Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Alaska — Summer of 2016

I'm in Chiang Mai again. It's wonderful to be back here on Soi 10 and reunited with my darling Nut. As soon as I could I jumped on my motorcycle and had a ride around our neighborhood. The smell of food cooking over charcoal fires scented the warm evening air and the welcoming smiles of Thais greeted me wherever I glanced. The weather in the afternoon is hot and muggy and will take some getting used to but evenings and mornings are fine and I'm getting back in the groove with my tennis coaching.
Summit Lake
My summer in Alaska was about as perfect as I could have wanted. The weather, up until August, was sublime. Living in my little RV gives me a joy that is hard to explain. A big part of that feeling is because it reminds me of the years when I first came to Alaska in that old Ford Econoline van. Another is because I like living near or just outside the limits of what most people consider essential — I don't need or want a big house, garage, patio, or a lawn. Hell, of the 33 years I've called Alaska my home, all but ten were without running water or indoor plumbing and they were among the best years of my life. My Winne does have running water, sort of, a kitchen and bathroom, sort of, but it's small and spare yet quite comfy for one person. Although I wouldn't like it in the cold darkness of winter, Alaskan summers are just about perfect for RV living and I made the most of it. This season I converted my too small dinette table to a makeshift desk by moving it to the front of the living space and retrieving my big office chair from storage. With this "desk" doubling as a kitchen table I can work and eat in comfort. On one rainy day when I was temporarily out of commission with a pulled leg muscle I stayed inside for 24 hours and made out quite well.

Several events unfolded over the past four or five months that weren't on my usual agenda. Just before leaving Thailand I had noticed an alarming development in my vision — there was a gray football-shaped area in my right eye accompanied by a blurriness that made reading difficult. I drove to Anchorage almost immediately after my arrival to see a retina specialist. In all, I made three trips up there for treatments. These consisted of injections, directly into the eyeball, of a drug designed to inhibit blood vessel growth in my retina. These extra vessels had leaked aqueous humor, the fluid that fills the eye, into the tissues near my optic nerve creating a sort of bubble which distorted my retina and caused the blurry vision. Why did they proliferate like that? Will it eventually lead to the feared macular degeneration that plagued my mom during her last years? The shots had a salutary effect and my vision has returned to near normal. Still, it's scary stuff.

As an aside, if I had had to make three long trips, five hours each way, in the lower 48 I probably would have been bored to tears. But this is Alaska where the intrepid traveler is constantly rewarded with scenes of unparalleled scenic beauty. On the last trip in mid-August, I drove the Winne and camped near Hope in the same spot where Tuli, Harper and I stayed last summer. It's a great site having a 5-star view with no other campers nearby and, to add frosting to the cake, it's also free.

Views from my Hope Road campsite (N60.92988°, W149.54192°)

Camping on the Resurrection River near Seward
The other issue that had me worried was sort of lack of balance I had been experiencing, most noticeably on the bike trip in Germany. Back in Homer, this began to manifest itself as a feeling of instability while walking, a loss of confidence in my ability to negotiate uneven ground. I literally fell flat on my face when exiting the Winne one evening. What the hell is happening to me?, I wondered. First the eyes, then this — we can all agree that getting old sucks but I suddenly seemed to be falling apart at the seams.

Then, during one of those trips to Anchorage I was talking with my friend Alisa Carrol, who happens to be a physical therapist, and learned from her that one's balance can be trained and tuned like any other physical skill, just as you can train yourself to hit ground strokes or volleys in tennis. I immediately obtained a referral from my doc for some PT sessions at South Peninsula Hospital in Homer. Working with Karen Northrop, a PT specialist there, my balance and stability began to improve almost instantly. She explained that certain muscles get lazy to the point of mild atrophy after a while and don't do the job they must to keep a person steady and upright. The simple exercises she prescribed have, to my amazement, allowed me to regain the balance I thought was lost to the ravages of old age. Now, every day I do my clamshell and calf stretches, my, for lack of a better term, one-leg dangles, my leg extensions, followed by a balancing act on a springy air cushion, all in hopes of delaying those ravages so I can walk confidently again and keep playing the game I love. I must add before leaving this topic that I now have insights about why so many older folks suffer traumatic falls, falls that often lead to death. Like me, their balance has probably been compromised and most of them are unaware of it. As active as I am at age 73 with my tennis program, I found I'll need to do more to stay in reasonable condition  unless I want to become one of those unfortunates.

Being in Homer means seeing old friends, lots of friends, and is a major reason I so enjoy returning to Kachemak Country every summer. The first few weeks are special because everyone I see runs over to trade hugs and greetings. I enjoy warm welcomes from my partners at Alaska Boats & Permits, and start doing day hikes with BFFs Kirk and Jambo.

Hiking with Jambo and Kirk

Party at Doug's — Alaska Boats & Permits hat circle
And then there's tennis. I left Alaskan winters behind so I could play tennis year round. Luckily the currency exchange rate between USD and Thai baht is tipped so much my way because that means tennis coaching in Thailand is relatively cheap. Coach Aoy, my Thai coach, is fantastic and has helped me improve my game significantly. A few years ago I had despaired of ever getting beyond the level I was at and had even, perish the thought, contemplated quitting . But over time and after many hours on the court with Aoy, my serve has become a shot I can count on instead of a liability and my ground strokes much more controlled and accurate. Each one-hour lesson costs about $9 USD so I can afford to have three lessons per week for under $30 USD. In Alaska, I would be laying out nearer to $200 for the same amount of time, and because regular tennis coaching isn't available in Homer, I'd have to be living in Anchorage to boot. Plus, I love playing tennis in Homer on a court that must rank in the world's top ten for scenic beauty with big, beautiful Kachemak Bay in the background and the formidable, glacier-studded Chugach Mountains behind that. It's an awesome venue and my buddies in the Homer Tennis Association are awesome as well. Here I'm flanked by two of them, Will Files and Chuck Widlowski.

Will, me and Chuck - our ages add up to 227 years!

Time to close this post. There are so many mapping chores ahead and I want to get at them. I discovered a new source of aerial imagery for Alaska and now I'm revisiting areas of interest (on the computer, that is) and adding geographic features that were previously obscured because only low quality Bing imagery was available. Let's see, the Matanuska River needs work, the area around Summit Lake, the Snow River Valley near Seward — the list is long. I'd better get going...

All the best from the Land of Smiles.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A visit to Iceland

First view of Iceland
Date: May 7-11, 2016

I went to Iceland because of Haldor Laxness, Iceland's only Nobel laureate, who wrote "Independent People", a book I came across when I was working at the Homer Public Library. On some now forgotten impulse I picked it up and began to read. Many years later it remains one of the most engaging and memorable books I've ever read. Set in Laxness' native Iceland in the early part of the 20th century it describes the life and times, and trials, of sheepherder homesteader Byartur of Summerhouses. I've been curious about this remote island ever since. My brief visit was an attempt to satisfy that curiosity.

Route 1 — southern coast of Iceland
It all came about because while searching Hipmunk for cheap air fares from Amsterdam to New York City, one from Icelandair jumped out at me because in addition to its low price and "agony rating" I found I could easily arrange a longer layover in Reykjavík for free. While mulling it over I made a Skype call to my buddy Kirk in Alaska who had worked in Iceland back in the 90s. His enthusiastic response convinced me to go ahead with my plan. I found and reserved a nice AirBnB apartment in Reykjavík for $85 USD per night, researched rental cars so I could get out into the country, and then promptly booked the flight and a car.

In retrospect my visit might have been warmer and sunnier had I been there during the summer months. In early May much of the island was still suffering a winter hangover with brown fields showing through the remaining snow. While the rural areas were beautiful they had a somewhat grim appearance owing to that. The brief glimpse I had later of the southern coast under blue skies was proof that no matter where you are in the world there is natural scenery to be enjoyed, especially when the sun is shining!

My first venture out of Reykjavík was to the northeast. I wanted to see one of Iceland's most famous waterfalls, Guillfoss, and the Þingvellir National Park (Thingvellir) which includes the historical site of Iceland's first parliament, the Alþingi (Althing). There have been Europeans on Iceland for a very long time — the first settlers arrived from Norway in about 874 CE — and the Alþingi first met in this valley beginning in 930. The area is geologically significant too as it includes a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Because of its cultural importance Þingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
(Note: Double-click on images for full size)

Site of the Alþingi, Iceland's first parliament, in 930 CE (N64.25740, W21.12113)
The Rift Valley at Þingvellir
I continued northward into the high country to see the Guillfoss waterfall. Along the way I stopped at a small market and bought a jar of pickled herring and some sandwich rolls. We used to follow an old German custom of eating pickled herring on New Year's Eve when I was growing up. I've liked the stuff since then. Of course, and all too obviously, there's not many foods I don't like. I made sandwiches of the herring and onions on buns and enjoyed a chilly but pleasant picnic lunch by the side of a small clearwater brook. The entire scene below could have been transported to Iceland from Alaska and I'd be unaware of the swap.
Picnic site on Route 37 (N64.24179° W20.66968°)
I got the following photos as the clouds began to give way to a bit of sunshine. Guillfoss means Golden Waterfall (foss=waterfall) and it was impressive.

Guillfoss (N64.32549 W20.1250)

Next I stopped to see the Skálholt Cathedral. It's been an important cultural and historical part of Iceland and the Church of Iceland for eight centuries. Here is its most recent incarnation.
Skálholt Cathedral (N64.12547 W20.52405)

Stone and sod church reconstruction near Skálholt Cathedral (N64.12547 W20.52405)
The next day was perfect. I woke early, saw cloudless skies, gulped down some tea and toast and was on the road by 7 am. Reykjavík is at 63° north latitude so the light comes early and stays late as it does in Homer, Alaska, (59° north) at this time of year. I had a longish tour planned, about 350 miles, and wanted to get an early start. My destination was a picturesque canyon having the totally unpronounceable name of Fjaðrárgljúfur (see the Notes below).

The ride was splendid, the scenery stunning, and to top things off the sun was warming the air just enough to have the windows part way down, with the heat on, that is. By the way, my rented Ford Focus had studded tires on all four wheels and the clicking sound they made on the pavement reminded me of the days when I had to swap my summer tires for studs every September — a chore I don't miss. Another is scraping windshields in the mornings. No thanks.
As I drove along I kept stopping to snap pictures as one jaw dropping scene after another rolled by. Waterfalls abound along Route 1 and the two I had on my list were in shadow on my outward trip but there were plenty of other cascades to gawk at.

After a few hours I was jonesin' for a cup of coffee and maybe some lunch. Coffee shops or cafes were few and far between after leaving Reykjavík so when I spotted a sign saying Black Beach Restaurant 6 km, I hung a right and headed south. It was just one of those random things, that turn, but as I crested a hill a lovely black-sand beach, Reynisfjara, came into view and stretched way off into the distance. The restaurant wasn't due to open for another 45 minutes so I walked down a short path to the beach to have a closer look. Nearby are two slender sea stacks guarding the entrance to a huge cave, Halsanefshellir, the ocean has carved out of the basalt. What a pretty spot this is. Tourists come from far and wide to see the beach and caves no doubt but I blundered into it unawares while thinking about a cup of coffee.

Reynisfjara Beach (N63.40401 W19.04778)
Catching Reynisfjara on such a beautiful day was a piece of luck. I took some photos, relaxed for a while in the warm sun, listened to the sea gulls crying overhead as they caught drafts and twirled around in the clear air. After that idyllic interlude I went to the restaurant and had a sandwich of Icelandic lox on a croissant before continuing my drive.

Rocky outcrop near Vik

I'm writing this in Alaska and so I'll toss in a photo of my dinner tonight. I eat a lot of fish while I'm here because the fish we eat is quite literally the best there is in the world. This is sautéed Alaskan salmon with baked potato and steamed chard.

Alaskan RV Dinner

Okay, back to Iceland.

I finally found myself at the canyon with the unpronounceable name, the canyon I'd just driven 170 miles to see, Fjaðrárgljúfur. It was scenic and cool but compared to the waterfalls that came later, a bit disappointing to my already jaded eye.

Fjaðrárgljúfur (N63.77223° W18.17203°)
I wandered around for a while and then started back to Reykjavík. I made pretty good time on the isolated and lightly traveled highway and before long I was back at one of the waterfalls I had passed on the outbound leg of my ride. I got there when the sun was at a perfect angle to make rainbows in the spray.

Skógafoss (N63.53226° W19.51153°)
Just a few miles down the road was another cool cascade, Seljalandsfoss, and it too had those magical spray rainbows caused by the slanting sunlight.

Seljalandsfoss (N63.61551° W19.99001°)
View from behind Seljalandsfoss
Seeing those waterfalls was a fitting end to my long field trip to the east and I'm happy I had such fine weather for it. The next day dawned overcast and chilly but I wanted to get out to see a hot spring so I dressed warm and headed to a thermal area south of the city. It wasn't a long ride but the countryside was dreary and there was light rain in the air. I stopped at Kleifarvatn, the largest lake on this western peninsula, before arriving at the Seltún thermal area. Here you can see the gloomy weather I had for my last two days in Iceland.

Route 42 and Kleifarvatn Lake (N63.91984° W21.97707°)
Iceland is volcanic in origin and there is evidence of its fiery past everywhere. Here is a shot of some solidified lava near the lakeshore.

Seltún in foreground, Kleifarvatn Lake in the distance
I climbed a rough trail from Seltún to a height of land hoping for some good views. Working my way back down the steep path was treacherous because the surface was covered with pebbles. I felt so unsteady in my smooth soled tennis shoes that I broke a cardinal rule of good hiking practice and moved over into the grassy areas bordering the path where I gingerly descended back to the boardwalk of the thermal park. The unsteadiness or ungainliness I felt on that descent seems to be new feature of my life that's been popping up now and again to haunt me. I do not feel as competent on rough terrain as I used to when I was younger — lately even a walk across a mowed lawn compels me to slow down and take small deliberate steps. Getting old sucks!
I continued my drive with a swing east on the 427 to the fishing port of Þorlákshöfn where I had lunch. The coast along here is so barren, so forsaken that one wonders whether a shipwreck survivor upon spying the desolate shore might not be inspired to turn around and swim back out to sea.

Coastal plain alongside Route 427
Above are some remnants of Iceland's volcanic past; you can see where molten lava flowed out of a break in the ridge. The foreground is littered with pillow basalt boulders and there is no leafy vegetation whatsoever — only moss and lichen can grow in such a harsh environment. Iceland has many active volcanoes and boasts one of the world's newest islands, Surtsey, which was formed by volcanic eruptions in the years 1963-68. Iceland's climate is significantly milder than nearby Greenland because warm ocean currents moderate the climate. Despite those "warm" currents, I got chilled during a short walk after lunch and was ready to head home soon after that.

Icelandic Feast by Tapas Barinn (N64.14866° W21.94205°)

I decided to eat out on my last night. I had read about a set menu style dinner called the Icelandic Feast being offered by several Reykjavík restaurants and I was anxious to try some of the foods on that list. At almost $70 USD it would be an expensive meal but I justified it by telling myself that I was only going to have this one chance to eat whale meat, and puffin, both traditional Icelandic foods, so I might as well go for it. After reading some reviews I decided on Tapas Barinn. I was not disappointed. It was quite a feast.
The whale meat was unlike any meat I've ever had, dark red with a very smooth texture and mild flavor. (They serve minke whale, which is supposedly a non-threatened species. Opinions vary on this topic.) The puffin was smoked and served cold with a blueberry glaze of some sort and was also very tasty. The meal was served as tapas, that is, small individual plates of the featured foods on the menu, each served with a small side of vegetables and a unique sauce tailored to enhance the particular food. I also had Icelandic lamb on skewers, some Icelandic cod, Arctic char, and several satisfyingly garlicky, jumbo shrimp, finished off with dessert and coffee. The meal was fantastic and the service polite and fast. Next time you're in Iceland, stop in and try the feast for yourself.


The Icelandic language:
The character "Þ" is pronounced something like "th" but that's only one of the oddities of the language. For example, trying the name Þingvellir with Google Translate produces this. Click the tiny speaker button beneath the left hand text box to hear it spoken.

Try this one too. It will better demonstrate the difficulty a foreigner would encounter if trying to learn the language.

Iceland has a population of 328,000 with 129,000 of those living in Reykjavík. Its land area is 39,690 square miles. By comparison, Alaska has a population of 730,000 and occupies 663,000 square miles. That works out to be 8.2 persons/sq. mi. for Iceland and 1.1 persons/sq. mi. for Alaska. Half of Alaskan residents live in Anchorage so overall Alaska is much less densely populated than Iceland even though the parts of it I saw seemed thinly settled.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Bicycling in Germany

I just returned from another bicycle tour in Europe and a visit to Iceland. (I'll cover the Iceland visit in another post.) The bike tour took us along the Moselle and Saar Rivers in Germany. And this time my son Tuli joined me making the trip an extra special occasion. We met at the Frankfurt Airport on April 26th and hopped on a train to Saarbrucken where the journey began on the following day. As before I had booked a fully catered tour (bikes, meals and hotel accommodations) through Eurobike, the Austria based company that arranged my Danube ride a couple of years ago. Because this tour was in Germany they handed it off to their German partner, Velociped, which made the hotel arrangements. As before, everything went off without a hitch. The accommodations were excellent overall, the food, especially the buffet breakfasts, was outstanding and the top quality touring bicycles functioned flawlessly. If you're thinking about making a similar tour, 7 nights in 4-star hotels with breakfasts, expect to pay about $1,000 USD. The tour company shuttled our luggage from hotel to hotel so we needed only carry our rain gear, water and lunch in a (supplied) waterproof pannier bag. Check the website links above for more information.

The one downside to our trip was the weather during our week on the radwegs (bike paths) — it was fairly chilly most days and there were intervals of rain. We had one exceptionally fine day, a couple that started out cold and cloudy but developed into fairly nice days later, and one nasty afternoon of heavy rain that soaked me pretty well. Tuli, who bikes in Eugene, Oregon, had better gear so he didn't get as wet as yours truly. A new lightweight rain jacket is on my list of things to buy this summer.

On the Saar Radweg, day 1- Saarbrucken to Mettlach

Typical section of the Saar Radweg

Tuli, dressed for chilly weather in North Face's finest

Tour boat — Saar River

Hotel Zum Schwan - Mettlach
We had a fairly nice ride to Mattlach although this first section of the bike path ran alongside a busy highway and through the heavily industrialized Saar Valley. Our first day was a 42 mile haul, the longest of this particular tour. We reached Mettlach in good spirits, checked in to our hotel and bought a dinner of pizza, toasted sandwiches and sparkling water from the bakery next door.

The next day dawned chilly and gray. We left the hotel rather late that morning but because this was a short segment, only about 26 miles, we thought we'd best wait for the overcast to dissipate. It didn't so we hesitantly set out for Trier at about 10:30 am.

Start of Day 2 - Tuli and I with Mettlach in the distance
This short portion of the Saar Radweg had a nice gravel surface

Tuli riding the Saar Radweg
We rode to Trier on this day and at about the half way point, transitioned from the Saar to the Moselle River valley. The day's ride was not all that long in miles but in the event not all that comfortable either. As some of you know, I did many training rides in Thailand last month, more than 300 miles worth, to get my body accustomed to a bike saddle. I had hoped to be less bothered by long hours on the trail than I had been on my Danube trip. It turns out the discomfort (sore butt) was not because of inadequate conditioning but because the saddles the bikes come with are, in some way, no good. I know that because Tuli is very used to riding, putting in 10-15 miles a day during his commutes to work, so I reasoned that if his butt was sore after only 65 miles of biking, the source of my discomfort must lie elsewhere. I suspect it's because the saddle shape, which looks like the wider seats found on ladies' bikes of long ago, are too wide for someone used to modern day (narrow) men's saddles. But whatever it is, the result was that both of us had sore tails at the end of the day. My strong recommendation to others, and my commitment to myself if I ever do one of these tours again, is to bring along a saddle I'm used to riding on and swap them before the ride.

The next day brought rain. We could see it coming but on a tour like this, one doesn't have the option to wait for better weather. Your next hotel has already been booked and paid for as have all the others after that one. You simply must get to that hotel, rain or shine.

Rain ahead on the trail to Piesport - Moselle River

In Piesport it rained steadily all night and into the morning so we once again were forced to start later than normal. We waited until we were sure the rain was finished before leaving the hotel at around eleven o'clock. The forecast was encouraging and sure enough, by the time we drove the 26 miles to Traben, got settled into our lovely hotel, the Weingut Trossen, the sun came out for a few photo opps before we sat down to dinner.

We were in the heart of the Moselle wine region now and the river valleys, literally every square foot of them, are covered with vineyards, vineyards that have been there since Roman times. Yesterday's hotel in Piesport, the Weingut Lehnert-Viet, and the Weingut Trossen, are both working wineries that have had accommodations added on. (weingut means winery in German). Wine was plentiful, cheap, and I'm sure, quite tasty. Alas, I did not imbibe because my appetite for alcohol, as for so many other things, knows no bounds. I quit drinking alcohol years ago so it's simply better for me to try to ignore the aggravating fact that although I'm traveling in Germany, the home of one of my favorite wines, the beloved Gewürztraminer, I'm unable to sample any of it.

Views from our hotel, the Weingut Trossen

No wine for me at the Weingut Trossen but happy nonetheless
The next day was by far the best of the trip. Beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures graced the entire day. We stopped often to bask in the warmth and watch the river sliding slowly by. The hills and vineyards shimmered in the sun and the Moselle Radweg provided many opportunities for rest stops.

Morning vineyard with grape harvesting machinery

Every possible square foot is used to grow grapes
Tuli rides the Moselle Radweg

These nice benches begged for a tryout
Reichsburg Castle - Cochem, Germany
We arrived at our hotel, the Karl Müller, at about 5:30 and had plenty of time for a walk around the charming town of Cochem.

The next morning was cloudy with rain threatening. The path ran close by a highway for much of the way to Koblenz making this segment seem somewhat disappointing compared to the wonderful ride we'd enjoyed the day before. And then the weather deteriorated. We searched for shelter as the first few drops of rain spattered the pavement and blundered into an older hotel, the Lellman, where we had coffee and apple strudel as we watched the rain pound down outside. Luckily, it soon quit and we were able to proceed under partly sunny skies to our last stop, Koblenz.

We had biked a total of 195 miles (314 km) in six days of easy riding, rainy days excepted. Our Moselle bike trip was over.

On the trail to Koblenz