Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Gift of Kodiak

South-central Alaska from space - Kodiak is in the foreground
So, for nearly two weeks now I've been in Alaska.

I have two active research projects in Alaskan marine biology, and although almost all of the work is analysis and writing that I can do from Galactic, I occasionally need face time with my Alaskan colleagues.  That's what brought me up here.  I've been catching up with old friends and colleagues and colleagues who are also friends while Alisa gets to stay back in the tiny private marina in Stanley, boatschooling both boys and generally keeping ahead of them without any adult backup.

Sorry, babe.

The gift of Kodiak
The groups that fund my research are keen for the work they support to be presented to the general public.  "Science outreach" they call it, and I'm generally a fan of the process.  Most of my work is funded by public money, and I'm happy to report directly back to the public on what comes out of that work.

On this trip I made some public presentations in Kodiak, the commercial fishing town in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska that we sailed away from eight and a half years ago.  I stayed with old friends, I revisited old haunts, I caught up on the news.  I took a banya, which is a requirement for any bona fide visit to Kodiak.

Kodiak, the island, is a completely remarkable place.  Kodiak, the town (it sometimes puts on airs and calls itself a City), is physically unimpressive.  To be charitable.  More often than not, it comes across as a grimy working town, a supremely utilitarian settlement that hasn't been prettified for visitors in the few hundred years it has existed.  It can be especially ugly during a winter like the one we're having, with a strong Niño creating a grey, oppressive, rainy winter completely devoid of the white magic of a snowy Alaskan landscape.

Even though Kodiak is a working town, it can also be a hard place to make a living in.  There are plenty of people who are just getting by in Kodiak.  People warn me that methamphetamine and heroin use are strongly on the upsurge.  Acquaintances mutter uncomplementary things about the schools.  My male friends in the town have generally aged quite hard in the years that we've been gone.

For all that, Alisa and I are very excited at the idea of eventually sailing back to Kodiak and settling down.  It remains home.  It's the only place in Alaska where we still have a strong community.  And that community is made up of some very remarkable people.  Kodiak, like the rest of Alaska, attracts fantastic people.

All that, I suppose, gets at what I was thinking about when I titled this post.

Kodiak is a magical place that has the extra magic of never making you think that magic will play a role in your life.

Kodiak is a unique place with a supremely everyday reality that tempers my expectations even as I'm excited at the idea of sailing back there some day.  Kodiak is the place where Alisa and I have been lucky enough to run up against a handful of very remarkable people with whom we share the place.  (Check out the work of my favorite living Alaskan artist in the pic above.)

Kodiak, in the end, remains our secret place in Alaska, and the world, the place where Alisa and I still think we will go ashore some day and look to make a less peripatetic life with our boys.

Kodiak is a gift...

Alaska is a gift, too...we still have great friends sprinkled around non-Kodiak parts of the Great Land.  This pic is from the day DRR took me up to Hatcher Pass to find some snow.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Elias Shoots

King penguins
You'll excuse me if I talk about my oldest kid for a moment.

Elias is nine, and seems to be taking an unreasonable degree of delight from the life that he lucked into by being born the child of two marine biologists who were just about to set out on an open-ended sail on a smallish boat.

He has become our go-to for any questions of field identification when we spot a bird that is new to us.  He leafs through our field guides in his spare time and has a fantastic memory for what he reads.  I have learned not to voice my doubts too strongly when he expresses opinions on questions of range or plumage.  That memory is a counter-weight to his greatest weakness as a junior naturalist, which is an over-enthusiasm for making sightings of the unusual or note-worthy.

He is also finding a passion for wildlife photography and has long expressed the hope that one of his photos might be "good enough" for the blog or (forbid!) Cruising World.

The bird pics in this post are all his.

Rockhopper and tussac
Albatross chick and rockhopper chick
Many of these rockhopper penguin shots were taken on Westpoint Island in the Falklands, where Elias made a solo visit to the colony.

I woke with a migraine that day, so Galactic wasn't mobile.  Alisa was canning up the mutton that was hanging in the stern arch when we sailed away from Beaver Island.  So Elias set out on his own, hiking from the jetty at the settlement across the island to the combined albatross/rockhopper colony.

I love the image of his nine-year-old self, by himself, creeping slowly around the birds so as not to disturb them and taking pictures of what he saw.  The surf booming on the base of the cliffs, the wind in the tussac grass, the constant hullabaloo of the birds, and Elias, both excited to be taking it all in on his own and also comfortable in the knowledge that this is the sort of adventure that you have when you're nine.

Not to tell stories on him, but as I understand it he stopped to take a leak at one point, forgot to re-buckle his belt when finished, and somehow managed to lose the entire belt before he realized his mistake and went back to find it.  I love the combination that story tells - a kid who is still coming to grips with the basic mechanics of life who is also completely unfussed over the proposition of striding off to a penguin colony by himself.

Gentoo and sheep
Black-browed albatross
Elias is also something of a fire-eater when it comes to the selection of destinations for Galactic in the global South ("I've never been seasick in my life!").  He is dead keen on visiting South Georgia.

Stay tuned on that one.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

(No) Time For Travel

Gentoo penguins

Rockhopper penguin
Commerson's dolphins
So, we had this magical month in which we did nothing much more than sail around the Falkland Islands.

Before we set out on this endless-seeming trip of ours, when I'd talk to friends who had dipped into the world of long-term travel, this is what sounded so alluring to me: the idea of time to spend in this way.  Big chunks of it, applied to the pursuit of quixotic goals.

Tussac grass is a natural setting for childhood delight

The anchorages are kelpy!
Now that we're back in Stanley, that idyllic month seems very far away indeed.  The carefree month just gone, and the carefree month that we hope is coming up, are broken up by a period of mad boat prep and science work for me.

Alisa and I finished replacing a particularly difficult window at midnight last night, and then fell asleep at the saloon table, leaning on each other's shoulders.  We've replaced six shrouds on the boat, and gone out to tune the new rigging Falklands-style - beating up Stanley harbor with two reefs in the main and a scrap of jib.  I'm making new deadlights for windows that we aren't going to replace, and there's still the staysail forestay to replace if we get to it.  And the wind vane needs some attention.   And, no matter how much of these jobs I've gotten finished by the end of this week, I'm getting on a plane on Saturday to fly up to Alaska for a stint of in-person science work.

In the midst of all this, there is little time for travel.  We're tending our own various gardens for now, and not putting ourselves forward so much in Stanley.

Westpoint Island
Rockhopper penguin

Black-browed albatross
Preening rockhoppers
Like a turkey through the corn
Meanwhile, as you can see from these images, one of the delights of our time here has been the wildlife.  The albatross and various penguins are about as unconcerned with people as you could wish.  It's easy to find settings where it's just our family sitting next to a seabird colony, watching the show.  The boys have been in heaven.

And a magellanic penguin for variety.  They're burrow nesters. 
All of the land-based shots here were taken at Westpoint and Carcass Islands, where we were very warmly received by either the caretakers or owner.  We were free to just wander around and entertain ourselves on both islands - very much a travel experience, as opposed to the regimented experiences of tourism.

And Carcass offered us another chance to get up close with some elephant seals.  Wonderfully argumentative creatures, those.

OK.  I gotta go cut some more deadlights.