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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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!