“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Iceland: Bad Name, Great Country

The charisma level is low; even the name sounds bleak: Iceland? Conjures up visions of cold days, colder nights, frostbitten toes and somber skies. Because of its gloomy image the country doesn’t make many appearances on peoples’ bucket lists. So I was not enthused about visiting but it was my buddy Ed’s turn to pick the destination for our latest adventure trip and Iceland it was. My hesitancy was not eased on our approach to Keflavik airport. The ground below looked stark and barren, devoid of any distinguishing features and, especially, any vegetation. Oh boy, this is gonna suck.

Three hours later I am up to my waist in a lake in Laugervatn, flyfishing for arctic char and marveling at the vast and captivating scenery. The place is beautiful. How could I have been so wrong?

That’s a question I keep asking myself over the next days as we make our way around the island. The Icelandic backcountry’s natural beauty is so unexpected that we find ourselves constantly in awe. Iceland’s volcanoes and geysers and glaciers and waterfalls challenge the writer’s storehouse of adjectives; illusory, otherworldly, fantastic—nothing seems to capture the feel of the country. Everything lies outside the parameters of normality. It’s a raw and powerful beauty, the country throws rugged vistas at you, daring you not to be captivated by the show.

We trekked around the island’s perimeter, roughly following the Ring Road, a two-lane, 900 kilometer pavement-and-gravel-roadway that bumps against the North Atlantic as it circumscribes the coast. Along the way we had a full schedule of whitewater rafting, hiking, glacier climbing, whale watching and snowmobiling .
We modified our plans somewhat to vent our anger at the erupting Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano, whose shifting ash plume had delayed our arrival from JFK, costing us a day of partying in Reykjavik. Wanting to get an up close look at the active cauldron, we drove up a narrow back road on the volcano’s north face followed by a short hike to a dead end on the banks of a raging mountain river. A low cloud cover hid the peak but we could hear an ominous low rumbling—an extended thunderous roll—booming out of the gloomy clouds. The water was swift and milky from the volcano ash and blocked our progress—no way we would see the volcano from this approach. Disappointed, we backtracked to the Ring Road and a couple of hours later rounded a curve and there it was—a massive gray plume reaching 20,000 feet into the sky, pumping tons of ash, rocks and fire into the clear blue sky. It was impressive—a powerful display of nature at is angriest. A massive field of steaming rock flow fingered down the mountainside, threatening the postcard-pretty house and barns of a hapless farmer caught in its path.

The impact of the eruption on Europe is highly publicized but the impact within the country is epic—washed out bridges, farm fields layered with ash, silted rivers, blackened skies, respiratory problems for residents caught in its downwind path. We drove the rest of the day and part of the next through the ash plume, headlights blazing, billowing ash obscuring the road behind every oncoming vehicle. Impressive.

The effects of the volcano were still obvious the next day as we hiked up the face of Skaftafell glacier. The crusty white ice was sprinkled with a fine dusting of gray ash, marring its natural beauty at the lower levels. As we climbed further the ash seemed to dissipate and the characteristic glacial blue hue revealed itself. We hiked through ice tunnels and crevasses and blue ice caves, an easy trek on one of Iceland’s many disappearing glaciers. Our guide pointed across a low bouldered plain, stretching some 800 meters to the ocean. The glacier had retreated that distance in little over ten years, a sad tale repeated all over the country.

Near Hofn we impulsively took an unmarked side road into the interior and hiked up into the mountains where we stumbled into the midst of a herd of reindeer. They approached within ten meters as we crouched behind a low knoll, the herd’s large bull silhouetted against the steel gray sky as he sniffed the air sensing our presence. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime poses and we were just in the right place to capture it.

At Husavik on the northern part of the island we cruised out of the harbor to catch glimpses of minke and humpback whales which obligingly surfaced and showed their tails for us as we snapped pictures. It was nature at its finest, their black smooth skin slipping slowly and dramatically into the blue waters of the bay. So it was particularly jarring and upsetting to see minke whale on the menu of the restaurant that night--an unsettling and brutal aspect to an otherwise enlightened country.

After an easy day on the ocean, we were ready for some more strenuous action and so we were mildly disappointed with the whitewater on the Vestari Jokulsa, one of Icleand’s premier rafting rivers. This is primarily a Class II-III river. Ed and I have rafted all over the world and while the scenery was excellent, the action was low. Our guide, Jeff, sensed our frustration and told us we needed to return the next day and do the Austari Jokulsa, one of the best whitewater rivers in the world. A good idea, we took him up on it, with plans to return in the morning. Unfortunately, his second recommendation was not so good. We were staying the night in the tiny village of Holar, a wide spot in the road consisting of a few farmhouses and a University. Jeff told us to be sure to check out the Beer Club, run by a friend of his at the University.

Big mistake. The club is open to faculty, staff and guests only. Since we were staying in a cabin on campus, we qualified as guests. Our bartender, who insisted his name was Gummi Bear, plied us with multiple samples of every brand of beer sold in Iceland, the faculty members joined us in revelry and we staggered back to our cabin in the early morning light. Not a good prep for a day of whitewater.

But our raft awaited and the next morning we pulled on our dry suits (the Jokulsa is glacier fed and COLD) and warily stepped into the river. The Austari Jokulsa lived up to its billing. It is an awesome river with big water, second only to the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in my experience. Huge standing waves provided two plus hours of continuous and intimidating rapids, carving through some of the most rugged and forbidding landscape in Iceland. The paddle was challenging and exhausting and after a full day of rapids, eddies and drops we were exhausted.

We had just enough energy to drive into Reykjavik and grab a couple hours of sleep before hitting the legendary nightlife of the city. Reykjavik rocks all night long. A string of bars in city center is a hive of activity that spins up near midnight and parties on until early morning. Don’t like the scene? Move to the bar next door, there is another party rocking through the night. Reykjavik’s party crowd is young, cool and intent on having fun.

Reykjavik is cosmopolitan and modern with remnants of its origins as a shipping port still evident, a charming, clean and picturesque city with an easy going, vibrant populace. Another surprise, it hums with the energy of a major European city. Just another in a long string of surprises from this country.

Details: We set up our trip through Nordic Visitor, who took care of all guides and arrangements based on our trip desires.


Laugavegur 26

101 Reykjavik, Iceland

Tel: +354 578 20 80

Direct: +354 578 20 86

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Deal's Gap, The Southeast's Premier Biking Road

It took a five hour ride, an overnight camp in the rain and a cold morning before we finally arrived at our destination: a twisting, snaking, up and down stretch of two-lane road that has become a Mecca for motorcycle riders throughout the Southeast. This desolate ribbon of narrow asphalt in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina attracts motorcyclists from all over the country who revel in the road’s challenging banked curves and blind turns.

This is Deal’s Gap, a name that triggers almost mystical feelings in motorcyclists. It is located high in the mountains on US Highway 129 between Topton, North Carolina and Maryville, Tennessee and straddles the state line. Highway 129 curls and bends for more than fifty miles and is a challenging ride the whole way, but in one eleven mile stretch the road twists itself into a spaghetti bowl of 318 turns, a continuous feast of rights, lefts, climbs, and drops. There is hardly a better motorcycle road anywhere in the country. The Gap is legendary within biking circles and on weekends the road is headlight-to-tailpipe with hundreds of bikes.

Deal’s Gap is both demanding and beautiful, carving its way through the Smoky’s lush mountain forests and past breathtaking vistas of deep valleys, clear mountain lakes, and forested mountains. But most riders barely notice the beauty surrounding them, hardly daring to tear their eyes from the highway lest they become road kill. This is not a road for the faint-hearted.

The Gap’s reputation is what brought the five of us across three states to attack its legendary curves. But now that we’re here at the bottom of the hill and ready to go, we have a couple of problems. For one thing, the day has turned cold and rainy and there is a fine mist swirling around us. To make matters worse, the rain from the previous night has pounded many of the leaves out of the trees and onto the road. Slick curvy roads covered with wet leaves are a bad combination for motorcycle riding.

So we adjourn to Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, a combination gas station, store and general meeting place for Gap riders to talk things over. The store is a small dimly lit place stocked with T-shirts, hats and other Deal’s Gap memorabilia with sayings like “Asphalt Surfer”, “I Survived Deal’s Gap”, and other less-than-confidence-inspiring slogans. We gather around a television playing a continuous video of two riders leaning and gunning their way through the Gap. The view on the screen is from the handlebars of the tailing bike and we watch the lead bike lean, slide, and squirt through S-curves, around bends and across double yellow lines, passing slower moving bikes and cars at dangerous (and obviously illegal) speeds. The speedometer of the trailing bike is visible in the video frame and it registers speeds that we usually don’t see on the Interstate. Watching the video is not a good idea, kind of like seeing Jaws before going for a swim in the ocean. It causes a lot of shifting of feet and “Maybe we oughta wait a while” discussions. But we are five guys astride motorcycles--no way any one of us is going to suggest turning back. Manhood is at stake.

So we mount up and head into the Gap. With 318 curves, everything happens too fast to catalogue in your brain but here’s what I remember of the ride:

The road twists uphill to the mountain’s crest, crosses the Tennessee state line, and then begins a dizzying downward spiral. Dark gray cliffs hug the road on one side and the skinny shoulder drops hundreds of feet into nothingness on the other. Stands of unforgiving oak, hickory and maple trees crowd right up to the road’s edge. As I come around a sweeping left curve, there is a tow truck parked on a pull off, like a vulture waiting for dinner. Around another curve I come upon a Tennessee state trooper car, blue light flashing, hovering near a wrecked bike.

I had dreamed about downshifting and upshifting, leaning, accelerating and decelerating up and down the rapid elevation changes of the road. Instead all I see are dark spots on the road that look ominously like ice and blankets of slippery leaves sprinkled liberally in the middle of 180-degree turns. I glance down at my speedometer: barely 35 miles per hour. So much for my plans to swoop through the Gap and arouse the envy of my friends.

I’ve just about resigned myself to an excruciatingly slow run through the Gap when the road almost miraculously dries out and we crank up the speed. John, the only Deal’s Gap veteran in our group, is ahead of me on his black Honda Shadow, leaning through the curves. I try to keep up, not an easy task. But I get into a rhythm, leaning easily from left to right, shifting my weight and feeling the exhilaration of dancing through the curves. Too soon, we come out of the last sweeping curve, pumped with excitement.

At the bottom of the hill we pull over and the rest of our group join us. We all come through unscathed, even one friend, who—unbelievably—has not ridden for twenty years and borrowed a motorcycle for this trip. I figured he would eat pavement at Deal’s Gap but he, like the rest of us, is an immediate Gap fan and we begin planning a return trip before our engines even have time to cool. What can I say; it's an addiction.

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Llama Luxury: Trekking the Backcountry in Comfort

Less than a mile into our hike through the thickly forested mountains of North Carolina I begin to appreciate my new hiking companion. He carries all my gear, does not bore me with endless conversation and follows silently behind me, keeping a discreet distance, stopping when I stop, trotting alongside when I scramble up a slope.

A couple of hours later we stop for lunch on a level plateau surrounded by a green palette of maple and oak trees. While I contentedly chew on my lunch, he just as contentedly chews on daisy asters and clover.

But what do you expect from a llama? My surefooted companion has freed me to enjoy the wildlife and scenery of the mountains without the burden of a cumbersome backpack full of food and gear. After years of lugging tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, clothes, food, and all the other paraphernalia that I seem to need to make it through a few days in the wilderness, I started thinking that there must be a better way. My answer came when I discovered llama trekking.

A popular activity in the Rockies, llama trekking is slowly catching on in the Smoky Mountains. And for good reason. Llamas are appealing creatures with personalities more like a dog than a horse and the freedom that comes with having a pack animal to carry your gear cannot be overstated.

If you’re like me, you don’t happen to have a llama standing around in your backyard so you’ll need to hook up with a llama trekking outfitter. There are at least two such companies in the Smokies and they offer a variety of treks, ranging from easy half-day adventures to extended three-day camping trips. I picked a company located near the eastern border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Our overnight trek starts with a human-llama bonding session, kind of like one of those high school dances where you circle the crowd trying to pick up a hapless victim. I sidle up to a white and brown llama and he tilts his head sideways to have his ear scratched. That’s all it takes, I’m his new best friend. High school should have been this easy.

Bonding achieved, I load my stuff into my llama’s two saddlebags and we head into the mountains. I feel like Noah leading his charges to higher ground. The narrow mountain trail parallels one of those ubiquitous North Carolina mountain streams, tumbling cold and clear out of the highlands. As we traipse uphill through a lush thicket of mountain laurel I realize that this is going to be a typical Smoky Mountain hike—in a word, steep.

I also immediately grasp that I have entered a whole other level of backcountry trekking. The hiking, minus a thirty pound backpack, is liberating and the usual Spartan rules of lightweight and low volume packing are out the window; with a llama to bear the burden you can add a little extravagance to your trip--maybe a bottle of wine, a book, a pillow, an inflatable mattress. I could grow to love this llama thing.

That’s the bottom line; llama trekking adds a considerable degree of luxury to the usual freeze dried noodles, instant coffee, one set of clothes hiking trip. Goodbye austerity, hello comfort.  But don’t get the idea that llama trekking is just for the out-of-shape and families with little kids. If you’re worried about the wimp factor, you can opt for long distance multi-day trips that offer more adventure.

No matter what your preference, llama trekking is a fun and unique adventure. Just don’t expect any campfire conversation from your new companion.

Details:  Two companies that offer llama trekking in the Smoky Mountains are English Mountain Llama Treks (828-622-9686, www.hikinginthesmokies.com) located near Hot Springs, NC and Smoky Mountain Llama Treks (865-428-6042, www.smokymountainllamatreks.com) near Sevierville, TN.

(A version of this article originally appeared in Blue Ridge Country)

Soaring Over Alabama

This is not right. I have a death grip on the control stick between my legs, the ground below is rushing towards me and there is no engine sound coming from my plane. In normal circumstances these factors would be a recipe for disaster.

From the back seat I hear a calm voice say “Pull back on the stick.” I ease the stick back and the sailplane gently climbs into the clear blue sky. Wow! What a rush! This is my first time to ever pilot any kind of aircraft and the glider plane’s almost instantaneous response to my touch on the stick is thrilling.

I’m soaring 8000 feet over the green foothills of the Appalachians in north Alabama and loving every minute of it. I swivel my head left and right and take in the expanse of forests, fields and undulating hills stretching for miles in both directions. The sunny sky is clear, a few puffy clouds cast faint shadows on the hills below. Off to the right I see the airplane which just towed us into the sky banking down to return to Moontown Airport, a tiny grass airstrip just east of Huntsville. That plane, a Piper Pawnee, is a muscular ex-cropduster that easily towed this light Blanik sailplane up to 6000 feet before I pulled the lever and released the tow cable.

The takeoff was stressful. Although my instructor, Mike Baker, had given me extensive basic flight instruction and orientation on the glider plane, the fact remains that I am a total novice as a pilot and jockeying the plane around while being towed by the Pawnee required all my concentration and a deft touch on the stick. By the time we reached 6000 feet I was already sweating profusely. And it took a supreme leap of faith to release that cable. No matter how much confidence I have in Mike and this glider plane, it was still scary to let go of the only thing with power and trust your life to the vagaries of invisible air currents and updrafts. But once I pulled the lever and released the cable, everything changed. The first couple of seconds were tense as I held my breath hoping the sailplane would not plummet nose first into the red Alabama dirt below but the plane shuddered a little in the Pawnee’s turbulence and then—magically—regained its composure and we were suddenly free and gracefully sweeping through the sky, silently soaring in the rising air.

Now I’m scribing graceful arcs through the sky, banking the Blanik to one side and the other, gently swooping back and forth, a fluid ballet. The plane responds to my touch and I’m feeling pretty good about my piloting abilities. Mike tells me to put the plane into a shallow climb until I feel it start to stall, then push hard on the stick. I point the nose upward, wait for the telltale flutter of the stall and push the stick forward. The plane noses over and gathers speed in a smooth noiseless rush. I’m feeling comfortable, I expected this to be a high adrenalin adventure but the only way I can describe it is calming--no irritating engine drone, no scanning of oil pressure or engine temperature or RPMs. The controls in the Blanik are simple; a stick, control pedals, an air speed indicator, a string attached just ahead of the canopy to indicate wind direction, and a fore-and-aft ballast adjuster. That’s about it, just pure flying.

I’m feeling pretty cocky about my skills when Mike asks if I’d like him to take the controls from the back seat and show me a few moves. Sounds good to me and he takes over. My cockiness instantly evaporates. He wheels the plane into a tight turn, the left wing nearly perpendicular to the ground and then pulls the stick right and the plan tilts lazily over on the opposite wing. He executes a series of dance-like moves that would be the envy of any aerobatic pilot and I realize how amateurish and tentative my flying had been. My transitions were jerky and abrupt, his are smooth as syrup. He climbs nearly vertical into the sun, pushes the nose over and eases the plane into a silky downward spiral. I obviously have a long way to go to reach any level of competence in this sport.

But that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm and I eagerly retake the controls. For another hour or so I swoosh over Alabama, carving wide turns, gaining and losing altitude. And then it’s time to land. I spy the grass runway a couple of miles away, line up and begin my descent. I consistently keep the plane too high-- I gotta tell you, landing a plane without an engine is nerve wracking. I definitely do not want to be short of the runway—how will I regain altitude to avoid plowing up some farmer’s field with a very expensive sailplane? Mike repeatedly tells me to lower my glidepath, which I finally do. At the last minute he takes the stick and we skim across the grass runway, finally settling to a halt.

I am ecstatic. I open the canopy and pump my fist. This is much better than I had ever hoped. Where else can a rank beginner take total control of a plane and experience the thrill of flying in one day?

In Memoriam: Mike Baker, my instructor, was killed shortly after this flight in the crash of a MEDEVAC helicopter in Colbert County, Alabama.