Welcome to our blog…

**NOTE TO READERS: Here’s a few items to guide you on our blog.**

My most recent posts are on the sidebar. One of the challenges of running a blog is how to quickly show or access older posts. I’ve done it the MENU function. There’s a menu bar on top. The titles are self-explanatory. Each one has a drop down list of related topics, which are also self-explanatory. You can surf the entire blog by mousing over the titles. How cool is that? We have a lot more stuff to add.

Also on the bar, you’ll see a link called “The Teacher Files”. It also has a drop down menu with links to topics related to my teaching career. I taught for 15 years after 20 years in the Marines. Teaching was one of my true passions in life. I started out with a separate blog, but when I found out how to create menus, I brought it all over here. It’s good stuff – too good to leave laying around in boxes. I’ll add things as fast as I can get them in HTML/CSS format.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Hi and welcome to our newly updated blog. Designed as a companion to our website – Exploring Off the Beaten Path. We use it for shorter pages than we typically put on the site plus any other material we find interesting.

We affectionately refer to each other as Boris and Natasha (usually with “dahlink” at the end) – retirees, snowbirds, explorers, geocachers, munzee and benchmark hunters, history lovers, sometime photographers, freelance writers and lifelong learners who can show up almost anywhere.

KidsRN in action

Natasha is relentless in her quest for geocaches. Here, she gives it her all in the Black Hills. Mt. Rushmore is in the upper left hand corner.

Our vision for More Exploring Off The Beaten Path is a family friendly blog that promotes interest in outdoor activities, curiosity about the world around us and lifelong learning. One of our main vehicles for that is geocaching and related activities, plus all that goes with them.

You would be hard-pressed to find another activity which is more fun, positive, educational and family friendly than geocaching and its siblings. My 88 year old mother has been out with us. Our grandkids (now 8 and 6) went out with us in their strollers. They really love hunting munzees and can both handle a smart phone like you wouldn’t believe. Some of the best times I ever had as a Dad were with my youngest son hunting down geocaches in the wilds of Montana and Wyoming. When I was teaching school, I used it in my math classes to teach all kinds of things.

One thing you can be sure of – the pages of this blog and our website will show you things and take you places you would have never known about otherwise.  Our adventures have taken us to ghost towns, caves, mountain tops, waterfalls and more out of the way places than we can recall. We’ve operated in all kinds of terrain and weather and dodged a few critters along the way. It’s been a hoot.  We’ve geocached in 38 states and have a plan in place to finish all 50 by the end of 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 (or thereabouts).

You never know what you might find here. We love forts, battlefields, ghost towns,old cemeteries, abandoned mines, one of a kind diners, cheeseburgers, skin-on French fries, anything to do with National Parks and anything else that’s off the beaten path. The tougher, longer, higher, creepier or more calorie-laden it is, the better we like it. We’ll mix things up to keep it interesting.

 

KidsRN at Mt. Rushmore cache site.

Mission accomplished safe and sound. No humans were injured in the production of this blog.

This is an open blog for families, adventurers, explorers, educators, vagabonds and anybody else who might share our passions.  There’s no arm chair traveling here and we don’t cut and paste Wikipedia.  We’ve been to all the places and/or done all the things we blog about. The writing is mine. So are most of the pictures.

We hope you find something interesting here. Feedback – good or bad – is always welcome. All comments are moderated and public, so please keep it civil.

See you in the blogosphere. …Boris and Natasha

HDR photo #3 – Sabino Canyon, Tucson, AZ

Hi again,

There’s not many places in the Sonoran desert where you can capture an image of flowing water, green trees and Saguaro cactus covered mountains all in the same shot.  I found one in Sabino Canyon in the Catalina Mountains just northeast of Tucson.

Sabino Canyon

The green tree is a Mexican blue oak, which stays bright green all year. They only grow near the water. It’s called a blue oak because its roots leach a dark color into the water, giving Sabino Creek a deep tea color. Sabino Creek is one of the few Sonoran waterways that runs free year round. Even though the water was moving, I was able to freeze it with shutter speed. The mirror reflection in the water was an unexpected bonus.

Here’s a link to the full sized image.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #1

Well this is it.  After 3,000 geocaches in 40 states over the last six years, we have winnowed it down to the Top 10 – and this is Numero Uno.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook geocache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain geocache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands geocache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls geocache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments geocache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Springs geocache, Guttenberg, IA

#2 – Rays Hill Tunnel geocache, Breezewood, PA

#1

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #1 cache had them all- and then some. From September 2008 – the OTO Ranch cache near Gardiner, Montana.

In the fall of 2008, we were newly married and newly retired. For our fall road trip, we went back to Yellowstone. A year earlier, I had proposed to Natasha at Old Faithful. So back we went, staying at the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge near the northern entrance to the park. Just outside the gate is the town of Gardiner, Montana. A search of geocaching(dot)com led us to this cache. It hadn’t been found for almost a year. Usually that’s a red flag, but we went for it. It turned out to be our crown jewel.

OTO Ranch corral

First view of the ranch – the old corral area. If it looks familiar, it should. It’s the background photo for our blog. The restored part is down in the trees on the upper right. The geocache is down by the barn. The ranch sits at about 6,000 feet elevation in the Gallatin National Forest. The round trip hike is around five miles. The mountains in the background are the Absaroka Range, one of the wildest areas in America.

The 3,200 acre OTO ranch was founded in 1898 by Dick and Nora Randall. Dick had been a stagecoach driver in Yellowstone Park for 10 years but realized the potential of outfitting back country trips for wealthy city folk and foreign aristocrats, all of whom were coming to Yellowstone anyway. It soon became a full-fledged “dude” ranch, the first one in Montana. Wealthy city folk began to send their children to work on the ranch for the summer. It wasn’t long before the Randalls had more business than they could accommodate and they began expanding.

The construction was solid and rustic. From 1912 to 1934, guests including Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed hiking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, wrangling, great food and cowboy music in the beauty of the surrounding Absaroka Range. The Randalls retired in 1934. The operation was taken over by a former client who had no idea how to run a ranch. That, combined with the Great Depression and gathering war clouds, forced it to close in 1939, never to re-open.

The OTO Ranch lodge

The main lodge building. Built in 1921 and abandoned for 50 years, it is as sturdy as ever.

The ranch lay in disrepair for over 50 years. The Forest Service bought the land in 1991 and volunteers began restoring it, an effort which continues to this day. It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

The entire ranch is open to all who make their way there. No cars – walk, horseback, mountain bikes only. There is some serious exploring to be done once you get here. We could have spent all day poking around but we started late and had to get back. Still, we spent over an hour looking around. We found, among other things, a concrete bunker with heavy wooden blast doors built into a hillside near the lodge. We figured it was a bear-proof ice house for food storage in the days before refrigerators.

If you do go exploring, keep in mind that this is real back country. There are bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes and big rattlesnakes. If you are tromping through the tall grass (and you’ll have to if you want the cache) make sure you have your stick to check the area around you. If you stay overnight or just go have lunch there, be Bear Aware.

Natasha at OTO Ranch

The always lovely Natasha exploring the ranch.

This was the ultimate geocache. Grizzly bear and rattlesnake warning signs at the trailhead, a moderate hike at high altitude, a killer climb for the first half mile, picture post card mountain scenery, a unique history, lots of buildings to explore and a geocache waiting patiently to be found. So even though we found it over five years ago, it remains our #1.

The GPS coordinates for the center of the ranch are N45.147426, W110.784125. You can click on the coordinates for a Google map. BTW, the cache is still there and still active. It’s had less than 30 visits since we logged it.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #2

Hi again,

We started this series last year and have been working through it slowly but surely. Since then, our Top 10 have changed a bit as we have been to some really cool places.

Here’s what we have so far.

#10 – Easy to Overlook Cache, Tucson, AZ

#9 – Nuke on a Mountain Cache, Sundance, WY

#8 – The Caves of the Door Bluff Headlands Cache, Door County, WI

#7 – Spooky Tunnel Cache, Kuhntown, PA

#6 – Trolls Cache, Livingston, MT

#5 – Dragoon Springs Geocache, Dragoon, AZ

#4 – Civil War Entrenchments Cache, Snake Springs, PA

#3 – Big Spring Cache , Guttenberg, IA

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is a moving target because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s. To make the list, there has to be something extraordinary or unique about the geocache under consideration. It might be distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #2 cache made the list because of the unique geocaching environment it is located in – an abandoned highway tunnel on an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. From July, 2011 – the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache.

RaysHillGeocache

This is the eastern portal of the tunnel. The gold arrow points to the cache location. After you bike through the tunnel, it’s up and over. Footing can be treacherous. The small dot of light in the center of the blackness is the other end. Don’t let that fool you. The center 2/3 of the tunnel is pitch black and requires a strong bike light to negotiate safely. You’ll also experience a 20 degree temperature drop, which is welcome on a hot July day. At 3,532 feet, it was the shortest of the seven tunnels on the turnpike. It’s also the only portal to not have ventilation fans above the opening. All of these tunnels were dark and dingy, with cement lining and recessed lighting. Headlights were required even during the day. Believe it or not, 18 wheelers used to rumble through this tunnel in both directions. Before it was abandoned in 1968, my family had driven through it many times. The tunnel is part of an unofficial bike trail on a 13 mile stretch of weather-beaten asphalt called the Abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When people think of my native Pennsylvania, they usually think Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – urban areas. In fact, most of Pennsylvania is heavily wooded and mountainous. The Allegheny Mountains run northeast to southwest through the center half of the state. Part of these mountains run through Somerset and Westmoreland counties and are called the Laurel Highlands. This is the area where I grew up and it looks much as it did 250 years ago – trackless woods as far as the eye can see. From the earliest days of exploration to modern times, the Alleghenies have challenged those who tried to tame them with roads, canals and tracks.

RaysHill1885

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel in 1885 with the geocache location shown. The original turnpike followed the right-of-way for the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad. Over the course of 10 years, a lot of work was done on the railroad, including nine tunnels, and a lot of money was spent but the project was never completed. The line and its tunnels spent over 40 years in legal and financial limbo until the whole right-of-way was bought by the Turnpike Commission in 1937. Construction started in 1938 using the railroad bed and seven of the nine tunnels. The man at the center of the photo with his foot on the railroad tie is Andrew Carnegie, the principal financial backer of the doomed venture.

A year before Pearl Harbor, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania opened a four lane concrete toll road through these mountains that would eventually run east-west from border to border – the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Modeled after the German Autobahn, it was the first high speed limited access superhighway in the United States. Construction started in October 1938. The first 160 mile section from Carlisle to Irwin opened for business on October 1, 1940. Construction and expansion have been ongoing ever since. The original design envisioned speeds of up to 100 mph. The road was designed to maximize straightaways while minimizing curves and hills. This is where the tunnels came in, but that design parameter didn’t last long.

RaysHill1940

The eastern portal of the Rays Hill Tunnel on September 30, 1940 – the day before the opening. The future geocache location is marked. The turnpike was a victim of its own success. In its first year of operation, two million cars traveled on it. The road was four lanes but the tunnels were two lanes and very narrow and dark. Within 10 years, traffic jams at the tunnels became a regular occurrence. By the late 1950’s, the flow of traffic was significantly inhibited and the Turnpike Commission embarked on an aggressive program to remedy the tunnel jams. Between 1964 and 1968, three of the tunnels were abandoned. Four others had second parallel tubes drilled. In fact, an entire 13 mile section of the roadway around Breezewood, PA was abandoned and reconstructed on a new right-of-way. This took the Rays Hill Tunnel and the nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel out of action. The entire abandoned section, along with its two tunnels, became the Pike2Bike Trail in 2001. The third abandoned tunnel, Laurel Hill, is 50 miles to the west. It has been off limits since it was taken out of service in 1964.

So here we are on a hot July day looking for tunnel geocaches compliments of Andrew Carnegie and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although little has become of the Pike2Bike, the route is a popular and fairly easy 26 mile ride round trip. The road can get a bit nasty at points so a helmet is a must. Likewise, you’ll need a strong bike light to go through the tunnels. Actually, two is better. Mount a flamethrower on the handlebars. That will light the way ahead. Also wear a headlamp, so you see what you are looking at as you look around you. Tunnel biking can be challenging. There are pools of water everywhere, some torn up pavement and the occasional rock or branch in the way. There are about a dozen geocaches along the 13 mile route. Each tunnel has a virtual munzee. If you go to the eastern end, you’ll pass the parking apron of the old Cove Valley Travel Plaza. It was also bypassed and abandoned but everything was torn down. You can still see the foundations of the old Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. It has a geocache nicely tucked away in it.

RaysHillMap

This is a schematic of the western end of the Pike2Bike. The Sideling Hill Tunnel is five miles east of the Rays Hill Tunnel. There are a couple of trail heads and a service road called Oregon Road that allow access to the pike. Here’s a link with their description and location. The trail is safe from predators, both four legged and two legged, and is patrolled sporadically by state, county and local law enforcement. Families and groups of all ages and abilities bike on it, including the tunnels.

The nearby Sideling Hill Tunnel was the longest tunnel on the turnpike at almost 7,000 feet. You can’t see the other end because there’s a slight rise and fall built into the roadway. You’ll be biking in pitch black darkness for almost a mile. While not officially open to the public, the inner workings of the tunnels are accessible to the adventurous. Steps, passageways, ventilators, control rooms and other assorted man-made features are waiting for the curious. It’s a great introduction to the world of “urban exploration” or URBEX, which we dabble in occasionally. Take your light and wear your helmet. Slow and easy does it, both inside the tunnel and out.

There’s no water or facilities on the trail. Summers here are hot and muggy, so plan accordingly. In the fall, the colors are spectacular. A local bike shop does tours of the pike and the tunnels. Check out Grouseland Tours. There’s quite a bit of information about all this on the Internet. A couple of Google searches should get you what you need. The GPS coordinates of the Rays Hill Tunnel geocache are N40.02072 W78.19852. Click on the coordinates for a Google map.

Regardless of how or when you go, we think you’ll find this a unique off the beaten path experience. We sure did.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Random Shots – Parker Homestead, Three Forks, Montana

This is one of our favorite places and one of my favorite photos. Sitting in the middle of the Jefferson River Valley, it is literally in the middle of nowhere.

The Parker homestead, Three Forks, MT

This is the “back yard” of the old Parker homestead near Three Forks, Montana. First occupied in 1901, hardy settlers lived and farmed here until 1953, living in the log and sod hut which is just off the picture. The jack-leg fence, the old farm implements and the mountains in the distance give this an authentic “off-the-beaten-path-wild-west” look. You can see a branch of Jefferson River in the middle of the photo just above the fence. This year round water source made homesteading here possible.

I took this picture with my old Sony DSC-170, then used Picasa to sharpen the image a bit and boost the colors. This homestead used to be a 1.7 acre Montana State Park but didn’t survive the budget cuts of the recession. Its current condition and status are unknown. That’s a real shame. The Montana plains were once covered with thousands of these. Now, it’s one of the last of its kind.

If you’re interested, the GPS coordinates are N45.845741, W111.676770. Click on the coordinates to bring up a Google map in a separate window.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Big Daddy Saguaro

Nothing says “desert” like the Saguaro (swor’- oh) Cactus. Although it is associated with all American deserts, it actually has a very small range. It is found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, southeastern California and western Sonora, Mexico. Even there, its range is further limited by altitude and water. The Saguaro can only survive in a very specific set of environmental conditions.

Saguaro cactus

This is one of the biggest Saguaros I’ve ever come across. We stumbled on to while hiking and geocaching in the back country of Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, AZ (near Tucson). Besides a couple dozen challenging geocaches, this mountainous 5,500 acre park has over 5,000 Saguaros but you’ll be hard pressed to find one bigger than this. It’s a good 50 feet high and is probably close to 200 years old.

Saguaros live to a ripe old age – up to 250 years. They don’t start growing arms until they are 75. Their roots are shallow – typically 4-6 inches with a 2 foot tap root – and spread out as far as the plant is tall. Saguaros store water like a camel’s hump. During the rainy season, it swells as it absorbs and stores water. A full grown Saguaro that has stored up water can weigh up to 5,000 pounds.

Early Native Americans used every part of the Saguaro. It was a source of water, which it stores internally and fruit which is said to be quite tasty. The spines were used as needles. Dead Saguaro are tough and woody. They were used for roofs, fences and furniture.

The Saguaro Cactus is not endangered but it is protected. Both Arizona and the feds have strict laws and severe penalties for unauthorized harvesting, digging or damaging these magnificent plants.

Saguaro also provide homes to a variety of birds and small mammals. We once saw a bobcat sitting on top of one watching the world go by. How he got up there is beyond me. Getting down was probably a bit dicey also. I know it would be for me and Natasha.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Go Ahead, Make My Day

We love forts, especially the huge brick ones built before the Civil War. They are three dimensional history books, great for touring, exploring and crawling around. It’s like going back in time. Referred to as Second and Third System forts, they were the space shuttle programs of their day.

Cannon muzzle

Out of the interior darkness, a 32 pounder cannon is positioned at its firing port at Fort Pickens, FL. Second and Third System brick forts were engineering marvels and several features can be seen here. The arch over the gun strengthens the walls around it and makes it less likely to collapse. Different brick patterns were used to strengthen specific areas depending on the forces they would be subjected to. The inward angle of the firing port gives the defenders good fields of observation and fields of fire, while limiting that of the attackers. Inside, the cannon was mounted on a semi-circular rail, so that it could be traversed right to left as needed. The rail allowed the gun to be moved smoothly by just a few men even though it weighed several tons.

This cannon would have been used to defend the fort against a land attack. The anti-ship batteries mounted on the seaward walls were huge. They could fire shells up to 15″ in diameter up to three miles away. Some of these forts fought furious battles, including the aforementioned Fort Pickens. Many others saw no action at all. Some became famous for other reasons – such as Alcatraz.

Many of these forts are now part of the National Park Service. Still others are maintained by the states. In addition to the history and learning opportunities, forts are a steady source of NPS Passport Stamps, benchmarks, geocaches, letterboxes and munzees for us.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a page on Fortress Engineering. Here’s an additional link on Attacking and Defending Forts

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon NP

Yavapai Point

The view from Yavapai Point on a winter’s day. We came here for a virtual geocache and left with some great photos. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon 10 times or more over the last 30 years and it never ceases to amaze me. Since I’ve taken up photography, it has been a never ending source of material. Sunlight, shadows, color, clouds and terrain make the canyon landscape a natural kaleidoscope. Take a shot, wait five minutes and another great shot will appear. In case you were wondering, this photo was taken at GPS coordinates N36.06599, W112.11670.

Cruising Into Kauai

Entrance to port in Kauai.

This is the entrance to Nawilliwilli Bay in Kauai, Hawaii at sunup in early March. It was taken from the balcony of our starboard side aft Deck B stateroom on the Sapphire Princess with the trusty Nikon D3100. The wind, the waves and the sunlight all coming in from the east combined to create a colorful photo that almost seems alive. The lighthouse-looking structure is actually a navigational aid located at the very southern end of the main runway of Lihue Airport. Kauai is great for exploring on your own. It’s small and uncrowded and you can see a lot in one day. We rented a Jeep and took off for the day. (If you go that route, make sure you have a reservation.) One of the hidden gems we found was a state park dedicated to a Russian fort – Fort Elisabeth. Turns out the Russkies had eyes for Hawaii before America did. Aloha tovarich.

dasvidaniya … Boris and Natasha

Our Greatest Father/Son Conquest

After the smoke cleared from my divorce in 2002, I lived about 1/2 mile down the road from my former spouse and two kids, who were then 9 (Ben) and 13 (Karen).  Despite the fact that The Ex and I didn’t agree on a whole lot, we buried the hatchet when it came to the kids.   I spent a lot of time with them.  Every summer from 2003 to 2010, Ben and I went on a road trip somewhere for a couple of weeks.  In 2005, we discovered geocaching and we were hooked.

In June of 2006, we headed off to Yellowstone. We did it right, staying at the Old Faithful Lodge.  Afterwards we went up to Bozeman, Montana to do some back country geocaching.  It was all day trips.  We both love to go out and get dirty and nasty – as long as we can clean up in our air conditioned hotel room when we’re done.  After 20 years in the Marines, I’ll never spend another night in the field.  But anyway, on with the story…

Old Faithful

Ben at Old Faithful. We did Yellowstone right.

In one of our searches, we came up with a geocache called the Trolls Cache.  It was halfway between Bozeman and Livingston way back in the Gallatin National Forest.  On the day we went after it, it hadn’t been found in two years.

We headed for it in early afternoon.  It seemed like we drove forever on a series of dirt roads that got progressively worse and worse.  Our Magellan SporTrak Map GPS finally got us to a point that had ground zero about 300 yards to our right  – across a stream and up a steep mountain. Off we went.  We walked and walked and walked. Most of it was uphill.  The area had been lumbered out years before, so there was thick new growth and lots of ankle-breaking flotsam and jetsam on the ground.  It was hot, slow going.  Like idiots, we didn’t take any water because we figured it would be a short jaunt.  We also found out later that this is prime grizzly habitat and we had nothing for bear defense.

At some point I turned around and realized that I couldn’t see the car anymore and the sun was below the ridgeline.  Shadows were getting deep and dark fast.  We were about 50 yards away from Ground Zero when I told him we had to back off.  It wasn’t safe.  So we made our way back down the mountain thinking now we know why no one has found it in two years.  We drove out of the forest after dark.

Making the Find

I was still surveying the top of the hill on our second attempt when Ben made a beeline for this geo-beacon. The camera just happened to be at the right place at the right time to record the find.

Back at the hotel, we were bummed out.  We decided to take another shot at it.  We fired up Google Earth and got out the Delorme Montana Gazetteer.  We found what looked like an old road, maybe a lumber trail, that led up to the cache.  It would be a walk along the ridgeline instead of going up the mountain.  The next day, we were off in early morning with a map, GatorAde, lunch and bear spray.

GZ at Trolls Cache

Ben opens the prize at Ground Zero.

The rental car company would have had a cow if they had seen the roads, rocks and stream crossings we negotiated with their AWD Murano.  But we found the trail and parked about 1/2 mile from the cache.  Twenty minutes later, we were on top of the mountain and Ben made the find in short order.  It was an ammo box in great condition.

After high fives and some trash talking, we celebrated by sitting on a stump, drinking GatorAde, eating lunch and soaking up the gorgeous and rugged panorama that was present at Ground Zero.

View from GZ

The view from Ground Zero. We took it in while eating lunch. The haze in the background is smoke from a distant forest fire.

This was the toughest geocache he and I have ever gotten. We learned some hard lessons on this one.  For me, the biggest one was I’m not a Marine anymore.  I don’t have to get hurt or killed to find a cache.  Ben, who was 13 at the time, was tough and had his game face on the whole time.  I asked him how many of his buddies had found an ammo box in the Montana wilderness lately.  He got a confidence builder and a crash course in real world decision making which he never forgot. 

Six years later, the kid is grown up and off to college,  but we still laugh and shake our heads over the Trolls Cache.

Cheers …. Boris and Ben (Natasha wasn’t around yet)