31 July 2007

Pushki (Heracleum maximum)

It was a gloriously sunny day the Sunday before last. It actually felt like summer. I and DOG went hiking as per our usual weekend ritual. The trail wound through deep, lush vegetation that was over my head (from all that rain we get). Normally I do not worry overly much about this vegetation and just plow through. It’s been so long since we had a sunny day though that I forgot all about pushki (also known as cow parsnip or Indian celery). It was such a warm day (okay, I know 70F/ 21C does not count as hot for most of you but I live in a coastal northern environment and it has been around 40F/ 5C much of the summer) so when DOG and I reached the lake and he went for a swim I decided to join him. It was my first dip of the year and I enjoyed the sensation of the cold sucking my breath away as the glacial fed water hit my body. After a picnic lunch we hiked back, me talking my thoughts out loud to warn any bears meandering nearby that we were deep in the brush.

That evening when I was doing dishes I realized the back of my hand hurt. On closer inspection I realized that rather larger brown blisters had developed all the way across the back of my hand. They looked like an infected burn. I racked my brain to think of when I might have burned them – I would have remembered if I had spilled something hot on them wouldn’t I? Ah, yes, then I remembered the pushki. The juices of this lovely plant contain a phototoxin, which with the interaction of sunlight, can create a chemical burn on the skin. Of course! And I had been brandishing through them all day, likely breaking more then a few leaves and letting the juices flow on a bright sunny day. The other disconcerting thing about pushki is that the burn can take about 4 hours to show up so you don’t realize your mistake right away.

As the blisters were infected I popped them with a sterile needle and then used a cotton swab to press out the infected liquid and mop it up. Then I put a pad of second skin across all of the burnt areas and wrapped it with tape. I got all kinds of questions all week about what kind of a fight I got into. Now it has healed enough to take the wrappings off but it is still an angry scarry red which looks rather like something large sunk it's teeth into my hand. I'm not sure how I only burned that portion of my hand and not more. I wonder if my swim in the lake may have helped as you can escape reaction if you can wash pushki off your skin before exposing yourself to sunlight. Thankfully DOG escaped it all together, an acquaintance's dog got in the stuff the same weekend and is intense pain, suffering full body burns.

28 July 2007

Bear Spray

So before I went on my weekend hike I decided it was about time I checked the expiration date on my bear spray. But there was a problem. Due to the fact that, when I have to fly to a field site the bear spray gets duct taped to the wing strut of the small plane (in order to prevent the chaos that would occur should it accidentally go off in the plane), there is no longer a label on any three of my bottles of bear spray. The labels have been peeled off with the duct tape. Hmmm. Well, I think I’m going to retire them all as “practice bottles” and get new ones because I’m thinking they’re at least 3 years old.

Did you know that in Canada this spray is called Bear Spray and in the US it is called pepper spray and that it is illegal to take pepper spray to Canada or bear spray to the US and it’s the exact same thing? I find this odd and it’s a pain in the rear if you are doing fieldwork across borders. Oh, and that pocket on Carhardt pants that is meant for your carpenter tools? It makes a great bear spray pocket. (See pic to right.)

Some of you may be familiar with a little pepper spray which can be attached to your key chain or something to be used to defend yourself against humans. Mine is about 20 times the size of that little spray and I usually use it against animals. But if I had to use it against a human it would probably knock them out cold while I made my get away. Which is comforting since some of the place I go I'm more suspicious about any other humans I would run into then I am animals and let's face it, animals are more predicatable. If you know what you're looking for they won't lie to you about how they're feeling about your presence.

And for those of you who will read this and then ask me what they should do if they see a black or grizzly (brown) bear may I recommend the DVD Staying Safe in Bear Country: A Behavior-Based Approach to Reducing Risk? This DVD is put together by the International Association for Bear Research and Management, in other words: bear scientists, and is excellent. I myself watch it every spring and use it in my bear safety training classes that I teach for seasonal employees new to bear country. I mention it because of a conversation I had with a police officer in Colorado who had just learned the "Whoa Bear!" shout and was talking about it like it was a new discovery & I realized that this information is not as available to the bear encountering public as much as I would like it to be. I promptly went out and purchased a copy as a gift for all of my backpacking friends.

27 July 2007

Guided Mis-Information

I was hiking at a local national park the other day. I had to hike past some groups of people bundled around the entrance trail to get to more reclusive paths. As I was passing a group I heard "There's two types of killer whales: meat eaters and vegetarians".
Wha? What?? Did I hear that right? I did. Not only that but the information was coming from a park interpretive ranger guiding the group. A park ranger who lives in a town where significant killer whale research goes on. Where he has access and has talked to biologists who study killer whales. Ack!
For those of you who don't know: There are two types of killer whales. In that the ranger was correct. Now I recently finished completing a lot of work on this orca ID Catalogue for Eastern Kamchatka, Russia. I'm not a main author but I am acknowledged and let's face it, I put in a lot of work on it. So I know a little bit about the subject. I know 500 plus Russian killer whales by name.

The two types of killer whales are the Residents & the Transients. These labels are totally mis-leading and are based on previous assumptions about orcas but somehow they've stuck. Resident Orcas are fish eating orcas and they tend to not to travel very far. Transient Orcas are mammal eaters and they have to travel farther for food. But both groups tend to be loyal to a certain territory. The interesting thing as that these two groups are distinct genetically, where ever you find orcas. That means that while the orcas here at the north pole are genetically distinct from the orcas at the south pole the fish eaters and the mammal eaters in both places are still distinct from each other. So this is not necessarily a learned behavior but an inherited one. (Can you hear it now though? Orca prejudices - daddy will never speak to you again little fish eater if you marry that mammal eater!).

I can only guess that the ranger has been exposed to the saying "I'm a vegetarian but I eat fish" too often. But come on, who is he fooling? These are predators? Have you ever taken a look at those teeth? There should be a park sign that says "Please don't feed the tourists mis-information".

26 July 2007

10 Random Facts About Me

(EDITED to add pictures since it turned out so long & I thought you might need a break.)

1. I have used pepper spray effectively on a charging grizzly. I have also used it effectively against a pissed off mama moose. (And for the record, there are more moose attacks then bear attacks on people and they can be more deadly.)
2. I have duel citizenship. I have a passport for both. The countries are Canada & the USA. I have lived in and explored much of my two countries of citizenship.

Mama Moose outside my window this past winter

3. I sit on a yoga ball at the office which prompts comments from my colleagues along the lines of “I see you’re on the ball today” and jokes about how my boss can’t afford chairs because grant X didn’t come through.

4. I have never had a television & my movie-going has been limited to winters when I’m not in the field and when I’ve lived in towns big enough to have movie theatres. Thus, I do terribly at all the celebrity-themed games. I can tell you the seven different sub-species of wild turkey (a random fact retained from college) but I cannot tell you who played that part in movie X and likely I will only know the name of the movie if it was also a book.

Horned Puffin & Common Murre on nesting shelf

5. l live in a house that is 20x30 feet (6x9 meters). I like this house quite a lot, particularly the fact that it has running water, a relatively new luxury for me. However, in a recent conversation with my grandmother she exclaimed “Out here we call that a shack!”.

6. I caught bubonic plague (aka the Black Death, you know, the one that wiped out half of Europe once) from a prairie dog bite once. Henceforth, I have always researched the zoonoses (diseases transferable between animals and humans) of my study species because the emergency room doctor just might not be familiar with the diseases that you could get from a sea lion bite.

Steller Sea Lion Bachelors

7. I bike commute to the office no matter the season. One of my sweet but slightly confused colleagues spends the winter trying to convince me to buy a vehicle because s/he thinks it is utterly impossible that I would ride by choice even though s/he knows I own a vehicle.

8. I am a compulsive walker because I go stir crazy if I don’t go for a walk at least once a day - even if I have to pace back and forth across the bow of a ship to get it.

    The Alexandra - a Russian fishing vessel I have spent considerable time on

9. My dog is named after a Filipino noodle dish because yes, he is a noodle head as you would know if you ever met him despite the fact that he is roughly the size of a juvenile black bear. And I won’t use his real name here because it’s distinctive enough that anyone who saw it and knew me would know instantly who I am.

10. I have lived in 6 different countries (in alphabetical order: Canada, Germany, Ghana, Mexico, Russia, USA) and on the sovereign Navajo Nation. I have lived someplace where -60F (-51C) was a normal winter time temperature (ColdPlace). I have lived someplace where 130F (54.5C) was a normal summer time temperature (HotPlace). When I was living in ColdPlace I looked up HotPlace in an atlas to discover that the coldest temperature ever recorded in HotPlace was the hottest temperature ever recorded in ColdPlace!

Sleeping sea otter - 'Go away, I'm sleeping!'

25 July 2007

Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)

Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)
The fireweed is blooming here. Alaskan folklore has it that when fireweed blooms at its very tip then winter is two weeks off. In my experience this holds pretty true. Any snow that settles on the mountains after the fireweed is blooming will be called “termination dust” meaning the termination of summer. The blooming of the fireweed and the passing of the summer solstice has caused a flurry of activity among me and my fellow Alaskans. There is a lot to be done before winter comes and the pantry must be filled. Many Alaskans, myself included, live a semi-subsistence lifestyle. Which means we are busy fishing for our aliquot of salmon to freeze and smoke and we have started berry picking in earnest although the blueberries are still tart. We don’t have fruit trees up here but what we lack in them we make up for in wild berries: blueberries, nangoon berries, raspberries, low & high bush cranberries, cloudberries, to name a few. And I've started carrying a canvas bag with me on my dog walks for the mushrooms we find along the way, some of which I eat fresh, others which I carefully dry and use throughout the winter.

Silver/Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)
Every locale in town has begun to smell like fish; at this point it is the smell of fresh fish that has recently been caught and cleaned. Later on it will smell like rotten fish as the carcasses of salmon begin to pile up on the beach after spawning. Even the parking lot of the supermarket smells so strongly of fish that I have trouble thinking about vegetables and fruit. I haven’t gone to get my winter’s supply of salmon or halibut yet. I’m not sure why, I think it’s because I’m lacking a co-conspirator. It’s a lot of work fishing a winter’s worth of supplies and then prepping it for storage. I’m thinking over my options: dip-net on the Kenai? Fish-wheel on the Gulkana? Snagging on Prince William Sound? All are viable options but part of me is thinking, I’m starting to get sick of salmon after 7 years of it (eaten at least 3 times a week). That thought is almost tantamount to treason in this part of the world so don't tell, will you?

24 July 2007

Predator & Prey

Aerial of Prince William Sound

This weekend my heart stood in my throat as I watched 4 bald eagles swoop down mercilessly on two baby merganser chicks (they're a type of duck) on the tidal flats. The mergansers were running so fast their bodies barely touched the water. I didn’t get in the way but I was rooting for those chicks. Get away they did, to my relief. I’m not usually such a bleeding heart about the natural way of things, but I couldn’t help myself this time. It’s just that I know those eagles have been gorging on rotten salmon carcasses and the leftovers from the fish processing and they weren’t really hungry and those poor little birds were too young to fly away yet. It is my belief that those eagles were just playing – they were fat and feeling lazy but there’s nothing like some small thing running to trigger their predator reaction.

23 July 2007

Oceanographic Data

Yesterday we went out in the bay to do some fieldwork and collect oceanographic data. It was a typical weather day for this area, soggy. Our orange mustang safety suits were drenched from the rain as we visited station after station (as marked only by coordinates). The morning was so foggy that we navigated solely by GIS as the landmarks were completely absent from sight. My boss had told me not to worry about bring warm gear as the mustang suits would keep us plenty warm. I am ever so glad I ignored her advice. Her son, along because all of our eager interns were on a trip somewhere, had followed her advice and was distinctly cold and rather miserable. I would have offered him up my gloves but they clearly wouldn’t have fit him.

Despite the wetness, we were rewarded at the end of our survey with our last two sites being quite close up to this massive calving glacier. The boom of ice calving off it in chunks reverberated through the landscape creating distinctive wakes. It is awe inspiring to be in the presence of a calving glacier in the absence of human made sounds. It is humbling to watch geology in action. Chunks of ice larger than our boat crashed down & we kept our eye out for nearby icebergs – these have a tendency to roll and we didn’t want one rolling over on top of us. After we pulled up the last of the equipment we stood rain soaked on the deck, watching the glacier calve amongst the harbor seals hauled out on bergs and sea otters floating along past, tucked up in sleep.

20 July 2007

Harry Potter

I really wasn’t planning on posting on this. But I volunteered at the local library to help through a bash for the book that is being released tonight. Generally speaking I enjoy volunteering for the local library – I love books and it’s a good place to meet an assortment of people and I think libraries are important public assets. We got several pleas at my place of employment for help for this particular event as the library here is always short staffed. However, I may have gotten in over my head. First off, I got assigned to come up with 200 trivia questions to be used in determining the winner of a free new book. Secondly, they insist I dress up. Sigh. The first will take some time but is do-able but I am not terribly fond of costume creating or wearing. Not only that but costume creating, if I were to do it right, takes a lot of time. I was thinking I might just cheat and throw on a pink wig and call myself “Tonks”. After all, I believe we share similar traits in klutziness and she usually dresses rather normally.

19 July 2007

Real Beaches

“But this isn’t a real beach” my niece said to me, “because a real beach has sand, right ?”. There isn’t much sand on the beaches around here, mostly there's rocks in varying degrees of fineness, or boulders. The fine little rocks stuck to my niece for days afterwards even as she announced to her Grandpa over the phone that she had gone swimming in the Bering Sea. And this is the very same girl who shrieked her terror about the warm ocean waters off Mexico and swore she would never ever go swimming in the ocean. There she was paddling about next to DOG in water temperatures not that far above freezing. Now who was she calling a pickle? (Pickle being her very favorite thing to call everybody at the moment as in ‘Aunt Wayfarer’s being a pickle’.)

I’m doing my best to corrupt my niece into really looking at and exploring the world around her and I must say she follows my lead admirably. We spent hours near the docks watching the boat hands clean salmon & halibut. We looked at birds and listened to the cry of the murres (sea birds) nesting on the cliffs and the roar of sea lions on a bachelor haul out. We watched a sea otter groom itself and she asked me to repeat why sea otters have such fine fur (because they don’t have blubber like all those other marine mammals and it’s the only thing between them and the ocean). We picked up shells and rocks and sticks on our walks. On one walk she asked “Why do we have to be quiet?” and she learned that on the contrary, when in bear and moose country it’s best not to be quiet so you don’t surprise one. So every walk we took you could hear her cheerfully announce “Hi Bears! Hi Mooses!”. She got her first chance to look through binoculars (they’re so much fun when you look through the wrong end!) and peered at seaweed through a magnifying glass. She’s smart, she knows that there are no penguins in the north and that I’ve never lived in an igloo and that I don’t have to worry about polar bears roaming the streets. Which is a lot more then some of her fellow country persons know if my last trip “Outside” (i.e. Outside of Alaska) is any indication.

18 July 2007

Oh, the furry cuteness

DOG and I have a new family member who has adopted us. She's widget sized but she's rather brave and I think she makes a better vaccum cleaner than DOG does. She cleaned up every scrap of breakfast that he dropped. If he doesn't watch out she'll start stealing it out of the bowl.

Visiting Relations

I love my relations, I really do. However, I must admit that I am used to having my little space all to my self and used to be alone. So my nerves were a bit strained by the end of the visit from my mom and 4yr old niece. Having three people and two animals in my house which measures 20x30ft (6x9m). means there was no alone time for the entire week. My niece was go-go-go, full of energy and curiosity. My poor mother on the other hand caught some sort of bug and came down with a fever and was, rather understandably, grouchy. She probably was wishing my extra bedroom did not consist of an air mattress on the floor which invariably became a playing ground by the nature of the fact that when it was down it took up all the available floor space. They were opposite ends of the energy spectrum. While I enjoyed the visit there were a few moments when I thought ‘Ah! I need some space!’. It wasn’t so much the physical space I was craving as the mental space.

Needless to say it did not help my cause that we had in this time, two emergency visits to the vet, that I broke up (maybe?) with the guy I was seeing, that the weather cleared last minute and I had to go fly aerial surveys at uncomfortable hours of the day, that my supervisor announced that I was getting an intern the very day she was arriving, the fact that we have a new family member (CAT, the kitten who followed my niece home), nor the fact that I was worrying about our Russian field crew’s ability to leave the field as scheduled due to the volcanic eruption I posted about yesterday.

I know, you thought I had just started this blog and then I had already abandoned it.

17 July 2007

Klyuchevoskoy Volcano (Ключевской сопка)

This volcano's (Koryaksky - Корякская сопка) neighbor (Klyuchevoskoy - Ключевской) is exploding right now and I bet most of you haven’t even heard about it. I only heard about it briefly and almost by accident because the ash plumes are affecting air traffic over the Aleutian islands of Alaska – all the way from Russia. Having heard the news I investigated what I could to find that entire villages and their economies have been wiped out from the mud and lava flows from this volcano. Hot spring spas that I soaked in after a grueling field season on the Commander Islands have washed away under a sea of mud. This picture is from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (PK), a city in Far Eastern Russian on the Kamchatka Penninsula. PK is a grim city in a gorgeous setting, mostly because it was almost entirely constructed during the Soviet era of which gray cinder block structures became almost a signature piece. I can imagine the soot filtering through this city making it even dustier. How is it that parts of world can be wiped out and the news of it can't compete with the gossip news?

09 July 2007

Im Bayern gehen die Uhren anderes

I have just watched 20 kids return to their home countries after spending a year in Alaska with AFS Intercultural Programs, just as I spent a year in Germany all those years ago. It’s so much fun to see how they’ve changed and grown. At their arrival orientation many expressed dismay at some of the differences between their host country (the USA) and their homelands (15 different countries) and expressed this by saying “they do X wrong”. For example, many of them find the North American habit of keeping dogs as indoor pets strange because many places in the world people don’t do that and they will say “It’s wrong that people here keep dogs inside the house. It’s so gross!”. Now that they are leaving they don’t even think twice about it, some have even expressed regret that they will not be able to have a dog sleep by their bed when they get back to their home country. They have learned that different ways of doing things are not necessarily wrong, it’s just different and every place has different but equally valid ways of accomplishing similar tasks. I find this a critical lesson in an increasingly globalized world and it is, I think, the key to finding solutions to conflicts that arise so frequently because everyone thinks they are in the right and the other side is in the wrong.

I have a clock in my bathroom that symbolizes this for me. It was a gift from a politician from the year I was an exchange student in Germany my 11th grade year in school. This clock is both a reminder of a life changing experience in my life and of the most important lesson I learned while on exchange: that differences can be enriching, can widen the mind, and that the way we are used to doing things is not necessarily the “right” way. Why? Because it runs the other way around. Did you know that clockwise did not always mean turning to the right or east? Before clocks were standardized, the clocks in Bavaria (Germany) went the other way around and the numbers ran the opposite of what we are used to. My clock is just such a clock. Don’t tell the Bavarians that it runs backwards, it just runs a different way. Having this clock reminds me too, that sometimes it is good to look at things from a different direction, to stretch ourselves in a way that wouldn’t have occurred to us, to get off the well beaten path.

07 July 2007

First Post

This is kind of scary, starting a blog. It’s like taking a big trip, you can think up all the details and plan it out in advance but once you are underway you never know what’s really what’s going to happen. Once you are underway elements are out of your control and you have to just go with it and try and keep the experience pleasant even though there may be some rocky moments. It can be scary actually stepping onto the road and into the wide world but it is usually very rewarding and allows one to grow in unexpected ways. A good traveler plans for the contingencies, plans the route, and gets anxious while packing and just prior to leaving, and then when they leave they let it all go, if it works to follow the plans that’s great, if it doesn’t then there is no need to worry about it because worrying certainly won’t help and if there is a detour or change in plans it might get in the way of enjoying the unexpected. So here I go, traveling into the blogosphere instead of just reading about it from the comfort of my own chair. It’s how many of my journeys begin, the reading and exploring of the ways others experience it, the dreaming about what I’d want to see if I went, and then taking the plunge and going and coming back with my own set of stories. Wish me luck!