2011 In Review

Looking back on 2011, it seems like I was a pretty busy chica, in terms of traveling at least. 13 countries, 7 states (not including the ones I drove through), and too many airports to count. And now I’m back where I started! 2011 began with a four week contract aboard the NG Sea Lion in Costa Rica and Panama and it ended in the midst of another (albeit longer) contract in the same place. I wanted to do a re-cap blog about all the places I visited and wrote about this year, and share some of my favorite moments.

So to begin, after spending two months in Southeast Asia at the end of 2010, I flew straight to Panama to begin working on the Sea Lion for four weeks. Karen, a good family friend, joined me on board for the last week and then we both flew to Mazatlan, Mexico for a relaxing week at the Emerald Bay Resort, thanks to my grandparent’s timeshare.

I then took a ferry across the Sea of Cortez to La Paz where I embarked the NG Sea Bird for three weeks. Baja will always be one of my favorite places because I have so many fond memories there – swimming with whale sharks, petting baby gray whales, snorkeling with sea lions, and evening BBQ’s on the beach while the sun sets over the desert. After my three week contract, I spent a week in La Paz at Casa Tuscany and explored the small town and surrounding area. I even got to see La Paz from above!

And then I found myself, once again, on a plane to Costa Rica to do another four week contract on the Sea Lion. I have to say that I was getting a bit tired of the Panama Canal and I hadn’t been home for six months, so I was a little antsy to get of the ships for awhile. After that contract, I returned home (Vermont) for a few weeks before setting off to Seattle to begin our Alaska season up north. The cruise from Seattle to Juneau is one of my favorite voyages and it was a nice change of scenery after being in the the tropical rainforest and desert for the past six months. In Petersburg, I got to go flight seeing over the LeConte Glacier, which was incredible.

I returned to Alaska once more for another contract this past summer, and then I flew straight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to visit my brother while he was doing one of his medical school rotations. Jackson is a pretty cool town and I enjoyed getting outside to do some hiking – Amphitheater is awesome! – and I did some yoga at Inversion Yoga. While in Jackson I found out that I had the opportunity to to a 15 day cruise in the Baltic Sea aboard Lindblad’s NG Explorer. Of course I said yes, but had to scramble to get everything together in time.

After leaving Jackson Hole and taking a bus to Salt Lake City (and enduring a twelve hour layover) I then had to suffer through a 12 hour drive from Detroit to Vermont due to Hurricane Irene’s destructive path. Then I had a week at home, before boarding another plane, this one headed to St. Petersburg, Russia, via New York (where I visited some friends) and Paris. The cruise was amazing. We stopped in nine different countries along the Baltic Sea and got to listen to Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa give speeches to Lindblad guests.

After disembarking in Copenhagen, I had a long flight to Indiana where I spent a week with C and his family. Then it was back to VT for two months (!) before jetting down to Florida to spend several days with C and to swim with some manatees. C returned home with me for a visit (he’d never been to Vermont), and we took a few days to explore the woods and take a road trip across the border to Montreal and see Cirque du Soleil, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.

After Christmas and almost four months away from the ships (working, at least), it was time to begin another contract. I flew to Newark where I met C and sat in the airport for 6 hours before finally getting on a plane to San Jose, Costa Rica. And now, just as the New Year arrived, we crossed over from Costa Rica into Panama and will begin transiting the canal tonight. What a year! It feels like such whirlwind when I write it down, but I guess I’m used to being on the road so much because it felt like a normal year. I can’t wait to see what new places I’ll find myself in 2012!

Hope everyone had a good New Years. Feliz ano nuevo!

What are your best travel memories from 2011?

12 hours in Salt Lake City

Honestly, I can’t say that I’m very impressed. Maybe it’s because I’m exhausted (after waking up at 4:30 this morning and taking a five hour bus ride from Jackson Hole down to Salt Lake City) or maybe because it’s freaking hot here and I’m in jeans and sneakers and have a heavy pack on my shoulders. The first place I found after dropping my bag off at the airport and taking a bus into the city was a sprawling outdoor mall with every retail shop you can imagine and kids playing in a jumping water fountain. Not a good introduction to the city. I found a Starbucks, though, and sipped away my headache with a soy latte. I also did a little research on things to do in Salt Lake City and the #1 attraction, according to Trip Adviser, is the library. I had plenty of time – 12 hours to be exact – before my plane departed at 1:00 am, so I thought I might as well try to find it. I hopped on the Trax, an above-ground train, and went several blocks to where I thought the library was located. After walking a few hundred yards away from the station though, I felt the sweat start to drip down my back and thoughts of the air-conditioned Barnes and Noble back at the mall sounded pretty good. I retraced my steps without finding the library and spent the remainder of my waiting game browsing the shelves.

Once again I have been very bad about updating my adventures and whereabouts. My three week contract in Alaska ended with lots of rain, a massive calving in Tracy Arm, bubble net-feeding humbacks, breaching whales, and a salmon fishing bear who wasn’t very good at fishing. The calving was actually a little frightening. I was out in one of the Zodiacs with a few of the guests and we were viewing the glacier from a safe distance amid floating pieces of ice and harbor seals. But even though we were at a quarter of a mile away, we weren’t prepared for the whole face to come sliding off! I didn’t have my camera out to catch it, but it wouldn’t have done the phenomena justice anyway. After the ice broke off we were faced with a ten foot wave slowly rolling its way towards us. Thank g*d it didn’t break, because then we really would have been in trouble. The only thing we had to worry about was the floating bits and pieces of ice surrounding our Zodiac. Several were quite large and it would not have been good if they rolled over beneath us. We made our retreat from the active glacier swiftly and stealthily, riding out the waves and dodging the ice. I’ll admit that my heart was pumping a little faster than usual. I thought it ironic too, that just a few days earlier the Captain Cook experienced a similar calving and a passenger unfortunately fell and broke her leg. Even though I didn’t get any shots of the calving, our Video Chronicler was out in a Zodiac as well, so he caught the whole even on film and I managed to get a copy of the DVD. It’s just as good on video!

After saying goodbye to the Bird in Sitka, I flew down to Jackson Hole to visit my brother for a week. I’d never been to Wyoming, so I was excited to explore a new place! Jackson is a cool town, a little touristy for me, but lots going on and some great outdoor activities. Will took me up to Amphitheater Lake, a ten mile hike in Grand Teton National Park, the first day I arrived. It was beautiful and the lakes at the top were spectacular, but I found it a little difficult to breath. 9,700 feet was a little high after just being at sea level for a month! I also went white water rafting on the Snake River, mountain biking down the steep and winding Blacks trail (which resulted in two bloody knees and a major cramp in my side), and a 7 mile hike around Jenny Lake, also in the Grand Teton National Park. I set out on the last hike by myself, but met another couple somewhere along the trail and we formed a group of three. The trail was mainly flat except for a steep climb up to Inspiration Point that looked out over the lake. At the top I wondered what inspiration the view sparked and for whom…

Will had to work at the hospital during the day, but I managed to fill in the hours with yoga classes at Inversion and delicious smoothies at Lotus Cafe, my new favorite restaurant. Lots of vegan options and mostly organic! I also spent quite a bit of time making calls on my phone and writing e-mails back and forth to the patient and ever-so-helpful office staff at Lindblad. My first day in Jackson I received an email saying that there was an opening for the Baltic trip on the National Geographic Explorer! Of course I jumped on it (check out the itinerary!), but the problem was getting a Russian visa and flights in two weeks. I got it (mostly) sorted out though, and all I’m waiting for is my passport to arrive in the mailbox! Then I’ll be off to St. Petersburg Russia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Sweden, Poland, Germany, and Denmark on a 15 day cruise! I can’t wait! And I’ll try my best to keep everyone updated on the things I see and the adventures I come across. Not sure what kind of internet service I’ll have though…

Just curious, if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?  

Back in Alaska

I wish I had the dedication and enthusiasm to write a post on my blog everyday, but it seems that I lack the discipline and motivation.  Even if I’m on the road or amidst an adventure I find it hard to keep up with regular entries. So I’ll resort to a post every so often or when something absolutely spectacular occurs.

An update on where I am: I’ve been back in Alaska on the Sea Bird for two weeks now, after having two long months off in Vermont where I did a lot of yoga (Wanderlust Festival and a David Williams/Shelley Washington workshop), waited on tables at the Village Cup, and played with our cute new kitty, Butters.

I have one more week on the ship, then I’m heading to Jackson Hole Wyoming to visit my brother for a few days. I can’t wait! I’ve never been to Wyoming, so I’m looking forward to exploring the Tetons and maybe doing some white water rafting and/or horseback riding.

These past two trips on the Sea Bird have been great. We’ve had beautiful weather and cooperative wildlife. The brown bears have been hanging out at the mouths of the salmon streams, catching fish and putting on a good show for onlookers. At Pavlov Harbor last week we saw two young bears attempt to catch dinner at the waterfall as we watched from shore (at a safe distance) and in kayaks. The humpback whales have also been really active with their feeding. They’re trying to eat as much fish as possible before they make the 5,000 mile journey to Hawaii and warmer waters where they’ll give birth to their young. During the six months that they’re away from the productive waters of Alaska they won’t eat and only until they return Alaska will they break their fast.

We’ve had a lot of families on board since it’s still summer vacation for the kids, so I haven’t been super busy with massages, but I’ve been leading some good aerobic walks and helping out with the kayaks. I’m waiting to hear if I’ll be able to get on a trip to Europe in September which starts in Copenhagen and goes all the way down to Portugal. I’m crossing both fingers that there will be a cabin for me!

That’s it for now. I’ll try to be better about blogging during the week, especially if we see something really cool.

Which reminds me. There was a huge calving in one of the fiords we go to – Tracy Arm – and a day boat, the Captain Cook, was banged up pretty bad.  A woman fell when the wave hit and broke her leg, but luckily there were no other injuries. See the video here

A few shots

I’m drawing close to the end of another contract (this one was only two weeks), and I wanted to get another post out before I head home. It has been a good week, nothing absolutely amazing, but we did see some bears feeding on a dead whale carcass and we had an amazing sunset one night. Here are some pics!

One week down, One week to go

I’m sitting in a little coffee shop in Sitka, waiting for my latte. It’s grey outside and there’s a light drizzle coming down. We just finished a trip from Juneau to Sitka and it was one of the best wildlife trips I’ve been on in Alaska. We started with the orca hunting a baby porpoise (which you can now see a video of here), then while we were at Fox Creek, I discovered (while taking a “nature break” in the woods) an entire brown bear skeleton that hadn’t been scavenged at all. You could see its skull and teeth, all its vertebrate, matted fur scattered around, and each individual bone in its paw. Another gruesome, but impressive sight. It was impossible to tell how the bear died, but the naturalists guessed that it had been wounded in some way, perhaps by a bullet, and had escaped its tormentor, but was too injured to survive. Brown bear hunting in Alaska is an extremely controversial affair because nobody eats brown bear meat. Thus all brown bears that are hunted are simply shot for trophy souvenirs. So why isn’t brown bear meat eaten while black bear meat is? There is a rumor that it doesn’t taste good, but no one is willing to try it, so all the animals that are shot are left to die and decompose for no other reason than procuring a bear skin pelt.

Moving on… At the Inian Islands, which are always a good place to see spectacular wildlife, we were rewarded by a pod of humpbacks feeding on fish in the swirling Pacific waters. I was onboard watching them, but there were four Zodiacs full of guests who got to see the humpbacks up close – probably no farther than 20 or 30 feet. If that wasn’t enough, one humpback decided to breach several times for the enjoyment of those in the Zodiacs as well as onboard the Sea Lion.

The salmon are still in their staging phase – not quite ready to begin their journey upstream, but congregating in the bays and streams. In Pavlof Harbor we watched as hundreds of the fish jumped repeatedly out of the water for no apparent reason other than to show themselves off to the kayakers. At the waterfall, the hikers were rewarded with a brown bear ambling across the water with a large salmon between his teeth. The bears need to put on a lot of weight to sustain themselves over the long winter, so when the fish begin to amass in the rivers, they become salmon-eating machines.

Orca, porpoises (including the few that joined us at the bow for some bow-surfing), bears, salmon… what else could nature throw at us this week? It was a grey, dreary day in Glacier Bay and we spent the entire morning and early afternoon searching the shores and waters for wildlife to no avail. Most people had retreated inside when we pulled up to humpback whale carcass that has been slowly decomposing for several months. The guests who did remain outside on the bow, however, were rewarded with a brief glimpse of two adult wolves and their five pups! Unfortunately I was in the middle of giving a massage, so I missed them, but it’s still incredible to know that they’re out there!

As you can see, it was a great week for us on the Sea Lion. I have one more week to go and I hope it’s just as exciting!

Killing Killer Whales

I’ve seen a lot of amazing things while working on the ships, but this morning was by far one of the best wildlife sightings I’ve seen yet. One of our naturalists spotted a pod of killer whales just before breakfast and we slowly made our way over towards them. I was in the middle of my stretch class when I saw a huge black dorsal fin right off the starboard side, so I abruptly dismissed everyone and we all hurried to the bow to get a better look at the orca. Humpbacks are common and we see them every trip, but killer whales are so elusive that weeks may go by before seeing another pod.

There were four killer whales in the pod we were following and it wasn’t long before we saw them turn their attention to a small Dall’s porpoise they had separated away from its pod. For an hour and a half we watched the orca chase, nudge, hit, bite, and play with the Dall’s porpoise before they finally (and mercifully) ended the hunt. It sounds gruesome, especially coming from a vegetarian, but it was incredible. So incredible, even, that I didn’t want to run down to get my camera in fear that I would miss something. Killer whales are incredibly smart and just watching them hunt gave me goosebumps.

I haven’t written since I got back on board, but everything is going well. It sort of feels like I never left. Only a week and a half left, then I’m back home to do some more mountain biking and head up to Portland to visit Will.

Time to go… we have humpbacks off our bow.

Swimming? In Alaska?!

Yep. I did. And it wasn’t by accident either! We had a beautiful day at Fox Creek last week – blue sky and warm. After sitting out in the sun for several hours in a black Zodiac with the third mate, watching the kayakers (and rescuing one after he tipped his kayak), I was ready for the polar bear plunge. We had nine kids onboard, and they all wanted to go swimming. So Jen, our expedition leader, loaded them (and me) into a Zodiac and motored us 20 feet away from the ship. One by one we all plunged into the 42 degree water and after surfacing, swam as fast as we could back to the ship and climbed up the fantail ladder. Because the air was warmer than the water, I wasn’t at all cold after getting out of the water. The water, on the other hand, was quite chilly. I didn’t have anyone take my picture the first time, so of course I had to jump in again.

We also had some great wildlife last week too. We saw our first bubble net feeding humpbacks just outside of Glacier Bay National Park. Bubble net feeding is a type of cooperative feeding where the whales organize themselves into different positions. There is a bubble blower who blows a ring of bubbles around a school of fish 20 feet or so below the surface. Then there’s a caller who makes a loud whining noise and comes up in the middle of the bubble net to scare the fish to the surface. The remaining whales come up after the caller with their mouths wide open to catch the fleeing fish and they all surface looking like giant clams. I didn’t get any pictures of the bubble net feeding this week, but here are some from a few years ago.

We also saw a pair of male and female brown bears really close. They were browsing along the shore and we nosed the ship up close without scaring them. Later we dropped a Zodiac and got even closer, maybe 30 feet. Close enough to see the individual blades of grass hanging from their mouths. I could have watched them all day!

Finally, we saw some orcas too! We had just entered Glacier Bay National Park and someone spotted the characteristic dorsal fin of the animals. There were perhaps seven  all together, and they were having fun rolling over, showing their flippers, occasionally spy-hopping (sticking their heads out of the water), and we even saw one of them fully breach just a few hundred yards from the ship. That was their first time I’ve seen an orca breach! So cool.

To finish off the week, we sailed into Sitka early last night to watch 4th of July fireworks. They got cancelled last week in Juneau due to rain (no surprise), so they lit them off a week late. I was exhausted after a week full of hiking, swimming, yoga, wildlife viewing, and 15 massages, so I only watch for 15 minutes. It was still fun though. I can’t remember the last time I saw fireworks…

So now I have one more week to go. There will be 18 kids on board, so I’m hoping (sheepishly) that I won’t have too many massages! I’m ready for my two-week break!

I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to see bubble netters and orcas, and I did. So this week I’m hoping to see orcas on the hunt!