Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wild Caving

It's almost that time again to go spelunking at Alabaster Caverns.  From April 1st until the end of September you can not only explore the main cavern, but you can also go wild caving in one of the four wild caves in the park.

Last August, we gathered up a swell group of friends (you have to have at least 3 people) and headed out to Freedom, OK early in the morning.  Our adventure first began with rescuing a tri-athlete on the side of the expressway with a blown-out bike tire, but fortunately no bodily injuries.  She was an Oklahoma-transplant and I hope that we restored her faith in Okie goodness.  I also shared my blog with her, since she wasn't aware of all of the great things Oklahoma offers for the adventurous.

Photo by Bryan Fowler
After depositing her and her crippled bike at a convenience store to wait for her rescue ride home, we continued on our way.  One of my dearest friends had brought along "The Sound of Music" soundtrack.  We yodeled along to The Lonely Goatherd as we drove through the downtown streets of Kingfisher.  Since helmets are required for wild caving, we donned our headgear and rolled the windows down enjoying the beautiful day and our silliness.  After a bit, we noticed that there were people lining up in their lawn chairs along the sides of the street and waving at us.  I don't believe that we were the reason for the attention, but the local residents had to believe that this was the strangest parade ever!

We arrived at the Alabaster Caverns State Park about midday, so we took a quick lunch break before the exploration began.  A horned lizard joined us - a rare treat since their populations have taken a dive in the last few decades.

For a small fee, we got our wild caving permits, signed waivers, and let the park staff know which cave we were going to explore first.  They require you to check in with them before and after each cave.  We were thoroughly warned that they would send search and rescue after us if we weren't back by 3pm, and charge us a hefty fine, too.

The first cave we picked was HoeHandle.  I was not expecting much, due to the hype of the tram ride into the main cavern and the warning that there were not "modern conveniences" in the wild cave (well, I hope not!).  I was wrong.  The large entrance quickly narrows to a crawl space that made this claustrophobic girl a bit panic-y.  We discovered bats, camelback crickets, a salamander, and a lone field mouse.  Although this particular cave wasn't the wettest by description, we still ended up army-crawling through a couple inches of what we thought was muddy water.  When we came out the other end of the cave, we consulted our map and discovered that the muddy hole near the end is popular with the local cattle and we had just crawled through bovine "excreta".  Their creative phrasing didn't make us feel or smell any better, especially since we could only find barbed-wire barriers at the end and had to crawl back through the "excreta" to return the way we came.

The day was getting long, so we picked a second and final cave for the day and decided on Owl Cave.  It was a short, but scenic, hike to get to the cave.  The gaping entrance drops down into a more narrow, but still semi-tall, path.  We made our way to the far end of the cave and followed the trickling water until it became too slick and small to go any further.  The day was hot, but we were cool in the damp and dark of the cave.

After we changed into clean clothes, we headed home along the Great Plains Trail.  On our way, we decided to stop in Waynoka for ice cream at the local soda fountain shop.  The sweetness was only intensified by a lovely rainstorm like only a blazing hot Oklahoma day can brew.  We sat under the awning and licked melting ice cream and soaked up the day.

There are two other wild caves at Alabaster Caverns that we still need to explore - Ice Stalactite and Bear Cave.  If you go, be prepared to get stinking filthy.  Bring a change of clothes and take advantage of the showers at the park.  Don't be afraid of the bats, rodents, reptiles, and bugs.  Don't expect the maps or park staff to provide much direction on the wild caves.  Explore, enjoy, and be silly.  You will be dirty and stinky and not give an excreta!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Wildlife Bingo

We have this game we play whenever we take off on an outdoor adventure.  It's pretty simple - we list all of the wildlife that we want to see that day.  Of course, to really prove that you have seen the animal, there has to be identifiable, photographic evidence.

In Oklahoma, there are the usual suspects:  white-tailed deer, armadillos, red-tailed hawks, etc.  For fun, we will throw in a bobcat, fox, eagle, osprey, elk, or porcupine.  If we are feeling extra adventurous, then there will also be rattlesnakes and mountain lions on the list (from a safe distance, of course).

Today, not only did I see many of the usual critters, but also added a new wildlife sighting that I had never seen in the wild (in Oklahoma or any other state) - a river otter.

About a year ago, someone mentioned to me that there are river otters at the Wichita Mountains.  I thought that he was full of longhorn excreta (more on that fun word in a future blog post).  Ever since then, I've been on a mission to spot one.  I had even seen other people's photographic evidence of their existence in that area.  Challenge accepted - river otter was added to the "wildlife bingo" list every time I ventured to the 'tas.

The weather today was going to be beautiful - 74 and sunny.  Not too bad for the last day of February!  Unfortunately, it is Friday, so all of my hiking friends are slaving away at their 9-5s.  I disregarded the plaque in the Charon's Garden area of the Wichitas that warns people to never hike alone, in memory of someone that lost their life there in the rock rooms (another future blog post).  Afterall, it was going to be one of my last chances to go there for a while, and the weather was perfect.

On my way, I decided to pull off the turnpike to try to see what bird had been sitting in the nest I've been watching.  The zoom lens came in handy to view the adult great-horned owl.  I must have disturbed her when I got out of the car.  She flew off into the field and in her place was a three-week old owlet.  Darn!  I didn't even have owl on my bingo list!

I chose to hike the bison trail section of Dog Run Hollow, since it runs along French Lake and Cache Creek and the 40-foot hole.  I had been told that the river otters have been spotted all over the area, just following the water.  But, Donna at the Visitors' Center warned me that my chances of spotting the otters there were slim and said that the most recent sighting had been in a different area.  I took my chances anyway, since this was a well-marked trail and I was hiking solo.  Sure enough, she was right - no otters.

I was driving away from the refuge as the shadows grew long.  I got almost to Medicine Park and pulled my car over.  Searching for a map of the refuge, or even one of the state, I came up empty.  Finally, I remembered that I had a handkerchief from the Visitors' Center gift shop that had a map of the refuge printed on it.  I pulled it out of my backpack and found the spot that Donna mentioned.  Of course, it was at the opposite end of the park.  Turning the car around, I raced against the sunset.

river otter? or beaver?
The lake was still.  No ripples except from a few Canada geese and red-eared sliders slipping off the logs into the water.  No signs of playful river otters.  Determined, I started walking the perimeter of the lake.  In the distance, I see a bobbing head in the water.  I knew that it was much more likely to be a beaver than an otter, but I was hopeful.  The shutter was clicking as I quickly scrambled on the rocks to get a better view.  There were whiskers, lots of them.  Still not convinced, I moved quicker towards my subject.  He dove underwater.
scruffy little guy

At least I had some pictures to try to scrutinize later.  I sat down and checked the viewfinder.  Would it be good enough to get a proper ID?  Before I could determine the answer, the bobbing head resurfaced.  For the next hour, I watched as the otter swam around, caught his dinner, rolled gracefully, and played on the shoreline.  The light was low, but the pictures were good enough to convince even the doubters, such as myself.

Not great quality, but definite ID


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Guthrie Ghosts

It's a well-known fact that Guthrie has ghosts.  Why not?  The city is rich in history and scandal, so why wouldn't souls want to hang around for a while post-death?  There is a whole website dedicated to haunted places across Oklahoma, but I want to tell you about one that is maybe a little less known.

The city of Guthrie sprang up in a day in 1889 with the Oklahoma land run.  It was the original state capital when Oklahoma gained statehood.  Then, overnight, the state seal was supposedly stolen and moved to Oklahoma City, making Oklahoma City the new capital.  Not long afterwards, the Rock-A-Way Bar was constructed by a federal marshal and some prisoners in the former capital.

I accidentally stumbled across the Rock-A-Way ghost story on my way to the first-ever Make Guthrie Weird block party in June.  When I tried to find more information about the block party; that I only knew about because one of my favorite Okie bands, Porch Mice, was playing; I discovered that there was also a noodling festival in Guthrie that same day.  It's not exactly on the same scale as the Paul's Valley festival for the same sport, but provides its own brand of entertainment.  That's how we ended up at the Rock-A-Way Bar, sitting at a table with one of the owners - Maxine Duncan.
Porch Mice at the first-ever Make Guthrie Weird block party

"They say this place is haunted," Maxine tells us when we discovered that she and her husband had fairly recently acquired the "Rock".  I have to confess that I might not have believed myself when I told her I would only use the video for purposes of remembering the story she was about to tell.  As soon as I set the camera on the table, Maxine straightened her hair and leaned in, like a pro.  I do believe that she might have been telling her own little white lie when she said that she wasn't very good on camera.  I'll let Maxine tell the rest of the haunted story of the Rock-A-Way:

As it turns out, Guthrie may just already be weird.  And, Oklahoma City better watch out - Guthrie may just steal the seal, with the help of lost souls, and make history repeat itself.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Last weekend was the first-ever Watonga Cheese and Wine Festival.  The Watonga Cheese Festival has been held since 1976, even after the cheese factory was destroyed by Tropical Storm Erin in 2007 and relocated to Perryton, TX.  This year, the OGIC Wine competition was added, marrying the two lovers and bringing my Whirlwind Winery experience full-circle.

My first encounter with Whirlwind Winery was at the almost-rained-out cheese festival in 2012.  While the rest of the exhibitors were packing up, we made our way to the winery where we were invited to taste their selections, including a watermelon wine that was still in the makings.  Along with the tastings, we were given a tour of the facility and invited to help with the harvest the following year.

I called Brad Stinson, co-owner of Whirlwind, near the end of August this year to see if the offer still stood.  I was afraid that I was too late, since I only knew that it would be around August, and we were pushing the end of the month.  Turns out, I was just in time, since the first harvest of the year had been scheduled for the following weekend.

I gathered a few friends and coffee for the early morning drive to the vineyard in Fay, OK.  We were supplied with "nippers" and buckets and a short tutorial and went to work.  Our harvest companions that morning consisted of a handful of "real neighborly" friends and family, including the other co-owner - Don - and  Brad and his brothers - Chad and Thad - and their father, Allen.  When I commented that "Allen" doesn't rhyme with Brad, Chad, and Thad; Chad quickly retorted, "No, but 'Dad' does."  Their mother later told me that if she would have had another boy, she would have named him "Aw-Gad".

We called it quits for the day around 11:30 a.m., just as the mercury hit the century mark.  We caravanned to the winery where we were treated to a plethora of homemade pastas, salads, bread, fruit, dessert, and (of course) wine.  There, I met the bold and adorable Russian, Tonya - Brad's wife.  She told me that they met on the internet, where she had advertised herself as "good-looking and good-cooking", but was quick to state that she was NOT a mail-order bride.

When Brad decided a few years ago that he wanted to grow grapes and open a winery, Tonya let him know that she didn't come to America to do manual labor.  This expensive and time-consuming hobby takes five years just for the grapevines to mature.  The weather and critters can completely obliterate a whole year's crop.  When Don became a partner, he brought his own grape-growing experience with him and together they have learned a lot about the business.  We heard stories about training sheep to only eat the goathead stickers that are plentiful in the sandy soil, but to leave the fruit alone. I'm still not sure if it is genius, or cruel.
Brad and Thad
Pouring into the "crusher"

Chad cranking the press
After lunch, we got to participate in the actual winemaking.  No, we didn't stomp the grapes.  A shade canopy was erected behind the winery and the trailer loaded with buckets of grapes was backed right up to the "crusher".  The buckets
Winemaking in progress
were weighed, then dumped into the "crusher" that separates most of the stems from the fruit.  From there, the fruit and juice is either dumped into a 50-gallon drum to age for a short-time, or into the grape press to extract the juice with a manual crank.  Yield from that first harvest was around 1500 pounds of grapes. I was a bit surprised, since the first few rows at the vineyard looked like their Merlot (Okie-
Future wine
pronunciation is phonetic) was only going to be Mer-little.  Fortunately, we ended up finding plenty that the birds and late-April freeze had spared.  We even matched that quantity a couple of weeks later when we returned to harvest the rest.

Our inexperienced group learned a lot about the sugar content of grapes (measured in "brix" with a refractometer), patience required to grow the grapes (and day jobs, too), and how the sunshine increases the sugar content.  I found a similar experience in Napa Valley advertised for $1200 per person.  Granted, it might not be triple-digit temperatures in Napa Valley, but we got to participate for free.  On top of that, we developed friendships and received VIP treatment at the
Grape "cake" after pressing
Whirlwind Winery at the Watonga Cheese and Wine festival this year.  I suppose the experience will really come full-circle next year when we return to try the 2013 Serendipity.

Friday, August 23, 2013

I'll be your Huckleberry

In July, one of our weekend field trips took us to Jay, Oklahoma, to the 46th Annual Huckleberry Festival.  First of all, I didn't realize that huckleberries were actual berries.  I only knew the phrase from Tombstone, "I'm your huckleberry".  Secondly, if there is such a fruit, I had no clue that it grew in Oklahoma.  Apparently, not only does it grow in places like Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington; but it also grows in places like Oklahoma and Arkansas near the Ozarks.  It is a wild crop and difficult to cultivate - leaving the luck of the harvest to Mother Nature and the tenacious people who go berry-picking.

We didn't know what to expect at the Huckleberry Festival.  The multi-day schedule of events included a pancake breakfast, a pageant, car show, root beer chug-a-lug contest, camels and a live kangaroo - among many other various events.  There was little to no mention of actual huckleberries.  We had a goal.  We drove across the state just to see if we could find Oklahoma-grown huckleberries. 

When we pulled into the metropolis of Jay, population 2,458, shade canopies and inflatable bounce houses and slides were spread out over several city blocks.  The turtle derby had just finished and a little girl and her dad were carrying their turtle back to release it where they found it.  We asked several people where we could find huckleberries, but the answers weren't promising.  How does the town of Jay hold a festival for 46 years for this elusive berry?

I had a new mission.  I needed to get to the bottom of this mystery.  A phone call to the Jay Chamber of Commerce put me in touch with Jackie, who also happens to work at the Delaware County Historical Society Museum in Jay.  To the best of her knowledge, the Huckleberry Festival was started 46 years ago when a couple of the residents decided that the town should do something special with the 250 pounds of huckleberries that were being harvested daily in the summertime.  News quickly spread across the state and even overseas, and suddenly everybody wanted Jay huckleberries.  The former Jay Picnic turned into the Annual Huckleberry Festival. 

As it goes with farming, Mother Nature's crop has its ebbs and flows.  The droughts in recent years might have reduced the huckleberry crop.  That didn't stop the town of Jay from holding the festival, and didn't stop the town volunteers from foraging for the dark blue wild berries for the event.  Not only did we enjoy tasty huckleberry milkshakes, but came home with a quart of frozen berries to make huckleberry pancakes to enjoy for many mornings.  Jackie described it perfectly when she said that this event is possible because of "love for a town".
Oklahoma-grown huckleberries - JACKPOT!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Parks in the Park

Outlaw Ghost of Robbers Cave

by Daniel Parks

With wisp of wind on gloaming breeze,
odd swirls of dust move through the trees.
And while it's true the days had passed
when robbers to this Cave were cast.
Yet in its shadows, dread prevails,
nocturnal fears the night regales.
And on some hot and sultry nights
it seems suffused with muted fright.

'Twas on such night, as from a grave,
strange devil winds stirred from the Cave.
And in its midst a woman stalked
adorned in silken gown and frock.
Her flexuous hair cut to her sash,
influenced not by dervish cast.
And in the gloom, I tried to see
if specter's real, or fool I be?

The ghostly wench entreated me
to sue the winds to set her free
While in her hand, extended thus,
a pistol waved amongst the dust.
Her face was aged and anger fraught,
while curses coursed for vengeance sought.
And then I caught the woman's name
as from her maw were vows proclaimed.

"Belle Starr's earthly form I bear,
my death avenged, of that I swear.
When dastard deed, requited be,
these chains of death will set me free.
And then my killer's soul I'll take
to Hell's eternal burning lake!
And then my killer's soul I'll take
to Hell's eternal burning lake..."

And as she spoke, the devil wind
began to ebb its strident spin.
And the specter from the past
was no more carried by its blast
but faded back from wince it came
while crying out her dreadful name.
And lastly vanished to her grave,
this Outlaw Ghost from Robber's Cave.

As I gasped from lack of breath
I knew I'd seen the face of death...

Blooming dogwoods
Dogwoods turned their flowers upward to the spring sunshine.  Birds flirted in their branches and redbuds lent their color to the woods.  I arrived at Robbers Cave in Wilburton on a Friday afternoon in mid-April, ready for a weekend of camping and wedding festivities.  My good friends had been planning their green, sustainable wedding (well, of all things, a wedding/ marriage should be sustainable!) for almost two years, complete with compostable plates, cups, and silverware.  It's no secret that I'm not a fan of weddings, but it is bound to be enjoyable when the bride refers to it as the "camping event", and dogs are encouraged.
Beautiful bride and groom and their furkids
As I set up my tent that I had purchased for $10 at the outdoor gear swap meet at OKC Kayak, a ranger's assistant came by to collect the camping fees.  He asked if I had ever been to the park before, and I was happy to say that not only had I been, but I had even mentioned the park in one of my blogs.  I asked him where the largest pine tree is in Oklahoma, since the park boasts that it has the "second-largest".  Stumped, he radioed the park office to ask.  Apparently, it is a well-guarded secret, and I am still searching for the answer.
Perfect campsite

Parks (coincidence that Mr. Parks is a park ranger's assistant?) mentioned that he is a writer, as well.  In fact, he has a book being published and will be released very soon.  He asked if I would include one of his poems in my blog, which I was delighted to do!  By the time I finished setting up my tent, Mr. Parks had delivered a copy of one of his poems and a photocopy of the cover of his new book.

I was thrilled to kick off my weekend with this chance encounter.  I really should no longer be surprised at the amazing Oklahomans that I meet on my adventures around the state.  As I joined the rest of the wedding guests at the lodge, I gushed about my good fortune.  Friends who had joined me on other Okie adventures weren't too surprised.  We have met some of the most interesting, talented, and generous people on our travels.  Daniel Parks can be added to that growing list.

Gifts of ghost stories!
A little while later, I returned to my quiet camping spot (thanks to a tip from the groom!) and found some pieces of paper weighted down next to the fire ring.  It was one of the ghost stories from Parks' book.  I sat by the creek and read about strange calls for help in the darkness and the mysterious disappearance of one of the rangers.  I concluded that it was fiction, but it played with my mind and had me second-guessing. 

Wide-open eyes saw nothing but blackness as rain pelted the tent.  I couldn't sleep, but I wasn't sure if it was because I'd never used my bargain tent and I wasn't confident that it was water-tight (it was, thankfully!), or if it was because of the ghost story that kept replaying in my mind.  The author's references to landmarks in the park create a story that is hard to distinguish from fact.  Half-asleep dreams mingled with the ghost story and had me actually wishing that there were other campers close by.

Cattail Pond at Robbers Cave
There are valuables to be discovered in the Oklahoma state parks, and Daniel Parks is one of them.  Pick up a copy of Poetic Scenes and Mystic Dreams, and spend some time visiting with the state park employees.  Find out how they got there and what keeps them there.  Our shrinking park budgets will never be able to properly compensate them for the lives that they give to the areas that they love.  Experience a little bit of it for yourself.  See it, walk it, submerge yourself in it, and let it keep you awake on a rainy night.  (You can purchase Mr. Parks' book at the Robbers Cave Cabin Office, the Gift Shop, or online from Amazon, or directly from the publisher - Lulu).

Monday, April 15, 2013


I had been driving for almost six hours and already had been pulled over for speeding, driven through a small blizzard, and now was in the middle of the blackest night and was afraid I might not ever find the Black Mesa Bed and Breakfast.  But, there it was.  Two small wooden signs pointed the way, and there was light in the middle of the mesa silhouettes on the star-speckled sky.

Two resident dogs and one familiar one greeted me as I pulled in the gravel drive.  Several cats scrambled for cover as my dogs bounded out of the car, ready for solid ground after the long journey.  Loving arms of my Rocky Mountain Man welcomed me.  This was the start of a three-day weekend where we would learn what it means when your feet stink, how to take a lesson from a duck, and what life is like where the stars reach down and kiss your nose.
Loco (above)  and Star (below)

We chose to stay at the Black Mesa Bed and Breakfast because they were dog-friendly.  Between my sweetheart and I, we brought three dogs to join the two resident dogs and eight resident cats.  Star and Loco announced my late-night arrival and were eager to meet their new guests.  We stayed in one of the bunkhouses, that we later discovered used to be the chicken coop.  There was a cozy outhouse and beautiful views of the surrounding mesas on all sides.  A fair warning was given at the time of the reservation to fill up the gas tanks at the last town - about 30 miles away, depending on your approach.  This truly was the middle of nowhere.

backyard of the B&B
Trail to the summit of Black Mesa
Vicki and Monty Joe are the owners of the B&B.  They decided to open up their home for guests 17 years ago because they needed the extra income.  Between the family portraits on the wall of the bunkhouse, the colorful and mismatched towels in the outhouse, and the insistence upon gentlemanly manners at the breakfast table - I could have sworn we were staying at a great-aunt's house.  We unknowingly made the mistake of eating our breakfast outside on the first morning, but I promise we won't make that mistake twice.  Breakfast was a family affair, preceded by a brief blessing from Monty Joe. 

The weather was as gorgeous as a February weekend in Oklahoma could be.  We hiked with the pups to the top of Black Mesa to reach the highest point in Oklahoma at 4,973 feet above sea-level.  It was my first high-point summit.  Once we reached the top of the plateau, we spent the rest of the afternoon taking pictures, lounging on the rocks at the edge, watching the Chihuahuan ravens, and reading the journal entries in the log book by the high-point monument.  Apparently, last summer was very "grasshoppery", according to the hikers' notes.  It was a holiday weekend, but the only people we saw was a couple that we passed as we were almost back to the car at the end of the 8-mile out-and-back trail.  Otherwise, it was just the two of us, the dogs, and an abundance of mountain bluebirds.

View from the front porch of the B&B
My sweetheart and I sat in the homemade swing on the front porch of the B&B that evening, sharing Oklahoma wine, Colorado cheese, and dark chocolate and reflecting upon an incredible day.  As the swing gently swayed, the sky competed with the landscape, showing off her brilliant colors.  We watched until the mesas swallowed the sun and the cholla cacti faded from a temporary pink back to olive then black.

Looking over the edge of Black Mesa
That weekend, we got to spend many hours being entertained by our hosts.  They regaled us with stores of their brief courtship and Monty Joe's unwaivering tolerance.  Monty Joe was born without a temper.  He told us that when his kids were young, he would tell them to "take a lesson from a duck" - let it roll off their backs.  His father was the same way.  When his mother had pushed him far enough, all he would say is, "Your feet stink," and she knew to back off.  They owned 700 acres and now lease some of the land to cattle ranchers.  They shared stories about the cowboys that were always polite, but Vicki warned that they weren't the best men to date.  Monty Joe said that the cowboys always have a beer in one hand and a girl in the other.  "Well, one out of two ain't bad," Vicki retorted. 

We could have stayed another week, just listening to their stories and enjoying the solitude of the panhandle.  Between spotting juvenile golden eagles and walking in dinosaur tracks, the memories from that weekend create a happy place for my mind to drift.  I didn't even mind when Vicki hollered for me like she was calling the pigs to slop when I was late for breakfast one morning because I was chasing my dog that was chasing her cats.  "Nan-CYYYYY!"  Maybe it was the company I was with, our hosts, the weather, the bluebirds, or the homemade prickly-pear jelly, but I can't wait to go back.
Pronghorn elk