Cape Cod Whale Watching

whale spoutWe saw the spouts from far away: distant puffs of water, an array of fountains spurting out messages to anyone who ventured near. We crept closer.

Springtime is feeding time for whales off Cape Cod. They spend the winter in the Caribbean, where they don’t eat, so when they arrive in the spring they’re hungry. The whale watching boat wandered into a feeding frenzy of humpbacks, finbacks, and dolphins. We could see their slick bodies arch above the surface as they dove through the waves. whale surfacingFinback whales are the second largest animals to ever live on Earth. The only animal larger than a finback is a blue whale, which can grow to about 100 feet long. Finbacks are a close second, reaching up to 80 feet.

Humpbacks work together to capture food. One humpback will create underwater bubbles in a donut shape to disorient krill and fish. The prey ends up in the middle, surrounded by bubbles. Then another humpback will surface with an open mouth for a feast. A few daring seagulls might dip in for a fish before the mouth closes. The humpbacks take turns creating bubbles and eating. DSC04012_3Whales can be recognized by their unique patterns. Naturalists onboard keep track of the whales while recording their activities and health conditions. They name the whales and know their habits and companions, so it’s a continuing saga to see what each one is up to.

whale watching boatOn a cold day in May, we saw a humpback teaching her calf how to feed, repeating the steps while the calf mimicked them. A young adult whale showed fresh cuts on his skin from a recent fishing line entanglement.

A hunting moratorium went into effect for humpbacks in 1966 whales archingwhen the population fell by 90 percent. Since then, the population has recovered to around 80,000 worldwide. In April, fisheries managers proposed that they be removed from the endangered species list.

whale tailNorth Atlantic right whales haven’t been so lucky. Today, only about 400 remain in the world, according to the nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife.

A hushed quiet and a sense of peace came over us as we watched the whales glide through the water. We could hear their muffled sighs as they came up for air and feel their struggles for survival.

Back in the 1800s when a whale beached, people would run out with knives and buckets for the oil. Now we run to the beach to save the whale. Maybe things have progressed at least a little.

Hyannis Whale Watcher boats cruise by Sandy Neck while going out to Stellwagen Bank where the whales feed. It’s much easier to take pictures of the houses and lighthouse than the constantly moving, appearing and disappearing whales.Sandy Neck, Cape CodSandy Neck, Cape Cod

Humpback whales have been known to sing continuously for up to 24 hours. Whales in the same region all sing the same song and that song gradually changes from year to year. I wonder what their songs will be into the future.

Have you ever been on a whale watch? What do you think of whales?

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Climbing Up a Sleeping Bear

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Tackling the dune climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore feels like mountain climbing. But these mountains made of sand are tricky. With every step up, climbers sink back down again by almost the same distance.

Sleeping Bear Dune ClimbersBecause of this, it takes a while to climb up the 100-foot bear but it’s worth it for the views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding sand dunes. When it’s time to go Sleeping Bear Dune Climbershome, another reward is to bounce or roll down the dune to the ground below.

The highest point in the park is 450 feet straight up from Lake Michigan. Anyone attempting to climb that dune might be forced into crawling, but that’s forgotten once the top is reached. From there, it’s easy to see why Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” on ABC’s Good Morning America.

According to the National Park Service, the Chippewa Indians once used the bear-shaped dune as a landmark. The bear rose about two thousand years ago and has seen its share of changes. It no longer looks like a bear. In the late 1800s, it was covered with trees and shrubs, giving it a dark shaggy appearance. For now, the bear has gone into hibernation and his sand dune looks more like a cave. With all the wind-swept changes, the bear may rise again or disappear.

Sleeping Bear Dune Lookout

Because these dunes feel so much like mountains, I was surprised to learn that Adelie from Artfully Aspiring had gone sledding there. I’ve been known for a few sledding feats, including barreling right into a raging polluted river, but I don’t think I’d be brave enough to sled down steep mountain dunes like these. Though you never know. If I find myself there again when there’s enough snow, I might be tempted.

Instead of sledding there, as a teenager I climbed up and bounced down the dunes while listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

Sleeping Bear Dunes View

Do you have a favorite National Park memory?

Ireland’s Ancient Castles and Spirits

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Ireland is a dream, a glowing green celebration, a place of shifting light where shadows of knights can be seen roaming through the fog.

The Guinness is foamy and dark and suspiciously looks like the River Liffey. Poems float through the air and music is everywhere.

castleMist hovers through the countryside, contributing to the dream. When the mist clears, ancient castles appear. Some castles have been restored, but I love the ones that haven’t been touched. Doors and walls may be missing or crumbling. Birds fly through open windows and nest in the corners. It’s easier to imagine the past in a place like this, a place that has surrendered itself to time.

castleFrom the ancient castles, the countryside still looks as it did when kings and queens ruled the lands. Green fields stretch toward the darker trees of a forest’s edge. The rumble of galloping horses can be felt. Fog and magic swirl through the air, bringing shadows of the past back home. They stoop over a stone fireplace, tending a fire so that a whiff of wood smoke is inhaled hundreds of years later. They harvest the fields that have grown into a tangle. Their laughter still sings through cracks in castle walls.

Ireland green fields

Ireland countryside

Ireland

Ireland castle

Ireland castle

On St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll be dreaming of Ireland.

How will you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year?

Walking in the Footsteps of Thoreau

I try to time travel as often as possible. A book is the perfect time travel vehicle but a place can be too. Henry David Thoreau walked along this Chatham coastline about 150 years ago and wrote about it in his book Cape Cod. It’s fun to read his descriptions and follow in his footsteps to go back in time.

Asphalt from the parking lot crumbles into sand. Dunes rise up along with the path to give the feel of walking on a mountaintop or the end of the earth. From this vantage point, there haven’t been many changes since the 1800s.

Far ahead Stage Harbor Lighthouse can be seen hunched down in the scraggly bushes. Thoreau wouldn’t have seen the lighthouse since it wasn’t built until 1880. Without it as a point to walk toward, there would be nothing but this stretch of land and sky.

A snake slithers into the bushes by the path. It is so quiet that the flap of a seagull’s wings can be heard overhead. Even the fishermen standing on the shore talk in low voices so that their murmurings become one with the wind.

Thoreau said, “The sea never runs very much here, since the shore is protected from the swell by Monomoy.” This creates a sense of peace, with everything as still as a painting.

Thoreau saw Monomoy as one offshore landmass while today it forms two barrier islands. As a testament to Cape Cod’s shifting sands, Monomoy has been a peninsula, a single island and even multiple islands. A lighthouse was built on the southern tip of the island in 1823 but deposits of sand over time have lengthened it, causing it to seem as if the lighthouse has traveled inland.

A seagull plucks at a crab on the sand while sand pipers dance in the background. Thoreau loved to watch these birds, as he said, “Sometimes we sat on the wet beach and watched the beach birds, sand pipers, and others, trotting along close to each wave, and waiting for the sea to cast up their breakfast.”

The quiet waves continue to bring more treasures. According to Thoreau, “The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world. It is even a trivial place. The waves forever rolling to the land are too far-travelled and untamable to be familiar. Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squall and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime. It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it. Strewn with crabs, horse-shoes, and razor-clams, and whatever the sea casts up…”

The shore is still strewn with whatever the sea casts up and it remains an advantageous place to contemplate this world. It is a different world now. Although much has changed in the last 150 years or so, it is comforting to know that some places remain the same.

Do you use a certain book or place to travel through time?

Secret Places

My mom is always finding these secret places, the kind of places that people walk or drive by without realizing there’s a door to another world right there.

When my brother and I were little, she would bring us to a circle of dunes behind a public beach. No one was ever there. It was her secret place. Then there was a garden with seven-foot hedges surrounding it. The door could barely be seen, but if anyone walked through it, the reward would be blooming flowers and whispering trees.

She found this place tucked away behind an art gallery off Route 6A in Sandwich. The walk starts off with a maze of paths through the woods. Every once in a while, a sign appears with a quotation or saying as if the scenery itself is telling us secrets. Metal sculptures twist out of the greenery, letting our imaginations wander along with our feet.

The path leads to a narrow rope bridge that bounces crazily with each step.

At first the bridge looks as if it ends in the marsh, but a hidden path off to the side brings us through towering marsh grass, making us feel as tiny as insects wandering through a lawn.

Once through the grass, the path continues along the side of the marsh, where a bench sits and waits for visitors to admire the view.

On our way back through the maze of woods, we see uprooted trees. A sign there states, “Thank you Hurricane Irene.”

Another great thing about this walk full of secret places is that donations are collected toward the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod. If you happen to live in the area or plan a visit, it’s worth a wander behind The Giving Tree Gallery on Route 6A in Sandwich.

Do you have a secret place? How did you find it?

Glassblowing and the Art of Carrying on a Tradition

The glassblower holds the iron rod up to his lips while somehow balancing a hefty bundle of glowing hot liquid glass on the other end. His breath fills the molten ball as it begins to take on a life of its own. A living, breathing piece of glass, it is constantly moving, shaped and formed by the glassblower’s movements.

At the Pairpoint Glass Works studio in Sagamore, with four furnaces roaring in the background and the room temperature climbing up to 110 degrees, master glassblowers cheer on apprentices as they work.

Glass is made from a mixture of silicates, found in sand, and lead oxide. Furnace temperatures must reach up to 2,300 degrees to bring the mixture to a malleable state. No matter what the glassblower intends to make, it all starts with a gathering of glass. This is when the glassblower twirls the iron rod in the pot of molten glass, skimming it off so that it gathers at the end. The maneuver looks like twirling cotton candy on a paper tube, collecting it in a great glowing bulge.

From the moment the liquid fire is taken out of the furnace, it begins to cool. The glassblower must keep the iron rod spinning to maintain the uniformity of the piece, while making sure that the temperature never dips below a certain level. If it cools too quickly, it will crack or even explode. To avoid this requires lots of trips back to the fire for reheating while constantly spinning the object.

At times glassblowers will hold the rods out and twirl them like batons to use centrifugal force for further shaping. When the rods are held up over their heads, gravity forces the edges of the molten ball down, creating a bowl shape. As the object continues to spin, the glassblower will carefully touch it here and there with wooden tools dipped in water, creating a bottleneck or design within the glass. To form the rim of a bowl or vase, pieces of the red-hot glass are cut away while it’s spinning. By the time these chunks hit the floor they clink with the sound of hardened glass.

The Sandwich Glass Museum tells the story of how a small factory founded by Deming Jarves in 1825 grew to employ more than 400 people by mid-century. Since glass is made from sand, it might make sense to think that the Cape Cod sand added to the quality of Sandwich glass. Ironically, that’s not the case. Cape Cod sand contained too many impurities to be made into fine glass. Jarves initially imported sand by boat from southern New Jersey, and by 1847 began bringing large quantities of sand from the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts to Sandwich.

One of the reasons for locating the factory in Sandwich was the promise of the Cape Cod Canal. Although it hadn’t been dug yet, at the time it seemed as if it would be soon. Politics being politics, the canal wasn’t created until years later, in 1914, after the factory had closed. The Sandwich Glass Factory operated for 62 years before competition from Midwest factories closed its doors in 1888.

Since the factory is no longer in existence, true Sandwich glass cannot be created, but its classic designs are reproduced. Glassblowing demonstrations are shown continuously at the museum so that visitors may witness techniques used by Egyptians, Romans, and Venetians, culminating with Sandwich and the innovation of pressed glass.

The glassblower tells the crowd, “I like the whole idea that what I learned is passed down from hundreds and hundreds of years and that basically with every generation it gets a little more refined. We’re still learning so it’s endless. You’re never going to get bored when there’s always something more to learn.”

Roller Coaster Biking Through Provincetown Sand Dunes

A few ups and downs are usually expected in the path ahead, but this path throws in surprise twists and curves, all while traveling through shifting sands.

It’s been called the Cape Cod Spiral. It brings unsuspecting bikers up to unimaginable heights before forcing them to plummet down the other side. When the path drops, it feels as if you’ve been shot out of a cannon as you try to navigate all the angles at warp speed. Narrow tunnels appear right after a few drops. At times the path seems suspiciously like a toy train track designed by a madman. But madmen do know how to have fun.

Provincetown is at the very tip of Cape Cod. It’s mostly sand. Even while driving into town, sand dunes rise up on either side of the highway.

The sand that collects on the bike path is just another obstacle. If you try biking too fast through it, you just might end up flat on your back appreciating the sky more than the dunes.

The Cape Cod National Seashore built this 8-mile loop in the 1960s. Maybe that explains it. After struggling to bike up the hills, it’s tempting to reward yourself right away with a downhill catapult supplied by gravity but the hilltops are the best places for water breaks with 360-degree views of the dunes and ocean.

After feeling the heat of the sun and sand, another leg thankfully travels through shady tunnels of green. Sun-baked pine and oak mingle with glimpses of the ocean beyond the trees. This path leads to Bennett Pond, which looks a lot like a swamp but it does offer some pretty lily pad and tree root views.

Most Cape Cod bike paths were built on straight, flat railroad lines. They’re a little too easy. Not this one. It will make you work for your views.

The reward for so much up and downhill biking is a walk through the streets of Provincetown and lunch in a shady spot. If you’re lucky, the pet bird at the Governor Bradford Restaurant might decide to peek out of her house and entertain you with a song.

Summertime on Cape Cod

Cape Cod is a summertime place to be. People brave traffic jams and rotaries to breathe the salt air and relax on the beaches. Summer means body surfing and swimming, building sandcastles, and collecting seashells. Bike paths wind along the shore or through sand dunes. When everyone is saturated with sunshine and salt water, there are always old fashioned band concerts and baseball games to enjoy.

Summer is also usually slow in getting here since the ocean keeps the land and air cool. Sometimes summer doesn’t really start until July. I haven’t jumped into the ocean waves yet this year but once I do it’ll feel as if summer is really here.

The influx of people is another sign of summer. The overall Cape Cod population is around 215,000. The population doubles in the summer months. Since Cape Cod is really just a sandbar sticking out into the Atlantic, sometimes it feels as if it’s being invaded. License plates become multicolored. Many are from New York or Connecticut. We’ve been known to scoff at these invaders, which is funny really because most of us are from someplace else.

This stretch of land is connected to the mainland by two bridges. In the summer, the bridges are packed with cars. I don’t go over the bridge when that happens. I’d rather hide.

There are still places to hide here and places to get lost. Unpaved places. Places meant for wandering. So for this summer, any travel posts will be on and from Cape Cod. Even though I’ve lived here for most of my life and work at a regular office job during the day, I still try to be a tourist as often as possible. Sometimes the best places to investigate are right outside the door.

Top Ten Craziest Things to Love About San Francisco

While growing up, San Francisco always seemed like some sort of a dream to me. My brother and I used to climb up into a cabinet that was on top of my bedroom closet. We hid candy in there, played games, and called it San Francisco. Every once in a while, we would look at each other and say, “Want to go to San Francisco?” and then we’d climb up into that secret place and play. I didn’t get the chance to find out what the real San Francisco was like until just a few weeks ago. Since photo opportunities are everywhere there, I thought it would be fun to share some of the crazier photos as a top ten list. 10. Signs with a sense of humor 9. Trees grow as abstract art 8. Everything is art (and art is everywhere) 7. Graffiti 6. Architecture with character 5. Chinatown 4. Sea lions that knock on houseboat doors 3. Crooked, slanted, steep streets 2. The Golden Gate Bridge and how it seems to hover everywhere And the #1 thing to love about San Francisco…the people and dogs (and dog people) you meet on the pier What do you love about San Francisco?

Visiting Italy and The Blissful Adventurer

When The Blissful Adventurer announced he would be going off to Italy, his excitement became contagious and soon I began reliving everything all over again: rows of vineyards and golden green fields, distant mountains and shimmering lakes, the relaxed feel of a culture that turns wine and pasta into an art form.

I may not be the greatest tour guide since I tend to get lost easily, but if you’re up for an adventure, follow me on over to The Blissful Adventurer’s site for my guest post on The Invasion of Radicofani. The town’s winding stone paths lead up and up to amazing views and a few surprises. I’m going to close comments here and will hope to see you over there for some Italiano fun and adventure.

Up, Up and Away: Hot Air Ballooning as an Extreme Sport

Our hot air balloon pilot looked young enough to be at home watching cartoons. He probably didn’t have a driver’s license. Yet, he busied himself preparing a balloon and a rickety basket for an ascent thousands of feet into the sky.

Hot air balloon companies fly in the early morning calm. No wind could be felt on the morning of our scheduled ride so we figured it would be a peaceful one, maybe even boring. Little did we know that our pilot craved extreme sports.

You can’t really steer a hot air balloon. Altitude is controlled through the propane burner below the balloon opening. Since hot air rises, when the air inside the balloon is heated, the balloon goes up. Any sideways traveling depends on air currents.

When we first took off, we headed sideways and then somehow down into a canyon. The balloon wouldn’t go up fast enough but it did travel sideways pretty quickly. The wicker basket headed right for a canyon wall. Our pilot was in training so after some expert advice from another pilot who looked like he might have a driver’s license, the balloon finally moved up and away from the canyon wall just in time. The basket practically scraped the wall. We could have collected rock samples.

After that, we went up to about 3,000 feet. At least there were no obstacles up there that we could see, just clouds and a few birds. The sensation is more like floating than flying and when you’re that high up, you become very much aware that you’re really just in a basket. There’s not much else between you and the sky.

We floated over desert canyons and a shiny new neighborhood. When it was time to descend by letting air out of the balloon, the pilots figured the neighborhood would be the best place for a landing. We ended up flying in at a steep angle and almost landed on someone’s roof. When we did land, we bounced off a front yard bush and eventually came to rest in the middle of the street. The expert pilot turned to the trainee and said, “Nice use of the bush.”

Luckily, it was a quiet enough residential street and the people who lived there were used to this sort of thing.

Graceland and the Spirit of Elvis 35 Years Later

The surprising thing about Graceland is that it’s more of a home than a mansion. I thought it might be a Versailles of sorts, a personal palace befitting the King of Rock and Roll, but mostly it just felt like a home. That made me like Elvis even more.

The decor it’s known for is a bit on the outrageous side, but it doesn’t feel overly decadent or opulent. The kitchen looks like a regular 1970s kitchen, complete with carpeted floors and laminate counters. According to the tour tape, Elvis spent most of his time in the kitchen. It’s a cozy place, remarkable only because of its homey feel.

In Life & Cuisine of Elvis Presley, David Adler mentions that Elvis wrote out lists of items to be kept in the Graceland kitchen at all times, including peanut butter, pickles, banana pudding, brownies, and three packs each of Spearmint, Doublemint, and Juicy Fruit gum.

Graceland is one of the most visited private homes in the United States, after the White House, with more than 600,000 visitors a year. The home has been left as it was at the time of Elvis’ death. It’s a peek into his personal life as well as a museum dedicated to his music and public persona.

In the Jungle Room, a teddy bear sits on the couch near a guitar. It’s easy to imagine Elvis relaxing and joking around there. A television room in the basement gave him the chance to relax some more while watching three television sets at once.

It’s estimated that Elvis has sold more than one billion records worldwide. His gold and platinum records line the hallways, but even more impressive is a room covered with personal checks of $1,000 or more written to local charities.

His car collection is kept across the street and includes his famous pink Cadillac. At the car museum, a home movie plays showing Elvis and his daughter zooming around the Graceland grounds on a snowmobile. Since they didn’t get much snow in Memphis, he added wheels to the snowmobile. The movie shows the kid in Elvis since he uses small hills as ramps to launch the snowmobile into the air.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Elvis’ death. If he had lived, he would be 77 years old. Every day, fans bring flowers, wreaths, and pictures to the Graceland meditation garden where Elvis is buried along with his parents and grandmother. A memorial gravestone for Elvis’ twin brother, who died at birth, is also in the garden.

According to a tour guide, Elvis was originally buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery but soon after his death people actually tried to dig him up, which is why his body was moved to the Graceland meditation garden. With all the rumors surrounding the death of Elvis and the possibility that he might still be alive, perhaps the gravediggers were hoping to find an empty coffin.

Elvis still lives through his music. His spirit can be felt at Graceland, at Sun Studio, and in the streets of Memphis. For evidence that he is still alive, all anyone has to do is listen to one of his songs.

Walking in Memphis

A tornado chased our plane to Memphis. When we landed, tornado sirens screamed through the downtown area as the sky darkened and turned a bruised yellow. We headed right for the nearest bar.

The bartender told us not to worry. She said tornadoes usually skipped over Memphis because of a nearby hill. We didn’t know whether or not to fully believe it, but decided to stay in the bar a little longer just in case. The hotel room was on something like the 10th floor.

Memphis doesn’t need tornadoes for excitement. Memphis already has goats in bars and ducks marching in and out of elevators. Just wandering down Beale Street is exciting enough. Blues bands play in the park or in bars and different rhythms trickle out onto the street. Street vendors sell huge cups of beer and people sit out on the curb and watch other people. On most days, kids even do flips all the way down the middle of the street.

But walking in Memphis isn’t just about Beale Street. It’s possible to wander down to the river for a steamboat ride, to Mud Island for a tour through river valley history, or to the Civil Rights Museum.

The National Civil Rights Museum is located at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 44 years ago today. A wreath now hangs outside the balcony area where he stood. His motel room, complete with snuffed out cigarettes in ashtrays, hasn’t changed since that day. Inside the museum, newsreels of speeches and protest marches echo through the halls. One newsreel shows Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers training for verbal and physical abuse at lunch counter sit-ins. Nearby, a ceiling-to-floor film brings visitors into the Birmingham, Alabama demonstration when attack dogs and fire  hoses were used against protesters.

The Mississippi River Museum explores a different kind of history as it celebrates music, steamboats, and the people who lived in the Mississippi River Valley. Outside the museum, the Mud Island River Park offers shady spots to rest as well as an exact scale model of the Lower Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico 954 miles later. Twenty cities are mapped out along the way. Children splash and play in all the twists and turns of the river as it flows on to the Gulf of Mexico.

For music history, Sun Studio offers memorabilia from the days when Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins recorded there. Sam Phillips opened the studio in 1950 and began creating legends in this place that’s been called the birthplace of rock-n-roll. The original studio hasn’t changed since those days and visitors can get their pictures taken with one of the microphones during a tour filled with music trivia.

After all the walking, the Peabody Hotel lobby is the place to sit and relax. If you’re there at either 11 AM or 5 PM, you’ll get to see the famous Peabody Duck March. In the morning, the ducks leave their rooftop palace, travel down to the lobby in the elevator, then march across the red carpet to the water fountain. They swim at the ornate marble fountain until 5 PM, when it’s time to walk across the red carpet again and back into the elevator. The tradition began about 72 years ago, but ducks weren’t the first fountain residents. Legend has it that turtles and baby alligators briefly stayed at the hotel fountain back in the 1920s.

There are lots of things to do in Memphis, from enjoying blues bands to walking through history or Beale Street. While out on Beale Street, be sure to stop and people watch. People, after all, can be pretty funny.

Next Week: Graceland and the reason Elvis is buried there.

Have you been to Memphis? What did you like most about it?