Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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Seattle’s Pacific Science Center: Bugs, Bikes, and Musical Flowers

Some families travel to Disneyland. Mine goes to science museums. There’s a family-friendly science museum in almost every major city, and you can find one of the best in Seattle, Washington.

We visited the Pacific Science Center in September on a break from my Avenging the Owl bookstore tour, and spent seven hours investigating every corner of the museum. Here are some of the weird and wonderful things we discovered.

bug

Insect Village

Love insects? Stick around here for a while. An animatronic housefly invites you to “step right up” and visit an extensive display that will give you a sense of how high a flea jumps, how a beetle’s exoskeleton acts like a knight’s armor, why hissing cockroaches hiss, and—my favorite—how mealworms eat Styrofoam. (Up until I observed this for myself, I thought mealworms were simply food for owls, but now I realize they have other environmental benefits, as well!)

mealworm

Tropical Butterfly House

Even on the grayest, rainiest, coldest days, the butterfly house glows with a tropical light. Hundreds of butterflies drift about, landing on flowered plants, on piles of sliced fruit, and on you. The museum gets its butterflies in chrysalis form from farms in Central and South America, and they allow visitors to watch the hatching and study the brief but beautiful life cycle of these insects. Laminated identification cards let you to learn the names of what you’re seeing, but you can also dispense with the fancy nomenclature and simply bask with the butterflies.

butterflies

High-Rail Bicycle

So maybe you’re sort of a daredevil, or maybe your great-grandparents—like mine–ran away to join the circus. Either way, if you weigh over 100 pounds, you can pedal a bicycle on a one-inch-wide rail 15 feet above the museum’s courtyard for free. Downward-hanging weights keep it from slipping off the rail.

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Look, Mom! No hands!

Live Science Shows

As a creative writing teacher, I have a crazy admiration for those who can impart the magic of science to kids  . . . and to me. The museum offers a couple of half-hour science presentations a day, classes so surprising and funny you forget you’re actually learning. We saw “The Science of Combustion” in which the presenter lit blew up fuel-filled balloons and lit someone’s ten dollar bill on fire (it managed to escape unharmed), and “The Science of Bubbles.”

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Musical Flowers

After seven hours of fabulously-interactive exhibits on health and archaeology and space and dinosaurs and Legos and 3-D printing and musical instruments, I had to get outside and go in search of a veggie dog. I found one along a line of food stands in the Seattle Center, but not before I discovered artist Dan Corson‘s giant glass flowers sprouting up right outside the museum. As people walk past them, they emit loud tones—some low, some high, all unexpected and weird. But then, that describes the whole science museum, which is much more fun, my 9-year old agrees, than a family vacation to Disneyland.


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Raptor Rehabbers Celebrate Birds Every Day

Happy National Audubon Day! The National Audubon Society sets aside April 26 each year to celebrate the life of ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, author and illustrator of this gorgeous book, The Birds of America.

Audubon_Birds_of_America

You can find a chapter of the Audubon Society in or near your hometown and meet up with other bird lovers for hikes and educational meetings and the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Want to take your love for all things avian one step further? Why not visit and support your local bird rehabilitation center? These centers, which serve songbirds and waterfowl and raptors, exist all over the country. You can often go there to learn about how staff and volunteers work to help injured and orphaned bird. Sometimes, you can even become a volunteer yourself! Here’s a list of resources from the appendix of my new middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016), to get you started:  9781634501477_p0_v2_s192x300

Hawkwatch International, a non-profit dedicated to preserving raptors and their habitat: http://www.hawkwatch.org/

International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, a great site for education and resources for wildlife conservation: http://theiwrc.org/

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, provides links to finding a wildlife/raptor rehabilitator near you: http://www.nwrawildlife.org/content/finding-rehabilitator

The Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit working to conserve birds of prey: http://www.peregrinefund.org

One of my favorite raptor rehabilitation centers is Wild Wings, in upstate New York. Here’s an article I wrote about it for The Boston Globe a while back. Enjoy!

“New Yorkers shelter and show birds too hurt to go free” from The Boston Globe

The author and her daughter, Maia Hart Smith, observe a snowy owl at Wild Wings.
The author and her daughter, Maia Hart Smith, observe a snowy owl at Wild Wings. (Jonathan B. Smith for The Boston Globe)

HONEOYE FALLS, N.Y. — Wild Wings is a national chain restaurant serving crispy, spicy drumsticks in barbecue sauce. Wild Wings is also a family-friendly raptor rehabilitation center just south of Rochester.

People tend to get their wings mixed up, with humorous results. It’s not unusual for Terry Kozakiewizc, director of the raptor center, to get a call like this:

“I picked up the phone and the caller said he’d like to order three dozen wild wings.’’ Kozakiewizc said, breaking into a wide smile. “I said, ‘We’ve got ’em, hon, but they’re alive.’ ’’

Wild Wings Bird of Prey Facility, at Mendon Ponds Park in Honeoye Falls, houses over 20 raptors including eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, and a vulture. Most of the birds were hit by cars and have permanent injuries ranging from vision loss to damaged wings; they cannot be released back into the wild.

Kozakiewizc makes the raptors available for public viewing five days a week year round, hoping to foster awareness and increased respect for birds of prey. Watching a barred owl soar through the sky is exciting indeed, but getting to see Hunter, Wild Wings’ fluffy resident barred owl, close-up on her perch inspires me to drive more mindfully.

The facility offers educational programs and guided tours. Participants can dissect owl pellets or paint a portrait of a live raptor on its perch. Visitors can stroll along Bird Song trail to feed chickadees, then step into Wild Wings’ colorful Cottage Store with its avian-themed gifts. Just out the back door, a tidy outdoor compound of wood and wire cages houses stately red-tailed hawks, diminutive Eastern screech owls, bald and golden eagles, and an elegant black-spotted snowy owl named Pearl.

Each enclosure gives the raptors numerous perches and room to move about, even to take limited flight. Volunteers have paid close attention to each species’ needs — brightly-colored hanging toys tempt the curious crow, and a pile of low stones provides a perfect seat for the tundra-nesting snowy owl.

My daughter was most enamored of Wild Wings’ resident bobcat, who roused herself from a nap in a bed of straw and dashed up to the fence. Tara, captive-bred and declawed, lives in a spacious cage with ramps and bridges for roaming. But while we stood there, her amber eyes remained fixated on my child.

“She sees her as a toy, hon,’’ Kozakiewizc told me, and so we retreated into the Cottage Store for hot cocoa, coffee, and cookies. Kozakiewizc explained that Wild Wings is a family affair, and that she’s the only paid employee.

“My husband builds enclosures for the birds, and my son Nick does a lot of the educational programs for kids.’’ She pointed to a grinning young man helping to restock a shelf with child-sized footballs in the shape of bald eagles and furry leopard-print purses.

Their affection for each bird is palpable. Kozakiewizc recounted the recent death of Shasta, a 25-year-old red-tailed hawk. “I’m so glad he died before he had to be cooped up for the long winter,’’ she said, and went on to relate the story of how, for the past three years, a wild red-tail had brought freshly-caught squirrels to the aging Shasta, continuing even after his fellow hawk died.

If You Go

27 Pond Road
Honeoye Falls, N.Y.
585-334-7790
www.wildwingsinc.org
Fri-Tue 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Free; donations welcome.


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A Rockin’ Good Time at Petersen Rock Garden

Say the words “Petersen Rock Garden” to native Oregonians, and a wistful expression may glaze over their eyes. “Oh,” they’ll sigh, “I remember that place from my childhood.”

Of course they do. This is the quintessential bizarre family roadside attraction, with something for everyone—rock castles and historical replicas, peacocks, an abandoned 50s diner, and a fascinating backstory.

Good Capitol

In the early 1900s, Rasmus Petersen—an immigrant from Denmark—made his home between Bend and Redmond, Oregon. He fell in love with the area’s rocks and began collecting obsidian and sunstone and jasper and thundereggs in an 85-mile radius. Until his death in 1952, he used the rocks as building material to construct a sort of fantasy landscape that struck me, on my midsummer visit, as way more interesting than anything Disneyland has to offer. (Don’t tell my eight-year old.)

house

Pull up in a dirt parking lot, and the first things you’ll likely notice are peacocks strutting their stuff around wide lawns and a stone replica of a U.S. Capitol building (step quietly up the stairs and look inside to spot the resident cat). Other monuments include Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty, standing stately between a rock castle, rock, bridges and a lily pond.

cat (2)

Can you see the cat?

At the base of the depiction of the Statue of Liberty sits an unnerving plaque. “Enjoy yourself,” it reads. “It is later than you think.” We pondered that message in arid heat as we made our way over to the abandoned diner. Still decked out with classic 50’s Formica and salmon-colored wallpaper and a soda fountain and a menu on which sodas and sandwiches cost mere pennies, it struck me as the weirdest curiosity of the entire place.

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

I stood for a long time peering in through a broken window as unseen dogs parked somewhere behind the building, trying to picture the people who’d once eaten and worked there. Did Petersen himself (here, you can buy an image of him on EBay) in his hat and striped tie periodically stop there for a root beer float in the midst of his work on a fanciful new sculpture? I could have asked his granddaughter-she showed up as we wandered around, but the place was hopping, and numerous people crowded around her to talk.

As the July sun walloped us with heat, I couldn’t help wishing we could step inside the diner to an icy blast of air conditioning and a cold Coca Cola. The attraction’s Wikipedia entry mentions the possibility of the owners opening up a café. Given that families like mine spend hours exploring the place, that sounds like a winning idea to me.

Castle

But my daughter seemed undaunted by the weather, and impervious to a tiny white freezer labeled “Ice Cream” in the shade of one building. She wandered, wide-eyed, through the peacocks and looked for tail feathers, finally purchasing one in the gift shop for two dollars. She walked around and around the castle—rock instead of ice, but still, it looked like something that Elsa from Frozen would inhabit. I could tell then that decades from now, she’ll feel a wistful sort of joy whenever she hears the words “Petersen Rock Garden.”

Petersen Rock Garden is located at 7930 SW 77th St., Redmond, OR. 541-382-5574. It’s open daily, 9-5. Cost is $5 donation, on the honor system. Find more information on the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/petersensrockgarden .


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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!


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Oregon’s North Coast: More Than Just Forts and Shipwrecks

“Mommy, was Pomp home-schooled?”

My eight-year old daughter (aka “The Spud”) and I stood in front of a statue of Sacagawea, famed Shoshone interpreter in Lewis’ and Clark’s Corps of Discovery of the early 1800s. The Native American woman gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste (nicknamed Pompey, or Pomp), two months before the Corps began their journey from Missouri to Oregon. She simply strapped the baby on her back and took off on the expedition which would take two-plus years.

The statue of Sacagawea and Pomp outside Lewis and Clark National Historic Park

The statue of Sacagawea and Pomp outside Lewis and Clark National Historic Park

One of the original multitasking moms, she saw to Pomp’s needs, saved valuable expedition documents from floating downstream, made peace between Corps members and Native Americans on the journey, and taught her growing son and 31 men about the flora and fauna around them.

Replica of Fort Clatsop

Replica of Fort Clatsop

Jonathan and I have lately decided to home-school The Spud for a while. What better place to start than the Northern Oregon coast, rich with history? We popped in a CD by The Meriwethers, a charming Ashland-based band inspired by the Corps, and drove to Lewis and Clark National Historic Park to wander through an excellent little museum and a replica of Fort Clatsop.

“It that all?” The Spud asked after peering into a handful of rooms holding crudely-constructed beds and tables.

“That’s the point,” I told her. The Corps hunkered down in a similar fort among the Sitka spruce for three months, from December 1805 to March 1806, squashed together making maps and sewing moccasins for the return journey east while rain poured down.

This bright June day inspired us to hike the Netul Landing Trail beside the fort. With our intrepid terrier, we set out along a path picking salmon berries and pointing out bald eagles and great-blue herons. A family of adventurers could easily spend a day at Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, watching films in the museum, studying the exhibits, participating in the Junior Ranger program, hiking, meditating on a forest stump surrounded by the ethereal warble of the Swainson’s thrush.

The Salt Works, in Seaside.

The Salt Works, in Seaside.

Later, fortified by burgers and fish and chips and a puppy patty (a $1 dog burger) at Astoria’s kid- and terrier-friendly Wet Dog Cafe, we drove to Seaside to see The Salt Works. This tiny historical replica depicts the system by which members of the Corps boiled seawater to make much-needed salt for meat preservation and . . . well, you know, to improve the taste of half-spoiled elk.

While Seaside has plenty of attractions–boutiques and boardwalks and a glittering carousel–we opted to visit Fort Stevens State Park instead. We parked at Coffenbury Lake and checked out the anglers and swimmers, then walked the 1.5 mile path to the ocean. There, we found the wreck of the Peter Iredale, a sailing vessel that ran ashore in 1906. Families walked around and around the rusty hull, then dispersed to build sand castles and play Frisbee and brave the chilly waves. We lingered on the sunny beach, wishing we’d brought our bicycles to ride the seven miles of paved paths in the park.

Wreck of the Peter Iredale

Wreck of the Peter Iredale

A walk through Astoria proved just as much fun, however. Jonathan and The Spud visited the Columbia River Maritime Museum with its displays about shipwrecks and fishing boats and the Coast Guard while the terrier and I rambled down near the piers where just a few weeks before, 1,200 sea lions congregated, prohibiting boat launch until a man scared almost 1,000 of them off with his faux killer whale. (See the hilarious story here.)

The north coast of Oregon makes for a splendid classroom. You can visit museums, observe sea lions at rest and at play, wander beaches and forests, take a ride on a tall ship, and cross the gorgeous Astoria-Megler Bridge into Washington to gaze down at Clark’s Dismal Nitch where the Corps of Discovery once huddled against the rocks, stranded during a ferocious winter storm. Fortunately for us, the sun shone brightly this day, and we returned across the bridge to the Wet Dog Cafe for another couple of ciders, another Shirley Temple, and a puppy patty.

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Want to take a writing class with me? Check these out–enrollment ends soon!

June 29th-August 7, 2015–“Feature Writing for Magazines and Newspapers,” Whidbey Writers Workshop Post-MFA Course, 6-week class online, all writers welcome.

July 25th and 26th, 2015–“Heal Yourself Through Environmental Memoir,” Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Otis, Oregon, 10 AM-4 PM both days. All writers welcome.


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Kayaking on the Oregon Coast with a Terrier in a PFD

I’m not a Mother’s Day brunch kind of gal. Give me a river, a kayak and a beach full of tidepools–I’m good to go. A carving station? Not so much.

My husband, knowing better than to sit me down in front of an all-you-can eat seafood bar, researched the Siuslaw Estuary Water Trail near Florence, Oregon. “It’s an adventure!” he told me and our 8-year old daughter (aka The Spud). We presented our new dog, April, with a terrier-sized life vest and headed west.

April, the intrepid terrier.

April, the intrepid terrier.

You’ve got two choices when you park at Bender Landing at low tide; you can either slog with your kayak through knee-high mud and drop it in the water, or you can rig a line 10 feet up on a retaining wall and lower your boat and climb down a metal ladder to the river. Either way, you’re guaranteed awkward hilarity.

We opted for the ladder, lowered our paddles and peanut butter sandwiches and the terrier, and started off laughing and unmuddied upstream. Paddlers on the Siuslaw can kayak 30 river-miles between Mapleton and the Pacific Ocean. It’s pretty country, I decided, but nothing beats kayaking the Siltcoos River 14 miles south. That’s my true love river, with its old growth and sand dunes that give way to Snowy plover territory and the ocean. We turned our boats around after a while, observed by a preternaturally calm egret, and paddled with the tide.

Egret

Heading south on the North Fork of the Siuslaw, you’ll see farms in the distance, and tractors and horses. We spotted more egrets sailing overhead, and vultures, and what looked to be a Northern harrier skimming the fields. Nutria emerged at the shoreline and scuttled off into tall weeds. Below us, fallen trees stretched out in the water with delicate plants all around them. On this sunny Mother’s Day weekend, the water felt warm enough for a swim. The Spud jumped in to the delight of our new terrier and splashed around a while.

MaiaKayak

It’s possible to kayak to Old Town Florence and tie up in pursuit of a scoop of BJs Oregon Trail ice cream. But we had some serious tidepooling to do, and so we paddled back to our put in and circled around the ladder and the muddy shoreline, weighing our options. Not willing to drag my kayak one-handed up the ladder, I got out on the shore and sunk immediately up to my knees. A pristine kayaker, preparing for a paddle, gaped at me from a picnic table on the grass. “That the only way in?” he asked.

I nodded at the narrow metal ladder and broke into laughter at the sight of my husband mired in the mud.

Our giddy giggling continued later when we walked down to the beach outside the Adobe Resort and discovered two people in the distance gathering up something in bags. A budding journalist, The Spud ran over to investigate.

“Maggots,” she reported back as I bent over a tidepool full of hermit crabs and turquoise anenomes. “They’re collecting maggots.”

I’d spotted five-inch long translucent jelly-like tubes on the beach. Confused, I decided these were maggots of some sort, and the couple had found use for them. I wanted to know just what that use was.

Not maggots–squid eggs.

Not maggots . . . squid eggs.

Not maggots . . . squid eggs.

“What are you collecting?” I asked with a bemused smile.

The man who replied gave me a sober look.

“Agates,” he said.

Turns out this beach, like Bob Creek Wayside a few miles south, offers agates the size of fingernails and fists. The latter, he said, can be worth hundreds of dollars which accounts for the beachcombers who show up hours before low tide to start searching. Those five-inch long jelly-like things? Apparently, they’re squid eggs flung by ocean waves to land among the velella velella (By-the-Wind Sailors).  Here, read this!

Velella vellela (By-the-Wind Sailors)

Velella velella (By-the-Wind-Sailors)

Velella velella (By-the-Wind-Sailors)

By day’s end, I had mud between my toes and tiny amber agates in my pockets. I had the memory of a terrier in a life vest, a child in the river, and a lunch to look forward to the next day at our favorite Mexican food restaurant, Los Compadres in Florence.

A very fine Mother’s Day, indeed.

I’m teaching a two-day workshop 7/25-7/26 titled “Heal Yourself through Environmental Memoir” at the lovely Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Lincoln City, OR. There’s still time to register; I’d love to work with you!