Sunday, 3 June 2018

Geowoodstock XVI

This blog is a brief summary of our 8 day visit to Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

As soon as we heard that the Geowoodstock event might be going Giga last September we started looking into whether a trip would be feasible.  We had already been planning a trip back to the States this year but to a different area so initially we dismissed the idea as it didn’t fit in with our plans.  By the October it was confirmed that it would indeed be the first Giga event in the US so we had another look at the Geowoodstock area and decided to combine a trip to the Giga with a visit to Michigan and anything else we could fit into 8 days.  Also Mark was really keen to complete a second cycle of our Jasmer Grid after completing it a first time 2 years ago.

The way we usually plan our trips is by choosing an area we want to visit or hike we want to do and then look at what caches are in the area, but this trip would be mainly caching focused so planning it was a bit back-to-front.

Manchester Airport

So the day finally arrived, we set the alarms for 02:30 but couldn’t sleep so were up at 1:30 and headed to Manchester for a 7:00 flight.  This was all fairly straightforward, only a 40 minute flight to Heathrow and as we were flying into and out of Terminal 5 we stayed air-side and the transfer was very smooth.
Our flight from Heathrow was scheduled for 10:30 but was delayed for an hour while they assessed the plane for ‘serviceability’.

The flight was 8 hours and after watching 2 movies, reading my book and having a bit of snooze we soon arrived in Chicago to 32 degree heat.

We caught the shuttle bus to the car rental place then waited for 40 mins in a queue, eventually we got the car and off we went.

Waiting for shuttle bus at O Hare
The thing is, I’d left the fine tuning of the plans to Mark for this one and when he said there’d be a ‘bit of a drive’ once we landed to get to Cincinnatti I didn’t really think too much of it.  We set off and I glanced at the satnav – 322 miles!!! What the blazes??   There’s some mistake surely.

Nope this was the journey we had ahead of us.  An hour later we hadn’t even got out of Chicago and had only done 10 miles.  This must be rush hour in Chicago and the local radio channel was giving out regular updates on how long journey times were to get along different routes which were all now starting to sound very familiar to us.

Eventually we got out of the city and were able to make up a bit of lost time but then we were getting hungry.  Our favourite place to eat for ‘fast’ food in America is Panera Bread, it’s kind of like a wholesome fast food outlet, which is great for all my food intolerances, so after soup and a sandwich we were on our way.

There just happened to be a cache nearby too so that was our first one in Indiana!
First cache in Indiana

This leg of the trip was exhausting as it just seemed to go on forever.

We made it to the hotel by 00:30 after a 28 hour day!

Day 2

Up at 05:00 for a 06:00 breakfast and after a spot of admin we set off to the Giga. Most  of the guests at the hotel were Geocachers and from our room window we could see the location of a cache on the exit road. It was quite amusing watching a steady stream of vehicles stopping  and driving off again.

We can see the cache from here
Our hotel was ideally situated about 3.5 miles from the Giga.  Just as we crossed over the bridge which marks the Kentucky/Ohio state border, we joined the queue for the parking. The queue was being controlled by Police on the road and volunteers once in the grounds and the process was very smooth indeed.  We parked the car and made a bee-line for the massive GeoWoodstock XVI letters for a photo opportunity before heading to the Giga site proper. 

In the lead up to the event, there had been various instructions regarding the registration process and the queues were quite long so we thought we might be in for a bit of a wait. The queues moved very quickly and within about 10 to 15 minutes I was the proud owner of a supporters pack with geocoin and T-shirt.

We decided to get started on the Lab Caches straight way.  There were thirty lab caches to tackle and having to refer to three different pages with a slow data connection made it quite tricky to see what was what.  I'm not very keen on them but Mark seems to like them so we persevered.

Despite having a massive hotel breakfast I was getting hungry, luckily here was an assortment of food outlets and I opted for a foot-long hot dog and Mark had a steak burger.

The three sets of ten lab caches were of three different types. The first type were a selection of puzzles and dummy cache containers – all really creative. The second list were landmarks around the park which were probably a bit more informative and the third list used an Augmented Reality website to read pieces of paper with lines on placed around the main stall and Lab Cache areas. When scanned with the phone, the code word ‘magically’ appears. We’ve seen one similar to this at a Mega Event in Belgium in 2014 but that used a phone app called ‘Layer’.  I presume this other method avoids cachers having to install apps specially.  

I follow quite a few cachers on Instagram and there's a great community of cachers on YouTube, it was great fun bumping into cachers I recognised.  One of them was The Geocaching Vlogger, he's a real Geocaching 'Celebrity' and describes himself as the 'Steve Irwin of Geocaching'.  He's got over 44,000 subscribers on YouTube, such a nice guy.
The Geocaching Vlogger

I easily recognised Georick off Youtube too, all the way from New Zealand.

Chatting with GeoRick

One thing which set this event apart from others that we've attended were the soft-drink machines dispensing an array of soft drinks, chilled water and ice and all for FREE. This was MOST welcome as it was a blisteringly hot day. What’s more, although a couple of the machines ran dry, several kept going strong meaning that it wasn’t just a token free drink but plenty for everyone!  They were regularly topped up throughout the day too.

As is usual for Mega or Giga events, there were stall holders selling caching goodies and geocoins etc but one thing we did notice was that many had free to enter games or raffles to win goodies.

Everyone was really friendly. This is, of course, always the case but it made it so much easier with everyone speaking English 😊

The time went incredibly fast and before long it was about 3 o’clock and we decided to call it a day and go into Cincinnati itself to do some virtuals etc. One of the best thing about caching near a Giga/Mega is the other cachers you bump into when away from the event itself.

Just as I jumped out the car to do another virtual, the heavens opened and I got drenched. Mark was fine as he had driven round the block to pick me up again and he made unconvincing murmurs of sympathy 😊.

Soaked through, we decided to head back to the hotel via Panera Bread of course for our evening meal.

We’ve been to all of the Gigas so far and this one was easily the best.  We're not knocking the organisers of the other ones as we fully appreciate the effort that goes into an event on such a massive scale, but it was hard to put our fingers on why this stood out head and shoulders above the rest, it was just the way it all went so smoothly and everything was all in the same location with numerous hi-viz clad volunteers on hand to answer any questions throughout the day, the weather helped of course, there was no language barrier which made things so much easier, there seemed plenty to keep young children occupied and in the months and weeks running up to the event any questions asked on the Facebook page were answered in a helpful non-patronising manner, no matter how daft… and the free drinks of course.  Check out our video of the event below...


Cincinnati to Lansing

An early breakfast and out on the road.

The plan for the next few days was to head North to Lansing and Traverse City then Manistee and Paw Paw before heading round to Chicago on Thursday.

When we were planning this trip last year, we'd planned to leave Cincinnati, travel North, spend the night just south of Detroit and then drive through Detroit on the way to Geocache 612 and Traverse City on the Monday.

Just a week before the trip, we decided to modify this and stop over Sunday night at Lansing instead.  Lansing is Michigan’s state capital and as with many other states, it’s a small, relatively unknown city. The journey to Lansing was uneventful for us, although this obviously hadn’t been the case for many other people. There was a surprising number of broken-down cars along the way. Not vast amounts but a dozen or so which seemed quite a lot for a 300 mile journey.

We were initially heading to Fort Wayne to do a webcam but stopped for petrol and then took a short detour to do a virtual. Before long we arrived in Fort Wayne, parked on the side of the road and Mark checked his phone to see if the picture was loading and it wasn’t! Arrgh! Then as if by magic, omblo appeared from the direction of the webcam and she assumed we were cachers.  We explained we were having problems getting the webcam to load and she very kindly offered to take the screen grab for us and very helpfully directed us to the exact spot we needed to be to be for the webcam (it changes from time to time).

When we arrived in Lansing it was as though we’d entered the set of a 28 Days Later type film. The place was deserted. There’s half a dozen or so Virtuals in Lansing so we decided to do as many of those as we could before heading to our hotel.

Spent the afternoon hopping in and out of the car (thank goodness for air-con) the car showed an external temperature of 95F. We don’t think in Fahrenheit but you don’t need to do any complicated conversions to know that’s h-h-hot! 😀

Day 4

Lansing to Traverse City

Continuing north, today’s targets were:
Two Webcams and Geocache 612

The first webcam is a bit unusual in that we had to find some other waypoints and email the answer to the cache owner.

The second one was more straightforward but still a little unusual as you had to find and get a date from a gravestone in order to calculate the exact location of the webcam.

The main focus for today was Geocache 612 (GC39). This cache is one of only four active caches placed in August 2000.

The cache is located down an un-paved road accessible from either County Road 612 (one mile un-paved) or from the other side which was about four miles along unpaved roads.  As we set off I was a bit concerned as some of the path seemed a bit muddy after the recent heavy rain, so we took it steady and I really wouldn't have wanted to attempt the drive down the track during a rainstorm that's for sure.

We parked the car just before the crossroads about a mile along the track and walked the final 0.1 mile or so.

Back at the car, we headed straight to our accommodation.

For some time now I’ve been really keen to try Stand Up Paddle-boarding and as luck would have it our hotel was right on the 'beach' and there was a SUP and kayak rental there.  Mark wasn't as keen as me to try it as he didn't think he'd be any good at it, but what he lacked in ability he made up for in perseverance and enthusiasm and said he enjoyed it even though he seemed to spend more time falling than standing!  I didn’t fall in at all!  Now Mark knows why I've banged on about core stability for all these years 😃

Later, we had burgers and chips at Don's  - a classic American diner dating from 1958 and then we went for a walk around the harbour and sat and watched the beautiful sunset.

Day 5

Traverse City to Manistee

The next cache on our Must-Do list was GC35 Power Island. This is on an island in the middle of Traverse Bay and is only reachable by boat. Some cachers have, in the past, hired kayaks to do the trip but research told us that the weather is unpredictable and as failure was not an option, we decided to go by boat. Most previous logs mentioned 'Captain Mike' and his powerboat. Mark looked into chartering him but it’s very expensive although the individual cost can be reduced if extra passengers can be found – maximum of six.  While we were still pondering what to do, another cacher posted a note on the cache page on 30th March with the date of the trip as 29th May. Perfect!  The exact date we were planning on being in Traverse City!  Without hesitation we signed up for the trip.
Beautiful sunrise from our balcony

Anyway, back to today.

The starting point  was only about seven miles from our hotel and we got there in plenty of time. We met up with Maggie :), Arnokovic and 2Blackdogs MT and before long it was time to set off and we whooshed across the water to Power Island.
Capt Mike's Powerboat

What a dude! 😎

Approaching Power Island

Group Photo

Captain Mike was a real character and gave us lots of information about the island and Lake Michigan. Once we were all on shore, Captain Mike advised us the best route to take in all the caches on the island. Although he’s not a cacher (and I suspect he thinks we are all mad) he is very knowledgeable and advised us that the shortest route is not always the best route and he’d be able to tell if we’d tried taking shortcuts because we’d be cut to pieces by the undergrowth.
At GC35

We set off and after half an hour or so we got to GC35 Power Island. This is Michigan’s oldest active geocache and is one of only seven active caches worldwide placed July 2000 it even contained its original log book. We made it back to the jetty in under two hours and were whooshed back to the harbour.

With Capt Mike

After getting a coffee at Cuppa Joe’s Drive Thru [best coffee of the whole trip] we headed to Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore.

Sleeping Bear dunes is a national park on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan.  I'd seen it in our guide book so hoped we'd have time to visit and also Captain Mike had mentioned it saying that the views from the wooden ‘overlook’ along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive had been voted the best view in the whole of the USA! The area is a national park and luckily Mark had packed our annual pass which we bought in Yosemite last September.

The park covers a 35-mile-long (56 km) stretch of Lake Michigan's eastern coastline, as well as North and South Manitou islands.

The heat was intense with no shade

We parked in the car park and set off up the dune walk. This is a famous circular walk Dune Climb but with serious elevation gain and 3.5 miles in length, it is not something to be taken lightly in the searing sun.... so we didn’t. 😂. Instead we doubled back after getting to the top of the main body of dunes and went to the nearby virtual which was a lovely walk in a shaded area with the intoxicating scent of lilac in the air which seems to grow wild everywhere here.
Poison Ivy!

Back in the cool of the car, we headed to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

The park staff had given us a guide which showed the drive and this included information about each marked section.

Stopping at a car park, we walked up to the lookout platform.

Here, the ground slopes down at 30 degrees to the lake 450ft below. There are signs warning that the lake is a lot further away than it looks and that the climb back up could take up to two hours! Oh, and that any rescue operations will be billable.  Apparently, on average, about one person per month has to be rescued and the bill can range from a few hundred dollars for an ambulance to several thousand if a helicopter is called out. We decided to stay at the top but there were a few other people trying their luck on the slope.  The heat was intense standing at the top so the heat on the slope must've been unbearable.

The Legend of Sleeping Bear

Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by an enormous raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours, but eventually the cubs tired and lagged behind. Mother bear reached the shore and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. Too tired to continue, the cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the faithful mother bear.

Day 6

Today was just a leisurely drive down to Paw-Paw via Grand Rapids stopping off at Big Red lighthouse.  Big Red is a lighthouse and is red but it’s actually quite small.

Big Red lighthouse

Walking back along the causeway, we could see rain in the distance and decided not to hang around. Within about twenty minutes the heavens opened and it absolutely chucked it down.

Serious storm clouds

We stopped for petrol because we needed some and also hoping it might ease off while we were stopped but no such luck. It rained heavily all the way to Paw-Paw.

Day 7

We were keen to visit St Joseph's lighthouse after seeing dramatic pictures like the one below of the lighthouse encased in ice - click here >>>.

While we were walking along in the hot sun it was hard to imagine that it could be so cold there in the winter.

St. Joseph North Pier Inner Light, built in 1907

St. Joseph North Pier Outer Light, built in 1906

Before dropping the hire car off in Chicago we had something very important to do -  Beverly GC28 - one of only seven remaining caches world-wide placed in May 2000. But first we had to get there. The traffic in the Chicago area had been awful on Friday and it was no better today.  It took ages to get to the Beverly Lake car park. We got out of the car and a couple in a car next to us asked if we were geocachers. They were Dutch cachers and had just got back from the cache. They both looked very hot and warned us that the mosquitoes were really bad but reassured us that they hadn’t seen any poison ivy - as this was mentioned on the cache listing.  I put on a long-sleeved shirt, applied bug spray and set off.  It wasn’t nearly as bad as we were expecting but we didn’t bother to look for the few other caches en-route so maybe that’s why we got off fairly lightly.

Now back to Chicago – via a webcam. This webcam used a river level monitoring camera and had a half hour refresh. Well, it took the photo every half an hour (as seen on the time stamp) but then seemed to take another ten minutes to actually update the web page. All this while standing on a slippery muddy river bank.

We arrived in Chicago and found our apartment building. There was nowhere to park so Mark waited with the car while I lugged our suitcases across the road in two trips and checked in on the 19th floor while Mark was returning the hire car a few blocks away.

Our apartment was in the Pittsfield Building, a 38 storey skyscraper that was the city's tallest building in Chicago at the time of its completion in 1927 but is now the 76th tallest - I'm fascinated by facts and figures about buildings.
Our apartment building in the middle
Fire escape up the side of our apartment building

Lobby ceiling
The apartment lobby

After checking in we went to find the ‘L’ Rail station and bought a three day pass each.  This was ridiculously confusing to purchase them but some very helpful locals guided us through the procedure at the machine and told us that it had recently been changed and become far more complicated than it needed to be.

We hadn't eaten all day so decided to head to Pizzeria Uno.  This is apparently the birthplace of the Chicago deep dish pizza.  Ike Sewell invented the deep dish pizza in 1943 and this began the Deep Dish pizza revolution - so of course we had to try it.

Chicago Deep Dish Pizza
The pizzas take about 40 mins to cook and are made to order so we had quite a wait but it gave us chance to relax which is something we hadn't done much of during the week surprisingly 😁
Pizzeria Uno

We then popped into the Whole Food store to get a few breakfast and lunch supplies.

Day 8

We got up really early as we had a full day ahead of us sightseeing in Chicago.

First stop - Cloud Gate - known as 'The Bean'

Cloud Gate is a public sculpture by Indian-born British artist Sir Anish Kapoor and is the centerpiece of AT&T Plaza at Millennium Park.  It was constructed between 2004 and 2006.  It's nicknamed 'The Bean' because of its shape.  It's made up of 168 stainless steel plates welded together and is highly polished and has no visible seams.  It measures 10 x 20 x 13 metres and weighs 110 tons.  You can read loads of info, facts and figures on the wiki page.

We got there early, later in the day we walked past and you couldn't more for tourists.

BP Pedestrian Bridge

Next stop - Crown Fountain

Crown fountain is an interactive work of public art and video sculpture located in Millenium Park, designed by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, it opened in July 2004. The towers are 15.2 m tall and they use LEDs to display digital videos on their inward faces. They were constructed at a cost of $17 million dollars and operate from May to October only.

The Start of  Route 66
There's lots of interesting public art to see around Chicago.

Calder's Flamingo
Agora - 106 headless and armless iron sculptures

In the evening we'd booked tickets to go up to the Skydeck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower.

Fun facts about Willis Tower - It's 110 storeys, 1,450-ft (442.1 m) and was formerly known as Sears Tower, it's the tallest building in Chicago and the 2nd-tallest building in the United States - and is currently joint 14th-tallest building in the world -  Between 1974 and 1998 it was the tallest building in the world.
1353 ft in the air

What you talkin' about Willis 😄

Day 9

Our last day and our flight wasn't until 20:55 so we decided to spend the day visiting a few places we hadn't had time for yesterday but to be honest we were both really tired from having such a full on week with very early starts and late finishes every day.

Very low cloud this morning

Navy Pier

Elevated Railway

We started making our way to the airport at 17:00, first of all getting a couple of trains before arriving at the airport.

We started boarding at the scheduled time of 20:55, very soon we moved off the stand and it appeared we were heading for take of when we stopped and there was an announcement to say that we were returning to the stand due to a fault with the engine...eek!  There were regular updates from the pilot and it transpired that the oil filter needed changing so after a couple of hours delay we were ready for take off.  This would've been fine but we had a connecting flight booked at London Heathrow which we knew we weren't going to make.  The airline must've had a nightmare job to reschedule all the missed connections - there were over 200 of them on our flight.  Ours wasn't read out so we asked a member of the cabin crew and she said that there were a few flights a day leaving from London to Manchester so we should be ok to get on a flight today.  Some people weren't so lucky, anyone on our flight hoping to get to Split, Croatia would have to wait a couple of days for the next available flight!  So we considered ourselves very lucky if we could get on one  the same day.

We arrived at Heathrow and headed to the gate to await further instructions.

As luck would have it there was room for us on the next flight so we only had an hour or so to wait and we were off and on our way home.  After a 40 minute flight we touched down in Manchester and then after a short journey on the shuttle bus we were driving home - we live about 45 mins away from the airport so we were soon home and putting on the kettle for a decent cuppa.