Sunday, September 30, 2007

Leaving ...On A No Jet Plane

Well, actually, it's a teeny tiny single engined plane. Wish me luck that my pilot is old, and not bold, as there are no old, bold Bush pilots.

In about half an hour I leave for the Bush. Mum - just let me say once again that if I do not manage to post until Saturday 6th (or possibly not until I get home on Monday 8th) it does not mean that I have been:
a) Eaten by a bear
b) Been invited for dinner not realising *I* am the main course (feeding 8 villages for a month). Thanks to Judy for this suggestion to add to the list of Things Donna Needs to Worry About
c) Become the wife of the shaman (thanks Gary and Ted - please send a wedding gift - a couple of walrus heads would be nice - we need something for the mantlepiece.

I am heading off to Aniak, Upper Kalskag, Lower Kalskag, and a village which appears to be called 'If We Can Get You There, Cripple Creek' since that's how everyone refers to it. I haven't asked why it's so difficult to get to (Mum - I'm sure it doesn't involve rappelling).

I'm very much looking forward to my adventure and I discovered that I have been granted a huge honour, which I am enormously grateful for. I am being thrown a potlatch supper, which is a ceremonial meal. As guest of honour I have to eat everything I am offered. Not normally a problem, except I understand that fish heads dipped in seal fat may be on the menu.

Seriously, I am very excited about this opportunity and everyone has been wonderful.

It is most unlikely that I will be able to blog while I am there but if I can I will; otherwise, see you in about a week.

Oh, and by the way, the interview I did may be appearing on here:
next Saturday (and they are going to give me a call while I am in the Bush to see how things are going). Not sure whether it WILL be Saturday but it will be fairly soon.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Fat Bird Has Landed

Well, I'm catching up on my blog posts here as I had a little internet problem yesterday (aka known as Donna Is Thick As Two Short Planks). So this post is about Wednesday's plane trip.

We got into the van on our short trip to the airfield, and Judy started handing out travel sickness tablets like a very maternal drug pusher ("the first one is free, lady"). I was popping those little suckers like smarties until Judy belatedly read the back of the packet "Oh, wait, it says only 2 in 24 do you feel?" We'd left the hotel and gone about ten minutes up the road when we came across three moose (mooses? meese?) at the side of the road, just as happy as you please. You know that joke about the horse that goes into the bar and the barman says "Why the long face"? Well, I think that could be written even better about meese. Their faces are HUGE.

(This picture and the next one are taken from the plane as we went INSIDE the mountain by the way).

I started to worry about my upcoming radio interview (more about that in the next post) when I was telling Gary that I wanted to see a bear. "You want to see a WHAT?" "A bear." "A WHAT?" (I have never seen a face so aghast by the way). "A BEAR. I want to see a bear." He still looked puzzled "Why can't I understand what she's saying?" Apparently my 'bear' sounds like American for 'bat'. I am now Batwoman.

I'm beginning to get a complex after my episode with the automated lost luggage thing, and now this. I've been practising my American accent but I just sound like an extra from Gone With The Wind who's had their jaw rewired after a freak accident involving a chainsaw and a baseball bat (or is that baseball BEAR...Gary?)

So, we arrived at the airfield where there were lots of little red and white planes held together with string and blu-tac. Suddenly, we all felt the urge to use the restrooms. We went into the office where they told us that Mt McKinley was shrouded in fog, so we could visit Mt Spur instead. I needn't have told you that by the way, I could just show you my pictures of the top of a mountain and you wouldn't know any difference, but since I have respect for you, my audience (all 3 of you)...well, except for you, Paul, I decided to come clean. As with the glacier thing (I've been showing all my 500 glacier pictures to people and I can only remember the name of one of the glaciers - Surprise Glacier (as in, it's a surprise I can remember it) and when they say "What's that one called?", rather than admit I don't know I just say "That one? Oh yes, that's Ramones Glacier" or "Ah, yes, the spectacular Johnny Depp. A magnificent specimen of glacierhood."

So, anyway, we decided that Mt Spur was just as good as Mt McKinley and we waited for our pilot. The guys did a bit of shopping - buying t-shirts "Do I suit this shade of green, ladies?" "Does this powder blue bring out the colour of my eyes?"

I asked the guy behind the desk if we were going to have to weigh ourselves before we got on the plane (we'd had to give our weight when we booked the flight). I had lost the 10lbs I had taken account of when giving my weight, but, well, funnel cake and American plate sizes cause havoc with a girl's good intentions. I made sure to point out that I was wearing really heavy boots as I was afraid of stepping onto a scale and having a big booming voice shout "You LIED, fatty!" The bloke behind the counter said "We had one guy give us his weight without clothes on, can you imagine." Oh. Everyone chuckled, except me. I ALWAYS give my weight without clothes on. I started to worry that sitting on the plane naked would be a tad chilly but luckily for everyone I was not made to strip off.

So we got onto the plane. We all had a seat by the window. The safety demonstration consisted of "There's a sickbag in the pocket in front of you," and off we set. It was a float plane so we took off from the water which was amazing. We all had headsets on so we could hear the pilot talking to the control tower, and he also had music. Our take off was to The Ride of The Valkyries and there was some very apt music throughout the flight which was fun.

A glacial lake...

The scenery was absolutely stunning - first of all the flat plains and loads of trees. Then we were up into the foothills of the mountains before finally emerging from the clouds to see the top of the mountain range and Mt Spur. We were taken the scenic route, past glaciers, over an active volcano with steam rising, right down into the mountain which was an unbelievable experience. At one point I almost cried, the experience was so fabulous.

Can you see a bear in this picture? No? Neither could I, but it's there - probably disguised as a tree and raising its middle finger to the skies.

Coming in to land on Beluga Lake...

On the return leg we flew over Beluga Lake and the pilot said "Fancy a break?" He landed the plane on the surface of the lake and taxied into the shore. We all got off the plane to complete silence, nothing around us for miles and miles apart from this glorious scenery.

Oh, and some bears. I went walking up the beach and discovered some bear tracks. Luckily, even a city girl like me could tell they were pointing away from the best lunch the bear could have expected. Oh...wait...maybe it was walking backwards...

I could have stayed at the lake for ages, but all too soon it was time to get back in the plane and return home. Gorgeous, truly gorgeous.

By the way, I have another 400 or so photos of this day if anyone's interested? :o)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Speed Fiend

The big green blob who looks like Darth Vader really gone to seed is me on my ATV.

When our guide, Kevin, picked me up for my ATV trip up to the Knik glacier he said "This is a first for me - I've never taken a single female on one of these - single guys have joined us, but never women on their own." OK, so I'm a little bit odd :o) We picked up the rest of the group (another 3 people) and off we set. Kevin got us to sign a disclaimer which basically said "ATVing is very dangerous and you could die. If you die, you agree not to sue us." By this time I was beginning to worry that I had made a mistake, and should have stuck to something a little less dangerous (like bathing in maple syrup and introducing myself to a grizzly bear. Two of our group had ridden ATVs before (although none as powerful as these). I was the only one in the group who didn't drive. I could see Kevin looking at me in despair as he said "We may not make it up to the glacier."

We set off, with strict instructions not to touch the footbrake. Ever. Unless you wanted the differential somethingorother to set fire to the petrol tank, which, by the way, was what we were sitting on. You would know if you had touched the footbrake, because your bum would
spontaneously combust.

We drove through the most amazing scenery (after the first 5 minutes when I was too scared to look at anything except the ground in front of me) - tundra, forest, mountains covered with snow, rivers... there were flat parts where we could speed up (I discovered that my name should be Donna Schumacher when I had a race with one of the guys)

and really rugged parts where you had to go slowly - one of the party tipped their ATV over trying to negotiate one of these. One of them also hit a tree, and then, about 5 minutes later, slammed into the back of my ATV.

My favourite bit was going through water - some of the water we went through was about 3 feet deep. I told Kevin I loved the water parts so on the way back he made sure to take us the wettest, deepest, splashiest way. By the time we arrived back I was covered from head to foot in mud. Good job I was wearing a rather fetching pale green waterproof number.

We were out driving for about 6 hours, and I'm pleased to report that we DID get to the glacier.

As you can hopefully see from the pictures, it was absolutely gorgeous. The ice is so blue in places.

We had lunch there and topics of conversation ranged
from the British use of the word 'brilliant', why men
sit with their legs open, My Fair Lady and what Kevin had in his survival kit (knife, saw, blanket, warm socks, 115,000 bullets (he reassured us by saying that he'd never shot anyone who didn't deserve it), flares, water purification tablets, toilet paper.) I had toilet paper and lip gloss, so half of my survival kit was useful (how many people can say that they have pee'd at a glacier? It was the most scenic loo I have ever used (if a tad frosty around the nether regions)).

We took it in turns to follow immediately behind Kevin. At one point when I was behind him he went sideways up a hill really fast until he was almost parallel with the floor. It was only centrifugal force that was keeping him up there. My heart was in my mouth, but I followed. When I came down Kevin shook his head at me and said "You're crazy woman." Apparently, I wasn't supposed to follow him, he was just 'goofing off' :o) But he said he was impressed.

I still have a big huge grin on my face.

It was the most amazing experience. Wonderful fun, exhilerating, scenery to die for, and I learned a number of things...that I like going fast, that I love getting dirty, that I am braver than I thought, and that when you wee outside, make sure there are no thorns in the vicinity.

I was sad when the trip was over. I wanted to do it all over again. What a superb day. Now I'm off to scrape the 2 inch layer of dirt from my body.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Prince William Sound - Words

Well, yesterday's boat trip to Prince William Sound was gorgeous. First of all we had a scenic drive to Whittier to catch our catamaran. The road takes you past a body of water called the Turnagain Arm. We saw some beluga whales...well, we mostly saw some water where pods of whales were. They eat fish called hooligan fish which are very fatty and full of calories, giving the whales their blubber (I know how they feel - I ate a hooligan burger the day before and I swear I put on about 20lbs of blubber). People catch the fish and squeeze them to get the oil out. They are also called Candle Fish because if you dry the fish, stick a twig in it and then set fire to the twig, you get a candle. Can you imagine that in the Candle Shop - "I'll take a blueberry and vanilla, a mint and cocoa, and a really bogging dead fish one."

Our bus driver was great, and he gave us some very handy hints for avoiding bears. Apparently if you make a noise they don't like it and will avoid you like the plague. You can sing (although if I tried that I think the bear would rip the gun out of the nearest hunter's hands and shoot me). You can buy little bells called bear bells which tourists often get. The joke is that when you're walking in the forest you can tell the bear crap because it's full of badly digested little bells.

To get to Whittier, the only way in is through a two and a half mile tunnel. It's a tunnel used by both cars and trains, and it's so narrow that it's only one car ride. As a result, every hour on the hour cars go one way, and on the half hour they go the other. Whittier is a wieird place. 80% of the 200 residents live in one apartment building, and the school has a playround with swings and slides etc which is indoors. They never have a snow day because there are tunnels underground to the school. They did once have a bear day though when a bear managed to get into the school kitchen.

The boat trip took us to see 26 glaciers (I took about 25 photos of each one. Not sure why - it's not as though each of them has different coloured ice, but there you go). The boat stops at a couple of the glaciers. It's so quiet and then, all of a sudden, the glacier will calve - a piece will fall into the Sound with a noise that sounds like a gunshot. On the way back we had a glass of water chilled with glacier ice. It's a lot denser than normal ice, and this is going to sound stupid, but it's colder too.

We also learned that the whole 10 men to every woman is a fallacy. There are more men than women, but it's about 53% male, 47% female. If you're a woman, and come to Alaska looking for a man, there's a saying that goes "The odds are really good...but the goods are really odd."

It was a gorgeous day. Some of the most stunning scenery I have seen in my life.

Prince William Sound

Yesterday I took 496 photos. Here are a few reasons why...(a report of the day will follow, but right now I am getting ready to go on my ATV trip to a glacier (oooooh, goodie Donna - another 500 pictures of ice?) But I would just like to say a hello to Judy's friends and family. She's behaving herself...well, OK, that might be a stretch, but she managed to make the bus home from Prince William Sound last night, so you know she's OK. And please don't believe everything she tells you)

Saturday, September 22, 2007


Shoe Purchases - 4
Suitcases arrived: 2
Donnas happy: 1

Sleepless in Seattle

Well, I generally start these messages with something along the lines of "I arrived safely in X; my luggage, however, is still in Y." So, let's see - am I going to do that this time? Well, I arrived safely in Seattle. My luggage, however, is still in Amsterdam. The good news is, they KNEW they lost it. This is so much better than the time I travelled to Bristol (about 50 minutes on the plane). I was the only one out of the whole flight whose luggage didn't arrive. The woman at lost luggage very helpfully said "Oh, it's gone somewhere else beginning with a B." Oh really? Birmingham? Belgium? Burkina Fasso? My bags arrived with a suntan 4 days later.

But this time I knew it wasn't going to accompany me to Seattle when my connecting plane was late and I had to sprint through Schipol airport in Amsterdam (aka The Biggest Airport In The Whole World) and arrived at my plane with 10 minutes to spare. Of course, I then had to go through the usual customs traumas which involved taking off all my jewellery and half my clothes. By the time I had undressed the plane was about to leave, so I had to get on half dressed.

So, I've rung to check on the status of my bags. They give you a 10 digit number. And it's an automated service. It doesn't like my accent. My reference numer starts SEAB. So the automated voice said "Did you say MPXQ....?" "Errrrr, no, I said SEAB..." "Did you say GKLT...? "NO! I said SEAB..." "Did you say FVAO?" "NO! I bloody said SEAB..." "Did you just say bloody?"

This evening we went to a State Fair (see picture - one of these people is as mad as a barrel of monkeys)- my first ever - food, rides, food, animals, food, stalls, food, and 80s band Devo. And did I mention food? I had read about funnel cake and, needless to say I had to try some (I could I resist? Pure fat dipped in sugar? Mmmmmmmmmmmm). It was a great fair, there were little piglets, a camel, and a zonkey - which was a cross between a zebra and a donkey. It looked as though someone had started to paint stripes on a donkey and got fed up after painting the legs.

Today we are going to Nordstroms. My spiritual home. Brian knows I love buying shoes and so he is prepared to go through the torture. That's friendship for you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Testing Testing...

I've decided to set up a blog for the duration of my trip to Alaska, so that I can keep track of all the things I'm doing (memory of a gerbil), and so that my Mum can keep track of where I am and make sure I a) haven't been eaten by a bear, b) haven't been abducted by very short sighted aliens and c) that I'm wearing clean knickers (I've never actually understood that one - is it in case the aliens go back to the Planet Zog and report that earthlings are not very hygenic?)

Anyway, this is just a test blog to make sure I can cope with the technology. And, even if I can, I'm not sure of the availability of wireless access from some of the far flung places I'm going to (so, Mum, please don't assume that if I don't post to this blog I have become a 16 course dinner for a grizzly).

I'm going to a crime fiction convention in Alaska and, as part of the trip, I am doing the Authors To Schools programme. They send you out into the Bush (or, as I know it The Middle Of Nowhere) for a few days to a local school. I'm going to a school district in south west Alaska. The district is 12000 square miles and has only eight villages! I'm going to three (600 residents, 500 residents and 130 residents) - all of which can only be reached by small plane or boat. Except in winter, when you can drive on the river.

(This is a view of the river from one of the villages in Alaska I'm visiting. Doesn't it look gorgeous?)

The school district has a small plane like this one or, as the teacher I have been corresponding with tells me "a TINY plane, are you OK with that?" I am very much OK with that. However, I'm not sure about my mother. I'm sure her fears of me falling off a glacier or being eaten by a bear now have a third companion.

She has been sending me 'How To Look After Yourself In Alaska If You're Stupid And/Or My Daughter' comments. She keeps phoning me up and saying things like "If you see any red berries that might be cranberries don't touch them. Because they might not be." and "If you are stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing to drink, lick ice...or was it...don't lick ice..." and "Remember to pack a shovel."

A friend in Alaska sent me a website about what to do if you have a close encounter with a bear. It had some very handy tips including...

*Bears Don't Like Surprises!* Damn - that's the giftwrapped dead fish out then.

*Bears Are Always Looking for Something to Eat!* I know the feeling...

*Identify Yourself* OK, now I have to practise my bear meet and greet..."Hi, Mr Scary Looking Bear. My name is Donna and I am just about to run away."

*Don't Run* Damn - that's Plan B out the window then.

*If Attacked - If a bear actually makes contact, you have two choices: play dead or fight back.* Is that IT? No third option? No 'talk your way out of trouble'? No, 'back away singing 'The Sound of Music''? No 'give up your wallet and cell phone and sob hysterically'? The section then goes on to say: The best choice depends on whether the bear is reacting defensively or is seeking food. How do you KNOW? If it's carrying Walmart bags you're OK because it's been shopping?

So I am visiting 3 villages over five days, and speaking to about 20 classes of children whose ages range from 5-18. I'm looking forward to it but also nervous. I've never done anything like it before and, quite frankly, I don't have a clue what I am doing. I am going to get by with a mixture of Bluffing and Chocolate. It's got me to where I am today after all (just in case you were wondering, that's a fat bluffer by the way). I'm staying with teachers in each of the villages. It's really lovely of them to be so hospitable to someone they have never met, I hope they don't live to regret it. And one of them has arranged a pot luck supper with a native Alaskan family. How excited am I?

As well as this, I am going to stay with good friend in Seattle for a couple of days, before meeting up with other friends in Anchorage. I have a number of sightseing tours planned:

A trip on a catamaran (this is the very boat I am travelling on) in Prince William Sound which looks absolutely stunning, to see whales, and glaciers calving (that's the glaciers which are calving, not the whales.

An all day trip on an ATV through the back country up to a glacier (yes Dad, I'm afraid that means I'm driving - I can hear your sharp intake of breath - but they've assured me that the fact that I don't drive doesn't mean I can't drive an ATV. And Mum - it's entirely safe. It goes mile an hour and I shall be wearing safety gear and clean underwear. Besides, there is nothing to crash into. Apart from glaciers. And bears.

A flightseeing trip around Mount McKinley, which is the largest mountain in North America, landing at a secluded lake. For pictures - not skinnydipping.

So, my suitcases are packed (only 9 pairs of shoes this trip - I'm being restrained). I think one of them is over the weight limit, but hopefully it will be OK.

Here's the offending suitcase (known as Big Red). By the way, all those Cadbury's Animal biscuits are NOT for me, they're for the children. Honest guv'ner.

I'm off very early on Friday morning. With any luck, I will be able to post and include photos while I'm away. If not, I'm sorry for wasting your time so far and see you all in October.