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.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 14: Long Water Brought Low
Thanks for your patience, another late entry. A joy of spring is flowers. In particular, the little flowers that dare to risk the frost. They are not too fragrant or fancy but they are courageous. Maybe we should all strive to be spring flowers.
New birds: 7, Journey to date: 59
Gulerle (Motacilla flava)
Fjæreplytt (Caldiris maritima)
Stellerand (Polysticta stelleri)
Lunde (Fratercula arctica)
Lomvi (Uria aalge)
Alke (Alea torda)
Polarlomvi (Uria lomvia)
Long Water Brought Low
The Niagara Falls are famous, of course they are. Geology and promotion cooperated to make the sight familiar to every American whether you’ve been there or not. The volume of water is astounding at Niagara. However that is such a nebulous idea that the height of the falls are the most important. How tall? Like a mountain scorecard, the height is the key. There are higher falls. Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite is three times the height of Niagara. Thursday I traversed my tallest water-fall to date in Norway, and you’ve never heard of it. In fact no one has.
Sea level, the great equalizer of the world; the standard. In Alta Norway you are at sea level, 0 M.O.H. in Norway. That is zero Meter Over Havet, “Havet” meaning “the sea.” At almost 0 M.O.H. I unwittingly started my experience with this most tall movement of water. In fact I didn’t realize I surmounted the great height until after my journey.
Alta is connected to the inland town of Kautokeino with the Alta River. It’s a world famous destination for summertime anglers seeking large salmon that are searching for their natal sites. My destination was Kautokeino. It is a Sami-centric town deep into the Finnmark plateau, closer to Finland than the coast. Kautokeino sits at 306 M.O.H. My journey on the road upriver would follow for the most part the intended path of those piscine athletes.
You see, it is a waterfall. The water does fall from the highlands to the sea. But instead of a dramatic crash over some precipice this descent is attenuated, almost unnoticed. If you choose to, then you can notice all sorts of new things.
Finally, after three hours of cooling my heels in the Alta airport, the bus to Kautokeino was away. The estimated time was two hours and 15 minutes, about 185 kilometers, they failed to advertise the elevation. The middle of April in Arctic Norway means there is still snow, plenty of snow. But there is also the sun. The sun now has enough height and strength to melt the drives and raise the temperature. The snow puts up a fight about the temperature, it melts, slowly; it shrouds the land with vapor, a shield against solar missiles. According to the bus monitor, the water closet was open and the external temperature was 0 centigrade.
Like any respectable river the Alta forms a delta where it reaches saltwater. Here, that means the Alta fjord, the roiling waters of the Norwegian Sea wait in the distance. I find the playful bends of a river slowing delightful. Maybe the river is trying to be coy, or play with the ocean. Does water flirt? Thank you Google Maps for indulging my imagination.
It doesn’t take long to leave Alta sentrum, however I wish I got more than a glimp of the spiral-staircase spired church. We are three, two mature men, friends, sitting at the front and me, amidships and port. The surface was Highway 93, but this would be no drive from LaCrosse to Eau Claire. Time was 15:10.
In Arctic Norway there are birch and pine trees in some combination. Of course there are other genera present but your line of sight is dominated by birch and pine; usually Scots pine (pinus sylvestris) and Silver birch (Betula pendula). At 15:25 the bus was paralleling the river, only a few kilometers from the confluence. The surrounding land was covered in trees, pine and birch that reached for the sky, looking like perfectly normal second growth forests.
This highway is a major road, but even in a prosperous land it is but two lanes, today it’s mostly snow covered. The low leaden clouds have been spitting all day, mostly drops but sometimes flakes. There is little hope for photography.
Mountains hulk over road the road, were they sirens for the engineers? Perhaps, Norwegians love their mountains. The road leaves the main river for a branch that winks upstream through cleavages. 15:42, the canyon is tight and twisted, borderline claustrophobic. Icefalls cling to the cliff faces. Many are blue, in bad light they look good, to think what they look like in good light.
The driver and riders are talking freely. Earlier I was sure they were discussing me, the driver and I shared an amiable conversation before the ride. If not their conversation then it’s the hum of the bus or the radio, there is no silence within to match the silence without.
15:49, we are out of the tight canyon and in a defined valley, still with walls but not confining. The trees have changed, the pines have become few to none. Birch covers the land, dull gray limbs on white snow. The birch are curious in that they are short and thin, as if malnourished.
I learned that the birch are indeed malnourished. 16:00, we are in a land of barely rolling hills, the plateau – Finnmarkvidda. Two forces are afoot, conspiring against trees: elevation and distance. The elevation is of minor concern, but when leveraged with distance from the warming water of the coast, then trees struggle to survive. The lack of enough days above 10 centigrad condemns trees, even the hardy birch and aspen yield.
60 kilometer from Alta and about 70 to go. The stunted forest is spread thin as far as the eye can see. Time, 16:15.
The fish migrating this far would have to be strong and committed. They love “the motherland” and are fanatical about their mission to spread their seed. I wonder if the creators of the Netflix show, “The Americans,” liked to fish?
The star of the Norwegians rivers, and the star of the star river, is the Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar). For over one hundred years this muscular beast has enticed anglers to venture north. Connecting with a brute fresh from the sea must make one forget all about the cloud of mosquitoes and gnats that are attracted to the tourists. The Alta River is highly regulated, the Gallatin River is a free for all by comparison.
“Uurr,” that feeling in your gut when a vehicle lurches. The bus caught another pile of slush on the starboard side. The resistance slowed the right tires and made the bus groan.
“Salmon” is a name that invokes wonder. It’s a fish that occurred outside the centers of civilization. A food stuff reserved for the affluent, a sport controlled by the kings. Growing up, the idea of eating salmon was something reserved for the most special of occasions. Plus, I don’t think anybody dared cook it at home. A salmon fillet isn’t something you deep fry.
The men have been silent, 16:20. Perhaps they are tired? Maybe the vastness of the landscape finally caught them? Here one is really alone, there is no need to speak.
The trees are shorter and more narrow, still thinly spread to the horizon. These little birches appear darker. The snow covered landscape is covered by the dark pricks, in the low light it reminds me of an ostrich skin cowboy boot.
The coach leaves the main road to swing through the settlement of Masi. No one waits for the bus. A good number of the homes here have large animal hides tacked to their sheds and small skins hanging on porches or roofs, protected from crows and stray cats by fencing and mesh. Just driving through this land it would be easy to dismiss that much wildlife lived here, clearly the locals have found otherwise. My eyes were peeled to the windows but only crows betrayed their presence. If crows were tasty or had a good skin, then they would be hiding too.
Atlantic Salmon are a curious fish. As a Midwesterner, my idea of salmon was totally formed by childhood lessons and TV shows about the heroic salmon of the West that fought 3,000 kilometers of elevation and thousands of river kilometers only to die. If only Homer knew of this fish. But Atlantic Salmon don’t die! Their bodies change to survive in the freshwater so they can return to the ocean to gorge again. Several years later they can make another run.
The driver broke the silence. I guess he couldn’t take it, the silence from an audience. The three resume their discourse on the all the world’s problems. 17:06, on of the passengers asks if there are always so few riders for such a large bus? Yes, plainly responded the driver. The rider had a follow up question, “Why not a minibus?” This must have been an assault on the obvious and a breach of the cultural norms because the driver gave a verbous and emotional lesson as to why the large coach. He talked so quickly all I made out was something to do with having a toilet onboard.
We dropped off of Highway 93, a one lane road through the outskirts of Kautokeino. 15:13, the men leave, loaded with backpacks they walk up a side road towards some adventure. The driver beckons me to sit up at the front. I oblige, how could I resist?
We wait and watch the men walk away. Then the driver confided in me that they were from the city, he felt obliged to talk to them, to tell them about the area and make them feel at home. Lonely cultures have strong hospitality rituals.
My journey ended at the Thon, I was greeted by a fleet of hotel snowmobiles for rent. I was too tired to be interested. Little did I know I traveled a water-fall of 306 M.O.H. Such a stand alone thing would be famous throughout the world. The Finnmarkvidda in general, and Kautokeino in particular are hard places to get to, harder still to live. Here, so far and so high from the sea, the fish are visitors, the trees are unwelcome, and people do what they must.
Distance and elevation make for water to fall. With a little creativity, you can see the wonders of water-falls most anywhere, even in a place like Iowa. Let’s share stories when I move to America.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.