Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Library

My very favourite library, the New York Public Library: this splendid building is the home of the research library, "with the famous main reading room a majestic 78 feet (23.8 m) wide by 297 feet (90.5 m) long, with 52 feet (15.8 m) high ceilings - lined with thousands of reference books on open shelves along the floor level and along the balcony; lit by massive windows and grand chandeliers; furnished with sturdy wood tables, comfortable chairs, and brass lamps." Now that's a library. Go visit if you are ever in New York. They usually have some kind of special show on in their gallery which also adds to its visitor appeal.

I know that I promised I wouldn't talk about books for a bit, but I guess I just can't help it. Sorry! Today, I was at a branch of the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) that is not "my branch". While there, I was talking to a librarian who used to work at "my branch" but now works at the other branch. We know each other really well and I was talking about what I am going to say here.

We came to Vancouver in 1961 and one of the first things we did was get a library card. Both A and I are insatiable readers and we came to Vancouver with just enough money to buy some cheap furniture for our apartment and a second hand car. No money for books, of course, hence the library cards.

In 1964, we bought our first house in the Dunbar area and with our 18 month old son we started the "B" family tradition of going to the Dunbar Branch of the VPL every Saturday. A few years later we had a daughter and then four of us made the weekly pilgrimage. I guess we chose Saturday because A wasn't working that day and later on the children were not in school. Of course, when I was working and sometimes did weekend shift work, Saturday still suited the other three and I scrabbled in just before they closed. After all, the books were always due on a Saturday.

Luckily I was blessed with two children who are also readers and, even after they went away to graduate school at other universities, whoever was home for the summer visit still went on the library outing. We are both retired now for almost nine years but we still go on the Saturday library pilgrimage, just the two of us. In fact my son, who has his own house across the city does the Saturday library run to "his branch".

When we have finished whatever book we are reading, we put it in the front hall by the front door. So we won't forget to take it back. We moved house in 1977, but only a mile from our original house, so we didn't have to change branches and this house too has a heap of books by the front door.

Of course I now own thousands of books but I still borrow many and for forty three years we have had this family tradition. The daughter who lives outside New York city, although not following the day exactly, still is a regular patron of her library and I think she owns even more books than I do.

Before I finish this post I just want to tell you about a book which I finished last night, now by the front door for return on Saturday. Not a full review but a little teaser. It's called The Echo Maker, a novel, by Richard Power. I was fascinated by this book because it was full of case histories describing the infinitely bizarre world of brain injuries. The protagonist, after a car accident, has Capgras syndrome -- the delusion that people in one's life are doubles or imposters. Now don't be put off, this was a very well written novel and it won the National Book Award in 2006.

Now definitely the next post will not be about books. The Saturday Photo Hunt --Art will show you a photo of a piece of art that I treasure and of course it has a little story to go with it. See you all here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Short Book Club -- The Highest Tide

A story about a 13 year old boy exploring the tidal pools in a bay off the Puget Sound? Well this book, The Highest Tide, a debut novel by Jim Lynch was chosen by the Short Book Club for this week's meeting. I wasn't so sure about this, as I generally dislike books with young boys as protagonists. They tend to have potty mouth dialogue which does not amuse me in the least.

So in trepidation I began to read. From the first word I was hooked. The protagonist never says this, but it is written as if he were an adult writing about one summer in his childhood and so my fears were allayed.

Miles O'Malley, an only child, 13 years old, small for his age and a loner, lives with his parents just above the tide line on Puget Sound near Olympia, Washington. Obsessed with Rachel Carson's writings, he has become an expert on the marine life on the tidal flats and he spends his spare time and then his summer vacation collecting clams and geoduck for sale to restaurants and interesting specimens to aquaria, often accompanied by his friend Phelps, a more worldy wise thirteen year old than Miles is.

One night, as he explores the tidal area, he finds a giant squid, a deep water creature which is an extremely rare find. His friend and mentor, Professor Cramer, notifies the media and he becomes famous, giving interviews to TV reporters.

He continues to find other interesting specimens and his fame grows, with people of all descriptions beginning to follow him on the flats and demand things of him which disrupt his life. He tries to carry on normally while pursuing his friendship with an elderly semi-incapacitated psychic neighbour, Florence, whom he helps as best he can. While his parents' marriage is disintegrating around him, he is also dealing with a huge crush that he has on his 18 year old neighbour Angie.

The denouement of the novel is the coming of the highest tide of the year which gives the novel its title and predicted by Florence to be the highest in 50 years. When this occurs it sets in motion other events which I do not wish to spoil for you.

The descriptions of the marine life in this book are mesmerizing. I was totally enthralled by the world that the author showed to us, the readers. One treasure after another is revealed. The interactions between Miles, the anxious brainy child and the more worldly wise Phelps are often hilarious and Phelps runs interference to protect Miles from the growing number of media people who seeks him out. I'm sure I haven't done this book justice, but I think it is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year.

We were ten at dinner for the Short Book Club meeting and afterwards, remarkably, at the discussion, we found that every single person loved the book. In fact, the discussion was so animated that we all seemed to be talking at once, with little side conversations breaking out at times. So the little book about the young boy, which some of us were very dubious about, was a great hit after all. My raspberry ricotta cheesecake was a delicious finale, along with tea and coffee, even if I do say so myself.

After two book posts in a row I'll try to come up with something different for next time.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Yesterday I Read a Book

If you are a regular reader of my blog you know that I define myself by books and reading, so you won't be surprised. I picked up the book at the local library just after 2 pm and by 11pm I had finished it, with interruptions for several things like a meeting ( 1 1/2 hrs) and making dinner, etc. In fact, yesterday I was supposed to be planting the flowers in my front containers but they will have to wait another day. Maybe later today, but it is still chilly out, and windy, and I hate wind.

So, cut the suspense. What book was it, you say. Well a little more teasing first. I found the book on the site of one of my regular blog reads, Eurodogtraining. There's a little story to why I read Eurodog. One day I received the following email:

I found your address on your blog profile. I look at it because being "into dogs" I was attracted by the picture of your Westie.
I also noticed you mentioned blogrolling on one of Winchester Whisperer's comments. I went onto blogrolling this morning ; I managed to register but could not understand what to do next.
Can you be of help?
Thank you; this is quite new to me and I am not very computer literate.
Enjoy reading your blog.
Very cold but beautiful spring day here in Brussels.

You see I had helped Winchester Whisperer establish a blogroll, using, so I helped Eurodog establish hers with instructions via email. Even after she succeeded I continued to read Eurodog's blog, although, despite being a lifelong dog lover, I don't currently have a dog, only a dog avatar.

Well Eurodog is more than "being into dogs", a lot more in fact. She's the Secretary and Head of Obedience at one of Brussel's largest dog clubs and her posts are interesting and serious looks at different facets of dogs.

So a week ago she posted this interesting report, telling about a book written by a United States marine officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jay Kopelman, who had rescued a dog on his third tour in Iraq and in which he narrates the tale from this meeting of the Iraqi puppy to now living in California with Lava, the dog. From Bagdad, with Love is the title.

Intrigued, I immediately put the book on hold at the library and it arrived yesterday. From the first word I could not put it down, except for the above noted interruptions. This post is already too long so I'm not going to go into too many details, but only want to say that this is a very heartwarming tale. Despite the horrors of this ongoing war, and there are some things in the book that you'd rather not know about, this marine officer, with the help of many other people including an NPR reporter, a few Iraqis and some very determined dog people in the USA, managed to bring this dog out of it.

Asked by a reporter in the USA, when he is waiting for the arrival of his dog, "What would you tell people who might suggest your time would have been better spent saving people instead of a dog?" he doesn't answer.

But in the last few lines of his book he says:
Why wasn't my time spent helping people instead of a puppy? I don't know, and I don't care, but at least I saved something.
I think you can say that this marine in his three tours of duty in Iraq did help a lot of people and most importantly he helped the morale of his fellow marines as they all tried to keep this little puppy alive and send him to safety.

Thank you Eurodog. I'm very glad you wrote about this book and prompted me to read it.

PS. The Highest Tide is still to come, don't despair.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Saturday Photo Hunt -- Colourful


I was really struggling to come up with something from my very limited library of digital photos and couldn't really think of anything to take a photo of for this theme. This is a bit of a cop out and not at all original. Sorry folks, I will do better next week, perhaps.

This is a very small bed in my front garden by the road and also up against a huge cedar hedge which sucks all the nutrients and moisture from the surrounding area as well as shades these plants from the sun. But once a year, on cue, a brilliant cerise evergreen azalea and a colourful peachy deciduous azalea flower at the same time in this wonderful display of mismatched colour. What was I thinking when I planted this bed, almost thirty years ago? A tiny cutleaf japanese maple is struggling there too, along with some white alyssum.

If you want to join the Saturday Photo Hunt or check out the Blogroll for the participants, click on my sidebar.

Have a great weekend.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Photos from my Cruise -- Ketchikan

Well this was our last port of call on this cruise. For the previous imageless post about Ketchikan, to go with these photos, check here.

I'll get my mini rant out of the way first. Here in this scenic spot, surrounded by gorgeous snowcapped mountains, what is the first thing you see from the ship when you land? The jewelery stores! Why on earth would you go to one of the most beautiful places in the world and spend your time buying jewelery, outrageously expensive jewelery at that!

This is a neat photo because it shows one of the steep wooden staircases which lead from one level to another in Ketchikan. Trust me, that is quite the climb. These staircases even have names, like streets.

Here is the lovely Creek Street area where the "ladies of the night" plied their trade until the nineteen fifties. Now interesting stores and galleries, all built on the wooden wharf structure.

A lady shill inviting us into Dolly's Museum, the original house of Dolly, one of the better known ladies of the night. She seems to prefer the Victorian era style of dress. Note the banknotes in her garter.

You can see I really like this area. We spent a lot of time there and remember it was a beautiful day, getting better as the day went on.

Here are the mini rapids where we watched the two salmon navigate over the white water to head on up to spawning grounds. The kayaker happened by to add something red to the photo.

Remember this is the town where they saved all the old totem poles from the surrounding areas. In the centre, in this little park, they have raised this modern replica, one of the three or four placed strategically around the town.

You know men and messing about in boats. These two belong to the Coast Guard. Yes, even that tiny one, rip roaring along licketty split. I liked the size contrast in this photo. Which one would you like to be on? Yep, me too.

Well, now we are sailing away from our last stop in Alaska. We have to leave beautiful Alaska behind and return to beautiful British Columbia. What a chore.

I am so fortunate to live in this very scenic part of the world. We live our busy lives and never take the time to look around us. But this past week, I have done just that. I hope you have enjoyed this odyssey with me. I had fun describing it to you and showing it as best I could with this series of photos.

So next time you pass by this blog what do you think you will see? Yes, a book review. Tomorrow the Short Book Club meets. I have to make the dessert and so of course I am making this which is now in the refrigerator and which I will decorate tomorrow with the raspberry topping.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Photos from my Cruise -- Skagway

Should you need to refresh your mind about Skagway you can check here. Just remember Gold! The town that grew from 5 to 10,000 in the blink of an eye.

This is the original cabin of Skagway's first homesteader, Captain Moore, built in 1887. He claimed the whole area but the town settlers built all over his claim irregardless.

Here you see Skagway's first Bordello, built in 1897. A saloon operated on the ground floor while the ladies plied their trade above. Currently a National Historic Building, it serves local beer and food on the main floor, with a museum above. Note the wooden walkways.

We have to remember the miners who struggled up the Chilkoot Trail or over the White Pass to get to the gold fields. The diesel engine of the modern White Pass tourist train is at the rear.

Skagway, gateway to everywhere practically: Whitehorse and Carcross in the Yukon Territory; Atlin in BC; Nome Alaska, now finish of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race; Fairbanks Alaska; this way for the Chilkoot Pass; or that way for Whitepass.

One of the Rotary Snowplows which ran on the White Pass and Yukon Railway narrow gauge track to clear snow for the trains.
This photo was taken across the back deck of the ship to show the beauty surrounding Skagway. It was quite grey and overcast where I stood but the beautiful snow-covered mountain, way off in the distance was bathed in sunshine with blue sky above.

It was bitterly cold in Skagway, the wind just whipped up this gap between the mountains.

Drop by again for photos from Ketchikan.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Photos from my Cruise -- Cruising and Juneau

So you have to promise to click on the photos because they do look rather uninteresting otherwise. And click on the link to Josie's site below.

This was taken off the ship on a cruising day and gives you an idea of the scenery you can see in this part of the world. This is Vancouver Island, adjacent to the mainland, which you can read about in a wonderful post with fabulous photos and a map, written by Josie, born and brought up on Vancouver Island.

This is looking away from Juneau downtown across to the surrounding mountain area. As usual the place is lousy with these snow covered mountains. And evergreen trees. With bald eagles sitting on them. Well occasionally.

So this is my humpback whale from the whale watching/wildlife cruise. Sorry my camera is only four times zoom. I wish I had a great big telephoto lens when I see wildlife, but I wouldn't be able to carry it around or hold it up, so who am I kidding.

A very large number of Steller sea lions at their favourite haul-out, lolling about in the sunshine and jockeying for the best position.

A rather different lighthouse we saw from the boat. The guide said it was done in an art deco style, which made it very interesting. I'm pretty sure it was not leaning like the tower in Pisa, just the angle from which I took the photo makes it seem that way.

Don't forget I posted the Mendenhall Glacier in this post. We went there by bus, after the rain had set in, just as we docked. This concludes the Juneau portion of the photo tour.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Photos from my Cruise --- Vancouver

As I said before, since the weather was less than stellar on this Alaska trip, don't expect too much. Also the photographer is not up to snuff, only noticing afterwards, on more than one occasion, that her camera was on the wrong setting! She loves the toys you know, but, doesn't always master them as quickly as she should.

I talked about sitting on the deck of the Zaandam and looking at the beauties of Vancouver in this post so I show you here a few photos I took that day of my beautiful city. As you all know by now, I come from Sydney, which has one of the most beautiful and exciting harbours in the world. But I have to say that, although Vancouver is not as interesting as Sydney, harbourwise, it is very beautiful, for the snow covered mountains rise almost directly out of the water.

Looking towards the North Shore, where you can see the twin snow-capped peaks known as the Lions. The group of evergreens on the left is Stanley Park a 1000 acre natural park, close to downtown, surrounded by water and beloved by Vancouverites. That's our famous sulphur pile on the right hand side. A brilliant yellow, always there waiting to be shipped, but it never seems to get any smaller.

A small float plane on the water, with Stanley Park at the left, the Lions' Gate Bridge
across the top of the trees and the only in-the-water gas station around here where you can pull up your boat and fill 'er up.

Looking towards the other North Shore Mountains with a small float plane taking off and also, on the water at the right, you can see the North Shore Ferry which takes foot passengers from downtown to the North Shore.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cruising in General --- Today's version

Do you remember the TV show, The Love Boat, which debuted in 1977 and ran for nine seasons? The popularity of that show coincided with the interest in cruise holidays which began around that time. Each year since then, the number of ships and the number of passengers has increased steadily until at this time between 10 to 15 million passengers choose this type of vacation every year.

So what makes cruising so popular with holiday makers? Let's look at what a modern day cruise ship offers to its passengers. First of all the accommodations. One of the things I really appreciate about a cruise holiday is that you unpack your clothes and stay in the one place while the ship itself changes location. You are not packing and unpacking and sleeping in a new bed every night. And just look at our Zaandam stateroom, relatively spacious at 195 sq feet, including a sitting area and a private bathroom. There's generous storage space, a television and DVD player, complimentary bathrobes, hairdryer, all toiletry products provided and best of all, a wonderful steward who cleans your stateroom daily and turns down your bed at night. Should you feel so inclined your breakfast will be delivered to your room or any other meal for that matter, 24 hours a day. Just like any first class hotel in any part of the world.

I think that's what you could say characterizes the cruising experience. The wonderful friendly service is impeccable at all times throughout the ship; in your stateroom; at the lounges and bars, and in the various dining areas.

The service of food begins at 7 am every morning and you can eat in one part or another of the ship through until midnight. With breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, snacks, even a late night buffet from 11pm to 12 midnight no passenger is ever without a choice of food and very good food at that. Anything you can possible desire in the way of food is available and there were eight different bars on board to supply your beverage requirements.

So now that your basic needs of shelter and food are taken care of, how do you entertain yourself all day? Once again from 7 am, starting with the organized walk on the Promenade deck, until after midnight with the Disc Jockey in the night club area, there is some kind of entertainment going on continuously. How about the gym for some stretching or aerobic classes or just using the equipment? Would you like to try the treadmills with the built-in TVs or the elliptical machines, the steppers, the exercise bicycles, all top of the line? Perhaps the spa is more to your taste or you might like to take in a current film in the very comfortable theatre? Bingo anyone? How about bridge or basketball or deck tennis? If you are at sea the casino is always an option or the library where you can read and borrow the latest books, read magazines, listen to music, play scrabble, do a jigsaw puzzle. Every day the staff will supply you with the New York Times crossword or a Sudoku puzzle. Why not attend a lecture on the wildlife of the region with the onboard naturalist? Cooking classes anyone?

Of course you can swim in the pool or dip into the hot tub, or enjoy the jacuzzi or the sauna or just laze on the deck chairs and watch the scenery, which is rather spectacular on an Alaska cruise.
A photo I took of the three storeyed organ in the centre of the ship

After dinner each night, in a special two level theatre, you can enjoy a Broadway style song and dance show, or perhaps a comedian or a musician, and all of these shows are extremely professional. Or perhaps listening to music and dancing is more to your liking? A sing along with a pianist in one of the bars or a trio playing light classical music in a lounge will while away your evening if you prefer. There is never a moment when there is not something to interest you.

But let there be no doubt, this is a money making operation. In theory, this is an all inclusive vacation and you can manage, with difficulty, to avoid spending any more money on board. But it's not easy. All drinks are charged extra at the bars, wine with dinner, even soft drinks. And the prices are usually hefty too. Considering all alcoholic beverages are duty free on the ship, A paid $7.50 plus 15% gratuity for a glass of ordinary wine with dinner. The spa prices are outrageous in my opinion and they charge extra for yoga classes and pilates classes and spinning classes. Bingo and the casino are cash cows for the cruise lines, as well as the photo taking services. Internet services are very expensive. I paid $103.95 US for 250 minutes of wireless Internet connection or $25 per hour, while I noticed on shore the rate was $6 per hour. Shore excursions arranged through the ship are always much more than they would be through tour operators on land, but people pay it because it is convenient rather than scrabbling about when you disembark.

People always worry about tipping on board but most cruise lines simply add a fixed amount onto your bill. Every time you order a drink 15% is automatically added while a $10 per day charge per person is added as gratuity for your cabin steward and dining steward and other behind the scene personnel. I don't consider that $10 to be unreasonable because these are very cheerful hard working people who work seven days a week for a year at a time, no days off. Many of them have families in Indonesia and they are separated from them for these long periods.

Just one last thought on the cruise ship industry. Pollution. Yes, the larger the industry becomes the larger the pollution problem becomes. Each large ship generates daily an enormous amount of waste from sewage, sinks, showers etc. Those cruise ships are dumping this waste off our coastlines outside the three mile limit. Some are treating the waste before dumping, because the technology is there. Diesel engines are also a huge source of air pollution and the Zaandam was recently fitted with a seawater scrubber system to reduce pollution from its engine emissions. The Holland America line prides itself on its recycling operations and its concern for the environment, with each ship having an environmental officer. I hope that all ships are vigilant in this endeavour and we must support our law makers when they make laws to guard our coastlines and our waterways.

A very wet day at the Mendenhall Glacier, just outside Juneau, Alaska
Yes I really did go to Alaska

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Saturday Photo Hunt -- Cooked/cooking

Raspberry Ricotta Cheesecake

I have posted this Raspberry Ricotta Cheesecake photo in my blog before but this time I will accompany it with the recipe, which some people asked for previously but I didn't ever get around to it.

For a 9 inch (23 cm) springform pan use the following quantities

Base: Use whatever base you usually use for a cheesecake, or

1 1/4 cups of graham cracker crumbs, or cookie crumbs
3 tbps ( or 45 ml) of melted butter
Combine and spread and press into the bottom of the springform pan and freeze for at least a half hour. I usually line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper to make it easy to remove the cheesecake from the base of the pan.

Cheesecake filling:

1 lb (or 500g) ricotta cheese
1/2 lb (250 g) light cream cheese
1/2 c sugar ( I don't like this too sweet but you can use more if you like)
1/2 - 3/4 cup of light sour cream or low fat plain yogurt
3 eggs
zest of one lemon
juice of one lemon

Allow ricotta cheese, cream cheese, and eggs to sit a room temperature for several hours. Then mix everything together in a food processor, adding eggs one at a time, until smooth. Or mix in a bowl, beating until very smooth. Pour over crust and bake in a 350 degrees F (or 180 degrees C) oven for 45 to 55 minutes until top is light brown but still jiggly in the centre. Let cool on a rack for two hours, then 6 hours in the refrigerator before decorating.

Raspberry Topping:

Two cups of raspberries, fresh or whole unsugared frozen berries
1/3 c sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water
2 tsp lemon juice

In a saucepan heat berries and sugar till begin to boil, about 3 - 5 minutes. At this point strain or not ( I always leave in seeds), mix cornstarch with cold water and pour into boiling mixture and whisk to mix. Heat until no longer cloudy and thickened. Cool completely then smooth over the top of the cheesecake and decorate with fresh or defrosted whole berries.


To join Saturday Photo Hunters just click on the icon on my side bar and the blogroll for the group is also there.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Cruising in General, Yesterday and Today

Perhaps many of you have been on a cruise. It seems to me that I was one of the last amongst my friends to actually take up cruising, in the modern sense of the word. For I always considered that only old people went on cruises. Young people went on much more adventuresome travels, as we did. So the first cruise my husband and I took was to Alaska, to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, just six years ago and when we were both age appropriate senior citizens.

But in actual fact, we both had travelled separately by ship many years before that. Before I knew him, in 1957, A sailed from Sydney to Vancouver and then on to Ottawa by train where he spent two years as a post doctoral fellow, before sailing on the Cunard Line to London, England. But that's his story to tell, mine is below.

You see, when I was 24, I set sail from Sydney, Australia to travel by ship to Southampton, England via the Suez Canal. It seemed obligatory for young Australians to travel to Great Britain, to spend some time on a working holiday. It was almost a rite of passage, like leaving home. Since Sydney had a severe housing shortage for very many years after the war, young people always lived at home until they got married or they went travelling. So after I had graduated from University in 1957 and saved every penny for two years, I left home intending to travel to London to combine working and travelling in the UK and on the Continent. After that it was my plan to visit a friend who had married a Canadian and was living in Toronto, then finally return to Australia and open a pharmacy. Ah well, "the best laid schemes of mice and men are apt to go astray", from the Robbie Burns poem and rather loosely paraphrased by me.

In March of 1960, I boarded the SS Fairsky, of the Sitmar line, to make my first voyage. Built in 1942, this ship served as an escort aircraft carrier during the Second World War and was refitted to be a passenger ship in 1957. The Sitmar line held the contract for transporting emigrants from Great Britain to Australia for the heavily government subsidized amount of 10 pounds per person but on the return journey took regular paying passengers. I can't remember how much I paid for the fare, although about 200 pounds rings a bell, however it was much cheaper than flying which was only done by very rich people in those days.

This ship, seen above, was 502 feet long, 69 feet wide, gross tonnage was 12,464, top speed 17.5 knots and had accommodation for 1461 passengers and I don't know how many crew since I can't find that information.

Compare this with the Zaandam, the ship I just sailed on to Alaska: 780 feet long, 105.8 feet wide, gross tonnage 61,396, top speed 23 knots and accommodation for 1432 passengers and 647 crew members.

Yes folks, the Zaandam is five times the size of the Fairsky, with almost the same number of passengers. So a slightly different sailing experience, don't you think? Yes indeed. I shared a cabin with 3 other women; there were two sets of double bunks. I have included a link here to show you that cabin. Although I'm pretty sure we didn't have a porthole as this one shows, but remember it as an inside cabin. Toilet and shower facilities were communal, of course.
Above you see a photo of me, at 24, in my slim days and dressed in my favourite dress at the time, and of course wearing a hat, as ladies always did at that time, for all occasions. One of the wonderful things about a ship's departure in those days was that all your friends could come down to visit the ship and when it left those on board threw streamers to those on the wharf. A band always played "Now is the hour", a New Zealand song, originally sung to the New Zealand soldiers leaving for the First World War. You both held on to those streamers until they broke and of course everyone cried because this was a very big journey you were setting out on and who knew when you would see your loved ones again. Just reading the words below brought tears to my eyes.

Now is the hour,
when we must say goodbye
Soon you'll be sailing,
far across the sea.
While you're away,
Oh please remember me.
When you return,
you'll find me waiting here

This voyage was scheduled to last for five weeks and it took at least a week for people to gain their sea legs. Luckily I was not sea sick although more than half the passengers were in the beginning. We stopped first at Melbourne, then Adelaide and I remember by this time feeling woozy when we went ashore since we had adjusted to the motion of the ship and now felt land sick instead.

So what did we do all day on the ship of 1960? Although I was travelling on my own, I knew one person on the ship, the brother of one of my fellow pharmacy students at University. But pretty soon we had formed a group of about 10 or so and we lazed away the days between ports, sitting around the tiny pool, playing cards, eating rather ordinary meals and generally filling in time. There were very long stretches at sea, ten days between Adelaide and Colombo, Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known at that time. To be honest, a lot of the time we were bored silly. There was no entertainment except at night, when a very hum drum band played for dancing. The quickstep and the foxtrot, the popular dances of the time, had never been mastered by me and I wasn't a drinker so basically I was just wishing for time to pass so that we could arrive. I did click with two other girls and we decided to find a flat (apartment for the North Americans) together in London on our arrival.

We made several quite interesting stops along the way. Colombo as I said, although I don't remember that too well, apart from buying a sari which I later gave away as a gift. Then at the bottom of the Suez Canal, at Suez, we disembarked and took a trip to Cairo for the day to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza and to visit the Cairo Museum, where we saw the Tutankhamen treasures, all covered with dust and scattered higgeldy piggeldy in glass cases. They were much more beautifully displayed when they toured North America, many years later, when I got to see them again in their full glory. We also got to ride extremely bad tempered camels, all of which seemed to be named Jack Straw. Finally, at Port Said, we rejoined the ship which had been wending its way up the canal in the meantime.

Our last stop before Southampton was in Naples where we left the ship to visit Pompeii for the day. This too was interesting, although probably more so today because I believe much more of the site has been excavated. One of my favourite books as a teenager was The Last Days of Pompeii, by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, which I know is considered to be very badly written, but I loved this story of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Do you know I still have the book to this day? The most momentous thing I remember about this trip was that the guides would not let the women in the party into one of the few excavated buildings which had been a brothel. You see the frescoes were not fit for maidenly consumption. Remember it was 1960, and as usual I was mightily incensed, but to no avail.

Finally, we reached Southampton and my long voyage from Australia was at an end. To my mind, it was about two weeks too long, for I enjoyed the first three weeks and endured the last two. After that I took to flying, no matter that it cost more. I had had my fill of sailing by boat for many years to come.

In case you are interested the Fair Sky caught fire and was scrapped in 1979. But from 1942 to 1979 she had a very interesting career with at least half a dozen names changes and as well as being an aircraft carrier and a cruise ship she was waiting to be transformed into a floating hotel and casino when she caught fire.

Next time, I'll tell you about modern cruising where there is so much entertainment and so much food that it has become an entirely different experience from my first "cruise".

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ketchikan -- Salmon Capital of the World

Well when you expect the worst, you can often be pleasantly surprised and today Ketchikan surprised me. We awoke to a day that was bright and while not sunny we decided to leave our umbrellas on the ship. At the tourist bureau, right in front of the dock, we picked up a walking tour map and set off to see what Ketchikan had to offer its visitors. We have been here before so we knew to head off for the area called Creek Street, which runs by the Ketchikan Creek. This area was the "red light" area from 1903 for half a century, but now is home to galleries, delightful shops and a museum or two, in reconstructed or refurbished buildings on stilts which line the boardwalk by the side of the creek.

But let me tell you a little about the town of Ketchikan. Situated in the temperate rain forest, on an island , it is quite hilly, except for a long flat area along the shore of the Tongass Narrows, and is sandwiched between the water and the surrounding mountains. Many houses are linked by long wooden staircases, which often actually are named as if they are streets. Nicknamed the "first city", it is often the first port the northbound ships visit in Alaska. Today there were four cruise ships in the harbour, with two at the dock and at anchor offshore and delivering their passengers to the shore by "tender".

Originally a Tlingit summer camp, the first white settlers were Russians here for the fur trade. Later mining and salmon fishing were the big industries but as mining faded forestry arose and then finally tourism became a huge part of the town's economy. The ever present jewellery stores which cater to the cruise ship passengers abound but amongst these are galleries and stores which display beautiful native artwork along with carved ivory and whalebone figures.

As we wandered along the boardwalk lining the Ketchikan Creek, the weak sun began to shine. A favourite spot there is the small museum called Dolly's house, originally the home and workplace of one of the town�s famous prostitutes. Outside women dressed in period costume invite you to enter and tour the tiny house. We passed on by since we have been before and there was a crowd. The stores along the creek are very interesting and different from the downtown area. I talked to a native woman in an Alaskan artisan gallery where I bought some small gifts. She told me that she had been the artist in residence aboard the Zaandam one summer, demonstrating basket weaving and said it was a wonderful experience.

We stopped for quite a while to watch the creek which has a series of small rapids. We watched two very large salmon making their way up the creek, pausing to rest in the pool below the rapids and then finally making it over. Did I get this on film? I did not, of course. Well it was a little far away, but I was too busy watching and forgot to turn on my camera. However a man in a red kayak came paddling along so I took several shots of him. At the end of the boardwalk there is a tiny funicular leading to a lodge at the top, however we opted to walk the winding trail through the trees which leads to the same lodge at the top. The trail is named the Married Man�s Trail, a secret escape route from the Creek Street bordello area. At there top there is a beautiful view of the town below and the Tongass Narrows.

Descending again we visited the Tongass Historical Museum which has a small display of old photos of the town, mining paraphernalia and some very old native tools and implements from the area.

Around the town are situated half a dozen totem poles; these are modern examples of the poles which once proliferated in the area, poles which are common in the Pacific Northwest native culture from Washington state and north.

So what exactly are totem poles? They represent the history of the people who had no written history. They are typically carved in western red cedar, which decomposes from the inside to the outside and they slowly rot due to the damp climate, lasting about 60 to 70 years. They are carved lying horizontally and are raised with great ceremony, usually at a potlatch feast which is characterized by the host giving away many of his possessions. In the native culture the pole was raised and allowed to rot into the underground. The carvings on the pole were for different reasons, some to depict legends or story poles, some to honour a deceased person, called mortuary poles and some just honouring some momentous event.

The golden age of totem poles was in the latter half of the 19th century, around 1860, mainly due to the increased wealth of the native bands due to the fur trade and the iron tools acquired from the white man and the newly available artificial pigments for painting.

Missionaries discouraged totem poles due to thinking they were worshipped, which of course they were not. Consequently few poles were carved between 1880 and 1970. In 1960 a local project was undertaken to collect the remaining poles from the abandoned villages, but sadly only 44 were found, with only 33 being salvageable. The Totem Heritage Centre was founded in 1976 to house these poles and the modern carving tradition was resurrected. Inside the centre stand five magnificent poles, more than 100 years old, badly weathered with little colour remaining. In another room are displayed bits and pieces of poles along with photos of how they appeared in their original sites. The centre also provides courses in other native art forms and they are helping to keep alive these artistic traditions.

We slowly made our way back to the ship and by this time the day had become a perfect sunny spring day. I wished that we had taken some sort of boat tour, since I saw people getting onto a boat to head out who knows where. However there wasn't enough time left so we retreated to the deck and enjoyed sitting and watching life in Ketchikan go by from the ship.

Today, our last day at sea before reaching Vancouver, I'm sitting by the window in the library and I have seen several humpback whales. Usually you see the spouting first followed by the large body rounding out of the water, then more spouting and finally the tail fluke disappearing under the water.

Later I'll post about cruising in general and life aboard this huge vessel.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Glacier Bay -- Land of Sweet Peace

Today I leave the history lessons behind, although not entirely, and concentrate on Nature once again. This morning our ship arrived at the entrance to Glacier Bay, one of the last real wilderness areas on the planet.

Glacier Bay is a 65 mile long, Y-shaped fjord off the Inside Passage, just a little way from Skagway. In 1794, Captain Vancouver sailed to the entrance and met a wall of ice, the Grand Pacific Glacier. This was just 50 years or so since the last mini Ice Age had peaked around 1750, and since that time the glacier has retreated 65 miles creating Glacier Bay in the process. This area has the fastest retreating glaciers in the world and one of the wonderful things is that it has enabled scientists to study the renewal of the land and sea area after such a rapid retreat.

Now first of all, what is a glacier? We all learned in school that a glacier is a river of ice. Well, that's about all I learned and I never really understood much about them at all. High in the mountains, where huge amounts of snow fall, and where it does not all melt in the summer time, this snow accumulates and packs down. Under the increasing pressure of new layers it is transformed into ice, typically blue in colour due to the crystal structure of the ice. When the cirque or area between the mountains, which is roughly bowl shaped becomes full the ice begins to overflow at the lowest point of the cirque, just like lava running down the side of a volcano. Thus begins the flow of the glacier and as it moves the tremendous forces gather rocks and boulders and incorporate these into the ice. The rate of movement of each glacier is different, depending on the pressure at the source. Tidewater glaciers, where they run down to the sea, are very impressive sights and ar
e often hundreds of feet high, with an equal depth below the water. Large chunks, often as big as large buildings, fall off into the sea with tremendous noise in a process known as calving. These bobbing icebergs float along the surface until finally they melt and the area around a glacier is often covered with fresh water which floats on top of the salt water. Smaller chunks fall off and they serve as favourite haul-out places for harbour seals and sea lions.

So, on this grey overcast day, we navigated up the bay, amazing at the incredible scenery of the snow covered mountains rising out of the bay, with softened rounded rocky edges at the lower reaches due to having been ground down by the glacier. This whole huge area surrounding Glacier Bay is designated as Glacier Bay National Park and in addition it has been designated a World Heritage Site. This morning we took on board a park ranger from the area who narrated over the load speaker system throughout the day the highlights of what we were seeing, as well as the history of the area.

There are basically twelve tidewater glaciers in the bay and we passed by several and stopped at others. One, the John Hopkins Glacier, is out of bounds to cruise ships since the harbour seals calve at this time of the year on the pieces of ice that fall off that glacier. The seal population is decreasing for some reason so every chance is given to them to reproduce undisturbed. We spent most time before the two very different glaciers at the top of the bay. One, the Marjorie Glacier, has a spectacular blue cast and remains fairly pristine. It travels very fast, up to 6 to 8 feet per day and so does not pick up the rubble that slower moving glaciers do. Adjacent to it is the Grand Pacific Glacier which had receded from the mouth of the bay back into Canada but it has recently advanced again into Alaska, pushing and grinding all kinds of debris before it and thus its face is black.

We spent a lot of time on the deck, ever hopeful that a huge chunk of ice would fall off but there were only one or two or three small falls. It was bitterly cold so we were well bundled up and I took lots of photos but the day was very grey so who knows what they may be like. We also saw several seals in the water plus a few sea lions. Black kittywakes were in abundance as there is a colony of about 3000 who nest there. Several people, including the ranger, saw mountain goats early this morning, but we missed that as we were not yet out on the deck.

One of the things that the ranger pointed out to us while we were going up the bay was how the vegetation changed. Nearer the mouth of the bay were spruce, giving way to alder and cottonwoods and then stunted willows and finally the mosses and lichens that start the regeneration process after the retreat of the glaciers.

After we left the two glaciers the ranger gave a talk in the lounge about the abundant wildlife in the area. Whales are often seen at the entrance to the bay and the marine life is very diverse with seals, sea otters and sea lions. In the bay kelp has colonized itself and small schools of fish and larger fish provide plenty of sustenance to the food chain. Moose, mountain goats and brown bear are abundant on land, having populated the area as the land regenerated.

This area has been home to the Hoonah Tlingit Indian band for 12,000 years and their history tells of being chased out of their settlements by the advancing glaciers. A young lady member of this tribe also gave a talk today about how they have lived off the land and sea for all those years in this inhospitable region.

The lady park ranger, who has worked in this region for the past 13 years, emphasized what a special region this is. She kept speaking about this last bastion of "sweet peace" and it certainly came across that way to me.

As we slowly sailed up the bay looking at the seemingly lifeless landscape we felt that here was an opportunity to get away from the daily scurry of life and appreciate how nature has its own cycle and how in this place we have no effect on it. We just come to observe and wonder at it all and enjoy the "sweet peace" that we find here.

Join me tomorrow in Ketchikan, one of the rainiest places on this continent, with a average rainfall of 160 inches per annum. Mmm, I wonder if I'll need my umbrella.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!

Those four words, well one word repeated four times, were the headlines in the newspapers which announced the discovery of gold near Dawson City, in the Yukon Territory of Canada, in August of 1896. Subsequently 100,000 people from 33 countries followed their dreams of finding gold by taking part in the Klondike gold rush of 1897 and 1898. But how did you get there? Why by boat from Seattle or San Francisco, finally landing at the top of the Inside Passage in Alaska, then hiking 33 miles over the mountains and down to Bennett Lake, where you built your boat and sailed down the Yukon River and into Dawson City.

How do I know all this, you say. Well today Skagway is part of a National Historical Park and we went to the Park Services offices where we watched a film chronicling the great Klondike Gold Rush and later we had a guided walk around the historic part of town with a US ranger who regaled us with the history and anecdotes of the glory days of Skagway. There were only six of us on the tour and the ranger did an excellent job. He was a bit of a ham actor, but in a very nice way and only at the end, when he thanked us for coming, did he tell us that this was the very first tour he had given here in Skagway, as he had recently transferred from the park service in Richmond, Virginia.

Now, at the top of the Inside Passage, were two small settlements. One was Dyea, where the Tlingit Indians controlled the 33 mile long Chilkoot trade route over the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon River. From here thousands of gold seekers toiled up the famous Golden Stairs, a climb of 1000 ft over 1/4 mile, not once but 20 to 40 times, shuttling on their backs, 50 pounds at a time, the ton of food ( a year's supply) and equipment required before the Northwest Mounted Police allowed entry into Canada. Skagway, the other port, grew from a population of 5 homesteaders to a tent city of 10,000 overnight. From Skagway, the White Pass route was the longer by ten miles but slightly less arduous and the summit was lower. One stampeder, who had made the journey over both passes, said, "It didn't matter which one you took, you'd wished you had taken the other."

Since Skagway was a better port it soon became the "Gateway to the Klondike", a bustling city with 80 to 100 saloons, one church, three breweries, many brothels and businesses supplying services to the miners. In a matter of months, the tent city gave way to wooden buildings and wooden sidewalks and it literally turned into a lawless frontier town as opportunists conceived schemes to part the miners from their money. The most infamous of these scoundrels was Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith who set up a telegraph scheme, offering to send messages from miners and even concocting replies supposedly received over his non existent telegraph service. After he was shot by a disgruntled man he had cheated and after a group of British investors began building a railroad over the White Pass, Skagway settled into a more normal existence. However, by the completion of the railway to the top of the pass in 1899, and finally to Whitehorse in 1900, the rush was over. The opening of the railway sounded the death knell for Dyea, which ultimately was abandoned. So few people made their fortunes in this mad enterprise but many people made this journey into the wilderness with hopes of a better future for themselves and their families. While they did not find gold many said they would do it all over again regardless.

The Skagway of today is a town of 400 people who overwinter here, with an increase in population to 800 during the summer, when seasonal businesses open for the tourist season and the cruise ship arrivals. The town has preserved its 1898 look, with buildings lovingly restored and the sidewalks are still made of wood. Even new buildings are constructed to fit in with the flavour of the old town and it is a perfectly charming town to visit. It is totally surrounded by snowcovered mountains and the weather is usually good as the rainfall is very low for the region. Today was fine, although there was a bitter wind coming up the sound making the 8 degree celsius or 51 degree fahrenheit temperature feel like below freezing. We spent our time visiting the museum and some of the stores which have beautiful Alaskan artwork. One gallery in particular had very beautiful carvings in soapstone and whalebone. There were many fine museum quality pieces and since it was not busy, the gallery owner was very happy to discuss some of the pieces with me. I would be very happy to own many of the pieces if I could afford them and I didn't already have a house full of "stuff" that I have acquired over many years. In any town visited by cruise ships there are always many stores selling high class jewellery and watches and Skagway is no different in that. However these hold no interest for me and I like to follow the history and look at the local art work, even if I do not buy any.

The White Pass and Yukon Route railway operated as an integral part of the economy of Skagway, providing the means to bring goods, mainly minerals, in and out of the Yukon until 1982 when the route was suspended due to the closure of a large mine in the Yukon. However the summer tourist industry continued to grow and the railway was reopened in 1989 as a summer excursion route. Last time we came to Skagway we took this incredible three hour round trip train ride through the majestic mountainous countryside to the summit and back. It makes you appreciate what difficulties those stampeders had to overcome to make that journey at the end of the nineteenth century. A journey that 100,000 started but only 30,000 succeeded in making.

But such is the power of the lure of gold. So many left their homes, their jobs and their families and set out with such hopes and dreams, and so few had those dreams fulfilled. While 30,000 people actually reached the gold fields, about 4000 found gold and only a few hundred struck it rich, with a mere handful keeping their fortunes. This is a story that has been repeated over and over throughout history, but one that still fascinates us all, no matter where it took place.

Join me tomorrow for the next episode in my cruise to Alaska.

Whale Watching among Other Things

Grey skies and falling rain was the prediction for today and sure enough that's what we awoke to this morning. However as the morning progressed the rain stopped but the mist hovered around the ship. Not so great for photography, although I did snap some photos of the scenery as we passed. By the time we arrived in Juneau, the capital of the state of Alaska, the weather had lightened considerably.

Juneau, a city that is home to 30,000 people, is situated on a strip on land bordered by the water the saltwater Gastineau Channel on one side and the mountains and the Mendenhall Glacier on the other. So, although there are roads within the borough, it is inaccessible except by air or sea. Of course gold was the reason for its foundation around 1880 and mining propelled its growth until World War II when it became uneconomical to continue production.

On arrival we were bused to the boat for our whale watching and wildlife quest. The boat was a small speedy vessel with wraparound windows for good viewing and outdoor decks for when you need to take photos of wildlife or for sunny days. Since it was a very cold day we spent most of the time indoors. Our first wildlife sighting was of two bald eagles sitting high up on the tops of two tall evergreens. Now bald eagles are interesting but I'm rather blasé about them because I see them all the time in Vancouver. However most of the passengers were quite excited and took copious pictures. Then we were underway and finally we caught sight of a humpback whale spouting on the surface. The boat came to a stop to watch but did not approach too closely since they do not wish to disturb the wildlife. Of course, in theory I agree totally with this, but in reality I would love to approach much more closely. As I said before, humpbacks summer in Alaska and migrate to give birth
in Hawaii or Mexico. Since the food there is so scarce for the whales they basically go five months without food and by the time they have arrived back in Alaska they have lost 40% of their considerable weight which is normally 35 tons for a female, with their average length being 49 feet. Humpback whales do not have teeth but baleen, which hangs from the roof of their mouths like vertical blinds. They gulp huge amounts of water which they then express through the baleen leaving behind the trapped fish and krill which they then swallow. During the summer feeding season they may consume over a ton of food a day.

But back to our humpback whale who was blowing and preparing to dive. They blow six or seven times and then on the last blow they hump their backs finally displaying their flukes or tail and then dive deeply for five to ten minutes to feed before they resurface to breath. All this our whale did several times while we stopped and watched. After a half hour we continued on our way, passing the various islands in the channel and seeing the most gorgeous rainbow, which I duly photographed. The channel is filled with large and small islands and the scenery was beautiful even though it was partly overcast with a watery sun breaking through every now and again.

During one of the sunny periods we came across a favourite haul-out place for Steller sea lions where fifty or so were lying around on the rocks, sunning themselves with lots of jockeying for the best position. Nearby, perhaps thirty feet away, was a dead sea lion and standing on the rock above was a bald eagle along with an immature one, who no doubt had been feeding on the carcass. A mature bald eagle is a magnificent looking bird while a young one is a rather large bird of an all over mottled brown colour which they retain until they are four or five years old. They mate for life and nest in the same nest every year, which they add to each year and over time becomes very large. One of the islands in the channel is known to have over 900 bald eagle nests along the shoreline as well as a huge population of brown bears, which are sadly very shy and we did not see any as we passed by.

On our return to the dock we again passed our humpback whale and stopped to watch it for a while but that was the sum total of our wildlife watching for the day, some bald eagles, some Steller sea lions and a humpback whale. However I did enjoy the experience, for I am very easily pleased by an afternoon on the water and the sight of a few animals or birds in the wilderness, which Alaska surely is.

At the dock we boarded a bus for the Mendenhall Glacier, which is a few miles out of the centre of Juneau. By this time the rain had returned so we bundled up to visit the glacier and the excellent visitor centre. This glacier, which is 1 1/2 miles wide and 150 feet high at the face, arises in the Juneau Ice Fields which span both Alaska and British Columbia. It is 12 miles long and it takes 80 years for a section of the glacier to travel these twelve miles. Like most glaciers in Alaska it is receding even though 100 feet of snow fall annually on the ice fields. We toured the visitor centre and watched an interesting short film about this famous glacier.

Of course I took masses of photos, but due to the less than stellar weather conditions, I will probably delete most of them after downloading. Hopefully you are enjoying sharing my trip and I am not boring your sox off. I can't even promise you great photos when I return! Tomorrow we visit Skagway, gateway to the Yukon Gold Rush

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Alaska -- on the way

Yesterday, our embarkation day, was a lovely sunny spring day in Vancouver and after arriving at the Zaandam in the early afternoon, we spent a few hours on the deck,watching the activity on the harbour. The ship was docked at the pier of the downtown Convention Centre, near a little cove off the main harbour, called Coal Harbour. Many small float planes took off and landed there and it was a beautiful sight to see them roar across the surface of the water and soar into the air, banking around to head out of the harbour while outlined against the backdrop of the still snow-covered mountains which rise out of the Vancouver harbour.

Due to a problem with a lifeboat which needed a repair, we did not leave the dock until 8 pm, three hours later than scheduled, so instead of being on deck, we were actually at dinner when we departed. However, we were very fortunate to have been assigned a splendid table in the dining room, right by the window, at the rear of the ship. So we dined well while seeing a different view of the harbour which we know and love so well. At our table were some New Zealanders who were happy that we were able to point out to them some of the points of local interest.

Of course, besides the magnificent scenery we expect to see on this cruise, we are looking forward, as always, to see the distinctive wildlife of the region, while on this cruise. Everyone knows we are animal freaks and I have talked about this before on my blog, how we visit all the zoos and aquaria we come across in our travels. So this morning, on our way to breakfast, we were very excited to see two orcas or killer whales travelling along in the same direction as the ship. At the time, we were sailing through the Johnson Strait, which is well known for orcas. There is a pod of about 40 orcas which live there permanently. and this pod has been very well studied for many years, including their vocalizations and with all the members being named and identified, including their family trees. One of the males was first photographed in 1964 and he is still seen there. We soon left them behind but later on we saw probably fifty or so dolphins off the side of the ship.

This afternoon we attended a talk given by the naturalist on the ship, called "Fins, Flukes and Feathers", which was extremely interesting, with many slides of the wildlife that he has taken himself on his many trips as a shipboard naturalist. I am not going to bore you with the whole thing, but I will tell you some things that I hope might interest you. Every one mistakenly thinks that there is more interesting marine life in warmer waters than in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest Coast, but in actual fact cold water contains more entrapped oxygen and consequently the marine biological diversity here is enormous. The cold Japanese Current crosses the Pacific and at about the border between Canada and the United States, it splits into two circles, one going clockwise and stretching down to northern California and the other going counter clockwise and swirling around up to and around the Gulf of Alaska. Consequently the water temperature is a fairly consistent 13-
15 degrees Celsius and this allows an abundance of marine life which produces the food chain all up to the larger marine mammals like the grey whales which migrate from the Baja and Southern California and the humpback whales which migrate from Hawaii, both of which come to feed here in the summer.

I'm just going to talk about one other marine animal, which is unique to the area which stretches from the islands off the coast of Russia, across the Gulf of Alaska and all the way down to California. Everyone loves this animal, unofficially known as the teddy bear of the sea. Yes, folks, it's the sea otter. That adorable animal which floats on its back with its light grey furry head sticking inquisitively out of the water along with its feet which have no fur. Although they were almost hunted to extinction, they have been protected since 1911, the first animal to be given official government protection and they have made a tremendous comeback. Since they have no blubber their bodies are kept warm by their incredibly thick fur, which they are constantly grooming and supposedly the fur has 1 million hairs per square inch compared to a dog which has 6-8000 hairs per square inch. These animals are not exactly small but can reach up to 4 or 5 feet in length, and with their
incredibly high metabolism they are required to consume 25% of their body weight every day. Their food consists of sea urchins, crabs and clams and, of course, they are the animals who have adapted for their use a very primitive tool, using rocks to crack open the shells on their chests.

Just before I left Vancouver there was a video, taken at Vancouver aquarium, uploaded to YouTube, doing the rounds of the internet, in which two otters are floating around on their backs holding hands. Hopefully this is the link. I think you will enjoy it, keep watching until the end.

Tomorrow we land in Juneau, and we are splashing out and taking a tour of the Mendenhall Glacier followed by a whale watching trip, guaranteed to see whales. Well it should because it's costing a fortune. I'm now crossing my fingers and toes and eyes, literally of course, that this post will appear on my blog. If it does, there will be more tomorrow, if it doesn't I will have wasted the other fortune that I spent to get this internet access.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


Today we set off on a cruise on this ship, the Zaandam, which you can see here, sailing out of the Vancouver harbour, past Stanley Park, with the skyline in the background.

This is not the first time we've been to Alaska. However, although many cruises depart from Vancouver to Alaska throughout the summer season, I really had no interest in going until I discovered the Alaskan author, Dana Stabenow.

Somehow or other, in those mystery novels she writes, she showed me the great love that those who live in Alaska feel for that very special state. I can't remember the first book of hers that I read, for, usually, as soon as I discover an author I like, I read and often buy their backlist. But of that first book I remember several unrelated things. The first is that a single engined Cessna is as easy to drive as a car. Since there are few roads in Alaska, and in any event many of them are impassible for a good part of the year, travel by plane is just as common as going by car in the lower 48 states. The second was that, since for the fishing industry a period for fishing allowed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, called an "opening," can be as short as four hours, it's essential to know where the fish are. Spotter planes go out searching for the fish before the opening and radio the location so that the fleet can be right there and not miss any fishing time in travel. For some reason, those two things held great interest for me. As well there were great descriptions of Denali National Park and I was bound and determined that I would go to Alaska to see this place for myself.

So the following spring, 2001, for our 40th wedding anniversary, we took a combined cruise- land tour to Alaska, a seven day cruise from Vancouver to Seward with a five day land tour of the southeast part of the State. During the cruising we saw the marvelous glaciers up close and personal and lots of the wildlife of the region. We visited several towns on the panhandle, which are similar in aspect to British Columbia but everything became different when we came to Seward.

We travelled through the incredibly beautiful countryside, still covered with snow because it was May. We stopped to visit an Alaskan native cultural centre on the way to stay at a lodge in Denali Park. From the lodge we had the most fabulous view of Mt McKinley or Denali, the "high one," as it is more commonly called, the highest mountain in North America, at 20,320 feet. Often this magnificent mountain is obscured for days at a time, so we were very fortunate that it was clear for the two days we stayed there.

The interesting thing about the landscape there was the strange evergreen trees which are so small with short branches, considering their age. Because the depth of available soil is so shallow and the growing season is so short, these trees make very little growth during a season. There were all kinds of different evergreens, from pine, fir and spruce, with the Sitka spruce being the official state tree, and the Alaska paper birch was a very common sight.

While staying at the lodge we took a trip to visit the kennel of a breeder of sled dogs, which was fun. This breeder always ran a team in the Iditarod Trail dog sled race, the best know dog sled race in the world. Covering 11oo miles, the approximate distance from Los Angeles to Seattle, and lasting from 9 to 15 days, it takes place every March and commemorates the run to take diphtheria serum from Anchorage to Nome during an epidemic in 1925.

This breeder had 75 dogs, all barking and jumping about, although they were chained to their kennels. He did take some dogs out for us to demonstrate and introduced us to his special lead dogs. However these dogs are not house dogs, but working dogs and they live to run. He gave each of us a little velcro dog bootie, used by the dogs in especially cold weather and I still have it to this day. The amazing thing is that women compete equally with men in this race and are often winners. In actual fact, the breeder alternated with his wife, competing only every second year. The great musher, Susan Butcher, who sadly died from leukemia in 2006, won the race an amazing four times out of five years between 1986 an 1990, finishing second in 1989, in the fifth race.

After we left the lodge, we took a scenic train ride on the Midnight Sun Express, a domed railcar which passed through some of the most beautiful scenery you can imagine. From Fairbanks we flew back to Vancouver, having thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Alaska.

Above, you see the route we will travel on this seven days cruise, sailing the Inside Passage to the panhandle of Alaska: to Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, all located on the panhandle, which is the narrow strip of land adjacent to British Columbia, and back to Vancouver.

I am planning to post via email to my blog while I'm away. Unfortunately you cannot include images in email postings, but I hope I can give you some idea of the beauty and splendor of the area and post photos when I return. Plan A. Well there is no plan B. If I can't manage it, you will hear from me in a week when I return. Happy blogging while I'm gone.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Book Circulation Day -- Theft

I'm posting early for this topic, since I will be away when the exchange for Book Circulation Group takes place, however I passed this book on to my friend when we met with her and her husband for dinner last Saturday.

Theft, a Love Story, by Peter Carey, two time Booker Prize winner. Let me tell you a little about this book, although I don't want to be a spoiler of the very complicated plot.

Michael "Butcher" Boone, is a formerly well-known and feted Australian painter, fallen on hard times due to drinking and a very bad divorce. Just released from prison, he is guardian to his mentally challenged brother, Hugh "Slow" Boone and together they are living in a house owned by his patron, while Butcher tries to resume painting. Into their lives sweeps Marlene Leibovitz, the beautiful daughter-in-law of the great fictional artist Jacques Leibovitz.

She and Butcher fall in love and the normal love-hate relationship between the two brothers is set akilter, since Hugh is also very taken with her. The story moves from Australia to Japan where Marlene has arranged a show for Butcher's work which is a complete sell-out before the opening, all to one man. Unbeknownst to Butcher, this is the beginning of an art scam set up by Marlene and the scene moves to New York where Butcher is finally drawn into the scheme as an active participant. Hugh is brought from Australia to New York by Olivier Leibovitz, Marlene's husband and there the story unfolds to an unexpected conclusion. Returning to Australia, Butcher and Hugh begin a different kind of life and Carey reveals to his readers the final twist in the art scam.

I found this a very cleverly-told, complex story. Narrated in the first person, from the alternating points of view of Butcher and Hugh, the story is revealed slightly differently in each case, as Hugh is not quite as "slow" as everyone imagines and he is often more astute and sees things more clearly than Butcher. In this book, Peter Carey gives an interesting picture of many facets of the art world. He is indeed a great wordsmith, however one with a quirky twist to his writing which I enjoyed. While the main characters are engaging, they are not portrayed very attractively, except for Marlene, the con woman and art thief.

I found the denouement to be quite surprising but believable. I think I can recommend it, but I'm glad I didn't buy this book. How's that for a half-hearted recommendation? Maybe a 7 out of 10?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Saturday Photo Hunt --- Childhood

Well my childhood is a very, very long time ago. In addition I have lived in two countries since I left my homeland so I just have a couple of photos. But I found a very old one of my first grade class of 1942, at a school in a suburb of Sydney. Notice all the girls in dresses, accompanied by their dolls! How about the number of children in the class? 33! Quite a few by today's standards! Oh and that's me, second from the right in the front row.

Now a picture from my child's childhood. My 44 year old son, in his childhood, at about 15 months, along with his father, at Cannon Beach in Oregon, playing in and eating the sand and generally enjoying himself.

If you wish to join the Saturday Photo Hunters click on the widget in my sidebar and follow the link. The PH blogroll appears there too.