Wednesday, June 15, 2016- Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Day 1

Snæfellsnes map
Today was a huge day, the first of two on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland.  This has long been considered one of the most scenic areas of Iceland, a must-see if you visit the country.

After an excellent breakfast at Seljaland, we set out on Highway 54.  The Snæfellsnes peninsula juts 100 km into the Atlantic, and the road follows the coastline all the way out and back. Along the way we made numerous stops at beaches, waterfalls, and hiking areas.

The Snæfellsjökull glacier dominates Snæfellsnes .

The Snæfellsjökull glacier dominates the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

Dominating the landscape throughout our journey was the Snæfellsjökull glacier, a volcanic glacier set near the end of the peninsula.  The volcano is famous as the entrance underground in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Although Snæfellsjökull is one of Iceland’s smaller glaciers, it seemed enormous.  As we traveled Hwy. 54, we saw this glacier from every possible angle, with cloud cover and without.

In order, here are the places we saw:

The islands of Hvammsfjord are said to have been put there by trolls.

The islands of Hvammsfjord are said to have been put there by trolls.

Mountain avens, Iceland's national flower

Mountain avens, Iceland’s national flower

Skogarstrond, overlooking Hvammsfjord.  True to its name, which means “forest beach,” this is the coastal area at the entry to the north side of Snæfellsnes. Although the area used to be agricultural, it is now the location for a lot of summer homes.  In Hvammsfjord are countless numbers of islands.  Farmers put sheep on those islands to graze all summer, then collect them in the winter.  Legend has it that the islands were created by trolls trying to dig into the West Fjords peninsula in northwest Iceland to separate it from the mainland.  They took the excess dirt and dumped it in Hvammsfjord to create the islands – but they lost track of time and turned to stone when the sun came up.

We made a photo stop at Skogarstrond.  I got photos of moss campion, a moss cluster with a tiny pink flower, and mountain avens, Iceland’s national flower that looks like a small daisy. We also saw an example of solifluction, a wave pattern created in the sand when the cycle of freezing and thawing separates big rocks from small rocks and dirt. We also got a view of the town of Stykkisholmur, which we will visit tomorrow.

Álftafjörður, or "swan fjord," in Iceland.

Álftafjörður, or “swan fjord,” in Iceland.

Álftafjörður, or fjord of the swans.  It was easy to see where this fjord got its name – dozens of swans were swimming there as we drove by. We got some beautiful photos of mountains reflected in water.

The bridge under which orcas swim at Kolgrafafjord. Alas we didn't see any.

The bridge under which orcas swim at Kolgrafafjord. Alas we didn’t see any.

Kolgrafafjordur. This fjord is frequented by orcas who follow huge schools of herring in search of something to eat.  We stopped near a bridge under which orcas swim into the fjord. Twice in recent years the area has experienced huge herring kills caused by low oxygen.  No one knows exactly why this happened, but it involved 25,000 and 30,000 tons of fish worth millions of dollars.

The imposing Kirkjufell, or "church mountain."

The imposing Kirkjufell, or “church mountain.”

Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss.  Kirkjufell, or “church mountain,” and its accompanying waterfall are two of the most photographed landmarks in Iceland.  The mountain is 463 m (1519 ft) high. The waterfall has trails all around that people can climb to see it from different angles. We spent about 45 minutes there climbing and taking photos, along with several busses full of tourists.

Near Kirkjufell is Kvíabryggja, the prison where Iceland’s bankers are serving time.  Iceland is the only country to send the bankers who caused the 2008 financial crash to jail.  The prison is a working farm where bankers are expected to do chores. It is minimum security, bound mainly by the frigid river that sets it off from the mainland. Much to the frustration of Icelanders, the bankers were given refurbished cells and catered meals and allowed to ride bicycles around prison grounds. Last year two prisoners escaped.

Fishing and tourist boats in Olavsvik.

Fishing and tourist boats in Olavsvik.

Olafsvik, or “Olaf’s Bay,” a small fishing and tourist town of about 1,100 people.  Dominating the skyline is a modern church designed to look like a Viking ship.  We walked around on the shoreline and saw where fishing and pleasure boats were docked.

Yash sits atop a lava stone house once used to dry fish in Gufuskalar.

Yash sits atop a lava stone house once used to dry fish in Gufuskalar.

Gufuskalar, a coastal area that contains both modern structures, with a 412 m (1351 ft) radio tower, the tallest manmade structure in Europe, and ancient structures in a series of houses built out of lava rocks from the Snæfellsnes volcano dating back to the 14th century.  The houses were used to store and dry fish for international trade during the Middle Ages.  134 houses were constructed, 12 of which are still standing.  We ate lunch in this area and were able to explore the ruins and houses still intact.

The black pebble beach of Djupalonssandur.

The black pebble beach of Djupalonssandur.

Djupalonssandur, a black pebble beach near the old fishing town of Dritvik on the end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.  The beach is made entirely of pebbles, which makes walking somewhat challenging as your feet sink into the pebbles with each step.  Four huge stones mark the entrance to the beach.  These are what men would have to lift to qualify to work on a fishing boat.  We were allowed to collect two rocks each from the beach.  We were also quite close to Snæfellsjökull, so I took the opportunity to get more photos.

Gatklettur, the natural arch rock on the 2.5 km hike from Arnarstapi to Hellnar.

Gatklettur, the natural arch rock on the 2.5 km hike from Arnarstapi to Hellnar.

Hellnar to Arnarstapi. Between these two towns is an amazing hiking trail along the coast. Although it’s only 2.5 km (1.5 mi) long, it winds up and down cragged cliffs and gives you such spectacular views of rocky islands, sea caves and stone arches that it will take a couple of hours to get through.

Sea cave on the hike from Arnarstapi to Hellnar.

Sea cave on the hike from Arnarstapi to Hellnar.

Thomas and I hiked the trail carrying on a conversation about agriculture around the world in between snapping photos.  Sea birds are everywhere, and we found a lot of eggs that looked as if they had been broken and the contents eaten by foxes.  We also found a few bird legs and wings.  Among the most notable landmarks are the Badstofa sea caves, known for their unique light refraction and colorful interior, and the Gatklettur sea arch. This was one of the highlights of my trip.

Big black lava rocks on the beach at Budir.

Big black lava rocks on the beach at Budir.

Budir, a white sand beach dotted with large black rocks made of hardened lava. This beach is white sand from the sea shells that have washed ashore and broken up over the millennia.  Because the huge lava rocks are still intact, the beach does not have black sand. A notable landmark is the black church.

Ytri-Tunga, known for its colony of seals. We saw one seal playing in the water about 100 feet offshore, with several other seals resting on the rocks behind him.  We also saw two families of eider ducks and an oyster catcher dipping into the water for food near shore. Signs had a discussion of the seal hunt in Iceland, which is not commercial, though I did see sealskin items for sale in various places.

Finally after such a long day of sightseeing, we got to our evening destination, the cottages at Snorrastadir Farm near the Eldborg crater.  I was more than happy to roll out my sleeping bag in the back bedroom rooming with Emily for the night.

Here is a huge gallery of more photos from the day. Click any photo to enlarge it.

Structured Decision Making – Cats vs wildlife

This is a reaction to readings in ENR 8150 Advanced Environment, Risk, and Decision Making. The reading was Chapters 1 and 2, pp. 1-68, in Gregory, R., L. Failing, M. Harstone, G. Long, T. McDaniels and D. Ohlson. Structured decision making: A practical guide to environmental management choices (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

While I was reading the first two chapters of Gregory et al., I couldn’t help but think about an issue I have followed that I now recognize as using structured decision making to address a very thorny problem: outdoor cats vs wildlife. This is probably going to make all the scientists / environmentalists in the room shudder. But hear me out.

In December 2012, the Humane Society of the United States convened a conference with some of the top wildlife experts and top experts in cat shelter and rescue in the country. To say these groups are at war is an understatement. A few years ago a researcher at the Smithsonian was convicted of animal cruelty for setting out poison for a managed feral cat colony near her office in Washington, DC. The Smithsonian later turned out a metastudy concluding that cats kill billions of birds and small mammals a year.

Meanwhile cat are the most popular pet in the country with an estimated 95 million owned pet cats, many of whom let their cats run freely outdoors, as well as an estimated 50 million unowned free-roaming cats. About 4 to 6 million dogs and cats enter shelters each year, and of those about half make it out alive. However, cats are much more likely to be euthanized in shelters than dogs, and much less likely to be reclaimed by their owners. Because of this, the millions of people who feed outdoor cats don’t want them going to a shelter. They are not adoptable, so the only alternative for them if the shelter takes them is to euthanize.

So how to reconcile this impasse? The conference included stakeholders from the humane, wildlife, veterinary, and research communities, including Stan Gehrt from Ohio State and Don Burton of the Ohio Wildlife Center. The conference itself was mainly to start the dialogue and identify points of common ground, of which there was a surprising amount. For example, all stakeholders want to see the number of feral cats in the environment reduced. All want to preserve wildlife populations, especially endangered species, while also instituting humane management of outdoor cats. Their presentations at the conference can be found here.

One place where some of the principles discussed at the conference are being put into practice is in feral cat management in Hawaii, which as you can imagine is also a very sensitive ecosystem for wildlife. There a group of stakeholders was convened that included The Wildlife Society; University of Hawaii researchers; biologists from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources; U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service staff; representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors monk seals; volunteers with CatFriends and the Hawaii Cat Foundation; representatives of local humane societiesm and even staff of the American Bird Conservancy. The group took the name Hawaii Coalition for the Protection of Cats and Wildlife.

By working together, they were able to come to agreement on several points:

  • A fence to keep out predators was built around a sensitive monk seal and albatross hatching area. This successfully kept the cats out, and the number of offspring grew the following year.
  • An educational campaign promoting the idea that people keep their pet cats inside. Outdoor cats face dangers with cars, accidents, cruelty, and more. Feral cats only live a few years on average, but pet cats kept indoors can easily live 10 to 15 years (two of mine are 15 and are in great health). Make sure people know it is a crime to abandon a pet, and provide education on how to enrich the indoor environment.
  • Another campaign for feral cat feeders promoting the idea that if you feed outdoor unowned cats, you are also responsible for getting them spay-neutered and getting veterinary treatment for sick cats, along with creating programs for low-cost care. Also providing education on when they are dealing with a dumped pet cat that could be adopted into a new home, and working with shelters to make that happen.
  • Letting feral cat caretakers know that cats in areas designated for federal wildlife management are subject to trap and lethal removal, and offering alternatives for relocation.
  • Providing educational materials for how people can bring free-roaming cats indoors. Although it takes patience, in many cases it can be done. My other two cats are street rescues and have no desire to go back outside.

In the end, attitudes on both sides need to change. Cat caretakers need to recognize that cats were evolved to be predators, and that some of them do kill wildlife. The extent of that can be debated – I personally think many of the assumptions of the Smithsonian study were flawed, leading them to a inflated figure. But it does happen, and it can impact the ecosystem, especially where endangered species are present. Cat people also need to start bringing pet cats indoors, a change that will likely take a generation or so to occur. When I was a kid, people let their pet dogs run loose all the time, and now most places have leash laws. They will likely be passing ordinances not allowing pet cats to run loose either in coming years, and norms for this can change.

On the other side, wildlife people need to recognize that cats are the most popular pet in the country, and millions of people have a close bond with their pets. Millions more feel the responsibility to feed stray and feral cats that have been dumped and cannot take care of themselves in the environment. The army of “cat ladies” is not really what people expect. In many cases it is “cat men.”

These people are not going to go away, and banning feeding will only drive them underground. It is much better to take advantage of the free services that these people are providing on a volunteer basis by supporting open management through trap-neuter-return, where all the ground rules are clear up front. Most locations have practiced trap and euthanize for decades, yet we now have more feral cats in the environment than ever. So it’s time to give a different kind of management a try.

I don’t think the agreement that the stakeholders in Hawaii came to is a panacea. People will still dump pet cats, and still feed them without spay-neutering. But it’s the start of a process that could greatly reduce the problem over time. Hopefully the stakeholders there will be willing to stick with it long enough to make it work.