Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Harlaxton Adventures -- A journey to the poetic Lake District

The countryside surrounding Harlaxton is what I think of as very "English countryside": trees, farmlands, rolling hills (or, in Harlaxton's case, a lofty hill that overlooks the plebian fields below); clusters of houses in rustic villages, small churches, swans and geese swimming in pastoral ponds; lazy clouds floating (and occasionally residing) overhead; elderly citizens working in their neat backyard gardens, while small boys with proper English accents play cricket nearby ... Typical Englishness. Beautiful, calm, and painting-like.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that just four hours north-west of Harlaxton a whole new English countryside comes into view. Small hills give way to formidable mountains; idle ponds turn into navigable lakes; little cricket-playing boys are replaced with armies of mobilized vicious sheep. Such was my impression of the beautiful Lake District in northern England when I traveled there on a school-organized trip in mid-March. Allow me to elaborate:

* * *

The Lake District trip was not a "Long-Weekend" trip, but the way it was organized allowed us to have two full days in that marvelous land. We left on Wednesday evening, arriving to our hostel around 11pm. A large part of our group immediately headed off to some nearby pubs to sample copious amounts of alcohol; for myself, not wanting to waste any daylight on the following day, and knowing that nine hours of sleep would be necessary for me to enjoy the scenery, I quickly went to bed. Around 9am, after eating a tasty and filling breakfast at the hostel, I was ready to go exploring the famed beauties of Lake District.

While still eating breakfast, I sat and talked with a number of Harlaxton guys, including Nick Felton, Joey, and Ray. We decided to all go hiking together, and were also joined by Mark Sapoznik and Alex. Our plan was to climb up a nearby hill, observe the landscape, and then continue to hike in whichever direction seemed prettiest from the top. With that general idea in mind, and with the readiness to stop and admire any picturesque views, friendly sheep, and and/or climbable trees, we set off to conquer our hill.

The weather that day was near-perfect. Sunshine was constantly with us, shining either directly on us or on the surrounding mountains. Brief moments of clouds and hail were a sort of pleasant passing diversion from the sunlight, adding some fumbling and excitement as we scrambled to hide from the incoming pellets of ice. The sun reflected beautifully in Windermere Lake -- a lake right at the edge of our hostel and underneath the hill that we climbed. It was really a spectacular day!

After stopping briefly by the lake, we walked towards the hill through questionably-trespassed property, often populated by numerous grazing sheep. For some obscure reason, my companions -- particularly Nick -- took great delight in chasing those innocent grass-eating animals. The sheep usually took to the higher grounds, though they did unleash their unprovoked offensive fury on Scott and I the following day, when we harmlessly passed through their pasture. But more about that later.

The hill that we planned on climbing was undoubtedly a HILL -- a patch of moderately elevated ground on the way to real mountains; had we gone around to its other side, I'm sure we would have found a quick and easy trail to the top. Our stubborn determination to walk in a straight line, however, led us not only to trespass over sheep's pastures, but also to climb up rocks and steep slippery slopes. It was a fun challenge, particularly as the terrain had us constantly switching from firm but ungripable rocky surfaces to soft but likewise ungripable leaf-covered ground. The views were wonderful, both along the way and once we finally reached the top!

From the top of our hill, a magnificent panoramic view of the surrounding mountains could be seen. We also discovered a number of small ponds at the top, which contrasted beautifully both with the mountains and the large Windermere lake below. It was roughly at this time that clouds started gathering on the horizon -- clouds that soon bombarded our gang with undeserved hail -- but we valiantly braved the weather and courageously marched onward. A whole network of trails opened up from the top, and we followed one of those trails for a while before taking a shortcut, which accidentally led us to further rocky cliffs and slippery leaves.

[click on this picture -- or any other image -- to enlarge it, and then scroll through the panorama]

The shortcut led us to a pretty creek that ran through a mossy forest. Also along the way we ran into a randomly-lost-on-the-mountain Jabba the Hut (see picture below; those who have seen Star Wars will understand). Climbing down from there (climbing is an understatement -- sliding or falling down a cliff is far more accurate), Mark accidentally rolled a pair of boulders at Nick and I. They could easily have taken our legs out, and they missed us by just several inches, but for some reason we reacted to them with remarkable calm. I think that at that point, the tranquility of the mountains, the beauty of the weather, the craziness of our previous adventures, and the fact that we were all male teenagers made us feel quite invincible.

We got back down to Ambleside in the early afternoon, wandering around for a bit in search of cheap food. Sunshine had once again displaced the temporary cloudiness and hail, so Nick, Ray, and I quickly ate our lunches and proceeded to explore the surrounding area. As we walked towards a beautiful nearby mountain, we were randomly joined by a group of Harlaxton girls, including Karen, Meghan, Christine, Cassie, and a half-dozen others, who were likewise headed in the same direction. As Nick, Ray, and I were now well-practiced at jumping fences and walking across sheep pastures, we thought nothing of doing so with our companions; when the field proved muddy and when several of the sheep started stampeding toward us, however, some of the girls decided to split off from our group and find a different route. Nick, on his part, continued his sheep crusades and bravely led the opposition, forcing the belligerent sheep into retreat and clearing a path for the rest of us. As for myself, I practiced more diplomatic means of getting along with the sheep, offering them grass (what a novelty for those animals!) and talking to them softly and calmly until they even let me pet them!

Even with sheep aside, trespassing presents its own challenges. One such difficulty is figuring out how to cross streams that run though trespassed property: whereas trails and roads typically provide a bridge across them, random plots of land do not. We came to such a creek almost immediately after starting our hike, and while the rest of the group tried in vain to find a place to cross the creek, Nick and I concentrated on building our own bridge to ford the stream. Our bridge turned out surprisingly sturdy for what it was: a jumbled stack of half-rotten branches piled atop slippery rocks. Unfortunately, perhaps due to my reputation as an adventurous and fearless "Russian Monkey" (a term given to me by my friends while at Harlaxton), the girls were reluctant to follow us. Two of them chose to cross the stream elsewhere by simply stepping into the river and letting their legs get wet; the rest, despite our magnificent (and, at that point, upgraded) bridge, did the same. As they crossed the river, Cassie and Christine accidentally fell in, getting their clothing wet and eventually choosing to turn back (also scaring some of the other girls from crossing the river). Myrna, Meghan, and Karen were the only three girls from the original group that chose to follow us for the rest of the hike.

But, as I'm sure that all of my fellow-hikers would affirm, the views made the river-crossing absolutely worth it. On the other side of the creek we came across an actual trail, and followed it for the remainder of the trip. From our new mountain (and it was indeed a mountain this time) we were able to see not only Windermere Lake, but also a smaller lake on the west, housing a pair of poetic tree-grown islands. We also came across numerous sheep, grazing peacefully within monumental stone enclosures (it was absolutely amazing how those heavy stone walls extended all the way up the mountains!). After climbing a significant part of the way up, feeling a refreshing wind whipping across our faces, and seeing the sun set behind a mountain to the west, we turned back to the hostel. On the way back, the trail led us to an actual bridge, which turned out to be only 100 yards away from where our group had stopped exploring -- so much for the girls getting wet. Oh well -- at least Nick and I now know that if ever our career paths elude us, we can always resort to bridge-building instead!

* * *

The following day's weather was less spectacular than that of the previous day, but since when has weather been a deterrent for a true Alaskan? As my friend Scott Fites once said, referring to me by nickname, "If there is a Mish, there is a way!". On this second day at Lake District, I spent the whole day hiking in the mountains with Scott, and we ran into quite a few adventures: from climbing slippery rocks over a waterfall, to performing a shaky creek crossing, to almost being attacked by sheep, to meandering through thick fog... I hope I ended up proving at least somewhat worthy of Scott's noble complement!

Our first stop was an awe-inspiring waterfall along the way. Its water rushed with tremendous speed and thunder past the surrounding rocks, in a series of 10-30 feet drops that added up to a fairly great height. It was impossible to approach the waterfall from the bottom, but Scott and I did manage to climb across some rocks at its top. Following our weekend-long tradition of jumping fences, we hopped across and emerged onto a road that we hoped would lead us to a trail. The road actually only led us deeper and higher up into the wrong valley, but we did see a number of amicable cows and adorable calves. Then, as the road continued to lead us astray, Scott and I walked down across the cow pasture and to the very bottom of the valley, where we expected to cross a small creek and start climbing up the other side of the mountain.

I don't know what it is about me that creates precarious circumstances anywhere I go; often (like in the case of Christine and Cassie on the previous day), I'm not even the one who initiates a dangerous maneuver. But either way, whether it was my lucky presence or the place that I chose to cross the stream on that particular day, Scott managed to fall into the icy-cold water as well. To his credit, Scott decided to keep hiking despite the wet clothing, so we proceeded upward to a sheltered area where he could at least change his shirt to an extra dry one. As we jumped across yet another stone wall, however, walking with the most peaceful intentions possible, we somehow aroused the Wrath of the Sheep.

At first the sheep greeted us with familiar bleating and hardly a sign of the righteous indignation to come. But the bleating continued, summoning all of the scattered sheep. Using their higher ground and their sheer numbers to their advantage, the sheep slowly advanced toward us, creating an offensive formation with four particularly brave and loud sheep in the lead. They were supported by a dozen sheep behind them, and countless reinforcements that were arriving from the all sides of the pasture. By the time Scott and I took notice of the sheep offensive, we were directly in the center of the perfectly open field, at least 40 yards from the nearest wall, amidst a steadily-increasing army of sheep. Within a minute or two, the four rebel sheep at the lead had mobilized nearly the entire herd! With an air of incredulity, Scott and I suddenly realized that the sheep did not represent an idle threat, and that their imminent charge would not be a laughable endeavor. While Scott ran towards the wall, I stood there for a moment longer, taking a picture of this spectacularly-organized sheep battalion. Then, feeling absolutely ridiculous for turning back in the face of sheep -- I'm from a bear country, for heaven's sake! -- I sheepishly (pardon the pun) ran towards Scott's defensive foothold. Once there, we continued walking alongside the wall at a brisk pace, taking the first opportunity to jump over a fence out of the enemy territory. Only when we arrived to another pasture, where much friendlier sheep were peacefully grazing upon green English grass, did we finally stop.

As we continued climbing further up the mountains, the scenery around us became engulfed by fog. Soon, not only distant mountains but even the walls and trees ahead of us disappeared from sight. Though it was fun to walk though the thick fog, we eventually realized that not many remarkable views would come of such a trip, so we descended back below the fog line. For a reason I could not explain, the face of each mountain was composed of a series of bumpy surfaces, as if the ground was covered by a layer of patches (see image below). The fog gave the day a mysterious sort of tone, and the views were magnificent, especially when the fog from above drifted into the valleys and hills below.

As we rested on the mountain (rested is REALLY an understatement; see image below), the fog began to clear. Clouds still filled the sky, but the span of the view once again extend to the faraway horizon. The day was coming to an end, however, so Scott and I began to descend back to Ambleside. We stopped by the same creek that I had crossed yesterday (my adventurous presence did not make Scott plunge into the water for a second time, however -- we used the proper bridge), and eventually we headed back to our hostel. From there our bus departed back to the manor on the following morning, and the trip became yet another wonderful Harlaxton memory. To all my willing and unwilling -- and dry and less-than-dry -- hiking partners from Lake District, I enjoyed your company!

Lake District remains a place that I'd like to visit again, and I'll definitely find a way to hike through it at least once more when I return to Harlaxton next semester. For now, as a token to remember Lake District by, permit me to include a poem by William Wordsworth, who lived and wrote at Lake District some 150-200 years ago:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling leaves in glee;
A poet could not be but gay,
In such a jocund company!
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

May you continue to be showered with Nature's blessings, oh beautiful Lake District!

- Michael

No comments: