About Sherry Ott
Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of http://www.briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice. She posts over on https://plus.google.com/103115118174711820529/posts as well.
Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at http://www.ottsworld.com.com.
Latest Posts by Sherry Ott
Meghan’s face comes alive as we approach the bird cliffs. She’s calling out bird species for the rest of the people in the zodiac and rattling off the extremely subtle differences between them. She finds different species in various little crevices with her binoculars as if it’s a Where’s Waldo book. I just listen and wonder – how can someone get that excited about birds and every little intricacy?
Each night after dinner expedition guide, Samuel, held a bird club – people would get all excited about this and ensure they were done with dinner so they could get up to the library/bar to discuss birds, leaving me dumbfounded.
What does it take to be a birder?
Whatever it is I don’t have it.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t love birds, it just means I’m not a birder.
I have fond memories of putting up our birdhouse every autumn at my childhood home in Peoria Illinois. We placed the birdhouse about 15 feet from our dining room window – a very often-used part of the house. We had a bird book and binoculars next to the window and my dad would identify birds. Even then I remember thinking the birds were cute, but I was only really interested in the chickadee and the cardinal, all the others just blended together.
Bird Watching in the Russian Arctic
The Russian arctic is one of the richest bird watching regions in Europe. On the shores and islands of the Arctic Seas live a real kingdom birds; snow geese, snowy owls, puffins,guillemots, eagles, ducks, gulls, terns and many other sea birds. This magnificent site, in combination with harsh northern nature, will leave you in awe of nature regardless if you are a birder or not.
No more looking out the dining room window, instead I am cruising in a part of the world that is known for bird species:
• 169+ bird species on Wrangel Island, boasting the largest population of breeding Snow Geese (108,000 nests on Wrangel)
• One of the rare locations to see the Snowy Owl hunting on the Arctic tundra
• A haven for Puffins, and Guillemots, Auklets, Ducks, Eagles, and more…
Bird Cliffs in the Russian Arctic
The Russian Arctic was home to the most densely populated bird cliffs I’ve eve seen. Even non-birders like me were in awe of the sheer numbers. At times I felt like I had sailed into this vortex of another world where birds were in charge and humans were the low ones on the totem pole. It was a strange feeling being so remote and so outnumbered. The longer you look at the cliffs the more your eye hones in on the birds and the more you see – it’s like a optical illusion.
“How many birds are there?” I ask as if I’m at a candy store guessing how many jelly beans in the jar – it’s an impossible question. Alex thinks about it a bit and says 24,000. I guess 74,000, and Samuel (the birder) weighs in at over 100,000. Whatever the answer is – we’ll never know – but there were more birds than you can ever imagine on the various cliffs we visited throughout the trip. Flying overhead, nestled into nooks of the cliffs, on rocks, everywhere. And amazingly I only got shit on once.
To the non-birder like me, I referred to them by their looks; the black and white ones, the ones that looked like a mix between a toucan and a parrot, the white bellied ones always perched on top, the ones with the red feet, the ones that look like a football, and the ones with the long neck. But to the birder name are important; they saw the Common or Black Guillemot, Horned or Tufted Puffin, the Kitiwake, the Pelagic Cormorant, and the Shortwinged Sheerwater.
Preobrazheniya Bay Bird Cliffs
Our first stop at cliffs. We battled some large swells but it was worth it to get a first glimpse of the Arctic birds.
Nuneangan Island Bird Cliffs
This was a rock in the middle of nowhere, but it was here was I was in awe of the noise that all of these birds make. This was also a great spot for whale watching!
Kolyuchun Island Bird Cliffs
The Kolyuchun Island was special as we were able to view the birds from the top of the cliff as opposed to bobbing in the water from the bottom. It provided a whole new perspective and a easier way to get better closeups of the birds.
Herald Island Bird Cliffs
This island is haunting with it’s jagged pinnacles, I felt as if I were on a movie set as I bobbed up and down and tried to stay warm in the zodiac!
Wrangel Island Bird Viewing
Wrangel Island was more about hiking to see birds rather than bird cliffs. Here we saw snowy owls, snow geese, and plenty of other birds in flight!
Where is Wrangel Island?
Big Diomedes Bird Cliffs
This was by far my favorite bird cliffs, Big Diomedes Island sits in the middle of the Bering Strait and is a stunning landscape even without the birds. I was mesmerized by the combination of the green cliffsides, the colorful birds, and the rock formations. If I let my mind wander I would have thought I was in Thailand, not in Arctic Russia. The birds swooped down around us to dive for fish, they floated in the water, and some even had territorial fights. It was my best, and last, bird cliff!
What does it Take to be a Birder?
I suppose patience is involved and that’s the main reason I’ll never be a birder. Birders love details –they are left brainers. I’m not interested in details, I just want high level information and then let me go back to thinking about the colors of the landscape, the shape of the clouds, the light dancing off a mountain peak, and the moody fog hanging over the horizon; classic right brainer.
In fact, many days bobbing in the water staring up at the cliffs of birds my right brain imagination ran wild. I kept thinking about how the cliffs were like the neighborhoods in NYC; people living on top of each other vying for space. As we moved further on the cliff the birds thinned out and I thought maybe this was the suburbs. I entertained myself and stopped thinking about how cold I was by simply imagining a whole bird city with a financial district, midtown, Harlem, and Yonkers suburbs; wondering how the birds made the decisions of where to go ‘live’.
Binoculars are a must!!
One piece of equipment a birder needs? Binoculars. And of course I didn’t have any, but I did have a Sigma 500mm lens! As the expedition cruise went on each day I got better at capturing the fast moving birds with my big lens. My best Artic Wildlife photography definitely occurred at the end of the trip.
Regardless – you don’t have to be a birder to be on this trip. After all, if we were all the same and loved the same things, the world would be pretty boring. I’m pretty sure that all of us have something we are fanatical about – it could be birds, or it could be writing, travel, photography, football, or fashion. And I enjoyed every night when the birders went to bird club and there were a number of us who sort of bonded together as ‘casual birders’. And the casual birders simply sat around and drank wine and conversed about the world and our cultures.
Just as every bird has little intricacies that make them different – so do humans and that’s what makes life (and travel) exciting.
I stepped on board the Spirit of Enderby, an Russian arctic expedition cruise ship holding a maximum of 50 passengers and 25 crew, it had an industrial feel to it. No poolside bars, welcome drinks, or elegant entryways; instead there were loading cranes and zodiac rafts stacked up on top of each other on the deck barely giving us room to move around.
An expedition ship is a working ship.
The idea of an Expedition Cruise is hard to get your head around. It’s an oxymoron with the likes of deafening silence, harmonious discord, an open secret, and the living dead. When we normally think of cruising we think of lavish giant ships, thousands of people, gourmet dinners, pools, theater shows, poolside bars, and a social director. And the thought of an expedition ship conjures up thoughts of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, long journeys, gruel for food, steerage quarters, and potential pirates. The two concepts couldn’t be further apart.
Of course this is exactly what made me so excited about this expedition cruise to the Arctic Circle with Heritage Expeditions – it would really be like neither word, and instead be a softer version of both. I love adventure, hands on experiences, learning new things, and small groups – and this is exactly what the Heritage Expeditions Cruise across the top of the world was about.
Many cruises call themselves expedition cruises, but there are varying levels. The cruise to AntarcticaI went on 3 years prior was smaller than most cruise ships with 120 passengers, but it was still more cruise than expedition when it came to facilities. Many of the Alaska cruises call themselves expedition cruises, but once again they are small ships that still lean to the luxury side. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on this expedition ship that was half the size of the Antarctica cruise I took and way more rugged looking.
The most common question I heard when I told people I was going to Wrangel Island was “Where is Wrangel Island?”
This expedition cruise would take me to somewhere just as remote as Antarctica, but in an entirely different direction. I was cruising across the top of the world, through the Bering Strait, around the Russian Far East, well above the Arctic Circle to where few people have ever gone before – Wrangel Island. Actually fewer people make it to Wrangel Island each year than Antarctica. From Anadyr Russia it would be a 2 week trip total taking us about 5 days to get to Wrangel Island, 4 days around the island, and 4 days to get back. I looked around at the small ship and wondered if I would feel claustrophobic. Even though it was small, I easily got settled into life on the Spirit of Enderby and expedition cruising.
How Big is an Expedition Cruise Ship?
The size varies from ship to ship. The Spirit of Enderby is a polar expedition research ship and has been used for cruising expeditions for the last few years. It houses 50 passengers total and half have en suite toilets. There’s a basic presentation room on the lowest level, a library/bar that is open for certain hours, and a dining area. There are a number of outdoor decks – but they are rugged, working decks so don’t expect lounge seating, and be prepared to climb over ropes, wires, anchor chains etc. The indoor spaces all have windows or portholes (except for the presentation room on the low deck), but just keep in mind that the layout is more about functionality than luxury. After all, the real focus and emphasis of every expedition is getting you ashore as often as possible for as long as possible – it’s not about spending time and activities on the ship.
The Spirit of Enderby
I stayed in a little twin cabin and shared a bathroom/shower with other people on my level. Don’t be wary about shared facilities as I found that this was a super way to meet other passengers. I got to know the people around me and it made me much more social strangely as it made me get out of my cabin regularly!
What do you do all day on an Arctic Expedition Cruise?
Unlike regular cruises where the social director dictates the day’s activities, the expedition leader mainly determines the day on the Spirit of Enderby. A typical day consisted of early breakfast, an hour lecture on a wildlife, history, or botany topic (all super fascinating), a zodiac landing/cruise for 2 to 3 hours, lunch on board, another lecture, a 2nd zodiac landing/cruise for 2 o 3 hours, bar opens, dinner, after dinner birding meetings (I never attended these!), and bed. Repeat the next day!
There is a lot of time spent on shore or in the zodiacs doing wildlife viewing. On our way to Wrangel Island we stopped at various islands and villages in the Chukotka Region. Most of it was all quite desolate and picturesque and we made only one stop in a village where there were local people. The region is sparsely populated, so there aren’t many villages to stop at. Plus we had a couple of days where we were simply at sea all day and did no landings so make sure you have a good book with you!
What are Zodiac Landings and What do you do Ashore?
A zodiac landing is simply a way to get ashore and explore. This is where the real heart of an expedition cruise lies. The zodiac rafts are powerful, rugged inflatable boats powered by an outboard motor. They are tough machines. The ship would anchor offshore in deeper water, then the expedition staff would each man a zodiac and the passengers would bundle up for the weather conditions and go through the process of checking off the ship and getting on board the sometimes very wobbly zodiac bobbing in the waves. In bad weather it can be quite a daunting task
We then either rode ashore or simply did a zodiac cruise (never getting off the zodiac) to view bird cliffs, whales, and other wildlife. When we rode ashore, the expedition staff ‘parked’ the boats and we all went hiking to view wildlife or to visit abandoned research buildings, and sometimes meet rangers at ranger stations. My favorite zodiac landing was when we went on a long hike at Pitchy Bazzar. The day was dismal – but it felt so great to get exercise and track some muskoxen!
“The last zodiac leaves in 3 hours, so make sure you are back here by then,” Rodney our expedition leader barked out orders. I looked at my watch and was astonished – 3 hours – this is going to be great – I can hike all over! The best thing about this expedition cruise was that it was such a small passenger group that we could all be ashore at once and didn’t have to be constantly shuttling people back and forth. This basically meant that we had ample time ashore to explore, do photography, or take a nap on the tundra! This was very different than my Antarctica experience where we only had a short time on shore and I often felt rushed.
What was Your Arctic Cruise Cabin Like?
My cabin had two little beds that had ‘rails’ on them in case the seas got rough you wouldn’t fall out while sleeping. And yes – there were a few days where I was happy I had the bed railing! I also had a sink, closet, and desk in my cabin. There were 4 toilets and showers on my level to use in a shared capacity and sharing them was never an issue. I loved my little cabin!
Other levels had plenty of cabins with ensuite bathrooms – so you can choose what you prefer.
What’s included in the cost of an Arctic Expedition Cruise?
Cruises like this are essentially all inclusive. All basic food and lodging is included as well as non-alcholic drinks. You do have to pay for any drinks at the bar – but prices were reasonable and there was no cash exchanged. Instead you simply had a little on board account and could pay by credit card the last day of the cruise. Crew tips were also not included and normally expected. You also had to get your self to the starting point in Anadyr Russia so you were responsible for your own airfare.
What was the Arctic Circle Weather Like?
The view from the Captain’s Bridge. And this is why I was sick down in my room for 24 hours.
I cruised in August and it was in the 40’s most of the time however wind was a big factor on the sea which made things seem much cooler at times. I dressed in layers and made sure I had rain gear as many days it was wet or damp. We ran into one bad storm the day we entered the Actic Ocean while making our way to Wrangel Island that slowed us down by a day. The Arctic decided to throw a wild party for us with 35 naught winds. Pitching and rolling kept me laid up the entire day in my cabin as we slowly made our way to Wrangel Island. This was quite a storm we had encountered, and we had no choice to but approach it head on. Which meant that the ship was moving something awful. Water splashed up on my porthole, you could hear the ship crashing down into the waves occasionally, and I was so ill that I couldn’t even get myself up to take video of any of it! Despite the sea sickness, I would do this cruise again in a heartbeat!
What do you pack for an Arctic Cruise?
- Cold Weather Gear: comfort and layers is king on an expedition ship. You will definitely need warm weather gear, but pack with layers in mind to take into account that half of the time you will be lounging around on the boat. The rest is spent out on the zodiacs or hiking around.
- Waterproof boots: The boots should be waterproof as often times when you are getting out of a zodiac raft and onto shore you will have to step in water that can be ankle deep. The Spirit of Enderby furnished these for passengers.
- Wool Socks: Layers of wool socks are best for drying quickly and keeping you warm. Our Wellies were not insulated and the wool socks were my main insulation.
- Waterproof pants: necessary for getting in and out of the zodiac in deeper water. In addition, if you are in a zodiac when it starts to rain or snow you’ll be happy you have them!
- Comfortable clothes: You’ll spend a lot of time lounging around the boat so bring comfortable clothes and shoes. I packed yoga pants, long sleeve t-shirts, and fleece pullovers. Smart Phone Gloves – If you plan on taking your smart phone with you for photos or videos on the zodiac or simply outdoor pics from the ship then be sure you have the right gloves with a fingertips made for touch screens. You don’t want to take off your gloves to take photos!
- Sunglasses: the combination of water, snow, and sun creates deadly glare so be sure to pack sunglasses and heavy-duty sunscreen!
- Photography/Video Equipment: For most this may be the most important gear since you will be sharing your amazing experience when you return home. Make sure you have tested out all of your equipment before you go and know how to use it. And don’t forget extra batteries for all your gear, they will deplete quickly in the cold temps.
- Non-Cloud Backup: Take some way to backup your photos while you go (laptop), you don’t want to risk losing them!
- Rain/snow gear for your camera: Just like you are waterproofing your clothes, you’ll want to protect your camera too. I use a simple DSLR raincoat from LensCoat.com which is great for this type of outdoor shooting when the weather quickly changes
This was the one are of the cruise where it was more luxury than expedition. We had amazing meals every day put together by a talented cook staff. Breakfast was buffet style, however lunch and dinner were sit down affairs. We always had a choice of 2 menus to choose from for dinner (we made our choices at lunch time). Since the Spirit of Enderby was stocked in New Zealand – we had plenty of New Zealand beef and lamb on the menu. Plus – plenty of fresh seafood too. And the desserts…my oh my!
What Arctic Circle Wildlife can you see?
Much more to come on the wildlife viewing, but suffice it to say – we saw a lot, including polar bears and cubs, snowy owls, snow geese, muskoxen, walruses, seals, whales, and so many different birds I couldn’t name them all. This expedition cruise is a wildlife photographer’s dream. I was learning to use a new zoom lens from Sigma and had a great time getting 500mm shots of the wildlife!
Specifically from our cruise alone, our expedition team kept count:
- 103 Polar Bears
- 61 Different species of birds
- 12 Species of Marine Animals
- 5 Species of Terrestrial Animals
Is there Internet?
No – and there is no cell connection either. Be prepared to be off the grid. However I did get by that issue by taking a Delorme Satellite device with me to test out. It always had a connection and I was able to send texts, tweets and facebook updates via the device. It was rudimentary, but it was also great for me since it was important that I stay connected somewhat. In addition, it helped me track my entire route and allowed me to set waypoints and share notes with people live on Facebook! This is a great option for people who need/want to stay in some sort of communication while on an expedition cruise.
My Delorme device
Just remember, expedition cruises are not about taking you to a destination to tick off the boxes and it’s not about social activities on the ship, it’s about the whole soul touching experience of getting there!!
Here are some fabulous Midwest photos over the holidays and into January from South Dakota and Minnesota, which albeit cold in the winter, is beautiful.. Most are nature related as I’m still really drawn to the beauty and simplicity of the landscape around eastern South Dakota, as well as the Midwest weather. We had a little of everything low sun across the Great Plains, rain, snow, and even a rainbow!
Recycling. Old colorful doors made into a fence! Came across this on my walk yesterday in Minneapolis!
Barns in @SouthDakota look beautiful any time of year.
A walk in the woods is so much prettier when there’s a blanket if snow!
Fixer-upper in the neighborhood. #southdakota
I feel like I just opened the freezer door – everything has a little frost on it! Stay warm today!
Snow, ice, and wind. Winter on the prairie in @SouthDakota – you have to be hearty here.
First snow, last light.
Hard to believe that in December its raining in Minneapolis! So happy this isn’t snow while I’m in transit today!
@SouthDakota welcomed me last night with a winter rainbow on the prairie!
We gathered around Richard listening intently to his instructions about the Anadyr Russia immigration process, “Russians don’t smile much, so you shouldn’t either. When you go through immigration, just try to be solemn and not too loud and fit into their culture the best you can.” I thought about my past travels to Russia and the Russian stereotypes I encountered; he was right, there wasn’t a lot of smiling going on. Thanks to growing up in the cold war era with Russia as our enemy, passing through Russian immigration always puts me a bit on edge. It doesn’t help that I always seem to be traveling to the obscure parts of Russia that require a bit more finessing than the normal border crossings arriving in Moscow airport.
Traveling to Anadyr Russia via Nome Alaska was certainly obscure. Anadyr is a little known city in the extreme northeast of Russia, and the administrative center of Chukotka Region – a region very few foreigners are allowed to visit. Not only does it require a Russian visa, and a letter of invitation, but it also requires a special entry permission document to Chukotka. I was traveling with Heritage Expeditions who specializes in travel to the Russian Far East who assisted me with obtaining the Chukotka invitation. Richard worked for Heritage and was preparing us for our journey before we left the airline hanger in Nome. Over rolls, coffee, and fruit Richard continued to explain how everything would work when we landed in Anadyr, did a short city tour, and made our way to board the Spirit of Enderby Ship. Plus, he made sure we had plenty of snacks in our bags just in case immigration took longer than expected.
Travel to Anadyr Russia
“In May 1988, a Bering Air aircraft lifted the 41-year-old “Ice Curtain” between Alaska and the Soviet Union. The historic flight and opening of the airways between western Alaska and the former Soviet Far East represented the fulfillment of a goal that had long existed in the thoughts of many Alaskans and Russians alike.” –Bering Air
As I stepped into the Beechcraft 1900D twin-engine turbo prop with my passport in hand a smile crept across my face. I realized that this was the smallest plane I had ever flown in for an international flight crossing continents; the thought was exhilarating. I wondered if this was what it’s like to be uber rich like Pdiddy or Donald Trump – people with their own personal jet who can fly from continent to continent. However our plane didn’t even have a toilet, luckily it was only a 90 minute flight.
Boarding the short Bering Air flight
As I’m dosing off the pilot turns around and taps me on the knee (I told you this was a small plane). I open my eyes and he’s motioning for me to come up front. *Side note for all of you who know me and know my love of pilots, this is not some weird fantasy come true – yet it would have been a great story.* I didn’t have a window near my seat, so he kindly showed me the first view of Russia that was peaking out of the clouds through the front window of the plane.
As I stood there between the pilots I was astonished. When I was 12 years old I was terrified of Russia, the cold war dominated the one television set and 3 channels we had. In made-for-TV-movies there was a constant undertone of nuclear war talk, silos, the mushroom cloud, and roach survival. Back then if you would have told me that in my adult life I’d be viewing Russia’s border from the front of a small plane window I would have assumed I had gone into the military. But in a strange life twist, instead I was a tourist on a luxury cruise itinerary to remote Chukotka Russia. I just kept thinking, maybe one of my nieces will be traveling to Iraq one day for a big trek, or North Korea, or Afghanistan to go experience the poppies in bloom.
The Shortest Longest Flight in the World
I had flown the longest flight in the world before, but this was definitely the shortest flight one could take with the biggest time difference. This little 90-minute flight over the Bering Strait requires you to set your watch 20 hours ahead! You’ll travel across the International Dateline from Nome, Alaska to Anadyr Russia which means you lose a day when you cross the International Dateline.
I’ve traveled across the International Dateline before a number of times, but never on a 90-minute flight. In fact I doubt there is any other flight in the world that can be so short but so long as the same time.
Russian customs agents met us at the little plane on the tarmac when we arrived in Anadyr and led us through the non-smiling process of immigration. I remembered what Richard advised and tried to only look and act emotionless so that I could just get my passport and be on my way. Most of all I tried not to look like a blogger or journalist of any kind. Yet without even speaking Russian I could tell by the immigration officer’s reaction when she took my passport and started to page through it that her comment she made to her comrade was, “damn, this woman travels a lot”. After a few technical difficulties with my entry and 15 nail-biting minutes where I tried to not look like a blogger, not smile, or react in any way – finally heard the familiar sound of my passport being stamped and I made it in. It’s weird how Russia still intimidates me so much. It sort of explains my grandparent’s views on African Americans it’s hard to change what has been learned and embedded into our dna at a young age.
Even though I have moved ahead in time, as I walk around the town of Anadyr I realize I have really went backwards in time. As our guide Katya led us around Anadyr I felt as if time stood still here since the cold war. The architecture and the day-to-day life felt like I had just drove the Delorian back to 1980. Chukotka is a closed region of Russia that has had limited contact with the rest of the world and I suddenly felt like I too had limited contact with the outside world – and I sort of liked it.
An old barge rusted and sort of sinking in the port
A man sits at the port on the steps of a rusted building
Anadyr is the eastern most town in Russia/Siberia and it’s population of 13,000 lives in the extremes. Even in July the highs are only in the low 60’s. However the day we arrived it was a picture perfect sunny day. Whales and seals were playing out in the Gulf of Anadyr as we took a local rusty ferry from the airport into town.
What to see in Anadyr Russia
A walk around town in the summer is the best way to see what Anadyr has to offer. The familiar communist, rectangular, non-descript buildings dotted the hilly landscape of Anadyr, yet it had a new twist that I hadn’t seen before – color. Gone were the typical concrete flat gray colors and instead each building was like a rainbow. And at the end of each building where there were no windows, there was a mural pertaining to the area; a whale, a native person, a polar bear, etc. The colors provided a nice contrast against the gray tundra backdrop and would most certainly provided a bit of energy in the heart of winter when this town goes dark.
There were also the typical austere Russian military monuments and memorials all over the little town that honored the regional history. But then we came across a surprise; there was a monument of a dapper looking man and his dogs. No military or government reference – just a normal looking guy. When I asked our guide Katya about it she explained that it was a famous Russian writer. This was definitely a side of Russia I hadn’t experienced before – colorful buildings, murals, and statues paying homage to writers!
The most notable tourist attraction is the church that sits atop a hill and overlooks the harbor. The Holy Trinity Cathedral was built in 2005 and it’s made entirely of wood. It’s one of the largest wooden Orthodox churches in the world. It wasn’t simply a wooden frame, the entire inside of the church was wood too; the alter, all of the carvings, furniture, everything. No wolf was going to blow this little church down.
The town also had a museum, a few hotels, and coffee shops but don’t go there expecting tourism infrastructure.
Departure to Wrangel Island
That evening as the old rusty barge took us, a crate of fresh fish, and boxes of supplies out to the Spirit of Enderby anchored in the middle of the harbor, my mind was swirling in time and jetlag. Russia always seems to stir thoughts of my past up, but it also make me think about all of the change we see through time.
The Spirit of Enderby a anchor in the Gulf of Anadyr
We arrived on the ship, met the crew, and were reunited with our luggage from the airport. I said goodbye to my last pieces of connectivity with the world, and said hello to my little ship cabin. Immediately I went to the top deck of the ship to experience our departure leaving the colorful town of Anadyr behind and heading towards the Bering Strait. I looked at my watch trying to get oriented to my new time zone. I had a feeling that just like the sun in this part of the world in the summer, I wouldn’t be getting much sleep thanks to the excitement of the journey.
Bon Voyage from the top deck!
It’s that time of year where we look back on and make silly superlative lists – best, worst, most, least, biggest, shortest, most fun, sunniest, rainiest. Let’s take a look at what inspired me in 2015!
Hiking in the Spanish Pyrenees with among the first signs of Spring.
Lake Louise in Alberta as the sun slips behind the Canadian Rockies.
Finding a rare solitary moment in the Forbidden City in Beijing China
Wild Kingdom moment! A whale feeds among birds in the Bering Strait.
One of the most memorable plane rides I’ve ever been on over Wrangell St. Elias National Park in Alaska.
Up early to catch sunrise in Mona Vale New South Wales Australia.
It’s not easy being single. A young single woman from Germany’s Black Forest wears a traditional Bollenhut hat signifying her single status.
Taking in the fall colors while kayaking in a glacial fed lake near Anchorage Alaska.
Spray Lakes in Kananaskis Alberta. While driving out to the snowshoeing trails, I had to stop to capture this magnificent reflection!
Hawaiian generations teach us about culture and traditions in Molokai.
A hunter’s shack in Russia’s Far East.
The sky is afire in Colorado as I hike and stay off the grid in a Colorado Mountain Hut.
Children in Belize sneak peaks and smiles.
My horse takes a rest at the top of the hill in Catalonia Spain.
A glacier along the Glenn HIghway in Alaska dwarfs the nearby trees.
Brickwork on a Lutheran Church in Saxony Germany
Big Horn Sheep Graze around the Canadian Rockies in Alberta
A polar bear paces along the shore of Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean.
Riding a mule down the steepest sea cliffs in the world to Kalaupapa Historic Park in Molokai Hawaii
Bondi Beach in Sydney Australia
Viewing sunset over the old city walls in Girona Spain
A rare moment of solitude on the Great Wall in China
I was mesmerized by the humming birds in Belize!
Taking in the view of the Canadian Rockies in the crisp, cool mountain air.
Sailing in Sydney Harbor’s weekly race.
The aqua blue waters of Belize
How would you like to have 182 people in your family? And what if all 182 of them were 4 years old? And had tails? At Snowy Owl Dog Sledding in Banff the dogs are family. Yes, yes I know – everyone says that…but trust me when I say Snowy Owl is different than most touristic dog sled operations.
My parents grew up on farms where dogs (and cats) were part of the working crew – not really pets. Because kids are a product of their environment, I also grew up with that attitude, I’ve never been a dog person before, until I met my Snowy Owl Dog Team.
As soon as I arrived at the Lake starting point in Kananaskis I could tell this tour was going to be different from my other dog sledding experiences. I see people hanging out with the dogs taking selfies, giving them hugs, and cuddling them. You can tell the dogs are eager to go, but they also love the attention. I was stunned as dog sledding tours I had been on previously, the dogs were never this friendly.
Jeremy, the owner of Snowy Owl, asked us all to gather in a circle around him where he proceeded to tell us where to position our feet and hands on the sled and then started to explain what commands we should use.
Whoa…wait a minute I think to myself – are we driving this sled? Why yes we are. Snowy Owl Dog Sledding Banff is one of the only dog sled operations in Canada in which tourists (who know nothing about driving dog sleds and commanding a team) are the mushers.
Not Your Typical Dog Sledding Tour
Just the week prior I did a dog-sledding outing where we simply sat in the sled and enjoyed the view. It was nice and the view was gorgeous, but honestly it was sort of a yawn. I like to get hands-on and actually learn something. I want a true experience, not a ride. So suddenly my dog sledding dreams had been answered at Snowy Owl.
I perked up and listened with more intensity than before, “It’s not ‘Mush’,” Jeremy says, “that’s just in the movies. The command to go is ‘Hike’ and it has to be said with a happy face and enthusiastic tone. These dogs reply to enthusiasm and love – not power,” Jeremy explained. I practice saying “Hike!” with a happy face – it feels sort of Mr. Rodgers awkward, but I think I can do it. We further learn that ‘stop’ is “Whoa” and the command for slow down is “easy”. I wonder if I’ll remember these in times of panic.
Jeremy goes on to explain that we stop the sled when the dogs need a bathroom break – “no running and pooping at Snowy Owl,” Jeremy says, “that’s just rude to the dogs.” I laugh and remember back to my experience the week before and there was definitely running and pooping …the dark (and smelly) side of dog sledding that you normally don’t hear about!
Jeremy explains that all the dogs love to be around people, however the ones with red handkerchiefs on are actually a little shy – so leave them be. I walk over to my assigned team and greet them with a happy voice, trying to start off on the right foot.
He may be ‘shy’, but he sure is cute!
“If you talk to animals they will talk to you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them you will not know them, and what you don’t know you will fear. What one fears one destroys.” – Chief Dan George
Snowy Owl names litters by ‘groups’. My team was the Designer team – Hugo, Boss (the two boys), Dior, Chanel, Dolce, Gucci…you get the picture. As Jeremy tells me their names, he explains that his sister named this team and rolls his eyes, just as a brother would.
It’s About Family
This really is a family business in every sense of the word. His mother started the company in 1983, and his sister and him recently took it over. The family unit is a part of every decision from naming to breeding – and breeding is a huge part of this business. Offering tourists the chance to ‘self-mush’ is a big deal, so they need to be bred for the scenario. Most sled dogs are bred to race and run. However, when Snowy Owl breeds the dogs – it’s not just based on physical ability and performance. They have to think about every scenario – people who have no idea how to work with sled dogs will be mushing and that creates some challenges. Not everyone is comfortable with dogs (like me!). But self-mushing dogs are the most important piece of their business.
When his parents started the company they had two important goals; you have to be able to pet the dogs, and a customer has to be able to drive their own team.
To accomplish this, they offer summer kennel tours where they start free running the dogs/puppies when people visit so they can get used to strangers. The dogs socialize and run lose; most kennels won’t do that. In fact the day I talked to Jeremy in his office in Canmore, he had brought a pup, Elsa, with him to get her used to being in public. It was adorable to watch her look at stairs for the first time and try to figure out how to go up/down them. Sled dogs don’t normally see stairs!
Jeremy and his family…
When I said this is a family business I meant it – after spending some one-on-one time with Jeremy I learned just how equal the dogs were to humans in the business. The dogs are a product of their environment – much like kids. So the Snowy Owl family makes sure that their environment is amazing with well kept kennels with a person always on site, custom made harnesses, and sleds specifically made for self mushing. All the income is put back into the dogs because “they are the engines of the company,” Jeremy explains. Plus, they have a retirement/adoption program that was so thoughtful about finding the right homes for the dogs that it nearly brought me to tears.
I loved how Jeremy talked about the dog’s personalities – he knew each one – all 182. These dogs are people and a part of their family. It was touching and interesting for me to see since I never grew up with pets. He thinks of the dogs like 4-year-old kids, and he rewards and encourages them that way – treating them more like a person than a dog. And one side benefit of this strategy – raising dogs helped him prepare to raise his kids!
Ready to Mush
As I stepped on my sled with my ‘Designer’ team I was a bit nervous. I repeated the commands in my head. I reminded myself to never let go. And I also tried to remember to smile and sound enthusiastic when giving commands. I was ready.
“Ok pups,” I yell as I take my foot off the brake, “hike!” I say with a big grin of anticipation and excitement. The sled jerks a bit, I tighten my grip on the handle, and soon I pick up speed. Oh my God – I’m doing it – I’m driving this sled! “Good dogs, “ I bark out enthusiastically as I settle into my winter wonderland environment. I am a dog musher!
Last month, I happily decided to not travel and simply sit still for a bit in New York City. One of the hardest things about being on the road is that I’m never rooted, I sort of feel like I’m flapping around in the wind. A month of anchoring myself back to New York City was just what I needed. I dug out my old journals to try to remind myself of what started me on this journey in the first place. Reading them has been eye opening and a bit disturbing. But it’s fascinating stuff to take in. Sometimes I’m amazed at how we don’t really change much over time, we just forget what we were like over time.
The Big Apple is beautiful any time of year – some shots to demonstrate my point.
Like a classic beauty that looks gorgeous even without makeup, Poets Walk in #centralpark park is beautiful at any time of year.
Who would you like yo watch #sunset with at One World Trade Center – the tallest building in the US?
Friday night at the Met!
A giant yellow leaf in the middle of #NYC. The last signs of fall.
Lady Liberty looks great when the lights go down – don’t you agree? Sunset at the Freedom Tower #NYC
A royal view from the castle in #centralpark
I’m a sucker for nostalgia. Out of all of the balloons #Snoopy and the Peanuts Gang will always get my vote for favorite! What an amazing vantage point for the #macysparade this morning in #NYC
A pastel sunset tonight in Milford Connecticut. So fun to hang out with old friends today only a short train ride from NYC!
#NYC commute. I’m pretty happy I can be a spectator in the commuting game everyday. It can actually look beautiful from a distance.
Isn’t it fun when you are the tallest on the block? #oneworldtradecenter
I love staring down at the layers of Moma – sort of like an onion – but it doesn’t make me cry.
A boat house on the Hudson River. What a view. Exploring the Catskills today.
No, Germany didn’t sneak into Whoville and actually steel Christmas, but if the Grinch had wandered into Annaberg Germany to steal Christmas his bag of contraband would have most certainly been weighted down with German Stollen Cake. I’m not sure that he would have made it back to his perch on the mountaintop.
Butter Stollen is a dense type of bread or cake that is a staple on the table in German households during the holidays. Much like Starbucks starts putting out eggnog drinks in November, all around Germany you start to see Stollen in the shops.
Stollen is like a fruitcake with less fruit and more butter. I remember always having some sort of fruit and nut cake on the table at my Grandma Ott’s house for the holidays. However, there was no frosting, sprinkles, or chocolate on it, so I didn’t pay it much attention to it as a kid, it was just something my crazy German American relatives ate.
After spending time at the award winning Annaberger Backwaren bakery in Annaberg Germany, I have a pretty good idea why Stollen Christmas Cake is so loved and such an important part of the German culture. I think it has something to do with the butter and sugar; there is an excessive amount of each involved. Let’s just say this isn’t the type of Christmas cake that makes the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes – instead it may stop his heart! A typical Stollen includes yeast, water, flour, butter, candied orange peel, rum soaked raisins, and nuts. After is comes out of the oven, then it’s time to drench it in more butter and sugar that actually preserve the cake making it ‘age’ better over time.
The cake is the kick-off to Christmas season in the region. On the Saturday before the first Advent, the famous Annaberg Christmas Market is opened when the first cut is made into the enormous 22 pound Butter Stollen from the bakery of Annaberger Backwaren.
Learn to Bake Your Own German Stollen Cake
“Bread connects family,” said Martin Hubner. Martin and his sister work at the family run Annaberger Backwaren bakery that produces Stollen shipped all over the world. For him it is a family business that has crawled back to life after the fall of the GDR. As I walked into the bakery’s factory I inhaled deeply. There are few things better than the smell of fresh bread baking. I wondered why they didn’t infuse this aroma into offices; I think it would make everyone happier in their cubicle…and hungry.
The factory floor had the feeling of a warm Santa’s workshop as baking elves worked non-stop making homemade Stollen from dough to kneading, to baking, to butter drenching, to packaging. And this was in early October. They start making the Christmas Stollen early in order to let it age properly and have time to ship it around the world.
Getting ready to knead the Stollen dough
Martin outfitted me with an apron and a hairnet and put me to work. I pretty quickly learned that kneading dough is a lot of physical exercise. No wonder why bakers always have muscular arms. We went through the process of kneading the dough and then letting it rest, and then more kneading, and resting until finally we started to form it into rectangular loaves. I’d like to say that I did this all perfectly, but I got a little help from the professionals.
The professional Stollen bakers can form 125 Stollen in an hour per person. It took me 10 minutes to get mine right. I don’t think they’ll be hiring me for seasonal work anytime soon. It takes 7 hours of total time to make Stollen, and then it sits for 2 days to rest before it gets shipped out. They produce 3,000 a day during the season. And as soon as Christmas is over they start the whole process again by sourcing and securing all of the ingredients locally.
The Stollen gets shipped worldwide, so Martin kindly offered to ship the loaf I made back home so I could enjoy it over Christmas with my family. I was excited to know that my poorly kneaded Stollen would make its way all the way across the Atlantic and onto my family’s holiday table in South Dakota preserving a German tradition. After all, bread connects family. And we all know that sharing a Christmas cake is way better than Whoville’s roast beast for the holidays.
Want to make, eat, or buy your own Christmas Stollen? Then stop in at Annaberger Backwaren in Saxony Germany, to steal a little slice of Christmas for yourself.