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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Helena — The Capital of Montana

Montana State capitol.When we put together our road trips we try to include state capitals even when those require a bit of a detour. Especially for those capitals that we haven’t been to previously. But Helena, the capital of Montana, turned out to be directly in our way and not only that, but very much in the middle of our drive from East Glacier Park Village to West Yellowstone — our next destination.

Helena. Montana State capitol.However instead of going through Helena and just stopping there for a short while we decided to break our long drive apart and spend a day in Helena itself to make things easier on our kids. It was 187 miles away from Glacier National Park and 176 miles to Yellowstone. We spent one night in Helena and we stayed in the only Hilton owned property of our whole trip — Hampton Inn Helena.

Capitol from the front.The drive to Helena itself was mostly uneventful except for a bit of anxiety we experienced on the part of us running out of gas and a complete lack of settlements of any kind on our way. So we were quite relieved to reach a town of Choteau with a population of around 1,500. We decided to grab a quick lunch at the gas stations where we filled up our car. We ate some typical gas station food, but Alёna and my dad ordered some soup to-go at a small sandwich place across the street.

Inside capitol. Anюta being Anюta.Hampton Inn turned out be very pleasant. Probably the cleanest and nicest place we stayed at on this trip. The only exception is a place at Jackson where we actually had a huge two bedroom, two story suite to ourselves — the only place where we actually finally got a joint room — our last day. Anyhow, we deiced not to procrastinate and get right back into our car right after check-in.

Looking up into the dome.The only thing that we wanted to see in Helena was its capitol complex, which was only 10 or so minutes away from the hotel. Since the day was Sunday the capitol building ended up being closed, just as we expected. We walked around it, looked at various monuments and simply spent some time laying on the green grass surrounding the capitol while kids ran around and played.

Walking up.As far as the pictures go, the sun was shining from the wrong direction, but the biggest issues that prevented me from taking decent photographs was my continuing lack of a shift lens. Thus without having one on hand all my pictures in their original form have a serious case of converging vertical lines — buildings appearing to be falling down behind themselves. Thank you, Photoshop.

Hibachi dinner.While kids were running around Alёna and I were going through restaurant listings on TripAdvisor. We wanted something different from the usually available American cuisine and ended up settling on a Japanese hibachi place called Nagoya Steakhouse which was in 18th out of 115 places — decent enough. The food turned out to be very good. Kids enjoyed the show and all of us enjoyed the food. Even my dad, who is not easily impressed by restaurant food, commented on the fact of it being delicious.

Senate chambers.And to finish our day all of us went out to hotel pools which also had a hot tub. Here I was pleasantly surprised by the progress that my kids had made with swimming. If back in April during our Canadian trip Arosha used to swim like a kind of a mix of amoeba and a zombie, he was actually swimming like a typical human would. And Anna who would refuse to go into a pool alone before was swimming all around it with a help of inflatable arm bands. All those trips that Alёna makes to our building pool with them really pay off.

Senators.One the morning of the next day — Monday, before leaving Helena we drove over to the capitol complex again. The building was open to visitors, we got our official capital stamps in our passports and were able to explore all over the capitol itself. It had a lot of paintings depicting Native Americans inside. We also were able to check out house and senate halls. It looks good inside, but to tell you the truth all the capitols are started to blur together in my head by now.

Inside the capitol.And that was our stay in Helena. The next stop was Yellowstone National Park itself — the longest single portion of our whole trip — five nights in one place.

Some of my stamps along with the one we got at Montana capitol building in Helena.
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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Glacier National Park

Saint Mary Lake.Glacier National Park was the new destination for myself and Alёna on this trip. We’ve been to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in 2009, but Glacier was a bit too far off for that trip so we left it for some time later. So seven years and two kids later we finally got around to booking this trip. We also did look forward towards the rest of our family enjoying all three of these places already knowing that two of them will definitely be awesome.

Glacier Park Lodge.But I’ll start from the beginning. We arrived to Great Falls, Montana at around noon. It was the closest airport that we could get to without having to do more than one plane change. We rented an enormous three row Chevrolet Suburban which fit all six of us quite comfortably along with for large suite cases. As for Great Falls itself — we really didn’t find anything to look at or see, so after driving through a couple of streets we got on a highway and left for our first destination of this vacation.

Entering Glacier National Park.We were staying in East Glacier Park Village in an old lodge — Glacier Park Lodge — right on the edge of the park — 10 miles away from the nearest entrance. The drive from Great Falls was 140 miles which wasn’t too bad. Everything started on large plains, often covered by fields of flowers with dark silhouette of the mountains visible on the horizon. The mountains themselves are located inside Glacier National Park — the continuation of Rockies which run through the whole continent from top to bottom. As we were getting closer, the mountains were getting bigger and we could make out their snow covered peaks.

Two Medicine Lake. On our way to Stain Mary entrance.We arrived at our lodge at around 5pm local time, which is 7pm in New York. We were pretty tired. We got a pair of rooms next to each other at this magnificent looking lodge made out of enormously sized logs. The lodge itself was built over a century ago and it feels nice. The rooms were not akin to a 5 star hotel, but that was expected. I’m sure they were renovated from the time that the lodge has been built, but not quite obvious how long ago.

Our rental Suburban.By the time we got to the lodge everyone was pretty tired and I was quite sleepy since I woke up way too early in the middle of the night. And I can’t sleep on the plane at all. So we just went to the diner room of the lodge, ate our dinner and I turned in for the night to explore the park the next day. Alёna though took kids to the pool if I remember correctly, but I think I slept through all of that.

Us on one of the meadows.We had two full days in the park and thus we had two different locations that we wanted to visit, both on the east side of the park as the western entrance was too far away to drive to and back to the lodge on the same day with kids. We decided to start with a further objective on the east side of the park — Saint Mary entrance and visitor center. That’s where Going-to-The-Sun Road starts that runs across the whole park to the western exit.

Saint Mary Lake.On our way there we stopped by a couple of lakes to take in the views and eventually got to the visitor center. We stamped our passports and inquired about hikes that we could take. I always imagined Glacier National Park to consist of multiple lakes surrounded by mountains and I wanted to visit something like that. Out of all the possible hikes we decided to take a trail leading to Hidden Lake which starts at Logan Pass Visitor Center and is 2.7 miles long.

Trail to the Hidden Lake.And while driving to Logan Pass we made numerous stops along the highway. The most spectacular view was on the shore of Saint Mary Lake. There was no wind and the water was very still and mirror like. That’s where I took one of the best photographs of this trip — mountains reflecting in the water of a lake — just like I imagined this park would look.

Snow on the trail.When we got to Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot we were surprised to find out that there is absolutely no parking. After circling around the parking lot for some time we eventually got lucky with somebody driving off right in front of us. This turned out to be a common theme all-throughout our vacation. Yellowstone was the worst.

Mountain goat.While the trail itself didn’t seem all that hard if you’re a young adult it ended up being fairly steep for kids. And my 77 year old dad a lot of the pain in his knee lately, so he ended up not going — the only trail that he missed. As soon as we started up Arosha decided that he urgently needed to use the bathroom, so Alёna had to go back with him. And Anna’s pace was — well, not fast, her not being even 3 and all.

On the trail.I had my tripod with me and Alёna told me to just continue and not wait for them. So I did. The fact that the trail was fairly steep was exacerbated by the fact that soon after you start the climb the trail is covered by snow that still hasn’t melted by the end of July. So climbing up the mountain via a slippery snow is not exactly fun, but I was determined to get to the lake.

Hidden Lake.On my way up I ended up seeing at least 10 mountain goats in different places. I was feeling sad that I’m going to be the only one to see all this, but I took enough photographs to show all this to the rest of the family. And eventually I got to the overlook of this lake. It turned out that the lake itself was still quite a bit away down from the mountain and I felt that I probably should head back after taking the pictures from the overlook since everyone was waiting for me.

Hidden Lake overlook.And as soon as I turned around I saw Alёna and Arosha standing next to me. I was so happy to see them. They actually did get to see all the snow, the lake, the goats and I really at all didn’t expect to see them here. I knew Alёna could easily do the hike, but the fact that Arosha was there with her made me very proud. She says that she kept her own pace and he kept up with her just fine.

Hidden Lake.After taking in all the views we decided to head back. And when we were somewhere in the middle of trail down we ran into my mom who was carrying Anna up the hill. That was another very surprising discovery. We took over Anna and my mom continued all they way to top of the trail. Interesting things about my mom is the fact that it’s really hard to pull her out of the house for a walk around Brooklyn, but when we go to a vacation she turns into a hiker that doesn’t miss a single trail.

Inside our lodge.Heading down the trail was actually quite a bit harder than it was going up. Some places which seemed just fine on the way up looked downright scary on the way back. One wrong step and you are sliding down a steep mountains into somewhat of an abyss. So we took it really slow, holding kids by their hands or in the hands in Anna’s case. Anyhow, the hike felt really exhilarating. And the fact that we ended up seeing so many wild animals on our first day was exciting too.

Glacier Park Lodge.And that was mostly it for our first day. On our way back we drove by the shore of Saint Mary Lake again and the view has changed completely. There was a slight breeze and the water has lost all of the reflections. We were glad that we stopped by the lake in the morning and didn’t leave it for later.

Two Medicine Lake.When we got back to East Glacier Park Village we decided to go to a Mexican restaurant that had high ratings on TripAdvisor, but it turned out that they have a long line. So we went back to the lodge for their not exactly stellar food. It was decent, but not anything to write home about. And I think I started falling asleep again. Kids played around the lodge on a big grass field that it had for a long time. And that’s how the first day ended.

One of the meadows on the trail.On the second day our plan was to explore the other of the two eastern entrances to the park — Two Medicine entrance. This entrance was only 10 miles away from our lodge. The main event would be a hike along Two Medicine Lakes to Aster Falls.

Meadows.Before setting out to a hike we stopped by a general store to buy a pair of light aluminum hiking sticks for my dad. A lot of people use them on the trails and we thought it makes a lot of sense to take some of the weight away from his aching knee. We spent some time in the store picking out the sticks and some other souvenirs.

Aster Falls.When we walked out and put our hiking gear on — backpacks, hats and all it started raining. Within 3 minutes of us starting our hike it switched from raining to pouring and it got really cold. We were glad that we decided to pack our light rainproof jackets with us, but the weather was not hikable at all. So we figured we should have a quick lunch and see if our fortune changes.

Photographing.We went back into the general store and had a nice hearty lunch — I had a chili soup and a hotdog. We bought hotdogs for our kids, but they have a strange way of eating those. Anna only eats the hotdog itself and refuses to eat the buns and Arosha does the exact opposite. Also we figured by having an early lunch we would be hungry just in time for dinner.

Aster Falls.By the time we were done even though the sky stayed very dark and ominous the rain has stopped. So we set out for the falls which ended up being a four mile three and half hour hike. We made a lot of stops along the way to take pictures — tripod setup takes time, Anna is not a quick walker yet, but the views were worth it.

Two Medicine Lake.Most of the trail took us through the forest and multiple blooming meadows and valleys. Some valleys had lakes by them with magnificent reflections. The sky though was dark and uncooperative for photography, so it’s really hard to really convey how beautiful the setting was. So many flowers.

Us by the lake.The waterfall itself was usual. Just your average waterfall. But as I said before — the final destination was not the point. There was a ton of people with little kids at the falls. Some of them kept falling into the water from time to time, but we managed to keep ours from getting wet.

Trail to Aster Falls.On the way back we made a little detour to get directly onto the shore of one of the lakes — the trail itself starts from the opposite side of the lake. I again tried to take some photographs, but Saint Mary shot from the previous day was still my best.

Trail to the falls.By the time we were back at our car everyone was tired and hungry. So we drove back into East Glacier Park Village. We again tried to go the Mexican restaurant I mentioned above and again there was a ton of people outside, waiting. I decided to try my luck and asked for a table anyhow. And what do you know — because most parties were smaller they were waiting for smaller tables, and because there was six of us we got a table right away.

Hidden Lake overlook.Our kids love Mexican food. One of Arosha’s favorite cuisines — mix rice with black beans, add some guacamole and sour cream — there is nothing better. I love fajitas and Anna just eats a bunch of meat of all kinds. We also washed it all down with some nice margaritas.

Two Medicine Lake. Panorama.And that’s how our introductory trip to Glacier National Park came to an end. The park has a lot of beautiful places and trails, but we’ll have to explore its other parts on some of our future trips. We spent our last night at the lodge and in the morning set course south, towards Yellowstone.
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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Happy 6th Birthday!

6th birthday.Our darling boy turned 6 this week! Arosha, we love you so very much! You are our ray of sunshine, our smart and sly and kindhearted son! We wish you the very best. Be good, be happy, be healthy, be aware of the world around you.

We really wanted to make the day special for him, since he was waiting for it with the mix of excitement and impatience for many months already. I spent a lot of time thinking of what kind of party would be best, and we ended up throwing a pool party for him. I talked to the lifeguards of our building’s pool in advance (because the maximum number of guests they allow per apartment is 4, and only 2 of those are free), and was given a permission so to speak.

Our birthday balloon tradition.We ordered a folding picnic table before going on vacation, and as for chairs, the pool guard said that she’ll lend us some. In terms of food, we decided to order pizzas, because that usually does not fail with kids, and I also cooked a meat pie (two of them just in case) and a few salads for adults. We also bought an ice-cream cake per Arosha’s request. It was very sweet of him to ask for a cake with both vanilla and chocolate layers (although he does not like chocolate and usually wants chocolate-free cake) on the account of his friend Mehdi preferring chocolate to vanilla. Arosha really wanted all of his guests to be happy!

Part one -- by the pool.Ever since his 3rd birthday, when we bought him balloons as a surprise, he expects to see balloons at his birthday. It was kind of funny when he was asking for them. I told him, that it’s supposed to be a surprise, and if it’s not a surprise then there is no point to them. And Arosha told me that he promises me to forget all about balloons by his birthday, and that it will definitely be a surprise for him.

Foosball.This year, we decided to try a new approach to this balloon business. Instead of ordering them in advance from Party City as we did in the past, we bought a disposable helium tank, an Ultra Hi Float solution and two packs of balloons. The night before his birthday, Danya and I inflated about 25 of them. I am proud to say, that not only they survived until morning, but kept floating for over 4 days.

I also borrowed an idea from one of the children’s books and cooked a special birthday breakfast for him — his favorite buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup.

Cake.The party started at 3:30. The guests were arriving in batches since not everyone could come at that time. We invited Alex with sister and mom, Mehdi with mom, Simon with sister and mom, Vlad with brother and mom, and Susanna, whose mom had to work, so she was just checking on her from time to time. Grandpa also came to help, but he left in about an hour since we were doing fine. Danya was coming and going — he was working from home that day.

Six candles.I have to admit, that I was worried about how the party will go in terms of other people in the pool. But everyone was just super-nice. Keisha, the main lifeguard, helped us to get enough chairs, and asked some of the regulars to put some of the guests on their names (and they gladly agreed). She also gave him $20 as a present and refused to take any tips from me, which I did not expect. One of the young guys lent us his folding table when the pizzas came and we had no room for them. A lot of people wished him Happy Birthday and nobody complained about the noise, which could not be avoided with 10 little ones playing by the pool.

Arosha's guests.The water in the pool was not extremely warm, but it was still good enough for swimming. All of the children, with the exception of Mehdi, played in the water at one point of another. We spent almost 3 hours by the pool and then went home for some tea and cake.

Trouble is my business and business is good.Arosha’s got a big toy soccer table (foosball) earlier in the day as a gift from Zhanna. It was a big hit with the whole crew! There was so much laughing and screaming and cheering when they were playing! Grandma also stopped by after work to wish him Happy Birthday in person.

Eating cake.After the cake, Susanna and Mehdi left, and the rest of us went across the street to the school yard, so that they could run around some more. We returned home at 20:30, which means that he was celebrating for 5 hours straight!

I think Arosha really enjoyed his birthday. I hope that his guests liked the party too.
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