Friday, December 25, 2015

The Christmas Star

When some people think of the Christmas Star, they think of the star the wise men followed in Bethlehem.  But in our family, the Christmas Star has other meanings.  I won't tease my brother further today, so will skip along to the most recent meaning of "The Christmas Star."  The star my niece Jaycena made when she was just a little girl.  My sister has the original, but she made me a photocopy a few years back, and nothing else will ever top my tree.  My mom has one too.

Jaycena was always artistic. and like all artists, she had her dark period.  So in her wisdom, the Christmas Star has a happy face on one side...and a sad face on the other so you can spin it around in case you are in a mad mood.  Genius!

Christmas is always a hard time for us without her.  We had 16 Christmases where we all wanted to be the one to give the gift she would love most...16 years of delighting her opening presents and playing with toys.  16 years of seems impossible that those are supposed to last a lifetime.  Every Christmas I wonder what she would love now...where she would be...what day she would make it home.  Tortured questions that get harder to guess the answers to each year.  She would be beautiful.  She would be smiling.  We would all be so different...we would be who we were before.  My Christmas Star reminds me of those days, being that girl.  It's a bittersweet thing.  But I love that little Star watching over my Christmas.  Merry Christmas in heaven Jaycena.  Love you today, forever, and always <3

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Almost Christmas!

Merry Christmas, Alaska Style!  We are just a few hours away from Christmas.  I have to say, I am quite smitten with Alaska, and my first Christmas here has not disappointed.  Here are the decorations from the local Nature Center where I usually do my summer walks.

On December 21st, they hosted their annual winter solstice event.  Reminiscent of the annual St. George's Christmas walk, I donned my mittens and toque and headed out to the nature center after dark....and checked out the ice lantern walk.

During the day, the community gets together and makes hundreds of ice lanterns.  They set them out at dusk and light them so that hundreds of tiny flames light the path through the forest at night.

They were beautiful!  There is something soulful about the whole experience.  I always light a candle on days when I am remembering special loved ones I have lost.  One in particular, Jaycena.  These beautiful candles, and Christmas, her favorite season, and the woods and the dark and the subtle smell of bonfire...well, it was just one of those moments I am grateful to experience, and one of those times where I feel a little closer to my spiritual side.

Each light and lantern is as unique in their cracked pattern as a snowflake.

Each one like a miniature lighthouse guiding us all through the dark.

Periodically along the path were "warming stations" in the snowy woods.  These logs were brilliant, and easily put out enough heat to warm your hands!

And at the end of the path?  A bunch of Alaskans, hanging out in the snow, in the woods, at a bonfire, under the winter sky.  So maybe this was a few days before Christmas....but I think i will adopt the tradition of the ice lanterns as part of my new traditions.  Merry Christmas everyone!

Merry Christmas Eve

It's that time of year again.  Christmas is my favorite holiday.  Decorating my Christmas tree has always been one of my favorite traditions.  Watching the cats take it down piece by piece is another.  Here's a Christmas mug shot of this year's most likely suspect.  Cats are not masters at hiding their intentions...I need not explain, the picture says it all.

But back to the tree, while I still have one.  First off, I am a plastic tree person.  At the risk of offending live tree people....I just can't kill a tree and put it in the house.  I know plastic is not environmentally friendly either, but...I just can't bring myself to get a live one.  To be honest, I really love my fake plastic tree.  In Bermuda I just had a small one (they were ridiculously overpriced there).   And yet again, I arrived at this new post with 2 suitcases, a couple of cats and not much else
(hey, at least I arrived with a car this time).  So it was off to buy a new tree this year.  I may have gotten carried away.  I wanted it to be taller than me...and some days I forget I am not 7 feet tall.  Fortunately I have a high ceiling.

Next step...the careful selection of ornaments.  I was starting out at ground zero, so I broke my usual rule of buying one special ornament each Christmas.  Pier One corrupted me with their rows of glittery baubles.  Who doesn't want a reindeer with sparkly antlers and a sparkly vest?

I couldn't leave sparkly glass dangly reindeer behind either.  I also found some beautiful glittery orbs...these are known to cat people as "the decoy ornaments."  All cat owners have learned a few hard lessons about overstimulated the furry little ninjas that live in our homes.  It is good practice to put the Christmas tree up in stages,  Depending on your cat's insanity index, this process may take a full 5-7 days.  Believe it or not, the Panthers are less cuckoo for Christmas than Lexi and JJ, so I managed the task in 3 days, and the darn thing has been standing for a full week now!

Sparkly glass penguin earns a spot nearer the top of the tree due to his fragility.  Low hanging ornaments are often swatted down and batted about the house.  Higher hanging breakables are somewhat safer, because they are harder to see and less likely to initiate the cat kill sequence.  If they go down, it's because the whole tree is going down.  With Lexi and JJ, I had to engineer a tree support rigging system (basically tied it to a wall), or else that thing was crashing down 2 or 3 times a day.  Fortunately, the Panthers are weird, and they are far more focussed on killing things like errant twist ties than Christmas trees.

All of my old Christmas ornaments, carefully collected and hoarded over the years, made their way to  my mom's tree in the years I didn't have one.  I guess it's good that I got the big tree, because those ornaments are coming back my way late on Christmas Eve...when my family comes for Christmas!

Looking forward to it!  And...there have been a couple of ornament fatalities....apparently sparkly bows are delicious.  Bring in the reinforcements!

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas Eve!  Good night!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Sea Otter Sighting

So there we were, cruising along through Prince William Sound.  You might wonder why American waters bear the name of Britain's most popular royal.  Coincidence it turns out.  It was actually named the Sandwich Sound by James Cook when he sailed through here in 1778 (named for the explorations founder, the Earl of Sandwich, the future King William IV of England).  The editor so the map later renamed it after the Earl's son, Prince William.

In more recent history, you might associate Prince William Sound with another event.  In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez left the port of Valdez, Alaska and hit the Bligh reef in the sound, spilling about 750,000 barrells of oil into the sea here.  The spill killed hundreds of thousands of birds and mammals, including killer whales, bald eagles, and sea otters.  I remember watching the news a a teenager in the middle of landlocked Saskatchewan, and being horrified.  I swore that if something like this ever happened again when I was "grown up" I would find a way to help.  That led to the little incident described in Men Who Won't Wash Ducks" (apparently one of my best stories ever), and 26 years after the Exxon I was in Prince William Sound.

And it is stunning.  I imagine what it must have been like for Captain Cook, under the flapping of sails rather than the roar of an engine.

The captain told us that waters are known for their sea otters.  In fact, the sea otters like the water fairly brisk, so we could expect to see them closer to the glaciers.  What they didn't mention, was that Sea Otters are still an endangered species, and their numbers are currently decreasing.  Alaska is one of the strongholds in the sea otter's range, so if you are lucky enough to see them, don't be fooled into thinking they are a thriving population.  There are only about 100,000 left in the entire world -- when you think of the length of coastline along Russia and North America, you realize how few that really is.

And so I felt incredibly lucky when the ship slowed and we saw a little blob floating in its water.  A sea otter!  Floating characteristically on its back, it's little feet in the air.  It was adorable!!  Now, I learned when I got home that I have not mastered the art of photography enough that I can stand on a bobbing boat on the ocean and take a picture of an object bobbing in the water at a different rate 50 feet away and get a clear shot.  So these are my somewhat blurry otter pictures.

What I learned, is that where you think you see one otter, you are almost always seeing at least two otters.  Every time, they would be hanging out together, cuddled up or playing otter footsie.

Sea Otters are quite fascinating to me.  These small little fluffballs that float in the frigid northern waters have no blubber, like seals or whales...they rely on ridiculously thick soft fur to keep them warm.  That is what got them initially hunted to the brink of extinction.  Not one of the finer moments of humanity.  Underneath that soft fur, they are densely muscled littler critters.  Those tiny little otters weigh at least 30 pounds each...some upwards of 100 pounds!  It's little nose and ears can close when it dives for mussels and shellfish...and move over apes, sea otters have been using tools forever.  They will get a rock, a mussel or clam, float on their back with the rock on their belly, and bash the shell into the rock until they can get dinner out of the shell.  But more about that amazing fur.  Keeping body heat is possible by keeping their fur impeccably clean...they are constantly grooming, and squeezing water out of the fur and blowing air into it to make it fuffier and drier.  In fact, moms will groom and puff the baby otters up so much that the little fellas just float from all the air in their fur.  Basically, sea otters are awesome.

Far too soon, we were back on our way to the glaciers, watching these little heads and flippers bob away into the distance.

I longed to be on Captain Cook's ship...there would have been so much more wildlife...and we would have passed through it so much slower.  But...26 glaciers awaited us.  And they too had stories to tell.

These glaciers are mostly Tidewater Glaciers.  This just means they flow all the way to the ocean.  They "calve" or break off into the ocean, creating icebergs.  Many of Alaska's tidewater glaciers have receded...they no longer reach the ocean.  A generation ago, they did.  2 generations ago, the areas we cruised through were also ice.  The glaciers are in a clear retreat.  Gazing at the black and white photos displayed on the screens of the same glaciers in the days of black and white was sobering.  We were scheduled to see a glacier that IS still a tidewater glacier.  But we will save those pictures for another day.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

26 Glacier Cruise

The point of our trip to Whittier was to hop on board a glacier cruise.  I had previously done a Kenai Fjords tour out of Seward, so the 26 Glacier Cruise was the selection for the day.  If you spend more than a few days in Alaska and have a radio on at any point, the 26 Glacier Cruise jingle will be forever in your head, so I also went just to satisfy the curiosity from being bombarded by that ad.

I wasn't sure if we would see a lot of animals.  I was ready for scenic shooting, and this was going to be a great way to see a few mountains from a new angle.  We pulled out of Whittier on a nice and sunny day, but you always need a jacket when glacier winds on those waters.

Over the course of the afternoon, we would indeed see 26 glaciers.  Probably more.  After a while you sort of start to lose track.  There are still a lot of glaciers in Alaska.  But they are indeed a fraction of the size they were a generation ago.

These little islands are pretty much people free, unless someone makes a specific effort to take a boat out to them, and it makes me happy to know there are a few spots of land on this planet that people haven't mucked up yet.  Some peaceful shorelines for seals to rest, for bears to nap in (they can swim there), and eagles can nest.  Alaska still has some great wilderness.

It was a nice calm day on the water, barely a ripple in sight.

I got Shibby to pose with the life preserver so we would remember the name of our boat -- The Klondike Express.  We spent most of the 6 hour tour on deck, with a few intermittent trips inside to warm up or grab coffee.  There is a chair at a table for every passenger, but we wanted to be right out where we could see an animal if it presented itself.

Well, it didn't take long!  We happened across a patch of sunbathing sea lions within the first half hour of the cruise.  Sea lions are noisy!  You can hear them barking, and they are always in the company of seagulls.  The sea lions kind of blend in.  But if you see a rock littered with seagulls, look carefully, and you start to pick out sea lions

So there were a lot of mountains, several salt water spashes on the lenses (hence black spots), but for a long stretch we didn't see any more animals.

They promised we would see sea otters soon, particularly as we got to the colder waters in Prince William Sound.  And so we waited and watched the pretty scenery go by.

 Alaska...sure is beautiful.  But where are my cute and fuzzy animals?  Well, good things come to those who wait.  Stay tuned!