Quote of the Moment

"It's never wrong to hope, Byx," said my mother. "Unless the truth says otherwise."
- from Endling #1: The Last, by Katherine Applegate

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sands of Time

This past Sunday, the relatives and I visited the World Sand Sculpting Championship, once again hosted in a scenic area parking lot between a deserted Target and a deserted Toys R Us. It was a little smaller this year - no teams larger than pairs - but, if nothing else, it would give me an excuse to inflict more photos on the blogging community.

"Relatives" included the usual immediate family, my uncle, and Grandpa. This being a flat and relatively small venue, and something he actually seemed to enjoy last year, we thought it would be an ideal place to get Grandpa out and about for a while.

For a while, he was getting himself up to walk three times a day at the group home where he's been living. He'd been reading the paper (or at least skimming it), and commenting on it.

But, as we've learned too well this year, it's impossible to take anything for granted at his age, in his condition. They finally got the catheter out, but he still has lingering infection issues. He also keeps building up too much fluid, requiring numerous games of doctor tag before anyone will adjust his water pills to deal with it.

All of this takes a toll on his increasingly fragile stamina, not to mention his increasingly cloudy mental state. Between one day and the next, he can go from relatively alert and lively to glassy-eyed and weary. Sunday, the day of the Great Sand Sculpture Excursion, was a weary day.

For a while, Grandpa managed to walk with the use of his walker, but the effort told on him. Though we were there while the sculptors were still working, fielding questions and putting finishing touches on their incredible creations - including patiently affirming one clueless man's question as to whether the sand being wet had anything to do with how they were able to sculpt it - he hardly seemed to notice them. Just staying upright consumed most of his attention.

Before too long, it was time to switch off to the wheelchair.

The group home has an annoying habit of removing the foot rests of Grandpa's wheelchair, and storing them far away from the wheelchair itself. My uncle didn't check, before he left, to see if the rests were on or off. (Of course, this is a man who never remembers sunscreen or a hat, despite repeated scorchings...)

Without foot rests, pushing him in the chair requires some cooperation on Grandpa's part; he has to lift or "walk" his feet, or they catch on the ground or snag the front wheels.

For a while, it worked out. Freed from the effort of walking, he even seemed a little more alert, though his eyes tended to wander about, unable to stay focused on any given sculpture for long.

Before too long, though, he was letting his feet glide along, unwilling or unable to lift them. Even sitting down was proving strenuous for him. Since he couldn't be pushed, my uncle had him get back up on his walker as we headed toward the food court (or rather, three tents selling foodlike substances and cold liquids.)

Grandpa managed to get to the tables, even navigating hoses left in his path. (People don't realize how difficult it is to deal with hoses until they have a relative in need of a walker or wheelchair; that inch or so of lift to clear one's feet becomes a monumental task.) But that was about it for the day. He was asleep almost before he'd sat down. Even the temptation of chocolate milk failed to rally his stamina.

Before the final judging started, we headed off. Grandpa had to be rolled backwards; once more unable to participate in his own transportation, it was easier to roll him backwards, letting his heels skim the ground, than push the whole length of his foot on the asphault.

The final sand sculpture, on the last row, seemed oddly and eerily fitting for the day.  Its title, appropriately enough, was "The Sands of Time."

Monday, August 08, 2011

The Trek

Barely a week in, and August is already shaping up to be a busy month for family things. Last weekend (technically the last day in July), we hit the local Highland Games. Yesterday, we made the drive down to Northwest Trek, a native wildlife park whose main draw is the tram tour: a large chunk of the park is dedicated to free-range herbivores, with tram tours allowing visitors a "reverse zoo" experience wherein the beasts are free and the humans are confined. As children, we all made the pilgrimage at least once, and remembered it mostly for the long drive down, a tram tour where one might have seen a deer sleeping next to the road, and a quick lunch before being loaded onto the buses for the long drive back before school let out.

For some reason, Grandpa got it into his head that he wanted to go. From there, it infected the rest of the relations, until it became a "We Have To Do This Someday" summer plan. (Grandpa's still not quite who he used to be, and we all know he won't be around too many more summers...) Yesterday, Sunday, became "Someday" for trip-taking purposes.

Why, yes, I am about to subject you to the virtual photo tour. Why? Because the Internet's the closest thing to social interaction I have...

This guy has been greeting visitors since... well, since as far back as I can remember, possibly as far back as the park's been open. I expected it to be as close as I was likely to get to a photogenic animal; as mentioned, in years past, I've never had much luck with their tram tours providing more than the most fleeting glimpse of the resident fauna. (Admittedly, part of my skepticism stemmed from a less-than-direct route to the park; despite Mapquest directions, the other carload of relatives insisted on the "scenic" - i.e., the "I'm sure I know a faster way/Wait, what was the exit again?" backtrack-for-half-an-hour-and-ditch-the-hapless-fools-following-them - route. Not a great foot to start out any expedition on...)

Once we'd paid for our admission (which came with a tram-ride token - about 40 minutes out), we herded ourselves inside for a visit to the restroom and a glance at the map. I scarcely remembered all the meandering trails about the central area... trails far too extensive for kids to explore when there's a school bell to hurry back to an an hour-long drive to beat it. If nothing else, I figured I'd get a good in. Grandpa was enjoying himself, at least. The weather was cooperating, if nothing else was yet...

We didn't want to get too deep into the trail system before the tram tour, so we headed down there to wait. Fortunately, we weren't the first in line... Actually, they were moving people through at a fair clip. We also got to get on first thanks to Grandpa's wheelchair. Time to settle in and see if I can't find something photogenic.

Horseshoe Lake proved nice and easy to photograph. But, then, it's much harder for a lake to hide in the grass, dart across a road, or turn its least-photogenic end toward you...

Maybe it was the weather. Maybe it was dumb luck. But I saw more animals in that tram tour than I recall ever seeing in my entire history of visiting Northwest Trek. Since the trams aren't allowed to come to a full stop (slowing to a near-dead-stop-crawl), and since I suck with cameras, I can hardly report spectacular success, but nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised... and the throw-enough-stuff-at-the-wall theory proved out as I managed to fluke a few decent shots.
This guy's an endangered species of elk, with scarcely more than 2000 left between America and Canada; their old-growth forest habitat's been on humanity's hit list for far too long.

A Columbia Blacktail deer rests in a patch of grass. We saw several of these guys, but this buck was the most photogenic.

Next, we came to a herd of bighorn sheep, who also proved suspiciously cooperative.

A group of misguided tourists in a second tram, up on a ridge above the sheep-filled meadow, must have thought we were interesting enough to photograph. So I returned the favor.

A bull bison snoozes in the woods. Normally, he would be out trying to impress the ladies this time of year, but this guy looks like his freewheeling bachelor days are long behind him... like most aging males, he prefers to be left alone for a nice snooze.

The tram tour wound over hill and dale, through meadow and woodland. This view just reminded me of so many places I've been in the Cascades - the tall, sun-dappled treetrunks and the shady trails - that I thought I'd record it for posterity.

We came upon a wetland with a pair of moose. The bull was resting right next to the road... on the opposite side of the tram. The cow, on the other hand, was more conveniently located.
We also learned that moose eat somewhere in the neighborhood of 27,000 calories' worth of plant matter daily. The tram operator tried to impress us by telling us we'd have to eat about 47 Big Macs or 20-odd Cinnabons to get that many calories. (My thought was... only 47? Dear gods, no wonder obesity is about to go pandemic...)

Another pair of bison. We later saw another herd, with calves, but they were in the woods on the opposite side of the tram.

Remember that ridge we saw the second tram on earlier? We found ourselves up there, later in the tour. Couldn't see much in the way of animals, save tiny brown dots far below, but the view was something else...

Toward the end of the tour, a mountain goat turned up by the roadside. He didn't think much of tourists and their cameras, though...

Coming back around Horseshoe Lake, we spotted the White Widow: a trumpeter swan whose mate had passed away. Several of their offspring had evidently been shipped back east, to Ohio or thereabouts, to help rebuild the swan population there. (There is still a second breeding pair of swans on the grounds, but they seem strangely drawn to a nesting site near the raccoon den... 'coons make lousy egg-sitters, evidently.)

On the way back to the tram station, a herd of caribou had set up camp on the roadway, as is evidently their habit; we had to crawl behind a nonchalantly-trotting beast all the way up to the station. (The tram operator said she sometimes felt like Santa, following reindeer up the hill...)

And thus ended the tram tour.

Time's gotten away from me, so that'll be it for now. Later today, I'll post the pics of the rest of my trip.

'Till then...


Okay, got Grandpa's lawn mowed, picked up groceries, and otherwise fulfilled my real life obligations for the day.

Back to the photo dump...

Once the tram ride was through, we split up and wandered through the extensive trail network, where more animals were on display. This guy reminded us of the bird feeder bandit, currently held at bay by an electric fence.

A grizzly. If one of these guys had been after our feeder, we would've let him have it. And anything else in the yard he wanted.

Wolves, a former native, are slowly making a comeback in the wild in this state (ranchers and poachers notwithstanding.) This one displayed an uncanny sense of cameras, mocking us from the rear of the exhibit.

Of the three cats at Northwest Trek, the cougars proved the most active. In their display, one can view a red dot on a tall tree; it marks the highest recorded downward jump of a cougar... 60 feet. (They can jump about 20 vertical feet from a standstill, too.) The kids next to us were engaged in a lively debate about whether a knight or a cougar would win in a fight. They seemed to be of the opinion that the sword would tip the balance. I wouldn't bet on that one...

A fisher, of the weasel family. Another Northwest native that's been having a rough time with bipedal invasive species.

The otters were, in otter fashion, moving faster than the camera could reliably tracked. This is the closest to a presentable image I got of their antics.

It probably looks stuffed, but this is in fact a live beaver (on a leash), part of a trailside talk by the staff. Like most rodents, beavers grow continuously throughout their lives. This on was 20-30 pounds, but records exist of 70-odd pound behemoths... in the days before large-scale trapping.

The park had four birds on display: the snowy owl, barn owls, a turkey vulture, and a pair of golden eagles. Two of the four species proved too elusive for a good shot. Three, really, if you count this cruddy image (the best I managed under the circumstances.)

One of the golden eagles, patiently posing for photographs in its habitat.

Well, that's it for the photo dump. It was a beautiful day, one that already has relatives talking about a return trip (possibly for one of their limited-seating photography packages.)