Finn Forms and Ferries

Scandinavian design.  Clean, unencumbered, inspired.

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Finland. Lovely, crisp, content.

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Cairns and the Elusive Starfish of Monkey Island

“Monkey Island?” WHAT is Monkey Island?!

monkey-islandThere’s a beach way down on the west coast of Southland – almost to the end of the South Island of New Zealand.  Just beyond the southern reach of Fiordland.  And at low tide you can walk out to a little bump, reaching maybe 30 feet above sea level and a bit more than that around.
The island is surrounded by rocks: big rocks, little rocks, medium size rocks, egg shaped rocks, flat rocks, rocks in transition, in shades and textures of green, mustard, brilliant yellow, brown, black and any number of striation patterns (speckled my favorite, and the Tide-pools-monkey-islandgreen ones with a fine yellow line running through) –  tossed by tides and glaciers, forming tide pools teaming with the life of the seashore. The bigger rocks, I guess the ones that don’t move around much,  sport patchy coats of seaweeds, from short soft curly bits to long rubbery strands of wide flat opalescent green.

My young friend, a budding marine biologist readying Starfish-Hunter, Monkey Islandherself for “uni” (kiwi slang for university), walks barefoot and confident through the boulders, nimbly squatting to peer at the lower edges of the largest rocks, the ones still wet, their bases submerged in swirls of sea water that gently wash the area.  She has found any number of starfish on past visits to Monkey Island. But alas, today we come up empty handed, spotting “merely” a small sea cucumber, a few orange anemones, and heeps of snails and hermit crabs.

I am more tentative. Unfamiliar with balancing myself from one rock to the next, with their uneven pitches and the wind blowing mightily, trying to knock me to my tender knees.  The water is cold but not too cold to step into it, ankle deep, to walk on soft sand and smooth rocks to explore the collections of smaller rocks that shine with color when wet but grow dull as they dry. My pockets grow heavy and pull at my pants, threatening to pull them down so that I have to stop and hitch them up every few steps. I know I can’t take all these rocks, especially the larger ones, home in my bags. What to do? Build a few cairns of course!

Here’s a cool blogpost I found about Monkey Island.

I Never Get Tired of This Place

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I never get tired of this place. Lived here 20 years and this is my place of solace. In any season. Driving, walking, running (years ago), biking, kayaking, following a trail and climbing narrow stone steps up to the Tod Mansion site, the gardens kept so beautifully by a local club, views across the Sound, the Manhattan skyline, Long Island, mysterious stone walls with little windows cut out of them (a fort?), the birds, the beachgoers, beachcombers, beach bums, strollers, dog walkers (in wintertime), wind surfers, kite surfers, athletes of every type and age, picnickers, bird watchers, people watchers. Even dulled on a foggy quiet day, the autumn colors at Tod’s Point, I never get tired of this place.

Changing Seasons, New Lifeforms

The last time I took a hike at Mianus River Park it was early summer.  A gentle summer rain fell on a thick canopy way above my head.  Everything was green – even the air felt green.  Everything was young.  Everything filtered through that canopy.  The promise of adventure lay ahead.  The way it has every summer since I was a kid released from school.

And as they do, summer’s days passed.  Slow and lazy at first.  Then picking up speed until you find yourself sliding out of control through August. Labor Day coming at you like a train.  Then it’s over.  Back to work.  School buses trudging along backstreets.  I’m in a daze of transition.  The rich memories of my overseas travel – exploring new countries, eating new foods, finding new time-flows all begin to fade like old photographs.

Mianus Park OctoberBut now it’s October.  The weather is mild and sunny, the air noticeably different.  Again the woods call me out.  I stuff my trekking pack with towels to simulate the load I will carry on an upcoming trekking trip in New Zealand.  I lace up my boots, unscrew my trekking poles, and head to Mianus, my old friend. It’s past noon.  The early birds have been there and gone.  A few afternoon strollers, joggers, and dog walkers dot the trails.  Now and then a mountain biker passes like a shadow.

The canopy is still there but now more sun dapples through it.  The light coming in on a slant, from the South.  Yellow begs to show itself among the fading green. A loosely-woven carpet of early autumn leaves covers the ground. A reminder of the approaching “fall.”

As I bend to take a picture I am startled by the sight of new lifeforms.  Fungi in all shapes and sizes have sprung from the rich mix of the forest floor, now in the early stage of decomposition.

Mianus MushroomsThese lifeforms surprise me.  I don’t know why.  But it appears suddenly.  (I forget for the moment that it has been four months since I was here last.)  It takes the most wonderous organic forms and colors – tan, white, brown – and it exudes rich earthy smells.  I am drawn to it. With each step I find a new form, more luscious than the last.  Large-capped mushrooms are almost invisible against the dark earth, itself almost undiscernible from the small tree branch disolving into it.  Some look spongy, some look fragile –  like fine china.

Autumn Fungi

Some are small and grow close together, almost obscuring the soft rotting wood that is its new home, finely textured, like coral. They look like they would dissolve under my touch… But I don’t dare touch…

Some are large – one is huge, like an elephant’s ear. One species spaces itself sparsely on what’s left of a mature tree, most of it shorn off unexpectedly. There it stands, alone in a little clearing, as if the other trees don’t want anything to do with it, seduced by its new best friend.  I have the sense that this lifeform will, with stealth, multiply until it consumes its lover and the trunk will, like its cousins, topple and dissolve into the earth from which it grew.

For a few moments I am lost in this world of mysterious life forms. They seem to have sprung from some deep ancient place.

Further down the trail, the river runs slower than it did in June.  There are places where it does not seem to move at all.  As if waiting, not sure where to go.  Waiting for its next cue. A display board at the end of the trail shows the park in its many seasons. Soon the yellow will take over and light up the woods.  Stealing the spotlight from the dark mysterious fungi.Mianus Park Autumn

Watery Worlds, Ferries, and One Kindly Gnome

20,000 islands means a lot of water.  In the watery world of Finland’s Turku Archipelago, ferries serve as bridges.  Also in this watery world of dark forests and fickle wild flowers, fabled mythical creatures may just step out to help you find your way.

One day, 60 kilometers of riding, 5 island crossings, six ferries.  Sometimes the ferry is a small single floating deck fastened to a cable drawing it across the channel.  Some ferries cross only when called by pressing a button on the opposite shore, or when the pilot spots a car on the other side.

Other times the ferry is a monstrous yellow thing, deisel powered, looming high above us like something out of “War of the Worlds.”  These behemoths have two big pointed arms sticking out in front that are skillfully fitted by the pilot into slots on the dock to secure it for loading and unloading a long stand of cars, buses, repair vehicles and heavy-equipment.  These ferries leave right. on. time.

The larger ferries have cafes with coffee, beer, pastries, sandwiches and ice cream.  And on one, freshly made salmon soup.  My favorite.

On our final day of a 6-day bike tour, we returned to the mainland.  Where the islands had been easy to navigate, as they were small with few road choices and clear directional signs, the maze of cycle paths criss-crossing the City of Turku’s countryside and suburbs proved that our “route notes” were not well constructed, and in fact were probably just downright wrong in places.  (We suspect that our touring company staff are not cycling specialists…)

Things went right for the first 10k or so.  But as we got further into the congested city-scape, we got crossed up and found ourselves stopping at each intersection scratching our heads over Finnish street names of unprouncable words with long streams of vowels.  Our directions bore no relation to the landmarks in site.

We asked locals, all but one who spoke more than adequate English, who would say “yes, yes, just stay on this path and continue straight ahead,” pointing up the road (which was decidedly NOT constructed of yellow bricks).   And we would ride on with a sigh of relief.  Soon enough though, we would approach another intersection with no clear sense of “straight ahead.”  And again we were scratching our heads.

In a while, we spied a figure up the path, peering over a fence.  Again we asked for help.  Uncurling himself from his task, we saw a disheveled man dressed in a faded yellow jacket, sloppy denim pants and well worn sneakers (no socks).  He had a shock of thick tangled lightish hair, long past having seen a barber’s chair, or even a comb.  The raggedy man repeated the now-familiar instructions “just stay on this path,” and pointed ‘straight ahead.’  We must have looked dubious.

The raggedy man climbed on a bicycle as old as myself, which until that moment I had not noticed.  It was a single speed contraption, the style favored by locals.  His appeared to be held together by rust.  His manner though was thoughtful and kind.  “Why don’t I show you,” he said. “I’m going there anyway.  I will take you the shortest route.” (I’m sure he sensed our fatigue and frustration.)

He then led us into town, skillfully maneuvering through streets now crowded with afternoon traffic and pedestrians.  We rode right up to the block where our hotel sat, and right next to the town square market.  He veered off with a friendly wave of his hand.  I noticed a dingy shopping bag in his other hand.  I hadn’t seen it before.

Yes, this land is filled with magical creatures, and I think this day we met a kindly gnome.

Dark Forest Floor

A bike tour is a slow-motion view of the big picture.  But to really explore the details, I have to get off the bike and single out my subject.  I admit that I often, though only on a lonely country road, pull my phone out of my pocket flick it on with my thumb, swipe up for the camera, point and shoot off a picture or two.  All while steering with the other hand and peeking over my shoulder at what I want to capture.

I am working my way from Turku, on the Baltic Sea in southwest Finland, through a few of the Turku Archipelago islands. The first thing I notice is the dark forest floor, surrounded by a perimeter of wildflowers in every color, shape and texture.  This is a land of trolls, fairies and elves, where strips of land jut out of the Sea, carved by glaciers.  Only their very tops are visible above the water line – a cross between Maine’s North Woods, perhaps, and the lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains.  But this is the Old Country and there is no question that these deep lush woods house mythical creatures.

Tomorrow we leave the islands.  I am sad to leave this inquiry behind.  The watery world of an archipelago, where ferries serve as bridges to keep the islands’ traffic moving mostly year-round, and local residents swell from 800 to 5,000 for a few short weeks when the weather turns to “summer.” The long days of the sun’s northernmost-most angle reaches high into our hemisphere.  Fair haired people, always friendly, go-out-of-their-way friendly.  And so hospitable, eager to share their bounty – from their sea and from their land and from their heritage. Proud to share their culture.  They know they live in a magical, protected place.

It is August and the Finns are already talking of the end of summer.  This one was cooler than usual, after a warmer than usual winter.  I get the sense that there is an uneasiness about this in their islands.  Our group of 14 explorers were lucky to have hit the first good week of weather – temperatures mild, if cooler than normal, and mostly sunny skies.  (Perfect biking weather!) From the sound of things, it may be among their last.

I wonder, where do those mythical creatures go when the weather again turns bad?

A few of my favorite places

When you journey to a lot of places you generally have a lot of photographs.  So I begin this blog by pulling a few of my favorites from the files to get things going.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I have enjoyed taking and sharing them.  Stay tuned for lots of photos and stories as I skip, trip and journey through life.

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