West and back: Animal spotting in Montana

We woke up in an average hotel in Hamilton, Montana and began our last leg towards Yellowstone. We followed the Bitterroot river for sometime in and out of the mountains until we were suddenly in grassland.  I screamed to a halt when I saw a large herd of deer-like creatures milling around to our left.  We later found out from a Yellowstone park ranger that these animals are the Pronghorn antelope in Montana.  We found them sporadically in Yellowstone National Park too, but never in the size of herd that we found them here.
As usual, Tim took this photograph of Max and I gaping at their sproingy, curious yet skittish behaviour.

West and back again

When I was 10, my geography-loving father bundled our family and my grandmother into our maxivan with house trailer and we trundled off to BC and back.  I have vivid memories of:

  • thinking that Kakabeka Falls was the colour of beer
  • camping next to a grain elevator in Saskatchewan and being awoken multiple times in the night by the freight trains
  • seeing a horrific chuckwagon accident at Calgary Stampede
  • getting lost in the BC Museum

…and, of course, having the van break down in the mountains, fighting and loving my sisters, and generally making once-in-a-lifetime memories.

Max enters grade 9 in the fall and with it comes his only mandatory geography course.  The 4 goals of grade 9 geography are:

  • developing an understanding of the characteristics and spatial diversity of natural and human environments and communities, on a local to a global scale;
  • analysing the connections within and between natural and human environments and communities;
  • developing spatial skills through the use of spatial technologies and the interpretation, analysis, and construction of various types of maps, globes, and graphs;
  • being responsible stewards of the Earth by developing an appreciation and respect for both natural and human environments and communities

Like his mother, I’m hoping that he’ll learn to love the study as much as I do, but regardless, I want him to get to know ecozones on an intimate level.  I want those capitals and provinces to have memories attached, not just be words on a worksheet.  I want my husband to see what it means to take 3 days to get out of Ontario, and to fall madly in love with prairie skies.  We are making 2 longer stops on the way out: Winnipeg for the new museum and Drumheller for the bones. We’re spending 4 days in Campbell River with family and 4 more days in Tofino with family. On the way back we’re spending 3 nights in Yellowstone because if you’re gonna go, watching a supervolcano explode would be a magnificent way to do it, or less bleakly, there will be more geothermal activity to study.

We’re doing it a little differently than when I was 10 though, taking my 2016 Buick Encore and glamping it up in hotels that serve breakfast.  I’m hoping to picnic as often as possible, and we’ve purchased our annual Canada Parks pass to take us to more sites than usual.  Of course the trick about doing any of this well is to plan obsessively, and you’ll see from my map that I am all over this.  I kept begging Tim to give us one or two or seven more days, but he keeps applying the brakes, saying that I wore him out in Iceland/England over 5 weeks last summer.  We’re looking at this as a reconnaissance mission…we’ll just drive through Banff this time, and come back for more on a different excursion.

On our map I’ve plotted our accommodations, collated recommended independent bookstores, breweries/cideries/wineries, good eats, espresso bars, and arts & crafts stores.  Items in green are either Parks Canada sites on our route, or must-see gardens according to various bloggers.  Unlike in Iceland last summer, I’m confident that this time that I will be able to use my personalized map and that I’ll have the data plan to use it! 10 days out, 9 days in BC and 10 days back. What we can’t predict are accidents (stuck between Thunder Bay and Winnipeg for 4 hours once), forest fires (make it rain in the Okanagan please!), and of course, Canada’s summer pastime of construction. Here’s to making memories!

#Iceland: Humpbacks in Husavik

Our lovely full-service hotel, Hotel Kjarnalundur, just outside of Akureyri was a welcome sight after our rafting adventure, and it is here that we launched our next two days of fun in Iceland.  Our family room was big enough for all 6 of us, the breakfast buffet was plentiful, and we had a quiet night’s rest.

A quick drive to Husavik, and we were on our way to hopefully see whales in Skjalfandi Bay, the whale watching capital of Iceland. Our guide at North Sailing told us that we were just 40 miles from the Arctic Circle, and it felt momentous to realize how much work we had done to make it so far.  Aside from the hope of seeing the great whales up close, the scenery was outstanding.

We climbed once again into suits provided by the company that kept us warm, dry and had built-in flotation devices. I could live in one of those.

And we saw them! North Sailing exclusively offers a quiet tour which is much more unobtrusive than a zodiac, and our skilled captain was able to approach the whale area, and then to turn off the motor and drift into their zone. In our 3 hour trip, most of it crossing the bay and back again, we saw at least 3 humpbacks and a minke whale. We even came upon a humpback that was sleeping. When it realized a boat-load of people was staring down at him, it flipped its fluke and was gone.

People ask me, how do you manage to see whales each time you go whale watching? The answer is to do your research, follow migration routes….pay extra for a company that hires scientists and is top-rated in terms of its treatment of the sea life, and you will see them. I’ve never had an unsuccessful whale watching trip. If it’s important to you, then plan your entire trip around seeing these whales, like we did.

Husavik also offers a self-guided whale history museum that covers the industry of whaling and persuades the audience that eco-tourism is the new way to go.  After seeing the historical side and studying the great whale skeletons, we went for a dip ourselves at the Husavik Swimming pool.  It has a play pool, waterslide, a lengths pool, a cold tub, a hot tub and a massage tub.  Really really nice.  The kids were allowed to be rambunctious and they wore themselves out.  The nice woman at the ticket counter instructed us clearly on how to blend with the pre-bathing rituals necessary before entering.  We tried our best to dive like humpbacks with our spine up and then fluke, but it turns out this is really hard to do when your nose isn’t on top of your head.


#Iceland: Murder mysteries and rafting on a glacial river

Day 4 Iceland

The day began as the others, dreary drizzle, so waking up with jet lag again was just about right to go around to the front of our guesthouse and order some waffles.  They came covered in a local berry jam and whipped cream, and she had an espresso machine too.  The dining room was surrounded by local handicrafts which were also really cool to see as all the materials like wool, wood and antler are indigenous to the culture here.  So even if you don’t stay at the Guesthouse Langafit, stop by for the waffles!

Our ultimate destination today was Akureyri but we had a couple of stops along the  first.  Our next stop was the village of Blonduos which is known for its safe harbour for seabirds.  The local government has built a public blind for watching the birds in their nesting areas and it’s just such a good idea.  I wish Canada would do this.  I had marked here that the Hotel Blanda had a nice menu and it did.  I had something fishy, of course, but the kids were equally happy with their choices.  Nearby the hotel was a shop specializing in local artisans work and many of the things made by the shop owner, Etta. Although I would have happily brought the store with me, I purchased only a large button made of reindeer antler and a book.  It turns out that Blonduos is also famous for being central to the 1830 trial of local servant girl Agnes Magnusdottir, convicted, tried and executed for the murder of her master and his guest.    Etta showed me a map of each of the locations in this story and the book Burial Rites by Hannah Kent which tells Agnes’s side of the story and casts doubt on her guilt.  You had me at historical murder!

We surprised the kids by planning a family rafting trip with Viking Rafting just south of Varmahlio.  I can’t say enough about this company and the care they had for us to make this extraordinary experience happen.  I booked online through their website the gentler family trip for our nervous tweens and their aging parents (sorry Tim and Fiona, but it’s true.)  We had safety lessons, dry suits that were suited up for each of us and checked individually by the staff, and a comfortable ride to the river.

The best fact of the day was that the river spray we would drink was part of the glacier just 12 hours ago.  I have no idea if that is true, but the idea just enhanced the clean, fresh taste of the Iceland water even more.  At one point we were encouraged to cliff jump, another time to swim behind the boat and we all enjoyed a fresh hot chocolate made from the geothermally hot stream running next to our cold river. We loved the pace of our 90 minute trip, our guides Steve (from the U.S.) and Rajib (from Nepal), who were courteous and just the right combination of humour and kindness.

Being in the middle of nowhere, we pre-booked our Dinner of the Day with the Viking Rafting people and were served a healthy portion of meatballs, rice, sauce, and veg. I don’t know how to tell you this so I’ll just say it: the main meats of Iceland are based on what they can raise here: lamb and horse.  I’m sure there is a little of both in any minced meat that we had.  Still, the dinner was delicous and we were able to make the final leg of our day’s journey feeling warm again.

This video was shot by on the Go Pro by our friend Ethan.  I turned to our guide Rajib and asked “Can I trust you with our children?” He said, “Of course.”  So all the parents jumped in for swim in the cold glacier water.  Fantastic.

West to Snaefellsjokull #Iceland

First a word or two about renting a car in Iceland: Don’t use Flizzr (booked through WOW air).  Use Economy Rent a Car (I booked it through Expedia and it was effortless).  Take the insurance….dents on the car and broken windshields are the most likely isssues you’ll have.  Take the rest of the insurance….volcanic gravel is very sharp and there are barely any guardrails anywhere.  Now having said that, through my lens as a Canadian who grew up driving standard on a gravel road, the driving in Iceland was very easy.  When you go up a mountain and you get stuck behind a larger, slower vehicle, the slow person puts on their indicator to tell you when the road is clear ahead to pass.  Very civilized.  The gravel roads that are long and straight have a speed limit of 90 km.  We started back at Keflavik and effortlessly picked up our friends from the airport and got our new ride for the trip north: a Citroen Picasso wagon.  Super stylin’ and carries 6 passengers!  We had to add a top box to fit all of our belongings but the Economy staff took only 15 minutes to add it and we were on our way.

First order of the day was breakfast though, which at 11:30 am is hard to find.  Let’s face it, you just need to eat what you forage in Iceland, not what you desire.  I had marked Kaffi Duus at the Keflavik harbour as “a good place to eat” so we headed there.  There were options to order a buffet lunch or a la carte so we were all happy.  After lunch we wandered over to see a ship on display and as we did, a tourist ran past me saying “There it is!  What is it?”  My best guess, without a guide along, that it is a minke whale, grazing in Keflavik harbour.  If he hadn’t told me, I never would have seen it.  We learned later in the trip that the tell tale hovering of a flock of birds, often means that they are after the whale’s leftover krill that get pushed to the surface.

Sated for the moment, we headed out to the western peninsula about 2 hours away by car to the Snaefesllsjokull National Park. Every now and then we realize that there is a crucial sign missing. In general, what would improve the tourism greatly in Iceland is more signs. Things to mark where is the bus stop, what is the soup of the day, what time do the gates close, and in this case, what is this thing ahead, how do I get into it and how much does it cost? Nearing the intersection of a divorce with at least 2 u-turns and many arguments later, we all agreed that this apparent land bridge on the map was indeed a tunnel and we needed to go through it.  It’s called the Hvalfjordur Tunnel It’s almost 6 km long and goes under the fjord that separates Reykjavik from the Ring Road #1 which heads north here. It’s an amazing feat of engineering, and if you dig things like that, it’s not to be missed.  It costs 1000 Krona, by the way.  At the north side of the tunnel, you come to a lovely little town of Borgarnes, which happens to have a lovely little bakari kaffihus and is the site of one of the major scenes in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  We didn’t know that at the time, but it was really cool to see their devotion to the experience.

The scenery on this drive to the tip of the peninsula just gets better and better.  There are waterfalls everywhere, different types of igneous and metamorphic rock formations and gazillions of ridiculously fluffy sheep.  The sheep and Icelandic ponies (and in the cattle in the north and interior) all graze and wander at will.  In true ranching style, there are just road grates where the animals shouldn’t wander.  Once a year, the farmers get together and herd everything into sorting pens for the winter.  (All in all, after about 2500 km of driving in Iceland, I can count the number of unnerving incidents of roadside animal interaction on one hand. ~ ed.)  Every volcano leads to a lava field leads to some amazing coastal rock formations and Snaefellsjokull does not disappoint.

Here’s one of those places where a nice sign with a map would have been handy.  We made the decision to continue around the peninsula following the north side back to the Ring Road and north to our guesthouse in Laugarbakki.  The GPS kept wanting to send us back the way we came and we thought we knew better.  The roads became narrower, but not slower, and we ended up driving in and out of every darn fjord until the sun was near setting (= very very late).  There were no settlements with cute cafes, there were no grocery stores. But it was beautiful.   And long after everyone else in the car had dozed off, I saw a charcoal grey arctic fox.  No I don’t have a picture.  I was driving, silly. Here are a few more pics of our unexpected road trip adventure.

Lastly we checked into our Gueshouse Langafit and the 2 nice female owners took pity on us and let me buy groceries out of their fridge to feed the children: slices of processed cheese, a half loaf of bread, pop and strawberries from the greenhouse up the road.  I made cheese sandwiches  in the kitchenette and we were ready for our bath.  The community has a large hot tub fed by geothermal waters and it is just next door. It was just what we needed.  The rooms were pretty and clean, and when we woke in the morning, we ate waffles covered in jam and whipped cream.  She’s even got a gas pump and a car wash. Amazing hospitality.

Iceland – the depth of Google Maps


Yep, we’re going to try to do all of that in 9 days before going off to England.  Stay tuned for more European vacation – King family style!