Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Barky move

Our planned two months afloat are coming fast upon us. In less than a month, we plan to be ready to cast off.

Less seasoned salts might faint at the prospect of having Galactic ready to go, after she spent a listless winter at the dock and we spent a far-from-listless winter, doing everything except boat maintenance.

Well, in some of my less seasoned moments, I have come close to fainting at the idea of having everything ready. But then I reminded Alisa that the dang boat just sailed safely from Hawai'i, for crying out loud, so how could she not be ready for a little jaunt around Alaska?

And then, with the happy excuse in hand of a visit from our good friend Mary Anne from Tasmania and her new-to-us beau Stu, we executed our long-adivsed plan for anyone finding themselves overwhelmed by insurmountable problems of boat maintenance.

We went for a sail.

It was great. We had a cracker of a day, and all us Galactics felt some of the old magic of being under way. Stu, who is a sailmaker and a racer, kindly kept all opinions concerning sail trim to himself unless he was presented with a direct question.

So now, though the job list is just as long, it feels less weighty.

And, point of order - I did sweat to get a new set of injectors into the engine just before we went on this daysail. Worked a treat for the great billowing clouds of smoke that had previously attended any use of the donk.

Summer awaits.

Good sailing writing should make you do what?

Wet your pants with laughter, that's what.

At least, that was the reaction that both A. and I had when we read this reflection on a dream well lived, written by our good friend Melissa Beit.

Extra credit: explain why these kinds of shenanigans, in the company of children, are a fine idea.

If you can't, you're likely a Dock Queen, or a landlubber, or are simply cursed with more good sense than our favorite sorts of people seem to be.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Snow Cave #1

Winter ecstasy
This week is spring break for Kodiak schools.

Waaaay back in the 20th Century, spring break trips to the mountains were a big part of my time as a student at the University of Alaska.

This year, Elias and I revived that tradition of spring break trips to the mountains and made our long-planned foray to Cope Mountain to spend the night in a snow cave.

In Kodiak, the way to find winter is to walk uphill. We made it up to about 500 m to get to decent winter-ish conditions. Still, the ceiling of the cave started to turn to slush while we were cooking, and the water that I left in our cook pot didn't freeze overnight. Those are two signs of warmth that I never experienced in all my snowcaving in the Alaska Range.

It was great to be reminded of all the old things - the smell of sunscreen on your face while covering ground in a snowy landscape, and the way that light scintillates off the crystals of ice kicked up by your skis. The sound of each sushing slide of a ski forward, step after step, against the profound quiet of the hills.

It was a great trip for finding out that Elias is able to carry a very light pack in the hills (basically just his sleeping bag and spare clothes), and I am still able to carry a light-ish pack (basically, everything else). My knees still feel it, a few days after the trip was over, but for me backpacking in the mountains of Alaska is exquisitely worth it.

Elias was giddy throughout our night in the cave, and the long process of melting snow and drying out our gear with hot water bottles. (I'm occasionally astonished to see people attempting to cook outdoors while winter camping. In Alaska at least, winter camping means cooking inside your shelter, be it snow cave or tent.) And Elias was, well, pretty tough. Few complaints, and he saw the joy of the thing quite easily.

He was particularly enamored of the realization that his mom has never slept in a snow cave, and that he now has one up on her in terms of camping experiences.

Here and below: the view outside the cave.

In the morning, Elias tried to collapse the cave. But it was plenty strong to hold his weight.

I found 7000 Chilean pesos in my parka pocket - about $11.50 US.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Winter Calm

Last week we finally got out on the water to start our pilot study of juvenile Pacific cod winter ecology.

It was a little nerve-racking to use someone else's boat (the University's skiff). We're pretty used to knowing the gear we rely on.

But everything went just fine. We had a cracker day, as you can see.

And as for that part that I have now spoken to more reporters about the project than we've actually seen cod? Well, that speaks to how important the cod collapse is to Kodiak, and also the nature of a pilot study.

Among other things, we're figuring out winter habitat associations for juvenile Pacific cod, about which very little is known. So we go out, and try different things (Friday is our next day out), and over time new knowledge will be created.

It's not always that calm...


In our ten years away had forgotten a few key details about the seasonal progression through an Alaskan winter.

Kodiak City is a pretty equatorial place, in Alaskan terms. We're at 57°47' N. That's the same latitude as northern Scotland. So not really that Arctic.

But there is still this period - up here we call it "January" - when the daily light regimen seems to fall below the biological threshold for the viability of hope.

On the flip side, when the light starts to comes back, it's amazing how much vitality it brings with it. Suddenly, it's noticeably light before we set off for school/work, and broad daylight when we return at the end of the day. The glories of spring and summer are clearly drawing nigh, and I fill my pulse quicken at the thought of analogs tasks to perform. Digging snow caves! Building a cold smoker! Gill netting reds!

Boat maintenance...

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Fleet Management

Unexpected invitations to own a skiff are dancing lessons from the Alaskan coastal gods.

Our neighbors down the street are moving to Anchorage. Alisa and the boys stopped by one day after school to ask if they might be selling their gillnet.

Turns out they were selling a net. And a boat. And two Dungeness crab pots.

In short order the boat was parked in front of our house, and the net and pots were in our garage.

Summer fun awaits.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Walking to Winter

This continues to be a veeerrry warm winter in Kodiak. Snow at sea level has been a more or less complete wipe out.

Still, we have managed to sniff out a few low-altitude ski outings for ourselves. The boys had a four-day school weekend this week, and the whole family managed to get out for cross-country jaunts on both Friday and Sunday. The snow was just good enough on both days, but still good enough to be lots of fun, if you follow me.

It's been so much fun to see how quickly the boys have figured out the basics of skiing. This is a totally informal, grass-roots kind of skiing that we have introduced them to this winter, and they have both seen the joy immediately. Any offer to go skiing by us is met by unanimous acclaim on the part of the fo'c'sle hands.

Elias and I have also continued our occasional efforts to walk up Cope Mountain to get to more or less decent Alaskan winter conditions.

This trek is still too much for Eric. It was about all that Elias could do this weekend to make it up the hill with the unaccustomed weight of a pack and skis on his back.

But he is keen to try again soon, with the addition of a sleeping bag and snow shovel in his pack, so that we can spend the night in a snow cave up on top of the hill.

As soon as we get a few details of our kit worked out, and the luxury of a couple good weather days more or less over a weekend, I think we'll be giving it a try.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Game On?

Well, many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, and we really believe in research funding once the money has been conveyed. But with those somewhat superstitious nods to false hope in place, it appears that we have been funded to conduct some start-up juvenile Pacific cod research over this coming year, including a summer survey of Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula (above).

We're very excited at the prospect of doing marine biology from Galactic, and I'm particularly excited that the work will hopefully provide better information for assessing the strength of incoming cohorts to the population, which should be a real help for managers and the fishing industry as they try to figure out what's going on.

More soon.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Kodiak Maritime Museum slide show

Join us!

What's In a Name?

Two good boat names
We are officially done with boat swaps. We've done it once, with an infant and a four-year-old, and we're not doing it again. Galactic is a fine boat for us, able to do most anything we'd care to do under sail.

But...maybe there's always a future boat in a sailor's imagination. Some idealized craft that can take you from the careworn reality of actual ownership of an actual boat. Or (forbid!), some daydream to assuage a sailor who has found himself on the beach, without a vessel to call his own.

When Alisa and I daydream about a boat, it's something a bit smaller than Galactic that might carry us away from land life after our two cabin boys are launched on their own life voyages and are no longer following us to every port.

We don't get into the details of what another boat might look like. As I noted, we're very happy with Galactic.

The kind of idle daydreaming we do occasionally indulge in is to think of possible names for a future boat. Naming a boat is a serious undertaking when you are confronted with a blank space on the hull, waiting to be emblazoned with your choice moniker. But it's harmless fun when you're just playing what-if.

To whit, here are our leading choices for that boat-to-be-someday:

Small Axe - You know, as in the Bob Marley song. This one goes with the idealized smallish unpainted aluminum French cruising boat that A. and I see ourselves in as we while away our golden years.

Tall Cotton - I had a rock climbing partner from the American South who used to shout up at me when I was on lead, "Just make that one more move, Mike, and you'll be in tall cotton!". Always seemed like a perfect name for a sailboat to me. You know, the image of towering white sails, billowing over the water and all. Alisa has never been convinced.

Ramble - This one is a recent favorite of mine. Reminds me of Bill Tilman's famous Mischief. Nice play-in with Alisa's nickname from decades ago, the Arab Rose, and her time, also decades ago, as a Deadhead. You know, "Ramblin' Rose"? I guess dubious hippy music plays into our choices.

Titanic - My absolute favorite. Reason 1, we would be guaranteed to be the only Titanic in the world. And reason 2, it would be an absolute declaration of liberation from maritime superstition. Poor Alisa - she's pretty sure I'm joking about this one, but can't quite be sure. After all these years together, she still can't tell.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Bitchin' slide shows

If you're in Kodiak, please join us for two upcoming presentations. We'll be giving a talk at the Kodiak Audubon Society meeting next month on the Southern Ocean (above). And we will also be giving a talk this Friday, Feb. 2, at the Kodiak Maritime Museum Annual Meeting. That one is also at the College, I'll add the time here when I have it.

See you there.

Monday, January 29, 2018

This Alaskan Life

Hang tough, sailing friends. The Galactics will put to sea again this boreal summer, everything going more or less to plan. We're waiting to hear the fate of a proposal that we wrote to work from the boat this summer before we decide on a destination, but I think the consensus is strong that: 1) we would all very much like to go sailing for a few months this summer; and 2) we can probably make some coin renting out the house while we're off, which sweetens the deal a bit.

After a November and December of endless rain, we've finally gotten some winter weather
Meanwhile, we're happily going about the business of being Alaskan.

We have two cords of wood stacked and waiting to go for the rest of the winter. Alisa and I just spent the week in Anchorage for the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, and we took the opportunity to go skiing there every chance we got, which was a lot. And we were greeted by snow when we returned to Kodiak, and have just clocked a two-days-of-skiing weekend, that sweet spot which is rarely experienced at the intersection of undependable low-altitude Kodiak snow and the boys' five-on, two-off schedule.

Oh yes. There was that tsunami warning as well. We were awoken by the earthquake in our hotel in Anchorage, but it was Alisa's aunt, who was watching the boys while we were away, who had to deal with the situation on the ground. The earthquake was around 1230, and the tsunami warning was for around 0145. The sirens went off and people started driving out of our neighborhood and Aunt Noe had to figure out where to go in a hurry.

There was a nice Alaskan answer to that question, in the form of our neighbor whom Alisa was able to get on the phone just as she was evacuating, and who stopped by our house to scoop up the kids and Noe to take them to a friend's house on higher ground.

Thanks, Mary. Thanks, Noe.

The boys have graduated to skiing with poles.
Please...don't need braces.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Analog Ptarmigan

All this fall and winter, whenever the weather cooperates on a weekend, Elias and I have been going ptarmigan hunting in the mountains around Kodiak.

The ptarmigan have so far avoided us. But the end goal of ptarmigan for dinner is of course an excuse for me and my oldest to get up into the hills together.

Although I dreamed of sailing the world every since my parents went to sailing school and bought the 19' Waltzing Matilda when I was 7 or so, my path to the sea very much led through the mountains of Alaska. Getting back into those mountains in the boys' company might be my greatest joy in returning to the Great Land. Up in the hills, that all seems to fall away.

Eric, so far, is not that keen on the idea of walking up mountains only to walk back down again.

Elias delights in that same idea. He is also, I have noticed, on display as a different Elias when we are in the hills together. Down in town he is navigating a lot, for an 11 year old, being suddenly cast into a world of other 11 year olds who have been raised under the remarkable range of assumptions that characterize everyday life in 21st Century America.

So it is a double delight for me, going up to the hills with him, or maybe a triple delight: being back in the hills myself, seeing them anew through Elias' eyes, and spending time with a version of my boy who is the old, calm, boy who I remember from 2016.

He is very keen to go up and spend the night in a snow cave. And, once my final proposal deadline of Feb. 15 is past, I am very keen to do that with him.

Elias at a spot that would work very well indeed for a snow cave.

There is another side to being in the hills that I love - the complete vacation it gives me from digital life.

I know it's a funny thing to complain about online, but I find the landscape of digital life to be foreign and fallacious, and I am more and more willing to turn away. You'll notice that the Facebook link on this blog came down shortly after the U.S. election.

So, the mountains are a refuge from all that. I'm sure there is an active social media world related to the mountains, but I'm also sure that it misses the point.

The view from Cope Mt. over towards Center Mt. This area has super-easy access to alpine terrain that goes on and on, and it features heavily for my thoughts for summer camping trips.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Cod and climate

This is a big deal in Kodiak.

The Pacific cod stock in the Gulf of Alaska, which supports a very important fishery, appears to more or less have collapsed. The quota is down 80% for next year.

One of the big causes of the collapse appears to be the failure of young fish to survive to adulthood. The reasons for this failure are an active area of research, by myself among many others. But the leading hypotheses at this point focus on the 2014-2017 marine heatwave. During that time, large areas of the North Pacific were warmer than had ever been observed before.

Every year, a group of scientists from the NOAA agency in America evaluates the role that climate change played in extreme climate events.

The latest report just came out. And for the first time, that group has found that some extreme events meet the strictest standards for attribution to human causes changes. Basically, there were three events in 2016 that were so extreme that they were, practically speaking, impossible in the pre-industrial climate. And one of those three events was the marine heatwave in the Gulf.

I think this is very big news for Alaska. The conditions that we're experiencing have blasted through to a state that is uniquely human-created. The livelihoods of a number of my fellow Kodiakers are being affected in as direct a way as you could imagine. So what will our collective response be?

In Australia, where I did my PhD, science denialism is much less established than in the US. As a result, adaptation to climate change is big part of the public discussion in Australia.

In the US, though, denialism is much more important, and adaptation isn't part of the political discourse at all. I'm not a sociologist, but I think this has tremendously interesting implications for that old trope about big parts of the US electorate acting against their own self-interest. Presumably farmers in the US would be up in arms about climate change? My impression is that this isn't the case.

Similarly with fishermen in Alaska. I know there is a strong conservation strain in the commercial fishing community in Alaska. But quite a number of my fishing friends are actually ex-fishermen at this point, so I don't have a real feel for the pulse of that community.

Commercial fishing is a big enough part of the Alaskan economy that fishermen speaking with a coordinated voice on any issue could wield tremendous political influence in our little state.

But, there are always the immediate problems that anyone has to deal with that inevitably dominate fishermen's attention, just like anyone else's. And the disconnect between action and payoff on slowing climate change is a big negative when any individual is considering how they might allocate their limited time and energy.

But, with the heatwave and Pacific cod, climate change has apparently become an immediate problem. I can tell you with great authority that fisheries scientists can't predict what the next climate-related surprise will be in Alaskan fisheries. But we do know with quite a bit of confidence that more surprises will be coming over future decades, and coming more and more often.

Some kind of coordinated adaptation effort, I imagine, will start to come together in coastal Alaska as a result.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Starting with this little dream...

Let's see. Since July, we've...
  • Got a job.
  • Bought a car.
  • Bought a house.
  • Watched the kids sail into school with nary a look back, and barely a hiccup along the way.
Things seem to be going just about as well as we could wish for in our re-introduction to land life after 10 years away.

True, my job has been more or less eating me alive. That will get better in time, I trust, and I hope that the University of Alaska will eventually be a great place for me to practice my science. But for this winter, I am laboriously laying the foundation for that hoped-for future.

So science demands have completely overflowed into the discretionary time that I was used to having on the boat. But more than this (hopefully temporary) time poverty that I find myself living through, I think that it's just the nature of the transition that has kept me away from this blog lately.

This was so much the place for sharing my impressions of family life afloat. Which, after all, was my life, and our life together, for these last ten years.

As our life turns into whatever shape it will take back here in Alaska, I don't think it's unreasonable to hope that I'll end up with some new sort of stories to fill these pages.

I'll make a nod towards that new beginning with these pics of the boys learning to ski.

I had a go at learning to surf when we were in Australia. It was fun, but trying to learn a new sport in my 40s mostly just left me yearning to do something I already knew how to do. Which, for me, is Nordic skiing.

I'm not a particularly good skier, but I am very comfortable on the boards, and Alisa and I got up to all kinds of long trips back in the old days, skiing for days along frozen river valleys and over mountain passes, camping each night in the snow.

And, for all these years that we were away from Alaska I had this little dream in the back of my head about how wonderful it would be to teach the boys to ski. I loved the idea of passing along this thing  that has given me so much pleasure through the years.

My parents came up to share the holiday with us, and they gave the boys skis for Christmas. A few days later we finally got some snow on the local golf course (it's been a terribly warm winter) and the whole family went out to have a go.

And well. The boys loved it, and are crazy to go as often as our paltry snow will allow. And not incidentally, they're pretty good at it to.

Mark it up as another part of life in Alaska that is suddenly that much richer for being able to share it with the boys.