Iceland in Late Offseason: A Road Trip Across Another World

I think we’ve all had those experiences that, in our memories, come to be defined by a song — a song that ornaments an unforgettable moment — a song that becomes something apart from its beat and melody, something different, and something personal. There was that one song — it hummed in the background of an Icelandair promotional video as my wife napped, reclined in an economy seat with her head rested on my shoulder; it played on the radio as Joy-C (valiantly) got reacquainted with manual transmission; it danced from my lips as we crossed harsh and spectacular grasslands that rose in sudden cliffs and glacial mountains; it bumped from a DJ’s speakers in that pizza joint that has no name; and it has nestled in my head ever since. “Fröken Reykjavík” by Friðrik Dór. That song is perfectly Iceland. I get it. I grock it. I know it and love its every note. The funny thing is, I don’t speak the language.

Late-April snow fell in pouts as our plane landed in Keflavík. Icelandair offers Stopovers, layovers that can be extended up to seven days. This is a brilliant way to get tourists to spend their dollars in your country. On our way back to the US from a conference in London, we took a Stopover and, with a single ticket, flew from London to Keflavík, drove across Iceland, and flew home to the States.

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HERPS! Tremont’s Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program (SANCP), Reptiles and Amphibians

Caught! Black-bellied salamander

The most amazing thing happened this summer. I held a snake! A perfectly docile, nonvenomous corn snake. Okay, so maybe that doesn’t sound like much but snakes are to me what clowns or heights or gherkins are to fellow overly imaginative, cripplingly irrational people.

This July, I returned to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the Institute at Tremont’s SANCP (Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program) Reptiles and Amphibians course. I had so many questions. Why study reptiles AND amphibians in a single course? Why does herpetology exclude avian reptiles (i.e., birds)?

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Sepals and Spores: GSMIT’s Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program, Plants Course

I can’t quite explain my want to become a certified naturalist. I do not intend to make a career of it. Rigorously studying flora and fauna might make me a better volunteer. It might even make me a more rounded and informed citizen of my community, nation and planet. All that sounds great but, really, I enjoy going all-in with like-minded, equally interested and engaged students. I simply love the academic experience and that feels like justification enough.

So, in May, I ponied-up the tuition for my first course in the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program (SANCP) hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (GSMIT).

The Program

Red-Sided Flat Millipede on the trail. Sadly, the SANCP curriculum includes no insects course.

The SANCP curriculum includes 7 core courses:

Core courses run from Friday evenings through Sunday afternoons and are scattered throughout the year from February to November. Students can take classes at their leisure and in any order that they see fit. One of my classmates for the 2017 Plants course had begun his naturalist journey in 2012 and was in no hurry to wrap things up. The Birds of the Smokies and Plants courses occur over the same weekend in May each year, meaning that students cannot complete the course in a single calendar year.

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Just Passing Through: One Outstanding Stop In Philadelphia, PA

While in Philadelphia, skip the cheese steak. The “authentic” Philly is a lie that locals tell unsuspecting tourists. Unless, of course, you appreciate dry-mouth induced by a stale-cardboard hoagie stuffed with slivers of sweat meat scavenged from some poor butcher’s garbage pale and soaked in gas-station-quality nacho cheese. Then, by all means, chug a bottle of Pepto and order that “authentic” cheese steak. If not, no worries. Philly has so much more to offer.

27481702523_2308b5c60a_kPhiladelphia is one of those iconic American cities that every star-spangled road tripper should experience. The Nation’s first capital, home of both Benjamin Franklin and Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia was founded by William Penn (founder of the whole-damn Province of Pennsylvania) in 1682. In a city that boasts and preserves its colonial roots and revolutionary significance, there’s just so much to do and see — the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Reading Terminal Market, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

But if you were just passing through — if you could only choose one thing to do in Philadelphia — you really should go to jail.

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“Trail Angel” by REI

Trail Angel from REI on Vimeo.

“Many people look to the outdoors to find peace of mind. For Paul Stiffler, better known as Ponytail Paul, the Appalachian Trail and its thru-hikers have been the therapeutic force needed to turn his life around. Paul has taken on a role as “Trail Angel” to help thru-hikers on their 2,186-mile journey and help himself find a new sense of purpose in the process.”

– From Vimeo Description

A (Yankee) Bird-Nerd’s Dream: London’s Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

– From “London” by William Blake

A Garden in Hyde Park

Two centuries ago, William Blake lamented the systemic ails of a leviathan called London. This April, I visited that beast. Though I had a blast, I sympathize with Blake’s song of experience. So much of London is chartered and paved; so little is wild and green. As much should be expected of the cultural, political mecca that reached its height of influence by sending subjects abroad to colonize and “improve” foreign lands (i.e., plow it over and eradicate the natives).

Four days into the venture, I struck out in search of wilder-things in this concrete jungle.

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Back in the Backwoods: A Weekend in Panthertown Valley, Nantahala National Forest

“It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace.” – Richard Proenneke

I guess I had a busy winter, which seems like a weak excuse for taking it easy. With birthdays and holidays, I always find it hard to escape during the off-season. I’ve been outside plenty but I haven’t found myself at peace on an empty trail in some months. Barky, Slob and I set out to remedy that injustice as March became April and winter became spring.


Our destination was a chunk of backcountry called Panthertown Valley in the eastern corridor of Nantahala National Forest. If you’ve never heard of Nantahala, you wouldn’t be faulted. It’s tucked in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina and has some flashy neighbors. To the southeast is Gorges State Park. Immediately south is Georgia’s Black Rock Mountains State Park and Chattahoochee National Forest. To the northeast rises NC’s Pisgah National Forest and Mount Mitchell State Park, the tallest temple of earth in the eastern United States. Immediately to the north stretches the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is God’s country.

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“Facing Climate Change: Oyster Farmers” by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Steele

Facing Climate Change: Oyster Farmers from Benjamin Drummond + Sara Steele on Vimeo.

“Over the past 250 years, the world’s oceans have absorbed about 25 percent of the carbon dioxide that humans have put into the air by burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide lowers the pH of oceans, turning waters more acidic. The Northwest is home to some of the most corrosive waters on earth… Under rising emissions scenarios, ocean acidity may increase 100 to 150 percent by the end of the century. In response, farmers are using new technologies to monitor the acidity levels of hatchery waters. Young scientists are devoting their careers to understanding risk and resilience.”

– From Desciption on Vimeo