A Day on Huguenot Flat Water – James River Park System

Huguenot Flatwater Segment is at the most western part of the James River Parks System.

The James River Parks System is a municipal park in Richmond, Virginia. It is 550 acres of heavily wooded land along the James River. Hundreds are drawn to this park each year for the biking trails, swimming holes, beaches, fishing and of course paddling. The park system is a big part of what strengthens Richmond’s name as “the River city”. The Huguenot Flat Water posting is the the most western part of the park. It is a popular launching site for canoeists and kayakers, providing 2 miles of flat water paddling before the river starts to churn once again.

The snowpeak fire pit, that has been with us on countless trips, is introduced to a new generation.

It’s the middle of October, and finally starting to feel like it, with highs in the upper 60s we wanted to take to the water. After hearing about his successful canoe run on at Pocahontas State Park, Minh’s uncle wanted to take him for a spin on the James. He was nice enough to load the Ol’ red prospector, and pack the food. It’s actually been a while since we have both been on this canoe together. It’s hard to believe that this was the canoe we drove up to Erie, Pennsylvania to pick up in March 2016. When we arrived at the parking lot, I realized that I actually haven’t been back to this flatwater segment in over a decade.

A day with his uncle. Eating apples and goldfish.

The air was crisp and the water calm as expected at this time of year with little rain. We paddled to the north bank and built a fire in Brian’s trusty snowpeak fire pit. We explored this beach that would normally be underwater in the summer. We searched for shells and firewood. Minh thoroughly enjoyed it. He was also much more calm and stable in the canoe this time around. This outing reminded me that you don’t always have to go far to have some fun.

*Always remember to check water levels before paddling trips. Know your sections of the river, where you plan to put in and out! And of course, don’t forget your PFDs. Have fun.

First time in the canoe – Paddling with a toddler

I have been wanting to take our 23 month old son out on the canoe pretty much since he was born but I wanted to wait until he was ready and old enough. The idea of bringing a toddler along in a canoe can sound a little unnerving but with the proper instruction and safety measures, we were all able to have a good time. I also didn’t bring my regular camera on the canoe, instead I brought along my trusty Sony FDR FDR-X3000, it is an action camera that shoots in 4k. After my gopro died on me, I switched to sony and this camera has not let me down. I love it.

Looking for fish beneath the lily pads

We decided to test the waters on a beautiful October day with a high of 71 F. We head out to our “go to” spot, Pocahontas State Park. We wanted to choose a waterway that we knew well, and Swift Creek Lake was a good a place as any to go on our toddler maiden voyage. The water in this lake is very shallow, and calm with very few areas exceeding 8 ft. Most of the lake sits at waist depth. The lake itself is very “creek-like” and as a result there are numerous, quiet, meandering routes to take. At Pocahontas State Park, canoes and kayaks could be rented for $10 an hour and they provide paddles, PFDs. No gas motor boats are allowed on the lake to preserve the peace and quiet.

Overall, I was surprised at how well he did. He loved the small waterways and marveled at the wildlife we were able to observe closely from the canoe. Several turtles, fish, an a large heron. There are very few man-made vessels that nature accepts, the canoe is certainly one of them. Practicing different strokes such as the “indian stroke” can allow one to hover silently through the water while never fully taking the blade out of the water. This is a continuous stroke and is excellent for observing wildlife. Our son lasted the full hour before he started to get antsy. Most of the time, he just wanted to use the canoe paddle, as he is most definitely in the phase of toddlerhood known as “MINE”. Everything appears to be his! It looks like he have a new project on our hands in the near future……canoe paddle making.

York River State Park – Williamsburg, Virginia

Map of York River State Park

An unseasonably cool breeze came through central Virginia and decided to stay around for the whole weekend. We were blessed with clear skies and temperatures in the mid to upper 70s. This was certainly a welcoming reprieve and sign that the last weeks of summer are upon us. It seems as if the more record-breaking hot summers we endure, the more I value such days. The morning air was actually crisp and it reminded me of the unfamiliar feeling of being chilly! We’ve gotten through the worst of it….autumn is just around the corner. The only logical thing for us to do with this beautiful day was to explore a new park! A 50 minute drive from Richmond brought us to York River State Park. The impressive York River spans 34 miles long with a width of 1 mile at it’s beginnings to 2.4 miles as it opens into the Chesapeake Bay. The river is formed by the confluence of the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi Rivers and drains a large watershed region of the coastal plains of Virginia. The York River was home to the indigenous people for thousands of years and subsequently was used heavily during both American Revolutionary and Civil Wars; it was the site of many historic battles.

Fleet of canoes on Taskinas Creek

Today, York River State Park serves as a diverse and well kept recreational area for all lovers of the outdoors. It is a day-use only park and as such, it closes at dusk (during the summer is 8:00pm, the gates lock so be careful!). The park’s 2531 acres offer a plethora of activities, from canoeing and fossil hunting, to historical sites to explore. The unique location on such a large river provides a rich variety of terrain, with sweeping bluffs, open lands, marshes, and densely wooded forest. This transition zone of land to eventually ocean, provides refuge for hundreds of animal species including, bald eagles, river otters, deer, crab and countless insect species.Our boy was certainly excited to be here. He immediately took off into the large open spaces of freshly cut grass to let out a triumphant toddler yell that was loud enough to catch the attention of nearby deer. Our first stop was the nature center, where he eagerly pointed at every single animal and inquired “what’s that!? what’s that?!”. He was particularly fond of the owls and of course the rabbits. Behind the nature center is a small amphitheater that can be reserved for meetings and retreats, it overlooks the York river with a grand view over a bluff. From here, you are able to spot the large nests of the numerous osprey that hunt these grounds.

One of my favorite parts of this park has to be the lovely view overlooking a Taskinas Creek, as it winds through a dense marsh. There is a wooded stage with a mounted tower viewer binocular set to see the show that nature has in store for us. What’s even better, is the fact that you can walk down a series of staircases to get right on this tributary. A fleet of canoes is standing by, ready to be rented out and paddled along this scenic waterway. I was very impressed at how well kept the park seemed to be. The facilities and equipment seemed to be in tiptop shape. I was pleased to learn that like all Virginia State Parks, York River organizes numerous activities each week to draw visitors to the park. One of which is called “canoeing under the stars” from 8-10pm, where canoiests can paddle by moonlight along the mighty York.

The big 3: The James, York and Potomac Rivers.

We hiked a short half mile trail across boarded walkways to get to Fossil Beach. Along the way, we spotted two large white-tailed deer in the distance. Our toddler without skipping a beat, took off a full speed after them. The deer were amused at this small creature creating such a scene and decided to watch for several moments before taking off into the woods. We had the beach to ourselves as the sun was beginning to set. Our boy loved every single moment of it as he tracked down crabs, fingered through seashells and pick up colorful rocks.

 

The state parks were created for all to enjoy and to instill a sense of adventure, inspiration and curiosity. By the look on my son’s face, York River State Park certainly accomplished all of those goals. We will certainly be back to paddle Taskinas Creek and to explore the many trails.

For more information, here is a link to the official website for York River State Park. 

Things to consider bringing:

  • bug spray (especially around the ankles to prevent tick bites)
  • sunblock, hat
  • sunglasses
  • towels
  • strainer (if you’re fossil hunting)
  • water bottle
  • water shoes
  • camera
  • binoculars

Pocahontas State Park – Chesterfield, Virginia

Pocahontas State Park Map of facilities. Beaver Lake trail, 2.3 mile loop.

A short 24 minute drive from Richmond, Virginia will get you into the tranquil and densely wooded areas of Pocahontas State Park. It is a fantastic escape from the noise and grind of the city. Over the past few years, we have actually made several trips to Pocahontas although I truly didn’t appreciate all of it’s offerings until now when we are tripping with a toddler. Pocahontas is a very well kept park providing a plethora of activities for everyone to enjoy.

I thought that we had gotten through the hottest days of Virginia summer but sure enough, I was wrong. Here we are, the 17th of August with temperatures still in the 90s F. We were getting stir crazy indoors and wanted to get moving. We set out to hike the 2.3 mile loop around Beaver Lake in Pocahontas State park. The only way to do this, was early in the morning, before the sun was at full strength.

Beaver Lake – July 2018
Maiden voyage out on Swift Creek Lake in Pocahontas State Park, VA March 2016

Most of the Beaver Lake Trail is under the thick canopy of the forest so we were actually all quite comfortable. We were also blessed with an early morning of overcast and fog. The trail is relatively flat with very minor elevation changes. Our son has a taken a great liking to the Kelty Kids backpack carrier. It was a little too comfortable and he actually took a nap in it.

The water lillies were in full bloom
Lilly pads

Other activities at Pocahontas include, camping, bike riding, water recreation area as well as plenty of good water for paddling. There is also an excellent nature center with a kids play area. We only had a couple of hours to spend here but will be back to take him to the water play area. Pocahontas is certainly an awesome place for anyone to explore nature….whether it be on foot, bicycle or canoe.

Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Park – Wyoming, USA

Map of Yellowstone National Park

 

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant, signed into law, the establishment of the first national park in the United States…Yellowstone National Park. This massive national park covers a whopping 3,468.4 square miles; larger than the states Rhode Island and Delaware. 96% of the park is in Wyoming, 3% in Montana and approximately 1% in Idaho. The stories of Yellowstone and its spectacles are well known to people from all over the world – Old Faithful, the roaming bison, the brilliant springs, and the massive waterfalls.

Minh is thrilled once we reached Gardiner, Montana. The gateway city to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park.

I wanted to see for my own eyes, the landscapes, wildlife and magic, that inspired a country, to begin protecting and celebrating these areas known as National Parks. In today’s turbulent political climate, it seems as if our country has forgotten about these places, and we are unfortunately heading in the complete opposite direction. More and more wilderness areas are under threat each day, as efforts to seek new resources take priority.  At this rate, who knows how much of our planet will be left in 40 years. I wanted to get away from work, politics and the debates and go explore the wild west for myself.

A photographer captures a moment in the black sand basin of Yellowstone National Park

Sarah and I were fortunate enough to be able to rearrange our schedules to have 8 days (5/19-5/26) off together to explore Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. We realized this was an ambitious trip, considering the fact that we were bringing our 7 month old boy along; but we were eager to adventure as a new family. I quickly learned that traveling with a baby, turned simple trips…into expeditions. We carefully thinned out our luggage so that we could make room for all of Minh’s clothing, toys, food and milk. He did remarkably well over both legs of the flight (Richmond to Atlanta then Atlanta to Bozeman) and then the three hour drive to Yellowstone National Park. We stopped frequently along the way to make sure he could eat, crawl around, and get some fresh air. I actually preferred the slower pace of traveling with a baby. It helped removed us from from our hectic daily routines and pace of life back in Richmond. Minh taught us to slow down and take everything in. We often found ourselves parked next to the road feeding and playing with him in the back seat or trunk. We took in the serene, roadside skylines of Montana and Wyoming without much care for anything else.

Yellowstone, a geothermal wonderland

When planning a trip to Yellowstone, the lodging options are both varied and abundant. We were traveling with a baby so we knew that we wanted to be in the actual park. This would help cut down our travel time each morning and allow us to see as much of the park as possible. For those traveling with some more flexibility, there are several good options to explore, such as small towns just outside Yellowstone (ex. Gardiner and West Yellowstone) or even camping options within the park. We booked one of the last spots in the northern section of Yellowstone at the Canyon lodge. Despite traveling during shoulder season to avoid the crowds, all of the lodges seemed very busy. I could not imagine what it would be like during the summer (peak season).The next morning, we were eager to explore the raw and rugged spaces of Yellowstone in broad daylight. There certainly is a palpable pulse in the earth of Yellowstone. This massive park is centered over the largest super volcano on the continent. The landscape never lets you forget that you are treading over a sleeping giant of a volcano. From the steaming hot springs, bubbling mud pits to the spitting of geysers, this place is certainly alive……..and mighty.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone landscape

As the first national park to be created, Yellowstone certainly makes you feel as if you are at the heart of it all. I’m glad that we packed for all different types of weather, because at 7500ft, things could change really quickly. In the early morning hours, the park is draped in a blanket of fog which clears usually by about 9:00am. We had sunny days for all of our time at Yellowstone which was very lucky considering the forecast predicting light rain and cloudy skies. In true mountain fashion, we were hit with a snow flurry as we were leaving the park. I was surprised to learn that it is not uncommon to get snowfall as late as July!I was also surprised to learn that it took me quite some time to get used to the high altitude. Strenuous activities tired me out faster than usual and I had a very mild headache the first 24 hours. The decrease oxygen concentration is certainly noticeable in my opinion and it is not recommended for people with pre-existing coronary artery disease to travel at such heights. This lower oxygen content could put the coronary arteries of the heart in a dangerous scenario of supply and demand mismatch, leading to worsening ischemia and therefore angina. So if you have pre-existing coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, or pulmonary hypertension make sure you get cleared by your physician before. (my only medical plug in for this article).

Yellowstone is divided into villages which are centered around main attractions such as Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs. As a result of this set up, I feel like Yellowstone has a more “touristy” feel, than most national parks. During peak season, cars are lined up back to back and alongside the roads, with frequent stops as visitors often pull to the side for photos of bison or landscapes. One could always take the beaten path and venture into backcountry Yellowstone, for a more secluded experience. With Minh coming along, we actually wanted the “tourist” experience, with access to bathrooms, restaurants and drive-up landmarks to visit. I don’t think he’s quite yet ready for backcountry Ontario canoe camping ;).

We spent the next 4 days and nights exploring all quadrants of this magnificent land. We started each day at the Canyon Lodge for an early, hearty breakfast. We would then drive to the farthest part away from the lodge and then starting working our way back at each site. Although the main attractions (Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring etc) were spectacular sights to see, I think my favorite parts of the park were the lesser known attractions such as the mud volcano and the mouth of the Yellowstone River as it opened up in to the grand canyon of Yellowstone. These were areas where you could get away from the crowds and listen to the breathing of earth below us.

Idaho

The second leg of our adventure took us to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where we spent the next two nights at the Lodge at Jackson Hole. This was our home base for exploring the Grand Tetons and surrounding Jackson area. We were skeptical that we would actually see the tetons because of the predicted rain for the next two days. Still hopeful, we packed our lunches and head out to explore Grand Teton National Park. A short 30 minute drive from Jackson Hole, the teton range certainly has a different vibe than yellowstone. It had more of a national park “feel” that I was used to. The crowds were not as intense and the pace a little slower.

Miraculously, and I don’t know how, but we were blessed with unexpected sunshine that cut it’s way through the clouds and parted a view for us to the teton range. We watched in marvel as more and more of the Tetons emerged into fire before us. The sunshine stayed with us for the rest of the day. Unlike yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is not situated over a super volcano. As a result, the landscapes are less raw, and more majestic, it appears a bit more hospitable to wildlife but I’m not a geologist or biologist. Within the first few hours in the park, the locals felt like showing off, we caught sight of a mother grizzly and her cubs, moose, elk, antelope and of course bison. We spent the day driving from site to site and sitting in the back of our car, playing with Minh and watching the sun, and clouds revolve through the most gorgeous landscapes.

Before we knew it, our time out west was drawing to a close. We had one last night left in Belgrade, Montana ahead of us before we went home. The drive from Jackson Hole to Bozeman, Montana was one of my favorite parts of the trip. The drive through Idaho was spectacular. We climbed high into the mountains before traveling through some of the flattest land I’ve ever seen. The 4 hour drive brought us just outside Bozeman where we would spent the night at Ross Creek Cabins, a set of charming small cabins run by a very nice couple, Steve and Karen. I highly recommend this place for anyone looking to exploring Bozeman and the surrounding areas. As we sat by the campfire reflecting on the past 7 days, we both realized that this was the first time that we were going to see a sunset out west! We put Minh to bed every night around 7:00pm so we haven’t seen a single one prior. As we sat there watching the orange and purple hues collide, with a gentle dry breeze across our face, I just thought one thing……I love this land.

There are 60 National Parks in the United States. How many have you been to?

Torres Del Paine National Park – Patagonia, Chile

patagonia_map
Map of Patagonia, from National Geographic

At the very end of the world, in the most southern tip of South America, exists the land of wind, fire and ice known as Patagonia. This landscape of spectacular mountains, deserts, glaciers and alpine meadows spans across both Argentina and Chile, from the western pacific coast to the eastern atlantic coast. Curiously, the name Patagonia translates roughly to “land of the big feet”. It originated from the word “Patagão” (or Patagoni) – a name Magellan gave to the natives of this new land he encountered on his expedition in 1520. The Patagoni he described were actually the Tehuelche people, who in general, were much taller than the average European. Their large footprints found in tracks led the first explorers to believe that this was a mystical land of giants. The footprints were in fact large because of the leather skinned guanaco boots that they all wore during the cold winters.

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View from the small Puerto Natales airport, staring into Patagonia

Patagonia is a land of secrets and wonder – even the story behind its name I found fascinating. It has long been at the top of my list of places to visit and finally on January 20, 2017 (inauguration day), we left Virginia to explore this untamed land.Traveling to Patagonia was no easy feat. After a 2 hour drive to Washington DC, we flew 5 hours to reach Panama City, and then 6 hours to Santiago, Chile. From there, it was a 3.5 hour flight to reach Puerto Natales followed by a 2 hour drive to reach Patagonia Camp. We broke up our traveling with a day’s rest in Santiago on both legs of our journey.

Map of Torres Del Paine National Park

I will never forget the flight to Puerto Natales Airport in Patagonia. The harsh winds created fierce turbulence and a hair-standing landing. Upon opening the cabin doors, our faces were hit with the howling winds and cold air of Patagonia. All around us in this desolate airport at the end of the world, were mountains as far as the eye could see…mountains, fields and emptiness. We would now have five full days to explore this mysterious land.

We grabbed our luggage amongst the dozens of hikers from all over the world and hit the road to Patagonia Camp (our base camp and home for the next 5 days). From here, we could rest and relax and plan our excursions into Torres Del Paine National Park each day. I hope to one day write a review about our experience at Patagonia Camp, but for now, all I can say is that it was simply an unforgettable experience with fantastic staff members.

Torres Del Paine National is one of the most popular attractions in Chilean Patagonia. It is one of the 11 protected areas of the Magallanes Region and Chilean Antarctica. The park’s 2422 square kms of mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers attract thousands of visitors each year. The centerpiece of the park are the Paine (pronounced PIE-nay, meaning “blue”) mountains and more specifically the Towers of Paine (Torres Del Paine: spanish translation). These are three distinct granite peaks in the Paine mountain range that many consider to be the 8th wonder of the world.

Lago Pehoe

Our first full day in Patagonia was spent on an easy 8.5km hike through pre-Andean xerophilous scrubland. There was plenty of wildlife to see; guanacos, flamingos, condors and grey foxes. The most elusive animal in Patagonia is at the top of the food chain. The puma. I found this to be an unusual terrain for this predator, but clearly it was very successful. The fields were scattered with guanaco skeletons that were picked clean by condors after the pumas have had their fill. I was most in awe at how different everything was from any other place that I had been. The terrain, the geology, the wildlife, climate, and of course the flora.

One of the symbols of Patagonia is the evergreen shrub know as Calafate (box-leaved barberry, berberis microphylla). It is a plant native to southern Chile and Argentina  They were scattered through the fields during our hike and we were able to taste its edible blue-black berries. These berries were used frequently by the locals to produce all sorts of goods, such as jams, flavoring and even beer. Legend says that anyone who eats a Calafate berry will one day find their way back to Patagonia.

We continued our trek through the scrubland and explored caves with prehistoric paintings that dated over 6500 years old. We came back to camp that evening and met many of the other visitors. They were really from all over the world, Denmark, Canada, Britain and the USA. Most who come to Patagonia, travel here to hike the trail to the base of the towers, in the heart of the park. And some talented hikers showed us their watercolor creations of the towers once they reached the base. We were definitely excited for what lay ahead.

In Patagonia, the unpredictable weather makes trip planning essential, and you should always a back up option in mind if your primary objective does not follow through. In this sense, I felt that Patagonia camp did an excellent job of laying out potential options for the next day’s event. They were checking on the weather constantly to decide which trails when be optimal of the next days travel. This was of course a land where you can have all four seasons in one hour. The variability in weather was also drastic even in the smallest distances throughout the park. For instance, it could be pouring rain in the west end of the park and bright sunshine and clear skies on the east end over the mountain ranges. We had originally planned to go to the base of the towers on the second day, however storms had washed away the bridge access. We decided to shoot for the French Valley as the second option, however once we arrived, the ferry (which had been out of commission for the past 3 days) was full.

We went to our third option the Lazo-Weber trail. A 12km hike with a little bit more elevation climb than our first day but not incredibly strenuous. We hiked this trail in the opposite direction from west to east. This particular day ended up being one of our most beautiful days in the park. We were able to get great angles of the paine mountains and had amazing lookouts at the lagoons and meadows. This hike allows for one of the best views at Almirante Nito (8759ft), Los Cuernos (8530ft) and Cerro Fortaleza (9514ft) and the Paine Grande (10006ft). Our hike took us through meadows, forests and mountain tops. One of the most memorable moments for me was eating lunch inside a quiet forest, to shield us from the harsh winds. At the end of the 12km, was a small Patagonian ranch where we sat, ate lunches and drank.

On Day 3, we were itching to get into the heart of the park. We woke up early and head to the ferry to finally reach the segment on the “W” trail known as the french valley. It was a strenuous day of hiking, but the breath taking views, kept us pushing forward.

The French Valley – Patagonia, Chile

As we approached the glacier, we scaled rocks up melting glacier waters and crossed several wooden bridges. This is when things started to get interesting. At several parts of this trail, we were just basically fording through ankle deep glacier water. Once inside the French Valley, we found a quiet spot to eat lunch and gaze in awe at this magnificent glacier. We sat, ate, and listened to the cracking the glacier, as it continued it’s melt and freeze cycle in the summer time. After lunch, we filled our bottles with some of the best tasting glacier water I’ve ever had and caught the ferry to the mainland.

Before we knew it, our time in Patagonia was coming to an end. I can see how someone could easily spend several months here and still not see everything they wanted to. Although we were disappointed about not being able to see the base of the towers, we were grateful for so many things. Most importantly, no one got hurt and the weather was absolutely perfect. It had rained 50 days straight shortly before our arrival so we knew we were incredibly lucky. We visited during the Patagonian summer, and although we had incredible views. Some tour guides suggested to come back in the fall when the park is much quieter and the scenery is even more colorful with the fall foliage. The winds were also apparently less intense. It was not in our fate to see the base of the towers this go around, but I hope that the story  of the Calafate berry holds true – maybe one day, we will find ourselves back to this amazing land.