What does the Owl say?

Please excuse the break from the urban lifestyle while we take a brief nature break.

One of the joys of moving and getting to know a new part of the country/planet is the ability to be exposed to new and different things, especially in the natural world. This winter, one of those things here in the Mid-Atlantic is the Snowy Owl invasion! I've always been interested in owls, and have only seen one or two in real life--one was an unforgettable moment in the High Sierra, right at duck, as an owl silently flew into a tree above our campsite at South Lake below Bishop Pass. I admit that I'm fascinated by these creatures.

The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) is one of the largest owl species, and is a beautiful,      amazing sight. Adult males are virtually pure white, although young and females have black  tipped feathers (the black goes away with age) and striking, yellow eyes. It is well-adapted to life in the Artic Circle, where they live in the endless summer sunshine and perpetual winter darkness of the high Arctic. One of my favorite Snowy Owl facts: like many other birds, they swallow their small prey whole. Strong stomach juices digest the flesh, while the indigestible bones, teeth, fur, and feathers are compacted into oval pellets that the bird regurgitates 18   to 24 hours after feeding! But the Snowy Owl is somewhat of a mystery, and there is a lot      that we don't know about this elusive species.

A male Snowy Owl.
Check out the warm, padded feet on this beautiful juvenile Snowy Owl!
What's all this have to do with DC?

Each winter, Snowy Owls migrate south, primarily to southern Canada and the northern      United States.  But some years, for reasons that are only partially understood, snowy owls    come flooding down from the north in a phenomenon known as an irruption (yes---that's       "irruption" with an "I").  Smaller irruptions happen every few years, but once or twice in a lifetime a "mega-irruption" occurs, when snowy owls show up much farther south, and in         vastly greater numbers, than usual. This is one of those years, and Snowy Owls have been    reported all over the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and throughout the Southern US. Snowy Owls have been reported in northern Florida, and even on the island of Bermuda!

We've had a number of very visible sightings in and around DC, including one that spent        several days in downtown DC, centered around McPherson Square, a few blocks north of the White House.  The owl became a minor celebrity on social media, and the Washington Post    ran daily stories about our avian visitor. But this bird wasn't adapted to the urban                   environment, and was eventually hit by a Metro bus on 30 January. Don't worry, the story  has a happy ending...she was captured, taken to the National Zoo for treatment &                    rehabilitation and was later released after she had been nursed back to health. (You can read one of the stories here).

A Snowy Owl in downtown DC, early January.
There have been other sightings--at the airport, a local mall parking lot, and abandoned stretch of waterfront. They prefer open areas where they can hunt remain unmolested by people or city buses. I've yet to see one in person, but I would love to, and have started slinking around town in the gray half-light of twilight hoping to spot one.

A Snowy Owl at the construction site at the Springfield mall. Can you spot the Owl in this photo?
Although you might think that owls come south due to a lack of food, it's actually just the opposite. A summer breeding season that has plenty of food (mainly lemmings, voles and other small prey) leads to an abundance of baby owls--with some females having 10-12 young. This baby boom has simply produced more owls than normal, and they have spread out more than usual.

The owls have also been the motivation behind"Project Snowstorm", a scientific effort to 
capture migrating Snowy Owls, equip them with a tiny GPS transmitter, then release them   in an effort to get a better understanding of their behavior and travel patterns. The website has online maps that shows the current location and status update of many of the tagged Owls.  

A snapshot of recent Snowy Owl sightings.

Scientists fit a GPS transmitter on a captured and hooded Snowy Owl.

If you'd like to know more about Project Snowstorm, check out their website: 

Here's a link to a great NPR story about the Snowy Owls.

Finally, just to complete the loop to the DC area.....if you make it to DC and the Snowy Owls  are gone, we'll make a trip to the famous Hotel Belvedere in downtown Baltimore. The           historic old hotel (opened in 1903) has hosted Presidents, royalty, foreign dignitaries,             entertainers and celebrities from around the world. Most importantly (to this post), it is the home of the Owl Bar, named for the two wooden owls that sit high above the bar. The carved owls are flanked by two stained glass windows that read "A Wise Old Owl Sat On An Oak / The More He Saw, The Less He Spoke". During Prohibition, the owl served a useful purpose: the bar's owner kept barrels of whiskey in the basement, and if you saw the owls' eyes          blinking, you knew it was safe to order a beverage.

CityLife: Christmas in the city

You can fairly accurately judge how busy life is by the frequency of blog posts.  Since there hasn't been anything added here since early November, you can safely assume things have not been slow and quiet.

Back in October, I was fortunate to get a job working at the Washington Patagonia store. Those in the outdoor world know that Patagonia has long been a recognized leader in the outdoor industry and is one of (if not the best) producer of quality outdoor clothing and equipment.  Their retail stores are few are far between (DC is the only store between Atlanta and New York) and it's been great fun working in the store. The local store, an old rambling brick building covered in ivy, sits on the banks of the C&O Canal in Georgetown. I've recently started a different full-time job and ended my time at Patagonia, but I really enjoyed my time there.

I extended our pedestrian lifestyle to my Patagonia commute.  Over the span of 4 months, I only drove to the store two or three times, choosing instead to Metro and walk (about 15 minutes, either through historic Georgetown or across the beautiful Francis Scott Key bridge) there, then walk the entire distance back home.  It was slightly over 4 miles, took about an hour, and was a beautiful walk past the Georgetown Waterfont and down the length of the National Mall. I truly enjoyed my time there and I'll miss it as I transition into a new job.

We rolled straight into Christmas and the Holidays.  DC is a fun place to be during the Holidays, as there are a plethora (Ginger's word) of activities, concerts and events to engage in.  Some of this year's highlights include the Navy Band Christmas Concert at Constitution Hall, the National Christmas Tree (not to be confused with the Capitol Christmas Tree) and the incredible Nativity collection at Washington National Cathedral. Check out some of the pictures below (and full disclosure--I didn't take all of these.)

The National Christmas Tree is located on the "Ellipse", the large open space just south of the White House.  It is surrounded by 56 smaller trees, one for each of the 50 states and territories.

The U.S. Capitol Tree is much taller than its cousin across town (I'm sure that isn't an accident.) A tradition since 1963, the Capitol tree is always D.C.’s tallest. This year, Wyoming contributed its first Capitol tree—an 83-year-old Engelmann spruce described by one local reporter as the tree “you’d want for your living room—if you had 70-foot ceilings.”

We discovered a fantastic seasonal exhibit at the Washington National Cathedral. The Cathedral has a collection of over 500 Nativity scenes from around the world, and each year, they place a small selection of them on display.  Here are a few photos of the 100+ that were displayed this year.

Inside the National Cathedral.
One of my favorite Nativity scenes, this scene was made from cut and soldered nails and washers.
This Italian creche is made with hand blown glass.
The scene was made in the Philippines from thin rolls of newspaper.
With both of us having to work the days immediately before and after Christmas, we spent a quiet Christmas in DC, and were able to head to the Carolina's for a few days around New Years.

This year, 142,000 wreaths were placed on graves across Arlington National Cemetery.

So that's a quick recap of the last few months in the city. The spring promises lots of new adventures, and we'll be seeking out the best that city life has to offer. If this blog doesn't get updated as much, it's because we are out and about in the city.  Come for a visit and we'll explore it together.

CityLife: Autumn in the District

Everyone talks about the Spring, with the incredible cherry blossoms, as being the best time to be in DC. But I'm going to suggest that Fall is even better.  It's an incredible display of fall colors, highlighted by world-class Monuments and incredible scenes from American history. 

Camus once wrote, "Autumn is a second Spring, when every leaf is a flower."

Maple leaves in the street gutter.

The stained glass windows at the "Christ, Our Shepherd Church" down the street

Traditional DC rowhouses under a crystal blue sky.

The west side of the Capitol.

The West Building of the National Galley of Art.

Inside on the National Mall, looking toward the National Museum of the American Indian.

National Museum of the American Indian

National Museum of the American Indian

The Bartholdi Fountain, behind the National Botanical Garden.

Created in 1877 by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who is better known for sculpting the Statue of Liberty. He worked on both pieces at the same time.

There is something incredibly nostalgic and significant about the annual cascade of autumn leaves."--Joe Wheeler

CityLife: The Case of The Missing Subaru

We've been very busy unpacking boxes and moving into our new place, but here's a quick update on life in the city.

I was walking back to our new place last week and couldn’t find our car. This may be very normal for some of you, but I don’t normally misplace items—especially items as big as a car. I was 100% certain of where I had left it—a prime parking spot in front of our building.  After looking up and down the street, I asked Ginger to meet me outside—just to make sure I wasn’t crazy or going senile.  After a quick walk in both directions, she quickly confirmed that the car was not on the street.

Such is life in the big city.  We’ve all heard horror stories about rampant crime and how anything/everything of value will get stolen/trashed/destroyed if you live in the inner city. I guess I was semi-expecting it. So as I was reaching for my phone for the eventual call to the police, I happened to look in the direction of the Auto Repair Shop a few doors down.

I should note here that our area is almost entirely residential.  The only exception is an old car repair place that looks like it’s been around since the 1950’s (see the photo below). There is only room for 2 or 3 cars inside, and I noticed that one of them was a white Subaru Outback.

Capitol Hill Auto Service Center

Wait a minute---we have a white Subaru Outback, and closer inspection revealed that the license plate was ours! That was my car up on a life inside a strange auto garage.

Long story short…..there was another Subaru Outback (although it was green) scheduled for a tire change and it was sitting on the street as well. One of the mechanics walked down the street and stopped at the first Subaru he came to….and strangely enough---the key fit! We quickly sorted out the mess and 5 minutes later, I was driving away with my original car, old tires and all.

There never any shortage of unusual things happening here. In addition to almost getting a new set of tires, in the last week I came across a man blowing his "shofar" in front of the US Capitol (I later saw him in front of the Supreme Court as well) and this trio making music on the side of the road. (Yes---they had wheels mounted on the upright piano and had pushed it out onto the street corner.)

Blowing the shofar on the steps of the US Capitol.

Street corner music. They were really into a scrappy rendition of "Memphis Town"
Just another story of life in the city….

Come back soon for a visual trip around DC during my favorite time of the year: Fall.  

CityLife: 7 October 2013

Life in the city, like life everywhere, gives us plenty of examples of the best and worst of the human condition. (I believe this will be a recurring theme over the next year.) People in DC aren't necessarily better or worse than they are in other places I've lived, but the urban environment, close proximity and national spotlight tends to bring attention to the bad and minimize the good.

We've been in the city now for almost a month, and during this time, we've experienced a mass shooting, a man setting himself on fire on the National Mall, a car chase that ended in another fatal shooting on the Capitol grounds, and a US Government shutdown. Due to our close proximity to the US Capitol (5 blocks away), all of this happened within a mile of our place.

The Navy Yard shootings shocked many people here, especially when considering the fact that it occurred on a military base and in a "secure facility".  Even more personal to us, it's where Ginger works. And most recently, the community (not the politicians, but the local residents who live here) have been frustrated by the Federal government shutdown. For some people, the shutdown will have little impact on their life, but for many people in the DC area, it touches many areas.

There is something terribly sad and ironic about the Lincoln Memorial surrounded with barricades and fences. The Memorial is an imposing & constant reminder of Abraham Lincoln's effort to unify the Union, yet it's barricaded and "off-limits" due to our current Congress's inability to compromise and work together.

We got out this weekend to experience the reality of the shutdown. The National Mall, which would have been crowded even though it is October, was eerily quiet. There were no lines at the food trucks, and many of the parks that we often use for recreation were closed and the streets blocked. The Commissary, where we do much of our grocery shopping was closed. A friend who works as a DC Tour Guide hadn't worked for a week. Everyday, I discover a new way in which the shutdown has impacted life in DC.

Bad news for museum-goers.

An empty World War II Memorial, except for the solitary NPS ranger.

Many of the green spaces in DC are administered by the Park Service; as a result, all of them are closed.
Lest you think all the news from DC is bad, I have seen (and continue to see) inspiring examples of people rising above their circumstances.

In the aftermath of the Navy Yard shooting, acts of kindness and solidarity flourished. We were contacted by people we barely knew and had barely met-a realtor, a next door neighbor, a random friend of a friend---strangers we hardly knew but who knew Ginger worked at the Navy Yard  The Washington Nationals gave away free game tickets to anyone associated with the Navy Yard. All across the city, you could find examples of solidarity and perseverance in the face of mindless violence.

Local support for the Washington Navy Yard.

In the case of the man who set himself on fire on the National Mall, passing joggers (the Mall is a huge draw from runners) stripped off their shirts and extinguished the flames. Despite the constant message that big cities are impersonal and city dwellers shun involvement, random strangers did get involved. (The man was airlifted to a nearby hospital and tragically died soon after. In a bizarre twist, he thanked his rescuers before he was airlifted to the hospital.) I've seen this all over DC since I've been here: locals giving directions, helping neighbors and assisting those around them.

At this point, I need to affirm that I don't have some simplistic view of human life, that everyone is happy and nice to each other all the time.  We certainly see crime, substance abuse and homelessness here, just as in other communities. But I've been encouraged by the good that I've seen, and good continues to happen here.

It reminds me of a quote by the late Stephen Covey: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response." Good and bad things happen everywhere....it's how we respond to these events that are important.

We are not victims.  We are not automated robots. We have the freedom and the ability to chart our own future.  Choose wisely.

In other news..we are moving into our new place tomorrow!  Stay tuned for details.

CityLife: A New Chapter

Ginger & I have been married for seventeen years, and we’ve lived a somewhat non-traditional life. During those 17 years, we’ve made a few career changes, traveled widely, and lived in a number of places, on both coasts and several places in-between. Most of the time, we’ve lived in one of two settings: somewhat removed mountain communities, primarily out west (Bass Lake, Oakhurst, Coarsegold, El Portal) or the traditional, suburban community (Orange Park, Virginia Beach, Ft Worth, McLean). Wherever we have lived, we have tried to be intentional about building community, and have always tried to work, shop, worship, and recreate in that area.
Starting on 1 October, we are embarking in a new direction. We’ve decided to immerse ourselves in the urban lifestyle for a year. It will be a big change from what we've done in the past, and I hope to document the positive side of living in an urban environment, as well as some of the negative. As always, there will be a healthy dose of history and a spotlight on the unique setting that is Washington, DC.
We just signed a lease on a traditional DC rowhouse, in a densely populated and primarily pedestrian part of Capitol Hill.  Ginger is committed to walking (or biking) to her job at the Washington Navy Yard, thus allowing us to continue our goal of being a one car family.

Our rowhouse is a 4-story, handsome brick building built in 1901.  At one time, it was a single family dwelling, but many years ago, it was subdivided into 4 separate units.  We have the ground floor, which includes a small yard and garage (both rare in this part of town).
Our new place on Independence Ave, SE
I should also mention that our place has a great guest room, and it’s within easy walking distance of several major METRO stops (and the US Capitol is only 6 blocks away). Guests are always welcome and highly encouraged!
Our “One Year in the City” experiment will begin on 1 October 2013.

Mt. Rainier, Part 2

Part of the original motivation for going to Oregon was to help my friend Phil instruct a student course up Rainier. Unfortunately, an injury suffered during our personal trip up Liberty Ridge prevented me from working the student trip, but I wrote the following article for the Pacific University newspaper.

"Of all the fire mountains which, like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest."—John Muir

Adventure. Courage. Resiliency. Every August, incoming freshman who participate in the "Voyages" program are challenged to develop and display these character traits during their time at Pacific. For several of the Outback staff, these character traits were refreshed, renewed, and prominently on display during a recent trip to Mount Rainier.
Due to it’s looming presence in the Northwest, it’s easy to forget that Mount Rainier is a serious mountain that requires skill and caution to ascend. Although it’s not the highest mountain in the lower 48 States (that honor belongs to Mt. Whitney in California, by an additional 94’), Rainier is considered a long, difficult, and unpredictable mountain to climb. None of its numerous routes is considered easy, with most routes taking 2-3 days for a successful attempt. The 23 glaciers that originate on Rainier all require technical climbing skills and the ability to use crampons, ice axes and rope team travel to safely make the ascent. Compounding these difficulties is the notoriously unstable weather of the Pacific Northwest, which can quickly deteriorate into near-whiteout conditions and gale force winds. All of these factors combine to create a dangerous, unpredictable mountain environment that turned back many mountaineers, including a trip by Pacific University students last year.
This year, 3 students (Dan Pitluck, Ryan Bourgaize & Ted Wogan) and one faculty member (Paige Bougher), along with Outback Director Phil Zook Friesen, made plans to attempt the Emmons-Winthrop route. The Emmons-Winthrop ascends the east side of Rainier, which is considerably less crowded than the more popular southern routes (the "Disappointment Cleaver" and "Ingraham Glacier Direct" routes). The Emmons-Winthrop route, first climbed in 1855, traditionally starts from the White River Campground and ascends 10,000’ enroute to the summit. On the summit day, mountaineers utilize the dreaded "alpine start", leaving camp in the early hours after midnight to reach the summit and descend while the glacier is still firm (a firm glacier reduces navigational hazards and makes travel much easier).

 Adventure: (Noun; "a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.) A key component of the Rainier trip was that the outcome was uncertain. The first major hurdle to overcome was the weather. The end of Spring semester is an ideal time for Pacific students, but the weather is notoriously unstable during this time. A similar trip had been attempted last year, but weather stopped the team at their high camp of 9,600’. This year, the original trip had been postponed for 2 weeks due to stormy weather and high avalanche danger. The postponing of the trip really highlighted the unpredictable nature of the mountain. Zook Friesen commented, "The group was doing everything right…physically training for the mountain, acquiring the best gear, learning & practicing technical skills, but we were still shut down by factors out of our control (the weather)." This uncertainty was a constant theme throughout the trip, as the original group of eight shrunk to the final group size of five.
One way the group worked to resolve this sense of unknown was through a logical and systematic sense of preparation. The group met periodically throughout the semester to discuss physical training, equipment and other ways to best prepare for the ascent. A technical training trip was made to Mount St. Helens, and the entire group (minus Zook Friesen) also completed a successful ascent of Mount Hood a week prior. Although none would compare to the harsh environment found on Rainier, these progressive steps served as a practical way to increase both skills and confidence.

Training on Mount Hood
Courage: (Noun: the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.) Mountaineer John Graham once wrote, "Courage is not about being free from fear. Only a fool is fearless. Courage is the ability to do the right thing, and do it well, even when you are afraid." The trip up Rainier was full of fearful moments and courage was a common trait.
One of the major objective hazards in mountaineering involves glacier travel. A glacier is a moving, dynamic sheet of ice, crisscrossed by large cracks called "crevasses". Later in the summer, as the glacier loses its winter accumulation of snow and crevasses are exposed (known as a "dry glacier"), the hazards are easily seen and managed. But early in the summer, with recent snowfall, the crevasses are covered up with snow bridges of unknown depth and the hazards multiply exponentially. Warm summer days quickly decrease the thickness of snow bridges until the passing mountaineer steps on the snow bridge and it falls away—leaving a frightened mountaineer with one foot (or more) dangling over the dark chasm. As Ted Wogan said, "You definitely don’t want to fall into the unknown." An unstopped fall into a crevasse could easily result in injury or death.

It’s times like this when the safety of travelling as a team really hits home. The five mountaineers were tied to each other, and each person played a crucial role in assuring the safety of the team.
One of the most frightening times came on the descent. While crossing a crevasse, a narrow snow bridge collapsed under Bourgaize. He safely made it to the other side, but the last man on the rope (Pitluck) was stuck on the wrong side of the crevasse. The answer, literally, was a leap of faith. After Zook Friesen built an anchor to secure his progress, Pitluck launched himself into space, landing four feet out but also four feet below where he started. The courage for the jump came from faith in his leader (Zook Friesen), faith in the group, and total confidence in their collective ability to overcome obstacles.
Resiliency; (Noun; the ability to overcome challenges of all kinds–trauma, tragedy, physical suffering, etc–and bounce back stronger, wiser, and more personally powerful.) The group left Camp Schurman, at 9,600’ elevation, in the darkness just before 3:00 AM. By the time the group had ascended to 12,000’, Ryan Bourgaize was physically hurting, winded, bending over with his hands on his knees on breaks, and subconsciously shaking his head side-to-side, as if his body was trying to convince his brain to turn around. It’s time like these when many people would be tempted to stop and turn around, to retreat back to the tent and take comfort in the sleeping bag. Zook Friesen spoke with him, encouraging him to eat, drink and keep a positive outlook. "More than anything, I told him to stop shaking his head ‘No’. A huge part of this type of mountaineering is mental," Zook Friesen comments. "I knew Ryan could do it physically—he just had to get it in his head mentally that he could."
Speaking about it a week later, Bourgaize describes it "as if a switch was flipped in my brain. After that, it didn’t get physically easier, so it had to be a mental thing." His mental & physical condition improved, and by the time the group reached the 13,500’ mark, Bourgaize felt certain he was going to reach the summit.
At 9:30, six and a half hours after leaving their high camp, all five stood on the summit of Mount Rainier, 14,411’ above sea level on a clear but blustery morning.

On the summit of Rainier.
Sir John Hunt, the leader of the British Everest Expedition (which put the first man on the summit of Mt Everest in 1953), stated, "The true result of endeavor, whether on a mountain or in any other context, may be found in its lasting effects rather than in the few moments during which a summit is trampled by mountain boots. The real measure is the success or failure of the climber to triumph, not over a lifeless mountain, but over himself; the true value of the enterprise lies in the example to others of human motivation and human contact." The successful ascent of Mount Rainier by five members of the Pacific Community stand not as a testament to any one individual, but to their collective sense of adventure, personal courage and individual resiliency.
Sunset from Camp Schurman
For more information about Voyages or the Outback program, stop by the Milky Way or visit the Outback webpage online.