jura jaunt.

IMGP7392On Saturday I went with my friend Timothée on one of the first hiking adventures of the year. There’s still enough snow in the mountains to make a non-extreme form of hiking inconvenient, so we decided to use the opportunity to go to a lower-lying part of Switzerland that, frankly, we always have both just ignored. I’m always lured by the high mountains and the Alps. Instead, we took the train across the country to the French-speaking part, past Neuchâtel, and into the Jura.

Getting off the train in Noiraigue, our first target was the Creux du Van, an amazing geologic feature. We hiked up about five kilometers and 700 meters – it was fairly steep, but pleasant and hikeable – before we caught our first glimpse of the cliffs through the trees. Eek!! Even cooler that we had expected…

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As we stopped to admire the view, we saw some other hikers pausing up ahead, looking at something… it turned out to be an ibex. Oh wait, there’s another one! And another!

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Seriously, these were the tamest ibex ever. Usually when you see one in Switzerland it is up on a ridge, and you can just see its silhouette, maybe especially if you have a scope. “I think I value those more,” Timothée said. I agree. But it was so cool to see some up close! They smell like sheep, which is to be expected. We got, like, ridiculously close.

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[Some research reveals that the ibex were introduced in 1965, and there are just 17, so maybe they have some inbreeding problems, and I guess they have become much more habituated to hikers and other humans than a more truly “wild” population would be…]

So, we walked on, after spending quite some time with our ibex friends. Each view of the cliffs seemed more amazing than the last. We stopped and ate lunch. Then we stopped and just sat in the grass. It. was. awesome! The cliff walls are 150 m high, and the circ itself is almost a kilometer and a half across. The scale is difficult to comprehend.

We had done some research online before going, and the photos seemed amazing. But in person it is so much more amazing. So think, when you see these: I would be blown away if I was there, because it’s 10x cooler than in even the best photo.

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The place is one of extreme power. You feel stronger being there. I also just felt stronger absorbing the sun… and the green… but mostly the wind, and watching the birds play in the air over the huge dropoff.

It was a nice place to hang out. Here’s Timothée trying to get a macro shot of a nice blue flower….

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I also felt at home. Things felt quite similar to New England: hard rock, green mixed deciduous and coniferous forests with lush understories. Aside from the circ itself, I felt like I could have been hiking in the White Mountains. I haven’t had that feeling in a long time, and it was a real comfort. It made me think about what exactly it is that I love about the Whites, which will always be my favorite playground.

Seriously, tell me this vista couldn’t be in New Hampshire:

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Only when you turned around would you realize that, indeed, you are most definitely in Switzerland.

Farming everywhere!

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After enjoying our sun and sky, we hiked down a steep and somewhat slippery path to the center/bottom of the circ. From there, we decided that instead of heading back to Noiraigue, we would continue down to the Areuse river. We heard there were some gorges there.

After hiking down through the beech forest – trail covered in brown leaves, again so familiar to me – all of a sudden we began to hear the water. We came upon the first of the gorges, which had a nice bridge below it to walk over and look up at the waterfall, which carved through a narrow slot canyon, wearing the hard rock away over geologic time.

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After finishing the first section of the gorges walk, we had the option to hop on a train, or keep going. I was pretty ambivalent about more flat walking, but felt lame stopping… so we kept going. and were not disappointed. The gorges go on and on and are truly remarkable. They are interspersed with flatter, calmer sections of the Areuse river, often with a series of small dams and a hydropower plant. We saw one biggish fish in a pool below a waterfall, but as in all of Switzerland, all of the dams must seriously impede normal migration and populations.

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We eventually popped out in the town of Boudry, just down the lake from Neuchâtel. Note to the wise, trains only go from the Boudry station once an hour. We found this out after trekking up to the station and realizing that the train had left approximately nine minutes before we got there… oops. Down on the other side of town, on the lake, is a tram that leads into Neuchâtel and leaves every 20 minutes. Eventually we made it back to Neuchâtel and back to Zürich, very very tired. My Garmin had clocked about 16 k before it crapped out and lost satellite reception in the lower gorges.

The whole experience, from the lofty Creux du Van down into the claustrophobic and beautiful gorges, was incredible. It’s a strange corner of Switzerland, but we were very glad that we forsake (forsook?) the high mountains for the Jura and got to see this. It’s very unique and as tired as I was, I was also buoyant from the energy I gained from the mountain circ.

new paper.

A new paper I co-authored with my masters supervisor Juha Alatalo is out in Scientific Reports (he’s the first author, but my day is coming soon! stay tuned in the next few months!). It’s called “Vascular plant abundance and diversity in an alpine heath under observed and simulated global change.” Because SR is open access, you can read it! Click here for the PDF.

It’s based on an old dataset from Latnjajaure, Sweden, which I analyzed as part of a 15-credit “research training” course in my masters. I only later had the chance to spend a few weeks at the Latnja field station, and it was absolutely one of the most beautiful places I’ll ever have the chance to do fieldwork. Getting this email that the paper was published made me think back on my summer experience there! Here’s a few photos to get you in the mood.

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a real vacation.

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Slideshow at the bottom of the post.

For the first time in…. years?… I took an actual vacation to a warm place. Not a vacation so that I could ski, not a “vacation” so that I could work for FasterSkier, not a “vacation” so that I could go to a conference or summer school and just tack on an extra day for exploring at the end. Nope, this was an honest-to-God vacation, a reward to myself for making it through the first six months of my PhD and passing my first committee meeting.

I flew to Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. It was a real vacation where I could sleep until 12 if I wanted, stay up late if I wanted, go lie on the beach and be useless if I wanted (although I did read a great book, The Orchardist, so it wasn’t totally useless). I ate a lot of seafood, which is something I don’t do here in Zürich for obvious reasons given our lack of proximity to the sea; I got sunburned and suntanned. I tried to use my small amount of Spanish, but got tripped up by the very different pronunciation in Spain from Mexican Spanish… since I don’t speak much anyway, that proved to be the killer stroke.

It never would have occurred to me to go to the Canary Islands, to be honest, since they seem far away, and they are. It’s almost 2000 miles from Zurich. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s not far (certainly not as far as it is from the U.S.!). Flights aren’t insanely expensive, and things in Spain are a lot cheaper than things in Switzerland. Crazily enough, with where I’m based right now it was a relatively affordable vacation – and when you can go somewhere completely unexpected, why not? We get in ruts sometimes in going to the same type of place over and over again. I broke my own cycle. I bought a shirtdress from H&M, a running hat from Adidas because I seem to have left my beloved RMBL trucker hat in New Hampshire, packed my bags, and hopped on an Iberia flight in Zurich.

Later that day, I was in an apartment overlooking the rocky shoreline of the Atlantic. The next morning I slept almost til noon with the sounds of the waves crashing in the background.

Being me, of course the relaxing vacation also included quite a bit of hiking. It was hiking that didn’t involve waking up at the ass-crack of dawn, though. Tenerife is a beautiful island and a volcano, Teide, that is over 12,000 feet tall and last erupted in 1909. It turns out that if you want to hike to the top of the volcano, you need to get a permit in advance; by the time I realized this, all the permits were booked for the next three weeks. So I didn’t go there. But there’s a big national part around the volcano with a very arid, Martian-seeming landscape. It reminded me of parts of the American West. I hiked another mountain, Guajara, across the big caldera, and the view across to Teide were amazing – it was also a quiet hike, and maybe actually nicer than the volcano itself. A perfect place for lunch on top.

Another great mountain range to explore is the Anaga mountains in the northeast of the island. Unlike the recently-disturbed volcano in the center of the islands, the Anagas are very old, and they feel like it. Incredibly steep and jagged, they are covered in temperate vegetation even though the ground seems bone-dry. Farming villages with terraced agriculture are scattered throughout; some farms are only accessible by trail, with the houses built into the hillside itself, just a door and maybe one window to tell you someone is living there. The driving is interesting to say the least, but the views are spectacular.

There’s also lots of canyons, or Barrancos, all around the island leading from the volcanic highlands down to the coast. A few are famous and full of tourists; there are many more that are beautiful and more quiet.

Tenerife is a paradise of different ecosystems, vegetations, and geologies. I wish I had read more about the geologic history before going! But if you’re not up for being so active, there are also plenty of beautiful beaches to lie on, local wine and produce to check out, and fish to eat. I can recommend a great AirBnB apartment in a small town, Icod de los Vinos, on the northern coast.

Right now I’m back to fieldwork for me PhD, but the chance to get away and relax was truly special. As my life changes towards being a bit more grown up – in Switzerland even PhD students are given vacation time – I’m realizing that even if I only made one “vacation” trip a year, of one week each, for the rest of my life, there are so many different parts of the world I could see! That’s an exciting prospect. So much of my travel the last few years has been a long weekend trip here or there within Europe. Those are great trips, but you’re limited in how far you can go on a long weekend. There’s more out there to see and as I start to have jobs with actual benefits, instead of being just a masters student, I will have the opportunity to see them. That’s exciting.

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