Friday, June 30, 2006

The Bushwhack

Today we had our first outing for my "Searching for Wildness" class. In addition to readings in North American environmental literature (focused on Alaska), we go on outings to explore the natural and human history of the area. Today's was a bushwhack with Richard Carstensen, a naturalist from the area. We went a ways up a snowmobile trail and then literally struck off through a bog and then the forest on a bear trail.

This is the trail. You'll note there is no trail. But if I bear can do it, I can. Upon further reflection, I realize that the rule doesn't actually hold true. There are a number of things a bear can do that I can't, including eating whole bunches of stinkcurrant. Or fighting a bear unarmed and surviving, for that matter.

We spent quite a bit of our time in bogs, which are distinguished from fens in that bogs are mostly Sphagnum moss and water that doesn't move much, whereas fens can support sedges and grasses. This is a Drosera rotundifolia, or Round Leaf Sundew, a carnivorous plant that likes the Alaskan bogs.

Here you see Elizabeth, Nick, and others gingerly picking their way through a dense thicket of an intensely thorny plant. The white settlers called it Devil's Club, and scientists gave it the intimidating scientific name of Oplopanax horridus. The native name means "don't touch, dumbass." They favor a certain set of spots on the creek banks, so we waded through quite a few here and there.

Here's a look up said creek. This area is unique to my experience in that it has never been logged and that it's pretty much a rain forest, so it's an incredibly thick, dense greenery. Fun to bushwhack through, except when you find Devil's Club.

Up a bit higher, in the last bog we went to, we stumbed upon this female Northern Goshawk, who, instead of flying off as this shy species often does, flew to another tree and screamed at us. Richard, the naturalist, speculated that she might have a nest nearby and therefore a vested interest in not escaping. He also pointed out that Goshawks are infamous for attacking even large mammals if they feel the nest is threatened, and he intimated that nobody needs a powerful hawk with unpleasantly sharp talons barrelling in at his face at Mach 2. So I backed off a bit.

Juncos are a safer bet.

Flowers are even safer. Right: lupine.

Right: buttercups and forget-me-nots. They line most of the drainage ditches and roadways. These are beside the snowmobile trail.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Class, Class; Birds, Birds

Yesterday and today weren't all that fascinating, I'm afraid. Lots of work and library time. The upside is that I saw a Red-breasted Sapsucker and a female Rufous Hummingbird while I was on the phone in front of the dining facility. I haven't even been birding yet, just keeping my eyes open. I guess I'm cranking through the common birds one at a time, but since they're all new to me, it feels like a bonanza.

All the same, this place is far wilder than anywhere I've lived for an extended period of time. Animals who are sensitive to human encroachment simply can't swing it in the semi-wild parts of Maine like Bridgton or the presidential range in New Hampshire. Those forests have all been cut down at some point, and all the animals and birds are those hardy enough to re-settle. Here, we're on the very edge of human civilization, and the climate is incredibly fecund; it's essentially a cool rainforest. This part of Alaska sports the greatest array of ocean life (I haven't even gotten out there yet!), and the rainforest and cloudforest have never been cut down and regrown. There's old-growth forest right behind the school's rec center! I saw a porcupine on the way back from dinner yesterday, and he unconcernedly poked around in the bushes next to the path as we stood and watched him.

By the way, speaking of birds, there's any number of warblers of the yellowy-green variety that I simply have not been able to identify. They tend to dart right back into the brush when they see you, and yellowy-green is a great color for disappearing into a bush or tree. I guess they're responsible for the spectacular concert of birdsong you get when you sit outside. Speaking of which, it's rather sunny, so I think I'm going to hop off the computer and head back outdoors.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Hike to a Glacier

I didn't think I could come up with a better way to open this entry than with a picture, but that isn't even the coolest one. This morning, I hiked out to Mendenhall Glacier with some folks. That's the view from the glacial lake (on the right), over to the end of the glacier (that light gray river on the left).

But before we even got in cars to drive to the trailhead, as we were all standing out front of the dorm, I saw my first Chestnut-backed Chickadees frolicking on the roof and in the air between the dorm and the trees. Then I saw my first Merlin come flying over the walkway and pluck one out of the air. (Ed. note: the play has been reviewed and the bird in question was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. The presence of distinctive bands on the tail, which are not consistent with the Pacific northwest plumage of the Merlin, as well as the wing shape, especially in the final approach to the prey, were more typical of the Sharp-shinned).

There were actually 22 of us who went on this hike. That's me at the trailhead.

A few of us stopped on one of the bridges for a quick photo. From the left it's Katie, Heather, me, Amanda, Jen, and Sam. Heather and Jen aren't in Bread Loaf with us, but they were good hiking companions.

This is the very bottom end of the glacial lake. Yes, those are ice floes you see in the distance. The water is gray because there's incredibly fine, pulverized rock in it. It's also just barely above freezing.

The glacier is to the left and way up the lake.

The real treat, clearly, is the glacier itself, which comes down out of the mountain as a river of ice.

Here's me on...

...and under the glacier.

This is the requisite "I'm holding up the glacier" shot. Frankly, I don't look convincing. I am, in fact, under the glacier, though. Imagine being under one of those giant rocks that looks precariously perched but has, in actuality, been standing there for thousands of years. You know how that's at least a little scary? Now imagine doing it under a glacier that routinely drops giant chunks off the sides.

At some point in this, I also ate a piece off the glacier. Glacier tastes a little like gravel, just so you know. Apparently the powdered rock in it isn't bad for you, but I didn't go to town, just in case.

This is a view of the waterfall across the lake. Glacier on left, glacier-carved rock on the right.

Here's what I was pretending to hold up...a little scary.

And Cody caught me juggling rocks...

The original post contained a panorama of my pictures that my mom had made in Photoshop. For the updated entry, though, I remade the panoramas, since the software now automates the process and does a far, far better job than we were able to.

Friday, June 23, 2006

More Homework, More Downtown, More Eagles

This morning I caught a 10AM bus with some friends, and we went downtown again. We hit some touristy shops, the outdoor outfitters (where I filled out some weaknesses in my outdoor gear and equipment) and a really neat used bookstore, ate mexican food (totally decent!), and came back. Then it was time for a picnic down at the Auke Bay.

The rain held off for most of the picnic, and it was quite a setting for hamburgers and hotdogs off the firepit. The sense of community here is huge; practically every student and even a significant number of professors came out to enjoy the scenery and the food for a couple of hours.

Two Bald Eagles perched over the picnic (if you're standing taking the previous picture of the beach, they're to your left and behind you). They hung out for a while, but did not take the opportunity to fish while I was there. They flew out over the bay once or twice, but the crows, who seem to have strong opinions on the subject of eagles, wouldn't leave them alone.

Here's a couple of different crops from other pictures. Not so bad for a little camera with a 3x zoom, eh? You can definitely tell they're eagles. I've seen a Bald Eagle or two every day, but they were such a wonderful and rare sight in all the camping that I did back in New England that I still get really pumped up when I see one. I assume the day will come where I'll stop being excited about eagles, but it won't be tomorrow. The first eagle is doing a pretty good impression of the presidential seal, don't you think?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Sun's Not Out, But the Eagles Are

I never thought I'd be blasé about bald eagles, but they're honestly the second easiest bird to find around here. They wheel over the bay all day, presumably fishing, though I haven't seen one drop to the water yet. I may go hang out down at the docks when it's nicer out and try to get at least a decent picture of one.

My alarm clock is my cell phone which, thanks to Jeremy, wakes me up with a few bars of "Feels So Good." I was thinking about using something from Rebirth, but that seemed a little too brash to count as courteous to the roommate. Speaking of which, he did get here and is a nice guy. However, a couple of guys apparently chickened out, and there's now enough space on the guys' floor that we can each have our own bedrooms, so he'll be departing today sometime for a room down the hall. That means that the next time one of you forgets the 4 hour time difference, you'll only be waking me up.

The library's kind of a neat building. This is the view from my current favorite study spot. I sat here cranking out some reading after my first class of "Searching for Wildness." There's a ton of reading for that class, but I am so unbelievably excited that I'm taking it right now. Basically, every week, we're exploring some aspect of Juneau's natural or human landscape or history. The idea of wildness isn't limited to just wilderness in the sense of untouched places; it encompasses concepts of living in harmony with the natural world just as much as it deals with the challenges of unforgiving terrain.

Anyway, much work was done, then dinner, then we took a bus to Juneau to grab a few drinks at a bar called The Alaskan. It was actually a prospectors' bar during the 19th century gold rush, and they certainly have kept the vibe as intact as possible. Think: old west meets the pacific. We took a rather harrowing cab ride back to the university and caught some well earned sleep.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

First Day of Classes

Nothing actually that exciting about the first class. I'm taking "Shakespeare: Page to Stage," which is essentially a Shakespeare and Performance class. The guy teaching it is an actor/director, not a literary academic, so it should be a nice change of pace from the other million Shakespeare classes I've taken. More on that later.

The sun actually did come out for quite a long spell yesterday afternoon, and I snapped a couple of pictures that didn't make it into yesterday's entry. This is that same look out onto Auke Lake and Mendenhall Glacier. Don't ask me the names of the mountains.

The dining facility looks out over Auke Lake—the whole wall is windows like this. Kinda nice.

After class, I went to the library for a while, but was rather exhausted still from last night's escapades and went home for a quick nap. Unfortunately, I slept through dinner. There is, however, a wafflehouse (waffelhaüs?) in Juneau, so I managed to grab a bite to eat. On the plus side, the waffle house looks out over Auke Bay, and I got to watch Bald Eagles circle around as I ate the waffle.

Now it's 10:30 and it's finally getting dark and we're all sitting around reading and working. Everybody here, students, faculty, and administrative staff are really sweet so far, and the students seem pretty sharp and well read in general. I'm in the commons with 3 other guys and we're all working away, but we took a brief break to debate the relative merits of different translations of the opening lines of the Odyssey. Another class tomorrow, some sea kayaking on the horizon, maybe a trip to downtown Juneau and a bike rental.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Registration Day

I woke up at 6:50, local time this morning and went for a run around campus. There's a nice loop of about 3 miles that runs down from the student housing, around towards the bay, and back through the classroom buildings. My housing is up on a hill, which makes the end a bit brutal, but it was fun anyway.

Right downhill from the dorms is Auke Lake, which is glacier fed and therefore probably quite cold. It's about 60 degrees in the air, so it certainly looks inviting to swim, but I imagine the water is in the 30s somewhere.

Moist air comes off the ocean and gets pushed up the mountains, so the water in the air condenses into clouds. That's what makes the climate here so damp and rainforest-esque. That also means there are basically clouds sitting on the mountains most of the time. You get enigmatic and frustrating glimpses of the mountains, which are, frankly, inspiring. The clouds give the whole thing an exotic and mysterious feel.

This is the view from the road by Auke Lake.

I finally saw two birds we don't get out east. There were a male and a female Varied Thrush, who were too skittish for me to take a picture of (a 3x zoom just doesn't allow you to get birds very well), and a Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon morph), of whom I only got a tiny snapshot. The picture doesn't prove what he is, but I did get a good look at him before he went into the underbrush.

This is the view from the main driveway into campus. You're looking out across Auke lake. The tiny blue-gray spot in the center of the photos, in between the mountains is a glacier. I think it's Mendenhall glacier, but I'm not actually sure, since there are two major glaciers here.

Closer crop of the view from the driveway - the glacier's much more visible here.

Same view, different angle. See what I mean when I say the clouds are both frustrating and beautiful?

This is the view from the parking lot of the student housing. That's my dorm on the right.

This is another shot from the road below the dorms. It's less rainy than yesterday and you can get a better idea of the snow-capped peaks rising into the clouds. 
The sun broke through for a little bit this AM, but not long enough for me to get any was actually just a big hole in the cloud cover that went directly over for a while. Just as the sun was going away again, I caught a quick picture of this Steller's Jay.

There was a big welcome meeting at around 5PM at which the administrators and faculty introduced themselves. It seems to be the thing here to tell visitors grisly (their pun, not mine) stories about bear attacks. Comments like "no maulings yet this season" and "don't poke the bears" abounded. Then dinner, then a little reception, after which a bunch of us headed out to the local bar, which was just chock-full of local color. I didn't take any photos because I figured the comment about not poking bears applied to the locals too. A bald eagle flew across the bar parking lot as we arrived (remember, it's full daylight at 9PM). By the time the bar closed at 1AM, it was practically dark out. The sun sets around 10:15, but it stays dusky for a long time after that. We rather brightly decided that striking out through the forest in order to cut the corner of the road was a good idea, so we were a bit bewildered and muddy by the time we got home.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Arrival in Juneau

I got up at 5 this morning, caught a plane from Newark, NJ to Seattle, WA (WG? WN?), and hopped another one to Juneau. Sounds easy, but it took all day. Actually, on paper I was only on planes from 8AM to 2:45PM. Of course, I did go through 4 time zones. So now it's 8:30 here, which makes it the witching hour or whatever as far as my brain is concerned.

So, first impressions. Juneau is like Maine. Except there are biiiiig whitecapped mountains everywhere, showing up anywhere you can see past the trees. And except the fact that it's quite rainy, which is a common thing, if you trust the locals, the moss on the trees, and the algae on the buildings. And except the fact that it's a million freaking miles from Maine. So, what I really meant, is: "Juneau is not at all like Maine, except for the fact that it has pine trees."

I was promised many strange and exotic birds, but I have yet to see any. Perhaps they have more sense than I and have stayed in for the evening.

I did see a robin. 4,000 miles for a stinking robin.

I didn't take any more outdoorsy or inspiring pictures because it's really quite rainy and I was busy running around getting my student ID and keys and stuff. It was rather complicated. So far today my temporary keycard didn't work, I had the wrong key to my room, and I had an especially panicky moment when a girl at the ID card center said I wasn't in their system. I was relatively confident that I had a certain right to an ID card and the classes because they had cashed my checks, but you never know what strange laws apply in an exotic place like this. Occam's razor applied in this particular instance and the girl was just wrong. It turns out that, in general, people in Alaska are very helpful and friendly. Helpful in the sense that they seem to really want to help you, but not helpful in the sense that you actually get any help from them.

Oh yes, and now I live in a dorm room. I kid you not. I'll have a roommate, who will presumably arrive tomorrow.

Proof that I actually got an ID card (ID# blotted out to foil identity thieves and terrorists and the like whose nefarious plots will only succeed if they have access to my dining hall privileges...also because it actually contains part of my SS#):

Proof of dorm room:

Proof of roommate: proof yet because there's no roommate. I have to take his existence on faith, and so do you. God, I'm tired. I'm not sure when I'll post this because the internet has been turning itself on and off. Maybe it's being helpful.