Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pragmatic Beauty, Valdez Alaska

When I travel abroad I seldom go out of my way to visit "Great" architecture.  Cathedrals are impressive but have a certain sameness to them.  Modern projects too often look like somebody's out of control Lego set.  But now and then something catches my eye and makes me smile.

Here is the dental office of D.A. Houseman, Valdez Alaska.

Wow.  Now it helps to know that Valdez is an interesting place.  It was a Gold Rush town tossed together very quickly in 1898 when steamship companies scammed prospectors into thinking this was a shortcut to the Yukon.  Valdez has always had a good port so the town never really died out, although the big earthquake in 1964 destroyed the original site and most of the buildings.  The construction of the Alaska pipeline in the 1970s and a boom in tourism has made it a rather busy place again.

The buildings in town are a mixture of a few old structures hauled over from the original site, along with a hodge podge of more recent construction.  All of it looks quite weathered and prematurely "old" due to the harsh climate.  It is a damp, foggy place that gets more snow than any other spot in America.  Like, 300 inches a year.

All of these factors come into play in the rambling structure shown above.  Note the square, boxy look to the various components? That's because it is made of square boxes.

The view from behind, majestic mountains in the background.  The entire complex appears to have been assembled by parking a series of metal shipping containers on the lot, then linking them together and partially framing some of them in with wood.  Maybe that big leaning sheet of plywood is work in progress.  Valdez is the busiest container port in Alaska so there are lots of shipping containers to be had.

Stop and ponder for a moment the potential problems of a flat roofed structure and 300 inches of snow per year.  Hmmm, start to see an issue?  I really love the solution shown here:

There is a stairway going up to the roof.  It is of course fully enclosed because who wants to shovel snow off the stairs that you are using to get up on the roof to shovel more snow.  And parked on the roof, year round we find.  Yes, a snow blower!

I like this building so much that I am going to borrow it.  I think it is a marvelous stand in for the mythical "Trowelsworthy Hall".

Monday, August 18, 2014

Hiding from Facebook

I resisted Facebook for a long time.  It seemed a superficial means of communication and besides, I hate trendy crap.  But eventually I gave in at least on a limited basis.  I have a minor presence there, one designed mostly to keep in touch with my far flung pals from the archaeology world.

But because I think it would be bad professionally to have patients in the ER waiting room look me up and see me, well, being me, I am using a pseudonym for Facebook.  I am for that purpose a certain Badger Trowelsworthy.

Facebook has sophisticated software that tries to figure you out.  Not that they really care about you they just want to fine tune ads to send your way. You can tell they are zeroing in on your position when they actually get a few things right.  When they for instance suggest sports teams I might want to follow they sometimes come close.

So I keep tweaking my profile to try and confuse them.  At this time Facebook suggests the following things that I might find of interest:

Sports Team:  Fennerbahce Spor Klubu.  This is a soccer (football) team from Istanbul.

Book:  Duck for President.  This is a children's book I had never heard of.  When looking at this I accidentally clicked on "I have read this".  I suppose political poultry content will come streaming towards me now.

Movie:  The Mortal Instruments.  Also never heard of it.  It is a 2013 "German-Canadian" film.

Music:  Shakira.  Well, I have at least heard of her.

I admit to messin' with Facebook a little.  I was not born on January 1st 1910, but if you want to send me birthday greetings it is "close enough" on the date.  I actually have worked as a Carney, and I think "Knight-Errant" is true on some level.  I have not - NSA are you paying attention here? - attended the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, but given the choreography of North Korean military parades I am sure the curriculum would be impressive.  And no, I don't really live in Greenland.  But this does have the helpful effect of making a high percentage of the ads Facebook sends to me be in Danish.  This renders them all mildly charming but I am disappointed that the Facebots don't realize that the official language of Greenland has been "West Greenlandic" since 2009.

I am enjoying my anonymity.  In fact I am considering posting my own Wikipedia page to further it. Something along these lines:

Badger Trowelsworthy has variously been described as a fugitive financier or a delusional nutter. An emerging consensus suggests that he may be both.

Trowelsworthy was born on a whaling ship in the South Atlantic in 1910.  He attributes his youthful appearance and widely rumored physical prowess to a diet of Hostess Twinkies.  When pressed he will also admit that his birth certificate is an obvious forgery.

The traditional residence of his family, Trowelsworthy Hall, is of uncertain location.  What information there is on the structure comes from consistently negative comments in a variety of architectural journals.  Locations in Dorset, UK, or on a municipal landfill in British Columbia have been claimed, but these are both likely to be misinformation put out to prevent a rogue junior branch of the Trowelsworthy family from taking possession during one of Badger Trowelsworthy's extended holidays or occasional incarcerations.  A more recent report describes it as "a former dental office made of steel shipping containers".

Trowelsworthy Hall in 2012

Very little is known for certain about Mr. Trowelsworthy.  He is said to have  toured the American Midwest in a traveling carnival in the 1920s.  There he met and married his first wife, a hoochie-coochie dancer known only as "Babs". Trowelsworthy was sued in the Turkish equivalent of small claims court in 1957 on charges of offering insufficient bribes to public officials.  The nickname "Al-Baksheeshi" dates from this era.  

BAJIR AL-BAKSHEESHI Date of photo unknown
Although he is technically allowed to style himself "Lord Trowelsworthy" the circumstances under which the British monarchy were persuaded to grant him the unique title of DBE ("Dude of the British Empire") are the subject of much inconclusive speculation.  He uses his knighthood primarily as an excuse to refer to his current wife - a former Miss Iceland from the early 1980s - as Lady Trowelsworthy.

Badger Trowelsworthy currently resides in the tiny Greenlandic community of Arsuk.  Nobody there will admit to recognizing the name Trowelsworthy, but mail and email sent to his alter ego Dagmar Suarez is answered promptly.  If  you mention that name in Arsuk you will be politely but firmly asked to leave at once.

Arsuk is rather lovely at summer solstice

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Alaska Odds and Ends - Rivendell

I've been to Alaska four times now, and each time I have an identical thought when I round some bend in the road and see an awesome vista of mountains and glaciers and blue water.  Peter Jackson could have filmed Lord of the Rings here.  Alaska is basically Middle Earth.

The works of modern man are few and look to be just hanging on in the face of the harsh, majestic forces of nature.  They appear ancient after just a few years.  Here is a carved totem that would not be out of place in Gondor, if the parking lot and houses were photoshopped out.

Of course, I am not the only person who feels this way....

Addendum:  the essential Roadside America site tells me that the large wooden figure is part of the Whispering Giants series of sculptures by an artist marvelously named Peter Wolf Toth.  One is to be found in all 50 states and in several Canadian provinces.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Kayaks on Prince William Sound

Prince William Sound is one of the prettiest places I have ever visited.  And there are lots of ways to see it.  You get a good look when out on fishing charters and even the ferry from Valdez to Whittier can have some spectacular views if the weather is clear. But to get an up close view you might consider sea kayaking.  We did this recently with an outfit called Anadyr Adventures.

You start out at Valdez, after donning some fairly ridiculous looking gear.

We were very lucky with the weather.  They told us they get about one sunny, warm, fog free day a month up there and this was it. So most of us were down to shirtsleeves and life jacket by noon.

You run out in a water taxi, basically a fishing boat with kayak carrying capacity.  Along the way you get some very nice scenery. Here is a small ice berg that had calved off the nearby Columbia glacier.

Once we debarked we proved to be a capable bunch of paddlers. The trip we were on more or less circumnavigated Glacier Island, so called for its views of the Columbia glacier across the bay.

All very pretty and on a perfect day.  We saw lots of marine birds, also a few of the silver salmon we had been fruitlessly hunting were insolent enough to jump around here and there.  There were a couple of particular highlights.  At noon we had lunch then climbed up a hill in the middle of the island.  Here with no photo tweaking at all is Alaska in full glory.

The other amazing sight was a sea lion colony.  A bit of explanation is in order.  The breeding grounds are on the other side of the Sound.  Over there the triumphant, successful males sit among their admiring harems.  The reject males, mostly corpulent old timers and frisky juveniles, come over here. They sit on the beach sullenly snapping at each other.  The noises from the colony are astounding. Imagine an auditorium of 3rd grade boys having a belching contest.

Not a happy bunch.  I have decided that although the human name for this place is Glacier Island, the sea lion name is probably "GaaRaaaaraaaGaaaaarGaaaaag" which translates loosely to "Loser's Beach".

As we paddled away a gang of the younger ones got either a little curious or a little territorial.  They swam out ahead of us, then turned and came charging right at us:

They were at one point right in among our kayaks, and I am not the only member of our party who swears you could smell their rank, fishy breath!

Better luck next breeding season, dudes.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Worst Political Campaign Slogan of 2014

Alaska has some very active political campaigns going on right now.  It tends to be a conservative state but one of their Senators is a Democrat and is up for re-election.  In a year when control of the US Senate - and the future makeup of the Supreme Court - could easily be determined by a handful of votes in some rural backwater, that makes for some high octane campaigning.  But on our recent trip it was actually the race for Alaska Governor that caught my eye.  There are three fellows running*.  The incumbent Republican, a Democratic challenger, and this guy:

We have here in Wisconsin another fellow named Scott Walker, he is the incumbent Republican Governor and an interesting figure in his own right.  But the Alaskan Walker is a guy named Bill, a lawyer and former mayor of Valdez.

I should be up front about my own politics, I generally lean in a conservative direction on matters of public policy but don't care much about what people do with their personal lives.  Bill Walker's campaign seems to be in line with this viewpoint, I rather like his website that goes on at length about how awful it is that the Governor's Mansion got a sweetheart bid 1.5 Million dollar paint job, and that the spare legislative offices in Anchorage have glass elevators and bathroom stalls with maple doors. So Bill, if you read this blog take what I have to say as the advice of a friend:  Fire your media consultant.

When I saw the first few signs of the type shown above I thought, hmmm, surely this was a slip up. They would never want to draw comparisons to Britain First, the recently emerging far right, anti-immigrant, close to neo-nazi organization in the UK?  (THIS is a partisan but fairly on target summary of the group).

Must have been a slip up, no?

Sigh.  You really have to be careful about this sort of thing.  You would not think well of a Liberal/Progressive candidate who had campaign signs reading "Fellow Citizens, We March Together to the Worker's Paradise!".

So Conservative candidates need to take a little time and try to avoid slogans that sound vaguely like right wing totalitarian nonsense.  I mean, what next, some three part slogan that has the toxic ring of "Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer"?**

*This being Alaska there are a whole slug of minor and curiosity candidates.  There is a guy who was born on Kodiak island and went to school in a log cabin.  There is a gold miner.  There is a fellow described as an "inn keeper and frequent candidate".

**For the record, Bill Walker is NOT a neo-nazi and would properly regard any such suggestion as a grievous offense.  Everything I have read about him makes him sound like a stand up guy who would make a pretty good elected official.  Remember, this is friendly advice here.  You won't make it to the political big leagues with this kind of campaign decisions.....

Monday, August 11, 2014

White Water and Big Fish

One thing we did when staying in Copper Center was a white water rafting/king salmon fishing charter. We did this through Klutina Salmon Charters and they did a great job.  The trip was worth it for the scenery alone, but you do get occasional reminders that life in Alaska lacks a few of the built in safety features that we assume in day to day matters.

You bounce up and down on class II and III rapids.  Here our able guide Glenn mans the oars.  I was put in the back seat.  This could be because folks were being nice and this is the "splash free zone".  Or maybe they figured that if I were bounced off it would be a while before my absence was noticed....

And the rest of our intrepid crew.

From time to time you get off and fish.  As we are after King salmon this involves heavy tackle and a long day of casting.  But even the ladies showed excellent persistence and good technique all day.

The Klutina river runs through a deep valley, with steep crumbly hills on either side.  A decade or so back one of these hills just collapsed into the river, damming it off for about half an hour. Fortunately the flow was gradually able to sneak through otherwise Copper Center would have had a significant flood.  Oh, and the process of erosion is naturally ongoing.  This section of hillside fell in three days prior to this photo being taken.

Lets just take a closer look, shall we?

Notice those fresh looking fissues? I saw a few chunks still crumbling off this rock face as we floated by at short range.  When I showed these photos to one of my sons who had done the same trip the day before he observed that the collapsed area looked a lot bigger to him.  Fortunately we drifted uneventfully to our destination.  Had the river suddenly gone dry I was prepared to sprint to high ground....carrying the largest salmon I could quickly scoop up as it flopped in some shallow pool.

Ah yes, the fishing.  King salmon of course are fighting the swift current on their way upstream to spawn.  You fish for them with this:

It is a nylon bag filled with salmon eggs.  Nobody is really sure why the salmon bite at these.  The prevailing theory is that their urge to have their offspring live long and prosper makes them want to destroy any competition.  When it comes to bloodthirsty dynastic slaughter salmon are the Borgias of the fish world.

We had a tough day.  One bite the whole 8 hours.  But it came to my line and I did not miss.  This was a very determined fish.  It ran upstream pulling out line for as long as it could.  Tiring a bit it did what we did not want it to do at all, it ran downstream.  Now the fish had the power of the current helping it.  Line was running off the reel like mad.  I tried every trick Glen suggested to me and nothing seemed to be working.  Then he informed me that the fish had taken off all the heavy test line and that I was down to the flimsy monofilament line backing.  The next serious tug would break that stuff easily. So I figured, what the heck. And started slogging downstream as fast as I could in clunky waders, reeling back an inch or two each step.

It was an epic fight.  This is certainly the biggest fish I have ever caught and it is unlikely I will try to top it.  I was too tired to do the usual fisherman's cheat, holding the catch at arms length closer to the camera.

In the end our group of eight caught four Kings.  I wanted more of our Alaska first timers to have the experience but that was not to be.  Maybe four is about right though.  As a species King salmon are hitting a tough patch.  The Kenai river, long the world's premier King salmon fishery, had their season closed in 2014 due to low numbers of returning salmon.  There is some speculation that the closure will be for several years.  As to the four we took, well, our trip to Alaska helped support the economy in direct and indirect ways.  Alaska Fish and Game is a very hard working organization who take conservation seriously.  I hope the money we and other visitors send their way furthers the stocking and research efforts that will make this an experience future generations can continue to enjoy.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Mordor Bunnies of Alaska

On my first trip to Alaska 8 or 9 years ago my son and I had a long day of flying and then driving.  We pulled in late.  Late enough that even in June there was a twilight dimming of the endless sunshine. I was a little loopy and disoriented so when I saw by the side of the road a large black rabbit I figured I just needed a good night's sleep.

But over the course of our trip we saw these sinister looking bunny rabbits a few more times.  I started to worry a bit.  I have you see read Watership Down and remembered that The Black Rabbit of Inle' was the hippity hop equivalent of The Grim Reaper.

When I mentioned these sightings to other travelers they did not recall seeing such creatures.  My logical assumption of course was that these were simply summer coloration variants of Snowshoe Hares.  But they are usually more of a grey-brown.  Do rabbits and hares have color variation the way black/brown/cinnamon bears do?

That was on the Kenai Penninsula.  On a subsequent trip there and on a later trip to the Copper River region I saw neither hide nor Hare of such critters.

Then this August we pulled into Valdez Alaska, what passes for a metropolis up in these parts, and started seeing all kinds of odd rabbits.  The first we encountered hopping around in the wild was a plain old white rabbit with pink eyes.  Although this did have a sort of Alice in Wonderland effect on me it did not give me the disquieting feeling that the Black Rabbits had.  And then we started seeing more....

And even a few jet black ones....

In addition to the odd color variations there was another strange thing going on. These rabbits did not seem particularly "wild". They were sitting around in people's yards munching on what passes for grass like stuff.  When a couple of the younger, more high spirited members of our party tried to catch one it did not do the flat out sprint you would expect from a wild animal.  It sort of hopped and juked, always switching directions at the right moment but never really attempting to flee the area.  They almost seemed like domestic rabbits.

And they probably are.  My wife frequently talks to strangers and often learns interesting things from them.  She was advised that these actually were domestic rabbits that had been released into the wild. It was assumed that they would not last long there.

My theory is that the black rabbits I saw in both places - and they were separated by 265 road miles or an implausible assortment of mountains, glaciers and bays - were released domestic bunnies of the type called logically enough The Alaskan Rabbit.*  These actually were bred in Germany and were an attempt to replicate the color of the Alaskan Fox.  Intended therefor as a source of fur they never entirely caught on as domestic pets but they are still somewhat popular in Great Britain.  I could easily see folks in Alaska liking them just for their name.

And when you consider how many people come up to Alaska for just the summer or just until whatever wanderlust drove them there wears off, well, it makes sense.

As you pack for the long drive back to "The Lower 48" you have to make executive decisions.  What will come with you.  What is too much bother.  You look over at the bunny hutch and think: bother.

So Miss Muffin Flopears is taken out of her cage, pointed towards Freedom and told:

"Hop away!  Be Free!  Be Happy!  LOOK OUT!!!!!!"

But evidently enough of them avoid the eagles, foxes, bears, wolves etc to maintain little colonies of Mordor Bunnies near the protective shelter of human habitations.
* or perhaps Havana rabbits but they have white around their eyes and besides, that is not as good a story.