Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sitka fun

It’s been a fun few days for me here in Sitka in spite of the near constant rain. I’ve been reading, swimming at the pool, eating out for just about every meal, birdwatching, hiking, partying, gossiping, and just relaxing.

I went with Matt (who has an interesting blog called Sitka Nature) and Gregory to look for the giant hemlock. Apparently, there is a record-sized hemlock in the Indian River drainage. Well, it’s the second time that I go there to find it, and the second time that I don’t find it. As Kitty asked me: “How can you not find it? It’s the biggest tree in the forest!”

The upside is that I have now explored the area enough that I am positive I will find it next time. And we saw all kinds of cool things out there, including this waterfall. It had been raining all morning so the stream was running so strong that the noise by that waterfall was deafening. Look just to the right of the center of the picture, and you’ll see Matt climbing up it.

Another high point was the Stardust Ball. That’s basically Sitka’s Halloween Party, which this month was on the 27th. The Stardust ball was simply crazy. There were all kinds of crazy costumes. There were people dressed up as fried eggs, dock pilings, Lara Croft, fish boxes, tourists, and even a pregnant woman dressed up as an oven! And of course, there was lots of dancing and alcohol, and a hilarious lip-synch contest. As you can guess from the picture below, Noelle went as a vampire, and yes, I am the blue Disco King! I even wore big high-heeled boots! Of course, my shins are still sore from the boots, but it was well worth it.

I also finished my very first carving project. It is the Tlingit-style bear mask below, which I had started in 2003 but never finished. I was not very happy with it so I did a bunch of other art projects while that bear mask lingered in my bags. But in the end I picked it back up and finished it yesterday, under the supervision of Tommy Joseph. It turned out pretty nice after all:

Friday, October 26, 2007

Back in Sitka!

It’s been really good here in Sitka for the past week. It was a bit strange coming into Sitka on a bright, sunny day, and with a brass band playing in the airport to welcome us back. Well, at least, to welcome some of us back. Of the ten people that left together to go to Iraq, two didn’t make it through medical screening (Petersen and Llewllyn), one had to go back early (Carson), and of the remaining seven only Sommerville and me came back on the scheduled flight.

I got an answer for my last bird pictures in Kuwait: The redstart was a common redstart, and the shrike was most likely an isabelline shrike! That shrike sure looked like a red-backed to me, but thanks to Julien and the book, I now know better.

As always, there are a lot of interesting things to do in Sitka. I attended an interesting totem pole inauguration ceremony. The pole was carved by Tommy Joseph, my carving teacher. I’ll try to go take pictures of it some other day and put them up in this blog.

Another great event was a Zen meditation practice and tea ceremony by a Japanese Buddhist monk. One of his ancestors was the captain of a Japanese seal hunting boat that sank in the harbor next to the University. The boat had been seized for poaching, and the captain killed himself on the way back to Japan out of shame that the expedition had failed. The highlight of the meditation practice was getting hit on the shoulders by a long, slender wooden paddle. It doesn’t hurt, yet it is strangely effective when I start to lose focus and think about my aches and pains.

I took some pictures on my walk from the house to Totem Park yesterday:

I got this photo of a male lesser scaup at Swan Lake:

I then saw a bunch of harlequin ducks on a rock close to shore in front of the SJ salmon hatchery:

And just before getting to the park, I found some interesting mushrooms that are probably Helvella lacunosa. They were growing in grass by the sidewalk, under a birch, a spruce and a hemlock:

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Going home!

I'm almost home! It has been a long, tiresome process. We started by shipping all our stuff out of Kuwait, and moving out of our barracks. We spent over a day homeless, waiting for our flight out of Kuwait. This involved a lot of lounging around, drinking coffee and - for the more talented ones among us - playing poker or the guitar.

We then flew out to Mississippi, which was a long, uneventful flight. We did, however, stop in Ireland for a couple of hours. Many of our soldiers were very excited because they claim Irish ancestry, and as they walked around the airport giftshop they oohed, aahed, and commented on how good it feels to return to the homeland. Other people simply stood in front of the alcoholic drinks and stared as if hypnotized. We eventually left, although my friend Ian from Juneau briefly considered taking over the plane and returning to Ireland for good.

Mississippi was blissfully green and comfortable. We were there for about six days mostly to resolve paperwork, health and supply issues before going home. Of course, we had to endure another ceremony with dignitaries both military and civilian, but this one was mercifully short and I soon went back to meandering through the woods, where I found neat things such as armadillos, deer, Drosera sp. sundew carnivorous plants, beautiful tulip trees, skunks, turtles, and much more. It is a real treat to be overwhelmed by an ecosystem where the diversity is so great that it would be unthinkable to make an exhaustive list of everything I see from where I stand.

I am now in the Houston airport, waiting for a plane to Seattle, and I should be in Sitka within 24 hours. I just can't wait.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

A few things before leaving

Fifteen months after I reported for duty at the Sitka armory with a six-pack of beer in one hand and a duffel bag in the other, we're almost done with our deployment. Our replacement unit is trained up and in place, and all we have left to do is ship all our stuff out of the country, clean weapons, turn in equipment, do paperwork, etc...

Today was the award ceremony, that dreaded day where everyone lines up for trinkets. As always when we have formations, the weather was awful and the ceremony needlessly long. Two people passed out from the heat. Sergeant Metcalfe took the above photo. It is of specialist Hahn receiving an Army Achievement Medal from LTC Osborn, our battalion commander. This award is usually called AAM in the Army, and rates very low. Most people got AAMs and other puny awards. I was quite angry to find that most of the awards were very poorly written. Several people found out that they were credited for nothing in particular, had their names misspelled, or were credited with insignificant achievements. For example, mine states that I won second place in my weight category at a stairmaster competition, but not that I was a team leader or that I volunteered for the mission in Southern Iraq. One of the guys in my squad (I am a squad leader right now) even has someone else's name and achievements written into his paperwork. No wonder we didn't get any good awards!

On a more positive note - I found some flowers! Almost all the vegetation has been dead for months, but the Cornulaca leucacantha have remained mostly green, and they just flowered a couple of weeks ago (hint: look for yellow spots). Of course, it's not tulips or hibiscus, but you can't be picky in the desert after several months of zero precipitation.

And finally - a laughing dove Streptopelia senegalensis. They are flying through in large numbers right now, along with a few small flocks of turtle doves Streptopelia turtur. They are very easily frightened, so although they are rather common I never did get a good picture of one. I can't blame them; I'd probably be easily frightened as well if I were a defenseless bird flying through a country full of shotgun-toting Kuwaitis.

We're taking the internet satellite dish down in a few hours, and leaving Kuwait for good in a few days. Next stop: Mississippi!