BIRTHDAY TRIP 2014
by Melissa Sokulski
(Still needs illustrations)
August is the only month in which America celebrates no national holidays. Yet is has the best celestial show of all: the Perseid Meteor Shower which takes place on my birthday every year. This meteor shower boasts an average of 60 meteors an hour, which is one per minute. I was born under a shower of stars, and I’ve found the best place to enjoy the show: Cherry Springs State Park in PA, the darkest sky east of the Mississippi.
The day we left for our second annual trip was the day Ella’s swim team planned their end of year pizza party at Moore Pool.
The party was scheduled for 12 – 1. We would leave immediately after.
A glitch or two occurred:
- We did not get the car packed up in time to get Ella to the pool by noon, so
- I drove her to the pool (Dave stayed home to finish getting our stuff together). The coach hadn’t even left yet to get the pizza, which she planned to get from Spak’s Brothers because they have vegan pizza…but it is all the way across town.
- The tunnel connecting Moore pool to Pittsburgh was closed.
I swam some laps for half an hour, then left Ella at the pool while I went home to get Dave, pack up the car and go back to pick up Ella and head out.
The last thing I heard the swim coach say to the team before leaving to get them pizza at 12:30 was, “If you go in the water don’t go in the shallow end. Go in the middle or the deep end and make it look like you are swimming laps.”
Last thing I saw before I left: the entire swim team in the shallow end running back and forth, yelling and playing a game called “gutter ball.”
No one could have possibly mistaken them for swimming laps.
Got back to the pool at 2:30. The pizza had arrived at 2. By 3 we were on the road.
At 5:30 we realized that we were well passed the four miles a sign said it would be to the Elk County Visitor Center.
I looked back in time to see another sign indicating it was five miles back the other way. We turned around and took a little side road on a hunch that that was the road that would take us to the visitor center. I also believed in my heart the visitor center would be open til 8.
The little road wound its way up a hill. “This is where we saw the elk last year!” I said, pointing to someone’s lawn.
Dave looked doubtful.
“There’s the spring!” I said.
Dave looked impressed. We would stop on the way back as it was getting late and we wanted to make it to the center.
The road had a switch back and continued up hill, passed some viewing areas until finally the visitor center. Open til 8. Sometimes my memory even impresses my own self.
This year we saw elk!
A ranger mentioned a rafter (the proper word for a flock) of turkey on Buckaneezer trail. Dave had seen the turkey on another trail but I was sure she said “Buckaneezer.” When we got there: Elk. A whole gang (the proper word for herd of elk) of female elk (cows) and a couple spotted babies (calves). Awww.
Soon the ranger was there with her camera having seen them on the live cam in the visitor center. This evening the weather was perfect for elk: in the upper 60s. Last year we stopped there at 3 pm and it was hot. No elk.
The turkey were there too: a whole gobble of them! (Gobble is another word that can be used to describe a rafter of turkeys, though perhaps not technically the correct one.)
The elk headed toward the woods, displaying their cute patterned butts, and we learned why the Shawnee and Cree word for them was waapiti (now we say wapiti). It means “white rump.”
Elk are not moose. Nor are they caribou nor reindeer (though caribou are reindeer.)
Europeans call moose “elk”, so that may be confusing if you are from Europe or in an argument with someone who is from Europe about moose or elk.
The main differences between elk and caribou (besides being a totally different genus and species, though they are both in the deer family) are:
- Elk are also known as wapiti (a derivation of the Shawnee and Cree word for them, waapiti, meaning “white rump.”) Caribou are also known as reindeer.
- A group of elk is called a gang, a group of caribou is called a herd.
- Only male elk have antlers, both male and female caribou have antlers (mostly).
- Elk are in North America and Eurasia, Caribou are in the Arctic and Subarctic climates, such as Santa’s workshop in the North Pole.
- Caribou (Reindeer) are one of the only mammals (possible the only mammal) which can see and make extensive use of seeing UV light. It helps them find lichens to eat, spot predator’s urine and fur on snow. Snow is UV reflective, while the lichen, urine and fur absorb UV, making them look dark in comparison.
- Caribou (Reindeer) have a pretty important job on Dec 24, while elk just huddle together trying to stay warm.
- Caribou have the largest antler to body size ratio of all deer.
What is the difference between antlers and horns? (Not a riddle.)
Antlers are shed yearly, growing back every year. Horns stay put. They are permanent and not shed. If they are cut off they will not regrow.
Who has horns? Ovines and bovines. Ovines are sheep and goat, bovine are cow, bull, oxen, bison. Both males and females usually have horns. (Cow horns are often cut off by farmers.)
Who have antlers? Male deer, moose, elk, and male and female caribou.
Some unusual facts about turkeys:
- They are, indeed, named after the country Turkey.
- A group of wild turkeys is technically called a rafter. But you will also hear a group of turkeys referred to as a flock, crop, dole, gang, posse, and gobble.
- Male turkeys are toms. Females are hens. Babies are poults.
- Turkey have the second heaviest maximum weight of any North American bird, second only to the trumpeter swan.
At 7pm we resumed our drive. We did stop at the spring on our way back out to 555.
How do we know the water is drinkable?
Did we test it? (No).
Did we ask a local? (No).
How do we know it is safe?
Why Wild Water (propaganda):
Victor Schauberger, an Austrian forest caretaker, naturalist, philosopher, inventor and biomimicry experimenter had interesting things to saw about natural water. Look him up and watch some youtube videos if you get a chance.
At 9 pm we got to the end of the road, where it intersects with 44. No sign of or for Cherry Springs, though the map indicated it should be right here.
I looked at the map and looked up: nothing but a sign: 44 North to the left, 44 South to the right.
Ir turns out you actually have to turn your head to the right to find the big sign for Cherry Springs. This is not as intuitive as you might think.
Ella had her very first “I hate you!” tantrum as she was going to bed that night. She had brought a tent for herself, but was a bit scared to use it, so we gave it to C and R to sleep in. Not OK. “I hate you! I hate you mom and dad! I hate you both, I just hate you!”
On Sunday mornings we listen to Casey Kasum’s 1970s retro countdown. There is a commercial every week: “The first time my son Jonathon told me he hated me….Hi, I’m psychologist Linda Brown. Call now for your free program.” We usually roll our eyes and chuckle when it comes on.
Maybe next Sunday I’ll call the number.
Last year at Cherry Springs the sky was so dark we saw the milky way. And tens of thousands of stars. And the Andromeda galaxy with just the binoculars. It was pure magnificence.
It turns out the full moon is very very bright. And the super moon is even brighter. And the humidity in the air managed to block out all but 2 stars. Two.
The kids played at the campsite the next day. We hiked the nature trail and found polywogs (another word for tadpoles) and ate blackberries, red raspberries and lots of wood sorrel because the 6 year old was big into wood sorrel.
Along the old airplane strip we found wild low bush blueberries and more blackberries. Dave and I took a dip in Lyman Run State Park’s lake while Ella stayed behind with the kids.
Last year there was a sun viewing program before it got dark. This year was geocaching.
The ranger handed out gps systems and explained how to use them. The ten cache coordinates were already programmed in as waypoints. Julian had one and so did Ella. I was paired with J and he wouldn’t even let me see the gps system so that was no fun. I just had to trail along behind him. Luckily Dave needed to switch because the girls actually needed help and he didn’t have his glasses.
Still, Ella was very guarded about letting anyone else see or help her with the gps. I got to write down the answers to the questions once they found the mini cache, read the scroll and rehid it.
We had two hours. The girls managed 7 of the 10 caches.
Back to the campsite for a quick snack and then back to the program area with D, J and E for the lunar program.
We watched a documentary about the apollo moon landings and sky lab. Then the ranger hooked up the telescope to the screen, projecting the moon onto it. He pointed out the Sea of Tranquility, the Sea of Serenity, and Chaos. I couldn’t help but wonder.
We also got to see the moon through two telescopes (blinding! Even with filter!) and also Saturn, which is always the ultra coolest.
He pointed out some bright stars and constellations. There were more than two stars out tonight because there wasn’t the humidity of the night before.
I even saw two meteors despite the exceedingly bright super moon.
The kids gave me a bouquet of wildflowers. Ella gave me a couple braided ribbon and button anklets she made: one light blue, dark blue and purple, the other red, orange, pink. This along with the rosebush she already had given me at home.
Julian gave me the bright orange golf ball that Dave had found in the woods, to which Dave exclaimed, “That was going to be my present for her!”
“Sorry,” mumbled Jules.
(Dave actually got me a memory card for the camera.)
Sonora gave me a bottle of lime cucumber Gatorade.
Jen and Ken gave me a card and Jen gave me a gf cookie she made, which Dave ate.
Birthday success, except that Dave ate my birthday cookie.
We headed out about 12:30. First stop: Sinnamahoning Nature Center. We quickly realized why the rangers at Lyman Run had been lukewarm about it, managing only to describe it as “modern,” with the undercurrent of “if you like that sort of thing.” It was a let down.
- The stuffed animals on display were not labeled. When I asked about the identification about a specific bird the ranger answered, “It’s a grouse. The Pennsylvania state bird.” What she didn’t say out loud, though I could hear her loud and clear was “you moron.” However, if you have a wildlife center and you are educating people about wildlife, it may be time to realize not everyone can identify all the birds in PA, not even the really obvious (in your eyes) ones.
- When I tried to identify it for myself by using a PA Bird Book I saw stacked atop a pile of three books, I quickly realized the book was glued to the table. And glued shut.
- There were signs implying that we are not green enough, not nearly as green as they are. I picked up a fact sheet on “green camping” which suggested I bring a hot dog roasting stick from home rather than breaking one off a tree. First of all, hot dog. Second of all, I can find a stick on the ground thank you, I don’t have to attack a tree whether or not I brought a stick from home. Thirdly, hey, I’m not the one who sold out to natural gas companies so as to afford lavish new digs, Greenie.
- The ranger boasted that their buck elk in Sinnamahoning were bigger than the ones in Benezette. Hmmmm.
Sinnamahoning also sports a dam with absolutely no water in it, grass grass on the bottom. It lent itself to the physics experiment of dropping pebbles off, counting the seconds til they hit the earth and then figuring out how high we were. (objects drop at a rate of 9.8meters/sec/sec…but I forget how to figure that out.)
Onward to Elk County Visitors Center again, refilling our water bottles on our way to the center this time, since we’d be driving out the other way. No elk this time as it was mid day (3-4 pm) and the temperature was easily in the 80s.
Dinner in Dubois at a Japanese/Thai restaurant because though we were heading to Punxatawny we had a gut feeling nothing would be open there. (We were right.) We did spot lots of Phils, though, which is always fun. The antique store was there (Yay Antiques! Yay Road Trip! Yay Punxatawny!) but was closed. We need to go back.
On our way to route 28 I spotted a side trip on route 954 which would take us through Smicksburg. Yes, yes, and yes. Lots of Amish buggies on the road, lots of Amish people gathering in circles on lawns in front of their big farm houses, Amish youth hanging out of windows in barns frantically waving to us English zooming by in our motor vehicles.
We made it home by 10:30. Way too late for the Macy Gray concert I was hoping to see at Hartwood Acres, too late even for Willy Wonka at Schenley. Ella fell asleep. We got home and were attacked by fleas and welcomed by a towel in the bathroom the cats had used as a poo litterbox (why? Dear god, why?!?)
Home sweet home.
Later we learned that we had nearly crossed paths with, but ultimately missed Swami Sankarananda, who is walking from CA to NY following Peace Pilgrims footsteps. He stayed at Leela Mata’s ashram and Quiet Creek Herb Farm and School for Country Living, mere miles away from where we were. And he was headed to Dubois. Ah. Well. Om Om Om, Shanti. Peace.
What I missed at Hartwood Acres: