Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sitka, Alaska

Sitka Waterfront

Sitka National Historical Park
On our last day in Alaska, we visited the Alaska Raptor center, the Sitka National Historical Park, and for a short time, the town itself. At the end, we had around 15 minutes inside the Russian Orthodox cathedral of Sitka. The historical park had made us aware of the history of the Russians during the 100 years or so before they sold Alaska to the US in 1867, which was lucky since there was no time to learn much about the cathedral, other than that this building replaced one that burned, along with much of the downtown, around 50 years ago. And that the icons, including one with a miraculous history, were mainly saved from the fire.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Downtown Sitka
Other than a very short walk in Juneau the first night of our trip this was the only time we experienced the tourist shops and many souvenir opportunities that are standard on most cruises. Some of the merchandise was appealing, including some of the carving in whale bone. We only bought a reproduction of a painting by one of the naturalists from the boat, who sells in a gallery in Sitka. She was there and signed it for us.

The only thing I ever read about Sitka before the trip was The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. It's not about real Sitka, but about a counterfactual Sitka that was settled in the 1950s by Jews whose alternate reality had caused them to be barred from creating the state of Israel. A wonderful book -- but not really relevant.

John Muir's last trip to Alaska was in 1890. While his travels around a decade earlier had been in very rough conditions, by this time there were many tourists in purpose-built cruise ships of that era, and he traveled at least part of the time in much more comfortable conditions. Here is one day's journal entry from 1890 that I found especially charming:
July 7. Another fine day; scarce a cloud in the sky. The icebergs in the bay are miraged in the distance to look like the frontal wall of a great glacier. I am writing letters in anticipation of the next steamer, the Queen. 
She arrived about 2.30 P.M. with two hundred and thirty tourists. What a show they made with their ribbons and kodaks! All seemed happy and enthusiastic, though it was curious to see how promptly all of them ceased gazing when the dinner-bell rang, and how many turned from the great thundering crystal world of ice to look curiously at the Indians that came alongside to sell trinkets, and how our little camp and kitchen arrangements excited so many to loiter and waste their precious time prying into our poor hut.
Alaska Raptor Center: this bald eagle can't fly, but he's calm when faced with a crowd of tourists.
All today's photos are by Len.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Kayaking Here and There

Kayaking in Alaska: we were just behind the kayak in the photo.
An Alsaka brown bear (aka grizzly bear) is just visible at the left of the waterfall.
We didn't want to be the kayak closest to the bear.
On the Huron River this morning
We enjoyed kayaking so much in Alaska that we decided to try the Argo Cascades, an artificial rapids on the Huron River a few miles away from our house. After the cascades, which take around 10 minutes, it's smooth water down to Gallup Pond where one turns in the kayak and rides back to one's car in a van. Not like the inflatable zodiac-type boats that one rides from the ship to the shore off the National Geographic Sea Bird.

The kayaks are very different. Here they are just open, coated-styrofoam hulls that take on huge amounts of water but ride so high that it immediately drains out of holes in the bottom of the boat. The kayaks there are closed (though without a skirt), as the air temperature can be very cold and the water is always cold. Wet landings there require knee boots. Wet landings here require bare feet, keens, or tevas. No bears here either. Guaranteed.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Alaska Twilight

Sunset and twilight in the Alaskan summer take a long time, as the sun slowly makes its way around the horizon. Even at mid-day we noticed that the sun was quite low in the sky, and the moon, too rolls around not far from the horizon, thanks to the tilt of the planet.

After dinner on our first night on the ship we had some shore time in Juneau; as we walked away from the ship it was bathed in golden light.
National Geographic Sea Bird in Juneau harbor
On our second evening on the ship, the red and gold colors of the sky at nightfall lasted around an hour; during this time, several whales were coming up repeatedly near the ship. Every passenger with a camera took several photos of whales illuminated in the powerful colors of the sunset.

Whale in the sunset (Len's photos)
Another sunset was brief but dramatic:
One-burst sunset!
And our last night, though there was no sun visible, we enjoyed a long blue-grey evening with eerie fog banks lifting and dropping in front of the high banks of the Peril Strait.

Twilight in Peril Strait
From John Muir: 
"The most extravagantly colored of all the sunsets I have yet seen in Alaska was one I enjoyed on the voyage from Portland to Wrangell, when we were in the midst of one of the most thickly islanded parts of the Alexander Archipelago. The day had been showery, but late in the afternoon the clouds melted away from the west, all save a few that settled down in narrow level bars near the horizon. The evening was calm and the sunset colors came on gradually, increasing in extent and richness of tone by slow degrees as if requiring more time than usual to ripen. At a height of about thirty degrees there was a heavy cloud-bank, deeply reddened on its lower edge and the projecting parts of its face. Below this were three horizontal belts of purple edged with gold, while a vividly defined, spreading fan of flame streamed upward across the purple bars and faded in a feather edge of dull red. But beautiful and impressive as was this painting on the sky, the most novel and exciting effect was in the body of the atmosphere itself, which, laden with moisture, became one mass of color--a fine translucent purple haze in which the islands with softened outlines seemed to float, while a dense red ring lay around the base of each of them as a fitting border. The peaks, too, in the distance, and the snow-fields and glaciers and fleecy rolls of mist that lay in the hollows, were flushed with a deep, rosy alpenglow of ineffable loveliness. Everything near and far, even the ship, was comprehended in the glorious picture and the general color effect. The mission divines we had aboard seemed then to be truly divine as they gazed transfigured in the celestial glory. So also seemed our bluff, storm-fighting old captain, and his tarry sailors and all." (p. 17-18)

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Endicott Arm approaching Dawes Glacier
In 1879, naturalist John Muir visited southeast Alaska, the first of three visits that he documented in his book Travels in Alaska (published posthumously in 1915). During our trip to the same region last week, I slowly read this work, savoring the lush and romantic quality of his descriptions of many things that remain unchanged in the last 120 years or so.

For example, here is a portion of one of his descriptions of a glacier:
Sea Bird's inflatable boat approaching Dawes Glacier
"Arriving opposite the mouth of its fiord, we steered straight inland between beautiful wooded shores, and the grand glacier came in sight in its granite valley, glowing in the early sunshine and extending a noble invitation to come and see. After we passed between the two mountain rocks that guard the gate of the fiord, the view that was unfolded fixed every eye in wondering admiration. No words can convey anything like an adequate conception of its sublime grandeur--the noble simplicity and fineness of the sculpture of the walls; their magnificent proportions; their cascades, gardens, and forest adornments; the placid fiord between them; the great white and blue ice wall, and the snow-laden mountains beyond. Still more impotent are words in telling the peculiar awe one experiences in entering these mansions of the icy North, notwithstanding it is only the natural effect of appreciable manifestations of the presence of God.
Dawes Glacier from a distance
"Standing in the gateway of this glorious temple, and regarding it only as a picture, its outlines may be easily traced, the water foreground of a pale-green color, a smooth mirror sheet sweeping back five or six miles like one of the lower reaches of a great river, bounded at the head by a beveled barrier wall of blueish-white ice four or five hundred feet high. A few snowy mountain-tops appear beyond it, and on either hand rise a series of majestic, pale-gray granite rocks from three to four thousand feet high, some of them thinly forested and striped with bushes and flowery grass on narrow shelves, especially about half way up, others severely sheer and bare and built together into walls like those of Yosemite, extending far beyond the ice barrier, one immense brow appearing beyond another with their bases buried in the glacier.
Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay
This is a Yosemite Valley in process of formation, the modeling and sculpture of the walls nearly completed and well planted, but no groves as yet or gardens or meadows on the raw and unfinished bottom. It is as if the explorer, in entering the Merced Yosemite, should find the walls nearly in their present condition, trees and flowers in the warm nooks and along the sunny portions of the moraine-covered brows, but the bottom of the valley still covered with water and beds of gravel and mud, and the grand glacier that formed it slowly receding but still filling the upper half of the valley." (p. 26-27)
Dawes Glacier calving (Len's photo)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Last Evening in Alaska

From the Sea Bird at dusk, in the Peril Straits: a scene that reminds us of science fiction or fantasy illustrations.
Would we go through the fog bank and find ourselves in another dimension? Well, not this time.
Last night we ended our Alaska cruise with a passage through the Peril Straits towards Sitka. This morning, our Alaska stay wrapped up with an interesting bus tour of Sitka before we boarded our Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle. We are now in Seattle airport waiting for our continuing flight back home. I plan several more posts on both this blog and on my food blog to document what I saw and some of the Alaska history and cultural background that I learned during the week.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bear we saw from our kayak

Tomorrow is the end of our trip. We'll be back in real internet contact some time monday...

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Blue icebergs floating down the fjord from a looming glacier... kayaks in a salmon stream with soaring eagles above it ... spruce and hemlock forests covered in moss... fresh fish for dinner every night... humpback whales lunging up next to the ship to take mouthfuls of krill ... a brown bear eating grass beside the water... lectures and guided hikes by expert naturalists ... reports of undersea life by a diver who goes down with a video camera ...

Alaska! We have seen snow-covered mountains and stands of trees bathed in golden afternoon sunshine. The seas one night were lit up by a vivid red sunset while whales were feeding. We walked through the little fishing town of Petersburg beneath grey clouds.  And this morning, our route towards the Icy Strait hides in deep white fog.

So far we find Alaska to be a fascinating place. I've found no time at all to share or document what we are seeing, but finally, we have purchased an internet card and to post this summary. Once I get home I'll have plenty of time to think about what we've been doing and learning, to select from our photos (already over 1000 in number), and to write about the experience.
Dawes Glacier

Humpback whale
Bald eagle

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Seattle Art Museum

Yesterday we went to the Seattle Art Museum. The special exhibit there is "Future Beauty" about Japanese fashion designers, with around 100 amazing garments, including the work of Issey Miyake, Kenzo Takada, Rei Kawakubu, Yohji Yamamoto, Junya Watanabe, Jun Takahashi and others. From the museum webpage:

Whenever I see modern high fashion exhibited in an art museum, I'm always startled at how much it has in common with modern art, including the transgressive spirit of many recent artists. Because of its very different audience, though, it's often innovative in a somewhat different way. Also, of course, even the most outrageous of designs have to be clothing in some sense. The Japanese designers often play with fabrics or construction so that the model is swamped by stiff fabric that surrounds her in very un-clothing-like ways. I was also amused that the mannequins are proportioned much like Barbie dolls.

The comparison of the 1980s black and white garments of Kawakubu and Yamamoto to a work by the writer Tanizaki was one fascinating detail. Here are some of those black and white garments in the first room of the expo:

SaturdayMae 10
"Future Beauty" -- Seattle Art Museum
We also loved the rest of the museum, especially the African masks which I'll write about in the future.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Ferry Boat Ride

Friday 1
Seattle Harbor from the ferry boat Wenatchee this morning:
The Wenatchee, named for a tribe that lived in the region,  can hold 2500 passengers and around 200 cars.
We were probably far from passenger capacity, but near the max for cars.
Friday 4
Seattle skyline from the top passenger deck.
The ferry has no "front" or "back" -- just End 1 and End 2.
It loads alternately from each end, unloads at the other end (so the cars always go forward)
and then returns across the Sound in the opposite direction. I think all or most car ferries are similar.
Friday 5
Wake and skyline
Friday 6
Approaching Bainbridge Island harbor. The ride takes about 35 minutes on the
16,000 horsepower, 4-engine ferry.
Friday 7
Unloading the cars in Bainbridge, where we spent a few hours exploring the town,
visiting the historical museum, and having lunch.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Space Needle, Seattle

Thursday 1
The Space Needle from the adjacent Chihuli Garden
Glass sculptures remarkably echo the forms and colors of the plants
Thursday 2
Glass and lillies

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Duchamp's Children

Artwork by Alice, or Barbie Barbue
Inspired by Spoon and Tamago.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sunday Bike Ride

Some of us went this way, some of us came back by another route.

Len, Miriam, Evelyn, Alice, Mae by Argo Dam