Category Archives: US South West

Frolicking with friends in Texas

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We are lucky that we have great friends in Texas as Texas is HUGE and takes a good day and a half to drive across, so it’s nice to have some places to stop and play.  Going both east and west we made stops in San Marcos to kayak and Houston to play and regroup.

Our Houston stop is at Kelly & Phil’s house and it’s a fabulous pit stop. Everyone gets to decompress a bit and stretch their legs in a low key way. Hunter has non stop fun with Phil, making wacky things on the 3-D printer, playing with remote control toys, doing bizarre science experiments and making original music productions on garage band. We always manage to get in a leisurely walk and bike ride to explore. Funny that we’ve now been there three times but yet never really hit the highlights of Houston – it just feels like too much effort and would take us away from the joy of connecting with friends in a low key way.

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Our stop in San Marcos is all about kayaking with our friend Ben, who got a new addition this year! San Marcos is spring fed so the water is in the 70’s year round. It’s a small play section on the river with three waves or drops and makes for a fun afternoon.

We got really lucky on both our visits this year  (November & January) with sunny afternoons, which made for a great pit stop to get back on the water (or in the water) and just play.

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Sledding in the sand at White Sands National Monument

DSCN1141We were missing snow so much that we rushed home for a quick trip to the Fraser Summit – NOT!!! We did however have a fun 18 hours at the White Sands National Monument, where those of us that are very familiar with snow would swear that you are surrounded by snow piles not sand dunes.

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At one point driving down the sand road we had to hit the breaks due to some other cars slowing down and both Tim and I cringed while waiting for the skid of the truck and the swing of the trailer until we remembered that this is a sand road not a snow road – what tricks our brains can play on us!

We got to the park an hour before dark and were able to experience the sunset there – it seemed to go on forever. With very little surrounding light and an almost full moon it was a fabulous place to spend the night. The only downside was the temperature – it got down to freezing and I fell asleep still wearing my winter hat and mitts. Tim got mild frost-bite in his toes from running around in the dunes in bare feet that night!

We were up bright and early the next morning and drove around the park checking out all the various parking lots and picnic sites. You can definitely envision how busy it is in the summer time. Their picnic covers are really quite cool and futuristic looking – the shade cover and the table are all one piece and made of metal.

By 10:00 am the day had warmed up enough to get out and play on the sand dunes with the 2 sleds we bought at the gift shop. Sand definitely has a higher friction factor than snow so you need to pick tall dunes to get some speed going. It was a morning full of giggles and smiles with many versions of head to head racing, and the workout of climbing back up to the top.

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We finished off our junior ranger book by lunch time and were then back on the road headed eastbound to Balmorhea State Park in Texas. White Sands National Monument is barely out of the way for anyone heading east or west along I-10 and definitely worth a stop to play for the day.

An oasis in west Texas – San Solomon Springs/ Balmorhea State Park

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San Solomon Springs has provided water for humans and animals for thousands of years. Native Americans also used the springs before explorers and settlers came to the area. In 1849, the springs were known as Mescalero Springs, for the Mescalero Apache who watered their horses here.

Mexican farmers called the springs “San Solomon Springs.” They dug the first canals by hand, and then used the water to irrigate crops. They sold those crops to residents of Fort Davis. With plentiful water and the arrival of the railroad, a cattle ranching industry emerged in the 1880s. In 1927, the Bureau of Reclamation dredged the springs and constructed a canal to better harness their flow.

Today, after the spring water flows through the pool and cienegas, it enters irrigation canals and travels about 3.5 miles east to Balmorhea Lake. Farmers today use that water to irrigate thousands of acres of crops such as alfalfa and cotton.

The State Parks Board acquired nearly 46 acres around San Solomon Springs in 1934. Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1856 built the park between 1935 and 1940.

After a long long day of driving we arrived at Balmorhea State Park in the early evening – an hour before the pool closed. We quickly got set up and headed out for a swim in the springs, which are around 72f year round. The park facilities were built in the 1930’s so are starting to age a bit BUT it is really neat to swim in what looks like a swimming pool but is actually a living and breathing ecosystem. The sides are concrete and a portion of the bottom is as well until it gives way to a natural bottom that is covered with greenery and lots of fish. It was a nice end to a long day…

DSCN1307It was a bit chilly the next day but we were hopeful that this would make the springs water feel even warmer! We headed off with warm layers, towels and all our snorkel stuff in search of turtles and cool fish! The campground is a 5 minute walk from the pool which is nice and convenient. It’s also a bargain at only $17 per night (in addition to your park entrance fee of $15 for the family).

Hunter had fun being the go-pro operator and swam around chasing fish and turtles for quite a while.

The springs exit the pool into a canal system and you can walk around these canals between the campground and the pool. We had fun watching the turtles and ducks play and they seemed equally curious about us!

Balmorhea State Park is a great stop and breaks up the long drive on I-10 through west Texas. We definitely recommend this to everyone!

Historic mining town of Bisbee, Arizona

DSCN1081The historic mining town of Bisbee is located in the SE corner of Arizona, just south of Tombstone and barely north of the Mexican border. It was founded in 1880 and has a long history of underground mining for various minerals.  In almost 100 years of continuous production before the Bisbee mines closed in 1975, the local mines produced metals valued at $6.1 billion (at 1975 price) one of the largest production valuations of all the mining districts in the world. This staggering amount of wealth came from the estimated production of 8,032,352,000 lbs of copper, 2,871,786 ounces of gold, 77,162,986 ounces of silver, 304,627,600 lbs of lead and 371,945,900 lbs of zinc!

After a brief stop in Tombstone we landed in Bisbee in the early afternoon and found a quiet camp spot at the Queen Mine RV Park, which is located on the edge of town just next to the Queen Mine. It also backs right on to the local open pit mine, which is HUGE and really enables you to see the various strands and layers of the sediment.

open pit mine bisbeeThe mine tour is run by former Phelps Dodge mine employees and they do a great job of getting you geared up and organized to go under ground – complete with rain coat, helmet, belt and light. We were then loaded onto a series of trolley cars that are pulled by an actual mine cart. Lots of safety conversations about not reaching out to touch the walls or leaning over to pick up your helmet if it falls off (so you don’t whack your head on the mine beams as they go by).

The mine tour takes you down over 1500 feet into the mine and you learn a lot about former mining techniques, life as a miner and the tools and technologies that were used over the last 100 years.

The tour is only an hour in length and goes by fairly quickly however there is a small museum that you can visit before or after and it is very informative.

It is also an easy walk into Old Bisbee to wander through the shops, check out the various artists and grab some food – of which there are a surprising number of choices (and variety). Well worth the stop if you are in the area!

Kitt’s Peak Observatory – bringing the sky to life!

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Kitt Peak National Observatory is the home of the largest array of optical and radio telescopes in the world, located at the south west of Tuscon, and sits just shy of 7,000 feet (2,133 meters). Needless to say, the views from the top are stunning and feel like they go forever!

We arrived a few hours before sunset and were able to check out 2 of the publicly accessible telescopes before starting our night observation program.

It was pretty amazing to learn about the internal complexity of how various telescopes work and how they are designed differently for different purposes. For example the Solar Telescope goes well below ground to help cool off the solar rays that it collects, which is completely different from a celestial telescope.

The night observation program is a 4 hour introduction to astronomy and provides a well rounded awareness of star-gazing and how observatories work. We got to watch sunset from the mountain top and learn about what makes the various colours that you see. We then learned how to work with star charts to get an orientation to the sky. We had a partial moon so it wasn’t perfect darkness but it was definitely interesting to look for star clusters from the top of the peak. The guides were fabulous and used laser pointers to help you find them if you couldn’t work it out on your own. We then experienced searching for more complex stars using binoculars and could definitely see the difference it made. Topping the evening off was getting to use the research class telescope to see distant galaxies and planets. We all thought the best part was an up close view of the craters of the moon!

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We had been learning about early astronomers and the big bang in homeschool the month before so it was a great opportunity to connect all the dots. Definitely worth the visit!

Organ Pipe National Monument

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Organ Pipe National Monument was our first stop heading east from the California coast. It is a few hours south east of Yuma, Arizona and about 10 minutes drive from the Mexican border. We rolled in after dark and were thrilled to discover this great big Organ Pipe Cactus right at our campsite. It was also great to be able to see the night sky and the stars again!

DSCN0999 The view the next morning was equally impressive. Big blue skies that seemed to go on forever.

DSCN0991We met a ranger shortly after pulling in and he mentioned that they had a packrat problem that they were working on – they were out on a trapping mission that night. I remember how fun the packrats were as a kid when we left out shiny things for them but having the risk of them eating at the important parts of the truck or trailer turned this from humourful to concerning. Neither Tim nor I had a great night’s sleep as we were up with any sound!

We headed out on a short morning hike before things got too hot and had lots of fun refreshing our memory on all the different versions of cactus – organ pipe, saguaro, ocotillo, chula and barrel cacti. Every vista was just beautiful…This also helped with Hunter and Tim’s ranger badges.

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We would definitely recommend this park – great campground, beautiful scenery, and good hiking!

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Weekend in Houston with friends

laser tagWe recuperated from our week in Mexico by spending the weekend with friends Kelly and Phil that live in Houston, Texas. Based on our internet research the Houston area has a plethora of things for families to do, both indoors and out. I’ll declare up front that we did almost none of them! After spending a week on the road, and most specifically the last 24 hours in motion, we were pooped!

After much discussion, and the turning down of an invitation to check out a tall ship in Galveston, we opted for a do nothing day on our first day. Somehow this lead to Hunter and Phil bonding over all things remote controlled… Hunter became the new owner of a drone and much time was spent pulling it out of trees while perfecting the flying of it. A pellet shooting tank ended up also sneaking into our duffle bag but we drew the line at the creepy crawly robot!

We finally mustered enough energy by the afternoon to head out on a neighbourhood bike ride. They live in a funky neighbourhood that is just outside the downtown loop and has a broad mix of residents, including their own flock of peacocks that roam aimlessly! Hunter was beyond thrilled to get to ride Phil’s electric bike – even though he could barely reach the pedals or stop safely.

Sunday Phil took us out to the Texas Renaissance Festival, which was quite a cultural experience! It was people watching at it’s best, with many different interpretations of the Renaissance time period. It’s neat to see people so passionate about something that they travel the country as part of these various festivals.

We enjoyed the jousting however found it frustrating that the matches were only 20 minutes long and that the competition was spread through out the day, with the intention of keeping you there longer and getting you to keep coming back to the stadium. Our favourite “show” was Oskar’s Sword Instruction – the audience selects 2 different weapons (out of about 10 that he has) and then Oskar demonstrates how to use them in battle. It was quite instructional as well as humorous. Every strategy ends with his “grab them by the crotch and throw them out the window” tactic, which Hunter found hilarious.

The Renaissance Festival runs for 8 weekends through October and November. We were all quite impressed with the permanent facilities and structure that they have in place and the sheer volume of people that they run through over the 8 weeks. We were there on the very last day and it was still jam packed!

We awoke Monday and it was pouring rain, with a forecast to continue with that theme all day. After  a flurry of internet research, we all opted to spend a lazy day around the house and then head out to the Main Event for Monday Night Madness – all in pricing for laser tag, bowling, mini golf and billiards… What more could you want in a day! It’s not a surprise that this decision was driven by the 11 year old vote but we all ended up having an evening full of giggles and fun.

We look forward to venturing back to the Houston area another time to check out the Houston Children’s Museum, Houston Museum of Natural Science,  NASA, and the Gulf Coast. A big thanks to Kelly and Phil for the wonderful hospitality (even allowing the short term corruption of chips, pop AND hotdogs in the house) and we are certainly looking forward to playing again soon!

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Adventures in life & road schooling in Mexico

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Our paddling season ended fairly abruptly in mid September when we went from warm harvest weather to cold and snow. Back in the spring when we were making our winter plans, we decided that a venture back down to Mexico to paddle in November would be a great way to bridge between fall paddling and our Ecuador Christmas Adventure.

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Our first Mexico paddling experience was earlier this year in February with Ben Kvanli of the Olympic Outdoor Centre in San Marcos, Texas. He had such a solid knowledge of the area that we decided to work with him to arrange a “reunion” trip to go to Mexico for US Thanksgiving with the new friends we met on the February trip. It was a bit of an epic journey… Whitehorse to Vancouver, Vancouver to Los Angeles and then Los Angeles to San Antonio.

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Ben’s trips are based out of San Marcos, Texas and everyone piles into a white van and drives 16 hours to the San Luis Potosi region of Mexico. The van leaves San Marcos at midnight to hit the Mexican border at first light and then make it down to Aldea Huasteca, the main lodge, by early afternoon. 16 hours in a passenger van are not the most comfortable way to start a trip and definitely caused some humming and hawing on our part – did we really want to do that again? Ben’s coaching and guiding ability tipped it over the edge for us – he did such a great job with Hunter in February and it was a safe road schooling opportunity in rural Mexico.

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As with any paddling trip, there were some unexpected adventures along the way…

  • The friends that we had originally planned to go with on the trip were unable to go at the last minute, which was a real disappointment. The upside was we made 3 new friends that I’m certain we will also cross paths with in the future as we continue to adventure. Hunter’s first response was “we’re going to paddle with strangers?” and then I reminded him that our friends that we were planning on going with were strangers when we met them in February…

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  • broken valve stem on one of the tires when we tried to fill up the air just prior to crossing the border in Pharr, Texas, resulting in breakfast at a Mexican bakery and roadside shop. When you shop in a Mexican bakery, you are given a tray that is about the size of a 12 inch pizza and then you go around and select the goods from the various cases. We bought a few items we knew (croissants, danishes) and a few items we didn’t – probably 8 items in total, for a whole $3.00
  • broken belt on tire #2, discovered while driving, which resulted in us driving at half speed for the last 3 hours of the trip. The upside of this was we went into Ciudad Valles and had dinner at Tacos Richard – a favourite of Hunter’s from February. This was the beginning of him boldly ordering his own food and venturing into use of Spanish, something he was fairly unwilling to do in February.
  • big bulge in tire #3 that was discovered on day 3 during shuttling, which resulted in a long leisurely lunch in Valles at a restaurant with internet access while it was replaced. More menu decoding and ordering for Hunter

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  • Tim ended up getting moderately sick due to some Tacos at the Hotsprings and this kept him from paddling the class 4/5 Santa Maria run, which is a 7 hour paddle and has a take out where you climb up the side of the 300 foot Tamul waterfall. The flip side was we had a well needed sleep-in as a family and spent a down day laying about in the sun on the grass and playing soccer, which made Hunter really happy.

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  • We all enjoyed the patio life at the end of the Santos River at the Huasteca Secreta and ended up not getting on the road early enough to make it to Ciudad Victoria on the way back to the border. We ended up pulling off the road after driving the highway in the dark too long and wandering into the town of Llera de Canales. After driving around in circles and accidentally driving down a one way street the wrong way, which happened to be in front of the Police station, we ended up having a friendly chat with a Police Man and he found us a hotel to stay at. You get the keys by walking into a small storefront that sells clothes and tourist items and then walk around the corner and down the block to get to the hotel, which is up some stairs and on the 2nd floor of the building. There were 6 rooms in total, with 4 of them being finished. The upside is that they were relatively clean, had showers and basic wifi. The highlight of this stop was the family run taco shop that we found, and ended up sitting out in the street on plastic chairs while eating dinner. They were so excited to meet us that they asked for a group photo before we left.

Overall the paddling was good – the water was warm, we weren’t in dry suits and Hunter successfully paddled a number of drops and runs that he wasn’t comfortable paddling in February.

Upon reflection, the biggest highlights of the trip were all about Hunter:

  • The growth that was evident in his paddling skills and confidence level.
  • His continued willingness to engage with people of all ages and backgrounds – I can confidently say that he made more new friends than we did on this trip…His new buddies Jo and Cole helped to make this a special week.
  • His desire to be independent and learn how to engage in Spanish. He learned to order his own food and at one point asked for money so he could go and get himself an ice-cream, which meant heading off to another area of the large mexican grocery store we were in and managing the transaction on his own.

 

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While we didn’t get much “book learning” done during our 7 days away, this was another validation of the positive impact that Road Schooling has on kids and it continues to excite me about the possibilities as we go forward.

We’re all busy working on our Spanish and looking forward to Ecuador in three weeks!

Weekend in Sedona – let the energy flow!

hiking sedonaWe really enjoyed our very short visit in Sedona back in November so decided to catch it again on our way westward last week. We stayed at the Distant Drums RV Resort in Camp Verde and drove up to Oak Creek / Sedona on Saturday and Sunday.

On Saturday we had a bit of a late start and didn’t get riding until around noon. We opted for the Bell Rock trail system in Oak Creek, which is a combination of green and blue trails. Trailhead’s are small and filled with tourist cars so we ended up parking in the main lot next to Bike & Beans – free and lots of space.

After a fun afternoon of biking in Oak Creek, we headed north into Sedona to grab some groceries and go for dinner at Picazzo’s – an organic restaurant where at least 50% of the menu options were gluten free. It was a wonderful treat for me and the boys were gracious enough to come along!

Sunday we woke up early and headed up to the Bell Rock Parkway trailhead to get a parking spot. We ventured out for a scramble/hike and made it to the top of one of the pinnacles, which was full of some stretching our comfort zone moments (more for me than the boys…).

We spent the afternoon at the Sedona Skateboard Park – it is a fabulous facility – really well made and maintained. Lots of friendly kids of all ages out. Hunter had fun with both his BMX trick bike and his skateboard while Tim and I sat in our lawn chairs and enjoyed the sunny afternoon!

I am so glad that we headed back for the weekend. The scenery is magical, to say the least. Big blue skies in the background of red red rocks as far as you can see. Takes your breath away!

Adventures in Tucson, Arizona

hunter bmx park 3We stayed in Tucson for 10 days and it was full of fun and adventure. Yet another stop where we experienced so much more than what you can find on paper…

The first part of our adventure was choosing to stay at the Voyager RV Park. It is a massive (4000 people) adult only community that is geared towards active retirees. We were wooed by the amazing number of facilities and activities and they swore that Hunter was welcomed. Having stayed with Tim’s parents in Florida at an “RV Park”, we were in for quite the surprise here – everyone was incredibly friendly and very very active, physically and socially. I did water aerobics in the pool in the morning (a good level for my side that is still in rehab), the boys spent some time with the wood carving club, Hunter and I played water volleyball most afternoons and we played tennis in the afternoon or evening each night.

We explored the local National Park – Saguaro National Park and learned a great deal about desert plants and animals.

We stopped on the way back home at Ben’s Bikes, learned about the local trails and got invited to check out the BMX track that night – another first for Hunter and so much fun!

We explored the Pima Air and Space Museum and the boneyard – airplanes as far as the eye can see…

All around – a great stop. Tucson seems like a little big city – lots of amenities but still easy to get around in and a very human feel to everything. It also helps that the weather was fabulous!!! Sunny and warm each day.