Neighborly Natives

Milepost 2-2-13   Have you ever met someone for the first time and felt like they were an old friend?  Did you visit a new place and immediately feel that you were home?  That’s what happened when Kaye and I arrived at The Cove in the Dominican Republic last winter.  We were renting a VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) apartment on the beach on the Samana Peninsula at the east end of the island of Hispanola, and as soon as we started to meet the locals, we knew we had come home – at least for the winter.

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Manager Coco – and his son Alexandro – keep everything running smoothly at The Cove.

  Coco was the first to welcome us as our taxi driver dropped us at the front door of our home.  He was the manager of the complex and immediately started taking care of us, first with a tour of the house and a how-to-start-the-air-conditioner demonstration.   The next morning came more info as he delivered a 5-gallon water bottle and told us how to hire the local women to come in and cook a full meal of chicken or fish and rice and salad.  And a whole lot more.  Coco smiled a lot and his default reply to every question was, “No problema!”  He told us where we could buy provisions and cold Coke at the nearby colmado (general store) only a five-minute walk from the house.

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Grandma and her kids and grandkids run the local colmado.

  When we arrived at the colmado we were welcomed with quick smiles as we brushed the cobwebs off our Spanish and dove into the indigenous mode, ordering flour and sugar and milk and eggs… and banana chips.  Processed foods simply weren’t available.  Behind the counter grandma reached for this and that as we pointed at the stuff we wanted, and the grandkids scrambled to help.  We discovered later that the tourists who stayed at The Cove rarely shopped at the local store and in fact, didn’t cook for themselves much, choosing to eat out more often than not.  So, seeing our willingness to engage the local culture and support the neighborhood economy, we made ourselves popular very quickly.

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The guaguas shuttle passengers and cargo on a fixed route all day long.

  We saw even more surprise and pleasure on the faces of the neighbors when we showed up at the bus stop to board the guagua for a trip to the nearest town.  The guaguas are beat-up vans and small pickups with benches built in the back for passengers.  They come by every half hour and charge about 70 cents for a ride to town.  They were often crowded, but people would quickly scoot over to make room for the Americanos every time.  It seems that the foreigners rarely  ever ride the guaguas because they all have rental cars.  Except for us.  We like to get as close to the culture as we can.  Believe me, in a guagua, the culture is very close!

A Dominican visits the local colmado.
A Dominican girl visits the local market.

  The camera was the next thing that promoted our welcome with the neighbors.  The Dominicans love to have their pictures taken.  I rarely shoot a photo of a stranger without first making some introductory small talk, but these folks were eager to smile and pose for the camera.  Sometimes, when I was standing near someone, they would get my attention, point at the camera and then at themselves, and smile real big.  Man, this is easy!  Even teenage guys would pose when they saw the camera without the slightest hint that there was anything uncool about it.

These guys asked me to snap their picture while enjoying the seaside.
These guys asked me to snap their picture while waiting for friends at the seaside.
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These guys invited me in to share their fried fish with me.

  One day I grabbed the camera and headed out for a walk through the neighborhood of El Frances near our house.  The first guy I met on the street motioned me toward the path around behind the colmado where we took a shortcut through the baseball field and ended up standing in front of his house.  Next he took me to the school which was in session, disappeared inside and came back out with the principal so I could take her picture.  From there I continued on down the street where kids were running around naked while their moms hung up laundry in the yard.  Some guys invited me into their kitchen to share some freshly fried fish – right out of the pan.  I love these people!

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A local family on the front porch of their home in El Frances.

  I tell you, at the end of our stay as we said farewell to these great neighbors, it was like parting with family members.

  I love the Dominican Republic.  It’s a beautiful land with splendid beaches and forests of coconut palms.  But the biggest draw to this gorgeous tropical paradise is its beautiful people with their unpretentious grace and easy smiles.

This roadside vendor claimed his Mama Juana makes you strong and sexy.
This roadside vendor claimed his Mama Juana makes you strong and sexy.

  On my next visit to The Cove at El Frances I’m hoping to stay longer if I can possibly do it.  It’s like home after all.

  See my gallery of 250 photos of the land and the people of the Samana Peninsula, Dominican Republic, at my online gallery and photo store here.

Dominican teenager on the seashore.
Dominican teenager on the seashore.
These girls were prepared for an afternoon rain shower.
These girls were prepared for an afternoon rain shower with an improvised rain poncho.

The Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson

Milepost 11-13   If I were to compile a bucket list for nature lovers and history lovers – and adventurers who like to find the most isolated corners of the country, the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson would be on the list.  The Dry Tortugas are a cluster of islands in the Gulf of Mexico 68 miles west of Key West.  This remote destination is managed by the National Park Service.

  It is a great location for nature lovers because of its diverse aquatic life.  As an avid snorkeler, I was astounded at the wide range of sea creatures I saw there.  Besides the scores of tropical fish, I saw stingrays, spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, reef sharks, lobsters, tarpon, barracudas and of course, sea turtles (tortugas in Spanish).

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The moat seems unnecessary as the fort is surrounded by the ocean on three sides.

  Fort Jefferson is a massive structure built of bricks, 16 million bricks!  In fact, it is said to be the largest brick building in the western hemisphere.  It was  built over a 20-year period beginning in 1846.  The fort was never attacked, and none of its cannons were ever used in battle.  One of those guns was capable of firing a cannonball 3 miles!

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Now THAT’S a cannon!

  Probably its foremost claim to fame is that it was used as a military prison and was the place where Dr. Mudd was incarcerated after the assassination of President Lincoln.  He was later pardoned after saving many lives in an outbreak of yellow fever at the fort.

  There is a small campground on the island in the shadow of the fort, and campers pay a few dollars per night.  When I camped there the ocean was almost dead calm and the snorkeling was easy.  My friends and I snorkeled all the way around the island in an hour-and-a-half in about 12 feet of water.  Then after dark some us returned to the water with a dive light for a nighttime skinny snorkel.

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The small tent campground offers about a dozen sites.

  There are a couple of reliable shuttle services that zoom to the islands from Key West with powerful double-hulled catamarans – in only a couple of hours at about 35 knots!  If you want to get there even faster, take the sea plane.

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The fastest shuttle to Fort Jefferson is the seaplane from Key West.
Even though it seems huge, the fort was once crowded with 400 residents.
Even though it seems huge, the fort was once crowded with 400 residents.

Best lightning photo

A nighttime thunderstorm interrupts the normal summer calm just offshore from Garden Island.  A sheltered cove protects boats.

Retiring the Old RV

Milepost 10-1-13 

  We just camped in our old travel trailer for the last time.  We have put money down on a newer rig but haven’t taken delivery of it yet, so we made a spontaneous decision to take advantage of the mild weather of early autumn and take the old camper out for one last outing.

  It’s only an hour’s drive to our favorite campground on the beach at the tip of the Thumb at Port Crescent State Park, and we were able to get the same site we had last year within a few yards of the beach.

We can enjoy a panorama of Lake Huron from our favorite campsite at Port Crescent.

  Port Crescent’s golden sands are perfect for beach walking and the water was still relatively warm.  The weather was unusually mild for this time of year and we were able to linger out by the campfire well into the evening.

Our favorite beach walk takes us west a half mile to where the Pinnebog River empties into Lake Huron.

  We have been really excited about the newer fifth wheel and are anxious to bring it home and set it up with the necessary provisions for our once-in-a-lifetime journeys to California and Alaska and the other far corners of the country, but on this excursion we did a lot of reminiscing.  We have owned the old travel trailer for ten years and have built a lot of memories.

Anybody looking for a vintage travel trailer?  It’s a 1978 Jayco, and it’s too small to live in for more than a few days.

  This is one of the trailers that my construction crew stayed in while we were building new log homes all over the state a few years ago.  We worked year ’round, so this was our home away from home even through several winters.

  But we have to have something bigger for our next adventures, because Kaye and I will be living in it for months at a time as we tour the U.S. from coast to coast.  The new RV has a slide-out that expands the living space and should be a great help in preventing  cabin fever.

So the sun has set on another Lake Huron shoreline adventure.

  The sun has set on our adventures with the old Jayco.  We are looking forward to a new dawn with the newer Coachmen.  Watch for upcoming posts with the new rig!

Summer Shenanigans

Milepost 8-1-13 

  The seasons are no more obvious in the northern U.S. than out in the country.  In the city it is hard to see the changes that take place so gracefully and continuously outside of town.  In farm country there are more than four seasons as each one can be further divided into a myriad of micro-seasons.

  In the summer, for example, over a few weeks the wheat changes from bright green and grassy-looking in May and June to golden and grainy at harvest time in July.  The corn changes from knee-high by the fourth of July to nine feet high or more by August first.  The entire landscape goes through a continuum of overhauls right before our eyes.

  Kaye and I have not been traveling as much this summer because we enjoy the beauty of our secluded home in the log cabin here in central Michigan.  And we’ve been staying home intentionally to save money for our next big ventures to California and Alaska.

  So we are enjoying the sojourn of the seasons all around us here in the middle of the farm community where Kaye grew up as the daughter of a dairy farmer.

  I am a visually stimulated sort of guy, and I often see things that ignite my imagination on this journey through the seasons.  Today I pictured some nonsense in the field of huge round straw bales that we pass on our way to the highway and back.  Staging a bit of silly-ness is a lot of fun for me and even more so when my wife is willing to go along with it.  Here are the results of our latest craziness, some just-for-fun photos of our peaceful countryside surroundings.  The straw bales were rolled a day or two after the wheat was harvested.  They’ll probably be around for a while, so who knows what nonsense will follow over the next few weeks.

  Thanks to Kaye for conspiring in the nonsense!

  Hmm, I wonder what we can do with 10-foot high corn fields next?

 

Michigan’s Sandy Shorelines

Milepost 7-2-13 

  Michigan is defined by it’s natural boundaries – the Great Lakes.  The lower peninsula is shaped like a mitten which is bordered by sandy beaches on the west-facing shorelines along Lake Michigan and mostly stony beaches facing east along Lake Huron (see my earlier post describing some of Michigan’s Rocky Shorelines).

  Probably the most impressive stretch of sandy shoreline is near Traverse City at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which includes several miles of perched sand dunes along the Leelenau Peninsula and the large offshore archipelago, North and South Manitou Islands.  These large sloping sand dunes tower 450 feet above the beach and Lake Michigan.  The Manitou Islands are premiere backpacking destinations and offer real seclusion for the wanderer seeking remote solitude.

 

The view of Lake Michigan from atop the bluff at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

  South Manitou Island has designated campgrounds, fresh water supplies, lighthouse tours and shipwrecks.  On North Manitou hikers are allowed to camp anywhere away from a body of water or a historical building (there are remnants of ghost towns on both islands) and must filter or boil water for drinking and cooking.  Friends of mine who just camped on North Manitou two weeks ago reported that they didn’t see another human being for several days while hiking and camping on the large island.

 

Hikers descend the dunes for an evening swim in Lake Michigan – before the grueling return climb.

  The west Michigan shore is basically a 200-mile-long stretch of sandy beach that is interrupted every few miles with a lighthouse and harbor town.  Not only the area inhabitants but also thousands of tourists have tapped in to the beauty of this region with swimming, boating, kayaking, fishing, diving, four-wheeling, kite boarding, skinny dipping… and a whole lot more.

 

Young hikers on South Manitou Island.

Many of the beaches that line Michigan’s west coast are managed by city and state park services, and private land owners keep an eye on their waterfronts, but there are vast stretches of sand that don’t seem to be regulated by anybody – there’s simply nobody around.  Ah, what seclusion, what freedom, what natural beauty, stretching for miles and miles!

 

On the eastern side, there are also golden sands that border the sunset side of Michigan’s “Thumb” from Caseville up to Sleeper State Park and Port Crescent State Park near Port Austin at the tip of the Thumb where the beaches end and the stony bottoms of the eastern shores take over.

 

South Manitou Island snorkelers leap from the wreck of the Morazan, a freighter grounded during a blizzard in 1960.

(This activity is not endorsed by the Park Service.)


  There are few places where it is legal to drive your Jeep on the beach, but at Silver Lake Dunes you are welcome to drive around on the sand dunes in your dune buggy or other four-wheel-drive vehicle, and there are many campgrounds nearby.

 

  Visitors are often surprised at the shorelines of Michigan and the vast beauty – and recreational opportunity – that they present.  One could spend a lifetime enjoying all of this, but there’s something to keep in mind before scheduling a visit here:  Michigan is crossed by the 45th parallel, the latitudinal half-way point between the equator and the north pole, and this means that winters are harsh here.  And the beaches are deserted while the local inhabitants hibernate next to the fireplaces in their cabins.  The lakeshore is not a safe place to be when the snow is blowing, the wind is howling, and the ice is piling up on the beach in huge mounds.  That’s why many Michiganders head south for the winter.

 

  But in the warmer months the Michigan shorelines – whether sandy or stony – are some of the most inviting spots in the midwest!  My personal favorite time is September after Labor Day when the kids have gone back to school and the campgrounds are empty but the water is still warm enough for wading, snorkeling or diving (I keep a wetsuit with my snorkeling gear in case the water temp isn’t quite warm enough for me) .  And the cool evening temps make the campfire even more appealing.  Ah, peace and quiet!

 

Each September, Kaye and I camp within a few yards of the beach at Port Crescent State Park

Michigan’s Rocky Shorelines

Milepost 7-1-13 

Michigan has more shoreline than either Florida or California.  And it has more inland lakes (about 11,000) than Minnesota, which is said to be “the Land of 10,000 Lakes”.  And Michiganders own more boats than the constituents of any other state.  I guess maybe it is the “Texas” of freshwater lakes.

  Much of Michigan’s shoreline is rugged and rocky, especially surrounding the upper peninsula where there are forest-covered cliffs and crags and boulders along many miles of the shore.  The lower peninsula is sandy along the entire west side bordering Lake Michigan, but the eastern shore, bordering Lake Huron, is a mix of stoney bars and sandy beaches.  You could generalize that if the beach faces west, it is sandy, and if it faces east, it is stoney.

The Lower Peninsula

  The only real stretch of rugged shoreline in the lower peninsula is at the tip of the Thumb where there is an outcropping of shale that stretches for several miles.  The most prominent landmarks are Hat Rock, Table Rock, and Turnip Rock.  These are accessible mostly from the water, as there is private property bordering much of this shore.

Turnip Rock is best reached by canoe or kayak.

  As the crow flies, Turnip Rock is a couple of miles east of the village of Port Austin, but the trip by water is much farther because there is a stone bar that extends almost 2 miles from shore, so the boater must add several miles of paddling to get around this formation, unless he is willing to portage across the stones to shorten the trip (wear heavy-soled sandals or sturdy water shoes).  On a nice day it takes about an hour-and-a-half, unless the wind is against you.  This upside-down “V” route takes you within a half mile of the Port Austin Reef lighthouse at the northernmost point.

Port Austin Reef Lighthouse is 2.5 miles from land.

  During my last visit there it seemed odd to me to be able to get out of my kayak and walk around on the flat shale bottom in only 2 or 3 feet of water… when I was 2 miles from the nearest shore!

  It’s a good idea to call ahead for availability of rental equipment at Port Austin Kayak Rentals.  After a hard day of paddling on the lake, I found Joe’s Pizzeria in Port Austin to be a welcome landing for delicious pizza and pasta and a whole lot more.

The Upper Peninsula

Michigan is rich in hiking destinations.

Michigan’s most famous shoreline in the upper peninsula is the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore which is managed by the US National Park Service.  This impressive Lake Superior shoreline is dominated by sheer cliffs that reach over 200 feet high and are punctuated by arches, overhangs and caves.  There are hiking trails that follow the tops of these cliffs making it a popular backpacking destination.  

Hiking trails are perched atop the cliffs and call for caution.

A few campgrounds are scattered throughout the park, and it’s important to make reservations early if you hope to get a good campsite.  This is back country camping, so there are few water pumps to be found.  Most everyone dips water from the lake or stream and either boils it or filters it for drinking and cooking.

It is possible to see the Pictured Rocks from below by boarding a tour boat in the town of Munising a few miles to the west.  Also, kayaking is becoming an ever more popular means of getting up close to the caves and arches that undercut the huge cliffs.

Board the tour boat for an up-close look at the cliffs.
The cliffs are riddled with caves and natural arches.
Spray Falls drops 75 feet directly into Lake Superior.
Hikers get their fill of the spectacular grandeur from the vantage points along the cliff top trails.

  The Pictured Rocks are not the only picturesque shoreline along Lake Superior.  Among the other famous locations is Isle Royale, a large and remote rocky island that is home to populations of both wolves and moose.  Camping and hiking on Isle Royal is limited and requires working months ahead to reserve a spot on the ferry and a back country camping permit.

  Lake Superior waters are always cold even in the late summer, so swimming is not usually on anybody’s agenda.  If you’re kayaking, have a way to keep warm with a wetsuit or warm waterproof clothing.

  After your hiking or kayaking adventure, don’t forget to enjoy one of the famous north Michigan pasties at one of the local eateries like Muldoon’s Restaurant in Munising which always gets good reviews for its authentic Scandinavian cuisine.

Tulips and Old Technology

Milepost 5-20-13  

  Last weekend my wife and I visited the west coast of Michigan for an early anniversary get-away, and we were privileged to see some famous sights and meet some interesting  folks along the way.

The DeZwaan Windmill dominates the landscape at Windmill Island Park.

  Our first stop was the Windmill Park in Holland, Michigan, where the annual Tulip Festival had just ended the day before.  The tulips were in top form, and the 400-year-old windmill was open for tours.  Our guide was a Dutch American woman named Irene who was able to climb five flights of stairs to the fifth floor of the mill to give us a tour.  This particular mill was a fully operational grist mill that grinds flour with the power of the wind, and there is some really old wooden technology inside.  The gears are all made of wood, mostly ironwood, which is self-lubricating.  It was bought from the Dutch and shipped to the US in 1964 sporting an array of bullet holes from being strafed by warplanes during World War II.  It’s the last windmill that was allowed to leave the Netherlands as they had just declared all their windmills as historic sites and were beginning to restore many them.

 

Irene gives a knowledgable and friendly tour of the old windmill.

  Next we had lunch with some friends at a Dutch restaurant called the DeBoer Bakery on the north side of town.  The cuisine was authentic and delicious.

 

The 120-year-old Maplewood Hotel.

 

  We stayed at the Maplewood Hotel in Saugatuck for the next two nights, a nineteenth century edifice with much of the original woodwork intact.  The floors creaked appropriately in a lot of places as we rambled through the convoluted corridors, and we imagined spooky tales of ancient ghosts roaming the halls at night.

   Killwin’s fudge shop in town was open and we took full advantage.  Scooter’s restaurant on the waterfront has some of the best pizza in town at a reasonable price.

 

 

  We spent the second day of our trip near the Lake Michigan waterfront in the town of St. Joseph enjoying the parks and the wharf.  This was my first opportunity to shoot the lighthouses there, and I was also happy to find the fishermen on the jetty hooking some catfish.  I don’t know if these guys knew I was coming or what, but their attire was perfect for the setting.

 

 

 

 

 

   The Beachside Deli is an authentic Mediterranean restaurant downtown where the Greek gyro sandwiches are filled with a delectable mix of lamb and chicken and a specialty sauce.  Mmm, terrific!  It’s on State Street near Broadway (not near the beach).

 

  Kaye and I love the west side of Michigan, and return year after year to enjoy these very picturesque and welcoming people and places.  I hope you get a chance to visit there too.  There is a lot to see!

 

 

The lighthouses on the pier at St. Joseph/Benton Harbor guide the boats going and coming.

See a gallery of my Holland/St.Joe photos at my photo website here.  Click “Slideshow” in the top right corner to view the photos in full screen mode.  Thanks!