Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Mud and a Folly

I was standing at our utility sink, washing the mud off my waterproof hiking boots. I had finally extracted them from the bottom of my suitcase. I was home again in the US and picking up where I left off after our three week trip to England.

The stream of brown water trickling down the drain transported me back to our first day of hiking in the Cotswolds of England. At the end of that day, there we stood, outside the entrance of our hotel in stocking feet, using sticks and stones to try to clean off the mud and sheep dung from our shoes before dinner.

The day had started off in the quaint market town of Chipping Camden with a tour led by a National Trust volunteer. Chipping Camden is a typical Cotswold village, where every building lining the narrow streets is constructed with honey-colored limestone. The narrow roads hardly seem wide enough for two way traffic, especially when the bus we are riding in takes up most of the road. I guess that explains why all the cars are small. 

The stone buildings are all attached to each other, giving a visual impression that we were in the 18th century, a feeling that was also underscored by the the lack of any traffic lights or electric signs or strip malls or high rises or urban noise. No sirens, helicopters or airplanes overhead interrupted the quiet that we had stepped into. I had not expected the English countryside to feel so different from the US, but this area of south central England, in particular, felt remarkably removed from the ugliness of the 21st century. The biggest danger I perceived was looking the wrong way for oncoming cars when I stepped off the curb. That was a real and present hazard throughout the trip!

Our group of 23 highly functional North American tourists, most of them older than we are, began our first "walk" together. Our agenda was to follow a seven mile trail up to the Cotswold Escarpment and on to the Broadway Tower, and then down to the town of Broadway. “Escarpment” describes the steep slope that divides this region. We walked on Public Footpaths, some hundreds of years old. A Public Footpath gives the public right of way to walk from town to town, across royal land, pastures, fields, along streams and down alley ways. The Cotswold Way, 102 miles long, goes from Bath to Chipping Camden, and our trip took us on different segments of it each day.

One of our English guides, Alan Gent was a fit, silver haired outdoors-man who skis the Alps in the winter. Everything that he said was particularly charming to my ear because of his English accent. We each wore listening devices which allowed him to narrate our experience with his microphone and be heard without having to shout. The first day that we all showed up on time to board the bus in the morning, his voice in my ear said quietly, “Brilliant! Americans are always on time.” Throughout our two weeks together, he and Pam, the co-leader, used “Brilliant” to describe lots of positive things, along with “Lovely!” and “Well done!” His strong commitment to conservation and a deep understanding of the region became clear as the days progressed.

Alan led us now up a lane that took us out of the valley, leaving behind the village’s narrow streets and clustered houses. As we walked, he reminded us to shut the gates behind us and explained the gently undulating geology of the region. We emerged at a quiet vantage point above town, looking down on the stone tiled roofs and the fields of peacefully grazing sheep that edged the village. Ahead we had more altitude to gain before we reached the top of the Cotswold Escarpment.

Chipping Camden from above

My throat swelled. I have a strong sentimental streak, which manifests at funny times like when seeing a marching band. “I can’t believe I’m here,” was going through my mind, but I was afraid if I whispered it to Lynne, I would start crying. I hadn’t expected England to feel so moving, but at that moment I felt awe and gratitude. (Lynne regularly asks me “Are you crying?” when she can’t tell if my nose is dripping from the cold or if I am feeling sentimental.)

Lynne and I had been planning this trip for six months, a special vacation to commemorate our amazing 40th anniversary. Our preparations included big projects like my hip replacement surgery, important details like finding a house sitter for our pets, and just a lot of other decisions like air travel and shuttle service. With all that accomplished, we boarded our Virgin Atlantic 787 to head to England. Between the many meals, the excitement of watching our flight path and the discomfort of sitting upright, neither of us had slept on the all night eight hour flight across the north Atlantic. When we arrived it was mid-morning in England. Once we disembarked and navigated Immigration and Heathrow Airport, we found our transport driver and chatted with the him through an 80 mile ride on increasingly narrow, twisting roads to our first hotel. It took so much energy just to get to Day One, that I fell asleep that evening during the first educational talk about the Cotswolds.

That day of our first long hike had a happy ending. Our leader led us up to the Saxon era Broadway Tower, a “folly” built in 1799 which stood on Fish Hill, a grassy high point between Chipping Camden and Broadway. Along the way, I was occupied with the usual business of hiking. The skies threatened rain (I put my rain pants on), then cleared and warmed up (I took my rain pants off). I stopped to take pictures even as Alan kept us steadily moving. The group was fast disappearing through a gate ahead of me. I scampered to catch up.

At the back of the line, I had the chance to get to know Pam, the other leader, whose role was “sweep.” She kept an eye on us, chatting and being friendly, and attending to the various woes that impeded the progress of the stragglers. Her friendly, encouraging and funny manner put me at ease. 

I did have one remaining worry: Would I be able to do this seven mile hike? The brochure had promised walks up to six miles. Seven miles would be my longest hike since my surgery 3 ½ months earlier. My new hip was feeling strong but this was its maiden voyage. I was on uncharted waters.

I spent a lot of time ogling the pastoral scenery and then navigating the hazardous road crossings as we got closer to Broadway Tower. Pedestrians do not have the right of way in England, and I had a primal impression that English drivers were trying to kill us. I headed up the Tower (not to be outdone by everyone else) as I tackled three flights of narrow spiral steps, took in the exhibits inside and made it to the viewpoint at the very top. As I took in the spread of pastures and rolling hills around me, I suddenly noticed that the front half of our group was already heading downhill on the steep side of the escarpment for the second half of the hike. I made a quick descent and caught up with the group. Traversing sheep pasture, I unsuccessfully tried to avoid stepping in sheep dung, while carefully choosing the least hazardous way on the rocky downhill path. Behind me, one of our group slipped on the slope, with no lasting injury.

I was tired but happy by late afternoon when we appeared on the small lanes leading into Broadway village, built on a site that had been occupied for over 5,000 years. Broadway had benefited from the wealth of the wool and cloth trade starting in the 1600s, and later as the home of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Our group straggled along and gathered loosely on a sidewalk like a pack of tired dogs with our tongues hanging out, waiting to be fed.

On this, our first day out, I was relieved to find our bus pulling up to take us back to the hotel. Using this day as a measure, I was going to not only survive this trip, but thrive in this peaceful hike through charming countryside.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Wind Turbines

First blade chasing second, third
The fox chasing its tail.
Etching an invisible circle.
High above the horizon.
The pedestal tethers it.
Impassive, the blades absorb the wind’s whims.
Ferociously twirling
Or falling to a snail’s pace.

Wind turbines.
Turning wind into electricity.

“Industrial looking,” I think as I peer through the windshield. We are driving east, leaving behind the charmed greenery of the forested Cascade mountains and encountering the dry vistas of eastern Washington, officially called shrub-steppe habitat.

I am surprised by their numbers. After I see one wind turbine, a lone metal structure on the ridge ahead, I notice ten, then many, each lone soldier joining an army of wind turbines, now humbling the desert with their looming presence.

My mind protests their interruption of the sweeping vista, their dominance over the scrubby hills. The wind turbines contradict my experience of the emptiness of this region, most commonly used as open range for livestock.

Lynne and I are driving through barren land. Few signs of human habitation rise from the arid soil, spotted with parched green sagebrush, native grasses and occasional yellow wild flowers bobbing on the end of long stems. The land is punctuated by random rocks.

We turn off  Highway 90 and twist up a series of hills to reach the ridge tops of Whiskey Dick Mountain. This is the location of the Puget Sound Energy’s Wild Horse Wind Farm and Solar Facility (https://pse.com/aboutpse/Facilities/Pages/Wild-Horse.aspx). We’re hoping to be in time for the Sunday afternoon 2 o’clock tour.  When we finally arrive, and I eagerly step out of the car, the wind whips my hair and flaps my sweater. I hurry up to the shelter of the Visitor’s Center. We sign up for the tour and pick up our required protective helmets and glasses.

Our young guide, Bilal, is slightly bearded with a friendly face, framed by the hard hat that he wore at a jaunty angle. His uniform jacket is buttoned casually to show off the kerchief around his neck. I tag him as a Millennial, following the rules but interpreting them with a fashionable flare. He wears steel toe boots that add seriousness to his casual stance. I like listening to all the facts he tells us, absorbing some and letting some pass me by. Bilal is willing and able to answer the many technical questions brought up by the group of twenty earnest tourists, who, amazingly, have chosen to come to the Wind Farm on Mother’s Day.

We are touring a wind farm strategically placed to take advantage of the weather conditions at this location on the east side of the Cascade mountains.  The wind blows hard here when the sun warms the land and the air hot air rises. Cool air rushing over through Stampede Pass from the west side of the mountains contributes a steady supply of wind in the spring and summer months.

As our guide speaks, I recognize the necessary ingredients that are here: an area with sparse human population, unproductive land, lots of predictable wind, and demand for electricity within a viable distance, in this case, Ellensburg. He shares the technical details of the 10,800 acre wind farm, using terms like turbine (converts wind energy to rotary motion), “nacelle” (the part that the blades attach to), and “yaw” (the blades turn to face the wind at the best angle).

“How long does each wind turbine last?” a middle aged man asks, his wife attentive to the answer.

“Twenty to thirty years,” Bilal says. “They take about ten to eleven years to pay themselves off.”

One blade is on display on the ground outside the Visitor Center. The opening at the biggest end is more than twice as high as I am. The blade twists and tapers down to less than 2 feet across 129 feet later. It weighs seven tons.

Each blade is carefully matched to the two other blades for the turbine, he explains.
“When one blade is compromised they must set aside the other two and wait for a replacement  to be made that matches the others. They must all be within 8 pounds of each other.”

Each turbine costs close to three million dollars. The entire project at Wild Horse Wind Farm costs $478 million. It produces energy to supply electricity for up to 70,000 homes per year.

He leads us down the path towards the base of one of the 149 wind turbines manufactured by Vestas. From the highway, they seemed quiet, but up close, away from the obscuring sound of cars on pavement, I can hear the blades passing by in a regular rhythm, close to where I stand.

I don’t mind the sound—it is more pleasing than other sounds in my urban life: the sound of our neighbors’ air conditioning, vehicle traffic on I-5, train whistles in the middle of the night, or border patrol helicopters flying over my house. Each passing blade evokes an awareness of the energy flying by in the wind. Still, the guide tells us that people don’t like to live closer than 1000 feet to a wind turbine because of the constant noise. The flickering shadow cast by the turning blades are also incompatible with human comfort. They might drive you crazy.

The group follows our guide down a gravel path through carefully transplanted native plants, including hedgehog cactus and balsamroot, to the door at the base of one of the wind turbines.  Bilal unlocks it and invites us inside, where all twenty of us stand in a circle, dwarfed by the open space that disappears 220 feet up at the top of the pedestal. He points out the electrical properties of the smooth inside walls, and we peer down at the base anchored 30 feet into the soil.

The adaptability of each turbine, he explains, comes from a computer that measures the wind direction and swivels the blades to face the direction of the wind. It also twists the blades to increase or mollify the power of the wind. Under some conditions, the blades must be held back from turning.  They consume energy when they are not turning.

When we are done inside, we step out to stand amidst the field of turbines.

I bring up the subject of bird deaths. Bilal deftly defends wind turbines. “Wind turbines kill 2.5 birds per year. Newer turbines have been re-engineered to make them more obvious and avoidable to birds,” he says.

He quotes us these statistics:

Number one killer of birds in the United States is buildings.
Number two killer of birds in the United States is domestic cats.
A distant third: Wind turbines.

Hmmm. Lynne and I find two or three dead birds on our patio each year. The glass panels on our patio plus our picture windows kill about the same number of birds each year as one wind turbine.

I steal a moment alone, lingering on the return path, letting everyone else pass me, hoping to record the sound of a wind turbine alone, up close. I am near one tower, resting my eyes on the spread of wind turbines on this ridge.

They seem different now. I feel a fondness for this tribe of tireless towering giants, the beauty of the sweeping blades, the changing pattern made by the different speeds of  turning blades and each one’s fastidious orientation. I feel respect for the investment of engineering talent and hard work that brought this wind farm to production.  I see the challenges of this design, a response to human’s demand for energy, yet I also feel its beauty.

Thanks for Bilal M. Abubakar at PSE’s Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility for providing expertise for this article.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Our Own Polar Express

For the first time in three days, my bed didn’t move underneath me last night.  No constant jostle, sway, bump, no shift, no lurch.  We just got back from a train trip east, first to visit our family of friends in Kentucky, then to visit my brother in Clifton Forge, Virginia. Two eastbound nights, Bellingham to Chicago, of train whistles, a perpetual drive, racing across the continent in the dark at 79 mph then slowing to a stop waiting for a freight train to pass. Three westbound nights on the train coming back.

Waiting for the train in Bellingham

We ate dinner on a table set with white table cloths, ordered steak and cod from amiable waiters standing legs astride to keep their balance as they took our orders. Our first dinner mates were a fit looking orthodontist and his silent 18 year old daughter, who were heading from Camano Island to Whitefish, Montana for a weekend of skiing. At each meal throughout the trip, we were seated across from two new travelers, exchanging travel stories and destinations. We learned that the treasure of Amtrak’s all American menu was found in their desserts, like their signature warm date-pudding cake with toffee pecan sauce. Mmmmmmm.

So near winter solstice, darkness descended early. We missed the views as our train climbed over the Cascades, our descent into the frozen orchards of eastern Washington, the flattening landscape as we crossed Idaho. It all whizzed unseen as we passed our first long winter night on Amtrak.

Still, the beds.  We had chosen luxury over necessity when we made our reservations for a “roomette” on the train.  The roomette promised us a private space with two facing seats by the window, bathroom down the hall. The car attendant came by in the evening and turned the seats into a set of bunk beds for the night, each made up with crisp white sheets and standard blue blankets. Perhaps “luxury” is an overreaching term here.  The top bunk was 20” wide, the bottom was 24”.  The top bunk included webbing clipped between the bed and the ceiling to grab onto if you roll out.

The first night I crawled into the upper bunk, so close to the ceiling that I couldn’t sit up, a space so small and windowless that I only lasted about ten minutes. “This isn’t going to work,” I called to Lynne, as motion sickness and claustrophobia immediately kicked up in my body. She generously agreed to switch.  She has proven to be the more stalwart traveler many times when we have been on trips, able to read while the car or the boat is moving, able to sit backwards and able to eat while I am struggling not to throw up.  Once again, Lynne saved the day, or this time, the night.

Traveling by Amtrak is considered “slow” travel, but only in comparison to flying. We had ruled out driving this distance. It would have taken us a week to get from Washington to Kentucky and Virginia. Lynne ruled out the abuses of flying: being wedged into seats where you are not able to cross your legs, having to deal with hordes of people going through security, racing between gate changes from one terminal to another. Many of our friends travel east by train, so we thought we’d give it a try.

Looking towards Glacier National Park from the train

The first morning I looked out at the still beauty of Glacier National Park from the comfort of the observation car, spotting elk tracks in the snow.  The landscape flattened in eastern Montana, which extended so far that we didn’t get into North Dakota until after dark.  The train stopped at lots of places, mostly small towns, letting off or picking up just a few passengers who were waiting on the platform with their luggage as we pulled up. Within minutes the train was easing away, slowly gaining speed and then notching it up again as we returned to open country.  

The Great Plains viewed through the observation car window

We happened to choose the coldest days of 2016 to cross the Great Plains. At our stop in Minot, North Dakota, the temperature was -13 degrees F at 10 pm.  The crew that met us there, bundled in heavy parkas and boots, tried to thaw out the waste pipe of the downstairs lavoratory that had frozen. During the night, the mercury dipped to -17 degrees F. That lavoratory remained frozen for the duration of our trip to Chicago. Still, the train keeps going in the dark, the cold, the snow, the wind. The attendant told us that if the temperature reaches -20 degrees F, the train has to slow down because the rails are too brittle to provide traction to stop. We were in a snowstorm by the time we arrived in Chicago. All airline travel into and out of Chicago had been cancelled, but the train got us there.

Our stalwart traveler

Seven days later, we stepped aboard a different train, the Cardinal, in Virginia, heading back to Chicago. In the middle of the night, the train thudded to a stop when it hit a tree. The engineer cut the power to our cars, so suddenly we were in silence and semi-darkness. We could hear muffled voices and saw flashlights outside in the dark as the crew cleared the tree and inspected the train for damage. After about 45 minutes, power was restored and we lurched forward again. Towards morning, the train stopped once more. This time, the track switch ahead was frozen, so again, the crew was out in the dark clearing our path north. When we left Chicago, we saw flames rising from a section of tracks, an alarming sight to see out the window. When we asked the waiter that night, he explained that when the track switches freeze, the crew thaws them by pouring kerosene on the tracks and lighting them with a match.

I had mentioned the word “luxury” earlier. The luxury of the Amtrak is old world.  We traveled the double decker Empire Builder to Chicago. The newest cars on that train are 25 years old, and some are 40 years old, making them older than the cheerful and informative waiter who served us on the way west. The equipment showed its age: the bathroom down the hall had an ornery door that didn’t latch easily, the lock on our room didn’t operate smoothly, the walls had scrapes from previous occupants.

We upgraded from a “roomette” to a “bedroom” for the final leg home, and were delighted to have a full length sofa on which to stretch out, as well as a private bath and shower in our room. Splurging on this upgrade rewarded us with larger bunks as well, so for the last two nights, I ascended the ladder to the top bunk and experienced train travel as I had hoped it would be. I was lulled by the constant motion, like a gentle massage to which I yielded. The bottom bunk was large enough that we nestled together in the morning, only to scramble up when we heard the dining car announce “Last call for breakfast!”

The hard life

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Floating home from Alaska

Our trip home on the Alaska ferry started in Skagway; Alaska, which punctuates the top of the picturesque north-south Lynne Canal. Standing on the deck of the MV Leconte (one of the original Alaska ferries) mountains towered over us to both the east and west sides. As we moved away from land on our way south through the Inside Passage, even the four cruise ships we left behind were dwarfed by the setting.

The Leconte is overshadowed by the cruise ship
and the mountains.  Notice Harding Glacier
at the upper left.

I was excited to be moving out onto the water. I left Lynne in the comfortable observation lounge and ventured out on the deck. The wind picked up my hair and billowed my jacket. As the land receded, the sky revealed itself, filling the space above and beyond the islands and mountains. In the coming days, from the ferry, I saw endless vistas of mountains receding into clouds, shorelines overlaid with early morning fog, and trees blurred through mist, the atmospheric conditions softening the steady, slow passage south.  In that way, all four legs of our trip on the Alaska ferry were similar, although each offered a view of a lighthouse, a glacier, or a narrow channel to define where we were. Then, the appearance of houses, piers, cruise ships, and marinas signaled that we were approaching our destinations.

The back deck of the MV Fairweather

Lynne and I took three different Alaska ferries, embarking first from Skagway, stopping for a couple of days in Haines, one night in Juneau and two nights in Sitka. I loved watching the coast diminish quickly each time we pulled away from the dock.

I felt safe and also connected with my ship community, the passengers and the crew. Occasionally, the ferry sailed past cruise ships or fishing boats, but mostly, we were alone on the rolling water. I got used to the feeling of the deck moving slightly under my feet. I had to pay attention as I walked the halls.  I held onto the railings as I went up the stairs.

Travelling on the ferry through southeast Alaska gave me a visual context for how sparsely populated this part of the world is, how much of the land is uninhabited or uninhabitable. Mountains and water separate the human holdings. Each town operates in its own sphere, claims its own part of the shoreline, apart from its nearest neighbors. “Near” is a relative word when the towns are separated by icefields or steep impassable mountains rising sharply from the sea. What ties these southeast Alaska communities together is the water, the water which provides vital transportation and livelihood to the residents.

A view of Haines, Alaska as we head south on the ferry

Each of the three ferries (the Leconte, Fairweather and the Matanuska, all named after glaciers) had comfortable indoor observation lounges with ample windows for those absorbed in the passing beauty. I brought a book to read, but hardly got a page read.  I saw some people doing jigsaw puzzles, or knitting, but most were gazing out the windows or just leaning on the railing and scanning for wildlife. With no Wi-Fi on the ship, people passed much of the time talking to each other. 

Lynne and I had fun meeting new people, like Donna and her husband Joe from Georgia. They are as old as we are (depends on your perspective how old you think late sixties is), so we were surprised to learn that they were sleeping in their VW Golf as they traveled across the lower 48 and up to Alaska. Their claim to fame: bragging rights for getting 50 mpg with their diesel engine.  We made friends with Lexie and her husband from Oregon.  They trek up to Juneau to fish in Excursion Inlet each summer. This year they were returning with 1300 lbs of halibut that they caught. Lexie is originally from Juneau, and has memories of smoking fish with her Tlingit grandmother at the family’s fish camp.  Her husband gave me good directions for gathering huckleberries on Mt. Adams.

At night, I experienced sleeping on the boat, the bed gently rocking. I had the feeling of motion and simultaneously the feeling of deep relaxation that came with leaving the navigation and driving to the crew, covering distance in the dark as we slept. In the middle of one night, extra turbulence in the water awakened me, swaying me back and forward in my bed, but I soon fell back to sleep.

A deck hand prepares the ropes for landing

At breakfast, the purser made a quick announcement over the loudspeaker, alerting us to look out the window.  Standing up to see better out the wrap-around dining room windows, we watched about eight humpback whales fishing near the ship, their breath spewing up water, their fins slicing through the surface, their broad dark flukes (tails) flipping up as they dove. Before our food could get cold, they were gone.

The food was fun. The ship’s white jacketed cooks offered up their food cheerfully.  The kitchen was open most of the day.  It was a classic cafeteria line with trays that you slid down stainless steel rails, the heat rising from steam tables with oatmeal, soup or chili. Specials were listed on a white board for every meal.  After ten days of eating our own (very healthy, well planned) cooking while we were camping, both Lynne and I indulged in the kitchen's cooking.  The last morning, I had enough huevos rancheros to feed a ranch hand, and I enjoyed every bite.

Throughout our trip in Alaska in early August, we wore long pants and long sleeves, occasionally pulling on raincoats.  Southeast Alaska is in a rainforest, so we had expected the foggy weather, the showers, the cool air.  We had prepared for this weather and actually welcomed it after some hot days driving through southern BC. We heard occasional reports that the rest of the country was having a heat wave. 
Navigating the Peril Strait on the way to Sitka

The large boat that we were on for 36 hours was the MV Matanuska. It moves at approximately 19 mph (16.5 knots), day and night, carrying about 200 passengers and their RVs, cars, motorcycles, kayaks and bicycles. We traveled on it for 36 hours, from Sitka to Juneau, Juneau to Petersburg, then on to Wrangell, Ketchikan and finally our destination, Prince Rupert. For us, distances were measured in time, not miles.  Juneau to Sitka is about 110 miles as a plane flies, but took 4 ½ hours by the fast ferry MV Fairweather), or eight hours by the larger Matanuska. 

One lane of RVs being loaded on the ferry in Skagway.  Notice the smallest RV.  That's ours!
 Lynne and Winnie are standing in front.
Two cruise ships block the mountains behind the scene.

Tracing our route on the map, the ship went south from Juneau on the Chatham Strait, then east, slowing down to negotiate the Peril Strait and ending up south again on the Neva Strait to Sitka. You could skip all this cruising and instead get there in 40 minutes by plane. Instead, we returned to Juneau on the Matanuska. Our ultimate destination was Prince Rupert, 318 miles from Juneau.  We left Juneau at 5:15 am on Monday and traveled 29 hours south on the Stephens Passage to Frederick Sound and Petersburg, through the Wrangell Narrows to Wrangell, through the Clarence Strait to Ketchikan, through the Dixon Entrance to Prince Rupert.  We arrived at 10:45 am on Tuesday.

Approaching Juneau on the ferry, with a view of the Mendenhall Glacier.

I am an insider of the Alaska ferry system, because my job is to provide shoreside support to the ships which dock in Bellingham. Each week, I get to help the Alaska bound passengers through the boarding process. I chat with retirees who are taking their RVs to Alaska for their once in a lifetime trip. I answer questions for young military families who are relocating to Sitka or Kodiak or Anchorage. I help young people who are going up to Petersburg to process seafood for the season, men sending their new boats up on the ferry, homeless people who are pinning their hopes on Alaska, and Alaskan residents who came down to shop, to visit relatives, to buy a new car, or have a medical issue addressed.  I have coached young people who are pitching their tents on the top deck. I have relayed messages to the ship from distraught drivers who are caught in Seattle traffic or behind an accident and are late for the ferry. 

In the process of helping passengers, I have gotten to know some of the crew, from the watchman to the stewards to the pursers to the captains and the able bodied seamen and seawomen. It was fun to see them again in Alaska, and to meet more people who work on the ferry. 

When I was first hired, in 2010, an immediate bonus was that my training included a trip up to Ketchikan on the ferry for training.  I wrote a blog about it at the time, telling the story of going up to the bridge to see how the ship is steered, and in Ketchikan, donning a lifejacket and walking the scaffolding to learn to tie up a ship.  I was on an adventure then, although not exactly a relaxed one, as a new employee.

I am no longer new to the Alaska ferry system, yet the experience of being on the  ferry as a passenger during our recent trip was still an memorable adventure.

I came across these words from “The Blue Boat Home” by Peter Mayer this week, and they express how I felt about our sea journey:

 I give thanks to the waves upholding me,
 hail the great winds urging me on
Greet the infinite sea before me
Sing the sky my sailor's song 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Vacation mind, Sitka, Alaska

Brown bear at Fortress of the Bear
I like vacation.  You wake up in a beautiful place, you sort of know what direction you are headed but you have time to be distracted by anything else that presents itself.  You can stop to see the view, or you can keep going.  You can go out to the bear rehab center, or you can go to the Sitka National Historic Park, or you can see the Russian Orthodox Church. Those are the kind of choices we had in Sitka, Alaska.  We did all three.
Sky and Winnie in Sitka
We got there from Juneau by way of a four and a half hour trip on the Alaska Ferry. An hour after we got off the ferry, we walked along the ocean front from downtown Sitka, trying to figure out why we kept seeing fish leaping out of the ocean.  A local man explained that these pink salmon were trying to loosen up their eggs in preparation for spawning at the fish hatchery.  Plop, splash, went another pink salmon throwing itself up in the air.

The trail led to a path through the woods. The quiet closed-canopy forest with large Sitka spruce and Western hemlock trees was soothing. Eighteen Tlingit and Haida totem poles and house posts were spaced along our walk. During the ferry ride, Winnie had been cooped up in the RV (not exactly cooped since the RV is spacious), so we all enjoyed stretching our legs. Lynne and I learned about the Tlingit and Haida cultures while we were at it.

We did a bit more wandering that afternoon. We actually went to part of a Russian Orthodox vesper service on Saturday night.  The Russian Orthodox church was resplendent with gold, lots of precious chandeliers, iconic paintings and an aging bearded priest in a long flowing gold robe.  The service was intoned (chanted), in a style that I had heard before in the Episcopal church, and highly stylized. The words being chanted were read out of a printed liturgy.  I enjoyed the visual richness, and I was interested to see threads of commonality with Episcopalian ritual. We didn’t stay for the whole service, but I was glad to get a glimpse of this remnant from the time when Russian people occupied Sitka.
Two brown (grizzly) bears playing at Fortress of the Bear
More to my taste was Fortress of the Bear, a cleverly named facility at the east end of the fourteen miles of paved road in Sitka. Fortress of the Bear re-purposes several huge old waste water treatment cisterns to provide sheltered spaces for orphaned bears: six brown bears (aka grizzlies) and three black bears from three different sibling groups. They all have been given human names, so you have this feeling of being close to wild animals while simultaneously feeling like you are watching your pets play. The bears have ponds, toys to float around with, multiple spaces to go into and camaraderie. The black bears (in a separate enclosure from the brown bears) have the stump of a tree to climb up. People have constructed platforms above the bears, so we of the two legged species can safely observe examples of four legged creatures that are bigger than we are.   Like you, I am sure, I would prefer to spontaneously see bears in their natural habitat, but since bears, and most wildlife, run away from people when they can, the chances of seeing bears playing, eating, swimming, and relaxing in broad daylight like this are slim-- except at Fortress of the Bear.  The above pictures are brown bears, which is what they call grizzly bears on the coast. 

This next picture shows the black bears.  Watching the black bears gracefully climb up the stump and stand on their two hind feet made a big impression on us.  Don’t try to get away from a black bear by climbing up a tree.
Three brother black bears at Fortress of the Bear

Sitka is a nature oriented place, and so our next stop was the Alaska Raptor Center, which was yet another chance to see eagles and other raptors up close.  They had an impressive rehab aviary for those eagles who are expected to recover and could be returned to the wild.  They also had many long term residents who are well cared for and, when possible, used for educational presentations.

One of the other choices we had in Sitka was where to camp, and even though we had reserved a site in the wooded Starragavin campground, we ended up staying at the Sitka municipal RV park, right on the waterfront, with this lovely view out the window.  I enjoyed watching the boats leaving the marina and returning from the day on open water.

The view from our RV

And here are some houses built on small rocky bases out in the water.
Looks like a boat is the only option for leaving this house

My biggest impression of Sitka—gosh, it is way away from everywhere.  It faces the Pacific Ocean from the west side of Baranoff Island. The only way to get there is a four to eight hour ferry ride from Juneau, or a plane ride.  Of course, Sitka is a haven for fishing.  It is filled with marinas, and fishing conversations include terms that I had to look up: long-lining and leasing halibut percentages of catch (which I still don't understand).  Only 14 miles of road are paved in Sitka.  We drove it from end to end, enjoying the Whale Park at one end and Starragavin Park at the other, the museum at Sitka National Historic Park in the middle, a good restaurant (Fly Inn Fish Inn) but then what? Sitka is a long way from stores, theatre, medical expertise, …but then again, that’s why I went there.  I wanted to see what it is like to live in a naturally beautiful place, without the traffic congestion and noise of our more populous home, and I did. 

Up next: 36 hours on the Alaska Ferry from Sitka to Prince Rupert, BC.

View from the ferry as we approached Sitka 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Stop #1 in the Yukon

A glimpse of the hard side of living and working in Rancheria, Yukon, came from our waitress, Lois. She had black shoulder length hair with bangs. 
“It takes me six hours to get hair dye,” she said, referring to the drive between Rancheria and the next closest store, three hours west.  We all laughed, “we” being the four tired and hungry female RVers from Washington state. A ball of fire, Lois tried to keep us focused through our dinner orders, switching between dodging our touristy questions, running up to the cash register, showing new arrivals their motel rooms, bringing out food from the kitchen and answering our bear questions. 
“I am not afraid of bears,” she said.  “At my age, they know I’m not going to hurt them and they can just sense it.”  Her age, in my mind, was a question.  She had the energy of a younger woman, like when she mentioned being bucked off a horse and breaking her ankle last year. She also had the war stories of someone who had wrangled tourists for many years.
“If you want to see bears, just go down to the bridge,” she said, nodding in the direction from which we had just driven. “You could come with me after I get off work.  The old bridge washed out and it is full of berries. Time and place,” she said, looking directly at us, “if you want to see bears.” 
Jerri, Lynn, Lynne and Sky with Torrie and Winnie in Yukon

I pictured the end of her work day. It would still be daylight. On this day, the end of July, the sun set at 10:30 pm. We had driven four hours today, day six of our trip north.  This afternoon we had emerged from the northern end of the Cassiar Highway, after bouncing along gravelly roads through British Columbia’s coastal mountains for 450 miles.  Under clear blue skies and temperatures in the 60’s, we were now heading on the Al-Can (Alaska highway) towards Whitehorse. This conversation with our waitress was our first chance to talk with someone who lived here, not counting the friendly African man with the British accent who attended the first gas station that we stopped at in Yukon. I didn’t sense that he was local, and I wondered how he had ended up in this makeshift business, a single pump and a simple one room wooden building with the cash box resting on a table.
The restaurant, 100 km (an hour) up the road, was the next sign of human habitation we encountered. It was part of a roadside lodge whose earlier glory (touted in the Milepost guidebook) had faded.  The broad dusty gravel lot edged a sprawling restaurant and motel building, fuel pumps, a tangle of trucks and rusted equipment, and a small unmanned visitor center which I later found to have a dirt floor.  At the far end of the parking lot, a log gateway with yellow flags heralded the entrance to the campground.  We followed the signs and drove down a dirt road into a camp setting in a peaceful lodge pole pine forest back from the road.

Only one other site of the many available was occupied. We settled in adjacent sites. When three more RVs rolled in, they clustered near us, as if they also shared a bit of unease about the junkyard that edged one side of the campground, the unlabeled sites, and the isolation of it all. Each site had electricity--$20 a night for that and the use of the restroom. The TripAdvisor review had promised a nice walk along Rancheria River, but where was the river? In front of the small restroom building, four re-cycled toilets had been planted with cheerful purple petunias. The front door had been clawed by a bear. The recently swabbed down interior was a mirage of orderliness.  The door dividing the women’s side from the men’s didn’t close. Neither warped stall door latched, leaving me with a sense of imminent exposure, had there been more people around. Each of the two dark shower stalls was equipped with a peeling chair resting on a wooden pallet. Still, we were looking for respite for the night, and this was it.
Wild Barley and Fireweed
The promises of eating out after camping for three days had lured us back to the restaurant, a simple room with five tables and an open door to the kitchen.  At first, Lois didn’t take time to answer our questions with much flourish.  I asked her where she was from and she pointed out the window and said, “The bush.” I presumed that she meant a home down a track somewhere in the thousands of acres that extended around us in all directions, yet I hadn’t seen any sign of human habitation for hours along the highway that we drove. The tannin colored Rancheria River stood out from the boreal forests, stretching on endlessly. No turnoffs, no homesteads, no telephone poles, no power lines. 
According to the guidebook, Yukon’s total population: around 35,000. Two thirds of them live in the capital,Whitehorse. I guessed that ten of the residents of Yukon lived and made their living at Rancheria, perhaps fewer in the winter. The flannel shirted young guy who pumped the propane was helpful and friendly, jiggling an electrical circuit mounted to a telephone pole to get the pump working and carrying the filled propane tank back to our campsite.  Our friends had liked the skinny blond man who ran the campground, although he seemed to disappear after we arrived. 
I finally found the creek, after first heading down a likely looking path and encountering a big sign nailed to a tree: “Danger. Keep Out.” I made a second attempt in the company of two other travelers, Alaskans who had sold all their possessions and were heading to the lower 48 states to find their Shangri La, possibly in South Carolina. Just a few minutes walk past purple fireweed, blue monkshood and pink flowering wild barley, the path opened to a bend in Swift Creek with a broad flat rocky shore. My companions' dog raced to fetch a ball while Winnie (our dog) waded into the creek and lapped up its cold water.  I reveled in the quiet, the sound of rippling water, wind stirring the trees, and the undisturbed emptiness of the forest across the creek from us.

Mobile users, here's a link: https://youtu.be/Vyenr8giur0


  Many more miles have passed since we spent the night at Rancheria.  We had a glimpse of life in the north, where average January low temperatures are -20 degrees Fahrenheit.  I left with more questions than answers, but at least I now had an image of Yukon.