Saturday, January 22, 2022

The 3rd year

A seagull facing the Atlantic in Boston
We are reaching the end of January in 2022. The third year into the pandemic. The year seems to go pretty much like 2021. Old pre-pandemic memories are replaced by the lone memories of the pandemic. Let's see how long this goes.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Frozen Arctic

Looking back, standing on frozen winter Arctic

I went for an early morning walk on the frozen Arctic Ocean with a headlight. It felt even colder than on the land. Also, more walks on the frozen middle lagoon lake in Utqiagvik. I was luckily well-prepared for -50 F (-45 C) temperatures with proper layers of winter clothes and a good pair of long snow boots. Notably, this -34 C was the coldest weather I have ever been to. But I did not feel much cold except in my fingers as I removed the outer glove at times to focus the camera better.

This was the most volatile and dynamic trip I have ever had. My initial trip plan was one night in Anchorage, four nights in Fairbanks (College), three nights in Utqiagvik, and two nights again in Anchorage - making a total of 10 nights in Alaskan hotels. However, the plan started to break as the blizzards strongly hit Fairbanks. The flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks was delayed on the day I was supposed to go to Utqiagvik. Eventually, the flight was canceled, and I was given a flight that departed two days later. Alaskan Airlines also told me there is no flight to Utqiagvik from Anchorage until January 2nd. That means the Utqiagvik segment of my trip was removed entirely—such an anti-climax.

I first had to cancel the non-refundable hotel booking of Utqiagvik. It was refundable until 72 hours. But now it is just a few hours, so it became non-refundable. But thankfully, King Eider Inn asked for my flight information and let me cancel it free of charge. Now, I must stay somewhere for two additional nights. My previous hotel was fully booked, although I tried to rebook it as I liked it. I also do not want to stay far from Fairbanks as there was a risk of road closures, and I cannot miss the flight to a road closure due to the ice and snow in the road.

I opened the app on my mobile. The app was timing out every time I came to the last booking step due to the slow Internet. These apps should cater to places with slow Internet better. There is no reason to time out within a minute when the request is sent. I also used the mobile browser and desktop browser options. They were timing out too. Finally, I booked a hotel directly using their website for two nights and went ahead to stay there.

Then, I called Alaska Airlines to get a refund for the unused ANC <-> BRW segment. They told me that there is a flight to BRW on the 1st and a return to ANC on the 2nd. I accepted it. That means one night in Anchorage. I booked for one night in Anchorage (unfortunately, too soon). Since it is a booking that comes too soon, it is also non-refundable. On the 31st morning, I arrived at Fairbanks airport. Found a flight that is leaving earlier. I waitlisted myself. And they let me fly the earlier flight. I arrived in Anchorage early enough to catch the fight going right now to Utqiagvik. I quickly asked them to waitlist me, and they instantly let me fly. That means two days in Utqiagvik. December 31st and January 1st nights. I happily boarded the flight. I asked the hotel in Anchorage to change the non-refundable hotel booking to Jan 2nd night. They rejected my request, although they could have offered to help, as it was all bad weather (acts of God. Even Alaskan Airlines did not compensate for these changes and subsequent losses, citing this as an act of God) and dynamic planning. I lost 110$ for that stupid booking. Anyway, not a huge deal.

I landed in Utqiagvik, headed to King Eider Inn without a booking. I asked for a two-night stay, explaining the whole ordeal of canceled flights. Luckily they had a room for me and even offered me a free upgrade with a kitchenette for both nights (20$ per night extra usually). I had a great time for both days/nights in Utqiavik. I even cooked my meals in the kitchenette as the restaurants were closed due to COVID19 and the new year.

On January 2nd night, I arrive at Anchorage airport. My flight to Atlanta was on January 3rd morning. But since the hotel did not accept my request for a change of dates, I had to book another room. It is already the end of my trip. I was already tired and just going to Anchorage to sleep for the night with another booking; unpacking and repacking the backpack and suitcase filled with dirty clothes is not fun. I went to the Delta counter again. Waitlisted myself to the earlier flight to Seattle. I got myself to Seattle, and eventually to Atlanta in an earlier flight and arrived in Atlanta on the 3rd evening, rather than the 4th morning.

Overall, this was my most dynamic trip with unexpected changes. Thankfully, I lost only 110$, or rather, a value of a hotel for a night in Anchorage. Anyway, I shortened my trip by one night, making it a 9-night trip (1 night in Anchorage, four nights in Fairbanks/College, two nights in Fairbanks, and two nights in Utqiagvik), rather than the initial plan of 10-nights. So it was more of a lost night, rather than a 110$. This also made me rethink how and when to book a hotel when traveling locally.

Friday, December 31, 2021

A few things that made my 2021 interesting..

Two Arctic seas meeting, a late midnight
2021 is still a pandemic year that often felt like 2020. However, overall, the year was more positive. It was not better than my pre-pandemic best years (2019, 2017, 2015, and 2013). But this post focuses on the happy moments.

1. The Alaskan Arctic, twice - in the peak summer and the peak winter!

Witnessed the Arctic transforming completely with seasons from 24 hours sunlight to no sunrise. Visit Alaska was my childhood dream since 2001. After two decades, visited twice this year, and experienced the taiga and tundra biomes of Alaska.

2. A "Polar Bear Plunge" in the Northernmost Point of Alaska in the North Slope Borough

On a fine summer day, I jumped into the Arctic Ocean at Point Barrow (Nuvuk), where the Chukchi sea meets the Beaufort Sea. Nuvuk and Utqiagvik are now the northernmost and westernmost points I have ever been to. The water was not as cold as I anticipated. But I had to dry myself quickly and put my layers of clothes back on - as outside air in Utqiagvik was cold even in the peak summer, and water on skin makes it feel colder.

3. Witnessing Northern Lights two nights consecutively!

On New Year's Eve and the night of Jan 1st, 2022. The NYE had a magical feeling to it.

Valley of Fire State Park, NV

4.  Exploring the culinary scene of Northern Virginia (NOVA).

A calm Uzbek restaurant in Arlington and a seafood restaurant in Alexandria.

5. Getting stuck in Fairbanks in a historical "Icemageddon."

Canceled and delayed flights lengthened my stay from 4 nights to 6 nights. I handled an extremely volatile itinerary elegantly.

6. Long walks on cold Arctic winter temperatures of -34C, feels like -40C.

The weather app warned frostbites to exposed skin in 2 minutes and asked not to go outdoors. I did. I got a frostnip on my left thumb once too. 

7. Spencer Glacier and the blue glaciers of Whittier and surroundings

A scenic hike and standing in Spencer glaciers, and short walks in Whittier.

8. The view from Mount Evans, high at 4,348 m elevation

It is the highest I have ever been. And the scenic drive with mountain goats in the streets.

9. Arriving at Las Vegas, NV via long dark streets from Kanab, UT 

Slushies in Las Vegas was the weakest alcohol I have ever tried. 

10. The desert landscapes of NV and CA

Licked (!! because, why not?) some salt from the lowest elevations (-86 m) of death valley, and some hikes in the valley of fire, Joshua tree, and Mojave parks and forests.

11. The French Quarter of New Orleans

It has this genuine European charm and nightlife that I haven't felt elsewhere in the USA.

Mount Evans, a Fourteener of CO.
12. Witnessing the bore tides in real-time from the train ride

From Anchorage towards the south, magnificent views of mudflats and glacier-covered mountains of Chugach National Forest.

13. 20 km frequent weekend walks in Atlanta Beltline west and south and Stone mountain trail

More explorations of South and West Atlanta; leisure walks in roadsides of various neighborhoods such as Edgewood, Cabbage town,  and College Park; and interesting mini hikes such as Doll's Head Trail/Constitution Lakes Park.

14. Disconnecting from the world in Charlotte.

Long weekend brief trips are fun. I liked the 7th Street Public Market.

15. EmoryBMI Google Summer of Code - a successful summer as a mentor for two projects and the org admin

Our sister organization caMicroscope had a productive summer too, I learned from their mentors. 

16. The 2 Pfizer shots and the Moderna booster

They gave hope for a year that overwhelmingly felt like a twin of depressing 2020.

Spencer Glacier in summer
17. Crossing the bridge to Camden, NJ from Philadelphia, PA.

Almost summer - but it was rainy and cold. Thankfully, Philly had some nice cafes.

18. Getting soaked in a heavy thunderstorm in Bonita Lakes Park in Meridian, MS.

The town has some ghost vibes, like a haunted town. I won't recommend walking alone there at nights. It is a ghost paradise.

19. Burgers and CBD water outside the Illegal Burger restaurant, Denver downtown
Met some interesting strangers in Denver/Colfax, Idaho Springs, Boulder, and Littleton.

20. Accepted journal papers - a productive year for research.

Niffler at Journal of Digital Imaging (JDI), NEXUS at IEEE Access, and Viseu at Elsevier Computer Networks (COMNET).

21. Regular dentist visits after a decade. It was expensive.

Since I did not spend considerable time with humans this year, my dentist became the person I most interacted with this year.

22. Exploring Washington DC with my former colleague.

It reminded our Atlanta walks pre-pandemic in 2020.

New Orleans French Quarter
23. Discovering Chungha's music and becoming a fan.

INNA, my all-time favorite since 2013 from Romania, also had some great music this year.

24. A colorful view from the apartment in central Portland.

It was a trip-inside-a-trip from Seattle in a serial trip. In such backpacking trips, especially including flights, packing-unpacking-and-repacking, ensuring not to mix the still-clean clothes with dirty/used ones, is an art.

25. Up and downhills of Seattle on rainy Thanksgiving days.

The Chinatown / International District was nice for a good walk, despite the bad weather.

26. Software-Defined Systems SDS 2021 Conference.

Nice to meet my peers, although it was virtual. I was also the technical program committee (TPC) chair.

27. Snow covered Christmas Eve in Anchorage

This was my first white Christmas, everything covered in heaps of snow and snowflakes falling occasionally. Loved that feeling. I used icicles to write Happy New Year on snow. 2021 was easily my most favorite and unique Christmas.

Walking across the frozen Chena River
28. Crossing Chena River on foot from Pike's Landing, College, AK.

To get a selfie with the "Love Alaska" sign on Christmas day. In the winter, this "path" is also known as "Ice Bridge" but becomes an actively flowing river when it gets warmer in spring to autumn.

29. Reading a book outside in the snow by the fireside in Fairbanks.

Thanks to the hotel's library and the beautiful view that the snow had crafted.

30. Dangerously slippery roads of downtown Fairbanks

Walked across the entire downtown Fairbanks on various types of snow, ice, and slush - The good traction for my long boots prevented me from slipping on the heaps of snow with ice layers.

Every year, I have one new year's resolution - to outperform my previous years. :) 2021 was not a bad year, and comparing it with my pre-pandemic years is unfair. It was better than 2020, and it was the best I could achieve solo in a pandemic. I expect 2022 to bring an end to this crisis and bring back happiness to the 2019 pre-pandemic level. I wish you a happy new year. Thanks for reading my list until the end. You may read the blog posts of all the previous years as well.

Northern lights (aurora borealis) in Utqiagvik

Utqiagvik gives an easy access
Northern lights have an 11-year cycle like a sine curve with a maximum and minimum. The last maximum was in 2014, and the next maximum will be in 2025. The minimum was in 2019. In 2021/2022, we are still slightly closer to the minimum than the maximum. When it is at the maximum, the displays will be stronger. But then there is also a 27-day cycle of repeating patterns, showing displays from September to March in the northern hemisphere. Other days of the year will be too bright with the late-night sun for the lights to be visible. 
The 27-day forecast, with updates every Monday at 7 am Eastern Time, comes in handy.

Aurora views until NYE Fireworks
Although the common wisdom is, further north gives better views, that is not always true. The magnetic pole is slightly tilted from the north pole. Consequently, you see the lights more in the south in Canada compared to Alaska. Also, it is a ring known as Auroral Oval. A few places such as Iqaluit, the rest of the northern Nunavut, and north Greenland are too far north to be ideal. However, the darkness of Iqaluit and the rest of Nunavut is an advantage. But heading way too north such as Grise Fiord or Alert in Nunavut will hurt and ruin your chances of seeing those lights. Yellowknife would be better. Even Iqaluit will be okay. Every city will of course try to advertise itself as the best place to view the northern lights, due to the tourist potential. Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow. The northernmost town of the USA in Alaska. Utqiaġvik also has the northernmost point of the USA, known as Nuvuk or Point Barrow) is not particularly touristic for northern lights, although summer gets more visitors for the 24 hours Sun and an Arctic plunge in Barrow Point, the literal northernmost point of the USA.

With the city view, some light pollution
For the same reason, I heard that Fairbanks and slightly north of Fairbanks is better than Utqiagvik for the displays as Utqiagvik is almost at the northern end of the ring whereas slightly north of Fairbanks is right under the oval. However, a dark sky with less light pollution (far from city centers) and clear cloudless skies are even more critical. I stayed in a hotel in College, AK, right next to the frozen Chena River. It is supposed to be better than staying in central downtown Fairbanks. It is also more convenient than heading towards a destination for the view - although having a dedicated viewpoint makes the views more pleasant. But, we could cross the frozen river by walking on it and going to the Love Alaska sign on the opposite side. Having such access helps with the potential to sleep in your room until an alarm sounds from your Aurora app or the hotel reception (the hotel reception can wake you up for sightings - but do not rely on them entirely).

Stars were visible too.
 Unfortunately, the eight nights I spent in Fairbanks had 100% cloud coverage due to continuous blizzards. But luckily enough, when I landed in Utqiagvik, it had a fully clear sky. Then I saw the northern lights on both nights (new year's eve night and the night after new year) I stayed there. The temperature was dropping to -34C at the two nights, and that was enough to kill my iPhone within a couple of seconds when I took it out and drained my camera battery in 5 minutes. I also kept a spare battery in my winter parka's inner pocket. That gave me a total of 10 minutes and a need to rush with photos rather than carefully focus. Also, it was a solo self-managed trip, and I was taking photos from the street rather than in a campsite with some fire to warm up. Although my photos do not give the show the justice it deserves, it was a magnificent display.

The Interior Alaska Icemageddon 2021

Ice and snow everywhere in Fairbanks
It was a historical record-breaking blizzard, dubbed "Icemageddon." Due to that, unfortunately, the northern lights were not visible in Fairbanks, although predicted high as Kp=4 during the stay. Otherwise, it would have been a sure thing. Chena River was frozen just in the backside of the hotel I stayed. Just walk across the frozen river to the "Love Alaska" sign and enough darkness to witness the northern lights in peace.

Luckily, I went further north and spent two nights in Utqiaġvik, where I saw the northern lights on both nights. I was also well prepared with warm clothes and traction for my boots. Therefore, the cold Alaskan and Arctic climate did not bother me.

There were some mini power issues and long queues in the hotel. It was a bit annoying in the beginning. But later, I stayed two nights in another place in Fairbanks and realized it was a widespread issue across Fairbanks due to the blizzard. Power issues were all over Fairbanks. Roads were in horrible condition, and many were closed. The flight was delayed by two days - although Alaska Airlines tried their best to accommodate every request to their best. Most restaurants and establishments downtown were closed for a couple of days.