Monday, June 18, 2018

The Old Man Who Could, And Did!


The Old Man Who Could, And Did!

After having reached a latitude of 39° north, our little ship finally began its journey back southward towards our final destination of London. In visiting the far northern islands of Great Britain for the first time, I finally understood the unique character of these northern lands. While the ground is fertile and in the summer months lushly covered in grass, it is a windswept land completely devoid of trees. In the blowing winds of winter, it must be quite frightening, but I must say that everyone who we met that lived in these regions was warm and hospitable almost to a fault.

Yesterday our destination was the Scottish Island of Fair Isle. Only 3 mi.² in size, it is home to around 55 people on a year-round basis. It is described as one of Britain’s most remote inhabited islands, and until recently was only rarely visited by outsiders. In the past, most of the visitors to this island came for birdwatching. The island is a vital stopping off point for migrating birds, and more than 350 species have been recorded here--many never before seen. In more recent years, expedition ships have started to make this a port of call, and I learned that during “the season,” as the locals call it, this year they will have around 42 ships visiting. The island is also known for a traditional style of knitting using Shetland wool, an art which they carry on today. Their products are incredibly beautiful, and likewise, very expensive.

We departed the ship in our little zodiac and rode some fairly large swells into the little harbor where we could easily disembark on to a pier. The Islanders had prepared coffee and treats at the community center as well as a display of their Shetland wool goods. The only problem was that the visitor center was 1.2 miles from the point where we landed, and the road was uphill all the way. Fortunately the locals were using their own cars to come down to the pier and to transport any who wished up to the community center. And so it was, that Lisa was able to get the last seat in one of the cars. I told her that I would join her shortly when the next car came along. But that was not to be! Not right away, anyway!

Greeting us on the dock were locals who offered to lead the way to some spectacular views of the islands, and in particular, to a location where we could easily photograph the cute little Puffins. So, as I stood on the road waiting for another vehicle, I realized that most of our guest were headed up the hill to see the Puffins. As I stood there, some of the early arrivals were returning from there hilltop journey exclaiming that the entire hillside was full of the little birds, and in the bright morning sunlight they made a spectacular photograph combined with the scenery from across the island. So little by little, I became terribly torn about whether to take the next car to the community center, or to try on my own to climb the little hill. Now, in truth, the hill was not “so little.” I later learned that it was the highest hill on the island, reaching 715 feet. Those who were climbing soon disappeared amongst the rolling landscape, and so I became convinced that I, “too,” could make the climb, not realizing just how high they were climbing. Now given the fact that I have no balance anymore, climbing up that hill, unaccompanied, was surely one of the dumbest things that I could do, but I was driven to get a photograph of the many puffins lining the hillside. I climbed slowly and as carefully as I could, until I could go no more. I looked back at where I had started, and it seemed as if I had just begun. “Surely,” I said to myself, “if I have come this far? I could go just a little further!” And, so I trekked on over the crest of the hill in front of me, only to realize that there was far more of a climb in front of me than there was behind me. I should have stopped! I should have just turned around, and used my good God-given common sense to go back where I belonged. But no, something inside me said, “Surely I can go just a little further, and see the Puffins!” Well, this conversation in my head went on for over an hour. I became drenched in sweat, and almost driven to reach the top. By this point, almost everyone was coming down, but I could still see a line of people sitting on the grass taking pictures, and I knew that I must be close. . .

Finally, huffing and puffing, I reached the line of people, and looked to see what it was they were photographing--it cannot be! They are all photographing just one Puffin! JUST ONE PUFFIN!!! Apparently, the huge line of cute little birds that was there in the beginning had decided that there were too many people, and so they had gone into their holes in the side of the cliffs. What was left was-just-one-bird! Occasionally another puffin would stick his head up, see all the people, and immediately go back into its nest. And thus, for all of my efforts in climbing all 712 feet, my reward was to get a picture of a puffin, just one little puffin.

It was then that I realized that I now have to get safely down this huge hillside, and I became really concerned that having lost touch with me for so long, Lisa would be in a panic. I grabbed any member of our expedition team that I could find who had a radio and asked if they would call to see if anyone could find Lisa and let her know that I was safe. But, with all the radios that were on the island that day, I was never, ever able to make contact until we got back together on the ship.

However, I remained in a panic until I got back to the ship and found Lisa. People kept teasing me all the time telling me that they had seen her at the community center spending all the money she had with her on Shetland wool. I managed to get down to the bottom, and hitched a ride back up to the community center. I ran inside hoping to stop Lisa before she spent us into poverty – but she was nowhere to be found. At this point, I was soaking wet from sweat, and so I simply took off my jacket sat down in the chair, and tried to dry off and calm down.

After quite a while, I decided it was time to return to the ship. When I went outside, there was a car departing, but it was already full. I waited, and I waited, and I waited some more until a car arrived with someone already inside. The driver rolled down the window and said that if I would like a ride back to my ship to jump in that he had only a short ride to take this person to their vessel before he could turn around and take me back. Well, that was curious. As far as we were concerned, we were the only vessel to be in the little harbor this morning, and to be visiting the island. As it turns out there was another, smaller expedition ship on exactly the opposite side of the island. They had offloaded its people shortly after we arrived. So as unlikely as it was, two ships were visiting the island on the same day.

It turned out that on this drive I got to see the entire island from one side to the other. Not only that, I got to see both of the huge lighthouses which are another attraction for which this island is known. My driver was very talkative, and in our half hour together, I learned so much about the island that it would be difficult for me to repeat it all. A few facts of interest: I was amazed that they have not only one cellular carrier, but two from which to choose. Also, he told me that a third carrier is installing a tower later this summer. I did not think to ask why in the world three cell phone companies would be competing for business on an island with 55 people. At this point, all they have is voice communication. They do not yet have cellular data. The island has four windmills which are enough to provide power for about 80% of the day. Therefore, there is a schedule by which the power is turned off in a rolling pattern across the island during the day. They hope to have a fourth and fifth wind turbine installed before the end of the year. When this happens they will be energy independent, in so far as electricity is concerned. As is the case with so many of these desolate islands in northern Scotland, there are more sheep on the island than there are people. They also have a unique breed of cattle. The cattle are allowed to spend the summers outside, but for eight months of the year, they have to be kept inside for their own protection from the weather. And finally, I got to see that the island has a small runway, which is sufficient for an eight seat turboprop to provide service when the weather allows. So, as we bounced along on the road, I learned about who lived here, and who live there. All in all, it was a fascinating and informative ride.

Having gone from one side of the island to the other, I now found myself back at the pier and ready to return to the ship. Luckily, there was a zodiac waiting, and so I crawled right in for the ride back. The swells were rather high, but the ride itself was pretty good. However, when we arrived beside our ship, things turned a little different. The swells were causing the zodiac to go up and down against the side of the landing platform at a considerable rate, and also were causing us to be thrown against the side of the platform with a jarring force. I will tell you that the people who help in getting us on and off safely did an absolutely fantastic job. But, sometimes, things happen. When it was my turn, it was at that moment that the zodiac decided to drop out from under me, and we pounded against the ship rather hard. I momentarily lost my balance, and I could feel that I was suspended at that moment in time between being in control or completely out of control. Dreading that I was about to fall, someone came out of nowhere and pushed me forward so that I could walk onto the platform and back to the ship. However, in the process, I wrenched my leg and twisted both my ankle and knee, and I had some kind of a whiplash to my head since it hurt all night long. The good news is that I have awakened this morning bright eyed and bushytailed and ready to go out again.

So, like the little engine that could, this old man could and did eventually make the hillside top, even if in the end, admit all I got was a photograph of one little Puffin. Right now, we are anchored in the Scottish city of Aberdeen. We will be going ashore in about two hours for our tour, and since the weather outside is absolutely beautiful, I expect things to go wonderfully.

So, from the old man who could, I say, “keep on buggering on.”


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