Category Archives: True Stories

Anecdotes from my past and present.


Posted on August 25, 2010 by

Now that I have been home for a stretch, Ketchikan is starting to seem like something that happened a long time ago.

My favorite thing, hands down, was getting to see salmon spawning for the second time ever. Kelly and I went on a camping trip to Port Alberni with her parents, oh so many years ago. We had fun, and came home with many stories, and even saw bears. I was amazed by the fish, and have always hankered for a second look. So… spawn ahoy!


Ketchikan is pretty. Its riverside boardwalk reminded me a bit of San Antonio, which probably means I haven’t been on a sufficient sample of riverwalks.

My cousins had been keen to see a bald eagle (the caged one was not so exciting) and I was scanning for birds all along. It hadn’t sunk in that this is, on the one hand, an eccentricity of mine–“We have to stop! I heard something peep in that bush!”–and a skill I’ve developed over the years. I was also faintly surprised to learn they don’t have eagles in San Francisco. They’re common here, and I think of our ecosystems as being very similar. Anyway, I spotted this one winging it to a tree, and it was very obliging and pose-y.


The four of us walked upstream to the Ketchikan hatchery, declined to pay for the tour, shot fish from a very stinky beach, and were generally amazed by nature in action. Then we puttered back for another dunk in the hot tub and loafing with books by the ship’s windows, looking for whales. (Did I mention we saw lots of humpbacks, and a few orcas? They were just too far off to make any of my shots great.)

It was around this time that Kelly and I also embarked on making a list of shipboard observations:

–The hot tubs aren’t exactly scorching.
–They mix the drinks strong!
–This does in fact make the comedians funnier, though Merl Hobbs is quite good. Sadly, Merl’s internet presence consists of a poorly put together Myspace page with no video content that I can see, so I cannot prove this to you.
–The ASL interpreters of Merl were even funnier.
–Three and a half turns around the sundeck is a mile.
–They really want to sell you stuff.
–Including pictures! Bands of roaming photographers, some accompanied by people dressed as pirates, orcas, bald eagles, etc. are waiting to pounce on you. The next day, the pics are up in a gallery: $20 for an eight by ten.
–Little girls crushing on my cousin’s supersmart 13 year old, who is living for a September 4th Green Day concert.
–It turns out that Green Day sounds an awful lot like Rush.
–Bingo every day. Trivia quizzes. A spa that threatens to remove 8-10 inches from your body with a seaweedish treatment.
–A very nice and knowledgable naturalist who lets you know whenever there are whales about, and who then reminds you the ship has binoculars for sale.
–A TV in every stateroom with a route map on channel 14 and a live feed from the front of the ship on channel 15.
–Also pay per view. When Kelly was sick we watched Greenberg.
–Pay Per View’s inevitable consequence–Cineloathing: Greenberg was so not worth $9!
–Low ceilings. Long corridors. Towel animals. (Photos to come!) To my surprise, plenty of elevators. Lots of mirrors. Music feeds that loop on a really short cycle, so that we have now heard The Doo Doo Doo by the Police a zillion times in our chosen reading area. On the Lido deck, we had Mamma Mia, much Beatles, and oldies galore.
–A profusion of U.S. accents that make you want to drawl.
–A video arcade whose Aliens game was broken. How sad is that?
–A spectacular floor mosaic leading into the sorta non-denominational chapel.
–Extremely attentive wait staff who really don’t buy into the concept of skipping dessert, and who are obliged to either dance or sing for us after every meal. I couldn’t help feeling it was mean to make the waiters sing and dance.
–A deeply punitive attitude toward the cousin with food allergies.
–Woefully adequate food. Unimpressive decaff espresso.
–OTOH, Tea! Whenever I wanted it. Nice and hot.
–Seeing other cruise ships in the night.
–All the thousand colors of the sea, from deep violet, through the greys, into the blues and greens.
–Orange quarter moon hanging over the ocean, leaving a smeary ochre line on soot-grey water.
–How did I not know that Alaska has its own time zone?
–A briefing on how to successfully get off the ship.
–A magician who taught the kids tricks–a nice guy, who was able to talk the thirteen year old into trying escargot
–A strong tendency to always go with middle of the road as opposed to edge.
–Hideously slow, deeply overpriced, satellite Internet.
–One cold soup offering every night. Lots of iceberg lettuce.
–A rule that ships must stop in one foreign port per cruise–hence the stop in Victoria.


Posted on August 22, 2010 by

Continuing the theme of fragmented Alyx vacation posts, I’d like to note that Skagway has about 900 people.

Our ship had nine hundred staff and more than two thousand guests. And when we ambled out into the town that day, there were two comparable ships and a piker at the dock. Six thousand plus tourists at once. I think that qualifies as an invasion. I certainly wanted to run away from us all, and I was part of the hoard.

Juneau, by contrast, is home to a cozy 30,000 souls. You could actually look around and see people there who looked like they might not be tourists or those pandering to same. Our look-around had a couple of highlights–local bookstores with prominently-displayed posters of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Sarah Palin memorabilia, and a store with some lovely prints by local artists, of whom my fave quickly became David W. Riccio. There were also non-human residents, who found us boring:

After we checked out downtown, the cousins and I caught the Mount Roberts Tramway up, way up, eighteen hundred feet, I believe, enough so our mammoth home of a Carnival Spirit looked tiny!


The mountaintop had some nice trails, the usual restaurant/gift shop/bathroom configuration, and the Juneau Raptor Center’s resident Bald Eagle, a bird whose name I didn’t catch but who’s there for good, since someone shot her through the beak, which also took out one of her eyes, which in turn caused her early, permanent retirement from the hunting grounds:

We did a short hike (time wasn’t quite as abundant as it was in Skagway), took some shots, yakked and yakked some more, and generally enjoyed the scenic walk, the sunshine, and the glorious fresh air. It was sunny and temperate (I gather that it was sweltering in Vancouver and Seattle). The ship’s crew had made a point of telling us, repeatedly, that we’d had the best weather of the season. When you get a gift like good weather and this kind of scenery, you just get out and appreciate it.


Skagway: is it real, or is it Playstation?

Posted on August 21, 2010 by

A couple years ago, I went with friends to see The Magic Flute, as directed by Julie Taymar, via The Met in HD, which is–as you may guess–a satellite broadcast of a Metropolitan Opera show to a local movie screen. We walked into the theater, and they had a live feed from the house–the curtain, the stage, the people filing into their places, chattering with anticipation. The sound was perfect, the crowd infectious. I started to get excited. Then weirdness set in. The gorgeous red ranks of the seats, rising to the balconies, up, up, up, were not merely lovely. They were also familiar.

I stopped dead. “I’ve been here,” I said. But I hadn’t. This was before our New York trip.

“Me too!” Kelly agreed.

(Irrelevant pictorial interlude.)


We looked more closely. The memory sharpened. Flames. People burning… what the hell? Then, one of us, I’m not sure who, said: “Parasite Eve.”

Parasite Eve is a horror video game we owned back in our pre-Wii days. It opens with a beautifully animated sequence (which of course can be had on Youtube, Chaos but I loves me my Intrawebs) set at the Met. After the carnage, you scramble around the theater, killing monsters and hunting for clues backstage. That’s right: cartoon memories of a virtual experience were intruding on… well, another virtual experience. I was still in Vancouver, after all, experiencing the opera at a remove.

Constructions of reality. Fake memories of real places, formed in one’s living room. Real memories of simulated real places? Untangle that knot for me, Gordian.

Later, after Parasite Eve, there were MMORPGs. Asheron’s Call, first and most–I played so much I was in game when I learned about the 9/11 attacks.

I am the kind of player who sets their character to running and then bumbles around the landscape, checking the map a lot and hoping I’m not too lost. In the real world, I build up landmarks and figure out where I’m going… if not easily, at an acceptable rate. Computer worlds have a little too much repetition, I suppose. Anyway, I learn the fake contours of these game landscapes quite slowly.

Maps, on the other hand? Can barely read ’em. I can use one to navigate from place from place once I have a route worked out, but I essentially lack the gift for looking at a map and being able to imagine the terrain in 3d. Or any other d, for that matter.

What does this have to do with our recent cruise stop at Skagway? (Mmmm, Skagway. Check out their Tourist Info Center.)

Nice, huh? Okay, here comes my point: Google Street View rocks the universe.

GSV looks to my gamer brain like a slower, more varied, disappointingly monster-free version of Worlds of Warcraft. You can tool around in the real world from the comfort of your couch, using your iPod. How cool is that? In the past month, I’ve spent just enough time in virtual Skagway that I knew what it looked like before I ever got there. I was able to tell where a few key things were located before we ever landed. I knew we would be able to walk off the ship and straight into the funky smalltown cool.

Street View doesn’t take all the fun out of exploring, at least not for me. It doesn’t go into buildings or down the various little wooded paths. We and one set of cousins hiked off their grid pretty quickly on our way out to the Klondike Cemetery, where I got my favorite shot of the day:


Behind the cemetery was the waterfall. I did in fact shoot the waterfall, but the thing I found really compelling was the colony of Daddy Long Legs on this bunch of Devil’s Club berries (sorry, arachnophobes):

Finally, as we reach the end of a very rambly post, here’s a tourist tip for the caffeine-addicted: if Chowhound says an Alaska coffeeshop has the real goods in 2009, there’s no guarantee the same place will exist a year later. However, the Ketchikan Coffee Company looks like it’s there year-round, and they brew very well indeed.

The good ship Lollipop

Posted on August 18, 2010 by

Some of you have no doubt seen the interior of a cruise ship before, but Carnival Spirit was my first. The artist friend who saw the pictures described them as ‘fin-de-siecle hell-in-a-fancy-handbasket tone to it!’ kelly-yoyoKelly, meanwhile, called it a floating mall. And it did remind me of West Edmonton Mall, a bit. What do you think? (Click the pic for the whole set).

Carnival Spirit Decor

This spot is in the lounge we staked out as our reading area; within a couple days, all the loved ones knew they could look for us here. As you look, try to add in a very short CD on continuous loop; we heard “Dee Doo Doo Doo” by The Police so many times I’ve carried it home as a permanent earworm (slightly less fun than tinittis). The other five songs were unknown to me but sounded far worse.

Comfy chairs, though, and a view of sea and sometimes whales, won out.

Three hour tour

Posted on August 13, 2010 by

Kelly and I are on an Alaska cruise with my mother’s family. I am barely online, except when I’m checking in on my students, but I thought I’d shoot you all a quick update.

All told, we are five couples and one teenaged boy. Everyone but us being from the U.S., it made sense to converge on and embark from Seattle. We therefore spent Monday catching up with a friend who flew out from Waterloo to housesit for us, a lovely, brilliant, seriously-I-am-so-in-awe-of-her! brain on very shapely legs, who had a hand in designing the university’s Knowledge Integration degree. We then slept for two hours, got up before dawn, breakfasted, finished packing and caught a 6:00 a.m. train to Seattle.

If you have limited funds for a vacation and are just looking to get out of town, there are worse thing to do than take Amtrak to Seattle for a day. It was inexpensive and easy. The train’s route runs along the coast, offering better viewing than many an Amtrak route. The salt flats were dotted with herons and other shorebirds, and we caught a blurry glimpse of a river otter and its two babies, humping their way up onto the shore and into the brush. I dozed a little, rewatched the Doctor Who Runaway Bride special on my iPod, gaped at the scenery and whee! Four painless hours later we were in King Station at the heart of Seattle, down in the part of town which evokes fond memories of Clarion West.

We cabbed off to the terminal and got onto the ship with minimal fuss. We lunched, walked the sundecks, marvelled at how high up we were, scoped out the hot tubs and the good book-reading spots. Then we had dinner with the family and headed off to a naturalist’s lecture, all on two hours sleep.

The dregs of the evening were taken up in trying to find a couple of healthy snacks before bed. (We have taken to keeping a hoard of fruit in our stateroom; it’s not always out where you can get at it. Overall, this cruising thing seems more oriented to people who eat three huge meals than to people who eat small and snack between.)

Anyway, we slept like the dead, had brekkie the next morning, went back to the room and slept some more. There has been a stunning amount of reading and napping.

I had imagined sitting out in a hot tub with the ocean view all around, but I had told myself not to get my hopes up. There are 1998 other passengers, after all. But that first afternoon, that’s exactly what happened: me, Kelly, and a cousin had the hot tub on the stern of the ship all to ourselves for well over an hour. We only got out because I figured we were at risk of burning. (We both found a few barely rosy patches of skin, as a matter of fact; my timing was excellent!)

Wednesday was billed as a “Fun Day at Sea!” as we chugged north. Thursday we sailed into Tracy’s Arm Fjord and goggled at an amazing glacier, a sheer river of ice colored the most fantastic and improbable blues I’ve ever seen, ringed by coastal mountains and iceberg-studded waters. We had many whale sightings at a distance, and have had some good food and some bad food. Also stunning—in the hammer meets cranium way–is the décor, which is Disneylandish in its intensity. The elevator shaft (this is, after all, a twelve-storey building) has some open lifts and the mouldings and lights on the thing are beyond glittery. I have pictures; you’ll be stunned. There’s a Versailles lounge, a glittering, sarcophagus-encrusted Pharaoh’s Palace, a Tiki-themed Jungle, a mini-golf course, and multiple bar/dance floors. Also a casino, which is no-go territory because it’s a smoking area.

Our chosen reading area is next to one of the lounges; there are facing sets of comfy chairs by the windows on the 2nd floor, with screens separating each. The screens have Gaugin prints on them, so one is surrounded by artistic nudity. I’ve finished reading Quarrel with the King there, and have started rereading Tana French’s In the Woods. It’s all very weird and decadent, and I am enjoying the downtime, the multiple naps, and the family time very much indeed.

Except for the icebergs and my genetic relations, I haven’t found many things to shoot so far. But today we get to get off the ship—we will be in Skagway! I expect to come back to our cabin with many exciting shots.