Winter Sparkles

Today is the Winter Solstice – the shortest day of the year.  The sun will rise around 8:30 in the morning and it will set around 3:13 this afternoon, though it actually starts getting dusky earlier than that since the sun drops behind the tall mountains that surround us.  At the Summer Solstice we have over 18 hours of daylight, and today it will be less than 7 hours.  We celebrate the Winter Solstice in these high latitudes since it means that from now until the summer, every day will get longer.

The holiday season is in full swing here in Petersburg, with band concerts and the biennial performance of the Nutcracker by 150 young dancers from town.The dancing and costumes and organization of so many children, ranging in age from 3 to 18 is just amazing, and so many of these dedicated dancers are also top students and athletes in school.  I particularly love the inclusion of so many little ones… While our hearts have been warmed by these lovely performances, our toes have been chilled by a long stretch of unusually cold clear weather.  Over two weeks the frost has built up daily, creating the most amazing crystal formations.This may look like snow, but it’s only frost that has coated everything in a thick layer.The delicate crystal structures are infinitely varied and beautiful… everywhere you look.  Even the Christmas lights on our boat grew long formations.Day and night the harbor was steamy because of the difference in temperature – the sea water never got below 42 while the air temperature dropped to single digits overnight.  It made for a magical scene when the sun kissed the mountaintops in the morning.We don’t get long stretches with temperatures that stay well below freezing very often, but when we do the hockey club fixes up a skating rink by the ball fields so people can ice skate.  The slough also froze solid and made for excellent skating.Because we don’t get these skating conditions very often, many children experienced ice skating for the first time.  Winter in this part of Alaska isn’t what most people imagine!  But the beauty of winter here… takes my breath away.

Zooming Across the Country

We’re calling this “From Sea to Shining Sea Tour”, since we departed with the camper from the shores of Chesapeake Bay, bound for the shores of Puget Sound in Washington.

Our only break from a brisk pace across the country was the stop in Great Smoky Mountains and Chattanooga, and though we were captivated by all the sandhill cranes we were also reminded of an important historical event – the Indian Removal Act of 1830 where President Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokee and other native tribes to give up their lands east of the Mississippi River.  The Cherokee Nation’s people were marched westward via two different routes to what is now part of Oklahoma in 1838-1839, enduring tremendous hardship as well as thousands of needless deaths, on top of the injustice of being forced from their ancestral lands.  The Trail of Tears is the name given by the Cherokee people to the horror of this forced migration, and it’s one of many important examples of discrimination that should never be forgotten or repeated in any form.  There’s a small memorial and museum dedicated to remembering the Cherokee Removal near Chattanooga, and we made a stop there to learn more and to appreciate the historical significance of the path we would be taking as we headed west.The memorial has the names of the heads of each household and number of family members to be forcibly removed, organized by state.  It was very sobering to see so many families… innocents persecuted for the color of their skin and their beliefs.

As we drove west into Arkansas and Oklahoma we saw many signs highlighting points of significance along the Trail of Tears, and it meant more to us after spending time at the memorial.

We’re used to waiting for weather when traveling by boat, but didn’t think we’d have much trouble taking a southern route with the camper… until a huge weather front bringing snow to the mid-western states also brought high winds to the south-central and southwestern states.  We had to wait an extra day in Oklahoma City since it wouldn’t have been safe to drive with 50 mph winds, and we couldn’t help but notice the tornado storm shelters at the campground.We’ve been through hurricanes, but tornadoes scare us much more so we were glad to keep moving westward… through Texas and into New Mexico where we had our first night below freezing – a not-too-gentle reminder that winter is on the way.  I was amazed at the number of hawks we spotted along the road, though many types are very hard to identify without some time to study details… not easily done zooming at highway speeds.  Windmills to generate electricity were more prevalent as we moved westward, and stereotypical tumbleweeds bounced across the highway in an odd juxtaposition of the modern and something we think of from old cowboy movies.

The colors of the land became more interesting once we got to New Mexico, and it’s easy to forget that the relatively flat sections of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah are really high plateaus several thousand feet up. It reminds me of hiking on the high plateaus of Utah years ago, looking down and finding thousands of small sea shells on the ground – this whole section of the country was once part of a vast inland sea!

We paused at the Navajo Bridge in northern Arizona, crossing the narrow Marble Canyon section of the Colorado River, and savored the beautiful colors and shapes of the rocks.We spent a lot of time on the road driving up and down mountains, some with pretty scary grades!  We don’t often think of the desert as mountainous.  There’s no better way to learn about geography and history than to travel the paths of those who came before us, to see the land up close and imagine what life must have been like in the past.

Sadly our timing didn’t allow for much savoring this trip, but it gave us a taste of places we’d like to return to.  Southern Utah, known as “Color Country” didn’t disappoint, and we just about wept as we zoomed past Zion National Park and a few other favorites from when we lived there in the early 90s.  We paused for Thanksgiving with friends in Walla Walla, WA and for a visit to one of my cousins in Oregon, then completed our “From Sea to Shining Sea Tour” arriving in the Seattle area.  We started this trip on the shores of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia……and ended up on the shores of Puget Sound in Washington.  It was a good road trip, despite the fact that we had no time to stop and smell too many roses.  In all we covered over 5000 miles (not all towing the camper), traveling through 23 states and (counting the trip to see polar bears) 3 Canadian provinces.  It was a long time to be away from home, but we spent some time with people we needed to visit, and we missed a lot of people we wanted to visit.

Sandhill Cranes

We were in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains just a few weeks ago, so it’s shocking to see the devastation from the wildfires in places where we stood so recently.  We had an increasing amount of smoke from the wildfires in the region as we explored the park, and even more so when we headed down to Chattanooga to visit boating friends for the Veteran’s Day weekend.20161113-3385-hiwassee-fall-color-rThe Tennessee River level was down quite a bit due to the long drought, and everywhere we looked was hazy with smoke.  We came to see our friends as well as the mass of sandhill cranes arriving – some resting on their way farther south and some to spend the winter.  So many sandhill cranes come to the Tennessee and Hiwassee River area that the state hosts a huge festival for them in January.  We arrived just in time for the first mass of birds to arrive.20161112-3640-sandhill-cranes-landing-rWe scouted a few places by car, but the best access to the birds was by boat – and our friends were generous enough to take us along for an overnight aboard so Carol and I could hunt for birds with our cameras.20161112-3600-sandhill-cranes-2-rWe anchored the big boat and headed out in the skiff, with Richard and Jim paddling us quietly close to the birds.  Cranes were everywhere!!  Overhead…20161112-3733-sandhill-cranes-in-flight-r20161112-3719-sandhill-crane-flying-mouth-open-r…in the marsh…20161112-3563-sandhill-cranes-opposing-r…pointing to the sky and calling…20161112-3594-sandhill-cranes-skypointing-3-r…putting their “landing gear” down…20161112-3780-sandhill-crane-pair-gear-down-r20161112-3819-pair-of-sandhill-cranes-landing-r

…and best of all – “dancing”!20161112-3927-sandhill-crane-wings-up-dance-2-r20161112-3603-sandhill-cranes-dancing-rWild turkeys appeared on the far shore, and a number of little killdeer were grazing and doing tail displays while the cranes surrounded us.20161112-4027-pair-of-killdeer-2-rCruising farther up the Hiwassee we found flocks of coots and white pelicans, as well as more clusters of cranes.20161113-4195-white-pelicans-2-rAs the sun was setting we spotted a nice hawk or golden eagle flying by, roosting in a nearby tree.20161112-3753-sunset-hawk-silhouette-rThe haze from wildfire smoke made our throats a bit raw, and it made the sunset feel moody.20161113-4207-chattanooga-smokey-sunset-rWe were so happy to see all those cranes – our timing was great since they were just beginning to arrive, and our friends report that there are many more in the area now.  The birds mean a lot to us since we only get to see the sandhill cranes in southeast Alaska for a two-week period in the fall and spring as they migrate.  We have so many tall mountains that the flocks fly very high, though we can hear their odd calls when they fly over.

For the people of Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina – we just hope some steady rain will fall to quench the wildfires and help the region recover from the drought.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We’re beginning a new kind of adventure as we start to make our way back home to Alaska after visiting family and friends back east.20161107-3268-the-new-rv-rJim has always wanted to get a 5th wheel RV, and friends in Virginia happened to be selling theirs… so Jim has gotten his wish and we’re now heading across country with the new rig.  With a shorter boating season where we live, it makes sense to spend some of the “off season” exploring some of the many amazing places in the western states.  But first we have to get west, and we’re learning a lot on this “forced march” pace to get to the other side of the country.

It makes sense to take a more southerly route to avoid bad weather at this time of the year, and we enjoyed the rolling green hills and lingering fall color through southwestern Virginia.  We spotted deer, wild turkeys and bald eagles as we made our way into Tennessee, taking a couple of days to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border.20161108-3306-gsmnp-fall-color-2-rThe peak fall color had passed, but there was still plenty of pretty leaves at lower elevations.  On the recommendation of friends, we headed for Clingman’s Dome – the highest peak in the Park (6643′) and the third highest peak east of the Mississippi.  If you’re willing to make the steep 1/2 mile hike to the top you’re rewarded with great views from the observation tower.20161108-3276-gsmnp-clingmans-dome-tower-2-rWe crossed the Appalachian Trail near the summit which was fun since we’ve hiked sections of the Trail years ago when we lived in Virginia.  Unfortunately the view on this day was marred by smog and smoke from the wildfires in the region; on a clear day you would be able to see 100 miles.20161108-3278-gsmnp-view-from-clingmans-dome-rThe Great Smoky Mountains got its name from a natural haze produced by the vegetation in the area, but now pollution is the major cause of the haze.

After sitting in the truck for so long it felt good to get out and hike, so we explored a different section of the park the following day – Cade’s Cove.  This Cherokee hunting area was eventually settled by Europeans in the early 1800s, with churches and homesteads cropping up alongside the valley’s pasture land.20161109-3323-gsmnp-cades-cove-church-1-r 20161109-3358-gsmnp-cades-cove-field-rOne of the rangers suggested a hike to Abrams Falls so we ventured out for some good exercise and fresh air.  I miss so much of the beautiful fall color now that we live in an evergreen rainforest, so it was a treat to see the colorful leaves and to hear the crunch of them under our feet.20161109-3341-gsmnp-hiking-color-r20161109-3339-gsmnp-rickety-bridge-rWe thoroughly enjoyed the hike, even with all the sharp rocks and the rickety log bridges, though we didn’t linger too long at the waterfall since the days are getting shorter and we wanted to be sure to return with plenty of daylight.20161109-3351-gsmnp-abrams-falls-rAs you may know I love bears and Great Smoky Mountains are well known for black bears, though the average size of the bears here is about half the size of the black bears back in Alaska… and they’re tiny compared to our brown bears.  We didn’t see any bears but we did see wild turkeys and deer.  Spotting wildlife of any kind always makes us happy.20161109-3363-gsmnp-deer-rWe entered the park through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and that was a whole different kind of wild life.  It was such a shocking contrast to drive through the middle of the most stereotypical Tourist Trap that is the main street in Gatlinburg in order to get to the National Park.  We prefer our wildlife from Mother Nature… not garish and plastic.  To each his/her own.

Polar Bears

We arrived in Churchill, Manitoba for a few days during the 6 week “season” when polar bears congregate on the shore of Hudson Bay waiting for the sea ice to form.  Polar bears are creatures of the sea ice – that’s where they find their primary food source (ring seals), and it’s where they are most comfortable – they’re designed to thrive in the extreme cold.

It’s interesting to note that Churchill, Manitoba is only 200 miles north of the same latitude as our home in Petersburg, Alaska.  The Japanese Current keeps our part of Alaska temperate, while the currents feeding Hudson Bay bring colder water and weather that will freeze salt water.

20161021-2502-young-male-polar-bear-10-rDid you know that a polar bear’s skin is actually black?  And their fur is clear, specially designed to help keep them warm in extremely cold temperatures.  The week we were in Churchill the temps were pretty warm – right around freezing, so the bears weren’t as active.  They don’t have good food sources on land so they haven’t eaten much all summer.  At this time of the year they’re hungry and thinner, and they need to conserve as much energy as possible.20161021-2508-young-male-polar-bear-face-rPolar bears are apex predators, and although humans aren’t their preferred food source, they absolutely will hunt and attack humans when they’re hungry.  Unlike black and brown bears, these white bears are not to be trifled with!  Bear spray would just make a polar bear think “ooooh – spicy food!”20161025-3228-churchill-beware-of-bears-rWe were able to get so close to these predators by getting out on the tundra in polar rovers like these – with tires tall enough that a standing bear can’t reach the windows or the open viewing platform.20161025-3226-churchill-jim-and-polar-rover-resizeAnd to maximize our time on the tundra, we stayed in a tundra lodge – a small “train” that is parked out on the Hudson Bay shoreline in the midst of bear territory.  It had sleeping cars, a lounge, and a dining car, and no one sets foot on the ground.  There are steel mesh open platforms between each car, and occasionally a bear would hang out underneath.  20161022-2541-tundra-lodge-1-rThe bears are curious about the rovers and the lodge probably because they see them as big cans of meat.  If they could get one open, they’d have a pretty good meal.

In addition to the bears, we spotted two snowy owls…20161021-2528-snowy-owl-open-beak-2-r…arctic fox, a black morph of a red fox, snow buntings, and lots of ptarmigan.20161022-2688-ptarmigan-in-willow-2-rWe saw some solitary bears, but my favorites were the mothers and cubs.20161023-3146-three-sleepy-polar-bears-rIn one instance we spotted a mother with two cubs that ran from another mother and single cub, though we couldn’t see any overt signs of aggression between them.  20161023-2825-polar-bear-cubs-running-r20161023-2860-polar-bear-cub-prairie-dogging-2-rThe little family that napped and snuggled together was my absolute favorite, and we were fortunate to watch them for a nice long time.20161023-3012-polar-bear-peace-rAs a knitter traveling with friends to a chilly place, I had to make some appropriate hats to keep us warm while watching the bears, so I found a pattern for polar bear hats…20161024-2743-us-in-churchill-r…and they worked pretty well.  Our adventure on the tundra was much too short, but we had a great time and we met a number of exceptionally nice people.

Living in Alaska makes us more aware of the impacts of climate change – coastal communities in our state that depend on sea ice formation to protect them from winter storms are now pounded by waves and residents will have to relocate.  Warmer temperatures are causing plants and animals to move farther north, competing with native species and dramatically changing the balance.  Arctic species are threatened more and more literally every day, and as a nation we must take a leadership role in addressing the man-made impacts.  We have a responsibility to protect our planet so our children and grandchildren can see polar bears and other arctic animals in their lifetimes.

From Mansions to Bison

Spending time catching up with our boating friends Mary and Bill was a real treat, and we especially enjoyed seeing some familiar New England places through the eyes of locals.  After our perfect day at Mystic we headed to the corner of Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound for a picnic lunch.20161019-2390-newport-rocky-fishing-2-r

Fortunately the winds were light so the breakers weren’t too frisky, but it was fun to imagine what it would look like there on a stormy day!  We’re “water people” at heart, and it felt good to sit by the sea and look out on waters where we’ve traveled with ADVENTURES.  After our picnic we headed over to Newport, RI – a very pretty town, though on our previous stops we always found it to be too expensive and crawling with arrogant young racing sailors.  We were thrilled to have our friends show us a different side of things – the Cliff Walk.20161019-2403-newport-mansions-rNewport is famous for its mansions as well as for sailing, and the Cliff Walk is a public easement along the rocky shoreline in front of many of the amazing mansions.  20161019-2419-newport-cliff-walk-mansion-rOnce again we had a perfect day to enjoy the views since a more typical autumn day could bring cold wind off the ocean and crashing breakers that would get the trail wet.  The mansions were amazing – such varied styles and sheer numbers of them!  Many were under renovation now that the summer season is over and the wealthy families have retreated to warmer climes.  It’s a great trail – sometimes level, sometimes paved, sometimes comprised of huge boulders, even a tunnel, but always a great view. 20161019-2412-newport-cliff-walk-tunnel-rThe tide was going out so we could see all the rocks just off the shore – treacherous to navigate in the days before we had good charts!20161019-2414-newport-cliff-walk-rockweed-rIt was another perfect day, ending with a walk on the beach in Narragansett – amazed at all the locals who were swimming in that chilly water!

But we were in Rhode Island to see Mary and Bill for another reason – to go to the shores of the Hudson Bay in Canada to see polar bears!winnipeg-churchill-mapThe title of this post mentioned bison, not polar bears… so let me explain.  One of the southernmost places to see polar bears is Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay.  Churchill sits at a little notch in the land where the sea ice forms earlier than on any other part of the Bay.  Polar bears live on the ice – that’s where they hunt for their primary prey (seals), and they congregate near Churchill at this time of the year waiting for the ice to form.  We’ve always wanted to see polar bears and happily discovered that Mary and Bill did too.  To make it more interesting, Mary lived in Churchill for 2 years as a young girl since her Dad was doing research for the Army there.

In order to get to Churchill, we have to fly to Winnipeg (the orange label in the middle of the map).  Winnipeg sits on the prairie and is a crossroads for trading, with the Red and Assiniboine Rivers converging there, as well as railroads.  We spent an extra day to tour the city and learn a little more about the area… and one extra day was not enough!  The Forks (where the two rivers converge) was interesting – a place where aboriginal people have been meeting and trading for over 6000 years, later joined by Scottish settlers, European fur traders, railroad workers, buffalo hunters, and many other immigrants.20161021-2426-winnipeg-sculpture-at-the-forks-rThe National Human Rights Museum is located in Winnipeg – a dramatic building that we didn’t have time to visit.  The Manitoba Museum is terrific – we could have spent several days going through it all.  We learned about the French side of town, and saw the edifice that remains from the St. Boniface Cathedral which burned down in 1968.20161021-2428-winnipeg-st-boniface-rWe stopped to see the Provincial Legislature building – very pretty, with huge bison sculptures in the lobby and a beautiful dome.20161021-2439-winnipeg-legislature-bison-1-r20161021-2441-winnipeg-legislature-ceiling-2-rAnd because bison were so important to the history of the region, we had to see some real ones.  This herd is habituated to a small bus that visits their field.  They really are massive creatures!20161021-2454-winnipeg-bison-rAnd I particularly liked this one – dare to be different!20161021-2459-winnipeg-bison-twisted-horn-r