Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Poland - September 2017

On the way back to England in September I made a brief excursion to Poland.  Just a 6 day trip taking in 4 cities - Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw and Gdansk.  I landed in Warsaw in the early morning by way of Chicago and Frankfurt.  It was an easy entry process into the country and a simple transfer from the airport by train into the center of the city.  With the aid of Google Maps and my iPhone I navigated the walk from the Central Station to my hotel in the old town.  Google Maps have become an essential tool in this kind of travel these days.  It makes everything so easy.
Old Warsaw
The area around the Central Station was fairly modern but as I got nearer to the my hotel the buildings got much more interesting with some really elegant old buildings in the old town.  At least they were old looking because the city was pretty much leveled in World War II and just about everything had to be rebuilt after the war.  They certainly made an excellent job of it.  On my way to the hotel I passed the impressive Soviet era Palace of Science and Culture, the Warsaw University and it’s impressive buildings, the Nicolaus Copernicus statue, the monument to Adam Mickiewicz, the Poles most famous poet not to mention numerous fine churches.  
The Royal Castle and the Vasa Column
My hotel, the Dom Literatur, was in the old town adjacent to the square in front of the Royal Castle.  Since I was too early to check in I left my bags and went for a walking tour of the old town.  Outside the hotel was the Sigisimund Vasa Column and the Royal Castle, and then a short walk through the quaint side streets leads to the Old Town Square which is a truly beautiful square with fine old buildings (I later learned that all but two were rebuilt after the war).  I wasn’t expecting such beautifully restored buildings in Poland.  Moving out of the main square I passed by the old city walls and the Barbican (fortress), and then on to the Monument to the Warsaw Uprising a statue commemorating the doomed revolt against the Germans in 1944.
Monument to the Warsaw Uprising
Back at the hotel in the afternoon I checked in and was going to have a much needed rest until I found that the two major museums in town, the Warsaw Rising Museum and the Museum of the Polish Jews were both closed the next day (Tuesday) so I had to get moving.

I Ubered to the Warsaw Rising museum, surprisingly easy, quick and cheap.  The museum was very good, but quite also large with an overwhelming amount of information.  Not the best suited for a quick run through in around an hour.  I found the path through the museum a bit confusing and the sheer number of exhibits left me wondering which ones to look at and which ones to leave out.  Much of the content did not have English text or commentary so that was a further complication.  Nevertheless, the message came across loud and clear - it was a pretty desperate situation in 1944 and the Polish insurgents had a pretty bad time of things.  They were not at all helped by the Soviets who by that time were not so far away but the Soviets had other things on their mind (like taking over Poland after the war) and so were not too helpful and the Rising was mercilessly crushed by the Nazis and Warsaw was devastated.
Museum of the History of Polish Jews
I caught another taxi over to the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews.  This was another large and modern museum.  Again I was confronted with a large amount of material and limited time, but I did make it through the key bits about the Warsaw Ghetto, the Ghetto Uprising and the eventual eradication of the Warsaw Jewish population.  
Both the museums were very good but the I did find the onslaught of material to be overwhelming - so many personal stories, so many interactive terminals, so many photographs - sometimes I just didn’t know what to look at next.

I walked back to the hotel and by now I was getting a good feel for the layout of the city’s sights.  In the evening I walked again into the old town and found a great little restaurant (Gosciniec) that served local food and I had a nice plate of pierogis (Polish dumplings) and a nice Polish beer.
The Old Town Square, Warsaw
Next morning after breakfast I walked across the river, the Vistula, to the east side - an area known as Praga.  The river, the largest in Poland, is wide and slow moving with sandy beaches which apparently are a nice recreational area in the summer.  On a damp grey day like today, not so much.

I was impressed by the number of trams travelling to and fro across the bridge - all very quick, very full, and very cheap.

On the other side of the river I visit a church and then walk through a park nearby the Zoological Gardens.  No sign of a zoo, other than a metal giraffe sculpture but a lot of nice red squirrels and hooded crows.  
The Royal Castle from the Vistula River
Back over on the west side of the river I visit the interior of the Royal Castle - again this is a restored copy as the Germans blew it up as they retreated from the city at the end of the war.  The restoration took place in the 1960’s and 70’s and it was all very tastefully done.  I just didn’t realize that this kind of work was being done in the middle of the Soviet period.  The inside of the Castle was all very fine with many ornate rooms with lots of artifacts and art.  There was one room filled with Canaletto’s (he came to Warsaw in the mid 1800’s and painted the city) and in the basement had a couple of Rembrandt’s.
The Canaletto Room - Warsaw Royal Castle
After checking out of my room at mid-day, I walked over to the south past Adam Mickiewicz’s statue, the University and Copernicus’ statue and visited the Chopin Museum.  Chopin was a local boy, a musical prodigy, and this museum is Warsaw’s tribute to him.  Another modern museum with lots of interactive exhibits.  What I found most interesting were his original scores - incredibly detailed documents, barely legible by my eyes.  Interesting to see how he worked in such minute detail in ink presumably with all sorts of corrections and modifications.
A Chopin Score
I then walked over to the Palace of Culture and Science - a massive soviet era edifice that is the tallest building in Warsaw.  It has fallen into a bit of decay but it is truly an impressive example of soviet era architecture.  I took a trip up to the viewing balcony at the top for a nice view of the city below.  

The Palace of Science and Culture

On the street outside the Palace I came across a brass marker line in the pavement - it was the marker for the border of the Jewish Ghetto which existed between 1940 and 1943.  A little further to the north there is a small Synagogue, the Nozyk Synagogue.  This is the only synagogue to survive the war.  It is still in use today.  Not far away from this is the only remaining block of buildings that date from the Warsaw Ghetto.  Everything else was destroyed.  These Ghetto buildings are not occupied and are very dilapidated and covered in graffiti hopefully something will be done to preserve them.

I walk further out of town to the north in the general direction of the Museum of Polish Jews.  Lots of blocks of flats but all quite attractive.  When I reach the Polish Jews Museum, now closed for the day, I walk in the grounds where there is a monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, and a monument to celebrate Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of Germany, who visited the site in 1970 and knelt down in contrition of his country’s actions.  Further afield is the Monument to Mordechai Anieliwicz.  He was the leader of the Ghetto Uprising and he died in his bunker on this spot.
The Jewish Cemetery
A little to the west is the Jewish Cemetery which is quite a large cemetery that was relatively untouched by the war.   I guess you don’t need to bomb them when they are already dead and buried.  It is a huge area with a very high density of grave stones.  It is dark and shaded by trees and I must admit I like the solitude and quietness of the place.  

On my way back to the hotel, I walk by Umschlagplatz which was the railway station from which the Jews in the Ghetto were transported to their demise in Treblinka.  There is no station there today, just a large marble walled monument with names from A to Z carved on it’s walls.  There are so many monuments to the terrible things that happened in this city.  It is impossible to escape them.  Even on the walk to the hotel from Umshlagplatz  there is a sculpture in the middle of the road of a cart or carriage full of crucifixes.  Bad stuff happened everywhere.
Back at the hotel I pick up my bags and Uber to the train station where I catch my train to Krakow.  A nice modern station easy to navigate and I have no problem finding the right train.  My US bought ticket has a train, coach and seat number so I know exactly where to go.
Reparations Posters
It was a little surprising to see posters demanding reparations from the Germans for the atrocities in WWII. I hadn't heard about this movement, and while it is certainly a fringe movement, it is disturbing nonetheless.

In Krakow it was raining and I have difficulty finding my Uber driver.  He looked like he was nearby, but actually I was on the ground level, he was 3 levels higher.  We eventually located eachother and he took me to my hotel, the Hotel Pugetow.  A small hotel with a very small but quite adequate room.
The crowds at Auschwitz
The next morning, Wednesday, my first in Krakow, I had arranged to be taken on a tour of the Concentration Camp in Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mines.  Right on time at 9:00 am the mini-bus picked me up and took me and 6 others out to Oswiecim as it is known by the Poles or Auschwitz as the Germans called it.  It is a pleasant drive for about 1 ½ hours to the entrance to the camp, where to my surprise we are confronted with 20 or more buses and large numbers of people.  We are assembled into a group of around 25 and then introduced to our guide.  She is English speaking and she broadcasts to us through wireless receivers and earphones.  
Then off we go into the Auschwitz 1 Concentration Camp through the Arbeit Mach Frei gate (Work makes you free).  The brick barracks were originally a Polish military base that was expanded by the Germans to hold prisoners and forcibly displaced Jews, Romas, Poles.  The area was quite congested with people and we walked through in our group and we often had to wait until other tour groups cleared the buildings.  We walk through several barracks which have photos and informational displays of the atrocities that went on there.  The most moving were the displays of human hair - the Nazis harvested the hair of all detainees and shipped it off to be woven into fabric.  There were also displays of vast numbers of shoes, luggage, hairbrushes, spectacles, pots and pans - all gathered from the Jews and others on their way to the gas chambers.  The most chilling of all the empty cans of Cyklon B. One of the barracks was a prison where inmates who were suspected of offenses against the Reich were summarily tried and dispensed with in the yard outside. The horrors just went on and on.
After visiting several barracks we went over to the Gas Chamber and Crematorium.  On the way was a gallows - this was where the first commandant of the camp, Rudolph Hoess was hung by the Polish Authorities in 1947.  We were allowed inside the Gas Chamber - it was here where the Nazis prototyped the killing of large numbers of people with Zyklon B and thousands of prisoners were killed here.  Particularly distressing were the marks on the wall on the wall apparently the desperate fingernail scratches of the prisoners as they were being gassed.
Crematorium at Auschwitz
After a couple of hours of listening to the catalog of horrors we left the camp and had chance to recover in the crowded gift shop and refreshment area where life was continuing on in some sort of normality.  We then boarded the bus to go to Auschwitz Camp II or Birkenau which was just a couple of kilometers away.  
The platform at Birkenau
Birkenau was the larger camp where the Nazis scaled up the operations from Auschwitz I.  Here was the well known railtrack entrance into the camp and the platform where the SS made their selections of fit and healthy men and women to the right and then into the camp, and the remainder, the young, old and infirm to the left and then on to the gas chambers.  There was a replica of a rail carriage of the type used to transport Jews and others into the camp from locations around Europe.

The gas chambers and crematoria here were all blown up by the Germans as they left before the camp was liberated by the Soviets.  There is just a large area of concrete slabs and rubble where the 5 gas chambers and crematoria existed along with ponds where the ashes were disposed of.  There is some sort of memorial there too, but due to the lack of time we didn’t walk around that part of the camp.
Interior of the Wonen's Camp
The camp covered a large area - most of the wooden barracks are gone and only their chimneys and foundations remain, but most of the brick barracks are still standing.  We toured the interior of one these barracks where there were rows of three tiered bunks where inmates lived in the most inhumane of conditions.

After Auschwitz I was ready for something a little less disturbing, and the day’s tour continued with a trip through the Wielizcka Salt Mine.  Wielizcka is on the way back to Krakow and it is often bundled with the Auschwitz tour.  The tour group all bundled into the buses and we drove to Wielizka where we were informed that it was time for lunch (at 3:30 pm) and we were dropped off at a restaurant (presumably with a nice kick back to the tour company from the owners).  I had the goulash and it was good.  I sat with the 4 ladies from Iowa and got to know them a little better.  A mother, two daughters and one friend on a whirlwind tour of Europe by rental car.  They were quite adventurous with their city driving and they were a fun group.  
Chapel Underground in the Salt Mine - its all carved salt
We entered the salt mine and were again issued with earphones and receivers.  The first step was a climb down 300 or more feet of stairs before entering into a network of corridors and chambers in the upper levels of the mine.  The mine had been operational since the 13th century and there were some 300 km of passageways in the mine so it was quite a complex.  We were restricted to just a fraction of it.  There were lots of salt carvings from silly gnome like characters to more lifelike figures and lots of presentations of how the old salt mines were worked.  There were chapels in larger chambers with statues of Christ carved out of salt (church services on a Sunday), even a depiction of the Last Supper.  After a while it got a bit tedious for me at least.  We went down to perhaps 500 ft and of course there was the obligatory gift shop down there.  There was also a sanitorium where, if you were an allergy sufferer you could stay for a few days to partake of the allergen free air.  Finally we were hoisted up to surface in a very cramped lift cage.  I could have skipped this part of the tour.

It was then a short drive back to Krakow and my hotel.  In the evening I walked for the first time around the old square of Krakow.  It was impressive - a magnificent cathedral, a town hall tower and many beautiful old (restored?) buildings.
Krakow Main Square
In the morning, I took a pre-breakfast walk around the old town again.  What a amazing square it is - St. Mary’s Basilica, the Cloth Hall Arcade, the Town Hall Tower - all looking wonderful in the early morning light.  I take in a few other sights - The Collegium Maius (oldest university in Poland), the City Walls, the Barbican, the Grunwald Monument, the Opera House - then I return for breakfast at the hotel.  I then took a walking tour described in one of the local free guides - the square yet again, the University, the Bishop’s Palace, the Papal Window (where local boy Pope John Paul made an appearance), St. Francis’ Basilica, the Church of St Peter and St Paul, and the most wonderful Wawel Castle and Cathedral.
The Wawel Castle and Cathedral, Krakow
The queue for tickets to get in the Castle and Cathedral put me off so I gave it a pass - the exteriors are wonderful enough.  I walked down the hill to the Kazimierz neighborhood.  This was the old Jewish town which has now been absorbed into Krakow.  There are signs of synagogues and signs of restaurants catering to the Jewish tourist trade (genealogical tourism perhaps?).  I crossed over the river (the Vistula) and entered the Podgorze neighbourhood.  It was in Podgorze that the Germans created a walled Ghetto - there is just one small section of the old wall remaining.  Podgorze is also the location of the now famous Oskar Schindler’s Enamelware Factory, immortalized in the Spielberg film.  
The Vistula River in Krakow
Oskar Schindler was one of the characters of Podgorze but another was Tadeus Pankowicz.  He operated a pharmacy just outside the ghetto and provided medicine and news of the outside world to the ghetto residents.  There are museums in both Schindler’s factory and Pankowicz’s pharmacy and I visited both.
Schindler's Factory, Podgorze, Krakow
The square outside the pharmacy museum is empty save for a series of empty chairs - a memorial to the jews that passed through there carrying small pieces of furniture.  I’m not sure the memorial gets that message across - I had to read about it in the guide book.

Walking back over the Vistula through Kazimierz, there is another museum - the Galician Jewish Museum.  This I found to one of the better ones - a series of modern day photographs organized into 5 sections - Pre-WWII Jewish sites, Jewish culture that once was, Holocaust sites, how the past is being remembered, and the revival of Jewish life.  Highly recommended.  Galicia by the way is this section of southern Poland.  

I poke my head in a synagogue and a Jewish cemetery on the way back to the hotel.  Nothing too remarkable, synagogues never are, the Catholic church have a lock on that area.

I Uber to the train station for my train to Wroclaw.  Just over a couple of hours train ride and we are in Wroclaw and it is a short walk to my hotel - the Hotel Monopol, a fine old hotel apparently frequented by the likes of Hitler, Picasso and Marlene Dietrich among others.  They don’t make a big thing about the Hitler connection.
Wroclaw Town Hall
I have just one day in Wroclaw (Breslau is its German name) so I set off early to walk around town.  Again it is another beautifully restored old city.  The main square contains a magnificent Town Hall and is flanked by wonderfully restored old buildings.  
An example of Wroclaw Gnomes
Wroclaw has this thing about gnomes - apparently in the latter part of the Soviet era there was a group called Orange Alternative that painted caricatures, presumably some were gnomes, over Soviet attempts to remove political graffiti.  Now after the fall of communism the city has adopted the gnome as an emblem and there are literally hundreds of brass gnome sculptures scattered around the town.

I walk back towards the station and find a sculpture that I walked past the previous night without even noticing.  It is called the Crossing and it features sculptures of several pedestrian disappearing into the pavement on one side of the street and then reappearing on the other side of the street.  It is pretty cool.

The Crossing
I wander around the station again as it is a nice old station, not like the modern ones on Warsaw and Krakow.  Nice and old but I’m afraid it contains a KFC, a Starbucks and a McDonalds - how sad.

I then join one of the free walking tours that you can find all over Europe these days.  We started back in the square where the guide pointed out the only modern looking building on the square.  It may look modern, but it is the only original building on the square - a pre-WWII bank building not damaged in the war, all the other buildings were destroyed and rebuilt in their 19th Century form.  We moved on to the University and talked about Fritz Haber - he was a local boy, a Jew, who went on to develop the Haber process for synthesizing Ammonia and thereby providing a cheap fertilizer (for which he got the Nobel Prize), but he also developed mechanisms for producing Chlorine gas which was used to some effect in the trenches in WWI.  He also worked on pesticide gases and that work led later to the creation of Xyklon B the gas used to exterminate the Jews in Auschwitz.  He was dead by then but some of his family were gassed in the concentration camps.
The Oder River in Wroclaw
We move on to the river (the Oder) and cross the bridge to one of the islands.  Apparently Wroclaw is number 4 in Europe for the number of bridges after Hamburg, Amsterdam and Venice.   Who knew.  On the island we visit a couple of churches, one of which still has a WWII shell embedded in the wall.  After the walking tour which was very good I wander back into town and have a late lunch (pork - they eat a lot of pork in Poland).  

I then buy a ticket to a concert for the evening.  I have choices a 3 hr Opera or a shorter Bach concert.  The Opera would make catching the train a bit tight so I opt for the Bach concert - a piece called The Art of the Fugue - with harpsichord, organ, 2 violins, a viola and a cello.  A wonderful concert but it was in an old church and the pews were not the most comfortable.  

After the concert I pick up my bags at the hotel and then Uber over to the station for my overnight train to Gdansk.  I get my own quite comfortable compartment for the 7 or 8 hours to Gdansk.  I think we passed through Warsaw in the night but I didn’t notice it.

Around 7:00 am we pulled into Gdansk.  I stored my bags in a locker at the station and walk into town.  Yet again, Gdansk turns out to have a wonderful old town, perhaps the most beautiful one to date, though Krakow is certainly a contender.  At that early hour of a Saturday morning, there was not much happening - the streets were nearly empty and there were few shops or cafes open.  I walk around admiring the wonderful buildings - the market street with its ornate old buildings (Dlugi Targ), the beautifully elaborate Arsenal building, the Golden Gate archway into the town, the green Gate arch at the other end of the town, the waterfront with its Gdansk Crane (Zuraw) an old wooden tower with a gantry to unload ship’s cargoes.  I wandered around the old town until some cafes start to open and then find a restaurant for breakfast.
The Market Street, Gdansk
The Armory, Gdansk
After breakfast I visited St Mary’s Church, a large church that dominates the old part of town.  It is apparently the largest brick built church in the world.  Inside it is quite wonderful with an impressive Baroque organ that was actually being played during my visit.  They were rehearsing for some event and the organ played for a while and then was joined by a woman singing.  It made the hairs on my neck stand up.  Among the many wonderful things in the church there is a 15th century Astronomical Clock, and Memling’s picture The Last Judgement (alas only a copy).
Aerial view of Gdansk from St Mary's Church Tower
I bought a ticket to ascend the tower - some 400 odd steps to the top, quite a bit of work but the reward was a wonderful view of the city below.  From the top of the church tower I noticed a dark sinister building off to the south so I walked over investigate and discover that it is the Gdansk Shakespeare Theater (English traveling players visited Gdansk in the 17th Century so there is some link there).  The building however looked really out of place - dark, sombre, no windows - a new build by architect Renato Rizzi.  Not my favorite building.
Gdansk Riverfront
In my wanderings I arrived again at the riverfront again and decided to take a boat trip.  There was a boat to Sopot about to leave so I bought a ticket and got on board.  Sopot is in the Gulf of Gdansk maybe 10 miles north of Gdansk.  It is a nice boat ride out past the port of Gdansk and the Lenin Shipyards (birthplace of Solidarity), and Westerplatte (where the opening shots of World War II were fired) and out into the Gulf.  
The Beach at Sopot and the Grand Hotel
We moored alongside the pier in Sopot which at 500m in length claims to be the longest wooden pier in Europe.  I went for a quick walk around the town.  Sopot is now a tourist retreat for wealthy Poles and is full of cafes and restaurants and lots of tourists.  There was nothing much that I found appealing other than the majestic looking Grand Hotel and an interesting sculpture of a fisherman somehow balanced on a tightrope strung across the street. I didn’t stay long in Sopot but got back on the same boat for the trip back to Gdansk.  
The Fisherman - Sopot
Back in Gdansk I made my way through the old town to the Gdansk Shipyards.  It was in the Gdansk Shipyards that Lech Walesa worked and where the Solidarity Movement was started that lead to the downfall of the USSR.  At the shipyards gate there is a memorial to the workers killed by the Polish Army in 1970 and just inside a very fine modern museum that tells the story of the strikes and the struggle for a democratic Trade Union and the eventual fall of the Soviet empire.  The museum is good but it got a bit complicated with the earphones and handset and I found myself getting out of synch with the voice commentary and my location in the museum.  There were so many optional interactive displays that were not always in English that it got a bit overwhelming at times.  Still it was a great series of exhibits about a most interesting time of change.
The Lenin Shipyards, Gdansk
From the shipyard it was a short walk (past a piece of the Berlin Wall) to the railway station where I retrieved my bags and caught the train out to the airport.  The train system in Poland is quite inexpensive and very well used.  The line out to the Lech Walesa airport was new and very modern and it cost less than $1.  Why can’t we do such things in the USA?  

From the airport I caught my RyanAir flight to Leeds/Bradford in the UK.  A cheap flight but you wouldn’t want to be on RyanAir for anything more than a couple of hours.  The streets of Leeds were nowhere near as charming as the streets of Poland.

There are many more photographs here.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Eclipse - August 21, 2017

On August 21 2017 there was a total eclipse that passed over the Continental USA.   My friends John and Gabrielle from the UK were coming over to view the eclipse and stay with some friends so I decided to join them.  The location for viewing had been picked out earlierby our friend Dave Lilly from Houston.  He had done all the hard work like picking the best cloud free location and arranging for accommodation so all I had to do was show up.  The location was McCall, Idaho - or at least that was the accommodation location the path of totality was 30 or 40 miles south near Cascade, Idaho.

I set off on the afternoon of Friday 18 August driving up I-80 to Reno.  There was a very impressive rain storm coming down the East side of the Sierras - a real downpour that caused the emergency services to break into radio transmissions to warn of flash flooding.   Half an hour later all was well and it was a nice evening in Reno.  I took a detour around town and grabbed a bite to eat before heading out in the evening towards the East.  I was going to stay in Fernley but I found there were no hotel vacancies.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one heading to Idaho for the eclipse.  I called ahead to Winemucca and finally found a room (the hotel lady said perhaps the last hotel in town).  I also panicked about finding a room in Boise so I booked a hotel for the next night in Boise.  I then had a little longer drive than I intended along I-80 to Winemucca where I arrived a little before midnight.  I didn’t see any other hotels with vacancies.
McDermitt, Nevada-Oregon
The next morning I headed north on route 95 through the great expanse of nothingness that is Nevada.  Wonderful countryside but there is not much there.  I stopped at the border with Oregon at the town of McDermitt.  Not much of a town, a gas station and a very run down casino and that was about it.  I wandered around town photographing a few of the highlights of town - mainly derelict buildings.

Continuing through Oregon towards Idaho, again there was not a lot of civilization.  Agriculture, cattle, lots of hay being grown to feed the cattle.   At the town of Jordan Valley I stopped for lunch.  The poor waitress in the one and only coffee shop was run off her feet - it had been a busy morning with all the eclipsers heading north.  Jordan Valley was originally settled by Basques and there is a pelota court in the middle of town.  A huge stone structure that from one side looks like a windowless building and from the other side a smooth walled handball court.  I visited the museum which was in an old stone house built by a Basque farmer to entice his wife to come over to the US from her native Spain.   Apparently she did and she stayed.  
Pole Bending, Jordan Valley
On the outskirts of Jordan Valley there was a rodeo going on.  I stopped for a while and they had a children’s event called Pole Bending going on.  They start them early on horseback here and they were all pretty proficient weaving in and out of marker poles set up at intervals along the course.  Everyone, boys and girls alike, had the full cowboy get up on - boots, jeans, cowboy shirt, and cowboy hat.  Just about all the guys lost their hats as soon as the got up to speed.  
Owyhee Country
Just after Jordan Valley the road crossed into Idaho.  The countryside was quite beautiful and we crossed through something called Owyhee Country near the Snake River - apparently named after Hawaiian fur trappers that were brought here in the early 1800’s.  I didn’t know the Hawaiians trapped for fur.  The road then crossed the Snake RIver valley at Marsing and shortly afterwards I was in Boise.  The Boise Motel was not anything great but it provide the necessary bed and shower.
Idaho State Capitol, Boise
In the evening I met the sister of my Sacramento friend Diane, Deb Nash, and she showed me a little of the city of Boise.  It was a surprisingly nice city.  Not too big but big enough to have a few things going on.  It looked like a nice place to live but I would be worried about its reputation as a home to libertarians, right wingers and white supremacists.

On the road the next morning I had a relatively short drive up the Payette Valley from Boise to McCall.  A beautiful drive through some splendid countryside.  Just the thing for a Sunday morning.  There were lots of signs of the pending eclipse - fields where you could reserve a viewing spot, accommodations already all full, warnings about the traffic on eclipse day and already a pretty steady flow of traffic.  

In McCall, I found my friends, John and Gabrielle from the UK, Dave and Gail Lilly from Houston (I had met Dave once 20 years ago on a hiking trip in Colorado), and Randy and Patty also from Houston who I had not met before.  We planned our strategy for the next day and decided that we should reserve a spot on that afternoon and then set off early on Monday allowing plenty of time for the traffic.  We headed south again and found a spot in a field by the Payette River near Smith’s Ferry (just south of Cascade) where for $20 we could reserve a space.  We then headed back towards McCall and decided we needed a backup plan if the traffic was too bad the next day, so we reserved another spot nearer to McCall.  Listening to the news all the talk was of extreme traffic conditions on the morning of the eclipse so we were all a bit spooked by that.

Monday morning, we were up at 5:30 for an early morning departure for the viewing site.  Much to our surprise the traffic was relatively light and we made our preferred viewing spot by 7:00am.  We were rewarded by taking the last riverside viewing spot on the banks of the Payette.  It was quite beautiful at that time in the morning, the sun was just rising and the river was steaming with mist.  Lots of people had been camping on the site all night to ensure their prime spot.
The Eclipse Team - Dave, Gail, John, Gabrielle, Randy, Patty, Steve
We then had around 3 hours to wait before the eclipse started.  Time passed fairly quickly watching a Bald Eagle fly up and down the river and then several Ospreys joined in and the Eagle disappeared.  I was most surprised when I chatted with the folks in our neighbouring spot.  They were an English family, from Derbyshire, from Chesterfield.  What a small world. Ian and Amanda Elliot and their son Oliver.  They knew Paul Griffiths someone from Staveley that I grew up with.  Ian was a masterful birder - he knew everything that was flying by, even without binoculars.
Payette River, Smith's Ferry
As the eclipse approached we were all ready with our dark glasses, and Dave had an impressive set up with three tripods with a couple of cameras and some binoculars.  As the eclipse progressed and took a chunk out of the sun you could see the sun spots through Dave’s set up.  
Start of the Eclipse, Note the Sun Spots
The excitement built as we approached totality.  You could see Venus quite clearly.   It got quite cold and yet even with 95% totality there was still quite a lot of light and you could only look through dark glasses.  But then with totality we saw the Baily’s Beads and then a darkened sun and just the sun’s corona was visible and you could look at it without glasses. Totality lasted just over 2 minutes and it was an incredible experience.  It was dark, it was cold, it was quiet, it was quite an emotional feeling.  Everyone was silent and in awe for the first minute or so and then there were whoops and hollers.  The so-called diamond ring appears as the totality ends and light came back to the world.  It is a shame we can’t have do overs.
As the moon’s shadow passed out of the sun we were pretty relaxed about the whole thing - a partial eclipse is one thing, and yes it is impressive, but totality took it to a whole different level.  An experience I would make a point of seeing again if I could.

We stayed until the sun was full again and then drove back to McCall feeling very satisfied.  

I had this notion that I would drive back that afternoon to be in Sacramento the following evening.  That was a bad idea.   While I made good progress for a while when I got to Cascade the traffic became stop and go and we were a lot more stop that go.  It took 4 hours to get to Boise, something that should have taken less than 2 hours.

From Boise south the traffic was fine and I pushed on until late into the night finally arriving in Winemucca around 11:00 pm.  I was too tired to figure out a hotel so I just pulled off the road on the hills outside Winemucca and crawled into the back of the car.   Quite comfortable anod no one bothered me.

Breakfast the next day in Winemucca (the Griddle, a great place for breakfast) and then the long drive back to Sacramento.  Again a rain storm as I passed through the Sierras.  I became obsessed with getting good mileage out of the Audi for the trip and managed to average 30 mpg which is pretty good compared to my usual 21 mpg around town.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Santa Cruz Island - August 2017

In August 2017, Nancy and I took a tip out to Santa Cruz Island, one of the islands in the Channel Islands National Park.  The Channel Islands sit some 25 or so miles off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura. The one we visited, Santa Cruz, is the largest being some 96 square miles.
Approaching Santa Cruz

The boat service leaves from Ventura Harbour in the morning and returns in the afternoon.  We had a campsite reserved so we went out Monday morning and returned Tuesday afternoon.  Campsites were hard to come by but we took advantage of the fact that there are many group campsites and when it gets close to the date the Parks Service lets individuals take these.   You pay the $40 instead of the cheaper $20 for an individual site but when it’s the choice of that or not going it’s an easy decision.

Scorpion Anchorage
The boat ride out was uneventful, about 1 ¼ hours, and the weather was fine - not too windy, not too rough.  In the mid point of the channel we passed the oil platforms that sit in the Santa Barbara Channel and grace the view of those affluent coastal homes.  We offloaded at Scorpion Anchorage where there is a small pier.  The water there was so clear you could see all the way to the bottom and the swaying beds of kelp.  First responsibility was to listen to the Park Ranger’s introduction to the island and all the do’s and dont’s.  No trash receptacles on the island so pack out what you pack in; don’t feed the island foxes; be careful of the island foxes they are inquisitive and they are ingenious at getting into your tents and bags in search of food, put everything in the bear (or fox) lockers at the campsite, fasten your tent zips at the top not at ground level where the foxes can open them.  

We had visited Anacapa Island a couple of years ago and there there are thousands of nesting gulls that mob you and crap on you and make the whole place a little smelly.  The reason why, there are no island foxes on Anacapa, no predation of the eggs.  On Santa Cruz, the oh-so-cute foxes keep the not so cute gulls at bay.

Abandoned Oil Rig
Back in camp we decided to go for a hike.  We walked up Scorpion Canyon to the ridge line at the top of the island - quite a slog up the hill, and it was quite humid, though thankfully not too hot.  On the top of the hill there was an old abandoned oil rig.   I am not sure when it was operated, probably in the 1950’s I would imagine.  It had drilled a well but all that was found was water.  The oil bearing formations of the Santa Barbara Channel and the mainland did not extend out to the islands.  We walked down the road from the top and it took us once more down to Scorpion Harbor.  There were nice views of adjacent Anacapa Island to the east of us.

Anacapa Island
Our campsite was about ½ mile from the dock.  We pitched tent and went back to the dock area where there were some old building and old agricultural artifacts from when the island was an operating ranch (mainly sheep farming).  There was also concessions for kayaking and snorkeling so we signed up for the next morning’s kayak trip.

We had a fine dehydrated camp meal in the evening and then took an evening stroll up from the camp towards Potato Harbor.  There were lots of exposures of white diatomaceous earth on the way up.
Island Fox
Back in camp we watched the foxes wondering around looking for food and being chased off from everyone’s campsites.  They are certainly very cute and they certainly do well on foodstuffs they scavenge around camp (despite everyone’s efforts to not feed them).   Apparently after once being endangered they responded well to a captive breeding programme and are now recovered and doing quite well.  They are smaller than the foxes on the mainland and they have a little more reddish brown colorings.

Then next morning, Tuesday, we did another early morning walk towards Potato Harbor before going down to Scorpion Harbor for our kayak trip.  We were assigned a guide (Scott) and given the basics before going down to the beach and into the water in double sit-on-top kayak.  We paddled around in the bay practicing our stops and turns before heading out west along the coast.  There was lots of kelp - huge waving fronds of the stuff anchored on the bottom and providing something secure to hold on to whenever we came to a stop to look at something.  The water was amazingly clear.

View towards Potato Harbor
The high point of the trip was to visit the caves.  There are several along the coast and we entered about 4 or 5 of them.  As we pushed around Cavern Point we were heading out into the wind and the swells and it was quite exciting, if a little hard work to make any headway.  After Cavern Point we entered one more cave, the largest, and then turned to head back.  A great trip - we should do more kayaking.

Back on land we changed and had some lunch before making a quick visit to the visitor’s center to learn about life on the ranch.  Then we just had time for a hike up the trail behind the visitor’s center (Cavern Point trail) before coming back down and catching our boat back to Ventura.

The Ferry Boat to Ventura
On the way back to the mainland we saw several flying fish.  It was remarkable how long they could fly for - several seconds and for quite a long way.  At first site we thought they must be birds until they disappeared under the water.  

Again we had a calm crossing and were back in Ventura at 5:00 pm.  A great little expedition from Santa Barabara - highly recommended. More photos are here.