Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Emergency Preparedness

It's amazing that the same family that can plan ahead and bring mosquito net hats and rain suits to Alaska can be so woefully unprepared for a hurricane.

I had been purposely avoiding the 24/7 hyped TV coverage, but by last Friday, I decided to assemble our emergency items in case of power loss. Sure, we had lots of candles (with conflicting scents that, if used, would have had us drunk and dizzy on the overpowering aromas of cookie dough, winter wonderland and clean linen). But here was our working flashlight supply:

A key ring flashlight from The Boulders Resort in AZ

So, off I trotted to join the panicked herds searching for batteries and flashlights. I considered adding water, canned beans, tuna, and peanut butter to the list, but somehow when I got to the supermarket, I found my basket loaded with perishables: fresh fruit, steak, fish, ice cream. Who buys fish and ice cream when they're anticipating a power outage?

Needless to say, clerks in hardware and convenience stores laughed when I asked for flashlights. Some who were already weary had placed signs up and would point in exasperation. No conversation needed. But wouldn't we be craving the sound of our fellowman's voice, if the storm really struck with full force and we were imprisoned with only our family?

A more careful inventory of garage and basement revealed a few more gems. I had double AA's to power a yellow plastic flashlight that had been a Pharma giveaway. The handle was broken, but the light worked. Thank you, cytovene. Gary produced two headlamps from his backpack and proclaimed that was all we needed. But I persisted and found a Sears plastic toolbox, hidden behind empty gas cans on a shelf in the garage. Opening the lid, I found a bonanza:
  • two round nightlights that looked like the Easy button on the Staples commercials
  • a vintage army style flashlight with interchangeable purple, red and clear filters, a leftover from Scott's high school dalliance with the Civil Air Patrol

Feeling pretty smug now, I took a walk around the neighborhood and was shocked to see that some people had duct-taped windows with big X's and one guy had rigged an elaborate system of pvc piping, so that all his gutters and leaders would drain directly to the street-an impressive engineering feat.

all connected up to..
..the long pvc pipe to the street

Who cared that it was 4:30 on Saturday afternoon, T minus 8 hours until Irene struck?  I raced to the local hardware stores to get some green extenders for my leaders. I knew I couldn't make it to the curb, but at least I'd track them further away from the house. Laughable. "You should have come Thursday," the young kid shrugged his shoulders. Undaunted, I knew I had duct tape at home and contemplated x'ing my kitchen picture window.  

But then I knew--who would remove that tape the next day, razor blade away the remaining adhesive and besides what was the principle here? Did it really strengthen the window or just assure that the glass would blow out in neat, triangular pieces instead of a thousand tiny shards? 

Cooler heads prevailed. I opened the wine, cooked the fish and settled in for our hurricane night.

Like all non-planners, I vowed in the aftermath to re-think my emergency procedures. I've got a to-do list for a few weeks from now, when stores have replenished their supplies, to buy a Coleman lantern, a better flashlight, D batteries, leader extenders, a radio, gallon jugs of water, etc. and I know I put that list somewhere.....

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The eye of the artist

With all the great, technological improvements in cameras, we got some fabulous pictures in Alaska. Still, you realize that some pictures have the "eye of the artist" in composition, focus and lighting. They capture just the right scene or subjects, focus on the right object, zoom in or out to the optimal view. Sometimes this is a lucky coincidence, but many times it is the practiced eye.

I particularly loved the picture below because I think, taken out of context, it looks like an abstract work of art. It got me thinking about how an artist friend once explained her abstract painting class to me. The instructor had told them to hold the brush in their non-dominant hand and squint at the still life with only one eye, in order to extract the essence of the painting--the color and line and texture. 

To me this picture does exactly that--gray, blue and white tones evoke a feeling of sea and sky, but the bands of color seem mixed up--is that gray sea above sky? Where does one start and the other end?

Here is the non-zoom version of the above photo, where you can see the reference points of the mountain and trees and shoreline. It turns out there was no sky in the first picture after all, just an enlargement of the sea along a stretch of the Seward Highway known as the Turnagain Arm. It was a rainy, stormy evening when we came upon this scene and the white water was moving very rapidly compared to the stagnant mudflats by the shore and the settled water further out. It looked like an optical illusion. What is that white sparkling I see? It didn't register at first as movement.

I don't want to claim that armed with my camera and a zoom feature, I could be an Instant Artist, but I started out today on a hike up High Mountain near our house. I was responding to my son Eric's latest blog where he encouraged everyone to "go explore some place near your house that you haven't been to in a long time and let me know what you find!"  I know, I know, getting a little crazy here with promoting each other's blogs!

But, it was a beautiful day, so I looked forward to my adventure. Never mind that I started up the lower path only to discover that it was blocked off with a Private Property No Trespassing sign, just as the trail turned up the mountain. I leaned over the bright orange plastic netting and craned my neck to see if this was the path I knew and sure enough the hulk of an old car lay to the right of the trail, which had always been a "trail marker" of sorts. A new house lay beyond the makeshift barrier and the junk car. And here I thought the recession had curbed some of the overdevelopment in NJ.

I returned to the trailhead and now took the upper path, having fun along the way with my zoomed in and zoomed out photos. Take a look:
Still recognizable, as lichens on tree bark--I need a bigger zoom!

This is a little better:
It could be focused better, but I like the textures. It could be an aerial view of a hiking area out west or a multimedia creation in wax and cardboard with highlights of yellow and orange. Here's the picture I started from:

See how you like this one:


Ok, blurry, but I like how the shapes light up, as if they are bacteria under a microscope or a strobe of fireflies in motion. Did you guess they are really leaves on trees:?

I may be just hungry, but I'd swear these look like cooked shrimp on the sea floor--how can that be in North Haledon, NJ? Somebody pass me the cocktail sauce.

Oh, they were just squiggly orange seed things on the path. When I picked one up, it had the consistency of a twist of yarn and I momentarily thought some crazy knitter, frustrated with a sweater that didn't work out, had shredded it along the way, ceremoniously tossing the final remnants off the top of the mountain. Or maybe little Hansel and Gretel were dropping threads to find their way back down.

This one would make a nice picture above your modern couch:

Yup, just plain old moss on a rock:

What I thought would be the piece de resistance was a disappointment. Although a beautiful day, the skyline was hazy and I couldn't zoom in enough to lose the representational picture. New York was still New York.
view from High Mountain
the zoom in on the NYC skyline

So, my conclusion is that Instant Artist is not as easy as it sounds. You certainly need a better eye and better camera than I have. But, it was fun and I still love the idea. I'll think about it the next time I'm at MOMA or the MET's modern art section. Yeah, I'll be the one squinting at the art and mentally zooming in and out.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Bears

You knew I'd have to do a separate blog just on bears. I was obsessed with them and really a little scared after the incidents in Yellowstone and Talkeetna in July.

Happy to report that we had no close encounters -- no bears on the trail---so we didn't need to slowly back away and talk in a soft spoken voice. "Hey, bear, I'm standing down from you. This is your home and see how nicely I'm backing away." Somehow, I could never picture myself doing that calmly.

In Katmai National Park, they are very serious about bears. You get off the float plane and are immediately ushered into the park's bear orientation talk and video. You get a little pin to wear to prove you were thoroughly indoctrinated and presumably a park ranger might stop you if you weren't displaying the pin and had somehow skipped the talk .

Uh,oh... We've been spotted!
moving into our attached cabin
We immediately saw bears in the river at a distance from our cabin, prompting me to ask where the "electrified Berlin Wall" was. It looked to me like there were the cabins, a meadow and then the river--no wall, no fence, no guards.  I distinctly remember Gary telling me that there was no way bears would be able to enter the lodge grounds!

family bonding bunk beds
Mosquito netting was essential gear
We plotted our strategy and then headed out for a closer look from the viewing platforms along the Brooks River. The lower river was for younger, less dominant males and the females and the upper falls for the male alpha bears, where salmon are more abundant and could pool as they try to jump the falls. This was the end of the salmon run, so usually there were about five or six bears standing below the falls and over the course of an hour you'd see maybe three of them catch fish. There was a lot of drama. One bear caught a fish and retreated downstream a bit to eat it, but was pursued by a bigger bear who forced him to drop the fish--gang behavior!

The NPS bear watchers number the bears and after a few years may give them names. Diver was an old arthritic bear who stood in one spot by the falls and seemed just as pleased to be diving under the water and soaking his old bones, as he was to be catching salmon. Another was called Cinnamon, based on coat color. Before you start getting all mushy and singing Teddy Bear picnic, listen to this story. The ranger said that the previous week a male bear attacked a cub and dragged the runt to the tall grasses where it killed it, to the horror of the tourists on the platform. Reasons for bear infanticide are not well known but the ranger speculated that the cub was the smallest of a litter of three cubs. Sheesh, mother nature can be cruel.

It was a half mile walk to the upper platform first on a trail and then on an elevated walkway. You talk and make noise, so as not to surprise any bears wandering by, especially when there's a turn or less visibility because of high grass. Once on the platform, you can delude yourself into thinking it's like a zoo, but reality checks back in when you have to wait to recross the floating bridge because a bear is within 50 yards of it. One bear started swimming toward us on shore, while we were waiting, so we beat a hasty retreat further up the trail to give the bear his space. All except one guy who kept taking pictures..."This is great." "Gary, let's go we're moving now. Gary, Gary...."

I was really surprised one morning at breakfast to look out and see a young "sub-adult" grizzly right outside the window. He ate some grass, rubbed against a tree, and ambled down the same path we would take to the cabin, before he decided to cross the meadow and return to the river. The scene was repeated the next day with an even larger bear. At least we had the security of a hard sided cabin. In the campground the hardy tent campers, who endured rain and fierce mosquitos, did have an electrified fence surrounding the area. But the three strands of white electrified rope, like a clothesline, didn't strike me as that substantial.

And yet, there have been no fatalities at Katami so far. As compared to Yellowstone or Yosemite (one of those lower 48 places), Katmai was very strict about food and garbage, so bears do not associate humans with food.

In Denali, there are about 3000 brown bears (grizzlies) north of the Alaskan range, where we were and we spied about seven of them on the bus ride from the entrance of Denali to the end of the road 90 miles later at Kantishna.The Denali grizzlies were lighter in color than the Katmai coastal bears, who ranged in shades from dark brown to golden.

There are also 50,000 black bears in Alaska, many in the Kantishna area, but we didn't see any. We took a short hike when we arrived at Skyline Lodge, but when it started to rain and I found myself out of breath on the steep slope, I urged the rest of them to go on to the top without me. I situated myself on a slope with a 360 view and rotated back and forth, clutching my walking stick and chanting: "Hey bear, I'm here, hey big bear." I had my stick cocked like it was a musket and I was looking for the whites of their eyes.

The other scary hike we had was up Dumpling mountain in Katmai in pouring rain--beautiful, lush forest, lots of berries and wild flowers, an area where Katmai bears dig their hibernation dens, a new one each year. We didn't fall into any dens and did a whole lot of singing and yelling to Gary to stay with the group.Luckily, our off key singing scared the bears away or else they were all down at the river, preferring salmon over berries.

On our final leg of the trip, Kenai Fjords National Park, we saw black bears who liked to hang out in the meadow near the lodge and walk along the beach or swim in the lagoon.  No brown bears in Kenai because the Harding Ice Fields above Kenai form a barrier that the black bears are only too happy to negotiate to get away from the brown bears, but the brown grizzlies don't bother to make that trek.

The bears were definitely a trip highlight--the closest I'll ever get (or want to get) to the real wild outdoors.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Be Good to Yourself

I'm back from America's last frontier and happy to report that the trip was fantastic. Since I was off the digital grid for the last 12 days, this blog is actually an old school, handwritten journal entry, penned while I was in Denali National Park:

Wednesday August 3
This misshapen little wooden pig outside the door to our Skyline Lodge tree house in Denali admonished us: "Be good to yourself." Well, that's exactly what a week in Alaska feels like. Being good to yourself by slowing down, enjoying your family, seeing amazing animals, endless rivers and mountains, big skies, glacial kettle ponds, clouds, fog, purple lupin wildflowers, and sunsets (if you can stay up that late!)

My three boys are off mountain biking and hiking to Wonder Lake in hope of seeing "the mountain" out today and maybe finding some wild blueberries on the tundra. The "mountain" is Denali (the high one) or Mt. McKinley, as it was known prior to 1980. Surprisingly the star of Denali National Park is seen by only about 40% of the visitors on average in August, since Denali, rising from a base of 2,000 feet to the summit of 20,000 is so big it generates its own weather system and is often completely enshrouded in clouds. That was the case when we stopped at the Eielson Visitor Center on the way in and gazed in the direction of the Alaska Range. There was nothing but clouds, although if you stared at them long enough you could swear you saw a cliff popping out here and there.
Is that a mountain or a cloud?

Skyline treehouse
I am relaxing this morning, starting with my breakfast of homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam on toast, cereal and fruit with rice milk and fresh ground coffee. Simple but delicious and the view from my deck looks out over the green Kantishna Valley, the westernmost point in Denali Park, a former gold rush site. 

There's only one road across the six million acre park, which is the size of New Hampshire, or as our bus driver wryly commented "bigger than Slovenia, Israel or Djibouti." We saw abundant wildlife on our six hour bus ride--yes, actual school bus seats you may remember from your childhood--- but the trip went by quickly with several scenic overlook/bathroom/wildlife spotting stops and the slow, deadpan narration of the driver as our comic soundtrack. "Here is Moose Creek. There are over 100 moose creeks in Alaska."  and a little later on: "Here is Fish Creek. There are over a 100 fish creeks in Alaska."

The sun sets around 11 pm but it never gets truly dark. From our cabin room, it's 25 steps up two staircases to the bathroom inside the lodge and no headlamp or flashlight was needed during the night. One star peaked over the horizon at 3 am and although there are no Northern Lights visible in the summer sky, in the eerie light I couldn't help but think of a poem that my brother Peter and my Uncle Dick would never fail to recite at Christmas: The Cremation of Sam McGee. Standing here in old mining country where there were all kinds of crazy fortune seekers and adventurers, like Little Johnny Busia who brewed his own Kantishna Champagne or tough Fannie Quigley, who lived alone until age 74 through the harsh winters in her cabin that still stands, the poem seems apt:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee...
Sure, I could moil for gold.

Cabin life is fine with me

Don't exaggerate. I only took 200 pictures today, not 300!