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