The Beauty of Alaska – Part 2

Before we get on to the finale of this adventure a couple things – first sorry it took a few more days to this posted but the shed roof called and we had to finish it while the weather was good. Second I apologize for the small images in the last post. I am still getting the knack of WordPress and I did not realize that the mosaic would actually shrink the photos down to a size that was low-res when expanded. I will post photos as individual on this one.

Juneau

Juneau is the capital of Alaska and as such is the largest city in SE Alaska with a population of a little over 30,000 most of whom either work in government or tourism. It is a typical city but far from a metropolis. Again they have a tourist shopping district right off the cruise ship docks and there were at least 5 in port that day. Like all of the ports the mountains and pines loom over the city providing a great backdrop. Since we had no sun, the clouds hung over the city blocking out all but the tallest peaks.

Our first stop here was the Mendenhall Glacier which is surrounded by the Tongass National Forest – the largest National Forest in the US. (It is 19 million acres which is over 6 times as large as the Mark Twain National Forest where we live). The glacier is a receding glacier that terminates in a small lake with a great view from the paths that go down along the water. It is not as large or spectacular as Hubbard but it is quite beautiful especially the way the mountains, lake and glacier harmonize the view. It was here at the nature area that we finally saw a bear. As we walked down an elevated path a group was gathered looking down into the brush and there was a brown coated black bear eating a salmon it had just caught. It was unperturbed by its meal time audience and once it was done it moved on for another catch. We talked to a ranger who said it was a female who is 17 years old and had three cubs. We did not see the cubs but we were very excited to get close look at momma. We were also surprised to find out that black bears come in several colors so you have to look at the ears and back hump to tell if it is a black or brown bear.

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Mendenhall Glacier and the proglacial lake it flows into

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A black bear enjoying a lunch of fresh salmon along the walkway at the Mendenhall glacier site

After Mendenhall we went to Glacier Gardens which is on a former landslide area that the owner shored up and rebuilt into a lovely garden area. The claim to fame are the  flower beds planted in the roots of trees turned upside down. It is a steep ride up the hillside to a nice observation point and the flowers are beautiful – totally unexpected in a climate like this. Because of the climate they dig up the plants in the fall and replant them in the spring. The hanging baskets in the gift shop at the end are gorgeous and fill the air with a lovely scent.

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The signature planting in the roots of the upside-down tree at Glacier Gardens

The last stop was a salmon hatchery. Because SE Alaska was so overfished in the last century, the only way to re-populate the various salmon varieties is these large scale hatchery operations. There are several along the coast and they release tens of millions of salmon into the waters of the area every year. The hatchery was not operating since we were there on a weekend day but we got to see the salmon ladder filled with fish coming back to spawn and also the tanks of fry fish waiting to grow large enough to put in the water. The fish are tagged a couple of different ways so that when they are caught by commercial fisherman, they know where they come from. This is to make sure they pay their share to the hatchery which is a major source of funding for these hatcheries. The government provides some funding and the rest comes from tours and other since these are all non-profit endeavors. For more information you can visit this site.

After the hatchery we wandered around downtown Juneau where we saw the state capital building which is just a regular office building. We ended our tour of downtown with a ride on the tram to Mount Roberts. It a large tram and at the top of the mountain are trails, a nature center and other interesting things to see. It was pricey but the view at the top was great.

Skagway

The last port we stopped at was Skagway which is the only town with a road out. In fact we rode that highway all the way up to Fraser, British Columbia in Canada where we caught the Yukon and White Pass Railroad for the amazing scenic ride back to Skagway. Even if you are not a train person this is worth the time and money.  The scenery from the bus on the highway was great but it is way better from the train side. Spectacular gorges, waterfalls, glaciers and wildlife are all things you see on the train side. The crew of the train does a great job making sure you don’t miss a thing and for you steam engine folks they do have a steam engine that makes a couple runs a day.

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Single cantilever bridge on the Yukon highway from a stop right after our tour bus drove across

One of the most interesting stories told on the trip was how during the gold rush, Skagway was the supply port for the miners and the Canadian Mounties were so tired of people coming through who had no idea what to prepare for that they made a rule that to get in Canada you had to have a 1000 pounds of supplies like bacon, flour, coffee and other staples. If you did not, they would send you back. That meant you had to have a pack animal and this created a market for unscrupulous operators to bring in old and tired horses and mules to sell for a huge profit. So many of these animals died from exposure, old age, sickness and lack of food (the miners didn’t want to bring any more food than they thought necessary), that one area was called Dead Horse Gulch. It was said the the trail was so packed with miners heading north that if you got out of the line for any reason it could be a day or more before you got a chance to get back on the trail.

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A smaller glacier in the mountains on the way back on the train. This is typical of the many glaciers we saw in Alaska.

 

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Our train as it made a stop in downtown Skagway

After the train ride we visited a little spot called Liarsville which was a re-creation of a tent city that was typical during the gold rush. They feed you grilled salmon and then do a little show and some panning for gold flakes. Not the most interesting stop on the cruise but still fun. The last stop on this excursion was the Red Onion Saloon which had a brothel tour. As you would expect when you have men with money long way from home the working gals follow. The tour was interesting and the gal conducting had a great personality and of course was dressed in the garb of the day. Afterwards we walked around the town a bit but it is small so not a lot to see. The national park service has re-created a saloon that is well done with mannequins and some interpretive exhibits on life in Skagway during the gold rush. Like most of the stops tourism is the major economic driver here.

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When a cruise ship makes its first stop in Skagway, the crew paints a tribute to the captain on this mountainside at the docks. The rumor is the more the crew likes the captain, the higher up the mountain the sign is painted.

Tracy Arm 

This was our last stop on the way back to Vancouver and it is a long fjord that ends where Sawyer Glacier terminates. It is another tidewater glacier like Hubbard but is not as large or as active. The day we were there it did not calve but it was spectacular and the mountains to either side were beautiful and had their own smaller glaciers as well as a small little waterfall running down from the top. We did get to see a mountain goat laying on a flat spot on one of the hills. The sun was out and it was a very pleasant day which made being on deck and seeing the natural beauty a joy. One of the things that registers is how quiet it is in these fjords. You kind of shutout the background noise of your cruise mates and just listen to the birds and the wind and think of how such an unspoiled place can exist in out world today. As we slowly made our way out of the fjord it was clear that our trip was coming to a close and civilization lie ahead.

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Sawyer glacier at the end or Tracy Arm fjord. Notice the black lines where different flows meet. Also notice the small boat at the right. It gives some reference to how tall the face of the glacier is.

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A double waterfall in Tracy Arm. Notice the different colors in the rock.

Vancouver Port

After a day and half at sea we arrived in port and navigated the lines for the taxi, the ride to the airport, customs and the whole check in process. We had a late enough flight that we were never pressed for time even though from the time we walked down the gangplank until we reached the gate was nearly three hours.

Sitting in the airport waiting for our flight I thought about all the great scenery we saw as well as the wildlife and the people of SE Alaska. I thought about how different a life the people lead, both those who come up for the tourist season and those who live there year round. I though about how we have visited all 50 states in the U.S. and how different so many are and I pondered how I hope Alaska never loses the beauty and wonder of it’s unique nature. I may never get to the mainland of Alaska but I am sure it is also very interesting and beautiful in its own unique way. I relished the wonderful time we had aboard the Disney Wonder and time spent with the two gals from Germany who were our table mates for dinner each night. It was a great nine days and I am so happy that Janice and I had a chance to share this adventure and am looking forward to many other travels we have planned. I hope you have enjoyed my journal of this adventure and if you haven’t been to Alaska yet, I hope you can find a way. You will enjoy it.

The Beauty of Alaska – Part 1

When I sat down to write this I was planning to do a travelogue piece describing each day’s adventure on both the ship and the shore but I think that might get boring quickly so instead I am going to focus on the shore excursions and what we saw and experienced in amazing southeastern Alaska.

The first thing you notice coming up out of Vancouver is the fact that everything along this western coast of Canada is an island. Some large and some small but all are covered in mountains and pine trees – mostly Sitka pine (the state tree of Alaska) and western hemlock. The other interesting feature is that the islands have steep shores with no beach or easy place to land a boat. As you go up the mountainside the trees get shorter and you see open spots covered with green where an occasional mountain goat can be seen. As you go up even further you go past the tree line and the rock gets bare with a scrub bush here and there and snow. At the top of the larger peaks glaciers are seen increasing in frequency the further north you go up the coast.

Ketchikan

The first city in Alaska we stopped at was Ketchikan which is the southern most town in Alaska and also the wettest city in the US. You wouldn’t expect to hear that about any place in Alaska but it is true. Ketchikan gets around 160 inches of rain every year. In 1949 they got over 200 inches. Why do they get so much rain? Because of the unique combination of coastal climate and topography. The prevailing easterly winds carry a lot of moisture from the Pacific into the island which butts up against the mountains very close to shore. This causes clouds to build right over the town and since they have no where to go they saturate and then it rains. Temperatures are mild in the summer even when they have no sun (which is frequently) and even in winter it is usually above freezing at sea level so lots of rain. As you move north the moisture content is a little less and the mountains are arranged a little differently which means less rain in places like Juneau but more snow higher up which means more glaciers.

Ketchikan was a fishing and mining town back in the first half of the 20th century but today the mining is gone and the fishing is recovering from the near extinction of salmon in this area decades ago – I’ll get into that more when I talk about Juneau. Today it survives on tourism and that is primarily from the cruise ships. From May to October there are at least two ships in port every day and sometimes as many as a half-dozen. They get no driving tourists because there are no roads into town, in fact of the four ports we made only Skagway has a road in and out. Even Juneau the state capital has no roads in or out. The only way is by boat or plane. The reason is glaciers. There are so many that it is not worth the cost of going around them to meet up with the Alaskan highway. Because so many people work in tourism the towns thrive for six months and then the year-round folks survive on what they save and the out-of-towners head back to Canada or the lower 48.

We did a crab excursion where we took a boat ride out to an area where the crab pots are and Janice got to pull the pot full of Dungeness crabs up and then we got to take a closer look. The green hills and clear water made for a interesting ride although I was hoping to see a bear or other wildlife. After the crabbing experience we had a wonderful feast of Dungeness crab which is not as large as king or snow but just as tasty. Walking around the town of Ketchikan was fun once you get by all the jewelry stores and other tourist businesses. The buildings are not fancy but it is interesting to look over a block of buildings and have mountains looming over them – when you can see though the clouds.

The iconic welcome sign, a statue honoring the different trades that made Ketchikan and a nice carving in the totem style in the square.

Icy Strait Point

Icy Start Point is a small island northwest of Ketchikan that has a native Tlingit village at one end and a tourist area at the other. They built a dock complex that can accommodate at least two or three cruise ships at a time and there are many activities to do while there. The first thing off the boat is a walking trail that goes through a wooded area that has grown up from a clear cut nearly 100 years ago. The tide was out when we arrived meaning Janice could wander around and see some tide pools. Alaska has a diurnal tide meaning they get high and low tide twice a day. Typical tide here varies by about 14 feet – a challenge for dock builders. Also at this stop is a cannery museum which detailed the crude but efficient system used for canned salmon. An interesting display had dozens of labels from canned salmon over the years and I recognized a few of them from my younger days- Mom made a great tasting salmon patty. One the more popular things to do here is a mile long zip line where you can reach speeds of 60 mph. (not my cup of tea) Also popular was kayaking and nature boat rides. We did a whale watching trip that took us out to a spot where we got to see three or four humpback whales. That was exciting! We got to see them blow, surface a bit and then see the tail fluke as they went down again to grab some food or just swim below the surface. We did not get to see a breech but I was very happy to see what we did. Did you know that the underneath or a whale’s fluke is as individual as a fingerprint? I didn’t and it was interesting to see that they catalog each whale and can see where they move around. Another thing I did not know was that the whales we saw here go to Hawaii in the winter and then come back to Alaska in the spring. They don’t seem very large when you are standing on the observation deck of the catamaran but when they come close you get an idea of how large they are.

On the way back in from the whales we stopped at a channel bouy where two sea lions were perched enjoying a lazy afternoon. They seemed to almost pose for our pictures. When we walked back to the boat the tide was up and the tide pools were gone so Janice was happy she took time to look before we headed out on our excursion.

Whale fluke and sea lions on a buoy

Hubbard Glacier

Hubbard Glacier is at the end of Disenchantment Bay well north and west of Juneau. It is the largest tidewater glacier in North America and it is an advancing glacier meaning it grows most years. To see it up close from a cruise is impressive considering it is several hundred feet high most of it below the water. It is roughly seven miles wide where it meets the ocean and it flows about 74 miles from it source. We were fortunate that the day we went the ship was able to navigate through the hundreds of icebergs and floes to get within about a half-mile. This enabled us to see a lot of detail in the face of the glacier especially with binoculars. The first thing you notice is the colors. When I think of a glacier I think of a white mass of snow and ice and in the winter up in the mountains that is what you see. But as the glacier moves down the mountain and melts you see the icy blue color of unspoiled water and different shades of brown and black from dirt and rocks that have been passengers along the hundreds of years trek toward the ocean. The other thing is the number of crevices and holes in the glacier. This is from the process of uneven melting as well as the calving process – that is when pieces of the glacier break off into the sea making an iceberg. The day we visited the glacier was calving regularly -several times and hour. Sometimes all you would hear is the boom as a large piece fell tens or hundreds of feet into the water. This sound is called “white thunder” by the native Tlingit. Without a doubt this was one of the most awe-inspiring stops on the cruise.

 

A beautiful glacier on the way to Hubbard, ice floes on the way in to the glacier, and Hubbard Glacier.

For those of you who want to see what a calving glacier looks like I posted a short video here. I didn’t want this post to be too long so I have split it into two parts and will post the other which covers Juneau, Skagway and Tracy Arm tomorrow.

 

Alaska the 50th State

I can hear you already saying “Alaska is the 49th state – Hawaii is the 50th” and you are correct. What the title means is that for Janice and I, Alaska is the 50th state we have visited. This is not as common as one might guess – the estimates I have seen are about .3 to .5% of the US population. There is even a club you can join and get a commemorative plaque.

In researching this post it was interesting to note that the requirement for “visiting” a state varies widely. The club has a FAQ that says “A person has visited a state if he or she has set foot on the ground of  that state and breathed the air.” I would say that is a fair definition and one we certainly have met. Some take it farther like staying a night or having a meal or just stopping for at least an hour. One thing everyone agrees on is that flying over a state does not count.

Some people ask why and I say why not. We love to travel by car (or in our case minivan) because that way we can take the backroads and poke our noses into the small towns or attractions that are off the beaten path. Over the past several years we have done that with trips to New England, the Southeast and the West. The last two big trips that covered states one or both of us had not been to was the Denver trip in 2008 when we came back Old Route 66 and covered several states in the southwest and then the Spokane Wordcon trip in 2015 which covered the northwest. We had been to Hawaii even before that and the rest we had done in bits and pieces so we were left with just Alaska. That is one of the reasons we took the Alaskan cruise, the main one of course being we had heard how spectacular the scenery was. (Plus Disney Cruises always equal fun)

In case you are about to ask – no I can’t say we have a favorite. The diversity of this great country is such that each area and state is unique and has something interesting. Some states like Washington or Colorado have great scenery and awesome vistas. Other states like Pennsyvania or Massachusetts are steeped in history and culture. But even a state in the midwest like Missouri has so many places of interest like the Gateway Arch or Lake of the Ozarks or the Mark Twain National forest. Every state has had something that drew our interest.

Does this mean we will slow down on our travels since we have been to every state? Not in the least. Each state has many things to see that we either didn’t have time to see or didn’t know were there when we visited the first or last time. Our outlook is that we should do as much traveling as time and money allow because as you get older, physical limitations can occur and someday travel may not be an option. That will be a sad day and hopefully one that does not occur for many, many years.

There will be some more cruise related posts coming so stay tuned.

 

Rural Internet Thoughts

Last week Microsoft made a big announcement about how they are going to invest a sum of money into bringing broadband to the 25 million rural Americans who don’t currently have access. I applaud this effort because it is sorely needed and it will be the heat death of the universe before telecoms will spend the money to build out these sparse areas. Since many of you reading this have good to great internet I thought I would give you a little idea of what it has been like here in a very rural part of Missouri.

When we moved here to the farm in 2009 we had dial-up service through our telephone provider CenturyLink. We had established this before we moved so when we came down for a weekend to move stuff we could get on the internet and check email and browse the web. We had DSL in Chicago (at that time a whopping 768Kb service) so dial-up was not feasible long term.

CenturyLink had announced it was bringing DSL to our area but as it turned out the copper wire and old infrastructure was so bad they could only get reliable service about 2 miles down the road from the equipment building on the main highway which left us about three miles short. We had no cell service (still don’t) so the only high-speed internet option was satellite. At the time we could have chosen between Wild Blue (not around any more) and HughesNet. We chose HughesNet since they had a better plan and more history. The service was 3 Meg down but only 128K up -way better than dialup and faster on the download than our previous DSL in Chicago. The slow upload was not an issue at the time but the other two limitations that come with satellite -high latency and quotas – were major downsides.

High latency means you get pings of around 600 to 900 ms which causes delays in opening web pages and can also cause sites to think you are dropping packets and keep resending which means pages sometimes don’t load. Secure websites can be more sensitive to high ping rates. The reason you get this with a satellite is because in order to cover a large area of the globe, these birds are in geosynch orbit which is 22,500 miles above the earth. So a signal has to travel from our dish to the bird, then back down to the ground station that connects to the web then back up to the bird and back down to our dish – a round trip of 90,000 miles. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second so that is a half second right there. Then add the typical times to process and such and you get those long ping times.

For the most part you get used to the extra time it takes to open pages and delays caused by this but the quotas are the real bugaboo. Since the satellite has a limited capacity they have to try to balance the usage among all the users, during the day and evening we had 350 MB per day of use. For web browsing and email that was not a problem. Updates and large file downloads were the issue. These had to be downloaded during our “free” time between 2AM and 7AM.

Even with these restrictions in the early days this setup was fine but then a few years later we both had iPads, social media was in full swing plus mobile games meant the daily quota was onerous. We ran over several days a month and the slow down to basically dialup speeds was horrible. Then Janice got the opportunity to be a beta tester for HughesNet and that meant the daily quota was increased to 500MB and anything left over was added the next day which helped some. We still had to do updates at night or for the iPads we could drag them into town and use wi-fi at places like restaurants and such.

We would call CenturyLink every six months and ask when we were going to get DSL and we always got the same response “You are on the list but we can’t say when it will be available”. Every time we would see a spool of orange cable being installed in the county we would be jealous and wonder if maybe we were next. Last spring we read in the local paper that CenturyLink had accepted a large portion of the funds from the government to build out broadband to unserved areas here in Missouri. A few months later we had some line problems with the phone and while talking with the repair tech he said we were supposed to get DSL this year. So far no orange cable.

But don’t feel too sorry for us because earlier this year HughesNet put a new satellite online and Janice got in on the beta. In May we got a new dish put up (it is a little bigger than the old one) and a new modem which has the router built in and we have rocking internet for the first time here at the farm. We get 15-25 Meg download speeds and 3 Meg upload which is very sweet. Updates that would take hours are now done in minutes. We can stream video if we want as long we don’t watch a movie every day (we still have a quota) but the quota is monthly instead of daily. When we go out of town or on vacation we don’t lose the data for the day. The bonus period is not unlimited but it is large enough that we would never use it all in a month and it goes to 8AM which means in the morning when we use the internet the most we are mostly on the bonus time and we can do updates then because they finish well before the bonus period expires. Happily the one month we went over our limit the day before the month end, our speeds were not much slower. As more people sign up for this upgraded service we may see some slow down but for now it is sweet.

The latency still exists but even it is a bit less either due to the faster upload speed and/or some improvements to the ground network. Since we aren’t real concerned about video streaming this setup is exactly what we need. If DSL ever does come we will see what kind of speeds they offer and at what price to see if it is actually better. Hopefully we will have that chance but I would not be surprised if it is years before we see DSL here in our corner of the Ozarks.

In summary if your only option is satellite there are at least two providers almost everywhere and if you have reasonable expectations about what your service will provide you likely be satisfied. Online gaming is likely to be impossible because of the latency , facetime or Skype may be a little out of synch, large data downloads will have to be done off peak and you will be very limited in your video streaming. As long as you accept that, satellite is not as bad as some would make you think and certainly better than it was last decade.

Chickens

Chicken is one the country’s most popular foods; we fry it, bake, form it into nuggets and of course who doesn’t like wings. But chickens are also one of the most popular forms of livestock for most people. Almost every farm has chickens and many homeowners in not so rural areas have a few hens as well (no roosters allowed in the city). Why you ask? Because they are easy to raise and are entertaining – some breeds are quite striking in their appearance – and of course fresh eggs. Farm eggs are the best hands down especially if you like your yolks runny (like I do) due to the yolks dark, rich color and flavor.

To get started raising chickens you either buy newly hatched chicks from a hatchery, or you get some fertile eggs from a neighbor who has chickens (and we have a neighbor who has a LOT of chickens). And the basics of biology indicate you need to have a rooster to get fertilized eggs. Did you know the eggs you buy in a store are typically not fertilized? That’s because hens will poop out eggs almost daily regardless of a rooster or not. And yes the eggs come out the same opening as the poop – even the eggs in the store contrary to some reports on the internet. When we first started out years ago we got chicks from a hatchery. One advantage to a hatchery is if you only want eggs you can get just females and not bother with a rooster. The other is that you don’t need any equipment to incubate the eggs.

Now we have a couple of incubators and hatch our own. Small incubators are not expensive and will hold about 30 chicken eggs and has a rack that tips the eggs back and forth at intervals. You have to move the eggs regularly or they won’t hatch properly and turning them over manually is a chore. The incubator has a fan and temperature control and just needs a bit or water from time to time to keep the humidity up. This setup is less than a $100.

Since that first batch years ago we have hatched eggs we collected, bought more chicks from hatcheries and even raised some ducks, geese and turkeys. We have even gone a while without chickens but last year we got a batch going and have enjoyed eggs from them as well as the antics of the roosters who we keep in the yard except at night and they have personalities all their own. The most interesting is when they get all macho and go at each other neck feathers expanded and everything. You can see how they are descended from dinosaurs.

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Our current ducks

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These are our current hens trying to stay cool on a warm day

This spring Janice put a couple dozen eggs in the incubator from our neighbor who has chickens of all breeds. We had a real good hatch with all but a few eggs hatching. The eggs take about 21 days to hatch and there is always an early bird (groan) who starts pipping first. A little crack in the eggs is visible and then it gets larger until you can see the beak poking out. Over an 8-12 hour period the chick is furiously pecking away and eventually cracks through the shell to greet the world. During this time it is cheeping away and as more start hatching the chorus builds.

They can survive a day or so without food and water while they dry out and then they get moved into a brooder. We use a large tote in the back room with pine shavings, a waterer and a feeder. These are essential and need attention frequently as chicks have just four activities for this period in their life – eat, drink, poop and sleep – repeated several times a day. Their chirping is fun to listen to and they grow so fast you could swear you see it happen before your eyes.

They start to feather out in just a few days starting at the wings and once they have gotten most of their first feathering in they can survive outdoors unless it is the middle of winter. They get moved to a small pen we built just for this phase which has a heat lamp for cool nights and a larger feeder because they still eat like pigs. It has chicken wire around three sides with plastic we can pull down at night to keep the predators at bay. When we first built this pen we just had a wire bottom to let the poop fall through but the predators (mostly raccoons and skunks) would reach through it and pull their victim down through the wire. Now we have a wooden board underneath which has stopped these nefarious attacks.

After about 10-14 weeks they are too big for the small pen and get moved to a regular coop with a box for getting out of the rain and roosting and night safe from predators. During the day they roam around the larger caged in area digging in the dirt and eating any bugs that fly in along with the feed we give them. The hens won’t lay eggs for a few months yet and by next year the older hens we get eggs from now will start dropping off in production. The roosters are another story. They are starting to be noticeably larger and getting their wattles and crown as well trying to crow. At first it sounds more like a strangle than a crow but each day it gets a little better. So far only one is crowing but the others will start soon. It is hard to tell how many roosters we will get but so far we seem to have a lot more hens which is good since the roosters are good for entertainment value only.

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The new batch picking around for food

Of course crowing is not the only thing a young rooster starts to do, the natural urge starts and soon the hens will start sporting bare spots on their back where the rooster mounts. Once it gets too annoying, we will put the roosters out of the coop and they can fend for themselves in the yard. They will not like that at first, in fact they will walk all around the outside of the pen trying to get in but eventually they will realize that is not going to happen and they will start to wander. At night we put them in the cage but the coop door is closed to keep them away from the hens. We will keep one rooster with the hens to get fertilized eggs so we can hatch another batch when ready.

Now you know more than ever wanted to know or need to about chickens.

TV Musings

We don’t watch much TV in the summer (which allows us to catch up on movies) but I thought it was time to mention a few shows:

Salvation – This is a new summer series on CBS that is about an asteroid that will hit the earth on 6 months. Of course it is a planet killer and we have the usual plot lines as to the government trying to deflect it and a tech wizard knowing that is futile so let’s use ark ships to save humanity. The first episode was interesting even though the characters were all thin. We’ll see what develops over the next few episodes.

Candy Crush – The trailers for the show looked interesting – the show not so much. First of all they are using celebrity type contestants from past CBS shows like Survivor and Big Brother which are not shows I care about at all. Then the competition is not really that interesting. To me it looks like a way for CBS to try to capture younger audiences but it failed miserably. It is off the DVR in one week. Which may be about how long it lasts on the network.

The Wall – Not a new show but new for summer and while I like the Q&A part and the ball drops, the scripted (or at least directed) angst and emotion between the husband and wife is getting old fast. A good show to watch while catching up on social media on your phone or tablet.

Penn and Teller Fool Us – We love P&T and this show brings out some great magicians and the trick at the end of each episode is often fun so we are happy it is back for another season. Allison is back as host and the real question is whether she will wear the same red pantsuit for every episode like the blue dress from last season. Maybe they shot them all in one day or maybe the wardrobe budget is minimal. In either case the magic is the focus and always enjoy this.

That’s all I have to say about summer TV for now. 

Movie Review – Spider-Man: Homecoming

When Sony chose to do another reboot of the story with the Amazing Spider-Man films starring Andrew Garfield I threw in the towel. I mean how many times do I need to see the origin story of a character this well known. The only reason I decided to see this new “reboot” film is because I liked the way they wrote the character into Civil War and the prospect of bringing Spidey into the Marvel Cinematic Universe was intriguing – plus Iron Man right?

Sadly this expectation was unmet. The first twenty minutes was so full of teenage angst and dumb characters (especially Peter’s best bud Ned) that I was ready to walk out of the theater. The story eventually improved with some interesting action scenes but overall it felt sluggish and tired. The Vulture was a weak villain, staying mostly in the shadows until the last third of the film. The scene with the Staten Island Ferry that is so prominently featured in the trailers is interesting but requires way too much suspension of belief that it was almost laughable.

The twist before the final big action scene was a surprise, but lacked the energy and tension that Marvel regularly achieves with the Avengers films. But it isn’t all bad, there are some bright spots in the film.

  1. Tom Holland plays his role well and with a better script may have been able to bring a lot of more life into the film.
  2. Zendaya is terrific as the loner girl Michelle who seems to have a better idea of what is going on than anyone.
  3. The Captain America cameos are hilarious (stay until the very end of the credits) and all the references to the Avengers and the Sokovia accords is also interesting and does help bring the character into the fold.

From a story aspect though the only thing that I found interesting was Peter Parker’s growth as a person in the end and that was way too obvious. It will be interesting to see just how this whole Spider-Man MCU thing plays out but unless future films tie-in closely it’s doubtful I will go to the theater to see any more Spidey films.

In the final analysis giving the film to a director without a big film under his belt and six different screenwriters I snot always a formula for success.

I give it 5 of 10 stars

Movie Review – Despicable Me 3

In this film Gru is still working for the Anti Villainy League and the opening scene is full of action as Gru and Lucy try to catch a new arch villain who is the main villain in the entire film. The result sets up the whole story line which includes Gru’s long lost twin Dru.

As in the previous films there is plenty of action, laughs (mostly from the minions) , tender moments from the “the girls” and a twist or two. For me the highlight of the film was when the Minions go Gilbert & Sullivan. This is classic stuff and I can see replaying this scene multiple times when the BluRay comes out. I also founds the scenes where Lucy is trying very hard to be a Mom the the girls to be well done.

Overall this movie is another steady effort and worth seeing especially if you like the series. Early box office has been underwhelming so this may be the last one unless they do another Minions which could show up in a couple years. Oh and you may not be able to easily tell which character Julie Andrews voices and also you will understand what all the internet buzz about pink toilet paper has been.

I give the film 7 out of 10.

State Park Marathon

It has been a while since we did a whole day of state parks and we were both in the mood to make some more progress toward seeing all 88 Missouri parks. After a quick breakfast we headed for our first stop which was going to be St. Francois State Park on route 67 north of Bonne Terre (Bonne Terre has the flooded mine which we will get to some day as well). As we got to where route 32 heads east to Bismarck we saw a detour sign since MODOT is replacing a bridge between Caledonia and Bismarck. You now have to go north a bit and then wind east to come into Bismarck from the north. Since we had to go north on the detour, we decided it would not be too out of the way to go to Washington State Park. This was cool because this park has several buildings built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the 1930’s. The rustic stone and beam construction is quite beautiful plus a surprise was the petroglyphs carved in the dolomite by pre-historic Indians who lived in the area a millennia ago. Some were very faded but a few were very easy to see and showed up well in the photos. Below is a very clearly a thunderbird.

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After that we headed back to St. Francois park and while it is primarily a camping and fishing park with trails – most of the parks are like this – we had a great chat with the people in the park office after getting the stamp in our passport and some stickers.

Next stop was Sandy Creek Covered Bridge state historic site. It has one of four covered bridges left in Missouri. It is a Howe truss design originally built in 1872. This design was very common for covered bridges in the surrounding states as well. I knew the main reason for covered bridges was the roof helped prevent weather from damaging the bridge so they would last longer but I also found out that the covered bridge was like a barn so animals would cross with less fuss and it provided shelter form a sudden storm. This bridge was rebuilt twice with the last being in 1984 sixteen years after the state acquired it.

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After that stop it was a 15 mile trip east to the Mississippi where the gravesite of Daniel Dunklin who was the 5th Governor of Missouri is located. He is considered to be “the father of public schools” in Missouri. He was a shrewd businessman and had acquired a vast estate that the son managed to lose over time except for a one acre parcel where the historical site is. There is an interpretive sign and a small cemetery with the graves of Dunklin, his wife and two children. The site has a great view of the river and is right next to a small mansion that I suspect is built on the original property. I wonder how they like the site beng right next door. Fortunately for them I suspect not a lot of people visit.

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A nice view of the Mississippi River form the Dunklin site:

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We saved the best for last as we headed up the road a few miles to visit Mastodon State Historic Site. We drive by this every time we head to Chicago or go to Collinsville for Archon every year and we always say we should visit and we finally did. While there is a recreation area with various trail heads, we headed right for the museum since that is why we wanted to visit (as well as get the stamps in our passport). The museum is not large, but it has several excellent displays of animals and Paleo-Indian Clovis culture from the time of the mastodon fossils found in the Kimmswick bone bed just yards from the museum. These date back to around 14,000 years ago. The highlight is the reproduction of the mastodon skeleton (the original fossil skeleton is in the British Museum), but they also have a giant ground sloth and a dog sized beaver. It is all displayed a giant diorama like scene that is quite nice to study. There is also a short film with some of the history of the dig there. There was a small admission which we gladly paid considering the quality of the exhibits.

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The photo above is the reproduction of a giant ground sloth. He is a little meaner looking than Syd from the Ice Age films.

We did trek down to the bone bed but there was not much to see because after the excavation in the 1970’s they filled it in to preserve it and it is all grown over with brush. The exercise was good and we got to try out our new walking poles.

We have now visited 35 of the 88 parks and plan to do more this month yet. I hope that those of you who are locals will be encouraged to get out and see some of the great parks here in Missouri. If you are out of state, they are a good excuse to visit.

Book Review – Rise by Mira Grant

For all you fans of the Newsflesh series this is the culmination of that series in a way. It is a collection of novellas plus one short story that cover a variety of events in this universe. Some involve familiar characters, some tell the story of someone or something referenced in one of the stories and others fill in the details of what happened to beloved characters. I cannot stress enough how you should read this if you want some closure on a few things from the series because once you finish this you will be happy to know what happened.

The style of the work is very consistent and is written with love for the characters and the reader. Grant always writes in a page-turning style and never bogs the story down with unnecessary prose. I also find that the plausibility of the science as well as the believability of the characters and their actions make these stories seem very real.

I am glad I read this because I am happy and satisfied that this whole series is now neatly tied up. If you have not read the previous books in the series you may want to before starting this, although a few stories do hold up well on their own.

I give this 5 bookmarks out of 5.