Licorice Fern

pnw & travel, photography, sustainability, blog

I remember the first time I read the word “licorice fern.” It was stamped clearly into the stone wall of one of the staircases at Multnomah Falls.

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I had recently emigrated to the west side of Oregon from the high desert of the east side of the state, for school, so I was taking every opportunity of exploring the lush green land of my fantasies. The licorice fern was to become a major staple in my life, though I hardly knew it at the time. On this particular trip to Multnomah Falls I was accompanied by my dad, who was also glad for a change of scenery and came to visit me at school fairly often.

As a biologist, he’d spent my whole life taking my sister and me out to some woods or river, pointing out plants and animals along the way, and perusing them himself, mostly silent but for the occasional observation. So we spent our time now, cameras in hand, slowly making our way to the falls. Dad was turning over rocks and logs in pursuit of salamanders, and I was pocketing pebbles and taking my usual photos of small, pleasing plants.

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The wall of the stairway was to me something out of a dream, the living veil of a faerie’s glen, a pathway toward Rivendell.

Water glistened in the crevices between the stones, trickling down the grey brick. It clung to each strand of sphagnum moss, beaded the tops of the sporophytes they stretched out. Crystalline pinpricks dotted the carpets of the denser mosses by the thousands.

And swaying among all the other shades of green and brown, bowing their heads under their own crowns of clear beads of rain, the ferns gave a sense of soft, constant movement. Some fronds reached down from their lofty perches, others smaller in stature had placed themselves in the nooks and crannies between the bricks. As the stair wound its way up, there were markers to identify some of the plants. One appeared to me rather like the Secret Garden was revealed to Mary Lennox, herself: a spray of ferns drifted in front of a worded stone, as if to introduce itself.

“I am a Licorice Fern,” it said.

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Polypodium glycyrrhiza, as it is scientifically classified, earned its colloquial name, unsurprisingly, from its flavor. Many Indian peoples were known to chew the root (or the rhizome) for the strong licorice taste. Even now you can find dozens of recipes for licorice fern tea, liqueur, and sauces online. Some claim it has medicinal uses, such as for colds, sore throats, and coughs.

The Pacific Northwest fairly trips over itself to pay homage to the abundant epiphyte. There are “Licorice Fern” trails and parks and gated communities ranging all over, from Idaho to Alaska. And no wonder: any time you drive by a big mossy tree, you’re likely passing hundreds of licorice ferns, clinging to the tops of the branches, or in the “armpits,” if you like.

I passed my hand over the lacy green plants up the stairway at Multnomah, spattering drops of rain, gathering thin trails of mud along my palm. I knew I had made a lifelong companion. For those of us who were probably some species of moss in a former life, these ethereal fronds are kindred spirits, beckoning us into the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

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Creative Monday

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Here we are again at the end of the weekend, as I like to say. Maybe getting your brain moving in creative (or any) ways is not remotely what you want to do right now, but trust me you’ll feel better when you do!

What’s your creative spark for the day? Let me know in the comments below.

Crocus in watercolor - 11”x15”

I spend a lot of time painting, these days. I’ve been obsessed with botanical painters on Instagram, like Anna Mason and Helen Cousins, both from the UK. They are master watercolorists, and their Instagram feeds provide lots of inspiration, as well as tips on technique and even time-lapse tutorials.

I prefer to learn by obsessing over theory, then practicing. I know exactly how I want to paint something before I paint it. I still don’t know how many washes it will take to achieve the end color (I am a bit timid with the paint), but I know where the layers will go, etc.

Usually my model is a photo, as in the case of this crocus I painted. I am not fast enough to paint from life, yet.

So What’s New?

blog, photography, pnw & travel

In 2018, it’s pretty difficult to imagine that there’s any chance in being unique. Most of the places on earth have been thoroughly scoured and studied and most of the species on earth have had names slapped on them.

I think I realized this as a kid, because I used to play a game with myself, which was trying to imagine who else had stood on the spot that I was standing. The more lonely the spot, the more fun the game, of course. Out in Eastern Oregon, it would be some pioneer woman on the Oregon Trail. On the coast, some explorer or cartographer.

In Seattle, I don’t really get to play that game. I know exactly who stood where, before me, usually because I had to jockey for the position in the first place. This was particularly evident to me at the University of Washington quad when I dragged myself out of bed before sunrise to go take photos of the cherry blossoms last month.

Since I’d seen pictures of the cherry blossoms on Instagram, I assumed I wouldn’t be alone in my pursuit of the delicate cream-colored petals. But by the time the sun was reaching the horizon, there were no less than two dozen photographers there with me, tripping over each others’ tripods and getting in each others’ shots. There was a wedding party. Two guys brought their bright red Ducati motorcycles and planted them right in the middle of the quad for their own little photo shoot. Pretty soon a campus cop car pulled up with its lights on, to question the guys about whether or not they drove their motorcycles onto the quad. It was visual mayhem. I’d never felt so unoriginal in my life.

I tried to make up for the unoriginal location by doing some double exposures and macro shots, but in the end the experience just left me feeling a bit hollow.

So here’s a question for 2018: In a world where everything’s already been done, how do you create? How do you write when you know you’ll just be compared to someone else? How do you make art when so many other people are making the same thing, but even better, faster, and cheaper? I think this is going to be the eternal question for current and future generations. What do you think?

Monday Creations

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We all need a pick-me-up on Mondays. What better way (besides triple espresso shots) than by creating something?

Every week I’ll post what I’m creating. I’d love to hear what your creative pursuits are, too! Leave a comment down below.

I am updating my business cards! I absolutely loved these whimsical bird ones I got, but I changed some of my info so they were outdated. I decided the best (and cheapest!) way to have new ones in the future was to have a stamp made.

I designed my contact info on Canva, then ordered the custom stamp through one of the many lovely shops on etsy.

Next I cut out watercolor paper from an old cheap pad I had laying around and glued it to the business cards, then stamped them. Voila!

The altered cards have a nice chunkiness to them, now. Thick and heavy, like they mean… business!

Anyway. Now I can customize cards however I want. I am excited to use my bird and frog stamps to decorate them, maybe do a little watercolor painting on some – the possibilities are endless.

Creek: A Love Story (aka Back to the Beginning)

blog, eco news, pnw & travel, sustainable living

I was afraid.

Standing on the bank at my usual crossing, my eyes were transfixed on the billowing torrent of water. Just two days before, I’d been able to cross with a hop, skip and a wobble (that one damn rock!) and now: a wall of watery cocoa greeted me in the dim January light. Sticks that were not there before jutted out of the water, pitch-black and jagged, menacing.

Getting as close as I dared to the rushing waters of the tributary, I knew that at most I’d get water in my boots or possibly lose my footing and drown my iPhone in the really quite miniature rapids (ah, the trials of the Millennial!). But I’d built up a tragic, romantic death at the hands of the New Zealand mud-snail-infested creek bed and dingy waters, with a bonus of possibly being swept out into the vast waters of Lake Washington, undiscovered for months. I think Anne of Green Gables would be proud of my unbounded imagination.

For two years I’ve been visiting the small creek at our local park, Matthews Beach. There is a larger creek, Thornton, that takes all the glory as it bashes its way through the middle of the park – it warrants a pedestrian bridge of its own. But it’s just deep and swift and well-known enough to put me off spending any real quality time with it.

The creek in question and I, however, were introduced by Thornton Creek. I first happened upon the creek at its tail end, while exploring the park that was to keep our new residence’s WalkScore from falling into the single digits. My usual crossing spot (when it’s not flooded) is about 20 feet before it spills into Thornton Creek which a few yards later, flows into Lake Washington. Just upstream of my crossing point is a small pond, inhabited by ducks and the occasional beaver, small salmon and myriad frogs, and who knows how many kinds of insects.

As one follows the creek south, things get a bit tangled. A forest of young willows and underbrush cover the area between the footpath and Lake Washington, and the creek squeezes through where it can. So do I. A few unofficial trails can be found throughout the area, but the only way to follow the creek is to walk right up the middle of it.

About 200 yards up,  the creek bends westward and disappears into a culvert. It’s odd to describe the creek as “going into” the culvert, when in fact it is blasting out of the cement tube on its way “from” some mysterious place. Rejoicing in their freedom, its rapids leap out in great arcs, setting the clinging licorice ferns in constant motion, their heads forever bobbing in the spray.

For the longest time, that was where our friendship ended. Always the same – the end was the beginning, the beginning was the end. Recently I decided it was time to take my love affair with this creek to the next level. I’ve spent all my time with the last 200 yards of its journey. But, like some sort of Benjamin Button mystery, I was going to chart it back to the beginning – the real one. It seemed simple: all I had to do was find its name on a map and follow it.

As a Millennial, I expect everything to be fairly easily knowable, with a few well-phrased keywords on Google. I find myself equal parts frustrated and intrigued when I run into something that turns out not to be (ask me sometime just how long it took me to identify the movie “The Girl From the Limberlost” based on hazy plot fragments.) According to my first perusal, this creek did not exist. There wasn’t even a blue line to indicate its presence on my phone map, even when I was standing right in it. How could that be?

I remembered standing on its western bank during a good winter rain, its muddy, frothy waters sending wavelets to the toes of my boots, and wondering if I should chance it or go back home and order taller rainboots on Amazon (I did). I conjured up memories of reading “Bridge to Terabithia” and the particular brand of fear that has accompanied the rush of swollen creek banks for me ever since.

How could it be that a creek I didn’t venture to cross sometimes could not even be a blue line? Or have a name? The more time I spent searching for its name, the more it consumed me. Standing at the edge of the creek no more told me its name than perusing the internet told me about the creek itself.

In my favorite movie, Cold Mountain (which I’ve seen about 200 times), the main character, Inman, often wonders about places and names.

“Sometimes just reading the name of a place,” he says. “Near home: Sorrell Cove, Bishop’s Creek. Those places belonged to people before us, to the Cherokee – what did he call Cold Mountain?”

Sloshing my way up the creek, swatting away handsy willow branches, I wonder, too: who was here before? Who else stood on this very spot and made up their own name for this rushing rivulet?

Maybe no one, since “this very spot” has only been here since ‘98 when the Parks Department diverted the creek for a restoration project. And before that it went through many more dramatic changes. This very spot was underwater just over 100 years ago, before they built the Ballard Locks and merged Lake Washington with Puget’s Sound. The lake dropped 12 feet and the wetlands that now comprise the park and neighborhood of Matthews Beach/Sand Point dried up. The herons and redwing blackbirds ceased all their chirping and croaking and flew off to some other marshes, while the reeds and wapato shriveled up. The homesteaders got instant beachfront property. And the creek now had another 100 yards to travel.

Perhaps one of the Duwamish Tribe natives wondered about the creek’s origins as she rummaged around in its marshy effluvient on the shores of the lake, harvesting wapato to eat, or as she crossed the creek to venture south in search of game. Maybe an 1880’s homesteader got curious about the creek running through his new frontier property, and named it, himself – a vestige of American exploration and “discovery.” Maybe this creek has many names. Maybe I’ll add one of my own to its history before I’m finished. I aim to follow it to the end, but this is just the beginning.

Lofoten Vignettes

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In reading my journal and looking back on our trip, one theme jumps out at me: how colorful the Lofoten Islands were. One of the main attractions for us were the beaches: gleaming white crescents sandwiched between turquoise water and verdant stony mountains jutting into the sky. They were beaches fit to grace tropical islands, though the water was chilly, and the wind chillier. They were so quiet — the bays filled up at high tide, and snuck out at low, with nary a wave to announce it. I had a good observation deck from my perch on some boulders while we took photos of the purple sky on our first proper night in Lofoten. The light was different on every surface that night: easter egg in the sky, rose gold on the rocks, aquamarine in the water, until it got too dark to tell.

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The beaches yielded unexpected treasures: perfect moon snail shells collected in lines along the rocks in hues of rust and mustard, seaweed and sand. Little curly piles of lugworm castings created an alien topography on the shore (and were fun to squish!)

We went whizzing past dozens of yellow houses and through pitch-black tunnels in our violently blue camper van. In my mind’s eye I could see us: a painful streak of azure cutting across mossy valleys and stony mountains dotted with creamy sheep, under a gloomy sky.

We stopped to admire an ochre harvest moon rise over Henningsvær. As with most of our stops, this viewing required a double turnaround. We had to wait for our light at the one lane bridge going west, then going back east before we could pile out of the car and turn our lenses to the sky. It was my duty to keep an eye to the scenery and yell out (not too frantically) to stop when there was something good. I did this about every 100 yards or so.

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We fangirl’d over the iconic red Rorbuer at Hamnøy. They were perched cheerily at land’s end, black rocks and steely waves roiling below. Across the road, empty fish racks waited for winter. In December the Rorbuer would be filled with fishermen, who would soon load up the giant wooden racks with salty fish carcasses. I had the misfortune of finding a few leftover heads on the roadside, but it did give me an idea as to just how big the fish were!

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We marveled at the raucous laughter of seagulls gathered in pairs on a cliff, and wondered at the sanity of the people living in the yellow house directly above.

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We tried to hike, we really did. But unfortunately we chose to hike in the Emyn Muil – an impossible labyrinth of razor sharp rocks and festering, stinking marshland, as far as the eye could see. Well, a bit less dramatic, but we did get bogged out. Oh well.

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We drove all the way out to the end of the archipelago, to the town of Å (pronounce at your own peril). Luckily, the Norwegians share my love of tiny things, and in this town of Å there was a display of tiny boats. Many places also had tiny replicas of their own house in the yard, which was a wonderful tradition I think Americans should adopt (along with universal healthcare and free education, of course).

We trudged up the side of a mountain to get a better view of the sweeping bridges at Fredvang, punching down through fluffy layers of duff and moss — at one point I was up to my knees, trying to stay still enough to take a photo.

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We camped at beaches – popped the top after dark and woke up to stormy waves at Unstad Arctic Surf beach, and watched the tiny figures in their dark drysuits, practicing for next month’s competition. We set up in Ramberg, grateful for the communal kitchen in which to make late night couscous. We watched the ethereal emerald waves of the Northern Lights stretch above us in the most unlikely place: a sterile KOA type campground in Tromso on our last night.

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So many colors, so many photos, so many memories. Until our next trip!

Here Be Vikings

blog, pnw & travel

One of my most brilliant unrealized ideas is to time travel millions of years back and somehow install a camera in the sky so that it can record a time lapse of events over thousands or millions of years. I first thought of the idea in one of many trips driving though the Columbia River Gorge. I was thinking about the creation of the gorge, and the giant Missoula boulders that scoured it out during the floods, before coming to rest somewhere in the Willamette Valley.

I thought about this idea again when we were driving though South Dakota, where there are signs indicating the layers of prehistory in the hills — Paleozoic, Pleistocene, Mesozoic. How cool would it be to watch a time-lapse of all those dinosaurs wandering around and eventually getting covered up with ash and dust and making way for new ones.

I mentioned this idea to Jim when we were wandering around the grounds of the Viking museum in Borg, Norway. We’d just visited the replica of Viking chieftain Olav Tvennumbruni’s longhouse. The remains of the structure, along with tools and dishes, were discovered by some farmers here in the 1980’s while they were plowing their fields. In the surrounding area, many graves were found, with Viking jewelry and weapons interred.

We’d watched a short, melodramatic film about Olav, from the perspective of his daughter, about when they went away to Iceland and she left her new little boyfriend behind. She eventually came back and married him after her dad died, and they became the new chieftans of Borg. I have no idea if any of this is true, but it makes for a good story.

What made for a better story, I thought, were the leftovers. I assumed that the Vikings were pretty primitive, but they had keys! They made skeleton keys out of metal to lock their doors. They created intricate glass beads of different colors and designs. They carved tiny medallions of gold and encased them in glass as jewelry. Theirs was a story of hardship – of bitter cold, hewing onions out of the cold ground, their children and mothers dying, their fathers fighting. Yet they took the time to carve the beams in their longhouses, to dye their wool in bright colors and embroider their dresses, to spend countless hours creating beautiful jewelry. And then they buried it all with their dead. People are weird. I know I may sound guilty of “noble savage” syndrome, but it comforts me to know that no matter how difficult our lives are, humans find a way to create beauty and comfort.

As we walked around the area of the longhouse I imagined what it would have looked like back then. What it would have felt like. Have you ever noticed that you can “feel” whether or not there are people around you? Even if your neighbors are a mile away, you can still sense them. I imagined being at that longhouse in 800 a.d. and staring off across the rolling green hills, knowing there wasn’t another house for miles and miles.

I imagined fast-forwarding from then until now, the longhouse eventually abandoned and slowly falling apart and decaying into the hillside, layers and layers of soil and grass hiding the nearby graves from view. Millions of sheep wandering over the terrain over the years, early settlers moving in where the Vikings had vacated. And eventually, roads and horses and more and more people, dividing the land into farms and villages and eventually building highways and grocery stores and parking lots. And coming full circle with a longhouse, mere yards away from the one that was there in 800 a.d.

Not much is known about the Vikings, so if anyone figures out time travel, it’d be much appreciated.

All Hands on Dekk

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I had a lot of time to observe the red house on the hill above us as Jim, sporting a neon reflector vest, changed the front tire of our apparently-not-so-trusty campervan, somewhere in the inner Lofoten Islands.

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The day’s journey had been a lesson in topography: low flat expanses of gorse and deep beds of moss running up to meet the foothills of steep, rocky mountains. The coastlines were mild — the fjords were sheltered, no pounding surf. The bays filled up quietly at high tide, then slipped away almost unnoticed. Our drive along the coast was peppered with sheep – often napping or grazing right at the side of the narrow roads.

On the suggestion of the woman who rented us the campervan, we drove out to a lesser-known island in the Lofoten archipelago. It was less touristy, as she’d said, but to my observation that just meant “less quaint.” The houses got drab, and there were more gas stations and fewer cafes. There were plenty of “marshmallow farms” out here — all the hay harvested for the summer, rolled into fat cylinders and wrapped for the winter. The puffy white forms dotted the fields. Here and there some farmer got fancy and had wrapped his hay in pink plastic, which gave their marshmallows a “Lucky Charms” feel.

The red house was asleep, no lights on, no one stirring. The play structure in the front yard was empty. At this time of day, the kids who lived there were probably at school. Out here they’d need to catch the bus, most likely. I tried to imagine what their life would be like: hopping off the bus and running to their swing set, their view a sweeping fjord flanked by farmland. And today, a gaudy, broken-down campervan, too.

“The rim is bent.” Jim interrupted my reverie.

“What?” If this situation were reliant upon my knowledge of cars, we’d have to apply for a visa to live in that van on the roadside for the foreseeable future. Maybe we could eventually upgrade to the nearby shack with the eco roof.

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Without another spare, we’d be at the mercy of Norwegian backroads for the rest of our trip. We’d had enough experience with them thus far to steer away from that plan. I said farewell to the red house, still waiting for its occupants to return, as we made our way back to “civilization” in search of a dekksenter – a tire service shop.

The wind whipped my hair into a frothy mess. It was necessary to have all the windows open, otherwise the diesel fumes would have overwhelmed us.

“Don’t worry,” I’d said to Jim. “This way if we get low on diesel again you can just wring out your pants and we can fill up the tank.”

Earlier that day I’d sat in the van at the gas station, absentmindedly scrolling through Instagram when the pleasant “shhhh” of flowing diesel was interrupted by a harsher splashing sound, followed by a loud clunking and some frantic, choice words from Jim. When he climbed back in, he was “fuming.” (sorry)

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As we rolled along on our snow tire, hoping that none of the others would go, I decided to pretend that we were on a mission to write the worst Lofoten travel guide to date. Sample articles include:

Picturesque Beaches at Which to Wash Diesel Off Your Hands

Best Pizzas to Order from Non-English-Speaking Convenience Store Clerks aka Where Is All the Fish?

11 Norwegian Street Names for Your GPS to Butcher

Hot! Norwegian Fashion: Mandatory Reflector Vests for Roadside Exploits – PLUS – Is Diesel the New Old Spice?

Our Rim Guy Will Be Here Tomorrow” and Other Tales

Best Overcrowded Mall Coffeeshops in Sortland To Wait At While Your Tire Doesn’t Get Fixed

Sortland Hotell & Camping: At Least the Showers Are Hot!

Hidden Norway: Minion Tire Exhibits of Svolvær

 

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At a dekksenter (tire service) in Svolvær. The guy didn’t fix bent rims, but he at least provided a solution instead of just herding us along to some other dekksenter. The solution included a new (old) tire and a ton of sealant. The Minions (and we) approve!

 

If you ever spend 24 hours of your six-day trip to the Lofoten Islands tracking down someone who will fix a bent rim, you can write a competing travel guide, but for now this is the definitive one.

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Gryllefjord

blog, photography, pnw & travel

Sitting in our campervan in row number one waiting for the Gryllefjord ferry afforded plenty of time for contemplation about time and place. We were taking the last outbound ferry of the season, according to the owner of the local supermarket.

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The town seemed to be resting. Gone were the hordes of the summer season (30,000 strong, we heard). The clouds were close and the mountains closer. We were the only people in line for the ferry. We were the only people in the small restaurant where we had dinner.
What do people do here? I wondered. There was a store, and two restaurants, the ferry and the turistinformasjon office during the summer, but I could see at least twenty houses in Gryllefjord – what did everyone else do? Fish? A few local kids skidded around the empty streets on their bikes. Was there a school nearby?
“In December, fishing season starts,” said the store owner. Until then, Gryllefjord is on a bit of a hiatus. They get the fjord to themselves. Maybe they go on their own holidays, take the opportunity to be tourists in someone else’s town. Maybe they have a family farm they stay at, or they go to Oslo for some city life.

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Jim on the ferry, leaving Gryllefjord.

Maybe they stay home and catch up on their reading, or walk up into the hills behind their homes to listen to the sheep bells and seagulls and watch the autumn fog roll in.
I felt like we were intruding – the last stragglers of the summer, caught between the seasonal ferry ride and the chilly fall air, rousting everyone for an unexpected last chat in English.


We left on the ferry, full of local coalfish and cream sauce. Now the town was wholly empty: the supermarket and restaurant closed, the ferry loaded up with all the people there could possibly be around here. Gryllefjord was still and grey as a gravestone.
The Norwegian flag at the back of the ferry was caught on a lamp post, and as we slowly made our way through the fjord it flopped around like a fish on deck. Once we lost sight of the town and cleared the fjord, the ocean winds ripped the cloth free.

We are off to Lofoten!

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Last Day in Svalbard

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I had the day to myself. Jim had gone off on another boat trip, but I elected to stay behind today. The boat yesterday didn't agree with me, and after days of travel, hiking, and boat-tripping, I needed a day to just… be.

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I knew I'd probably miss out on polar bears, so I walked out to the edge of town to take a picture of the polar bear warning sign (I'm such a tourist!)

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Much of the surrounding area of Svalbard reminds me of the Columbia Gorge (before it all started burning down) with big folded hills, mostly stark and barren and brown. It had snowed the night before, so the tops of the hills were dusted with just enough powder to bring out all the texture of the hills, and the clouds that had obscured the tops in the days before were gone. It was bright, sunny, and 36 degrees outside.

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On my way our to the sign, I was passed by a team of sled dogs pulling a 4-wheeler. I guess they have to work in the summer, too! There was a dog kennel out here — I could smell it before I saw it. The stench nearly knocked me over. The grass under the culvert on the other side of the road was *very* green, though!

sval5Also, Svalbard has a brewery! Imagine that. Their pilsner is the newest, but I tried their stout – pretty good! sval6sval7

This is whale meat – with lingonberry. Tasty!

Tomorrow we fly back to Norway. Then start leg two of our trip: camping in the Lofoten Islands!