Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Trek Part 3: Attack of the Hornets, Climbing, and More Waterfalls

We got up on Day 6, packed up, and waited for a vehicle delivering both a new supply of food and an additional hiker.  Originally, three new hikers were supposed to join us, but two of them dropped out.  The food had already been packed, however, so we spent some time sorting through it and sending back the extra provisions.  No one wanted to carry unnecessary weight (but we were happy to see more smoked salmon in the bags).

It was just before noon when we got started hiking up the river valley.  Waterfalls lined both sides of the huge valley.  Most of the time, we were able to just walk in the dry riverbed (where the river was up against the other side of the valley).  When it was on our side of the valley, we had to follow a trail  (yes, an actual trail!) which climbed uphill a bit to avoid the water.  One one of the climbs, all of a sudden, I heard buzzing and then hornets stung me a couple of times.  I was so surprised that I didn't really react except to keep moving.  Michael got stung, too, but everyone else was able to avoid them.  Apparently, the hornets don't like people from Silver Spring.  The trail led us to a basalt wall with a chain.  Our guide climbed up first and set up a belay for us.  I climbed up second, just as it began to drizzle.  Almost everyone (including me) sent their packs up on the rope separately, but a couple of people made the climb with their full packs.  It took a long time for everyone to get up the wall, but the reward was worth it.  Shortly after everyone was up and we started hiking again, we took a quick side trip to an overlook of two of the most beautiful, spectacular waterfalls of the trip.  It was cold and we had a long, uphill afternoon ahead of us, so we couldn't stay long, but I'm glad we got to see them.

Later in the afternoon, still hiking along the same river, we came to a point where there were two canyons in front of us.  Our guide said that we would be climbing a scree slope to get up onto the plateau above one of them.  It started out kind of normal and then just got steeper and steeper.  And it seemed to go on forever.  There wasn't really an opportunity to stop and rest or take pictures because the footing was pretty bad on most of it.  We all made it up, though, and were rewarded with a view of another impressive canyon.  That evening, we camped in the same place we did on the fourth day.

After a night of rain, we woke up to more clouds and it kind of seemed like it was going to be another gray misty day.  We retrieved some gear that we stowed (e.g. crampons) and started climbing.  By the time we were up to the top of the first big hill, the sun started peeking out from behind the clouds.  Before long, the sun was fully out, providing a wonderful morale boost.  We took a break on a rock field that had been scoured smooth by glaciers and then left bare after they retreated.  We had a beautiful view of two glaciers and the remnants of the lagoon, Grænalón.

After lunch, we had our last large river crossing of the trip.  The water was moving impressively fast and was the color of chocolate milk.  While we were changing into water shoes, we noticed that the water was actually moving fast enough to roll bowling-ball sized rocks quickly downstream.  It was a long, cold crossing, but the sun made it better.  Fortunately, it was only about knee deep and we only had to wait for one bowling ball to go by as we pushed through the water.  We actually saw another hiking party of three while we were crossing.  They were way downstream and crossing the other direction, so we never got a chance to talk to them.  They were the only hikers we would see over the course of the entire nine days, once we left the summit of Laki.

We camped that night on a bench overlooking the whole valley.  It was one of the most impressive campsites that I've ever had the luck to use.  The sun stayed out, so the moment we arrived in camp, everyone dumped their packs and spread out all of their gear to dry.  It looked like a gear store exploded on the side of the mountain.  The valley below us, with the two glaciers and the river was so stunning that I think I took 150 pictures of it.

Pictures (click to enlarge):

Day 6:   Looking down the river valley back towards where we camped.
Day 6:  Michael "hiding" in and Icelandic Birch forest
Day 6:  The door to a shepherd's hut built into the hillside above the river.  The door is about four feet tall.
Day 6:  Dactylorhiza maculata (Heath Spotted Orchid)
Day 6: Climbing the basalt wall.
Day 6:  Michael climbing the wall (he is on the rope near the center of the photo).
Day 6: The spectacular waterfalls.  The one on the right is fed by a glacier, which is why the water is a different color than the one on the left.
Day 6: Hiking into the canyon with the crazy scree slope we had to climb
Day 7:  Hiking in the sun through beds of moss and black volcanic ash.
Day 7:  Looking for a safe river crossing in front of the glacier.
Day 7:  Little mud formations.  These looked like a little mud army lined up on the river bank.  The wind blew the drier material out from around them.
Day 7:  The view of the river and one of the glaciers from our campsite.
Day 7:  Our campsite with everyone's gear drying in the sun.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Trek Part 2: Glaciers, Waterfalls, and a Hot Spring

After some rain overnight, we awoke to sun on day 3 of the trek.  With another glacier crossing ahead of us, we knew it would be another long day, but our food bags were starting to get lighter and everyone was in a pretty good mood.  We took a higher route up to the glacier, so we did not deal with nearly as much mud as the night before and we made good time getting there.  The glacier was beautiful in the bright sunlight.  There were meltwater streams everywhere as it warmed up.  Our guide was hoping to be across it by noon or one so that we would have an easier river crossing on the other side.  Glacial or snow-fed rivers are usually higher in the afternoon as the melting water works its way through the system.  A river that is a rock hop early in the morning can be impossible to ford in the afternoon.

We did not make his goal by a long shot.  It was nearly four in the afternoon by the time we were off the glacier and later yet by the time we got to the river.  We were lucky, though, that the river was fordable.    It was spread out in several braided sections, making each section shallower and slower.  I had been worried about the river crossings.  Immersing my feet in ice cold water causes pain and numbness in about 10 seconds (yes, we do this for fun).   Not to mention the consequences of screwing up a river crossing. Our guide had us cross in groups of four, linking arms, with the biggest person on the upstream side.  The river was fast and knee deep.  Going as a group made it a lot easier.  I had bought neoprene socks before the trip on the recommendation of our guiding company, thinking they wouldn't help at all.  Our guide extolled the virtues of them and I kept thinking, "yeah, whatever, your feet are not my feet."  They were amazing.  My feet still got cold, but they held a layer of water against them that warmed up slightly.  I will definitely be carrying them in the future.  

We camped in the mist near a pretty little stream, surrounded by bright green beds of moss.  The next morning, day 4, we were promised a visit to a hot spring.  We hiked for about an hour, past a completely new river (according to our guide), arctic fox tracks, and another river ford.  We arrived at a pretty little pool that was hot bathwater-warm.  We spent a couple of hours relaxing in the hot spring.  It felt great on tired muscles.  The afternoon was filled with beautiful waterfalls and flowers.  We camped in a canyon filled with pink Epilobium latifolium (Arctic River Beauty).  By the time dinner rolled around, it was raining hard.  After dinner, we hiked up the canyon to the end, but it was raining hard enough that we didn't take any pictures of the waterfall.  

The next morning, day 5, we hiked in the clouds, making our way south towards the coast.  By lunchtime, it was bright and sunny again.  We took a side trip up to a saddle overlooking Skeiðarárjökull, another glacier that is part of the large ice sheet, Vatnajökull.  We also had a great view of the mountains of Skaftafell to the east and, off in the distance, the ocean to the south.  We continued south and east, down a very steep canyon to the river valley below.  We camped that night on the valley floor, next to a four-wheel drive track and a little shack with two toilets and a sink.  The water pipes had been clogged by volcanic ash, so Michael and a couple of other people set out to restore water to the shack.  They were nearly successful, but for lack of a pipe wrench, weren't able to fix the final piece of it.  

We were halfway through the trip at this point and holding up pretty well.  Except for our first hike up Laki, all of our travel had been off-trail.  I only had one minor complaint:  My boot laces were full of volcanic ash (which is basically little shards of glass) and tying them was tearing up the skin on my hands.  They wouldn't dry, so I couldn't shake the ash out of them.

 Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Hiking on the glacier on Day 3.
 Day 3:  The amazing blue ice.
 Day 3:  Michael with a glacier "smore."  Peanut butter, chocolate, and two crackers.
 Day 3:  Finally off the glacier with a glimpse of the mountains.
Day 3: Our first large river crossing.
Day 4: The hot spring.
Day 4:  A pair of Harlequin Ducks working their way upriver.
 The first of the waterfalls on Day 4.
 Day 4:  Epilobium latifolium (Arctic River Beauty) in front of a large waterfall.
 A closeup of E. latifolium.
 Day 4:  Hiking into Flower Canyon, our campsite for the night.
 Day 5:  A relatively small waterfall early in the day.
 Day 5:  Bootshot overlooking the Skeiðarárjökull glacier.
Day 5:  Looking south toward the coast and the valley where we camped.  

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Trek Begins: Volcanoes and Glaciers (Part 1)

Our second day in Iceland, we got on a bus early in the morning to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, on the south coast of the island.  The bus ride was pleasantly uneventful, except for a few stops at nice waterfalls and a black sand beach.  When we got off the bus in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, we met two other women who were doing the same trek.  We managed to locate our hostel, which wasn't too difficult, since "town" might be a bit of a stretch as a description of where we were staying.  It was pretty small.  Michael and I found the visitor center and watched a very, very dramatic, but still interesting documentary about the devastating 1783-84 eruptions at Lakí, which ultimately killed one-fifth of Iceland's population and caused widespread famine in Europe.

The next morning, we got on an all-terrain bus and set off towards Laki with a lot of sightseeing day tourists. We stopped at a cool canyon and a pretty waterfall before arriving at Laki Mountain itself.  Just before we arrived there, our guide stopped the bus at the bottom of the mountain and had us drop our bags so we could climb without them.  Enthusiastic and excited, we climbed the mountain in no time.  There, we got our first glimpse of the ice on which we would spend two days (out of a total of three).  Back down at our bags, our guide distributed the food.  He had warned us the night before about the weight.  He wasn't kidding.  Unlike the lightweight, dehydrated backpacking food we are used to carrying on long trips, we had smoked salmon and full loaves of bread - enough food for five days for nine people.  We would get a resupply on day 6.

We set off across dusty lava fields towards the glacier.  The black landscape was dotted with bright pink and white clumps of flowers.  Anywhere there was a little moisture, bright green moss carpeted the ground.  It was pretty windy and the nine of us walking kicked up quite a dust cloud.  The loose sand and ash were somewhat annoying to walk in, but the next day would make me wish to be back on dry sand.  It wasn't long before we were all covered in volcanic ash.  It was bright and sunny when we arrived in camp between two pretty lakes.  Tundra swans called from the lakes.  Dinner was smoked salmon pasta and chocolate cake.  It was really good and it was good to eat some of the heavier food out of our packs.

I would say that day 2 dawned sunny, but it never really got dark (Iceland has 24 hours of daylight for most of July).  We began the day hiking across a lava field toward the glacier, Síðujökull, which is part of Iceland's largest ice sheet, Vatnajökull.  Our guide hoped that the river draining the glacier's meltwater would be low enough that we could cross it, rather than hiking miles up the edge of the glacier looking for a snow bridge.  We were not that lucky.  It was well into the afternoon before we were on the ice, but we saw some really spectacular terrain getting there.  Once on the ice, our pace slowed because of the uneven surface of the glacier.  I swear we climbed 4,000 feet - two steps up at a time, followed by two steps down.  The ice was absolutely beautiful.  There were so many spectacular shades of blue.  

The long hike around the large river meant that it was pretty late by the time we were getting off the ice.  We had to navigate through and around pretty deep mud.  I had neglected to wear my gaiters, so my boots wound up filled with gravel for the last mile.  Then we arrived at the campsite where there was supposed to be a freshwater lake...which was completely gone.  I felt pretty bad for our guide.  It was almost 8 p.m., the group was exhausted, and his dependable source of water was gone.  Of course, I was beat down, dog tired, so I wasn't actually much help.  There was a river not too far away, but glacial rivers are no fun to drink out of:  they are the consistency and color of dirty milk from all of the ground up rock in the ice.  Finally, he found a small stream which was moving too slow to carry much sediment and we all agreed that it was a great camp.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Skógarfoss, one of the large waterfalls along the south coast.  Our bus stopped here on the way to the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
Looking inland from the black sand beach at Vik.
Two lakes near our hostel in Kirkjubæjarklaustur.  They were up on a plateau above the town.  We were sort of tired of sitting on a bus, so we hiked up a path for a while to see where it went and this is what we found.  
 Eriophorum scheuchzeri (Cottongrass).  This was growing in a marshy area below one of the lakes.
 Bootshot over a canyon where our river-crossing, all-terrain bus stopped on the way to the start of the trek.
 The view from the top of Lakí.  The line of craters is the result of the 1783-84 eruptions.
 Hiking across the barren landscape.
Our campsite on the first day.
 Cake after dinner.
 Pink flowers (I haven't gotten the identification for these yet) near our campsite.
 Tundra swans on one of the lakes near our first campsite.
 Setting off the toward the ice on Day 2.
 This is the river that prevented easy access to the glacier.  We had to scramble up and down the ash covered ice looking for a route over the river.  Eventually, our guide found a snow bridge.  The stark landscape is typical of the edges of the glacier.  Melting ice leaves black volcanic ash, gray rock, and mud in piles.  Our group joked that the area looked like the entrance to Mordor in Lord of the Rings.
Hiking on the ice.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Reykjavik, Iceland: Puffins and Whales

I am going to take several posts to describe our trip to Iceland.  Since I am still going through photos, I thought I would post a few from our first day in Reykjavik.  We arrived in Iceland at 6:30 a.m., fresh from a sleepless overnight flight.  We took a short nap in our hotel room before we decided we had better get up and adjust to the new time zone.  We stumbled out of our hotel room to wander around the city before our whale watching tour.  Reykjavik has a population of about 100,000.  Downtown is small, charming and very pedestrian-friendly.  The National Cathedral was very close to our hotel, so it provided an reference point for navigating.  

We managed to find a restaurant serving smoked fish on flatbread ( much better than that sounds, really) for lunch.  That was our introduction to great Icelandic seafood and to Icelandic food prices:  A fairly simple lunch cost $30.  It turns out that is pretty reasonable for Iceland (let's not talk about dinner).  We managed that cost by trying to eat fish (the cheapest option) and by simply being out on trail for 9 days.  That being said, the food we had was universally very good.

In the afternoon, we headed out for a whale watching tour.  I talked a little about it in a previous post, so I'll just move on to pictures (click to enlarge):

 The National Cathedral.
The pipe organ in the National Cathedral.  Both times we stepped inside, we were lucky enough that an organist was rehearsing.
 The Reykjavik Concert Hall as seen from the harbor.
 A puffin! (Michael took this photo)
 East of Reykjavik on the whale watching boat.
 The Snæfellsjökull volcano on the Snæfellsnes peninsula northwest of Reykjavik.
On the way back to Reykjavik

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Off Trail and Back in Reykjavik

We are back in Reykjavik after nine days of backpacking from the lava fields of Laki to the glaciers of Skaftafell.  I don't really have any idea how far we walked because most of the trek was cross-country.  We rarely followed any trail at all.  Our guide has run the trip a number of times and he said that he doesn't take the same route twice.  We had three days of glacier walking, crossed several moss-covered lava fields, saw amazing waterfalls and flower-filled canyons, and got volcanic ash into absolutely everything.  It was a tough, physically demanding hike, but it was completely worth it.  We also trekked with 8 other amazing people, including our guide.  The group got along pretty well considering that we all met the night before or the morning the trip began.  We all got along so well, that we were happy to spend our remaining day in the little hamlet of Skaftafell together.

Once we get back home, I'll post pictures.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Just a quick update:  We made it to Reykjavik, Iceland yesterday morning after a sleepless overnight flight.  The weather here is in the 60s, so it was pretty chilly when we arrived, after a week of triple digits at home.  We strolled around the city for a few hours and then took a whale watching tour.  The tour made a stop at an island where large numbers of puffins are breeding.  They are pretty cute little birds.  We saw a couple of minke whales later in the afternoon.  We also met a very nice local and his son on the tour.  After we disembarked, he insisted on treating us to dinner from a hot dog stand.  That sounds sort of odd, but hot dog stands are a bit of a specialty in Iceland and it was, indeed, very good.  We thanked him profusely and then realized later than we never got his name.

We are off today for our trek.  Here's hoping we have good weather.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Escaping the Heat: A Quick (Possibly Insane) Trip to Dolly Sods

With the Fourth of July falling midweek, we did not plan a backpacking trip this year.  We sort of had vague plans to go hiking, but the forecast, high 90s and high humidity, wasn't very inviting for anything in our usual hiking places:  Shenandoah, the Appalachian Trail, the George Washington National Forest, etc.  On Tuesday, a friend of ours suggested a dayhike in Dolly Sods.  Although it is quite a bit further away, the forecast high of 81 degrees sold us on it immediately.  I love Dolly Sods.  Nowhere else in the mid-Atlantic is quite like it.  Like many other amazing places, it can get crowded on holidays (see: Old Rag), but nothing like Shenandoah.  

We left at 5:15 in the morning, clutching our coffee, wondering whose idea this was, anyway.  At the trailhead almost four hours later, the temperature was 67 degrees, erasing all doubt about the wisdom of making the trip.  We started at the Blackbird Knob trailhead at Red Creek Campground.  The trail begins with a short boardwalk and then enters a beautiful, healthy hemlock forest.  When we broke out into one of Dolly Sods's famous meadows, we were immediately slowed by blueberries everywhere.  The next 1.5 miles took us almost 1.5 hours because we paused to eat a few so often.  There were also great views to the west and a pretty spot on upper Red Creek that slowed us down.  By the time we stopped for lunch, I think we had only covered 3 miles.  It had warmed up considerably in the sun, probably into the low 80s.

After lunch, we realized we had to pick up the pace or we would simply have to live in Dolly Sods.  We passed many, many bushes laiden with blueberries.  It hurt, but we had miles to cover.  Near the western side of the wildnerness, the trail re-enters the woods and gets really rocky.  In some places, the trail has clearly become the streambed.  After hiking up and over Breathed Mountain, we emerged onto the Red Creek Trail and were shortly at the Forks of Red Creek.  We kicked off our shoes and waded out into the cool water.  We spent about an hour splashing around, enjoying the break from the warm afternoon.

Finally, it was time to continue back to the car.  We made much better time on the final three miles of the hike than on our first three miles.  We did, after all, have to work the next day and we had a long drive home.  We hiked a total of 10.6 miles in eight, yes, eight hours.  It is one of the slower hikes I've done without snowshoes, but we had a lot of fun.  We saw a total of five other people:  two hikers and three guys on mountain bikes (which, if you were wondering, are not actually allowed in Wilderness Areas).  We also had amazing weather.  At the end of the hike, the wind was cool enough that it was starting to feel a little chilly at almost 4,000 feet.  About 10 miles away and 3,000 feet lower in Petersburg, WV, it was 95 degrees at 7 p.m!  We had a great day and escaped the heat wave for a few hours.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Chamerion platyphyllum (Fireweed).  These were growing along Forest Road 75.
Looking west over a meadow full of Symphocarpus albus (Snowberries).  They were in full bloom.  The tiny white dots in the meadow are the flowers.
Two Damselflies on the leaves of Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel)
 Another Damselfly.  I don't know insects to the species, so I am not sure if these three are different variations of the same species or are actually three different species.
 Dicentra eximia (Wild Bleeding Heart)
 Blueberries!  Many of the meadows were full of them.
 A tannin-filled creek in western Dolly Sods.
 Rhododendron maximum (Rosebay Rhododenron)
 The petals of R. maximum on Red Creek
 One of the waterfalls on Red Creek.
 Michael skipping rocks.
 Sammie the waterfall dog.
Looking east from the Bear Rocks area at a classic thunderhead.  Click to enlarge to see the anvil-shaped top of the cumulonimbus cloud.
Looking east from Forest Road 19 on the way down from Dolly Sods.