Flowerpot Rocks

Every six hours, twice a day–give or take a few minutes, depending on the tidal charts–the Bay of Fundy empties into the Atlantic Ocean,

and exposes the ocean floor.

When the tide rolls out,

the effect at the harbor is dramatic enough to leave fishing vessels resting on their laurels.

And peculiar things happen on the Saint John River…

on its way to the Bay of Fundy.

When the Saint John River drains into the Bay of Fundy at the Reversing Falls Bridge…

it triggers a phenomena seen nowhere else: water being pushed up the channel to create an inverted waterfall.

At its highest, the Bay of Fundy’s tide reaches 56 ft.–equivalent to a 5-story building…or boat.

But when the bay recedes, what’s revealed is often surprising and stunning.

Consider the rocky reef at Cape Enrage,

which supports a pop-up sculpture park…

overseen by the Cape Enrage Lighthouse–still protecting New Brunswick’s coastline since 1870.

However, there’s a different phenomena to behold during low tide at Hopewell Rocks Provincial Park,

that’s absolutely enchanting.

Tidal erosion has sculpted these magnificent cliff remnants into distinctive shapes, with sizes ranging from 40 to 70 feet high.

Scientists have nicknamed these formations Flowerpot Rocks for obvious reasons.

The cape is vast,

with so much to explore,

but time for roaming the ocean floor is strictly regulated, and closely monitored by security,

lest a tourist get pinned to the rocks by the surging tide,

and get swept away by unexpected beauty.

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Spelunking the Largest Lava Tube in Iceland

Leah and I overnighted in Arnarstapi, a tiny fishing village perched on a lava cliff in West Iceland, where Mt. Snapafell looms large across the horizon.

Icelanders believe the village still pulses with a healing energy that emanates from chieftain, Bárður Snæfellsás, half ogre/ half human and sorcerer from the first settlement.

as imagined by sculptor Ragnar Kjartansson in 1985

Legend suggests that Bárður was swallowed by Snæfellsjökull glacier. Perhaps it was his penance for killing his nephews, who admitted to pushing his daughter out to sea on an ice floe.

Consequently, Bárður was forever frozen in time and eternally committed to protecting the people of Snæfellsnes Peninsula,

and preserving its unspoiled natural beauty…

Another storm was brewing the day of our drive to Snæfellsjökull National Park. We mapped a route in search of the mysterious Snæfellsjökull Volcano, and took the high road as directed by GPS…

until we ran out of road and visibility halfway up the pass.

It was snowing on the other side of the mountain, and road crews had already conceded to Mother Nature.

So back down the mountain we went, where the weather was more predictable, and the roads were more reliable.

Unfortunately, we sacrificed a critical hour to correct our course, which translated into less time exploring Snæfellsjökull glacier at Snæfellsjökull National Park.

Instead, we continued to our next destination and penultimate excursion–

Our pre-paid guided tour of Iceland’s largest cave was originally scheduled for 1pm, but with rain clouds rolling in and a cold drizzle spoiling any chance of sightseeing or picture-taking, we expedited our drive to Borgarfjörður, with prospects of joining the noon tour if allowed.

We arrived at 12:05pm, but Sigurður (Siggy) agreed to include us, since he was already waiting for another late arrival with reservations. Hallelujah!

With our tour party now complete, each of us received a hardhat and headlamp, and Siggy (our only true-born Icelandic guide during our trip) led us 100m across a lava field called Hallmundarhraun to a twin opening in the earth where the roof of Víðgelmir had collapsed, revealing the cave’s only entrance.

We were dressed for winter inside the cave, where temperatures usually rise to 4oC, but Siggy was comfortable in a traditional Icelandic wool sweater knitted by his mom that he wore this day to celebrate Iceland’s Independence Day.

While traditional wet caves boast an array of stalactites and stalagmites, Víðgelmir cave gave us icicle formations,

and colorful mineral deposits imbedded in the walls,

and ceiling.

After an hour, we reached the end of the boardwalk where the tube narrowed,

and it was time to resurface.

With a 2-hour drive to Reykjavik ahead of us, we may yet reach the Penis Museum before closing time.

To be continued…

A Tale of Two Towns in North Iceland

Widely considered the Capital of the North, Akureyri is only 100 km south of the Arctic Circle, but boasts the warmest climate in Iceland, with temperatures ranging from 75oF during summer months to 30oF during winter. However, Akureyri is also a very cloudy town, averaging just over 1000 hours of sunshine a year, with virtually no sunlight from November to February.

With a population of 19,000, Akureyri is the largest town beyond Iceland’s densely populated southwest corner, and enjoys many of the amenities of any vibrant urban center–with winding side streets and bustling plazas offering coffee shops, boutiques, gourmet dining, art galleries, and an active nightlife–all of which helps the locals get through the dark winter months.

There’s also a geothermal swimming complex that’s the envy of all of Iceland, and it’s conveniently located downtown behind the church.

If the identity and soul of Akureyri is best symbolized by the twin spires adorning the Church of Akureyri, or Akureyrarkirkja as designed by Guðjón Samúelsson (also known for Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja)…

then the heart and soul of Akureyri is in full bloom at Akureyri Botanical Gardens, or Lystigarðurinn

established in 1912 by a society of women enthusiasts who were eager to provide a green space for locals to recreate or relax.

Not only is Lystigarðurinn the first planned park space in Iceland, it’s also one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world, featuring over 7,000 species of plants, and making it a valuable resource for botany research.

An hour’s drive northbound brought us to Siglufjörður, a colorful and historic fishing village atop the mainland, and only 40 km from the Arctic Circle.

But the tale of Siglufjörður lies in stark contrast to Akureyri. In Akureyki, I had to hunt for a weekend parking space. Not so much in Siglufjörður, where its population has been in steady decline. Once a bustling seaport known as the herring fishing capital of the world, only 1200 residents now call Siglufjörður their home since the herring disappeared in 1968 from overfishing.

This cautionary tale is well-documented through the town’s award-winning Herring Era Museum.

Having grown up in a household that enjoyed sardines, kippers and herring, I felt compelled to explore the museum’s interactive exhibits: which illustrates how the fresh catch was hauled to port,

and subsequently processed by an army of “herring girls”…

who could gut and brine enough fish to fill three barrels an hour.

Iceland’s first processing plant was built in 1911, where oil and meal–for pet food–was extracted from the fish. As more fishermen from Scandinavia arrived to fish the fjord’s bounty, the industry prospered.

In 1925, disadvantaged “herring girls” successfully went on strike for equal pay, and formed one of Iceland’s first labor unions.

In its heyday, Siglufjörður had 5 processing factories, and 23 salting stations supported by a hearty population of 3,000.

Today, the town of Siglufjörður hopes to ensure its future and relevance by presenting their history, and Leah’s buddies hope that tourists are listening.

Tall Tales of Iceland

Iceland’s oral and written history is steeped in mythology and folklore, and rooted in the country’s natural wonders. From the time Garðar Svavarsson, a Swedish Viking first settled in Húsavík in 870 AD, Icelanders have imagined a world where phenomena is best interpreted through their sagas of mysticism.

Iceland’s first settlement succeeded in the second half of the ninth century because of adventurous Vikings from Denmark and Norway who were looking for a fresh start in a new world that offered opportunity, security, and stability. A parliamentary assembly of regional chieftains gathered in Thingvellir in 930 to form the Althing (assembly of free men), and ruled as the unifying body of this “free state” until 1264.

Originally, the Althing accepted Northern Germanic religion or Goðatrú (Truth of Gods) which resembled the religion of their homelands. Sacrifices were overseen by landowners/priests in temples and shrines to appease the gods and spirits, of which Thor and Odin were most popular.

By 1000, the Althing rejected paganism and enacted Christianity as the religion of the land under pressure from Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, who embargoed all trade between Icelanders and Norway and held the sons of chieftains as hostages unless Icelanders accepted baptism.

Yet, despite the introduction of Christianity, pagan influence was not easily erased, and still informed how settlers reacted to their old surroundings, and their new spiritual allegiance.

For instance, when Leah and I discovered Dimmuborgir, a dramatic expanse of lava fields east of Myvatn,

we learned that the pillars were the creation of emptied lava lakes from an immense volcanic eruption about 2300 years ago.

But legend tells us that Dimmuborgir (or “Dark Castles”) was created by Satan after he was cast from heaven, and Dimmuborgir was the gateway to the devil’s “Catacombs of Hell.”

Also seeking refuge at Dimmborgir are the Yule Lads–13 offspring of Grýla and Leppalúði–who are regarded as trollish pranksters who eat misbehaving children before Christmas.

Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is another popular destination we visited that invoked the spirits and captured the imagination of pagan worshippers.

Jökulsárgljúfur, Iceland’s largest canyon, stretching 25 km long and 500 m across is the result of endless catastrophic flooding caused by an Ice Age eruption so fierce that its glacial ice cap exploded.

However, the Norsemen believed that Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed created this natural wonder by touching earth on a jaunt across the sky, leaving behind the impression of a massive hoofprint that became the canyon Ásbyrgi,

with a rock island spur named Eyjan.

To the west of Ásbyrgi, lie the cliffs of Hljóðaklettar and its inhabitants, the mythical Huldufólk (Hidden People), who cautiously avoid sunlight, or risk the same fate of the elves and trolls who have turned into stone pillars from sun exposure.

Another example of trolls behaving badly can be found along the black sand shoreline of Vatnsnes peninsula in northwest Iceland. From a geological perspective, Hvitserkur is a 15-meter tall basalt monolith that’s been shaped by severe North Atlantic storms and constant temperature changes.

Although Hvitsekur resembles a drinking dragon, Icelandic folklore refers to the stack as an evil troll who raided a local church to silence its bell tower, but turned to stone after being caught by the sun’s early rays. The petrified troll is home to hundreds of nesting birds who forever punish him with a thick layer of guano, and Icelanders who mock him with the name “White Shirt.”

Of all the stories, historians consider Goðafoss a landmark in North Iceland culture, for its here that regional chiefs met with pagan lawmaker, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði to determine whether to continue their old ways or embrace Christ as their spiritual guide.

The saga tells us that as a gesture of Iceland’s newly adopted religion, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði stood at the brink of the falls to cast a collection of Norse idols into the abyss, marking an end to paganism. Thus, the waterfall was christened Goðafoss, the “Waterfall of the Gods.”

It was the beginning of conversion, and Iceland eventually capitulated to convention. Nevertheless, the notion of magic and sorcery continued to flourish in Iceland, well into the 17th century. A museum located in Hólmavík is devoted to the subject.

It tells the story of 25 or so victims who were executed on charges of witchcraft between 1625 and 1685.

The museum also exhibits some unusual artifacts,

ranging from the sublime…

to the ridiculous.

Superstitions began to fade during the last decades of the 17th century, and the Reformation came as a shock to Icelanders. But consider a 2007 study by the University of Iceland that found an estimated 62% of the nation still believes in the existence of elves, and 40% of the population is irreligious.

Thank God for bogeymen!

Other Worlds of Iceland

Significant geothermal zones and volcanic landscapes throughout Iceland may give the impression of a primordial, preternatural planet. Yet, Icelanders have prevailed, despite the harsh and ever-challenging environment of their homeland.

Such is the case of Möðrudalur, a remote farm settlement in Eastern Iceland protected by Mount Herðubreið, the “Queen of Icelandic Mountains.”

Möðrudalur ranks as the highest inhabited farm in the country–at 469 m (1739 ft) above sea level, and supports a weather monitoring station, having recorded the lowest temperature in Iceland, -38.0 °C (-36.4 °F) on January 21, 1918.

The farm became inaccessible once Ring Road 1 was relocated northeast in 2001. However, a new F-road was eventually cut to continue servicing the curious folks who felt a connection to the old trails crisscrossing the wilderness, and a thousand-year history that made this a protected area.

A church was built in Möðrudalur in 1949 on once-sacred ground by farmer, Jón A. Stefánsson to honor his wife’s passing in 1944,

and decorated by revered folk artist, Stefán V. Jónsson.

A guesthouse, a small store and highly regarded restaurant serving locally sourced farm-to-table fare have been added over time to boost tourism in the area.

A more dramatic and inhospitable environment lies 90 km to the north. Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon was carved by fire and ice and a rushing river that over time laid bare the cores of spent volcanoes.

Following the Jökulsá á Fjöllum upriver (which flows from the Vatnajökull glacier) is an impressive triplet of waterfalls, of which Dettifoss is considered the most powerful in Europe, plummeting 45m (150 ft) into Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon at 400 cubic meters per second during the summer melt.

Returning to the Ring Road, it’s another 60 km west to the Myvatn Geothermal Area (Hverir), a volcanic swath that rivals the fumaroles, steam vents and mudpots of Yellowstone…

We cleared our lungs of rancid Sulphur fumes before checking into nearby Laxá Hótel, where the Krafla caldera looms over Myvatn Lake in the distance.

But Leah and I weren’t done for the day! After enjoying a meal at the hotel restaurant, we donned our hiking boots and enjoyed a solitary 10 pm stroll through Dimmuborgir,

a field of unusual lava formations caused by an eruption 2300 years ago and the subsequent collapse of a massive lava tube.

After a day of walking through location settings for Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Alien, it’s little wonder that Iceland takes its landscape cues from a very powerful producer.

Water and Ice, Part Two

Imagine an aquatic gallery of ephemeral ice sculptures in varying shapes, sizes and shades of blue, dancing around a glacial lagoon before floating out to sea or washing upon a black, sandy beach.

After our hike at Skaftafell, Leah and I were expected at Jökulsárlón for a late afternoon amphibian boat tour of the glacial lagoon, but not before a required stopover at Fjallsárlón for a dramatic view of an outlier glacier…

receding into a volcanic valley,

with chunks of ice fighting for a place to thaw.

I could have spent hours at the shoreline photographing the amorphous shapes, but our boat excursion across the road at Jökulsárlón was soon boarding.

We rolled off the moraine in fat tires, and effortlessly glided onto the lagoon for a chilly boat ride surrounded by orange vests and hulking ice.

Our captain cautiously piloted the amphibian as close to the bergs as allowed, to limit the wake of curious kayakers,

and knowing that hidden ice is usually more voluminous than exposed ice.

Also present in the lagoon was a resident colony of surreptitious seals,

anxiously awaiting high tide to feast on herring and cod swept into the icy inlet.

After disembarking, we crossed to the Atlantic, where jewels of ice wash ashore,

and decorate the beach,

a fitting terminus that would gain Banksy’s approval and mine.

Water and Ice, Part One

Imagine an amphitheater of “organ pipes” carved out of a grass-topped lava field with a 20-metre waterfall plunging down its center into a roiling pool of green water.

It sounds impressive, but seeing is believing, so Leah and I navigated to Skaftafell, a nature preserve in southeast Iceland that belongs to Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland’s largest park with 18% of the island’s land mass, where Svartifoss is one of the featured attractions.

We arrived at the Visitor Center parking, and cursed the ATMs for making paying for parking so difficult. We hiked through the campground before arriving at the Visitor’s Center.

I was literally speechless. Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður? Really!? How could there possibly be a word with a V, a K, two Js, and a letter that’s stuck between a b and a p? And how about the pronunciation? And what does it even mean?

But there was no time for questions. We were there to hike, and there was a waterfall to explore.

We caught the trailhead past the same campground and began our ascent. The trail was wide and steep at the start. So much so, that metal mats filled with crushed stone lined the path to keep erosion at a minimum. We caught our first view looking east when we cleared the trees.

We continued above Gomlutun, across Estragil gulley on a footbridge, past two waterfalls (Hundafoss and Magnusarfoss),

until we reached the approach to Svartifoss.

My pulse quickened. I sensed this waterfall was special. I zoomed in until the falls filled my frame, and I lingered before I pressed the shutter.

I raced around the side of the canyon for another perspective…from the bottom.

Svartifoss translates to “Black Falls” and it lives up to its name,

as it showcases a splendid backdrop of charred columns of basalt.

Svartifoss was the inspiration behind Gudjon Samuelsson’s design of Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland’s celebrated cathedral in Reykjavik.

We were down the mountain and at the Land Cruiser after 2.0 hrs. in Skaftafell, which included our lunch at the overlook and a potty break.

It was time for more sightseeing down the road, and we were on a schedule!

But first, some unanswered questions:

  1. Apparently, Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður is a real Icelandic word,
  2. pronounced: https://forvo.com/word/vatnaj%C3%B6kuls%C3%BEj%C3%B3%C3%B0gar%C3%B0ur/
  3. and meaning “Glacier of Lakes” National Park

Water and Ice, Part Two follows…

Hiking a Shrinking Glacier

There is a glacier lagoon at the tip of Sólheimajökull’s tongue that never existed a decade ago. Today, that lagoon is 80 meters deep, and its fed by glacial melt.

Sólheimajökull is an 11km outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland’s 4th largest ice cap of 269 named glaciers, and easily accessible and suitable for ice adventuring.

Climatologists have been studying Sólheimajökull’s since 1930, documenting a loss of more than 2 sq.km. of its ablation area, and retreating a mile from its original marker.

During the summer Sólheimajökull loses 3 meters of ice every month with frequent ice calving.

With so much chatter about climate change and glacier volatility, I thought it best to have a look around the ice and judge for myself. So Leah and I drove to Sólheimajökull to join a guided glacier expedition,

where we were outfitted with a harness, helmet, crampons and ice pick. With some instruction, we learned how to dress ourselves and behave like mountaineers.

Then the conversation shifted to safety first, and how to avoid the treacherous crevasses on a melting ice mountain that’s constantly in motion.

After a brief hike, we arrived at the ice, but the approach to the top wasn’t a graduated trail; it was a wall.

Suddenly, I felt our training was insufficient, and I couldn’t imagine that all of us were prepared to dig in with our crampons and ice axes and climb over this wall, but that was unnecessary. We simply stepped around the mound on chiseled risers that were rapidly melting…

until we all reached flat ice.

I questioned why this ice had a different color and texture–more like ice coal–than blue crystal.

Valerio, our guide from northern Italy attributed it to the 1918 eruption of Katla, Iceland’s largest active volcano, and fragments of rock and debris–known as glacial till–that typically develop when a glacier passes over bedrock. We were walking on 100-year ice dated by the volcanic ash trapped inside the ice!

Except for occasional photo ops like a discovered ice cave,

we were always moving across the ice and up the throat, and discouraged from breaking the line or falling behind.

After 30 minutes on the ice, it was time to celebrate with a drink. Valerio grabbed his New Zealand ice ax to tap a vein under the ice, and the bar was open…

and it was cold and refreshing!

Since 1890, Iceland has lost approximately 18% of its ice mass to warming, and Sólheimajökull is melting faster than scientists originally speculated. They are sounding the alarm–telling us that Iceland’s glaciers are melting faster than they can recover.

And climate change, of course, plays a pivotal role in this process. Ironically, eco-tourists are rushing to Iceland to experience the glaciers before they disappear.

But Iceland is doing something to mitigate the damage by pledging carbon-neutrality before 2040. Already, the island’s geography and geology provide almost 100% renewable energy for generating heat and electricity.

But will it be enough for future generations?…

Seljalandfoss and Skógafoss

There is no shortage of waterfalls in Iceland, although some are more spectacular than others. Estimates of total waterfalls throughout range from 10,000 and up. But Icelanders have their favorites, and Seljalandfoss and Skógafoss are two of them. Located just off the Golden Circle and only 30K apart made it impossible to resist, so off we went, chasing waterfalls.

What makes Seljalandfoss special is its geological standing. It’s believed to be a part of Iceland’s receding coastline in Southern Iceland, where the Seljalandsá River once ran over the edge of a volcanic cliff and dropped into the Atlantic. 

Seljalandsfoss’ glacial water originates from the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, a smallish ice cap atop Eyjafjallajökull volcano that last erupted spontaneously in 2010, belching so much ash high into the atmosphere that day turned into night and European air traffic was grounded for 5 days.

Eyjafjallajökull towers above the waterfall,

and the Eyjafjöll mountains feed meltwater to the river Seljalandsá, which runs down the slopes before dropping off the Seljalandsheiði heath in the form of Seljalandsfoss waterfall.

Repeated eruptions over millennia have extended the coastline by 12K, while erosion has hollowed out an extraordinary hiking trail that circles behind Seljalandfoss, which literally translates to “selling the land of waterfalls.”

Leah and I could immediately tell upon approach that this was a popular destination, which was soon confirmed by a full parking lot. There was a kiosk for paying the 800 ISK parking fee ($6), but I didn’t realize it until we were leaving. Oh well, I guess I was too focused on the shower I was about to take.

But Leah had different plans. “I’m not doing that,” she insisted. “I can’t find my rain pants anywhere and there’s no way I’m getting soaked. Besides, it’s probably slick from all the mud and water, and I don’t feel like breaking my neck on the third day of vacation. But you should go, and I’ll just look at the pictures later….Tell me about your insurance, again.”

“Shouldn’t we at least take a selfie like everyone around us?” I asked.

Leah had decided that Seljalandfoss’ 60 meter (200 feet) cascade was best appreciated from a distance,

while I was too anxious to capture Seljalandfoss from every angle.

True, the trail was muddy and slippery, but that was only a minor inconvenience.

The challenge came from dodging the unrelenting spray, as if it was weaponized by the wind.

I instantly missed Leah as my assistant. She would have made the perfect rain shield.

After coming around the back side of Seljalandross, I rejoined Leah on a path which led to a small waterfall known as Gljufrabui,

hidden within a slotted canyon.

We hiked back to the Land Cruiser and headed in the direction of Holt. I was casually driving, enjoying the scenery at 90 kph (60 mph), Iceland’s top speed limit, when I hit the brakes….after noticing Iceland’s perfect farm.

We made one additional stop along the way to Skogafoss, when I slowed to catch a glimpse of what appeared to be a Hobbit house built into the mountain.

However, on closer examination, it appeared to be a shelter for sheep and goats.

The approach to Skogafoss had several imposing mountains in the vicinity, also part of the former coastline.

Ironically, Skógafoss translates into Forest Falls, but there’s not a tree to be found in the area. It seems the Vikings had a penchant for chopping all of them down to create their settlement a thousand years ago.

Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. Game of Thrones fans may recognize the falls as the aerial backdrop for a romantic encounter between Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow when flying with her dragons.

With a width of 25 m (82 ft) and dropping 60 m (200 ft) with water fed by two glaciers, a rarity (Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull),

visitors can climb a rickety 430-step metal staircase anchored into the cliff, allowing visitors to reach the spillover and enjoy a view of the coastal lowlands while basking in the Highlands, or continue on a popular trail leading up to the pass between both glaciers.

Skógafoss is a place where magic happens…

Completing the Golden Circle

Feeling exhilarated after our Silfra snorkeling adventure, Leah and I said goodbye to Thingvellir, and set out to complete the remaining natural wonders of the Golden Circle trifecta.

We continued to Haukadalur, a geothermal valley in South Iceland that boasts a plethora of fumaroles and geysers,

including the powerful and predictable Strokkur, Iceland’s most active geyser that regularly erupts every 5 to 10 minutes like clockwork,

sending boiling water skyward, 20 to 40 metres beyond its mineral-stained crust.

Afterwards, we traveled to Hvítá river canyon to visit Iceland’s beloved falls, Gullfoss. The water in Hvítá river travels from the glacier Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest ice cap, before cascading 32 meters (105 feet) down Gullfoss’ double drops in dramatic display.

We arrived in time for one of Iceland’s typical daily weather changes as we hiked to the closest observation deck. The blustery gales had driven the cold drizzle and falls spray sideways. While we were dressed appropriately in warm parkas and rain pants, Leah was miserable and could only manage a walk to one of many overlooks of Gullfoss.

I tried to ignore the weather, but the poor visibility and annoying spritz was affecting my ability to keep the camera lens dry while trying to capture the “perfect shot.”

Leah retired to the comfort of the Land Cruiser, while I climbed above the canyon wall in search of a different perspective, thinking that if I distanced myself from the water, I could keep my camera dry.

The best that I could manage, given the circumstances was adequate…

However, to my chagrin, I found the perfect shot at the base of the foothills, but it belonged to a park graphic with information about Gullfoss…

However, looking southeast, I also discovered a telling view of Thingvellir’s distant topography just beyond the Visitor Center.

Of course, being a national park, certain rules apply; and understandably, drone photography is a no no. But Gullfoss is so expansive that it would surely benefit from an aerial approach, so the Park Service sanctioned a third party to capture the awe and splendor that only a drone can see.

We ended our day in Selfoss,

where more adventures await…

Iceland by Land Cruiser

By the time Leah and I were flying over Iceland, we were zombies.

Leah was outraged by the airline’s no-frills service. “Not even a tiny bag of pretzels,” she lamented, “Maybe I closed my eyes for one or two minutes.”

I was mostly pissed that my gummies were duds, but I thought the Icelandair pilot and jet did a commendable job of getting us to Iceland–crossing 4 time zones in 5 hours.

We arrived at Keflavik International Airport at 5:30am, found our bags, cleared customs, bought some duty free tequila, and got our bearings…

We have embarked on a 2-week road trip around Iceland, hopping from one hotel or guesthouse to another until we complete the circle, and we’re not too sure what to expect.

By the time we reached the reception atrium, half-a-dozen drivers were gathered by the airport entrance looking for a match. But none of the clients’ names on their iPads and iPhones matched with mine.

I approached one of the drivers and handed him my voucher. His English was perfect.

“I know this driver,” he said. “He’s the best! I think he’s running late on another trip, but I’ll call him for you.”

The phone call was brief. “He says he’s on his way.”

By 6:30am we were riding in an electric Audi SUV to Grandi by Center Hotel, discussing with our driver how Iceland’s road system is still too immature to support a fleet of EVs–plagued by insufficient charging stations and improper maintenance. The ride took 40 minutes.

“The hotel is full,” we learned from the on-duty desk clerk. “The earliest we may make a room ready for you is 2pm, and I will make it my first priority.”

Disappointed, we power-walked through a chilly spray under overcast skies from Grandi to Sandholt, a nearby bakery highly recommended by the desk clerk.

“What are we gonna do for 7 hours? I need sleep!” Leah groaned.

The streets were stone quiet this Sunday at 7am, except for a street cleaner and vacuum buggy attacking the trash along the alleys of a popular square filled with eateries.

However, one road along the way caught our attention…

We discovered that Iceland is regarded as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in the world, having elected, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, an openly gay head of state in 2009, and Althing (Iceland’s Parliament–founded in 930 and one of the oldest surviving parliaments in the world) unanimously voting for same-sex marriages in 2010. Unsurprisingly, one-third of Iceland’s population turns out for the Reykjavik’s Gay Pride parade in August.

Leah was thrilled with her breakfast. She had an omelet and I had a waffle with fruit. It gave us the boost that we needed to explore the rainbow road to Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s National Church.

and Reykjavik’s iconic Lutheran landmark.

I would have liked to climb the tower for what is reputed to be the best lookout of the city, but we were too early.

View from the top of Hallgrímskirkja. Photo by Philippa via Flickr CC

And that’s true for most of the city, which doesn’t wake until 11am on Sunday, so shopping was also out of the question.

Begrudgingly, we returned to the hotel, admiring some of the charming homes,

and graffiti along the way…

and took possession of our room by 1pm.

After a 5-hour nap and an early dinner, we were ready for bed and ready for whatever new adventure awaits us in the coming days.

New River Gorge

The New River has been carving the Appalachian Valley for the past 10 to 360 million years–depending on who you ask–which makes it an ancient river–ranked behind the Finke and Meuse as the world’s third oldest river. Of course, there is the obvious non sequitur, given the river’s moniker and apparent age.

One story claims that its name comes from a translation from Indian dialect meaning “new waters.” Another explanation tells of Captain Byrd who had been employed to open a road from the James River to Abingdon in 1764. Byrd used the Jefferson-Fry Map published in 1755. However, this map did not show the river, so Byrd noted it as the “New River.”

Originating in North Carolina, the New River flows 360 miles north until it meets the Gauley River in southern West Virginia, providing some of the best whitewater (Class IV rapids and above) on the planet, and the main reason for our visit.

Our first look came from an overlook behind the Canyon Rim Visitor Center,

treating us to canopied canyon walls as far as we could see, soaring 876 feet above the water.

and a profile of the New River Gorge Bridge (the Rusted Rainbow).

When the New River Gorge Bridge opened in 1977, it was the world’s longest single-span arch bridge for 26 years. With an arch 1,700 feet (518 m) long, it is now relegated to the fifth longest.

While I appreciate the engineering feat of a half-mile span that saves travelers 45 minutes of detouring,

it’s the river I’ve come to conquer.

New and Gauley River Adventures shoved off from Stone Cliff at 10am–14 miles downriver from the bridge–with six eager adrenalin junkies and our guide, Costa Rica Scott in one raft, and a support raft to tag along. Leah refused to float with us, despite my gentle coaxing.

Once we were properly outfitted with life jackets and helmets…

off we went…

While the first half of the trip was relatively lazy, with fountains of 60oF spray coming from occasional haystacks and laterals, the spring run-off and torrents of rain before our arrival had turned the second half into a fast-moving, turbulent churn, filled with hydraulic traps, and 7 foot waves.

which had us threading our way through Keeneys, Dudleys Dip, Double Z, Greyhound, and Millers Folly Rapids with increased caution.

Miraculously, we never flipped and everyone remained in the boat throughout the ride. However, the soul behind me spent most of the time stretched across the raft with his head pinned over the gunwale, retching. Fortunately, whenever our pilot commanded us to “dig in” (paddle like our lives depended on it), I avoided smacking him across the face.

After 4 hours on the river, our take-out was just shy of the bridge, beyond Fayette Station.

What a blast! If only there was time to run back and do it again, but that would have left little time for hiking to Diamond Point;

visiting Cathedral Falls in Ansted;

investigating abandoned beehive coke ovens in Nuttallburg;

strolling through a mining ghost town (pop. 5) in Thurmond;

or just chilling at The Outpost, “Where Wild Meets Wonderful.”

Perhaps another visit is in order.

Badass Badlands: a Surreal Landscape

Pillars and spires, pinnacles and hoodoos, canyons and gorges, ridges and ravines, bands of colors and beds of fossils, mixed-grass prairies and resilient wildlife…the Badlands of South Dakota are a scenic recipe so fantastic that I sometimes wondered if my camera could adequately capture the range of strangeness that surrounded me.

But I was up for the challenge!

What follows is a visual diary of Badlands National Park…told in 3 parts.

The Yellow Mounds of Dillon Pass

From a distance, this mustard-colored landscape qualifies as the perfect location for a film shoot on an alien planet.

Leah and I were casually driving along the Badlands Loop Road near Dillon Pass,

when the Yellow Mounds popped into view…

and I knew that I had to explore this phenomena more thoroughly.

I climbed atop one of the mounds…

which overlooked a network of foot paths…

to the Pinnacles on one side of the hill,

and offered an outstanding overlook of the Conata Basin to the southwest…

and beyond.

And as I surveyed the scene below,

I realized that the scope of South Dakota’s Badlands defies framing.

The Badlands cannot be contained, and the sheer beauty and colors transcend any exposure.

Dateline: Deadwood, SD

Leah and I deliberately planned our arrival to Deadwood to coincide with the conclusion of the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and for good reason. This year’s 10-day event brought 700,000 bikers to Deadwood’s neighbor town of 7,000 residents amid the highly infectious Delta variant–without vaccination, testing or masking requirements–which from a Covid-19 perspective is equivalent to shoveling 100 pounds of shit into a 1-lb. bag.

Adding perspective to our paranoia, last year’s event qualified as the nation’s #1 super-spreader of the summer when 462,000 gathered for the rally–infecting 649 with Covid, and contributing to soaring hospitalizations throughout the region, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Despite the many Harleys that lingered at our campground beyond the last tequila shots and freshly inked tats, the streets of Deadwood were relatively crowd-free. We weaved around occasional families, and dodged small gatherings of people dressed in leather vests when they were missing masks.

Because we had little interest in repeating the same activities that brought us to the Black Hills 4 years ago–albeit still wanting to be safe in the process–we decided on pursuits that would limit our exposure to the Delta variant, like: cycling on the George Michelson Rail Trail;

touring a gold mine on the edge of town;

and strolling through Mt. Moriah Cemetery…

which I’ll detail now, with the other activity highlights to follow in future posts.

On a clear day, the best view of Deadwood gulch and the surrounding Black Hills comes from Mt. Moriah Cemetery, rising 200 ft. above town. And from the look of early photographs taken from the edge of Deadwood’s Boot Hill, not much has changed.

Thanks to the 23 casinos across town, the revenue taxed from gaming has funded the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission which provides loans and grants for large-scale restoration projects that manage to keep the 19th century vibe alive.

When strolling down Main Street, it’s easy to imagine the likes of Jack McCall sneaking up on Wild Bill Hickok while he played a hand of poker at Saloon #10,

and shooting him dead in the back of the head on August 2, 1876.

Wild Bill’s final resting place is just beyond the cemetery gates.

Calamity Jane, per her dying wish, keeps him company next door.

However, it was widely known that Wild Bill had no use for her and considered her a nuisance, which makes their graveyard union the cruelest of eternal jokes.

There are many distinct sections of Mt. Moriah Cemetery:

A children’s section of unmarked graves calls attention to a time of heartfelt tragedy;

In Section Six, an alter for offerings to departed spirits denotes the thriving community of 400 Chinese immigrants who followed their dream of striking it rich during Deadwood’s Gold Rush. Thirty-three souls were buried in Section Six, but only three remain, with the majority having been disinterred and returned to China;

There is a Soldiers’ Lot of Civil War veterans administered by the NCA;

But most interesting is the Jewish section, known as Hebrew Hill, honoring many Jewish pioneers who made significant civic, commercial and social contributions to Deadwood society, notably:

Harris Franklin, an immigrant entrepreneur from Prussia who amassed a fortune through banking, ranching, mining, and hospitality, and whose son became the the second mayor of Deadwood;

and Nathan Colman, who became Deadwood’s life-long elected Justice of the Peace, and lay Rabbi for the Jewish community for more than thirty years. His daughter, Blanche was the first woman from Black Hills to be admitted to the South Dakota Bar.

Oddly, Solomon Star is missing from Mt. Zion. He died alone on his Deadwood estate in 1917, and was thrown a lavish funeral fit for a king by the townsfolk…but he was buried in St. Louis.

Sol Star was a dedicated public servant, who served on Deadwood’s first town council before becoming Deadwood’s ten-term Mayor. He was elected to the State House of Representatives, and won a seat in South Dakota’s State Senate shortly after. He finished his civic career as Lawrence County’s Clerk of Courts for twenty years.

But if that wasn’t enough, Sol Star was also a long-time business associate of Seth Bullock, the undisputed king of the hill…

from where he shares unimpeded views of the Black Hills with his wife, Martha beside him.

Seth Bullock’s origin story is an essential part of Black Hills lore. He arrived two days after Wild Bill was murdered and was quickly appointed Deadwood’s first Sheriff. He was an imposing figure who got the job done without ever killing a man or woman.

He celebrated his deeply personal friendship with Teddy Roosevelt by building The Friendship Tower atop a peak in the Black Hills National Forest 2.5 miles from Deadwood…

and declared it Mount Roosevelt.

All the history that’s baked into the bones of Deadwood’s dearly departed, and all of the iconic imagery that’s scattered among them are references and remembrances of a time when people pulled together and persevered.

Together, they tamed the Wild West. Together, they defeated lawlessness with civility, and went on to create a diverse and inclusive community that was determined to improve their condition through mutual cooperation.

And they accomplished this in the midst of Black Hills, South Dakota…

which helps to restore my faith in optimism.

Rock Art

Billings was our final stopover in Montana before continuing east to Deadwood, SD. Upon arrival, Billings health officials issued a local advisory restricting outdoor activity due to a blanket of smoke and ash that had invaded the valley from several regional fires that were burning unabated.

While we would have preferred exploring the winding trails through the Rimrock Bluffs–overlooking the Yellowstone River and town–we lowered our expectations, given the extreme heat and unhealthy air quality index, and opted for a brief walking tour through Pictograph Cave State Park, known for its natural and cultural significance.

Just a 5-mile jaunt south of Billings, we approached a sandstone bluff in the shape of a horseshoe, and turned into an empty parking lot. Surprisingly, the Visitor’s Center was open and filled with a variety of artifacts that WPA workers recovered from the cave floor between 1937 and 1941–considered the first major archeological excavation on the Northern Plains.

In all, over 30,000 artifacts were discovered, with some dating back over 9,000 years.

We cautiously hiked up a narrow, sandy footpath through sprigs of yarrow and juniper shrubs, hoping to avoid an encounter with a prairie rattlesnake or bull snake…

until we reached the mouth of Pictograph Cave, revealing a stone wall that was once part of a ceremonial lodge. The dotted line above the left side of the wall structure was drawn by WPA workers to mark the original floor line before they began digging.

We stood motionless for a beat to allow our eyes to adjust to the shadows, before scanning the cave in search of ancient charcoal and red markings. Even with the help of graphic displays that emphasized these creations,

it was no less a challenge to identify the drawings due to a veil of calcium that had formed over the pigment during a dry period. These figures were carbon dated between 1480 to 1650 A.D.

The red pigment was created from an ancient recipe combining ground up hematite (concentrated iron ore) with assorted binders such as animal fat, berries, blood and adjusted with water or urine while heated to form a paste that was applied by finger or stick.

A rack of flintlock rifles that were painted within the last 200 years is located no more than 15 feet away from the other figures.

While not the easiest to decipher, a nearby graphic makes it more apparent.

Continuing our walk along the cliff, we reached a middle cave with evidence of clams fossils and other sea life embedded in sandstone that likely lived during the late Cretaceous Period when this portion of America was under water.

Then up a rising that followed the curvature of the cliff, we reached the Ghost Cave. While no drawings were discovered here, a series of round boulders known as concretions formed as a result of a clam bed that was exposed when the sea eventually receded.

These cliffs continue to evolve as winter ice cuts through brittle stone; massive rains charge over the cliffs, turning into intermittent waterfalls; and smoke ash eats away at porous surfaces.

While the evolution of our landscape is inevitable, we must look for ways to tap the brakes on what’s creating the intensity and severity of our man-made issues, and allow nature to take its true course.

After all, it’s not supposed to be this hot; it’s not supposed to be this dry; and it’s not supposed to be this smoky during Montana summers.

Big Things Come in Small Packages

This post originally celebrates the enormity of the General Sherman sequoia as I observed it 4 years ago. However, today it’s a reminder of the fragility of this ancient forest–currently facing a ravishing fire–where the largest living organisms on our planet are in peril. General Sherman has survived over 100 burns in its 2,200 years of existence, but the scale and intensity of today’s wildfires have become more commonplace, and threaten the world around us. I pray the fire can be contained and the forest survives, so future generations can appreciate nature’s miracle.

Streaming thru America

“Size matters!” has long been considered a hard fact among those who measure the enormity of things, and eagerly justify the value of their preponderance. Yet all things big begin from most things small, and that’s the long and short of it. While this may come as a relief to many who seem challenged by the limited extension of their personality, it comes as no surprise to sequoias that have sensed this for millions of years.

Giant sequoia trees are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, where they grow exclusively in protected groves. Every tree starts from a firm cone no larger than a chicken’s egg–

hand and cone

–each one releasing thousands of seeds resembling oat flakes, hoping to take advantage of a litter-free forest floor made fertile by fire.

Flash forward 2400 years, and if the then-seedling hasn’t been logged…

Mark Twain stump

…or besieged by fire (although its bark…

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Glacier N(o) P(ass)

Each and every time Leah and I applied online for an entry pass to Glacier NP we were too late, and we fretted that maybe we made the trip to Glacier for nothing.

Then I learned that if we make a reservation for an activity inside the park, that would guarantee our entry through the gate. So I booked a scenic rafting trip through the Middle Fork of the Flathead River with a third party vendor.

Problem solved…or so I thought.

It turns out our rafting outfitter operated in the village just outside the park gates, and our park entry was still in jeopardy. We could have canceled with sufficient notice, but we were still up for a float,

and decided to go with the flow…

through glacially carved flats,

and formidable canyons walls…

that were ideal for jumping into crystal-clear waters.

But there is another way in, and it’s not really a secret. Just get to the park anytime before the gate attendants arrive at 6AM, or visit the park anytime after the gate attendants leave for the day at 5PM.

We did both, and left tired each day…but satisfied!

There’s very little to say about Glacier National Park that hasn’t already been said. It’s acknowledged by many as one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service since its inception in 1910.

If there was a beauty pageant for National Parks, Glacier would win the crown, and wear it with authority:

There are more than enough peaks to pique a mountaineer’s interest;

plenty of waterfalls to satisfy a photographer’s wet dream,

and a fair share of elusive critters to make one’s heart beat fast.

Sadly, no bears wanted their portrait captured by me, despite ample park activity reported at the time of our stay.

While much of the park’s majesty is projected through its mountains, lakes, canyons and waterfalls, its easy to overlook the shimmering river rocks beneath our feet,

or the shimmering heavens above our heads.

North Cascades Detour

So much about North Cascades National Park reminds me that I’m at a very remote place in America. For starters, there’s limited phone service here which makes GPS plotting a nightmare, and probably explains the frequent mile markers that line North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). It’s the only road that winds its way through the park, and connects all the entities that encompass Stephen Mather Wilderness.

Of the 684,000 acres that Lyndon Johnson and Congress set aside in 1968, 94% of the land has been designated as wilderness. Of the remaining 6%, there is no formal camping and only a handful of designated trails, which may help to explain why the park hosts an average of 30,000 visitors per year compared to 2 million visitors per year at Mt. Rainier National Park.

By the time Leah and I reached the Pacific coast, we learned that the Cedar Creek Fire was burning out of control within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest–threatening the eastern entrance to North Cascades NP, and compromising Winthrop’s air quality, nearby. To make matters worse, North Cascades Highway had been barricaded between mile marker 170 and 185, which meant that if we managed to visit the park–which was always part of our original itinerary–we had no way out.

SR-20 road closures are not breaking news to the people living east of the North Cascades. They’re used to it. In fact, every year from late fall to early spring, SR-20 is closed because of drifting snow across the road (measuring 12 feet) and the high risk of avalanches in areas of steep terrain. Anybody wishing to travel to Seattle must settle on traveling I-90 through the dreaded Snoqualmie Pass.

One week before our anticipated arrival, we phoned a park ranger to voice our concern about likely dangers, and help us determine if our plans were realistic. In return, she gave us a website address to track the daily conditions of the fire, and she reassured us that, “Every day in the park is unpredictable. It all depends on which way the wind blows.”

By the time we were scheduled to visit the park, the Cedar Creek Fire had merged with Cub Creek 2 Fire to become America’s largest forest fire with over 100,000 scorched acres and still burning wildly. Leah and I had an important decision to make: either we risk a visit, or we make alternate plans. There really wasn’t much debate. We were determined to stick to our plans, while well aware of the ranger’s mantra.

We camped outside the park in Rockport at an unusual location dotted with dated, theme cabins, a shuttered restaurant, a wine-tasting room, and a smattering of weedy RV sites overrun by rabbits.

After unhitching, we drove a half-hour to Newhalem, the site of a company town owned by Seattle City Light and the residence of employees working on the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project–a series of three dams and power stations along the Skagit River–

Gorge Power Station
Diablo Dam
Ross Power Station

providing electricity to Seattle since Calvin Coolidge ceremoniously started the first generators in 1924.

As of this summer, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe has petitioned Seattle City Light to remove the Gorge Dam in order to restore treaty-protected fishing rights to sacred grounds known as The Valley of the Spirits–a 3-mile stretch of the Skagit River area that has dewatered since the dam’s creation–causing the disappearance of bull trout, chinook salmon and steelhead, and consequently threatening the existence of killer whales in the Puget Sound that depend on the fish to survive.

If Seattle City Light hopes to win a new 50-year license to operate the dams, they must demonstrate that the dams cause no harm to the environment. However, regulatory agencies have noted that the dams limit fish passage, affect the water temperature, and prevent much-needed, mineral-rich sediment from reaching the river beds where salmon once spawned.

The following day, our excursion took us deeper into the park, where a faint scent of smoke was in the air. It wasn’t bad enough to impact a full day of activity, but it still managed to drop a smoke bomb on our vistas, turning the “American Alps” into an American disappointment.

We started our exploration at Diablo Lake, created by the Diablo Dam finished in 1930. While the smoke offered an impressionistic vision of the mountain, water and sky,

I much preferred clearer conditions the following day.

Nevertheless, we took advantage of calm waters,

and beautiful scenery.

Feeling like a hike nearby, we followed a trail that followed Thunder Creek,

providing the following views:

until we reached our turn-around point at the suspension bridge…

and reflected on flowing riverscapes north,

and south of the span.

The latest news on the Cedar Creek Fire brought tears to my eyes. Officials proposed closing North Cascades Highway for the remainder of the year. I immediately recalled the time four years to this day when we crossed the Continental Divide at the Vermilion Pass–outrunning the BC wildfires on Kootenay Highway–with the mountains ablaze on both sides of us (see Smoke and Mirrors).

While I had no interest in repeating history, I wasn’t looking forward to the two-hour detour that would return us to I-5 in order to reach Spokane to the east. But if that was to be our only way out, I was determined to travel the North Cascades Highway the next day for as far as the law allowed.

Of course there were stops to make along the way. When we reached Ross Lake at milepost 134, we took the opportunity to stretch our legs along the Ross Dam Trail. With so little traffic on the road, we were not expecting the parking lot at the trailhead to be a challenge. But then we weren’t anticipating a mule train either.

They were preparing to cross the dam to perform trail maintenance further up the Pacific Northwest Trail.

We crossed a dense forest…

to the edge of Ross Lake and across the dam road,

where we were soon joined by the pack leader and company…

for views of Snowfield Peak and distant glaciers.

Of course, we had to dance around the mule poo on our return to the parking lot before continuing our quest.

Our next destination took us to milepost 158, where we intersected the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail at Rainy Pass on our way to Rainy Lake for an easy, 1-mile, wheelchair-accessible hike, until we encountered a tree across the trail within 500 yards of the trail’s end.

Unfortunately, physically disadvantaged people could not appreciate the crystal clear water of this alpine beauty,

or enjoy a distant look at Rainy Lake Falls cascading 850 feet into its namesake lake.

Shame on the NPS!

We reached Washington Pass Overlook–our final destination at milepost 162– to ogle the Liberty Bell Group,

and Kangaroo Ridge–

the defining point between Western Washington and Eastern Washington.

And that’s when I saw it! In the distance, midway along the stretch of highway, 8 miles away was the end of the road. I steadied myself for the shot.

We had completed our mission. There was nothing more for us to see before returning west to resume our journey east on August 5th.

By August 10th, the road closure was lifted, and low-speed, one-way traffic resumed in both directions. But I was unconcerned and didn’t mind. I had already arrived at Glacier National Park.

Blockhouse, Bluffs, and Bagels

It was our last day on the Olympic Peninsula, and we intended to visit the San Juan Islands, but time and weather never allowed it. Getting an early start in the rain seemed risky given the distance we’d need to travel, and the ferry reservation was an added hurdle and inconvenience.

Instead, we hoped and patiently waited for the early morning weather to abate. There was news of improving conditions by mid-morning, so we chanced a trip to Whidbey Island, where we were rewarded with thick, dismal skies, (yuck), and no rain in sight (yay)!

We drove to Mukilteo, where we just missed the 10 o’clock ferry to Clinton by 6 cars (damn!), but we were poised at the front of the boat for the half-hour ride to Whidbey Island at 10:30 AM (yay!).

After docking, we completed the half-hour ride to Ebey’s Landing, site of the Nation’s first National Historical Reserve (1978),

and a stunning landscape that befits the gateway to Puget Sound (wow!).

Just outside the Jacob Ebey homestead (now the Visitor’s Center) in Pratt’s Preserve…

stands a reconstructed blockhouse, originally built in 1854, and one of four still standing (who knew?). The blockhouse was built by Colonel Isaac Ebey to defend his claim against insurgent Skagit natives, who naturally resisted the pioneer settlement. Unfortunately, Isaac’s father, Jacob was beheaded in the cabin by a Skagit warrior in retaliation for the murder of one of their own chieftains (hmm…).

On the edge of the prairie, tangent to the Sherman-Bishop Farm…

is the trailhead that follows the bluffs along Admiralty Inlet.

We steadily climbed the bluff which gave us a birds eye view of Perego’s Lagoon–half wet, half dry–(huh?)

with a salt residue that could have resembled the surface of a different planet (odd)

until I spotted the pentagram that an ambitious soul had designed from driftwood logs (very odd!).

While the landscape was certainly impressive, something was still missing (huh?).

Where were the picture postcard views of Port Townsend and the Olympic Mountains across the water that were hiding behind overcast skies? (right?)

Nevertheless, our spirits were undiminished. We finished the Bluff Trail (phew!), and continued by F-150 to the historic waterfront of Coupeville, Washington State’s second oldest community, and it’s teaming with century-old buildings (nice!).

Our stroll down Front Street, once a beehive of maritime commerce,

brought us to a gentrified collection of bookstores, wine tasting rooms, gift shops, ice cream shops and coffee shops (sad).

Discovering the birthplace of Seattle’s Best Coffee was of particular interest to me, as I served this coffee exclusively when I operated my boil-and-bake-from-scratch, bagel bakery in Denville, New Jersey (really?). Their company and my franchisor later became symbiotic partners when both companies were acquired by AFC Enterprises in 1998.

All of which has contributed greatly to my being able to gracefully retire and follow my whim in pursuit of images, impressions, and memories.

The Mountain Is Out Today

Mount Rainier is so imposing that it makes its own weather, and on most days the mountain disappears under its thorny crown of rain clouds.

In fact, weather analysts calculate the odds of “seeing” Mount Rainier likely hovers between once or twice a week, considering the 189 rain-days per year, producing 126 inches of precipitation annually.

On the other hand, July is Mount Rainier’s driest month, with an average of 7 days of rainfall, amounting to 2 inches on average, which improves the odds tremendously for the millions who live and travel the I-5 corridor between Tacoma and Seattle. They invoke a familiar colloquialism that captures the moments when Mount Rainier reveals itself. They say, “The mountain is out today.”

My youngest son Nathan, who lives in nearby Bellevue had arranged long ago to glamp with Leah and me for a summer weekend at the National Park so he could experience Paradise, up close and personal, for the first time.

Happily, during our visit, “the mountain was out,” and it was magnificent!

On our first day together, we sought out a few of the requisite park sites as part of Nate’s Rainier orientation, including:

a wobbly walk across a suspension bridge…

to gaze at ancient trees…

in the Grove of the Patriarchs;

a hike to Myrtle Falls, cascading 72 feet into a rocky gorge;

a gambol across Sunbeam Creek on the Wonderland Trail before it rolls into Stevens Canyon;

tracking iconic, Narada Falls,

as it plunges 168 feet into a canyon of split rocks;

admiring Reflection Lakes, sans the reflection (ruined by wind-swept ripples);

and relishing the trove of jaw-dropping, mountain vistas that seem to vanish into thin air–

which we reflected on while enjoying a soft-serve swirl at the historic Paradise Inn.

The next day, the mountain was still out, and it was a picture perfect day for hiking the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point.

Of all the trails I’ve trekked, I can say with cautious certainty that the Skyline Trail may be among the most magnificent of them. With the sun out, and blooming wildflowers dotting the landscape, there are few hikes that can compare.

We started on a paved path from the Paradise Inn at 5,420 feet elevation, and continued to climb through flower-carpeted meadows for a mile…

until we reached the Deadhorse Creek Trail spur, and looked back in wonderment.

We were now traipsing through packed snow and rocky terrain as we reached the tree line. We paused for a break where other hikers were keenly aware of something or someone through binoculars and long camera lenses. I scanned the mountain for movement through my viewfinder, and discovered the attraction–a team trekking across the glacier on their way to the summit.

Nisqually Glacier was now looming large in our sights.

The spectacle of watching the snowmelt pummeling the moraine below was thrilling.

It seemed to us that Rainier was so close, we could almost touch it.

With one last push, we arrived at Panorama Point, having climbed 1400 feet in 2 hours. I should have felt drained, but I was giddy with excitement with views from the overlook,

while also spotting Mount St. Helens far in the distance,

and capturing the Nisqually River as it meanders through the Rampart Ridge gorge.

On our return trip, we opted to take the Glacier Vista spur for a beauty shot of the mountain,

and ourselves.

Returning via the Alta Vista Trail gave us a very different impression of the valley below,

but also prompted us to occasionally glance back to admire the source of all the magic.