Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens


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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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Existential Adventure at Wings and Waves Waterpark

Gliding around a giant green bowl on an inner-tube three stories above the Evergreen Wings and Waves Waterpark can feel existential. You wait, sometimes 15 minutes at a time, on concrete stairs with dozens of strangers in their bathing suits navigating their borrowed inner-tubes, and then shoot down a dark tunnel to emerge in what feels like a toilet bowl the size of one’s living room. For a moment, you’re alone with your thoughts, gliding around and around on a gentle wave of water high above the wave pool with its shrieking children, the café churning out French fries and hot dogs. And then, suddenly, you’re sucked down—sometimes backwards, sometimes forwards–into another tube and hurled into darkness that gives way in an instant to breathless splashdown on the ground floor next to the first aid station.

I’ve never seen so many smiles.

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Decades ago, Delford Smith–founder of Evergreen International Aviation–dreamed of hoisting a retired Boeing 747 up three stories to sit on top of a building beside the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum.  The waterpark opened in 2011.  Four different water slides with distinct characteristics, extend out four exit doors. As you stand in line for the legendary “green slide,” or the less-popular but still wildly-entertaining yellow and red and blue slides, you can watch video footage of cranes lifting the mammoth aircraft up to the top of the Waterpark. (See a Vimeo recording here!) Water wonks can wander through a display that explains how the park is powered, then interact with museum exhibits that illustrate the basic principles of physics.

But seriously, in a vast warm space full of water slides and pools and fountains and that wave pool in which thirty people at a time float and glide on their inner-tubes, who wants to break for a science lesson?

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This month, Jonathan and I offered our eight-year old a choice for her birthday celebration; she could either have a party at home with all her friends, or invite her best buddy to spend the day with us at Wings and Waves. She chose the latter—let me pause a moment to thank the Groupon gods for their superb timing which saved us $28 on a still-spendy adventure. (Here’s the offer, good through January.)  At eight years old, the girls roamed the park freely.  They could choose whether to go down the slides alone on a single or a double inner tube.  (The double’s a good option for parents with smaller kids, as well.)  We broke for lunch and presents, then dove in again for more water fun.

We intended to stay all day, and well into the evening. But six hours of sliding and swimming, plus soaking in the hot tub with 25 new friends, wore us all out. By five PM, the girls begged to go home. With eyes reddened from mass amounts of chlorine and quadriceps on fire from climbing hundreds of stairs, we headed the two hours home to Eugene. “I don’t need to go back,” I told Jonathan in the car. But that night, I thought with longing of the green slide—how the exhilaration of it seemed to strip 20 years off my life—and fell asleep dreaming of drifting in the blissfully-bizarre quiet of that existential green toilet bowl.

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Wings and Waves Waterpark is located at 500 NE Captain Michael King Smith Way, McMinnville, OR 97128.  Days and hours vary depending on season. See website for details. 

What to bring:

  • A bathing suit
  • Two towels (one gets pretty damp after a few hours)
  • Sandals for walking in the bathrooms
  • A picnic to enjoy outside, or money for the snack bar


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Wild Wings Raptor Center in Upstate New York

Last week, I had the honor of signing copies of my memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family, at Wild Wings Birds of Prey Facility in Honeoye Falls, upstate New York.  I got to meet Hercules, a red-morph Eastern screech owl.

redmorphHere’s a travel article I wrote about Wild Wings a few years ago, for The Boston Globe.  Enjoy!

New Yorkers shelter and show birds too hurt to go free

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 author and her daughter, Maia Hart Smith, observe a snowy owl at Wild Wings.

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.

Me with Bodhi, the Barred owl star of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family.

Me with Bodhi, the Barred owl star of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family.

If You Go to Wild Wings . . .

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

Find Wild Wings on Facebook!  And on Twitter!

Awestruck Over Birds of Prey at California Raptor Center

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“Mom!  There’s an owl in the bookstore!”

From where I stood, I could see the little boy round the corner of a shelf and skid to a halt with his mouth open.  I felt his awe.  In front of 50 or so people on folding chairs at the Avid Reader in Davis, California perched three raptors–a burrowing owl, a  Western screech owl, and a great horned owl.  Staff and volunteers from the California Raptor Center spoke about the birds and their work as raptor rehabilitators in conjunction with a reading from my new memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Familya book about how I learned to train owls for educational presentations such as this one while waiting 2 1/2 years to adopt my daughter.

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Volunteers from California Raptor Center wax poetic about birds of prey. (Photo from California Raptor Center.)

A week later, she and my husband and I visited the California Raptor Center.  On a sunny September morning, we parked under oak trees and met another volunteer who led us around the wood-and-wire mews.  (Raptor folks call their big bird cages mews.)  Such centers exist around the world; often, they’re open to the public on specific days of the week or during annual open house celebrations.  Staff and volunteers perform a multitude of duties–they treat injured birds of prey who may have collided with a car or ingested rat poison or tangled with a cat; they hand-feed orphaned baby birds with the goal of releasing them into the wild; they feed resident birds and clean their mews daily; they do educational presentations for the public on the natural history of the birds and on the importance of raptor conservation.

Mews at the California Raptor Center

Mews at the California Raptor Center

Resident raptors live at such centers because they have permanent injuries.  A bird of prey with one eye or a bum wing or an unhealthy preoccupation with humans (usually because it’s been illegally raised from an egg) can’t hunt in the wild.  These birds can live over 20 years in captivity, thanks to staff and volunteers who dedicate their life to serving them. Mikey, a red shouldered hawk at the California Raptor Center, arrived in 1996 as a chick.  Staff discovered a lesion in one eye; the eye eventually disappeared.  He’s an education bird, which means he’s calm around people when sitting on a glove or perch for an educational program.

Hawk

Mikey, the red shouldered hawk

I take my University of Oregon journalism students to Eugene’s Cascades Raptor Center whenever possible.  It’s especially gratifying to watch people who’ve confessed to a fear of birds as they learn–over an hour of wandering the grounds–how very cool raptors can be.  Peregrine falcons, for instance, fly straight down in pursuit of prey and achieve 200 mph speeds.  Owls can rotate their head 270 degrees either way; lopsided ear placement gives them a powerful range of hearing, and silent flight allows them to sail down on smaller birds and rodents and scoop up a midnight snack in the dark.  And there’s this:

Rodents!

After we looked at the birds on display at the raptor center, we stepped into a wonderful little museum.  Here, adults and children alike can spend hours learning about raptors.  We looked at the taxidermy birds (much easier to examine than their live counterparts behind wire) and dissected owl pellets.  Owls swallow their prey whole, but can’t digest bones and beaks and other sharp parts.  They cough up a pellet which volunteers dry and then set out for visitors to pull apart in search of rodent skulls and other fascinating tidbits.

Interested in visiting a raptor center in your area?  Partial List of Raptor Centers in the U.S. If you can’t find one close to you, do a search online and prepare to be awestruck!

Owl Pellets

Visitors can explore the California Raptor Center Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 4 PM, and Saturdays from 9 AM to noon.  Admission is free; donations are gratefully appreciated.  CRC is located at 1340 Equine Lane, Davis,California. 530-752-9994 http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/calraptor 


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Shakespeare and the Seven-Year Old

My piece about going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my daughter originally appeared in The Register Guard.  There’s still time to get to Ashland, Oregon to see a play before the season ends on November 2nd!

ASHLAND — The words “Shakespeare” and “7-year-old” seem at first mutually exclusive. But the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with its current line-up that includes a musical fairy tale and a world premiere adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” inspired me to take my daughter, Maia, on a weekend theatrical extravaganza.

“We’ll call it your graduation present,” I told her, just a little worried that Ashland might not offer enough entertainment to occupy my soon-to-be second-­grader for two days.

How wrong I was; Fodor’s just named it one of America’s best small towns for good reason.

The festival runs between February and November with productions this season that range from “The Tempest” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” to Irving Berlin’s comedy “The Cocoanuts” and “Water by the Spoonful,” a drama about recovering addicts in an online chat­room.

Elizabethan Theater

Three theaters house the shows; the most exciting for kids is the outdoor, three-level Allen Elizabethan Theater. With its colorful banners and ivy-draped walls, it’s easy to picture it as home to Sleeping Beauty or those sisters from “Frozen.”

Ten months each year, visitors worldwide come to Ashland. They stroll past boutiques on Main Street smiling over ice cream cones and lattes. They browse in Bloomsbury Books. They eat on restaurant patios nestled up against Ashland Creek. Some people pack in as many plays as possible, along with backstage tours and lectures. Others bring their kids.

“Into the Woods”

Children under 6 aren’t permitted at performances. Though Maia is 7, she’s — shall we say — spirited. I worried that she might be unable to sit still for a full-length play. But director Amanda Dehnert knows her audience.

While we waited for other families to sit down, Maia and I watched actors in street clothing warming up and moving props and chatting on stage. Kjerstine Rose Anderson, who plays Little Red Riding Hood, trilled scales as she strode about in a black foot splint. Miles Fletcher as Jack (of beanstalk-fame) carried a cow mask across the stage while orchestra members tuned their instruments.

Maia sat mesmerized.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine collaborated on “Into the Woods” in 1986; within the musical, fairy tale characters “collide and intertwine,” as Sondheim once explained, “in a mutual meeting ground.” Though Maia didn’t walk out of the theater singing any one song (Sondheim’s dissonant melodies are tricky for a 7-year-old), she remained riveted on the high-energy first act which involves Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and his comic cow, Rapunzel and the witch who imprisons her.

There’s much for adults and children to chuckle over during the show. Thanks to ingenious staging, Red Riding Hood disappears into the belly of the Big Bad Wolf and then performs a hilarious — if garish — re-emergence. Cinderella’s stepsisters strut across the stage in fantastical ball gowns that grow increasingly bizarre, and two handsome princes vogue during a heartsick tête-à-tête in a parody of Disney action figures.

It’s a three-hour play with a second act darker and more sophisticated than the first. Maia fell asleep on my shoulder. Still, the next morning after waffles and omelets at Morning Glory Cafe, she chattered about the production as we wandered through Lithia Park.

Maia and Sculpture

Established in 1892, the 93-acre park offers trails under maples and pines, a duck pond, picnic areas, a playground and wide grassy areas perfect for picnics and Frisbee. Musicians play accordions, violins and guitars on the park benches. Squirrels skitter across boulders. It’s an idyllic location in which to discuss “Into the Woods.”

“What if,” I whispered to Maia as we wound our way down a dirt path, “Cinderella burst out of the woods right now and asked us to help her escape from that prince?”

“I’d hide her in a tree.” Maia turned and headed for the duck pond. “Can I feed the ducks?”

Signs say not to feed the pair floating in the tranquil pond. Instead, we walked to the playground full of innovative spinning and climbing structures including a 20-foot web created out of thick cable, which Maia immediately scaled.

“I’m Rapunzel in her tower,” she told me and pointed behind me. “Oh, look — there’s the real one.”

I spun around to see Royer Bockus, who portrays Rapunzel in the play, walking through the park with two men, laughing and singing. Rather than ruin our willing suspension of disbelief, the celebrity sighting added to it — Lithia Park’s woods now seemed truly magical.

“A Wrinkle in Time”

The playground provides a fine intermission between a matinee and evening play. It’s also a good place to get the wiggles out before a single performance. By the time Maia had romped and we’d picnicked on the lawn outside the Elizabethan Theater (more sightings of actors on their way to prepare for matinees), she was ready to sit and watch “A Wrinkle in Time.”

One of the most thrilling things about OSF performances is the innovative staging. Last year’s production of “King Lear” had my mother and me on the edge of our seats thanks to stellar acting and a fresh, contemporary treatment. For the world premiere of the adaptation of “Wrinkle” (the novel won the Newbery Medal for children’s literature in 1963) director and adaptor Tracy Young brainstormed with the cast and creative team.

Once again, as Maia and I waited for the lights to go down in the Angus Bowmer Theater, we watched the actors walking about informally on stage. Joe Wegner as Calvin O’Keefe reclined with an old radio. An actor set up a projector to show footage of Fidel Castro and protestors during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I read to Maia about how L’Engle wrote the novel during the Cold War, while the U.S. and U.S.S.R. competed in a race to launch spacecraft into orbit. The author integrated political issues of the era into her science fiction novel which plays (in a most unfunny way) with the concepts of time and space travel. As one character observes to another in the book, it’s a dangerous game.

The lights went down and the production began, centered around a misfit adolescent math genius in trouble with the school principal and grieving her physicist father who’s gone astray. “Wrinkle,” the novel, scared me when my fifth-grade teacher read it in class. Creatures shape-shift, shadows cover the Earth, planets prove inhospitable or — if they are welcoming — they’re populated by giant hairy beasts with weird tubes sticking out of their fur.

And then there’s the brain, “IT,” the mastermind that holds the protagonist’s father hostage and assumes mental control over her precocious baby brother. I had aisle seats in case Maia became frightened and we had to make a quick getaway.

But this director, too, knows her audience and downplays elements of the novel that might give the under-10 crowd nightmares. “IT” is two people undulating under a cloth with an image of a brain projected upon it. Charles Wallace, the baby brother portrayed by Sara Bruner, disappears into a trunk after IT gains control; he’s replaced by a ventriloquist’s dummy. It’s elegantly rendered, and no one runs out crying.

As we left the theater after a standing ovation, I overheard conversations from the people who’d been sitting around us: “I read it over and over as a kid.” … “My favorite book.” … “That was remarkable.”

My own daughter wore an inscrutable expression. “What did you think?” I asked.

“Good.” She nodded. “Can we get some ice cream?”

An annual tradition

We procured a cone from Zoey’s Cafe and stopped to pet the orange cat, “Athos,” who lives in the shoe store near the theaters. Back in Lithia Park, I asked Maia what she’d learned from “Wrinkle.”

She licked at her ice cream. “I learned,” she said, “that even if you go to the principal’s office, you can save your baby brother with love. May I please have a cup for tadpoles?”

Satisfied, I gave her my empty coffee cup. That afternoon, I saw that Ashland’s main charm for a 7-year-old lies in wading through the creek in pursuit of minnows. Kids ranging from toddler to pre-teen communed in the water, splashing and comparing their finds while parents and grandparents relaxed at picnic tables or chatted on the creek bank.

Maia in Ashland Creek

Despite the long drive back to Eugene ahead, I let Maia wade, happy to sit under a pine and reflect on all we’d experienced. At last, I rounded her up and we walked past the display of last year’s opulent costumes at the visitor’s center, past the bronze sculpture portraying kings and cowboys and children and Shakespeare’s Nick Bottom with his donkey’s head. We stopped once more to admire the orange cat and bemoaned the lack of time to delve into the toy store.

“We’ll come back,” I promised. “Let’s make this an annual tradition — what do you think of that?”

She grinned up at me, dress sodden and face smeared with chocolate ice cream. “Good,” she said.

Melissa Hart is the author of Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family. She teaches travel writing at the UO’s School of Journalism and Communication.