winter

Posted by Ellen

A camel is the beast of choice for hauling shepherds on their sled across the steppes of southern Siberia, near the Mongolian border. 

An estimated two million of the two-humped Bactrian camels live today throughout central Asia, most of them domesticated for work as pack animals, a job they've been doing since ancient times. Like their one-humped cousins in north Africa and the Middle East, Bactrian camels are drought-tolerant; they can also survive extreme cold and high altitude.

The shepherds riding in the sled are from the Russian Republic of Tuva, where they tend a flock of sheep and goats that must travel long distances to find good pasturage throughout the year. 

Posted by Ellen

Ticket sales stopped about a week ago, but we're still looking forward to the main event: the Iron Mountain Car Plunge, when the ice on the water in the East Chapin mine pit finally gives way and the orange car sinks into the depths. At that moment, it can truly be said: spring has begun on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Tickets were three for $10–three chances to guess the day, hour, and minute of the ice-out; whoever guesses closest to the actual sinking of the car, as determined by video evidence from a webcam trained on the car on the ice, wins $1,500. The local Rotary club uses the rest of the money from ticket sales to support local organizations and events.

Ice-out raffles like this one are an old Upper Peninsula tradition, popular into the 1950s. The Iron Mountain Car Plunge was revived four years ago, using a donated 1998 Saturn stripped of its engine, battery, fluids, and anything else that might be environmentally hazardous. Students at the local technical school scrubbed the car inside and out to remove all traces of road salt and grime, and then painted it orange to attract attention. A chain on its rear axle allows it to eventually be hauled up out of the water and stored till the ice comes back next year.

The East Chapin pit looks like a good-sized lake but is actually an abandoned underground mine that collapsed in on itself and flooded.

As of this writing, the ice is still looking solid. Last year, the car did its plunge thing at 4:07 PM on April 2, 2017; in 2016, it sank in mid-April, and in 2015 in late March. For those who may be thinking about buying some chances on next year's plunge: data clearly show that the car always goes down in the late afternoon.

Below is a webcam image from right around the moment of last year's plunge.

Posted by Ellen

Four-year-old Rainer sits on one of the snow-covered rocks in a quiet, slushy cove at the edge of the Baltic Sea near Tallinn, Estonia.

Posted by Ellen

Pushing a baby stroller at sunset, across a frozen lake near Lahti, Finland.

Posted by Ellen

In the wintry weather currently gripping eastern North America, icy mounds of frozen spray, known as sugarloaves, are growing huge atop frozen rivers below not-quite-fully-frozen waterfalls. There's a sugarloaf at the base of Niagara Falls this year, and also one at Montmorency Falls near Québec City; the falls at Montmorency are some 98 feet higher than Niagara and are located almost a thousand kilometers to the northeast, in a climate zone where every winter is plenty cold enough to make a sugarloaf.

The painting shown above, The Ice Cone, by Robert Clow Todd, shows Montmorency Falls and its sugarloaf in the winter of 1845. The place looked pretty much the same when we visited, in the winter of 2004, minus the horses, of course.

Tall, cone-shaped things with slightly blunted tips are often called sugarloaves, especially if they are ski resorts or a mountain in Rio de Janeiro with a statue on top. That's because real, old-school sugarloaves–actual hard, solid loaves of refined sugar–were produced in molds shaped like that. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, when manufacturing processes emerged to refine sugar into a granulated product, people who could afford to buy white sugar–meaning rich people–bought it by the loaf, which might weigh as much as 30 or 35 pounds. They chipped off pieces as needed, using heavy, sharp-edged pliers known as sugar nips.

The sugarloaves pictured below are on display in the Sugar Museum in Berlin.

Posted by Ellen

Mabel sits and yawns on a sunny ridge near Mount Rainier last week, showing off her Happy New Year hat.

Posted by Ellen

This past week, the Bell Island ferry out of Newfoundland's provincial capital of Saint John's was trapped by unusually late pack ice, requiring the ice-breaking assistance of Canadian Coast Guard vessel Earl Grey.

The heavy ice around Newfoundland is actually a product of global warming. Record-breaking thaws this past winter along the west coast of Greenland–including a first-ever hurricane that drenched Greenland in January–disrupted normal patterns of ice circulation on the surface of the North Atlantic.

Greenland's fast-melting glaciers spit out icebergs four months early this year, which have clogged shipping lanes. Ocean currents and winds usually break up Newfoundland's pack ice early each spring, but the unusual flow from Greenland has kept this past winter's ice trapped in harbors and coastal waters.

Posted by Ellen

The truth is not hard to believe: these guys were in fact trying for a world record in 1893 when they loaded the sled with more than 36,000 board feet of virgin white pine logs from Ontanagon County in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

How did they pile up the load so high? The horses actually did much of the work. The men would lay each log on the ground longside the sled and affix ropes to it that went up and over the load and then back down to the ground on the other side of the sled. That's where the horses were waiting; they would be harnessed to the ropes, and as they were led away from their side of the sled, the ropes would pull the new log up to the top of the heap, guided up the side by angled tracks made from small logs. When the new log reached the top, the men would snag it into place.

How come the sled didn't just sink down in the snow? An ice road had been specially prepared, with the snow sprayed repeatedly with water and allowed to freeze rock-hard. The horses had special shoes with crampons that bit into the ice surface.

Usually, logs hauled this way were taken to a frozen river, awaiting spring, when they'd be floated downstream to a sawmill. But this particular load was pulled for just half a mile by these two horses, to a railroad siding, where the logs and the sled were loaded onto freight cars and shipped to Chicago.

There, at the Michigan pavilion of the 1893 Columbia Exhibition, the load was reassembled, sled and all, treating fairgoers to a glimpse of logging activity in what was then the world's busiest lumber region.

Did they make it into the Guinness Book of Records? We have no idea, but they did claim this was the largest load of lumber in the history of the world.

Note that most of the men here had no gloves, and of course none of them had hard hats.

Posted by Ellen

The ferry boat Michigan Central, carrying railroad cars, prepares to enter its slip on the Detroit River, circa 1900.