Humpback Mothers and Calves

IMG_6452 While staring at green bubbles forming on the surface of the water, a huge black form suddenly shoots up, arches its back in mid-air, then dives back into the sea, its glowing white fins making a huge splash as they hit the water.

“A whale; it’s a whale,” screams a curly brown-haired toddler, his high-pitched voice rising above the euphoric sounds of the crowd aboard the Seven Seas’ Privateer IV after witnessing the breaching humback whale mother. Moments later, two humpback calves appear, swimming in tandem while their mothers feed on plankton a distance away. They rise to the surface, shoot huge sprays of water from their noseholes and circle about playfully.

This is a pastoral moment, unlike the terrifying scenes with blood-thirsty sperm whales that Ishmael created in Melville’s Moby Dick. “In winter, the females swim to the Caribbean to mate, get pregnant and give birth to their calves, but there is no food for them there,” says Michelle, the naturalist guide. “Now they have come back to feed.”

After departing Gloucester Harbor two hours earlier beneath clear blue skies, we are now in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary with Cape Cod visible in the distance. It’s chilly in the sea breeze on the lower deck where my dad and I are chatting with a grammar school teacher and former commercial fisherman from Anchorage, Alaska, originally from Boston.

When one calf descends into the water, its two-pronged tail emerges, then gently curls before slapping the surface of the water, leaving a trail of saltwater spray. Beside me a boy of about six wearing a Red Sox cap stares intently at the spot where the calf has disappeared into the mysterious depths. Soon a round footprint of smooth, still water forms where its tail hit the water.

“That looks like an elephant footprint,” I quip, looking at the smooth round spot from the lower deck of the boat. “That would be a really big elephant,” he says throwing his hands up toward the sky.

“Yeah, that would be one scary elephant.”

Moments later, one of the calves circles around and captures a sand lance in its mouth. At that instant, a snow-white seagull flies down, snatches the fish with its beak and flys off victoriously, as the crowd lets out a collective sigh.

On our five-hour Seven Seas Whale Watch, we saw eight whales, including two finback whales (the second longest animal in the world), two minke whales, two humpback mother whales, two humpback calves and a basking shark (harmless to humans) that glided by the boat, its fin visible above the water. I’d say it was a good day!

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Prudential Tunnel Tour

Contractors prepare to remove the first sections of the I-90 eastbound tunnel ceiling in pre-dawn on April 5th, 2014. Photo by Cory Brett

Contractors prepare to remove the first sections of the I-90 eastbound tunnel ceiling in pre-dawn on April 5th, 2014. Photo by Cory Brett

Just past 5 a.m., I’m driving west on Route 128 beneath a brilliant orange sky on my way to South Boston. At this early hour, I feel like I’m traveling across an empty airport runway.

I meet Chris Blanchard, an engineer for J.F. White, outside the K St. field office for a tour of the suspended ceiling removal work ongoing in the I-90 Prudential Tunnel beneath the Hynes Convention Center. After weaving through a half dozen or more city streets, we enter the eastbound side of the tunnel, then park before putting on helmets, glasses and reflective vests.

As we head toward the work zone, I feel the cold wind whipping through the 420-foot-long tunnel. It’s just above freezing. Glad I layered up and brought my fingerless gloves. Chris introduces me to Cory Brett, the lanky project manager for Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, the lead design engineer, who like Chris has worked many long nights recently.

We walk toward the shiny red and blue Mack tractor trailers as crews prepare to remove another section of concrete ceiling slab using the customized frame lift-system, equipped with a steel ship container and four telescoping legs. I’ve already interviewed two sources about the lift system, including the designer and fabricator LM Heavy, but seeing it in operation sharpens my understanding of its design and just how it works.

While the team had planned to remove 110 concrete sections of approximately the same size, they were forced to make some adjustments. “It wasn’t safe to make cuts because of a drop ceiling—the escalator pit for the convention center is 18 inches above,” Chris says. “So crews had to remove one panel equivalent in size to three sections.”

“Last night at 3 a.m., three trucks slowly drove out of the tunnel in three lanes carrying a 33-foot-wide by 45-foot-long slab,” Cory says.

“How much did it weigh?”

“About 75,000-pounds.

“Wow.”

Aside from truck-assisted ceiling removal, this project required much heavy labor to install support hangars before crews began saw-cutting the ceiling, Cory says, pointing up to a shiny steel beam. “The ironworkers had to drag 450-pound structural-steel beams across the ceiling—-above the train tracks—-through a 2-ft-wide, 3-ft-tall access door crawling on their hands and knees,” Cory says.

“With only 18 inches from the floor to the bottom beam of the convention center, they had to slide on their bellies on dollies pulling the heavy beams, then lift them up again to thread them like a needle below an electrical conduit and above a water line.”

While driving back to the North Shore, I thought about the strength, determination and sheer willpower it must have taken for those ironworkers to deliver those heavy beams. In many ways they are the unsung heroes of this project.

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Cormorant Encounters

Pelagic and Brandt's Cormorants at Montaña de Oro, Los Osos, Calif.  Courtesy of Mike Baird

Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorants at Montaña de Oro, Los Osos, Calif. Courtesy of Mike Baird

Gliding through calm water on Lake Chebbaco, I focused on gently sliding my paddle into the water before using the strength in my abs to complete my stroke. In the distance, I saw the blurry silhouette of large, dark birds standing on a blue raft, stretching their wings to dry in the sun. With each stroke, I made out more detail.
“Dan, see the cormorants over there,” I hollered to my partner a couple hundred feet in front of me, while pointing at the raft.
“Yeah, looks like they’re on a breakaway raft.”
One, two , three… I found myself counting the birds standing in a perfect line on two edges of an old wooden raft, each spaced the same distance from the other allowing them to spread their wings.
Five, six, seven, eight.
Quietly gliding closer and closer, I took a good look, noticing the orange patch on their beaks, dark oily looking feathers and webbed feet. Double-crested cormorants, the ones that live in colonies and like to nest on rocky shores.
Later while paddling back across the lake from the shore to return to the beach where we had launched, I suddenly saw a giant arc of what from a distance looked to me like tall, thin black submarine periscopes sticking out of the water. Those periscopes, or how the long, extended necks and pointy beaks of the cormorants appeared to me from a distance, made me realize that below the gentle waters the cormorants were dive bombing in search of their next meal.

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Climbing Owl’s Head in Winter

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At 6:30 a.m., day break, we’re crossing the mighty Pemigewasset River, its powerful currents roaring through the boulder strewn riverbed below. With each step on the snow-covered cable suspension bridge, I feel the structure oscillating from front to back.

Our group of six hiker friends is heading up to Owl’s Head Mountain (4.025 ft), one of the longest single mountain hikes of New Hampshire’s forty-eight 4,000-foot mountains in the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

“My thighs and derrière feel like cold meat,” I joked to Heather, a thirtyish member of our group, who confessed she was having the same problem. The temperature was holding steady at six degrees F as we walked nearly three mile along the Lincoln Woods Trail. I donned a mask to warm my face, but my breath froze white crystals onto my eyelashes and long wisps of hair.

Later on the Black Pond Trail, we passed a marsh, sun glinting off silvery ice around slender dead trees. A mile or so later, we headed into the woods for our first bushwhack over to Lincoln Brook Trail, a detour that reduced our total number of stream crossings to three. One advantage of climbing Owl’s Head in winter is the ability to legally bushwhack which cuts out mileage from the nearly 19-mile summer route.

At Lincoln Brook, we ran into a group of three men trying to cross the rushing stream, frozen in parts, but soft in others. One hiker’s foot broke through frozen ice causing them to search for a more solid crossing. We began to doubt whether the stream was passable at all, but decided to walk along the south bank of the brook in search of a better place to cross. Most of us were wearing microspike traction, but the slippery slope had us hanging by tree branches to keep from sliding into freezing water. “Imagine what it was like for Lewis and Clark doing this for years,” quipped Dan M.

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A few minutes later, Ken found a large frozen sheet of ice that looked safe to cross. He walked to the far side, then grabbed a branch above him, took one long step over rushing water and landed on the other side. Tomoko went next, walking gingerly across the frozen slab until she reached the rushing water. Then with a hand from Ken took a long jump and was over in no time. Third in line, I felt a bit jittery trying to gauge how far I would have to jump to avoid the rushing current.

“Hold the log, then take a big step and grab my hand,” Ken shouted while reaching out to assist.
With others waiting on the ice, I knew I had to go for it. One lunge toward the other side and a tug from Ken’s hand was all it took to fly over to the opposite bank.

Callie, Heather’s trusty German Shepherd/Golden Retriever dog put us all to shame with her intuitive judgment on where to place her furry feet before gracefully launching to the other side.

From there we bushwhacked through dense Spruce forest back to Lincoln Brook Trail, branches snapping and snow showering down on us as we forged ahead toward the summit. Two hours later, after a steep bushwhack through snowy forest, we reached the summit where we met the other group of hikers who had struggled to cross the stream and exchanged stories as we ate out lunch.

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The descent required crampons and hundreds of careful steps to avoid slipping on patches of ice beneath the light layer of new snow, but we all made it down safely. Although our group could move at a good clip, our struggle to find a passable stream crossing had put us at least an hour behind schedule.

We walked the last few miles back on the Lincoln Woods Trail as the last glimmer of daylight disappeared. My feet were burning and felt like lead from the 17-mile slog, but I felt that inner sense of peace that comes after a full day of hiking and was happy everyone had successfully summited.

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Obstacle Course

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Crunch, crunch, crunch…

That would be my footsteps as I head out to load my Nordic skis into the car. It’s still dark at 6 a.m., but the boats on the rack near the car and field beyond are aglow with a blanket of new snow.

The three inches of snow that fell in Essex last night isn’t enough to ski without hitting bare spots, so Dan and I drive north to meet a friend at Lincoln Woods in New Hampshire. It is about 15 degrees F when we clip into our skis, but we warm up once we start gliding through fresh powder snow on the Pemi East Trail along the east branch of the Pemigewassit River.

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After climbing our first hill on the Pemi East Side Trail, we slide down to a stream crossing that proves a bit tricky. I’ve crossed many a stream while hiking, but crossing frozen logs on skis without getting wet is tough. Within an hour and a few stream crossings later, chunks of ice are forming on our skis so we remove them to scrape off the ice as best we can with our fingers and tips of our ski poles. My friend Mary says a plastic credit card does the trick, so I’ll be sure to stick an old one in my pocket next time.

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A mile or so later, we stop to gaze westward at Bond Cliff in the distance. Across the river, the Lincoln Woods Trail leads to Owl’s Head Mountain, and farther on the Wilderness Trail, to the Bonds, all 4,000 footers.
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On our way out, I high-step over a downed log rather than sking around it on a narrow ledge that dropped steeply into the icy rapids below. You never know what you’ll encounter while cross-country skiing through the woods, but that’s half the fun!

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Finding Zaira

Picture_075Today I had a lesson with my new guitar teacher, Zaira Meneses, and am so excited to get back to daily practice and playing. I’m working on scales in the Julio Sagreras book, playing through Italian guitarist and composer Mateo Carcassi’s (1792-1853) Allegro, challenging at first, but with Zaira’s help it’s coming, and learning the treble part of J.S. Bach’s Minuet No. 1, so we can play that as a duet when next we meet after the holidays.

For the past year and a half, I have been self-studying guitar, but having a teacher makes all the difference, especially for classical playing. Sometimes I fall in love with a piece and can sing it or hear it in my head, but get frustrated when I can’t figure out how to make it sing on the guitar. That’s where Zaira comes in. In just two lessons, she has helped me release tension from my left hand, demonstrated how to lift my fingers before gently placing them on the strings for a more supple sound in places, and revealed a “Russian trick” for moving my hand up or down the neck rather than creating more tension by stretching my fingers too far. I’m amazed at how little pressure is needed to play a note on a string and releasing all of that tension immediately frees you up to play.

Learning how to remove tension in my playing is now my metaphor for life. I’m trying, just TRYING to approach daily tasks more efficiently without forcing results. Of course that means allowing enough time for each task and that’s the hard part since I’m fabulously good at cramming my schedule with too many activities that can cause a near train wreck trying to fit everything into a single day.

So glad I found Zaira though the Boston Classical Guitar Society. I called to see if she could recommend a teacher near me on Boston’s North Shore and was surprised when she answered in a cheery voice on the first ring. With her busy teaching schedule, community outreach, international touring and family life, I figured I’d have to leave a voice mail and probably wait days to hear back. I had been searching for a classical guitar teacher, preferably someone who played Latin music. Within moments, Zaira’s warm and ebullient personality captivated me.

Though I had intended to ask Zaira about other teachers, she quickly started interviewing me: “So you’re a writer,” she said. “Woooow. I don’t know any writers. What do you write about?” I shared a little about my professional work writing about business & technology, my narrative non-fiction memoir writing about Japan, then told her how I had been going through a divorce while living in New York and decided to buy a classical guitar instead of going on a vacation–a decision I never regretted. A vacation would give me only a couple weeks of pleasure, I figured, while a guitar would provide daily medicine for the soul.

Fifteen minutes later, I had agreed to drive to Zaira’s home in Newton for my first lesson. “I can tell you’re musical,” she said.

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October Ice Cream

By mid-October, you know the days are numbered before the roads start getting messy so after Dan got home from work, we headed out for a late afternoon ride to Crane’s Beach. It was 52 degrees F and Dan insisted the wind chill would freeze me into a mummy.
“You’re gonna get cold,” he said with an intense look of resignation. Since I don’t own any of that expensive neoprene gear, I triple layered on top and bottom and squeezed my helmet over a red stocking cap. No way that wind chill was gonna bother me.
We hopped on our bikes, Dan on his sleek LeMond racing bike, I on my Trek touring bike, a hand-me-down from my 88-year-old mother who now sports a recumbent tricycle. Our neighbor Chris was painting his fence as we rode down the driveway.
“Nice bike,” he said admiring Dan’s bike, paint brush in mid-air, while I glanced at my loose handlebar tape and blank screen on the cyclometer I keep meaning to repair.

Only a couple of minutes into our ride, I felt my body begin to overheat as I peddled up the first hill on Western Ave, my gears slipping in the cold weather. I had to unzip my windbreaker, remove one fleece layer and strip off my wind pants, leaving me in two more breathable layers.

On Crane’s Beach, at the end of one of the boardwalks leading down to the sandy beach, Dan took off his shoes to walk barefooted. Clip shoes don’t do well in sand. Later I got the urge to do the same so I could sink my feet into the sand and dip my toes into the frothy saltwater one last time before wintry weather arrives.

“Your feet must be cold,” a woman said, staring down at Dan’s feet.
“Yeah, I can’t feel the soles of my feet,” he said.

Our feet were frozen by the time we got back to the boardwalk, so we quickly brushed off the sand and put our shoes back on before returning to our bikes as the sun began to set. We rode back through the salt marsh adjacent to Castle Hill, past Russell Farms where visitors were taking home the last of this year’s apples and past the hay fields back-lit by a brilliant orange sky.

“I could really enjoy some ice cream about now,” I said half joking as we coasted toward Rt. 133, assuming Down River Ice Cream was closed for the season. Then as the yellow building came into view, I saw a light and the silhouette of a teenager through the window.
“Now we HAVE to get ice cream,” I said gleefully.

I ordered lemon chiffon yoghurt. I’m allergic so ice cream is out. Lucky Dan got the real stuff–coffee ice cream. We walked around back by the strawberry planters and sat in turquoise and hot pink vinyl Adirondack chairs to enjoy our cones.

“Geez, my tongue is sticking to the ice cream every time I lick,” I lamented. “This doesn’t taste nearly as good as I remember it tasting in summer. Guess you need hot sun to melt it into that creamy consistency.”

“Yeah, you’re right. You have to bite into it,” Dan said, gingerly biting off a frozen chunk.

“This makes my teeth hurt,” I complained

By the time we finished our last bite, the sun had set. After small talking with a lanky male customer, who seemed impressed we were braving the chilly weather on bikes, we put on our headlamps, crossed the road and peddled home.

As we rode in the dark, cold wind chilling my face, I realized the ice cream hadn’t quite sated me. I needed to warm up and was ready for hot apple cider spiked with a little rum.

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