Monday, August 31, 2015

Summer in Central Texas

It's the last day of August and though school is back in session here in Central Texas, summer is not yet over. High temperatures continue to hover in the mid-nineties (Fahrenheit), the sun shines relentlessly, and extended outdoor activity must be planned carefully. 

For me, that means running before the sun comes up. On the days I don't manage to get going early, anything beyond three miles becomes an unpleasant slog. Much better suited to summer is taking a dip in Barton Springs Pool

Its three acres of 68 to 70 degree, spring-fed water will cool you off on even the hottest of days.

Barton Springs Pool

Another quintessential summertime Texas activity is the rodeo. Just as the sun is going down and the stands are cooling off, things really heat up inside the arena. We enjoyed last month's Marble Falls Rodeo as much for its small-town ambience as its excitement. Of course, they start with the national anthem and a display of the flag.

It's hard to beat the colorful and heart-stopping bareback bronc riding.

Wranglers are always ready to assist and ensure the rider's safety. Watching how they work and the rapport they have with their horses is as interesting as the main events.

So, if the beginnings and ends of the days are the best times to be outside, what, you may ask, do you do in the middle of the day? Mostly, at least in August, I retreat to the air-conditioned indoors. This year I used that time to do a lot of sewing.

I finished this pillow cover, for which I used some of the pre-cut two inch squares that were in this year's QuiltCon goodie bag,

Pillow top, hand pieced and hand quilted
have almost completed a second one,

and made two queen-sized bed quilts. I pieced and quilted the pillows entirely by hand. Except for the bindings, I did the bed quilts entirely by machine

My production line for making Ohio Star blocks

Both of these are gifts so I can only give you a sneak peak until they have made their way to their recipients.

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Although the focus of my recent trip to Svalbard was wildlife, Longyearbyen, the town where we boarded our ship, is interesting and colorful enough to warrant its own post. Longyearbyen is situated at 78 degrees latitude, in the middle of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, nearly 1,000 kilometers from the Norwegian mainland. It spills down the Longyeardalen valley to the shores of Adventfjorden, an embayment in the much larger Isfjorden. 

The upper part of town
The most striking feature of Longyearbyen is its colorful buildings, painted following a color scheme designed by Bergen National Academy of Arts under commission from Store Norske, the current coal mine operators.  With four months of 24 hour darkness, and a blanket of snow from horizon to horizon for even longer, the color must be invigorating to inhabitants.  In the sun the buildings are brilliant.

Less obvious, at least initially, though just as ubiquitous, are the old aerial cables and cable cars, once used to carry coal from mines to port, but now reminders of the Longyearbyen's coal mining heritage. In fact, Longyearbyen is named after John Longyear, the American whose Arctic Coal Company began mining operations there in 1906.

Look closely, just below the lower cliffs, to see remains of mining operation

Longyearbyen claims a number of the world northernmosts, as in the world's northernmost seed storage facility, the world's northernmost university, and the world's northernmost church.

Svalbard Church

In spite of cessation of most mining, Longyearbyen retains an industrial appearance. Without trees - none grow anywhere in Svalbard - everything is laid bare to be seen year round. Fortunately, all is kept tidy and clean and freshly painted, which makes Longyearbyen a pleasant town.

I found the accommodations comfortable, the food tasty, and the people kind. Based on the number of shops heavily stocked with all kinds of expedition gear, it is clearly a jumping off point for many kinds of outdoor adventures. As you might expect from such a remote spot the prices are not cheap. Except, that is, for yarn. We found yarn in a coffee shop, the grocery store, and in a clothing shop, all reasonably priced. One could do a lot of knitting during the long winter night in Longyearbyen. My daughter bought yarn for three different projects and I picked up this Arne and Carlos book of patterns for felted slippers. 

The slippers would be perfect in Longyearbyen where it is customary to remove shoes before entering a building, restaurants, hotels, and museum included. After practicing Fair Isle knitting this summer I should have no trouble with the patterns. Once I have figured out the Norwegian, that is.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Faces of Svalbard

Feathered and furry, bewhiskered, bearded and bloody, Svalbard has all kinds of faces. No, I am not referring to my shipmates, though by the end of our ten days some of these descriptions were fitting. I am, of course, referring to wildlife, the focus of our trip.

Walruses were the strangest of all the creatures I saw. I had to keep reminding myself that they were real, not some long-extinct creature that we know only from the fossil record. Like seals, they are unwieldy on land, graceful in the water. This one was so curious about us that it popped up right next to our zodiac, water dripping from its whiskers. I wonder what it made of us. Did it take our bright, multi-colored rain jackets for plumage, our big camera lenses for eyes?

On another day we saw a group of walruses sunning and sleeping on the beach. This big male sat apart from the group, obligingly striking poses for our cameras.

Bearded seals' faces have amusingly human-like expressions and big round eyes that give them a childlike innocence. This one seemed to be thinking, "Oh, my! What is that?"

With youthful curiosity, this polar bear cub played in the water near where its mother was eating from a whale carcass (which you can just see in the upper right of the photo). 

Here is the pair of them, the mother showing just how bloody a job it is to eat raw whale meat.

And here is momma bear mid-meal.

This is another young female, making her way to the same carcass. We first spotted her swimming just offshore and watched as she swam first all the way around our ship, as though sizing us up, and then proceeded directly to the carcass, several kilometers distant.

One day we went ashore to take a close look at this polar bear carcass, desiccated, but largely intact, right down to the black tongue lolling out of the left side of the mouth. Impressive teeth!

On a cheerier note, we spent an afternoon watching a puffin colony. Puffins are adorable little birds, with round cheeks, eye markings that might be the envy of Lady Gaga, and large orange and black beaks. A turn of the head gives this one a quizzical look.

The way they swoop around the cliffs makes them devilishly difficult to photograph. Their antics and appealing nature make it worth the effort.

Fox kits are equally appealing. We watched this fuzzy little arctic fox sleep in the afternoon sun, then stretch and show its even fuzzier tummy, eliciting a flurry of shutter clicks and "awws."

On our last day, not far outside of Longyearbyen, we stopped to see reindeer up close. We perched ourselves on a rise several hundred feet from where a few were grazing and waited.  Eventually a couple approached, so close that I could almost reach out and touch them. Some of them looked at us with their eyes turned so that a bit of the white was visible. They looked terrified. Others had calm, dark brown eyes, and mouths that seemed to be smiling, giving them rather sweet expressions.

With a big rack and the right stance, they can look quite regal.

And finally, here is my face, as my shipmates came to know it while we were cruising in zodiacs.

My balaclava, a reproduction of the one Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson wore to Antarctica, kept me warm and comfortable through hours of being outdoors. It is a heavy item, weighing in at five and a half ounces (assuming my grandmother's circa 1925 kitchen scale is reasonably accurate), and no surprise, as I knit it with two strands of wool yarn held together.

The pattern, written by Kristin Phillips and Liane Gould for Artlab Australia, can be purchased from the South Australian Museum Shop and comes with detailed instructions for choosing yarn and yarn colors - the original was apparently made from scraps - and with a tag which you may sew into yours to show that you have a genuine reproduction!

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Arctic, in Color

As promised, I am back with more pictures of the far north, this time in color. As you would expect from a world of glaciers and snow, there is a lot of blue. What I find interesting is the amount of variation. It comes in all shades and intensities. Sometimes it is subtle, such as in this blue-green water, milky from glacial flour.

Sometimes it stands out in stark contrast to its grey surroundings.

It can have a crispness to it.

The blue can be eye-poppingly intense,

and seemingly everywhere on sunny days.

There are also many browns in the arctic. I love the rich browns of this bearded seal (which I should note was an incredibly patient model).

In this scene ruddy brown rocks make glacier blue look brighter.

Humans have left their own colorful marks on Svalbard, as at this old mining site where the hut's wood has a greenish hue.

This photo gives you an idea of the hut's setting.

Uphill from the hut stands a pile of disused rusty red equipment.

Birds bring a lot of color to the arctic, though generally in small doses, such as the pale yellow collar of long-tailed skuas,

and bright orange feet and beaks of puffins.

Glaucous gulls have yellow beaks,

as do kittiwakes.

Then there are the brilliant, almost neon colors of things that seem to be lit from within. Surrounded by snow, ice and bare rock, purple mountain saxifrage really stands out.

 The brightness of mossy tundra hints at its promise as a source of sustenance for wildlife

My favorite is the vibrant aqua of glacier ice which makes icebergs seem almost as alive as the wildlife.

My needlework project for this trip was appropriately colorful: a fair isle practice piece. This is in preparation for eventually knitting a fair isle sweater for myself. My difficulty is getting the tension of the two yarns just right so that the fabric lies flat and even. Here is a view of the piece at my hotel in Longyearbyen, the starting point of our trip. 

For most of the trip the piece sat untouched on a shelf in the ship's lounge, where my shipmates probably got sick of looking at it, but I did get a lot done on the flights home.

The patterns are from "Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting," an excellent source of history, techniques, patterns, color and more, for anyone interested in Fair Isle.

I'll be back soon with photos of wildlife from Svalbard and of the colorful town of Longyearbyen.