Archive for the ‘North America’ Category

Churchill’s Polar Bears

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Hundreds of polar bears gather on the coast near Churchill, Manitoba, every autumn to await the freezing of the Hudson Bay. When the ice thickens, the bears venture out to hunt Arctic seal and gain sustenance for the long winter ahead. Here are a few things you might not know about ursus maritimus…

Polar Bear Sow With Cub, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Alan D. Wilson

Polar bear sow with cub, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Alan D. Wilson

— The oldest known polar bear fossil was a jawbone found on the Arctic  archipelago of Svalbard in 2004, and is estimated to be more than 110,000 years old.

— Polars bears are the largest land carnivores on earth—adult males can weigh up to 1500 lbs. and measure as long as 9.8 feet. Male lions, by contrast, top out at about 550 lbs and eight feet.

— A polar bear’s water-repellant outer coat is made of transparent, not white, hair. This outer hair is shed every summer. Polar bears still have to be careful in warmer weather, though—they can overheat if temperatures top 50°F.

— Polar bears live on the edge of the Arctic Sea’s ice packs, where they hunt for seals. The increase of global temperatures since the 1800s limits the amount of sea ice available for polar bear habitat, and increased melting also reduces the amount of time each year they have to hunt. For this reason, polar bears were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2008.

— If you want to help preserve Polar bear habitat, click here for some good advice from the folks at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History  about what we can all do to help with ocean conservation.

What animal do you want to help? Please share.

Each year, we bring travelers to snowy Churchill to observe these fascinating creatures up close. Space is still available on our October 2010 departure.

Notable Daredevil Stunts at Niagara Falls

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Annie Edson Taylor, aka "Queen of the Mist", was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.

First and foremost, do not try any of these ridiculous stunts. It’s illegal – it could cost you up to a $10,000 fine and banishment from Canada – and you would likely get hurt very, very badly.

That being said, here is our brief list of ridiculously silly and dangerous daredevil attempts at Niagara Falls. For the full list of absurdity from the mid-1800s to 1951, click here.

  1. 1. The first tightroper to cross Niagara River was “The Great Blondin.” Jean François Gravelet-Blondinwas a 31-year-old professional European circus performer. At the first of his many tightrope walks over the river, Gravelet made a spectacle on June 30, 1859, by pausing dramatically with his balancing pole and then did a sudden back somersault on the rope. He later crossed the river on his rope while riding a bicycle, walking blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow, and even cooked an omelet in the center. He lived a long and happy life, passing away in England at the age of 73.
  2. Some swimmers made the attempt to go over the falls, with tragically mixed results. Captain Matthew Webb had already conquered swimming the English Channel when he made his attempt on July 2, 1883. He failed, and his body was recovered four days later down river in Lewiston, New York. Three years later, a policeman from Boston named William Kendall made it—with the help of a very effective life preserver.
  3. The last tightrope performances at the Falls were by 21-year-old James Hardy in July of 1896. His performances were the last permitted at the site.
  4. The first person to ever make the attempt in a barrel was actually a 63-year-old schoolteacher named Annie Taylor. She climbed into an air-tight wooden barrel with her cat on October 24, 1901. The air pressure inside was compressed to 30 p.s.i. with a bicycle pump, and when she emerged, she was simply bruised and battered – and expected fame and fortune. She instead died in poverty. The cat was fine.
  5. Bobby Leach attempted the drop in a steel barrel in 1911, but ended up breaking both kneecaps and his jaw. Yet, he still survived. Years later he traveled to New Zealand, where he slipped on an orange peel and died from complications due to gangrene.

People still request to make attempts to cross Niagara River and the Falls even today. In November of 1996, the Niagara Parks Commission denied a request for a proposed skywalk by Jay Cochrane. Commission Chairman Gary Burroughs announced, “The net effect of this type of event is to encourage less qualified individuals to perform stunts or feats that put not only themselves at risk, but also those who may be involved in their rescue.”

Were these people brave, insane, or plain old stupid? Share your thoughts below.

To see how daring (or stupid) these people were, you must see Niagara Falls for yourself on The Great Lakes: A Voyage through North America’s Inland Sea. Save $700 per person off your cabin price for Categories E-AA. Also, save $2,000 per person off your cabin price on Categories VS and PHS.

Video: The Northern Lights

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

The Aurora Borealis (also known as the Northern Lights) is a vibrant, otherworldly light display that has to be seen to be believed. Named for the Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek term for “north wind,” the Northern Lights have been drawing enthusiastic spectators since humans have lived within sight of this celestial phenomenon. Here, see a time-lapse video of an Aurora Borealis display.

Want to see for yourself? We’ll teach you about the relationship between electricity, the ionosphere, and the Aurora, and we’ll even provide the cold weather gear. Limited space available on our Northern Lights of Canada program this September, so book soon! Fall is one of the best times of year to see the Aurora.

Click here to learn more about the Aurora Borealis and more from Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, or click here to read about the Northern Lights in Smithsonian Magazine.

What can you see in the night sky where you live? Share below.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About the Great Lakes

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010
The American Falls of Niagara

The American Falls of Niagara

Those of us who grew up near the Great Lakes already know the basics.

They consist of Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan Ontario, and Superior. They provide 20% of the world’s fresh water, and are the largest grouping of freshwater lakes on the Earth’s surface. And, of course, the lake effect snow from these waterways create endless frustration every winter.

Then there are those of us who like to have a little more advanced knowledge…

  1. Lake Erie is the shallowest lake at 210 ft while Lake Superior is the deepest at 1,332 ft.
  2. Each lake has Native American roots to its name, except Lake Superior. While they are all either Ojibwe, Wyandot, or Iroquois names, Lake Superior is actually an English translation of French term “lac supérieur” (“upper lake”), referring to its position above Lake Huron. But the Ojibwe have their own name for it and call it “Gitchigumi.
  3. Travel through the Great Lakes began in 1844 and expanded in 1857, when palace steamers carried passengers and cargo around the Great Lakes. Tourism really picked up throughout the 20th century when large luxurious passenger steamers sailed from Chicago all the way to Detroit and Cleveland.
  4. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society in Paradise, Michigan explores notable historic maritime sites ranging from the infamous SS Edmund Fitzgerald to recently discovered 1902 ship Cyprus – which sank on its second voyage carrying iron ore from Superior, Wisconsin to Buffalo, New York.
  5. The redheaded stepchild of the Great Lakes is Lake Champlain, which was briefly labeled as the sixth great lake by the Federal government on March 6, 1998. But after much media and public ridicule for being too small to be “Great,” the offer was rescinded on March 24, 1998.

Did you grow up near a Great Lake? What are your favorite memories? Share Below.

Join us on the luxorious Clelia II and explore the Great Lakes in all their splendor.

Save $700 per person off your cabin price for Categories E-AA. Also, save $2,000 per person off your cabin price on Categories VS and PHS.

* This ship is no longer in use. For the most up to date ship information, please see our ship page.

 

What does Cairo have in common with the Mississippi River?

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010
Civil War era image of USS Cairo

Civil War era image of USS Cairo

The answer is the USS Cairo, which is actually pronounced “kare-o”. It was one of seven ironclad gunboats named in honor of towns along the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In January, 1862, during the Civil War, it was commissioned by the North as a way to gain control over the lower Mississippi – part of a plan to split the South in two. Unfortunately, the USS Cairo had a short life and was the first ship to be sunk by an electronically detonated torpedo on December 12, 1862. Two explosions ripped open the hull of the ship causing it to sink 35 feet into the river in only 12 minutes – amazingly with no loss of life.Time passed with no way of retrieving the USS Cairowhich remained at the bottom of the river. Over the years, the story was forgotten and locals weren’t really sure what happened—if members of the crew had died, or even of the gunboat’s exact location.

In 1956, Smithsonian Journeys Study Leader Ed Bearss, started analyzing contemporary documents and maps. As Historian at the Vicksburg National Military Park, he and his companions Don Jacks and Warren Grabau made it their goal to uncover the gunboat, which was now buried under almost one hundred years of silt and mud. While they believed they had found the site of the ship, it wasn’t until three years later that Cairo’s armored port covers were brought to the surface, confirming the find.

It took several additional years to gain public interest and funding, and then there was the issue of actually raising an ironclad gunboat from the bottom of a river. After securing funding, the decision was made to split the USS Cairo into three parts in order to lift them to the surface. The entire ship was finally raised on December 12, 1964—exactly 102 years after it sank. After a long preservation process, it is now on display at the Vicksburg National Military Park.

The USS Cairo Gunboat today, Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service

The USS Cairo Gunboat today, Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service

Which Civil War locations have you visited? Share Below.