Iceland Saga 2013: Between a Rock and a Hot Place

18 07 2013

Beth on the rocks

Beth on the rocks

Iceland is a geologist’s dream.  And a volcanologist’s.  And a glaciologist’s.  Matter of fact, just about anybody with an “ist” at the end of their profession would get excited about Iceland.  (Except maybe a poltergeist.  That would be weird.)

Iceland is young, a mere baby in geological time.  Formed 16 to 18 million years ago from a hotspot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, it is rife with rifts and accompanying earthquakes, volcanoes, and geothermal activity.  mid ocean ridgeAdd to that that Iceland is topped with glaciers covering over 11% of its area, and you get some pretty amazing landforms and features.volcanoes

Think waterfalls.  In one fjord alone, (we’ll call it Sven’s Fjord) I turned around and counted more than 50 waterfalls.  There may have been more, but there were a couple of buildings in the way. 

Hey, look, a waterfall!

Hey, look, a waterfall!

All this water comes from glaciers melting, which, from the sheer volume of water, you would think would all be melted by now.  Apparently that’s just not happening, though.  On our trip around Iceland, we stopped at waterfall after waterfall.  We hiked up mountains to see waterfalls.  We walked across sheep pastures to see waterfalls.  All this activity was totally unnecessary, as we could have seen a lifetime of waterfalls from our car. 

another one

another one

This one had a name.  I think it started with an H.

This one had a name. I think it started with an H.

I don’t know exactly what draws people to waterfalls.  Maybe it is the power of the water or the contrast of water against rock.  Or maybe it is an attempt to see how close we can get to certain death.

Look ma, no guardrails.

Look ma, no guardrails.

Have I mentioned the Icelanders’ total unconcern with people’s safety?  In the U.S., there would be fences, viewing platforms, and signs everywhere letting people know that a waterfall is inherently harmful to your health.  Not so in Iceland.  They are a Survival of the Fittest type of people.  It was refreshing, in a hey-look-at-that-fool-over-there, would-you-back-up-just-a-little-more-for-a-picture kind of way.

yep

yep

I doubt anyone has ever counted all the waterfalls in Iceland.  But I do know that I have pictures of the vast majority of them.  And I really need to invest in a new thesaurus.  I’ve run out of synonyms for “gorgeous.”

It all begins here.

It all begins here.

beautiful

beautiful

amazing

amazing

stupendous

stupendous (note the tiny specks of people on the other side)

 

awe-inspiring (the waterfall, that is)

awe-inspiring (the waterfall, that is)

Then there are rocks.  My rock identification ranks right up there with my bird identification, that is to say, pretty abysmal.  I just take it for granite that rocks are gneiss.  Sorry, I just had to get that out of my system.  I feel much better now.

Actually, you can impress a lot of people by hefting a chuck of Icelandic rock, sniffing it, and saying, “Yep, that’s basalt.”  Because basalt, according to my good and wise friend Wikipedia, is “a common extrusive igneous rock formed from the rapid cooling of basaltic lava.”  Even I know that this means it is volcanic.  I even can point out columnar basalt like an expert because, duh, it forms columns. 

Them R columnar basalt.

M R columnar basalt.

more columnar basalt

more columnar basalt

A double whammy

A double whammy

Mr. Wiki goes on to say that “the crustal portions of oceanic tectonic plates are composed predominantly of basalt, produced from upwelling mantle below ocean ridges.”  Ding ding. That’s Iceland all over.

So here’s a few exciting pictures of rocks.

jigsaw puzzle rock

jigsaw puzzle rock

holy rock

holy rock

rock man

rock man

rock woman

rock woman

rock cairn

rock cairn

inside a rock

inside a rock

The game Rock, Paper, Scissors ought to include a hand motion for glaciers, because glaciers can put a hurting on some rocks.  Glaciers roll rocks, they round them, they gouge them, they crush them, they turn them into piles of gravel big enough to keep a road crew happy for decades.   Although glaciers are not very nice, they can be very pretty, except when they are covered with ash.  I guess that’s the way volcanoes get even with glaciers for messing with their progeny. 

beautiful glacial lagoon in front of beautiful glacier

beautiful glacial lagoon in front of beautiful glacier

dirty glacier

dirty glacier

Sitting on the crack of the world is not without its advantages.  Yes, there are hundreds of earthquakes each day and volcanic eruptions constantly threatening your vacation plans.  But think of all that free energy. 

free stuff

free stuff

Geothermal energy heats indoor plumbing and public pools all across Iceland.  The only energy crisis in Iceland is having too much all at once.  Enough energy to run televisions, video games, appliances, hair driers.  A teenager’s dream.  You just have to watch the voltage.

Brian on a rock

Brian on a rock





Great Alaskan Adventure: Part Two

18 07 2011

With only half an hour of darkness at this time of year, 4:30 AM was bright daylight, although it didn’t feel that way to Brian and Annalise, who experienced this phenomenon in order to be at the dock to go deep-sea fishing.  I left Marie to her own devices to be at the dock by 7:30 to catch my boat out to Fox Island where I would spend the day sea-kayaking.  Day Four in Alaska was shaping up to be a grand one, with yet another day of “cloud malfunction.”

On the boat to Fox Island, I talked with some railroad employees who were sight-seeing on their day off.  Add this to your “Small World” file:  turns out that one of them was from Aiken, and we even had some friends in common!  It wasn’t long before a whale was sighted off the starboard bow, and as we were scanning the waters for it, it breached right there in front of us.  After we picked our jaws up off the deck, we continued on, docking at Fox Island for some of us to get off.  I had signed up for the six hour kayak trip, and after meeting the guide, Daniel, I discovered that I was the only one on this trip and so would receive a personal guided tour!  We took off in our tandem sea kayak to circumnavigate the island. (If Magellan’s crew could circumnavigate the world, how hard could this be?)  Starfish jostled for spots on the waterline of the rocky cliffs, starring in photo after photo, until we rounded the bend to see a bald eagle perched high up on a limb of a Sitka spruce tree, its nest sprawling over several branches.  As we watched, an eagle feather floated down and landed in the water in front of us, a true gift of nature.   It wasn’t long after retrieving this feather that we were visited by a harbor seal who poked his head up to keep a cautious eye on us.   Daniel provided “edutainment” by identifying the various types of kelp, plants and animal life that we encountered.  As we came close to a spit of rocky shore left by a glacier (a terminal moraine), a river otter played tag with us, teasing us with one quick glimpse before submerging and resurfacing in a totally unexpected spot.  We pulled up on shore, got out, and stretched our legs.  In a sea kayak, I was told to keep my knees pressed outward on the sides for added stability, which in addition to the stability, caused my legs to become exceedingly stiff.  We explored the land and once again Daniel identified plant after plant: the chocolate iris, beautiful but smelly as an old shoe, wild celery, parsley, Devil’s Club, and cow parsnip with the curious ability to cause your skin to blister after exposure to sunlight.  Mermaid’s purses, otherwise known as skate egg cases, were all around on the beach, as were another couple of eagle feathers.  My collection of treasures increased.   We ate a bag lunch on the beach and stuffed ourselves back into the kayak.

Crossing over a narrow stretch of water to the land on the other side, we explored Resurrection Peninsula.  Puffy basalt cliffs gave evidence of volcanic activity, and Daniel’s vast knowledge of geology (his under-grad major) kept my curiosity satisfied.  A cascading waterfall into a little inlet lent the appropriate name “God’s Cove.”  Crossing back to the island, ocean waves failed to splash the perpetual grin off my face as we dipped and rolled in the water, although this was a relatively calm day on the bay.  

Rock Formations on Fox Island

The seaward side of the island was ocean-carved, with arches, erosional caves, and windows through to the other side.  Around the bend, we encountered a colony of puffins, murres, cormorants, and gulls who kept us entertained with their antics.  We surprised an oyster catcher on a rock and then were surprised in turn when we saw a fluffy chick scoot away.   I hated to see the dock in sight as we entered the harbor, having made it all the way around, a 14 mile kayak trip.  Looking up at the trees at the top of the cliff, I spied a bald eagle pair, a fitting way to end this glorious experience.

A bald eagle bade us farewell as we ended our kayak trip.

Before leaving the island, I partook of a salmon bake, along with the members of a day cruise who had disembarked on the island.  I spoke with an elderly Israeli couple who were vacationing in Alaska after having visited the states to see their children.  They too were headed to Talkeetna and then Denali.

Finally getting back to the RV around 6:30, I found that Brian and Annalise had also had a good day, having caught their limit of halibut.  Annalise was worn out and napped soundly until bedtime.  Marie had spent the day tootling around town, visiting the shops and seeing the sights.

Day Five saw us reluctantly leaving the Kenai Peninsula, driving north through Anchorage, wrinkling our noses as we passed through Sara Palin’s town of Wasilla, and finally pulling into the bush village-turned-tourist attraction called Talkeetna.  Gatlinburg on a small scale, Talkeetna’s claim to fame was that it was the launching point of Mt. McKinley climbers, with an added footnote of being able to pull tourist dollars out of wallets with scarcely a wince.  The streets were packed as people strolled from one gift shop to another in search of the perfect tee shirt or novelty toboggan hat.

The next day we drove to the airstrip where we had reserved seats on a flight-seeing tour.  Although the clouds from yesterday had broken up and blue sky appeared, we would not have been able to see the Mountain or land on a glacier.  We opted to try our luck later, and at 2:00, we hit the jackpot.  We would be able to do both!  Just as we donned our snow boots, the Israeli couple from Seward came in off their flight.  It was heartwarming to see their reaction to seeing me again–almost as if I were a long-lost friend.  We found it constantly amazing how easy it was to strike up conversations with fellow travelers, finding connections and forming instant relationships.

Eleven of us took off, flying first over tundra, taiga, and braided rivers draining glacial melt from the mountains.  The view out the window was stunningly beautiful:  at times I needed to pinch myself as a reminder that this was actually happening and was not some crazy 3-D IMAX movie.  We soared over valleys filled with glaciers and around steep craggy mountains, swooping close by a jagged rock cliff and skiing to a bumpy landing on a cirque glacier.  [This I now know:  There are at least three types of glaciers.  Tidewater glaciers like Holgate come right down to the ocean.  Valley glaciers form as “run-off” from nearby mountains, but don’t end in the ocean.  Cirque glaciers are round (hence the name) and form in depressions in the mountains.  End of lesson.]

View of rivers and rainbow

Breath-taking does not come close to describing the experience.  Stepping out onto the glacier was emotionally akin to Armstrong’s first step on the moon.  The surface was slushy, making us glad for the snow boots provided by the tour.  Sunglasses were a must, as glistening white stretched out ten football-lengths in width and at least two miles long.  We were surrounded on three sides by rocky cliffs stretching up impossibly high, forming ridges that embraced the ice field in an impassive hug.  Color assaulted our eyes: white, of course, but also the endless blue sky punctuated with more white from clouds like none I’d ever seen before, dark brown-grey rocks, and the eye-popping red of the aircrafts.  People from our plane as well as several others peppered the whiteness. 

Then the constantly-shifting clouds parted and there she was: Denali, the High One, officially Mount McKinley.  [Interesting fact: After having been Denali for lifetimes, all it took was one prospector in the late 1800s to “name” it for his favorite president.  Although the state of Alaska wants it called by its native name, members of the Ohio congressional delegation where President McKinley is from continue to block any change.  You know, we can’t undo all the wrongs done to our native inhabitants, but this one seems to be a no-brainer.]  Back in Talkeetna I had learned that Denali was the highest peak in North America, but is actually surpassed by some 400 peaks in the Himalayas.  Looking up, and up, and up, I found this hard to imagine.  I was comforted by the fact that while it may not be the highest (measured from sea level), it is one of the three tallest (measured from its base).  Take that, Mount Everest!

Denali is just over her left shoulder.

All too soon it was time to leave.  Although we would be closer as we headed north to Denali National Park, we would not see her again, as the High One chose to stay cloaked in her garment of self-made clouds.  I resisted the urge to bow down, but was reminded of human’s relative weakness when compared to the forces of nature.  Sometimes I need that reminder, that for all human’s inventions, innovations, and activities on this planet, the Force that created this universe and all that is in it is greater than anything we can comprehend.  Denali is a spiritual experience.





The Great Alaskan Adventure: Part One

17 07 2011

The loudspeaker blared, “Attention.  This is a tsunami warning.  Please tune to your local radio station for further instructions.”  Having spent the day on a scenic cruise of the bay, we were now parked in a row of  RVs overlooking Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska, which our tour guide had laughingly described as Seward’s Tsunami Barrier.  He had pointed out remnants of docks that had been destroyed by the last major tsunami that struck the area after the 1964 earthquake that registered 9.2 on the Richter scale.  As a matter of fact, we were parked directly in front of one of those docks.

This was Day Three in our Great Alaskan Adventure.  Brian, Annalise, and my sister Marie had flown in from Columbia, SC on Tuesday, June 21.  After a two hour flight to Chicago and another six and a half hour flight to Anchorage, we did some grocery shopping and then headed down the Seward Highway.  Pulling our RV off at a scenic overlook of Turnagain Bay, we camped overnight, heading out in the morning to the Kenai Peninsula.  The trip down was truly scenic, with numerous overlooks of raging rivers, glaciers, lakes, and drop-dead mountain views.  We drove into Seward by mid-morning and toured the Alaska Sea Life Center, a great introduction to the birds, fish, and sea mammals of the area.    After lunch in the RV, we drove down to Exit Glacier, where Brian, Annalise, and I went on a guided walk up to the foot of the glacier.  Late in the afternoon, we finally made our way to Miller’s Landing Campground, following a gravel road that hugged the side of the mountain beside the bay.  We were eager to take showers, not having had one since Monday evening.  The RV did have a shower, but it was comfortable only for slender teenagers.  Unfortunately, the campground showers also had a drawback:  $1 only bought 2 minutes of water, and we only had a few dollar bills between us.  Annalise and I doubled up, each sharing the water for a total of four minutes and taking care not to look at each other, rinsing off just in time before the water gave out.

Day Three dawned beautifully.  No, wait, there was no dawn.  This was the time of the “Summer Dim,” where it never really gets dark, only dim between 2:00-4:00 AM.  Regardless, the morning was a rare beautiful one.  “Severe cloud misfunction” our cruise announcer called it (a cloudless day, in other words.)    The cruise was glorious, leaving at 11:30 and returning around 5:30, we checked the following animals off our list: cormorants (three types), puffins (horned and crested), orca and humpback whales, Dall porpoises, salmon, mountain goats, otters, sea lions, harbor seals, common murres, kittywakes, and other sea birds.  We saw numerous glaciers, Bear Glacier being the biggest and the first.  We pulled in close to Holgate Glacier, listening and looking at the near-constant calving.  One of the crew used a pole net to go ice-fishing, scoring a huge chuck of glacier ice which he pulled in for use in making Glacier Margharitas (ours were virgin, of course).  What a rush, to eat ice from a glacier that had fallen as snow hundreds of years earlier!  We returned to the campground, our souls nourished with the beauty of our surroundings, making plans for the next day’s adventure.

It was at this point that the warning came.  After hearing the loudspeaker repeat its warning, we looked at each other in confusion.  I stepped outside to find other RVers doing the same.  The campground host had taken off, knocking on doors of nearby RVs to give them the warning.  We didn’t need any more convincing.  We drove off, following the tsunami evacuation signs that we had jokingly commented on earlier.  We reached high ground in minutes, one advantage to Alaska’s mountainous terrain.  We pulled over just in time to hear the message that it had been a false alarm.  Instead of destruction, all we had to show for the evening’s excitement was a “could have” story…what could have happened if there really had been a tsunami.  We returned sheepishly to the campground, glad of the falseness of the alarm.  (The next day we found out that a 7.2 earthquake had hit the Aleutian Islands, leading to the tsunami warning.)

Alaska gets about 50-100 earthquakes a day as the Pacific plate subducts under the North American plate.  As a matter of fact, the Earthquake of 1964 was 7.9 on the Richter Scale, two-tenths stronger than this year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  The ’64 Quake had changed the topography of Resurrection Bay, causing the land to sink about four inches.  Uncommon beauty amidst dangerous surrounding:  it was to become the theme of our time in Alaska.