Independence Day

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Another note from dah island, mon…

It all started when the green light clicked on. For two days Pieter and Benjamin from Solar Solutions had been busy installing 10 solar panels on our roof. Next came the Sunny Boy inverter that converts 12-volt electricity produced by the sun activating the panels’ photo voltaics.  Then the final step, install a cable to feed our electric system and a breaker. Pieter activated the inverter for the first time.  “You see that shining green light on the Sunny Boy?  You are now making electricity.  Congratulations!  Yes, this was Independence Day.DSC00737

Electricity prices in the Caribbean are among the highest in the world and Bonaire is no exception.  I’ve been told that 60% of our power comes from the wind generators on the  east coast.  The remainder is from diesel-fueled generators.  But the monopoly, WEB (Water-Electric-Bonaire) charges a hook-up fee, not one time but monthly.  On top of that, they bill a whopping 28.7-cents per kilowatt hours.  Those heavy charges all add it all up making me feel like I better sit in the dark at night.  Or better yet, get pro-active and install a solar system.DSC00770

DSC00768Ours is a day-only system, which means that no battery storage is needed.  We generate electricity when the sun hits the solar panels (actually, I’ve seen light from the full moon activate it). That power goes directly into our home’s electric grid. Whatever we don’t use is sent back to WEB for a paltry 5-cent charge instead of the 28.7-cents they charge us.  So our mantra is run everything during the daylight hours that we can-swimming pool pump, washing machine, dish washer, whatever.

The first few sunny days we would go out to our street-side electric meter and take a look.  The dial was always stationary-no power was being used.  How much we sold back to WEB will be discovered at a later date. Even on cloudy days, and we’ve had a few lately due to passing tropical depressions, the solar is producing 75% of our daytime electric use.  What is really boss is that the Sunny Boy inverter feeds the info to a web site and shows us all the details-kilowatt production, how much per hour, etc.  But the coolest data shows how many pounds of carbon emissions were not put into the environment because of our solar system. That makes me feel really good. DSC00763

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Solar hot water heater hiding behind the banana trees.

This has been a long time coming.  When we bought our house on the hill it already had a solar hot water heater.  It’s a big box that runs water through black pipes.  The builder had installed an electric backup boiler, but we have never used it.  We have warm water even after two days of clouds, and that is unusual Bonaire weather. But the solar hot water planted the seed and showed us the potential of having a photo voltaic system to produce electricity.  We were ready to do that two years ago, but life unexpectedly got in the way.  Plans were shelved until this month.  Now every September 19thwe will have a celebration because for us, it’s Independence Day.DSC00749

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The Last Laugh

dsc_0021Another Island Note…

I have just returned from the Arctic, back to my tropical island.  It’s a sizzling September this year as hurricanes and tropical storms blow by to the north. In the process, these tempests take away most of our cooling trade winds.  When you are living at 12° latitude, that calls for a hot day.  But there is no use in complaining.  You can’t reason with hurricane season.

dsc_0015Besides the heat, I have noticed some changes among the feathery residents of the island.  Swallows have appeared, cutting sharp aerial patterns in the red sunset sky.  A few laughing gulls still remain.  Gone are the days when hundreds squawked and laughed seaside on their way through the breeding season.  The birds that stayed behind are now uncommonly still and it will be months before they will have sex again.  I believe this may be the last laugh for the gulls.  At least until next spring.DSC00708

As night descends, I take to the streets of my neighborhood for a cooling walk.  Venus, Jupiter and Mars brighten up the south western sky.  The moon is nearly full and bathes the way in a soft, mellow light. I hear “click” ahead.  Yes, it is another hermit crab deciding to hunker down on the asphalt.  As I approach, the terrestrial crustacean retreats within its shell, a refined defensive technique far superior to that of the ostrich burying its head in the sand.

But it is the nightjars that I find most fascinating. I’ll encounter at least a dozen during an evening half-hour stroll.  These nocturnal birds have ghostly, erratic flights that lift them only a few feet above the ground, often just inches over my head.  Engoulevent coré Hydropsalis cayennensis White-tailed NightjarWhite striped wings reveal their flight path, but only for a moment. With a quick turn, the birds disappear into the inky dark.  Then suddenly they mysteriously reappear moments later, usually behind me with a resounding ‘plop’.  No wonder the locals regard the elusive nightjars with superstition.  For me, I find them fascinating friends of the night.

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Nightjar in the middle of the street.

In my neighborhood, nightjars often station themselves on the street, directly facing a lamp pole.  They look like guardians of the light.  I try to approach slowly and often stop for as long as a minute to see which of us will move first.  It is usually me and within that first step forward, the nightjar will take to the air. I try repeatedly in vain to make contact.  It’s my quest to learn more about these strange creatures.  But the birds are aloof, steadfastly preserving their island myth. On evenings such as this, it is really the nightjars who have the last laugh.DSC00719

Arctic Feathers

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A Northern Fulmar flying near Ilulissat, Greenland

While traveling in Iceland and Greenland this year, I witnessed amazing birds that weather the extremes of the Arctic.  Here are few that I got to see.

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Lesser Black-backed Gull, Iceland.

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Greylag goose.

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Mallard ducks.

Eider ducks

Eider ducks, Greenland.

Whooper swan

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Whooper swan.

Black-headed Gull

Black-headed Gull.

Redwing

Redwing.

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The Arctic Anthology, Part 4

DSC00315The Land of Fire & Ice

Iceland is quite tame when compared to Greenland.  Hot water below its crust is harnessed for geothermal energy.  Its capital, Reykjavik, is a hip, posh town of 123,000. And its people are mostly Scandinavian in appearance.  They speak Icelandic which is a Germanic derivative that has more in common with Norwegian than any other linguistic root.

But its natural landscape is still quite spectacular even while being mostly treeless. We got to view powerful waterfalls, some of which are tapped for hydroelectric energy.

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The untapped Gullfoss waterfall.

There are geyser fields that rival Yellowstone.

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Geysers of Haukadalur

And while the country’s numerous volcanoes are currently dormant, Icelanders are well aware that the next big blow may change their way of life forever.  The last incident was in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull, Eyjafjallajokull_volcano_plume_2010_04_17a 5,466 ft (1,666 m) high cone in southern Iceland, blew its top.  Huge amounts of ash blanketed northern Europe and disrupted airplane traffic for weeks. Experts think that the next fiery culprit may be the badass Bárðarbunga with a caldera stretching 6 miles (10km) wide.  In the meantime, the business of fishing, aluminum production and tourism march on, fueling this modern northern country.

We spent a few days in Reykjavik, walking its streets, sampling its excellent craft beers and cruising its wonderful museums.  It is a rich city with great social services and high taxes. The bus system is thorough. Residents swim in geothermal heated pools and soak in warm springs.  Life is good. And it is very expensive.  A beer costs $12, a cheeseburger 25 bucks.  So it is not a place to linger for long.DSC00637DSC00673

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photo-Hettie Holian

I was most impressed with ÞingvellirNational Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  This is the only place in the world that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a geological convergence of tectonic plates, can be seen.DSC00206 I walk on a wooden boardwalk through a compact rift valley with cliffs towering 45 feet (12 m) on each side.  To the left was the European tectonic plate. To the right, the North American plate. And as an exclamation point, the stunning Öxarárfoss waterfall pierces one of the cliffs mid-trail.  People hang out here and soak in the vibes.  It must have been a spiritual place of power and wonder for the ancients. I rest on a smooth, round rock and listen to the cascading water.Öxarárfoss  That flows south intoLake Þingvallavatn where people actually snorkel and dive in thick, head-to-toe dry suits in 37°F (3°C) water.  That is unimaginable for this Caribbean scuba boy.  I smell the crisp air and contemplated the forces below my feet at Þingvellir, plate meeting plate, the uplifting and sinking continents. Powerful stuff in this wonderful land of fire and ice. DSC00186DSC00193DSC00625DSC00632DSC00201

 

The Arctic Anthology, Part 3

DSC00273The Iceberg Blues…

There is that brilliant shade of aqua marine that the Caribbean Sea flaunts in its shallows. It is just one of the many reasons that I live down island.  And then there is the cool cobalt color of a cloudless, crisp Autumn sky that telegraphs hope and optimism.  I still recall that shade from my Ohio childhood decades ago.  But nothing quite compares to the blues captured in the icebergs and glaciers of the arctic north.DSC00299

These blues don’t just reflect back the chroma. Rather, they glow, pulsate and captivate. Steaming close by hundreds of bobbing forms in Disco Bay near Ilulissat, Greenland,DSC00413 I was captivated by the iceberg blues. Sure, it was awesome to see humpback whales flash their enormous black forms in the fading September sun just a few meters away.  DSC00452DSC00432DSC00451And I was happily startled by a flock of sleek Eider ducks flying tight formation in front of a wall of white. DSC00391Or when the sun dazzled off the water or icebergs the size of a Super Walmart. DSC00382DSC00370DSC00383 But my eyes kept returning to the blue.  Often, I saw diagonal stripes compressed between blocks of white. These appear when crevices in an iceberg are filled with water and it freezes so fast that no bubbles are formed. DSC00307DSC00242Some small floaters were randomly splashed with blue. DSC00249DSC00480DSC00244  But the blue captured deep inside the icebergs and glaciers was the most enchanting. That blue was other worldly.  I could not release my gaze from it.  And as our boat cruised by at three knots, the intense color changed form, intensity and finally disappeared.  Then the next blue would capture my soul. On and on it went until Captain Ernie had to turn back to port as a thick fog silently engulfed us.DSC00419DSC00438

Experts claim that this blue occurs when snow falls on a glacier, is compressed, and becomes part of the glacier. Air bubbles are squeezed out and ice crystals enlarge, making the ice appear blue.  And when icebergs calve off from a glacier, the blue travels with it. But science experts do not explain the mystery and pulsating aura displayed by this vivid blue.  It may be one of the reasons that the Inuit, after crossing the Asian ‘bridge’, decided to stay.  It probably influenced Eric the Red and his Viking tribes to settle on this usually frozen landscape.  I can only imagine it spurred on Danish explorer, Knud

Knud Johan Rasmussen as he zig zagged across this vast, white wonderland in his quest to witness the unknown. And now I too have joined this human parade through the Arctic, in a secluded part of the world few ever get to see.  Iceberg blues, it is color that will be with me in mind and soul until the end of my days.

 

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The Arctic Anthology-Part 2

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The Largest Island in the World

Greenland is an enormous, ancient land mass. Besides its massive ice shield, the country consists of some of the oldest rock in the world- gnarled Precambrian formations that date back 4.5 billion years.DSC00601 It covers 1,345,943 square miles (2,166,086 square km), nearly three times the size of Texas. Which leads me to the question: Why is Greenland not considered the planet’s eighth continent?

A wise geologist from Reykjavik explain to difference to me. “Continents are always the largest land forms of the earth’s major continental plates.  For instance, Australia fits that description for the Australian plate.  That is why it is considered a continent rather than an island.  The same goes for North America.  It is the largest land form on the North American plate followed by Greenland. So that is why Greenland is only considered an island.”

eriktheredWhen Erik the Red landed here in 982 AD, he had no idea about any of this. But he was so bowled over by the island’s verdant western shore, that he named the place “Grønland”.  Historians speculate that the Viking did this as a land scheme to encourage settlement in Greenland rather than neighboring Iceland. Some people just can’t seem trust a red-headed pirate, plunderer and pagan. Later, explorers would find out quickly that most of the interior was covered with a behemoth mantel of ice, roughly 80% of the island.  Today’s scientists have measured that to be 6,600–9,800 feet (2,000–3,000 meters) in depth.  Needless to say, the expedition ship of which I was aboard, followed the western shore where today vast majority of Greenlanders reside.

Our first destination was Uummannaq, some 184 miles (295 km) above the Arctic Circle.22-3  For a tropical troubadour like myself, I was way out of my comfort zone, but that is probably a good thing.  September temperatures, however, were bearable ranging from 46-53 ℉ (8-12 ℃). But there was trouble in this frozen paradise. An iceberg was blocking much of the harbor entrance making entrance by Zodiac (rubber inflatable dinghies) dodgy at best. Plus, our mother ship was threatened by large, drifting icebergs outside the harbor due to current and wind, making anchorage dangerous.  Thus, the captain scratched landfall for our first port.  It was a warning that nature would be dictating the remainder of this voyage with no questions asked.

But we did later land at Nuuk, Greenland’s bustling capital of 17,000 souls making it the largest ‘city’ in the country.  The highlight of this stop was going into the Pub Maximut at 5 pm.  It was that quintessential moment when you enter the saloon and the juke box stops.  It was packed full of Inuits, the indigenous people of Greenland, and we were the only gringos in the bar.  All eyes were upon us.  It was déjà vu all over again.

I flashbacked to the time I was traveling across the country with my buddy, Pate, in 1970.  We were 21, hair down to our shoulders, and headed to California to experience what was left of the Summer of Love, two years late.  Due to circumstances beyond our control we ended up stopping in Muskogee, Oklahoma on a hot June day.  Yes, it was that Muskogee, the one who country singer Meryl Haggard popularized with his song “An Okie from Muskogee”, which was immediately embraced by every redneck in America.  Some of it goes… We don’t make a party of lovin’. We like holdin’ hands and and pitchin’ woo. We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy like the hippies in San Francisco do. We pulled into a bar for a beer and parked.  Ours was the only car in a parking lot. The other vehicles were pickups tricked out with obligatory gun racks.  That should have been our first clue.  As we entered, the jukebox stopped cold. A couple of dozen cowboy hats turned in unison in our direction just as Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” kicked off.  It was one of those fight-or-flight moments.  Pate and I looked at each other and dashed out the door.  Suddenly we were not so thirsty.  I remember looking back in the rear-view mirror as we sped away. Angry cowboy drunks shouted obscenities from the entrance as the greasy, bald-headed bartender threatened with a baseball bat held firmly in his fist.

But I digress.  The Pub Maximut customers displayed no such hostility.  People were friendly, smiled and drank endless rounds of imported Tuborg Beer.  The stereo played “Mac the Knife” and the Bee Gees “Staying Alive”, tunes from another time. And for the Inuits, staying alive has always been at the top of the agenda.  Until the 1950s, they lived in sod houses and survived as hunter/gathers.  They hunted seal and whale and fished the sea. But then Denmark (Greenlanders still recognize the Danish queen as head of state) decided that the locals really needed to be brought into the modern world.  Multi-story apartment buildings were constructed.DSC00521 Folks that lived outside in small villages were encouraged to move to Nuuk and other towns.  The Danes eventually cut off all services to these remote places to consolidate effort and expenditures.  Soon the Greenland’s Inuit culture experienced rapid social change. As in other parts of the world, problems began with drugs, alcohol and domestic abuse.  With limited economic opportunities, crime rose.  Exposure to outside consumerism through media made things only worse.  These days there is a resurgence in Inuit culture and pride. But the Danes continue to build high rise apartments.  It remains a society in transition.

I had other interesting encounters in Greenland.

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Downtown Illulissat.

In Ilulissat, I boarded a local bus.  I had no worries about where it was going since this town, like all others, is unconnected to the rest of the country.  The route was based on looping circles serving the village’s 4,500 inhabitants.  There are nearly as many sled dogs as people in this picturesque port.DSC00211DSC00208DSC00220DSC00212

We spent a rainy afternoon in Zodiacs while searching for underwater mineral pillars in the Ikka fjord, the only ones of this type that exist in the world. Even cooler were the dozens of muskoxen grazing on the surrounding mountains. These beasts are buffalo-size but nimbly run along the fiord’s rugged cliffs with surprising speed.  Their fine hair is baby soft and said to be eight times warmer than sheep wool.DSC00522 We also had a taxi driver from the village of Narsarsuaq (population-158) take us beyond our awaiting Zodiac to a natural spring out of the goodness of his soul. DSC00534 He urged us to bend down and sip the cold water.  It was amazingly sweet and pure, glacier runoff that supplies Narsarsuaq.  I never tasted anything so pristine. “We have water piped from other sources into our homes,” explained the driver. “But we only use that for washing and the toilet.  We come to this spot all year long to get the glacier water for drinking.”

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Plants thrive around the spring.

My last impression of Greenland was when we rounded its southern end, destination Iceland.  The captain chose to go through Prince Christian Sound, a waterway of towering mountains, waterfalls cascading in slow motion and gigantic glaciers pressing to the sea. This stunning fjord connects the Labrador Sea with the Irminger Sea.  A fellow passenger from Germany commented, “I’ve been to the fjords of New Zealand, Norway, Canada and Alaska, but I have never seen anything as beautiful as this!” The man spent the entire four-hour passage of the 60 mile-long sound on deck braving wind and cold. So did I.  It was my last impression of the largest island in the world before heading to open sea.DSC00554DSC00573DSC00578DSC00575DSC00568DSC00576DSC00597DSC00567

The Arctic Anthology

Part One…DSC00388DSC00395

It was time to get back on the road.  Worldkid had been stranded on a sandbar for nearly a year and a half due to a skirmish with gravity that he quickly lost.  But back on the mend, enough of the bones were healed to go exploring once again.  The destination had to be a special place, one not seen before.  A place of wonder was needed to mend soul and psyche. 

The travel involved plane, boat and train.  Expedition ship and Zodiac.  DSC00329There were even a few luxury taxi rides in Mercedes and Audis in the urban centers of London and Amsterdam.  But the central goal of all this was to see islands of the frozen north, specifically Iceland and Greenland.  The following blogs encompass this 4-part Arctic Anthology.  Island Notes has mostly reported from those little latitudes of palm and rum.  Get ready for ice, rock and a new kind of chill.DSC00389DSC00270DSC00392DSC00372