Posts Tagged With: landscape

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

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





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

Gorging on Waterfalls

I mentioned yesterday that the Finger Lakes were formed during the last ice age and are thus quite young: a few tens of thousands of years. But they have company, in the form of a number of spectacular narrow gorges. The best known of these is Watkins Glen at the foot of Seneca Lake. It’s an insanely photogenic canyon, 400 ft (120 m) deep and about a mile and a half (2.5 km) long. If you walk the whole length — we did about half — you’ll go up and down something like 890 steps, and you’l see 19 waterfalls.

The geology of the gorges is interesting. They are sedimentary rock, a mix of shale, limestone, and sandstone. These differ a great deal in their hardness and thus their rates of erosion, resulting in a number of natural staircase-like rock formations.

That’s today’s geology lesson, so here are some photos from today’s hike:

Watkins Glen NY-045

Watkins Glen NY-030-Edit

Watkins Glen NY-012

Pretty cool, huh?

Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 83 Comments

Land of the Rising Sun and Falling Rain

alice-metaOur flights to Tokyo began in Philadelphia but since I’m in charge here and I’m writing about airports I feel compelled to open with an image of Alice on meta-display at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, close to where we live. This doesn’t have anything to do with Japan but all our friends thought it was pretty cool. (I took the photo of Alice in a waterfall in New Zealand and wrote a blog post about it here. I submitted it for display at the airport about a month ago.)

Our actual journey to Tokyo was unremarkable, taking 5,211 hours — at least it felt that way — and arriving on schedule with our desiccated corpses in row 19. The trans-Pacific leg of the flight was on a 787, the Boeing “Dreamliner”, which is as advertised a pretty nice plane: noticeably quieter than most and with much better air quality. The snazzy part, though, were the windows: the shades are electronic, not physical, and you can dial in the opacity to turn them a lighter or darker shade of blue. Most people opted to do this — it being rather sunny at 38,000 feet — consequently bathing the cabin in a tropical oceanic blue light. It is rather like flying inside an aquarium.

The downside of this is that when you do fly over something interesting — and we overflew some truly spectacular Alaskan glaciers — it becomes difficult to find a place from which to look out and admire the view. Everyone’s windows are dark blue, and it feels like looking at the Arctic landscape as through it had been relocated underwater in the Bahamas.

Narita airport is in the hinterlands about 40 miles outside of Tokyo, so after flying all that distance you get to enjoy a whole new journey into town. There are several ways to do this, one of the easiest being an express train line that runs directly from the airport to the Tokyo main rail station. It takes about an hour. We bought tickets immediately after clearing customs but had to wait about half hour until the train left. Notice that I say “until the train left“. The train arrived almost immediately but the cleaning crew — one man to a car — spent the rest of the time cleaning in that fastidious Japanese way that reflects either an advanced aesthetic or culturally-ingrained OCD. By the time we were allowed to board  you could have performed open heart surgery in that rail car.

The ride into town passes through surprisingly rural countryside considering how vast and utterly urbanized Tokyo itself is: the metro area is 5,200 square miles with a population of 38 million. In other words, it is a city that itself is one-third the size of Holland with twice the population. With numbers like that it is surprising to see any grassland at all, let alone rolling fields. Gradually, of course, the landscape gives over to suburbia, small outlying towns that are surprisingly European in appearance, two story dwellings with tile roofs. The giveaway is that about 10% of those roofs curve slightly upwards at the eaves, giving them a distinctly (and deliberately) pagoda-like appearance.

The overall scene was on the gloomy side, mainly due to the weather. We arrived through drizzle and heavy overcast, and the towns — and Tokyo itself — were shrouded in low-lying clouds and a persistent light rain. We are in a tropical storm, it seems, and the rainy weather continued through today and will alas remain with us for at least another few days. Nothing to do about it but sightsee with umbrellas, which we had the foresight to bring. (I do not know the name of this particular storm, or even whether it has one. This being Japan, I would name it either Tropical Storm Sushi or Tropical Storm Manga, the latter if the storm has a big eye. Ha ha!  A little meteorological humor there!) Tokyo is in general a pretty rainy city: it gets 105 days of rain per year, about the same as London.

mustardWe arrived at our hotel, 24 hours after walking out the door and suitably exhausted, at about 5 PM. (We are staying at the Hotel Sardonyx, whose name, Alice observes, would make it the ideal pied-á-terre for me and my entire family.)  In the interest of mitigating the worst of our impending jet lag, we decided to tough it out for a few hours and have some dinner at the hotel before crashing into bed. That dinner was a little dose of surrealism of its own, the management having decided for some reason to serve almost exclusively some Bizarro-world simulacrum of what someone thinks American cuisine is. Everything you need to know about that meal is contained in this image of a mustard packet that I was served with my sandwich.  I did not have any “frank frutes” with my dinner, and if I had I assure you that I would not be looking for the “unique taste of plan sourness”, in part because I have no idea what that is attempting to mean.

And so to bed. Our room is small but comfortable, largely Western in appearance and feel but for a few very Japanese touches. One is an invisible rectangular heating coil behind the bathroom mirror, about 16 inches on a side, that keeps that area of the mirror fog-free no matter how long and steamy a shower you wish to take. The other is an intimidating toilet with onboard electronics, which is to say about a half dozen buttons of varied and uncertain function. At least two are related to some bidet-related butt-washing function; a third — which Alice mistakenly activated, to our delight — heats up the toilet seat. Our buttocks are now nice and toasty, thank you very much.

We slept well and long enough to at least partly counteract the 13-hour time difference, awakening at 7:00 AM or so, so we had some breakfast (vastly better than dinner) and struck out on the Tokyo Metro for our first round of exploration. As it turns out, that fact inspires me to close this post with a paean to the Metro.

The first thing you have to realize is that you need a big subway system to serve 38 million people.  How big?  This big:


Leaving out the buses and trains, there are 13 lines containing 285 stations. It carries nearly 9 million people a day. But the system’s designers did something very clever that, astonishingly, does not seem to have occurred to any of their counterparts in other cities: they numbered the stations on each line. The stations all have names describing their location, of course — the one across the street from our hotel is Hatchibori — but on all the maps and signage they also appear as sequential numbers on their particular line. Hence our Hatchibori station is Hibiya-11, Hibiya being the name of the line that we’re on. The Ginza is Hibiya-8, which tells us immediately that if we want to go see those gazillion lights at night we need only hop on our own local station and travel for three stops.

How do you navigate transfers? In our case, with the help of my new favorite and exceedingly wonderful piece of software, the “Tokyo Subway Navigation” app, available for free at your favorite online app store. This little gem uses your phone’s GPS to tell you what station is nearby and how far away it is; lets you select start and destination points from a searchable database (e.g., your hotel and the Imperial Palace); and then tells you not only what stations to get on and off at, but how long each leg will take and how much the trip will cost. You can even eliminate that last concern altogether by shelling out ten bucks for a Metro 24-hour pass, which gives you unlimited usage on all 13 lines. Between that day pas, the app, and the intuitive station numbering, the city is basically at your feet; we bopped around all day with scarcely a thought. Next time I will tell you where we bopped to.  It involves sushi, kabuki, and manga action figures.

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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