Thursday, June 7, 2012

Home Again

We are all home again. I just have to praise the Lord for His wonderful provision over the last 17 days. We had no serious injuries or sicknesses, the weather was by far some of the best you could possibly experience in Northern Ireland, the food was great, the students were a wonderful group to teach and work with, and the ecology - WOW!
On Carrick-a-rede Island
We ended the trip on Tuesday with a journey into Belfast instead of another climb. Most of the students were hurting a bit after Monday's climb, and the weather turned Irish on us. So, Laura and I dropped the students off in downtown Belfast and we checked out another location for the next trip. After a long morning in Belfast, we took the students out to eat for a final Irish meal and then headed back to our cottages to pack and clean up.

Wednesday morning we were up early to finish packing, clean and have a small breakfast before heading to the airport where we hooked up with Nana and Papa Keys again. We left a number of items in storage with my uncle for the next trip and then boarded the plane for home. The trip home was went much more smoothly than on the way there. Our drivers met us in Chicago and everyone was on their way home from Cornerstone by 11:00 PM (though our bodies thought it was 4 AM!!).

Today, I am recovering, going through the 1000+ pictures I took and wrapping up some loose ends. I can hardly wait to do this all over again in two summers! Thanks so much for reading about our adventures. Pass the word along about our Biology programs at CU if you have the chance.

Monday, June 4, 2012

On Top of a Mountain

Today's class took us to the top of Slieve Binnian, the third highest peak in Northern Ireland. It has some of the most beautiful scenery of all of the Mourne Mountains. From the top you can see many of the other high peaks of the Mournes as well as two of the reservoirs that provide the water for the city of Belfast. This creates some of the most picturesque views in the country.

Of course, first you have to get to the top of the mountain to see the views. The climb from the car park to the summit is about a 2000 foot climb, some of it scrambling over boulders to get there. At the top you see a patchwork quilt of farm fields spread out under you, with all of them split by hedgerows or stone fences.

One of the interesting parts of the day was the addition of another member to our group. When we exited our van in the car park, we were met by a young golden retriever who apparently likes to visit people at the trailhead. However, if you look at our picture from the top, you will notice "Lola" in the picture too. She actually did the entire 7.5 mile hike with us to the summit and back!

Tomorrow is our last day and we have modified our plans a little because the weather forecast is predicting rain and today's hike wore out some of the students. So, we will visit one last castle, another wildlife refuge, and spend a little time in Belfast before coming back to our cottage to pack up for our flight home on Wednesday.

For our last post of the trip I will have some of the students share some of the highlights of their experiences. Look for it tomorrow night.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Worship and a Sunday Afternoon Walk

We actually had Irish weather today. There was a light rain and the temperature was only around 50 degrees.

Today we had the privilege of worshipping with the people of the Newcastle Baptist Church. In Ireland and the UK the number of evangelical churches has been on the decrease. So it is wonderful to find these small congregations of believers with which to worship.

We returned after church to have a light lunch of cream crackers and cheeses. After lunch we drove over to Tollymore Forest Park to take part in an Irish pastime, an afternoon walk. This beautiful forest runs up the side of the Mourne mountains (though seeing them was not possible today). This was not a teaching day, so the students enjoyed their exploration of this former estate.

Weather permitting, tomorrow we will be climbing our first mountain in the Mournes. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and we will have wonderful views.


Island Adventures and Under the Sea

Thursday we made our way from Florence Court in the southwest region of Northern Ireland to the southeast area of Strangford Lough, the largest sea lough in the UK. Along the way we stopped to see a raised bog system at Peatlands Park and also at Lough Neagh, the largest inland freshwater lake in the UK.

When we arrived at Castle Ward in Strangford, we were met by our enthusiastic guide Eddie and began to pack up for our two day Strangford Lough adventure. Our adventure began with a 3-mile canoe trip to our first destination, Salt Island, just off the shore in Strangford Lough. We were followed by gray seals for portions of our canoe trip and arrived at low tide, which meant landing on the opposite shore of the island and then hauling all of our gear to the bothy on the other side of the island.

Our lodging for the night was a stone bothy (Irish for very rustic bunkhouse in the middle of nowhere). It was tight quarters, but hey, it's an adventure, not the Hilton. We made our dinner on the BBQ, fresh burgers from the local butcher. Then talked and explored.

Around 11PM the tide was high enough to begin to bring the canoes over to our side of the island. Of course, you have to realize that it really does not get dark, dark until well after midnight here. So eight of us made the journey, and what a journey it was! As we stroked our paddles, the phytoplankton in the water would give off a bioluminescent light that made each stroke of the paddle appear as if fairy dust was being sprinkled across the water. At times even the wakes of the canoes in the water illuminated creating a magical journey around the island. Needless to say, our 15 minute journey turned into an hour long adventure that was not originally planned for.

On Friday morning we awoke to clear skies again and had a scrumptious breakfast of fresh sausages, Irish pancakes and cereal, cleaned camp and then canoed our way back to Castle Ward to begin the second phase of our adventure. Along the way we were treated to large numbers of jellyfish in the water. We even caught the Moon Jellyfish and held it in our hands. It was great to see Sam even try this part of the adventure. I think we have definitely taken her into some new experiences this trip with a bunch of biology students.

The second part involved putting on wetsuits and then hopping aboard a rib boat for a different view of Strangford Lough. The rib boat took us our the Lough's channel to the Irish Sea. This channel has some of the strongest tidal currents in the world. The tide can at times race our though the channel at speeds of 75 mph! In the channel is a feature called Rowan's Wheel, where the racing tidal waters surge to the surface and huge whirlpools are created during the outflow of the tide. Needless to say, we were there at the right time and were able to experience first-hand the awesome power of this tidal force.

After the sea safari, we traveled back to the harbor, loaded the minibus and headed off for the final adventure, coasteering. Coasteering is a unique adventure sport that involves a combination of rock climbing and cliff jumping. Our guides took us to a remote section of the Irish Sea coast where we were not only able enjoy some high adrenaline sport, but see and learn about the beauty of the geology of the Irish coast.

Our adventure completed, we headed for Newcastle, our last stop on this trip. We will be staying here until we fly back next Wednesday. On Saturday, though, we actually headed back to Strangford, about 18 miles away, to cross the channel to visit Portafeery and the Exploris aquarium. However, our day turned into much more when we found that there was a whole community fair going on centered a rough the Strangford Lough. Many of the students were able to interact with members of the community and learn about some of the local history. However, the highlight for many of them was when Trevin spotted a gentleman walking by and recognized him as Professor John Lennox of Oxford University, a wonderful Christian and one the the greatest proponents of Intelligent Design in the world! They were able to have a nice conversation and many of the other students were able to meet him as well. What a nice, humble man.

Our aquarium visit was a great success and the students enjoyed exploring this small coastal community (about 600 residents). Tomorrow we will be enjoying a day of worship with other believers and may be visiting a local forest, depending on the weather - which has finally turned into Ireland weather!


Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Walled City and the Rural Country

Since Monday we have been in a very rural area with no Internet access. This posting may have pictures or not, depending on whether it is posted as we drive through an Internet access on the way to our next destination (I don't think you want me to work on my computer and drive at the same time!)

On Monday we left the North Coast of Northern Ireland and headed for the southwest. To get there, I began by dropping the students off at the train station down the road and while they took the train, Laura and I drove the minibus to the next city. The train ride has been described by travel writers as one of the most scenic in Europe. We met again in Londonderry, one of the only walled cities in Europe, and the city where my father was born and raised. We walked the walls of the city and talked about the issues related to the Troubles of the late 1960s to 1990s. The evidences are still present and while healing is happening, there are still some tensions. Visiting Londonderry also gave them a chance to do a little shopping too. After our short visit we continued on our trip to Enniskillen in the southwest. Of course we had to do some shopping for groceries so we can keep Paul fed (and the rest of us too) and then get to our next cottages in rural Florence Court.

Tuesday we spent the morning underground in Marble Arch Caves learning about some of the unique geology of this area. The beauty of stalactites and stalagmites captured us all. The favorite part of the cave tour was the Moses walk, a section where the pathway actually goes right through the middle of the underground river to reach the other side.

After lunch we went the other direction - up! We began our hike up Cuilcagh (pronounced cull- kay) mountain. Ireland has a unique bog system called a blanket bog. These bogs are actually on the sides of the mountain. We looked at the unique bog characteristics and the climbed to the top. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland actually runs right down the middle of the top of the mountain.

On Wednesday we travelled across the street from our cottages into the woodlands of the manor house at Florence Court. These are old woodlands with massive trees and a forest understory so thick that you cannot even walk through it. Some of the students remarked that it was like walking through a scene our of the Lord of the Rings movies.

For lunch on Wednesday we took them to the small village of Belleek and visited a traditional Irish Pub (no alcohol involved) and then journeyed on down the street to the Belleek pottery factory to see again the connection between man and the environment. Belleek is a fine parisan china that is highly valued, especially in the USA.

Well, it is Thursday morning and we are once again packing up to head our to our next adventure. We will be visiting a raised bog today, the largest lake in the United Kingdom and then beginning our adventure in Strangford, by the ocean, as we canoe out to an island and camp overnight. It may be Saturday before I can post again.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Island Adventures and Waterfalls

On Friday we got up early to catch a ferry over to Rathlin Island, which sits six miles off shore from Ballycastle, NI. We met our guide at the ferry terminal and then jumped on the ferry for the 30 minute ride to the island. The day was bright and sunny and looking to be another warm one. For the morning we hiked and learned about the history of this unique island that now only boasts 100 permanent residents. From the sea cliffs to birds to orchids, we learned much about the natural history of the island and how man has lived and worked among the natural features.

For the afternoon we traveled to the other end of the island to a large seabird colony that has over 100,000 nesting birds! Puffins, guillemots, fulmars, and kittiwakes make this their summer nesting home, and then they head back to sea for another 10 months. Over the day we hiked over 8 miles through various terrain.

By the end of the day we were looking even more like the sea life - burnt lobster red! Back on the mainland we stopped for a traditional Irish dinner - fish and chips. The students all had shocked looks on their faces when they opened the fish and found a piece around a foot long!

Saturday was a slower day. We started at Carrickfergus Castle in the morning - built in1189. And then traveled to e Glens of Antrim and Glenariff Forest Park. This site is a big change from the coastal habitats we have been seeing. With rainforest like qualities and ferns and waterfalls, it is breathtaking.

We have really enjoyed getting to know the students. Today Emily was totally enthralled with the castle and its history and Emma and Jenny almost literally jumped into the ponds at the bottom of the waterfall. It's been a great group.

Tomorrow is a much needed day of rest. We will be worshiping in the church here in Portstewart and the families of the church are having the students over for dinner. We'll have to have them tell you their stories in the next blog.