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.

Robert Ulmer: Know Your Surroundings, June 28, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea
Robert Ulmer
Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier
June 15–July 3, 2013

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:  June 28, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 56⁰40.038’, W 134⁰20.908’ (southeast of Point Sullivan in Chatham Strait)

Weather conditions:  13.53⁰C and falling, scattered cumulus clouds with intermittent light rainfall, 81.05% relative humidity, 1019.55 mb of atmospheric pressure, breezy with gusts of wind out of the NNW at 10 to 15 knots

Explorer’s Log:  The layout of the ship

An explorer who doesn’t make himself familiar with his new surroundings is truly no explorer at all, and he might just as well stay home.  Why would you venture forth if not to witness the events and items along the way?

The "big eyes" on the flying deck with the anchor deck visible below
Keep your eyes open.  There’s so much to see everywhere!

For the past few days, NOAA Ship Rainier has been continuing its mission to complete a detailed and thorough survey of the sea floor along Chatham Strait, a channel used by many nautical vessels in their transit of the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska.  So, aside from noticing the appearance and disappearance of some rock features in the rising and falling tides and the daily incremental reduction of snow as it melts on the high mountaintops nearby in the relative warmth of early summer, most of what I see from the deck of the ship and from the smaller launch vessels is the same topography in every direction that I’ve seen for the past week, along with occasional clouds, whales, otters, birds, and other boats.  The scenery beyond the rails is very beautiful, but the temporary respite from faster passage to any new geographic destination also has given me a chance to take a few photos of the space around me:  the ship herself.
Using the shadow cast by a gnomon in one city while the sun reflected straight up from the bottom of a well in another city, along with alternate interior angles and a proportion, Eratosthenes calculated Earth’s circumference in 240 BCE. Image by Dr. John H. Lienhard, University of Houston.

However, instead of writing nautical miles* of text to talk you through a verbally descriptive tour of the entire vessel, I’ve posted a bunch of captioned photos that will give you some view of what I see while wandering around my current home away from home.

Before we begin the tour, a brief note:  In case you’ve ever wondered (as I have!), a nautical mile is a unit of length approximately equal to one minute (1/60 of a degree, and there are 360 degrees in a circle) of latitude measured along any meridian or about one minute of arc of longitude measured at the equator.  Because our understanding of the exact shape of Earth has evolved from a perfect circle into that of an ellipsoid since Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated the circumference of his perfectly round model of the planet (and assigned the first latitudes and longitudes), the definition of nautical mile has changed over time.  To address the variation in actual one-minute arc lengths around Earth, the definition of a nautical mile has been standardized by international agreement to be 1,852 meters (approximately 6,076 feet).  A statute mile, by comparison, evolved both in etymology and in length-definition from the Latin term mille passuum (“one thousand paces”), commonly used when measuring and marking distances marched by Roman soldiers across Europe.  Healthier and better-fed soldiers often took longer strides, and so their “miles” were longer than the miles marched by less-healthy counterparts.  To address this variation, most countries eventually agreed to standardize the statute mile at its current length of 5,280 feet (about 1,609 meters).

Now for some snapshots from NOAA Ship Rainier:

This log, called a "camel," is used as a buffer alongside less-equipped docks to protect both the dock and the ship.
This log, called a “camel,” is used as a buffer alongside less-equipped docks to protect both the dock and the ship.
Mechanism for operating the port side davits
Mechanism for operating the port side davits, which use hydraulics to lift and lower the launch vessels
Starboard side walkway to the launch vessels at their raised and secured positions in the davits
Starboard side walkway to the launch vessels at their raised and secured positions in the davits
Ventilation pipe from the incinerator
Ventilation pipe from the incinerator
Some interesting-looking tube joints
Some interesting-looking hydraulic hose fittings for the davits
The galley
The crew’s mess and the galley
Fire Station No. 23, starboard, deck D
Fire Station No. 23, D deck starboard side
Crane, anchor, vents, and the stowed gangplank on the bow
Crane, anchor windlass, vents, and the stowed gangway on the bow
Muster Station 1
Muster Station 1, where I am to report in the event of an abandon ship order
Docking bits on the bow
These large bits on the bow are used for securing lines while docking.
Cranes on the bow
Cranes on the bow
Electric boxes on the forward mast
Electric boxes keep the important electrical equipment that is mounted on the forward mast properly powered
The view along starboard from the flying deck
The view along the starboard side from the flying bridge
Machinery for lowering and hoisting the anchor
The anchor windlass (machinery on the bow for letting go and weighing anchor) includes gypsy heads, a riding pawl, a devil’s claw or pelican hook, and a wildcat.  (Many other “animals” are referenced on a ship, including a goose neck and a bull nose.  Look up others on your own!)
The forward mast
The forward mast carries radar equipment for navigation. The halyards (lines from the mast) are for support and for hanging items used for distant communication.
The "big eyes" on the flying deck
The “big eyes” on the flying bridge allow magnified distant viewing from above the bridge.
Passageways are narrow, from deck (floor) to bulkhead (ceiling)
Passageways are narrow aboard NOAA Ship Rainier from the overhead to the deck and bulkhead to bulkhead.
Stateroom C-04-103-U
This is the view from corner to corner of stateroom C-04-103-U, one of the larger two-man staterooms on the ship, which I share with HSST John Doroba. (His is the lower bunk.)
Some of the internal communications equipment on the bridge
A phone on the bridge that gets its power from the energy of sound waves spoken into it (so that the phone still can work even if the generators fail — awesome, right??)
Ensign Micki Ream plotting a course on the bridge
Ensign Micki Ream uses old-fashioned compass-and-straightedge geometric constructions and calculations to plot a course through Hecate Strait on the bridge.
Bicycles for use ashore during liberty
Bicycles for use ashore during liberty
Port ladder to launches alongside Rainier
Launch crews usually board launch vessels by walking directly level off the deck onto the smaller boats while the davits hold the small launch vessels in place. This Jacob’s ladder is lowered to launch vessels like the skiff when they are placed in the water alongside NOAA Ship Rainier.
Fishing poles
Fishing poles, to be used only when licensed and permitted
A cool light and electric fixture
A cool-looking light and electric fixture
A hatch on the fantail
A hatch on the fantail that leads to After Steering
The winch control mechanism for the "fish"
The “fish” is a very heavy brass device that is towed on a strong Kevlar-sheathed electric cable up to 600 meters behind the ship, and it requires a sophisticated winch mechanism for casting, retrieval, and transfer of data to the computer system aboard the NOAA Ship Rainier.
A lifebuoy and the "fish"
On the fantail the “fish,” a part of the Moving Vessel Profiler (MVP), is the very heavy CTD device that is towed by winch behind NOAA Ship Rainier, usually during multi-beam sonar data acquisition. CTD stands for conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water, all of which affect the speed of sound from and to the ship’s sonar device.  (The lifebuoy is a nearby safety measure, of course.)
One of many ladders
One of many ladders (which is what staircases are called aboard ship)
The skiff secured on the fantail
The skiff secured on the fantail underneath a sign that reminds everyone of NOAA’s culture of safety
Stowage space
All stowage space is used efficiently aboard NOAA Ship Rainier.
The emergency pull station, just in case
The emergency pull station, just in case
The galley service line
The galley service line
Pyrotechnic locker for emergency flares, on the flying deck
Pyrotechnic locker for emergency flares, on the flying bridge
Launch vessels secured in starboard davits
Launch vessels secured within the starboard davits
A tie-down the port deck
Line (rope in use aboard a ship) is one of the most important tools on a ship for tying, supporting, securing, pulling, and hoisting, and so it is treated with proper respect at all times.
Warnings on the stack
Noise, fire, and heavy equipment can be dangerous if not addressed with caution, as these signs on the stack warn.
Kayaks for exploration (and sometimes recreation)
Kayaks for exploration (and sometimes recreation)
Life rafts 2 and 4 alongside the port bridge wing, with davits in the background
Life rafts 2 and 4 alongside the port bridge wing, with davits in the background
Alidade on the port bridge wing
The alidade on the port bridge wing, which is used for determining a “true” line of sight for navigation

I aligned the photos to give you a more authentic feel of passing waves.  Oh, I hope that you didn’t get seasick!  If you did, just head to the dispensary on D deck near the bow amidships, and then go on deck and look at the horizon so that your inner ears and your eyes can agree about which way actually is up.

Now that you’ve seen many random angles in no particular order — but  — maybe you also need a tour to put the whole package together into a meaningful map of NOAA Ship Rainier.  Fortunately, HAST Christiane Reiser created a video of just such a tour for visitors, and you can watch it here.

The gangplank
This is the gangway to board Rainier when the ship is docked. Uniformed personnel must salute the colors when boarding or exiting the vessel.

… And now you’re ready to come aboard!

Remember always that half the fun of the journey is getting there… but the other half is actually being somewhere.  So look at the scenery in the world around you — wherever you happen to be — as you keep exploring, my friends.

Did You Know?

Before you board a seagoing vessel, you’d better be able to talk the talk.  People on ships have a vernacular that can sound like a foreign language if you’re not familiar with the terminology, so here’s a list of some key words worth knowing before you come aboard, with definitions and descriptions from a glossary of terms provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a partner agency of NOAA with regard to training crew members and making nautical travels safer:

  • Starboard:  The right side of the ship when facing forward.  The name is a very old one, derived from the Anglo-Saxon term steorbord, or steering-board.  Ancient vessels were steered not by a rudder amidships, but by a long oar or steering-board extended over the vessel’s right side aft.  This became known, in time, as the steering-board side or starboard.
  • Port:  The left side of the ship when facing forward.  The original term was “larboard,” but the possibility of confusing shouted or indistinct orders to steer to larboard with steering to starboard at a crucial moment was both obvious and serious.  The term was legally changed to ‘port’ in the British Navy in 1844, and in the American Navy in 1846.  The word ‘port’ was taken from the fact that ships traditionally took on cargo over their left sides (i.e., the side of the vessel facing the port).  This was probably a holdover from much earlier times when ships had steering-boards over the right side aft; obviously, you couldn’t maneuver such a vessel starboard side to the pier without crushing your steering oar.
  • Wings:  Extensions to either side of the ship.  Specifically, the port and starboard wings of the bridge are open areas to either side of the bridge, used by lookouts and for signaling.
  • Bow:  The forward end of any vessel.  The word may come from the Old Icelandic bogr, meaning “shoulder.”
  • Stern:  The rear of any vessel.  The word came from the Norse stjorn, meaning “steering.”
  • Deck:  What you walk on aboard ship.
  • Below:  Below decks, as in “going below to C Deck,” never “down.”
  • Fore:  An adverb, meaning “toward the bow.”
  • Aft:  An adverb, meaning “toward the stern.”
  • Boat:  Any small craft, as opposed to a ship, which carries boats.
  • Ship:  A general term for any large, ocean-going vessel (as opposed to a boat).  Originally, it referred specifically to a vessel with three or more masts, all square-rigged.
  • Stateroom:  An officer’s or passenger’s cabin aboard a merchant ship, or the cabin of an officer other than the captain aboard a naval ship.  The term may be derived from the fact that in the 16th and 17th centuries, ships often had a cabin reserved for royal or noble passengers.
  • Stack:  The ship’s funnel on an engine-powered vessel.
  • Bridge:  The control or command center of any power vessel.  The term arose in the mid-19th century, when the “bridge” was a structure very much like a footbridge stretched across the vessel between or immediately in front of the paddle wheels.
  • Galley:  The ship’s kitchen, where food is prepared.  The origin is uncertain but may have arisen with the ship’s cook and helpers thinking of themselves as “galley slaves.” (A galley was originally a fighting ship propelled by oars rowed by slaves, from the Latin galea.)
  • MessPart of the ship’s company that eats together, (such as the officers’ mess) and, by extension, the place where they eat.
  • Head:  The bathroom.
  • Ladder:  On shipboard, all stairs are called “ladders.”

Robert Ulmer: The Company You Keep, June 25, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 56⁰40.075’, W 134⁰20.96’

(southeast of Point Sullivan in Chatham Strait)

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:  June 25, 2013

Weather conditions:  Misty rain under a blanket of thick clouds and fog, 13.76⁰C, 84.88% relative humidity, 1001.09 mb of atmospheric pressure, very light variable winds (speed of less than 1.5 knots with a heading between 344⁰ and 11⁰)

  • Remember that headings on a ship are measured around a full 360⁰ circle clockwise from north.  Therefore, 344⁰ and 22⁰ are only 38⁰ apart directionally.
NOAA Ship Rainier, S-221, underway in Behm Canal
The operation of NOAA Ship Rainier, S-221, requires the cooperation of a large, hard-working, and multi-talented crew.

Explorer’s Log:  The crew of NOAA Ship Rainier

Especially as we leave the confines of childhood, society views us, at least in part, by our intentional decisions about which people make up our circle of friends and our group of colleagues.  Certainly such outside judgments can be unfair when based only on short-term glimpses, predisposed biases, or moments misunderstood for lack of context, but I think that long-term observations of our personal associations can provide meaningful information about us.

With Ai Wei Wei's zodiac sculptures in Washington, DC
With Ai Wei Wei’s zodiac sculptures in Washington, DC
With the crew after the 5K race at O'Leno State Park
After the 5K race at O’Leno State Park

My closest circle of friends – intentionally – is populated by a rich gumbo of personalities, ideas, ideals, physiques, insights, humors, tastes, preferences, and behaviors, all of which serve to stimulate my mind, activate my creativity, enrich my soul, entertain my spirit, and motivate my direction.  In other words, they are the scaffolding that supports me and the team that carries me along through so many parts of my own explorations.  Jasmine’s appreciation of intelligence and beauty, Collin’s sharp wit, Reece’s focused intensity, Dad’s analysis, Mom’s honesty, Lisa’s support, Grandma Madeline’s generosity, Aunt Marilyn’s and Uncle Marc’s welcome, Aunt Lynn’s spunkiness, Cheryl’s cool, Dillon’s quiet observation, Jack’s vision, Teresa’s organization, Bob’s perspective, Katy’s goodness, Chris’s enthusiasm, Emilee’s wonder, Kyle’s repartee, Casey’s lyricism, Will’s genuineness, Rien’s kindness, Tyler’s motivation, Zach’s creativity, Brian’s investment in service, Matt’s passion for justice, Gary’s sense of direction, Tommy’s helpfulness, Silas’s wordsmithery, Loubert’s jocularity, Jonathan’s love….

At College Summit training
College Summit training

And then add the brilliant and rich colors and flavors and voices of my larger group of friends and acquaintances:  the teachers, administrators, students, and neighbors who daily contribute their own stories and wisdoms to my experiences, and the result – again, intentionally – is very nearly a portrait of me… or at least the me that I aspire to become in my own journeys.

(For my varied generations of readers, think of the Magnificent Seven, the Fellowship of the Ring, and/or the Order of the Phoenix.  This is my posse.)

In other words, we often are judged and almost always are defined by the company we keep.

Wedding celebration
Wedding celebration

The NOAA Ship Rainier is no exception.  Beyond the mechanical body of the ship herself, the personnel here are the essence of the vessel that carries them.

Acting CO Mark Van Waes maintains a vigilant lookout on the bridge
Acting CO Mark Van Waes maintains a vigilant lookout on the bridge.

Smart and funny, resourceful and dedicated, skilled and hard-working, the crew members of NOAA Ship Rainier are an impressive bunch, all of whom have enriched me in the short time that I’ve been aboard, and all of whom do their jobs and interact in ways that produce superb results.  And the wholeness of their shared strengths, talents, and personalities is far greater than the sum of their individual aspects, as always is the case when a team is well-assembled.

MB_2, Red Bluff Bay, Chatham Strait, Alaska, June 23, 2013
One of the NOAA Commissioned Corps Officers appreciates the beauty of Southeast Alaska.

For more than 150 (and sometimes more than 250!) days per year, the men and women aboard ships in the NOAA fleet sacrifice time away from their own homes, friends, and families – and regularly that remoteness isolates them from news, television, phone, and internet for days or weeks at a time – in service to the public at large through their assigned missions at sea.  Currently, nearly four dozen crew members serve aboard Rainier in several departments, each of which serves its own set of functions, but all of which are unified by their shared mission, like the instrumental sections of an orchestra in the production of a symphony.

NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, sharply outfitted aboard ship in their navy blue ODUs (operational dress uniforms), is one of the seven uniformed services in the United States government.  For this leg of the mission, the officers  aboard Rainier serve under Acting Commanding Officer (ACO) Mark Van Waes and Executive Officer (XO) Holly Jablonski to perform three sets of functions:  administrative, navigational, and participatory.  As the administrators of the ship, the officers are responsible for everything from payroll to purchases, and communications to goodwill.  In the navigational capacity, the officers are responsible for charting the courses to be traveled by the ship and moving the vessel along those courses, sometimes with helm in hand and sometimes by giving the command orders to effectuate those maneuvers.  Finally, aboard Rainier and her sister hydrographic vessels, the junior officers are trained members of the hydrographic survey team, participating at all levels in the gathering and processing of data regarding the floor of the sea.  Ultimately, the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps members work to define the missions of Rainier and oversee the execution of those missions.

NOAA Commissioned Officers and Third Mate Carl VerPlanck of the Deck Department navigate NOAA Ship Rainier
NOAA Commissioned Officers and Third Mate Carl VerPlanck of the Deck Department navigate NOAA Ship Rainier.

Deck Department

Members of the Deck Department let go the anchor on the bow
Members of the Deck Department let go the anchor on the bow.

Beyond the uniformed NOAA Corps crew members, Rainier also employs many highly-skilled civilian merchant mariners who work around the clock to support the officers in the duties of navigation and sailing of the ship while it is underway.  Essentially, while following the decisive command orders of the Officer Corps, the Deck Department handles the endless details involved in steering the ship and its smaller boats, along with deploying and anchoring those vessels.  Under the departmental leadership of Chief Boatswain (pronounced “bosun”) Jim Kruger, the members of the Deck Department all hold various levels of U.S. Coast Guard ratings in navigational watch-standing and deck operations, and their experiences and proficiencies earn them respect with regard to many facets of decision-making and operations on the bridge.

(The NOAA Corps and the Deck Department together have been responsible for the passage of NOAA Ship Rainier through the waterways of Southeast Alaska during my weeks aboard.  To see a cool video of NOAA’s travel through Alaska’s Inside Passage made using stop-motion photography by Ensign John Kidd, click here.)

Survey and Deck Department members work together to prepare for the day's launches
Survey and Deck Department members work together to prepare for the day’s launches.

Survey Department

The members of the Survey Department aboard NOAA Ship Rainier are civilian scientists (working hand-in-hand with survey-trained NOAA Corps officers) who have been trained in the specialized work of conducting surveys of the sea floor using single-beam sonar, multi-beam sonar, tidal gauges and leveling devices, CTD devices (to gather data about conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water column), and several very highly-technical components of computer hardware and software packages.

Only the highest point of this 150-meter-wide rock remains above the water line at high tide.
Can you see the horizontal lines on this rock formation? They are caused by cyclical changes in the elevation of the sea water as a result of tidal forces. Only the highest point (around where the bald eagle is perched) of this 150-meter-wide set of rocks (extending beyond the boundaries of this image in both directions several times the width of what this photograph shows) remains above the water line at high tide. However, the portions that become submerged remain extremely dangerous to seagoing vessels, which is why the work of the Survey Department is so important.

From Hydrographic Assistant Survey Technicians (HASTs) upward through the ranks to Chief Survey Technician (CST) Jim Jacobson, they are superb problem-solvers and analysts with undergraduate- and graduate-level degrees in the cartography, biology, geography, systems analysis, and many other fields of scientific expertise, and one survey technician aboard Rainier is an experienced mariner who transferred into the Survey Department with a broad educational background ranging from the humanities to computer science.  The members of the Survey Department spend countless hours gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and integrating data to produce nautical charts and related work products to make travel by water safer for everyone at sea.

Two-dimensional slice of data
The Survey Department compiles raw sonar and quantitative data from the ship and the launch vessels and first converts those data into a graphic file that looks like this…
... which becomes this ...
… which is a slice of this image …
… which then goes through this sounding selection stage before eventually being finalized into a nautical chart for public use.

Physical Scientists

 NOAA physical scientist Kurt Brown joins Rainier in surveying the sea floor of Chatham Strait

NOAA physical scientist Kurt Brown joins Rainier in surveying the sea floor of Chatham Strait.

One or two physical scientists join the ship’s crew for most of the field season from one of two NOAA Hydrographic offices (in Seattle, Washington and Norfolk, Virginia), where their jobs consist of reviewing the hydrographic surveys submitted by the ships to make sure that they meet NOAA’s high standards for survey data, and compiling those surveys into products used to update the approximately 1000 nautical charts that NOAA maintains.  The ship benefits from the physical scientists’ time on board by having a person familiar with office processing of survey data while the surveys are “in the field,” and also by receiving an extra experienced hand for daily survey operations.  The physical scientists also get a refresher on hydro data collection and processing along with a better understanding of the problems that the field deals with on a daily basis, and they bring this up-to-date knowledge back to the office to share with coworkers there.

Engineering Department

Oiler Byron Doran of the Engineering Department chooses the right tools for the job.
Oiler Byron Doran of the Engineering Department chooses the right tools for the job.

The Engineering Department is a combination of U.S. Coast Guard licensed Engineering Officers (CME, 1AE, 2AE, and 3AE) and unlicensed engineering personnel (Junior Engineer, Oiler, and GVA).  Their work is concerned with the maintenance of the physical plant of the ship — everything from stopping leaks to making mechanical adjustments necessary for Rainier‘s proper and efficient running in the water.  The engineers are skilled craftsmen and craftswomen who wield multiple tools with great dexterity as needs arise.

Electronics Technicians

Electronics Technician (ET) Jeff Martin hard at work
Electronics Technician (ET) Jeff Martin is hard at work.

The Electronics Technician aboard NOAA Ship Rainier (some ships have a larger department) has the important role of making sure that the many computerized systems — both hardware and software — are properly networked and functional so that navigation and survey operations can proceed effectively and efficiently.  Having trained on radar equipment with the U.S. Navy “back in the days of glass tubes,” ET Jeff Martin is an expert’s expert, adept at prediction and troubleshooting, and skilled at developing plans for moving systems forward with the ship’s mission.

Steward Department

Chief Steward Doretha Mackey always cooks up a good time and a great meal.
Chief Steward Doretha Mackey always cooks up a good time and a great meal.
Chief Steward Kathy Brandts and GVA Ron Hurt keep the crew happily well-fed.
Chief Steward Kathy Brandts and GVA Ron Hurt keep the crew happily well-fed.

The Steward Department runs the galley (the ship’s kitchen) and currently is composed of four crew members aboard Rainier.  Specifically, they are responsible for menu preparation, food acquisition, recipe creation, baking, and meal preparation for the 40+ people who must eat three meals (and often have snacks) spread across the entire day, both underway and at port, including special meals for away-from-the-galley groups (like launch vessels and shore parties), when local goods (like fish, fruits, and vegetables) are available, and/or for crew members or guests with dietary restrictions.  An army moves on its stomach.  The meals aboard this ship, by the way, show great diversity, technique, and nutritional value, including grilled fish and steaks, vegetarian casseroles, curried pastas, homemade soups, fresh salads, and a wide variety of delicious breakfast foods, snacks, and desserts.

Second Cook Floyd Pounds works to prepare a meal for the crew.
Second Cook Floyd Pounds works to prepare a meal for the crew.

So those are the current citizens of the seagoing vessel NOAA Ship Rainier, harmonizing within a common chord, travelers who together explore the seas by working together to achieve their unified mission.  They are the excellent company that I keep on this leg of the exploration.

As you endeavor upon your own journeys, remember always to choose your company wisely so that your efforts are supported when challenging, insulated when vulnerable, motivated when difficult, and celebrated when successful.  And once you are surrounded by those good people, keep exploring, my friends.

Even the sea otters take some time to relax and enjoy one another's company.
Sea otters enjoy one another’s company along their way.

Personal Log:  Enjoy yourself along the way

Although they all work long, hard hours at their many assigned tasks, members of the team aboard NOAA Ship Rainier also enjoy one another’s company and occasionally get to have a good time.  Sharing an isolated, moving home barely 70 meters long with four dozen people for several weeks at a time guarantees social interaction, and the sounds of testimonies of laughter and friendship regularly fill the air in and around the ship, both among the workstations and away from the ship.

Ensign Theresa Madsen and Second Assistant Engineer Evan McDermott, my exploration partners in Red Bluff Bay
Ensign Theresa Madsen and Second Assistant Engineer Evan McDermott, my exploration partners in Red Bluff Bay
One of Carl's many catches
One of Carl’s many catches

Since joining the crew of Rainier just a week and a half ago – and beyond the many exciting excursions that are simply part of the regular jobs here – I already have been invited to join various smaller groups in exploring a town, dining in a local eatery, watching a movie, climbing a glacier, fishing in the waters of Bay of Pillars, walking on a beach, and kayaking through beautiful Red Bluff Bay past stunning waterfalls, huge mountains, and crystal-clear icy streams, including a spontaneous hike into the deep and wild, verdant and  untrammeled woods above the shore, following uncut paths usually trod only by deer and bears on their way to the frigid water running down from the snow-capped peaks high above.

Evan replaces his socks after walking through the stream
Evan replaces his socks after walking through the frigid stream.
Evan takes the lead hiking into the woods (armed with bear spray and an adventurer's spirit)
Evan takes the lead hiking into the woods, armed with bear spray and an adventurer’s spirit!

Truly, the people aboard Rainier know how to enjoy the gift of life.  And I feel honored, flattered, privileged, and happy to be included among these new friends on their great adventures.

Beautiful waterfall in Red Bluff Bay
A beautiful waterfall that Theresa, Evan, and I explored in Red Bluff Bay

Robert Ulmer: Just Keep Walking, June 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 56⁰56.023’, W 133⁰56.343’

(at Frederick Sound in Keku Strait off Kake, Alaska)

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: June 22, 2013

Weather conditions: 14.08⁰C, overcast skies with increasing cloud coverage, 92.82% relative humidity, 1014.29 mb of atmospheric pressure, light variable winds (speed of less than 3.5 knots with a heading between 10⁰ and 19⁰)

Passing cruise ship
This large cruise ship is one of many seagoing vessels ships in Southeastern Alaska that rely on NOAA-produced nautical charts for safe navigation.

Explorer’s Log:  Long days on the trail

Fog in the morning at the mouth of Bay of Pillars
Thick fog had settled on Chatham Strait, where the launches would be surveying for the day, as seen from the ship’s anchored location in Bay of Pillars.

When we think about explorers, we usually focus on the “big moments” – the crescendos of excitement that build as the storytellers regale us with tales of daring escapes from danger, amazing sights visible only from the summit, or exotic flavors tasted upon the foreign shore.  But life-long explorers know that those moments are far outnumbered by the sometimes seemingly endless minutes or hours, days or weeks, maybe even months or years of simply walking the path, step after step after step, watching the slow passing of tree after tree after tree.

Those less thrilling hours rarely are described in the grand adventure stories, but in those countless footfalls lie many of the greatest parts of exploration, for it is only in those moments that the explorer has time to ponder.

Smooth water and thick fog
Smooth water and thick fog are common conditions in the navigable waterways of Southeast Alaska, underscoring the importance of good nautical charts.

In 1905 a very bright young man in his mid-twenties worked for a few years as a clerk in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland.  Although the post gave him access to interesting new inventions and processes being developed in electronics, thermodynamics, mechanics, and communications, his job often required him to grind through the daily routine of receiving, reviewing, and filing thousands upon thousands of technical and administrative documents, tasks which his brilliant mind could achieve without much effort.  Not too exciting, perhaps.  But it is only in that easy comfort of performing the same routine behaviors minute after minute that the young clerk found the quiet sanctuary to evaluate and synthesize a miasma of strange ideas and eventually synthesize them into five papers about matter, time, energy, space, and motion that would revolutionize the field of physics.

Indeed, not every person is Albert Einstein, but all explorers sometimes find themselves in that “cruise control” mode, where the body knows the routine mechanics to perform, and so the mind can invest in a different sort of exploration.  Inward.

A small cruise ship passing in Bay of Pillars
Small cruise ships can navigate deep into scenic waterways, like Bay of Pillars along Chatham Strait.
TAS Rob Ulmer casts the CTD device
Teacher At Sea Rob Ulmer uses the winch aboard launch vessel RA-6 to cast the CTD device, which gathers data about conductivity, temperature, and depth of the water in the column from the surface to the sea floor.

A gardener mowing back and forth across the lawn, a painter applying the brush line after overlapping line to cover the wall, and a swimmer pulling stroke after stroke to swim his half-mile of warm-up laps all gain skill with their craft over hours or miles or practice, and so their minds can be freed to wander a bit, perhaps contemplating more deeply the patterns in the passing clouds, maybe solving a puzzle that has been teasing at the edge of consciousness, or maybe considering how a hedge of heather might look if planted in a certain area of the landscape.  Or – just as meaningfully – maybe the explorer in those moments revisits something far more personal or spiritual or metaphysical, some conundrum or quandary or dilemma, whether recent or from long ago, in a way that is available only because of the serenity of the repetition.  Sometimes such musings simply aren’t accessible when the mind is occupied with more accelerated or more cumbersome activity.

The CTD and the winch mechanism
This winch mechanism can lower the CTD device (the tube to the left) through many fathoms of water.
AB Jeff Mays casting the "fish" with the MVP
AB Jeff Mays casting the “fish” with the MVP

And as the explorer’s mastery of basic skills evolves from novice toward more expert levels, his place on the learning curve changes, as well.  The learning curve where the novice stands is steep, as every bit of investment offers the possibility of relatively fast and tremendous growth, while the marginal returns for the wise and skilled explorer of the craft come subtly from patient observation and insight.  For the rookie woodworker, for example, every spin of the lathe is an iteration of powerful change to be controlled and investigated and marveled at, but the more advanced craftsman who has milled thousands of dowels in his journey toward expertise in his craft has room during the lathe-work to possibly discover some small nuance about cutting bevels or reading grains that would be lost even if offered to the rookie in his excited novitiate mindset.

Operating the MVP
AB Tony Nielsen operates the Moving Vessel Profile (MVP) to cast and recover the “fish” as Rainier conducts a multi-beam survey of the sea floor in Chatham Strait.
 "Fish" in the water
The “fish” in the water

Some of my own moments of greatest inspiration have arrived when my friend Rien and I have been wordlessly walking the autumnally brisk trails of the North Georgia mountains.  No longer burdened with the previously-taxing questions of how to deal with unstable rocks at my feet or what gait to use on a certain downhill slope, in those miles of simply continuing to walk forward my cleared mind has unfolded complete verses of poetry, bits of insight about soccer or macroeconomics or how to differently arrange the gear in my backpack, even exact phrasings for whole lessons or assessments to be used in my classroom.  Those thoughts simply couldn’t have reached such clarity in the exciting exhaustion of the first morning’s climb up Amicalola Falls.

Survey/Launch team meeting on the fantail
Survey/Launch team meeting on the fantail

Yesterday morning, after Field Operations Officer Mike Gonsalves finished the usual pre-launch meeting on the fantail and dismissed the crews to their boats (with my shift remaining aboard the ship to learn some data processing skills), I began one of my most common activities aboard Rainier, taking photographs of the scene.  Pictures of the FOO and the Chief Boatswain coordinating launch activities, pictures of the rest of the crew at work, pictures of the ship herself, pictures of the waters and land features surrounding the ship…  all very routine.

Fog and rock in distance as launch vessel departs to survey Chatham Strait
This is the view forward across the bow of NOAA Ship Rainier as a launch vessel departs to survey the sea floor of Chatham Strait.
Closer view of fog over rock
Isn’t it difficult to not see the fog above the rock island now that you’re looking for it?

But then it happened.  I noticed in the distance beyond the bow of the ship a slight something.  Something different than usual.  A small hemispherical island – a rock, really – extending ten feet or so above the waterline, protruding through the fog that hovered ethereally a few feet above the water in every direction.  But it was the fog that caught my eye.  The fog didn’t just surround the rock; it blanketed the rock at not quite exactly the same elevation that it otherwise maintained above the nearby sheet of flat, still water.  And in the quiet comfort of my rote and repeated clicking of the shutter, I had an epiphany, a sudden symphonic upwelling of clarity about pressure and temperature and fluid dynamics and light that simply could not have happened if my thoughts had been cluttered with hasty necessities of rapid activity.

FOO Mike Gonsalves and HAST Curran McBride discuss survey data in the plot room.
FOO Mike Gonsalves and HAST Curran discuss survey data in the plot room.

Like most insights, I’m not sure if or when that particular bit of understanding will ever matter again in my future, but at the moment it was pure and good in its value to the core of my inner explorer:  I saw something that I had not seen before.

Full of surprises!
Some very exciting information during multi-beam surveying aboard the launch vessel surprises TAS Rob Ulmer and HAST Curran.
Boys will be boys
A whole day of surveying aboard the launch vessel can become a long venture in close quarters!

So where does this soliloquy about walking the long and quiet path fit with my experiences aboard NOAA Ship Rainier?  For the past several days and for the next several coming days, two or three small, crewed launch vessels per day (and often the ship herself) are painting overlapping swaths of sonar across the sea floor in Chatham Strait.  Back, forth, back, forth….

Imagine mowing an enormous lawn miles long at a slow walking pace with a lawnmower that needs constant adjustment and calibration every time you pass a tree or shrub, all the while keeping data about the thickness of the grass, the color of the soil beneath, the amount of dew on the blades, and the exact rotational velocity of the motor.  And this lawn is not just enormous by usual standards, either.  It’s miles long, miles wide.  Rain, snow, wind, uneven ground, you just keep mowing.  And when you get finished for the day, not only do you know that you have dozens of days left before you finish mowing this lawn as it continues over the horizon, but you also discover as you look back out with your special viewing machinery at home that there are a few spots that you missed on the first pass and must clean up tomorrow before you can move forward, maybe because the mower blade malfunctioned, or maybe because the ground underneath was slightly tilted as you passed above it.  But you keep mowing, both because you want the job done, but also because you love the work and take great pride in your work product.

The boys finally reach a resolution in their debate about survey data.

Replace it with painting a giant wall, and the analogy to multi-beam sea floor hydrographic surveying still is nearly perfect.

Oh, and don’t forget that you have a partner at home who will spend hours analyzing every bag of grass clippings, sorting and organizing and then weaving every single blade of grass into a beautiful and varied quilt of fabric that she makes from the piece that you bring her after painstakingly separating out random bugs and sticks leaves from trees and shrubs that look like grass but aren’t….  Whew!  This partner (following the analogy) is a member of the post-launch evening processing crew, by the way, who begins work as soon as the launch vessels return and doesn’t finish until hundreds of lines of data have been uploaded, converted into other numerical and graphical forms, and then “cleaned” for initial post-survey analysis aboard ship before being more thoroughly analyzed for months or years at NOAA shore-side labs and offices before ultimately evolving into published nautical charts or other useful end-products.

Painting the floor
Launch vessel RA-4 “paints” the huge floor of Chatham Strait one slow swath at a time.
Same fishing boat, another pass
Aboard launch vessel RA-6, we passed this fishing boat several times while surveying a “polygon” of Chatham Strait.

Day after day, mile after mile, the NOAA survey teams explore the seas, quietly walking their own trail so that other explorers can more safely navigate their treks, as well.  And every once in an inspired while, the hydrographer can be heard uttering a gleeful, “Aha!” about some insight discovered along the way.

Keep walking, my friends, even when the trail is long.  Sometimes it is there that you will do your best exploring.

Passing a fishing boat
Another pass of the same fishing boat.  A long day for both crews, perhaps, but at least the magnificent scenery leaves plenty of room for pondering.

Robert Ulmer: Build Upon a Strong Foundation, June 19, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 56⁰35.547’, W 134⁰36.925’

(approaching Red Bluff Bay in Chatham Strait)

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:  June 19, 2013

Weather conditions:  10.93⁰C, less than 0.5 km visibility in thick fog, 95.42% relative humidity, 1013.38 mb of atmospheric pressure, light variable winds (speed of less than 3 knots with a heading between 24⁰ and 35⁰)


Explorer’s Log:  Survey, sample, and tide parties

Scientists are explorers, wandering the wilderness of wonder and curiosity their with eyes and minds wide open to events, ideas, and explanations that no other humans may have previously experienced.  And by definition, explorers — including scientists — also are builders, as they construct novel paths of adventure along their journeys, built always upon the strong foundations of their own reliable cognitions and skill sets.

Ensign Rosemary Abbitt making a level sighting measurement
Ensign Rosemary Abbitt making a level sighting measurement

Starting from their own observations of the world around them, prior knowledge, and context, scientists inject creativity and insight to develop hypotheses about how and why things happen.  Testing those ideas involves developing a plan and then gathering relevant data (pieces of information) so that they can move down the path of whittling away explanations that aren’t empirically supported by the data and adding to the collective body of knowledge, so that they and others might better fathom the likely explanations that are behind the phenomena in question.

Rainier lowering a launch vessel
NOAA Ship Rainier lowers launch vessel RA-5 for a survey excursion.

Because progress along the scientific path of discovery and explanation ultimately depends on the data, those data must be both accurate and precise.  Often these terms are confused in regular conversation, but each word has its own definition.

Approaching the shore from the skiff
A view from the skiff of the shoreline where the benchmarks and tide gauge staff already are installed.

Accuracy is a description of the degree of closeness or proximity of measurements of a quantity to the actual value of that quantity.  A soccer player who shoots on goal several times and has most of his shots reach the inside of the net is an accurate shooter.  Likewise, a set of measurements of the density of a large volume of seawater is more accurate if the sample data all are near the actual density of that seawater; a measurement that is 0.4% higher than the actual density of the water is just as accurate as another measurement of the same water that is 0.4% below the actual density value.

HAST Curran McBride visually examining the condition of the tide staff
Before making more detailed data collections, Hydrographic Assistant Survey Technician (HAST) Curran first conducts a visual inspection of the previously-installed tide staff upon arriving at the shore.

Precision (also called reproducibility or repeatability), on the other hand, is the degree to which repeated measurements under unchanged conditions show the same results.  If every shot attempted by the soccer player strikes the left goalpost four feet above the ground, those shots aren’t necessarily accurate – assuming that the player wants to score goals – but they are very precise.  So, similarly, a set of measurements of seawater density that repeatedly is 5.3% above the actual density of the water is precise (though not particularly accurate).

HAST Curran McBride collecting data near the tide staff
HAST Curran collects data near the tide staff during the closing level run in Behm Canal.

The NOAA teams that conduct hydrographic surveys, collect seafloor samples, and gather data about tide conditions must be both accurate and precise because the culmination of their work collecting data in the field is the production of nautical charts and tide reports that will be used around the world for commerce, recreation, travel, fisheries management, environmental conservation, and countless other purposes.

Cabin of the launch vessel
Crew of the survey/sample team in the cabin of the launch vessel (and the Coxswain piloting the boat)

Hydrographic surveys of some sort have been conducted for centuries.  Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs show men aboard boats using ropes or poles to fathom the depths of the water.  In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed a mandate establishing the Survey of the Coast.  Since that time, government-based agencies (now NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey) have employed various systems of surveying depths, dangers, and seabed descriptions along the 95,000 miles of navigable U.S. coastlines, which regularly change due to attrition, deposition, glaciation, tectonic shifts, and other outside forces.

Analyzing data aboard the launch
Hydrographic Senior Survey Technician Barry Jackson and Physical Scientist Kurt Brown analyze historic and new data from multi-beam sonar aboard the launch vessel.

For most of that history, data were collected through a systematic dropping of weighted lines (called “lead lines”) from boats moving back and forth across navigable channels at points along an imaginary grid, with calibration from at least two shore points to assure location of the boat.  Beyond the geometry, algebra, and other mathematics of measurement and triangulation, the work was painstakingly slow, as ropes had to be lowered, hauled, and measured at every point, and the men ashore often traveled alongside the boat by foot across difficult and dangerous terrain.  However, the charts made by those early surveys were rather accurate for most purposes.

Starboard of launch vessel RA-4
Starboard of launch vessel RA-4

The biggest problem with the early charts, though, was that no measurements were made between the grid points, and the seafloor is not always a smooth surface.  Uncharted rocks, reefs, or rises on the seabed could be disastrous if ships passed above them.

HSST Barry Jackson collecting sea floor sample
HSST Barry Jackson pulls a line hand over hand to retrieve a scooped sea floor sample from a depth of more than 45 meters in Behm Canal.
HSST Barry Jackson analyzing sea floor sample
… and then analyzes what the scoop captured: mud and gravel in this case.

Starting in the 1990s, single-beam sonar became the primary mechanism for NOAA’s surveys.  Still looking straight down, single-beam sonar on large ships and on their small “launch vessels” (for areas that couldn’t be accessed safely by larger craft) provided a much more complete mapping of the seafloor than the ropes used previously.  Sonar systems constantly (many times per second) ping while traveling back and forth across and along a channel, using the speed and angle of reflection of the emitted sound waves to locate and measure the depth of bottom features.

Handwritten notes about sea floor samples
Data about sea floor samples first are recorded by hand on a chart aboard the launch vessel before being uploaded to NOAA computers later.

Sound waves travel at different speeds through different materials, based on the temperature, density, and elasticity of each medium.  Therefore, NOAA also deploys CTD devices through columns of surveyed waterways to measure electrical conductivity (which indicates salinity because of ionization of salts dissolved in the water, thus affecting solution density), temperature (which usually is colder at greater depths, but not necessarily, especially considering runoff from glaciers, etc.), and depth (which generally has a positive-variation relationship with water pressure, meaning more pressure – and thus, greater density – as depth below the surface increases).

CTD device about to be deployed
This CTD device measures conductivity, temperature, and depth in the water. All three affect the speed of the sound waves in water, and the speed of sound is a necessary bit of data when using sonar (which tracks reflected pings of sound) to determine the distance to the sea floor.

The most modern technology employed by NOAA in its hydrographic surveys uses multi-beam sonar to give even more complete coverage of the seafloor by sending sound waves straight downward and fanned outward in both directions as the boat travels slowly forward.  Even though sonar beams sent at angles don’t reflect as much or as directly as those sent straight downward, uneven surfaces on the seabed do reflect some wave energy, thus reducing the occurrence of “holidays” (small areas not well-defined on charts, perhaps named after unpainted bits of canvas in portraits because the painter seemed to have “taken a holiday” from painting there).

Acquiring hydrographic data
FOO Mike Gonsalves and HAST Allix Slagle acquire hydrographic data with the ship’s Kongsberg EM-710 multi-beam sonar.
TAS Rob Ulmer retrieving sea floor sample in Behm Canal
Aboard the small launch vessel, everyone works. This is Teacher At Sea Rob Ulmer hauling in a sea floor sample in Behm Canal.

But that’s not all.  To help sailors make decisions about navigation and anchoring – and often giving fishermen and marine biologists useful information about ecology under the waterline – NOAA also performs systematic samples of the types of materials on the sea floor at representative points in the waterways where it conducts surveys.  Dropping heavy metallic scoop devices on lines* dozens of meters long through waters at various locations and then hauling them back aboard by winch or hand-over-hand to inspect the mud, sand, silt, gravel, rocks, shells, plants, or animals can be physically demanding labor but is necessary for the gathering of empirical data.

* A note about terminology from XO Holly Jablonski:  Aboard the ship, lines have a job.  Think of a “rope” as an unemployed line.

Additionally, Earth’s moon and sun (along with several underground factors) affect the horizontal and vertical movement of water on Earth’s surface, especially due to their gravitational pulls as Earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun and as the moon orbits Earth.  Therefore, information about tides is extremely important to understanding the geography of nautical navigation, as the points below the waterline are identified on charts relative to the mean low water mark (so sailors know the least amount of clearance they might have beneath their vessels), and points above the waterline are identified relative to the mean high water mark (including notation of whether those object sometimes are fully submerged).

Evidence of tidal changes along the shoreline of Behm Canal
Can you see the evidence of tidal changes along the shoreline of Behm Canal? Color differences form strata along the rocks, and lowest leaves of the trees give further evidence of the highest reach of the water.
Ensign Damian Manda manually levels the sighting rod
Ensign Damian Manda manually levels the sighting rod upon the “turtle” using a carpenter’s bubble-leveling device.

To gather accurate and precise data about tidal influences on local waters, NOAA sends tides-leveling shore parties and dive teams into difficult conditions – commonly climbing up, down, and across rock faces, traversing dense vegetation, and encountering local wildlife (including grizzly bears here in Alaska!) – to drill benchmarks into near-shore foundation rocks, install (and later remove) tidal gauges that measure changing water heights and pressures, and use sophisticated mathematics and mechanics to verify the levels of those devices.

Pondering the next measurement
Ensign Rosemary Abbitt and HST Brandy Geiger ponder the placement of equipment before the next level measurement.

Needless to say, this description is significantly less detailed than the impressively intricate work performed at every level by NOAA’s hydrographic scientists, and in the end, all of the collected data described in the paragraphs above – and more, like the velocity of the sonar-deploying vessel – must be analyzed, discussed, and interpreted by teams of scientists with broad and deep skills before the final nautical charts are published for use by the public.

Portable tools of the trade
A leveling rod is balanced on the highest point of a “turtle,” positioned carefully to be seen from multiple points.

As you choose where and how to proceed in your own journeys, remember that you can be more confident about your decision-making by using information that is both accurate and precise.  And keep exploring, my friends.

View from the benchmark
This is the view from the benchmark atop a rocky outcropping (under an 80-foot evergreen) along Behm Canal while righting a measurement rod with the tide gauge leveling party.

Did You Know?

NOAA Ship Rainier in Behm Canal with launch vessels underway
NOAA Ship Rainier in Behm Canal with launch vessels underway

Every ship in the NOAA fleet also is a voluntary mobile weather station, and so are many other seagoing vessels around the world.  For many years ships have been required to report their locations and identities on a regular basis to agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and local or regional harbormasters.  Those periodic reports were (and still are) vital for local traffic control on the waters and for helping to provide quick response to emergency situations on vessels at sea.

View aft while launch is underway
The view aft through Behm Canal from the launch vessel

Eventually, someone insightful realized that having the ships also provide weather reports from their positions along with those identity-and-location reports would make a much richer and broader network of timely data for the National Weather Service, which is another branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  As NWS adds the weather data from those many boats to the data gathered at land-based NWS stations and from voluntary land-based reporters of conditions, their models and forecasts become stronger.

(For more info about being a volunteer weather observer or volunteering with NOAA in some other capacity related to oceans, fisheries, or research, please visit

Especially because weather conditions are the results of interactions among local phenomena, regional climate, and the global systems, building more accurate and precise forecast models depends on information from everywhere, but the result is that everyone benefits from the better forecasts, too.

Evidence of tectonic activity and rundown
Southeast Alaska is area with frequent tectonic activity, including uplift and earthquakes. Here a scar among the trees on the mountainside shows evidence of tectonic shifts, which also creates a ready path for meltwater to move downhill from the snowy mountaintop to the seawater below, taking trees and soil with it.
NOAA Ship Rainier ready for the returning skiff
NOAA Ship Rainier waits offshore, ready to receive the skiff returning with the tide/level shore party.

Robert Ulmer: Quo Vadimus? June 16, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier

Underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

Current coordinates:  N 55⁰47.254’, W 130⁰58.264’

(at anchor in Behm Canal at the mouth of Chickamin River)

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:  June 16, 2013

Weather conditions:  26.04⁰C, scattered altocumulus clouds, 32.91% relative humidity, 1012.18 mb of atmospheric pressure, light variable winds (speed of less than 3 knots with a heading between 26⁰ and 51⁰)

A bit of breathing room in Wrangell Narrows
A rare bit of breathing room in the passage of NOAA Ship Rainier through Wrangell Narrows

Explorer’s Log:  Preparing for the transit through Wrangell Narrows

When watching a great concert, recital, or athletic event, we often forget the hours upon hours of preparation that were invested before the starting whistle or the rise of the curtain.  History remembers and recites the first few moments of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the surface of Earth’s moon, but too often neglected from that history are the many years of research, discussion, calculation, prediction, and practice by thousands of people – including Armstrong – prior to that famous “one small step,” for without those advance preparations the brilliant moment likely never would have occurred.

Photos at the top of Everest belie the training, packing, mapping, and grueling climb that precede the snapshot.  Last-minute buzzer beaters arise out of years of dribbling and shooting in empty gyms long after scheduled team workouts end.   The revolutionary insights of Copernicus and Kepler were built upon hundreds of previous models and millions of recorded observations and related calculations.  Great campaigns are waged on drawing boards long before they approach the battlefield.

Chart showing approach to Wrangell Narrows
This is the chart used during the navigational team meeting in preparation for Rainier’s approach to Wrangell Narrows.

Aboard NOAA Ship Rainier the culture of preparation is omnipresent.  Posted on the door of my stateroom and carried in my pocket at all times is a billet card that delineates where I am to report and what task I am assigned in each of several emergency situations aboard ship.  Within an hour of getting underway from the port of Juneau, the alarm sounded for a fire drill, and every person aboard reported smartly to his or her assigned station.  Heads were accounted, gear was readied, and some crew members even donned full firefighting suits and deployed hoses and fans to address the fictional fire in the XO’s office.  Because every person aboard knew his or her role in advance, the ship was prepared for the drill.  And more importantly, because the entire ship participated actively in the drill, dealing with a genuine emergency, if necessary, will be more seamless and effective.

Then only ten minutes later, the alarm rang again.  This time an abandon ship drill.  As assigned, I retrieved my emergency gear and moved quickly to Muster Station 1 on the starboard bridge wing, where ACO Mark Van Waes explained in detail what would happen in the event of such an emergency.

Teamwork and Safety first
As this sign above the fantail proudly displays, NOAA Ship Rainier values teamwork and puts safety first in all operations and missions.
Leaving the dock at Juneau Port
Careful navigation requires attention to details, like avoiding this small dock while leaving Juneau Port.

Of course, most of the preparatory work aboard Rainier is not about emergency situations, but rather is focused on readying for the work of navigating and operating the ship or the scientific missions of conducting surveys and samples, and that aspect of life aboard ship is non-stop.  Everywhere around me, crew members and scientists are constantly working together, giving formal and informal trainings and lessons, offering one another ideas, insights, questions, and answers, unencumbered by the impediments of pride and arrogance that too often prevent achievement through growth.  To the left of me, a young ensign is given room to make navigational decisions, while to my right two expert hydrographers consult available data and each other while they brainstorm about technical and theoretical issues on their own horizons.

Passing Petersburg, Alaska
The entrance to Wrangell Narrows is alongside the town of Petersburg, Alaska.
Reviewing the data and documents during the mission
Scientists from the survey team review data and documents while aboard the launch.

And the gathering of minds aboard Rainier is impressive.  Today the hydrographic survey team assembled in the wardroom to talk about the upcoming week’s launches of smaller vessels to perform multi-beam sonar surveys and gather bed samples from the floor of Behm Canal.  Under the guidance of FOO Mike Gonsalves, data were shared, schedules were outlined, and every member of the team – regardless of rank or role – was encouraged to share thoughts, concerns, and inquiries relevant to preparation for the task at hand, the ultimate task of this leg of Rainier’s mission.  Like those other great events throughout history, here is yet another example of prior preparation preventing poor performance at the critical moment.  And those were not the last conferences regarding the survey launches, either.  A meeting regarding safety and other last-minute issues was held on the fantail before putting the launches out, and the various people aboard each small vessel constantly interacted to update and modify their ideas before executing their actions.

(Note:  My next blog post will be about the scientific survey launches, so stay tuned!)

The view forward through Wrangell Narrows
A panoramic view of the passage forward through Wrangell Narrows

The most impressive preparation during the past few days, though, was that of the navigational crew.  After hours of work compiling past data and available current information and building itemized route plans for passage through the potentially-treacherous Wrangell Narrows, Ensign JC Clark led a large and comprehensive meeting to discuss every bit of the upcoming traverse.  Utilizing charts, mathematics, weather forecasts, and expert opinions, the group of men and women in the boardroom created a plan of execution that considered everything from tides to local traffic, from channel depths to buoy patterns.  Adjustments were made in an air of excitement tempered by the confidence of experience, preparation, and skill.

Alidade on starboard bridge wing
This device (called an alidade) on the starboard bridge wing is used for visual bearings.

And when the ship approached the town of Petersburg at the mouth of Wrangell, the preparation paid off.  Turn after turn, command after command, the teamwork was superb, and the resulting passage was seamless.  The ride was so smooth as the bridge maneuvered Rainier through the slalom in that deep and narrow fjord, that only the beautiful scenery itself was breathtaking.

Chief Boatswain Jim Kruger practicing knots
During a brief opportunity to look away from the water, Chief Boatswain Jim Kruger worked on maintaining his expert knot-tying skills.

We tend to envision genuine explorers as being people who dare to travel beyond the horizon, choosing adventure over caution every time they set out.  But the truth is that every great explorer, long before he lifts his foot for the first step of the travel, asks himself and his companions:  Quo vadimus?

Where are we going?

Pre-launch meeting on the fantail
Field Operations Officer Mike Gonsalves conducts one last survey team meeting on the fantail before the launches get underway.

The answer to that question might be a physical location, or it could just as easily be a direction.  Up that mountain.  Toward that little island.  Around the bend.  It could even be broad and metaphorical.

Sea lions basking on a buoy at the entrance to Wrangell Narrows
The ACO pulled out the binoculars to answer his own question of why that red buoy at the entrance to Wrangell Narrows was listing so much to the right. The tilt was because these sea lions were using the buoy to bask in the warm near-solstice sun.

But regardless of the short answer, the great explorer knows that the value of good preparation ultimately is the maximization of adventure can be maximized.  Explorers may appear to disregard caution, but in fact, they have done the training, built the skills, plotted the course, and considered the likely obstacles in order to address that caution before getting underway.

But regardless of the short answer, the great explorer knows that the value of good preparation ultimately is the maximization of adventure can be maximized.  Explorers may appear to disregard caution, but in fact, they have done the training, built the skills, plotted the course, and considered the likely obstacles in order to address that caution before getting underway.

ACO Van Waes shared with me a superb insight:  The difference between a road map and a nautical chart is that a road map outlines a suggested path of travel, while the chart simply shows the traveler what things are out there.  The hydrographic survey teams and supporting scientists who work for NOAA make nautical charts so that seagoing explorers can continue the great human endeavor of creating their own maps to turn curiosity into discovery, and I am very proud to spend these weeks working and learning among the people who keep that grand tradition going forward.

So prepare yourselves, practice your skills, plan a bit, and choose a direction or two.  And then keep exploring, my friends.

Personal Log:  Father’s Day

On the day before I left Florida I cropped my hair closely and stopped shaving my face (for the first time ever), in part to minimize the need for maintenance away from home, and also as a minor-league scientific experiment to compare rates of hair growth on the face and on the crown.  After five days the chin, cheeks, and jawline seem to be winning the race.  But the most interesting datum – as so often is the case in scientific tests – is a peripheral notation:  When passing a reflective window this morning, I saw a familiar face framed by the short beard and small wrinkles at the edges of the sunglasses under the brim of my hat, but the face that I saw wasn’t my own.  This third Sunday in June, thousands of miles from home, sort of pensively half-smiling at a fleeting thought that was blending with a pretty view of the treeline off starboard, I saw the face of my dad looking back at me.  And my smile grew a bit softer and fuller when I caught glimpses of my sons in the reflection, too.

So happy Father’s Day to you three other Ulmer men who do so much to define this Ulmer boy.  I’m proud of you, and I love you guys.

And on behalf of children everywhere, happy Father’s Day to the rest of you readers who have undertaken the great task of raising kids.  Your work is important.  

Did you know?

Underway through Gastineau Channel
Underway through Gastineau Channel, outbound from Juneau

The ship’s propellers are called screws because essentially they spiral through the water to propel the boat forward by pulling water from in front and pushing it backward.  NOAA Ship Rainier has two screws, one starboard (right) and one port (left), and they spin in opposite directions to make smoother and more efficient fluid dynamics.  On this ship the screws constantly spin, but they are tilted differently to increase or decrease forward propulsion.

To increase forward vessel speed, the screws hang with a vertical profile so that the water moves horizontally backward from the boat, thus pushing the boat forward.  To decrease forward vessel speed, the screws are tilted toward a more horizontal plane, decreasing the backward push of water, and consequently reducing the ship’s thrust force.  It’s very much like holding your open, flat hand outside the window of a moving car and feeling the wind push it backward, upward, or downward, depending upon the angle of your palm relative to the car’s (and the wind’s) trajectory.  Newton’s Third Law of Motion says that every action comes with an equal and opposite reaction, and so the more directly backward the water is pushed, the more directly forward (with the same amount of force) the ship is pushed in the opposite direction.

Robert Ulmer: Perspectives on a Glacier, June 14, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea

Robert Ulmer

(En route from Jacksonville, Florida to NOAA Ship Rainier and at port in Juneau, Alaska)

Will be underway from June 15 to July 3, 2013

At port in Juneau:  N 58⁰17.895’, W 134⁰24.684’

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:  June 14, 2013

Weather conditions at port:  19.08⁰C, scattered cumulus clouds with little vertical extent against bright blue skies, 43.05% relative humidity, 1017.36 mb of atmospheric pressure, wind speed of 9.5 knots with a heading of 79⁰

Port of Juneau
A panoramic view of the Port of Juneau with a cruise ship beginning its exit of Gastineau Channel

Explorer’s Log:  Mendenhall Glacier

Flying across the North American continent at an altitude of 34,000 feet is an experience somewhere between looking down upon a held globe and walking across the terrain.  Maybe that’s too obvious a sentence for starting this second blog entry, but the fact of that obviousness is the necessary beginning, I think.

Marker on the trail to Mendenhall Glacier with Ensign Steven Wall
As we walked the few miles through Tongass National Forest and across or around several mountains along the West Trail to Mendenhall Glacier, Ensign Steven Wall and I followed piled stone trail markers called cairns.

Crossing the skies above the glaciers of western Canada and eastern Alaska, I was overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of the sights below me.  Stretching from one horizon to the other, mile after seemingly endless mile of nearly blinding albedo from frozen water reflecting the sunlight of the approaching solstice at the nearly-Arctic latitude, interrupted only occasionally by jutting dark crags of towering mountains with just enough warmth or slope to slough the otherwise boundless field of snow, and dotted here and there by impossibly sapphire pools of today’s meltwaters.  Eons of valleys carved by the almost imperceptibly unhurried slog of ice advancing under the magnitude of its own weight.  Cascades of energy waiting, breathing, crawling, leashed only by the chilly bonds of molecular attraction below a certain thermal mark.  But the hiker in me instantly feels a frostbitten ache in the ankles and knees just from peering downward at the tremendous glaciers from the warmth of the airplane cabin, entirely based on the mere consideration of just one day’s walk across the frozen sheet, thousands of frigid footfalls constituting a single-digit of traversed miles, at best.   Truly, the glaciers are awesome when seen from an airplane.

At the toe of Mendenhall Glacier, just before a calving
These ice formations are at the leading face of Mendenhall Glacier as it slowly creeps along and melts into the lake and river below. Even though they seem small, the rocks beneath the ice are more than twenty-five feet high above the water line in this picture! About an hour after I took this photograph, a chunk of ice calved away from the glacier, making an explosive sound that could be heard for miles.

On a globe in my classroom, though, those magnificent glaciers are mere splotches of white and maybe a bit of texture for the fingertips, an entirely different paradigm, to be sure.  Accurate, proportional, and contextually appropriate on a cardboard sphere that must display the major surface features of an entire planet.  Excellent for showing young people comparative and relative size and location in order to launch discussions about geography, tectonics, Earth’s axial tilt, or the water cycle, but not likely to send shivers through the imaginations of the young students whose travels more often are flights of fancy rather than physical treks to distant lands.

The west side of Mendenhall Glacier, viewed from below
This was our first close-up view of Mendenhall Glacier. The “ramp” of ice that you see on the right is more than one hundred feet high.

The point of this comparison?  A study in perspective.

Where a biologist sees a species of tree (or maybe a whole ecosystem), a painter sees verticality or varieties of green, and a carpenter sees a cabinet.  Importantly, all three observers are valid, correct, and good in their perspectives.  Perhaps more importantly, not one of those perspectives has to be deemed wrong just so that the others can be right at the same moment.  Likewise, the globe and the look-down from the airplane both are meaningful in providing totally different perspectives on the same glaciers.

Ice cave at Mendenhall Glacier
Pressure, temperature, and friction work together to carve holes and caves in glaciers, some of which are big enough to walk through… with safety gear, of course!

Therefore, I was overjoyed to hear on my first morning after boarding Rainier a bit of enthusiastic encouragement (and a quick primer on how to use a can of bear spray!) from the ship’s XO, Holly Jablonski, insisting that Ensign Steven Wall and I should spend the day actually exploring Mendenhall Glacier above the Tongass National Forest, just outside the Juneau city limits.  With snacks and drinks in hand, Ensign Wall and I were dropped at the head of the West Trail, where we hiked through a few miles of verdant evergreens and mosses, over and around a few mountains, and up a rock face before arriving at the toe of Mendenhall Glacier.  Abruptly, here in front of me was a rippled wall of ice with folds so large that singular words of description are insufficient to capture their enormity.  What had appeared from miles across the meltwater lake to be small chunks of ice at the face of the glacier now were towers more than 140 feet tall, and yet their backdrop still showed them to be relatively tiny.  In the river below were chunks of floating ice that had fallen forward from the glacier’s leading edge, seemingly just a few feet wide… until I saw kayaks completely dwarfed next to them like flies next to football stadiums.

Kayaks among the calvings in Mendenhall Lake
If you look closely, you’ll see that the black specks on the lake are kayaks, which will give you some idea of the size of the “small” icebergs adrift in the water below Mendenhall Glacier.
Twenty-foot crevasse in Mendenhall Glacier
What appears to be a small crack really is a crevasse more than twenty feet deep, and its small drainage cave continues downward for more than 150 feet to the lake below the glacier.

Indeed, the ice was cold, but the feelings at the front of my thoughts were more about size and power, awe and beauty.  Nothing in my previous education had prepared me for my sudden inability to appreciate the magnitude of the behemoth.  Crawling through caves of ice and walking on the surface of the ice was both spiritually overwhelming, as I joined something so much larger in size and time than any human experience, and also tremendously frightening, as the sound of every creak and every drip striking a floor hundreds of feet below the edges of the hole served as a reminder of my fragility at the hands of such forces.

Next, though, I surprisingly was struck by exactly the opposite of the feeling that I had expected:  Rather than feeling the tremendous difference between the frozen landscape in front of me and the 90-plus Fahrenheit degrees that I left before dawn just one day earlier in Florida, I was moved instead by an overwhelming sense of unity, sort of a bridge between the airplane view and the globe view about glaciers that already had passed through my mind.  I couldn’t escape the connection between this mountainous ice sheet and the swampy lowlands where I live thousands of miles to the southeast, because ultimately it is the existence of this frozen ocean atop the mountains of Alaska (and its neighboring icecap, extending toward the planet’s pole) that leaves the great liquid oceans of Earth at a lower level, thus exposing the small peninsula of Florida that I call home at the far other corner of the continent.  And then I saw everything around me differently:  The flowing ice around the peaks looks very much like the wind-blown sands at the beginnings of beach dunes, the small deltas in the mud from the trickles of meltwater are shaped identically to the much larger region surrounding the Suwannee River as it crashes into the Gulf of Mexico, and the wetland grasses miles below the glacier are nearly twins of the salty marshes near Florida’s Intercoastal waterway.  While very different, also quite the same in many ways.

Delta beneath a rivulet near the toe of Mendenhall Glacier
A delta is formed when running water meets the friction of an obstacle in its path (often a larger body of water) and spills leftward and rightward of its banks, making a triangular shape (like the shape of the Greek letter delta) in the nearby land when seen from above. This tiny delta is at the end of a rivulet at the base of Mendenhall Glacier, but it has the same basic form as larger river deltas all over the world.

As my students and friends hear me say so often, we are the sum of our stories, and every story is interesting if told from a meaningful or exciting perspective.

If I simply had described the past few days of my life as a series of long and uneventful flights followed by a walk among some trees and ice chunks, it wouldn’t have been untrue; it just would have been less interesting.  We all know that the best stories often come from places of familiarity, but spun with unfamiliar points of view.  During the next three weeks, I look forward to hearing and sharing ideas and insights with scientists, mariners, stewards, and technicians aboard Rainier as together we explore the same scenery along the waterways of Alaska, but from our own different perspectives… and then sharing those stories with you here.

Hikers on Mendenhall Glacier
By finding the ice features along the left wall of this picture on other photos in this blog may give you some additional perspective about the tremendous size of Mendenhall Glacier, as here you can see a group of hikers along the edge of a meltwater stream.

In our hurried world of expediency, cell phones, and paved highways, perhaps we too often put on blinders to see our travels from only one frame of reference.  As you walk your own paths, I challenge you – as I again challenge myself – to look at each new thing in several ways before closing any doors of possibility or windows of perspective.  Keep exploring, my friends.

Explorer’s Supplemental Log:  Juneau, Alaska

Tlingit totem pole and wall painting on Village Drive in Juneau
The native Tlingit people carve and paint totem poles and other images to tell stories, record events, and celebrate or worship. Central to their totemic imagery is the great raven, a powerful bird of the local skies. The items in this photograph are at the entry to Village Drive, where many members of the Tlingit Tribe still live just a few blocks from the water in downtown Juneau.

Before my excursion to Mendenhall Glacier, I first was taken to the ship port in Juneau, where NOAA Ship Rainier has been at port for two weeks.  Despite the late hour of my arrival, the sun at this northern latitude so near the beginning of summer remained far above the horizon, and so I decided to explore the local city on foot.

Blooming flowers in Juneau
Many colorful flowers bloom in the warming air in and around Juneau as summer approaches.

Juneau, the Alaskan state capital, is nestled among several evergreen-rich yet white-capped mountains on both banks of the mighty Gastineau Channel, which carries its glacial headwaters eventually to the distant Gulf of Alaska in the North Pacific Ocean.  While Juneau has served as host for my shipmates during their hours of liberty in the past several days, the city traces its history both to the discovery of gold in the nearby mountains and waters and to the native Tlingit people who moved from nearby Auke Bay.  During the past century and a half, those beginnings have laid a strong foundation for commercial ventures in mining, exploration, and government alongside a rich cultural heritage that still is seen in the stories told by the totem poles at the entry to Village Drive.  Further, those roots have since grown as other visitors and new residents have brought their own religions, cultures, and curiosities, resulting in a small and beautiful city of varied flavors and voices, a city whose shopkeepers, fisherman, sailors, citizens, and guests mingle their perspectives into a lovely harmony with those of the soaring eagles, boisterous ravens, playful otters, and hungry gulls.

Juneau movie theater building
Downtown Juneau has many beautiful older buildings, like this one, which houses the movie theater (a favorite evening site for ship crews ashore).
Alaska Senate Chambers
Senators represent their home districts as they debate, negotiate, and legislate in the Alaska Senate Chambers in the state capital city of Juneau.
Russian Orthodox church in Juneau
This is the oldest Russian Orthodox church in North America, constructed in the 1800’s to educate and convert the local Tlingit people.

Did you know?

Like other living things, languages grow, ingesting new ideas and experiences, and then converting them into written or spoken symbols called words.  The study of vocabulary often reveals another important lesson in perspective, as word roots give us clues about how the inventors of those words saw the items and events in their own worldviews.

For example, a glacier is an enormous sheet of ice, but the etymological root of that word is the same root that underlies glass (which looks like ice in its nearly-clear, fragile, appearance of solidity) and glaze (which means to coat or polish a surface so that it appears to be covered in ice, a metaphor that is extended into frosting and icing on cakes).  And in many European countries, you can order a frozen treat by asking for a glacé.  Also, when a frozen chunk of the leading face of a glacier breaks free of the main body of the glacier, the event is called a calving, as the inventor of that term in that context must have seen the many ways that the event is like the birthing of a smaller baby cow from its much larger mother.

(By the way, calved chunks of glaciers that fall into bodies of liquid water don’t sink, but rather they float to become icebergs.  Most substances become denser when they freeze from liquids into solids, but water is unusual.  The buoyancy of water ice – which you’ve experienced on a small scale every time that you see ice cubes floating in a glass of drinking water – is caused by the greater density of liquid water compared to the lesser density of frozen water, as electrochemical forces lock water molecules into a more spread-out lattice during the freezing process than those same molecules experience as they flow more closely around one another in the liquid state.)

NOAA Ship Rainier at port in Juneau
NOAA Ship Rainier at port in Juneau, Alaska

Rob Ulmer: Preparing to Leave Home, May 13, 2013

NOAA Teacher At Sea
Robert Ulmer
(Not yet aboard) NOAA Ship Rainier
At sea from June 16 to July 3, 2013
(Still home in Gainesville, Florida, N 29 42 30, W 82 22 48)

Mission: Hydrographic survey
Geographical area of cruise: Along the coast of Alaska, from Juneau to Kodiak
Log date: May 12, 2013

Personal Log

For as long as I can remember, I have loved maps. A good map is an invitation to explore, to let the mind wander in distant lands, among unfamiliar environs, and into new challenges, but always with the advice of the explorers who walked there earlier. Imagine being the first person to cross a dense bit of jungle or a vast glacier, to find an underground passageway of ancient caves, or to walk on the surface of some planet. Certainly, you or other people might have created speculative pictures in your head before your journey, hypotheses about what you might find. But those hypotheses must be tested, verified, investigated. The explorer bravely takes the advice of others, the creative ideas that grow from his own previous experiences and imaginings, and whatever other tools fit into his kit, and he walks forward.

That is what we humans are. Explorers.

Checking the trail map and USGS marker on Pine Mountain
Checking the trail map and USGS marker on Pine Mountain

Even young children are scientists. Starting from very little background knowledge, they do that most human of activities: They wonder. Uninhibited by the social structures of the adult world, they spend nearly all of their waking moments drawing new maps in their heads. Maps of the paths of beetles crossing the yard, maps of the grocery store aisles, maps of best hiding places on the playground or in the house… but not only geographic maps. They also “draw maps” of how to talk Mom into an extra snack, how to fill the bathtub with bubbly water, and how to put on a shirt.

Two routes from Amelia Island to Big Talbot Island
Two routes from Amelia Island to Big Talbot Island

When Euclid wrote Book 1 of his Elements, he laid down a road map of proofs so that others could confidently follow him to the Pythagorean Theorem. When Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright Brothers made drawings of their flying machines, they were mapping the paths that they had trod toward liberating humans from the clutches of Earth’s gravity. And when Grandpa wrote the recipe for his excellent gumbo, he, too, was a cartographer, taking notes about how he had done the work so that others might learn from it and, maybe, expand it into something more meaningful and delicious in their own lives.

The land and surrounding waters of Alaska have captivated humans for many ages. The majesty of the advancing and receding glaciers as they slowly carve valleys amid the mountains, the freedom of the soaring flights of eagles as they look down upon the rarely-visible orcas and belugas, the mystic palette of icy blues and whites against the vernal greens and floral splashes… People travel to, through, along, and across Alaska for commerce, for sightseeing, for escape, and for investigation, and the maps of those who have gone before them make those passages easier and more interesting, both by providing guideposts and by leaving other details to be explored by the new travelers with their own curiosities and motivations.

When I join CDR Rick Brennan (who is both the Commanding Officer and the Chief Science Officer of the ship), Executive Officer Holly Jablonski, and the rest of the crew of NOAA Ship Rainier in a few weeks, I will be learning how skilled scientists continue the grand tradition of mapmaking, using modern equipment to plumb the depths and chart the coasts from Juneau to Kodiak, updating the notes made by previous explorers so that the next travelers will have the confidence of our data before they add their own interesting pieces to their own maps. By participating actively in the expedition, I will be mapping new territory for my students and myself, too, as I gain first-hand evidence of how scientists in the field conduct the business of their science. Remember that more than two-thirds of Earth’s surface is covered with water, and we have more than 100 miles of atmosphere above our heads, and yet we’ve barely begun to explore those regions of our own home world. That makes the work and leadership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration even more important because they are pioneers at this early stage in human exploration of those parts of our planet.

Rock climbing with the family in the hills of Georgia
Rock climbing with the family in the hills of Georgia

Don’t you wonder what it might have been like to hang out with Galileo as he peered through his telescope, to sit next to Beethoven as he composed and edited a symphony, or even to watch the patient musings of Mendel as he gardened peas season after season? I do. It’s difficult to remember what it felt like to be a young explorer, unburdened by almost any preconceptions. But exploration is always available if we are willing to open our eyes and minds, and to get our hands dirty while investigating our own surroundings.

Learning by investigation on the shore of Jekyll Island
Learning by investigation on the shore of Jekyll Island

And when I return to my 8th-grade classroom in tiny land-locked Lake Butler, Florida, at Lake Butler Middle School,  I’ll be able to share my own first-hand experiences and explorations aboard Rainier. I look forward to feeling the excitement bubble from inside me to capture the curiosities of my kids, as I act out the launching of depth-finding devices, display real data from my cruise, and share stories, notes, pictures, and videos to help them see and smell and hear what I witnessed. I look forward to my students’ questions after I return as much as I am excited about my own questions now. And I know that I won’t be able to answer all of those questions, but that’s the beauty of exploration: The students’ own wonderings will lead them to continue the explorations themselves, to enhance the maps with new notes, new details, and new points of interest.

Expedition boat about to visit the corals reef off Summerland Key from Mote Marine/NOAA Lab
Expedition boat about to visit the corals reef off Summerland Key from Mote Marine/NOAA Lab
View southeastward from Mote Marine Lab in Summerland Key, Florida
View southeastward from Mote Marine Lab in Summerland Key, Florida

Teachers always are motivating their students to dig in, to investigate, to think for themselves and take chances with new and creative ideas. Of course, my students read to learn what others before them have discovered, but they learn in other and sometimes more meaningful ways by designing and building their own rockets, by lifting heavy weights with different sets of pulleys, and by constructing legitimate scale models of their home solar system. As a teacher, I have great influence over the young people in my care, and so I also must explore so that my students can trust my insistence that learning by active engagement is necessary and a real commitment for life-long learning. By leaving the comfort of my home to conduct hydrographic surveys along the coast of Alaska with the crew of Rainier, I hope to model that commitment.

Students building models at Kennedy Space Center
Students building models at Kennedy Space Center

A last note: There’s something very poetic and temporal about starting my cruise at Juneau and ending it at Kodiak. Juneau is the capital of the state of Alaska, and Kodiak was the regional capital when Alaska was Russian territory. Moreover, regardless of the political boundaries, people of different tribes and nations have lived in the region since long before either country formally existed. Maybe what I’m saying is that the maps always will be re-drawn based on what people want to see in those maps. In some ways, people are just like people always have been, and in other ways they change. So does the land, so does the sea. And so I end this first blog where I started it, by respecting the role of the mapmaker as a trailblazer, a note-taker, a guide, and an explorer.

Keep exploring, my friends. And follow my blog here to travel with me and see where my explorations go next. Thanks for reading.