Friday, December 21, 2007

Cuyahoga Valley

We left New Lenox on Thursday, December 6, heading to Maine to spend Christmas with Sarah’s family. Our first stop along the way was Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. Who knew Ohio had a national park? The park is only 10 miles from Cleveland. The park was very different from most of the national parks we’ve been in. It was more developed and it was often difficult to determine where the park ended and towns picked up. The park is built around protecting the heritage of the Erie Canal as well as providing a recreation area for Ohio residents.

We arrived in late afternoon, just in time for a quick stroll around Kendall Lake before we checked into our accommodations for the night. We were staying at the Stanford Hostel, which provides the park’s only accommodations and is in an old farmhouse. When the park was created as a national recreation area in the 1970s, the park service started acquiring land in the area, sometimes by eminent domain. At some point this farmhouse was acquired, but then it sadly sat empty for seven or eight years while the park service tried to figure out what to do with it. Eventually, they partnered with Hostelling International and turned the farm into a hostel. We found this out from the very friendly, and chatty, hostel keeper.

The hostel holds 38 people, but the first night there were only three of us there so we got our own room. There was also a huge kitchen, which we used to cook ourselves some chili for dinner. We also finished decorating the hostel’s Christmas tree, which made our third tree decorating experience of the year. Here’s a photo of the hostel:

After dinner, we went to one of the park visitor centers for a presentation by AP Photographer Mark Duncan that was sponsored by the Cuyahoga Valley Photography Club. One of the differences between Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the other parks we’ve been to was the number of evening programs. During the day, a lot of things were closed because it was off season. There were programs every evening though, probably because it is an easy drive for Clevelanders after work. Anyway, Mark Duncan gave a fascinating presentation. He told the story of his career through his photos. Much of his career has been spent photographing sports, primarily baseball (including some World Series games and Pete Rose’s record-breaking 4,192nd hit), but also the Olympics, basketball, and other sports. He had a knack for capturing action shots like full layouts by baseball players, interesting angles like a birds-eye view of a slam dunk (LeBron James was a favorite subject), and compelling compositions like the joy of victory with the pain of defeat in the foreground. Not all of his experience is photographing sports; he’s done feature stories, covered international events, followed politicians, and captured human interest stories. It’s hard to describe in words, but it was a fascinating presentation.

It was really cold outside and back at the hostel, we were thankful to have a roof over our head instead of sleeping in our tent. In the morning, we bundled up and hiked from the hostel to Brandywine Falls. It was about 5 miles round-trip along a pleasant wooded trail. It had snowed overnight and the falls we cloaked in snow and ice.

The ice formations almost looked like cave formations:

Continuing along the loop, we followed the stream for a while before crossing to the trail back to the hostel. Here’s Brian crossing the stream:

After our hike, we jumped into the car to explore some other areas of the park. We tried to visit the Boston Store Visitor Center, but it was closed for the season. Next we drove by the Hale Farm & Village area. This is a cluster of historic buildings that is run as a living history center. Unfortunately, it too was closed. Sarah did take a photo of some of their Christmas decorations though:

Next, we were on to Sarah’s Vineyard. The park service leases several plots of land to be run as sustainable farms, and this is one of the businesses in the program. Sarah was excited to taste her namesake wine. The wine tasting was in a beautiful barn that had been restored, or rebuilt where necessary. It, too, was decked out for the holidays:

We tasted several of their wines and chatted with the woman who worked there for a while. It was good to be inside long enough to warm up. Some of the wine was quite good, including a blueberry wine named after Brandywine Falls, where we’d hiked in the morning, and others we were less excited about.

After dawdling at the Vineyard, we went back into the town of Peninsula where we found a tiny bookstore with free coffee and a newspaper. Perfect! After sipping some coffee, we started the architectural walking tour of downtown Peninsula, which had about twenty stops in less than a mile of walking. A detailed brochure told us about the style of each house as well as the history of the house. We thought the most interesting was this Craftsman-style house:

The house is the “Vallonia” style, which was purchased from the Sears catalog in 1926 for $2,076. The house arrived by train and final assembly was done onsite. We had no idea that “Craftsman style” of houses referred to a house from the Sears catalog. The characteristics specific to this style included the exposed rafters, steep gable roof, and front porch with full posts.

At this point, it was about 4 pm and we were cold and running out of ideas of things to do. We couldn’t go back to the hostel yet because there is a lockout from 10 am to 5 pm. We decided to chill (or rather, warm) at a popular local establishment, the Winking Lizard. Sarah had a yummy hot chocolate with whipped cream and Brian enjoyed a Christmas ale. The place was hopping. There was a group of a half dozen people in one corner playing a very rowdy game of shuffleboard. I never knew shuffleboard could be that loud or involve so much trash talk.

After dinner, we went on a ranger-led hike of the Ledges area of the park. There were only four people that showed up for the hike, plus the ranger. Each of us was given an old-fashioned candle lantern to guide our way. The path was snowy but not too slippery. Though it was cold we were bundled and kept moving fast enough to stay warm. It was hard to see a lot with just the lantern, but we could make out the outline of the ledges above up. We also got to go into the crevices of the ledges at one point and see the carvings that were left by the Civilian Conservation Corps workers who built up many of the park structures and trails during the depression. The ranger was very knowledgeable about the CCC and gave us a history lesson as we walked. The ad for the walk promised a bonfire, cocoa, and storytelling when the walk was finished, but the ranger knew nothing about it. The bonfire and hot beverage would have been nice, but the walk was certainly worthwhile by itself anyway.

After the hike, we drove back through Peninsula and noticed that the nearby train station was all lit up with Christmas lights. These days, the trains through Peninsula are sightseeing trains run in partnership with the park. They run a variety of specials, including a scenic ride, a wine-tasting train, a character train where you learn about life in the 1800s, etc. They also run seasonal trains, and as it turned out, the “Polar Express” had just pulled into town, so the area had transformed into a winter wonderland with lots of lights and locals dressed as elves. Less than 15 minutes later, all the lights were off, props taken down, and people dispersed. It was an impressive sight. We didn’t get any pictures of the “Polar Express,” but here’s what the train station looked like during the day:

The next morning, we were up early and off to Pennsylvania for our next stop.

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