It’s been several days since I returned from Alaska, but I still don’t know how to blog about it. Everything about this running/cruising vacation exceeded my expectations — the people I ran with, the places we ran, the local runners who assisted at our events, our gracious hosts John Bingham and Jenny Hadfield, the food onboard the cruise ship, my cabin, the cruise line employees, the scenery, and the wildlife. It all was, in a word, AMAZING.
I have more than 500 photos and I can’t imagine how I’ll ever choose just a few that capture how wonderful it all was. It may be that I’ll never successfully blog about this. I may have to just count it as a lifetime highlight experience and move on.
But I can’t let it pass without sharing just a few tastes.
I saw wolves running on the beach in Glacier Bay National Park.
We idled near a glacier in a sea of newborn icebergs for nearly two hours and watched/heard the glacier calve… and calve… and calve yet again.
I ran 10 miles on a steep trail in Juneau in a downpour.
I watched a thousand or so salmon packed tightly together in suspended animation just up from the mouth of a stream in Sitka, their bodies adjusting to the change from salt water to fresh water before they could resume their final journey upstream to spawn.
I ran 7 miles through a rain forest (that looked remarkably like home) near Ketchikan, and somewhere on that last run of the week I found a groove. I knew that I could have kept running like that all day. I fell in love with trail running.
Our official mileage for the week was a bit short of the promised 26.2 (perhaps I found a short cut on the find-your-own-course sightseeing rally through Sitka?). I recorded something like 24.9 miles, but I’m not complaining about that. It was all wonderful. It was also quite non-competitive, in that “winning” involved guessing your predicted total time. I finished about 30 minutes faster than the time I’d predicted, mostly because I never saw a bear so I never had to stop, wait, detour, or backtrack.
If you are a runner with a taste for adventure and a yen to travel, or if you are looking for a running-themed vacation with appealing alternatives for non-running family members, I can confidently recommend any of the Marathon Expeditions events. John and Jenny know how to do it right.
I could go on and on like this, but — I’ve got some trails to run…
After my big 7-mile trail run last week I decided to be good to myself and do a genuine taper before next week’s Great Alaskan Marathon Cruise. I did an easy 6 miles three days later, followed two days after that by a brisk 4 miles (during which I accidentally logged my fastest unofficial 5k ever). I then pronounced myself ready to run.
This, of course, freed up my schedule for another epic hike! It’s the peak of our short summer hiking season here in the Pacific Northwest. The snow is finally retreating and the riot of wildflowers is in its full glory. My hiking friend and I planned to do a 6-mile hike along a ridgetop at an elevation of approximately 5,200 feet. We took our time, stopping to photograph one glorious meadow after another. I could share dozens of photos, but I was especially pleased with this composition of tiger lilies and lupines:
The trail meandered through the meadows and then into a grove of sub-alpine firs. The scenery was sublime, idyllic.
As I came around a corner, I found myself 10 yards from and face to face with this!
The fact that she was tagged and collared gave me no great comfort, especially when I saw the rest of the family approaching behind her. There were nine mountain goats in all, including three kids and their mothers, a couple of rowdy adolescents, and a very large ram. Look at the sharp horns and big hooves on these guys!
They do look all soft and cuddly, and in fact they aren’t generally dangerous. As far as I know, there has only been one fatal goring of a human by a mountain goat — but it happened right here in Olympic National Park a couple of years ago. So when my friend and I found ourselves staring straight into the eyes of mama goat, there was no hesitation on our part. We turned right around and began walking briskly back down the trail the way we had come.
They followed us. All the way back along the trail, for more than two miles they followed us.
They were ambling slowly and stopping to eat the avalanche lilies, but they more or less kept pace with us. I had been a little concerned about a section of trail requiring a steep uphill scramble (it had been very spooky coming down that ridge face on our outbound hike), but I was amazed how quickly we climbed it with nine mountain goats behind us! When we got all the way back to the parking lot, we could still see them silhouetted on the last ridgetop. People were coming out of the visitor’s center to see this rather unusual close approach of the goats.
I never felt directly threatened, as there was no aggressive behavior on their part. They were simply a family out for an afternoon wander through the meadows, just like my friend and I and other hikers. But they were in their home environment — we were the intruders — and it certainly made sense to be cautious!
You just never know what you might see out there on the trail. I’m really hoping for bears and maybe some near-shore whales next week in Alaska. I hope these “races” turn out to be one grand photo opportunity after another.
Just as I am finding unexpected adventures on the trail, I’m also finding unexpected adventures in my life. My “hiking friend” is becoming a bit more than a friend, and I’m very happy about that. I’ll tell you more in due time, but for now I’ll just say that life is indeed going on, and life is good.
I think Kurt would be glad to know that.
One step at a time…
With my Alaska marathon cruise now only three weeks away, my running continues to be a good day / bad day sort of thing. I don’t want to push too hard with my training and injure myself to the point that I can’t run at all in Alaska, so I have backed way off the ambitious training plan I’d created for myself. I’m now letting my knees be my guide as to whether and how far I run on any given day. I’m confident that I haven’t lost much, if any, speed and strength. If I really want to, I can put it all out there on the trail. I’m also aware that I won’t have many opportunities in my life to experience those trails in Alaska. Any ambitions that I might have had regarding pace will be completely forgotten when I see bears, caribou, or who knows what else along the trail.
Of the several new elements of my current training, I believe the culprit that is bothering my knees is the hydration pack on my back. I did fine when I tested it with just a few ounces of water, but when I bumped it up to 20 ounces my knees were very unhappy the next day. I’m now running shorter distances and leaving the hydration pack at home. Bingo — knees are much better!
I don’t really think I’ll need to carry a lot of water in Alaska, as the 10-mile race does have one aid station. So I may be fine running with just those few ounces of water… oh, and my camera too!
Because I’ve become accustomed to lots of exercise, I decided to augment my abbreviated running plan with as much hiking as possible. Although it seems strange, my persnickety knees actually feel better after an uphill hike. It’s like they get kinked one way while running, and the hiking kinks them in some other way and it all comes out better and stronger in the end.
Or so I’m telling myself, as I’m enjoying some amazing early summer hikes into the mountains. I’ve had the opportunity to see lots of wildlife as well as the flowers that bloom almost immediately after the snow melts.
I like to say that Olympic National Park is practically in my back yard. Here is some local wildlife that I saw right outside my window! Here are two baby raccoons that are about half the size of my cats (who were going crazy next to me when I took this photo).
Life gets a little wilder out along the trail. One day I encountered a group of half a dozen Olympic marmots who were intently rooting in the dirt, grunting and growling like kids squabbling over pizza. Other hikers and I theorized that someone had made an unauthorized pit stop along the trail, creating a small “salt lick” that was irresistable to these guys. I don’t have a good photo of the crew in action, but here is another marmot that I saw near that spot a couple days later:
Also near that same area, I spotted a bird I’d never seen before — I got to add the Horned Lark to my life list. This guy was strolling (they do walk rather than hop) through the tall grass and singing his little heart out:
At the top of the hill, my friend and I stopped for a snack. He was eating nuts, and it didn’t take long for a pair of chipmunks to find us. We didn’t feed them, but they certainly tried to convince us that we should. These guys were fearless, running right into my friend’s hands, up his back, and even briefly on top of his head! I believe this is a yellow-pine chipmunk:
The approach to this hilltop is through a sub-alpine meadow at an elevation of 5,500+ feet. The wildflowers are just beginning, but this patch of glacier lilies was wonderful (no, I don’t know what the small white ones are):
The trail I was hiking meets another trail that I have wanted to do for several years. I actually ended my dissertation with a photo of that trail meandering through the meadow from the trailhead and a promise to myself that I would hike it soon. That day finally came. I went less than a quarter mile before meeting deep snow in the trees and having to turn around, but soon I’ll return to follow it all the way down to the Elwha River. Wouldn’t you dream of hiking here too?
I’ve just given you a teaser of the mountains with that last photo. Here is a bit more, for context:
I’ve saved the sweetest wildlife story for last. Returning down the hill, my friend and I saw a family of deer… a doe and her very young fawn along with two adolescent deer. The fawn couldn’t have been more than a day or two old; he or she was still wobbly on its legs. The family drew a crowd of hikers, and the fawn was briefly separated from the others when they crossed the trail. This sweet, brave little guy stood there all alone, while we all wondered if mom was going to go off and leave him!!
Finally he bleated, a soft mewing sound like a kitten. Mom, who was up the hill on the other side of the trail, heard him and turned around. She stood waiting while he darted across the trail and clambered up the hill. I captured the reunion and the happy ending to this story:
All’s well that ends well!
I feel like wildlife sometimes myself. My life, too, can seem a little wild and unpredictable. Sometimes I think I lose my way, lose sight of the trail or whatever overly-ambitious goals I may set for myself. But in the end, one step at a time — whether I run, walk, or meander slowly through the meadow — I’m going to get to wherever I need to go.
My last post earlier today was completely focused on running, which is appropriate because with my local half marathon less than three weeks away, I am primarily focused on being ready for that race. This will be my sixth half marathon, and it will be the first one for which I have actually managed to stay with a training plan, get all the planned long runs in on schedule, and (I hope!) will feel ready, rested, and able on race day. My new post-corporate status has helped make that possible, but it’s also because I haven’t ever given up. Over the last three and a half years I have kept at this running thing, making the plans and honoring them, adjusting them when life circumstances required, learning to listen to my body, when to push and when to back off. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other, I have kept on moving.
Hiking and (to a lesser extent because I’m still wobbly) biking have been wonderful cross training experiences, and I really do feel the difference in my strength especially when running hills. But hiking is a slow, immersive, meditative experience that I’m really coming to enjoy for itself.
Over this past weekend I had the great privilege of hiking the former Lake Aldwell. Not far from my town an incredible, unprecedented transition is taking place. Two century-old dams are being removed from the Elwha River. It is the largest dam removal project ever undertaken in the US, if not the world, and it’s been in the planning/approval/funding process for more than 20 years. The intention is to restore the historic salmon runs (according to folklore, in the old days you could walk across the river on the backs of the 100-pound salmon) and to return the Elwha, much of which runs through Olympic National Park, to its wild river state. Scientists of every stripe have come here to plan and oversee the process of removing the two dams, draining their lakes while managing the 100-year silt accumulation, letting the river find new channels through the lake bed, and watching new vegetation reclaim the area (while keeping the invasive species out).
The removal of Elwha Dam, the lower of the two dams, began last September and was completed a month or so ago. I saw photos of the lake bed shortly after the dam was removed and really wanted to go there, but I wasn’t excited about sinking into mud so I’ve waited until now.
What I saw was otherworldly and wonderful. The river has indeed found its channel, and it is a meandering one that cuts through layers of silt, sand, and gravel. The most striking feature of the landscape is the tree trunks. These are the remains of gigantic old-growth Western Red Cedars that were cut and salvaged just before the lake filled. The stumps range from 4 to 12+ feet high depending on where they sit relative to the silt/sand/gravel beds. They apparently were burned at the time, but because this is a virtually indestructible wood, much of the mass is still there… after being cut, burned, and submerged for 100 years! Most of these stumps are ten or more feet across, and they are everywhere. The lake bed is a “moonscape,” eerily desert-like, but teeming with signs of life.
See those notches in the stump? Those are proof that it was cut more than a century ago, using old logging techniques that I am unable to describe to you (but you can probably google it).
While it may look desolate, I’m happy to report that life is definitely returning to the former Lake Aldwell. My hiking friend and I marveled at the large number of tracks left deeply and precisely imprinted in the fine silt on the west bank. We saw lots of elk (or possibly mountain goat) prints, but what really caught our attention were these prints:
We can’t decide whether these are coyote or cougar prints. Based on their large size (compare the shoe prints) and roundness (not elongated/oval) we think they are cougar, but my field guide book tells me you wouldn’t see claws on cougar tracks. However, my field guide may not take into account how thick and gooey the mud was when those tracks were made. If I were a cougar I might have extended my claws to keep from sinking too deep. What do you think?
After we hiked about half the length of Lake Aldwell, we drove up to the upper dam (Glines Canyon Dam). This dam is still intact, but Lake Mills is being drained at a rate of about one foot a day. The reason for this slow trickle is to prevent a wall of silt from rushing downstream to the fragile, recovering downstream riverbed. It will be nearly another year before the upper Elwha runs free. I couldn’t photograph Lake Mills because construction barriers have been put in place… but I could peek through.
Back here in town, another transition is being envisioned. You may recall that one of my goals for post-corporate life was to become involved in local community building initiatives. Well, I have found my place, at least for now, with the Transition Towns movement. This is an initiative that began in the UK and is focused on creative local response to environmental and economic threats. Transition initiatives emerge within communities in a grassroots fashion in response to this question:
“For all those aspects of life that our community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (in response to peak oil), drastically reduce carbon emissions (in response to climate change) and greatly strengthen our local economy (in response to economic instability)?”
I’ve become a core member of a Transition Initiating Group, and we’re in the process of figuring out how to address this downshifting question in a way that uniquely fits our local small town — geographically isolated, with a dying/dead logging industry, millions of acres of protected wilderness, seasonal tourism, a short growing season, but LOTS of water. Our demographics range from Libertarian to Green, from Microsoft millionaire to retirees who are barely scraping by on Social Security. I don’t believe Sasquatch exists, but I know for a fact that there are homeless veterans living back there in the woods, and they do not want to be bothered by outsiders. All of these people, these voices, need to be brought into the conversation about the future that we are trying to initiate.
So it’s an interesting project, but it’s giving me exactly what I hoped to find. I’m meeting and working with people who may have widely differing perspectives but share a desire to thrive in the face of whatever future challenges we may or may not face. Whether or not you “believe” in whatever predictions one or another scientific model may make, isn’t it prudent to be prepared in case this or that worst-case scenario might happen? And even if it never happens, isn’t it a great thing to sit around a table with thoughtful people, sharing a meal and talking about one’s hopes and dreams for the future?
I think so.
It took vision and perseverence to make the Elwha River run free, and I want to lend my vision and perseverence to making my small town a freer, happier, more neighborly place to be.
I’ve been home for over a week now and I still wake up wondering, “Why is it so quiet? What’s happened to the hum of traffic?” Then I remember that I’m home and I smile… no matter how gloomy the sky outside may look. I’m home!
I alternate my time between sifting and organizing stuff (or at least thinking about it) and finding new ways to be active. I’ve done a couple of low-elevation, muddy hikes through thick forests. The snow is still lying low on the foothills, so it will be a while before I venture up into the mountains, but I enjoy catching glimpses of them when the clouds cooperate. At the moment it’s partly cloudy and 49; I can’t see the mountains but I have a clear view across the strait. It’s a glorious day.
I’ve taken to running in compression tights again, initially because they are warmer than conventional long pants (and they make me LOOK like a runner), but now because they are working well for my knees and legs. I’m running faster than I ever thought possible. A sub-10 minute mile is no longer a ridiculous dream; I can even string together multiple sub-10 minute miles.
I can even string together multiple sub-10 minute miles when I encounter unexpected obstacles! Today I ran 4.2 miles on a section of the trail that I hadn’t yet done since I got home. The trail in this area runs along the waterfront at the base of the bluff. There were several sections that had recently been cleared of mudslides, but overall the trail was in pretty good shape. Then I came to a freshly-fallen tree lying completely across the trail. I probably lost 30 seconds figuring out how to scramble over and through it — and I still ran that mile in under 10 minutes.
Immediately after the fallen tree I had a closer than usual encounter with two immature bald eagles, each sitting in low branches directly overhead, probably 10 yards above me and 30 yards apart. They watched me closely as I went by, and I returned the favor.
As I was doing an out-and-back run, I got to see the eagles twice and also scrambled through the tree twice. I was a little quicker getting through the tree the second time. Maybe I could get used to running obstacle courses!
I finished my 4.2 miles in just over 41 minutes, feeling strong and very happy. I just love it when everything works so well.
I took my bicycle down to the bike shop where I bought it several years ago and had it tuned up. I had probably put less than 20 miles on it when I parked it, and I’ve hardly looked at it since. Tomorrow I may ride it… or maybe I’ll take another hike… or maybe I’ll do both. On Sunday I’m planning a longer, slower run… maybe 7 or 8 miles.
Then maybe I’ll get back to sifting, organizing, and reducing my stuff. I’m not feeling any great urgency about that. It’s emotionally and physically demanding work, so I’m perfectly comfortable doing a little bit at a time. I have lots of time.
It’s hard for me to believe, but I have been post-employed for more than a week now. It seems that I have been quite busy, but looking back it’s actually difficult to recall how I have been spending my time.
The first several days felt like being on vacation, of the “stay-cation” variety. I slept. I slept a lot. For years I have used two alarms; the first one is happy music selected randomly by my iPod and the second, five minutes later, is a more strident buzzer alarm. Within the first few days I somehow accidentally deleted the music alarm completely. Last night I decided to turn off the buzzer alarm. I slept quite late this morning.
I’ve run a couple of times over the past week, but nothing too strenuous. I just can’t get excited about getting up at the crack of dawn, and later in the day it’s too warm and I get lazy. I’ve tried running in the late afternoons, using the local high school track after the sun has gone behind the mountain. That has worked all right and I’ve appreciated not having to be out on the streets in afternoon traffic. But let’s face it, running around a track is almost as boring as running on a treadmill!
So I’ve decided to be good to myself and let myself sleep and rest as much as I apparently need to do in this in-between time in my life. I plan to head northward back home before the end of the month, but I still have things I need to do here — getting rid of stuff and packing and shipping those things that I still want to keep. I’ll get busy doing that soon enough. Right now is about resting and de-toxing, and letting myself be OK with resting and de-toxing.
I haven’t been completely idle. I did a half-day trip around the Salton Sea, and managed to see both interesting wildlife and famous architecture! I enountered half a dozen white-faced ibises together in a marshy field — I’d only seen one white-faced ibis before in my entire life. Despite their name, they are decidedly brown birds.
At the recently-restored North Shore Yacht Club (an Albert Frey designed building at a long-defunct Salton Sea resort) I was thrilled to see two of my favorite things — white pelicans and mid-century modern architecture — in such close proximity that I was able to capture them in one photograph!
I’ve also had my first-ever date shake. I hated dates as a child but I decided to be daring and now I’m wondering how I allowed myself to miss out on this wonderful experience for so long! I highly recommend Windmill Market in Desert Hot Springs (featured in the current Sunset magazine as the home of the “best date shake in the desert”). The place doesn’t look great from the street but yes, the shakes really are that good.
I tried a little hiking on the trails leading from downtown PS straight up the mountain slopes, but the terrain was extremely steep and I didn’t feel entirely comfortable up there. This afternoon I visited Thousand Palms Oasis and hiked a short, flat trail from there to McCallum Pond. Native palm oases are an experience not to be missed! These oases sit directly atop the San Andreas Fault at a location where groundwater is forced to the surface. They are cool, dense havens for wildlife, which are generally heard but not seen amidst the thick trees. At one place in McCallum Pond I could literally see water bubbling up from the pond bottom, which is a little weird when you contemplate the tectonic forces that create this outwardly peaceful place.
Maybe that’s a good metaphor for me right now. I’m outwardly calm (much calmer than a couple of weeks ago) but there are all sorts of forces coming to the surface within me. I’m beginning to realize that all that stuff about “creating a new life” is real and urgently present for me, right now. While I have a lot of thinking and being and doing ahead of me, I also need to let myself slow down and become open to whatever emerges. I’m not so sure that I know who I am right now. My work, right now, is to become comfortable with that not-knowing.
Perhaps I shall become a Slow Happy Human.
My mini-vacation to my university’s national session was every bit the relaxing yet energizing experience I wanted it to be. Kurt had accompanied me to several of these annual events while I was a student, and I did have several unhappy moments this time — when I’d have to explain why he wasn’t with me this year. Yet each time I tell it, my story gets a little easier. Passing time (to say nothing of my massive amounts of reflection/writing/reflection/etc.) continues to give me a broader perspective and allows me to contextualize the past year and a half within the new horizons of my continuing life.
I attended exactly one seminar, a phenomenological exploration of music by led by three of my favorite faculty, which was way over toward the “fun” end of the scholarly scale. I attended two Final Oral Reviews (my school’s friendly term for a dissertation defense), one by a good friend and the other by a new friend I’d just met. Then there was a pre-graduation celebration, the graduation ceremony itself, and the post-graduation party. My only really difficult time was during graduation, when I watched 18 people stand up and thank their loved ones, as I vividly recalled saying the same things about and to Kurt three years ago. I had to leave the room and the building quickly afterwards because I simply couldn’t bear watching so many people being so happy together at that moment.
So what did I do then, and what in fact did I do during much of the time I was there?
I ran, of course!
I did 4 miles as planned on Thursday, along a bike/walk/run waterfront path that was mostly hard concrete but included some softer asphalt and much softer grass as well. Then I walked on the beach for a mile or so afterwards. I watched two women running barefoot on the wet sand, and I thought, “Maybe my feet would let me do that even if for only a little ways.” But I resisted that thought.
Friday morning (after staying up late celebrating with friends Thursday night) I was a little tired but I thought I’d try for my planned 6 miles and see how it went. I don’t usually run two days in a row so I already knew I was pushing my knees. But I finished those 6 miles feeling stronger and happier than the day before, so I decided I’d walk for a few more miles. My first stop was the city pier to watch people and eat ice cream. Then I headed toward downtown for some sightseeing. It’s only 1.5 miles from my hotel to the middle of downtown, but in all the years I’ve been coming there it never occurred to me that I could walk to downtown and not have to worry about parking. I was starting to like this idea of being temporarily car-free. I kept walking and feeling better and better, so that when I started what was to be my last mile back along the beach, I could no longer resist. I took off my shoes and socks and ran, carrying a shoe in each hand.
It was like I was ten years old! I was laughing out loud, talking to birds (including Elegant Terns and Black Skimmers!), and dancing through 4-6 inch deep water at the ragged edges of incoming waves. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was, and how effortless it seemed. I did know better than to push hard at all, and I made myself stop after about three-quarters of a mile. I then walked about half a mile back to my hotel room, completing a total of 10 running/walking miles for the day. The end result was a runner’s high that persisted for hours and was apparently visible on my face, as several people commented that I looked great!
Saturday morning I felt strong and not the slightest bit sore. I walked downtown for lunch, and hatched this plan that I would run again on the beach after graduation — which is another reason why I left so quickly. I went straight back to my room, changed into my running clothes (everything but the shoes), and dashed across the street, barefoot, to the beach. I had less than an hour before sunset and I wanted to make the most of my time. I had just as much fun as I’d had the day before, but I had to stop quickly at 1.3 miles when my right calf suddenly said “enough!” in no uncertain terms. I walked back carefully, stretching both legs every way I could think of, as I still had one more thing to ask of them.
Graduation parties at my school always feature a DJ and can get fairly rowdy. This one was no exception. I think I danced for at least two hours during the evening. I’ll confess that the open bar helped a lot with motivation as well as pain management.
Sunday morning I was extremely sore (knees, calves, and the soles of my feet), approaching the “I just ran a half marathon” level of intensity. So I figured the best thing I could do was walk a mile to breakfast and a mile back before heading out of town. Over breakfast I added up all the numbers, and I figure that I did at least 21 miles total over the four days. It felt rather odd to actually get into my car and drive 200 miles back here to the desert. I could get used to the idea of using human power to go places, at least locally, as often as possible. Wouldn’t it have been a shame to drive by and miss a view like this one?
This morning I was still sore, but I made it a point to get up from my desk (it was a work day for me) and walk around as much as possible. This evening I’m confident that I did no major damage, but I don’t think I’m ready to try barefoot running (or even minimalist shoe running) on anything but an extremely soft surface again any time soon. I would hate to actually injure myself less than four weeks before my next half marathon.
I still can’t believe how much fun it was, though.
I need to do fun things more often.
Here’s a blog post on a completely different subject — but given that I am a versatile blogger, I figure what the heck? Maybe someone can help me learn something here.
Today I drove down to Orange County to have lunch with a very dear friend in a restaurant where we have often shared long lunches. I think we were there nearly an hour today before we even got around to ordering food. We had a lot of catching up to do, as the last time I saw her was last April when Kurt was still able to walk for short distances. Soon, however, we were both giggling like teenagers (all without assistance from anything stronger than decaf for me and iced tea for her!). By the time we finally went our separate ways, nearly three hours had passed. It couldn’t have been a more perfect lunch.
I wasn’t done, though. From there I went up to Huntington Beach to the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, which has been one of my favorite places to go birding since I first went there probably 15 years ago with the only birding class I’ve ever taken. Back then, they were just getting started with restoring the wetlands; today it is a fully restored tidal system that also has miles of walking/running trails and raised observation mounds with benches for serious birding or simple relaxing.
Almost as soon as I left my car I noticed a flock of large white birds far across the water. I thought they might be white pelicans but they were too far away to be sure. I zoomed in as far as I could go with my camera but still couldn’t say for sure. I had to download the photo to my PC when I got home and then zoom in on that before I could positively identify them as white pelicans. Any day that includes white pelicans is a blue-ribbon, all-star, heavy-metal birding day as far as I’m concerned.
But that was just the beginning. There were literally thousands of water birds there today, and I was working my middle-aged brain overtime trying to remember the names of what I was seeing. I knew the beautiful boy whose photo appears just below was some sort of teal, but the light was too bright for me to view my bird ID app on my iPhone, so I had to come home before I could verify that he was a green-winged teal — listed as “common” at Bolsa Chica but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one before.
I think I saw all of the local varieties of grebe, including my favorite, the western grebe, although I didn’t get a good photo of him. There were dozens of northern pintails, buffleheads, and ruddy ducks, hundreds of American wideons (whose call sounds exactly like the little squeak that yellow rubber duckies make), and all the usual common birds for this region including great egrets, snowy egrets, bazillions of coots, and a large variety of sandpiper-type birds that I can never tell one from another.
Then I saw the bird that really astonished, and still eludes me. When I first saw it I was sure it was a reddish egret, but I’ve never seen one before except way down in central Baja California where I did a gray whale watching ecotour a couple of years ago. When I got home, my bird ID app confirmed that they shouldn’t be this far north. The only other two possibilities I can come up with are little blue heron and tri-colored heron. All three birds are shown as “well, maybe sighted once or twice” on the list for Bolsa Chica.
Here is a photo of a bunch of reddish egrets that I took down in Baja:
Notice how they are striding through the water. Sometimes, they run through the water in what looks like a crazy, drunken dance. Unlike other large water birds they don’t wait for fish to come to them; they chase after the fish.
So here is the bird I saw today. The colors, size, shape and mannerisms immediately made me think “reddish egret!” The photo is blurry but I hope that someone out there in the blogosphere sees it and can tell me what I saw. Any ideas? Anyone?
By the way, this slow happy runner had her GPS watch on, so I can tell you that I walked a leisurely 2.89 miles today. I feel strong, well loosened up, and ready (I hope) for a good long run tomorrow morning. More importantly, I got to spend time in a very special place… a place where it is possible to see, hear, and feel the natural world and become oblivious to the fact that there are cars whizzing by at 60 MPH on PCH quite nearby. It is in places like this that I feel most alive and at peace. I need to be out there, completely absorbed in nature. I feel whole there.
I guess I’m a bit of a rare bird myself.
My self-created training plan said “4 miles at the crack of dawn” today, and the wind that has been blasting for the past two days finally relented, so I got up well before sunrise and went out the front door. It was light enough for me to see just fine, but as a precaution I put on my reflective vest and stayed on the quieter streets in my immediate neighborhood. The sun rose about 15 minutes into my 45 minute run, although I did not actually see it until 30 minutes in.
The houses here are more modest but still mid-century interesting. Over the past two winters here I’ve found a variety of shorter and longer loops through the neighborhood so that I can vary my routes from day to day according to how far I want to run and how unpredictable I want to be to anyone who might be paying attention. The biggest challenge with running loops is figuring out which way to turn when, so that I arrive back at the condo as close as possible to my planned mileage for the day. I did that rather well today, logging 4.07 miles.
There were no gardening crews out today (although I do see them frequently in this neighborhood), but I did see two people walking dogs and one older gentleman moving right along on a bicycle. I was looking for the roadrunner that hangs out at one of two adjacent houses with especially nice desert landscaping, but he was a no-show today. I did see and hear several ravens, a bird I’ve always especially enjoyed, so it was a good morning’s wildlife viewing. When I got back, only a little later than usual for work, I ate my fresh-picked grapefruit and felt healthy and reasonably happy. Running is good for me. Too bad my knees won’t let me do it every day.
It’s been interesting to get to know the neighborhood and watch it change. As a resort/seasonal destination, this area was hit hard by the real estate collapse. Some houses look more rundown now than they did two years ago, while others have been bought and restored or updated nicely. Overall I think the neighborhood has improved, but it could be my perception of it that has changed as I’ve become more comfortable with it.
The view from my running feet is so different from what I see from a car. I doubt I would have noticed the recurring roadrunner appearances if I were driving that particular street several times a week. I might have seen the ravens but I wouldn’t have heard them. I probably wouldn’t have paid attention to the gardening crews, or to the people who get off buses from outlying towns to walk or ride their bikes to their jobs as housekeepers and bus boys. All of that is hidden from the tourist’s view of the retro-chic downtown. So while I love running through the more affluent neighborhoods past world-famous houses, I’ve also come to appreciate my immediate neighborhood because it shows this city as an authentic whole, as a real place where people live and work and accidentally create roadrunner habitat. I rather like seeing it that way.
I’ve done the migration thing, and now I’m here and not there. My house back there is safe and sound under the watchful eyes of friends, neighbors, the local police and my home alarm company. Now that I’m here I don’t have to worry about ice or snow when I go running, so if I can summon the energy I’ll be out tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn to run before it gets too warm.
My cats recognize this place and seem perfectly comfortable here, or at least they are glad to be somewhere solid after three days on the road. As for me, it’s bettter than it was in September when I spent five days here and the walls were screaming at me, “Kurt is not here!” My subconscious mind seems to be accepting that Kurt is not here (or anywhere) but that I am still very much here and in the process of creating a new life for myself.
Now I just need to make some friends here, a few more than I have now.
This seasonal migration thing was never my idea, and at the moment I’m thinking that I don’t want to live this way but I’m willing to give it some time. Meanwhile I confess that I am enjoying Mexican food, sunshine, fresh-picked grapefruit and the prospect of an ice-free morning run. I spent some time today driving around town simply soaking in some of the world-class mid-century modern architecture and relishing the idea of running past a couple of those icons tomorrow morning. How’s this for inspiration?
Good thing I stopped wearing the heart monitor. My pulse probably goes way off the scale when I run past this house. It almost makes me forget, if only for a moment, about running along the waterfront with bald eagles and harlequin ducks and the mournful cry of loons. When I am here and not there, thinking about there is almost too gut-wrenching, and vice versa. I really want to be deeply rooted in a community… and yet there is always the pull of novelty, the restlessness that I absorbed from Kurt’s gyspy-like approach to life. As I drove south on that three-day trip, I saw thousands of migrating birds (including a flock of 50-80 white pelicans in low formation flight, which was one of the most amazing wildlife sightings I have ever had), and I sort of understood their seasonal pull to fairer skies.
What I need to do now is simply let myself be here, and enjoy it… or not. In any case I am running a half marathon here in February, and the route goes past the aforementioned house twice — the only hilly part of the course — so I’d better get out my door and resume my interrupted running schedule first thing tomorrow morning.