Fire Cloud...
An irregular marking on the exterior of Native American pottery: usually resulting from burning fuel coming in direct contact with the vessel during firing

Friday, 29 June 2007

The Land of the Midnight Sun

Skagway, Alaska – June 29, 2007

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

-Robert Service

This is dangerous country. You can still die of exposure, get eaten by a bear or get trampled into the mud by a herd of cruise boat tourists. There are three cruise ships in port today and the tiny town of 900 has its population swollen to 6,000 until about 7 pm.

There is only one road into town. It leads over a spectacular pass to Carcross in the Yukon, 70 miles away. We spent a night in Carcross. It seems to be mostly populated by people whose ancestors migrated over the Siberian ice bridge 20,000 years ago. A notice in the place we stopped announces that a dogcatcher will soon be hired to collect unleashed dogs before any children are injured. The Alcoholic Anonymous bus leaves at 5:30 on Friday nights for the meeting in Whitehorse.

We started hiking up the brutal Chilkoot trail yesterday. Back in the rush of ’98, Mounties were waiting 33 miles away in the Yukon and required each gold seeker to have a ton of supplies. That required nearly 40 trips over the brutal trail unless you were lucky enough to have $200 to pay 20 natives $10 each to carry 100 pounds on your behalf. I get worn out after a half-mile of rock climbing and turn back.

We’ll take a ferry later this week to Juneau. It’s the state capital but only accessible by boat or air. Haines is our next stop; it’s about 10 miles away by ferry and 360 miles by road. The White Pass railroad up to Carcross was completed in 1900. You can still ride it up to the Summit. At the time it beat a broken ankle.

Soapy Smith established himself a Marshall and dictator of Skagway during the gold rush. He ran various cons on the miners. He offered telegrams at $5 each for any that didn’t notice that the wire ended in the bushes. Another good one was a free medical exam in a tent. You stripped for the exam and when you emerged your clothes and boots were gone. We walked out to Soapy’s grave this morning down the railroad track. He would be pleased that the town is maintaining his tradition.

I still tell Jack London bedtime stories to my grandchildren, but I had forgotten Robert Service. He made almost $500,000 off his poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”. Imagine Japanese tourists listening to “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill” about sawing off frozen arms and legs to get Bill into his coffin….

Here are some shots of the Alcan Highway

And more of Skagway.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

What Does It Matter Where People Go?

The Alcan Highway – Mile 478.4
Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park, British Columbia – June 25, 2007

We picked up Justin again, a young hitchhiker, the second day on the highway. He is traveling up to Dawson City, Alaska and hopes to find work in a mining camp. He spent last night in his small tent by the roadside. He theorizes that people who pick up hitchhikers usually have done a lot of hitchhiking. He might have something there.

Last year in Alaska, Captain Tim, out of Homer, expressed his disgust with tourists who drive too fast at night and kill the moose. He made it sound like the moose are as slow as cows or buffalo and just amble out onto the highway. He keeps a .50 caliber “Desert Eagle” in his truck to put them away when they’ve been too badly injured. Captain Tim knew his halibut, but he liked to perseverate about tourists in general and the cost of rods, reels, line, sinkers, bait, gasoline, motor repair, docking fees and wages. By the end of the day I was ready to prepare a business plan for charter halibut fishing.

So then, I was just driving along today, minding my own business, when I caught a big brown blur in my peripheral vision, charging hard from the right. With lightning reflexes, and a characteristic cool presence of mind, I buried the brake pedal in the floorboard of the RV. The “Brake Buddy”, back in the tow vehicle, sensed my anxiety and locked up the Toyota, reducing my total stopping distance by an estimated 30% (according to the manufacturer). As we skidded to a shuddering halt on the wet asphalt, the 3,000 pound, ten-foot tall, Bull Moose crossed inches in front of our motionless front bumper, moving perpendicular to our line of travel at an estimated 30 miles per hour. The whole thing lasted five seconds, tops. He had really long legs, an ungainly gait and a great rack.

A few miles on, we saw what we believe to be “stone sheep” crossing the road. There were also big herds of buffalo along the road but my marginal utility for more bison pictures is approaching zero.

We stop for two nights in the Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park. The Alpha Spring is 53 C. (about 130 F). The Beta Spring is 42 C. The hottest water floats on top. We think of boiling frogs in slowly heated water. We’re up at 60 degrees north latitude. The nights are very short this time of year. We smell sulfur as we soak alone at dawn in the steaming pool and then hike in the woods to a waterfall. No one else stops to see it. They’re all in a hurry to arrive at a destination. We stop for buffalo burgers for lunch. We consider electricity on the way out and hear the pounding generator powering the only eating place for 100 miles.

Sometimes when you meet someone for the first time you may find that you both share the same favorite poem. You may only remember the poem part of the meeting at long intervals of years when you happen to stumble upon patches of bluebells in the woods.

Spring Morning

Where am I going? I don't quite know.
Down to the stream where the king-cups grow -
Up on the hill where the pine-trees blow -
Anywhere, anywhere, I don't know

Where am I going? The clouds sail by,
Little ones, baby ones, over the sky.
Where am I going? The shadows pass,
Little ones, baby ones, over the grass

If you were a cloud, and sailed up there,
You'd sail on water as blue as air,
And you'd see me here in the fields and say:
"Doesn't the sky look green today?"

Where am I going? The high rooks call:
"It's awful fun to be born at all."
Where am I going? The ring-doves coo:
"We do have beautiful things to do."

If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You'd lean on the wind when the wind came by,
You'd say to the wind when it took you away:
"That's where I wanted to go today!"

Where am I going? I don't quite know.
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the wood where the blue-bells grow -
Anywhere, anywhere. I don't know.

- A.A. Milne

The salmon start running in Alaska in June. I hear them calling.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Mile Zero – The Alcan Highway

Dawson Creek, British Columbia

On December 7, 1941, construction priorities were changed. Within 60 days the construction of a highway to Alaska was approved and heavy construction equipment was moved by priority train to Dawson Creek.

The long highway was completed by September, 1942. The route was dictated by the airfields along the Northwest Delivery Route, which were used to deliver 8,000 lend-lease aircraft to the Soviet Union. The road became impassible again in the summer of 1943. The removal of protective vegetation turned 100 miles of the road to muck after the permafrost melted.

The primary aircraft delivered to the Soviet Union was the P-39 Airacobra. Russian pilots took delivery in Fairbanks and flew on to Nome and Siberia. The mid-engine design was very unusual. The P-39 tended toward flat spins unless the nose was properly loaded with ammunition. It also lacked a turbocharger limiting its effective altitude to about 17,000 feet. The engine drive shaft ran between the pilots feet to the propeller. A 37 MM synchronized nose cannon made this a very effective ground support aircraft.

Aleksandr Pokryshkin flew the P-39 from late 1942 until the end of the war. His unofficial score in the Airacobra stands at nearly 60 Luftwaffe aircraft. His wingman, Grigori Rechkalov, scored 57 victories with the P-39. These are the highest score ever claimed by any pilot with a US-made aircraft. The Russian nickname for the Airacobra was Kobrusha, "dear little cobra".

“Frost heaves” are still common on the highway where sections are uplifted in winter. Axles break and windshields and headlights are shattered by flying gravel. We got a windshield crack today from flying gravel.

We ended the day at Fort Nelson, one of the airfield locations. It's about 1,000 miles to Skagway, launch point for the Klondike Gold Rush.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

The Edmonton Mall

Edmonton, Alberta - June 22, 2007

We went to the West Edmonton mall today. It’s even bigger than the Mall of the Americas in Minneapolis. It is the world’s largest mall.

As we walked in we saw a very large ice skating rink. Other features include a huge indoor water park with extremely tall slides, a sea lion show, a full size floating pirate ship, a rock band, a bunch of live flamingos and an aquarium full of poisonous stonefish. There was also a bungee jumping area and a wing of pubs and restaurants like Hooters and Tony Roma’s ribs. There were at least three multiplex theatres.

The mall also contains a large theme park called Galaxyland. It must be interesting, it costs $30 to enter. One entirely new piece of technology was a large, darkened online gaming establishment with big screen game displays. We walked for three hours and probably saw 30% of the mall.

The picture of Marilyn was in a hologram store. There was also a kangaroo petting zoo and a half-dozen Koalas in a eucalyptus grove. The brace of Pandas in the bamboo forest was also nice touch. We missed the "Sea Cave" section with the Great White Sharks.

Pictures of the Mall.

Friday, 22 June 2007

In the Corner of Some Foreign Field

Winnipeg, Manitoba – June 19, 2007

One good thing about Winnipeg is the free parking for visitors. We walk though a park near the railroad station and over the bridge to the French Quarter, the community of St. Boniface. We learn that four Gray Nuns made a long canoe trip from Montreal to settle here in the early 1800s.

The bridge between St. Boniface and Winnipeg was deliberately severed in 1905, which hints at trouble between the two communities. Now all the traffic signs are unfailingly in both French and English, so relations seem to have been repaired.

We have a fine lunch buffet on at revolving restaurant on the 31st floor of a hotel. I take a three hour nap afterward. The campground is ten miles from downtown in the middle of a newly planted, vast, flat field. The sky changes frequently with rainbows, hot air balloons, thunderclouds, sun and lightning bolts. It’s pleasantly cool at night, about 10 C.

We grill the wild Alaska Sockeye Salmon for dinner. There’s enough left for a salad tomorrow.

Wynard Provincial Park, Saskatchewan – June 20, 2007

We made about 400 miles today. It’s still 410 to Edmonton, Alberta. The two lane road is empty and smooth. The view is mostly of huge agricultural fields, farm equipment dealers and huge silos and granaries.

The Dakota plains, 300 miles south, has similar views so this should not be a surprise. Dinner is breaded fried catfish. I try to buy an $8 bottle of wine, but it’s $15 during LB Hours and $21 after that. Liquor Board hours, I learn, end at 6 PM. We settle for a cheaper bottle of California Red.

No one in town has a non-citizen fishing license. If they had one though, it would be $39.76 for a three-day non-citizen license. We consider diverting North to the Prince Albert National Park. After discussion, we decide to press on to Skagway.

Elk Island National Park, Alberta – June 21, 2007

There are hundreds of buffalo wandering about. We also see a wolf on the side of the road. We have internet and look for tennis courts in nearby Edmonton. We find ten and decide to spend a couple of days playing tennis. Here are some buffalo.

Edmonton has the world’s largest shopping mall, complete with indoor waterslides.

Our mail is on the way to Skagway, Alaska. Here are some more buffalo pictures. Skagway has a population of 962.

The beginning of the Alcan Highway, at Dawson Creek, is another 400 miles.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Eat Cheese or Die

Reedsburg, Wisconsin - June 17, 2007

French explorers named this area the “Dalles” (flagstones) because of the limestone rock formations. The name has become anglicized to the Dells. It’s lovely here in the summer and probably brutal in winter.

Wisconsin is filled with landscaped farms, low hills formed by glacial deposits, rivers, lakes and hardwood forests. Cheese is a big deal here because of the emphasis on dairy products. The first sign we saw after crossing the border was “Cheese and Fireworks Ahead!” It’s lovely here in the summer and probably very brutal in winter. A local theatre company did an outdoors “Much Ado about Nothing” two days ago and “The Night of the Iguana” last night.

We drove though farmland up to “The Dells” today to see “Lost Canyon”, a slot canyon formed in limestone by glacier melt during the last ice age. On the way we were pleased to find a small town parade in progress in Reedsville, celebrating their annual Butter Festival. You may remember the part of “Easy Rider” where Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) join a small town parade and get thrown in jail for parading without a license.

We drive on to the Dells and find a huge amusement park with wooden roller coasters and brand new Greek ruins, called Mt. Olympus. The Dells also has the world’s largest water park, which has a convenient ride to the top of the slides.

The trip though the slot canyons is interesting. Most of my pictures don’t come out because of the dim light. Our guide tells us stories about the geology and fauna and shows us the 37 stitches he got from a chainsaw last month.

It’s time to for us to move on to Minnesota and then Fargo, North Dakota. In about three driving days we will enter Manitoba Province and lose our computer broadband and cell service for a couple of weeks until we hit Skagway in Alaska.

Here are some pictures of Lost Canyon and the Butter Festival.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

The Home of Frank Lloyd Wright

Spring Green, Wisconsin

Frank built his own home on 600 acres in Spring Green, Wisconsin. We went there today and also spent an hour underground at the Cave of the Blue Mounds. Our cave tour included no less than three screaming babies. Fortunately, I have experience with screaming babies.

Frank married and had two children. He left them all in Chicago and moved into the new home in 1911 with another woman. She died in a fire which destroyed most of the house in 1925. Two of her children and four guests also perished in the fire, which was judged to be an arson. Frank rebuilt the home, met another woman, 30 years younger, and had more children.

He is America’s most famous architect. He was born in 1867 and died in 1959. He designed over 1,000 buildings during his 70 year career. Many of these are designated historic landmarks.

The house contains rugs, lamps, chairs and tables designed by Wright. There is little here that he did not design. You can’t take any pictures of the inside.

One strange design feature is that many of the entryways and corridors are less than six feet tall so that I have to crouch to enter. He was apparently a diminutive man. He also did not waste time in the design of bedroom or bathroom features, believing these were places you took care of business and got out. His own bed is very tiny and over in a corner.

“Fellowship” members live on the grounds. They can live here for life. To become a member you must first be an apprentice. No amount of probing of our guide revealed any additional information about the nature of the "Fellowship", which is separate from the “Foundation”.

Today is our son’s birthday. He is 38. We leave messages on all his telephones. I bought him a 4-gig telephone memory card last week. I remember when a 10-meg hard drive was a big deal. I remember storing data on decks of punched cards and paper tape. I remember $900 personal calculators that could add and subtract. I remember mechanical adding machines...Sigh!...What a fossil!

Frank's house needs a lot of work. The exterior plaster has a lot of cracks which are developing into major problems. I could fix it all myself in about a year. Two years, if you include the interior repainting. Apparently Fellowship duties do not include mere maintenance.

We are parked in a little RV park surrounded by a cornfield. There are only two other campers. The office is in a little liquor store next door. They have a good selection of wine and Wisconsin cheese. Large stuffed fish are mounted on the walls. The ammo is behind the counter, but the liquor is on a shelf next to the exit door. In Tampa, shop-lifting would be a problem with this setup. The young man at the register has the slow, dreamy voice of a heavy pot user. He tells me he just lost a close friend. I tell him I'm sorry and think about close friends lost.

Here are some pictures of Frank's house.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Flinging Magnetic Curses

Chicago. Illinois – June 13, 2007

…Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities…

Yesterday we drove about 300 miles on secondary roads though Indiana and Illinois. The endless cornfields have new plants about two feet tall. We didn’t find any roadside vegetable stands.

We are camped in Starved Rock State Park, 100 miles West of Chicago. Mrs. Phred wanted to see Chicago so we drove to Joliet and took the Metra train in to the Lafayette street station. The 30-mile ride took about 90 minutes.

The first thing we recognize is the Chicago Public library. I want to see the Museum of Contemporary Photography so we walk past the “El” down to Michigan Avenue. John Belushi did the “cheeseburger” skit in one of the small restaurants near the El. We look for it but don’t find it. The El is pure Chicago, massive steel girders that suspend thundering trains above the street level.

Many of the warehouses, print shops and factories have been converted to high-end residential. We are surprised to agree that this may be the most beautiful city in the world (sorry Paris!). The architecture is stunning. My favorite is a 1980s Art Deco style skyscraper on the river. The style has been called “Echo Deco”.

The tall buildings and extensive public parks have been suspended in the air over massive invisible networks of roads, subways, loading docks and rail lines. The railroads sold only the air rights to developers.

The Chicago River winds though the city. There are 30 closely placed “moveable bridges”. Chicago pioneered a teeter-totter type iron bridge that can be quickly retracted for boat traffic.

Around 1900 the sewage dumped into the river was being sucked into the city’s fresh water supply. This was causing big problems with cholera and other diseases so they dynamited a sub-continental divide upstream and sent the sewage on down to Saint Louis instead of out into Lake Michigan. The dumping of sewage and industrial toxins stopped about 30 years ago and now there are 73 species of toxic fish living in the river. To get out of the river, boats now use a lock, one that raises them to the level of Lake Michigan.

There are some interesting ethnic enclaves near the center of the city: Italian, Ukrainian and Polish. A cell phone tower stands on the former site of Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. A drunken Irishman started a fire there that jumped the river and burned down most of Chicago in 1871. The timely fire permitted the redevelopment of the city and the close concentration of tall steel-frame buildings.

Geography explains Chicago. It is centrally located on one of the Great Lakes, a rail hub with a shipping canal dug to the Mississippi River. As a result it quickly became a center for meat packing, transportation, printing and merchandise distribution.

…Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog- Butcher,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

- Sandburg

Here are some Chicago pictures.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Appalachian Bluegrass

Camp Creek State Park, West Virginia – June 10, 2007

By accident, we stop for the night at a State park that is having a Bluegrass festival. We sit in the grass and listen to the banjos and dulcimers for a few hours. It’s cooler up here in the Appalachian Mountains. The fireflies are still flitting though the trees at 3 AM.

You know things are a little different when you see a sign in the ranger station that says, “Fresh eggs $1.50 a dozen; $2.00 for 18 count”.

The Appalachian Mountain range is 300 to 350 million years old. It’s the oldest mountain range on Earth, formed before animals emerged from the sea. West Virginia is the center of Appalachia. These mountains were once higher than the Himalayas and now are stubby, eroded remnants.

This has always been a notoriously poor region. Bobby Kennedy visited here on February 14, 1968, during the Tet Offensive. He was “fact finding “about the results of the “War on Poverty”. I was off loading helicopters in the middle of a lackadaisical firefight on a ocean beach airstrip halfway around the world.

He said then, “... our nation must be told the truth about this war, in all its terrible reality, both because it is right, and because only in this way can any administration rally public confidence and unity for the shadowed days which lie ahead.”

What Bobby didn’t understand, from his patrician perspective, is that the people always eventually figure out the truth by themselves. We’ve gone from having nothing to fear but fear itself, to being told that it’s patriotic to be afraid and having color codes to tell us how much.

It’s an insular place. I get a number of confused stares as I listen to the music. I feel that people are thinking something is wrong with me but they’re not quite sure what it is. If you’re not quite sure what “bluegrass” music is, here’s a short video.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Wild Horses and Love Bugs

Crooked River State Park, Georgia – June 3, 2007

It's 4,995 miles from Tampa to Fairbanks, Alaska. At an average of 150 miles a day, we should be there about the 4th of July...Minnesota, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, the Yukon Territories...places we've never been.

Tropical storm Barry followed us from Tampa to Georgia. The wind and rain cooled things off and suppressed the bugs, making camping pleasant for this time of year. As it is, the rain brings much need replenishment for parched lawns, reservoirs and crops. Also, the black clouds of shamelessly copulating Love Bugs should be down in the grass instead of plastered in pairs on the front of the RV. They are nearly impossible to remove after they dry for ten hours.

We’re camped on the banks of Crooked River in South Georgia. There’s a huge submarine base nearby. Our campground overlooks the river, which is a typical Georgia coastal river winding though wide expanses of savannah-like grasslands.

We take the ferry over to Cumberland Island for a swim and picnic. The ferry takes you (but not your bike) to a pristine National Seashore on Cumberland Island. Wild horses roam the beach there. The horses are not all that healthy and have adapted to drinking brackish water and eating sea oats. They have a high salt content and their ribs show. Naturalists want them gone to avoid damage to sea oats. Animal rights groups want them rounded up and treated by vets. Tourists love them.

The ruins of the Dungeness mansion sit in the woods. The mansion was built by Lucy Carnegie. Feral descendents of the Carnegies are said to roam the woods at night. The word Dungeness has a French origin. It means “dangerous nose”. The UK has a Dungeness in Kent. Lucy Carnegie bought up most of this 18 mile long island and then tied it up in her will until the last of her children died in 1963.

In 1959, the Dungeness groundskeeper shot a poacher in the leg. The poacher’s relatives returned and burned the mansion and family yacht. You don’t mess with Georgia boys over a crummy deer, Carnegie or not.

There is a small one-room church for freed slaves here. It has no electricity. For some reason, JFK, Jr. elected to be married in the church. This is one of three National Seashores we have visited on the East coast. One is down in Florida by Cape Canaveral. Another is the Outer Banks up in North Carolina.