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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.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Arctic, in Black and White

My recent experience on and around the arctic islands of Svalbard was a bit like watching The Wizard of Oz, one moment everything was black and white, and the next all was in vivid color. In this post I explore the former; in the next I will address the latter. Note that although this is about black and white, all of the images in this post are actually color photos. I simply was recording a world that, at least on some days and under certain conditions, was predominantly black and white.

Prinz Karls Forland (Prince Charles Foreland)

Coming from the unrelenting sun of a Texas summer, I found the natural coolness of blacks, whites, and grays refreshing. More importantly, the monochrome world made me see differently. Without hue, I had to look to shape and line, value and contrast for interest. Svalbard offered no shortage of interesting scenes. The largest island, Spitsbergen, meaning “pointed mountains” lives up to its name. We saw hundreds of peaks, their shapes highlighted in snow and ice. This pair of little peaks was noteworthy because of their crazy lava-lamp like reflections in water disturbed by our zodiacs.

After our windiest night (which, given that we were above the Arctic circle in late June, was "night" only by convention, not by amount of light) I awoke to to see this little schooner that had sought shelter in the same fjoird as we, and for a moment thought I had been transported into another century. The bit of blue glacier ice seen adjacent to the schooner's bowsprit makes me think of old black and white portraits with color-enhanced cheeks, lips and eyes.

Even some of the wildlife is naturally black and white. For example, these little auks, also known as dovekies, are entirely black and white (and endearingly plump).

Arctic terns, in contrast to the round little auks, are sleek and streamlined, thoroughly modern-looking birds. They are also fiercely protective of their nests, and make a huge fuss, including flying at your head, if you get too close. I am cheating a bit to include them here since they have red beaks, but my image of them is mostly a whir of white and grey, so they have earned their place.

On the other end of the size spectrum from little auks and terns are the whales. On our first night out, as we cruised north from Longyearbyen, we spotted over half a dozen humpback and blue whales, their spouts easily seen in flat water, lines of fins and flukes fluid as the inky water in which they smoothly appeared and disappeared.

Humpback whale fluke

And then, of course, there are polar bears, referred to by some as great white bears. What is it about polar bears that fascinates us so? Perhaps it their whiteness, a color we associate with purity and innocence, in contrast to the ruthless reality of the hunting on which their lives depend, but which is anything but innocent.

Note that polar bears are not actually white, but rather a yellowish color. When sleeping on-shore among the rocks they can easily be mistaken for just another boulder.

This final image of the front of a glacier is from a sunny day, but taken in the shadow of a tall peak, and so was very grey. The layers and fractures record year after year of snowfall and the constant compaction and flow that define a glacier.

In my next post I will return to full color, and share some recent needlework. See you soon.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Hut to Hut Hiking in the White Mountains

If the thought of carrying a heavy pack has ever deterred you from trying a multi-day hiking trip, consider a visit to New Hampshire's White Mountains where the Appalachian Mountain Club offers accommodations and meals in a number of high huts. Each hiker need only carry her own clothing, water, snacks and safety provisions. Heavier items such as tents, sleeping bags and mats, and cooking gear are not needed.

My family made an early June north to south traverse of the high peaks of the White Mountains over four days and three nights, starting at the Appalachia trail head on Route 2. The route is also known as "The Presidential Traverse" since the peaks along the way are named for Presidents. From the Appalachia trail head there are numerous trails, of varying length and steepness, leading to the Madison Spring Hut, our first night's destination. The easiest of these is Valley Way, the route preferred by hut attendants packing in supplies. We opted for Amphibrach and Spur trails. Though slightly longer than other routes, it is less busy - we didn't see any other hikers for most of the day - and put us at Crag Camp at lunch time. (Crag Camp, operated by the Randolph Mountain Club, is a self-service hut, so you need to bring your own sleeping bag, food, and cooking equipment if you plan to stay the night.)

On the deck at Crag Camp

From Crag Camp we continued on to Thunderstorm Junction and finally the Madison Spring Hut which sits just above tree-line on the flank of Mt. Madison. Originally built in 1888, rebuilt in 1941 after a fire, and recently remodeled, it is the quintessential White Mountain hut: large bunk rooms, open dining room with rows of long tables and benches for communal meals, an enthusiastic croo (sic), and decades of guest registers lined up on the bookshelf. We were delighted to find the renovations had made the bunk rooms more spacious and significantly improved the view from the dining room, without detracting from the hut's character.

Madison Spring Hut

We arrived with enough time before dinner to explore the hut's environs. A few of our party climbed Mt. Madison. I spent time around Star Lake.

Star Lake

After dinner we were all treated to a magnificent sunset.

Sunset reflected in Madison Spring Hut's windows

The following morning we continued our traverse of the Presidentials: over Mts. Adams, Jefferson and Clay,

Along the ridge to Mt. Washington

(and the cog railway track),

Mt. Washington cog railway and summit buildings (at upper right)

to the 6,288 foot summit of Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the range.

Fortress-like buildings at the top house a weather observatory, a museum, gift shop, cafeteria, and post office.

Mt. Washington summit

Some people just continue on over the top without stopping, but having reached the summit, I like to savor being up high. We toured Tip Top House, the summit's oldest surviving building, dating from 1853,

visited the museum, and had a leisurely lunch before continuing on to Lakes of the Clouds Hut, the largest of AMC's huts with bunks for 90 hikers.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut

Even though the afternoon's hike was short, it felt good to remove our boots.

Hot feet in a cold bunk room

And to bask in the afternoon sun, taking in early season alpine flowers and the ever-changing sky.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut and the ridge to Mt. Washington

It was a perfect time for a few rows of knitting. 

Ebb Tide hat, design by Kate Salomon for Green Mountain Spinnery 

At dinner we shared stories and the next day's plans along with the food.

Dinner at Lakes of the Clouds Hut

Hearty appetites and enthusiastic efforts by hut croos ensure that meals are always great.

Bread is baked fresh daily by the hut croo

It was another fine evening for watching the sunset.

Sunset at Lakes of the Clouds

Evening light at Lakes of the Clouds

In the morning we continued southwest along the ridge crossing Mts. Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower and Pierce

Along the Crawford Path towards Mizpah Spring Hut

to Mizpah Spring Hut, usually referred to simply as "Mizpah." Mizpah is dramatically different from the high alpine huts of our first two nights, sited as it is in the boreal forest. As we descended below treeline we encountered more wildlife, including this curious grey jay

Grey jay

and this spruce grouse.

Spruce grouse

We departed Mizpah in fog and mist,

On the trail below Mizpah Spring Hut

which burned off by the time we reached the best views along the Webster Cliff trail,

Webster Cliff trail

and left us in dappled sunshine as we reach the trailhead along Route 302.  (We had used the AMC shuttle to leave our vehicle here).

While we had four days of fine weather, the White Mountains are famous for bad weather. 

One of many warning signs in the White Mountains

If you go, be prepared for the worst with extra layers for warmth and wind and rain protection. Even in clear weather it is possible to stray from your path so have a map and compass and know how to use them. For further information on equipment and hiking in the White Mountains, and for reserving a spot in one or more huts, visit the AMC website.

By the way, I finished my hat shortly after the hike and though you might think it will be a long time before I have a chance to wear it, I actually wore it on a trip earlier this month. Check back soon to find out where. 

Ebb Tide Hat