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Well, it was another year mostly spent close to home.  We did see a couple of milestones though.

We’ve bought an electric car!  It’s a Hyundai Kona SE.  It’s efficient and fun to drive, and we’ve already outfitted it to carry our bicycles and we hope to train it to carry a kayak as well.  We’re still waiting for our condo association to get our charging station wired up, but, on the other hand, after a month and a half, we still haven’t needed to plug our car in.  Sadly, this acquisition meant parting with our 13-year-old Escape hybrid.  The Snowball Diaries, which began with our move to Mexico in 2009, have seen their final entry.

Last year we reported on the purchase of Alex’s e-bike.  This year brought a new bicycle for Scott, as the old one threatened to fail catastrophically.  The new bike promises to be a little more versatile, with fatter tires to handle woodsier parts of the state’s trail system.

Another new thing is the weather.  Used to be, western Washington seemed practically immune from forest fires.  We would sometimes get smoke from across the mountains or from British Columbia, but only if the wind blew just wrong.  With hotter and drier summers, Washingtonians are now producing our own smoke.  I made the mistake this year of bragging about how we’d been spared, and then October kept us indoors most of the time.  There was one day when Seattle had the worst air quality of all the world’s major cities.  Then the smoke was followed by weather that was both cooler and wetter than usual, again casting a pall over outdoor activities.

Still, there were plenty of times during the year when we ventured into the real world. Some earlier forays include an exploration of one of our neighborhood thoroughfares — Broad Street — and an introduction to some local wildlife — Our Crows.  Here’s some holiday cheer from Westlake Park:

Another new bicycle

Well, there we were, at Gene Coulon Park in Renton, nearly half-way into the loop around the south end of Lake Washington, having a snack at Kidd Valley.  I had my bike propped up in front of me, and as Alex was off getting milkshakes, I noticed a tiny black line running much of the way around its downtube, near the fork. 

Unlike steel, aluminum isn’t required to give you any warning before failing.  I was probably pretty lucky to spot this problem, and to have a chance to find another way home and to retire my faithful frame before any catastrophe could occur.

But of course that’s not what I did, riding instead another nine miles very gently to the little picnic area just short of the Allentown Bridge, sending Alex home for the car, and taking this picture meant to represent end-of-the-line for my old Novara.

Alex is familiar with this scenario — it’s pretty much what she did that time I broke my hip, just with a different car and a different bike. And more distance.

And then, while she was on her way, I rode just another half mile to Cecil Moses park, where there are more amenities.

It was clear though that I should get another bike before my luck ran out, so a few days later I ended up at Gregg”s and found a bike about the same size as the old one, but with fatter tires — what they’re calling a “gravel bike”  or “adventure bike” these days. It’s a Trek Checkpoint ALR5, road-bike in shape but with lots of hard points for mounting luggage.  I’ve changed some parts around and it it seems to fit okay. A mere sixty-five years ago I wouldn’t have imagined that someday I would have a bicycle with hydraulic disc brakes. 

 

Broad Street

 

In this part of Seattle, thanks to a disagreement between early settlers, streets run southwest-to-northeast. Broad Street is the only one that ever broke through the east-west grid north of Denny Way, running diagonally from salt water clear to Lake Union.  The picture above shows beginning of Broad Street’s climb up the hill from the north end of Alaskan Way, the former Railroad Avenue.

For the last half of the 20th Century and beyond, Aurora Avenue made north-south travel easy north of Denny, but east-west traffic nearly impossible.  Broad Street crossed under Aurora though, at about the same place as Mercer but in its own idiosyncratic direction. Drivers coming from the freeway could choose to pass to the north of Seattle Center or the southeast on Broad Street.

Following the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, big changes came to Aurora Avenue. Then after Amazon’s conquest of South Lake Union, something had to be done about Mercer.  During the last couple of decades Broad Street lost its importance and then, suddenly, about half of its length.  From the west it doesn’t really cross Fifth Avenue any more, though it does get a street sign on the far side. Its old alignment there is now a skate park:

The park is here because the new hockey arena claimed the former location, a quarter mile west.

Bits and pieces of vacated Broad Street appear among newer construction projects.

The photo above shows a scrap of old roadway, now an experiment in urban habitat, next to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Discovery Center.  The view below looks across the new tunnel entrance, back toward the skate park.

Further east, hints of the old Broad Street show up within parcels that are being developed.   But here’s an interesting thing:  the block that always connected Valley Street to Roy Street, right at Westlake, the part that lies in shadow in the picture below, is signed “Roy St.” on the pole; but if you view it on Google Maps at just the right magnification , it is still labeled “Broad St.”

Another quiet year at home! This summer could have meant a trip to a 50-year college reunion, but instead we spent time perfecting our housekeeping skills. This lull did provide an opportunity for some writing — here’s a link to the memoirs collected as Lockdown Lit, in case you missed them. Next year we’re hoping instead to be able to make the rail journey across Canada that we have already postponed once.

Our biggest milestone this year was Alex’s new e-bike. Until about the time she got it, we were still having most of our foodstuffs delivered; now, she does almost all our marketing by bike, visiting as many as four stores each week.

Here’s the bike on one of its first trips north along the Interurban Trail. An electric bike is a fairly sensible purchase here in Seattle, where two entirely reasonable sections of a route may be separated by a short, steep, disheartening climb. It may well be that Alex gets more exercise now that she doesn’t have to avoid the hardest parts. Her companion certainly does.

Our next step may be an electric car, if our building management is able to install charging stations as planned.  Check back next year, and have a great 2022!

Our Bumblebees

July arrived before I had seen even a dozen bumblebees; I was afraid that they were gone for good.  The blackberries had made alternate arrangements for pollination.  The vegetation installed specifically to support the bees was largely bloomed out — most notably the wild lilac, which I happen to know is their favorite thing in the whole world.

Then I began to see a few bumblebees here and there by the roadside.  And now it turns out that our rooftop garden is loaded with them. Click on the image below (or here for a high-resolution version):

 

These big black bees are Bombus vosnesenskii, the Yellow-Faced Bumblebee. Popular with farmers generally, they’re the champion pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes. Plus, they’re immensely fun to interact with. It’s sometimes possible to touch the luxurious fur of one that’s fully engaged with a flower, though she may wave a  middle leg or two as a warning.  They’re also approachable when their body temperature is low.  Here’s one we met walking across Clay Street:

Bumblebees don’t have the same kind of regimented homelife that honeybees have: a bumblebee won’t always make it back to the nest at the end of the day, and may be found the next morning waiting for enough warmth to get started.  The image of the bee sleeping in the palm of the hand is celebrated in popular music, but note that bees vary somewhat in their disposition.  If the bees in your neighborhood look like ours but turn out to be B. fervidis instead, you may get a different reception.

We used to see three other kinds of bumblebees in Seattle regularly.  To the right is a picture of a Black Tail Bumblebee, B. melanopygus, who was our houseguest for one night back in May of 2006.

These bees are also called orange-rumped, and this second picture, blurred by the subject’s motion, shows why.

The other two species we used to see were much more numerous: B. californicus, which is banded much like B. vosnesenskii but has a black face; and B. sitkensis, smaller, scruffier, and popular in Alsaska for getting its work done in a short growing season.  Our current environment has a different mix of flowers from our old garden, and bees are apt to specialize, so we don’t have a clear picture of how our bees are faring.  The Yellow-Faced bee is said to have edged out its local competitors through a strategy of emerging early; maybe now they’re just resting on their laurels.

A New Urban Village

On my way home from the library on Saturday I thought that I might stop by the Pike Place Market, our current source for basil.  This meant descending from Fourth Avenue to First, and I started down Seneca Street.  When I got to Second I noticed that the big construction project there was no longer fenced off.  A closer look showed that, like many recent developments, this one provides a mid-block passage.

The new building has been called variously 2 + U (for its location at Second and University) and Qualtrics Tower, for its biggest tenant. Promotional literature suggests a tower built on stilts with an urban village tucked underneath. It was also said to be rare in that it would open fully leased; apparently that’s not the same as fully occupied, because I seemed to have the building pretty much to myself on this visit. Post-pandemic, I expect to have to share.

This panorama begins and ends with a glimpse of the former Washington Mutual Tower, across Second Avenue.  Halfway through, past a squarish tree, that dark building is the Harbor Steps, where we lived during the summer of 2009.  To the right of the legacy red brick building is the Seattle Art Museum.

It was once thought that the building would open in 2019. Several projects on Second Avenue have ground on for years; but at least this one, being on the west side, didn’t interfere with the bike lane like the others.  Not to say that it was without disruption — in 2016 our rug guys, Homa Rugs, lost their store as demolition loomed.  Now, fortunately, they have a place in one of the brick buildings that remained.  Here’s what their corner looked like after it was leveled, back in 2017 (all four of the Harbor Steps towers are at least partially visible here. We used to live in that nearest one.)

2020 Wrap-up

We got off pretty easy, during this Year of the Pandemic.  Our trip to Florida was finished before travel became a concern.  Some of Alex’s work for the Washington State Medical Quality Assurance Board required physical attendance, but that part was done by January.  (Her visit to Tukwila provided an opportunity for her spouse to try indoor skydiving, as reported earlier.)

With no social or professional obligations, we figured that we would be able to eliminate almost all possibility of infection, so we started getting all our meals or groceries delivered.  We did enjoy Washington’s “fresh air and exercise” exemption, perhaps more than advisable for us vulnerable, treatment-intensive oldsters; but otherwise we were pretty strict about self-isolation.

During the times when the transmission rates were low, we enjoyed walking down to the waterfront in the evenings.  But cycling always seemed safer.  When the Cascade Bicycle Club announced that its annual Seattle-to-Portland ride would be “virtual” this year — and that one would have eighteen extra days to cover the 200-plus miles, on any chosen course — we recognized what might be our only chance to secure bragging rights for this event  The unusual format was handy in other ways — we were able to combine other errands, like plastic bag recycling.  Here’s Alex pausing to pick up a couple weeks’ worth of nearly-contactless bagels.

It’s a good thing we got our biking done — and our mask-wearing perfected, because the end of summer brought another respiratory challenge, with smoke and ash from West Coast wildfires, some of them here in Western Washington.  Outside air was “hazardous” for days on end.

Inside, it was still pretty nice.

Around the Globe

One landmark that appears often in our pictures is the Seattle P-I Globe. That’s no surprise, since it dwells between our window and the photogenic Olympic Peninsula.  How the globe got there in the first place is another matter though.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the successor to Seattle’s very first newspaper, the Seattle Gazette, founded in 1863.  Eighty-five years later, the globe was created to adorn the paper’s then-new headquarters, at Sixth Avenue and Wall Street. The diameter of the globe is 30 feet, and then there’s that 18 foot eagle perched on top. The slogan “It’s in the P-I,” in red neon, still sometimes revolves around its equator.

Eventually, the P-I lost ground to its cross-park rival, the Seattle Times.  Starting in 1983 the two papers were both printed by the Times under a joint operating agreement, and so the  P-I had less need for floorspace.  They moved down toward the waterfront, taking their globe with them, and that’s why it’s in our line of sight.  Since 2009 the P-I is online only.

Here at our house we’ve been worried about losing our view of the globe.  It’s not that the thing is going anywhere — the Museum of History and Industry, which now owns it, doesn’t have any place else to put it.  But our neighborhood is strewn with one-, two- and three-story buildings that are ripe for re-development (we lost our partial view of Mt. Rainier to a big apartment building, for instance). One day a construction crane appeared near the globe, and soon a wooden structure began to rise.

But we tracked the new building down, to Warren Avenue, across First from where I think the Cascadia Tavern used to be.  It’s wedge-shaped and yellow, and full of holes on the side away from us.  We were glad to find it topped out at a visually safe height.  Its complexion is still subject to change, but I’m sure it will always be the Swiss Cheese Building to us.

Up close, the globe itself is more imposing:

Here is the globe from the other side:

Indoor skydiving

What we really want, of course, is to fly as we would in our dreams.

Waking life offers us various aspects of that experience.  Parachute jumping provides a bird’s-eye view of the earth, the brief sensation of weightlessness, and the chance to control movement through subtle gestures.  This last bit, it turns out, may be conveniently enjoyed indoors.

I found myself with a free day in nearby Tukwila, home of the Seattle location of iFLY, one of about fifty of their vertical wind tunnels wordwide.  It happens that even unlikely-looking humans can be made to levitate, and can begin to acquire some skills right away.  (Some restrictions apply:  they ask about history of heart trouble, back injuries or shoulder dislocations.  You see me wearing one white glove because I was unable to remove a ring from that hand.  They are understandably wary of debris in their 140 m.p.h. slipstream.)

There’s much of the magic of soaring, and without the encumbrance of an aircraft.  It’s inspiring just to watch the instructors, like Josh, the guy in the red suit above, who flies as well as any animated superhero.  The International Bodyflight Association has videos showing you how it’s done.  And by the way, some of the other thrills of jumping can be added back in.  Any flight can include a quick trip up to the top of the tunnel.  And virtual reality can take the flyer to popular skydiving sites, or for a wingsuit ride.

Baltic Seascapes

 

Helsinki harbor

Home turf of the Hanseatic League, later the heart of a Swedish empire, for decades a sort of liquid Iron Curtain; why not spend a couple weeks on the Baltic Sea? We combined this idea with a Backroads bicycle trip that included passage aboard an innovative new ship.

We first spent some time on our own in Stockholm, as previously reported; that entry includes a link to an account of our visits to a couple of Baltic islands that gave us our first closeup look at this inland sea.

The Baltic is different in several ways from other large bodies of water. On its surface, especially toward the north and east, it’s composed of fresh water bound for the ocean. At its Danish outlet, there’s salty water flowing in underneath, mixing only slowly with the brackish water above. The Baltic isn’t big enough to have significant tides of its own, and is protected from the tides of the Atlantic. One other big difference from, say, the Mediterranean, is the northerly location. During some winters the Baltic freezes over from end to end. We were careful to confine our visit to the month of August.

Unreasonably good weather allowed us to enjoy a lot of scenery.  The picture at the top of the page is a look aft as we enter the harbor at Helsinki, our first stop after leaving Stockholm.  It’s a great place for cycling, with waterside paths through birch forests.

The panorama below is from our ship’s berth in St. Petersburg.  A craft our size is welcome right in the midst of things.  That’s the gold dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral on the right, and just this side of the second bridge that’s the garden of the Winter Palace.

Our ship’s location, right there on the English Embankment, wasn’t the advantage that one might have supposed, though.  These days, travelers from many nations, including the U.S., aren’t allowed ashore unless they have a guide or a special visa, obtained in advance.  We contented ourselves this time with guided outings (and memories from our visit by train in May of 2000).

So biking in St. Petersburg was done with a local company, and using their little folding commuter bikes.  (Alex and I managed to snag bicycles with bigger wheels, but weren’t any the happier for it.)

Divided into small groups and given tiny bicycles, a Backroads tour is still likely to block a thoroughfare. Here we gawk at St. Isaac’s. The big sculpture in the background is a wedding bouquet — the happy couple pose at left.

 

The need to use local bicycles points out another interesting thing about the trip. Our concept of the Backroads bike tour dates back to our first outing, in 1995, in the Gulf Islands.  We envision two bright young leaders, one riding herd while the other drives a van along the route, providing water, snacks, repair service and perhaps the occasional lift when desired.  Every couple of days a bus may materialize to move the entire group from one general location to the next.

On that first trip there happened to be only five guests.  Later we would see a dozen, then two dozen, and eventually, on the Baltic cruise, forty.  This has led to some big changes — one consequence being the difficulty of picking out “your” bicycle from among the fleet.  (This task is eased only slightly by the fact that there are now more kinds of bicycles.)

But on this voyage, several factors meant that guests, vehicles, bicycles and some of the staff progressed along the course in different supply chains.  Sometimes the bikes traveled by land or ferry and met us in port; other times, they had no choice but to gain passage with us.  Support staff changed with changing venues.  The relationship between steamship line and tour company is a new one (and the ship is itself brand-new):  a method for crating up the bikes had to be invented, shortly before the first customers arrived.  The logistics went off amazingly well.  (Ours was the “return” section of the ship’s maiden cruise from Copenhagen — the various bike routes had already been run once, but in reverse order.)

West of st. Petersburg

From St. Petersburg, past Krohnshtadt and Kotkin Island, land trails off gradually

To the tourist, much will seem familiar.  Some architecture looks picturesque, but mostly just because it’s older.  Restaurants offer lots of seafood, but none of it seems alien.  There’s the possibility of hearing a Finnic language spoken (we skipped Uralic Latvia and Lithuania) but Slavic and North Germanic prevail, and English is now accepted everywhere.

The end of August, from the world’s longest wooden pier, in Sopot, near Gdansk.

There could be a mild surprise in store for bird watchers who have not been to northern or eastern Europe before.  Crows here act the same, and they sound the same, but they look different.  They’re best described as gray with black wings and heads. 

They’re the hooded crow (Corvus cornix), the first crow named by Linnaeus.  We don’t have good pictures because the adults are too wary to get within cellphone camera range.  The young ones are naive (we were able to feed one in Tallinn) but they start out dark all over and so do not display the color difference well.  All baby crows have blue eyes, but these are startlingly pale.

You’d have to look closely, but the picture below actually shows a ship approaching a navigation light.  As intimate a sea as the Baltic is, it’s still vast enough to make humans look insignificant.

Between St. Petersburg and Tallinn

Our cruise ended in Copenhagen.  This is what you’d like your bike path to look like!  Half of the city’s workforce commutes by bicycle, so when it snows, the bike paths are cleared first.  Our ship is docked just on the other side of the building to the right.

Cruise ships have put  on a lot of weight in recent years.  But, wait!  What if, instead of trying to shoehorn a small city into a floating island, you took a yacht and scaled it up a bit?  Le Dumont d’Urville is the newest of the dozen ships owned by the French line Ponant, and one of four its size named for explorers.  (Jules Dumont d’Urville mapped much of the coast of Australia, and gave Micronesia and Melanesia their names.  And Adelie Land, in Antarctica, after his wife.  And thus the penguins also.)

The Norwegian Bliss, which ties up in our Seattle neighborhood every weekend during the summer, carries over 4,000 passengers, and has a five-hole golf course and a go-kart track.  With 92 cabins, Le Dumont d’Urville expects to carry about 170.  Its ice-strengthened hull is less than 60 feet wide and, better yet, draws only 15 feet, meaning access to a lot more of the world’s shoreline.  The deck around the little plunge pool at the stern folds out cleverly to launch Zodiacs or kayaks.  By the way, chow is another matter that can be confidently entrusted to the French.

One last look at our ship — it’s the tiny white blip in the exact center of this photograph.