Thursday, March 29, 2018

Journey to the Northern Lights: Lessons Learned

I've been back in Tucson for three days. Here's what I'm remembering from my journey to Churchill, Manitoba, to see the Northern Lights.
  • Dogsledding is FUN. Not just for the people in the sled, but also for the dogs. Our outfitter had 26 dogs and every one of them was excited when they saw the sleds getting set up. 

  • If you have the proper clothing, you can handle the weather.

  • The camera's eye sees the Northern Lights as green. The human eye, just barely.
Photo by Ron Waldron, taken 3/22/2018

Painting at the Itsanitaq Museum, Churchill, Manitoba

  • You remember studying the Hudson Bay Company and the fur trade when you were in school 50 years ago. You didn't realize you'd be standing on the shore of the Hudson Bay in winter.

  • If some people meet a competitive hula hooper in the airport, it's hard to resist giving it a try themselves.

    • If your traveling companion comes down with pneumonia, it may be up to you to get you both home a day early. It may be hard if you have to call United Airlines in the middle of the night from Winnipeg, but you don't have a Canadian phone, and the international phone call button on your nightstand at the Hilton Airport Suites doesn't work. If you're lucky you may be able to talk United out of the $155 per person change fee. But you won't be able to talk United out of a $330 per person additional charge for the only two remaining seats on the earlier flight. Nor will you be able to collect on your trip interruption travel insurance, because when you bought it you said you were coming home a day earlier than you actually planned. So you decide to be grateful to have the money for the extra airfare.
    • You didn't realize how much you'd learn during the Road Scholar trip about astronomy, and the Northern Lights, and climate change, and the life of the polar bear.
    What a great trip!

      Friday, March 23, 2018

      Beneath the Northern Lights: Lady Aurora!

      I'm here in Churchill, Manitoba because seeing a sky full of Northern Lights has been on my bucket list for decades. Because I'm with a Road Scholar group, I'm also learning about polar bears, astronomy, ecology and biology of the far north, the mosaic that is Canada (rather than the melting pot that is the US). And I am reconfirming that Canadians are a class act.

      Three days ago we viewed our first Lights. They were mostly pale in the sky, greyish white. I had expected green and red. Our guide, Ron, told me that the human eye can't see the colors because at night we see using the rods in our eyes, and they see only black and white. The cones, which see the color, are for daytime use. "Well, how come the photos of the Lights always show vivid colors?" I asked. Ron said, "Because the camera's eye can see the colors."

      I wondered why I had never known that. Why people who raved about the Northern Lights had never mentioned it. For a while - that night and the next morning - I was disappointed and a little ticked off.

      I distracted myself a bit with other activities and the weather. So cold here! Yesterday the high was -3F. We were pulled by a snow machine to a nearby spot in the boreal forest as we learned about snow shelters and had a chance to try them out.

      Several of my fellow travelers tried snowshoeing. They all fell. I've had a previous experience where I did the same thing, so I chose to walk the half mile back to the Churchill Northern Studies Center, where we are staying. The sun was bright and the air was very cold and it was delightful.

      Then, last night, the Aurora was out again. I watched for a while from our dorm room, then went down the hall to the dome observation room. I climbed the metal spiral staircase in the dark to the top, where I could see the whole night sky.

      Those Lights were like a sentient being. They moved across the sky, in ripples and curtains, pulsing to our right and left, in front of the moon and around the Big Dipper. The palest of green with an occasional palest of rose at the fringes. I was transfixed. The last time I remember feeling this way was four years ago, in a land rover, amidst a family of elephants in the Masai Mara in Kenya. Spiritual, you know.

      These pictures were taken last night by our guide, Ron Waldron. His eyes saw the same as mine. His camera saw differently.

      It's nearly 11 p.m. I'm waiting for Ron's voice coming down the hall saying "show time" and knocking on doors. If it happens, I'll put on a robe over my pajamas and head for the dome to watch Lady Aurora one more time.

      Wednesday, March 21, 2018

      Journey to the Northern Lights: Settled in at Churchill

      We arrived by plane yesterday around lunchtime at the Churchill Northern Studies Center, quite close to the Hudson Bay.

      We have warm and convenient four-person dormitories, great food, and interesting experts. I had expected somewhat spartan accommodations, but I was wrong. It is all good. 

      This is the view from our dormitory window. 

      Last night we experienced the aurora. It was a pretty low level, but since we are directly beneath the aurora dome, we could see it. To my eye it was a white-gray shape shifter - the rods in our eyes see only black and white at night in low light - but the cameras caught it. This photo was taken by our instructor, Ron Waldron, and I have permission to use it.

      Tomorrow night is supposed to be the best time to see a glorious auroral display. Tonight, though, not so much. Right now it is snowing sideways outside and 10 degrees F. Tomorrow the high will be -2F.

      I spent a lot of time gathering my wardrobe for this trip. Tomorrow night I will wear long underwear top and bottom. On top, a long-sleeved shirt, fleece vest, warm jacket, neck warmer, hat and gloves. On the bottom, snow pants, thermal socks and boots. I will stay outside as long as possible, then come inside to watch from the viewing dome down the hall.

      What a great experience!

      Monday, March 19, 2018

      On my way to the Northern Lights - part 2: Winnipeg

      The Fort Garry Hotel is down the street from the Winnipeg train station. It's a grand old building. Our room is 220 square feet - about half the size of our park model in Tucson, but seems very spacious.

      There is snow on the ground here, temperature around 32 degrees. Not too bad. It has been a long time since I have worn a coat. Here is a view from our hotel room.

      We were driven here late Saturday evening by a Sikh driver. I said, "Do you own this taxi or do you work for a taxi company?" He told me his story. He's lived in Winnipeg for 20 years, raising his family. He paid $200,000 for a half share in his taxi, and now, he says, it's worth nothing. Lyft and Uber are coming into Winnipeg, he says, but even before that business from the airport is not as good as it used to be, because people used to have only one car and now they have more than one, and when people arrive at the Winnipeg airport they are picked up by family or friends. He has to pick up odd jobs to survive. But if he went back to Delhi, India, there would be no work for him, and besides, his kids are Canadians and don't want to go. So he is focusing on raising his kids.

      It's amazing what you hear when you ask an open-ended question.

      Yesterday we went to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a short walk from the hotel.  I am not much of a museum person, but this one held my interest for two hours. I have a fabulous 12-second video of the Welcoming Hall, but apparently it's too big to be uploaded here. I'm messing around with UTube for the first time ever. Stay tuned!

      Our Road Scholar group met up for dinner. Two couples and the other 19 all women. Many, like me, came here without their husbands. My Art said, "Why should I spend all that money to freeze?" Apparently the Northern Lights are mostly on women's bucket lists.

      The Manitoba Museum this morning. This time we took a guided tour rather than exploring independently. It was a good idea. Canada's history has some distinct differences. Apparently its people collaborated with the First Nations in mutual business interests before Canada became a Dominion, and the nation now appears to be more welcoming of immigrants. Maybe that was the tour guide's optimistic opinion.

      Our luggage has to be in the hotel hallway tomorrow morning at 5 a.m. Our flight leaves for Churchill at 7:00 a.m. I've decided to wear my insulated pants, thermal socks and boots, shirt and fleece vest and warm jacket and hat and gloves, but not the long underwear. Not yet. Tomorrow's high in Churchill is supposed to be 16F, and 1F the day after. That will probably be the long underwear day.

      Saturday, March 17, 2018

      On my way to the Northern Lights - part 1, maybe

      My friend Ellen and I are joining a Road Scholar (used to be Elderhostel) group for eight days. Three of those will be in Winnipeg and the other five at the Arctic Research Center in Churchill, Manitoba. Today is our travel day: Tucson to Minneapolis to Winnipeg.

      Our day has been uneventful but interesting. In the Tucson terminal I was offered a seat by a pleasant looking middle aged man. It still surprises me that men and young people offer me their seat sometimes. After all, I'm a senior, but I have blue streaks in my hair to remind people I'm still alive!

      A few minutes later, the pleasant man's wife, in a wheelchair, had to go to the bathroom. I spoke up. "Do you need some help? Would you like me to go with you?" She said yes and off we went. As recently as two years ago I wouldn't have made such an offer, but my time in Greece significantly broadened my comfort zone.

      When we got back, Ellen had struck up a conversation with the woman sitting on her other side. The woman was traveling home to Minnesota to meet her newest granddaughter, Londyn. She mentioned she lives in Mankato. I know a couple from that town, and said so. Turns out the woman knows my friends! Seems like a small world, but probably it isn't. I just happen to winter in a place with a lot of snowbirds from Minnesota.

      Our flight from Tucson to Minneapolis was full, but the seats were comfortable and leg room was ample. I pulled out my laptop and found a free offering of "The Shape of Water'. The movie is two hours and one minute long, and the flight was slightly longer than that, so I thought I'd have enough time to watch it. But I paused the movie a few times: to listen to the pilot, to go to the bathroom, and to order my snack. As a result, to my dismay, I had to close down my laptop ten minutes before the end of the movie. As I gathered my stuff from the overhead bin, I commented to Ellen that I would need to watch the ending some other time. The man behind me in the aisle said, "Oh, that's an excellent movie. The best part is the last ten minutes." I said, "Well, that's disappointing." He said, "Do you want me to tell you what happens? I'll whisper so no one who hasn't yet seen the movie will hear." I said yes and he did. Now, for sure, I will watch the rest of the movie!

      Our three-hour layover in Minneapolis went quickly. We found an actual restaurant - not a fast-food place. Now we're at the gate, waiting for our 90-minute flight to Winnipeg. We're scheduled to arrive at 11:20, where the temperature will be a springlike 35 degrees. We're coming in a day early, so we'll take a taxi to the Fort Garry Hotel, where the group will be staying for the first two mights.

      Sunday, March 11, 2018

      The play's the thing

      In high school, in the early 60s, I was in two musicals (Liesl in The Sound of Music and some lesser part in Camelot) and the senior play (Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians). During my college years, in the late 60s, I was in two summer community theatre musicals (HMS Pinafore and The Mikado).

      I minored in drama because I love the theatre.

      As a newlywed in a tiny desert town (Rosamond, CA), I directed the district's first high school play (Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap).

      That was nearly 50 years ago.

      At the Voyager RV resort, where Art and I live in the winter, there is usually a musical or a play. Rehearsals start in early November and the production is in early March. Art has been cast for the last four years. I helped for two; I headed up ticket sales two years ago and was associate producer and stage manager last year. I had no interest in acting. For one thing, it is Art's delight and I wanted him to have an activity I wasn't involved in. For another, it's time consuming to do two rehearsals a week for four months.

      This year my friend Dee, the director, said, "Linda, would you consider taking a part?" I said, "Only if you can't find anyone else." I suspect she didn't try to find anyone else. And I didn't ever say no.

      So I was in rehearsals every Monday and Thursday afternoon from November 4 to March 5. I played Sylvia Axley, the bitchy former program chairman of a woman's club, in an hourlong one-act play called "Guess Who's Coming to Lunch." I'm not bitchy myself, I don't think, but I've known my share, so I had some behaviors to observe and draw on.

      I learned, to my chagrin, that lines are much harder to memorize at 69 than they are at 19. Much, much harder.

      Our performances were Thursday and Friday evenings this week. We had audiences of just under 300 people each night. I would call it a "friends and family" performance.

      I was a pretty good bitch, I've been told!

      Tomorrow there's a production meeting for next season's play. I will go to hear about it and probably to find out what Art will be up to next year. But after this year I am calling myself a retired actress.

      Sunday, March 4, 2018

      Higher education in the nail salon

      There are nail salons closer to our winter place. This one is nine miles away and I almost didn't go. But my friend Lynne had a dentist appointment right after her pedicure, so we drove in separate cars. Lynne and I like to chat while we're getting our pedicures.

      My pedicurist was a Vietnamese man, Thomas. As he washed my feet I said "cảm ơn" - thank you, the only Vietnamese word I know. I say this every time I get a pedicure in a Vietnamese nail salon. This time, though, Thomas grinned from ear to ear. I was grateful I've been to Vietnam and learned the word, and remembered it.

      Lynne's pedicurist is an American woman, Janie. A recent Tucsonian arrival, in her 20s, born and raised in the South, she's getting a fresh start with her life. Her eyes are bright and calm. We are both Friends of Bill W, so we chatted briefly about that. I was grateful that I've learned to be curious and friendly to people I might not have spoken to before. My eyes are wider these days.

      Then a new client arrived. A man. Long white beard. Long white hair. Carrying two guns in leather holsters. I watched, startled, as he crossed the room. In my entire life I have never seen a person carrying a gun other than a police officer. I have only heard of it.

      Janie had finished Lynne's pedicure, and the carrying fellow was her next client. They greeted each other. Janie started filling the water in the foot basin and the man took off his boots, then his socks, before seating himself in the station next to me.

      I almost didn't say anything to him. Then I said, "Janie, what is your client's name?"


      I looked at him and said, "Hi, Rusty. My name is Linda. Would you mind if I take your picture? In my whole 69 years, I have never seen anyone carrying. And I would never have thought I'd see it in a nail salon!"

      I continued, "I've been told I should never take a picture of a person without asking permission. I don't want to offend you."

      Rusty laughed. "Sure," he said.

      "How often do you get a pedicure?"
      "Every couple of months."

      Just like me. Every couple of months.

      I said, "Will you sit so that I can see that you are carrying and include that in my shot?"

      He did.

      I said, "Thanks. I wanted to take the picture to remind me about stereotyping, and that we are more alike than we are different."

      "But," I continued, "If you'd been carrying an AK-15 I wouldn't have asked if I could take your picture."

      We both laughed. So did Janie.

      As I got up to pay, Rusty said, "God bless you."

      "You too," I said.

      Good thing I drove those extra miles for my pedicure. I would have missed the higher education.