“Yardsale” at the Lincoln family home

by Sonja Stark on February 1, 2015

Marianne and my Mutti, a pair of carefree Germans enjoying  a winter sojourn cross-country skiing at the Hildene Nordic Ski Center in Manchester, Vermont.

Marianne and my Mutti, a pair of carefree Germans enjoying a winter sojourn cross-country skiing at the Hildene Nordic Ski Center in Manchester, Vermont.

With all the snow received last week and more pending tonight, it’s time to go gliding again! Mutti’s good friend Marianne joined us on Friday to debut her beginner status on the rolling terrain of Manchester, Vermont.

Being a gutsy German, like my mom, Marianne was courageous enough to try downhill skiing in her late forties. Now, at 69 years of age, she was ready to give cross-country skiing, the more prosaic of the two sports, a valiant effort.

Slapping on a pair of slippery sticks and wrapping your hands around skinny poles is NOT rocket science. However, the act of moving your legs and arms simultaneously on tracks no wider than a bicycle road tire and in a steady fashion, is no easy feat. Add a few groomed hills and quick corners to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for a “yardsale” – that’s urban slang for when a skier tumbles and his or her stuff goes flying.

Marianne’s sense of humor (and my Mom’s) proved invaluable as temperatures warmed and the soft snow began to stock to their skies. We stopped repeatedly to re-wax the rentals but it didn’t do much good. The annoyance was tolerated until the third “yardsale” and then we called it quits.

Still, Hildene is a lovely place for a fledging Laplander. An 8-mile network of varied terrain starts at the Welcome Center and Museum Store and loops around several historic features of the property, including an observatory, sheep farm, cemetery, restored Pullman train car and, saving the best for last, the summer home of President Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s son Robert.

Maps are handed out at the Pavilion adjacent to the Welcome center and signs clearly provide names of trails, like Meadow, Two Bridges and Birch Knoll. Prices for admission, gear rentals and hours can be found at: http://www.hildene.org/tours/nordic.html

The blog author takes a bite out of winter after waxing her XC skies.   Fortunately, all her gear and clothing stayed intact.

The blog author takes a bite out of winter after waxing her XC skies. Fortunately, all her gear and clothing stayed intact.

Hildene Nordic Ski Center

Pullman Car

Signs at Hildene

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Cave tubing inside a spooky underworld

by Sonja Stark on January 31, 2015

Cave Tubing

A night hike of spider-infested slopes in the Mayan Mountains will instantly diffuse any anxiety you might have for cave tubing in the dark with swooping bats. Then again, if your skittish about drifting down a river where human sacrifice and ceremonial bloodletting was common, well, this subterranean adventure might not be for you.

“This cave is indeed haunted,” warns our tour guide Omar Deras, also co-owner of Belize Inland Tours. “Ghost Hunters International filmed here last year and found evidence of lingering spirits.”

Exploring the Mayan underworld is a popular day trip for tourists visiting Belize. Ours includes a private trek to St. Herman’s Cave at a national park just off Hummingbird Highway and not far from Belmopan. Under the Belizean antiquities law, the caves are controlled by the Institute of Archaeology, a department of the Ministry of Tourism. Removal of earth, stone or Mayan relics is strictly prohibited.

Omar of Belize inland ToursThere are only six of us the day we visit: three Bostonians, two Capital Region residents and our well-informed local guide. The outfitter provides us with sturdy footwear, black inner tubes and headlamps for the speleological experience of a lifetime. The scant beam of light emanating from our foreheads proves useful for avoiding low calcified ceilings and watching bats.

Before settling into our tubes, our guide launches into a science lesson on how water erosion forms caves.

“That’s all very interesting but, what about the snakes?” asks Pam, the mom who wisely pulled her kids out of school so they could actually live lessons in history rather than read out of a book.

The guide replies, “We have bats, scorpion-spiders, centipedes and lizards but, you’re in luck – no snakes.”

Pam exhales a sigh of relief.

The roof of the shimmering cave is saturated with millions of small craters, like the moon. When you pass a light over parts of the cave, you see sparkling cave diamonds that are essentially just water droplets. Cracks in the walls and ceiling allow for hundreds of cave-dwelling creatures (mostly bats) to enter and exit.

The temperature of the Caves Branch River, a tributary of the Sibun River, is about 76-degrees. Random streams of water our down on you like a water spout from the ceiling. It’s warmer than I’m expecting, however, after an hour, I shiver with goosebumps and my lips have turned blue.

Our guides takes us further into the depths of the cave to the source of the river. Everyone locks legs over arms and forms a queue with our tubes while the guide pulls us up river. It’s deafening trying to talk above the roar of the mile-long river and the current is tough to fight. When we reach the end, we extinguish our lights and listen to the turbulence. It’s really thrilling.

It’s best to stay in a tight line, one tube after another, letting the guide shout instructions on when and where to avoid obstacles. If a sharp rock appears in our path, the expression “Butt Up!” echos through the tunnel.

Icicle-shaped formations called stalactites hang from the ceiling of the cave like soda straws. Fortunately, they are out of the reach of grabbing hands. Slow-growing stalagmites, another type of mineral deposit, emerge from the ground to stand up straight like a traffic cone. The two formations are collectively known as dripstone.

The current picks up around corners and some of us are spinning in our tubes like tops. Spooky shadows bounce off glistening walls and cool spots keep us questioning if spirits might be trying to scare us. Frankly, I was too concerned with bat guano landing on my shoulders (like it did Pam) or grazing the bottom of my tush on the riverbed to really care.

Cave Tubing

George and Tube

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The island and jungle rhythms of Mayan country

by Sonja Stark on January 27, 2015

Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge

Booby Bird

Imagine waking up every morning to a cacophony of screeches from nesting seabirds or, more audacious still, the loudest monkey on Earth. Songs sung by the red-footed booby or the howler monkey are clearly not melodious to the ear; however, they do drown out a snoring partner. Sorry George!

While in Belize, my partner and I made the wise decision to split our time between Ambergris Caye and the broadleaf jungles of the Mayan Mountains. FYI: a caye or cay or key is just a small island. Belize has dozens of them.

After diving the Great Blue Hole (see my blog entry), the dive crew of Amigos del Mar docked at the enchanting Half Moon Caye National Monument allowing time to picnic and discovery the flora and fauna.

A colony of pregnant boobies (go ahead and laugh, we did) perch high in a canopy of Ziricote trees. The birds attend to their eggs in a habitat sanctuary protected by the Belize Audubon Society. Come January, the eggs will hatch and by summer the young will learn to fly.

Bird watching, like fishing, is a gamble. However, from the island’s observation viewing platform, you can get up close and personal. The boobies are used to large crowds of camera-carrying spectators jockeying for shots. The bright crimson blossoms in the tree’s thickets are enjoyed by hummingbirds, orioles and wood peckers.

As for the Ziricote trees, the wood is native to the Caribbean and commonly used for wood carving. I buy a small cutting board made of Ziricote before leaving the island.

Half Moon Caye is a treasure trove of strange species like hermit crabs, geckos and lizards known as anoles. The hermit crabs are shy, little devils – act fast to nab a shot before they huddle back into their shells.

The boobies coexist with frigates, ospreys and iguanas. Two frigates with puffed up red bellies that resemble pin cushions are sparring intensely over something, probably food, during my watch.

Camping is not allowed on the island and the only cultural resources present are a toppled steel lighthouse from the 1930s and two visitor facilities.

On the third day, we fondly bid the barrier reef adieu and fly to the foothills of the Sibun National Forest Reserve in Central Belize. The quickest mode of transportation is by small plane.

For $114 per person, a fourteen-passenger aircraft operated by Tropic Air maintains the perfect viewing altitude of 10,000 feet from San Pedro to the Belize capital of Belmopan. Our captain arrives 20 minutes early and opts to circle above the Mayan mountains for aerial views before touching down at the smallest airport in Belize.

Our driver takes a quick right hand turn onto a dusty dirt road to a remote rainforest lodge called Sleeping Giant. Paradise is built in the heart of a tangled jungle abundant with bird, mammal and insect habitats.

After dinner, we track down indigenous nocturnal critters equally as interesting as the island wildlife. Our nature guide, Edgar Martinez, asks us to don a headband attached with a small flashlight. As we move quietly along a poorly groomed trail, we catch glimpses of exotic predator activity.

Our lights catch the glare of a common and creepy hunter, the giant wolf spider. Martinez explains that the spider’s keen eyes are like cat’s eyes in that they “glow.” Two of their eight eyes, the two in the middle above the others, have discs that reflect light from our flashlights. We find the silk-spinners lurking on giant ferns and palm branches.

Martinez suddenly turns his flashlight off and asks us to do the same with our headlamps. Between a canopy of twinkling stars, we listen to the hoots of a mottled owl, the screeches of a hungry howler monkey and, just perhaps, the slithering of a venomous serpent.

In the day, the verdant rainforest feels friendly and inviting. At night, we feel like nervous prey being stalked by voracious carnivores.

Nearing civilization, George takes a tumble down a steep part of the trail with slippery rock. His pants are soiled but nothing is bruised other than his pride. Hence, these are the risks of migrating into vast tracts of wild, unspoiled nature.

Belize may be a small country but it delivers big adventures, both inland and coastal. The next blog installment about Belize is dedicated to drifting on an inner tube inside St. Herman’s cave. Stay tuned!

Wolf Spider

Helmeted Basilisk

Red Spotted Newt

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A furry welcome at La Belize Resort

by Sonja Stark on January 24, 2015

Rocky La Beliza Resort

If pictures speak a thousand words, I sure am happy I took plenty of them in Belize this week. Since I have so little time to write, I’m going to let my Nikon do the talking.

First up, sharing both breakfast and the beach with Rocky, La Belize’s one-eyed canine ambassador. Rocky sleeps on the pier and jumps to attention to greet guests arriving by water-taxi from San Pedro. Staff do the same by handing everyone a warm face towel and a fancy cocktail before escorting them to their private abode.

All condos include large verandas, beautifully tiled standing showers, plush beds and full kitchens. The closest grocery store is eight miles away so regular guests bring bright red coolers stocked with provisions to last the week. Save one night to let the local on-site chef cook up conch or lobster and dine under the stars.

Bring bug spray, bike shorts and a sense of adventure for a rough ride along the sandy shoreline if you’d like to visit surrounding resorts. Purple single speeds are free to enjoy however make sure the bike chains are well lubed before using. The chain on George’s first pick fell off repeatedly running over ocean flotsam.

If you must work in paradise, invest in an international cell phone plan before you visit because wifi is limited.

La Beliza Resort

La Beliza Resort

La Beliza Resort

La Beliza Resort

La Belize Resort

La Beliza Resort

La Belize Resort

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Belize it or not, we’re diving the Great Blue Hole

by Sonja Stark on January 22, 2015

Blue HoleLooking like a massive pupil floating in a turquoise sea, the Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize is easily considered the most amazing underwater sinkhole in the world. There are others that are deeper and larger in diameter, but none can compete with the splendor of this natural depression.

The Great Blue Hole formed as a limestone cave system during the last ice age when sea levels were lower. The caves flooded as the planet warmed and sea levels rose. Jacques-Yves Cousteau made the site famous in 1972 when he explored the area with his research ship, the Calypso. It was quickly declared one of the top 10 scuba diving sites in the world.

At nearly 1000 feet wide and 480 feet deep, it’s a feature attraction for gutsy divers looking for the adventure of a lifetime.

Exploring the famed hole is a specialty for the guys who run the Amigos Del Mar Dive Shop in San Pedro, a laid-back settlement of 10,000 people on the island Ambergris Caye. Tourism has replaced the once-dusty fishing village with low-rise hotels, cold beer and sandy beaches.

Diving guides Maverick, Michael, Jorge and Captain Edgar briefed our group of eight divers before we headed to the Great Blue Hole, about 60 miles or 2.5 hours from the coastline, bobbing up and down on moderate waves.

My boyfriend George became PADI-certified in June 2014. Other than taking his dive exams in the waters of Lake George last summer, he had zero dive experience. Would this first dive prove too risky or scary? The dive exceeds the depth limit of an Open Water Certified Diver by a few feet.

Many people liken this dive to a spiritual or sacred experience. It’s on most divers’ top ten bucket list. George and I were about to find out how our bodies would adjust to a murky abyss at nearly 140 feet.

Geared up, one diver after another launch themselves off the back end of the dive boat with the assistance of a helpful crew. This is the shallow rim of the Great Blue Hole with temperatures hovering around 76 degrees.

When it was my turn, a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety hit me. “Get a grip, you can do this,” I say to myself. Before I could equalize, something had triggered an unwanted phobia and with it came symptoms of vertigo, hyperventilation and irrational thoughts.

To hell with George, would I be able to do this?

I motioned for Captain Edgar to stay close. Trained to recognize stress, he held my hand and calmed my fears to a point where I could descend like the rest of the group.

Laser-like sunbeams sliced through the crystal-clear waters of the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. At a depth 40 feet, the rim is a bounty of colorful marine life and coral formations. The shallow seabed makes for perfect snorkeling for those who prefer to swim at the surface.

A chill of cold water hits my shoulders and it’s time to descend deeper. The limestone dive wall is etched with snails and mollusks. It’s a continuous sheer drop for about 60 feet, at which point I begin to see the familiar silhouette of the ocean’s most misunderstood predator: shark.

A couple of reef and bull sharks circled in the hazy Caribbean void. They aren’t interested in us but linger long enough for me to stay vigilant of their presence. I didn’t see any but I’m told that hammerhead sharks also patrol here.

At 100 feet, the effects of nitrogen narcosis is very real. It didn’t affect us but others would later describe a temporary loss of senses and movement, almost like being intoxicated.

At 120 feet, I began to recognize gray columns hanging from the cavern ceiling, stalactites 20 feet in length that dwarf all divers. Mesmerizing!

It is deadly quiet, eerily-so at this point. Edgar finally releases my hand to show me a trick. He takes the respirator out of his mouth and blows air up and into a small air gap or pocket in the shelf of the cave. The bubbles resemble smoke vapors spreading like pale swirling cobwebs.

Like the experiment where you turn a cup upside down and submerge in water, the cave ceiling has small pockets of trapped air too. This air is a relic from countless eons ago, and, believe it or not, is still breathable while not enough to sustain life. As in a diving bell, the only way air can escape is by diffusing itself through the water, one molecule at a time.

Diving the chasm is an unforgettable experience. For eight minutes we swim past a breeding ground of giant gray monoliths and harmless sharks. Some might argue that it’s too isolating, too otherworldly, but the experience lives up to all the hype described on websites and guide books.

Stay tuned: When I get back from Belize, I’ve got hours of video that I’ll edit into a summary of the adventure.

Blue Hole

George in the Blue Hole

Edgar Blue Hole

Edgar Blows Bubbles

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Who needs water on Balsam Mountain?

by Sonja Stark on January 12, 2015

Balsam Mountain is a winter climb needed to earn the Catskill 3500 badge.

Balsam Mountain is a winter climb needed to earn the Catskill 3500 badge.

Water is always important in the woods, and more so during a winter hike. Between the dry air and the energy expended to keep warm, water, and lots of it, is critical to a successful climb.

“It’s 10 degrees out here and I’m not thirsty. Why should I carry water?” asked George.

What? My doting but stubborn playmate, 13 years older and not necessarily wiser, did not just say that…did he?

George is not unlike me in many ways. Our behaviors, beliefs and principles tend not to change with sage advice but rather through personal trial and error. That said, I discovered halfway up Balsam Mountain, this weekend, that he wasn’t carrying water. I erupted!

Let me put this into perspective.

Last March, I made the mistake of hiking what I thought was one of the four winter peaks needed to earn the 3500 badge. There are three high peaks in the Catskill Mountains with the word “Balsam” in their name: Balsam Cap, Balsam Lake and just plain Balsam. I picked the wrong one.

Also, I wore a pair of Microspikes over sneakers, in deep snow, ruining a perfectly fine snowshoe trail with every step of my cold, wet feet. Two rookie mistakes (and probably not the last) that earned me a serious tongue-lashing from the climbing community.

Now, before leaving the driveway, I spend hours consulting maps and the internet on parking locations, trail approaches, trail conditions and gas stations. I continue to invest in an impressive pile of gear and equipment. I pack hearty lunches, hot beverages and emergency kits. Little is left to chance, nothing is forgotten and backups are left in the car. I’d like to think that I’m the sultan of preparation but I’m sure I still have a long way to go.

When a body runs out of fuel to burn, it leads to hypothermia. George was already lagging behind from a leg cramp – something he refused to admit had anything to do with a lack of water. My stern lecture on the importance of drinking plenty of fluids was met with a deaf ear. Haranguing a companion who wants nothing more in the world than to prove he can do something using his own personal toolbox of convictions is counter-productive. I mount my soapbox too much as it is.

I focused on the positive. The sun was bright, the wind was little and the snow drifts were small. Cell phone coverage was strong and there was the occasional sighting of fellow hikers. At the summit, we devoured sandwiches and snapped beautiful photos from the viewing platform. I insisted we share my water but he still refused. Finally, the truth was out: he didn’t want to “drop trou” in cold weather. Is it really that painful to urinate outside for men? I thought women had it tough.

So, will George carry water in the future? Highly unlikely. He’ll argue that there’s plenty of snow to melt and fresh running water from creek beds to drink. On the return trip, we had to teeter across several high streams without bridges.

“See, plenty of water, if I need it,” he said.

At this point, George is spewing a tapestry of vitriol while fighting a leg cramp that he insists is not caused by a lack of water in his system.   That's my guy!

At this point, George is spewing a tapestry of vitriol while fighting a leg cramp that he insists is not caused by a lack of water in his system. That’s my guy!

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