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Showing posts with label expeditions/travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label expeditions/travel. Show all posts

April 6, 2016

A Trip To Iceland


It's easy to see Iceland makes the top ten remote places to visit both with Lonely Planet and Unesco site lists.   We reach a ridge overlooking the magnificent Thjors River in the  Thjorsardalur valley in south-central Iceland.  Only one icy paved road, but not a single building, pylon or electric light  in sight - not mention that there were no jet trails. 


Yes, even I need a vacation from plants.

So, after a long, and rather mild (and yet recently snowy?) late winter here in New England, an 'island vacation' seemed to be in order.  When the opportunity to visit Iceland with some friends came along, I acted quickly. Iceland is quickly becoming an 'it' destination, Iceland, although it has been on my 'must visit' list for an embarrassingly looooooong time.

Like....from the 1970's when I was a kid.


This trip to Iceland helped fulfill a lifelong dream to one day re-create the tales in this 1959 book by bird artist George Miksch Sutton, a frequent read of mine, when I was in junior high.


My junior high school librarian surely knew this, as there was one book that I checked out so often that I remember her telling me that I should just buy it. This trip really started with 'Iceland Summer - Adventures of a Bird Painter', a summer of birding chronicled by the noted ornithologist and bird artist, George Miksch Sutton.

Recently, I found an old copy on eBay, and it made it's way in my suitcase to northern Iceland, where I now sit near a window in the small city of Akureyi, about 40 miles from the Arctic Circle. It's where we are starting our journey around the western and southern side of the country.

This Common Eider, a large sea duck, was just one of many in a flock I was observing in the Eyjafjor∂ur Fjord, just outside of the northern Iceland city of Akureyi - which sits about 40 Km from the Arctic Circle.

I am here with my friend Jess (who is neither a birder, nor a nature person, but we can compromise between design research, and rare birch species.). Because of this, I am just treating this trip more as a sourcing trek, than anything else - so that next time, when I come here, I'll know where to go, and how things work.

I am too early to do any birdwatching, as most breeding migratory birds don't arrive for a month or so, but I did see some Puffin's on display in a gift shop - they still hunt them here, and eat their meat as well, but hunting is restricted.

There are few places on Earth so populated by nesting birds, however, and although most of the birds which migrate here have not arrived yet for nesting, there are few song birds - most are wading species or waterfowl. Still, Iceland is considered a global birding hotspot with millions of birds due to arrive any week now.


Hraun, or block lava is common here - a unique, young basaltic lava which is sharp enough to cut ones skin, is covered with Racomitrium, or soft-fringe moss, which turns brilliant green with the summer rains, but in winter, is still a beautiful sage tone.
Heather grows in the southern part of the country, and was the only plant I could find in bloom.


One doesn't go to Iceland to see plants, and even from the alpinist's perspective, the flora itself, is just not that uncommon.  The nation's isolation has kept many species of plants limited (and gratefully, even reptiles and mosquitos don't exist here!), but this isolation and harsh climate also brings with it challenges for the few plant which exist here.

The great sub-arctic means that plantlike if limited. Welcome to the tundra and tephra landscape,  the land of lichens and fringe-moss.


Woolly Willow predominates the landscape in many areas. Only a few meters tall, it is one of about half dozen species of dwarf of shrubby sub-arctic willows in Iceland.


Trees, in fact, are so rare, that the few forests which remain are small, and precious. Any native species of plants are face challenges from over-grazing, let alone natural challenges brought on by the harsh climate which affects soil microbes and fungi. All of this hampers any natural growth as it is because microbes affect soil fertility. Factor in a natural lack of nitrate and phosphate in the geologically  'new' soil, and any growth with trees or plants, is limited.


Arctic Birches are rare, and mature, if not ancient ones like this, are even more rare in the Kjarr, or Icelandic Birch Forests.

The few forests which existed were populated with arctic birches. Only a few square miles of these old forests remain today, known as Kjarr - the Icelandic Birch Forests, where even ancient trees are only a few meters tall.).


Even where there are grasslands which are grazed, the scenes can be stunning. Especially during this transitional period between seasons.


To the tourist, and even the science minded who loves some ecotourism, the landscape and nature in Iceland is nothing but magnificent - - so unique, that few places on our planet can offer such an experience. Few words can capture the beauty and grandeur of nature here.


Perhaps the nicest outdoor bathroom in the world, sits near a tourist site. Good design is everywhere in Iceland.


Any trip to Iceland will undoubtedly include a tour around the 'Golden Circle', a popular tourist track which can take you around a few of the islands'  impressive natural wonders, but journey beyond the route, and one can really experience remote beauty. This is what I love about Iceland - it can be so remote, that an electric light, another car or even a gas station might not be seen for a hundred miles (worth noting, when it comes to gas!).


Beyond the ring road of highway 1, remoteness exists, requiring a 4x4 or even a more off-road vehicle with special tires. Our 4x4 was just a commercial rental, and we had to stop on this road near an ice cap, once we found another car stuck on a snow bank, which we helped lift and re-establish itself. They had to proceed forward, due to the incline being too icy to reverse, but we decided to turn around ( 60 miles from the nearest highway, it seemed like the smart thing to do).


I wish I still had my Land Rover 110, but here in Iceland, this is what one needs to rent - complete with a snorkel, and the strong suggestion to travel with at least one other vehicle in the remote areas. - note the thermal steam rising in the background here from a fissure.

Greenhouses are big in Iceland, all heated by geothermal energy and electricity, they allow Icelanders to raise tomatoes, cucumbers and even melons. This one focused on crops of lettuce. That said, fresh veggies were hard to find in most markets .


Behind the greenhouse, a huge pile of discarded lettuce root balls - not sure if this was a proper compost pile, or just trash - most of the debris here seemed to be peat based plugs discarded from hydroponic culture.

Sheep, which spend most of their winter indoors, re-appear in fields and meadows beginning in April. Over-grazing is a real problem in Iceland, as is hay production.

Some of these ecological challenges are being reversed though through re-introduction of native species and some controls on grazing. IT may be impossible to reverse the introduced species which are more aggressive such as the ironically iconic and lovely blue lupines so often featured in promotional images on travel sites and blogs. The lupine was introduced with good intent, in an effort to keep the overgrazed and baren volcanic soils from eroding, and in many instances they have achieved what they were introduced to do, but reversing this invasive plant which has seeded most everywhere, has been difficult.



Roads in Iceland are graded by whether they are paved or not. Most that venture inland, and into the highlands are either gravel, or just mud, requiring both large off-road wheels and vehicles. We had to help lift a 4x4 off of a snow ridge, which had become stuck - surprisingly, the drivers were tourists from Rhode Island.


The tundra is a landscape where the long, cold winter and short, cool summers of the arctic climate makes tree growth impossible. There are still vast areas of tundra in northern Iceland, but as you can see by these fences, grazing areas for sheep still exist, although the government is restricting more areas from the damaging effects of grazing.



Black Crow Berries, Empetrum nigrum are common food source for wildlife in the summer months. Berries have low moisture and higher protein, so some can last through the harsh winter, becoming a valuable food source for wildlife.


We drove along the western coast of Iceland, through the many fjords and inlets, to the northern city of Akureyi where we made basecamp in a nice AirBNB. From here, we took day trips to destinations ranging from magnificent waterfalls and a geyser to the Icelandic Winter Games, where we took in some Arctic Circle skiing and even a snow mobile rally.



A flock of Whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus), the Eurasian counterpart of the North American trumpeter swan, arrived for a summer of breeding in what is the most western part of their breeding zone which extends across sub-arctic Northern Europe.  They are considered to be one of the heaviest of the flying birds.



The farms however, are few and far between. Each, so attractive with their colored roofs, and old homes. We were lucky I think, to be here just after a late snowfall.

On the western coast, what appears to be icebergs are long stretches of land on either side of fjords, which stretch out into the sea. Their color was magnificent, and we were able to see them a different times of the day.

On the evening returning to Reykjavik, the same range transformed into a magical vista, reminiscent of another planet.


Frost lifts many of the grassy fields in what is known here as Pufa, or frost heaves. We've seen the same phenomenon in Switzerland as well. It makes walking difficult, and farmers hate it, as it can make a hay field un-mowable.


Massive glacial valleys in the north of Iceland were so impressive. Look - not a single house, nor an electrical pylon in view. This is what our planet must have looked like thousands of years ago.


All in all, the landscape here is stunning if not epic when it comes to beauty and natural wonders. Geysers, magnificent waterfalls, massive canyons, and rare geological formations ranging from basalt towers to deep fissures make Iceland like no other place on earth. Add in ice sheets, huge glaciers and some of the cleanest water and air in the world, and one can see why Iceland is so popular.























































March 9, 2014

Vizcaya Palace: Connections and Crossroads

A limestone urn with a brilliant, giant bromeliad, Aechema blanchetiana, of which there are many named varieties, each grown for it ability to develop a strong, coral color in the bright, tropical sunshine.


Last weekend I had the opportunity to take a couple of days 'off' in Miami, Florida,and while not a vacation, I can't lie and say that it was all work. The truth is, I was invited along with 5 other bloggers by Troy Bilt, to help create a community garden as part of their involvement with the Keep America Beautiful program, of which they ( and Lowes)  are a corporate affiliate of, as both corporations are sponsoring partners. The two and a half days were filled with tours, product updates, dinners and some fun, but mostly we all worked on planning this community garden, a venture which somehow all connected once I discovered the amazing connections which exist between Vizcaya, Florida's agricultural history, and with some incredible people who we met at our Keep America Beautiful project. In the end, it's all just another story about America, about it's many connections between people and a crossroad of cultures.

Read more, please click below:

August 13, 2012

Botanizing at 14,000 feet - Mount Evans Summit, Colorado

The 14, 000 ft. summit of Colorado's Mount Evans can be reached easily by car, it is America's highest paved road.
Any Colorado trip is enhanced if one can get into the mountains, and thanks to two fellow members of the North American Rock Garden Society, past national board member Roger Tatroe and his wife garden book author Marcia Tatroe, ( read more about their garden here).  Marcia's work is also frequently seen in Sunset Magazine and other gardening publications; so clearly I could not have asked for two better tour guides for a day in the Rockies. I appreciated this time in the mountains so much - many thanks Randy and Marcia.

Gentiana algida, the Arctic Gentian is also sometimes called the Whitish Gentian can be found in mountain meadows with some elevation during mid summer. I always get excited when I see white gentians, in Switzerland and even in the garden, they are rare.
 We visited two different alpine areas in the Denver area, each only an hours drive from the city. This images are from the Mount Evans summit drive, ( later, we drove up to Jones Pass, a mountain Pass known for its summer wildflowers. I'll post that hike on a different post). The Tatroe's kept reminding me that last year, the wild flowers were spectacular, most likely due to a heavy snowfall, but this year, the display was less than prolific, and even the spring display at snow melt was one of the worst in years. Still, we were lucky enough to find plants in bloom, even in August.



Arctic Gentian ( Gentian algida), a white flowered alpine gentian found across western North America - Alaska through the Yukon, down to the Rocky Mountains from Montana south to Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. It blooms in mid to late summer.

Mountain Goats are often found at the Summit Parking Lot on Mount Evans in Colorado. These were shedding their old coat, and were found rubbing again rocks trying to scratch off the itchy coat. Can you believe that I took this with my Nikon D200? I could almost touch him, I was so close. Well, I really just wanted to brush him.

A Baby Mountain Goat Follows its Mother. Goaty cuteness at 14K.

Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep are commonly found along the mountain road, on the way to, or at the summit of  Mount Evans.

Campanula parryi ( I am guessing due to it's short height). It is commonly confused with the Common Harebell, but as I have not keyed this out, this is only a guess based on the linear basal leaves. (C. rotundifolia has rounded basal leaves). Despite these differences, the two species are difficult to tell apart in the field.

June 27, 2010

Primula in these Alps of the Bernese Oberland


A yellow Primula auricula, growing on the upper slopes of the Eiger, in a damp snow run-off with Ranunculus glacialis. This trip brought us many meadows of this early blooming primrose, and we were very lucky, both because of it being late this season, and because we simply found the populations.

 A light pink form of Primula hirsuta, or it may be a natural cross of P. hirsuta and P. daoensis . Photographed this in the high crocus meadows of First, Bearnese Oberland..




Primula elatior after a freak high elevation snow storm on June 21 - the summer solstice.


Some of the snowy Primula from last weekend's snow on the Eiger. In the back, you can see the famous North Face.


Without the snow a week later, they look much better.

A primula farinosa caught in an early summer snow in the alps.



P. hirsuta



Later in the day, Joe hiked back to our camp, while I decided to go higher - above the cloud line near 12,000 feet. I was rewarded with sunshine, and this amazing scree and alpine meadow full of many primula, gentiana and other plants.




Variations in a population of Primula farinosa on the slopes of the Eiger, near 9,000 ft , growing with many P. auricula and Ranunculus glacialis. Sorry for the irregular type, but I am posting this post live from my iPad.


An impressive yellow P. auricula, the parent of the many fancy auricula primroses we sometimes see in England. In the back, Dryas octopetala and a melting glacier. Nearing the top of the Eiger.


A rare find on a steep ravine - a white Primula auricula


Even more amazing ( it just keeps getting better!) an amazing grouping with at least three different forms of Primula auricula, and some Primula hirsuta natural crosses on the summit of the Piz Gloria. And check out those Saxifraga! If only our alpine troughs could look like this!

Appreciating Switzerland




Our funicular ride helps up reach the start of the trail head for today's hike across the Piz Glora. We take this funicular, then a single car train across the rim of the canyon to the town of Murren, and the another funicular up over the glaciers to 15,000 feet, where it is difficult to breath - all with the hopes of finding more high elevation Androsace in the highest scree's. We have our snow gear. crampons and yet we are the only hikers on the funicular rid - every one else is under 20 years old, and are all base jumpers from Chile.



Ahhh, fraises, so fresh. If only our strawberries tasted like these. My attempt at a calendar cliche.


The main street the village we are staying in for another week -  Mürren, a small car-free remote alpine village which one must reach only by a funicular, and then a rid along the edge of the gorge on a single car rail, which ends right here where this image was taken.

Today we made a big decision - one which is decidedly quite un-American, ( in reference to those who travel from the states and plan on visiting 8 cities and 12 destinations in Europe in 7 days). We just cant' bear to leave this solitude in Murren, so I am calling ahead to Zermatt and cancelling our second week there. We have decide to stay, and act as if we live here. We will do our laundry in the little launderett, eat more cheese, and be sure to do our grocery shopping at the single store before it closes for the day at 4:00 PM. For the rest of the time here? We shall enjoy the quiet, the fact that there are no cars, few people and basically, just the sound of a few goat bells to wake us in the morning.

Then, naturally, there is the scenery.

We love Mürren, perched high on a cliff above the post card lovely valley of Lauterbrunnen, which is pretty nice itself, but this? This is the most beautiful place I have ever been on our planet ( so far!). Last night, as we watched the full moon rise over these magnificent mountains ( not a single light in a home or on a street in sight), we were commenting on how many people we met, especially how few Americans, who are either on one or two week tours traveling through Europe with their families. One such family we met two days ago, but they rarely left their lodge - where they sat with focused on answering email and playing games on their  iPads.  They had just arrive, and I was surprised at how bored the children were, as well as the parents. All the talked about as they tapped a swiped away on their devices, was about what cities they had been to over the past week. Dad sais "a half day at Cologne, a half day in Amsterdam, a half day in Paris - then we can go home".  Sad. 

We are experienced enough, to have planned only two towns for our week and a half venture, but now, instead of moving on to the more commercial and touristy town of Zermatt, we decided to cancel our reservations ( at a price, I must admit!), and to remain here in Mürren until next week. Why not. We have everything we need. Wine, cheese and wildflowers.


 View from our balcony - really.

 A bough of spruce cones decorates a home.


The hotels are quite old in Murren, most are build before 1890 such as this one. I find it interesting that even at this out-of-the-way location, that the village was a destination, even a century ago. How did they ever get those trunks up here? I later learned that on these slopes in Murren, Skiing was popular even in the 1880's.

 The view across from Mürren is spectacular when viewed from a few thousand feet higher, as we hike down from the summit of the Piz Gloria.



 I was noticing a number of residences near the nicer edge of the gorge, near the end of the canyon. This remote village has such incredible views, yet it is still completely rural and unruined. Sure, we met some local kids smoking pot, they told us that their parents worked at the to summit house high on the Schiltorn, and that one boys father worked the funicular, but aside from the shock that he was dressed all hip hop style, I asked him if he felt fortunate to live here. He responded " Oh yes, we know there is not place like this on earth". But he later shared that he dreamed to move away and to work as a street repairman in Interlaken - where there is a nightlife.

Most of the homes on the outskirts of the Murren meadows that we passed through were four season homes. Fire wood was neatly stacked into beautiful arrays of patterned stacks, and the fields were cleared for grazing, most where scythed by hand, and the hay stacked on posts to dry. This is farmland for the local people, and most worked outdoors in their fields. Most notably, it is silent here. One could hear a nightingale across the valley, and just he sound of a distant waterfall a mile away. There are no sounds of cars, or jets, no campers, no distant highways or grumbling motorcycles such as one often hears in the Italian Dolomites. If this was America, forget about it. And if this was a National Park, we would be surrounded by campers and people.  Here, in this massive canyon in Switzerland, we were the only hikers on these paths, and all we could hear were cow bells. Sure, in the winter, it may be a crowded ski village, but for most of the summer, it is heaven on Earth.

 Wood, neatly cut and stored under the eaves of home. Each home has a different collection of wood.



 Even this elderly couple made a tasteful, homey display ( the papa was just off to the left, sitting enjoying his beer on this sunny Sunday).


As we wandered further back towards the village of Murren, we passed through many meadows with cow gates like this. One is expected to simply close the gate as one passed through.

Packed with skiers in the winter, the town of Mürren is quite in early summer. This was the busiest day. 


After the last funicular leaves for Lauterbrunen,  town of Mürren becomes silent.As there are no cars besides a local resident's old mini truck, and one stationwagon, all one hears are horses, goats and cows. In early summer, there are few tourists who spend the night. These cliffs below the town of Murren are very popular with base jumpers, ( I heard it was one of the top base jumping sites in the world) which also makes the tiny village of Mürren more 'young', in spirit. Mürren sits in a very scenic location -  facing the Monch and the Eiger's snowy glaciers and waterfalls. Botanically, the mountains around Murren are site zero for many high alpine plants, especially primula species, androsace and other alpine plants.