Archive for September, 2012

Antarctica and then some

Posted in antarctica, Elephant seals, Falkland Islands, Fur seals, guiding, Leopard seal, penguins, photography, South Georgia Island, tourism, travel, Uncategorized, whales, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2012 by polarguide

Our ship, Russian owned and operated Ice class research vessel the Akademik Ioffee

For History buffs, photographers, adventurers and wildlife enthusiasts Antarctica is the ultimate vacation destination. This will be my third season working in Antarctica with One Ocean Expeditions. One Ocean offers several Antarctic voyages ranging in length from ten to eighteen days.  The crown jewel of wildlife viewing polar expeditions is the eighteen day Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica adventure.

The Falklands float 250 nautical miles west of Argentina, it takes two full days at sea  to reach the Islands.  The archipelago is a self-governing off shore territory of the United Kingdom.  There are more than 200 Islands  with a population of  3,100 people, the vast majority being of British decent.  Argentina has always claimed the Falklands to be an Argentinian territory and in 1982 the Argentinian military invaded the islands and a two month-long war ensued resulting in the defeat and surrender of all Argentinian troops.  To this day Barbed wire fences barricade beaches and pastures laden with land mines.

The Islands are a windswept landscape of stony hills and sea cliffs  punctuated  with  emerald pompoms of  tussock grass. For three days we make landings at significant wildlife viewing areas. We visit nesting sites of the Black browed albatross, Rockhopper, Magellanic and Gentoo penguins.  Fur seals, Sea lions  and elephant seals rest and raise their young on wavy beaches.  We complete our time in the Falklands with a visit to the city of Stanley, the capital of the islands, Population 1,500.  From there we begin our two-day journey to South Georgia Island.

Windy hillside of Carcass Island, Falkland Islands.

Nesting colony of Black browed albatross

Nesting pair of Black browed albatross

Magellanic Penguin

Rockhopper penguin

Captain james cook was the first person to step ashore on South Georgia Island in 1775.  The first Sealing campaign began in 1788 and by 1828 1.2 million Fur seals were slaughtered for their pelts, driving the species to the edge of extinction.  Whalers arrived in the late 1890’s and by 1930 40,000 whales had been killed. By 1965 the whale populations had declined so severely the industry was no longer economical and the whaling stations were abandoned.   During our three days on South Georgia Island we visit the remains of these whaling stations.  The bones of long abandoned building and the rusty corpses of ships that once participated in the slaughter  now serve as shelter for the Fur seals and penguins they once exploited.

Abandoned ship near whaling station

Fur seal pups take shelter under propellers from abandoned whaling ships

South Georgia Island  is one of the most intense wildlife experience on the planet.  Its stormy shores teem with life and the  number of animals on one beach can be overwhelming.  We visit King penguin colonies where the penguins number in the hundreds of thousands.  They waddle down beaches along side fur seals.  The Elephant seals stack themselves side by side so numerous you could walk their backs for the entire length of the beach, although I wouldn’t recommend it, these behemoths weigh in at eight tons.

Typical South Georgia beach

250,000 king penguins

Don’t get too close to these guys

Before landing at south Georgia we issue bright red rain-gear and green rubber boots to every passenger. This wardrobe serves two functions: It keeps the penguin poo off the passengers clothes and  helps the staff differentiate people from penguins. We lecture every passenger about how to safely conduct themselves around so much wildlife.  We remind people that Elephant seals are wild animals,and although they have a placid demeanor they can be accidentally dangerous.  “You can avoid being crushed to death” I tell people, “by not napping on the beach.”  I also advise that if while photographing a fur seal it rises up on its flippers and runs at you open-mouthed as if it might bite you, it might.  And last but not least, please don’t stand on the penguins.

Pushing the limits

Passengers give their full attention to this lecture.  They nod in agreement as if it were all common sense, but when the first zodiac surfs to a landing grown men and women revert to children. I call it the “Willy Wonka effect”. Remember that scene in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory when Willy swings open the doors to his world of candy ?  All the children run wild stuffing their faces with exotic sweets and wreak havoc on willy’s wonderland of confection. Then the fat kid falls into the chocolate river.  landing on South Georgia Island  is a-lot like that.

A zodiac slides up the beach, red pants swing over pontoons, green boots trudge up the gravel slope and penguins scatter.  They knock into each other like concerned and confused umpa-lumpas. I stand back and watch the comedy unfold: People can’t control themselves, I watch them chase penguins with their point and shoots cameras. To my left I see someone topple over a penguin while walking backwards trying to take a photograph. A little old lady runs past me with an angry fur seal hot on her heels while to my right a man inches too close to a mountain of Elephant seals, daring one to crush him. And then the fat kid falls into the chocolate river, except the river isn’t chocolate its a hot puddle of penguin shit mixed with Elephant seal dung.

After snapping several thousand photographs everyone relaxes. The penguins catch their breath and with the guidance of experienced staff people learn that if they just stand still the wildlife becomes curious.  Slowly, animals assemble to gawk at the strange creatures with red legs and awkward green feet.  Penguins side up to inspect the new comers in a highbrow manner, as if comparing wardrobes. At the end of every excursion passengers return to the ship in a state of joy. cocktail hour and dinner are all a buzz with tales of the day.  Everyone has an exciting story to share of their intimate wildlife experience.

Close encounters with Fur seal pups

Communing with king penguins

Our last stop at south Georgia is at Grytviken whaling station to visit the grave of Antarctica’s most famous explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton.  We make a procession to his grave and toast the boss with a slug of whiskey then spend the afternoon walking among the relics of the whaling station.

Grytviken whaling station

Shackleton’s Grave

As we sail south I watch from  the aft deck as the island fades into the northern horizon.  Here I become washed by a wave of nostalgia.  Our ship surfs the wake of  histories great heroes. We are following a course set by men such as: Vasco DA Gamma, Ferdinand Magellan, Francis Drake, James cook and Thaddeus Von Bellinghausen. Our destination, a continent so secluded its existence remained a myth until it was first sighted in 1820. Antarctica.

The ice in Antarctica is immense and looms above everything like a great glinting mountain.   Black cliffs reach to the sun as if trying to escape the sinking weight of the blue blanket if ice .  The entire continent is entombed in a world of winter.

Enormous iceberg dwarfs a zodiac

The continent is frozen under seven thousand feet of glacial ice, the downward force drives its plastic mass seaward until its precipice shatters into the ocean creating icebergs the size of small countries.  The bergs glow a surprising shade of blue that seems to radiate from deep inside, as if an icy neon light burned at its core. The temperature of the thick ocean drifts around 32 degrees. There are no trees, the vegetation is limited to lichen and moss.  It is a stark world of contrast that shines like a jewel.

Breaking through sea ice below the Antarctic circle

Regardless of the harsh, barren environment Antarctica flourishes with life.  The extended summer sunlight and constant upwelling current create a marine soup that supports a complex and bountiful ecosystem.  Thousands of Penguins nest on rocky snow-covered hill sides.  Leopard seals, crab eater seals and Wedell seals nap on ice floes while orca whales hunt through a maze of icebergs.  humpback whales graze on krill in the frigid inky water.  Being there  feels like  you have traveled through time to a place before people.  A place where the earths forces conduct a symphony life.

Lonely penguin returning to the nest

Close encounter with a Humpback whale

Orca whales dwarfed by Antarctic landscape

My first voyage departs November 8th.

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Weekend harvest adventure part 2

Posted in alaska, bears, deer hunting, photography, travel, Uncategorized, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2012 by polarguide

Finger on the trigger, glaring through the scope I thought to myself ” I know this bear.”   This was the same bear I photographed the previous week.  I recognized his coffee colored legs and shimmering golden shoulders.  He had a mischievous look in his eye. He struck me then as a young bear, maybe three years old, recently abandoned by his mother trying to find his place int he world.

This guy

The tone of My voice dropped, low and threatening, “Hey bear.”  He planted his front paws, lowered his head and gazed up at me from under his eyebrows.  Then he turned and strode away, peering over his shoulder as if concerned I might be following.  I lowered my firearm  and turned to find my three amigos standing behind me.  The bear apparently decided four were too many to take and went about his business of digging roots and catching fish.

One hour later we were back on the Taurus. Exhilarated and Giddy from the cold we ripped off our wet clothes.  Someone opened a bottle of whiskey and passed it around. We each took a slug, then a second.  We laughed.  We laughed about our wet clothing. We laughed about Zach falling in the river and the bear that stole the fish. We laughed that our hands were so cold we couldn’t button our pants.  The bottle made another round.  ” What was that bear thinking?”  Zach asked.  “Aah, he was just a young bear trying to claim some territory,”  I answered.   “I am surprised you raised your gun at him,”  Shellie added.  ” Well,”  I said  “I had no intention of shooting him, I just wanted to be prepared in case he made a run at me.”

We chugged out of Mud Bay, back into Icy strait.  The sky sagged with heavy grey clouds.  The wind whipped white caps across the surface of the water.  We headed west along the north shore of Chichagof Island toward  Idaho Inlet.

Shaw Island is a small islet that floats off the western shore of Idaho Inlet.   “Wanna cruise by Shaw and scan the beach for deer?” Zach suggested.  “Shaw is pretty small,” I replied. “Not sure why a deer would be way out there, but worth a shot I guess.”  Zach swung the boat  south to scan the northern shore of Shaw Island.  From the aft deck I strained to see through my rifle scope as the boat bounced across the chop. We approached within one hundred yards when, surprisingly, I spotted a good size deer standing at the waters edge.  It’s honey colored coat contrasted with the dark  beach boulders.

The bow of the the Taurus crunched to a stop on the rocky beach and the deer slunk into the forest.  I was over the bow, rifle loaded and ducking under alder bows moments later.  I crept thirty feet into the dark understory then stood still and waited.  The deer appeared from behind a log twenty feet to my right and froze in alarm.  I jerked the rifle into place but  I forgot,while I was scanning the beach from the boat I had my scope zoomed in at maximum power, at this distance all I could see was a blur of brown .   I lowered my gun to decrease the zoom. The deer took three steps forward and evaporated into the forest.

I crouched, trying to see which way the deer had gone.  I peered through a riot of roots, shrubs and downed trees.  I ducked under some dead fall and knelt exactly where the deer had stood.  I adjusted the focus of my eyes, trying to see between the forest. Looking for a flick of a tail or twitch of an ear, a splash of brown in symphony of color.  He was gone.

He couldn’t be far, only seconds had passed. I was in awe of his ability to completely disappear so effortlessly. Creeping over down logs and wading through tangles of blueberry bushes I came to a rise in the landscape and followed a well used game trail up a  steep ridge line. I arrived at the top out of breath and discouraged.  No way a bumbling bi-ped like me  could track such a silent and elusive creature through this jungle. I leaned against a tree drawing  deep, quiet breaths and listened, hoping the deer was still close by.

He bounced out of thin air and landed on an open patch of moss thirty yards away.  Standing broad side with all four hooves planted firmly on the ground, head turned looking directly at me, he froze in perfect position. A beam of pale sunlight broke through the trees and landed squarely on his statuesque silhouette. I blinked with disbelief.

I rolled my left hand over the stock of the rifle and snapped the safety off.  My heart quickened. I could feel blood bounding in my neck, my breath short and quick.  I placed the cross hairs on his chest just behind his left leg. My aim bounced with each beat of my heart. I took a deep breath and with a slow exhale squeezed the trigger.  The roar of my rifle echoed through the trees, out past the cobble stone beach and died somewhere over the foggy ocean.

I rested the firearm against a tree and gulped down a few more deep breaths.  I let my nerves settle, waited for my heart to slow then cautiously walked to the deer. I ran my right hand over its coarse golden coat and quietly thanked it.  I Grabbed up the fur on the scruff of its neck a began the slow drag through the dense forest. I gutted him on the beach and skinned the carcass on the Taurus as we continued west through South Inian Pass and into Cross Sound.

We spent that night on the Shoreline scow.  The Shoreline scow is a floating fish barge that buys salmon around the clock from fisherman working the Cross Sound fishery.  The scow floats in Lisianski Inlet just five miles from the the gulf of Alaska and the open pacific ocean.  It is operated by an all female crew affectionately know as the scow girls.  My girlfriend Liz works on the the scow from time to time.  We decided to pay her a visit, cook the scow girls a fresh meal of venison and get an early start fishing in the morning.

By mid-Sunday morning we  had twelve nice salmon, we completed our weekend adventure with a long run back to Gustavus.  We made it back to town sometime around two p.m.  The rest of the day was spent getting our gear moved off the boat,  properly butchering the deer, cleaning the fish and preparing them for the freezer.  Monday morning Adam and I helped Zach get the final rafters installed on his cabin and I flew back to Juneau to attend a photography class at the University.

In two days time and in the company of good friends, through rain storms, near bear attacks and rough seas we managed to harvest a good amount of fish and venison to add to our winter stockpile.

Shellie with a nice Coho

Shellie and Coho

Zach’s Cabin

Weekend Harvest adventure part 1

Posted in alaska, bears, guiding, photography, travel, Uncategorized, whales, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2012 by polarguide

Note: I like to keep my posts to 1000 words or less but it was a long adventure filled weekend. I decided to write about it in two or maybe three parts. The autumn weather and the practice of  harvesting wild food does not allow time for photos. I hope my writing is entertaining enough to keep you interested. Who ever you are.

We left Gustavus aboard the Taurus at ten in the morning on Saturday to spend the weekend fishing and hunting on northern Chichagof Island.  The morning was cool, the high grey clouds parted occasionally revealing patches of blue sky. Columns  of whale breath rose like smoke signals from the flat surface of the sea . I counted thirty whales while crossing Icy Strait.

Departing Gustavus aboard the Taurus

morning smoke signals

morning smoke signals

We arrived in Mud Bay some time around eleven a.m.  Shellie, the most experienced and prepared of our group of four had her waders on before the boat hit the beach.  She hopped off the bow, helped set the anchor, shouldered her pack and fishing pole and set off up stream.   the weather had begun to deteriorate. Zach and Adam fumbled with their fly rods and fishing line while I stuffed a few extra warm layers in my backpack, then jammed my camera and two lenses on top of that.  With out a word I hoisted the pack, snatched the fly rod in my left hand the rifle in my right and  lumbered along the bank of the river wondering how Shellie (now completely gone from sight) could be moving so quick.  One hundred meters up stream I freed my self from pack and pole and ducked  into the forest in search of a deer.

I slipped under a stand of  alder and into the dark understory of spruce trees.  Rifle in hand I waited, listened, then crept over the soggy pine needles.  Cold, humid air filled my head with the astringent scent of spruce pitch, but no sign of deer.  I hunted through the trees until they gave way to an open meadow of tall sedge.  I stood on the edge of the forest gazing over a golden sea of swaying grass, waiting for a grazing deer to betray its position and lift its head.  A Northern Harrier materialized above. I watched it’s effortless glide , rising slow, dipping quick like a kite, scouting the savanna  below, hunting,  just like me. Except for the flying part.

The rain gusted sideways in sheets.  I looped around the forest and back to the the river to retrieve my equiptment.  Far In the distance I spied Zach and Adam as they disappeared at a bend in the river, Shellie was, by now,  far ahead of them.  I was happy to be alone.

I plodded up stream realizing I had far too much gear.  My camera uselessly jammed in the top of my backpack  made it cumbersome to shoulder the rifle and it kept slipping down my right my arm.  My left hand was occupied with the fly rod.  My three friends were wearing proper waders, they could wade across the river through waist deep water making navigating up stream much faster. I was wearing an old borrowed pair of hip waders that leaked. The crotch  high rubber boots were two different sizes.  knee deep water was as deep as I could manage.

The cold wind seemed to drive the rain straight through my clothing.  The belief that modern technical rain gear (gortex and the like) is actually water proof is a load of bullshit!  Trust me. My spiffy new Patagonia jacket  hung on me like a wet bed sheet.  My socks, soaked with leaky river water  slid down below my ankles and bunched in the front of my boot. It felt like flopping around in wet clown shoes.  I forgot to mention: I am new to fly fishing,  my attempts to cast in the driving wind and rain were frustrating to say the least.  After two hours I managed to catch nothing but shrubs and dead wild flowers on the river bank behind me.

I began to miss my friends. I assumed they had successfully fished out every decent fishing hole I was now passing on my clumsy journey up river.  I abandoned  fishing and decided to march forward until I found them.  I crossed a shallow section of water and confronted a steep muddy bank on the other side.  My boots in the muck, I reached both hands over head and with my right hand I planted the butt of the rifle into the soggy earth, with my left hand I planted the butt of the fly rod.  I then attempted to pull my-self up the muddy river bank in my waterlogged clown shoes. I kicked one foot high and began to stand, it slipped through the mud and my other foot quickly tried to replace it and Suddenly I was running in place, feet frantically kicking and slipping through the mire until my arms grew tired, realizing the futility of the effort my feet quit and left me dangling.  My grip slowly failed and I oozed down the river bank, belly in the mud.  I felt so alone.

I hefted my self from the mud cursing. I hurled my rifle over the river bank, then the fishing pole, then my pack.  Grabbing fists full of mud and grass I clamored on hands and knees and came up panting, thankful there were no witnesses to this embarrassment.  I stood to brush the mud from my clothes, that’s when I noticed the bear.

He was standing on the opposite side of the river watching me with a vacant glare. We contemplated  each other for a  moment from a safe distance.  “What are you looking at” I hollered over the gurgling river “this kinda shit is easy for you, you’ve got four wheel drive.  But  I’ve got something  you don’t… thumbs sucka!”  I jutted both thumps out in front of me and wiggled them at the bear.  He appeared unimpressed. He began swaying left to right  with an listless stare that made me uncomfortable.  I flung my pack on to my back, lifted my rifle and rod and staggered forward, glancing over my shoulder to be sure I wasn’t being followed.

About fifty meets up river I began to hear strange sounds, like an ancient foreign  language broken up by the rush of the river.  Was it laughter?  My friends having fun with out me?  Maybe it was the wind, I thought.  I came to a fork in the river. A channel flowed in from my right and in that channel were three large brown bears in the midst of a fierce fight over a prime fishing spot.  They were in the middle of the river thrashing at each other with gnashing teeth and claws, fur and spit flying everywhere. The sound of the battle was barbaric and evoked a fright in me that rose from deep in my guts.

“shit!”  I thought out loud  “I’m going to have cross the river again to avoid the clash of the titans”. I slid down the muddy bank trying not to draw attention to myself.  slipped into the river and waded to the other shore, all in plain view of the sparring monsters.  I found Zach,  Shellie and Adam fishing a hole not to far up river from the bear fight.

Hours  passed since I had seen my three friends. All day I had imagined  them having a grand ole time together, catching fish, laughing and eating cheese and crackers in the sun.  Turns out they had adventures and mishaps all along the way. Zach caught a Coho salmon and left it on the beach next to Adam.  While Adam was distracted by a fish on his own line a bear crept from the bushes and stole the salmon right out from under him.  While trying to wade across the river, Zach fell in and drifted down stream. He climbed out on the opposite shore and continued fishing.   The relentless rain and constant wind zapped our enthusiasm to fish any longer.  We were all soaked to the core and on the verge of  hypothermia.  We decided to make our way back to the Taurus.

Zach pulled an inflatable paddle board up river with him and he and Adam began to flat downstream.  Shellie and I trudged along the edge of the river and once again bear appeared on the shoreline to our right.  Zach and Adam floated on the paddle board to the opposite shore to avoid the beast.  As the bear approached it became clear he had no intention of changing his coarse to avoid a close encounter. Shellie waded through the deep part of the river to join the others, leaving me to face the bear on my own.  “Seriously” I said sarcastically. “you’re going to leave me over here alone with this guy”.

I backed into the current  as far as I could with out going over my boots.  The bear passed thirty feet to my right. I spoke softly to it mostly to reassure myself .  When he ambled a comfortable distance past me I paced slowly to the shore. Then a surprising thing happened:  He turned and began to walk straight at me. He sauntered at a relaxed pace, head slightly lowered his eyes fixed on me.  “Hey bear!” I shouted, but he kept coming.  I took a large step toward the bear and kicked up some water “Hey Bear!”.   He closed the distance to less than twenty feet. I dropped my fishing pole, slapped a .300 caliber rifle round into the chamber and flicked off the safety.

I have had countless close encounters with brown bears, black bears, even polar bears. Focusing a bear into my two hundred millimeter Nikon lens is a common experience.  Raising my rifle and narrowing the cross-hairs  between the eyes of a brown bear was a whole new sensation.

Seasons end

Posted in alaska, bears, guiding, photography, tourism, travel, Uncategorized, whales, wildlife with tags , , , , , , on September 5, 2012 by polarguide

Another summer season has ended.  Tonight I am sitting with the snap and crackle of the wood stove, half through a bottle of Irish whiskey. I have had the yurt to my self for the last week.  The sun has set and the pale evening light strains my eyes.  Soon I will have to light the gas lantern that hangs from a nail over the kitchen counter. I am contemplating the seasons end and feeling nostalgic about the arrival of fall.  I know it sounds strange to speak of fall when August has barely completed her departure, but that’s how it is here. In late August the leaves of the cottonwood trees turn yellow and brown and begin to litter the ground.  The rain falls a little harder, the wind blows a little colder and the twitter and chirp of Sandhill cranes flocking through the grey sky on their long migration south mark the beginning of fall in Gustavus, Alaska.

Oh, let’s not forget the berries. The blue berries are almost ready, but late august brings a bounty of wild strawberries and nagoon berries, plump and red and ready for jamming.  Liz and I picked, jammed and canned a gallon of berries completing our sweet winter cache in just two days.

Nagoon Berries

Liz making Nagoon berry jam

Jam!

It was an unusual summer in many ways.  It never seemed to stop raining and the temperatures rarely rose above fifty five degrees. My first guided trip began with high winds and heavy rain that blew away our tents and saturated our sleeping bags.  Then, sometime in early July a bear broke into the yurt and ate all of our food.

There were three plane crashes this summer. The local air taxi company that we hire to move guides and clients between Juneau and Gustavus had two planes malfunction, resulting in emergency crash landings.  One stormy morning in July two pilots, Kevin and Gale, left Juneau for their sixty mile morning commute to Gustavus. Each in his own plane, they flew side by side. Only one arrived at his destination.

On a clear day pilots heading for Gustavus will fly west passing over Auke bay and the northern tip of Admiralty Island. They will cross a five mile wide expanse of ocean called Chatham Strait.  Flying at an elevation of three thousand feet they dip and glide between six thousand foot peaks that are the southern end of the Chilkat mountain range. On a stormy day the Chilkat range becomes shrouded in a dense curtain of  grey clouds forcing pilots to bank south.  Soaring below cloud cover they fly around the southern tip of the mountain range before navigating north toward Gustavus. This day was a stormy day.

Two days after the incident I spoke with Gale.  He told me that after crossing Chatham Strait he steered his own plane south to avoid the low lying clouds that veiled the Chilkat mountain range, Kevin did not. Gale watched Kevin’s airplane disappear into the clouds then moments later Kevin’s signal disappeared from Gales radar screen. Kevin hit the top of a ridge doing one hundred and sixty miles an hour.  His air machine was shredded by the trees. The stretch of debris littered the mountainside for hundreds of yards. His body was found still belted to his seat fifty feet forward of the torn and scattered aircraft.

The feeling of fall has sparked a bustle of harvest activity. August began with berry picking and jamming, fishing and rooting over the forest floor in search of edible mushrooms.  On a recent fishing trip Zach and Shellie dropped a halibut skate and we hauled a two hundred pound halibut  from the cold depths of Icy Strait.  On a rare sunny day shelli and I went fly fishing with her father Doug and we caught countless Dolly Varden in Mud Bay, on northern Chichagof Island.  We had a glorious after noon watching brown bears fish for salmon while we cast our lines with less proficiency.

Zach with a giant halibut

shellie with a dolly

Doug paddling with brown bear

Fishing with brown bear

beautiful bear

sneaky bear

The hustle of guiding now done, their are no planes to catch, no boats waiting.  I am enjoying quiet time at the yurt.  Getting small project done, splitting fire wood, reading books and helping Zach build his cabin.

Tonight I will stumble  into bed with good whiskey in my head.  Drizzle tapping on the vinyl roof, fire warming the wood stove, I will dream of the coming days.  Dark brooding days swollen with rain and fog and wind.  Soon we will obtain our seasons quota of fish and hunting season will commence.   We will Slip briskly through the waterlogged forest searching for sign of elusive deer.  After a successful hunt we will pass evenings butchering and processing venison flesh, feasting with friends and  hoarding our bounty for the  approaching months of winter. In this way the fall will pass and winter will bring new adventures.