Tag Archives: travel

Wanderlust

Elegans

Mentioned this earlier, but the past month has been really hectic, as I’ve worked on my Directed Research project. All said and done, I have a 24-page document on my hands, clipped into a nice professional-looking binder, and one of the best achievements in my academic career so far, I really couldn’t be prouder.

Some interesting results were teased out, and there’s been talk of publishing it, probably joined along with some of my classmates’ research and some further research to be conducted by next semester’s group. More interesting was a conclusion I reached from my results, which I assumed to be completely logical and already part of common knowledge, but may actually represent a revolutionary concept in plant evolution. What. I refuse to believe that this is actually a radical new idea, but my research professor seems convinced that it’s new. So we’ll do some reading up in our free time, to find if that’s truly the case, and publish that too. I’d rather not discuss it on here, for fear of mischievous bandit scientists publishing before us, so ask me about it in private if you really care. No offense taken if you don’t, haha.

I had to give a presentation on my research as well, and the professors liked it enough to give me a shot at presenting it to the public, at the semester-end Community Night. I didn’t stress out much, figuring that the audience would mostly be the local yokels or kind senior citizens without the slightest comprehension of what I was talking about. The day before the presentation, I learned that this assumption was actually false, and that the audience would essentially be a panel of scientists from the local universities. Gulp.

Fortunately, my high school debate training proved useful, and so I spoke with my best speaking voice and made a pretty powerpoint, all so that people would be bowled over by the presentation skillz and wouldn’t actually listen to what I was saying, haha. Nah jk, I did actually stick some content in (unlike some of those local debate tournaments years ago, good times). I got some good compliments afterwards, some of which were surprisingly laudatory and sincere, so I’m glad that all went well.

And then, suddenly, that was it. The program was over. There was barely enough time for a farewell dinner, and then we left the rainforest forever, in the darkness of three in the morning. Before I realized it, we were standing in the Cairns airport hugging out our goodbyes and laughing over jokes a few final times. A solid group of us were on the same flight to Sydney, but three of us were staying in Sydney while the rest were flying on to the States. That produced a particularly preposterous farewell, as three of us went to the baggage claim while the rest went to the international terminal, with those two destinations in opposite cardinal directions, 180 degrees. Final hugs and goodbyes, and then we turned our backs and walked away. Straight out of a movie, I tell you.

Cultural Vertigo

The experience of being in Sydney was utterly overwhelming. That’s the blunt way to put it. To spend three whole months hiking through the lush rainforest, completely immersed in the wonders of nature, and then to suddenly emerge into a tree-less skyscraper metropolis, swimming through massive hordes of businessmen, shoppers, and tourists was possibly the biggest shock of my life. I was totally overwhelmed. I met with a friend from the program for dinner, and she had been overwhelmed to the point of wandering through the city until she found a park with trees, and collapsed in its shade to recover. I really cannot emphasize enough just how overwhelming Sydney was.

Over the next few days, we slowly adjusted to the tempos of city life, and I can say that after three days, I was pretty much acclimated to civilization once again. But it wasn’t satisfying. Walking for 30 minutes through a city is absolutely nothing like walking for 30 minutes down a forested path. The long walk from my hostel to downtown Sydney is more stressful than I thought any walk could possibly be. It’s the crush of people, the blaring traffic, the flashing lights: there’s no room for solitude, reflection, or an appreciation of one’s surroundings. In any other context, I can tell that I’d probably love Sydney, there’s a great range of interesting shops (including one of the best record shops I’ve ever seen), lots of interesting people to observe, and of course incredible architecture and art, Sydney Opera House being just one obvious example. But coming here right after this program felt totally wrong.

Wonderland in Alice

And it was in that mindset that I escaped to Alice Springs, near the very center of the continent, the Red Centre. Most visitors to the Alice use it as a base camp for excursions to Ayers Rock/Uluru, that famous red monolith that’s in the Outback Steakhouse logo, among other places. Uluru and the Sydney Opera House are undoubtedly the two biggest landmarks in the country.

But I didn’t come to visit Uluru. It seems like the type of landmark that is completely overrated, and not worth the significant resources required to visit it. It’s just a large red rock, after all. Granted, I’ve talked with not one, but several people who were of the same mind before they visited the Rock, but were totally blown away once they got there. That weighed on me very heavily. I may never be in this part of the world ever again. Sydney and Cairns perhaps, but not the Red Centre. So this may be the literal Chance of a Lifetime to see a Global Landmark, such as if you were in Egypt and refused to go see the Sphinx or the Pyramids of Giza. But in the end, I made the decision to forgo a visit. It was either going to be too expensive, take up far too much time, or both.

My plans for Alice Springs were first, to see the famous dry Outback landscape that I didn’t get to see in tropical northeast Queensland, and subsequently, to see the impressive array of new birds associated with that environment. The latter point may have been more important. Predictable, I know, haha. Birds are probably the subconscious goal of every trip I do, everything from a walk on campus to an airplane flight to an Outback outpost.

The trip to Alice Springs was immediately therapeutic. It was the perfect marriage between the natural immersion of my program and the cultural values of the big city. I got wireless internet in my hostel, and three blocks away I was out of the city and into the Outback. Being able to go on long hikes helped immeasurably to clear my mind and relieve all the stress I’d accumulated from the shock of city life. On Tuesday morning alone, I hiked over 14 km of the Larapinta Trail, which stretches for over 200 km in total. I wanted to go longer, but I forgot to pack a lunch, haha. I could have gone all day, even despite the heat, and the swarms of flies.

On a side note, if you’re ever in Alice Springs for whatever reason, I would strongly recommend staying at the Alice’s Secret Travellers Inn. It is the best hostel I have stayed at anywhere in Australia. Great rooms, great location, and the friendliest staff ever. Best hostel. Also, the Italian restaurant Casa Nostra is extremely delicious and relatively cheap. I haven’t even found anything that good in Sydney yet. So go there.

Cheers

And now I’m back in Sydney. Perhaps it’s because I knew what to expect this time, but I wasn’t so overwhelmed this time around. However, I do plan on taking long train rides out to the nearby National Parks, which should be great. I’ve given up on taking photos of the Sydney Opera House, first of all because it’s impossible to capture its full beauty, and secondly because it’s not like you guys haven’t seen pictures of the thing before. Trust me though, the pictures don’t do it justice. Sydney Opera House = best house ever. I can also now say that I’ve seen an event inside the Opera House. I would’ve loved for it to be some orchestra performance or, heck, an opera, but I settled for an Aboriginal film festival, which was incredibly well done and mostly quality, worth the price of admission (free) and definitely then some for sure.

So with my remaining three days, I’ll be searching for birds, sweet records at the record shop, and gawking at the Opera House some more. Really what I should’ve been doing in the first place. I can’t even remember what I did the first time around in Sydney, other than stagger around confusedly and then gawk at the Opera House some more.

Alright, got some photos left over:

Brainstorming for my research paper topic

Forty Mile Scrub National Park, where we did a lot of our sampling

Standley Chasm, in the West MacDonnell Ranges outside of Alice Springs

Density of Ice

I spent the past two weeks on a family vacation to Alaska, with one week on a cruise, and one week exploring the Alaskan Interior. The parents were excited to see the scenery and to get the cruise experience, while I was excited to see the scenery and the birds. I had extremely low expectations for the cruise, but I was really pleasantly surprised by it; things ran very smoothly and it never got painfully dull. The highlight had to be playing Ping Pong in high winds during a stormy day in the Gulf of Alaska. From my side, you could hit the ball off the table to the right, and watch the wind slam it all the way over to the left edge of the table, just over the net, for a perfect shot. Shots from the other side would just blast right by me, and I had to chase a few errant balls all the way down the length of the slippery deck, narrowly avoiding a few dives into the frigid arctic waters.

But really I was still more interested in the birds I could potentially find, as Alaska is a treasure trove of hard-to-find species that I may never get another shot at in my lifetime. I’d been hoping to pick up murres, murrelets, loons, and other ocean-going species on our first full day in the Inside Passage, but I saw absolutely nothing but gulls en route to other destinations. Birding in the open ocean is always a bit difficult, as I learned many many years ago on a whale-watching excursion in the San Juan Islands of Washington, and a few years ago on a ferry across the Pamlico Sound in North Carolina. But even on those trips, I could count on a few interesting sightings per hour at the least. Here: nothing. On the ocean, I saw nothing but gulls until our third day, on another whale-watching excursion coming out of Juneau.

On land, I was hoping to find many of the boreal species that only rarely venture in the Lower 48, but I was again met with surprising disappointment. In Ketchikan, I spent the morning in the Tongass National Forest, and heard nothing but crows, gulls, and a single Bald Eagle, with no songbirds to speak of. An afternoon exploration of a wooded hillside on the edge of town yielded two Townsend’s Warblers, which was nice, but again, I was completely unaccustomed to the absolute silence in the woods. On the next day’s 5 mile hike through old growth rainforest outside Juneau, there were still no birds to be heard, which had me very downtrodden. At least the hike was possibly the most amazing I’ve ever done.

Townsend’s Warbler, one of two species of western yellow-faced warblers. I picked up the other, Hermit Warbler, while at the 2004 YBC in California. Photo by Peter LaTourette.

I would eventually pick up a few of my desired seabirds in Glacier Bay, with a single Kittlitz’s Murrelet being the undoubted highlight, but many of the more common species (such as Marbled Murrelet!) still eluded me, which was incredibly frustrating. Glacier Bay was my last chance on the ocean birds, as the Prince William Sound’s avian populations were still recovering from the Exxon Valdez oil spill almost 20 years ago, so it was time for me to move on and try my luck with the landbirds.

On the land portion, extensive time was spent at the Alyeska Prince Resort south of Anchorage, and at Denali National Park, the latter of which I expected to be a gold mine of birds. But again, at both locations, birds were few and far between. Reading a book on the Birds of Denali while in the visitor center’s gift shop, the author made a note that due to the area’s extreme northern latitude, the density of birds was extremely low, which the author claimed made any encounters all the more magical.

The passage really struck me. Indeed, I’d just spent 3 hours climbing the 3,000-ft Mt. Healy, and only came across three species of birds, with no more than 4 individuals of each. Of those three species however, all three were completely new to me until this Alaskan expedition. All in all, I spent one full day and significant portions of two other days in Denali National Park, yet I totaled a list of only nine species of birds in that entire span. In a comparable period of time at a place like Huntington Beach in South Carolina, I could likely approach eighty species. Yet those nine species in Denali were all incredibly unique birds that I rarely get the chance to observe, if ever. Birding in Alaska was most certainly a case of quality over quantity.

So which would I prefer, a single Spruce Grouse foraging on a trail in Denali, or a massive flock of Starlings nearly blocking out the sun? Well, both, really. I enjoy the small pleasures of birding enough to see the beauty in both. But I must say that it’s far easier to bird in a quantity-rich environment, as the constant movement and sound is enough to keep your senses in shape. Birding in Denali was such a desolate experience; staring over miles of open tundra with no sounds except that of the wind and the rain, and no movement except that of the taller grasses leaning with the wind. I did treasure the few birds I found, but it still remained an incredibly numbing experience. I could imagine spending years and years in Alaska slowly building up my lists, and I would find that extremely enjoyable. But I only had a short amount of time to spend, and to spend that time wandering around an empty landscape was anything but fulfilling. Nonetheless, though the birding was disappointing, it was a memorable trip in many other different aspects, and one I would be eager to repeat sometime in the future.

Birding highlights:

  • Kittlitz’s Murrelet – single bird dove in front of the ship in Glacier Bay
  • Spruce Grouse – male foraging on the trail only 20 yds ahead in Denali National Park
  • Willow Ptarmigan – family group foraging on the side of the Park Road in Denali. Probably one of my favorite birds ever now, ptarmigans are so gosh-darn cool.
  • Townsend’s Warbler – female feeding juvenile in Ketchikan
  • Tufted Puffin – several individuals in Glacier Bay (but no Horned Puffins!)
  • Varied Thrush – small groups seen at Alyeska and Denali
  • Trumpeter Swan – several pairs along Seward Highway and Alaska Railroad

Non-bird organism highlights:

  • Dall’s Porpoise – common throughout Inner Passage
  • Humpback Whale – common throughout Inner Passage
  • Steller’s Sea Lion – common in Juneau and Skagway
  • Harbor Seal – several seen in front of glaciers in Glacier Bay
  • Sockeye Salmon – many in Juneau and Skagway, with best observations coming from kayak on beautiful Chilkoot Lake in Haines
  • Chum Salmon – many swimming upstream in Ketchikan
  • Black Bear – fishing for Sockeye Salmon on Chilkoot River in Haines
  • Moose – Denali
  • Grizzly Bear – Denali
  • Dall Sheep – Denali
  • Caribou – Denali

Non-trip linking highlights:

Mt. McKinley, also known as Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, on 8.24.2006 as seen from near Highway Pass in Denali National Park. The mountain itself was still 30 miles down the road, but this was the furthest we would go on that day.