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Iceland, Part II

Read Part I first!

Sunday was the midpoint of our Icelandic vacation, and we kicked off the day by heading into Reykjavík for the COVID tests we needed in order to fly back to the U.S. The Primary Health Care of the Capital Area proved to be very efficient, and after our swabs, we went into the city center to shop and poke around. It was cool and gray, but there was only an occasional slight drizzle. Parking was free on Sundays, and there may have been fewer tourists on Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street, because many of the stores were closed.

Street art on Laugavegur in Reykjavík

I didn’t buy any souvenirs (Icelandic sweaters and wool blankets feature prominently in the gift shops), but I did buy several postcards, as well as Icelandic stamps. The stamp for Europe was Christmas-themed, for some reason, but the stamp for outside of Europe featured an Icelandic gyrfalcon. I later dropped my postcards in fire engine red Pósturinn boxes, one in a Krónan grocery store in Selfoss and one at the Skaftafell visitor center.

A house in Reykjavík

I liked the Reykjavík city center. There was street art painted on the asphalt of Laugavegur (a big maroon bird, a yellow eel), there were murals, there were corrugated metal houses in bright colors with wooden window frames and trim. There were a couple of excellent-looking bakeries with lines out the door, at times; we bought sandwiches and pastries from Sandholt, on Laugavegur, which had fantastic French-style viennoiseries, among other goodies. Also on Laugavegur, we saw a Bengal cat that might belong to one of the shops.

Hallgrímskirkja

Before leaving Reykjavík, we went up to Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church and the largest church in Iceland. Its architecture was inspired by the basalt lava columns we later saw in several places. In the square in front of the church is a statue of Leifr Eiricsson (as spelled on the pedestal) given to Iceland by the U.S. in 1930 on the 1,000th anniversary of the Alþingi (which according to Wikipedia is the oldest surviving parliament in the world!). After the service let out, we could venture inside the church. The soaring nave is unadorned but full of light, and there’s a huge pipe organ at the back.

In the afternoon, we drove southeast on the Ring Road (Route 1, which follows the country’s perimeter) to Seljalandsfoss, another of Iceland’s big waterfalls. The water falls from a cliff in sheets and thunders into the pool below. There’s a path that climbs up to a hollow behind the waterfall, allowing you to walk all the way around the falls. Behind the water the rock face is mossy. There’s a somewhat rocky climb out again.

Seljalandsfoss

Walking beyond Seljalandsfoss, there are a couple of other small waterfalls coming down the cliffside, and then there’s Gljúfrabúi, the hidden waterfall, which is tucked away inside a rock chamber a bit like the Baðstofa sea cave in Hellnar (see Part I). We walked alongside the stream that came out of the cleft in the rock, against the current, and into the chamber, where the waterfall came pouring down. Again, there was an opening onto the sky above.

Gljúfrabúi

On Monday, we left the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse for the last time and drove toward Seljalandsfoss again, but we turned off at the town of Hvolsvöllur to join up with our Midgard Adventure tour at Midgard Base Camp, the company’s headquarters. Our group consisted of fifteen people led by two guides. We were with a father and son from Scarsdale in a 10-person van driven by our guide Vala. The rest of the group, including a couple of French families, was in a super jeep. Both vehicles were suited for the unpaved mountain roads in Iceland’s interior, as well as fording streams.

Brief digression about Icelandic: when I visit a new country, I often make some effort to learn something of the language (e.g. Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese) before I go, even if that effort isn’t terribly successful. This time around, I did way less advance study than in the past. I tried to learn how to pronounce Icelandic words and was a bit daunted (apparently these days <ð> is mostly lenited…?). The only time during our vacation when I actually felt like I made some progress was during our tour with Vala because I could listen to her pronounce Icelandic words, like Landmannalaugur, our destination, or hraun, which means lava field (and is also the name of a rough-exteriored Icelandic chocolate bar). I realized that <au> is not pronounced [au] (but <á>, which means river, really is) and that <hv> is indeed [kv]. I could also hear pre-aspiration in Vala’s English! And later that evening, someone else at Midgard Base Camp said Eyjafjallajökull slowly for my mother, and I noted that <ll> really is [tl]. So, my Icelandic sounding out is a little better now!

Sigöldugljúfur

Vala drove us back northwest on Route 1 and then turned inland. On the way, she told us a bit about the ongoing Fagradalsfjall eruptions near the airport, immigration in Iceland, and the catastrophic eruptions of Lakagígar in 1783, which caused huge loss of human and animal life, wreaked havoc globally, and may have helped spark the French Revolution. We made a pit stop at the Hrauneyjar lodge and then drove on to Sigöldugljúfur, an out-of-the-way canyon mostly drained by a hydroelectric dam project. Vala said it was known as the Canyon of Tears or the Crying Canyon, and it was one of the most striking and beautiful sights of our trip. Turquoise water ran through the canyon bottom while numerous waterfalls dotted its rock walls. It was a highlight for me, and we couldn’t have seen it on our own.

Hiking around Landmannalaugar

From Sigöldugljúfur, we headed through the mountains to our ultimate destination, Landmannalaugur, in the Highlands. There’s a camp there with huts and a tent area, near the hot spring pool (laugar = pools) and below the colorful rhyolite mountains. We first set off on a loop hike which took us along a mountain stream, past some greenish rock faces, and through a lava field (with shiny obsidian!) formed in 1477.  We reached the windy scree slope of a mountain (which people were climbing), where there was a big and extremely sulfurous fumarole belching steam. The smell was almost corrosive. On some greener, craggier adjacent slopes there were more plumes of steam, as well as some intrepid sheep.

The mountains at Landmannalaugar

The hike led downwards after that point, towards a meadow in a valley surrounded by the painted mountains. We circled back to the camp, where we ate the bagged lunches provided by Midgard Adventure. Then we had a short window in which to bathe in the hot spring pool. A boardwalk led through the marshy grasses to a platform where you could stash your stuff. A wooden staircase descended into the water, which was quite shallow and, of course, warm. There was some algae floating around. As I walked on the sharp stony bottom towards these little steaming falls, the heat of the water intensified. It was a fun experience; I hadn’t been in any hot springs since a trip to Switzerland years ago. There was a trio of cute black sheep (a ewe and two lambs, judging by their relative sizes) grazing near the hot spring pool.

Black sheep near the hot spring pool

We drove back a different way, through a lot of fairly barren landscapes. Apparently a lot of the Highlands are considered volcanic desert, and it does look like a desert, or maybe the surface of Mars or the moon. Practically everyone in our van started dozing off, but we did make one more stop at Fossbrekkur, a pretty waterfall in a sort of canyon below the snow-capped volcano Hekla, which is overdue for an eruption. Vala told us that legend has it that witches meet on Hekla on Easter.

Fossbrekkur

After our tour, we decided to eat dinner in the Midgard Base Camp restaurant, which had excellent food. I had more Arctic char, served with rich mashed potatoes, and we shared the rhubarb dessert with basil ice cream. Then we had to drive around the southern belly of Iceland to our new lodgings at the Hörgsland Guesthouse, just beyond Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Luckily, since the sun still sets quite late in Iceland in August and it’s still light out at 10:00pm, we arrived before dark.

My Arctic char at the Midgard Base Camp restaurant

On Tuesday, our last full day in Iceland, we kept driving east on the Ring Road. Our plan was to go all the way to the glacial lagoon called Jökulsárlón and then stop at some other sights on the way back. Most of our route was in the metaphorical shadow of the massive glacier Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Iceland, which has many offshoot glaciers whose tendrils we glimpsed from the highway. It was quite a spectacular drive, both the way there and the way back. We drove through the glacial outwash plain called Skeiðarársandur (which looks kind of like a dark gravel wasteland shot through with brown rivers) and around the tip of a glacier to reach Jökulsárlón.

Jökulsárlón

This glacial lagoon was formed by the receding of the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull. A short river leads from the lagoon under a suspension bridge to the ocean. Jökulsárlón has glacial blue water and is dotted with miniature icebergs with blue undertones, some streaked with black. Close to the parking lot, there were a lot of gulls flying around or perched on the ice chunks, and there were big seals (probably harbor seals?) swimming in the lagoon! During our visit, it was overcast, and the clouds were very low, obscuring the mountains and glacier that were presumably at the back of the lagoon. But we walked along the water as Zodiacs, amphibious tour boats, and a group of kayaks moved among the icebergs. 

Seabirds and seals!

At Jökulsárlón, we bought one Icelandic hotdog to share (Icelanders are apparently into hotdogs). The sausage is supposed to be made from lamb, beef, and pork, but it tasted like any other hotdog to me. It came with mustard, mayonnaise, and raw and crispy fried onions. It wasn’t bad! 

The Icelandic hotdog

After more seal watching (I saw as many as six at a time), we crossed over to the other side of the Ring Road to see the black sand beach studded with chunks of ice. I think the ice washes ashore after exiting Jökulsárlón via the river. We could see small icebergs floating out of the lagoon, down river, and out to sea. The wet black sand makes a striking contrast with the white or transparent ice chunks as well as the foam of the crashing waves. We spotted a seal swimming a little ways offshore. As we were leaving, some larger icebergs were floating out of the mouth of the river.

The black sand beach adjacent to Jökulsárlón

From Jökulsárlón, we backtracked on Route 1. First we went back 10km to another glacial lagoon (or lake, since it doesn’t connect to the sea) called Fjallsárlón. It was less crowded than Jökulsárlón, and though it was just a few kilometers to the west, the clouds had lifted somewhat and there was a bit of sunlight. This meant that we could see the cliff face and ridged surface of the glacier behind the water, and in fact it and the snowy peaks beyond were partially illuminated by the sun. Occasionally we heard the glacier cracking, but we never glimpsed any movement. I loved seeing the blue cast of some of the glaciers. Fjallsárlón was in some ways more picturesque than Jökulsárlón because there was a collection of sculpted mini icebergs quite close to shore, but I agree with the Lonely Planet guidebook that it’s worth visiting both.

Fjallsárlón

We could have taken a 5km (one-way) hike from Fjallsárlón to a third glacial lake called Breiðárlón, even less frequented by tourists, but we opted not to. Instead, we backtracked further along the Ring Road to Skaftafell, a popular area that’s part of the larger Vatnajökull National Park. We took the 1.8km path toward Svartifoss (Black Waterfall), which was almost entirely uphill and in full sun. At Jökulsárlón, I’d had four layers on; during this hike, I shed all but one. We trekked up through scrub and grassy meadows dotted with angelica, with views of mountains and glaciers in the distance.

Hiking in Skaftafell

There was a last descent to approach Svartifoss from the bottom. The waterfall is narrow and fork-tongued but with a fairly high drop. The big attraction is the hexagonal basalt lava columns that frame it. It creates a sort of solid, layered stone honeycomb effect.

Svartifoss

After the hike back, we ate the salmon or lamb sandwiches we’d bought at the Skaftafell cafeteria, as well as the creamy lobster soup from the Glacier Goodies food truck next to the campground. We’d also gotten some passionfruit skyr cake and berry tart from the cafeteria, which we shared back at the Hörgsland Guesthouse.

Wednesday was the day of our departure, and we had a fairly long drive back to Reykjavík. We did make one stop, just past the town of Vík, driving around the mountain Reynisfjall to the black sand beach called Reynisfjara. There were many warning signs, as the beach is considered the most dangerous in Iceland due to the sneaker waves. The tip of the mountain had more basalt columns, shallow caves, and flocks of seabirds, including many puffins perched on grassy clifftops! Puffins look kind of comical when they fly. It was the flying puffins that first caught my notice, actually, since they move very differently than seagulls, and then I realized there were puffins lining the cliff far above us.

The cliffs at Reynisfjara

From Reynisfjara, we could see some of the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar, and looking east, we could see the promontory of Dyrhólaey, with its rock arch.

Sea stacks at Reynisfjara

We drove the rest of the way to Reykjavík, where we had a delicious lunch at the home of Valur and Guðrún, the former proprietors of the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse and the current proprietors of the car we’d been driving. We learned a bit about the September sheep roundup (Valur showed us some videos on YouTube, complete with sheep roundup singing–one of the songs had the same tune as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”). Apparently there are now opportunities for tourists to take part in rounding up the sheep. Then we headed to the airport.

On the flight back to Minneapolis, we flew over the fjords of southeastern Greenland while there were broad openings in the clouds. Sitting by the window, I had spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains, the deep blue water dotted with icebergs, and the sweeping glaciers.

Mountains and glaciers of Greenland

Iceland, Part I

When I was in 7th grade, our social studies teacher, Mrs. Weller, assigned each student in the class a country in the Western hemisphere. Naturally, most of my classmates had Latin American countries, but my assigned country was Iceland. We each had to research our country (remember the CIA World Factbook?), and we did various in-class activities like lining up in order of GDP per capita (Iceland was something of an outlier). The project culminated in a proposal for a business located in our assigned country. It had to make sense in the context of our country, and I think we had to research the local infrastructure and figure out how we were going to get our company off the ground. I recall a lot of ice cream shops in Central America, but I decided to found a whale and bird watching boat tour company. Ever since that middle school project, I had wanted to visit Iceland, though that ambition faded into the background as the years went by.

Ten years ago, my friend Dustin introduced me to the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, of which I’ve been a casual fan ever since. I saw Árstíðir’s viral video of their singing the 13th-century Icelandic hymn “Heyr himna smiður” in a German train station, and I quite like their music too. In grad school, I’m sure I had to read at least one syntax paper by an Icelandic linguist, but I remember basically nothing about it. And a year or so ago I heard Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s choral composition “Heyr þu oss himnum a” on Minnesota Public Radio and thought it was gorgeous. But I wasn’t expecting to visit Iceland anytime soon until, earlier this year, my parents invited my brother and me to go with them in August.

The trip was planned before the Delta variant surge, and I’m not sure I would recommend international travel right now. But we went on our vacation, and we were fortunate, and the trip was amazing.

Approaching Iceland from the air

We flew out of Minneapolis on a Wednesday evening and landed at Keflavík International Airport at 6:30am on Thursday, flying in over the lacy Icelandic coastline. We took a bus to a bus terminal in Reykjavík, where we met Valur, a friend of a friend and one of the former proprietors of the guesthouse where we would be staying (my parents had stayed there on a previous trip to Iceland). Valur was renting us his car, since rental cars proved to be a very hot commodity in Iceland this summer. We made the short drive to the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse, in the valley called Mosfellsdalur.

Social Icelandic sheep at the Minna-Mosfell Guesthouse

After a nap and a light lunch, we drove to Þingvellir National Park, on the lake Þingvallavatn (vatn = lake). The park lies in a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of 2.5cm a year. There is a fault or ridge called Almannagjá (also described as a canyon or ravine) that actually makes it feel like the earth is cleft here.

The rift at Þingvellir

Icelandic law proclaims Þingvellir “a protected national shrine of all Icelanders,” as it was here that the Alþingi, Iceland’s ancient parliament (and indeed the name of its current parliament), met. 

Þingvallakirkja

We walked down and across the meadow through which streams of the Öxará river snaked, toward the 19th-century church Þingvallakirkja and the nearby farmhouse, two of whose five gables constitute the summer residence of the Prime Minister. Both buildings are white with green trim.

Þingvellir

We wandered among some further pools with clear blue water and then headed back up toward the Lögberg, or Law Rock, now marked with an Icelandic flag. This was where the Alþingi met and where the Lawspeaker recited the law from memory, one third of it each summer.

Drekkingarhylur

We continued along the path past the Drekkingarhylur, or Drowning Pool, where over the centuries 18 women were drowned for various crimes. Further on, we climbed up to see Öxarárfoss, a waterfall where the Öxará river flows over the Almannagjá.

From Þingvellir, we drove to Laugarvatn, a little town on the eponymous lake. We were going to have dinner at Lindin, a restaurant there, but we arrived early, so we walked from the lakeside restaurant’s deck toward the water. Here we stumbled upon Vígðalaug, the Blessed Pool, a hot spring-fed pool used for baptisms when Iceland adopted Christianity in 1000 (people didn’t want to be baptized in cold water!). The six bier stones (Líkasteinar) nearby are associated with the last Catholic bishop of Iceland, Jón Arason, and his sons, who were beheaded when Lutheranism was being imposed by Denmark and whose bodies were washed in the pool.

Vígðalaug

Although the sun was shining, it certainly wasn’t hot, so I was surprised to see a windsurfer on the lake, as well as some swimmers farther off. But then I dipped my hand in the water on the beach and realized it was warm; Laugarvatn has hot springs.

Our first dinner in Iceland, and every subsequent meal we ate a restaurant, was delicious. Fish and lamb dishes (including fish and meat soup) dominate menus, and potatoes abound too.

My Arctic char at Lindin

The next morning, we went on a short walk from the guesthouse, greeting the sheep and horses on our way out. (Driving around Iceland, you see many, many horses and sheep, though the latter are usually only in trios or small groups, never flocks, as they roam free in the summer. Cows are rarer but do appear on occasion.) We walked over to Mosfellskirkja, the local church. As we were leaving, a raven was perched on its roof cawing.

Steaming mudpots in the Geysir area

We drove past Þingvallavatn again and on to the Geysir complex, which is well-outfitted for the plentiful tourists like us. We ate excellent sandwiches and cake in the cafeteria and then crossed the road to see the geothermal sights. A thin stream trickled along the path, with periodic signs indicating that the water’s temperature was between 80° and 100° Celsius. Plumes of steam emanated from mudpots, some of which were actually bubbling like cauldrons over the fire.

The geyser Strokkur, in between eruptions

We reached Strokkur, a geyser that’s currently like the Old Faithful of Iceland because it erupts, fountaining water and steam, every 6-8 minutes or so (at least while we were there). Tourists lined up along a rope barrier, phones held at the ready for the next blast. At least once we saw Strokkur erupt twice in quick succession, with the second eruption like an extra hiccup.

A pool

We climbed further up toward other pools. This area feels a lot like parts of Yellowstone, with pools of clear water, blue at their deepest points and rust and white around their lichenous edges. The ground underwater seems to open up into caverns. There was one milky blue steaming pot, though. Up the slope, Alaskan lupines (not a native plant) lined the path, and there were a few purple flowers still in bloom.

A lupine

We walked downhill to reach Geysir, the original geyser, whose pool has a larger surface area than Strokkur’s. Geysir was steaming, but nowadays it’s dormant, so no eruption. The landscape of this whole geothermal area is a little bit unearthly, especially with white steam drifting eerily out of holes in the ground. It’s beautiful and fascinating.

Geysir, the original geyser

Next, we drove to Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, on the Hvítá (White River). From the parking lot, we got our first glimpse of a glacier in the distance. It’s hard for me to identify which one because Iceland has a number of huge glaciers which have named offshoots. We took the path toward the waterfall. It was a sunny day again, the blue sky strewn with fluffy clouds, and in the distance, we could see a patch of rainbow. Then we drew closer and saw the massive waterfall in its deep canyon. The rainbows were spectacular. A gravel path led alongside the canyon toward the upper falls, and part of it was dampened by the heavy mist sprayed up by the huge lower falls.

Gullfoss

From Gullfoss, we drove to Eyrarbakki, a fishing village on the southern coast of Iceland, where we had an early dinner at Rauða Húsið (The Red House–most of the restaurants we ate in looked like houses from the outside, in fact). The restaurant specializes in humar, translated as lobster, but more precisely the Norway lobster (or langoustine). We almost all had the “uplifted” lobster tails, where they prise the meat out of the shell and serve it on top.

My uplifted lobster tails at Rauða Húsið

After dinner, we checked out the “beach,” which was not very beachy, but we saw some washed-up seaweed and a small black crab (dead) on the asphalt.

The next day was Saturday, and we spent it driving to and around the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland. We took the tunnel under the Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) and the bridge over Borgarfjörður, in the mist. We headed first for Stykkishólmur to eat lunch at Narfeyrarstofa, a restaurant which serves local seafood including scallops and blue mussels. It was here that we first encountered Iceland’s unexpected enthusiasm for Doritos; my brother’s fish and chips breading included finely crushed Doritos.

Me and my local scallops with sweet potato and Icelandic barley at Narfeyrarstofa (notice the sheepskin behind me)

After lunch, we walked around the Stykkishólmur harbor and along the causeway to the basalt island Súgandisey. We climbed a steep staircase to the grassy top of the island, where there was an old windlass (I think) once used for hauling kerosene up for the lighthouse. From Súgandisey, we could take in the views of Breiðafjörður and its islands. We could also walk up to the short red lighthouse.

Stykkishólmur harbor with Súgandisey in the background

From Stykkishólmur, we followed the road along the Snæfellsnes coast, passing through tiny towns. We stopped to see Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain, near the town of Grundarfjörður. Kirkjufell is a dramatic, horizontally striated mountain that juts up at the edge of the sea (apparently it was a filming location for Game of Thrones). 

Kirkjufell

Further down the highway, we got out to look at Snæfellsjökull (jökull = glacier), the volcano and glacier at the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. There was a flock of elegant Arctic terns flying and screeching on the side of the road. I think I can guess why their name in Icelandic is kría.

Arctic terns in flight

Apparently some people consider Snæfellsjökull one of the world’s spiritual or energy centers. I can’t really speak to that, but our guide on our inland trip a couple of days later told us she feels a very strange energy there.

We curved around the tip of the peninsula and began heading south and southeast. I was paging through the Lonely Planet guidebook, and I noticed the entry on Djúpalónssandur, a black sand beach with rock formations just 2km off the road we were on. I asked if we could go there, and we did! The road toward the coast wasn’t really wide enough for two cars, but at the end of it was a packed parking lot, tour busses, and bathrooms. It was a short walk past a lava field, a blue pool, and a rock arch, with views of Snæfellsjökull to the north, to the stony beach strewn with rusted debris from the 1948 wreck of a British fishing trawler. The guidebook stated that the rock formations here included an elf church and a Kerling, or troll woman, but I never figured out where the elf church was. Djúpalónssandur was pebblier than I expected for a black “sand” beach, but it was picturesque, and it was fun watching the small waves crash on the smoothed rocks that reached the shore.

Djúpalónssandur

Our next stop was Hellnar, on the coast, where there was a hillside café serving cake, among other things. We walked downhill and clambered across rounded stones in shades from pale gray to black toward the Baðstofa sea cave. The cliffs on either side of the open-topped chamber featured incredible rock formations made up of layers or plates of gray stone in different thicknesses that collectively swooped and curved like ocean waves. The sea cave was filled with nesting seagulls and rang with their cries. There was water at the bottom of it, and a hole in the ceiling opened onto the sky and let in the light. It was an amazing spot.

The Baðstofa sea cave at Hellnar

We started up the trail that led from Hellnar to Arnarstapi, the next coastal fishing village. The path led through another lava field; all the Icelandic lava fields we saw consisted of a rubble of dark rocks covered with gray-green moss. There were views of Snæfellsjökull and the knob-topped mountain Stapafell, as well as of sea cliffs and rocky islands dotted with birds. On one of these, my brother and I spotted two birds whose black backs and white stomachs immediately made me think of penguins, but of course they couldn’t be penguins. We thought they were puffins, but on our last day in Iceland, we saw actual puffins, and these birds had looked much larger. Now I wonder if they might’ve been lesser auks, also known as razorbills. In Arnarstapi, we saw the statue of Barður the troll (who was actually half human, one quarter giant, and one quarter troll), who has his own saga.

Walking from Hellnar to Arnarstapi

Continued in Part II!

The Boundary Waters 2021

Almost exactly a year after last year’s trip, my family returned to the Boundary Waters this summer, although this time it was just my parents and me, since my brother was working a show. It’s been ten years since our first family expedition to the BWCA in 2011, and fittingly, we returned to the same entry point we used on that trip, on Lake One. We drove up on a Friday, through the Iron Range, and had dinner in Ely before spending the night in a very nice bunkhouse at the Kawishiwi Lodge & Outfitters. The next day, we paddled out in our rented three-person canoe. We soon claimed a lovely campsite on a peninsula in the northern part of the lake.

View from our campsite

It was home to some pretty vocal red squirrels and adorable chipmunks in several sizes who chowed down on beaked hazelnuts and birch catkins throughout our stay. They weren’t camera-shy either.

Chipmunk

Red squirrel

On Sunday, we set out on a day trip, taking the heavily trafficked (in midmorning) portages to Lake Two. There we paddled around for a bit and then stashed our canoe on the rock in order to walk the portage to Rifle Lake. The trail featured bluebead lilies, bunchberry, and wild blueberries, though we found only a couple of ripe berries to pick and eat.

Water lily near a portage

As we canoed back toward Lake One, we spotted a mammalian head rising out of the water. We got closer, and I saw the head again before it ducked underwater. A smooth brown back appeared above the surface, then a round, furred tail, before it was gone. An otter! I was excited because 1) I’d never seen an otter in the wild before and 2) I didn’t even known there were otters in the Boundary Waters (Minnesota’s Otter Tail County notwithstanding). We drifted in our canoe, looking back and watching, and we saw two heads in the water. The otters approached each other, and I wondered if they’d do that adorable handholding the sea otters do, but no. They did hop onto the rocky shore of a small island, though, and we could see their lithe forms and thin tails as they gamboled briefly before returning to the water. We weren’t that close to them, but they were definitely the highlight of the trip for me.

An evening paddle

In the evening, we went for another paddle to try to watch the sunset (they weren’t that spectacular on this trip, though). We went around our peninsula and found a beaver lodge in the inlet, but we’d never before spotted a beaver near a lodge, or, in fact, at all. We came out again. But then, as we paddled southwest alongside our peninsula, past the landing for our campsite, I was looking at the shoreline on my right, and I saw a creature on the rock, at the edge of the water. It was large and brown and stocky and roundish, and I pointed and exclaimed, already sure it was a beaver, and it slipped into the water. I think I saw a big, black, flat tail. We drifted again, watching, and again there were two of them! One in particular we watched swim around a lot, its head and back visible above the surface of the water. It looked like a capybara (as if I’ve ever seen one of those).

Looking back toward Lake One along the passage to Confusion Lake

On Monday, we explored Lake One further and checked out the so-called Lake One Dam, at the mouth of the passage into Confusion Lake to the north. The passage contains some rapids, and the “dam” was possibly an attempt to direct the flow of water a certain way by piling up rocks. We ditched our canoe again and walked the portage to Confusion Lake, where we saw a group of five diving ducks. Were they some kind of merganser, or buffleheads, or goldeneyes? We hiked back and, on the advice of some women we’d met, paddled around into an inlet, found a patch of sand where we left our canoe, and clambered onto some rocks with a view of the rapids.

The sun on our last morning

Over the course of our short camping trip, it grew hazier. When we’d left the Twin Cities, the haze and air quality were actually worse down there than up in Ely, with smoke blown down from Canadian wildfires. But the haze thickened in the Boundary Waters while we were there. On Monday evening, the setting sun glowed an intense red behind the trees, and on Tuesday morning, it was orange and cast a reddish light on the ground. We packed up and headed back to the outfitters.

Another view from our campsite

In addition to the otters, beavers, red squirrels, and chipmunks, we saw bald eagles, loons, cedar waxwings, and blue and gray (Canada) jays, among other birds. I also saw at least two garter snakes. The otters and beavers really made this trip memorable, though; I haven’t seen anything as exciting since the moose in 2005! But I’ll be perfectly happy if I never meet a bear in the Boundary Waters.

Trip to Meudon

Given that we are still in a global pandemic, I didn’t think I would get to visit Isabelle this year, but then the stars aligned, and I spent last week with Isabelle, Olivier, and my godcat Æncre in Meudon, France. It was a pretty quiet trip, but here are a few highlights:

Flowers on the way to the Forêt de Meudon: cornflowers, California poppies, love-in-a-mist, and more

A heron and some large turtles on a log in one of the lakes in the Forêt de Meudon

Walking in the Forêt de Meudon (a reprise of 2020)

Æncre the adorable

Goodbye, France!

A Visit to Des Moines

Last week, my mother came down to visit me in Iowa, and we spent a morning under a changeable sky at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Despite having lived in Iowa for a year and three quarters (minus a big chunk of the pandemic), I’ve spent next to no time in Des Moines. That’s still mostly true, but at least I’ve seen a little bit more of the capital. Here are a few of my favorite plants from the botanical garden:

Baptisias (false indigos) in many colors!

Borage, or starflower, which my phone camera unfortunately made too purple and not blue enough

I think this is Taylor’s Sunburst lodgepole pine

Then there was this adorable baby rabbit I stalked!

There was a spectacular collection of columbines that my photos did not do justice to

Quite the peony

After seeing the botanical garden, we got takeout bún from Á Đông. Then my mother left for the return leg of her Iowa peony tour while I went down the road to check out the Chinese pavilion on the Des Moines River. The structure is in the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens, named for a former governor of Iowa who worked to resettle Southeast Asian refugees in the state in the 1970s.

2020 in Review

Well, 2020 was something, wasn’t it? Looking back on my previous year in review posts brings back lots of good memories, but also some lines that, in retrospect, are…interesting. In 2016, I remarked that “[a] lot of people have been saying that 2016 was awful”. I would bet that pales in comparison to what they’ve been saying about 2020. And last year, I said, “let me zoom back in on 2019”! Little did I know how much Zooming was to come (though in fact I personally have been doing very little Zooming, since my institution prefers other platforms).

2020 was admittedly a devastating year for my country, for much of the world, and for many, many people. I have been extraordinarily lucky to have been sheltered from the worst ravages of the pandemic. I don’t blame anyone who’s not ready to look for the silver linings or who’s not interested in hearing about all the good things that happened to other people amidst a year of suffering and loss. Paradoxically, the pandemic gave me a marvelous gift I would never have otherwise had, so it’s impossible for me to say it’s been all bad.

I will say that 2020 has felt long. The things I did in January and February feel incredibly distant. But they belong to this year too. Here is the bird’s-eye view of my 2020:

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t imagine what the future will bring. Nevertheless, I wish you hope and connection in 2021.

The Boundary Waters 2020

My family spent last week in the Boundary Waters. It was my seventh (!) trip, fifteen years after my first, and my family’s fifth trip together. The last time we went was in 2016, when we canoed and camped on Isabella Lake. This year, we returned to Seagull Outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail, where we’d gone in 2015.

We drove up on Monday, stopping in Duluth to pick up sandwiches for lunch from Northern Waters Smokehaus. We used to plan our Boundary Waters drives around meals at the New Scenic Café on Old Highway 61, but with the pandemic, things are a little different. The New Scenic Café is closed, and we ordered our sandwiches ahead and picked them up from a table under a tent on Northern Waters’ deck. My bagel with smoked salmon and scallion cream cheese was scrumptious.

We reached Seagull Outfitters on Sea Gull Lake early in the evening. We were spending the night in the bunkhouse. At the outfitters, we heard there was a bear active on the western edge of the lake; four campsites on the adjacent Alpine Lake had been closed, and we were advised to avoid the western side of Sea Gull. The bear wasn’t afraid of people, which is bad news for everyone, bear included. (Also, there were possibly multiple bears?) This was a bit concerning. I’ve never seen a bear in the Boundary Waters, and while it’d be cool to see one from a distance, I have no desire to encounter a bear that isn’t deterred by human noise.

The next morning, one of the owners of the outfitters told us she’d avoid Sea Gull Lake altogether because of all of the bears and go north to Saganaga Lake instead. This would require a 38-rod portage at the outset, but just paddling after that. So we decided to do it and not spend four nights wondering if bears were approaching our campsite.

We left on Tuesday morning and returned to Seagull Outfitters on Saturday. In many ways, it was an ideal Boundary Waters trip. It only rained once, the last night we camped, and it didn’t start till after we’d gone to bed and stopped before we got up. (Of course, between the thunder and lightning and somewhat leaky tent fly, we didn’t sleep all that much, but still!) The bugs were remarkably tolerable; I didn’t put on bug spray once, even if in the evenings around the campfire the mosquitoes buzzing around my ears were a little bothersome. We had one particularly windy paddle, but I still got my canoe back to our campsite landing spot without the waves driving us into the rocks. I brought several extra layers I never wore because it didn’t get as cold as I’d expected. Saganaga allows motorboats, and some of the surrounding area is built up, with cabins, so it felt a little bit less like the wilderness than on past trips, but it was still beautiful. From our campsite, it was just trees, rocks, sky, and water as far as the eye could see.

We’d originally expected to stay on Sea Gull Lake, so portaging hadn’t been part of the plan. But the 38-rod portage through the U.S. Forest Service’s Trail’s End campground was actually one we’d walked back in 2015, on the day we left Sea Gull Lake. We’d explored the falls and gotten a family photo taken in front of the rock face at the southern end of the portage. This time, of course, we actually had to portage our canoes and gear, and though the trail wasn’t very long, it was steep in places, with many rocks and tree roots. Just north of the portage, there were some rapids, and since we were going downstream, we managed to shoot them. (On the way back was a different story, but I’m proud to say we got our canoe up the rapids first, after making “only” two mistakes.) After the rapids, we reached Gull Lake, and from there we paddled north through some narrow channels to Saganaga.

Saganaga Lake straddles the Minnesota-Ontario border, so half the lake is in Canada. In other words, we spent this trip at the very edge of the U.S. And we made two day excursions pretty much to Canada. On our first full day in the Boundary Waters, we decided to canoe to the point marked Canadian Customs on our map. We were camping on the southern end of Loon Island (a lovely campsite), so we paddled up past Munker Island, Voyageurs Island, the Blueberry Islands, and Horseshoe Island, till we could see Canada. (It looked exactly like our side, except that in Canada there were houses on the lake.) Then we spotted a white building with signs around it, and as we got closer, we confirmed that this was the customs checkpoint. There was a small wooden dock with a No Trespassing/Passage Interdit sign at the end, a bilingual notice about everyone having to report for border inspection, and around a slight bend, a big sign proclaiming Canada! But the whole place was deserted. We could’ve just gone ashore, but we did not.

The next day, we paddled farther, to Saganaga Falls, which turned out to be rather small (kind of like the falls we’d portaged around to get from Sea Gull Lake to Gull Lake). There was a portage here, but we just left our canoes out of the way on shore and walked the trail to go see the falls. We were on the American side, but the other side of the stream was Canada, and we could see a green sign that said La Verendrye Boundary. (Later I learned that this is named for Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, which is kind of a mouthful.) We watched a party of three men and a boy canoe up from the north (where we’d come from too) to the rocks on the Canadian side and start fishing. One of them actually caught two fish, a very little one and a rather small one, both of which he released. As we were leaving in our canoes later, there was a group in a motorboat that caught a decent-sized fish in a net.

I felt I had particularly good luck taking photos of wildlife this trip, and it was my first time using my phone instead of a digital camera. This made it harder to get good pictures of distant bald eagles or loons, but the amphibians and butterflies were pretty cooperative. The sunsets seemed less spectacular than average (perhaps because the weather was better than average?), but the stargazing got better every night until the night it rained, and we saw the Milky Way and a few shooting stars.

If you didn’t know, I published a short story set largely in the Boundary Waters a couple of years ago. It’s entitled “Lómr” and appeared in Cicada, and you can read it here.

Return from France

I returned to Minnesota this week after spending nearly 90 days in France. If you’d asked me in the winter how I thought my spring was going to go, I could not have envisioned what actually came to pass! But I feel very lucky to have gotten to spend the entire French confinement, as well as the first phase and a bit of the déconfinement, with Isabelle and Olivier outside of Paris.

A walk in the Forêt de Meudon

Writing-wise, I ultimately had a very good confinement. (This is not to promote any kind of if you haven’t learned a new language or launched an online business during quarantine you’ve failed at the pandemic sentiment. No one needs to do anything more than do their best to make it through.) I sank back into drafting what I hope will be my next book, and when it looked like the finish line might actually be in sight, I strove to cross it. I finished the rough draft (emphasis on rough) on my last full day in France. Toward the very end of my stay, I also made two short story sales within a week; I hope to have more to say about those stories soon.

I have returned, of course, to a country still grappling with COVID-19 and lit by a renewed uprising against violent racism and police brutality. I have returned to the city that sparked the latest protests. Like I said at the beginning of the pandemic, I don’t have much to say that others aren’t already saying better. But we must all be doing the work. Here’s something I wrote almost exactly three years ago when the police officer who killed Philando Castile was acquitted. I think we need to be thinking seriously about what role, if any, police forces should have in our cities. What would it take to abolish the police? In the meantime, take care of yourselves, your family, your friends, and your communities.