History



One of our favorites when touring Yellowstone last fall was to explore the Fountain Paint Pots located in the Lower Geyser Basin. It’s a nice, easy stroll on a wooden walkway built above the steaming pot floor. You can proceed from one amazing photo op to the next, each a different color, while taking in the backdrop of the scenic Yellowstone mountains. In one compact half-mile boardwalk loop, you can see all four of the hydrothermal features found in the park: mud-pots, geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles. And while none of the geysers there are as famous as Old Faithful, they erupt so frequently that you are guaranteed a great show on your short hike.

Next, we passed by a forest of drowned lodgepole pine snags—killed by the chemicals in the surrounding hot springs.

This boardwalk passes by all types of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal formations, so it becomes a lesson in hydrothermal volcanism. A geyser is formed when water collecting below the surface is heated by a magma source. When the water boils, it rises to the surface. If the water has an unobstructed path, it will pool on the surface in the form of a steaming hot springs. If the passage of the water is blocked, the pressure will increase. When the pressure becomes too great, the water converts into to steam. But steam takes up 1,500 times the volume of water. When the pressure intense, the steam and surrounding water droplets shoot out of the ground in a geyser.

fumarole is like a geyser without all the water. Gas and steam escape through vents in the surface and can sounds like roaring bellows. Fumaroles are the driest hydrothermal feature.

The second driest are the mud-pots, which have less water than hot springs, but more than fumaroles. At Yellowstone, hydrogen sulfide gas emitted from underground sources changes to sulfuric acid and breaks down the surrounding stone into grey clay. The muddy pools bulge and burst in an entertaining display as gas bubbles erupt on the surface. Mud can spit several feet into the air and end up on the boardwalk, although that did not happen while we were there.

Clepysdra Geyser erupts often. Was it my imagination or did it take a break when its neighbors were erupting? Morning Geyser has the opposite personality and erupts rarely. If you are lucky enough to see it in action, expect bursts of up to 200 feet tall and 100 feet wide. And Fountain Geyser is one of Yellowstone’s most impressive geysers when it erupts, with 50-foot bursts that can last half an hour. In contrast, Leather Pool just sits there; however, it did make for a quiet break in the action!

Finally, as you progress around the walkway toward the northeast corner, you will come upon Red Spouter, which behaves like a fumarole, a hot spring, and a mud-pot throughout the year. It resembles a hot spring in the winter; a muddy reddish pool in the spring; and a steaming fumarole in the drier summer and fall.

I leave you with two images showing how steam creates a watercolor effect and a movie of one of the geysers. Do not miss this stop when you visit Yellowstone Park!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.


You might drive right through the town of Red Lodge, Montana on your way to the northern gate of Yellowstone Park. That would be a mistake. Because Red Lodge is more than a mere gateway town: this historic town of  2300 souls is a destination in its own right, one you don’t want to miss if you’re headed out west.

During the first week of September, my husband, sister, and brother-in-law flew into Billings, Montana, rented an SUV, and drove into Red Lodge where we had reservations at the Pollard Hotel for two nights. Friends of ours who live there—even though they travel all over the world—had invited us to visit their charming hometown. We arrived at lunchtime and weren’t due to meet them until that evening. It was a sunny fall day, with rain expected the following day, so we decided to take the acclaimed Beartooth All American Road (Highway 212) to the famous Beartooth Pass. After all, Charles Kuralt from the television show On the Road had called the route “the most beautiful drive in America.” Why not check it out for ourselves? We purchased a Styrofoam cooler and sandwich fixings at a local supermarket and headed out to explore.

Taking the Beartooth Highway.

We’re climbing, and climbing, and climbing…! After stopping at a turnout for a photo-op at 8000’ elevation, we enter a series of switchbacks that take us over 1,500 feet in seven miles. Lush forests and pristine vistas rapidly change to twisted gray trees and alpine tundra. There’s a story behind those massive chain-link fences we’re seeing. In May of 2005, a week before the highway was scheduled to open, nine inches of rain fell in three days, causing a massive mudslide that tore down the canyon, dislodging more than 500,000 cubic tons of rock. The reconstruction effort that summer cost $20 million, the same amount (adjusted for inflation) that was spent to build the road in the 1930s.

About 20 miles into this adventure, we reach Vista Point Rest Area. As we leave the parking lot, we round a series of curves called the “Mae West curves,” after the buxom star of the 1930s. Reportedly, that descriptive sign was taken down because it was too risqué! After rounding those curves, we’re astonished by the expansive vista to our right called the “Hellroaring Plateau.” The road climbing that side of the valley covers the same elevation gain in half the miles, it’s unpaved and rocky, and there are no guardrails. Needless to say, we’re not going there!

After exactly 23.9 miles on Hwy 212, we spot the Welcome to Wyoming sign, reportedly the highest welcome sign in the U.S. This is also the 45th Parallel, meaning we’re now halfway between the North Pole and the equator. At 27 miles, we reach Beartooth Basin. Here you can ski at 10,000 feet during your summer vacation. Just check beartoothbasin.com for conditions. Thanks, but no thanks! Soon after the basin we spot the Gardner Lake pullout. What an incredible view of stunning cobalt-blue lakes set into undulating waves of rock! It’s an ideal setting for selfies, but you could die if you keep stepping back to get that perfect shot. We decide to take pics of our mates instead, yelling “smile but don’t move!”

 

Suddenly we realize that we must head back from here if we are to be back at our hotel in time to check in and enjoy the evening. On the way back, we stop again at the Vista Point rest area to enjoy our lunch.

Beartooth

Wayfinding on the Beartooth.

Historic Red Lodge.

The Pollard Hotel is fascinating. Built in 1893, this was the first brick building in town, cost $20,000 to build and had 35 rooms. A glass case in the sitting room displays and explains its history. Famous guests include William E. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannary, and John “Liver-eatin” Johnston. Our friends Don and Rebecca join us for drinks and dinner. We have a marvelous time. Of course, they advise us what to see in their historic town the next day.

We spend the morning walking the town, beginning with the Carbon County Historical Society and Museum. In 1990, this three-story Labor Temple building was gifted to the Historical Society. It had been built in 1909 by the Red Lodge Miners Local No. 1771 and put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The basement level contains an excellent interactive coal and hard rock mine exhibit. Afterward, we take the downtown walking tour, five blocks of Broadway lined with historic brick buildings on both sides: the Carbon County Courthouse, the Blackburn Building, the Red Lodge State Bank, and finally, the Carbon County Bank where Kid Curry and the Sundance Kid were reportedly captured after a foiled bank robbery. Before turning back we stop at a few art galleries and the old railroad terminal.

Broadway main street in Red Lodge

Broadway the main street of Red Lodge.

Driving through the Wilderness: the West Fork of Rock Creek.

We have the afternoon free, so we decide to take a self-guided sightseeing drive until the rain comes. At Gunter’s urging, John turns onto “the road less traveled” past the local Red Lodge ski area, the Girl Scout camp, and up into the wilderness. We have no idea where we are until we see a You Are Here sign. We’re at the West Fork of Rock Creek Trailhead in the million-acre Absoroka-Beartooth National Wilderness—one of the highest and most rugged areas in the lower 48 states. Yep! Gunter has a reputation for getting us into adventurous “situations.” But we’re here so we may as well…drive onwards. There must be more to see.

We’re all alone back here. We stop, park on the gravel road, and listen to the creek. No-one wants to break the silence, but occasionally we whisper to each other. Please take a minute to see what I saw and hear what I heard:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Rain clouds are forming and AAA might not want to rescue us here, so we hightail back to Red Lodge. We rest in our hotel while a soft rain drenches this town we have come to love. In the evening, our friends meet us in the hotel’s main dining room where they have made reservations to kick back and experience their favorite local band, The High Country Cowboys. What a way to conclude a memorable stay in this quaint-but-fun mountain town!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.


A Guest Blog by Julie Smith.

A few weeks ago, Gunter and I attended a fundraiser for The Polk County Historical Society. This deserving organization is celebrating 60 years of vision from 1959-2019. It runs the award-winning Polk County Museum, which contains three floors of physical, pictorial, and written artifacts from 1842 to 1943. The volunteer-staffed museum contains extensive exhibits of local agriculture and logging, as well as educational information about the Kalapuya tribe that originally occupied Polk County. Also attending the fundraiser was fellow blogger Julie Smith, who subsequently wrote the following story first published in the Amery Free Press about the theme of the evening: Celebrating Wisconsin Supper Clubs. Thank you, Julie, for allowing me to share this cultural icon with my readers.

Polk County Museum

Polk County Museum

Throughout Wisconsin, there are approximately 260 supper clubs…give or take. The number is frequently changing because the clubs change hands and/or close and re-open again later. The restaurant business is fluid and subject to change. Our neighbor to the west, Minnesota, also has supper clubs…but not nearly as prevalent or pervasive on the landscape as Wisconsin.

So, herein begs the question that keeps on popping up: “So what is a Supper Club, anyway…just another restaurant? Oh Nooooo! Don’t speak of such blasphemy. It is hard to explain, and I had this discussion with my son. We discussed the history of prohibition, the establishment of the speak- easy and how supper clubs, to some extent anyway fit in that part of history. I believe that you just have to experience supper club dining to appreciate them and to know the difference. My son and I did however come to the conclusion that: “A Supper club is a restaurant, but not every restaurant qualifies as a supper club.” Kind of simplistic in nature, but I think it helps to drive the point home: Supper Clubs are in a category all of their own.

I was prompted to write about the uniqueness of Wisconsin supper clubs after attending a fund raiser dinner and presentation by our local historical society: The Polk County Historical Society. The event was entitled: Celebrate Wisconsin Supper Clubs and celebrate I did!  I really enjoyed learning about the diversity and amazing history behind this fabric that makes up the Wisconsin landscapes and in many ways is the pride of many a Wisconsinite.  The two presenters at the event helped to expand those definitions and help to explain what makes a supper club a supper club…and not just another restaurant?

Mary Bergin, a Midwest features writer, discussed the inspirations that led her to publish a cookbook of over 60 recipes from 40 different supper clubs. Mary is the author of several books, many of which focus on adventures in Wisconsin. The cookbook she published is entitled: Wisconsin Supper Club Cookbook. The book includes not only tasty recipes, but also interesting tidbits of historical content about particular clubs and why loyal customers help to create each supper club as a local treasure. She explained that the popularity of the supper club has sustained because of their predictability; you know you can expect great service and food when you walk through the door. That predictability gives them lasting quality. Some may call it “stuck in a rut,” but others view it as the comfort of tradition.  Her books are currently available on Amazon and you can follow Mary on some of her adventures at: www.roadstraveled.com

Holly L. DeRuyter, a documentary filmmaker, presented her video entitled: Old Fashioned–The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club. The film took a delightful tour of several clubs at locations throughout the state and portrayed why these iconic clubs have remained popular and a staple in many Wisconsin communities. The video not only highlighted the supper club culture, but also helped the viewer to grapple with the continuing question of how a supper club differs from a restaurant. The supper club patron is welcomed to a slower pace where one can relax and connect with family and friends. One of the club owners summed it up well by stating: “Dine Leisurely, Dine Well.”  Most supper clubs are in rural places and usually open for dinner only. The supper club includes a bar and a separate dining room. Even after prohibition was repealed, many women felt uncomfortable going to a tavern for a drink. (Some taverns were considered “seedy” and not the place for a lady…) However, women felt more comfortable having drinks if the bar was located inside a supper club. This helped to make all the patrons feel comfortable for both eating and having cocktails together. For more information on Holly’s film, you can check out her web site at: http://OldFashionedTheMovie.com

Old Fashioned CocktailSpeaking of cocktails, the classic cocktail of the supper club is the Old Fashioned. The drink itself dates back to the 1700s, but was revived during the Prohibition days. With the preponderance of “rot gut liquors” and “bathtub gin,” these tonics were made more palatable with the addition of fruit slices and/or cherries to garnish the drink. A taste for something sweet just evolved the Old Fashioned into a staple cocktail at many of the supper clubs.

Another staple of the supper club is the Friday Night Fish Fry. Wisconsin is the perfect place for the popularity and success of a Friday Night Fish Fry. First, Wisconsin has 15,074 lakes filled with delicious perch, walleye and trout that provides an abundance of fresh and local fare. Second, there are many religions that abstain from eating meat on Fridays, so the Friday Night Fish Fry quickly became a family tradition for many Wisconsin families.

When I first moved to Wisconsin, my realtor gave us a wonderful gift to welcome us to Wisconsin: a book about Wisconsin Supper Clubs. It is entitled: Wisconsin Supper Clubs, An Old Fashioned Experience by Ron Faiola.  It became a great resource and also soon evolved into a journal for documenting my trips to the many supper clubs in the state. Since there are so many, I added my own entries and photos for the clubs that were not listed. It has been fun to document the memories of special meals, but also makes me feel a little like a restaurant critic. Yet, most of the things I document are about good food and great experiences. I rarely have negative criticisms. Imagine my surprise when a copy of “my” book was there on the bar when I visited a supper club close to us. As you can imagine, that club had “made the cut” and was featured in the book.  Good job guys.

Julie Smith is a resident of Amery and is a freelance writer/blogger and photographer. You may see more of Julie’s writing on her 2 blogs: americantrekkerblog.com and julieetta1982.blogspot.com

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.


“Gratitude doesn’t change the scenery. It merely washes clean the glass you look through so you can clearly see the colors.”  –Richard E. Goodrich

Lois Joy Hofmann, Author

Lois updates her journal in Nurata, Uzbekistan.

A big thanks to YOU. I’m grateful for my readers. You made my day when I noticed that my blog had 917 followers. You’re one of those followers if you signed up to receive my blog online or in your inbox, and for that, I’m exceedingly grateful. Your continuing interest fills me with joy and encourages me to write more about the wonderful world in which we live.

I’d like more followers like you to share the joy. You can help me build my following to that magic 1000 number by forwarding my blogs to friends and family who might want to know more about the Great Outdoors or experience my adventures vicariously.  I would appreciate it if you would “like” my Facebook Author, Twitter, and LinkedIn pages as well.

I’m also grateful for the opportunity to travel by land and sea. I would not trade our eight years spent circumnavigating the world for any object money can buy. Travel has taught me to invest in money, not stuff. It has taught me to collect memories, and to press them—like flowers between pages of a book—within the folds of my heart. I’ve taken thousands of pictures, and when I look at them, I realize that I’ve collected the sights, sounds and smells of nature—and the laughter, joy, and sorrow of people around the world.

Gunter and I recently returned from a road trip to visit shut-ins. As usual, we combined our trip with sightseeing, some of it off the beaten path. Spring was ripe with fresh new growth. Along with fragrant blossoms, myriad possibilities were bursting forth. The scenes reminded me of a quote by Friedrich Gauss: “Life stands before me like an eternal spring with brilliant clothes…”

Finally, I’m grateful for my life and that I can still enjoy the Great Outdoors at will. Each of our lives is a precious gift, my dear followers. Maybe you travel and maybe you don’t. Maybe you can’t. Whatever you do, don’t let life pass you by. Cherish each day as if it would be your last.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Related blogs:  spring and new beginning; new beginnings and second chances.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website https://loisjoyhofmann.com.

 


In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m posting the first of my Ireland blog series. My husband Gunter and I toured Ireland in September 2018 as part of a mission to reconnect with European cruisers with whom we had sailed during our world circumnavigation. We had the good fortune of being hosted by Patrick Murphy, a native Irishman who loves his country, and his partner, Geraldine. Upon arriving, we checked into a hotel in Howth overlooking the Irish sea with a view of Ireland’s Eye, a small uninhabited island off the coast. We were close to Howth Harbour, where Pat still docks his yacht Aldaberan after sailing it around the world. During the week we spent in Ireland, Pat took us to yacht clubs, maritime museums, and shipbuilding exhibits, including the Titanic Exhibit in Belfast. These are covered in another blog called Cruising Camaraderie.

Howth Marina

Howth Marina

The Howth Castle. This was the first of many castles we saw in Ireland, including the imposing Dublin Castle. It’s a hidden gem, the private residence of the Galsford-St. Lawrence family and still occupied by the descendants. The view from the top of the peninsula of Howth Head, northeast of Dublin, provides a stunning view of the harbour and village below.

Howth Castle

Howth Castle

Sightseeing in Dublin. During our first full day in Ireland, we took a city bus directly to City Centre and then bought tickets for a city bus tour, the best way to get an overview of this vibrant city. This gave us a nice overview of the city, landmarks such as the National Museum of Ireland, the National Gallery, Dublin Castle, the Temple Bar district, Christ Church Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Guinness Storehouse, and Kilmainham Gaol and Hospital. After that preview, it was time to walk the city.

The Story of the General Post Office. The main avenue in Dublin is O’Connell Street, 500 feet wide, with monuments to Irish history in the middle. All the way, we couldn’t miss the Millennium Spire, a 395-foot high stainless-steel monument which replaced the 19th century Nelson’s Pillar blown up by anti-British rebels in 1966. O’Connell street’s most famous landmark is the General Post Office, which Pat described to us at length. “See these bullet holes,” he said. “These were made during the Easter rising of 1916, when a group of Irish nationalists proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic. They and 1600 followers staged a rebellion against the British government in Ireland here. They used this GPO as their headquarters.”

We talked with a “soldier” posing as a rebel outside the Post Office. Then we went inside to view commemorative plaques and statues about the Rising. We learned that the rebels, along with some 1600 followers, seized buildings in that area and clashed with British troops. Within a week, the British quelled the rebellion and left 2000 dead or injured. The leaders of the rebellion soon were executed. Initially, there was little support from the Irish people; however, public opinion later shifted, and the executed leaders were hailed as martyrs. In 1921, a treaty was signed that established the Irish Free State, which eventually became the modern-day Republic of Ireland.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

South of the Liffey. Dublin takes its name from the southwest of the city. Apparently in prehistoric times there was a dark pool (Dubh Linn) at the confluence of the River Liffey and what was once the River Poddle. During the 18th century, the Temple Bar became a center for merchants and craftsmen. The southeast was undeveloped until the founding of Trinity College in 1592. St. Stephens Green was enclosed in the 1660s but was private until 1877. Today the south is the hub of the fashionable scene, with designer stores and fine restaurants.

Liffey River

Liffey River

Trinity College. Visiting Trinity College, Ireland’s most famous educational institution, is a must. Since its foundation in the 16th century, it has produced many impressive alumni—including Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Beckett. Entering the cobbled square surrounded by green lawns, 18th and 19th century buildings, and a 100-foot bell tower might have been like walking into a bucolic time-warp—except for the hundreds of students, posters, and booths filling the space. A student orientation event was in process and the lines were so long that we couldn’t get into the library. Too bad. I would have liked to view the 200-foot long room, with two tiers of oak bookcases holding more than 200,000 books. The Old Library is home to one of Ireland’s greatest treasures: the 9th century, lavishly illustrated Book of Kells, containing the four gospels of the New Testament in Latin. We exited the campus at the front arch, in between statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith.

St. Stephen’s Green. This 22-acre park with two miles of walkways is a great way to take a bucolic break within the city limits. It still has the original Victorian layout. Bedding plants are changed out during the year. We strolled past sculptures and around a serene, man-made lake. Lunchtime concerts are performed throughout the summer.

Serene lake at St. Stephen's Green Ireland

Serene lake at St. Stephen’s Green

Back at City Centre, we enjoyed a magnificent lunch at Bewleys Grafton Street Café. But the food was only a small part of our fun there. We were seated in the main dining room on the ground floor. Although the café was jam-packed tightly with tables, we didn’t mind. The entire 1920s café was decorated with art nouveau and stained-glass windows designed by celebrated Irish artist Harry Clarke. After lunch, Geraldine and I walked to the second floor to find a charming art deco café, then went up another flight of stairs to discover a small theatre at the top. Do stop here—even if it’s just for a cup of tea.

After lunch, we watched the street entertainment for a while. This cyclist/knife juggler took our breath away. He deserved his tips!

On the way back, Patrick stopped to show us a tree carved with every species of sea-life imaginable.

Magnificent Carved Tree Ireland

Magnificent Carved Tree

Finally, enjoy “the craic.” Despite the sights, Dublin would be nothing without the warmth and conviviality of the Irish people. Craic (pronounced crack) is term for news, gossip, fun, or entertainment. It’s the perfect word for describing the bubbling, sparky mix of fun and banter that is Dublin.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.


Sightseeing in Reykjavik. Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, is home to one-third of the country’s population of about 340,000. This city is Iceland’s business, cultural, and intellectual center with a world-class concert hall and numerous small-scale museums tracing Iceland’s history. The entire city runs on geothermal power. Summer is best, when whales swim in the bay, Icelanders picnic at the park fronting the Parliament Building, and children play in the street until midnight.

Holly and I had booked a top-floor room at Alda Hotel in City Centre that provided a roof-top view of the bay. All week, we squeezed in an hour here and there in between our road trips to see the city. Our first sightseeing walks during the week were to that bay—not surprising given my love of the sea and sailing. We loved to photograph the Sun Voyager sculpture in all kinds of light. Afterward, we learned more about the Viking explorers and our Scandinavian heritage in the museums and bookstores. We ambled through some of well-to-do residential areas in the city, admiring their brightly-colored, corrugated metal-clad houses with well-kept green lawns surrounded by quaint picket fences. We frequented cute cafes and bakeries, planning what we would cram into our SUV for the following day’s Ring Road excursions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Saturday was our final day in Iceland. We raced to photograph as much of the city as we could before flying back on Sunday. Visitors once thought of Reykjavik as little more than a stopover to Iceland’s dramatic landscape: volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lava fields and massive glaciers. Now the city is a “happening” place. If you have the time, you can enjoy the cultural scene; Iceland has an internationally acclaimed symphony orchestra, two professional theatre companies, an opera company, a national ballet and national and municipal art galleries. There’s even an annual arts festival. Nightlife is vibrant, as we could attest to—not by staying up until 4 am, (we preferred touring) but by hearing the noise of the city when we slid open the glass doors of our balcony room. If you do want to participate in the night life, it’s comforting to know that Reykjavik is one of the safest capitals in the world.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Icelandic Lore, Legends, and Sagas. When we entered Mal-og-Menning, what we thought was a small bookstore, we were amazed. We were in a different world—three floors of history, sagas (a delicate blend of history and fiction), poetry, geography, science (e.g., thermoelectric power), travel, and adventure. We wandered around in a daze, wondering what was worth taking home. Would we read Icelandic history, fiction, or fairy tales when we returned? Finally, Holly settled on a Viking history book and I bought a book of Nordic Noir short stories to read on the plane. Dark stories and crime fiction seem to fit the environment here—one of cruel winters and overwhelming, mysterious landscapes.

Most literature of the ancients was written for a small and privileged elite. Icelandic sagas, however, have always been the property of the common people. Because the Icelandic language has changed little since medieval times, stories remain accessible to Icelanders in their original language. Almost every Icelander is familiar with the character and plots of major works. Iceland claims to have published more books per capita than anywhere else in the world. Numerous prize-winning authors are among its tiny population; in fact, in 2011, UNESCO designated Reykjavik a City of Literature.

Between 2008 and 2014, Iceland’s adult literacy rate remained stable at around 99 %! Preserving the purity of the language and Iceland’s rich literary tradition is important to Icelandic identity. Think about it: Anonymous 13th-century saga authors living in a desolate northern island during a raging civil war were the first to write prose in their own language instead of Latin. The sagas include countless historical chronicles, romances, fables, legends, and the lives of holy men. But the best known are the family sagas, dating back to the settlement of the land. They were passed down orally until they were finally written; however, until recently, they were regarded as undisputed historical fact! The story lines encompass great epic sprawls, with dozens of characters and sub-plots, spanning many generations. Fate plays a strong role and tragedy is usually the result of simple bad luck.

Even though sagas are the result of fact and fiction, events can be pinned to actual places. We found markers at many locations throughout Iceland. Just follow your guidebook. Many road signs merely denote the name of the farm at which the event took place. In addition to our two guidebooks, Insight Guides, Iceland and Iceland’s Ring Road by Lonely Planet, I read the paperback Burial Rites before I left. Also recommended: The Day is Dark, The Silence of the Sea, I Remember You, a Ghost Story, and Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland.

Understanding Icelandic Language. Icelandic belongs to the Nordic family of languages; it most closely resembles Norwegian and Faroese. It has not changed much from the language of the early Norse settlers. As a visitor, the language is daunting. But no worries—most Icelanders, especially the young, speak English fluently, as well as Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish. German and French are also taught in school. To pronounce a word, put the stress on the first syllable; however, you’ll find that many Icelandic sounds do not exist in English. We found the following phrases useful just to be polite:

Hello/good morning: Góðan dag
Good evening: Gott kvöld
Good night: Gott nótt
My name is: ég heiti
Goodbye: bless
Yes: já
No: nei
Thanks: takk
Yes, please: já takk
Cheers!: Skál!

After four days of touring the Ring Road, we could put together a few place names by understanding how to interpret a long string of letters:

Snæfellsnes Peninsula: snae=snow; fell=mountain; nes=peninsula
Gulfoss: foss=waterfall; gul=gold
Sönghellir: hellir=cave; söng=song
Eyia Flatey: eyia=island; flatey=flat
Laugarvatn: laug=hot spring; vatn=lake
Vatnajökull: vatn=lake; jökull=glacier
Reykjavik: reykur=smoke; vik=small bay

Icelandic History. While sagas blend legends with history and geography, one museum you don’t want to miss is the War and Peace museum depicting Iceland’s strategic role in World War II. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but well worth it. You will need to take the tunnel detour when entering or leaving the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The photos represent only a small part of hundreds of artifacts you’ll discover there.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Iceland now has one of the highest standards of living in the world. So, it’s impossible to imagine that, prior to World War II, many visitors thought Iceland to be barely out of the middle ages. The transformation occurred almost overnight. Quonset huts and military installations dotted the landscape and the Ring Road was built to provide transportation around the entire island. This frenzy of development created an economic infrastructure for the post-war period. Iceland was proclaimed an independent republic on June 17,1944.

Churches in Iceland. I’ve never been in a small country with such a variety of church architecture. In Reykjavik, we saved the best for last: Late Saturday afternoon, Holly and I strapped on our Canon EOS cameras and walked directly uphill from our hotel to the imposing Hallgrímskirkja church. With a 244-foot tower, this modern concrete structure was designed to resemble columns of Iceland’s basaltic lava. Hallgrímskirkja, towering over the capital city, is a photographer’s dream! In front of the church is an impressive statue of Lefur Eriksson, a gift from the US in 1930 commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the Alþingi, the oldest parliament in the world.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And how many churches are there in Iceland? The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland owns more than 350 churches in the country. Hallgrímskirkja, of course, is the largest. Other Christian segregations own about 50 houses of worship. Most of the churches we saw in the countryside did not bother to provide a sign with the denomination. We suspected that all churches outside of the capital are Lutheran. Even though a fraction of Icelanders attend church regularly, they are still registered at birth. 97 percent of Icelanders say they believe in God. Social scientists, however, were astonished to discover in an opinion poll that the majority still claim to believe in the existence of elves and spirits. Apparently over 500 ghouls, trolls, and paranormal beings haunt Iceland! In a survey of the supernatural in Western Europe, Icelanders claimed the most ghost experiences, with 41 percent claiming contact with the dead, compared to the European average of 20 percent. This island—with its long periods of darkness during the winters and surreal lava formations—provides the perfect camouflage for spooks! Ghosts are not always benevolent; they could take the form of zombies. Elves, though, are held in high regard as the “hidden people.” Then there are the trolls, beings who turn to stone if they are caught outside in the daylight. The Icelandic landscape is dotted with such trolls, including the great troll-cow Hvitserkur, caught having a drink of water just off the northwest coast.

 Flora and Fauna in Iceland. A joke making the rounds in Iceland is: How do you get out of an Icelandic forest? Stand up. Nowadays, it is said, even a giraffe could stand up and not get out of the Hallormsstaðir forest in East Iceland. The trees in this forest are the Icelandic equivalent of US redwoods—eighteen-meter-high downy birch (Betula pubescens). They are almost 200 years old but look gnarly and withered. These were the type of trees that Icelandic farmers got rid of so they could grow crops and easily round up their sheep.

Holly and I—familiar with the giant oaks, maple, and walnut hardwoods of the Midwest—didn’t come to Iceland to see trees. But we were curious why so few were spared. We found out that the country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now, Iceland is slowly but surely gaining back its forests. The country hopes planting trees will improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, prevent windstorm erosion, and aid agriculture.

The flora we found most interesting were the wildflowers, lichen, and moss. At times, miles and miles of soothing green would extend all the way to the horizon—like puffs of green clouds sleeping on the ground. When we stopped to check out these moss heaths, we discovered that they have an exquisite texture that dissolves into a fine powder. There are 606 different species of moss in Iceland. One of the most abundant species is called the woolly fringe-moss, which dominates lava fields across the South and West. Iceland moss is a lichen—algae and fungus growing together in a mutually helpful relationship. Lichens draw their nutrients from the environment and are easily contaminated. They grow slowly—about 1 centimeter in length every year. They survive well in Iceland because this country is one of the least polluted in the world. It’s easy to understand why signs ask you to stick to the trails. Those areas could take years to re-grow! Take only photos but please don’t leave footprints.

The Arctic Fox is Iceland’s only indigenous land mammal — rarely photographed. We did photograph a few birds, as well as sheep and mountain goats, but the Icelandic horses took our breath away. They are cuddly and cute, like ponies, with long, wheat-colored manes. Because they have never been threatened by predators in their natural environment, they are approachable and friendly, not easily spooked. Their spirited but gentle temperament makes them perfect for riding. All along the Ring Road, you’ll find farms promoting rides to tourists.

These horses were developed from sturdy ponies transported by sea to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries. Selective breeding has developed them into their current form. They sport a thick winter coat that they shed at springtime; they are undaunted by high winds and snowstorms; and they easily wade through glacial rivers and cross tough terrains. In 982 A.D., the Icelandic parliament passed laws that prohibited importation of any other horse breeds into the country; consequently, Icelandic horses are one of the purest horse breeds in the world.

Tips for Visiting Iceland:

  • Think about what photography equipment you might need. To watch a video about what shots are simply too dangerous for amateurs, go here.
  • Book your flight and hotels early. I recommend Iceland Air, but beware of package deals which may put you up at a hotel near the airport, away from everything. I recommend staying near the center of Reykjavik most nights so you can walk to check out tourist spots and enjoy the nightlife. Then take your road trips from there. We stayed a single night at two different Ring Road hotels as well (see my previous blogs).
  • Pack for the forecasted weather. You can buy cold-weather clothes there. For ideas, see this IceWear
  • Above all, chill out and have fun. (If you don’t want to get too chilled, go in the summertime.)

Photo Credits: Holly Ricke and Lois Hofmann

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.


Destination: the Fjallsárlón Lagoon
After a night’s rest back in Reykjavik, Holly and I were off on our next Ring Road tour of Iceland. This time, we would drive Iceland’s Southeast Coast. We needed to check into the remote Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon to be prepared for a morning iceberg boat tour at Fjallsárlón Lagoon.

Iceland lava field

The view was ever-changing, the lava field never-ending.

Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss Waterfalls. Along the way, we never tired of the view because the landscape was always changing. Of course, we had to visit more waterfalls! Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, reportedly the most visited in Iceland, with a 200-foot (60-meter) drop. Tourists climbed the steep hill to go to behind the falls. We contented ourselves with a view from the bottom. The river Seljalandsá originates underneath the glacier Eyjafjallajökull. The volcano beneath this ice cap was the one that erupted in 2010 and caused havoc at airports across Europe.

Our next waterfall stop was Skógafoss, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in Iceland. The river Skoga, fed by two glaciers, runs through a canyon, then descends from the edge of a moor in a 45-foot-wide (15-meter), 186-foot-high (62-meter) waterfall. According to legend, a settler called Þrasi hid his chest of gold behind the falls. For a long time, the chest was visible through the waterfall, giving it a golden sheen. The ring to that chest can be found in the Skógar folk museum. The following verse has been passed down through generations:

The chest in Þrasi’s secret lair
Under the Skógar waterfall
Rewards the one who ventures there
With endless riches, great and small.

Dyrhólaey nature reserve was our next stop. Formerly known by seamen as Cape Portland, this reserve occupies a small promontory located on the south coast of Iceland. From the glittering black sand beach, we could view the arch near the end of the promontory. We would have loved to hike for hours, but we had to move on. We passed by Vik, a charming village of about 300 souls nestled below the cliffs, but stopped at an IceWear outlet for deals on Icelandic wool outerwear.

Laufskálavarða is a lava ridge surrounded by hundreds of small cairns. Travelers believed that making a cairn would bring luck and fortune before starting their journey across Mýrdalssandur. A farm located here was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 894 BC.

Laufskálavarða

Lois waves from behind a cairn in Laufskálavarða.

Kirkjubæjarklaustur. After driving through miles and miles of lava fields covered with every type of moss and lichen one can imagine, Holly and I decided to make a detour to the road less traveled. We ended up in the quaint town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a tongue-twister that translates into church-farm-cloister. The town is even small by Icelandic standards: a petrol station, convenience store, and a few houses and farms scattered over a vast green oasis—brilliant after all those lava fields. We searched for a waterfall tumbling down through a man-made forest from high cliffs, thought to be the dwelling place of some of Iceland’s “hidden people.” We found Foss a Sidu but saw no little people—only this sign:

Sign along the walk to the falls

Sign along the walk to the falls.

We were surprised to discover hidden falls that reminded us similar ones from ancient glacial traprock in Wisconsin! Back in the nearly-deserted town, we explored the peaceful church and graveyard and delved into its colorful past. “Cloister” was first settled by Irish monks who fled the Vikings but left a curse on any pagans who would venture to live there. A Christian Norseman lived there happily for many years, but when a second Viking decided to move in, he surveyed his future farm and immediately dropped dead!

The site continued to have problems. A cloister set up by Benedictine nuns closed during the 16th century Reformation because two nuns were burned at stake for sleeping with the devil. A third was punished for maligning the Pope. And then, during the 1783 Laki eruptions, a wall of lava came close to wiping out the settlement. The local curate herded everyone into the old wooden church and delivered a fire-and-brimstone sermon while great chunks of ash crashed outside the windows. When the commotion stopped, the congregation stumbled out to find that they were miraculously saved. A marvelous new church commemorates this divine intervention. Laki, however, had devastated Iceland and is still considered to be one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Touching Icebergs: Vatnajökull Glacier and the Fjallsárlón Iceberg Boat Tour. Before long, we were into glacier country. We stopped to photograph the massive Vatnajökull icecap, the largest in the world (except for the polar cap). The average thickness of the ice is 1,300 feet, but it is 3,300 feet thick in some places. Excursions on the icecap were possible; we’d planned a tour by boat instead. The anticipation built as we check into Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. In the morning, we would be touching icebergs!

It was only a 20-minute drive from our hotel to the majestic Fjallsárlón iceberg lagoon at the south end of the glacier Vatnajökull. We couldn’t miss it; it was right off the Ring Road with a huge parking lot and facilities. We walked into the cabin-like office to present our tickets. A rack of foul-weather jackets in all sizes—with built-in life preservers—lined the entire wall. “You won’t be needing your sailing jacket,” the clerk said. “You’ll be plenty warm in one of these. Let’s check your size.” Soon we were suited up and ready to go. Our group filled two 8-person zodiacs. Seating was on the rim; each position had safety holds. During the safety briefing, our guide told us that our preservers would inflate immediately upon hitting water. Then he warned, “Do not fall in. If you do, you have about two minutes in this frigid water before hypothermia sets in. You could die.” Even though I’m quite used to a dinghy, I made sure I kept “one hand on the boat.” For a short time, that is. How can one take great photos with only one hand? We learned a lot about how and why glaciers “calve,” why icebergs are blue, and how the glacier expands into the lagoon during the summers and recedes during the winter. Our guide broke off a few pieces of icebergs and passed them around for us to feel and taste.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We couldn’t get enough of the gorgeous lagoon. After we returned our jackets and donned our own, we walked around taking one photo after another. We were about to drive back when we encountered a tourist who insisted, “You must see the larger glacier lagoon. It’s only a little farther along the Ring Road.” So, we continued on.

Icebergs in Fjallsárlón Lagoon

Icebergs in Fjallsárlón Lagoon.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon did not disappoint. This lagoon is Iceland’s deepest and most spectacular glacial lake. The entire lake was full of icebergs, streaked blue and back, floating with the tide, occasionally crashing into each other and breaking apart. In less than a century, this vast frozen landscape has collapsed into a mess of shattered ice and liquid. A river soon formed, and found its way to the sea, pulling broken icebergs into the North Atlantic and sculpting unearthly shapes along its black-sand banks. Every year, this fledgling glacier lagoon is made larger as icebergs break off Vatnajökull glacier, float around in the lagoon, and eventually drift out to sea during the summer months.

What a photographer’s paradise! Holly and I were in heaven. No wonder this site was used in the opening scenes of Roger Moore’s A View to Kill (1985). Some of the icebergs were glassy teal; others, a deep, luminous blue. These shades of blue contrasted with the white background of the glacier and the black sand beach to make awesome compositions.

We had been blessed with optimum weather (for Iceland), but finally, during our return trip to Reykjavik, the rain began. We didn’t mind. We held sunshine in our hearts.

Photo Credits: Holly Ricke And Lois Hofmann

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.

Next Page »