April 9, 2016

My Icelandic Immersion Ends

In my last post from Iceland, and before I return back to more traditional gardening posts, here are some of the various images from both the two cities of Reykjavik and Akureyi in the north.

The snow melted quickly in Reykjavik, on most days, the temperatures hovered around freezing. Iceland was very similar in climate to New England, at least in March and April.

It's just a couple of weeks after Easter Sunday here in Iceland, and many of the stores and homes are still decorated.

There is still plenty of snow cover in the north, where one is closer to the polar regions, but even in Reykjavik, which is in the souther eastern portion of the country, there was some snow. It was snowing when our flight  arrived and snowing back in Boston, as well.

There are only a handful of geysers in the world, and some of the best happen to be in Iceland. 

Reykjavic lays just south of many mountain ranges, and the rest of the country - extending many miles and hours north, is relatively barren with a few farms in between. From across the fjord here, you can see raw nature just miles away.

We visited Iceland's version of Home Depot, and were impressed with the color selection for home colors in their paint department. Coral-red, mustard, sage and light blues - clearly, the colors were limited but I can't help but imagine that this palette helps make the island nation look even nicer.

Driving north, Jess and I stopped to climb a few ridges to appreciate the amazing views, often with any sign of man in sight. No roads, street lights, jet trails but occasionally electrical wires on pylons. With so much geothermal energy,  electricity production is big business in Iceland.
Can you see the rainbow? This remote lake was frozen, and with only the site and sound of migrating birds. In a few weeks. when the ice thaws, these lakes will host one of the Planet's most diverse and rich populations of nesting waterfowl and waders.

It was encouraging to see that in some of the very remote areas, these pylons are forbidden. This sign was seen driving north on the western coast, where one could see for at least 30 miles and not see even a pylon.

Once in the north, only a few miles from the Arctic Circle, the temperatures were significant'y colder, and it snowed most every day.

In the northernmost city of Akureyi, the second largest city in Iceland, a  fearless use of color tints many homes. Homes here appear to made either of concrete, or sided in corrugated metal. Probably due more to the cost and shortage of wood than the cold.

Google helped us find our favorite coffee shop, although, once we found it, we discovered that it very 'Wes Anderson'-like.

The Icelandic Winter Games was one reason why we went to Iceland. The idea of skiing under the Northern Lights intrigued us, but that never happened. There was clearly a 'small town' feel about this event, which we really liked.  Snowboard pipelines, and a snow mobile rally made the night exciting, high above the small city and ocean beyond.

It was snowing hard, but the steep snowy slopes were no match for the many 4X4's that made their way up the hill.
No trees, and a very arctic looking ocean to ski down to, made the experience very special and unique. You could ski with your eyes closed, because there were so few people here.

Super premium all natural fish snacks - - - for dogs. It's what Icelandic dogs eat.

One of the first things I do, when visiting another country, is to peruse the supermarket aisles. This looked interesting.

Our AirBNB was so pretty, the host is clearly an artist, with her paintings on most every wall, and lots of Scandinavian influenced color and patterns. Jess, as  a designer herself,  really liked it.

Jess posed on one of the many colorful sofas in our AirBNB.

On the way back 'home' to Reykjavic, the setting sun enhanced the views.

This country had such amazing vista's and nature, that even though there were few interesting plants, especially in winter, I am certain that I will return again.

April 7, 2016

Exploring Planet Iceland

Our land speeder made traversing this planet rather easy, and...it played gay disco music from the 70's (which the native population apparently enjoys).

It's not a stretch to imagine what it is like on Mars while touring Iceland. It's easy to see why feature films often use Iceland's epic scenery as a location for interplanetary travel, and to be honest, there were a few time while here that it felt a bit too much like 'The Martian', than it did Planet Earth. Here are a few more images of this beautiful and remote country.

Danger lurked everywhere, due to the cold temperatures and the atmospheric conditions.

In some valley's. there was some low plant life, which was interesting given the volume of water on this planet.

Some areas were inhospitable, difficult to walk through so we could only document them on film. A distant volcano hinted at the planet's geologic history.

Judging by the foot prints, we were not alone. 

With some elevation, this blue planet displayed a tremendous volume of water. Most of it appeared crystal clear, and safe for drinking. Someone should bottle it and sell it.

Yet some of the water seemed un-drinkable and acidic at first. We found it to be highly alkaline. Blue cyan-bacteria populated some water sources, which the local's used as a skin treatment (i.e. facial masks at the Blue Lagoon? I won't share those pic's.).

Our diet of licorice, vodka and herring made us feel vital and healthy.

A remote outpost.

At first we weren't sure if we could breath the air. I had left my oxygen meter at home.

Sulphureus fumes from fumaroles hinted that everything might smell like rotten eggs (it did).

It may look toxic, but apparently, this water will make you feel and look ten years younger. It was hot, and  therapeutic and  we took advantage of such pools.

Our team also explored many craters - we experienced a wide range of climactic conditions.

There are few places to pee when there are no trees and our space suits were not equipped.

Rainbows were everywhere. actually, this was a snow-bow.
An interesting outpost hinted of another visit by other explorers - it held two cots, and some basic supplies enough for one night in the frigid temperatures.

The language here is difficult to learn. Siri, on our translation device did an admirable job.

Yet sometimes, Google Maps just seemed to make gibberish out of the language. 

Spectacular waterfalls seemed to be at every turn, making a second visit a must.

Our land cruiser handled the rough terrain well, although we got pretty muddy.

...but the  atmosphere was totally breathable, (the design of our space suits was necessary color,  due to the color of the environment and for safety concerns).
We could not help but notice that there was only one sun in this system, but it didn't warm the atmosphere that well.

The solar storms at night were brilliant, and safe. The symbol of the letter 'M' freaked me out a bit.

The Aurora Borealis ended each night with style. We were fortunate to be 2 hours from our basecamp one evening, which allowed us to capture amazing images without interference. We were not looking forward to our journey back home.

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.