Small town Manitoba  

This is Somerset, Manitoba.  Located in the south central part of the province, 30 miles (50 kilometres) north of the U.S. border.  This is where I grew up.  It is a small town, population 420.  It is getting smaller every year as the residents die off from old age.  The farms have become massive operations.  Fewer people farm the land as the huge machinery doesn’t require as many people to put in and harvest the crops.  This leads to a decline in population in the area.  Not as many services are needed.  Enrollment is down in the schools and this causes a decrease in teachers and support staff. 

But the town still has a movie theater, two bars, a grocery store, two garage repair shops, two restaurants, government offices, skating and curling rinks, a community hall, giant grain elevator and a few miscellaneous other small businesses.  Somerset will still be around for a long time yet.  And the people that live there love the quiet and solitude.

National Geographic Photo Contest Winners 

nat geo alberta

Bison crossing a highway in northern Alberta.

nat geo apache junction az

Multiple simultaneous lightning strikes, Apache Junction, Arizona.

nat geo badlands south dakota

Interesting cloud formation over the South Dakota Badlands.

nat geo bali

Young Orangutan uses a leaf for shelter during a rain storm. Bali, Indonesia. 

nat geo cheetah changing shifts

Cheetah’s scanning for prey on a mound in Kenya. Shift change, when the second one arrived, the first one left the perch.

nat geo chernobyl

Wild fox at Chernobyl.  Looks like it may be suffering from radiation poisoning.

nat geo china color

Coloured mountains in China.  Various minerals in the soil create the striking colours.

nat geo colorado

Massive tornado in Colorado.  It narrowly missed the farm yard.

nat geo godafoss iceland

Godafoss Falls, Iceland.

nat geo greece

Sunset in Greece.

nat geo ice cave iceland

Beautiful ice cave in Iceland.

nat geo iran

Iranian girls on the Iran-Iraq border. A destroyed tank left over from the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s.  The girl on top of the tank opened her arms in the direction of Iraq in a gesture of defiance.

nat geo kenya

Mother Cheetah protecting her five cubs, a sixth had been killed by a lion.

nat geo minnesota

Combines in formation, Minnesota.

nat geo norway

Beautiful fjord in Norway.

nat geo poland slovakia border

Great scenery on the Polish-Slovakian border.

nat geo salt terraces peru

Salt terraces in Peru.

nat geo vietnam

Terraces in Vietnam.

nat geo vietnam1

Striking scenery, Albania.

nat geo whitmore hot springs ca

Whitmore Hot Springs, California.

nat geo wildebeast

Wildebeests crossing a river on the Serengeti.

nat geo zoning china

 Residential zoning in Tibet. Except for a few holy Monk buildings, nothing gets built to the right of the line.

The Darien Gap 

The Darién Gap is a break in the Pan-American Highway consisting of a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest within Panama’s Darién Province in Central America and the northern portion of Colombia’s Chocó Department of South America. It measures just over 160 km (99 mi) long and about 50 km (31 mi) wide. Roadbuilding through this area is expensive, and the environmental toll is steep. Political consensus in favor of road construction has not emerged. Consequently there is no road connection through the Darién Gap connecting North/Central America with South America and it is the missing link of the Pan-American Highway.

The geography of the Darién Gap on the Colombian side is dominated primarily by the river delta of the Atrato River, which creates a flat marshland at least 80 km (50 mi) wide, half of this being swampland. The Serranía del Baudó occupy Colombia’s Pacific coast and extend into Panama. The Panamanian side, in sharp contrast, is a mountainous rainforest, with terrain reaching from 60 m (200 ft) in the valley floors to 1,845 m (6,053 ft) at the tallest peaks (Cerro Tacarcuna).


The Pan-American Highway is a system of roads measuring about 48,000 km (30,000 mi) long that crosses through the entirety of North, Central, and South America, with the sole exception of the Darién Gap. On the South American side, the highway terminates at Turbo, Colombia. On the Panamanian side, the road terminus is the town of Yaviza at. This marks a straight-line separation of about 100 km (60 mi). In between is marshland and forest.

darien PanAmericanHwy

Efforts have been made for decades to remedy this missing link in the Pan-American highway. Planning began in 1971 with the help of United States funding, but this was halted in 1974 after concerns raised by environmentalists. Another effort to build the road began in 1992, but by 1994 a United Nations agency reported that the road, and the subsequent development, would cause extensive environmental damage. There is evidence that the Darién Gap has prevented the spread of diseased cattle into Central and North America, which have not seen foot-and-mouth disease since 1954, and since at least the 1970s this has been a substantial factor in preventing a road link through the Darién Gap. The Embera-Wounaan and Kuna have also expressed concern that the road would bring about the potential erosion of their cultures. The gap has been crossed by adventurers on bicycle, motorbike, all-terrain vehicle, and foot, dealing with jungle, swamp, insects, and other hazards.

This place looks like a mosquito and snake infested hot box.

darien gapxx

End of the road, Panama side.


Magdalen: The Island of Shipwreck Survivors

The small archipelago of Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, off the coast of the Canadian province of Quebec, is home to some 12,000 people. Nearly everyone of them is a descendant of a shipwreck survivor.

The Magdalen Islands, also known as Îles de la Madeleine, have a long history of shipwrecks. In the 18th and 19th centuries, an estimated 500 vessels fell victim to the shifting sands and shallow waters of the Magdalen Islands, in Canada’s predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec. In those days, there were no lighthouses in the area and charts were less than accurate. In the heavy winds, fog and choppy waters, navigation became a game of guessing and dexterity. Many ships along with their passengers perished in the waters. Those who survived chose to settle down and make the islands their home.


One of the most talked about shipwrecks on the Magdalen Islands is the immigration ship, the “Miracle”, which was transporting families from Ireland to Canada, when she went ashore at East Point during a violent storm. The Captain of the “Miracle”, Master H.H. Elliot, while expressing his gratitude and admiration for their Magdalen Islands rescuers in his report, highlighted the necessity for having lighthouses in these areas.

“This is to certify that the ship “Miracle” under my command wrecked on the Magdalen Islands on the 19th, of May, 1847, with 446 souls on board, and through the exertions of Mr. James Clark and his sons succeeded in saving nearly the whole of them and they deserve great praise for their exertions, both in supplying them with provisions and shelter.

I firmly believe a light on the east end of the island would save many a shipwreck, as Brion and Bird Rocks can be sure.”

Nearly twenty years before the incident, in 1828, a similar report was sent by Captain Edward Boxer to the Grand Admiral of Maritime Britain, in which he mentioned:

I have found a great need for lighthouses in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. On this sea, navigation is so dangerous because of strong and irregular currents, and there is not a single lighthouse in all the Gulf. It is truly lamentable to find so many shipwrecks at different places on the coast… the number of lost lives is very large and certainly incalculable….”

Their complaints were finally heard, and the first lighthouses were erected in the early 1870s. Today, there are six lighthouses around the islands.

Many of the Magdalen Islands’ shipwrecks lie hidden at the bottom of the sea in various states of decay. But a few old hulks are visible from the beach, such as a 1963 shipwreck on the Corfu Island. Other pieces of wrecks are visible in dry ground in different forms, such as houses. Many homes in the Magdalen Islands are constructed from wood salvaged from the island’s many shipwrecks. A hundred-year-old church is built from the same material.

Today, the island is made up of mostly French-speaking people, with only about 550 residents speaking English. They are descendants of people who came from England, Scotland and Ireland. They live virtually isolated from the rest of the world, especially during winter when the gulf freezes making boat trips impossible. Their only communication link to the mainland is a wireless telegraph station.


Photo credit: Uladzimir Taukachou


Below: salt transport ship.



Great Big Strange Rock in Columbia

The Rock of Guatapé is a landmark inselberg in Colombia. It is located in the town and municipality of Guatapé, Antioquia. It is also known as The Stone of El Peñol, or simply La Piedra or El Peñol, as the town of El Peñol, which borders Guatapé, has also historically claimed the rock as their own and thus has led to different names for the site.

The landform is a granitic rock remnant that has resisted weathering and erosion, likely as result of being less fractured than the surrounding bedrock. The Peñón de Guatapé is an outcrop of the Antioquia Batholith and towers up to 200 meters (656 feet) above its base. Visitors can scale the rock via a staircase with 708 steps built into one side.

An inselberg or monadnock is an isolated rock hill, knob, ridge, or small mountain that rises abruptly from a gently sloping or virtually level surrounding plain.

Near the base of the Rock, there are food and market stalls for shopping. About halfway up the stairs, there is a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The summit contains a three-story viewpoint tower, a convenience store, and a seating area.

The rock was first officially climbed in July 16, 1954, when Luis Eduardo Villegas López, Pedro Nel Ramírez, and Ramón Díaz climbed the rock in a five-day endeavor, using sticks that were fixed against the rock’s wall.

A new species of plant, named Pitcairnia heterophylla by a German scientist, was found on the top of the rock.

A viewing spot was built on top of the rock, where it is possible to acquire handicrafts, postcards, and other local goods. It is possible to see the 500 km shore-perimeter dam. There are 649 steps to the uppermost step atop the building at the summit, a fact reinforced by yellow numbers also seen in the climb up the stairs.

In the 1940s, the Colombian government declared it a National Monument.

Blue Lagoon Spa – Reykjavik, Iceland

The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland, and certainly always one of my favourite things to do when visiting the country. The spa is located in a lava field in Grindavik on the Reykjanes Peninsula, southwestern Iceland. Although it’s location looks like a setting from another planet, it’s surprisingly easy to reach. Just a 20 minute drive from Keflavik airport, and a 40 minute drive from Reykjavik.

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Driving on Iceland’s smooth roads is an utter joy as the traffic is always extremely light. We find it always makes sense to plan a visit, either on your way into town, or on your way back to the airport. This time, having come to Reykjavik to see Yoko Ono switch on the Imagine Peace Tower (see here), we squeezed in a visit en route back to the airport.

The warm water is a distinct milky blue colour due to its rich content of minerals such as silica and sulphur, which have been proven to help certain skin disorders, including psoriasis. In fact, the Blue Lagoon operates a research and development centre and clinic to help find cures for skin ailments using the mineral-rich water – which in the bathing areas – averages 37–39 °C. The separate clinic has 15 spacious double rooms and a private lagoon.

The lagoon is fed by the water output of the nearby geothermal plant and is renewed every two days. Superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal water heating system. Then the water is fed into the lagoon for recreational and medicinal users to bathe in.

Pittsburgh, PA.,: A very Hilly City

Being from Winnipeg, one of the flattest cities in the world, hilly cities have always intrigued me. I always thought San Francisco was the U.S. city with the most hills, but I discovered that Pittsburgh is even hillier than the California city.

The city of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, the United States, is located over an unruly terrain of hills, hollows, valleys and three intersecting rivers. Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, when Pittsburgh was growing as a coal and steel town, factory workers built houses in the hills rising above the flat riverbanks that were lined with factories. In order to commute to work, city officials and residents built staircases along the hillsides, originally of wood and later with concrete that ran up and down throughout the city.

Revered American journalist Ernie Pyle famously wrote about the city in 1937:

Pittsburgh is undoubtedly the cockeyedest city in the United States. Physically, it is absolutely irrational. It must have been laid out by a mountain goat… I’ve flown over it, and driven all around it, and studied maps of it, and I hardly know one end of Pittsburgh from the other… There’s just one balm — people who live here can’t find their way around, either.




The steps

Many of the city’s neighborhoods are steeply sloped with two-lane roads. More than a quarter of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods make reference to “hills,” “heights,” or other similar indicators by name.

The city has some 712 sets of outdoor pedestrian stairs with 44,645 treads and 24,090 vertical feet including hundreds of paper streets composed entirely of stairs and many other steep streets with stairs for sidewalks. Many provide vistas of the Pittsburgh area while attracting hikers and fitness walkers.

Population (2013)
 • City305,841
 • RankUS: 62nd
 • Density5,540/sq mi (2,140/km2)
 • Urban1,733,853 (US: 27th)
 • Metro2,360,867 (US: 22nd)
 • CSA2,659,937 (US: 20th)
 • GMP$131.3 billion (23rd)