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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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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Oregon Spring Beach Cleanup Day

In what single place can you find a Russian vodka bottle, a Japanese fishing crate, and a Coke can from the United States?

On the Oregon coast!

This morning, we woke up early and headed to Florence, Oregon to join 4,800 volunteers taking part in Spring Beach Cleanup Day, sponsored by the non-profit organization, SOLVE Oregon. With gloves and buckets and our adventure terrier on a leash, we trekked over a sand dune to a long stretch of chilly beach dotted with other ocean-lovers and their gloves and buckets. Our goal: To remove as much litter as possible from the sand while other groups up and down the coast did exactly the same thing.

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The Adventure Terrier. (Photo by Jonathan B. Smith)

SOLVE’s literature let us know that along with large pieces of debris, we’d need to be on the lookout for tiny bits of plastic that fish and other sea creatures ingest. We crouched in the damp sand and began to pick up fragments of pink and yellow, blue and green among the brown and white shells and rocks. The plastic shards made a beautiful mosaic at the bottom of our bucket (better there than in some poor fish’s stomach).

Almost immediately, we spotted a woman dragging a heavy tangle of netting and crates across the sand. We ran to help; the woman turned out to be Julie Daniel—a passionate sustainability leader and writer who has long been one of our local heroes. She taught us to identify the pelagic barnacles clinging to the side of a big blue bucket, and later, made several more trips from one end of the beach to the other, loaded down with crates and more bucket fragments and rope and netting.

Along with trash, we saw some pretty wonderful creatures on the beach. The terrier chased little white sand hoppers across giant strands of bull kelp. We marveled at tiny blue and white velella velella (see my short essay about them here) dotting the sand and gazed at an immature bald eagle that periodically sailed over our heads, flaunting its six-foot wingspan. We were glad to spare the raptor the agony of ingesting a plastic luncheon.

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Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

For three hours, we dropped rubbish into our bucket, surrounded by families and retired couples and high school students working to fulfill their volunteer hours. We learned that we loved getting outside in the gentle rain to help clean up the beach together. We learned that people discard an unbelievable number of plastic bottle caps. And we realized just how far litter can travel. We can only assume–after checking out the Russian and Japanese trash that washed up on our beach–that our debris washes up on theirs, as well.

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Photo by Jonathan B. Smith

We gathered together around dumpsters in the early afternoon, checking out each other’s hauls before moving on to picnic lunches and ice cream at B.J.s in Florence. At the end of the day, SOLVE sent us an e-mail report noting that volunteers had removed 90,000 pounds of litter from 363 miles of Oregon coastline. Sure, our bucket weighed only about 10 pounds, but we’re thrilled to be a part of the Spring Beach Cleanup.

Want to get involved ? SOLVE sponsors numerous Earth Day projects across the state. And don’t miss the Washed Ashore Gallery in Bandon, dedicated to making art from those interminable bottle caps and other plastic pieces. Visit the gallery and help create massive sculptures of fish and seals and sharks that go on display across the country.

See you on the beach!

 


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Writer Island/Orcas Island

I love traveling with my family—see my new essay in High Country News as proof of how much I adore our adventures together. But once in a while, it’s fun to travel alone—to meditate, silently, on museums or hiking trails or why the train’s three hours late. While no mom is an island (sorry, John Donne), I’m excited to visit one in two weeks.

With Washington author and essayist Ana Maria Spagna, I’ll be teaching the art of compassionate writing for “Writer Island”—a weekend creative writing workshop at Kangaroo House Bed and Breakfast on lovely Orcas Island near Seattle.

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I discovered Orcas 18 months ago while on book tour, and stayed overnight at Kangaroo House (named for the kangaroo that used to reside there). The owners made me a gorgeous breakfast and invited me to teach.

I’ve taught writing workshops in bookstores, in hotel ballrooms, in my living room with four cats, and once, in an old ice house–but I’ve never taught at a bed and breakfast. I’m relying on the resident cat for inspiration. (Intrigued? There’s still time to register for Writer Island, if you’re interested!)

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The resident cat, in meditation.

But what if you can’t stand to leave your family behind? Bring them to the island (the ferry ride’s half the fun) and they can head off adventuring while you write. The hike to Mount Constitution in Moran State Park offers intrigue and excitement and really weird mushrooms! Look for banana slugs around the many lakes and climb the lookout tower to check out the historical displays.

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The rock structure, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936, looks like a medieval watch tower. From the top, you get a hawk’s-eye view of the San Juan Islands and surrounding mountains. I also got a fine look at the back of a red tailed hawk flying below me!

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The view from Lookout Tower . . .

There’s a wonderful bookstore, as well—Darvill’s—perfect for browsing if the weather turns rainy. I loved it so much that I went twice in two days and spent a small fortune.

Can’t make Writer Island this year, but want to meet me and Ana Maria Spagna? We’ll be reading at Lopez Bookshop on Lopez Island with writer Iris Graville on Thursday, February 25th and at Darvill’s on Friday, February 26th. We hope to see you soon!

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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.)

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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.

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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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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.

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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!