braunwald hike.

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It has been a little while. Sorry. Oops. I’ve been busy, but when am I ever not? Sometimes I still find the time to write. Other times I don’t. I guess this was one of the “don’t”s.

Let’s see. I was doing fieldwork and lab experiments, for one thing. I also went to Lausanne to cover the International Olympic Committee meetings and candidate city presentations by Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing, China, each of whom want to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. It was quite the experience in a lot of ways and I think it might shape how I approach reporting in the future.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was being a bit more editorial. IOC-speak is cloaked in code and references. I felt that in order to convey any information at all, I had to decode that PR-speak for my readers. That meant a lot of contextualizing. So I figured, why not go for it? And I threw in some opining as well. Here are a few of the results:

Six Big Problems With the Beijing 2022 Olympic Bid

By Severing Ties, Bach Kills SportAccord; IOC Carries Full Weight of Sport’s Future & Reform

Almaty 2022 Bid Fights Back; A Games With Real Snow Still Possible

On the whole, the new approach seemed to be enjoyed by readers. But now it’s back to “normal” FasterSkier operations. And more importantly, normal PhD operations. I spend 4 or more hours a day, every other day, counting amphipods in the basement laboratory where there is not even a window for sunlight. On one hand, this is nice, as my office has no cooling system and it can get pretty hot in there. In the basement? No problem. On the other hand, though, we are finally having some nice summer weather and I’m trapped in a basement.

There had been a lot going on, so I decided to take this weekend truly to recover. On Saturday I went for a long rollerski, which tired me out so much I had to take a nap. Sunday I reserved for hiking. I had been trying to fit in a hike the previous two weekends, but the weather just didn’t cooperate. Finally, I had my window.

I took the train out of Zürich and up the Glarus valley almost all the way to Linthal. Taking the train to go hiking on Sundays reminds me of one reason that I love Switzerland.

The train is full: young people, old people. Rich (ish) people, poor (ish) people. People with walking sticks, people with babies in backpacks. Thin people, chubby people, people with knee replacements. People with husbands, people with school friends. Every kind of person is on the train. The things that unite them are their hiking boots and their Mammut expedition pants that probably zip off into shorts.

At each stop up the Glarus valley, a handful or two of people get off the train, backpacks slung over their shoulders and a bright look in their eyes (unless they are teenagers with their parents, then they still look sullen). There are dozens of different trails to explore. And the Swiss explore them.

I’m not sure that I have ever, in the U.S., felt this sense of community and solidarity between people going to do something outdoors. For one thing, we all drive our cars because public transport generally doesn’t even go to the places we want to get to. So as we hurtle towards our day’s adventure, we are insulated from all but our closest friends or family. But for another thing, rarely in the U.S. does such a large cross section of society all end up hiking on the same trail system, exchanging very quiet pleasantries (maximum, three words) as they pass each other.

I finally got off at Linthal Braunwaldbahn, the second-to-last stop on the Linthal line. An especially large number of people got off here too. They were waiting for the Braunwaldbahn, a funicular that runs up the steep mountainside to the village of Braunwald, perched on a plateau above the valley and inaccessible to cars.

No cars!

pure nature – no cars – real winter” is one of their slogans. I love it.

I did not take the funicular, instead hiking up about two and a half kilometers of steep but thankfully shady forest trail.

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Then I came to Braunwald, which wasn’t really what I was expecting. The community is quite large – a lot of summer and winter vacation homes and a few farms scattered across the plateau. (Wikipedia lists the population as 308, which okay, is not a lot, but it’s still at least 200 more than I would have guessed…) Limited electricity; lots of solar panels. There were horse-drawn wagons, street signs, gardens. There were ski lifts criss-crossing everywhere. There were a lot of people and lot of potted plants flowering along the streets.

I walked from the top of the funicular up through the houses and towards the top of one of the ski lifts, which thankfully wasn’t running in the summer (others are). I began to leave people behind, more or less, and it began to get quieter. Okay, so maybe this wasn’t the place to find solitude, but I re-evaluated. This wasn’t bad.

And if you wanted to have a farm, why not have it here? The Swiss government will subsidize you for your hardship.

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At the top of the ski lift, I found a crowd eating at the restaurant, but I also found the Panoramaweg, a nine-kilometer loop trail which was actually what I had come for. After hiking up five kilometers and probably 3,000 feet, I finally got to the “start” of my hike.

It was incredible. It was quieter – I probably saw as many cows as people, although still more people than I would have expected – and for a long time I was primarily jutting through forest, spotting the snowy mountains across the valley every time there was a meadow opening. But then I turned a corner and caught my breath: an amazing peak was just before me.

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The next few kilometers of the loop were simply spectacular, surrounded by amazing views at every turn.

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Seriously, get a look at the cool geometry of that geology.

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I didn’t know much about Canton Glarus before moving to Zürich. I was snobby. I thought of Graubünden, home of Davos and the Engadin and Lenzerheide and most of all haunts from 2013, was the best thing ever. I’m not saying it’s not. But besides the mountains that I got to see close up today, there was simply a dizzying array of peaks receding into the background. It felt so good to be in the mountains today, up high, breathing cool air with a breeze drying out my sweaty shirt.

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Also, the trail itself was pretty cool. At one point it went into a tunnel. Who, when building a hiking trail, says “it would be easier to just hollow out this huge unavoidable rock instead of going around it”? The Swiss, that’s who!

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(This is just the beginning of the tunnel, with one gallery/window opening you can see. It actually wraps around the the left with two more windows chiseled in, and complete with a dank interior and water dripping from the ceiling.)

After making my loop and then hiking back down the super-steep forest access trail, I arrived just in time to catch the train back to Zürich. Perfect.

I’m tired, but I feel a little more ready to tackle the week after clearing my head with 4,000 feet of climbing and a lot of great scenery.

The message of today’s experience? “People live/hike here” doesn’t necessarily mean that, sans solitude, it can’t be a great place to go. All those people wanted to hike Braunwald for a reason. It was a pretty worthwhile reason, turns out.

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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.

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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sunny days & reindeer friends.

The past few days of fieldwork have been pretty great. Perhaps mostly because today we finished off the point-framing, which was the major work task we had to accomplish while we’re here. After spending the day entering data tomorrow, we’ll be able to head back to the field and collect some other data on particular species of interest, but basically anything we do now is like icing on the cake in terms of research and publishing potential.

The weekend days were brutally cold and windy, although not as cloudy as the last week and not rainy like Thursday and Friday. So we considered that a win. And yesterday we had reindeer visitors!

and more:

That was fun! Reindeer are super cute and super weird-looking. Like many of the animals which are year-round residents here, Svalbard reindeer are a subspecies of a species with circumpolar distribution (this includes both reindeer in Scandinavia and caribou in North America). They are smaller than you’d expect reindeer to be – the smaller ones are the size of a large goat. Definitely not what I remember from my trip to Finland! They are actually the smallest of all the subspecies. Their short little legs only make them look funnier when they run, with their noses up in the air and their eyes bugging out of the black fur around their faces.

Today was special for another reason, mainly, it was sunny and amazingly beautiful! Still a bit windy but simply the nicest day we’ve had. To be able to look down the valley and have it be perfectly clear… the colors were completely different than anything we’d ever seen since arriving here and overall, it was just a remarkable day. After we finished our own work we walked down to a site where they had run the same experiment in a “wet” environment. It was very picturesque but while gingerly making our way over the crumbling boardwalks, built in 2003 with usually just one nail at each end of each board, we were very happy that we work up on the “mesic” meadow site instead.

Here are some pictures from today! Click any photo to enlarge.

 

Svalbard day 1.

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On Friday morning Helen and I woke up very early (separately: her at her aunt’s house in Södermalm, Stockholm; me at my hotel by the train station) and went to the airport. We checked our bags and the giant styrofoam box of soil coring equipment that I was bringing as a favor to a researcher in Uppsala instead of them having to ship it. And then we were off! First to Oslo, then to Longyearbyen.

There were some adventures immediately. When we checked in, we were told we’d have to collect our bags in Oslo and bring them through customs, since we were continuing on a domestic flight from there. Makes sense: I have to do that every time I go to the U.S. (and Norway is not part of the E.U., so it wouldn’t be surprising that things flown from other parts of Europe would need to be examined). So we got to Oslo, followed the signs for “domestic connections” which took us to the baggage claim, and found…. our bags never showed up.

I eventually went to the SAS help counter.

“Hi, we’re flying to Longyearbyen, and our bags never came off the belt?”

“Oh, they’ve been checked all the way through! You didn’t need to collect them here!”

Okay then. Back out – to the departures hall – and back through security. Then, we checked out gate assignment and found that it was in the international hall. So, moral of the story: Svalbard may be a Norwegian territory, but it still counts as international!

I was surprised when we boarded the plane that it was actually a bigger plane than the one we had on our Stockholm-Oslo leg. And it was almost full. I’d imagined the Longyearbyen airport being a tiny thing – maybe like Visby – but that was not the case at all. So we arrived with a lot of other tourists and locals, our bags never had to go through customs, etc. Standard travel, only we ended up in a faraway and crazy place!

We got our rented car – a big black jeep – and went to the university, where we checked into our room in the Guest House. It’s really nice. More space than most places I’ve seen elsewhere in Scandinavia and they’ll even clean it for us once a week! Very cushy, not like I was expecting for Arctic research.

Since we don’t have our polar bear training or our rifle yet (we get all that on Monday), we couldn’t get up to much trouble this weekend. We mostly walked around the town, which is protected from polar bears. You’re not allowed to leave the town limits without a rifle. It was pretty cool though. First of all, we saw reindeer just hanging out…

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But also, that first evening, a lot of lovely scenery.

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And a lot of snowmobiles. More snowmobiles than people here!

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Today, we slept very late (we were both exhausted) and then went to the Svalbard Museum. It’s a pretty cool museum about the history and nature on Svalbard.

Something I learned from Helen’s research that cleared up longstanding confusion: Svalbard is the name for the whole archipelago of islands here. Spitzbergen is the name of the island we are on, which is the biggest one. So there. I guess I should be more specific with my words in the future.

After that we went for a walk along one of the roads out of town. The first challenge: it is nesting season for Arctic terns, and they nest right along the edges of the road. Thus, when you walk by, they believe you are attacking their nests. They fly at you and apparently will peck your head. We didn’t believe this, but began walking and were quickly attacked by birds (no injuries were sustained, but it was scary). We felt like idiots and went back and grabbed a pair of the long red plastic poles which are provided. You can’t use them to fend the birds off – they are a protected species – but if you carry them vertically in the air, the birds can’t fly as close to you and won’t attack your head. They will, of course, still fly pretty close and make a lot of squawking.

I still think Arctic terns are among the most beautiful birds.

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After walking a bit, we came across a sled dog kennel. OMG, so cute.

dogsRight after this, we saw a packed nesting ground for common Eiders. As we were marveling at how many there were – literally, they blend in so you don’t notice them at first but all of a sudden we saw what must have been at least 100 of the birds, hunkered down in the dirt/vegetation – a huge seagull came along. One of the eiders must have gotten up from her nest, because the next thing I knew, before I could even process what was happening, the seagull was flying to the edge of the group, and it had a fluffy thing in its beak, and then I saw it land and gulp down a duckling.

Yes. I saw a seagull eat a duckling. That just happened.

Carry on.

The rest of the walk wasn’t so eventful, just beautiful. We reached the end of the polar bear protection zone and headed back.

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There’s not much to do in Longyearbyen that doesn’t cost an excessive amount of money, so I’m not sure how we are going to occupy ourselves tomorrow. The mountains look amazing, but without our rifle we can’t go hiking. So, we can’t wait until Monday when everything gets straightened out. footer

 

spring in Gotland.

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Over the last few weeks I have been lucky to receive some great visitors to Visby. First my mother came and now two other friends (one at a time!). It’s always amazing how sometimes you don’t do things or see the sights in the place you live until other people come to visit. Suddenly you feel you have to show them around, and you realize you don’t know how! So I’ve learned quite a bit about Visby and Gotland in these days.

It has also been nice because as tourist season approaches, more and more things are opening up, whether it is cafes and restaurants or the ruins of old cathedrals. This weekend I was able to finally go inside some of the ruins and man, they were incredible. So thanks to my visitors for finally getting me outside doing things (and eating some FANTASTIC food, as I rarely go out to eat by myself here in Sweden, $$$$).

When my mother was here we rented a car and ventured to the far north of the island, to Fårö, which is actually an island of its own. We took a small ferry across the channel (just a five minutes ride or something – in the U.S. they’d just build a bridge, but the ferry was great and I prefer it!) to the home of Ingmar Bergman. Confession, I have never seen a Bergman film. But I will have to now. Fårö is amazing. I don’t have much time to write, but here are a few pictures. Click to enlarge.