Harming Nature Through Human Nature

In the past couple of weeks as I write this post in November 2014, a rogue artist from New York has been in the news for vandalising some of America’s national parks with artistic graffiti. As expected, this activity has been condemned by both national park rangers and the public. Type ‘lady defacing national parks’ into Google and the top searches begin with the terms ‘awful person’ and ‘terrible human’. The perpetrator has been slammed for drawing these images and uploading them to Instagram, i.e. for seeking fame and attention at the expense of nature.

I of course was also appalled when I heard about these acts , especially as I have many special memories of the magnificent topography in some of the victimised parks – including Canyonlands and Zion – that were formed only weeks before these images were drawn. But then I thought about this issue some more and asked myself: regardless of spray-paint, are tourists not already defacing the nature of the parks? Through our own desires to find fame from capturing the best photo of a wild animal, are we camera-crazy (albeit well-meaning) humans not causing harm too? Harm that is subtle and unintended in nature, but still damaging to nature’s routine.

The other day I read the George Orwell classic ‘Animal Farm’. Published in 1945 and banned in the USSR for its anti-Stalin sentiment, the beginning of the story involves the animals of a farm rising up in rebellion against their greedy human owner and establishing control of the farm themselves. As I read the (highly-recommended) novel, I thought back to the encounters I had with wildlife during my American road trip this past summer.

I thought about the Rocky Mountain goats in Glacier National Park being woken from their afternoon naps by invading tourists trying to take a photo of their babies. Often the mother goat would nudge her kid to its feet and they would trot off to find a new secret place – something hard to find on the particularly popular Hidden Lake Overlook trail. People would watch them go almost offended, as if it was an insult for an animal to reject human advances.

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I thought about the bison in Yellowstone demanding that traffic come to a standstill while they marched across the road to new pastures. For all I know, their deep grunts were a sign of resentment towards the cars that clogged the man-made partition of their resources. I was surprised at how gentle they were; they were more than capable of causing damage to the monstrous RV that obstructed their path, by bashing their huge heads against its artificial walls in a determined declaration of  “We were here first.”

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I thought about the regular signs on the roads of Yosemite that reminded tourists to drive carefully, citing recent bear fatalities (reports state that so far this year, the figure is at 25). How ironic that in our quest to see a bear, we actually end up killing them? We contradict the whole purpose of a national park to conserve a species. It is in Yosemite’s campgrounds that keeping food in cars is prohibited, since recently a few bears learned how to open doors. These bears were then destroyed to prevent the trait being learned by others and to avoid human casualties. But is it not humans that are invading the bears’ space, rather than vice versa?

Finally, I thought about the large group of elk on Highway 101 just outside Redwood National Park, who caused a traffic jam when they decided to block part of the road. I remembered a man with long hair who drove a VW campervan videoing the scene and asking out-loud, “What does this mean, animals blocking a man-made road?” At first I had smiled to myself at this apparent hippy-expressionism, then I realised that he actually raised an interesting question. Was this group behaviour a form of defiance against man’s interference in nature?

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Does our greed as humans for viewings of rare wildlife touch on the verge of exploitation? Are we not slightly reminiscent of the white man colonising sparse lands in order to generate revenue, killing native inhabitants in the process? It should be mentioned that it is because bison were brought under conservation in Yellowstone that the species was protected from poaching and was subsequently able to grow in numbers within the last century. But back when the park was established in 1872, who was to know that these animals would eventually become the target of the tourist paparazzi? For it has become human nature to stalk the world’s rarest wildlife through a lens.

Obviously tourists, including myself, want to get a close look at wildlife; it’s only human nature. Personally however, I try to respect animals’ privacy in doing so and not disturb them from their natural state. It’s the same way that I would attempt to be discreet if taking a photo of a human stranger doing something interesting, if it was a situation where asking for permission would ruin the moment. Animals have no voice to give consent and therefore cannot be ‘asked’ in the way we humans are familiar with, but that doesn’t mean they condone the behaviour.

After reading ‘Animal Farm’ and thinking about these issues, it almost seems plausible to imagine these animals calling for a revolution against us human tourists.

But then there is the issue of squirrels. At first, it’s cute and endearing when the tame, chubby ones in Zion scamper over to your feet and look up expectantly for food with their tiny paws out like Oliver Twist. Even my friend and I were at first caught in the trap of taking photos and ‘awwww’ing at them. However, you then see them picking on the skinnier squirrels, consequently depriving them of food. Like in ‘Animal Farm’, those animals that interact with humans benefit, and it becomes the case that ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. If humans weren’t feeding these squirrels, the inequality within the species would be smaller. Like the British Raj in India, it seems that human tourists have cemented power through a policy of ‘divide and rule’. Perhaps if the intrusive human presence left, the animal kingdoms would disintegrate into a state of instability and corruption.

Of course, I expect many people reading to view the idea of an animal rebellion as an eccentric, far-fetched vision. But it is easy to imagine innocent things, just like it is easy to harm innocent beings. As history has shown, both are only human nature.

 

 

 

 

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Iceland’s Golden Circle: First Impressions vs Land Expressions

I’d been curious about Iceland for a while before I visited it in August 2013, simply because I knew so little about it. It seemed like such a quiet country with its remote location and modest geopolitical influence, yet so loud too with its unique ecological landscape capable of causing so much trouble –  a reserved teenager constantly bubbling up with hormones of fire and ice that could be released at the most unexpected moment. After booking a cheap flight in June with no specific plans apart from to see a whale and climb a volcano, I received further inspiration after glancing over some of my late paternal Grandfather’s memoirs from WW2. Keflavík served as an air base for the Royal Air Force, and on a break from service, Grandpa Jack had gone on a road trip with two friends around the south. A simple sketch showed the places he’d visited, and I made it my aim to retrace his footsteps. But I chose not to read his descriptions too much, wanting to go there with a fresh opinion. As a result, I had no idea what to expect from Iceland. People who had been before would tell me about the lack of things: the lack of people; the lack of industry; the lack of activity outside Reykjavík, leaving me wondering what exactly there was there.

The first week of my two-week trip would be spent touring around the south of the island. Despite only being set to last a week, this part of the trip took a lot of organising. There are no railways in Iceland, so people get around by bus, car or sometimes plane. Reykjavík Excursions is the country’s most popular tour operator, offering both transport services and guided tours.  Their bus passports are designed for independent travellers who want to see many places rather than stay in one area. But the strict bus schedule made it hard to co-ordinate some of my plans, meaning on some occasions that I might miss a bus connection by 10 minutes. I momentarily considered renting a car, before deciding this would be too expensive and more stressful than fun. Car-pooling websites are great but in my case I had no luck finding anyone heading my way at the same time. These transport issues, combined with accommodation options, made things pretty complex.  In the summer months hostels get full very quickly, leaving only expensive hotels or campsites as an option. I didn’t intend to lug a tent around with me for two weeks, but some places I really wanted to visit either didn’t have hostels in the vicinity, or they were full. Finding couchsurfing hosts outside Reykjavik is a laughable concept, and consequently I had to sacrifice some destinations from my itinerary. One of these was Skaftafell National Park.

All these peer reviews and practical complexities led to me feeling unsure of what to expect from the trip. But I wasn’t just unsure of how good it would be; I also wasn’t sure how I’d get on alone. Watching documentaries and reading about Iceland highlighted how the sudden change in weather and unpredictable terrain in isolated landscapes could catch hikers off guard. ‘What if that happened to me?’ I kept thinking anxiously. I knew I had to be realistic about what I could do alone, unable to rely on the prospect of meeting a travel companion whilst there. As I packed my backpack I felt more than I ever had before that actually, my opportunities were going to be limited because of travelling alone.

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On August 15th my plane was received reluctantly by a bed of grey clouds, and my faint sense of pessimism was reinforced.  Raincoats rustled as tourists boarded a bus that would take us to Reykjavík. I looked out of the window, the rivers of raindrops that flowed down the glass imitating my declining mood. I’d hoped to be instantly revitalised by a land of youthful vibrancy. Instead the landscape looked so barren and bleak – almost medieval, as if it was still 871 and the Norwegians were arriving. There seemed to be no cultivation whatsoever, the only signs of human intervention being the stone piles that popped up every now and then. ‘There really is nothing going on here,’ I thought to myself, thinking back to what I’d heard my peers say.

My first night would be spent in Reykjavík, and the bus driver directed me to my hostel with perfect English.
“Halló! Ég er frá Englandsi,” I said confidently to the lady on reception. She looked at me blankly so I repeated myself more slowly, but she still looked confused.
“Oh! Englandi” she suddenly exclaimed with a laugh. “Are you learning Icelandic?”
‘I guess not,’ I thought as I laughed with her awkwardly.

The lady let me leave my backpack in reception, and I put on my walking boots and set off to the bus terminal, the rain still pouring. The streets were so quiet, the only real sounds being the occasional splursh of a car’s wheels driving through a puddle. There were hardly any people around, and as I walked to the bus terminal I felt like a kid who’d turned up at a birthday party only to find I’d got the time wrong and it had already finished.

I’d booked an afternoon tour of the Golden Circle for my first day, but it looked like there was no chance of gold appearing in the sky anytime soon. A softly-spoken man in his sixties was our tour guide. His calming voice made me suddenly feel tired, a lack of sleep at the airport from the night before catching up with me. When I woke we were in Haukadulur, a valley home to many hot springs. We were left to explore the area on our own, and I got off the bus groggily only to be startled into life by the strong smell of sulphur from the geysers. Bubbling bogs of hot water hissed at me deviously, daring me to come closer. I managed to avoid falling in their trap and walked towards the famous ‘Strokkur’, which spurts out a huge column of water every 5-7 minutes, teasing tourists who wait with cameras in hand to capture its moment of projection. After two sightings my attention was diverted towards people walking up a stony path to a lookout point, and I followed them tentatively over the slippery mud, picturing myself falling over without a change of clothes. Rainclouds stopped me seeing anything special and I continued to feel quite underwhelmed by the overall landscape as I walked back down to the bus, completely drenched and hoping the driver wouldn’t notice my dirty boots too much.

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Bare fields and the rocky slopes of hills continued to dominate the scenery as we drove onto our next stop. I was starting to feel bored, wondering if this was the only sight I’d see for two weeks. Then we arrived at Gulfoss and my mood lifted immensely. Even if they didn’t have the sheer velocity of Niagara Falls, something about the ‘Golden Falls’ with their continuous gushing of water over a vast area was really captivating. The area was so natural and untouched, contrasting immensely to the commercial-frenzy that one is greeted with at Niagara. There the water collapses into a pool, ending so abruptly, but here the torrents continue to surge onwards as if on some eager journey; different sections of water cascade precariously onto lower levels, but all with the same purpose of mixing together again in the river. From here steam rises up through the narrow ridge like fizz from a potion – a chemical reaction of natural elements. I thought of Grandpa Jack coming here all those years ago and appreciated that the view would have probably been the same back then – an untouched phenomenon that just lets the human eye enjoy what it’s seeing: the satisfying sight of nature running its course.

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We next drove onto Pingvellir National Park, passing a large building on the way which the tour guide in his slow wise voice told us was an old housekeeping school for women, back in the days when “they learned their natural trade.” The bunch of American women sat opposite me gasped in offence, obviously not realising he was being sarcastic. The two Italian men sat behind them on the other hand looked rather approving of the idea. I soon learned that Icelanders are big fans of mythology. The tour guide gently explained how one could tell the weather would improve tomorrow by looking at the change in behaviour of the horses, who he said had a ‘sixth sense’. Icelandic horses are a symbol of pride in the country, famous for their ‘tölt’ which is said to be the most comfortable gait in the world. Groups of all different colours could be seen grazing on the grass, not enclosed by fences but just left to roam freely, completely at one with the land. Efforts to maintain their features are so tight, that once exported, a horse is not allowed to re-enter Iceland. And don’t even think about calling them ‘ponies’…

Pingvellir (pronounced ‘thing-fet-ler’) means ‘Parliament Plains’ – a reflection of the fact that the general assembly of Iceland was established here in 930 until 1798. Through soothing tones the tour guide explained that major events of history had occurred here, meaning that it’s a highly cherished area of the country. I looked out over the huge silver shield of Lake Þingvallavatn, its unperturbed surface reflecting the sun’s arrows of light through the grey clouds. Steam rose from the geysers on the mountains in the distance like smoke from the battlefield. If I closed my eyes I could easily picture such a scene from centuries ago. It’s perhaps its potential for stimulating historical imagination that led to the park being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, 60 years after the Republic of Iceland was declared here in 1944 (a year after my grandfather was in Iceland).

The Eurasian-North American tectonic plates move past each other in South Iceland, with it being estimated that the plate boundaries move apart from one another by 2cm each year. The last earthquake to be caused by such movements was in 2000. At Pingvellir, the two plates split, caused by a burst of pressure that had accumulated over a long time.  The end result is a substantial rift between two large segments of rocky land. I walked through the gap trying to get my head around the concept of walking unassumingly on top of so much underworld activity. Who knew what was going on underneath my feet? I was becoming more and more mesmerised by the paradoxical landscape. There was something so ancient about it, yet so youthful at the same time; an old man with the heart of an 18 year old, or a child wearing the clothes of an 80 year old – I couldn’t decide which way round it was. It was a land constantly undergoing explosions of activity underneath a serene and humble surface; a land storing its poisonous chemicals in a secret cellar, but unable to control their sudden leakage.

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As the bus took us back to Reykjavík, I developed my own meaning behind the tour name of ‘Golden Circle’. Gold can lie undiscovered for years, only to be found and cause hysteria, just like a geyser or earthquake can erupt unexpectedly, causing gasps of surprise. Gold is a pure element found in the earth, and there was something very pure in the sights I saw that day. They were like young princesses who forever maintained their chastity, refusing to be corrupted by the demands of the foreign prince greedy for financial and territorial conquest.

I realised that it’s this fantastical element of Iceland that is making it more and more of a popular destination for tourists. People come here to remind themselves of what nature really is, and in the process are transported back to a time when the environment is left to enthral its audience on its own, without being spoiled by commercial additives. The ‘laissez-faire’ approach adopted by the country’s tourism industry means that the unique value of the subtle landscape may be under-appreciated by some visitors who don’t take the time to really think about what they’re seeing and what it represents. It was such a fresh change to have a day tour that didn’t involve an eccentric guide emphasising through sensationalist language why everyone should be completely astounded by what they were seeing and take lots of photos, before asking for a tip in return for the ‘service’. Instead it was up to the tourists to learn these things by looking at and listening to the land themselves, as it should be.

When my grandfather was in Iceland, there would have been no opportunities for ‘guided tours’ like today. The thought of him discovering these places (perhaps unintentionally) with his friends in his Jeep and being stood in the same place as me made me smile. I wondered whether he too had started with a pessimistic outlook, only to gain greater curiosity and appreciation throughout the duration of the day. I felt bad for feeling so discouraging at the beginning, but I can imagine it’s an emotion that many people experience on first visiting the modest state of Iceland. Just like it takes time to get to really know someone, it takes time to absorb the significance of some things you see here.

I ended the tour feeling not completely blown away by what I had seen, but certainly a lot more intrigued about the country. I was still unsure of how the rest of my trip would go – (would the sun ever shine?!) – but in the space of 10 hours I’d been reminded that sometimes, less really is more. It was the perfect lesson in how unjustified it can prove to be to make first impressions before giving the relevant object a chance to express itself. In my case, the old warrior had risen from his chamber below the ground and shown me that rather than lying dormant as I first believed, he still possessed the same fresh and unpredictable powers of a young soldier. I went to bed determined to be more positive about the rest of my trip, blissfully unaware of just how much better it was going to become.

Three Days in the Canadian Rocky Mountains

I spent three days exploring Alberta’s Rocky Mountains back in August 2011.  Three days is of course inadequate for covering the whole of this vast area, but it’s enough time to get caught in its majestic spell. Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise are ideal stops for acquiring a taste of the Canadian Rockies.

Day 1

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Banff National Park is the third oldest of its kind in the world, having been established in 1885. The town itself is also the most populous in the region, and I was glad that my hostel was located away from Banff Avenue with its bustling tourists. Banff Y Mountain Lodge is situated right next to the Bow River, which is lovely to walk along during sunrise or sunset.

A bus from the town will take you up the base of Sulphur Mountain, and if you don’t have time or desire to hike your way up, it cost just under $35 (at the time of writing) for an adult ticket to take the 10-minute ride on the Gondola. This might seem pricey but the views are definitely worth it. Imagine being surrounded on all sides by nothing but jagged mountains studded with fir trees, as you look down like a royal on your kingdom below. I could have happily stayed up there all day. The gondolas run from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer so technically, you could.

Views from Sulphur Mountain, Banff

Banff’s Central Park was heaving with midday activity. Lying down basking in the sun, head resting on my backpack, I was reminded of childhood camping trips as mothers dealt out food to their excited kids on picnic tables. It was such a pretty area, but I couldn’t help but wish there were fewer people around. There was something very commercial and glamorous about Banff Town, and if anything I felt slightly left out in my untidy outdoor clothes. I could see hardly anyone else with a backpack, and anyone who did have one was likely to be kitted out in fancy clothes that screamed ‘all gear no idea’. But maybe that was just because the more experienced travellers were out hiking on a mountain somewhere.

I’d heard that Jasper, also a World Heritage Site, was quieter than Banff and contained more wildlife, so had high hopes as I boarded my Brewster bus in the early afternoon. At one point in our journey the bus slowed to a halt. I looked towards the front, wondering if we’d broken down and starting to wish I’d stocked up on more food at the supermarket in case. But no, the bus driver had simply spotted a black bear on the side of the road. I scrambled out of my seat to look through the window on the other side and just caught a view of its large rear as it sneaked behind a bush. A few people on the bus laughed at those tourists who’d got out their cameras excitedly. This was obviously a sight they were used to.

Continuous mountains towering like statues above sparkling-blue lakes dominated the scenery as we carried on along the Icefields Parkway. The air conditioning on the bus stopped working and I grew more impatient, itching to be on my feet again. I instantly noticed a difference upon getting off the bus in Jasper Town. It felt more homely and natural here. I’d booked two nights at the HI-Jasper, which was located 7km southwest of the town. The staff at the tourist information centre will happily book a taxi for you, as buses run less frequently in the evening. A guy in his twenties with long hair picked me up. He must have been drinking coffee all day because he was full of energy, constantly making jokey observations about the tourists as he nodded his head in time to ‘Give it Away’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers whilst the taxi climbed the steep hill up to the hostel.

I walked up some steps into a rustic building, where Fleetwood Mac was playing in the reception. My dorm contained 28 bunk beds and I was reminded of those hospital wards you see on films about World War Two. A tiny Vietnamese girl was in the bed above me. I introduced myself and asked if she wanted to go for a wander outside with me – a decision I soon regretted as I found myself being attacked by midges. Her name was Wen and she was painfully shy and with limited English. If I’d been slightly anxious about travelling alone in a country that spoke my first language, I couldn’t imagine how apprehensive this girl was.

Day 2

I rose early and packed a small bag, excited for my busy day ahead. Jasper Tramway was about 20 minute’s walk up the road from the hostel. Unlike the Banff Gondola, larger carriages carried groups of us up to Whistlers Mountain, which stands at 2464m high. Puffy clouds surrounded us and the cold air hit me immediately as I stepped out of the tram. As I stood waiting for gaps in the clouds to appear and reveal the view below, I was joined by a group of Chinese tourists who insisted that I be in a photo with them.  After my two minutes of feeling like a celebrity I proceeded with the 1.5km hike up to the summit of the mountain. As I climbed higher over the loose rocky terrain, the air gained a greater sting in its bite and I began to regret wearing a playsuit that showed my bare legs.

Teeth-chattering views in the Canadian Rockies

The views were even more incredible that those on Sulphur Mountain. I was stood level with the mountains, their sharp snow-capped peaks poking up for miles in front of me, with wispy clouds floating lazily between them. I stood gazing in mesmerisation, until a man approached and asked dubiously “Aren’t you cold?” Feeling like I’d been woken from a dream, I turned to him and insisted I was fine. “I’m from Yorkshire,” I joked. He didn’t look convinced. I didn’t want to leave but ten minutes later the chattering of my teeth told me it was probably a good idea.

There was a souvenir shop at the bottom of the tramway and I appreciated the fact that, for once, I could find my name on the gifts! A shuttle bus ran down to Jasper town, from where I would begin my afternoon tour with Sundog Tours. There were only seven of us and I was the youngest and only sole traveller, but because it was a small group I didn’t feel swallowed up. If anything, I felt like everyone was looking out for me, even though I didn’t crave it, and it was quite touching. Our first stop was Maligne Canyon with its steep gorges and gushing falls. Then we were driven onto Maligne Lake, slowing every now and then to make way for a group of care-free mountain sheep taking over the road.

Our group joined a few others as two young guys with ear plugs took us out on a boat trip to Spirit Island, where the magic really began.  The name ‘Maligne’ (or ‘malignant’ in English) at first seemed unsuitable for an area of such beauty, but I soon started to understand its relevance. The views were spellbinding – like something from a fantasy film. Huge glacier mountains looked down on the shimmering water, the colour of which was a turquoise-blue unlike anything I’d ever seen before, surrounded by forests on either side. It was an infectious sight, and one could almost believe that there was poison in the lake to make it such an incredibly rich and unique colour. The lake was placid and so inviting, but who knew what secrets were hidden underneath.

Majestic views of Maligne Lake from Spirit Island will put a spell on you

When the boat got back to shore we went for a hot drink in the cafe. A Belgian couple sat with me and asked where I was from. Upon learning that I was English the woman sat up with interest and said “Oh! So, do you know how Amy Winehouse died?” I couldn’t help but feel amused. Of all the questions she could have asked me, this was the first one! The man remarked how unusual it was to see people my age on their own here, and that made me feel quite special. As the bus took us back through the Maligne Valley and passed Medicine Lake with its sinister grey water, I realised that I was living in dreamland, and pinched myself when I thought back to the stunning places I’d been that day. My thoughts were interrupted by the bus stopping again, this time because the driver had spotted an elk in the bushes. I could just make out its huge horns.

In the hostel that evening I met a girl from South Korea, an American woman and an Australian girl who was taking the same tour as me the next day. Four people from different areas of the world chatting together – that was a new and exciting experience for me during my first solo travel adventure.

Day 3

On this morning I got kitted out well and truly professionally: big rugby shirt, jeans tucked into warm socks and trainers. My friends back home would later tease me for how funny I looked. The first stop on today’s tour was Athabasca Falls, with more gorges of sheer velocity. Next we stopped at Columbia Icefield, halfway between Jasper Town and Lake Louise and evidently the largest icefield in the Rockies. A special coach with huge tyres driven by a tall hunky man took us down slowly over the icefield and onto Athabasca Glacier, where we were allowed to get off and walk around. The tour guide used a metal pole to show us how deep the ice went. Luckily there were no crevices nearby for us to fall into.

The tour continued on until we stopped again at another viewing point. I wasn’t sure what we were looking for and followed the others along a path curiously, only to gasp at the view that appeared below. Peyto Lake was even bluer than Maligne Lake and didn’t look real. There were clouds in the sky but they failed to dim the brightness of the water that shone like a diamond, with forests surrounding the lake like a guard protecting a rare jewel. Looking at my photos was like looking at an oil painting. If you go to the Rockies, this is a must-see.

The sneaky surprise of Peyto Lake will make your jaw drop open

Peyto Lake

Finally the tour brought us to the famous Lake Louise. It was more enclosed by mountains than Maligne Lake, and dotted with kayaks. I wanted to jump in and join them. As expected the place was brimming with tourists, many of whom wandered over from the fancy Fairmont Chateau nearby. I resented how busy it was, but at the end of the day, you could understand why.

My hostel was situated just north of the quaint village. I went for a wonder round and sat by a river, glad to see less people and hear nothing but bird song and the gentle lapping of the water on the rocks. There was something charming about this little place, and it felt fitting that my last night in the Rockies would be here.

Even though I’d managed to pack a lot into my three days here, it felt way too short. There was so much more to see, and just that brief taste I’d got had made me hungry for more. The next morning I boarded a bus that would take me on into British Columbia. As we wound our way past the mountains with Neil Young entering my head, I felt rejuvenated. My adventurous mindset had been unleashed. I can’t wait to come back and see even more of this amazing part of the world.