30 September 2007


I take it back. Alaskans were not simply having fun with outsiders by claiming that there's such a thing as a moose. Unless this is a guy in a really good moose suit. Which, considering how remarkable everything else has been in Alaska, could be the case. Still, I'm willing to accept that this is some sort of enormous, ungainly, clumsy, hulking overgrown relation to a deer.

We came across him yesterday while taking a bike ride along the Coastal Trail in Anchorage, which is a beautiful, interesting, 11 mile waterside ride along the edge of the city.

We also came across Earthquake Park, where various informational signs are posted to inform passers by of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake that leveled a lot of this part of Alaska. My favorite factoid, is that Seward - a lovely little port town in a magnificent setting on the Prince William Sound - was hit by 40 foot tall waves, travelling at about 100 mph - AND THEY WERE FLAMING! The earthquake had ruptured a number of oil storage tanks, the oil had spread out onto the water, something ignited the oil, and when the tsunamis struck they were on fire. Now that's an image I have yet to see in any Hollywood production. I can hardly wait.

Yet another instance of truth being stranger than fiction. Just try and write something like that in a novel. No one is going to believe you. You'll be accused of writing fantasy - 40 foot flaming waves, my ass. And I thought Hitler Wong - who makes a brief appearance in GRAVE IMPORTS, my new book - would stretch reader's credibility. (You can look him up on the IMDB - Internet Movie Database.)

Speaking of fantasy. Here's Wonder Woman with Eva and Em - Eva who I live with and Em who's a friend and is also here at Bouchercon in Anchorage.

Speaking of which, this is the last day, the last morning really, and I ought to get over to the convention center and perform some conventioneering. It's been great. I'll write more later.

24 September 2007

Maybe A Moose

Talking to the locals you might get the impression that moose are as thick on the ground in Alaska as rats in Rome. They aren’t. Not that I can see. Alaska has lived up to most of the superlatives. But it has been something of a let down in the charismatic mega-fauna sighting department.
Three eagles, some white dots in the distance that seemed to be dall sheep, a couple of swans, otters – plenty of otters, both ocean going and river otters (you can tell the difference because the ocean going ones prefer the backstroke and the riverine ones the breast stroke), a red-tailed fox that emitted a truly horrible screech late at night in a parking lot, a lot of crows – or are those ravens?, drunken teenagers in the bar at the Alaskan Hotel in Cordova – but the word “charismatic” doesn’t apply, one bear, and maybe, just maybe one moose – or was it a log – way off in the distance below us from Haystack Overlook off the Copper River Highway. That’s it so far for the animal viewing.
We’ve been told to expect moose along the Coastal Trail in Anchorage. Urban moose, I guess. They also, apparently, like to walk along railroad tracks in winter – so as to avoid slogging through high snow. A lot of them get turned into rail kill that way, and end up being fed to sled dogs.
We had dinner at The Pipeline Club in Valdez. It was where Captain Hazelwood got tanked up before that fateful night when he piloted the Exxon Valdez onto Bligh Shoal (named after the Captain Bligh.) Dinner was good. They pretty much left the salmon alone after a little bit over-grilling it. That’s not so easy to find around here. Like many places with unsophisticated palates, they wreck a lot of their food through ill-conceived attempts at sophistication. Cream sauces, and such like. This would be a great place to buy fresh seafood – well, limited sorts: salmon, halibut, crab, scallops, maybe a little shrimp, a few clams, I guess they’ve got some oysters sometimes, but that’s about it – and cook it yourself. So long as you didn’t want to accompany it with any fresh vegetables. Those, so far, are about as thin on the ground as the moose.
Last night, the place we wanted to go for Copper River salmon in Cordova being closed for the annual Ducks Unlimited dinner; and our second choice being closed for a private wedding party; we ended up at the OK Restaurant, which was okay. It is run by a Korean couple and serves Chinese, Korean and American food. It’s the first time I’ve eaten anywhere like it in many years, and it was surprisingly tasty. They made an honest effort at accomodating both the local tastes, and their own – and ours. A little innovation would have been nice though. If I ever go back to Cordova I’m going to make it my mission to show them that it might well be possible to cook salmon or halibut steamed with ginger and scallions, even in a small Alaskan fishing town.
Reindeer sausage is pretty good eating though.
During the day we had rented a big, powerful, high off the ground Dodge V-8 pickup to drive the 50 miles out to the Million Dollar Bridge and Childs Glacier. It was well worth it. The bridge spans a river with views of the enormous – but receding – Miles Glacier to one side, and the smaller, but up close and personal Childs glacier on the other. One can stand or sit around across the river from the Childs glacier and watch, and listen, to it calve. I have yet to get a chance to look up the derivation of the word “calving” to describe huge hunks of ice falling off the face of a glacier, but it’s pretty impressive. While we were waiting to watch the glacier fall apart, a grizzly bear trundled by, no more than about 150 or so feet away. He seemed a small, adolescent bear and paused only briefly to peer up at the six humans at the viewing area, before continuing to pick his way upriver through the rocks, no doubt in search of a simpler meal than we would have made.
As I write this we are on the good ship Chenega, a high-speed, catamaran ferry in the service of the Alaska Marine Highway System, on our way to Whittier. The entire population of Whittier apparently lives in one high-rise, hideous building. Which might be interesting but isn’t why we’re going there. We’re going there to drive through the three mile long, one way at a time, tunnel that will take us onto the Kenai Peninsula. Then it’s down to Seward, passing more glaciers and some Russian villages and varoius other Alaskan things to see and do. The highway guide cautions us to watch out for moose at several points along the road.
I’m hopeful.
Here’s some pictures. They can speak for themselves.

04 September 2007

Ships and Other Big Things At Sea

Attempting to beat the heat - 107 (41.666 celsius) in our neighborhood yesterday - Eva and I and a couple of friends took to the water. We drove down to Long Beach, boarded a large catamaran and motored out to the channel between the mainland and Catalina Island. It was a whole lot cooler on the water. In spite of which - and a liberal slather of sunscreen - I got viciously sunburnt.

We did see whales. Blue whales, the biggest animals on Earth. We saw five of them, three for more than a fleeting glimpse. And even though we only saw small parts of them at a time, it was evident that at about 90 feet long they were nearly 30 feet longer than our boat. Faster too, if they wanted, but they were being pretty lazy while we watched.

For the most part, they looked like this:

Which, admittedly, isn't all that impressive. But there was something remarkable about them, their presence, the sounds they made, their grace through the water, the apparent, if not evident, size.

According to our captain, blue whales have hearts the size of Volkswagon bugs and arteries wide enough for a kid to crawl through. (I guess cholesterol isn't an issue for them.) That's pretty big. I wonder how many shipping containers could fit in one? Or on one.

While we were watching the whales, a large container ship hove (I like that word. It sounds very nautical. According to the OED it's been in use since about 1390.) into view. You can see it here in the distance.

The ship was headed into port at Long Beach - the largest port in the U.S. It was, of course, coming from China.

It's amazing how many mixed-feelings container ships from China conjure up these days.

Are all those giant metal packing crates full of toys that will hurt American kids? Are they full of food that will poison us or our dogs? Are they full of t-shirts, shoes, socks, linens, plates, glasses, stereo components, sex toys, tires, school supplies, and a million other sorts of geegaws, doodads and necessities of daily life that will a.) put more Americans out of work; or b.) allow Americans to keep buying stuff at cheap prices compared with the rest of the world?

What if the shorts I'm currently wearing were made right here in the good 'ol USA by good ol' American union labor? Would they have cost the $4.95 I paid for them at Costco? What about my $9.95 JC Penney t-shirt? What about the IBM Thinkpad computer I'm writing this on? (It's made in China, by Lenovo, the company that bought IBM's personal computer business. It's still expensive, but is it as expensive as it would have been if it was Made in America?)

If American workers made those shorts and t-shirts - and shoes and computers and everything else - could they afford to buy them at the higher prices they'd sell for, having not been made by cheap foreign labor?

But the whole thing really gets confusing when you start looking deeper into it. I bought the shorts I'm wearing because of the material they're made from and the design - especially the location and size of the pockets. It was an American company that made those decisions and outsourced the manufacture to China. Same with the t-shirt. I'm writing this post on software owned by Google and invented in the U.S., on a browser from Mozilla, using an operating system by Microsoft - all American companies. I ran the photos in this blog through Photoshop - more American made and owned software.

The thing is, one of the stupidest things that any country can try to do, is to be completely self-sufficient. India tried it for years. It is one of the major reasons why India is so poor today. If one country can do something just as, or nearly, as well as another; and it can do it cheaper and more efficiently, in the long run it benefits both countries to let the cheaper and more efficient one perform the task. There may well be temporary disruptions along the way, and there will be casualties - and those casualties are people who will lose their jobs and face hardship - and yes that's terrible. But it's necessary to make things better for everybody down the line, including the same people who are initially hurt by it.

Every single country, throughout history, that has opened itself up to greater free trade - and immigration for that matter - has prospered from that opening. No country, ever, anywhere, has totally eliminated poverty and hardship, and probably no country ever will, but the countries that have come closest to that goal, are the ones that have opened themselves up, not closed themselves off.

I wondered and marveled at the blue whales. And I wondered and marveled at that gigantic overladen freighter hoving into view. And I thought to myself, for all of its foibles and stupidities and misery - ain't the world a grand place.

Then I got home and it was 98 degrees and humid in the kitchen. I quickly drank a glass of cold water, then got back into my air-conditioned car to go out in search of somewhere with a larger - and so cooler - carbon footprint.