Category Archives: America (United States Of)

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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Misty Fjords National Monument

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First of all, I feel obliged to mention that Misty Fjords National Monument did not live up to its name at all.  This is because we had spectacular blue sky weather that only happens about 5% of the time in the Ketchikan area, so the fjords were not at all misty but I don’t think anyone was complaining! Continue reading

Ketchikan, Alaska

When you wake up with a view like this you know it’s going to be a good day!

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On my 1,000th Geocache

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A little over four years ago, while killing time before class in my M.Sc. days in Cleveland, I was looking around for new apps for my iPhone and remembered a thing I’d heard about called geocaching.  It was the idea that a person would hide a box somewhere (the geocache) and upload the GPS coordinates to the Internet, and then other people would find them in a bit of a scavenger hunt.  It was an idea that I found interesting when I first heard of it in college, but a GPS was too pricey for me as a student (and I had no car, making me a lot less mobile) so I promptly forgot about it.  But a search that day revealed that in the smartphone era one could go geocaching via a smartphone’s GPS, and there was even a free app, and hey there are a lot of these things around Cleveland!

I promptly went out that weekend to start finding a few of these things and the rest is history, as it turns out geocaching is a great thing to do when searching for an adventure.  The thrill of the hunt aside (and occasional swag to trade), they tend to be hidden in interesting locations that someone wants to bring you to, so a little research before traveling to an area on popular geocaches there rarely disappoints.  So far geocaching has taken me to extraordinary viewpoints from Italy to Tanzania…

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Re Teodorico, Verona and NgoroNgoro- A Big African Caldera Continue reading

A Visit to Cape Canaveral

Now before we begin, let’s make one thing clear: I am not a space geek. Space geeks are the sort of people who can tell you all the little details about the Apollo missions to the moon like where they landed and what the goals were of each, how the next generation NASA space launcher is shaping up, and all sorts of minutiae about which rocket is used to launch where. The space geeks and I often hang out in very similar circles so I know a lot more about this stuff than the average person, but I am an astronomy geek at heart who spends her time thinking and talking about what is out there rather than the details of going there. Put it this way: space geeks are engineers and astronomy geeks are scientists.  You can tell which is which when faced with a telescope- astronomy geeks will obsess with looking through it, and space geeks will obsess with setting the tracking and gears correctly.

That said, let us make another thing clear: just because the two terms do not overlap as much as you’d assume doesn’t mean space geeks and astronomy geeks don’t get along well, and we do love to see what the other side is up to.  So with my brother now living in Florida, and some old physics friends scattered in Florida who I hadn’t seen in years up the coast, Cape Kennedy Kennedy Space Center on the island of Cape Canaveral was the perfect meeting spot for us to meet a day, catch up with each other, and see some big rockets!

rocket-garden Continue reading

Photo: New Hampshire… Rocks!!!

Madison Boulder

huge glacial erraticIn the “list of odd things I’ve seen but never expected to” category, I am now including this rock.  It is the Madison Boulder, located innocuously off a stretch of road and hidden in the forest so you don’t really see the thing until you suddenly find yourself almost right in front of it.  And when you do it seems a bit crazy that something so very big and impressive could be hiding out in the forest without you knowing about it.  What is the biggest rock I’ve ever seen doing in the middle of the woods?

It turns out the Madison Boulder is a glacial erratic- one of the biggest in the world, in fact, with an estimated weight of 4,662 tons (though- warning, geek joke- such a precise number made me question the sign maker’s significant figure usage…).  About 25,000 years ago during the last Ice Age the entire region was covered in a giant sheet of ice more than a mile thick, which carried along boulders big and small which were made smooth by the constant pressures, but as anyone who has visited the area knows many of these were then left behind during the glacial retreat (along with a few thousand glacial lakes).  The Madison Boulder just happens to be the very biggest in all of New England.

And I know I must say this a lot guys, but science is so cool.  For thousands of years after the Ice Ages people surely stumbled across this rock wondering what on Earth it was doing hiding in the middle of the forest, but we are lucky enough to not have to wonder!  And frankly a giant sheet of ice a mile high stretching thousands of miles is probably way cooler than anything you could think up as a credible answer anyway…

Photo: View of Mount Washington

Mount WashingtonThis is the view from the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, where two things of note have happened in my opinion: the IMF was founded in the Bretton Woods conference here in 1944, and my sister got married here last week.

Which explains the silence here: the wedding was such a lovely and wonderful affair that it took a week to recover from.

That said, a bit more to come in a bit on exploring the White Mountains in New Hampshire since the wedding!  The mountains seen in the range here by the way are the Presidentials, named such since they are all named after former US Presidents, with the highest peak of the bunch being Mount Washington.  You can drive up it and gawk at the house tied down with iron chains where in April 1934 observers recorded what was the fastest wind gust in the world for many decades.  Lots of odd bits of history pop up in New Hampshire, but it makes for a lovely background to say wedding vows.

 

On the Lives I Left Behind

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Fun in the Florida sun aside, the real reason I went to the USA last week was for my sister’s bachelorette party in Washington DC.  She’s getting married this summer, and used to live there many years, so 14 ladies enjoying a night on the town was the inevitable idea.

It all went well- a lovely time was had by all, although the cherry trees are slightly late this year we found one to take the above picture under (sis is in middle, one of her friends on the left), and I more than doubled my NPS stamp collection with all the monuments and memorials in town.  However there was one feeling in me that was very strong and always becomes a bit more noticeable each time I return to the US these days: the feeling that you are staring into the face of the lives you could have lived.

I suspect this is not a unique feeling to the average expatriate, and it doesn’t mean I am not proud of the life I forged abroad.  But Washington DC is a wonderful city with a culture that I understand intimately well- baseball! brunch! IPAs!- and it’s one thing to step off the treadmill and reject where you live and another thing to come back to visit and realize everything is still going on at home without you.  And much as I think it must be great to live there and am jealous for my sister that she did, I will never live in Washington DC in my 20s because I am busy working on my doctorate a hair before I turn thirty (the Dutch system dictates I get four years of funding, so my contract states I will finish September 2015).  I know everyone’s reaction is to say you can always live there later, and that’s true, but you always have places affect you differently based on the stage of life for when you’re living there.  Just like how my now-retired parents love Florida but I can’t understand its real appeal at 27, or how I want to return to New Zealand and reflect on what it was like during my first solo adventures there, or a myriad of other places you revisit and realize they might have not changed much but you certainly did.

Once again, I love Amsterdam and I love what I’m doing with my life, but I am a woman forever plagued by the lives I chose not to live.  Usually when I vocalize this people laugh- don’t I realize I’ve done more already than most people ever manage?- which always strikes me as odd because I don’t mind what other people do, I care about what I do.  And my life happens to be ordered in “what would you regret most if you never did it?” priority levels, plus a firm belief in how you cannot waste unique skills and situations when you have them, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have some regrets for the paths you never chose.

(At this point someone will point out I am still 27, so there is time enough to do many interesting things.  While true in many ways at this point I will counter that you lack imagination, as I once worked out the time commitments for all the things I want to do and it was several lifetimes without factoring in any serendipity.)

I’m sure everyone feels pangs like this on occasion as part of the human condition, and the only people who leave life without regrets must have been very dull ones, so I will stop philosophizing now on it.  But I do think such a perspective on the choices you’ve made versus the ones you didn’t are much more acute when you leave your comfort zone for the big world beyond, and return to glimpse into the parallel universe of the lives you left behind.

Exploring the Florida Everglades

alligatorI’m visiting my parents in Florida this week for a dose of much-needed warmth and sun, and well before my arrival I made it clear that we should devote a day to exploring the nearby Everglades.  This was for a few reasons:

1) Everglades National Park is just over an hour away from their house in Naples where they have now lived for several years, yet I’ve never been there.  This is because at some point when everyone including some extended members of the family were in town I was not due to a mismatched spring break, so I fell into a vortex of “but we thought you’ve already been that time we all went!”  This also became doubly problematic for me in recent years when my adviser always asked if I’ve been to the Everglades by way of small talk when I was off to visit my parents, and I had to keep admitting I hadn’t.

2) I love the culture and history one gets living in Europe, but it does leave one wishing for wide, open, uncultivated spaces, so these days when visiting the USA I seek them out with increasing fervor.

3) Perhaps most important, I did not have enough geeky hobbies in my life so I recently began collecting National Park cancellation stamps. (Why do just geocaching and dabble in science writing which you can do anywhere on the planet when you can collect locational stamps for a country you no longer reside in?) Not only would the trip provide an Everglades National Park stamp, we would also pass through Big Cypress National Preserve on the drive in so I could obtain two stamps on one trip!  How could we not go?!IMG_1352

New stamps aside, it was actually a thoroughly enjoyable day trip.  We went to a place within Everglades National Park known as Shark Valley where a 15 mile paved loop goes out to an observation tower, which one can either go on a guided tram tour or rent a bicycle for the journey.  We went on the bicycle option, and while going on my single speed cruiser I realized why my adviser kept bringing up the Everglades- when you look out onto the “river of grass” only broken up by clumps of trees in the distance, it looks just like a Dutch national park does.

Except for the part that it’s really hot, sunny, there are no windmills, and oh yeah there are animals here who can kill you-alligator-in-water

During the course of the bicycle ride we saw four dozen and 10 alligators- cited as such because it was easier to keep track of them all- and this does not count several dozen spied from the car while driving there!  There really are so very many of them (especially in dry season where most animals are drawn to the few existing water holes), ranging from little baby alligators to great big ones longer than a person… all complete with a glimmer in their eye confirming how very evil they really are.  I know I’m personifying, but I don’t think anyone looked at one of these and felt they were cute and cuddly…

Should you find yourself at some point in southern Florida, I encourage you to head out to the Everglades and confirm this for yourself.  Thanks to my dad for letting me use some of his pictures!

Photo: Canyonlands National Park

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I think after this I am done posting a million billion scenery pictures from my time in Utah, but couldn’t resist one last one from Canyonlands National Park.  The park is where the Colorado River merges with the Green River, and used to be a site for cattle ranching and uranium mining until it became a national park in the 1960s.

This photo was taken from the Island in the Sky, which is a sizeable mesa 1,000 feet above the surrounding valley (sizeable here defined as it takes at least 15 minutes to drive across it) and with just a very narrow neck connecting it to the non-canyon surrounds barely large enough for a 2 lane highway.  You can’t see it in this picture but there’s a 4×4 dirt track around the bottom of the Island in the Sky that’s 100 miles long called White Rim Road that takes several days to complete.  Talk about an adventure!

Canyonlands was also interesting because not to sound like a broken record on this, but so few people go there the gate was closed and you had to go into the ranger station to pay the fee.  So when I did I asked the ranger there how many people visited every day which in national parks is measured by the door count (read: not entirely accurate especially in summer when you don’t have to stophere), and he said the previous day was about 200 people, but in the summer it’s more like 2,000 people.  This was still the tail end of “winter rush” though, as in a few days after new year’s, so for the rest of winter (ie around now as you read this) they’d be looking at maybe 30 visitors a day.

I asked at Arches too, which is more popular for several reasons, and they said the door count in “winter rush” is more like 300 (note, they keep someone at the gate here so you don’t have to go in) but in the summer it’s more like 3,000 people a day.  I guess my conclusion out of all of this was to not be timid when it comes to visiting national parks when out of season especially if you want some solace- the weather was fine so long as you had a jacket and normal cold weather gear, and if anything I think my pictures look better for all the snow!  Plus I’m not entirely certain why you’d want to come here in summer anyway when the temperatures soar over 100 degrees Fahrenheit… it doesn’t sound very comfortable for hiking.