Category Archives: Travel

Going Loony!

I am a very lucky woman.

Every year around this time, I go a bit loony – and no one seems to mind. My family and I flee the Florida summer swelter for a lakeside camp several states to the north, a place where it can get cold enough to snow on Memorial Day and ice over in August. That is where it starts: the wailing, the yodeling, the hooting, most of it in the darkest depths of the night, carried at tremendous volume over the still water, waking sleepers and spooking the uninitiated. These are the calls of the common loon, and I am crazy for them. In fact, I’m a little bit crazy for loons period, and I am not alone.Two loons

These beautiful and intriguing birds populate waters of the northern U.S. and Canada, their distinctive black and white speckled backs, white breasts, black necks adorned by a necklace of stripes and brilliant red eyes a summertime fixture in the breeding grounds to which they return after wintering in distant climes. And here “grounds” is a bit of a misnomer, as the loon spends most of its time in the water, except for when it is copulating or incubating its eggs.

waitingLoons are faithful birds, which accounts for part of my – and others’ – fascination with them. Because they are generally true to their home territories, returning year after year to their customary lakes, loon lovers go out looking for “our” birds. Are they back? Are their nests in the same spot? Do they have any hatchlings?

Loons are also faithful to their families, from mating to the offspring’s maturity, and amazingly egalitarian in their duties. They even look alike. Mates share the work of building the nest, sitting on the eggs until they Loon percarious position nest copyhatch, and then feeding and raising their young. Last year, one of “our” mating pairs built their nest on a narrow bog unfortunately close to boat traffic, prompting them to hop off frequently when frightened by motors or gawkers who came too close. The eggs, which usually take a month to incubate, never hatched. Yet the parents sat there nearly all summer long, devoted to their duty, holding out hope.

We loon watchers love to look for a baby – brown in color at this stage – riding on its parent’s back, warm and safer from predators, until it is large loonchickonbackenough to both fish and fend fulltime for itself. We love to watch an adult loon dive beneath the water’s surface and then wait while scouring the lake to see where it will turn up. Mature loons can dive to 200 feet and stay submerged for several minutes, so tracking their surfacing spot can be quite a challenge – unless they call out. Which brings us back to that hooting and wailing. Loon language is easily understood once you get the hang of it. The hoot says, “Here I am!” or, “Where are you?” The wails back and forth help loons determine distance from each other. The yodel is for males only, warning, “My territory!” And then there is the tremolo, the eerie vocalization that sounds like a vaguely demented laugh but is actually an alarm call. (Some think the tremolo is the inspiration for the saying, “crazy as a loon,” but it may have more to do with the moon or lunar phases than with this terrestrial talking.)

This coming Saturday, my husband and I will hop in our kayaks and head out for the annual loon census run by the local conservation society. At the same exact hour on every lake in our area, volunteers count the loons they spot. So far, so good. Local populations seem to be stable. Humans are banding together to protect health and habitat. I hope the loons we loonchicksee regularly will show up at the appointed time to be counted, and not be off on a jaunt to some nearby body of water. They’re “ours,” after all. Or at least it’s fun to feel that way during the short time that I’m here and going loony.

 

Summer Road Trips with the Family

Wagon…HO!

I remember the excitement and anticipation as my three brothers and I scrambled into the station wagon, Dad behind the wheel and Mom handling the maps, luggage rack on the roof. I would look back at the horses, cows, cats, dogs, rabbits, sheep – whichever creatures happened to be inhabiting our hobby farm at the moment, some of them standing watch as the car pulled around the driveway and turned onto the rural road, carrying us to exciting new adventures and explorations.

For a week or two, I wouldn’t be petting sheep, conversing with cows, riding my pony, crawling into the straw-bedded doghouse for a snuggle with our collie, carrying cats and rabbits into my playhouse, romping through the pastures, filling the water trough, sidestepping the manure, mucking stalls, or feeling the delicious tickle of a horse’s lips taking treats from my palm.

I was privileged to grow up surrounded by animals, to learn the traits of various species, the personalities of individuals, the many ways in which animals think, feel, and express – and the ways that animals we domesticate depend upon us for their sustenance: physical, psychological, and emotional. I wish that every child could have that privilege, and that every adult who’s missed it could make up for it now. So I have a vacation suggestion: don’t travel away from the animals, as I did: travel to them!

On the southern border of Utah, just above the Arizona line, cerulean skywhere rust red cliffs glimmer against the cerulean sky, and long stretches of open space call to mind settlers and cowboys, their horses kicking up adobe dust, sits an expansive parcel of paradise on earth. Nestled in Angel Canyon is Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, where abused, abandoned and neglected animals who have nowhere else to go find refuge and a level of compassionate care that leaves me searching for properly descriptive words. Best Friends Animal Society“Dedicated” is too shallow. “Heartwarming” is too trite. “Breathtaking” is barely hyperbole. Animals that would be considered hopeless elsewhere – injured, crippled, chronically diseased – and likely destined for euthanasia are instead rehabilitated to their greatest potential and given lifelong care. Or, better yet and in every instance possible, adopted out to forever homes.

Sanctuary sign copyBegun by a group of buddies back in the 1980’s, the 3,700 acre sanctuary’s name is a propos for both the founders and the beneficiaries of Best Friends Animal Society. It started with a few homeless dogs and cats and now, enlarged by another 17,000 acres of leased land, it includes horses, mules, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, rabbits, birds, and even injured and orphaned wildlife in need of care so that they can once again roam or fly free. These days, the average animal population is around 1,700 – and you are welcome to visit them, volunteer to work with them, maybe even take one (or two?) home. (Note: you do not have Panthegoatto personally visit the Best Friends sanctuary in order to adopt one of the animals in their care.)

Free tours are offered every day at the sanctuary, and volunteers are asked to sign up ahead of time. Care is taken to match volunteers with appropriate animals according to their interests, ages, and physical abilities. If you have the opportunity to volunteer, do! If you’ve never been truly “in touch” with animals, this can be a life-changing experience. And if you already know and care for animals, you’ll likely find new experiences. Cat on leash copyIt was at Best Friends that I first walked a cat on a leash, fed a potbellied pig, and spent an entire afternoon scooping rabbit poop! You can do something as down, dirty and necessary as picking up poop, as soothing as sitting with a cat in your lap, giving him or her personal attention and petting, or as adventurous as taking a companion animal on an excursion off premises.

cottage view copyStaying on the sanctuary grounds enhances the experience. There are a limited number of cabins and cottages available to visitors. They are comfortable, and the scenery is awesome: the red rock mountains as background to horses playing in the pasture, the sun setting over another day of kindness. sleepoverYou can even enjoy a sleepover with an animal and offer your impressions of his or her personality and temperament to Best Friends staff. That helps when making adoptive matches. When I was there, a potbellied pig ambassador was eligible for sleepovers and was quite the coveted guest! If you’re staying in an RV or other accommodation, no problem. You’re welcome to share your space and affections with eligible candidates there, as well.

I was so besotted with the sanctuary that I passed on the sightseeing during my visit, but you can make this as much of a varied vacation as you want. The nearest town is Kanab, five miles away. Several lodgings – hotels, motels, private residences – are available and many offer pet friendly space with a Best Friends discount. You can visit numerous state and national parks and wilderness areas; go golfing, biking, swimming, kayaking, ATVing; explore the “Old West” areas where movies and TV shows were filmed; enjoy art galleries; attend the local theater…

But first and foremost, I hope you’ll experience the animals and soak up the elevated air of compassion and dignity for all who exist here. Introducing a child to this marvelous assortment of sentient creatures and the humans who care for them may inform that child’s sensibilities for a lifetime. Getting hands on with the animals as an adult could alter your own view – and even expand your household, should you decide to take a new best friend home.adoptionpromo

With wishes that you’ll get to be a part of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary someday – and for safe, happy summer travels,

Cathy

 

 

WANDERING CUBA

I’ve just returned from Cuba, a trip endorsed by the U.S. government as a people to people educational exchange. The Cuban government (“state,” to Cubans) provided our local guide. We saw what the government wanted us to see. We stayed where the government wanted us to stay. We visited rural areas, mountains, beaches, small towns, the capital.Havana apartment building copy

The first and relentless impression is that Cuba’s clock stopped ticking somewhere circa the late 50’s or in many cases, decades earlier. Technology, modern means of production, and residential comforts as we know them seem truly foreign concepts here. In nearly every locale, the poverty is soul deadening. And that is just in looking at it, not living it.

In the country, the people live in shacks, primarily of wood. Holes gape from their sides, not all of them windows. We visit two farmhouses which by comparison are luxurious. They feature several rooms, glass windows, porches. One is the home of a third generation tobacco farmer and his family. He is matter of fact with an occasional smile. The state allows him to entertain tourists because he is a top producer. He knows that should he slip, the state might take his land. Currently, the state claims 95 percent of his crop and pays him what it wishes. As is common across Cuba, the money is not enough to live on. The other farm is open to us as a model of organic farming and Cat eating cucumberecological sustainability. Its stewards appear happy, energetic, enthused. Learning of my veganism at lunch, the wife requests a “momento ecological,” and returns holding Gato, a cat who enthusiastically crunches cucumber.

In the towns, attached single story buildings line the cobblestone streets like dormitories, housing small apartments. Doors hang open, grabbing breaths of air. We can see the interiors, windowless multi-function rooms that hold what passes for a kitchen, a table, a sitting area, sometimes a bed. Some thoroughfares blossom with modest stand-alone homes, even patches of lawn and flowers. The houses are generally uniform, box after box of the same size and shape.

In the capital, 20 percent of the island’s population crowd together in antiquated high rises, low rises, dilapidated houses. Buildings literally collapse here Havana housing2 copyoccasionally, taking their occupants with them. These are called “derrumbes,” for a giant rumbling followed by rubble and grief. Even landmark structures – museums, government agencies, embassies – are bruised and decaying, although the state is now undertaking a Havana overhaul in an effort to rehabilitate the largest tourist attraction in the country. We are driven through the grandest residential section, large homes from which we are told the wealthiest citizens fled Fidel. It resembles all the rest: the entire country seems to be crumbling, in need of shoring up or at least a coat of paint. Rotting wood and dingy cement glare through splotches of long-faded veneer. Hand-washed laundry on lines is part of the scenery from coast to coast, hanging from the yards of country hovels to the windows of city apartments.

Machines are relics, from the 1950’s American cars miraculously maintained to the Soviet era tobacco farmer’s tractor to the diesel operated water pumps that Radio copycould well date back to World War II to this radio, the property of a potter’s family. The occasional rusting air conditioner graces a window. 15 percent of the people, we are told, have access to the internet. Public phones are a primary means of Public phone copycommunication.

We actually converse with very few Cubans, shepherded through our stops. Our guide, a vivacious woman in her thirties, shares what she says is “her reality,” as she has never left the homeland. She is happy with “the triumph of the revolution,” the repetitively uttered term for the 1959 Castro coup – the state provides health care and education. She claims to be both ignorant of and not curious about where or how the brothers Castro live. She knows only how they travel: in caravans of luxury carsOld car copy with ambulance and police escorts. But she is openly frustrated at the subsistence salaries, the inability to buy or even find a car, the irony of being permitted to travel abroad when she doesn’t have the money to do so.

Food rations doled out by the state do not fill the table. Soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toilet paper are all expensive extras. Remittances – money sent from relatives and friends in America and elsewhere – prop up the official economy and fuel the black market on which Cubans depend. A good job is one that has something you can pilfer to sell on the black market in exchange for food, clothes, toiletries, household needs.

Are people happy, we ask? They’d better be, says a Cuban citizen we meet one morning at breakfast. Because people still disappear, he says. Perhaps they go to prison and then their families hear they died there in an “accident.” They never see the body, he tells us. There is no autopsy report. Nonetheless, his family likes it here. He doesn’t. He’s just visiting. He’s also an American citizen, an ocean borne escapee 21 years ago.

Cathy with street cat copyAnd then there are the animals. Everywhere. Oxen plow the fields, planted and harvested by hand. Goats work as lawnmowers. Cattle graze on the brown grass of dry season. Horses do it all: farm chores, family transportation, cart rides for cash. Roosters, chickens, guinea fowl and turkeys rake yards and fields. Pink piglets frolic on a lawn. A few doors down, a fattened adult lies on a platform being skinned. I try to take comfort in the relative freedom many open air “food animals” are given until they meet their grisly ends. (Guns are tightly controlled here. Few farmers have them. Tools are largely antiques. Your imagination can complete the slaughter scenarios.) Circling vultures are ubiquitous.

bullSaddled Brahman bulls with ropes piercing their noses offer transport and entertain tourists. Cocks are bred for fighting. Horses and donkeys are whipped with ropes and chain link. Many of their beaten backs are bony, underfed. A muscled man, cigarette in hand, simultaneously spurs and reins in his horse, sending it into a tailspin for the amusement of onlookers. Caged birds hang from doorjambs like decorations.

Dog with teats-RecoveredCats and dogs roam both rural and urban areas. Street dogs survive on scraps and handouts, grateful for the occasional ear scratch. CathyScratching dog copyProminent teats and swollen milk sacs attest to hidden puppies. Spaying, neutering, vaccinations – these are rare except for some lucky pets and in Havana, street dogs who are collared and claimed by restaurants as mascots. Cats hunt to survive. Tourist stops and table sides are fertile grounds. A lucky few make their living in open door hotels.Cat in restaurant-Recovered

We leave the plight of the land animals to spot birds in the woods: warblers, hawks, woodpeckers, the bee hummingbird – smallest bird in the world – sap suckers, the Cuban parakeet. Our hiking guide says the parakeet will kill itself if caged; it wants its independence. This is the national bird.

Lunch is an intact pig, his lively brain roasted along with the rest of his body. “It is cruel,” the hiking guide concedes to me in an aside. “But we need it.” My American companions are apparently unfazed. They stop for photos. They eat the freshly shredded corpse with gusto. I slip away and have a little cry. For the pig, for all the animals, for the poverty of the people, for Cuba, for the cruelty which spans our world from dictators to diners.

What does the future hold for Cuba? Who knows? Years more of socialism? A shot at capitalism? Official relations with America? KFCs and factory farms? The right to openly earn one’s own money? The breeze of change is whispering. Small private businesses now dot the landscape, licensed and taxed by the state. Many citizens can now travel abroad. Raul has given his presidency a deadline.

On the day we head home, the wind is whipping – toward the north. I am glad to go with it.