Solstice Festivals

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Holy crap the week has rushed by, but I didn’t want to let it go without a chance to tell you about last weekend; because that would be missing out on what is a big day in the Alaskan calendar.

Most of y’all who read this know about the solstice and the effect on the days up here, but let me give those of you from Temecula a refresher.  Last Saturday marked the Summer Solstice, the time when the Northern Hemisphere is closest to the sun, and with that the days are the longest.  Because Alaska is so far from the equator, long days for us are LOOOONNGGG!!  Officially, our longest day this year was just over 19 hours between sun-up and sun-down – and with it still just below the horizon, there is no time during the night the sky gets completely dark.  As a joke, a local radio station gave the solstice weather as:  “Overnight will be Partly Sunny”.

We don’t do much in this town when the winter solstice comes, because quite simply it’s dark and its cold.  Summer Solstice, though, is one of the best weekends of the year.

The city puts on a big celebration.  The jewel of it all is the annual Mayor’s Marathon, a true 50K marathon that runs along the coastal trail to Kincaid park and back (detoured this year by a damaged bridge). I’ve known a couple people that have done the full marathon, but that’s outnumbered by those folks that get in a half marathon, or (what seemed to be all the rage this year) doing a relay half where people do 5 to 10K portions.  The marathon was met by a nice drizzle and occasional rain (which I spent sipping coffee in a nice coffee shop on the south side).

There is a fare downtown as well that runs through the weekend, plus events and games run by different groups in the park.

This year the city stepped up with a new thing, a free concert down by the Railroad Station, which basically meant the seating was all on a hill side – complete with a beer garden/drunk tank (guess where I sat).  The concert featured a known ’90s — but still very good — band called Spin Doctors. Complete with mosh pit full of 40-somethings.  If you want to know how that was, “just go ahead now”. (Get it?)

Anchorage is not alone either.  Towns and cities across Alaska do something for solstice.  Fairbanks is well known for their baseball game that starts at 10:30PM and runs well past midnight – and they never turn on the stadium lights.  I hear some places shoot off fireworks, which is basically a waste of money (ever seen fireworks during daytime?).  More often that not there is some overnight thing happening — and more often than not, it includes a little drinking too.

Thing about all this I wanted to get across is that celebrations take place.  In the Lower 48, solstice would pass with nothing more than a sarcastic comment about after going through three weeks of 100° weather you finally get to say it’s “summer”.  Here, it’s an event, a party, and one that is one of the most festive of the year.

So that may be why it took me almost a week to blog about it … took that long to get over the hangover.

 

Shaky Shaky Shaky

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I know I know, I am behind on my Bear Feed updates, and I have a big one from this past weekend .. plus some other things in the works.  But much of the immediate buzz over the last 24 hours made so wide spread news I got an e-mail of concern from Germany.

Yesterday at 1PM Alaskan Time, a 7.1 Magnitude Earthquake struck the Rat Islands along the Aleutian Island Chain in Alaska.  Immediately, a  Tsunami Warning was put out for most of the southern coastal regions of Alaska as well as much of the Pacific Ocean.  By 3PM, that was reduced to a Tsunami Advisory, and later was cancelled.  A tsunami did occur, but was reported to be no more than a foot tall when coming ashore an hour after the earthquake.

Many of you were concerned about me, my pup, and the rest of us in Alaska – and I appreciate that concern.  As it turned out, there were not only no injuries, there was no damage, and there was questions if any humans actually felt the quake at all.  Where the earthquake occurred was 1350 miles from Anchorage, which is equivalent to the distance from Wichita, KS to New York City (or half way across the Lower 48).  I was at work on the 8th floor of the BP-Alaska tower, where any significant quake would feel like the building was swaying – and I didn’t know there was a quake until my Facebook blew up with questions.  The tsunami wasn’t a threat to us either, as the way the islands are curved even a big one would have been dulled to nothing.

Thanks again for the concern, and when the world ends up here I’ll keep you posted.

Amazing Day to Seward and Back

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In the grand scheme of my time in Alaska, I had a day last week that I can easily throw into the top five.  It was a simple concept, a travel package including a ride down to Seward & back, then some time out at sea.  Fateful Bear Feeders know that I am no stranger to Seward, and this would be the fourth time I would take a boat out of there too.  So what made this so spectacular? Well, there are lots of places you can go that are amazing in Alaska, there are a lot of ways to get there that can be amazing, and there are just experiences that make it amazing.  This day had all three.

It’s common for me to tell visitors, “If you have an hour to kill, make sure you drive Turnagain Arm; if you have a day drive to Seward.”   Heading down there you get to see some of the most compact beauty that changes and excites the mind.  I’ve gone off about Turnagain before, and the rest of the drive to Seward; so I will spare you the details here.  In short what makes it so incredible to visit is just the towering Mountains rising up from the sea, with wildlife and glaciers spotting the landscape.  Since we went out on a boat, that meant sealife, more glaciers, and the the great expanse of the Northern Pacific Ocean.

Thing is, if it was just a drive, then it would have been great.  Instead, this time, the day I spent to Seward included a hundred mile ride on the Alaska Railroad (ARR).  The ARR is much like your Lower 48 railroads that it is a vital transport of goods around the state (well, not ‘around’ the state, just Seward to Anchorage to Fairbanks and points in between).  Unlike those you see down there, it also does a lot of passenger traffic — most of which is sightseeing tours.  Everyday a train runs down to Seward and back again solely for the purpose of tourism.  Even the schedule supports this fun, because it leaves out of Anchorage before 7AM, spends enough time down in Seward to do whatever fun you want to do, then heads back so you can have dinner and be back in Anchorage by 10:30PM.  Sure, a full day, but still a day trip.  Sure, I’ve driven to Seward a few times and really enjoyed it, but there are benefits for the train ride.  The first 40 miles along Turnagain Arm, one of the prettiest drives by car in America, comes in a different perspective as the train goes higher or lower than the road.  Then as the road heads through the Kenai Mountain valleys, the train runs along glacial pastures before heading up and over high summits.  The land is more untouched and wildlife is more unafraid.  Along the way you get a few tunnels, some incredible vistas of mountain lakes, and a final run down into the fjords of Resurrection Bay.

When we arrived in Seward, we immediately jumped a bus, took a ride over to the harbor, then was on a boat within a half an hour.  Heck, that transition was just as fast getting back to the train that night.  That’s not by accident.  The Kenai Fjords Boat Tours have sea tours designed for the ARR day traveler, and it seemed our train was full of people doing the same routine.  The worry we had of making our boat or making our train was nearly laughable with the ease it took to get it done.

Like I said, to make a really amazing day, you still need the experiences.  What can really change for a trip like this is weather and wildlife.  Threatened with rain throughout the day, we didn’t see it until nearly home.  Not just that, but we had near nil winds.  This meant that the seas were smooth and the water pretty flat.  At times, that meant that those summit lakes were nothing but a mirror for the grand landscape around it.

But this wildlife thing … this was where things stepped up.  On the train, we saw a mountainside of Dall Sheep, moose as small as babies and as big as the fullest rack you have seen.  We spotted a bear, we spotted beaver, and nearly a dozen bald eagles stood by or chased us at some point during the rides.

That’s when we got to the boat; and that is when my day became epic.  I love a good day at sea, and it’s a bonus if I can see me a whale or two.  In my life during different cruises, I’d say I have seen three or four whales lifetime.  Beat that!  From the moment we left the harbor the captain told us to keep an eye out for a humpback, and there it was.  The further out we got, there was a clear sign something was up when the we seemed to be driving away from the Glaciers – then she let us in on the secret, there was a pod of Orca (killer whales).  They say it’s uncommon to see Orca here, and when they do, its odd to see more than one family meaning you could see maybe 2 to 5 at any time.  I counted 15.  It was a frickin’ family reunion out there.  We had three more humpback experiences, once one just showed up a hundred feet off the front of the bow.  Then the Fin Whales peaked their heads in there.  Throughout the day, we had Dall’s Porpoises  – which are dolphins that look like baby orca down to the coloring – wanted to play.  Like literally, they wanted to play.  They swam within 10 feet of the boat, jumping through the wake, and watching us as the dove and leaped.

The most common thing I heard on the boat and on the train was: “We don’t see this often, but ..”  It was truly an amazing set of experiences continually hitting us the whole day.

Get Used to It

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When people from the Lower 48 ask how I sleep through the long days of summer, I just shrug and say ‘you get used to it’.  So … that’s a big stinking lie.  Truth is, all that daylight is a pain in the ass, but you would rather have all this sunshine the opposite.

Today, June 9th, is just 11 days away from the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year.  Today we officially have 19 hours, 7 minutes, and 57 seconds of daylight.  From here on out, we will just add another 14 minutes to the daylight.  At this time of year, however, there is no time of day where it gets completely dark.  There is always a glow in the sky, something just short of dusk.  It’s a stretch to say you see it anyway, since the official sunset is just before Midnight, and sunrise is well before 5AM.  Anyone on a normal sleep pattern (or circadian rhythm for you nerds) will be out before sunset and/or after sunrise.  So, like it or not, you are dealing with daylight when you sleep.

Many use ‘blackout’ shades, which are basically really good window shades.  Others say they use sleep masks, like they do in the old timey movies.  Me — I just don’t deal with shutting out the light.  I like it when the windows are open and cool air is coming in, and that means leaving shades open too.  There was a movie in 2002 staring Al Pacino called Insomnia about a Los Angeles cop sent to an Alaskan town to help with a murder, but is tortured by the constant daylight.  There are scenes where he has loads of cushions and screens up around the windows, but the crevices of light are blinding in their brightness.  That’s what has me worried of happening.

Instead I find my circadian rhythm just generally messed up.  I fell like my body believes any sleep I get at “night” is no different than taking a nap — so it feels like it can catch up on the rest whenever it wants.  Mid-Afternoon, just after breakfast, while a hockey game is on at a bar, whenever.

Truth is, having this much daylight is great, because there is so much that always seems to get done these days.  I rather have that then the alternative.  You do get used to it too, to some extent.  It’s what normal is now, like the normal of darkness during the winter.  But don’t get me wrong, it’s just a different type of suck.

Pavlof’s Blown It

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The weekend’s rains finally put the kibosh on the wildfires plaguing South central Alaska, and the skies have turned sunny and all of the plants & trees are flourishing.  Nothing for any of us to worry about, and above all else, nothing to complain about … right?

On June 2nd, the volcano Pavlof went “condition red”.

Condition Red is the highest level of warning.  It is issued when eruption is imminent with loads of volcanic ash into the atmosphere likely or eruption is underway or suspected with significant emission of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.  In Pavlof’s case, the eruption went from imminent to underway pretty quickly.  Overnight, it was shooting a fountain of lava out of the top, and has an ash cloud reaching 24,000 ft.  According to the Alaska Volcano Observatory, some of the tremors have died down but the eruption will likely go on for a while.

Currently, there is very little threat to anyone.  Pavlof is on an Aleutian Island some 650 miles from Anchorage, and 40 miles from the closest town (which isn’t even on the same island).  The main threat is the ash, either disrupting airplane traffic or falling onto a town in that area.  The ash plume is reaching out nearly 70 miles, but the winds down that way are fairly straight line and luckily away from people.,

Alaska, with being the most active Earthquake state in the country, also happens to be the most volcanic as well.  Hawaii may have greater or more interesting activity, but Alaska lapped them over.  In fact, the 50 volcanoes active in recorded history is about three-quarters of the total number of active volcanoes in the USA.  Nearly all of them run along the Aleutian Islands, the long spear of islands that reach from Anchorage’s Cook Inlet to past the dateline and nearly Japan.  The greatest concern is Mt. Redoubt, a 10000 ft active beast that’s in shooting distance to the whole Cook Inlet – and last did so in 1990.  Cleveland is another nasty one, but its in a part of the Aleutian Chain where it mostly worries travelers to Asia.

As for now, we watch the reports, see the cool pictures, and hope for the best for the people down by Pavlof.

Oh … and complain, we are good at that.

Late Night Update:  The Alaskan Volcano Observatory has downgraded Pavlof to “Yellow” status.  So, the eruption event is basically over.

CORRECTION TO THE UPDATE — It’s Actually “Orange” meaning:  eruption is underway with no or minor volcanic-ash emissions

Bunny Count: May 2014

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It’s the end of the month, so time for the Monthly Bunny Count.  Let’s Get Started:

Bunnies: 2 — YES, the Bunny Count finally includes Bunnies!!!
Bald Eagles: 7
Yak: 50+ (First appearance of Yak too)
Moose: 2
Dog-Eating-Scary-Bird-Thingies-Screeching-Every-Morning-In-Valdez: Dozens
Bear: 0

Total Daylight: 18hrs 40mins 47sec
Daylight Gain: 2hrs 26mins 18sec
Nights I have Seen Full Dark In The Last 3 Weeks: 0

Earthquakes Felt: 1
Earthquake Magnitude: 5.1

Total Rainfall in May: 0.47″
Departure from Normal Rainfall: -0.25″
Wild Fires Smoking out Anchorage: 3
Size of the Funny River Fire (at it’s peak, the largest in the USA): 300,000 Square Acres
Distance Away from Funny River And Still Getting Smoke: 350 miles

Miles Driven Memorial Day Weekend: 833
Miles Driven in a Non-4×4: 833
Miles Probably Should Have Driven in 4×4: 120-ish

Snowfall (Offical – not counting the dumping the higher elevations got yesterday): 0″
Total Seasonal Snowfall (which should be it unless something happens in June): 64.7″
Departure from Normal: -9.8″

Trips to Cabella’s: 1
Amount Spent at Cabella’s: $300+
Trips to REI: 1
Amount Spent at REI: $100+
Trips to Mossy’s Fly Fishing Shop: 2
Amount Spent at Mossy’s: ~$150
Amount of Items Bought at those places actually used: 7 (6 tent stakes (that didn’t work) and backpack repair clip)
Nights Camped: 3
Number of Nights Camped More than All of Last Year: 2

Times Killed by Bunnies, Eagles, Cabella’s, Wildfires, Camping, and 4x4s: 0, so far