Friday, September 26, 2008

Britain, oh, and Victoria, British Columbia

Okay, so you've seen all our Alaska pictures. Well, I'm still hoping to get a hold of Hub 1.0's Mendenhall Glacier photos, but they're not on this computer, and so that will have to wait.

In real life, we're just back from the U.K. We had a nice, if whirlwind visit: we attended a dinner celebrating the 4000th puzzle in the weekly series that, for many years, Starman used to edit. That was a bit of a quirky event -- a great many cryptic crossword fanatics in a smallish hotel banquet room trying, with varying degrees of success, to make conversation. Noise levels were up, and we were at a Quiet Table. As a result, we were mostly unable to get talking to the others at our table -- there were ten people in a circle: two were elderly enough that hearing and being heard were nearly impossible, four were dead quiet folks who just didn't converse even amongst themselves, two were fairly chatty until the wine overcame them, and two were Starman and me. As the one American, I was torn between my mother's staunch conviction that a dinner table HAS to have a dinner table conversation at all times, and my reluctance to reinforce the Chatty Yank caricature. So I chatted, and then (particularly when the wine drinkers to my left succumbed to inebriation) fell silent too.

Our hotel room was certainly memorable. We couldn't make the television work when we checked in. British wiring includes those massive plugs and even has on-off switches on the outlets, but nothing seemed to be amiss. Finally, on a separate wall, I saw a small metal box on the wall that instructed me to insert my key card. Suddenly, all the lights (and the TV) came on! Amazing. Well, if you're a commercial traveler (Britspeak for salesman), this makes sense -- you only need the lights on when you are in the room, plus you always know where your key card is. But they'd only given us the one card, so we couldn't split up. (We were in the F Cell Block, so there was an outer door that needed unlocking before you got to the room. If it's all sounding a bit like a penitentiary, it was.) We did learn that any plastic card would work; we ended up using the card that logs our attendance at a Binghamton, NY movie theater!

The next day, we drove to Ruislip, which is west of London and north of Heathrow. Starman's sister lives there, and we were part of a reunion of all the sibs & offspring. Thirteen people at the table, ranging from 4 to 52. Yup, that would be me as the eldest, which after a lifetime of being the youngest is quite weird. I still worry that these people -- who have been nothing but kind, friendly, open and trusting since they all first met me -- will judge me and find me wildly inadequate for their wonderful older brother/uncle. In other words, I still think like a youngest. [On the other hand, it makes me feel particular kinship with Starman's brother; we bumped knuckles on the subject of baby pictures, lamenting the dearth of photos of the fourth child to come along.] But really, I have no reason to worry, and I know that. If they don't like me, they're far too polite and self-contained to say or do anything. Theirs is a "don't ask, don't tell" family; it may well have not even occurred to any of them that they were allowed an opinion on who their brother/uncle married! And anyway, what's not to like, right?

On then to Wimbledon, and Starman's aunt, now into her 80s: Lady P., whom the family calls Pip. She's the widow of the someteenth baronet Hyphen-Surname, which explained the dark oil portraits of preceding baronets lining the walls. I gather the title died with her husband; they'd had all daughters and the one male cousin died childless. (Which would also explain the portraits; you would assume that they'd have been shipped along to the (x+1)th baronet if the title had traveled.) As an American, I had lots of questions, which I did rather understand wouldn't be polite to ask. (Asking about the transfer of the title was the one rudeness I allowed myself.) What happened to the ancestral home? How anachronistic was it to be Lady P.? Did anyone use her honorific anymore, and did she care?

Mind you, I like Pip -- she's of an era I know a bit about, as my aunts are all in the same age range. Also, being Starman's mother's older sister, Pip is the best indication I'll ever get of what my mother-in-law was like before the combination of Parkinson's and a bad fall started her current gentle slide into senility. I would love to see more of Pip, but she too feels the need to gather the family when Starman is on the doorstep. Only one of Pip's daughters was close at hand, but it was clear she'd invited all three. Not, I think, to see if the American has two heads, but rather to evidence the family connections. I like that impulse, just as I like Pip.

From Wimbledon, which is south London, to Oxford to see Starman's mother, and then on to York. Starman, bless his furry heart, did all the driving on this trip! We do feel particularly comfortable visiting his brother's family -- I know them the best, and planning a wedding in North Yorkshire cemented our relationship. We're hoping they are able to come to the U.S. next summer so that we can return the hospitality.

Okay, so that was the most recent English trip -- back to earlier in the month, and British Columbia. After Alaska, we docked in Vancouver, rented a car, took a ferry, and went right back over to Vancouver Island (where Campbell River is) to spend a couple nights in Victoria. There'll be more photos tomorrow, but for now, we'll share the ones from our tea party at the Empress Hotel.

Those are the Saluki-dog trees at the entrance of the hotel. Tea there is expensive, but yummy. Our bed-and-breakfast host advised us that you're allowed to request seconds, even if the waiter frowns (literally) when you do it!

Us, and the tea. Note that Hub 1.0's default expression is a bit, uh, dour. Remember that for when I get his photos of the glacier trek up -- he's grinning from ear-to-ear, which is not to suggest he was wasn't happy at the Empress Hotel, but that he was euphoric finally to walk on a glacier!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Special Advisory

Starman and I are off to England today, so posting may slow or even stop altogether for a few days. But we'll be back, and I still have lots of photos of British Columbia to bore you silly with post.

So hang in there. And if you're missing me, remember I have two other blogs that have been getting some attention recently: Quilting in Harmony, and my political blog. Go read those!

Campbell River, B.C.

For some reason, our ship didn't dock at Ketchikan, but rather at Campbell River. Here is a lovely photo of Hub 1.0, and a rather unlovely one of me. (Everything about the pose I'm in is ill-advised, at least from the point of view of having my picture taken.) What's interesting is that both of us were still recovering from illness -- I had been up and about for a couple days at this point, but still felt blecch, and Hub 1.0 had been under the weather the day before, when it was a sea day and we took no photos.

Anyway, here we are at the waterfront park in Campbell River, a small town on the north point of Vancouver Island, which is not where Vancouver (the city) is located. Vancouver is across some water from Vancouver Island. And to make this even harder to understand, after these photos were taken, we hightailed it back to the ship, sailed into Vancouver, left there, rented a car and took a ferry back to . . . you guessed it . . . Vancouver Island. Silly duffers.

What can I say? We enjoyed our little slice of Campbell River, and we did a teensy bit of shopping (some smoked salmon and smoked tuna for our neighbors who had done such a wonderful job of looking after the cats for us). But if you're thinking, Hmmm, not a lot there, you'd be right.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


The ship (not that one, below, but the one our intrepid photographer is standing on) is in Skagway, the last port of call in Alaska. Skagway is an olde-tyme mining town now catering to the tourist trade. Or so I'm told. I was still stuck in our admittedly-lovely stateroom, and thus couldn't join my companions on the excursion from Skagway to Canada through the White Pass. There was a train trip, and a bus trip, with some shaggy dog stories from the bus driver, a lovely woman who explained the ratio of men to women in Alaska this way: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."

Lots of twists and turns on this train trip.

Hub 1.0. We just love photographing him, don't we?

This is clearly a diesel train -- there was a steam train excursion, but I believe it went someplace silly, like a spot where you could try panning for gold.

So my two British-passport-carrying pals had to explain to the Canadians what they were doing and why. I was reassured that this was the most casual border crossing yet.

That's the suspension bridge. Did I understand correctly that the only real reason to cross was that the rest rooms were on the far side?

Hmmm -- to cross or not to cross?

The view halfway along.

No idea -- probably a rest stop on the way back.

The highway on the way back to Skagway. I believe the jokey driver said at this point, "Yeah, that's a scary bridge. If you're at all nervous, you may want to close your eyes as we go over this bridge. I do!"

Picturesque Skagway!

Although, honestly, this vista has a lot in common with small towns in the far west -- Arizona, Montana, Wyoming. Wide streets and low-slung shopping emporia.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Sitka is our first port of call -- a small fishing town that used to be called New Archangel (Novoarkhangelsk) when the Russians controlled Alaska. There's a totem pole park, and a raptor center!

I got a teensy bit nervous that they were just going to drop a rope ladder down and expect us to climb down (I could have done it, but it would have made me feel comfortable) but no, in fact, this was a very orderly exit and not scary at all. The perspective of this photo is just weird, that's all.

There was another cruise ship in port with us, which may be what this photo shows. Truthfully, I don't remember every photo. (I didn't take them all, which is part of the problem.)


Outdoor sculpture in Sitka! (We had fun imagining how Mimi would have felt about this whale.)

I told you it was a fishing village.

The guys, providing scale for the totem pole. (Hub 1.0 is 6'4" if you are triangulating...)

And now for some fish. These are salmon -- and no, I don't know if they were coho, chinook, sockeye, or chum -- swimming upstream to spawn. We watched this a long time before it occurred to us that the reason they don't seem to go very far is that they're already "there," i.e., they've reached their spot and are just spawning. At which point they die, so you can kind of understand their lack of eagerness to get on with the job.

These are almost certainly the same fish as in the picture above and the pictures below. We should have taken a movie; it would have been like these photos with maybe a tiny bit of side-to-side fluctuation.

Ah, no -- I lie. This has to be a different spot in the stream, so different fish.

We have spared you photos of all the totem poles. Hub 1.0 did go into the gift shop (mysteriously, you had to pay to get into the exhibit and you couldn't go into the gift shop without paying) to get his sister a book explaining what the figures on the totem poles meant. That allowed Starman and me to sit quietly and watch fish leap out of the water. Way, way cool, and I am very sorry I don't have any pictures of that.

On to the Raptor Rehabilitation Center. When birds of prey are injured, they come to this place, which is set up to allow them to heal without contact with humans. Very cool. Some birds can't recover and be released into the wild, so they become ambassadors, even going to schools.

There's an owl in there, I promise.

There was an interactive feature on the wall outside, so now you can see how big our wingspans are.




Mendenhall Lake

You may have deduced by now that I'm blogging our Alaska trip a day-at-a-time. Yesterday was just Sitka; today, the ship docks at Juneau. It is at this point in the journey that our intrepid travelers split up. Hub 1.0 went on a helicopter to walk around on a glacier (the British have this lovely pronunciation of the word: GLASS-ier, as if it were more highly polished than the other furniture), Starman went on a canoe trip on Mendenhall Lake, alongside the glacier, and this little piggy didn't get to go shopping but instead stayed home.

I was supposed to meet up with Sarah, a quilter living in Juneau with her Coast Guard officer husband. She was going to take me to the local quilt shops. But at 1 a.m., I had a violent attack of the Dreaded Alaskan Lurgie, as Starman called it -- some virulent form of gastroenteritis that had me confined to cabin for two days. All the resulting photos, therefore, were taken by Starman. (We also have the photos from Hub 1.0's trip, but I'll have to transfer them over from another computer, and I can't promise it will be in chronological order with the trip.)

But first the ship has to dock in Juneau.


A whale!!

The interpretive storyteller on board, Terry Breen, explained to us more than once why glacier ice is blue, and basically it's the same reason why the sky is blue, as explained to a toddler: Because I said so.

Juneau. A crazy place to put a state capital, as it literally can't be reached except by boat or plane. And the airplane approach is insane, as the imaginary point where the pilot either has to land or pull up is over water and often in the clouds. And if you do pull up, you have to clear the mountains all around, one of which has had all the trees cleared off the top just to keep planes from getting tangled up in them!

Alaska thought hard about moving the capital to the interior, within sight of Mt. McKinley, to a town called Willow, but even though nearly everyone agreed Juneau was a stupid location, the voters decided not to spend the money it would cost to build an entire new capital. What stunned me about this part of John McPhee's book on Alaska, was his recap of how many other states have moved their state capital, in some cases more than once!

Okay, so this is Mendenhall Lake, which can be reached by a bus ride out of town. Starman was on one canoe with some fellow shipmates, while the other canoe had the "grandparents" on it. We never did get the full story, but we gathered that there is (or soon will be) some TV show about grandparents reconnecting with their grandkids. One episode of this show will be about a family on board our ship: grandparents, mom and a couple pretty teenaged daughters. So in the other canoe were the grandparents, the granddaughters, the sound guy, the camera guy, and the guide. Starman figures he'll show up in a background shot at some point in the show...

Yup, I think you can see some of their equipment if you click on the photo.

And that's the glacier! It must be huge; Hub 1.0's helicopter landed and they walked around on the ice and never saw Starman's group on the lake.

One of the pretty waterfalls.

They weren't allowed to go too close to the face of the glacier, so again, it's bigger than it looks.

Glacial ice!


Starman with glacial backdrop!

I personally think this is a great photo.

At which point, they packed up and headed back into town. Starman stopped at a shop and bought me a stuffed bald eagle ("Baldy") as he couldn't get flowers. I then had to send him back out for Immodium and air freshener. He was (as always) a star -- put up with my kvetching and moaning, and hung out with Hub 1.0, who was in full tourist mode.

I have to say again, these two guys are so wonderful and such fun to travel with. If I was in a lousy mood while I was confined to cabin (the ship had rules about people who got sick), it was mostly because I was lonely without them. At the same time, I was glad that they got to do fun stuff. They had earned it!