Final Desert Adventures

We managed to pack a few more adventures into the last of our road trip, starting with the state park where we camped near Petrified Forest. Homolovi State Park was established to protect Hopi ancestral burial and archaeological sites from vandalism, destruction and theft. Prior to becoming a protected area, artifact hunters actually brought a backhoe into this area to dig for illegal treasures. Horrible! At least this area is now more secure, though many other native ancestral sites continue to be violated.

Visitors can not remove anything from these sites, but they are allowed to place pot shards in groupings like these to make it easier for others to see.

The native people who lived here did so from 620-1400 AD, coming and going as the nearby river periodically flooded.

Homolovi isn’t a very big place in terms of archaeological sites to see, but it was interesting to see the culture and history, and learn about the shocking extent of theft.

Now it was time to start heading back west, so we checked out the area around Lake Havasu at the Arizona-California border for a little while. The hiking trail we chose was just okay – through a series of dry washes that gradually became dry waterfalls eventually blocked by high water. Once the scrambling and climbing got too vertical, I voted to turn back!

The next day we spotted a sign for a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) information office, and they suggested we check out the Turtle Mountain area on the California side. This is part of the Mojave Desert – with a little different feel than the Sonoran Desert where we spent much of the past few weeks. It was 20 miles down a back road, then another 15 or so on a dirt road (note the long strand heading to the mountains) that was a lot more comfortable in 4WD. While Jim was locking the wheel hubs …

…I spotted some ocotillo that were in full leaf and flower. Remember back when we were in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and I talked about the ocotillo shrub/tree that adapts to dry spells by losing all its leaves? It looks like a cluster of dead sticks until there’s rain – then it will suddenly sprout little leaves all over its branches, and produce a red flower at the ends. Pretty neat.

At the far end of that long dirt road we found remnants of the Lost Arch Mine, including the main shaft that was capped with a structure that allows bats and other wildlife to move in and out.

The Turtle Mountains were right in front of us, and we decided to hike the trail up and around this cluster of eroded volcanic peaks.

As we came up the ridge we spotted this huge depression crater to the north. I’d love to know more about its story. We learn things when we hike, but often leave with more questions than answers.

Mystery crater

The mountain sides were covered in carpets of wildflowers, especially on the west face, and the view stretched for many miles.

Coming around the back side of the peaks and looking back the way we came, this was the vista…

…and the little red circle is where our truck is. The trail here is not used very often – it was rather faint and we had to back-track a few times to find the easier way down.

What a fabulous set of adventures! But it was time to point the truck north and head for home. Spring is upon us, and now it’s time to get the boat ready for cruising. And more adventures.

One More Glacier Bay Treat

As we started working our way back down the west arm of Glacier Bay we got a terrific surprise while coming into the evening’s anchorage – a wolf!I’ve been looking for wolves every year that we’ve lived up here and I’ve only seen one, once, for just a few moments.  Supposedly there are three packs that live on Mitkof Island (where Petersburg is), but they are rarely spotted.  This wolf was tan colored, blending in with the beach.  He chased a river otter without success.A nearby sea otter was also too quick for the wolf, and in frustration he eventually picked up something from underwater and ate it on the beach.We got to watch him for about 15 minutes – a fantastic way to wrap up the day!

Sea otters were hanging around near the mouth of the bay……and one was clutching a pup – a “mini me”.As we headed into Icy Strait we saw a humpback in the distance, but as we started towards it we spotted a small pod of orcas so we had to choose which kind of whale to watch.The orcas won out because there was a mother and calf among the group… another “mini me”.It was a pretty exciting way to wrap up our time in the bay, and we were glad to pull into Hoonah to chill out for a day or two.

It’s always fun to visit the carvers, Gordon and Herb, as well as our friends Owen and Sherry who work with the log canoes.These Tlingit people are very special – so generous with their time and talent, patiently sharing history and culture with everyone.

We took some time to walk in the woods, marveling at how big the devil’s club leaves have grown so far this summer.Devil’s club, a relative of the ginseng family, is an important plant for the Tlingit people who harvest the roots for tea and the stalks to make a salve that’s good for the skin.  It’s challenging to harvest because it’s covered in tiny thorns – you don’t want to fall into it!

A New Feature

I’ve had a few people ask me if they could receive an email whenever I post something new to the Blog.  I’ve looked into it a few times but didn’t get it figured out until today – so the “Follow” feature is now live on the right hand column of the site.


Catching up – Trip to Barrow

20150911 1165 fairbanks airport rBefore we were interrupted by the holidays, I was determined to get the Blog caught up on our September (yes – that really was nearly 4 months ago!) road trip to the Alaskan Interior.  Just to remind you that it was autumn back when we were up in Fairbanks, here’s a photo of the Fairbanks airport as we took off for our flight up to Barrow, 320 miles above the Arctic Circle.alaska map road trip overview 2North of the Brooks Range, the land is mostly flat tundra with roaming caribou and musk ox.20150911 1171 far north snowfield rAnd you can see that there isn’t much to protect the land from storms coming off the Chukchi Sea.20150911 1180 far north tundra rBarrow is the northernmost city in the US with a population of about 4200 people, most of whom are Inupiat native who must rely on subsistence hunting for a large percentage of their food.  Barrow is accessible ONLY by air (year round) or by water during a short period in the summer months.  The town has a fuel storage facility since they receive all their fuel for the entire year in one barge delivery each summer.  Can you imagine accurately estimating all the fuel needs for a town – for cars, ATVs, snowmachines, trucks, heavy equipment, generators and heating for a year?  The supply has to be carefully monitored and budgeted to make sure they don’t run out, and the cost at the pump is about $7/gallon.  Aside from subsistence hunting, all food must be brought in on the summer barge or by air, so you can imagine that it’s very expensive.  In addition to being practical, hunting is an integral part of the Inupiat culture – helping each other and sharing meat among the elders in the community.

The most important food source for the Inupiat is the bowhead whale.  They differ greatly from the Japanese whaling ships which take as many whales as they can.  The Inupiat’s two annual hunts (spring and fall) are regulated to limit the number of whales taken (the quota was 12 strikes for the late September fall hunt) to protect the Arctic Ocean population, and the hunt is conducted using many of the same traditional methods that the Inupiat have been using for thousands of years.  The spring hunt is done from the edge of the shore-bound ice, and the whaling teams camp out on the ice waiting for a bowhead to come close enough for the hand-thrown harpoon, or sometimes they may venture a short distance in a traditional skin boat (made from the hide of bearded seals).  The harpoon has a small incendiary device designed to detonate inside the whale’s head in order to dispatch the animal instantly and humanely.  Another native with a rifle stands by to fire an additional killing shot immediately afterwards, if necessary.  The Inupiat take great care to respect and honor the whale’s sacrifice, and scientists use the whale harvest to further study the bowhead.  Did you know that the whale’s eye can reveal its age?20150912 1231 barrow bowhead skulls rThe community helps with all the work getting the whale ashore and harvesting the meat.  Cooperation and teamwork are deeply rooted in their culture, and the many skills and lessons are taught to children at an early age.  After distribution among the community members and elders, the meat is stored in ice cellars – deep holes dug into the permafrost.

Top of the World Hotel

Top of the World Hotel

The Inupiat Cultural Center in Barrow is an excellent place to learn more about this group of polar native people, and we were lucky to have an Inupiat woman guide us through the museum and weave examples from her childhood and adult life into her interpretation.  We arranged for the tour through the Top of the World Hotel, one of the very few hotels in Barrow.  Notice that the hotel is built up on stilts to protect the permafrost.  Everything in Barrow is very very expensive, but it’s no surprise since it’s not easy to get things up here.

You can see by the photos that we had pretty gloomy weather for our weekend visit.  Barrow is overcast for more than 50% of the year, and sitting right on the shore of the Chukchi Sea and well above the Arctic Circle you can imagine that the weather there isn’t often very nice.  In fact, the town sits right up against the ocean beach which can be problematic.  When we were there in mid-September crews were still clearing sand washed over the road from a storm.20150912 1215 barrow beach and town rWe dressed in our warmest hats and tall insulated boots and had a ball beach combing in the surf, finding funky fat marine worms and many beautiful rocks in unusual colors.20150912 1203 barrow arctic ocean beachcombing jim r

Eider duck

Eider duck

Another reason to visit Barrow is to see snowy owls, which feed on the little lemmings that live on the tundra.  Barrow’s Inupiat name is “Ukpeagvik” which translates to “The Place Where We Hunt Snowy Owls”.  The weather and time of year weren’t the best for finding owls, but we did see some, as well as snow buntings, parasitic jaegers and eider ducks.

Snowy owl

Climate change and sea level rise are very real for these Arctic people.  The road is washed out more often by storms, and sea ice forms later in the year (and is thinner), making it more difficult for hunting as well as for the marine mammals that rely on the ice for habitat.  Two small cruise ships are making a stop in Barrow once a year now that the Northwest Passage is open on a more consistent basis.  Polar bears are a real danger on the outskirts of Barrow, and their behavior is changing as their habitat is impacted by the loss of sea ice.

The guidebook for Barrow cautions people about exploring along the beach outside of town, warning that polar bears are apex predators and that they will absolutely hunt humans.  We stuck with our local guide for this visit.

Barrow is a fascinating place, and we’d like to explore it further in the warmer months when there are more birds around.  The culture and living challenges for the native people are amazing, especially when you consider that they have thrived in this harsh environment for thousands of years.20150912 1187 barrow whale arch wide r