Jun 222012

Caroline Wise reading the paper early in the morning while taking care of business in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Reading the Chilkat Valley News out in the wild is a solo experience, the only real negative being that you have to read the same edition every day. This lone paper was our reading material while visiting the facilities, the only delivery in these parts is from helicopter. Your next question might be, so what does the local paper have to tell us we may not already know? Well for starters, there was a recent explosion of dandelions. Nursery owner Toni Smith of Haines said of the problem, “It’s horrendous.” Vinegar seems to be the all-natural weed killer in these parts. In other big news the end of a three-year study came to a conclusion with results showing that 7.1 million eulachon, a smelt-like fish had returned to the Chilkoot River. The study was administered by the Takshanuk Watershed Council for the Chilkoot Indian Association. Apparently this was great news for the locals as eulachon are known as, “Tlingit penicillin,” and it’s not every fish in the wild that gets that honor. As for the other part of the photo featuring my wife, tell me some of you weren’t curious as to where this was taken care of when on a whitewater rafting trip?

A grizzly bear swimming across the Alsek River in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

When the previous photo was taken, we had already been awake for an hour and were the only ones wandering about. After Caroline finished her business we walked over towards the kitchen to start the fire with hopes our camp would start to shake itself awake and we could get our first cup of coffee. As I got the fire going, I thought I heard something on my left. I looked over to see a log floating in the distance. There, I heard it again! This time I saw that the “something” was not a log, it was a snorting grizzly bear swimming directly toward Caroline and I. Mesmerized and for a moment uncertain about which way to go or how much noise to start making, we hesitated. In that time I could see that the bear was going to be picked up by the current and would not be able to make it directly to our shore. As the grizz was jettisoned downstream, some of the others in our group had started emerging from their tents. Caroline stealthily went over to tell them to peer into the river. On my right, Bruce and Shaun also were moving about. I got their attention as quietly as I could and gave them the signal that a bear was nearby. No, the signal is not one of turning around and pointing to my backside suggesting I had did in my pants what Caroline did in the can. The guys asked in hushed tones, “Where did you see it?” It is in the river on the other side of the tents.

Behold the mighty grizzly bear in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

We waited for what felt like minutes. And then there he was about 50 yards from camp and too close for comfort, but we remained quiet. He lumbered up the beach paying no attention to us, until he reached the area adjacent our toilet; where Caroline had been sitting less than 45 minutes earlier! It is just on the other side of these bushes that today’s first photo was taken. This big old bear then started to shake the water from his coat. Talk about a moment of wow! And fear. Fear because there were still some campers in their tents between the bear and us who were watching his moves trying to decide if we needed to start making serious noise. He sniffed around, turned, and continued on his way into a side canyon. Okay, now I’m ready for my Wheaties.

The rapids of Lava North in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

After breaking camp we had a relatively short ride down the river to a pullout where the boatmen needed to scout our next dangerous move; Lava North. Named after the mother of gnarly rapids, Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, this churn of ice water is not for the timid. After much deliberation and finger pointing, the boatmen apparently have a bead on which track we’ll be traveling, as they round us up to head back to the rafts. Once there, it is time to suit up. Packed away in one of the rafts was a bag of dry suits, each one tagged with a passenger’s name. We are warned to be gentle with these fragile life-savers, if they tear, they won’t seal and that will not be good should we find ourselves in the tumult. The guides are serious about putting these on right, serious that we pay attention, and serious when they say this rapid can kill, and it has. We struggle to get our limbs through tight fittings, but after some rolling around and grunting, we are finally suited up and ready to conquer Lava North.

A wave kicking up in the rapid known as Lava North in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

I would love to share photos with you taken while in the rapid, but that can’t happen because we were holding on for dear life as we skirted the Monster Hole and slid by the Haystack Wave on a path that took us straight down the middle of Lava North. The tension was high as Shaun had the lead position, he made it through without a hitch. Next up was Martha, right on track as she guides her raft and passengers safely to the other side of this beast. We are last with Bruce, the cleanup crew now with nothing to do but pass over Lava as safely as the others before us. The river is pumping and we are racing full bore ahead. We are going so fast that the markers I spotted while on shore as the boatmen were scouting, are not able to be seen. The scale of our environment overwhelms the senses until we are pressed deep into reality. The reality of being so very small on such very large water. What looked almost quaint from above, now looks incomprehensible from down here. Bruce hollers, “Did you see that hole?” Har, it wasn’t a hole, it was the pit of doom. When we passed that Monster Hole, it looked as though the river dropped over six feet and nearly disappeared before the water crawled up the other side to lose momentum and crash back onto itself. I’m sure that hole is a great place to get a raft stuck as it violently flips and flops to disgorge its self of passengers and contents before spitting out the shreds of what had been a raft. And then before we know it, we are on the other side of Lava North and the water is starting to calm. Phew!

Caroline R., Carol and Harris, and Bruce Keller in dry suits after running Lava North in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Dry suits get hot in the sun, and when they do, they inflate. Every so often we had to break the neck seal to allow the hot air to escape. By the time we get far enough down river to pull over for lunch and get out of the rubber gear, we are close to overheating. The boatmen encourage us to enjoy the protection the dry suits offer and to immerse ourselves in the river. We all do. Then, for the adventurous, they are shown a place on the tributary we have paddled up where they can easily enter the river and float downstream through some fast moving water. I pass, certain I’d miss the pullout and enter the Alsek, never to be seen again.

At the confluence of a side tributary and the Alsek River in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

The unobstructed view of our mid-day sojourn off the Alsek River. We’ll spend a couple of hours here just chilling out enjoying the perfect day, happy that we weren’t eaten by the bear or Lava North.

Glacial ice picked out of the stream off Alsek River in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

After lunch some of the others napped, Caroline and I explored, this is a little something Caroline found. Glacial ice that had been floating downstream. To the best of our map reading ability, it appears that the tributary we have stopped at is a flow coming from Fisher Glacier that is north of us and out of sight. The real beauty found in these sculptures are lost in the photograph. They are difficult to find the perfect angle to show you, they are even more of a problem to hold with already cold hands. Looking like glass art there is the inclination to want to stroke its sensuous curves and soft features, until the freezing ice starts to do the same to your hands and a dull ache sets in.

A swallowtail butterfly on shore near the Alsek River in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

A swallowtail takes a break from pollination duties, landing long enough for me to get one almost reasonable photo. A few minutes earlier a skittish ptarmigan was moving about, but he was having nothing to do with a busy guy trying to snap pictures of everything that moved, and didn’t move.

A waterfall in the cliff next to our rest stop in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

Our afternoon break is nearly over, the tables that had been brought out for lunch are being put away. We sweep the beach to ensure we are not leaving anything behind. This is especially important where wildlife is concerned, as if bears identify locations as being good foraging areas and then equate humans with those food sources, all of a sudden that bear gets a case of the smarts putting two-and-two together and us in danger. Scoured and clean, boats packed, passengers and boatmen ready to get on board, we push off. Our camp site is not too far away, just some miles down river near the foot of the mountain seen four photos above. Feeling refreshed and energized by our encounters with the cold water earlier, Caroline and I opt to not put on our water proof layer or the rubber gear for the rest of the river day, instead we are in shorts and shirts and ready for it.

The view from Blue Lagoon campsite in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

We were good up until the turn in the river when the shadows bore down on us. Oh it was easy out in the sun, after being splashed by the small rapids we warmed quickly. Bruce warned us that we had one more large set of rapids yet to deal with and thought we might want to throw on our rubber gear, he was right. Good thing too because that water came right up and over with some mighty splashing action. Also on the way to camp we stopped next to a gravel bank and collected fire wood. Shaun has rafted this river more than any other in his career and has a pretty good read on what we’ll find as we move down river. He thought we’d have trouble collecting enough wood at Blue Lagoon; our home for the night. He was right about the lack of drift wood, he was also right in choosing our campsite. If you look at that golden yellow mountain side, you should be able to recognize it as the mountain we were looking at during lunch.

Our rafts tied up for the night at Blue Lagoon camp site in Kluane National Park Yukon, Canada

We were almost tricked into thinking we were having sunset this early evening. With the sun reflecting off the golden mountains behind us, a warm sunset light was cast down upon us. Caroline learned a new trick today, one of the straps on a dry bag I carry for storing a camera broke. Bruce explained to her how to fix it when on a river – you need floss. Like all good boatmen, these folks travel with emergency supplies to fix just about anything that might break while on a river trip, a needle was found in a quick minute. Now armed, Caroline got to work reattaching the strap of my dry bag fixing it to our delight. Dinner was lasagna, the entertainment was a blazing fire, and dreams played second fiddle to the extraordinary view of nature we have been experiencing.

Jun 182012

Riverside cascade tumbling into the Alsek River in Yukon, Canada

After two-days of traveling to get ourselves into position, we are ready to launch onto this remote river called the Alsek. We are here with the kind permission of the Canadian government, as it is by permit that we are allowed to raft through Kluane National Park. Coming here is a rarity, less than 200 people a year opt for this adventure through such a rugged, pristine, and faraway place. Juneau is now 245 miles (397km) to the south and Anchorage 613 road miles (993km) to the northwest – we are way out there. Between us and the Pacific Ocean there are no roads, shops, electricity, or flush toilets. We travel as a self-contained mini-armada. After a somewhat windy night, we woke for a quick cold breakfast and were underway as soon as camp could be packed up and stowed on our rafts. Caroline and I joined Bruce on his raft for this “first” day on the river.

Female moose crossing the Alsek River in Kluane National Park / Yukon, Canada

It’s a bit gray out and chilly on the water, so we have all of our toasty rubber gear on. That, sits over waterproof pants, that are on top of quick dry pants, that cover long underwear. The top halves of our body are layered in a similar arrangement, except Caroline and I also have hand knitted hats for keeping our heads warm. Over it all is the PFD; a personal flotation device, that we hope will not be tested for efficacy. Not requiring these extra layers or buoyancy protection, was this female moose that strode right across the river, but apparently was spooked by something on the shore in front of her. We first saw her from a good distance and immediately stopped paddling, so as not to spook her.  As we floated slowly downstream, the moose continued to inspect the right shore, whatever she was seeing, we could not. After the moose caught sight of us, she would shift her gaze from the shore, to us, back to the shore, and then back at us. Finally she called it quits and turned around to return to the left shore. Into the thicket she strode, this would be the only moose we’d see on this journey.

Looking down the Alsek River in Yukon, Canada

About an hour downstream, we start getting our first hints of a blue sky. While sunshine may yet be on the itinerary, this is Alaska and nearly any type of weather is possible, good thing we are prepared. This day on the river has similarities to our first day on the Colorado down in the Grand Canyon. The scope and spectacle is too far beyond our sense of the familiar, it is impossible to relate this to anything previously known. I find myself unable to comprehend the magnitude. I may as well be a thousand days away from tomorrow because that might be the time required to give this some sense of understanding. It isn’t that I don’t recognize water, mountains, sky; it is more the idea that there are no familiar landmarks ahead, there is only the potential for more of the incomprehensible. Oh I’m sure some will fall right in and see this as just so much more of something similar to other experiences had previously, but this is my first time in the Yukon and already I’m aware that there is an infinity of detail surrounding us that I cannot stop to see. There are view points in countless different locations under a billion different weather and light conditions that can offer a trillion different perspectives; the only position I will see this from, is right here, right now, from my spot on this little inflatable raft. Insignificance screams out my name in silence.

Another rainbow on the Alsek River in Yukon, Canada

I didn’t want to post another expansive mountain and river shot right away, especially one that is not all that great, but this one has a rainbow. Not just any rainbow either, this is the shortest, most ground hugging rainbow Caroline or I have ever seen. It is also the second rainbow in two days. Caroline and I have likely been witness to well over 100 rainbows during our travels, shooting stars are another familiar theme. You can bet that we see these phenomenon as notes from the universe that the proverbial wishes and pots of gold are easily found when one is out in the flow of nature.

Clouds quickly come and go around the mountain tops on the Alsek River in Kluane National Park / Yukon, Canada

The weather works hard here, it is like a chameleon that changes minute-by-minute. Due to the size of all that surrounds us, it is difficult to grasp distances and is impossible to guess how far the horizon might stretch out before us. Our place down here on the water doesn’t help establish a good vantage point either, with heavy clouds obscuring what lies beyond the closest mountains, we are left wondering as to what are we missing. There’s this nagging thought that whatever has been missed these first two-hours, will probably forever remain unknown to Caroline and I. Even if we were to return in a year or two, would the river be able to be run or might a glacier block our passage? Would the weather be harsh, rainy, or maybe snowy with the view more limited than what we have experienced so far today? When we go to some place like Disneyland, we can be nearly certain that we will have seen all there is to be seen, should we dedicate our efforts to do so. That cannot be said when visiting places such as Alaska, or the Grand Canyon for that matter. When trapped by the conveniences of highways, groomed roadsides, and finite city centers, our vision and imaginations stop at the boundary of these man-made environments. Out here the only limits are our ability to look deep, not just outside, but also within ourselves.

Looking back up river at two rafts following our lead on the Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

And then the sky opens to spill sweet sunlight upon all it reaches. Not even noon yet and we are a million miles from where we were. The first mishap of the trip was a personal one for me. My brand new GoPro HD Hero2 that had not filmed a second of footage in its brief life, jumped overboard and died. I cannot confirm its death for certain, the body wasn’t able to be retrieved. It was attached to its suction cup device that will hold tight to objects that are traveling as fast as 150 miles per hour, was probably never tested on the rounded rubber front tube of an inflatable raft ripping along at 5mph. Turning my back, for a split second, the suction cup, the GoPro, a 64GB SD Card, and my brand spanking new LCD BacPac abandoned ship; taking close to $500 out of my pocket at the same time. You see, while the sky can clear and clouds will dissipate, the waters we are traveling are so full of silt, we cannot see a quarter inch into the murk. There is so much silt that it sounds like the bottom of the rafts are being sandpapered. Crispy crackles and pops rise from the raft’s floor. Uh-oh, and so is the water. We haven’t been through a single rapid yet, but I keep on bailing water that is collecting in the front of our raft. Do we have a leak, might my camera be able to float up into it?

Adventure, glaciers, rapids, wilderness, and wild animals, we are here to see it all. Including the blossoming of wildflowers that spring forth to color a landscape that for the majority of the year is cold and hostile. It’s only mid June, but within 90 days, winter will start showing its face and the flowers will be long gone. Fortunately for Caroline and I, Bruce has been on this river seven other times and was able to make a pretty good guess when we might be able to see the wildflowers near or at their peak. His crystal ball worked well.

Wildflowers in Kluane National Park / Yukon, Canada

We have stopped for lunch. Sandwiches, chips, fruit, and cookies are on the menu; standard river fare for a mid-day meal. After stuffing our gullets, it is announced that we are going to venture out on our first hike. I instead, decline. I need to know the silence that exists here. I long for a moment of quiet that so far has not been found. If I could just sit here next to shore, next to these beautiful wildflowers, I am certain I can find the tranquility that I cherish. The group trudges up the hill behind me, their voices fade and I start to listen; for the bear. There will be no bear finding a tasty man-morsel today, I am safe. Then, the quiet begins.

Silent rocks in Kluane National Park / Yukon, Canada

These rocks did not chatter, they did not groan under the weight of earth that sits atop them, they sat motionless, and quiet. I too sat still, because if I didn’t, the synthetic clothes I require for survival here create a racket that would disturb the dead. The quieter it became, the more that silence demanded respect, I obliged. A slight breeze ruffles the nearby leaves, it must be a bear? Nope, it is just the wind reminding the trees that they know how to sing their own song. It has taken three days of traveling to find ourselves 10 miles downstream, but it felt like mere seconds before the marauding hikers crushed quiet like an ant under foot. I left a camera upstream from here, if someone should one day find it, please set it up on river left, really anywhere will do and find a method for connecting it to the internet. A webcam from this shore seems like a  terrific idea to me.

Snow covered mountains, green forest, silvery river, blue and white sky; Earth's rainbow.

There must be homes on the other side of that hill with a well hidden road for commuters to get to and from work. How do people resist living in a place this gorgeous? I suppose 24 hour nights for a good part of winter with vast quantities of snow piled on everything, oh yeah, and the 500 mile drive to work all conspire to dissuade urbanization of these wild lands. That, and the insight of those bureaucrats, environmentalists, and left wing fringe folk who think places like this are worth preserving. Not that its exploitation wasn’t considered, at least in part. As recently as 1993 there was a push to start mining copper further downstream. Studies suggested it would end in total disaster. Not only would it destroy swaths of pristine land, it threatened Dall sheep, wolves, wolverines, and the largest concentration of grizzly bears on earth. Author and boatman Michael P. Ghiglieri has written an excellent piece that goes into detail regarding this boondoggle, you can read it at O.A.R.S. website by clicking here.

Bruce Keller at the oars on the Alsek River in the Yukon, Canada

Meet Bruce Keller; our boatman. Want to know more about this great river guide? Read my book, Stay In The Magic! Shameless plugs belong on one’s own blog, it goes with the territory. As good as he is, he hasn’t stopped the water that is accumulating so fast that I have to bail out the raft every 20 minutes. Now I’m stumped, sitting here the night I’m writing this, I stare at the photo and think about everything I could tell you about Bruce, but there it is just a couple of lines above this one where I’ve said I won’t. Bet I can’t make it to the end of the telling of our Alsek adventure before breaking that devils bargain I’ve created. So, where to go with this? Oh yeah, sitting behind Bruce is John Hoffman and next to him is Caroline Rhodes, the editor of my book titled, “Stay In The Magic – A Voyage Into The Beauty Of The Grand Canyon.” It is the book you are now getting pretty interested in and are considering purchasing!

The miniature flora growing boldly where few men dare to tread. Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory of Canada

Would you believe these plants have started growing in the silty wet bottom of our raft? I didn’t think so. We are on shore. Camp is set up and everyone except Bruce, Shaun, Caroline, and myself are about to go on a hike to explore a waterfall in our backyard; about a mile away. But before camp is nearly deserted, a call goes out to help empty, de-rig, and roll Bruce’s raft over. Right away the culprit is identified, a big split in the rubber underbelly. How we didn’t go Titanic is beyond me, or maybe it was my steadfast bailing? Fixing a hole in a raft next to a swift moving river turns out to be easy enough, except for the exotic glue concoction that should be bundled with a military grade gas mask to protect yourself from the fragrant aroma of this toxic mix. Turns out that boatmen have all the tools they need for just such a job; beer. While sparing myself brain damage from the noxious fumes, I went exploring in our local vicinity, the picture above is a hint of what I found.

Purple wildflowers that Caroline will look up shortly and share with readers what they are

I have come to form a hypothesis regarding us ‘city’ people finding ourselves in the bigger world of immense nature. We do not truly know how to embrace a world without boundaries. It is as though we have been hit with a cudgel – relentlessly. With our wits bashed clean out of our heads, we lean towards the familiar, we wallow in the mundane. How have I come to this cynical conclusion you might ask? Observation of our behaviors when transported into these vast mind-expanding locations. For some people this is manifested in the talk on the boats where they are quick to drag their “interesting” lives onto the river for all of us to share in. For others, they are able to contain themselves until reaching the shore and the campfire before hell breaks loose; I do not want to know the smallest detail of what TV show these people find interesting – I AM SURROUNDED BY THE ASTONISHING SPECTACLE OF NATURE, and am very happy to be in the moment! Though I should admit, I too suffer from mother nature’s ability to overdose the senses. For me, I turn in. I look for silence, I try to find something to focus on that doesn’t bludgeon me with trying to comprehend the infinite. Already, just one day on the river, and I’m losing my sense of place. So instead of joining the banality of regurgitating stories that can in no way compete with where we are, I try to slow down, to settle in. I laid down on the ground like a kid about to inspect the microscopic fauna and flora below his feet, I wanted to find intimacy with something more easily comprehensible.

A little yellow wildflower that Caroline would love to share with you what it is

What I found was that the universe of the tiny can be more immense than that which is obviously easier to see when looking to the sky and mountains. Down here on the ground another universe exists. The soil is not flat and compressed, it is damp, dark, and teaming with life. Delicate crevices descend into dark shadow where my vision cannot penetrate. From out of those hidden places nearly transparent insects unfamiliar to me, crawl out and just as quickly dip into another hidden cranny. I look closer and find plants smaller than the head of a pin growing between grains of soil and sand. A spider scrambles over debris that has collected over the seasons, there is no telling how long the elements in this microcosm have played host to that and those which live here. Looking for something simpler, I am finding yet more big questions. What is the purpose of all of this spectacle? How does the life that exists here survive through the brutality of a long dark winter where snow and ice are the rulers? What could that process of reawakening feel like if it were us waking from a long hibernation where our lives were suspended until conditions were once again fit for our springing forth?

Your guess is as good as mine as to what this insect is, but it lives in Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory of Canada if your were interested in trying find out

I am certainly the one and only human being this bug will ever see in its lifetime. Its plain of existence does not require my presence, it is more likely that I am detrimental to its short life. Less than an inch long, there was something beautiful about this creatures life and its place here about 500 feet from shore and the rest of people I’m traveling with. This bug has no limits on where it may roam, it doesn’t pay rent to be allowed to have a place on the surface of the earth to call home. It has learned to find food in its environment without needing to exchange labor for access to a meal. This turquoise suited explorer is able to scale blades of grass a dozen times taller than its length where it can observe the alien human who has barged into its universe. Both of us sit still, not flinching, me imperceptibly breathing, it practicing simple diffusion. So who or what is freer? I’ll have to go home, I couldn’t survive here a winter on my own, while the grasshopper is home. It and its kind will survive – if “we” let it.

Something is about to bloom, but what it is, awaits identification by my beautiful wife whose skills of identification are unmatched in the household of Wise

There is too much to see here. Instead of me finding the familiar or at least the comprehensible, I am no more certain of my surroundings than I was when I came over to this small patch of tranquility. I will remain lost in the fog of vastitude here at Lava Creek Camp and remember how this first day on the river is only but a smaller part of a tiny part. We are but a small element in the larger world that resides in a universe where many of us can seemingly only survive in by focusing our attentions on those things we already know, lest we become lost in the magnitude of possibility where our minds may not have the elasticity to grasp the totality that bombards our senses. At least I will contemplate these things and continue to try to find meaning when stripped of the familiar and my everyday routine.

Jun 162012

Today was the grand arrival, we landed in Juneau, Alaska. This is the 50th state for Caroline and I to visit, although there’s a whole lot more to see of this land than the little corner we are exploring on this journey north. Flying in left much to the imagination, as for most of the flight from Seattle our view was that of a heavy cloud cover. Moments after dropping below the shroud I couldn’t contain my excitement and infectiously pulled Caroline into my enthusiasm when I pointed out that I could see a glacier. The original plan had been to land, call the hotel for a shuttle, and maybe get a taxi into Juneau proper for some sightseeing. Scratch that, we are renting a car so we can go have our first encounter with a glacier. Mendenhall Glacier was just up the road, soon we were too.

Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier. Okay, so we’ve now been everywhere in the United States.  We are like children on Christmas day here. Containment of the exhilaration we are feeling would be like trying to contain a cloud burst. A glacier! Not just any old glacier either, one with a name that smacks of English royalty. You don’t need to correct me, I know it’s a medieval English town best known for the Royal Air Force, but today, this glacier is king.

Waterfall next to Mendenhall Glacier

Astonished and overwhelmed. That is our normal when visiting a state for the first time and can’t believe our luck that “WE” should be there. Compounding today’s excitement is the knowledge that we have earned bragging rights of having been to all 50 states. Yes I know I’m repeating myself, but that is just what we do a hundred times while we are standing there, mouths agape, as we ask each other, “Can you believe it?” We may never understand how others, apparently on their first visits to someplace new, maintain such composure? If it wasn’t for our reverence of nature, you can bet we’d be screaming holy expletives at the idea that we are gawking at this spectacle of beauty.

Closeup of the face of Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska

Got a kayak? How do we get out there and touch this? Not exactly an inviting facade, maybe even a very dangerous one, but who can resist the idea of cozying up to the face of a glacier? And what of the chance of a calving chunk of ice the size of a convenience store falling off to crush us, and maybe even kill us? Okay, forget the kayak. Short of sharing our mantra of repeating “OH MY GOD!” I cannot convey where we were mentally. Physically, that’s easy: on shore, still with mouths wide open. Good thing arctic terns nest on surfaces and not in cavity nests, as I’m sure one of our mouths might have looked like an inviting place to call home.

Sudeten Lousewort in bloom - also known as fernweed; Juneau, Alaska. The Latin name is Pedicularis sudetica

The Sudeten lousewort blooming in June is also known as fernweed. The timing of this trip to Alaska has not been left to chance, there was intention behind making plans for an early summer trip: to maximize our opportunity to see wildflowers. Of course there were other intentions too, namely a river we’ll be traveling on. That bit of information will be detailed in tomorrow’s blog entry. For now, we are content to explore the area adjacent the glacier.

An iceberg in front of Mendenhall Glacier - Juneau, Alaska

It’s one thing to see an iceberg in photos, on TV, or in a movie, but to see one in person, well that’s like being on a savanna and watching a lion catch a meal. Not that I’ve personally been to Africa, but I can imagine the tension mounting as one is about to witness nature in action, and then it happens, the chase is on. It’s just like this moment right now. Though there’s not much chase, not even any perceptible motion, nor will the iceberg be devouring any fish, beaver, or birds that may enter its zone. Nope, it’s just a giant chunk of glacial ice, moving at glacial speeds. It is the coolest piece of floating ice I have ever been witness to. Come to think about it, besides an ice cube in a drink, or a frozen lake surface, this is the only massing piece of floating ice I have ever seen. Wishes for it to roll over went unheeded.

A seagull over the waters of the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska

Arctic terns were nesting during our visit. These birds are quick flyers and dart in any direction with incredible speed, that’s why I don’t have a photo of one of them, but instead offer you this seagull which was much easier to capture. Couldn’t spot any chicks yet, but for all I know they were right there under our noses. If ever there was an argument for augmented reality, for me it is right here, right now. If Google Glass wants to do me a favor, give me an overlay of information regarding the natural world. I’ve already learned how to navigate the cities I visit, well except for that tiny problem of finding a public restroom, but I really want to know more about the nature surrounding me here today. What is the life span of an Arctic tern, are they migratory, monogamous, swimmers? How big was the Mendenhall glacier 30, 50, 100 years ago? Does the waterfall on our right flow year round? Before I got home at the end of our great north adventure to learn that the flowers above were of the Lousewort family, it would have been great to have a mobile device that already knew where I would be during this trip, and that I would want to know everything I could about the local flora and fauna. Let’s go National Geographic, it’s time to get into educational augmented reality based software!

A fern growing adjacent to the Mendenhall glacier in Juneau, Alaska

Lush, deep green, and dense, just the way I like my women, oops, I mean plant life. Eye candy should seduce you, drag you in to see more, never quite produce the total state of ecstasy one seeks, thus bringing us back for more. Botanical eye candy is like a drug to me. It allows me to better understand the animal that falls into it, writhing and wriggling in delight. Maybe it gets high when rolling deep in the luscious carpet of greenery, just as I am by merely staring at this abundance of enchantment. Hey buddy, want some green stuff? It’s really potent, man.

Water streaming over rocks in Juneau, Alaska

Leave the camera’s shutter open a few seconds while focused on rushing water, and the ephemeral wisps of its splashing droplets take on a mysterious otherworldly feel. It never fails for Caroline to stop at these outflows and plead with me to shoot a long exposure. I oblige her when possible, as I too love this effect. We have a soft spot for these beautiful little streams and cascades, who doesn’t?

A black bear noshing on some fine greenery in Juneau, Alaska

Nom, nom, nom, murmurs the bear while noshing on the fine roadside greenery. With the abundance of what may be his favorite mid day snack, this bear paid no attention to us. Of course I didn’t challenge this safe arrangement by throwing Caroline out of the car to see if she could persuade the bear to perform some antics for us. Had I done that, I am certain I could have captured a picture that would be a hit on Imgur, while the car behind us might have gotten video footage of an idiot pushing his wife into the path of a bear, allowing him the big YouTube score. Now I wouldn’t have really done any of this, but don’t you ever wonder what the thinking is behind some of these profoundly stupid situations people get into before finding minor celebrity on the internet? By the way, I cannot verify if the plant the bear is eating is actually as yummy as it appears to him. Maybe next time I’ll try a mouthful. (Edit: The bear is eating Equisetum, commonly known as Horse Tail.)

Driving north from Mendenhall glacier towards the roads end outside of Juneau, Alaska

The weather wasn’t cooperating in offering us stunning panoramas, so we settled on this “drab” view where snow covered mountains peak out behind low clouds to give us a hint of what exists in the distance. It is as though the full dimension of where we are is only slowly being revealed, and we are perfectly okay with that. Our imaginations fill in the gaps of what we are not allowed to witness yet, our expectations are soaring. The thrill of what is unfolding is electrifying.

A cascade peeks out from under the clouds near Juneau, Alaska

Not all things right in front of our faces are always apparent. On our drive north from Mendenhall the mountains were mostly cloud covered, and there was that bear that grabbed our attention. On the way back south we spot this cascade that had emerged from below the weather. Had it always been there? Of course it has, though this could also be a seasonal occurrence, only flowing with the spring and summer melt. We have to wonder, how many more cascades and waterfalls are we missing? Those thoughts of still hidden gems will make it easier on the days when we need to convince ourselves that a return to Alaska is required.

Caroline Wise enjoying her first beer in Alaska, which was better than the first bear we saw enjoying her!

Time to call it a day. Not that the day is really over; it stays light around the clock here this time of  year, but we were hungry and tired. For a capitol city there weren’t very many choices of where to grab dinner. We tried finding the local dive that might have been owned by a fisherman who only sold his daily catch, but that culinary treasure proved elusive. And so we satisfied ourselves with some nondescript waterside eatery that fulfilled at least two important functions. One, we were able to eat. Two, Caroline was able to enjoy her first beer in Alaska. Tomorrow we get busy.

You’ll find the link to read the following day at the bottom right – keep scrolling.

Oct 212011

Old Montreal in the province of Quebec, Canada

Sometimes when we travel, the weather isn’t perfect, or so it seems in the moment. Overcast, doesn’t make for vibrant travel photos, but it does focus the eye on details in closer proximity to our path. From under the gray cloud cover it becomes difficult to grab an image of beauty that conveys to the viewer the delight had by the photographer. So, instead of trying to capture the elusive, it was in my best interest to fix on what I was going to get from this visit to Old Montreal. We started early with a walk on nearly empty streets from our hotel to the river’s edge, then on into the historic district.

Canadian Indian art made of whale bone, likely Inuit

Experience has taught us that to feel a moment of the heartbeat of a city one should rise with the waking locals. Move within their routine. Take pause in their footsteps. See their domain across the timescape of the early morning through the late of night. Old Montreal has all the feel of many an old European city, save for these artistic reminders of the subarctic cultures that populate the northern climes of Canada.

Building facade on the streets of Old Montreal, Canada

All that’s missing right now, is the fog in the late of night, the lamp flickering with the light of a gas flame, and the slow clip-clop sound of a horse pulling a carriage, as we walk along the dark alley. A tip of the hat and a bid for safe evening is offered; we scurry along, music and laughter from a local bar is heard in the distance. Mysteries hidden behind stone facades are better served on cobblestone streets. Our tour of the old town continues.

Inside Notre Dame Montreal

This is Notre-Dame Basilica Montreal, and it is stunning. The Canadian French take their Saints and religion seriously. Well, maybe they don’t anymore, but the history of their ancestors belief in the Almighty can be witnessed across the landscape and on most of the major streets. For example, the basilica is on 424 Rue Saint Sulpice. After our gawking visit, we will collect a coffee and board the subway at Rue Saint-Urbain – Saints everywhere.

Cranberries for sale at Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, Canada

If you want to feel like you are in a real city, not just some spread-everywhere metropolis-of-conformity (like, say, Phoenix), a subway lends an air of authenticity that you are in a place that deserves a rapid means of transport to the far corners of its community. The idea being, there are places here worth visiting spread across the map – not just another shopping center down the road. Our destination is another of those bastions of local culture – the farmers market.

Caroline Wise enjoying cinnamon spiced hot cranberry juice at the Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, Canada

We are at the Jean-Talon Market in the Little Italy district of Montreal. The lady who was selling the cranberries in the photo above Caroline, also sold her own cranberry juice. Local markets are not always tourist destinations, so do not expect much of your tongue to be spoken, and forget about signage that will help you navigate. Do not, though, discount your own intuition. The big metal beverage dispenser with French words likely offers something yummy, I go for it. With my best pronunciation of the French word for 1 and a sharp pointing of my finger, I order “one of those.” The lady, recognizing my incredible mastery of her language, throws a string of French words in my direction, obviously asking me something I am going to easily understand (not), my only response is, oui – I could be relatively certain she wasn’t asking if I’d like a disease mixed into my drink. Good thing I’m Mr. International, not only are we surprised to find out that the cranberry juice is served hot, the vendor’s question had been, “Would you like this with a dash of cinnamon?” Try it yourself, it’s as perfect as a spiced cider on a chilly fall day.

Photos of some of the variety of fruits and vegetables available during fall at the Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, Canada

The fall harvest is on display in abundance. At this point, Montreal becomes a truly livable city to Caroline and I. This is also the time we start to recognize one of the peculiar differences between the United States and Canada – the cost of food. Breakfast at the truck stop yesterday was expensive considering we all had your basic bacon and egg breakfast. Here at the market we find prices for fresh food we haven’t seen in five years across the border. Four-pound cauliflower for $2, 2.5 pounds of creamer potatoes cost $3, a bushel of apples for $10, a basket of four eggplant – only $3. One could get the impression that there is a subtle encouragement for people to avoid the convenience of fast food, and invest their time in cooking at home – how weird is that?

Fresh bread from a bakery at Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, Canada

But is Montreal perfect? We will have to verify this with visit to a bakery and a cheese monger. Being at a farmers market, and a French one at that, it should be obvious that a boulangerie and fromagerie would be nearby. I beg for an answer to the question, how did we Americans fall into Wonderbread and Kraft Slices? The bakery is big, busy, and full of a wide variety of crusty breads, treats, baguettes. Around the corner, on narrow aisles, cheeses of every sort and beautiful stench are available for sampling. If it weren’t for all the incredible infinitely explorable landscape in the states, I do believe we would have to transplant ourselves to live amongst a people who appreciate a well satisfied palate with a good dose of art, music, or theater to round out a day. No, New York City does not fit this bill, as the bills for living there require herculean salaries.

Caroline Wise enjoying a glass of Boreal beer at La Banquise in Montreal, Canada

From cranberry juice to hops juice. It’s lunchtime and Caroline opts for a beer. Before we get to the beer though, we first begin what should have been a long walk back towards our hotel. While we enjoy the subway, underground we see little besides the stations, so we decide to walk and take in some more sightseeing. And we walk. By now our feet are getting sore, heck with all this walking. Plus, we had bought four train tickets anticipating that we would ride the 4-mile return, sparing our feet. Time to hop on the metro. The slight discomfort isn’t the only thing pushing us to hurry.

Poutine with mushrooms, onions, green peppers from La Banquise in Montreal, Canada

We are returning to La Banquise for more poutine. I wanted to try some good French home-cooking but that wasn’t easy to find, while the warm comfort of gravy laden fries with cheese beckoned like a lighthouse on the horizon. Yes, we feel guilty about taking the path of least resistance, of not being adventurous and dipping into the unknown – but we are talking about POUTINE! If you haven’t had it, you cannot know, you cannot judge the measure of our sloth and simultaneous delight. Now excuse me while I indulge my senses in the memories of our mushroom, onion, green pepper, and cheese curd lunch.

A French squirrel in Montreal, Canada

Anyone who knows Caroline and I knows that we love nature. Continuing our compatibility test with Montreal, we head into the local wilds, Lafontaine Park. This 100-acre park is Mount Royal’s (bet you hadn’t considered Montreal’s translation) largest park, it will serve as our basis for observing nature and wildlife that might be found in the city. Squirrels, this was as good as it got. Lots of squirrels are scampering up trees, across the grass, but these were fierce squirrels showing little concern for the multitude of dogs who might be interested in a quick game of chase. This carelessness is probably not good for these well-fed chunky specimens of squirreldom.

Nose picking allowed

It’s time to start moving away from Montreal, feeling that we have a good taste of what the city has to offer. One stop remains for our Intro To Montreal Tour, L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal. Construction began back in 1904, but from the inside, one feels as though this is one of the most modern Basilica to be found amongst churches of this type. So modern and open minded, that the signs within the facility let visitors know it’s okay for their children to pick their noses.

Panoramic view of Montreal from St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Canada

Making our way up the steep climb, we are offered a terrific panoramic view of the city. This is where a beautiful sunny day would have paid off for taking a spectacular photo.

The heart of Saint Andre on display at St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Canada

As I said earlier, if the overcast view doesn’t offer up a great photo opp, better start looking for details. And what curious detail at St. Joseph’s was it that arrested our attention? Saint Andre Bessette’s heart. No longer pumping, but in apparent good shape after 74 years of resting outside his body. So we are religious noobs, but various body parts on display for worship strikes the two of us as a bit weird. I’m certain that upon my death, there are rules against my wife keeping parts of me.

Candle Lite-Brite for God at St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, Canada

The greatest display of candles I’ve seen is here in Montreal at St. Joseph’s. Is this where the concept for Lite-Brite began? At first glance, I hadn’t noticed the pattern between red and clear glass candle holders. I can make out Joseph and Patron, but the rest must be in French. A small gate allows followers to climb the narrow steps on left and right to ascend the heavens and light a candle. This would surely be illegal in America due to liability laws and the concern that someone might brush an article of clothing over the candles, immolating themselves before god and whatever children might be present. How long until this visual is used in a movie?

The illuminated sign for Motel Villa D'Autray in Lanoraie, Canada

About to bring the day to a close, we drive out of Montreal and once clear of the city, start looking for a room. Dinner tonight was on the road  where we indulged on more of our stash of onion bread, cheese, and sausage – we bow down before Cathy for this little luxury. We find the small village of Lanoraie, 42 miles down the road, it offers up Motel Villa D’Autray. Our host doesn’t speak English beyond hello, I offer back bon soir. Our French language mini-guidebook suggest I try “Combien s’il vous plait,” she understands and shows me a rate card. We’re in business, I pay the $65 for a great little room right across the street from the St. Lawrence Seaway. The flannel sheets were awesome, the bed comfy, we were quick to sleep.

Jul 252011

The small cabin on the dock was our home away from home here at Five Branches Camper Park in Bayfield, Colorado on the Vallecito Resevoir

That sweet little cabin over on the dock was our home away from home for the past five days while we stayed at Five Branches Camper Park on Vallecito Reservoir. Our lakeside view, the beautiful forest, and the ride through the woods every day is hard to leave behind. Lucky for us, we leave with fond memories. The two bears that had been visiting the camp nearly every night, didn’t have the chance to eat us or any of our neighbors. The sun rose, it set, and inbetween we saw the sun, unless the stars were out. This place could easily stay on our list of places to return to someday. Sadly, we never had the opportunity to go out kayaking or canoeing. The problem here is that no one can take a boat out before 8:00 a.m. by which time we were already gone, and boats had to be returned by 5:00, we never got back much before 6:00. No matter though, we enjoyed our stay.

Two osprey starting to build a tree top nest next to Vallecito Reservoir in Bayfield, Colorado

Today Caroline was sporting her eagle eye as while we were driving along the narrow lakeside road she spotted two large birds sitting atop a barren tree. I turned around so we could inspect (and verify her rare find – think myopic), sure enough, she had seen two osprey, also known as sea hawks. The bird coming in for a landing is carrying a branch that we watched it snatch off a nearby tree with a pronounced snap. It circled around and was about to deliver the beginnings of a new nest for momma and poppa bird.

Aspen stand off the Redrock Highway in northern Arizona on the Navajo Reservation

The next hours we drove through the Ute Reservation and their town of Ignacio. Next was Aztec, New Mexico and the first and one of the last Starbucks we would find before passing through Flagstaff, Arizona later in the day. So, I’m addicted. It is a long drive from Durango, Colorado to Phoenix, Arizona. After Aztec and nearly the same town, we drive through Farmington. It was in Farmington back on October 19, 2000 that we had the chance to spend a night at Kokopelli Cave while my mother in-law Jutta was visiting. The cave is one of the most unique places in all of America to stay at. But today, we are going home.

Looking south on the Navajo Reservation in eastern Arizona

We have left the Redrock Highway with some great views and beautiful red sandstone bluffs but quality photos were not in the cards this trip. Back down on flat land we were afforded some tremendous vistas, even a little rain was spotted way off in the distance left of the centerline. No rivers, no trees, not much of anything out here, can you guess why this made perfect Indian Reservation land? The answer is easy, there was nothing our forefathers wanted from this land. Caroline and I find it infinitely gorgeous, sadly, most tourists do not. The casual observer gets distracted by the poverty, desolation, and inane stereotypes that have been propagated over the years regarding the indigenous people of North America.

Two dead calves roadside on the Navajo Reservation

Two dead calves lie in front of the gate that leads to Keams, Arizona – they are a warning to white people to not trespass on Indian lands. Black magic as used by drunken Indians on welfare is a fashion on the Rez, it’s like white trash girls wearing big framed sunglasses sporting slutty clothes or some dufus guy wearing his white baseball cap backwards with his pants hanging off his ass so we can read what size boxers he wears – it’s just a fashion, nothing more – but it is effective in keeping others away. Or I’m full of cow-poop, yep, that’s more like it, but these two cows wasting away, who could-have-been-steaks, are probably clean out of poop or any other fluid. Even if one were to want to open the gate to take a shortcut to Keams, how would you maneuver the carcasses?

New Native American pictographs of Mickey are replacing the more old fashioned Kokopelli, dear, or sign for the sun, water, or some other dumb stuff

This is the new face of Native American rock-art, also known as pictographs. Out with Kokopelli, the sun, water, dear, or other tired old-fashioned symbols from the previous thousands of years. Modern Indians are putting down new icons, like Mickey Freakin Mouse. Strangely, Mickey is almost across the street from the two dead calves, could this be some mysterious signal to passing native motorists that running down animals to leave subversive and superstitious looking roadside messages is right on? Then they throw out Disney characters to disorient us tourists into fearing the red man. Maybe the tide is turning and the Indian is getting wise to our wacky rightwing belief systems and are starting to toy with our heads. Native America, rise up and takeover the media landscape, it’s time for revenge against what was taken from you. First step, corrupt our icons.

A curve in the road on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona

With the aerosol bombardment of peyote starting to wear off, a curve in the road returns me to my senses and out of the hallucinations I was obviously having back there deep on the Rez. I’m sure that later when I look back at those photos, the dead calves and Mickey will have proven to be a figment of my imagination. You can bet I’m happy to be returning to normal.

Up that way is the Navajo Rez, behind the camera is America. Fuck yeah!

In front of the camera is Rez land, behind me is America where I feel like a white guy. Soon, we will approach gas stations with hordes of hot tourists driving down Interstate 40 clogging some the grimiest bathrooms your nose wants to experience in the summer. Flushed of their overflowing bladders, they will flock to the freezer for ice-creams and coke – good old American food, no more of that sinewy old mutton and fry bread cooked in lard for me. Just me and my America, going home. Makes me well up and think about listening to this when I get home. Click here to listen and watch