San Juan and Culebra, Puerto Rico

Beachfront to the east our of hotel at Isla Verde
A few months ago, we realized our Jet Blue travel credits were about to expire.
  Our plans to travel to Cuba in the spring of 2020 had been canceled (along with the plans for millions of others) as Covid-19 swept around the world and shut down virtually all travel.  Rather than reschedule Cuba, we decided to return to Puerto Rico.  In addition to our free flight, we had a number of free Marriot hotel nights that had accumulated over the past 2 years, so this was going to be a relatively inexpensive trip. 

Our last visit to the island had been in February 2016. In September 2017, Puerto Rico was devastated by back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria.  The island suffered catastrophic damage to all basic systems. 100% of the power grid was offline, safe drinking water was unavailable, and many waste treatment plants were inoperable.  While substantial repairs to infrastructure have been completed, a great deal of work still needs to be done.  The island has suffered from a decades-long financial crisis which has been aggravated further by the Covid-19 pandemic.  With the restrictions on travel loosening, tourists are returning to Puerto Rico in swarms from the US mainland.  Our plane was full to capacity.

Arriving at the Luis Muñoz Marín Int. Airport in San Juan, we were whisked away to the nearby Marriot Isla Verde with our prearranged driver, Jose.  Located on the outskirts of San Juan, our only plan for this stop was to hang out beachside.  The weather was perfect, sunny but mild with a delightful breeze and despite our sunscreen, nine hours in the sun, even under our canopy, was definitely not a good idea. 

Though plans for snorkeling can be arranged on the big island, we wanted to return to the nearby island of Culebra.  Roughly an hour's drive

Snorkeling at Melones Beach
 to the new ferry terminal in Ceiba, Jose once again picked us up and delivered us to the ferry.  Departing on the 10:30 vessel, we were able to settle in our new accommodations by early afternoon and start exploring the island in our rented golf cart.  Initially, planning on a return to the fabulous Flamenco Beach, we were disappointed to learn that the entire beach and parking area was closed and would be for the duration of our stay.  Reasons for the closure varied depending on who was providing the story, but the bottom line was that the only public beach on the island with amenities was not open.  

Over the next three days, we returned to a few of our previous favorite snorkeling spots.

Starting with Melones Beach, overlooking the Luis Peña Natural Reserve, we were the only snorkelers in the water.  Soft and hard corals appeared to have been minimally impacted by the storms but unlike our previous visit only a handful of tropical fish showed up during our swim.

Visiting Punta Soldado, we were disappointed to find the water full of seaweed and not snorkeling friendly.  However, following a visit to a local snorkel shop we learned that we needed to travel about a quarter mile further to the end of the road on the southwest side of the point to find the clear waters.  Extensive damage to the coral was evident here, but young, new growth was widespread, so hopefully, over time this area will recover.  Water mampoo trees provided shade and a couple of deserted beach chairs created an ideal spot to enjoy the beautiful views. 

At Tamarindo Beach
Known for its calm waters, the following day we headed to Tamarindo Beach.  Corals we had seen on our previous visit were gone, but seagrass beds were lush and numerous turtles and a couple of manta rays were the highlights of this snorkel.  

Zoni Beach on the northeast side of the island was our next outing.  Not known for snorkeling, the white sand beach and turquoise water provide a lovely place for a walk or just for relaxing or picnicking.  Still sunburned from our first days in San Juan, we were grateful for the shade trees near the water’s edge.  As with all the beaches (except the closed Flamenco Beach), the only amenity provided is parking.  This happened to be the most crowded beach we visited, with perhaps a dozen people spread over the miles-long beach.

Covid-19 restrictions on Culebra and in San Juan were mixed.  Masks were required on our ferry trip and the grocery stores also

Along Zoni Beach
required masks.  The small store on Culebra was well-stocked but only allowed about 4 customers at a time.  They provided a sink outside for washing your hands and then had hand sanitizers inside the door which must be used as well.  Most small businesses did not post any restrictions, though the coffee shop near our lodging required a mask and only allowed 2 people at a time to enter.  When making our reservations on Culebra in March, I had been told that restaurants were just starting to reopen.  Luckily, the Palmetto Guesthouse had a small kitchen and that became important for a number of our meals.  We had no hot water and the jalousie windows in our room would not close, which seemed to allow the roosters crowing at dawn to be in the room with us, but the air conditioner worked well and though our room was small it was clean.  Perhaps only 6-8 restaurants on Culebra were open and they were frequently overcrowded and apparently understaffed.  However, we enjoyed wonderful, grilled whole snapper and pina coladas one night at Mamacitas and another fine dinner at the Dighny Dock overlooking the water another evening.  Some restaurants were only open Friday and Saturday.   

View along the Malecon
On our return to Ceiba, Jose transported us to the Courtyard Miramar near Old San Juan.  Spending literally hours walking, we were able to explore many areas that we had not seen on our previous visits.  Galleries, gift shops, restaurants, and food trucks near the water were open, even on Mother’s Day, when we assumed the city would shut down.  Stores and sidewalks were busy in the shopping district.  However, the Malecon, the major waterfront boardwalk that wraps around the historic district, was relatively deserted and the views were gorgeous. 

With the heat index peaking at 95 degrees, the hottest by far that we had experienced on this visit, we closed out our day with a poolside margarita, a perfect ending to our visit.  The next morning, we began the journey back home.  Plans for the summer are uncertain, but if we travel, I’ll be sure to bring you along for the trip. 

Sculpture and fountain along the Malecon

At Tamarind Beach

Manta Ray at Tamarind Beach

Overview on the drive to Punta Soldado

One of the many alarm clocks on Culebra

At Melones Beach

Capitol Building of Puerto Rico in San Juan

Mural in San Juan

Enjoying a Bacalaitos (Codfish Fritter) near the waterfront

Heading South and Arriving Home

The past month has been a bit of a blur.  We crossed through half a dozen states and continued, for the most part, indulging in our favorite diversions; fishing, kayaking, biking, and hiking.  As we traveled, the internet, and sometimes even phone connections, were a challenge.  Consequently, I haven't posted anything in a while.  We are actually back home now, but I wanted to produce a composite of our most recent experiences.

At Pattison State Park in Wisconsin.  Big Manitou Falls is the highest 

waterfall in the state at 165 feet. The park is located south of Superior.

Hike along the Black River at Pattison State Park.

Alan returning to our campsite at Weber Lake.  This park is part of the Iron County Wisconsin park system.  Only 11 campsites are available.  During our visit, only 2 of the sites were being used, so it was almost a private campground on our own little lake.  We caught countless panfish, that were returned to the water, but we also caught numerous trout which provided several dinners.

Canadian geese at one of the 4 lakes at Hartman Creek State Park in central Wisconsin.  We had planned to hike the Ice Age Trail but persistent mosquitoes persuaded us to make use of the parks' extensive bike trails instead. 

We were lucky to spot about 2 dozen (early bird) sandhill cranes in a cleared cornfield near the Aldo Leopold Center outside of Baraboo, WI on our approach to Devils' Lake State Park. Starting in November and through mid-December over 10,000 cranes pass by the area and stop for a break.  Tours are offered by the Center.  Check out the attached link for a YouTube video and more info--Aldo Leopold Center Crane Tours.

Hiking on the Tumbled Rock Trail at Devil's Lake State Park.  The 
1.6-mile linear hike is a relatively easy walk along the lakes' western shore cutting through boulders and providing lovely views of the lake.  There are a total of 29 miles of trails in the park, but most sounded more challenging than we wanted to attempt.  This was just right! 

                                          Harvesting pumpkins near Baraboo, WI

After stocking up on a variety of cheeses at Carr Valley Cheese in Sauk City, WI, we headed south to the Dubois County campground in Indiana.  In scanning info for cultural or musical events in southwestern Indiana, we found a one-day happening in nearby Ferdinand.  The free Ferdinand Folk Festival featured 2-outdoor music stages, artisans, food trucks, and a diverse representation of environmental and community groups.  A large open field, surrounded by shade trees provided ample room for social distancing for this popular event.

Lake at our campground on the south side of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Cherokee Dam located in Jefferson City, TN.  We didn't take advantage of kayaking opportunities here but enjoyed the biking and hiking trails through the park.

In Louisville, KY at Churchill Downs, we enjoyed mint juleps and contributed a small amount to the financial well-being of the track.  Rains moved in after the fifth race, so we moved on.  Unfortunately, the downpour continued over the next few days and made it impossible to explore the beautiful horse farms of the Lexington area.

At Lake Powhatan in the Pisgah National Forest outside Asheville, NC.  We were able to secure 3 nights in a row in the park (a rarity this summer).

The Asheville Art District is one of our favorite stops.  We followed up with a visit to the popular 12 Bones barbecue restaurant.

Our private campground in Zirconia, NC, allowed us an opportunity to explore nearby Hendersonville and Flat Rock.  Alan was able to catch a 16' rainbow trout in the stream running alongside our site.  

The Bearfootin Auction helps raise funds for various local non-profits in Hendersonville, NC. each October.  Twenty brightly painted fiberglass bears are displayed along Main St.  Our timing was perfect for experiencing the 61st Annual Art on Main offering the works of dozens of local artists and craftsmen.  Saturdays' Farmers Market provided freshly baked goodies, local wildflower honey, and organic veggies. 

For over a decade, whenever we were in the area, we have tried to secure campground reservations at Anastasia State Park outside of St, Augustine.  While this popular park typically is booked months in advance, we lucked into a last-minute site due to a cancellation.  The weather was ideal and the beach deserted.   It was a perfect conclusion to our summer travels.

The St. Augustine Lighthouse stands at the north end of Anastasia Island.  This view of the lighthouse is from the dunes along the beach. 

This may be the end of an era.  While we have been camping for 45 years, we have decided, once again, to sell our travel trailer.  We're not sure what the future may bring, and certainly, the travel situation will continue to be impacted by covid-19 for some time, but whenever we travel, I'll be sure to bring you along for the trip!


Minnesota. Part 4

Temperance River rushing out to Lake Superior
By the shore of Gitche Gumee

By the shining Big-Sea Water

The Song of Hiawatha, penned by HW Longfellow in 1855, is an epic poem about an Ojibwe warrior and his love for a Dakota woman.  This fictional love story takes place along the southern shores of Lake Superior (or the shore of Gitche-Gumee).  I would never attempt to compete with Longfellow’s description of the lands, the wildlife, and the lake.  But, the beauty of the area is what drew us back to the North Shore roughly 10 years after our last visit.  

The rugged terrain at Temperance River State Park first started to form over a billion years ago.  Hiking a portion of the Gitchee-Gumee Trail, we traveled along the River Gorge from the waterfront to the Upper Falls.  Designated trout streams are located within the park, but after talking with an avid, young fisherman we decided not to try.  Even with his local knowledge, he caught one trout after a full days’ effort. 

High Falls at Grand Portage
Due to the lack of available campsites at several of the North Shore state parks, we moved to 
Chippewa Indian reservation lands at Grand Portage.  We lucked into sunny skies, which had been evasive, and a site overlooking Lake Superior.   

The nearby Grand Portage State Park is home to the tallest waterfall in Minnesota.  High Falls is 120-feet, though the falls are actually shared with Canada along this international border.  Along the trail to the falls, we learned the history behind the areas’ name.  As a major fur-trading route, a nine-mile trail was created which bypassed the waterfalls and rapids on the last 20 miles of the Pigeon River before it flows into Lake Superior.  Since we have never portaged more than a few hundred feet, and with the use of a kayak dolly, their feat over these craggy lands seems impossible.

Part of The Cascades

Driving south, we found a campsite at Cascade State Park for a few nights.  Though we played peekaboo with clouds and rain, we were able to explore a number of trails.  Bears had been spotted in the park, so when venturing away from other hikers we would occasionally burst into song.  Supposedly, bears will generally try to avoid people and we wanted them to know we were there.   Named after the Cascade River, the highlights of the park are The Cascades, a series of five small waterfalls, and Cascade Falls.

High Falls at Tettagouche State Park
Tettegouche State Park provided additional trails.  High Falls along the Baptism River can be seen on the approach surrounded by high cliffs and from below after crossing the metal Swinging Bridge.  Though most of the trail was easy to moderate, the final quarter-mile upped to a moderately difficult even with or perhaps because of the steep stairs built on the approach to the falls.  This was our final waterfall for Minnesota.  We are now departing the state and starting our slow trip back home. 

Overlook at Grand Portage Campsite
Swinging Bridge over top of High Falls at Grand Portage

Upper Falls at Temperance River

Along the Temperance River Trail

Overlook at our Grand Portage campsite

Hidden Falls at Temperance River

Susie Island Overlook 

Bridge over Temperance River Gorge

Cascade Falls

Along the Temperance River Trail

Minnesota. Part 3

Boardwalk at Scenic Park
After our quick change of itinerary, due to the NE Minnesota and Canadian wildfires, we arrived for a few days at Scenic State Park. Walking along the wooden boardwalk perched along the edge of Coon Lake, we heard the eerie, haunting call of the common loon. A couple of black dots at the far side of the lake seemed to be the source. 

Utilizing our kayak dolly, we transported our kayaks from our campsite to the nearby boat launch. Paddling out into the lake with a camera and fishing gear, we were seeking the elusive loons and the difficult-to-catch walleye. Though the loons, or what we thought were loons, always stayed a few hundred yards away, we did succeed in catching dinner. We didn't catch the walleye, we were hoping for, but a couple of small-mouthed bass. Staying out on the water for several hours, we came upon a pair of tundra swan swimming along the shore. While trying to snap a shot, a boat rounded the corner of our secluded bay making the beautiful birds take flight. It was a special experience for Alan as they flew a few feet over his head. 

Exploring the park by bike, we discovered the historic lodge. This log structure is a classic
Tundra Swan
example of the rustic-style work of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). The building was closed during our visit, as many visitor centers have been during our travels this summer. (I’m assuming due to Covid-19). But also, this structure was surrounded by multiple sprinklers and fire hoses, in anticipation, perhaps, of fires that might start near or move to this park. 

A few trails are scattered throughout the park.  
One morning, we explored the Chase Point Trail nestled between the Coon and Sandwick Lakes. Threats of rain and distant thunder cut our walk short and we arrived back at camp a few moments before the skies opened. Wildlife sightings for the park included red-tailed squirrels, chipmunks, and marmots. Though signs warned of bears in the area, we didn’t see or hear of any during our visit. They were definitely not part of the wildlife we wanted to meet on our hike.

On our final day in the park, we spotted 2 loons, as well as a small flock of tundra swans, at the
opposite side of Coon Lake. This time we launched the kayaks leaving our fishing gear behind. Paddling silently across the lake, we were able to approach the adult and juvenile loon and snap a few shots. The parent (male and female loons look the same) approached the younger loon with breakfast as we looked on. Meanwhile, the swans, startled by a canoe, took flight. The outing had been an awesome success. 

Falls along the St. Louis River

Continuing to move south, we headed to one of the most popular parks in Minnesota, the Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth. Its ”swinging bridge”, which crosses the St. Louis River, was built by the CCC.  Despite the name, the bridge does not swing, but it does provide gorgeous views of the falls upriver and dramatic and unique rock formations along the riverbed. Hiking along the Silver Creek Trail and dropping down to the River Trail spur, we were along the water for most of the walk as we passed through a forest of birch, basswood, and spruce. The next day, we took the shorter CCC trail which offers a level, grassy walk along the river. 

As rains, high humidity, and cool temperatures (40s and 50s overnight) helped the hundreds of firefighters, loggers, and volunteers fight the fires in the state, we were able to pivot back along the North Shore Drive. While the Boundary Water Area remained closed, and will not be a part of this trip, the air quality index for the coastal areas was excellent, so we headed north.

View along the River Trail
The "Swinging Bridge"

Historic CCC lodge

Five tundra swan on takeoff

Waterfalls along the St. Louis River

Tundra Swan

Reflections at Coon Lake