Category Archives: Places

Places I love: Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Ferns grow where water flows.

In a remote part of northern California, a small creek flows to the Pacific Ocean in the heart of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. But this isn’t any creek. This is Home Creek and for its last mile of so it flows through Fern Canyon. I think it is one of the most beautiful spots on the coast.

I took the eight mile dirt road to Gold Bluffs beach earlier this week.  It was raining gently and I had the canyon to myself.  It may lack the grandeur of the better known canyons of the south west, but it more than makes up for this with a series of intimate views as you head upstream, repeatedly crossing the creek as you go.  The sheer walls of the canyon, draped with five-finger ferns, gently reflect and soften the sound of the creek. It’s just magical.

Places I Love: Big Sur Coast

Places I Love: Big Sur
Yuccas, Redwoods and the Ocean

Where else can you stand with a blooming yucca at your feet and look down on the coast redwoods and blue of the Pacific Ocean? Probably no place other than the rugged Big Sur coast. Rising thousands of feet from a rocky shoreline it has to be one of the most spectacular coasts on Earth.

And to me it’s where the redwoods of wet northern California start to blend with the Yuccas of the dry south. In a way it’s a transition zone between my old work for the redwoods and my new work for southern California’s beaches and ocean. I can’t wait to go back.

The water of life

Ever wondered why whisky is called the water of life?  After spending a week on Islay and Jura touring seven of the nine distilleries on offer I have a new found appreciation for why. In a very real sense, the dram you drink is the essence of the island – its smokey peat and salty sea airs. But water is by far the most important ingredient.  And not just the 50% of the glass that is water, it’s the many thousands of gallons that is used and discarded along the way. Gallons we never see or think about.

Barrels waiting to be filled at Bunnahabhain
Barrels waiting to be filled at Bunnahabhain

StillsMaking whisky is basically simple: sprout barley; grind it up to a coarse flour; add water and ferment to make a strong tangy beer; distill and then leave to mature for years in oak barrels. Almost every stage of the process uses water to wet, to heat, to cool, or to wash. Millions of gallons that come from the rivers and lochs of the islands. So much water that when they have a dry spell the distilleries shut right down.  It’s called the “dark season” and gives the workers a chance to take a well-earned break. But it’s driven by the ebb and flow of rain on the island. Fortunately for us whisky lovers, its a wet place. But I for one will be hoping that changing climate doesn’t lengthen the dry season and the dark season for the stills.

Places I love: Tierra del Fuego

Places I love: Tierra del Fuego

Glacier Alley, Tierra del Fuego

Head south, way south, and before you run out of land at Cape Horn you may find yourself plying the waters of Glacier Alley. I was fortunate enough to do that a number of years ago on a small cruise ship headed to Ushuaia — the most southerly city in the world.  This sea passage is lined with glaciers slowly carving icebergs off into the ocean. But what struck me was the light. It was early January and the light lingered late on the long days of a southern summer.



Are these the youngest mountains in North America?

As a geographer, I am always on the look-out for strange and unusual facts about our world. A Ranger in the visitor center by Mono Lake threw a surprising one out at me a few weeks ago. Pointing at a series of craters extending south of Mono Lake he announced that they made up the youngest mountain range in North America — with the last eruption happening about 500 years ago.

Mono Inyo Craters -- the youngest mountains in north America?
Mono Inyo Craters — the youngest mountains in north America?

I wonder.

I realize I don’t fully understand what constitutes a mountain in America, and hence a range. Does it matter when it started to build or when it stopped? A quick check of the internet has articles from wikipedia on mega-mountains — the Appalachians, the Tetons, and such — all with justifiable claims to being the youngest.

Regardless, this chain of craters — the Mono-Inyo craters — looked fascinating from afar and I can’t wait to go back.

What do you think? Accurate claim or bogus?

Two countries, separated by a common language of play

In America kids play with their hands; in Britain they use their feet.
Blowing off steam in the playground

No doubt you have heard the phrase,  “two countries, separated by a common language,” reportedly used by George Bernard Shaw in reference to England and America. Having lived about half my life in each now, I am often on the look out for differences. Its common knowledge that the Brits like to use lots of “u” to round out words like flavour, or add extra syllables to make aluminium even harder to spell (or should I saw the Americans like to drop them….).  Brits like “warm beer,” Americans like “cold fizzy beer.” The Brits like their footballs round, while the Americans will take them oval any day. The list goes on.

Watching my son in the playground the other day I was struck with another difference: one that starts early and just keeps growing.  Britain’s national game is definitely football (that’s soccer to us Americans).  America’s national game is a little harder to determine — perhaps baseball, or basketball, or football (the one with the oval ball to us Brits). In other words  Brits like to play with their feet: the American’s with their hands.  My latest theory is that this starts early.

CIMG5255 [Ronald Wong / Flick]

Playgrounds in America and Britain are pretty much the same. Hundreds of kids running around playing games with their friends while they blow of steam. And on both sides of the Atlantic balls and walls play a big role. Growing up, I spent hours playing football against the wall.  The idea is simple. You line up and take turns kicking it against the wall. If you miss, you stand on the wall and try to block the next shot. My son also spends hours with a ball against the wall, but he always hits it with his hands. Otherwise its pretty much the same game, even down to the arcane rules governing “cherry bombs,” “across the world,” and “no holdsies.”  Look further across the playground and in Britain you’ll see balls of all sizes being kicked around. In America almost no kid kicks the ball, they all use their hands to hit tether balls, play four-square, or just toss them around.

I don’t know which came first, the kids aping the professionals or the professionals outgrowing kid games, but its clear that in America kids are being groomed to play ball sports with their hands; and in Britain to ball play with their feet.

Places I love: Pendragon Castle, Mallerstang

This place has it all: a crumbly castle set on a hill above the River Eden as its heads out of the hills to the plains below. It even has tales of Arthurian Knights, dragons, and a spectral chicken. Yes a spectral chicken that will appear before anyone who tries to find the gold rumoured buried beneath the stones. Find the gold and the chicken will come and scratch and claw the earth until its hidden again. Love it.

Places I love: Striding Edge

The aptly named Striding Edge, Lake District National Park
The aptly named Striding Edge, Lake District National Park

I love walking. And there are few places better to walk in the world than in England. Where else can you scramble along rocky ridges, ascend beautiful mountains, and descend at the end of the day to a welcoming public house for a pint and a packet of crisps?

And there are few places finer to walk than the Lake District, and few finer walks that climbing Helvellyn by Striding Edge on a warm sunny day.  It’s the third highest peak in England and marks the ancient boundary between Cumberland and Westmorland — counties that have long since disappeared but stay alive in the minds of many. Helvellyn is believed to be named in the ancient Cumbric language for the yellow (velyn) moor (hal) that coats its broad top.

Striding Edge is the classic way to attain the summit. It is also famous in my family lore. My great uncle Herbert slid off down the scree slopes to the edge to the distant tarn below while walking with friends. He lived to walk another day.  Others have been less lucky.  As you can see, I had a perfect spring day to scramble along the edge and reveled in the panoramic views of the Lake District all around. Can’t wait to go back.

Places I Love: Eden and Mallerstang Common

I’m headed back to the north of England in my mind today — to the Eden Valley and the wild open spaces of Mallerstang Common. The River Eden is unusual for England in that it flows from south to north — uphill as it were. It rises in the open moorland of Mallerstang Common on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. This is an ancient landscape full of tales of of dragons, Arthurian knights, and the wild adventures of highway man Dick Turpin.

Mallerstang Common
Mallerstang Common

If you walk one of the old tracks that runs along the edge of the moorland you’ll come across the first (or last) Eden Benchmark. This beautiful piece of sculpture is one of ten that mark the passage of the river from source to sea. The sinuous gap in the sculpture remembers the sinuous form of the river as it cuts a path between the granite to the south and gritstone to the north.  We turned around at that point and retraced our footsteps back to the car, but the benchmark still beckons and invites me to explore Eden and find the other nine that still await.

Do you know of any other sculpture trails set into beautiful landscapes?

Eden Benchmark watches over the vale
Eden Benchmark watches over the vale

Places I Love: Frostrow

The Howgills from Frostrow Common
The Howgills from Frostrow Fell

It’s funny how a place can feel like home even when you’ve never lived there. For me that place is Frostrow Fell in northern England. My parents live there and their home is situated where the arable land gives way to the rough moorland of the open common. People have lived in the footprint of the house for at least one thousand years — likely since the time when the Vikings came. They weren’t all marauders who dragged their ill-gotten gains back across the sea– some stayed and settled and made a new life. Some of them chose this place. And I can see why.

Looking back at High Branthwaites
Looking back at High Branthwaites

It’s aptly named Frostrow –there are a few weeks each year in the depths of winter when the sun barely crests the hills behind leaving a deep frost pocket behind. But on a sunny day — winter or summer — there is no place like it. The view across the valley to the Howgill Fells is mesmerizing. I like to imagine that it really hasn’t changed much in generations. Although the landscape has been deeply shaped by people for thousands of years it feels natural. It shows me that with care we can live with the landscape. The people who have made their home here for generations are as much a part of the landscape as the trees and rivers and moorland. Their careful husbandry of the land maintains its natural beauty — now recognized as part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

It’s a place that feels open and free. I see that now in the way my children react when they visit their grandparents. They exchange sidewalks for wide open spaces, parks for fields where they  play “wild football.”, the water tray for becks they wade and splash in, and the local “little farm” for a landscape dotted with sheep. It’s a place I love.

Playing football in the field with the Howgills in the distance
Playing football in the field with the Howgills in the distance