Saturday, November 16, 2013

Mountains, glaciers, airplanes, and brushes with death

-->This past summer Angie and I engaged in all of the things listed above (we also got engaged). 

Whenever I tell people that I teach in Alaska usually one of the first things out of their mouths is a variation of “Oh I’ve heard Alaska is so beautiful!”  My response has been, “I’ve heard good things.”  To be fair, western Alaska is nice to look at.  The gradual transition to fall with the various tundra plants changing from deep green to oranges and reds and finally to a very fall-like brown does attract my attention when the sun is shining and the winds are calm.  But the gentle subtlety of the tundra is not what the people I’ve talked to have in mind.  They picture eye-popping mountain vistas.  They see calving glaciers splashing to the sea.  Above it all the bald eagle surveying the scene as whale and grizzly command the water and land.

So we decided that we should do the Alaskan adventure that everyone assumed we did during the nine months a year we spent teaching.

Glacier National Park - pretty place...until you go to Alaska.  I jokes.
Our journey began in St. Paul aboard the Amtrak. We detrained (fancy train vocab!) in West Glacier, Montana for a quick jaunt through Glacier National Park.  A week there was a delight.  A note about Glacier - the name refers to the origin of the landforms, not to a current geologic feature.  Nonetheless, glaciers or no, the park is beautiful.  We spent a few days in the backcountry where Angie was attacked by one of Glacier's most aggressive dangers - allergies.  Hopped up on Allegra, we spent the next couple of days doing some day hikes.  No bears, but we did see some goats and sheep.  Not quite as interesting, but much less unsettling to come across. 

Lake McDonald - Glacier National Park
Mountain goats.  Glacier National Park.
From Glacier we hopped back on the Amtrak to Portland.  Two days there putzing around then we flew up to Anchorage.  We decided to splurge on a rental car.  In retrospect this was a necessity.  Our trip would have been very different without the freedom a car gives you.
And without a car we wouldn't have had the opportunity to drive on leopard roads!
And in case you are lost in the woods.  Okay, it was on the side of the road.
I can't begin to explain how large Alaska is.  It's cliche, I know.  Who cares.  It's huge.  We drove from Anchorage up to Denali National Park.  Two days we spent in these little cabins.  Quite nice.  We drove up to the Park those days, got our bearings, did some day hikes, and selected our campgrounds for the next few nights.  We settled on three nights at Igloo Creek.  Camping turned out to be a wonderfully economical way to enjoy the park.  One Camper Bus ticket allowed us unlimited rides on the buses for the entire time we were camping.  Had we have chosen not to camp we would have been stuck paying thirty-some odd dollars a day to ride the bus.

Denali National Park is huge.  Most people (including us) only get to see a very small part of it.  There is only one road in the park, and most of that road is closed to the public.  That's where the buses from above come into play.  Forcing visitors to use the buses cuts down significantly on traffic in the park.  It's a little annoying if you want to move at your own pace, but it's pretty awesome if you want to see animals.  From the bus we saw caribou, sheep, fox, bear (finally), even a lone wolf one evening running off in the distance.  It's amazing how safe you feel observing the wildness of Alaska from within a metal walled bus.  This changes dramatically when you see a bear and you are not in the bus anymore (this is a story for later).  Hiking with the buses is also very convenient.  When you want to get off and start a hike you simply signal the driver.  Without any officially maintained trails, this is theoretically possible to do anywhere.  In reality, there are more or less unofficial trails that tend to earn reputations from other hikers or recommendations from the bus drivers.  We took advantage of the wisdom of others and took a few of these hikes.
Hiking - Alaska style.

"Ah!  What a lovely couple!" - Kurt Jones circa 2011

Just some mountains.  No big deal.

After Denali we headed over to the bizarre hippy/middle-aged tourist haven known as Talkeetna.  It was a weird mix of awesome.  The thing about Alaska is that it attracts well-to-do middle-aged couples (we met a 50-something newly married couple on their honeymoon) seeking the Alaskan experience (gold panning, salmon fishing, big game hunting) and at the same time it attracts those of the younger generation with interests in the fields of hippie-dom, alcohol fishing, and hitchhiking.  Imagine Duluth+San Francisco in 1969.  These two groups of people, along with the third group – the locals (think the “keep it local and organic” crowd + the NRA’s most vocal advocates) all intersect in Talkeetna.  The sum of all of this is a large number of locally-owned shops, restaurants, and tour companies staffed by scruffy looking gen-y’ers tending to every whim of the baby-boomers’ desires.  We, like everyone else we met or had talked to, loved Talkeetna.

Flight-seeing.  So baller.

From Talkeetna, we drove to Valdez.  A small community ringed by massive mountains and the Pacific.  Valdez is gorgeous.  Valdez is a pretty eerie place.  It is famous for its catastrophes.  In 1964 the town was demolished by the infamous Good Friday Earthquake.  The quake was the second largest recorded earthquake on record (magnitude 9.2), and it caused a landslide-induced tsunami that swept away much of the old town’s buildings.  Twenty-five years later, again on Good Friday, the Exxon Valdez ran aground spilling oil just outside of the town polluting the shoreline for miles and killing sea birds, mammals, and fish.  Despite these two events, Valdez is home to the terminus of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.  We spent a few days bumming around Valdez before heading to Anchorage and from their flying back to Tununak to start year five.         
Popular dinner spot with the Valdez locals.  We found the food to be overrated and underdone.
The end of the line.  Way up there on that hill.
 And you are definitely not allowed to visit.

Denali from Talkeetna.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Teaching is So Easy. Sometimes.

Lego Robotics
I have been involved in Lego Robotics for the past five years now.  I have to admit - I'm kind of obsessed.
Here's a quick primer:
Running the robot during the competition

  • Our fifth through eighth graders have the opportunity to join an extra-curricular club/team known as robotics.
  • Each season, we, along with a couple dozen other teams across the district participate in the annual First Lego League (FLL for short) competition.
  • For the competition, each team designs, builds, and programs a robot.  The robot has a series of missions that it must accomplish to earn points.
  • In addition to the robotics side, the teams also create a project that offers a solution to a problem based on a theme.  The theme this year:  Nature's Fury.
Modifying programs - trying to apply a cast
Team Building - Building a tower to touch the ceiling

So that's that.  Research, write, perform, build, program, compete.  What I like about it so much is that it's painless to coach.  Legos are just too awesome.  And kids (as well as adults) just get sucked in trying to get the robot to do what it's supposed to do.  Problem solving, teamwork, persistence, math, science and whatever else (meteorology and geology this year).

The second thing is closely related.  Last summer I had the opportunity to be an instructor for a summer program for middle school students.  The program, SeaPerch, was a one week camp where students traveled in from the villages to build a remote operated submersible.  Over the course of a week each student built a SeaPerch from simple materials (PVC, netting, zipties, model airplane props, and a trio of motors) that they got to take home at the end of the week.  Another fascinating, easy to teach group.  All the learning kids love.  The easiest thing in the world to teach.
After assembly, the chassis get spray painted

The concept of neutral buoyancy was never easier to teach
Three days of soldering.  Three long days.

Testing out the SeaPerches at the harbor.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Booyeah Summer Break

School year (number four!) ended last Thursday.  It snowed.  Friday was a work day - the official last day for me - and it snowed some more.  Saturday, the official first day of summer and we decided to go goose hunting.  It is too strange to explain why it wasn't quite a success.

Ahhh...summer break.  Finally.
The south hill.

Ready for the zombie apocalypse
 It is officially spring (according to the calendar) so the geese should be returning.  They've been slowly making their way back, but the larger migration has yet to start.  I blame it on the lack of open water.  All of the ponds around Tununak are still covered in ice.  Snow blankets most of the tundra.  The river ice is still in place.  The sea ice is still anchored to the shore.  It's weird.  First day of summer, and it's below freezing.

Kurt guarding
All of these disadvantages didn't stop Kurt from shooting the solo goose flying overhead.  We'd posted up on the hill waiting for geese to fly over us.  Boring, cold, but not so bad when you lay back on the frozen tundra.  The lonely bird flew over us once, too high for a shot, when Victor began calling.  The sad, lonely bird, thinking his homies were calling him in banked wide and began his descent.  He came back around when - Bang!

Stalking ptarmigan
We sat, staring up, trying to determine if he hit it.  Then trying to determine if it was coming down.  Then we were up running.  The dead bird landed within three feet of where we were sitting, I mean guarding.  Most terrifying thing in the world to see a bird fall out of the sky.

We ended the day with two ptarmigan, a goose, and a brush with falling death.  Not the worst start to summer break.

Victor, Kurt, Danny, two ptarmigan, and one goose.

Monday, May 13, 2013

I now like ice fishing.

The first time I went ice fishing I fell in a hole.  As a little kid with a little foot I was able to fall in the little hole.  It was cold and miserable, and on top of all that I don't remember catching anything resembling a fish.  Maybe I caught a cold.  Who knows?  That was about twenty-five years ago.  I can now say that my opinion on the activity has changed.

A little more than nine miles round trip.
My change of heart happened three weeks ago.  Up for something out the ordinary, we (Angie, Kurt, Neal, and myself) decided to go ice fishing.  The fabled location was a ways away.  Kurt and Neal had made an attempt to find the spot an earlier weekend with no luck.  In preparation for this attempt I asked the other high school teacher how to get there.  She sketched out a quick map on my whiteboard.  "Okay, got it," I said.  Armed with this knowledge we now felt ready to go.  We discussed our plan, and Kurt had heard it was shorter to go over the hill, we set out.

Kurt shoulda worn cleats.  Oh well.  Next time.
 We left the BIA in the early afternoon.  The sun was out, blasting the way.  As our journey up the hill started I was instantly pleased with my last minute decision to wear my ice cleats.  Angie had hers on as well.  Neal and Kurt opted to venture forth without.  What had appeared as nice soft snow turned out to be nice soft snow, except under that layer was a much trickier layer of ice.  The nice soft snow did nothing but make the ice even more slippery.  Combined with the steep incline of the hill and the sled carrying our fishing gear, the hike up the hill took a long time.  About half way up, after both Neal and Kurt had stumbled and fallen a number of times apiece, the clouds rolled in.  The wisdom of our route was in question.  But we were invested in the adventure by this time.  There would be no turning around.

Slightly reminiscent of an arctic exploratory team
As we neared the summit, Angie and I were out in front.  We climbed the last bit and as we came even with the top of the hill we came face to face with a herd of musk ox.  Probably fifty adults and a number of juveniles stood no more than one hundred feet from us.  The wind had been coming from the north - they had not been able to smell us approach.  We dropped to the ground, whispering to Neal and Kurt to hurry up.  Before they made it up to us the herd figured us out and began moving away to stage their defensive positions.  Musk ox, being gigantic animals, are not the bravest of creatures.  I have heard that they will charge, but most of the time all I've seen them do is line up, shoulder to shoulder in a display of power.  They are mighty intimidating, but after sizing us up for a while and watching us slowly get closer they must have recognized our true power.  I am still trying to figure out what our true power was, but they took off to the North.  We continued to follow their retreat as it was in the direction of our fishing spot.

Muskox.  Chillin'.
Rare blue sky moments are fantastic.
 The hill we were crossing, actually the core of an ancient volcano, rises maybe one thousand feet above the village.  The top is a large flat area offering views in all directions.  From there we could just barely make out where we were going.  It was a long ways away without a very clear line down.  We continued along the ridge looking for the easiest way down.  After deciding that using the sled to bomb the hill was probably not the best idea we opted for sliding down on our feet and butts.  Slower than sledding (we ghost rode that whip), it was much more fun that climbing the hill.  Our descent took us to about one hundred feet above the sea – to the edge of a rocky cliff that falls to meet the shore.  We would have to walk along the cliff until we found a drainage chute to descend.  A little further on we came across a baby musk ox, completely alone.  Angie and I left Neal and Kurt at this point and we descended down a chute to the ocean below.  Kurt and Neal got much closer to the baby than I thought would have been possible.  Kind of a bummer to miss that.  Oh well.
The baby I missed.
But I did get first tracks in the backcountry.

We arrived at the old fishing hole as two others were packing up to return to the village.  They'd had luck catching fish so we decided to get to work.  The spot we were at was on sea ice near the shore where a stream draining the hills we'd been climbing on emptied into the ocean.  This assured that open water was available below the sea ice and fisherpeople before us has chipped out holes to catch the fish. 

You just watch for a fish - then yank!
There are two primary methods to catching fish where we were.  Dip netting and jigging.  Nets may be the fastest method but we didn't have one.  The traditional manaq would have to do.  Basically what you have is a dowel with some fishing line connected to a hook.  The most basic fishing kit ever.  I actually felt overburdened with a reel on the ice fishing rod that I'd borrowed from another teacher.  No matter, the fish were there.  In a matter of speaking they were biting, but that's not completely accurate.  The method we used involves laying on the ice, sticking your face in the hole to block out the light so that you can see into the water.  I didn't believe that I would see anything at first, but as my eyes adjusted I was overwhelmed at the numbers of fish swirling about under the surface.  At this point all you do is lower you naked hook into the water, wait for a fish to approach it, and yank - snagging the fish through the lower jaw.  It was unbelievable.  We caught fish after fish like this.  Kurt had advised us to be content with the smaller guys - they fry up the best.  With this we were completely content pulling whatever fish came our way up and out of the water.  In about half an hour we'd caught about sixty fish between the four of us using three rods.  That's a little less that one fish per minute per person.  It was awesome.
One of sixty.

I know it looks ridiculous.

Our catch.
The walk back, however, was not so great.  After realizing that walking over ice covered mountains was more work than walking on ice covered oceans, we decided to take the coastal route back.  Longer?  Maybe.  Windier?  Absolutely.  But flatter and ultimately probably faster.  Our journey concluded, arriving wind- and sunburned, starving, and tired, about six hours later after covering a total of about nine and a half miles.  Quite the day. 
We were too tired and hungry the night we returned to eat the fish we’d caught.  After giving away approximately half of the fish, we quickly cleaned them and put then in the refrigerator for the next night.

Filling two frying pans with oil we fried the little guys up.  Absolutely delicious.    

About 40 fish heads.

Batter fry assembly line.
Oh yeah.
So tasty.

Acquiring Skills For Life

I will leave Tununak one day, and when I do I will have collected the weirdest set of experiences.  For example, I have cooked the senior banquet for six seniors and their ten guests each.  I have run sound effects at a district-wide art performance.  I have help create high school student schedules.  But the most helpful thing, I'm sure, is perfecting the art of grocery shopping.  A never ending process, shopping for food has become some sort of weird obsession.

First off, remember that while there are two stores in town, the prices are exorbitant and the selection miserable.  So our shopping usually happens twice a year - once in the fall and again over winter break.

For the grocery nerds out there is our list.

Here's the basic plan.
  1. Inventory what's on hand in our house.
  2. Using that list and previous lists, begin making the current shopping list.
  3. Separate it out into dry, shelf stable items; refrigerator; and frozen.  These will be coming from different locations.
  4. Once separated, attempt to order as much as possible from Amazon.  With free shipping it often has some incredible deals. 
  5. The refrigerator and frozen items, however, require far more thought.  After getting frustrated with the professional shoppers (commissioned shoppers in Anchorage) we decided to try it ourselves.  The process requires a number of coolers (three), some cooler bags (two), duct tape, ice packs, and a knife.  
  6. Show up at the airport.  Thank Alaska Air for their liberal three bag free policy (when flying within the state of Alaska).  Slap the stickers on and board.  Pray that the village flight is not too full so that all of your coolers get to fly with you.
  7. Unpack.  It's like Christmas.  Kind of.
Here's what are freezer looks like right now - stocked full for next school year.  
Mmm.  Frozen foods.

Angie did all the shopping.  Booyeah.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sunday, July 1st - Amritsar

Cute, huh?
Not sure if I could ever get used to India.  Yesterday morning we left Dharamsala at around 7am.  We were headed to Amritsar in the western border state of Punjab.  We'd hired two cabs, one carrying six and ours carrying three.

The journey was billed as a 5-6 hour trip.  I don't know why I even think it will take that amount of time.  The variables involved in Indian travel are too numerous and random to mention.  Things that impacted our actual journey, however, included the following:
  • The language barrier.  Our driver spoke very limited English.  We spoke very limited Hindi (actually about all I know is "sit down" and "repeat after me").  Combine this with the fact that the typical Indian response to a question posed in English is "yes" regardless of the whether or not the answer to the question is yes, or even whether or not the question is understood.
  • Traffic.  At one point we were stopped for ten minutes for no apparent reason besides the fact that all of the cars in front of us were stopped.
  • Tea breaks.  Fewer on this time around, but still too many considering the fact that it was over 100 degrees out.
  • Random additional breaks.  Usually spontaneous bathroom breaks for the drivers on the side of the road.  But other times for driver conferences.  The reasons for these meetings are highlighted next.
  • Detours.  Completely unmarked, and in reality optional, as some vehicles choose to continue along as if the road under construction was not have finished and partially paved.  And you can always just drive around the massive piles of dirt and rock used in road construction.
  • Getting lost.  Our drivers got lost - twice.  We were driving from one giant city to another and they managed to get lost.  Not that I would have done any better, but I'm paying these people because they are experts.
So back to the beginning of the journey.  We left Dharamsala at about 7am.  Immdediately we began the descent.  Dh'sala is nestled in the foothills at around 1200m.  Amritsar is well under a few hundred meters.  We zipped along the winding mountain roads, our driver rarely taking heed of the helpful signs that showed up before many hairpin turn ("Do Not Dare!  Drive With Care!" and "Be Gentle On My Curves").  Reaching the bottom of the mountains was relief until we realized that the temperature had risen considerably.  The average 80 degree days of Dharamsala had given way what was sure to be Hellish.  Barely 9:00 and it was already well above 90 degrees.  Well, now is a great time to stop for tea and scrmuled egg.  Thank God its hygienic. 

From there we left Himachel Pradesh and entered Punjab in the heat and the traffic that is India.  Again, I became amazed that I was still alive.  What would be considered a close call in the US was becoming an hourly experience here.  Passing a truck in the wrong lane while oncoming traffic squeezes past in the exact same lane is no big deal.  Being nearly forced off the road when the car you are passing decides that it too would like to pass the vehicle in front of him scares the daylights out of me but doesn't even phase our driver.  And then there is the dodging - of spilled goods, pedestrians, bikes, rickshaws, horse drawn carts, potholes, washed out sections of road, etc, etc, etc.

After some time driving we stopped on a very small road in the middle of some rice field, lost I believe (we had left the main road due to some road construction then driven through some very small villages and side roads to end up with both drivers out of their cars conversing with the random person then turning around, retracing steps and repeating).  Reconstructing our journey up to this point it seems that to avoid some unexpected road construction we'd taken an impromptu detour.  We were now smack dab in the middle of a primitive farm community.  Women were rolling cow pies to dry on the walls of their yards.  A future source of fuel we reasoned.  The diversity in India is amazing.  I have to stop this post here for the sake of time.  But there is much more to come.   

Lost in the rice paddy.  I'd like to say incompetent, but they did end up getting us to Amritsar...