Monday, November 16, 2015

Letter to War-Mongering Chickenhawk Senator Marco Rubio

November 16, 2015

Senator Marco Rubio
284 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington DC, 20510

Re:  Response to the Paris Attacks

Dear Senator Marco Rubio

In response to the horrific attack on Paris on Friday night, you and other Republicans in the House and the Senate have circled the wagons and beat the war drums and devised all sorts of harmful and bombastic rhetoric about what should be done to combat the influence of ISIS.   You, like many of your fellow legislators, have openly and gleefully advocated sending more troops to the Middle East to bomb and destroy most of Syria and Iraq in pursuit of ISIS and its morphs.  Well known neoconservative Bill Kristol has advocated that 50,000 American troops be sent to Syria and the sooner the better.

I am writing as a constituent of yours to ask that you provide me and the rest of the public with a summary of your military experience and training that allows you to make such potentially dangerous comments involving the young lives of Floridians and other Americans for that matter.

I am assuming from your chest thumping that you may have served in the Army in the First Gulf War? Maybe based on your age you were a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom during the Bush Administration?   Were you with the Second Marine Division when it entered Mosul, Iraq?  Perhaps you were based at an Air Force base in Saudi Arabia where you gained the needed experience to pontificate about sending other people's children in harm’s way.

So, please, for the record, would you let me know the basis for your profound knowledge of all things military.  Where did you serve in the military?  Which branch of service? What theater of conflict did you fight in?  Basically I would like to know what provides you with the experience necessary to make life-threatening decisions about other people's lives.

Thanks.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Car Rides for Dogs - A Canine Acid Trip?

Won't this car EVER start moving?

Anyone who owns a dog has witnessed the typically slow pace of any walk on which you take your pet.  Invariably this is because he or she (or it) has to stop and sniff every blade of grass, fence post, light pole and tree trunk where every dog before it has stopped to sniff and urinate.  It’s part of the genetic make-up of dogs to not only know who is in “their” territory but more importantly to mark the boundaries of “their” territory to tell other dogs they have been there too.  Cathy’s dog Snowball T. Dog is remarkably adept at exhibiting this behavior.  Any walk in which I can get in more than 10 human strides without her having to stop and sniff something and get a message from what she is smelling is an extremely rare walk.

On those same less than 10 human stride walks she stops to urinate after smelling every blade of grass she comes near.  I’ve kept track of her stops as we have walked and on a typical 10 minute walk she urinates an average of 11 times.  Her record was 22 times in 10 minutes.  This from a dog that weighs 18 pounds wringing wet.  The truly remarkable thing is that at the end of the 22 times walk I’m sure she could have squeezed out another drop or two if the need arose.

The sniffability factor has nothing to do with a recent pass through an area. For instance we can walk from my house to the north end of my artificial lake and Snowball will sniff everything and usually urinate about 8 or so times.  Then on the return journey she will stop and re-sniff every place that she just sniffed as if something had happened in the last 18 seconds to change what she smelled previously.  Maybe, just maybe, some rogue dog passed through the area while she had her back turned and it becomes her responsibility to know about this unauthorized intrusion.  On the rare instances where a different dog has been in her territory after she gave the area an initial sniffing, she becomes duty bound to urinate on the recent urination just to show that other dog who is boss.

Although dogs are in pure bliss as they walk around a familiar area smelling everything there is to smell, most dogs get an even larger euphoric charge out of riding in a car with the windows down.  Who among us hasn’t seen a car flying down the freeway at 80 miles an hour with Fido riding in the back seat with his ears flapping in the wind?  It’s the same thing with Snowball T. Dog although she has never been in a car traveling 80 miles per hour.

Simply mentioning the words “Car Ride?” to Snowball sends her into a frenzy of excitement.  With her neither Cathy or I can actually say the words to each other unless we are prepared to take her on a ride right then, so we spell the words to each other.  It’s akin to spelling out “bad words” with your partner when you were around your children before they could spell.

With Snowball ensconced in the backseat of either of our cars we head out on the highway with her firmly attached to the window sniffing wildly as we move down the road.  Her ears aren’t really long enough to flop in the wind like, say, a Basset Hound’s ears would, but that doesn’t stop her from trying.  The entire time we are underway she is glued to the window sniffing wildly. 

But what can she possibly be smelling with a car driving 50 miles an hour down University Parkway?

My guess is that she’s smelling everything in Nano quantities

This is me waiting with great anticipation for Craig or mom to say those two sweet words "Car Ride?"

Where she is able to sniff 10 or 12 other dogs in a short 10 minute walk at home, in a car she is passing by where hundreds of dogs, raccoons, opossums, armadillos and other critters have stopped before her and each of them left their mark on the landscape.  The speed of the car is too great for her to get out and mark her territory on all those spots but my guess is she would do so if she could.

As I have watched this behavior in Snowball and other dogs I’ve tried to understand the fascination they receive from head-out-the-window car rides.  After thinking about it a long time I’m now almost convinced that a car ride for a sniffing dog is like a canine trip on LSD.  A car speeding by all those hundreds of pee puddles of previous dogs doesn’t allow a dog to get a good healthy sniff of any single puddle but added together over a 3 or 4 mile car ride and it might likely create the same effect on their brains as the kaleidoscope of colors and sensations that humans experience from a trip on LSD.

Thanks to the generous offer of Gordy Lewis who paid his way through college by selling LSD (honest, that’s how he did it) I was able to take one trip on LSD while an impressionable second year student in college. The best way to describe what I experienced is to listen to the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”  Even though John Lennon says the song isn't about an acid trip, it describes exactly how I felt.  Everything rushed by me in wild patterns and every sensory part of my body was at full alert for about 3 ultra-euphoric hours until I crashed.

The same thing, I think, happens on a more micro scale to dogs with their heads out the window of a speeding car.  Certainly they aren’t getting the psychedelic experience that a tab of LSD would provide a human, but my guess is the rush of scents sends them into some sort of temporary euphoria. If that wasn’t true then why are they so enamored with car rides and why do you have to practically unglue them from the window at the end of a car ride?

I may be wrong and probably am.  I have asked Snowball about this and despite her ability to listen closely to what I’m saying, she has not yet divulged any of her internal secrets.  Maybe one day after I say “Car Ride?” to her and she’s in a panic to get out the door and in one of our cars I’ll just point blank say “Ok, Snowball, what is it about car rides that drives you wild?”   I’ll then say “We aren’t going anywhere until you tell me.”

That will work for about 3 seconds and then I’ll relent and put her in the car before she blows a blood vessel from her excitement.  I may never know the answer but dogs do.  This is another of those times when I wish humans were more like dogs.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wednesday Morning Quarterbacking of Tuesday Night's Presidential Debate

First of all Jim Webb, whom I vigorously campaigned for in his successful run for the US Senate from Virginia in 2006, came across as a bully with a chip on his shoulder that was likely enhanced by the apparent board up his ass. He should have stayed in the Senate.

Lincoln Chafee, whose father John was a great Republican Senator from Rhode Island and who has a National Wildlife Refuge named after him, blew it when asked about his vote on an issue and he said "It was my first day in the Senate, my dad had just died, and I didn't read the bill." Anderson Cooper countered saying "you don't read legislation you vote on?" It was time to open the door and show Lincoln the way back to the Ocean State.

Governor Martin O'Malley made a breakthrough and finally had a stage where people could see him in action and on his feet. He probably doesn't have a prayer in the long run but he will bring much needed insight to issues from a different point of view. Is he Presidential? Probably. Is he Vice-Presidential? Definitely

Hillary Clinton was, well, Hillary. She seemed to deflect a lot of hand grenades tossed her way. She is a very strong candidate and she has her stuff together. After more than 20 years of dodging attacks debating among her own ilk was a piece of cake for her. Is she Presidential? Definitely.

Bernie Sanders was ....Bernie. Even if you're a Republican or an Independent you have to admire him for his passion. Not once did he waver from the message and he made his point with reasoned responses. Is he Presidential? Definitely

The best part of the debate was that everyone (even Jim Webb to an extent) respected each other. People were complimented for their past work and nobody was chastised or denigrated as, say, the blowhard from New York who wears a 'possum for his hair piece would do.

Bernie Sanders had the best quote of the night when he said (referring to Hillary Clinton) "Enough with the damned emails. Let’s talk about issues."

Someone asked "who won the debate" and as my friend R. Jayce Dickenson said so well "America" won. We were able to see real adults discuss real issues and while doing so suggest real solutions to the problems facing the nation. How refreshing. ‪#‎DemDebate

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Final Minor League Game of the Season

There was a thrilling conclusion to the Florida State League South Division championship game last night between the miserable Palm Beach Cardinals and the underdog Charlotte Stone Crabs.  The final score was Charlotte 6 and Palm Beach 4 but the game was much closer than that.  Were it not for a couple of massive Crabs home runs the outcome would have been a complete reverse.

For some reason the Charlotte fans enjoyed and encouraged our heckling. Normally they don't like it at all but when Cathy Hayslett​ and I were doing it for them, well, hell, we fit right in.  One guy sitting behind us asked me if I could focus on hitters only because he wanted to specialize in umpires!  Giving him my new heckling business card later he very proudly told us that he had been kicked out of every minor league stadium in Florida for heckling.  I told him I've only been kicked out of five.  Cathy could be heard saying "Oh, God, another goal."

Dave Hilsheimer​ would have been proud of Cathy because she not only marched Luke Voit back to the dugout after his 105th strike out of the year but she also marched the Palm Beach Cardinals manager back after he removed one of their hapless pitchers.  You have trained her well Dave.  My best heckle of the night was at the end of the third inning when I yelled "Call the paramedics; Palm Beach choked again."  There were several glares from the dugout and one faintly audible "fuck you."  We knew we were getting to them.  

The Crabs victory last night pits them against the Daytona Tortugas for the Florida State League championship.  The first game in the best of five series is tonight in Daytona.  This series creates a real dilemma for me because I've already established myself as a post-season fan of the Crabs but more importantly the Daytona Tortugas originally were the Sarasota Reds, my first minor league team.  I can't ethically heckle them either so I guess I'm hanging up my heckling cleats for the year. Good luck to both of them.

For some unexplained reason Palm Beach has blocked me on both Facebook and on Twitter so I can't send them the picture above as a suggested new logo for their 2016 uniforms. I guess I'll just have to write a letter and send it by snail mail.  One way or the other I'll remind them again that they choked.

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?


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.