Robert Ulmer: The Journey of a Lifetime, July 1, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 58⁰03.866’, W 147⁰10.219’

(transiting westward across the Gulf of Alaska toward Kodiak Island)


Mission:  Hydrographic survey

Geographical area of cruise:  Southeast Alaska, including Chatham Strait and Behm Canal, with a Gulf of Alaska transit westward to Kodiak

Log date:  July 1, 2013

Weather conditions:  10.88⁰C, 4 – 6 nautical miles of visibility through steady rain under a gray ceiling of low clouds, 92.28% relative humidity, 1005.24 mb of atmospheric pressure, wind speed 15.2 knots with a heading of 273⁰


Brown bear
This brown bear was eating while wandering along the shoreline of Red Bluff Bay. Do you think that the bear’s travel through forests and streams in search of food is an exploration or just another day at work? (Photo courtesy of Acting CO Mark Van Waes)

Explorer’s Log:  The journey of a lifetime

In 1968, NOAA Ship Rainier was commissioned in North Florida, and today she journeys westward across the Gulf of Alaska in a two-plus-day transit toward Kodiak Island, a beautiful passage between episodes of important work filled with good tales amid sublime scenery, but not a particularly unusual chapter among the forty-five years of her long and storied life.

In 1968, I was born in North Florida, and today I journey westward across the Gulf of Alaska in a two-day-plus transit toward Kodiak Island, a beautiful passage between episodes of important work filled with good tales amid sublime scenery, but not a particularly unusual chapter among the forty-five years of my long and storied life.

More than merely a pretty coincidence, there is a lesson in that bit of non-Euclidean parallelism.

Lighthouse and last land while leaving Icy Strait for the Gulf of Alaska
This is the last outcropping of land (mostly rocks) when leaving from Icy Strait into the Gulf of Alaska. If you look closely, you can see the lighthouse and communication station on the widest rock island.

Sometimes I hear talk of this or that “journey of a lifetime,” a label assigned to some exotic period of someone’s travel, usually to an unfamiliar geographic locale, and I am saddened by the label, at least in that context.  That set of words – journey of a lifetime – implies a pinnacle, an unmatchable moment, an unrepeatable level of excitement or happiness or liberation or engagement.  So, I wonder with melancholy, what happens next and for the rest of that person’s lifetime?  By that very announcement, it seems that the speaker is confining his future, limiting the potential flight of every moment ahead by a ceiling built before, doomed thenceforth to looking always backward for comparison instead of forward for the chance of equal or greater altitudinous joy, though likely in another setting.

LTJG Manda pauses from work to appreciate the scenery
Lieutenant Junior Grade (promoted today!) Damian Manda pauses from his work to appreciate the scenery of Lake Baranof…
Lake Baranof
… which is a beautiful sight and well-worth the moment of hesitation.

Undoubtedly, these three weeks in Alaska have provided me visual feasts that have never been available to me before and may never cross my eyes again – mountains, glaciers, icebergs, whales, otters, bears, albatrosses, sea lions, seals….  But I’ve seen just as much that is new and wonderful within the conversations among my shipmates, in the excitements about their scientific insights, and in the shared quiet musings with them along narrow walks through the woods, and those experiences very likely will resonate more across the pages of my future chapters than any visual spectacle will matter.

And after four and a half decades, I’m not ready to close my passport or retire my hiking boots, either.  I intend to take trips to all sorts of new places, looking with open eyes and seeking new perspectives, tasting new flavors and learning new steps along the way.

But just as importantly, I also will return to places I’ve been many times – at home, at work, in the cozy comfort of familiar surroundings – with the intention of seeing something new as often as I can.  Every year on my birthday, I sit alone for a few minutes and read The Emperor’s New Clothes to remind my comfortable self that truth and wisdom aren’t owned exclusively by the trappings of age, power, or previous experience, and that fresh eyes often see things that are difficult to envision through jaded lenses.  At the beginning of each new lap around the sun, perhaps I’m at the same relative location where I stood a year earlier, but I hope that I am, at the same moment, in a very different place than I was.

Maybe that’s why I love the classroom so much:  the ever-changing cast of new characters who take me with them as they explore places that I thought I’d been before.

Entering the Gulf of Alaska
Entering the Gulf of Alaska

Long before the Emerald Isle became the vibrant economy and site of many travel launches and destinations, some wise and long-forgotten Irishman first offered a lovely toast that still is oft-recited in places of gathering:  May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, and may the rains fall soft upon your fields until we meet again.  Even when most of the people of Ireland typically traveled only a few miles from home in a lifetime and, even then, primarily by foot and within the insulated boundaries of their home island, the kindest and warmest of wishes for one’s friends and family began with the recognition that all of the minutes of a lifetime are, in fact, a grand journey, to be lived intentionally and with robust and enthusiastic appreciation for the infinite gift of opportunities to explore.  From that vantage, the phrase, “journey of a lifetime,” becomes dynamic and broad, encompassing every moment of one’s own passage across the wide gulfs and the soaring mountains, the magnificent glaciers and the tranquil bays, the treks across and the travels through, the mornings and the evenings, the ideas and the dreams.

My Jewish friends offer in Hebrew the sentiment more simply, but grounded in the same value of living intentionally:  L’chaim.  To life!  The opportunities are to be cherished and celebrated, for life is not a spectator sport.

Watching the tide go out
Collecting data about tide levels can be tedious work, making it easy sometimes to lose sight of the tremendous beauty nearby.

In a few days, I will return to Florida and the schedule of usual life.  Lesson plans, grocery shopping, soccer practice, commuting to work…  The vital thing, I suppose, is to remember what I’m writing during this voyage after I return to that other set of voyages.  There are moments when everyone thinks that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, when we yearn to escape the daily routine.  Sometimes I become inundated with the day-to-day activities of my life and forget to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Florida that draws tourists from around the world or to celebrate the sounds of joyous laughter and learning among the students in my classroom.  I know that sometimes the same thing happens aboard Rainier, as the scientists and crew so intently focus on the critical and demanding work at hand that they occasionally are nonplussed by the awesome sights passing outside the portholes.  More than a week of staring at the same mountains along Chatham Strait, and now hour after hour of endless water as we cross the Gulf, from time to time the views from the rail understandably seem to fade into the background behind the data and the computer screens and the deadlines for the workers here, just like they do for the people in my jobs at home.

Measuring tidal changes
This tidal staff was almost completely submerged when we began recording data (every six minutes, measured to the centimeter) a few hours earlier.

But – especially when the days seem long and the tasks seem mundane for want of change – we must remember that, through the eyes of a person outside the routine, both the work and the setting can seem amazing.  Teaching young people about chemistry, mapping the floor of the sea… important and fun stuff!  Think about how excited elementary school students become about every job on Career Day and about every new experience when they are allowed to get their hands dirty and let their inner scientists, explorers, and artists thrive.  Crew members aboard Rainier have asked about my daily work activities with the same interested excitement that I’ve asked them about theirs, so clearly the phenomenon isn’t unavailable once we grow older.  The trick is to remember that the adventure always is happening, wherever we go, whatever we do, if only we pay attention to it.  Travel when you can.  But keep journeying in other ways even when you cannot travel.

Keep exploring, my friends
Keep exploring, my friends

And always, kind readers, may the road rise up to meet you, and may your journey of a lifetime be exactly that.  Keep exploring, my friends.

Did you know?

The spinning iron-and-nickel core of planet Earth acts as a giant magnet, and its magnetic fields not only protect us from potentially dangerous electromagnetic radiation from our sun and other stars, but they also pull the magnetic needles on our compasses.  However, magnetic north and geographic north generally are not in the same place, making navigation with a compass very difficult.  Geographic north is an agreed-upon point about which Earth’s axis spins (except for some wobbling), and that direction is the north referred to on most maps of locations on Earth’s surface.  Magnetic north, though, changes regularly, primarily driven by the spinning outer core layer of the planet, but also affected by several local conditions (like magnetized rocks in Earth’s crust, electric currents in the ionosphere and magnetosphere, and ocean currents).  Currently, Earth’s magnetic north pole (disregarding local compass variations) is moving eastward from Canadian territory toward Russia at a rate of more than thirty miles per year, and NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center provides updated information about magnetic declination for public use.

I live in Florida, which is so far south of both the magnetic north pole and the geographic north pole, that following a compass needle northward only takes me a small angle from the “true north” indicated on a map of the region, and so I can sight and aim for objects on the horizon once I’ve chosen an heading to walk when hiking in my home state.  In Southeast Alaska, though, the current angle between magnetic north and geographic north is approximately 20°, and so a navigator who uses a compass to determine north and then chooses to aim his travel toward a distant mountain in order to maintain a constant bearing might not just miss his mark by a few yards, but rather might be aiming for entirely the wrong mountain on the map!

Magnetic declination on compass rose near Kenai Peninsula
On this nautical chart showing the waters of the Gulf of Alaska near Kenai Peninsula, the compass rose designates geographic (“true”) north with the red star and also shows the local magnetic declination of more than 20 degrees eastward with the red arrow.

To address the variation in magnetic north, the electronic navigation devices on NOAA Ship Rainier employ a gyroscopic compass with mechanisms that always point the compass toward geographic north.  However, the bridge also has and uses a traditional magnetic compass in case the electronic gyroscopic compass fails.  Every time that a bridge officer gives new heading orders to the helmsman, the officer says something like, “Steer course 1-3-5,” and once the helmsman has turned the ship toward a heading of 135° (measured clockwise from the gyroscopic compass’s true north line), the officer will call, “Steady 1-3-5; checking 1-1-3.”  The second number is the heading on the magnetic compass, announcing that number so that bridge crew members will hear the magnetic-compass heading in case of electronic failure of the gyroscope, and to audibly drive home with each such order the compass variation that must be accounted for when using charts of the local waters.  Note that well-made navigational charts usually display both true (geographic) north and magnetic north, as well, like in the photo above.


3 Replies to “Robert Ulmer: The Journey of a Lifetime, July 1, 2013”

  1. Thanks for sharing your most recent voyage with us. I certainly have enjoyed your writings and photographic illustrations along the way. Keep exploring, Rob.

    1. I plan to, especially with my favorite traveling partners! (I had a great time aboard Rainier, but I’m so happy to be back home now.) Thanks for your support along the way, angel.

  2. Rob, sounds like you had a grand adventure. Thanks for sharing so openly of your travels. It was fun to read your blog and view again some of the sights I was privileged to see, and the people I came to know. Best to you in carrying this work back t the classroom.
    Bill Lindquist

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