Friday, November 10, 2017

My (Not So Little) Man

So this is the guy I used to call "my little man."  Except he is now thirteen years old, and little can't really work anymore.  All grown up, into one of the very best people I know.  He is thoughtful, kind, funny, loving, disciplined, smart, responsible and willing to dive in to figure things out, no matter how hard it might be. And in him there truly is no guile. What you see is what you get, and he couldn't lie to save his life.  Let me tell you one short story from today that will tell you everything you need to know about Alden.

Today was his birthday, but we focused all night on his sister, Kate, who had the opening performance of her high school musical (Fidler on the Roof).  I am also working on some large projects these days, and so had to be at work until right before the musical started. We did not get home from that until 9:30.

That meant we spent almost the whole birthday -- all but the last hour or so -- focused on anyone but Alden. I was worried about how he would feel about that.  Then we came home, pulled out the cake and two presents, and after a rousing version of happy birthday (in both english, chinese and pretty good harmony) we spent the next forty five minutes laughing and goofing around, as these pictures attest.

In the middle of the laughter, Alden said, "this is why I have family, this right here." Then, after I put him to bed, I got this text from him: "Thanks for one of the best birthdays of my life."  My heart just melted. Simple things for a simply great kid. I don't know if there is any way possible to say how much I love this wonderful, amazing child. But I hope he knows that he is the joyful morning sunrise in a slowly sunsetting heart, and it means so very, very much to me.  I love you little buddy. You are the best!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Wild Wild West(fjords)

We had thought perhaps to bypass the Westfjords, in favor of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, as our time in this magical island began to run short. But as we cruised past the Trollskagi peninsula, Kathleen prevailed upon me to see the part of Iceland that few people actually see, all in the hopes of viewing Iceland's only native land mammal: the arctic fox.  Wild, remote, sparsely populated and accessed mostly by dirt road (with precious few exceptions), it makes you wonder, while basking in the summer sun as we did, how anyone could possibly survive here in winter.  The answer from locals was that they just hole up and wait it out.  You have to be amazingly independent to do that, kind of like the people who came here in the first place, so I think, of all the words that describe it, authentic might be best. It just has the feel of rugged individualism that is and always has been the soul of Iceland.  We are glad we went.

I think this was the only paved road we found in all of the Westfjords, but what a location for it.

Most of the roads looked like this one -- dirt, and kinda steep, with lots of turns. Did I mention we were driving a mobile home, and that the scenery is very distracting? No worries, right?

I mean, just look at that -- how do you keep your eyes on the road?  Somehow, we escaped unscathed, but how that happened remains a mystery to this day. 

I think as much as any of them, this picture gives you the sense of how sparse the population is here. We did not see one other tourist car during our sojourn around the Westfjords, and you have to wonder at how exposed to the elements these folks must be, and marvel at how self-reliant they have to be to manage so far away from everything.

Our destination on this mad dash through the Westfjords was Sudavik, and the Arctic Fox Center, where there were two orphan arctic foxes waiting to greet us. Much to the boys pleasure, it turns out they like to eat flowers, which were growing abundantly outside the pen.  Unfortunately, they were in the middle of shedding their winter coats, so they looked quite scruffy.

It would be fun to see them in winter, with their white coats on full display, but I have no idea how you would get here at that time of year.

They were playful and extremely active, with the older brother constantly beating up on the younger one -- welcome to sibling rivalry, fox style, boys.

After touring the informative museum and grabbing a bite to eat, we headed through a really long tunnel, only to zig and zag in and out of several very long fjords. This felt like the most remote place we had been since backpacking in Denali so many years ago.  The scenery was amazing.

This picture does not even begin to capture how small that house looked against that cliff of a mountain.

One of the many fjords we traversed.

Besides Isafjordur, which we only visited briefly, this was the largest gathering of buildings we found in the whole Westfjords. 

Finally, we made a long climb up over one of the peninsulas, on a winding dirt road, and came down into Dynjandivogur bay (below) and the beautiful Dynjandifoss, the largest waterfall in the Westfjords.

The kids were in their element, scrambling up the multi-tiered cascade in a warm afternoon sun.

I think I was able to capture a rainbow at almost every waterfall we visited in Iceland, give or take one or two.  Below, Alden becoming a leprechaun as he basks in the mist at the end of the rainbow.

Not a bad spot for a quick family photo.  Below, photos of fun and beautiful Dynjandifoss.

The day was getting late, and we had a lot of ground to cover, and only two full days left in Iceland. We bolted for Flokalundur, where we planned to camp, and with luck take a ferry in the morning to Stykkisholmur on our final destination, the famous Snuffleupagus (Snaefellsnes, actually pronounced snayfetlesnais -- really) Peninsula, home to the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. At one in the morning, near summer solstice, here is what it looks like from across Briedafjorder:

We were so excited.

Well, we didn't take the Ferry the next morning, because it left so late, and made the ill-advised (on my advice, which my wife thinks is almost always ill, anyway) decision to make the loooooong schlep to Stykkisholmur by land. 

We arrived at its beautiful harbor in time for lunch, and headed out to see the sights.

It looked really promising, an otherworldly land for the taking, but it was not to be.  Shortly after the picture above, the storm below blew in, and when I say blow, I mean it.  We tried to persist, but within a mile, a gust had lifted two of our mobile homes four wheels off the ground. The short drive back to the campground was the most white-knuckled driving I have ever done, as we were blown all over the very narrow road.  We got to the campground, turned the mobile home into the wind, and hunkered down for what proved to be a very serious storm. It batted the mobile home back and forth like a ping-pong ball all night long, and gave me renewed appreciation for how tough Icelanders are, and how raw and powerful mother nature can be.

We got one break in the storm the following day, and made a bee-line for Reykjavik, stopping only to get lunch in Borgarnes, below. 

By the time we hit Reykjavik, the storm and fully moved in, and we had overcast skies and rain as we visited the only site in Reykjavik that we really took time to visit -- the Hallgrimskirkja cathederal.

From there, it was a fish and chips lunch and off to the Airport to return the mobile home (which someone sideswiped in Reykjavik while we were parked for eating -- thank goodness for full insurance!). 

So there you have it, our trip to Iceland. I think all of us would go back in a heartbeat, there is still a lot to see! 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Northern Iceland Means Whales and Puffins and Volcanos, Oh My!

From the East Fjords we headed to the wild and remote north and west of Iceland, a much less visited part of the country, but as you would expect, amazing in its own right.  Heading northwest from Seydisfjorder, we drove through Egilsstadur and out into a vast volcanic wasteland, punctuated by scenes like this:

Our first real stop was mighty Dettifoss, the largest waterfall by volume in all of Europe.  The Jokulsa a Fjollum (don't ask, I have no idea how to pronounce that) river carves a canyon through thick basalt in Jokulsargifjulfur (ditto) National Park. 

The fall is only 44 meters/130 feet high, and only about 100 meters/300 feet wide, but so much volume pours over, the misty plume that shoots up can be seen a mile away.  It is no Niagra, but it is beautiful in its starkness and power.  Here are a few photos:

That last photo is my favorite version of a selfie -- can you see my shadow in the middle of that beautiful, amazing scene?  It was awesome!

 The surrounding area looks like a wasteland because it is where the Atlantic rift zone passes through the northern part of Iceland, which gave us the chance to see more fun volcanic features in an area known as Krafla.  While it is not Yellowstone (nowhere is) you can feel (and smell) that the bowels of the planet are quite close there.  Here are the kids, as we left the car:

And here in part is what they were smelling and hearing:

So much steam escaped from this odd pyre that it sounded like a jet engine, and the smell of the place was the most intense sulfur I have ever experienced. I am quite sure it would be lethal over the medium and long term, but thankfully, the location is relatively small, and did not take that long to walk around.  Here are a few of the scenes: 

There were mud-pots and sulfur ponds everywhere.

Kathleen and Kate wandering the wasteland.

Volcano in the background looks kind of ominous, no?

This is how unsupervised this place is. You could walk right up to this massive steam fumerole.  Keegan decided that the smell was so bad, he had to faint.

I think that boy may have acting in his genes somewhere.

One of the many craters in the area, this one filled with a luminescent lake.

Rainbow over the whole mess made it feel a little like OZ or something equally surreal.

From Krafla, we headed north, to the northernmost part of Iceland that we visited: Husavik.  A port on the Greenland Sea, we came to find whales and puffins, and to see what it might be like to sail so close to the arctic circle.  We were not disappointed.

First up they outfitted us with these giant, insulated jumpsuits, telling us that not only would we need them to keep us warm (true dat) but that they had built in flotation, just in case (yikes).  Fortunately seas were relatively calm (though it did not keep poor Kate from feeling sick almost the whole time), and off we went, northward in the Greenland Sea.

It did not take long for us to find whales. While not quite the experience we had in Baja, it is kind of fun to see whales from two different oceans in the same year!

Plus, they threw in some dolphins to keep us entertained on the trip.

If you click on the above and blow it up, you will see thousands of black dots in the air. What might they be you ask?

Puffins! They estimate there are over a million that come to this island in the summer to mate, lay eggs and hatch little puffins.  The darn things are way faster than they look, reaching speeds of between 40 and 50 miles an hour (unless they have a belly full of fish, of course, in which case they sometimes can't even get off the water, and their efforts to do so are hysterical).  It made them pretty hard to photograph, but this was the best I could do from a moving boat. Pro photographers have nothing to worry about, obviously, and are amazing in the images they can produce. But it was fun to see those happy little faces, even if they are kind of blurry.

We circled the island for perhaps 30 minutes, just taking it all in. The amazing thing is that puffins are quiet. For all those birds, there was so little noise it just astounded me. Maybe they are secretly telepathic, who knows?  The best part of the voyage though, is that just three or four hours on the Greenland Sea left me looking like I belonged with all those grizzled seaman. Who knew?

Following a nice lunch in town (really good fish and chips from a harbor side hole in the wall), we headed to our next destination: Godafoss (literally: God Falls) the stunning waterfall that opened this post.  Here are a couple more photos of that remarkably beautiful place:

Time began to run short on our trip, and so even though we had not really scratched the surface of the great north, we left Godafoss to begin a mad dash west and our two final destinations: the remote Westfjords, and the Secret-Life-of-Walter-Mitty famous Snaefellsnes peninsula (go ahead and pronounce that, I dare you.  We just took to calling it the snuffleupagus peninsula -- it was way easier). That will be the subject of our next, and final, Iceland post.