Rafting on the Grande Ronde River

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After our amazingly fun rafting trip on the Deschutes River last year, Andrew (15) and I decided to go rafting with some friends again this year. Even better, Michael (12) decided to join us this time.

Our friend and trip planner Don chose the Grande Ronde River for this year's trip. This river is in the north-eastern part of Oregon. Like the previous trips, we used the awesome Oregon Whitewater Adventures guys. We drove down to La Grande the day before and enjoyed the comforts of the Rodeway Inn motel there (a little different from the resorts we normally frequent.) The next morning, we drove to Minam and set out on our three day, two night adventure.

The Grande Ronde River was a nice change from the Deschutes. It was a little less exciting from a rafting perspective; it had fewer big rapids (it's rated 2-3 vs. the Deschutes at 3-4) and dropped more consistently (vs. the pool-and-drop Deschutes). However, the scenery and camping were more picturesque -- more green than the high desert Deschutes valley. The additional moisture meant we could have fires in the evening too - a big advantage! Plus, there were no trains to interrupt our sleep and fewer other people on the river. We went around 50 miles over the three days -- pretty easy.

Like last year, we had two boats with our friends plus two gear boats. The staff did all of the work; we only had to set up our tents. We had great water fights and nice rafting, although we swam less since the water was more shallow this late in the season. On the Grande Ronde, there were no Bureau of Land Management campgrounds, so we camped in more primitive sites; in particular, there were no outhouses, so the staff set up a tent and porta-potty (really a seat on top of a big ammo can). Our guides were excellent again, with Colby and Jeff returning from last year and the crazy and wonderful Pamela plus the owner Dave joining us this year.

We all enjoyed the trip greatly and are already looking forward to next year.

The boys and I on the river.
Andrew, Michael, and me on the river

The kids playing cards (BS) in camp. It got pretty hardcore!
Kids playing cards in camp

Our camp site the second night.
Our campsite the second night

One day at lunch, we hiked up the nearby hill for a better view. It was quite steep, actually, but well worth it.
View of the Grande Ronde River from the top of a nearby hill

The views along the river were lovely. The hill in the background is the one we climbed. We made it about 2/3 the way up.
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Michael enjoying a swim.
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Michael enjoying some quiet time in camp, reading by the river. One of the best parts of the trip was having no electronics and no cellular signal.
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Rafting on the Deschutes River

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Andrew (14) and I spent the last three days rafting on the Deschutes River in northern Oregon, about two hours east of Portland. We went with our friend Selva and plus two of his friends; they had taken this trip a few years ago and decided it would be fun to bring their kids along. We were joined by another father/son pair (although the son was bit older than the other kids, entering his senior year of college).

We drove down from Seattle the day before and stayed at the Best Western in Madras (the Mexican restaurant next door has the biggest margaritas I've ever seen.) The next morning we started our adventure in Warm Springs and drifted almost fifty miles over the three days, getting out a little past Maupin. I didn't know whether the trip would be strenuous since I haven't really done much rafting before and have never done a multi-day trip. It turned out to be quite easy. The Deschutes is a "pool-and-drop" river. This meant we had long stretches of pretty calm water where we drifted along, paddling only to help correct our position in the river. Occasionally, we'd hit a short stretch of rapids which required a few seconds of hard paddling then more drifting. The guides steered the boat from the back and gave us instructions of when and how to paddle. Our group filled two boats plus we had two gear boats, packed with dry bags containing our camping gear and effects, the kitchen, food, camp chairs, etc. Raft camping is a lot like car camping in the sense you can live pretty comfortably since weight and space are less of an issue than in backpacking.

We generally left shore around 9:30-10:00am and rafted until 11:30-ish when we'd stop for lunch. We'd push off again around 1:00pm and raft until 3:00pm where we'd set up camp for the night. This left us a lot of time to chat, admire the high desert scenery, look for wildlife (including wild horses, bald eagles, turkey vultures, and dozens of ospreys), and engage in boat-to-boat water fights. There were a few exciting Class III rapids including "Buckskin Mary", which Andrew and I swam twice -- very fun. There were many camp sites along the river with pit or composting toilets so there wasn't too much trouble getting good sites with enough space for our group, both for lunch and overnight. We stayed at the Wingdam camp site the first night and Buckskin Mary the second. We ended our trip at Sandy Beach, which is the last pullout before Sherars Falls. We had good weather with only a few rain drops and alternating sunshine and slightly overcast skies. Our clothes dried very quickly each day. The evenings were warm so sleeping in the tents was not a problem. It was pretty different from camping in Western Washington where the nights are colder and more damp. The only downer of the camp sites were the trains that ran along the river; they came through a few times per night and were quite noisy.

We did our trip through the very excellent Oregon Whitewater Adventures; they did an excellent job making the trip comfortable, fun, and safe. I recommend them highly and would go again with them. They took care of pretty much everything -- loading and unloading, cooking, and cleanup. The food was pretty basic but good -- French toast/pancakes or eggs for breakfast, cold cut sandwiches or Costco oriental chicken salad for lunch, poached salmon or Spanish chicken and rice for dinner (although they forgot the rice so we had Spanish chicken and toast instead). The other rafters brought beer, wine, liquor, and soft drinks so we had plenty to drink in addition to what the company provided. Our guides Lauren, Colby, Jack, and Jeff were fantastic -- very friendly and great with the kids, safe and expert on the river, and full of stories and jokes.

Andrew and I had a really great time. I could easily have kept going on a few more days, and we're both eager to do more rafting trips.

 

The beautiful high desert landscape
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Andrew and I scouting Whitehorse Rapids.
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Camp life
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Our camp site at Buckskin Mary.
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Andrew playing "Paddle of Trust" where you stand up, hook paddles with another person, and lean back. Invariably, one or both players gets wet.
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Not that Andrew minded getting wet. He jumped into the cold water as often as possible
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All-in-all, it was a great mini-vacation.
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Camping at Spencer Spit State Park

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Andrew (14) and I spent the last three days camping at Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez Island, which is in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle). We had never been the Lopez Island before; we found this park through recommendations from friends on Facebook (search really is better with your friends...) Aside from a huge downpour that started right after we set our tent up, the weather was perfect -- sunny and warm.

Spencer Spit State Park entrance sign (name on a wooden boat)

 

The park has an odd very pointy beach, the result of alternating tides that have build sand up to form this point, aimed at the heart of the little nearby Frost Island.
Aerial photograph of Spencer Spit State Park showing the triangular beach.

 

We tried our hand at sea kayaking for the first time. We launched from the south side of the beach and circumnavigated Frost Island. We managed to successfully stay dry until a fell on my ass getting out of the boat, soaking myself in the process.
Andrew looking back from the front seat of our two-man kayak, islands in the distance.

 

We spent a lot of time on the beach. Andrew loves driftwood beaches; he's always making stuff. Knowing this, I brought along some paracord (always useful and good to have around). Andrew used the paracord to fashion a hoe, chiseling holes through a shell and tying it onto a driftwood stick.
Andrew proudly displaying his shell-and-stick hoe.

 

The shells made nice targets for our new slingshot, which we tried out for the first time. They exploded in a very satisfying way when hit, although we didn't manage to hit them directly too often since we were still learning how to aim the shots.
Andrew aiming his slingshot at shells lined up on a log on the beach.

 

We also used some shells to boil seawater, in an experiment to harvest salt. After boiling off the water, we did manage to get a little salt in the bottom of the shells. I think we'd have to keep adding seawater to get enough salt to scrape out. Note: the shells can pop and explode, I'm guessing due to pockets of moisture in the shells. Andrew got hit by a "shell fragment".
Three white shells on a grill over our fire ring.

 

Beyond our beach adventures, we played with a night-vision scope, which was much more fun in the woods than at home. We even watched a doe for a while through the scope. She didn't notice us (or didn't care) so we got to watch her feeding on the trail for a while. (No photos of this, unfortunately.)

Our campsite (#2) was pretty good. It got sun for a good part of the day and was conveniently located to the water, garbage, and restrooms. It was OK private, but a little noisy from the nearby group camping sites (although I'm not sure any sites would have been quieter). The park has a few walk-in camp sites on the beach, which would have been fun to try, although they're not very private and use a composting toilet instead of the nice clean flush bathrooms servicing the other parts of the campground. (They do have a cart at the parking lot to help you bring your gear down to the site, however.) It's also worth remembering that you can buy firewood at the campground for $5/bundle. (The "camp hosts" will even deliver it to your camp site); bringing enough firewood is always a hassle, so this is a nice perq, although I don't know if they have this service year-round.

We both really enjoyed the campout (and the visit to Lopez Village). Andrew kept saying "this is the life" and thanking me for taking him along. It was definitely a trip I'll always remember.

Andrew and Tony in our campsite.

Surfing in Hawaii

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We were in Kauai for the first time a few weeks ago. I slipped away from the pool for a few minutes to take pictures of surfers at the beach by our hotel. (It was a heck of a lot warmer shooting these guys than it was shooting the kiteboarders at Whidbey Island a few months ago...)

The surfers would all race toward the water, throw their board in, and then jump onto them to get going.
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The best guys would carve up and down the wave faces, plowing in and above the curling water.
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But almost invariably, they'd wipe out and then do it again.
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I'd love to learn to surf sometime, but taking photos of them was pretty cool. There was a guy in the water with them shooting with a GoPro. That looks like fun too.

Mount Rainier

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Despite having grown up in Seattle, our kids had never been to Mount Rainier; even Michelle and I hadn't been since before we were dating. It was such a nice day today that I dragged everyone on the long drive to Paradise to check out the mountain. (I had planned to go to Sunrise, but that was an even longer drive.)

Not surprisingly, the mountain was stunning. The wildflowers were in bloom and the sky was clear. Also not surprisingly, it was pretty crowded with a long line of cars trying to get into the parking lot. Note to self: go earlier in the day vs. waiting until afternoon.

The drive was a bit long for a day trip, but I'd love to check out some of the other areas of the park as well as the lovely lakes nearby.

Wildflowers dotted the hillside on the cloudless day:
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Michael (11) checking out the summit from the visitor center:
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The big crowds were the only downer.
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Michelle, Michael, and Andrew (14) in Paradise.
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Ocean Walking with Sharks!

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Today, Andrew (13) and I went walking with sharks! We were at the very cool Siam Ocean World aquarium in Bangkok, Thailand. They have a program called "Ocean Walker" where you can walk in their main tank and be in and among the fishies -- including some big sharks! You can see one of the sharks cruising past the ladder we went down.
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To do the Ocean Walk, you wear a very heavy helmet into which they constantly pump air; it's actually quite noisy, which is pretty different from SCUBA diving. (I used to do a lot of diving during college and almost became a marine biologist). They have a safety diver in the water with you guiding you around.

You can see quite well through the aquarium glass into the viewing areas where the visitors are. Here's me and Andrew waving at a bunch of school kids.
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I think the kids were especially excited to see another kid in the water.
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It was a super cool experience for both of us. Even though I've done a lot of diving, I've never been in the water with sharks, and there were a lot of them in the tank. Fortunately they were well fed! Andrew did a great job, staying cool and paying attention the whole time. He's excited to learn to SCUBA dive now. I can't wait to start diving with him.

Special thanks to our friend Ann who patiently waited for us to suit up and then took these photos for us!

Amphawa Floating Market

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After my trip to India, I met up with Michelle and the boys in Thailand for a vacation during the National Holiday in China. We went with our friends John and Ann out to Amphawa to see the floating market there. This is a quiet town around 90 minutes from Bangkok where city folks come for a good seafood meal. Most of the tourists there seemed to be Thai.

The streets were pretty crowded with vendors; since it had been raining pretty hard, they were hiding under big umbrellas.
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The main "drag" was a river with shops along both banks.
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In some parts of the river, restaurateurs in boats cooked and served up meals in little boats, with their patrons sitting on the docks eating.
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Grilled seafood was a popular dish.
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Phad Thai was also very popular, including this beautiful variant with squid ink noodles.
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Since our party was pretty big, we ate in a restaurant and feasted on local delights. I'm still full just thinking about it.

Long-tail boats cruise the waterways. These are long, slender boats with huge engines mounted out of the water and the driveshaft and propeller extending directly from the engine into the water. To steer, the skipper pivots the entire engine. Here's the lovely bow of one boat.
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Here's the pretty purposeful looking working end of the boat.
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In the evening, we took a long-tail boat ride around the river to see the fireflies. There were zillions (I counted) of fireflies in the trees around the river. There were so many fireflies that at some points the trees looked like they had Christmas lights in them. The fireflies even blink in some rhythm, further emphasizing their Christmas-light-osity. It was pretty amazing and lovely.

Indian and Indian-Chinese food in India

In addition to my tours of Golkonda Fort and both the old and new parts of Hyderabad, obviously, I ate a lot while I was in India. I don't have any photos of the meals (bad foodie), but I thought I'd share a few thoughts and observations.

I've always loved Indian food; I will reliably eat Indian food like a starving dog and continue to eat until I am beyond painfully full. I simply have no self-control around the stuff. Even though I really only ate in the hotel and in the Microsoft cafeteria (due to some risk of civil unrest around the Ayodha ruling), it should be no surprise that the Indian food in India was better than any I've had outside of India (including amazing Indian meals I've had in London and Singapore.) The flavors were just deeper and more complex than those I've had before.

Hyderabad is known for it's biryanis -- a rice dish typically made with goat meat in Hyderabad. Even the chicken version in the Microsoft cafeteria was spicy and ridiculously tasty -- a far cry from the biryanis I've had before. I also gorged on masala dosas and spicy lentil stew for breakfast; not my typical breakfast fare to be sure, but I think it would be if I had a source of dosas near home. The other curries, dals, breads, and tandoori roasted meats I had were stunningly good as well. (My mouth is watering as I write this...)

The only meal I had in a restaurant outside my hotel and the Microsoft cafeteria was actually a Chinese meal! As it turns out, the Indians are crazy about Chinese food (or their take on it); it's apparently the most popular cuisine in India outside of Indian food (there is even have an Indian Chinese restaurant in Redmond, WA but apparently it's not very good.) I saw Chinese restaurant signs all over Hyderabad, even in the less affluent parts of town.

The Indians have adapted Chinese cooking to their tastes and ingredients. My friend Saurabh took me to a very upscale place in the Taj Hotel; it looked pretty authentically Chinese and the menu looked relatively familiar as well. That's where the similarity stopped though.

The appetizer was sort of like french fries in a chili sauce. It tasted very good, but the flavors were a mix of Chinese and Indian tastes (and french fried potatoes don't factor into Chinese cuisine much). For our mains, we had two of the more popular dishes: "Manchurian gravy" and chow mein. The Manchurian gravy was a brown sauce with deep fried cauliflower balls; it was sweet and soy saucy with chilis and garlic. Pretty tasty. The chow mein was like other Chinese fried noodles, although there was something a little different about it as well.

For dessert, we had a classic Indian-Chinese dish. It was deep-fried wonton skins cut into wide noodles soaked with honey and served with vanilla ice cream. Of course, it was delicious, although I'm quite sure no Chinese emperor ever had this delight.

Wikipedia has a whole article on Indian-Chinese food. Fascinating! Who knew?

I really wish I had more time in India to try even more dishes. Next time...

Scenes from Old and New Hyderabad

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During my brief visit to Hyderabad, India, in addition to my visit to Golkonda Fort, I spun around town a bit, seeing both the new and old parts of Hyderabad.

The Charminar - a famous mosque in the center of the old part of Hyderabad.
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Hyderabad has a large Muslim population including the most women I've seen in full burqas.
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The streets were as chaotic as any I've seen anywhere, with motorcycles, scooters, and the ubiquitous yellow "auto rickshaws" darting in and out of traffic. Somewhat surprising to me, there were almost no automobile taxis to be seen. Auto rickshaws dominate the trade. You need to call a taxi to get one apparently.
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Of course, Hyderabad is an exciting tech hub with a vibrant new economy as well. Google is hiring aggressively here.
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Here's the very nice Microsoft campus in Hyderabad. It's much bigger and nicer than our facility in Beijing.
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Perhaps this is a very telling view of modern India. This is a fancy shopping mall in Hyderabad, easily as nice as most any mall anywhere in the world. It was covered in netting, however, to keep people from throwing rocks at it. I'm not sure if the netting is always there or was put up especially because the ruling to the controversial Muslim-Hindu Ayodha debate occurred during my visit. All of India was on alert for unrest as the ruling approached; A few examples included Microsoft sending their employees home early, officials closed schools, and police blocked off the old (mostly Muslim) part of Hyderabad from the rest of town with barbed wire. Fortunately, there was very little trouble after the split ruling.
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India, like China, is a complex place with a diverse and huge population, a long and rich history, and a fast-growing future. The mix of these things will continue to stretch the capacity, imagination, and patience of their leadership and population. Hopefully, they'll manage it well.

Golkonda Fort

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After many years of really wanting to visit India, I finally made it last week for a very short business trip to Hyderabad. Fortunately, I had one day to explore the city before heading out. Even more fortunately, Saurabh, one of my colleagues from our team in Hyderabad, graciously agreed to show me around his city.

Apparently, the key site everyone sees in Hyderabad is Golkonda Fort. This was really a fortified city built starting in the 13th century by a Muslim kingdom. The kingdom was apparently wealthy, with diamond mines in the area; the Hope Diamond came from mines in this region.

The site is pretty impressive still with a keep/palace on the top of the hill and a large village below. The outer wall encompasses a large area where some 40,000 people lived. The engineering was impressive as well. Hand claps at the gates can be heard at the keep on the top of the hill almost a kilometer away, facilitating communication. Water was pumped up throughout the complex, and there were several large covered cisterns to provide water during a siege. They also managed the airflow to keep cool breezes moving throughout the fort. Even in its current degraded condition, the fort is pretty amazing and worth checking out.

The keep from the village below.
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The village as seen from the keep:
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The ornate carvings at the front gate:
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The barracks area:
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Beautiful alcoves in the village:
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