While traveling in Iceland and Greenland this year, I witnessed amazing birds that weather the extremes of the Arctic. Here are few that I got to see.
Iceland is quite tame when compared to Greenland. Hot water below its crust is harnessed for geothermal energy. Its capital, Reykjavik, is a hip, posh town of 123,000. And its people are mostly Scandinavian in appearance. They speak Icelandic which is a Germanic derivative that has more in common with Norwegian than any other linguistic root.
But its natural landscape is still quite spectacular even while being mostly treeless. We got to view powerful waterfalls, some of which are tapped for hydroelectric energy.
There are geyser fields that rival Yellowstone.
And while the country’s numerous volcanoes are currently dormant, Icelanders are well aware that the next big blow may change their way of life forever. The last incident was in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull, a 5,466 ft (1,666 m) high cone in southern Iceland, blew its top. Huge amounts of ash blanketed northern Europe and disrupted airplane traffic for weeks. Experts think that the next fiery culprit may be the badass Bárðarbunga with a caldera stretching 6 miles (10km) wide. In the meantime, the business of fishing, aluminum production and tourism march on, fueling this modern northern country.
We spent a few days in Reykjavik, walking its streets, sampling its excellent craft beers and cruising its wonderful museums. It is a rich city with great social services and high taxes. The bus system is thorough. Residents swim in geothermal heated pools and soak in warm springs. Life is good. And it is very expensive. A beer costs $12, a cheeseburger 25 bucks. So it is not a place to linger for long.
I was most impressed with ÞingvellirNational Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is the only place in the world that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a geological convergence of tectonic plates, can be seen. I walk on a wooden boardwalk through a compact rift valley with cliffs towering 45 feet (12 m) on each side. To the left was the European tectonic plate. To the right, the North American plate. And as an exclamation point, the stunning Öxarárfoss waterfall pierces one of the cliffs mid-trail. People hang out here and soak in the vibes. It must have been a spiritual place of power and wonder for the ancients. I rest on a smooth, round rock and listen to the cascading water. That flows south intoLake Þingvallavatn where people actually snorkel and dive in thick, head-to-toe dry suits in 37°F (3°C) water. That is unimaginable for this Caribbean scuba boy. I smell the crisp air and contemplated the forces below my feet at Þingvellir, plate meeting plate, the uplifting and sinking continents. Powerful stuff in this wonderful land of fire and ice.
There is that brilliant shade of aqua marine that the Caribbean Sea flaunts in its shallows. It is just one of the many reasons that I live down island. And then there is the cool cobalt color of a cloudless, crisp Autumn sky that telegraphs hope and optimism. I still recall that shade from my Ohio childhood decades ago. But nothing quite compares to the blues captured in the icebergs and glaciers of the arctic north.
These blues don’t just reflect back the chroma. Rather, they glow, pulsate and captivate. Steaming close by hundreds of bobbing forms in Disco Bay near Ilulissat, Greenland, I was captivated by the iceberg blues. Sure, it was awesome to see humpback whales flash their enormous black forms in the fading September sun just a few meters away. And I was happily startled by a flock of sleek Eider ducks flying tight formation in front of a wall of white. Or when the sun dazzled off the water or icebergs the size of a Super Walmart. But my eyes kept returning to the blue. Often, I saw diagonal stripes compressed between blocks of white. These appear when crevices in an iceberg are filled with water and it freezes so fast that no bubbles are formed. Some small floaters were randomly splashed with blue. But the blue captured deep inside the icebergs and glaciers was the most enchanting. That blue was other worldly. I could not release my gaze from it. And as our boat cruised by at three knots, the intense color changed form, intensity and finally disappeared. Then the next blue would capture my soul. On and on it went until Captain Ernie had to turn back to port as a thick fog silently engulfed us.
Experts claim that this blue occurs when snow falls on a glacier, is compressed, and becomes part of the glacier. Air bubbles are squeezed out and ice crystals enlarge, making the ice appear blue. And when icebergs calve off from a glacier, the blue travels with it. But science experts do not explain the mystery and pulsating aura displayed by this vivid blue. It may be one of the reasons that the Inuit, after crossing the Asian ‘bridge’, decided to stay. It probably influenced Eric the Red and his Viking tribes to settle on this usually frozen landscape. I can only imagine it spurred on Danish explorer,
Knud Johan Rasmussen as he zig zagged across this vast, white wonderland in his quest to witness the unknown. And now I too have joined this human parade through the Arctic, in a secluded part of the world few ever get to see. Iceberg blues, it is color that will be with me in mind and soul until the end of my days.
Greenland is an enormous, ancient land mass. Besides its massive ice shield, the country consists of some of the oldest rock in the world- gnarled Precambrian formations that date back 4.5 billion years. It covers 1,345,943 square miles (2,166,086 square km), nearly three times the size of Texas. Which leads me to the question: Why is Greenland not considered the planet’s eighth continent?
A wise geologist from Reykjavik explain to difference to me. “Continents are always the largest land forms of the earth’s major continental plates. For instance, Australia fits that description for the Australian plate. That is why it is considered a continent rather than an island. The same goes for North America. It is the largest land form on the North American plate followed by Greenland. So that is why Greenland is only considered an island.”
When Erik the Red landed here in 982 AD, he had no idea about any of this. But he was so bowled over by the island’s verdant western shore, that he named the place “Grønland”. Historians speculate that the Viking did this as a land scheme to encourage settlement in Greenland rather than neighboring Iceland. Some people just can’t seem trust a red-headed pirate, plunderer and pagan. Later, explorers would find out quickly that most of the interior was covered with a behemoth mantel of ice, roughly 80% of the island. Today’s scientists have measured that to be 6,600–9,800 feet (2,000–3,000 meters) in depth. Needless to say, the expedition ship of which I was aboard, followed the western shore where today vast majority of Greenlanders reside.
Our first destination was Uummannaq, some 184 miles (295 km) above the Arctic Circle. For a tropical troubadour like myself, I was way out of my comfort zone, but that is probably a good thing. September temperatures, however, were bearable ranging from 46-53 ℉ (8-12 ℃). But there was trouble in this frozen paradise. An iceberg was blocking much of the harbor entrance making entrance by Zodiac (rubber inflatable dinghies) dodgy at best. Plus, our mother ship was threatened by large, drifting icebergs outside the harbor due to current and wind, making anchorage dangerous. Thus, the captain scratched landfall for our first port. It was a warning that nature would be dictating the remainder of this voyage with no questions asked.
But we did later land at Nuuk, Greenland’s bustling capital of 17,000 souls making it the largest ‘city’ in the country. The highlight of this stop was going into the Pub Maximut at 5 pm. It was that quintessential moment when you enter the saloon and the juke box stops. It was packed full of Inuits, the indigenous people of Greenland, and we were the only gringos in the bar. All eyes were upon us. It was déjà vu all over again.
I flashbacked to the time I was traveling across the country with my buddy, Pate, in 1970. We were 21, hair down to our shoulders, and headed to California to experience what was left of the Summer of Love, two years late. Due to circumstances beyond our control we ended up stopping in Muskogee, Oklahoma on a hot June day. Yes, it was that Muskogee, the one who country singer Meryl Haggard popularized with his song “An Okie from Muskogee”, which was immediately embraced by every redneck in America. Some of it goes… We don’t make a party of lovin’. We like holdin’ hands and and pitchin’ woo. We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy like the hippies in San Francisco do. We pulled into a bar for a beer and parked. Ours was the only car in a parking lot. The other vehicles were pickups tricked out with obligatory gun racks. That should have been our first clue. As we entered, the jukebox stopped cold. A couple of dozen cowboy hats turned in unison in our direction just as Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” kicked off. It was one of those fight-or-flight moments. Pate and I looked at each other and dashed out the door. Suddenly we were not so thirsty. I remember looking back in the rear-view mirror as we sped away. Angry cowboy drunks shouted obscenities from the entrance as the greasy, bald-headed bartender threatened with a baseball bat held firmly in his fist.
But I digress. The Pub Maximut customers displayed no such hostility. People were friendly, smiled and drank endless rounds of imported Tuborg Beer. The stereo played “Mac the Knife” and the Bee Gees “Staying Alive”, tunes from another time. And for the Inuits, staying alive has always been at the top of the agenda. Until the 1950s, they lived in sod houses and survived as hunter/gathers. They hunted seal and whale and fished the sea. But then Denmark (Greenlanders still recognize the Danish queen as head of state) decided that the locals really needed to be brought into the modern world. Multi-story apartment buildings were constructed. Folks that lived outside in small villages were encouraged to move to Nuuk and other towns. The Danes eventually cut off all services to these remote places to consolidate effort and expenditures. Soon the Greenland’s Inuit culture experienced rapid social change. As in other parts of the world, problems began with drugs, alcohol and domestic abuse. With limited economic opportunities, crime rose. Exposure to outside consumerism through media made things only worse. These days there is a resurgence in Inuit culture and pride. But the Danes continue to build high rise apartments. It remains a society in transition.
I had other interesting encounters in Greenland.
In Ilulissat, I boarded a local bus. I had no worries about where it was going since this town, like all others, is unconnected to the rest of the country. The route was based on looping circles serving the village’s 4,500 inhabitants. There are nearly as many sled dogs as people in this picturesque port.
We spent a rainy afternoon in Zodiacs while searching for underwater mineral pillars in the Ikka fjord, the only ones of this type that exist in the world. Even cooler were the dozens of muskoxen grazing on the surrounding mountains. These beasts are buffalo-size but nimbly run along the fiord’s rugged cliffs with surprising speed. Their fine hair is baby soft and said to be eight times warmer than sheep wool. We also had a taxi driver from the village of Narsarsuaq (population-158) take us beyond our awaiting Zodiac to a natural spring out of the goodness of his soul. He urged us to bend down and sip the cold water. It was amazingly sweet and pure, glacier runoff that supplies Narsarsuaq. I never tasted anything so pristine. “We have water piped from other sources into our homes,” explained the driver. “But we only use that for washing and the toilet. We come to this spot all year long to get the glacier water for drinking.”
My last impression of Greenland was when we rounded its southern end, destination Iceland. The captain chose to go through Prince Christian Sound, a waterway of towering mountains, waterfalls cascading in slow motion and gigantic glaciers pressing to the sea. This stunning fjord connects the Labrador Sea with the Irminger Sea. A fellow passenger from Germany commented, “I’ve been to the fjords of New Zealand, Norway, Canada and Alaska, but I have never seen anything as beautiful as this!” The man spent the entire four-hour passage of the 60 mile-long sound on deck braving wind and cold. So did I. It was my last impression of the largest island in the world before heading to open sea.
It was time to get back on the road. Worldkid had been stranded on a sandbar for nearly a year and a half due to a skirmish with gravity that he quickly lost. But back on the mend, enough of the bones were healed to go exploring once again. The destination had to be a special place, one not seen before. A place of wonder was needed to mend soul and psyche.
The travel involved plane, boat and train. Expedition ship and Zodiac. There were even a few luxury taxi rides in Mercedes and Audis in the urban centers of London and Amsterdam. But the central goal of all this was to see islands of the frozen north, specifically Iceland and Greenland. The following blogs encompass this 4-part Arctic Anthology. Island Notes has mostly reported from those little latitudes of palm and rum. Get ready for ice, rock and a new kind of chill.
I am fortunate to live at a place on the island where I get a heavy dose of parrots most of the year. For a tropical troubadour, nothing could be better. Most evenings huge numbers of yellow-shouldered Amazon parrots fly through the ravine behind my house. They come in twos or threes or groups up to twenty depending on the season. The birds are headed for their nightly roost, a tranquil place away from people high on the ridge above my home.
Right before sunrise, the flight back out into the world is definitely not orderly. Rather, it is a chaotic explosion of feather and squawk, sometime approaching one hundred birds doing wild aerial acrobatics. The sound is deafening. Often I am woken by the all the bluster and just smile. It is a pleasant reminder that I am where I want to be on this big, blue marble; down island on dushiBonaire where the trade winds blow free, dolphins and mantas frolic in the blue sea, and the rum is cold and good.
But yellow-shouldered Amazon parrots are not an enigma for me nor a distant avian concept that simply flutters by my home twice a day. Rather, I am one of the few lucky islanders fortunate to have a personal relationship with a member this exotic species called Amazona barbadensisor by the local name of lora.
That is all possible thanks to my good friends George and Laura. By the late 1980s, they had had enough of conventional stateside life and set sail south from Chesapeake Bay for an extended cruise. Years later aboard their yacht Oscarina the couple landed on Isla de Margarita, one of Venezuela’s Caribbean island gems.
A man there offered to sell them a parrot, a yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot in fact. Life for George and Laura has never been the same.
The bird was named Oscar, who quickly adapted to life on board their sloop. And on land, he became quite an asset too. “I don’t think we ever bought a drink after we got Oscar,” explains George. “Laura would walk into an island beach bar with the parrot on her shoulder. From then on the rum would flow free and freely for us.”
Fast forward several decades and Oscar is still part of the family. Parrots are known for their longevity often living well into their 70s. The crew of three eventually left Oscarinafor life on land and now live deep in the mondi(outback) of Bonaire. The bird has quite a setup with an elegant cage for sleeping and a daytime perch where he lords over the estate, looking down on the household’s cat and two dogs. I’ve observed Oscar watching other loras from his lookout. He seems to express a bit of disdain and superiority toward his wild kin. Perhaps being talisman of a sailboat and head of a manor has gone to his lovely yellow-colored head.
And maybe that is understandable for an island celebrity with wings. Oscar has become the “face” of the Bonaire lora. He starred in the music video “Let Them Fly Free”. When National Geographic came to film part of a documentary on parrots, Oscar refused to sit on a cactus like the rest of his Bonairean brethren. The NG cameraman gave in to the local star’s demand, building a smooth perch off of his tripod so that the famous bird would be framed in the shot. Who said TV was real anyway? And then there was the time that the local parrot foundation rented a bus to take its well-healed patrons around the island in search of parrots. Who was at the front of the bus leading the charge? Oscar, of course.
But just when we thought we knew everything about this lora, a parrot scientist appeared one day. He offered to run a DNA test on the bird. With a saliva sample in hand, the scientist hurried off to the lab. Two weeks later we found out that Oscar was actually a female. The lora seemed totally unphased by this sudden transgender result. After all, this bird has seen it all. She has been in enough rum bars to keep Jack Sparrow happy. She’s sailed to some of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. And now in her terrestrial years, Oscar reigns from her roost.
Come another sunset, I watch once more the parade of yellow-shouldered Amazons past my home. Some stop to eat cactus fruit before heading up to the ridge for the night. Eventually all are settled in branches above the mondi. It is about this time that Laura gently places a blanket over her parrot’s cage. It is the passing of another island day. I expect Oscar will see many more. Hopefully, I will again get to share a few of them with him. Uh, I mean her. Having a parrot as a buddy is simply the best, especially when one lives on an island. Arrrgh.
Colorado may have its quaking aspens and Japan its delicate cherry blossoms, but down here at 12-latitude we’ve got the ax breaker. That is what Kibrahacha means in our local language of Papiamentu. It was given that name due to the dense hardness of the tree’s wood. It is also known as Yellow Poui or Golden Trumpet Tree in English. What makes the kibrahacha a top contender for arboreal eye candy is its ability to produce copious amounts of brilliant yellow flowers if the weather conditions are just right.
Our present explosion of color was due to a nearly all-day rain last weekend. It was one of those lay-in-the-hammock-and-pour-another-daiquiri kind of rains: soft, gentle and nourishing. It was a day for whiling away until the sun goes down. This welcomed tropical shower was preceded by three months of no precipitation-perfect conditions for triggering the kibrahachas. Normally, the trees are bare of blooms and leaves.
We have four small kibrahachas on our land. By Thursday they began sprouting their modest blooms. But by day’s end, the hillsides were painted with splashes of yellow. It looked like Jackson Pollack had had a dripping extravaganza from his studio high in the heavens. It brought back memories of childhood autumns. It was chroma enhancement for the soul. Soon our home was surrounded by gold.
I have written about this amazing display before in Island Notes. But this outburst of yellow is one for the ages due to dry/wet conditions aligning perfectly. But I must stop writing now to go back and gaze upon the flowering ax breakers. This gold rush will only last a few days before the winds blow petals and seeds away. And then the trees return to their somber state of bark, twig and branch.