Sunday, September 30, 2012

Alaska Part II - Denali!

Alaska Part II - Denali
We spent 4 nights near Denali National Park. Denali is 6 million acres and is accessed only by one 92-mile road that cuts into it between the two big mountain ranges. It is a "trail-less wilderness," meaning that backpackers and hikers have to bushwhack to get anywhere. The park is enormous, and actually throughout Alaska I had the sensation that I was not making any real distance, no matter how far or how fast we drove.

Evening view from our hotel in Healy, Alaska. I think that's Mt Healy in the background, but I have nothing to confirm that. Our hotel was peaceful and lovely and warm, and we were about 10 minutes north of the park entrance. It was really lovely.

The Parks Highway (named for a person, not a destination), heads north from Anchorage and passes through the Anchorage basin (including the infamous Wasilla, a depressing looking little suburb with lots of gun, alcohol, and tobacco shops but jaw-dropping views!), and then starts to climb towards the interior. The highway is two-lane and the few exits aren't numbered. After climbing for hours, you get to the Broad Pass. When we drove through - both times - it was pretty heavily clouded. On the way in, the clouds were on two distinct layers, and it was very pretty if very cold, wet, and gloomy!

Once we passed the Denali National Park entrance, we passed into a much drier and sunnier region.

Mountain ridges in the park.

Mountain ridge peeking over the hills. This was the first sunlight we saw in Denali!

Denali National Park has several different micro climates and micro regions as you drive along the road. At first it's very wooded, then it opens up to fewer trees and more tundra-like vegetation, and then it more or less switches between variations of these. Several rivers dissect the park and run north towards Alaska's interior. This is the Savage River, the first major river as you drive along the park road. The turf around the river is spongy and springy because of conditions of permafrost beneath the thin layer of soil that covers the cold ground below.

The Sanctuary River valley was very different from the Savage and Teklanika River valleys. It was very beautiful.

Grizzly bear! And though it's a little too far away for our lens, it's a pretty nice distance from which to see a big, wild, hungry bear....

Spot the grizzly!

Ian and I have traversed this continent looking for moose. We've been to Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, the north shore of Lake Superior (Canada, folks), North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming looking for moose. We had just decided after two fruitless runs through Denali that if we failed to see moose in Alaska, it might actually be our problem. Then, lo and behold, a lovely little (huge) moose was having her snack right by the side of the road. We watched her and took photos for several minutes until she ambled away. Our faith is restored and we'll attempt to see more moose in the future.

Hungry moose!

Such a sweet face!

A bull moose! Now we just need a calf, and our moose family sightings will be complete. Maybe we'll go back in spring some year....

And he took a long, calm drink from the pool. These two moose sightings have done a lot to restore our faith in the species.

We got a tripod specifically so we could take pictures of the Northern Lights. Since we didn't see the night sky - too many clouds - we put the tripod to other uses!

The Teklanika River, looking roughly west. I believe that's Mt Cathedral, but I wouldn't put money on it. The Park road closes just before the Teklanika bridge after the park's summer season closes and before the snow falls.

On Thursday it stopped raining! We drove to the end of the park road and walked for about 3.5 miles. We turned around just past Igloo Creek when we discovered several large fresh piles of partially digested blueberries and decided against trying to meet a bear with a tummyache!

From the bridge crossing the Teklanika River after the gate on the park road.

On Friday morning, the mountain started slipping off its shroud of clouds and trying to come out. We stayed a watched for quite a long time and documented it. This is the first picture where you can start to see the shape of it; see below for the whole mountain view!

And the mountain is out! This is Mt. McKinley, 20,320 feet and growing, seen from the Savage River bed view point. According to the National Park Service, only 30% of people who come to Denali National Park see the mountain. That number includes the cruise ship trippers who ride the bus down from Fairbanks, stay a night at the cruise lines' hotels right outside the park gates, drive through once, and then head down to Seward for their boat rides, but still. It was awesome.

These are the mountains east of Denali National Park as seen from the park road.

The trees were the same color yellow as the lane lines, and they all looked sort of fluffy.

The Parks Highway, connecting Anchorage to Fairbanks. It's mostly two lanes (though with generous and frequent truck lanes for passing) and has no exit numbers. It's a very nice road to drive! And as Ian pointed out, unless you could see the jagged snow-capped peaks, it looks an awful lot like Wisconsin, only emptier, cleaner, and bigger.

The eastern part of the vista from the George Parks Monument, about half an hour outside of Fairbanks. This is looking south-ish towards the Alaska Range and Denali National Park. Alaska is immense!

The central part of the vista. Mt McKinley is just off the right edge of this photo.

The western end of the vista. Mt McKinley is visible on the left.

Love that tripod!

Look! There's Mt McKinley! 20,320 feet above sea level. It dwarfs the rest of the Alaska Range, and everything else around it, and it's apparently still growing.

Looking north from the ridge that climbs to Fairbanks is also stunning -- that interior valley is astounding!

Our last morning in Healy/ Denali, we had an amazing sunrise. And because Alaska is so far north, sunsets and sunrises last for (literally) hours. It was really lovely. And it didn't matter to us that "red sky in morning, sailors take warning" because we were leaving! I will say, however, that the Alaska Highway just north of the Denali entrance was damaged by high river water: the Nenana River crested at 14.4 feet, the highest it's ever been recorded (though according to Google record keeping started in 1990), and ate out a chunk of the roadbed.

Look! There's the mountain! Behind all those clouds.... The Denali viewpoints were not particularly scenic on the days we drove past. You can see the faint image of a low ridge (certainly not Mt McKinley) behind my right shoulder. You can also see raindrops on my jacket. It was still beautiful, just less stunning than if the mountain had been out.

Nacha the dog has such a sweet face! She liked me (I returned her Kong toy to her after she flung it out of her pen), but she loved Ian.


More kisses!

Cassin the dog was very pretty. He paid no attention to me but leapt and barked and ran circles when Ian got close to his pen. He was beautiful both still and in motion.

Most of the dogs were mildly interested but not enough to really get up.

And some didn't even open their eyes! It's a tough job, waiting for the snow all summer!

Pyro the dog says, I see you, 6'8", and I would like to defy you...

But I bet you scratch a mean belly...

And in spite of my initial hesitation, you get a kiss for your troubles!

When we got back to the Anchorage area, everything was under water. It was very beautiful though quite problematic for a lot of residents! There were lots of cars stopped for locals to take pictures too.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Downtown Port-au-Prince

In early August we went on an Embassy-sponsored tour of downtown Port-au-Prince (in an armored convoy and with guards) on what they call a "windshield tour." We stopped at the Marche de Fer (photos below) and then drove past some of the most famous buildings in downtown. Most of what you see downtown is the lingering damage to infrastructure from the earthquake. Three cheers to Ian who took these photos through the front window of the Suburban!

The Marche de Fer, or Iron Market, is an iconic part of Port-au-Prince's commercial life, and it was totally destroyed in the 12 January 2010 earthquake. The CEO of Digicell, an Irish telecoms company with major holdings in the Haitian market, sponsored the reconstruction of the Marche de Fer to give hope and a pulse to business in downtown Port-au-Prince. There are two sides to the Marche de Fer: one is tourist gimcracks and a lot of paintings of various (and often dubious) quality, and the other side is practical and household goods.

Looking across the home goods side of the Marche de Fer.

Turtles! Lots of vendors were settling small turtles as pets. There were also a number of adorable kittens on very short ropes at most of the home goods stalls. Turtles play an important role in several Vodou ceremonies, so maybe some these turtles had bright futures.

Modern health care, Haiti-style. These are leeches, the old-fashioned blood-suckers. They were for sale all over the place in the market in plastic Coke bottles, and according to people we asked, are still quite popular as a medicinal treatment for a number of ills. Who knew? Luckily we can get medevaced if anything goes really wrong....

Kitchen goods, foods, spices, pots and pans -- you can get anything you need at the Marche de Fer!

Rice and beans - several varietes! - for a healthy diet. I think our dry food comes mostly from the grocery store (our maid does the shopping for us) and only the fruits and veggies come from the markets.

I think this is dried hibiscus for tea. I've never seen it like that, but they told us it was flowers for tea, and I think that's what the picture on the package looks like! And I think the bark-like things in the left of the photo are cinnamon.

One of Port-au-Prince's arteries. You can see the sprawl heading up the hill in the background; those houses are mostly in what is called "precarious conditions," and I understand there is a major political issue simmering about the government's hope to move people out of dangerous zones (landslides and mudslides) and the people's determination to stay where they've always been, except, they haven't always been there because the sprawl is relatively recent. To say there's a certain degree of distrust between the people and the government is fair in Haiti these days!

Note the almost first floor-high pile of rubble on the left side of the photo. Clean up of businesses has not advanced much because people simply left downtown and headed to the higher ground of Petionville, a town joined to Port-au-Prince by urban sprawl before the earthquake and the home of many internally displaced people (IDPs).

These next three photos show the makeshift storefronts that people are using for their businesses. The damage from the earthquake is ever-present.

Note that you can see the cinder block wall of the next building through what should be the front wall of the yellow hardware building. Much of downtown looked to be in similar conditions: basically the arcade structures covering the sidewalk survived the quake, and people use them as shelters for business.

Here's a series I would like to respectfully call "Why driving is difficult in Port-au-Prince." Commerce is in the streets, on the sidewalks, everywhere.

Haitians -- mostly women -- carry enormous loads on their heads as a matter of course. Often we see them balancing crazy amounts of fragile things (eggs!) without their hands, walking over rough ground as if it were nothing in the world.

Port-au-Prince's buses are called tap-taps, and they are strictly off limits to us. They are often brightly painted and have messages on the windows, like this one. I've seen some that say, "Mesi Manman" - thanks Mom! Lots of them also have funky metal hands -- a bit like Mickey Mouse gloves -- sticking out around the wheel wells. It's best to not be anywhere near a tap-tap when you're on the road, and all the savvy drivers (like Ian!) honk every time they start to pass one to make sure the tap-tap driver doesn't broadside the private vehicle. Lots of tap-taps in other parts of town are light pick-ups (think old Toyotas) with a raised canopy and wooden benches. People hang out the backs of them at rush hour. Ian and I agree that we don't miss those days at all!

Here's another tap-tap. That's the front window you're looking at with the frosted windshield and the bat. The top says "Free Night" (in English). Like I said, it's best to give tap-taps a wide berth.

This is looking across from the Marche de Fer. If Digicell had not rebuilt the market structure, business would go on, but it would be much more vulnerable.

The National Cathedral was totally destroyed in the 2010 earthquake, and lots of people died in the collapse. The building is closed because it's dangerous, but someone has spraypainted the Stations of the Cross around the outside so that worshipers can continue to use the area. You can see Stations V and VI in this photo. The Episcopalian Church was also destroyed in the earthquake.

Another view of the Cathedral with some remnants of stained glass still in the window.

In front of the National Palace is the "Marron Inconnu," the statue of an idealized escaped slave who used the conch shell to signal activities during Haiti's revolution at the turn of the 18th century (ca. 1794 - 1804). The Marron Inconnu shares a small plaza with an eternal flame to the victims of the Duvalier dynasty.

Haiti's magnificent National Palace was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. The government is disassembling the Palace for reconstruction. Haiti built the National Palace during and after the U.S. occupation from 1915 through 1934, and the Palace symbolized freedom and sovereignty as well as being architecturally delightful. I include a photo of the palace before the earthquake taken from a google source with "before" photos.

(not my photo, courtesy of google)

The National Palace, north wing.

The National Palace, south wing in profile.

You can buy anything on the streets of Port-au-Prince, but buyer beware!