Saturday, September 04, 2010

Cruise, Baltic Sea Region

Warnemunde is located on the Baltic Sea coast in what was once East Germany, and it gave me a thrill to be traveling on East German soil. I was even more pleased that the tour we took to Bad Doberan was on the territory of the Slavic tribes (the Wendish) who once inhabited that region. We visited the Doberan Minster, a former monastery founded as the local Slavs began to convert to Christianity. Most of the Slavs weren't convinced, though, and they burned the place down a couple of times before they finally converted. They actually massacred all the inhabitants of the monastery one time, a fact which our guide neglected to mention as he kept everything lighthearted.

Anyway, the Doberan Minster was extremely impressive, and I greatly enjoyed visiting it and would have liked to stay longer. However, we had to move out to make our train ride, which was advertised as the main part of the excursion, but which only lasted 10 minutes. That was when I decided I had had enough of excursions, and from then on we mostly did our own thing. Anyway, after the absurd train ride, we drove to Kuhlungsborn, a seaside town with a very nice beach on the Baltic Sea. The water is cold, but the sand is very soft. We took our shoes off and walked on the beach.

Nearly all the buildings were new construction. They must have torn down most of the Communist-era buildings. Our guide said the West Germans invested so heavily in East German infrastructure that now they have better roads than West Germany.

Our excursion was for only part of the day, so after our return, we zipped up our raincoats and headed into Warnemunde for a look around and a stop at a post office. We mailed postcards to family members, and we got caught in a drenching downpour. We took shelter in a pub, where we had to drink two Rostocker beers because the rain continued for a while. We were actually pretty pleased about drinking Belgian beer in Belgium and German beer in Germany, so we did not feel put out.

For the rest of our trip we would experience "passing showers," often heavy ones. We kept our jackets and umbrellas ready.

On the sixth day we arrived in Copenhagen. I had really been looking forward to Copenhagen and had extensively planned our day. Based on the location of our ship dock and the availability of transport, we of course adjusted the plan, but we did pretty well. We took a public bus to the New Harbor (Nyhavn), and then we took a walking tour through the city to end up at City Hall and Tivoli. To my surprise, Mom wanted to see Tivoli, so we found the entrance. However, it was $20 to get in, and it would have prevented us from going to the National Museum, which is free. We turned around and went to the National Museum.

However, first we stopped at City Hall to look inside, and there was a tour going up the tower right that minute. We decided to get in on it. I felt pretty guilty about that later, because it turns out that 300 steps are a lot of steps, and their city tower is higher than the Statue of Liberty. I couldn't believe I dragged my mom into that! She was a trooper, though, and made it to the top.

The day was intensely windy even on the ground, and the rain started up again while we were at the top of the tower, so we went right back down again. Then we walked straight to the museum. It was an awesome museum. We had this hilarious lunch in which the salads seemed to be made with whatever someone happened to have in the garden: delicious fresh vegetables. However, for serving a dry and flavorless sausage like that one, they ought to be ashamed to call themselves a Germanic people. The bread was good, served in a flowerpot. This was the first black bread on the trip. Black bread is sour, and I have never liked it very much, but I always eat it anyway because it reminds me of Saint Petersburg.

We only had time for the Danish Prehistory exhibit, because I had to read nearly everything and inspect all the main exhibits. I get extremely enthusiastic about prehistory. Our favorite exhibit was a striking display of lurs, long bronze horns that they hung together in a glass case.

We took a boat taxi back almost all the way to the port, then walked through a park, stopped to see the Little Mermaid, bought some postcards, and returned to the ship. The next day we were scheduled to drop anchor off the Swedish island of Gotland. I was booked for a bicycling tour that only takes 25 people; I got the last bike. It was raining, but I was ready with my waterproof biking jacket. Disappointingly, the winds were too strong, and the cruise line did not feel it could safely transport us to shore in the "tenders." We stayed on the ship and went directly to Riga.

Cruise, North Sea Region

This year my mom and I took a two-week cruise to northern Europe. I have been wanting to take my parents to Russia for years, and a cruise was a safe and comfortable way to do it. I had actually offered to stick to just Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but Dad said if he was going to go all the way to Russia, we were going to darn well cross Russia on the Trans-Siberian. Although I am anxious to do that, planning for the Trans-Siberian was just too much for me, and I wasn't getting it done. True to his word, Dad didn't come for just Saint Petersburg; but Mom did. The cruise was her idea.

We flew into London Heathrow and boarded a transfer bus to the cruise ship, Regatta on Oceania cruise line. Really, don't ask me for a cruise line recommendation; I prefer to stay in a mountain hut. I did like getting lox for breakfast every morning, though.

The cruise line always arranged for its guests to have an escort. Even for the bus to the ship, there was a local guide on board. She was amusing--something like an older and slightly more reserved Bridget Jones. I managed to sleep through some of the chatter. England was also my first experience with having to hurry up and get back on the bus after a brief stop. Needing to meet schedules while on vacation was something of a first for me.

We traveled through the North Sea. Our first stop was Belgium, where Mom and I took a full-day excursion to Brussels. This guide was the absolute best tour guide in the whole wide world, so I was feeling pretty positive about tours at this point. He knew his material, he was funny, and he made sure we always knew where there was a restroom. What more could you ask for? We had a fun time driving around and seeing the sights, we got a walking tour too, and he turned us loose for lunch. Mom and I ate an extravagant lunch of mussels and French fries, a local favorite dish, along with some Belgian beer, Leffe Blond.

The next stop was Amsterdam, where one of the things our guide talked about was how great the tour guide in Brussels was. She herself could have looked after people a little better, but the scenery was positively delightful. We passed one dream house after another in the Dutch countryside. I've always thought I wanted a cottage with a small garden in place of a lawn, Such houses are nearly nonexistent in the States, so I was surprised to see one after another after another.

We stopped a couple of times to view windmills, and we spent a long time visiting the porcelain factory in Delft. We were given free time for lunch in Delft, and then we drove back to the ship, taking time to stop in The Hague at the Peace Palace. I have read so many scholarly materials that were published in "The Hague, Netherlands" that I was really psyched to see The Hague.

After the Netherlands, we had a lazy day on the ship, crossing the Kiel Canal. We landed in Warnemunde on day 5 of the trip.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Things You Do for Family

When I was a kid, we were on a family vacation in Missouri in our Winnebago, and we came to a flooded spot in the road. Mom and Dad really wanted to keep driving, so they tied a rope to my brother and sent him out to find out how deep the water was. I asked to go instead, but they wouldn't let me. They were worried that I'd be too big to pull out, while my brother was smaller and they figured if he got into trouble, they could pull him out. To this day my brother tells my parents that they owe him for therapy.

I was always the one saying things like, "Hey, let's do a controlled prairie burn in the back yard!" So today my dad figured he would make it up to Mark and me for the fact that I wasn't the one sent out into the floodwaters in Missouri, and he would send me out onto the riverbed in front of his house to remove a piece of twisted steel that was marring my dad's view of the river.

We've been going to Lake Delhi since the late sixties, but last month the 1922 dam burst, and all the lake water ran out, leaving only a small river. When the flood receded, inundating the towns below the dam, a lot of boat docks and boats went down the river with it. The former lake floor is now littered with twisted hunks of steel, and there's an upside-down pontoon boat across the river from my parent's house.

The lake floor has about four feet of sediment, most of it runoff from fields--fields that are fertilized with hog excrement. People try to walk on the mud, and they sometimes sink in up to their waists and have to be rescued. Dad figured that if we could just get our weight distributed well enough so we wouldn't sink, we could get out there and collect the eyesore in front of his house, a big hunk of tin.

His first thought was water skis. You would simply step into them, and they'd be attached to your feet. However, Mom and I didn't think that would distribute the weight enough. That mud looked pretty sticky. (We were right, too.) We talked about plywood and other things we did not have at hand, but Dad remembered some 1950s planks he had that were well made, and that he didn't mind ruining with mud and hog excrement. He drilled holes in them and tied ropes through the holes so I could hold onto the boards. Naturally, being my father's daughter, I was all in. (I did not know about the hog excrement.) Besides, he threatened to go out there himself, and I wasn't about to let him do that.

The mud was sticky and slimy, and it was hard going to reach the piece of debris. Then, when I finally made it, I realized I would not be able to pull it out of the sand and mud. On top of that, even if I had been able to get it out, I discovered I would not have been able to move it very far. It was too big and heavy. I had to turn back.

I was out of breath and shaking from exertion, and on the return crossing of the stream, I lost one of the boards. It floated downstream at a fast clip, and I just stayed in the center of the other board and hollered for help. Dad found another board, but a much narrower one, and at this point he had changed his mind about walking out there himself. He started laying out long boards across the mud so he could get as close as he could to me without trying the plank walking himself.

At this point the neighbors had come over, and they were willing to send the 12-year-old out, but they figured the other adults were all too heavy to come out there. Luckily, the 12-year-old's father thought to throw me the long ski rope that was tied to the new board and have me drag it to myself, so nobody else had to come out on the water. The board burrowed through the mud and emerged covered in about three inches of sediment that I had to scrape off.

The new board was way too slim, and I kept sinking, but I worked fast and made it back in safely. Even though I was wearing gloves, it is going to take me a few days to get my nails clean, and I still smell faintly of a pig sty.

Kids, don't try this at home!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Great Outdoors in Iowa

I subscribe to Iowa Outdoors magazine because it focuses on places I can get outside that are close to home. Outside and Backpacker always talk about magnificent places all over the US and the rest of the world, places I might be able to go once a year. Iowa Outdoors actually talks about places I can visit on a Sunday afternoon.

I usually drag along my friend Linda when I go, because Linda is up for almost anything. If you live in Iowa and you like to get out of the house, sometimes you have to get a little creative. For example, when I was in junior high, I decided to try a prairie burn in my back yard. I wasn't trying to be naughty; it was all in the spirit of scientific inquiry and environmental stewardship. I enlisted my little brother to help, just to be on the safe side. Since I promised not to do that again, now I have to go hiking and stuff instead.

Sometimes Iowa Outdoors writes a multipage article, lavishly illustrated with photos, and totally brags up some obscure place that I have never heard of, can barely find on a map (but there are book-length maps of Iowa that mark practically every mailbox so I can find anyplace), and that is barely even mentioned anywhere on the internet. Linda and I get out to these places, and within minutes it is clear to us why they are obscure. Yes, there is an ice cave in northern Iowa, but it is completely blocked with a gate, there are no other caves around, and there's about half a mile of walking paths in total.

On the bright side, at least it gets us out of the house. That is why I have talked Linda into going up to Cedar Falls in January to try climbing an ice-covered silo. It is the middle of winter, and I require amusement.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Glacier Travels

For the remainder of our stay at the park, we only covered a few short trails. After completing the hike down from Sperry Glacier, we checked into the Apgar Village Lodge, where we had a tiny room not much larger than a modern walk-in closet. It was clean enough, and I had brought earplugs because I knew the walls would be thin. We showered up, then drove to the Trail of the Cedars boardwalk nature trail through old growth forest. It was absolutely lovely, lush, green, moist. It included a view of a stream chasm too. The people there were certainly different from the fit hikers with their hiking poles at the chalet.
In the morning we checked out of the lodge, moved into only my friend's car, and drove over Going to the Sun Road, stopping only briefly to take in a few overlooks and another stream chasm. We grabbed lunch just outside the park, then re-entered the park for the Many Glacier area. My friend wanted to see Many Glacier and wanted to take a boat ride, so we combined the two and took a boat ride from the Many Glacier Hotel. The boat tour covered two small lakes, and it included a guided nature walk to Grinnell Lake. Except for my aching feet and hindquarters, it was quite enjoyable. We learned to identify a few plants, and we heard some of the history of the area.
That night we arrived late in East Glacier, where I had made us a reservation at the Mountain Pines Motel. I liked this motel; the room was spacious and included a queen-sized bed, the bathroom had a skylight, and the price was lower than I paid anywhere else in Montana. We ate at Luna's restaurant, which recently opened where Restaurant Thimbleberry used to be. Although my friend's meal was only passable (lame French fries), my meal was my favorite restaurant meal of the whole trip, and the service was friendly and prompt. I had the Indian taco salad, which is a fairly common offering in the area. It consisted of Indian fry bread, chili, a few pieces of lettuce, sour cream, and salsa. It was flavorful and filling.
The next day we visited the Two Medicine area of the park. The nature trail to Running Eagle Falls is both informative and short, and the falls were one of the great sights of my park visit. They were named for a woman warrior who had the good fortune to be interred there by her respectful tribe. We visited a couple other places in Two Medicine as well, then took the southern route around the park back to the west side and drove back to Kalispell. Kalispell has a convenient La Quinta Inn with reasonable rates and guest laundry facilities, so we were able to clean up our stinky hiking clothes, and in the nick of time too! Cold air came in that night, so in the morning I needed my hiking clothes.

We had planned to go rafting on Labor Day, but temperatures were chilly, and there was a short hike my friend very much wanted to take, so we did that. We took the shuttle up to Logan Pass Visitor Center, where the wind blew fiercely and it was snowing, and we hiked 1.5 miles each way on the most popular trail in the park, the trail to Hidden Lake Overlook. I welcomed the cold, though I was sorry I had forgotten to bring my gloves. I kept my hands in my pockets except when I was taking pictures, but it took a couple hours to regain warmth in them after the short hike.
Hidden Lake Overlook trail had a climb and a brief descent to a wooden viewing platform. Sometimes we were out of the wind, and it was comfortable. The viewing platform was the most exposed spot, and we could not remain there for long! We took a couple pictures and scrammed. The picture shows the wind blowing right up my pant legs and making me look like the Michelin Man.
Once down the mountain, we continued to Polson for a late lunch that doubled as supper too. Nearly everything was closed for the holiday, so we ate at a family diner, the Driftwood. I had a buffalo stew special with fry bread and a traditional native sauce made from wild berries. It was good comfort food. We stayed in Missoula for the night, then parted company, my friend driving west, and me driving east.

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