The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 26: A Badge of Honor
New birds:9, Journey to date: 83
Heiðlóa (Pluvialis apricaria)
Stelkur (Tringa totanus)
Kría (Sterna paradisea)
Hrossagaukur (Gallinago gallinago)
Sandlóa (Charadrius hiaticula)
Spói (Numenius phaeopus)
Duggönd (Aythya marila)
Súla (Sula bassana)
Skúmur (Stercorarius skua)
A Badge of Honor
Audie Murphy, Chesty Puller…John Hanson? I have no business being in the same sentence with those men. Their tally of medals could have been used to plate a car. My time in the Marines earned me two medals. Well, I think I really only earned one. My first medal was the National Defense Medal. On the heels of the the first Gulf War, anybody in service earned it. If you get a medal for just being present, a medal everybody gets, then maybe the standard is too low. My second medal was for several years of “good conduct,” that is, I didn’t get in any egregious trouble. I guess being on your best behavior was a matter of historical significance in the Marines. This week, in the act of birding and plain ole happenstance I earned a new commodation, a badge of honor.
My lexicon was tested this week. We have now left Norway on our way back to the prairie home. Our flight hubbed through Iceland. As a strategy to improve tourism, Icelandair allows you to break up your trip with an extended stay in this extraordinary land at no extra charge to your flight – Sold!
I heard many descriptions of Iceland before we traveled, two that stood out were, “other worldly,” and “bonkers!” I have a preference, you’ll have to read on to learn which.
A powerful memory I will always carry from Iceland was the free-of-charge stroll I took on the first night in search of new birds and images of the landscapes in the rich, low light. Selfishly, those two-and-a-half hours made my whole trip. I tried my best to be the amenable dad in repayment to my family for the duration of the stay, they deserved it.
Earlier we walked the beach, it was a nice chance to stretch our airliner legs and take in the fresh ocean air. I thought our area of lodging would be rich with shore birds, and I was right. Within the hour I added two entries to my log. My plan was hatched for a solo sojourn after the gang went to bed. With sunset at midnight that was both an easy and hard task.
Iceland resists categories, typologies, and superlatives. Maybe you need to speak Icelandic to fully explain this place. But then again, how do fish describe water?
Day Two was behind the wheel our rental to take in the “Golden Circle.” Three stops were planned as was the willingness to follow our whims to seek additional sights. Iceland didn’t disappoint.
Stop One, Þingvellir National Park. The drive foreshadowed the epic vistas to come. Gems abounded in the park: Iceland’s largest lake, the sight of the original lawmaking and legislative assemblies, a sacred river, and the boundary between two continental plates. Pre Reading about the specialness of the place would have helped me to better enjoy the park. As a professional student I rather enjoy homework, perhaps I should retake the class?
I overheard a local guide comment apologetically to his group that the site was so busy with tourists. I’ve been to Rome and Disneyworld – this was not crowded. But when you are a country the size of Virginia with the population of the Denver suburb Aurora, you might think that a small group of people is quite the gathering.
I made my way out the house about 9:30 pm with a bright sun suspiciously high in the sky, lingering. I thought the walk would take an hour, I should have known better. Oh, you don’t care about birds, well you’re in luck because Iceland is bursting with wildflowers and plants. Then there are the mountain, and glaciers, and geothermal features. Huh, still not impressed. How about tracing over a thousand years of history from the Vikings? Nothing? Well, too bad for you.
The flowers and the skyline turned my walk immediately into a wander. What luck! While I like to make plans, serendipity is a treasured companion.
Along the sea path and next to a farm pond in a marshy meadow, the locals squaked and bathed, and carried on. Despite the commotion I noticed a new presence, and by ear, not
by sight. I knew that “winnowing” sound because it was cool. I wonder if it’s been used in sci-fi movies – it would be a neat effect.
The aerial performance by the testosterone charged male was right up there with Maverick’s ariel showboating in “Top Gun.” He climbed in large spirals only to strafe the meadow with his sonic swoon for the unseen female below. Over and over, had that been the entertainment for the evening I would have been quite pleased. But there was more trail to explore and I was greedy.
Our small rental was part of a greater pilgrimage of tourists taking their turns on the route considered de rigueur. Stop Two was “Geysir,” but I had my doubts. I have been to Yellowstone so my bar was pretty high. Thankfully, as a father I can look through the eyes of children to see the geothermic oddities and appreciate the wonderment as it was for the first time. It was a cute and compact area and the geyser flared with great regularity, much appreciated by the short attention span crowd.
Pied-faced shore birds flocked ahead of my on the trail. Rather than fly off at my approach they scurried farther ahead. I supposed a little game of cat-and-mouse can be fun. Little did I expect they would lead me to my favorite score of the evening.
The third stop made us successful pilgrims. The “Gullfoss” waterfalls have stunning views with an equally impressive origin story. The cascades were destined by a foreigner to host a hydroelectric dam a century ago. But a local woman was a juggernaut of protection, even threatening to martyr herself in the waterfall less it be killed with a dam. She was crazy but she was right. Today the falls are the most visited site in Iceland and she is viewed with admiration. Dams are just a damn shame!
There was a fence and stile at the end of the causeway and a welcoming party waited on the other side. I had no inclination that a war party also waited, just beyond. Next to a new friend from earlier was a Whimbrel, unmistakable and awesome. Birds like this used to nest in Iowa by the tens of thousands, today not a one. That bird had my full attention.
I crossed the red steps and entered a peaceful meadow bordered by a brackish lake and the sea. It was a serene scene with the shelf life of about five more steps. The first squadrons to attack totally caught me off-guard. The opening salvos were unnerving, but retreat wasn’t an option; the battle was joined.
Big waterfall checked off the list, all that remained was the drive home and extemporaneous stops. A historical marker sign gave us a 500 meter warning. I slowed, we passed, and then agreed if not now than never. A u-turn and stop gave us waterfall number three, “Fraxi.” If this cataract was in Iowa, then it would be the show stopper and absolute must see. In Iceland a handful of people enjoyed the view. Such poverty, such wealth.
The procedure was repeated for the next historical marker. This visit demanded a trespass fee. Yielding to our original mantra we paid the Crowns and approached Kerið, think Crater Lake, Oregon on a much smaller scale. It was here that I was reminded that treeless Iceland had a lot more trees than you would think. A man-made forest swept the backside of the old volcanoes. These hand planted labors of love confounded. My reaction was that they were just counterfeits in this austere landscape. But then I had to accept that the sheep, horses, and people were just as phony to the authenticity of the island. Mankind loves to tend a garden.
The stretch of low grass was a nursery of Arctic Terns. Their precious nests, although unseen, were everywhere. Birds boiled out of grassy patches to take part in the harassment and attack of the audacious bipedal intruder. I had on my beaver skin fedora that Meghan hates. The protection of that hate from the swooping birds earned it a permanent place in my wardrobe. I walked quickly, to run would show fear, only emboldening their campaign.
The journey back to Reykjavik on Highway One was a fine way to conclude the journey. It was a road that invited contemplation. West of Selfoss the road climbed and climbed to a plateau. Here was nothing. I got the sense of space travel and uncomfortable remoteness. There was a familiarity in driving a car and the look of the road but to the right and left were old lava fields, barren hills, some vegetation but not too much. The scene did not welcome me, I felt a sense of hostility from the land. It was almost like the place was accepting my rubbernecking but would not tolerate a stop and visit.
A tern hovered in the air in front of me, a little to the right, chastising, taunting, and deceiving. It worked because I didn’t even realize that the real attack was coming from my left. The bomb was dropped from 11 o’clock and score a direct hit on my shoulder. The splat surprised my ears as much as my skin. I was hit, but the only chance you have in an ambush is to press on.
By the time I crossed the meadow the contents of the liquid ordnance began to dry, freezing the pattern in stark contrast to my black jacket. I stopped to take of picture for posterity, little did I know I did so in front of the President’s home. Did I have psychic idea that he would come out to fete my deed?
The balance of the walk back was uneventful and mostly through a suburban development. I carried a camera full of new images. I carried a mind rich with new memories. And I carried a white emblem on my chest, a badge of honor.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.