Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Rhamphotheca


That's today's new word: it means a fancy protective sheath that grows over the base of the bill of a puffin during mating season. And that's a new fact, too: that puffins for most of the year don't look at all like the classic clown-faced birds they're always portrayed as. No, they're rather dull and black in eclipse plumage, nowhere near as cute and colourful. So we were lucky that our meeting with the puffins in Seward this afternoon took place at the right time of year. Even that little line over their eyes goes, you know: it's an actual crest that grows, not coloured feathers - and then it falls off.

I learned all this during our Puffin Encounter at the Alaska SeaLife Centre. It's a flash, modern place that doesn't fit very well with the rest of the town's slightly ramshackle appearance, but it was funded by Exxon reparations, and does a good job displaying often rehabilitated animals like an absolutely massive Steller sea lion bull called Woody - just the 770kg - and harbour seals, octopus, salmon, and the birds in roomy and natural-looking enclosures where we could watch them diving and flying underwater like penguins.

We got here today by spending 4 hours on the Coastal Classic train that brought us to Seward from Anchorage, along Cook Inlet and over a mountain pass via an impressive series of S-bends to Resurrection Bay. We were so lucky to have a clear day, and there was plenty of snow around to make the mountains pop, especially reflected in unusually still water. And for us to speculate about what made all the tracks through the snow that we could see - bear country, you know. And we saw 3 moose. It's a lovely train, and Gold Star class gave us the upper level with the glass ceiling as well as an outside area, so we really did well.

And now we're in little Seward, colourful and cheerful, in a setting even Queenstown would envy: mountains all around, high and snowy, the bay big and - well, not actually as blue as they promised, but perhaps tomorrow. The museum was good, especially about the tsunami in 1964 that swept away half the town (one story, about a family in a truck racing up the road with the wave right behind them "roaring like an express train" - and then their engine died was especially riveting); and the Seward Brewing Company was excellent: raspberry wheat beer, crab cakes and a huge wedge of triple-layer carrot cake that would challenge anyone.

The sun's still high, spotlighting snow-streaked peaks, there's a bird singing in the tree outside the window, it'll be light till 11.30pm and then not really dark, but it's time to sleep after our early start this morning. I'll just try to forget about the frozen roars from the golden grizzly and the black bear down in the foyer, the monster moose head with 7-foot wide antlers, the lynx, the flattened mountain goat, the weasel and stoat, the stuffed musk ox, and mounted reindeer head... the Hotel Seward is a distinctive (but comfortable) place.

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