Friday, July 31, 2009

Alaska trip - Denali National Park and Preserve

This is a continuation of our Alaska trip (see my 2nd post on Alaska, about Mount McKinley , July 9, 2009.) We arrived by coach at the Denali Wilderness Lodge. The lodge is located by the banks of the Nenana river, about a mile from the Denali National Park entrance. (Click on the photographs to enlarge them.)

Views from the lodge -

I had heard a lot about the Denali Park and imagined that it had many forests and waterfalls, in a way more like Montana’s Glacier National Park. But it was not like that, it had immense plains of tundra and huge arid mountains.

Denali National Park and Preserve was established in 1917 as a park to conserve its large mammal population rather than conserve its majestic mountain Mt McKinley. The mountain was originally named Denali by the Athabascan Native Americans and it means “the High One”. However, the name “Mount McKinley” was given to the peak in honor of the Republican presidential nominee William McKinley of Ohio, mostly as a political statement against his rival the presidential Democrat nominee William Jennings Bryan. It is ironic that it was a Democrat, President Jimmy Carter, who, with his pen, on 2 December 1980, signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Act and more than doubled the size of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Vast new wilderness areas were designated. It added 8 million acres of national forest system, 56 million acres to the national wildlife refuge system and 44 million acres to the national park system. Regardless of political affiliations, I am very proud that a native son of Georgia has left such a large environmental footprint in the conservative state of Alaska for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

Map of Denali National Park and Preserve -

T.H Watkins who was an environmental writer and historian of the American West wrote on the 10th anniversary of the Alaska Lands Act: “… was at once one of the noblest and most comprehensive legislative acts in American history, because, with the scratch of the presidential pen that signed it, the act set aside more wild country than had been preserved anywhere in the world up to that time—108 million acres. By itself, the Alaska Lands Act stood as a ringing validation of the best of what the conservation movement had stood for in the century since Henry David Thoreau had walked so thoughtfully in the woods of Walden Pond”.

With the 1980 Alaska Lands Act Denali National Park was expanded more than three-fold and is now larger than the state of New Hampshire. In all its vastness the park has only one 92-mile road of which only the first 15 miles are paved. It has no guard rail and is quite narrow. Since 1972 and to minimize visitors’ impacts only park buses are allowed on the unpaved portion of the road. We took the 7-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour to better see wildlife and panoramic views but we sat in the very back of the bus, which was full, and it was difficult to take photographs. I took pictures when we stopped in the Teklanika Area.

Our bus -

Another bus in the distance -

The narrow road -

Denali, also called Mount McKinley is 20,320 feet high and is the highest mountain in North America. It was close by but still wreathed in clouds and the snow had not completely thawed on the tundra. (click to enlarge.)

But we could still see the glacial rivers, the taiga, the tundra and the rest of the Alaska Range and its inhabitants. We stopped at the Stony Overlook.

There were colored informative panels depicting the area and animals.

From the back of the bus I tried to take the picture of a moose, but since it’s not very good I am posting an artist rendering of a moose on a 1950’s National Wildlife Federation postcard.

But I saw a bald eagle, far away, near some steep terrain -

And several Dall sheep – (Mt McKinley was protected as a national park primarily to prevent the early settlers and market hunters to hunt them to extinction.)

Denali National Park as well as the whole state of Alaska is a jewel for its people as well as for the rest of the country. It is one of the country’s most pristine parks with an intact wildlife community. I hope that the people of Alaska will resist the pressure of the governor, in tandem with the oil industry and developers to sacrifice its beautiful wilderness for material gain. As Alaska former ranger Kim Heacox says “National Parks are paradoxical places. They offer us freedom, yet require restraint. They are best explored deeply, yet lightly. They demand new sensibilities if we are to leave them as we found them, unimpaired…” and still here for future generations.

''We must learn, finally, that wilderness is not, as our history has insisted, a threat to be conquered but in fact a lesson to be embraced,’’ T. H. Watkins.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Staying at the Cherokee Indian Reservation

Last week, we returned after a long absence, to the Cherokee Indian Reservation in Cherokee, NC. We took a leisurely drive up the north Georgia mountains on a sunny and dry morning and arrived in Cherokee, NC., the Qualla Boundary for the Eastern Band of Cherokees. (click on the pictures to enlarge them.)

When I was a child in Paris, I played in the “cité” which was a type of enclosed and paved yard with sidewalks surrounded by joined apartment buildings. My friend Nadia and I played very often with her brother Serge, who thought he was an American “cowboy”. I was the Indian girl who he chased constantly and wanted to kill. Once he almost did, with a metal bar thrown on my head (we had to pay a quick visit to the Emergency.) I liked being the Indian girl escaping Serge’s mean assaults. I called myself a MicMac Indian, a name I thought I invented, but found out last year while in Newfoundland that there is a First Nation in Canada called the Mik’Maq. When my father took me to watch cowboy movies I always rooted for my heroes, who were those who escaped the cowboys.

Entrance to the Cité Condorcet

In history class, American History was part of World History for us and I don’t remember really studying about the American’s indigenous people, so I did not know much about the Cherokee. Their brochure says: “Nestled among the oak, fir and flowered valleys – half shrouded in the blue mist that is the namesake of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains – is a culture whose history reaches back in an unbroken chain to a time when even the great pyramids of Egypt had yet to rise out of the African sands. They were a thoughtful people who established democracy and equality many centuries before Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. This great people were the Cherokee – Ani-kituhwa-gi as they called themselves – and they reigned supreme…” . Most scientists believe that the first Indians came to the Americas from Asia at least 15,000 years ago. Other scientists think the Indians could have arrived as early as 35,000 years ago. The Cherokee’s is indeed a long and tragic story and more detailed information can be found on the pages authored by Lee Sultzman, First Nations historian here.

To sum up, the Cherokee, prior to European invasions, lived in a vast territory that included parts of what is now Georgia, Alabama , North and South Carolina, southwest Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and northern Alabama.

The De Soto expedition in 1540 brought European epidemics which killed a great number of the population. Later on the Cherokees traded with the Europeans and dressed like them. One Cherokee genius named Sequoyah devised a Cherokee alphabet and when in 1821 this alphabet was adopted, the Cherokee were the first tribe in the USA able to read and write in their own language. They created a newspaper and developed a Cherokee Nation Constitution and Supreme Court.


The Cherokee made many treaties with the white population so they could help them, learn from them, in peace, but the settlers were more interested in the Cherokee's land than in being friends with them. In 1829 Georgia tried to evict the Cherokee from over 9 million acres of treaty land because gold was found there. The Cherokee went to the Supreme Court which ruled twice in their favor. President Andrew Jackson (who had been saved in battle by a Cherokee) ungratefully supported the force removal of the Cherokee to the west by the 1838 deadline. He said that the Supreme Court had made its decision, now let it enforce it and refused to honor the Court’s verdict. Some were against the “Indian Removal Act” as Tennessee Congressman David Crockett, but they were a small minority.

"Many proposals have been made to us to adopt your laws, your religion, your manners and your customs. We would be better pleased with beholding the good effects of these doctrines in your own practices, than with hearing you talk about them". ~Principal Cherokee Chief Old Tassel

Later on Federal Troops placed 15,000 Cherokee in hastily built stockades (like concentration camps) where many perished. They were then forced, in winter, to march to Indian Territories (parceled land off in Oklahoma). More than 4,000 Cherokees died from hunger, exposure and disease during their 1,200 mile (approx. 2000 kms) forced march. There were only 645 wagons to hold all 15,000 Cherokee. Many whites attacked and robbed them during their journey but the army did not protect them. A large number were left on the road, unburied. They called it “The Trail Where They Cried.” The State of Georgia gave the beautiful Cherokee land to the greedy settlers by a system of lottery.

Trail of Tears painting by Robert Lindneux (1871-1970) courtesy Woolaroc Museum.

"We are now about to take our leave and kind farewell to our native land, the country that the Great Spirit gave our Fathers, we are on the eve of leaving that country that gave us is with sorrow we are forced by the white man to quit the scenes of our childhood... we bid farewell to it and all we hold dear."
~Charles Hicks, Tsalagi (Cherokee) Vice Chief on the Trail of Tears, August 4, 1838

The descendants of those who were forced to march west are now part of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Several hundred Cherokee escaped removal and hid in the North Carolina hills. The US army hunted them but gave up by 1842. In 1848 Congress agreed to recognize them provided North Carolina would do likewise. Now there are about 10,000 Cherokee living on the Reservation in Cherokee, NC, and they are called the Eastern Band of Cherokee of the Qualla Boundary.

Vintage postcard of Cherokee Indian Reservation circa early 1940’s

This has been a brief summary of what happened to the Cherokee Nation since the first European contact. Reading all this I was incredulous at the amount of violence the Cherokee and other Native American tribes suffered at the hands of the good Christian forefathers of this country. In the year 1500 there were millions of indigenous people on American soil, but by 1890 80% had been killed. It this is not called genocide, I don’t know what is. The fact that the world watched and did nothing to stop this massacre is outrageous. But then, this is usually the case as the world watched the Armenian genocide and lately the Rwandan and Darfur genocides with little intervention. Some tribes were totally annihilated but the Cherokee survived. The land of the Eastern Band is adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Trout stream near the Qualla boundary.

The Blue Ridge Parkway starts (or ends) in Cherokee, N.C.

Blue Ridge highway descending toward the Cherokee Reservation (1940 postcard)

We traveled a bit along the Blue Ridge Parkway and stopped at the numerous overlooks, like in the picture below.

Raven Fork View - Milepost 467.9, elevation 2,400 feet.

This overlook stands on the ridge overlooking the Big Cove area of the Qualla Boundary, the watershed of the Raven Fork River and its tributaries. Called "kalanv" in Cherokee language and "corvus corax" in Latin terminology, the raven is a glossy black bird about two feet long, larger than a crow, with distinctive pointed feathers at its neck. Part of Cherokee mythology, and known around the world, this bird has become rare and is now seen mostly in remote areas and at higher elevations. Ravens tend to roost together in rock cliffs, and place names throughout the Appalachians mark their presence. When flying, they sometimes fold one wing and somersault through the air. (This paragraph is taken from Cherokee Heritage Trails.)

We drove through 3 tunnels but did not see any bears like in the vintage postcard above.

The Cherokee Path
Alone with the moon, my spirit cries
For the lives of my people crushed by white men's lies.
Taken by force from our mountain home,
Robbed of freedom, hearts heavy like stone.
The path was long and littered with death,
Alone with the wind, my spirit does not forget.
The blood of my blood left on that cursed trail,
With the young, the old, the fragile, the frail.

Forced to march into the unknown,
For my proud Cherokee family my spirit now moans.
But we did not die,
Our souls are still here
Walking in spirit on the trail of the tear.
- Martha Moongazer Beard

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What is the Tour de France?

In France, the Tour de France is like an institution. From childhood I never wondered about the Tour de France. It was an event every July and all the people I knew watched it on television and talked about it – it was a natural. I never thought twice about it and never really pondered What is the Tour de France? How did it start, what are the rules, etc.?

Picture of leader Bobet attacking Mont Ventoux (1955)

When I came to the USA I noticed that the Tour was not mentioned in sport conversation, nor could I find it on television. Then when Lance Armstrong started to win the Tour in 1999, it finally was covered but only followed here by a very few fans. I now watch the 3-weeks tour broadcast by TV Channel Versus.

Lance Armstrong in 2009 Tour de France

The Tour de France is the most prestigious cycling event in the world. Actually I have heard that it is the biggest annual sporting event in the world, not just cycling. Just think – anyone can come to France and watch it live, from many towns during the 3 weeks that it runs, and it is absolutely free. Where else can you go to see such a free event which includes competitors from many countries? If you go to a baseball game or football game, you have to pay admission to an arena or stadium, the teams are from the USA usually and it does not last 3 weeks.

The Tour de France 2009 starting in Monaco

The Tour de France started in 1903 as an trade mark feud between two rival sport newspapers in France “ L’Auto-Vélo” and “Le Vélo” (vélo means bike in French). The Auto-Vélo lost and had to change its name to "L’Auto” but conceived to organize this bicycling tour as a publicity stunt. It was successful and the Tour was launched.

Today about 15 million people line the roads of the Tour in France (and some neighboring countries) to watch the event still free of charge. About 1 billion more tune in to follow it on television, the Internet or the radio worldwide – it is an enormous sport event. About 80 television channels transmit the Tour to about 170 different countries. The race includes many publicity vans and television crews on motorcycles. A helicopter follows the bikers from the air and shows many panoramic views of the countryside like those below.

The Tour starts on the first Saturday of July and concludes three weeks later on a Sunday with a final sprint on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. This grueling event usually lasts 23 days including 2 days of rest. The Tour consists of multi-stages, 22-international teams with 200 riders from a dozen countries. The race covers from 3,000 to 4,000 kms (1,900 to 2,500 miles) which is roughly the distance between London and Tel Aviv or Cairo. The shortest Tour was in 1904 with 2,420 kms (1,500 miles) and the longest in 1926 with 5,746 kms (3,570 miles). The riders average a strenuous 40 km per hour (25 mph) over the course, sometimes faster than that and on some mountain descents their speed can reach up to 110 Km/h (68 mph.)

The riders eat a special diet since they need an enormous amount of energy and can burn up to 10,000 calories per day while climbing a steep mountain. Their bikes are specially designed by engineers and mechanics for aerodynamic efficiency. They are extremely light weight, built and tested in wind tunnels. Special bikes are made for speed racing, see below.

For 2009 the 20 teams were selected from France, Belgium, Spain, the USA (3 teams), Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Denmark, and Kazakhstan. The teams include riders from various countries, for example team Astana (Lance Armstrong’s team) includes members from the USA, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Lithuania, Ukraine and Slovenia. Other teams include bikers from France, the USA, Switzerland, Russia, Belgium, Ireland, Colombia, Australia, Austria, Norway, Germany, New Zealand, Estonia, Belarus, Great Britain, Luxemburg, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Holland, Italy, Brazil, Czech Republic, Croatia, Poland, Denmark, Slovakia and Japan. Where can you, in this country, go and cheer a sport made up of an international team with such diversity? And then celebrate the winners, even if they are not from this country or one's own state? And don’t forget, free of charge.

Each year the official organizers of the Tour decide where the course will go and which towns or countries will be included. Some stages (a one long-day segment is called a stage) are scheduled in neighboring countries, like Spain, Germany, Belgium, Italy, etc. The route this year includes 10 flat stages, 7 mountain stages, 1 medium mountain stage, 2 individual time-trial stages and 1 team time-stage. Next Saturday, 25 July, the stage will finish on Mont Ventoux, a tough and steep ascent. (I was brought up near Mont Ventoux, in Provence, (from infancy to about 4 years of age) and would look up at it, from the lavender fields).

Steep ascent on Mont Ventoux

Snow capped Mont Ventoux from the valley below

The selection of the course is eagerly anticipated each year, as the towns on the circuits will gain tremendous prestige, which is of more value to most average villager than the additional gain from tourism and commerce. The route along the course is lined with many international fans waving their country’s flags but everyone cheers the bikers, whether they are from France or any other country in a true spirit of sportsmanship.

Map of the Tour 2009

The teams of 9 riders work as units, with each member his own responsibility. The “domestiques” (standard riders not geared to win major awards) spend their time helping the leaders – by fetching water, etc. The “peloton” (pack) is the main group of racers maneuvering for position. At the end of each stage the first rider at the finish line is victorious and goes on the podium where he receives a trophy and bouquet of flowers from lovely hostesses. The biker with the fastest time during the sprint speed race wears the green jersey. The best climbers received the polka dot jersey and the white jersey designates the best young rider.

The Peloton

The yellow jersey is worn by the race leader. The race leader aims to keep the yellow jersey during many stages and mostly all the way to Paris. In Paris the yellow jersey is worn by the biker with the overall best aggregate time since the beginning of the race and is declared the winner of the Tour de France.

Lance winning in Paris in 2005

Many spectators camp along the route for days to get the best view of the Tour. There are tremendous crowds waiting on mountain tops and safety can be a problem, both for the bikers and the fans. Last Saturday, 18-July-2009, a woman was killed while crossing the road in front of a motorcyclist accompanying the bikers.

The New York Times said “The Tour de France is arguably the most physiologically demanding of athletic events”. The total elevation of the race is compared to climbing Mount Everest 3 times and, the effort, to running a marathon several days a week for nearly three weeks. It is a supreme endurance race and the most celebrated. It is followed by millions of fans – and it is free. Every July, from the South of the United States I can follow the Tour on television and enjoy the spectacular views of the countryside, peek at historical towns and castles perched high on the surrounding hills.

Below is the winner of the 2008 Tour de France, Carlos Sastre of Spain. Watch on Sunday morning, 26 July to see who the winner is for 2009.

Pictures are mine, or taken from free Web images. Four postcards are courtesy Graham Watson.

Last Minute Update: The fantastic Tour de France 2009 has ended. This is the ranking:

Alberto Contador, Spain Winner of the Tour de France
Andy Schleck, Luxemburg 2nd place
Lance Armstrong, USA 3rd place
Thor Hushovd, Norway Green Jersey (fastest sprinter)
Franco Pellizotti, Italy Polka dot Jersey (king of the mountain)
Andy Schleck, Luxemburg White jersey (best young rider)

Both Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong were in the winning team, team Astana, from Kazakhstan (Astana is the name of the capital of Kazakhstan). This has been another outstanding Tour, and truly an international sporting event.  The 2010 Tour next year will start in Rotterdam, Holland and we look forward to keep watching it on TV.

P.S. Summer 2013 - In 2012 the USDA reported that Lance Armstrong engaged in a very sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program and banned him from all competition.  In January 2013 Armstrong admitted to doping.  He has been a great disappointment to his fans.
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