Returning to Russia

Moscow Sheremetyevo, originally uploaded by tomkellyphoto.

Landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport brought back memories of 28 years ago with bitter cold you could see in the air as our Delta 767 touched down on the tarmac. But that’s where the memories stopped. Walking into the gleaming Terminal D with walls adorned with advertising and free WiFi throughout was a far cry from the Soviet Union I got to know in two amazing adventures in the ’80s.

Nearly 30 years ago my friend Peter Graves and I pioneered an adventure travel company, Worldwide Nordic USA, taking cross country skiers to far off destinations. One of those destinations was Murmansk, 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the then Soviet Union.

It took years to get permission for a dozen Americans to ski in the Murmansk Marathon. But a partnership with the New York-based Russian Travel Bureau eventually cut through the red tape and resulted in us being one of the first American groups ever to visit the city which played a vital role in World War II.

Three decades have passed since those two trips to Murmansk. Now the Soviet Union has dissolved and Russia is preparing to host its first Olympic Winter Games in 2014. Over the next few days I’ll visit the venues surrounding Rosa Khutor. It will be a markedly different experience than that of 28 years ago when a group of American citizen skiers took Murmansk by storm.


The Changing Face of Las Vegas

Las Vegas at Dusk, originally uploaded by tomkellyphoto.

My earliest memories of Las Vegas date back to the mid ’70s as a young ski industry professional. Going to Vegas was an exhilirating experience. One of most distinct memories is crashing the SKI and Skiing Magazine free lunches on the penthouse level of the Las Vegas Hilton – the tallest building in town! Today, just 30 some years later, the Hiton isn’t even in the top 50 in Vegas!

We used to hit Vegas four or five times a year, en route to visit family in SoCal or attending the SnowSports Industries America trade show. Both have now moved on and our recent stopover was one of only a handful in the last five years. The change is amazing.

The legendary hotels of the past are dwarfed by the gleaming towers of today. The Hilton itself plays second fiddle to a host of concrete and glass hotels and apartments spiraling skyward from what used to be a parking lot. On the strip, the golden reflections of the Wynn and Encore stand sentinel on the site of the old Desert Inn. The aging Fronter across the street is gone (thank God) – a vacant lot now with the massive Trump International out back.

I remember vividly when Steve Wynn opened the Mirage and Treasure Island. Still important anchors on that part of the strip, they are joined by the likes of the massive new Palazzo across the street adjoining the Venetian.

Down the street, the new Fountainbleau is among a host of skyscraper resorts the have created a new Las Vegas skyline. Walking down the strip today is akin to being in a Grand Canyon of glass and steel!

While we don’t spend a lot of time sitting at slot machines or tossing twenties down on the craps tables, we have always loved visiting Vegas. There’s an electricity there 24 hours a day. We’ve long ago mastered the “Vegas for Free” concept, hopscotching from the pirate ship show at TI to the water show at the Mirage (not big fans of the new Sirens of TI show). Or having an after dinner cocktail at the Lake of Dreams at Wynn, and peering into Penske Wynn Ferrari Maserati dealership.

Like anyone who has visited Vegas, I have myriad memories which all come back with each successive visit. My first In ‘n Out experience.

Hauling athletes and journalists out to a sunrise breakfast after the 1992 Olympics. Steve Wynn entertaining the 1994 and ’98 Teams at Treasure Island and Mirage. A waitress slapping my sleeping friend to wake him up at a restaurant at 5 a.m. so he could order. Leaving the rental car at the curb in the early ’80s when I was late for a Western flight to MSP(yes, I really did).

And as much as we’ve maintained a continuity of visits over 35 years, the change this time was very striking. And it remains one of our world’s most amazing wonders!

Tallest Buildings in Vegas

Fine Dining
Over the years we’ve grown to love a variety of restaurants off the strip including Piero’s (thank you Gary!), Lawry’s Prime Rib, Cozymel’s (RIP) and others. For a change of pace, we decided to follow one of our favorite chef’s, Mario Batali, and checkout his four-year-old B & B Ristorante in the bowels of The Venetian. Every single bite was a treasure! Watch for our TripAdvisor review coming out soon.


Potato Salad Hill

Potato Salad Hill, originally uploaded by tomkellyphoto.

No, this is not our orange Jeep. I do wish it was. This is no picnic. This is Potato Salad Hill during Easter Jeep Safari in Moab. This is where the term insanity was coined.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and just thinking the outcome will be different. That describes the guy in the really nice F-250 without lockers who just couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t make it up the near-vertical rock outcropping of Potato Salad Hill. His day ended when he bent a tie rod at a 45 degree angle – not good for the steering (talk about toe-in).

This driver was good. And he had good equipment. Earlier he had climbed straight up the middle with no effort at all. For the rocks on rider’s right are steep – super, super steep. And it’s impossible to keep all four down, as you can see here

He tried and tried for nearly an hour – nearly tipping more than once. He moved a tire an inch here and an inch there.

Wanna know another trick? Look closely at the winch, which is wrapped around the front axle. From the cockpit, he can control the winch to keep the nose lower. As he steps the Jeep up the rock, the articulation of the front suspension throws the nose up and back. A quick hit on the winch and the nose of the Jeep is a bit closer to terra firme.

Yes, in the end, he made it. As did most of the others.

Potato Salad Hill is, indeed, insanity. But it’s fun. Thousands camp out on the rocks to watch driver after driver tackle the hill. It’s good fun – no problems. Just watching man and machine tackle Mother Nature.


Sunday at Holmenkollen

Fans in Trees, originally uploaded by tomkellyphoto.

Some took the train. Some came by skis or camped out for days. And many walked with their families the 8-10 kilometers from Oslo up the mountainside to Holmenkollen. They wore knickers and backpacks, with all of them carrying Norwegian flags. And all brought with them the culture of a nation truly built on the outdoors as a way of life. It was Sunday at Holmenkollen. And it dwarfed our Super Bowl.


Memories of Munich

Rathaus at Night, originally uploaded by tomkellyphoto.

Munich is a unique place that has always carried a deep personal meaning throughout my life of travel. Years ago it became a benchmark for me of what great European cities represent. Munich was not the first city I visited when I began international travel over 30 years ago. But it was the first I got to really know. It was the first city I visited with a sense of purpose. It’s been five or six years and it was nice to stroll the Marienplatz again this week.

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Seals on the Rocks

Sea Lions on the Rocks, originally uploaded by tomkellyphoto.

A trip to San Francisco is never complete without visiting the sea lions at Pier 39. So as I cruised route 1 south of Half Moon Bay searching for a good sunset cove, imagine my surprise when I spotted a dozen harbor seals resting on a rock.

It was a challenging light situation. The easiest spot to photograph them from shore was directly backlit – you could hardly see the seals. So as stealth as I could, I tried to sneak around a small peninsula to get a slightly better light angle.

Well, it didn’t work all that well. While mommy and daddy just shrugged off my presence and remained on their rock, the smaller sea lions (such as the ones in the photograph) made tracks for the water, sliding off the rock and into the Pacific.

While I had only seconds before the rock was evacuated, it was time enough to craft a few images with some help from Mother Nature’s waves, crashing over the rock as the seals headed into the water.

Blog General

Driving the Beartooth

Clouds over the Beartooth, originally uploaded by tomkellyphoto.

Red Lodge hadn’t been in our plan. Neither was the Beartooth. But as we left Teddy Roosevelt National Park for Custer Battlefield National Monument, my Facebook friends (yes, I was online) changed my mind. We headed to Red Lodge for the night and the trip over the Beartooth. Snow was not something we had in mind!

The Beartooth Highway is an amazing road. Charles Kuralt called it “America’s Most Beautiful Road.” It was not really on our radar. But it is now – one of the most breathtaking 62 miles we’ve ever driven.

Arriving in foggy Red Lodge at sunset, the Beartooth was bedecked in clouds. “Not sure it will be open,” said the front desk manager. Snow was falling in August and the plows were out. At the summit, a full mile above the Montana border village, heavy snow was falling.

We hit the Beartooth at 8 a.m., twisting and turning up the switchbacks. The sun was breaking in and out of clouds, just starting to light the tips of the peaks straddling the Wyoming-Montana line. It was cold – mid 30s – as we made our way to the summit.

Just as friends had said, it took forever – stopping for photographs at nearly every turn. Turn by turn it became more and more spectacular. The sun touched into mountain valleys, while starting to bathe the peaks in morning light.

It was the first light to touch the 4-6 inches of fresh snow, blanketing wildflowers and covering a moonscape of rock at the 10,947 foot West Summit.

Dropping over the summit to the Cooke City side, we encountered the first traffic from the west including motorcycles that had to scramble for lodging when snow kept them from the crossing the evening prior.

The descent into Yellowstone was bittersweet. The scenery turned from breaktaking above-the-treeline skyscapes to heavily forested mountainsides.

The small collection of buildings in Cooke City marked the end of the Beartooth and the beginning of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, with buffalo at every turn.

I imagine that every time you drive the Beartooth you are greeted with new scenes. And one thing’s for sure, once you drive it you’ll be counting the days to your next drive.


Blog General

Menacing Midwest Storm

Menacing Storm, originally uploaded by tomkellyphoto.

One of the things we really miss about the Midwest are the storms. A few days ago I blogged about the amazing lightning storm in Hayward. On our I-94 drive across western Minnesota, we watched a mid-morning line of powerful thunderstorms form in front of our eyes for over a half-hour. We pulled over to document the massive clouds that had formed.

In this scene, taken along a corn field on I-94 east of Fergus Falls, we watched a series of parallel, horizontal lines of layered clouds suddenly come together in this huge mass of weather.

It almost looks like a massive tornado bearing down on this small farm nestled in the protection of a grove of trees. Soon, we were wrapped in the clouds with wind and rain before it passed to the southeast.

Blog General

Tornado Warning Sky

Tornado Warning Sky, originally uploaded by tomkellyphoto.

One of the things we miss living in Utah are the thunderstorms and freakout weather that can hit the Midwest. It was dark a bit early Saturday evening, with nearly pitch black skies just after 9:00 p.m. Ben and Meghan called us out to the deck to watch a lightning show above. Then, Ben’s fire pager went off: ‘potential tornado at Nelson Lake (8-10 miles)’ and it was heading our way.

Being in the calm of a storm is like a trance. The air was still, but the sky was electrified with seemingly thousands of bolts of cloud-igniting lightning every second. We looked to the north to see an eery sky.

The next 15-20 minutes bounced from fascinating to scary, not knowing the patch. Weather radar showed its path heading just east of us, likely over Round Lake and the Chippewa Flowage.

The sky boiled in the darkness with its menacing green tone illuminated by the flashes of lightning.

We gathered first on the deck, then the driveway. I clicked away, making photograph after photograph of the pitch black sky – using the lighter digital images to showcase the story of the terrifying sky.

Soon, it was calm again with the lightning storm passing to the east. It was reassuring to the young kids, who didn’t know whether to watch in amazement or fear.

Such is the power of mother nature!

Blog General


Trumpeter Swans, originally uploaded by tomkellyphoto.

No one really knows how to pronounce Totagatic. Our friend Kathy, whose family had a cabin in the Totagatic wilderness, calls it Tobatic. I’ve always known it as Togatic. But whatever you call it, this sprawling wilderness extending from between Hayward and Cable, Wisconsin west to Minong has always attracted me.

When I lived in the Northwoods, it was one of those mystical places to take the fishing boat, navigating lily pads and cattails, with northerns comping for a spoon on every cast.

Sunrise photos were hard for me in the Northwoods this trip – too many trees and early morning clouds. So Saturday morning I retreated to Totagatic, ever mindful of bear (none) and deer (plenty) around every corner.

Arriving at the rustic boat ramp, I spotted two trumpeter swans floating lazily amongst the reeds, just cruising at their own tempo. Birds flew overhead as the sun crept over the trees, illuminating the steaming, foggy swamp.

This is what the Northwoods is all about on a peaceful August morning.