The Last Dayz

It’s hard to believe that our time in Iceland has come to an end.  We couldn’t have picked a better place to spend our last few days — the Snæfellsnes peninsula is the perfect place to enjoy all that Iceland has to offer, in a small, welcoming, homey place.

A view capturing part of what makes this peninsula special -- beautiful mountains, green pastures, and the open sea

A view capturing part of what makes this peninsula special — beautiful mountains, green pastures, and the open sea

For our last day on the southern side of the peninsula, we explored some of Iceland’s third national park –Snæfellsjökull — which, of course, centers around the glacier for which it is named, and which you can see jutting out from almost anywhere along the peninsula.

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A view of Snæfellsjökull at sunset (close to midnight!)

We went on a lovely hike back at Hellnar, through more lava fields right along the coast.  The hike begins at a small bird cliff and stone archway, which is worth spending some time at before setting off on the forty minute walk, which ends up at another small town, called Anarstapi.

One of the stunning views of the ocean, and basalt outcroppings, along the hike

One of the stunning views of the ocean, and basalt outcroppings, along the hike

For our last two days on the peninsula, we drove through the Kerlingarskard mountain pass to Stykkisholmur, the most “bustling” town in the area, with a whopping 1050 inhabitants (in comparison, Hellnar has 8). .  On our way, we stopped briefly to see Kirkjufell, a 463m mountain that looks more like an enormous, grassy hill, with tiny pathways cut all the way through.  The mountain itself is apparently one of the most photographed in all of Iceland, but even more lovely were the many short but powerful waterfalls across the way, that were easy to access, climb in, and walk behind.

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A set of three water falls, and Kirkjufell in the distance

At the base of Kirkjufell

At the base of Kirkjufell

We drove around the rest of the peninsula and into Stykkisholmur, which is a truly lovely place to visit — lots of small houses with colorful roofs, and full of little kids who appear to have the run of the town, swinging on the public zip-line, biking through the winding streets (all seven of them), and playing in the lovely geothermal public pools.

Our first stop was to walk across the small causeway at the northernmost tip of the town to the climb up the “island” called Sugandisey (it’s really just a tiny peninsula).  The view from the little red lighthouse were breathtaking, and it was the perfect place for a picnic (despite the high winds…).

View from the lighthouse on top of the small peninsula jutting off of the town.

View of the ocean from the lighthouse on top of the small peninsula jutting off of the town.

View of Stykkisholmur from the island -- you can see the colorful roofs and the strange, futuristic church

View of Stykkisholmur from the island — you can see the colorful roofs and the strange, futuristic church

We spent the evening at the local pool again — one of the best we’ve been to, and a relief after the very algae-filled one on the southern peninsula.

For our final day, we explored the town’s three wonderful museums (it was worth it buy the pass — 1500 Ikr, compared to 2200 Ikr to buy separate tickets for each).  We started at the Norwegian House, which has some good information about the trade in Stykkisholmur, a lovely little gift shop, and a fully restored second and third floor which recreate the home of the family that used to live in the house before it was converted into a museum, including some of their original furniture, decorations, and odds and ends stored in the attic.

We then followed the gravel path up to the top of the hill to see the Library of Water — an actual archive of Icelandic water gathered from all 24 of the country’s glaciers.  The building originally was the town’s public library (which has since moved to behind the Norwegian House), and was designed and constructed by an American artist named Roni Horn.  The installation brings attention to the fact that these glaciers are constantly melting and changing, and particularly with the effects of climate change, risk disappearing forever.  In fact, one of the columns contains water from a glacier that has completed melted away — the one covering the Ok volcano in the Highlands.

Robins, standing by the column of water from the Skaftafell glacier that we hiked to only a few days earlier

Robins, standing by the column of water from the Skaftafell glacier that we hiked to only a few days earlier

Our final stop was to the Volcano museum, which contains volcanic art and artifacts by famous volcanologist Haraldur Sigurðsson.

The museum, red as lava

The museum, red as lava

A sample of some of the dramatic volcanic art in the museum

A sample of some of the dramatic volcanic art in the museum

One of the best parts of the museum is the 52-minute documentary about the famous 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.  We also saw some of the geological evidence collected by Sigurðsson during his impressive career, including samples that he used to help prove the meteor impact at Chicxulub 65 million years ago.

Tektites from the K/T boundary in Haiti that provide proof of the meteorite impact

Tektites from the K/T boundary in Haiti that provide proof of the meteorite impact

On our way out of Stykkisholmur, before heading back for our last night in Keflavik, we stopped to climb Helgafell, the tiny (73m) but sacred mountain that sits right outside of the town boundaries.  Legend tells that if you climb the mountain silently, without turning back once, and face east from the church ruins at the top, you will be granted three wishes.

View from the church ruins, after we had made our wishes...

View from the church ruins, after we had made our wishes…

It was a memorable end to a wonderful trip, which only left us wanting to come back again someday.

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Caves and Cliffs

We’ve been moving slow taking in the site on Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Yesterday we went to a lighthouse and found a beautiful black stone beach. The stones were perfectly smooth as were the cliff rocks.

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We went into Hellnar to get some info on the trails in Snæfellsjökull National Park and had a bit to eat.  The info center is great with some interesting information about the history of the local fisherman as well as the flora and fauna of the area.  They have lots of things to touch too – wool, bones, balene.

We then took a hike in a lava tube formed after an eruption that occurred about 8000 years ago.  The lava slowly cooled, from the top down with the still hot lava running underneath the cooled lava ceiling.  It eventually all drained out and cooled leaving a small cave system.

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Diagram posted at the entrance to the cave.

(Cave Vatnshellir http://vatnshellir.is/).  We saw solidified lava of various colors

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The red is due to the iron content and the smoothness is because it cooled slowly.

and shapes

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‘Stone bats’ – Stalactites of lava.

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Stalagmites of lava.

as well as bacteria living on the materials in the cave.

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This bacteria needs complete darkness to live – obviously some died so we could see them.

It was 2500ISK, guided and worth it – be sure to dress warm and wear good hiking boots.

Today we walked along the coast and sat and watched common gulls fly, feed and tend to their young.

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Gulls nesting in the cliffs in Hellnar.

The walk was beautiful through lava fields with the turquoise sea in constant sight.

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Walk between Hellnar and Arnarsttapi.

The trails however needed some TLC.

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The trails are heavily used and very narrow so this is what happens – three paths from one.

Robins and I went to perhaps our last hot pot in Lysuholl.  Nice and hot but their thing is algae and it was a bit much – kinda like swimming in a hot lake.

Tomorrow we’re off to our last ‘new’ place – Stykkishólmur.  Bird cliffs, volcano museum, library of water and some beautiful walks.

Welcome to Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Robins and Z finished up their two- week volunteer work with stronger muscles, more knowledge and new friends.  It was an intense two weeks and it was sad to leave.  We are now on our way to the last leg of our journey to Snæfellsness Peninsula.

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We left yesterday from Reykjavik – our first stop Borgarnes.  We sat for a while a Edduveröld, drank lots of coffee and had a nice dinner right on the sea.  We were there so long we saw a high and low tide.  The food was fair but too expensive – it’s a nice place to sit and have coffee.

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Low tide at Borgarnes.

We traveled through beautiful countryside, typical of Iceland, to arrive at our place for the next three nights – Tradir Guesthouse.

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Strong rain clouds in the background and bog cotton in the foreground.

Tradir is a small, family run place on the Southern part of Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  It’s comfortable, the food is amazing and the front and back yard are incredible – to the front, views of Snæfellsjökull

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Snæfellsjökull in the distance.

and to the back, he sea .

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Low tide behind the guesthouse

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Tidal pool creatures

Lupin Removal and a Soak

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Nookta Lupine (lupinus nootkatensis)

We hiked out toward Morsárjökull today to tackle the never ending battle of removing Nootka lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis)  (http://mapcarta.com/17602022). This species of lupine is native to Alaska and was brought to Iceland in 1945 to help reduce soil erosion.  Lupine, being a nitrogen fixing plant, grows very well in the rocky nutrient poor soils in much of Iceland.  It has certainly done what it was brought here to do – too well, in fact – and now it grows so tall and quickly that outcompetes native lichens, mosses, and low shrubs, blocking their access to sunlight and taking up precious root space.  As lupine conto use to spread there has been a marked decrease in native flora diversity.  

Native Flora

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Arctic River Beauty (Chamerion latifolium)

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Open field of native flora

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Purple saxifrage

In order to ensure the lupine would be fully eradicated, We removed plants by the roots, being conscious about collecting all seeds.

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Lupine seeds and flowers

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Lupine plant with nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots.

We managed to remove all the lupine along one of the river beds, but our efforts seemed futile as we continued our hike and saw fields of more and more and more lupine.

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Field of lupine

Although we only spent one day on this project, making just a tiny dent in the total population, each group of volunteers in this program spends some time combating this invasive species.

“If only we could go back 1100 years. That’s when Iceland’s trees were all cut down, creating the erosion problem in the first place. If only someone had introduced a different, less aggressive form of lupine…if only Iceland could recruit a few thousand more sheep-herders….” (http://humanflowerproject.com/index.php/weblog/comments/erosion_v_eruption_lupine_in_iceland/).

After several hours of lupine removal, we hiked a bit further into the valley to a natural hot pot.  We relaxed in the naturally warm waters feeling good about our work and knowing that it will continue.

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The waterproof boots did their job!!

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We hiked a bit to the left of this valley to find the natural hot pots.

Another awesome day of work and relaxation in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

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A Tale of Trails…

This week, we’ve been working to improve some of the trails in the park.

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Hiking trails in Skaftafell, color coded by difficulty: Green for very easy, Blue for easy, Red for harder, and Black for beware…

As we have learned over our time here, there are two key trail features that need constant updating and improving:

1) Steps, that ease the gradient of the trail, and gently guide hikers in the right direction, keeping them from wandering off or forming side paths that erode away the soil and crush the fragile plants and moss growing along the edges.

Steps are lined with stones and turf to keep rogue hikers from veering off to the side

Steps are lined with stones and turf to keep rogue hikers from veering off to the side

and

2) Good drainage paths (typically called water bars), that allows rain water to flow away from the path and into the foliage, rather than collecting into puddles and eroding the soil.

A drainage ditch, which allows rainwater to flow directly into the grass, rather than building up in the path

This water bar when completed will direct rain water right off the path into the valley below

We spent yesterday finishing up the steps that we started last week. Many of the steps on the trail were old and starting to sag, so we pulled out the boards and reset them to be as straight as possible.  To keep the boards from sagging again, we dug in stubs on either side, and hammered them together (our hammering skills improved tremendously, thanks to our work on the boardwalk!).  When all of the steps were finished, we added in stones and turf collected from the site, placing them around the edges of the steps to make them appear more natural, and to prevent people from using the exposed soil as an extra, unintentional step.

Nobody will try to climb up the sides of these steps!

Nobody will try to climb up the sides of these steps!

Today we got to explore a new trail, one that was very narrow and steep in many places requiring better drainage to lessen erosion. It was easy to see how one big storm could cause the whole path to simply erode away to the bottom.

A much narrower trail than our previous one

A much narrower trail than our previous one

To fix this problem, we dug trenches (like the one in the photo above) every ten or twenty meters along the trail.  The trenches cut horizontally across the path where it curves, so that water flowing down will be diverted more easily.  Once we finished digging the trenches, we used flat rocks gathered from around the site to fill in the bottom and line the downhill edge. The rocks catch water as it runs down the path, and the slight gradient in the trench directs it outwards towards the edge of the hill, where it will be absorbed by grass, trees and mosses.

A small water bar, filled in with carefully arranged rocks

We hiked all over the trail to find rocks that could fit together perfectly, like a mosaic

A larger drainage ditch, carefully dug by Z and our new friend and fellow volunteer, Dione

A larger drainage ditch built by Z and our new friend and fellow volunteer, Dione (see the ditch without sones in the image above)

One of the nicest parts of our experience in the park so far has been getting to know the other volunteers in the program.  Since most of them are from England (Working Abroad, which coordinates the volunteers, is a British company), we’ve spent a lot of time comparing words, phrases, foods, and customs.  One British custom that we’ve particularly enjoyed is the 11AM tea break:

Every day we take hot water, tea, and English biscuits into the park with us!

Every day we take hot water, tea, and English biscuits into the park with us to break up the morning.  Some of us also use this as an opportunity for a quick nap…

After we finished for the day, we had one final (and unexpected) task, to pack in the perishable rations for the rest of the week — fresh vegetables, bread, and Skyr, our favorite Icelandic yogurt (which is really a soft cheese).  The food will last us through Friday, when our two week project ends.

Hard to believe how quickly the time is flying by!

Jökulsárlón – “glacial river lagoon”

One of the most photogenic places we’ve been.  If you never saw this place it’s hard to imagine that it really exists.

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Even though there were so many people there, it seemed as if we were there alone.

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Jökulsárlón looking north at Breiðamerkurjökull glacier (an outlet glacier of the larger Vatnajökull glacier).

It was like a old quiet house where you hear the wind and the occasional creak in the floor.  Here it was the crashing of ice and the running water getting stuck and swirling between the icebergs.

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One of the many large icebergs that calved from the tongue of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier. Only about 10% of the iceberg is visible above the surface.

Prior to 1890, Vatnajökull glacier pressed up against the North Atlantic and sections calved (broke off) right into the ocean. Global temperatures began rising and in the early 1930’s a proglacial lake or lagoon was created when meltwater filled in the depression previously carved out by the glacier. Currently the edge of the glacier is about 19km from the ocean.  After calving from the glacier the icebergs slowly, after some considerable melting, make their way through the narrow passage way from the lagoon to the ocean.

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View looking north from the bridge which traverses the narrow passage from the lagoon to the sea.

The water can be turbulent at times making it a great feeding and nesting ground for Arctic Terns.  We saw many gathering food and bringing it back to the young in their small ground nests.

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Arctic Terns on one of the icebergs resting in between rounds of feeding.

When the icebergs eventually reach the ocean they bob around, melt and/or ‘beach’ themselves.

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Beautiful blue ice along the volcanic black sands.

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Where else in the world?

Hike to Morsárjokull and Kjos Valley

We have Saturday and Sunday free to explore the park here, so yesterday we took a very long hike out to Kjos Valley – about 12 km from our campsite – to see some of the beautiful mountains up close. Much of the walk was through very rocky terrain, and it was almost impossible not to stop every few feet to examine the most colorful ones – tons of bright green, dark red, crystalline white and sparkling black. Our walk there took about twice as long as the return trip due to our frequent stops, and our packs were considerably heavier on our way back, but it was definitely worth it – Z got some great samples to share with her students.

The start of our trek, you can just make out the mountain in the distance

The start of our trek, you can just make out the mountain in the distance

A close up of the bog cotton, once used to make socks for special occasions

A close up of the bog cotton, once used to make socks for special occasions

A sampling of some of the rocks we saw- and some evidence of frost weathering

A sampling of some of the rocks we saw- and some evidence of frost weathering

A long stretch of rocky terrain

A long stretch of rocky terrain

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V-shaped valley weathered and eroded by a glacial stream.

Purple lupin - the beautiful nightmare of icelandic landscapes. Lupin is an invasive species hat out competes all native plant species

Purple lupin – the beautiful nightmare of icelandic landscapes. Lupin is an invasive species that out competes all native plant species. It’s especially good at growing in any kind of terrain because of the nitrogen – fixing bacteria that live in its roots and produce soil from almost anything

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We could hear sections of the glacier breaking off into the plain below. It was a eery and distant sound.

A quick climb up a boulder, left from glacial melt for us to enjoy

A quick climb up an erratic (boulder deposited by a melting glacier) for us to enjoy

Z got to refill her water bottle from some of the fresh glacial meltwater - yum!

Z got to refill her water bottle from some of the fresh glacial meltwater – yum!

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Kjos Valley – Our main trail marker

We were all a little tired and sore after hiking nearly twenty miles, but the views alone were worth it. Thank you, park, for another lovely day of exploration.

Boardwalk Completed – Check!!

Day two of the boardwalk construction required a lot more hammering of planks, rock collecting and placement as well as fitting the 4 sections of the boardwalk together.  We constructed it in 4 sections in case it had to be moved or any section needed to be replaced.

Working to get the 2 of the 4 sections flush to one another and at an appropriate height.

Working to get the 2 of the 4 sections flush to one another and at an appropriate height.

Three-quarters done as of yesterday afternoon.

Three-quarters done as of yesterday afternoon.

The rocks were collected from the area in which we were working.  They were brought down to the outwash plains by seasonal glacial meltwaters as well as volcanic eruptions.  The wood was reused from what was left of the the Skeiðará Bridge – destroyed by flooding due to the 1996 Grimsvotn eruption.

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There was so much water from this glacial burst (jökulhlaup) that the water rose over the levees built in the 1972-73 and took out the Skeiðará Bridge along the ring road.  For more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skei%C3%B0ar%C3%A1

It was a warm and successful day.

It was a warm and successful day.

Today we focused on getting the last of the planks in place and building stone steps leading up to the boardwalk.  We also collected stone to line the path before and after the boardwalk.

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Lining the trail with larger stones to keep hikers on the path and lessen erosion due to human impact.

The stones were so varied in shape, color and texture.  It was like collecting shells at the beach – I found myself collecting slowly at times so I could gaze over all the rock – what fun!!

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Mostly igneous (basalt and andesite) and some sedimentary (breccia and tuff).

The big one required a rock net and 5-6 of us.  These were used as the stepping stones up to the boardwalk. Picking out and placing the rock was mulled over for a while and almost always required rearrangement.

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So heavy!!

We filled in the gaps between the big rocks with smaller rocks and finer sediment.

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Finishing touches.

After 3 days, we have completed a simple yet beautiful boardwalk. The 10 of us are happy with the work we’ve done and with our final product. We are so glad to be apart of this process and have a new respect for trail development and maintenance.  There is so much problem solving and intensive labor that goes into developing trails that are both safe and make a minimal impact on the environment in which we hike.

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Boardwalk and stone trail looking east from Morsárdalur.

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Boardwalk across a section of outwash plain between two levees.

It was very cloudy and cool this morning but around 4pm, the Sun shone, warmed us up and has presented a gorgeous sunset.  Night all…

Good night Sun - for a few hours...

Good night Sun – for a few hours…

Work day 3 – Rain Relief and Boardwalk Building

After a lot of rain our first two days here (enough to turn our paths to mud, and to keep us indoors for half the day yesterday), we were all very happy to awaken to bright sunshine and blue skies this morning.

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Warm sunny weather today – well welcomed after yesterdays unceasing rain.

We spent yesterday morning rebuilding some steps and water bars (paths that allow rain water to drain off the side) for a trail, to help prevent erosion and keep the trail dry and well drained. However, we needed to let the steps continue to dry after the downpour, so today we started our boardwalk project.

One of the places that hikers sometimes travel through in the park is actually a river bed, which floods often, and which has fragile vegetation that can easily be killed by hiker’s footsteps. To protect the plants, and provide a safe place for visitors to hike through, we were tasked with building a set of three boardwalks that create a pathway straight through the river bed.

The first step was to collect and cut all of the wood for the project – small boards for the slats, long ones to be the bases,and little pointed stubs to lock the boardwalk into the soil. We spent most of the morning sawing up wood (we needed 70 slats, each exactly 140 cm!).

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First, saw the planks – 140cm each. And even though it looks like rain it didn’t today.

Luckily the head park ranger helped us drive the wood down to the river bed, so we didn’t need to carry it by hand (a huge help, especially given how hard it was for us to carry buckets of stone and gravel up to our steps the day before).

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Temporary boardwalks and the wood for the new permanent boardwalks, generously driven down for us

Once we got down to the site with the wood, the next step was  to build the base of the three boardwalks. Each base needs hree long beams to hold all the slats steady, all equidistant from each other to keep things balanced.

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Second, build the base – three large beams wide.

Once the base was set, we had to start hammering in the slats, keeping a small, equal-sized gap between each one. Every slat needs six nails hammered in – a big job!  For each slat, two people need to stand on the slats to keep them steady, while the other two hammer. The nails were enormous, and quite challenging to hammer through the thick wood (without them bending, splitting op the wood, or coming out the wrong side) but by the end of the day we got much more skilled at it.

Definitely a four person job

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Hammering in some of the giant nails

Not the hoped for outcome for a nail - we had fewer of these by the end of the day

Not the hoped for outcome for a nail – we had fewer of these by the end of the day

We finished out the day having completed one and a half of our three boardwalks. We left with sore arms and some blisters, but very proud of our day’s work. We’re looking forward to finishing tomorrow!

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Not done but an awesome’s day of work

Trail work day 1

We had a quick orientation in the morning and then we went to work.

Our work for the next 2 days or so is to replace steps along part of a trail.  We cut stakes, gathered pre-cut planks and loaded them into the rangers truck – thanks for driving it most of the way up.  We weren’t so lucky with the tools (saws, hammers, shovels, spades, rake, picks and iron rods and sledge hammers) which we had to carry up about a mile to the work site.

I spent time removing large rocks and widening a path so that we could build a new step.  Lucy and I then built our very own step.

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Sawing the pegs of the step.

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Hammering nails into the posts

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Collecting stones from the river to put on the trail.

This was the start of many days of good for you physical labor.  Tired and ready for sleep – the light nights will not keep us from sleep tonight for sure.