Saturday, November 8, 2008

Gunshots, gunshots everywhere!

First day of Minnesota's deer season = guns firing in all directions around my house.

Note to hunter to the northwest: I'm not a hunter, but I don't think you're supposed to fire five shots in a row to bring down a deer. That's probably overkill (though I'm guessing that volley didn't kill anything)

First snow

First dusting of snow of the season, as viewed from my kitchen window, November 8, 2008.

There were some flurries in the air in October, but this morning was the first time anything actually stuck on the ground. Winter is here!

Friday, November 7, 2008

I like "the"

When I think of places I've been, or places I'd like to go, some have a quality that makes them stand out in my mind: having a "the" in front of their name.

When I lived in Alaska, I could take a weekend trip up to the Yukon; drive the Alaska Highway, or the Dempster Highway, or the Klondike Highway, or any number of other "the" roads; go for a hike near the Mendenhall Glacier; etc.

I still get nostalgic when I occasionally look at weather forecasts for places I've been in Alaska, and see the National Weather Service's regional forecast for the Upper Tanana Valley and the Fortymile Country. "The Fortymile Country"... that sounds so awesome to me.

Here in Duluth, as I've noted before, "the" is overused on everyday places and roads that don't merit the designation. But that doesn't mean there aren't legitimate "the" places - the Iron Range, the Gunflint Trail, the Arrowhead, the Porcupine Mountains. Again, all places that call to me.

Then I think back to the year I spent in Manitowoc, Wis. - a year that just wasn't all that good for me, for a whole lot of reasons. I have great affection for pretty much every place I've ever lived, but I'm indifferent to "Manty." It just never got to me. Could it be, in part, the complete lack of "the" places? I can't think of a single one in the immediate vicinity. The closest might be the Kettle Moraine, but that's a stretch - it's closer to my hometown than it is to Manitowoc.

So I'm happy to be in a place within a day's drive of so many "the" places. And maybe someday I'll be able to visit the Fortymile Country once again.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Prudhoe Bay, 2005

Wading in the Arctic Ocean, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, June 2005.

In spring and summer 2005, after leaving my job in Juneau and before heading back to the Midwest, I took about four months off to travel around Alaska and the Yukon. I had anxiety about it at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

One of my big trips that summer was a roughly three-week odyssey driving up to Prudhoe Bay and back. I have TONS of photos from that trip that, by themselves, could sustain this blog for a year. I'll focus on the end of the road in this post.

Only part of the Prudhoe Bay / Deadhorse complex is accessible to the public - an area of maintenance bases, a handful of hotels, a general store and a few other services. The rest of the area - including most of the oil drilling and processing facilities, and access to the Arctic Ocean - is closed off. To get out there, you have to go on an arranged tour - which is how I got out to the ocean to take the photo above. I think there were about 20 people on my tour - most had flown up as part of a package trip. I was one of maybe four or five who dared wade into the water; one guy took the full plunge (wading was good enough for me).

There were two hotels operating when I was visiting. On a tip from a friendly older couple staffing a visitor info booth about 1,000 miles back, I went to this place, the Arctic Oilfield Hotel:

It, like pretty much every other building in the camp, is a prefab structure built on pilings. At the time I was there, I think it was run by VECO - the oil services company involved in the Alaska political bribery scandal.

The couple had recommended it because it serves oil field workers, while the other hotel was overpriced and "touristy." They were right. I was the only non-oil field worker staying there. The rooms were like dorm rooms, and there was one super-awesome feature: A 24-hour, all-you-can-eat, included-in-the-room price cafeteria:

I still think about this cafeteria. Because oil workers come back at all hours, they have to keep food available. There was a hot food line open most of the time, and even when it was closed, there were refrigerated cases full of sandwiches, salads, cakes and other desserts, etc. As someone who loved college dorm food, this was like culinary heaven.

When work crews came back in their Carhartts, boots and helmets, I did kind of stand out a bit. But everyone was nice and, as I said, the food was great. I've never been to a tropical resort, but I think this was the kind of "all-inclusive" accommodations I'd prefer.

There were a few things to look out for while staying at the hotel:

I never saw polar bears while I was there, but the hotel office had a wall of photos of polar bears hanging around the camp. I DID see some caribou grazing a field behind the hotel.

One other detail - they posted a daily room roster for workers to know who was staying where. My name was at the top of the list:

I don't know that I have a greater appreciation of our nation's energy situation from having visited Prudhoe Bay, but it was an awesome trip - one that I'd like to do again in the future.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sea lions at rest, July 2005

Sea lions resting on Poundstone Rock buoy on a sunny summer day, north of Juneau, Alaska, July 2005.

This photo was taken while out on a fishing trip with my friend Brian, a photographer at my former paper, the Juneau Empire. He has a boat and is a remarkable fisherman who has taught me more than I ever imagined I'd know about halibut and salmon, and where to find them (but, of course, in fisherman tradition I can't share that information). If I remember correctly, on this day we launched from Amalga Harbor, had just finished up trying for halibut in the vicinity of South Benjamin Island, and were heading to North Pass or Hand Trollers Cove to troll for salmon. En route we spotted this buoy and circled a few times to get photos. It was a rare warm, sunny day in Southeast Alaska, and the sea lions were enjoying it as much as we were.

I don't remember what we caught that day fish-wise, but pretty much every time we headed out on the water we came away with some pretty great shots of scenes like this. Then there was the time a humpback whale almost surfaced right beneath the boat... I'll get to that some other time.

Black River Harbor

Setting sun shining through the trees, Black River Harbor, north of Bessemer, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, August 2008.

One of the things I love most about Duluth is how many cool places are within a day's drive. Every so often I like to zip out of town for a weekend - heading north to Canada, northeast up the Lake Superior shore, east to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, etc. Last August I headed east to the Black River Harbor area of the far western U.P. There are a bunch of waterfalls, a little wharf tucked along a riverbank off Lake Superior, a nice beach and a campground. It's also just north of the massive Copper Peak ski jump (link to another of my stories).

I pulled into the campground in the afternoon; it's located on high ground about a quarter-mile from the harbor. I found an awesome spot a stone's throw from the bluffs over Lake Superior, where there was a wide-open view of the lake and, later, the sunset. After dinner I decided to walk down to the harbor. It was a pleasant trail through the woods, winding down a slope to the harbor below. There were ripe berries everywhere. Right as I got to the end of the trail, I saw a massive pile of bear scat - full of berries, in case you wanted to know - in the middle of the path. In the middle of the trail I had to take to get back to the campground, unless I wanted to walk well over a mile out of my way on the road. The trail full of berries I had to walk back on at dusk, with underbrush and twists and turns.

I spent some time walking around the harbor area and out across a cool suspension bridge to the beach. But before it got too dark in the woods - the sun was still up, but it didn't penetrate the leaves very well - I steeled myself to head back into the woods. In a throwback to my solo hikes in Alaska, I repeatedly kicked stones and banged my walking stick against trees in a surely-comical-to-anyone-watching effort to make my presence known to any animals up ahead. On some occasions - not here - I've been known to yell, moderately loud, "Hey, bear" when rounding a blind corner. It takes a lot, though, for me to break my Midwestern modesty and do that.

Anyway, I made it almost all the way back - I could see the campground ahead - when I noticed the sun breaking through the forest canopy. I found a good spot, and snapped a series of photos that included this one. The ensuing sunset was awesome, and I took a series of photos I hope to frame someday of the sun sinking beneath the Lake Superior horizon.

I realize now that this whole story was totally setting itself up to have a bear sighting... sorry, there wasn't one. Not this time. But I have had close encounters with bears other times. I'll save those for another post.

The beginning

Northern lights and a shooting star over Lake Superior. Taken from Middle River Beach on the Wisconsin shore, east of Superior, looking north toward the Minnesota shore, October 2007. 

I was driving on Highway 2, heading home after visiting my aunt and uncle's house near Ashland, when I saw the clear sky, and a hint of the northern lights. I decided to take a detour up to this beach, which is at the end of a long gravel road off Highway 13. I had been there on a 90+ degree day the previous summer when I had to get out of sweltering Duluth and picked it off a map. (Nice swimming beach, but the water is COLD.)

It was a cool night, and the beach, of course, was deserted; there are no houses nearby. As I often do in those circumstances, I psyched myself out imagining some criminal, or a bear, rushing out of the woods. But I stuck around long enough to get my tripod set up and snap a series of photos. I knew I got some good northern lights photos - the best display I had shot since leaving Alaska more than two years earlier - but I didn't realize until after I got home that I had caught a shooting star on this frame. That was the icing on the cake.

So begins this blog, started the day before my 30th birthday. I have a big archive of photos - some really good photos, in my opinion - that have been hidden away for far too long. I plan to share those photos and the stories behind them, as well as share some stories from adventures old and new as I travel, fix up my misfit house and in general try to make my way through the ever-changing world.