One Day of Birds

What do you get when you cross a passion for photography with a life-long love of birds?  365 Days of Birds – my husband Rich’s latest project.  It’s a year long challenge he created for himself, dedicated to photographing a bird a day. As a fairly new amateur photographer, his intent was to use the assignment to improve his photography skills.

Now we are 61 days into the project.  Yes, we.  For although it’s Rich’s project, it has a habit of spilling over into my life as well.  All the way out to Colorado and back, he scanned the skies.  After all, he had to get his bird for the day.  Then there are the pre-dawn ventures, hoping to get that golden hour light on his birds.  Or the spontaneous photo opps on our way home from church.  I never realized this project would be so all-consuming.  But I will also grant that he has gotten some amazing photos.

Although Rich has frequently invited me to accompany him on his bird hunts or other photo shoots, I don’t often go along.  I’ve learned that I just don’t have the dedication, patience and persistence that it takes to get the perfect photo.  Nor do I have much staying power in the bitter cold – a staple for photographers in northern Minnesota.  So I accept my limitations and pursue my own passions.  Writing in the warmth of our lovely home, with a big mug of steaming coffee nearby suits me quite well.

This evening I must have let my guard down, as I agreed to accompany Rich out to see a Great Horned Owl and her owlets in a nearby park.  Armed with my own camera and tripod, I set up shop next to Rich and promptly photographed the dead stub of a branch on the tree.  A nearby photographer with a foot-long lens on his camera kindly set me straight, and it became clear just how well camouflaged Mrs. Owl was.  And peering at the display on the back of my camera, I could just make out the owlet.  To the naked eye, both were nearly invisible.

Somewhere overhead, father owl perched invisibly in a tree.  I couldn’t see him at all until he swooped down and flew overhead to a distant grove of trees.  From there, he traded hoots with Mrs. Owl and baby owlet turned to the sound of his voice.  That was really cool.  Unfortunately, so was I.  As the cold seeped through my jacket and my fingers turned to useless stiff appendages, my interest waned.  Still, I was glad I’d seen them and hoped I’d gotten at least one decent photo.

So now I ask, what do you get when you cross a fair weather wanna-be photographer with a natural reverence for majestic creatures?  One Day of Birds.

Mrs. Owl and her owlet

Mrs. Owl and her owlet





Mid-Winter Perfection

The latest snowfall resulted in a rapid accumulation of 6″ or more. It easily wiped out all signs of the melting that had been going on the last few days, as well as the resulting ice. Before 5:00am we could hear the thrum of a diesel engine idling just up the road. That meant that the groomer was out on the ski trails.

Never mind that this was the third day of spring. Nor the fact that I’d already declared I was hanging up my skis for the season. The opportunity was too good to miss. What I didn’t bargain for was the fact that the temperature had plummeted overnight. Two degrees registered on the thermometer. Really? All the layers I’d banished to the bottom of the drawer came back out again. I even popped toe warmers into my ski boots. And with a fierce wind blowing, I didn’t regret a single item.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that there was not a car in the parking lot, nor a single ski track on the virgin groomed trails. Who else would be out on this cold spring day before the sun was fully up? Shivering ever so slightly I set off, confident that the relentless uphill climb at Lester would help warm me up.

DSCN0169The woods were blanketed in snow, and the trail was firm and fresh. The crusty snow and ice that I knew lay beneath the new powder were deeply buried, as if the dicey spring skiing conditions of a few days earlier had never existed. The sun spread long shadows across the snow from its low angle, too weak yet to shed any warmth. But it was pretty.

DSCN0166Even my tiny camera protested the cold by shutting down soon after I extricated the cold metal object from my pocket. Baring my fingers to the brutal cold, I learned to snap quickly to get one picture before it realized its battery was too cold to function.

I had conveniently forgotten how slow the snow is when it’s that cold, and there was little glide to my skis. But I pressed on regardless. I even continued for a second lap around the trail system. This wasn’t about setting speed records. And I was no longer training for races. I could just ski for the sake of enjoyment.

If I ignored the calendar, I could relish the perfection of the conditions, fooled into thinking what perfect winter skiing it was. Sometimes it’s best to live in the moment, oblivious to the seasons.

Yet another ice attraction?

IMG_3702The sea caves are not the only attraction available this winter due to the ice on Lake Superior.  I recently learned that one could also walk out to see “Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum” – the listing cement monstrosity that sits in the water just off the Lakewalk at Canal Park. There is nothing attractive about this structure which was built by Harvey Whitney in 1919 as a sand and gravel hopper.  He was hoping to provide the materials for an outer harbor breakwater.  Alas, no such plans materialized and it was abandoned in 1922.  And still it sits, impervious to Lake Superior’s wind and waves.

In summer time the cement edifice does provide a certain tourist attraction.  It has great allure for teenagers wishing to show off their cold-water swimming, climbing and diving prowess.  The result is quite a spectacle for those of us who prefer to remain safely rooted to the shore.  Lithe young bodies seem to show up in all available openings, and manage to clamber up to the tops of the walls, which are open to the sky.  From there they fling themselves into the frigid waters below.

I can’t really claim any urgent need to see inside the building except the fact that it was now possible to do so.  Why not wander out and have a look?  So I did.  Even though the ice was thick, the slush on top made me a tad queasy, and I am certain I looked every bit the old lady as a carefully picked my way across the slippery ice.

The inside turned out to be every bit as ugly as the outside.  Even the ice formations on the foundations did little to enhance its visual appeal.  I could hear children crawling through the cavities of the building, squealing with delight, and envied their greater sense of adventure.  And I still couldn’t figure out how those teenagers scale up to the top.  Some things will remain a mystery.



For me the more intriguing aspects were the views I could get through the windows.  From outside, I was able to see across the interior and back out again to the lighthouses at the end of the canal piers.  Lowering myself into the large internal cavity, I could see through the window on the opposite side to the city hillside beyond.  I decided that the building’s best vantage point was as a frame for the more scenic views around it.

IMG_3697 IMG_3699It certainly didn’t compare to the amazing sea caves.  But I’ll admit to being drawn to see the attraction.  And I’ve satisfied my curiosity.  Okay, it was a fun little adventure.  Even if it wasn’t attractive.

Farewell Snow Mountain Ranch

A world of white greeted me on my final morning at Snow Mountain Ranch. Deep powder blanked my car and was still being plowed from the campus roadways. Arriving at breakfast earlier than usual, the low sunlight caught the sparkling white branches of the pine trees atop the hill at the Commons with mountain peaks glowing in the background. It begged for a photo, but for once I had no camera with me.

By the time I finished packing the car a thick low fog had descended into the valley. All was indeed white. And so were the roads. The snowpack and ice were an unwelcome addition to the roads that were clear pavement just the afternoon before, and it was a slow and treacherous drive through the local countryside.

The Berthoud Pass, which was my most direct route to Denver, had been closed the day before and through the night due to a snowslide, but fortunately reopened early that morning. I was glad for the clear sunny skies which worked their magic on the road, uncovering patches of pavement that gave my tires greater purchase as I wound my way around the switchbacks in the mountain pass. Unaccustomed to driving on my own in dicey conditions, I prided myself that my knuckles never turned white and I safely navigated the pass. My reward was stopping at the first exit on the freeway (which was mercifully clear) to rid my wipers of ice and stand in a long line in order to savor a latte.

wpid-Photo-20140310113131.jpgFinally I could relax a little and reflect on my time at SMR. That last week there finally cemented my affection for the place, and I could understand why so many senior volunteers return year after year. Good weather (no strong winds!), lots of fresh snow, excellent skiing, plentiful social events and good company all came together, and at last I knew how it felt to be part of it all. It takes a while to get acclimated to the way of life at SMR and really get to know people. I was indeed part of the SMR family. And wouldn’t you know, I reached that point just about the time I had to leave. I only wish that Rich had been able to stay and enjoy the same benefits and rewards. It was a great experience, and left me wanting to return for more.

At the Denver airport, Rich and I were reunited after a long 10 days apart while he stayed with his Dad in the hospital in Florida. We ended up cutting our time at SMR short by about 5 days, but under the circumstances, we were both ready to head for home. It was a bittersweet experience, but the bitter is fading fast leaving mostly sweet memories for me. Farewell, Snow Mountain Ranch – at least for now.


Of Summits and Snowflakes

With my stay at Snow Mountain Ranch drawing to a close, I wanted to make the most of the time I had left. My final day of work I was scheduled for an afternoon shift, which left me plenty of time to get in a decent ski earlier in the day. There was only one major trail that I had not yet skied, so imagine my delight to find that it had been groomed that very morning. Others had broken trail with back country skis, but that didn’t appeal to me, and this was the first time it had been groomed in two months. I set my heart on completing the trail.

My first hurdle was the advice I received from more experienced skiers in the Nordic Center. They warned me of the steep terrain and difficulty of the climb. I hadn’t fully grasped the fact that this trail rose 2,000 feet in elevation! Learning that I didn’t plan to bring any food and drink, they pressed a granola bar on me and I left with some doubts.

When I reached the turnoff for the Blue Ridge Trail, it did indeed climb. But I decided that I’d pursue each leg of the switchbacks and go as far as I could. As it turns out, the trail did climb relentlessly, but the climbs were not steep. And as long as I stopped periodically (okay, frequently) to catch my breath, I was able to continue. To further spur me along, the higher I got, the better the views. Feasting my eyes on at least 180 degrees of mountain ranges was inspiring, and further excuse to pause along the way. The grooming was impeccable with a firm surface despite the warming sun, and I relished the fact that my ski tracks were the first ones there. Reaching the summit was almost an anticlimax, as there was no sign to commemorate my accomplishment, nor a clear peak to the mountain at 10,670 ft. Even the selfie photo I took to show me at the summit really doesn’t prove much of anything – but I knew I’d made it.

The return trip was a glorious ride down. I was tired but thrilled I’d completed the whole trail and happy that I reached the summit. And that granola bar did taste good at the top.

On my final day, I set off with two friends for a women’s snowshoe hike. Fran has been coming to Snow Mountain Ranch as a volunteer for years, and offered to lead the hike. Patti was new to snowshoeing, so we were a motley crew of experience but eager for a day out. Undeterred by the steady snowfall, we donned our layers of clothes, snowshoes and packs with food, water, extra clothing and emergency supplies.

From Grand Lake we took the East Inlet Trail, which immediately led us into Rocky Mountain National Park. Lacking trail markers, we were glad that we could see vague indentations from previous snowshoers. New snow was piling up quickly, and our view was curtailed to our immediate surroundings. But the beauty of the heavy woods draped in snow made up for the mountains we were missing in the distance. The trail was fairly flat, following a branch of the Colorado River for a while, and meandering through the woods. Progress was slow but satisfying, allowing us to drink in the quiet of the woods.

With an out-and-back trail, the inevitable question is when to turn around? It always feels good to reach a specific destination, and Fran had one in mind. As soon as we saw the large rock formation, we knew we’d reached it. The trail narrowed along a ledge and seemed to whither away with the rock looming overhead. We all agreed it was the perfect stopping point, not wanting to test our skills scampering around the end of the rock. Taking a short time out for a snack and drink of water, we began to retraced our steps. With temperatures hovering right about freezing, the falling snow was saturating our clothing and gloves. Keeping moving was the only way to fend off the resulting chill.

Although Fran had frequently seen moose and other wildlife on that trail, we saw not a single critter. Even animal tracks were in short supply. We were the sole inhabitants of the woods, or so it felt. But that was okay. It was the camaraderie that was best about the hike, spending time with new friends and sharing an adventure.

Yes, I think I did well. Both outings were satisfying in different ways, and brought closure to my stay. And I have left plenty more to explore, hoping we’ll be back next year.

A Grand Day Out

Weather reports are fickle. I held off on my planned outing to Grand Lake until today based on the forecast for “mostly sunny” skies. So when I woke up to a world socked in with clouds, I was dismayed. Still hoping for the promised clearing, I dawdled in a cosy coffee cafe in Grandby with my latte and muffin – a decidedly leisurely way to start the day.

By the time I continued on my way the sun was starting to peak out, although the surrounding mountaintops were all still shrouded in clouds. Ever hopeful, I drove on to the Grand Lake Nordic Center. With 5″ of fresh new snow on the ground, the world was a clean soft undulating surface blanketed in white. The fact that Grand Lake touts their “pristine grooming” was comforting, and I was further cheered upon my arrival to learn that all trails had just been groomed that morning.

Heading out through the woods

The Nordic Center is a comfortable building that converts nicely from its summer personality as the golf clubhouse. Expecting wide open trails on the golf course, I was mystified but thrilled to ski straight into a vast wooded area dominated by tall pole pines. With a firm new skate deck yet a soft snowy surface, the skiing was delightful – especially since there were only a handful of other skiers out on the whole system. I was the first skate skier down nearly every trail I skied – kilometers of fresh corduroy!

Tall pole pines grace the trails

True to the forecast, the day remained mostly sunny. The sun was out all day, although the clouds remained firmly entrenched around the edges. I decided that the woods were scenery enough for me, and that I would relish the sunshine. Mountaintops could wait for another day.

As usual with a new trail system I found myself confounded by too many trail intersections, and was constantly checking my map. Sometimes I decided to just go where the spirit moved me – what difference did it make if I backtracked and covered the same loop twice? I was just out there for the fun, the outdoors and the sunshine. One portion of the trail crossed the Colorado River and paralleled it for a while. I deliberately skied that one twice. By the time I was done I think I covered nearly major piece of trail at least once.

Crossing over the Colorado River

In the end, I did find the golf course. That's where the dog trails are – designated trails where dogs are allowed, and joyfully romp alongside their skiing masters. Since no dogs had gone ahead of me, those trails were as fresh as the rest. The wind did take its toll, however, blowing snow over the tracks even on a nice day like today. All the more reason to stick to the beautiful wooded trails.

Mountaintops finally clear in the distance

By the time I finished skiing, I managed to glimpse the snowy tops of one mountain range. Settling down to eat my lunch beside the wood fire in the Nordic Center, I had the same view out the window. Glorious.

A few days off work, good weather and a trip to new territory has done wonders for my psyche. As nice as it is at Snow Mountain Ranch, it's good to break the routine and do something new. Yes, it was a grand day out. (with apologies to Wallace and Gromit!)


Campus Life

It's been a long time since I lived on a college campus, sharing a small room, eating in the dining hall and meandering all over the sprawling grounds to the various buildings I frequented. But it all came flooding back as I settled into life at Snow Mountain Ranch as a volunteer.

SMR, as we call it, covers over 5,000 acres in a valley in the Colorado Rockies. As a family and conference center, it has a wide variety of facilities, as well as the usual lodging and dining halls. Being run by the YMCA of the Rockies, there is a big focus on outdoor, athletic and family activities, spawning a pool building, gym, yoga center, riding stables and craft shop as well as the Nordic Center for cross-country skiing, tubing, sledding and ice skating venues. And I'm sure I haven't discovered many of the offerings.

My own world revolves around a few select sites. Home is in Pinewood. It's the residence hall for us “seniors” and is the usual long hall lined with doors and small motel-like rooms. Doors slam, footsteps echo down the hall, but late night parties are not an issue. And this time I got to pick my roommate! After almost 31 years together, I knew Rich and I would be compatible.

Moving into Pinewood

Two connected rooms have been converted to a lounge for us, and is frequently filled in the evenings by those interested in watching TV and playing games. My first week here, I made it a nightly habit to wander down to watch the Olympics with those gathered there. It also happens to house the notebook entitled “Senior Trips.” There we can sign up for various planned activities or post suggestions for group outings. It's worth keeping up with the list, as the Y often provides free and convenient transportation for the events.

Pinewood is connected to the main lobby for SMR, with a two-sided gas fireplace, comfy chairs and a good internet connection. It's a very pleasant place to sit and read or visit. In the evenings it is frequently overrun by us seniors.

The Craft Shop, where I work, is on the far end of the campus from Pinewood. Lacking plowed sidewalks, and with roads that are narrow and slippery, walking is not as easy an option as I'd like. Unlike college days when I walked everywhere, I frequently end up having to drive for safety sake. For someone as committed to a healthy life style as I am, it goes against my grain. I'm sure it would be different in the other seasons. But for winter, a car is fairly essential.

At the Nordic Center

When I'm not working, the Nordic Center is my favorite haunt. There I get my free ski passes, rent any equipment I like, gratis, and check the latest grooming reports. It happens to be the most sought after place for volunteers to work, helping skiers, selling ski clothing and equipment and handling rentals. Perhaps one day I can work my way up the ladder to a position there! For the meantime, it's the hub of the 60k of ski trails on SMR property and starting point for any day's ski.

And finally, the Commons where we eat. It is the central cafeteria that feeds all the lodge guests at SMR as well as its staff members and volunteers. It definitely brings back memories of the old cafeteria lines in college. This is no newfangled, upscale food station style cafeteria which some of my kids enjoyed in college. It's the old food line with trays, steam tables and mass produced food. In its defense, some of the dishes are pretty good. And I regularly hunt down the healthy offerings – an abundance of fresh fruit at breakfast, seedy bread for sandwiches and the fruit bowl at lunch, and build your own salad ingredients at dinner. Fortunately, their desserts aren't at all tempting, but I still wish for some ice cream now and again.

The Commons - our dining hall
A table of Senior Volunteers

The main attraction of the Commons, though, is social. The senior volunteers always sit in about the same spot, gathering around the tables in random order as we arrive. It's the best place to meet others and get to know everyone better, or find out what's going on. It's a retreat between work hours, or a leisurely visit on our time off. It's easy to spot our group – we're the gray haired folks with SMR fleece vests and badges hanging on colorful lanyards around our necks.

I wouldn't want to do it year-round, but for a brieft winter stint when we can enjoy the mountain views and endless opportunities to ski the trails, it's a good life. I'm quite enjoying being back on campus.


Crafty Lady

I've always enjoyed doing crafts. Sewing, needlepoint, counted cross-stitch, knitting, crocheting – basically all types of needlecrafts and beyond. So it seemed a natural to sign up to work in the craft shop for my volunteer job at Snow Mountain Ranch.

Stepping in the door for my first shift, I realized in short order that these were crafts of an entirely different nature. I'd call them camp crafts. Things you do at scout camp or in specialty craft shops where you might go for a kids' birthday party activity. The set-up accommodates a large number of people at long tables well stocked with supplies. All around the shop are examples of the various crafts available for kids and adults to do. Ceramics, leather work, wood burning, tie dying, jewelry making, wooden models to assemble and paint and mosaics are just a few of the offerings.

Our largest set of customers are families. Moms and Dads come in with the kids, who eye all the projects like candy and eagerly select something to work on. The best part is watching families working together, parents helping out their kids and often making things together. And since they are on vacation, they are happy and relaxed. As staff members, our job is to help them pick out projects and teach them the techniques involved if necessary.

I felt a bit out of depth at first, but soon discovered that the only way to learn was by doing. On weekdays traffic is light, so I picked out several projects to make as shop samples. My first attempt was leather work. I'd never done it before, and soon found it fascinating to pound in the designs, stain the leather and stitch together the final project. I finally had my first skill I could share!

From there I progressed to ceramics. We have hundreds of pre-made ceramic pieces that range from figurines to dishes and mugs. For that project, I actually purchased a “scoop bowl” and made it for myself. It took surprisingly long to cover it in three complete coats of glaze. The fascinating thing is that the colors are pastel when painted on, but come out of the kiln in brilliant shades. My design was not exactly intricate, but I was pleased with the result and knew what tips to pass along to our customers.

When the shop manager challenged me to paint a T-Rex dinasaur, I was stumped. I felt I needed to come up with something creative and eye-catching. One of the young seasonal workers who happens to be an artist helped drum up some examples for me on the internet, and that spawned an idea. It took me forever to paint the base design with its detailed shapes – in three coats no less – but then I was able to let my imagination run wild. Adding dots and doodles was the final touch. I couldn't wait to see it come out of the kiln the next morning. I think the reault was quite stunning!

I then turned to mosaics. The more complex process involves grouting the tiles, so I undertook that challenge. I had no idea how to go about it, but enjoyed each step as it was explained to me. By the time it was finished, I felt quite accomplished.

In between I learned the techniques for tie dying and where to find things in our immense inventory. When a busy weekend shift rolled around, I was armed with enough knowledge to jump in and play the expert. Kids' eyes gleamed when I showed them how to do things, and parents watched proudly.

I can see now why my original skills were not applicable. I can't imagine families coming in and knitting together. But my underlying aptitude for hand work was still a benefit. My family has always called me the Crafty Lady. Now I have a whole new set of techniques to add to my resume.