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


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

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Spring (...wait...winter?!) Bicycle Trip through Europe

Hello from Germany everyone! We left South America in mid-March and headed back across the Atlantic for some time with Markus' family and to prepare for the next big leg of our travels--a spring bicycle trip through Europe. We've been reveling in regular showers, a soft bed, good food, and of course some good times with family and friends. It was great to be here to celebrate Markus' mother's birthday, our niece Klara's birthday, and Easter. We reflect a lot on our time in South America and are still writing blog posts about it - stay tuned for more stores, photos, and a detailed map of our journey as we continue to make updates.

Bicycling through Europe:

When Markus and I planned a spring bicycle trip through Europe, the timing seemed perfect. We would ride north along the edge of springtime, staying always within a climate envelope of bird song, fresh green buds, and long days with cool temperatures perfect for biking. At the time we planned this trip, we were also living in Fairbanks where any temperatures above -10C (15F) or so seemed luxuriously comfortable. From an Interior Alaskan perspective, the average temperatures of 3-15C or so throughout our bike route from Slovenia to Finland sounded great...

Fast forward to today--we awoke to another 10 cm. of fresh snow. Big fat flakes fell from the sky and the roads looked icy. The temperature has averaged below 0 C the entire two weeks here in Germany and though we have our bikes all put together, we have only ridden them once (photos below). These just slightly-below-freezing temps that we always enjoyed in Fairbanks now seem unreasonably cold after the summer we just spent in South America. Our plan to bicycle north from Slovenia to Finland is looking a little more like a winter trip! We already delayed our start date of the trip by a week due to snow in Slovenia. Now the plan is to head to Slovenia tomorrow, but snow is forecast yet again. My relatives in Slovenia have never seen a spring like this before. And as for us in Germany, it seems Markus and I had another Easter playing in the snow, just like we do in Fairbanks.

Riding into the Magers' driveway in Lichtenberg

Trying out our flashy new gear--reflective vests and colorful shoe covers (which we got in the 1 euro bin)

The Plan

Our goals for this trip are to experience a whole variety of languages, cultures, and ecosystems while biking through Europe. We are especially excited to travel along the former "iron curtain", largely because it's personal--Markus grew up in East Germany and I grew up in the United States. Those historical divisions no longer exist but we are both pretty interested in how the region has changed since the wall came down. Another big goal is to visit friends and family along the way. We will begin in Slovenia to spend some time with my Slovenian relatives and to get to know the Slovenian countryside a bit more. We will end in Rovaniemi, the Finnish town on the Arctic Circle where we first met in 2004, and spend time visiting our "friend family" and the places we used to live and study. The piece together a route in between, we've set goals for places to reach by certain dates and (especially with the late start) will need to take trains and ferries occasionally to make miles.

Check out our planned route (also on the "maps" page of our blog).

Tomorrow we leave our very comfortable setting here in Lichtenberg and hit the road again for more of the unknown. At the best, spring will arrive and we'll go with plan A. At the worst, a re-route to the Croatian coast or heck maybe Greece doesn't sound too bad. Regardless, I have no doubt we'll have an adventure!  

Hiking Across the Divide: Cochamo to El Bolson

March 4, 2013

Our hike from the town of Cochamo, Chile on Feb. 22nd to the town of El Bolson, Argentina on March 2nd was the longest segment of time we spent traveling point-to-point by foot in Patagonia. As with all our experiences here, there is so much more to write about than will fit in this blog post. Here are some of the highlights and memorable moments. And if you are thinking of doing this hike yourself (via the more common Paso El Leon route or via Paso El Bolson, as we did), please feel free to write us for more information. 

A New and Different Place

We traveled from Coyhaique to Puerto Varas by night bus, falling asleep to the reds and oranges of sunset over the unending, sparse steppe and awakening at the border post north of Bariloche in a different world of tall trees and cliffy, grey mountains. Then it was down to the flat Chilean coast and the town of Puerto Varas, where we spent a bright sunny afternoon re-supplying and enjoying the lovely town and views of Volcan Osorno. Next morning, we went by local bus to the little town of Cochamo and then in the back of a pick-up truck to the trailhead. Finally, after almost a week sitting in towns and buses, we were hiking into the mountains again.

And what different mountains they were! No longer were we hiking through lenga forests, open alpine meadows, and past glaciers and snowfields. Now the only thing in sight was GREEN. Tall trees, mosses, and vines covered the slopes--an incredible volume of biomass. Our first day we hiked up valley through the temperate rainforest to camp in Valle Cochamo, known as the "Yosemite of Chile" (though we overheard one of the climbers saying "Yosemite is cool but this is way better") . Massive grey cliffs rose out of the rainforest all around us.  The next day we had planned to do some dayhikes, but it was pouring rain so instead we spent the day reading and chatting with American climbers at the campground and nearby refugio.

Camping La Junta in Valle Cochamo, Chile

By Horse Trail through the Forest

Day 3 we set off on a series of horse trails that over the next few days would take us southeast toward the community of Llanada Grande just west of the Argentine border. The terrain was not very rugged, with few big climbs, and yet it was much harder than we expected. Horses and water had carved the trails into deep muddy troughs with big steps up and down over tree roots. Though we didn't climb any peaks, or much less to the top of a single ridge, our legs felt a bit like they had. We slowly got used to being surrounded always by trees. More exciting, this new landscape was full of lakes and we camped by them several nights.

Our favorite camp was on a small patch of flat shoreline along Lago Vidal Gomez, where we had our first real Patagonian swim (i.e. not just a quick dunk and wash in icy water while shrieking). That night the full moon rose and we drank our post-dinner cocoa under a sky full of stars and warm summer air. It didn't feel like we were in the mountains so much as like we were on a summer vacation. The next morning we alternately swam and basked in the sun (and the lizard in the photo below basked with us) before finally hiking on in mid-afternoon.

Our favorite camp on Lago Vidal Gomez

Lizard basking in the morning sun

Along Lago Vidal and for the rest of our route, we passed many remote farmsteads and enjoyed stopping to chat with friendly people and get a glimpse of how they lived out here, far from the roads. We bought homemade bread, butter, and jam along the way too, to supplement the food we'd packed. Blackberries were ripening and we ate handfulls along the way.

With a friendly family living on the south shore of Lago Vidal

Crossing the Border

By Feb. 28th, after walking above the aqua blue Rio Manso for a couple days, we reached the road and caught a bus the 40 km to Llanada Grande, from where we planned to bus another 20kms and then hike over the border and reach the road to El Bolson the next evening. During our brief stop in town, we talked to the bus driver about the place we wanted to be dropped off and showed it to him on the map. But once we got underway, the driver stopped only 6 km. from town and indicated it was time to get off. We quickly realized we were in the wrong place and tried to tell him in my so-so Spanish where we wanted to go but he was so insistent he wouldn't hear it. Meanwhile, the bus conductor unloaded our bags into the street. After 10 minutes of arguing with the bus driver and him urging us to get our bags and go, we finally conceded and watched the bus drive away. At a nearby house we chatted with a man about a potential boat ride to the other side of Lago Azul, where we needed to be, but he didn't have room. So, we started down the road hiking. After an hour or so, we were passed by our bus returning to town, and then it began to thunderstorm. We hiked along quickly, looking for the trailhead to Lago Azul (laughing at ourselves that once again we had no real idea what we were looking for). We passed houses and farms and then saw a boarded up cabin with a dirt road leading up the ridge behind it...maybe this was our trail? A few kilometers on when we reached the top of the ridge, the radiantly blue Lago Azul was below us. We reached the shore of the lake just before sunset, asked permission of the landowner to camp, and set up our tent in a beautiful lakeside spot as another storm rolled in.

Thunderstorm approaching at sunset over Lago Azul

Early the next morning, the lake was flat and calm. We hiked south to Lago Las Rocas and on to the Chilean border post, then above another gorgeously blue lake (the west arm of Lago Puelo) to reach the Argentine border post just before sunset. We had no map of the Argentina side and decided to camp for the night near the border post. Dinner that night was mish-mash of odds and ends because we were nearly out of food and stove fuel. The mixture of instant mashed potatoes, dried mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and a few noodles tasted great.

Heading to Town

We slept restlessly that night, awakened several times by animals walking around our tent (one of which we are pretty sure was a cow!). In the morning, we split a lukewarm thermos full of tea and ate a few crackers with jam, saving the last few crackers and peanut butter for the trail. We had read it was a 15 kilometer hike to town but without a map we had no idea what to expect so we were pleasantly surprised to reach the outlet of the Rio Azul after only 6 km or so. We walked along the beach of the lake, crossing several branches of the Rio Azul that meander in a broad delta to Lago Puelo. When we reached the national park offices at Lago Puelo, we asked a ranger for information about the route to Chile, hoping he would give us a map we could keep as a souvenir. He didn't have one and said, "You can't hike there from here, it's not possible to cross the river!" Markus and I just looked at each other and smiled. One of many instances along this trip that have reminded us it's always worth asking people for information, but it's not always wise to trust their advice is right for us.

We rode the public bus to El Bolson and stepped out straight into the Saturday afternoon market. Vendors decked out in tie-dye sold homemade jam and beer, while the sounds of drumming and the smell of pot smoke hung in the air. After so much time in tiny rural towns and farms with an old-fashioned feel, the hippie-vibe of El Bolson felt like a different planet. We wandered past the stalls with our backpacks on our backs, looking at crafts, and then we smelled it--fried food. Having eaten every single scrap of food in our packs, we were HUNGRY. I thought of a passage from the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which I read on this trip, when Cheryl has come off-trail to a restaurant and says "I may has well have been a German Shepard". I know exactly what she meant--the smell of food was completely distracting.

Ice cream at Confiteria Jauja in El Bolson

And thus commenced a delightful and disgusting evening of eating. We bought deep fried empanadas, quiche, and a big cone of french fries. Next we walked to confiteria Jauja and each devoured a pint of delicious artesanal ice cream. Momentarily satisfied, we found a campground in town, took showers, and handwashed a few clothes. Then, we were ready for dinner. On our way to find the restaurant, we stopped at the grocery store where Markus bought a chorizo sausage and I bought chocolate...just a little snack for the way. Then we went to a pizza place, where we ordered a large, deep-crust pizza and devoured the whole thing. Finally, we were full. But when we woke up next morning we were, amazingly, starving again and went right away to the bakery for fresh bread and pastries. Though I've experienced wilderness-travel-induced spikes in metabolism many times before, it never ceases to amaze me. And so ended a wonderful trip.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers and a Bit of Luck

The past few weeks have been full of great hiking as we have made our way north through Patagonia. We hiked north from El Chalten with ever changing views of Monte Fitz Roy and across the remote border to a tiny, isolated corner of Chile. We spent a few days, and many hours hanging out by the fire with new friends, in our campsite in Cerro Castillo reserve while we waited out strong winds and sleet on the traverse route. We walked (and stumbled) along muddy horse trails through lush rainforest and cliffy valleys, stopping to chat with families whose farm fields and livestock we trekked past, as we hiked from Cochamo, Chile to El Bolson, Argentina. But equally memorable are the hours and days we spent in vehicles just to get from one place to another across a vast and remote region of bumpy gravel roads with light traffic and infrequent public buses that always seem to be full...

The Kindness of Strangers

Hitch hiking has been an important mode of transport for us. It is common here and really practical. A majority of people want to stop and they smile and gesture apologetically when there is no space in the car (which is often). So far we have had nothing but positive experiences and hitching has introduced us to some great people too. A few memories:

Getting a ride was easy near Ushuaia, where we first tried it. Our first ride was from Carlos, a water treatment engineer returning from a day of trappng beavers. Our second ride was from two women who giddily informed us that we were riding in a brand new car just purchased a couple hours before. Champagne bottles they had bought for a celebration of the event clinked in the trunk as we drove.

The most generous ride was certainly from a roadtripping Buenos Aires family: Alejandro, Sandra, Agustin, and Camila. We were walking along the dusty road to Lago del Desierto and we were HOT. Needless to say, after 3 days hiking in hot sun we probably smelled terrible. The car drove by giving the ´´sorry we're full´´ sign but then pulled over. All four jumped out to load their things in the trunk along with our bags and then insisted that Camila, the 18 year old daughter, sit on her mother's lap in the backseat so that Markus and I could sit comfortaby on the other two seats. Good conversation, air conditioning, and a gift of candy made us even more glad to have met this wonderful family.

The ride that most thrilled the little kid inside of me was when a cop picked us up. We weren't even trying to hitch, just walking the final 5 km of road into Villa O'Higgins,when the Carabineros pulled alongside and asked where we were heading. We rode in the back behind the metal grate and the cop gave us a little tour of town before dropping us off right at the campground.

And finally, it's who you know that counts, right? We had been sticking our thumbs out for 2 hours on a windy day, trying to catch a ride to Coyhaique, and were pretty chilled when finally a cattle truck pulled over. And who should jump out of the passenger seat but a guy we met over dinner at the campground in Cochrane, several hundred miles south, the week before. He opened the back, where 4 other backpackers (and no cattle) sat huddled in sleeping bags, and we hopped in.

A Bit of Luck

Public transportation has come with its own set of stories as well so I will share one of my favorites. Buses leave Villa O´Higgins only twice a week: Monday and Friday. We arrived on a sunday planning to take the monday bus out, only to find the bus was completely booked. We added our names to the waiting list, not feeling very hopeful, and began thinking about what to do in the area for a week. Later that day as I sat on a bench near the library, a man and I started chatting. He was going to walk to Los Ñires to buy bread, the same place we were camped, so we began to walk together. Then his cell phone rang--he answered it, glancing back and forth to me, then (though we had not exchanged names) he looked at me and said, ´´Karen?´´ The woman from the bus office a block away had seen him walking with me and called him to get my attention. A couple had just canceled. Did we want the seats? And so Markus and I were headed out of town the next morning.

This year of travel is about many things for Markus and I, but one of the most important is just to figure out, What Next? And it is when travel is most spontaneous, and we rely most on the communities and people we meet, that I feel reassured. It takes a certain leap of faith to hitch a ride or arrive in a new town without an onward ticket out, but these small leaps give me peace about the future, wherever we will live and whatever we will do. It reminds me that things usually work out, that most people are kind and generous, and that regardless of what happens we will still end up somewhere with stories to tell.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


It was morning in the forest, sunlight filtering through gaps in the old growth lenga stand, when we heard the drumming. Markus and I paused on the trail, pulling out camera and binoculars respectively, and looked around for the source. Then we saw it: a brilliant, feathery red crest and large, stout bill hammering forcefully against the trunk of a large, old tree. Little chunks of bark sailed through the air and landed on the forest floor nearby. Woodpecker!

Woodpeckers are a favorite guild of birds for both Markus and I, and Feb. 8th on the northern boundary of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares was the first day we saw them here in Patagonia. As we dropped our backpacks and walked into the forest, we heard several of the birds calling to one another and soon saw a second woodpecker fly in and alight on a nearby tree. This one lacked a red crest but had an equally striking and unusual curly-cue of black feathers curving from the top of its head. It was the female Carpintero Gigante (Magellanic woodpecker), chattering back and forth with the red-crested male. As luck would have it, we saw 9 of the birds that day. We traversed 30km from a campsite in the national park to the Argentinian border post north of Lago del Desierto across a mosaic of habitats and land-use designations, from forested national park, past private forests and more open (hot, windy) ranchlands, and along the shore of the mountainous Lago del Desierto rimmed by glaciers and their meltwater cascades spilling off of the southern ice cap--and at several points, always in open old-growth forest habitats, we heard the tell-tale drumming and chattering of the woodpeckers. We probably spent a good hour or more of time and several hundred photograph attempts on observing the birds that day!

Male Magellanic Woodpecker (zoom in for a closer look)

Observing and cataloguing biodiversity has been a consistently rewarding aspect of our time here in Patagonia. Being weight-conscious and eager to cultivate an awareness of the environments we travel though, we don´t carry mp3 players, or musical instruments, or books (though we share 1 Kindle), or even a deck of cards in our backpacks, but we do carry a pair of binoculars and one slim book ´´Aves de Patagonia y Antartida´´. This way of spending our ´´free time´´ is motivated by personal interest, but also by an opportunity to contribute to biodiversity conservation. We planned this year of travel to fulfill our own personal dreams for world travel and wilderness adventure, but as we planned we also looked for opportunities to contribute to something beyond ourselves along the way. That is why we were so psyched to learn of the organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. This non-profit fills the much-needed role of partnering adventurers traveling through remote areas or long transects of the globe with scientists seeking data or samples from those very same, hard-to-access places. When we wrote to ASC about our trip, they matched us up with the South American Wildlands and Biodiversity project of the Pacific Biodiversity Institute. 

Recognizing the immensity of wildlands in South America, the PBI´s goals are to collect and communicate information about such places on an international scale to support efforts to conserve global biodiversity. They rely largely on citizen scientists, both local and visiting, to collect the data needed to map the wildlands of South America. Every day we record our wildlife sightings (with a special focus on birds) along with ecological, land-use, and cultural observations of the area. Some days are full of exciting observations, usually when our walking goals and weather allow for dilly-dallying along with the binoculars. Our first day trekking through Cerro Castillo National Reserve was one such day, as we passed by a grassland and wetland full of hundreds of geese, ducks, and black-billed ibises. Other days when the wind howls and we are pelted by icy rain, we don´t observe much (though of course the birds usually seem to be huddled under their own ´´down blankets´´ just like us on those days). We catalogue data from well-studied national parks and from little-studied private lands. It is hard to know with certaintly whether this data will be useful, but it is our hope that this little contribution can help. At the very least, we get the added satisfaction of knowing that all that time staring at birds might amount to something beyond ourselves.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Daily life

Daily Input - Output Analysis
I   - Inputs: oxygen, water, food
II  - Processes: work & body functions
III - Outputs: heat, sweat, "human waste"

I, II, III & cloth + gear allow us to:
A - hike
B - sleep = maintenance

Pretty simple! What else do you "need" on a daily basis? ...something to read?!? ...but books are heavy!

After comparing the e-reader options on the market and looking at our needs, I got us the Kindle Keyboard with 3G and Wi-Fi for our travels; and I´m an even bigger fan of Amazon right now since we have the Kindle.

Here is why:
Compared to a tablet the Kindle has a lighter weight (it only weighs 8.7 oz) has a much longer battery life (up to 2 months) and is way cheaper. It comes with 3G and Wi-Fi, which only Amazon offers (as far as I know) and has an experimental browser to do Internet. Devices like the Kindle Touch or Paperwhite also offer 3G & Wi-Fi, however, 3G on these devices is limited to Amazon´s website and Wikipedia. The Kindle Keyboard 3G has not these limitations, which means we are able to check email whenever we have a cellphone signal. OK, I have to say, the browser is not comparable to standard browsers like Firefox or Opera, but having the ability to write a quick email to family & friends or to find out some information from the middle of nowhere (but with cellphone signal ;-) without any kind of data contract is pretty need.

Top that with Amazon´s excellent customer service and you can only love Amazon. The Kindel Keyboard 3G, an excellent device for travelers, which of course you can also use to read books or .pdf´s with!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Torres del Paine Circus

We just returned from 6 days in Torres del Paine national park after a good hike of the full TDP circuit, but with mixed feelings about the park. TDP is internationally-known for its scenic mountains (rightfully so) with very high visitation, and we originally thought we would skip it. However, enough people told us it was a place we had to see that we decided to go for it. Arriving late afternoon January 29th, and being budget-minded, we headed for the closest free campsite 8km uphill near the Torres along what is probably the most popular trail in the park. Holy, culture shock! Coming from Isla Navarino, we had become accustomed to solitude on the trail.There, seeing another person on the route was a rare occasion to stop and chat. But as we headed up to the Torres, saying a customary Hola to each person we met was impossible without taking breaks to breathe!

We camped that night packed in with 70 or so other tents and I woke up in the morning in a foul mood. The setting was scenic, but what the heck were we dong there? How did a hiking trail that felt as busy as a (steep, dusty) city street meet our goals for this trip? Hiking back down from the Torres to start the circuit, we contemplated ditching TDP, using our return bus ticket that day, and going elsewhere. I was especially sour about the park experience thus far but didnt want to have wasted the money we already spent on bus tickets and entry fees. (Markus, being the economist, said they were ´sunk costs´ anyway...). Ultimately, we decided to hike the circuit but to do it quickly, hiking full days and only doing popular day hikes if weather was ideal.
Us at the Torres

It worked, and the 100 or so kilometers we hiked in the next 4.5 days were enjoyable. We hiked through blustery steppe, vibrantly green forests with moss-covered trees, and rocky alpine valleys; past turquoise lakes, hanging glaciers, and over Paso Gardener with stunning views of the massive Glacier Grey flowing from the Hielo Sur (southern ice cap) into the valley below us. We met nice people along the trail and, after coincidentally running into the same two Germans, Berndt and Jon, for at least the 6th time since the ferry from Puerto Williams, we passed a great evening with them drinking beers and pisco sours at the bar (yes, one of the off-road refugio-campgrounds has a big, schmancy, full-service bar).

Panorama of Glacier Grey from Paso Gardener

I will say though that my often-negative reaction to the lack of solitude in the park surprised me and prompted a lot of reflection on what I value in outdoor travel, and why we are here. Without delving too deeply into wilderness philosophy and issues of wilderness and privilege, I will just say that it left me feeling conflicted. Certainly, national parks have incredible value as protected areas and as democratic spaces - as places that belong to us all and where those without the ability to backpack in rugged country can still access sites of unusual beauty and biodiversity. These places inspire awe, and the more of that in the world, the better. I commend the park for their efforts to confine visitor impacts to a few trails and camping areas. This is certainly a more sustainable strategy than less controlled access, though with the massive visitation I still question its sustainability (you have to wonder at the septic systems they must have to support hundreds of visitors per day at all those off-road campsites with flush toilets and showers!).Still, despite appreciating national parks, and all my philosophical musings on privilege and wilderness access, I just really craved more solitude and silence and open space. Have all my wilderness travels and life in Alaska so conditioned me to expect these things that I can´t appreciate a national park with lots of other people present?! (a side note - this was one of many instances in which Markus and I have been reminded that we are not ´´normal´´ people)

Ultimately, the TDP trip was a good time and a great reminder that these travels are about our own personal vision and goals. One of my main goals for our travels is to practice awareness and attentiveness in daily life - to not zone out while we walk and think of random things like washing our clothes, which weirdly enough I seem to have a tendency to think about a lot! Attentiveness seems important for really experiencing these places we visit, for being a good naturalist, and for observing the wildlife and landscape features we collect data on for the South American Wildlands Biodiversity Inventory. On our less developed routes, we have enjoyed having to look at the terrain, find routes, choose campsites, and listen to our bodies to decide when to rest. Walking through un-trailed landscapes, whether capital W wilderness or cattle estancias, requires attentiveness and it is wonderful to cultivate skills of observation and awareness. Walking down the well-trodden and well-marked trails of TDP, there was no need to pay attention to anything. However it raised a good challenge for the rest of this trip and, I think, for a future more-settled life (wherever that is) - a challenge to practice attentiveness in all settings, to keep cultivating curiosity about places and appreciate small discoveries along the way.

I hope to keep these things in mind as we head off next to hike from El Chalten, Argentina to Villa O´Higgens, Chile. More from us (and hopefully more opportunities to upload photos) after that!

Say hello to "Ramstein"


Well, we just finished the Dientes De Navarino Circuit (DDNC) and were excited to connect this hike with a hike to Lago Windhond. We felt good, our legs were strong and we just needed to resupply in Puerto Williams since we already got some basic information about the Lago Windhond Circuit (LWC) before we started the DDNC. After a short shopping trip and rental of a fishing pole we stopped by our hostel, (Hostal Lajuwa in Villa Ukika) to grab some more items.

The one trail option to LW started right at our hostel and our very friendly host Christian confirmed the way. Of we went, up the valley, proud to only stopped in town for ma couple hours so this should feel like a longer, connected trip. After 2 hours of hiking "in the right direction" we started to wonder where the actual trail will start. It started to get dark and we were at a point to choose between a river crossing (old, collapsed bridge) or to go on, further into the woods. The map we had from the DDNC only showed part of the LWC, the start, but not how to get to the trail head :-(. Anyway, we hiked for another 30 minutes, passing several side trails and exploring some of them but non of them were leading to the trail head. At one point we knew that we went to far into the next valley so we decided to turn around and to give the river crossing a try. It´s not to much fun to get your feet wet at the end of a long day when you are tired and ready to camp. However, we saw this as our last option for the day. We crossed the river and after 3 minutes came across a big opening where we encountered several cows. So far, when we met cows, they just ran off but this time a big black bull decided to slowly walk towards us and to let us know that he is not moving by making his deep, loud "muhhh"s. OK, now it was time to leave and to turn around.  From this side of the river we spotted an OK camp spot so we decided to camp there for the night and to go to town again the next day to get precise trail head information.

The next morning we retraced our steps to town in less then an hour and we went to the same outfitter where I rented the fishing gear. Well, it looked like we were in the right place, we just didn´t find the trail head or see it...So after a short stop at the store for a second breakfast we hit the road out of town again, this time also with the map showing the entire LWC. Walking out of town we noticed a dog next to us, following us and being on our side at every turn. At one point I said to Karen " What if he is our guard dog who will come with us to LW to protect us from the wild dogs that are at the lake? (Hikers, who did the trail, apparently sometimes have problems with or at least encountered wild dogs at the lake). He certainly looked like a tough guy with one of hi K9 already missing and his jaw being out of alignment...

Well, we were still kind of close to town so he must or will turn around eventually, right?!? Anyway, back at our river crossing and close to our campsite there should be a sign that marks the trail head so we were hopeful but also a little bit sceptical at the same time. The 3 of us reached the point where Karen and I crossed the river and after 2 min on our original trail we saw an old, rusty looking 1m x 1m "something". I noticed that "thing" yesterday too but didn´t check it out closer. Now we had a closer look and yes, it was our trail head sign!!! So yes, we already were here yesterday, camped 3 minutes away but went back to town to get more info on how to get here...lesson learned :-).

We took the path, crossed the right river arm this time and we were on our way. We being, Karen, the dog and I. Well, now we were in the middle of the woods and it was more and more unlikely that the dog would just return. What to do? We don not have any extra food for this strong looking, short haired, blue eyed, 60 pound male dog! Well, it´s his choice - we are out here for at least 4 days.

As we continued on this beautiful, remote hike to this big lake on Isla Navarino Karen and I started talking about more and more about the dog, AND, he needed a name too! I suggested  Pelé, like the famous soccer player but Karen didn´t really like this name. My next suggestion was Ramstein, Karen liked it, and that was his name from now on. Ramstein, our hiking buddy and protection-guide dog.

Ramstein resting
He stayed very close to either Karen or me all the time, rested and fell a sleep when we stopped, and made himself a good, cozy bed for the night when Karen and I set up our tent and he was right there in the morning. We arrived at the lake refugio on day 2 of our hike and Ramstein was still in good spirit, besides the the cold, rainy weather. At the refugio we met Manuela, Gabriel, Phillippe from Chile, which we met before we went to hike the DDNC at our hostel, their friend Andreas and John from France. They were at the refugio for several days now but only John managed to catch several fish so far. The rustic refugio had a wood stove but no more door and was a pleasant change to the wet and rainy environment we were in for the last day. We were able to fit our tent inside the structure to utilize the extra weather protection. Ramstein, Karen and I agreed, had to stay and sleep outside. However, that evening the rain turned into hail and Ramstein, who listened very well came sprinting into the refugio to find his own corner to rest. At this point he only had some left-over polenta and some fish skin from John´s fish in his stomach but he still behaved very well and never bagged for anyones food. However, we could tell he was hungry and the plan was to catch a fish for him. One for us and one for Ramstein.

Refugio Windhond
Well, the fishing didn´t work out, for non of us and we all left the refugio that day. The wind picked up in the afternoon again and in the evening, at our campsite at Lagune Salto it was raining hard too. Ramstein found a nice protected spot under some bushes again but couldn´t resist bagging for our mushed potatoes that night. In the morning he got half a package of crackers (that we didn´t like) and we were starting to make plans to buy him a big piece of meat or some sausages, to reward his companionship and trail finding abilities, once we are back in town. Getting closer to town, Ramstein found a quarter of a cow-leg and carried it proud in his mouth but for some reason he didn´t bring it all the way to town.

Hiking with Ramstein
We reached the outskirts of Puerto Williams and he was still with us but closer to the town center he was gone... :-( ... bummer, we thought! We ran some errands in town and got a snack at the supermarket. After finishing the snack we saw him again, walking down the street, and we called him over because it was reward time. I got a big package of sausages in the store and we feed them one by one to Ramstein - he was very happy to get some "real food" (and very hungry, snapping after and catching the sausages while still in the air). Now we were one team again and he followed us all the way top the hostel. Ramstein was even so close to us that he decided to sleep right in front of the hostal´s entry door (for at least 4 hours) while we got clean and did laundry inside. What a companion! Sometimes that evening he must have left but we still saw him the next day in town and if he saw us, he came over and followed us for a while. We told our Ramstein story to our host and several other people we met before and that night we found out that Ramstein was already well missed in town, that his real name was Austral, his owner is a 3 year old boy and that he is know for fighting cars that drive down the road (that´s how he lost his K9 and explains his out-of place jaw).

Well, Austral, you were a good, loyal hiking companion! The lesson learned for us is that we better get ALL the information we need, even if it is only the exact starting point location, BEFORE leaving town but that little mishaps like this might lead to a different hiking experience and might even bring you a special hiking buddy....