Archive for the ‘travel’ Tag

Return to Medicine Bow

Two summers ago I posted about the mix of beauty and devastation in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest. It was a similar story upon returning this August: this year’s heavy rains and enduring snow packs meant another incredible burst of wildflowers. (As well as some tragic flooding.)

Sadly, the fallout from climate change also continues here. Because winter temperatures are no longer as cold, the bark beetle population continues to survive and thrive, killing off the pine forests. This was a typical sight in the vicinity of the Sugarloaf recreation area:

Bonus shot: Train tracks in Laramie.

See photos from the trip in 2009 and read more about climate change and the region’s bark beetle epidemic here.

Vancouver’s bold war on drugs

For many years Vancouver has had a serious heroin addiction. So it’s heartening to see that one of the city’s boldest strategies for confronting the problem, launched eight years ago, is continuing to meet with serious success: Vancouver’s government-backed “supervised injection site” — the first of its kind in North America — has helped reduce the number of fatal drug overdoses in the city by 35 percent, according to a new scientific report detailed in the Vancouver Sun.

The news is gratifying for me personally, having invested deeply in the issue with a reporting project I did for Salon beginning in 2003. (My initial story from Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside — a neighborhood much changed these days, particularly since the 2010 Winter Games — is linked above.) Reporting another piece in 2006, one of the most striking things I found was that early results from Insite, as it’s called, had already converted some hardcore conservatives. Then city councilor George Chow — who had campaigned vigorously against the injection site when running for office — told me in fall 2006 that conservatives’ ideological fears had been misguided. They had declared that a government-sponsored facility for helping drug users shoot up would only breed more chaos.

“After three years that has not happened, even with an increase in the homeless,” Chow told me then. “Without this facility the drug problem would have been far more out of control. There would be an even bigger problem with HIV transmission and other issues.”

As I wrote at the time, research showed that Insite had also helped sharply reduce the sharing of dirty needles among street addicts and increased their entry into detox and addiction treatment programs. Supporters of Insite believed that the facility’s success would prove a beachhead for a less punitive and more humane war on drugs extending across Canada, and perhaps even to drug-troubled cities south of the Canadian border. Chow himself suggested that Toronto and Montreal, as well as U.S. cities with similar problems, should consider the policy already working so effectively in his own neighborhood.

Now, he and Insite’s other supporters can point not only to a reduction in fatal overdoses but also to a rigorous research report making that same recommendation. The report was published Sunday, as the Vancouver Sun noted, in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet:

The report, compiled by Canadian scientists from the Urban Health Research Initiative, the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and St. Paul’s Hospital, goes on to argue that Vancouver’s Insite — the country’s first safe-injection facility — should be replicated in other North American cities where drug use is a common problem. …

In a column accompanying the report, Dr. Chris Beyrer, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, commended the facility’s work in helping drug abusers. “Supervised injection facilities clearly have an important part to play in communities affected by drug use. They should be expanded to other affected sites in Canada, on the basis of the life-saving effects identified in Vancouver,” he wrote.

Maybe city leaders in Baltimore, San Francisco and New York City will finally take notice, too. For a deeper dive into Vancouver’s acute hard-drug crisis, and Insite’s role in helping contend with it, read this piece.

Lake Mead’s dwindling waters

The future is looking parched for the roughly 30 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Denizens of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, this especially means you:

Water managers warn that Lake Mead, the West’s largest and most important reservoir, remains perilously near the level of 1,075 feet at which the U.S. Secretary of the Interior would likely declare a water shortage, for the first time in the nearly century-old history of the Colorado River system. Such a shortage would parch Nevada, Arizona and California with severe water-use restrictions. There alone, some 20 million people depend on Lake Mead’s supplies.

Despite this year’s rain-soaked winter and a modest rise in the lake, the region still faces a deep deficit from a 12-year drought: “Lake Mead’s water level now stands at 1,096 feet, near its lowest point since the reservoir began filling in the 1930s and 110 feet below when the drought began in 1999, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The lake last rose in 2005.”

Statistics can be elusive. One of the best ways to realize the change is from directly on the lake itself. Last August I took a houseboat trip with some friends on Lake Mead, where I snapped some photos showing the drop in the water line. The lake is enormous — but so is the space no longer filled with water:



In the west we’ve peered into the future, which is now. It is conservation.

(According to the water footprint “calculator” linked above, which uses criteria ranging from shower times to car washing to meat consumption, my household of two rates at approximately 12 percent below the daily average for water consumption across American households. Not bad, though as I suspected there’s still room for improvement. The site suggests specific areas for potential progress based on your questionnaire answers.)

The “Mcfarthest” spot, mass air traffic and a Minnesota-size memory

I’ve always loved maps. They reward the longer gaze. Especially in these digitally frenetic times. Whether depicting authentic truths or questionable claims, or one of many shades in between, they tend to provoke expansive thinking about the world. Or they zoom you in on something unexpected and compelling. Their borders inherently are porous to the imagination. And they can be just plain cool to look at — hand me a copy of Oxford’s Atlas of the World and I’ll be entertained for a healthy chunk of time flipping through those oversized pages. No iPhone necessary.

Of course, digital media allow mapmakers and collectors to take things to a next level. The Strange Maps blog is one great place to browse. A recent post featured the work of blogger Stephen Von Worley, who decided to chart America as fast-food dystopia by depicting McDonald’s ubiquity from coast to coast. The nagging question that was his point of departure: What’s the “McFarthest” one can possibly get from a Big Mac? Unsurprisingly, not very far at all, even in the relatively unpopulated West:

mapping-McDonalds

According to Von Worley’s calculations (per the summary at Strange Maps):

There are over 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S., or about 1 for every 23,000 Americans. But even market penetration this advanced doesn’t mean that McDonald’s is everywhere. Somewhere in South Dakota is the McFarthest Spot, the place in the [continental] U.S. geographically most removed from the nearest McD’s. If you started out from this location, a few miles north of State Highway 20 (which runs latitudinally between Highways 73 in the west and 65 in the east), you’d have to drive 145 miles to get your Big Mac. (If you could fly, however, it’d be only 107 miles).

If you did decide to fly, you’d be contributing to some incredibly congested air traffic, especially if it’s during daylight. See this nifty depiction of 24 hours worth of planes flying the global skies:

Also worth watching is this feat of mapmaking by Senator Al Franken, who from memory composed one of the United States (while taking questions, no less) at the Minnesota State Fair:

Now if he and his comrades could only draw up a health care plan with such facility…

The spirit of Haida Gwaii

In late August I returned to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, a place whose ancient, complex culture and astonishing natural beauty are inextricable. Earlier this week, in the village of Old Massett, the renowned Haida artist Robert Davidson hosted an epic two-day celebration commemorating the totem pole he carved here 40 years ago. The pole was raised in the village on August 22, 1969, replanting a vital Haida tradition that had nearly disappeared by the end of the 19th century. It was a privilege and joy to attend the festivities and to participate in documenting them. Here are a few images I captured (please do not reproduce them without permission), though they only begin to suggest the layers of landscape, art and ceremony that were on display.

The many performers included singers, drummers and dancers from Skidegate:
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Spruce-root woven and painted hats filled the community hall:
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The Tsimshian group Git-hoan, or People of the Salmon, were among the guests invited to perform:
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Eagle Transformation Mask, carved by Robert Davidson and danced publicly for the first time by the Rainbow Creek Dancers:
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Robert Davidson’s 40-foot Bear Mother pole (partial view), raised in Old Massett in August 1969:
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Despite devastation from decades of industrial logging, some majestic old trees still stand on Haida Gwaii. (Thanks to the tireless efforts of local advocates and defenders, the land increasingly has come under protection in recent years.) The temperate rain forests are home to towering cedar, hemlock and spruce:
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Along the banks of the Yakoun River, near where K’iid K’iyaas, the legendary Golden Spruce stood until its untimely demise in 1997. Every year the salmon come back to this essential river artery of Haida Gwaii. At least for now.
LF-Yakoun2

A Supposedly Fun Thing That Seems to Kill Whales

I took notice back when David Foster Wallace chronicled the cultural dark side of going on a cruise. But ultimately it’s the environmental dark side of the industry that makes me know I’ll Never Do It at All.

Over the weekend, an adult fin whale — a threatened species in Canada — turned up dead in the waters at a cruise ship terminal in Vancouver. The rare marine giant was impaled on the bow of the “Sapphire Princess,” a Princess Cruises’ ship arriving from Alaska:

(Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun)

(Jenelle Schneider/Vancouver Sun)

Tragic, gruesome and strange — the size of the ship really begins to sink in when you realize that the dead fin whale pictured above is approximately 70 feet long, a magnificent giant cruelly rendered small. (More photos here in the Vancouver Sun’s report, and more here on Flickr.) Consider, also, that soon the 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess won’t even nearly measure up to the largest, most consumptive recreational beast riding the seas. That’ll be the stupefying Oasis of the Seas.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will conduct a necropsy to determine if the ship struck the fin whale while it was alive or if the whale had already been floating dead at sea and got caught on the bow. The latter seems the less likely scenario. A fisheries spokesperson, Lisa Spaven, appeared to acknowledge as much: “Vessel strikes are a very real threat to fin whales,” she told the Sun.

Moreover, an account I heard today from a source in Vancouver appears to contradict a statement put out by Princess Cruises this weekend regarding whales in the vicinity of the ship.

“It is unknown how or when this could have happened, as we have strict whale avoidance procedures in place when our ships are in the vicinity of marine life,” the statement from the cruise company said. “We are not aware that any whales were sighted as the ship sailed through the Inside Passage to Vancouver yesterday.”

But according to my source, two passengers who arrived on the Sapphire Princess in Vancouver this weekend said that several passengers on the ship had seen whales swimming around and under the ship as it traveled the Inside Passage cruise route just north of Vancouver Island.

Spaven, the DFO spokesperson, told the Vancouver Sun that she believes the whale was struck north of Vancouver Island, since fin whales aren’t normally found in the straits closer to Vancouver.

The Inside Passage is famously rich with marine wildlife and is a crucial habitat and migratory route for whales. As the Sun also reports: “This is the second time in the last 10 years that a cruise vessel has come into the Port of Vancouver with a whale caught on the bow. In that instance, in June of 1999, the Celebrity Cruise vessel MV Galaxy collided with an adult male fin whale, which likely happened as the ship transited the Hecate Strait north of Vancouver Island.”

For some compelling related reading, I strongly recommend Charles Siebert’s article “Watching Whales Watching Us,” published recently in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a deep, enthralling account that dives into some provocative thinking among marine biologists today about our evolving relationship with whales — which may yet hold hope, despite our terrible history of assault on one of the earth’s most sublime creatures.

PART 2:
There is more to Princess Cruises’ history with whales. In the summer of 2001, one of its ships slammed into a pregnant female humpback whale in the waters off Southeast Alaska, killing it. As Mother Jones reported two years ago via a National Park Service report, in January 2007 “Princess Cruise Lines pled guilty in U.S. District Court in Anchorage to a charge of knowingly failing to operate its vessel, the Dawn Princess, at a slow, safe speed in the summer of 2001 while near two humpback whales in the area of Glacier Bay National Park. The bloated carcass of a pregnant whale was found four days after the Princess ship sailed through the park. It had died of massive blunt trauma injuries to the right side of the head, including a fractured skull, eye socket and cervical vertebrae, all consistent with a vessel collision.”

You can read the rest of the report at the MoJo link above, including details of the six-figure penalty paid by Princess in a plea agreement. At the time of the agreement, the U.S. attorney’s office stated, “in this case we feel Princess has stepped up and made significant, voluntary operational changes that protect whales and the marine environment.”

Pending findings on the Sapphire Princess and the fin whale’s death, perhaps that assessment needs updating.

I’m compelled to add that I feel a particularly personal sense of investment in this story. Exactly a decade ago, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel into Glacier Bay, along with three good friends, on a 10-day sea kayaking trip. I’ve explored deep wilderness throughout my life, and Glacier Bay was among the most memorable places I’ve ever been. On a couple of days during the trip, we spotted cruise ships on the horizon. We were thankful to be far away from them. In this photo I took from my sea kayak in July 1999, you can see a large cruise ship in the distance (at the right-center edge of the image) heading north against the backdrop of the Fairweather Range.

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We camped on nearby shoreline that night, where an exquisite sunset perhaps hinted at what was to come on day nine of our trip.

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The next morning we paddled into the placid waters of Beartrack Cove to the east. We were sole representatives of humanity in a place that sees little of it. There were colorful marine birds, salmon returning to spawn in coastal streams… and suddenly that morning, one enormous humpback whale. It surfaced about 30 yards in front of our tiny, tiny boats.

The whale appeared to be feeding, its dark mass breaking the surface several times with its huge mouth open. We stopped paddling and tapped the rails of our boats gently to let it know our location. We watched in awe as it reappeared around us at various spots in the cove for about half an hour before it submerged for other waters.

It was the most glorious kind of nervous I think I’ve ever felt, a truly unforgettable experience.

Medicine Bow: A tale of beauty and devastation

Late last week, as world leaders were again failing to make progress on the rising threat of climate change, I was hiking to the top of Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming. An unusually wet June produced a stunning sweep of wildflowers high upon the 12,000-foot mountain:

MF-Medicine Bow wildflowers

Combating global climate change is a complicated matter, to say the least, but I suspect that most people, attendees of G-8 summits included, would view the imperative in a whole new light if they were to witness the ecological devastation hitting this breathtaking region of the Mountain West. The fallout can be seen in the lush forests ringing Medicine Bow and other majestic snow-capped ranges in the area and in nearby Colorado — in the bleak, sprawling signature of an ongoing bark beetle epidemic. Warmer winters and drought in recent years allowed the insect population to explode, bringing destruction to more than 1.5 million acres.

“By about 2012, beetles will have killed nearly all of the mature lodgepole trees in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming,” reports the USDA Forest Service, “affecting water flows and watersheds, future timber production, wildlife habitat, recreation sites, transmission lines and scenic views. Beetle-killed trees also present a fuels build-up situation that could result in catastrophic wildland fires. These events pose threats to homes and property and could cause adverse economic impacts to communities.”

According to Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist in Laramie, the beetle infestations have been roaring on unabated because of climate change. “These infestations take place naturally on 20- to 40-year cycles,” he said in a news article early last year. “In the past, they’ve run their course until a bitterly cold winter took place. Studies show that you need a two-week cold snap at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off the beetles. Nothing else works.”

For several years now, it hasn’t gotten cold enough.

The forests seen here in the distance from the top of Medicine Bow…

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… could soon resemble these seen in this recent aerial photo, taken in northern Colorado, from the USDA Forest Service:

USDA-beetlekill

Some other forested areas I saw last week in the vicinity of Medicine Bow (especially at lower elevations that stay warmer) are already riddled with dead and dying trees. The friends I was with, who’ve been coming to the area for the last decade, described the accumulating damage in dramatic terms — some pristine expanses that existed just a couple of years ago won’t be seen again in our lifetime.

It’s hard to know how bad it might get (it’s already bad), or whether anything can actually be done to slow or stop this particular disaster. But it’s one stark example of what climate change can bring, and why we have to pay attention. Over the weekend Timothy Egan argued that Michelle Obama should throw her political weight behind America’s increasingly marginalized national parks. Egan’s perspective was more cultural than environmental, but from what I saw in Wyoming, there’s no lack of pressing reason on the latter front, either.

Or perhaps, as Emerson suggested in his famous essay on nature, what’s ultimately at stake is an essential interdependence:

“The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. The stems of pines, hemlocks and oaks almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles.”

Postcard from Wyoming

Did Joe Biden just give Israel the green light to attack Iran? Is Sarah Palin completely cuckoo? Have we reached the saturation point on Michael Jackson yet?

Apologies, dear readers, but I don’t have a lot to say about current affairs at the moment. (Anyway, Palin’s baffling resignation speech more than speaks for itself.) What I do have are a few photos I took during recent travels with friends in the great state of Wyoming. Enjoy…

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July 4th festivities in the town of Saratoga:
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At the bar inside the Hotel Wolf:
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Twilight commemoration involving ignition:
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Thunderstorm approaching over Laramie:
TstormLaramie

At the base of Medicine Bow peak:
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The long goodnight

For a number of reasons Vancouver at this time of year is a great place to be doing some research and writing. Among them is that the sun doesn’t wink out entirely until about 10pm. This was Monday evening, overlooking English Bay.

EnglishBay

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