Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Greenville zoo in winter

As the snow and sleet once more hit the Upstate, several of our planned playgroups were cancelled and rescheduled. Somewhat desperate to get out of the house last week we headed to the zoo. Many of the animals were hiding indoors from the cold, but a few were enjoying the fresh air and with a stop at concessions for hot chocolate it was a very pleasant afternoon.

The alligators and snapping turtles cuddling in the cold weather

The grand opening of the South American Aviary exhibit was a couple weeks ago, just before the first of the cold hit. On our visit zookeepers were busy trying to catch the sun conures to move them indoors to warmer quarters where the other birds were already waiting. The redesigned exhibit offers a much larger space for the eight different species of birds, and gives visitors a taste of what is to come this year in the South American department.

What was formerly the elephant exhibit will make its debut as the South American mixed-species exhibit this summer. Construction is well underway on the area that will feature giant anteaters, rheas and mara, as well as plants and grasses native to their South American home.

Another recent development is the new Nature’s Nook play area located adjacent to the aviary. What used to be a bear sculpture and a couple of picnic tables is now an unstructured play area for kids. Featuring exploration tables, musical instruments and the building blocks I wrote about a while back, I can imagine this area will be a big hit once the weather warms up. Nature’s Nook was made possible through a grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), who announced last September that Greenville Zoo was granted AZA accreditation.

Many of the animals are used to warmer weather and were hiding indoors, such as the orangutans and most of the other primates. Bob, the baby Bornean orangutan (actually born in 2006) left us in December for his new home at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon as part of the Orangutan Species Survival Program breeding program. We're happy Bob is getting along with his new friend Kumar…

Meanwhile the Amur leopards were loving the cold weather and patchy snow. I have rarely seen them moving around as much as during this colder weather.

Yesterday we woke to an inch of snow, and as the morning zoo trip was cancelled we headed to Falls Park with a sled borrowed from the neighbors. The weather forecast for this evening calls for more snow; I don’t want to jinx it, but we could sure use another few inches… Warm wishes to all of our friends at the zoo, we’ll be back to see you soon!

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Bassmaster Classic in Greenville

When we got married a bunch of our friends chipped in and bought us a boat. I’m totally serious, Roberts and I are boat owners. We’ve got one of those floating keyrings and everything. That the fishing boat is currently in Michigan, the Great Lake State is a big fish story for another day, but my point is, our friends knew something about us. And that’s that we love to fish.

A Gaŗezers musky

Of course there’s been less fishing the last years, but that doesn’t diminish the feeling of a tug on the line after a perfect cast. Roberts used to keep a tackle box in the trunk of his car “just in case.” And my best present to him while I was living in Georgia and working for the Fish & Wildlife Service was knowing which local lakes and ponds were likely to be hottest on opening day. For me it was more about the solitude; I loved having an excuse to get out on the lake in the early morning hours with a travel mug of coffee and a cooler, taking advantage of the coolest temperatures of the day and watching the fog rise from the lake. Which is probably a good thing, as I never caught much.

Me with a rare catch - a Piedmont NWR largemouth bass

It’s been a no-brainer to hand a fishing pole to the boys during our summer trips to Gaŗezers, and they’ve already spent hours out on the pier with vecmamma Aija and their cousins, patiently practicing their cast and even catching a few fish. These days Lauris is proudly wearing the kids fishing tournament t-shirt I sent my godson Imants back when I was working for the Fish & Wildlife Service, which has traveled the full circle and now fits him perfectly. I expect that I’ll have another fisherman in Vilis, as he’ll want to join his brothers as soon as he can wobble after them. In fact, I look forward to the days when the boys are old enough (know how to swim and can bait their own hook) to take fishing trips as a family.

So what brings about this trip down memory creek? This weekend bass fishing’s famous Bassmaster Classic was in town! The 2015 Geico Bassmaster Classic (presented by GoPro) started Friday, with a daily launch on Lake Hartwell, the expo at the TD Convention Center and a daily weigh-in at the Bon Secours Wellness Area. The weather made for some interesting fishing, as cold temperatures, rain and sleet delayed start times and provided unusual conditions. After Sunday’s weigh-in Upstate native Casey Ashley emerged victorious with a total weight of 50.1 pounds – four pounds (and $255,000) more than runner-up Bobby Lane.

Casey Ashley at Sunday's weigh-in (source here)

We didn’t make it out to Anderson for the morning launch, but we headed to the expo on Saturday. The place was packed, traffic spilling out onto Pleasantburg Rd. and people lining up for trials and freebies. Honestly, it was pure madness navigating the expo with the boys, but on the other hand they scored some great new gear to try out this summer.

The Bassmaster Classic expo (source here)

We had the best of intentions to attend one of the daily weigh-ins, but skipped it upon seeing the crowds waiting for the doors to open. From the online pictures it looks like the place was packed and we made the right choice. However, the Classic has reminded me how much I miss all of it: being out on the water, the thrill of that first tug, releasing the catch and watching it swim away… As the temperatures warm up I’m already researching a few places to try our luck, and Roberts will soon get the assignment of sorting out the boys’ poles and gear – as I know he’s got his ready to go!

Launch on Lake Hartwell (source here)

For the Greenville Bassmaster Classic website click here
The official 2015 Bassmaster Classic website is here
          (In particular, the photo albums from the action out on the lake like this one)

The boys and Miss SC, Lanie Hudson at the expo

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Upstate encased

With Presidents’ Day on Monday and inclement weather holidays yesterday and today, Greenville kids have gotten a little winter mini-break.

On the other hand, most of our plans this week have been cancelled due to hazardous driving conditions. So hello, stir-crazy.

 Dad waited until the roads were safe to head to work yesterday, and we had a couple of hours to explore the frozen milieu with him in the morning.

Luckily there was little wind in our neck of the woods, and so other than a branch or two our big trees are still intact and power remained on.

My hyacinth came up a little early this year, I don’t think it will make it. And the carrots, radish and salad that have been slowly but surely producing for us all winter are probably goners. But oh, it was gorgeous outside – our own Frozen.

I was amazed at the vibrant colors magnified by the ice.  

Even our lawn had been transformed, with delicate Chihuly sculptures emerging from the ground.

The boys were less enthralled with the world of ice, as what little wasn’t too hard to play with soaked their gloves in an instant. So we took it all in and then headed indoors for hot chocolate.

Because that’s what snow (ice) days are all about, aren’t they? Hot chocolate.

Friday, February 13, 2015

5 on Friday - sinkholes, blue blocks and such

Five things that are on my mind this Friday:

1. Aldi is coming to our neighborhood! We’re in a bit of a grocery dead zone, hence the excitement. The new store will be located on Pleasantburg near the Home Depot. About the brand - Karl and Theo Albrecht founded Aldi together in Germany, but a disagreement in 1960 over selling cigarettes caused a split; the stores north of the Rhine & in part of Europe would become Theo’s Aldi Nord, and Karl’s Aldi Süd would be in southern Germany, the U.K. and Ireland. Today both companies operate in the U.S., Aldi Süd as Aldi, and Aldi Nord as Trader Joe’s. And I bring this up because both companies sell French and European products that we grew to love while living in France. For those curious as to what a French expat living the US would buy at Trader Joe’s, please read French Girl in Seattle’s Trader Joe’s 10 Best French Finds

Source here

2. The new trolleys officially have their new route and now their new signs indicating trolley stops. We’ve not taken the trolley since last year, but look forward to many future trips. To download the map showing the trolley route and stops visit the Greenville City website here. Now if only they had an app utilizing GPS, showing potential riders where the trolleys are located at any given time…

Photo on left courtesy of the Greenville Police Department's facebook page

3. We had to reroute our usual way to the library due to a giant sinkhole! The picture on the left is from the Greenville Police Department's facebook page, I didn’t get to it until repairs had begun – picture on the right. I’m not bringing this up because of having to reroute to get to the library, instead it’s the nature of sinkholes that gets me; one day a giant chasm just opens up! Luckily this one didn’t swallow any cars (that I know of).

4. The Children’s Museum of the Upstate has brought back the blue blocks. I was hardly able to write that, much less say it! (brought back the blue blocks, blought black the brue bocks…) The boys are happy, I’m happy. The Simple Machines exhibit is an introduction to engineering teaching children to recognize and understand six types of simple machines (levers, wheels and axles, pulleys, inclined planes, edges and screws) as they design and build structures of their own. The exhibit will be in Greenville until May 17th.

Mr. Bobby Parker, source here

5. On a more somber note, our neighborhood butcher Mr. Parker has passed away. Reading his obituary told me so many things I didn’t know about the kind man who always welcomed us into his store with a smile and hearty hello. Mr. Parker was originally from Mississippi and served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Afterwards he lived in Detroit and was a decorated officer of the Detroit Police Department for 17 years, also attending Wayne State University. Having moved to Greenville in 1970, Mr. Parker founded Parkersway Food which has served customers in the North Main area since. I’m embarrassed as to how little I knew about a man that was always so kind to us, always took the time to tell me he valued our business and was happy to see us. Mr. Parker taught me that here in the South a spatchcocked chicken is called a ‘split chicken’ and his freshly ground beef always beat the stuff to be had at the big chain. Even during his illness he always had a smile for the boys. My condolences to the family… He will be missed.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

La Paz Waterfall Gardens of Costa Rica

We had one final adventure awaiting us in the mountains of Costa Rica: La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The morning excursion up to the rim of Poás volcano had ended in foggy (non)views and I was worried that the cloud cover and rain would make for an uncomfortable afternoon at the famous attraction. To reach the northeast slope of the volcano from the Poás National Park we had to drive south all the way to Poacito, then east, and then north. The gardens opened in 2000, and are adjacent to the Peace Lodge, deluxe accommodations complete with Jacuzzis, fireplaces and waterfalls in room; they are also booked months in advance. We made the short trip back up the slope of the volcano and entered.

The main attraction of the 70 acre park is the series of five waterfalls connected with a 2.5 mile trail, but there is no shortage of amazing exhibits and museums. We started at Trout Lake, walking behind the man-made waterfalls and admiring the view.

The Aviary is a sanctuary for rescued birds that cannot be released back to the wild, similar to the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary we had visited on the south coast. Wildly colored macaws, grosbeaks and tanagers flitted about in the enclosure, and Lauris and I even had the pleasure of meeting a toucan, face to face.

The butterfly observatory contained over 20 different species and included a station allowing visitors to follow the lifecycle of a butterfly. Although beautiful, I found it sad that these outrageously colorful creatures were enclosed, and there seemed a disproportionate amount dead. I would much rather visit the Roper Mountain Science Center butterfly garden

In the monkey exhibit we met spider monkeys, white faced monkeys and white tufted eared marmosets.

The hummingbird garden was rather unbelievable. The brochure boasts that “this is the only documented place in the world to find 26 hummingbird species” and although I can’t say how many different species we saw, I do know that despite the rain and cold the garden was alive with the humming of tiny wings and the chirruping as they chased one another around from feeder to feeder.

It was a quick glance at the Serpentarium with its thirty snakes before entering the jungle cat exhibit. It was depressing to see these cats pacing their enclosures, although interesting to see animals we will never see in the wild: jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, jaguarundis…

There was a beautiful orchid garden – I found my photographs did not do the display justice.

The frog exhibit was pretty cool, with poison dart and leaf frogs hiding throughout the house. It was actually pretty tricky to find them, although we did spot a handful.

One of the most interesting exhibits was Casita de la Paz. The reproduction of a rural farm was built using only tools available to the average farmer a century ago, and actors in period costume were on hand demonstrating various farm chores. A hand-painted carreta was the tool once used to transport coffee beans; it was in the 19th century when the custom began to paint the cart in bright colors with geometric designs. Metal rings were added to strike the hubcap and chime when in motion, and the spokeless wheels are bound with a metal belt.

And then it was on to the waterfalls. The five waterfalls are El Templo (85ft), Magia Blanca (120 ft), adjacent Encantada (65ft) and Escondida (15ft) and finally La Paz (110 ft). The trail is constructed in such a way that there are multiple viewpoints for a majority of the waterfalls, and with Templo we took in the view from in front of the falls before crossing the river and having a look from a different perspective.

The usually unimpressive view of a waterfall from the top (in this case Magia Blanca) was rendered indisputably astounding with a backdrop straight out of the movies.

Each waterfall seemed more breathtaking than the previous, and as the sun came out for the last portion of our hike, the experience became simply magical.

Magia Blanca waterfall (look for the boys for scale)

The area gets on average 14.5 feet of rainfall per year. Because of the change in elevation and aspect, the trail covered both cloud and rainforest. I thought it interesting that the La Paz river flows east to the Caribbean, but rainfall on the other side of the volcano flows west, towards the Pacific.

Encantada & Escondida with Magia Blanca visible in the background

One of the most ingenious design aspects of the trail construction is that it is mostly downhill, and a shuttle takes you from the end of the trail back up to park reception. (That way you can save your strength for other important things, like 40th birthday celebrations.) We opted to retrace the shuttle bus route once in our rental car in order to drive all the way down to the bottom of La Paz waterfall, as the only view afforded by the trail was from the top.

The La Paz Waterfall Gardens were an incredible addition to our Costa Rican experience. The opportunity to see five such magnificent waterfalls in such close proximity with the ease of a paved trail and stairs connecting the lot was not one to be passed up, especially when combined with the chance to see more native animals close-up with the facilities at hand to make the rainforest a little more comfortable for a family with small children. On our trip back to the cabin we reflected on the previous week and realized that despite the end of clean/dry clothes to wear and the wet/rainy weather, the gardens were the crowning event of our Costa Rican adventure. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

On the rim of the Poas Volcano

Our first Costa Rican volcano experience was with Arenal – the 5,358 foot giant that was among the most active in the world until 2010. The lodge we stayed in those first days boasted “the best volcano view” in the region, and this might have been the case, but we never saw it as the rain and fog had us socked in for our three night stay. I can’t complain too much as it did clear up enough to see Lake Arenal, the 33 square mile reservoir which is the largest lake in Costa Rica. But I also should have known better than making plans to stop at Poás Volcano during the last days of our trip.

Grand views on our way up to the Poas National Park

Poás is 8,884 ft tall, part of the Poás National Park which encompasses 14,000 acres of the Central Valley Mountain Range. Easily accessible from San José, the park is Costa Rica’s most visited park; most of its visitors probably like us, making the trip, paying the fee, hiking in and seeing absolutely nothing due to the rain and fog!

From the little town of Poasito where we were staying it’s an incredibly scenic 6 miles to the park. Views appeared and disappeared, coffee fields and dairy pastures providing beautiful views along the winding road. A rather steep entrance fee later we parked in the lot and walked ten minutes along a paved path to reach the rim of the crater. 

According to DK Eyewitness Travel “a viewing terrace grants visitors an awe-inspiring view down into the heart of the hissing and steaming caldera, which is 895 ft deep and a mile wide. It contains an acidic turquoise lake, sulfurous fumaroles, and a 245-ft tall cone… On clear days, it is possible to get magnificent views of both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.” After sticking around in the wind and rain for over thirty minutes, the clouds parted for about 7 seconds for this view…

I’m curious as to the ratio of clear to cloudy days on the summit of Poás. Of the two days we attempted both were cloudy, as is to be expected in the cloud forest, despite it being morning and the dry season - as suggested by all the guide books. As a comparison, here is the view on a clear day as seen on Wikipedia.

source: here

The park is well known for the 80 species of birds that reside within its forests, among them the rare resplendent quetzal. Overheard on the rim of the crater was a group of tourists whose bus driver had stopped on the road to the park “because there was some bird on a branch, a pretzel bird – it was pretty cool.” We did not see the elusive pretzel bird, but did stop at the visitor center to learn more about the region, the volcanos and the history of eruptions.

On both trips up the volcano we stopped at the same restaurant, one with fantastic views (despite the clouds), delicious milkshakes and friendly staff. I highly recommend eating lunch at Quieres? instead of the Poás National Park cafeteria.

Finally, strawberries. The slopes of Poás are famous for their rich volcanic soil, supporting numerous coffee plantations, flower farms, dairy pastures (Costa Rica’s famous white farmer’s cheese is from the region) and strawberry farms! For a foodie post on all the regional delicacies to be had you can read this post, but we can attest to the strawberries; they were juicy and fresh, as luscious as they were red and beautiful, and you have your choice of vendors on the roads leaving Poasito.

Although disappointed in the cloudy view of the crater, our trip to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens later that afternoon turned out more memorable than we could have hoped for. The day was a wonderful 40th birthday celebration for the husband, and the final hoorah on our Costa Rican adventure. 

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