Saturday, August 29, 2015

New Book - The Phosphate Pupfish

The Leon Springs Pupfish, endemic to caves in Texas, looks remarkably similar to the fictional Ponce's Pupfish that lives only in Hardee County Florida and there only in Hayslett's Pond.  Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife


Since moving to Florida nearly 8 years ago I have been particularly revulsed by the phosphate mining industry and what their relentless destruction of Polk and nearby counties is and has been doing to the quality of the environment.  Its a multi million dollar industry in Florida and environmental regulators, more interested in keeping their jobs than defending the earth, regularly look the other way when it comes to permitting new (endlessly new?) phosphate mines. Each is open pit and each is a horrific scar on the landscape. The phosphate industry tells us in their literature that "phosphate mining is only a temporary use of the land" which is true. They "use" the land only temporarily to extract the phosphate but then leave a permanent scar behind them.

There is not much that can be done to reign in the phosphate industry; likely nothing will be done until people start dying from the toxic runoff or when their drinking water is polluted from toxins infliltrating into the water table.  However until that begins to happen its still possible to lampoon the phosphate industry and that is what I plan to do in my next novel which I'm working on right now.

Titled "The Phosphate Pupfish" this fictional tale follows J. Christopher Ramsey, Ph,D., a retired US Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist who retires to Sarasota Florida mainly to heckle minor league baseball teams.  He also establishes an environmental consulting firm "Parrothead Environmental Investigations" whose sole purpose is to slow down the development that is consuming the paradise that 18 million Floridians moved here to enjoy.  He becomes embroiled in a controversy involving the protection of 169 pupfish living in a spring in Hardee County on the JR and Catherine Hayslett County Park and Nature Preserve.   Relying on experience gained from 31 years of fighting the bad guys for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Ramsey exposes the crooked dealings of some crooked county commissioners and the honchos in the phosphate industry who own and control them.  

You'll have to wait to read the entire book to find out how it ends but until then here is the first chapter to give you a sampling.  I plan to write it with both Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey as my guides for irreverance. 

By the way, the book is being dedicated to Cathy's dad Randy "in honor of his 80th birthday and his family's fictional pond."  Enjoy.



The Phosphate Pupfish 


Only one hundred sixty nine of them remained alive.  They swam in unison in the crystal clear water of Hayslett’s Pond, a bubbling spring in Hardee County, Florida.  They swam slowly from one side of their limestone edged domain to the other and they did so all day long every day of their existence.   There was little else for them to do.  On the surface, Hayslett’s Pond was only thirty feet wide but below the surface of this Hardee County landscape, the pond spread out like the tentacles of an octopus giving Hayslett’s Pond and the creatures in it an area of about 100 acres they called home.  Some of the locals said that Hayslett’s Pond was bottomless but these one hundred sixty nine individual fish knew there was a bottom because they had been there many times.   

To the one hundred sixty nine individuals of a fish known as Ponce’s pupfish, all that remained between them and the oblivion of eternal nothingness that comes with extinction was the confines of Hayslett’s Pond.  Their existence wasn’t always this precarious.  Just 100 years ago there were thousands of them swimming in other spring ponds throughout Hardee and nearby Polk counties.  When Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first traipsed the savannas and live oak forests of central Florida in the early 1500s looking for the Fountain of Youth, this pupfish, named the Spanish explorer, lived almost everywhere there was a spring in the phosphate rich ground that extended north to near Gainesville and south almost to Fort Myers.  They used to be everywhere.  Now there are only one hundred sixty nine of them and they all lived in Hayslett’s Pond.

Even when Ponce’s pupfish was living in springs that from the surface looked to be isolated from each other, beneath the surface all of the ponds were interconnected.  They lived in a pristine environment that was untouched by human beings.  Here in this subterranean paradise Ponce’s pupfish evolved one of the most elaborate mating systems of any freshwater fish in Florida in a paradise that was free of almost all predators.  It was an environment where they were allowed to just be pupfish. 

Things started to change for Ponce’s pupfish one day in 1904 when a steam shovel began ripping central Florida to shreds in its quest for phosphate.  The steam shovel could remove only one cubic yard of earth with each bite but that was enough to start the ball rolling against the fish.  With considerable determination and the passage of much time, one cubic yard became ten and then ten became 100 and soon 100 eventually became almost the entirety of Polk County.  Now much of the phosphate laden portions of central Florida appear from the air to have a pock-marked face like a survivor of severe acne.  At least with acne the damage is short-lived and the scars can be removed.  With phosphate mining the scars are long-lasting and remain on the earth’s face forever.

When the first freshwater spring was destroyed by the phosphate miners nobody seemed to pay much attention.  There were so many other springs and so much phosphate to mine that destroying one little spring didn’t seem to really matter.  In the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter.  Many years later engineers building four-lane highways across the landscape would say in environmental impact statements that the loss of ten acres of wetlands by highway construction would make no difference because there were hundreds of other acres of wetlands within ten miles of those being lost.  At first the engineer’s argument was truthful. Except to the creatures living in the wetlands those ten acres didn’t really matter.  And it didn’t really matter when the next ten acres or even 100 acres were lost.  There were plenty more where the first ones came from.  Losing wetlands didn’t matter.  What mattered was making money and there were billions and billions of dollars that could be made by mining phosphate and wetlands and springs and little fish in them didn’t really matter. 

The earth it was said would heal from these wounds but after more than 100 years of raping the earth for phosphate, the earth and its creatures were feeling the effects.  Now after relentless mining with no concern for how it affected the earth, only one hundred sixty nine individuals of Ponce’s pupfish remained, and they were all in Hayslett’s Pond.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cruising Aboard the Norwegian Sun


We first saw the Norwegian Sun in Tampa harbour in late February 2015.  She was leaving later that afternoon bound for Roatan in Honduras, then Belize, then the coast of the Yucatan before returning to Tampa a week later.  We, too, were also bound for those ports, in reverse order, on another cruise line.  We watched the Sun leave Tampa before our ship was underway and saw her again a few days later in Belize.  Although we wanted to be on the Sun last February we knew that we would see her again in July when we boarded her in Seward Alaska bound for Vancouver, British Columbia

The Norwegian Sun

The Sun is actually one of the smaller cruise ships we have been on totaling only 848 feet long with a gross weight of “just” 156,618,000 pounds.  She displaces 26 feet of water, cruises at a top speed of 23 nautical miles per hour (26 miles per hour), holds 1,936 guests when completely full, and has a maximum crew size of 908 people.  The crew on the Sun during our cruise was made up of 60 different nationalities and, has become the norm by now, looking at the crew you have to wonder if anyone is left in the Philippines!  We met a few people from South Africa and talking with each of them made me want to go back there so badly.  

Cathy met a man from Mauritius in the Indian Ocean who I quizzed about his island and whether I need to learn French to be there because Mauritius is on our SCUBA bucket list.  One of the things I enjoy the most about cruising is meeting and being around people with all sorts of skin colors and all sorts of accents.  As the old adage goes “When you meet someone who speaks in broken English remember that they know another language.”  It’s like walking down a street in Washington DC absorbing the diversity each time I board a cruise ship.

After spending the 2014-2015 winter based in Tampa making weekly runs to Central America, the Sun moved North to her home in Vancouver where she made 14 day roundtrips or 7-day one ways between there and Seward, Alaska until early September 2015.  Then according to the roster she departs for Valpariso, Chile and spends the austral summer (our winter) on cruises between there and Buenos Aires, Argentina.  On a couple of her trips she stops over at Stanley in the Falkland Islands.  I would love to be a guest on her again in about 6 months.

Stateroom 9241


We enjoyed a little more than 200 square feet in Stateroom 9241, a starboard balcony room on the ship’s ninth deck. It was almost exactly in the middle of the ship ensuring a comfortable ride if we ever encountered rough seas (we never did).  The room came with the now-standard amenities of a balcony stateroom – large comfortable bed, a fold-out couch, desk, writing area, mini-bar (that we did not touch) and more than ample storage. There were two dressers, many other drawers and a large and spacious closet.  



A flat-screen television that had seen its better days hung from one wall and large mirrors were everywhere.  One important note for future travelers – there are only 2 electrical outlets in the room.  One is in the restroom and the other under the television.  If you have a need for more electrical access for your phones and other toys, dash down to Target and get a six-space electrical power strip. We learned the hard way on the Norwegian Sky long ago that an electrical power strip is among the most important purchases you can make in preparation for a cruise.


The restroom of Stateroom 9241 was, well, a restroom.  It was spacious for a cruise ship, adequately stocked and came complete with a shower that was large enough to turn around in easily without knocking your elbows on the sides.

The Decks of the Norwegian Sun

With just 12 decks the Sun was lower than some of the other ships we have been on.  

Deck 12 was home to specialty restaurants like La Bistro (French), the Ginza Restaurant, Tapanaki, and Cagney’s Steakhouse.  Each of these specialty restaurants impose an additional charge ($30 per person on top of drinks for Cagney’s) and each requires long pants. Consequently we only saw them from the exterior.  Fine views of the ocean could be had from the Observation Lounge on Deck 12 forward and cold beer in even colder weather could be found outside at Champs Bar.    

The basketball court on Deck 12 received a lot of attention even when it was cold and rainy.

Deck 12 also had the golf driving range, shuffleboard court (for the over 90 crowd), the kids pool and one four-person hot tub.  The chapel was on this deck but I never found it.

 Deck 11 was home to the Garden Café where all buffet meals were served.  The variety of offerings in the Garden Café (at least when we tried it) was surprisingly diverse.  Aft of the Garden Café was the Great Outdoors Café that offered breakfast late into the morning and that had the requisite bar.  It was a bit rainy and chilly through most of the cruise so this area wasn’t used often.  Just off the Great Outdoors Café, on the port side, was the Sports Bar where Fox “News” Channel blared loudly.  I mostly just plugged my ears and raced through the Sports Bar as quickly as humanly possible.


The outdoor cafe wasn't too popular early in the trip when rain and cloud were the normal weather.
You would think that the televisions in the Sports Bar would all be tuned to sports channels but it was here that the Fox "News" Channel blared loudly each day.  I simply covered my ears and walked through quickly.

Four hot tubs and a large swimming pool adorned the center of Deck 11.  Except for very few hearty souls the pool was largely vacant during the entire cruise. Cathy and I made use of the hot tubs several times and it was here near the pools that the crew put on a fantastic salmon bake the last day at sea (the only fully sunny day at sea).  Forward of the pool area was the well-supplied fitness center and forward of it was the over-priced salon and spa.


Only the heartiest individuals spent much time in the pools or the hot tub.

The fitness center had all the requisite equipment


Decks 10, 9 and 8 were set aside entirely for guest staterooms (this is where all the balcony rooms are located). 

Deck 7 aft was the balcony of the Stardust Lounge where one night we enjoyed a very good performance of the songs of Burt Bacharach.  I had forgotten how many songs that man wrote.  This deck also was home to the Splash Club for Kids, the Teen Club and the Champagne Bar.


Balcony view of the Stardust Theater

I wonder what drink was served most often in the Champagne Bar?

Deck 6 held the wide promenade that the hearty few used for running and getting in their Fitbit steps when the weather wasn’t too chilly.  The Windjammer Bar was here as was Dazzles Nightclub, the Havana Cigar Bar, the Internet Café, and the Library.  It was here also that the over-zealous ship’s photographers were constantly set up trying to photograph you from every possible angle.  
The Windjammer Bar - Cruise lines make it impossible to die of thirst while at sea



The well-equipped Internet Cafe charged $0.95 a minute to connect. I waited for WiFi in ports or simply until I returned home


The well-stocked library didn't carry any of my books. I need to talk to them about that oversight

Apparently cruise ships make money from all the photos that are taken however the amount of wasted paper that comes from all of the unpurchased photos at the end of a cruise is damned near criminal.  
The ultra-helpful people at Guest Services and the Shore Excurisions desk were always available to help.


In case you couldn't find enough places to shop onshore, there was an abundance of places eager to separate you from your money while you were onboard the ship

Deck 6 was also home to a large number of shops where, if you hadn’t already shopped until you dropped in a port, you could continue to buy stuff onboard.  I think the Casino was on Deck 6 but I don’t really remember.  Casinos usually reek of cigarette smoke so I avoid them except to take a picture for my blog posts.

Deck 5 held the Atrium, the Atrium Bar, the ultra-helpful Guest Services desk, the Shore Excursions Desk and the port shopping consultants.  La Cucina restaurant, the Four Seasons Restaurant, and Seven Seas dining room were each on Deck 5

The Seven Seas Restaurant requires men to wear long pants. That means I never went there.

Deck 4 was also a stateroom-only deck.  Rooms here were either interiors or porthole windows.

Deck 3 was where the all-important Medical Center is located and it was from Deck 3 that we also accessed the Gangway when going ashore in several ports especially when accessing the life boats that tendered us ashore to Icy Strait Point.  Luckily, having recently had cardiac ablation surgery I did not have to visit the Medical Center on this trip. What a relief!

The gangway was located on Deck 3

The Food

Cruise lines, and especially Norwegian Cruise Line, take great pride in promoting the many dining experiences available on cruise ships.  Whereas most cruise lines have set times for meals and even pre-select your seats and tables, Norwegian’s “Free Style” dining is much more relaxed and care free.  If you want to go to a sit-down restaurant then go when you want to.  Except for the specialty restaurants and the Seven Seas Dining Room there are no dress codes (other than a shirt and shoes) which makes it much more enjoyable.
The buffet line at the Garden Cafe was filled with all sorts of goodies 

We visited the Garden Café each morning for breakfast and the breakfast selection was bountiful.  We also went to the Four Seasons Dining Room for dinner every night but the first night at sea.  Each time we visited the Four Seasons we were lucky enough to be seated by a window where we observed fantastic scenery zipping by us as we enjoyed superb food.  I had the filet of salmon for dinner every night (after all it was Alaska) and I never tired of it. Cathy tried a couple of other offerings including a rib eye steak that she still talks about.   
We ate dinner every night but one in the Four Seasons Restaurant.  We lucked out and had a table by a window each meal.  This restaurant comes highly recommended.  Go with the fliet of salmon.  You will not be disappointed.

Each meal begins with an appetizer (try the wild mushroom quesadilla) and ends with a hearty dessert. Most nights we had an assortment of cheeses (how very French is that?) but one night the chef prepared the Volcano.  We first had a Volcano on the Trans-Atlantic crossing of the Norwegian Star and were ecstatic to find out they prepared it just one night on the Sun.  It’s a decadently decadent mixture of a super-rich brownie with ice cream and a side of strawberry compote. It might not sound like much from the description but after you’ve had your first Volcano you’ll likely find yourself walking over to the Cruise Consultant’s desk to book another Norwegian Cruise.  We learned our last night at sea that if the Volcano is not on the menu just give the chef 24 hours’ notice and they will prepare it specially for you.  How is that for customer service?
Words can't adequately describe the sensation you receive from the first bite through the last of The Volcano.  This dessert alone is worth the cost of a cruise on Norwegian

Although I am sure someone somewhere will complain there was bountiful supply and variety of food in the buffet style Garden Café.  There was also pizza available on Deck 11 from 12:00 noon until 2:30 p.m. each day.  The short hours of pizza availability are a stark contrast from another cruise line (the one with a red smoke stack) that offers pizza 24/7.
For whatever reason the Norwegian Sun offers pizza for only 2 1/2 hours a day.  Those who had it raved about it

Since our last cruise most cruise lines including Norwegian have begun to impose a $7.95 charge (on top of all the other charges) to use room service.  Except when I was ill one day on the Norwegian Star I don’t think Cathy and I have ever used room service but previously there were tons of plates and trays left in the hallways after various meal times.  Not so this time on the Sun where it was rare to see any servers bringing room service and equally as rare to see trays left in the hall.  If the cruise line’s strategy was to cut down on the amount of time staff runs around bringing pots of coffee to people who don’t want to go get a cup themselves then they have succeeded hands down.

The Cruise

Route of the Norwegian Sun from Seward Alaska to Vancouver British Columbia

We departed the Anchorage Airport aboard the Alaska Railroad cruise line service to Seward.  Norwegian bills this as a pre-cruise excursion and it was an excellent way to begin the trip.  We highly recommend this option for getting to Seward rather than a chartered bus.  One of the many advantages is that you check in for the cruise in Anchorage Airport where you get your cruise card / room key and where you check your luggage.  It is then hauled down to Seward separately from the train.  If you choose the chartered bus the luggage accompanies you to Seward and then you wind up standing in incredibly long lines in Seward waiting to check in.  For train riders, we simply walked from the train to the cruise terminal, made a perfunctory run through security, and then walked on this ship.  Presto!

We boarded the Sun about 6:00 p.m. and after getting settled into our room had our first dinner in the Garden Café.  After completing the required and totally ridiculous fire drill (where you learn how to put on a life jacket but nothing more – I still don’t know how to board a life boat!) we were underway a few minutes after 9:00 p.m. on our way down the center of Resurrection Bay to the Gulf of Alaska.  Cathy and I had fished these waters a week earlier from her brother’s boat and had very good success. Now as we chugged our way down Resurrection Bay to the ocean we could only ponder what a fishing line might produce.
Cathy caught her first halibut.............

.... and her first Silver Salmon in Resurrection Bay before we left on the cruise

Day 2 -  We cruised Hubbard Glacier in Yakutat Bay for a few hours in the afternoon but did not go ashore anywhere (there was no place to go ashore!).  We reached the glacier in mid-afternoon and spent a couple of hours watching and listening to huge chunks of ice break off and fall into the sea.
Watching ice break off from Hubbard Glacier and then hearing the thunderous roar as it crashes into the ocean was one of the highlights of the cruise

Day 3 – We passed Cape Spencer and left the open ocean about sunrise (4:30 a.m.) and later came ashore in life boats used as tenders for a day at Icy Strait Point on Chichagof Island.  The island and our experience there were two of the highlights of our trip.


Tiny little Hoonah on Chichagof Island was one of the high points of the trip.  Make sure you have a pint of Cannery Red Ale while you are there!

Day 4 – We arrived in Juneau at 7:00 a.m. under cold rainy drizzly skies (it was Juneau after all) and then departed at 1:15 p.m bound for Sawyer Glacier. One huge complaint I have about this cruise was the waste of time and diesel fuel needed to visit Sawyer Glacier.  
 I hope one day to see the sun in Juneau.  

It is one 1/10th the size of Hubbard and not nearly as spectacular.  However to get there we had to cut our Juneau visit short, travel south away from our next port to spend a few minutes looking at Sawyer, then turn around and head back toward Juneau and beyond to our next port in Skagway. I would much rather spend 8 or 9 hours in Juneau and actually be able to do something there and forego a brief glimpse at Sawyer Glacier (after you have seen Hubbard Glacier there is absolutely no comparison when you get to Sawyer) than to waste precious natural resources chugging down to Sawyer.  Of course I’m not the CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line so all I can do is suggest. But if I was in charge the only way a Norwegian Cruise Line guest would know about Sawyer Glacier is if they saw it on a map.

Day 5 – We put ashore in Skagway at 7:00 a.m. and rented a car from Avis for a quick trip to the Yukon Territory.   This was Cathy’s first time in Canada and that alone was worth the effort to get there. We enjoyed the crippling beautiful scenery enroute and only wish it had not been rainy and cloudy so we could have seen more.  We spent the afternoon in Skagway where we enjoyed lunch at the Red Onion Saloon and Brothel Museum. It was another highlight of the trip.


If you dont stop by the Red Onion Saloon and Brothel Museum in Skagway then you really can't claim to have been in Skagway

Day 6 – We arrived Ketchikan, Alaska’s “Frist City” and the self-proclaimed “Salmon Capital of the World” at 1:00 p.m. and set sail again at 8:00 that evening.

Day 7 – This was a sea day spent traversing Canada’s incomparably beautiful Inside Passage. Wow isn’t a strong enough word to describe it.


Day 8 – We very sadly and reluctantly arrived in the super-efficient cruise terminal in Vancouver British Columbia a few minutes before 7:00 a.m. where we concluded the cruise.  


Vancouver has to be the most beautiful city in Canada. I only wish the mountains hadn't been engulfed in cloud so Cathy could have seen them

We finished breakfast in the Garden Café at 7:15, vacated our room, and raced through Canadian Customs and Immigration.  We walked a few hundred meters to the Waterfront metro station where we found the Canada Line bound for the Vancouver Airport.  We paid $2.50 Canadian (about $2.00 US) each for a ride on the subway and we arrived at the airport at 8:35 p.m. less than an hour after walking off the ship.  By far this was the most efficient and humane departure from a cruise ship we have ever experienced. Good job Norwegian Cruise Line!
A bittersweet end to a great cruise aboard the Norwegian Sun

Criticisms and Suggestions

Although the view from a Starboard balcony is great, if you can get a balcony on the port side for the trip down to Vancouver do so. Should the clouds part and you can see the mountains of the Wrangell – St. Elias range you will be in for the treat of a lifetime. That can’t happen on the Starboard side.

Forego Sawyer Glacier.  After Hubbard Glacier it’s a waste of our time and your diesel fuel.  Give passengers more time in Juneau.

Service charges – Cruise lines make their money from selling liquor at extortionate rates; $10 US for a 32 ounce can of Foster’s lager (that is brewed in Canada not Australia by the way) is the best deal you can get.  However to obtain that bargain price you are also socked with a 18 percent service charge. All the bar tender does is reach around behind him or her, pull a can of beer from the cooler and hand it to you and for that you are charged $1.80 in “service”.  I don’t think so.  The total time it takes to complete that transaction is about 2 minutes and you are charged $1.80 for those two minutes.  Assuming the bartender sold Foster’s at the same rate all day that means the cruise line is making $54 an HOUR handing you cans of beer.  Order a $44 dollar bottle of very good Pinot Noir in the Four Seasons restaurant and for that you are socked with a $7.92 service charge.  Trust me it did not take $7.92 worth of time and effort to grab a bottle of wine off the shelf, walk it to your table and pull the cork.  To put that ridiculous charge in perspective, the national minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 an hour!  It didn’t take that server an hour to bring you a bottle of wine – more like 5 minutes.  This is not the fault of the servers – they are just doing their jobs.  It’s all about corporate greed.  A 10 percent service charge I can understand.  18 percent is extortion.

Everyone on Norwegian is charged $12.95 a day in service charges for the room stewards and the wait staff in restaurants (those in Suites are charged $14.95 a day).  This is a mandatory charge tacked on to your bill at the end of the trip.  Rather than this nuisance charge that you are going to pay anyway, why not just add $13 a day per person to the cost of the cruise and do away with the service charges.  And quite frankly if you are already paying $3,000 a person for a suite isn’t it a bit of an insult to add $15 a day to their bill?

Summary

This was another in a growing list of special trips I have made with Cathy since meeting her.  It was our fourth Norwegian cruise and we now have Silver status with the cruise line.  That allows us some extra perks like a chocolate on your pillow at night (that only happened one night!) and invitation to an exclusive wine and cheese get together with the ship’s officers.  It’s a refreshing way to be shown that you matter to the cruise line.  It is also another reason I hope we keep finding time in our schedules for more cruises on Norwegian Cruise Line
Jimmy Buffett's association with Norwegian Cruise Line guarantees that we will be on many more Norwegian Cruises

Norwegian recently signed an agreement with Jimmy Buffett to put “Five O’Clock Somewhere” bars on each of its ships and a “Five O’Clock Somewhere” bar on Little Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas.  I guess this means that my next goal is to cruise on each of Norwegian’s ships to have a beer in every “Five O’Clock Somewhere” bar.  Life is tough when you are retired.


The most difficult part of any cruise is putting it all behind you

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ketchikan - Land of the Totems




Rain fell in buckets the first time I landed in Ketchikan.  Travel guides celebrated the rugged mountainous beauty of Alaska’s self-proclaimed “Salmon Capital of the World” but all I saw was rain.  It rained again my second time there and some people I talked with were convinced it was from the same storm I had experienced six months earlier.  Five years passed before I returned to Ketchikan and this time the rain was so heavy I was convinced that Harbor Seals were pairing off in twos and purchasing boat building material from a local lumber yard. There is a very good reason that Ketchikan is also considered the rainiest city in Alaska – most likely because it is.


You can't get much further south in Alaska than Ketchikan and still be in Alaska

Judging by the number of fishing vessels racing around in the channel between Ketchikan and Gravina Island it’s probably safe to say that Alaska’s “First City” deserves its proclamation as the Salmon Capital.  Having once visited Naknek on the Alaska Peninsula near King Salmon on Bristol Bay, I think that Naknek probably produces more salmon than Ketchikan and probably more rightly deserves the moniker of Salmon Capital.  It’s all about marketing.


Alaska's First City is also its rainiest city

A curious and by now totally foreign golden oval shined brightly in the sky over the Norwegian Sun as we made our way through the Inside Passage toward Ketchikan.  We were about even with Thorne Bay when the clouds parted revealing a brilliant blue sky and even more brilliant sunshine.  Guests on Deck 11 hurriedly lined up in sun tanning chaise lounges and started soaking up the first sun rays we had enjoyed in six days.  I had read somewhere that the sun is obscured in Ketchikan an average of 300 days each year.  If you are here on one of those 65 other days you are “one lucky son-of-a-bitch” as a drunken Indian once said to me while we waited in the Ketchikan airport for Alaska Airlines to fix our broken plane.

Today we were two of the lucky ones the Indian talked about ten years earlier. Ketchikan sits at the edge of the gigantic Tongass National Forest, an area of more than 17 million acres and by far the largest National Forest in the United States. Set aside by the US Congress, the purpose of Tongass is to ensure a supply of wood products for the future, to provide for recreational opportunities for humans and most importantly to provide for the protection of water quality for all of those salmon.

Being a natural resource and existing on Federal land, the Tongass National Forest is also subject to the vagaries of political thought and the greed of politicians who possess those thoughts.  Some years ago former U.S. Senator and later Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski was a strong and vocal proponent of extensive clear cutting of the forests of the Tongass.  His well-rehearsed lines pulled at our heart strings as he told about economic hardships experienced by his loyal constituents and how only widespread logging would save their future.  After all these were American trees and Americans had the right to make a living cutting down these American trees. 


At 17 million acres Tongass is the largest National Forest in the United States

There were just two things that Senator Murkowski failed to mention during his soliloquy.  First and foremost the bulk of those American trees were being cut down and shipped to Japan where they were milled and sold back to America as finished products.  The Senator also failed to mention that he sat on the Board of Directors of the largest bank in Southeast Alaska. It was the very same bank that handled the bulk of the proceeds from the sale of all those American logs to Japan.

Murkowski made out like a bandit on these tree-cutting deals.  Japanese corporations made out like thieves on the deals and American’s who needed the lumber products for building material paid higher prices for American wood products that had been re-imported from Japan.  Today Frank Murkowski’s equally corrupt daughter Lisa is one of the two Senators from Alaska.  She is one of the strongest proponents of taking the National Forest system out of Federal control and turning it over to the States.  Lisa and others of her ilk claim that allowing the States to manage these forests is better for the forests than to let the Feds retain control.  Past experience with other natural resources suggests only that the States can sell off land more quickly than the Feds because they have fewer regulatory impediments.  

Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska are famous for their ceremonial use of totem poles, structures made of logs and festooned with symbols of various animals that tell stories.  Many totems from around the Southeast are preserved and interpreted at Totem Bight State Historical Park north of Ketchikan.  We had rented a car for a brief foray to the park to study the totems but until it arrived we explored the tourist area near the cruise terminal.

Ketchikan’s waterfront is cluttered with an endless string of tourist shops each selling “authentic” Alaskan goods for authentic tourists to carry to their authentic homes.  One of the largest, the Tongass Trading Company, carried a t-shirt for a particular brand of Alaskan beer that I enjoyed.  Piled beneath a huge sign proclaiming the “Made in Alaska” authenticity of the shirts, I pulled one out to examine it.  On each shirt was a large blue sticker with the words “Made with 100% American cotton” emblazoned across the shoulder.  “American” was written in all capitals, I’m certain to get the point across that here in even the rainiest salmon capital in the world even the shirts were patriotic.  These 100 percent cotton signs were there on these authentic made in Alaska t shirts despite the very real fact that cotton does not grow in Alaska and especially in the rainforest part of Alaska. 


Ketchikan's waterfront is Mecca for cruisers searching for "authentic" Alaskan goods, especially, it turns out, those that are made in Haiti

Not satisfied with the description I looked at the label inside the neck of the shirt where the truth was revealed.  There on each “Authentic” Alaska t-shirt made with “100 percent American cotton” was a smaller label that read in French “Fabrique en Haiti avec polyester.”  Here in reality, cruise ship tourists at the southernmost tip of the Land of the Midnight Sun were gobbling up authentic Alaskan shirts made in Haiti from polyester.

Our rental car arrived on time at a predetermined downtown location and we quickly set out for Totem Bight State Historical Park. Each totem tells a story using animals that were important to the Tlingit.  Eagles and ravens, probably the two most important animals in their culture, soar through the skies.  Whales, otters and dolphins occupy the ocean while bear, deer and wolves live in the forests. Each animal had a special meaning. For instance the Raven is a symbol of the creator. Eagles signify peace and friendship.  Killer Whales are a symbol of strength.  Sea turtles symbolize mother earth.  Wolves with their power can help people who are ill. Otters are a symbol of laughter, salmon represent persistence and owls represent the souls of the departed. 


Totem Bight State Historical Park is only 8 miles from downtown Ketchikan

A Tlingit story tells a tale about someone or something that has happened and its carved in a long washed up on a beach.  There are thirteen different stories preserved and interpreted on the thirteen different totems at the state park.  The Pole on the Point totem depicts a shaman wearing a headdress of bear claws and a fringed leather apron.  A carved club in his hand symbolizes one of his spirit powers.  A halibut and two river otters below the otters are spirit aides and the animals together depict a sense of adventure.

The Sea Monster Pole includes a village watchman standing ground at the top of the pole. Below him are two eagles and beneath them are faces painted to represent the mountains and clouds that are habitat for the eagle.  Below this is a mythical sea monster whose face is in the process of devouring a human at the base of the pole.  Still another pole, the Raven at the Head of Nass Pole, incorporates a Raven (symbol of the creator) and a smaller human representing ancestors of the Raven Clan who benefitted by the Raven’s theft of daylight.  This is perhaps an early reference to Ketchikan seeing the sun only 65 days a year!

Also present was a Clan House that could have housed 30 to 50 people.  Inside the cavernous room was a central fireplace surrounded by a platform.  Traditionally Clan Houses served as living space for two or three families of a certain lineage (either Raven Clan or Eagle Clan).  Inside the carvings symbolize the exploits of others who lived in the Clan House.  Designs on the front of the house symbolized great wealth.  Perhaps, then, this Clan House was the home of a chief of the local Tlingit population at some time in the past.


Entrance to a Clan House where two or maybe three families lived.  This one has symbols indicative of wealth so maybe a chief and his family lived here

Studying totems long enough you slowly begin to understand how to interpret some of what is being described.  However I firmly believe that a huge hit of peyote would help even more.

Ketchikan’s annual Blueberry Festival was winding down one block off Main Street when we returned from Totem Bight.  We wanted to participate but little remained of the festivities other than small crowds walking away from the area, many of them with a dark blue stain on their lips.  Near the festival area we encountered the Sitka Fur Gallery and next to it the Sitka Fur Gallery Outlet.  Each was stacked with the fur and hides of enough animals to make old Parker Hide and Fur in Rice Lake, Wisconsin look like an amateur operation.  Anyone who belongs to PETA would have a field day becoming enraged at the Sitka Fur Gallery and its outlet.  One item was a coat of sea otter fur that was marked down 70 percent from its original $3,695 to “only” $1,099. Curiously, for whatever reason, the “native made” sea otter coat had been dyed a deep crimson red.  It was almost the color of the Northern Cardinals at your feeder in winter.  Having worked with sea otters for several years while living in California I don’t recall any of them being crimson red.  Maybe there was some peyote involved in manufacturing this coat.

An attempt to get a beer at Annabelle’s restaurant downtown became a disaster when we waited at a table for 28 minutes and received no service.  Frustrated we walked north through the tunnel to the Asylum Bar that we had seen from the road on our return to Ketchikan.  A sign proclaiming “Cheapest Beer in Town” drew us to the Asylum.  It was a classic local’s bar with loud music blaring, baseball on the television, the stench of cigarette smoke everywhere, and drunks lining the bar.  It resembled any of a hundred beer joints in the north woods of Wisconsin that I may have entered at one time in the past.


The Asylum Bar has more character per square inch than any of the tourist traps near the cruise terminal. They also have huge quantities of Alaska Amber on tap.  Uncredited image downloaded from the Internet

Our bar maid, a native of San Diego who followed a now-former boyfriend north to Ketchikan, was visibly and verbally annoyed that she had to work on the day of the annual Blueberry Festival.

“There is only one festival that I like in this god damned town,” she started, “and it’s the Blueberry Festival.  It’s usually so cloudy and depressing around this fucking town that you never see the sun. Then when it’s finally a sunny day and it’s on the day of my most favorite festival, I’m stuck in this rat hole pouring pints of beer for a bunch of drunks!”

To say she was non-plussed by the situation was an understatement.

I asked about the bar hours. “We close at 2:00 a.m. every day rain or shine and it’s usually raining.  We open at 8:00 a.m. every day except Christmas and then we sleep in and open at 9.”



Alaskan Amber beer is the finest tasting beer I've had anywhere in the world. I'm not sure what "Alt Style" means but I'm a strong proponent of it

We drank a pitcher of Alaska Amber beer and then had two more pints.  The price we paid was one-third what it would have been on the ship and half what was offered at Annabelle’s where we received no service.  We stayed as long as we dared and then scurried back to the ship to prepare for our 8:00 p.m. departure.  There was not a single cloud in the sky anywhere around the rainiest city in Alaska as we left the pier and made our way south.  We certainly were two of those lucky people the drunken Indian in the airport prophesized about ten years earlier.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Skagway - Where the Klondike Gold Rush Was Launched



Skookum Jim Mason, Tagish Charlie and George Cormack were fishing in Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River near Dawson Yukon Territory in the middle of August 1896.  One of them spotted a pebble in the stream and picked it up.  Curious about the pebble one of them put it in his mouth and bit down.  The enamel of his teeth didn’t crack but a small dent was left in the rock.  That could mean only one thing – Gold!

Word spread as quickly as was possible in the Arctic in 1896 and soon Rabbit Creek was renamed Bonanza Creek. Familiar with Canadian mining laws of the times, many locals staked out mining claims along Bonanza Creek and what was later known as the “Klondike Gold Rush” was on.  Those who got in on the action early recovered obscene amounts of gold from Bonanza Creek.  Many of them, who were soon known as “Klondike Kings” became incredibly wealthy.  Some have estimated that the Klondike Kings found more than $1 billion worth of gold (using current standards) in a very short period of time.

News of the discovery was very slow reaching other parts of the world mainly because of the remoteness of the gold fields and the lack of communications systems.  However once word reached Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and points south, a stampede was on with hopeful gold seekers filling every steamship that had a northern destination.  What few of the stampeders knew at the time was that most of the gold area had been staked out before anyone left Seattle and there was very little room left for anyone else.  There would be few if any chances to strike it rich when or if they ever reached the Klondike.


Climbing the Chilkoot Pass outside of Skagway was only part of the first 50 miles of the 600 mile journey to the Klondike. More people died or turned back out of frustration than ever reached the gold.  Image from the KLGO Collections

Less than six month after the steamship Portland arrived in Seattle carrying more than a ton of gold from the Klondike, more than 100,000 people had left for the Klondike.  Reaching the gold fields by rail and on foot was a nearly insurmountable task in those days.  However one long sinuous fjord north of Juneau that came to be known as the Lynn Canal extended inland to less than 50 miles from the Yukon border.  Tent cities sprang up at the head of Lynn Canal.  One of them was called Dyea and the other Skagway.  From both settlements, the stampeders had only 600 more miles to cover to strike it rich.

Although more than 100,000 gold seekers struck out on the adventure somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 of them ever reached the Klondike.  Some turned back when they realized their quest was futile but many more continued on.  From Dyea their first obstacle was climbing up to Chilkoot Pass and from Skagway it was White Pass.  Skagway, originally known as “Mooresville” and founded by a steamboat captain named William Moore was inundated with more than 10,000 people hoping to move on.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police required anyone attempting to reach the Klondike to carry with them one year’s supply of food and other necessities before they were allowed to enter Canada.  Lacking the needed supplies the unlucky were turned back at the border.  Outfitting  that many gold seekers with everything necessary for at least a year in the wilderness caused general stores and other outlets to be constructed and opened and from that the tent city of Mooresville became Skagway.

Hardships almost unimaginable befell the gold seekers as quickly as they left Dyea and Skagway.  Malnutrition and starvation killed many of them.  Gunfights and suicides killed many more.  Pack animals didn’t fare well either as evidenced by one area along the Chilkoot Trail that quickly became known as “Dead Horse Gulch.”  If swarms of biting insects weren’t nuisance enough in summer then cold was in winter.  Temperatures of -20 degrees F were common along the trail and it regularly dipped down to -50 degrees F in the dead of winter.  This was all in the days before neoprene and Gore-tex and others were available to keep everyone toasty warm.


Steamships like this one carried gold seekers down the Yukon River in hopes of striking it big in the Klondike. Most never did.  Image courtesy of Parks Canada.

Gold rushers lucky enough to make it the first 50 miles inland from Skagway and Dyea were quickly faced with other logistical challenges.  From places like Lake Bennett, British Columbia, they still had to negotiate nearly 600 miles of wilderness to arrive at the Klondike.  Many built rafts to float the Yukon River while others simply paid the fare and rode steamships down the river.  For many it cost about $1,200 a person (in 1896 dollars - $35,200 in current dollars) to make the journey. 

Very few of the late-comers struck it anywhere near rich.  Because almost all of the prime mining areas had been set aside by the Klondike Kings, many of the late arrivers eventually worked for the Kings.  Wages ranged from $1 to $10 per day and for most people it was impossible to recover the huge cost of their trip to the Yukon let alone make a profit.

Some of those who didn’t strike it rich mining for gold made their fortunes in other ways. Fred Trump, great grandfather of flamboyant bloviator and pseudo Presidential candidate Donald Trump, made a fortune as owner of the Arctic Restaurant and Hotel in Bennett, British Columbia.  Some people ran dance halls, others ran lumber mills and for 20,000 to 30,000 very thirsty and very horny miners others ran saloons and brothels.  It seemed that money was there for the making by everyone other than the gold rushers who came there to make money.


Soapy Smith (in the beard) in a Skagway Bar.  Photo courtesy of the Denver Public Library

No shortage of con-men followed the gold rushers and they became quite adept at separating people from their money.  One particularly successful crook, Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, became the virtual ruler of all things Skagway.  He employed up to 300 men whose job it was to fleece the gold seekers and especially the newcomers of as much of their belongings as possible.  One of Smith’s most cunning scams was to set up telegraph poles and place wires on them but the wires led nowhere.  He then charged extortionate prices for gold rushers to send messages to loved ones.  Of course the messages never got through and most of the people swindled left for the gold fields before realizing they had been taken.  Today Soapy Smith’s remains reside beneath a well-marked grave in the Gold Rush Cemetery on the outskirts of Skagway.


Soapy Smith is now a permanent resident of the Gold Rush Cemetery on the outskirts of Skagway.  Rumor has it he will be there for quite some time. Image courtesy of the Denver Public Library

In its heyday more than 30,000 people called Skagway home.  Yet as quickly as it grew it began to decline.  By mid-summer 1898 the Klondike gold rush had become the Klondike gold bust and places like Dawson in the Yukon and Skagway and Dyea in Alaska began to shrink.  More gold was found near Nome and many of those who hadn’t learned a hard lesson from their failure on the Klondike pulled up stakes.  They began another journey further west taking with them what little they held onto from what many call the “last great adventure of the 19th century.”


Historic Skagway in its heyday

Today roughly 1,000 people call Skagway home.  Most are employed in some sort of government position whether with the State of Alaska, the Alaska Marine Highway (ferry), or the Federal government.  There is a huge increase in population in summer when hundreds of people arrive to satisfy the desire of mainly cruise ship passengers who want to relive for a moment those historic days of the past.


This long sinuous fjord known as the Lynn Canal leads travelers to Skagway.  In Norwegian my last name supposedly means "Of the fjord" so maybe my ancestors lived in an area like this on the west coast of Norway.

We arrived in Skagway early on the last day of July.  Our approach in the light of dawn was obscured by low clouds and misty rain yet that didn’t preclude us from watching Harbor Seals and puffins and murrelets actively looking for the morning’s meal.  Two other cruise ships were already tied off at 7:00 a.m. when the Norwegian Sun arrived as was the “Malaspina,” one of several vessels operated by the Alaska Marine Highway system.  Author Joe McGinnis arrived in nearby Haines Alaska aboard the Malaspina nearly 40 years earlier at the beginning of his epic journey that resulted in his book Going to Extremes.

Arrival in Skagway today is considerably easier than it was in the Gold Rush days.  Image by Christopher Matthew

One of the Cessna aircraft flown by Wings of Alaska Airlines brought me to Skagway the first time exactly 10 years earlier.  Safely on the ground I raced across six blocks of Skagway to the office of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park where I visited briefly with a Park Service employee, then entered a stamp for the Park in my Park Service passport book and as quickly as I arrived I raced back to the airport for the return flight of the same Wings of Alaska aircraft.  Thirty minutes after leaving the Park Service office in Skagway I was looking at a stuffed Polar Bear in the Juneau airport.  Today I intended to stay a little longer in Skagway.


Most visitors were lined up at the depot for the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad for an excursion to the top of Chilkoot Pass aboard a replica of the actual trains that used to carry passengers up the side of the mountain.  Others stumbled around aimlessly stopping in as many stores as possible seeking bargains in their quest for a “Been There Done That” shirt from every port.  Still others such as Cathy and me strolled up and down the wood plank sidewalks absorbing what we could of historic past of this unique little village.


Riding the White Pass and Yukon Route train from Skagway to the top of Chilkoot Pass was a very popular way to spend a morning for many people

Strolling down Broadway toward the cruise ship dock we stopped in at #205 Broadway, the Red Onion Saloon and Brothel Museum.  Without doubt among the many period-replicated stores and store fronts in Skagway none has more character than the Red Onion.  Once considered Skagway’s most exclusive bordello, it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Without question it is the only former whorehouse recognized for its historic value that I have ever visited.


The Red Onion on July 31 2015 - before the crowds descended!

Constructed in 1897 by Captain William Moore, the founder of Skagway, the Red Onion opened for business in 1898.  Its business plan was simple.  The first floor served as a saloon where prospectors could quench their thirst.  The second floor was set aside as a ten cubicle brothel where, after satisfying one thirst on the first floor, another thirst could be satisfied on the second floor.

As the online menu for the Red Onion explains, “The brothel consisted of ten tiny cubicles called cribs which measured ten feet by ten feet.  Each room had a hole in the floor which was connected to the cash register by means of a copper tube.  In order to keep track of which girls were busy, the bartender kept ten dolls on the back bar, one for each of the girls in each of the rooms.  When a girl was with a customer, her doll was laid on its back.  When she sent her money down the tube the doll was returned to the upright position signaling the waiting prospectors that she was ready for business.”

Some of the more famous employees of the Red Onion were women whose names seemed more appropriate for a race horse in the Kentucky Derby. There were Birdie Ash, Big Dassie, Popcorn Lil, the Oregon Mare, Babe Davenport, Pea Hull Annie, Kitty Faith, the Belle of Skagway and Klondike Kate.

Business at the Red Onion boomed during the early gold rush days but by late 1898 most of the women had moved to Dawson in the Yukon to be nearer the action in the gold fields.  Eventually business faltered completely and both the bar and the brothel ceased to exist.  Reopened in 1980 with a more contemporary purpose, the Red Onion has become a major tourist attraction.


Servers in period dress took care of our orders

A hostess named Kate showed us to a table along the wall near the center of the saloon. Every seat at the bar was occupied as were most of the tables in the saloon.  As we checked out the offerings on the menu one of the servers stood at the base of the stairs and announced that the next tour of the upstairs brothel was about to begin.


“It’s only 10 dollars for 20 minutes, gents,” she said.  “Just like the old days.”  She then added with a smile, “Of course I cost considerably more.”

The menu was filled with standard pub food that, by Alaska standards, wasn’t particularly expensive.  Menu items included such things as “Streetwalker Salmon Dip,” “The Pimp” (a Rueben sandwich), “The Trollop” (turkey and provolone), “Cathouse Salad,” and “Seize-her Salad.”   There was also an assortment of pizza like “Madam Jan,” “Bombay Peggy,” “Big Dassie,” “The Shady Lady,” and “Klondike Kate.”


The menu at the Red Onion Saloon with its suggestive cover

Our server, a leggy redhead bodaciously attired in period clothing with dollar bills stuffed in her overstuffed bra asked for our order.  Smiling I said, “If you’re up for it I’d like a ménage a trois” (turkey, ham, cheese).  Giving me a look that said “If I only had a dollar for every time I have heard that one” she said “Whatever way you want it sir.”



There aren't many places where you can have lunch and tour a whorehouse museum at the same time. The Red Onion Saloon is one of those places.

The cruise crowd returned from its various excursions about the time our meals were served and there was barely room to walk.  The crowd was loud and raucous, the décor of the saloon and the entire setting was an exact replica of how I imagined a 19th century gold rush bar and whore house to be.  I left the server a $10 tip.  It took us only 20 minutes to finish our meal.