March of the Waddling Grey Penguins

On our cruise to Alaska, we were some of the youngest passengers aboard, by decades. I get it. It’s an expensive trip. It’s the trip of a lifetime. But there’s something to be said about doing your major trips while you’re still able-minded and able-bodied.

We often shared a dinner table with strangers, as is often the case on cruise ships. Some were a delight. But most were complaining about being in pain. Or about not liking the food. Or about the ship rocking. Or about their ungrateful grandchildren. Or about feeling trapped. Or about the cost of things. You name it, they complained about it.

We were having a wonderful time, so listening to these people grouse was, to be honest, annoying. It did make us grateful that we are not yet in pain, or plagued with digestive issues or the like. It made us try harder to be patient when caught in the middle of the migration of these waddling grey penguins. Our time will come soon enough.

But jeez. Why take a trip if you know it’s going to make you miserable? Eat your salad during your salad days. Or, if this is your only chance to travel, at the very least, don’t rain on everyone else’s parade.

Okay, so I guess this is me complaining. But you get the point.

Falkland_Islands_Penguins_36

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Goose Creek Tower

While riding a train through the town of Talkeetna, Alaska, I looked toward the horizon to see what is perhaps the most unusual structure on earth. Formally, it’s called the Goose Creek Tower, but most folks call it the Dr. Seuss House, despite the fact that the good doctor never gave his permission for the name. Even so, the name suits it.

Basically, it’s an Alaskan cabin that got out of control. The owner kept building and building and building, ever upward, for an ever better view, and now the tower, according to the website, is 57 meters tall. It would probably have been taller, but right now it’s just 1 meter below federally regulated airspace.

It is said you can see for 300 miles from the topmost balcony, but I wouldn’t recommend it at this point. No railings yet. Also, no windows, no electricity, no heating, and no plumbing. The upper floors lack staircases and are only accessible by ladder. Needless to say, it’s not currently inhabited. Unfortunately it often gets visited by vandals.

I hope that someday this amazing structure is completed by Mr. Paul, the owner, designer, lawyer, poet, and character with a very unique imagination. The world is a much more delightful place with this structure in it. We need whimsy, now more than ever.

Goose-Creek-Tower

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The Hard Truth about Coal

There are few things that I find more annoying than being forced to listen to someone who is misinformed. I hate being spoon fed false information, and I hate it even more when it’s obviously biased and unresearched. For example, when someone spouts ignorance about the Koran, I automatically say, “Have you ever even READ the Koran? No? Then get back to me when you have.”

So imagine how much it rankled when I was stuck listening to a tour guide on a train, with no way out, when she said (twice!) that she didn’t know why the Alaska coal export industry collapsed, leaving thousands unemployed, but “it happened during the Obama administration.” Wink, wink.

By the way, this woman also said that global warming is “cyclical”, despite every single solitary graph that shows that what’s happening now is extreme and unnatural. So let’s face it, the woman was a fool. And I was stuck on the train with her, there was no escaping that fact, and I knew there was no point in attempting to lead her out of ignorance. It would have just gotten awkward. So I gritted my teeth.

But all this irritation has to go somewhere, dear reader, so brace yourself. I’m about to purge myself. You’re going to be vented upon.

I decided to do a little bit of research about the coal industry in general, and Alaska’s in particular. I learned a lot of interesting things. (And it provided the delightful side benefit of reinforcing my belief that that tour guide was a dunce. So, yay.)

First of all, it’s true that Usibelli Coal Mine, currently the only operational coal mine in Alaska, is no longer exporting coal to foreign countries. It used to export to South Korea, Chile, Japan, and other pacific rim countries, but no more. It now has only about 115 employees, and their focus is on Alaska power plants.

Why is this? First of all, according to this article, in 2011 Usibelli exported 1.3 million tons of coal, but in 2012 this number fell to 877,000 tons, and by 2014 was only 513,000 tons.  In 2015, no shipments were made to South Korea or Chile and a mere 150,000 tons were exported to Japan.

This drop in demand has made it unfeasible to export coal to Asia. The high production costs, the remote locations, and the shipping expenses make this coal uncompetitive. Also, according to this article, China, the largest consumer of coal on the planet by a country mile, has drastically reduced its imports. In fact, its consumption “appears to have peaked in 2014.”

According to this article, China has closed over 1,000 of its own mines, due to lack of need, so it’s certainly not going to prioritize imports. And the price of coal is dropping globally, with no end in sight.

South Korea and Chile’s markets were a mere drop in the bucket compared to China’s. By that I mean they constitute about 1 percent of global consumption. India takes up about 10 percent of the world’s coal consumption, but even their consumption is dropping annually. That means exporters around the globe are hurting. It’s not just us. Australia’s coal mining industry is in poor shape as well.

So, yeah, if you’re looking to make money from coal, you’re wasting your time. As more and more countries turn to green energy sources, they’re turning away from coal. As more and more countries realize they should invest in service industries rather than factories, they’re turning away from coal. Investing in coal is tantamount to investing in the Model A Ford.

Coal is dying. And it should. It’s long overdue.

Do I feel sorry for the people who have lost jobs? Of course. But it’s unreasonable to expect the world to prop up an industry that has no demand or use because of that. Some realities are harsh, but they’re still inevitable.

If you’re too short-sighted to realize that the world is outgrowing coal, and you’re looking for someone to blame, don’t blame Obama. Don’t be that simplistic. Realize that the times are changing, and you’d be well advised to change with them.

And, um, don’t spread your ignorance to a captive audience. This train is moving down the track, honey. With or without you. Just sayin’.

Coal Miners

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Haines, Juneau, and Ketchikan

After my visit, via the cruise ship Noordam, to Glacier Bay, we had the opportunity to visit three towns along the Inside Passage, in Southeastern Alaska. It was a great deal of fun.

Our first stop was Haines, Alaska. This place has less than 2000 residents. It’s a sleepy little town, and seems to be rather overwhelmed when a cruise ship docks. Many of their shops are actually owned by the cruise ship companies, which is why a lot of the souvenirs seem identical from store to store. Most of these places shut down completely when the cruise season ends.

Haines experienced a boom during the Klondike Gold Rush, but of course that couldn’t be sustained. It’s just too remote. It was also the home of Fort William H. Seward, which is now a National Historic Landmark, but most of the few remaining buildings are privately owned, and frankly, you would never know it used to be a fort unless you were told. There’s also a Hammer Museum in town, oddly enough, but we didn’t visit. The most interesting thing about Haines is that from October to February, it has the largest concentration of bald eagles in the world. If you are into the great outdoors, Haines is the place.

Here are a few pictures that we took of Haines. Keep scrolling beyond that to learn a little about Juneau.

Juneau is Alaska’s state capitol, and it’s a very unique place. You can only get there by plane or by water, and the Alaskans seem to like it that way. Their politicians are not nearly as pestered by lobbyists as are those in other states, or so they say. The only other state capitol that you can’t get to by highway from other states is, of course, Honolulu.

It’s the second largest city in the US by area, but it only has a population of about 32,000 people. I was shocked about the city’s area size, because I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, for decades, and was always told that it was the largest city by area in the world. In fact, it’s the 5th largest in the country. The other 4 are in Alaska, because, let’s face it, they’ve got nothing but space. But Jacksonville has three times more population than those 4 cities combined. I digress.

While visiting Juneau, we rented a car for a few hours and took a trip to Mendenhall Glacier. It was heartbreakingly stunning. It had retreated so much that the National Park Service had to actually move the visitor’s center so that it would still be visible. But it continues to retreat. Global climate change exists, y’all.

I think the coolest place in all of Juneau is the Red Dog Saloon. You walk in and your feet sink into the sawdust. The place is lousy with Alaska memorabilia, and you really get a sense of what the it must have been like when this was an unregulated frontier town.

The next day, we arrived at my favorite of the three towns: Ketchikan. It is known as the rain capitol of Alaska, as it gets 153 inches a year, and on this day it did not disappoint. It was coming down in buckets. But squelching around, huddled under an umbrella, was so worth it, because this town has a ton of personality.

It has a population of less than 14,000 people. It also has the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles. Ketchikan Creek runs right through town. One of the most enjoyable things to do in town is a visit to Dolly’s House on Creek Street, which was the infamous red light district back in the town’s heyday. It was said that “both men and salmon came upstream to spawn” in Ketchikan. In Dolly’s house, you can see an 18th century electric vibrator that looks positively dangerous. What’s not to love about that?

I loved Southeast Alaska. I don’t think I could live there, though. The weather, the isolation, and the dark, moist, dreary skies would all have a negative impact on my spirit. But I’m glad I visited, and I sure wouldn’t mind seeing Ketchikan and Glacier Bay again.

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Glacier Bay

Sometimes I have no idea how I get so lucky. Taking a Cruise from Seward, Alaska to Vancouver, British Columbia was one of those times. I had this thought, in particular, while sitting on the balcony of my stateroom on Holland America’s Noordam, while gazing at the many glaciers of Glacier Bay National Park. This is the life.

Glacier Bay can only be reached by plane or boat, so I really appreciated seeing the park rangers come alongside the cruise ship to do what they call a “controlled crash” and climb up the rope ladder with everything they needed to set up their visitor center on the ship.

We saw at least 8 glaciers, the most spectacular of which were Johns Hopkins Glacier and my personal favorite, Margerie Glacier, with its spectacular, vivid blue, craggy face. The pictures below don’t do them justice. The experience will be stamped permanently on my brain. For that, I’m extremely grateful.

Yes, the glaciers have been receding at an unprecedented, extreme rate. They were calving into the water even as we watched. 95 percent of all scientists in the world agree that this is caused by global climate change which has been brought upon the planet by human activity. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not using science-based logic.

As I took in these glaciers, with the seals cavorting at their feet, I tried not to dwell on the sadness I felt that future generations would not have this view. Rather, I vowed to do what I can to reduce my impact, and I tried to focus on the fact that right here, right now, I was lucky enough to have this view myself. What a gift.

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Denali Encounters

My whole life, I’ve been intrigued by Denali, even when it was still called the much less exotic Mt. McKinley. I have always wanted to lay my eyes on the tallest peak in North America. But the interior of Alaska seemed forever inaccessible to me.

That is, until this month. This month, I went to Alaska. And I refused to go to Alaska without paying homage to “The Tall One”, Denali.

Denali is 20,310 feet high. That’s hard to wrap my head around. That’s more than 3.8 miles high. Miles. And the National Park that surrounds this mountain is 6 million acres of undeveloped land. That’s bigger than the state of New Hampshire. And the crazy thing is, there’s only one road.

And believe you me, that road is treacherous. It’s so scary bad, in fact, that private vehicles are not allowed beyond milepost 15. That’s disappointing, considering that the road is 89 miles long. (By comparison, New Hampshire has 33,328 lane miles in a smaller area.) But limiting access like this also helps keep this park wild and natural, so for me this roadblock is well worth it.

To go beyond milepost 15, you have to take one of the park’s buses. There are several options. There’s a free, unnarrated one with limited access, an unnarrated transit one, which takes you from one park facility to the next, or there are several tour bus options, including the Tundra Wilderness Tour, which takes you as far as the Stony Hill Overlook at milepost 62. That’s an 8 hour, round trip tour, which tells you a lot about the state of the road, and also allows for the fact that your guide will stop a lot, and by that I mean A LOT, to allow you to take pictures of all the wildlife you’ll encounter.

The buses were a disappointment, though. They were school buses with ever-so-slightly upgraded seats. The windows kept falling open, letting in the frigid air and the road dust. I felt every bump in the road. Even if you had been the size of an elementary school student, you’d have still felt there was not enough leg room. But the place made it worthwhile.

During our tour, we saw 18 Dall Sheep, 8 Grizzly Bears, 5 Moose, 4 Caribou, 1 Arctic Ground Squirrel, 1 Ptarmigan, 1 Spruce Grouse, and 1 Magpie. The only thing missing was a partridge in a pear tree. We also saw glorious Autumn leaves, stunning mountain ranges, braided rivers, and a glacier.

And then… Denali. We joined the 30 percent club. Since the peak is so tall, usually most of the mountain is shrouded in clouds, so only 30 percent of the park visitors get a chance to see it with their own eyes. But we had a bright, clear, sunny day, apparently the first one they had had in weeks, and there it was, rising up to greet us, almost as if it knew I had been waiting for this my entire life.

And I’ll leave you with one final note. I’m so glad this glorious mountain is no longer called Mt. McKinley. It was first called that by a gold prospector who admired President-elect McKinley, and then after the president was assassinated in 1901 the name caught on. There has been controversy over that choice since well before the park was even established back in 1917. The State of Alaska itself has been pushing for the name change since 1975, but was continually blocked by the Ohio delegation in congress, because Ohio was the state that McKinley was from. Nevermind that McKinley never stepped foot in Alaska. (We’ll also probably never be able to do away with the useless penny because Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, will never stand for that.) The mountain only got restored to its earlier, Athabaskan name in 2015, and I’d say it’s about time.

If you ever get the chance to see Denali, do whatever it takes to do so. Its vast beauty will transform you. Here are a few of our pictures from our visit.

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Ziplining

A few years ago, I was driving through Utah, and took a side trip to Provo, simply because I had always wanted to go ziplining. I was so excited. But on the big day, they cancelled my reservation, theoretically because it was too windy. (I strongly suspect that it was because I was their only customer for that time slot.) They said I could try again the next day, but I wasn’t going to be there. Provo isn’t exactly a tourist hot spot. I spent the night in a shabby little hotel room, all alone, feeling sorry for myself.

So I was even more excited for our trip to Alaska, because we planned to go ziplining in Denali National Park. This time, I wasn’t going alone, although my husband had reservations about the reservations. (Sorry. Had to.)

What I hadn’t counted on was the fact that ziplining was a breeze compared to getting up to the platform itself. To do that, you had to cross rope bridges with wooden slats that seemed like they were a half a mile apart. My husband urged me to watch where I was stepping, but I could not look down or I would have lost it. So I felt for each slat with my foot before shifting my weight. And with every step I took, I was saying, “You can do this.”

Because it was a very near thing. I could feel a panic attack looming on the horizon. But rationally, what could I have done? Giving up would have meant turning around and going back over the same bridges that were freaking me out in the first place. So, onward.

You see, I have a very weird fear of heights. I knew ziplining wouldn’t bother me at all, because I was hooked into a ton of safety equipment, and the potential for disaster was pretty much out of my hands. But the ladder… Oh, I could screw up that ladder. Yes, I was still hooked in, but I could have hurt myself very badly at any moment.

My fear of heights is more of a fear of my own ability to cause my accidental death or dismemberment. Therefore, I can rock climb while roped in, but I can’t stand at the edge of a cliff. I can rappel like a demon, but if I walk across a catwalk with low railings I feel sick.

Yeah, I know. Go figure.

There were seven ziplines on this course, and each one was more exhilarating than the last. I mean, hoo! What a rush! But those bridges were the stuff of nightmares for me. Below are some photos and a video of my experience. I hope you like them.

Would I go ziplining again? Yes, indeed. Without hesitation. But it depends on how you get there. My husband found one that requires you to walk from one looped rope to the next, over a crevasse. No thanks. I want to live.

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Our Three Hour Tour

During our recent trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, we had the opportunity to take a three hour tour. Thus, I had the Gilligan’s Island theme song stuck in my head the entire day. But despite that, our trip on the Riverboat Discovery III, up the Chena River, was outstanding.

First, we got to see a float plane take off and land right beside the boat, and had the opportunity to hear the pilot tell stories about living life in a place where small planes can often be the only mode of transportation.

Then, we briefly docked right in front of Susan Butcher’s kennels. Before her death, she had won the Iditarod four times. Now her husband runs the kennels, and we got to hear stories from him about Susan and the dogs, and we got to watch him put the dogs through their paces. After their mushing demonstration, the dogs plunged right into the cold river for a refreshing dip, and the puppies cavorted on the bank. So cute.

Then we got to walk around a Chena Indian village. We learned a lot about the Athabascan culture, including their hunting and fishing traditions, and gorgeous displays of fur clothing. We also got to see reindeer close up, and check out the largest, most elaborate taxidermy display I’ve ever seen. It was of two moose that were found dead on the tundra, their horns still locked together in combat.

But I’m not going to lie. My favorite part of the tour was the free samples of salmon mixed with cream cheese that they provided on the boat. I kept coming back for more. I must have eaten two pounds of the stuff. It was even better than the miner’s stew we ate in the dining hall. (I was impressed that they were able to get 800 of us fed and out of there in no time flat, though.)

And of course, you exit through the gift shop. There, you had the opportunity to enter a chamber that shows you what 40 degrees below zero feels like. It’s almost physically painful. Needless to say, we did not linger long.

It was a good three hours. I highly recommend it.

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University of Alaska Museum of the North

Recently I experienced the second best museum I’ve ever seen in my life. I wrote about the best museum, Budapest’s House of Terror, here, and that one would be nearly impossible to beat, so calling this one the second best is nothing to sneeze at. It’s on the Fairbanks campus of the University of Alaska, and it’s called the Museum of the North.

There are so many stunning exhibits in this museum that I can only scratch the surface in this little blog post. It’s a natural history museum, an art gallery, and the ultimate place to learn about Alaska’s cultural diversity and unique history all rolled into one. I suspect I could go there every day for a month and still manage to learn something new.

You can see everything from taxidermy that really gives you a sense of what an overwhelming experience it would be to encounter a grizzly bear, to the most amazing fossils I’ve ever seen, including some mammoth tusks that were as big as I am. You can also gaze upon Blue Babe, a 36,000-year-old mummified Steppe Bison. If not for his horrifying wounds, you’d half expect him to jump to his feet and charge, bellowing, through the museum and out into the tundra.

But one of the most profound experiences I had in the museum was in The Place Where You Go to Listen. To quote the website, it is “a unique sound and light environment created by Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. This ever-changing musical ecosystem gives voice to the rhythms of daylight and darkness, the phases of the moon, the seismic vibrations of the earth, and the dance of the aurora borealis.” The sound that I got to hear was haunting. Check out a few sound samples here.

If you ever get the chance to visit Fairbanks, and can only do one thing while there, I strongly urge you to check out University of Alaska Museum of the North. You’ll be glad you did.

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Ever Northward, Ever Westward

Back in 2013, I wrote about My Four Compass Points. In other words, the farthest North, South, East, and West I’ve ever traveled. (And of course, I was talking latitude and longitude. I’m not going to debate about the curvature of the earth or have an even more absurd discussion to convince you that the earth isn’t flat. It stuns me that people still believe this.)

But I’m proud to announce that this month I broke two of my records: I’ve now been even farther North and farther West in one vacation. My world is expanding. I find that exciting.

Now, the furthest North I’ve ever been is Fairbanks, Alaska. Sadly, we did not see the Northern Lights, and I really hoped to. But it’s still a very cool town, and I’ll be blogging more about it in days to come, so watch this space!

My new Westernmost compass point is Anchorage, Alaska. We weren’t there long. We stayed in a hotel overnight and had a few hours in the morning to explore the fun and artsy shops downtown, so there isn’t much to write about there.

I think the most memorable thing that happened to me in Anchorage was slicing a 4 inch gash in my leg by walking past a chair with an exposed piece of metal sticking out from the corner. So I guess you could say I bled for my Western compass point. I left a little DNA in Anchorage. Thank God for tetanus shots.

Anyway, here are a few Fairbanks and Anchorage photos from our hotel rooms. We’re still organizing our nearly 2000 photos which is bound to take some time. Bear with me, dear reader!

fairbanks
Fairbanks, Alaska
Anchorage
Anchorage, Alaska

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