Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tidepooling Kasitsna & Jakolof Bays

Starfish and Other Tidepool Creature Heaven!

I love tidepooling. This field trip was designed for people like me in mind--never mind that it was for the kids! I learned more about tidepooling and the shoreline ecosystem from a couple days with these naturalists from the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies than I have in years of bumbling along on my own.

Besides all the dozens and dozens of very cool sea creatures we found, what I found most valuable was the rules of etiquette for tidepooling:
  1. Don't pick up rocks bigger than your head.
  2. Pick up the rock with one hand, stop and look for a minute while the creatures come out of hiding.
  3. Put the rock back gently and prop it up with a smaller rock so you don't smoosh the creatures.
  4. Turn over lots of rocks!
  5. Step carefully: with every step you will be stepping on and hurting some creature (It's unavoidable).
  6. If you find something cool, yell out, "Hey, come look at this!" rather than running over to the other people. The chances of 1-dropping the cool thing and 2-Falling are greater. Let others come to you.
  7. Everything can be touched. The crabs are the only things that can hurt; pick them up by their carapace.
  8. Go slow.
When I've tidepooled in the past in the kelp beds on Bishop's Beach I have seen amazing and cool things, but turning over the rocks is where all the really cool stuff is! Starfish, hermit crabs, shrimp, worms, sea cucumbers, limpets, snails, clams, chitons, anemones and more were found in profusion under every rock. Sometimes I would pop up a rock and nothing would move and it looked like there was nothing there. After about 10 seconds, there would be a little movement of a hermit crab, then another, and pretty soon the space under that rock would be teeming with movement from all the creatures.

Everyone has their favorites when tidepooling. Mine was starfish. The orange starfish pictured at the top eats other starfish. The purple star to the left was moving, creeping through the water as I watched it. Another mom on the trip loved the little fish that hid under the rocks. Apparently there are so many species of these fish that no one has ever recorded them all. In fact, Patrick, the naturalist from CACS who led our trip, said that we would probably see things in two days of tidepooling that have either never been seen before or else have never been named.

We were encouraged to pick up, touch, identify and share our findings. The CACS received a permit to take certain creatures for a summer of research. Our group was the first of the year to go out, so we were making the initial collections for the wet lab. One girl found a giant green worm that even Patrick had never seen and had no idea what it was; since there was only one we did not add that to the items to go back to the lab. The sheer amount of life in the intertidal zone was mindboggling. I am still shaking my head, picturing all creatures we saw. After two hours of tidepooling Jakalof Bay my head was swimming (literally!) and I was overwhelmed with images and information.

Tour guide, Patrick, showing off a starfish.

Patrick shared a funny story about the Decorator Crabs. These crabs normally pull seaweed and other plants onto themselves as camouflage (I saw some seaweed swimming around and thought it was my imagination! It was a Decorator Crab!) When the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred there were all these styrofoam things around as part of the cleanup effort. The Decorator Crabs started cover themselves with pieces of styrofoam to blend in. People started seeing these little white crabs scuttling around the beach!

What struck me about this is that people travel from all over the country or world to experience what we did a mere miles from home. The richness of this ecosystem is amazing, and I have a new respect for how each plant and animal is interconnected and plays a role in the system. We saw animals eating animals: starfish eat clams (and each other), crabs eat other crabs, worms eat clams, birds eat all and fish play their role. That's only counting the things we could see, and is hardly even counting the plant life. That we can see these things right here where we live is such a cool thing. I am so glad to live in Homer!

Kasitsna Bay Laboratory & Research Center

As part of the Connections Homeschool program, 7th-12 graders on the Kenai Peninsula were invited to the Kasistna Bay Laboratory this week for tidepooling education and career exploration. We were scheduled during a couple of the lowest tides of the year: a -5.5 tide which happened within 30 minutes of our arriving at Kasitsna Bay. This facility is quite a place, and the tidepooling was incredible so I will do separate blog entries on each.

This research center was built before Alaska was a state back in the 1950's. Four generations of caretakers in the same family have lived on this location. Researchers come from all over to study marine life, work on doctoral and masters theses, and there is even equipment that assists with the Fairbanks aurora borealis reports.

For a small place tucked into the pines, there were many buildings, many which were built or renovated in 1999.

The wet lab building contained a large room where seawater could be pumped into tanks with some reserve going into holding tanks before being let back out to the ocean. There was also a classroom, microscope room, storage rooms and another smaller wet lab. The microscopes were high quality, and the lights for them are so powerful that if the light is turned up too quickly the bulbs burst from the heat.

The scuba shack contained lockers, a training room and the air tanks. Apparently the source of one's air is important when scuba diving, so the tank room was locked more securely than the other buildings.

The dormitory where we stayed contained two large kitchens across the hall from each other, each with two refrigerators, stove, microwave and counters. A common area contained couches and a computer, while both upstairs and down bedroom suites shared bathrooms. Downstairs a laundry room was supplied with bedding, though we brought our own sleeping bags and pillowcases. Each carpeted bedroom contained two beds, dressers, lamps, a sink and a closet, opening into a bathroom with a shower and toilet. It was definitely comfortable. There was also a bunkhouse that contained 4 beds in each room (bunks). While we were there a group of high school students from Fairbanks were in that building.

A caretaker's house, the executive suite (for visiting professors or other dignitaries), a storage building for boats and cars, and a dry lab completed the ensemble, though there was such a conglomerate of buildings I am sure I missed some. The view, of course, was beautiful, with Mt. Illiamna rising above opposite shore of Kasitsna Bay.

One of the fun items on the agenda (reserved for groups with responsible, well-behaved children) was for the kids was to try on the emergency wetsuits and take a swim in the bay. Though the suits were a bit big for most of the kids, they crawled in and were assisted in zipping the suits right up over their chins. The kids would walk into the water, looking like zombies, and then sit down and paddle out on their backs. Some kids tried to sit or stand up in the water and discovered that the water would come in at the neck if they did. My daughter said trying out the emergency suits was the highlight of this trip, exclaiming as she crawled out of her suit, "I'm used to being freezing cold when I'm in the ocean, but I was warm and dry!"

Our trip coincided with some of the lowest and highest tides of the year, which made things more interesting:

This is someplace I could handle coming for a vacation, particularly since it is attached to the so-called 'road system': dirt roads led from the research facility to Jakalof Bay about 3/4 mile to the east, while Seldovia was about 2 1/2 miles to the west. From Seldovia another road goes to Port Grahm. Many people come over and go mountain biking on the trails and roads 'across the bay.' What impressed me most, though, was the quality of the facility. It was simple but comfortable and would be a conducive place to conduct research from.

Brother Francis Shelter-Anchorage

I had the opportunity to tour the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage last week, one of the only homeless shelters in Anchorage (some provide shelter for only women, are transition housing as opposed to a homeless shelter, or participation in religious services of some sort are required). It was an interesting place to visit, and the need is great as 200-300 people a night are housed at the shelter and Beans Cafe.

The shelter is on 3rd Avenue, and when we pulled into the parking lot of the modern building, there was a crowd of men hanging out in the parking lot in front of Beans Cafe, across the parking lot from the Brother Francis Shelter. Free breakfast and lunch are provided daily at Beans Cafe, while a hot dinner is offered each night at the Shelter. Anyone could walk in and eat there, though each person has to sign in to keep track of numbers for grants.

The Brother Francis Shelter was built in 2005 and has a new, modern feel to it. The parking lot is paved, and the first smell upon walking into the building is bleach. A wide open reception area acts as the hub of this facility, with the dining area and kitchen beyond it to the right. After the evening meal the benches are folded up and sleeping mats are put down. Also off of the entryway are a computer lab and a laundry. Computers are for those staying or working in the shelter; people are allowed to play games with the logic that they need to become comfortable using technology and playing games facilitate this comfort.

Off the common area/dining room a clothing room was stacked with shoes, sweaters, pants, jackets, etc. The administrative assistant of the shelter who gave us the tour said the greatest need for clothing was hats, socks and undergarments, and they are always accepting donations. The clothing room is open for certain hours each day and visits are limited to 5 minutes.

A doctor's office/exam room is near the entrance as well, with shots being one of the common uses of this area. Behind that are the administrative offices. Ironically, no grant money is provided for homeless shelters, but monies are available for staffing them and providing assistance to people who walk in the doors. Thus, there were cubicles for about 8 support staff, not all who are necessarily full-time or employed by the shelter.

Lockers are available for workers at the shelter. Homeless people who come in can apply to work at the Brother Francis Shelter for 4-6 months. If they get a job there, they sleep there each night, but they also can receive mail, get a locker and stay in the building during the day. All other people must be out of the building by about 9 am each day (if my memory serves me right). Without these unpaid workers, the facility would not be able to keep its doors open. It is a win-win situation, with the people using the facility helping keep it running, and it provides a base for those people who are motivated to improve their situation.

There are women's and men's dorms, which are cleared out each morning. Another section of the shelter has apartments where people who are getting off drug or alcohol dependency can stay. There are specific requirements for these people to stay, and they are checked on regularly by paid staff. A storage room is also provided for people who cannot take their belongings with them each day.

This shelter is run by Catholic Social Services (See their website at, but the faith component is not 'pushed' as it is at some other local shelters. Some people end up at the shelter because they come in out of the bush, thinking there are plenty of jobs in Anchorage. Others come from the Lower 48, drawn by the allure of Alaska, also thinking there are plenty of jobs here. Yet others find that they cannot afford the exorbitant prices of housing when working on low wages. Life happens to others. No one under the age of 18 can stay at this shelter; a women's shelter provides housing for women with children (one had better not be a man with children, otherwise they will have a difficult time finding a place to go).

It gave me pause to visit the Brother Francis Shelter and contemplate the difficulties of being homeless in Alaska. I've seen plenty of people living out of their cars or in the parks around Anchorage; the Brother Francis Shelter provides a system that can help those who want to get out of that cycle of homelessness. There are opportunities available for food, shelter, mail, health care, clothing and more, all centered around this one building that is operating on a shoestring budget. I think a donation there could go a long ways.

McHugh Creek Hike--Anchorage

Every time I drive from Anchorage to Homer, I gaze longingly at all the hiking trails along the Turnagain Arm. Last week I had some time on a beautiful, warm sunny morning since one of my meetings in Anchorage was canceled. I chose McHugh Creek for the hike because the parking area was well developed (4 restrooms on 3 different levels of paved parking!) and it is often packed when I drive by.

Apparently this is one trailhead of a trail system that extends the length of the Turnagin Arm. After a short climb above the parking area, the trail leveled out into a muddy morass. It was a cool morning so the mud was mostly frozen so it wasn't too bad. After 10 or 15 minutes of walking the trail turned into hard packed dirt for most of the rest of the way. I headed back towards Anchorage, in the direction of Potter's Marsh, which was 3 miles away. It was a pleasant hike, with poplar and aspen trees rising above the trail. Glimpses of Turnagain Arm were visible in places, including one rocky overlook about halfway to Potter's Marsh, but in the summer when the trees are all leafy I doubt there would be much view.

On this particular morning it must have been uber athlete morning. Two groups of amazingly fit women dashed by, first in one direction, then back. It is a great quick hike, since it is only a few miles south of where the Seward Highway freeway ends in Anchorage. Point-to-point hikes would be easy, parking in different lots and hiking (running!) from one end to the other. It costs $5 each time to park in one of these areas, or a year-long pass can be purchased for about $40. There are undeveloped pulloffs nearby so if someone were cheap they could park at one of these and walk up the road. I was surprised to see signs to lock up your car and hide valuables posted throughout the parking area; apparently these areas are a target.

I look forward to exploring more of this trail system when I'm up in the Anchorage area!

Monday, April 11, 2011

"The Dome" in Anchorage

While Saturday in Anchorage was a nice day at about 45 degrees, today we've had 5-7 inches of snow fall. With conditions like this, it is no surprise that Anchorage has a dome for indoor track meets, soccer games and even football. Saturday was the first track meet of the season, with 31 schools participating in dozens of events over two days. As we were driving down Minnesota Dr., the dome rose above the mounds of gravel in the industrial section like a huge pile of manure. Taking the Raspberry Road exit, we pulled into a packed parking lot.

The dome is a plastic, pressurized, blown-up building. Special doors keep it pressurized, and Douglas even mentioned that his ears popped when we left the building. Inside there are a few offices and the just-over-a-1/4 mile track is right there. Stands about 10 benches high line one entire length of the building. A weight lifting area is tucked into one corner, while the high jumping, pole vaulting and 3 portapotties are tucked into another. Midfield, the teams were spread out, each one claiming a spot with sleeping bags, pillows and equipment set out. The shot put and discus were at the far end of the field, with netting protecting everyone from flying missiles.

I was impressed with the efficiency the meet seemed to be run with. Officials had their computers hooked up for photo finishes and timing; a number of people were hooked up with earpieces for communication with other officials; binoculars were out; on-track officials got race after race of kids lined up and out of the starting blocks. From looking at the schedule, it was running on time, quite a feat.

What probably impressed me most is what an advantage Anchorage athletes have over athletes from nearly every other community in Alaska to have the use of this dome. In Homer, the fields still have snow on them and the kids will be heading up to Anchorage this weekend to play the first soccer game of the season in this dome, and yet they have yet to run one lap up a field. They've been playing in gyms, like soccer players all over Alaska, while Anchorage players can be on turf all winter long. Yet this is still an awesome thing to have a dome so that playing can happen at all. Outdoor games in 30 or 40 degree weather and rain or snow are not fun (for most--some uber athletes in AK do love such challenges!).

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A High School Dance

Circumstances conspired to end me up at the high school chaperoning the Spring Fling dance last night. Having only been to three dances in my life, two of them proms, I was curious what it would be like. It was....a fascinating study into the lives of teenagers, dances and Homer High School.

I decided I wanted to be on the periphery, so I recruited a friend to run the coat check with me. We arrived 30 minutes before the dance was to start and placed sticky notes on the walls all around the office every three feet, each with a letter of the alphabet. When students arrived they would come up, we would write their last name on a sticky note, stick it to their coat, cell phone, boots or whatever, and put it in a pile under the letter of the last name. When kids want something (make a phone call, check their text, etc.) they would come and ask for their stuff. Jackets and purses are strictly prohibited in the dances. Cell phones are technically not allowed, but that is not strictly enforced. It was a cold, rainy night, so every single kid had a jacket so we stayed busy.

Once the students checked their items, they would get into line in the lobby to get into the dance. Every student has to sign a 2-page code of conduct in order to attend the dance. Some dances students from other high schools in the district are allowed to come (they still have to sign up, through a student in our high school), but this one was for Homer High students only. Upon paying their $7 to get in, each student would get a wristband with their name written on it. Then they were in. The dance started at 8 pm. If a student came in after 9 pm, we had to contact the principal or assistant principal for special permission to let them in, they would be searched and given a sobriety test. One student came in at 9:10. When told he would have to take a sobriety test to enter the dance, he chose to leave rather than be tested.

Students can go out of the building as far as the flagpole in front (about 20 feet). If they go beyond that at any time during the dance they cannot come back in. In other words, they cannot run out to their car for anything. One student wanted to run out to his car for something so the principal offered to walk him out to his car, but the student declined the offer.

The biggest issue with dances is dirty dancing, which is not allowed but in the past was not enforced. Some students are so outraged that they are not allowed to dirty dance (basically simulating sex positions and other intimate 'grinding' on the dance floor) that they told the principal they were not going to come to the dance. The principal just laughed and said, "I would be happy to stay home and hang out with my family." The principal and vice principal walk around the dance with a marker, flashlight and scissors. All chaperones also have markers. If a student is caught dirty dancing they get a black mark on their wristbands, which is their first warning. The second time they get another mark and they cannot dance anymore. Their wristband is cut off. They can stay in the dance area talking to friends, but they cannot dance. This time, parents of those students are going to get a letter home informing them that their student was kicked off the dance floor for dirty dancing. If a student is found back on the dance floor without a wristband they are kicked out of the dance. Before this year, there was no system for handling this issue. Students would be warned numerous times by different chaperones to not dirty dance, but there was no way to monitor it. This system has helped reduce this problem, though not eradicated it.

Dances are something the kids want and everyone else puts up with. They are a great source of income: last night's dance with 130 kids (about 1/3 of the school) brought in $1000, which goes into class coffers to pay for all the special senior events. Some dances have as many as 250 kids. The DJ is a talented Homer High School student who has most of his own equipment and travels around the Kenai Peninsula putting on dances for $250/night. Teachers and parents are recruited to be chaperones, and of course the principal and vice principal have to be there. Parents are welcome to come in and check on their kids, and parents do come in.

Walking around the building and checking out the parking lot is part of the job for my husband, and when he walks down to the parking lot, cars sometimes take off. It is part of the system for keeping the campus drug and alcohol free.

A big part of the fun of dances for the kids (at least the girls) seems to be the pre-dance dress-up party. We have hosted this twice now for our exchange student and her friends. We don't have a big house, so five girls running back and forth between bathrooms and bedroom, trying on clothes, changing their hair, putting on, taking off and and reapplying makeup is plenty. I have seen these parties get as many as 15 girls; I can't even imagine it. The pre-dance party culminates in the girls posing for pictures. They have names for all the various poses, and even if I don't understand what they are saying, all the kids know exactly what pose goes with each term. There's the prim and proper (these are my terms!), the sexy/provocative, the crazy, the tongues hanging out, and on and on. It is not proper to show up to the dance at 8; 8:45 is the 'correct' time to show up, though kids do trickle in before then.

Seeing what kids wear is fascinating. If guys dress up at all, I'd be surprised. Mostly they wear jeans and a button-up shirt, not tucked in. Usually girls wear very skimpy dresses that are about as low as you can go without showing all and and as high as you can go without showing all. The biggest challenge for the girls is keeping their clothes from falling off or falling apart during the dance. This dance was 'casual' so the dress was more varied for the girls: many short, short shorts, a variety of dresses, jeans, leggings and whatnot. A lot of make up seems to be standard. My husband wonders if the parents know what their kid is wearing at the dance (because of the pre-dance parties many parents don't see their kids before they go), and they have contemplated taking pictures of the kids as they walk in and emailing them to the parents! "Do you know what your child is wearing tonight?"

The most notable thing, though, is that all the kids are respectful, polite and do what they are told. Even the handful of kids who were kicked out of the dance were not rude. And some kids at Homer High are quite avant garde, yet other kids do not harass or pick on them. Mostly the kids seem to have the attitude that you can be who you want to be. Like my husband said, some of these kids would have been beaten up at the high school where he went to school, but here very different kids co-exist fairly peacefully.

Overall, it was quite an education. These are not something I would ever want to go to myself, and I deeply hope my kids never want to go to dances. There are so many other fun things to do with one's time than jump up and down (Homer's style of 'dancing', if you can call it that) with a hundred other teens in a dark room to deafening music. Give me a walk on the beach any day. Yet, on the scale of things, school dances are probably as 'clean' as you are going to get with the majority of teenagers today. It is better than having them out on Bishops Beach hanging around a campfire doing who knows what. But dances only happen five times a year so for five nights a year kids can have this fun, and the rest of us will put up with it!