Posts Tagged With: glacier

They Don’t Call It Iceland For Nothing

We’ve been variously too busy or to exhausted for the last couple of nights to keep up with daily blog posts, and as of about 6 hours ago as I type this, we are in Paris. So this is going to be a quick “catch up” post, heavy on the photos, to wrap up our stay in Iceland.

I’ll go through our last two Icelandic days (Sept 14 and 15) in more or less chronological order, with one big exception, which was our excitement on the night of Friday the 14th. At about 8 PM we were almost home from a day of legendary photographic luck — which is to say, clear sunny skies and mild temperatures — when Janet suddenly screamed, “The aurora!” This seemed improbable since the aurora prediction gave it a very low probability for that night, and we had barely seen it a few nights earlier when the prediction called for high activity. Which only goes to show that aurora forecasts can be as wildly off base as weather forecasts, for there was indeed a greenish glow in the sky that an hour or so later looked like this (admittedly with a 5 second time exposure):

To which I can only say, “Ta-da!” It shimmered, it moved, it waxed and waned, it was cooler than all get-out. This was only the second time in my life that I had seen it, and the (very excited) first for Alice, Janet, and Tim. It was Iceland coming through for us, bigly.

The day began promisingly enough, as we walked out of our farm bungalows to a beautiful day. Here is our cabin, complete with waterfall on the cliffside behind us. (You can just see it to the left of the of the peak of the rooftop.)

We had a couple of major ice-related destinations that day, all of them various aspects of the Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón glaciers. (You may have figured out by now that “jökul”, pronounced “yerkle”, means “glacier”. At the end of a word it has two L’s and is for some reason pronounced “yerktle”, with a T-sound stuck in there to keep you of balance.)

Anyway, these two masses of ice are pretty close to each other, which created a large number of opportunities for Janet and me to shout “Stop the car!” so that we could get out and photograph one or another random roadside vista like this one.

I mean, seriously, this location wasn’t even flagged as a scenic viewpoint or anything. It was just there, reflecting in a big puddle.

Our first “official” stop was the so-called “Diamond Beach” at the foot of Jökulsárlón. Why do they call it the “Diamond Beach”? Oh, I dunno. Probably because of all the little glacier bits flowing around in the surf, like this:

You will note that the sand is black, which heightens the effect of a landscape of 50,000-carat diamonds displayed on a field of black velvet. Adding to the surrealism is the speedy current exiting the lake from which the bergs originate, castoffs from Jökulsárlón. There is a narrow throat where the lake empties into the sea, and so the ice chunks bob and swirl around, bumping into each other and eddying in the surf.

That lake, just a few hundred meters upstream from the Diamond Beach, is itself quite the sight, since it is basically the collection point for all the icebergs that calve off of Jökulsárlón at this location.

The lake is otherwise very still, and you can rent kayaks or a buy a ride in a Zodiac boat to weave in and out of the bergs. The lake was also full of seals: we counted at least a dozen, barking and sounding and clapping their flippers against the water.

Just a few miles down the road was another location where we could get up close and personal with Jökulsárlón. There, the tongue of the glacier extruded into a smaller lake, virtually tiled with small bergs and floes that made it seem as though, if you were sufficiently careful and balanced, you could gingerly walk or hop from one to the next and so approach the face of the glacier itself. And by “sufficiently careful”, I mean, “You would without any doubt whatsoever fall in and drown whilst freezing to death.” Here’s the scene from the top of the access path:

…and from lake level:

And here is Alice doing her best Ice Queen:

Her cheery photogenic smile completely masks her bitter complaints about getting a cold wet butt just so I could get a “We were There” photo.

We headed back to the farm in Vik (population 300, not counting us), then, realizing that this might be the last clear skies we’d have, turned around and headed back into town to visit Reynisfjara, the best-known black sand beach in the area. Iceland is littered with such beaches, but Reynisfjara is famous for its offshore basaltic rock formations. In the northwestern US they’d be called “hoodoos”, but here they are called Reynisdrangar because, well, it’s Iceland. And they aren’t basaltic columns, they’re frozen trolls. Story goes that they originated when two trolls tried to drag a three-masted ship to land (I don’t remember why). They worked through the night — trolls can’t stand sunlight –but didn’t make it before dawn broke, and they froze into rock columns. It’s a Lot’s wife/vampire sort of thing. Anyway, here they are at sunset.

A little further down the beach is a larger, flat-topped formation that at sunset reminded me of Stonehenge. See if you agree:

As you can tell, it was a hell of a day, photographically, and it was on the way back from the frozen trolls that Janet spotted the aurora, which was the capstone of the day’s travels.

Our last day on the island, Sunday the 15th, dawned chilly, heavily overcast, and rainy, and pretty much stayed that way. In other words, it was the perfect day for an indoor activity, like strapping on crampons and mining helmets to explore frigid, drippy ice caves. So we did that.

We put on every article of clothing we had, including waterproof slickers and rain pants, and drove to the rendezvous point in Vik to board the world’s most masculine tourism vehicle, a massive 4×4 with tires the size of large toroidal children. Our guide was the equally outsized and suitably Nordic David, who took off across the black sand desert, speeding up the sides of ebon dunes and doing donuts at the top as AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blared on the sound system. It was that kind of experience. But it brought us to here:

This is where, if you go trick-or-treating, Sauron answers the door wearing a Darth Vader costume. The greenish stuff in the foreground and distant hills is moss, the only kind of ground cover that can grow here. The ominous structure in the center is our destination, part of Myrdalsjökull glacier. The reason it is black is that it is covered in volcanic grit, as were we and everything we owned after tramping around there for a while.

Myrdalsjökull actually sits above Katla volcano, essentially capping it. Except that it is really hard to cap a volcano: when it blows, along with the lava, ash, and pyroclastic flows, you get bonus flooding and chunks of glacier. This has happened in the past.

Like everything else in Iceland, Katla has a legend associated with it. Katla was a witch who owned a pair of magic pants. Someone stole the pants, and it only gets more complicated from there. Suffice it to say that like all Icelandic legends we have heard to date, it involves someone getting thrown off a cliff and someone else getting eaten, and makes no sense whatsoever. It sounds like it was written by the same guy who gave us the little girl and the gold ring and the giant magical slug living at the bottom of the lake. You’d think that with the Brothers Grimm living just across the sea in Denmark, the Icelanders could have made up more comprehensible legends.

Anyway, the point is that there are caves in the glacier face, so we set off, Hobbit-like, with our crampons and mining helmets to explore them. Look at the photo below and mentally insert “Lord of the Rings” music.

I’m sure that that photo is your image of an ideal vacation. (And for the record, I did no alteration to the colors in that photo. Everything except us really was black and white. David carried an ice axe, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to trust it to one of us, and rightly so. The ice was white or clear, and the coarse volcanic sand was black and ubiquitous, including in our clothing afterwards. So here is a view looking out from within the cave.

..and here are Janet and Tim thwarting our fiendish attempt to entomb them in ice forever so we can steal the snacks that brought along for the trip.

The inside of the caves — being ice — was wet, cold, slippery, gritty, and very dark, with claustrophobically low ceilings. The walls were sculpted into smooth pained-looking curves, like the sky and face in the famous Munch painting, “The Scream.” There were rivulets of glacial runoff running across the crude path, spanned by short, narrow planks that we had to negotiate while crouching. Our mining helmets were a strict necessity both for the light and the overhead protection. It is not for nothing that movies like “Aliens” get filmed here and elsewhere in the area; the whole place just seems not of this Earth.

It’s kind of ironic that the last outing we had in Iceland was all in shades of black and white, since the previous day had given us such colorful skies, culminating in the aurora. But it’s that kind of place, all extremes. It was a great ten days and we felt like we had really seen much of the country. As I type this Janet and Tim are en route home to Ohio while we are in Paris. So with luck I’ll get up the gumption to report on our stay here. (Don’t expect much; this is about our sixth time here so we don’t do a huge amount of the “standard” Paris tourism.)


Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Waterfalls, Glaciers, and Life in a Shipping Container

Before I begin my report of today’s travels, I would like to backtrack by a day to point out an important fact that I left out when reporting on yesterday’s buffet breakfast, the one overlooking the cows being milked. Tim has reminded me of an important buffet offering that I forgot to tell you about, namely that among the delectable offerings that included smoked Arctic char, lamb, geyser bread, and local cheeses, there was also….cod liver oil. Yes, the legendarily foul tasting dietary supplement and laxative was proudly offered alongside a row of gaily decorated shot glasses. This raises the possibility of playing the worst drinking game in history.  And now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

We arrived close to dark last night at our destination, the oddly steampunk town of Seydisfjordur, population 700. It is accessible — when accessible at all, which in the winter months it is not — via a truly harrowing drive over the mountain separating it from the larger town of Egilsstadir (population 2200). The drive is a 15 km collection of steep hairpin turns and switchbacks with no guardrails, through utterly impenetrable fog. At night. Kudos to Tim for getting us there safely while poor Janet alternated between fearing for her life and fending off carsickness. (In her defense, it probably didn’t help that after each curve I remarked, “Wow, we could’ve died on that one!”)

I’ll tell you about Seydisfjordur in a moment but feel obliged to first expand upon Egilsstadir, or more accurately its location. That is to say, that it sits on the shore of the Lagarfljót fjord, home of the “Lagarfljót Worm”, Iceland’s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. The story goes that a little girl had a gold ring that she wanted to make much bigger, thus having more gold. By same arcane logic known only to Icelanders, she attempted to do this by putting the ring in a box with a slug (the snail kind, not the fake coin kind), and throwing it into the lake. Yeah, I know. Stupid. But this is how the story goes. Anyway, instead of the slug making the gold ring bigger, the gold ring made the slug bigger. Lots bigger. So now there is a magical slug the size of Godzilla lurking at the bottom of Lagarfljót fjord. Consider yourself duly warned.

Back to Seydisfjordur. It has three important properties: (1) it is the departure port for the three-day (!) ferry ride to Norway. (2) It is the home of a well-known art school, whose steampunk-ish post-industrial sensibilities pervade the “rust chic” aesthetic of the town. And (3) after repeated failed attempts, Janet discovered that she can pronounce “Seydisfjordur” only when affecting an atrocious and culturally inappropriate fake Swedish accent, like the Swedish Chef Muppet character.

Seydisfjordur nestles at the base of the inlet from which the ferry departs, as you can see in these aerial photos.

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-008-Edit

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-013-Edit

In the lower photo, our lodging is the cluster of buildings right of center with the gymnasium-looking building. It’s a good example of the “rust chic” that I mentioned earlier. Basically, every single structure in town looks like it was constructed out of discarded ship parts, shipping containers, or industrial detritus. Here’s a closer view of our apartment complex:

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-016

We were in the upper floor of the building on the left, which, though nicely appointed with hardwood floors and the like on the inside, looks from the outside suspiciously like it had been constructed out of shipping containers. And a little right of center in the photo you can see a structure with an orange roof. That is the rusty, discarded ship’s bridge from a long-demolished tugboat or fishing vessel.

Iceland Seydisfjordur 2018-005

Iceland Seydisfjordur 2018-013

All peeling paint and flaking rust, its interior has most incongruously been furnished as a child’s playhouse, complete with board games and brightly colored tables and chairs.

This is the playhouse where Stephen King’s grandchildren probably hang out. If you were to construct such a thing for children in the US, you would need to have an EMT and a lawyer stationed there at all times.

We left Seydisfjordur at about 11 AM after a leisurely morning photographing the Playhouse From Hell and flying the drone to get the aerial shots above. We spent the rest of the day making the drive to the southern part of the island, past stunning volcanic vistas — craggy mountains lining the fjords, pendulous gray clouds above — and more roadside waterfalls than we could count. Here are some samples of the terrain.

Iceland Terrain 2018-048-Edit

Iceland Terrain 2018-052

The weather was raw with an occasional drizzle, but when conditions permitted I flew the drone to get some aerial videos of the waterfalls. I’ll post these in a few weeks after we’re home and I have had the chance to edit them.

Our destination was an isolated guesthouse in the southeast corner of the island, at the edge of the enormous Vatnajökull glacier. And I do mean enormous: it is the size of Delaware and occupies 11% of the land area of Iceland. You can see it from many places in this part of the island because it has numerous “tongues” that protrude like amoebic pseudopods out from the main body of the glacier down towards the coast. Seeing such a tongue from the road at a distance of several kilometers, it looks like this.

Iceland Terrain 2018-063

Such a scene pretty much begs for an aerial view. After a few more minutes of driving brought us to within about 5 km of the face, we could get a good view with the drone, which I sent about 3/4 of the way to the face at an altitude of about 300 m (1000′) to get this photo:

Iceland Vatanjokull Glacier Drone 2018-01

The threatening clouds that you see here have been pretty typical for this trip, aside from the few sunny days we have had. But mostly the rain has held off when we needed it to, so that I could capture pictures like these.

Tomorrow we head to the town of Vik, about 200 km to our west and thus on the southern side of the island. We’ll be visiting a glacial lagoon and doing other volcanic stuff, so stay tuned.

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No, NOT the One With the Green Handle

OK, I want to be clear here. In the United States, the petrol pump with the green handle is always diesel. Always! Am I right, or am I right? I thought so. And so my error was not only forgivable, but unavoidable. Unavoidable, I say! But I am getting ahead of myself.

We left Reykjavik at about 10 AM today, en route to the north, to the area around Borganes, a small town on one of the western fjords of the country. Our specific destinations were a lava cave and a couple of well-known waterfalls in the vicinity. But first we needed to fill the tank of our thirsty 4WD behemoth, a double-cab Isuzu pickup truck with an enclosed bed for our luggage.

There was a gas station just around the corner from the flat, a brand called Olío. (Notice the accent over the letter i, which gives it a long i sound.) Our vehicle requires diesel fuel, which I noticed that all the pumps offered. So I drove up to the first pump, inserted my credit card, and engaged the pump with the green handle since that is OBVIOUSLY DIESEL FUEL. I pumped about 40 liters — costing approximately 12 million dollars US — as Tim and I congratulated each other on our manly ability to pump gas in a foreign country. (By the way, for the record, petrol actually costs roughly US $9 per gallon here.) But as I hung the pump back in its cradle, my eye was drawn to an adjacent pump handle — stealthy black in color — with a tag on it that, in ominous Icelandic, read “Díesl”. By virtue of my highly advanced linguistic skills, I immediately realized that, in NASA parlance, I had screwed the proverbial pooch. In particular, I had just put about 40 liters of 95-octane petrol into a diesel vehicle. The only saving grace of the situation was that I had noticed this before we had set out on our drive and inevitably broken down in the middle of some godforsaken windswept glacial tundra, which is where it surely would have happened.

But since we were still at the petrol station, the potential catastrophe had been reduced to what Alice and I refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem.” I went to the counter of the service station, where the friendly attendant called a local guy who handles this sort of thing. Said local guy, a creased, windburnt, businesslike 60-something in coveralls, showed up about 20 minutes later, siphoned out the contaminated fuel, and — because we had called him from home on a weekend — somewhat apologetically charged me an amount of money that was shockingly much even by Icelandic standards. Like I said, an MSP.

We refueled the vehicle — another 18 million dollars of “Díesl” this time — and, this particular misadventure behind us, set out on our away again. Our route to the lava cave first brought us past Borganes and its adjacent fjord, bordering a scrubby green and yellow steppe at the foot of a line of steep volcanic mountains. Despite the bleakness — it was an overcast, windy day with a smattering of rain — there was a certain stark idyllic quality to the setting, as you can see from scenes like this.

Iceland Borganes 2018-004-Edit

The fjord itself is broad and still, and at the time we were there the tide was out, revealing a maze of low muddy shoals. Fortunately both the wind and rain died down for long enough to allow a drone flight, during which I captured these panoramas from the air:

Iceland Borganes Drone 2018-030-EditIceland Borganes Drone 2018-017-Edit

The bridge at lower left leads directly into Borganes. But although we are sleeping there tonight, our lava cave of interest lay about a 45 minute drive beyond it. The cave — actually a lava tube — is called Víðgelmir, which like many Icelandic place names is best pronounced whilst eating a marshmallow. It sits in the middle of a lava field at the foot of the Langjökull  glacier, which you can see here.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-010

The cave is more than 30 meters underground with assorted ledges and overhangs, so we were first equipped with helmets with mounted flashlights. As you can see from this photo we were ready for some volcanic spelunking.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-009

The entrance to the cave is suitably maw-like, and we picked our way along the, um, unadventurous wooden stairs and boardwalk, following our guide and listening to his lecture about the geology of the place.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-019Iceland Lava Cave 2018-023

We are not unfamiliar with lava tubes because of our time in Hawaii, but Víðgelmir is particularly impressive. It’s nearly a mile long and sports a variety of lava formations much more typical of a “conventional” limestone cave, e.g., stalactites and stalagmites, albeit very small ones. But its most (to me) unexpected feature is a consequence of its temperature, which hovers at just about freezing. Consequently there are a large number of crystalline stalagmite-like ice formations like these.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-037

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-033

I found them particularly otherwordly. And indeed, if you get too close they break open and this thing that looks like a horseshoe crab jumps out and grabs your face, and you just know what’s gonna happen after that.

The cave tour lasted about an hour and a half, and we set out to our next destination, the Barnafoss and Hraunfossar waterfalls, adjacent to each other along a short looping walking path. They’re beautiful and would have made a great venue for a drone flight except that by this time the rain had started in earnest.  Hraunfossar — the name means “lava falls” — has an unusual property: its water seems to come out of nowhere. What actually happens is that the glacial melt percolates through the surrounding lava field and emerges as a line of cataracts along the river; indeed, you can actually see the water coming out of the rock. Take a look:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-006

Barnafoss, only about 200 meters away, means “Child Falls”, named after a rather dreary local legend about them. The story goes that one day two boys, home alone while their parents went to church, got bored and decide to follow.  (The assertion that two young boys spontaneously decided to go to church on their own tells you immediately that this is a myth.)  Anyway, the legend tells that they tried to take a shortcut over a natural stone bridge that crossed the falls, but fell off the bridge and drowned. The mother of the boys then cursed the bridge, and shortly afterward it was destroyed by an earthquake. This is about as cheerful as Icelandic legends get. It must be the weather. In any case, here’s Barnafoss:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-013

You can tell from the photos how gray the sky had gotten, and in fact it was pretty much pouring by this time. So we gawked until satisfied, then retreated to the car and returned to Borganes. Our lodgings are an AirBnb, a very pleasant two-bedroom cottage overlooking the fjord. Borganes has a population of only about 3,000 but I am happy to report that we were able to satisfy Janet’s craving for pizza: there are at least two pizzerias in town, and the one we chose was excellent.

Tomorrow: further into the frozen north!











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Cold Water, Hot Water

Yesterday was a watery kind of day, not in the meteorological sense — the weather was surprisingly mild — but in the sense that most of our destinations involved either looking at or being immersed in water. Our first destination was the tourist-heavy Gullfoss waterfall (that “-foss” suffix in fact means “waterfall” in Icelandic), which holds a special place in Icelanders’ hearts because of the repeated failed attempts over the decades to exploit it for hydroelectric power. But, atypically for much of the world, the preservationists have repeatedly prevailed and the site remains pristine if you don’t count the endless stream of tour buses.

The two hour drive to Gullfoss took us pass scenes like these, which in some ways are Iceland as its finest, at least when the weather cooperates.


Iceland Gullfoss 2018-001Iceland Silfra 2018-019-Edit

Gullfoss itself is beautiful, large, though not altogether eye-popping in the Niagara or Victoria Falls sense, a pleasing two-tiered cascade through a broad canyon.

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-002Iceland Gullfoss 2018-029-Edit

The wind was ferocious, which seems to be Iceland’s default, and which pretty much buries any ambitions I had of getting any aerial imagery with my drone. (The signs forbidding drones didn’t help either.)

Our next stop was a geyser, and not just any old geyser, but the ur-geyser, the geyser after which all geysers are named. Ever wonder where the word “geyser” comes from?Wonder no more, because here it is:

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-054

This particular site was first noticed (and named) by a local traveler in the year 1249, then lapsed into obscurity for 400 years before being rediscovered as a must-visit destination in the 17th century. Now, if you look carefully at the above photo you may notice a certain lack of geothermal activity, in that, well, there doesn’t actually seem to be a geyser there. That is because in the early 20th century its activity started to diminish. Frustrated tourists — this is a true story — started throwing rocks and garbage into the mouth of the geyser, causing its throat to collapse and thus transmogrifying it into a non-geyser, nearly 700 years after its eponymous discovery. Bottom line: the world’s first named geyser….isn’t one anymore.

Fortunately for the tourism industry, one need only walk about 100 meters from this disappointment to the site of the Stokkur geyser, which erupts satisfyingly every 5-10 minutes.

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-047

After watching a couple of eruptions (“Was it good for you too?”) we ate lunch in the form of a private tailgate party — having visited a supermarket for lunch fixings the previous day — and headed to our final destination of the day, the Solfra volcanic fissure in Thingvellir National Park. Thinkvellir is distinguished by one very important geological feature: the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates runs through it. It is literally the boundary between continents. Here is the basaltic wall that marks the edge of the North American plate:

Iceland Silfra 2018-002-Edit

It’s tall, ominously brownish-gray, and imposing, probably 20 meters tall and looking for all it’s worth like either the entrance to Mordor or the Wall from Game of Thrones. There were no White Walkers in the vicinity (discounting Icelanders’ natural complexion), but there is a notable location, which you can see marked by the flagpole at the right of the photo. That is the original meeting place of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament that has been meeting since the year 930. The chieftains from all over the island would meet there yearly, traveling from all over the island to do so.

The corresponding wall marking the edge of the Eurasian plate is a few kilometers to the east, and the broad plain in between is a sort of geological no man’s land, belonging to neither continent. (This of course causes me to wonder what’s underneath it. Could we, like, jump up and down really hard, break through the ground, and fall all the way to the center of the Earth? Let’s try!)

There is, however, a narrow fissure running parallel to the wall, only a few meters wide in places and about 20 meters deep, fed by a spring whose source is a melting glacier a few kilometers upstream. That means two things: (1) the spring water is filtered through several kilometers of volcanic rock and is thus spectacularly pure and clear (I mean, like distilled water); and (2) the water is seriously ^%$**ing cold, i.e. just a couple of degrees above freezing.

All of which is the lead-in to our snorkeling trip through said fissure, a remarkable experience. We were clad in enormously cumbersome, airtight drysuits. These are highly constricting and basically constrain you to floating on the surface like a straitjacketed Michelin Man. But they do you keep you dry and reasonably warm: the only part of your body that is exposed is your lips, since you need to bite on the snorkel to breathe. So here I am in the channel:


The water has a vertical visibility of its full depth (~20 m) and a horizontal visibility of about 6-8 times that. You read that right: you can see about 150 meters horizontally through the water. It is like swimming through very viscous blue-green air, quite the unearthly sensation.

There is almost no fish life in the channel, but there is quite a lot of exotic multicolored strands and blobs of algae coating many of the rocks. In some places the channel looks like someone went crazy with cans of Silly String.

There is a place where the channel is narrow enough to touch both sides at once, and of course the tour operators exploit this by taking photos of everyone doing so. They advertise this quite incorrectly as touching both continents at once; our enthusiastic and voluble guide Kate explained all this to us and swore us to utter secrecy. So don’t tell anyone!

Kate herself is worth a mention. A Canadian semi-expat, she spends summers as a tour guide in Iceland. Tall, athletic, and enthusiastic, she is thus the archetype of the 20-something outdoor adventure guide. And she’s got the piece of paper to prove it: her college degree is in (wait for it) “Adventure Tourism”. That is definitely the diploma that you want to have.

After de-drysuiting and downing some hot chocolate, we returned to Reykjavik, ate diner, and went out for a final nighttime view of the Harpa. We’re about to leave for our next destination: the town of Borganes.

Iceland Reykjavik 2018-134





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Finger Lake-in’ Good

In case you happen not to be familiar with the geography of New York State, the central region of the state — north of Pennsylvania and southeast of Lake Erie — is dominated by the scenic and aptly-named Finger Lakes region. It’s called that because, um, well, look at the map:

There are technically 12 Finger Lakes, but the “big four” are Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, and Canandaigua. Those intimidating-looking names are from the Iroquois language, the Iroquois having populated the region well before we did. The lakes themselves were carved by the retreating glaciers a mere 20,000 or so years ago. They’re all long, skinny, and very deep, as much as 600 ft (180 m) in places. They’re also cold and silty — fine for boating, not so much for swimming or diving. (One of my college friends actually learned to scuba dive there. The water was so opaque that he never saw a thing, including his own hands.) But the entire region is extraordinarily scenic.

The region is dear to my heart because everything about it hearkens back to my long-receded youth: I went to college here, at Cornell University in Ithaca, at the south end of Cayuga Lake.  So it seemed a natural destination when we were discussing a joint getaway weekend destination with our friends and occasional traveling companions Laura and David.

Thing is, this is wine country. There are over 100 wineries in the region, which is great if you like wine, which I do not. So it was pretty clear that I was going to be the permanent designated driver on this trip, which I do not mind.

Wineries and quaintness always seem to go hand in hand for some reason; vineyards somehow make otherwise economically depressed areas seem attractive. The Finger Lakes are no exception. We are staying at a B&B in the town of Geneva, a small lakefront town at the top of Lake Seneca, whose downtown is graced by 1940’s building facades and Gothic churches and which is otherwise ringed by spectacular venerable estate homes on the water. The B&B itself, look many such establishments, has a picket-fence, overstuffed-furniture wholesomeness to it, as you can tell just by looking at the front.

It’s a very pleasant inn, the kind of place whose room decor includes this:

And there are of course wreaths. If you live within a block of a B&B you apparently must have a wreath on your door.

But back to the wineries. Visiting all 100+ was not a practical option, but our B&B host kindly presented us with free tasting coupons for several nearby ones. David handed me the car keys, and off we went.  As we approached our first destination (out of what would eventually be five), Laura expounded a very profound insight: “You know you’re at a winery when there’s a chandelier in the barn.” True dat.

The day consisted of a great deal of sloshing, spitting, and pronouncing. (“Too acidic.” “Notes of oak, cinnamon, cat dander, and feldspar.” “Hey! This is Diet Coke!”) They tasted, I photographed (and drove), we all admired the scenery.

Now here is today’s riddle for you: what do wineries and the Special Olympics have in common? Answer: everybody gets medals. There is not a winery on the planet — or at least not in the Finger Lakes — that does not boast a slew of awards of mysterious provenance. The Governor’s Cup. The Decanter Awards. The Chardonnay Showdown. La Mouffete d’Or. Whatever. Here’s a set won by a local winery that you’ve probably never heard of.

No matter… I don’t drink the stuff anyway, and everyone had a good time. It was crystalline sunny day, about 80F, when the area is at its most beautiful. Tomorrow we will visit some spectacular local waterfalls, our admiration doubtless punctuated with more wine.

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The Movable Border

We all know that national borders can be fluid things, influenced by political events, wars in particular. But the border between Italy and Austria is the only one that I know of that has to be recalculated on a daily basis due to climate change. Yep, it’s true. The border between the two countries is agreed to be determined by a line across the watershed, but because the glaciers are retreating the watershed is moving. This actually became an issue in September of 1991 when Ice Man Ötzi was discovered very, very close to the border, and it was not clear which country actually owned him.

A careful survey revealed that as of the time of the discovery Ötzi was on the Italian side of the border, but only barely: he’s an Italian citizen by 97 meters (318 ft). (But in a masterstroke of international diplomacy, the Italians agreed that the forensic analysis on Ötzi would be done in Innsbruck, Austria.)

Today, the border is tracked by a network of sensors and GPS receivers and is recalculated essentially continuously. If you go upstairs from Ötzi’s body in the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum you can even let a computer draw you your very own map of the border du jour that you can take home as a souvenir. Here is the drawing end of the apparatus (a Google image; photos were not allowed):

border drawerThere is a pile of local topographic maps next to the table. You pick one up, lay it on the table, and as soon as the device senses that it is there it activates the drawing armature and draws that instant’s calculated border on it in a red marker, labeling it with the current date and time (which you can see at lower right).

Remember this the next time you have a property line dispute with your next door neighbor.


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Chillin’ with the Ice Man

We awoke this morning to a gloomy, steady rain pelting Merano, but staring balefully and unproductively out the window as we pondered how to plan the day offered us an unexpected reward. Jim, looking down, abruptly observed, “That’s a funny-shaped hedge…it looks like a Jewish star.” Which, indeed, it unquestionably did. I then noticed that the building next door had a carving of the Ten Commandments on the side, and lo and behold we realized that we were next to a synagogue. And not just any synagogue: the only one in Merano.

It is still in use, Merano having a small Jewish community that up until the 1930’s was a large Jewish community. After the war it had a very large flux of Jewish refugees passing through because it was a major waypoint on what was in effect a Jewish Underground Railroad for refugees trying to smuggle themselves to Palestine.

We were admitted to the synagogue by the caretaker, a stout blonde middle-aged woman smoking a cigarette. She let us into the sanctuary, which had three simple but beautiful stained glass windows, and below which to our surprised lived the local Jewish Museum. This was unexpectedly fascinating, a single large room housing a large number of letters, photos, and artifacts from the Holocaust era, as well as some considerably older items. (The oldest of these was a late 15th century Torah scroll. The most unusual was a “secret” miniature Torah, a scroll about the size of a pack of cigarettes and hand-lettered in the tiniest font you have ever seen outside of one of those novelty grains of rice. If you ever find yourself in Merano, you must certainly visit this place.

Moving out of our flat was an exercise in logistical unpleasant both because of the rain and because the guy living in the flat next story was also moving out, as in with movers and a van and all that. Which would not have been too much of a problem except that the elevator was approximately three feet square and the van was parked where we needed our car to be. The whole operation turned into a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle but we made it work.

The good news was that the weather did not seriously impede our plans, which were to return to Balzano to visit the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum to see the famous Ice Man mummy, then continue by car 140 miles south to Modena, where we will spend the night. None of that required sunshine, though as it happened the weather improved greatly in the afternoon.

The museum, and the Ice Man himself, are remarkable and ceratinly among the most interesting museum exhibits we have seen. His name — coined by an Austrian journalist — is “Ötzi” a portmanteau of the word “yeti” (as in the Abominable Snowman) and the Ötz valley where he was discovered in September 1991, buried in the snow at an elevation of about 10,000 ft. And here is what he looks like in his current state:

otzi_tattoos(Photos are not allowed, so thank Google for the image.) Carbon dating reveals that he is 5200 years old. He is kept in a refrigerated vault whose conditions replicate those that have preserved him: 21 deg F temperature (-6 C) at a humidity of 99%. A fine mist of water sprays over him, giving his skin an icy sheen that, irreverently enough, makes him look like he is made of lacquered beef jerky. He lies on a table close to a viewing window, and you get quite a good look at him. The vault has its own backup power supply, and the mummy can, in case of extreme emergency, be removed and transported to a nearby hospital that has its own “cold room” waiting for him. (Doctor: “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do for him. We tried CPR to revive him but, well, he fell apart.”)

2_Rekonstruktion (6)_0Ötzi was found with a large number of artifacts that have enabled forensic anthropogists to accurately reconstruct his clothing, weaponry, food, and other aspects of his life. They have also determined that he was killed in a fight, ultimately felled by an arrow to the shoulder. They do not know who killed him or why because – wait for it — the case has gone cold. (Ba-dum bump! <cymbal clash>)

Here is the latest reconstruction of his appearance in life, vaguely resembling The Big Lebowski. (This model, life size in the museum, does not show much of his clothing, which included a coat, cap, and backpack, all of which are on display elsewhere in the exhibit.)

The entire museum was fascinating, and among everything else we learned these two important facts:

  1. Things that Alice has in common with Ötzi: They are both lactose-intolerant.
  2. Things that Rich has in common with Ötzi: We both have blood type O+.

Cool, huh?

We spent two solid hours in the place, by which time the sun had come out and the day turned beautiful. So we had lunch an outdoor cafe, enjoyed our daily infusion of gelato, and hit the road for the 2 1/2 drive to Merano. (By the way, we firmly believe that if you visit Italy and do not have a daily dose of gelato — a different flavor each day, of course — then you are doing it wrong.)

We exited the Tyrol driving south, which for ambience purposes meant that we were leaving Austria and returning to Italy. We first passed back through the province of Veneto (where Venice and Vicenza are located), and into Emilia-Romagna, where Modena, Bologna, and Parma are. Indeed, Modena is located more or less midway between those two larger cities and, as a result of borrowing from both of them, is known for being a foodie’s paradise with a large number of gourmet restaurants.

It is striking how quickly one leaves the mountains. As we shot down the Autostrade at 130 kph (80 mph), one moment we were surrounded by the granite cliffs of the Dolomite foothills — with a castle midway up every cliff face, of course — and the next moment we were flying across open plains as far as we could see.

We arrived in Modena, made contact with our landlord, and got into our apartment, a charmingly decorated and richly equipped two bedroom flat, a warm and welcoming place that feels like the polar opposite of our severe and unadorned quarters in Merano.  We are only here for a night, contrinuing on to Lucca tomorrow. We may if we are feeling flush visit the Ferrari factory, but it is rather expensive and none of us are real car buffs.


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No Relation to Rita Moreno (Oct 13)

Today is our last day in Patagonia before moving on to Iguassu Falls (warm! tropical!) via a day back in Buenos Aires tomorrow. We spent the night in a nice hotel in El Calafate, as I mentioned yesterday, and awoke this morning to cloudless skies and a crisp beginning-of-winter bite in the air, plus dusting of snow on the ground, cars, rooftops, and of course the distant mountains. But it isn’t winter: this is what passes for springtime here. It hardly matters; as I’ve already mentioned, the weather changes dramatically about every 20 minutes.

Our goal today was Perito Moreno glacier, a significantly larger chunk of ice than those we have see so far. (My previous posts  misspelled the name with too many R’s.) It is one of several enormous glaciers that fill a strip roughly 10 miles wide and 100 miles long, running north-south along Argentina’s border with Chile and collectively comprising Glacier National Park.

Julio and our Argentine local guide (a talkative local named Sebastian, stocky, bearded, and jolly) decided to take a slightly indirect road to the park in order to avoid the most heavily traveled tourist route and show us some scenic byways. This was a real good move; we drove past dramatic snowy mountains and cyan lakes, past herds of horses and flocks of sheep on the snow covered, windswept ground. Here is the scene, in two photos a few minutes and miles apart:

Home on the Argentine range

Ditto. Note the color of the lake at the foot of the mountains

The temperature was brisk, probably around 40F, and the wind typically ferocious, blowing so hard that it was very difficult to hold the camera steady enough to take pictures.

The hillsides were dotted with sheep, and this (being spring) is lambing season, with lots of young frolicking around, or at least frolicking as much as one can in weather like this. We were grateful for the sun.

No Greeks around here, so he must be Basque

The animals all come from assorted estancias, or ranch estates, in the area. Some raise horses or cattle, some sheep, and some a combination. (This is actually unusual in our very limited experience: in New Zealand we experienced a lot of hostility between “sheep people” and “cattle people”, and no one raised both. The same was true in the American West in the mid- and late 19th century; in fact, that was part of the impetus for the invention of barbed wire in 1874. That is today’s Fun Factoid.)

We made a brief stop at a small estancia, which had a cozy little restaurant and café. It was owned by a Basque family; for reasons that are not altogether clear to me, Argentina has a significant Basque enclave. But Basque they are, and if you don’t believe me then take a look a look at the portrait at left that I took of one of one of the owners, and tell me that he does not look like everyone’s idea of a Basque.

The house had a couple of nearly newborn lambs running around (inside the house), and the restaurant was heated by a wood burning stove, so the operative word was “rustic”. (The bathrooms were fully modern, happily.) The scene went momentarily crazy when one woman in our group — one of the “Boise girls” — stood too close to the stove while still wearing her quilted down coat. One side of the synthetic coat instantly melted, releasing a large cloud of down feathers that swirled around the room on the air currents from the stove. Chaos erupts! Everyone who didn’t see it happen suddenly wondered why it was snowing tiny feathers indoors. The baby lamb went crazy, chasing after the floating white whisps, apparently under the tragic misapprehension that its mother had exploded.

The owners happily took the disaster in stride, sweeping up the feathers and patching the afflicted coat with — wait for it– duct tape.

We arrived at Perito Moreno at about noon, stopping first at a vantage about 4 miles from the face of the glacier. Simply stepping out of the bus was a challenge: although the sun was still out, a 2 billion ton ice cube sitting at the confluence of two lakes is pretty much guaranteed to create a local microclimate, which in this case meant a freezing monster wind that could practically tear your ears off the side of your head. Our 4 mile distance from the face probably made things worse instead of better, since we were on a high lookout across the lake, which gave the wind plenty of space to pick up speed and energy from the thermal gradient off the ice. And indeed, as we got closer to the glacier the conditions — though still fiercely windy — were not nearly as ablative. (But of course, the sun went away; a completely sunny day is always too much to ask in Patagonia.)

There are a number of metal walkways that define paths of various lengths along the face of the glacier and through the woods on the hillside facing it. This gives you the idea:

One of several walkways that afford views of the glacier face

That is a narrow ice-choked river in front of the glacier, connecting the two lakes at whose junction Perito Moreno sits. As usual, the perspective in the photo gives a deceptive sense of scale, since the walkway is in the foreground, nearly 1000 ft in front of the glacier. The ice wall is 200 ft high, and the full width of the face (you see maybe 1/4 of it here) is about 3 miles. It also extends something like 8 miles into the distance, which means that from the initial distant vantage point at the park entrance you are looking at something like half a cubic mile of ice. And this is just one of the glaciers in the park, the most accessible but not the largest.

The path itself is a relatively recent addition, constructed in the late 1980’s. Prior to then, you could walk all the way down the hillside to the river in front of the glacier, and if the river was frozen you could walk the few hundred feet across it and actually touch the face of the glacier….at which point several tons of ice would fall on top of you, thereby spoiling the fun. Remember how I reported that we saw calving events on all the glaciers we saw? This one is no exception, and after losing about two idiotic tourists per year over a 20 year period starting in the 1960’s, they finally built the walkway. 

And speaking of calving events, here are two that we saw, both accompanied by thunderous echoing reports as hundreds of tons of ice fell perhaps 100 ft into the river; they look rather like waterfalls of ice as the chunks tumble down the face:

Do not be hiking underneath when this happens

I said DON’T WALK ACROSS THE RIV…oh, never mind.

We’re having fun! We’re freezing!

We walked a number of the paths, spending about 2 1/2 hours gawking at the glacier from various vantage points. It was spectacular and a fitting end to our Patagonia sojourn before we move on to warmer climes. Tomorrow is a travel day and unless something exciting happens in Buenos Aires I may not post anything until we get to Iguassu Falls. (Or, being longwinded, I might.) So I will close this entry with the photo of the two of us (right) enjoying the comfort and convenience of the six layers of clothing we are wearing against the wind and cold.

But hey, it’s a GLACIER! Awesomeness quota fulfilled.

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Blue, Blue, My Glacier Is Blue (Oct 9)

In our continuing series of Glaciers of Patagonia, today we bring you Piloto Glacier located at the head of Alacalufe fjord here in not-so-sunny Patagonia. But first, we had to get there.

Late last night we exited the Beagle Passage on the Pacific side of Tierra del Fuego. We were warned at dinner that this would be the windiest part of the passage with the highest waves — this part of the Pacific is anything but pacific (with a lowercase p) — and that for this reason the passage would be made late at night when we were safely tucked into bed. They elaborated that it might be hard to move around the cabin during this time, which turned out to be spectacularly true.

Up to this point the seas have been quite calm, and the motion of the boat correspondingly gentle, even soothing. But I awakened in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and it took me about a minute to get to the bathroom, which is about eight feet from the foot of the bed. I could hear the wind howling outside the window, and even lying in bed felt like a roller coaster ride, with momentary periods of near-weightlessness followed by an abrupt thud and crash as the bow of the ship pitched down from the crest of a wave into the trough. It was remarkable, and after navigating back to bed from the bathroom, a journey that took another minute or so as I weaved around the pitching and rolling floor, I opened the curtains to watch the show outside for a while. (I chose not to wake Alice, who was still sound asleep.) The boat has running lights on the side so it was possible to see the waves from the window, and there was faint moonlight filtering through the heavy clouds, illuminating the island on our starboard side. It was quite the display.

At this point a number of you might be saying, “I’d never make it through the night because I get seasick really easily.” But the powers that be have thought of you, and it is not for nothing that the passage was in the middle of the night: you don’t get seasick in your sleep. In the event, by morning we were back in calm seas at the mouth of the fjord.

Ernest Shackelton, call your office

This excursion would not involve landing the Zodiac; we would remain in it to motor up the glacier and approach as close as we safely could to the face of Piloto while the Australis remained at anchor at the mouth of the fjord. Since we would not be doing much moving around we are advised to layer up as much as we could; the weather would be cold, wet, and raw, and absent any hiking we would not be keeping ourselves warm. So we suited up like brightly colored Michelin Men. The air temperature was about 40 F, and the water temperature about the same. The wind was modest and it was raining lightly but steadily.

Apparently in anticipation of our arrival, Piloto glacier had a major calving event a few hours earlier, and the fjord was choked with ice to the point that it appeared as though you could practically step out of the boat and walk down the channel. (We were advised not to try this.) The Zodiacs struggled against all the ice; you can see two of our four boats in the photo at left, practically locked in the ice. There were, needless to say, the expected Shackelton jokes.

It took about 20 minutes to negotiate the ice floes and make our way up to the glacier. It was spectacular, the most striking one we have seen because of its unearthly opalescent blue color throughout, as you can see below. (I should emphasize that I haven’t done any color enhancement in these shots.)

Piloto Glacier, bringing new meaning to the term “ice blue”

As in yesterday’s photos of Pia Glacier, the perspective in this shot is very deceptive because the boat is much closer to the foreground than the glacier, which is several hundred feet high. We maneuvered around the floating ice to get as close as we could, ignoring the pelting rain and trying to avoid being hemmed in by the floes that completely surrounded us. And while we were ogling the blue giant, it put in another show for us, calving once again with a lightning crack and thunderous explosion, and bringing our calving record to 3-for-3. I caught part of the event on camera; you can see it right in the middle of the picture below, resembling a waterfall on the glacier face. But it is actually a huge “icefall”, a good 100 ft high.

You do not want to be much closer than this when this happens

Nesting crested cormorants, scavenging each other

We lingered for a while longer to see if any more would fall, but only a small amount did so we turned around and made a short stop to admire the bird life: gulls, skuas, and lots and lots of crested cormorants, the latter perched in rows on the cliff sides among their nests and squawking and dancing (mating dances) at each other. Here they are at left.

One peculiarity of their behavior is that they steal building material from each others’ nests in order to improve their own. This tactic works pretty poorly, because while Joe Cormorant is off stealing some sticks from Bob Cormorant’s nest, his nest is in turn being raided by Harpo Cormorant. So when not out hunting for fish these guys basically spend all day either dancing to woo women or picking each others’ pockets.

A very not-tropical waterfall

In part because of the rain and also because the (barely) above freezing temperatures cause a lot of glacial melt, the dark granite walls of the fjord were decorated with a multitude of waterfalls. As we motored back up the channel towards our starting point,mew stopped along the way to get close to a couple of small cataracts (whose waters, were, well, as cold as ice). They ran in rivulets of varying width from all the way at the tops of the cliffs down to the sea.

After returning to the Via Australis we were warmed with a cup of hot chocolate (with optional whiskey added, which we declined). A few minutes later we were offered a tour of the engine room, which of course appealed to the geek in both of us. It was pretty unprepossessing, far from the cavernous space housing rows of diesel behemoths that you would find on a big cruise ship. This was far more modest,mid deafeningly loud; they gave us earmuff-style ear protection while we we in there. And of course they gave us statistics: two 850 horsepower Diesel engines, two 385 kW main generators plus a 120 kW backup, ship is 237 ft in length, etc., etc. It was interesting and enjoyable enough, I suppose, but suffered from comparison to the one-hour adrenaline rush we had just experienced.

Aguila glacier and two wet tourists

Our afternoon shore excursion was to the Aguilar glacier, which unlike either the Pia or Piloto glaciers empties out onto a small alluvial plain, meaning that we could walk nearly right up to it. The Zodiacs dropped us off on the rocky beach, and we hiked along it for about 45 minutes until we came to the mouth of the plain; the glacier was perhaps a quarter mile inland from there. It does not have a recent history of calving and so viewing it was a somewhat more passive experience than the others, but it was nonetheless gratifyingly blue and carved into arches and spires.

The weather for this afternoon excursion was not quite as cooperative as it had been; though the temperature was not horribly cold (low 40s), there was a steady pelting rain that made the Zodiac ride and subsequent hike very wet affairs. We were well equipped with all the requisite layers of clothing that we had brought for the trip, notably our happily waterproof top-to-bottom rain gear. Even so, the hot post-excursion shower in our room was a little slice of heaven. 

And here’s a panorama of Aguila just because. For scale, it’s about 500 ft high.

More ice!

Tonight is our last night aboard ship, with a farewell dinner and some late night activities, notably auctioning off the ship’s official navigation map showing our route and the various waypoints. In the past this has gone for insane amounts of money, the highest that Julio can recall being $800. So we won’t be bidding. We have a morning excursion to a Magdalena Islland, home to a large population of Magellanic penguins. Be on the lookout for excessively cute photos as we then proceed to Punta Arenas to resume the land portion of our journey.

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Nice Ice, Baby (Oct 8)

We are in glacier country now, for real, and today was a two-glacier day. Even more excitingly, it was a two calving glacier day, as we were lucky enough to see both of our target glaciers explosively shed office-building sized chunks of ice sufficient to keep you and all your friends in piña coladas for the rest of your life. (By the way, since we’ve been on the subject for a couple of days now, I highly recommend the documentary “Chasing Ice”, which is about glaciers and has some truly amazing and beautiful photography.)

The weather has been cloudy with some light misting rain all day, the mountaintops shrouded in fog. But the glaciers are down at the sea and our visibility is unimpeded. The Australis is working its way down the Beagle Channel into the ice fields, and as we approach the glaciers the sea around us is densely littered with floating chunks of ice ranging in size from “cantaloupe” to “minivan”. Many of the larger pieces have been sculpted by wind and water into gently curving baroque shapes, and some of them have football-sized chunks of rock embedded in them. We push slowly through them, and since our cabin is on the bottom deck we can hear frequent thumps as the larger pieces brush against the ship’s hull. The water is dark gray and the floes range in color from light gray to sky blue…glacier blue, I suppose, a striking and incongruously cheerful hue against the cold and light drizzle.

The Zodiacs have pretty tough hulls themselves, the inflatable rubber sides being thick enough to repel collisions with small objects. Even so, a scout crew always goes out first to ascertain the safety of the surroundings before we board our own boats. You can see one returning, below. Note that the boat has a rope mesh at the front. This serves two purposes, one being a hand grip for beaching and shoving off, the other being a wave-breaker-upper (for lack of a better term); waves that splash into the front as we motor forward get dissipated on the mesh, which thus minimizes the amount of water splashed into the boat.

“Is it safe?”

We had come in sight of our first destination, Pia Glacier, an hour or two earlier. It’s a massive thing whose scale is difficult to appreciate against the mountains that surround it. Here’s the approach to the glacier from abovedecks. You can also see all the ice “debris” in the water around us.     

Approaching Pia Glacier (just right of center) on the Via Australis

To give you an idea of the scale, the mouth of the glacier is about 3/4 mile wide, and it is about 1000 ft high.

Storming the beaches at Pia Glacier

Today was not quite such an early day, and we set off in the boats at about 9 AM, motoring first directly alongside the  Australis and then powering out into the open channel. The driver steers clear of the larger floes but we run straight over the little ones, feeling the bumps and thumps as they run across the bottom of the craft.

The beach landing is easy once we navigate the ice; the slope of the beach is gentle and the crew is waiting with a little aluminum gangplank that they hoist onto the bow of the Zodiac for us. We exit the craft one-by-one with striking efficiency and then walk up the sloping granite “beach” to an assembly point.

The granite is interesting in itself. Nearly black in color and striated with gray and white, it’s surprisingly skid-proof even when wet; we can walk on it very easily, even on a slope. There are patches covered with white, green, and occasional orange lichen, and there are large exceptionally flat areas maybe 20 ft on a side that are covered with scratches and striations all running parallel to one another — scars on the rock from the glacier’s ancient retreat. 

(While contemplating this I notice Alice ambling slowly across the granite, peering straight down in evident concentration. She sees me observing her and explains, “I am researching kitchen countertops, ” stating it in such a strikingly matter-of-fact tone that it takes me a moment to realize that she is a total loonball. Kitchen countertops, of course! What else would we be doing at the foot of a thousand foot tall glacier, 600 miles from Antarctica?)

We walk along the granite beach to a point that is perhaps a quarter mile from the face of the glacier, so the view looks like this. (The perspective is very deceiving in this image: bear in mind that our cohort in the orange life vests at left are a quarter mile from the ice; the central formations in the middle of the face are 1000 ft high.)

Ice the height of a skyscraper

And there is sound, lots of it. Loud cracks and pops like gunfire, and the occasional small explosion as some unseen mass of ice breaks off and falls somewhere onto a jagged surface, also out of sight. A lot of the cacophony seems to emanate from the cavelike formation that you can see on the left side of the picture. Every now and then we can see and hear a piece fall from the roof of the arch into the water; the smallest of these is about the size of a car and it makes a deep and thunderous >>FOOM!!!<< as it crashes into the sea. These events seem to occur with increasing frequency even as we watch, making us wonder whether there will be a larger calving event later (answer: yes).

“I’d like to buy a vowel and 2 billion tons of ice, Pat.”

There’s a viewpoint at an elevation of a few hundred feet on the hillside, and so we set out along a hiking trail. The weather is holding: heavily overcast and cold but not too raw, with the barely-there drizzle kind of coming and going. The hiking trail is as steep as yesterday’s, but not as long; there are short muddy stretches but tree roots are a bigger impediment, and there are uneven hunks of granite interspersed with the roots and the mud, so we have to pick our way. There are a couple of particularly steep stretches with rope strung along the edge of the path, such as it is; we use the ropes to help haul ourselves up, and we reach the lookout in about 20 minutes. And so here is Alice at the lookout, doing her best Vanna White imitation to present the glacier to you.

Even as we watched from the lookout, the rate of explosive pops and crackles from the left part of the glacier seemed to be increasing. So we waited — I’d like to say patiently, but we were anything but — and were rewarded, as the entire ceiling of the arch came loose with the crackling sound of a dead tree being splintered by a lightning bolt. This was a slab of ice bigger than a football field, and it seemed to fall in slow motion. Perhaps 4 seconds in free fall, it hit the water like an earthquake, sending a tiny tsunami towards the Zodiac and washing dozens of boulder-sized floes up onto the beach. We all clapped and cheered. Alice had been on the ball and caught it on video; we’ll post it upon our return.

Not everyone in our party had made the hike to the lookout, so when we returned to the beach we regaled the unfortunates with what we had witnessed. We were still hopped up on adrenaline by the time the Zodiac came to ferry us back to the Australis, though we had passed the time productively by drinking hot chocolate and variously chewing and licking a hunk of glacier that had washed up onto the beach, and which I had picked up and brought back to the group for inspection. After all, how could you not want to taste a glacier? I can report that it tastes a great deal like a hunk of ice, quite cold and fresh with no chlorine or additives of any kind. It was kind of neat to both hold and behold, though: you could see strata in it from various formative snow depositions over the years, and it had a lot of suspended air bubbles. This particular chunk was not blue, however.

We dodged floating ice all the way back to the ship and enjoyed a buffet lunch (assorted Italian dishes today, quite good) in preparation for the afternoon excursion to our next glacier, called Garibaldi. Most of our group, including ourselves, elected not to go ashore for this one since we were told that the hike was quite arduous and the reward at the top (a waterfall) not altogether commensurate with the effort. This was a wise choice,mat least for us: while the shore party(only 7 people, including the father and daughter from our group) was doing the hike, the captain took the Australis further up the channel nearly up to the face of Garibaldi itself, an enormous ice wall much bluer than Pia though slightly smaller in size. It is about 1500 ft wide and 500 feet high. The channel was practically choked with ice, which we pushed slowly through for a spectacular view. 

Garibaldi is bifurcated by a vertical moraine; it is essentially two glaciers merged together with a visible seam, a jagged brown channel that runs down the face. And while we were observed this, Garibaldi calved too! We had seen some large pieces falling off so in anticipation I was more or less at the ready with my camera set in burst mode (3.6 shots per second for three seconds at a time), and managed to capture a few thousand tons of ice as it hit the water with just a bit of a splash:

Kersplash! Garibaldi Glacier calves. 

That’s the impact billowing at the waterline just to the right of center. You can also see how very blue Garibadi is, and how very clogged the channel is with small ice floes. And of course you can also see the moraine making a dark S-shaped channel through the glacier. 

We spent most of the rest of the day congratulating ourselves on our glaciological luck. At 6 PM there was a knot-tying demonstration at the bar/observation deck, which was a lot more entertaining than it sounds. The lesson was given by the boatswain, a beefy guy with a shaved head who could probably have a second career as a nightclub bouncer. He was a hoot, at least in translation by another crew member since he himself spoke little English. And I am proud to say that for at least the next 24 hours until I forget how, I know how to tie a bowline knot as well as a “novelty” knot called a “devil’s staircase”. This is a sort of a trick whereby with a few economic motions you simultaneously create multiple knots at a time strung along the length of rope like beads on a string. As nearly as I can tell its practical application is for wowing guests at very dull parties. But I am confident that I will be able to amaze the kindergarten crowd at, say, our grandson’s fifth birthday in 2 1/2 years.




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