Here we are, under way leaving Homer on our way out the Aleutians and eventually to Russia. Our day started at 6 this morning when the Super Shuttle picked up us and our four bags. There is such a helpless feeling, checking the bags in, knowing that there is no chance that you will see them again.
Alaska Airlines carried us through Seattle to Anchorage and then turned us over to ERA airlines. Jodie was trying to make a phone call when one of the ERA people came up to her and asked if she wanted to go to Homer. This was about 2:15 and our flight was due to depart at 4. She said "Yes" and he said we could get on the flight that was about to leave.
"What about our bags?"
"We'll try to get them on."
Well, I knew we would never see them again. We arrived in Homer after a spectacular flight over mountains, glaciers, fjords, and inlets. Our bags arrived also!
Since we couldn't board until 4 pm, a bus picked us up and gave us a brief tour of town, then took us out on The Spit where we boarded the World Discoverer. I think that this is one of the original exploration cruise ships, built in 1974 and then refurbished in 1984. It has two engines driving a single variable pitch propeller. It was built with some ice capability; a doubling of the hull ribs in the bow and use of a stainless steel in the propeller rather than the usual bronze. Since it was built in 1974, ice-proof stabilizers were not available, so the ship has none. (Ice-proof doesn't mean that they are extended when passing through ice, just that the covering of the retracted stabilizers are capable of withstanding ice.)
The ship has a capacity for 150 passengers and a crew of 75. As is typical for an exploration cruise ship, there is a lecture hall and an observation lounge. There is a fleet of zodiacs carried on the aft part of the ship. These will be used for all but a couple of our shore excursions.
Although this is a Clipper cruise, this tour is sponsored by the National Geographic so we found our own little National Geographic On Tour hats in our cabin. The cabin is quite small but provided with lots of drawers and closets. There are two narrow, short, twin beds one than folds down from the wall, the other becomes a couch in the day time.
Since there is open seating for meals, we strolled into the dining room and picked out a table, people joined us until there was only one vacant seat. The maître díhôtel brought a single male over to join us. He was Gilbert Grosvenor of the National Geographic Grosvenors, the president and CEO. We had a delightful conversation, not just because of him but because of all the people at the table.
The ship sailed at 10 pm, with the Sun still up. We left the harbor accompanied by four Japanese Destroyers who just happened to drop in to Homer for a visit today. I guess they were here to remind us not to restrict the timber and fish harvest too much or else they might get mad. They must consider Alaska one of their possessions.
We have now been officially stuffed. The Captain's Welcome dinner was tonight, the usual 37-course affair which followed a champagne party with little munchies. I will never eat again.
We got the trip off to a fine start with a tour of Kenai National Park. We motored up Kinik Bay and then did zodiac trip around Amalik Bay. We saw a bunch of birds, and a Costal Brown Bear, from the ship. On the zodiac trip we got rather close to a female bear with two cubs. The bear was eating grass and roots in an area near a stream outlet. The cubs were hidden in the grass but occasionally they would stand up on their hind legs and we could see them. We also had, for me, an exceptional view of some fin whales. These are second in size only to the blue whales.
"Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day."
Our visit to the Semidi Islands has been dampened by almost constant drizzle. Although we have good waterproof clothing, the constant dripping makes photography difficult. In fact, Jodie's camera died once. We revived it by changing to new batteries but it died again today and we have no new batteries. Hope that it drys our and resumes working.
This morning we went to Aghiyuk Island which is a bird sanctuary. We first strolled along the beach and saw many wild flowers (for example, a chocolate lily), a lot of little birds, and debris. Most of the beaches are littered with another example of Japanese excess. The timber, cut courtesy of US Government subsidy, is loaded onto the Jap ships in Alaska. After the holds are full, they pile it up on deck. The deck cargo often falls off in rough weather and the logs wind up on the beaches. These logs differ from natural stuff in that the ends have been neatly cut and they are all about the same length.
There is a lot of other junk besides the lost Japanese logs. Most of the other stuff seems to be from the fishing fleet, many floats, pieces of net, a lot of plastic line or rope, hunks of plywood and fibre-glass, buckets, even some Japanese glass floats.
After our beach stroll, we went for a zodiac ride and saw many birds that I shall not attempt to enumerate. Of course, we saw many puffins, of two types.
As a special treat, we had complementary Bloody Marys before our buffet lunch. After lunch, Bob Forbes, one of the National Geographic lecturers, told us all about the volcanos of Cook Inlet. There are several still active ones there. The off-shore oil industry, contrary to the advice of geologists, located the shore terminal right in the lahr path from one. During a recent eruption, they feverishly constructed dikes to protect the tanks.
This afternoon we were out again in the Zodiacs, The ship moved to Chowlet Island where we saw more birds.
"Captain Ralf Zander has the honour to invite Jo Anna Wendel & Dale Wendel for Dinner at the Captain's Table on July 10 at 1930 hours."
What a day! In addition to it being Jodie's birthday, we have had a great time. After the rain of the last two days, we have had glorious sunshine. This morning we went to Unga Island, one of the Shumagin Islands. This is the site of a petrified forest right along the beach. The beach is also covered with life-filled tide pools. While strolling along the beach we encountered an Arctic fox that scurried away. A pair of eagles are raising some chicks on a bluff overlooking the beach. There were a bunch of sharks patrolling the bay where we anchored. I thought that they were looking for some tourists to fall out of the zodiacs.
After lunch we encountered great scenery. Volcanos formed the Aleutians, so, we saw active, snow-covered, volcanos. The snow sparkled in the Sun; the water glistened in the Sun; then there was the occasional fishing boat just to pose in front of the rest of the scenery. When that grew tiresome, the humpbacked whales arrived. We spent the rest of the afternoon observing them. Finally supper time arrived. We were invited to join the cruise director, Nadia Eckhardt, for dinner. At the close of dinner, the staff brought out a birthday cake and sang Happy Birthday to Jodie. I thought it was a great day and it wasn't even my birthday.
Back to "civilization."
After cruising in and out of clouds and fog most of the day, we entered Dutch Harbor early this afternoon. After customs clearance (why customs clearance after sailing from one US port to another?), the Mayor of Unalaska and the president of the Chamber of Commerce came aboard and welcomed us. Then we went off on a tour of the city, for free. This is a town of approximately 4,000 that temporally swells to at least 50,000 during the fishing and crabbing season. There are two surami (krab) processing plants here.
There is, however, no doctor. Our tour guide was pregnant. She will have to move to some place, such as Anchorage or Seattle, when she has reached the 8th month so as to have a doctor in attendance. Medical emergencies are handled by air evacuation.
We were told that the air fare to Dutch Harbor is $950, round-trip, from Anchorage. This is alleged to be the most expensive fare in Alaska, probably because of the amount of traffic caused by the fishing industry. The law of supply and demand; there is great demand but limited supply.
The road from the port to the town crosses one end of the runway. There is an automatic gate that closes and red stop lights that illuminate when the runway is in use. Since it is an unattended field, the pilots are able to control this by keying the mike.
Although it is damp and windy here most of the time, it rarely drops much below freezing. There are a very few trees, all of which were transplanted from elsewhere. Signs of the heavy military presence are everywhere. Many cement bunkers dot the area. There is a memorial to the war casualties which features a propeller from a ship that was sunk here by the Japanese bombing.
We learned that the Aleuts were subjected to an evacuation similar to the Japanese internment at the start of WWII. The army felt they were in the way so they were forced to leave their homes with almost no warning and were not allowed to taken anything with them. They were placed in very poor accommodations in Southeast Alaska and not provided with much food, medicine, or medical care. Quite a large number died. In addition, there homes were looted by the US Army. This whole thing was supposedly to protect them from the Japanese.
Speaking of those little people; there is a very large section in the grocery store devoted to oriental food. I think that both the Japanese and the Korean ships call here to carry away the fish products. I don't know if there are any workers here.
Saw lots of bald eagles here, most at the city dump.
Off to the Pribilofs!
The Pribilofs consist of five islands, two of which are inhabited. We are going to St George today, in the fog. After a morning of lectures, we had a BBQ lunch on the afterdeck, and lo-and-behold, the fog has lifted. As we ate, we approached the island in bright sun.
After lunch we zodiaced to the island and strolled up the beach to the sea bird nests on the cliffs above the beach. There were puffins, thick billed murres, awkletts, and cormorants. These islands are of volcanic origin so the beach sands are black. The bodies of invertebrates that lived in the sea cause a line of white flotsam on the shore. The Sun, the beautiful shore, and the lovely sea birds made for a delight.
After viewing the birds, we strolled across the tundra to view a fur seal rookery. The tundra has produced a profusion of wild flowers. Lupin is the predominant plant but there are also Alaskan poppies, worts, and many, many other beautiful tiny blossoms. We took many closeups. We were not allowed to get very close to the seals. However, on the way back to the ship we could approach the rookery in the zodiacs. The seals seemed to enjoy our visit and swarmed around the boat. It was very hard to stop taking pictures.
We reboarded and had dinner while the ship moved to the other side of the island. After supper, we visited the town of St George. The main feature of many Aleut towns is the Russian Orthodox church. Each is richly provided with icons, some from the 1800s, some modern. All are in the classic style. (It seems strange that they have embraced the religion of the people who slaughtered and oppressed them so violently. Must be similar to the Mexicans and the Catholic church.)
St George is a small community of about 500 people. It seemed that at least half of the town was waiting at the boat ramp as we arrived. The town is located on the north side of the island where the weather is worst. There was a harbor there but the winter storms have destroyed it. A new harbor plus some industrial facilities are on the south side, our first stop. The town was located on the north side since that is where the major seal rookery is located. The Aleut settled there to harvest the seals. I wonder if the town will eventually move to the harbor. The new, protected harbor has allowed the village to enter the cash society. Two fish processing ships come there during the season and hire natives to process the fish. In addition, the village has a reindeer herd.
(Villages were located where there was a good source of food, in this case seals, and water. The weather didn't seem to be much of a factor. It was only later when the "wise" white man came along that many villages, especially in Russia, were moved to artificial locations.)
We have moved to St. Paul, the more successful of the two populated Pribilof Islands. The sights are much the same, sea bird and fur seal rookeries. Since we have moved slightly north, the wild flowers don't seem to be as advanced. Perhaps the development is perceived less since today has become foggy, windy, and cold. (Yesterday was their first sunny day since May.)
The town is larger and more prosperous than St. George. The church in the center of town is better maintained. They expect the assignment of a full time priest within a month. There is a very large, extensively provisioned store here. Here in the middle of the Bering Sea, thanks to Dr. Rosen, Don Williams, and Tom Hudspeth, we were easily able to place a telephone call to Beth.
Any shore trip is successful if you return in time for coffee and chocolate chip cookies, called Clipper Chippers, in the Lido Lounge. These seem famous, or infamous, and contain Macadamia nuts, almonds, walnuts, and two kinds of liquor.
Still in the Pribilofs. This afternoon we visited St. Matthew Island, an uninhabited little paradise, at least it is a paradise in the summer. It, like the others of its group, is of volcanic origin much older than the Aleutians. There is some speculation that these islands once formed part of a chain like the Aleutians.
We landed in fairly rough surf on a shingled beach. Pinnacles of volcanic rock guarded one side of the beach. These pinnacles are the residence of many sea birds, thick billed murres, glaucus gulls, puffins, and black-legged kittywakes.
As on all the islands we have visited, the beach was heavily littered with the cast-offs from Japanese timber rape and the fishing trade. Originally I thought that the fishing stuff just fell overboard. I now feel that it is tossed when no longer needed. Why bother to take in back to port if it is no longer useful? The beach also had a heavy amount of normal driftwood.
The real beauty of St Matthew, however, is the tundra. As soon as we left the beach we entered a fairyland of miniature plants and trees. Willow trees here are barely inches high. The countless flowers dot the expanse. I was reminded of the Southern California desert. One's first impression is of a vast wasteland with no appreciable vegetation. Upon closer inspection it is rich with life. Each step across the spongy surface brought a new beauty to the eye. Some flowers are less than 1/8 inch across however when viewed through the macro lens they are revealed in their full detail and beauty. (I seem to be using "beauty" a lot however there is no other word that is adequate except perhaps exquisite.)
On the way back to the ship from the beach we toured around the pinnacles to see the birds. There is a narrow channel between them. It was an exciting ride with the tidal surge, the wind, and the closeness of the massive rocks. One of the other zodiac motors failed while between the rocks and the passengers had to transfer to another boat while bobbing around.
Its time to say a few words about the National Geographic Magazine. Part of this group is a National Geographic-sponsored tour. The NG provided their mailing list to some travel agency to solicit passengers and placed their name on the trip, however they used a standard Clipper Cruise/World Discover tour. To jazz it up a bit they passed out neat baseball caps, sent out some background magazines, brought along tapes of some programs.
They also provided two additional lecturers, Dr. Bob Forbes and Dr. Norma Forbes. He is a retired geologist who has spent most of his life teaching and working in Alaska. She is a retired anthropologist who had been the head of the rural mental health program for Alaska. Their lectures contributed greatly to the trip.
As I mentioned before, Gil Grosvenor was on the trip. He left us in St. Paul to fly home. He left Bob Booth, a senior editor, in his place.
Bob had a question and answer session yesterday. A typical article costs $250,000 to prepare, between the photography and writing. It seems that photos dominate. He opened his presentation with the statement, "There are also words in the National Geographic." I believe that it is referred to usually as "THE MAGAZINE". The typical photographer shoots 500 to 700 rolls of film to produce 70 illustrations for an article.
Another day, another island. Today's island is St. Lawrence. This morning we went ashore at Boxer Bay. There is one fairly good house here plus a lot of whale bones. It is used as a fishing camp and is across the island from the native settlement, Gambell.
This is a beautiful place, a lovely little bay fed by a river and surrounded by gentle hills. Of course, the tundra is full of glorious little flowers. I am continually amazed by these hardy little beauties. Although there were guided walks available we just wandered about at our own pace. Apparently one of the strong incentives to visiting the Arctic is the abundant bird life. I have enjoyed seeing all the species but haven't been willing to spend hours with binoculars glued to my face to add another bird to my life list.
We reboarded and had lunch while the ship motored around to Gambell. This is a village located on a large gravel spit. I believe that this location was selected by the original settlers since it is convenient to the whale migratory route. Anyway, most of the original housing has given way to fairly modern housing, courtesy of the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement and/or the Federal and State governments.
There are racks of walrus meat drying in the sun and wind. After the meat is dry it is kept in freezers. Yes, they have electricity, telephones, and cable TV if they pay for it. Half of the village has running water and the remainder will receive service this fall. We saw walrus skins drying prior to installation on the bidarks. The bidark is a boat that is used for whaling. It can be propelled by either a motor or a sail.
After the skin has dried a bit, its thickness is spilt so as to cover a greater area. We also saw several boats, some waiting for their new skin. The skin last several years. After the skin is applied by lashing, it is painted with marine paint.
At the end of the tour we all gathered in the community center for native dancing. There were also some native crafts for sale but of limited quantity.
Gone! Sorry Beth, no birthday this year.
Lost to the vagaries of the International Date Line. In its place, however, we gained three extra hours. The whole state of Alaska, including the Aleutians, is in the same time zone. When you finally leave that time zone, to enter Russia in our case, there are three hours just sitting there waiting to be recognized.
Beautiful Provideniya, jewel of the Chuckchie Peninsula!
It is actually a dirty product of USSR bureaucracy. All heat and power is from filthy coal-fired plants. The buildings are consistently ugly boxes. The concrete work is consistently poor and/or sloppy. The place is consistently ugly.
After not too much hassle from the border guards we went ashore for a walking tour of the town. It started at a small museum that featured some stuffed local animals and a very small amount of native crafts. We bought a small carving of a Eskimo and a seal there, made from reindeer antler. (At the end of our trip, this carving was seized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They said it was made from whale bone.) Then we visited a rusty, unsanitary beer factory (not called a brewery) in which three employees bottle one hour a week, producing 2000 bottles. The demand has fallen since the military presence has been drastically reduced.
From the "brewery" we moved next door to the bread factory (not called a bakery). This "bakery" has a resident cat that wanders freely through the place while bread is made. We sampled the product and it was good. The bakery has five employees.
The best part of the visit was a dance presentation by a local group at the culture center. It was a pleasant surprise to find beauty in such barren surroundings.
Then back on the ship for New Chaplino, a native community 25 km away.
We entered a California Grey Whale cafeteria at the entrance to the fjord in which Provideniya is located. The water is approx 100 feet deep. We were surrounded by spouts. Occasionally we would encounter clouds of mud in the water. These were the result of the whales taking mouths-full of bottom mud and filtering out all the goodies. It was these mud clouds that first alerted the bridge to the presence of the whales.
New Chaplino makes Provideniya look like Paris. The Soviet government forced several native villages to relocate in one common place so that they could raise foxes. Part of the town consists of government concrete box apartments, the same apparent design as used in Provideniya. The single family dwellings varied in condition from relatively good to dilapidated.
With the collapse of the USSR most government support seems to have been withdrawn from the community. The market for foxes has fallen so there is little income there either. That had been feeding the foxes whale but they overharvested and have been prohibited from taking any more whales for a while.
The kids gathered around the landing area and became quite unruly. They discharged several of the life preservers left by the passengers on the beach. They tried to push a couple of the younger passengers into the surf. They also threw rocks at them after they were in the zodiacs. This, along with the drunks wandering about the town and the generally rundown area make me not want to return.
The ship personnel take boxes of goodies to most of the native towns, especially in Russia. These things are usually for the schools. The passengers are invited to add things however I think most of the stuff has been provided by the ship.
In addition to these gifts, the ship is required to pay landing fees at most of these places. Provideniya, for example, charges $10,000. Gambell charges $2,000, but each of the dancers and musicians gets $50 for their performance.
All scheduled walks for the day were scrambled when we learned, as we approached Arakamchechen Island that the walrus had begun hauling out. At our allotted time we went ashore, and walked to the hut that is the residence of the wildlife rangers. There was a human skull laying near the hut. It belonged to the former shaman who protected the island. When the Russians kicked them off he hung himself. He was buried elsewhere and since then the island has been plagued by accidents. He has been returned.
From the hut we set off to a holding pen and left there in groups of 10 to approach the bluff overlooking the haulout. We were further subdivided into groups of 5 to creep up to the lip and look over at the 30 to 40 males who have just arrived. I was so busy photoging that I really didn't look at them.
After our allotted time we wandered off around the edge of the island and eventually back to the shore. The tundra on the island is rich with flowers, as we have seen previously. Additionally, there are remains of dwellings. These are large pits covered with whale bones. The bones were once covered with sod or whatever to make them weatherproof.
After lunch, we buzzed on over to Yttygran Island, home of the "famous" Whale Bone Alley. This is a 500 foot-long assemblage of partially buried whale skulls paralleling the beach. None of the natives know who did it or why. None of the experts know either.
To the accompaniment of many voracious mosquitoes, we hiked up to a saddle and then around the back side of a small peak. As we were hiking, some of the group routed a sow bear and three cubs. Luckily for us, the brown bear took off in the opposite direction. We did get a good view of them through the binoculars.
There was also a large group of Sand Hill cranes in the valley about a mile away. We could hear them and see them through the binoculars.
On our way back we discovered a small cemetery. The graves had been opened by the animals and the bones scattered about. People on the ship are aware of it but no one could tell me anything about it. There is a custom, Russian Orthodox I think, to leave belongings, eating utensils, and sometimes even a bottle of vodka at the graves. Although these graves had be badly disturbed there were some broken plates and some toys laying around them.
All that is left is to go back to the US. The captain passed along a few statistics at the "Farewell Dinner." We consumed 680 pounds of meat, 850 pounds of vegetables, 1050 pounds of fruit, and 720 pounds of fish. We will have traveled 2569 statute miles or 3474 km. We also ate 4080 eggs and drank 310 bottles of wine, 1056 cans of beer, and 432 l of milk.
It was nice to enjoy the meal and not be worrying about packing like almost every other passenger. Two others besides us are staying on for the next segment, Pat Largen from Florida, and Giles McCrary from Texas. Both are very experienced travelers. Pat has been to the North Pole, for example.
Here we are at sea again. The day of cruising back to the US and Nome from Siberia was quite uneventful. Since we had to give back the three hours we gained when leaving Alaska one hour was subtracted from the clock between each meal. It seemed that we did nothing but eat all day. Clearing Russian customs required appearing in the library and verifying the I look like my passport photo and stating that I have no marine mammal products. After arrival in Nome, clearing US customs and immigration was much the same.
We found ourselves cleared and on our way into Nome before 8 am. We started hiking in with our laundry and some local kindly picked us up and took us to the Laundromat. It was closed but we saw a man inside who was panning gold there. He said "she" usually showed up around 10 and that we could leave our laundry, he would take our name, and she would start it when she arrived. The water heater didn't turn on until 9:30, anyway.
We went off to see downtown Nome. Most of the stores were still closed however we found the grocery store open which also had a pay phone in the entry. We made our calls, made our purchases, and then went to the only open souvenir store.
Around 10 we made our way back to the Laundromat. "She" still wasn't there but the man had finished his panning and showed us his 3 oz of 90% pure gold. Another man was there and purchased the gold from him. The gold panner said that the water was now warm and that we could just go ahead and start our wash. There were no coin boxes on the machines. They were a random collection of ordinary home machines. By the time we finished, "she" showed up. We paid her $9 for two loads of wash and one dry and set out for lunch. (After our return to the ship I computed that the same wash would have cost $75 in the ship laundry.)
We did some more shopping and then walked back to the ship. It seems very strange to see the ship devoid of passengers. We wandered about, checking some of the other rooms.
Now we are off to visit the Diomedes after having passed King Island this morning. There is a community on the cliffs that has been abandoned except for the hunting season which is now. There was one boat visible at the base of the cliff. One house had a blue tarp on one end so it was perhaps inhabited.
I have looked into tomorrow! Little Diomede is one mile away from Big Diomede and is the home of 140 US Eskimos. Big Diomede is in Russia and on the other side of the International Date Line. When the Cold War broke out, the Russians moved the small population of Eskimos off of Big D. So there it sits, broodingly alone, shrouded in fog.
The town of Little Diomede clings to a cliff between a rocky beach and a huge bird colony. It is a typical subsistence community with Murre and Murre eggs comprising a significant part of their diet. We saw baskets of the blue, tapered Murre eggs. The natives have long-handled nets that they use to snare the birds on the fly. There are also the usual drying racks with seal, walrus, and fish drying. Like several of the native communities we have visited so far, federal and state money is much in evidence. All of the homes are served by running water. Most seem to have telephones and cable TV. There doesn't seem to be any sewer system, however.
Murre eggs are blue, speckled with distinctive black marks, and highly tapered. The tapering prevents them from rolling off of the nest ledge during parental changes. The marking provides a means of recognition. Naturalists have changed the markings and the birds will ignore that egg and continue searching for the correct one.
The focal point of the community is a lovely high school with a large gym. We were treated to a very enjoyable dance performance, featuring the usual singers, drummers, male dancers, female dancers, and one remarkable couple. The male seemed to be slightly behind the beat, however a very capable dancer. We later learned that he was deaf but had learned to dance before he lost his hearing.
Dancing is important to the community. Many of the little kids who weren't taking an official part of the performance were dancing on the sidelines and singing the parts.
Back to Boxer Bay/Gambell St. Lawrence Island. Last time we were here the sun was shining. Today it is cool and a light rain is falling. As a result, the display of wild flowers is somewhat muted. We strolled about the island and I didn't take a single picture. The only good thing is that the surf wasn't nearly as difficult as last time. Neither of us got wet.
Our goal at Gambell was to get to the Ivory Co-op which we missed last time. We convinced our guide, Susan Campbell, to take us there directly from the landing. After a quick purchase we went off on a tour. Susan took us to her house, a rental house provided by the government (she said HUD). It has four bedrooms and one large common room, approximately 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep. This common room holds a couch, kitchen table & chairs, a refrigerator, electric coffee pot, counters, a sink with no drain, and no current running water, although that is supposed to be available in September.
Gambell is located on a long gravel spit. The company installing the water system reports that the gravel is over 200 feet deep. Permafrost is within 1 m of the surface. All travel is by ATVs which have destroyed the grass that previously covered and bound the gravel, making it a solid surface. This village, like Little Diomede, is a subsistence community with much of the food provided by whales and walrus. They also have a rather well stocked general store.
Another day lost to the globe.
Provideniya again. Since we have already toured, we left the ship before the tours and wandered about, looking for open stores. Today is Sunday, and in spite of the unchristian recent history, most businesses are closed. There are some open souvenir stores, but the grocery stores are closed. We wanted to see a grocery store.
The rest of the day there was a repeat of the previous visit; see above.
We have now motored off to Sereniki, a native village. We motored up to the village, which has a couple of Russian DEW-equivalent antennas above, and then motored off. We are to visit an archeological dig south of the village. We arrived during dinner and found a heavy surf breaking on the beach. Our visit has become a 9:30 pm zodiac tour of the sea birds. I chose not to tour. Jodie has gone. (Dale missed a great evening. The sunset was gorgeous! As the Sun set the sky was filled with more birds than I have ever seen flying back from a day feeding at sea. And to top it off, the Moon was full.)
We are anchored off Arakamchechen Island, awaiting our turn to view the walrus. The avid bird watchers swamped the early hikes so we have to wait until 9:30 for our turn ashore.
There interesting differences between this segment's passengers and the last. Although the National Geographic tour comprised less than a third of the total complement, it seemed to have put a different color to the group. All passengers were included in any NG activities. The largest portion of this segment are from a New York Museum. They are, in general, older, slower, less active, and not always interested in going ashore. They are, however, BIRDERS.
Like last week, there are a significant number of Germans on board. Dr. Horst Bronny provides separate lectures and briefings for them. We attended one of his lectures yesterday on Eskimo Art. In spite of being in German we were able to understand some of it and, of course, enjoy his photographs.
There seems to be a snob effect radiating from the two museum group leaders and some of their group. I have received the impression that they are bringing culture from the font of all culture, NYC, to the illiterate.
There is also a very small group from Conn. College. Their escort is a college official who was raised in Fairfield, IA where his father was on the faculty of Parsons College, before it became Marashi U. His wife is from a very small town in northern Iowa, however they met at graduate school in Texas. We were invited to help celebrate the birthday of one of their group last night.
The walrus were much more relaxed this time. Several hundred have now arrived. They are lolling about or rolling in the surf. There are little contented moans emanating from the group. As for the rest of Arakamchechen, it was as beautiful as last time. There is still a profusion of wild flowers, although many that were in full bloom last time are gone. The grasses seem to have grown quite a bit since last time.
We learned of a new artifact on this visit. There is a line of polar bear skulls placed in a N-S line on the top of a hill near the viewing point for the walrus. We also noted that the shaman's skull has been buried. Perhaps the unremitting accidents that have plagued the island will end.
After lunch we visited Yttygran Island, Whale Bone Alley. We learned at recap last night that nothing is known about the whale bones, other than that they are grey whales and were placed in the 1600s. Archaeological investigations have found no artifacts. The local natives have no knowledge or history concerning the place.
This island has gone from spring on our visit a week ago to fall on this visit. The grasses along the beach are quite tall. The last time we were here we were devoured by mosquitoes. This time we slathered on the repellent before we went ashore. The mosquitoes were all gone. A large number of the flowers have lost their leaves or are badly faded. Dry leaves crunch under foot. We hiked up to a saddle from the beach then down a long valley that crosses the island. We were lured along by the calls of some sandhill cranes. We eventually found a pair walking up and down a ridge line. They eventually flew, circling above us several times before disappearing behind the ridge.
We also discovered a family of Arctic ground squirrels, or sislick. They spend a frantic month or two gathering and eating grasses and hibernate the remainder of the year. This den was low on a hillside and surrounded by a lush growth of grasses and wild flowers. I assume that some of their wasted seeds prompted the growth.
After supper we visited another of the unfortunate Russian experiments at collectivization of native populations. This town is Yanrakynnot. It consists of a large number of originally well built houses that have not received any maintenance. There is steam heat and electricity provided by the government. Its point of being is to raise foxes. The population seems mostly native although a very few Russians are present. Our guide was a Russian woman named Riassa. She came there a few years ago after graduating from college, lured by the opportunity, high pay, and romance. Now the government has collapsed and she is stuck there with no money to get out nor any place to go if she did get out.
We encountered the usual vast collection of cute kids and drunken adults.
I think that I may have the dates all messed up. I seem to have been using my watch rather than ship date. Today is 7/27 on the ship but 7/26 on my watch.
At any rate, yesterday we were supposed to cruise boldly toward the ice in the morning while being lectured to. Instead, some pack ice came south to meet us so the lectures were cancelled so we could look at the ice. We were also supposed to visit another Siberian village, Inchoun, however the wind was blowing too strongly there, not only for safe zodiac travel but to keep the ship anchored. So we motored away.
There was no wind a few miles away so we stopped and toured the ice with zodiacs. We soon left the ice and continued north. King Neptune greated us when we crossed the Arctic Circle shortly after 7 pm. This was celebrated with green champagne.
I need to say a bit about the so-called Bering Land Bridge. It seems to frequently be presented as a temporary bridge. The folks on the Asian side saw the bridge and just packed up and moved across, on down to Atlanta.
"Hey Mable, pack your suitcase. We're going to cross that bridge there and populate North America."
Then these folks supposedly moved back north to populate most of Alaska. The Eskimos were the last to cross so all they got was the cold coast.
The bridge was actually a very large area, indistinguishable from the rest of the continent. It existed for thousands of years. Instead of migrating in the sense that the wet-backs migrate from Mexico, people lived and hunted in Beringia and naturally expanded across it. As the glaciers melted and receded, the area available for living moved and the one area became two contents separated by water.
I also have some problem with the whole of North America, or at least that part not covered by the glaciers, being devoid of all life. (I guess it wasn't devoid of life. Horses supposedly came from there.) Perhaps people came only from the middle east but there should have already been mammals there. It is also strange that there seems to be no archeological record left of the migration.
We continued to plunge northwards and again encountered the ice. We made a brief foray into the ice but saw nothing but one seal, briefly. Then we moved a bit further north and had a zodiac ride through the ice.
After that, we went further north and then into the ice again where, quite late in the day we encountered a walrus basking on the ice. As we slowly approached, someone saw a polar bear so we broke off our approach to the walrus and moved toward the bear. It was a half a mile away and quite difficult to see. The floe surface is quite rough and broken, covered with large blocks of dirty ice. The bear moved in and out behind these blocks. Probably 80% of the passengers saw it, us included.
By this time it was 11:30 pm and most passengers went to bed. The captain resumed the approach to the walrus. Before we gave up, we were within 200 feet, so close that I had to back off on the camera lens zoom to not over-fill the frame. He was really enjoying laying on the ice. We got to bed around 1:30 am.
7/28 (ship day)
Just before we gave up on the walrus last night, the fog came in. The crew had been anticipating it since there had been a south wind, across the ice. Because of the fog and thick ice, the ship turned south during the night. We are now out of the ice and speeding, at 10 knots, toward Uelen where we may make our last zodiac landing. It has been a lazy day with a few lectures but not much else.
The hotel staff and some of the crew presented a show that was pretty good and they seemed to enjoy themselves.
Uelen was the best Russian native village we have seen. This may be because it was an existing village before the Soviet decided to mess with the natives. Although it has a natural reason for being, several smaller villages were eliminated and the residents moved here. The point of this relocation was to make the natives contribute to the state or to make them productive. They became fox ranchers and reindeer herders.
It consists of the well-ordered rows of fairly decent houses. There are the usual centralized electrical and steam plants. There are also the usual drunken natives and layer of filth on everything.
This village has a very good dance troop who performed in the light rain for us. It also has a very good ivory carving school and museum. There are several sales rooms associated with the school. Although ivory is offered, there are also non-ivory items available. We bought a lovely little man carved from reindeer horn.
We have recrossed the international date line. The remainder of the voyage was uneventful, just pounding across the ocean to get back to Nome, early in the morning. We were awakened at 5:30, first by the sound of the bow thrusters and then by the sound of the mooring winch.
The Captain's Farewell cocktail party and dinner was last night, same menu as the previous farewell dinner on the first voyage.
After the Fish and Game guy seized our carving, we were free to leave the ship. Eventually the Alaskan Airline people came aboard and tagged our luggage and took it off to the airport. Eventually a bus took us into town for some last minute shopping while we waited for the plane to take us home. We found out that the plane was going to be an hour late so we had a little more time.
It turned out that the plane was considerably more than an hour late. Fog closed the airport between the time it was supposed to arrive and when it attempted to land. We heard it roar across the airport and head back to Kotezbue where it waited until the fog cleared. It was now well past lunch time so someone called one of the Nome restaurants and found out that they would deliver. Most ordered sandwiches which eventually arrived. Our three turkey sandwiches cost $21 plus a $10 delivery fee.
One surprisingly nice thing happened in all of this. The ship learned that we were not getting out so they called the hotels around town to find room for us in case the plane didn't make it. In addition, they sent over a tray of Clipper Chippers and some soft drinks. All this is after we are no longer their responsibility. It would have been nice if Alaskan Airlines took 10% of this amount of care for its passengers.
Of course, when we eventually reached Anchorage we had missed our flight to Seattle and LA. Alaska Airlines didn't really care that we missed our flight but they did agree to place us on a flight the next day. We then had to find a hotel, which we did, in spite of the fact that almost all the hotels in Anchorage were full. The place was a dump but it was a place to lay our tired little heads.
The next day we arrived at the airport and the ticketing agent said, "Oh, that flight is very full." We dumped on her, telling her that we had been assured that there was plenty of room. Eventually we went to the gate as standbys, with some kind of arrangement made between the ticketing staff and the gate agent. We wound up with seats on the exit row which has gobs of leg room.
We're home, the mail is all opened but not read, and it is time to reflect a bit on the trip.
In spite of the Arctic and the Antarctic both being polar regions, there is little similarity. The most striking difference is that there are and have been regular inhabitants in the Arctic whereas no one other than researchers and the like live in the Antarctic. With our limited sampling it seemed to me that the weather is worse in the South. It didn't seem nearly as cold on this trip and the seas, thankfully, were not nearly as rough. The World Discoverer has no stabilizers; if we had had storms like we encountered on the Frontier Spirit we would have been sick in spite of all the pills we had.
Speaking of the late, lamented Frontier Spirit, now called the Bremen, there are many differences between the two ships. The Bremen is much newer and more nicely appointed. The rooms and beds were much more comfortable. As I have already said, it has stabilizers. It also has two propellers. All of the advantages are mechanical, however. The World Discoverer has a vastly better "feel" about it. Perhaps since it is one of the original exploration-class ships it has more tradition. Perhaps since it is not owned by the Japanese it is a more friendly ship. Certainly the naturalist staff and lecturers were better. Part of that, at least on the first cruise, is due to the National Geographic sponsorship.
When we returned from our latest visit of Oceanside there was a package from the Fish and Wildlife Service waiting for us. I quote in part, "The Forensics examiner concluded that the item [our seized carving] was a carving from an antler, most likely a caribou (Rangifer tarandus) antler. The caribou is not restricted...therefore the antler carving is being returned to you."