Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Galapagos Islands

The following postings on this blog consist of a group of pictures and then the diary we kept on our Galapagos trip. It was a very enlightening experience. The Galapagos Islands are 600 miles off the shore of Ecuador, a remote Pacific archipelago. They straddle the equator at 90 degrees west, the approximate longitude of Wisconsin. Ecuador has declared the Galapagos to be a national park and is doing an excellent job administrating them Eco-tourism is a great help because it provides funding for improvements and gives the local people a source of income other than exploiting the environment. As the decades have gone by, the islands have been returned to nearly their original state. Species of non-native plants and animals have been eradicated. Others, such as the indigenous land tortoises, have been bred in captivity and released to increase their numbers. The Charles Darwin Research Station has been very helpful in doing research and establishing strategies for management and rehabilitation of this one-of-a-kind ecological system. It is supported by the tourism industry, generous donors, and the Ecuadoran government. Fortunately, the mentality of the local people has been changing and they are now a major part of the solution to the environmental problems. Their attitudes and actions are the key to the survival of the Galapagos.

Antonio, one of our favorite naturalists explains whale skeleton. Dragged up from shore for exhibit.

American Oyster Catcher. Lives in Galapagos, but there are no oysters. Eating snails instead -- adaptive bird.

Galapagos Penguins live at the equator and eat fish just like those in Antarctica.

Flamingos at Fernandina

The eco-tourists at Espanola, Galapagos Islands

Land Iguana out grazing in the late afternoon. An herbivore, some weigh up to twenty pounds.

Our ship, the National Geographic Endeavor. At 295 feet, a former Norwegian factory trawler built in Germany in 1966. Built for heavy seas.

Land Tortoises at Charles Darwin Research Station. They were rescued from private owners illegally holding them.

A sea of marine iguanas on Espanola Island. They swim and eat underwater plants. They do not bite or attack.

Flashy colored marine iguanas very common on Espanola Island.

Marine iguanas at Santa Cruz Island. They all sit on the rocks in the late afternoon, perhaps warming after swimming for food.

Marine Iguana in Gothic

Pinnacle Rock at Bartolome Island. The rock behind which French ship was anchored in Master and Commander


Sally Lightfoot Crab. Very common in tidepools. Eats shedding skin from iguanas.

Lava Cactus. First growth in areas of of new lava -- a tough pioneer plant.

Sea Lion mother nursing her pup. They usually have one per year.

Headlands at Espanola Island. Habitat for sea lion and most sea birds, especially the Nazca boobie.

Nazca Boobie and Chick. A large flock of these live on Espanola Island, common elsewhere. A fishing bird.

Blue-footed Boobie These fishing seabirds are common throughout most of the Galapagos Islands. They dive from the air for fish.

Sunset on west side of Santa Cruz Island. Days are frequently cloudy and then clear late in the afternnon. Sunsets and sunrises are very short.

A Trip to the Galapagos by Marilynn Fairfax and Perry Munson

The opener was flight to Miami on Thursday, March 18th, and then an overnight in a motel near the airport. Our flight to Ecuador did not leave until the next evening, so we had a chance to look around in Miami.

Friday, March 19, Miami, USA then Saturday, March 20 – the 48 Hour Day


A long morning bus ride across town from the airport area to Miami Beach was next. Miami looks like the beginning of the Hispanic world. We noticed, refreshingly, that people there, in all sections we saw, live in houses with windows and doors and there were no trees growing out through rooftops: a nice change from the Detroit metro area.

Miami Beach was a mass of thinly clad humans from horizon to horizon. Restaurants and shops were full of young people looking cool. It was spring break week. What a happening! Our snapshots of ourselves standing primly erect in that sea of youthful beauty on the beach will perhaps amuse you – later. It is a study in contrasts. Katya found us a great Cuban cafĂ© near the beach – Puerto Sagua – where we had lunch. Then we looked around some more, bought a new hair brush for Marilynn, and finally got a cab back to the hotel.

We were supposed to check in with AeroGal (Aerolinea Galapagos) at 5:30, so the hotel van dropped us off. Departure time was originally 8:30, changed to 9:30 in honor of daylight savings time, and then to 10:30 for mysterious, unstated reasons. Finally we left Miami behind and had a smooth flight to Guayaquil, arriving at 2:30 Saturday morning. A beautiful motorcoach whisked us off to the Hilton and at 3:15 we were asleep. After an all too brief nap, the wakeup call came at 5:45. We were firmly instructed to have our bags outside our doors at 6.They would appear again in our quarters on the boat. We groggily complied (they were gone at 6:05) although it necessitated standing around naked until we showered and dressed for the day. After a quick buffet breakfast, we were bussed to the airport to be emplaned for the Galapagos. We were semi-conscious but easy to herd, and the expedition was perfectly planned and hosted. The people running the tour, almost all Ecuadorans, were extremely professional, thorough and helpful.

By noon, (still on) Saturday we saw the Galapagos on the horizon. The airport, tiny by American standards, had control tower and a building to check in through customs, etc. – a remote, simple, but very proper tropical airport. There were a few solid interior walls (around the bar and the restrooms, for example), and some partial exterior walls, but most of it was just roof and panels of iron bars similar to those used for cattle handling (hmm!). A stream of planes, ranging in size from small commuters to the Boeing 757 that brought us, lands and takes off all day. The guy checking passports, etc. did it with a scanner attached to a laptop and it went like a Prussian military drill. People here have cell phones, iPhones, Blackberries, iPods, and seem totally immersed in modern technological life. Everything is clean, neat, and very well organized. The entire infrastructure is good and effective, although simple. As soon as we were processed in and given yet another entry visa, this one to the Galapagos, we were taken by bus to the port, a trip of perhaps 5 minutes. Tour boats, in our case a small ship, were anchored in a bay. The whole place looked as desolate as the American Southwest and there were no signs of life on land other than prickly pears, some small bushes, and grass clumps. A sea lion wallowed and barked in the water next to the single short pier. Large zodiacs were circling. They inserted us into life jackets and loaded us in: we got the feeling that if we had faltered, they could have just picked us up and tossed us aboard. Soon we were ripping across the waves to our ship. We pulled up to a platform with some steps leading up to an open door in the side of ship. The Zodiac was pitching up and down and we had to pass off our carry-on bags first and then each of us made a heavily assisted jump to the platform and steps. When we arrived in our cabin, our checked baggage awaited us.

When we arrived at the boat, a bunch of huge brown pelicans and other sundry birds were having a feeding frenzy on small fish that had apparently decided to clean the algae off the sided of the ship. The flock of pelicans with six-foot wingspans swerving around our heads as we disembarked convinced us that there was really wildlife in the Galapagos. We were mere obstructions to be dodged so they could continue their lunch.

Our cabin was very cozy, but also very well planned. Each of us got an adequate closet with drawers. There was a desk for the computer. The bathroom was small, but quite adequate. And yes, the suitcases were waiting for us once again. We looked longingly at the beds, but not yet!

A delicious buffet lunch featuring fantastic black bean soup, friend plantains and seafood and chicken were the opening salvo of the Ecuadoran chefs back in the galley. Every meal since has been a new, bigger and better surprise. They cook natural, local foods only. You can expect an abundance of seafood, delicious new vegetable dishes, and fruits, most of them combined in new, unexpected (by us) ways. The cold, marinated octopus with something like Mexican pico de gallo in it was outstanding. It was not called ceviche: that was for another day. Fresh-baked ginger cookies, a well known remedy for seasickness, were also provided, just in case. Then we were lectured a bit about the routines on the ship, welcomed by many staff members, and sent for a siesta.

Three o’clock came very fast. Suddenly we were in the Zodiacs again (still Saturday), landing on Punta Suarez, a smaller island north of Baltra. We did a short hike, about 1.3 miles along the beach and then back through the brush. Our naturalist guide told us about everything we saw. Perry ripped through a bunch of Ekatchrome getting the first pictures of Frigate birds circling overhead. Sea lions cluttered up the hiking trail along the beach. Among them were numerous sea iguanas, ranging in length from 1 to 2 ½ feet, much of which was long skinny tail. The trip through the brush brought us in contact with the land iguanas, who by then had decided it was cool enough to come out of the grass and walk around some. They are larger, weighing about 20 - 30 pounds, and sat staring at you or casually munched on ground covering shrubs. The longer we walked, the stranger it became – a mating ritual between two blue-footed boobies, with frigate birds swooping overhead, the males with huge red inflated sacs hanging under their chins. It is their breeding season too and the male frigates fly overhead with the huge red sacks inflated to attract females who mainly sit below in bushes and scorn then. Some had obviously mated, because we found two young ones being guarded by one parent while the other was off feeding. Shooting a family portrait while standing six feet from a guy with a wingspan of seven feet was beyond belief – like casually walking up to an eagle’s nest and clicking away. These birds did not care.

By sunset we were back to the ship. Sunrise and sunset here at the equator are at about six most of the year. Right now, spring equinox, that is exact. When the sun had disappeared (it always rises and sets quickly), we sat down to dinner, another buffet of more home-cooked, indescribably delicious food. Desert was a huge tub of mango sorbet, another thing the chef must have dreamed up back when and concocted fresh the day before. Kids were dipping into it like the pelicans eating fish. Perry ate only two huge bowls.

Finally, we had an orientation about the Sunday and then went to bed in our cabins. As we drifted to sleep, we heard the diesels come on. Their dull throb reminded us of hearing them from our bed in Grosse Pointe early in the morning, as freighters 8 times the size of our ship move up the ship channel. Friday-Saturday was finally over.

Sunday, March 21, Espanola, the Galapagos.

Ninety-six miles of Pacific Ocean passed beneath us during the night. We awoke to the voice of our head naturalist, the only American staffer on the ship, at seven and scrambled for breakfast.

Soon thereafter, we boarded the Zodiacs again, for a landing on Espanola. It is the island with a huge colony of Nazca boobies. These, like the blue-footed species dive for fish. The main industry among animals here is fishing.

We did a 1.7 mile nature walk through essentially level terrain, first along the coast and then back through the brush. It was not a long hike, but we almost constantly hopped from rock to rock. Again, sea lions ruled the coastline. A mother nursing her pup sprawled across the trail so we had to detour a bit around her – two feet at least. The lava cliffs and steep headlands along the shore were home to huge menageries of (mainly) Nazca boobies. A few blue-footed types were also present. Again, marine iguanas were plentiful. The females were busy digging nests in the sandy, rocky soil about fifty feet in from the trail. The idea is to dig a hole, lay eggs and guard it for a few days. Ones that had their spot picked out guarded it against new arrivals. Vicious fights ensued, but eventually one of them would back off. It was not a real blood-letting, unlike a fight over the pencil sharpener back at DPS. These guys have a way of working things out so nobody gets hurt in the end.

In the end we photographed hundreds of sea lions, iguanas, birds, etc. Four sights stand out: the Darwin’s Finch, the Galapagos hawk, the red- and turquoise-colored sea iguanas, and the albatross airfield. The Darwin’s Finch is one of the major motivating forces in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Most finches have strong bills for seed cracking. On this particular island, the finches developed small, more pointed bills for catching insects, a case of natural selection favoring those that could live by eating a new diet. The one Marilynn photographed looks just like most finches, except for its delicate bill.

Near the end of the trip, we came to an open “field,” which is unoccupied at this time of year. It is the landing field and nesting area for the wave albatross, which spends its life at sea, landing only to raise its young. They need a large patch of open terrain to be able take off. Their wings are so long and slim that they actually cannot flap them very hard, so they are a bird that spends most of its life soaring. Our naturalist guide filled us in on why having anything to do with an albatross is bad luck: if you are lost at sea, you follow any other bird and will come to land, but not so with the albatross, which does not go to land. To avoid having seamen following the albatross, they had to wrap it in myths of evil.

The marine iguanas on the island had beautiful blue and red markings -- like the archetypal ones you see in articles about the Galapagos in National Geographic. They eat a local species of algae in the waters around Espanola that makes them have this particular color pattern. The ones we saw the day before were essentially black, or at best, dark brown shading to dark red: distinctly lacking in glamour.

There is only one species of raptor in the Galapagos – the Galapagos hawk. It is a large hawk, comparable in size to an American red-tailed hawk or Swainson’s hawk – a bit smaller than an eagle, but still huge. One of them was sitting on a tall rock out in the brush, probably watching for small lizards or other prey to wander around in the grass below him. He was too far away for a good, descriptive picture, but Perry and Marilynn each got the best shots they could. Within minutes he left and flew down the coastline and then turned back, following the updraft along the headlands. Suddenly he was overhead with his great wings spread: one shutter click and he was gone. The bird’s profile was very similar to a golden eagle, an elegant silhouette against the sky.

After lunch, we rested about an hour and were then off into the Zodiac for a snorkeling adventure along the edge of a smaller island. We brought our own goggles (Per’s have prescription lenses and Marilynn’s are specially sized for her pin head). The boat outfitted us with shorty wet suits and fins. We were discharged close to the edge of the rocky, steep-walled volcanic island and left to float in the current for about half a mile. Below us were layers of rocks falling off downhill to the right. To our left was a vertical rock wall with birds sitting on rock shelves observing us. A gentle Pacific swell hit the rocks and surged up onto shelves only to run back again and push us outward now and then. The trick was to stay in close enough so you could still see the bottom, 15 - 30 feet down, but not get mixed up in the washing machine effect of the swells hitting the rocks. Now and then, even though you were swimming with fins, you would find yourself going backwards relative to the bottom. Then you would suddenly shoot ahead again about 15 feet. Below us was a plethora of tropical fish, but not as many species as you find in the Caribbean. We passed over a school of small, skinny dark-colored fish massed in a group so densely that it looked like a bunch of seaweed growing up from the bottom. And there was huge ray lying on the bottom with the front of his body tucked in under a rock shelf. He was very dark-colored and minding his own business. The Zodiac followed us and whenever we got too tired, we could come out. We were almost at the end of the drift when Perry somehow inhaled a bunch of seawater and had to pull out his snorkel and tread water a bit while having a coughing fit. At that point, he checked out and got into the Zodiac with his snorkeling buddy Marilynn. In a few minutes we had our fins off and packed our equipment in bags (also supplied by the boat) and watched the others move along. Suddenly the time was up, the Zodiac was full of people, and we were on the way to a beach where we could get out and stroll around. Its main features were its beautiful white sand and hundreds of sea lions lying about in clusters taking naps -- like Miami Beach at spring break.


Monday, March 22, Floreana Island, Galapagos.

Overnight we moved west to Floreana, an island to the southwest corner of the archipelago. We did less today than yesterday. In the morning we took a Zodiac ride around an island nearby and observed birds and animals on the lava cliffs. There was a good selection: sea lions, blue-footed boobies, and terns. We saw one Floreana mockingbird, a native species once unique to Floreana and its clutter of small surrounding islands: imported rats and cats and a concerted effort to eliminate the prickly pear cactus trees on which they feed, wiped them out on Floreana, but they still survive on the small neighboring islands. After the Zodiac tour, we transferred into a glass-bottomed boat and went around the island again, this time seeing the underwater life. It was much the same as yesterday’s snorkeling trip, except that we saw a lot of white-tipped reef sharks. They are apparently unique to this area, do not eat people and look to be about four feet long. It was rather exciting to see real sharks in the water.

Afternoon, Monday, March 22. We did not think there was much left to see on a hike through the island, about one km. Wrong. We went ashore with the Zodiacs and did the hike. It was not across the island, only through a corner of it. We climbed up about 50 feet on the trail and it took us past a swampy, dirty, brown lagoon said to contain brackish water. A population of pink flamingoes lives in it, walking around on their long legs, sticking their long beaks into the algae-thickened water to strain out the particles to eat. The babies are born white and turn pink with age. Perry had absolutely no idea that flamingoes were filter feeders. They cannot live in clear, cold water that has no nutrient particles; the more disgusting the better (within limits). Naturally, they do not thrive where there are a lot of human and industrial pollutants. Their total population did not appear to be over fifty and is very fragile. A huge storm hit the island once while some of them were out flying about and they ended up in a commercial shrimp farm six hundred miles away on the Ecuadoran coast. They are such a good advertisement that the shrimp farmers were willing to sacrifice a few larvae, and they have set up a colony there.

On the beach at the far end of the trail we saw the tracks that sea turtles make when they come ashore in the night to lay eggs. V-shaped flipper tracks are arranged to the sides of a wide, smooth path, showing how the females drag their heavy flat-bottomed carapaces up the sandy slope. The pits they dig to lay their eggs are enormous, up to four or five feet across, and they look like miniature gravel pits. These were the exact tracks and pits one sees in science films about the Galapagos. However, these are only the first stage of the nest. After digging this huge hole for their bodies, the females dig a much smaller hole using only their rear feet, and lay the eggs in the inner hole. Then they toss sand into the whole pit, but it does not get filled completely. The eggs hatch and the babies make a run for the water, hoping to escape the air-borne, land-borne, and water-borne predators. Some make it! The males never set foot on land again, but apparently return to the cove where they were born to fertilize the females who then crawl up on their natal beach to lay eggs.

A frigate bird soared back and forth across the area hoping for an instant hatch of babies. When they hatch and make a dash for the water all the predatory birds have a feast. Baby sea turtles weigh a couple of ounces.

While on the shore where the turtles nest we watched some Nazca boobies fish. These strange, homely birds with funny feet and long beaks dive from about fifty feet into the water, head first, and hit it like a cannon shot. Down they go to catch the fish they saw from the air.

During a nice dinner, (which began with a seafood soup seasoned primarily with ginger and cocoanut (tom ka anyone?)) the boat began to head for Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos. It was a long trip, well over a hundred miles to the northwest. We started at one degree and twelve minutes south of the Equator and passed over it in the night, about three a.m. Then, after rounding the north tip of Isabela, we came back south and passed over it again. This time they announced it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010. Tagus Cove, Isabela Island and Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island.

Night: this magic ship brought us here while we slept. We awoke to a lot of swell swaying the ship. We were anchored off the west side of the island in what would normally be a sheltered area. The wind usually blows from the east, so you anchor on the west side of islands in the Galapagos. Today was different. The wind, probably about ten knots, was coming from the southwest. It was cloudy and the ground swell was about four feet. There must be some big weather disturbance to the south of us, perhaps a low moving west, and we are at the top of the wind wheel. It blows clockwise around a low south of the equator and weather travels from east to west here in the trade wind belts. That means anything from 30 degrees north to 30 degrees south.

In any case the water was really moving, although there was little danger of seasickness if you stayed aboard our stable ship. We decided to take the Zodiac ride along the edge of the bay and then do the snorkeling in the same place after the ride. It was spectacular. The breeze came up a little more, the sky cleared for about two hours and we were cruising along cliffs that go up at a steep angle to 5600 feet. Unlike most of the Galapagos, rather devoid of spectacular scenery, this island was much more like Hawaii – big, bold and towering (in fact the cliffs resembled a miniature version of Hawaii’s Napali coast). The water along the edge of the bay was like a washing machine if you were very close in. As the swells came into shallower water they increased rapidly to eight feet plus and then broke on the walls, rock shelves, and caves and bounced back out. As long as you stayed about 100 feet out all was fine. Closer would have been like being in a washing machine — worth avoiding.

We saw the “usual birds” that we recognized from other islands, marine iguanas sitting on steep volcanic rock shelves, and a bird new to us – the flightless cormorant. They certainly resemble those back in Michigan, but do not fly, only swim around and dive after fish. There is nowhere to fly to. All other places are too far away. Ecuador 600 miles? Hawaii 2000 miles? Somehow, over thousands of years their flight function has been lost. They still use their wings to swim and maneuver, and they sit on the rocks holding them out to dry (stunted little wings with only a few feathers), but they do not fly. Strange thing, evolution!

We pulled up to a wall with a lot of seabirds and there on some rocks were Penguins. Yes, real penguins – those little black and white guys that stand erect, waddle around on their webbed feet and have strong pointed bills. Could you believe it is a local species that never leaves the area called the Galapagos Penguin? Anyway, they were so cute and appeared to be about the size of plump little Mallard ducks.

We also saw another kind of sea lion: truly a sea lion, but called a fur seal. They seemed to be a bit smaller and darker than the ubiquitous mammal locally called a sea lion. The babies had gorgeous, shiny black fur, and it was obvious why somebody might want them as a fur coat.

By the time we returned to the ship the water was far too rough for snorkeling, so that amusement was cancelled. It was okay: we had seen a lot and watched the sea turtles from the Zodiac, so it had been a good morning. On the way back our ship kept dropping out of sight as we slid down into the troughs of the huge swells. Make no mistake, these thing were big, but about 100 feet apart and a lot of fun to zoom around on. The last group back saw some dolphins, but we were in the next-to-last group and missed this show.

Lunch, advertised as Ecuadorian specialties, was outstanding: ceviche for an appetizer and then something that was labeled as roast suckling pig. It was definitely no longer suckling, but it was a whole roast pig, served with your choice of garlic or peanut sauce. We had a bunch of the usual healthful salads, including one with both orange and red beets. Desert translated as cake of three milks. It was truly delicious. After lunch we took a break until three and then went on a nature hike on Fernandina Island. It was a comfortable, dry landing because there were a lot of big lava structures that the Zodiac could sidle up to so we could step out onto dry land. This island is also a big volcanic cone, but its edges are flat, a mass of tangled lava with tan organic sand in big patches.

The black lava was covered with hundreds – no, not hundreds, but thousands – of black marine iguanas. They were just hanging out: doing nothing productive or useful. Most of them were sort of piled up on top of each other in groups of 10-100. If you walked up to a group of fifty of them to snap their picture, you then had to be careful when you turned around to walk away lest a chubby individual from some other clump had decided to crawl up behind you. Their ability to blend into the lava was amazing. Apparently mating season is over here, so they can pile up in huge neighborly masses. On the other islands, mating and egg-laying was still going on, leading to significant unfriendly behavior. After they mate, they shed their skins like good reptiles, but not all in one piece like a snake. It comes off in unattractive hunks. The naturalists repeatedly reminded us not to stray onto the sand where we could trample the nests. A few nests were clearly detectable as small dents in the sand, but those were the minority. If even a quarter of the iguanas that we saw built nests, every square inch of sand must have concealed a clutch of eggs.

In addition to the iguanas, there were lots of other species. Most, but not all, were repeats of those we saw on other islands. We saw multiple hundreds of sea lions (not fur seals), more flightless cormorants, lots of red-orange, fantastically decorated Sally Lightfoot crabs and their boring black or speckled babies, another Galapagos hawk, a pair (they mate for life and are always seen in pairs) of American oyster-catchers with bright orange bills (they eat snails as there are no oysters), and other species too numerous to mention.

Now at six, we are back at the boat, and it is nearly time for recap and conviviality. Pop and hors d’oeuvres are free, but you have to pay for wine, beer and mixed drinks. Every day there is a new “drink of the day.” Once it was a ghastly blue thing called a blue booby (an almost perfect match for the blue feet), and another day they served a pink flamingo. A sample stands on the bar so you can see what you would be getting. Only a few takers are in evidence, but it is fun.

The corridors are coming to life and people have sort of recovered from the afternoon activities. Although all activities are optional, almost everybody, including little children and very elderly people go on almost all the activities they can squeeze into the day. Sometimes you feel like you would really rather just hang out in the cabin and rest for a few hours. Then you hear the crowd gathering to hit the Zodiacs and be conveyed to the next great adventure. The thought is always, “If I do not go, what strange, bizarre critter will I miss?” You grab your lifejacket and head out the door.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010. Charles Darwin Research Station and Santa Cruz Island


We moved overnight and woke up anchored in front of the town of Puerto Ayoro, on Santa Cruz Island. This is a large island adjacent to Baltra, the one with the airport where we landed. It supposedly has about 30,000 people on it. Many of them are “illegals:”

Ecuadorians who come to the islands without a permit, and just stay instead of returning home like good tourists. From the water it seemed to be a quaint, brightly painted little town with a gorgeous harbor full of anchored boats. We, being a real ship were farther out, but only a short Zodiac ride from the town docks. The place reminded us a lot of Caribbean ports with all their white buildings mixed with pastels.

Before we knew it, we had finished breakfast and were loading into the Zodiacs to go ashore. In the morning we were scheduled to visit the town and the Charles Darwin Research Station. As soon as we passed the docks, a bunch of local buses picked us up and took us to the outer edge of town at the entrance to the research station. (It was very hot, and I think they wanted us to have some energy left for the afternoon). The day was to be long and unbelievable.

We walked up a long slope with a nice road done in pavers and passed the main office of the research station. Our guide told us we would not go in because there is no research in laboratories by people in white coats. Rather, it is a center for designing research, planning environmental studies and inventing new ways to preserve the Galapagos – pretty boring stuff on paper but with significant effects that manifest themselves much later.

The real attraction there was to see was the land tortoises. This station has picked up such beings from various islands and brought them to the station for a captive breeding program, to enhance the population on some islands. Pirates, whalers, and various sailors ate them into near extinction. The babies are released when they weigh about eight pounds and do well living in the wild. This is easy because tortoises never meet their parents: everything they need to know is hard wired while they are still in the egg. In the case of Espanola they collected up the whole population to rescue them. They took in all twelve surviving females and both males in from the island. The San Diego Zoo returned a male that they had previously acquired. Now there are about a thousand individuals living back on the island. They have even returned some of the original 14. Each island’s population is kept separate on the theory that it represents a separate species. The shells are certainly very different. That species issue is being debated and genetic studies are part of the discussion.

Reality was seeing the tortoise pens and observing how they were living. There were baby tortoises of all sizes from a few months old to four years. (After hatching, but before coming above ground, they normally live inside their nests until the egg yolk is completely resorbed, so the real tiny ones are kept in the dark.) The little guys are cute, crawling around in their enclosures from their feeding area to their swimming pool and then back to their sunning platform. No matter what you know about their past or their future, they look like a bunch of turtles from the marshland next door in North America. Except that the four-month-old babies are 8 – 10 inches in diameter.

Then we went to the huge enclosures for the mature adults that are being used as breeding stock for the new generation. They were huge, huger, and extremely huge. Then there is another pen containing 5 males that had been house pets prior to being brought to (confiscated by) the research station. We were allowed to go into the pen with those. When we walked into their pen, they were all sitting up on their feeding platform munching the soft outer covering from long plant stems, something that looked like soft tree branches. In fact, they get at least part of the food for the tortoises by feeding them non-native plants, perpetuating the tortoises and eliminating “non-endemic” plants at the same time.

Everything was slow and deliberate and inexorable. They were lined up three on one side of the bundle and two on the other side. Each tortoise was at least four feet long with a shell that had to be about two feet high while he was not up walking. When they walk, they actually stand up on their relatively long legs and march about. No dragging of carapaces for these land tortoises. They paid no attention to us as we walked by, but then one of them walked over to us. Antonio, our guide, said we should not let him touch us, but that he would not hurt anybody unless he accidentally stepped on us or knocked us over. He was the largest of the bunch and is estimated to be over 100 years old and to weight almost 500 pounds. Many of them live to be 150, if they have no accidents that shorten their lives and if they have good food sources. Several of the former "pets” clearly have bullet holes in their shells, but seem to have recovered.

Being able to shoot a few video clips of these enormous creatures crawling around their pen and then get a close-up with a still camera was like a photographers dream. Regardless of how many times you see them on the Nature Channel or National Geographic specials, they look a lot bigger in real life.

We did not see Lonesome George who is at least 150 years old, and the sole surviving tortoise from one of the islands. He is a great attraction as he has received lots of publicity to stimulate interest in conservation. He should not be as lonesome as one has been lead to believe: two genetically similar females from the neighboring island of Pinta live in the pen with him, but he has never shown any interest in them. Maybe he really thinks they are another species and does not recognize them as appropriate mates. Anyway, the three of them are in a generous sized pen containing lots of trees and shrubs, and they only come out when they feel like it, not to entertain the tourists. So we were not entertained.

After we had viewed the tortoises sufficiently, we started on our down-hill walk to the town center. As we left the pen, they were all crawling under bushes and trees to get out of the sweltering sun. After the mile walk, even though it was clearly downhill, we were soaked in sweat to the point where we literally dripped, and we agreed with the tortoises. Being on land is different from our usual routine. It is very hot, very humid and the breeze is weak when one is at the equator.

We left with a profound appreciation for what the Charles Darwin Research Center is doing for the Galapagos and the world. They are saving species of animals by saving individual animals and educating the locals and the tourists. Moreover, they are working hard to keep the environment and habitat of the island in its original state. This involves working with universities where the laboratory bench research is done as well as sending out field biologists constantly throughout the islands. And they work with government planners, tourists, environmental organizations, and the local citizens whose awareness is the most crucial. They even affected and enlighted us. Or perhaps we should give the tortoises some of that credit.

We took the buses up to the highlands where we had a great lunch in a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. The couple who runs it has been there for 33 years. They designed and built the place themselves. They only use it for groups, so they know how to plan. Except for the kitchen, the building has no walls or windows: only huge open arches and a generously overhanging roof.

After lunch, we went to another area of the island to see some calderas and sink holes that were consequences of the ancient volcanoes that formed the island. There we were in a forest of gigantic relatives of the daisy: about 30 feet high. We saw a rare woodpecker finch. This not Woody Woodpecker going rat-a-tat-tat; it is a tool user, and uses thorns and twigs to poke or widen holes to allow it to get to the insects. It has a finch bill. Then we were bussed to a farm where wild and free tortoises wander around. They outfitted us with Wellington boots and we set off into the fields to find them. It actually worked and we saw three of them. One was about four feet across his shell and walked around like a bulldozer, stopping to munch on grass and plants as he went. Finally, he slid down into a low spot and made his way down a little grass-choked ravine that opened into mud wallow about five by ten feet. This tub of mud had about a foot of water in it and he jiggled around some to get positioned just right and then gradually pulled his feet in and settled down into the goo with only the top two thirds of his shell and nose and eyes still visible. As he sank into the muck, large bubbles of air came our from under his shell making gurgling, bubbling noises. Then all was quiet: nap time.

After taking off our rubber boots, we boarded the busses and headed back to town and the docks. Within an hour, we were back on the ship. Nap time for us too. After dinner we were entertained by a local band sponsored by the town’s high school music teacher. It was brash, loud and intensely musical presentation featuring classic Ecuadoran and South American music. They had five players, including the teacher and used indigenous instruments. (Indigenous is loosely used here, as nobody managed to live here permanently until after 1900.) Three girls did flashy dances in traditional dresses. It was a stunning, in-your-face performance by a very professional sounding group, somehow reminiscent of an audacious rock band from the sixties or seventies.

The ship is taking one of the male band members and a young lady (both high school age) for a week on the ship. We did not know it until now, but this evening they told us that the Endeavor takes two young people from the local town on a trip through the islands every week. For most of them, it is the first time they have seen anything of the islands except the town. This archipelago is about 160 miles long by 100 miles wide and not everybody gets to go out and cruise it, so they are very fortunate. The best thing is the bond that it establishes between the local population, the National Geographic Society, Lindblad Expeditions (Ship Endeavor), and the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Slowly, but surely, in tortoise fashion, things are coming together down here in a way that may result in a sustainable environmental mentality. It is visible when you see the recycling program in the community, the windmill pumping water in the village center, and the cleanliness of the harbor. This new mentality growing among the local people will be the guarantee to the survival of the environment, not laws passed in Quito, nor money collected by the Sierra Club. Ironically, Homo sapiens, the smartest and most capable species, has been the last in these islands to change, adapt, and adjust to the situation. Rather, they destroy the natural and previously stable situation. Perhaps some of us should be put into rearing pens like the tortoises, just in case.

Thursday, March 25, 2010, Cerro Dragon and Sombrero Chino

Both of us woke up this morning feeling tired, although we had a good night’s sleep. We have been going non-stop for what seems like an immense amount of time, and our previous life seems far away. Though the end of the trip is approaching, we decided to skip the morning snorkeling and Zodiac ride along the cliffs of the north side of the island. There will be an afternoon trip to a place with shallower water where there is a chance of seeing penguins.

Overnight we repositioned from the west side to the north side of the island as we slept. About three in the morning I awoke to the deep rumbling of diesel engines as the captain backed down on the anchor, so we are here, ready to go at a moments notice. We are anchored out quite a ways today because, although there is allegedly enough depth farther in, there are also a lot of isolated rock spires under the water and it is safer to avoid them.

The marine life follows the Endeavor wherever we go. This morning Per went up to the exercise room because it did not look like a very strenuous day ahead and he wants to get at least some good cardiovascular exercise daily. Snorkeling does not do it. He came out of the exercise room in a cotton shirt, pajama bottoms, and boat shoes (dress is very casual) and headed across the deck to the doorway to the interior. A feeding frenzy along the side of the boat attracted his attention. Again, little fish were cleaning the algae off from the waterline down a few feet, attracting the rest of the food chain. He hurried to the cabin and grabbed Helena’s digital camera to get some video of the scene. Marilynn was on his heels.

The massive flock of blue-footed boobies had grown even larger and they were diving for breakfast. Their aerial gymnastics are incredible. They fly something like morning doves – very fast, with lots of swerving in all directions, mainly to prevent mid-air collisions. Then, with precision, they go into a dive from perhaps ten feet above the water at about a 45-degree angle. Just before hitting the water they pull their wings in and project their feet out behind themselves. Hitting the water with a big splash, they leave a trail of bubbles going down at about the same angle. You barely see the bird’s body as it swims, but it propels itself like a little motorboat with its cute, oversized, bright blue feet. The bubble trail is supposed to be the air being squeezed out of their feathers. Later, the bird pops up, flies around some, and does the same trick again.

Boobies can stay down a long time and can fish hundreds of feet below the surface. But they often catch their fish by diving into a school of them. First the downward dive breaks up the school, causing mass confusion with fish swimming in all directions. When the booby comes up, it can easily find the most disorientated and vulnerable fish. The ones we saw were popping to the surface still gobbling down fish, so the hunt was obviously successful.

After the boobies had been at it for a while, the sharks came to the party. Some of them appeared at least 6 feet long. Marilynn counted at least 7 on one side of the boat, but there were more on the other side. We kept waiting for one of them to dine on a booby, but it did not happen. They probably did not want to get all those wet feathers stuck between their teeth.

During lunch we repositioned to a group of islands a bit west of Santa Cruz: Cerro Dragon and Sombrero Chino. These two islands and others in the area were some of the most beautiful scenery in the Galapagos. They are very young islands, having formed from volcanoes more recently than other islands. The western edge of the Galapagos is the youngest because the subterranean hot spot that produces the volcanic activity is stationary while the Nazca Plate (tectonic plate) moves eastward and then dives under the west coast of South America, occasionally causing earthquakes. Some day these islands will be farther east and new ones will appear where they are today. There are no active eruptions going on now, but there was one last year.

This whole geological scene is similar to what occurs in Hawaii where the formed islands move to the northwest and the newest one in the chain, Hawaii, is at the very southeast end of the group. Hawaii itself is volcanically active and still growing, but there is a newer island forming to the southeast of Hawaii. They have already named it, even though they do not expect it to break the surface for 700,000 years. They didn’t predict any future Galapagan islands for us.

As we pulled into this little cluster of islands, there was brilliant sunlight and a clear blue sky, a rarity for this trip. We anchored among them. They were exquisite: huge cinder and lava cones thrust up out of the water with very sparse vegetation tinting parts of the brown and black structures green. We had a great photographic opportunity for the moment.

Later in the afternoon, Perry went with the group to snorkeled along the east shore of the island to the west of us. It was a black island with almost no vegetation, a few high spots here and there where cones had formed, and a very rocky shore. We snorkeled along the shore from south to north for about half a mile and saw a lot of fish. You could easily swim close to the shore and skim along over step-like rocks five feet below your eyes or take a right turn and suddenly be out over sand with few features. I quit about fifteen minutes before the rest of the group because I was not seeing anything new, was a bit tired of tasting the salt in my snorkel, so I just bobbed along in the Zodiac where I could see the shoreline itself. Just after I climbed into the Zodiac some of the group saw some penguins zipping around. It was likely my last chance to swim with a penguin. Most places where penguins hang out do not have warm, equatorial water. The impression I got was that they look like little black and white fish that move too fast to really appreciate.


Back on the ship I found Marilynn in the cabin just waking up from a nice afternoon nap -- Marilynn, the smart one. Good for her. A person needs a nap now and then on this excursion.

Sunset came and the clouds that had formed in the late afternoon were still floating about, but we had some clearing in the west over the desolate volcanic island where we had just been snorkeling. Although the sun here sets very fast, there was plenty time to get some very nice shots of the surrounding islands bathed in golden sunlight, but still with low-hanging clouds overhead. Nice indeed!

Dinner was supposed to be a barbecue on the back deck, but we had to eat in the dining hall because just then we got a shower that lasted throughout dinner – the only rain we have had in a long time. Whatever, it was a great meal and the barbecued ribs were delicious. We ate with the Searsby family, a great multi-generational group from Maryland and New York.

Before going to bed, I tried again to send out the email, but nothing seemed to work. The satellite internet was working, but the pictures still would not upload onto Comcast e-mail. Then I woke up at three in the morning and tried it again and it still did not work. As a last resort, I decided to upload them onto our blog site and it went quite well. Thereafter I sent out the e-mail with a link to the blog and went back to bed, probably getting back to sleep at 4:30.

Friday Morning, March 26, 2010. Bartolome Island

Luckily, Perry’s snoring woke Marilynn, almost like an alarm clock at 6:00 a.m., for a hike up to the very top of Bartolome Island; there was a wake up call, but we had forgotten to turn on the intercom. It was the first time that Perry’s snoring has been completely, totally, undeniably useful.

We bolted from bed and got into some clothes. It did not matter which clothes because we were supposedly late and about to miss the Zodiac. As it turned out, we had sufficient time to get totally dressed, eat a slice of banana bread and have some coffee before boarding. By the time Perry got to the lounge for coffee there was none left so he drank Coca Cola for breakfast and grabbed a banana for the boat ride.

We did a dry landing on a rock step-platform and started the hike. It goes to the very top of Bartolome Island, a total vertical of 359 feet. This little island is a study in volcanic activity. The whole thing is the result of one major cone formation, but it has small cones spread out across it in random places. The smaller cones are up to the size of a two-story house. There is almost no vegetation. First of all, this is a rather “new” island that has not had time to build up any topsoil. Secondly, it gets almost no rain, being in the rain shadow of Santa Cruz Island to the east – the location of a tropical jungle and the Darwin Station.

The walk up was very pleasant because the park service has built a wooden walkway with steps and hand railings all the way up. They told us that the trail was too steep for a lot of people to negotiate. Moreover, when it does rain, the trails erode badly. So they built this half a mile of walkway, with platforms for stopping to view the island. They used a tropical hardwood for everything. I could not place the wood. It was neither mahogany, teak, nor rosewood.

On the way up we got an excellent view of pinnacle rock, one of the landmarks in the Galapagos. Fortunately there was enough sunlight to illuminate it softly. And it was not baking hot yet, so the upward climb was pleasant. We notice that the ship program director schedules 6:00 a.m. hikes on places that are steep and exposed to the sun. It makes it very easy for the older crowd on the boat to do such hikes. When you are seventy-five, it is a lot easier to get up and six when it is cooler than it is to do a lot of vertical in the tropical sun.

At the top, you could look down at Pinnacle Rock and the peninsula that juts out adjacent to it and the two bays to either side. This is the exact spot where the producers of the movie Master and Commander chose to film the scene where the naturalist is chasing butterflies. As he comes over the top of the ridge, he suddenly notices the French ship anchored in the bay below him. It is a spectacular site and a lot of us took each others’ pictures to immortalize the scene with us in it. There are very few plants on this island, flowering or otherwise. Thus one would not expect to see very many butterflies, although there were a few very athletic yellow ones on Santa Cruz. We are now intending to start reading our way through James O’Brien’s series of books, the first of which is Master and Commander. The recent movie is actually a composite of several books in the series.

We returned to the ship in time to get breakfast (available from 7:30 to 8:30) and to get a little rest. Perry’s night was short on sleep. There will be swimming and snorkeling after lunch and another hike late this afternoon. Sadly that will be the last big outdoor activity for this totally incredible expedition. As the trip has progressed we find we are taking more and more videos. Per has several times congratulated Marilynn for insisting that we borrow Helena’s little camera that we gave her for her 10th birthday. Sharks swimming, boobies diving, marine iguanas fighting, and land tortoises marching have a completely different effect while in motion than when frozen in a still photo.

In the afternoon we moved farther south down the west side of the island and anchored. En route we had lunch and just as we were eating somebody noticed a group of dolphins fairly close to the boat. We circled around them and came in fairly close. Suddenly we had a school of them following us as we continued on towards our afternoon anchorage. The dining room emptied out quickly with a majority of its occupants on the front deck snapping away.

We went ashore about three and got out on a lava rock shore and then hiked south. Across the bay to the northeast was a fairly high mountain with a huge lava field flowing down from it to the southwest, essentially into the bay where we were anchored. Our naturalist told us that the island had been first discovered and recorded in 1535 by a Spanish friar, but had then not been visited for a long time. Eventually it became a good place for pirates to hide as they raided Spanish Galleons en route from western South America to Panama with their holds loaded with gold.

There were nice swells coming in from the west with a reasonable breeze that attenuated the heat some. In spite of that, it was hot when you stopped and stood still on the black lava. The solid lava had huge inlets into which the swell surged, hit the end and then gushed back out. These huge cracks might have been about 150 feet long, 10 to 20 feet wide and 20 feet deep. It is always dramatic to see the powerful swells surge through these places and then hit the end and turn to foam and splatter ten feet in the air, sometimes spilling out onto the area where you are standing. There were also a lot of erosion passageways into the lava and when the swells surged out they would expel their water like underground creeks flowing out through huge pipes. Some of these horizontal conduits in the lava must have been empty lava tubes through which a molten mass flowed seaward in ancient times. Down in the water, just below the turbulent surface of these channels, sea lions swam around very slowly watching for fish that had happened to swim in. One hung motionless in the water trying to appear like a log floating around as he waited for his prey.

Other than sea lions, we saw what appeared to be one of the largest concentrations of marine iguanas we had seen on the trip. In one place, a flat shelf of lava with tide pools spread throughout it, they sat with their bodies and heads pointed west directly into the late afternoon sun. It looked like a religions ritual, something like Islamic prayer time when the faithful around the world take a break and kneel on their rugs towards Mecca. I doubt it was that complicated, but it might have been. Who knows what connection a bunch of iguanas have with the spirits of the cosmos? They were more likely doing it to collect heat in their bodies after having been out to feed on the underwater plants. Or they were accumulating energy for the evening.

The hike back was on a smooth trail through the brush, grass and cactus. We saw a lot of birds – a mockingbird, a warbler finch, and other ones that were not identifiable. Nobody in the group knew who or what they were as they flitted past.

We got back into the Zodiacs for the last time and headed for the ship. Before dinner we got to watch the video of the trip, the one we had already bought to take home. It was great and really captured the essence of the week.

After dinner we had our closing ceremonies including a final toast by the captain, a short talk by our tour leader, Cindy Manning, and a great skit put on by all the young people in the boat. They did impersonations of all our naturalist guides and it was a real hoot.

Saturday, March 27, 2010. Baltra Island to Guayaquil

Overnight our ship moved back to Baltra Island, the place where the planes land and ships refuel. Marilynn heard the ship come to a stop sometime in the night and back down on its anchor – not once but twice. Then there was some noise made by heavy boxes of cargo coming aboard. They resupply the ship in the night so they will be ready to take on new passengers in the morning.

Before breakfast, we put our bags outside our cabin doors. We ate breakfast, had another departing ceremony and all donned our lifejackets and climbed down into the Zodiacs the very last time for the trip ashore. Our bags had already been picked up, not to be seen again until we arrived in the hotel in Guayaquil. It was a stunningly bright, blue, clear day as we motored towards the dock. In less than an hour we had gone by bus to the airport and checked in and were sitting in the VIP departure lounge waiting for our plane. An AeroGal Boeing 757 came screaming in, disgorged an incredible stream of very white passengers, two of whom would be moving into our cute little room. In a few minutes we were loading. One advantage of having to run up and down the stairs is that the plane could load via both the front and rear doors. The plane rumbled down the runway, took off, and turned east towards Guayaquil on the coast. Within a few minutes, there was nothing to see but blue sky, and blue empty Pacific with a few white clouds floating over it. The Galapagos dream was ending well, and we were getting a little time to wake up from it gently.

The 90 minute flight came off on schedule. After arriving in Guayaquil, we collected our bags and walked out to be greeted by a man with the official Lindblad/National Geographic sign. We were led to a truck where we handed our checked luggage. We boarded the adjacent bus to be greeted by the same smiling ladies who had been on our previous two Guayaquil busses, and in five minutes we were in front of the hotel. In a few minutes more we received our room assignments and were in our rooms where our luggage was, in fact, awaiting us.

It was then about 2:30. At three there was an optional tour of the city which we opted for. It was fun: we drove past some very Italianate buildings which had been built to replace those that burned in the big fire of 1896. The government hired the architects who were mostly Italian. Peter The First did the same thing when he built St. Petersburg in 1703 and the buildings look remarkably similar. Next on the agenda was a drive through the flower market. This is the local wholesale and retail market, and as a consequence, there are no florists in Guayaquil. Everyone goes to the market. There was a square block of little and bigger stands selling glorious cut flowers. We didn’t buy any as we could not bring them home.

Then we went to a large city park, which is noted for its huge trees and its iguanas. It is assumed that these are the ancestors of those in the Galapagos. They do look somewhat like miniature versions of the land iguanas, but they have wattles unlike those in the Galapagos. Some of them were seeking relief from the heat by relaxing in a large, shallow pool, but none were doing anything resembling swimming.

Next to the Park was the cathedral. The first one also burned in the fire and was rebuilt starting at about the same time as all of the fancy Italianate buildings (although it did not get finished until 1913); this one, however, looks very French Gothic, like a somewhat small Notre Dame de Paris, in fact, complete with a rose window. The stained glass was pretty and lighted the interior with bright colors, but did not achieve the jewel tones that contribute to the impressive aura of the original.

Apparently, the day before Palm Sunday is a big day for either baptisms or confirmations (the guide did not seem to know which, but our guess is confirmation). The park was beginning to fill up with young girls and a few older girls and women wearing white dresses, some of them resembling miniature bridal gowns. The boys who were going through the process were supposed to be wearing sailor suits. We did not see any such boys, but it was early.

We next drove along the promenade which runs for miles along the bank of the Guayaquil River. Although it is supposedly 65 km. from the sea, the city is very low (average height except for the few hills of about 12 feet). If so, the river is about 6 feet above the ocean, and when the tide is coming in, the river flows inland quite strongly. It was doing this when we came by, and huge mats of water hyacinths were flowing inland.

Along the promenade, there were some monuments made of teak. Teak is not indigenous to Ecuador, but apparently likes the climate. It was planted extensively about 60 years ago and is now old enough to harvest. The guide said that there is very little manufacturing in Ecuador (the three main exports are bananas, chocolate, and flowers). So they export the teak cheaply, and buy it back made into doors and flooring, etc, at great expense. They are very proud of their locally made chocolate, which is either 65 or 75% pure chocolate with the rest mainly sugar. To our taste, it is too chocolatey, but the Incan royalty drank unsweetened chocolate drinks. Yuk!

We then went to the “old town” which dates back to the 1530s and is on one of the hills. We staggered up it, photographing brightly colored houses stacked almost on top of one another. Many of them overhang the narrow streets, at least partially excluding the sun. In many places the only vehicles allowed are ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks. A fire would be impossible to stop. The cobble stones in the street were brought from Spain as ballast. At the edge of the old town, they have built modern structures that superficially resemble the original ones. The housing crisis has reached Guayaquil, and the completed ones stand empty. However, hope springs eternal, and construction continues.

Back at the hotel, our stomachs said it was time for dinner. The recommended restaurant was about ½ block away across the street. It specialized in langostino, which are enormous shrimp, or miniature lobsters with no front claws.

Saturday, March 28, 2010. Guayaquil, Eduador to Miami, Fl, USA


We boarded the plane to Miami at about 3:45, only an hour last this time. Somehow the planes to and from Miami tend to be late. Seeing the Miami airport may explain why. A new route has been established to New York and one of our shipmates was going on it. They were on time.

Service on the plane was excellent and it was a totally Ecuadoran operation. It should be noted that AeroGal, Tame, and AeroLineas S.A. have joined into some type of cooperative and are now one of the largest airline consortiums in the Americas. We do not know if they have merged financially or are just working together very efficiently. We know how China has developed, but few think much about South America. Based on the attitudes of the people, the very apparent and rapid shift to technology and modernization and the incredible source of local labor, it would be fair to say that we will see a lot of these people soon – not at poor immigrants, but rather as strong economic competitors who already have reasonably stable, democratic governments from which to operate. The days of the banana republics are over. South Americans will be checking into our hotels next and appearing in Yellowstone, shuttled around by young American naturalists giving them lectures about the bears and the buffalo. So much for predictions.

After a totally uneventful flight, we landed in Miami, commuted to our hotel and then got up and flew to Detroit. Lisa picked us up at the airport at about 1:45, Monday, March 29th and the trip was over. It was overcast, a stiff wind was blowing and the temperature was 37F. It is predicted to warm up this week and we are glad. The Galapagos weather was really growing on us and we will miss all the iguanas.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Alta, Utah -- The Place Where We Ski. Photo From Top of Point Supreme.

Why We Ski

We Ski Because:

The earth pulls us downward and forward across its surface. As we slide over it we can feel our planet through our socks, boots, and skis. It lies silently while we make the moves. We hold it in reverence by adjusting to it and a beautiful sensation of unity flows through our bodies. Although work had to be done by a machine to move our bodies up the mountain, we now have that energy and feel free and powerful and able to move to where we please. As skiers we can spend that energy according to our needs. Some spend it on rearranging the snow as they make graceful turns -- slowing, accelerating, slowing in the most beautiful rhythm. Others invest it in attaining speed and feel the wind in their faces and the thrill of watching the trees come by like blades of grass in the snow. We are like the skydivers who can control their rate of descent and direction, only all is done with our centers of mass three feet above the snow. If we approach the lift line at excessive speed, we have no parachute to stop us. Rather, we deftly turn our skis sideways, dig in our edges, and throw a cloud of snow in front of us as we come to a stop. Then we slide forward into line, catch a ride on a chair going up and sit quietly as we ascend and take on a new load of energy and freedom.

It brings us together with our family and friends. We can share the sensation simultaneously. Everything is here and now for everybody and the next turn is your only reality. Children can see their successes and growth in skill from one day to the next. An old man can look up the mountainside and see his line down through the powder and appreciate that he is still alive so he can watch the children aspire to be able to ski that line. Later you can talk and reminisce about it and plan to meet again. Scattered, frenetic lives are connected for a day of complete togetherness now and then, but seldom often enough.

We meet people from various places and walks of life. Bonds and friendships are established between total strangers. Social, economic and political differences are swept away by the spell of the mountains. How well you can handle traveling down them is determined only by your skill, strength and health, not by what you are or were. Yet, if you are infirm or old and tired, you can still enjoy the descent – you just go slower and more carefully. While the youthful crowd rushes past, you can stop and take a break and admire lofty slopes with granite outcroppings and bristlecone pines. There is something for everybody.

The day is long and the mountains show their beauty in constantly changing lighting and weather conditions. Their crags, spires, and layers reveal their ancient past as we stare at them from the lifts or the slopes. We ski beneath huge rock headwalls that once had fish swimming above them. The afternoon sun casts long shadows. As you ski to the east, your shadow becomes long and you can watch your silhouette in motion and dance with it, using your pole plants and turns. Your shadow is you; what you see is what you are.

When the day is done, you are tired and can sleep in peace. A day skiing in the mountains makes thing right with the world and yourself.

The Gang That Does Not Ski Straight

Larry Trying Out His New Apaches

Roger and Perry Out Cruising

A Happy Mariela

Marilynn Going Home After Shopping at Alf's Restaurant

Marilynn ........smooth.

Perry Coming Through the Gates of Heaven

Helena Blasting Out a Turn

Johanna Giving It Her All

Skiing Utah in 2010

It has been an active winter of skiing, or at least thinking about it. After the boat was out of the water and covered with winter tarps, we had to have something to keep our imaginations alive.

Step one in the ski season was when Perry drove Katya’s car to Salt Lake City, arriving on the December 1st. She needed her car and we had not been able to take it out when she moved to Salt Lake in August to attend the University of Utah. She is there studying chemistry, finishing the last two years of her degree. So, before the winter storms hit, Perry left Grosse Pointe and quickly (51 elapsed hours) drove the little Saturn to Utah, all 1730 miles. He stopped overnight twice and got plenty rest and rolled into Utah in good form. Fortunately he did not do the trip any later in the season because there was already a moderate snow storm moving through western Wyoming and Utah the last evening and morning of the drive.

Upon arrival in Salt Lake City, Perry stayed with Katya at her apartment until December 22nd, when they both flew home for Christmas. Being in Salt Lake with not much to do for three weeks allowed Perry to ski at Alta for a total of seven days – whenever there was some fresh snow. Katya joined him whenever she could break loose from her studies.

After Christmas, Katya returned to Utah and skied a week before her classes began in mid-January. It was a good time for her to catch up on the outdoor life. From her house she can catch a bus, about a five-minute ride, that takes her up to the University and drops her off on a major street corner. From there, she can catch a second bus that drives straight to Alta and Snowbird. It is a wonderful arrangement on days when you do not want to drive up a slippery, snowy mountain road.

On January 25th, Perry flew to Denver to see our friend Hiram Ori for a few days and then flew to Salt Lake on the 28th to remain there until March 1st. In the meantime, there really was not much to do during daylight hours in Salt Lake City, so he once again spent an inordinate amount of time at Alta. In early February, friend Roger Wilson came up from San Antonio for a few days and skied with Perry. Then on February 19th, Marilynn and grandchildren Helena and Johanna arrived and stayed until March 1st. We, Katya , Marilynn, Perry, Johanna, Helena, and friends Larry and Mariela Taddie were able to arrange some time skiing together. Finally, Marilynn and the kids and Perry left on March 1st for home. Perry went back to Denver en route to see Hiram again for a few days and got home, at last, on March 4th.

If it sounds like we just had a big blast all winter skiing – well, yes we did; however, it should be apparent that Perry did most of the skiing, having logged in 35 days total. Marilynn and the grandchildren were in Salt Lake only ten days and did not quite ski full-time. Katya, busy studying organic chemistry, physics, and differential equations, was limited to at most one day per week except for the week she spent after Christmas.

So how did we make out and do all this? First of all, Katya and Perry both bought season passes which helps a lot. Katya got hers for about half the price because she is a student. Perry was still only 64 and got no breaks, but still did well considering he skied almost the whole winter any day he chose to go. Next year at 65 he too will get the big discount. Helena and Johanna, being kids under 13 go half-price, but learned the most by far. They excelled and each attended kids’ ski school for two full days and are at level 5 and 6. That means they ski all terrain, including powder, bumps and trails through the trees. They are really champs. It was Johanna’s first year skiing Utah and Helena has already done two years there. Marilynn continues to improve each year and always takes a couple lessons. She has incredible grace and flowing movement and does intermediate slopes in good parallel form. Katya – let us just describe her as "pre-extreme." If you think you see a deer bounding through the pine forest in deep powder, it could be her. Perry: pretty much the same old stuff, trying his best to soar with elderly eagles while defying debilitation and death – a Double-A-Ranked-Skiier – Alta plus Advil. His only new thing was spending some time catching up with the Nastar Giant Slalom racing at Park City where he qualified for the Nastar National Finals in Winter Park, Colorado. They are held during the time he and Marilynn will be in the Galapagos (March 18th -- April 2nd), so that one will just have to fall into a huge crevasse. He might not have won any more medals anyway and the combined effect of the three-day bust and skiing might have put him in the hospital, so he is better off under Dr. Fairfax’s supervision on a ship in the Galapagos Islands.

Next stop will be the Galapagos. Hopefully the satellite internet will work well and you will hear from us on the scene. Until then, keep your edges sharp and do not hit rocks or trees. Check it out at www.alta.com