Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Prayer, Moose, and the Northern Lights

It was the last evening of my trip, and I still hadn’t seen two important things in Alaska: the Northern Lights and the moose that frequently visit Ray and Rebecca’s yard. Just before I went to bed, Rebecca joked with me “If you see the Northern Lights and a moose before you leave, I think I’ll have to join the Mormon Church! That will mean that your prayers are really working, since it’s so unlikely that you would be here for the volcano, the aurora, and a moose without divine intervention!”

I HAD been praying to see the Northern Lights, or aurora. That night, though, I also prayed that if the aurora came, I would wake up for it. I’d been sleeping with my bedroom curtains open, even though Rebecca had told me that the aurora was not bright enough to wake you if you were asleep. So, I prayed that I would wake up anyway.

I went to bed at about 10:30 p.m., and about 1:30 in the morning, I found myself suddenly wide awake. I looked out the bedroom window, and sure enough, there was a huge arc of white light across the sky, from horizon to horizon. I was thrilled!

Since the Northern Lights can move quickly, I didn’t take the time to get dressed. I just threw on boots, put a coat over my nightgown, and ran outside. (Ok, I must admit that I did take the time to make sure that I did NOT lock myself out of the house again. I was pretty sure that getting locked out of the house and needing to ring the doorbell at 1:30 a.m. would definitely destroy any chances I had at winning the “House Guest of the Year” award!)

It was beautiful. You can see the different forms that the aurora can take on this website here:

I was seeing the homogeneous arc, which is the least active form of the aurora (meaning it doesn’t move or “dance” like the other forms do). I stood there and watched it for as long as my nightgown and I could stand to be in the cold. I took several photos.

I went back to bed and woke up again at 2:30 a.m. The aurora was still in an arc across the sky, but was now significantly wider than it was the first time, and seemed to be broken into separate strands, or whisps of light, instead of a solid arc like it had been earlier. Again, I went outside and took pictures for a few minutes.

At 3 a.m. I went outside again, but now in addition to the arc, there were several large “folds” of greenish-white light in the sky above Ray and Rebecca’s house. To get a good photo of that, I needed to walk down their long driveway.

I thought about that for a minute. Rebecca had told me that when Ray’s kids were waiting for the bus each morning, she would never let them walk down to the end of the driveway, because that took them across a path that the moose who frequently visited their yard would take. She liked them to stay closer to the house until they saw the bus, to minimize the chances that they would encounter a moose as they waited.

I remembered how Rebecca joked that if I saw both the aurora and a moose, she’d join the Mormon Church. As happy as I would be for Rebecca if she joined the Mormon Church, I really did NOT want to meet a moose in the driveway in my pajamas, and so I prayed as I walked “Please don’t let there be a moose in the driveway tonight!”

My prayers were answered and I didn't meet a moose. Sorry Rebecca! ;-)

Rebecca and Ray got up at 5 a.m. so Ray could prepare for work, and the aurora was out again then. This time, the large arc was gone, and the aurora took the “Rising Vapor column” form—it was a big green vertical stripe of light, which moved quickly and within a few minutes folded up like a scroll and was gone.

Once the aurora was gone, Rebecca took this photo of me in my boots, coat, and nightgown, to help me remember the experience.

Unfortunately, none of the aurora photos I took turned out. (I definitely need to get a tripod and figure out what I’m doing if I want to take night shots!)

The good news is, my friend Elias who I met on my earlier Aurora Viewing tour was also watching the aurora from a field in Fairbanks that night. Here are some of the images he captured:

The aurora has different colors, depending upon which gas in the atmosphere is being hit by the electrons of the solar winds, and the altitude of that gas. This website explains how the aurora gets its different colors: http://asahi-classroom.gi.alaska.edu/color.htm

Here is the Aurora in one of it's more active forms:

I feel very lucky and blessed to have seen the aurora, especially since the only reason I was still in Alaska was because of the eruption of Mt. Redoubt. I also feel very lucky to have friends like Rebecca and Ray. Thank you both so much for the wonderful Alaska experience I enjoyed with you!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Coal, Reindeer, and the North Pole

Not often do you get to visit an Air Force base, tour a coal-fired power plant, ride on a coal train, feed someone's pet reindeer, or visit Santa’s house at the North Pole. But, it was my lucky day. Not only was I missing work because of a volcanic eruption, but Rebecca and Ray gave me the opportunity to do all of these things on my bonus day in Alaska!

Ray drives through the town of North Pole (which is 15 miles SOUTH of Fairbanks!) every day on his way to work. Even though he had the day off that day, he was kind enough to take Rebecca and me there to check it out.

The town of North Pole takes its responsibility to be the representative of Christmas seriously. That’s what makes it so fun to visit.

The street lights are candy canes:

The post office has Christmas wreaths, even in March:

The streets have fun names, like these:

The bus stops, playground equipment, and even the Senior Citizen Center have a Christmas theme:

This is the entrance to the local welding shop:

Even the pole that holds up the McDonalds sign is a candy cane!

We stopped at Santa’s house, which was closed for the day. But, we did get to drop off some mail for him:

And get our picture taken by the slightly scary, enormous statue of him out front:

Ray works at a coal-fired power plant at Eielsen Air Force Base. Since we were already close by, he was kind enough to take us there and give us a tour. It was great! We got to wear bright green hard hats and ear plugs as we climbed up, down, and around the plant. I was impressed with the conveyor belts carrying coal, the bright orange of coal burning in the boilers, the generators they powered, and the amazingly clean smoke stacks (which I didn’t realize were smoke stacks at first, even though I was standing right next to them, because their equipment did such a good job of capturing the ash and not releasing it to the environment).

One of the highlights was taking a ride on the train that carries the coal into the plant. Here’s a photo of the coal train from the top of the plant:

Here’s a shot of me, Rebecca, and Ray just after finishing our ride on the coal train. Thank you Ray and your coworkers for making this happen!

As if that were not already a totally amazing day, when we returned back to Fairbanks, we had the chance to go to the home of one of Rebecca’s friends. Her name is Jane, but Rebecca and all of their other friends call her “Reindeer Jane”, to distinguish her from the other two Jane’s they are also friends with.

Reindeer Jane and her husband have three pet reindeer, and they were kind enough to give me the opportunity to interact with them. Thanks for sharing Ruby, Olive, and Willow with us, Jane!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Eruptions (the volcanic kind) and Excuses

It was bright and early on Monday, March 23, the morning I was scheduled to fly back home to Salt Lake City, when Rebecca told me that Mount Redoubt, a volcano about 100 miles south of Anchorage, had erupted five times during the night. Fairbanks is about 350 miles north of Anchorage, and was not in the path of the wind, so we didn’t see any evidence of the eruption around us. However, my return flight was scheduled to go through Anchorage, so it was cancelled.

I sent the following email to my coworkers:

I was scheduled to fly home from Alaska today, but because of the eruption of Mt. Redoubt near Anchorage today, my flight was cancelled. I'm on the phone trying to book a new flight, and it looks like I won't be able to get out of Alaska until tomorrow. So, I'll be missing our Tuesday morning meeting.
Thanks, and I'm guessing I'll see you on Wednesday morning.

Some of them wrote funny emails back, like:
Excuses, excuses. :-) Have a safe trip home.


It's not every day that you can blame an extension to a vacation on a volcano. Well done! ;)

Sort of reminds me of the time that a baseball game was canceled unexpectedly in Idaho Falls. The paper the next day listed the cause as 'game canceled on account of squirrels'. If that sounds weird it was because it was a night game and some squirrels accidently had a shock and short circuited the main light poles behind home plate. Not as cool as a volcano. :)

Be safe.

That meant I had a bonus day in Alaska, which I’ll write about in a later post. The best part about it, though, was that this extra day gave me the opportunity to see the Northern Lights.

The following morning, Tuesday, I again got up bright and early to the news that the volcano had erupted again, and my flight had been cancelled again. So, again I wrote to my coworkers:

Ummm...I know I used this excuse already, but the volcano erupted again and my flight got cancelled again. They currently have me booked on a 10 p.m. flight tonight, flying home overnight, so I'm pretty sure I won't be back for Wednesday.
See you when I'm looking at you (hopefully sooner rather than later),


Rebecca was concerned about me missing two extra days of work, and so she decided to write a note to my boss and coworkers. As a teacher, she had seen all types of excuse notes, filled with all types of excuses, and she drew upon that experience as she hand wrote this note:

To Whom It May Concern:
Please excuse Cindy Conlin from work March 23-24 due to the Mt. Redoubt volcano eruption.
She was not sick.
Her "grandmother" did not die.
And the dog did not eat her plane ticket.

We just didn't count on the volcano erupting . . . and erupting . . . and erupting. (Any future Alaksa trips will be booked via local cruise lines to avoid this problem.)

Thank you for your time and consideration of her work absences.
Rebecca Clack
(English Teacher 1983-84)

Once I made it back to Salt Lake City, I scanned Rebecca's note and emailed it to my boss and coworkers, and they loved it.

I was able to board a Fairbanks-to-Anchorage flight at 3 p.m. on Tuesday.

As we were descending into Anchorage, we had quite a bit of turbulence. That made me more nervous than turbulence usually does, until the woman seated next to me, who frequently traveled around Alaska, told me that turbulence was very common for flights descending over the Anchorage inlet.

When I arrived in Anchorage, I looked around for evidence of the eruption. The skies looked clear around the airport, and so I went to the check-in counter and asked the employee to point in the direction of Mount Redoubt.

She responded: “You won’t be able to see any ash. If you did, we wouldn’t be sending any airplanes up there.”

Ash in an airplane engine is a REALLY BAD THING, so I was okay with not being able to see it. Even so, I did keep my camera with me as my flight out of Anchorage took off. Near Anchorage, it was very clear. Here’s a photo from the airport:

Here’s a photo I captured as we were taking off, over the Anchorage inlet:

Here’s what the skies looked like in the first fifteen minutes of flight:

Much further into the flight, I did see a lot of gray looking clouds, but I have no idea if they were related to the volcano or not. We had been in the air for over an hour at this point. Here’s a photo of that:

I arrived at Seattle after 10 p.m. and learned that my flight to Salt Lake City wouldn’t be leaving until 6 a.m. the next morning. I asked the airlines for help, and they gave me a phone number I could call to get a discounted rate (the “distressed traveler” rate) they had negotiated for hotel rooms in situations like this.

I sat down to make hotel arrangements, and was reminded of a unique drinking fountain they have in that area of the Seattle airport. On the way to Alaska, I found this fountain so delightful that I took this video of it:

On the way home, since it was late, and I was trying to book a hotel room from my cell phone, while being frequently being interrupted by bathtub sounds, I found the fountain annoying. I'm sure I’d like it again if I went back under different circumstances.

I found a hotel room, arrived there at about 11:30 p.m., and got up again at 4:15 a.m. to catch my flight to Salt Lake City. Although it was a short night, it sure beat sleeping on the airport floor.

The volcano erupted again on Thursday, and several times after that, so I was just thankful to be able to get home.

When I finally made it back to work, my coworkers greeted me warmly. At the end of the day, as one of them was leaving for the night, he stopped by and said “Be sure to stay away from any volcanoes tonight, okay?”

I’ll be sure to do that!

World Ice Art Championship

Going to the World Ice Art Championship in Fairbanks is one amazing experience. You can sit on a snowmobile, carved of ice, like Rebecca and I did here:

Or, make a phone call from an ice phone booth, where Ray is checking for a dial tone. Yup. It was there!

Or, you can check out the ice carving of Governor Sarah Palin, along side of Alaska’s first governor from when it became a state 50 years ago:

Or even go down a serious ice slide:

The main attraction, though, is walking through 4 acres of amazing ice sculptures, carved during the World Ice Art Championship competition.

The best time to go is the night before the judging, when the artists are still there, putting the finishing touches on their work. We were too late for that, attending on the last scheduled day of the event. (Although they did extend the event for an additional week after that, because it had been so cold in Fairbanks this year.)

The competition has several categories, one of which is the Single Block competition, where teams of two people have three days to turn a 7,800 pound block of ice into a work of art. The sculptures end up being somewhere between the size of a refrigerator and a pickup truck.

Here are some of my favorites from the Single Block competiton:

This is the back side of the eagle shown above, which had rabbits coming out of it:

This is a caterpillar climbing a twig:

A bird, catching a fish right out of water:

A boy, feeding a crocodile:
A woman with a torch. I liked the sense of movement in this one:
A stars-and-stripes eagle:

I was amazed that this carving of a lady on a tree swing, reaching out for a bird, was still standing, while so much of the tree branch over her, which held the bird she reached out to, was unsupported:

I believe this one, The Three Graces, won the single block competition for the abstract category:

Another category of the competion is Multi-Block. This is where teams have six days to turn ten 4,400-pound ice blocks into sculptures. Some of them created single, huge, two-story-high sculptures, such as this one of King Kong:

Here's a closeup of the airplane in his hand:

Another enormous sculpture, which took first place, I believe, was this amazing turtle. I had to step way far back to get the entire thing into the phot, since it was a full two stories high. I wish I knew more about photography, so I could have captured it in its stunning glory! If you look closely, you can see Ray and Rebecca standing just below the turtle's flipper on the right.

Here's a close up on the baby turtle, which was at the left of the previous image, following behind the mother turtle. This little part of the carving was about the same height as me.

Others used their multiple blocks to create entire scenes. I struggled to get back far enough to capture the entire scene. This one, for instance, had three wolves chasing a caribou. Since I couldn’t get them into a single shot, here are three separate shots.

Here you see the Caribou, leaping into water, with its antlers visible:

Followed by three wolves:

I was amazed that the last wolf, who was very much unsupported, was still standing:

This Guardian Angel was part of a much larger scene, which had a stairway, each step with one of the Ten Commandments engraven upon it, leading up to a large crucifix.

I loved the creativity and effect of the lights in this scene of drops of water:

I was stunned to see this scene, with massive horses, such as you would expect to see in bronze on a large government monument somewhere. This has a woman in the middle of the horses, and two huge totem poles behind, representing the Spirit of Alaska.

Here’s a closeup on one of the horses:

Here’s another carving that included a horse:

And one with several caribou, slipping and sliding down a slope:

This strand of DNA was about two stories tall: