Rocks that Move and other Death Valley Wonders

Up towards the north end of Death Valley National Park is the massive 600′ deep Ubehebe Crater created by steam and gas exploding beneath the surface about 300 years ago.The colors on the far side, 1/2 mile away, are deposits from an ancient alluvial fan that were exposed by the explosion.  Cinders create a moonscape all around the crater – stark but beautiful.Starting from the crater we headed out the 27 mile long road to the Racetrack to see the famous moving rocks.  But the Racetrack road is not for the faint of heart – it’s a very rough, rocky dirt road in a remote part of the park.  Jeeps could bounce along a little faster than we could, but any vehicle risks a breakdown or a tire shredded by sharp rocks.  While our truck is perfect for towing the camper, its long wheelbase and stiff springs made the ride pretty brutal, keeping us at 10 miles per hour for much of the trip.  I was happy to walk around for a few minutes when we paused at Teakettle Junction, appropriately decorated.The Racetrack is a playa – a dry lake bed, light tan in color among darker surrounding rocks.  There’s an “island” of dark rock at the north end called the Grandstand where we could climb for a better view of the former lake.  A roadrunner was walking on the playa recently, leaving footprints in the mud softened by recent rain.  Rain (and possibly ice) is the secret to the magic of the Racetrack, where rocks that tumble from the mountains move across the playa, aided by strong winds.With only 2″ of rainfall annually, the rocks don’t have a lot of opportunities to move, but when they do they leave trails that snake across the playa, crossing other trails, and sometimes taking strange turns.We spent a couple of hours exploring and photographing the playa and the moving rocks – it was well worth the bone-shaking ride out there.As the sun dropped lower and the light grew warmer we stopped to enjoy the Joshua trees at the higher elevations……and the barrel cactus lower down, with pink tops hinting at new spring growth.To cap another amazing day, I enjoyed seeing so many stars in the clear, dark sky.  Orion’s Belt and the Seven Sisters were a welcome sight on a warm night.The following morning we hiked into Desolation Canyon to get away from the more popular trails on a weekend.  It lived up to its billing as a quiet place, but we were not prepared for the range of soft pastel colors.The hike was a lot of fun, but it included two big rockfalls that we had to climb.  Thankfully Jim is a better climber than me so with his help I felt less scared about making it, though the climb down was tougher than going up.  It looks easier than it was!Our favorite!, we declared.  So dramatic and colorful!Then we spent the afternoon hiking Mosaic Canyon for something quite different.  Another favorite!  Mosaic was full of dolomite, softly shining, striped, captured in aggregates and trapped in layers in the canyon walls.I could bore you with endless photographs – but nothing beats seeing it for yourself.  It was quiet and serene, cool and intimate as the sun dropped lower.  Each place we explored was so different from the last – I think that’s one of the things that struck us most about Death Valley.

We wrapped up our exploration with a visit to Salt Creek on the valley floor to see the rare and unusual pupfish that live in this harsh, salty environment – water that can be 4 times saltier than the ocean, and can range in temperature from freezing to over 100 degrees.  The white in the photo is salt, not snow – it was 80 degrees.In addition to sodium chloride salt, borax is also found in quantity on the surface of the valley floor as well as buried underground.  Borax collection and mining were the most profitable pursuits in the area, and the “20 Mule Team” borax brand was representative of the effort it took to transport the borax out of the valley.It’s mind-boggling to think about how much human activity – how much life – has occurred in such an unwelcoming place like Death Valley.  A surprising variety of wildlife and plant life thrive in the harsh driest and lowest place in the U.S., but it’s adaptable and hardy – the secret to survival.  We definitely plan to return to explore the park further (in the cooler months!)

Death Valley National Park – Part 1

We’re finally using the RV the way it was intended – to go someplace and sit still long enough to do some in-depth exploring.  First on our big wish list in the western states was Death Valley National Park located in California, along the Nevada border.The park is 156 miles long and boasts that it’s the hottest, lowest, and driest place in the U.S.  The hottest temperature in the world was measured in Death Valley – 134 degrees.  Telescope peak, part of the Panamint Mountains on the western side of the valley is over 11,000′ tall, and it sits a mere 15 miles from the lowest point: Badwater Basin at 282′ below sea level.  Average rainfall in the valley is about 2″ a year; contrast that with an average of 110″ a year in Petersburg.  Fortunately we had more temperate weather when we visited, though we noticed that the thermometer was set up to display three digits.There is so much to see and do in Death Valley that it will take at least two postings to just show you a little bit.  We started with a hike up Golden Canyon where the rocks live up to their nickname, with yellow dominating other pastel shades of pale green and rose.Life in the canyon was sparse – a few scrubby bushes and some lizards, and hiking over the rock rubble required a little attention to avoid turning an ankle. 

The Mesquite Sand Dunes – one of several sand dune formations in the park – were only a mile from our camp site, and I loved how the dunes looked in the early morning light…

…as well as the beauty of the setting sun on the sand and the mountains in the distance.We always see people taking “selfies”, so we decided the dunes were a nice spot to take one too.The park received almost an inch of rain about 10 days before we arrived – that’s half of their annual average!  All that rain in a short time caused flooding and damage to some of the park’s roads, so we had to walk down dirt roads to see some things.  I love stark and dramatic landscapes, so I had to see the Devil’s Golf Course on the valley floor.  It was a long, hot walk but it was worth it to see the craggy pock-marked rock dusted in white salts (sodium chloride and borax) that looked like snow.Located below sea level, the valley floor has such a wide variety of terrain – the dunes, the low pitted rocks of the “golf course”, borax flats, and the 200 square mile salt flats at Badwater Basin – the lowest point in North America.You might notice some water on the flats from the recent and unusual rain, and as the water evaporated new salt crystals were forming before our eyes.To get a better view of the entire valley, we drove up to Dante’s View for sunset.  It was a good thing we had fleece jackets in the truck because it was quite chilly up at 5400′.  Our jaws dropped as we took in the view of the entire valley, watching the line of blue shadow move up the mountainside as the sun dipped lower.The big white patch on the left is Badwater Basin (which we left an hour earlier), and you can see the dark trail made by humans walking out to the water’s edge.  Watching the sun set from this vantage point was a perfect way to end our first full day in the park. 

Scenery Changes – A Road Trip

While it’s too windy and cold for boating in southeast Alaska, we’re going to explore some of the western states with the new-to-us 5th wheel RV.  We’re used to moving around and exploring most of the time – we can’t sit still for too long.

Heading south we had to negotiate some snowy mountain passes on I-5 at the bottom of Oregon, and finally found warmer and drier weather in California.  The Sacramento/Davis area was home base for a few days to meet up with old friends from the computer security community and to meet their adorable children – they didn’t have any mini-me people when we last saw them… it has been too long.

We spent a great day hiking in Muir Woods National Monument just northwest of San Francisco… hanging out with the big redwoods.There’s just something soothing and healing about a walk in the woods, though we’re used to more solitude in Alaska.  The crowd was surprising to us for a weekday but it’s good to see so many people outside, beyond the reach of cell towers.  We found some side trails that were more isolated, to listen to the birds and the rustling of the wind in the trees.Winter hasn’t given up its grip just yet, but a few tiny flowers were hinting at the changing season.I first visited these woods over 30 years ago, and was excited to return.  Despite more paved paths and more people, the trees did not disappoint.

We continued on down the road through central California – an agricultural bonanza with blossoming fruit and nut trees for countless miles.  We stopped in a campground in the midst of an orange grove, and we could pick a bag of sweet navel oranges – what a treat!  But there’s no time to dawdle – we’re heading into the desert.  First stop: Death Valley National Park.

Wallowing in Creativity

The Madrona Fiber Arts Retreat was held over the President’s Day weekend in Tacoma, and I attended for the second year in a row.  It’s a smaller conference with classes and a yarn and fiber market for knitters and spinners.  More importantly, Madrona is a chance to spend a few days with creative people, learn new techniques, and get inspired by what other people are doing with fiber.This busy mother of two young children is making an afghan with complex 3-D trees and cables – wow!  I feel like a wimp.

I caught a few photos in the yarn market before it got too crowded, with lots of hand-dyed higher-end yarns, spinning wheels, and specialty notions.All the different colors and yarns and samples were mind boggling, and it’s such a treat to be able to touch the yarns and see the colors in real life.  We don’t have a yarn shop on the island so I have to mail order yarn for projects, and hope the color on my computer screen is remotely similar to the real color (it usually isn’t – don’t ask me how I know that).

The classes were excellent – from the shorter technique workshops to the more in-depth sessions.  I learned how to deconstruct a knitted garment to make pretty significant changes to it (ninja-knitting!), and how to use embroidery to embellish knitting (level 2).This hat is an example by our teacher… my embroidery skills need a lot more practice before I could execute something as nice as this! 

The teachers were superb – encouraging, enlightening, energetic.  Franklin Habit – one of my very favorites – a teacher, writer, artist, and all-around interesting guy – was thrilled with our embroidery attempts so he sat on the floor to photograph our practice pieces.  I won’t tell you which one is mine – but we all have to start somewhere.Many of the teachers are colorful characters, fun and funny as well as talented.  I adore the Yarn Harlot from her hysterical blog, so my friend Katey and I had to pose for a photo with her while we wore our newly knitted sweaters…

…and I was happy to get into a class taught by Lucy Neatby, another great teacher who happens to look like a unicorn vomited all over her.The photo doesn’t show her mis-matched Doc Martens in equally vivid colors, but after listening to her for just a few moments it’s easy to forget that she’s a walking riot of neon color.  I love to be around people who are comfortable in their own skin, and I love that the knitters and spinners just go with the flow and accept everyone on their own terms.  I think the world could learn a lot from the knitters.

I’m pulled in a million different directions with knitting – so many techniques and challenges I want to explore or dive deeper into, but my favorite class was the Fair Isle Color class with Janine Bajus.  It was 6 hours of hands-on work beginning to learn how to choose the gradient colors and combinations unique to Fair Isle knitting, such as these examples from our teacher:The yarn we were using comes in 212 different colors – enough to achieve the subtle variations, though all those choices makes it harder to choose well.I think it’s important to challenge oneself, no matter what the context is.  It’s so neat to see all the different ways that people create things – texture, color, design.  We might not like the colors or styles that someone else chooses, but we can appreciate that they are expressing themselves and we appreciate the effort they put into their creations.  There’s joy in sharing, helping one another, and in the discomfort of learning something new.

It doesn’t hurt that the conference is held in the Hotel Murano, loaded with art glass of every style and technique imaginable.  Inspiration is everywhere – exciting and energizing, and I’m so grateful that I could attend.

One more thing that makes Madrona special is that it puts an emphasis on supporting charities.  Knitters bring caps, scarves, and baby sweaters to donate to local charities, and the Thursday evening program is a Teachers Talent Show with an amazing array of “talents” (we are sworn to secrecy – if you want to know what happens there, you have to come to Madrona), all in support of three major charities:  Doctors without Borders, Heifer International, and The Global Fund for Women.  I can tell you that amazingly trivial and silly things are auctioned off for these charities, and the generosity of the knitters and spinners would shock you and bring tears to your eyes.  The teachers willingly embarrass themselves (and worse) to raise money for these charities, and the enthusiastic support of everyone involved is a great reminder of all the goodness in our world.

Winter Beauty

Daylight is increasing by five minutes per day now… it really makes a difference!  As much as we all look forward to spring, people around here actually like the winter – hoping for snow for cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, and taking snow machines up on the logging roads.  We have different birds in winter than in summer, including some trumpeter swans that are frustrating to photograph.  They eat weeds and things on the bottom of the creek and they can hold their breath for a long time, which is a good thing if you’re a hungry swan but a bad thing if you’re a photographer holding a heavy lens.  I was lucky to get one marginal shot of an adult swan with two cygnets (young swans, still in their light gray feathers), but most of the time they just looked like headless lumps in the water.While I watched the swans a little squirrel chittered loudly at me, as though I was invading his personal space!  I was enjoying the first sunny day in a long while, amazed at how vivid the world looked after two weeks of very gloomy, rainy weather.  The arrival of sun also meant that the temperature dropped, but the crisp clear air made everything sparkly with frost and ice.  I went crazy looking at all the patterns at the edges of frozen water.Of course the funny part of admiring the ice is that it looks black and white, even though the photos were shot in color.Frost touched everything that the sun couldn’t reach, making everything in the landscape sparkle.I had a marvelous day out the road, visiting with the swans, squirrels, ducks, mergansers, grebes, goldeneyes, buffleheads, and kingfishers.  Winter hiking is peaceful, and it’s a treat to be able to savor the quiet and the beauty.

On the way back to town I had to stop and admire the view from South Harbor.  With so many overcast days we don’t get to see the Devil’s Thumb peak as often as we would like.Cold clear days also mean cold clear nights, and a chance to see the aurora.  The forecast for activity was higher than usual last week, so I ventured out after midnight.  We’re lucky that we live at a latitude where we can see the aurora, but it means bundling up in warm clothing, scraping the frost off the car windows, and hoping that I remembered to set the camera up correctly.  It’s no fun troubleshooting a camera in the cold and dark – don’t ask me how I know that.  I watched and waited (and shivered) until 0130 and the lights never lived up to the forecast… but still, it’s a beautiful sight.A few days ago we had some wicked NE winds, but Tammy and I were determined to go for a long walk to enjoy the sunshine.  We got out to the point and found some nice sized bergy bits grounded on the beach at low tide. You can see Tammy standing to the left of the long bergy bit, just to give some perspective of the size of these things.  You just never know what you’re going to see around town.

Four Minutes

We live in a place with a lot of extremes.  The tide ebbs and floods twice a day, but here it changes by about 20′ each time.  The sun rises and sets, but it doesn’t stay around too long in the winter, and it almost never goes away in the summer.  Right now our daylight is increasing by four minutes every single day.  (It’s even more than that in higher latitudes.)  These things are just some of the ways that makes Petersburg a pretty interesting place to live. 

I apologize for being absent on the blog for so long.  We’ve had some sad and difficult things happen – losing a dear friend to a rare disease (CJD), and a very bad diagnosis to someone else close to us.  It has been a tough time and it’s not over, but we’re trying to be a little normal while we deal with things.  We say a lot of prayers, and stand by to fly to those we love when we’re needed again.  My friend Richard Thieme has a quote that I particularly like: “We are all embracing reality as best we can but sometimes reality hugs us back with a surprisingly strong bear hug…. OK, we say, that’s nice, I love you too, reality … OK, you can let go now … but reality, bless its heart, hangs on … (what is reality, you ask? Philip K. Dick said reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away …)”

The beauty of a winter day here is also reality, and looking out across South Harbor to see the Coastal Mountains and the Devil’s Thumb peak is good for the soul.  We’re so lucky to live in a place like this.  But its beauty is not just skin deep.  It seems like we have so many talented people on the island – more per capita than anywhere else I’ve lived.  Just for an example, we have a metal guy who’s also a musician and artist, and this is the “sign” he made to advertise his boat repair business.This sign is mounted on the ramp down to the North Harbor dock, and there’s another one like it in South Harbor.  It’s shaped and cut to fit perfectly around the ramp stanchion.If this is the skill and care he puts into an advertising sign, imagine what he can do for your boat!  Of course, no detail is omitted.  There are little figures in the pilothouse, but there’s too much glare on the windshield to see them in this photo.My favorite talented person in town is Miss M, a seventh-grader, National Junior Honor Society member, knitter, crafter, fisherwoman, musician, and taxidermist.  She’s amazing!  I love to see what she’s up to – it’s always something pretty cool… like playing the violin, flute, and teaching herself to play the erhu (a type of Chinese violin with 2 strings).  She also taught herself German and last year it was Russian – just because.  The other day, Miss M showed me a birthday card she made for her friend… who also learned Russian just because.It’s just another day among the wonderful people here.  We had the annual Meatball-palooza at the Sons of Norway this past weekend, and now everyone is looking forward to the annual Lutefisk (and ham) dinner in two weeks.  It’s a very Norwegian thing, and the best part is going early to help roll lefse – a Norwegian crepe.  (We have the easy part – our harbormaster Glo first takes 50 pounds of potatoes and transforms them into perfect balls of silky dough for us to roll.)  We’ll set up long tables and the experienced hands will help the new ones learn to roll the dough very thin with just the right amount of flour, and cook them on special round griddles, flipping them with thin wooden turners decorated with rosemaling on the handles.  It’s a community event, hands and hearts.  We help one another, and then break bread together.

Although many of the town’s events are traditional, we still keep up with current events.  Both the bear statue and the fishing boy statue were sporting pink pussy hats this week, showing their support for equality, and opposition to racism, hatred and harassment.