Went on a little trip. Joanie said, "I've never seen Crater Lake," so we drove down there Friday morning. It's a big crater with water in it. Still snow from last year up there. We spent the night on the Rogue River at Shady Cove, then drove back home on Saturday through the high desert and lava beds.
Few places off the California coast are more mysterious than the Farallon Islands. Located just 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, the collection of barely inhabitable staccato peaks are hardly ever seen. It is only on a clear day – if you squint really hard – that you might be able to make them out. Otherwise, the islands are shrouded in fog and known among locals solely as the feeding grounds for white sharks.
Mystery around the Farallones dates back to the beginning of human history. Native Americans refused to step foot on the islands. They believed them to be haunted and would occasionally boat out dead bodies for water burials. It was not until the 19th-century Gold Rush days when food shortages were rampant in San Francisco that settlers really began exploring the islands. Back then, foragers would hunt for the eggs of common murres to include in popular dishes such as Hangtown fry, a Californian omelette-style meal made of eggs, bacon and oysters.
The US military put a radar station on the Farallones during World War II and assigned a few people to live out there. After the war, the islands became a protected wildlife refuge, and today only scientific researchers are allowed on land. Tourists are relegated to boat tours – which is why I was standing on the deck of the Kitty Kat on a sunny Sunday morning.
“All aboard for a trip to the Galapagos of the west!” bellowed Captain Joe Nazar of San Francisco Whale Tours. This moniker is well suited to the islands. In addition to white sharks, the Gulf of the Farallones has some of the most nutrient-rich waters in the northern hemisphere, making it a perfect place to go whale watching.
A bumpy journey Myself and 47 other camera-ready wildlife seekers headed out of the harbour. The waters were clear and calm as we motored pass Alcatrazand under the Golden Gate Bridge. Pretty soon though, things started getting a little wavy.
“The Gulf of the Farallones is a very challenging body of water,” said Mary Jane Schramm, spokesperson for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. “Those intrepid enough to venture outside the Golden Gate will find a whole other wild world out there.”
Schramm explained that San Francisco sits astride the California Current, which moves south along the coast and causes upwelling – water movement that brings nutrients from the bottom of the ocean to the top. Strong winds run nearly parallel to the current, creating even more turbulence. This movement is beneficial to wildlife because, Schramm explained, “it stirs up the ocean. That’s why we are a destination feeding area for everything: blue whales, grey whales, humpback whales, seals, birds, you name it.”
Back on the boat, I was getting the distinct impression that my fellow passengers were feeling a little “stirred up” too. The one-way trip to the islands takes more than two hours; by 90 minutes in, more than half of my shipmates had lost their breakfasts.
Land, ahoy Soon enough, cameras were being whipped around in the direction of the peaks that were jutting out of the water. “Ok, folks, keep your eyes out for spouts. There should be a lot of whales out today,” Nazar announced. None of us blinked for what seemed like an eternity. As I felt my eyes starting to dry out, I heard a yell from the other side of the boat and turned around just in time to see a spout rise into the air.
“That is a grey whale,” Kim Workman, the naturalist accompanying the boaat, beamed. We were all mesmerised. The whale rose about 5ft above the water, showing a sliver of its back and a cluster of cream coloured barnacles, and then dove back down. Before long, we saw another spout, this time a humpback, as it came up for air.
As our ship drew closer to the islands, we could see lunar landmasses with no vegetation and rocky brown soil. We also spotted a scientist standing on a cliff, waiting to get picked up by a research boat via crane (there are no docks or beaches on the islands). It was as though we were looking at another planet.
Our boat motored in the relatively calm waters near the islands. We saw flocks of birds and then another spout, this one sandwiched between our boat and the islands and much larger than any we had seen. The flat, black-looking skin of the whale peaked above the water for just a few seconds before submerging again. “Oh my goodness, folks, that is a blue whale!” Workman yelled from the deck. Nazar chimed in too: “Ladies and gentleman, this is spectacular. We call this a trifecta – seeing three different types of whales in one day.”
Leaving the islands, the group was abuzz with excitement. As the Farallon Islands once again disappeared from view and San Francisco became clearer, I think all of us – even those now on empty stomachs – felt it was a special day.
Practicalities Whale watching is a near year-round activity in the Farallones. December through May is the best time to see the migration of grey whales, though May through November is a great time to see humpbacks, blue whales, 12 species of birds and up to 23 species of marine mammals.
There are a few companies that offer whale-watching tours, includingSan Francisco Whale Tours and the Oceanic Society. Dress warmly with trousers, a sweatshirt and a jacket. Regardless of the time of year, it can get chilly on the water.
Standing in the middle of Bern, Switzerland, is the Kindlifresser, or “Child Eater.” The towering statue has a baby half-stuffed into his mouth and carries a sack full of three alarmed tots on his shoulder—presumably for later snacking.
The disturbing sculpture is no modern work of art; built in 1546, it is one of the oldest fountains in the city of Bern.
Strangely, no one is sure why it’s there. There are a few theories—the first and most unfortunate possibility is that the Kindlifresser is an expression of anti-Semitism. The Kindlifresser wears a hat that is strikingly similar to the yellow pointed Judenhut that Jews were forced to wear at that time. The baby-eating may reflect blood libel, the belief that Jewish people kidnapped Christian children to use their blood in rituals.
The second theory is that the terrifying ogre is a depiction of Kronos, the Greek Titan. Kronos has arguably one of the most disturbing stories in Greek Mythology. Long story short: Kronos eats all six of his children to keep them from taking over his throne.
The third possibility is that the Kindlifresser is simply a sort of boogie man from Switzerland’s Fastnacht, or ''Night of Fasting'' festival—a way to remind the youngsters of Bern to behave. Regardless of what the Kindlifresser represents, it has terrified Swiss children for nearly 500 years.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, between 1946 and 1970 "more than 47,800 drums and other containers of low-level radioactive waste were dumped onto the ocean floor west of San Francisco." Only thirty miles from the Golden Gate Bridge it is both the first and largest offshore nuclear waste dump in the U.S. When the radioactive waste barrels floated to the surface of the water, the soldiers shot holes in them to help them sink.
The entire radioactive disposal project around Farallon was overseen by the Atomic Energy Commission, and was not slowed until the Environmental Protection Agency stepped up in the mid 1960s.
Barrels aren't the only radioactive materials that were dumped at the site. The USS Independence, part of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests (see Runnit Island) stationed half a mile from one of the blasts to test the effects was also left to rot, practically on the shores of San Francisco. Once it had been sufficiently annihilated by nuclear blasts, its irradiated smoking wreckage was towed to Farallon to be sunk. Soldiers also reported regularly transporting the carcasses of animals killed in radiation experiments for disposal at the site.
As of this date there has never been a large-scale study of the effects of the areas nuclear contamination, although allegedly most of the material had decayed by 1980. The area is now protected as the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and is the home to great white sharks, seals, and whales.
The Incas never invented the wheel, never figured out the arch, and never discovered iron. But they were masters of fiber. They built ships out of fiber (you can still find reed boats sailing on Lake Titicaca). They made armor out of fiber (pound for pound, it was stronger than the armor worn by the Conquistadors). Their greatest weapon, the sling, was woven from fibers, and was powerful enough to split a steel sword. They even communicated in fiber, developing a language of knotted strings known as quipo, which has yet to be decoded. So when it came to solving a problem like how to get people and goods across the steep gorges of the Andes, it was only natural that they would think about the problem in terms of fiber.
Five centuries ago, the Andes were strung with suspension bridges. By some estimates there were as many as 200 of them, braided from nothing more than twisted mountain grass and other vegetation, with cables sometimes as thick as a human torso. Three hundred years before Europe saw its first suspension bridge, the Incas were spanning longer distances and deeper gorges than anything that the best European engineers, working with stone, were capable of.
Over the centuries, the empire’s grass bridges gradually gave way, and were replaced with more conventional works of modern engineering. The most famous Incan bridge—the 148-footer immortalized by Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey—lasted until the 19th century, but it too eventually collapsed. Today, there is just one Incan grass bridge left, the keshwa chaca, a sagging 90-foot span that stretches between two sides of a steep gorge, near Huinchiri, Peru. According to locals, it has been there for at least 500 years.
Here in the desolate, 2-mile-high Andean altiplano, little else grows besides ichu, a tall needly grass that covers the mountainsides, feeds the llamas, and is the raw material from which the keshwa chaca is constructed. The walkway of the keshwa chaca consists of four parallel ropes with a mat of small twigs laid across, anchored at both ends by a platform of larger rocks. Two other thick ropes acts as armrails, and are connected to the walkway with a cobweb of smaller cord. Despite its seemingly fragile materials, modern load testing has found that in peak condition, the keshwa chaca can support the weight of 56 people spread our evenly across its length.
In 1968, the government built a steel truss bridge just a few hundred yards upstream from the kewsha chaca. Though most locals now use it instead of the grass bridge to cross the valley, the tradition of rebuilding the keshwa chaca each year has not abated. Each June, it is renewed in an elaborate three-day ceremony. Each household from the four surrounding towns, is responsible for bringing 90 feet of braided grass cord. Construction takes place under the supervision of the all important bridge keeper, or chacacamayoc. The old bridge is then cut down and thrown into the river. Because it has to be willfully, ritually regenerated each year, the keshwa chaca’s ownership passes from generation to generation as a bridge not only across space, but also time.