Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Sourdough Rendezvous

When we were choosing which weekend to go up and try to see the Northern Lights, we selected this particular weekend, because it was the weekend of the Sourdough Rendezvous, Whitehorse's annual cabin fever festival.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.  Whatever I expected, I should have probably downsized expectations.  Because, as previously mentioned, the place is small.  Part of the Rendezvous included the International Snow Sculpting Challenge, and I think there were something like 7 entries.  (And that included "Alaska" and "United States" as two separate entries -- Alaska was under its own flag -- a fact which probably says a hell of a lot about how Alaska, and Canadians living nearby, perceive it in relation to the rest of the U.S.)

And yet (and yes, there are pictures coming), the actual snow sculptures were really quite nifty.  The competition was lacking in entries, but it wasn't lacking in quality.

There was a tent with a stage and performers (who were late getting on stage and did their sound check right there in front of everyone -- noboby cared, it was warm in there).  There were various variety acts, the crowning of the Queen (as well as the selection of one "Sourdough Sam"), and, shortly after the Queen and her court are announced, they play the local high school in a Teens vs. Queens hockey match.

There were a few booths set up selling food.  Before we even got to the Rendezvous, I told Margret I'd buy her something "onna stick," confident that this would, in fact, be on the menu.  It was.  (Pork, as it turned out.)

I have to admit, though, that what I was most interested in were the competitions.  Like Speed-Sawing and Hatchet-Throwing.  The whole thing was incredibly good-natured, with a crowd standing around.  (Don't stand behind the hatchet-throwing target.  Really.  I saw two hatchets fly past the little safety net back there during the practice throws.)  And everyone cheered everyone else on, especially the folks who'd never sawed a block of wood or thrown a hatchet before.

All that said, I think -- and Margret agrees with me on this one -- that my enduring memory of the Sourdough Rendezvous was when this one dude was taking practice hatchet throws, and the emcee made a comment about the dude being a "real Yukon man."  I pulled my eyes away from the target and over to said specimen of Yukoniness, to see that a rather large unclothed expanse had appeared between his (flannel) shirt and his pants, and the revealed backside skin was ... I'll just say he provided his own warmth in the winter.  And the furry fellow reacted not with embarrassment, but pride.

Over the weekend, I heard a lot of talk from locals about how Whitehorse used to be a real frontier town, but now it's just getting too civilized.  The Sourdough Rendezvous is Whitehorse's annual attempt to dig in its heels a bit against the inevitable march toward Starbucksification.  It's a celebration of the frontier spirit, the traditions that hold a community together, and the quirks that set it apart from everyone else.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Yeah, I can pack that

So, yesterday, we went to the Wildlife Preserve and the local hot springs.  Our itinerary informs us, with respect to the hot springs "please bring a towel, sandals/flip flops and your bathing suit."  This was remarkable for two reasons.  First, because it was the only time the itinerary gave us advice on what to wear.  Second, because it was totally wrong.  As soon as we got on the bus, we were informed that the hot springs would supply towels, flip flops, and even swimsuits, if we needed them.

Not knowing this, I set out to acquire flip flops in the morning before we went.  I mean, I had a swimsuit and could steal (borrow) a towel from the hotel, but I didn't have anything close to flip flops, and thought they were required.  So, Margret and I went off to the nearest outdoor gear supply store (which actually occupied three adjacent storefronts) so's I could buy some cheap flip flops.  Hell, I could always use a pair of flip flops, right?

Well, not only did I acquire flip flops, I acquired snow boots.  My own snow boots -- which are more than warm enough for anything I'd need in L.A., were beyond inadequate here.  We rented a bunch of cold weather clothing from the tour company.  (At first, they gave me the wrong size and forgot Margret's order entirely, but eventually we got our gear.)  And the boots they gave me were the smallest boots they had, but they still weren't my size.  On the other hand, Margret spotted a pair of super duper cold weather boots (rated, not to -40 like the loaner stuff, but -100) in my size, for half-off.  They fit perfectly, so I bought the damn things.  They're massive.  They go up to my knees.

They're perfect.  Lord only knows how the hell I'm going to get them home.

Because I had just purchased them, I wore them to the Wildlife Preserve.  We had thought that it would be a walking tour at the Preserve -- it wasn't, it was a van tour.  But, it was a van tour with a lot of getting off and on the van.  And, as it happens, somebody should have said to wear your big heavy snow boots for this.  Because even though the distance from the van to the fence around the area where the musk ox was living was about, oh, 100 feet, that land happened to be covered by a certain amount of freshly fallen snow.  And when I say "a certain amount," I mean, "I took a step and was up to my knees in snow."  The snow boots were all kinds of awesome here.  The lower part of my jeans was sopping wet and I so didn't care.  I was warm and cozy inside.

Before the tour of the Wildlife Preserve began, we were told we would see ten types of animals, and we did:  bald eagle, bison, thin-horn sheep, caribou, elk, mountain goat, arctic fox, musk ox, lynx and moose.  The lynx and moose were a little distant from us, but everything else was pretty close.  The Wildlife Preserve gives every animal (or family, or group) of animals a pretty large area in which to hang live, nice and relatively comfy, somewhat similar to its natural habitat.  Except that the animals are also supplied with food and water, so they needn't hunt for it.  And the food and water are supplied in locations right near the fences.  So you can get pretty near the animals, as they're hanging out near the fence, enjoying a bowl of Purina Sheep Chow, or whatever the hell they've put out for it.  There will be photos.  I got, what is, without a doubt, my best photo of an eagle ever.  This was probably because the eagle at the preserve can't fly.  They took him in after he had a broken arm (wing?) which was set improperly, so there was no way he was ever going to make it in the wild.  Now, he just hangs out at the Preserve, being fed, and posing for pictures.

(My favorite was the arctic fox, who was more or less lounging on the top of a little wooden structure, posing away.  She was quite beautiful, and she knew it -- just sitting there, slightly coquettish, expecting us to adore her.)

So, yeah, ten animals, just like it said on the tin.  Pretty impressive.  Then we piled back into the van for our trip out to the Takhini Hot Springs.

The Takhini Hot Springs is located in the middle of nowhere, apparently somewhere near the nowhere where we head out to view the Aurora.  While the nicely heated changing room is indoors, the hot springs are outdoors, with a fairly lovely view of, well, random Canadian outdoors.  A naturally fed hot springs, which naturally is fed water at ... I did the math, something like 107 degrees ... although the bulk of it isn't all that hot (being outdoors will do that to you), so we all spent most of our time huddled around the walls from where the really hot stuff was emerging.

We're told that, for the Sourdough Rendezvous -- a bit more on that later, it's a local festival which was going on this week -- they ran a "frozen hair" contest.  You just go into the hot springs, dunk your head in the water, emerge from the water, and freeze your hair in a silly position.  (Then take a photo, warm yourself up in the water again, and run like hell into the changing room.)  None of us took part.  Hell, I so didn't want to take part, I stole a shower cap from the hotel and wore it into the hot spring.

Yes.  I wore a shower cap into a public hot spring.  Given the way I've been dressing for the past few days (for warmth, only for warmth), I clearly don't give a damn about how I look.

We went back out for the Aurora last night, but didn't see any.  i spent most of the time hanging out in the warm cabin.  Our guide made maple toffee.  It was good.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Reeses, Val, Mischief, Panda, and Beethoven (aka Shivery)

So, we woke up yesterday morning (in the broadest definition of "morning," -- we bailed on the scheduled City Tour and slept until the bus for that one had already departed -- which was about 7 hours of sleep) had some lunch in the pub in the hotel, and got ready for the day's adventure.

The day's adventure was a half-day dog sled tour.  Now, I did a dog sled thing up (or is it "over"?) in Alaska.  In that one, every dog team had two little sleds attached, with the guide on one of the sleds and three tourists in the other three positions (one "driving" the second sled, and two others riding in the sleds).  None of that crap here.  Here, every pair of tourists got its own sled -- you get to switch driver/rider positions at the halfway point.  There were a total of 5 sleds that went out.  We had two guides covering the lot.  They were relatively nearby, on snowmobiles.  They'd come by if you stopped and waved at them (as we did when one of our dogs got tangled up in the lead), but otherwise tried to stay out of range as the sound of snowmobiles detracts somewhat from the dogsled experience.

But, basically, after about three minutes of instruction (well, no -- after signing the waiver form, a half hour of getting us all in the right gear, and about three minutes of instruction), I was standing on the back of a sled, with Margret riding, and the five dogs named in the title of this blog post rarin' to go.

(Yes, five.  I'd always assumed an even number of dogs pulling a sled, but Mischief liked to run in the middle -- sometimes in line with the dogs on the left, and sometimes in the dead center of the pack.)

Our dogs were quite enthusiastic about the whole process.  We were told how to slow the sled, how to stop the sled, and how to get the dogs to go.  Apparently, you yell something like "Go!" while stepping off the sled and giving it a bit of a push.  I never had to push.  Getting our dogs to go after a stop (usually because the sled in front of us stopped -- but sometimes because the dogs needed to poop, or were thirsty and wanted to eat snow)...  anyway, getting our dogs to go never required giving the sled a push.  What generally happened was that I'd be standing on the brake, while they'd be standing up ready to run.  I'd say, "Wait for it....  wait for it....", while I waiting for the sled in front to get a good distance ahead, and then lift the brake while saying, "OK, go!"  You didn't have to tell them twice.  I heard a constant stream of "Go Mozart!  Go Mozart!" from the snowmobile, directed at the sled ahead, but Reeses and company were genuinely happy to run.

(Except perhaps Beethoven, who we named Shivery.  At first, we didn't know their names, so I just called them by numbers.  And Dog Five would shiver every time we stopped, and liked to rest and eat snow.  This annoyed the dogs in front.  We'd take a snow break for Shivery, and after everyone else had two bites of snow, they were eager to go, and he'd be sitting there resting.  But you say "Go!" and they're all up and running.  Heck, the dogs in front wouldn't even stop to poop -- Reeses did his business while on the move.  I expect that's the privilege of being the dog in front.)

It was solidly fun to drive the sled, and also solidly fun to ride in it once we switched positions.  I pretty much laid back in there, relaxing, and leaned out every now and again to take a picture.  (To follow later.  I can't get photos from the card in my camera to the tablet from which I'm posting.)  Afterward, we were told we did about 18 kilometers (upwards of 11 miles), which is really awesome.

(Subsequent thereto, though, I had an evil evil headache.  The nice people at the dog sled tour place provided us with warm drinks and fresh baked brownies, and I felt so lousy I didn't even want a brownie.  Shocking.  I begged some headache stuff, and was supplied with aspirin with caffeine and codeine, a combination which, unfortunately, did not knock out my headache, and also had unpleasant gastrointestinal effects.  I told Margret, as we piled into the van for the ride back to the hotel, that there was about a 40% chance of me throwing up on the way back.  About halfway to the hotel, the van driver decided it was too quiet in there, so put on a Neil Diamond CD.  This did nothing good for my headache.  I did make it all the way back to my hotel room, and managed to get a clip holding my hair back before I commenced driving the porcelain dog sled.  I will never hear "Sweet Caroline" again without thinking of that moment.)

I did feel immediately better, and Margret and I thought we'd get some Chinese food for dinner.  The guy at the hotel reception desk pointed out the existence of three Chinese restaurants in downtown Whitehorse.  One was directly across the street from the hotel, one was six blocks away, one was about 12 blocks away in the opposite direction.  He recommended the one six blocks away.

We walked there.  It was closed.  (Renovations.  Several weeks.)  We walked back to the one across the street from the hotel.  Here's the thing:  when there is a restaurant directly across the street from your hotel, and the dude at the reception desk recommends the one six blocks away, there's probably a really good reason for this.  I had a bowl of wonton soup which I can honestly describe as "edible," while Margret ordered some beef with broccoli, which we could not describe as "edible."  Indeed, it would probably be a stretch to describe it as "beef."

We went back to the hotel and, after checking out the Aurora Forecast (low activity and relatively crappy skies), we decided to take a pass on the four hours in the middle of nowhere, and instead stick around town, get Margret some real food, and get a good night's sleep.

The town ... ok, the other day, I said that it must have had 10 Starbucks for the entirety of the 27,000 people.  It probably does, if you include the outer areas.  But we're staying in downtown Whitehorse.  Downtown Whitehorse has one Starbucks.  We are talking about a place that has an entirety of seven traffic lights.  We walked up and down Main Street, and (with the exception of one bar and one snooty steakhouse) couldn't find one place that was open and still serving after 8:00.  So, unfortunately, our Decent Food mission was a failure.

The Good Night's Sleep part was not.  And when we found out this morning that there were no Aurora to be seen last night, we realized we'd totally made the right call.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Note on My Camera

You will not see pictures of the aurora from me here.  (Not even after I get back and can upload pictures.)  For the perfectly good reason that "Damn, my camera is inadequate."

To take pictures of the aurora, you need to make 3 manual adjustments to your camera, only one of which I can actually adjust on my little point & shoot.  And that one is shutter speed.  You're going to want a good 30 seconds, to capture all that light.

The longest shutter speed on my camera is 8 seconds.

When you have a 30 second shutter speed, you need a good solid tripod to park your camera on, because you can't hold it perfectly still for any length of time.

My only tripod is a mini (maybe 4-inch) gorillapod.  

When we first waited out the field, Margret set up here tripod all nice and steady on the ground, like a normal person.  I parked my gorillapod on top of a nearby mound of snow (covering ... I have no idea).  Because nothing goes with a woefully inadequate camera better than a woefully inadequate tripod.  I wanted to take a picture of my little camera setup next to everyone else's camera setups, but, of course, my camera couldn't take a good enough picture of it.

I'll be leaving my camera at home for our next few nights of aurora viewing attempts.  The guides have cameras out there, and can even manage to take a picture  of you in front of the aurora.  If we do get more light activity (probably not likely until Sunday, but we'll give it a shot anyway), I'll ask the guide to snap one of me.  Otherwise, I'll just get copies of whatever Margret manages to take.

Check that off the bucket list

So, I last left you with 2 hours of a sleep and a 24 hour day ahead of me.  It pretty much went according to plan.

I'd hired a car to take me to the airport, which turned out to be a smart move, as I was, indeed, operating on 2 hours of sleep, and I was pretty sure that an SUV at 65 mph counts as the sort of heavy machinery you shouldn't operate drowsy.

I'll spare you the excitement of the two flights and the 3 hours layover in Vancouver Airport.  I eventually found myself, and my friend (who met me in Vancouver) in Whitehorse, up in the Yukon.

Not a big place, Whitehorse.  Population is 27,000, which is pretty small.  Probably only 10 Starbucks here.

The reason I was supposed to be awake until 2:30 this morning is that we were going out to the middle of nowhere (Whitehorse is only nowhere adjacent) to attempt to see the Northern Lights.  The reason I was actually awake until 3:30 is because we did, in fact, see them.

At 9:30, we piled into the van ... I lie.  At 9:30, we piled into a van and several school buses.  I'd anticipated a much smaller tour group.  The operation we're here with, Northern Tales, gives you the impression that it takes a van load of about 12 people out to a field someplace, where you sit drinking coffee and eating cookies in a small cabin, then you run outside to view the aurora when they happen to be aurora-ing.  This is what actually happens:  They own (or rent) three large fields on some farmer's property.  The fields are separated by trees (and, probably, access roads).  In each area, Northern Tales has a viewing area.  There were about 40 of us in our field.  The guide told me that the next field over was 90 Japanese tourists (and three Japanese-speaking guides.)

For the 40 of us, we had one big field with a good view to the north; and (behind it, so as not to interfere with photographs):  a campfire; a little canvas teepee with chairs and a wood burning stove; and a smallish canvas cabin, with another wood burning stove.  Also, lots of hot water for beverages, almost (but not quite) enough mugs for everybody, cookies, chips, peanuts, pretzels, marshmallows (and sticks for roasting them).  And an outhouse (with no heat source whatsoever -- a fact which made me strictly limit my beverage consumption, and balance it with salty snacks).

Once they showed us around, we set up our tripods in the field, and waited for the aurora.

And waited for the aurora.

About two hours into this, I said "fuck it" and went into the teepee, then moved to the cabin.  Look, they rented me a bunch of clothes rated down to -40.  Even though it was only in the -10 ballpark, it was still a bit chilly.  Especially when all you're doing is standing stock still in a field waiting for the heavens to do something.

I also realized that with THAT many people around, someone was bound to outside at all times, and I figured that if the aurora were going to get busy, someone would have the good sense to yell, "Hey!  They're active!"  I mean, it isn't like you're going to scare them off by shouting.

The plan is that if there's no visible aurora activity, you leave the field at 1:30 a.m.  And if there is aurora, you leave at 2:00.  2:10, at the latest, unless they're really going something awesome.

It must've been around 1:15, when I'm thinking, "yay, we can get on the bus soon," that one of our guides popped his head into the cabin (filled with sleepy tourists) and said, "the lights are starting."

It's not the sort of thing you can say calmly.  My parents joke that, when you're teaching your kids to drive, the guidebooks say you're not supposed to say, "stop."  Instead, you're supposed to say, "please, bring the car to a halt."  You know, so the kid doesn't slam on the brakes and send you hurtling into the dashboard.  Well, after we've been waiting for the lights for 3 hours -- and, in fact, some of the other tourists there had been out several nights before, and they hadn't had any aurora action -- saying "the lights are starting" is the equivalent of yelling "stop" at a teen learning to drive.  Instant reaction.  Thirty people stampede the door.

Nobody even went back to where they'd staked out good positions with their tripods, either.  We'd all taken them down, in preparation to leave.  So we all sort of gathered at the edge of the field, found a place with nobody else in front of us, a looked upward, scanning the skies.

It was cloudy.  Really cloudy.  Which meant we didn't see much in the way of colors, because the clouds were between us and the lights.  (I saw one that was vaguely green, but they were mostly just lighter patches in the clouds.  Moving lighter patches in the clouds.)  Still, they were nifty and cool and impressive.  I heard some couples huddling together excitedly.  A few people actually cried.  Collective "ooohs" and "aaahs" from the next field over, as though the Japanese tourists had practiced Synchronized Aurora Appreciation.

I don't get all spiritual in my appreciation of Amazingly Cool Shit -- it just isn't in my nature.  At the same time, when I'm standing there, with everyone behind me (so it feels like I'm quite alone) looking up at these dancing lights in the sky, it does feel like there's something more going on than just light from solar flares doing nifty things when meeting our atmosphere.  The world is full of breathtakingly beautiful things, and even when science provides a perfectly rational explanation, it doesn't make them any less inexplicable.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I lied

I did not get 3 hours of sleep.

I got 2 hours of sleep.

It was just around 1:15 when I realized that my hot water circulation pump would not be on when I woke up at 3:30, so I would be waking up to a mildly warm shower.  Great.

So, here are some things that suck about operating on two hours of sleep:

1.  I cannot see straight.  Literally.  Normally, I do not need my glasses when I wake up -- my eyes just adjust.  Not so now.  The extra effort to focus is just not there.

2.  I cannot keep more than one thought in my head at one time.  I have no idea how many things are going to be on this list.

3.  Those little aches and pains which generally heal overnight did not have time to do so.  So that place I smacked my knuckles on the suitcase last night still hurts.  As does ... whatever I did to my toe.

4.  Can't remember whatever I did to my toe.

5.  I'm pretty sure I lack judgment.  Of the eight books on my shelf, I could not decide which one to take with me to read in transit.  I picked the one my eyes could focus on.

I've triple-checked that I have my passport (and my watch, dammit).  Other than that, no idea if I'm prepared to leave in five minutes.  Although I believe I'm leaving in five minutes.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

This Cannot Possibly Go Well

Hey everyone!  It's my standard about-to-leave-on-a-trip post!

I couldn't take today off work (way too slammed) and I couldn't skip my tutoring lesson tonight (way too necessary) which means that it's 9:15 and I haven't had dinner yet.  Or finished packing.  And I have to get up at 3:30 tomorrow morning to catch an early flight.  On a day on which I will then be awake until about 2:30 in the morning.

To review:  I will do a 23-hour day on what is likely to be about 3 hours of sleep.

It is a very good thing that I am not operating heavy machinery.

(I am, however, dealing with a cat who just figured out what the suitcase means and is ever so lovingly digging her too-sharp claws into my sweater.  And chest.)

And while, yes, this particular scenario is all of my own making and clearly falls under the heading of First World Problems, the only thought that I can manage to keep in my head at the moment (other than "Ow") is that, yeah, this cannot possibly go well.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Kid I Knew Is Dead

A kid I knew is dead.

I doubt you read the news story.  And you probably went right by it if you had.  Young man, in his 20s, gets into an altercation.  He has a knife; ends up shot dead.  Probably self-defense.  The kid had a record.  Sure, the police are investigating, but this is very likely what the law calls "justifiable homicide," and we'll all just close the books on this one.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't see this coming.

But I'd also be lying if I said I wasn't depressed about it.

I knew him.  Back when he was a kid.  Back when he was twelve years old, with a megawatt smile and more swagger than he had a right to.  Back when he lived in a group home, and some friends of mine met him while volunteering there, helping the kids with their schoolwork.  Back when my friends stayed close with him, and ultimately became his godparents.  Back when we'd all go to movies, or to plays.  Back when we wanted to get him to question his assumptions, to show him good role models, to teach him there are options.

I knew him back when he was a teenager.  Back when we went to see him play basketball for his school.  Back when he was really good at it.  Back when he was learning teamwork and taking pride is his accomplishments.  Back when keeping that "C" average to be able to keep playing was an achievable goal.  

And I saw it fall apart.  I saw my friends, who were an undeniable force for good in his life, be outnumbered by the forces for bad.  I saw him make bad decision after bad decision -- a smart kid doing stupid things for stupid reasons.  I heard about his first run-in with the law -- not too bad, something he could learn from, an opportunity to turn it around.  And then I heard about the next one.

I know -- I even knew then -- that it was a longshot.  College could only really happen on a basketball scholarship; and, if that somehow happened, he'd have to push himself in academics.  But I wanted it so bad for him.  I wanted to see this kid make the right decision ... and choose the tougher path.  And when he didn't, all I could do was shake my head and hope that maybe the next bad thing would knock some sense into him and he'd decide to make a change.

He'd done good things, too.  Had a big heart.  Left a girlfriend who loved him.  Siblings and other family members who mourned him.  Friends who genuinely cared.  Godparents who had tried their best.

I doubt he'd even remembered me.  I expect he'd be surprised that I'm grieving over his death.  (Hell, I think I'm surprised that I am.)  He was an adult -- an adult who made his own choices and they got him killed.  But I still remember the kid -- the kid who marvelled at a Shakespeare play, the kid who was secretly proud when his godparents were proud of him, the kid who, once upon a time, I thought really had a chance at succeeding in life.

And now he never will.