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Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Final Rescue

Unlike most days at Rainbow Bridge, this day dawned cold and grey, damp as a swamp and as dismal as could be imagined. All the recent arrivals were confused and concerned. They had no idea what to think for they had never experienced a day like this before. But the animals who had spent some time waiting for their beloved people knew exactly what was happening and began to gather at the pathway leading to the Bridge to watch. They knew this was something special.

It wasn't too long before an elderly animal came into view, head hung heavy and low with tail dragging along the ground. The other animals on the pathway...the ones who had been at Rainbow Bridge for a while...knew the story of this sad creature immediately. They had seen it happen far too many times.

Although it was obvious the animal's heart was leaden and he was totally overcome with emotional pain and hurt, there was no sign of injury or any illness. Unlike the pets waiting at the Bridge, this dog had not been restored to his prime. He was full of neither health nor vigor. He approached slowly and painfully, watching all the pets who were by now watching him. He knew he was out of place here. This was no resting place for him. He felt instinctively that the sooner he could cross over, the happier he would be. But alas, as he came closer to the Bridge, his way was barred by the appearance of an Angel who spoke softly to the old dog and apologized sorrowfully, telling him that he would not be able to pass. Only those animals who were with their special people could pass over the Rainbow Bridge. And he had no special beloved people...not here at the Bridge nor on Earth below.

With no place else to turn, the poor elderly dog looked toward the fields before the Bridge. There, in a separate area nearby, he spotted a group of other sad-eyed animals like himself...elderly and infirm. Unlike the pets waiting for their special people, these animals weren't playing, but simply lying on the green grass, forlornly and miserably staring out at the pathway leading to the Bridge. The recent arrival knew he had no choice but to join them. And so, he took his place among them, just watching the pathway and waiting.

One of the newest arrivals at the Bridge, who was waiting for his special people, could not understand what he had just witnessed and asked one of the pets who had been there for some time to explain it to him.

"That poor dog was a rescue, sent to the pound when his owner grew tired of him. The way you see him now, with greying fur and sad, cloudy eyes, was exactly the way he was when he was put into the kennels. He never, ever made it out and passed on only with the love and comfort that the kennel workers could give him as he left his miserable and unloved existence on Earth for good. Because he had no family or special person to give his love, he has nobody to escort him across the Bridge."

The first animal thought about this for a minute and then asked, "So what will happen now?"

As he was about to receive his answer, the clouds suddenly parted and the all-invasive gloom lifted. Coming toward the Bridge could be seen a single figure...a person who, on Earth, had seemed quite ordinary...a person who, just like the elderly dog, had just left Earth forever. This figure turned toward a group of the sad animals and extended outstretched palms. The sweetest sounds they had ever heard echoed gently above them and all were bathed in a pure and golden light. Instantly, each was young and healthy again, just as they had been in the prime of life.

From within the gathering of pets waiting for their special people, a group of animals emerged and moved toward the pathway. As they came close to the passing figure, each bowed low and each received a tender pat on the head or a scratch behind the ears. Their eyes grew even brighter as the figure softly murmured each name. Then, the newly-restored pets fell into line behind the figure and quietly followed this person to the Bridge, where they all crossed together.

The recent arrival who had been watching, was amazed. "What happened?"

"That was a rescuer," came the answer.

"That person spent a lifetime trying to help pets of all kinds. The ones you saw bowing in respect were those who found new homes because of such unselfish work. They will cross when their families arrive. Those you saw restored were ones who never found homes. When a rescuer arrives, they are permitted to perform one, final act of rescue. They are allowed to escort those poor pets that couldn't place on Earth across the Rainbow Bridge. You see, all animals are special to them...just as they are special to all animals."

"I think I like rescuers," said the recent arrival.

"So does God," was the reply.

I don't know who wrote this piece, but it brings me to tears every time I read it. I have been blessed to rescue a small number of dogs during my life -- nothing on the scale of so many people I know. And I truly hope that I will one day be reunited with all the animals whose lives I have been honored to share.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Going Places

"As often as possible, go someplace you’ve never been before." -- the Dalai Lama
This statement reflects how I am living my life in retirement, by making a point of traveling to countries and places I have never before visited. Last year, I went hiking in Turkey and Vermont, as well as visiting Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. So far this year, I have visited Yellowstone National Park and Churchill, Canada. Upcoming trips will take me to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, England and Costa Rica. I also have plans to go hiking in the Lake District of England and Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and to return to Yellowstone and St. Petersburg, Russia. I recently spent a few wonderful days in Sedona, AZ, hiking and photographing the beautiful red rock formations, and I have reservations to visit the beautiful Monument Valley of Arizona this summer.

In addition to visiting new places, I like to challenge myself to go out of my comfort zone and try new things, such as snowshoeing, curling and night photography. I have set aside my extreme dislike of cold weather for a winter wildlife watching trip to Yellowstone National Park and to search for and attempt to photograph the northern lights in far northern Canada. I wanted to visit those places, and in order to do that, I had to endure the cold.

I already have booked a trip to Israel and Jordan in 2015, as well as a photography trip to the great canyons of the Southwest and a polar bear viewing trip in Churchill, Canada. A summer trip to Alaska is also on the list.

As many have written before, traveling gives us an opportunity to see, experience and learn about other lands, people and cultures. I learned that I really like Turkish food, for example, and as someone who studied Latin for four years in high school, I was thrilled to visit several 2,000-year-old Roman coliseums. But what makes traveling abroad especially fun for me is interacting with local residents. When I lived in Moscow, I liked to talk with locals (in Russian). As I sat on a bench near the sea in Split, Croatia, a woman asked to sit on the bench as well. We soon started talking (I speak no Croatian, but she spoke decent English) and we had a nice chat. As a student of Russian language and history, I enjoyed hearing her recollections of living under Soviet rule in the former Yugoslavia. She even recited a poem in Russian that she had memorized while in school.

Traveling has many benefits. As an avid amateur photographer, travel presents countless opportunities to see the places I visit with a photographer's eye. It allows me to share photos of my journey with friends and family who may never get to visit the places I go.

Travel has made me, an introvert, more social. Often I am the only person in my group traveling solo, so I have been forced to get acquainted with others in my group. My trip to Turkey saw the development of a friendship with another solo female traveler; we are going to Africa together this year. I am still in touch (via e-mail and Facebook) with one of my Turkish guides. During last year's trip to Croatia and Slovenia, I became friends with three Jewish women, who invited me to join them for lunch and dinner at various times during our trip. And I am now Facebook friends with a woman who with her husband was part of February's trip to Churchill, Canada. My travels have made me more comfortable talking with strangers.

Traveling gives me more things to talk about and makes me a more interesting person. It also has made me more confident. It helps keep me young and involved. I like being adventurous, and it feels good to push my boundaries and go beyond my comfort zone. Traveling also has made me more adaptable. The weather doesn't cooperate, the connecting flight is delayed; whatever comes up, I am better able to handle it. I am not in control, so I have to learn to let go.

I lived in an apartment in Moscow for 3-1/2 months in the late 1990s. I was lucky in that my employer provided transportation to work and a per diem, as well as a nice place to live. But I learned to get my groceries the way the Russians do -- by visiting street vendors for produce, a mobile kiosk for bread, another shop for meat, etc. I learned to appreciate the wealth of foods available in American grocery stores, and the convenience and quality they offer.

I think travel has made me smarter. I got to experience first-hand, and understand, things about Russia I had only read about and studied in college. I learned to navigate the Moscow subway system, how to buy a pass for the subway, how to order a kilo of cheese and how to ask for directions. I learned how proud the people of Russia are, refusing to keep the change even when their poverty was obvious.

Travel in other countries also makes me realize how wealthy we in America truly are. We don't have to wonder whether the grocery store will be out of bread, or whether we will have hot water or heat. I have seen the shabby houses in Croatia and Montenegro, and the drab Soviet-era apartments in Moscow. I have visited a small village in western Siberia where the bathroom is an unheated outhouse several yards away.

I know that the kind of travel I do is expensive; I stay in nice hotels and travel on guided tours. I am fortunate that I have the means to do this kind of travel. How about you? Are you going to sit at home, wishing you could visit some place you've never been before? Or are you going to expand your horizons and plan a trip, whether it's in your own state or to another country?

The choice is yours.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Chasing the Northern Lights

Last week, I spent several days in the coldest temperatures I have ever experienced.

I have never enjoyed cold weather; actually, that is a real understatement. I hate being cold. So why in the world did I sign up for a week-long trip to Churchill, Canada, just 480 miles south of the Arctic Circle? That is a question that crossed my mind more than once as I braved temperatures that reached -34 degrees F, with a wind chill of -68 degrees F.

Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, but that's not what took me to that little village of 813 hardy souls. The polar bears head out onto the ice in October or November, so there were no bears to be found. The purpose of this trip to the frozen north was to have the opportunity to view and photograph the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

Unfortunately, the northern lights were missing in action most nights. Our first night, we waited until nearly 1 a.m. under a cloudless sky. The wind had died down, so it was tolerable to be outside for a while.  It was a perfect night to photograph the aurora. We had use of a heated workshop to warm up in and to take a break. The stars that night were amazing, including the Big Dipper. The aurora did make a brief appearance as a thin band of clouds. To the naked eye, it seemed like nothing more than clouds. Fortunately, my camera was able to detect the colors of the aurora.

The next night, the winds were howling. Although members of my group went outside to set up tripods, we soon realized the folly of that action, as the wind blew them over very quickly. So tripods, with cameras attached, waited in an enclosed but unheated porch. When I did go outside to take pictures, I had to hold on to my tripod. The aurora that night again appeared as bands of clouds, but this time they were bigger and lasted longer than the night before. And we had use of an 'aurora dome' with comfortable chairs and couches to escape the biting wind.

Our last opportunity to look for the aurora never happened, as the area was enveloped in ice fog, blowing snow and raging winds. Aside from poor visibility, it was simply too dangerous to be outside and for our driver to be on the roads. If we had been involved in an accident or slid off the road out of town, there would have been no one to rescue us, and no AAA. Freezing to death was a real possibility.

Despite my extreme dislike of cold, I did enjoy myself. We went on a 1-mile dog sled ride, and we tried our hand at curling (fun, but not easy). We visited the local Eskimo Museum, toured the community center that provides safe indoor recreational activities as well as housing the hospital and is attached to the K-12 school, and had a presentation by a Parks Canada archeologist. We also paid a brief visit to a couple of long-haired Icelandic horses.

I also proved to myself that I can endure extremely cold temperatures, and I learned what 'cold' truly means. I complained only once, when I was outside in a biting wind watching people construct an igloo. My right hand was painfully cold, and our guide had to leave for a few long minutes with the van. The cold we experienced wasn't merely an inconvenience; it can kill very quickly. Frostbite is a real danger as well.

The company with which I traveled, Natural Habitat Adventures, provided a warm parka, boots and mittens. I stayed pretty comfortable with four layers on top and three on the bottom, two pairs of socks, glove liners and mittens, a balaklava that protected my face and neck, and a hat and hood. I also had a hand warmer in each glove and a foot warmer in each boot.

I was fortunate to travel with a wonderful group of people, all of them great companions with whom to share the challenges of sub-arctic travel. Everyone got along well, and there was not a whiner or difficult person in the bunch. This was important because we spent 16 hours/day together on some days. We collectively kept an eye on the weather, especially the wind chill, and questioned our wonderful guide Annie about the highly inaccurate aurora forecast. Because of the blizzard conditions that nearly postponed our arrival in Churchill from Winnipeg on an airline ironically named Calm Air, and that almost delayed our return flight to Winnipeg days later, we christened ourselves Team Blizzard.

We were joined in Churchill by a local photographer who provided invaluable advice and assistance with the challenging task of photographing the aurora in sub-zero conditions. He recommended the best camera settings to use and even helped with my new tripod as I struggled to set it up and secure my camera with frozen fingers the first night on aurora watch. I learned about the all-important steps to protect my camera, from keeping the batteries warm to placing the camera in a plastic bag before taking it into a heated area after exposure to the cold (to prevent condensation on the lens and inside the camera). This trip also stoked my desire to improve my photography skills, especially under difficult conditions.

Now I am happy to be home where temperatures are more than 120 degrees F warmer than in Churchill! But Churchill isn't finished with me just yet. I am going back in the early winter of 2015 on a polar bear observation trip. I hope it won't be quite so cold earlier in the winter, and maybe I will get another opportunity to photograph the elusive aurora.