Category Archives: North America

In two months in America and I…

  • Sat in the Apollo Mission Director’s Chair at the Johnston Space Centre, Houston, Texas
  • Stood on the edge of a volcanic crater in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon
  • Watched whales off Monterey Bay, California
  • Ate breakfast surrounded by birds at the setting for the film The Birds at Bodega Bay, California
  • Rode on San Bruno route 9 in San Francisco
  • Walked in Death Valley the day after they had 1cm of rain
  • Sat on the edge of the Grand Canyon
  • Met and had lunch with a shuttle mission astronaut at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida
  • Watched the sun rise on the East Coast and set on the West Coast
  • Got soaked watching the Christmas Parade on Hollywood Boulevard, California
  • Kayaked in the Thousand Island Mangroves near Cocoa Beach, Florida
  • Driven along an ice road with the outside temperature at 14F
  • Drank tequila margaritas in Mexico
  • Drank coffee in the original Starbucks, Seattle
  • Eaten a lot of clam chowder in Boston and around Massachusetts
  • Walked through Salem on the night before Halloween
  • Was almost blown over by the winds on Cape Cod
  • Touched the moon
  • Hugged a giant redwood

Scientology, Asphalt and Cats

My first full day in Los Angeles and I visited two places that had interested me for a long time but for very different reasons:

The Church of Scientology – How could anyone believe in this 21st century religion of the rich and famous.

The Brea Tar Pits – Bubbling pits of prehistoric proportions in the centre of a city containing animals captured in time.

I had read about the L. Ron Hubbard museum on Time Out’s unusual sights of Los Angeles listing. It had commented on the paranoia of the employees in the building and the foreboding sense of 1984. We arrived and were welcomed warmly and taken around the museum by a delightful young member from Taiwan who was anything but paranoid. The museum is about the life and work of L. Ron Hubbard and what a life he had. From his prolific writing of which we know nothing – he wrote romances, to wild west stories as well as science fiction – to his travels when he was a young man around Asia and becoming a pilot able to fly and sail almost anything. Do not get me wrong here, I am not in any way condoning the religion that has built up around this man but what I was amazed by was his life experiences and his ability to adapt and learn at a rate well beyond most people. He was clearly a charismatic person with highly developed inter and intra personal skills who was able to help people to feel better about themselves and deal with the issues and conflicts of everyday life. Lets face it who would not like to eliminate the self-doubt, negative thoughts and hang ups from previous bad experiences? This was what he was passionate about and his book about mental health published in the 1950’s has sold an astonishing amount of copies – I think 65 million. The work that he pioneered is still helping addicts today and it was interesting to hear that the ‘Church’ supports many groups in a humanitarian way including students to learn how to learn. Quite a lot of what was being said in terms of life skills and the learning to learn did strike a chord with me as these are key elements of 21st Learning of which I have tried to implement into the schools I have worked in. So where do the aliens come in – well I do not know as this more spiritual element of Hubbard’s work was only touched upon briefly. We were given a trial on the E-reader which is the instrument used to assess the thoughts of the reactive mind – when asked to think about something which was worrying us the needle did move. Were we being assessed as we went around being guided? Maybe we were but who is being paranoid then? All I can say is that we spend time learning about an amazing man and maybe, just maybe, we came out of the ‘Church of Scientology International Mission’ a little bit more inquisitive about why we and others behave the way we do – it certainly prompted some interesting conversation as we continued along the star studded Hollywood Boulevard passing the homeless, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Munro and a host of Johnny Depps.

In total contrast I headed off on the no. 780 bus along Hollywood Boulevard away from the madness and down Fairfax heading for the La Brea Tar Pits. Natural asphalt or brea in Spanish has seeped up through the ground in this area for tens of thousands of years, Over the many centuries many an animal has become stuck in the sticky substance making them targets for predators, who may also get stuck joined by birds and a whole host of insects, amphibians and the like as they all become stuck. Over time they all became part of the tar pit covered by dust and leaves and, luckily for us, were all well preserved encased in the asphalt. The Page Museum has on display an incredible array of well preserved bones which have been extracted from the pits and very carefully and painstakingly  separated from their black graves. There are the big bones and tusks of mammoths as well as hundreds of Dire Wolf sculls (not only in Game of Thrones!).

Dire Wolf skulls

Dire Wolf skulls

Sabre Tooth Cats (not Tigers we were corrected) a host of birds, plants, other flying and crawling things down to microfossils of leaves, seeds and even pollen grains. Carbon dating of some bones has shown that they are 38,000 years old. Today the pits are still bubbling away and are carefully fenced in to prevent any visitors becoming exhibits of the future.


Bubbling asphalt

The tar has been used by native peoples and European settlers to waterproof and even for some roads but today it is a living museum with groups of staff and volunteers chipping and brushing away at large blocks of bones and assorted organic debris which has been dug out of the pits from below the layer of tar. Teams are currently working on Project 23 – 23 large blocks of who knows what that were removed when the next door museum was under construction. Who knows what else they will find as they try to fit together the worlds largest and most complex jigsaw puzzle of life on earth.

More treasures from the tar awaiting

More treasures from the tar awaiting

A very interesting day to start my Los Angeles experience: from the very old to the current and perhaps into the realms of fantasy – welcome to Hollywood!


Monterey Giants

Spanish explorers in 1542 came across the bay while sailing north. Originally named for the many pine trees and then in the name of Saint Peter the bay was given its current name in 1602 in honour of the Conde de Monterrey the then viceroy of New Spain.

Deep under the waters of the bay lies one of the largest underwater canyons in the world and it is due to this canyon that Monterey Bay has become the home to a variety of marine animals with the cold, nutritious waters providing an abundance of feeding for some of the largest mammals on earth. Sea otters, Californian sea lions, harbour seals, elephant seals and bottlenose dolphins thrive in the bay and it is on the migration path of the Gray and Humpback Whales.

Therefore this area was a must to catch a glimpse of the whales as I journeyed south just as they would be doing in the coming months. My last whale watching trip had been in Iceland and although I do believe that we did see the back of some Minke whales, the most of the journey was spent trying to stand up in the stormy seas and avoiding the waves as they broke over the side of the ship. With calm seas and perfect blue skies this trip should prove to be more about the sea life rather than the threat of becoming sea life!

Whale watching Iceland 2008

Whale watching Iceland 2008

Leaving the harbour we pass a group of noisy Californian Sea lions basking in the sun on the breakwater accompanied by some Grants Cormorants. An otter watches us pass before flipping over and disappearing. Pelicans gliding rather than flying just above the surface of the ocean travelling with just a few beats of their wings pass us by along with soaring gulls.

Pelican in Monterey Harbour

Pelican in Monterey Harbour

It would take about 45 minutes to reach the canyon where the Humpback whales would be feeding but it was not long before we could see the spray of whales  coming to the surface to breathe. In the distance but that first glimpse of these sea giants was in itself breathtaking. As we came nearer to the the deep water a pod of four whales came to the surface off to the shore side of our boat. In succession they came to the surface and cleared their lungs three or four times before diving to the depths with a flick of their uniquely marked tails. We were left speechless to be in the presence of such amazing animals and close enough to hear them breathing out, spraying a fine mist of water into the air which caught the light as a rainbow of colours. Minutes later they resurface and the boat turns to make sure we get the best views. Again we all watch, some with cameras trying to catch that prefect wildlife photographer shot, but all in silence as the whales prepare to dive. Their next surface was much closer to the boat  with some spectacular fin waves. Time was coming to an end for our time in the bay and with one more surface and tail flicks we parted: us back to harbour and them to continue their feeding to ensure they have enough body weight to allow them to breed and survive the months further south.  As we sailed back to land we could see more sprays of water as more whales surface and dived to feed.

Humpback Whales in Monterey Bay

Humpback Whales in Monterey Bay

I had been determined to take only a couple of photos as wanted to enjoy the experience myself and not on a screen. I did capture some tail flicks – if only I had my Nikon and zoom lens… but what I do have are the memories of sharing time and space with some of the largest mammals on earth.

Sunset over Carmel Bay

Sunset over Carmel Bay


On the trail of Lewis and Clark

I had heard of this pair of intrepid explorers and their quest to find a water route across the vast land of America but when I saw monuments, signs and schools and colleges bearing their name I had to find out more.

Lewis and Clark memorial in Seaside, Oregon.

Lewis and Clark memorial in Seaside, Oregon.

Meriwether Lewis was born into a military family and grew up in the woods of Georgia with a fascination for natural history. Following a time of more formal education under the guidance of private tutors and after his graduation he joined the Virginia militia at the age of 19 and the following year the US Army. He quickly rose in rank to become a captain at the age of 26 when he ended his military career. Among his commanding officers at this time was William Clark.

1770 William Clark was one of ten children born into a family of common planters in Virginia. As was the custom of the time young William was tutored at home. His elder brothers had fought in the American Revolutionary War and at it’s end relocated the family to Kentucky where William’s interest in the natural world was ignited by one of his brothers during lessons in wilderness survival. After a busy six years in the militia Clark resigned his commission due to ill health.

In 1803 Thomas Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase and the United States grew in size by 828,000 square miles. Much of this land was unexplored so Jefferson requested that Congress approve the money to fund an exploratory expedition westwards. The primary objective was to explore and map the new territory and find routes across the continent to establish an American presence on the West coast (before any other country staked a claim). The secondary objective was to study the areas plant and animal life and establish trade relationships with the indigenous peoples.

Lewis was selected to lead the Corps of Discovery expedition due to his previous knowledge of the west. He in turn selected Clark who was simply the best man for the job: had previous experience negotiating with native people, had survival skills and was able to map. Both of them had an interest in the natural world. There was much preparation by Jefferson for the trip with Lewis being tutored in medical cures  and astronomy. Silver Indian Peace Medals bearing Jefferson’s portrait were prepared as symbols of peace along with enough weaponry to show their military firepower, including the new repeating rifle. Flags, gifts and a range of other items were carefully gathered.

On the 1st of May 1804 the Corps of Discovery left to meet with Lewis and follow the Missouri River westwards. The whole expedition team had narrowly missed capture by a group of mercenaries sent to prevent America’s encroachment on Spanish territories. The relationships the team established with the native peoples saved them from starvation during the upcoming harsh winters and with navigation in the vast Rocky Mountains. After following the Missouri to it’s source the party crossed the continental divide and sailed the tributaries of the vast Colombia River in canoes. Thanks to a previous explorers maps and notes they navigated the lower stretch of the Colombia River and on sighting Mount Hood they knew that the Pacific was near and it was sighted on the 7th November 1805. The winter proved exceptionally harsh and later in the month the camp relocated to the south side of the river near what is modern day Astoria and Seaside.

Their mission was accomplished when the American flag was raised above the newly built Fort Clatsop. An American presence had been established on the West coast and the area had been mapped along with diplomatic relations being established with two groups of native peoples. One thing they did not do was find a continuous water route across the continent but this did not stop the thousands of immigrants who chose to make their way to the West coast nor the further exploration and scientific discoveries.

Portland – nearly Boston but for the toss of a coin!

It is said that Portland, Oregan’s largest city’s name may never have been given was it not for the toss of a coin.

The year is 1843 when the unlikely travel companions of a Tennessee drifter William Overton and Massachusetts lawyer Asa Lovejoy beached their canoe on the banks of the Willamette River, a contributory of the Colombia River. For Overton, this timber rich land was full of potential but there was one drawback – he did not have the 25 cents needed to file and land claim. Lovejoy struck a bargain with Oveton that in return for the quarter he would share his claim to the 640 acre site. In keeping with his previous ventures, Overton soon bored of the logging and timber business selling his share in the land to one Francis W. Pettygrove. On their land a growing township was in need of a name but neither partner could agree on something suitable. While Lovejoy wished to name it after his much loved home city of Boston, Pettygrove was equally passionate about naming it after his much loved home city of Portland, Maine. In time honoured custom a toss of a coin, best of three, would be the most democratic means to decide. So with the toss of the the ‘Portland Penny’ Pettygrove got his wish.

Of course Portland would not have been an American city at all if it was not for the endeavours of Captain Merriwether Lewis and his friend Second Lieutenant William Clark who in 1805 after two and a half years expedition arrived at what is now Astoria at the mouth of the Colombia River staking a claim for their country under a commission from President Thomas Jefferson.

Joseph ‘Bunco’ Kelly was a shady figure in the late 1800s when the city was growing. A hotelier, Kelly was notorious for his side business of providing ship captains with young sailors for monitory gain. He was not the only local hotelier involved in supplementing their income by duping  the unwary with intoxicating liquor but he was the best. One story goes that after another bragging session that he could gather a full crew in less than 12 hours he stumbled across some unfortunate men who, thinking they had found a free stash of alcohol, had been drinking embalming fluid. Claiming that the dead and dying men were merely unconscious Kelly sold all 22 to a captain who sailed before finding out that his crew were no more. Another story claimed that he had delivered a wooded Indian statue to a ship well wrapped in blankets and made a quick buck: by the time the captain realised what had happened he had set sail.

‘Sweet Mary’ was another well known, or perhaps infamous resident of those dark days of a growing Portland. She was a successful business woman who to avoid taxes and city laws took her brothel to the water opening on a barge which sailed up and down the Willamette River.

Things were changing in Portland with permanent jobs in the lumber mills and businesses supporting the gold rush prospectors and the economy stabilised which in turn brought in more laws and regulations putting an end to the more seedy aspects of the city business.

Simon Benson was one of the new Portland businessmen – a lumber baron, teetotaller and philanthropist. The story goes that he had been shocked at his workers propensity to drink beer in the middle of the day. His worker’s justification was that there was no safe drinking water to be found downtown hence their choice of beverage. Upon hearing this Benson gave a sizeable amount of money to the city for the installation of  20 safe, fresh water drinking fountains. It was said that the city’s beer consumption dropped by a quarter with the appearances of the Benson Bubblers. These water fountains are still to be found in downtown Portland.

Smoking Mountain

I have always been fascinated by volcanoes ever since it was a school topic in P4. The power, the reminder of our insignificance in time and their role in shaping the world in which we live today cannot fail to capture the imagination. So Mount St. Helens was a must on my ‘to do’ list for North America. She is not my first volcano as I visited Mount Etna many years ago but she has the most stunning setting.

Located in the south of Washington state and only 50 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon is one of the lofty peaks of the Cascade mountains – Mount St. Helens. Known to the native First Nations people as the ‘smoking mountain’ because of her propensity to make herself known and the ‘Fujiyama of America’ up until that fateful day in 1980 due to her graceful, symmetrical snow-capped dome, Mount St. Helens has always fascinated those who have seen her.

Stock Photo – prior to 1980


She got her more recent name from Captain George Vancouver who in 1792 named her in honour of the then British Ambassador to Spain, the Baron St. Helens. Incidentally he also named the three other major volcanic peaks in the Cascade mountain range after naval officers: Hood, Baker and Rainier.

Although throughout our world’s history for the past 4000 years Mount St. Helens has been an active volcano changing and shaping the land around her it is that fateful day in May, 1980 and the resultant effects for which she is known. Due to her history of eruption scientists and vulcanologists had, five years previously, predicted her re-awakening and eruption and the potential extend of the hazards to the areas in her shadow and beyond. Therefore for scientists those first earthquakes on March 20th of 1980 were not so unexpected but although they were alarming to those living nearby and did cause some avalanches of snow and ice there were no signs initially of an eruption.

On March 27th the smoking mountain announced her awakening with a thunderous explosion of ash and steam opening up a crater 250 ft wide. Over the next weeks Mount St. Helens continued to emit ash and steam and the crater became larger. Avalanches of snow and ice tainted by the ash flowed down the mountain’s previously pristine slopes. Earthquakes continued along with the more alarming variety associated with Hawaiian, Icelandic and Japanese volcanic eruptions suggesting that magma and gases were on the move and that more eruptions were to follow.

There was a short period of respite for the area in late April and early May perhaps giving a false sense of security and questioning of the need for the continued evacuation which had been called for. However, the scientists and vulcanologists were observing some very significant changes in the surface and shape of the apparently dozing mountain. On the North face a ‘bulge’ had appeared and was growing at a steady rate as magma pushed it’s way through the fissure in earth’s crust. The many earthquakes through to the middle of May were coming from beneath the ‘bulge’ along with the steam blasts from the super heated groundwater. The mountain was being split in two by immeasurable natural forces – there was only one possible result.

The day I visited Mount St. Helens in November was not unlike that eventful morning of 18th of May 1980 in that it was a prefect day. The sun was shining in a crystal clear blue sky. The volcano had shown no change in activity from the weeks prior and there were no warning signs from the myriad of measuring machines dotted around the mountain. 8.32am everything changed. A 5.1 earthquake beneath the volcano seemed to trigger the collapse of the ‘bulge’ and the whole side of the mountain began to move producing the largest landslide avalanche on record. This was followed by a huge explosion as the magma which was no longer under the pressure of the rock. Hot volcanic gases, ash and pumice spread outwards in a pyroclastic flow in a wave passing the speed of sound. It left absolute destruction in it’s wake with trees and everything natural or manmade nearest in the ‘Direct Blast Zone’ being obliterated or carried along with the flow. in the ‘Channelized Blast Zone’ everything was flattened as the flow passed by with trees snapped at the base of trunks and left lying in the direction of the flow. In the ‘Seared Zone’, the outer most reaches of the pyroclastic flow, trees were killed by the extreme heat. The following landslide avalanches and resulting mud flows changed the landscape forever scraping previously lush mountain sides to bare rock faces. Lakes were submerged and new lakes carved out. The perfect cone mountain was no more.

Pic of fridge magnet bought at the Mount St. Helens Memorial

Pic of fridge magnet bought at the Mount St. Helens Memorial

Today, almost 35 years on, many local people are still living with the continued impact of that day. One of our taxi drivers recalled his memories of that day when as a 21 year old driver in Portland his ingenuity had enabled him to keep driving despite the falling ash. Despite strange looks and comments as he bought up a shop’s supply of ladies tights his idea to create a filter to stop the engine clogging worked. Stopping every 15 minutes to clean or change the improvised filter – and stop the engine going on fire – he helped many people get home during those first days.

The land still bears the marks of the devastation, or is it natural renewal? Part of the area has been returned to the forest department and replanting is underway with some of the initial tree planting due for cutting soon. A large part of the devastated area, particularly in the ‘Direct Blast  Zone’ has been left to nature to repair naturally which is happening. The snapped trunks remain as  reminders of the forces which ravaged the area and some of the bare rock faces remain so.

Fragment of wood left in blast zone

Fragment of wood left in blast zone

Bare rock where ancient forest stood - on high ground some bare trunks still stand having been sheltered from the blast but killed by the heat.

Bare rock where ancient forest stood – on high ground some bare trunks still stand having been sheltered from the blast but killed by the heat.

Her looks have gone, no longer is she the ‘Fujiyama of America’ as the gaping crater on the North face remains. However, her dome is growing again from within as barely molten magma slowly emerges through the old crater reminding us that she is may be dormant for now but is still very much an active volcano.

Mount St. Helens on 15.11.14 - the collapsed north face visible.

Mount St. Helens on 15.11.14 – the collapsed north face visible.



Anyone for Tea?

John Crane

John Crane

My name is John Crane. Was born on the 7th of December in the year of our lord 1744 in Braintree, Massachusetts. I have been a member of the Sons of Liberty for many years supporting independence for the American colonies. Too long have we been taxed to pay for wars and debts for which we have no interest whilst having no representation in the British parliament.

It all began with the Townshend Acts which were a series of act passed by the British government in 1767 after the repeal of the Stamp Act of two years before. These acts were passed under the false impression of John Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer  that the colonies had objected to the use of a direct tax such as the Stamp Act required and that they would not object in the same way to the taxation of imports. Taxes were levied on the import of items such as glass, lead, oil, paint, paper and tea. A group of Boston based merchants and traders agreed not to import or export items to Britain in objection to the new acts. To maintain order and enforce the new taxation rules a garrison of British regulars arrived in Boston in 1768. Over the next year and a half tensions between the two sides began to mount which ended with the Boston Massacre. Called to disperse an angry crowd of civilians protesting at Customs House the soldiers in all the commotion either mis-heard or disregarded the command of ‘Don’t fire!’ with five civilians being killed. Captain Preston and eight of his British soldiers were tried for murder all all went on to be acquitted on the grounds of self-defence.

Five years later when the Tea Act was passed the merchants of Boston once again came together to take a stand against this continued taxation without representation. The Tea Act gave the British East India Company a monopoly on tea sales in the American colonies. The British Government had passed this act to support the ailing East India company who were near to financial ruin due to the unstable political situation in India and Europe. In reality this was no new tax as tea had been one of the items taxed as part of the Townshend Acts. The Townshend acts had been repealed in 1770 with only a tax on tea remaining to maintain the British Parliaments right to tax the colonies. What angered the American colonists was the government sanctioned monopoly preventing colonial merchants from trading.

Prior to that night in December 1773 protests in other colony ports had been made by leaving boxes of tea on the docks to rot. However, in Boston the Sons of Liberty refused to let the ships unload their cargo of tea while the Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts refused to let the ships leave Boston without unloading their cargo.

Plans were in place and on 16th of December in 1773 myself and over a hundred other men snuck into Boston harbour. It was dead of night so identify those who were brothers we wore feathers in our hats. We crept aboard the three ships in harbour and set about bringing the boxes of tea from the ships holds, hacking them open and emptying their contents into the water.

Now what happens next I can only relay by word of mouth as I suffered the most awful accident when in the hold. One of the ropes being used to raise the heavy tea chests snapped causing one of the boxes to hit me on the head and I remember no more. I awoke the next morning with a dreadful head pain surrounded by wood chips. My fellow brothers had took me for dead and had hidden me in a carpenters to bury the following day. What a shock they got when they saw me in the tavern sipping ale early the next day.

Boxes of tea bearing the East India Company logo

Boxes of tea bearing the East India Company logo

The tea from the ships had been dumped into the shallow sea as it turned out that we had chosen a day with not only a full moon but a very low tide.

What we had done was not spoken of – what we had done was tantamount to treason.

What became of me? I joined the militia in Boston and went on to take part in the Revolutionary War. I later moved to Rhode Island taking part in the Battles of Lexington and Concord and was given the honour of being made commander of the U.S. Corps of Artillery. After I retired I move to Maine.

Boston Tea Party Experience

Boston Tea Party Experience