Author Archives: leslieromer

THE SKETCHY HISTORY OF THE RAFT FIRE LOOKOUT

In October 2019 I organized a slide show about local fire lookouts for The Olympians Hiking Club in Aberdeen. I planned to share photos and what I knew and remembered from visiting all of the lookout sites in Grays Harbor County. Almost all of the historic fire lookouts there had been eradicated—with almost all signs of their existence removed before twenty-first century visitors arrived on the scene.

On my list was the Raft Lookout site, which I had hiked to several times in 2008-2010. I wasn’t including it in my book, because maps now show its location on the Quinault Indian Reservation, and the tribe no longer offers recreation permits for access on their lands.

To gather a little history for my presentation, I looked in the lookout inventories published in the 1980s. I noticed that Raft is listed in Byron Fish and Ira Spring’s Lookouts; Fire Watchers of the Olympics and Cascades, but does not appear in either of Ray Kresek’s books about lookouts published in the 20th century.[1] Fish and Spring list Raft lookout under the Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park, Quinault Ranger District. It describes it as a “Lookout shown on Forest Service map and not on USGS.” They located it in “Township 23 Range 11W Section 12, 10 mi. NW of Amanda Park.’[2]

At some point, based on the research of volunteer historians and lookout hunters like me, Raft’s name was added to the updated lookout lists in both the 2015 and 2019 editions of Kresek’s Fire Lookouts of the Northwest; Lookout Inventory Revised. The line for Raft says only “Raft… (see Salmon River).”[3]

That surprised me, as I think of Raft as a federal fire lookout and Salmon River as state, so I pulled out my older maps of the region. Some have accumulated on our bookshelves along with hike guidebooks since we moved here in the 1970s, a few were gifts from older friends when they were downsizing, and one prize 1960 Quinault District Firemans [sic] Map had been sent to answer my questions about another fire lookout site. Several of these maps[4] show Raft as a forest service lookout in 1960 through 1976 at least, and Salmon River[5] as a state lookout—just as they are both listed in the Fish and Spring book.[6] At the talk, I had no photo of Raft Lookout to show, and only my map discoveries to support my scanty knowledge of Raft’s existence.

A section of the 1960 Quinault Ranger District Firemans map, marking the locations of fire lookouts in the Olympic National Forest and Quinault Indian Reservation with black triangles with white centers: Raft River Ridge and Higley Peak in the national forest, and Lone Mtn. on the reservation. This map lacks a legend interpreting the symbols used.

1972 Olympic National Forest map, showing the locations of the Raft Lookout (hexagon), Raft National Geodetic survey marker (triangle), the Salmon River Lookout (triangle within a hexagon) in the Olympic National Forest (green), and Lone Mtn. survey marker (triangle) within the Quinault Indian Reservation (pink). Fire lookout symbols were not included in the Olympic Forest and Park map legends in the 1970s or later.
1977 Olympic National Forest, Olympic National Park map, showing the locations of the Raft Lookout (hexagon), Raft National Geodetic survey marker (triangle), the Salmon River Lookout (triangle within a hexagon) in the Olympic National Forest (green), and Lone Mtn. survey marker (triangle) in the Quinault Indian Reservation (pink). Fire lookout symbols were not included in the Olympic Forest and Park map legends in the 1970s or later.

There wasn’t a large crowd for my Olympian slideshow, but a number of people stayed after the presentation to ask questions and share memories. I had hiked with more than half of the people in the room, so I anticipated hiking memories, and few questions. I was a little surprised when a frequent hiking companion from Elma mentioned that he remembered seeing the Raft Fire Lookout. He had worked for the Olympic National Forest several summers in the late 1960s, based at the Matheny Forest Service Work Camp. The Camp was located a few miles north of the Raft lookout, on Forest Road 240 (I think it is FR 21 on current maps) at the Jefferson County line.

The Raft Ridge Lookout, as he knew it, was one that his crew checked on regularly. He remembered there had been a house trailer on the site in 1968, ‘69 and 1970. His other clear memory was looking down on the Lone Mountain Lookout tower,[7] across US Highway 101 to the southeast, in the Quinault Indian Reservation. The Raft Fire Lookout, even without a tower sat at 1600΄ or 1700΄ elevation, while the Lone Mountain Tower added a 90΄ metal tower to its 1173΄ hilltop elevation.

The combination of symbols on maps and the memories of an elder forest worker resolved the Raft Lookout question for me. Byron Fish and Ira Spring were correct to trust the US Forest Service map when they included Raft as a federal Forest Service fire lookout in their 1983 book.

That left one related mystery for me—how, when and why was the land that had included both the Raft and Salmon River Fire Lookouts transferred to the Quinault Indian Nation? I recently learned the area was known as the North Boundary Expansion Area.

… But that is a story for another day.

[1] Ray Kresek, Fire Lookouts of Oregon & Washington, 1985 and Fire Lookouts of the Northwest, 1984.

[2] Fish and Spring, p. 197. [1] Kresek, 2015 and 2019, p. 23.

[3] Ray Kresek, Fire Lookouts of Oregon & Washington, 1985 and Fire Lookouts of the Northwest, 1984.

[4] Fish and Spring, p. 197.

[5] Kresek, 2015 and 2019, p. 23.

[6] Quinault Ranger District, Olympic National Forest, Firemans [sic] Map, 1960; Olympic National Forest map, 1972; Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest. 1977.

[7] The Salmon River Lookout is documented elsewhere as in use from 1960 until about 1995.

[8] Byron Fish and Ira Spring. Lookouts; Fire Watchers of the Olympics and Cascades, 3rd edition, 1998, pp 197, 199.

[9] After several attempts, I reached Lone Mountain’s partly overgrown metal tower in September 2007. The tower was visible to travelers driving south on Highway 101 until 2012, when it was taken down for safety reasons.



					

Fire Lookout FAQ

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

•Where are all these lookouts?
• What are you working on right now?
• What else have you written?
• And when you are not writing?
• And?

Where are all these lookouts? 

I have visited over 500 fire lookout sites and standing fire lookout towers and cabins, mostly in the western US. More than 360 of them are in Washington State. Oregon: 68, Arizona: 23, New Mexico: 18, Pennsylvania: 10, California: 8, Idaho: 6, Montana: 5. Many of the lookout sites I have visited in Washington state are on private forest land which is no longer freely accessible to the public.

What are you working on right now?

 I am writing a guide to the fire lookouts and lookout sites on the Olympic Peninsula and Willapa Hills—in other words, Washington State west of Puget Sound and Interstate 5.   It includes extensive historical notes, as well as directions for driving to the trailheads and finding the sites. It includes all the lookouts and sites currently accessible without purchasing a recreation or hunting permit to private timberland.

What else have you written?

I completed the text for a Guide to Iceland’s Volcanoes, with their Stories a few years ago. Its Introduction earned recognition for me as a finalist in the 2015 Pacific Northwest Writers Association annual competition for non-fiction.  More recently I have written hike descriptions for the Washington Trails Association on-line hike guidebook, as well as hike reports for http://www.WTA.org. My trail name is Leslie in Oly

And when you are not writing?

I like to hike two or three days a week. I have led many small group multiday hike trips to fire lookouts in Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and Arizona, as well as volcanoes in Iceland. Recently my multiday hiking trips have been with a few friends, and I often lead local day hikes for two hiking clubs in the Olympia area. The hikes of The Olympian Hiking Club are open to the public. You can find those hikes on my Events page.

And?

There is always another interesting corner of the globe to visit.  Occasionally my husband, Henry, and some of our extended family (Geordie, Keith, Allyson, Mallory and Hope) travel with me.

Covid-19 has made me appreciate the freedom and mobility that I have so enjoyed, living in western Washington State. Staying home has given me more time to write and work on other projects at home. I am even doing more exploratory cooking than usual! And yet, my list of fire lookout sites to visit, or revisit to clarify some minor point, is growing. That certainly feels like essential travel to me!  (mid-April 2020)

Iceland FAQ

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

• How did you get so interested in Iceland?
• Have you been to Iceland much?
• Did you publish your book about Iceland?
• What else have you written?
• Do you do talks about travel in Iceland?
• And when you are not writing?
• And?

How did you get so interested in Iceland?

I went on a summer hiking tour in August 2007 and knew I wanted to see more of that amazing landscape. After a few trips I realized that the landscape is entirely volcanic, and that is the key to understanding what I am seeing. When I started learning about the volcanoes’ history, I heard and read folktales and historic anecdotes about them, too.

Have you been to Iceland much?

I spent a couple weeks in Iceland every year from 2007 through 2017. I explored new areas on each trip, which is pretty cool since the island isn’t all that big. I was in Reykjavik for a few days each of the last few years. In September 2018 I was with a Viking Cruise “In the Wake of the Vikings.” In late summer 2019 my husband, Henry, and I stayed in Reykjavik in transit between Greenland and Newfoundland, visiting Viking settlement sites in those Western Atlantic locations.

Did you publish your book about Iceland?

No, I did complete a manuscript for a book on Iceland’s volcanoes and their stories a few years ago. Despite the book’s Introduction earning me Finalist status in the 2015 Pacific Northwest Writers Association non-fiction writers contest, the book gained no interest from publishers. The inability to get permission to include photos of historical volcanic eruptions in a self-published book was the final straw. The manuscript is on the shelf. Its currency aging with each new eruption and visitors center opening. The text includes stories about each of the volcanoes because they help distinguish the geologic features—and because the tales are important to Icelandic culture.

What else have you written?

Recently I have contributed hike descriptions to the Washington Trails Association guidebook on line at WTA.org. The International Travel News published an article I wrote after one of my trips to Iceland: (www.intltravelnews.com/2009/01/ reflections-on-southern-iceland). I have done a couple short pieces for The Mountaineers Magazine about historic forest fire lookoutshttp://www.mountaineers.org/about/ magarchive/Mtr01-12.pdf p.38 and http://www.mountaineers.org/about/magarchive/Mtr03-12.pdf p.15). . For a while I explored interesting local environmental issues in articles for the South Sound Green Pages. Before that I wrote a lot of government reports—complex environmental and financial info written clearly for general readers. www.fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/summarypages/98703.html, https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/summarypages/99750.html

Do you do talks about travel in Iceland?

I love to share my photos and information about Iceland and its culture. I have given slideshows to outdoor clubs, libraries and senior centers. If you would like me to speak to your group, let me know and let’s see what we can work out.

And when you are not writing?

As you might suspect from the non-Iceland posts, I love to hike and explore the outdoors—mostly in the Pacific Northwest. When there is decent snow, I enjoy Nordic skiing. I don’t bike and paddle as much as I would like. And I dream about more international travel!

And?

My husband blogs about creative solutions to the weight of backpacking equipment. We don’t have any pets but I do have visitation privileges to a herd of Icelandic sheep and a great view of the Independence Valley from the ridge where my Icelandic tutor lives.

Goðan daginn!

EVENTS

FUTURE PUBLIC EVENTS:

Saturday, June 13, 2020. Meeting time 9 a.m. I will lead an Olympian Hiking Club hike to the Dusk Point and Neby Tree Lookout sites in the Hoodsport Ranger District of the Olympic National Forest. Six miles round-trip and 1000 feet elevation gain. See the current bulletin on The Olympians’ website, https.theolympianshikingclub.org, or Contact Leslie for more information.

Saturday, June 27, 2020, Meeting time 9 a.m. I will lead an Olympian Hiking Club hike to Two Webb Lookout sites in the Quilcene Ranger District of the Olympic National Forest. 9 miles round-trip and 1200 feet elevation gain.See the current bulletin on The Olympians’ website, https.theolympianshikingclub.org, or Contact Leslie for more information

Saturday, May 2, 2020. I will offer two hikes to fire lookouts or lookout sites in the Puget Sound region – through the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation annual auction, which will be on-line this year for the first time. Watch here for a link to the auction action!

PAST PUBLIC EVENTS:

FEBRUARY 8, 2020.  Led a six-mile round-trip hike to the Humptulips Auxiliary Lookout site in the Quinault Ranger District of the Olympic National Forest for the Olympians Hiking Club.

DECEMBER 15, 2019. Led an eight-mile round-trip hike to the Drake Lookout site on Green Diamond Resources land in the Wynoochee River Valley.

OCTOBER 11, 2019.  Presented photos and talked about, “GRAYS HARBOR FIRE LOOKOUTS,” for The Olympians Hiking Club in Aberdeen, WA. Answered questions and picked up some interesting stories, too.

SEPTEMBER 15. 2019. Led an eight-mile round-trip hike to the Twin Peak Lookout site onGreen Diamond Resources and Grays Harbor County Timbelands forest roads and lands.

JULY 13, 2019. Led a six-mile round-trip hike approaching the Arctic Lookout site. We hiked Hancock Timber Management road to a Rayonier Timber Company gate in the North River valley.

APRIL 3, 17, 23; May 21, 2017. Presented an introductory class on Western Washington wildflowers at the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Olympia, WA. Two classroom sessions were followed by field trips in the Lake Sylvia State Park and on the Congregation’s grounds.

OCTOBER 3, 2016. Showed and talked about my “TRAVELS IN ICELAND” to the Olympia area PEO club? at Panorama, Lacey, WA.  

EACH YEAR: Donate two hikes to fire lookouts or fire lookout sites in the Puget Sound Region, through the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation annual auction. Sites visited in the last few years include: Pinnacle Peak Lookout site (King County), Sunrise Lookout (Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest), Mount Zion Lookout site (Olympic National Forest), Blue Mountain Lookout site (Olympic National Park), Tolmie Peak Lookout (Mount Rainier National Park).

THE WEATHERWAX MYSTERY PARTLY RESOLVED:

The two published inventories that I rely on for basic location and historical information disagree on the location of this fire lookout. Ray Kresek’s list reports it in Section 9 of Township 21 North, Range 7 West. Spring and Fish said it was diagonally northwest of Kresek’s location, in section 6 of the same Township and Range.[1] When I started looking into the known details about Weatherwax, I realized I had always followed my hiking club’s traditional route, and looked for Weatherwax lookout artifacts at the feet of a set of communication towers in Section 5, even farther west.

In 2017 I was searching though old maps to resolve a different question and discovered a copy of the Osborne firefinder map for the Weatherwax fire lookout. Right at the top of the page it gives the location: “SW¼ SE ¼ SW¼ S.4 T21 N. R.7 W.”  This can be read as “the southwest quarter of the southeast quarter of the southwest quarter of Section 4 in Township 21 north, Range 7 west.” I had been offered a copy of the old map by a Weyerhaeuser employee in Grays Harbor County a decade before and had accepted it among other old maps “just in case.” I finally knew why.

When I compared the Osborne map with my contemporary maps I realized the fire tower location was clearly within the Olympic National Forest. I had read about state and national lookout staff sharing a tower, but not of any lookouts that were built on the other jurisdiction’s land. But I was able to confirm the lookout tower’s location with former state forest lookout staffer Keith Hoofnagle in 2017. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I knew when I worked there that the tower was on federal land. There was nothing secret about it.”

The tower had been there six years when Keith started work there. Section 4 is clearly in the Olympic National Forest, and always has been. So how did the state fire tower come to be built on federal land? The logical reason is that it has higher elevation than any nearby state or privately owned land and publicly employed foresters worked cooperatively in that era.

The question remains: Why did the two inventories list different incorrect locations? If  I ever figure that out, I will be sure to let you know!.


[1] Ray Kresek, Fire Lookouts of the Northwest; Lookout Inventory,. 2019, p. 24. Ira Spring and Byron Fish, Lookouts; firewatchers of the Cascades and Olympics. 2nd ed., 1996, p.199.

UPDATE ON THE ARCTIC LOOKOUT

(Good News and Bad)

The State (Division of Forestry, at the time) built a 54΄ pole tower with cabin on top on a ridge west of the Artic* townsite in 1948 and took it down in 1973. Until a few years ago, hikers visiting the site followed the first side road leading to it—through a Weyerhaeuser tree farm. When Weyerhaeuser started charging steep recreation fees in the Twin Harbors Tree Farm in Grays Harbor County, hikers looked for another route.

In general terms, the lookout site is located south of Aberdeen and Cosmopolis, west of U.S. Highway 101. To be specific, drive U.S. Highway 101 south past milepost 75 and turn right on Hilliard Lane, just before the North River Bridge. Drive 5.5 miles to the Hancock Forest Management gate that blocks the road, and park. A sign beside the gate welcomes non-motorized recreation beyond that point.

Hike about 0.4 mile and turn right on Forest Road LD4010/EF4213. Follow that route to a Y and continue straight on LD4011/AN4310. This road snakes up to a ridge that provides great views into the North River Valley. The hillside has been harvested, so the landscape presents as a patchwork of forest, fields, narrow roads and streamlines.

About 2.5 miles from the Hancock gate, and a short distance before the spur road leading to the Arctic Lookout site, is another gate. Now for the bad news: in summer 2019 a new sign appeared beside this gate. Rayonier Timber Company now requires a hunting lease for entry here. This area does not appear among the Rayonier properties that can be visited with a 2019 Non-Hunting General Access permit—$135 for a family pass. Perhaps it will next year. You can check their website https://property.rayonierhunting.com/Permits/PermitDetails.aspx to see if that has become available.

            ‘* Are you wondering why there are two spellings of Arctic here? The lookout was named for a little town which locals hoped to name “Arta” for the wife of the town’s founder.[1] Their application for a post office was not clearly written, and Artic was the name that came back from the US Postal Service. The state agency, fifty miles away in Olympia, used the more conventional spelling of the name.


[1] James W. Phillips. Washington State Place Names, 1971. p.9.

ICELAND 2016 6. SKJALDBREIÐUR

I have wanted to hike up Skjaldbreiður for most of the decade I have been visiting Iceland. Its name means broad shield and it is the prototype of a shield volcano. It sits on the horizon each time I visit the historic Thingvellir National Park, reminding me of my first attempt to reach its summit in 2010. I came to Iceland in early September that year, later than usual. Late August had always seemed to have reasonable weather, so why not September? But that year the weather gods (most likely Thor) did not cooperate. The skies were usually cloudy, and temps cooler than expected. Bragi and I tried a hike up Snæfellsjökull, a big glaciated mountain northwest of Reykjavik, but the sno-cat tracks we planned to follow were buried in early season snow, the possibility of crevasses lay beneath that light layer, and clouds kept drifting across our landscape, making navigation a continual challenge. We enjoyed early progress up the mountain, but decided not to risk our safety in the chancy conditions and returned downhill after hiking a couple miles.

We were scheduled to hike Skjaldbreiður the next day of that tour in 2010, but the weather started misty and only got worse as we approached the mountain. I recognized the driving route as far as the turn from northbound Highway 1 toward Thingvellir on Route 36. When the road to the Thingvellir National Park headed east, we drove north on two lane Highway 52. As the road started gaining elevation the mist turned to rain and then snow. Then the wind rose and it really did not look like a good day for a hike up a tree-less volcanic mountain. Bragi did not like disappointing me two days in a row, and drove as far toward the trailhead as he could. I was ready to turn around as soon as the snow started, but he wanted to make sure it was not just a brief shower. Later we learned that we had experienced the start of a severe and totally unexpected early-season blizzard. Many farmers had left their animals out in the weather, and a lot of sheep were lost in the several feet of snow that fell in the highlands and remote rural areas.

I think I had put Skjaldbreiður on itineraries a few times during the years in between, but either the weather or the schedule had not worked out. I was hopeful this year, but not totally optimistic. I had looked at an Icelandic hiking guidebook (Ari Trausti Guðmundsson’s Íslensk fjöll : gönguleiðir á 151 tind) before this year′s trip. It describes the hike as longer with more elevation gain than I had expected: 9 miles distance round-trip and almost 2000 feet to climb. The one good change since the last time I had planned to hike the peak was that jeeps and motorbikes were no longer allowed to join hikers on the ascent. Conservationists had won the battle to save this and some other scenic peaks from motorized mountain climbs.

The weather on the day we picked to hike up Skjaldbreiður this year did not look promising. We left Reykjavik in mist that was thick enough to require windshield wipers to clear our view. I recognized the gravel road on the west side of Skjaldbreiður as soon as we left the pavement and wondered if the weather would chase us from its approach yet again. When we turned onto the road on the north side of the mountain, the rain lightened. When Bragi parked the car at the trailhead, the rain stopped. We climbed out, put on our boots, and the weather held. Perhaps we would be successful!

Bragi had told us there is a big crater full of snow just under the summit ridge. As we started hiking up the trackless north slope, large snowfields appeared below the rocky top. It didn´t seem far away, but I could not tell whether the snow we saw was in a basin like a crater, or was just a sloping mountainside covered in white.

As we ascended, our views of the surrounding landscape grew around us. First we could only see rocky ridges across the narrow valley of our immediate vicinity. As we reached the snowfields on the upper slopes we started to see the large glacier fields of Langjökull farther north. I was surprised how quickly we climbed the mountain with no

20160801_141737

Langjokull’s glacier fields on the distant ridges

trail. It certainly did not seem as far or as steep as the guidebook suggested. For some reason my boots did not give me as good traction on the snow as Bragi and Susan had. So I took a slightly longer route on the rocky edge of the snowfield. While not smooth, the surface underfoot was not too lumpy, so I was able to keep up with my companions′ pace and followed a parallel route up the mountain.

I caught up as they started to climb the short rocky traverse to the ridge top. It was no more than a twenty-foot ascent on rocks that seemed piled like stairs. There were also flat rocks on the ridge available for sitting and enjoying the view of the snow-filled crater20160801_133043

Looking down into the crater

and its black perimeter, and a climb of a few more feet to the highest point on the north side. Almost as soon as we sat down to enjoy the views and our lunches, Bragi´s phone rang and we heard him tell someone where we were and how clear our view was. ‘‘Rain? No, we have none of that here.” We were surprised to learn that we were apparently at one of the few spots in Iceland without rain that day.

My GPS reported we had hiked three miles and gained only 1000 feet on our way to the top. Bragi had certainly found an easy route for us. He said it was the usual way for local hikers, but it is clear that a symmetrical mountain, which a shield volcano must be, may well offer a variety of access paths. We thoroughly enjoyed ours.

On the way down we paid more attention to the late summer vegetation on the20160801_153423 slope: bladder campion, mosses, and a variety of grasses. We also noticed wonderful patterns in the undisturbed lava. And we observed dark clouds headed in our direction again. Finally the car came into view and we began to wonder if we would reach the car first. We succeeded, but not by much. We jumped inside and changed out of our hiking boots as the rain began its tattoo on the roof.p1030086

Our lodging that night was at the Efri-Sel Hostel, quite close to a similarly named golf course and just outside the town of Fluðir. The golf traffic supports an associated cafe, and we joined the family-dominated crowd there for burgers.

The hostel is a very comfortable modern house on a farm property, providing a kitchen, dining and lounge area laid out to encourage guests to join in general conversation and get acquainted with other visitors. We enjoyed meeting international couples from Germany and Ireland, South Africa and Taiwan, and England. Other assets of the house are laundry machines and a roomy hot tub –both of which we enjoyed using.

ICELAND 2016 5. Hiking at Ulfljótsvatn, Nesjavellir and Visiting Thingvellir

This was intended to be a recovery day after a big hike. But yesterday’s full day hike had turned into a moderate afternoon hike, so we had lots of energy for exploring the area near the Ljosafoss Skóli Hostel. Susan and I had noticed a nearby lake on our map that appeared to have a shoreline trail. Bragi remembered a gravel road that led to the trail, so off we went—with his warning that it might a buggy hike beside the water.

We parked at the top of a steep hill, and headed down to Ulfljótsvatn. Despite the homes sitting beside the road approaching the pretty blue lake, there were no boats on the surface or walkers on the shoreline. Once we reached level ground, all the houses were out of sight and we had the place to ourselves.20160731_032402The trails became less developed the farther we went. It seemed they were used mostly by sheep and occasional birdwatchers. We saw swans on the water, heard and finally spotted a pair of loons. Among the grasses we observed pipits and wagtails, too. Occasionally we walked through a cloud of midges, but the bugs were cooperatively stationary, so they did not bother us much at all.

After cautiously crossing a marshy area and climbing over a small grassy hill, we were surprised to find some low stone walls and an archway, remains of a small building abandoned in the pastoral scenery above the lake. After snapping some photos and ascending one more hill, we wandered back through the tall grasses and returned up the road to the car.

 

 

Walking through the unknown countryside somehow made me think of the very first hike I had taken in Iceland, way back in 2007. The tour I was with had stayed in a grim workers´ hostel (small dark rooms and bathrooms, narrow halls, no fresh vegetables; I can’t remember how else it offended us) and hiked from its door into a geothermal wonderland. The lodging was close to the Nesjavellir Geothermal Powerplant, and it was surrounded by well-marked trails showing off the hot streams and colorful sulfurous soil that are features of the geologically-active area.

Before starting the hike, we visited a new hotel that has opened close to the site of the old hostel. The Hotel Ion is intended for international visitors who fly in for exclusive tours of Iceland’s highlights. I was a little surprised at the courtesy with which they welcomed three almost random hikers, but happy to take a coffee break in such elegant surroundings.20160731_064758

We drove a short distance to leave our car beside an adventure park that features a complex climbing structure with physical challenges for agile children and adults. We had a different adventure in mind. For the next couple hours we hiked past steamy streams, bore hole enclosures, neon green moss, carefully crossed narrow rocky creeks, and took in the views from wooden streamside platforms. After we had seen the highlights, Bragi returned for the car while Susan and I continued to a hilltop viewpoint beside a roadway. Our route didn’t always follow the developed trails, so we surprised pairs of grazing sheep more than once.

20160731_073307

From there we drove to nearby Thingvellir (Þingvellir in Icelandic), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as Icelandic National Park, both designations in recognition of its being the site of the world’s first parliament (Thing or Þing in Icelandic). About sixty years after the Vikings first settled in Iceland, the clans acknowledged they needed to get together to discuss and agree to laws they could live by. The clan representatives were appointed, not elected, and they were not able to record their decisions on paper, but these do not diminish their achievement. The representatives gathered from all over Iceland each summer, starting in 930. They camped under high cliffs that helped project the sound of speakers’ voices. They sat in council with their advisors and adopted laws, settled disputes and passed judgment on evil-doers.

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We were lucky to visit Thingvellir late in the afternoon after the biggest crowds had gone. It was a fine ending to our patchwork day that was far more enjoyable than anticipated.

ICELAND 2016 4. Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Reynisfjara, Skógarfoss trail and Eyjafjallajökull Visitors Center.

Fimmvörðuháls is a high pass between Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull and the place where the first of the spring 2010 eruptions occurred that were identified with the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. You may remember all the air flights between Europe and the US and the rest of the world that were canceled that spring. Well, it all started on top of a very popular hiking route that starts (or ends) near Highway 1 at Skógarfoss.

The trail has been rerouted and this was the day I planned to hike as much of the trail to Fimmvörðuháls as we could. We were not planning to be back on the south coast again during the trip, so this was the only day available. I think I had been told it would be 14 or 15 miles roundtrip, and I was sure that some of the knees in the party would not be up for that distance, but I hoped we could do most of it.

As soon as we were in the car Bragi pointed out that we would drive right past Reynisfjara 1800811-r3-052-24athe black sand beach with columnar basalt cliffs and cave, beautiful sea stacks just offshore, and the strong possibility of sighting puffins. There was no way I could ignore the opportunity for Susan to visit this classic site. My hopes of spending a full day hiking toward Fimmvörðuháls were dashed, but I had a responsibility to introduce Iceland′s highlights to my companion, too.

 

I made an effort to be the gracious host, rather than the disappointed friend. And there were some features of Reynisfjara that day I have to admit were special. There were many i0016amore puffins flying to and from the tops of the beach′s dark basalt cliffs that day than I have ever seen before. These little birds are very colorful, diligent fisher-birds and energetic flappers of their short wide wings. They dig burrows in the cliff-top soil, lay eggs and tend their chicks in the little tunnels. They seem to make constant flights from the nests to the sea, returning with mouthfuls of little fish for their offspring.

I did not remember having seen the graceful cave formed in the cliff with basalt column walls during previous visits. It has apparently become a popular spot for wedding ceremonies, which is easy to understand. It not only provides shelter from rain and wind, it has great views of the sea and the sea stacks just down the beach.

When we arrived we noticed a new modern building beside the parking lot and the cliffs. Its big windows revealed an attractive café, but it did not open until late in the morning. Considering the big summer crowd, we thought they were missing a good bet. A nice cup of coffee would have been great about then, too. We returned to the café after our visit to the beach and discovered that the business had been funded by the local economic development group, called Katla Geopark, and by the European Union. We thought the latter investment interesting, as Iceland has not decided yet whether to join the Union.

We finally reached Skógarfoss  in the early afternoon and hiked for several hours. Skógarfoss is one of the beautiful waterfalls visible from Highway 1, and a popular tourist imgp2028attraction in its own right. For us the draw was the long set of metal and wooden steps that climb the 201-foot cliff beside the waterfall. The trail starts just east of the top of the falls, and follows the Skóga River upstream for most of the distance to Fimmvörðuháls.

From the top of the big falls we could easily see out to the ocean, as well as onto the glaciers in the distance. In our immediate vicinity was an open landscape of gentle hills and a rushing river. The trail led us gently uphill beside the river. It was not steep, but we kept passing waterfalls and cascades rushing toward the cliff and the vertical descent to the coastal plain.

20160730_062852The three of us agreed on a turn-around time and I left my companions behind as I tried to make the most distance in the little time we had. I finally stopped beside a beautiful stretch of riverbank with a large patch of cotton grass blossoms nodding in the breeze. I had hoped to reach the next ridge, but it was clearly farther than I anticipated. At that point Bragi shared that there is a landmark bridge that is a good destination on this trail. ‟Beyond that,” he said, ‟you reach the highlands and the views are not as interesting.” Maybe I will try to get here again and camp at the foot of Skógarfoss to assure a full day reserved for hiking to Fimmvörðuháls —or at least to the bridge.

We stopped at the small but interesting Eyjafjallajökull Visitor Center on our way south. I had previously enjoyed their 20-minute film about the nearby farm family’s experience with the 2010 eruption, and thought Susan would appreciate it too. I was surprised to see that the film I had admired had been replaced with one that may be considered a more polished production, but doesn’t seem as intimate an experience of the volcanic eruption. I was also irritated that Eyjafjallajökull was repeatedly referred to as “the glacier,” as if it were a glacier that had erupted, and not the volcano that has no other name.

From there we drove to our lodging for the next two nights, Ljosafoss Skoli Hostel. I had read for years that public boarding schools were used for tourist lodgings before there were many rural hotels in Iceland, but I had not stayed in one before. We had a reservation for a room with bunkbeds, shared bathroom and breakfast. What we found was a well-maintained, airy, three-story building with a large dining room and self-service kitchen at one end and a wide variety of sleeping rooms and lounges at the other end. Each floor had at least a lavatory, some restrooms also had showers and there was also a large shower room near the dining/kitchen area. The school buildings are now owned by a religious broadcasting company, which uses the hostel revenues to help fund their programs.

The room, building layout, staff and breakfast buffet all contributed to a comfortable stay. The kitchen seemed designed for a small staff, rather than several couples or pairs of people wandering around trying to figure out how to prepare their meals with unfamiliar appliances. Everyone seemed to recognize that this was part of the hostel experience; we all shared the space and information on how to make the kitchen work, and no one went away hungry.

It being day four in Iceland, it was time for me to do a little laundry. Out came my tightly capped small bottle of liquid laundry detergent and my bag of dirty quick-dry clothes. The clothes were swished in a shower room sink for a few minutes, rinsed in clean water, and rolled in a dry abandoned bath towel. (Bath towels are used after the shower, so they can’t be dirty, right?) Lay the clean wet clothes in the towel, roll up the towel, twist, unroll and remove your virtually spun-dry clothes. Return them to your room and hang them on a plastic line with tiny clothes pins, hang them on clothes hangers if available, or drape your clothes wherever they don’t irritate your roommate. By morning they should be mostly dry. Heavy hiking socks are the reliable exception, of course.

ICELAND 2016 3: Hvolsvöllur to Kirkjubæjarklaustur via Skaftafell, Jökulsárlón

 

Our principal destination for the day was a visit to western Europe’s largest national park, about 140 miles east of our starting point, Hvolsvöllur. We were headed for Skaftafell,  the oldest national park in the country, now included in the vast Vatnajökull National Park.  (A fell is a mountain or hill, while a jökull is a glacier.) Along the way we passed lots of small waterfalls descending from the coastal ridge and admired the moss that thickly carpets roadside lava fields when we stopped to stretch our legs. The vast glaciers that provide the soil and water for the coastal plains came into view in this stretch of the coast, building anticipation of the vast icy slopes at Skaftafell.

imgp1668 The Skaftafell park center is located at the foot of hills between two big glaciers, Skeiðarárjökull and Skaftafellsjökull. It has a very nice visitors center with displays explaining the geology and human history of the area, as well as artifacts from early research trips on the glaciers. Commercial guide companies have reception centers in small buildings along the edge of the visitors’ center’s parking lot. There is still no entrance fee to the park, so the lot is pretty full most summer days. There is also a campground without a separate entrance just past the parking lot, adding to the traffic.

Our plan was to do a moderate hike in the park. I expected some discussion of whether we should check out the visitor center first, but we set out for the trailhead as soon as we had 20160729_061719our daypacks ready to go. Our destination was Svartifoss (black waterfall) that appears on many postcards and tourist snapshots. I have often visited it on the way to farther destinations in the park, but this was our first real hike of the trip. We wanted to see how everyone’s knees felt about going up and down Icelandic trails and we knew there would be a lot of people on the trail.

We hiked a three-mile loop that felt like more, with lots of photo stops and brief interactions with other hikers from many countries on the trail. I remember hearing Icelandic, Spanish, Italian and British English; I am sure there were Asian and Indian visitors as well.

We ate lunch somewhere along the way and returned to the car in early afternoon. Bragi suggested we really should visit Jökulsárlón or Glacial Lagoon, as it is not much farther east (35 miles) along Highway 1. It is another very popular tourist stop, with duckboats doing tours among the icebergs calving from the glacier. We agreed to skip the boat tour and walk both the beach below the bridge and the shoreline beside the Lagoon. In August of 2016 the icebergs seemed about half the size of those in my photos a decade earlier. I realized that Susan didn’t have this comparison, so I did not mention my disappointment. I hoped the shrinkage reflected this summer’s warm temperatures, and not the general trend of quickly shrinking glaciers caused by climate change.

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We enjoyed walking the dark beach and looking at the chunks of ice glistening on the sand as they shrank. There were many fantastic shapes, and many photographers trying to capture the perfect image for their recorded memories.

The bridge at the mouth of the lagoon was built with concern for the possible effect of an iceberg the size of an apartment building ramming the structure. Fortunately, a clever engineer designed an iceberg trap that sits on the floor at the mouth of the lagoon, about fifty feet upstream from the bridge. I picture it as a broad bar with strong metal teeth extending toward the surface of the water. Nine-tenths of each iceberg is underwater (remember from grade school science class?) so icebergs that won’t fit under the bridge are stopped until they shrink down to a size that slides easily under the valued structure.

We walked beside the lagoon as well, taking photos there, too. We ended our visit there trying to skip stones that were rarely flat across the still lagoon waters, and then attempting to flip a floating chunk of ice by tossing rocks to shift its balance. I think the nine-tenths-below-the-water rule spelled failure from the start, but it was a nice day and we may have been reluctant to climb back into the car.

It was 77 miles back to our lodging at a farm hostel near Kirkjubæjarklaustur,  but we enjoyed the very green scenery, once we had passed the large glaciers and their gray outwash plains. Susan walked from the highway junction near the village to the pretty local waterfall, Stjornafoss, and an interesting local landmark known as Kirkjugólf, the Church Floor. The twenty-five by thirty-foot Floor is composed of the tops of a small field of basalt columns.

This little village is one of my favorite stops on the south coast of Iceland. But I have to admit that pronouncing Kirkjubæjarklaustur was a big challenge for me when I first visited here. After I had picked up a little vocabulary it was easier. Kirkju = church, bæjar = farm, klaustur = monastery/convent. Any word this long in a Germanic language is going to be a composite, so the challenge is to split the long word into manageable short ones. Figuring out where each syllable ends is a longer term issue.

No one has ever called me a foodie, but I have to admit that good food is one of the attractions of this area. I have stayed at least twice at Geirland, a really nice farm inn, a couple kilometers inland from the village. They serve excellent meals, but were not in our budget this trip. Once I had my Icelandic phone working (it took the second day in Iceland to get the battery charged, new phone company directions correctly interpreted, etc.), I phoned Geirland to see if they might have room for us in the dining room this evening. ‘No, they had a big tour group coming in, they were sorry but they had no room for us at the table.’

My next choice was the Systrakaffi,  a casual café near the highway junction where I had enjoyed lunches and late afternoon teas in the past. It was seven by the time we got there and there was a crowd at the door. We asked the people ahead of us and they said it seemed like a long wait for a menu that was shrinking with the evening’s food supply. We thought about returning to our hostel and pulling out one of our freeze-dried meals. Someone in the parking lot suggested another café — actually a deli they said, down the local road a bit farther. I don’t know that Kaffi Munkar  had been there the last time I visited the area, but they featured the excellent local farmed fish, bleikja or arctic char. I don’t eat farmed fish at home; there are lots of nice healthy wild fish available here. In Iceland I try out what is on the menu and have found bleikja delicious and affordable. Susan chose something more familiar to her and we both enjoyed our meals.

Our farm hostel lodging turned out to be another double bed in an even smaller room than our lodging the previous night. This hostel did have two bathrooms for the five rooms of guests, and beautiful farm scenery on the (ten mile?) country road from the highway. I slept well in the quiet surroundings. I think it was overpriced and cannot make any recommendations for budget lodging in this area.

At the end of the day I recorded the birds we had seen so far: whimbrel, great skua, arctic skua, arctic tern, fulmar, red wing, wagtail, whooper swan, plover, snipe, oyster catcher. It has taken a while for me to become familiar with these north Atlantic birds, but birds are most of the wildlife to be seen in Iceland, so I enjoy recognizing them as we pass.

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Whimbrel