Exploring NYC: Governors Island

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Checking out Manhattan from atop Castle Williams, Governors Island.

Over the time we’ve gotten to know each other, New York and I, it has become apparent that some of my favourite things about her are peripheral to what makes her so well known. Perhaps it is that I am a little older now, but while the hustle and bustle of Manhattan enthralled me when I visited previously, as I make the city my home I have found a special place in my heart for some of the smaller spots. Our neighbourhood of Sunnyside, which I will introduce you to properly soon, exemplifies that. Another highlight has been visiting Governors Island, a 172-acre island in the middle of New York Harbour.

There are a couple of ferries that run to the island, but when we decided to go one weekend in late summer we jumped aboard the East River Ferry. A crowded journey down the river allowed for entertaining people watching alongside some impressive views. I finally got to see one spot where Ashby has done a bit of work, and enjoyed the new view of the city.

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Brooklyn Bridge from the ferry.

The island itself has had a long history, and the National Park Service do a great job of summing that up here. I was particularly interested in the role it played in establishing the defence of New York following the America’s victory in the Revolutionary War. Two fortifications were built on the island – Fort Jay and Castle Williams – and they successfully acted as a deterrent for the British Navy in the War of 1812. We managed to sneak onto the final tour of the day through Castle Williams when we visited, and learning about the history and unusual design of the fortification was another testament to how good the National Park Service is at preserving America’s history. By 1830, the defensive efforts of Governors Island were so successful that the fortifications were now redundant. As a result, Castle Williams has gone through a host of different roles. During a period of guardianship by the U.S. Coast Guard the castle itself was mostly used as storage, but apparently once a year hosted a most epic haunted house for Halloween! Now a good chunk of the island, include the fortifications, have been declared a National Historic Landmark District, and the island as a whole is a public space operated by the City of New York. There is masses of green space, and spectacular views of the city skyline.

There has also been a move to use the old fortifications in new ways, and they housed a variety of art installations when we visited. Certainly a different setting than what I am used to.

Governors Island only operates during the summer, but it was such a great way to spend a Saturday as the weather got just a little bit cooler. After our visit, we took a different ferry back, heading towards Manhattan. A few drinks and nibbles along the waterfront capped off a beautiful day in NYC.

 

National Park Week: Traversing the Rockies and into Denver

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The first thing to note is that unless you are planning some epic hiking, Rocky Mountain National Park is not a recommended visit till the summer time. You see, it snows there – a lot. Even visiting in April we were caught out by the snow. I thought maybe some snow would still be visible on mountain peaks, instead we were driving through flurries and awestruck by frozen lakes. Really large frozen lakes.

Our intention was to drive through the National Park, a detour on our route between Grand Junction (where we stayed the night) and Denver where we had booked accomodation for a few nights. Unfortunately, we realised once we got there that this road does not open till the end of May and it did not take long for us to see why with the road closed sign ahead of a deep snow drift. However, the benefit was that we did not have to share the park with many people! The small bit we saw was beautiful and it was refreshing to layer up with the winter jacket. It does not take much to have me playing in snow, and a few snow dances took place under the flurries.

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There was not a lot we could do, but we explored where we could and popped into the visitor’s centre. Intriguingly (for Ashby at least), Colorado is home to 53 fourteeners – that is mountain peaks with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet (4267 metres). There are a multitude of resources aimed at people attempting to climb all of these peaks, and I will not be surprised if Ashby takes the opportunity to climb at least some of these in the future. I will take charge of having the hot dinner ready for when he gets back to the bottom!

Our trip to the National Park may have been a little underwhelming, but this was one of the more spectacular drive days of our trip. Perhaps influenced by the welcome sight of snow after all of the desert, it also allowed Ashby to drive on a road he will remember for years to come. The I-70 travels east to west and across the Rocky Mountains. It is regarded as an engineering marvel (the Americans have given the world a few of those) and the Wikipedia article about it is rather informative. Thankfully, someone else has also put together a bit of a video which is worth a watch (the music is painful, but we can not have everything). We drove this route heading east (while most of the video is about going west), but you can still get an understanding of the road and driving conditions.

We drove past a multitude of ski fields, with lifts still working and people on the slopes. After our detour north to the national park, we ended up on the I-40 and crossing Berthoud Pass and the continental divide. Here, playing in the snow got a whole lot more fun as it was super deep.

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This site is notorious, particularly with the interstate being in the path of several known avalanche routes. It is also a well utilised area for outdoor activities, and there is a warming hut at the peak (not for overnight use). An activity community maintains the area, and the Friends of Berthoud Pass work hard to maintain this (more information can be found here, and it made me think particularly of my Aunty Carol and Uncle Bob).

We made it through the region and headed into Denver late Sunday afternoon. After checking in at our Air BnB for the night, we grabbed dinner and got ready for a return to city life in the state capital of Colorado.

National Park Week: Admiring the Arches

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Arches National Park

The sheer scale of Arches National Park leaves you awestruck. Even after a bombardment of beauty over the course of a week bouncing between national parks, you still find yourself staring in wonder at the precariousness of nature. With the bright blue sky and snowcapped mountains as the backdrop, it truly is a wonder to behold.

As we started to feel overwhelmed by the endless desert, Arches proved to be a capstone to the week. We arrived in the afternoon, setting off with our map to explore by car. At this particular park it is difficult to find a campsite at the best of times, so we had no chance turning up mid afternoon. We did have time to explore the park, and drove the length of the road. Ideally, it would have been nice to do a hike – perhaps next time.

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Double Arch

Like all of the National Parks we visited, Arches makes it easy to appreciate the beauty of America. Exploration and interaction are encouraged, while there is an emphasis on the importance of respecting the natural environment. This is done by offering public talks, providing easy to access information, and the continued presence of park workers who will chat with visitors. The National Park system offers a visitors the opportunity to get a taste of what is available, and encourages those who want to do more to plan a more elaborate adventure.

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All up, we were in Arches for only a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. It was a fantastic chance to round out our journey in the American Southwest… However, it was time for a new adventure. After leaving the park we had an interesting situation to ponder: what to do tomorrow? Up till this point, we had a pretty clear plan of what we wanted to see. Canyonlands National Park was just down the road and is one Ashby particularly wants to explore at some stage. Alternatively we could hightail it out of there. Out came the map book (a particularly cool wedding gift from dear friends of ours) and we pondered where to next. Result: we’re off to Colorado. That evening we drove across the border and climbed into Colorado Springs. The tent stayed in the car and we booked into a cheap hotel room. Our next stop would round out National Park Week with a dose of snow – Rocky Mountain National Park!

National Park Week: Bryce Canyon and the mystical hoodoos

When is a canyon not a canyon? When it is actually a collection of giant amphitheatres. Bryce Canyon may have a deceptive name, but there is nothing misleading about its beauty.

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Only a couple of hours away from Zion National Park, Bryce was a quieter place to stop and explore for a night. We again got lucky and snagged one of the last available campsites, with the two campgrounds filling up for the final weekend of National Park Week. Once we had sorted out the tent and grabbed some food to cook that night, it was off to explore via the scenic drive. I am particularly impressed by the emphasis the National Park Service places on accessibility. Whilst there are loads of options for people who want to explore further, for anyone who is unable (or simply less inclined) to set out on a hike easy access has been arranged. Roads are maintained and link together a lot of beautiful sites. As well as this, individuals with permanent disabilities are eligible for an Access Pass, which allows for free entry to the parks, whilst senior citizens can obtain a lifetime pass for just $10. It is just another thing that impresses me about the National Park Service.

Bryce is known for its intriguing hoodoos, the rock formations that emerge out of the ground. According to the Bryce Canyon website, it is not flowing water that has carved out the landscape – instead it is a result of ‘frost-wedging’. For more than half of the year, the temperature gets above and below freezing on a daily basis. This causes the water to seep into fractures in the rock during the day, then freeze and expand at night to chip away at the rock. The result is the landscape we see today (which is therefore in a continuous state of change).

We opted to enjoy the formations from the lookout points this time, as we arrived late and would be leaving early the next day. From our vantage points, snow was still visible in the amphitheatre, and the towering hoodoos looked like something from a far fetched fairytale.

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It is the kind of place where you can imagine spending a day getting lost in the world of hoodoos. Alas, we stayed at the top and looked down upon the magical land of Bryce Canyon, before heading back to our campsite for dinner. The regular appearances of fire grills have allowed Ashby’s inner pyromaniac come to the fore, and meant my contributions to dinner have been the simple role of observer.

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Despite not venturing into the ampitheatre, we did decide to wake up early the next morning and check out the hoodoos as the sun rose. I can report that the below freezing temperatures certainly happened when we were there, and it was jolly cold getting up. And, as luck would have it, we also choose the morning where the cloud cover interfered with the sunrise. I admit, I chickened out and only lasted about ten minutes at the viewpoint before my extremities got too cold, leaving Ashby to continue his photo taking. Despite the cloud, he still got some lovely photographs.

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With feeling returning to our fingers, we returned to the tent to pack up, grab a cooked breakfast from a nearby restaurant, and then got back on the road again. Next stop: the gods’ playground, Arches National Park.

National Park Week: Zion

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There is a beautiful legend regarding the naming of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. An explorer of the name of Frederick Fisher looked skyward in 1916 and exclaimed that only an angel could land upon it. Ten years later, two park service employees, Thomas Chalmers Vint and Walter Ruesch, set about proving him wrong. The impressive trail was eventually listed on National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and is now one of the greatest day hikes anywhere.

Ashby and I set out with the intention to use National Park week as something of a sampler. We wanted to see what was on offer, and perhaps mark out places to return. For me, on my second visit to this remarkable spot, returning to Zion was something particularly special. I wanted to share this place with my husband, introduce him to the most beautiful place I have ever been.

Horseshoe Bend and the majesty of the Colorado River

In a move perhaps unsurprising to those who know me, I rather grossly underestimated our drive time from the Grand Canyon to Zion. In my flurry of planning, I had confused my distances, and the result was an unexpectedly long drive day. Luckily, we had a host of podcasts to listen to, and a special stop along the way – Horseshoe Bend in Arizona.

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This rather lovely sight is only a short walk from the interstate. The almost hidden nature of it adds to its beauty, as it is so close yet so easy to miss from the road. It is technically a meander of the Colorado River, and we spied kayakers in the water below. A stunning example of the beauty within the rocks.

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Driving on from here, we made it to Zion in the early evening and arrived to the dreaded campground full sign. This park in particular is rather notorious for difficulty in securing a campsite, and alas we were too late. However, another campground was available just on the edge of the park and we snagged a spot there. It was a little more expensive, but came with such luxuries as showers, and wifi. The sites were rather cramped, however, and missing that special touch that the National Park Service offers.

Walking with the Angels

We slept well and arose early to tackle Angel’s Landing. This is one of the hikes available at Zion, and a particularly notorious one at that. A quick google for information and one of the first things that come up are figures of just how many people have fallen when doing the walk. However, it is an accessible walk, as long as you are smart, and take your time. Getting to the trail is straightforward, as there are shuttles to get you around the park. The first part of the climb is just a tough slog uphill, including the Walter’s Wiggles – a lovely stretch of switchbacks to get you puffing.

Once you get to Scout’s Landing, then the fun really begins. This is the final spot for a lot of people and really does allow you to appreciate the beauty. The next step does not work if you have any fear of heights, because it is a long way up and some sheer drops down. Thankfully, someone else has put together a wee video just so those at home can appreciate it (Mum, I know you will love this one).

It is a bit of a highway getting up and down, but at the end you will come to one of the most magical places in the world.

Driving out, we stopped often to take in the view and snap some more photographs. Ashby had scoffed a little when I said Zion was more breathtaking than the Grand Canyon… Both places are different, but Zion wins in my books. I think it is because you cannot help but be confronted with the stunning landscape.

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One day, I intend to spend a week camping in Zion National Park. There are a hosts of other hikes I want to go on, and hours to spend just soaking in the beauty. It really is one of my most favourite places.

Journeys in America: The Grand Canyon, the mountain lion and wildlife corridors

It is impossible to grasp the scale of the Grand Canyon as you stand at one of the vantage points looking out. At about 433km long, and on average 18km wide, it is visible from space. But the Canyon itself is only one part of the National Park that surrounds it. The vast majority of the 4930 km² park is home to an array of wildlife. This includes the mountain lion.

One of the impressive aspects of America’s National Park Service is the emphasis placed on education. There are a range of programmes available for children, offering them a chance to learn about the environment that surrounds them. For the adults, there are talks on a variety of topics. When we visited the Grand Canyon, we went along to listen to an excellent talk: ‘God of Hunters: The Mountain Lion’ which was presented by one of the rangers at the park. The expectation was to learn more about the animal, yet this went well beyond that. From understanding the interaction of humans and nature, through to appreciating the beauty that is the mountain lion, I walked away feeling both informed and excited to learn more about the merging of nature and civilisation.

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First, some quick facts. The mountain lion is known by a multitude of names. You have heard of pumas, cougars and panthers as well? They are all the same animal: Puma concolor. The San Diego zoo website has a good summary about the mountain lion which is well worth a read. Perhaps most striking is its jumping stats. They can jump 5.5m from the ground into a tree, and they can jump 6.1m up or down a hillside. Yep, 6.1m – the height of many two story buildings.

The mountain lion is a striking predator, but the risk to humans is actually pretty minimal. For the most part, they simply stay away from humans where possible. Where the natural habitat has been impacted, there can be more interaction with people and their livestock. Unfortunately, there are fatal attacks on humans – normally children or lone adults – but the numbers are minimal. In a study of mountain lions in the Grand Canyon, they found that there was little evidence of the mountain lions venturing into the areas where humans were most prevalent. Instead, the cats stayed in the shadows and hunted elsewhere in the expansive park. Learning how to share the space is important; whilst there was a drive to eradicate the mountain lion, it is now understood that they play a crucial role in the North American ecosystem.

Two biologists from Oregon State University, William Ripple and Robert Beschta, study the impact of predators on the ecosystem. One of the intriguing aspects of their research for me is the demonstration of how removing predators can have unforeseen consequences lower down the food chain. In a study of Zion and Yosemite national parks, they found that the scarcity of predators (in this case the mountain lion) led to an increase in deer population. The consequence: a substantial decrease in biodiversity. This can be seen in the case of Zion Canyon, where the biologists report that:

Increases in human visitors in Zion Canyon apparently reduced cougar (Puma concolor) densities, which subsequently led to higher mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) densities, higher browsing intensities and reduced recruitment of riparian cottonwood trees (Populus fremon- tii), increased bank erosion, and reductions in both terrestrial and aquatic species abundance.

That is, ecological change comes not only from changes at the bottom (where humans impact natural food sources etc), but can also be a result of altering the top of the food chain. Predators, such as the mountain lion in America, play an important role in maintaining ecological balance. Through continuing to understand them, we can learn how to live side by side with them.

So, the question looms over how to work with the mountain lion so that they can continue their role in ecosystem, whilst also reducing the fatal encounters with humans. One of the intriguing ideas presented at the ranger talk we attended was the concept of wildlife corridors. A big challenge for wild animals is the human alteration of the environment. When humans encroach into what has been a hunting ground for centuries, the consequences can be dire for the animals who called that home, and ultimately humans as well. Finding a middle ground allows for conserved space for the likes of the mountain lion to call home. There are large swaths of land that has been deemed public space in the United States and, as a result, conservation efforts have been able to reestablish populations of animals who were once struggling to maintain numbers. The mountain lion is not considered to be a threatened species, a result of a change of human ideas around the cat – from pest to an important part of the ecological system. (Also of note, mountain lions are a self regulating species – they are a cannibalistic animal, with older males in particular committing acts of infanticide. Their preference for isolation and large spaces means that they will control the population spread effectively.) However, there is still work to be done in ensuring their continued place within the ever-changing landscape.

The next stage is supporting the migratory patterns of animals throughout the American continent. Borrowing from ideas successfully implemented in Europe and Canada, there is a move towards implementing wildlife corridors. These allow for the safe passage of animals across major highways – which benefits both animals and humans through a reduction in collisions.

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A wildlife overpass on the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park, British Columbia. The Park is a leader in highway mitigation, part of a 30-year-old initiative that has installed 44 crossing structures. Credit, Adam Ford, Highwaywilding.org

On our drive east, we were lucky enough to see a newly established wildlife crossing in action in Colorado. A long length of fence has been installed along both sides of the roadside, helping to corral animals into tunnels and over bridges – avoiding cars along a notorious stretch of road. It’s working too, within days the animals were safely crossing over or under the road.

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Wildlife crossing (credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife)

One of the big disadvantages of this approach is the cost. Someone needs to be able to pay for these, and in a country with an awful lot of roads it is going to be astronomical to attempt to instigate wholesale change overnight. However, with ongoing discussion about the importance of improving the American infrastructure, there is surely space to consider the environmental impact alongside upgrades. Allowing space for American wildlife alongside the development of the American infrastructure will ultimately benefit everyone.

If you are interested, you can donate to the program (I’m not sure how this works outside of the US) to support these beautiful animals in the Grand Canyon. Details here.

National Park Week: Camping in Lake Mead and admiring the Hoover Dam

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The Hoover Dam in all its glory

When you are married to an engineer, you learn to appreciate things you may not have in the past. Bridges, tunnels and dams become things to stop and look at. To be fair, I think anyone would stop and check out the Hoover Dam if they were going past – but this was a must-visit on our trip.

The dam was constructed in the 1930s and is widely regarded as an engineering marvel. You can read a bit more about it here, or watch a short educational video…

You can only imagine how my engineering husband geeked out when he got to see all of this in person. We did the tour (though the tour leader appeared to be pained repeating the same information for the umpteenth time as we were headed through), and checked it out at sunset. As a side note, there is a rather impressive bridge which now sits alongside the dam. It was pretty cool.

Visiting the Hoover Dam gave as an opportunity to visit another site administered by the National Park Service – Lake Mead National Recreation Area. We camped here for a night, and I relished such facilities as flush toilets. It is also nice and close to the townships of Boulder City (established to house the huge numbers of people who came to construct the Dam in the 1930s), and not too far away from Las Vegas (which we drove through briefly). As I touched on previously, the lake’s water level is a lot lower now than it has been previously. However, it still offered a pleasant site to camp.

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Camping at Lake Mead

Next stop: the wonder of the Grand Canyon!