Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Off Slope: Bike Trip Update 4

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Here's a glimpse of one of the non-biking experiences from the Evangeline Trail.  We rode our bikes down to a little village called Tiddville, ferried across the harbor, and met Captain Tom for a blast across the ocean on his Zodiac.



These lovely suits doubled as protection from wind/water AND flotation devices.  We all felt like we were embarking on a mission to outer space!


Our actual mission was a search for whales...always an exciting proposition.  Can't you see the anticipation on fellow-cyclist Greg's face?  I snapped this shot literally moments before he stripped off his hat and plunged his head over the side of the Zodiac and into the icy ocean water.  

Have I mentioned lately that I find boys (even big ones) fascinating?


Our search was rewarded almost immediately.  After sighting a few porpoises and seals, Captain Tom zeroed in on two humpbacks, a cow and calf, peacefully "grazing" on krill (although he did say that the calf might have still been nursing).

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(click on this photo to see larger views of any of the pictures on this page)

Here's a short clip from our whale watch.  You may want to medicate yourself with some Dramamine before viewing...it's not easy to hold a camera steady with waves sloshing to and fro.

The humpbacks were amazing...so graceful and at ease in the sea.  Having done a few whale tours in previous years, I was extremely impressed with Captain Tom and his craft in that the impact on the whales seemed to be minimal.  At one point, the calf rolled and floated on the surface waiting for its mother to return from a dive.  It didn't appear to be bothered by our presence at all.

It was impossible to watch them without being touched by their gentle magnificence.  

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Just as the roadside sign had promised, it truly was a "Cousteau-esque" experience!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Off Slope: Bike Trip Update 3

For those who are wondering what the hills are like, well...

There are steep spikes.





And long slow climbs.





And some that are basically hikes with a bicycle at your side.



But the view from the top can be an amazing payoff.



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(Note: This is the only photo directly linked to my Flickr account. If you'd like to see larger versions of any photo from this post, just click on the final photo ABOVE. That will bring you to my most recent uploads.)

Today was the last day of the Cabot Trail trip. Tomorrow begins the Evangeline Trail. Tonight I'm spending a quiet evening on my own in Halifax. I'm staying in the elegantly cozy Haliburton House Inn located in the historic district, very near the water.  It's wonderful.

After the happy discovery of a coin laundry down the street (aaah! clean clothes!), I had a wonderful dinner including crab and shrimp cakes. Then I attended a Shakespeare-by-the-Sea production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Point Pleasant Park. It was hilarious! I think The Bard would have been proud of this version.

Just outside the park gate there was a little corner grocery where I treated myself to two scoops of Raspberry Cream Cheese ice cream on a cone. It made the walk back in the cool salty breeze a little sweeter.

So, for those who might be worried, I am fitting in some light-hearted experiences between the hills. And there is a rumor that the Evangeline Trail is a kinder, gentler sort of trip.

I feel fairly prepared either way.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Off Slope: Bike Trip Update 2

The morning began with a light drizzle which later became a stiff rain accompanied by lots of wind.  I didn't mind being wet until my shoes started slurping. 

After lunch I missed a turn-off and rode 14 kilometers (almost nine miles) out of the way.
Embarrassing, but not discouraging.  I'm considering it a private excursion.  :)  

The hills persistently remind me that I am a beginning cyclist and this is an advanced course.
The view at the top of each hill reminds me that this is an awesome opportunity.  And I'm thankful to be here.

Tomorrow a tropical storm is supposed to blow through.
It may be a good day to experience the grandeur of the Cabot Trail...from the van.  :)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Off Slope: Bike Trip Update

I'm trying to blog about my summer travels and experiences chronologically, but today was the first day of my bike trip in Nova Scotia and I know that many of you are wondering how that's going, so here's a tidbit hot off the presses.  

Headline News for today...I'm still here!  The hills of the Cabot Trail are intimidating and, yes, it's hard.  But I managed to stay the course today (literally) only stopping once to sip from the water bottle (that I forgot I had) and walking the bike up the last quarter of one hill.  Not too shameful, I guess.

The hills are a serious challenge for me and it's not just a matter of physical ability (although I could certainly use a large dose of that!).  My biggest challenge has been adjusting to the gears which are very different from the bikes that I've used before.  On the "hill in question" I made the mistake (and not for the first time) of clicking the gear with my forefinger rather than my thumb which shifted to a larger gear instead of the smaller one.  It was too late to change gears, so I lost most of my momentum as I peddled uphill and the bike slowed to a rather embarrassing crawl.  It finally got to the point that I had to either walk the bike or tump.  

Yes, I said tump.  You know, like, fall over sideways?  

I chose walking over tumping. 

So that was my first day...great trip-mates, amazing scenery, mockingly difficult uphill climbs leading to exhilarating downhills, one walk, but no tumping.  I can live with that!

They say there's a really big hill to climb tomorrow.  A really big hill? 

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Off Slope: Carolinas Overflowing

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Changes have been brewing in my life for a while now. And I've wrestled with that some. Like a snake resistant to shedding its old skin, I've been holding onto old things that felt secure, though not always comfortable. At times, I think I've been afraid there might not be a new skin underneath.

Then I flew to Charlotte.

My week in the Carolinas was a time of putting away old things, mostly old ideas and even a few emotions, that just didn't fit anymore. And it was a time of embracing new things: new ways of thinking, renewed commitment, sense of purpose, new hope. It was a bit like pieces of a puzzle slipping silently into place. The picture isn't complete, but there is a corner that makes more sense to me now.

The Carolinas were a blessing, a collection of days overflowing with...

hard rain,
cool breezes,
delicate blossoms,
wise instruction,
affirmation,
sumptuous spices,
mountains that roll like the sea,
endearing smiles,
contagious laughter,
exquisite music,
cleansing tears,
soulful conversations,
and a thousand shades of green.

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During my first night in Charlotte, I was awakened by a strangely familiar sound...thunder. It doesn't thunder much in Atqasuk and it almost NEVER storms. I've experienced one significant downpour in six years. 

But I was still a little surprised by my own fascination with the rain as it flooded the hotel parking lot. The fluid reflection of streetlights and a nearby traffic signal reminded me of fireworks in winter. The constant pounding and occasional rumbles were a welcome lullaby as I fell asleep thousands of miles from home.

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Many of you are already familiar with blogger extraordinaire, Steve Patterson, and his truly wonderful blog, Balance.  Steve and I have been friends for about two and a half years, but met face-to-face for the first time while I was in Charlotte.  We had a great time visiting over a delicious Thai dinner and a few bites of amazingly rich cheesecake.  Don't be fooled by that innocent Boy Scout expression.  Steve is armed with the uncanny ability to duplicate almost any scene from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou...and he's not afraid to use it!

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During a regular year in Atqasuk, eating in restaurants is pretty much a pipe dream. While avocados can be ordered and shipped from Barrow occasionally, they are extremely expensive and are often in pretty bad shape by the time they arrive. Really fresh guacamole is basically unheard of, so when Jennifer (a newly hired teacher who will move to Atqasuk in the fall) asked if I'd like to try Cantina 1511, she didn't have to ask twice! And I wasn't disappointed. The guacamole there is not only fresh, they actually prepare it at your table! I ended up eating there three times over the course of the week. Anytime there was a question about where to eat, that was my suggestion. Anyone in the Charlotte area should definitely check it out.

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Bryan and Laurie Board are two of Steve's partners in crime when it comes to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou reenactments.  Between the three of them, I had a hard time breathing through constant laughter (and sometimes groans).  I met this beautiful couple around December 2007 when Bryan started his own blog Serenity Exists.  Many, many emails and a few phone calls later seeds of friendship began to take root.   While I was in Charlotte, Bryan and Laurie drove up from their home in South Carolina and spent the night in the hotel where I was staying.  It was a real blessing to meet and be able to spend time with two such open and loving individuals.  

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On Sunday, the three of us drove down to Lancaster, South Carolina to attend the worship service at Steve's church.  Afterward, four ravenous friends (once again) consumed large quantities of Mexican food at Los Mariachis.  Some of us may have consumed more than others!  

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Okay, in her defense, Laurie had no idea that her "Big-o Fun-dito" was going to be quite so intimidating.  But it was definitely an excellent excuse for an equally large dose of teasing from everyone else at the table.  And there was plenty of that to go around!  Later we spent the afternoon at Steve's playing Balderdash where it became quite apparent that I was completely out of my league!  For anyone who might not be familiar with Balderdash, it's a game based on convincing other players that your fictitious definition of a word is the correct one.  In other words, it's based on lying.  And I'm usually pretty good at that kind of thing, but my wits were no match for my opponents'.  Laurie, the undisputed Mother Superior of Punnery, held the lead for most of the game.  But, in the end, it was the guy with the innocent Boy Scout expression that came from behind to win.  Interesting.

After the game, the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou reenactments continued.  For anyone in need of blackmail material, there are videos.  I'll be keeping them in the vault until an appropriate occasion arises.   

All in all, it was a terrific day that I will cherish always.  And I'm sure those videos will be a source of amusement for at least that long!

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The next day I drove to Old Fort, North Carolina to the home of my first roommate in Atqasuk, AnnMarie.  We spent part of the day in Ashville and part of the day at her home in Old Fort.  Her husband, Eric, graciously took me bike riding that evening and I got a small taste of climbing hills similar to those I will probably face in Nova Scotia.  It was a telling experience.  More about that later.

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AnnMarie is expecting her first baby soon.  In fact, he/she may already be here!  I need to check on that!

I have no idea what these buildings in Ashville actually are.  I just liked the contrast of the older building reflected in the windows of the newer one...seemed symbolic somehow. 

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AnnMarie's and Eric's driveway was actually the most frightening hill we encountered.  I walked the bike up that one and made generous use of the brakes on the way down.  I know what you're thinking, but it's steeper than it looks!

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Old Fort is a beautiful area.  Instead of searching for scenic views, all I had to do was point the camera in any direction.

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Throughout my wanderings in the Carolinas I encountered plants of every size and shape that were completely unfamiliar to me.  Anyone have a clue what kind of tree this is?...or what those seedish things will turn into?

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After seven days in the Carolinas, I was literally brimming with excitement and joy.  As I drove myself back to the airport, I scribbled this sentence onto a scrap of paper...

If I could pour my heart into a cup it would surely taste like honey
laced with the fragrance of all the flowers that have added to its sweetness.

Reading that sentence now, it sounds pretty corny. I'm very tempted to place the blame for that corniness squarely on the shoulders of Will Ackerman who has been my constant companion on this trip. With the right guitar playing in the background, even the most flagrant cliche can sound like divine inspiration (in my mind). Corny or not, though, it's still an accurate sentiment.

I'm thankful for the opportunity, the inspiration, and the friends who generously wove meaning into our moments together, moments that were far too few.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Off Slope: Hotter Than Habaneros



After six years in the Arctic, I've become rather spoiled by summer temperatures in the fifties and rush hour traffic involving fewer than ten vehicles. So, for me, the Dallas/Ft. Worth metro area, with its population of 6.1 million, seems like one big tangled confusion of concrete baking in the relentless Texas sun....way too hot!
Thankfully, my aunt's backyard is something of an oasis. The sound of the waterfall cascading into her pool and the chirps and tweets of wild birds flitting in and out of the trees was a calming and restful backdrop for quiet conversations with family that I don't see nearly often enough. It was wonderful.

Then we took walk on the wild side. Well...a drive, actually. The day before I had to leave for my conference in North Carolina, we drove a few hours southwest of Dallas to Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. We had a great time wandering the paths of the 1500 acre park, stopping now and then to feed a variety of species (mostly grazing animals) that enthusiastically met our vehicle. Sometimes their enthusiasm was a little intense. There were nervous moments...like when a zebra shoved his whole head into the open front passenger window....or when a deer drooled all over the driver's side window. Not a happy moment for my aunt. But, I caught a lot of it on video, so even the awkward moments will be funny...someday.

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My nephew had a pair of toy binoculars that seemed to work pretty well. The sunroof was a great feature for touring in a park like Fossil Rim. I saw several people feeding giraffes from their sunroofs which made it a lot easier for the animal to reach the pellets. The pellets, by the way, are purchased from the park. Each vehicle is limited to one bag.

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Some of the animals were absolutely comical and extremely persistent about being fed.

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This emu just cracked me up! He almost looks like a cartoon character, don't you think?

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Dallas was my first stop outside of Alaska. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I've been checking Atqasuk's temperature and weather cam photo almost daily. I guess a part of me still wants to be there...riding four-wheelers on the tundra, fishing in the ice-cold river, or roasting marshmallows on the beach (in the sunshine) at 3 a.m. I don't have to close my eyes to imagine the sounds of the birds or the sweet scent of labrador tea carried by almost constant wind. The summer solstice has come and gone. Sunlight decreases daily. By the time I get home in August the flowers will be gone and berries will be ripening. Summer is short in the Arctic and missing it is definitely a trade-off. But I guess you can't feel homesick unless there's a place that feels like home. For me, that was a good thing to learn.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Off Slope: At My Sister's House

Insects on fingers...

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and blossoms on benches.

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Babies in windows...

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and fast, awesome pitches.

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Fragrant wild roses that grace us in spring.

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These are a few of my favorite things!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Goose Day

As many of you know, I've undertaken a journey of epic proportions this summer, at least in the sense of distance covered, and I'm looking forward to sharing some of those experiences here. But, a couple of weeks before I left the village, a brand new celebration was instituted in Atqasuk and I don't want to let that slip by unnoticed.

The Inupiat are traditionally a coastal people. Subsistence whaling has long been the basis for, Naluqatak, a time of feasting, dancing, and enjoying competitive games in the villages positioned along the edge of the Arctic Ocean. The inland villages of the North Slope (there are only two) concentrate on river fishing, caribou and bird hunting, as well as harvesting berries and other edible plants. Unfortunately, at least in Atqasuk, there has never been a celebration associated with these inland subsistence activities.

Until this year.

Atqasuk's first annual Goose Day was held on May 31, 2008. There was a goose calling contest, a goose plucking contest, and a community potluck. I think everyone agreed that the event was a great success and many are considering a celebration of caribou in the near future. In this tiny village where opportunities for fun or socializing are limited, that is an exciting proposition!

I would love to accurately identify these geese (maybe my birder friends can help?), but no one seemed to know their name in English. In Inupiaq they are called nigiliks. In English they are referred to as "regular" geese (as in, not snow geese and not Canadian geese...just regular geese). That is the actual response that I received when I inquired about a name.

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The geese that were originally donated for the plucking contest were frozen and had to be replaced with thawed geese because plucking frozen geese will tear the skin. So there's a tip you might keep in mind if you are ever tempted to pluck a frozen goose.

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The down can be collected and used to stuff pillows, a common practice in years past.

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The woman plucking here was amazing. Not only did she work quickly, but she was somehow able to contain the feathers better than anyone else. She told me she'd teach me how to do it if I wanted to learn. And I do.

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Mikigak (fermented whale meat) is a favorite treat among the Inupiat. Someone brought a bucket full to the potluck and it was accepted with a great deal of enthusiasm. I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that mikigak is the only traditional food that I've never tasted. The meat is cut up and left to ferment in its own blood for about two weeks. It smells like vinegar, though people tell me the flavor is sweet. In spite of the hardy endorsements, I have not been able to work up the nerve to put it in my mouth...mostly because I'm not sure that I'd be able to contain my response.

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Here's a single serving with a chunk of uunaalik (boiled whale blubber) in the center of the bowl.

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Not to end on a sour note...
These were two of the strongest competitors in the goose-calling contest! Although I'm only including two student participants, there were adults who joined in as well. This was a really fun contest. Next year I might compete. I have been practicing the sound of nigiliks for a while now and, if nothing else, it would give everyone else a good laugh.

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An elder in my church asked if I'd like to have a goose for cooking. She said, "It's all ready to go. All you have to do is take the guts out." I smiled and thanked her and felt extremely honored to be the recipient of such an offering.

I guess after the plucking lessons, I'll be signing up for Gutting 101.

That should be interesting.