Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Sometimes the world gets better

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:50 am, May 20th, 2018

Too often the message of conservationists is only about doom and gloom – unstoppable global warming, coral reefs dying, deforestation – which is a shame, because there is plenty of good news about the environment to buoy people’s spirits and remind us that we are capable of making positive changes in the world.

  • I’ve written about the decade-long rat eradication program on South Georgia Island before, but to recap: starting in 2010, and continuing in 2012 and 2014, teams in helicopters dropped poison bait across the entire island in an effort to eliminate rats that had been brought to the island two centuries ago by whalers and sealers, decimating the island’s nesting birds. While using poison to kill rats is an unfortunate solution for a man-made problem, the chance of making the island safe again for as many as 100 million nesting seabirds far outweighs any negatives. Had the effort left even one breeding pair of rats alive it would have been a failure, but last week it was announced that two years after the last bait was dropped, and with thousands of chew sticks examined, tracking tunnels checked, and a team of rat-sniffing dogs having scoured the entire island, no signs of rats were found and the island has been officially declared rat-free. As the years go by bird populations will increase, and someday the island may again reclaim its title as one of the most important seabird nesting sites in the world.
  • Closer to home, dam removal throughout New England has for the first time in centuries re-opened rivers to anadromous fish (fish that spawn in rivers but spend their lives in the ocean). On Maine’s Penobscott River, where just one herring was seen a decade ago, 1.8 million herring were counted in 2016. Other waterways where dams have been removed also show huge increases, and just as importantly the otters, raptors, and other animals that depend on those herring should also greatly benefit.
  • Finally, in 2011 a Dutch teenager named Boyan Slat gave a TED talk about cleaning up plastic in the ocean using floating screens that drift in currents. In most cases you would expect that to have been the end of the story – a nice viral video that a lot of people watched, with no follow-up. However, in this case Boyan doggedly persisted, founding the Ocean Cleanup Project, raising over $30 million, and this week the now-23-year-old Boyan and his team launched a prototype cleanup system for tests in the Pacific outside of San Francisco Bay. Although I’ll admit to being skeptical about the likelihood of success with their current design, the fact that this project has persisted, and has managed to capture funding and attention year after year, makes me optimistic that they will eventually succeed and make a significant dent into removing some of the estimated five trillion plastic objects currently floating in our seas.
Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island
Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island in 2004. This photo was actually taken on a smaller, rat-free island just off of the South Georgia coast, but with rats gone from the mainland these birds will now have vastly more rat-free nesting territory available.

Walking on Water

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 10:57 pm, January 16th, 2018

With the Northern Lights in hiding we’ve turned to other activities – yesterday’s adventures included a trip down memory lane involving a visit to the Knotty Shop, a stop in North Pole to send mail and giggle about the postmark, and a visit to the Chena Lakes Recreation area where we roamed over the frozen lake. The lake’s ice was thick enough to not only support a small army of ice fishing huts, but also apparently strong enough to support the pickup trucks that drove across the lake and parked next to the huts.

In a bizarre twist, today Fairbanks is experiencing highly unusual temperatures that are nearly up to 30°F, while San Antonio and much of the Southern United States is getting a rare ice storm. Ironically the host at our B&B told us that while Fairbanks never shuts down due to cold, the warmer temperatures bring ice (we’ve got freezing rain here tonight), and thus when it gets warm in the winter they usually end up cancelling school because things melt and then re-freeze, making the roads treacherous.

Given the lack of Auroras I don’t have any exciting photos from the past few days, so here a couple more from four nights ago during the Big Show.

Night sky above Fairbanks
This photo was taken around 10PM and captures the stars and the glow of the Fairbanks city lights against the clouds. Fifteen second exposure using a 10mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
We didn’t know in advance that the entire sky was going to light up, so I naively thought that this picture, taken around midnight, would end up as my favorite photo of the evening. Fifteen second exposure using a 10mm lens.

A Night Without Lights

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 12:10 am, January 15th, 2018

The space weather forecast for last night was calling for the most active light display thus far, but the meteorological forecast was calling for cloudy skies, so our hopes were low. Ironically we ended up with relatively clear skies but little in the way of Aurora activity – our current lodge doesn’t offer the easy Aurora viewing of our last place, but despite waking up frequently and looking out of the windows it seemed to be a quiet evening in the heavens.

Today Fairbanks enjoyed a heat wave, with downright balmy temperatures reaching all the way up into the twenties, so we’re able to be outside at length without fear of dying. We took advantage of the tropical weather by spending the day up at Chena Hot Springs, which was a really neat and at the same time very hokey place to visit – they had an amazing Ice Museum, it was ridiculously relaxing to soak in the hot springs under the dark skies while surrounded by snow drifts, and the restaurant was surprisingly good, but at the same time it very much had the feel of a place where tour buses drop off a load of people to be led around from activity to activity. Despite the touristy feel it was a great place to spend an afternoon, and the Ice Museum in particular was a neat find. It was clearly a kitschy thing to have an appletini at their “ice bar”, but who could pass up a cocktail served in a handmade, single-use cocktail glass made out of ice, while sitting at a bar that is also made from solid ice? We were even reluctant to part with our cup, and only did so once our fingers got cold from carrying it and we finally admitted that a glass made of ice was probably not something we could bring home in our carry-on baggage.

Tonight, given the forecast of snow the odds of seeing the Northern Lights are low. Tomorrow I’ve got a day free of work due to the MLK holiday, so depending on weather we’re thinking of making a trip to North Pole, Alaska, which ironically is located a few miles south of Fairbanks.

The Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs
The Aurora Ice Bar in the Ice Museum, home of very manly appletinis. With the exception of the mirror and a small number of other items, everything in this photo is made out of ice.
The Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs
Details in the Ice Museum – these ice globes each had a different design embedded inside of it, and formed a ring around an altar that they use when people want to get married amidst the ice art.

The Big Show

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 9:16 pm, January 13th, 2018

We had an inkling that last night might be good for the Aurora based on the space weather forecast, and after enjoying a couple of hours of nice displays, something suddenly changed and in a matter of minutes the sky went from “nice” to “utterly magical”.

Last night was our last night at the Aurora Borealis Lodge, and since they had a lot of guests we decided to hike a few hundred yards up the hill from the main lodge to enjoy the skies with a bit less noise. It wasn’t terribly cold (perhaps 20°F), so Audrey and I soaked in the solitude for a while before wandering back down to the lodge to warm up. No sooner had we taken our hats and gloves off when the sky started to light up, and we rushed back outside for what the lodge owner later called the best display thus far in 2018. Auroras lit up the northern half of the sky, then danced overhead and filled the southern half of the sky with light. There were multiple colors, pulsing and dancing lights, streams of fire that burned across the horizon, and enough magic to make you believe in the ancient stories of the Aurora being heavenly spirits or flames in space. The show finally started to fade just after 2AM, and we reluctantly returned to our cabin exhausted but elated.

Sadly the weather forecast for the next several days is calling for mostly cloudy skies, but we embarked on this trip hoping for at least one great night, and we definitely got that, so no matter what happens from this point onward the trip has been a successful one.

Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
The moment when things started going from good to insane. Eight second exposure using an 18mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
The Aurora, directly overhead. Six second exposure using an 18mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
At the time this photo was taken I’d been outside in the cold for nearly four hours straight and wasn’t close to wanting to go back indoors. Fifteen second exposure using a 14mm lens.

Space Weather

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 9:38 pm, January 12th, 2018

Some random notes from our time in Fairbanks thus far:

  • The cold is not as bad as expected, even at temperatures that have dipped down as cold as -20°F. That is, it isn’t as bad as expected until the wind blows, at which point a freezing blowtorch of pain reminds you that you’re in Interior Alaska in January.
  • The Northern Lights vary a LOT. Sometimes they are so faint that you can only see them after taking a long camera exposure, other times they seem bright enough to read by. Sometimes they look like a glowing cloud spread across the sky, other times they look like dancing ribbons. Sometimes they appear white, sometimes green, sometimes red, sometimes purple, and sometimes a combination of all of these colors.
  • For anyone chasing the lights, the SpaceWeather.com Aurora “oval” forecast and the nightly weather forecast are your two best friends; clear skies and a portion of the oval in your vicinity will make for a happy evening.
  • Three of our four nights at the Aurora Borealis Lodge have so far had great displays, generally starting around 10PM and ending around 2AM when we are finally so tired that we head off to bed; the only night we didn’t see the lights was due to cloudy skies.
  • Finally, in the “things you wouldn’t think about in the Lower-48” department, a tanker truck came by to deliver water to our cabin today – the lodge is too remote for there to be city water available, and a well would freeze, so regular water deliveries are what allow us to take an occasional shower.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
A moment of extra happiness last night. Eight second exposure using an 18mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
While the Aurora sometimes looks like the sunset, this picture was taken facing north, eight hours after the sun had disappeared in the south. Six second exposure using an 18mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
Finding a sharp focus in the dark has been quite the challenge, so I’m insanely proud of the fact that these tress stand out as clearly as they do. Six second exposure using an 18mm lens.

My Friend Aurora

Posted from North of Fairbanks, Alaska at 9:44 pm, January 10th, 2018

We’ve started on phase two of this trip, moving from our temporary home in downtown Fairbanks to the Aurora Borealis Lodge on a ridge twenty miles outside of the city. Without any city lights the aurora is visible across the northern sky, and we’ve had two straight clear nights where the displays were epic. Tonight there are clouds covering the sky, but the forecast calls for some clearing around 1AM, so it may be a late-night wake-up to catch the evening show.

The logistics of photographing this natural wonder are still a challenge to me – between keeping the camera steady for long periods, focusing in the pitch black, and not freezing to death it has been interesting. At one point last night I was heading back outside after coming in to warm up and noticed that everything looked blurry in my viewfinder – turned out there was a layer of ice covering my lens, and I had to wait a bit to let the camera thaw; that was a first in the three decades since my dad gave me my first 35mm.

Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
Last night’s northern lights display, taken just before midnight.

My Boogers Froze Today. Twice.

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 7:22 pm, January 7th, 2018

Since my job lets me work from anywhere with an internet connection, spending two weeks in Fairbanks in the dead of winter seemed like it would be a great idea. Audrey and I will be huddled together for warmth in the coming days, hoping that the northern lights make an appearance at some point.

After arriving late last night we spent today’s sparse daylight hours bundled in every piece of clothing that we own, roaming past the frozen Chena River through Griffin Park in downtown Fairbanks, before we were finally forced into the (very impressive) Visitor Information Center to escape the -8°F temperatures. Tomorrow we head further north to spend the rest of the week in a tiny cabin outside of the city lights in the hopes that the Auroras might peek out at us once or twice. Wish us luck.

Fairbanks Weather Outlook
The weather forecast for the week gives us nearly four hours a day of the sun’s warmth, so we should have decent odds of not freezing to death.
Frosty tree branch in Griffin Park, Fairbanks in Winter
This tree in Griffin Park got dominated by the Fairbanks winter.
Statue in Griffin Park, Fairbanks in Winter
Even the statues in Fairbanks are freezing.

November Recap

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 7:57 pm, December 5th, 2017

In an effort to make sure I have a record of events so that it’s possible to relive good times when I eventually become senile, here’s a recap of November:

  • Given my engineering background I am not so savvy when it comes to the arts, but Audrey and her friends are doing their best to get me up to speed. Just before Thanksgiving Audrey and her band played a set at Trip in Santa Monica, and Jocelyn opened for them with a rare live show; I know talented people.
  • Following the night of much music I took a few vacation days prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, joining Aaron at his new place in Truckee where we threw hatchets at a pumpkin (we’ve clearly matured greatly over the years). Following that visit I made a detour to Muir Woods before picking up Audrey at the airport and heading to Ma & Pa’s for Thanksgiving. The annual family gathering saw much delicious food consumed, much laughter, and a display of amazing skills in playing Uno.
  • The month ended with Audrey’s birthday, which she celebrated with her tradition of roller skating and a visit to the library, after which I took her out for a fancy steak dinner before we joined her choir friends for celebratory beverages.
Barred owl in Muir Woods
Barred owl posing for tourists in Muir Woods.
Muir Woods Redwoods
Muir Woods Redwoods and a cloudy sky.

Hatchet throwing 101 #killthepumpkin #manactivities #hatchets

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Non-Totality

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:50 pm, August 27th, 2017

Since obviously eclipse glasses are for wimps (and also I didn’t buy any before the prices exploded), I took a zoom lens into the backyard and attempted to focus as much sunlight on my retinas as possible; my vision should return in time for the next eclipse in 2024.

The Eclipse in the Clouds
The marine layer started burning off just as the eclipse was getting started, and luckily the clouds acted as enough of a filter that I was only mostly blind after shooting a few photos.
The 2017 Eclipse
As the clouds burned off and the sun became too bright to look at through the viewfinder I was reduced to pointing the camera in the general area of the bright thing in the sky and hoping to get something in frame.

15 Years of Random Musings

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:22 pm, August 7th, 2017

The journal celebrated its fifteenth anniversary on July 24, although I’m a bit behind on postings and thus this entry is being published two weeks after the actual date. In an era before Facebook and other social media, and even before the (awful) word “blog” had made it into most people’s vocabularies, this site was my way to record travelogues for posterity, and more importantly it gave me an excuse for being too lazy to send people regular emails, since I could just point everyone to this site as a way to keep in touch.

The obligatory stats to recap the past decade-and-a-half:

It’s anyone’s guess how long the journal will continue, but nearly 5,500 days after starting this narcissistic endeavor, there doesn’t seem to be any clear end in sight. Thanks to the twos of visitors who have read along regularly, and to the random folks who have dropped by on occasion to say hello and (incorrectly) point out typos.

Denali from Reflection Pond

My favorite image from the trip that spawned this journal, Denali (Mt McKinley) taken from Reflection Pond while I was camping in Alaska.

Tanzania Revisited

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 9:50 pm, July 18th, 2017

It’s been too long without photos in the journal, so here are a couple from the 2014 safari in Tanzania that didn’t previously make it online:

Cheetah in Ndutu
When a cheetah is sitting in front of you on a log, you take a million pictures; when you have to decide which of those pictures is the best, the one with the tongue sticking out obviously wins.
White-bellied Canary in Ndutu
White-bellied Canary in Ndutu. This particular puddle was home to just about every bird that I normally only associate with Petco.

Superbloom

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 10:31 pm, April 9th, 2017

Two weeks ago I returned to the Carrizo Plain with Audrey to catch the height of this year’s superbloom. The flowers did not disappoint.

Wildflowers at the Carrizo Plain National Monument
Dr. Seuss apparently did the decorating.
Wildflowers at the Carrizo Plain National Monument
We had to drive up a super-sketchy “road” that consisted of two tracks through knee-high grass in order to get to these poppies. Totally worth it.
Wildflowers at the Carrizo Plain National Monument
Scale: note the people far away in the top right. There were flowers for days.
Wildflowers at the Carrizo Plain National Monument
From a distance I figured that this massive patch of wildflowers had to be some sort of lavender farm since it seemed inconceivable that there would be acres and acres of solid purple flowers all concentrated in one spot.

An Inauspicious Beginning

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 4:09 pm, March 27th, 2017

The 2017 journal is off to a rough beginning – February already fell short on the three-entries-a-month goal, and March is getting a late start. Here’s a recap of the past month that hopefully explains why writing about myself hasn’t been a higher priority:

  • March has had three weeks of travel, including two trips to San Antonio and a trip to the Bay Area. The first portion of the Bay Area trip was spent working in a hotel in Sacramento, where I got to visit with younger Holliday, admire his house, and eat a lot of grilled mahi. After leaving him I made a quick stop to ensure that Ma & Pa had working wi-fi and virus-free laptops before heading into San Francisco for a three-day conference; the parents put up with me for another night after the conference ended, but I can be a handful so the intermission was likely a good respite for them.
  • The conference featured all things Google Cloud. I went in skeptical, and shockingly emerged a complete convert – Google is going to own the corporate internet in another five years, and when Skynet becomes operational it will probably do so from a Google data center somewhere. In the midst of learning that I need to come up with a plan to capture part of the tsunami of work that is going to be available as companies transition their IT infrastructure, one of my co-workers managed to find the best ramen I’ve ever eaten, so the trip was a success on many levels.
  • On the drive home from San Francisco it seemed silly not to see if the record rains had caused a Monet to happen on the grasslands, so a detour was made to the Carrizo Plain. Soda Lake has been dry on all of my past visits, but this time I got to see placid waters shimmering in the light of the full moon before Suby III and I spent our inaugural night under the stars together. The next morning when the sun arrived it was clear that the wildflowers were just beginning to bloom, and while they were pretty a return visit might be necessary.
  • Finally, in rodent news, I’ve spent two weekends roaming around on the roof looking for rat entry points. Two weeks ago I taped my phone to a pole, and by maneuvering it into an inaccessible space behind the gutters I was able to see (via video) a previously undiscovered gap. I then spent the next hour crawling through fiberglass insulation in a sweltering attic to an area so claustrophobic that there wasn’t even enough room to lift my head. I jammed a rag into the gap in the rafters, crawled slowly out, spent an inordinately long time ridding myself of fiberglass, and then sat down to savor my victory. That night at 8:30 the rat showed up again on camera and did his own victory dance to ensure that my shame was infinite. The following weekend’s efforts involved a trip to Home Depot, an attempt to remove the gutters without causing permanent damage, a massive quantity of sealant foam, and a valiant effort to re-attach the gutters in more-or-less the condition that I found them; time will tell if that endeavor has finally brought the War of the Roof Rats to an end.
Wildflowers at the Carrizo Plain National Monument
The yellow flowers were just getting started, so a return trip may be required.
Wildflowers at the Carrizo Plain National Monument
In addition to the acres of yellow flowers, there were 23 blue ones.

Man Tripping No More

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:46 pm, December 30th, 2016

The 2016 Man Trip finished up yesterday with a morning visit to the Carrizo Plain National Monument, a virtually unknown national monument west of Bakersfield. The park is home to Soda Lake, which is supposedly an internationally-known area for birds, but the last time I visited it was completely dry. This time I left Bakersfield and spent an hour and a half meandering through the hills, oil fields and solar farms of Kern County before arriving at Soda Lake, which despite several recent storms was still bone dry; I think I heard the universe laughing at me.

Despite the dry lake it was still nice to be reminded how nice silence is – the modern world is constantly filled with the sound of cars or appliances or planes, but you don’t realize it until you’re in a place that is just completely still, and I sat at the end of a boardwalk for about an hour just enjoying the peace. Afterwards I wandered a bit more before pointing the car towards home, where I’ll hopefully get some rest and recharge before starting off the 2017 work year.

Sunset at the Kern NWR

Taken during sunset at the Kern NWR.