Ivan Bailey’s Savannah Legacy

IMG_9847Only in sultry, spooky Savannah, where ghosts cavort and boutiquing is an art form, could an almost-was monk start a life-defining career as a wrought iron artist. Find treasure right on the streets of the historic district where Ivan Bailey’s low country sawgrass railings, fountains, and garden gates launched his career. From the famous Sunflower and Orange Tree Gates, to lesser known works, savor the personalities of the various squares and moss-draped ambiance with a custom walking or guided tour of the artist’s early years. Don’t miss the whimsical smiling sunflowers between two houses on W Perry at Whitaker. http://savannahsites.com

Wild Wild Quest

Searching for Alaska’s Kissing Moose (175 Word Version)

“Here, I’ll turn ‘im around so you can pet his arse,” naturalist Steve Kroschel grins while stretching a mahogany pelted American Pine Marten toward the audience rear-end first. “He bites.”IMG_9174

The Marten, along with seventeen other orphaned animals including a wolverine, grizzly bear, wolf, and yes, a moose, won the wildlife lottery when they landed in the care of Kroschel at his preserve 28 miles from Haines, Alaska. Having been bottle fed by hand since infancy, the majority cannot be returned to the wild.

Which is how you can get close enough to Karen, now a blossoming seven-foot-high juvenile moose, to plant a kiss on her warm, velvety snout. You’ll grin like a toddler when you hand feed the porcupine as he gently reaches to grasp the grass from your outstretched hand. And, it’s hard not to laugh when the reindeer snuffle feed from your palm – it tickles.IMG_9210

The experiences perfectly accomplish Kroschel’s desire to bring people so close to wildlife that they can’t help exchanging distance or fear for a new sense of wonder and appreciation for these creatures great and small.

Organized tours available throughout the peak summer season, and by arrangement at other times. Contact the preserve at http://kroschelfilms.com/contact   The preserve is privately run and all donations go toward the feeding and care of the animals.


Searching for Alaska’s Kissing Moose (600 Word Version)

IMG_9166Two minutes in his presence, and you know Mario Benassi is a consummate storyteller. One arm carefully supporting an obsidian-eyed falcon, the other waving and gesturing to emphasize his points, he’s one hundred percent Alaskan naturalist with shoulder length salt and pepper hair and a full beard.   His back is to the wall of wire that encloses the pen where Isis the wolf lives. At the moment, Isis is frolicking with preserve founder Steve Kroschel, when she playfully slams her skull into the bridge of his nose and blood gushes out.     Already wet from thigh to knee after their ancient arctic fox suffered a bout of incontinence in his arms, Steve bolts from the pen, both hands holding his nose to staunch the flow. Oblivious, Mario winds up his narrative with a flourish and turns to let Steve take the stage, only to find Isis staring at him plaintively and half the group tittering and pointing in the direction where Steve had disappeared.

“Very well then, follow me.” Mario sets off and we fall behind him in a cluster as he explains that when one works with wild animals, anything can happen and no two tours are ever the same. Seeing that we’ve only been here five minutes, I can certainly understand why our excursion to the Kroschel Wildlife Preserve is going to be more humorous improv than canned solicitation. When my typical (surly) fifteen year old son trots ahead of me to be sure to hear all the details, I know we made a good choice.

IMG_9199Twenty-eight miles north of Haines, Alaska (the inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure), the preserve glides gently up a hillside, with each animal’s habitat designed to mimic their native environment.   Steve and Mario both live onsite, Steve in a tiny wooden cottage that could be an inspiration for micro homes, and Mario in the larger “palace” up the hill; a log cabin complete with plumbing and other luxuries.

Part native spiritualist, part granola environmentalist, and thoroughly passionate about the animals, earth, and people that make up their corner of Alaska, Mario and Steve have worked together for years.   In addition to their day-to-day work caring for the orphaned wildlife, they are also filmmakers, artists, and writers, with a gift for being both educators and entertainers. It’s captivating and fascinating; the enlightenment is a bonus.

Keeping curious hands and tiny fingers away from sharp teeth, Steve turns the animals so people can pet them on the “arse,” his speech pattern and accent giving away his Minnesota roots. He grabs a wildcat around the waist and stands it on its hind legs, plays ball with a wolverine, and laughs out loud as he explains why one of the male American Martens has been locked in a wooden box until the mating season is over.IMG_9193

Trading off the lead as easily as relay runners, Mario regales us with a story about being attacked by a polar bear in Siberia as he ambles up gently sloped paths switching back and forth to the various habitats. Audience members jockey for the best positions to take photos and have the experience of a lifetime: kissing Karen the moose, hand feeding the porcupine or reindeer, and trying to capture the miniscule ermine as it dashes about the enclosure. Steve and Mario patiently make sure everyone has a chance to get up close before moving on to the next exhibit.

Heavily visited as Haines highest rated cruise ship excursion during the summer, the preserve is open to tours most of the year.   Contact them directly to arrange a visit outside of the organized tours during the peak season, or in the off-season.   http://www.kroschelfilms.com/contact


Hot Air and Happy Kids

“Hold still!”  I bellow above the roar of the air thrusters as my kids roll on the ground below the black and white Holstein cow.  “I can’t get the shot.”  They freeze, Cheshire grins aimed at the camera while one of Airabelle’s sixteen handlers lowers a hoof on top of
them.  “Help us!”  They squeal between giggles, disappearing up to their shoulders under ten feet and nine hundred pounds of silk and hot air.  


Got it – another incredible image from the Night Magic Balloon Glow at the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival.

 I’d always imagined spending my time at a hot air balloon event with eyes and neck
craned up watching colorful balloons float by. But on this crisp New Mexico evening, the fun will be on the ground and in the dark. .  At eight days duration and over 500 total balloon entrants, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the world’s largest several times over. While the sunset cast a pink and orange tint over the nearby Sandia Mountains, we meandered the exhibit and educational booths for trinkets and souvenirs.

Once the breeze settled, the Glow began as one by one hundreds of balloons were inflated and tied to the ground creating swaying avenues of color up to ten stories high. With free rein to walk among the giants, festival visitors come close enough to the furnace blasts to warm chilled noses and hands and speak to the various handlers and pilots about their balloons. In addition to the traditional light bulb shaped balloons are an amazing
collection of specialty ones in shapes and images that dazzle the imagination.   Which is how we came to be rolling around under Airabelle, the biggest crowd-pleaser so far.

The kids scramble out from under her hoof, firing questions to the handler. “How big is
she? How old is she? What’s she made of?” Carol patiently answers their questions (80 feet tall, 120 feet long, coming up on 20 years, silk and nylon), while handing them a collectible card bearing all Airabelle’s vital statistics. It’s easy to see why she’s been voted
the most popular balloon five of the past ten years.  Who wouldn’t be charmed by a flying cow with a cartoon grin and two-foot eyelashes?

Behind us, an air blaster whooshes, and another shape begins to rise like a camel – lumbering rear end up first, then the front.  One last burst of air and it morphs into a three-story stagecoach. We walk over to where it hovers about ten feet off the ground, gathering another card.  Collecting cards from all the “cool” balloons quickly becomes our project for the evening. Like baseball cards, these are information rich mementos, with a photo of the balloon on one side and all the specifications, media details, and ownership data on the reverse.  Many balloons have some type of business sponsorship, and the most unique designs are often representative of the product or services offered.   Like most flying, hot-air ballooning is an expensive hobby.  We move on, stopping to admire cell phone, beer stein, and motorcycle entries before the boys see a traditional shaped balloon in red, white, and blue they want to photograph.

The speakers crackle as the announcer begins the countdown to a mass lighting.  It’s completely dark now, the only light on the field provided by the flames from the hot-air blasters.   A mass lighting occurs approximately every twenty minutes.  “Ten, nine, eight…”
everyone stops in place, readying cameras to capture the moment.  “Three, two, one.  Light up!” The operators pull their hot air generators, lighting all the balloons from the inside in the same instant. Against the night sky, the kaleidoscope brightens the entire field for
about ten seconds, and we spin around trying to take it all in before the lighting ends.

“Look Mom, it’s your favorite color!”  My oldest son grabs my hand, pointing to a big pink blob just being inflated.   We stand off to the side, debating what it might be as the balloon rises from a pile of fabric on the ground and begins to take shape.  A fairy princess?  A flamingo? A wad of bubblegum?  Finally, we see four little pink feet and a pink curly tail.   “It’s a pig!” The boys gleefully rush over to get a card, while I grin.

At the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, even pigs fly.

Want to Go?



High Tea

Mother-Daughter Hike in 1995

Mother-Daughter Hike in 1995

“I don’t know you.”  My expertly outfitted mother frowned down at me from twenty feet ahead on the snow packed trail.   “Because I certainly couldn’t have a daughter who can’t hike a mile…”

Bent over, hands on my knees, I smiled through the mist of  my heaving breath.   Who knew climbing at altitude in freezing weather could take so much out of gal?   Me, the white-collar thirty-something career girl, and my Mom, twenty-five years my senior and the female equivalent of Marlon Perkins.  It was April of 1995 and we’d set out late morning from the fortress-like Chateau Lake Louise, intent on making the 1.2 mile, 1200 foot uphill hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House.   We knew it was closed, but being out of the country when the nation suffered the bombing tragedy at Oklahoma City had us both needing fresh air and vigorous exercise.

“S’okay Mom,” I grinned. “At least you know you can outrun me if we see a grizzly.”

She grinned back. “They better still be hibernating…I’m kind of attached to you, after

As adults, mom and I had traveled together a good bit.   We couldn’t be more different – she all artist and outdoorsy, and me all career and indoor luxuries.   One thing we shared easily, though, was the love of a cup of afternoon tea.   It had started several years earlier during an auto trek through the Scottish Highlands, and now we rarely got together without celebrating over tea.   We figured to have today’s cup in the cozy dark wood paneled pub at the hotel once we completed our excursion, since our teahouse goal wouldn’t open until summer.

Using ski poles as walking sticks, and following the well-marked trail, we got to the final fifty-plus steps leading up to the cottage.   Treacherous, with hardened ice under snow, we picked and climbed our way up to valley and frozen lake.     In the still frigid Canadian spring, the view back down to the Chateau was a miracle – the sand-colored building façade a beacon surrounded by the white ice-locked lake and snow covered pines.     The quiet was deafening; that stillness created by snow and sleeping wildlife.
We rested for a while, and savored the goodness.

Lake Agnes Teahouse 1995

Lake Agnes Teahouse 1995

Just before we began our walk back, I clambered up onto the deck of the structure, and mom snapped a photograph for my scrapbook.   “We should come back someday,” she mused.  “And have tea.”

Flash forward to late August of 2008.  In the intervening years, I had a couple kids, left the corporate world, and got a job working for an airline so we could travel.  I suffered a severe back injury on the job, though, so I’m careful not to aggravate the condition.  Mom’s still the nature lover, but sticks mostly to leading walks in the flat Carleton Preserve near her home.   She’s seventy-three now and I worry time is running out for an ambitious hike in the Canadian Rockies.   With a free week on my calendar, I call.   “Hi Mom…how ‘bout a cup of tea?”

Four days later, rigged with panchos and hats for the heavy mist, layers of clothing for the bouncing temperatures, good shoes, and walking sticks, we pause at the foot of the path as it heads up the mountainside.   It’s shoulder season in Banff National Park, so the crowds are minimal, but the weather is already getting a bit dicey.

There are actually two teahouses and we may try to visit both.   Built at the turn of the 19th century as posts for workers on the Canadian National Railroad, the teahouses are only open from late spring until the first snow of fall.   All supplies are brought in via pack horses or helicopter and the workers camp in rustic huts on the property.  On their days off, they have to hike down to the Chateau if they want modern amenities or just a pizza.

The Beehive September 2008

The Beehive September 2008

We follow the same route we took in 1995, this time enjoying the wafting pine and moss and earth aroma from ground that isn’t covered in snow and ice.  The climb is modest but steady, with switchbacks and small signs to keep hikers on track.  We come around a corner and see the “beehive,” a rock formation that sits across from Lake Agnes and we know we’re getting close.  The last quarter mile of this approach is the toughest, involving mostly stairs.  Finally we reach the top and the tiny Lake Agnes shimmers flat splendor before us.

The teahouse is to our right and bustling with hikers.  We head up to the deck, opting to sit outside for now and share a table with some college students from New Zealand.   The menu is simple – tea, of course, several sandwiches, a soup of the day, and quiet a few tempting muffins and breads. We decide to share a pot of breakfast tea and a sweetbread and mostly sit conversation-free just admiring the view.

Lake Agnes Teahouse 2008

Lake Agnes Teahouse 2008

Entertainment is provided by fearless chipmunks which don’t hesitate to climb onto our table and attempt to make off with pieces of bread.   The waiter tells us just to shoo them away, and they retire to a wooden railing to watch and wait for us to leave some crumbs when we move.

After moving inside the teahouse to warm up a bit, we converse for a few minutes with two elderly couples from France and England.   The inside is charming, log cabin style with tables and chairs.  The wait staff serves both inside and outside from a menu written on a chalkboard. All of the staff are foreign students here for the months while the teahouses are open.

Fortified, we decide we are up for heading to the second teahouse, on the Plain of Six Glaciers.  It will add several miles to the hike, but it’s early and we aren’t ready to stop moving yet.

Here’s where we made our one mistake of the day.  Rather than hike slightly more uphill then level to reach the second teahouse, we opted to descend from Lake Agnes by a
second path that met up with the original one heading toward the Plain.  Unfortunately, this path was not nearly as well managed as the first and we found ourselves hanging onto trees and treading very carefully down earthen steps loaded with slippery stones and shifting pebbles.

Once we joined back up with the main path, we continued up a steady slow incline toward the second teahouse.    About halfway this became mind over matter.   As we headed up, other hikers were descending and always told us, “you’re almost there!”   We sang a bit, pausing a few times to just breathe, or rest.

Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse

Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse

Finally, we reached the second teahouse.   This one has both and upstairs and downstairs and is festooned with prayer flags like those seen on hikes in the Himalayas.   Hungry, we order a sandwich and soup to share, and more tea.     We are just savoring the rest and relaxation, when manager of the tea house announces that we’ll all have to stay a while as there’s a mama grizzly and two cubs making their way on the path at the moment.

Grizzlies?  Seriously?   Well, yes, it is a national park after all.

All the guests immediately gather on the side of the deck facing the area where the bears are spotted, and several are rewarded with a very distant view of them doing their level best not to come anywhere near us either.  My small camera captures only a blob on the hillside, but I know it’s a bear!

Gentle descent back to Chateau Lake Louise

Gentle descent back to Chateau Lake Louise

Sated, we start back, with firm instructions to talk loudly, preferably sing, all the way back to the Chateau.   Where there’s one bear….and these wild animals really aren’t interested in us.  But, a mother bear will defend her cubs if she feels threatened, so speaking at high volumes and singing alerts them to OUR presence so they can move away without being startled.  It’s a system that works, as teahouse trekkers very rarely encounter bears on the trail.    Still we happily advise those we now pass on our descent, that they are “almost there! And should be singing or talking as there was bear sighting.”

It’s around 4PM when we make it back to the free parking area next to the Chateau designated for day-hikers and we’re exhausted.     The entire hike is 9.2 miles long.

In retrospect, I’d take a different route, especially with an older person.   My recommendation is to head first to the Plain of Six Glaciers teahouse staying on the path that curves around Lake Louise then gently rises to the Plain.   From there, take the over the hill path around Lake Agnes to the second teahouse.  Then, descend via the stairs and switchback path to lakeside.

It’s a splendid experience.  For High Tea, you can’t get any higher or better than this in North America.

When to Go:

The teahouse opens late spring when the snow stops.  Sometimes as early as May, most years it’s June.  It closes when the snow starts in the fall.   They’ve been open as late as
early October, but that is rare.  To find out if they are open, contact either the Lake Louise Tourism Office or the Chateau Lake Louise.



Where to stay:   Summer is peak season, so all the options are more crowded and expensive.  Shoulder season in May and September do see significantly less traffic and better rates.

The Chateau is wonderful, with restaurants and many luxuries.  It’s also very convenient.

If you are on a tighter budget there are several chain hotels in the village of Lake Louise, as well as an excellent hostel that takes all ages.  The hostel has a particularly noteworthy and affordable restaurant.   If you are staying there, the hotel across the street will let you use their pool and/or hot tub for a very small fee.

You’ll need it!

London with Kids

London with Kids: Behind the Scenes is Much More Fun!

“When I shout ‘MAWCH’,” our Harry Potter bespectacled tour guide Rebecca bellows to us. “What do we do?”

“We MAWCH!” our voices chorus, making a feeble attempt to match her lovely British accent.

“Right!” She laughs, holding up her flag, our pennant to follow should we lose sight of her when the Official Changing of the Guard Walking Tour ramps up to full speed. Instead of crowded against the wrought iron gates outside Buckingham Palace waiting to watch the Beefeater clad guards stare at each other for an hour, we’re lined up on the sidewalk across from St James Palace, about a quarter mile away. This is where the Changing of the Guard actually begins, and we’re about to have the experience of our lives marching next to Britain’s Royal Guard right up the Mall toward Buckingham Palace.

Okay, we’ll be on the sidewalk walking, or jogging along next to them while they process. But, no question, this looks like much more fun than standing around at Buckingham Palace waiting for them to arrive.

On cue, the red coat clad guards parade into the courtyard of St James and stop in formation. Instruments poised, they launch into a rousing version of…Downtown? Those of us in the crowd who were around in the sixties hum along. With a great finale, the guards snap into step and head straight for us.

“Now!” Rebecca hollers, leading the way on the sidewalk as we march, right next to the soldiers, around the corner onto the Mall and head straight for the Palace. The kids are laughing and running alongside, careful not to step into the street where the horse-mounted police Bobbies most certainly are toting guns. The pace is brisk, but the marching, music playing guards are just feet away from us.

We parade up the Mall about a quarter mile, just before it ends in a large barricaded traffic circle with Queen Victoria’s statue in the center. “Follow Me, and everybody hurry!” Rebecca veers off the sidewalk to take another path, as we cut across the edge of St. James and Green Parks. It’s amazing how fast she can move backwards, lecturing the whole time at the top of her lungs.

She explains that the Guard Unit we marched up the Mall alongside will now process into the courtyard of the Palace and stand and stare at the retiring guard for the next thirty minutes. All those poor souls pressed against the iron fence to watch the changing are really missing the action.

Just then to our left a second group of soldiers depart their barracks, and march right in front of us toward the palace. Rebecca explains these are the guards taking over for the current ones. We are treated to a visiting guard from Scotland today, in their regal parade uniforms, some bearing modern weapons, other ancient ones such as axes and spiked clubs.

Once they pass, Rebecca gathers us into a group and ushers us toward the center of the traffic circle in front of the palace, where we have an excellent view of the formalities until they conclude. We feel like we got a secret pass in a back door and reserved spot in the wings.

If you are going to London for any reason, but especially with kids, skip the crowds at the Palace and take the walking tour. It’s fun, fast-paced, and educational (but, don’t tell the kids that part!).

The tour lasts one-and-a-half hours and departs from the tour visit center at 17 – 19 Cockspur Street at Trafagar Square promptly at 10:30AM each day. You do not have to reserve a spot, but get there thirty minutes early to pay so you don’t miss the beginning.

The best deal is The Original Tour, which includes 24 Hours of access to the hop on/hop off London Double Deck Bus Tours, the Walking Tour, and a Thames River Boat Tour. Summer prices are 22 Pounds Sterling for Adults, 10 for children ages five to fifteen.