Cavorting down the home stretch

Our last day in the Yukon before heading home was Valentines Day.  I awoke early so I could finish up some last details of Mark's valentine present which was the doll I had begun in Claire's class when I first arrived.  I was sewing on the last sequin scales and sharp pointy teeth when I heard Mark begin to stir from the bedroom.  Mark was very taken with his valentine and kept the little fellow nestled in the crook of his arm for a good part of the morning.  We ate a delicious, leisurely breakfast while we enjoyed a last deep drink of the the snowy splendor outside our window.

We decided to drive to town to cram in a few last things we didn't want to miss out on before we left. Our first stop was a local brewery where we discovered to our dismay that we could not buy a simple glass of beer since they were only able to sell it in large containers for taking away. If we wanted to sample some of their brew on tap, we'd have to patronize a local pub. I engaged the beer slinger and a fellow that was paying for a couple of growlers-full of beer for advice on just where to go, and preferably a place that provided abundant local color instead of cheap tourist thrills. I mentioned a place that Bianca at the Sundog had deemed gritty and full of local flavor, but  the two men blanched at the suggestion and counseled us strongly to avoid the place.  They directed us instead to a bar attached to one of the cookie cutter hotels downtown.  Meh.

We figured a better alternative would be the bowling alley (which we unfortunately found closed) but the journey ended up being fortuitous because it took us directly past something extraordinary that I had completely forgotten about seeing shortly after I arrived.
In a nondescript front yard on a busy street on the outskirts of Whitehorse sits a huge dome made entirely of bicycle wheel rims.  A fellow by the name of Phillipe LeBlond who had previously owned a bicycle repair shop in town constructed the dome from parts he gleaned from his endeavors.  The rims are lashed together with a legion of heavy duty zip ties and nothing more.  The structure shelters a small tree and even a grouping of sturdy rim furniture, creating a huge spherical doily of silver spokes from which one can sit and enjoy the symphony of the steady stream of traffic heading into town.  It's a beautiful and inventive bit of work.

Back, however, to the task at hand: drinking!  We decided to throw caution to the wind and head back to the notorious bar the beer swillers had so adamantly discouraged us from visiting.  When we arrived downtown, we found the streets around the bar packed with cars (the Yukonese are pretty big drinkers, apparently) so after circling for several minutes, I pulled over near the front door to suss up the parking situation.  As I sat listening to a raging internal debate about what we should do, Mark remarked quietly, "Um, I'm pretty sure I just saw a drug deal happen right in front of the bar."  This was shortly before noon on a Thursday, mind you.  We debated it briefly and decided to keep moving to find a venue that was a little less challenging.

We opted for the unremarkable hotel bar and it turned out to be perfectly adequate for our purposes and was indeed filled, as requested, with locals.  Mark ordered a tall amber glass of local brew, but I was determined to sample one of the Yukon's most cherished cocktails, the Bloody Caesar.  It's essentially a Bloody Mary made with Clamato and imported spices.  I say imported spices because DAMN - I finally  tasted something spicy in Canada!  It was a fine beverage for a lazy Valentine's afternoon in the frozen north.

We soon returned to the cabin to begin the process of herding our possessions into a packable formation.  I kept my eye on the aurora forecast as the evening began to unfold and the conditions weren't very favorable - cloudy, with little activity predicted in the magnetosphere.  With the aurora out of the picture (literally), I decided to round up my gear for one last session of light painting.  Mark was napping when I finally suited up and headed out the door.

I went to my usual spot and after setting up my equipment, began to frolic about in the sharp night air, trying this toy and that to see what they would do in combination.

It wasn't long before I heard the crunch of approaching footsteps in the snow.  Lo and behold, there came the man I love who had just gotten up out of a warm bed to come and keep me company and cheer me on while I cavorted about like a mad woman.  He volunteered to work the camera for me while I attempted a few more elaborate tricks, and a couple of photos later, without even discussing it, Mark selected some lights for himself and we were soon collaborating.  It was really fun to work in tandem even though the results weren't necessarily the best of the evening.

When we reviewed the image below on the camera screen, however, we unanimously declared the thing done.  We had spontaneously created the perfect valentine to one another without ever having set out to do so.  I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate and knew there was nothing left to do out there in the cold and dark that could improve on what had just happened.  What a supremely happy ending to our trip.

Although technically it wasn't the end of our trip.  We spent the next two days travelling back to the deep south, laying over in Vancouver as before.

When we finally reached the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, a mere 30 minute flight from home, my weary spirit soared when I found this shop window welcoming me back to my wacky state.  I'm sure people from other countries (than Texas, that is) were perplexed when they saw me standing by a window, clapping in a succession of triads.  "But," I thought to myself, "they better get used to shaking their heads in bemusement here in Texas."


Mammoths, Margaritas and the Magnetosphere

Mammoths were indeed,
a day at the museum
taught us, now we know.

We all love monsters,
even those painted bright red.
Eek! Run cave man, run!

Our visit to Whitehorse fell in the third of the year I've increasingly noticed is the closed for winter period - attractions in the snowy climes tend to be closed or have very limited hours.  Despite that limitation, Mark and I were able to find a time to visit the enjoyable Berengia Museum that explores the interesting tale of the area in prehistoric times (via some excellent dioramas and taxidermy, I might add!). Sadly, the Transportation Museum next door was not open, so I had to make do with simply posing in yet another giant tire to slake my thirst for giant moving machines.

Before we left town and headed back to the cabin, Mark I stopped at a place called Sam and Andy's that billed itself as a "Tex-Mex" joint.  We were on a mission to indulge in one of the few rituals we feel compelled to share and repeat - the sampling of regional margaritas.  The two of us have shared margaritas pretty much all over the world (my favorite to date being a cherished Kyoto iteration) so every time we find ourselves in a new city, we quickly scout out a place to acquire new specimens for our collection.  Let's just put it this way: the worldwide interpretation of Tex-Mex dishes has unselfishly provided a never ending source of entertainment for us over the years.

The closest Sam and Andy's got to earning a Tex-Mex designation (besides a respectable margarita with real lime juice) was a taco plate that wasn't called a taco plate, but was described as being smothered in a "conquesa" sauce.  Yeah, well....sort of close...only......nevermind.

So Mark and I opted for the Tex-Mex Skins, which Mark pointed out hilariously should be called the "Mes-Skins" just like a west Texas farmer from Pecos would say it.  We found that the hideously green bottled hot sauce from the condiment box perked those taters right up and had the added benefit of creating a visual spectacle at the same time. Needless to say, we cooked dinner at home that night - some delicious bean soup with moose smokies that our host Andrew had generously shared with me (along with some moose bratwurst!).  No aurora action to speak of this night - maybe a little sleep?

When we woke Tuesday morning it had been snowing over night and the flakes were still coming down.  Which made a lovely backdrop for the huge picture windows we sat near, sipping coffee and lingering over the components of our bacony breakfast. I was mostly preoccupied, though, with contemplating how to produce the layers of waterproof warmth that would be needed for a nice long snowy walk to nearby Lake Laberge.  It was finally time to bust out the snow pants!

We dressed elaborately, ending in sporty snow pants and parkas, and then awkwardly stuffed ourselves into the car to drive to the trail head.  At the trail head, we'd be heading east in the direction of the huge historic lake Laberge (which is really an immense widening of the Yukon river).  The lake was the principal mode of transportation for the miners that streamed steadily into the northern Yukon during the 1890s gold rush. The lake bustled with the business of shipping supplies north to the goldfields.  The cabin I stayed in was located on a road called Policeman's Point that dead ends directly into the lake.  I learned that the moniker stems from the rows of pier pylons that still jut up from the lake where the road meets the water, the ruins of a pier the Mounties built to house their official outpost, a locale for meting out frontier justice.

Abandoned bear bell?
As we began our walk, the snow was coming down in big ragged moist clumps and every horizontal surface was covered with a soft white blanket of freshly snowed flakes.  Mark kept his eye peeled for animal tracks and soon spotted a set of enormous prints that we were both sure belonged to a moose.  Not much further along the trail we began to see both moose and deer tracks criss-crossing back and forth.  Then we began to notice all sorts of prints: birds, rabbits, dogs - even horses.  Despite all those signs of cohabitation, the more distance we put between the trail head and ourselves, the more I began to really sink in to solitude.  It was so overwhelmingly quiet as we walked along that it seemed as though a thick cloud of remoteness had materialized and was hanging in the air like an invisible frozen mist.  But then I find it simultaneously unsettling and thrilling to be so far away from the rest of humanity, so I'd venture to say I'm just waxing melodramatic.

We walked and walked, thinking surely we should have reached the lake by now - maybe we're lost?  That's always my signal to keep going, it's just a little bit further.  The rule serves me like clockwork.  After continuing just a short way past the point where I began to doubt, the trees suddenly came to an abrupt halt and it was obvious we had arrived at the lake.

We gazed out over the vast expanse of snow covered ice and discussed back and forth just how far we'd be willing to walk out onto the lake.  We decided we'd rather be made fun of as dumb Texans that didn't know you could walk all the way across a frozen lake, than to be made fun of as dumb Texans that fell through the ice because we didn't know what the hell we were doing.

None of which diminished one little bit the loveliness of a good long walk in the snowy woods with my sweetie.

Tuesday afternoon, I took the opportunity while Mark was napping to do some more experimenting with photographing CDs and snow.  I still didn't come up with anything brilliant, but it was fun to try and see what I could get.

I'd been anxiously awaiting Tuesday night, because Tuesday night is Bingo night at the Elks Lodge!  I had missed my first opportunity the week prior when I was too worn out from dog ranching to muster the energy required for duking it out on the Bingo floor.  But this Tuesday, I was rarin' to go and had a partner in crime!

All bingo halls should have queens.

Our bingo caller in action
When we entered the hall, I foolishly opted to get each of us a 12 game pack, which means you have 12 cards with which to try and win each and every one of the 24 separate games.  Trouble is, you also have to hurriedly check each of the 12 cards every time a new number comes up, which I found to be much harder than I imagined.  Mark and I were exhausted by evening's end!  Maybe it's because I'm such a bingo irregular.  The regulars could easily daub over 16 cards, and sometimes more. I kept thinking to myself, "And they expect old people to play this game?!"

An older Elk gentleman that served as a game volunteer took Mark and I under his wing and helped us keep all the arcane rules straight.  I don't know how we could have done it without him explaining what we were supposed to do next.  The hall was packed, and a good number of the players looked to be First Nations tribesmen and women.  The competition was grueling! Mark and I had a blast, even though we didn't win a penny. 

We drove home and worked on rustling up some dinner.  The aurora forecast for Tuesday was the best it had been the entire time I had been there, and by damn it did not disappoint!  I made a quick reconnaissance trip outside around 9:45 p.m. (which is early for the aurora) and came running back into the cabin shouting excitedly, "The aurora is out!  Hurry!  Come see!"  We quickly reapplied all our layers and hurried outside with the camera, a blanket and some chairs.  A long opera of ooooooos and aaaaaahhhhs began to issue forth from our mouths as the magnetosphere did its kabuki dance.  The way you can tell it's the aurora when you see it at this distance is that the light pools in the oddest forms and then rapidly evolves to another impossible shape right before your very eyes.  Finally! The phenomena I'd been nattering on about for so long and Mark and we got to share it on Valentine's eve.  We sat in the cold for several hours, loving every minute of it. I took lots of pictures, and not a one of them comes close to doing what we saw any sort of justice.

The best part of the spectacular display the aurora put on for us was when Mark and I finally got cold and tired and went inside.  We put on our fuzzy jammies, turned off all the lights, and watched out the enormous picture window at the foot of the bed while the lights cavorted about in the distance.  Not only had the aurora put on a magnificent show, but it did so in a northeasterly enough direction that we could lay in bed, snuggle under the covers and watch the light change gently as we drifted off to sleep.  It really doesn't get any better than that, I don't think.


High on a Hill Sat a Lonely Goat Herd

Not very distant to our lodging, we discovered a cluster of sightseeing options which managed to fully occupy our attention on Sunday.  Our first stop was the 700 acre Yukon Wildlife Preserve where a variety of Arctic animals are featured in generously sized enclosures dotted along a winding 5 kilometer trail.  We eschewed the fancy (and expensive) bus tour and elected instead to walk the length of the trail on foot.

The first enclosure we encountered held a herd of caribou which we learned are the same exact animal as a reindeer.  The two different names are due to geographical differences, like calling the same crustacean a prawn in one country and a shrimp in another.  After admiring the intricate and impressive antlers sported by the caribou (caribou being the only species of deer where both sexes are adorned with antlers), we decided to pass quickly by the surly and uninteresting bison and proceed directly to the musk oxen pen. There I snapped a picture of Mark in his myriad insulating layers, bundled up against the extreme cold (Mark is not in the least a fan of cold weather) with the photo being mostly evidentiary on the behest of our friend Erin who found it admirable that Mark was willing to subject himself to those conditions.  Our walk next carried us up the sweep of a large hill (the moose were frustratingly absent, deep within the recesses of their absolutely enormous pen) to one of the most popular areas – the Arctic fox and lynx enclosures.

Mark’s excellent abilities of observation were required to spot the Arctic fox for not only is it well camouflaged, but its skittish nature and propensity to move about quickly made it extremely difficult to locate.  And yes - it is incredibly adorable, the Arctic fox - a veritable live stuffed animal.  It held its audience in thrall as it cavorted over the snowy terrain.

The lynx we spotted was much less interested in hiding although it also wasn’t the least bit willing to approach the fence.  Lynx are notoriously shy and elusive creatures, so it was a real delight for me to be able to stand and observe one without being resigned to catching only a fleeting glance as it melted into the woods as had been the case when I was lucky enough to see one at Denali park in Alaska many years prior.  The lynx has an absolutely gorgeous coat that is prized by trappers for its luxuriant softness and distinctive markings.  I love its cute little pointy black tipped ears – don’t you?

After a good long visit, we moved along to the mountain goat enclosure which I'm sure it will not surprise you to hear we learned are not really goats but rather mountain antelope. Again it was Mark that was able to pick out the shapes of the goats high above us along the ridge line of a craggy hill that was incorporated into their enclosure.  Mark observed that as they moved along at that distance, they looked startlingly like the famous Yeti of Northern legend, albeit moving along on all fours. I found it impossible after hearing that interpretation to think of them any other way so uncanny was the resemblance.  We watched the goats (...I mean antelope...) pick their way down the steep hillside in order to approach the feeding area near the fence. As they got near enough to inspect closely, Mark and I agreed that if we were to pick to pick which of the animals we’d seen that day we would most like to be based on their fur coats, we would undoubtedly choose the mountain goat/antelope.  The long silky strands of their outer fur swayed and fluttered in the wind, revealing an undercoat of thick white wool - luxuriantly beautiful, even more so in our estimation than the much sought after Arctic fox or seal.

After lingering at these three fascinating tour stops, we began to progress quickly through the remainder of the park, merely scoffing as we passed a large pen of mule and whitetail deer, since those species are virtually ubiquitous in the Texas hill country.  It was a bit like coming upon a cage full of pigeons or house cats.

When we at least returned to the car happy but windblown and cold, we agreed it was more than time to high tail it over to a nearby coffee shop (and local roaster) called North Bean for a cup of joe.  After taking the first delicious and satisfying swig, I remarked to Mark that my espresso expressed perfectly the love I have of ranging from one end of a continuum to the other (in this case cold and frosty on one end and hot and soothing on the other) in almost immediate juxtaposition.  The boy that prepared our beverages couldn’t have been much more than sixteen, but had already acquired the admirable skill of a seasoned barista and turned out delicious brews for our enjoyment.

After we had sufficiently warmed and caffeinated ourselves, we crossed the road to visit Takhini Hot Springs.  As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, I was immediately drawn to two enormous towers of ice that stood nearby, discovering when I went to photograph them that they were used for training in the practice of ice climbing.  They were eerily beautiful glistening bluely against the vibrant cloud filled sky, although I didn’t find them all that compelling as a venue for entertainment (of the ice climbing variety, anyway).

The wind was cold and the steaming springs beckoned, so it wasn’t long before we had paid our admission, changed into our bathing suits, and slipped gratefully into the springs.  I had imagined it would be a bit daunting to make the short passage from dressing room to the refuge of hot water, and it in fact was since the process required standing in a wet bathing suit (you're required to shower before entering) in the brutal cold for the short time required to hang up your towel and slip off your flip flops.  Suffice it to say it was not my favorite part of the visit.

Once I eased down the stairs into the soothing waters however, the trauma of the cold air quickly receded.  Takhini Springs, unlike most natural geothermal springs, does not contain sulphur so the waters are pleasantly unscented.  The adjacent snow drifts and the nippy air didn’t seem to affect us at all as we lolled about in the deliciously warm waters.

As Mark and I sat chatting quietly, I overhead a nearby conversation that made mention of a news item I'd read earlier in the week – an elderly Japanese tourist had been found dead, floating face down in the springs just days earlier.  I resolved to search for the details of the story on the internet when I was able and when I read the description of the incident, it felt oddly and beautifully literary in its scope.  It turns out that a late arriving tour bus of Japanese visitors had made a stop at the springs to have a quick look around (it was after closing time) and failed to realize when leaving that their headcount was short by one.  Hours later when the oversight was discovered and a search party assembled, the missing 72 year old woman had been found drowned in the springs.  She had apparently wandered off from the group during their brief visit, and slipped into the waters unnoticed.  I wondered to myself what thoughts had been going through her head as she scrambled quietly over the fence and into the steaming springs and it felt to me like a scene out of a Murakami novel, poignant, peaceful and strange.

When we judged that we'd had our fill and decided to brave the cold dash back to the dressing room, I noticed that Mark’s hair was festooned with tiny beads of ice which led him to later point out a bulletin board next to the front door that held a variety of Polaroids taken in support of February’s frozen hair contest.  The pictures were hilarious – contestants sporting angular ropey hairdos coaxed into impossible shapes by their owners as they sat basking in the springs.  I so wanted to participate, figuring I’d be the only contestant with pink hair, but alas – it would have to wait for another visit and much colder air.

It was a short and drowsy drive back to our cabin where we were able to enjoy a lovely sunset before settling down to prepare dinner.  The forecasts had indicated that there would be another good chance to see the aurora this night, and I readied my camera equipment in anticipation. 

One of the things that is daunting - and that I actually find enchanting - is the ephemeral nature of the aurora, its refusal to be easy.  While the scientific prognosticators had proclaimed Sunday evening to be an excellent opportunity for viewing the lights, the weather had decided it would not cooperate so easily.  Large heavy clouds littered the horizon, allowing only a wisp of aurora to poke through  below the curtain of gloom.  Mark and I soon tired of waiting for the cloud cover to shift and Mark retired to the cabin for a nap.  I took the opportunity to dig through my bag of LED lights, and select some new items to experiment with.  By damn, if I couldn't enjoy one sort of colored lights, I'd create another.  I was quite pleased with some of the results.

I added a mylar emergency blanket and a length of aqua EL wire to my luminous cast of implements, and was able to use the otherwise irksome clouds to highlight the sodium vapor glow of the city of Whitehorse in the distance.  Every time I experiment with light painting, I learn something new and this night yielded much new wisdom.

Another long night with a bedtime of around 4:00 a.m., a sure sign I am intensely captivated.  Yahooo!