May 7th, 2004

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ice halo

(Day 6)
No aurora yet. Cloudy all the time. Argh.
We did see a really nice cirrostratus ice halo, though - a huge sweeping rainbow encircling the sun, caused by very flat ice crystals in clouds five miles up. Polar areas are great for wierd atmospheric effects.
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(Day 7)
We don't get to see Denali ("High One"), tallest mountain on the continent, very closely. It's early in the season, so we're allowed to drive 30 miles into the park, but that's still about 75 away from the Mountain King (according to a helpful roadside plaque).
As we wind our way inward, the Alaskan Range unwinds and stretches like spines on a dragon's back, too sharp and jagged to be real. I squint at each shining new-minted mountain that comes into view, measure its height against my stacked fingers at arm's length, wondering which one is Denali, and whether I'll ever know.
I needn't have worried. About ten miles into the park, a ghost mountain rises behind the others, distant and hazy, all sharp angles and jagged snowed peaks, all the power of height, and none of the solidity. We have seen other mountains with their peaks in the clouds - the clouds veil them, soften them. Not so Denali - he calls the clouds to himself. They hide his depths, the low winding ridges, the softness, but he cuts ghostly through them, higher and brighter, until all you can see of the Mountain King are clawed heights raking the sky, and his shadow on the land he rules.
Makes me want to take up mountain climbing. I'll have to put it on the list.
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Wolf in dog's clothing

(Day 7)
Rangers get around Denali in winter by dogsled, so they keep a kennel full of sled dogs, and breed and train all their own dogs. We find the kennel with about twenty dogs while poking around the park. Campion is rangy and wolf-grey, with a long muzzle and startling blue eyes the color of glacier melt. Logan is leonine, solidly built and a very pale sandy yellow, with hawklike eyes in an unsettling shifting gold, and a pale ruff around his neck like a mane. I normally dislike dogs, but these two are beautiful and intelligent and quiet, and fond of skritches in the sort of cuddly superior way cats are, not in a slavish doggy way.
I've added 'mush a dogsled' to the list of things to do before I die.
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Wefare Eagles

(Day 8)
Homer is a small, pleasant town, built on a long pale slatey beach that rings like a bell when the waves rattle the rocks, with a flower-festooned shrine to those lost at sea, and all sorts of fine art galleries and artists' communes and a health food store and a weaving supply store, and stained-glass windows in most buildings depicting sea life and storms. The artists wear long drapey clothing in all the colors of the sea in sunlight or dress like fishermen in paint-spattered flannel shirts and jeans.
Apparently it's not just the humans into weird lifestyles here. We see eight bald eagles who have decided they want to grow up to be seagulls. They squabble over fish guts spilled on docks, steal fish from the decks of fishing boats, and even squawk just like the gulls. Their feathers are filthy. They fight over who gets to sit on the lamp posts, and walk around on the beach, leaving great gaping clawed footprints. The seagulls aren't afraid of the eagles, and the eagles aren't afraid of humans. One of them sits on the beach for half an hour while I walk in diminishing spirals around him, trying to get good pictures. When he finally gets bored and flies off, scattering sand everywhere, I walk over to where he was sitting, and see that he was apparently digging in the sand. Huh?
gray shores

not all cages of steel

(Day 9)
During WWII, the military built a "secret harbor" at Whittier. They built a building that could house a thousand men, with gymnasiums, shops, and classrooms, the "city under one roof". After the war the harbor was abandoned by the military, but people continued to live there. Not in the "city under one roof" - there aren't enough people anymore, but in a second building, fourteen stories tall, that houses all the city's inhabitants. Most of the rest of Whittier is a huge muddy parking lot, and the harbor, with a few restaurants that cater to tourists. The town is reachable only by a 2.5-mile long tunnel straight through the feet of the mountain.
The old building, abandoned fifty years, is very cool, grey concrete cracked by ice and streaked by rust, icicles and broken windows. There are doors, but they're buried to the lintels in snow. It looks like a haunted house or a mental institution from a movie, gray and silent and secret. I take about a million pictures and fantasize about getting inside it somehow.
Whittier itself, on the other hand, depresses me incredibly. The building all the residents live in is painted in eggshell and taupe, and kids play board games in the lobby in strained, hushed unnatural voices. The parking lots are rutted and muddy, and the tunnel closes sometimes in winter, leaving only mountains to the sky on all sides. There is no way for hope to enter here, or light. The whole town waits like some trap to spring closed.
I am very glad when we leave.
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(Day 10)
The trans-Alaskan pipeline is pretty neat. I guess I was expecting it to be ugly, some huge sprawling monument to industry and greed, rusty metal over blighted lands.
It's four feet in diameter, slightly warm to the touch, and an unmarred silver that reflects snow-capped mountains, feathery arctic plants, ice-choked rivers, moon-pale birch forests, sunsets and starlight. The engineering that went into it is fascinating - insulation, and supports that allow it to slide as it expands, pumping and measuring stations, vents to carry waste heat and keep the permafrost frozen. It winds over plains and up mountains, into the ground, and over rivers, from Deadhorse to Valdez.
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merrily merrily merrily merrily

(Day 11)
In Valdez, we go sea kayaking around Prince William Sound. We'd wanted to go iceberg kayaking, but they've been unable to get a group together and don't want to take just us. So they sell us on a different, easier trip, promising we'll see wildlife and birds. I shrug them off with consumer's cynicism.
And boy, did they show me. We see eight million birds. About forty kinds of duck, at least four of which are black with white spots in esoteric places. Ordinary mallard ducks, taking a vacation from stalking cow. Sea otters diving for shellfish. River otters snuggling sleepily on a bank. A harbor seal who followed us to a beach and watched curiously. Bald eagles swooping over a hatchery. Seagulls. Some buteo raptor I didn't recognize at the distance. A golden eagle circling over distant mountains. Arctic terns swooping like swimmers overhead. Cormorants diving for fish. The fish. Little flitty song birds. Loons with their bizarre call. Coots. Grebes.
On the way back to the harbor, we paddle along the bank to minimize the effects of a sudden very strong wind. It's incredible. The bank is all banded slate, three hundred layered colors of rich warm brown, marked by hidden featherveil waterfalls, caves we paddle through and banded pillars we paddle around, and wind-twisted pine trees that look like bonsai.
Iceberg kayaking will have to wait for some other year. Disappointing, but I can't say I didn't have fun.

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

(Day 11)
Kayaking back to the harbor, the wind rises to 30 knots (however much that is - I don't actually know), and the kayak lurches up and down over waves. I'm drenched in salt water that somehow manages to phase through the waterproof canvas of my kayaking skirt, and my eyes and cheeks sting with salt. gfish, who's sharing a kayak with me, points out that we've fallen into that grand old tradition of mariners fighting storms, of man versus nature, and suggests we sing a shanty.
Unfortunately, neither of us actually know any sea shanties. I know "Shiver Me Timbers" and "Professional Pirate" from the Muppet Treasure Island movie. gfish knows a filk version of "Rolling Down to Old Maui" called "Falling Down On New Jersey".
So if you ever see some pirates in a kayak, singing something that sounds like Rolling Down to Old Maui, but with frequent interjections of "Yo ho ho" and "Shiver me timbers" and "when you're a pirate, you don't have to wear a suit!" delivered in squeaky muppet voices, that's us, matey. Hand over the doubloons and nobody gets hurt.

Four ways to the wind

(Day 11)
Kayaking, we see a hawk, perhaps a rough-legged hawk, gliding lazily in spirals over each island, broad sweeping wings slanted into the thermals. Its path traces a cycloid, which is the fancy name for the long flower-petaled helical parametric curve you'd get from a pendulum trailing sand.
The heads of cormorants poke above the water like periscopes. They don't have oiled or water-resistant feathers, so they soak up lots of water and ride low. When they want to take off, they run madly along the surface of the water, flapping crazily against the surface of the water, trying to get enough air under waterlogged wings. About half the time, they fail and slam back into the water like cannonballs, raising waves that draw quacks of protest from nearby ducks. When they finally get airborne, they drape themselves bonelessly over sun-warmed rocks, trying to dry off.
We also see arctic terns with backswept arched wings and forked tails. They spend summer in the arctic and winter in antarctica, and know more sunlight than any other animal and are very white, like the light soaked into them. They swoop and chase their tails over the mirror-smooth waters and snow-drenched mountains, and it's hard, watching them, to imagine that they fly for any reason other than the sheer joy of it.
gfish finds a bird skull in the water, about the length of my hand, with all the tiny lace-delicate spurs that support beak and eye sockets. A reminder of how beautiful flight is, and how necessary and fragile. Memento mori.
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(Day 11)
At the beginning of The Two Towers, there's a long swooping shot around some big impressive blue mountains. When I saw it, I was all, "Fake!" - they were just too perfect and pointy to be real. Later, watching the documentary extras, it turns out that those shots were actually real, taken with a helicopter. Alaska is like that, all the time. Layer and layer of mountains in diamond-edged fractal perfection, in every direction, high enough to dent the sky. To perfect to be real - it looks like someone dropped a computer-generated matte behind the first couple of rows of stunted trees.
I keep expecting to get out of the car sometime and stub my toe on some knee-high ice-blue jagged peak.


(Day 12)
We just saw a bear! About what you'd expect, shuffly and black and sleepy-looking, nosing around at some dry fireweed for green bits to munch on. I shot most of a roll of film. Stay tuned for pictures, hopefully.
Now all we need to see is a moose.
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Moose in the hizoose

(Day 13)
A moose! Posing majestically atop a hill, then prancing across the road, then posing in front of a forest and batting eir eyelashes at us.
This suspicious behaviour worries me. Perhaps e thinks we're bear sympathizers and wishes to distract us while other moose from the Silent Icicle Death From Above On Moonless Night Clan set up an ambush ahead using the deadly Five Pine Needles Being Chewed On By Serene Marmot technique.
(Do male moose shed their horns in spring? E appears to be male, but no horns. And if not, is the world really ready for a transgender ninja moose?)
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(Day 14)
We've passed two dead buffalo today, each with his hungry feather cloak of crows and pale banded hawks. The birds leap up as we pass, wheel about, and land again, bloody-beaked. I suppose I'm a freak, but my heart sings to see them.
The land has finally changed again. No longer sculpted by permafrost, and studded by the stunted alpine firs. The trees are actually taller than I am, for once. (Please Note: I am kinda short). The birches here are bursting into pale-green leaves, and the hills look like some 'mad kindergardner was scribbling with a neon green crayon' (gfish said that, and it was such a perfect description I had to repeat it).
We're almost home. Tommorrow night, we'll see the lights of Seattle, silver and orange on eternal blue.


(Day 14)
Today we have seen five bears, and an ugly statue of a moose made of some logs. This is obviously a decoy for a ninja booby trap of some sort. The bear mafia vs. moose ninja war has begun!