Floris van Breugel on December 4th, 2014

I still have a few 2015 calendars – order now to get them in time for the holidays!
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~ ~ ~

After spending three and a half years in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, I have returned to Southern California (for now), to continue my research at Caltech. Being back within driving distance of the southern deserts made it possible to once again revive an old family tradition: celebrating Thanksgiving in Death Valley, and this time my girlfriend, Aubrey, was able to join us.

My parents are originally from the Netherlands, so as the first American of the family, it was my responsibility to introduce to them the concept of the Thanksgiving feast. One day while in elementary school I came home and told my mom that we had to roast a turkey and bake pumpkin pie, because that’s what people do. My mom thought about it for a second and said, “okay, well, cooking a turkey and going to Death Valley are not mutually exclusive.”

Thus began a family tradition of spending Thanksgiving in the desert, feasting on turkeys and pies while enjoying the sunshine and solitude of the quiet desert.

Our turkey, brined, stuffed, and ready to go into the oven.

Our turkey, brined, stuffed, and ready to go into the oven.

Aubrey, ready to slice into our roasted turkey!

Aubrey, ready to slice into our roasted turkey!

This year, Aubrey and I were in charge of the turkey – our first time! We started a few days in advance, brined the bird, and roasted it to golden perfection. Then we packed everything up, and headed for the desert. Our first camp was near my favorite dunes in the park, and we wandered barefoot along the sandy crest at sunset.

We spent the rest of the week camping in canyons and washes, exploring the desert and enjoying good company.

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Sunset Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Toes in the Sand : Prints Available

Sunset light on the dunes in California's Death Valley National Park, taken while I wriggled my bare toes in the sand.

Thanksgiving Camp

Camp, with my parents and girlfriend in Death Valley. The strange red cube is my father's design and construction - a portable heated cabin for 4.

Barrel Cactus, Death Valley National Park, California

A Spiny Fella : Prints Available

A small cotton top cactus (Echinocactus polycephalus), nestled among the rocks of a canyon in Death Valley National Park.

Desert Holly, Death Valley National Park, California

Gnarled Holly : Prints Available

The gnarled branches of this Desert Holly tell the story of the difficult life this plant has led eking out a living among the rocks of California's Death Valley National Park.

Warm Sunshine, Death Valley National Park, Wash

Life in the Wash : Prints Available

Warm sunshine illuminates the bushes that dot a rocky wash in California's Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48, with over 5,000 square miles of protected land, 95% of which is wilderness. The park gets approximately 190 visitors per square mile per year. By comparison, nearby Joshua Tree National Park sees 1,100, Yosemite 3,300, and Gates of the Arctic in Alaska has less than 1.

It’s difficult to comprehend this vast expanse of treeless, windswept, yet delicately beautiful land. So, part way through our trip, Aubrey and I set out for an overnight in the mountains overlooking the valley. We shared a bottle of wine under the stars while reading Jack London.

The following morning a light layer of clouds had rolled in and we were treated to one of the most brilliant sunrises I’ve seen in a long time. Underneath the fiery sky the desert valley extended for over sixty miles, and we even had a view of Mt Whitney 70 miles away.

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View of Death Valley, Barrel Cactus, California

Glorious Dawn : Prints Available

Sunrise over Death Valley, with a view extending all the way to Badwater (center left near the horizon), the Mesquite Dunes (right), and Telescope Peak (the highest point). This little cotton top cactus (Echinocactus polycephalus) could not have landed a more picturesque view point!

There’s nothing that soothes the soul like staring off in the vast expanse of emptiness.

Enjoying the Emptiness

Aubrey, enjoying the wonderful view of nothingness.

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My 2015 calendars arrived, and they look fantastic. I will start shipping orders this week.
Click to order your 2015 Art in Nature Adventure Series Calendars now!
Limited supplies, order soon!

~ ~ ~

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the depths of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back to the womb of Time. – Jack London, Call of the Wild

For me, like Jack London’s Buck, there’s only one place where such ecstasy is to be found: wilderness. Though it was pure coincidence, Aubrey and I celebrated the 50th anniversary of the wilderness act by spending two weeks backpacking through the Arrigetch Peaks of Alaska’s Brooks Range in Gates of the Arctic National Park. Combined with the neighboring Noatak Wilderness Area, there are over 22,000 square miles of true wilderness there. No roads, no trails, and certainly no cellular networks or internet. Grizzly bears outnumber the people.

With the exception of long rafting trips, access to this area (and most other parts of the park) requires chartering a bush plane. The easiest access is through Bettles, a small town (year-round population of 12) that is itself only accessible by plane. We started our trip at pump-station five, partway along the Dalton Highway, which parallels the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, where we were picked up by Brooks Range Aviation for the 10 minute flight to Bettles.

A truck drives down the Haul Road (Dalton Hwy), with the Alaska Pipeline in the distance.

We spent the afternoon organizing our gear and sorting food. We would be carrying 16 days of food with us, which for a hearty 3,500 calorie-per-day per-person diet comes out to about 35 pounds of food, each. The park requires using bear proof canisters, so we had to squeeze all that food into two large and two medium cans, which was not easy considering that the volume was designed for a total of 24 person-days of food, not 32. But with our careful food choices and packing we got everything in: 7 sausages, 3 pounds of cheese, lots of dehydrated beans, rice, dehydrated pasta sauce, instant grits, ramen, 5 pounds of homemade energy bars, 5 pounds of dried fruit and nuts, 3 pounds of chocolate, 3 pounds of coconut butter, a liter of olive oil, and more. This was the longest trip we have had to plan and pack for thus far, and we didn’t want to under, or over, estimate what we would need. At the end of the trip we found we had hit the mark perfectly, with just a day or two of food left over that we had reserved in case we got stuck in bad weather waiting to be picked up.

In addition to the food, we had the rest of our gear of course. A stove, two light pots, seventy ounces of fuel, a 4-season tent, an 8 oz tarp, 20° down sleeping bags, sleeping pads, warm layers, rain gear, emergency gear, crazy creek camp chairs, a sat phone, a gps, extra batteries, and, how could I forget… my camera gear. Somehow everything did fit into our 85 liter packs, with just the camp chairs strapped to the outside. I did have to leave an extra water bottle behind, though.

The following morning we met our pilot and took off in a de Havilland Beaver float plane for a 45 minute flight over the foothills of the Brooks Range. The pilot weaved in and out of narrow mountain passes until finally circling down into the Alatna river valley and landing on Circle Lake, which was more of a pond than a lake. We strapped on our packs, and hopped onto the shore. We watched our pilot take off, and breathed a nervous sigh of relief. We were now about as alone as you can get in the modern world, and would be for the next two weeks.

The Arrigetch Peaks are located in the Brooks Range, in the north of Alaska.

The Arrigetch Peaks are located in the Brooks Range, in the north of Alaska.

Aubrey steps off the float plane, into the wilderness.

There are no (official) trails in Gates of the Arctic National Park, and the going is slow. For the first 3-4 miles we wrestled our way through the orange and red bushes until finally coming upon a game trail turned boot-track. After a few more miles, we called it a day and set up camp. The following day, after caching one of the 20 lb bear cans (to be picked up later in the trip), we made it up to the base of the peaks.

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Aubrey makes her way through the bushes above the Alatna river valley.

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Our spectacular campsite under the Arrigetch peaks.

Although we left as much technology behind as possible, we did bring a satellite phone, which was necessary to communicate with our pilot and also allowed us to get daily weather updates from Aubrey’s father back in Seattle (thanks!!!). The weather was deteriorating, so we decided to stay put for a few nights. The temperatures dropped quickly, and it was clear the season was already starting to transition from fall into winter (it was still late August, mind you).

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Autumn Color in the Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range, Alaska

Arctic Transitions : Prints Available

Autumn color in late August, together with the season's first dusting of snow, make for a spectacular view of the Arrigetch Peaks region of Alaska's Brooks Range, deep in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

On our second morning, while eating our cheesy bacon grits under our cooking tarp, we had our first visitor: a grizzly bear, who Aubrey named Walter. We quickly grabbed the bear spray (powerful pepper spray) and told him to run off, trying our best to hide the trembling in our voices. The bears in that area are still truly wild, and haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting bacon. So, Walter ran off to go dig up ground squirrels on the other side of the creek.

Grizzly Bear, Brooks Range, Alaska

On the Prowl : Prints Available

A grizzly bear (click for larger image), looks for ground squirrels near our backcountry camp below the imposing peaks of Alaska's Brooks Range in Gates of the Arctic National Park.

On our third morning the weather cleared out, and I crawled out of the tent before sunrise to scramble up to a high point for view of the surrounding peaks. The temperatures at night had started to drop into the high teens, and the plants were covered in crystalline layers of hoar frost that crunched satisfyingly underfoot.

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Frosted Blueberry Bushes, Brooks Range, Alaska

Blueberry Frosting : Prints Available

Hoar frost coats the red leaves of a blueberry bush in the mossy landscape of Alaska's Brooks Range.

Arrigetch Peaks Panorama, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska

Arrigetch Peaks : Prints Available

The Arrigetch Peaks, at sunrise, seen from a high ridge about a thousand feet above my backcountry campsite. The Arrigetch Peaks are part of Alaska's Brooks Range, and protected as wilderness by the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

With clear skies overhead, it was time to pack up and move camp. We picked our way through mile upon mile of granite boulders, skirting along a chain of small lakes until we finally arrived at the end of a valley, surrounded by the most imposing granite spires I’ve ever seen (yes, even more impressive than Patagonia, I thought!). I was so thrilled by the landscape surrounding us that I was determined to camp right there. We found a large flat boulder and pitched the tent. That evening I headed up towards the base of the peaks to explore. The previous night and day had been quite cold, forming 12 inch long fingers of ice on the stream. The stream had since stopped flowing due to a lack of meltwater, leaving the ice fingers floating in the air, attached only by a precarious connection to the rocks in the stream bed.

Aubrey, climbing up the talus slopes along the valley of aquarius.

Me, thrilled with the view surrounding our campsite!

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Arrigetch Peaks Ice, Brooks Range, Alaska

Claws of Winter : Prints Available

Ice crystals up to 12 inches long form along a small creek in a remote valley of the Brooks Range of Alaska, in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

One of the reasons I had picked this area, and this time of year, was to have a chance at seeing the aurora borealis, aka the northern lights. The Arrigetch Peaks are located right in the middle of the belt of aurora activity, and on just about any clear night the sky comes alive. Of course, clear and dark nights are hard to come by in the mountains this far north. Starting in late August, however, it gets just barely dark enough for an hour or two. Around dusk clouds had started to move in, but I set my alarm nevertheless. Weather moves quickly in the mountains, and there was no telling what might happen in a few hours. When I woke up, the skies were (partially) clear, and there, directly above us, the lights were dancing across the sky!

What is aurora? Electrons and positive ions expelled by the Sun are trapped by the Earth’s magnetic fields, directed towards the poles, and accelerate through the upper atmosphere where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms. These collisions raise the energy level of the electrons inside the atoms, and after a short time, they return to their natural, stable, level, emitting photons in the process (thereby conserving the total energy). The photons are what we see as the dancing lights, and can be colored green, red, pink, blue, and yellow, depending on the level of energy, and the type of atoms. The basic principles of physics at play here are similar to what also happens during fluorescence, which I’ve discussed at length in a previous post: Moonlight Fossicking.

I should admit that to the naked eye the lights were not nearly so colorful as the camera was able to record in a three second exposure. Perhaps on darker (more wintery) nights, the colors are more obvious. Still, it was thrilling to see the lights as the danced across the sky to a silent beat dictated by the suns solar activity 93 million miles away.

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Camping Under the aurora borealis, Brooks Range, Alaska

Boreal Nights : Prints Available

The aurora borealis, aka the Northern Lights, dance over my tent (illuminated from within by my girlfriend) in our remote backcountry campsite in the Arrigetch Peaks of Alaska's Brooks Range, deep in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The next day we explored the surrounding area, scrambling up the talus ridges in search of inspiring views. We stumbled on the most spectacular campsite either of us had ever seen. We just had to camp there, so we hiked back down to our tent, packed up, and moved everything a quarter mile up the ridge.

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Our tent, surrounded by the epic granite spires of the Arrigetch peaks.

Aubrey, wondering where all this snow came from.

That night more weather blew in, with high winds, and a significant amount of snow fall (at least, for August). We whipped up some instant butterscotch pudding, crawled in the tent, and read Call of the Wild. It’s times like these that I’m glad we packed the 7 lb tent. Even with 60+ mph gusts buffeting the tent, we were warm and safe inside. The next morning the weather hadn’t abated, and we were worried that continued snow, and ice forming from melt-freeze cycles, would make traversing the talus slopes increasingly more dangerous. We packed up and made the long journey back to the safety of the valley below.

Tent in the Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range, Alaska

My tent, after it snowed overnight, under the majestic Arrigetch Peaks in Alaska's Brooks Range.

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Snow Capped Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range, Alaska

Misty Mountains : Prints Available

A clearing storm reveals the majestic snow-capped peaks rising out of the mist in the Arrigetch Peaks region of Alaska's Brooks Range, deep in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Sunrise over the Snowy Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range, Alaska

Snowy Arrigetch Morning : Prints Available

Sunrise over the Arrigetch Peaks (center: Ariel Peak) after a fresh dusting of snow in Alaska's Brooks Range, deep in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

After two days of inclement weather, the skies cleared, and we started hiking up the main Arrigetch Creek drainage, toward the picturesque Arial peak. The weather report, to our delight and surprise, said we should expect the rest of our trip to be clear and sunny during the day, and bitter cold at night. Even at noon though, the northern sides of the canyons got hardly any sunshine and snow from previous days lingered. The temperature contrasts between the shady and sunny sides of the canyon were like night and day, as much 30° F. These exceptional contrasts meant our boots – summer hiking / mountaineering boots – would get soaked with melting snow during the day, and freeze solid every night. Same, of course, with our socks. Realizing it was pointless to put on precious dry socks (I had 3 pairs for the whole trip) only to have them get soaking wet during the day, I took to putting my wet socks in a plastic bag at night which I kept in my sleeping bag. Every morning I would take off my sacred sleeping socks, and don my warm but wet hiking socks, and wriggle my soggy feet into my frozen boots. Three hours later the leather boots would typically thaw out and I would finally start to feel my feet again.

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Aubrey hiking up the Arrigetch creek drainage towards Arial peak.

The blanket of snow across the talus slopes made hiking difficult, and forced us to abort an attempt to camp higher up in the valley. We pitched the tent on a nice flat area with great views of the snow-crusted peaks surrounding us. As soon as the sun went down the cold started to set in. The forecast for that night was 20° F or so, but when we awoke at 1 am to see the aurora my thermometer read 9° F. We made some honey-ginger tea, a gift from our friends in Anchorage, and watched the dancing lights from the comfort of our sleeping bags. After an hour or so Aubrey went back to sleep, and I forced my feet into my frozen boots to walk down to the river for some more photographic options.

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Watching Aurora Borealis from a Tent, Brooks Range, Alaska

Northern Nights : Prints Available

Watching the northern lights (aurora borealis) dance above the imposing peaks of Alaska's Brooks Range while snuggled in our tent was a most memorable experience. The arctic at its most impressive! 

Aurora Borealis over the Arrigetch Peaks, Brooks Range, Alaska

Arctic Angel : Prints Available

A spectacular display of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) overhead in the Brooks Range of Alaska, deep in the Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The next morning we waited impatiently in the warm safety of the tent until finally the sun crested the mountains at 10 am. Our boots were so frozen that to put them on we had thaw them out by putting water bladders filled with boiling water inside them. The forecast for the next night was 14°, which based on the pattern thus far meant we would likely be facing a 5° night if we stayed put. With proper winter sleeping bags and footwear this would be no problem, but we had our 20° summer sleeping bags and boots. It was time to head down below tree line, hopefully below snow line, where we could have a small fire to dry out.

Aubrey thaws her boots by the fire.

Up until now, the trip had been cold, but relaxing. We’d spent half of our days waiting out storms, leisurely exploring the peaks, reading Jack London, and drinking hot chocolate fortified with coconut butter. With a long spell of high pressure ahead of us, and lightened backpacks, it was time to put in some miles to get to our pickup point: Takahula Lake, about 20 miles away. It was here, also, that we left the more established game trails and boot tracks, for this was a route that far fewer visitors took.

We did our best to join short sections of game trails, carved out over the years, perhaps even decades, by the bears, moose, and wolves that call this place home. At times, though, the bushes were so thick that finding a trail of any kind, no matter how faint, was hopeless. The best strategy was to put your head down (to protect your eyes), and just wrestle your way through the alder, channeling your inner bear, or dominant primordial beast as Jack London would call it. Although it was written in reference to a city dog adjusting to his new place among the tough conditions of life as a sled dog in the upper Yukon, this quote captures much of our progression over the next three days of bushwhacking.

The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck, and under the fierce conditions of trail life it grew and grew. Yet it was a secret growth. His newborn cunning gave him poise and control. He was too busy adjusting himself to the new life to feel at ease, and not only did he not pick fights, but he avoided them whenever possible. A certain deliberateness characterized his attitude. – Jack London, Call of the Wild

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

If it's not slide alder and willow, it can't be considered bushwhacking.

Halfway through the first day we came to a pass, still covered in several inches of snow from the storms a few days ago. Although we did not see a single living creature, there was evidence of them everywhere. Wolves chasing rabbits, apparently unsuccessfully, and enormous bear tracks which confirmed that we were indeed following bear trails most of the time. We started singing so as to minimize the chances of encountering “Ralph,” who by the size of his or her footsteps looked to be a mighty large animal. After a long descent through a forested hillside, we crossed hot springs creek, a cruel name for a glacially fed creek that was decidedly not hot, and set up camp. The next two days brought more of the same, and we began to feel at home in the brushy tundra, and the crisp but sunny autumn air.

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Aubrey, terrified that we might encounter the bear whose gigantic footsteps we were walking in.

Bear prints, wolf prints, moose prints, and.... human prints!

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

The vast alaskan wilderness of the brooks range, on a spectacularly clear day.

At last we reached Takahula Lake, a picturesque expanse of crystal clear water nestled in the southern foothills of the Brooks Range. Before I could reconsider, I stripped down and ran over the sandy beach into the frigid arctic water.. my first bath in 3 weeks. It was short lived, but oh so refreshing! Our pilot was due to arrive the following day anytime after 10 am. So we made ourselves comfortable, and started eating all the food that was left over. By the time he arrived at 5 pm the next day, we had just 2 packets of ramen, and enough beans, rice, and instant grits to last us 1-2 extra days, precisely what our target had been.

Seeing the plane touch down on the lake was both a moment of relief, and of extreme sadness, for it meant that we were headed back to civilization.

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Takahula Lake, Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park

Shades of Blue : Prints Available

The late afternoon sun illuminates a tranquil scene on the shores of Takahula Lake, in Alaska's Gates of the Arctic National Park in the foothills of the Brooks Range. 

Float Plane, Brooks Range Aviation, Alaska

Brooks Range Aviation : Prints Available

Our float plane pilot, Jim, arrives at our pickup location on Takahula Lake on a spectacular afternoon. For our flights into and out of the Arrigetch Peaks we charted through Brooks Range Aviation - wonderful people and pilots!

Hiking in the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Jim, our pilot.

From a distance, mountains, forests, and other wild landscapes take on an organically textured tapestry of geology and ecology, which with every step becomes increasingly more detailed. Yet at no single point do the senses pick up on more than they can handle. The rate of new experiences is limited to the speed with which we can move ourselves under our own power. This incredible balance of complexity and simplicity may seem like a surprising coincidence, until of course, you recall that our sensory perception and mental processing evolved specifically to handle those environments. In the modern world, however, we find ourselves inundated by sensory stimulation that far exceeds our ability to process it all, leaving our brains overworked, under slept, and in many ways, uninspired. I think Jack London’s description of White Fang (a formerly wild wolf in the Yukon who has been taken prisoner in a human camp) captures this feeling perfectly.

He was homesick. He felt a vacancy in him, a need for the hush and quietude of the stream and the cave in the cliff. Life had become too populous… The restful loneliness of the only life he had known was gone. Here the very air was palpitant with life. It hummed and buzzed unceasingly. Continually changing its intensity and abruptly variant in pitch, it impinged on his nerves and senses, made him nervous and restless and worried him with a perpetual imminence of happening. – Jack London, White Fang

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Floris van Breugel on October 18th, 2014

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~ ~ ~

Glacier Bay is located about 50 miles west of Juneau, in southeast Alaska. When the area was first surveyed in 1794, the explorers of the HMS Discovery saw only a wall of ice, nearly a mile thick and 20 miles wide. Glacier Bay, was not a bay, yet. Over the next 200 years, the glaciers receded 65 miles, revealing a complex network of inlets that comprise what we now call Glacier Bay. This remarkably quick transformation allowed John Muir, in 1879, to collect evidence for his then controversial theory that the far away Yosemite Valley had also formed through glacial carving.

Today, only eleven of the fifty named glaciers in the park reach the sea, and only one of them – Johns Hopkins Glacier – is currently advancing. At the typical glacial flow rate of 3-6 feet per year, the ice we see today at the head of the Johns Hopkins Glacier originally fell as snow around the time that first survey visited the area in 1794.

Bald Eagle, Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Cruising : Prints Available

A Bald Eagle soars in front of the massive wall of ice of the Margerie Glacier in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

The land surrounding the bay is among the newest land on Earth, having just been revealed within the past 200 years. The result is an exceptional wealth of previously untapped nutrients, which feeds an extensive food chain from plankton to migratory humpback whales. To experience this ecosystem most intimately, Aubrey and I planned a ten day sea kayaking trip, from the end of the bay back to the entrance, approximately 70 miles “downstream”. While both Aubrey and I had each been sea kayaking before, we had never gone together, never in a double kayak, and never done an overnight kayaking trip. Needless to say, there are many things we would have done differently, but all in all, it was an exceptionally memorable experience.

Food planning - yes, the four jars of coconut butter were absolutely necessary! Photo by Aubrey.

After touring the bay on the Baranof Wind, the parks day trip boat, we were dropped off with our gear and kayak, along with four other groups that were embarking on similar adventures. We quickly organized everyone’s dry bags and bear proof canisters, carried our kayak to the waters edge, and started loading. This was the very first time we loaded our kayak. In fact, it was the very first time either of us had ever loaded an expedition kayak at all. Our outfitter had assured us, however, that no one had ever had a problem fitting everything inside. It turns out you can put a lot more inside a kayak than it looks like!

Kayak drop off from the Baranof Wind.

Map of our route through the bay. We were dropped off at the green point, and finished at the magenta point.

Map of our route through the bay.

With enough food for a week and a half, several days of water (fresh water access is sporadic), and gear to survive the southeast Alaskan weather all stowed safely inside, we climbed in, and set off. Our first destination was Johns Hopkins Inlet, which our outfitter referred to as “the pocket of love” (imagine that with a kiwi accent). Indeed, though southeast Alaska is notorious for bad weather, we enjoyed calm seas and (partly) sunny skies for the first few days, while clouds and rain were visible in every direction around us.

Kayaking Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Kayaking Glacier Bay

My girlfriend, Aubrey, paddles between icebergs in the Johns Hopkins Inlet in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park on a rare sunny day.

We paddled for several miles through a slushy of icebergs, finally arriving at a black sand beach just a quarter mile away from the Johns Hopkins Glacier. Looming above the glacier we could just barely make out the tips of the Fairweather Range, the worlds highest coastal mountain range (look for a bright white edge on the left hand side of the below images). These 15,000+ foot peaks are responsible for providing the ice that feeds many of the glaciers in Glacier National Park.

Camp, by the Johns Hopkins Glacier.

Icebergs and Black Sand Beach, Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park

Arctic Diamonds : Prints Available

Icebergs collect at low tide on a black sand beach at the head of the Johns Hopkins Inlet, with a view of the Johns Hopkins Glacier and the Fairweather Mountains. This was the most spectacular site I visited on my 10-day kayaking trip to Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Johns Hopkins glacier is one of the most active tidewater glaciers in the park, resulting in a high concentration of icebergs throughout the bay. At times, the bergs are so densely packed that it is impossible to pass through – certainly so for the large cruise ships that travel the main bay. Seals, however, have no problems getting around in the icy bay, and each evening harbor seals that had been out foraging during the day came back here to rest on the safety of the floating bergs.

Harbor Seal, Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park

Chillin' : Prints Available

A Harbor Seal family (mother and young) rest while hauled out on an iceberg in the Johns Hopkins Inlet of Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

After relaxing for two days, soaking in the sun and epic scenery, we started on our voyage down the bay. As we got farther and farther away from the glacier, the icebergs became less and less common, and the color of the water changed from a teal color to a clear deep blue. The landscape transformed from ice and rock to one of mossy tree covered islands. We camped on island beaches, hoping to avoid close encounters with hungry grizzly bears that we were told might prowl the mainland (we did not see any). One evening we stumbled upon a strawberry patch laden with ripe wild berries. We whipped up our no-bake cheesecake and celebrated our good fortune by the fire with the best backcountry dessert I’ve ever had!

Picking Wild Strawberries, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Strawberry Fields Forever

My girlfriend, Aubrey, collects wild strawberries near our camp on a small island in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Wild strawberry cheesecake, and a fire by the sea, what more can you ask for?!

The next day it started raining. And it continued to rain, for four days, nonstop. This was the southeast Alaska we had been warned about. Fortunately, we had come prepared with a comfortably large tent and two tarps – one for a large vestibule, and one to cook under. We spent two full days in the tent, listening to the relentless raindrops, reading our books, and drinking hot cocoa with coconut butter (it adds a creamy, slightly nutty flavor, and lots of needed calories). With all the rain and the high humidity of the ocean air we had to take extra care with our down sleeping bags, which would lose their loft if they got wet. The rain put our tent through the ultimate test – was it possible to take it down in the pouring rain, put it in a kayak, and set up again in the pouring rain, without getting the inside wet? With some minimal acrobatics (the tent sets up from the inside), it did surprisingly well! To our great relief, our sleeping bags never did get wet.

Aubrey pokes her head out of the tent to see what it's like outside: still raining, still damp, still dark.

When it's raining out, at least you can look forward to hot cocoa with an extra scoop of coconut butter!

Tidal Patterns, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Good Tidings : Prints Available

The receding tides leave colorful patterns of mussels, seaweed, and polished rocks along the coast of Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Golden Seaweed at Lowtide, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Bay Blues : Prints Available

Golden seaweeds lift the otherwise characteristic blue mood hanging over the seas in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

After four nights of rain, we were starting to think about making the 20+ mile trip all the way back to Bartlett Cove (the park visitor center), where we would be able to dry out and warm up. Strong headwinds that morning kicked up big waves, and we worked hard to make any progress at all. After hours of strenuous paddling, we finally made it to the northern end of the sheltered Beardslee Islands. Instantly, the winds died down and the sun came out, as if rewarding us for pushing through the hard times.

Suddenly, we were surrounded by a pod of Humpback Whales, flipping their tails high in the air and surfacing for fresh air. It was as if the ocean itself was breathing. The whales are protected within the park, and it is illegal to approach closer than a quarter mile, but the whales themselves don’t always follow the rules. They had us surrounded on all sides, and after one breached less than 60 feet away we started to worry that one might accidentally capsize us! It was awe inspiring to see these enormous mammals so close, and from such a vulnerable and intimate setting as from a kayak. Some of these whales are between twenty and fifty years old, and many return to the park year after year, where they eat up to 3,000 pounds of fish every single day. After filling up all summer, they swim 3,000 miles to Hawaii to breed and raise their calves.

Breathing Humpback Whales, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Ocean's Breath : Prints Available

Two humpback whales breathing in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Humpback Whale Muscles, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Humpback Muscles : Prints Available

One afternoon while kayaking in Glacier Bay we were suddenly surrounded by humpback whales, which approached our kayak to within uncomfortable distances, but gave us a unique and unforgettable experience. Just imagine if one of those muscular mammals had tried to surface where our kayak was floating... just twenty feet away!

A breaching humpback whale, which took us by complete surprise only a hundred feet from our kayak.

Humpback Whale Breathing at Sunset, Beardslee Islands, Alaska

Fairweather Breathing : Prints Available

A young humpback whale surfaces to breath at sunset while swimming through a small channel in the Beardslee Islands with a view of the Fairweather Range in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Humpback Whale Tail Flip, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

A Whale of a Tail : Prints Available

A humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) does a tail flip near my kayak in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

After our experience with the whales, and with the sun shining (for the moment), we decided to camp one last night in the Beardslee Islands before returning to the docks. The calm waters teaming with birds, otters, porpoises, and the occasional whale, and a view of the towering Fairweather Range, made of a delightful way to end to the trip.

Taking advantage of a few precious moments of sunshine to dry out our gear.

Fairweather Range, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Fairweathers : Prints Available

Fairweather over the Fairweather Range, seen from the Beardslee Islands in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park.

Stay tuned for the next installment: two weeks of backpacking in the Brooks Range!

And don’t forget to order your 2015 calendars!

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Floris van Breugel on October 14th, 2014

After spending six weeks in the Alaskan wilderness this summer, regrettably, my girlfriend Aubrey and I are back in civilization. In fact, we have been for almost a month now, but I’ve been too busy to write up our adventures until now.

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Before continuing, I want to announce my 2015 Calendars! This year I am doing an “adventure series,” to share some of the images I’ve made during my adventures over the past few years.

Click to pre-order your 2015 Art in Nature Adventure Series Calendars now
Order by Oct 20th to get 15% off

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Our extended trip started in Juneau, where we spent a few days with friends. We arrived on my birthday, in a torrential downpour, and wondered if we’d made a big mistake leaving sunny Seattle for the notoriously wet climate of southeast Alaska. Fortunately, the weather did clear and we took advantage of a beautiful sunny day by hiking out to the now-famous Mendenhall Glacier ice caves.

The ice caves have formed by the slow melting of the ancient crystal clear ice by a small stream that passes underneath the glacier. The resulting cave is a mesmerizing and almost impossibly blue palace of ice, which is melting rather quickly. Like many of the glaciers in the world, the Mendenhall is retreating – over 150 feet per year since 1958. Just a few weeks before our visit a large collapse threatened to destroy the ice caves, and before long, they will disappear entirely.

Stay tuned for the next two installments: ten days of kayaking in Glacier Bay National Park, and two weeks of backpacking in the Brooks Range!

Click any image for larger view!

Blue Glacial Ice, Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

Glacial Portal : Prints Available

Layers of ice of different ages near the entrance to the famous ice caves of the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska.

Stream under Mendenhall Glacier, Junea, Alaska

Underworld : Prints Available

The famous ice caves of the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska, are slowly melting away, and may be gone forever in a matter of years.

Ice Abstract, Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

Glacial Sculptures : Prints Available

Surreal colors and forms decorate the interior of a cave in the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska.

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Floris van Breugel on July 21st, 2014

Wilderness: “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man…” Wilderness Act, Section 2(c)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which protects over 100 million acres of land from machines and development. Unfortunately, these spiritual places are coming under more and more attack. A few weeks ago a story came out in the LA Times describing a proposal to build what amounts to a strip mall in the Grand Canyon. Is nothing sacred anymore?

Even the idea of wilderness seems to be under fire. That same day an article in the New York Times suggested that we should we consider taking a more active role in wilderness management. Although the premise is well-meaning – it would be a shame to see some of our ecosystems die out because natural processes cannot keep up with the rate of climate change – intervening would ruin the premise of wilderness. Rather than try to be “reluctant gardeners,” we should be spending our time and energy on minimizing our own impact. Wilderness is not a place, it is a concept. And while our careless actions may lead to the destruction of many ecosystems as they exist today through pollution and climate change, through the Wilderness Act we offer these wild places the dignity to evolve on their own, untrammeled by man. They may not recover within our lifetimes, but they will recover. They may not be the same, but they will be wild. When it comes to wilderness, the only thing we should be doing is preserving more of it.

Wild places offer therapeutic healing that is becoming more and more important as the world is covered in WiFi networks and technology (I you missed it, read my post from last year, Why We Need Wilderness). If you have never spent a few days away from home, people, and the internet, I recommend you try it.

You don’t need to climb a mountain to experience wilderness, but in the summer, it is my favorite. A few weeks ago my friend Shawn and I climbed up Ruth Mountain in the North Cascades to soak in the glorious alpine views. We were surrounded by endless views of jagged peaks of the North Cascades, with over 100 miles of visibility in every direction. Mount Shuksan (pictured below) loomed over us, the Picket Range to our east, Glacier Peak and Mt Rainier to the south, and the American Border Peak(s) to the north. It was inspiring to see so much wilderness! It was also sadly apparent how quickly our glaciers are disappearing.

Camping in the North Cascades, Mt Ruth, Mt Shuksan

Home Sweet Home : Prints Available

My tent, pitched on top of Ruth Mountain, with a view of Mt Shuksan and (barely) Mt Baker, at sunset. This is absolutely one of the top ten places I have camped, surrounded by a 360° view of glaciated peaks in the North Cascades (about 10 yards outside of the national park boundary).

To celebrate wilderness, I’m headed off to Alaska for the rest of the summer with my girlfriend Aubrey, where we plan to spend 10 days in a kayak, and two weeks hiking in the largest contiguous wilderness area in the United States: Gates of the Arctic National Park, which is part of a 12+ million acre wilderness area (of course, we will only see a minuscule fraction of that!).

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Floris van Breugel on June 26th, 2014

First, I would like to announce a print sale! Between now and July 5th, all images on my site will get a 15% discount – just enter the code “BUSHPLANES” on checkout!

The proceeds from this sale will go towards paying a bush pilot to bring Aubrey and I to a remote spot in Alaska’s Brooks Range this summer. I will, of course, post stories of our adventure upon our return!

Because of this trip, among others, and our move to southern California this fall, I will not be able to fulfill print orders made after mid July until early November. So this is your last chance for a while (all orders made up through July 5th will ship by the 15th)!

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After spending a week in the Fitz Roy area of Argentina, Marc and I made the long drive through the featureless snow blown high desert to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Crossing the border into Chile was a new kind of experience for me. Rather than the typical kind of enforced passport control I was used to, this was more of a self-serve process. You get out of the car, walk to the Argentinian office, tell them you’re going to Chile, and they stamp your passport. Then you drive over to the Chileans, and they make you fill out a little piece of paper, confiscate all your Argentinian sausages, and then you go on your way. You could easily drive through both checkpoints without getting the appropriate paperwork filled out, but I have it on good authority that you’d be in big trouble when the time comes for you to go home!

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Lenticular Clouds, Torres del Paine, Patagonia

Dreams of Paine : Prints Available

Moonset illuminates lenticular clouds over Cuernos del Paine in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

I was asleep in the car when we arrived in the park around midnight, and Marc woke me up to see the moon setting over Cuernos del Paine. The swirling mist, evolving lenticular clouds, and dim moonlight created a surreal moment. Even more so by my still groggy state of mind. It was hard to tell how close, and how large, the mountains were. Marc assured me that they were indeed quite large.. and as I found out the following morning, he was right. The gravel road network that provides incredibly easy access to the park is just a few hundred feet above sea level, and less than two miles away the peaks rise over 10,000 feet.

Icy Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine, Chile

Cuernos on Ice : Prints Available

A cold and calm winter night leaves the lake shores covered in ice, with a view of Cuernos del Paine in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park in winter.

Contrary to the typical windy summer weather, most of our days were calm, allowing delicate ice structures to form on the lake edges overnight. And out of the 13 sunrises and sunsets we had, 11 of them were beautiful – there was no shortage of spectacular atmosphere and light! Despite the good weather, we saw very few people. The guanacos, however, were everywhere (the guanaco is a member of the Lama genus, closely related to the llama, but not of course, the Dalai Lama). In general, the wildlife was either very tame, or very naive. Finches, caracaras, woodpeckers, and even a small pygmy owl came to within just a few feet of us, curious, and probably hungry too.

Guanacos, Torres del Paine National Park, Cuernos del Paine

Guanacoland : Prints Available

Two guanacos (Lama guanicoe) pose in front of the Cuernos del Paine in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

Patagonian Pygmy Owl, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia

Patagonian Pygmy Owl : Prints Available

A Patagonian Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium nanum) in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

One of the primary attractions in the park is Salto Grande, which, as the name would suggest, is a large waterfall. Unfortunately the ideal viewpoint for these falls was made inaccessible thanks to the washing out of a bridge many years ago (the pieces are still there, though). Now, it requires a little more effort and creativity to get there, but the view is well worth it. What initially appeared to be a crystal clear morning, turned into an exceptionally colorful sunrise, and we couldn’t have asked for a better place to experience it!

Torres del Paine, Salto Grande, Panorama

Paine Panorama : Prints Available

The upper Salto Grande falls rumbles on the Paine river below the impressive peaks of Cuernos del Paine and Paine Grande in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

Salto Grande, Torres del Paine, Patagonia

Vista Grande : Prints Available

Paine Grande and Salto Grande make for a truly grand view in Chile's Torres del Paine in early winter.

Half way through our trip we made an exploratory, aimless, drive through the park to Lago Grey. From the road we could see enormous, impossibly blue, icebergs, and immediately knew what our next trip would be. For the next three days we focused on exploring and photographing these icebergs from a variety of perspectives. Our first afternoon we were “treated” to a real Patagonian wind storm, though the gusts “only” made it to 50 mph or so (they can easily reach 80 mph at times). Still, this was more than enough wind to kick up big waves on the lake, sending icebergs the size of buses sailing towards us from the glacier on the far end of the lake.

Patagonia Wind Storm, Icebergs, Torres del Paine

Winds of Winter : Prints Available

Fifty mile an hour winds transform the once serene Lago Grey in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park into an energetic ocean, blowing house-sized icebergs across the lake. In the distance is snowy Cerro Paine Grande.

Warm Sun and Icebergs, Lago Grey, Torres del Paine

A Moment of Warmth : Prints Available

The setting sun breaks through the clouds, casting warm light over the iceberg strewn Lago Grey in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

That evening the storm subsided and the sun broke through, bringing a glimpse of warmth to the icy landscape. As in all of these images, the scale is difficult to convey, but the large iceberg on the left of the above image was the size of a two-story house. And that’s just the part above water. Since typically only about 10% of an iceberg is above the surface, That means that there is another 20 story skyscraper of ice hiding in the water!

The following morning the winds subsided enough to safely see some of the ‘bergs at water level. Monsters of strangely sculpted arches and spires floated by. I was most intrigued by an “ice cube” we found that was as clear as a flawless gemstone the size of a truck (with another 10 trucks of ice below it, of course).

Icebergs on Lago Grey, Torres del Paine, Chile

Ice Monsters : Prints Available

Gigantic icebergs drift on Lago Grey on a calm morning in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, with a view of Paine Grande in the distance.

Crystalline Iceberg, Patagonia, Lago Grey

Ice Age Gemstones : Prints Available

Flawless crystalline ice, produced through millennia of glacial pressures, floats on the waters of Lago Grey in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

Our final morning was wet, gray, and cold. A perfect time to begin the journey home. Aside from almost getting our tiny rental car stuck in a foot of snow while attempting to take a shortcut back to civilization, the drive back to El Calafate was uneventful. After drying out all the gear, it was time to pack up.

Letting the kaleidoscope of gear dry out in the hotel.

Letting the kaleidoscope of gear dry out in the hotel.

The flight schedules to and from El Calafate necessitate a 24 hour layover in Buenos Aires, so I took the opportunity to explore the city. Here, the patagonian clouds were replaced with sunshine, the eight hour days of quiet nature with eight hour nights of partying, the mountains with huge monuments, the trails with 16 lane city streets, and the guanacos with pictures of Lionel Messi. I’m hoping we get to see if Messi’s dribbling is a match for van Persie’s flying.

Buenos Aires: blue skies, big monuments, and Lionel Messi.

Buenos Aires: blue skies, big monuments, and Lionel Messi.

This was part 2 of my trip to Patagonia, if you missed part 1, read about it here: Fitz Roy in winter.

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Floris van Breugel on June 22nd, 2014

I recently returned from a fantastic two week adventure to near the southern tip of South America with my friend and fellow nature photographer Marc Adamus. After two full days of travel we arrived in El Calafate, Argentina, on the heels of the first big snowstorm of the winter season. To take advantage of the forecasted snowfall, and periodic clearings, we drove to El Chaltén and made two overnight trips to photograph Fitz Roy, one of the most beautiful, and technically challenging, mountains in the world.

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Stormy Fitz Roy, Patagonia Skyline, Panorama

Patagonia : Prints Available

Fitz Roy (right) and Cerro Torre (left), the classic panoramic Patagonian skyline, emerge from stormy skies at sunset.

The storm brought almost two feet of wet and heavy snow, which covered the lenga beech trees (Nothofagus pumilio) with a thick white blanket. Our hike took us through several miles of perfect winter woods, and up the slopes of Fitz Roy’s foothills. The snow was so thick at times that we were practically swimming through it to move forward!

My friend Marc on his way up through the forest.

My friend Marc on his way up through the forest.

Tent, Patagonia, Winter

Winter Camp : Prints Available

My tent in the winter wonderland of Patagonia. 

I’ve been told stories by people who have had to spend over a week waiting here for weather to clear before they saw the mountains, so I felt fortunate that we didn’t have to wait more than a day for some views. We were joined by a friendly little bird, who couldn’t have picked a more photogenic place to spend the winter (if you think you can identify it, let me know!).

Snowy Fitz Roy, Patagonia, El Chalten

Quiet Contemplation : Prints Available

A small bird contemplates the enormity of Fitz Roy, in Patagonia, which has granite faces of over 4,000 vertical feet, complemented here by fresh snowfall in early winter.

Bird, Fitz Roy, Winter in Patagonia

Feathers and Fitzroy : Prints Available

A friendly bird poses in front of the impressive Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina's Patagonia region, in winter.

Monte Fitz Roy was named by Francisco Moreno in 1877 in honor of Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle. The Beagle was, of course, made famous by Charles Darwin’s presence on the ship, which traveled around South America (exploring Patagonia) on its way to the Galapagos, and then to New Zealand before returning home to England between 1831 and 1836.

Unfortunately no image can do this mountain justice; it’s just too big. Even being there in person it was difficult to fathom how enormous it was. The granite spires reminded me of the outstretched fingers of a hand reaching out from the Earth, grasping for the stars. Those “fingers” are each 3-4,000 feet of vertical granite rock, protruding from another several thousand feet of glacial terrain. The summit is well over a vertical mile above Lake Sucia at its base. If you have seen El Capitan in Yosemite, imagine that, but as an isolated pinnacle, and then put three of them next to each other, and put all that on top of another El Capitan made of ice.

With another storm on its way, we hiked back to El Chalten to dry out our gear. There, in the rain-shadow of the enormous mountains, we cooked up some dinner with a spectacular view of the mountain range.

Grasses, Patagonia, Argentina

In the Rainshadow : Prints Available

Grasses catch sunset light in the rain shadow of the mountains of Argentina's Patagonia region.

What do you do when you forget your chef's knife? Use an ice axe! (warning: only works when your vegetables are frozen)

What do you do when you forget your chef’s knife? Use an ice axe! (warning: only works when your vegetables are frozen)

The storm had forecast just an inch or two of snow, but this being Patagonia, an inch or two can quickly turn into a foot or two. We spent the day watching a nonstop stream of enormous snow flakes drift past the windows of the only open hostel in town. The next morning, with everything dried out, we set out for another trip. That night the temperatures dropped to below 10° F, which produced beautiful ice formations along one of the streams in the valley below Fitz Roy.

El Chalten after the storm.

El Chalten after the storm.

Snow Forest, El Chalten, Patagonia

Snowy Embrace : Prints Available

Snow covered trees shortly after a large storm passed over the forests above El Chalten, Argentina.

Reflections of Fitzroy, Winter Frost, Patagonia

Reflections of Winter : Prints Available

Dawn on Fitz Roy, accented by winter's fresh snow and frost, in the Patagonia region of Argentina near El Chalten.

Up next: Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, a place where just about every sunrise and sunset is guaranteed to be beautiful.

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Floris van Breugel on May 5th, 2014

After spending two weeks in the (sometimes unbearable) heat of Mexico, it was a relief to come home to the temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest. The winter rains are (slowly) subsiding, and I returned just in time for the arrival of spring. Over the past few weeks I’ve had several chances to get out and enjoy the emergence of the greenery, flowers, and sunshine.

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Spring Vine Maples, Cascades, Washington

Spring Unfolding : Prints Available

After 6 months of soaking up the winter rains, the vine maples along the cascade foothills finally emerge from hibernation in spring, unfolding like tiny origami creatures.

Sunshine Elowah Falls, Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Sunlife : Prints Available

Sunshine brings life to the plants surrounding the majestic Elowah Falls of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. 

Ponderosa Forest, Spring Flowers, Leavenworth Washington

Ponderosa Spring : Prints Available

In spring, the Arrowleaf Balsamroot flowers burst into bloom across the hills of Eastern Washington. While they normally prefer open sunlight, occasionally the Ponderosa forests are open enough that the flowers carpet them with color.

Lupine, Spring Flowers, Columbia River Gorge

Peace and Quiet : Prints Available

A field of lupine flowers overlooks the Columbia River Gorge in spring time.

During my trip to Mexico, the sun was my enemy. Being in it was uncomfortable, painful even. I constantly sought out trees to sit under and always walked on the shady side of the road. The hours between 1pm and 5pm were a real chore to get through, unless I was half submerged in water (under an umbrella to shield me from the sun). To make matters worse, the sun moves so fast that you hardly get a chance to enjoy the sunrise or sunset.

Here in Washington, the sun is my best friend. It brings life, not just to the plants around me, but to my own mind, soul, and body. I relish soaking in the warm rays of light. It was delightful to be back in a place where I could do just that. These images are intended to be a celebration of sunshine. Let them take you away to where the air is crisp and clean. Imagine the warm rays of sunlight as they tickle your skin. Listen to the Meadowlarks, the roosters of the American West, as they herald the morning sun. Smell the sweet fragrance of the wild flowers, and watch as the newly emerging leaves dance in the wind. It’s the time of year to come out of hibernation, stand up straight, and embrace each day with a dance of joy!

Rocky Spire, Cascades, Washington

Cascade Spire II : Prints Available

A lone rocky spire stands proudly over the cascade foothills in Eastern Washington.

Wild Flowers, Sunshine, Columbia River Gorge

Wild for Light : Prints Available

Wind blown wild flowers and scrub oak trees soak in the final rays of sunlight high up on the ridges of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

Spring Greenery, Cascades, Washington

Springshine : Prints Available

The rainbow of early spring greenery of the cascade foothills in Washington.

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Floris van Breugel on April 22nd, 2014

It being Earth Day today, I thought I would start out this post with one of the inspirational quotes we found in Chiapas, at Centro Ecoturistico Causas Verdes Las Nubes (the final destination of our journey).

We never should forget who belongs to whom.

After getting our fill of the warm sandy beaches and waterfalls of Cañon Rió la Venta, see part 1, we set out to visit la Selva Lacandona (Lacandon Jungle) near the Guatemalan border. Although the old growth forest is continuously suffering from deforestation, it is still the largest montane rainforest in North America, and much of it is protected in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. Because of its size and diversity in terrain, this region is home to roughly a quarter of all species found in Mexico including the jaguar, although according to our Mayan guide, no one ever sees any.

Ceiba in the Palenque Jungle, Chiapas, Mexico

Jungle Light : Prints Available

Late afternoon light streams through the old growth jungle in Palenque National Park, which surrounds the famous Maya ruins of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. The large trees pictured here are the sacred Ceiba trees.

A colorful tropical bird in the Lacandon Jungle.

Scattered throughout the jungle are memories of what was once an impressive Maya civilization, which peaked some 1800-1100 years ago before mysteriously collapsing. Over the past thousand years, the jungle has taken over their cities, leaving them concealed under layers of dirt, leaves, vines, and trees to the point where they are unrecognizable even when standing on top of them. The Maya built their cities without the help of pack animals, metal tools, or even even the wheel. Instead, immense amount of manpower was needed to harvest the limestone blocks they used to construct their temples and structures. Over time, the limestone has disintegrated, changing the chemical composition of the soil, and thereby affecting the local plant-life. Using satellite imagery it is possible to detect these subtle differences, and identify the locations of some of these long lost ruins. Many of the more impressive structures have been excavated and partially restored so that we can get a glimpse into what was once one of the most advanced societies of the pre-Columbian West.

The apparent jungle covered hill in the center of the image is actually a buried Maya ruin at Palenque.

One of the largest Maya sites in Chiapas is Palenque, which was the first of three sites we visited. Seeing these incredible ancient buildings and carefully thought out city-plans makes you wonder what life would have been like 1,000 years ago in the jungle. Only one thing is for sure: it would have been hot. Very hot. Even at night, we didn’t stop sweating profusely. Perhaps that is why the Maya were not the peaceful people they were once believed to be, but rather constantly warred with one another, routinely offered human sacrifices to their deities, and spent their leisure time playing a ball game (Ōllamaliztli) where the loser was killed. After all, recent (and somewhat controversial) studies have found that violence may be correlated with hot temperatures.

Palenque Maya Ruins, Chiapas, Mexico

Palenque : Prints Available

The famous Maya ruins of Palanque in Chiapas, Mexico. Only a small portion of this impressive ancient city has been excavated and restored.

Palenque, Maya Ruins, Chiapas

Maya Temples : Prints Available

The Temple of Inscriptions, as seen from the Palace, in the Maya ruins of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico.

Much of the jungle and ruins in this area are accessed from the Carretera Fronteriza, a border highway between Mexico and Guatemala that was constructed in the 1990’s and only recently paved. All the drugs and illegal immigration that comes from the south into Mexico also use this road, making it a potentially dangerous place to be – especially for tourists. Thus, we opted to arrange for a tour company to handle our transportation for this leg of our journey. At 6 am the following morning, much to our relief, the tour van did indeed show up at our campsite to pick us up. We joined 8 other mexican tourists and were on our way. The first destination was Yaxchilan, situated on the Usumacinta river and a major rival of Palenque. To get there requires an hour long boat ride down the river. Compared to Palenque, Yaxchilan offered a far more intimate experience with the ruins, surrounded by pristine jungle and the haunting sounds of howler monkeys.

The boat ride to Yaxchilan on the Usumacinta river, which forms the border between Chiapas and Guatemala.

Yaxchilan Mayan Ruins, Chiapas, Mexico

Jungle Ruins : Prints Available

Hidden in the jungles of southern Mexico are the impressive ruins from the ancient Mayan civilization. This particular ruin is in Yaxchilan, on the Guatemalan border along the banks of the Usumacinta river.

Next we visited a nearby satellite of Yaxchilan: Bonampak. Although very small – it has only a single large structure – Bonampak has been an important site in deciphering the ancient Maya culture. Through a fortunate accident, rainwater seeping through the roof coated the walls of three small chambers with calcium carbonate, preserving elaborate and colorful frescos that depict religious ceremonies, war scenes with prisoners (presumed to be use in sacrifice), and ritual blood-letting. The site was first seen by the outside world in 1946, and provided some of the first evidence that the Maya were not a peaceful culture of mystics.

Bonampak Murals, Maya Ruins, Chiapas

Bonampak Murals

The spectacularly colorful murals in the Maya ruins of Bonampak date back to over 1200 years ago, and provided some of the first evidence that the Maya were not a peaceful culture thanks to the well preserved the depictions of ritual human sacrifice.

Although all of these ancient cities were mysteriously abandoned during a 200 year period roughly 1,000 years ago, the descendants of the ancient Maya still live in the area and speak their native language, and follow some of the old religious practices (though they no longer perform human sacrifices). We spent the following two nights at an ecotourism center in the small village of Lacanjá Chansayab, which is owned and operated by local Lacandon Maya people.

That night, we wandered through the jungle for 2-hours with a local Lacandon guide, listening to the sounds of the jungle as fireflies flashed around us (though the light show was not as impressive as what I witnessed last year in the Smoky Mountains). He brought us to several majestic Ceiba trees, which the Maya believed to be “world trees” or “trees of life.” They believed that the Ceiba formed the connection between the underworld, the terrestrial world, and the heavens. Although today we understand how a tiny seed can turn into such a gargantuan tree, if you step back and think about it for a moment, it is a rather mind blowing process. No wonder they held such an important place in ancient cultures. When you reach out and touch such an ancient spirit, you can feel the life and energy within it. Simply being in their presence, our guide explained to us, cleanses your soul. Although it may seem like a foreign concept to most Western cultures, I must say there is something to it. Just think, some of the trees we visited and touched with own hands could very well have been saplings when the Maya civilization was at its peak 1200 years ago. They could have conceivably been planted and cared for by Maya nobles like Bird Jaguar III, who lived to the ripe old age of 98 in the year 705 AD.

Ceiba Tree, Lacandon Jungle, Chiapas

Spirits in the Night : Prints Available

Scattered throughout the Lacandon Jungle in Chiapas, Mexico, are the gargantuan, elegant, and beautiful Ceiba trees. In ancient times, the Maya believed that the Ceiba formed the connection between the underworld and the heavens, and today they still believe that the trees can help cleanse your soul. After spending a few hours wandering the jungle with a local guide, I understand why.

Before retracing our way back to San Cristobal de las Casas (a 5-combi, aka van, journey), we decided to stay for a second night to soak in the calm and relaxing environment.

The view from inside one of our combi rides.

Our route back took us through the mountains again, where we encountered a Zapatista road block. The Zapatistas are a revolutionary leftist group, composed mostly of rural indigenous people, who have declared war against the Mexican state since 1994 for various injustices. According to the current leader:

“We don’t want to impose our solutions by force, we want to create a democratic space. We don’t see armed struggle in the classic sense of previous guerrilla wars, that is as the only way and the only all-powerful truth around which everything is organized. In a war, the decisive thing is not the military confrontation but the politics at stake in the confrontation. We didn’t go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard.” – Subcomandante Marcos

War is perhaps not the right word now, as the demonstrations we saw were relatively peaceful. To make their plight known, they periodically shut down the main highway through the mountains, stopping all the trucks, buses, and cars. Our combi driver, however, seemed to have a connection, and we got to pass without waiting. Thanks to these protests, there have been improvements in gender equality and public health throughout the region, but even without seeing the protests it was clear to us that there is still a lot of inequality that needs to be addressed. Just about the only thing these rural families could take for granted were chickens, which were everywhere, in every stage of their lifecycle: eggs, chicks, hens, roosters, plucked, and fried.

Chicks and a Turkey in rural Chiapas.

Eventually we made it to Comitan, where we had planned to catch one last combi to the ecotourism center of Las Nubes. It turned out that we would actually have to take three combis to get there instead of one, and that was two combis too many. We changed plans and stayed the night in Paraiso Tziscao, where a local guide directed us to some beautiful cabanas on the shores of Lake Tziscao. About half the nights of our trip we spent camping, but when staying a cabaña like this is only an extra US$15 extra, you’d be a fool not to!

The beautiful cabanas of Paraiso Tziscao, where we stayed for 2 days along the shore of lake Tziscao.

The deep blue lakes of Lagos de Montebello are situated in a cool and refreshing pine forest in the mountains of southern Chiapas.

After sweating for a week in the jungles, the crisp mountain air of this tropical pine forest was a refreshing change. It was, almost, like being back in the Cascades. Our second day in the park, we decided to take up an offer from the guide we had met previously to do a tour with him. This turned out to be rather disappointing, as the tour was simply driving around and joining other Mexican tourists for selfies by each of the 16 lakes of various hues.

At one of the lakes we had the option to do a horseback tour to two more small lakes (“Dos Cenotes”) in the forest, for US$12 each. Aubrey loves horses, so we thought, why not! Immediately after mounting our horses, we noticed something awry: the guides themselves were not on horses. Instead, the tour consisted of them walking our horses along the trail. But before we could go anywhere though, we had to get through the tangled mess of a fallen down tree. My horse reluctantly stumbled through, but seeing this, Aubrey’s horse refused to go any further. Eventually the guides managed to coax it through after she dismounted, but we weren’t sure the poor animal would make it all the to the lakes and back again.

Aubrey, on a rather unhappy and aging horse, as we start our jaunt to Dos Cenotes.

All of the lakes in the region are actually ancient cenotes (sinkholes in the limestone bedrock which expose the groundwater underneath) that have eroded into large lakes that are all connected by underground rivers and caves. We visited one of the accessible above-ground caves, which had several beautiful chambers filled with stalactites and stalagmites. If you look closely you’ll find religious offerings such as candles and flowers left for the deities of the underworld.

Stalagmites and stalactites in one of the caves of Lagos de Montebello National Park.

Following our lackluster guided experiences of the day, we decided it was time to move on to Las Nubes. We caught the next combi, which dropped us off on the side of the highway, 12 km from the park. Here we were (perhaps?) fortunate to get a ride from a young family in the back of their pickup truck. Half way there, however, they ran out of gas and the truck started over heating. We helped push it over one final hill to make it to a small store where, after some trouble with the siphon, we purchased a container of gasoline and were on our way again. At long last, we got to cool off in the turquoise waters of the Rio Santo Domingo. All was right in the world again!

Las Nubes, Chiapas, Mexico

Aquamarination : Prints Available

The aquamarine waters of the Santo Domingo river tumble through a series of small cascades at Centro Ecoturistico Causas Verdes Las Nubes in Chiapas, Mexico.

Las Nubes, Chiapas, Mexico

Las Nubes : Prints Available

Sunset over the thundering waterfalls of Las Nubes on the Santo Domingo river. The blue in the water comes from the high mineral density present in the water.

Golondrinas Waterfall, Las Nubes, Chiapas

Las Golondrinas : Prints Available

Warm sunshine pours over the impressive torquoise waters of the Las Golondrinas cascades in Las Nubes, Chiapas. 

Unfortunately this little paradise was the end of our adventure. To be honest though, my digestive system was pretty excited at the prospect of eating something other than tortillas, beans, eggs, and cheese. But first, we had to make it back to Tuxtla, which would involve 9 hours of combis and buses. We broke up the trip with a night in Comitan, where we had agreed to find a decadent dinner. The guidebook listed a fancy restaurant that served fresh organic food, but it had gone out of business. A local ex-pat didn’t have any recommendations for us, so we ended up at some place on the center square. I won’t even describe how disappointing our meal was, except to say that it came with a scoop of canned tuna as a garnish. I ended up forcing myself to eat a soggy piece of pizza elsewhere instead. At this point, the prospect of a familiar food became not just appealing, but a necessity. I immediately understood why Aubrey had asked me to bring her 20 cliff bars from the US. The next afternoon when we arrived in Tuxtla, we were thrilled to see something I would ordinarily not even consider as a dining option: La Burgesia, or as you probably know it: Burger King. Yes, there in the capital of Chiapas, in the food court of an air conditioned mall, we enjoyed the best of the best: hamburgers (with a slice of ham…?) and french fries.

Rough Translation by Aubrey: "Now, you are also part of 'la burgesia', don't resist it. Accept it. With every morsel it becomes more and more refined. Savour the delicious and refined meat with the fresh and elegant ingredients that make it the cream of the cream, the best of the best."

And with that, our adventure had come to an end. There were many ups, and many downs, and many places I would never return to. And a few that I will. But it was a unique and valuable experience that I’m very glad to have had, and to have shared with the woman I love.

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Floris van Breugel on April 15th, 2014

For the past 2 months my girlfriend, Aubrey, has been in Mexico (and now Guatemala) on a soul-searching voyage, so it was about time I flew down to visit. Aside from a trip to Baja when I was five, this was my first time in Mexico. Everyone I talked to said Oaxaca was a special place, but until I spent the next two weeks traveling through other areas, I did not fully appreciate why. The first thing that stood out to me were the colors. Every building was painted, on the inside and out, with some combination of brilliant yellow, orange, red, green, and blue. Every fence was covered with blooming bougainvillea sporting vibrant pink, magenta, and purple flowers. The jacaranda trees were laden with purple flowers. The walls were covered in brilliant murals (“graffiti”), and the markets filled with ripe and colorful fruits of all shapes, colors, and sizes.

Culinary highlights included chapulines (fried seasoned crickets), mamey and guanábana fruits, a guava molé (sauce made from cacao and spices), tejate (fermented cacao and corn drink), and mezcal (smokey tequila) ice cream.

Colorful Oaxaca, Sunshine, Mexico

Oaxaca's Warmth : Prints Available

Warm colors, warm sunshine, and plentiful plants charaterize the welcoming atmosphere and architecture of Mexico's Oaxaca city. This is a picture of the stairwell at the apartment where Aubrey was staying.

A few examples of the diverse and colorful street art in Oaxaca.

A rubber chicken observes its unlucky fleshy siblings below at the local market.

Me, about to enjoy a handful of chapulines (seasoned and roasted crickets)! They were delicious.

Tropical fruits at the market.

Aubrey shows off a perfectly ripe, and delicious, Mamey fruit. This fruit resembles an Avocado on the outside, but has bright orange flesh and tastes like caramel. Mmmmmmmm!

After two days in the city, I was anxious to get out and see what nature had to offer in Mexico. And truth be told, Aubrey was excited to get out of the city, too. For that, we headed into Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico, bordering Guatemala. Chiapas has one of the highest numbers of species diversity of any place on Earth thanks to its range of terrain from arid savannah to pine forests and tropical jungles.

Over the following 16 days we spent over 50 hours in 36 different vehicles, including a “platinum” night bus, taxis, combis, camionetas, pick-up trucks, and horses. We travelled through 5 major cities, passed 5 military checkpoints and 2 Zapatista protest blockades. We slept in 12 distinct places ranging from fancy hotels (US$50 / night) to camping in the lawns of fancy hotels (US$8 / night), and we never saw an American, just a few french, germans, and one kiwi (and lot of mexicans). Everything was in the hands of Aubrey’s 1.5 month old spanish skills, and whatever was left of my middle and high school classes from 10 years ago. Much to our surprise, everything worked out in the end!

Our first destination was Sima de las Cotorras, which means “abyss of the parakeets.” We left Oaxaca on a 10 hr night bus, and arrived in Tuxtla, the capital of Chiapas, at 5:30am. After following several dead-end leads to information centers and ecotourism bureaus from friendly strangers on the streets, we hailed a cab and asked him to take us to the tourism office. He dropped us off in front of this official looking state department building.

State department building, with the tourism office.

To appreciate how daunting this building seemed to us, you have to picture that it was the only skyscraper in the city, and the only building that didn’t still have rebar poking out of the side of the cement walls and roof. And probably the only building with air conditioning. Confused, we walked inside, where we were asked to check our passports in exchange for an access key which would take us to the 5th floor. Our gigantic backpacks didn’t fit through the x-ray scanner, but the security guard just waived us through. We definitely did not belong there. But there on the 5th floor, mixed in with fifty other people sitting at their computers, was the lady in charge of tourism. She seemed confused that two dirty backpack-carrying American tourists were there to see her, but she did have helpful (english!) information packets to give us.

Sima de las Cotorras, Chiapas, Mexico

Sima de las Cotorras : Prints Available

Hundreds of green parakeets make their homes deep in this gigantic sinkhole in Chiapas, Mexico. 

Armed with the necessary information we found our way to Ocozocoautla, where we found a cab willing to take us to the Sima. First things first: a cold beer, followed by a pitcher of agua fresca de melon (cantaloupe juice blended with water). Refreshed and hydrated, we set up our tent under a dilapidated roof, which used to be a horse stable. We were probably the first people to have camped there in at least a year, probably more – most people stay in the nice cabanas for an extra US$15. To accompany the beautiful natural scenery, several of the ecotourism places we visited had signs posted with inspirational quotes I particularly enjoyed.

Caged birds cannot sing, and the wild and free Cotorras at the Sima certainly sang (screamed) their hearts out all day long!

In the mornings and evenings the hundreds of little green parakeets (Aratinga holochlora) that make their homes in the walls of the Sima fly out in search of food, chattering vociferously as they zoom past at over 60 mph.

Sima de las Cotorras, Chiapas, Mexico

Las Cotorras : Prints Available

A flock of green parakeets circles deep in side the sinkhole they call home: Sima de las Cotorras in Chiapas, Mexico.

Parakeets, Sima de las Cotorras, Chiapas

Las Cotorras : Prints Available

Hundreds of green parakeets (cotorras) make their homes on the cliff face of a giant sinkhole in Chiapas, Mexico. At dawn and dusk they fly out in search of food in the surrounding jungle.

The green parakeets (Aratinga holochlora) that call the Sima home.

After relaxing to the sounds of happy screeching parakeets for a day, we set off to our next destination: Cañon Rió la Venta. The owner of the restaurant at the Sima was kind enough to take us to the trailhead (for the right price), where we descended the 700+ steps into paradise: towering canyon walls, sandy beaches, a warm river, and splashing waterfalls! We both agree that this was our favorite place of the trip, and I think we might go back someday. It was incredible that so close to a major city, was such a beautiful and peaceful place that we had almost entirely to ourselves for most of the 3 days we stayed there. That is, aside from the three men with dogs that apparently made daily walks up and down the canyon through some secret entrance to fill their buckets with… something.

Click image for larger view!

Rio la Venta, Chiapas, Mexico

Rio la Venta : Prints Available

The canyon walls tower over the Rio la Venta river as cascades tumble down mossy walls in Chiapas, Mexico. Look very closely and you'll find an egret looking for fish in the river.

Aubrey pokes her head out of the tent to see what I'm up to (taking pictures).

Aubrey, enjoying a waterfall shower.

Mossy Cascades, Rio la Venta, Chiapas

Cascadas de Musgo : Prints Available

Over hundreds of years the mineral rich water in these cascades has built up strange moss-covered structures on the canyon walls of the Rio la Venta in Chiapas, Mexico.

Travertine Leaf, Rio la Venta, Chiapas

Calcified Leaf : Prints Available

An imprint of a leaf trapped in calcium carbonate (travertine) many years ago is now revealed in a rock along the Rio la Venta river in Chiapas, Mexico.

Click image for larger view!

Selva el Ocote, Waterfall, Beaches

Paradise Canyon : Prints Available

Deep in the Selva el Ocote are magical waterfalls, sunny beaches, and warm rivers: a truely divine paradise. I can't wait to go back! 

Regretfully, we left the canyon, on to the next adventure: Mayan ruins, the Lacandon Jungle, and la Biosfera Montes Azules. And lots of rides in combis (12 passenger vans that race through the countryside bringing mexicans to wherever they want to go). That will be the next blog post!

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