“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Rare Sighting on Fort Morgan Peninsula

I trekked down to Alabama’s Fort Morgan Peninsula, a thin finger of dunes and beach the juts into the Gulf of Mexico along the southern shore of Mobile Bay. My quest: to take a look at the bird banding efforts of a group called the Hummer/Bird Study Group (HBSG).

The HBSG is a group of volunteers is dedicated to studying hummingbirds and migratory songbirds and part of their study includes the capture and banding of migratory songbirds at various locations throughout the United States. One of their primary banding sites is among the dunes and coastal scrub of Fort Morgan. For two weeks every Spring and Fall, the group sets mist nets out in the dunes of Fort Morgan State Park to capture migrating birds.

For migrating birds, Fort Morgan peninsula is perhaps one of the most important pieces of real estate along the Gulf coast.  It is particularly critical to migrating birds because it is the first landfall for arriving Spring migrants and the last departure point when they head south in the Fall.  Uncountable numbers of birds fly through this funnel point each migration season.  Taking advantage of this dense concentration of migrants, HBSG annually bands thousands of birds as they pass through the peninsula.

I hiked into the scrub and found a small group of dedicated people busily extracting birds from capture nets, weighing them, measuring them, recording the species and then gently releasing them to continue on their way. The data the HBSG collects is important to understanding populations, migrating times and species fluctuations. I had been to the site many times before, but my latest visit in April of 2012 put me there in the middle of a slow period.  For various reasons, primarily due to weather conditions, the number of birds passing through Fort Morgan was low and banding activity was slow.

He's the good looking one on the left
So I took off into the dunes to do some birding on my own. The capture nets may have been empty but the trees were alive with migrants and resident birds and I quickly spotted Swainson’s Warbler, Wood Thrush, Eastern Towhee, Palm Warbler, Hooded Warbler and Prothonotary Warbler and a dozen other species.

My best spot was yet to come. I met another birder along the trail and joined up with him. It took me many minutes to realize that it was Scott Weidensaul, naturalist, author and an accomplished birder.   Scott is one of my favorite authors ( his works include Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds, Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians and Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul) and I think I’ve read every one of his books.  It was a real thrill to walk through the dunes with a famous author and birder. The high point of my birding day at Fort Morgan.

Friday, April 6, 2012

New River, West Virginia

It’s not the wildest whitewater river in the East; that honor is reserved for the Gauley. Nor is it the most famous; the Chattooga achieved that distinction by co-starring with Burt Reynolds in Deliverance. But no Eastern river rat can hold his own in a campfire bull session unless he has rafted the New River.

That’s because the New’s big rapids, inspiring scenery, and long stretches of churning water make it one of the East’s premier rafting rivers, arguably the most popular of a legion of exciting whitewater venues stretching from Maryland to Georgia. The New is nestled in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, one of a half-dozen rafting rivers in the state. The steep mountain gradients that spawn these cascading rivers make the area a mecca for eastern river runners (as well as skiers at nearby Snowshoe and Canaan Valley).

Rafters can choose two options from the New’s fifty miles of whitewater; the scenic upper section, a mild float down languid pools and gentle Class II rapids; or the kick-butt lower section, a five-hour run through major Class III, IV, and V drops. There is no time to get your sea legs on the lower New; this 15-mile run baptizes you immediately with a series of rapids that will definitely focus your attention. The lower section has five Class V runs, the best of which is the Keeneys, a series of harrowing rapids that drops over 30 feet in a quarter mile.

But the New is not just brawn--there is beauty to match. The placid water sections stringing together the big rapids are perfect for kicking back and taking in the spectacular scenery of the New River Gorge. The sheer gorge walls—1200 foot tall in some spots--enfold rafters in a blanket of incredibly beautiful mountain terrain. Near the take out on the lower section, the river flows under the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest span bridge in the world and a memorable ending to a thrilling adventure.

DETAILS: The New River is about 30 miles southeast of Charleston, near the town of Beckley. More than twenty outfitters service the New. A couple of notable ones are Mountain River Tours, 800-822-1386 and USA Raft, 800-USA-RAFT. Rafting season runs from March through October. The upper section is perfect for families and most outfitters take kids as young as six or seven; the rougher lower section has a minimum age restriction of twelve. Costs vary, but a one-day trip with an experienced guide in your raft runs about $60 per person and includes lunch. If your New River trip doesn’t satisfy your whitewater lust, other outstanding rivers in the area include the Gauley, the Cheat, the Tygart, and the Youghiogheny. Accommodations are available at Hawk's Nest State Park, near both the New and Gauley rivers. For additional information on the area and to make reservations at Hawk’s Nest call 1-800-CALL-WVA.

(This article originally appeared in SKI Magazine)


“This is a country, but the city is the country.” These words from Mahmet, the manager of the Brasserie Guiliaume, an upscale restaurant and bar in the city center, pretty much sum up Luxembourg.

The country of Luxembourg is only 120 square miles, about the size of an average county in the states. These 120 square miles encompass a smattering of small villages and Luxembourg City, which, with 250,000 of the country’s 350,000 people, dominates the duchy, the last remaining monarchy in Europe.

“Luxembourg is small enough that most people know each other,” Mahmet continues, “You see the same people on the streets each day and you get to feel comfortable with each other. It’s a good place to live.”

And a great place to visit. An intriguing mix of old world castles and fortifications, and modern glass and steel high-rise bank and business buildings, Luxembourg was once the most heavily fortified country in the world and the imposing 700 year-old stone fortifications still bear evidence of that past history. The city embraces rows of massive stone casements, towering block walls, gun emplacements, and arched bridges. All of these man-made fortifications sprout from near-vertical natural stone bluffs that enhance the imposing character of the battlements. The result is a city of breathtaking historical beauty, a fairytale scene of cathedrals, stone revetments, and natural escarpments. At practically every turn an open vista over the deep gorge that bisects the city centre presents itself. The River Alzette tumbles through the Grund, or valley, smack in the center of the city and the soaring stone bridges that span this small waterway add even more scenic beauty to the city.

Luxembourg is a tiny chip of land bordered by Belgium, France, and Germany and as such is a crossroads of cultures. I asked a bartender at a restaurant if most Luxemborgese speak French and he took great umbrage with me.

“No! We speak Luexmbourgish, not French!” he indignantly huffed.

To my untrained ear, it certainly sounds like French, but who am I to argue? The French influence is definitely strong, most signs and menus are in French and the French culinary influence is prevalent. Listen to the people talking in the shops and streets and you’ll hear a polyglot of French, German, and Portuguese (about 14% of the population is Portuguese) and the restaurants are a happy smattering of French, German, Spanish, Greek, and Italian. In all of my European travels, I have yet to visit another city which is more cosmopolitan and varied.

The city is tourist friendly. All of the city attractions are concentrated in a small area near the city centre within walking distance. Locate in a hotel near the centre and stroll through the city. The streets are the typical narrow winding cobblestone affairs and traffic is heavy so don’t bother using a car to get around.

The central point of the city is the Palace de Duchy, the home of Luxembourg’s royalty, the very popular and dashing Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg. The palace is a grand building with a mustard colored façade and black iron gates with gold-gilded coat-of-arms. A lone color guard stands sentry at the palace entrance.  You can walk within meters of the palace—a disconcerting lack of security given today’s terrorism inclined world. The palace sits amid a mélange of shops and restaurants so you can combine shopping and eating with your sightseeing. Just down the street is the Place Guilliaume, an open cobblestone square dominated by the equestrian statue of Grand Duke William II and surrounded by shops and the city courthouse.

Walk east from the palace, through the walls of the fortifications to the Grund bridge, a wide road that sits atop a massive stone wall and winds slowly down to the Alzette River. About halfway down the road is an entrance to the wall. You can tour the innards of the fortifications, a winding maze of narrow and dank tunnels that the city’s defenders used in the Middle Ages. There were reportedly 29 kilometers of tunnels and passageways in the original fortifications and some 17 kilometers still remain. You won’t want to walk all of them but do take a tour. Be forewarned; the passageways are tiny and dark so you will need a flashlight and if you are claustrophobic, forget it.

If you like good food, you have arrived in gastronomic heaven. The international flair of Luxembourg offers a smorgasbord of diverse tastes. I recommend To Kastro, an excellent Greek restaurant in the depths of the fortifications near the palace. Apart from the excellent food (try the spiced lamb), the atmosphere is unique, located as it is in the bottom of the ancient fortifications. Vaulted stone ceilings and massive stone pillars surround you, with muted lighting throwing shadows against the contours of the walls and ceilings. Prefer Italian? Try Come Prima or Piu de Prima, both located in the same fortifications. Both of these establishments are run by Italian families and the food reflects its authentic origins. Come Prima’s appetizer bar is worth the visit by itself—the sun dried tomatoes are unlike anything I have ever tasted. I could have left happy after eating my fill of them—but, of course I didn’t—and was glad I stayed to try the seafood linguini, with fresh shrimp and mussels in a light cream sauce.

Just around the corner is Los Amigos, a casual understated Spanish restaurant with a widely varied menu. We tried, but we couldn’t find a bad meal. One evening as we headed back to our hotel, we stepped into Bodega, an unassuming family run bar near the Place de Armes to catch a quick dinner and stumbled onto an exceptional and huge meal of lamb and beef kebab and Cordon bleu. I also recommend the Brasserie Mousel Cantine, at the bottom of the Grund bridge. There the Scheinhaxe (fried and roasted pig leg) is rolled out on a huge platter. I felt like Henry VIII, gorging on one of those huge legs of meat. The Cantine is next door to the Mousel Brasserie, one of three major breweries in Luxembourg, and you can venture into the premises and glimpse the making of Luxembourg’s favorite brew.

If you have a car and tire of the city’s charms (not likely) you are within an easy drive of Germany, France, and Belgium. Drive an hour north into the Ardennes Forest (take the back roads through the villages and mountains) to Bastogne, the site of the Battle of the Bulge. Visit the Bastogne Historical Center, a museum dedicated to the battle, and walk through the city square, where a monument to American General McAullife (who uttered the famous “Nuts!” when the Nazis demanded his surrender) and a battle-scarred vintage World War II Sherman tank dominates the square. Also nearby is a WWII Allied cemetery where General George Patton is buried and, like all American military cemeteries in Europe, it is immaculate with gleaming white crosses in precise rows on a neatly manicured field.  In sharp contrast, just down the road is a Nazi WWII cemetery with dark gray stone crosses gloomily shadowed by shade trees, and a large mass burial mound dominating the landscape.  Depressing.

Not into WWII history?  Drive an hour east into Germany to the city of Trier and walk down the hauptstrasse where an array of shops and restaurants await. Or drive an hour south to Nancy, across the border in France, and check out the fine arts and history displays in the Musee Lorrain and the grand architecture in city centre.

Walk or drive, but don’t miss Luxembourg. Rarely mentioned as a European tourist destination, this country is an often overlooked gem.

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean)