Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Oregon Country Fair–A Child’s Paradise

Veneta, Oregon—Here’s a list of the things I would have purchased at the Oregon Country Fair last Friday if I hadn’t blown my twenty bucks on tamales and Nutella-berry crepes:

  1. Dangly silver earrings with sparkly blue stones20150710_123510
  2. A giant eggroll
  3. A temporary henna tattoo
  4. A worm composting bin
  5. Tie-dyed boxer shorts
  6. A unicorn horn

If you live in Oregon, you know about Country Fair; it sprawls across 280 acres of forest and river every second weekend in July. If you’re new to the state, or you’ve shied away from attending because of the counterculture vibe and the presence of a handful of bare-breasted people, get over it and go. The counterculture is delighted to teach you how to juggle and belly-dance, and the bare breasts are canvases for beautiful paintings of sunflowers and goddesses.

Confession: My husband hates the fair. Early on in our courtship, he did the chivalrous thing and escorted me on our bicycles to watch the spectacle. Undone by crowds and heat and dust, he boosted me up to a stilt-walker’s bench (lately discouraged by Fair staff) and we spent hours watching parades of marching musicians, dragons, giant puppets. He tried to love it. He didn’t. Now, I attend with The Spud on the free shuttle from Valley River Center on Friday, 9:30 sharp so we can board one of the first buses out of the parking lot.

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The Spud meets her nemesis.

The Fair’s a child’s paradise, with opportunities for hands-on fun everywhere. Much as I’d love to organize my day with the schedule in the Peach Pit (OCF’s official event and entertainment guide) and move from vaudeville show to band gig to spoken word performance, with a child under 10, that’s not going to happen. Instead, we get off the bus, I point her in the direction of the ticket taker, and she’s off. Here’s what she got ahold of last Friday:

  1. A compost bin full of worms and lettuce
  2. A booth at which she learned to fold a cootie-catcher
  3. A hand drum on stage with a musician singing about the importance of recycling
  4. A table full of recycled inner tubes and leather, needles and thread and awls and stamps and rhinestones (she made a purse)
  5. A playground with a jungle gym on which frolicked some of her school chums, most of whom wore clothes
  6. A fairyland hideout built of moss and lichen and stones and other wonders

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Who needs Barbie? Kids play here for hours!

Go for the day, and give yourself over to the weirdness, or become part of it. We’ve painted our faces and danced in the drum circle and tried the giant hula hoop and chowed down on strawberry shortcake and ice cream and given quarters to the dozens of single and group musicians who play on the sidelines. We’ve taken refuge in the shady library when it all got to be too much, and we’ve stayed until the end of the day, until we’ve fallen asleep dusty and sated, standing up on the half-hour shuttle ride back to Eugene. There’s magic around every corner at the Country Fair–see you in 2016!

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Pay a quarter, get a Cat Fortune. Meow!

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Backpacking on the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – Travelers of all ages rushed with their stuffed backpacks to the top deck of the M/V Malaspina to secure a camping space in the open air.

For years I had gazed at a Sunset Magazine clipping on my bulletin board describing adventurers pitching tents on the Alaska Marine Highway ferries. Now, my husband and I were on a three-day voyage along the Inside Passage from Bellingham to Juneau, Alaska.

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Since 1951, eleven ferries – the largest of which accommodates 499 passengers – have traveled 3,500 miles of routes along the marine highway. These comfortable ships venture as far south as Bellingham and as far north as Skagway, Alaska, with port stops in between. For many Alaskans, the ferries are a primary source of transportation between small, hard-to-reach coastal towns.

In Bellingham, we filed on board past a pickup truck overflowing with boxes, furniture, and potted plants. I overheard the driver saying that his family couldn’t make a go of it in the lower 48 so they were heading home. They joined us on the marine vessel’s top deck, where passengers were spreading sleeping bags across lawn chairs in the solarium and pitching pup tents outside. (If that doesn’t appeal, travelers can get an inside cabin – small, but warm.)

“You’ll need this,’’ the pickup driver said as he tossed me a giant roll of duct tape, explaining that once the ferry got going, the wind would kick up, threatening to blow tents overboard.

I watched as passengers affixed tent lines to the rough cement with layers of tape and heard horror stories like the one about the guy who had gone below to use the bathroom at midnight and returned in his boxer shorts to find his tent and gear in the sea.

We secured our backpacking tent and went to return the tape. The man shook his head. “Pass it on,’’ he said.

jonferry

My man, Jonathan, roughing it on the ferry.

Generosity was infectious as we cruised along British Columbia’s forested shore. Passengers in the solarium shared pretzels, hummus, and cider (alcohol was forbidden on outer decks). Yoga mats appeared; guitars inspired a jam session.

Initially, I worried about seasickness, but the Malaspina sailed smoothly into the sunset. We walked downstairs to check the cafeteria with its tempting smells of salmon and steak, and explored a bustling bar, small movie theater, and glass-walled observation lounge.

Naturalist Brett Calhoun, 20, delivered four talks a day on topics ranging from the mating habits of humpback whales to survival strategies for bear attack. Between lectures, he showed nature films and handed out maps. Periodically, he or the captain announced photo ops over the intercom. “There’s a school of dolphins off starboard,’’ one would say, or “Breaching orca portside.’’

On our first night we worried that noise might keep us awake. But the ferry’s motor rumbled steadily, lulling us to sleep in our down bags on inflatable pads.

We got up at dawn to commune with a scattering of early-risers toting Canons and Nikons. I walked down to the cafeteria, hatted and mittened against the stiff breeze, for a quarter’s worth of hot water to add to my mug of instant coffee. In a protected outdoor alcove, I watched the sun rise over a bucolic coastal town whose residents waved from their balconies.

A passenger from Alabama said this was his first vacation in 30 years. Cradling his camera lens, he gazed at the view, saying, “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.’’

The pickup driver joined us, jerking his chin at bald eagles perched in a tree. “Dumpster ducks,’’ he sneered at the raptors, so common in his part of the world.

Marine-highway-mapFerry travel inspires an instant camaraderie born of wind and water and periodic port stops. In Petersburg, the captain announced a three-hour layover and passengers headed toward the town’s main drag to share pitchers of Northwest microbrew.

We returned to the Malaspina and stretched out on lawn chairs under a star-studded sky. A teenager who had boarded at Petersburg put up a giant purple dome tent that we nicknamed “the eggplant.’’

“Want to tape it down?’’ I said. He grunted and ducked inside. We crawled into our tent and fell asleep to the ferry’s purr.

At 3 a.m., gusting winds buffeted the tents. Those sleeping outside moved their bags into the solarium or onto the cushioned seats in the observation lounge. I slumbered on.

In the morning my husband recounted the night’s events. He had peered out of our tent to find the eggplant collapsed on top of the teen and had helped to tape it down. “Took us a good hour,’’ he said. “Good thing we had duct tape.’’

This piece originally appeared in The Boston Globe.

From May to September the Alaska Marine Highway ferry leaves from Bellingham, Wash., every Friday at 6 p.m. and arrives in Juneau, Alaska, on Monday morning with several port stops along the way. Top deck $326, cabins $308-$533. Bicycles/inflatable kayaks/cars for additional cost. For reservations and maps, visit www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/index.html.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Interested Interested in taking a writing class with me or coming to a reading of my memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family? See my July schedWild within coverule, below!

July 17th, 2015Reading/Discussion of Wild Within, Paulina Springs Books, Sisters, OR, 6:30 PM. 

July 18th, 2015Reading/Discussion of Wild Within, Paulina Springs Books, Redmond, OR, 6:30 PM.
July 25th and 26th, 2015–“Heal Yourself Through Environmental Memoir,” Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Otis, Oregon, 10 AM-4 PM both days. Three spots left–still time to register!