Thursday, July 18, 2013

Living our Memories

05/24/2013 - Returning to Oulanka

Returning to Finland has been all about remembering. Grinning and hugging in front of the Helsinki cathedral, where we had each been separately, but not together. Recalling our "grocery-store-Finnish" to buy leipa (bread) with voi (butter), cheese (juusto) and lingonberry jam (puolukka). Traveling the familiar landscapes in Lapland with bogs, forests, lakes and reindeer (not so unlike Fairbanks). But the most intentional remembering comes with our return to Oulanka NP.

When we came here in mid-May 2005 to hike the Karhunkierros Trail for our 1st backcountry trip together. Jorma dropped us off at the ski resort of Ruka laughing and shaking his head. The ski lift was still operating and the slopes were still open. In Rovaniemi the snow had melted already but we had neglected to check the conditions here further to the east (and farther from the coastal influence). We hiked over snowy Valtavaara Hill and spent a cold night in a Kota (teepee) shelter. The 2nd day was an exhausting 10km stumble through soft, hip-deep snow drifts. Our saving grace was the cabin we reached at the end of Day 2 - "Porontimajoki". We made a fire in the wood stove and settled in for what ended up being 3 nights with the cabin all to ourselves. We ate, cuddled, played cards, slept lots, and barely left the cabin. We abandoned our plans to hike the full 80km (the log book indicated only skiers had done the trail that spring, no hikers) and bailed out by hiking to the nearest logging road and on out to the highway. There we camped one night in our Lidl tent (a glorified trash bag too short for Markus to straighten his legs in). The next day we caught a bus south to Kuusamo, then from Kuusamo back to Rovaniemi. That trip has become some what of a legend in our relationship - a story we often retell.

Cabins at Porontimajoki
So when we decided to bicycle back to Rovaniemi, we chose an out-of-the-way route that would take us back to Oulanka. Finding the cabin again wasn't easy - we both remembered hiking out a 4 wheel track to a gravel logging road but didn't remember details. Checking out the maps, we decided to take the road to Juuma, cut S on a gravel road "Ryötingintie" (our road?) and try to reach the cabin with either the hiking trail or parallel trail-whatever could be accessed with bikes. After a couple hours of scouting trial & error with our maps (one not-too-detailed plus a blurry photograph of the more detailed one), we came to the intersection with the trail. It was bumpy with tree roots but mostly dry so we pushed our bikes the ~800 meters down the trail and reached the cabins.

How exciting to be back again! Some details we had forgotten but others were photographic memories we recognized right away. Markus remembered the older cabin, a former mill, set right over the flowing Porontimajoki river. I remembered the newer cabin we stayed in with a fireplace to its right and a cooking shed to the right of that. I also remembered hiking along a 4 wheeler trek into a clear cut, and I thought that was our gravel road out but when we came in on the trail it didn't seem familiar. Then when I went to the outhouse, I saw it beyond the track through the clear-cut that I remembered so well. Today we hiked it and found a connection to a road that we might try as our route out tomorrow. The experience is different this time - sunshine, no snow, and other hikers to share with (10 others last night including 2 Finns who shared our cabin). But it also highlights one thing I love about how we travel - familiarity + adventure.


Back in Rovaniemi

We found our way out of Oulanka without any problems and went on to bicycle the last stage of our journey. The next goal was Posio, the only "major" city between Oulanka and Rovaniemi. We needed to stop there because it was Champions-League-Final-Day with Bavaria Munich playing Borussia Dortmund in Wembley. This time we had no luck finding a public place or a family yard to stay at and watch the game. The closest thing we found was a restaurant that had a screen but when we asked the owner about watching the game he pointed out that today was also karaoke day in his place, so whoever shows up to sing would get the screen and soccer would be last on the list. Bummer! Without any other choices we decided to take a room at the only hotel in town. We got some last minute groceries and made ourself comfortable.

Let the game begin
Lars Ricken and Paul Breitner carry the trophy into the stadium
It was worth it, a very good, fast, and technically brilliant game by both teams, which Bavaria Munich won at the end. They deserved it!

The following 130km day was also our last day of biking. After a total of 3500km and two months of cycling we rolled into Rovaniemi, our final destination. Karen and I met here 8 years ago and we always wanted to go back to the place where everything began; to see the familiar places and to visit our friends, the Kantolas, again. The Kantolas were our local "friend family" during our studies in northern Finland. They introduced us to Finish food, culture and family life and we had many fun adventures together.

Candlelight bridge in Rovaniemi
Team Kantola was planning to bicycle towards us, once we are close to Rovaniemi, so we could ride into town together. Although there are not that many roads in northern Finland we managed to miss each other. This little mishap made the later reunion, through the build up of more anticipation, even more exciting and joyful. Coming into town we bicycled by many familiar places like the ski area, the Candlelight bridge and the university campus.

This brought back many fond memories. Rovaniemi, with its warm weather (30°C) - warmest ever May day in Lapland and warmest place in Europe at that time - was welcoming us! During our week we visited Kuntotie, the place where we lived; Doris & Tivoli, the two night clubs where our group of friends mostly hung out and partied; and the Arktikum, where we both took some classes back in 2004/2005. It felt good to be back but also meant the end of our bicycling trip and, at least for now, the end of our travels.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Birding for Scholarships

Every May, in recent years, I have enjoyed staying connected to Earlham College (where I got my B.A. degree) by participating in Birding Big Day. Donors pledge money per bird species and alumni from all over the world go out to try to find as many bird species as they can over graduation weekend.


This year's birding big day was a lot of fun since we are in Europe and I'm trying to learn the birds here. I don't have a handle on European birdsongs yet so nearly all of these birds were ID'd by sight.  We were enroute by bicycle through the Baltics over the BBD weekend so this list encompasses northwestern Latvia through much of Estonia. The weather didn't cooperate with us (our most promising spot along the route, a migratory bird area on the Latvian coast, was completely socked in with fog when we passed through) but we still managed to see birds here and there in other places.

As it happens, my bird guide is in German (a translation of Hayman and Hume's 2009 guide)! Luckily Markus knows all the birds by their German names anyway so we just used those and I actually don't know the English common names for a lot of these birds.  We sent the list below with latin names - thanks to Bill Buskirk for adding English names to the list!
Feldlerche (Alauda arvensis)  Skylark
Weissstorch (Ciconia ciconia)  White Stork
Bachstelze (Motacilla alba)  White or Pied Wagtail
Kranich (Grus grus)  Common Crane
Elster (Pica pica) European Magpie
Graureiher (Ardea cinerea)  Gray Heron
Stockente (Anas platyrhynchos)  Mallard
Kiebitz (Vanellus vanellus)  Northern Lapwing
Buchfink (Fringilla coelebs)  Chaffinch
Kohlmeise (Parus major)  Great Tit
Braunkehlchen (Saxicola rubetra)  Whinchat
Wiesenschafstelze (Motacilla flava ssp. supercilians) Western Yellow Wagtail
Brandgans (Tadorna tadorna)  Shelduck
Lachmoeve (Larus ridibundus) Black-headed Gull
Rauchschwalbe (Hirundo rustica)  Barn Swallow
Nebelkrahe (Corvus cornix)  Hooded Crow
Saatkrahe (Corvus frugilegus)  Rook
Grunfink (Carduelis chloris)  Greenfinch
Haussperling (Passer domesticus)  House Sparrow
Eichelhaher (Garrulus glandarius)  European Jay
Amsel (Turdus merula)  European Blackbird (of 4 and 20 fame)
Loffelente (Anas clypeata)  Northern Shoveler
Hoeckerschwan (Cygnus olor)  Mute Swan
Neuntoeter (Lanius collurio)  Red-backed Shrike
Wacholderdrossel (Turdus pilaris)  Fieldfare
Ringeltaube (Columba palumbus)Wood Pigeon
Kuckuck (Cuculus canorus)  Common Cuckoo
Stieglitz (Carduelis carduelis)  European Goldfinch
Singdrossel (Turdus philomelos)  Song Thrush
Blasshuehn (Fulica atra)  European Coot
Rothalstaucher (Podiceps grisegena)  Red-necked Grebe
Rohrweihe (Circus aeruginosus)  Western Marsh Harrier
Weissrueckenspecht (Dendrocopus leucotos)  White-backed Woodpecker
Star (Sturnus vulgaris)  European Starling
Mausebuzzard (Buteo buteo)  Common Buzzard
Graugans (Anser anser)  Greylag Goose

Markus has been doing a lot of bird-related photography, though without a zoom lens we are limited in what we can capture. Here are a few from birding along our route (Big Day and otherwise) as well as from our continued work with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation to document roadkill observations.

Haubentaucher (a grebe) we saw in Finland. We have seen these all over Europe, but didn't see one during Birding Big Day!

Creative and impressive White Stork nest

Roadkill Gruenfink (Greenfinch) we spotted this morning in central Finland

“Paldies, Latvija” (Thank You, Latvia)


On May 4th, we arrived in the Baltic States by ferry from Germany knowing next to nothing about the languages and cultures of these three little countries: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. What we found were birch trees, Soviet apartment building relics, flat and expansive farmland, windy coasts, and wonderful people. And while we enjoyed all three countries during the 9 days and ~600 kms. we cycled across them, the incredibly friendly and helpful people of Latvia left the biggest lasting impression. A few stories…

In Lithuania, the miles flew by on flat, well-paved roads with the wind at our backs. When we crossed the border into southern Latvia around 6pm on May 6th with a plan to cycle another 30 kilometers or so before camping, we were surprised to find that nearly all the roads were unpaved with the exception of the heavily-trafficked highway. So we set off onto the dusty, washboard-like roads to the town of Auce. By the time we arrived around 9pm, the sun was setting and we hadn’t seen any good places to camp. Markus asked some young folks standing outside the supermarket whether there were any places in town to camp or to stay and a woman pulled out her phone and started calling around town for us. After a few minutes, she said “You can sleep where the students sleep” then hopped on her bike to guide us through town to the student dorm. The woman who supervised the dorm wasn’t there, so our new friend told us to wait and bicycled off to find the woman and bring her back. They got us all settled into our own room with fluffy pillows, use of the kitchen and showers for just 5 bucks per person. It was an awesome place to stay after a long day and a great act of generosity by those 2 women to help us out!
Morning in the Auce student dormitory
Two days later—after cycling past farms and national parks, camping in a boreal forest, and seeing our first moose in Europe—we arrived in Riga ready for a little city time. The best budget accommodation looked to be Riga City Camping, just a couple kilometers from the old town. When we arrived, there was no one else there and no one in the reception but the friendly security guard at the gate (which was a dual entrance for both the campground and a company) gestured to a grassy area where we could set up our tent. After discovering that the shower building was locked we realized the campground was still closed for the season. But that didn’t matter to our new friend, the old man who guarded the place. He was there the whole time we were! He watched our bikes and tent while we were out on the town that evening, thanked us profusely for the crème brulee we brought him that night, and stuck his head out of the little security shack when we woke up to wish us good morning. He spoke no English and we spoke no Latvian, but communicating in smiles and gestures was enough. What a nice guy!

Our well-guarded bikes in Riga

The third story from Latvia is certainly the most memorable. Markus was the star of this one, using his computer technology skills and ability to charm people he’d just met who didn’t speak his language to help me out one afternoon. Here’s the story from him:

Friday, 10th of May – an important day for Karen since there was a job interview on her schedule. All we needed was an internet connection and a couple hours for her to talk via Skype. It sounds easy, especially since we have her Mac with us on our bike trip. However, the Wifi is kind of broken because the Mac usually tells us that there is “no airport card installed”. We tried to fix this a while ago but none of the forum solutions worked. The solution is a LAN cable connection but the problem is that in this "WiFi Day of Age" a LAN connection is hard to find.

The plan was to role into a good size town by early afternoon to leave us enough time to figure out the an internet solution for the interview at 5pm our time. We arrived in Salacgriva and went straight to the tourist info to find out about internet cafes and potential places to stay that have internet. There was none and the next accommodation was 3 km out of town and definitely out of our budget price range with no guarantee we could connect via LAN. However, the local library was right across the street from the tourist info. The small library consisted of 2 room with one room having 4 computers which had internet. 

Karen went in first to check if the connection was good, which it was. Then she was watching the bikes and our gear while I was trying to figure out a solution to our internet need. First I was asking one of the 2 ladies that were working at the library if we could rent a room with Internet connection for a couple hours to do some work. It was tricky since they didn’t speak English or German but two teenage girls, who were hanging out at the library, were able to help with their basic English. The answer I got through the girls was the “Internet was everywhere”, meaning Wifi, which I tried to explain doesn’t work for us. No luck, so I decided to make it work with the computers at the libery since us skyping there was OK (at least that was my impression and understanding ;-). Parallel to that I tried to set up the MAC so that at the end at least one computer would work out for the interview.

The library computers had Skype installed but no camera, speaker, mic or headset and a couple of Plug-ins that were important for the interview conference software were missing. On the other hand, the MAC had some issues with the security certificates. All these pieces are kind of important for using Skype ;-). The mac has all the hardware so I tried to plug in the LAN from the library computer into Karen’s MAC and connect – no luck there! So I had to explain to the girls that I need a headset from the ladies. After what sounded like a harsh discussion between the girls and the ladies a headset appeared. OK, basic skype w/o camera now worked on the library computer. The interview could now at least happen. I continued to play around with the MAC to see if I could get it to work. After the second restart the wireless suddenly started to work and we were able to connect to the library WiFi. Great! The MAC would be the interview computer and the desktop PC would be backup.

During all this Karen also got ready for the interview and I shuttled all of our gear into the library and locked the bikes. I returned to work on the setup at one point when one girl stopped by and put the below note on the desk and left immediately. These compliments made us laugh and feel okay about taking over the library for awhile.


Karen’s interview was on for a several minutes when two young boys came into the library to use two other computers. I noticed that they were playing some games and they were pretty intense and “hard on the keyboard”. One of the library ladies went to the boys and I think explained to them that they needed to be quieter because of us. However, a couple minutes later the boys were in full action again so I decided to bribe them with the last Latu (Latvian money) we had so they could go and buy some candy at the store (and would leave). It worked and the boys were happy and when I saw them later outside again they were still saying “thank you” and were still quite happy. During the interview another young man came in and talked to the library lady with a whispering voice. He obviously wanted to use the Internet too and after a while came over to me and asked me if it would be OK to use one of the other computers. We “talked” and he went on to use it. During the interview I was sitting behind a row of books behind the PC aisle next to the library entry and when he was leaving he came over and said “Thank you”. I felt like the guard of the computers and the library ladies were my allies…how cool it is, super friendly, in a different country, and we were using their resources…we invaded their space, one out of two library rooms, and they were so supportive. I went dinner shopping during the interview and got the ladies a bottle of Russian champagne. When I gave it to one of them she was the happiest and smiliest person in Salacgriva for that moment.

As a result, we have a great story to tell about the people in Salacgriva and overall had a good time again ;-).

Thursday, May 9, 2013

UEFA Champions League - das muss sein !!!

Die besten Clubs aus Europa spielen jedes Jahr um den Gewinn der Champions League, den hoechsten Titel in Sachen Vereinsfussball in Europa. Dieses Jahr haben wir Deutsche mit Borussia Dortmund und Bayern Muenchen gleich zwei Teams im Halbfinale, die auf die spanischen Clubs FC Barcelona ("in den letzten Jahren die beste Mannschaft Europas") bzw. Real Madrid ("Die Königlichen") treffen. Diese, von meiner Seite mit Spannung erwarteten Spiele, konnte und durfte ich nicht verpassen. Es musste eine Loesung her! Die Mittwochsspiele waren im ZDF, also ein Fernseher irgendwo sollte es schon tun. Die Dienstagspartien wurden dagegen nur im Bezahlfernsehen uebertragen, was die Sache etwas schwieriger machte.

Das erste Spiel am 04/23 war Bayern gegen Barcelona. Diese 4:0 Gala der Bayern konnten wir leider nicht live sehen doch dafuer war das 4:1 des BVB gegen Real am naechsten Abend nochmal so schoen. Das Lewandowski-tor-spektakle konnten Karen und ich live in Riesa mitverfolgen. Nach einem 80+ km Tag entlang der Elbe sah ich einige Sportsfreunde des Riesaer Schiffvereins auf dem Balkon des Vereinsgebaeudes. Nach kurzer Ruecksprache, und Sicherstellung das hier heut CL geschaut wird, stellten wir unser Zelt neben der Alten Faehre auf. Die besorgten paar Bier und Chips rundeten den Fussballabend ab.

Graal-Müritz ist eine kleine Stadt an der Deutschen Ostsee und der Ort an dem wir gestrandet waren fuer das Rueckspiel zwischen Real Madrid und Dortmund am 30. April. Nach nur 25km von Warnemuende entschieden wir uns hier halt zu machen. Der Grund dafuer: Eine SKY-sportbar! Nach Ruecksprache mit der Bedienung, und Vergewisserung, dass das Spiel gezeigt wird, war das keine schwere Entscheidung. Zumal die naechsten zwei Orte auf unserer Strecke nur ja ca. 1000 Einwohner hatten und sicherlich keine SKY-sportbar. Zudem war ein Campingplatz gleich um die Ecke was fuer den spaeteren Heimweg von Vorteil ist ;-). Auf dem Weg zum Campingplatz sah ich Egon in seinem Garten. Wir hielten an und wir kamen ins Gespraech. Als ich ihn nach einer Weile fragte, ob es moeglich waere bei ihm im Garten zu Uebernachten sagte er "da muss ich mal mit meiner Frau reden." Nach einer Minute kam er und Imke zurueck und wir konnten in ihrem Fereinhausgarten unser Zelt aufstellen. Die gesparrte Campinggebuehr konnten wir nun spaeter in "Fluessiges" eintauschen. Zudem hatte ich auch das Gefuehl das unser Besuch Egon ganz recht kam da er somit eine "Entschuldigung" hat auch in die Bar zu gehen um Fussball zu schauen.
Die Bar war voll! 150, im Herzen schwarz-gelbe, Fussballfans fieberten mit Dortmund an diesen Abend in Graal-Müritz. Drei Leinwaende und 4 oder 5 Fernseher ueber der Bar sorgten fuer eine Bombenstimmung. Man konnte gut spueren als beim 1:0 die Spannung stieg und als dann in der 88. Minute auch noch das 2:0 fuer Real hinzukam, war es jedem anzumerken das es jatzt nochmal so richtig eng wird. Als dann nach 5 Minuten Nachspielzeit der Schlusspfiff kam waren alle erleichtert und begeistert - Dortmund ist im Finale!

Die Bayern hatten am naechsten Tag eine noch bessere Ausgangslage. Barcelona brauchte mind. 4 Tore, nicht unmoeglich vor heimischen Publikum, ohne ein Gegentor der Bayern zuzulassen. Dieses Spiel haben wir im Wohnwagen von einem sehr netten aelteren Paerchen aus Luebeck auf dem Campingplatz in Groß Kordshagen gesehen nachdem wir das halbe Dorf nach einer Fernsehmoeglichkeit gefragt haben. (Zwei Wohnwagen waren schon auf dem Campingplatz, und zum Glueck hatten die Luebecker Fernsehn dabei!) Das Speil lief wie geschmiert fuer die im Moment richtig starken Bayern. Sie konnten die Spanier kommen lassen um dann auf ihre Chance zu warten. Und das taten sie. Die erste Halbzeit unterhaltsam und zur zweiten Halbzeit drei Tore fuer Bayern. Souveraen! Das erste deutsch-deutsche Endspiel der CL-Geschichte. Bayern-BVB in Wembley, das wird spitze! Es wird nicht nur um Fussball an diesem Aben am 25. Mai gehen. Weitere hochbrisante Themen werden der Goetze Wechsel, sowie die Zukunft von Uli Hoeness und Lewandowski sein. Bleibt nur zu hoffen, dass zumindest ein Sender in Finnland das Spiel uebertragen wird! Wenn nicht, gibt es ja zum Glueck noch das Internet!

Mein Tipp: 1:0 fuer den BVB
Fotos kommen spaeter...

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Wildlife: Dead or Alive

There are many reasons the average person might stop and stare at Markus and I as we go about daily life on this trip. It might be because we are pushing fully loaded bikes up flights of stairs in a crowded train station. It could be the impossible-to-ignore fluorescent orange biking vests. Or it might be because we are standing in the middle of a road photographing squashed toads.

Yes, you read that right! We’ve partnered with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation again for the European leg of our journey, this time with the goal of documenting roadkill observations for the University of California Davis Road Ecology Center.

It can be easy to forget, especially when speeding along at 100 km/hour in a car, that we share all the places we inhabit with other animals who have places to go and things to do too. Just as we humans move throughout our “home ranges” to carry out daily tasks, seasonal activities, or major events and milestones in our lives, other animals do the same. But how often do we imagine the landscapes we travel as multi-species landscapes? Animals use the same roads we do, sometimes just to cross them, sometimes as travel routes or foraging areas. And remembering this when we design roads can make a huge difference to some wildlife populations, whether by reducing vehicle collision deaths or by enabling fragmented subpopulations to stay connected.  

Badger on the roadside by a National Park in Hungary
Bicycling thousands of kilometers through Europe in spring means passing through different wildlife habitats and patterns of land use nearly every day. Thanks to our re-route to begin our trip in Croatia while central Europe was still covered in snow, we have found ourselves surrounded by budding trees and blooming flowers all the way as we chase the leading edge of springtime to the north. The great benefit of covering so much territory is that we witness so many patterns. Though our roadkill observations have been much less frequent than we expected (perhaps because central Europe has less wildlife in general than other places such as California where other roadkill studies have been done), the patterns we see make sense. We see dead songbirds near forests, dead rats and birds of prey near farm fields, and dead frogs and toads near wetlands.
Bird of Prey on a road between farm fields in Slovenia
Our most striking observations yet have been the mass mortalities of toads in some places. We had seen only a couple roadkills so far when, one week into our trip, we biked through the village of Sava, Slovenia and passed approximately 30 squashed toads in the space of 200 meters. Over the next several days, when we passed small wetlands, we saw more and we probably missed a lot since it turns out the leathery, dark bodies of flattened toads look an awful lot like clumps of dirt or bits of tire rubber when you fly by them at 20 km/hour. Markus told me that many local conservation organizations in Europe put up frog fences along roadsides where crossings are common to reduce frog and toad deaths. In one Austrian village where we stopped to photograph a couple toads on the road, we noticed one such fence nearby that was in need of repair. It’s things like these fences, or wildlife crossing bridges, that can make a difference for wildlife populations.
Squashed Toad with amphibian fence in background

An amphibian fence in need of repair
It is fascinating to observe these patterns along the way and, though it may seem a bit morbid, we enjoy these opportunities to observe wildlife dead or alive in the places we travel.





Monday, April 15, 2013

A day on the bikes

04/14

After we took the train from Rijeka in Croatia to Ljubljana in Slovenia and a good night of sleep we started our second attempt to bike Slovenia. The weather was much nicer and warmer than before so we could really enjoy the last couple of days on small village road through Slovenia. It is amazing how fast the landscape changes and how many different experiences we have, and how many different impressions we are exposed to during only one day. Yesterday, for example, looked like this. In the morning we woke up in our tent in the middle of the field of Ana and Janez. We met them the night before while we were searching for a campsite in the deep V-shaped Sava river valley. It did not look good for us since the slopes were pretty steep and rocky. We past a couple farms and houses, asked several families, but none of them was willing or offering us to camp in their yards. We think it was mainly an language barrier since people are generally really friendly and open. It was already pretty late as we biked by Ana's and Janez's farm and were lucky that Ana spoke German. We asked for a spot and after a couple minutes of talking they offered us the "holy hill" of their farm.

Campsite on top of the "holy hill"
Legend has it that a priest was preaching from that hill in the 15th century and that the people erected a church in that site later as well. However, before we were able to set up camp, Ana invited us for homemade Kuchen & Apfelsaft. It was delicious and we were chatting with them about their farm, family, our trip and Alaska till dark. In the morning we woke up to mist and temperatures around 0°C. We had coffee on the hill, enjoying the 360°, view, let our tent dry and went to say good bye (but not without Ana offering us a coffee). Once we were really ready to go and really said good bye we biked on this sunny Spring day to Celje, which is an important historical city not only for Slovenia, but also for Europe. The Counts of Celje were apparently as influential and powerful around 1450 as the Habsburger family. We visited their castle, had pizza and beer for dinner in town and slept in the local hostel.

So from sleeping in our tent, to cooking coffee on our camp stove, to rural farm life, to pizza in Slovenia's third largest city, to sleeping in a bed in Slovenia's hostel of the year 2011 - we had it all in just one day! Let's see what today will bring.

Castle in Celje


From Slovenia to Croatia and Back Again


Bela Krajina Family

As those of you who have been following us on the SPOT tracker know, the weather got the best of us and we re-routed to the Croatian coast to start our bike trip. When we first arrived in Slovenia on April 2nd, we passed through snowy mountains and fields the whole train trip. Arriving in Metlika, where some of my Slovenian relatives live, we were initially excited to see no snow on the ground but when we headed up into the mountains there was still over a meter of snow along the roadside! 

We had a wonderful visit with my relatives in the Bela Krajina region: Vinko and Vera Peselj, their kids Matjaz and Petra, and the some of my grandmother's cousins including Vinko Sr. and his wife Annica, and Sofka and her husband. These are my grandmother Evelyn's relatives, a family with farming roots who say growing things and being outside is in their blood. They appreciate good food and drink, and have a lot of pride in and loyalty to local products. Among my relatives, and it seems in Slovenia at large, there is a culture of growing your own – everyone has at least a small garden or a small vineyard, and my relatives produce their own wine, schnapps, honey, produce, meats, and cheeses.

The Bela Krajina region is full of green mountains tucked into the corner of Slovenia just across the Kolpa River from Croatia. We stayed and ate at the excellent Hotel Bela Krajina, which has a nature-inspired design (including birch trees in the restaurant!) and delicious breakfast. From this base, Vinko and Matjaz helped us plan day trips by bike as well as visits by car with them around the area. We went to a friend of Matjaz's, who lives next to a natural spring that comes gushing out of the ground, and looked for the endemic Proteus “human fish”. We visited the museum and learned, among other things, about the economic pressures that caused a mass emigration of people from the region to the United States at the turn of the 20th century - people who include my family. We toured the Metlika winery, made a bicycle tour to local vineyards, and visited Vinko's personal vineyard and cellar. Needless to say we drank a lot of excellent wine over those 3 days! There's more to say than can possibly fit in this blog post, but overall we left with a feeling of strong connection to my Slovenian family who were incredibly welcoming and fun to spend time with.

Vineyards near Metlika, Slovenia

Bicycling the Croatian Coast from Split to Rijeka

We left Bela Krajina on a cold day with threats of snow, and cycled across the Croatian border to the town of Karlovac, where we caught a night train to Split on the Dalmatian coast. We awoke in our train compartment to early morning sunshine over the ocean. Once off the train around 6am, we sleepily found a cafe and sat sipping macchiatos at an outdoor table (something we did at least once a day thereafter throughout Croatia!).

April is still the low season in one of the most touristy places in the world, so the Croatian coast had a ghost town feel. We camped all along the way, filling up water at houses and gas stations, and finding beautiful ocean-side spots to set up our tent. The one night we really tried to find someplace indoors, none of the places that rent rooms were willing open for business so we ended up camping again!

The Croatian coast was a mixture of gorgeous Mediterranean scenary and a sense of deep history. The place felt elemental--everything either rock or ocean, sometimes with some sheep, sometimes palm trees, sometimes pines, the snowcapped mountains on the coast, and always blue blue water. Among the jumble of rocks covering the land were more orderly features of rock - old fortresses of the Roman empire and the criss-crossing lines of rock walls dividing sheep pastures and olive groves.  Spring had arrived and the trees were leafed out, flowers in bloom, and the air thickly fragrant.
Cycling along the islands was a major highlight. We ferried to and then cycled across Pag, Rab, and Krk, three islands located off the Croatian coast in a line extending between Zadar and Rijeka. We went to the islands to avoid traffic on the main coastal highway (though usually the coastal highway didn’t have much traffic outside of towns, due to it being low season). The water was clear and as we biked we could smell the ocean. On Pag, the afternoon was sunny and hot. We took a side road between tiny coastal villages which turned from pavement to dirt. It was fun to feel more like we were mountain biking than road biking for a few hours.  We met an older man who had lived in Germany for 15 years and enthusiastically spoke German with Markus and told us all about his kids. Constant views of the clear blue water and the "Bah's" of sheep are my most poignant memory of those islands.

We met a lot of nice people and it was interesting to see how everyone reacted to our appearance (helmets, reflective vests, spandex...). While Markus was shopping one evening, I stayed out in the street with the bicycles and people-watched. Mostly, I watched people watch me. Most adults tried to be discrete in their staring. Children, on the other hand were open-mouthed, dragging behind parents or fully stopping to stare. Kids just seem to love bikes! They reach out to touch them as they pass, or ask questions. After Markus returned, one little boy probably 3 years old looked up at him in all-out wonder as if he were a superhero.

Over 6 days we cycled 404 kilometers from Split to Rijeka. We planned to start out at ~50 km/day and slowly increase our distance, so we were pleased with how easy we found it to make miles each day. My legs were (and remain) sore from all the hill-climbing, while Markus seemingly has legs of steel that can cycle forever. Remembering back to the first time we met in Finland in 2004, we biked together all the time and it was always like this--Markus the stronger biker and me always trying to keep up!

This is our first bike trip longer than a weekend and, despite some soreness, I LOVE bicycle touring. When I bicycle I feel amphibious, able to travel along the road with vehicle traffic or to slowly weave along or even walk the bike through pedestrian-only zones in the city center. On the uphills, bicycling feels like unnatural work moving body plus metal bike and all our stuff against gravity. On the downhills, bicycling feels like flying. We see so many different landscapes, towns, and people each day compared to when we were hiking. And yet, unlike car travel, we are still feeling the wind and the rain and the hard work of our legs. With the bike, compared to with a backpack, I really feel like a traveler. There are none of the cycles of mental shifts from wilderness to town to wilderness again. There are only places—their roads, town centers, back roads, industrial zones, homeless camps, parks, and an immense amount of wildness all along the way. We sleep in olive groves, on the hillside below a communications tower with 360 degree ocean views, and on undeveloped seaside lots in deserted towns full of summer homes. We cycle on pavement and on dirt tracks, through tiny villages and past fields and forests. I feel like I am seeing nearly every side of Europe and, in some hard-to-describe way, that I can better understand the geography of all places--the ways land is used and divided, and the back-water places that are normally unseen by visitors.

Pictures say a thousand words and my time is up (though I think the above may be at least one thousand words already!). Some photos of Croatia:


Our first morning in Split

Coffee break in Trogir
Eating a protein-rich breakfast at a cafe on Day 3

Markus in Rab

Karen cycling along a dirt road on Pag

Smiling on a sunny afternoon in Pag

Water and rocks, rocks and water

The view from one of our camps