Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Day 12 & 13 - On the Lough

So, what's the craic? You may hear the students asking you this new phrase when they return. That last word is pronounced "crack", and no it's not a drug. Hear in Ireland it means news or information. So hear is the craic on our latest adventures.

For the last two days we have been pretty much in places where getting out the craic was a bit difficult and definitely places where you would not normally take most electronics unless they were really waterproof. We started Monday at in Portaferry at the Exploris aquarium. This is a unique aquarium as far as they go as it focuses only on the local marine wildlife and exposes the people to what is under the waters where they live. That includes quite a bit! Because of the "warmer" currents along this coastal area you can get everything from starfish to sea anenomes. The aquarium also acts as a seal rescue center, dealing with many orphan seals each year.

After learning about the local marine environment, it was time to experience it. We crossed in the fairy to Strangford and traveled to the Clearsky Adventure Center for our next experience. A the center we offloaded our gear, donned wetsuits and buoyancy compensators (their word for life jackets), loaded clothes into waterproof bags and sleeping gear. These we put into canoes and sea kayaks to begin our paddle to Salt Island, a small sheep-inhabited island in Strangford Lough. We started in the partly cloudy conditions, but finished with a rare Irish thunderstorm bearing down on us by the time we reached the island. Thank goodness for wetsuits!

On the island we set up our camp in the island's bothy - a shepherd's cabin with no running water or electricity. Fortunately, there is a wood stove and we got it nice and toasty inside to warm up a and dry out a little by the time we headed for bed. We had a great Barbeque with a great selection of adventure stories from our guide Eddie. I'll let the students tell you about Eddie!

The rain cleared enough for a nice sunset walk on the island and then a cup of tea and more stories before crawling wearily into bed for the night. Of course, this was not your normal sleeping arrangements as we wee all laid out on boxes in the bothy with the guys "sardined" on one side of the bothy and the gals on the other. It was a bit crowded, but warm!

Tuesday morning saw us all up pretty early, getting breakfast, packing our gear back into dry bags, loading up our canoes and kayaks and beginning the paddle back to our starting point. Again, praise The Lord for wetsuits, as it rained the entire way back, with the wind in our faces. A difficult and a it cold paddle. By the time we arrived back the students were a bit cold and tired, but the adventure was far from finished!

Lunch, heaters and a bit of a breather helped revive us somewhat. Still in wetsuits, an additional layer and helmets, we loaded up on to the center's bus and headed down the coast to the cliffs of the Irish Sea for a bit of what they call coasteering in this part of the world. Coasteering is one part exploring, one part cliff bouldering (climbing horizontally along a cliff face) and one part cliff jumping. The staff of the center are all experts in this and maintain very high safety standards as the do this with younger children too.

In the cliffs the sun began to poke out of the clouds, giving us a bit of warmth. The adrenalin also kicked in, giving a bit more heat, and the excitement helped us forget about the long paddle of earlier in the day. We climbed down to the water's edge and boulder end across the rocks. Of course if you fell, it was just into the water right below your feet, so a soft, wet landing! Along the cliffs we also were able to observe some of the animals from the aquarium, as little pools in the cliffs held limpets, barnacles and even sea anenomes. The experience was fabulous!

But wait, we were still not done! After coasteering, we headed back to the center for nice hot showers, a change into dry clothing and then a trip out on the center's Sea Safari boat to view the wildlife from the surface of the lough. This included nice close views of the Sea Gem, a tidal generator that can power 1000 homes, even though it is just at demonstration model. We also saw seals, arctic terns, guillimonts, an a host of other wildlife that make this lough their home. After a full day of adventure we moved just up the street from the center's headquarters to house in a 1800s game keepers cottage that has been converted to a bunkhouse. A hot dinner of chili and a celebration of Whitney's birthday (and what a birthday to remember) finished off the day. Wednesday we are headed into Belfast for a slower day before our last two days of exploring in this beautiful island.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Day 10 & 11 - Mountain Glens and Mountain Tops

The last two days have been a whirlwind of activity. We have been on the road a lot moving from place to place. It's hard to believe that we are in to the last few days of our time here in Ireland.

Gortin Glen Forest Park

On Saturday we had a bit of a slower day in the Sperrin Mountains more in the central of the country. There are no "A" roads in the area, so every trip is a bit like a roller coaster ride on these back country roads. Most are not quite two lanes wide, so when you meet another vehicle as big as you are, it is a bit of an adventure!

We started the day with a hike around two glacial lakes in the middle of a blanket bog. It allowed us to see some good bog plants close up and to talk about the links between geology and ecology. It also just happened to be in the midst of a road rally taking place, so the students were treated to a whole host of old European cars moving through the area where we were hiking.

We then took a drive through a forest glen where we were treated to a landscape that varied between temperate rain forests (think Olympic National Park in the Pacific Northwest) and massive forestry operations where entire mountainsides had been clearcut. Some of this clearcutting is the result of an insect pest that has infected the trees, so they have had to cut large tracts of forest to prevent its spread.

Stone Circles

After lunch we drove to a local visitor center that focused on early celtic history in the Stone and Bronze Age. It also had good information on raised bogs. This was a good jumping off point to visit some archeological sites in the area. Most of these sites sit on private land so good directions are important. Unfortunately, the first directions did not get us to the site, so we had to scrap that one and move to a second site wheee we were able to view a whole series of stone burial rings from 1200 - 1500 BC. We ended our afternoon with a walk in the largest raised bog in Northern Ireland.

Sunday morning we were up early and on the road to the Mourne Mountains. Our goal was to climb the third highest peak in NI. Slieve Binnean is a beautiful mountain with interesting rock formations on top. On journey to the mountain took us through the heart of the Mournes and gave the students a nice look form the bottoms. It also took us through the middle of a local bicycle race, which slowed our travel time. When we reached the mountain the clouds had decended on top of the mountain, so you could not see the summit.

We decided to begin the hike and see what would happen. I have done this hike a couple of times, so knew the route well. It helps that the whole acent follows a rock wall all of the way to the summit (which is a feat of engineering without machines in and of itself). As we climbed, we entered the clouds, but visibility remained high enough to continue. It too us two hours to each the summit where we had lunch and our church service for the day, singing as a group from the top of the mountain (even though we could only see 50 feet in any direction at this time).

We started our hike across the summit and the giant rock formations appeared suddenly out of the clouds as we hiked. As we reached the last large rock formation, the clouds began to clear a bit and the students were treated to a view of this massive formation.

However, the real treat occurred when we rounded the corner of the formation and could suddenly see out across the mountains where the clouds had cleared and down into the river valley - one of the most magnificent views in all of the Mourne mountains!

After hiking for five hours in the rain, we were pretty wet and tired. We stopped down in the little resort town of Newcastle for a bite to eat and then drove on to Strangford where we caught the ferry across the channel to the little town of Portaferry and our accommodation for the night.

Monday we will visit an aquarium and begin our camping adventure, so it will be Tuesday night before I post again. Pray for some non-rain weather for us as we will be canoeing and camping over the next couple of days.

Thanks to Summer Lile for the mountain pictures with her waterproof camera!


Friday, May 16, 2014

Day 9 - Bunnies, Bugs, Birds and Bouncing

Today we left Florencecourt in the southwest of N. Ireland and moved inland toward Lough Neagh and the smaller Portmore Lough and the Portmore Lough RSPB reserve (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The staff welcomed us in and actually gave us the whole day!
We started the day with a walk around the 700+ acre reserve and into area that the general public is not allowed to go. Amy Burns, the reserve warden, was our main guide as she introduced us to how they manage this reserve for a number of species that are in critical status in the UK and Ireland. One of the main species being managed for was the Lapwing, a really interesting bird that generally nests in northern climates. The management for this species is actually done with wild ponies who keep the grasses short and provide the necessary habitat for the birds.
They also use Irish hares to manage the grasses. This allows for conservation of this important species whilst also providing critical bird breeding habitat. When we were in the hare conservation area, we helped the staff by conducting a simple hare count. The group spread out in a line and then walked across the hare habitat, counting any hares that were stirred up. You have to understand that the are not Michigan cottontails, but rather an animal that is about three times larger!
Just before lunch the students we're introduced to the reserve's friendly robin. The staff gave them mealworms to feed the robin who would come in quickly, land on the hand, take a mealworms and then fly back to feed its young. A great experience for our students!
After lunch we gathered equipment and headed down into the wetlands to pond dip and do butterfly and damselfly counts. It was the perfect day for butterflies and damselflies as the sun was shining and the temperatures we're in the mid to upper 60s. These counts will help the staff at the reserve to make management plans as they can see when certain species emerge and arrive at the reserve.
We ended the day with some time at the reserve's bird blind observing some of the waterfowl out on the lough. The favorite was the crested grebe and it's beautiful colors. Needless to say, after a full day in the sun, we were pretty worn out. We made the 1 1/2 hour trip to our next location in Gortin (pronounced Gorchin). The road in to this little village in the Sperrin Mountains was classic Ireland - twisting, turning, bouncing, blind corners, tight squeezes, and close looks at a lot of shrubbery if you are sitting in the left side of the minibus!
We are here for two nights and will be doing some exploring of these beautiful mountains tomorrow.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Day 9 - Preview

Hi Everyone - our next post may not be for a day or so. Where we are heading is a bit internet connection slim. Watch for our next post soon.

Day 8 - Pottery and Pubs

Today was a day of cultural experiences for the students. We started the morning with a drive to the little village of Belleek, which sits right on the border with the Republic of Ireland. In fact, the road that we traveled actually went over the border twice and then back into Northern Ireland. Generally, there are no signs announcing that you have crossed the border, just a change of speed limit signs from mph to kph.

Our first stop of the day was at the Belleek Pottery factory. This factory was located at his spot to take advantage of the raw materials necessary for making first ceramics and then fine Parian China. Belleek is known throughout the world for its unique china. Each piece is handmade and painted. Each flower is made petal by petal. Each woven basket is pieced together strand by strand. Apprenticeships last a minimum of two years and may be as long as five years. The way that they make the china today is the same way that they made it 150 years ago. The students were fascinated by the process and some of you will see some fine pieces at home after the trip.

After our tour, we walked through the village if Belleek and then ended up at the Black Cat Cove - a local pub/restaurant. One of the things about Northern Ireland is that there really are not many restaurants as we know them in the states. Most of the good food is actually found at the pubs. We visited this pub on our last visit, got to know the owner and were able to set up a menu for today in advance that would include more traditional Irish fare, including fish and chips and Irish stew. We also arranged for there to be traditional Irish music and even were treated to some Irish dancing too! Of course, pubs can be enjoyed just fine without a local draft of beer.

Needless to say, we left the pub stuffed full and then headed back to our cottages. Our late afternoon was for doing laundry, walks on the forest paths, exploring for fossils and enjoying the sunshine we have been blessed with today. Tomorrow we pack up early and head for our next destination more in the center of Northern Ireland.


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Day 7 - Under the Misty Mountain

Today we headed back to the Marble Arch Geopark to visit Marble Arch Caves, one of the larger cave systems in Ireland. This cave system in the limestone geology of the region is a popular place to see some of the wonders of the subterranean world.

While the tour usually begins with a subterranean boat ride, the rains of the last few days raised the water level to a point where the boats could no longer operate, so that meant 154 stairs down into the cave (and of course back up again).

The stalactites and stalagmites were gorgeous and the reflecting pools were mind boggling. I'll let the students tell you about it.

After being down in the caves, we traveled down into the adjoining glen which houses one of the oldest forests in Ireland. The water running through the bottom of the glen comes directly out of the caves and makes its way down to the local loughs.

After lunch we went to the town of Enniskillen to gas up our minibus and pick up some groceries. It also gave the students an opportunity to visit this quaint border town. Matthias even found a local tackle shop, a fishing license and the opprortunity to fish (successfully!).

Tomorrow we visit a well-known pottery where the china is still hand made from local soils and is hand painted. We will also be having our noon meal at one of the local eating establishments. Watch for more tomorrow!



Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Day 6 - Big Trees and Blanket Bogs

SUNSHINE! We had a day with almost total sunshine! It rained, but that was before the students had yet opened their eyes, but the rest of the day was a mix of clouds with a lot if sunlight mixed in. Today we began our focus on woodlands as we are in a much more rural area of the country with a forest park directly across from our cottages.

The Florencecourt Forest Park encompasses an estate in which the trees have not really been disturbed for 300+ years. The trees are a mix if native beeches, maples, ash and some imported (250+ years ago) trees as well. Needless to say, in this environment, that means that they get very large! We spent the morning exploring the forest and some of the gardens on the estate and then returned to our cottage for lunch.

After lunch we met our tour guides at the Marble Arch Geopark and traveled just up the road to the Cuilcagh Mountain reserve. Whilst our previous adventures on the north coast had been in an area heavy in volcanic basalt, our new location is almost purely limestone and undercut with cave systems. On top of this is one of the most extensive blanket bog systems in Ireland. Our guides introduced us to he limestone geology and the beautiful blanket bogs on the side of the mountain.

The late afternoon was for exploring the forest more or getting some laundry done. For supper, Nana Keys prepared a traditional Irish birthday dinner of bangers and mash, which we celebrated with Whitney and Summer, who will both turn 20 next week. It was a fun evening and now most of the students are winding down pretty hard after a day in the sun and wind. Tomorrow we head underground as we venture into the cave systems of the area.