Sunday, October 27, 2013

An Unexpected Journey

Whew,  it's been a while since my last post.  I could give several reasons, all of which would be true,  but none would change the fact that there hasn't been a post (from me) in almost 2 months.  I have been busy,  however, so I guess I need to report on this stuff before I forget about it.

We left our young (okay,  maybe not-so-young) hero,  having just had a moderately disappointing trip to Versaille, continuing his vigilance for protecting the world from the invasion of the extra terrestrial cgi insectoids.   Fear not,  the 8-bit activision aliens have not abducted this not-so-young invader watcher… but the Frogs did catch up with him.

The original plan was to spend almost 5 months here in Paris working at two different institutes.  Since an American cannot spend more than 3 months each year in France,  this plan required a VISA.  Despite planning this for about 1 year,  that requirement was not fulfilled.  I don't like to point fingers as to who was at fault,  but I will say that the problem was not from the US side,  and I'll leave it at that.  Lacking this crucial piece of paper,  I was forced to leave France for a few weeks.

While back state-side I was supposed to be making a trip to the French consulate in LA,  though still lacking necessary paperwork was told by the consulate to not bother wasting my time (or theirs,  which is what they were really saying).  I did manage to get a different set of papers that would allow me to return to Paris for under 3 months.  Because of this I had to spend 3 weeks back in NM.

Truth be told,  this was actually a blessing.  After spending 6 weeks in Paris, without the family, I was getting pretty lonely.  I had even all but abandoned any desire to continue trying to speak French.  I was pretty bad at it, and it was all just becoming exhausting.  And,  though French food is great, there are no burritos in Paris.  I needed my chili!  As a result this was my first meal.

 After getting my chili fix I boarded the little NM Air plane to take the quick flight back to Los Alamos.  Fortunately for me I arrived in the biggest rainstorm in recorded history for the Jemez Mountains.  This meant that I got to fly up to Los Alamos twice in one day.  The first time we flew all the way up,  only to be rebuffed by the weather.  Three hours later we tried again and were able to land on the mesa top.  Exciting rides!  I had a great time.  A few hours later I was headed upto Taos,  oh how I missed out little Taos Haos.

Knowing that I was head back to the US,  I had made plans to install some new handles on the kitchen cabinets.  Long story short,  new handles led me to refinishing all of the cabinets in the house.  The first weekend I took everything apart.  Spent the next week sanding all the doors everyday after work and then started treating everything.  Here are a few photos showing the progress

During this time the rain continued to fall.  After having spent 3 weeks refinishing cabinets I noticed some interesting things had started to appear outside.  This won't look like much to all of my Seattle friends, but this is the biggest mushroom I've ever seen out here on the sage covered planes of Taos,  NM…  namely because I've just never seen a single mushroom out here before.  I guess it's a testament to the "biblical" torrents that we had been witnessing.  Perhaps it's a sign of the end of the world, fire & brimstone, locusts and now mushrooms in NM.

 Well if it is the end,  at least I got to spend some time in our little bit of heaven.  I never get sick of this view.

A month later and I'm missing NM again,  especially considering they're skiing at Wolfcreek in Oct. again and I'm missing it. 

Well, I've finally got this post wrapped up.  Stay tuned for reports on trips to Chantilly,  Vaux le Vicomte,  Z├╝rich, and Saint Germain-en-Laye.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Southern Alps

Some of the biggest landmarks in New Zealand carry names most lacking in imagination. The two biggest islands are the North Island, and The South Island, and some of the regions are the West Coast, Southland and Northland. Our destination for this trip would be the Southern Alps.

More specifically, the Mackenzie Basin. (The blue stripe in the center of the red square, is Lake Pukaki.)

Our kids spend are used to a mountainous landscape, living in the Jemez Mountains at 7200 feet, and spending time in the Rocky Mountains whose southernmost ranges lie in nearby Colorado as well as New Mexico. The thought of and endless scenic drive with young kids being told to look up from tablets, and out the window at scenery, didn't seem appealing. So how could I make this trip memorable to them? I decided that we should try to get to one of the glaciers of the Southern Alps, and to New Zealand's iconic Aoraki/Mt Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. (It rises 12316' with a distance of less than 25 miles to the sea).

There has just happened to be, a fantastic documentary series on TV called 'Wild About New Zealand', each episode showcasing one of the National Parks. Charlotte was watching with me late one Tuesday evening and it was an episode on the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. The footage of the scenery was amazing, it really made us want to go there! It ended with a visit to the Tasman Glacier, at 27 miles long, it is the longest in New Zealand. As elsewhere on the planet, the glaciers are receding, at a faster rate than ever. After what I read in Wikipedia about the 600m deep Tasman Glacier, I was aghast:

The glacier has retreated about 180 metres (590 ft) a year on average since the 1990s and the glacier is now in a period of faster retreat where the rate of retreat is calculated to be between 477 to 822 metres (1,565 to 2,697 ft) each year. It is estimated that the Tasman Glacier will eventually disappear and the terminal Tasman Lake will reach a maximum size in 10 to 19 years time.

It is quite clear that glaciers are a disappearing phenomenon, if we don't see one this decade, we may have missed our chance! The most famous and accessible glaciers are the Franz Joseph and the Fox Glaciers on the West Coast. Still, it would be a 4-5 hour drive along windy mountainous, possibly carsick-inducing, roads. Then, I knew our hiking range would be limited with a 5 year old, and even a 7 year old. To hike a rocky moraine, to hopefully see the receding glacial terminus off in the distance - would this be the glacier memory I was looking for for them? And that is how we came to book a helicopter tour.

In October in New Zealand, the seasons are still transitioning from winter to spring, even if it is officially spring. As you travel south you expect a drop in the mercury. Clouds, wind, some rain, and a damp chill is what I packed for - nothing but winter layers. I absolutely did not expect the fantastic blue sky day we were blessed with for our journey to the Mt Cook region! The snow capped landscape looked stunning. I stopped often to take too many photos, because it just kept getting more and more amazing. We stopped at two of New Zealand's most picturesque lakes, Lake Tekapo, and Lake Pukaki. The kids really enjoyed getting down to the water to throw sticks and skip rocks. And they really seemed to feel the grandeur of the breathtaking scene they were standing in. It was just a wonderful road trip, perfectly warm for an ice cream stop at Tekapo village as well.

Lake Tekapo (above and below)
Lake Pukaki, above, and the three below.

Over fish and chips for tea at Omarama, I asked the kids, "after taking a train, a ferry, and a car, what different form of transportation do you think we are taking at Mt Cook tomorrow?". It took quite a few guesses to get to helicopter. And then, wow, we were all incredibly excited for the next morning!

We woke to a day not quite the perfection of the previous day, but fine with high clouds. The only concern was going to be the wind, especially higher up in the mountains. We had a 45 minute drive to Glentanner, where the heliport was, right at the western end of Lake Pukaki. Our booking was for 10:30AM. Indeed, wind was a concern for the helicopters, fortunately they were still operating, unfortunately on just a truncated route. We wouldn't be able to do the tour I booked, crossing the main divide was out, so we wouldn't see the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers on the western side. But we would still see the Tasman, and be right up in the peaks. We'll take that!

The lower Tasman Glacier is grey from rock debris cover. I was expecting to see it white. But it is still clear that we were looking at something you don't typically see. Keep in mind, that that lake in front of it, is 7km long. (Below)

My parents came with us too.

You can just make out the Tasman Glacier Valley (above).

This region of the Alps is really only accessible by expert climbers and mountaineers, people preparing to summit Mt Everest, etc., so it is a rare view for us ordinary people from where we were perched, it was an amazing experience. We are right across from Mt Cook, for these photo opps. It was windy, but really not too cold.

Mt Sefton, above.
Lake Pukaki, looking east.

I now have two kids who aspire to be helicopter pilots. The third one would prefer to keep her feet on terra firma and perhaps do the marketing or accounting for the Ulrich Family Helicopter Tours business.

We definitely missed having TJ with us for this experience, it was a memorable morning. However, I have a pretty good inkling, that there may be some heli-skiing for him with the kids, in the not-so-distant future.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

By Rail, By Sea, By Air: Our Trip to the South Island

It works out well, that during what is equivalent of a semester away from Aspen school, we have two terms at Rototuna Primary, with a two week school holiday beginning late September. We made the most of this break to take a trip from the North Island to the South Island, where much of New Zealand's most majestic scenery is. It is also where I have a scattering of cousins who I hadn't seen in a pretty long time.

I decided to take the train from Hamilton to Wellington, at the southern end of the North Island, catch the Interislander Ferry to Picton, and from there pick up a rental car to use in the South Island.

The kids were super excited about both the train and the boat!

We left Hamilton at 10:15 Thursday morning, by train. The Hamilton train station is completely nondescript, fortunately the trains make up for that!

The trains are very comfy - flash, you might say. We had a booth with a table so we could do puzzle books, as well as eat lunch on the train. Carson took over the maze book for a good hour, while the girls worked on brain teasers, and a 'Where's Waldo' - Angry Birds-style, book, as we railed our way through the grassy green Waikato. Of course there was some iPad time too, sooooo good for a 9 hour trip. I played 'Ticket To Ride' on mine of course....

The train has an open air carriage at the very front, it has a roof but no windows. We went up there as we passed by the central North Island where we got a nice shot of Mt Ruapehu.


The train only makes a few stops along the way, and we arrived into downtown Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, around 7PM. Took a short taxi to a hotel for our overnight stay.

On Friday morning we had a early start to the day as we checked in to the Ferry by 7:15AM.

Ready to board.

It was a wonderful surprise to wake up to a mostly sunny day for our Cook Strait crossing, it always make the journey better to have a beautiful day and not rough seasick-inducing seas. You just can never know what the weather might do at this time of the year - we lucked out. The crossing takes about 3 and a half hours, and the ferry carries both pedestrian travelers and those with cars. The ferry is ten decks high, and two are for vehicles. It has two cafes, a bar, and different seating areas in lounges as well as outside on the top deck.

We weren't able to get pictures of them, but the kids saw dolphins on two occasions, a highlight indeed. When I was a kid we would do the ferry trip about every other year, to visit our Grandparents and other rellies in Hokitika, on the West Coast of the South Island. Coming into the Marlborough Sounds is always my favorite part, with the land quite close on both sides of the boat.

Seeing the snow-capped Kaikoura Coast mountains rising from the Pacific Ocean is quite magical too.

Queen Charlotte Sound, Marlborough.

Delaney enjoying the window seat.

Carson with our destination in sight - Picton.

Our Ferry, the Kaitaki, in dock at Picton. From here we picked up a rental car, fantastically equipped with a USB connection might I add, and journeyed 5 hours south to Christchurch.

I think, 'by air ' deserves a post of it's own, so watch this space.