Banff Day 6

Jasper.

The more remote, more rugged, less touristy, wilder sibling of Banff.

That was our destination Wednesday.  With the amount of snow that had fallen yesterday and over night, we opted for a start after sunrise (instead of our typical predawn travel) in order for the Alberta road crews to get the roads to a slightly more passable state. 

After another lost key fiasco we scuttled out of the parking lot and onto Highway 1.  One lane of the highway had been thoroughly scraped and graveled making progress easy as pie.  Hopeful for an easy drive up to Jasper we motored on.

Pit stop at the snow globe of Lake Louise, for the last glimmer of cell signal for a short conference call for work, and a quick walk up to the shore, then back into the Toaster for what was to be quite a stressful journey. 

In my mental route planning, the road to Jasper (which was not Highway 1) was a main highway that needed to remain open so that trucks and people could come and go between the two towns, in reality it was a two-lane road that was barely treated for snow and ice that cut through the Columbia Icefields.

An ice field is an expansive area of interconnected glaciers found in a mountain region.  The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains of North America.  Located in the Canadian Rockies astride the Continental Divide.  It is about 125 square miles in area, up to 1,198 feet in depth and receives up to 280 inches of snowfall per year.

Hmmm something I should have researched and considered since it was now November and winter was settling in. 

Highway 93 forked away from Trans-Canada 1 and was immediately a sheet of ice covered in a couple inches of snow.  To our ‘comfort’ there was a sign at the start of the road that gave a forecast of the current road conditions.  Good, Fair, Poor, Impassable.  Those were the options, each with a corresponding light.  Fair was our status.  So with our summer-tired Toaster we entered the icefields. 

Roughly 30 minutes in (and 90 from Banff) we passed a sign informing us that the next gas was in Jasper 230 kilometers ahead.  We had about half a tank, which at a constant highway speed on clear asphalt would have been easily achievable, but with the current weather and road surface, speeds would not be that high and MPG’s would be lower than needed.  Mercifully there was a gas station, but upon investigation we found that all the pumps had been wrapped with yellow tarps (apparently for the winter) leaving us in a bit of a pickle.

At approximately the midpoint of our journey we were equally likely to make it back to Banff as we were to Jasper, with our remaining fuel.  We decided to forge ahead (efficiently).

The further we drove the higher we climbed, the higher we climbed the colder it got (the car’s thermometer was reading deep in the double-digit negatives), the colder it got the snowier it got, the snowier it got the icier it got, the icier it got the slower I had to drive, the slower I drove the fewer mpg’s I got, the fewer mpg’s I got the less and less likely we were to make it to Jasper.

I’ve literally never been so stressed in my life.  Katie and I rode in silence with the occasional nervous chuckle when the road completely disappeared into the great white landscape. 

Sunwapta Pass was yet another obstacle that loomed in the distance.  The highest point on our journey.  10.5% grades in the best conditions would have been challenging for the Toaster; with sheet ice and summer tires those grades seemed insurmountable. 

With a constant stream of prayer I coaxed the Toaster up and up not daring to let it downshift for fear of losing traction.  We began the climb at about 60kph and reached the summit at nearly an idle speed.  While I was concerned about the uphill portion of the pass, I was afraid of the downhill.  Creeping over the hill like the front car of rollercoaster, I geared the car way down to avoid the brakes at all costs.  Easing our way down was less traumatic than I expected.  Hugging the mountainside to allow for skid correction before arriving at the unprotected cliffside, we crept down the pass. 

Rounding a blind corner on a quite steep section (maybe 7-8% grade), we were greeted by a snowplow sitting broadside in the middle of the road.  The driver was attempting to get out of the road and my way but was literally sliding sideways down the slope.  With the most gradual pressure I began braking (on asphalt there was enough space to stop twice over but on ice we were likely going to hit him, albeit slowly) Easing into the brake pedal as if I was stepping on a landmine I could feel the ABS about to kick in, meaning that my max deceleration was achieved.  Still not slowing down enough, I pressed a millimeter further and the ABS started clicking and clunking away, thankfully the plow had now slid far enough down to reveal a snowy shoulder that I knew would provide enough resistance to stop the Toaster.  I adjusted course only because of the Toaster’s stability control, and drove into the shoulder and stopped gently as if running into a pile of pillows. 

After the driver was able to stop sliding and get the truck reoriented on the road we continued on. 

Another hour and a half of driving through the arctic landscape, and we finally rolled into the sleepy town of Jasper.  After brimming the tank and releasing a huge sigh of relief we went inside the gas station/restaurant for some hot food and recuperation.

Our first hiking destination was Athabasca Falls, a waterfall that has cut a short gorge through the limestone.  Unfortunately because water levels were relatively low, the normally thundering falls weren’t quite as impressive as they reportedly are in spring and summer.  Katie and I made the best of it, enjoying the place mostly to ourselves, as we walked around exploring the different vantage points offered by the multiple overlooks along the trail. 

Eventually we decided to move on to the main event of our trip to Jasper, Sunwapta Falls.  I had seen this waterfall on a girl’s blog about the best hikes in Banff and Jasper, and was stunned by its beauty. 

Pulling into the parking lot I quickly packed up my gear anxious to see these falls that I’ve been drooling over for months. 

They were even more impressive than I had expected.  Everything was covered in several inches of snow and the island in the middle of the river right at the edge of the falls seemed like something right out of a fantasy novel.  It was like I had walked into a snow globe- it was simply breathtaking.

After stretching Katie’s patience with endless minute composition and exposure adjustments, I began to slowly pack up my gear, admittedly a little disappointed to be leaving this magical place so quickly. 

Back in the Toaster we braced ourselves for a treacherous drive back to Banff. 

With a full tank of gas and the road condition sign now reading ‘Poor’ we entered the icefields.  The weather that afternoon was erratic: blue skies and blinding sunshine, then instantly almost darkness due to the thick snow clouds overhead, then virtually whiteout where I could only see a few yards in front of the car, and then back again to blue skies.  It was exhausting. 

With even more snow on the roads it was impossible to tell where the edge of the road was, leaving me to gradually weave until I found the rumble strips in the center or shoulder.  I quite literally was driving by braille. 

After many hours and well after dark we crunched our way back into the parking lot at the Beaver Cabins, thankful to have made it back warm and in one piece. 

After Katie made dinner I was so completely burnt out from driving in those conditions all day I went to bed at 8:30.

Banff Day 5

Sitting in the cozy warmth of our cabin watching the cold winter light start to pour in the window, we tried to figure out where we could go hiking that day.  With the jet stream ‘plunging’ (the weather channel’s term, not mine) the temps were forecast to be well below freezing for the rest of the week, and close to zero by the weekend.  With the plummeting temperatures, the snow had begun to fall. 

 

Snow fall in Banff, meant that the higher elevation trails- aka the majority of the trails that offer great vantage points- would either be too icy and snowy to traverse without ice cleats or snow shoes, and then because of the weather system that had settled into Bow Valley visibility was only a mile in town and far less up in the mountains. 

 

We decided on a seemingly easy hike to Sherbrooke Lake.  We had an early lunch and then set off.  The further we drove northwest into the park, the further the temperature dropped, and the harder it began to snow.  The road began to accumulate a couple inches of ice and snow, but our little Toaster (our nickname for our rental car) kept forging ahead.

 

Pulling into the trailhead parking lot, after a bit of nail biting, we took stock of the weather with what was left of my cell signal.  We emerged from our heated seats out into 22 degrees, snow, and a sustained 10+ mph wind.  Quickly dawning our extra layers, jackets, and hard shells, we marched across the already mostly frozen parking lot to the trail. 

 

Climbing almost 1000 feet through half a foot of snow and ice in the snow and wind caused even me to question what the heck we were doing out there…

 

Happily Katie stuck it out and we made it to the lake in about 90 minutes.  Halfway there Katie had said “this lake better not be completely frozen over.”  It was most definitely completely frozen and covered with snow.  It was also snowing pretty hard up there in that little valley, and it was windy, and I had forgotten my granola bar victory snack in the car because of a lost keys fiasco back in the parking lot.  So both very cold, and now hungry with an icy downhill hike between food, and us we packed up our gear and retreated from the Arctic-looking landscape. 

 

Back at the car we enjoyed hot coffee and the sensation of warmth seeping back into our outer extremities, before setting off on the ice road. 

 

Unsure if the Toaster would be able to handle this level of ice and snow with its standard all season tires, I crept out of the parking lot and coaxed the car up the pass that separated us and the well maintained road surface of Highway 1.  Thankfully the road crews had done some preventive graveling which gave the tires something to grip on the way up and down the pass. 

 

Weathered and completely over wearing four or more layers of clothing, we trampled into the cabin, hurriedly pulling off raincoats and insulated jackets and gloves and scarves, and beanies, and the list goes on…

 

Finally with our toes and fingers and noses warmed up we relaxed with another cup of coffee, before Katie started her signature chicken and broccoli for dinner. 

Banff Day 4

Merged back onto Trans-Canadian 1 yet again, heading northwest toward Lake Louise. 

 

After 40 minutes of ‘wows’ and countless photos taken through the windshield we rolled into the little hamlet.  Arguably the most touristy spot in all of Banff.  Big parking lots with tour buses, café’s and a huge hotel on the shore of Lake Louise.

 

Gathering up our gloves and gear out of the back seat I realized that I neglected to bring my tripod (90% of my landscape images are taken with my dslr are on a tripod) so I was less than thrilled and already annoyed. 

 

The swarms of people didn’t help my frustration, so we decided to hike the two-kilometer trail along the shore to the far side of the lake to get out of the crowds. 

 

On the far shore, stretching back into the foot of the surrounding mountains was the outwash plain from the six glaciers above the lake.  It was covered with above seven inches of partially frozen and very crunchy snow.  As I ‘post holed’ Katie scuttled along the icy trail along the perimeter of the plain. 

 

We finally reached a point where there were no people around, giving us some breathing room, which allowed my tripod frustrations to dissipate.  Finally able to enjoy the magical ‘snow-globe’ we were a part of, we simply stood there in aw of the mountains and glaciers and deep blue water and the way the light danced and glinted all through the valley. 

 

With hunger driving us, we hustled back toward the car and more importantly our lunch. 

 

After a peanut butter sandwich we hit the road.  Destination was Kootenay National Park’s Marble Canyon. 

 

We were both feeling groggy after lunch and a warm car ride, but as we stepped onto the trail we saw the CLEAREST water we’ve ever seen.  Seriously if it wasn’t for the turbulence turning some spots white, there would be no indication that there was even water in that stream bed.  Excited and surprised we suddenly had renewed spirits and scampered up the trail toward the canyon. 

 

Despite its name the canyon is actually comprised of crystallized limestone.  This slot canyon was formed by tectonic pressure causing an upward bulge in the ground, which eventually cracked creating a space through which Tokkum Creek has slowly eroded a masterpiece. 

 

The trail had multiple bridges allowing access to the other side of the canyon, which helped to see all the different twists and turns the water had carved.

 

Reaching the top of the canyon, where the ground leveled out and the steep walls shrank back into the ground, we turned around and headed back down the trail.

 

Later that night, with clear skies overhead I drug Katie out into the subfreezing darkness to get some shots of the pristine starry sky over Lake Minnewanka.  After about an hour of frozen fingers and toes we hurried back to our cabin for some hot chocolate. 

Banff Day 3

Pulled into the parking lot at Johnston Canyon at 8:00am and pulled on an extra layer because it was definitely cooler than back at the cabin.

 

Onto the trail we went in the predawn light.  

 

The sound of rushing water and the smell of evergreens filled the air, as we plunged into the forest.

 

Over thousands of years Johnston Creek cut through this limestone forming an impressive canyon. 

 

The ‘trail’ is pretty impressive as well.  It’s made up a series of bridges, catwalks, and natural tunnels that crisscross above the river, providing hikers with a constantly varying view of the sheer walls of rock and rushing river below. 

 

For quite some time Katie and I had the lower falls completely to ourselves.  Our photo and video gear was spread out as we had been moving to get different angles and compositions.  Without warning, a huge group of people arrived.  Streaming across the bridge they lined up to get their shot of the falls.  We scrambled to gather up all of our bags and gear so that it wouldn’t be trampled.

 

But then, as quickly as they appeared, they migrated further up the trail toward the upper falls, leaving Katie and myself somewhat dazed with what had just happened. 

 

I set up for one last shot of the falls, then packed things up and headed back down the trail toward the car.

 

Back at the cabin we unpacked, changed, gobbled down a quick lunch and then headed to the Eric Harvie Theater to view four films at the International Film Festival.  

 

Ascend was about a man who lost his leg to cancer, and discovered mountain biking as a means of coping with the stresses of life.

 

Beyond Summits was about the spiritual aspect of extreme mountaineering, and what pushes these athletes to risk it all.

 

Tarfala was a German film about a Swedish man living for six months of the year in a remote alpine hut north of the Arctic Circle, and the interplay between his stark solitude and the role he plays as a caretaker and host for adventure seekers.

 

Lunag Ri depicted the physical and mental struggle of Nepalese climber David Lama and climbing legend Conrad Anker, as they attempted the unclimbed peak of Lunag Ri.

 

After the inspiring films we went out to scout a location for some astrophotography later that night.  Up a steep hairpin road we drove, in search of a clearing several hundred feet above the town of Banff.  The clearing looked out over Highway 1 toward the town nestled at the base of Sulphur Mountain. 

 

With the location determined we headed back to the cabin for some rest and dinner before the next film showing at 7:00.

 

Blood Road follows the journey of ultra-endurance mountain bike athlete Rebecca Rusch and her Vietnamese riding partner, Huyen Nguyen, as they pedal 1,200 miles along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail through the dense jungles of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Their goal: to reach the crash site and final resting place of Rebecca’s father, a U.S. Air Force pilot shot down over Laos some 40 years earlier.

 

Back at the cabin we double and triple-layered our base layers in preparation for a cold, windy mountaintop.   Once back up in the clearing we were stunned by the brightness of the half moon.  Our shadows were crisp and dark just like they are during daylight hours. 

We didn’t even need our headlamps!  

 

After several different attempts at framing the picturesque city I threw in the towel.  The moon was simply too bright and was washing out the sky making the stars appear very faint in the velvet black sky. 

 

In the car, we coasted down the switchbacks and rolled back into town. 

Banff Day 2

4:45 and we were both up and scurrying around getting our gear together.

 

After a last minute weather check and pulling on a few more layers, we scraped the windshield and hopped in the car.

 

With two and a half hours until sunrise it was still very much night.  The high beams on our tiny rental car struggled to cut through the inky darkness as we headed north on the completely empty Trans-Canadian Highway.

 

Our destination was Peyto Lake; which is ranked as one of the most photographed lakes in the world.  With light beginning to reveal the outline of the mammoth peaks, I pushed the accelerator a little further. 

 

With only a few kilometers to go, we passed a car pulled over at an overlook.  It seemed out of place on the seemingly abandoned highway, so I slowed down enough to let my eyes adjust so that I could see what the overlook overlooked. 

 

Bow Lake. 

 

Sitting there in the crisp cold of an early winter’s morning, backed by the Waputik Range, was a beautiful lake with stars sparkling brightly enough to reflect off the mirror surface of the water. 

 

I whipped the car around telling Katie that I’d try to be quick.  Jumped out grabbed my camera, twisted on my trusty 16mm f/2, yanked my tripod out of the floorboard and hustled over to the snow bank that lined the edge of the turn out. 

 

Composed my shot through the dim viewfinder and set my focus to infinity, and clicked the shutter release.  30 seconds later I was shown a very dark image on the back of camera that promised a great shot.  After a few tweaks to exposure, composition and focus I got this image. 

 

It’s not great, it’s underexposed and was pretty rushed, but it will always be my first serious picture I took in Banff National Park. 

 

Happy enough, I packed the camera and collapsed the tripod and jumped back in the car.  Racing the light we pulled onto Highway 1 and set our sights on Peyto Lake.

 

Ten minutes later we crunched our way into the snowy parking lot.  Gloves, beanie, scarves, packs, and poles.  We headed into the fading darkness and up the snowy incline. 

 

Not fully sure where we were and where we were headed we took a side trail once the slope leveled out because we knew the lake was more to our right.  Down some icy steps and through a snowy forest.

 

Then suddenly, and even more magically than it had looked in the hundreds of images that I’ve seen over the last year of Instagram stalking, there it was.

 

Peyto Lake.

 

Fed appropriately by Peyto Glacier, and in the most breathtaking shade of turquoise it sat there in the silent winter blue hour.  It didn’t even look real, the blue of the water, the black of the mountains contrasting with the pure white snow and the soft pink sky… it was just perfection. 

 

Having had a diamond ring for almost two months waiting for the right moment to pop the question I knew that there wasn’t going to be a better location to ask Katie to marry me. 

 

After much waiting for people to come get their picture and leave, I conceded that we would never be by ourselves on that summit, so I dropped (more accurately slipped because of the ice) to one knee and proposed.  Even though I knew what the answer would be, it was quite terrifying.

 

She said yes!

 

After hugs and selfies and a few more shots of the incredible lake we retreated back down the mountain to our car’s heated seats. 

 

Upper Waterfowl Lake was next with a hike along the glacial river to the partially frozen lake. 

 

Heading south again we stopped at Bow Lake for lunch and some proper freshly engaged selfies.  A couple hours drifted by as we filmed and shot different aspect of this majestic lake. 

 

Emerald Lake was suggested by a fellow photographer earlier that morning at Peyto Lake, so we took his suggestion and set our sights on this gem in the heart of Yoho National Park.

 

Pulling into the parking lot we were officially feeling the fatigue brought on by an early morning.  With a half-hearted exploration of the lakeshore we hurried back to the car trying to beat the tour bus out of the parking lot. 

 

Back to Banff for some pasta and hot chocolate, and then bed.

Banff Day 1

3:30am and the alarm starts its wail.  20 minutes later I finally drag myself out of bed and finish packing.

 

Out the door at 5:00.

 

Picked up Katie at 5:45.

 

At the airport by 6:10.

 

Wheels up at 8:05 and onward to Toronto.

 

Touch down in Toronto with a 90-minute layover.

 

Final destination at 2:15.  YYC.  Calgary, Alberta.

 

Bags, check.  Rental car, check.

 

Banff was an hour and a half and two stops away.

 

Early dinner for our east coast stomachs and some groceries for the week, then we continued our drive into Bow Valley.

 

Nestled in the valley surrounded by 10,000+ foot snow-capped peaks is the little town of Banff.  Quaint, picturesque, cozy, and stunning, were just some of the words that flashed through my head as we rolled into town. 

 

Checked into the ‘Elk Cabin’ on Beaver Street (literally all of the streets in Banff are named after animals!!) and set about checking the weather and pouring over the maps to plan out our week.

 

We both agreed that an early start would be better than a late night, so we turned in early… after a bit of Netflix. 

Photos courtesy of Katie Hawkins

Mexico Mission Day 7

Early morning alarms signaled a new day beginning. 

 

Shuffle out.

Coffee.

Breakfast.

Bone-rattling van ride.

 

Despite beginning the same as the four previous days, we were on our way to Julian’s house to help the masons lay the block.  There was an air of excitement in the group as we bounced down the dirt track road.

 

Upon arrival it was decided that to ease the language barrier between the masons and us gringos, Gabby and Jackie would be taught how to lay the brick and then through example would show us how it needed to be done. 

 

We quickly all fell into a rhythm with each person finding a portion of the process that they could help with.  There was dirt that needed to be made into muddy slurry for the ‘mortar’; brick also had to carried from the side of the road where we had been dropping them off all week.  Then the brick had to be handed up to the people on the scaffolding, along with buckets of the mud.  Then there were the mud application specialists (people who poured the mud and picked out the rocks) and last but not least the one’s who were actually putting the block into place. 

 

Having the opportunity to use the bricks we had been making all week, and to contribute to the physical construction of the house became the highlight of the trip for several members.  Over the course of the day we laid about 540 blocks and completed the long exterior wall. 

 

Because we had been invited to the community outreach event that Calvary Chapel was hosting at the Mission School we had the leave a little earlier than normal so we could have time to get cleaned up and make it back in time.  Gregory, who had broken off from the block team to help the masons and Julian build the wooden forms and pour the concrete structural members, decided that he wanted to stay and help for a few more hours, instead of going back to shower and change.  As we pulled away Greg wondered aloud “when did my boy become a man?”

 

Reunited at the Mission School a few hours later, we watched as the residents from the neighborhood we had been driving through all week streamed in. 

 

Gregory and Pastor Bill decided that they would go out and walk the streets while Gregory played his saxophone (in order to draw people out of their houses) and then they could invite them to the event.  Doing this allowed Gregory to see firsthand Bill’s heart for the community; he later told us that Bill knew most of the names and stories of the people and families, in the neighborhood. 

The night was filled with worship, clowns, food, fellowship, and the yips and laughs of nearly fifty kids. 

Once the children were corralled inside for their bible lesson, we finally had the chance to hand out the sunglasses that Greg had ‘smuggled’ in.  As we passed them out to the niños and niñas the reactions ranged from bashfulness to pure joy.  We snapped pictures and took videos of the all the smiling kids eager to show off their new shades.

 

Here’s an excerpt from a brief moment when I was struck by the contrast of God’s ‘light’ and the surrounding ‘darkness’:

 

Standing in the corner of the open-air second floor of the mission school during the outreach program:

The streetlights flicker on and the sun slips out of sight. The lights dotting the mountainside in front of the mission school begin to shine brighter in the fading light, revealing the number of people living in this impoverished area of Puerto Vallarta. Across the street and currently at my eye level clothes hang on a line on the open second story of the hacienda.  The pant legs and t-shirts gently sway in the cool night breeze and are brightly illuminated by the street light directly next to them. The juxtaposition of grassy well-manicured lawn covered by clowns balloons and laughing children, with the poverty stricken surrounding neighborhood and the housing that dots the hillside leading up to the majestic tree covered Sierra Madre Mountains, is nothing short of staggering.

Mexico Mission Day 6

Mexico Day 6

 

With sore backs and heavy arms we pulled ourselves out of bed, and set out for the Mission School.

 

Our objective for the day was to get as much dirt from the driveway and the road as was possible.  Both of the piles of dirt had been there for at least a year and were severely compacted to the point where the dirt from the pile had become indistinguishable and more taxingly, inseparable from the earth on which it had been dumped. 

 

Using a pick ax we took turns chopping the mounds into manageable clods, until the limit of our stamina was reached.  Once picked, we fired up El Torro (our nickname for the rototill) and exerted what energy we had left to ‘riding’ The Bull.  After the clay was broken up, the shovel team moved in to load the dusty clay into a never-ending series of empty buckets.  The haulers then carried the buckets- sometimes two at a time- to our makeshift-mixing bowl, which was nothing more than a ten-foot, roughly circular, divot that had resulted from removing too much dirt from the pile in the gravel driveway.  Once the powdery dry dirt was dumped into the ‘pot’ some very wet dirt from a different pile in the yard was added and then rototilled a second time to get the moisture content to the right level, so that the bricks would hold together.  As soon as the Dirt Moisture Inspector (an unofficial title for a non-existent position) signed off on the quality of dirt, Old Bessie was brought to life while shovel team B moved into position.  With the Hoppa (the person responsible for manning the hopper into which the dirt was loaded) on his perch the shovelers started filling the hopper.  Old Bessie would crank out the bricks until the mixing pot was empty, and then we would begin that whole process again.

 

Difficult…

maybe painstaking,

and definitely drudgery could be used to describe our day. 

 

However, despite the fatigue, despite the heat, despite the monotony, and despite the exhaustion, smiles and laughter abounded throughout the team.  Perhaps it was because we were nearing the end of the brick making and could finally stand back and physically see what our work had accomplished in the removal of two huge piles of dirt, or it might have been our seeing the bricks being laid at Julian’s house, and finally being able to recognize that our repetitive production work was for a greater good.

 

Whatever it was, the morale stayed high, right up when the last brick was lifted from the out feed rollers of Old Bessie.

 

With Bessie repositioned (no small task) to the edge of the driveway, the ground was re-graded and the school grounds were raked and swept for the last time. 

 

As we loaded into the van I looked back and finally saw a schoolyard instead of a construction zone. 

Mexico Mission Day 5

Hump Day. 

 

This is the day that Tom warned us about.  The day where soreness and exhaustion would cause a severe drop in patience resulting in the inevitable frustration and potential argument. 

 

After consulting with Pastor Bill, the night before, about the leaking piston, Tom decided that the best use of our time was to run the machine and make as many brick as possible before it gave out completely.  Luckily Old Bessie had a large reservoir for hydraulic fluid meaning that we could afford to loose several gallons before the pressure began to decrease.  This allowed us to make bricks all day.

 

I’m happy to report that despite making bricks for the third day in a row, our Wednesday went better than Monday and Tuesday.  Yes we were all physically tired, but we had finally gelled during the brick making process.  Everyone had learned what he or she was best at and more importantly which jobs were more taxing than others. 

 

The most encouraging thing to see was the way in which the team watched out for one another.  When someone showed signs of overheating or fatigue, one of the other members was quick to tap that person out.  This process prevented any one person running him or herself into the ground. 

 

We learned that taking a break for a few minutes every hour or so was vital for the well-being and moral of the group.  After every breather we all jumped in, with refreshed energy levels and were able to continuing pumping out 5 bricks a minute.

 

Julian had finally been able to locate a mason to begin laying the bricks at his house, so the house was finally being built!

 

Each time we took a trailer load of bricks over to the house site we were able to see the progress the masons were making.  Finally, after four days of making brick (seemingly without a purpose) we could literally see the fruit of our labor being put to use- we could see the very real way in which we were contributing to this house-building effort.  Being able to see the masons installing our bricks and completing sections of Julian’s walls, gave us the mid-week boost in energy that we desperately needed.

 

After work we quickly showered ate and made our way to Calvary Chapel for their Wednesday night bilingual service. 

 

Sarah got a chance to test out her Spanish because she was asked to sing during worship, while Gregory and Greg played their respective instruments and Gabby played kahone. 

The message pastor Bill gave was about Matthew chapter 5 and being the salt and light of the earth.

 

We left encouraged that we had the same calling as those original 12 so many years ago, and were excited to see what God had in store for the rest of the week.

 

Mexico Mission Day 4

Sleepy shuffle across the eight lanes of traffic to get to Tom and Deb’s condo for breakfast.

 

Before heading out, we took a few minutes to worship, and give thanks for the day ahead.

 

We pulled into the Mission School feeling energized and ready to work.  We buddied up and were assigned stations.  Brick stackers, Brick transporters, Diggers, Bucket Haulers, and Bucket lifters.  Those were the five jobs that we spent the day rotating through. 

 

After roughly three hours of full steam operation, someone noticed that the main ram that pushes upward to do the majority of the compacting was leaking hydraulic fluid.  Being such a large piston (about 6 inches in diameter) we doubted that Pastor Bill had a replacement, so we opted to focus our energies on transporting the almost 400 brick over to the job site.

 

With 130 twelve-pound bricks loaded into the rickety trailer, we hitched up the older of the two vans and piled in. 

 

We scraped, squeaked, crashed, and rattled our way to Julian’s house.

 

Once there, we formed multiple human chains to the different stacking locations on the property, and emptied the trailer at a breakneck pace.

 

After a quick lunch, and a consult with Pastor Bill, we decided to spend the rest of the day making trips back and forth to the job site to deliver the bricks that had already been made, instead of continuing to run the leaking machine.

 

Unhitch the trailer.

Push it up the driveway.

Back the van up and re-hitch it to the trailer.

Human chain to load the trailer.

Pull the van and trailer out of the driveway.

Scrape.

Pile into the van.

Bounce down the road.

Arrive and Julian’s.

Human chain to unload the trailer.

Pile in.

Bounce down the road.

Arrive at the Mission School.

And repeat.

 

I lost track of the times we went through this process. 

 

With smiles and relieved spirits we made our final trip for the day, and headed back to clean up the schoolyard and kitchen. 

 

With everything picked up, we piled back into the van and headed off in search of showers and something to eat.

Mexico Mission Day 3

Woke up before the sun.

 

Consumed a quick breakfast and then piled into the van.  As it bounced and squeaked its way out of the bustling tourist-laden center of Puerto Vallarta, we were all anxious to begin building Julian’s house. 

 

Within ten minutes the multi-story hotels and restaurants began to disappear and we found ourselves driving along a rutted muddy road lined with makeshift shelters consisting of tarps, branches, and palm fronds.  The locals stared as we rolled by.

 

There was a hush that had fallen over the van as those of us who had not been on a mission trip before took in the 3rd world.  The most striking aspect of the people was the fact that very few looked discouraged or sad- they still seemed to maintain a level of joy inside them, which I found to be incredibly humbling. 

 

Our first stop was Outside the Bowl, which is a super kitchen that supplies VERY inexpensive (like 50 cents a meal), well-balanced and delicious (we got to sample some of what they were making) meals to churches, schools, and organizations in the area.  They are relatively new to the area and are not yet at full capacity, but they hope by summer to be able to put out over 1000 meals a day.  There are sponsorship opportunities available on their website outsidethebowl.org

 

Back in the van we banged and crashed along the “road” to see Julian’s house and the progress that had been made so far.  The foundation had been completed and the walls had all been started, but were only about three or four feet tall.  Deb explained that they estimated 7000 more brick were needed to complete the house.  After a brief ‘buenos dias’ with Julian, who was there organizing materials and tools, we got back in the van and headed for the mission school. 

 

We met pastor Bill outside and he began to explain the process of brick making and more importantly the specific moisture content and consistency of the dirt needed to make the brick.

 

After endless rototilling and shoveling the dirt was finally ready to be made into bricks.

With an assembly line formed, the machine began to pump out bricks at about 5 bricks a minute.  We hit number 97 and the machine began to spew out hydraulic fluid from one of the pistons responsible to compacting the dirt. 

 

Pastor Bill drove off to retrieve a replacement ram that he just happened to have, so a few of us set about the task of disassembling the machine and removing the piston.  Within the space of a few hours we had completely broken down the hydraulic ram and determined that there were three seals that had gone bad, and put the new ram onto the machine.

 

Ol’ Bessy lived again!

Once she was up to full steam, we hustled and shoveled and hauled and carried for a few more hours until we were at our quitting time.  Our final number of bricks for the day was somewhere between 380 and 400, which according to Tom meant we were operating faster and at a more efficient pace than he had in the past with prior teams. 

 

The day held many obstacles but God knew exactly how he wanted us to face and overcome them.  It’s been very encouraging to see the patience and flexibility of the team put to the test.

 

-- Pictures Coming Soon -- 

Mexico Mission Day 2

Went to Calvary Chapel this morning.

 

We walked through the drizzle and arrived a few minutes early, so we waited for the first service to wrap up.

 

Walking into the small building, the feeling of family hospitality was the first thing I noticed about the single room church.  As is common in small churches, our skills were put to work.  Greg Sr. and Jr. were asked to play in the band and I was asked to run sound so that the typical sound and media guy could play electric guitar to round out the band.

 

The sermon given by Pastor Bill was about Genesis 3 and the fall of man.  It was far more in depth and expanded than I had ever been taught.  He related the fall of Adam and Eve to every person’s struggle to choose to believe God’s word and what He says about His children.

 

We had the opportunity to meet Julian and his wife Mavii, who’s house we will be building this week.  Gregory noted how shy and humbled he was by our team coming to help do this for him.

 

For lunch we walked down along the Malecone, which is the ocean-side strip that runs for several miles and is a hotspot for the locals.  As our late 3-hour lunch slowly turned into our early 3-hour dinner our plans for the nights activities began to dissolve into a quiet night of rest to prepare for the week ahead.

 

We caught a bus across town so Gabby wouldn’t have to walk on her severely blistered feet, once back at our rooms we quickly decided to pop down to a nearby beach to watch the sunset. 

 

Gregory played softly on his saxophone while the warmth evaporated from the sky.  We all sat silently staring out at the vastness of the pacific. 

 

Our day was slow-paced and uneventful, but full of fellowship with one another.  It has been very exciting getting to know one another outside of the few hours each Sunday morning. 

 

Mexico Mission Day 1

4:30am alarm for 9 of the 11 members of the mission team heading to Puerto Vallarta today- the other two (Tom and Debra) left a few weeks ago to get things set up and be sure that the equipment needed for the build was functioning.

 

After a groggy rendezvous in the church parking lot we were on the road.  With hopeful hearts and excited spirits we rolled into the international terminal of Hartsfield Jackson. 

 

We piled out of the two minivans, unloaded the luggage, had a moment of silence for the team shirts (that got ruined in the wash the night before), took a quick group photo and then herded ourselves into the bustling atrium.

 

Checked in.

Baggage dropped.

Security secured.

 

Down the escalator and quickly onto the plane train.

Off the plane train, and up the escalator.

 

Arrived at the gate 15 minutes after boarding had begun.

 

A few of us darted off to grab some much-needed breakfast. 

 

Reunited we began our shuffle down the jetway and onto nonstop flight 397 to Puerto Vallarta- no turning back now.

 

After a bumpier-than-normal three and a half hours we hit the ground in Mexico.

 

Off the plane and onto a bus.

Off the bus and into a hallway.

 

More waiting.

 

Now for immigration… With everything going on the American government there was little anxiety in a few of the members as to the accuracy and completeness of their necessary immigration forms.  Happily; however, we were all stamped into Mexico without any concerning glances from the Immigration Officer. 

 

On to customs… 8 of the 9 traveling made it through without a worry, but Greg Michael, our resident black marketsunglass dealer was stopped because he had over 50 pairs of sunglasses in his suitcase (you’ll find out why in a few days).  After explaining their purpose and supposed price the customs officer determined that Greg would need to pay the tax on the items.  The total came out to 250 pesos. 

 

Reunited once again on the chaotic sidewalk outside the entrance to the airport, we made our way to our van. 

 

Hungry, hot, and tired we crammed our luggage and ourselves into the van and plunged into the peak season rush hour traffic. 

 

Soon we arrived at the unassuming Hacienda Vallarta, where 6 of the group were staying.  We checked in and took a much needed breather from the day of travel.

 

We rendezvoused at Tom and Deb’s condo, exchanged dollars for pesos, then piled back into the van for what was promised to be an excellent dinner. 

Pulling up to the open air, blue-tarp-roofed 'restaurant' complete with chickens and plastic patio furniture, left us a little unsure of what we had gotten ourselves into.  2 hours later we all agreed that it had been the most enjoyable dining experience any of us had ever had.  Yes the food was exceptional and very affordable, but the way in which the servers treated us like family or friends they had known for years.  It reminded us of being at a friend’s home where they go WAY out of their way to make sure you’re completely satisfied and happy.  In spite of the underwhelming appearance, the dinner not only filled our stomachs but also our souls, and left us feeling like we had been welcomed into this wonderful and inclusive country. 

 

A quick dash to the beach to watch the tail end of a fiery pacific sunset, and then we made our ways back to our rooms for some much needed rest after a non-stop day.

Iceland Day 16: In Conclusion

Here are some statistics for my trip:

Miles driven: over 1,200

Diesel Burned:  43 gallons

Days in Iceland:  15.5

Nights in Iceland:  15

Whales seen:  6 (all humpbacks)

Sheep seen:  probably thousands

Arctic Foxes seen:  0 (sadly)

Seals seen:  a bunch!

Sunshine:  Yes

Rain:  Duh

Snow:  mmhmm

Hours in the air:  16

Hours Traveling:  35

Waterfalls seen:  no way to know… more than I have in my entire life combine

Rainbows seen:  same as above

 

 

Bucket List Items Accomplished:

1.     International solo backpacking trip

2.     International travel

3.     Go to Iceland

4.     Touch a glacier

5.     Pick up a hitch hiker

6.     See a geyser

7.     See the Arctic Ocean

8.     See an Iceberg

 

What I’ve learned:

    I’ve learned that Iceland is a beautiful and rugged country that is sparsely populated but not actually that large. 

I’ve plumbed the depths of my loneliness and realized the things I hold most dear are the ones I leave back home.

I’ve tested the limits of my physical abilities and found their ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

I’ve reached the breaking point of my emotional fortitude, and was shown a reason to keep moving.

If you cook onions in a car the smell never really goes away.

Waterproof in Georgia is only somewhat water resistant in Iceland.

I now know what hypothermia feels like.

I believe that occasionally what makes a destination great are the people you’re with.

A smile and a nod is the best way to say ‘hello’ in any language.

It’s crucial for me to have a home base; I’m not the type who could live the vagabond lifestyle.

In Iceland, a café is a place that serves food and beer, and will typically have an espresso machine- there are very few pure coffee shops.

Icelanders are very kind, helpful, and inclusive.

Despite my feeling ignorant, English is the international standard… still wish I could speak another language.

Water in Iceland doesn’t need to be filtered.

Hot water in Iceland smells like rotten eggs!

Daily updates via blog and Instagram are very challenging.

Having a comfort food when abroad is important. (Nature Valley Oats and Honey)

 

My time in Iceland was great.  There were quite a number of low points, when I would have given ANYTHING to be at home watching Netflix with friends, but I suppose that’s partially the side effect of solo travel.  All of my previous excursions have either been with someone or to see someone, and foolishly I thought my love of travel would be sufficient in providing me the comfort needed when missing home. 

 

Out there in the wild expanses of Iceland, there is nothing but wind- it is the only constant.  It’s not like any wind I’ve know before.  It is a wind that weathers the soul.  It strips you of warmth; it erodes your strong holds and reveals your core.  In the wind you can see yourself transparently.  You can see what you’re made of- where your foundations are built.  You become humorously aware of your irrelevancies, and learn what loves, passions, and possessions you would happily cast aside, and those that you cling to for life. 

 

The wind showed me that photography and my desire for grand adventures are my irrelevancies.  On that mountain pass, in the howling wind, I questioned everything, and realized that never taking another picture and never leaving Woodstock would be worth it, if it meant one more day with those that I love. 

 

I’ve left Iceland deeply realigned.  I’m still the same, but my house is in order.  My priorities passions and desires have been reordered and ranked.  I’m coming home more emotionally aware of my self; and likely a tad more emotional.  I expect that’s what happens when you plumb the depths of the human spirit only to find there is a bottom.  Thankfully, with God there is no bottom.  There is ALWAYS more to draw on, to pull from, to depend on, to rely on, to count on, and most importantly to hope for.  Hope got me through this trip. 

 

I know now that this trip wasn’t about some grand photographic adventure to one of the most beautiful places on the earth, it was about me coming to grips with who I am, learning what I truly want, and beginning to wholly reorient my life to work toward those desires. 

 

A solo trip to a foreign country is a good idea, and I will suggest it to everybody.  However, hopefully this blog will give you pause to consider what you’re really embarking upon. 

 

Below are my favorite images from Iceland.  I'd love to know which one is your favorite!

 

Iceland Day 14 & 15

I rolled over begrudgingly as my alarm yelped at me to wake up.

Once brain functions started coming online I remembered that I was excited- haha.

Excited for two reasons.

Reason 1:  in a few short hours I would be snorkeling in between tectonic plates.

Reason 2:  I was finished with my ‘grand tour’ I was headed to Reykjavik for a day and a half in the city before my flight on Thursday.

 

After slowly getting ready and beginning to pack things up for the last time, I made my way to the meet-up point for the snorkeling.

After about an hour of standing in a crowded parking lot, in the pouring rain.  We had all shimmied and squeezed our ways into the dry suits that Arctic Adventures so thankfully provides.

 

As we waddled down the steps and into the 36o  water, I switched on my GoPro and not-so-gracefully lunged into the water. 

To my surprise, the first thought that went through my head was not, ‘holy crap this water is freezing’ it was ‘holy crap, this is incredible!’  Now, I’ve been to Homosassa Springs in Florida and have swam with the manatees, and I used to the think that water was clear, but, as with a great many things here in Iceland, this was next level!  The guide explained the process the water goes through to become so pure, and said that visibility can be up to 150 meters. 

That’s just insane.

He went on to mention that in the spot where the rift opens up to a wide-ish lagoon, people commonly stop swimming and will just float because the ultra clear water combined with the open space gives you the impression of floating in air.

He was totally right.

I was a tad skeptical of whether this was going to be worth the relatively high expense, but once I was face down in the water, I found myself agreeing that it’s a bargain for what you get to experience.

This is the only place in the world you can swim between tectonic plates.

After exploring as much as I could before my hands, face, and feet started burning from the extreme cold, I made my way to the exit platform.

 

As I emerged from the surreal space, I began to realize some water had gotten into my ‘not-so-dry’ dry suit.  A little soggy I hustled my way back to the prep parking lot and began the task of removing gloves, and a dry suit with frozen hands.  Happily the guides were there to help, and quite quickly I was hurrying through the rain to the heated seat of my car.

 

Once changed and warmed up, I plotted a course to Reykjavik via the most scenic route possible and hit the road.  Climbing up through the mountains for one last drive through the black and green peaks, I thought back to my first couple hours in the country driving through the mountains of the Snaefellsnes Penninsula.

 

Once at my AirBnB I started drying my rain gear boots and bags for the last time. 

After a few hours of chill time, I walked to the downtown sector, which is basically made up of two strips of stores and restaurants.  It reminded me of a more pleasant version of 5th avenue in New York City. 

I find it difficult to relate the city to other capitols in the US.  It has a much more small town, homey feel to it.  It’s probably most similar to a harbor town you might find in Maine, with a few larger buildings in the business corridor.

 

After drinking regular coffee for two weeks I was fiercely craving a latte.  I found myself in Stofan Café, which has claimed the title of “Best Coffee Shop I’ve been to.”

It appeared to be, and probably was, an old house that had been modestly updated and minimally renovated to make it into a café.  It felt like I was sitting in an old family cabin somewhere in the mountains.  I sipped savoringly, as I sat at my well-worn farm table, and soaked in the warm cozy atmosphere as I listened to the dull murmur of foreign dialects as they mingled with milk steamers.

 

The next day was more of the same.

Up early to make sure to get a seat at a well known and highly reviewed breakfast place that was said to be the best restaurant in Reykjavik when I asked the barista at Stofan the night before.

To my delight, it was an American style breakfast café.  I had been craving a big breakfast but had given up on Iceland offering anything that could satisfy my American appetite. 

Ordered a latte, three pancakes, bacon, and two scrambled eggs.  I was practically drooling as the server walked the food over to me.  I’m not sure if it was because I hadn’t had a big breakfast like that in a while, but they were certainly the best pancakes I’ve ever had (sorry Jon, you’re now in second place). 

With a food baby nestled in my stomach I sluggishly made my way back to the apartment, for a mid afternoon packing/chill session. 

Once everything was packed and ready for the next morning I went back out for a late dinner. 

Ended up at a fancier-than-anticipated authentic Icelandic restaurant that served me Arctic Char which was delicious but not filling (isn’t that the way with fancy restaurant?  Here’s 3 ounces of this incredibly expensive food drizzled in the nectar from a Peruvian moonflower).  Needless to say I was still hungry, but when the dessert menu came, I shrugged it off.

 

I was going back to Stofan’s!

Latte and a piece of carrot cake- the best carrot cake I’ve ever had mind you- filled in the remaining voids nicely as I basked in that wonderful atmosphere that some how was even better than the night before.

 

After a mad dash in the rain back to the apartment, I showered and went to sleep.

Iceland Day 13

Woke up in the chilly Gulfoss parking lot along with several other fogged up cars and campervans. 

Promptly pulled on a beanie and my jacket and set about making coffee.

 

Suddenly the car was filled with warm yellow light.  I squinted through the heavily fogged back window to see the sun breaking through the clouds on the eastern horizon.

Even though the weather had called for rain all day, it was clearing up!

Quickly changed gears from a slow morning start to ‘let’s get the heck out of here’.

 

On the road to Great Geysir, I reveled in the early morning lifestyle- getting out before everyone else and enjoying that wonderful light.

 

Snagged my gear from the passenger seat and beat feet toward the geysir (that’s how it’s spelled in Icelandic.) field.  I quickly figured out which geysir was the one to see because there was already a handful of bundled up photographers surrounding Strokkur.

 

As I was just starting to adjust the settings and frame up the shot it exploded 60 feet high and probably 20 feet across.  A lady, standing just out of my peripheral vision, screamed as it went off, which startled everyone and, further intensified the surprise of the eruption.

 

After three or four eruptions I was happy with my shots, and moved on to explore more of the bubbling and steaming landscape.

Because it was early and there were still very few people in the area I left my camera bag open on a bench and went off to make an image of a blue pool.  After a few minutes, I looked back to check on my gear and saw that the wind had shifted.

Boiling hot steam was billowing onto the bench and left my bag damp and my cameras and lenses heavily steamed up.  Decided that was that, and with a rain cloud moving in, I retreated to the car. 

I hurriedly disassembled all my cameras and lenses, removing caps and battery doors.  I put them all on the passenger seat covered them with my down jacket and put the seat heater on max.
After about an hour on high my gear was all toasty warm and free of moisture. 

Phew!

 

A guy named Andrew Dunn, who I had run into at two different locations on two different days, suggested the next destination. 

Bruarfoss. 

It was a blue waterfall.

Not in Lonely Planet, so it was guaranteed to be a) off the beaten path and b) not swarming with tourists.

 

After an hour of driving up and down the same terribly rough dirt roads, I spotted a small path leading into the “woods”.  I knew it went in the direction of the river I was looking for so I suited up in my rain gear and hit the muddy trail.

 

After a brief and slippery hike, I found it. 

“What?! Are you for real right now?? Look at this water!” I exclaimed without even thinking.  My exclamation caught me so off guard that I just started laughing.

 

I expected the water to be a little blue, but guys… seriously… this was pretty vibrantly blue water.  Like someone was upstream pouring Blue No. 1 into the river.

 

Depending on the quality of the screen you’re viewing my images on might not really do the color justice, but trust me, it’s unreal.

 

After several compositions.

Above the river.

Next to the river.

In the river.

I decided to leave before the break in the rain decided to close again.

 

Onward to Thingvellir.

 

Stopped along the way to do a quick hike around a volcanic crater.  It was way more impressive than I thought it would be.  Standing on the rim, I imagined it being level all the way across and then suddenly the ground begins to tremble and caves in revealing a humungous previously underground magma chamber. 

Pretty intense stuff. 

I finished the hike around the crater and got back on my way to Thingvellir, which is a national park that has a rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

 

As soon as I entered the park, I noticed a flora change.  The ground cover transitioned from grass and moss to small bushes and trees, kind of similar to rhododendron.  It was very pretty as I drove along the scenic road next to the mountain-rimmed lake.  I stopped at one of the pull-offs and just sat by the lake for over an hour watching the rain come and go.

More coffee.

Time for a hike!

It was very surreal walking in between two continents.  The scenery was deep black rock and bright green moss.  There was no soil, no notable plants of size at all.  This place felt very fresh; very new, like the separation only happened a few years ago. (it didn’t, but it continues to pull apart at about 2cm a year)

It’s just such a different experience than hiking back home in the Appalachians, which are literally the oldest mountains in the world (over 1 billion years). 

It’s hard to put it into perspective but I’ll try:

Appalachians : Rockies :: Rockies : Iceland

That’s to say, the way the Rockies or any west coast range feels harsher, more rugged, and newer than the east coast ranges, Iceland feels that same amount newer and more rugged when compared to the west coast ranges of the US.

Hopefully that provides some perspective on the landscape and conditions.

 

Finished up the hike as yet another rain cloud approached. 

With a suitable spot found I settled in for my last night in this little car.  If I had a larger vehicle- like one of the many campervans I see driving around- I think I could get used to this… but as for now, I’ve grown quite tired of it.

 

 

 

 

Iceland Day 12

If yesterday was a slowed-paced dreary day, this was quite the opposite.

 

Alarm rang at 5:30.

 

Awake; cold.  Promptly made coffee.

While it brewed, I scarfed down some oatmeal.

Chugged the coffee and got dressed.  Finished packing up my “Sunshine Gear” aka all camera equipment packed into a 40L daypack.

 

Hustled over to shoot at Skogafoss before the crowds arrived.  I was very pleased to find that the campground and parking lot were still all very much asleep.

 

I waded into the freezing cold river and set up my shot.  As I composed, Icelandic horses (you really can’t just say horses, they’re so much more handsome than the one’s back home) silently grazed just across the river, in the crisp blue morning light.  Thankfully the wind was in my favor, keeping the spray off my lens.  A few more shots there in the water.

Climbed the too-many-before-sunrise stairs that led to a platform above the falls… found the view impressive, but not all that inspiring.

 

Hurried back down the steps, as photographers were beginning to show up.  A few more less-time-consuming shots, and that was that.

 

Back to the car, reorganized daypack. 

Added my nalgene.

Hit the road.

 

Made it to Solheimassandur, which is a section of black sand beach where an American DC-3 ran out of fuel and crash-landed.  For whatever reason the fuselage and portions of the wings were left to be weathered by the fierce Icelandic wind.  Again I had the spot all to myself (for about 10 minutes) and was able to soak in the post-apocalyptic atmosphere that surrounds the battered looking plane.    

 

Content with my images- considering the unfavorable direct sunlight- I walked down to the ocean to enjoy some of that white noise wave sounds.  Beaches just aren’t the same when you’re wearing thermals and a down jacket.

 

Began my 4km hike back to the car, and realized I neglected to pack a granola bar for my now growling stomach.

 

Next stop was Seljalandsfoss.

By the time I arrived there were literally hundreds of cars in the parking lot, and there was a stop and go line that led up to the falls…

It felt like I was at an amusement park- I hated it.  I made my way up to the falls took a couple shots and then let out a sad sigh and went to buy a donut.

 

With donut in hand I retreated to the car to make some more coffee.

With sugar and caffeine working together I motored on toward Haifoss.

 

Everything I had read about Haifoss assured drastically smaller numbers of people because of the VERY rugged road leading up to it. 

They weren’t joking, I was definitely more than a little concerned for the integrity of my little rental crossover, and was missing my old Jeep badly as I banged and crashed over rocks and potholes.

 

But Holy Smokes, I don’t care what it takes for you to get to Haifoss, just do it. 

Seriously, army crawl if you have to.  This was the most stunning thing I’ve seen in all of Iceland.  The highest falls drops over 400 feet into a huge (double however big  you’re imagining)  Guys I can’t even handle how impressive it was, you’ll throw rocks at Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss.  It was just astonishing.

 

Finally stop for the day was Gulfoss.

The Golden Waterfall.

 

I suppose I should have know better- Gulfoss is supposed to be the most incredible waterfall yada yada yada.  Yes, you can definitely feel its power, and see the way flooding has affected the gorge structure, but once you’ve seen a Ferrari, your Accord can only look so good…  You know what I mean?

 

Well hopefully my pictures will clear up any doubt or uncertainty about what I’m talking about.  I’ll add Haifoss at the end so you don’t get ruined for the other still beautiful waterfalls.

 

Quite a splendid day chasing light and falling water.

Iceland Day 11

Woke up to more rain and wind, and decided to postpone the hike to Svartifoss.

 

You know how on weekends when it rains and you love it because you get to stay in bed and listen to the water drip, or lounge around in your sweatpants… well it’s just not the same when you’re trapped inside a steamy car with nothing to do.

 

After 2 and a half painfully long hours of trying to occupy my time, I decided to head to the trailhead hoping the weather might be better a little ways down the road.

 

It was not.

 

I began the task of pulling on raingear in the front seat of a car, and packed up a -we’ll call it a-  ‘heavy rain setup’ of gear.  One lens, two bodies, and an iPhone. 

 

Clammy and muddy I made it to Svartifoss, which has a free fall over the edge of a cliff composed of basalt columns.  Pretty unique if you ask me, and I loved how it was nestled into the surrounding mountains.  The trail leading to it actually had bushes and very small trees as it crossed back and forth over the river on small wooden footbridges.  It almost felt like a trail from back home.

 

With my gear as wet as I was comfortable with, I decided to head back to the car.

 

Strung up a clothes line to dry my saturated clothes, and wiped down my gear before heading out.

 

About an hour down the road I came to Fjadrargljufur, and started the process all over again. 

Rain gear.

Heavy Rain gear set up.

Clammy.

Couple quick shots.

Dry the gear.

Dry the clothes.

 

Let’s just say the defroster on my rental car got a work out.

 

Pulled into the small town of Vik and got a latte and felt like a marinated lamb sandwich.  Latte was great, and I could tell that the lamb was very good, but the rest of the sandwich was quite bad, soggy from too much sauce.

 

Walking to the car I realized it was only just 5:30. 

 

Drove up to Dyrholaey, which is a wildlife sanctuary that sits on a mountain next to the miles long black sand beach. 

Happily on the way up, the rain ceased and the clouds began to part.  The light changed from colorless and dimensionless to just plain showing off.  It seemed to shift in color every time I blinked, and danced around the different layers of cloud, fog, and sea spray casting streaks of shadows across the wet grasslands and beach.

 

I feel like my words are falling hopelessly short of the magic that unfolded that night, so hopefully my images will do it justice.

 

Found and parking lot and made a plan for the next day.

 

Feeling very excited about the good weather.  It’s going to be a busy day!

 

 

 

 

Iceland Day 10

Awoke to some exceptional morning light streaming into the fjord and through my windows.  The weather said it was raining in the Eastfjords but it was sunny and wonderful in Seydisfjordur.

During my process of deciding which part of the Eastfjords to visit, I came across the description of Seydisfjordur which states:  “Made up of multicoloured wooden houses.”  That sold me.

I was very excited to see this little mutli-hued town, but was a little let down.

I suppose once you visit New Orleans and see its vibrant colors; anywhere else just seems a little desaturated. 

Took another shower because why not?

 

Packed things up… I wonder how much of this trip will have been spent packing and unpacking….

 

Chose the scenic route out of the fjords and was promptly met with dark skies and driving rain. 

 

Drove through a 6 kilometer-long tunnel.  That’s officially the longest tunnel I’ve ever been in!

 

I eventually reunited with Highway 1 and continued heading south toward Jokulsarlon.

 

Jokulsarlon is a lagoon that was created by a receding finger of the Vatnajokul Glacier (which is so large it covers more than 8% of the country- it’s bigger than Deleware).  Anyway, so the lagoon spills out into the ocean underneath what appears to be a scale model of the golden gate bridge.  And the magic of this lagoon is that as the edge of the glacier fractures and pieces fall off they float around the lagoon and drift out to sea.

I read somewhere that the iceberg that sunk the Titanic was believed to have come from that lagoon.

 

I made my way through the droves of people all vying for different shots and selfies and vantage points, as I waited for the light to get a little more favorable. 

 

After a couple hours of shooting I tetris-ed my way out of the parking lot, and promptly found myself in the middle of a swell of homesickness that left me parked on a black sand beach fighting back tears. 

 

With composure regained, I plotted a course for the next morning (if the weather is favorable).  A moderate 5 mile loop to the waterfall, Svartifoss. 

Iceland Day 9

Up at 6:00.

 

No coffee or oatmeal because I had no water. 

 

Gathered my cameras and tripods and hit the trail.

 

Standing at the edge of the canyon, I watched the huge river hurl itself over the edge of the 140 foot cliff.

 

The sun was just coming up giving me some wonderful warm morning light.  The skies were also mostly clear and the wind was only on the stronger side of a breeze.

 

Gratefully the swirling mist billowing up from the falls was being blow downstream allowing me to get a nice shot right from the ledge above the falls without having my gear covered in spray.

 

A couple hours and many more photos later I was ready for breakfast.

 

Stopping on the way back at a little pond I filled up my bladder, and thought about the fact that the water in Iceland doesn’t need to be filtered, even from this still pond.  Growing up in the states, I can’t not filter water that I collect in the backcountry- it just feels a little like driving without a seatbelt… sure you’ll most likely be fine, but….

 

While I ate breakfast I spread out my still soaking wet tent in the parking lot to dry in the sunshine and wind.

 

Tent dry.  Belly full.  Caffeine levels restored.  Car warmed up.

 

Time to say goodbye to barren North Iceland, and hello to the Eastfjords.

 

Drove several hours with the occasional photo break and coasted down the hillside past waterfalls and roadwork ending at Seydisfjordur, which is nestled into the head of a crooked fjord.  Walled in by the 3000-foot mountains I watched the water cycle in action.

 

The warm(ish) air from the ocean was blowing in and up the hills condensing and forming clouds that rose up and over the pass. 

 

Checked into my last guesthouse until further notice, and was stunned by the contrast from the unassuming black metal exterior, to the beautiful white and gray interior.  It looked, and smelled like I had stepped into an Ikea catalog.

I spent the evening working on 4 blogs and backing up photos and video that I had taken since the last backup.

Did some laundry and then went for dinner, was hungry for sushi, but settled for pizza.

The food wasn’t great, but the atmosphere of the small dimly lit bistro, with its board games, small library, and record collection, was a pure local hotspot, not spoiled by the influx of tourism to this area over the last decade.

 

As I walked the streets of the sleepy town, listening to the kids calling back to their parents as they ran to the friend’s house for ‘just a little more play time’, I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a place like this. 

 

Back in the room I nestled into the bed and fell asleep.