Tuesday, July 9, 2019

What I Learned Under the Dome

July 9, 2019 Bear Lake — AKA Smoky Bear Lake

The heat dome has been covering Alaska for a month now, making the sturdiest of sourdoughs beg for mercy. Whether you call it global warming, climate change, or just really hot dry weather, the state is getting drier and drier and more wildfires torch daily. Temperatures at Bear Lake were in the eighties for the first several days of July and during those days the smoke from wildfires was so thick that our mountains were mere silhouettes, two-dimensional cutouts of themselves. Fifty miles to the northeast a large wildfire is reshaping the biology of the National Wildlife Refuge.
Because of the heat and in spite of the smoke life is in an altered state. We get to wear clothes that we usually only take on vacation, and much of our time is spent outside or on the porch overlooking the lake (we are long past the age of lying in the sun like white brats on the grill). The lake is warmed to comfortable swimming hole temperatures, and morning coffee on the patio feels like a trip to the lower latitudes. The grandkids have become marine mammals, in and out of the water constantly like river otters. We close up the house during the day to keep out the heat and open it at night to cool, just like they do in hot places all summer long. But here in Seward, Alaska where a sixty-five-degree day is just fine and often as good as it gets, keeping the house cool is usually not an issue. Finally, we start missing the rain.

I learned something during the strange, hot, smoky interlude of summer, many things in fact. Here is a list: 

— It’s possible to have a tropical heat wave in the near Subarctic. As close as I can understand, a heat dome occurs when warm tropical air moves from the ocean to the land and gets trapped under a high-pressure zone. AKA heat wave, a tropical heat wave!  Wait! I know that song.
— Things can always get worse. We drove across the Kenai Peninsula the first week of June and complained about the long delays for road construction. On the way home, we drove through the thunderstorm that started the Swan Lake Fire and saw some of its first smoke, a white plume no bigger than a bonfire might produce. A month later we are chocking on the smoke from that fire and driving across the Peninsula has been even more challenging. Looking back what’s a short delay for construction?
— I can now recite the fire evacuation levels, Ready, Set, Go. Level One (Ready): A fire is in the area; make a plan to evacuate and organize what you take and leave behind. Level Two (Set): Get your shit together so when it’s time to go, you can grab the car keys and hit the road. Food and water packed in the escape vehicle, Documents and papers collected and loaded in the vehicle, pets kids wife and mother-in-law all rounded up and kept close. Level Three (GO)  Evacuate with all things and people you planned to take, Check in with Red Cross so you are accounted for. Don’t return until things are clear. 
—Dogs are smart, smarter than humans often, this human anyway. My old Alaska sleddogs have no interest in working when the temperature is about seventy. While I was splitting firewood at eighty degrees they were lying in the shade napping. They knew we didn’t need firewood right now and there would be plenty of fifty degree days between now and winter to do this splitting. No need to work when the thermometer says eighty. 
— Never say never. Here in the northern rainforest, we don’t fret much about fire. That changes now. After a month without rain and high heat and wind working across the land, we are drier than the proverbial popcorn fart. We are only one careless camper away from our own wildfire.

— More women in Alaska own bikinis than you’d think. Everyday folks show up at the lake in their swim trunks bikinis and less. This is rare to see the lake dotted with people in swimsuits country where  Extratufs, jeans, and hoodies are standard issue. I’ve seen more skin this month that all the rest of my ten years on the lake. Not complaining, just sharing data.
—The beauty of nature comes in many forms. Some summer evenings I paddle late across the lake and look at the setting sun, soaring mountains, and maybe a bear or moose. Under the heat dome with temperatures in the seventies well after dinner, I paddled across the lake and around the north end of the island to find a something new, three nubile young women sitting on a rock sunning their legs and sipping beers. They were as surprised as I was, but I think I was more pleased. 

The heat dome appears to be weakening and rain showers are in the forecast. It may well be years before we experience something like this again. But then again, it could be the new norm. One thing is for sure, life in Alaska is only boring if you’re not paying attention. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Fine Trip? It's All in How You Look at It

So, the other day my gal and I took our thirty-five-year-old Albin out to Humpy Cove for an overnight. It was supposed to be a two or three-night trip, but things changed like the weather forecast being sloppy, and our energy being low and the boat not really clean from a winter sitting in the boat harbor. 
We were a month late on the usually things one does to get a boat ready for summer cruising like sorting out what got crammed in lockers when we put it away in a hurry last fall and drying out area of the boat that got wet and wiping down the algae that built up on the outside and the mildew that formed on interior surface. Okay, we were really six weeks late. We spent a few hours down that the boat harbor getting the first layers of grim off the old girl, but it wasn’t a pleasant spring experience it usually is. A crew of pile drivers were working in the background, and our old backs were soon aching from bending and stooping to scrub all those little corners and edges that need cleaning every spring.
We had wisely blocked out a week for potential boat trips each month and this was the first week and by God, we were going, hell or high water —an idiom that doesn’t work very well with boating since boats like high water. Anyway, we set out for Day Harbor, a four hour trip in our slow trawler. No, the boat wasn’t totally clean, and no the gear wasn’t all stowed, but we had food, water and all systems that needed to work were up and running. The seas were sloppy once we passed through the narrows exposed the boat to the Gulf of Alaska and the winds were forecast to blow up in the evening. We decided we didn’t feel like being knocked around, and staying inside Resurrection Bay didn’t look like a bad option. The sun was shining, the humpbacks were showing their fins so all was right with the world. 
We ditched the Day Harbor plan, did a tour of Fox Island and Sunny Cove, then headed for Humpy Cove where we hoped to anchor in the protected creek mouth in the Cove’s south end. This tiny anchorage was empty so we dropped anchor, had lunch and then tackled some of the sorting and cleaning jobs we meant to do before we left the harbor. Suddenly the arduous task of boat cleaning and maintenance became a pleasant afternoon’s distraction between reading, talking to seals and sea lions, and napping. By dinner time we had sorted through all the lockers and storage tubs, cleaned windows, and decks, and started a list of things we needed. 
The next day we rowed around the cove in our dinghy, logged more naps, and filled a garbage bag and a tote bag with things to go home or to the trash. Our mantras were: “Do we really need this? And Do we really need more than one of these? For example, we found one locker near the steering station had four knives and two knife sharpeners. These don’t include the knife I always have in my pocket, the one hanging in easy reach in the wheelhouse and the several knives in the galley. We found flares expired in 2007 and phone charging cords that didn’t fit any of our phones. We were fighting weight creep and proud of it. (weight creep is the addition to the boat’s weight a few pounds or ounces at a time by bringing things on and not taking things off.) Working in a quiet, scenic cove made the work a pleasure not drudgery like it was in the boat harbor and the afternoon beers were well earned. When I took a break from cleaning, sorting and napping I had New York Times crosswords and Mark Twain feed my brain. Madelyn disappeared into historic China for several unaccounted hours.
We weren’t without company in our private natural retreat. The guillemots and sea lions stopped by to visit and a harbor seal kept us under close observation all during our stay. A few kayakers paddled by and waved and an inflatable hauling three Anchorage teachers stopped by to admire our the Albin. Another local retired couple motored in to anchor after a day of fishing and we had the three-part catching up talk of family, health, and winter travels. Finally, come evening, it was time to leave and we pulled anchor and starting bouncing our way home with a south wind and the usual chop of Resurrection Bay in total agreement that it had been a fine escape. 
It wasn’t until we were abeam of Lowell Point that Madelyn complained of smell the exhaust that came from having the wind on our stern. Then she checked the aft cabin to close the ports before docking and found it more like a sauna than anything else. “It’s really hot back here,” she complained. 
“It always heats up that cabin when we’re running,” I answered. 
“but we’ve got steam coming out the engine vents,” she replied. At that, I looked back and saw steam or smoke pouring out of the aft cabin. 
“Take the wheel!” I yelled and jump to the engine hatch. I opened the hatch to a spray of salt water and steam. “Cut back the throttle and put it in neutral! And watch the temperature gauge!” I yelled. I tried to figure out where the spraying water was coming from. I thought we’d blow a hose, but the temperature was holding at 190, and oil pressure where it should be at fifty. It only took a second or two to see that the cast iron elbow that connected engine manifold to the four-inch exhaust hose was broken, and we were pumping salt water into the boat instead of out the stern where it should be. We weren’t on fire, and we weren’t sinking.  
“Keep it slow and start motoring toward town,” I said, “And turn on the bilge. I think I can rig a fix.” I pushed the broken pieces together and by holding them in place, got most of the exhaust going where it should. I jumped to my now well-organized rope locker and found a neatly coiled length of 3/8 inch line. That morning I had sorted through a heap of mooring lines and various lengths of rope and coiled and stowed them in a tidy tub. I knew just the one I needed.
The rope was just the right size to lash the broken parts together and get things back to near normal in the engine room. Now, most of the exhaust was going into the hose where it belonged. With a collective sigh of relief, we continued toward the boat harbor at low rpm and even had a laugh at how good it was that we knew where everything in the emergency because in the last twenty-four hours we had literally touched everything on the boat. We made a plan for any problem we might have during the last two miles to our slip at the boat harbor, and Madelyn cleaned up as much of the mess as she could. 
We made our landing without incident and opened beers to congratulate ourselves on being a good team when the emergency hit, and we toasted our luck that this happened only a couple miles from home instead of out in Day Harbor or around Aialik Cape where we often cruise. 
That night when I crawled into bed, Madelyn reached over patted my shoulder. “Thanks for a great trip,” she murmured, ”I had a wonderful time.”  

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What am I Doing Here?

I used to say that when I could, that is when I quit teaching school, I would leave this country during October. The dark, wet fall of the eastern Kenai Peninsula is dank and depressing like no other time of year. The long stretches of rain and flood, the deep darkness of nights without stars, moon or snow are the darkest time of year. Even the October holiday, Halloween, is not my cup tea though I honor those who embrace this celebration of death and branched trees standing skeleton like in the dripping forest full of shadow, clothed in mourners colors of black, brown, and grey. 
I wanted to be somewhere and be dry and light during October, camping in the Valley of Gods or hiking the Gila Wilderness, but here I am. The third week of October and I’m sitting here looking out at the rain driving against the window and behind it the dark silhouette of the willows with the last wilted leaves clinging to the branches like used Kleenex. 
If I had packed my bags and grabbed a middle seat on some southbound redeye what would I miss? The rain ‘heavy at times’? The wind gusting to 55 mph like it is today? Repeated flood advisories, warnings, watches?  Would I miss soggy newspapers and scattered porch debris? Maybe even the two trick or treaters that manage to find my house.
But I didn’t, and instead, I was here when the swans blew in on a storm honking their horns like they had won the election, their wings big as sails. Instead, I was here when the eagles quarrelled over the salmon on my yard and the flocks of migrating ducks came by to feed on the rich lake margins and stay until the last storm before the ice comes. I was here when I could walk the lake trail and see deep into the forest because the umbrella-sized devils club turned gold and dropped to rot in the mossy forest floor. I was here to bounce my grandson on my knee and meet his cousins at the bus. I was here for saunas and firewood fetching and watching Molly cut the last flowers from Nana’s garden.

I got to drink coffee with my gal on the world’s best porch and watch the otters play on our dock, cavorting and looking over their shoulders like neighbor kids who know they aren’t supposed to be there. I got to putter in my shop or write through the morning. I got to be in this place where I've been longer than I’ve been anywhere else and there’s a good reason for that.  

Yeah, it’s still dark and wet and depressing like no other month but soon it will pass and after those two kids come to share my bowl of Reeses Cups on Halloween, we’ll be into the cold, windy November. And who wants to miss that?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Women Rocking the Boat

A few months ago when famous men were getting a long-overdue ass kicking for mistreating women, women stood up and elbowed their way to the front of the room. I watched male power figures fall, and I thought, wow this is the year of the woman. Then, during the Olympic Games it seemed that only American women were winning medals, and I said it out loud, “This IS the year of the woman, and I’m diggin’ it.”
Ready for the Water!

My point was proven in a personal way this month when Madelyn and I traveled to Port Hadlock, Washington to visit a project started by a group of women to resurrect a piece of maritime history, a twenty-three foot sailboat, the Felicity Ann. 
In 1952, a hapless British widow with little sailing experience and an iron spine, bought a twenty-three foot sailboat, stocked up on food and water then sailed across the Atlantic to America. She sailed alone, teaching herself navigation and seamanship as she battled wind, tide, and current as well as self doubt and fear. She was the first woman to sail solo across the Atlantic.  In doing so, she broke one more barrier for women and became a national hero. Unfortunately, today few people know the name of Ann Davison.
Most of the hardware is original from the boat.
Lots of new wood.

Felicity Ann's graceful stern.
Our relationship with the Felicity Ann and the amazing Ann Davison started just north of Seward on the shores of Kenai Lake, where we met two woman who had owned the boat and stored it in their yard for a number of years. Realizing that the project was bigger than they were, they passed it on a man in Haines.  Left behind were the port and starboard navigation lights, which we purchased and brought home along with the story of Ann Davison and her little boat. Over the years, we read Ann Davison’s book My Ship is So Small, and kept track of the Felicity Ann through the Internet and Wooden Boat magazine. 
Madelyn poses in Ann
Davison look-alike
From all that I can gather, Felicity Ann spent over fifty years like a needy foster child, bouncing from one home to the next when she proved to be too much work. Restoring a wood boat is a time and money black hole and the longer it’s put off the bigger it is. After the home in Haines didn’t prove out for Felicity Ann, she headed south to the NorthWest School of Wooden Boat Building in Port Hadlock, Washington, where the skills, knowledge, and tools existed to make her whole again. All that was missing was energy. That momentum came in the form of a group of women at the Port Hadlock Community Boat Project. This outfit wraps their energy around boats and young people, and Felicity Ann was a natural match for them. 
Community Boat Project Shipwright,
Wayne Chimenti, and Felicity Ann's new
Skipper, Nahja, admire the navigation lights
we brought to Port Hadlock.
So now this historic relic has been brought back from the brink, and this summer her keel will be wet for the first time in decades.  Our little piece of this adventure was returning the navigation lights to their place with the boat and being rewarded with a tour of Felicity and her new home in Port Hadlock.
This summer Felicity Ann with be launched into the waters of a different ocean, but still with a woman at the helm, thanks to a group of sailors who wanted to remember that while women rise up today there were strong women in the past who ignored the bias and the boundaries put up by men and moved forward to do great things.
--- Ann Davison’s book, My Ship is so Small, is a great read and the following websites will allow you to follow Felicity Ann’s modern story:
The Felicity project is also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FelicityAnnBoatProject/

Saturday, February 3, 2018

DO NOT OCCUPY and other Absurdities

My wife and I recently visited Portugal and one of the most distinct things I noticed was a lack of signs. Of course, there were speed limit signs and no parking signs, but advertising, business signs, and informational signs were really scarce or understated. Looking for a restroom in the restaurant? Don’t expect six-inch letters RESTROOMS->. No, there will be a small W.C.  in two in letters on a door or just small indistinct silhouettes of a man and woman. The business signs are generally not big billboards but just simple plaques beside the door of entry. Of course, the Pharmacies have their green neon crosses but those were about the most visual I see. 
Not only are business signs understated, the country also lacks instructional signs telling people what to do or what not to do. I got a parking ticket because I didn’t know that the parking area I parked in was a Paid Parking area. The ticket writer showed me the little kiosk where I was supposed to pay, but there was no help for an ignorant tourist like me to find it and obvious American-style Paid Parking sign at each stall. I figured out the system after that and didn’t need a sign to know if I was in Paid Parking or not.
“Oh crap, I was going to climb up in that dumpster and take a nap,
but this dumpster doesn’t allow that. I Guess I’ll move along
and find one that allows occupants.”
It was when I came home, however that I really saw how sign crazy we American’s are. Everywhere we go it seems we are getting derections. No need to reason or problem solve just follow the signs. THIS FIRE MAY BE HOT type signs really drive me crazy. This reached it’s zenith with me at the Seward Boat Harbor when I saw a dumpster with clear blue letters: DO NOT OCCUPY. Now this is a five foot high metal box with a plastic lid of a shape that most people would recognize as a dumpster and no one would confuse with a hotel room, cabin, or campervan. Who needs to be told not to occupy a dumpster? AND, do we really think anyone who would want to “occupy” a dumpster would be deterred by a warning sign?

The ubiquitous Use Other Door sign is useful except that I won’t read it until I’ve tried to open a locked door. Then I look down and see, Use other Door! These signs should be positioned on a post to be read before reaching the door.  But then I would probably just push it aside while complaining about someone leaving this post in front of the doorway.  
I think we have so many signs in our culture because we are at once, bossy and helpful. We all seem to enjoy correcting people’s behavior, and we love to help by giving direction to others who may need guidance. But signs often don’t communicate accurately, effectively, or without conflicts of logic. Unfortunately, this easily goes from pushy to silly like the pole in an Anchorage neighborhood that has one sign that reads Visitor Parking and below it another sign that reads No parking, Fire Lane. Did no one installing those signs think for just a minute? I hope he/she loved the irony and walked away laughing.

Unfortunately, we seem to be sign dependent, and in Portugal, I was constantly seeking sign guidance. “Why don’t the have a sign here that says . . .?” so I don’t have to guess. But even signs posted were often ignored. We walked an extra hundred yards to a monument in Sagres, Portugal because the road in front of the monument was clearly marked (a rare thing) with no parking signs. When we came out two hours later, that clearly marked road was lined with parked cars. It occurs to me then that the Portuguese aren’t so different from us after all. The culture has merely adapted to the fact that most people will ignore signs that ask them to do what they don’t want to whether it’s to park where they don’t want to occupy a dumpster. I think the Portuguese just quit putting us signs that people will ignore or don’t need, and that does make the world a lot easier to look at.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Snow Rollers What a Treat

Poor photo of snow roller 
Today we enjoyed our first ski of the season on the fresh powder of yesterday's snowfall. No wind, a bit of sun filtering through the clouds, and our skijor dogs glad to be in the harness. That should have been enough of a treat to make us glad we got out of bed this morning. But a rich bonus were the snow balls we passed -- like the snow trolls had been having a snowball fight. 

No tracks had crossed the lake yet but here were these snowballs and the traces in the snow where they had rolled through the powder perfect snow.  Some softball size others as big as basketballs.

Here was a white carpet of perfect snow and across the surface, hundreds of balls of snow cascaded like spilled pearls. The flat light didn't allow for very good pictures, but they do show the size and shape as well as the their tracks. 

I did a little research —— thanks Google and wikipedia—— and found that these are called snow rollers.  
According to Wikipedia: 

A snow roller is a rare meteorological phenomenon in which large snowballs are formed naturally as chunks of snow are blown along the ground by wind, picking up material along the way, in much the same way that the large snowballs used in snowmen are made.

On parts of the lake we saw these winter wonders blown across acres of lake surface. Just another day of wonder on Bear Lake. One more thing to be thankful for.  It doesn't need to be Thanksgiving for me to give thanks.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Changing Seasons Ride the North Wind

The turn of the seasons is always an exciting time, whether it is the green explosion of spring or the golden spray of fall leaves.  This week, we moved into winter here in southern Alaska with temperatures settling into the twenties and the north wind sending us running to the closet for more clothes.

  At our house on Bear Lake we are ready for the change though we had to move quickly. With the help of grandson, Sawyer, we placed the kayaks in their winter slings hanging in the rafters of the dog kennel, and we pulled the rowboat and nestled it in its nest in the boat shed. By the time we got to the rowboat though, the ice was wrapping around the hull and the ice pans threatened to anchor it on lakeshore for the duration.  We’ve plucked the last hardy kale leaves and only the carrots wait in the soil to be harvest. 

This weekend we even found a few cranberries to augment our assorted berry larder.

The last of the ducks seem to be looking at the horizon wondering if they should leave, they must know that on the first morning without out wind the lake will freeze and they have to migrate or move the salt water for the winter.  Only the persistent north wind has kept the lake in motion so it doesn’t freeze. I have seen times when wind drops on a cold morning in October and one can watch the first skin of form on the lake. 

Along the south shore where lumpy ice ridges have been forming on the beach for days, the thin layer of ice stretches out from the shore pushing the last of the Golden-eye duck farther off shore. Then fingers and pans of silver  ice take shape off shore until they stretch and touch. I have seen five acres of ice form on the still lake in just a half hour.

Some years this is the end open water and the lid of ice covers the lake water for the winter. More often though, wind, rain and warming temperatures break the first layer of ice piled it in the south cove where Bear Creek drains the lake.  As we watch the ice pans form and stack the last stash of firewood, we can only hope that the first week of November brings still cold ice making days so we can be skating by thanksgiving.  Remember it’s the end of October and regardless of what the calendar says that’s the start of winter.