Wednesday, February 23, 2011

After a wonderful month in Frankfurt, Caroline joined me from her pig farm in the Netherlands and we headed for Italy on the 1st of February. My good friend Stina met us at the Milan airport with two fast talking, fast smoking Italian boys and brought us back to Cremona, where she is living with a host family for a year through Rotary. We stayed with her for 4 days and a bit. Our time was lovely! Her host family's home was a gorgeous mix of modern glass and stone architecture with ancient wooden beam ceilings – fabulous! We spent most of our time talking, eating, and walking around Cremona. After 2 days in Cremona we all went to Venice for a day trip. We took an early train and spent all day wandering the streets and seeing the sights. We lucked out with an absolutely gorgeous day, too!

Caroline and I then traveled over to and down Italy's Western coast with our backpacks in tow. We spent the first night out of Cremona in Genoa, mostly in order to easily visit Cinque Terre the next day. Genoa had an interesting Coastal feel, similar to areas of Mexico – big open palaces and palm trees everywhere. Cinque Terre was the next day and it was the highlight of Italy for me. We lucked out with another spectacular day (Italian winters are normally a constant gray sky). I was nearly too hot in only a t-shirt! The cities were adorable and the ocean picturesque. The next day we traveled to Lucca, an ancient walled city in Tuscany. Then on to Florence. Florence was spent seeing the wonders of the Italian Renaissance – the Duomo (the 4th largest Basilica in the world), The Medici Chapel (Thanks for the hint, Dad!), and works by Bernini, Michaelangelo, and other renowned artists. Our time in Italy was incredibly fun, but near the end of it I was looking forward to settling down and working and learning on a farm.

On the 12th of February, we flew to Granada, Spain and met my friend Thomas and his traveling partner and friend Grace. We stayed in a very stereotypical, dirty hostel high on a hill overlooking all of Granada - a good experience to have, I suppose.  Granada is in far southern Spain, quite near the coast and in the foothills of Spain's highest mountains, the Sierra Nevada. Our hostel was across the street from the touristy site of Granada, which we spent half of our 1 full day at – the Alhambra, a Moorish palace from the days when Granada was the last Muslim stronghold in Spain. The palace was absolutely massive and filled with smaller, personal palaces, bath houses, and gardens. The architecture was astounding, almost all of the walls were made out of stone or wood and carved with the most intricate designs I've ever seen. There were also tiny canals flowing with water that lined most all of the walkways, quite an engineering feat for the 14th century!

My antsyness to begin work peaked in Granada, but luckily I didn't have to wait long. We took a bus to Orgiva, a small town of 6,000 in a valley between the Sierra Nevadas and the Sierra de Lujar mountains. Our hosts for our first farm, Catherine and Anthony, a charming middle-aged British couple, met us at the bus station. They live on a small finca 25 minutes walking distance from the city. A dirt track must be traveled, across a river, to get to the farm. The land has hundreds of olive and orange trees. Lucky for us, the oranges are ripe and absolutely delicious! They have a small, traditional Spanish house – white, rectangular, with a flat roof – and we live in a nearby caravan. Our first days here have been wonderful; we work from 9 – 2 with a tea break at about 11. It rained occasionally the first week, so when we could get outside we cleared branches pruned recently from the numerous olive trees. We trimmed them down with machetes and saws to chunks that will later be sawed down for firewood. The smaller branches that were macheted off were sent through a chipper to make wood chips. We also de-stickered beer and wine bottles which will be used to make raised bed gardens and filled bottles with olive oil that was freshly pressed from the farm's trees.

I'm thrilled to be here and excited to work and learn more!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gap Year Adventure, Part 2

I arrived in Frankfurt, Germany on the 7th of January after sad farewells at the MSP airport and tiring flights to London and then Frankfurt.  But all was smooth and uneventful, except for a few extra questions at London's customs where  my girlfriend, Caroline, and I were saved thanks to David Lauth's meticulous planning skills, (THANKS DAVID!).  I'm here until February 1st when I leave with Caroline to visit Cremona, Italy and one of my dearest friends, Stina, who is on a gap year of her own with the Rotary youth exchange program.  During my time in Frankfurt, I am living with my dad's younger brother, Paul, his wife, Petra, and their 2 children, Moritz (9) and Zoe (5).  Life with my fellow Abbotts is delightful.  I love getting to know my extended family better, being immersed in German culture, and, for the first time in my life, living in a city!

I spent my first week here settling in to my new schedule and learning my way around the neighborhood.  I also started an internship at a local Reformhaus called Andersch.  A Reformhaus is a business quite similar to a Coop in the States.  They originally only sold "natural" body product -lotions, soaps, candles, etc.  But now most focus on bio, Germany's term for organic, foods.  My work is good, basic.  I help set up the fruit and vegetable displays outside, bring shipments in and sort and shelve the new foods.  The exciting part for me is seeing the business/consumer end of the process which I will be joining as a farmer in the coming months.  For instance, on a Friday a farmer from just outside of Frankfurt came and delivered 500 kg of apples to the store!  I'll be getting a full tour of one type of food system this trip as a producer, retailer, and consumer!


Friday, January 14, 2011

What I learned at NOLS

Of course my outdoors skills have improved from all of the new knowledge and practice I had throughout the semester.  But all of that isn't what i'll remember when I look back on this adventure...

I've learned many things about community and how friendships develop.  This was the first time in many years that I was in a situation where I started out without knowing anyone else.

I learned a heck of a lot about the environment and my deep care for keeping the woods wild has been solidified in my mind. 

I learned that there are so many different things in the world to see and do.  And I learned that I want to live a life of seeing and doing those things.  Life on our planet is exciting and I don't want to miss much of it duiring my time here!

NOLS was a fabulous experience.  I love the school and highly recommend that others have an adventure of their own with them, no matter their experience or age!

Snow, Snow, Snow, Snow, Snow....Snow.

My last section at NOLS, backcountry skiing and winter survival in the Absoraka Mountains in Wyoming was one of the hardest things I've done in my life.  As my group quickly transitioned from the luxurious life of rock climbing and base camp living and prepared for our winter section, our spirits were high.  How couldn't they be?! If you ignored the fine details, we were about to be living in giant snowforts and shreddin' the slopes which had about 3 feet of fresh, untouched powder.  The night before we left everyone in the group was wishing that it would snow and snow and snow so that we could live in a true winter wonderland.

Bad idea.  Constant snow (more specifically, very wet snow for 8 of our 10 days) meant we never wanted to be outside as doing so nearly always resulted in wet clothing.  And the only way to dry wet things is with heat...our bodies being the only thing with said ability in a winter environment.  So we would put our wet clothing close to our bodies in an attempt to dry it.  Surprisingly, this doesn't work particularly well.

Travel is also made even more challenging with immense amounts of snow.  We wore a backpack and dragged a sled attached to us via poles and a waist belt. On our feet we wore backcountry skies, which are a lighter weight version of telemark skies.  We would put skins onto the bottoms in order to grip the snow while we were traveling (skins are long strips of a velvet-type fabric with glue on the top side that attaches it to a ski). Our heels weren't attached so once we had all of our gear on, we could slowly move through the thigh-deep snow.  The person in the front who broke the trail had the hardest job.  They could last about 10 minutes before needing to step out for a break.  So our progress when we weren't on snowmobile trails was very, very slow.

Building our giant snowforts, called Quigloos, shredding the gnar a few minutes from camp at 10,000 feet, and skiing up to the continental divide in a blizzard were all fantastic parts of this section.  The real highlight was how the group responded to the aforementioned challenges.  At first everyone was not happy and counting down thedays untill their flights home.  But midway through the section, we stopped all of our complaining and moping, and decided we couldn't check-out early.  We had to end our fabulous semester in style.  It was really hard to look beyond the crappy living conditions and the nearness of our homes, but we regained our goofyness and optimism and skied out of the mountains in high spirits,  proud of a succesful end to a terrific 95 days in the wilderness. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Life in the Desert

During my explorer canoe trip at Widji, a love was born within me for harsh, challenging outdoor experiences.  During the 21 day trip, I could not get enough of carrying heavy, awkward things through mud and water on dense bushwhacks.  I love the satisfactory feeling you get after completing a physically demanding task you've taken on.  I thoroughly missed these difficult times during my first section in the winds.   There were certainly days that were exhausting, but we were almost always on trail, so I never felt that deep connection with the wilderness.  There was a dramatic change in lifestyle when we were dropped of in southeastern Utah for our 26 day canyon section.  Our days became longer because of both distance and terrain.  Instead of the 3-7 miles we hiked each day in the winds, we were hiking 7-13 miles.  A more important factor though was certainly where we were hiking.  We had to use a lot of technical skills to safely travel each day.  That means whenever there was a drop off greater then 5 feet, we needed to scout for a way down and if one wasn't found, figure out how to lower ourselves.  On smaller drops, we would pass our packs and slide down by ourselves.  As the pour-offs (sudden cliffs in canyons) grew taller, we would build hand lines to lower ourselves safely.  In the most exciting cases, we got to rappel.  We each had a lightweight harness and helmet and the group carried two climbing ropes.  Our instructors would build anchors and then we would get to lower ourselves over the edge.  These technical maneuvers slowed us down considerably and resulted in many late nights, but allowed us to access more remote places.  

Our general route for the section was a large horseshoe.  Our drop-off and pick-up points were about 10 miles away from each other, so we did a large loop.  The first half was through smaller canyons while the second was through Dark Canyon, which is at about the same depth as the Grand Canyon.  A big part of NOLS philosophy is turning over independence to students.  The general expectation is that once you've been taught a skill, it's your responsibility to safely and properly use it.  This was a substantial part of our trip.  Most of the trip was a build up for a culminating challenge, of sorts.  We had an independent student group expedition (or ISGE, NOLS loves acronyms) for the last 6 days of the Canyons.  This meant two student groups of 6 traveling by themselves and not seeing anyone and essentially proving their skills.  We were tested quite a bit by our instructors before we were allowed to venture off by ourselves.  They would routinely surprise us with fake emergency situations that we had to respond to properly.  The ISGE was terrific.  I was voted by my peers to lead one of the two student groups, and it went wonderfully.  It was a great time to travel in a more personal community instead of the massive 14 person group we'd been living in.

We had one memorable 48 hours in gravel canyon, during the first half of the section, when our net gain of mileage for the whole time was about 50 feet.  It started off with a late night in which we finally found an acceptable campsite as the sun was setting...that was on top of a 50 foot cliff.  We could walk up to it, but the possibility of falling with heavy packs on our backs was too great, so had to pull them up by rope.  It was a 2 hour process to get all 14 people and our gear up to the mesa top (along the way, a pack's strap broke when it was almost 40 feet in the air, causing it to plummet to the ground only 5 feet from a student and instructor who were attaching the packs to the ropes...yikes).  The next morning we had to do the reverse process to get down to the canyon floor and continue moving.  Once we got back down, we hiked for about 10 minutes until we reached another pour off.  But this one didn't have a dry ended in about 9 feet of muddy water.  In order to get down, everyone had to rappel over a ledge and then give themselves a lot of slack right above the water so they could thrash about and attempt to swim to shallower ground.  The more challenging part was lowering packs so they didn't get soaked.  We set up a long pulley system where, if we pulled fast enough, we could get the packs down dry.  It was about 4 in the afternoon by the time we had everyone down on the ground, perhaps 1/4 mile down the canyon from were we started.  We hiked around the corner for less then 5 minutes and ran smack into a slot canyon.  Slot canyons are wild, they're incredibly thin, sometimes much less then a shoulders length wide.  Plus this particular slot canyon dropped down another 10 feet.  I took my pack off and dropped into the slot to scout it out.  It quickly became filled with water that was over my head.  And our packs would never had fit down into it.  So we turned around.  One of my instructors ascended the rope that we had luckily left up and built a rope ladder.  Then as the canyon became pitch black, we each swam out to the ladder and climbed up the wall.  We finally got back to the base of our previous campsite at 11:00.  

I'm in love with the challenges and beauty of the desert canyons.  I had some of the most fun I've experience while down in the canyons.  I can't wait until I can return...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

To the Canyons!

One more post about the Winds before I head off in a few hours to the Dark Canyons of the Green River area...

We were hiking around 5 miles on average while in the Winds.  We would wake up around 7:30 everyday and pack up camp/make breakfast.  As our group was massive - 12 students and 3 instructors, we traveled for the majority of the trip in small groups of 4 students and 1 instructor.  At the end of the trip, we traveled in independent student groups of 4.  We generally got into camp between 1 and 3 in the afternoon.  When we got to camp we would usually need to start cooking, although occasionally we had a class - the topics varied widely..Leadership, Leave No Trace Principles, Managing Group Conflict, Astronomy, US Public Land Use.  After dinner every day we had an evening meeting - G.A.S.S.E.  Greetings, Announcements, School, Schedule, Entertainment.  Entertainment was generally a 'personal nugget', meaning someone's abbreviated life story.  Days were busy a full, meaning it never took me very long to fall asleep at night.  

I'll be out on trail until around Thanksgiving now.  Today we drive down to South-Eastern Utah to go canyoneering there (Canyoneering is essentially backpacking in canyons, although you occasionally rappel down deeper into the earth using climbing gear).  We drive to Red Rocks, Colorado immediately afterwards, meeting our new instructors on the way.  Then we rock climb for around 22 days, with access to phones and occasional trips into town.  We'll return to NOLS Rocky Mountain in Lander for one night around Thanksgiving and then go backcountry skiing for 10 days.  Have a wonderful Fall!



Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A few photos from the Winds

The whole group the morning of our pick-up 

On the summit of Pyramid Peak, 12,030 ft. 
The morning after our first snow! 

Delicious Dinner!