The Italian Army Means Business!

Welcome back!

Strap your lederhosen and/or dirndls back into place and shout out Yodel-odel-ay-hee-hoo!

Let’s pick up right where we left off on the Europa TourAlong…

DAYS 5, 6 & 7
Just an hour’s drive south of Parrkirchen, is Liezen, Austria -- the small village from which Natalie’s relatives hale. There’s no blog that could adequately explain how Natalie and her Idaho family are intertwined with Austria, but they are, and Liezen is the epicenter. One way or another, Natalie is related to everyone in Liezen. Lacking an accurate record of affiliations, we refer to them all as “cousins.”

During our stay, we were hosted by cousins Brigitte and Gerold Haider, and senior cousin, Fritz, Brigitte’s father. At 97 years old, Fritz is spry and gets himself around remarkably well; Brigitte and Gerold visit every month to keep him in line.

Here are the highlights of our Liezen visit:
  • The hike to the family hut on the alm with cousins Guenther and Martina. The hike was nice and cool. The beer, schnapps, and stinky cheese were refreshing.

  • The hike up to the top of the Plannersee ski area… cool, cloudy, and with remnants of fresh snow.

Cousins Gerold and Brigitte with Natalie at the Burgruine Wolkenstein ruins.

Natalie's Grandma's cousin (really!), Fritz. Spry at 97 years old!

Along the hike to the family hut on the alm. Cattle, sheep, and goats eat really well in the Alps!

TourAlongWithToddBlogTravelTips strongly suggest a limit of one beer and a single shot of schnapps at a hut on an alm to achieve optimal pleasure. Significant deviation from this suggestion may result in an abdication of intelligence and dignity... as I was able to unequivocally demonstrate.

What can possibly go wrong with tiny little shots of schnapps?

We stopped for the day just an hour’s drive west of Liezen… another mountain tram was yodeling to us. Like the Zugspitze, the Dachstein doesn’t quite top 10,000 feet, but it’s an imposing massif. The ride up was super fun because we rode on top of the tram car in open air! After putting our hair back in place, we ventured out onto the well-marked glacier to hike to the Seethalerhütte (hut). Halfway along, the clouds rolled in and that was it for the day’s scenic views. The mountain hut was warm and served spicy good goulash! By the time we were back at the mountain top tram station, few people remained.

TourAlongWithToddBlogTravelTips suggest being at a mountain top tram station in the mist of clouds is actually a good idea because you get to walk on a skywalk and a bridge to nowhere all alone. And, you get to explore the Ice Palace (yes, it’s carved into the glacier) in total privacy as well! Natalie and I had these normally jam-packed attractions entirely to ourselves. It was really cool.

The top of the Dachstein tram station.

Shrouded in cloud and wind, the Seethalerhütte is cozy warm inside.

Natalie disappears into the cold mist on the Dachstein's Bridge to Nowhere. This would be packed with people on a sunny day.

Natalie, normally put off by heights, peers into mist on the Dachstein Skywalk, 800 ft. in air.

TourAlongWithToddBlogTravelTips suggest planning adventure by weather forecast is folly. Though our brief foray into the Italian Dolomites was scheduled to be rainy, cloudy, and a bit rainier, we stuck to our plan. The morning weather was looking pretty nice! And, as we drive from the Dachstein area toward the Dolomites, it stayed that way.

Our hotel room view in Ramsau, Austria, near the Dachstein massif.

Soon after crossing the Italian border, the Dolomites came into spectacular view. At San Candido, I hopped off the highway to snap a couple of photos of the peaks. It so happened that the Italian army was training 100 yards away… training in the line of my photography. OMG! Yes, Italian army was literally scoping and moving toward us as we drove further down the very narrow lane, toward them, hoping it would loop up and back to the main highway; it did not. With no easy way to turn around, I stopped and drove the car in reverse back up the lane. The Italian army kept advancing on us!… and we kept retreating! (I am not making this up -- they were not pleased with our presence). I was finally able to turn the car around and get back on the highway. My heart was pumping. We had escaped death… or a very awkward conversation… and lived to tell about it.

First view of the Dolomites... and the Italian Army (low in photograph). Note the one-lane road at lower left. We drove down it, nearer the troops, and then back up in reverse, making a hasty retreat!

An hour later, with the international incident nearly forgotten, we drove up a crazy-stupid-curvy-steep road and arrived at the Rifugio Auronzo, at the base of Tre Cime, or Drei Zinnen, depending on your choice of language. These peaks are synonymous with the Dolomites. We arrived just in time to check in and do a quick hike to catch the sunset on the famous peaks’ west faces.

The Tre Cime in sunset light.

Rifugio Auronzo is a quaint mountain “hut” offering sleeping accommodations for 104; the rooms are simple, and a quick shower is €5.00. Super good food is served cafeteria-line style, but don’t lollygag, because dinner is served only between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m.; breakfast between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. But at 8,000 ft. on the crest of the Dolomites, it’s easy to adhere to the routine -- the views are unreal.

The view from our room at the Rifugio Auronzo.

Starting our hiking tour around Tre Cime. The Rifugio Auronzo is on the right.

Our main hike was the tour around the Tre Cime with 1,000 of our best European hiking friends. Like Mad Ludwig’s castles, this area of the Dolomites is popular on any clear day in late September. We could only imagine the crush of humanity during the summer peak periods. The seven-mile hike took six hours due to side trips, such as the ridge we clamored up to place our hands on the walls of the Tre Cime, only to discover World War I gun placements tunneled into the rock. A century ago people fought and died up here. War, even in the past, is a fun sucker, isn’t it?

Natalie at one of the World War I era gun placements at Tre Cime.

An hour before arriving back at the Rifugio, we stopped at the Langalm hut for a beer.

War is bad. Beer at mountain huts is good. And the Italian Army is going to make damn sure it stays that way!

Coming up next?

Todd and Natalie get all metropolitan Milano Style!

Don’t worry, you’ll get to wear your lederhosen and/or dirndls again real soon!

Ciao! ~ Todd

A Milano getting his lower lip bit off. He didn't complain.

Europa 2017 - A Yodeling We Will Go!

The TourAlongWithTodd BLOG, the 2017 Chronicles – EUROPA!

Where should I begin…

I know! How about the text from United Airlines letting me know our morning plane from Boise was broken? Or how about the long-range weather forecast -- for any location in Europe -- predicting rain, more rain, a bit of cold rain, and maybe snow to top it off?

Let me back up a bit. The original plan was to visit the Azores Islands or the Dolomites. The Dolomites won out. And then one thing led to another and the itinerary morphed rather dramatically.

It now goes like this: Boise -> Bavaria -> Austria -> Dolomites -> Milan -> Switzerland -> Germany -> Boise. Twenty-two days on the ground with stops to see mountains, relatives, and former exchange students.


And with that boys and girls, it’s time to put on your lederhosen and/or dirndl, warm up your yodeling voice, and go a wandering in the Alps… shall we?

A phone call worked out the broken plane problem, but what’s with American airports? Portland and Chicago were crazy crowded, noisy, and chaotic. The contrast at the Munich airport was palatable. Calm, quiet, and relaxed… and with restaurants offering good food at reasonable prices. My hypothesis is that Americans are nuts at airport and Germans are not nuts at airports. I’ll test my hypothesis during our return trip from Frankfurt.

The TourAlongWithToddBlogTravelTips suggest dealing with jetlag by (a) not sleeping on the plane, (b) driving directly to your first destination (southern Bavaria), (c) hiking to a castle view point, (d) having a beer, and (e) not letting your sleepy face hit the strudel at dinner. I personally guarantee sound sleep if you follow these easy steps on your next overseas adventure.

The history of Mad King Ludwig II and his obsession with building castles is well documented, and they ARE pretty amazing. Though mid-September is not the height of the tourist season, busloads of people still clamor to see what men with way too much money do to spend it.

Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle.

Natalie and her 1,000 best friends queuing up to buy castle tickets!

Taking a picture of a picture of picture of a castle that's really an imitation.

We liked our castle time. But the best time was spent walking the nearby walled city of Füssen. Once we exited the tourism zone and hiked up to the monastery, we were alone. But what was even better was the restaurant we happened by.

The TourAlongWithToddBlogTravelTips suggest always eating in restaurants where others are eating because the food is usually good and nothing is more awkward than eating in an otherwise empty restaurant.

At this dining establishment, we sat “Bavarian” style at a table with a Chinese family. We had a great time getting to know them. No sooner had they left than Lindsey, a young woman from Minnesota, was seated at our table. She was eager to converse, and we were too. I wonder if Mad Ludwig had good conversations up in his dark castle with the composer Wagner way back when.

Despite following the TourAlongWithToddBlogTravelTips about jetlag, I woke at 3:00 a.m. Something had happened. What? The clouds had parted and there were stars outside. OMG! My mind raced… how quickly can we get to the Zugspitze in the morning?

The Zugspitze sits on the German-Austrian border just a short drive from Füssen. A 9,718-ft. high peak may not sound like much, but the Alps are different. And the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, is gigantic. The key is getting an early start to beat the crowds and the clouds.

We beat the clouds, but not the crowds. There were people of all types at the top, some with their dogs and some with their cigarettes (and I think some dogs with cigarettes). But there are TWO tops of the Zugspitze.

TOP #1 is the vast structure the Germans and Austrians have built to accommodate the swarms of tourists. If it was airlifted and dropped in Anytown, USA, it would be a dominating structure. That it sits on top of a mountain is remarkable.

TOP #2 is the actual top of the peak. Just a few steps away and up chains and a ladder, getting to the top filters out 99% of those at TOP #1. However, the variety of shoes worn by the last 1% to summit the peak is terrifying. Dress shoes, tennis shoes, heels, you name it. And the ridgetop of the peak is narrow and icy. Well, no one fell during our day at the top.

A young woman from Texas on the summit ridge of the Zugspitze. Don't slip!

Yep! There's a crowd atop the Zugspitze on a sunny day!

The Germans are building a new tram station. It hangs freakishly in space!

Other than standing at the highest point in Germany, the next best thing was having a chat with new adventure friends from Scotland – Morven and John. We had a blast talking with them in the sunshine over a beer and bratwurst.

Natalie with new Scottish friends, John and Morven, in the Zugspitze sunshine!

At the Ehrwalder Alm. The Austrian side of the Zugspitze.

Shhh, don't tell anyone, but Tirol is perfect for hiking or skiing!

I kid you not, the men's bathroom walls at the Ehrwald resort were lined with images such at this one. I was compelled to take a photo of each one purely for archiving purposes.

Moving east on our first day of real driving. Five hours along the autobahn with the crowds of cars and trucks. Our route to Pfarrkirchen, Austria (north central) took us back across the German border where everything slowed down. The police were doing spot checks. We were waved by, but the days are gone – at least for now – of totally open borders for Germany.

Nina Theis is an exchange student this year in the Boise area. Coming to Idaho from Pfarrkirchen, Nina put us in touch with her mom, Eva, who in turn invited us to visit for a night. Eva didn’t hold back. She hired a guide for a one-hour tour of nearby Steyr – a city that’s been around since 600 B.C. give or take a few hundred years – followed by fine dining at an Italian restaurant, and then doing our laundry for us! Thank you Eva!

At the bridge across the Lech River in Steyr, Austria, during our private tour.

Pay no attention to the strange man snapping photos!

With Eva Theis, our gracious host for a night in her home in Pfarrkirchen, Austria!

That’s it for now...

You can safely change from your lederhosen and/or dirndl back to your street clothes and stop yodeling. But keep the costumes nearby and your voice warmed up. This Europa tour has much more to come!

Ciao! ~ Todd

Feelin' Groovy

Ah... The River of No Return... 80 miles of legendary frothing, churning ice water, tightly bound by a channel of sheer rock walls hundreds... nay, thousands of feet high!

Women weep at its sight!

Men are limp and pale...

Attempting passage is to tempt fate!

Yet here we are...

Natalie, Simon, and I...

at the Corn Creek boat ramp along with 13 other adventurers, 6 guides, and 6 giant rafts stuffed with camping gear, enough ice-packed food to feed a small army, and a generous supply of ice-packed beer to drown the same small army. If we were going to engage in folly, we would do it in style!

The funny thing about a multi-day guided float trip is how little physical work the passengers actually do. The guides, however, are constantly busy setting up camp, cooking, cleaning, tearing down camp... and rowing giant rafts through rapids and along doldrums.

Here's how a typical day's critical tasks are divided between passengers and guides:

    Todd's Handy Chart of Critical Tasks
Get upxx
Make coffeex
Make breakfastx
Drink coffeex
Eat breakfastx
Get the groover*x
Tear down campx
Pack raftsx
Row raftsx
Make lunchx
Eat lunchx
Clean up lunchx
Row rafts morex
Set up campx
Set up the grooverx
Make hors d'oeuvresx
Eat hors d'oeuvresx
Drink beerx
Make dinnerx
Eat dinnerx
Drink more beerx
*See below for a thorough explanation of the groover.

I think this delineates the roles and responsibilities in a fair and balanced way. 

Don't you?

Well as the song goes,

      "Row, row, row the boat, using my own guide"
      "Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, where's my dinner and beer!"

Are you ready for some river time?

Are you ready to get a groove?

Come along on a brief tour deep in the Salmon River Canyon...

In picture and caption format!

Let's begin, shall we?


Eager Anticipation
Everyone's freshly coiffed and giddy with excitement as our Adventure-of-No-Return begins!

Actually, the Salmon River received its River of no Return moniker not because of danger, but because the sweep scow boats, built specifically to haul lumber from Salmon City to Lewiston, could not be returned to Salmon City. Instead, they were dismantled and sold with the rest of the lumber.

The River of No Return name has stuck because it's a WAY better tourism slogan than The River You Drive Back Around To and Start Again.

Below: Natalie (center) and Simon (cool shades guy) suited up to start the trip. Note Jason, one of the guides, is covered from head to foot to block the sun. The guides can rack up a lot of sun hours in a season.

The Crew
The guys and gals of SOAR Northwest are extraordinary in their river skills and personalities. As Todd's Handy Chart of Critical Tasks demonstrated, the guides pretty much do it all on these trips. Even our day in the more physically demanding paddle raft was low key.

Leading the crew, SOAR owner, guide, and master chef Ari Kotler has the trip's sequence of events well choreographed, including the logistics that begin days before a raft touches water. And, though the SOAR crew worked hard, they did (contrary to what Todd's Handy Chart of Critical Tasks shows) take time to eat and drink beer with us.

Below: The SOAR crew setting up Groundhog Camp. River time with each guide was a blast. They're fun, funny, interesting people. From left to right: Brett, Allison, Jason, Mara, and Ari. Missing from the image is Wade.

The Passengers
Yes, we were a rag-tag group. Professionals, retirees, a kid going off to college, another kid being a kid. The one thing most of us had in common was a tie to the Idaho Conservation League, where Natalie and fellow passenger, Marie, work. As a result, there were after dinner discussions about Idaho's river ecosystems and related conservation issues. Simon dubbed ICL as the Idaho Conversation League.

Below: OK, let's see... passengers and crew, from left to right: Erik, Linn, Jason, Wade, Mara, Brendan, Allison, Connie, Alan, Rob, Justina, Brett, Cole, Marty, Marie, Natalie, Dennis, some guy named Todd, Ari, Simon, and Claire!

The Groover
Now that we've got the introductions and pleasantries behind us, let's get down to business.

The Salmon River runs through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. At 2.367 million acres (3,698 square miles), it's the largest contiguous federally managed wilderness in the United States outside of Alaska (Yeah, don't look this up on Wikipedia because you'll see there are different ways to slice and dice what area is #1 and all of that!).

Here's a Fun Fact! You know how sizes are always compared to "The size of Rhode Island?" Well, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is three times the size of Rhode Island! And now you have no better idea about the size of Rhode Island than you did before! You are welcome!

Anyway, being a wilderness area, packing everything out that you packed in isn't just a good idea, it's the law!!! And that includes your poop! With over 5,000 people visiting the river's beach camps annually, it's easy to imagine how poopy they would become without poop it out rules. Ironically, you are encouraged to pee in the river because dilution is the solution to pollution!

Anyway, back to the poop. Nowadays, the rafting companies bring sturdy metal boxes on which a toilet seat is attached. That's where you poop. But back in the day, before an entrepooper invented a metal box with an attachable toilet seat, river companies used World War II era munitions boxes in which to poop. I can't imagine they sealed "air-tight," if you catch my drift.

Anyway, after sitting on a munitions box to deliver a lethal grenade, the sitter was left with "grooves" on the back of the thighs and therefore, everyone knew his/her immediate past "doings."

And THAT'S why it's called the groover!

The trick with the groover is that you need to get your "call of nature" in sync with the daily float schedule; once you're on the raft for the day, there's no groovin'. If you've really got to groove during river time, your guide will make a beach stop, but you'll be packing a special delivery bag the rest of the day.

Q. How many groovers do 21 people fill with poop in six days?

A. Two.

Below: Groover with a view! I was happy no other rafts came around the corner.

Food, Camp, and Sleeping Out

Food! Bacon with your pancakes? Fresh fruit? Caprese salad bites? Grilled salmon? Steak? BBQ'd chops? Cold beer or chipped ice for cocktails? How about a dutch oven baked cake? Mint Oreo cookies? Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the menu was always varied... and always great... and safely stored on ice in giant coolers. NO one was losing weight on this trip!

Hors d'oeuvres? Caprese salad bites on grilled baguette!

Ari's Chops City!

Camp Chat - Natalie, Brett, Simon, Brendan, and Jason.

A typical camp setup: No tent and no bugs. Just stars and river sounds.

Hey! It's the Ari and Todd show!

River Trippin'
By day three, river time has kicked in. You know the routine and who's who; you can relax. Every now and then there's a rapid to be splashed through, but the guides know the river so well they can thread the needle of any whitewater with ease. Actually, I'm pretty sure they can decide just how much water they want to deliver on their passengers.

Our day with guide Allison was an education for me. She let me take the oars for a while. The oars are heavy! The uninitiated (that would be moi) expend a lot of energy trying to keep them under control, never mind the raft. She had me push through a small rapid. Using my dope skilz and awesome poise, I masterfully guided our raft into an eddy. I oared out of the eddy... and was immediately pushed back into it.

I gave Allison her damn oars back!

She made it look SO easy.

Did I mention my new camera made its debut on this trip? It DID! Because of the wet nature of water, it stayed in my dry bag during most river time. I brought it out one day on a calm stretch and snapped a few shots. Unfortunately, I inadvertently flipped a switch to an effects setting. I hope you enjoy the cartoonish format! 

The Salmon teams with wildlife. Osprey and bald eagles dotted riverside pines every mile or so, as did deer and mountain sheep. We were told there are trout in the river, and fellow traveler, Rob, tried several times to invite a few to dinner with his fly rod. They accepted the hors d'ourves he provided, but declined his invitation join us at the fire.

The (bright) yellow crab spider Natalie spied one afternoon at camp was a crowd pleaser, but my favorite was the mountain sheep that stood atop a rock, still as a statue, for several minutes; I had time to grab my camera and take the shot. Though highly cropped, I feel the image conveys how strong and beautiful these creatures are.

Now HERE's a little guy that caught my attention. Super cool blue tail. I called out to Natalie, "Natalie, look at this skank!" Natalie called back, "No, that's a skink. A skank is something entirely different!"

Natalie's usually right, but I was unconvinced. A Google search lead me to humor-novel author Amy Vansant's website where she graphically explains the difference between a skink and a skank. I'm still confused. I think they're both kind of cute...

Smoke and Fires
Idaho, like the entire western United States, enjoys four seasons: winter, spring, fire and smoke, and fall. This year's fire and smoke season has been outstanding. In fact, much of the west is burning as I write this post!

Voyaging down the main Salmon brings the effects of fire to the forefront. Over the past two decades, much of the land has burned. Because of its wilderness status, fires are allowed to burn in the Frank Church-River of No Return unless structures, such as back country homesteads and lodges, are in danger of becoming charcoal.

So it was on our trip. The canyon was shrouded in hazy bluish smoke as we passed skeletal forests, interspersed with non-burned stands here and there. One afternoon we passed an active burn. It was a good burn... moving slowly, mowing down forest undergrowth. Still, it was eerie to float along quietly while the bark of a nearby tree crackled in flames.

Until the forests are back in balance, this is the new normal. It turns out fire is good.

A cleansing fire moving its way across the forest floor at the river's bank.

The People
Sure, it's designated wilderness, but there's a whole history of people who settled along the Salmon. And at times it was more than a few; it was a couple thousand, usually seeking the riches of gold.

Today, a number of historic homesteads and ranches remain dotted along the river, still occupied and cared for, and we had the opportunity to visit them.

Here's a fun fact! Arnold Aviation, out of Cascade, Idaho, is the last scheduled air mail service in the lower 48. Once a week, for the past 42 years, Ray Arnold has flown his Cessna 185 through the Salmon River Canyon, making stops on bumpy grass airstrips to deliver mail and staples. At $.33 per pound, air delivery is a necessary luxury.

Below, Natalie talks with Sue Metz, current co-owner and caretaker of Yellow Pine Bar. Sue's garden grows everything.

Doug and Phyllis Tims, current caretakers of Campbell's Ferry. These two have their story craft well tuned.

At the Reho Wolfe homestead, while Reho's son, David, spoke, his grandson played with a headless but still writhing rattlesnake. Yeah, I have no idea what David said.

Well there you have it!

Who knew six days and nights floating the River of No Return would return so much?

More importantly, now you know what a groover is!

Thanks to Ari, Mara, Allison, Jason, Wade, and Brett for taking such good care of us. If you ever get the urge to live easy on the Salmon, call Ari at SOAR Northwest. He'll float, wine, and dine you.

Before I go, did I mention my new camera? It made my finger press its button over 500 times during the trip. If you'd like to see the shots that made the final cut, stop on by my Main Salmon River Float Album.


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Stay tuned for more from TourAlongWithTodd, the 2017 Chronicles.

We're not done yet!

OK, gotta go! Gotta get my groove on!

Ciao! ~ Todd

SOAR Northwest rafts at the ready.

Mara is the photobomb JEDI! For more Mara photobombs, see my PHOTOS!