Helen Smith

Joined July 2018
  • Day30

    Home: The best destination

    September 21, 2018 in Australia ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    I began this blog by deciding to call it "Meandering through Maples". In the end, although trees had a great deal to do with what we saw and enjoyed, I don't think that maples were the most numerous. They were spectacular in their colours, but not as much as the birch, aspen and ash trees. The seemingly endless forests of conifers provide a huge contribution to the economy of Canada but were also quite forbidding, mysterious and dark. Maples though, were the ones I was always on the lookout for after my Canadian friend wished me well for my trip and hoped the maples would put on a show for my visit. They did. I thought of my friend many times, and celebrated her life every day, and felt the frisson of both her loss and delight at the discovery every time.

    An hour journey from Melbourne airport to home was the last phase of our adventure. When we drove into our driveway at home, we saw the ancient millwheel that we asked our artist neighbour if we could host until he could find its new home. It is gorgeous, big, solid and warm in the spring sun and ever so heavy. It is not quite in the right spot yet, but it will be adjusted soon, and like us, it will settle in for a long and pleasant stay where it will be at home and at rest. I opened the car door and a kookaburra greeted me with a loud and outrageous laugh that filled me with a lightness that came some way to overcoming the lethargy and heaviness that comes from long haul travel. I said thank you to my friend in the tree and looked around to see all the azaleas bursting out, the camellia still flowering along with the daphne, the dogwood budding and the spent daffodils starting to wilt. In the back yard the veggie patch was showing early promise, the treeferns on the fern walk had opened up new pups and the small bulbs in the dark corner wrought iron garden "bed" had flowered into blue profusion. It was a wonderful welcome home.

    Perhaps our journey might have been called "Wandering through Woods", "Yearning for the Yellow Leaf", "Conferring with Conifers"... or any other little piece of alliteration, but in the end, the title was all about discovering a new place, a new set of inspirations and people, a new story to hear and a new set of values to try to ponder and embrace. The meandering sometimes felt a bit like a brisk walk, or a fleeting, frozen moment before racing on to the next vision, but no-one could hope to discover all that we found and did in under five weeks and have meandered their way through it. Perhaps the meandering will come now, not with our weary bones, but with our minds as we think about our time in the northern climes. We can go back over the written text that this page now brings to a close, remind each other of the sight, the sound and the story that each entry invokes and meander through the memories.
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  • Day29

    Seattle:City of innovation

    September 20, 2018 in Australia ⋅ ⛅ 12 °C

    We took our time getting up this morning. It was very valuable to be able to take our time getting ready this morning. We had both been very tired and our bodies were grateful for the chance to rest. We had a leisurely breakfast. They called it a light breakfast but I enjoyed a familiar brunch of smashed avo on toast with poached eggs.

    We then finalised our suitcases because we will not be accessing them again till we get home. Having left them with the concierge we headed off to the Pike Street Market which was recommended by a great many people. Neither of us was particularly overwhelmed by this market. If you know any of the major markets in Melbourne like Victoria Market, then there was nothing new about this market. We wandered around for a while and decided we had seen enough and we began to head out to catch the hop-on-hop-off bus. That was when we ran into several smaller groups from the Evergreen group with whom we had travelled. Apparently things had not gone well after we left.

    There still were several people carrying coughs and cold symptoms and one of the group had become so ill she had to be hospitalised. She was declared to have the Influenza A Strain and that meant that we were all asked to watch for symptoms and treat them accordingly. The group leader for this smaller subsection of the travelling group, Kathy, had to spring into action, get hospitals organised, ensure proper medical treatment then get the woman and her companion back to the hotel in the middle of the night. Then she needed to be up and running the program for the day. She looked very tired but everyone pulled together and were in good, if tired spirits.

    It was good to catch up with the others but soon after we went our separate ways. They were to go to the Boeing factory for a tour and although it was an interesting visit, most people were overtired and not really feeling excited by the prospect.

    We went in search of the bus stop for our tour of the city. It was a bit of a fiasco. We would be sent somewhere only to wait until it was clear there would be no bus. We would ask again and be sent somewhere else to find the story repeated. We became quite cranky. Finally, we saw the bus and ran for it. It was worth it.

    The tour took about an hour and we learned that Seattle is the home of many new giants. Not my musical tastes, but Pearl Jam and Nirvana came from here. Also Starbucks began its life as part of the Pike Street market back in the 1970s. Amazon and Microsoft have their headquarters in Seattle too and it leads the nation in the number of successful start-ups. We drove through the different regions of the city looking at architecture. Ross was very concerned that we get a picture of a 1930's building called Smith Tower. Family pride? I will have to look it up when we get home.

    They have a very dramatic civic complex which I thought was quite spectacular and very organically constructed. Some of its critics thought it looked like giant dead jellyfish that had been washed up by the sea. I could happily have played for hours with the camera studying its many feature. This building stands at the base of famous Seattle Eye and beside the exhibition centre where the spectacular glasswork of Dale Chihuly was on show. I would have enjoyed spending a couple of hours just in this precinct, but time did not allow.

    We got back to our hotel, picked up our bags from our chatty concierge, hopped into a taxi and went back to the airport. There it began again. Walking, followed by paperwork, walking, checking the paperwork, getting more paperwork, walking, checking, being told to put away paperwork and to carry different paperwork, then walking..... then sitting for a couple of hours before boarding. At least the Customs check here was less intrusive. In the trip from Alaska I had to go through a hypersensitive customs check. There are two systems. One is a simple walkthrough scanner. Sometimes this will require a belt or shoe removal but is generally fine. The second system is far more sensitive. You walk into a tubular glass cubicle and place your feet on two painted feet on the floor. Then you raise your arms in the air as if trying to do a star jump while remaining quite still. As you stand there a scanner whizzes around you. After you have been scanned, you step outside and wait. It seems to pick something up on almost everyone who goes through because then there is the official notification that the scan has indicated a need for a pat down.

    I was so tired I was functioning largely as an automaton. Our officer was a young woman who had either been told to be stern, or was having a really grumpy day. She wrinkled her lip and muttered under her breath when she found that Ross still had some water in his drink bottle and insisted he drink it all. Then she checked my things and got concerned that I had a chocolate bar (still wrapped) in my bag. She looked at me accusingly but sent me through the machine. Of course it sent a message that I was a hardened criminal bent on the destruction of all that Americans hold dear. I was told to wait, then was told to spread my legs, raise my arms and be ready to allow her to pat me down and feel her way around my body. I did as I was told because, in my befuddled state, I seemed to have no will of my own. I had nothing to worry about, but felt strangely uncomfortable. I don't think I would have minded if she had shown a personality with a small smile. She would have been a very attractive and friendly young woman had she done so. She looked me in the eye when giving me the instruction but the eye contact was more like her searching my eyes for my comprehension or for checking my eyes to see if I was evil or drug addled. There was no human interaction in this. After this there was the drug and gunpowder wand that was tapped on me. This is not intrusive but I was feeling a bit over the whole process. It was very disconcerting.

    The flights from Fairbanks then Anchorage were fine. For one of them I got a window seat so I was much more comfortable and entertained. Every other flight had had me required to sit in the middle seat because of Ross' claustrophobia. He needs to sit on an aisle seat or be able to move around unrestricted. That meant that I always felt hemmed in and looking at the back of the seat in front of me. It was lovely to have the short opportunity.

    The final stage of our holiday was the trip from Seattle to Vancouver, then after another set of walking and paperwork, our trip from Vancouver to Brisbane, a short transit bus trip and then a flight to Melbourne. If I suggest that tedium and constriction got to me after 27 hours without sleep, I doubt if many would find this surprising. I managed to get about two hours on the long flight, out of sheer exhaustion, but then I was awake again until 7.30 local time. My mind is still too tired to work out what that means.

    The next entry will be the final. Thank you for following this journey. Feel free to make a comment on any page and let me know if any story has touched you, made you smile, reminded you of something or whether you feel you would like to know more. The journey is over but the remembering is just beginning.
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  • Day27

    Sleepy in Seattle

    September 18, 2018 in the United States ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    We were up at 4.30 this morning to get ready for a day of travel. That means there are no new pictures today and apart from lugging bags around airports, waiting and then cramming ourselves into full planes we achieved very little, except relocation. We arrived in Seattle 12 hours after we got up. We had had two flights, one to Anchorage and then on to Seattle, completely flying over the nation of Canada in one go, only to fly across a channel tomorrow to touch base with Canada again when we fly into Vancouver for a stop over, before the long flight back to Melbourne via Brisbane.

    So although Ross is now napping I have decided that some of the things that didn't make it into the daily blog can provide some rich comments for today.

    1. American news.
    We have been following what has been happening in the world on American television. Now there is something that is quite bizarre. On one station we were watching, there was a feisty woman who didn't seem to hold her punches. She was clearly out to uncover the misdemeanours (great and small) of the Trump administration. She interviewed people and added such vitriolic commentary that, even though I tended to agree with her position, I didn't feel I was getting the full story. We swapped channels. Then, on Fox, we had a feisty woman who also didn't seem to hold her punches. She was a proud and vibrant supporter of Trump and was loud in her defence of him and vigorous in her attacks on his opponents. Neither channel could be regarded as reliable or credible. I can understand how politicians could quite easily question the reliability of American news broadcasting. By comparison, all Australian news broadcasts (perhaps with some few shock jocks as exceptions) provide a fairly balanced view of the news. I will have to speak up in defence of our media a little more in the future. If our politicians start to attack the media, some of the media might end up becoming more like the Americans and then we would all lose balance. We do not want to go there.

    2. The strangeness of the American traveller: a study in the more precocious American.
    It is completely wrong to lump all Americans in this category because most Americans are not these people. However, the ones who came to our notice most frequently, fit the description of "odd".

    Time and again we would come into a room with the most spectacular scenery just outside, whether it was on board the ship or sitting in the lounge area of the lodge in Denali, with Mt Denali sparkling outside and a crackling fire inside, and the people had their eyes down and their heads focused on playing cards. I don't know what games they were, but one couple were playing cards with great intensity using a small block of wood with holes and little sticks in them. I assume the wood and sticks are keeping record of the score. Apart from the drinks at their elbows I didn't see them lift their heads Other groups of four would sit together for several hours at a time playing some other game. They would chat between hands but usually about the game and then the language was so ripe and proudly loud it would make Rodney Rude blush.

    Another troubling characteristic was with vocal style. Is there some class that some students take in Primary School that removes any melifluous quality to the voice and replaces it with a shrill harshness that penetrates the brain like a sharp object? They don't seem to understand how loud they are and even when told by a nature guide to be very quiet because a nervous animal is nearby and we might get to see it if we don't spook it, this particular character will always speak about something quite unrelated, at a volume that might break glass, then laugh a hearty chortle in complete oblivion of the impact of his or her behaviour. At dinner one night we sat next to two women who essentially screeched the story of their lives to everyone. Their stories were not illuminating, showed no real personal reflection on their lives and exposed their limited understanding to everyone. I desperately wanted them to stop but they were chatty and cheerful and having a great time. I wish them well, but I did find them very wearing.

    For all the raucous travellers, there were many thoroughly charming, polite and interesting Americans from all parts of the country so I feel very keenly my own bigotry in writing these observations, but they are real and commonly remarked upon by others, so I am not alone. I wonder what Americans think of Australians and their backhanded humour and teasing. We must quite frighten them. Certainly the occasional joke left them either bewildered or shocked.

    3. A joke along the way.
    On board one of the train trips, this time between Talkeetna and Denali we had a young bar tender in our carriage who was given the job of telling a joke to those on board by her host boss. She got very excited and then started giggling. She would get two more words out and start giggling again. She had a rather infectious giggle and we were all well fed and watered and so we joined her. I couldn't tell you what her joke was now, except that it was rather lame, but it didn't matter. We had seen her in action earlier and were not surprised by her giggles. The host had asked us the riddle "Where does the polar bear keep his money?" to which the answer was supposed to be "in a snow bank" but, quick as a flash, Murray called out "In his icehole!" She gasped, giggled and then became uncontrollable with laughter. Tears were running down her face and she was gasping for breath. We had all laughed at the quickness and the humour but she was completely overcome by it all. She tried to repeat it to the host who had missed the remark and she just couldn't say it. It is that naivete again, this time a charming version of it. We all enjoyed a hearty laugh.

    4. The art of speech making.
    The day she was with us was the last day of work for our bar tender, as it has been with so many of our guides and servers. The host took his time to thank her for her service and wish her well. Nice! But then he did something that had become a mantra in all preparation for farewells. Someone would wish to point out what a good job this other person had done and how much he or she was valued by the company and colleagues, and that if we wished to show our appreciation, the box for gratuities was by the door. A few minutes later, the other person would get on the mike and give a thanks in reply speech, during which he or she would be quick to remind you of all the things the other one had done for you and that gratuities would be graciously accepted. It was a pattern that was repeated time and again.

    The other thing about the speeches, which seems to me part of the training, is that, whenever possible, make a philosophical remark: "the survival of people in the frontier was all about taking care of each other so we hope you will go back home to your loved ones and take care of them" and so on. Sometimes it felt a little tortured. Is it not enough to admire or feel saddened by a heroic or tragic story without being told how and what we should feel about it?

    5. The place of the military.
    I have great respect for people who have gone to fight against tyranny and liberate an oppressed people, but the Americans have taken it to an art form. People in the military get preference when queueing up in line for seating on a plane. They have special lines in some cases. When a presenter gets up to welcome everyone to a talk or thank them for coming, they would often make a point of thanking any members of the audience who might be our military, for their service to country. This often brings spontaneous applause from the audience and murmurs of praise, gratitude and pride accompany the response. It is good that the people are grateful, but I wonder if they realise how empty those comments might be for some. I find myself reflecting on the work Erich Maria Remarque , "All Quiet on theWestern Front", who had his protagonist Peter Baumer go back to his village on furlough, to find the old men reflecting and commenting on the progress of the war. They saw it as a glorious and gallant and patriotic service to the fatherland. As much as Peter tried to explain that it was about survival and death, injury and pain, dirt and mud and lies, the people at home could not understand. When the soldiers got home the families tried to pick up where they left off with their sons. Even though Peter, and I, expect a great many young men and women in the military love their families, these same families often do not fit in their lives any more. They have been replaced by those fighting comrades who understood the agony of loss and fear and deprivation, the horror and the relief of combat.

    I don't have an answer for how we might address this. Saying thanks may be a good start, but it seems it needs something much more knowledgeable and honest from all of us. Just let it not be a cliche.

    6. Plant identification: The missed bits from Denali and much needed change of tone!!
    Much of the red on the hillsides in Denali National Park comes from two plants. One I don't think I recognised, but the most prolific was the autumnal leaf of the blueberry plants. They covered the ground for kilometres. The bears eat them by the hundreds of thousands a day and while the plants are very low to the ground and not as bushy as we have them at home, they are certainly a vital part of the environment. This is the original home of the blueberry anyway, so I ought not be surprised.

    Also growing in vast swathes, showing up as the shorter yellow plant in the pictures, are willow trees. I think I would have struggled to identify them as willows because they are short, don't have the drooping branches or hang over watercourses here. This particular willow is the white willow and is the one that brought us aspirin from its bark. I have included a rather mangled specimen in the photos today. Its state is not surprising because it is a favourite food of moose and elk. No wonder the moose is so laid back. He suffers no pain!

    I should admit now that much of this blog entry was written the next day. I had made a list of things to write about but just conked out. Ross' continued insistence on telling the story of Seattle being a place where everyone is Sleepless, had worn terribly thin after the first telling and was likely to cause a major rift if he tried it again (for the fiftieth time). We both needed to sleep to recover our equanimity.

    We both slept well and for a long time, but that will be for the next blog entry. I will add photos when we are not in an airport. It is a technical challenge.
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  • Day27

    Near the North Pole

    September 18, 2018 in the United States ⋅ ⛅ 9 °C

    Yes, here we are in Fairbanks, Alaska, the second largest city in Alaska with a population for the whole city and environs of about 33 thousand people which is about 5% of the whole state. This state is very big, but very sparsely populated. As we make our way through Alaska and are now facing a homeward direction, it seems the state is packing up and leaving with us. When we arrived in Fairbanks, the hotel we were booked to stay at had closed for the season. Fortunately, through an arrangement between hotels, we were taken in by another hotel. This one remains open all year for the much smaller traffic that comes through winter. These guests are workers here, or apparently part of the large numbers of Chinese and Japanese tourists who flock to this part of the world to see the Northern Lights.

    It is best not to say those words to me though. In the city that is best suited to see the lights, it was overcast and drizzly and no lights were detected. Some days ago I asked a desk clerk on the ship to ring through to our room if lights became visible, and after we clarified what we were talking about, she agreed to do this frequently requested thing. What caused the confusion was that I requested a call if the Aurora Borealis appeared. She did not understand me. I began explaining that glowing lights appeared in the sky at these latitudes... and she twigged. "Oh, you mean the Northern Lights. Certainly ma'am." Really?

    After many nights of getting up every few hours, leaving my name for calls and sitting up in the open air looking for the lights, they did not appear. People kept suggesting I buy a postcard and that should be enough. Anyone can buy a postcard or watch one of the many videos, but far fewer can say they stood there under the open sky in Alaska and watched the Aurora dance across the sky in cascades of green. Even the briefest blink would have been enough. I could say I saw it. I could tell people I had watched something miraculous. Such is not to be. Enough said. Further comment may raise reactions the instigator may regret. You may just think of me as bitter and twisted with disappointment.

    Our day, leaving Denali and arriving in Fairbanks, was quite lovely. We had to get on our bus quite early but we left an hour for breakfast. It was just as well. We shared a table with a couple from South Australia but who had a daughter living in Mordialloc, my old home. We shared a pleasant breakfast even if it was massive. I think I left more that I ate yet again. This time I did get to eat reindeer sausage with my scrambled eggs. When we had fifteen minutes till departure, we left our table to go to our bus. While we had been sitting there, the crowds had arrived and they were queued out the door. Some people in the queue were to be on our bus. The queue had occured because the regular buffet breakfast restaurant had "closed for the season" and everyone had been sent to the one a la carte restaurant which of course took a lot longer to prepare the food. I think some gave up on food. No-one complained though because we have always had too much food.

    We took off on time and headed down the highway through golden, pillowy forests. It seemed so unnatural to see so much golden colour. It certainly makes the remark "There's gold in them thar hills" all the more poignant. There was certainly gold in the ground but I wonder if the miners considered the gold above their heads to be almost as precious because it was so transitory. It was also clear that in about two weeks all the gold will be gone and the scattered spruce will be the only trees visible on the hillside. We have been so extraordinarily lucky. Bill, our guide reminded us that this type of arboreal forest makes a ring around the planet and so from on high, this ring of gold would encircle the earth. Quite a magical notion to consider.

    Our bus driver, Jesse, is clearly an autodidact as well as a petrolhead. He keeps mentioning informative books he is reading and on this trip he quizzed the travellers with the significance of the names of the rivers in Alaska. I answered that the names all ended in morpheme, "na". Most people just looked at him blankly when he said it was the derivational morphemic suffix. Only people who have studied linguistics would know this terminology and people in this group would never have had this option when at school. "Na" means running water and the prefixes are specific to place. He told a joke/story. A man and his son went out hunting in their 4-wheel drive but failed to return at the right time. A search party found them the next day, safe and well but with their 4-wheel drive stuck at the undercarriage on a rocky sandbar in the middle of a river. The man named the previously unnamed river, "Oshitna". Jesse reckons it is a true story. It got a laugh.

    Our attention was drawn to the power station near Denali. Although Alaska is rich in oil, it oddly, and I think, unwisely burns brown coal for itself. I once lived near power stations that burned the local brown coal. It was dirty power, not very efficient and damaged the health of many in the valley. I accept the wisdom of keeping it alive as a back up, but worry about the health of the environment nearby if kept at high production. Solar power is completely out of the question because the sun is not strong nor consistent enough.

    They are generally so well off with oil that every Alaskan, man, woman and child is given an annual cheque from the sale of oil. Last year it was $1600 per person. This revenue has also allowed the government to deny gambling licences in Alaska so there are no casinos or other forms of gambling in the state. Except one. In the town of Nenana, there is a famous lottery that goes back many decades. Everyone who lives there or visits Nenana is invited to guess the date and time when the river ice melts in the Nenana River. It is measured very scientifically and at a key point, the movement of a stick mounted on a tripod in the middle of the river triggers a button and the time and date is recorded. The prize can be several thousands of dollars. We were invited to participate, but I had to wait in a queue for the toilet and did not get around to doing it. The three cubicles in the women's toilet had no doors so we had a longer wait than we had anticipated. Only one person at a time.

    After some hours of travelling, we arrived in Fairbanks. We stopped off at a popular supermarket chain, Fred Meyer, for some food. I apparently chose poorly. Some said they a great lunch but I had gone for a simple sandwich and ended up throwing most of it out. Too much meat for lettuce and quite stale bread. It seemed an odd place to stop for lunch, but there were many options for food choice from soup, to fried foods to salads, sandwiches as well as all the regular and vast array for everyday groceries, clothing and household furnishings all in the same shop.

    After lunch we were taken on a Paddleboat ride down the local river. This was a most sophisticated and slickly choreographed three hours. We had been given the tip to sit on the left hand side. Good call. We had only been going for about a minute when we were alerted to a small plane that was about to take off from the river just ahead. It took off right next to our boat, then did a couple of loops before landing back down in a fancy swirling manoeuvre. It came alongside and the narrator of our journey spoke with the pilot. Both were miked to the paddleboat's sound system for our elucidation. As we continued, our narrator talked about housing styles and who lived in each house. One house had belonged to Susan Butcher, the four times winner of the Iditarod. Later we came up to the new dog sled training camp, still being managed by her husband (Susan died of cancer in 2006). Again, the owner was miked to the boat and took us through his spiel. He too had puppies aaaawww! They were so cute. He took some dogs out for a run and when they got back the dogs were uncoupled from the team and set free. They ran straight into the water for a drink and a swim. They were untrammelled fun.

    On the return journey we stopped off at the replica Athabascan village. There, some of the team took us through a cultural display which was also well done. We were also shown how to fillet and smoke salmon (not in a pipe!). It had begun to drizzle lightly and so everyone was offered a plastic poncho and a rubber mat to put on the wooden benches so we could stay comfortable and dry.

    Back on board, the paddleboat then drove on by the houses and every second house had someone out there waving at us. The last one was Mary Brinkley whose family had run the paddleboat business from its inception and who was grandmother to the narrator. (The captain was a cousin.) Mary came right down to the river's edge as she does twice every day to wave at the passengers, when she is not ballroom dancing. She is 92 years old!

    On our way back to the hotel we were told that a suburb of Fairbanks was just a few kilometres away, but that this place was absolutely world famous. It is called North Pole. It has special Christmas shops and a very important Post Ofice that deals with all Santa's mail. You can write a letter there, post it and it will be delivered to your home in time for Christmas.

    At dinner tonight I read to everyone at the farewell dinnner, a rather dreadful poem that I wrote while on the bus this morning. I explained that the rhyme had forced itself on me and had insisted on persevering. Only one word completely refused to rhyme nicely. There was only one word I knew that rhymed with "totem" and it seemed quite inappropriate for this poem and this audience. There was a hoot of laughter when people worked out the word! I then read the following piece of doggeral as my farewell speech.

    "Ooh Canada", their national anthem rings,
    And oh the voice of travellers ring,
    In awe and wonder at its scenes
    Of mountain, valley, trees and streams.

    The green of pine and blue of spruce,
    The sparkling white and turquoise blues,
    Of glacier, river and mountain peaks,
    Of vast vistas and stolen peeps.

    And for the beasties large and small,
    Who caught our eyes and made us all,
    Reach for our cameras to save a sight
    For later reflection. To keep memories bright.

    The railway bear sitting high on his hill,
    The Jasper Jack elk gathering Jills,
    The Lake Louise cute little critter,
    The squirrel that bounced, scrambled and skittered.

    The painted turtle who wasn't there,
    The dearest beaver who didn't dare
    To show his face, but his lodge was built.
    We watched all day then seemed to wilt.

    The wolf, the cougar, the ptarmigan
    Hid themselves time and again
    We searched and scoured to no avail
    Who knew the northern lights would also fail?

    But,

    The company of good folk sitting in a bus,
    Who laughed, gasped and made little fuss,
    Except as we cursed the many trees
    that blocked the prettiest forest scenes.

    Our almanac and guide and raconteur
    of knowledge of trade in wood and fur,
    Told us of the history, tales and totems.
    Yes, Bill shared his passion for his native home.

    Alaska is not forgotten, (though in the US.)
    The midnight sun and Denali, best dressed.
    It showed us caribou, moose and eagle
    And blankets of golden forest most regal.

    The sun shone on in the land of ice and snow.
    Our weather committee worked to show
    We Aussies bring warmth wherever we go,
    But we take more back with our hearts aglow.

    Oh Canada, the natives sing bold
    And we from the land of the green and gold
    Join in the chorus with much new gusto
    Oh Canada, Oh Canada, Oh.

    The Final Evergreen Tour, Summer 2018.

    The audience made all the right noises at the right times, but I know doggeral when I see it. Soon after, Ross and I went around and said our farewells to each of the tables and the friends we had made and went to bed. We have to set our alarms for 4.45 to catch our flight to Seattle via Anchorage. Ross is anxious about waking up. I am anxious about how he will be when he does!
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  • Day25

    Denali dreaming

    September 16, 2018 in the United States ⋅ ☁️ 4 °C

    This place is all about pristine wilderness. Today we all set our alarms so we would be ready for a six am bus trip. Some people are not aware of the existence of a six o'clock ante meridien, but were brought to a rude awakening today. It was brisk, about six degrees Celsius, but we have those temperatures at home without much fuss. Here the locals were walking around in shirt sleeves commenting on the lovely weather and wondering if and when they would see the first snowfalls. Normally, by this date the trees would have lost their leaves and snow would be settling and staying on the ground and dog sled would have replaced wheeled transport. They are not unhappy about the extra summer but concerned that no snow has come. Today, as has been the case with us for so many days, the weather was clear and sunny. The clouds that had provided a light cover last night were still present but not as dense.

    Denali National Park is a wilderness conservation area. There is only one road in and out, and after a short while within the park, the made roads disappear and exist only as gravel roads. They do not have walking trails beyond the first few kilometres because they want to leave the place for the animals and plants. Rangers and environmentalists can go in to monitor but this is limited too. Within that first circle where cars can still travel, they have regular stopping places that are kept meticulously clean and monitored by custodial and Parks staff. They have some of the fanciest longdrops here. Both Canada and Alaska have these dual roomed public toilets in remote places. Each door in the pair is a very solid floor-to-roof door with big sliding locks. This is to discourage bears from moving in or offering to evict you from it. I suspect they are also refuges from cranky bears too, if a wanderer got surprised by a bear.

    So much is their concern about keeping the park for the animals, that they have a lottery for visiting the park. If you wish to visit the park at all, you apply and wait to see if you win the lottery. This permits only a few cars at a time to come in and disturb the environment. Bodies are counted in and out of the park by their own Parks Ranger Smith (Yogi Bear reference for young people) to make sure things are kept right and tight. We were on a bus that was part of the tour and managed by special arrangement to have us come in. Groups in buses are preferred because they are scheduled, supervised and can do more with less. We also have a knowledgeable driver.

    Our bus driver loved his work. He just loves Alaska. He is very rough and ready, happy and comfortable, laconic and inarticulate all in one. His passion carried him through where his patter faltered frequently. One of the reasons he does this job is that he is an amateur photographer. Stopping the bus to take pictures was not just for us. He would stop, open his window or door, get his fancy camera out and take photos. We could too if we wished. Sometimes he would forget to tell us what we were looking at and people were scouring the countryside to spot whatever it was that had caused the bus to stop. He had seen a good shot of Mt Denali, 80 kms away, pulled up and taken it. We didn't mind at all. He was generous and excited to look for animals and was not stinting when we wanted time to get a better shot. He was snapping too.

    At the first stop, a history session on the establishment of the park allowed me to get a fuzzy picture of the biggest rabbit you ever saw. Our rabbits look like babies by comparison. This one was probably the Snowshoe Hare in his summer coat. Nearby, a couple of Americans announced loudly, that they had seen a stupid fat pigeon. They made jokes. What they had seen was the Alaskan State bird, the Ptarmigan, also in its winter coat.

    A little further on, our friendly bus driver, rounded a corner and said "MOOSE. 9 O'CLOCK" and we all peered down into a gully. We could just make out the massive antlers. We couldn't get any closer and he wasn't going to move, so on we went. Our next instructional stop and restroom break was a cultural stop. We were met by a young man called Sean who has Athabascan and two other clan identities. He was there to tell us the story of First Nations and Denali. Unfortunately, he had to wait to speak to us because a massive great bull moose was right where he was to give his talk. His talk normally included the uttering of the cries of the moose. One of these was the challenging call of one adult male to another. He felt that doing the call today might cause a disaster! We got our pictures of the big moose, who got annoyed by all the fuss and left. Then we listened to the story. It was mostly on how to kill moose the traditional way. I think that this was perhaps not well timed.

    A few minutes later and while we were congratulating ourselves on our pictures of bullwinkle, the bus shot off at great speed and a few short hair-raising seconds later came to a screeching halt with the words "CARIBOU 2 O'CLOCK". This one was being a bit shy so we waited. This is where having a driver interested in getting the picture was of such benefit for us. A disinterested one would have told us that we had a schedule to keep and drive on. Not ours. We hovered around for quite some time, begging the large male caribou to show us more than his bottom. At one stage it seemed clear that the animal wanted to cross the road. Our driver and the second driver in the second bus (they travel in pairs) blocked the road completely and no other cars could come through. The caribou then wandered across the road, paused, had a look at us, then went down the embankment to the clump of trees on the other side. We let the traffic through but continued to watch him for some time. I don't know if they are instructed to do this, but both the drivers commented on the overexcited Lottery Winner drivers and their often very selfish eagerness to get photos. They commented that these new-comers often took risks with themselves and the wildlife and our drivers would always try to protect the animal from too much stress. I am not sure if this is entirely legit or just an inflated sense of self-righteousness, but I did see signs of unwise behaviour from some private drivers, so I guess our drivers might be right.

    The moose and the caribou were all wild animals and we had got up close and personal. Very nice indeed. We were told we were phenomenally lucky to have had such close encounters with these big animals. No bears though. Our driver was beginning to believe in our luck but he drew the line at a grizzly strolling by.

    It turns out that this was also our driver's last tour for the season. Like many of the shops, restaurants and tour operators, they are packing up. It is the end of the season. We were the last group to come through in numbers and they will be moving on to their winter jobs in the next few days.

    After a short morning tea/breakfast, we were on our own. We took the opportunity to catch up on washing and preparing for the last few days. Many of us just took our ease, checked out the end of season bargains in souvenir shops, took photos, or in some cases took spouses to doctors. Not us, but several people on the bus have developed bad colds with nasty coughs and a few have resorted to bed rest. Ross continues to cough but it is a different cough and is not associated with a cold at all. It has been of growing concern that so many are ill. I think perhaps the time for holiday is over and people need to stop breathing each other's germs. It seems that a trip to the doctor here is $400 a visit. Gasp! Hopefully, these sickies will recover soon.

    One other thing happened today that cheered Ross up. I had refused to let him wear his grey jumper one more day. I told him he could wear his nice new lime green fleecy jacket that he bought in Canada and give the jumper a wash. Grumble, grumble. Attempts at negotiating failed, so on with the green jacket and his Banff beanie. If he was going out into the wilderness he was going out in a beanie. At one stop he climbed back on the bus. The beanie had worked its way up his head and was now perched on top. I suggested he pull it down to keep his ears warm and to make him look a little less like an elf. It was one of those moments when a comment uttered in normal tones, gets heard by everyone. From the back of the bus came, "Not an elf. He's a smurf!" I must admit the fit was apt except he was green and the smurfs were blue. There was general ribbing and laughter after that. Ross enjoyed his temporary notoriety.

    Late in the afternoon, after the washing, drying and repacking had occurred, we went in search of a simple dinner. We saw a pizza joint nearby and ordered two small pizzas. Well, this began a trauma we had not anticipated. Their small pizza is our family-sized pizza. I tried to suggest there had been an error when mine arrived. I had ordered a small. I was reassured that this monster was all mine and Ross' was on its way. Gasp. We did our best, but I could only eat half. Ross got one slice more than me and we were exhausted. I was feeling awful at the waste and kept wondering if I could find a homeless person to give this food too. We looked up to see another couple from our group face exactly the same dilemma. They got a pizza box and left. We were about to do the same when in walked another fellow traveller. I tried to warn her about the size differential so she would not be caught like we had. She had just got back from taking her husband to the doctor and was trying to get something quick for them to eat in their room. She kindly agreed to take our leftovers. We felt better because the food was not wasted and she saved a few dollars after that massive doctor's bill. It all worked out in the end.

    Now, while Ross naps, I will finish off today's entry with some of the photos of our day in the wilderness.
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  • Day24

    Birch bends

    September 15, 2018 in the United States ⋅ ⛅ 5 °C

    So what is fireweed and how can you remember the names of the Pacific Salmon? Two powerful questions that almost everyone has managed to live without knowing. Well, not for much longer.

    Fireweed is a plant that is quite virulent in this part of the world. When it first establishes itself, it grows low across the ground, bright red. I saw a spot where a farmer had mown the strip out the front of his farmhouse. It was a strong patchwork of red and green. Given half a chance, the plant grows vertically very quickly, maintaining its vibrant red colour. When it flowers, it produces a bright pink flower in a progression up the stem. When flowering finishes, the locals say that Summer is over and Fall has begun. Soon after, the skin surrounding the seed pods splits and feathery seeds emerge from a large gossamer mass and float off with the slightest breeze to land in the next potential habitat. The other folk tale about the fireweed is that the height of the plant at the time of seed release will be the height of the snowfall in winter. Some of the plants in the Lodge we were in last night would indicate a very heavy fall this winter. It is prolific in the area and fills great swathes by the road with colour.

    The story with the Salmon requires the use of a five digit hand. (One of our fellow travellers has only four so we need to be specific.) There are five types of Pacific salmon.

    The thumb reminds us of the Chum.
    The pointer finger can poke you in the eye giving you a Sockeye.
    The middle finger stands tall and proud as a King.
    The ring finger is not so much gold as Silver.
    And the pinky finger is for the Pink Salmon with a hump on its back.

    The common names for the salmon are, in the same order, Chum dog, Red, Chinook, Coho and Humpy.

    Feeling better now? Here is one more.

    Today we saw two lots of Trumpeter Swans. One pair had a cygnet. Normally they are the last to leave to fly south, but would normally have gone by now. These last ones are still here. The very pleasant weather may have kept them here.

    On our animal quota today we continued to see lots more beaver lodges and I spotted a young moose. It was gone in a flash. Someone said they thought they might have seen some Dall sheep and a couple of eagles flew by in the opposite direction. We came across some elk scat but I do not consider the poo of an animal as a "sighting". It could count as a indicator, but no more.

    We began our day in a leisurely fashion because, although our bags had to be out by seven, we would not leave until 10.15.

    I was not really prepared for what I saw today, but I was not totally unaware of its potential.

    Yesterday we went through the yellow forests of Silver Birch, Aspen and similar deciduous trees. They were all shades of yellow, orange, gold and occasionally the remnants of green. The dappled silvery trunks gleamed where the dark grey, green and smoky blue conifers of previous days had held a velvet darkness. Today we moved through mixtures of these and the colour contrasts were startling and, in the words of Hercules Poirot, "c'est incroyable!". He is not given to admiration of nature, but I feel he might have acknowledged this.

    It might seem strange to be channelling that particular Belgian but I have now been travelling with the same group of people for some time, on trains, on buses and staying in accommodation next to each other, and that is just the sort of thing that Agatha Christie would have used to create a mystery. What secrets might emerge, what dastardly past might some quiet person have revealed about themselves, and who might be on the tour for entirely misleading reasons. Right now we are in a wilderness lodge, at the end of the season and people are reducing in numbers. It is just what she would have liked. I do not think I should allow my imagination to identify the victim or the perpetrator or red herring and so I must stop this speculation immediately! Far too dangerous!

    We were taken to our train ("the Midnight Sun Express" from Talkeetna to Denali) that is a cut down, smaller and more cheaply, but not less cheerfully run version of the Rocky Mountaineer. This train would take us on a five hour journey through to Denali National Park where we have been assured we will see many animals in the wild. The journey was extraordinary. "C'est ca".

    We wound our way through valleys of yellow looking down into chasms and glacial melt and fallen trees. We looked up at hillsides that were speckled and vibrant with autumnal colour. My camera went nuts.

    Then we noticed a few changes, and trees began losing height. We had moved from Taiga (a Russian word describing that terrain) to Tundra. Why Russian? Well this part of the world, after the First Nations and before the British, Canadian and Americans got involved, was actually Russian territory. It was set up as trading centres for fur pelts but as the demand and supply for animal furs fell, the cost and complexity of supporting this colony became too great. They refused to sell to the British (they were fighting with each other) and the Americans were heavily in to acquiring as much territory as they could, so the Russians sold Alaska to the Americans for two cents an acre.

    Anyway, back to the train journey... we arrived in the tundra. The plant life was shorter and sparser because of the permafrost that typifies the land as tundra. Different, lower growing grasses, sedges, heath plants and bog plants became more frequent. The higher peaks were bare because the cold, ice and snow denied the plants any warm space to grow or usable water to feed on. The colours became stronger as rusts, reds, pinks and purples crept into the palette. Frequent ponds, some large and full of life and others, anaerobic, foetid and dark, dotted the landscape. The brilliant sky with some whispy clouds, created by sun on the snow peaks of nearby Mt Denali and its neighbours, hovered overhead. When you see the pictures, and if they show the accurate colours, you will want to know whether they have been colour enhanced or photoshopped. They have not. Even the cheerful and ingenuous staff would stop working and say "Wow!" every now and then. Most of the time the area does not have clear skies and visibility can be a problem. Our weather committee saw to perfect weather again today.

    I had a vague notion of something familiar about the sights but it was not until later that I realised that this was the place where Ansell Adams, the beautiful b&w landscape photographer, took many of this more famous shots. Please enjoy the photographs and be prepared to be amazed. They are nothing like Adams' shots but they nevertheless tell a story of the splendid isolation of the place.

    We arrived at our accommodation in the early evening, got settled in to the place where we were told life would get basic, but found it very pleasant and had wifi. We were asked to be ready for dinner by 7.45 because we would have a dinner and show in the theatre. So, true to our nature as a group we were all there, refreshed and ready to be entertained.

    The food was not as lavish as most of the other meals we had had, for which most of us were quite relieved. It was some very plain salad with a "biscuit " (read flat scone) followed by mashed potato with bacon bits then some barbecue braised brisket and some poached salmon in a very light lemon sauce. Dessert was an apple crumble with cream. Everything was brought out in platters and we served ourselves by passing the platters up and down the long benches. Our serving staff were the performers and they came out in costume and character. Ours was a "ditzy blonde" called Molly who was a show girl. Others had rough and ready pioneers, mountaineers or representatives of the First Nations people of this area, the Athabascans. They told the story, in song and dance, of the settlement of the area and efforts to climb Mt Denali which appears to be a very difficult climb. Everything was accompanied by a very talented pianist who, obviously having been tipped off, or overheard us speaking, put together a medley of Australian songs: Waltzing Matilda, Home among the Gum Trees and the Vegemite song. We did, as was expected, sing along.

    It was a charming evening, performed by quite a few young performers trying to get their start in life and who showed talent. When it was over we were sent to bed. No-one seemed to be too surprised or concerned about this. We were ready for sleep. Moreso, because we knew that breakfast would be at five am before a six am start on a natural history tour around the park. This is where we have been assured of more animal sightings. My camera will be charged and ready.
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  • Day23

    The Writers were right

    September 14, 2018 in the United States ⋅ ☀️ 15 °C

    This trip to the northern hemisphere has helped me understand, at a much more personal level, what the poets were saying. Frost, the American, talked of two roads in a yellow wood and I have now seen the yellow wood, shimmering  and dancing in the lowering sun of late Autumn.  When the Brothers Grimm wrote of the dangers of getting lost in the dark and gloomy forest,  I have seen that too, with the trunks of trees so close together in the conifer forests that the sense of being trapped in perpetual darkness and obscurity and the lack of a point of reference to guide the abandoned child to safety, leaves both the child and the reader with a deep sense of foreboding.

    The movement between the two happened gently, with some generous intermingling for a while and then the fading out of the Sitka Spruce and the thickening of the Birch forests to the point where the conifer is just an occasional reminder. I wondered, for a while, whether this was as a result of the fire that burned out over 700 thousand hectares of conifer forest a few years ago, or whether the frequency of patches of "ghost forest" after the sea stole the life out of the roots of the spruce after the '64 earthquake, contributed to the loss of pine forest. But I suspect that this is the natural order of things.

    As we drove by on our bus, at one stage, I glanced down into a boggy patch of tree thinned, water logged land and saw a ripple then a gloop in the water near some horizontal trees and branches and I reckon it was a beaver. It had found its spot, thinned out the trees to build its lodge and was busily shoring it up for the winter. They are private animals so I guess that may be all I will see. The sign "Private Property" was not visible but understood neverthless.

    Today, I also saw some of Keats "seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness" in the enormous pumpkin and cabbage sitting up next to a building. This is a happy pastime for many of the inhabitants of this part of Alaska and this is the time of year when the giant pumpkins, some as large as 700 kilos and cabbages weighing as much as 60 kilos, win prizes at County Fairs. I doubt if the ones I saw were winners, but they were certainly big. I suspect they are also inedible!

    Our special treat for today was a visit to an Iditarod Camp called "Happy Trails". It is owned by Martin Buser, who is a four time Iditarod Winner. This event happens every year in Alaska running from Anchorage to Nome, a distance of 1049 miles. The distance is significant because it is a thousand miles plus 49, because Alaska is the forty-ninth state of the Union.

    The race is for dog teams and is an endurance race. As we learned at the earlier camp, the dogs just love it and can't wait to run. They have the same look on their faces as cattle and sheep dogs get when they know they are about to start working. They are intelligent animals and just sit around waiting to learn. If I had had students with half as much commitment to making their effort count as these dogs, then I am certain their results would have made them stand out with distinction from the crowd. We were shown a short film on the race, introduced to some very excitable dogs who just want to be with a human and taken through the procedure for dressing a dog for the race. In the worst conditions they would have a t-shirt to protect them from the rubbing of the harness, booties to protect their feet from the harsh ice, a fleecy lined water resistent overcoat to keep the body warm and even a nappy to protect the sparsely haired section around their nether regions. Frozen balls would hurt. The dog asked to assist with this display was thoroughly compliant but did start to get a tad anxious when too many questions meant he had to stay in his warm outfit for longer than he was comfortable. (This dog, "Rock", is actually quite famous as he was part of the fourth placed Iditarod team in 2014, competing in the same team as his brother "Roll".) They prefer it much colder and our group weather committee had arranged for yet another warm and clear day.

    I had a lovely chat with several dogs and one took great pleasure in discovering that I was wearing a scarf. He tugged at it, sniffed it, nuzzled it, grabbed it again and decided it would be an ideal toy to play tug'o'war with. I didn't mind. He was being playful and I would have felt comfortable removing it from his mouth, but his owner called his name sharply and Storm dropped the scarf. I didn't say anything to the humans again, but word did get around the dogs that there was a scarf in camp today and it was good for tugging. Dogs made a beeline for me as I walked by and each wanted to find the scarf. I had to tie it up and hide it because they all wanted to play. Mind you, the dogs took great interest in all of us. They just hungered for attention and welcomed every bit.

    After the demonstration of harnessing and taking the dogs for a spin, we were introduced to the puppies. This lot were only eight days old and still had their eyes shut. They were tiny warm bundles with little murmuring grumbles in their chests, the sort of soothing noises creatures have when they are well fed, warm and at ease. The humans gave all the cooing and ahhing we always make when we come across baby anythings. Lots of photos later we got back on the bus and were presented with a bootie each. It had been worn and so was the genuine article. I could see the dusty footprint in the sock where it had been in the dirt!

    To his credit, the owner of these dogs has won the Idita rod four times, a remarkable accomplishment. But of greater significance to me, is that he has won the best kept and maintained animals in the competition, five times. He cares about his animals' health and well being and ensures they are well cared for. That speaks volumes!

    We arrived, after some delays because of roadworks, at a tiny tourist village called Talkeetna. It is a First Nations' name but the town took little more than the name from the indigenous. It had eateries, gift shops and places to book tours. It was a charming place that almost disappears each winter. Main street is the only street. It was very welcoming.

    Ross and I ate fish and chips, but it was nothing like a piece of flake and fries we are familiar with. They had small, deep fried pieces of halibut and salmon. It felt very odd indeed to be eating deep fried salmon. It is a dish served sensitively with a crispy skin on one side and a squeeze of lemon and some black pepper on the other, when served at home. Here it is the fish for every day and you do with it, anything you want. Ross took another leap into eating local today by downing a root beer. He said it was like sarsparilla. Ross took off for walk to see the river and I made it into a gift shop where I added some more pieces to my charm bracelet that will represent this holiday. I already have a very heavy charm necklace covering my European vacation and when I get time to connect them all I will have a matching bracelet. Success came in the shape of a dog sled charm and a moose charm today.

    I must stop now to make a further comment on moose. The segue seems appropriate. It seems that Alaskans tend to regard the moose in a similar way to how we treat the roo. It is often road kill on the bigger roads. They have a special arrangement though. You can register for road kill. If a moose is killed on the road, the authorities contact you and tell you where it is and you go out and collect it and use it for food or skins or antlers or anything else you want. If no-one wants it, the authorities pick it up and take it to charities who then cook it up for the homeless. Sounds very sensible to me. Apparently the moose we saw the other day was a right tiddler. As I write this blog I am finishing off my dinner of blueberry salad (salad leaves dressed in balsamic vinegar, then liberally sprinkled with candied pecans, blueberries and goats cheese. Delicious), and just above my head is the head of the biggest moose. OMG! It is enormous! It is leering at me which is giving me the heebie jeebies.

    Our final stop for the day was Mt Denali. It used to be called Mt McKinley and we were given a very patriotic explanation of its significance by our bus driver Jesse. It is the 82th highest mountain by overall height in the world, but that is not considered worthy of much celebration. However, their efforts have revealed that the highest mountains are in the Himalayan range. These may be higher above sea level than Denali, but they start on a high plateau and Everist itself is a peak on top of the plateau. The driver, a man born and bred in Idaho, proudly points out that McKinley (he still prefers the old name but insists that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" - Shakespeare is our fourth poet today) is, in fact taller than Everist because it rises from the plain which is essentially just a short distance above sea level. It stands at about 20,310 feet, or 6190 metres, above sea level. This makes it the tallest mountain in the world by the adjusted measurements.

    It is quite a stunning looking mountain. It is highly photogenic and my camera hungered for more. Our tour director, Bill, just could not believe our luck at having a cloudless sky and clear sunshine gleaming off the snow covered mountain. More often than not it is cloudy, misty or obscured by rain. The last few times he was here he could not see it at all.

    We are staying at Mt McKinley Princess Lodge which has viewing verandahs, huge windows, cushioned chairs and bar service in the main lodge. We were told to prepare for basic existence, but this aint it! Our room faces north which had me a bit excited because it would mean facing the mountain and any potential aurora (yes....... still waiting.....) . However, when I opened the curtains we had a great view of a tree and the roof of the building next to us. Oh dear! I intend to stay up as long as I can this evening in one of the cushioned chairs to see if the aurora will come before midnight. I can't manage anything beyond that because we must be up early to catch a train through the mountains to Denali National Park tomorrow. Maybe that is where it will get to be "wilderness".
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  • Day22

    In Anchorage Alaska

    September 13, 2018 in the United States ⋅ ☀️ 16 °C

    We left the ship this morning as per the information session from yesterday. This group is particularly good at being at the right place at the right time and we keep an eye out for each other all the time, so if we see someone taking a little longer to get somewhere, we will lend a hand or report that someone is still coming but will arrive soon. It's nice. We are being neighbourly. Many of the group are essentially neighbours, coming from the same region of South Australia, but those of us who are foreigners have fitted in just as well.

    Once off the boat in Whittier we took a tour around this town. It is one block and everything is visible from everywhere else, so the tour did not take long. We drove by the apartment building; the school which is accessible via a tunnel because of the heavy snow; the marina; the now derelict military buildings which were made unusable after the 1964 earthquake but which will not be demolished because of asbestos, and then back by the strange old building that stands boldly at the heart of the town. It is old, wood, unpainted and has a kind of crow's nest on top. It seems to be a set of businesses, perhaps tourist or fishing related, but it was not clear to see. It was a striking building hinting at a much older past.

    When the tour was over and the rain that falls 300 days a year, stayed away and gave us a sunny day, we headed for a parking bay where all sorts of vehicles lined up ready for the change over in the tunnel from "in to" to "out of" Whittier. It was a fifteen minute wait and a four kilometre drive through the narrow tunnel. Every kilometre or so there is a safe house built into the tunnel. This is to provide protection against breakdowns or crashes and to get people away from carbon monoxide poisoning. On some occasions they have actually had to close the tunnel because of CO build up.

    On the other side of the tunnel and into another valley we found ourselves in Turnagain arm of the Inlet. It was named by our own Captain Cook who was trying to find the mysterious and elusive Northwest Passage, only to find that this branch was yet another dead end and required the ship to "turn again". We were told to be on the lookout for two special sights. The first was a pod of Beluga Whales, which had been seen in this inlet earlier in the day and the Dall sheep which is a mountain sheep with big curly horns. Didn't see either. I admit now that the other day I caught a glimpse of a large white headed creature in the water and wondered whether it might be a Beluga, but dismissed it as highly improbable and perhaps a trick of the light. I convinced myself that the Beluga could not be this far south. Then I realised that we are not far south at all and this is the right place. It may well have been a Beluga!

    Let me say though, that we made up our quota of animals very quickly today. First, at a small stopover we saw a salmon stream that clearly had bear involvement. Half munched fish lay beside the stream awaiting a time when humans would not be hanging around. There were still lots of live fish hanging around. A few kilometres further in, we pulled in at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre. We caught up on lots of animals. Ok, they were not in the wild, but most of these animals are unable to survive in the wild because of injury or being orphaned, or being bred up for future release. We had a lovely time. I am very grateful for those philanthropic people who set up these centres. Later, governments and big organisations will take over when the very real value of the work is realised, but it takes the altruistic animal lover to begin the process.

    We saw two brown bears that were both having a lovely time in a pond licking the final bits off some meaty goodness. One of them in particular, kept lying on his back and kicking his feet about like an awkward backstroker. This was an animal having fun. He jumped and splashed and shook his great head, then bounced back into the water. He was a joy to watch.

    The black bear was dozing in a cave and enjoying the sun. I quite understood such delectable lethargy. My kind of bear. Around the corner was a small herd of Musk Oxen that is being bred up for potential reintroduction into the wild. The native Musk Ox was exterminated some time ago and a small group of Siberian Musk Ox was brought in to help reestablish it. They are apparently very closely related. They were clearly deeply involved in some sort of internal squabble because there was meaningful grunting and snorting and then the rapid departure of one individual from the mob, with a nervous backward glance. What were they talking about? Was this someone caught out in a piece of spiteful gossip and now sent to Coventry for breaking the rules of the schoolyard? Speculation is worthy.

    To the other side were elk. These had been separated on gender grounds because it is rutting season. We have met the elk before. This time we heard some high pitched noises coming from some of them. I would have described it as a birdlike noise, rather than something you might expect from such a large creature. The other elk responded to it and gave vocal responses. They were communicating something too. Maybe they had heard wind of the shattered group dynamics of the musk ox and were exploring the ramifications for themselves, or perhaps talking about the best looking male elk who might be their choice for this year. There were also deer in a nearby pen. On it goes.

    We then saw a rather gorgeous moose who had a neighbour called Swindle. Swindle was a porcupine. They didn't appear to have much to say to each other, but I did enjoy watching the moose. He was a handsome creature.

    The wolves were not keen on being seen. A second porcupine was nearby. As we walked around we also caught up with a lynx that was ignoring us because he was eating his chicken lunch and a bald eagle with only one wing. I was very disappointed trying to photograph this bird. I wanted to capture the sharpness and intelligence in the eye but the camera kept finding the wire fencing and denied me the picture I wanted.

    And so, we gorged ourselves on a feast of Alaskan animals. It was just lovely.

    Back in the bus, we followed the inlet further around towards Anchorage. It is a tidal inlet coming from the Pacific Ocean and there is a vast difference between high and low tide. Our driver, Jesse, told us of a woman who walked out onto what appeared to be mudflats to discover that again, because of liquefaction, these areas become like quicksand and she had to be extracted from waste high bog and a rising tide.

    We arrived in Anchorage quite early, too early for our hotel, so many of us ate very poorly at the shopping mall, then went for a bit of a walk around town. It is not a beautiful town. It seems reluctant to shine, with little promotion of itself in building names and advertising its offerings. The streets are wide and clear, with completely unimaginative names. All streets in one direction are 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc and going the crossways direction, they go by alphabet letters from A to I, skipping J then going on to K. I don't know what J did to deserve such neglect, but I feel for it just the same.

    It took us some time to have our rooms ready. Most people were able to access their rooms by 3.15 but Ross and I and three other pairs had to wait until 4 pm. At that time I went to see what progress had been made and found myself getting quite grumpy. Not only had I found it necessary to listen for over 40 minutes, to the bouncy concierge, who got overexcited and whiney with every person who came to speak to her. She gave them the assistance they required, then sent off her interlocutor with a grossly overstated sense of gratification that she had been able to help and that she hoped the rest of their day would be really excellent (a redundant superfluity!!!). When I got to the counter, I had a woman jump in before me. I stepped aside and let her. I then had my conversation with the receptionist who had an interminable and repetitious phone conversation with someone at a different desk as to who was responsible for resolving our rooming situation, when, before we had finished our words, we were interrupted by an angry man behind me who spoke to MY receptionist about how another man had stepped in before him in the next queue. My receptionist turned his back on me and he began to talk to the angry man and ignore me. I was not pleased. I looked out of the corner of my eye and saw someone finally talking with our group and giving us keys so I left and rejoined the group and we made our way to our rooms while the desk clerk dealt with the squeaky wheel.

    Within seconds of arriving in the room, Ross had lain down and was snoring blissfully. The hotel, to its credit, has free wifi, so I caught up on a bit of correspondence, then began writing this blog.

    Dinner was delightful. Good food, nice company, good conversation and then off to bed. I will persevere in my attempts to hunt down the elusive Aurora Borealis which failed to appear last night. Although the chances of it arriving tonight are as good as last night (and it didn't happen) we are less likely to see it in a town because of light pollution. I will watch for it for a time, but it comes and goes as it pleases and it does not seek to please me, a mere mortal. Maybe when we get out into the real wilderness we might see it. Hope springs eternal in Anchorage Alaska.
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  • Day21

    A College of Wet

    September 12, 2018 in the United States ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    Pardon the pun in the title. Not a "College of wit" so much as "wet", but even the wet was hard and cold with more glaciers than you could poke a stick at. I lost track of the number and we were told that there are so many that quite a few do not have names. The big glaciers all have names. All the glaciers on the left hand side of this latest fjord as you enter it, are all named after prestigious women's colleges in the US, and the ones on the right are named after the men's colleges, as they were traditionally known. That is why it is called College Fjord.

    The really big one was Harvard, closely followed by Yale. It was pointed out that the team of highly educated scholars who claimed and named the fjord thought it was a jolly jape to exclude Princeton. Ross was incensed. Harvard and Princeton have always maintained a parochial disharmony, but he really resented the exclusion of Princeton with its greater focus on the sciences and where Einstein was. He overcame his annoyance though as we got closer to the Harvard Glacier which is absolutely enormous.

    We thought that this glacier would not calve for us. We couldn't be that lucky two days in a row. We watched it for a long time then, as the crowds grew, we went inside to have our dinner. The sun was disappearing and it was really getting cold outside so we congratulated ourselves on our cleverness.

    After dinner we went back to our cabin. It was on the port side and the ship was slowly spinning to give everyone a good look of the glacier and we realised we would get a fantastic view from our balcony. We were right. No sooner had we arrived and positioned ourselves than we heard the now familiar cracking, like a gun shot, then the rumbles and roars. The glacier had begun to calve. We snapped some pictures but so much is lost from still photos of ice falling against an icy backdrop. We both pressed the video buttons on our cameras and caught footage of several calvings. Quite spectacular. One of the early ones delivered the biggest iceberg of the day. It was a murky colour but created quite a splash, then wave after wave of ripples before settling in the slush and beginning its journey down the fjord.

    But I started today's blog with the end of it, so will go back to the beginning of the day. It was a sailing day with no stopovers, so people began their days slowly. It was also our last full day on board ship so there were disembarkation meetings to take us through the order of tomorrow.

    After these were over, we went about looking at things, taking in the vastness of the ocean, chatting with fellow travellers and pretending to go on a bar crawl. There are several bars on board. By the end of today we had been in the Explorers bar, the Crooners Bar, the Calypso Cove Bar and the Wheelhouse Bar (which we nicknamed the Wheelbarrow Bar) but had resisted the Churchill Bar because that was the smokers bar. We missed out on the Bayou Bar but didn't feel we had missed much. They were all pretty much the same, despite decor change, and when you only drink club soda or iced tea there isn't much to say.

    It struck us as very odd to see people serving and drinking alcohol as early as 10 am and seeing nothing wrong with it. We didn't see anyone drunk all trip so that was good.

    Today we also visited the Wedding Chapel (for the disembarkation meeting) and the Library. The most common practice in the library was jigsaw building and playing card games. There were some readers too. We never once entered the casino which looked dark and sinister. The noise coming out of it was troubling too. We are in Alaska, on the high seas, visiting exotic places and seeing wondrous sites and people were playing bingo.

    This afternoon we repacked our bags. We must have them outside our cabin doors by 10 pm so they can be transported off the ship in the early hours, loaded on trucks and taken through Whittier and on to Anchorage which is our next stop. We must put our overnight stuff in backpacks.

    Whittier is an odd place and we will only be there a short time. The total population of this town is 187 people and they all live in a single highrise building. This puzzled me at first. Why wouldn't they have separate homes? Well it makes sense to have just one heating system, one set of plumbing and water supply for a town that is really a service centre. It has a school and other essential services such as a grocery store within the building so it is an all purpose building.

    According to our guide, it is always cloudy or raining in Whittier. This was so well known, that the military built a base there in WW2 because the Japanese would never be able to attack it because of the weather. The old military facility is now abandoned and after a fire, now derelict. It is only inhabited by bears who appreciate the ready made hibernation places.

    There is only one road in Whittier and it is both rail and road: it is a tunnel. Being one lane, they have calculated that every hour the direction of the travel reverses. There is no room for people who are a little bit late. They wait an hour before they can head off.

    The fjord we are travelling through at the moment was the site of two great events. The first was in the 1964 when the second largest earthquake ever recorded took place. It disturbed the ground so much that salt water was taken up into the roots of the trees as a result of liquefaction. This killed the trees but left them in their place creating a ghost forest. The town of Valdez disappeared, killing over 30 people.

    The second was more recent, when in 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground here. Now that I have seen the site I am even more horrified by what happened. Much of this region is pristine wilderness and it is reasonable to believe that much of it has never been trodden on by humans. It is quite inhospitable. The thousands of gallons of crude oil that spilled out into the area critically endangered many animals. Most have now recovered, including the local sea otter which we saw several times. It is about 30 kilos in weight, more hair on its body per centimetre than any other and swims on its back so his hands can use rocks to crack open shellfish for the flesh. Unfortunately one whale species was virtually exterminated. All the females died and only a handful of males now exist. There was one other creature that died out, but I was so caught up in the tragedy of the whales, I didn't catch its name. The site seems now to have overcome the shock and destruction and the waters are teeming with life.

    As I sign off, I have to admit that despite getting up several times to look for the Aurora, I did not see it when it came at about 10.30 last night. Tonight I have asked for a call when/if it comes. They have assured me that the call will come if the Aurora does. The likelihood tonight is 6/10. I can't wait!
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  • Day20

    The Princess and the Icebergs

    September 11, 2018 ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    We have just been informed that the next five or six days could be even more uncertain regarding the internet. Alaska is a wild frontier country. We have been warned not to expect luxuries such as kettles in rooms or glasses, just paper cups. If this is so, then the internet is likely to be unobtainable. Today, when I went to the onboard Internet Cafe, they had no internet either. It was not until we had sailed out of the narrow passageways between islands, skirted some glaciers and dodged some icebergs that I tried again and was successful. I may get this message out, and maybe tomorrow's but after that, things get considerably worse. I will try, but don't be alarmed if your daily report is not ready for you at the usual time.

    This morning was clear and sunny. Our good luck with the weather continues. We sailed up the inlet with the sun rising and glowing a light pink on the snow capped mountains. There had been no Aurora, as far as I knew, even though I had checked several times. I will try again tonight. At about 10.30 as I watching the water, it occurred to me that by that time of day I would have expected the sun to be much higher in the sky, then I realised that our proximity to the Arctic Circle was revealing itself again and I keep being surprised by it. Before we left Vancouver the weather reporter stated that they are losing three minutes of daylight a day at the moment. This will, of course, slow down, but it is telling.

    We made our way through Glacier Bay and up the fjord which had once been 65 miles of the Grand Pacific Glacier, the same one I mentioned a few days ago, that was explored by George Vancouver and William Bligh. There were quite a few smaller glaciers that had been tributaries of the Grand Pacific and which now all feed into the fjord. The two that were the most remarkable were the Grand Pacific, which was over two miles wide but largely indistinguishable from a big mound of dirt and the Margerie which was startlingly white and very active and only one mile wide. They met, along with a minor third, at a major confluence in Glacier Bay, the head of the fjord. While almost all glaciers in the world today are shrinking, the Margerie is not. It also moves at two metres a day which makes it very fast moving.

    The Grand Pacific appears low (but is not) and very dirty. This comes from the heavy deposits of rock and soil being carried down. It looks like dirt, but is actually heavily laden ice. The icebergs coming from this glacier are less frequent but are black and make the water muddy as they begin to melt.

    The Margerie is very thick, (several hundred metres), and comes from some massive snow and icefields coming from around Mt Root standing at 15,000 feet in the background. The final edge wall of ice is sharp and crumbly and the glacier is very noisy. One noise comes from the cracking ice as it moves down the mountain. This sound is like the cracking of ice cubes in a drink but MUCH bigger. However, the noise that was most remarkable was the boom when a piece of ice broke off and fell into the water. This is called calving. At the distance we were, the delay between the break and the sound reaching us was a couple of seconds. That should clarify the distance between us and the edge, but honestly it felt like only about 20 metres away. The proportions were quite misleading. Our ship is enormous, with about 1300 people on board, and it was dwarfed by the glacier.

    While we sat there watching this mountain of ice, it calved about five or six times, booming away, sending up sprays of water 20 or 30 metres in the air, then sending ripples through the water. This was followed up by small parts of the ice forming an icy slush and the larger pieces forming small icebergs. We were surrounded by icebergs and slush. It felt like we were the piece of fruit on top of a slushie! Some of these icebergs found their way out of the fjord, 65 miles and more, away from their birthplace. This would have taken many hours drifting along before they eventually melted away. You could stand on them but it would have been extremely unwise.

    We managed to capture several calvings, but unless you see them in sequence, the impact is less dramatic. The image looks insignificant, but if you had been under the smallest collapse you would be dead from the impact. Quite majestic.

    The captain took us to the glacier and then he spun the ship round so no-one would miss out. I was standing at the bow of the ship taking photos and grabbing vantage points when I could. When he began the spin, I hightailed it two thirds down the length of the ship and down five floors to get to our cabin so I could take photos from that vantage point. No jostling for space on our balcony. I made it in time!

    Later in the day, we had to get dressed up for a Cocktail Party put on by the tour company. It was pleasant, but odd. We caught up with several people we had got to know and had drinks and canapes. After an hour we excused ourselves to try sort out seating on planes in a few days and to send off yesterday's blog.

    As I settle in for the evening and finish off this blog, I can say that I just saw an amazing sunset. Nothing was in the way, not even a cloud, as the sun set over the open ocean. It was very late in the evening. Getting ready for Aurora spotting now!
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