I Say Edinburgh, You Say…

I have not posted in quite some time now and I know exactly the moments to blame. I’ve decided that the best way to explain this event is via a comparison to Mario Kart, everyone’s favorite Nintendo themed racing game. Periodically during the race your character (in my case, Peach or Daisy) will encounter boost strips in a certain area of the path. If you can manage to get your kart over to pass overtop the strip, you’ll get a short boost of speed, so hopefully you can pass up your siblings for the win. I somehow managed to navigate myself to a fabulous CouchSurfing festival in Edinburgh and was given a giant burst of speed and excitement! Edinburgh Rocks 7 opened my eyes to a whole new side of the CS experience!

 I have already written about how I enjoy staying both in hostels and with couchsurfers, but even when I’m in a hostel, I like to check the community page for the area where I’m staying. Here, any member can post localized messages or events. I usually check to see if there’s a weekly meet-up or interesting event, but imagine my surprise when I found not one cool event, but a whole weekend of planned festivities! There was even a discussion thread devoted to hosts for festival goers and I was immediately offered a place to stay for the duration!  
The festival was very well planned,with plenty of time for chatting up and getting to know everyone involved (pub meet-ups, speed friending, BBQ, Scottish breakfast) amid the more intricate events (ceilidh, Highland games, scavenger hunt, talent show, free hugs, movie night). My excitement began with a night of ceilidh (apparently pronounced “kay-lee” – hhhmm). What is ceilidh, you ask? I wondered the same. As far as I could tell when the night was over it’s a Scottish Gaelic word for ‘intense evening of crazy folk dancing during which you will sweat, laugh, fear for your life, be stepped on, and enjoy every bit’. I was hooked and attended every single event during the festival. Between competing on Clan Highlanders and winning the scavenger hunt with Team LIFIA in an epic talent show tie breaker, I developed several friendships and learned about people from all over. And those new relationships are what propelled my adventures into overdrive. 
I received several offers of couches to visit during my journey.  Another American traveller and I followed two fellow Rockers (and Clansmen!) to Newcastle where we continued the fun times. From there I met back up with another new Edinburgh friend in Manchester and we spent four wild days backpacking and mountain hiking in Snowdonia national park. Then back to Newcastle for a killer electro pop show featuring Static Soul, my host’s flatmate’s band. A night of wild dancing with some of the loveliest Gordies before early morning buses to Glastonbury festival where another friend (this time from home) had procured production and stage passes for me for the last day. Somehow my most relaxing day in nearly three weeks was spent backstage watching Vampire Weekend and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds rock the main stage before enjoying some whiskey and Mumford & Sons from the dressing room area with several lovely characters. 
Are you exhausted from just reading that last bit? I’m tired from just reliving it all as I typed! I still can not believe how just one weekend can shape so much of my trip. Even now, weeks later, I am heading to Amsterdam to join back up with the same traveller that came too to Newcastle and later I hope to meet up with another in Budapest. So many thanks are due to so many people for their hard work, generosity, and friendship. This is only one of many CS camps, festivals, and other major events that are hosted through the summers. I will be on the constant look out for others and hope to return again eventually for another Edinburgh Rocks! 
Question of the Day:
What has been your most pleasant surprise event while traveling?

The Sheep of Cow Hill

Run away! Doune Castle – more famously ‘All of the
castles from Monty Python’s Holy Grail except
for Castle Auuuuugh.
That was a different one. 

My Scottish journey took me first to Glasgow where I was able to see the university and a few more areas. I even got to watch Scotland’s unexpected win against Croatia in the evening’s football match with my Couchsurfing host. My host was also an adventurous fellow and agreed to escape from the city with me for a day of hiking in the Trossachs. I ended up staying in the nearby town of Stirling with all the intentions of keeping on to Fort William. My morning detour to Doune Castle of a bit of Monty Python silliness turned into a day of back and forth complete ridiculousness as I had to backtrack to Glasgow before heading back north to Fort William, at the base of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain.

I was finally set to try my hand at some solo hiking. Safety concerns aside, I was most worried that it’d really just be quiet boring. I’ve had some lively hiking buddies in my day, including Rachel (and Chelsea) for all of last summer. How was my own company supposed to stack up to theirs? I stuck out, being careful to pack my bag with “just in cases” ( water, rain jacket, hat/gloves, etc), and made my way to the only place to start any good hike – the ranger station. Or whatever the Scots call their rangers. They pointed me toward a few options, marked on my little map in green or yellow. I chose the yellow route mostly due to ego and the assumption that it was slightly more strenuous than the green trail. I’m no green trail simpleton!
For a trail called Cow’s Hill, there sure were a lot of sheep around. I had passed through a gate on my way up apparently onto a grazing area. As far as wildlife encounters during hikes, sheep are fairly non-threatening. Most kept their distance and I was able to giggle at them from afar. Have you seen their floppy little tails? Adorable. At one point while walking I had my map in front of my face to check where I was. When I moved it down again I don’t know who was more startled, me or the sheep in front of me down the path. I’m entirely certain we were both thinking the exact same thing. Holy shit, there’s something on the other side of that map. Close call. But not the closest I’d have yet. Further along the trail I crossed through another gate into supposedly sheep-free area. 
Except for the one directly in front of me on the path.

Some poor momma had been too tempted by the greener grass on the other side and somehow got through the fence. Unfortunately, her two lamb twinsies did not follow suit and they were no separated. She wasn’t very much enjoying her decision now. And I wasn’t very much enjoying her reluctance to move from my path so I could continue on. Furthermore, she wanted to come my way.
Ok, I know you aren’t supposed to approach the wildlife, but what do you do when it approaches you?!
Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly at all depending on how well you know me, this was not the first time I’d been in this pickle. 
Amazing Bestie National Park Trip
Day 17ish
Glacier National Park

Established in 1910, this American half of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is the jewel at the top of the US stretch of the Rockies. Rachel and I had made it from just miles from the US/Mexico border to a park nestled up against the Canadian edge. We were stoked to see some glaciers straight away, but were saddened to learn that it is harder than one would expect from the park’s name. We would have to drive back out of the park and up to another road into (but not through) the park if we wanted the chance to see some. Not ones to spend the day driving around the parks instead of hiking about we struck out on a trail to Hidden Lake from Logan’s Pass. The stellar views of the area only became more and more spectacular as the trail continued, and eventually we began to spy the critter that has become synonymous with the park. The mountain goat. 

At first we admired the goats from afar, but as we descended down the path towards the lakeside, we began to notice an odd phenomenon. These nimble creatures that can scale the steepest of mountains and cliff faces apparently don’t mind taking the easy way around. And the easiest ways down are usually the human-made trails. So we ended up passing several along the trail as though it was an every day affair (well, it probably was for them!). All was well between humans and mountain goats. For the most part. Rachel let me out of her sight for moments to visit the friendly neighborhood outhouse, and I was nearly immediately confronted by a group of goats wandering through their turf. Their turf. And I was on it. They didn’t exactly want to snap their fingers and dance it out. They apparently wanted to make me circle around the outhouse trying and failing to out maneuver them. 

“Rachel. Uhhh. Just stay in there a few more moments.” I can only imagine her thoughts as she heard my voice moving around and around the shack. “Everything is fine. But, yea, just take a moment.”

Eventually they must’ve decided they’d made enough of a mockery out of me and carried on with their day, heading off in another direction. Rachel was safe to come out and laugh at my predicament. No harm, no foul.
 But our gal in Scotland was only getting more and more agitated. She was seemingly realizing that she needed to get back on the other side of the fence any way possible. And I wasn’t sure if that included through me. Normally I’m not going to be too weary of sheep, but when ones has horns right at kneecap level are going to receive a healthy amount of respect from me. Luckily my day pack has a built in whistle, something every traveler should have. A few solid blasts on that baby along with some gravel kicking and momma now knew I also wasn’t in any mood to be bothered with. That seemed to calm her down long enough for me to move far enough away to let her safely pass. 

The key is to keep your wits about you. Calm and cautious. Generally wildlife will give you a wide birth, but when they get too close usually they have their own reason and are just as annoyed with you for getting in the way. Of course, rabid animals might also approach humans without fear, in which case stay way back in case they attack and alert proper animal control personnel. I was able to fully enjoy the remainder of my hike and made sure to alert hikers passing in the opposite direction of what was ahead on the trail. Once back to the visiter center, I told the ranger and was reassured that the farmers monitored the fence line and would soon reunite the momma and her babes. All in all, a rewarding and successful first solo hike! 
Question of the Day: 
What is your wild animal encounter story? Any extra advice? 

Cool Stuff Sunday 9 – Special Edition

My good luck with Irish weather is unbelievable. Most days have been sunny and fairly warm. The Irish flock to bask in the warm rays as though they believe it will be the only sunny day the whole summer. By mid-afternoon, most will be bright red with the rare Irish sunburn. Not wanting to miss out on any of the great weather I tagged along with some Aussies planning on wandering about the botanic gardens.  

We explored several greenhouses and the temperature/humidity definitely made us even more appreciative of the perfect Irish summer we’d been experiencing. I couldn’t even take any pictures of the interesting plants and critters because the camera lens would immediately begin to fog up! Eventually we came across the Ulster Museum and were enticed by the free admission and AC. It proved to be quite the diverse museum with history on the bottom floors, art on the top, and nature in the middle. We took a bit too long wandering about the history sections, which is very easy to do considering the vast and often troubled past of Northern Ireland (and Ireland as a whole). We didn’t even make it to the art sections, and had only minutes to power though my obviously preferred topic. The nature area was full of taxidermy animals and skeletons, but one exhibit, quite literally, stood above the rest.  
I remember being wowed by the story of the “Irish Elk” when first learning about it during an undergraduate course. Even its common name is a misnomer, as it is neither exclusively Irish nor an elk species. In fact, it is often also referred to as a Giant Deer. This species is among the largest deer to have ever existed. They could reach nearly 7 ft (2.1 m) at only the shoulder and boasted antlers that could span 12 ft (3.65 m) from tip to tip! For comparison, while moose bulls could reach that shoulder height, their antlers would only span about 5 ft (1.5 m). 
However, the Irish Elk/Giant Deer is fascinating for more than simply its impressive size. The massive antlers are often used as a possible example of a maladaptation, or a trait that becomes more harmful then helpful. Sure, antlers of that size would be undeniably irresistible to the lady Giant Deer, but can you imagine carrying them around all the time? I can’t even walk a few meters with my pack on without accidentally bumping into someone with my tent. If it was mounted on my head and 6 times the width, I wouldn’t be a very popular traveler. Several theories have been proposed on how such a great antler size was achieved. Perhaps very strong, constant sexual selection due to being used in combat with other males lead to their massive stature. Stephen Jay Gould, notable American evolutionary biologist, demonstrated that allometry (the relationship of body size to anatomy, physiology, and behavior) would predict that any deer of such a size would have that size of antlers, and they would likely be maintained by sexual selection, rather than caused by it. 
 The cause for extinction is also a point of contention. Many other prehistoric megafauna went extinct from humans hunting them for food. However, the enormous size of the antlers is hard to ignore when considering reasons for this species’ demise. After the end of the last glacial period in Europe, climate change caused the vegetation to change, as well. It is possible that the Irish Elk populations were unable to acquire sufficient amounts of nutrients and minerals required to sustain their great sizes. It is also possible that as landscapes changed to be more forested that the antler size would truly be a maladaptation, hindering the deer from moving about their ranges. During a time when we often hear about the current climate change and its harmful effects on different taxonomic groups its important to remember that even gradual, natural climate change can impact things. 
Question of the Day:
Can you think of any other examples of maladaptations, either in the past or possible ones for the future?
Want to read Stephen Jay Gould’s paper on this species’ structure? Here ya go! http://www.blc.arizona.edu/courses/schaffer/182/Giraffe/IrishElk.pdf