Saturday, September 24, 2016

Flying to the Far East

Somewhere over Iowa (May 19, 2016)

When I was a student in Pisa, I spent countless hours watching the world pass by, from the window of the intercity train that would ferry me back and forth between the city where I was studying, and the one where my family lived in the North of Italy. It seemed a very long trip at the time (about 200 miles that the train would cover in 4 hours), even though in my current midwestern frame of reference it is but around the corner. I relished watching the life of strangers pass-by from the second class window, like an unscripted movie pasted together by a director not quite awake from a surrealist dream. A way to suspend one's own thoughts by borrowing fleeting moments of other people's life.

Des Moines Airport
Since I came to the US, trains ceased to be my main method of transportation. The distances here are much larger than in Europe, and the trains themselves are just a shadow of their past glory, when they opened the Frontier to civilization (our particular variant of it) and genocide (of the people that had already civilized these wanted lands). In the US you either move by car, (the mechanical overlords that control America's suburbia commuters' life) or you fly. I started to fly a lot. To the observatories on top of remote desert mountains where I would use giant pieces of glass to pierce the sky (or, most often than not, the hated clouds) in invisible light. To far away cities where I would meet like-minded astro-obsessed individual, where we would discuss in conference the mysteries found in these observations. Even though the pace of my travel has decreased since moving to a University (teaching commitments) and since I started to use space telescopes (you don't really have to travel to space to use them), I still fly a lot. In about a decade I clicked over three quarters of a million miles, on just one of the many airlines that had been ferrying me around. This is more than 4 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

The next few posts will be about one of such trips. Mid-May this summer, as soon as the classes ended and the students were given to know their fate after the final exam, I packed my carry-on luggage and drove to the Des Moines airport, ready to fly to Beijing via Chicago. This was my first time in China, a country I had been always curious about, but never visited before. As I was traveling light, I made the objectionable choice of leaving my DSLR camera home. All the photos you will see in this series, including the ones in this post, were therefore shot as JPEG with an iPhone 6, and subsequently processed with Lightroom on my computer. In the next posts I will talk about the conference, and the places and people I visited in the trip. I hope you will enjoy coming along!

Chicago O'Hare Airport (May 19, 2016)

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Grand Marais at Night

Grand Marais, MN (Aug 19, 2016)

Grand Marais is a small center on the shores of Lake Superior, on the Minnesota side. Until the 1920s it could only be reached via boat through the lake. That made the town an important port in the area, thanks to the double bays that offered shelter from the severe storms that hits the area in winter.

Walking at sunset
The original name of the place, the Ojibwe Gichi-Biitoobiig, meant "double water", in reference to these two coves separated by a thin promontory protruding into the lake. A long walkway connects the two harbors, sneaking on the red rock all the way to the lighthouse at the end of the west side cove. A second lighthouse protects the cove from the opposite side. The promontory is now reinforced with a concrete drywall, to protect the fishing port that you can see in the panorama below. A placid mirror of still water bathed in the pink hues of the sunset. The walkway is traced right on top of the seawall, and in some points is just a foot wide. That was not enough for Kero, with his ingrained dislike of water. He panicked and stopped midway, refusing to set one paw more in what he considered a watery trap for his samoyeds instinct. I cannot fault him for that: in the natural environment of samoyeds (Siberian tundra), falling from the ice into liquid water would be a death sentence... So we had to turn back, but not before taking a couple of shots of other tourists walking on the ruby red rocks, or of the lighthouses in the fast approaching darkness.

Grand Marais is not isolated anymore and is now easily reachable driving along the scenic route 61, an hour past the Split Rock Lighthouse. It is a small and livable town, with many excellent restaurants and pubs. We had dinner  at the Harbor House Grille, with Kero that was allowed to stay with us on the nice patio. We got a local fresh fish, that turned out to be just perfect. Well worth the visit.

Grand Marais, MN (Aug 19, 2016)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Split Rock Lighthouse, MN (Aug 19, 2016)

On November 27, 1905, a storm system moved through the Great basin, bringing fresh easterly winds to the Great Lake region. By early morning the next day the winds had reached 68 miles per hour in the harbor of Duluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior. It became known as the Mataafa storm, after one of the 29 ships that sank that day. During the storm the water of the lake on the North Shore were raised by almost three feet above normal, and heavy ice and snow covered the region. The temperature were so low that one of the body of the unfortunate sailors from the Maatafa wreck had to be chopped out of solid ice from the bay to be given a proper burial.

Split Rock Lighthouse Park
The portion of the Lake Superior shore where the wrecks occurred was named as the most dangerous coast of the whole Great Lakes region. To prevent a similar tragedy to repeat in future storms, the Pittsburg Shipping Company, owner of many of the lost vessels, lobbied the government to provide some protection in the form of a lighthouse. The Split Rock Lighthouse was built, on a 140-feet rock cliff overlooking Beaver Bay, not far from the site of another shipwrec from that fatal storm, that of the Madeira shooner-barge. With its octagonal shape, steel-frames brick building, it is the most picturesque lighthouse on the Great Lakes. When it was built there were no roads along the North Shore of Lake Superior, and all construction materials had to be supplied by water, and lifted on the cliffs with a crane. Its dramatic location made it a popular touristic attraction for sailors and excursion boats, and in 1924 a road was built from Duluth to allow land access. This was the beginning of Route 61 now connecting all the previously isolated towns on the North Shore, all the way to Grand Marais. Now retired, the lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and designated as National Historic Landmark in 2011.

View from Corundum Point
Since 1945 the lighthouse is part of the Split Rock Lighthouse State park, managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. We visited the park on our free day during our summer trip to the North Shore. The park is beautifully maintained, with many trails on land, and even a kayak and canoe route along the lake shore. We spent the whole day walking around the park, with Kero leading the way from one pebbly beach to the next (see for example the panorama below). The park has several camping grounds easily accessible from the road; something to consider for the next time we will visit (assuming that Kero would be up for camping... we never tried staying overnight in a tent with him that and I am not sure he would be relaxed enough to actually let us sleep). Before turning back to the cabin we rented, we climbed up a trail leading to Corundum Point, a rocky outcrop raising from the lake with an excellent view on both sides of the shore (little photo above on the right). The point claims its name for the belief that the outcrop was rich of corundum mineral (Al2O3, the same gem as emerald). A crushing house was built high on the lake shore to process the mineral, that however turned out to just be a hard rock, and not the precious gem. One can still see the foundation of the mining buildings along the steep (and sometimes almost lost in the vegetation) trail.

After a quick lunch with some cheese I "smuggled" from Italy, we went back to the car, for a quick stop on the cabin we rented near Lutsen, before heading north to Grand Marais for dinner.

Split Rock Lighthouse Park, MN (Aug 19, 2016)