Saturday, October 4, 2014

GATINEAU PARK IS AFLAME WITH FALL COLOUR

Here are a few of my images taken yesterday in Gatineau Park, Quebec. I have long wanted to see the famous fall colours and, despite visiting Ottawa twice a year for decades, I have never seen them. Well, now I have on a sunny, warm fall day. This is a must-do, easy day trip from Ottawa; even a half-day drive.

Champlain Lookout on Eardley Escarpment
overlooking the Ottawa River valley





L: Country lane that I inadvertently drove down.


R: At King Lake











IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved

Monday, September 29, 2014

ICELAND'S SOUTH SHORE: SEA STACKS, BLACK SAND AND GLACIERS

Reykjavik Excursions
company
Today's tour was our longest at 11 hours and the only one we did in a full-sized bus of Reykjavik Excursions. This 70-pax coach had disadvantages over the mini-bus/van tours we had done previously. The biggest being no spur-of-the-moment stops or detours for photography and little chance to ask the guide questions — they run on a tight, unwavering schedule. The benefit is the height above the road, but I would avoid this mode of tour in the future and willingly pay more for a mini-van tour.

That being said, I had sunshine yet again on my last full day in Iceland. Once we got to the real start of the excursion as we neared the coast, about 90 minutes after we left Reykjavik, it began to get interesting. 

To the north the mountainous highlands appeared capped in snow, and the nearer mountains were craggy and green with moss. We drove through the Icelandic horse breeding region and I saw many foals with their mares in the fields and was lucky enough to watch a horse and rider doing the tolt — a fifth gait that is a cross between a high-stepping walk and a trot. But what is intriguing is the the rider is absolutely still in the saddle and can carry a full glass without spilling it. Of course, it was the only time that I didn't have my camera with me at a rest stop.

This view to the right is typical of the day's drive showing a good road and a farm tucked beneath the hills. Our first major stop was at the Solheim Glacier, where seven tour participants joined some mountain guides for a three-hour hike on the glacier itself.

I joined the rest for a trek along a rocky path past the glacial lagoon to the tongue where the icebergs break off and float away to melt. The bergs and tongue are covered in black volcanic ash and sand, so were dirty and not so beautiful as I'd expected. This trek is not accessible to those with mobility challenges. It takes half an hour of ups and downs over sharp lava rocks. Very worthwhile indeed. On the return, a heavy shower produced a rainbow, but we were drenched. This is common apparently as the prevailing wind blows the clouds up over the first height of land here.

I saw the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that erupted in 2010 looking benign in the sun. The farm below was safe but got covered in 15 cms of ash and so were the sheep in the fields. People can be evacuated quickly, but over 200 animals presented difficulties and many did not survive despite heroic efforts on the part of the rescue services.
The sand in the foreground was ebony!

But the highlight for me was the long stop at the Black Sand Beach at Vik. This is a photographer's paradise. Here the wild North Atlantic has carved rocks, holes, stacks, caves, and sand from the black lava. 

The cliffs behind me were home to fulmars and they soared and wheeled around their perches on sheer rock faces. Below the birds were two caves that were bordered by the same hexagonal basalt columns I'd seen in Staffa, Hebrides.







But the iconic view was off the beach — the sea stacks. The sun was shining brightly from behind them through the sea spray kicked up by the breaking waves. The photography was tricky. But here are my efforts below.
















I had one of my fave Icelandic dishes for lunch here — the famous meat soup. This is really lamb stew packed with veggies and butter-tender shredded lamb and served in a huge bowl with a spoon. It lasted me till 8 p.m!

After lunch I saw two more stunning waterfalls — Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss, the one you can walk behind if you want to get soaked through. Also stopped for over-long at an Icelandic Folk Museum next door to Skogafoss that was ridiculously packed with every artifact they had been given, and a modern transportation museum next door. The latter was of no interest to me so I went out to see the turf houses. They had been restored inside as they were during the early 1900s with small but cosy living quarters, storerooms and workrooms. 


On the left is a typical "box bed." They are shorter than we are and often have a curtain for privacy. The living/dining room (right) was roomy and well- equipped.

The ride back to Reykjavik was long and covered the same ground as we had traveled in the morning, so it was boring. The tour company failed to deliver everyone back to their hotel door, which was disappointing as everyone was very tired. For my husband, the half-mile walk uphill was impossible so we refused to get out of the bus. They then took us back to the terminal and a mini-van drove us home. By then it was 8 p.m. and a beer and dinner beckoned.

I appreciated the opportunity that Reykjavik Excursions provided so I could experience the south shore of Iceland.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

LEARNING ABOUT THE AURORA BOREALIS


The Northern Lights can only be seen in Iceland during the darker months between the autumn and spring equinoxes. I was there at the end of September, which is one of the best times for this phenomenon. However, I didn't see them; not because of cloud conditions but due to long day tours that had me exhausted. It was not of prime importance as I had already seen the aurora borealis at their best in rural Canada in a display of many colours weaving over the sky for about 40 minutes. Here the colour is mostly green.

Many of those on our tours were mad keen to go out at night, well away from the city lights, and observe them. The tour companies here are experienced in the best spots to view the lights and make every effort to ensure visitors see them.

For those that are unlucky, I would suggest that they visit a new exhibit, Aurora Reykjavik, down by the harbour and close to the Maritime Museum. It is not a big place, but especially informative about sun spots and how they cause the lights.



Northern European countries have many ancient explanations about the aurora that will make you smile. Alongside that is the scientific explanation with excellent diagrams, images, and a video. In the small theatre, a time-lapse movie of some sightings around Iceland runs continuously, so visitors can see what they've missed.

A photo of a photo!
The last section is devoted to how to photograph the Northern Lights, which are demanding as they occur at night. Tripods are essential, of course. Aurora Reykjavik have set up a means for photographers to try it out and it's very helpful. I was able to find out exactly the settings I need to use for my Nikon prime 35mm and kit 18-55mm lenses. Phone cameras won't work too well!

This is an interesting visit for adults, but I feel not really suitable for children under 14.


Cost: Adults, 1,600ISK; students, seniors, 1,400ISK; 6-18yrs, 1,000ISK.
Small gift shop and café with free tea and coffee.

Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska — The Aurora Bo...
Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska — The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, shines above Bear Lake (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 IMAGES: Except the last image, © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved

Saturday, September 27, 2014

THE SPLENDOUR OF SOUTHERN ICELAND

 Today brought a major tour with a highly recommended small tour company. They use only small Mercedes vans and wash their windows everyday.

GeoIceland operates out of Reykjavik and offers most of the popular tours. However, our guide Baldvin added a few extras on the Golden Circle tour for us. This meant we detoured through craggy mountains east of Reykjavik to Lake Pingvellir along a small road that was built to service the new hot water pipeline supplying Reykjavik. No traffic, no tourists here.

Hot water pipeline at lower left



Iceland's geothermal geology provides unlimited hot water for everyone and heats 90% of the homes using radiators. It also supplies every settlement with 29C water for their outdoor swimming pools, which are social centres rather like pubs and are open all year. Everyone swims here.


I took the chance to examine some of the flora that grows on the lava rock in the south. Moss, reindeer lichen, and the low-growing wild blueberry bush. The patches of lava that looks like coal are eventually covered with moss, mosi in Iclandic. The moss is everywhere and very thick. It's just like a cushion to sit on, and when you stand up, it springs back into shape. The reindeer lichen are light coloured plants that are about two inches high and branch out like twigs. No reindeer here, but there are imported herds in the east of Iceland.


The road meandered around Lake Pingvellir on the way to Pingvellir, Iceland's national shrine and UNESCO World Heritage site. This is also a national park and is a must-visit, despite being over-run with tourists in the summer. I saw the area with only a handful.

Pingvellir is in a wide rift valley between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which are pulling apart a few millimetres each year; it has grown wider by 70m in the past 10,000years. The valley is fractured by fissures in the rock. This is an area of high volcanic activity.

However, the main significance for Icelanders is this is the place where Iceland was born. Settlers arrived in growing numbers after 870CE and soon needed a form of government. A general assembly met here for the first time in 930CE, and later its highest court was established. An important decision was made – the Icelanders converted to Christianity in 1000CE. The fields where the Icelanders met can be seen at the far end of the rock split (right). Close by to the south is a river delta which opens into Lake Pingvellir (below).





Driving further east, we came to one of Iceland's most visited geothermal spots at Geysir. Here the sun came out and I watched Strokkur, the biggest geyser erupt repeatedly. There are also smaller, less dramatic geysers, hot pools and streams. The water temp is about 90C and signs warn visitors that the nearest hospital is 62 kms away. Still, I saw many dipping their fingers into the water to see if it was true; also a few were walking outside the marked paths – they were lucky not to disappear in a deep crack or a hidden pool. Along the way on this eight-hour tour there were stops for bathroom breaks, photo ops, and I ate a delicious lunch at Geysir. There are two restos here: one fast food place, and one with a sumptuous buffet serving Icelandic specialties and has a superb view.


After lunch were more waterfalls. Gullfoss is a huge favourite. It's actually two waterfalls that thunder down a gorge at right angles to each other. Between the two parts a cliff juts out where tourists stand and get drenched with spray (left of centre). There are two other viewpoints – one high above and one lower down that looks upstream.

Faxi is smaller and has a salmon ladder. Unfortunately Iceland's efforts to introduce Atlantic salmon failed, so the ladder works but has never seen a salmon leap upstream.

I spied Langjokul, Iceland's second largest glacier (and 600m thick) between mountain peaks and hundreds of sheep corralled for shearing as we turned for home. We stopped at a small town near the southern coast where a recent earthquake ripped apart several houses. Underneath the small shopping centre is a huge crack that can be seen under glass. There is also an exhibit of the damage, but to someone from western Canada, it was a bit tame. Driving through the mountains, dozens of steam vents could be seen as well as the largest power plant supplying all Reykjavik's hot water nestling below the peaks.

I am very grateful to GeoIceland and Promote Iceland for making this exploration of the geology and landscapes east of Reykjavik possible.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved

Thursday, September 25, 2014

REYKJAVIK: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Reykjavik's skyline from Perland

After a typical Iceland cold breakfast of toast, hard boiled egg, and cold meats, we meandered along the main shopping street from our hotel, the Center Hotel Skjaldbreid. We set off at 10am when the stores opened and it was very quiet,
though I noticed it was busy at 5pm and later. Everything is expensive here. A glass of ordinary wine is over $10, as is a bottle of beer (beer on tap is cheaper). The stores were upmarket fashion boutiques and costly Icelandic wool shops. However if you buy more than $40 worth per day, visitors get 25%% taken off on departure at the airport. Sweaters run up from about $180 each, but have been knitted by professional knitters around Iceland. Along here are cafés, bistros, winebars, and coffee shops that are packed morning, noon, and night.




We took a three hour city tour with Reykjavik Excursions to get oriented this afternoon. I felt it could have benefited from omitting the industrial areas and some of the neighbourhoods and been finished in two hours. The guide was good, but no one assisted those passengers with mobility challenges. The steps into and off the bus were deep and did not have handrails on both sides. One old boy from Newfoundland was unable to get off the bus once he was on it. This was a pity as we had three stops en route to visit a museum, Perland, and the cathedral.

I did enjoy the Lutheran cathedral built in 1940 on a hill with a commanding view of the city – it's modern, airy, and graceful outside and in. The organ is astounding with over 5000 pipes, but they are fundraising in order to clean each one.





I liked the look of the old part of Reykjavik, close to the harbour, which has been operating for several hundred years. I plan to poke around and eat lunch there on Saturday. The fishing harbour is close by and today also has a lively whale-watching industry.




The two tour highlights for me were Perland and the famous Viking sculpture on the waterfront. Perland is unusual – it is built around and on top of four gigantic water tanks kept filled for the city in case of an emergency. Inside is a geyser that erupts every few minutes, but upstairs is a 360 degree view platform around the glass dome that houses an excellent café. One floor up is an award-winning resto that rotates. The skyline up here is worth seeing alone, but the architecture is superb inside and out. Brilliant design to disguise the water tanks.


However it was the steel sculpture on the waterfront that knocked my socks off. It's huge and captivating in its simplicity. Vikings discovered Iceland in the late 800s CE and you can still recognize the genes in some stocky, red-haired citizens.


Dinner was also a delight tonight. In a very French bistro we had Icelandic lamb stew served in a small saucepan. It was so tender the meat fell apart. As is so common here, it was served with potatoes and root veggies. Not much else can be grown in this climate. And so ended our first full day in Reykjavik. Not a bad one at that!!

IMAGES: Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

OLD ROADS, CHURCHES, AND A FARM VISIT IN NORTHERN ICELAND


This photo (L) is Akureyri in Northern Iceland from half-way up the ski area on the mountain behind the town. I took it this morning and it needs no further comment. I have quickly learned to love this region of contrasts and immense natural beauty.

Akureyri lies at the southern end of a 60kms fjord called Eyeafjordur. Ocean-going cruise ships call here on their "Round Iceland" voyages and offer the same shore excursions as I have done. Today, though, a smaller cruise ship was alongside carrying about 100 pax — a far cry from 3000+!!

Today was Nonni Travel's tour called
"Akureyri and Surroundings." This sounds boring but turned out to be four hours of nature, fascination, and animals. Ana, my private guide, started by showing me round the town, which is small. The residential streets are pretty below the mountains and Ana showed me some of the earliest homes and the Nonni House, which is now a museum about the famous Jesuit priest,  Jón Sveisson, who wrote children's stories and sagas. I saw the more recently-built residential area half-way up the mountain behind. Up we went to the ski hill where I shot the first image. The sun was bright and made for a great photo.

Arctic Cotton Brush















Then we crossed the causeway to the eastern slopes of the fjord and onto the "Old road." I was in for a treat. The winding, gravel road took me high into the mountains and over top into a valley I'd not seen yesterday. I saw late wild flowers and low berry bushes, moss and lichen. Again I marvelled at the fall colours this high up at about 1200 feet.

The valley was dressed in lavenders and  purple on the high slopes and the U-shaped valley floor was golden, interspersed with emerald farm fields. This is dairy and sheep farming country and is prosperous, though the photo (L) doesn't show the farms.

The gravel road was well graded and shaggy sheep were down in the fields and potatoes grew here. Eventually we came to the Eyeafjordur again where the alluvial fan of the river spread out widely. Along the east were more farms and here we soon stopped at Polar Hestar Riding Tours. The farmer of Grytubakki II, Stefan, welcomed me
L-R: Annaliese, James, Ana, and Stefan
personally and took me into his home for coffee and delicious homemade cakes. Here I met his employee, Annaliese, from Germany who is the riding tour guide and an accomplished artist. Both spoke excellent English and Stefan had a remarkable dry wit. I learned that he has 130 Icelandic horses, all broken and trained, and 250 sheep. Each ewe produces twins every April/May and he raises them for wool and meat. Their long, shaggy wool is sheared every March and late September. The horses stay out all winter growing long coats, but the sheep are brought inside.

I met their bottle lamb, Lollipop, who had to be bottle-fed after her mother died giving birth. Lollipop thinks she's a sheepdog! The farm also has three dogs, cats, and several rabbits and hens.

Then I walked down to the field where fifty of the horses were grazing. They are pony-size and very strong and sturdy. Also curious and gentle. Icelandic horses are all colours and some have blue eyes; they are descended from the old Nordic horses that arrived with the Vikings, along with the sheep. Both are unique breeds, kept pure by Iceland's strict laws.



I found the horses polite. An odd choice of word for sure, but perfect. They stand quite still and let you pat and stroke them, and never toss their heads, shy, or tread on one's feet. I adored them and want to come back and ride one. My time in the field was all too short and goodbyes were tough to say.


My next stop was at an old and tiny Lutheran church on the shore of the fjord. Inside was a 16th century pulpit —wooden, carved and painted. Ana,
who is a member of five choirs in Akureyri, gave me an impromptu concert here. Her voice was pitch-perfect and entrancing as she sang some Icelandic hymns. Next door were some genuine turf houses, one of which was the pastor's home until the 1950s.


The four hours were nearly over and I couldn't believe it could feel so short. But I had seen and done a lot, thanks to Nonni Travel and Promote Iceland who arranged the tour. My final view was of Eyeafjordur looking out to the North Atlantic.



IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved


NORTHERN ICELAND IS HOT...!

Typical old lava field and cinder cone
My ten-hour tour of northern Iceland was stellar in every respect: remote, contrasts, nature's power, desolate, and sunshine.

Saga Travel gave me their Diamond Circle tour that travelled 300kms through terrain that changed round every corner: Farmland, ancient and modern lava fields, lakes, their two biggest waterfalls, geothermal activity, and glens. Some of the roads were very rough with potholes and deep washboard surfaces that just about loosened every filling in my teeth. The wind blew strong and very cold, so my scarf, hat, and gloves were essential outside the van.

Saga's tour was essentially private, with only one other, my hubby, and our terrific Icelandic guide "Paul" who was knowledgeable and fun. We were all firm friends at the end. To some extent, Paul customized the tour to fit our interests and need for photography. One participant typified the ancient and modern for me. We were driving through a region with two houses in 100kms and he was Facetiming his mother in New York. Charles introduced me to her and we conversed, then he showed her the wild landscape out of the van's windows. Even in the remotest areas, Iceland has strong cell signals. Hilarious!

At every stop, there were spotless, flush toilets. Iceland is clean, clean, clean everywhere. Icelanders are an independent, hard working people who are very proud of their country.

The easiest way to show the story of this tour is with some images, rather than a long text post. So here are a few:

 
Iceland's top two waterfalls: Godafoss (L) and Dettifoss (R). The roaring waters of both are deafening. The hike to Dettifoss from the carpark is steep and tricky, but worth it. Hiking boots are the safest footwear and the spray blows over cameras if the wind changes.






High up in a remote plateau is a hot spot — fumaroles that roar, mud that boils, and cracks in the hills. Spectacular!




The Icelandic horses and sheep are unique breeds to Iceland and they are kept pure by law. No other breeds are allowed on the island.


The northern coast has cliffs, mountains, and islands. Puffins breed here (R) and on an uninhabited island in the spring so I didn't see any. Here too the earth's crust is thin and the European and North American tectonic plates are splitting apart by earthquakes and about 2cms per year. The last earthquake changed the course of the river from Dettifoss.





On the delta, are many sheep farms. At this time of year the flocks are gathered from the mountains and brought down to fields by the farms for the second shearing. They winter in barns.

Tomorrow we do the tour of Akureyri and its surrounding countryside and the fjord. Can't wait.

IMAGES: Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved.