Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Plans for 2014

I have spent almost three months now in Berlin preparing my next trips and I have had a fabulous time thanks to friends whose apartment I could sublet while they were away hiking themselves. An entire apartment for me alone – what a luxury after 8 months in a tent. I tremendously enjoyed sleeping in a real bed again and having a fully equipped kitchen. Not to mention fast and reliable wifi which was essential for my trip planning.

After my long 5-months winter hike through Southern Europe I will take a break from hiking for the rest of this year. As I am usually alternating between hiking, cycling and paddling to avoid physical (and mental) wear and tear 2014 will be a year of cycling and paddling.

It was very easy to determine my cycling destination for 2014. Last year I have done a bike through Scandinavia that I have enjoyed tremendously. In fact I have enjoyed it so much that I completed only half of my planned route because I did not want to rush. So now it is time to do the second half. Therefore I will head north again, but this time NorthEast. Again I will start directly in Berlin at the place I am staying at right now. From Berlin I will then cycle through Poland to the Baltic States, which will be the first focus of this trip. I plan to spend at least one month in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia doing extensive sightseeing. Then I will take the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki: Finnland will be the second focus of this trip. Last year I had only briefly cycled through Finland from Vaasa to Helsinki but this year I am planning to do a big loop around Finland including the Baltic Sea coast from Helsinki to Oulu on one side and Karelia along the Finnish-Russian border and the other side. A highlight of this Finnish loop will be an excursion to the Aland Islands.

Although I have downloaded various gpx tracks of bike trails I am planning to use it makes no sense posting a route map now. Other than while hiking I usually don't adhere to planned routes while cycling. There are so many options and places to visit that I usually decide on the spur of the moment (and depending on the weather) on which route to take.

Like last year I am planning on cycling at a rather leisurely pace. I know from previous bike trips that I could easily do 100 km + per day, but I found it to be much more relaxing to do only around 80 – 90 km per day which leaves plenty of time for sightseeing, berry picking and just plainly dinking around.

When I had finished the bike trip planning I was surprised that it had turned out to be much longer than expected: Strictly adhering to bike routes without any side trips the whole general route is already around 7,500 km long. That meant one problem: I either had to pedal faster and/or shorten the route – or I would not be able to start the ensuing paddling trip down the Danube in time. But I have learnt one thing during my past trips: Try to avoid time pressure! Another factor was also threatening a „thrupaddle“ of the Danube: The political situation in the Ukraine.

So all of a sudden my leisurely trip planning turned difficult: I needed a quick alternative plan for the Danube. I was now looking for a 6 – 8 weeks paddling trip in Europe that could still be done in September and October without completely freezing my butt off. I received a lot of help from members of outdoor forums who came up with various great ideas. My desk was cluttered with dozens of maps and guidebooks from the library and I spent hours in front of the computer researching the various ideas.

In the end the perfect alternative plan came up: a paddling trip across Southern Sweden. It seems ideal because it is easy to get there from Germany, there is a lot of information out on the internet (and a lot of very helpful people giving me information on internet forums) and it is a very varied trip: My planned route includes the lake districts of Dalsland and Glaskogen, the huge inland lakes of Vänern and Vättern, some canal paddling and lock portaging on the Göta Canal and last but not least some first attempts in sea kaying in the skerry gardens of Eastern Sweden. As there are so many different options the trip can be as long or as short as I (or the weather) likes it to be. The only problem could be cold weather in fall.

So 2014 will be a Scandinavian year.... I will probably start cycling around May 5th – so soon there will be trip posts again. And if anyone of you lives in the Baltic States, Finland or Southern Sweden, please let me know. I always enjoy meeting people for a chat or maybe even an overnight stay along the route.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Why the photos on my blog are like they are

The photos on this blog are almost all taken with my smartphone camera. None of them are photoshopped. I am not a great photographer and I don't try to be one. I just point and shoot. (Most of my pictures are actually taken when one of my audiobooks has just ended. Because I have to take out my smartphone then anyway I usually look around and take a picture of what I see right then.) I am asked very often why I don't try to improve the quality of my photos. There are a lot of reasons for that. It is not only for lack of talent or interest, for me this is also an almost „philosophical“ question. Here are my thoughts on that topic:

I am an ultralighter: In the ultralight hiking scene you get almost dissed if you don't cut the handle off your tooth brush.- but no one will give you grief for carrying around 2 kg of camera equipment. Taking spectacular pictures has become so important that a decent camera is considered an absolute necessity. I think this attitude is hypocrite. Ultralight is not only about counting grams it is also an attitude. Always deliberate if you really need an item – and as I am a hiker and not a professional photographer I don't really need a great camera. The ultralight attitude also means that everything should be multifunctional. A camera isn't – and this is why I conly carry a smartphone which is one of my most versatile pieces of equipment: It is my MP3-player for listening to audiobook, my internet access, my backup GPS, my telephone – and my camera.

I am a thruhiker: As a thruhiker, hiking (or cycling and paddling) is my main focus. This is what I concentrate on. I don't want to be distracted from that. And photographing would distract me. I don't want to deal with finding the right angle or best lighting for a picture. I don't want to stop every five minutes because I see another interesting motif. I don't want to deal with tripods, zooms and chargers. Things are different if you are a professional photographer. Your focus is different. You hike because you want to take pictures – hiking becomes just a means to achieve your goal of taking great picture. That is fine and I absolutely respect that hobby. But the more you become a photographer, the less you are a thruhiker.

I want to show how it is: I just recently had a very enlightening encounter. A hiker friend showed me photos of his hike in Southwest USA, an area where I have hiked in extensively myself. But his pictures looked very differently from how I remembered the area. After a while it dawned on me: For him the landscape was a backdrop for taking the most spectacular photos possible. He just photographed what looked great and then he even enhanced this aspect by using the best angle, lightning and applying photoshop. But this is not how I see a hike. I don't usually see a landscape in the most spectacular lightning – I just see it at the time I am there. I don't see it photoshopped or color enhanced. And most importantly: A hike is not just the spectacular scenery, it also consists of less interesting or sometimes even boring or ugly parts. For me a hike is an entity of various aspects – and that includes the beautiful and the ugly ones. I then realised that I pursue a totally different goal with my photos than most photographers. I want to show how it is. I want to record and document. I want to give my readers a realistic view of how the hike has been. If I had a 30 km roadwalk, I take pictures of that road. If I pass dozens of industrial estates – I show pictures of them. I don't want to sugarcoat or cherry-pick. Most photographers are on a different mission: They want to show the beautiful and spectacular stuff only – in the most aesthetically pleasing way. There is nothing wrong with it – but just keep in mind that although this last approach will give you a lot dream pictures, it won't show the reality on the trail.

I don't want trophy photos: A hundred years ago a man could go out, have an adventure and prove it by showing trophies like tiger skins, grizzly bear teeth or antlers. Things are not that easy any more: You are not allowed to shoot at anything you like with your gun any more – but you can shoot it with your camera. Outdoor photography has become modern time trophy hunting including a similar bragging potential. I would go as far as to say the the photos you bring back from a trip have become a sort of status symbol. The better the quality the better the tour is perceived. You can do the most amazing trip – but without spectacular photos you won't receive much recognition for it. While paddling the Yukon I once met a well known adventurer who thought that his camera had just died. His first reaction was: „I will fly home now. It is no use continuing the trip if I can't take pictures....“. But why are trophies so important? Because you can impress other people with them. And I really do have the impression that some people go outdoors less for themselves but more to impress other people – throught their photos. And that is not my goal. My photos are meant to be a trip documentation and not a trophy. 

I don't want to support the outdoor photo arms race: As I have pointed out above outdoor photography has become sort of a status symbol. In order to „be better“ than others you have have better photos. And there the photo arms race starts. Outdoor people carry more, better, heavier and more expensive equipment. In 2000 it was enought to take a digital camera and take pictures, now you have to have a gopro helmet camera and to shoot videos. With more and more good photographers around you have to spend more and more time on photography to still impress people – on trail when shooting as well as off trail when editing the stuff. Another way to still make a difference is to choose more and more extreme destinations. You can't impress people anymore with hiking across your home country. Now it has to be pristine wilderness, high alpine trips or wild animals. The dangerous downside of this development is that people end up in condtions they are not prepared for - just (or also) for the sake of taking a great picture. First time hikers do solo wilderness trips and end up lost, injured or dead. People get killed or injured by wild animals because they got too close to them. (To name just one example: The first fatal grizzlybear attack in Alaska's Denali National Park occured to a tourist taking pictures too close.) I personally don't want to take part in that arms race. After so many years living outdoors my priorities have changed. I have extensively travelled in the world's most beautiful and spectacular landscapes but the more I have seen it the less important it has become. Scenery and landscape are just one important factor amongst many others when chosing a trip destination and determining the „success“ of a trip – and my pictures reflect these other factors as well: People I meet, lovely campsites, great food, the simple joys of outdoor life.

Like thruhikers say „Hike your own hike“ I want to finish this post with „Take your own pictures“. There is no right or wrong in the „philosophy“ of outdoor photography. But for me the way I take (or don't take) pictures is an deliberate act based on my personal point of (thruhiker) view.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A hike through Southern Europe: Statistics

Before I embark on my next trip I want to finish my hike through Southern Europe with some statistics:

Time: 28.08.2013 – 29.01.2014

Length: 3.865 km from Deutsches Eck, Koblenz, Germany to Isla Palomas, Tarifa, Spain
thereof in Germany: 258 km
thereof in France: 1.612 km
thereof in Spain: 1.995 km

As usual the length of the trip is difficult to determine. The number given above represent the length according to the gpx tracks I have downloaded. In hindsight I must say that especially in Spain these tracks where often incorrect. The tracks had been rerouted. I had to take lots of detours, but also shortcuts. Some tracks were even completely wrong. Also gpx tracks tend to show a shorter mileage than the trail on the ground because they don't follow every switchback or trail corner. I guess the actual mileage was slightly higher, probably around 4.000 km.

Days: 154
thereof in Germany: 10, average daily mileage: 25,8 km (without rest days: 30 km)
thereof in France: 58, average daily mileage: 27,8 km (without rest days: 35 km)
thereof in Spain: 86, average daily mileage: 23,2 km  (without rest days: 30 km)

The drop of daily mileage reflects the decrease of daylight in winter. I could have easily hiked further every day but had to stop because it got dark.

Nights free camping: 114
thereof in Germany: 9
thereof in France: 46
thereof in Spain: 57

Nächte Campingplatz: 6
thereof in Germany: 0
thereof in France: 5
thereof in Spain: 1

Nächte Jugend-/Pilgerherberge, Gite d Etape: 10
thereof in Germany: 0
thereof in France: 6
thereof in Spain: 4

Nächte Hotel: 26
thereof in Germany: 1
thereof in France: 1
thereof in Spain: 24

The high amount of hotel stays in Spain is unusual for my hiking style but it reflects various reasons: Already in early December I had secured accommodation for my holiday stay in Germany. I was slowing down deliberately because I did not want to finish before I could move in there. Also the cold weather was taking its toll plus there was an unusual high amount of sightseeing stuff along the trail.

Medical consultations: 3
Rest days because of health reasons: 1
Pair of shoes used: 3
Number of blisters: 0


Highest point: around 1.800 m in Andalusia, Northern variant
Temperature range: 28 C to – 8 C
Nights I felt cold for longer than an hour: 0
Average hours of daylight in Spain (December and January: 10 h

The wide temperature range shows how difficult it was to find the right equipment for this trip. I did not want to change gear during the trip due to logistical reasons and therefore had to carry winter gear the whole time - and to feel rather ridiculous with a winter quilt in summer temperatures.