in the living room. How she managed to jump over the 4-foot-tall stacked plastic storage bins that closed off the kitchen without budging them whatsoever is a mystery. Clearly distraught from her first home alone experience, I instead decide to take her with me to a friend’s pool, where she’s allowed to be but not to swim. I could have taken her with me to Secret Beach, but I didn’t know that at the time. I emailed a friend a few days later to get the directions to Secret Beach in writing. I saved the email knowing I’d want those directions sooner or later.

%Gallery-152063%The summer in Austin is oppressive. It’s my first summer in Texas, but the record-breaking drought and heat aren’t making the transition easy. Locals commiserate. “I’ve been in Austin all my life and this is, by far, the worst summer ever. I’m so sorry it’s your first”, they tell me, attempting to reassure me that the hard time I’m having isn’t because I’m a newcomer. But my instincts tell me that no matter what they say, the brutality of this summer is weighing more heavily on me, a recent transplant from the north. Everyone is feeling exhausted and visibly so. Beat down by the relentless heat, which has been in the triple digits for over 70 days now, I receive the pitying facial expressions of air-conditioned drivers paused at stoplights as I walk Fiona. Walking her isn’t easy to do — her paws are too soft and raw for the burning asphalt. A friend tells me he can only walk his 6-year-old Samoyed when it’s dark. This gives me the idea to become nocturnal.

I succeed in living by night for a month or so. But between raising a new puppy, totaling a car, shopping for a new car and planning my upcoming wedding, the inconvenience of a nocturnal lifestyle isn’t suiting me. I return to the daylight in the weeks before my October wedding, slowly readjusting to societal normalcy. My wedding is blessed with rain; a beacon of hope that graces the multi-day outdoor event with cool breezes. With a marriage license signed, an elaborate wedding set-up and torn down, and the weight off my chest from entertaining over a hundred mostly out-of-town guests, I find myself able to kick my feet up at my own home. But my feet are on boxes. Boxes filled with vintage lace, plates and glasses, and bins filled with silverware and candles. I lay my head on a collection of solar-powered camping showers strewn across my couch. The opportunity to depart from the wedding immediately following the ceremony for a honeymoon wasn’t an option. Perhaps I could have planned better, asked more of our family members and friends, but I didn’t. Instead, my husband and I work during the week following the wedding. We work in 12-hour chunks scrubbing the floors of the cabin on the property we rented, Austin Heaven. We are washing dishes so that they might be sold, and we are making back-to-back trips between the property and our house in Austin — a 30-minute commute without any traffic. And there’s always traffic.

Eight days after the wedding, two out-of-town friends remain in our home. One friend is an optimistic, ukulele-playing young lady. She has decided to extend her stay permanently and will be looking for a place of her own soon (she eventually moves into an actual closet). The other flies back home tomorrow to Germany, where he works as a physicist, which I find both fascinating and intimidating. With a flea market-looking, post-wedding home yielding not a single interior space for our guests or selves to relax, I have an idea.

“Do you guys want to go to Secret Beach today?” I ask in a tone that I hope conveys to our guests that I, for one, am getting out of the house and into the water regardless of what they choose. They think this sounds “awesome” and I do too. Perhaps more importantly, Fiona hasn’t had any exercise whatsoever since running around the wedding property eight days ago. She sees her leash and rejoices; her paws stretched out and pressed against the door as far up as she can reach them. She is ebullient. We put on our swimsuits, spray on sunblock and I pack a few towels. When we arrive to the end of the road on Austin’s southeast side, I’m not sure where to go next.

“Let’s just park and walk,” I say, hoping the path down to the water isn’t too inconspicuous. We see the white building that was referenced in the directions as a landmark, but we don’t know where the referenced trail nearby is. I debate calling the friend who gave me the directions, but part of the adventure is finding the path on your own.

In the parking lot next to the white building, a man is wet and ushering his dripping dog into the back trunk of his station wagon.

“Do you know where Secret Beach is?” I ask him, certain that he does.

“Secret Beach?” He responds. “It’s not so much of a secret anymore. Back when I discovered it, well, actually, my dog here discovered it, ten years ago, nobody knew about this beach but us. He just went nosing around down there one day and I followed him, I wanted to see where he’d take me. And he took me to Secret Beach. Nobody was down there but us; we founded it. Been comin’ here ever since then, but more and more people seem to show up every time.”

“Wow, you discovered it,” I say, catering to his “I Found It; It’s Mine” gasconading bravado. “Well, I hear it’s beautiful. Can you tell us where it is?” I continue.

“Look,” he says pointing. “Now you follow that path right there all the way until you see another dirt path to your right, take that one, the one to the RIGHT, don’t miss it. Follow that path down and around all the way and I don’t know what you’re going to do, little lady, wearing sandals like those. It’s not easy to get down that hill without slipping. But once you’re down the hill, walk through the trees and then BAM! You’ll hit the sand and the water.”

As the man leaves, another man arrives wearing swim trunks and guiding his Boxer puppy in the direction that had been pointed out to us. Fiona chases after the puppy as we journey down to the sandy beach, finally arriving beneath the late afternoon sun. Beams of light shoot through the canopying trees and hit the water like kaleidoscopic images. Fiona and the Boxer puppy hit the water like exploding cannonballs. With gnashing teeth and splashing water, the two dogs share their first swim. Letting the cool water move through me as it travels farther east, I am unencumbered. I soak in the feeling of having a low-populated and beautiful retreat this close to home.

Autumn is beginning to set in and it looks good on the drought-stricken land — a shoe that finally fits. We cycle in and out several times from the water to our outspread towels. There are only a handful of other people here on this Sunday afternoon. The beach sand is soft and the shells that are scattered alongside the Colorado River are plentiful. Our shoes are behind us in a haphazard pile. We’re a group of unapologetic nelipots.

Once we feel fully depleted, I stuff everything into a large tote bag and we climb the steep hill back up to the dirt path that leads to the parking lot by the white building. Secret Beach isn’t exactly secret enough to warrant the mysterious title these days. But it is still a place I like to go; I am reprieved here from the overcrowded swimming holes in and around Austin. If you want to find it, you won’t have a hard time. Research it or ask a local. I’d tell you myself, but I don’t want the blood of sharing semi-secrets on my hands.

5 great ways to explore national parks under your own power

There is no doubt that America’s national parks are popular tourist destinations. The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of visitors to the parks, and many of them have been setting attendance records as a result.

With the summer fast approaching, many of us are no doubt making plans for our vacations, with many electing to visit a national park once again this year. The vast majority of those visitors will never wander far from their car, but to get a true sense of what the parks have to offer, you really should ditch the vehicle and strike out under your own power. In doing so, you’ll get a much better sense of the landscapes around you, and have a better chance of connecting with nature too. Here are five ways that you can do just that.

Hike the Great Smoky Mountains
With more than 800 miles of trail in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there is a route for just about everyone. From short excursions and day hikes, to multi-day epics for the backpacker crowd, this is a park that is sure to please any outdoor enthusiast. With lush green forests, crystal clear streams, and breathtaking mountain tops, the Smoky Mountains have it all. But you can’t experience the best they have to offer from you car, so put on your hiking shoes and hit the trail. I recommend the 8-mile round-trip hike to Charlies Bunion, a popular mountain walk that is more than worth the effort.

Raft The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is truly one of the great natural wonders of the world. It is so vast in size and scope that you simply have to see it to truly understand just how large it really is. That size is magnified even further while you’re rafting the mighty Colorado River, with the mile-high walls of the Canyon looming far overhead. Visitors have a number of options when it comes to paddling the river, ranging from short half and full day excursions to multi-day options lasting as much as 25 days in length. The whitewater in the Grand Canyon will have your heart pounding in your chest, and once you’ve calmed down from the adrenaline rush, you can enjoy a gentle drift down the Colorado, with those amazing landscapes completely surrounding you.
Go Climbing In Yosemite
In addition to being one of the most beautiful places you will ever see, Yosemite also happens to be one of the great rock climbing destinations on the planet. Each year, climbers from all over the world descend on the park to test their skills on its legendary rock walls, some of which are so famous that they are well known by their unique names. There are routes available for all skill levels, including beginners, but obviously this is not an activity for everyone. For those not wanting to climb rock walls, I’d recommend the Half-Dome Summit Trail, which offers access to the top of one of Yosemite’s most famous landmarks along a route that includes cables to help you make your way. (Permit required!)

Kayak The North Woods in Voyageurs
Voyageurs National Park, located in the extreme northern border of Minnesota and Canada, is one of the best hidden gems in the entire National Park System. It is remote, pristine, and quiet, with some of the thickest forests you’ll find in the U.S. The best way to explore this park, no, the only way to explore this park, is from the seat of a kayak. Visitors can paddle through a series of interconnected waterways that wander past wilderness islands and shorelines with plenty of wildlife to view along the way. If you have more than a day, you may want to camp at one of the campsites that are only accessible by boat.

Cycle Through Acadia
With its spectacular mix of ocean views and mountain vistas, Acadia National Park, located in Maine, makes for a fantastic summertime destination. But to really see the park, you should leave your vehicle behind and hop on your bicycle instead. The 27-mile long Park Loop Road is an excellent ride for those who want to explore the park, but that route can get crowded with cars, especially in the summer. For more solitude, hit the Heart of Acadia loop trail, which is a 22-mile long road that is completely free of motor vehicles. The path is best suited for mountain bikes, but offers some of the best views in the park, including scenic overlooks that will take your breath away. You won’t be disappointed!

While these are perfect examples of national park adventures sans cars, nearly every park in the U.S. system has similar options. Need further incentive to explore the park under your own power this year? Consider this, the price of gas is expected to hit record levels this summer, which means you can save a little cash by leaving the car behind and exploring on foot, bike, or other means.

[Photos courtesy of the National Park Service]

Scientists struggle to preserve Grand Canyon wildlife

The Grand Canyon needs more water.

That’s the assessment of a U.S. Geological Survey report that studied the results of a 2008 experiment. A controlled flood let more water through Glen Canyon Dam in order to replicate the effects of annual flooding from before the dam was built. Sediment from the flood increased the size of sandbars along the path of the river. These sandbars are an essential habitat for the plants and animals living in the canyon and also make handy beaches for weary hikers who have just made it to the bottom.

Unfortunately, the sandbars all but washed away after six months. The USGS and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are calling for regular controlled floods, especially in spring when the tributaries of the Colorado River naturally flood, and March in order to stop seeds from the nonnative tamarisk from germinating and helping native trout as they grow to maturity. The Glen Canyon Dam was built in the 1960s amid a major controversy over how it would change the river. Several local species have drastically reduced in number because of changes to water temperature and flow.

The problem is, the dam on the Colorado River is a major source of hydroelectric power, and any flooding would reduce the amount of electricity generated. It’s a classic case of industry vs. environmentalism, but the huge amount of money generated from tourism to the Grand Canyon may mean the environmentalists have the money on their side for a change.

Kayaking the Grand Canyon

For years it was nearly impossible to kayak the Grand Canyon independently. Sure, there were plenty of guided rafting tours that you could hire out for a few hour or a few days, but in order to float the river yourself, you’d have to get your name on a waiting list for an independent permit. That waiting list was legendary in its length and paddlers typically waited ten years or more to get the permission they needed.

Three years ago that all changed when the National Park Service switched to a lottery system that awarded the permits on a weighted system that favors those who have never rafted the river before. This new system did away with the waiting list, which had grown to 25 years in length, altogether, offering fortunate paddlers the opportunity to get their permit in a matter of months.

The lottery is conducted every February by the Grand Canyon National Park with all entries requiring a $25 fee. Each entrant is allowed to select up to five dates in which the would prefer to paddle, with the summer months being the most in demand. Those who haven’t floated the river in the past five years are given priority, and once the lottery has been conducted, winners are expected to pay a $400 deposit towards the total price of the permit, which is $100 per person. Unclaimed permits are given away in follow-up lotteries.
There are a few caveats to the system however. The Park Service requires that at least one person paddling under the permit have experience on the Colorado River, or under similar river conditions. That person will serve as the guide, and work with the other paddlers to ensure that it is a safe journey.

And what is it like to paddle the Canyon independently? Travel writer Kate Siber of the Boston Globe found out recently when she was lucky enough to go on just such a trip. She has written about her experiences in an article that was recently published in that paper, and from the sounds of things it was quite an adventure. Kate says that while the rapids are exciting and wild at times, the majority of the time on the river is spent on calm, flat water. She also reports that the scenery is beautiful and their is plenty of fun to be had exploring the side canyons and shoreline of the Colorado as well.

For adventurous kayakers, these new options for paddling the Grand Canyon are a wonderful opportunity. You no longer have to wait decades to get a chance to be out on the water, and you can enjoy one of America’s most impressive natural resources as few have ever had the opportunity to do.

To find out more about the lottery click here.