Creek: A Love Story (aka Back to the Beginning)

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I was afraid.

Standing on the bank at my usual crossing, my eyes were transfixed on the billowing torrent of water. Just two days before, I’d been able to cross with a hop, skip and a wobble (that one damn rock!) and now: a wall of watery cocoa greeted me in the dim January light. Sticks that were not there before jutted out of the water, pitch-black and jagged, menacing.

Getting as close as I dared to the rushing waters of the tributary, I knew that at most I’d get water in my boots or possibly lose my footing and drown my iPhone in the really quite miniature rapids (ah, the trials of the Millennial!). But I’d built up a tragic, romantic death at the hands of the New Zealand mud-snail-infested creek bed and dingy waters, with a bonus of possibly being swept out into the vast waters of Lake Washington, undiscovered for months. I think Anne of Green Gables would be proud of my unbounded imagination.

For two years I’ve been visiting the small creek at our local park, Matthews Beach. There is a larger creek, Thornton, that takes all the glory as it bashes its way through the middle of the park – it warrants a pedestrian bridge of its own. But it’s just deep and swift and well-known enough to put me off spending any real quality time with it.

The creek in question and I, however, were introduced by Thornton Creek. I first happened upon the creek at its tail end, while exploring the park that was to keep our new residence’s WalkScore from falling into the single digits. My usual crossing spot (when it’s not flooded) is about 20 feet before it spills into Thornton Creek which a few yards later, flows into Lake Washington. Just upstream of my crossing point is a small pond, inhabited by ducks and the occasional beaver, small salmon and myriad frogs, and who knows how many kinds of insects.

As one follows the creek south, things get a bit tangled. A forest of young willows and underbrush cover the area between the footpath and Lake Washington, and the creek squeezes through where it can. So do I. A few unofficial trails can be found throughout the area, but the only way to follow the creek is to walk right up the middle of it.

About 200 yards up,  the creek bends westward and disappears into a culvert. It’s odd to describe the creek as “going into” the culvert, when in fact it is blasting out of the cement tube on its way “from” some mysterious place. Rejoicing in their freedom, its rapids leap out in great arcs, setting the clinging licorice ferns in constant motion, their heads forever bobbing in the spray.

For the longest time, that was where our friendship ended. Always the same – the end was the beginning, the beginning was the end. Recently I decided it was time to take my love affair with this creek to the next level. I’ve spent all my time with the last 200 yards of its journey. But, like some sort of Benjamin Button mystery, I was going to chart it back to the beginning – the real one. It seemed simple: all I had to do was find its name on a map and follow it.

As a Millennial, I expect everything to be fairly easily knowable, with a few well-phrased keywords on Google. I find myself equal parts frustrated and intrigued when I run into something that turns out not to be (ask me sometime just how long it took me to identify the movie “The Girl From the Limberlost” based on hazy plot fragments.) According to my first perusal, this creek did not exist. There wasn’t even a blue line to indicate its presence on my phone map, even when I was standing right in it. How could that be?

I remembered standing on its western bank during a good winter rain, its muddy, frothy waters sending wavelets to the toes of my boots, and wondering if I should chance it or go back home and order taller rainboots on Amazon (I did). I conjured up memories of reading “Bridge to Terabithia” and the particular brand of fear that has accompanied the rush of swollen creek banks for me ever since.

How could it be that a creek I didn’t venture to cross sometimes could not even be a blue line? Or have a name? The more time I spent searching for its name, the more it consumed me. Standing at the edge of the creek no more told me its name than perusing the internet told me about the creek itself.

In my favorite movie, Cold Mountain (which I’ve seen about 200 times), the main character, Inman, often wonders about places and names.

“Sometimes just reading the name of a place,” he says. “Near home: Sorrell Cove, Bishop’s Creek. Those places belonged to people before us, to the Cherokee – what did he call Cold Mountain?”

Sloshing my way up the creek, swatting away handsy willow branches, I wonder, too: who was here before? Who else stood on this very spot and made up their own name for this rushing rivulet?

Maybe no one, since “this very spot” has only been here since ‘98 when the Parks Department diverted the creek for a restoration project. And before that it went through many more dramatic changes. This very spot was underwater just over 100 years ago, before they built the Ballard Locks and merged Lake Washington with Puget’s Sound. The lake dropped 12 feet and the wetlands that now comprise the park and neighborhood of Matthews Beach/Sand Point dried up. The herons and redwing blackbirds ceased all their chirping and croaking and flew off to some other marshes, while the reeds and wapato shriveled up. The homesteaders got instant beachfront property. And the creek now had another 100 yards to travel.

Perhaps one of the Duwamish Tribe natives wondered about the creek’s origins as she rummaged around in its marshy effluvient on the shores of the lake, harvesting wapato to eat, or as she crossed the creek to venture south in search of game. Maybe an 1880’s homesteader got curious about the creek running through his new frontier property, and named it, himself – a vestige of American exploration and “discovery.” Maybe this creek has many names. Maybe I’ll add one of my own to its history before I’m finished. I aim to follow it to the end, but this is just the beginning.

Lofoten Vignettes

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In reading my journal and looking back on our trip, one theme jumps out at me: how colorful the Lofoten Islands were. One of the main attractions for us were the beaches: gleaming white crescents sandwiched between turquoise water and verdant stony mountains jutting into the sky. They were beaches fit to grace tropical islands, though the water was chilly, and the wind chillier. They were so quiet — the bays filled up at high tide, and snuck out at low, with nary a wave to announce it. I had a good observation deck from my perch on some boulders while we took photos of the purple sky on our first proper night in Lofoten. The light was different on every surface that night: easter egg in the sky, rose gold on the rocks, aquamarine in the water, until it got too dark to tell.


The beaches yielded unexpected treasures: perfect moon snail shells collected in lines along the rocks in hues of rust and mustard, seaweed and sand. Little curly piles of lugworm castings created an alien topography on the shore (and were fun to squish!)

We went whizzing past dozens of yellow houses and through pitch-black tunnels in our violently blue camper van. In my mind’s eye I could see us: a painful streak of azure cutting across mossy valleys and stony mountains dotted with creamy sheep, under a gloomy sky.

We stopped to admire an ochre harvest moon rise over Henningsvær. As with most of our stops, this viewing required a double turnaround. We had to wait for our light at the one lane bridge going west, then going back east before we could pile out of the car and turn our lenses to the sky. It was my duty to keep an eye to the scenery and yell out (not too frantically) to stop when there was something good. I did this about every 100 yards or so.



We fangirl’d over the iconic red Rorbuer at Hamnøy. They were perched cheerily at land’s end, black rocks and steely waves roiling below. Across the road, empty fish racks waited for winter. In December the Rorbuer would be filled with fishermen, who would soon load up the giant wooden racks with salty fish carcasses. I had the misfortune of finding a few leftover heads on the roadside, but it did give me an idea as to just how big the fish were!


We marveled at the raucous laughter of seagulls gathered in pairs on a cliff, and wondered at the sanity of the people living in the yellow house directly above.


We tried to hike, we really did. But unfortunately we chose to hike in the Emyn Muil – an impossible labyrinth of razor sharp rocks and festering, stinking marshland, as far as the eye could see. Well, a bit less dramatic, but we did get bogged out. Oh well.


We drove all the way out to the end of the archipelago, to the town of Å (pronounce at your own peril). Luckily, the Norwegians share my love of tiny things, and in this town of Å there was a display of tiny boats. Many places also had tiny replicas of their own house in the yard, which was a wonderful tradition I think Americans should adopt (along with universal healthcare and free education, of course).

We trudged up the side of a mountain to get a better view of the sweeping bridges at Fredvang, punching down through fluffy layers of duff and moss — at one point I was up to my knees, trying to stay still enough to take a photo.


We camped at beaches – popped the top after dark and woke up to stormy waves at Unstad Arctic Surf beach, and watched the tiny figures in their dark drysuits, practicing for next month’s competition. We set up in Ramberg, grateful for the communal kitchen in which to make late night couscous. We watched the ethereal emerald waves of the Northern Lights stretch above us in the most unlikely place: a sterile KOA type campground in Tromso on our last night.


So many colors, so many photos, so many memories. Until our next trip!

Here Be Vikings

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One of my most brilliant unrealized ideas is to time travel millions of years back and somehow install a camera in the sky so that it can record a time lapse of events over thousands or millions of years. I first thought of the idea in one of many trips driving though the Columbia River Gorge. I was thinking about the creation of the gorge, and the giant Missoula boulders that scoured it out during the floods, before coming to rest somewhere in the Willamette Valley.

I thought about this idea again when we were driving though South Dakota, where there are signs indicating the layers of prehistory in the hills — Paleozoic, Pleistocene, Mesozoic. How cool would it be to watch a time-lapse of all those dinosaurs wandering around and eventually getting covered up with ash and dust and making way for new ones.

I mentioned this idea to Jim when we were wandering around the grounds of the Viking museum in Borg, Norway. We’d just visited the replica of Viking chieftain Olav Tvennumbruni’s longhouse. The remains of the structure, along with tools and dishes, were discovered by some farmers here in the 1980’s while they were plowing their fields. In the surrounding area, many graves were found, with Viking jewelry and weapons interred.

We’d watched a short, melodramatic film about Olav, from the perspective of his daughter, about when they went away to Iceland and she left her new little boyfriend behind. She eventually came back and married him after her dad died, and they became the new chieftans of Borg. I have no idea if any of this is true, but it makes for a good story.

What made for a better story, I thought, were the leftovers. I assumed that the Vikings were pretty primitive, but they had keys! They made skeleton keys out of metal to lock their doors. They created intricate glass beads of different colors and designs. They carved tiny medallions of gold and encased them in glass as jewelry. Theirs was a story of hardship – of bitter cold, hewing onions out of the cold ground, their children and mothers dying, their fathers fighting. Yet they took the time to carve the beams in their longhouses, to dye their wool in bright colors and embroider their dresses, to spend countless hours creating beautiful jewelry. And then they buried it all with their dead. People are weird. I know I may sound guilty of “noble savage” syndrome, but it comforts me to know that no matter how difficult our lives are, humans find a way to create beauty and comfort.

As we walked around the area of the longhouse I imagined what it would have looked like back then. What it would have felt like. Have you ever noticed that you can “feel” whether or not there are people around you? Even if your neighbors are a mile away, you can still sense them. I imagined being at that longhouse in 800 a.d. and staring off across the rolling green hills, knowing there wasn’t another house for miles and miles.

I imagined fast-forwarding from then until now, the longhouse eventually abandoned and slowly falling apart and decaying into the hillside, layers and layers of soil and grass hiding the nearby graves from view. Millions of sheep wandering over the terrain over the years, early settlers moving in where the Vikings had vacated. And eventually, roads and horses and more and more people, dividing the land into farms and villages and eventually building highways and grocery stores and parking lots. And coming full circle with a longhouse, mere yards away from the one that was there in 800 a.d.

Not much is known about the Vikings, so if anyone figures out time travel, it’d be much appreciated.

All Hands on Dekk

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I had a lot of time to observe the red house on the hill above us as Jim, sporting a neon reflector vest, changed the front tire of our apparently-not-so-trusty campervan, somewhere in the inner Lofoten Islands.


The day’s journey had been a lesson in topography: low flat expanses of gorse and deep beds of moss running up to meet the foothills of steep, rocky mountains. The coastlines were mild — the fjords were sheltered, no pounding surf. The bays filled up quietly at high tide, then slipped away almost unnoticed. Our drive along the coast was peppered with sheep – often napping or grazing right at the side of the narrow roads.

On the suggestion of the woman who rented us the campervan, we drove out to a lesser-known island in the Lofoten archipelago. It was less touristy, as she’d said, but to my observation that just meant “less quaint.” The houses got drab, and there were more gas stations and fewer cafes. There were plenty of “marshmallow farms” out here — all the hay harvested for the summer, rolled into fat cylinders and wrapped for the winter. The puffy white forms dotted the fields. Here and there some farmer got fancy and had wrapped his hay in pink plastic, which gave their marshmallows a “Lucky Charms” feel.

The red house was asleep, no lights on, no one stirring. The play structure in the front yard was empty. At this time of day, the kids who lived there were probably at school. Out here they’d need to catch the bus, most likely. I tried to imagine what their life would be like: hopping off the bus and running to their swing set, their view a sweeping fjord flanked by farmland. And today, a gaudy, broken-down campervan, too.

“The rim is bent.” Jim interrupted my reverie.

“What?” If this situation were reliant upon my knowledge of cars, we’d have to apply for a visa to live in that van on the roadside for the foreseeable future. Maybe we could eventually upgrade to the nearby shack with the eco roof.


Without another spare, we’d be at the mercy of Norwegian backroads for the rest of our trip. We’d had enough experience with them thus far to steer away from that plan. I said farewell to the red house, still waiting for its occupants to return, as we made our way back to “civilization” in search of a dekksenter – a tire service shop.

The wind whipped my hair into a frothy mess. It was necessary to have all the windows open, otherwise the diesel fumes would have overwhelmed us.

“Don’t worry,” I’d said to Jim. “This way if we get low on diesel again you can just wring out your pants and we can fill up the tank.”

Earlier that day I’d sat in the van at the gas station, absentmindedly scrolling through Instagram when the pleasant “shhhh” of flowing diesel was interrupted by a harsher splashing sound, followed by a loud clunking and some frantic, choice words from Jim. When he climbed back in, he was “fuming.” (sorry)


As we rolled along on our snow tire, hoping that none of the others would go, I decided to pretend that we were on a mission to write the worst Lofoten travel guide to date. Sample articles include:

Picturesque Beaches at Which to Wash Diesel Off Your Hands

Best Pizzas to Order from Non-English-Speaking Convenience Store Clerks aka Where Is All the Fish?

11 Norwegian Street Names for Your GPS to Butcher

Hot! Norwegian Fashion: Mandatory Reflector Vests for Roadside Exploits – PLUS – Is Diesel the New Old Spice?

Our Rim Guy Will Be Here Tomorrow” and Other Tales

Best Overcrowded Mall Coffeeshops in Sortland To Wait At While Your Tire Doesn’t Get Fixed

Sortland Hotell & Camping: At Least the Showers Are Hot!

Hidden Norway: Minion Tire Exhibits of Svolvær



At a dekksenter (tire service) in Svolvær. The guy didn’t fix bent rims, but he at least provided a solution instead of just herding us along to some other dekksenter. The solution included a new (old) tire and a ton of sealant. The Minions (and we) approve!


If you ever spend 24 hours of your six-day trip to the Lofoten Islands tracking down someone who will fix a bent rim, you can write a competing travel guide, but for now this is the definitive one.



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Sitting in our campervan in row number one waiting for the Gryllefjord ferry afforded plenty of time for contemplation about time and place. We were taking the last outbound ferry of the season, according to the owner of the local supermarket.

The town seemed to be resting. Gone were the hordes of the summer season (30,000 strong, we heard). The clouds were close and the mountains closer. We were the only people in line for the ferry. We were the only people in the small restaurant where we had dinner.
What do people do here? I wondered. There was a store, and two restaurants, the ferry and the turistinformasjon office during the summer, but I could see at least twenty houses in Gryllefjord – what did everyone else do? Fish? A few local kids skidded around the empty streets on their bikes. Was there a school nearby?
“In December, fishing season starts,” said the store owner. Until then, Gryllefjord is on a bit of a hiatus. They get the fjord to themselves. Maybe they go on their own holidays, take the opportunity to be tourists in someone else’s town. Maybe they have a family farm they stay at, or they go to Oslo for some city life.


Jim on the ferry, leaving Gryllefjord.

Maybe they stay home and catch up on their reading, or walk up into the hills behind their homes to listen to the sheep bells and seagulls and watch the autumn fog roll in.
I felt like we were intruding – the last stragglers of the summer, caught between the seasonal ferry ride and the chilly fall air, rousting everyone for an unexpected last chat in English.

We left on the ferry, full of local coalfish and cream sauce. Now the town was wholly empty: the supermarket and restaurant closed, the ferry loaded up with all the people there could possibly be around here. Gryllefjord was still and grey as a gravestone.
The Norwegian flag at the back of the ferry was caught on a lamp post, and as we slowly made our way through the fjord it flopped around like a fish on deck. Once we lost sight of the town and cleared the fjord, the ocean winds ripped the cloth free.

We are off to Lofoten!


Last Day in Svalbard

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I had the day to myself. Jim had gone off on another boat trip, but I elected to stay behind today. The boat yesterday didn't agree with me, and after days of travel, hiking, and boat-tripping, I needed a day to just… be.


I knew I'd probably miss out on polar bears, so I walked out to the edge of town to take a picture of the polar bear warning sign (I'm such a tourist!)


Much of the surrounding area of Svalbard reminds me of the Columbia Gorge (before it all started burning down) with big folded hills, mostly stark and barren and brown. It had snowed the night before, so the tops of the hills were dusted with just enough powder to bring out all the texture of the hills, and the clouds that had obscured the tops in the days before were gone. It was bright, sunny, and 36 degrees outside.



On my way our to the sign, I was passed by a team of sled dogs pulling a 4-wheeler. I guess they have to work in the summer, too! There was a dog kennel out here — I could smell it before I saw it. The stench nearly knocked me over. The grass under the culvert on the other side of the road was *very* green, though!

sval5Also, Svalbard has a brewery! Imagine that. Their pilsner is the newest, but I tried their stout – pretty good! sval6sval7

This is whale meat – with lingonberry. Tasty!

Tomorrow we fly back to Norway. Then start leg two of our trip: camping in the Lofoten Islands!


Barentsburg Ahoy!

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Svalbard has many names. ‘Svalbard,’ roughly translating to “cold shores,” was first mentioned in Norse (Viking) reports, though they aren’t sure if they specifically meant that land mass or Greenland. But the Dutchman Willem Barentsz gave it the name Spitsbergen (“pointy mountains”) when he landed upon it in 1596.

As our boat bobbed up and down in the rolling waves of Isfjorden, I peered out the steamy window, not much more than a porthole. Our guide, a quirky tatooed girl with a shock of blonde hair falling in her face, told us the story of Willem Barentsz.

“He wrote back home that in this bay there were so many whales, you could walk from one side to another on their backs.”


from Wikipedia

At this moment in time, I would have been keener on walking. I watched the beads of water on the inside of the window and tried not to focus on how seasick I was getting. I wondered if Willem Barentsz ever got seasick. He must’ve. He floated all over the North sea route.

Unfortunately, Barentsz writing home about the whales brought ships from all over Europe to do what humans do best: bring other creatures to the brink of extinction.


from Wikipedia

The Dutch set up the first whaling station on Spitsbergen, consisting of giant cauldrons over fire pits, to boil the whale blubber into oil. They would harpoon the whale, then when it got tired, capture and kill it, and strip the blubber from the whale’s back. They took the baleen  to use to make umbrellas and hoop skirts for European women.

Soon they developed a way to harpoon the whale, cut the blubber, and boil it down all from the ship itself. But the whale population dwindled, and the whalers discovered that wooden ships and whale oil and drunken sailors with pipe tobacco habits did not make for a happy time at sea. Many of the ships burned down, and by the end of the 18th century, the whales and the whalers were gone, leaving only crumbled brick firepits and various tools behind.


We had the opportunity to eat whale meat, ourselves – Norway and Japan are the only countries that still hunt whale. They only hunt minke whale in Norway, as it is supposedly overpopulated. It is an interesting meat. It’s not like fish – it’s a red meat, and I guess because they want to ration it, it’s sliced extremely thin. The meat was never harvested during the 17th and 18th century whaling boom, though. Our guide suggested that it had to do with the religious aspect – apparently there’s something in the Bible about not eating “red meat” from the sea. What a waste!

We scarfed our food down so we could get outside to see the glacier. As we approached, we could see chunks of sea ice bobbing past. They ranged in hue from pearly white to crystal clear to dusty grey and brilliant blue. The sea itself took on that dull reddish brown that so often denotes glacier runoff.


The boat slowed down, then drifted into the bay. Once the motor stopped, all was still and quiet, except for the glacier.


Every few minutes it would creak and groan, sending a thunderous crack echoing around the bay. The boat crew netted a shining piece of sea ice and surprised everyone with a glass of whiskey on the rocks — very picturesque.


The glacier was a tapestry of peaks and valleys, radiating sapphire blue and white, tinged with black dust. A couple of times, following a great rumble, a mass of ice and snow would slide off the face of the glacier and tumble into the water, sending waves our way. Too soon, the boat started up and we were on our way to Barentsburg, the “destination” of our boat trip.

Barentsburg was… a disappointment to say the least. It was a very dark, dirty, drab place, and it was already a very dark, drab day. I am not sure Willem Barentsz would be very excited to have the place named after him. Barentsburg is a coal-mining settlement, populated by Russians and Ukrainians (“we he-ave wary heppy times here, no talk about politics,” our heavily accented Russian guide assured us). Now the coal industry is not doing so well, so most of the coal mined here goes to power the settlement itself, with some going to BMW in Germany.

There is coal in the air, coal in the rivulets of water running down the street, coal dust on the buildings, coal on the people. The architecture is depressingly Russian. The most beautiful building in the settlement is the school (70 kids live in Barentsburg) which is painted with a mural of arctic animals. It is still a blocky cement building. There is one building left from before WWII. The Germans razed almost the entire settlement, actually the whole of civilization on the island, as Longyearbyen was effectively destroyed in 1943 as well, except for one shed. The building in Barentsburg is now abandoned, but has a mural painted on it as well, along with a Russian poem.

There are apartments and dormitories for people who live there, a ‘rec’ center, a grocery store, a bar, and a hotel. After the initial tour, we all parted ways and explored the town on our own. Jim and I agreed that we would rather have had two hours at the glacier and twenty minutes in Barentsburg instead of the other way around. There was not much to explore, you can only go in a handful of buildings, and you can’t stray from the edge of town without a rifle for polar bear protection. So we stood on the pier and stared out at the water and made sport of the decrepit buildings lining the edge and wondering what it must be like to live here for the 70 children. We decided they must need a lot of tetanus shots…

“Look! a swing!” Some abandoned well-like structure with a detached piece of wood swinging at the end of a rope.

“Aw man, the jungle gym fell over…” A circular ladder over a man hole that had rusted and collapsed.

“And the slide is broken…” A very steep wooden boardwalk with most of the boards rotted away.


We were back to the boat well before it was time to leave. We made our way more purposefully to Longyearbyen, to my chagrin. I spent most of the return journey studying the ceiling of the boat cabin. Willem Barentsz, himself, did not survive the return journey to his home. He overwintered when his ship got stuck further up north, and died there in 1597. His crew brought back his journals and maps (and kindly gave him credit for “discovering” Spitsbergen). He ended up with a settlement, a sea, an island and a region named after him.

Arctic Fossil-hunting

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When Svalbard was young and verdant, he left his home below the equator to go explore the northern seas. He made his way past other floating continents, and then he met Greenland, and things did not go well. He left a piece of his heart with her, and she a particularly jagged, pointy piece of hers with him. He subsequently traveled almost as far north as a continent could get, but his youth and lush beauty didn’t last. The leafy ferns and trees that had thrived in his hometown began to wither in the cold, and eventually they turned to stone, covered with blankets of silt and soil and then ice and snow, until they were hidden from view. Then the icy chill receded, as did the snow, and the rocky remnants began tumbling down the mountainside, just south of Longyearbyen.



(Coal) Mine Number 7



There they were discovered by us. We sat on large rocks at the edge of the glacier, flipping over flat pieces to see if there were any tell-tale veins or palmated strands running along the bottom. It didn’t take me long until I found one – a row of small black leaves, almost as if someone had painted the simplest impression of wheat berries on it. Next came a reddish strand of grass, then the dark granulated fibres of petrified wood. I was in my happy place, sorting and sifting though rocks. Just beyond us, a row of snowmobiles sat, high and dry at the edge of the glacier, waiting for the winter snows to start.

Our guide told us that everyone in town just rode their ‘snoscooters’ around until they couldn’t, and then some would leave them in strategic places, while others just abandoned them in various places around Longyearbyen until the snow accumulated again.

We loaded up our bags with our prehistoric treasures and slip-slided our way back down the mud and shale (who knows how many fossils we missed!) We trekked across boulders and rock fields and eventually a makeshift bridge over the latte-colored river, down the glacial moraine where the ice and snow used to come all the way down to Longyearbyen.

I got back to the hotel and laid out all my fossil finds (okay who am I kidding — I took a nap first). But then I did lay them out and marveled at the idea that I could have a pocketful of stones from 60 (to 90) million years ago. Svalbard would not be so impressed, though. He’s been through a lot, and once he’s done hanging out up North, maybe he’ll make his way back down to where he started, and grow new trees over the old fossils.


78 North

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From the top of Platåberget, Longyearbyen looks small. In the late summer evening fog, a few lights are on, but the sun won’t “set” for at least a few more hours. The bare, greenish hills and mountains close in around the village, and we can hear the ships horns and a helicopter somewhere, but the only vehicles we can spot are a few trucks and beater cars far below us.


I can’t hear much over my racing heart and heavy breathing. “Going for a hike” means something different to Norwegians. We’ve just scrambled up 1,000 feet of loose rock, mud, and sparse grass to reach our vantage point. It’s 8pm, mere hours after our arrival in Longyearbyen on the arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Our guide, a Svalbard resident by way of Sweden by way of Romania, Adrian, has broken out the hot drinks and cookies to celebrate our successful hike, setting down the old rifle he’s carrying as polar bear protection.

Except for the snow-tipped mountains and the glacier peeking around the corner, it hardly seems like the type of place a polar bear would frequent. The hillside still shows the signs of summer: translucent white poppies, sunny saxifrage, and sprawling bell heather bow their heads to the arctic wind. We keep a look-out for ptarmigans, the arctic “rock chickens” as Adrian calls them. Though their chicks are not young anymore, he says he saw some among the rocks just a few days ago. He’s hoping to scare one up – they are best viewed in flight with their winter feathers putting on a show. But for now we are the only living creatures in sight.

Adrian is the best kind of guide: filled with all manner of information that you will not find in the travel brochure. The rickety wooden structures that form a line along the hillsides of Longyearbyen are relics of the coal mines that used to operate here. They held up the lines that transported the swaying carts of coal up the valley.

“Do you see that nice house down there?” Adrian asks us, pointing to a big green house at the edge of town.

“That’s the governor’s mansion. The people of Svalbard were not happy to have a governor appointed to them, so they built this nice big house for him — right under the coal carts. He’d be sleeping, and there’d be big loads of coal banging onto his roof. He couldn’t have his windows open because of all the coal dust.”

One night, the story goes, one of the coal carts came crashing down onto the house, crushing the governor’s bedroom. The townspeople immediately started celebrating, before they realized that he was (luckily for him) in the bathroom and not sleeping in his bed.

Apparently Longyearbyen’s tricky relationship with its governor hasn’t changed too much since 1925. Because of the isolated location of Svalbard, the governor has almost dictator-like power over certain areas of the government, and it’s not uncommon for them to turn a blind eye or take part in corruption.

“It’s the Svalbard mafia,” says Adrian. “There’s a monopoly on shipping, on groceries, on IT work, you name it.” One time, he says, “they” tried to raise the price of beer from 9- to 15- in one day.

“That’s the closest people in Longyearbyen would come to riot,” he says.

By this time we’re most of the way down the hillside again. It’s around 10pm, but it’s not very dark. Longyearbyen has grown back to its rightful size, the colorful houses stark against the darkening hillside. The Svalbar is open and we can hear laughing all the way down the street. Sunrise is at 3am, so we close the blinds and crawl into bed. A long end to a long day.

The Great American Eclipse

blog, photography, pnw & travel

In the movie "The Dark Crystal," there is an event that occurs every 999 years ("The Great Conjunction") in which the three suns converge and create a powerful beam of light. The light tore a rift in the earth, revealing the Dark Crystal. It also allowed the creation of the evil Skekses and burned up one of astronomer Aughra's eyes when she looked at it. A prophecy was made that another creature, a gelfling, must travel far across the land and heal the crystal in order to get rid of the Skekses. While my journey to the Great American Eclipse was no such great pilgrimage, and contained no mystical creatures, good or evil, it was still worth writing home about. I probably could've even gotten a crystal from some hippie at SolarFest.

As I was driving, I wondered how many other people on the road were going to the same place I was (likely), and how many had taken the same exact path (not as likely, as I made several loop-de-loop detours). I visualized all the paths taken to and from the Path of Totality through the heart of Oregon, and for some reason this visualization manifested itself in the form of slug trails, and I began imagining all those shiny lines of slime heading to Madras, where all we slugs would ultimately shrivel up in the 90 degree heat (it was a long boring drive, okay?)




I had anticipated more of a to-do (an apocalypse, really; anyone else read the Oregonian?) and brought a 5-gallon gas can, a big water jug, enough Kind cranberry-chocolate-almond bars to last a year, even cds (real cds!) to listen to so I wouldn't run my phone battery down playing iTunes. As it was, I could count the number of folks on 197/97 into Madras without even using my toes. I left Portland (my first waypoint) at 5:30am on Saturday, and rolled into Madras just before 9am. My aunts weren't even awake yet by the time I hauled all my stuff into the trailer.

"You're just like your mother," they said. She'd left from Eastern Oregon about that time the day before, too.

I spent the weekend alternately exploring the hillside near the trailer park and hiding out in the air conditioning watching Anne of Green Gables on VHS and making jewelry with my crafty aunt Shirley. There is a neat trail that goes through the gully out Willow Creek Road in Madras. It passes under the "new" train trestle, past a few meager waterfalls, through a gauntlet of towering rock formations, and winds its way down from there. It used to be a railroad to Metolius, apparently, and you can see piles of rubble where they dynamited the old train tunnels along the way. Some of the rock faces now have bolts in them for climbing, but other than that they were untouched. It seemed odd (sadly) to me that no one had tagged them, yet. Mom and I talked about the proclivity of people to value history over current events — how differently graffiti and homeless camp trash are viewed in comparison with ancient cave paintings and piles of discarded shells or animal bones. How humans have never been particularly bothered to "leave no trace," and wondering when our "trash" will turn to "treasure."

The night before the eclipse, we all watched "Dolores Claiborne" and decorated our eclipse glasses with leftover holiday stickers one of my aunts wanted to get rid of. Not that one needs an excuse to watch it (who doesn't need to hear the line "Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to" regularly?) but the fact that the climax of the plot takes place during a total solar eclipse made it particularly poignant for this weekend. We were miffed that Kathy Bates got a 6+ minute eclipse and we were only going to get a little over two minutes – that's hardly time to murder someone and cover it up!

The two minutes was worth it, though. After breakfast on the day of the eclipse, I packed up all my camera gear and we headed to the field next to the trailer park. People were hiking their way up the hillside to the plateau for a better view. I could've done, but I was there to spend the eclipse with family. We all had our decorated eclipse glasses, each a unique blend of cleverly cut foam Halloween stickers and feathers, and when the new moon took its first bite out of the sun shortly after 9am, we all put them on and turned our faces to the sky.


Then we got bored. As amazing as the total eclipse part is, the 2+ hours while the sun and moon converge and split gets old. I got a crick in my neck. My face grew hot. I had a headache from focusing my eyes so intensely for so long. We chatted. We drank water. We took silly pictures. We tried to take photos of the eclipse with our phones through our eclipse glasses. I'd have given anything for a selfie with a Skesis right about then.

Around 10, there was a noticeable change in light. It wasn't like sunset, or rise, because the light was coming from high up in the sky, but it had a strange, "watered down" quality. The landscape around us appeared 2D. My uncle reported that the mourning doves across the field had started setting up to roost. I switched lenses on my camera and set it on the tripod.

At 10:15 we were all fixated on the sun with our glasses on, and the last sliver was disappearing. People up in the hills and all around the field started whooping and hollering. I thought it was funny for people to be cheering for the sun's disappearance. A thousand years ago we would have been cowering in fright and thinking about our impending doom (and probably burning out our retinas, too).




I watched until the last tiny bead of sunlight disappeared behind the moon, then whipped my glasses off. I wasn't wasting any of my two minutes and ten seconds wearing those, no matter how awesomely decorated they were. The cheering grew louder, even as the people doing it disappeared into the temporary dusk. The ring of the eclipse was faint at first, then it bled out farther, pretty suddenly. I watched it for a few seconds, then remembered: photo! All my best-laid plans of taking a long exposure went out the window as I grabbed the camera and zoomed in as close as I could and shot as fast as I could. I wanted to get a good photo, but I also didn't want to fiddle around with the camera and waste the experience. I took a couple dozen quick photos, then put the camera down.




I looked around the field and the hillsides, trying to decide what time of night it reminded me of, wondering if the bats were out and the bees had gone to bed. I wondered what the doves would be thinking in a few minutes' time (probably "WTF??") and going back to thinking about pre-industrial people. They wouldn't be on autopilot like the bats and the bees, simply going back in their huts to eat and go to sleep. They'd recognise the abnormality of it. But neither would they have enough knowledge to put them at ease so they could enjoy the view and ride it all out until it got light again. Add to that a superstitious mind-set and I'm sure they'd be freaking out, dreading all sorts of vengeful gods scenarios.

I took my last couple of photos just as the beads started reappearing on the other side. We all reluctantly replaced our eclipse glasses as the crowds started cheering again at the sun's return. The Great Conjunction was over. Shortly after, people were trickling down from their vantage points on the hill, photographers in the field around us were packing up their gear. We stuck it out, clear until last contact. All that was left were the tacky eclipse shirts we were wearing, and the goatshead to pluck out of our shoes. Or so we thought.

But the sun wasn't done with us yet. Besides leaving us with a tinge of red on our cheeks, later that night it made a spectacular exit behind the hill, hiding itself for the second time that day. I abandoned dinner to chase it, all the way to the train trestle, where it was swallowed up in the haze coming from the fires at Sisters.



I managed to avoid all the apocalyptic traffic scenarios this weekend by leaving at a time normal humans consider to be barbaric – 4:45am. My mom and I stole out of the trailer park before dawn and tailed each other up to Biggs. We sat in the empty diner, me still wearing my corny eclipse t-shirt. I ordered horrible diner coffee and had a breakfast burrito. Then, as the sun re-emerged in a shroud of smoke, we went our separate ways, east and north.