Saturday, September 30, 2017

In Defense of Iceland

I keep reading stories floating across social media platforms and on a few outdoor blogs I follow about masses and masses of tourists flooding to this remote island in the North Atlantic. This topic even came up when I was out to dinner last night, resulting in a quality debate over the trending question, is Iceland overcrowded? I think the answer is yes, it absolutely is.

When I was in Iceland less than a year ago, I was too was surprised and a bit shocked at the level of tourism. Almost overwhelming at times. And I went for 14 days during the off season (late October into November).

The past six or so years, Iceland's tourism boom has skyrocketed to peak levels. Peak, peak, overflowing levels. More and more people are flocking here to experience the raw beauty and unique Nordic culture of this country of just over 335,000 people. The surge in tourism has helped the country's economy tremendously. A 2017 study done by the Icelandic Tourist Board called out some 466,287 billion ISK (Icelandic Krona) in spending by foreign visitors and nearly 30,000 tourism-related jobs being created. Those numbers are anticipated to rise year after year. Per an article in Iceland Magazine, tourism's share of the country's GDP rose to 6.7% in 2015 (with that number expecting to jump to 8.2% for 2016). The total number of foreign visitors to Iceland also rose 39% in 2016 alone compared to 2015, contributing to a grand total of some 1,792,200 tourists. To put that into perspective, six years ago in 2010, Iceland had just 488,600. Wow. The top four countries with incoming visitors? The USA, UK, Germany, France and China. Now there estimating that number will reach 2.3 million tourists by the end of 2017. 2.3 million! Enough number spitting. 

But it's starting to get out of hand, a quick Google News search pulls up stories with headlines "Tourist risks Her Life For a Selfie at Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland"... or ... "Iceland’s Tourism Boom — and Backlash"...or "Iceland Is Sick of Tourists' Bad Behavior"...and "Iceland Residents Aren’t Embracing Chinese Tourism Investment." You get the point. Yet surprisingly, some 64% of Icelanders have somewhat of a positive view of foreign travelers. In 2017 however, 71% of Icelanders though there were too many tourists during the peak season, with 79% voicing concerns that the "tourist pressure on Icelandic nature is too high." I can vouch for some those headliners, as while driving around the country in a rented Suzuki Jimny 4x4, I had my fair share of frustrated head shaking moments. I saw loads of tourists littering, defacating on the sides of roads or along hiking paths, driving dangerously erratic, yelling and rushing around with selfie sticks, throwing coins into hot springs, people climbing over "CLOSED" barriers near cliffs in tennis shoes to get photos with their iPads or cell phones, smoking cigarettes then throwing the butts on the ground in places that easily would appear on the cover of National Geographic...just obnoxious, disrespectful shit (sorry but not sorry about the profanity). It was as if there was no regard for the surroundings or land these tourists were visiting.

Iceland is overrun and overused. Something needs to get done pronto in order to accommodate the yearly wave of tourism. Many of the popular destinations scattered throughout the country have accommodating infrastructure that's falling apart and over-trampled. The current pathways, railings, rest areas, stairs, observations platforms, and so forth- are great for steady flows of visitors but not millions and millions. There aren't many bathrooms at some spots nor enough parking or trash cans to keep pace with these rushes of curious tourists. These aren't complaints, trust me, rather observations and areas that need improvement if Iceland isn't going to scale-back on the number of visitors coming into its doors from abroad. The already built infrastructure at these attractions (both historical and natural) are simple and solid, but many were constructed years ago before visitation numbers jumped past the seven figure mark. Take Sk√≥gafoss, a gorgeous waterfall in the southern part of the country. It's along the Route 1 Ring Road and gets its hefty share of foot traffic from visitors. There's a narrow metal stairway to the right of the falls that takes you up to the top of the waterfall. At peak visitation times, I saw tons of people hopping the knee-high rope barrier and trudging alongside the stairwell, leaving heavy muddy footprints in the ground. People even strayed farther away from the designated trail, to inch precariously close to drop-offs for a better view. That amount of foot traffic has and will continue to cause damaging erosion. The same goes for Seljalandsfoss, another uber popular waterfall everyone lusts to visit. There's only a sole, narrow path that meanders its way around and behind the waterfall. When I went, there were probably 150 people standing in line, slowly crawling their way around the back of the waterfall. Impatient folks again, trekked off the trail, slipping around and causing damage to the surrounding landscapes...and of course dropping snack wrappers on the ground. Where's the respect?

What Iceland needs is a program similar to civilian conservation corps organizations here in the U.S.A.. If you've traveled to a state park or national park, chances are you've walked on trails, stood on observation platforms and climbed stairs that were built by groups of high school, college and young adults, looking to give back and help make our public lands better, cleaner and more accessible. When I was at Perrot State Park last fall, on the other side of Wisconsin, a towering staircase made of solid wood was recently being finished as part of a conservation corps work project, to replace a rickety aging one that had started to fall apart. Maybe Iceland has something like this in the works or planning stages, but I hope it happens soon before more damage happens.

Perhaps Iceland needs to take a stronghold approach to cutting the number of visitors into its country for a while, to allow time for these constantly trekked places to just pause, heal and recover. Maybe drastically curtail visitors for a season or month, so crews can get out to these natural and historical attractions to make repairs, cleanup and start tourist infrastructure projects. At the moment you need nothing more than a passport and a plane ticket to arrive into Iceland. Perhaps charging for a tourist visa will thwart off the hordes of incoming tourists for awhile or then put a limit on the number of tourists visas given out...just for a short time period until the country can recover and be confidently ready to give the green-light again to a full-on 2.3 million visitors. But even that idea...draws controversy. Do you ban or limit people from enjoying public lands? Hell no, but if a country's historical and natural landmarks are at risk of falling apart, than maybe that needs to happen for a brief span.

If you're going to go visit Iceland (and I strongly encourage you to), be a traveler, not a tourist.

Be respectful, please, of this small country- its patient, calm hospitable people and its surreal, clean, untouched, mind-blowing landscapes. Venture onward and far beyond the common, cliche 'Golden Circle' itinerary, get out of Reykjavik and explore beyond the city of all the island has to offer. The same aforementioned study done by the tourism board shows that the vast majority of people visiting Iceland, only go an hour or so outside of the city to nearby attractions- you're missing the absolutely incredible places scattered throughout the rest of the country. It's like someone drew a red border on the map and people just won't go past it. You will instantly regret once you board that plane back home at the Keflavik airport that you didn't get to see this place or that because you didn't want to drive an extra few hours or spend the money on another tank of gasoline. However and whenever you do visit Iceland, make sure you leave the smallest footprint possible so we can preserve this pristine place for others to experience too.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Roche-A-Cri State Park, WI

Finally I've been able to sneak away for a weekend and go explore this state park, that for the longest time has been crazy intriguing to me. Following suit with a lot of the recent other trips I've taken around Wisconsin, I'm convinced the smaller, lesser-known parks are easily the best. Visiting tremendously surprising, obscure state park properties like Tower Hill, Perrot, Newport, Aztalan, Natural Bridge have left me everlasting cravings to return.

I clocked out of work at the magazine around 3pm, hopped in the adventure mobile and headed west out to Roche-A-Cri State Park. The second I got on the highway it started storming like mad. Thank the car Gods for all-wheel-drive which kept me sound at 75mph in torrential rain. I arrived in the town of Friendship, about three-hours from Milwaukee just before 6pm with a decent amount of daylight left. Pulling into the park, I was immediately floored at just how pristine everything was... and silent. I was so looking forward to a weekend to unplug from the daily grind and Roche-A-Cri seemed like the perfect place to make it all happen. On this Friday night, the 41-site campground was only about half-full and it was cool to see people camping from states near and far. License plates on the back of RVs, campervans and Jeeps reading Texas, Florida, Iowa, New York, Colorado, Illinois. I kept looking up, smiling,  because this park is dotted with masses of strong red oaks and white pines. With a much welcomed gap in the rain, I threw my tent up in a few minutes and cooked dinner. Two of my best friends, Mark and Amie, own land about twenty-minutes west of the park and invited me over for a bonfire and pizza. I couldn't dare pass up that hospitality.

The next morning I woke up around 9am to the chorus above birds singing above in the treetops. I could also hear slow drops of rain falling on the outside of my tent. Thankfully the storms that were originally called for last night, dissipated and I slept uninterrupted. I spent a few minutes inside the tent scribbling away in my pocket-sized travel journal (that's literally been with me on every trip I've ever done), and laying their snug in my sleeping bag quietly relaxing. Mmmmmhmmm, now I just need to master the art of camping coffee and it'd be even more blissful. Clearly a trip to REI is in order for when I get home.

It was a complete relief to not have to wake to an alarm or the honking of horns. I could take my time and not have to throw on whatever dressy clothes were the least wrinkly, polish up, pack a lunch and dart off to the office. What's the biggest downfall to this trip thus far? The mosquitoes....yep they're aplenty and clearly the 'backwoods' term on my bug spray can is just a marketing sham, because I was applying a thick slobbery coat almost every half-hour. Oh well. I cooked up cheesy eggs over my camping stove for breakfast then strung my hammock between two trees, where I stayed for awhile reading and staring up at the tree canopy above. Around noon, I laced my boots and set out on the trails for the day.

Roche-A-Cri has a network of scenic trails that take you through hardwoods, between rocky outcroppings, and beautiful prairies alive with wildflowers and buzzing bumble bees. What kept catching my eye throughout my hours and miles of hiking was just how rich and glowing green everything was. Tall trees and a ferny floor. And after a little morning rain, this hike was dreamy. The adjective that just kept playing on repeat in head was lush. Lush, lush, lush. It was as if Mother Nature had swiped left on the most-enhancing, polzarizing Instagram filter and clicked save.

The park's Acorn Trail takes you a few miles looping around the tall Roche-A-Cri mound. I deviated off the trail to check out Chickadee Rock, a rock mound in the middle of the woods composed of granite (and I think some sandstone) that rises 30-40ft above the trail. Being obsessed with all things rock climbing, I of course had to scale to the top of it. Views from the top were pretty cool and I could hear thunder continuing to drum off in the distance, but those bright blue skies directly above me were hushing it away. The southwest part of the Acorn Trail gives way to unique views of the larger Roche-A-Cri mound, then crosses over a muddy rover to connect to the Turkey Vulture Trail. Yep, these sweet birds fly over head here. Don't be scared, they're harmlesss.

The 605-acre park itself is designated to protect the aforementioned Roche-A-Cri mound, which is actually a state natural area. Before climbing to the top, you have to stop and admire the collection of preserved pictographs and petroglyphs both from Native Americans and some of Wisco's earliest settlers. It's super interesting! I climbed up the 300+ stairs to reach the top of the mound which towers above everything else in the area. While it's a wee bit smaller, well, a ton smaller, Roche-A-Cri strikes similar resemblance to our country's first national monument: Devil's Tower out in Wyoming. Please, if you have the time make the road trip there, it's mind-blowing. I'm going back this December with a few friends and can't wait to see it in the snow.

The views at the top are killer you can see forever across this part of the state, down onto other tall rock outcroppings jutting upwards from the ground with names storytelling like "Minnie", "Ship", "Doro Couche" and "Rabbit." It's crazy surreal up there and after cooking dinner back at the campsite, I hiked again up to the mound top at sunset to spend an hour watching this masterpiece of explosive colors take over the sky. It was one of those ideal moments where time just feels like it slows down and stops. If you live in Wisconsin, seeing the sunset from the top of Roche-A-Cri needs to be on your bucket list. It will give you the chills.

Thanks Roche-A-Cri for jumping to my top five favorite Wisconsin state parks list. Onward to Rocky Arbor State Park.



Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Adventure Mobile Turns 200!

For real though, I've always wanted to own a car and push it past the 200,000 mile mark. Now I have! A few days ago, the odometer on my 2005 Saab 9-2x wagon clicked to 200,000. Sadly, I was stuck in rush hour traffic crawling at a measly 5mph for an hour when the six-figures showed up. "Yes!" I yelled in excitement and patted my hand on the dashboard. This has easily been the best car I've ever owned and I was so happy to cross that milestone. Looking back at this post from almost two years ago, I've put close to 100k miles on the Saab since I drove it off the lot in March 2013....which if my embarrassingly bad lack of math comes out right, I drive between 25,000 to 30,000 miles a year. That's a lot of seat time. Thankfully the vast majority of those miles were racked up driving to various state and national parks, and transplanting me to-and-from Colorado three years back. To this day, I have yet to get stuck in snow, mud or dirt thanks to that unstoppable Subaru all-wheel-drive system. Oh the confidence-abiding drives through Colorado blizzards on treacherous passes named Rabbit Ears, Berthoud and Independence.

I've slept in the back of the adventure mobile on trips out west, hauled kayaks and mountain bikes across Wisco and strapped skis on top its roof rack. It's helped me and many of my best friends move between apartments, packed to the gills. And its turned boring, dry commutes into quicker dashes of excitement behind the wheel. Oh- all at the same time while getting anywhere from 25mpg all the way up to 33mpg. Win. It's also taught me the ways and steps needed to keep your daily-driving machine running as flawlessly as possible. Surface rust removal and painting, oil changes, rear differential fluid changes (good gosh that crap smells horrid), replacement heated seat wiring, stereos, transmission fluid flushes and of course, the stupid task of removing the entire front bumper...just to replace a burnt-out headlight. Twice at $90 a piece. But this goes to show...if you take care of something you buy and are responsible for, it will last.

Sure, it still literally runs and drives like a new car which I am so very grateful for...but like all things, the Saabaru is starting to show its wear and tear as it continues to age. I've got a burnt-out fog lamp that I for the life of me cannot get unhooked. The keyfob on my remote doesn't work anymore. Its temperature gauge occasionally does a tap dance up into the red when I'm sitting at idle or in traffic...please don't overheat on me, Saab. And my trunk lid opens well, maybe 1 out of every fifty times I try to pull the handle. What's the point of a wagon if you can't use the hatch area? So frustrating. I guess I'll have to fold down the seats, and crawl into the trunk to pull apart the entire carpet  trimming and work on my back with all sorts of screwdrivers and clamps for a few hours in a desperate attempt to un-jam the locking mechanism....grrr. Again.

But hey, let's focus on the triumphant 200,000 mile achievement, and press for another 100,000. You can do it Saab, goooooo!


Friday, September 1, 2017

30 Days of Gratitude: Prompt 30

September is here and I'm incredibly happy it is. It's almost flannel weather. Click on the screenshot above to watch this new video on Vimeo or scroll down.

 Twenty days or so until the start of fall. Bring it on. What do you all have planed for the long holiday weekend? Apart from hanging out with the best people in the world, I'm looking forward to volunteering again up at my camp on Saturday teaching a group team building and how to rock climb. So today marks the last response in the '30 Days of Gratitude' writing challenge I've been doing. The previous post talks all about recognizing and being proud of your own self-worth, check it out. I wanted to another video for this final prompt because the five or so minutes below that you'll watch, is a chance to see me express an infinite amount of passion and excitement towards the thing I love to do the most- writing.

Day 30: What Talent Are You Grateful For?

Enjoy the video, hopefully grab some inspiration from it and reflect on what talent you're most grateful for. Thanks so much for continuing to follow along with all of these gratitude posts, the amount and quality of responses I got from people reading my posts was incredible. After today it'll be back to more purely-travel and all-things outdoor adventure, including two upcoming posts about recent trips to some pretty stellar state parks in Wisco. And! Since page views have been rising every day, stay tuned for a complete revamp of the blog. 

Cheers and have a great weekend,