Day and Night Snorkeling…in whatever body you have

Before I left for my Hawaii trip, I did some online swimsuit shopping. One of the many companies I explored had a line of copy that stuck with me – “the best beach body is the one you have now.”

What bulls#!$, I thought. That was obviously written by someone who’s only body image concern is 5 or 10 pounds she’s been trying to lose since she was 18. She’s never felt the utter despair that she will NEVER find a swimsuit that makes her feel comfortable, let alone even the slightest bit sexy.

But with snorkeling and lots of beach time on my mind, I dug a little deeper into my shopping and found some solutions that I’d never tried before.

  • Swim shorts, with built in pockets – perfect for making strolls on the beach as pleasant as swimming (see: the perils of chafing). Perfect for those of us who want to hike to a beach and then maybe take a dip, but don’t want to have to wear a full piece swimsuit under normal shorts.
  • A rash guard/short sleeved swim shirt (rash guard is a terrible name, by the way!) that was super comfortable and best of all, covered the upper arms, which have always been my greatest area of self-consciousness while swimming.
  • And, shocker, a bikini top to wear under the shirt. Because, well, most gals with any, ahem, curves up top need a little support.

In this ensemble, while on my Hawaii trip, I went snorkeling, twice: once in a gorgeous cove in daylight, and once at night with a bunch of manta rays. Yes, you read that right. More on that in a moment.

First, daytime snorkeling. This is one of those activities that anyone can do – and a lot of people do – without any coaching or training. In my case, I just looked to my friend for how to do it, and she basically said: “Put the stuff on, stick your face in the water, and breathe. Don’t kick too much, and don’t touch the coral.” The rest – like how and when to put on your flippers, how to keep water from coming in to your mask, how to convince your brain that “No, you’re not about to drown. Yes, you can breath underwater” – the rest you have figure out.

For me, the breathing part was the hardest. I love to swim laps, and that entails taking large breaths that get expelled rather forcefully through both nose and mouth. Snorkeling requires breathing that is slow and purposeful, and doesn’t involved your nose at all. So for me, the first few moments were utterly terrifying. I kept thinking I needed to take a big breath to hold before I put my face in the water. My breathing was fast and panicked. My body was physiologically defying my brain, which knew that people all over the world do this thing all the time…without dying.

Once I got over this fear, and figured out how to keep water from seeping into my mask, the experience was magical. The fish in the bay were plentiful, colorful, and completely unfazed by my presence in their domain. I even managed to take a couple of pictures!

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And here’s the best part about this experience: I never really thought about what I was wearing. I never really freaked out about if the entire world was judging my body. I just put my face in the water and looked at the fish. When I climbed out of the water, I walked gleefully across the beach and didn’t even consider being self-conscious. I was comfortable and it occurs to me, now, this might be the first time I was ever totally relaxed in a beach setting.

Later in the trip, I donned my water outfit again and went night snorkeling with manta rays. I say that as if it’s no big deal, but let me tell you; it was a pretty big deal. See exhibit A:

As magical as it was, this experience surfaced a whole host of self-esteem issues. For example, knowing that I would be hanging out with toned and attractive 20-somethings who managed the experience. And, in this case, knowing that I was the only one in a boat usually reserved for 6. See, circumstances contrived to cause me and friend to be unable to attend our original night snorkeling date. Luckily, the awesome company we booked was willing to rebook me, and they were willing to take just me out in their latest boat. Why is this intimidating to me? I don’t know, it just is.

However, my guides couldn’t have been nicer, and we were soon out in the bay (which is a mere few hundred feet from the dock) ready to meet some mantas. I zipped into my wetsuit top (thank god it fit!) clamored awkwardly over the edge of the boat, and then proceeded to wrestle for a few minutes with my mask, which insisted on trying to drown me each time I put my face into the water. My in-water guide gamely tried to help me, and we laughingly agreed that I have a haircut not well-suited to snorkeling. Eventually, we got me situated, and it was time to…float.

Float, while hanging onto a lit-up surfboard, with a fun noodle beneath my ankles to keep my feet out of the way. See, the lights on the board attract plankton, which attracts manta rays, which attracts crazy night-snorkeling humans.

So after all the anxiety and bustle of getting there…all I had to do was float.That’s it. That’s all I was supposed to do.

This was, surprisingly, a challenge. After a few minutes, and my first gasp-worthy sighting of mantas, I picked my head up and remarked to my guide that I had no idea how much time we had left. She gently reminded me that I had a whole 40 minutes, and I could use as much or as little of that as I wanted; it was entirely up to me.

See, it was very, very strange to just watch and float. I had nowhere to go. Literally. The guides moved the board when needed, and my job was just to hang out in the water and watch the manta rays. At first, I tried to snap pictures and videos, but soon, I just gave up and looked. And reflected on the fact that I am not very good at that kind of stillness. Most of my outdoor adventures involve needing to get from point A to point B. Sure, I might stop and have a snack or take in the view, but pretty soon I’m in motion again.

This was different. It felt strange. And pretty indulgent.

But also amazing.

Once I relaxed, the time flew by, and before I knew it, I was being towed back to the boat and climbed back in. I struggled to peel my wetsuit off, and the male guide just said “oh, we all deal with that” and helped me, as if it wasn’t my fault for NOT being a toned 20-something. 🙂 They gave me lukewarm hot chocolate, motored me back to the dock, and sent me on my blissed-out way under a hazy, full, Hawaiian moon.

The moral of this entire story? If you are a person who deals with body consciousness issues, there is power in finding comfortable swimwear for the body you have right now. It might not be sexy swimwear, but comfort is a good first step. If it can take you across the beach without triggering your self-judgement, that’s a win. And if it can help you get over whatever fears you may be harboring about trying new things, that’s a real victory.

Because there are beautiful fish and otherworldly manta rays in the water, my friends, and it would be a shame if you missed them. Get to it.

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Kilauea Iki Crater Trail: #hike6 of the #52hikechallenge

Let’s talk craters y’all. Like actual real volcanic craters in the earth that still have steam coming out of them. Did you know there are such places that have hiking trails into and around them? I didn’t, but I do now!

Every book or blog about the Big Island says that Kilauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of its best hikes. I was a little dubious coming in because it was only 4ish miles long and it seemed like much of it was on flat terrain. But I couldn’t deny the coolness of descending into a volcanic crater. It was pouring rain, and it was still awesome. I guess that’s the mark of a great hike.

Speaking of pouring rain, on the east/Hilo side of the Big Island, it apparently rains all. the. time. We were there for 3 full days and it rained steadily. But that didn’t stop us.

The us, in this case, is me and my former college roommate. Since today is International Women’s Day, I feel justified in pausing for a moment to reflect on us two women, and the fact that, on this trip, we realized that we’ve been friends for 23 years. We met when I was a sophomore and she was a freshman in college. We are partners in pale skin and curly hair, though I think she looks more like a greek goddess with her blond curls and great smile. Though we haven’t lived in the same state since a brief NJ stint in 2003, we’ve managed to stay in touch through good times and bad. She’s smart and awesome and beautiful, and I’m grateful for our long friendship.

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This is us at the start of the Crater hike, when the dripping rain was more of a fun challenge than a pain in the butt.

Anyway, the hike began in the pouring rain. We chose the counterclockwise route, which I would highly recommend. The first section is along the Crater Rim Trail, a mostly flat trail that should, per its name, offer amazing views of the Crater and its rim. For us, the views lacked a certain…something.

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As you can see, the rain cloud was basically right on top of us. Eventually, we were able to see a bit more of the crater, and if you look carefully, you can see the trail way down below; that faint white line in the grey.

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The Crater Rim Trail actually goes for about 12 miles around the Crater itself, a hike I’d like to do someday when it’s not raining.

Pretty soon, we left the so-called views behind and found ourselves in what can only be called “lush rainforest”, filled with dripping greenery and huge fern plants.

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The descent through the forest was pretty easy. Eventually, we started clamoring down some steeper, clunkier rocks that likely give this hike it’s “moderate/strenuous” rating. If it’s not raining, there should be no issue, but in the rain, we had to pay close attention to our feet! We also had to go through that process of realizing that yes, our boots would grip the volcanic rock even though it looked black and slick and like it was ready to send us tumbling.

After just a few hundred feet of steep downhill, we emerged from the trees and found ourselves staring out at a vast, grey, steaming wasteland that looked like what I imagine the moon might look like, if it wasn’t white. This was like nothing I’d ever seen before; I stood in the rain and goggled. Because of the rain, I don’t have a lot of pictures of those first moments in the crater, but I did get this one; look at those red flowers springing up out of the rocks!

28423776_10155894307231900_6649769202190451279_oAfter we picked my jaw up from the crater floor, there was nothing for it but to strike out across the lava field, wending our way through craggy mounds of blackness. Ahu is apparently the Hawaiian word for cairn (piles of rocks used to mark trails); following the ahu led us down onto the flat, asphalt-like bottom of the crater, where the trail widens a bit. This terrain is not hard to walk on, but we did it at a snail’s pace because it was just so amazing to look around at the landscape. Parts of the lava looked like it had just broken apart in an earthquake, other parts were smooth and rounded, and steam vents dotted the terrain. For a brief moment, it stopped raining and we were able to get a few good pictures, and we both remarked that we felt like we were about to either win a prize or get eaten by a monster in a Young Adult dystopian novel.

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It started raining again as we neared the end of the lava field, and then it was back into the forest, but this time the trail up was a series of gentle switchbacks rather than steep rocks. From here we got the clearest view of the Crater yet.

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As the switchbacks ended, we found ourselves in a busy parking lot near the Thurston Lava Tube, so we added that the hike.

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This is a short little walk through a dark lava tube, which was fun, but would have been more fun if we’d not gotten caught in the middle of a senior citizen tour group. Several of the group were wearing bike helmets, and it took us a second to realize it was because there was a chance they might bump their heads. This seemed like an overabundance of caution, but it was still pretty cool that they all found their way down the steep and slippery stairs into the tunnel. It was so loud and crowded in there that I was content to zip through pretty quickly. Then, it was back to the Crater Rim Trail for a final flat trek through the woods. There were some pretty cool views of the Crater from this side.

And then, we were done. By this point, we were both pretty soaked, even with raincoats and hats, so drying off in the car felt great. We drove to another lookout at the head of a different trail, where we could look down on what we’d just hiked from a different angle. Can you see the tiny, tiny person in an orange jacket down there?

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The moral of the Kilauea Iki Crater hike? Don’t let rain stop you. Though I would have loved to see this place in the sunshine (you can check out this flickr gallery if you’d like to as well), it was still an astonishing journey through landscape I’d never seen before. I was exhilarated when I was done even though it wasn’t a huge challenge for my legs. I would do it again in a second.

Summary: Hike 6 of the 52 hike challenge (read more about the challenge here)

Location: Volcano National Park, Hawaii.
Date: February 25, 2018
Distance: 4.4 miles
Wildlife: None except for whatever rustled the leaves in the forest part of the hike.
Notes: Do the hike counterclockwise. If it’s sunny, sunscreen, water, and a hat would be a must for the crater floor. And always remember:

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Polulu Valley, Hawaii: #hike7 of the #52hikechallenge

Yes, I know I skipped #6. It was a great hike, in the rain, through a volcanic crater. I’ll get to it later, though, because hike #7 was one of my favorites this year so far. My photos from this hike, taken with my new wide angle prime lens, will tell the story.

First, some background. Polulu Valley Lookout is as far as one can drive on the north shore of Hawai’i, also known as the Big Island. Pololū means long spear, and carves a long cleave on the northern side of Kohala Mountain. The valley is at the head of the Kohala Coast, the oldest part of the island with deep valleys towering over picturesque beaches. Coming from the Kona coast, as I was, it’s a magnificent drive to get there, and the view from the lookout (which has minimal parking and no turnaround and therefore is full of vehicular confusion, to quote my guidebook) is pretty great.

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However, there are wonders to behold if you venture beyond the lookout.

Part 1: Switchbacks to the beach

The necessary disclaimers: this is not a hike for those with balance issues, mobility issues, fear of heights, or those not wearing sturdy/grippy shoes. This hike features steep rocky “trails”, abrupt and railing-less ledges, the potential for rock falls, muddy paths, and dangerous surf.

However, the results are worth it if you can pass up this wall of terror:

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The good news is, if the first 100 feet of steep rockiness freaks you out, you can get a much better view of the beach and the valley by stopping at one of the first overlooks on the trail. Take your picture and go back with no shame in your heart.

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If you continue on, you will switchback down the cliff trail pretty quickly, with incredible views at every turn. As you emerge from the jungle-like greenery, you’ll find yourself with a choice. To your left, a magnificent black sand beach with huge surf (at least it was huge the day I visited). To your right, a peaceful and majestic view up the valley. I was drawn to the valley, for obvious reasons:

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But the beach wasn’t too bad, either:

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A note of caution; don’t swim here. The waves are big, the rocks are substantial, and the current strong.

Just behind the beach is a fairy wonderland of dunes covered in ironwood trees; there are even a few rope swings among them. I have read differing accounts saying that the land behind the beach is private property, but many people seem to take the risk to venture back there. I wandered blissfully up and down the dunes for a while, gazing back down the valley, which seems almost too magical to be real:

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Part 2: Up the cliff to the 2nd lookout

Eventually, I found my way to the beginning of the second part of the trail:

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This section was glorious and far too short: strolling on black sand among lush greens with the sea roaring to the left.

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Abruptly, the trail changed and became dense with greenery, steep, muddy, rocky, and very narrow.

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Here, the sea breeze goes away and the humidity sets in. Basically, you are heading up the steep green “cliff” that you viewed from atop the first overlook. The uphill quotient is fairly significant, but everyone I passed assured me that it was worth it. 600 vertical feet of switchbacks will eventually lead you to the top of the cliff above the second “valley” along the coast, called Honakane Nuie.

My pictures don’t seem to adequately capture the wow factor of emerging, sweaty and panting, from the trees to encounter this view:

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I guess you’ll have to see it for yourself someday. There are two lovely benches at the overlook, which beg the tired hiker to sit and contemplate, but beware of the wind, which could snatch an unwary selfie-taker’s phone right out of her hand.

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I met a couple who went beyond this overlook to the next beach; the continuation of this hike requires ropes and ladders to complete it, which wasn’t on my agenda, especially since I was alone and this trail struck me as relatively poorly maintained.

The return hike was much faster heading down, and emerging from the vegetation onto the beach was breathtaking:

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Speaking of breathtaking, hiking back up the switchbacks to the parking area was pretty tough for me. That final uphill is the 5th mile, so the rocks can seem pretty formidable. Luckily, there are a lots of places to stop and “admire the view” while catching your breath.

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Final thoughts

I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places in the these past years of adventures. Polulu Valley is definitely in my top 5. The variation of landscapes on this hike – steep rocks, beach, peaceful valley, tree-filled glade, messy jungle trail, and sweeping vistas – they made the hike completely engaging and challenging enough to be interesting. Even on a hazy day, the colors and the views were incredible. I had heard that the Big Island was a “hikers paradise”, and I was skeptical, because most of the best hikes I’d read about involved just a mile or two of tramping to a beach and back. But this hike changed my tune. I recommend it unreservedly and only wish that I’d been able to bring some of you along with me to enjoy it. Though you might have had to wait for me at the top a bit as I plodded like molasses up the steep switchbacks. Slow and steady gets the views, right? 🙂

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PS: Thanks to the lovely lady from LA who offered to take my picture in the crazy wind. She got a kick out of my involuntary exclamation of “Ohhhhh, wow” when I came out of the trees onto the overlook. I guess I didn’t know I’d said it aloud until she laughed and said that’s exactly what she and her husband were thinking. 🙂

Summary: Hike 7 of the 52 hike challenge (read more about the challenge here)

Location: Polulu Valley Lookout, Kapaau, Hawaii.
Date: March 1, 2018
Distance: 4.4 miles
Wildlife: Birds
Notes: Parking is free at the Lookout, but crowded

 

 

Rocky Woods, Medfield, MA: #hike5 of the #52hike challenge

It’s tough to find hiking inspiration in Southern New England in February. If inspiration comes in the form of high mountains and grand vistas, that is. No, these months, for the outdoor adventurer not willing to drive 3 hours for an icy/snowy trek in the White Mountains – aka me – are about small hills, mud, and well, small hills and mud.

But the #52 Hike Challenge marches on, and I’m a couple of weeks behind, so I had to get out this weekend. I wanted 5ish miles, and I hoped to be able to let my dog off leash, which definitely limits the options even more. Thankfully, though, in Massachusetts we have a non-profit called the Trustees of Reservations. The best way to describe this org is to think of state parks, but privately managed. Estates and individuals donate their land to the Trustees, and the Trustees preserve and conserve it, with the caveat that it be made available for public use. There are more than 100 Trustees sites in Massachusetts – and I haven’t once visited one that wasn’t well-maintained and lovely.

And many of them allow dogs off leash, which is a wonder in Boston. If you are a bad dog owner, just pretend you didn’t read that last line, ok?

This weekend I tried a new site I hadn’t visited yet, called Rocky Woods, about 30 minutes away. It’s a very active site, with lots of event programming and plenty of family-friendly “hikes” that are little more than ambles around ponds. Still, by tracing my way around pretty much all the trails, I was able to put 6 miles under my legs, which felt marvelous after a week spent behind a desk. The miles were mostly flat, so there were lots of chances to look around and enjoy being in the woods. There was a “vista” atop Cedar Hill at a whopping 435 feet:

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And a frozen pond that was drowning the trail around it and the footbridge across it:

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I met some very nice people and pooches, and yes, there was some mud, but it wasn’t too bad. There was one trail that had a low coverage of pine needles, so there was some green to look at, which made me long all the more for spring and that magical neon green haze of new buds on the trees. The trails were well marked and maintained, and all in all I enjoyed myself, even if the hike wasn’t a great physical challenge. And then there were the the occasional woodland creatures we ran into:

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There were at least three of these reindeer? critters. Sadie ignored most of them, but the final one, which was standing in the ice on the aforementioned drowned trail, definitely got her attention, so much that she barked a few times at it. A thing to note about dogs off leash here; they are allowed, but there are several sections that are posted as on-leash. I actually think that’s a great way to manage it, because a lot of these sites could be full of people, particularly kiddos, on nice days.

Next weekend, my photos will change a bit as I’ll be continuing the 52 Hike Challenge from the island of Hawai’i! See you then.

 

Juniper Springs, FL: Hike 4 of the #52HikeChallenge

A quick visit with my parents is always a great opportunity to invite/force them to enjoy a hike. On this visit, we had a Superbowl to get to that evening, so we couldn’t go far. I am completely unfamiliar with Florida’s hiking options, but I know a little more now. Basically, everything’s flat, and there are apparently alligators.

We had heard that Juniper Springs was a pretty place, so we headed into the Florida National Forest to check it out. The last “springs” I saw were in Yellowstone National Park; we don’t have them here in the northeast. But apparently, they are a given for Floridians (my folks had already been to several).

Anyway, this “hike” wound up being kind of a joke in terms of actual hiking – we just wandered a campground for less than 2 miles, and we saw everything there was to see. Well, except for the giant alligator called Big Daddy who apparently lives at the end of the river. We didn’t paddle or canoe the river, which we discovered is one of the main attractions of the campground. But yeah, we barely got beyond an amble on this one; even my dad remarked, “that was kind of a short hike.” For the record, The Nature Trail hike was closed due to damage to the trail, so a significant portion of the hike was off limits.

Still, there were lovely things to see and it was absolutely delightful for me and my pasty, sun-deprived skin to be outside in 70-degree weather. And the springs were really quite cool. Below are some photos for your enjoyment.

The campground was built during the era of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which began in 1933 and is described as a work-relief program for young men. This is is the spring that gave Juniper Springs its name. You can’t see where the spring actually bubbles up, but you can swim in the water, which maintains a steady temperature of 72 degrees. It must be a wonderful place to cool off in the heat of summer.

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This wheel powered the electricity for the camp back in the day.

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A short stroll through the woods and campsites will bring you to Fern Hammock Springs, which has a delightfully shabby look about it – there’s nothing more to do there than walk around in the woods and look at the springs. Isn’t that blue color marvelous?

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My favorite photo of the day; this looks like something out of a fairy tale. Sprites should be flying about, don’t you think?

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The Beznoskas give Juniper Springs the thumbs up.

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Hike 4 of the 52 hike challenge (read more about the challenge here)

Location: Juniper Springs Recreation Area, Florida National Forest. About 35 minutes from the town of Summerfield, FL.
Date: February 4. 2018
Distance: 1.87 miles
Wildlife: Squirrels. No alligators were sighted.
Notes: There is a fee to get into this campground. $5 per person for a Day Use pass.