Friday, February 22, 2008

The Last Glimpse of Satellite US-193

As the mercury dipped below zero and I awaited the upcoming lunar eclipse, it would just so happen that the spy satellite US-193 passed overhead. It was shot down just a few hours later. The US claimed that the hydrazine gas aboard could have caused some danger to people below. One bummer is that China and Russia had just made an agreement not to use weapons in space. Well, our actions have changed all that. Regardless, it was scheduled to pass in the western sky at about 6:35pm and about 2 minutes after that I spotted it. I recorded it and now share it with you. Unfortunately, after you export and convert the original video, to make it visible here, it loses so much quality! I therefore provide just a few seconds glimpse of it. You can say you saw it at least! :(

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Becoming Ice Diver Certified

For many years now I've been meaning to get around to getting my scuba diving certification in ice diving. In simple words, it involves cutting a hole in the ice and scuba diving in the waters beneath it. Minnesota is one of the few places in the world where you can get this certification and they only offer this class once a year.

Being that I have a brief respite before I head back out on the road, I checked the calendar and sure enough, the class was offered the second week of my return. If not now, I asked myself, then when?! So, giving up a few weekday nights and a weekend, I decided to go for it.

The first evening was class time. Always anxious to get the darn show on the road, I was chomping at the bit! Our instructor was an Aussie who asked if we were ready for some "bloody good fun?" Yes, yes, let's get going! My impatience was further compounded as we were shown a lengthy video of a previous Antarctic excursion. This video seemed to drag on and on and while it was interesting, seeing the water, ice and some of the critters, I had had enough. They taunted a leopard seal for quite awhile, it snorting away and chopping at their cameras and fins. Had it not been for some previous footage of the gang, hanging out with Steve Irwin, my thoughts would have been preoccupied with only the frustrated maw of that seal which seemed to say, get out of my water! Hmm, Steve Irwin was right the midst of shooting his last series. Those pictures must of been taken just prior to his untimely end brought about by a stingray...

People had come from all over the states and elsewhere. Californians, South Carolinians, South Africans and Australians were in attendance.

OK. Our instructor got around to pointing out the basics. Scope out area, shovel snow from ice, cut a triangular hole in the ice with a chainsaw. Then, a ciruclar perimeter is marked out surrounding the area. You then shovel paths from the hole, out to the perimeter, like giant spokes on a wheel. You also shovel direction arrows in the snow which point towards the hole. The idea is, underneath the ice, you will be able to see these great big arrows pointing towards the hole. Theoretically, if you are lost you follow the arrows home. You also drill many auger holes on the spokes to let air from the divers escape. This is supposed to prevent too much air finding its way back to the entry hole and, over time, melting it too wide. A safety line is secured to the ice with an ice screw and this line will be attached to all the divers as they enter the hole and swim away from it.

The second evening was pool time! Another reason why I was excited about this course is that I could kill two birds with one stone. I would also receive my dry suit training! From now on, I could rent a dry suit anywhere I go. Without experience, you cannot. We brought the equipment we had and gathered together that which we rented. The dry suit I had, zipped open at the chest. You then enter, feet first, put your arms though the sleeves and the tight rubber gaskets at the ends. Finally, you push your head through the tight head gasket, much akin to the birthing process. The other gear is pretty much the same, but instead of depending upon your vest for buoyancy, a hose goes to your suit and you fill it with air by pushing a button at your chest and you release air by pushing a button near your left shoulder.

Once in the pool it was fun in happy. Having to be amongst the first, I plunged in and became quickly comfortable with the suit. The pool cover had been pulled over half the pool so that you could get aquainted with staying beneath the cover, without hitting it and control your ascent and descent. Next, was learning the ropes. The lead diver hooks the line to their vest or harness and holds the line in one hand as they swim. The second and third diver are attached to the line with eye-hooks and swim on opposite sides of one another. At the end of the line, out of the water is the line tender. They feed out line, reel it in and pull in case of emergencies. As a lead diver you must know the following tugs on the line: one tug is OK, two tugs for requesting more line, three tugs to ask for line to be taken up and four tugs (or more) for emergency reeling in. We practiced those and they went swimmingly.

Saturday morning we arrived early and drove our cars out on the lake. We prepared two diving holes and one mess area, all of which required tents. There was much shoveling, holes to be augered and tents to be raised. The set up took about two hours. I looked forward to the physical labor, however, because I knew it would help to warm me up. One student, in a great big beard and hipster glasses kept taking pictures and video. That just got on my nerves - doing work while he was spending all his time pointing his camera around. I later discovered he worked for the Discovery channel. But still, dangit!!!

Get me in the water, get me the water, get me in the water!!! Argh!!! Eventually, we started. The lead instructor read off the names of the first people to go in "A" hole and "B" hole. The diving commenced. But as I looked at both rosters, I discovered that he forgot to put me on! So, guess what? I'm diving last! How lame.

So, the entire day passed, out on the ice, going from tent to tent to stay out of the open-lake wind, enganging in conversations where peopled talked on and on about where they dived and their equipment and their this and their that. Alright, what did I expect? I was just impatient. Get me in the water!!!

When it came near time, I donned my suit and brought my gear over from my car in a sled. It went quickly. Every diver was supposed to do 2 consecutive dives. One for 20 minutes, return for a 10 minute break and then back for another 20 minute dive. As the group before me returned for their break, the instructor surfaced breathing heavily, saying that he was having issues with another diver's buoyancy and felt he couldn't handle it himself. So, that diver was pulled out and I was asked if I'd like to take his place. For sure I was, but found myself rushing the prep. So, on my gear went. A hood covered my head, weight belt around my waist, I sat in one of the triangular corners with my feet dangling in the water. Down upon me swarmed the assistants. As they do with every diver in an ice dive, they put your vest and tank on, secure and attach your hoses, put on your gloves and fins hand you your regulator. The lead diver dropped in, soon followed by second, then, me. I entered and bobbed about the surface. My vest was empty of air and I kept depressing the shoulder valve of my suit, but it too was empty. And one has to be careful. If you keep depressing the suit valve and there is no air in the suit, water begins to enter. Up I was pulled and they threw ankle weights on me. Down I plopped but still no sink. Up I was pulled and they threw weights on my tank. In I plopped and down I sank.

We descended in the cold water, our only exit disappearing behind us. The water was somewhat murky from the previous dives of 17 students. Normally, there would be a 50 foot visibility. Oh, well. I dove the lake many times before and so was familiar with the many platforms and bottom features. Not all that tremendously interesting. So, I tried to focus as much as I could upon the ceiling for enjoyment.

How can I describe what the netherside of the ice looks like? Imagine someone took a sheet of glass and placed upon it a sheet of oily wax paper. From beneath the ice you look up to see a glassy ceiling, mostly gray, but with many spatterings of white blotches, pockets and occassional fissures and cracks.

It was cold. I had but 5mm gloves on my hands and with no air in my suit, there was little insulation. With a tug of the line we were notified that our 20 minutes was up. We ascended. When asked if I wanted to lead, I jumped at the chance. After my break, I plopped in again. I swam out to the extent of my rope and then began to pivot in a great arc. I tried to study many different things to distract me from my timer which did not go as quickly as I would have liked. I was very cold. In my mind, I said to myself, 'I've been much colder than this.' Looking back, I saw that one of the instructors got himself quite tangled in the line. I slowed and then helped the other instructor untangle him. I let my thoughts contimplate 'what if's' such as, what if another diver had additional complications or the line had to be pulled in quickly at some point. Just for exploratiive contemplation I also imagined a panicky situation. There was naught but the hole to return to and that extended back in the foggy distance, as said the line.

After the instructor was free of entanglement and I abandoned my interesting thoughts, we swam on. Then, the tug on the line signified it was time to return. Return we did. As I was pulled out of the water, the attendant, with spikey crampons on their feet, absent-mindedly stepped on my hand as he pulled up. Didn't feet too good and put a hole in my new glove! But I kept that wonderful sensation to myself and to you. However, first diving day was done!

The next day I was happy. I had been promised that I got to dive first as I had to dive last the day before. I got suited up and joined a good fellow diver. Today we were at "B" hole. We dropped in and my buoyancy was annoying once again, but I forced myself beneath the ice by pushing myself off from the ceiling. We descend some five minutes when I noticed it was free flowing from my regulator. This happens when your first or second stage freezes. I signaled to the instructor a few times and he did not seem too concerned. So, I illustrated the point by removing my regulator from my mouth to show him the continous flow. I wanted to finish the dive and not return early but also knew that I would be out of air before 20 minutes would pass! He signaled me to return.

I popped up through the hole. Told them I had a free flow and they immediately responded with hot water down the regulator and on the first stage of the tank. That stopped the flow. Down I sunk again. We continued our dive. Eventually, we received the 'time's up' signal and returned to the hole. I checked my pressure and saw that under 500 on my tank - usually a mark you want to end above. As I neared the hole I noticed a dizzy, light-headedness that I had never had before whilst diving. Glad the hole was approaching, I popped up, was pulled out and starting breathing earth air again. I think I may have been running low on air. I was happy that I had made it through the dives.

So, it is done. The Aussie instructor's excitement was somewhat infectious when he would ask, "wasn't that bloody good fun?" And there was a dive that I was tending line for and at it's end, he popped up through the hole and asked, "Who was tending?!" I apprehensively said it was me and he commented that that was great line-tending! That made me feel good. But it was much more about the challenge, the adventure and achievement for me. I don't think I will frequent such a thing but I do look forward to other chances in the future. Perhaps shooting video under the waters of Antarctica of other such places. I am thankful I survived, got to experience a stressful situation with a solid frame of mind, saw the underbelly of a frozen lake and am now certified.

The most fun thing? For me it was playing with the exhaled bubbles beneath the ice. If they did not find a vent hole, they did not know what to do and so would pool in places on the glass ceiling. I liked to touch them with my gloves and move them around like balls of mercury.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Caucus Day

My friend told me that caucuses had changed this year and you could just show up, vote and leave. No longer did you have to hang out at the caucus as people passed resolutions to do knee-jerk things like impeach Bush. (Well said!) So, I shot up to the local high school after work to do just that. It was just as I was entering the doorway that it hit me – this event is much larger than usual. I made my way through the line and figured out that you could just look at the neighborhood map to find your ward and precinct and then, classroom. The numbers were so great that volunteers were having trouble getting any information across. So, we had just stood in line until figuring out that puzzle.

Making my way to the classroom I was greeted by an anxious volunteer in his thirties. He recited a joking reminder to every new individual that came in, that, for many years, it was just he and his wife representing his ward and precinct but that tonight, it would be different. He asked if I had caucused here before and, sure enough, all I had to do was point to the very top of list where my name was printed. I waited until 6:30, voted, and then left. (There was even a moment of shock when I saw my old sixth grade teacher buzz in, offer some directions and then leave.)

As I made my way back out towards the entrance it all began to hit me rather heavily. At first I reflected upon the fact that there were Obama posters everywhere, tickets for the soul food dinner being sold and the largest representation of African Americans I had ever witnessed at a political caucus. Perhaps it shouldn’t be as surprising, living in the neighborhood I do, that minorities had such a presence. But it was something new. It most certainly was. This was the first time in history that an African American had reach such a close proximity to the most powerful position in our nation’s government. In honesty, what difference did it make to me whether or not it was Hillary or Obama? I began to feel a bit shameful for writing down Hillary. It’s true all I hear when Obama opens his mouth is “new direction.” Hillary usually provides at least 4 points she represents, health care, strengthening middle class, etc., etc. But I had never seen such a presence of empowerment in the African Americans assembled.

The second thing to hit me was what hit everyone that attended their caucus – holy cow what a turnout! History is being made tonight! People of every race, gender, age were there mixed together. Every demographic imaginable was there!

Please allow me some of my ethnocentric patriotism, but what could be more American than this? Where else could you have so many people of such a wide spectrum, actively participating in a regime that is over 200 years old?! And regardless of who are next President is keep in mind that the 4 top candidates represent 4 areas of distinct discrimination – race, gender, age and religion. No matter who it is, it will be an historic first!

Yes, this could be “Democratic happiness” which many liberals felt last night, but it regardless, it was fantastic! A friend told me that on NPR a woman had stated, “This is the best thing that George Bush has done for the country!” Yes, that is probably true.

Enough politics for now! This was just a very momentous and truly historic American occasion!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Days of Champagne

On Wednesday we drove down I70 to Frisco, Vail and Copper Mountain. It had decided to snow and so the road that would otherwise accommodate a speed limit of 65mph was slowed to 20mph. This was due to cautious drivers ahead of us and the occasional semi. Visibility was low and so was unable to see the rock formation that lends its name to Rabbit Pass.

As we had time, we went to the press office at Copper Mountain and picked up our press passes. Along with the free passes we were also provided with a free 5 day lift ticket. We checked in briefly to the tiny, one room lodge we were staying at, got suited up for yet another run on the slopes and then skied the remainder of the day at Copper. The wind and cold were somewhat brutal and dusk brought us in. For dinner we went to the Himalayan restaurant as we were in Frisco again.

On Thursday we shot at some of the largest and most extravagant of resorts I had seen. The rooms alone were grandiose and astonishing, with their gigantic chandaliers, vaulted wood ceilings and enormous views of the mountain slopes. The footage had to include all of their amenities and these included a three court tennis facility, a basketball court, a gym with a small track, all types of weight equipment, racquetball courts, pool, hot tub and spinning room. In addition to these there was a spa for the super indulgent.

That being completed we drove to Vail village to get some area footage. Vail is modeled after a European ski village. There were at least four fur shops. One even had, displayed in the window, died red fur, just in time for Valentine’s Day! Isn’t that nice? I got the feel for the place pretty quickly and we were not too enthusiastic to explore more, but hunger did call. For lunch we had Jagerschnitzel. It was breaded pork medallions with creamy onion sauce along with red cabbage and spaztle.

We had time to hit the slopes so we took a few runs. This time there was even more powder than my previous jaunts.

We ended the Copper day taking a stop at the athlete meet and greet. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it wasn’t as ‘hip’ as I was speculating. Instead of a bunch of wild chicks and dudes out of a Mountain Dew commercial it was more like an after school hang out. Pop and pizza! Our visit was brief. I thought it would have made more sense to go to the press party. Regardless, I was happy. No obligatory schmoozing! We then head to a bar where my director kept buying. So, I maintained like a good lad. It’s always good to show your constitution from time to time.

After that we drove to Frisco. Just when I thought we may be heading to get some grub somewhere we pull up for another beverage. It was a local’s bar and I immediately befriended a oil pipeline layer from Waco and a body shop worker from Portland. I especially like these parts. Meeting folks like this. So, we chatted on topics ranging from running “pigs” through pipelines (those are those robotic pipeline cleaners they send scurrying through pipes) to the quality of 3M clear coat and bra. My Portland companion thought 3M made the best product bar none! It’s the most expensive, but the best. It wasn’t the first time I had heard that. Well, I had to get myself some grub and my boss was not hungry, saying he never eats as much as he had with me. So, he retired to the place and I got myself a burger with ham, I believe it was called a ‘Moose” and was joined by another couple from Denver and a dude from Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. I ate my burger, exchanged more banter and then walked the block or so back to our lodging.

Friday we hit the slopes. It was snowing, snowing, snowing! That meant powder. We took the lifts to the highest parts above timberline and began to play. This was my first real, real powder - the kind that mists and flies as you soar through it. Much of the powder was at least up to your knees and I would soon find some even deeper than that.

My boss was more experienced and more adventurous and so would lead into areas I would occasionally go. When he asked if I wanted to drop back into the other side of the mountain, I said I was up for anything but there was a chance that I would be damn slow. However, the deeper we pushed in, the more powder we found. Some of it was to be found in yet neglected pockets, while even more was in the trees!

It’s amazing how much braver you become in powder. I had always speculated that it would be the case, and it is. Skiing on champagne powder is like skiing on Cool Whip. It takes more effort for sure but it also returns much more of a reward. You swoosh and swoom in the whip which swallows you sometimes deeply. Occasionally, you go so deep that it swallows your board and you take a tumble. I took such a tumble whilst in the trees.

With the snow falling, the trees as in photos and a new experience beckoning, it is difficult not to embrace some element of discovery. So, in I went. I had gone in before, but to shoot back out again, always mindful of an exit. But this time was just trees. I saw my boss disappear in an adjacent lane and I took another, but my edge sunk deeply and I tried to skirt a tree but it’s hole sucked me in. I was stuck. But as is usually the case in playing in the snow, it’s always fun! However, I was really stuck and had to dig down and undo my bindings and leash. But once the board was free my legs were free as well, so down they sunk. I was up to my armpits in powder. I mean, it was fun. I was all alone with tons of snow and a pine forest piled in thick powder. But struggling through such weight makes your heart jackhammer, especially at elevation. Eventually I swam to more of a compressed flat, put on the board and away I went.

The remainder of the day was shooting some athletes in the half pipe and more skiing in powder. I even bravely followed the lead of my boss as he shot down in a little slalom between closely spaced pines. Making the cuts and exit successfully made me happy, but on to more open spaces for me! The more experienced can have the trees and I’ll play in them from time to time.

One last thing. It was neat to see the affect of powder upon people. I saw two Japanese skiers, dressed very alike in white jacket, pants and helmet. As they passed just below the lift I was on, one laid back for a moment on their skis and allowed the powder to envelop their body as they swooshed through. Then, as that individual rose, the other followed in an identical gesture. It made me laugh. You could also see buddies in there fifties or so, make flying paths into the trees and play a little game of hide and seek, laughing like children as one would exit before the other. Laughter was common, though the snow provided a nice damper on the sound, making everyone feel secure and embraced.

Tomorrow looks to be like an all day ski. My boss’ bro is coming to town and then we are hitting the slope. Just on more day – that is how I am looking at it. But the trip has been an awesome one. Even though this is not my ideal zone and has been somewhat of a myopic ski-focus, it has exposed me to incredible experience. Most importantly, I feel competent in running the job. I’ve had lots of practice. Of course, I’m looking forward to getting comfortable doing this on my lonesome. Getting into a routine, making it my own, yeah, it will come in time. And it looks as though I’ll have lots of practice. Some very exciting destinations are already on the schedule.

Thanks for being an audience. I’ve not had any alone time in almost a month, living pretty much at beckon call. These words help me to escape a bit. Future logs should be less like I'm talking to myself.

Since we leave our lodging and will be at my boss’ bros tomorrow night I don’t think I’ll have computer access. But, upon returning on Sunday I’ll try to touch base with those that I can. That is, until the next little adventure!

Til’ then I’ll be bombin the champagne Copper pow!