Mount St. Helens Weekend

August 2nd, 2011 by Amy Alphin 10 comments »

So after all the traveling we’ve been doing this year, it has been very nice to be home, here in Washington, for a few weeks in a row.  Summer has been a bit stressful, which is evidenced by the lack of blogging, but things have calmed down a bit.  We’ve also had a very slow start to our summer this year.  We’ve dubbed it “The Spring That Wouldn’t End”.  As all of my East Coast friends have been melting into puddles in the extreme heat, we’ve been rocking jeans and hoodies ’till about last week.  ::sigh::

However, the sun has FINALLY decided to show up, and Tom and I fled to the mountains, as we often do.  Due to the aforementioned late spring, we also have a heavier snow pack than usual, and one that’s been hanging around for a while.  Now, growing up in Virginia, I never had to worry about things like “snow pack” effecting what I wanted to do on a summer weekend.  It’s summer, therefore there shouldn’t be snow, RIGHT?  Not so out here.  Summer arrives, and hikers patiently (or not) wait for their favorite hikes to melt out so we can get going again!  This year, that patience is wearing thing, as it is August, and many of the hikes we normally do in June still havn’t melted out.  So, we’ve been forced to look for other options.  We’ve done some pretty hikes in eastern Washington, on the other side of the Cascade range, which if you didn’t know, is basically a desert.  Last weekend, we opted to stay on the west side of the Cascades, however, and head down to the Mount St. Helens area to do some hiking or backpacking.


There is limited and very confusing information about backpacking in the Mount St. Helens area.  It is registered as a National Volcanic Monument, which would make one thing that it is run by the National Park Service.  Not so.  It’s run by the National Forest Service, which generally has much more limited information about backcountry conditions, permits, etc.  You really have to talk to a human to figure it all out, except it’s really hard to get a human on the phone.  Ok.  So we decided to go anyway, and check in at the Forest Service Ranger Station on the way.  They were very helpful, but very busy, with people asking for everything from good motorcycle routes to mushrooming permits (yes, apparently this is a thing).  We secured our backcountry permit, which allowed us to camp in the Mount Margret Backcountry around Mount St. Helens.  We were assured that the route we planned would be snow free and all would be well.  Yay!

We headed in towards Mt. St. Helens, and were soon greated by spectacular views.  The day was amazingly clear, and we had unobstructed views right into the crater.  I had never been so close to the volcano before, and it was pretty impressive to see the destruction it caused when it erupted.  The land in the blast zone near the volcano has been almost completely preserved so that researches can study the regeneration of the forest around an active volcano.  There are still stands of trees that were blasted flat by the eruption, laying where they fell over 30 years ago.  Spirit Lake, which lies right in the blast zone, is still filled with logs that were blasted into it all those years ago.  It’s quite a site to see.


Our planned route was up Norway Pass to Panhandle and Obscurity Lake and to camp at the lakes for the night.  We packed up our backpacks and headed out.  The trail is steep and exposed to the direct sun for most of the way up to Norway Pass.  As the day was clear, we had amazing views of the nearby Cascade volcanoes:  Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams and even Mt. Hood off in Oregon.  It was quite a treat for folks who have been living in a cloud more than normal this year.  As we got up to Norway Pass and dropped down slightly , Mt. St. Helens came into view.  Woah.  We had views right into the crater.  There was definitely a moment where I thought about what would happen if the volcano decided to randomly erupt just then, but then rational thought regained purchase, and we moved on.



We continued to climb and soak up the sun and views until we go to Bear Pass, where the trail dropped over the north side of the ridge…right into a very steep snowfield.  We had not brought snow gear, so we needed to reassess.  Tom bushwacked down a bit past the snowfield where we could see the trail came out again to see if was passable further along.  He came back, reporting that there were two more steep snowfields that were probably not safe to cross.  We were slightly frustrated that we hauled up all of our backpacking gear to not be able to camp, but realized that sometimes you just have to turn around.  We spent some more time hanging out on the ridge, looking at the mountains and the wild flowers before we headed back down.


That night we camped at the Iron Creek NFS campground, which was huge, but nice.  I was feeling a bit pouty about being hot and dirty and not being able to backpack to a nice cool lake and just wanted to go home.  Tom convinced me that staying in the nice campground was preferable to a 3+ hour drive home at 7:30 at night, and he was right.  The next morning, we decided to hike up Goat Mountain, which is a short day hike near the volcano and our campground.  The trail is quite steep, gaining 1,600 feet in about 2 miles, but the forest is nice and cool.  Once we got to the ridge, we realized that the low lying clouds were pretty much obscuring all the views of the local mountains, but there were nice wildflowers to look at and the ridge was pleasant.  After the bugs found us though, it was all over.  After a quick stop at a lingering snowfield to cool down, we were off.  We headed down off the ridge and back to our car.

It was a great weekend, and I had a great time exploring a different part of the state.  We will be back!


June 13th, 2011 by Amy Alphin 4 comments »

Ok, so I know this has kinda turned into a travel blog, but you really don’t want to hear me moaning and complaining about our terrible weather, crappy hiking and not so great cooking these days.  See, I’m saving you from utter boredome really, by telling you, slowly, about our travel adventures.  I really do it all for you.  Right.

So we went to China!  Our friend Cory moved over to China like a billion years ago, (more like 5ish), and has been telling us forever that we need to come visit.  Now, Tom has always wanted to visit Asia, but I have to admit, I wasn’t that excited.  I mean, I wanted to see Cory, I kinda wanted to have had the experience, but I was convinced I was going to get sick, not want to eat the food and be totally overwhelmed by the language and spend most of the time wanting to come home.  There, I said it.  So when Tom and I started talking about where to go for my Spring Break this year, I was thinking Hawaii.  He was thinking China.  Hmm.  I was convinced it would be way too expensive, but I agreed, (after some coaxing), that we could check it out.  The flights were very reasonably priced, so even though I was very wary, we booked our tickets.  We were going to China.  Woah.  Now before you think that our last name has suddenly changed to Rockefeller, and we’re just going to spend all of our time jet-setting to exotic places like New Zealand and China, think again.  We were very lucky to have friends to stay with, and to have found super cheap tickets, otherwise this wouldn’t have been possible.


The flight was horrendously long, but not quite as horrendously long as the trip to New Zealand, so that was a win.  We flew Delta, and had these cool little TV screens that we could watch movies on, which made the flight much more enjoyable.  The time difference is wonky, since Beijing is on the other side of the international date line.  The difference from Seattle, as far as I could make it out, was 9 hours behind, but on the next day.  Does that make sense?  Good, me neither.  I just knew that it was weird, but we took melatonin and all was well.  Cory and his wonderful wife Haiyan picked us up from the airport and we all took a taxi back to their apartment.  Bless them, for they speak Chinese, and we would not have gotten through this trip without them.  We were starving after getting off the plane, so they took us to their neighborhood 24hour dim sum place, which happens to be 4 stories tall and covered in neon.  Now, remember the food fear I was experiencing?  Like, convinced I would starve fear?  Well, it all went away after the first bites of dim sum.  These are little dumplings of heaven and I miss them so!  We fell in love with this place and went back several times over our week stay.

Our first full day in Beijing was spent biking around the hutong alleyways that are near Cory and Haiyan’s apartment.  Most of Beijing used to be made up of these maze like corridors which are quite the rabbit warren, but many have been destroyed by the never ending construction machine that is Beijing.  Now, I enjoy the occasionally bike ride, but I’m not the world’s most confident biker.  I get scared, convinced I’m going to get hit by cars or fall over.  So when Cory announced that we would be biking on ROADS, with CARS (and all manner of other multi-wheeled vehicles), without HELMETS, I was a bit…um…terrified.  They put me on one of their small foldable bikes, (yes, that is a thing), and I just smiled and hoped for the best.  We rode for miles through the city, passing street vendors, yogurt shops, lakes, restaurants, temples and homes.  We visited the Drum Tower and ate at one of Cory and Haiyan’s favorite fish shops, which to this day is one of the best meals I have ever eaten.  Catfish in broth, fried mushrooms, green beans with chillis, oh my!  How was I ever worried about the food!  Amazing!  Eventually we were driven back inside by a sandstorm, and we headed home.


That night, we ate dinner out to celebrate Haiyan’s birthday.  We went to a restaurant called 99 yurts, which serves Mongolian style food.  There were about 15 of us around the table with two nested lazy susans to take care of the bounty of food they kept bringing.  The highlight of the meal, though, was when they brought in the main course.  Cory had ordered lamb for dinner, and by that I mean a WHOLE lamb.  Like with the feet.  It had been roasted and carved, and we were given one plastic glove and  a pair of chopsticks.  I wasn’t quite sure what the cultural etiquette was, but people just seemed to be digging in.  I have to say, this lamb was terrific. What an incredible cultural and culinary experience!  We went home that night incredibly exhausted and completely full.

We spent most of the next day sightseeing at the Summer Palace.  This was where the former emperors would go in the summer to cool off.  There is a large man made lake there, and several ornate temples and palaces on the grounds.  It was our clearest day in Beijing and the day with the best air quality, so it was a real treat.  We walked around the entire lake, a good few miles, before climbing the hundred or so steps to the tallest temple.  The cherry blossoms were blooming, and the sky was blue.  It was a beautiful sight.  One of the most interesting things that happened that day, was that Tom and I had our first experience with being a tourist attraction ourselves.  There is a lot of internal tourism in China, where people come from all over the country to see the sights in Beijing.  Some of them have never met a Western person before, and we were somewhat of a novelty.  People would pull Tom or I to the side, put their arms around us and point at a camera.  I have no idea how many strangers’ travel photos I am in.  It was kind of strange.


Later that evening, we took our first trip to the Lisa Tailor shop, where we were going to have some clothes made for us.  Tom ordered a suit, 4 shirts and a wool coat and I had a bathrobe and wool coat made.  It was really cool to pick out designs and fabrics, and know that the clothes would be made just for us!  What a fun experience.


Up next:  Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China!




New Zealand – Round Boulders and Penguins!

May 22nd, 2011 by Amy Alphin 4 comments »

Hi there.  Yes, I know I’ve been gone for QUITE SOME TIME.  Things in my life have been in a bit of an upheaval, to say the least, so posting has been non-existent.  Things have happened.  We’ve been living life, and even went to CHINA (!) which I will be blogging about soon.  I promise.  However, for now, you get some more New Zealand coverage.  As if you’re not sick of that already.  Oh well, it’s my blog, I do what I want.


After a grueling few days in the relentless rain, we rounded the bottom of the south island, and arrived on the east coast in the town of Omaru. Just before arriving, we stopped to see the Moraki Boulders.  These are sperical boulders that have parted ways with the sandy cliffs behind them, facing the sea.  These monster boulders have landed on the sand, and have become quite the tourist attraction, probably because they are so weird and out of place.  These boulders are massive, may of them bigger than me, and we had a fun time photographing and playing on them.  Unfortunately, we had a lot of unruly company at the boulders that day, but oh well.  You can’t pick who comes to your tourist attractions.

After leaving the boulders behind, we headed to the town of Omaru, home of the Blue Penguin Colony.  New Zealand had three species of native penguins, and we saw two of them on this trip.  We started off going to the Blue Penguin Colony, which is an organization designed to create a protected habitat for the tiny blue penguins, and a place for scientists to study these funny little birds.   During the day, we took a tour to visit the grounds and view the penguins in their little habitats, which reminded me strongly of hobbit houses.


After leaving the Blue Penguin Colony, we headed to a beach where supposedly we would be able to see the rare yellow-eyed penguin, as they nest on these beaches.  We were high on a bluff overlooking the beach, but we did see some penguins!  We also saw a very lazy seal basking in the late evening light.  It was a beautiful spot, and we felt a bit like the seal, soaking up the long awaited sun’s rays.

That evening, after wandering around the somewhat creepy town of Omaru, we went back to the Blue Penguin Colony for the nightly penguin viewing.  This complex has a set of grandstands where spectators can sit and watch the penguins arrive at dusk from their days spent in the water.  The little penguins come in “rafts” or large groups, crash into the shore on waves,  waddle up the ramp the group has constructed, and rush across the path to their homes.  It was hilarious to watch.  Sadly, there is no photography allowed during this time, as it distracts the penguins.  Luckily, as we were leaving the complex for the night, we spotted some groups of penguins coming up in different areas, and crossing the road!  They were super cute, and funny to watch.

That night stayed at a super fun and funky backpackers on the cliffs overlooking the ocean.  It is one of the most beautiful views from lodging I have ever had.  Lovely.

New Zealand : Westland and Queenstown

March 29th, 2011 by Amy Alphin 1 comment »

So this is the post where I try not to whine too much. However, the truth of the matter, was the days spend traveling down the west coast of the south island and Queenstown were the most challenging of the trip, in so many ways.  There were highlights, and moments of comedy throughout our suffering, which I will try to focus on, so that you don’t stop reading and click through to the next blog on your reader.

We left Arthur’s Pass and headed back to the west coast headed towards Westland National Park, and the infamous Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers.  These are also the names of the towns where the glaciers live, it’s all very confusing.  Along the way, we stopped in one of the coastal towns which is known for its greenstone (this is the Kiwi word for jade) jewelry production.  I got a very lovely piece.  Tom also stopped at a hardware store, because he had become slightly obsessed with the two tone New Zealand mailboxes and wanted to see if we could bring one home.

The weather was not great, but it wasn’t horrible either, and we wound our way down the coast in a steady drizzle.  This part of the country is very remote, and has very little population.  As I mentioned before, the Kiwis take advantage of this lack and save money by building bridges with only one lane.  It is a bit unnerving to approach a bridge and know that there is no way out if someone starts barreling down form the opposite direction straight at you.  This risk is somewhat moderated by the right of way signs that pop up about a km before the bridge, telling you whether you have right of way or not.  After that, it’s just a game of chicken, where you hope you read the sign right.  Yikes.

We eventually made it to the town of Franz Joseph Glacier, where we were planning to stay for the night, as it was about 3 hours from Arthur’s Pass.  We stopped by the Department of Conservation (DOC) office, which is essentially a very nice ranger station, to check on the trail conditions for the day, as we had planned several walks near and around both the Franz Joseph and the Fox Glaciers.  We were a bit surprised, however, when the rangers said that there had been record rainfall amounts over the past few days, and even more rain was expected.  All of the trails near Fox Glacier had been closed due to flooding, and they were only recommending a few trails near Franz Joseph due to flood risk.  We figured that we’d come to see glaciers up close and personal, and we would do what we could to make that happen, so we headed off for our “approved” trail.  With our rain gear.

The “hike” to the glacier was pretty much a flat walk along the receding glacier’s moraine, which pretty much looks like a lunar landscape, as the glacier has spent eons grinding the bedrock down to pebbles and sand.  We were able to get very close to the glacier its self, which was very cool.  The glacial ice is a bright, vibrant shade of blue, and there is a constant grinding and popping noise as the slow moving river of ice makes its presence known.

Soon we were soaked to the skin, and headed back to our car.  Since we were unable to do most of the hikes we had planned for the next day and a half, we needed to reassess our route.  We could have stayed in Franz Joseph that night, but there really seemed no point, as the town was tiny and there were no hikes to do.  So it was back into the car, and planned to drive as far as we could towards Queenstown that evening.

We made it to Wanaka, which is about another 3ish hours south of Franz Joseph.  The road went through some very wild country, with even more one lane bridges.  We were driving through the lower portions of the Southern Alps, and there were few other cars on the road.  We kept stopping to take in the dramatic scenery, which still managed to be breathtaking despite the rain.  One memorable stop was this lake, which was one of the windiest stops we made on the trip, and where a very unfortunate tour group had stopped to set up camp for the night.


Eventually we made it Wanaka, where we spent about 45 minutes looking for a cheap hotel ,before Tom gave in, and we decided to treat ourselves to a night at a nice bed and breakfast.  We felt like we had earned it, and man, was this place swanky.  But, really, after several days in the rain, just having a roof over our head and a warm shower seemed like high times.

The next morning we drove further south through the passes to Queenstown.  This city is famed for it’s stunning alpine vistas and adrenaline packed adventures such as sky diving, bungee jumping, river surfing and canyoning.  We checked into the Southern Laughter Backpackers, (which is the Kiwi word for hostel), and requested a private double room.  They said they had only one available, and it was “in the back garden”.  Now, I think that when referencing your converted shipping container “room” which is sitting in the back parking lot, it’s a bit of a stretch to talk about it being “in the back garden”, but hey, who am I to judge.  Our room was just that, a converted shipping container in the parking lot, which happened to be rapidly filling with an alarmingly large puddle due to the aforementioned rain.  We decided to go for it though, because how many opportunities do one have to sleep in a converted shipping container?

We spent the afternoon and evening bumming around Queenstown in the rain, getting soggy, sampling some of the local brews and having a tasty dinner at a well reviewed Indian restaurant.  As a side note, do not go to New Zealand for the food.  In our experience they cook only two things well:  fish and chips and Indian food.  It’s pretty much all we lived on during our time there.  Now you know.  We had originally planned on doing a backpacking trip that night, but due to the epic amounts of rain falling from the sky, most of the trails were either under water or closed due to high flood risk.  In fact, a few folks that we talked to that were staying at our backpackers had actually just been evacuated off the famed Milford Track the day before due to the fact that the entire time they had been hiking on the trail, the water had been up to their waists or chests, and they had to be helicoptered away from their hut to avoid the rising waters.

At this point, we were sick of our plans being changed, we were sick of the rain, and just wanted to do something fun.  So we wandered into one of the outfitters that offered canyoning tours.  In America, we call this canyoneering, where you jump, swim, slip and slide your way down a river, and try to have fun and not drown yourself in the process.  We shelled out a rather large sum to book our fun for the following day, then splashed our way back to our container for the night.  The following morning, we woke up and were glad to see that the large puddle in the back “garden” had not yet overtaken our front porch, and eagerly got ourselves ready to go canyoning.  However, when we arrived at the outfitter, we were told that, of course, there had been so much rain overnight that the rivers were now at flood stage, and all trips had been canceled for the day.  I probably don’t have to mention that this was pretty much the low point of the trip.  We’ll just move on.

Because my husband is amazing, (and at this point pretty desperate), he yet again salvaged a BACK UP PLAN.  He read in our guidebook that there was a very interesting bird park in Queenstown that was mostly under cover, and he thought it might be worth checking out.  Now, I’m not that into birds, but New Zealand has some of the most unique birds in the world, so bird parks actually have some appeal.  They also had two breeding pairs of kiwis, which while being the national bird are actually quite rare, so we were anxious to see them.  Kiwis are nocturnal, so the kiwi houses are red, but you can make out the akward and somewhat silly shapes of these interesting birds in the photos.  Tom took some video where you can see them better, and hopefully I’ll be able to post some soon!

All in all, the west coast and Queenstown were far from the highlight of the trip, but they were a learning experience for us.  We have defiantly learned not to pin our hopes on one activity in a place, and to always, ALWAYS have a backup plan.  Preferably one that involves flightless birds, they’re always good for a laugh.

Up next, the odd spherical boulders, the blue penguin colony and Mt Cook National Park.

New Zealand: Arthur’s Pass National Park

March 27th, 2011 by Amy Alphin 9 comments »

Many abject apologies for the total lack of blogging recently.  We had some server difficulties which made it impossible to access pictures for about a month. Things are back online now, and there should be more frequent updates!

After leaving Abel Tasman National Park on Christmas Eve, we drove south through the interior and finally along the west coast…..and drove, and drove, and drove.  The south island is far less populated that the north island, and this is evidenced by the total lack of traffic, the overabundance of sheep and cattle, and the one lane bridges, (more on these next time).  Our destination was Arthur’s Pass National Park. The weather was volatile, as usual, but we did get some partial clearing and a rainbow or two along the way.

After turning away from the coast, and heading back towards the center of the island, we were aiming straight for the Southern Alps.  This is the mountain range that runs the length of the south island.  It is large, remote, wild, virtually uninhabited and has very few passes over it.  As you may have guessed, Arthur’s Pass is one of them.  Eventually, we started our climb up through the mountains.  It was late in the day, and a mist and fog was laced through the valleys and snaked around the peaks.  We started looking for Gollum to poke his head around the next jagged rock outcropping looking for the One Ring.

We finally arrived at the tiny village of Arthur’s Pass, and tried to seek out a Christmas Eve service.  As it turns out, the tiny chapel in town only has services on Sunday mornings, and Christmas is no exception.  So no Christmas carols for us.  This was  a pretty big blow for me.  I had never been away from family before on Christmas, and never missed the Christmas Eve church service.  To me, it’s an integral part of Christmas, and I wasn’t going to get it this year.  There were tears and I threw a pretty big pity party for myself.  Luckily, I have an amazing husband, who not only dealt with the pity party, but had a BACKUP PLAN.  The backup plan, aside from heroically offering to drive another hour back to civilization after we had already set up camp and night had fallen, was to bust out dinner and the laptop.  While I moped, Tom chopped vegetables for pasta sauce.  Now remember, we were camping, so making nice food is a bit harder.  We had a very yummy dinner of pasta with fresh veggies, which helped lighten the mood.  To top it all off, Tom had loaded a bunch of Christmas movies onto the laptop that we brought with us, and we watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Charlie Brown’s Christmas. As silly as it sounds, eating yummy food and watching fun movies really did make Christmas Eve special.

The next morning, we had our own little mini-Christmas with presents that we had painstakingly brought all the way form home to exchange on Christmas morning.  Tom got me a two person travel game that we played throughout the rest of the trip called Mr. Jack Pocket.  I got him a new pair of underwear!  Hey, I knew it would be about half way through the trip when we exchanged gifts, and I wasn’t exactly sure what the laundry situation would be.  It was nice to have a bit of Christmas, even if it was sunny and very far from home.  (The photos of Christmas Eve and Day aren’t fantastic…but they do tell the story!)

After our oh so delicious breakfast of Cadbury “breakfast bars”, we headed out to the ranger station. For long, strenuous hikes, the rangers like for you to register your intentions, so that if you don’t come back, they know where to go looking for you.  The ranger station was open for only 20 minutes due to the fact that it was Christmas Day, so we needed to be prompt.  When researching the hikes for our trip, the one consistently mentioned in the Arthur’s Pass areas was the Avalanche Peak Trail linked with the Scott’s Track to make a loop.  Now, the Avalanche Peak Trail was considered “very challenging” and the Scott’s Track, “moderately challenging”.  Since it was December and we were feeling a bit out of shape, we decided to go out and back on the Scott’s Track.  This was our first experience with the fact that Kiwis TOTALLY understate the difficulty of their trails.

We knew we were in trouble when the “trail” seemed to be more or less a stream bed, complete with rocks, roots and boulders.  In fact, the word “trail” is a bit of an overstatement of the situation actually.  However, it started in lush beautiful forest full of weird looking plants and more fern trees, so at least we had nice scenery to look at as we hoofed it up and up and up.  Eventually we broke the tree line and were rewarded with jaw dropping views of the valley below and the mountains above.  The higher we climbed, the better the views.  We were right in the middle of the island, and had quite dramatic vistas where the mountains dropped off to the east and west, and where they climbed further to the sky towards the south.  Magnificent.

The higher we got, however, the more exposed the trail was, and the wind was really whipping.  There was some rain forecast to come into the pass in the afternoon, and we could literally watch the storm starting to come in from the west coast.  Eventually it got a bit too windy for this red head, and I called for a lunch stop to reassess our situation.  After dining on sandwiches and chicken flavoured chips, (yes, that’s a real thing, and yes, they are delicious), we decided that the summit was just not in the cards for the day.  It was still over a mile away with probably another 1,000 ft of elevation gain, and we could see the rain coming.  I think Tom would have been up for it if I was willing, but he wasn’t too fussed about turning around.  The views had been amazing, and we were ready to call it a day.

After our decent, the rain began, and we took refuge in the town of Arthur’s Pass on the front porch of a convenience store, which conveniently, (hehe), had wifi that we could use to call our parents via Google Voice.  Crazy technology these days!  While we rested our aching feet, we were visited by several curious kea.  These are the indigenous alpine parrot that lives in the Southern Alps of New Zealand.  They are incredibly intelligent, very curious and often quite mischievous.  They have been known to rip open tents, carry off hiking boots and unzip backpacks to get at hiker’s hidden treats.  They’re fun and quite beautiful.  It was fun to watch them fly and climb around.

We spent one last evening in Arthur’s Pass before heading back to the west coast.   Up next, Franz Joseph Glacier, Queenstown, the elusive kiwi bird and even more rain!  Stay tuned!

New Zealand: Abel Tasman National Park

January 30th, 2011 by Amy Alphin 7 comments »


We arrived in the South Island! We were in search of sun, and we found it!  There was much rejoicing!  After our change of plans to come to the South Island a day early, we also decided to go visit one of the national parks we had written off due to lack of time, Abel Tasman National Park.  It was also pretty much the sunniest place in the whole country that day as well, so we lucked out.  We left Picton in the morning, took a reasonably quick detour through Nelson and headed up the coast to Abel Tasman.  This national park is predominantly coastal, and the highlight of the park is the Coast Track, which is considered one of New Zealand’s “great walks”.  These “great walks” are several multi-day backpacks through some of the country’s most scenic natural areas.  We were able to complete the first day of the walk, camp on the beach overnight, and take a water taxi back to our starting point the next day. 

We started the hike in the afternoon, with the sun finally shining down on our very grateful heads.  My back was acting up in a major way, so Tom, being the gentleman/pack animal that he is, took most of the load for our overnight, leaving me only burdened with my camera bag and gigantic sun hat.  Honestly, the thing has it’s own zipcode.  The trail starts out crossing a tidal flat, then starts to gradually climb up onto the headlands overlooking the Marlborough Sounds.  The trail undulates up and down over the headlands, and turns inland and back towards the sea with the contours created by the many streams that cross the track.  Since the trail is so well traveled, it is in incredible shape, with very stout bridges and well maintained drainage systems for the *ahem* occasional rain shower.  We also saw some of the flora that is unique to New Zealand, such as the fern tree.  This plant is exactly what it claims to be.  It is a fern that grew up to be a tree.  They have enormous fronds and a woody trunk, but at the top, they’re all fern.  Weird.   

Since trail descriptions in New Zealand rarely include elevation gain, we were unsure how long it would take us to hike the 12km to the first hut along the walk.  We decided instead to camp at Akerston Bay, a small campsite about 8km along the trail.  In hindsight, there was no real elevation to speak of, and we completed our hike for the day quickly, but it simply gave us more time to enjoy our beautiful beachfront campsite.  The site has space for 3 tents, but luckily there were only one other French couple and ourselves there for the night.  Yay private beach!  Tom swam in the ocean, because when given a body of water, he will swim in it, no matter how cold, or lacking in fresh water to bathe the situation may be.  I puttered around oohing and ahhhing over our breathtaking surroundings. 


Eventually we retreated back up into the wooded area beside the beach to make dinner at the picnic table and let the other couple have some “beach time”.  They came wandering up a few minutes later though to ask if we were able to help them with their stove.  They had unknowingly purchased the wrong type of fuel canister for their type of stove, so we let them use ours to make their dinner once we were done.  After dinner, it had become completely dark, and we decided to go down to the beach and look at the stars.  Since we were so far from any major towns or cities, there was very little light pollution, and the stars where quite brilliant.  It was our first really clear night since arriving in New Zealand, so it was amazing to see how different the constellations were in the Southern Hemisphere.  We did see the Southern Cross, and sang the song as well. 

 The highlight of the evening walk, however, was while we were sitting in the darkness with headlamps off, looking at the stars, we heard a wet flapping sound coming from the ocean.  It continued and got closer.  I turned my headlamp on, just in time to see a little blue penguin scuttle up the little stream that runs from the woods to the ocean, and right into the woods themselves!  We visited a blue penguin colony later on the trip, and learned that this little guy probably had his nest in the rocks right inside the woods, and that he was returning to his nest for the night.  I really like penguins, and have never seen one in the wild, so it was a truly unique experience.  Tom tried to get a few photos, but the little penguin was a bit skittish, so they look more like Bigfoot photos than anything else.  Hopefully we didn’t traumatize the poor thing. 

The next morning, we hiked the last 2km to Anchorage, where the first hut of the walk is located.  We had arranged for our water taxi to pick us up at 1:30, but we arrived much earlier than anticipated.  We did a short hike from the hut up to an overlook and down to another small beach and back, but the weather was changing, and we were ready to get off the beach.  We hid up at the hut while showers rolled in and out, and Tom would rush down the beach every time a water taxi would come, to see if we could catch a ride back early.  Eventually, we were able to hitch a ride back with one of the earlier taxis.  The water was choppy, so I was focused on trying not to be sick, while Tom popped around taking photos.  We had to make a few stops on the way back, and he was eventually told to sit down by the driver.  There was a moment of hilarity when we arrived back at the boat ramp and the driver drove the boat up the ramp onto the boat trailer attached to a tractor.  The same driver then proceeded to hop out and drive the tractor pulling the boat down the street with us still in it.  Now, I’ve been in some strange transportation situations, but never have I ridden in a boat being pulled down the street by a tractor.  This was a new one for me.




We finally made it back to the water taxi outfitter and Tom fetched our rental car from the parking lot over by the trail head.  We weren’t too sunburnt, but the vitamin D certainly did us good.  We were now ready for the long drive down to Arthur’s Pass National Park for Christmas Eve!

New Zealand Days 4 and 5: Tongariro, Wellington, Te Papa and Weta Cave

January 23rd, 2011 by Amy Alphin 3 comments »

The morning after the glowworm cave adventures, after eating another fabulous breakfast made by our wonderful hosts at Somersal Bed and Breakfast, we headed south to Tongariro National Park. We had been planning on hiking the “Alpine Crossing”, which has been dubbed the “best day hike in New Zealand”.  We were super excited.  However, the weather had other plans.  It poured down rain on the drive there, and when we arrived, the rangers stated that they were not advising hikers to go up into the pass due to 120 km per hour winds, very limited visibility and driving rain.  Frustrated, we asked about some short day hikes, then went over to an Internet cafe to assess our options.  We had planned on staying two nights in the park, then to head down to Wellington for a day and take the ferry to the South Island.  Since we were no longer going to stay in the park, we decided to head to Wellington a day early, spend the night and following day there, then take the ferry.  While this doesn’t seem that complicated, it did involve changing our ferry reservation, rental car drop-off and pick-up, and two hotel reservations. 

We did manage to do two short day hikes before we left the park.  First, we hiked down to this surging waterfall, which was only made more powerful by the influx of rain.  Afterwords, we did the “Mounds Walk”, where these mounds come out of the volcanic plane due to some sort of long ago volcanic activity.  While these hikes were interesting, the could not really make up for the fact that we didn’t get to do what we set out to do in this park, so we ate our sandwiches and got back in the car. 



We arrived in Wellington several hours later with enough time to check into our hotel and head to the closest brewpub.  We were exhausted, and a little frustrated, but there was a cool lunar eclipse, which did help, as did the killer view from our hotel room!

The next morning, we visited the Te Papa Museum, which is the national museum of New Zealand.  There is a very extensive collection of Maori (the native NZ people) artifacts and architectural pieces.  The Maori did a lot of work with the jade that is found in the rivers on the west side of the South Island, creating weapons, tools and ornamental jewelry.  There is a wonderful collection of these types of pieces as well.  There were also more modern exhibits on more recent NZ history as well as a very extensive natural history section, complete with a creepy giant squid.  It was a very cool museum, one of the best I’ve been to in quite some time.



Later that afternoon, we caught a bus over to the Weta Cave, which is in a suburb outside of Wellington.  For those of you non-nerds out there, Weta Workshop is a special effects and props company.  Most famously, they did the effects for the Lord of the Rings movies.  They have also done work on Avatar, District 9 and several other high profile movies.  They can’t offer tours of their workshops due to the fact that they are working on movies that have yet to be released, but they do have a visitor’s center of sorts.  There is an interesting video about the history of the company and some information about the different design areas that they work in as well as different movies they have produced effects and props for.  There are also many different replicas of orcs and swords for Lord of the Rings,  and a mini-museum of different minatures that have been created of different characters from various films.  Tom was excited when he got to hold one of the alien blasting guns from District 9 and pointed it around.  It was a wondefully nerdy experience. 


After leaving Weta, we gathered our luggage from our hotel and headed to the ferry terminal.  The Interislander Ferry looks like a small cruise ship.  It is far larger than any of the Washington State Ferries, and quite nice.  There were several passenger levels, a cafeteria and cafe as well as a movie theatre.  The ferry ride is three hours long, and moves through the Cook Straight , which is very choppy.  Let’s just say I am capable of being sea sick on a completely calm day on the Puget Sound, so I didn’t handle the rough Cook Straight all that well.  Luckily I had purchased seasickness medicine, which helped a lot.  Eventually we cruised our way into the Marlborough Sound and the waters calmed a good deal, enough so that I was able to go out on deck and take some pictures of the beautiful islands and pennisulas of the South Island in the setting sun.  We finally ended up in Picton that night, and were ready to begin our adventures in Abel Tasman National Park the next day.

Up Next:  Backpacking on the Abel Tasman coast.

New Zealand Days 1-3 : Planes, Cars, Glowworms and Mud

January 19th, 2011 by Amy Alphin 4 comments »

OOOOk.  Are you ready?  I’m not sure I am.  Here we go.

Tom and I went to New Zealand over the Christmas holidays, and the question that inevitably is asked by everyone is, “How was your trip?”.   The answer I’ve been giving everyone is, “It was bipolar”.  When it was great, it was really really great, and when it was not so great, it was really really not so great.  There was rain, brilliant sunshine, a few torrential downpours, an earthquake, national flooding and blue skies.  We ate weird food like chicken flavoured chips, fancy McDonalds,  hokey pokey ice cream and lots of different Cadbury products.  We visited the mountains, the lakes, the glaciers and the beach.  We went to five different national parks and slept under the brilliant stars.  We saw the Southern Cross.  We experienced a wide range of emotions, from crushing disappointment to manic glee and everywhere in between.  In short, our trip to New Zealand is not one I will soon forget.



We left Seattle on Friday afternoon and flew down to LA with our two large backpacking packs, camera gear and “toy bags” for the plane.  The LA airport is it’s own special Hell.  The domestic terminals and the international terminals are not in the same building, and we had to shlep all of our belongings through two parking decks and across many busy streets to arrive in the international area.  It was also raining…I thought it never rained in LA??  After finally finding our correct gate and killing some time eating overpriced Burger King, we finally were ready to get on the plane.  We had a direct flight from LA to Auckland, New Zealand, so we were in it for the long haul.  The flight is every minute of 13 hours, which is a long time, if you were wondering.  We were in coach, which while being worlds better than flying coach domestically, was still the “low rent” district of the plane.  I was entertained by the safety video for Air New Zealand, which features their beloved national rugby team, the All Blacks.  They did serve us two full meals on the flight, (with complementary beverages, which were necessary after around hour 8…), and we had our own little screen thingys on the back of the seat in front of us which provided a nearly endless supply of movies.  Tom slept for most of the flight, and I spent most of the time trying to not to think about the vast expanse of open water thousands of feet below.


Another “program” on the tv screen was the “flight information” program which had a little icon of an airplane that you could watch creep slowly around the world from LA to Auckland.  After what seemed like days (which technically it was), the totally out of scale airplane icon arrived at New Zealand, and sure enough, there was LAND outside of our window!  Real LAND!  After getting off the plane we were processed through customs.  We had to declare our tent and our hiking boots for inspection due to strict regulations on soil contaminants being brought into the country.  As we were taking out our contraband, a man behind us in line says, “Do I have to declare these?”, and holds up two compressed fuel canisters.  Since these are so far against the normal rules of what you can bring on an airplane, they were of course seized immediately and the guy was taken aside for questioning, still looking baffled about what he had done wrong.  Luckily, our tent passed inspection, and we were ready to take on our rental car!  Don’t laugh too much at the pale person next to the car.  She lives in a world without sunshine in the winter months.

Tom drove on the left side of the road when we were in Ireland and the UK last summer, so I wasn’t to worried about his driving ability.  We plugged in our trusty GPS that we have dubbed, ”Penny”, and were off.  We decided to head south to our bed and breakfast where we would be staying for the next few nights.  Somersal Bed and Breakfast is a lovely little place with lushly landscaped gardens and incredibly kind hosts.  We were greeted with a warm smile and a cup of tea, which was nice, as it was raining, (you will sense a theme here).  They also had a few sheep, which everyone seems to have, and which also happened to be grazing right outside our window.  Quaint.  That night, we ventured  down to the local pub, where people kept wandering up to our table to chat, simply because we looked “new”.  The Kiwis, as the New Zealanders call themselves, were all very nice to us totally strung out and jet lagged foreigners.

The next morning, we feasted on a delicious breakfast prepared by our hosts, which was very similar to the “British” breakfasts we got at so many B&Bs in the UK, but there was bacon, so we weren’t complaining.  We then headed down to Wiatomo to visit the famed glowworm caves.  These caves are known for having millions of small, blueish pricks of light sprinkled along their ceilings.  These lights are the “worms”, which really aren’t worms at all, but larval stages of a type of fungal gnat.  Glowworms sounds better in the marketing material though.  There are many different outfitters who work in the area providing all manner of adventurous ways to experience the caves, but all we were really interested in seeing was the glowwoms themselves, so we opted for a more calm tour.  We booked with Spellbound Glowworm and Cave Tours, which gave us a three hour tour of two different caves, one wet, with the glowworms and one that was a drier, more traditional, limestone cave with all the formations that are typical to these types of caves.  Our guide was very knowlegable and gave us lots of details about the worms and caves.  In the glowworm cave, we walked for a bit and were able to see the strands the larve drop down to catch their pray who are drawn to their light.  We then boarded a rubber raft, turned out our lights, and our guide pulled us through the grotto hand over hand using a rope fixed overhead.  It was very peaceful in the dark with the little blue lights splayed out above us like so many strange and unfamiliar constilations in the night sky. 


The dry cave was also very interesting.  There were your traditional stalactites and mites and other beautiful limestone formations.  There were also several places where sinkholes had broken through into the cave, and the sky above was exposed.  These holes are dangerous traps for animals though, and there were the bones of a few unfortunate souls who misstepped.

Later that day, after we emerged into the land of light, (and rain), we headed up towards Rotorura to visit some of the active geo-thermal sites there.  We arrived too late to visit the Thermal Wonderland we had wanted to see, but were able to find the bubbling mud pools!  Let’s just say, you should be thankful these photos are not scratch and sniff.  The sulpher smell was nearly overpowering, as if a million eggs had all spoiled at once and you were forced to breathe it it.  Or as Ludo says in Labrinth  “SMELL BAD!!!”  The bubbling, burbling, squirt and  belching mud was pretty need though, even if it was noisy and smelly. 



Next up…Tongoriro National Park and Wellington!

Note:  The photo credits for many of these early photos go to Tom, as I was too jetlagged and crazy to take pictures…  

Note #2 :  These posts are long.  I am sorry. 

Note # 3 :  More photos can be found on my Picasa site or Tom’s Picasa site.

New Zealand Photos…

January 4th, 2011 by Amy Alphin No comments »

Well hello there!  Yes, we went to New Zealand.  I took something like 1,100 photos, all of which need to be gone through and processed.  Slowly :)   Thank you for all of you who are asking to see them.  They will be posted here first, then I will be taking the time to blog about the different adventures.  Thanks!

Visiting Lexington, Virginia

November 24th, 2010 by Amy Alphin 4 comments »

So after we left Dad and Sharon in West Virginia, we headed east towards Lexington, Virginia, where Tom’s parents have recently bought a new house.  If you recall, Lexington was where Tom and I got married, so it’s always nice to visit and now we’ll be visiting there quite frequently!  Tom’s parents are still in the process of doing a total remodel on the house, so they are still staying at the family farm in Goshen, which is about a half hour outside Lexington, when they are working on the house in Lexington.  The new house is beautiful and I can’t wait to see it in its finished state.

We spent two days in the area.  The first day, we went with Tom’s parents over to Wade’s Mill, a historical flour mill which still grinds the flour using a water wheel.  Very cool.  We got to meet the folks who run the place and they let us take a peek around the mill.  I’d never really seen how flour was made, so it was an interesting process.  One that I still don’t really understand, but that’s why they do it and not me.  We spent the night at the farm, which is one of our favorite places in the world.  We’ve been going there throughout our entire relationship and it holds a special place in our hearts.  It’s also where we had our rehearsal dinner and we hadn’t been back since, so it was a nice place to spend a few days. 




The next morning, Tom and I went for a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway and did a hike up there as well.  The leaves were all changing and it was literally a riot of color along the ridges.  We hiked the Apple Orchard Falls Trail, which intersects the Appalachian Trail.  It is what I call an “inside out” hike, meaning you hike downhill to your destination and then back UPHILL to get back to your car.  This is not my favorite kind of hike.  However, I was distracted by the pretty leaves, the rich smells of the forest that are so different from our forests here in the Pacific Northwest and by the amazingly beautiful waterfalls.  So I didn’t mind the “inside out” characteristics of the hike.  Too much. 


After our hike, we continued to drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway to Buchanan, where we HAD to check out a swinging bridge that Tom remembered from his childhood.  Now, I should include that Tom’s memory of this bridge is not a pleasant one.  In fact, it terrified him.  Apparently there was much crying involved the last time he had to cross this swinging bridge.  When we arrivied at the bridge, I could see how it could be scary for a child.  The bridge does not meet the side of the road at a 90 degree angle as it should.  Instead, it does this weird slanting thing before it levels out.  Truly terrifying indeed.

We stayed at the farm again that night, and in the morning we wandered around Lexington for a bit and paid a visit to my favorite bookshop of all time, The Bookery.  Now, I have a thing for book stores in general, but this one is truely unique.  Jam packed, wall to wall, floor to ceiling BOOKS.  I mean everywhere.  It’s kind of amazing.  Its what I secretly wish my house looked like. 

Later that afternooon we headed down the road to visit Mom and Charles in Richmond….