A Travellerspoint blog

June 2011

Highlights Of An Alaskan Summer

Wildflowers, Stellar Sea Lions, Zodiacs and Glacier Bay National Park

semi-overcast 63 °F

This past week I’ve spent some time exploring the greater Alaskan landscapes by zodiac and by foot. I enjoyed getting out, and the weather has been fantastic. There hasn’t been much rain, and there has been good lighting, and phenomenal sunsets. Summer is all about us, and the days are Loooonnnnggg. Sunrise around three and sets around ten or so at night. There is plenty of light to enjoy the sights.

On Alaskan Wildflowers
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The other day I went on a long hike with a small group of our guests and it was led by one of our interpretive biologists. Now, not all biologists are created equal. I’ve listen to some drone on about whatever they happen to be interested in dodecahedrons or some other jibber jabber. However, some of them can be quite entertaining, and such was the case with David. He not only explained some of the intricate features of the coastal rainforest, but also challenged us, quizzed us, teased us when we didn’t know Latin, mocked our ignorance, and made us laugh. Go for a walk in the woods with a good biologist. You can learn more in three hours than you could read twelve books.
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I was struck by the different types of wildflowers, and their unique designs. Some smelled of cinnamon and spices, others like urine soaked road kill. I enjoyed the different forms and colors they take on to make themselves propagate. In the flower business, it’s all about how to attract pollinators (bees, insects, and birds). They must be doing fairly well for themselves, as I was very much attracted to their color display and scent. Perhaps, I was an unwitting pollinator myself.
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Stellar Sea Lions
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We arrived at the Inian islands under a cloudless, brilliant blue sky. I had finished my night shift, and decided to have one of my deck partners save me breakfast while I went on the zodiac cruise. I love breakfast. This is one of my favorite ways of setting up my morning: I work all night, head out and explore for a couple of hours and come back to a giant heart attack breakfast before going to bed. I know it sounds weird and unhealthy, but the fact remains, I burn a lot of calories running around this ship, and I can pretty much eat what I want without gaining much weight. At least that’s what I tell myself… It’s amazing what we can justify to ourselves.
Anyway, the cruise was good. The naturalist, tittered around like a bird from subject to subject, and I soon lost interest in what she was droning on about. I know a lot about Alaskan wildlife myself, having lived and worked up here for three summers now, and I entertained myself with taking some photos of the pigeon guillemots, river otters (which do quite well in the sea), sea otters, bald eagles, sea gulls, pelagic cormorants, shearwaters, and kelp.

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I smelled the sea lions before I saw them. You can tell you are near sea lions, because of the strong odor of shit that exudes from any place they dwell, usually low lying rock “haul outs“. Along with their pleasant aroma, they also add a chorus of horrible barfing noises that they use for everyday communication. I’m serious. Stellar Sea Lions sound as though they are dry heaving putrid piles of sewer waste, which considering they eat a lot of raw fish (mostly salmon), I’m probably not that far off. Considering adult sea lions weigh well over 500 pounds, the din they make is tremendous.

The big bull males rule the roost and take the top of the rock. The females appreciate a man with a lot of property and lie about the alpha males as a harem. The males spend their days bellowing at one another, shitting, mating, and eating salmon. They are not unlike Alaskan human males actually…

On Positioning Zodiacs
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There are days on the boat where it makes sense to drive the zodiacs to the next island instead of raising them to the top of the ship before moving two miles only to have to drop them back down. On those days, our bosun usually asks me if I want to reposition the zodiac. She doesn’t even need to ask anymore. Hell Yes! I want to reposition a zodiac! So away we go, and I find myself grinning from ear to ear as I zip over the water in an inflatable boat through the amazing Alaskan waters. There are mountains, islands, seascapes, landscapes, clouds, and wildlife all around me. It these moments when I realize I’m being paid for this. I’m a happy man.
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There are usually three boats to position, so after awhile I’ll meet up with the others and shoot the breeze while we wait for the ship to arrive.

Glacier Bay National Park

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Glacier Bay has a lot going for it. I’m continually amazed by it’s wildlife, mountains, glaciers, seascapes, icebergs, and massive scale. It’s a good representative of wild Alaska if there ever was one. John Muir explored this amazing bay by canoe, way back when, and since then it has become a protected jewel in Alaska’s crown. These selected shots are from the marble islands, and are mostly of one of my favorite birds: Puffins! Enjoy!
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June has been good to me up here in Alaska. There are times when I just sit still and take it all in. Life is good. Go play outside!
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Posted by Rhombus 15:03 Archived in USA Tagged mountains birds boats islands flowers wildlife alaska oceans wild photography sealions Comments (0)

Glacier Blue

The Most Amazing Piece of Ice I've Ever Seen

overcast 58 °F

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The berg emerged out of the thick fog glowing dull blue against the heavy, low cloud cover. At this distance, I could see that it was HUGE. As we drew closer, the vivid blue of deep glacier ice grew stronger. Blue glacier ice is more vivid with cloudy skies than with sunny ones. This is thought to be due to several factors, but there is no definitive answer as to why. All I know, is that this piece of ice was the most remarkable I have ever seen.
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Since it was still early morning (around 5 am) and we were ahead of schedule, the captain decided to make slow circles around the berg, allowing everyone to get a fantastic look at the floating glowing sapphire. I grabbed my camera, and spent a couple of hours taking photos, and finishing my early morning chores. Even as I worked, my eyes were drawn to the ice. I couldn’t get over how blue it was! It was amazing, mesmerizing, and just plain zing to the dreary morning.
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This berg was a “shooter.” A shooter is a piece of ice that comes from the bottom of the glacier underneath the water. As forces shape the ice, they occasionally crack off, and come shooting towards the surface in a massive upwelling of surging water and ice. Shooters can be massive, as this piece shows, and to witness this hunk rising to the surface must have been amazing. The water displaced by the ice surges outward in a large circular wave. The next time you are in the tub, stick your hand on the bottom and lift upward sharply, keeping your hand underneath the surface. The upwelling of water is on a micro scale compared to glacier size chunks of ice.

I could also tell this was a shooter just by the surface of the ice. It had bizarre waves and carvings all over the surface. Most of the berg had clear crisp ice. It hadn’t been exposed to weather for very long which breaks down the surface of the ice allowing air to permeate the inside causing it to turn white and cloudy.
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When the ice is held in place under the water by the glacier, the ice is carved by pressure and currents of the surrounding sea. When icebergs break free and float away, more forces continue to work on its surface. The weather erodes the exposed ice, and the water continues to carve the underwater surface. After awhile, the iceberg will roll exposing new areas to the air, continuing the cycle until it melts.

Enough science. Look at this ice as a beautiful work of art. How many eons have patiently carved the delicate ice forms? Look at the coloring, the myriad of subtle blues. This is a masterpiece of ice carving, and one I won’t soon forget. Words don’t really do this piece justice, but perhaps these pictures can.
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This iceberg started at the Sawyer Glacier, or the South Sawyer Glacier. This afternoon, we were able to position the ship within easy sight of the Sawyer glacier at the head of Tracy Arm. I write a lot about Tracy Arm, and I’ve been lucky to visit here once a week. This place just keeps getting better, and the views that strike me continue to change. It could be the countless waterfalls, the rock formations, the icebergs, the glaciers, wildlife or clouds. Tracy Arm has it all, and shows off more of its stunning beauty with each visit.
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Posted by Rhombus 17:49 Archived in USA Tagged birds boats ice alaska oceans glaciers photography icebergs Comments (0)

Southeast Alaska in June

Whales in the Night, Trees, The Devil's Thumb, and Returning to Tracy Arm.

overcast 60 °F

AN ALASKAN WELCOME
The Alaskan Inside Passage Welcoming Committee consisted of several pods of actively feeding humpback whales. In fact, we were surrounded by them. I counted ten, in three different pods. Humpbacks migrate to Alaska in the summer months to feed before returning to warmer southern waters to repopulate themselves. They don’t eat when down south (a fact I’m skeptical about) and to me it’s understandable that they might be a tad bit hungry by the time they get back to Alaska.

It was getting late, but in mid-June in Alaska, there is still enough light to see several hundred yards away. To the southwest the water was bright like polished silver. A smattering of stars were dully poking out through broken gray clouds, the islands were a black outline of fir trees and impassive mountains.

The whales were tail slapping the surface of the water in order to stun their food. They would then lunge through the collected ball of fish mash with their mouths agape breaking through the surface of the water to salute the stars before clamping their big mouths shut. Humpbacks are baleen whales which strain the fish from seawater using a baleen. A baleen runs lengthwise along the top of a humpbacks mouth in a long series of combs designed to catch the fish, but allow the seawater to pass through.

I watched this amazing behavior through the high powered bridge binoculars. As the whales broke through the surface with a giant mouth full of fish, I swore I saw them smile. Then they would quietly sink back into the water.

TREES
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We were sailing south through Glacier Bay National Park, and were exploring a small bay in hopes of seeing some wildlife. The sun was at a perfect height in the southwest to brilliantly highlight the foothill forest that surrounded the mountains. The deciduous trees have a healthy full coverage of leaves now, though their season is a lot shorter then other parts of the country. Summer has taken hold of Alaska. The forest was a good mix of brightly lit deciduous and very dark fir trees. The contrast between the light and the dark made both types of tree stand out.
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“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.” ~Chinese Proverb

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“I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.” ~Willa Cather, 1913

THE DEVIL’S THUMB

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This monolith was first climbed by Krakauer. It sits high above the small island community of Petersburg, and is seen best on brilliant blue sky days that happen occasionally here in the inside passage.

TRACY ARM

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Tracy Arm never disappoints. Today I saw two harbor seals lounging peacefully on an ice flow. They watched the boat, but sensed no harm in the dozen of us that were taking photographs.
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Look at the amazing layering and color of this glacial iceberg. This is a color found only in glacial ice and I find myself watching it for long periods of time. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to it, but it’s hypnotizing.
I wish my eyes were this color; I could get away with anything I wanted to.
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Posted by Rhombus 08:58 Archived in USA Tagged trees wildlife travel fjords whales ice alaska oceans glaciers photography foliage icebergs writing Comments (0)

Forgotten Cemeteries

Visiting a Ghost Town Cemetery

overcast 65 °F

America isn’t an old country. That being said, America does have a lot of history packed into a short two hundred thirty five years. I was thinking about this today as I walked through an old cemetery near the grounds of the ghost town of Clifton, Michigan.
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This cemetery dates back to the copper mining boom of the mid to late 1800’s that swept through the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan. I’ve always had a keen interest in ghost towns. I love walking among the ruins of old dilapidated buildings and wondering how and why people lived here, and what happened to them. The copper mining industry of western Michigan is long past. The mines are closed, but the history remains. The once booming towns have been reclaimed by the forest. The cemetery I walked through today has suffered the same fate.
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I walked down a narrow winding trail that snaked through the dark evergreen forest. I had to jump over downed trees that blocked the path, and slipped on the mud from the recent rains. I walked quietly thorough the woods trying not to make much noise. I feel that cemeteries should be quiet places, and I didn’t want to disturb the peace of a silent forest.
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I once visited the cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. While walking through the hundreds of gravestones there, pondering this epic civil war battle, a family of tourists bumbled along right next to me. They were a mob, complete with squawking children running amok, loud parents dropping their snack food wrappers here and there, and generally disturbing the peace. They did a good job bothering me, and I was miffed about their disrespect for the place. To them, it could have been Disneyland; just another place to snap a picture of “Bobby” drinking coke and yelling near a statue… Sorry, I digress. The point being: Have some respect.
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So I walked softly when I entered the cemetery grounds. The trail narrowed to a footpath barely 10 inches wide and it rambled through the dark woods past the headstones that marked the graves of the people buried there. The lighting was good; a bright overcast that made the gray of the stonework contrast nicely with the lush green of the surrounding forest. There weren’t many headstones still intact. One hundred and forty years have past since some of these stones had been set, and the forest had reclaimed much of its old territory. Over the years, many of them have been knocked down, chipped, and broken.
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I was struck by the intricate scrollwork, and design of the stones. In my mind, the master stonemasons who designed and carved these stones were far superior to any design you see today. They are works of art, and the time and effort that was put into them is still evident. The stones have a haunting beauty to them; reminders of a forgotten time when this small ghost town was once important.
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Posted by Rhombus 19:14 Archived in USA Tagged art flowers gravestones photography forests cemeteries ghost-towns Comments (0)

Duluth Revisited

On Returning to Your Old City, Pastimes, and Habits. Also, The Death of a Camera.

semi-overcast 65 °F

I’ve finally found time to relax. I’ve had two weeks of “downtime” at my disposal and I decided to spend them rambling around my old stomping grounds near Duluth, Minnesota. It’s weird to come back to a city you used to know intimately. It’s almost like revisiting an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while, it could be really good, or perhaps not. Sometimes it’s best to leave some cities to the good memories you have instead of trying to relive them. Ultimately, I had some business to take care of in the area, and so I decided to spend a week. I wanted to visit some friends, practice some of my old pastimes including: getting my van back together, bouldering, slack lining, and taking a culinary cruise through some of my favorite restaurants.

It took a week to get my van back from the repair shop. I had planned ahead, but apparently I hadn’t planned far enough in advance (everyone likes a good mechanic) and so I had to wait for it to get ready before I could hit the road. A week of downtime is equivalent to a prison sentence to me. I was a bad customer, and kept calling them everyday. I couldn’t help it. When my vacation is winding away, I get impatient.

In truth, it was probably good for me to be grounded for a bit. I have a tendency to keep moving, without taking time or making time for things that are just as important to me as my vagabond lifestyle. Namely, my family. I’m not a great brother. I don’t call enough, I don’t visit enough, and I don’t write enough. I hope y’all can forgive me for me rascality. I’ve made some sacrifices to make this lifestyle possible, and unfortunately, my family bears the brunt of these sacrifices. The good news is they take it well enough, humoring themselves as they attempt to answer questions about my whereabouts.
“So where’s Thom these days?” asks some yawning distant relative.
“Well, he spent the winter in Mexico, but he just got off of the boat in Alaska, and he was in California for a bit, but now I think he went to West Virginia for the weekend to go rock climbing. Come to think of it he just got back, but left again, now he’s in Minnesota spending some time on the North Shore before he flies out to Alaska in a week.”

I like to think of my life as entertaining if nothing else. I’m just a squirrel trying to get a nut, just like everyone else. I happen to prefer to migrate instead of hibernating. The jury is still out on how I’ll turn out; I’m putting my money on “happy.”

Random Photos From My Sojourn

This is some of the coolest graffiti I've seen.
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I visited an old graveyard and was struck by the dilapidation and the green of the place. It was peaceful.
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It’s taken a bit of an adjustment to get back into this idle lifestyle after seven months at sea. The first night I slept out in my van, I felt alone for the first time in a long time. When I woke up to a beautiful morning of blue skies, white gold sunlight streaming though my windows, and all the lush greens of late spring in the Midwest, I felt at peace once again, and was reminded of why I love my van. Go to sleep with a view, that’s what I say. Who doesn’t like waking up to a gorgeous morning view?
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I’ve been getting reunited with the parks of the area. I stayed a couple of nights in Jay Cooke State Park. I went climbing along the shore just northeast of Duluth, solving one problem that I’ve been trying to solve since 2003. This reinforces the fact that I’m in the best shape of my life, at 30. I’ve slack lined at Brighton Beach, and also in Enger Park. Brighton beach is in east Duluth, and is a pleasant place to chill out on the lake and spend an afternoon balancing on your slack line. Enger Park is high up on the hill in west central Duluth. You can see it’s location from almost anywhere in Duluth, by looking at the high stone tower that stands high above the skyline. It is a pleasant park, full of cultivated flowers, a peace bell from Duluth’s sister city in Japan, that makes a rich metallic song when struck with the wood chime that resonates nicely through the park. There is also a beautiful little copse of mature hardwood trees. I really like the trees.
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I also spent two nights up at Temperance River State park, a mile south of Tofte. The Temperance River is an awesome example of the cutting power of water. The river descends down from the hills and has cut its way through a very narrow rock canyon. The river empties into Lake Superior, after coursing over a series of waterfalls. It’s a very cool park with a lot to offer the energetic vagabond. There is great hiking, long boarding, or biking, bouldering, swimming, and slack lining. The usual suspects…

Temperance River was also where I dispatched my camera to a finale. In other words, I killed it. I didn’t mean to of course, but these things happen. I had set up yet another self portrait at a secret spot of mine, and was in mid pose when I heard a “CRACK” and looked up in time to see my camera and tripod slide down the incline of a rock into a small pool of water. It had completely submerged itself, as if to reiterate the fact that it was dead. As I ran to it, I wondered if the last picture would turn out, I imagined some low angled shot of myself with a surprised look on my face, my mouth open in a tragic, “NOOOOOOOOO!”

I took out the battery and memory card, shook it, turned it on, and it briefly revived. Then nothing. I laughed. I honestly did. What can you do? It was my own fault, and I’m not one to dwell on things I can’t do anything about, so I laughed. It was a fitting end. I had taken well over 12,500 pictures with that camera, so it wasn’t like I didn’t use it. It had given me many great photos, and I’ll remember my first digital camera fondly. R.I.P.

Besides, now I have a new camera… :-D
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This is a picture of my friend Joe. He wanted some pictures of him on his motorcycle, and so he gets the honor of the first subject for my new camera.

One week to go, before I return to Alaska for two months. For now, Bon Voyage!

Post Script: On Food
Where to eat should you find yourself in the Duluth area.

Gordy’s Hi-Hat in Cloquet, MN. Classic Diner, great burgers.
Vintage Italian Pizza, in Duluth.
Texas Roadhouse in Duluth. Dynamite Steaks.
New London Café in Duluth. Cinnamon Strudel French Toast, aka Heaven on a plate.
Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake. Great Sandwiches.

I offer this list as a good place to start, and nowhere near comprehensive. These restaurants just happen to be my favorites.

Posted by Rhombus 17:11 Archived in USA Tagged food parks cities cemetaries camping graffiti bouldering slacklining Comments (0)

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