Slovak Paradise: day 1

Remember when we visited Czech Paradise, strewn with cool rock formations and ruined castles? Well, when we found its Slovak counterpart on the map, of course we couldn’t pass it by. So we spent two nights in Hrabusice on the northern side of the national park, then plan to bike across the park to Stratena on the southern side tomorrow.

One of many caves
One of many caves

On Monday we were still a bit tired from our cross-country biking adventures the previous day, so we planned a 5-hour hike up to a 13th-century castle then through a few river gorges to the ruins of a 14th-century monastery. It turned out the castle was no longer much of a castle, but the gorges were quite the experience, with metal stepladders and cables clinging to cliffsides. The last part took us up a steep gorge with a half-dozen waterfalls, each of which had a steep ladder beside it to enable our ascent. It’s not a good spot for those with a fear of heights!

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Our reward at the top was this lovely meadow, with panoramic views of the Tatras, a restored monastery in the foreground, and a snack bar selling beer to enrich our picnic lunch.

IMG_4012We had a lovely hike on an absolutely perfect day – 70 degrees and sunny – and were glad to rest from biking for 24 hours as we prepared to bike across a different part of Slovak Paradise tomorrow.

Venturing into Slovakia

Well, yesterday wasn’t the best day for us, but I have to say that if it turns out to be the worst day of our bike trip we will have been incredibly lucky.

After crossing into Slovakia on our first day of biking, we headed deeper into Slovak territory from the town of Kezmarok to Hrabusice via Spis Castle. Doesn’t that make it seem like Spis Castle is on the way? No such luck.

Ignore the walking time, but here's our bike route!
Ignore the walking time, but here’s our bike route!

The day started out with a later start than we’d planned; Michael hadn’t slept well and so we got out the door at 10:15 instead of 8. With 6 hours of biking ahead of us, that made for a long day, but we figured we could fit everything in. Our road out of town was lovely, a quiet back road where we passed ten cyclists and maybe two cars, and we turned onto another back road marked as a cycleway that slowly climbed up into the hills above Kezmarok, with sights like a herd of cows and the site of an abandoned Russian village that had existed from the 1200s until 1952. It was perfect – gentle enough of a grade that we could easily bike up the 8km to the top of the hill. Until we got near the top and the nice pavement disintegrated into a crumbling strip of asphalt surrounded by small rocks, and stayed that way for the next 10km. Descending the hill was a challenge – my hands are too small to hold onto the brakes all the time! – but we made it down into the valley in one piece and said, phew, well, glad we survived that.

Our first stop was in the UNESCO-listed town of Levoča, where a beautiful church and town hall form the center of a walled town on a hill. We biked around the central area, chatting briefly with two Danish retirees who were very interested in our folding bicycles and taking photos, then had a picnic lunch on the square. Michael had brought a beer with him!

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We’d had good luck on bike routes so far, so we weren’t too worried when we headed out of town. But soon our paved road turned into dirt …

Michael didn't fall, he's just taking a picture on that hill over there.
Michael didn’t fall, he’s just taking a picture on that hill over there.

… and then steep dirt we had to walk up …

IMG_3968… and more dirt …

That's our route, coming from the left.
That’s our route, coming from the left.

… and then it became just grass!

A "bike route" according to komoot!
A “bike route” according to komoot!

We soldiered on through the edge of a grass field, which clearly was still traveled every so often by hapless bikers like us who were following an old map. Eventually the route came out at a paved road that went underneath the freeway. I glided down and up the other side, only to turn back and find that Michael was not behind me, still not behind me, still not there. With visions of bicycle accidents in my head, I turned back to find Michael walking toward me completely intact, but with a flat tire on his back wheel from all that cross-country riding. We settled into the shade of the overpass and changed our first flat tire. Not bad after several long weeks of riding, but still a drag on a day when we’d gotten a late start.

Looking back at Levoca
Looking back at Levoca

When our route turned back into dirt on the far side of the freeway, we gave up on our nice little side route and headed up to the main highway – not the freeway, but a state route alongside it, with a decent amount of traffic but also a good-sized shoulder. We soon turned off onto another small country road, this one mostly paved except for some hairy bits down a steep hill into Buglovce. The highlight, however, was that starting here we had crackerjack views of our destination, Spis Castle, the largest in Central Europe. What a castle! We rode closer and closer and got better and better views of its amazing construction.

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Sadly, it was almost 4pm and our ride to Hrabusice was another 2.5 hours, so we didn’t ride all the way up to the castle, and instead turned back after some great views of the castle perched on a hill. Our route back took us by a hugely popular “sheep dairy chalet” and then a set of mineral springs bubbling ferociously and smelling of sulfur, then along the main road and some side roads to another small town, where a friendly old man persistently tried to help us with our bike route despite the fact that we didn’t speak a word of Slovak. He soon roped a whole carful of retirees into pointing at the map with us, and we headed on down the road.

The mineral springs
The mineral springs

We took a variety of busy roads and back routes to Spisska Nova Ves, then a wonderfully labeled bike route that cut 10 miles of road down to 3 miles but which was paved with concrete blocks that made us go bump-bump-bump-bump down the road! By this time it was starting to get a bit dark, so we turned on our lights and just powered through it – and were actually relieved when the road turned to ungraded dirt instead of the concrete slabs!

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We arrived in Hrabusice just after sunset, having spent the last few miles wondering whether the town would have any restaurants or we’d have to survive on making a quesadilla from the tortillas, cheese, and salami left over from lunch. But joy! o joy! The hotel owners sent us to a nearby pizzeria, where we feasted on pizza with sheep cheese and smoked cheese and bacon and kielbasa and reveled in the fact that despite roads made of rocks and dirt and grass and concrete, flat tire and all, we’d made it! After dinner I collapsed straight into bed and slept for almost 10 hours.

Biking the Tatras to Slovakia

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Our day began early, with a 6am alarm and setting out riding shortly after 7 in an effort to beat the traffic headed hiking in the mountains for the weekend. We didn’t entirely succeed – we were passed by dozens of minibuses and private cars driving up to the glacial lake of Morskie Oko, the most famous hike in the Zakopane area – but we were nonetheless glad to miss the worst of the crowds and to beat the heat of the day. Three long uphills and a few downhills and we had crossed the border into Slovakia and descended the other side, passing through a ski resort village and then following a narrow old road converted to a bike route just off the main road down into the valley.

At the top of our last big hill! Note distant mountains.
At the top of our last big hill! Note distant mountains.

img_3895.jpgOnly a few miles after our side trail rejoined the main road, a beautiful new bike path took us the rest of the way into Spissky Bela, where we stopped for some sightseeing of a beautiful old church and its bell tower. Multilingual signs everywhere let us discover the town’s rich history, like a mathematician who invented lenses used in telescopes and a doctor who treated the Roma and also did taxidermy and archeology and mountaineering in his spare time.

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On the road out of town we stumbled on a castle that is now part of the national art gallery. We never did figure out how to get into the actual museum, but we had a lovely stroll through the riverside sculpture garden and a very relaxing beer and lemonade on the shaded terrace in the castle courtyard.

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Across from the castle - a church with Renaissance bell tower!
Across from the castle – a church with Renaissance bell tower!

And then our amazing komoot app found that by turning for 50 yards down a bumpy side road we could join a perfectly groomed bike trail, which took us across a suspension bridge and directly to our hotel in Kezmarok. It’s called the Pension Andrea, though Michael insists the name was not a factor in his decision.

IMG_2658Leaving at 7 meant we got here at 2, giving us plenty of time to walk around town and admire the many historical churches (one designated by UNESCO) and the impressive town castle as well as enjoying 40-cent ice cream cones and picking up groceries for breakfast tomorrow. Dinner brought us the Slovak specialties of pork coated in mashed herbed potatoes and deep fried (yum!) and sheep cheese pierogis with bacon and onion, followed by Nutella crepes. Plus soup and two beers, for $16. I like Slovakia.

Tomorrow we bike to Spis castle, one of Slovakia’s more famous sights. Hopefully tonight’s lighting doesn’t develop into too exciting a storm!

Popping into Poland

We’d only had a day and a half in Warsaw before flying back to the US for a few weeks, so we flew into Krakow on Tuesday afternoon looking forward to a few more days in Poland. Jet lagged on arrival, we checked into our Airbnb and did little more than find nearby pierogis before heading to bed. (Pierogis are probably my favorite Polish food, and mine were stuffed with chicken liver and grated apple. So delicious! Michael felt otherwise, so I got them all to myself.) Oh, and the “hot drinks” menu included borscht, so of course I had to get it. See that mug of hot beet soup? Tasty.

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The next day was our time to explore Krakow, once we’d taken care of reassembling our bikes and dropping off their suitcases at the Polish post office to be mailed to Albania, where we’ll pick them up in 5 or 6 weeks. (This seems crazy to me, but Michael points out that the 1000 miles between Krakow and Tirana is only half that between Madison, Wisconsin, and San Francisco, between which we just mailed several packages as well. However, I just find that fact extra crazy. The US is so big.)

We spent the day exploring the historic areas of Krakow, from Kazimierz (the Jewish area, where we’re staying) to the old town and the castle. There was some sort of festival on the main square that resulted in a short but colorful procession of women carrying a … giant straw crown? We aren’t sure. The horses on the tourist carriages were pretty blinged out too.

We’d hoped to go to the Krakow city history museum and / or the Rynek Underground exhibit of city history under the main square, but the former turned out to be between exhibits and the latter booked out for three days straight! So we settled for our usual: just walking around and enjoying the architecture. After a quick rest at our apartment we headed out for a sunset walk before dinner and had beautiful light on the castle as we walked around and then through it.

Thursday was our travel day to Zakopane, a mountain resort town about 2 hours south of Krakow in the Tatra mountains. It’s chock full of tourists in the summer and the winter – but they’re all Polish, so we’d certainly never heard of it until a Romanian friend mentioned great hiking there. We had considerable difficulty convincing the bus driver to allow our bikes in the storage compartment for the drive down, then got stuck in traffic for a while, but eventually made it to Zakopane, just in time to catch the evening light on the mountains from the windows of our lovely room. Dinner was large but not overly delicious – sauerkraut soup, borscht, an egg-battered pork cutlet (theoretically “Paris style”), and strawberry and blueberry pierogis.

View from our hotel!
View from our hotel!

And today we set out hiking! It was a beautiful day and we were not the only ones to have this idea, but after a long uphill slog we came out to beautiful views of the mountain and a lovely alpine meadow. If we didn’t both have colds – and if we didn’t have to bike over these self-same mountains tomorrow – we’d have climbed higher, but we settled for a view from the saddle and headed back down for a nice walk into town and a relaxing late afternoon of crosswords, cooking dinner, and trying different Polish beers. Up to you to figure out who undertook which activity.

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Tomorrow the biking adventure begins: Zakopane to Slovakia to Hungary, then by train to Romania for more biking, then onward to Serbia and Montenegro, where we meet my parents in 3 weeks. For those of you who (like me) have not spent much time thinking about the geography of Eastern Europe, a map:

Eastern Europe biking map

Bicycling Wisconsin: our last two days

We awoke on the farm to warm pancakes and homemade strawberry and blueberry jam as well as another interesting conversation ranging from the solar eclipse to California’s water consumption and age discrimination in Silicon Valley tech companies. By 10 we were on the road again, headed inland to Richland Center and to our home for the night in Gotham (pronounced “go-thumb”), along the Wisconsin River. The sunshine was a pleasant change from yesterday’s mist, and we again had three big hill climbs for the day.

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Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 11.24.20 AMWe spotted an overgrown prairie dog and a few more cranes along our route, rolling through farms and countryside before stopping for a cheese-curd-and-bacon panini at the Cheese Cellar in Richland Center. We were on track to be quite early to our host’s historic home, so we browsed in the local bookstore and stopped for frozen custard in town before hopping on the bike path south – only to find that it was closed a few miles south of town! Luckily for us, the bookstore owner had told us about an alternate route on County Road TB, so we added a few miles of rolling country road and made it to Gotham just at 5, as arranged.

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Our host for the evening, James, owns a historic house in town and has fully embraced its history. The house was actually relocated from its original location – along with most of the other buildings in town – because the Wisconsin River was shifting and the town of Richland City was soon to be inundated by its flow. Now it sits in Gotham, and James gave us a driving tour of the whole area on our way to dinner in Spring Green, showing us where the city used to be, where various other houses had ended up, and even the Frank Lloyd Wright complex on the south side of the river! We had dinner at sunset at Shifflet’s overlooking the river, and Michael and James stayed up until after midnight discussing everything from politics to economic development.

The next morning James biked with us the 5 miles to breakfast next to the small county airport, then we bid farewell to our generous host and biked off to Taliesin and the Frank Lloyd Wright visitor center. We didn’t spring for a tour, but enjoyed reading about the site and seeing its situation above the river. From here, we’d received a full route description from none other than the father of the groom at last weekend’s wedding: take route C, then CC to Helena and side roads to Arena, hop on 14 for just a mile before turning left onto Blynn and Hudson to Mazomanie, then KP to Cross Plains. From Cross Plains we took some more side roads through part of the National Ice Age Scenic Trail and into Madison, arriving at 4:30. It was perfect for our last day: flat, but still scenic, and getting us back home in plenty of time to shower and relax before dinner.

What a fabulous bike trip! The farms and country roads were beautiful, but above all we really loved the richness of experience of meeting four different WarmShowers hosts and sharing meals with four different families whom we never would have met otherwise. What a wonderful way to explore a different part of the country.

And now, we’re delighted to have two rest days to recover our sore muscles before we fly to Poland.

Our final route:

Day 1: Madison to Baraboo. 67km, 500m climbing
Day 2: Baraboo to Hillsboro. 65km, 400m climbing
Day 3: Hillsboro to La Crosse. 108 km, 800m climbing
Day 4: La Crosse to Soldiers Grove. 89 km, 800m climbing
Day 5: Soldiers Grove to Gotham. 78.5 km, 660m climbing
Day 6: Gotham to Madison. 73.5 km, 330m climbing
Total: 481 km (300 miles), 3500 m climbing (11500 ft)

In case you missed it: part 1, part 2

Bicycling Wisconsin part 2: Baraboo to the Mississippi and beyond

It’s now day four of our bike trip. Tonight we’re staying on a small farm outside Viroqua after three more great days of biking, but each night we find ourselves exhausted and find ourselves collapsing into bed rather than writing about our adventures. This will likely get posted sometime tomorrow, but here goes …

Our route so far! We've found that ridgetop back roads provide great views and wonderful riding.
Our route so far! We’ve found that ridgetop back roads provide great views and wonderful riding.
A typical route plan in Komoot, which gives us turn-by-turn directions and an elevation profile so we know what we're in for.
A typical route plan in Komoot, which gives us turn-by-turn directions and an elevation profile so we know what we’re in for.

Each day of biking has been quite different from the previous one. After our first day on a bike path along the highway, small country roads, and a ferry, we headed west out of Baraboo for a quarter mile of busy highway before turning off onto small country roads for the next ten or fifteen miles. A chaotic stretch of busy road in Reedsburg took us to the start of one of Wisconsin’s famous rail trails, the “400” state trail linking Reedsburg with Elroy and named for a train that once traversed the 400 miles from Chicago to Minneapolis in 400 minutes. The problem with a rail trail that used to travel at 60mph including stops, of course, is that it didn’t have a lot of stops. So unlike other rail trails we’ve biked in the past, with little towns and stations along the way, this one was pretty much just a strip of nicely groomed ground limestone between two aisles of trees and shrubbery. For miles. The shade would have been a pleasant respite on a hot day, but ours was cloudy, and so after lunch in the small town of La Valle, we decided to wing it and, using our county-level bike maps, struck out on our own on some parallel country roads. Which were beautiful and scenic, with corrugated cliffs and a pair of cranes and thousands of rows of corn, but also full of not one or two but three big hill climbs! I’m glad we did the detour, because the scenery was lovely, but it was also nice to know that the rest of our route would be on the flat-as-a-pancake rail trail as we struggled up some of the steeper inclines. And over the course of the day we saw quite a bit of wildlife, from a family of raccoons on the rail trail to a pair of fawns, a number of beautiful red-headed cranes, and turtles lounging in the ponds on either side of the trail.

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We spent the night in Hillsboro, which has a surprisingly nice independent hotel, before heading out the next morning to La Crosse. There’s actually a full series of interconnected bike trails linking the two, but from our experience the previous day we decided to strike out across country instead – and this time we carefully looked at elevation profiles as we chose our route. We ended up with a 108km ride with three big climbs, but only a few short stretches of busy highway and a few jaunts on roads helpfully labeled as “rustic” on our Wisconsin map – whatever that means! As it turned out, we had the pleasure of riding quiet country roads mostly along a series of ridges, with small farms on both sides and nice views down to the farms below. We climbed up to Wildcat Mountain State Park for a panoramic view of the countryside, then dropped down and climbed back up again to another ridge, this one the “rustic” route of Irish Ridge Road, which turned out to be a fabulous choice: lined with small Amish farms, the road was full of horse-and-buggies and each farm sold some kind of product on the weekends: soft pretzels, jams, homemade candy, quilts, rugs … We stopped at a self-serve farmstand and picked up rhubarb strawberry jam and pickled summer vegetables for our hosts and a small packet of homemade graham crackers for our snack. Perfect. After a picnic lunch in Cashton, we climbed up to yet another ridge and followed it for quite a distance before descending into Coon Valley and then slogging through our final long climb of the day before a long ridge and then a long descent down the bluffs into La Crosse, a town of 50,000 right on the Mississippi River. Our hosts for the night had other plans, so we had delicious Mexican food for dinner and then walked around downtown, only to emerge to increasingly heavy rain and arrive back home soaked through! Luckily we had the luxury of having done laundry, so we just popped our wet clothes in the dryer alongside our clean ones and they emerged good as new.

Part of the county-level maps we used for route planning.
Part of the county-level maps we used for route planning.

This morning we had a late departure from La Crosse so I could field a work phone call, then headed south along the banks of the Mississippi for 6 miles to Stoddard. The Mississippi here is wide and swampy and beautiful, with rocky cliffs on the Wisconsin side. Unfortunately the weather was still pretty misty, but it made for a lovely view nonetheless. From Stoddard we climbed slowly up a valley and then more steeply, stopping for lunch in a small town just when the mist turned into downright rain. The skies were dramatic all day, but it was after our quick stop in Viroqua – an artsy town with a cool marketplace of crafts and vintage goods – that the skies really made for some amazing HDR photos (if only we’d had a fancy camera). Dark clouds overhead with sun breaks in the distance, green fields of corn in curving rows — it was beautiful. We biked some rolling hills south of town and ended up at this lovely farm, miles from the nearest town but self-sufficient, with solar power (turned off at 10pm!) and chickens and fields of fruits and vegetables. We all helped to chop onions, garlic, and tomatoes for a delicious salsa, and sat down to dinner with the family! We got to trade tales of biking adventures and generally have a wonderful time. We were their first WarmShowers guests – they’d just signed up ten days ago when they set out on their own bike trip to Madison! – so we really got the royal treatment, with brownies for dessert and plans of pancakes for breakfast tomorrow. I’m really loving the opportunity to meet people through WarmShowers, and Michael is already thinking of how to help it scale to greater success. It’d be fun to host in Seattle!

The Mississippi!
The Mississippi!

But in the meantime, after another 90km of biking and 2500 feet of climbing today, I’m all set to crawl into bed. Until next time …

[posted on tape delay from Madison due to exhaustion]

Bicycling Wisconsin: day 1

When Michael and I moved to Chicago for his MBA seven years ago, my bicycle-loving uncle sent us an email describing great biking in the neighboring state of Wisconsin. We never did manage to fit in that cycling trip, and so when we found ourselves in Madison for Hayley’s wedding, we decided to add in a week of bike touring. After all, we’re all geared up after our European adventures! Michael read various cycling blogs and put together a route through the Driftless Area, a region that the glaciers missed during the most recent glaciation and which is thus much hillier than much of the neighboring country. Allegedly these hills will make it more picturesque and not just more painful.

Our planned route over six days, though Google maps tends to show the most efficient route and we often choose a more scenic, less direct, one! See how wrinkly this area is?
Our planned route over six days, though Google maps tends to show the most efficient route and we often choose a more scenic, less direct, one! See how wrinkly this area is?

Day one of our bike trip across Wisconsin took us from the western edge of Madison to the small town of Baraboo, a surprisingly thriving hamlet of 12,000 people with a cute old town square and even a board game store. We cut through suburbia to a lovely bike path whose only drawback was that it paralleled the busy highway of US Route 12, but which nonetheless took us through rolling hills and pleasant scenery of farms and cornfields. We turned off the main route just as the bike path ended, and the rest of our ride was on beautiful country roads with hardly any traffic and a lot more picturesque farms.

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Our midpoint was a (free!) ferry across Wisconsin Lake, complete with two scoops of ice cream on one side and a bacon cheeseburger and fries on the other. (Yes, we eat very healthy!)

On the ferry, eating Fat Elvis ice cream (banana with peanut butter swirls and chocolate chunks).
On the ferry, eating Fat Elvis ice cream (banana with peanut butter swirls and chocolate chunks).

After lunch we tackled our big hills for the day, climbing up out of the valley to Devils Lake State Park, where bikes don’t have to pay admission and we took a lovely swim in the lake, which turned out to home to thousands upon thousands of tiny minnows who, like the ones in fancy Thai massage spas, nibble at your feet if you don’t keep moving. After a few very ticklish minutes, I settled into treading water while we listened to the sounds of children exclaiming (“there are so many! it tickles when they nibble!”) and then stood for a few more nibbles of our own before getting our bike gear back on and climbing our last two hills of the day before a long descent into Baraboo.

The only hiccup there was with our new combination cable lock, which somehow managed to reset itself to a new (and unknown) combination when we locked it outside one of the shops. A harrowing twenty-five minutes of trial and error later, Michael managed to get it unlocked so that we could go the last half-mile to the village square, where our host for the night owns the local used bookstore. He invited us to join him for spaghetti, so we had the delight of a home-cooked meal as well as a hot shower and a cozy bedroom, plus an evening chatting about biking and watching him train a two-year-old black Labrador to be a service dog. Zoey is already pretty good at tugging open the fridge and various drawers and cabinets on command, then nosing them shut again, but she can’t stop herself from barking at other dogs, so the jury is out on whether she’ll end up in service. In any case, we were allowed to pet her when she behaved well, so I had a lovely time scratching her belly and under her ears and generally enjoying having a dog around! So far, I’m a big fan of this whole WarmShowers thing (whereby bike tourers host one another, in case you missed my last post). Let’s see how tomorrow goes …

Stateside sojourn, part 2

After less than three weeks in Europe, we returned to North America on July 28 not because we were done with our international adventures but because we were attending my cousin Hayley’s wedding two weeks later. But why oh why would we forsake two weeks in Europe and return stateside so soon? you ask. Well, in part for those aforementioned inexpensive tickets, but also because it allowed us to execute a complicated plan whereby we flew into Toronto and spent the weekend with my sister and brother-in-law and our three nephews before borrowing their Highlander to pick up my dad and cousin Tyler in Minneapolis for a long canoe trip in the Boundary Waters before the wedding festivities began.

In case you're trying to follow our itinerary - 28 hours of driving to piece it all together!
In case you’re trying to follow our itinerary – 28 hours of driving to piece it all together!

Waterloo, Ontario, was in full summer swing when we arrived, and we spent our weekend with the boys swimming at the neighborhood pool, playing minigolf, and splashing the day away at a nearby waterpark. I hadn’t been to a waterpark since I was a kid, and infrequently even then, so I had a blast, even though Phil deemed the big slides too fast and Sam’s favorite part was the splash zone. For all that we are loving our international travel, it was really nice to spend time with the kids as their personalities and idiosyncrasies continue to evolve.

We left on Monday for the long drive, camping in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (and eating surprisingly tasty Mexican food in Michigan City, Indiana) en route. The sun was setting directly over Chicago, making for a spectacular silhouette across the lake.

The huge dune of Mount Baldy (ha ha) has shifted so much it's eaten many trees!
The huge dune of Mount Baldy (ha ha) has shifted so much it’s eaten many trees!

Tuesday brought us to Madison, where we got to catch up with Leslie, my best friend from high school, and drop off our bikes for maintenance before driving up to Minneapolis, where we spent two lovely evenings and a full day with Dan and Melissa, friends from Pinterest who’ve since moved back to Minnesota and who guided us on lovely walks around their beautiful lakes as well as putting up with our mess of camping gear and helping us grocery shop the never-before-explored aisles of instant foodstuffs in preparation for our canoe trip.

Our departure point - so calm!
Our departure point – so calm!

And then it was off to the wilderness! We rented canoes, a Duluth pack, and a giant bear barrel from Seagull Outfitters and set out for five days of watery adventure. To our great delight, the weather cooperated, making our trip much less watery than it might have been. Only on the last day did we get thoroughly soaked by a thunderstorm, though a few showers here and there had the courtesy to largely wait until we’d finished setting up our tents and then to pause long enough for us to make and eat dinner. Very civilized, really. Papa and I even got to skip one portage by following a family of ducks up the creek to the next lake!

Setting out!
Setting out!
Following the ducklings into Red Rock Lake
Following the ducklings into Red Rock Lake

The Boundary Waters are beautiful and quiet, and although it was the busiest time of year there, we could go hours without seeing another canoe. Getting a campsite, on the other hand, turned out to be an iffier proposition. On our first day we found a lovely site atop cliffs with a lovely breeze and views across the lake and of sunset and the moon, although we could hear voices from two other sites across the lake; the outfitter said that by our second night we should be nearly on our own, and so when we found a lovely island campsite at 2:45 in the afternoon we decided to continue onward to the next few campsites in case there was a better choice (and because of Tyler’s wish for “breakfast with a view of Canada”). Unfortunately for us, the next seven campsites we paddled to over the course of nearly an hour turned out to be occupied, so we decided to cut our losses and loop back to the original site we’d found – which thankfully was still available when we returned to it at 4:20, but caused a good deal of stress as we worried we’d have to backtrack even further if it were taken.

Scenes from various campsites:

On the bright side, these experiences on our first two days provided us with convincing arguments for an early end to the day on days 3 and 4, as we claimed beautiful campsites by 2 or 3 in the afternoon and had plenty of time to read, daydream, nap, and swim before dinner. Two turtles found us on day 3, and another on day 4, but beyond the turtles and the chipmunks that hoped we’d leave our food scattered about for their enjoyment, there was little non-avian wildlife. We spotted eight bald eagles and both saw and listened to the songs of countless loons, but the moose and bears were well concealed in the trees. My efforts to see the moose on the “moose observation deck” as we drove back into civilization were met with failure and with a cloudburst that left us all soaking wet!

A variety of photos from our adventure follow. This being my blog, I get to leave out the photos of me in what Michael called my “beekeeping suit” to avoid the mosquitoes when they descended at dusk. His making fun of me notwithstanding, it was very successful at avoiding bites (as it better have been, considering that I was doubly covered from head to toe, mosquito net to rain pants to hiking boots!).

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Four and a half days after we’d set out, we paddled back up to the Seagull dock, where we had wonderful hot showers and played Tetris to jam everything into the car before driving back down to Madison over the next 23 hours, with an overnight break in Eau Claire. Within a few days the itch of the mosquito bites had largely subsided, my bee sting (sustained on a pit stop on a Canadian isthmus) grew less painful, and our shoulders stopped their constant aching, so by now I can say that we had a fabulous time. But seriously, the bugs weren’t as bad as I feared, the portages were eminently doable, and the opportunity to spend 5 days in the backcountry with family was priceless.

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Our four days in Madison were spent in a flurry of family activities, from minigolf to the farmer’s market to visiting the free zoo, that let Michael and me explore the city by bicycle (since the arrival of my sister and her clan meant we no longer had a car for transport). Madison has a great network of bike paths (with the odd habit of just suddenly ending in random spots instead of actually connecting to one another, but hey), and we loved getting to explore the lakefront on two wheels. By Friday night the wedding weekend itself began to get into full swing, and we got to catch up with far-flung family at Friday dinner before the Saturday wedding itself, which was moving and lovely and beautiful. And full of mosquitoes after dusk, but by now we were used to that particular problem! There was even a playground at the venue, so the kids had fun monkeying around both at the wedding itself and at the Sunday morning brunch.

We spent Sunday afternoon and evening with our friends Leslie and Erica and their adorable two-and-a-half-year-old as the prelude to Part 3 of our stateside sojourn, a bicycle trip across southwestern Wisconsin. The plan is to do a loop from Madison to La Crosse and back over six days, in this area that missed out on the most recent glaciation and is thus much more corrugated than the surrounding area but also blessed with a series of rail trails. We haven’t decided yet what mixture of flat trails and hilly country roads to take, but we’ve lined up places to stay on all but one night through the WarmShowers website, a network of touring bicyclists who offer lodging to one another in hopes of finding a place to stay on one’s own future bicycling adventures. It sounds pretty cool, and we don’t think any of the folks we’re staying with are serial killers. Stay tuned …