Thursday, February 27, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - Muddy Mats of Algae are a Tourist Attraction in Western Australia

Modern stromatolites living in Hamelin Pool, in the Shark Bay world heritage site, Western Australia. Photo taken April, 2008. These layered mounds of mud and algae are a nirvana for geologists on holiday.

Single-celled organisms, the cyanobacteria of Hamelin Pool are descended from the oldest known forms of photosynthetic life on Earth. A scene like this would have framed the pinnacle of the food chain over three billion years ago.
The American Heritage Science Dictionary defines a stromatolite (strō-māt'l-īt') as a generally dome-shaped structure consisting of alternating laminations of carbonate or silicate sediment and fossilized algal mats. Layered stromatolites are produced over time by the trapping, binding, or precipitating of sediment by groups of microorganisms, primarily cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) growing in shallow-water biofilms. They are distributed throughout the world in the early fossil record and represent some of the oldest recognized forms of life, from over three billion years ago. Similar organic structures continue to form today in restricted hypersaline environments, especially in Western Australia.

Fossilized digital (finger-like) stromatolites from the Biwabik Iron Formation of the Mesabi Iron Range (approximately 2 billion years old), LTV Steel iron mine, Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. These stromatolites are anchored in an oxidation zone (red jasper), but grew upward into an anaerobic zone (black). Spaces between the stromatolites are filled with round green oncolites, black magnetite crytals and siderite. Thin vertical cracks/fissures are filled with bituminous anthraxolite.
Living stromatolites are rare. The only other known marine location for modern, living stromatolites outside Western Australia is in the Bahamas. Modern stromatolites require hypersaline water, an environment that is inhospitable for their primary predator (a snail). Not far from Hamelin Pool, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, are fossils of stromatolites over 3.5 billion years old, the earliest easily-recognizable fossils on Earth.

The Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve is located adjacent to the Hamelin Pool Telegraph Station, about 30 kilometers (19 mi) west of the Overlander Roadhouse on the North West Coastal Highway of Western Australia (Wikipedia). Access is via Hamelin Pool Road and then through the telegraph station grounds. There is no charge for access.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The First Travel Souvenir

I received other keepsakes from my parents during family trips of my youth, but it's not often you keep a souvenir from your first independent travel and remember the story. My first significant travel experience outside the protective fold of my parents was on a 1985 trip to Mexico with the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS), chaperoned by a Spanish teacher from my high school. The itinerary included the exceptional pre-Columbian ruins at Teotihuacán, north of Mexico City. After a rainy afternoon walking the Avenue of the Dead and climbing the Pyramid of the Moon, the tour guide gave our group a pop quiz in the shelter of a bus. I was the first to correctly answer some series of questions about Mexico, and the prize was this little jade figurine. I still sometimes wonder about who made it and their story. Now, after years of "going places," our house is full of such totems, each bringing forth a visual memory that is itself the real treasure.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Walt Disney World and Islands of Adventure - Making Happy Memories is a Matter of Choice

It's on the must-see list for most travelers and anyone living with kids outside of North Korea. Disney has been called "The Happiest Place on Earth." At least it's marketed that way by the Walt Disney Corporation. We saw a lot of miserable people there on our last trip, however. My most visceral memory is of a father telling his young son "I spent a lot of money on this. You're damn well going to enjoy it!" We seemed to be the only happy people there then. And, a Disney career seems to pave a sure path to hell for wholesome young actors. What would our experience hold this time at the Walt Disney World resort? We had been to the Florida site before with young children, and later visited Hong Kong Disney with a mix of ages. Now we had teenagers in tow with a six-year-old.

The taxi arrived in our snowy driveway at 2 pm sharp for our pilgrimage. Five minutes from home Stacey realized we'd left our wad of American cash in the kitchen. Not wanting a friend who was checking the house to think this was a generous tip, we made a u-turn. We needed the bills for gratuities and tolls, and we had a tremendous commute buffer--learned from my recent debacle to Detroit--that could withstand a short detour. We were going against the flow of afternoon traffic, and we arrived at Pearson International in good time.

Magic Kingdom is worth at least one family pilgrimage if you can.

My Elite 35K status was sufficient to get the whole family into the Air Canada lounge after check-in, so the soup and cold buffet made a bargain meal for five while we waited out a couple hours in an enclosed family room. Our eldest helped himself to a few complimentary colas and was twitching from caffeine by boarding time. "We should fly like this all the time," he said. To be young with no financial sense.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - Greenland From 35,000 ft

Buzz Aldrin's first words on the Moon were "Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation." Perhaps a sublimity equal to the words of Neil Armstrong. The moon isn't as accessible for the rest of us mortals, but Aldrin's words came to mind when flying over southern Greenland from Germany last year (August 19, 2013). I've been blessed with some time in lonely places of the world, and these phrases are not an oxymoron. Even if we might not get down there, so many more people can enjoy a similarly "magnificent desolation" than the select few men who have walked on another world.

But if your window is always closed to the world, you won't see it flying past at 35,000 feet.

Nunataks in southern Greenland.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Flying Off the Travel Plan - Murphy's Law on an Airport Commute

My last business trip to Marquette, Michigan was a comedy of errors. I'm determined not to repeat that travel experience this time. I plan a longer layover in Detroit and a rental car better suited to the UP winter

It's the night before, and my wife Stacey checks the local forecast for me. There's a winter storm warning for overnight through tomorrow in the Toronto region. "You should leave extra early in the morning for the airport," she suggests. I've thought through all the scenarios. "I've got a good commuting buffer built in," I reply. Besides, it looks like the worst of the storm will be south of here, near Niagara and Buffalo. They always get hit hard.

I don't sleep well. That's typical before flying. My mind races through contingencies, things to do, conversation outcomes I want to ensure. My hand swats off the alarm almost before it starts.

I look outside. There's new snow, but it doesn't appear to be very much. Stacey checks the school network. District schools are open, but buses are cancelled. The kids are staying home. "You should check in online," Stacey suggests.

Nah, I think, I don't want to figure that process out now. "It's not snowing very heavily," I reply. "They keep schools open because they really think it's safe, but they shut down the buses to avoid liability." But I shower quickly, for me, and hurry through breakfast.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - Soudan Underground Mine State Park

Soudan Underground Mine State Park is the only place I know where you can tour an historic iron ore mine and a state-of-the-art physics lab at the same time. I was here in June of 2006. It's a great day for a geologist like me, or anyone who likes mining history.

Shaft #8 headframe. It takes a few minutes to get all the way down the cramped "cage" elevator.

Silhouettes of fellow miners on the tour, illuminated by headlamps 2341 feet below the surface. A 3/4 mile underground rail takes you to the Montana orebody, the deepest workings in the Soudan. Surface mining commenced in 1882, making it Minnesota's oldest operating district, and operations were fully underground in the 20th century.

The underground workings are preserved as they were left in 1962. Later United States Steel (Oliver Mining) donated the property to the state for educational purposes. Soudan was Minnesota's deepest and highest-grade iron ore mine, with hematite ores grading >65% Fe by weight. Ores mined in Minnesota today have less than half the recoverable iron. It was all I could do not to collect a sample.

The picture is a little fuzzy, but I took it.

You pass through a nondescript door from the darkened mine and into a brilliantly-lit physics lab, a segue that has all the hallmarks of a James Bond novel. Here is the MINOS (or Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) neutrino detector. More than 2000 feet underground, the lab also conducts dark matter experiments, the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS II).

More than 2600 million years old, banded iron formation of the Soudan Iron-Formation--on Minnesota's Vermilion Range--hosts ores exploited in one of Minnesota's original mining districts. More than 15 million tons of ore were mined here, a small amount compared to much younger near-surface deposits of the nearby Mesabi Range. This stuff makes great clock faces and counter tops when cut and polished. It also looks very nice just where it is, especially after a rain.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Memories of Wine and Roses

Good food and drink evoke so many memories of friends, places traveled and moments in time. In 1997, one of my wife's good friends came to visit our home in Elko, Nevada from Ontario. My own best friend lived only a couple hours drive west, in Winnemucca. We all went on a spur-of-the-moment caravan road trip to San Francisco and the Napa Valley. We made good memories. My wife and I came back with a favorite wine; our friends came back a couple. They now have three beautiful daughters.

V. Sattui wines are only sold at the winery or shipped direct to the U.S. consumer. At her request, my brother-in-law bought my wife back a bottle of our favorite from his own recent trip to Napa--the 2012 Gamay Rouge--made from the Valdiguié (or Napa Gamay) grape. Stacey gave it to me as an early Valentine's gift to enjoy together. The first sip brought me back to a summer day in San Francisco, carefree times and a union of friends. "Salute."

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Top Tips for Surviving a Disney Vacation with Kids

Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World. You can experience the "happiest place on earth" or a festering basement foot-scraping in the seventh circle of Hell. The choice is yours. There are plenty of thick books and online references that give practical guidance to surviving, and enjoying, a Disney vacation with children. But we've found there are a couple of key themes. First, center the holiday around your own adult vacation needs; the kid's pleasure will come along for the ride. It also helps to have a spouse that's organized and plans your vacation carefully. Thank her or him profusely, because planning is a central thread of our own dozen essential tips gleaned from two trips to Florida and one more to the Hong Kong site.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Pictures of the Moment - February 3, 2014

Echinus geyser, the world's largest known acid-water geyser, May 1992. Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Park County, Wyoming. It was a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip from my work base in Helena, Montana and I was camping with a small, $5 pup tent I'd had since grade school. The next morning I work up half frozen under more than 6 inches of new snow and a collapsed tent. That's living.

This photo proves that anyone can take a decent photograph with the right lighting and a point-and-shoot camera.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Complete Carnival on the Caribbean series

The series of travel essays detailing our misadventures on an April, 2013 Carnival cruise of the western Caribbean is complete. See them all here:

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Carnival on the Caribbean - Dodging Rays in Grand Cayman

The busiest city in the Caymans is populated by stingrays and nervous tourists. We moored this morning off Grand Cayman, the last destination of our week-long Carnival cruise. The Liberty used a more organized system of sequenced tender times to get people onshore this time around, and it resulted in an efficient exit. The line for a sticker denoting our tender grouping moved fast enough for people to actually stay in it.

Our scheduled excursion was not until afternoon, so Stacey and I had a couple hours on our own. For US$5 each, we hopped on a bus from the Georgetown port terminal for a ten-minute ride to the famous Seven Mile Beach on the west side of the island. Buses wait for absolute capacity before departure, so we lost some quality time as the driver scouted for possible singletons to fill the one remaining seat. It was hot and cramped in the van while we waited, but I wasn't going anywhere with a substantial lady in the aisle jump-seat next to me.