Category Archives: Other Topics

World’s Longest Zip-Line at Icy Strait Point, Alaska

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“Just think of it like a really long roller coaster,” I advised.  My parents and I were spending the day at Icy Strait Point near the tiny town of Hoonah, Alaska.  It’s a privately owned place and run by native Tlingits in an old cannery area converted for tourism.  There isn’t much to Icy Strait Point (or Hoonah for that matter) except the world’s longest zip-line which towers from the mountain above town.

Now I suspect anyone who’s read this blog over the years knows what happened next, because I am not a woman who can turn down something like a zip-line that is over a mile long (officially it’s 5,330 feet, with a 1,300 foot vertical drop).  But I suppose after years of reading of his daughter’s exploits in various corners my dad felt the urge to join in too, and my mother decided to establish which side of the family the adrenaline junkie stuff comes from by staying at the bottom.

And hey, on the scale of adrenaline-y things to do, it turns out this zip-line isn’t too hard- not like you need to jump into the abyss yourself.  But that didn’t mean my father wasn’t going to have to endure some cheery speculation on maintenance standards in the Alaskan wilderness and the like on the ride up in a refurbished school bus from his daughter.

But anyway, the ride up takes about 45 minutes, and the ride down takes about 90 seconds.  And if a picture is worth a thousand words than who knows what a video makes, so here’s the entire experience!

Altogether not a bad experience at all!  And then we spent the rest of the day wandering around a bit.  It’s certainly a nice corner of the world when you have sunshine to enjoy and sea stars to spot in the water.

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Announcing the Alaska Adventure

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 12.41.51 PMI’ve often told people that one of my hobbies involves planning trips I won’t necessarily take.  (I probably won’t be taking the trans-Siberian imminently, but I know the full details on how to do it and where to stop!) Eventually I will come across someplace so amazing and so spectacular that, well, I have to go.  In a world of incredible places to visit with things to do and see, it’s best to follow the dreams that keep with you.

Anyway, Alaska started like this sometime last year- I was checking out Wikivoyage with the vague idea that it might be nice to visit some new part of the US in my summer that I hadn’t been before (so it feels like going home, while seeing something new), and it should have wilderness because the Netherlands lacks this, and and have an adventure… and, well, if you are an American looking for mountains and wilderness and a grand adventure it turns out we have this place twice the size of Texas apparently devoted to that.  And apparently if the bears don’t eat you it’s quite fantastic!  So the idea for the Alaska trip was born.

And man oh man, it’s hard to believe, but I’m on the plane in a few hours to start the journey!  First going to Vancouver, which is not in Alaska but a rather nice stop along the way (and the only place I have been before on this trip, when I was 11 or so).  I’ll be in Alaska proper by the weekend, heading on the route you see above… where I realize the names of the places themselves are not shown, but includes many a cute town and national park.

With that, not much to say but I’m excited to go, and I intend to track a few numbers for this trip:

Number of days: 26 (alas this is known)
Number of flights:
Number of days with rain:
Number of national parks:
Number of glaciers:
Number of different kinds of beer:
Mammal species seen:
Number that got too close for comfort:
Number of fish types eaten:
Modes of transport:
Miles driven on rental car:
Highest and lowest prices of gas:
Highest and lowest elevations:
Number of geocaches found:
Locations slept:
Number of festivals:
Books read:

Man oh man, this is gonna be great!

Have you been to Alaska, and have a tip to share, or do you have a suggestion for another number to track?  Let me know!

Photo: Fjord in Norway

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Sorry, writing lately has consisted on my end of a research paper rather than a travel blog, as apparently one leads to a doctorate but not the other. (I’m sure you’re all shocked.) Not to say I’ve been still on weekends, it’s just I’m busy having the adventures and not writing about them!

Until I find a few more spare moments though, might I present to you a few photos from a few days I spent in Norway during a long weekend? Which it turns out is a marvelous country and a new favorite of mine? (I mean, just look at that view!)

More later!

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Artie Aardvark Navigates to Noordwijk

Per tradition of this blog, my experiences last week at the Dutch astronomers conference is handed off to the mascot of my project, Artie Aardvark.  Take it away, Artie!

Last week I was very excited, as it was time to meet up with all my good friends in Dutch astronomy at the NAC, the annual Dutch astronomers conference.  Hooray!  NAC is in a different place every year, and this year it was in Noordwijk, which is near Amsterdam in the middle of the area famous for tulip fields in spring.  Because it’s not that far from Yvette’s apartment in Amsterdam- Google Maps said it would take two hours of bicycling- but a bit of a hassle to get to with public transportation, I decided to go to the conference by bicycle.  I hope the Astrobites poster is secure enough for the ride!

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During the ride I discovered this is a very pretty part of Holland, and in fact probably the area people imagine when they think of when they think of the Dutch countryside.  There were lots of bicycle trails everywhere, and canals, and even flower fields!

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There are also a lot of little roadside stands like this in this part of Holland, at the end of the driveways for the farms.  You can buy flowers directly from the farmers by putting money in the little box on the side, which I thought was really cool.

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Finally after two and a half hours of biking- I guess Google Maps doesn’t take into account the fact that aardvarks can’t pedal as fast as humans*- I made it to the conference, poster and all!  Hooray!

* or, you know, Artie’s photographer for the occasion isn’t up for Google Maps estimates when stopping often for photos… -YC

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I must say, the NAC is a very good conference to attend if you are learning all about astronomy like me and are curious about many things.  This is because it is small with about 200 scientists and students this year, and you can learn about a lot of different topics.  My favorite talks were about a young pulsar who had a companion that might be another pulsar, and the discovery of an extrasolar planet with rings over four hundred times bigger than those of Saturn.  That’s more than the distance from the Sun to Venus!  Amazing!

When the talks were done, though, it was time to have fun with all my astronomer friends!  First we found a geocache next to the hotel disguised to look like a log next to a tree…

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And then because we were near the beach, we went there to enjoy the spring sunshine!

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Afterwards, I was really hungry and decided to have a snack…

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And got up my energy for the bowling competition later that night!  My friend Dario even won a prize for having one of the best bowling scores!

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This was also my least favorite part of the conference, though, because while Yvette stopped paying attention to me for a few minutes I was aardvark-napped by some other astronomers!  Luckily I was found and safe the whole time, but it was scary!

Anyway, at the end of the conference, it was time to cycle back to Amsterdam.  This time I took a different route, along the sand dunes by the North Sea.  It’s probably the most isolated area I’ve seen in Holland… and also the hilliest!  It might not look like much, but the bike is a single speed so some of those dunes felt steep!

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I was also surprised at one point to see a lot of antennas poking out of the dunes, and discover a huge radio listening station!  Apparently it was used to receive signals when the Dutch still had colonies in the East Indies and other far away places, and also by the Germans in World War 2 to listen for their U-boats.  You can pick up all sorts of far away signals when next to the ocean due to special conditions there.20140528-113532-41732796.jpg

Finally, after the dunes I turned in towards Haarlem to catch the train home from there- you can bike all the way back to Amsterdam, of course, but that ride is not very interesting and I was getting a little tired by this point.  There was still a lot to see though, because between the North Sea and Haarlem a lot of rich Dutch merchants hundreds of years ago built country houses.  A lot of them look like palaces to me!  This was the view of Elswout, which I found when a little lost on the bicycle path.  It is very neat how in Holland even when you get lost you find the nicest, prettiest places…

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Finally, when I got home, I went straight to my bookshelf for a nice long nap.  NAC is good, but left me NACered by the end of it!

My Latest Astronomy Writing

ImageIt occurs to me that sometimes I’m not the best when it comes to pointing out my various non-travel articles that I publish, and the best way to fix this is to jot them down in a quick post so you can check them out.  So without much further ado, here we go…

Firstly, as the photo above implies, I have an article in the May 2014 issue of Astronomy- a rather long one too, all about the lives of supermassive stars.  To excerpt the first paragraph,

Supermassive stars are the true rock stars of the universe: they shine bright, live fast, and die young.  Defined as stars with a stellar mass of a hundred times that of our Sun or greater, these stars can be millions of times more luminous than the Sun and burn their fuel several thousand times more quickly.  As most people know, if you have a hundred times more money than your neighbor but spend it several thousand times faster you will run out of it more quickly, and the same happens for stars- while our Sun’s lifetime is about 10 billion years, supermassive stars die in just a few million years in explosions that can be detected more than halfway across the universe.  These are stars that lead unusual stellar lives, from beginning to end.

How could you not want to run to your nearest newsstand and pick up a copy of the magazine after reading that?!

Ok, if you are too cozy in front of your screen to run out into the real world, I just published an article today on Astrobites all about how Arecibo has detected a Fast Radio Burst.  What are they, and why should you care?  All is explained if you follow the link!

(Also, it occurs to me I likely forgot to link one or two Astrobites articles over the past few months.  So if you are particularly interested in them, my author page with all my articles for them is here.)

Over, and out.

Feet in the Sand- Curacao

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Artie Aardvark sits in the shade, adjusting his sunglasses against the glare of the azure ocean.  He sips a mojito, awaiting word on the wire from Havana…

Ok, I did not bring the aardvark- he has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place on holidays, and only comes along for work for some reason- and this is about as far away from work as one can get.  Curacao!  I’m writing this on my balcony looking south over the Caribbean Sea where I’m told Venezuela lies about 60km away (not that you can tell other than the giant oil refinery on the island and the standard beer here being Venezuelan), spending a week with my feet in the sand when not scuba diving.  So a rather nice week getting acquainted with the fishes when not reading an inordinate number of books I never manage to read at home.

Also I will note because I’m proud of it that this trip was made possible thanks to my writing last year.  It is immensely satisfying to ponder the exact shade of blue of the ocean and think of how you’ve graduated to a “nice scuba diving holiday in the Caribbean” level of writer, believe you me!

The aardvark scowls in frustration at the paper delivered by his assistant, and orders another drink.  He ponders the problem facing him in great detail.

“Yes,” he muses, “yes… I would look really good in a Panama hat.”

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How to Plan the Perfect Weekend Trip

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The view over Salzburg, Austria

So far this year I haven’t had time to cover them, but I’ve been on a few weekend trips both in the Netherlands and abroad.  One of the main reasons I wanted to move to Europe back in the day was the allure of the weekend trip- I knew I wanted to do my astronomy PhD which is definitely more than a full time job if you look at the hours (or how often one posts to her blog), but I also wanted to spend a decent fraction of my weekends exploring and that is a lot easier to do here.  It’s part the scale of things- it was a 2.5 hour drive from Cleveland to Pittsburgh with nothing in between, here that amount of time puts you in Cologne or Brussels- and part the infrastructure of public transport and budget flights is so much better.  And gee, having to pick a weekend in London versus Barcelona is much more interesting than Columbus or Buffalo!

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands (pretty much on the border in the south with Belgium and Germany)

That said, I have a slight reputation now amongst my friends on my weekend trip planning, so I promised to write down a few tips.  Mind, a lot of these points and websites work outside of Europe too, but how well really varies depending where you are- one nice thing in Europe for example is I have never had to think about transportation at a given destination (as I have yet to be proven wrong in my assumption that there will be excellent public transportation), but you certainly can’t always make that assumption in much of the USA.

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

1) Planning ahead. I have many hobbies, and I like to joke that one of them is planning trips I might not necessarily take because I can only be in once place at a time.  And this is in many ways true, because unlike the many reasons people travel if you’re just going for a weekend you likely don’t care where you are going specifically on a particular weekend.  Sure, I have my list of places to visit, but I don’t usually care if I visit a particular place in a particular month within reason.

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

To take advantage of this I know of two good websites to see what’s good on a given weekend.  The first is Google Flights, where you enter your given dates, starting airport, and all parameters you want (time, price, connections), and it generates a map of all the flights that meet your criteria and the prices that match.  The second is Zap Travel, a site where you enter your details from a starting destination (“weekend skiing in March” or “long weekend Germany 3 star hotels” or what have you- you can do longer trips as well) and it returns to you a list of places that fit your criteria with flights and hotels.  Both are quite useful but in different ways.

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

2) Try to get in by dinner on Friday night if at all possible, even if it’s a late dinner.  This is because a weekend is a really short time- you often barely show up before it’s time to leave again- but somehow psychologically there is a world of difference between showing up near midnight and collapsing into bed and waking up early Saturday and briefly going out and trying a local dish (and then collapsing into bed).  It just somehow makes the entire weekend seem that much longer.

Ruins of St. Mary's Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

Ruins of St. Mary’s Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

3) Don’t take the Monday morning flight.  I think everyone learns this the hard way- when you first start the weekend trips you see that 6am Monday morning flight home, and think how much nicer two full days in a location would be instead of rushing to the airport on Sunday.  But it’s a trap!  A 6am flight means you have to be at the airport at 5am, meaning in many cities you have to leave where you’re staying at 4am, meaning you’re not enjoying your Sunday night cause you’re trying to sleep so you can pay for an outrageously expensive taxi cause public transport isn’t running that early. (Plus, honestly, even if you stay up Sunday night is rarely interesting anywhere if you’ve just lived through Friday and Saturday nights.) You still get into work on time- heck often earlier than anyone else if you’re an astronomer like me and no one shows up before 10am anyway- but heaven help you if your job requires thinking and you woke up at 4am that day.

This isn’t to say I don’t take Monday morning flights still- I will if visiting a place with friends or family for example, as time with loved once is precious, or if there is an absurd price difference that is over the cost of an extra night.  But if I’m just going on my own I now get home by Sunday.

"Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!"

“Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!”

4) In a city, stay at a place near the train station.  Or metro line that brought you from the airport, or wherever.  I normally wouldn’t, as train stations are rarely located in super interesting areas in themselves, but they are central and a big place requires navigating public transport instead of walking anyway.  Much better to dump your bag and hop onto one of many options from the station to see something you want to see then spend an a long time getting somewhere with your bag just to dump it… and then do the same thing Sunday in reverse.

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

5) Beware the budget airport.  Now this depends how much disposable income you have to devote to your traveling habit, and often going is better than not going at all even if you are spending an extra two hours traveling each direction, but things that are worth schlepping out for a week away make rapidly less sense when we’re just talking about a few days.

Hellbrunn Castle near Salzburg, Austria

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for now… and I will now post this before I have even more weekend trips’ pictures to post!  But don’t worry, I’m jetting off yet again tomorrow on a bit of an adventure that I’m sure to post many things about.