Experiences

Life by Ice: An Alaskan Poet’s Account

Posted by on Feb 18, 2016 in All Posts, Art/Culture, Experiences, Featured Posts, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Life by Ice: An Alaskan Poet’s Account

Spread the News:ShareI couldn’t have known, ten years ago, how that first little taste of Wrangell Mountains backcountry would lead to an obsession with glaciers. I’d had some first dates with Alaska’s Kennicott Valley in prior years, including memorable forays on the accessible Root Glacier. It set the hook hard, with its crisp trim lines, succession zones, blue crevasses, yawning moulins, cyroconite holes, verdant mossballs, glacier tables, blue pools, surface streams, and its svelte medial moraine pointing toward the Stairway Icefall, the second tallest in the world. The odd wheezes of compressed air escaping ice-trapped bubbles, the crunch of crampons, and the many notes of flowing water soundtracked that first glacier hike. I crossed the ice and descended into the empty bowl of a small, glacially-dammed lake. A glacier cave swallowed water flowing from Donoho Falls, and I couldn’t resist following it into the darkness beneath the ice. The Root flows into the larger Kennicott Glacier, and likewise, those Root hikes led to a multiday Kennicott traverse in 2006. The Kennicott and Root are just two of over 3,000 glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. I felt an incontrovertible shift during that trip in the park, the first of many. Even an hour spent riding shotgun in a bush plane a couple of years earlier had only revealed a modest portion of the park, which is considerably larger than Switzerland. I saw mile-high cliffs perched by Dall sheep and silver braids of glacial streams. Volcanic steam vented into thin, cold air above Mount Wrangell, and mountains upon mountains stretched as far as we could see. Last winter, almost a decade after that first trip, my book of poetry, Overwinter, was published. “Traverse” (available here) is the oldest poem in the book. It recalls that first multiday trip and draws on some of the sensory details that stood out. The plan was simple: fly to the Fosse and walk back. No permits, no fee, no lines, and no handrails. My hiking companion, Margot, and I stood in the belly of a fosse, like a natural ditch between a mountain and a tall moraine. This one was large enough for a small plane to land inside, and is known locally as the Fosse. The Cessna that left us roared off into a dry, warm July to diminuendo into the glaciated offing’s quiet. It was a short, classic first Wrangells multiday for us both. The flight out gave us a raven’s-eye view of our route below Mount Blackburn, one of the tallest mountains on the continent and the rarely-climbed source of the Kennicott’s ice. From vantages on the ground, we could see Kennecott, an iconic old copper mill town that had been the hub of a phenomenal copper bonanza. The distant outcrop of large buildings was dwarfed below high ridges, situated just above the rocky surface of the stagnating lower Kennicott. Kennecott (the spellings differentiate natural features from manmade ones) would mark “The End” of our jaunt. From the Fosse, we ascended the ridge separating the valley from the perpendicular Hidden Creek Valley. We hunched through mountain goat tunnels trailing through alders, stuffing pockets with goat fur snagged in branches. We peered into the narrow valley where the river—or “creek”, in proper Alaskan understatement—feeds a glacially-dammed lake full of bergs peeled off the thick Kennicott ice edge. House-sized blocks had floated across the lake; soon the ice dam would break and a jökulhlaup would drain the water, stranding the ice in the mud. We hiked out and found a route onto the glacier. Far out and eastbound, we crested a...

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Nuns in Nepal Rebuild Sustainably

Posted by on Feb 11, 2016 in Adaptation, All Posts, Communities, Experiences, Featured Posts | 0 comments

Nuns in Nepal Rebuild Sustainably

Spread the News:ShareFor more than eight months I have been working on a project to help restore a remote mountaintop Tibetan nunnery in Nepal, which was devastated by the earthquake last year. These activities draw directly on the religious traditions of the nuns and on indigenous building practices of the region. Four days after the earthquake on April 25, 2015, I took a private rescue flight to Bakhang, Sindhupalchowk district in Nepal. I found a ghostly landscape of flattened and damaged buildings.  The earthquake killed one nun and left all the others, about 200 in all, homeless. Thirty of them were seriously injured.  All the nunnery houses—which had been hand-built by the nuns—were destroyed. Sixty-four residents of nearby villages were also killed. In this rugged landscape, with glaciated mountains reaching over 5000 meters in elevation, active landslides created additional damage. The conditions were extremely difficult. Two hundred of us slept under one large blue tarp. Many nuns kept crying, mourning the dead and expressing great distress. Moving out from the shells of their homes created a spiritual crisis for the nuns, because they felt they violated their faith; according to Buddhist beliefs, it is not permitted to leave in the middle of spiritual practice, even in the face of a disaster like a fire or a flood. I was soon joined by my colleague from the Mountain Resiliency Project, a social enterprise dedicated to strengthening remote mountain communities in Nepal, and by others from the Hunnarshala Foundation and the Tibet Fund. We stayed for three weeks, providing psychosocial counseling to the nuns and assisting them with the first steps of the recovery. During that time, we did not receive any assistance from any government or international aid group. The members of our Tibetan and Sherpa communities in Kathmandu were the first to mobilize support. To date, more than half of the funds we have gathered are individual donations from within our community. American Jewish World Services, a non-sectarian humanitarian and emergency relief non-profit organization, has granted also $287,000 to our rehabilitation effort. Tibetans face difficulties in seeking help from the Nepali government, since they are largely refugees who lack legal documents. As refugees, they were also cut off from their families. The majority of the nuns come from my mother’s home district in southern Tibet, Dingri, the northern base of Mt. Everest. Many of them are my relatives. The nunnery itself is less than a day’s walk from the border between Nepal and Tibet, five to seven days’ walk to Dingri. The nunnery is located high on a mountain, a day’s walk from the nearest road. Where cars cannot travel, mountain people journey on foot. The nunnery has sheltered many Tibetan refugees who fled Chinese occupation to exile in India. The nuns were sent by their parents to Nepal at early ages— typically in their teens— because of the lack of prospects for them in Tibet. Their average age is now around 38.  Isolated from their relatives for decades, they lack familial support systems. Nonetheless, their childhood memories of home and strong cultural ties are central to their lives. In recognition of this identity and affiliation, our team emphasized the importance of reconstruction with a strong inclusion of traditional Tibetan building techniques while also incorporating techniques to make the buildings resilient in the face of earthquakes. This team included the Mountain Resiliency Project, along with the Hunnarshala Foundation and the Tibet Fund, and a local service society that supports the nunnery. “Many people in Nepal are lulled into this false sense of security with reinforced cement buildings and put...

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Identifying the Peregrine Falcons on Alaska’s Coast

Posted by on Jan 12, 2016 in All Posts, Experiences, Featured Posts, Science | 0 comments

Identifying the Peregrine Falcons on Alaska’s Coast

Spread the News:ShareA new study sheds light on the Peregrine Falcons which populated an area in Alaska after retreating glaciers opened it to colonization. Though earlier researchers believed that this new habitat was filled by the subspecies from nearby coastal areas, the researchers found an inland subspecies in this area. Icy Bay, the study site, was entirely glaciated as recently as 1887. Since then, glacier fronts in the area have retreated, though a glacier still meets the water in one part of the bay. During this period, rocky outcrops and cliffs overlooking open ocean were exposed, creating suitable nesting habitat for Peregrines. There are three subspecies of Peregrine Falcons that live in the United States, the American, the Arctic, and Peale’s. All of these are found in Alaska. They are just a fraction of the 19 subspecies that are found worldwide. Previous work had assumed that the distribution in Alaska corresponded tightly to habitat types, with the Arctic subspecies found in the far north of the state, a second subspecies inland, and a coastal subspecies near the Gulf of Alaska to the south. As the authors write, some reports described the classification of the Peregrine Falcons of the Lost Coast, the area between the western and eastern panhandles of Alaska, as unclear. The new study provided a definite answer for the particular research site, Icy Bay. Authors Stephen Lewis and Michelle Kissling work in the area did not begin not with Peregrines. They first focused on the Kittlitz’s Murrelet as the Fish and Wildlife Service considered whether it should be categorized as an endangered species. This status could allow for action to be taken to protect the bird’s habitat. Though the murrelet was later deemed ineligible, the project allowed additional scientific work on other bird species as well. Taking advantage of this possibility, the researchers gathered data on Peregrines and Bald Eagles. To clarify the subspecies to which Icy Bay Peregrines belonged, the authors needed to capture them in order to take close measurements, and to attach tracers that would allow them to track migratory behavior. This work required them to face challenging conditions. In an email, Lewis wrote that Icy Bay, has “dynamic,” or changing, ice conditions.  He stated, “depending on the weather conditions, winds, and tide, the ice in the bay could be contracted deep into the fjords or spread throughout the entire bay. That could change on a daily basis or even within a day.” The authors navigated icy waters in 14-foot inflatable skiffs to reach Peregrine nests on shore. Once ashore, protocols on animal capture and release were followed to ensure the birds’ safety. The researchers weighed and measured the captured birds, which included 6 adults and hatchlings, as well as noting their coloration of the captured birds. GPS tracking devices were also attached. In determining the subspecies of the birds, researchers looked to size. They knew that the coastal subspecies, which travels long distances over open ocean in search of the seabirds on which it feeds, was larger than the other two, which capture smaller prey and travel shorter distances. But they found that size characteristics varied too much within the subspecies to serve as a clear delineator. It was coloration–specific details of stripes on the throat—which provided the first strong clue that the captured birds were of the American, or anatum, subspecies, rather than the expected Peale’s subspecies. Strong confirmatory evidence of this classification was found through the tracking devices. The devices provided data on the long-distance migration of the birds. Radio tags identified the birds as having wintered in southern Mexico and as far south as...

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A Visit to a Glacier Goddess

Posted by on Nov 20, 2015 in All Posts, Art/Culture, Communities, Experiences, Featured Posts | 0 comments

A Visit to a Glacier Goddess

Spread the News:ShareDuring my recent visit to Bhutan, a shopkeeper in a mountain village mentioned to me that there was a temple located high up in a valley on Mount Jomolhari.  It contained an image of the local deity, he added, the goddess of the mountain.  These facts, mentioned quite casually, stirred my curiosity and made me eager to visit it.  What would the image of the deity look like, and what could I learn from it about what the local people, most of them yak-herders, thought about the mountain and its shrinking glaciers? The shopkeeper was uncertain of the distance to the temple and of its elevation, but he did recall that there were several large streams to cross. Several members of my party wanted to remain at lower elevations to advance their research on trees, but the horseman, Rinzin Dorji, was interested in coming—a fortunate addition, since he was familiar with the region. Kinga Thinley, one of the foresters working with us, wanted to join us as well. His English was better than Rinzin’s, so he could serve as an interpreter. The shopkeeper encouraged us to go, but warned us that we might not be able to enter the temple. It was usually locked, except for festivals, or when an itinerant monk might happen to stop by. Jomolhari Temple did have a caretaker who keeps a key; however, since the caretaker was a yak-herder who often traveled to high pastures or to market towns, we might not be able to find him. We set off up the main valley early the next morning. After an hour or so, we came to a chorten, surrounded by prayer-flags, which marked a spot that had been visited by Guru Rinpoche, the Tibetan master who introduced Buddhism into Bhutan in the 8th century. Rinzin stopped to light a butter-lamp in a niche in the chorten, and then we began our ascent of the valley’s flank. A series of switchbacks led us up through pastures and forests to a flat meadow with several large boulders. Rinzin showed us a number of cracks and bumps in the boulders which were traces of events long in the past. Guru Rinpoche’s carrying basket and his horse’s saddle were visible. He also pointed out a flat space on one boulder, and a set of closely-spaced parallel lines. Thanks to Kinga’s help as an interpreter, I could understand the story that Rinzin was telling. The flat space was the impression that had been made by a sacred book, which had flown to this area from Dagala far to the southeast. The parallel lines were marks made by flutes that had rested there; these were the flutes that had been played by the monks as they walked from the temple—the same one that we were going to visit—to receive this book and carry it back to the temple. Rinzin indicated a low spot in the hills ahead of us, and said that there was another one just beyond it. They had contained lakes which had flown to Dagala. These lakes were the gifts of Jomolhari to another spirit, also named Jomo, and the book was a kind of return gift. There is a third Jomo in eastern Bhutan, near Sakteng in the province of Trashigang; Rinzin did not know much about her, though the caretaker would be able to tell us more. He did know that the three Jomos were sisters, and that Jomolhari was the oldest. We continued along the trail, ascended a small rise, and entered a high valley that led directly to Jomolhari. The mountain’s immense mass...

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An Abundance of Yaks

Posted by on Nov 12, 2015 in All Posts, Communities, Experiences, Featured Posts | 2 comments

An Abundance of Yaks

Spread the News:ShareA trip with two colleagues to the Jomolhari area of northwestern Bhutan in October gave me hope that yak-herding remains an active part of the regional economy. We hiked for two weeks through villages and high pastures and up near the mountain’s glaciers, both along major trails and in less-traveled sections. I met some herders at a two-day festival early in my visit, and then was able to visit them in their villages later during the trip, while my colleagues studied the forests at the treeline. This abundance of yaks around Jomolhari seems to be an exception to a general pattern throughout much of highland Asia. Yak-herding is reported to be declining there, as shown by studies in recent decades from China, India, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, as well as in parts of Bhutan to the southwest and the east of Jomolhari. In those cases, young people find the caring of the animals at high elevation to be overly rigorous; they prefer to seek employment in towns, a shift which has been supported by the growth of market economies, education and road networks. If this decline continues, it may become irreversible, as younger generations lose the knowledge and skills of herding. The Jomolhari area might be different, due to some combination of local pride in yak-herding, complementary economic activities that support yak-herding families, and the efforts of the Bhutanese government to support yak-herders with traveling veterinarians and with programs that offer compensation for losses from predator attacks. I traveled there at a good time of year to observe the animals, since they had recently moved down from their high summer pastures above 5000 meters, when they were dispersed in small groups, cared for by the herders who lived in tents and other temporary shelters. By October, the herds had returned to the winter areas, between 3500 and 4500 meters, where the pastures would be supplemented with hay and other fodder, cultivated over the summer; the herders had returned to the small stone houses, sturdier than the summer residences. The location of these houses on paths made it easier to see both yaks and herders. Though I did not conduct a census of humans and animals, I was able to see that the houses were all inhabited, and a number were new, unlike other yak-herding areas, which have experienced significant outmigration. Conversations with local mayors and school officials indicated that the ratio of children to adults in the local villages also indicates that populations are stable. The behavior of the animals in this season made them easier to find. October is towards the end of the mating season. The females go into estrus at that time and bear the calves eight or nine months later. This timing—the production of natural selection among wild yaks and human breeding practices assures that the nursing females will have access to the abundant summer pastures, while the newborn calves will have little risk of exposure to frost. The rut leads bulls to be more aggressive and more visible. Threatening each other with lowered heads or fighting with their horns, they become easier to notice than animals that graze quietly, as they do other times of year. They also leave visual signs of their presence at this time by wallowing in dry soil. Once I became aware of the yaks, I could notice them at greater distance, and detect other evidence. Their dung has a different shape than cattle’s. Their tracks are quite distinctive, since their hooves are small for such large, heavy creatures. And I learned that the homes of herders could be recognized...

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A Walk Up Jomolhari

Posted by on Nov 5, 2015 in All Posts, Communities, Experiences, Featured Posts | 0 comments

A Walk Up Jomolhari

Spread the News:ShareA trip to Bhutan last month provided me with an opportunity to visit one of the glaciers in the country along the crest of the Himalayas. I had hoped for such a trip since I first visited Bhutan in 2011, since I was curious to learn what local people thought about glacier retreat, but I had not previously had the chance to travel above the middle-elevation regions. In October, though, my colleagues Ed Cook, Paul Krusic and I had received permits to enter the high country. We arranged for horses to carry our gear, and hiked in for two days to Jigme Dorji National Park. We set up our tent in the village of Soe, where we attended a mountain festival and met with local officials and residents. Ed and Paul spent several days to take samples in the old-growth forests close to the tree line; they drilled cores in the trees, which they would later analyze to reconstruct the climate history of the region. I realized that this was an opportunity for me to take a day on my own and hike up to the glaciers. I kept an eye on the weather, since clouds had been building up every afternoon, sometimes bringing rain, and I did not want to be trapped in a storm high on a mountain. The national park officials warned me to be careful if I left the main trails; they had had difficulties in rescuing foreign tourists who had gotten lost, or who had slipped. They reminded me that Bhutan, unlike Nepal, did not have helicopters that could fly in to remote areas if an accident occurred. On the morning of Friday 9 October, the skies were a clear blue, offering the promise of good conditions for at least several hours. Moreover, I had an excellent guide. Renzin Dorji, the man whose horses we had chartered for two weeks and who had led us up the trail, had grown up in Soe. He had herded yaks as a boy and knew the countryside well.  At the age of 37, he was old enough to recall the mountain when the glaciers had been larger. We set off from Soe and came to the valley that led up to Jomolhari. Its summit, 7326 meters in elevation, rose high up into the sky. We set off on the north side of the creek that flowed through the valley, ascending slowly on a trail that led through meadows. Seeing the dense groves of junipers and birches, I thought of Ed and Paul. Renzin and I slowly ascended to the first moraine—a line of boulders across the valley, which had been pushed downslope by the glaciers in earlier, colder periods when the ice masses on the mountain had advanced to lower elevations. When we came over the lip of the moraine, we saw Haluphu, a broad flat area across which the creek meandered in broad curves. Sixty or seventy yaks were grazing on the pastures or standing the creek. Renzin explained that the herders had recently brought their animals down from the high summer pastures to these lower elevations (between 4000 and 4500 meters) where they would spend the winter. In a month or so, temperatures would fall below freezing, and the snows would arrive. But in early October, the temperatures, which seemed about 15 or 18° C, were so warm for the yaks, with their thick dark wool, that they would enter the creek to cool off. The massive peak of Jomolhari loomed in front of us beyond the grass-covered slopes. I looked up at the mountain and asked...

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