Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Japanese Snow Monkeys

     Although I was very interested in seeing snow monkeys in Japan, tempted by documentaries which showed them lounging in hot springs while snow fell upon them, I was not keen to visit Japan.  Primarily this was because of Japan's position on whaling.  Japan continues whaling, using the excuse (which is a lie) that killing whales is for "scientific purposes."  And if that isn't enough, there's Taiji Cove and the annual massacre of dolphins, which cannot possibly be justified.  So, I had figured it would be a long time before I got around to visiting Japan - despite it offering some wildlife and scenery of interest.  I met a number of people who had visited the snow monkeys and said it was a wonderful experience, including several I was on my trip to S. Georgia with.  
     As fate would have it, on that trip I also met a friend who proposed that we go see the snow monkeys together.  I resisted the idea - not only because I wasn't comfortable visiting Japan given its treatment of marine mammals - but because it seemed to me that the cost of a trip to Japan vs. the upside, seeing only one species, didn't justify allocating limited time and funds on the trip.  I also had work and lots of other obstacles that seemed to prevent making plans for such a visit.
     So, my friend made plans to go without me, yet kept inviting me all the same.  And, as things happened, I decided to seriously consider it.  It would only be a 10 day trip, I'd have someone to split lodging costs with, and I would be able to go with someone who had been to Japan several times.  I was a bit intimidated about traveling to a country where I didn't speak the language and likely couldn't even guess at the meaning of signs.  My work commitments happened to allow for the dates which had been selected, and the clincher was that I got a ticket on miles.  Thus, suddenly the trip became very affordable, and too tempting to resist.  I asked myself if passing up the opportunity, not likely to come around again, would really be likely to have any impact whatsoever on Japan's whaling or dolphin policies.  As much as I'd like to believe it would....
     So in January I found myself off to Japan.  We were based at an Airbnb in Tokyo and headed to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park before long, which is a day trip from Tokyo.  You can take a variety of day trips or just take the train from Tokyo to Nagano and then take a local train to Yudanaka and take a bus to the park.  One you arrive at the park gates, it is a 1.8km walk along a wooded trail to the monkeys.  (If you go, take appropriate footwear for ice, snow and mud - I encountered all three).
     The walk is through gorgeous, stately, enormous cedar trees.  The snow on the cedars and the silence of the forest was outstanding.  I didn't get any good photos as I had planned to take them on the way out of the park, when I was not worried about losing time with the monkeys, and when I was on the wooded side of the trail.  As things happened, I never got the chance, so this is my only photo of the trail.
     Be aware that if you take a tour, your time with the monkeys may be very limited, 30 to 60 minutes or so.  You cannot rush on the trail as it is icy and most of it has no guard rail or fencing and quite a drop off.  At the end of the trail there are stairs to a man-made area filled with pools.  Apparently, this area has natural hot spring that people have used for ages.  At one point, the monkeys got interested and, unsurprisingly, copied the people and started using the springs.  The people didn't care to share and the solution (rather creative) was to build the monkeys their own spa area...and then to begin to sell tickets to see them in the hot springs.  The monkeys (Japanese macaques) are wild, and this is better than them living in captivity by far, but it isn't quite as natural as some of the documentaries portray it.  I wanted to see them all the same, and I'm not sorry that I did.  It's possible to see them year round in the park.

     Monkeys have a status and rank that determines their time in the pool, yet monkeys of all ages were soaking.  In the snow around the pools, others groomed and cuddled.  Like all primates, it is impossible to look into their eyes and not see a kinship.  They share much with humanity.

     Young monkeys swam, dove and pushed each other under the water.  To me, this pair looked like a grandpa and a grandson sharing some bath time.

     This youngster played by himself while the others played in groups, but didn't seem sad about it.

     I sat on some rocks at the edge of the pools.  It was hard to get photos because of all the people around the pools, and all the steam.  Getting a great vantage point was a challenge and I wished I had longer.  It would be easy, despite the cold, to spend all day watching the monkeys groom, swim, play and squabble.

     This little monkey was super adorable, and was only about a foot from me for quite awhile.
     Family or friends?  Either way they enjoy their companionship.
     The pools are at the edge of snowy rocks and mountains, and it is odd, when you step back, to see all the people surrounding the monkeys.  Although there are supposedly park staff, I did not see them regulating any bad behavior.  Luckily there wasn't too much bad behavior, but there are always a few tourists who can't be bothered to respect the animals.

     When I went to get up off the rocks right next to the pools, a woman attempted to help me by pulling on my arm.  Unfortunately, it was my right arm, and my right shoulder dislocated.  I've dislocated it several times, but never before when wearing a backpack and several winter layers.  I told her that my shoulder had dislocated and asked for help.  A few people spoke English and helped me get my backpack off and get up without using the dislocated arm.  I asked them to locate my friend, who was really rather shocked and a little panicked but I explained that I knew how to handle it and not to worry.  The kindly woman and her daughter helped me by locating in my backpack the valium and water I carry in case my shoulder dislocates and get my jackets off.  When my arm was free and the valium was on board, I just needed to find a place I could lay and dangle my arm. 
     The only surface available was a rock, so I climbed up on it, but the snow below was too deep to let my arm dangle freely, as it needed to do to let gravity pull it back in, and I also lacked an appropriate weight to hold in my hand to assist gravity.  So, being a little influenced by the valium to be more talkative than usual, I stated this problem out loud.  A kindly Australian man leaped up and scraped the snow out of my way and gave me his water bottle thermos.  In just a few moments of laying on the rock, with a crowd gathered around (rather awkward!) my shoulder slipped back in.  I used my scarf to make a sling to keep it in.  My friend was good enough to carry my backpack out down the trail - but I didn't take any more photos.
     In addition to the shoulder dislocation, my right foot had been troubling me and was really painful during and after this hike.  I learned later that it was actually broken (broken heel), but I hadn't known at the time.  Looking back, I certainly hope it's the only hike I have to do with a broken bone and a fresh dislocation.  I can honestly say that all the time and effort my mother spent making me tough was not lost - it isn't something I would necessarily have enrolled to learn, given a choice, but I can't deny some pride at having learned it so very well all the same.
     On another note, I completely - and very unexpectedly - loved Japan.  It was safe, easy to navigate, the people were incredibly polite and very helpful, the food was good, and the entire country (what I saw of it) was clean.  I absolutely loved Japan and hope very much to return some day.
     I attempted to go back to see the monkeys another day, but alas, when I arrived in Nagano I learned that major snow had closed the monkey park.  It was closed for four days.  I was lucky that we planned our visit before that storm and that I had one day with them, but I felt it had been cut short by the dislocation and I really wanted another chance.  Maybe some other year.  I hope so.  And now that I've fallen for Japan, there is much, much more I'd love to spend time exploring there.

Bryce Canyon National Park

      The last national park of our Grand Canyon trip was Bryce Canyon.  When we arrived, it was in the middle of a late March snowstorm and shortly before sunset.  Since it was sunny and warm in Zion National Park that same afternoon, this was a surprise! However, with elevations 8000 feet plus, it was just a different environment.  We had about 30 minutes in the park before we headed to our hotel.  At the end of the day and the end of the storm, with the last of the light, we were treated to a rainbow. 
       The next day we spent about a half a day in the park, which was enough to go to each checkpoint and also wait out some periods where there were white out conditions.  By now, the dogs were getting tired of posing - they strained into the wind, closed their eyes into the snow, and griped about not being allowed to romp in the snow.  We kept looking for a nice photo spot, but in this park, most of the overlooks have a fence that blocks the view at dog/kid height.  Thus, the photo backdrops are less than completely impressive - though I still think the dogs are cute.
      Bryce offers a lot of interesting scenery.  I don't think I'm a good photographer, and I am sure if I were I could have gotten a lot of amazing images, but even with a very basic point and shoot I got some images I like.  The contrasts in color and texture and shape are varied and every stop seemed to offer something slightly different.  Granted, at some stops we had more than one view - as we had to wait to see anything beyond the snow.  I ended up with a ton of landscape photos from this park.
     One of the "things to do" advertised for this park is horseback riding.  I have to say, I could not imagine riding a horse there - or wanting to.  Nothing about it says "horse terrain."  
      The dogs finally found a snowbank on the side of the road, and even though on leash, had a brief play tussle before we began the long drive homeward, also in a snowstorm.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Zion National Park

     As part of our Grand Canyon trip, we visited Zion National Park.  We stayed less than an hour away at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary the night before.  We have donated to the sanctuary for years and I had wanted to visit.  We stayed overnight in one of their pet friendly cottages, which was truly dog friendly!  It had a dog door and small attached kennel, and was well designed for travel with pets.  In the morning, we did a two hour tour of the sanctuary.  This is a bit harder when you have your own dogs in tow, but you follow the tour van and listen to a CD and get out at a couple of stops (though someone has to stay in the car with the dogs).  It was interesting, and by 10am we were on the road to Zion.
      March was a great time to visit.  The weather was really nice - warm but overcast, and the park was vibrant with green growth and red rock.  Generally it wasn't too crowded, despite Spring Break, though there was a short wait to go through the tunnel both times.  Apparently you can wait up to an hour to even get into the park, and there is really one main road, so I would not want to visit during peak times.  Part of the park is only accessible via shuttle, and therefore off limits with dogs in town.  However, we spent the bulk of the day here, stopping wherever we wanted.  There is one trail that allows dogs, near the visitor center. 
     We stopped for a picnic lunch on a rock by the side of the road.  As usual, Dylan got a lot of attention from drivers going by.  Entire busloads of people took his photo.  He cared only about being with us and getting a little cheese.  Maisey was content to watch everyone going by staring at her brother.
      There were a lot of interesting shapes and rock formations.  One that seemed recurring was almost like an Aztec pattern.  I wondered if there was any relationship between the patterns of early peoples and these natural formations in the rock.
     We kept a look out for wildlife.  Supposedly it is possible to see desert bighorn sheep, particularly near the east entrance to the park.  We were in luck and found a small group climbing on some terraced red rock.  We kept the dogs in the car, of course, and took some photos as the group moved across the rock, slowly.

     Other tourists were watching as well, and unfortunately, one couple walked towards and too close to the sheep, clearly impacting their flight distance and causing them to all run off.  It's just sad how clueless and inconsiderate people can be about wildlife - even in protected areas - even with ample literature asking for respect.  It's just maddening.  Going back to the car, a sheep narrowly avoided being hit on the road. 
     It was the right time of year for young babies.  The lambs were adorable, and very fast.
     A sheep that very nearly was hit by a car, but luckily wasn't.
     At another point, we came across a small herd of sheep and sat and watched them for a little over an hour.  They made their way down from the side of the road ahead of us into a gully, across rock, through a bunch of bushes with fresh green leaves, and then up to and across the road beside us.  The dogs slept in the car as we watched the sheep.  One other couple was also there for about an hour and very respectful, but many others came and went, slamming car doors, taking selfies, and generally appearing to be more interested in the idea of being able to say they had seen a sheep than in actually watching the sheep.  One very young baby, who was quite shy, was part of the herd.  After such a harsh winter, it was nice to see that the animals appeared healthy and were breeding.
     Right before we left the park there was yet a third small group of sheep, again with babies. 
     It was a great final wildlife sighting and the end of a lovely day.  I didn't know much about Zion before visiting, but it is really a beautiful and interesting place.  Before the end of the day we were near our next destination: Bryce Canyon National Park.  I didn't realize there was a significant change in elevation between the two and we hit a rainstorm that became a snowstorm traveling between parks.  While Zion was T-shirt weather, Bryce Canyon was parka weather!!  If you visit both, pack accordingly.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Grand Canyon National Park

     Seeing the Grand Canyon has been on my bucket list for a very long time, since I was a teenager.  I had figured I'd likely see it during a raft trip, and that it was going to be preserved and around for a long time, so no rush.....not like the endangered species I am always trying to see before they are gone.  It's also one of the places I could see when I am older, no longer able to take more difficult trips, so it was pretty far down my priority list.
     However, I wanted to do something special for the 20th anniversary of losing my dad this March.  At his request, there was no funeral or memorial service, and I had been very consumed with practical things after his death.  He died in my house, in hospice, and it was both my first experience with the death of someone close to me, and the loss of the most important person in my life.  In caring for him at the end of his life, which was still the beginning of my adult life, he talked a lot about all the things he hadn't done.  I did not want to reach the end of my life and be in the same position, which is part of why I began to push myself to travel.  It took me four years after his death to take my first international trip, to Europe, but I did begin to travel and to see the things I wanted to see, despite all the obstacles to doing so.
     The 20th anniversary of losing him was in March, which is a tough month to find something amazing to do, especially with the factors I wanted to consider.  Ideally I wanted to be with at least my dogs - the only species I can easily travel with.  It was luck that it fell over Spring Break, which meant that my husband could also join me.  However, a road trip in March is somewhat limiting due to weather.  A week is also a small period of time.  I considered international destinations, which would eliminate travel with the dogs, but if there was a special migration or other wildlife event in that part of March, it might be worth doing despite the time constraints.  After looking for options, trying to find something special to do, ultimately I settled on a trip to the Grand Canyon.
     There are several nearby national parks, and it would also be possible to work in a visit to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, which was another thing I had been meaning to do for years.  All in all, it would be possible in the span of less than a week to visit a number of interesting places, with the dogs in tow.  It turned out to be a great trip, despite the fact I found out I had a broken foot the week before we left.  (I didn't let it get in the way).
     As the North Rim is closed in March, we had to make the long trek to the South Rim.  As landscapes always are, it is far more impressive in person than I can capture in photos. Both Maisey and Dylan were happy to pose for photos at various stops, which was fun.
      For the most part, the weather was perfect.  Some sun, some breeze, but not too hot or too cold.  Although there were plenty of people, for the most part we avoided crowds.  It was possible to find dog-friendly accommodations, and dogs are allowed on leash at the lookouts.  (Dylan was a huge hit - several tourists asked if they could have their photo taken with him.  Maisey, far more shy, had a few admirers but was happy to let Dylan have the majority of the attention).
      If you look at this photo in full frame, you can see there is a bird sailing in the Canyon.  It is not a California Condor, much as I would have liked to see one there.  It's a raven. 
      I wanted to do something on the actual day (anniversary) of his death and so I planned a hike to Shoshone Point.  Supposedly the view was awesome and the trail not commonly used (and not marked - no signage in the park).  It was a two mile hike on flat terrain, and not recommended with the broken foot...but I wore a CAM boot and decided to do it anyway.  I had a vision in my mind of a picnic on the edge of the Canyon, and I was not at all disappointed.  Above is the edge of our picnic table, with a raven sitting nearby, clearly familiar with the remnants of human picnics.  The hike was not at all difficult (the boot wasn't comfortable though).  Our timing was good; despite a number of cars at the trailhead we basically had the point to ourselves.
The dogs posing at our picnic overlook
      Since we didn't do any serious hiking, and part of the park is available only by shuttle (not possible with dogs), two days was adequate time to see all the overlooks.  The clouds and changing weather made each stop a little different.  Overall, it was gorgeous, and although there are a lot of places that were higher on my list, I am glad I had a chance to see it when I did - the seasonal timing worked out well.

  There are some stunning photos and films about the Grand Canyon, no question. Certainly it has been better captured than I.  In "Kaibab Elegy," filmmakers Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinović visit Grand Canyon National Park and capture a rare weather event in which clouds form an inversion in the Canyon.  The video is pretty stunning:

     I don't know if my dad ever made it to the Grand Canyon or not.  I thought the best way to honor his memory was to be out, doing things I wanted to do, with my loved ones.  I am sure he would have been glad that I made it to the twenty year point - for awhile after his death I had no idea how I would make it to 20 hours, or 20 days, or 20 months.  I have a very different perspective on the world at 46 than I did at 26.   Much of that is due to travel, and probably, I could not have traveled (or would not have) if he had lived longer.  He would never, ever have wanted me to go off to Africa by myself, or India, or basically any of the places I have visited alone...not even anyplace in Europe.  He would have worried too much, and no doubt asked me not to go.  I would have worried about him, and likely, I would have postponed travel.  I never would have considered a Christmas in the South Pacific if he was still alive - I would have made sure to be with him on the holidays that were important to him.
     Certainly, given a choice, I would have had much longer with my dad than I did.  We did not have that option.  He had a goal to live long enough to see me graduate and start my adult life, and he lasted just a few months longer than that.  He did the best he could as a father, and although he wasn't perfect, he was vastly better than most fathers I have come across.  I am sure I would not be the person I am without his influence, even though the person I am has evolved a lot from the person he knew me as, decades ago.  Although I wish we could have had more time together, I am glad I have pursued the things I really want to do, and that I have not had to distress him in the process.
     At the Grand Canyon, I knew what he would say. "Be careful!  Don't stand so close to the edge!"  He only had 26 years to do it, but he managed to hard-wire in all his protectiveness, so I can still feel it.  It doesn't hold me back from doing what I want to do, but it reminds me that I was lucky to have someone who cared so much about me...even if I didn't have him as long as I would have liked.