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Welcome to our blog

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

This page is our permanent first page, called a sticky page. It was updated on October 1 and will remain on top permanently. Our most recent post is directly under this one and then they roll in date sequence from most recent to earliest.

Be sure to check out our new tag word cloud search functions in the sidebar.  We’ve also added a Geocaching Storefront to the sidebar with links to our favorite geocaching products.

Also in the page bar at the top of the blog are five pages of background and instruction on geocaching.  The titles are self-explanatory. These short pages are more than enough to get you started.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Hi and welcome to our newly updated blog. Designed as a companion to our website, we use it for shorter pages than we typically put on the site.

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 Off The Beaten Path is a family friendly blog that promotes interest in outdoor activities, curiosity about the world around us and lifelong learning. Our vehicle 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 6 and 4) 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 other related sites will develop skills and take you places you would have never known about otherwise.  The only adverse effect we’ve encountered is G.A.S. – Geocaching Addiction Syndrome.  Once it gets in your blood, it’s hard to walk away.

Our adventures have taken us to ghost towns, caves, mountain tops, waterfalls and more out of the way places than we can recall.  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 (or thereabouts).

You never know what you might find here. We love forts, battlefields, ghost towns, 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. Of course, we do normal stuff, too. 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, vagabonds and anybody else who might share our passions.  There’s no arm chair traveling here.  We’ve been to all the places we blog about and most of the pictures are ours.

See you in the blogosphere. …Boris and Natasha

To Our Loyal Readers – We’re Back

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

I’m back from my self-imposed 92 day exile.  We spent the winter in Tucson, Arizona, which is going to be Snowbird Central from now on. We saw and did a lot of great stuff and I’ve got a lot in the writing queue. To be honest, I just ran out of gas and put the writing aside.  It was time for a break.

The San Francisco Peaks 

Arizona has many faces, which is one of the reasons we go there. Mountains, desert, alpine forests, even the ocean if you’re willing to go 50 miles into Mexico from Yuma. These are the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. The highest peak has an elevation of 12,600 feet and you can walk right up to it weather permitting. There’s also a big ski resort up there – Snow Bowl. All the peaks used to be one giant peak that reached up to 16,000 feet. It was blown apart in a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. This area north of Flagstaff in the NE corner of Arizona is an active volcanic region called the San Francisco Volcano Field. Although quiet now, it is still active. The last major eruption was about 800 years ago. It formed the huge cinder cone which is now Sunset Crater National Monument. This photo was taken at the park entrance.

But I think the writing mojo is back, especially with the all the Civil War stuff going on this year. I like to write about smaller and/or lesser known battles on their anniversaries or present some new background on others. I wrote about the Alamo and the Doolittle Raid earlier this year. I missed the Little Bighorn and Gettysburg. Missed one yesterday too – the Union Civil War attack on Battery Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts. This was the first black regiment in the Union Army. The attack was the climactic scene in the movie “Glory”. 

Desert Winter

Yes, it snows in the desert and when it does, it’s beautiful – although Arizona drivers can be hazardous. This photo was taken in Catalina State Park in Oro Valley, AZ after an overnight snowstorm of wet, heavy snow. The snowline got down to under 2,500 feet, which is the altitude here. The snow on the low ground was gone shortly after sunup but in the mountains, it lasted for several days. The peaks in the back are the Santa Catalinas. They reach up to about 6,000 feet here and eventually climb to over 9,000 feet at Mt. Lemmon, which has a ski resort overlooking Tucson. Catalina Park has one of the largest concentrations of saguaro (swor’oh) cactus in the world. The 50 square mile park has over 5,000 of them.

So welcome back and enjoy what’s coming down the pipeline.

Cheers … Boris and Natasha

Go Ahead, Make My Day

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NOTE TO READERS: In keeping with our philosophy of lifelong learning, we are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. If you’re interested, there’s a Twitter follow button over on the sidebar or you can just click the link above.

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

Our Top 10 Geocaches – #4

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NOTE TO READERS: We are now on Twitter as @cachemaniacs. There’s a Twitter button over on the sidebar.

Hi again,

I started this series last year and got about halfway through it before getting side tracked. 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

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 distance, difficulty, terrain, location, history or just the surroundings. Our #4 cache fell into several of these but made the list because of the totally unexpected – and essentially unknown – events that happened here. From July 2012, the Civil War Entrenchments geocache.

June, 1863. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia is on the move, heading north into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Union Army is in Virginia, licking its wounds after the beating it took at Chancellorsville the month before. Lee’s army is riding high, full of confidence and taking the fight to the North, who seem unable to stop him. The coming Battle of Gettysburg isn’t on anybody’s radar yet. Lee wants to plunder the countryside, maybe capture a major city and force the Union into peace negotiations. At least, that’s the plan.

There was plenty to plunder in Pennsylvania including crops, horses, livestock, textiles, shoe factories, iron forges, warehouses and railroads. It was all undefended. There was no Union Army presence in the state, which was wide open to invasion.

Map of the battle area

A map of the battle area in the weeks leading up to Gettysburg. Most of the labels are self-explanatory. Letter B is the Snake Spring Gap and the location of the geocache. Letter C is Everett, where a cavalry skirmish occurred the week before Gettysburg. Letter D is McConnellsburg which was looted by Lee’s invasion force, along with Chambersburg. Total road distance from A-G is 155 miles.

A particularly lucrative target sat in the hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania – the railroad yards at Altoona, home of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the world famous Horseshoe Curve. The railroad was a major transportation link for the Union war effort and a target rich environment if there ever was one. Everything needed to fight a war could be found in the warehouses and marshalling yards of Altoona. Lee wanted to send a large raiding party to sack the town and wreck the train system, but first, he had to find a way over the steep, heavily wooded Allegheny Mountains. Initial reports had them undefended. In early June, he sent cavalry units under General John Imboden to recon a route.

Governor Andrew Curtin realized the gravity of the problem and also realized they would have to deal with it themselves. On June 13, 1863, telegrams went out to state and county leaders advising them of the situation and asking them to undertake emergency actions to deal with it. Colonel Jacob Higgins, a Union officer home on medical leave, was asked to lead the defenses in the mountains. He agreed and quickly went to work. The call went out for volunteers to build and man defensive positions against an impending Confederate invasion. Almost overnight, 1,500 men answered the call. They came from towns like Saxton, Roaring Spring and Morrison’s Cove. No records were kept. We have no idea who they were, what they did or where they went afterward. But we do know that for a few days in June 1863, they were on the front lines of the Civil War.

Trenchline

The trenchline at Snake Spring Gap. It is remarkably well preserved and can be followed for several hundred yards. At the end, it curves down slope to engage an enemy attack from the flank and prevent an end run. The terrain is very much like what it was in 1863. Steep, broken up and heavily wooded, it would have been almost impossible to mount an effective large-scale ground attack through it. The same thing can be found on the other side of the road, although it is much more overgrown and harder to follow.

The defenders’ biggest problem was time, which was as great an enemy as Lee’s Army. Higgins’ plan was to fortify four gaps where roads crossed over the mountains. These defiles were narrow, steep and heavily wooded. A few men could hold off many. One of those gaps was the Snake Spring Gap. Here, 500 men toiled non-stop for days to dig a formidable trenchline that extended for several hundred yards on both sides of the gap. Cannon were mounted in strong points next to the road. Attacking these positions would have been a daunting challenge. While the volunteers worked furiously on the defenses, militia cavalry went down the mountain to scout and delay the approaching rebel forces.

Meanwhile, Lee’s cavalry was pushing out in all directions for almost 100 miles. To the east, they were on the banks of the Susquehanna River and threatening the state capital at Harrisburg. To the west, they looted Chambersburg and McConnellsburg, then started towards Bedford and Altoona. In Everett (then called Bloody Run), they skirmished with militia cavalry, which showed up quite unexpectedly. When the rebel horse soldiers returned to McConnellsburg for more loot, they were run out of town by another militia cavalry unit. Confederate scouts got close enough to the barricades to report back that the gaps were heavily defended. These unforeseen developments were trouble for Lee’s plans. He wanted what was in Altoona, but the soft vulnerable target of several days ago was gone. Defenses had appeared seemingly overnight and Union cavalry was suddenly active in his area. Now headquartered in Chambersburg, Lee mulled his options.

View of the gap

An attackers view of the Snake Spring Gap. A strongpoint is visible ahead, effectively covering the entire narrow avenue of approach. From here, attackers would have probably been looking down the barrel of a six pounder loaded with double canister. The trenchline continues on both sides of the road for several hundred yards. At the top of the rise on the right, there are the remnants of another strongpoint anchoring that side and bracketing the road. The geocache is along that overgrown trenchline. The state historical marker is visible at the strongpoint.

The Union finalized his plans for him. On June 29 Lee’s scouts reported that the Union Army was in Frederick, MD moving north. He dropped the Altoona plan and turned southeast to meet the new threat. The rest, as they say, is history. On July 1, 1863, the two armies ran into each other at Gettysburg.

When the Battle of Gettysburg started, the mountain defenses were abandoned and everybody went home. There are many places in these Pennsylvania hills where you can find remnants of them, but the trenchline at Snake Spring Gap is the best preserved and most easily accessible.

Historical marker

One hundred years later on June 29, 1963, a state historical marker was placed here as a small bit of recognition for the unknown militia men who performed a brave and arduous task at a critical time.

As I have noted before, Pennsylvania is one big museum. All you have to do is drive down the road and you’ll find stuff. I’m a bit of a Civil War buff and grew up less than 50 miles away in Somerset County. I had never heard of any of this until I found this geocache online and decided to check it out. It is certainly off the beaten path. This important episode affected the course of the war but has been lost to history. The only reminders are some fading trenches, a state marker and a geocache, which comes in at #4.

If you ever want to check out the place, here is the geolocation:
N 40° 06.052 W 078° 23.345 . You can click on the coordinates to bring up a map.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Top 10 geocaches – #5

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Hi again,

We continue to count down our Top 10.  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

Google map of the geocache.

Shown is the location of the Dragoon Springs geocache. Don’t let the close proximity of I-10 fool you. This is rugged desert back country with no cell phone service and no AAA.

Trying to nail down the Top 10 is sometimes elusive because as we travel around, we run into a lot of potential Top 10’s.    Basically, to make the list, there has to be something extraordinary about the geocache under consideration.  It might distance, difficulty, uniqueness, history or just the surroundings.  Our #5 cache fell into all of these.  From January 2012, welcome to the geocache at Dragoon Springs.

In the high desert Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains of southeast Arizona, a number of natural springs gurgle out from amongst the rocks.  One of them was Dragoon Springs.  This area was the homeland of the Apache, who didn’t take kindly to trespassers.  Since water was critical, they watched and guarded the springs aggressively against interlopers from the Conquistadors to Mexican bandits.

Station at Dragoon Springs

Ruins of the stage station at Dragoon Springs. This was a “swing” station which had only horses and water. “Home” stations had food, quarters and maintenance. The livestock and the workers all lived inside the big stone corral, which was 10 feet high and up to four feet wide. There was no roof. This gave protection from Indians, bandits and predators which abounded, including mountain lions, bears and wolves.

The Gadsen Purchase of 1853 made the land part of the United States.  White settlers, ranchers and miners began arriving in great numbers and a large military presence was also established.  In the decade before the Civil War, the whites and the Apache, under Cochise and Mangas, observed an uneasy truce.  In 1857, the Butterfield Overland Stageline began operation through the area on its way from St. Louis to San Francisco.  They had way stations with food and fresh horses at each of the springs.  One of them was Dragoon Springs.   In 1861,  the Apache ended the truce and started ridding their lands of whites.  The Butterfield stages became prime targets, with 22 drivers killed in 16 months.  The line was already in financial trouble.  Apache attacks and competition from the Pony Express finished the job.  It folded just after the Civil War began.

Dragoon Springs

The site of the actual springs, which no longer run. They were sealed off by an earthquake in 1880. The wall was built by ranchers after the Civil War to keep cattle out. Water flowed down the wash and was channeled into tanks to water livestock. The geocache is about a quarter of a mile uphill off the top of the picture.

The way stations and the route itself were the only transportation and logistics infrastructure in the entire region, so they were used by both sides in the desert war of 1862.  In this little known theater of the Civil War, the Union Army, the Confederate Army and the Apache all fought each other.  The abandoned Butterfield Stage station at Dragoon Springs was the site of two fights between Confederate cavalry and Apache war parties.

On May 5, 1862, a Confederate patrol was foraging and rounding up stray cattle in the area around Dragoon Springs.  They were jumped by an estimated 100 Apache at the now abandoned stage station.  Four Confederate soldiers were killed and the livestock stolen.  The rest of the patrol got away. This was the First Battle of Dragoon Springs and they were the western-most combat deaths suffered by the Confederacy.

Dragoon Springs National Historic Site

Dragoon Springs Station is now a National Historic Site. Getting to it requires either a long hike or four wheeling over some of the worst terrain I’ve ever had to negotiate. It took us several hours. The site and the scenery are worth the trip. This is an overview of the whole site with a cameo appearance by Team Snowbird.

Four days later, on May 9, came the Second Battle of Dragoon Springs. A larger patrol found and engaged the Apache war party in the same area, killing five and getting the livestock back.  The four Confederates killed in the first battle were buried in shallow graves and covered with stones. Those graves are preserved and marked by the National Park Service along with the ruins of the relay station.

The geocache itself is a further hike from the station.  We were able to drive to within 7/10 of a mile, then hiked in the rest of the way.  An ATV can almost drive up to Ground Zero.  The geocache itself is an easy find.  Like they say, getting there is half the fun.

Natasha at Ground Zero.

Mission accomplished. Natasha at Ground Zero signing the log. Now it’s off to Tombstone and dinner at the Crystal Palace, which hasn’t changed much since the Earp brothers ate there.

This one took us most of a day from our snowbird headquarters in Tucson.  The Dragoon Mountains are spectacular and full of cool places to check out.  We barely scratched the surface but are headed back in 2013.  Can’t wait!

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Back in the Saddle Again

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Hi again,

As you’ve no doubt noticed, I haven’t posted in a while.  I got to a point at the beginning of the summer where I was burned out with all this web and blog stuff.  I was trying to post too much too quickly about too many things. It wasn’t fun any more, so I walked away.  I really wasn’t sure if I’d be back.

We did a lot of cool stuff this summer. In addition to welcoming our new grand daughter, we cruised the back roads of my native Pennsylvania and just got back from exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (where the yoopers live).  And of course, we criss-crossed Minnesota and Wisconsin in our never ending quest for geocaches, out-of-the-way places and non-chain restaurants.  I took lots of pictures with my new Nikon D3100 and constantly thought “This would be a great blog entry” but I never got around to it.

Sideling Hill Turnpike Tunnel

Here’s one of our excursions from the summer of 2012. This is the eastern end of the Sideling Hill Tunnel on an abandoned section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I grew up not far from here and remember driving on this stretch of road.  It finally got too congested and they bypassed it in the late 60’s.  The 22 mile track has two tunnels. The other one is Ray’s Hill about five miles west. The entire stretch is open for biking although it is not a formal bike trail. This was the longest tunnel built on the turnpike – 6,017 feet long. That’s why you can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. You need to have flamethrower headlights to negotiate this one. There were geocaches in, around and above the tunnels. We got some but not all.  They were tough and it was really hot.  The tunnel is nice and cool inside and a cool wind blows out of it constantly, much to Natasha’s delight.

I got the bug again a few weeks ago.  Since then, I’ve been busy getting my web house in order.   The main improvement here is a better sidebar.  After experimenting with widgets for a while, I came up with a combination I like.  It puts a lot more information at the reader’s fingertips and has clear, self-explanatory titles and buttons.  You can mouse over a link to get even more information about the content. 

Be sure to checkout the new Geocaching Storefront widget, where you can find most of the stuff we talk about in our instructional posts. BTW, I don’t get paid for anything. If you see something listed anywhere in this blog, it’s because we use it and like it.

You’ll also find a new keyword search widget based on the tag cloud.  It’s got a little introduction above it.  It resolves the dilemma I had about new material rapidly getting buried and good stuff essentially disappearing.  I think I’ve fixed that.  I’ve tested it and it works like a charm.

The blog content will be shorter, less involved stuff – instructions, reviews, pictures, etc.  No more long rambling posts .  I’ve got some catching up to do.  There are a couple of series I started like Top 10 Geocaches and Intro to Geocaching that I never completed.  They go to the head of the list.  I’ve also got a lot of new stuff from our summer travels.  Among our best finds – abandoned Civil War trenches in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania, a NASA rocket launch base at the  very tip of Michigan’s Keweenaw (Upper) Peninsula and a great tavern in Prescott, WI called The Brickyard.  We’ll let you in on all of it.

Outer stockade at Fort Ligonier

Another one of our excursions this summer – the fully restored Fort Ligonier in Ligonier, PA. A British fort during the French and Indian War, it guarded the Forbes Road to Pittsburgh and Fort Pitt. It was attacked twice but held both times. As you can see, it is a formidable position. What you don’t see is the inner walls, moat and redoubts behind the outer stockade. It also bristled with cannons, mortars and swivel guns. The Loyalhanna River ran right along the base of the rocks back then but was re-routed when Route 30 (the Lincoln Highway) was built almost 100 years ago.

Our companion website has a new URL – exploreoffthebeatenpath.com.  It will have the longer, more involved stuff.  My current project is the 1862 Dakota War here in Minnesota.  What?  You thought  Minnesota was settled by Micheal Landon and Melissa Gilbert during Little House on the Prairie? You didn’t know the largest Indian war in U.S. history was fought here? That’s alright.  Nobody else does either.  I’ll let you know when it’s published.

I’ll be moving up previous posts from the series I started and cross linking them so they don’t get lost. The four or five instructional posts on Introduction to Geocaching will be permanent pages linked at the top of the home screen.  That way, they’re always available and easy to find.    This housekeeping may take a few days, so bear with me.

Thanks to all who have commented, followed and liked.  There’s lots more to come.

Best ….. Dan

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