Nerding Out on Nature:

Because Earth is cooler than screens

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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.


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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~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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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.


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?


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.


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, 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.


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.


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:


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 


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.

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Kayaking Coyote Creek with Bryozoan Buddies

“What’s that balloon-thingy?”

Surprise robbed me of eloquence, and I backpaddled hard to investigate the yellowish bladder-like object clinging to low-hanging branches over Coyote Creek.  “Is it alive?”

My husband squinted as I lifted up a skinny branch to investigate.  “I think it’s just stuff that’s built up over time.”

The thing fell off then, splashed into the water, and resurfaced.  Our daughter, Maia, scooped it up with her ever-present bug net.  “I got it!” she hollered.  “I just can’t lift it.”

Bryozoan and Jonathan

Coyote Creek’s endlessly surprising, just 20 minutes west of Eugene.  We’ve been taking our kayaks there for years, and each time, the journey along tree-lined banks over to Fern Ridge Reservoir yields revelation.  Once, white pelicans sailed overhead.  Another time, we spotted bald eagles.  Great blue herons are forever squawking at the splash of our paddles in the murky water and gliding off right in front of us. It’s a wonderful place to go for a wilderness experience among red-winged blackbirds and tree frogs and osprey and . . . bryozoan colonies?

For that’s what the bladder-like, balloon-thingy was–a colony of moss animals, aquatic invertebrates gathered together and attached to low-hanging branches.  Pectinatella magnifica, the colony we accidentally disturbed on a sunny Sunday in early October, is a round mass of heavy matter resembling white jelly.

Bryozoan Kayak

I know this because I committed a cardinal sin of kayaking–I pulled out my smartphone and posted a picture of the colony on Facebook and tagged my naturalist friends, desperate to know what the thing was before we left the creek.  My artist friend Barbara Gleason swiftly obliged, letting me know that her husband had heard tell of bryozoans on Coyote Creek a while back, and my biologist buddy Jayne Selwa confirmed the species.

“Why do they look like stars?”

My daughter leaned close to the mass she’d wrangled up to the front of the kayak and pointed out the tiny black arms radiating out from each zooid.  (I had to look that one up.)  The “arms” are tentacles lined with cilia that pick up food particles out of the water.

Jon and Maia Kayaking

The only food particles we had were two halves of a banana, one of which had fallen into the bottom of my kayak (but hey, it still tasted fine), and so we packed up and headed for Pizza Research Institute in Eugene’s charismatic Whiteaker Neighborhood.  Over slices and cider, we researched bryozoans and planned to return to Coyote Creek the next weekend to see what surprise the waterway would offer next.

To get to Coyote Creek, head west of Eugene on 126 and turn left on Central Road (across from Perkins Peninsula Park).  Turn left on Cantrell Road and look for a sign on your left and a vehicle pullout at Coyote Creek.  Click here for a map!

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Writing Process Blog Tour

I haven’t blogged in quite a long time.  Instead, I’ve been working on my just-published memoir, Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons Press, 2014) and writing columns and articles for The Writer Magazine.  You can see my newest articles and essays over at  (Check this blog soon for family-friendly adventure travel in Oregon and beyond.)

Thanks to my writer friend Ana Maria Spagna for inviting me to take part in the Writing Process Blog Tour, during which writers are answering the four questions below.Hart-facebook-72dpi

1) What am I working on?

I’m working on a feature article for Oregon Quarterly about the foster care tuition waiver and how it allows students who’ve grown up in foster care to attend the University of Oregon.  I’ve just turned in a feature article for The Writer about magazines that publish writing from children and teens.  And I’m about to revise my first middle-grade novel, Avenging the Owl, to be published by Sky Pony Press next year.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My great-grandparents worked as circus and vaudeville comedians, and so I have a high regard for wit.  This comes through in most of my writing, regardless of subject matter.  I write travel articles and essays, nonfiction articles on the craft of writing, and short and book-length memoir. Readers can find elements of humor in almost all of these.  Wild Within is unique in that it blends two stories–learning to rehabilitate and train injured birds of prey, and working 2 1/2 years to adopt my daughter from Oregon’s foster care system. Despite some grim anecdotes, there’s a lot of humor in the book.  My previous memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, tells the story of growing up Anglo, heterosexual and boring in multicultural Los Angeles with a lesbian mother and a deep desire to be a Latina.  I like to think it’s witty, as well.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I’ve always been interested in writing about social issues and illuminating the stories of under-represented demographics.  For a long time, people didn’t realize that gay and lesbian parents–newly-out–were losing custody of their children as my mother did in 1979.  It’s a shameful period of our history, and it deserves investigation, particularly in terms of how parents and kids were affected.  I’ve written about my moms, about my brother with Down syndrome, about the plight of foster children in the United States, about the precarious position of birds of prey worldwide and why it’s critical to conserve their habitat and well-being. Even my travel pieces tend to be about underrepresented destinations–Wild Wings Nature Center in upstate New York, for instance, or backpacking to Sitka on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry.

4) How does my writing process work?

I’m a slow writer. Wild Within took five years to write, and about 20 drafts.  I usually write longhand in a notebook, and transcribe my owl-scratch onto the computer.  I read my work out loud, draft after draft, until it sounds just right.  Then, I make my husband read it; he’s incredibly intelligent, and he can tell me when I haven’t fully explored a theme or when I’m being sentimental or obtuse.  I love working with editors to shape a finished piece; it’s exciting and gratifying to see the work in print.

7. Melissa-and-Bodhi

I’ve tagged the following three Oregon writers to continue this conversation next Monday, September 22nd:

Cecelia Hagen is the author of Entering, from Airlie Press, and the chapbooks Among Others (Traprock Books) and Fringe Living (26 Books Press). Her poems have appeared in Rolling Stone, Prairie Schooner, Blood Orange Review, Natural Bridge, and the Christian Science Monitor. Her poem “At the Bus Stop” can be found in the stairwell of a downtown parking garage in Eugene. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Literary Arts, Soapstone, and Playa, and her writing has won the Passager magazine annual award and an Intro Prize from AWP. She lives in Eugene, Oregon and teaches memoir classes in the community.

Cai Emmons first novel His Mother’s Son, was published by Harcourt in 2003. It won the 2003 Ken Kesey Award for the Novel (an Oregon Book Award) and was released in paperback in 2004.  Cai’s second novel, The Stylist, was published by HarperCollins in 2007.  Booklist said of the book: “With family relations twisted as a French braid and language as vivid as a platinum dye job, Emmons’ potent novel features magnetic characters and complex and compelling secrets.”  Cai’s third novel, The Seventh TenetA fourth novel, Continuous Travelers, is underway.  Cai’s essays and stories and reviews have appeared in such publications as:  Arts and Letters, Narrative Magazine, The New York Post, Portland Monthly, and The Oregon Quarterly. 

Mary DeMocker teaches the harp and writes about climates of all sorts. Her work has appeared in Sun Magazine, Oregon Quarterly,, ISLE (Interdisciplinary Study of Literature and the Environment; Oxford University Press), The Oregonian, and music journals. She is cofounder of 350 Eugene, a local, rapidly-growing chapter of the international climate recovery group She lives with her husband and teenagers in Eugene, where they chopped down the fence to better share a sauna, lawn mower, ping-pong table, trampoline, and six chickens with their neighbors. For links to her blog Climate Mom: From Worrier to Warrior, visit her website.