Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: January, 2017

Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, by Jamie Bowlby-Whiting, and Walking and Trekking in Iceland, by Paddy Dillon

I’ve been watching a lot of Icelandic TV series on Netflix lately. And as a result, I’ve become interested in the landscape of that fragment of Europe sitting in the North Atlantic: the barren hills, the glaciers, the stark mountains. Would it be possible to walk there, I wondered? To find out, I ordered two books on the subject: Jamie Bowlby-Whiting’s first person account of crossing Iceland from south to north on foot with his brother Elliott, Across the Moon: Two Unprepared Brothers Traverse Iceland on Foot, and a guide to walking in Iceland, written by Paddy Dillon and published by Cicerone.


The subtitle of Bowlby-Whiting’s book tells most of the story: neither he nor his brother had any experience hiking before they attempted their walk across Iceland’s bleak and dangerous mountains. Their gear was useless, they weren’t physically up to hiking 25 or 30 kilometres per day while carrying 30 kilograms of gear (and not many people are–myself included, as I discovered in Ontario two years ago), and their only map covered just a fraction of their route. Because they weren’t prepared, they made many mistakes. They tried heading directly north, using a compass, and as a result they found their way blocked by raging glacial rivers which they had to wade across. Their packs were too heavy, so they got rid of most of their food; they ended up living on chocolate and uncooked ramen noodles for the remainder of their trip. Nothing cooperated: not the terrain, not the weather. A nearby volcano was threatening to erupt, and everyone told them they shouldn’t be walking near it. And yet they somehow managed to complete their journey. They were lucky, I think, because things could easily have gone very wrong for them. Well, even more wrong.

Across the Moon is a self-published book, and although I typically don’t bother to read anything that couldn’t find a regular publisher, I’m glad I made an exception this time. Bowlby-Whiting is an engaging narrator, frank about his mistakes and the liberties he takes with the truth early in the book. I like the book’s structure as well: reflective chapters about Bowlby-Whiting’s life and his relationship with his brother alternate with chapters about the walk itself. It’s a fun read.

And yet, I can’t believe the two brothers attempted this hike, given their experience and their equipment. Let me give you an example. Bowlby-Whiting always took off his shoes while wading through those glacial torrents. His brother Elliott did not. Now, everything I’ve read about fording rivers has said that it’s a terrible idea to do it without footwear: rocks can be sharp or slippery and it’s easier to fall when you’re barefoot. In his book on walking in Iceland, Paddy Dillon suggests carrying a pair of Crocs for river crossings (and as camp shoes). So does Justin Lichter, the author of Trail Tested: A Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking. “If the ford is tough then do not go barefoot!” Lichter says. “If the river is really gentle wear shoes when fording a river. They help with traction and protect your feet in case there are jagged rocks in the water.” So whether the ford is tough or not, you protect your feet, according to Lichter.

But wearing shoes while crossing those rivers didn’t help Elliott in the end. His shoes were cheap, you see, and they shrank and twisted as they dried. He couldn’t wear them afterwards and ended up walking the final 200 kilometres with flip-flops taped to his feet. I can’t imagine that. The moral of the story: don’t buy cheap shoes, and always carry a pair of decent lightweight sandals.

Flip-flops. I remember seeing a young Canadian walking the Camino wearing flip-flops and carrying a hockey duffel bag instead of a backpack. He was from Kelowna, I think. Everyone has their own way, I guess. And the Bowlby-Whitings managed to complete a trek I’d never attempt, even with preparation and decent gear. So who am I to say?


Walking and Trekking in Iceland is a completely different kind of book. In fact, it’s the kind of book the brothers might’ve considered consulting before setting out on their trek. Dillon describes both day-hikes and multi-day treks in different parts of the island. He also explains important stuff about Iceland that foreigners might not know–like how to buy topographical maps of the island, how to get access to private mountain huts, how the country’s bus service works, and when to go if you’re thinking about a walking holiday there. (August is busy and before June it’s too cold.) It’s the kind of book I’d have in a Ziplock bag in my coat pocket or at the top of my backpack if I were walking in Iceland, the kind of book one could use to plan a walking holiday in that country.

So read Across the Moon for a story about what not to do, one that luckily has a happy ending, and read Walking and Trekking in Iceland if you find yourself thinking about visiting that country.


Mid-January Sunday Afternoon Walk

It was sunny and warm today–well, warm for the middle of January, minus 10 or so–and rather than chip away at my to-do list, I went for a walk. Lots of other people had the same idea. As usual, I went around the lake. Maybe next time I’ll take a different route. But this afternoon, I figured I’d feel like having a coffee after 11 kilometres, so I followed a path with a café at that point. Then I went home and made dinner. Tonight I’m going to relax and watch the last episode of Sherlock. I’ll worry about the to-do list tomorrow.











Walking to Work at Minus 39 Degrees


What’s it like walking five kilometres to work when the windchill is minus 39 degrees? Surprisingly warm, as it turned out. This morning, I must’ve been wearing one layer too many, because I was quite perspired by the time I got to my office. Even my hands were sweaty in my mitts.

My twin concessions to the cold were to pull my balaclava up over the end of my nose (which meant removing my glasses, which would’ve otherwise fogged up and frosted over), and to pull up the hood of my light gore-tex windbreaker. Perhaps it was the hood, but I was a lot warmer today than I was yesterday, when the mercury was a good 10 or 15 degrees higher.

I wonder if the hysteria about the cold–the endless extreme cold warnings on the radio, for example–is necessary. Of course, if you don’t have a place to live, these temperatures could easily be deadly. But for most of us, going outside needn’t present any insurmountable difficulties–as long as we dress for the cold. And if that means having to cover up exposed skin to avoid frostbite, well, that’s what it means. We live in this climate and we have to come to terms with that fact, don’t we?


New Year’s Walk Around Wascana Lake


I walked around both sides of Wascana Lake this afternoon. It was a cold day. Just before I left, I heard the weather report put the day’s high temperature here at minus 21. That’s cold, but not too cold. Cold enough to make the snow squeak under your boots, but not so cold that your nostrils freeze when you inhale. Cold enough to need mitts instead of gloves, but not so cold that you need to wear gloves inside your mitts, too. As usual, the challenge for me was to keep from getting too warm and sweaty instead of worrying about the cold.




The side streets have been polished to treacherous glass by passing vehicles. The footpaths in the park are easier walking, even where they’ve drifted over. The sky was overcast, so my photographs aren’t that interesting. Still, if the sky had been clear, the temperature would’ve been a good ten degrees colder. Thankfully there was little wind. Even a slight breeze can end up flaying exposed skin at minus 21.



Knowing that people are stupid and litigious, the park authority has festooned the path with warning signs. Others have left Christmas decorations behind. And a few benches seem to have been turned into memorials for the departed.





There’s enough snow here for skiing and snowshoeing, although Google Earth’s satellite imagery still thinks it’s summer. There weren’t many people using the park today, though: a few pedestrians and dog walkers, and about as many skiers and snowshoers. The ice rink in the rowing club’s parking lot was empty. But there were kids tobogganing on the hill–the only one in the city–and someone left a snow angel behind.







My camera is acting up. The little doors that cover the lens are getting stuck, and frost got on the lens as a result, blurring some of my photographs. I guess I’ll have to take it in for a repair.



When I walk in the winter, I often fantasize about walking the Camino Francés in winter. I think about what that might be like: the challenges of finding the path when there’s snow, of drying wet walking clothes in underheated albergues, of getting enough to eat and drink in nearly deserted villages. It would be difficult, but I think it would be rewarding, too. And people make that walk every winter, so clearly it can be done. I wonder if my friends Geoff and Neil would be interested in a February adventure some time. I’ll have to ask.




Short Walks Around Ottawa

We spent a week in Ottawa–well, Kanata really–over Christmas, eating and reading and seeing family. Taking short walks, too, under the cloudy skies of eastern Ontario. We walked across the golf course to the grocery store with Mike and Aggie (the dog) to pick up a yellow pepper. We walked out for a few kilometres on the Watts Creek pathway and turned around when we got to a crabapple tree covered in frozen fruit. We walked to the drug store and then returned on a footpath that took us all the way around the north side of the golf course. Here are some photographs from those walks. I’m looking forward to many more walks in 2017.