Friday, September 23, 2011

Forty-six Days Cycling through Iceland… with Kids

Trip Report by Charles Scott
September 2011

“Are you crazy?” I often got this reaction while cycling 1,500 miles across Iceland with my 10-year old son Sho and 4-year old daughter Saya to raise money for a United Nations environmental campaign. Sho pedaled behind me on a connected trailer cycle, and Saya sat snugly behind him strapped in a bike trailer. We carried about 100 pounds of gear.

“Crazy” is a relative term, but not necessarily pejorative. It might describe any act that includes seemingly unnecessary hardships, falls outside of mainstream behavior, or challenges the status quo. That’s why I usually answered the question with a smile and a simple, “Yes.”

Yes, I’m crazy and lucky. Cycling for forty-six days with my kids through this dramatic, rugged, inspiringly beautiful country offered a remarkable contrast to our mainstream life in the dense urban mess of New York City, where I feel disconnected from nature’s rhythms. Most days, I sit in a climate-controlled environment staring into a computer screen for hours on end. And I am bombarded by constant temptations to consume material goods. In addition to raising money for a United Nations tree planting campaign, the trek through Iceland was an attempt to share with my kids an experience of unspoiled nature, a place where humans have not yet subjugated their surroundings.

Many people were concerned about the welfare of my kids, asking me, “Don’t you think it’s dangerous to ride with your kids on busy roads with passing cars?”
Answer: We trained on the streets New York City. If you wear reflective gear and don’t go too fast, I think it’s reasonably safe.

Several asked, “Won’t your daughter get bored, riding for hour after hour in a bike trailer?”

Answer: Yes. What’s wrong with being bored? That’s what imagination is for.

Others asked, “Isn’t it too much to expect a ten-year old boy to cycle for six weeks, often through rain and cold wind?”

Answer: Sho didn’t think so.

He and I cycled across Japan, 2,500 miles in 67 days, when he was eight years old. And he’s already looking forward to another adventure cycling trip next summer.

He regularly tells people, “A kid can do a whole lot more than most adults think.”
Arriving on the summer solstice in Reykjavik, latitude 66 degrees north, it took us a few days to get used to the near-constant daylight.

But the magical experience of cycling beneath a midnight sun made up for the mild disruption to our sleep patterns, and served as a real-world science lesson for my kids.

Sho marveled at the phenomenon and explained the earth’s tilt to Saya.

But at four years old, she preferred an anthropomorphic explanation: “The sun doesn’t want to miss summer, so it stays up all night.”

The ride through Iceland was like taking an inspirational and educational field trip. Sho and Saya discovered a tiny carnivorous mountain plant, snacked on wild crow berries while hiking past majestic waterfalls, explored a massive glacier, witnessed the powerful calm of a humpback whale diving and resurfacing, and scaled the edges of towering, vertigo-inducing bird cliffs that overlooked an endless, sparkling ocean expanse. We became enthusiastic bird watchers, identifying oyster catchers, puffins, snipes, eiders, razorbills, and arctic terns.

While cycling through the east fjords, we came across a scene I will not soon forget: fifteen whooping swans coasting serenely over the sea, large alabaster forms stretching out long necks to take gentle sips of the glowing water. We ate lunch amid vast lava fields strewn with black boulders and belching sulfur vents. We rode sturdy Icelandic horses, camped in the wild, and awoke to the cries of arctic terns hunting above the softly lapping ocean surf nearby.

While inspired by Iceland’s raw beauty, I also felt small and fragile in the face of nature’s power and indifference. A glacial flood triggered by a volcano washed away the road we had traversed just days earlier. Sometimes the headwind was so strong that we struggled to maintain a pitifully slow pace. Sho and I shivered, despite many layers of clothing, when the temperature dropped to the low 40’s F, and rain soaked through our “waterproof” gloves and socks (my daughter stayed safe and warm in her trailer). Our answer was to pedal harder to stay warm. I told my son, “This ride was supposed to be hard. Sometimes an adventurer just suffers for a while.”

We met a stream of friendly people. Passing motorists stared at our unusual bike setup and often gave us a thumbs up.

Some tourists pulled over to snap our picture as we cycled past. Sho usually gave them a wave, while Saya made crazy faces and stuck out her tongue. Locals who heard about our charity ride offered us places to stay, gave us discounts or free entry to museums, and commiserated with us about the wind and rain.

Many people told us about recent changes in the country’s climate. A group of scientists we met explained that, while Iceland’s glaciers are retreating steadily, the most dramatic change is happening beneath the surface, as the ice is hollowed out by ever increasing amounts of flowing water.

A fisherman told me that, since 1980, he has measured a 2 degree Celsius increase in the average temperature of the water where he fishes. In the past few years, great numbers of mackerel have begun to appear off the coast of Iceland, moving north in search of colder water and causing tensions between Iceland and the EU over fishing quotas. People speculate that one reason for the recent decrease in the local puffin population may be that the encroaching mackerel are eating the sandeels that are the puffins’ primary food source. When we visited the Westman Islands, previously home of the world’s largest puffin colony, we learned that the vast majority of nests were empty this year.

Living in New York City, it is easy to ignore or minimize the impact of these climatic changes.

But as I cycled through a country in which the forces of nature so clearly held sway, I felt a powerful and humble connection to the world around me. We cycled past baby sheep peeking out from behind a protective mother, or ducklings crowding close to their parents. We ducked below aggressive arctic terns swooping down from above to protect their young. Hearty shrubs and bright delicate flowers struggled to grow in harsh lava fields. I recognized in these animals and even in the plants the same resilience that I hope to cultivate in my children.

As we cycled along one of Iceland’s many dramatic fjords, Saya declared, “I’m in love with horses and arctic terns!” It is this sense of connection to the natural world, and a desire to treasure and protect the wilderness that remains, that I hope my children will internalize. It is something I hope we will all take to heart, treating the earth, and our brief time on it, as a gift to be cherished. Perhaps then we can begin to reverse the cycle of unsustainable living that has become our generation’s signature legacy.

Call me crazy.