Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The End is Near

My time here in the Arctic Circle is coming to an end soon. There have been many adventures and wonders that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
One thing that is coming quickly is the Winter Solstice. Do you remember when I got sun burnt during the Summer Solstice? I assure you it will not occur this time. The Winter Solstice is the SHORTEST day of the year. Again, may not mean as much in the lower 48 as it does here. For those of us who have felt the need to live in the Arctic Circle, it means that the sun does not come up at all on that day. We will have an impression of daylight. We call our current sun movement the Sun Peak-A-Boo game. Here is the Peak-A-Boo from a few days ago. You will notice the sun does not do much above the horizon. By the way this picture was taken at the peak of the movement seen over the tundra, it was about 1:30 in the afternoon. It "set" less than an hour later.
As my time comes close to an end, I was given a marvelous new camera! It is the first one that I have had here that has been truly capable of taking some pictures of the completely awe inspiring Aurora Borealis. I want to share a few pictures that I got last night. I will tell you the sacrifice that was made to acquire them. First, we went out at midnight. Then we realized that there is really no way to prepare for weather as cold as we were sitting in. I had 2 jackets, a hat and two hoods, two pairs of gloves, my jeans and snow pants, super dupper warm socks, and my snow boots. The dog kept coming over and sitting on me because there was no way she could stay warm without lying on top of my lap. This little bit of extra warmth was very appreciated by me! We were still cold as the weather dipped to -34 degrees. Really, you must ask yourself, "Is there something terribly wrong with the folks who claim global warming??"
The shots I posted here were part of the most spectaular display I have seen since being here. Normally I can see the very casual play of low energy lights running along the horizon as I fly in the darker months. These barely show up in pictures as anything more than "misty clouds." Last night the whole sky was lit up with colors that looked like they were raining from the sky! It was really spectacular. I can't describe the movement any better than to say that they move like they have life and mooods of their own. They seem to move in predictable patterns for a few seconds then change. It is incredible! Someone asked me what I would miss most about being here. I will have to honestly answer by saying I will miss the colors!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Seasons, they are changing!

The seasons are changing here without a doubt! Did you know it had to be "warm enough to snow?" How does that make any sense?? We went from the summer months at warm temperatures of 45-50 degrees, to negative 21 degrees in a matter of weeks! We felt like winter long before we looked like it. The snow didn't really start falling with earnest until this week. The Sound started freezing over and the rivers were solid long before we had true snow fall. Now that it has actually started getting warmer again (yes, 12 degrees counts as warm!) it has been able to cover this area with feet of beautiful snow! The first day of the snow fall you can make a snowball out of it, after that, the snow packs down so quickly and "dries out" so much that you can't get it to pack at all. I compare it to the man made snow they put on ski slopes as they wait for real snow to fall. It is basically ice, in a shaved, airborn form!

The Sound froze over actually before we had a true layer of snow on the ground. We have a sand bar about 100 yards off our "beach." The ice would form up the rivers and on the sand bar, then break free with each tide change. It was very similar to when the Sound first broke up last Spring because we had the ENORMOUS ice chunks floating down past Front Street. They were about 5 inches thick.

I have a new friend here with me in the Arctic Circle. She came up from the lower 48 and we have known each other for about a year or so. Her name is Shiloh and she is a German Shepard/Australian Shepard cross. She has adapted very quickly to the change in climate. She is not a big fan of the snow boots but it is necessary to keep frost bite from setting in on her wee little pads. She has learned the "Arctic Circle " form of travel. Most folks get around in the winter on either 4 wheelers or Snow Mobiles. Shiloh and I currently have access to a 4 wheeler and she has gotten the hang of it nicely!

I wanted to let you see a great picture I took the other day as Shiloh and I were being blown across the frozen lagoon. It shows the basics of my area in broad detail. Look at the picture closely. Notice the old with the new culture in the pile? This is very typical of the outside of most homes here. The snow hides a lot of this pile. It is about 2 feet here, not bad really.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Alaska Glaciers

Last week I went down to Southern Alaska to see what this enormous state had to show me. I took a wildlife/glacier cruise out of Seward. The drive from Anchorage to Seward was breathtaking! A few Bald Eagles and moose to be spotted along the roadside. Mountains that seemed to tower above us, the tops covered in snow and waterfalls flowing straight from the snow. When I got to Seward, the cruise started with a gentle rain and a fairly cold breeze going through the bay. As we headed out to Resurrection Bay, I saw my first Alaskan Sea Otter!
As we continued towards Harding Gateway we saw a pod of Orca's, a young humpback whale, a fin whale, oodles of puffins and more otters! No pictures of those guys because apparently they knew when my camera was pointing at them and they dodged under. Camera shy little beasties!
When we got to Cheval Island, we found beaches of a fair number of Steller Seals. These guys are so beautiful! Deep amber colored coats but they are still clumsy seals on the rocks. While we were there, two of the bulls got into a roaring match. Lots of noise and posturing! The ladys continued laying around like tossed little coats, not paying any attention to the show that was being put on for their benefit.
We traveled around the Bay, saw several glaciers including the Bear Glacier that calves directly into a small fresh water lake.
We got to see the Holgate Glacier, the Exit Glacier and the Prospect Glacier. If you are like me, your impression of glaciers has always been,"Ok, so its a bunch of ice and snow that moves along." Needless to say, I have learned better now! Glaciers are actually more than ice or snow, they develop over time from ice and snow, but have all the air pressed out of it! It turns this amazing color that I just couldn't capture with a camera or with every explain. Glaciers are full of sharp peaks and deep valleys of "ice." The finality of this trip was the Aialik Glacier. It is one of the largest tidewater glaciers. That means that it terminates at sea level and calves directly into the ocean. Its face is just around 400-700 feet tall and is over a mile long. As we moved closer to the glacier bay, we found harbor seals lying around on the large calved pieces of ice and playing in the water. They would poke their little heads up, and then "BLONK" they were gone.

The Aialik Glacier itself was breathtaking! We had the rare opportunity to witness the glacier calving. Sorry no pictures. It was one of those moments in time that you are lost to yourself and simply become a part of the event. Stunning and awe inspiring!

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Sound Finally Breaks Open!

Areas much farther north than my village have been "open" for weeks now. By open I mean that the frozen sea or sound that they are on has thawed enough that the ice has broken up and floated on its merry way. The picture here is showing the Sound as it starts to break up, it is raining on the far horizon.
Our little sound has taken its time! Finally it broke open at 10pm. For the last week it has looked like it had melted, but the water that was seen was simply flowing from one of the rivers and was covering the ice. Everyone kept telling me that it had melted but that the ice had not broken yet. So, how much sense does that make? It looked like open water to me! Folks didn't have their boats out yet, so I was inclined to believe them. One of my friends and I were out bouncing around on the ice chunks for HOURS! How much fun! We realized that this was an experience that no one else we knew could claim. Playing on a sound full of floating ice at midnight in the Arctic Circle!

Of course both of us are in Health Care and realized the danger, but still had to play! Breaking up ice brings out the kid in most of us!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Summer Solstice

Admittedly, the Summer Solstice doesn't have as much meaning for you folks in the lower 48 as it does for those of us in the Arctic Circle...for us it means that we start getting 8 minutes of less sunlight each day. Not that it shows much of a difference yet. It will not be noticeable until about August. The picture here is of the sun not setting and not rising over our little village as we fly into it around 4 in the morning.
Being of Irish heritage, I did manage to be the only person I know who has gotten a sunburn in the Arctic Circle on the Summer Solstice. No, no pictures for you. My poor little nose actually seriously considered the option of blistering. I did put on SPF 45 sunscreen, but found that sitting out with a moose and a swan for 5 hours on the tundra can lead to a severe burn on your face. It is still too cold to go out without jackets and stuff. The mosquito's here are pretty thick too! Therefore the only area that was sun burnt was the wee little paramedic face.
For the celebration of the Summer Solstice I thought that I should post some pictures that I managed to get of the Northern Lights before the hours and hours of non-stop sunlight. When I first came here, people kept telling me how stressful they thought the long nights would be. I have found the non-stop daylight to be more stressful! It has been more challenging to not have the desire to SHOOT the sun down....sigh. You can only make things so dark using curtains and even aluminum foil on windows. The things I miss right now from the lower 48? Night sky's full of stars! Though I would even take an Alaskan sky full of Northern Lights instead!
Remember how I described the Northern Lights? It really feels like an energy that is almost alive! It wraps and moves in such an amazing way! It reminds me of waves only without the predictable pattern that the ocean has. It is an experience more than any picture could ever capture! There is an awe and an indescribable feeling of being a witness to something ethereal!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Tribute to a Beloved Friend

For all the amazing adventure that Alaska has shown me and continues to promise more, I have had one bad thing occur here. My beloved dog had to be put to sleep. He loved being here with me and I wanted to post some pictures of him. If anyone has pictures of him, feel free to email them to me! When he first got here, he found that running out on the frozen Sound was his favorite thing to do daily! Glad that he didn't have to see it thaw. It would have taken away his favorite place in town.
When we went for our first walk on the Sound, it became apparent that Jake needed boots. He kept stopping to dig snow or bits of ice out of his paws. When I first bought the boots, he hated them! Every time I put them on, he would act like I was just the meanest person in the world. It probably didn't help that he walked like a cat with tape on his paws at first, and I couldn't help laughing! That put me right on the mean person list. He actually refused to stand up the first time I put them on him. He just gave me this look, " What kind of person are you?"Jake and I had countless adventures together including Jake being the mascot for my paramedic class, a Colorado 14ner, summers where both of us were more often covered in mud and dirt than clean, Arctic walks and countless snuggle times. When I went to find a puppy, Jake picked me, not the other way around. I am a better person for him choosing to spend his life with me.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


My travels have now led me to Nome. You really can't travel this far north and NOT visit the legendary Nome. I have a friend who has started working there so I had prime opportunity to visit. Nome is different than any of the "villages" I have been to so far in the fact that it was established as a non-native mining town. All of the villages I have been to so far are native established.
Nome has a few lovely things that I have missed sorely in my part of the world. They have bars and restaurants. sigh. Though it is still not quite civilized in the fact that you can't get your haircut in town. Oh, for a haircut!
Nome had their harbor break up before ours did. The middle picture is what is left of their ice and it was taken on one of the few "nights" left in this part of the world. I think was taken around 0200 in the morning.
Really didn't get to see much of Nome, but took these pictures to share. I liked Nome, but it is certainly a place to visit only.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ice Fishing

I finally got to go fishing on our frozen Sound. Everyone kept telling me how easy it was, but I was complete taken off guard with HOW easy it really was. I have seen folks in Colorado out in the middle of frozen lakes with their little chairs and heated shelters, spending hours and hours trying to catching fish. I envisioned a similar experience here, without the shelter 'cause we do things the tough way up here! One of my neighbors called me up one morning last week at 0700 and asked if I still wanted to go fishing. My first thought was that I didn't think I wanted to spend all of my very precious one day off, out in the middle of the Sound, trying to catch fish. I had been asking to go and so my adventurous little spirit kicked in and I said, "Sure! Just give me 15 minutes to get my cold weather stuff on." He said that he was thinking more around noon and we could spend about an hour before he had to go to work. An hour? I was sure that it would be a good learning experience in the fact that I would figure out where to go and what to use, but there was no way I could ever catch anything in an hour!
So we meet at noon and off we go on his 4 wheeler. We zipped along the "beach" for 5 minutes and then we went out on the Sound about 100 yards. My guide used his GPS to find his favorite hole. When we got to the right area, there were about 5 holes that had been cut. We each picked a hole and broke the thin layer of ice that had formed on them. I scooped out the ice bits and drop my fishing line in. My fishing pole is a piece of molding with tuna line attached to it with a silver lure on the end. I find the edge of the ice, which is about 2 feet down, and drop my line about another foot below that. I am not really sure what to do so I look to my guide. He tells me," Just kind of jig it." Jig it? It is kind of like playing with a pencil when you are nervous, just lazier and slower. I had my line in the water for about 3 minutes when I felt something hit my line. It is just kind of this dull, not so impressive hit. There is no way I believe this can be a fish, so I don't try to set the hook. Then my piece of molding is being pulled from my hands! So I take a better hold and try pulling the line up just by using a hand-over-hand kind of action. This fish shows up in the hole and I just kind of stare at him for a minute.
I am not always the quickest fisherman! He really doesn't put up any kind of fight. Of course, how could he? He had two options for places to go, up or down. The ice really limits his options! After I got him onto the ice, I am instructed on the multiple uses of the molding. I am supposed to "thump" him on the head with it. So, I thump and he opens his mouth. Handy, now I can get the lure unhooked. It took about 20 minutes to have 4 more fish go through the same routine. I let one go because I thought I only needed 4.
There was a certain amount of awe at how easy this was! I never used bait and really had no idea what I was doing. My friend and I cleaned and filleted the fish where we were. All in all, I took about 25-30 pounds of fresh Shee fish back to my apartment. Shee fish are the largest white fish, and I would have to say the sweetest. The meat is probably a cross between crab and halibut, at least to me. The problem with Shee fish is that they have 2 sets of rib bones. If you go fishing for these things, go with someone who knows how to get around the first set of rib bones when you are filleting them.
Fishing in the Arctic Circle has its definite advantages! I think the fish are eating in their hibernating state. The water makes them slow and stupid, but oh so tasty!

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Perils of Traveling in the Arctic

This week I have had a lesson in traveling in the Arctic Circle. We decided that we were going to help a family move from our village to a nearby village. It was about 75 miles give or take. We had a caravan of one truck and two snowmobiles heading out to the village mid morning. The truck was taking our local "Ice Highway" and the two of us on the snowmobiles pretty much stuck close to the "highway". Let me explain about the "highway" so that you can picture what insanity was starting to possess us. This is a path that has been grated and cleared of snow about 2 weeks ago from the frozen bodies of water in the area, including lakes and rivers so that vehicles can make it to the village. Apparently this is not a yearly event. Not real sure what dictates the grating or lack of each year. We are traveling along at a decent speed of about 35 miles an hour when we are stopped by a very impressive "Pressure Ridge." The ridge is in the first picture. I am standing in the area that had opened in the past and frozen over again when the ice "plates" separated. I think I have mentioned these in the past. The best way to visualize them is to imagine the tectonic plates in an earthquake. This ridge is about 3 feet high and has some wood by it to help folks over. It doesn't really seem to have any real width to it so we use the wood to build up the opposite side, as it is a wee bit lower, and drive over. All the vehicles make it with little effort. I am having a blast at this point! We are speeding across a huge Alaskan lake in March on snow mobiles and it is a beautiful day! How amazing is my life! It is actually not freezing, no real wind, except what the speed of the machine is causing. I have to admit, I got to speeds of 70 miles per hour in the smoother area's. The snow mobiles really had the advantage over the truck here. This isn't a smooth ride, but it is incredible! I had never jumped a snow mobile before, and certainly didn't plan it the first time it happened. However, for those of you who know me, you can only imagine what happened after I had my first taste of that rush! Yep, then I was looking for the good snow hills to jump! My fellow snow mobile rider suddenly stops, turns around and stares back at me at one point. I quickly understood why, about 10 seconds later to be exact. We had just flown over a crack in the surface! It was an impressive 3 foot gap in the snow and ice that was about a foot deep, we had just zipped right over it! What a rush! The truck seemed to do OK and the crack was not quite as wide on the "highway." This is probably what happened as the ice ridge was shifting. It seems the side of ice we came from was being shoved up by the piece of ice we were currently on. Is anyone seeing where this story is going? Wish we had. sigh. As I am zipping across the frozen lake, there are some spots that suddenly forcefully remind me that I am on ice. Most of the surface is covered in piles and piles of snow so it is easy to forget that it is a lake. Until we got to this intersection where the lake met one of the larger rivers. When you looked at the ice, it was so clear! You can see where the cracks show through the ice like it was glass. You can even get an idea of how deep it is, maybe. I did mention that this is what we were driving on, right? We get to the village and spend just a little bit of time there. We then turn around, leaving the snow mobiles at the village because they belong to folks who live there. The wind has picked up a bit and the clear areas on the "highway" are now covered in some impressive drifts. It takes us about 2 hours to get to the point of the journey where reality and travel in the Arctic come crashing together in an extraordinary manner. The picture here shows what happens to Pressure Ridges when left alone for several hours. The fact that the weather had been getting warmer for the past few days also helps. We found that the ice slab that we were on had shifted and had been shoved under the other side, quite a bit in fact. What had been a small inconvenience had now turned into a huge obstacle. It was about 6 feet or more in width and about 4+feet high on the other side. I thought someone had shoved ice and snow against the far side until I realized that what I was looking at was actually the piece of ice that we had driven over originally. Notice the poles on each side of the "highway." They mark where it WAS safe to travel. I was told later that folks here will come out with chain saws and wood to make this passable for as long as possible. The chain saws are for the ice. I think that option may be over for this year. While we were standing there, realizing we were seriously stuck on the wrong side of the ridge, another truck showed up. They chose to drive along the ridge and JUMPED a smaller area. The ice slab sunk down where they crossed and their tracks filled with WATER! More cracks showed up where we were standing, about half a mile from where they crossed. We decided that though we were on the wrong side of the ridge, we were heading back to the safety of land..which was 2 hours behind us. We spent the night with the folks who we helped move. The decision was made to try again in the morning, only this time we would take a different path. It included more land and less lake... It is the local snow mobile trail that folk use through the winter. It is not normally recommend for vehicles but we are ready to give it a try! It is marked on the river and water areas with tree branches that stand fairly high, and on the land, it is marked with crossed poles. Everything has reflectors on them and surprisingly, they manage to withstand the weather. We head out the next morning to try and get the truck and one of the snow mobiles back to my village. We are taking the snowmobile on the chance that the truck doesn't make it, since two of us MUST be back in my village. Our little caravan is stopped once again at an older pressure ridge that is marked by the brightest fluorescent paint I have ever seen, plus little orange flags. The signs of danger are apparent by the broken snow mobiles on the far side of the ridge. It appears that they hit the ridge at some speed.... snow mobiles really don't bounce as well as you would hope. The truck was forced to turn back to the village, perhaps meant to stay there until the next solid winter freeze. Off I go on the little snow mobile back to my village. Did I mention the visibility had become an issue? While we had been sleeping happily in our little borrowed beds, a bit of a snow storm had blown in and was starting to BLOW more seriously by now. The markers that I mentioned above are about 50 feet apart and I had originally thought,"How strange that someone would make them that close." Now, I was very thankful that they were so close together! Although several folks knew where I was and what time I should be back to my village, I still would rather not be stuck out in the weather with a snow mobile that decided to break down or if I lost the trail. I had a rider with me, and it still seemed intimidating as we started to SLOWLY zip off across the trail. Slowly because the visibility not only affected our long distance vision, but it was making EVERYTHING look the same level. This was demonstrated as I attempted to toss my rider on an unexpected hill. It all looked the same! We noticed that as we continued across the lake, it showed more and more signs of "breaking up." We saw sudden shards of ice that were shoved up out of the lake at sharp angles, sometimes as large as 5 feet high! We even seemed to be traveling along another pressure ridge at one point. When we finally pulled into our village, we both gave a huge sigh of relief! Until I found that the throttle on our snow mobile was stuck open! Of course, what was I thinking?? Found this out as we popped into town over a snowbank about 4 feet high (we meant to do this part) and instead of slowing down when I let off the throttle, we suddenly sped up (didn't mean to do this part)! Up and almost over the other embankment, that was about the same size, and into a utility pole of some sort! Managed to hit the kill switch and turn the snow mobile off the embankment and onto the road, missing the utility pole. My shoulders, and low back hate me at this point. I don't think I am in the worlds best shape, but I do work out regularly. Just not usually by wrenching a 600 pound machine 144 + miles. It was one of the most amazing trips and most challenging that I have ever been on! The amazing Alaskan wilderness did show me that as beautiful as it is, it can take my life at the smallest sign of weakness. Weakness here is shown by a lack of planning for the absolute worse. When you leave your house, you need to plan on being stranded for 2 days, for the temperatures to drop, and for your vehicle to try dying. Oh, but remember, it really was worth it!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Night Flying in Alaska

I have seen the Northern Lights a few times, but not bright enough to actually capture them on film. They are like a living wave of color and energy. However, the one thing I have been able to get on film is the longest lasting sunsets. When we reach an altitude of 2500 feet and it is a clear night, we get these sunsets that last FOREVER. I wanted to share the pictures that I got the other night on flight. If you look, you can notice that there is a star in the upper left hand corner of the picture. This lasted the entire 2 hours that we were in the air!

Flying Low in Alaska

This last week I had a most incredible experience! One of our pilots was on a mission to find some Musk Ox so asked if it was ok if we could take a bit longer to get to one of the villages. Never having been through this experience, I didn't realize what he was asking. When you are at a lower altitude when flying, your air speed has to be slower. It makes sense when you think about it, but I had not really ever thought about it. You see all these wild pilots flying low over hills in movies and then popping up over the edges of cliffs and hills....
That is exactly what we got to do! What a rush! The views were spectacular and the feelings were hard to describe! At moments it felt as though we were barely skimming across the earth and at other moments, it was like we were going to crash into it! I was never scared, I completely trust my pilots! It was truly an experience to remember.
Oh, and another thing I found out this week is that flying with pilots you know, is somehow so much more comforting than flying commercial jets with pilots I have never met. That was something I had never considered before. The pilots who I fly with know me and I certainly have more and more faith in their skill each time they safely bring me into very rocky landings. At times I have felt like a little cork in a blender and yet my pilots always manage to get us safely down and even comfortably so! Alaska bush pilots are truly an elite class!
Here are a few of the pictures we got flying at about 300 feet. Pretty amazing shots!