Saturday, December 03, 2005
Three Unusual Trips on the Water
How come it's so damn cold this winter? It's been a while since we've seen this kind of cold snap this early. We've only had one day above 32F since the first snow fell in early October. This last week has been below zero, with ice fogs. This morning all the leafless aspen and birches were all thickly coated with ice crystals - kind of like a crystallized fairyland; really nice. It's weird to see the ice flakes falling from the clear azure sky. It looks like snow, but it's not. Usually we'll have seen the temps go into the 40s several times and maybe we'll even have had some rain by this time of the year. Some years, we've had half an inch of ice glazing everything. We've only had 3 or 4 inches of snow - an inch or so at a time - since winter came on, and it has packed down. We haven't had to shovel or plow yet.
All our xmas shopping is done - mostly online as usual. Some good deals this year on shipping. But you've got to watch out in Alaska. One (small) item, costing about $150, claimed to need only $5.95 for shipping, so after filling out all the ordering, shipping, and personal info, the final decision screen came up showing a $55 special charge for overseas shipping. Rather than go through all the frustrating grief of trying to find out which idiot there thinks Alaska is overseas (I used to go after this kind of BS with a vengeance), I cancelled the order and went to another online store that shipped it for free!
Why do so many websites for stores, businesses, magazines, etc., make it so damn hard to find a telephone number for talking to a human being?
It's as if they don't want people to call them.
By the way, has anyone used Google's random blog system? It lets you move from blog to blog at a click of a button. Kind of interesting. But some people have figured out a way to hide, block, or override the "Next Blog" button. Why doesn't Google block out these blogs? But I don't like Google's blog search function, because you end up with too many corporate and news websites.
Alaska Ferry Malaspina trip from Valdez to Whittier, July 1983
My parents came up from NY and we rented a Winnebago to drive around the state with them. At the end of the trip we loaded the MH onto the ferry and went abovedeck for the 8-hour trip to Whittier. In those days the ferry detoured into bay where the leading edge of the Columbia Glacier sat; and then approached to within a half mile or so of the face of the glacier, where it would power down for half an hour or so and let the passengers watch the icebergs calve off the face of it.
This time the glacier was rather quiet, so the Captain got on the PA and asked for any kids who wanted to come up to the wheelhouse and blow the horn. Since we'd been standing nearby, my boys A and B, who were 7 and 6 at that time, got there first. After the Captain showed them which lever to pull, they both yanked on it for what seemed like a long time, letting loose a chest-rumbling blast. Then the show started. Big chunks of ice more than 200 feet tall started to break loose from all along the face of the glacier one by one, and slide into the water, all in slow motion. I've never heard anything like that eerie crackling sound as the ice cliffs broke free from the glacier's face. Some of the icebergs were so big, that when they hit they created waves that rocked us in the 400-foot ferry boat half a mile away. The ice chunks kept falling and falling. I'll never forget the looks on my boys' faces.
A few years after that the Ferry system stopped going into that bay and not long after that, the National Park Service banned the use of horns around any glaciers. Now the Columbia has retreated several miles up the bay. I'm not even sure if it's even on the water anymore.
Crossing the Straits of Magellan, May 1999
We had been living near Comodoro Rivadavia in southern Patagonia since December 1997 and were soon going to be returning home. Even though it was early winter, we really wanted to make a trek to Tierra del Fuego and see Ushuaia before leaving. So, in our Mondeo we caravanned with Dave & Deb in their Jeep, and we all drove south along the Atlantic Coast (a really nice trip - good roads, interesting scenery, lots of guanacos and nandues, and very little traffic) to Rio Gallegos and then west across the border into Chile and on to Punta Arenas. We had wanted to go up the Pacific Coast a short ways to see the spectacular Torres del Paine, but since it was supposed to be snowing the next several days in the Southern Andes we cancelled that leg and stayed the night in a grand old hotel (from their heyday in the thirties and forties) in Punta Arenas.
The next morning we drove half an hour back along the Straits of Magellan to the ferry terminal near the border and got in line with a half dozen other cars and trucks. Eventually a rickety old boat - it kind of looked like an old oversize WWII era landing craft - slowly crept up to the dock, all the while backfiring and belching black smoke. We watched incredulously as the front ramp was cranked open with screetches and groans and fell onto the gravel, and a handful of cars, buses and trucks lumbered off.
We all looked at each other, wondering if we were seriously going to drive ourselves onto that "ferry" for the crossing to Tierra del Fuego! Everyone else started their engines, so we reluctantly did the same. One by one, we pulled onto the rusty ramp and into the center of the open boat. The cars and trucks were all crammed into the hold so tightly that we could barely open one door and walk over to the upper catwalk that ran along one side of the boat. We climbed onto the narrow catwalk along with half a dozen other drivers, the rest stayed with their vehicles. The temperature had fallen below freezing overnite and the howling westerly winds were blowing at more than 50 mph, with gusts to 70 mph. There was a small enclosure at the middle with another set of stairs up to the "captain's deck", but it was full of smokers. Needless to say, we didn't stay there very long.
It took several tries to get the old diesel engine to fire up, with lots of backfiring and more smoke. We expected it to smooth out eventually, but it never really did settle out. The minute we cast off the wind immediately grabbed us and started pushing us towards the mouth of the Straits, and towards the open Atlantic. The boat quickly turned into the wind and began to struggle against the winds and current as it slowly crept forward. With the strong winds, the pounding waves, the ice building up on every surface, the black tarry smoke, and the pitiful sounds of that poor engine struggling against the current, I honestly don't know if I'd ever felt so abandoned to the mercy of the fates.
About an hour later, (we'd long ago found our way back to our cars) we felt the boat straighten out and the engine began to smooth out. We had finally arrived at Tierra del Fuego! The long dusty drive to Ushuaia offered one interlude where we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of sheep being herded along the road. While we waited for the sheep to move aside (the herder wasn't in that great of a hurry to clear a way for us), I noticed how each sheep had a remarkably different face and expression. Some looked at us curiously, while others ignored us.
A few days later, after reaching the end of the road, "Fin del Ruta 3", at Ushuaia, we turned back and had to do the ferry trip all over again. This time, when we arrived at the southern ferry "terminal", there was a long line of cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, etc. waiting. At the "office" (really a small bar packed to the rafters with the waiting drivers), we learned the ferry had been cancelled until further notice due to the high winds. It was late afternoon, and it didn't look like we were going to be getting across that night. After several hours, we had shared our preciously small hoards of junk food with Dave & Deb and rearranged our luggage to make room in our cars for sleeping overnight, all of a sudden the ferry appeared at the dock and the front end cranked open to let out its southbound cargo.
Since we were so far back in line we figured we'd have to wait until the third or fourth round, but for whatever reason, they bypassed all the buses and trucks ahead of us and only let the cars aboard. If the southbound trip was unnerving, even the thought of the return passage in worse weather, at night, with higher winds, was downright alarming! What choice did we have? This trip took an agonizing hour and a half. This time, we stayed in our cars and just kept our fingers crossed. When it ended, I was so glad to be not floating out toward Africa, I pulled over and got out just to walk around on solid ground.
At one point on the drive back to Rio Gallegos, we stopped, shut off our lights, got out of our cars, and for the first time ever, I saw the clear sky on a totally dark night. We were on a high point with absolutely no artificial lights anywhere, no traffic, and no moon! I remember thinking how I'd never known you could see so many stars.
Riding a Concrete Junk on the Yangste River - August 1999
After leaving Argentina, I was sent to China on a short assignment at a plant that Brand X was building along with a Chinese consortium. Two old friends from our earlier days in Alaska were there at the time, one more-or-less permanently, and the other for a few months like me. Since this place was in one of the new industrial cities China was building at the time, there were no tourists, and only two other westerners - "gwai lou" - working on the same project.
Fred is the kind of guy that can get along with anybody in any situation. One day he came up to me at the plant and asked if I wanted to go for a boat ride. Always ready for an adventure, I quickly agreed, and he led me to the dock under construction and down the bank to an old concrete "junk' sitting on the mud at the water's edge. The boat was about 25 feet long, with a small canopy over the center of the boat, and a noisy "one-lunger" engine at the back. Fred told me the boat owner lived aboard with his wife and kid and Fred had noticed that he always seemed to be parked at the dock. Turns out he sold softdrinks to some of the workers, and probably scrabbled whatever freebies he could get his hands on.
Anyway, by gestures and expressions, Fred convinced him to give us a ride a few miles up the river to a fertilizer terminal that had recently been built. We paid him a few yuan for the ride and some cokes, and off we went. We found out that the engine ran more on faith than anything else, and as soon as we cast off, the boat quickly got caught in the current and we found ourselves floating downstream.
Grinning all the time, the boatman finally got his engine running and we began to make some forward progress. Fred told me the boatman had told him that it was not uncommon to see a body floating down the river. For sure it was full of trash, with oil sheens, floating objects of unknown composition, etc. We were even careful to not lick our lips for fear of contracting some waterborne disease. As we slowly progressed upstream, we got to see all sorts of traffic on the river, other concrete junks like our "taxi", barges and ships of all sizes and nationalities.
Finally we approached the dock of the fertilizer terminal and bid our water taxi goodbye, choosing to return to our job site by a taxi with wheels.
Time to go.