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Archive: Outdoors & Recreation / Spokane and North Idaho

Iceland: one day’s drive to last a lifetime

Above: My wife, Mary Pat, standing amid chunks of ice from the glacier ice lagoon Jökulsárlón.

The main question I've had to field in the weeks leading up to my visit to Iceland has been a simple one-word query: "Why?" Iceland is on very few bucket lists of travel destinations (my former colleague Dan Mitchinson, who is now living in New Zealand, being one notable exception).

In fact, most people don't think of Iceland at all unless they recall the volcano eruption in 2010 that disrupted so many international flights and stranded thousands of travelers. That specific volcano, by the way, bears a name that is one of the only Icelandic words I have learned to pronounce: Eyjafjallajökull.

The simple answer is that I came here eight days ago (I fly home today) with my wife to preview a trip that she will be making in May with a larger delegation of U.S. visitors. But considering that Icelandair is making it easy for people who are already heading to Europe to make an Iceland stopover — "at no additional airfare!" — a visit to Iceland makes a lot more sense to anyone heading east across the Atlantic.

Yesterday, while lounging in the geothermal waters of popular Blue Lagoon, we met a New York couple who were stopping over en route to London before catching a cruise to the Canary Islands.

So that simple one-word answer can now be doubled: "Why not?"

Anyway, as this is my last blog post before I catch my Icelandair flight to Seattle (and then the 50-minute hop home), I thought I'd share the best part of our drive around this island (only nine-tenths the size of Ohio): the stretch of the country's main highway, otherwise known as the Ring Road, that runs across the south-eastern edge.

We'd spent the night in the port town of Höfn, which sits between the ocean and the mountain range which cradles the country's largest glacier, Vatnajökull. From there we drove west, past lava fields, to the turnoff to a gravel road 8 kilometers long where we could get a better view of one of the glacier's arms. Then we returned to the highway and drove to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, where first we took a 40-minute amphibious boat ride through huge glacier icebergs (and even got to munch on some glacier chunks) and then walked along the black-sand beaches that were littered with ice bits of all sizes and shapes.

Driving ever west, we passed geology that ranged from lichen-green-covered fields that resembled sodden cotton balls, to larger upturned cones the size of small houses, to more stark lava fields, to mountain cliffs fronting the ocean that looked as if someone had transplanted them from Monument Valley. We stopped at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull, where a private museum told the story of a family whose dairy farm had been threatened by the 2010 eruption.

And we stopped at the site of Laufskalavarda, where travelers are invited to place a rock to help ensure a safe trip. Which seems to have worked because, finally, we arrived at the village of Vik unscathed. And after a short trip north to see the sun set over a natural rock arch, we settled in for the night.

If you do visit Iceland, and if you do decide to rent a car, making a trip to the southeastern coast is worth the effort (tours can be arranged in Reykjavik, too). It might be one of the most scenic bits of highway I've ever navigated.

Which, if nothing else, makes the question "why" a simple rhetorical query.

Climb a hill in Iceland, feel like you can make ‘Titanic’

Above: A look down the path from the summit of the long-dead Icelandic volcano Hverfjall. This view gives no indication just how steep the slope is.

Quick admission: I'm not in the best of shape. I stopped going to the gym regularly six months ago and since then have spent more time making excuses for why I'm not exercising than even thinking about working up a sweat.

But I'm not ready to give up on all aerobic activities just yet. Yesterday, while driving through east Iceland — part of our week-long tour of that diminutive but scenic European country — we stopped by one of the area's must-see sites. Hverfjall is what's called a tephra cone (or tuff ring) volcano, which was formed about 2,500 years ago. Sitting 420 meters (1,380 feet) high, the kilometer-wide cone can be seen from miles away.

Located northeast of Lake Mývatn, Hverfjall sits about a kilometer and a half off the highway. A parking lot at the base leads to two paths to the summit. One is more direct and is described as "hard." The other, which is more circuitous, is considered easier.

I chose direct. And, yes, I had to stop twice and was breathing hard about halfway up. But I still made the top in about 15 minutes. And then I stood there, feeling like James Cameron, looking down at all the mortals far, far below.

OK, so they were all the other people who were also there to climb what is little more than a hillock. Still, I consider my Iceland hiking obligation paid in full. King of the wooorrrlllddd!

Iceland can surprise even the most jaded traveler

Above: October is maybe Iceland's rainiest month. So rainbows are common, Yet they seem to come out at the most unexpected moments. We saw this one after driving down an unpaved section of Iceland's Ring Road toward the eastern seashore.

If you're reasonably well-traveled — say, for example, you've visited nearly 40 countries in five continents — then it's reasonable to expect that only someplace special is going to impress you. We're now in our fifth day in Iceland, and so far we've liked what we've seen. The modern feel of the capital Reykjavik, the barren sweep of the volcanic plains as you drive north and east, snow-covered peaks that cut into the sky like foam-covered saw blades, dormant volcanoes that resemble massive cones made of black sand, the occasional peek of a rainbow as it surprises you around a bend, thundering waterfalls around virtually every corner, boiling mud springs and steam vents that resemble plumes of wood smoke, flocks of sheep that fleck the hillsides and (periodically and without warning) scuttle across the highway … and so on.

But to be honest, until now Iceland hasn't shown us anything that, say, we haven't seen in Sisters, Ore., or Milford Sound, New Zealand, or the Scottish Highlands or the Big Island of Hawaii or the Columbia Gorge or the national parks at Yellowstone and Glacier or the falls known as Iguazu that rush through the intersection of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Thing is, Iceland has all those … and more.

It was that more that we got a taste of today, during our drive from the east Iceland town of Egilsstadir to the southeastern seaside village of Höfn. First we drove over a mountain pass, which though still part of the island's main Highway I — also known as the Ring Road — is unpaved for the better part of 40 kilometers.

Once past the peak, we saw our first sun of the day (and our second rainbow of the trip). Then we drove past our first black-sand beaches, the waves whipped by winds that almost blew us off our feet. Up the road, we passed stark mountainsides fronting the Atlantic and contrasting the gray ocean with tons of gray, black and green. And, finally, as we rounded a point and came within sight of Höfn — a collection of fragile box-like buildings set next to a small harbor — we could see in the distance not one, not two or even three but four different spurs of the massive glacier Vatnajökull that covers much of south-central Iceland.

Tomorrow we will try to drive even closer. For now, though, I'm just going to sit here and stare.

And feel, yes, impressed.

Iceland’s elves don’t work cheap

Above: Reykjavik, Iceland, is not an inexpensive place to visit.

Iceland is a country of myths. One study claims that some 50 percent of Icelanders believe in elves. And in the city of Egilsstadir, which is set in east Iceland on the banks of the glacial lake Lagarflojt, people claim to have seen the Lagarflojt Wyrm — a kind of Loch Ness monster, sightings of which date back to as early as 1345.

Seriously, though, on our stay so far in Iceland, we've seen two Icelandic myths proven false.

One, Iceland isn't cold. The story here is that most people get Iceland mixed up with Greenland. And, yes, Greenland is mostly snow covered, which isn't exactly green, and Iceland is a geothermic paradise that boasts many colors, including white. But while Greenland is certainly cold, so is Iceland. Especially during the winter. It's only October, and nothing at ground level is yet frozen, but temperatures in the high 30s feel mighty cold when they're accompanied by rain and 20- and 30-mph winds. So if you're planning on visiting Iceland, brings some fleece. And a rain shell. And a wool hat. And gloves.

Two, following the 2008 recession, which bankrupted the country's three largest banks, prices dropped, giving tourists a good deal. And that may be so. If it is, then I have no idea how anyone but a 1-percenter paid for anything here. We spent two days in the capital, Reykjavik, then drove northeast to spend the night in Akureyri and then today to Egilsstadir, and we've basically given up eating more than once a day in restaurants. We ate at a place last night in Akureyri mentioned in guidebooks (Strikid) and at a local eatery tonight (Salt), and both my wife and I ordered sparingly: Fish for her and a burger for me last night, burgers and sodas for both of us tonight. And our bill for tonight? Almost $42. For burgers, fries and sodas.

So come to Iceland, definitely. The outdoor activities, from hiking to fishing and camping, are worth it. But especially during the winter, bring as much clothing with you as you can stuff in a suitcase. And make sure your credit cards are in good shape. Because you're going to need some ready cash.

Those elves don't work cheap.

2014 Spokane Auto Show goes international

It's hard to figure out just exactly where cars fit in our lives. For most of us, they're necessities. But they're also useful for recreation. And for more than a few of us, especially for my one Ferrari-owning friend Dan, they're actual pieces of art.

However you look at cars, though, the opportunity to see a lot of them at once — especially those still carrying their new-car smell — is hard to pass up. I, for one, usually stop and look at the cars that sit on display occasionally in the various shopping malls around the area. It gives me a chance to fantasize, especially when the models are foreign and I can imagine what it's like to speed down Italy's autostrada on warm summer afternoons.

That's why I just might head to the Spokane County Fairgrounds over the weekend to check out the 2014 Spokane International Auto Show, which is being sponsored by the Spokane New Car Dealers Association. If you're going to the show with the intent of buying, then it might help to check out this article.

If you aren't aren't looking for a deal, no biggie. The auto show offers plenty of chances for pure fantasy, whatever your tastes. That includes both those interested only in U.S. models and those with a taste for something exotic. You aren't likely to find any Ferraris on display, but among the 27 or so exhibitors you will see names such as Porsche and Audi, Fiat and BMW, not to mention Mercedes-Benz.

Hmmmm, wonder what my friend Dan would think if I bought a Fiat?

Epic deals

The next REI Garage Sale happens August 3!!! Prices on slightly used or returned gear and clothing are way less than what you'd pay for it new. Everything is sold as-is, and all sales are final. But, seriously, with these ridiculously low prices, who cares?

The sale starts at 9 a.m. and numbered tickets will be handed out starting at 8 a.m. Members only. Get there early. Like, camp out on the sidewalk early.

You'll find REI at 1125 N. Monroe, just north of downtown.

Shop early, save a buttload

Friday is final day to save up to $200 on your 2013/14 Mt. Spokane season pass! You know you're gonna go up there. Shop now or you'll regret it once the snow starts to fly. 

Those su-huh-murrrrr niiiiiiiiiiights

Sometimes outdoor summer movie lineups are kind of hit-and-miss. But the Outdoor Movies at Riverfront Park's summer lineup is filled with nothing but crowd pleasers. Organizers left it up to the public to choose this summer's features and I gotta say, my opinion of public opinion went up a couple of ticks with this list. Seriously, check it out:

  • July 17: Grease (The rules are … there ain't no rules!)
  • July 24: The Lion King (I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts …)
  • July 31: Ghostbusters (Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say YES!)
  • August 7: The Sandlot (You're killin' me, Smalls!)
  • August 14: Marvel's The Avengers (Thor. No other words are necessary.)
  • August 21: The Princess Bride (As you wish.)

Seating starts at 7 in the Lilac Bowl in Riverfront Park. Movies begin at dusk. $5 gets you the night's flick plus movie trivia and even a live act or two. 

Ain’t no herbs in the washtub

But today I will change that, at the Inland Empire Garden Expo

This event is all things garden, with a little patio and front porch goodness thrown in. Trees, birdhouses, herbs, organics, hammocks … it's all here, sprawled across the grassy SCC campus. 

There's no admission fee and the sun is shining, so get there — it runs from 9-5, today only. 

I'm headed there now. With a little luck this washtub will be brimming with herby goodness by sundown.

You'll find the Garden Expo at 1810 N. Greene Street, on the SCC campus.

Time for some … dodgeball

One of the funniest sports comedies to come along the past few years was "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story," the 2004 movie that starred Vince Vaughan, Ben Stiller and a number of others. Turns out, Oz Fitness has its own version of the school-yard sport. On April 27-28, Oz will offer a dodgeball tournament for teams of six to 10 participants, with the grand prize being a trip for seven to the national finals in Las Vegas.

Admission is $15 per person. Teams are six on a side (at a time). For information, contact your local Oz Fitness location (or click here). Tell them Vince sent you.

Below: Scenes from the 2011 Oz Fitness championship game 2.

First day of spring …

It's a beautiful thing!

I dislike paying for water. But …

I dislike paying for air even more. Seriously, 75 cents. For air? First-world problem, I know.

Luckily a friend saw this pic on Instagram and shared a happy little nugget of information: Holiday stations don't charge for air! But you do need to travel with your own tire gauge. Don't we all have one in our glovebox? Heck yes we do, because we're not ever going to a place that charges us for air ever again. Right? Right. Way to stick it to the man. Yay. 

New host for guilty pleasure ‘Dual Survival’

Forgive the irony of my posting about a television show under the category "Outdoors & Recreation." But fans of the Discovery Channel show "Dual Survival" get the "best" of both worlds: They get to watch about outdoor survival from the comfort of their own homes.

"Dual Survival" is only one of a number of survival shows. "Man Vs. Wild" stars Bear Grylls. "Survivorman" stars Les Stroud. "Man, Woman, Wild" stars the husband-wife team Mykel and Ruth Hawke. But of them all, "Dual Survival" may be the most entertaining — if only because of the mismatched duo of Cody Lundin (who refuses to wear shoes, even in the snow) and Dave Canterbury.

Lundin comes across as a latter-day hippie, while Canterbury is cast as the ex-military sniper and survival expert. As they say, opposites attract.

But even as Discovery is competing against football on New Year's Day by running a "Dual Survival" marathon, it seems Canterbury has been replaced. I can't find any real word why, though some have complained that Canterbury fudged his credentials.

Anyway, as the series begins its third season (with a special one-hour special airing today), a new host will fill the ex-military role: Joseph Teti.

Be interesting to see if he's as much of a backwoods caveman as Canterbury.

For a relaxing holiday, 10 reasons to try a cruise

I’ve made mention of the cruise that my wife and I took between Dec. 6-24 from Sydney, Australia, around the islands of New Zealand and back. Now I want to list to the top 10 things about going on a cruise, especially when you stop in exotic ports of call.

1. You can eat pretty much 24-7. But, of course, you won't. If only because you'd end up vomiting all over the poop deck. Anyway, I pretty much got mugged by 80-year-olds who kept muscling past me to the serving troughs. Still, if you show some judiciousness, you can eat gourmet meals day and night. Complete, if you choose, with a bottle of wine or two.

2. You can be as social as you want. Cruise ships schedule activities that begin as early as 6 a.m. and continue well past midnight. And since no one polices what you do in the privacy of your own cabin, you can keep going until your body gives out.

3. You can be as antisocial as you want. We upgraded to something called Aqua Class, which didn’t get us all that much except access to lunch at the “healthy food” café and a table for two at one of the ship’s premium restaurants (we could have eaten, including the deck grills and room service, at 17 different places). And, yeah, when you’re on a ship that houses 2,800 people, a table for two is worth the extra cash.

4. You can see lots of cool things. Let’s begin with the Sydney Opera House, which is enough of a draw in itself. But we also saw the fjord-like sounds on the western coast of New Zealand’s southern island. We saw the “world’s steepest street” (in Dunedin, NZ). We saw yellow-eyed penguins. We saw the filming site for “The Hobbit” (the shire scenes). We saw fascinating museums in Sydney, in Auckland and in Bay of Islands, NZ. And, at night on the open ocean, we looked up into the sky and saw the Southern Cross.

5. You can see movies. Recent releases, such as “The Avengers” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” played twice (and sometimes three times) nightly in one of the ship’s theaters. But also on demand in our stateroom.

6. You can work out every day. The well-equipped gym got a bit crowded during peak hours, but I’d go when most other people were at lunch or at dinner and get free use of the treadmills, the bicycles, weight machines (and free weights) and pretty much anything else I wanted. Or needed.

7. You can forget doing the other kind of work. Oh, if you want, you can get online. But even when we bought a “discount” package, we ended up paying some $.55 a minute for non-Broadband access. Which was spotty and slow. This may sound like a negative. It wasn’t. I’ve never relaxed this much since I left grad school in 1978.

8. You can see all kinds of shows. On the night of the solstice, for example, we took in a kind of Cirque du Soleil show, which featured acrobats and jugglers and gymnasts performing on a stage that was moving with the waves. We skipped karaoke night and we dropped a single 20-dollar bill in the ship’s casino and we never showed up for trivia (even though might have won) and we avoided the many art show/sales that were held daily.

9. You can learn stuff. Forget the decently stocked ship’s library. One of the most enjoyable series of activities I took advantage of were the various lectures on astronomy, geography, cosmology and most things scientific that were offered virtually every day. On our next-to-last night, I stood on the open deck as a knowledgeable guy used a laser to point out the various star clusters and planets and explain the basics of space travel. Jupiter was so bright that night, it looked like a moon of the moon.

10. You can meet people from all over the world. Our cruise was peopled mostly by Australians, who were nice enough. But the ship’s workers came from such places as Russia, Serbia, Indonesia, Romania, Croatia and the Philippines. And our captain hailed from Greece. All were friendly and willing to talk about their homelands, their careers and what they liked to do when they got a chance to get off the ship in port.

I’m sure I could list 10 more reasons. Maybe even 20. Let me just say here that cruises can’t substitute from actually staying in, say, a specific city (our three and a half days in Sydney gave us a far better idea of what that city has to offer than our seven-hour stay did for our knowledge of Auckland). And I can’t say that we actually got a chance to see the interior of New Zealand, the place of high mountains and evergreen forests (but I have been to Montana’s Glacier Park anyway).

So I’ll finish by saying that for a relaxing time, and for a chance to at least get an idea of what a country is like, nothing beats a cruise. I’d do it again.

Always with that table-for-two dining option, of course.

Above photo: The Sydney Opera House is even more impressive when seen in person.

It’s all downhill from here

49 Degrees North opens for the season this Friday! Chairs 1,3 and 5 (and possibly 4) start running at 9am. That outghta knock the tryptophan outta your system!

You'll find 49 Degrees North 42 lovely miles north of Spokane. Click here for directions. 

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