Thursday, 31 December 2009

Santa Claus's green path?


Northern lights in Alaska's long night, over Chugach mountains, near to Anchorage. The ionized particles are green coloured because they are mainly composed of oxygen; anyhow, a typical postcard of the season.

Alaska Stock/Sunset

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Best wishes for Christmas and New Year

The adventure here is paused, but will soon restart. Until then, all the best for the holiday season and for 2010.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Really cold: Niagara Ice Falls

The last time Niagara Falls froze: March 1848.

Water flow was interrupted by accumulation of small icebergs in the upper section of the river; both falls froze quickly then.

In the lower section, an "ice bridge" linked both banks for miles; locals and tourists invaded this ice cap , taking photos, toboganning, selling drinks.

In fact, the tremendous flow of water remained under the ice cap, so this could break at any time and cause disaster.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Recent photos of Mars: oh! so remote

Some photos from Mars, thanks to


(clic for large view)










Dunes, winds, jet streams, canyons, craters, lots of colour and water underground. Only trees and Martians are missing.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Blow, blow, thou winter wind

Blow, blow, thou winter wind.
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude (...)

from "As You Like It", William Shakespeare

As for winter winds, listen also to Sandy Denny, one of my favourite songwriters of the nineteen seventies/eighties :

Winter Winds- Sandy Denny

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

the long polar night


Since the last days of November , the arctic regions are in polar night season. They have to say goodbye to the sun. It will shine back again in about two months. Until then, welcome Polar Night!


Twilight is at noon, the sun trying to peak over the horizon - not succeeding though. But it never gets really dark. In fact there is a kind of permanent twilight, and in full moonlight , the "polar night" days are more enlightened than a dark night at the tropics.


Christmas night is all along the day...






Sunday, 29 November 2009

Mount Thor, Nunavut: a mountain for Thule


Mount Thor is a mountain in Auyuittuq National Park, on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada.
Mount Thor features the Earth's greatest purely vertical drop at 1,250 m (4,101 ft), with an average angle of 105 degrees. The highest uninterrupted cliff face at more than 1 kilometer!


Despite its remoteness, many climbers come there for a unique experience.
The mountain is made of granite . It was first climbed in 1953. The world record for longest rappel was set on Mount Thor, July 23, 2006.
Named after Thor, the Norse god of Thunder (like "Thursday"!), this majestic peak rises some 1675 meters above the surrounding valley.


Coordinates 66°32′N, 65°19′W

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Heddal : a stave church in Norway

Gothic cathedral in wood

The Heddal stave church is a wood structure church build around 1200 AC - and the largest of the 28 wooden churches still existing in Norway. These churches were built at the end of the Viking reign, as missionaries were christianizing Norway, until the XIV c. when the plague put a halt to their construction.

With the most impressive and distinctive exterior, Heddal Stave church is built in the form of a stave basilica with 12 large and 6 smaller support posts. Outside, plenty of wood carvings decorate the walls and doors.


Inside, a continuous gallery around the whole of the church


Heddal Church interior is also a medieval masterpiece with later contributions.

Inside the church you can see a beautiful wooden carved chair, dated around 1200. The alter-piece is produced by an unknown artist in 1667. The wall-painting that you see today is dated 1668.

Underneath, on the west wall, there are remains of the original painting from about 1300. On the wall in the exterior passage, you can see Runes inscribed.

Until 1850 the church bells hung in the church. They were moved to the bell-tower outside because the burden on the structure of the church became too great, as the centuries passed.

Structure of a Stave Church

A stave church is classified based on the very special building construction. On a stone foundation there is a frame of ground sills, into which the large pillars, the staves, are inset. On the top of the staves there is another frame of sills, the head beams, and on those, the roof construction is placed.


The wall boards rest in a groove in the ground sills, while the top fits into a groove in the head beams. Only wooden nails - no metal nails - were used when constructing this church. The outside of the church was protected by tar. The church is now regularly tarred by hand, with tar produced in the old way.

Materials Used to Construct the Stave Church

The material used in the construction of these churches is invariably pine. Oak is only found in the south of Norway, and the beech in but one place, at Laurvik.

All of the parts exposed to the weather have been coated over and over again with tar of a dark red color, and this, added to the age of the timber, gives to these churches a rich, dark brown color in contrast with the surrounding scenary and houses.

The Stave Churches are richly decorated with carvings. In virtually all of them the door frames are ornamented and lavishly carved.

Dragons are abundant, lovingly executed and transformed into long-limbed creatures of fantasy, here and there entwined with tendrils of vine, with winding stems and serrated leaves. The elaborate designs are executed with supreme artistic skill. The stave church doorways are, therefore, among the most distinctive works of art to be found in Norway.


The external appearance of most of these stavkirken is at least exotic; it reminds us of an oriental building: roof rises above roof, and quaint dragon heads adorn the gables. These in many instances, resemble the prows of the ancient Viking ships.

In 1979 the Urnes stave church was listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List of most valuable cultural memorials in the world. But all the 28 stavkirken set is the most rich and exquisite historic heritage of Norway.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Coffee or beer with an Arctic View ?

Program for an arctic foolish adventure: take a coffee and a cake at the northenmost café, sitting in an terrace looking towards ice mountains and the pole.
And perhaps in the midnight sun. Possible? Yes, that's Mellageret Café, Ny Alesund, Svalbard Islands.
For more, see this post.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The search for Thule - the story behind this blog

I read some months ago "The Ice Musem - In search of the lost land of Thule", by Joanna Kavenna, one of those books you wish you could go on reading forever, about the long quest for the northernmost land on earth. This is a short personal account of the fascination I found there for Arctic Islands, Lands and Peoples.

Thule's myth is one of a treasure lost, like Atlantis or the Graal. All started with the adventure of a greek from Ancient Greece, 4th cent. B.C. , born in the colony town of Massalia ( Marseille) : Pytheas was a merchant, a sailor, and a geographer, the first one to describe the sea tides as caused by the phases of the Moon, the first one to estimate the length of Britain's coastline – he was a specialist in the calculation of latitude and longitude. Greeks are not known as great explorers, but Pytheas was to be a pioneer, like Marco Polo, but bound for the North.

Desperately missing tin for production of bronze weapons, the greeks were interested in the mines they knew to exist in South Cornwall. So they sent Pytheas, a skilled sailor who used to keep a precise register of his journeys. He left Marseille by sea around 330 BC , visited the south of Iberia, passed Gibraltar strait, visited Ieron akrōtērion (the sacred promontory of Sagres), and sailed the portuguese coast , then Bordeaux and Nantes, finally arriving at 325 BC to Britain (he was the first to use the name Pretannia), at Cornwall, where he searched and found the tin mines.

He described the people as " civilized" and praised their methods of metal extraction and the flourishing tin trade. He probably visited Stonehenge, then sailed again around Britain, to Scotland and farther , determined to discover any land not figured in his charts, that showed only monsters in those regions.

He visited the Hebrids, Orkneys and Shetlands. He saw "large fishes, the size of a boat, that swimmed slowly on the surface and loudly blowing out sprays of water". And he sailed on six more days to the North, until he found the island they called Thule.

Pytheas route


He described the people there as barbarians , meaning teutonic or germanic tribes, who lived on simple land farming – honey, milk and fruits. They showed him the "place where the sun goes to rest". He saw that in winter the sun didn´t even show – darkness lasted fot months. In summer, there was no night. He saw a strange sea, "an ocean of slush ice and fog so thick that it can be traveled neither on foot nor by boat", a sea melted with the sky and the earth in a viscous mass of ice that oscillated with the waves. He sailed away from that "solidified sea" and returned to Marseille. He wrote down his report of a voyage to "the end of the world" in a book, “On the Ocean”, that was later lost forever. We only know quotations from later authors:

"The barbarians showed us the place where the sun goes to rest. Because in this parts the nights are short, two or three hours, and the sun rises short after it sets.”

- quoted by Geminus de Rodes

In greek mythology, there was a people – the Hyperboreans, meaning “beyond the north winds" – of happy and festive character, because they didn't suffer the normal afflictions of mankind; fearing no death or illness, they spent the time in joy and feast. No wonder that these were thought to be the inhabitants of Pytheas' Thule.

Through time, speculation on Thule's real location appealed to the imagination of travellers, poets and men of wisdom. So Thule became a mythical place, an idea evoking at the same time well-being and desire of adventure, and an idea that moved more northernly as arctic explorers reached higher latitudes. A paradise that, like a rainbow, escaped as we aproached.

The question that raised as Pytheas report was known: where exactly was the island of Thule?

Opinions immediatly diverged. For Herodotus (5 BC), in those latitudes "you can see nothing":
"There is a constant fall of white feathers, the air gets thicker and the ground covered with them" .


But Pytheas was respected at the time, his measures supposed accurate and his observations precise. The Romans increased the mistery: first, Virgilius renamed the island as “Ultima Thule”, the remote Thule, the last shadowland of the north. Then Strabo in Geographica (30 DC), scorned Pytheas as a lier and a charlatan that had invented a fictitious journey. Pytheas had placed Thule "six days sailing north of the british isles" , which was impossible, said Strabo, as these islands where the farthest inhabitated land in the world, where people lived in complete misery because of the deep cold. Colder than that, only Ireland – "where sons and daughters sleeped together and eated their parents".... more misery could not exist; then no one can live to the north of that, Strabo wrote. So, Pytheas lied - Thule was just the last of the british isles to the north.

Plyne the Elder, in Naturalis Historia, described Thule in 77 AC as "the farthest land there is notice of", with sunless winters and nightless summers; and placed it at the Arctic Circle. Based on the lost report of Pytheas, he states that the sea crossing to Thule starts at the greater of the Hebrids, which would in 8 days have taken the greek sailor to Norway, at the Trondheim area, just a little below the Circle. This conclusion seems to agree with the coordinates (centered at Marseille) that Pytheas indicated for Thule. At least the latitudes are credible. But longitudes , as we know now, where largely miscalculated at the time.

Anyhow, Thule continued to confuse and let down the geographers who tried to make maps of earth's extreme north, where they drawed a huge unsurpassable river, or a large sea belt from pole to pole...


In the Renaissance era, northern lands were claimed and mapped: Iceland, Scandinavia, the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the Faroë and at last the Lofoten - but there was never full agreement or precision concerning Thule : the misterious nordic Graal remained an island in the mist, at the entrance of a frozen sea.

Julio Cesar , Cristovão Colombo, Goethe, Edgar Allan Poe - many referred Thule, seduced by the the charm of the unknown. Maybe afterall just a poetic delusion... The victorian era was febrile, anxious to discover new lands and civilizations. From Scotland and Norway , group after group of adventurous tourists departed to North excursions, searching for faraway Thules. Also a nazi society proclaimed Thule, a nordic equivalent to Atlantis, as the cradle of arian race, and inspired Hitler himself...

In the horror of WWII, Thule was for the victorians a kind of Arcady, a refuge from a world in convulsion. Amazed, they discovered the remotest Hebrids, the fiord coast of Norway, Vikings' Iceland, the Faroë and their grass roofed houses.

From the Shetlands to the Svalbard (or Spitzberg) archipelago, from the Faroë even to Greenland, the quest entered the XX century! That's when Robert Peary discovered the extreme north of Greenland in 1900; no more land to the north:

"I feel my eyes finaly rest on Arctic's Ultima Thule" (Cape Morris Jessup)

For 68 years, Cape Morris Jessup remained the northernmost "terra firma" on earth. But in 1968 some piece of land a little higher in latitude was found, and another still 10 years later – the very small gravel islet (15 m x 8 m) , most of the time under water, that was called Oodaag, one of the inuit fellows of Peary.

Oodag, the northernmost piece of solid land on the planet.

Kaali lake, Saaremaa

A new and unexpected candidate has recently claimed to be the true Pytheas' Thule - Saaremaa island in Estonia, where amazing meteor craters exist for centuries; the fact that Pytheas, before returning home, made a tour by the Baltic sea, where he saw amber as “a sea excretion”, is the argument in favour of this location. Maybe the “place where the sun goes to rest” is the crater where the giant meteor fell in flames, around 600 B.C., and a sacred pilgrimage site since then in all the Baltic region.


Though the fascination has cooled to indifference at the end of last century, there are still some people attached to the promise of primordial purity of legendary Thule.

Knud Rasmussen the explorer funded in Greenland, near the Inuit settlement of Avannaa, a base he called “Thule”, in 1910. That is the reason of the denomination “Thule people”, a paleo-eskimo population that preceeded the inuits. In 1953 Avannaa gave place to an american militair base , built during the nazi occupation of Denmark; the base was named “Thule Air Base".

Though it's not unthinkable that Pytheas might have passed Iceland, and had a distant view of Greenlandic mountains, he surely did not reach that far; the general consensus today is that he visited the north coast of Norway, between Trondheim and the Lofoten islands.

Anyhow, Pytheas was the first known great explorer; at the time of Alexander the Great, he travelled to the fronteers of a new world; he brought knowledge of the midnight sun , the aurora, whales and the frozen sea. He deserves a place at the side of Colombo and Marco Polo.

Pytheas of Massalia, Marseille


By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule —
From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime,
Out of Space — out of Time.

Edgar Allan Poe

Links:

http://victorian.fortunecity.com/christy/32/kaali.html
http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sociopolitica/sociopol_thule07.htm http://www.ub.uit.no/northernlights/eng/pytheas.htm
http://www.norway.gr/travel/Travel+stories/Pytheas.htm http://www.economicexpert.com/a/Thule:myth.htm
http://www.arcticthule.com/history/history.htm


Monday, 19 October 2009

Homer, Alaska - shopping in a landscape


The Homer Spit boardwalk in southern Alaska is probably the most fascinating shopping (and eating) alley in the world. Wood cabin shops in a fabulous mountain-and-lake scenery make Homer something apart.

Homer is a small community (pop. 5400) at the end of Kachemak Bay, surrounded by mountains, glaciers and volcanoes. Bald eagles fly and fish all around.

Many of the locals are artists from the hippie era that either became fishermen or keep painting, making pottery, sculpture, music and cooking. There are several galleries, a museum and an wildlife visitor's center - the amazing Islands & Ocean Visitor Center ; a large choice of cafés and restaurants is available in town as well as in the Spit.

Mt. Augustine volcano, 1 260 m high, has created its own island of past eruptions’ debris. This is the 2006 eruption. A tsunami is always feared.


By land, air or water, getting to Homer is an odissey - all routes cross a region of extraordinary natural wonders: Kachemak Bay, where snow peaks, glaciers, dense evergreen forests, hundreds of bald eagles and sea puffins, set a scenery few towns can offer.
A lighthouse against the mountain range

The orthodox mission church in Homer

"Cafe cups" is a charming, eclectic restaurant in Homer ; mosaics and large cups are reminiscent of “Alice in Wonderland".

Perhaps the main attraction is the Homer Spit, the exposed part of an underwater moraine from an extinct tidewater glacier. The piece of land juts out 5 miles (7 km) into Kachemak Bay.


Homer Spit boardwalk:

At the end of the spit road, a boardwalk on wooden pillars keeps the buildings above the wave threat.


Shops and restaurants keep the economy alive:

Ivory carver shop

Roadhouse native crafts and giftshop


Homer Clayworks


The Spirit of Alaska


Lazerette gift shop

"Time Bandit" gifts

Spit Sisters cafe

Salty Dawg historic saloon

Whale bone ivory, native craft

The boardwalk at dusk:



A different town in an arctic landscape, Homer deserves a visit from this thulean blog.